Sunday, October 19, 2014
Sunday, October 12, 2014
Sunday, October 05, 2014
Tuesday, September 09, 2014
I could barely open my eyes, which was a surprise since they'd rarely closed all night. I had slept in one of Japan's notoriously overcrowded mountain huts, forced to share a futon with a friendly man from Kyoto who had told me at dinner that he was a student of Sekishu-ryu, an old style of the tea ceremony usually reserved for the samurai. The futon was wedged between a small area enclosed by 2x4's, which were about 5 cm too short for me. I could extend my legs slightly into the next chamber, but as we were all sleeping head-to-foot, occasionally someone on the other side would give my feet a good kick. So I was forced to curl on my side in the fetal position, but within ten minutes the sembe-buton (thin as a rice cracker) would bring about an ache in the hips. I'd find relief by getting up and walking to the end of the corridor and looking down at the lights of Gotemba far far below. The rains had finally cleared.
And the early morning was gorgeous. The sun was coming through a thin veil of fog that had gotten itself hung up on the sharp edge of the volcanic cone. The sky went black to violet to blue in what felt like minutes, nothing between it and us at this altitude. Low vegetation glowed gold in the new light, brilliant against the deep black of the wet volcanic rock from which it stubbornly burst. There was a lot more vegetation here on the Fuji's southern slope, far more than I remembered from my previous clamber up the Yoshida trail on the opposite side.
Our party moved upward, ever so slowly. Nishimura-san told us that he wanted to keep the pace slow so as to keep us from sweating in the cold of morning. From the 6th Station it normally takes 3 1/2 hours to the top, but our group took ninety minutes longer. As it was, I never once felt out of breath, never felt like I was laboring at all. The physical difficulties of the previous day had vanished with the rains. A few people mentioned symptoms of a mild altitude sickness, but as for me, I was simply out for a stroll, up Japan's highest mountain.
We were instructed to greet other hikers with a hearty, "Yo Mairi!" or "Happy pilgrimage". Most who were greeted this way seemed puzzled, and after they heard the words come from my mouth, they'd mistakenly repeat what they'd heard as "Good Morning!" Due to the early hour, most we encountered were returning from a night spent in one of the huts. All looked exhausted and had no doubt faced worse weather than we had. But the reward was in the views, stretching from the glittering glass of Yokohama and Tokyo to the north, and well past Shizuoka to the south. The entire length of the Izu peninsula was visible below, pointing its knobby finger out toward the land of my birth. Around the peninsula, the sea was a slightly different color, due to the extreme depth of Suruga Bay, one of the deepest in the world. At each hut we'd stop awhile to take in the view growing ever more panoramic. One of my companions joked that a climber usually looks for views of Fuji while hiking, but today, Fuji offered views of everything else.
We also made a few of the usual stops at some of the spiritually important sites on the mountain -- little clefts in the rocks stuffed with coins or other offerings, or the odd statue tucked into a fold in the lava. At the Ninth Station we stopped to offer kaji to the staff there, one a woman who looked almost Tibetan with her tanned face and long unkept hair. Beyond this, the horagai began to bellow, and Shunken-Sensei started us in a round of "Sange sange" which we kept up all the way to the summit. Looking up, I could see a number of heads looking down, wondering at this wave of sound rolling up toward them.
Fujinomiya Shrine was under major reconstruction, so we walked further around the crater for our goma ceremony. Before a small gathering of decapitated stone statues, the yamabushi sat in a row, while Shunken-Sensei led the chants as he did a variety of things with his hands, before tossing items into the fire burning before him. The chanting sounded almost Tibetan to me, and it was at that moment that I realized that I was sitting atop a landmass not only incredibly high, but one incredibly old. The atmosphere was timeless, a sense of being on the top of the world here. No vegetation, no life, but a feeling of place very very ancient. Just as the chanting finished a plane flew over, a bird of war, bringing with it a bit of irony since we'd just been chanting for world peace.
Nowhere to go but up. A handful of us pushed up the pile of ash that had built up to form the true summit. In the shadow of the abandoned weather station was a tall man-made stele that marked the peak. We walked past a group of young climbers flashing peace signs for photographs to climb up a crest of volcanic rock that stood a few meters higher. Above this was nothing more.
