Mount Fuji is the most iconic peak on earth. The name alone conjures vivid images of a huge mauve cone, topped with snow, in the minds of those who have never seen it. It is not a mountain but the mountain, the platonic ideal of which all others fall short. Like all truly memorable summits, it stands alone, isolated and massive, rather than peeking over the shoulders of others. Kilimanjaro, the Matterhorn, Mount Mayon, Fuji-san crowns the lot, and this weekend I went to see it up close.
Its outline is ever-present on the approach from Tokyo, and looms larger and larger as the road wends its way through verdant hills. An hour into the journey, we turn off the highway, and I assume we have arrived, for by now the great volcano is so vast that we have to be at its base, surely. After a toilet break, we drive onwards for another hour, my jaw dropping lower as Fuji-san rises ever higher. The autumn colours are just beginning to show through, and the bright red ivy leaves strangling conifer trunks makes it look like the forest is burning. At last, we stop at a viewpoint a few miles away, and finally, we can enjoy it in the open air after so long pressed against windows. Ignoring the teacher`s suggestion that we take photos of it with the carpark in the foreground, myself and a small band of renegades head to the viewpoint 50 metres away, which causes a surprising amount of consternation. On the small mound there are stands of long grass, yellow flowers, and people with cameras. The plain between the mountain and us is sparsely populated with denuded cherry and conifer, which peter out as the altitude increases. The bare slopes are a complex mix of deep gold, dark brown, and faint purple, which intermingle like camouflage paint. It is worth the teacher’s ire. The sides of the mountain rise gradually and symmetrically, slowly increasing in gradient, accelerating upwards, suggesting an asymptote. The curves terminate abruptly, never meeting, either side of the crater. Snow is dusted more liberally onto the North side. It is too perfect, too designed, too beautiful to be real. It fills up the sky.
Our next stop is a bird sanctuary, the front half of which is filled with sad owls in small Perspex boxes gazing morosely out at the cameras. I skip this section to find a flamboyant greenhouse replete with flowers and hanging baskets. The angel trumpet tree has very impressive flowers. I sulk a little because we are inside so close to Fuji, but thankfully we soon head out past the emus, which are being hand fed by some courageous tourists in their enclosure, to a wooded glade with a perfect view of Fuji above. There is a bird of prey demonstration here, and shortly after it begins I have my heart set on a shot of fuji with a raptor`s silhouette. I flick up the shutter speed and manually focus to where I think they`ll fly. The hawk flies too low, the owl (avoiding a goldilocks reference) too low, but the falcon flies just right. I get two shots with it central, one with a lure, and one without. Much to my surprise, I prefer the one with the lure and the rope.
We stop for lunch beside a lake encircled by hills and filled with waterskiers. Everyone pitches their food into the middle and feasts with wide smiles. At the end of the meal Japanese toys are produced (I’ve forgotten the name), which you spin by twisting the rope, maintaining its motion by pulling the string outwards when the bob stops spinning.
If you would like an idea of what life is like in Japan, try the following. Imagine you are in a cult, and then add in the cityscapes, futuristic gadgets, and stunning scenery found here. The word cult is almost exclusively used negatively, especially in recent years, but here I use it in the sense of a community bound by common beliefs and actions, which may be viewed as strange by outsiders. This is not to say that all of Japan is one large cult, but rather that aspects of the national psyche produce a predisposition towards ‘cultish’ behaviour. Especially important (in my opinion) is the emphasis of the collective over the individual, which contrasts starkly and often admirably with Western individualism. Perhaps it is time for some examples rather than what could be critiqued as navel gazing…
Tsurumi ward provides very cheap Japanese lessons to foreigners, run by volunteers, and this weekend all the classes were invited on a group trip to the base of Fuji-san. This was of course, irresistible, and we turned up bleary-eyed at 7:40am on Nichiyobi (Sunday). Orange ribbons on safety pins were distributed to allow easy identification of wandering gaijin, and soon we were sat comfortably on the seat allocated to us by stickers on the headrests. Think a school trip but with more rules. Seats that folded out into the aisle meant the bus could hold 25% more people than usual. Each of the ten Japanese Senseis gave lengthy speeches as we set off, pausing regularly to stimulate chorused replies and applause. The bus stewardess (seemingly present on all bus tours) then gave another speech, and then tunefully sung a hymn about Mount Fuji. This was rather soothing, until the song sheets were distributed, the dance routines learnt (mainly shoulder thumping and clapping), and we all were exhorted to join in (which we did). Most of the song was a mystery to me, except the line (roughly translated) Fuji-san is the first mountain of Japan. Once into it, the group’s chorus and synchronised movements seemed the most natural thing in the world, as we wound through densely forested hills towards the ever-present snow-capped peak ahead.