Nowhere to go but down. We descended via the Gotemba route, following in my own footsteps from 1995. This is one of the least used of Fuji's paths and it showed. Most of the huts we passed were mere ruins of weathered wood, though they had probably been in use on my previous descent. Tall piles of rocks had been piled before their front doors, a defiant means of preventing free accommodation. No real surprise here as the majority of the staff of mountain huts in Japan are blatantly mean-spirited. Shinier new huts composed of a stronger building material stood not far off in the dust. In front of one, a young woman clad in fleece threw wood and paper upon a fire in some sort of goma of her own.
Below the Seventh Station, the trail became a straight track of loose earth, of a steepness that pulled the body forward. Some of the older members of our group had an uncomfortable look on their faces, but the majority of us laughed as our footfalls increased in tempo and were soon in full cantor. I did a few small jumps as if I were skiing moguls, my feet sliding sideways across the ashen powder.
Our trail continued past the pimple on Fuji's eastern flank: Hōei-zan, a volcanic vent that had blown open in the mountain's most recent eruption in 1707. My nose was running slightly from all the ash being kicked up, and as the clouds closed in on us, the world became dim and grey.
Then, just above us at a junction came the fuzzy outline of a yamabushi, dully silhouetted against the mist, hands clasped in prayer before her. It was the calm woman who had showed up yesterday, yet had opted out of the ascent itself. I felt relieved, knowing that just beyond her was the ephemeral world of buses and beers and baths. But the sight of this figure standing on the edge of the slope was a vision of timelessness, of mountains waltzing across the eons, and the sense of awe that continues to pull us into the dance.
On the turntable: Freddie Hubbard, "The Blue Note Years"
On the nighttable: Jordan Sand, "Tokyo Vernacular"
Sunday, September 07, 2014
Saturday, September 06, 2014
Nishimura-san looked exhausted. He had only gotten four hours of sleep over the last two nights, busy in wearing two hats, that of the organizer and guide of this event, and as a local yamabushi. The true leader today was supposed to have been Hatakehori-sensei, whose study of this Murayama Kōdō and subsequent book had led to this event being organized three years before. While Sensei was ostensibly the leader of this Fuji Mine Iri Shūgyō climb, his back had been acting up so he had been forced to bow out. This left poor Nishimura-san to do the heavy lifting.
But he knew the route well, having worked quite hard to restore signage and explanatory signs in order to resuscitate this, the oldest of Fuji's hiking paths, with roots going back to the Heian period. And his efforts seemed to be paying off. With Hatakehori as the brains, and Nishimura as the muscle, Shogo-in's Shunken-Sensei was the heart. A surprisingly young man for such a high position, he felt that it was important to restore the yamabushi to their rightful relationship with the mountain, as the yamabushi were the only ones who had climbed the peak in the old days. Fuji's recent addition to the World Heritage list had been awarded for the mountain's cultural importance, and it was the yamabushi who had crafted that culture in the first place. This particular event appeared to be effective PR, as the crowds who came out to be blessed increased year to year.
Unlike Nishimura-san, I had slept quite well, a surprise since I was sharing a large open room with close to twenty snoring men. Upon arrival the previous evening, I smiled when I found myself back at Jumbo, in whose courtyard I had taken a brief catnap last November. When the lights came on at 4 a.m., I snuck down to a lukewarm bath for a quick dip, then grabbed a restorative coffee from the machine out front. This would have to keep me until breakfast four hours further on.
Our numbers were half what they had been the day before, as most had taken the one-day option. Headlamps attached, we remaining twenty immediately entered the forest, leaving behind the camera toting passersby who the previous day had been quick to snap a photo of our procession with their phones, a device that serves as physical manifestation of the old proverb "ichigo ichie." These days, not a single moment of life is beyond capture.
Due to the early hour the great horagai conches were silent, and the only sounds to be heard was the crackling of the tall electrical towers at the edge of the village. As the land sloped upward, we moved into the gullies carved out by a thousand years of human feet. As this trail had been somewhat dormant over the last century, the more recent carving had been undertaken by water, eventually making for a rougher, more difficult passage. To avoid this, a newer trail had been tramped into the berm above, and as we walked it I looked down into the black earth of the gully, hearing the voice of Sting in my head repeating again and again that we "work the black seam together."
This new trail was well kept, and Nishikawa-san continually stopped to point out sections of more recent work that he had been personally involved in, most of these for the prevention of erosion. The Japanese are fantastic at building trails, but not always so good at their upkeep, the result being that they are left alone to erode and wash away. Nishimura also spent a good deal of time pointing at certain rocks and strata. Any discussion of Fuji inevitably involves geology.
There was an obvious absence of fauna, but the flora was magnificent: great swatches of ferns erupting upward as one; the bright green of moss softening the tone of the black, hard, volcanic rock. In a demonstration of the irony of nature, the most fertile stretches of moss were found just above the Nyonindō women's hall, which had once served as the upper limits that that gender could proceed. All that was left here now was a small clearing where the hall had once stood, the trees before it purposefully kept low so as to offer a view of the sacred peak.
Somewhere around lunchtime, the rains began, which didn't cease until the following morning. This dense forest offered some respite, but after an hour or so my energy began to wane. We were attempting a 2000 meter elevation gain, which Hatakehori-san had claimed is the most possible in any single day climb anywhere in Japan. (Though I silently and respectfully disagreed, as I had ascended over 2300 meters when I had hiked Fuji back in 1995.) But more than the climb, it was the conditions that were taxing. When given the option, nine of our group had opted to quit early and walk up a perpendicular road to a bus stop. One of these was a yamabushi would had been suffering terrible blisters due to attempting the ascent in waraji sandals bound in plastic string rather than the traditional straw. How foolish, I thought, not to look after yourself and allow a macho sense of pride to overshadow self-preservation. As someone who guides in the mountains, I am quite unforgiving of this type of folly, which puts not only oneself but others at risk.
The rest of us carried on. One man came around and offered us sweets, an act that is almost a Japanese cultural trait by now: When the going gets tough, the candy comes out. Perhaps the sugar had fueled a certain giddiness amongst the yamabushi, who would happily clamored up ropes, or run up the steeper embankments. If one of them performed an act in a particularly cool and dexterous manner, he'd be told by the others that he "looks like En," refering to En-no-Gyoja, founder of the Shugendō sect in the 7th Century.
The rest of us weren't feeling so spry. To spur us on, Shunken-sensei started up the call-and-response chant familiar to all sects of Shungendō. His voice was powerful, touched with a resonance that hinted at a beautiful singing voice. But his melodic calls of "Sange sange!" began eventually to sound like "Sunday, Sunday," and coupled with the rain became to me "Gloomy Sunday," and we all know what that leads to. My mood bottomed out during one steep section of trail that had been partially blocked by dozens of fallen trees, which required a lot of physically-taxing over and under, my backpack often snagging these trunks to bring down a sudden cascade of rain. As I looked at the Montbell pack of the guy in front of me, with its brand name of "Zero Point," I thought, "Yep, there is no real point in this, is there?"
But the wet fecund forest itself offered resurrection, as did the broad meadow filled with wildflowers. Here and there too were little Jizo statues poking their heads out from the undergrowth to spur us on. At the height of the early Meiji period anti-Buddhist backlash, all of the little figures on the mountain had been decapitated. Nishimura-san told us that written records gave the numbers of statues that had once been along the trail, and he personally had spent many an afternoon poking through the brush, trying to find their little bodies. Many still remain missing. He also told us a humorous anecdote about how one- and ten-yen offerings tend to stay in front of the statues, but that one-hundred yen coins are usually carried off.
After twelve full hours, we finally arrived at the 6th Station Hōei mountain hut, our digs for the night. Wet layers thus removed, the beer began to flow, and soon a party-like atmosphere overtook the hut. A couple of new yamabushi turned up, including one middle-aged woman who carried a demeanor of calm solidity. The monks all drank and dined together, but one of them came over to our small table of four, and talked a great deal about the sect. It was a pleasant night, and despite the 10 km and 2000 meters of constant up, my legs felt fine enough to sit cross-legged at the table. But bedtime came quite soon...
On the turntable: "The Rough Guide to Nigeria and Ghana"