At the bird sanctuary we had been told to remove our stickers, and when setting off home we found this was to allow those who had been sat at the front to be allocated seats at the back, and vice versa. No mingling of partners, just a question of fairness regarding bus position, apparently. The return journey was similarly filled with entertainments (and half-hourly stops at service stations); we began with a quiz. This was in Japanese, and I only understood the first question, but the sensei nearest to me seemed to misunderstand quizzes somewhat. Whenever a question was asked, she would thrust the microphone towards a student and loudly whisper them the answer. My meiji smarties were the reward for repeating that the 1000 yen note had a picture of Fuji upon it. Once the stewardess was out of questions, she distributed bingo cards, and a TV screen folded down from the roof to call us. Each number was followed by a lengthy instrumental that seemed to have been composed with the sole aim of invoking insanity in the listener. Finally, the first BINGO was greeted with whooping and applause, and a blaring rock riff from the TV crowned the jubilation. A prize was passed back, and the Bingo resumed, I presumed to find second and third place. However, it became clear that the Bingo came would continue, with applause for each additional winner, until everyone on board had won. After an hour my time investment was amply rewarded with a Mickey Mouse ring and ring holder, which now holds pride of place at my desk. Bingo finally concluded as we hit traffic returning to Tokyo. Karaoke began shortly after.
A small part of my salary is automatically deducted each month to continue my membership of the charismatically named “RIKEN Mutual Benefit and Wellness Society”. This week my (female) colleagues told me that a monthly company Yoga session would be taking place after work. Me and Brussels Glasses (Belgian, with glasses and wavy blonde hair) decide to give it a try. We turn up with towels and sweatpants (Brussels Glasses) or shorts (which were in hindsight too short), ready to relax for the next hour. The hall is tall and airy, and smells strongly of air freshener. The bottom half of the walls are clad in light pine, the upper half has planks rotated in front of a white wall. It reminds me of the sound baffles by motorways. A thin and taut Japanese woman turns puts on a CD full of the tidal sounds, bird song, and directionless music favoured for massage. We follow her lead and hold our hands together in prayer position. The instructions are in Japanese. Everyone closes their eyes, and me and Brussels Glasses steal a smile at each other before taking the plunge. The instructor talks expansively over the music, and I intermittently peak out from between my eyelashes to check everyone else hasn’t moved into the bewildered yak position or similar. Eventually, we open our eyes, and begin slowly bending at the waists, backs arched, arms held in a crucifix. It feels like diving in super slow motion. Next we are made to hold the stress positions outlawed by the British military until my arms and legs are screaming. The instructor periodically calls out instructions (most of which I can understand, thanks to Judo), and yukkuri, meaning slowly. Yoga is a bit harder than we expected; it is a long hour. By the end we are drenched in sweat and my legs shake softly as I try to walk out and thank my tormentor. She sees our sorry state, and says with a smile:
“Did nobody tell you? This month it’s power yoga”
No, I replied, glancing at our giggling co-workers, no they did not.
RIKEN’s foundation day was on Monday, and brilliantly was a holiday. After putting on my washing I packed a bag and took the train down to Kamakura, an ex-capital (almost all of Japan was capital at one point or another in its tumultuous history). In 1333 it was lost, and around 7000 Hojo people committed seppuku (a rather unpleasant Japanese hobby). All my T-shirts were in the wash, so I just wore a thin sweatshirt. The weather was unseasonably warm, so by the end of the day I was a borderline biohazard. It’s good that I went alone. Kamakura lies beside the sea, and is filled with temples (65) and shrines (15). Throughout the city steep forested hillocks burst upwards, little islands of nature above the streets. In fact these hillocks are so common that it seems more like both city and jungle patches are islands, rather than one lying within the other. This lends the place a wild and peaceful feel.
The avenue to the main Shinto temple has impressive torii and is clearly designed for cherry blossom; I’ll return in spring. The Shinto temple (Tsurugaoka Hachiman-Gu) has curved red bridges, prayer flags, and watercolour painters on fold out chairs. There is a gardening competition in 3x3m plots. Mosses and stone dominate, rather than flowers. Numerous sites have bloody stories. Children in traditional dress are common, and later I find that this is an aging ceremony of some form, attended when 3, 7, and 9 (I think). The place is filled with history, and peace and pigeons.
Next I head to Kencho-Ji, the oldest Zen monastery in Japan. It has been a monastery almost as long as Oxford has been a university. The usual reds are absent here, instead the deep brown of ancient, woodworn beams. People stroke and pat them gently. Whilst taking a photo of a golden gate, I hear a loud manic panting, and glance up to see a Japanese man with the dimensions of an obese polar bear looking down at me. I stammer out Konichiwa, and he nods in response. I realize he wants to get past, and stagger out the way, feeling that in a wide open plaza this wasn’t really necessary. Not that I said anything. Asking for directions at another temple, I get onto a ridge walk to the Daibutsu (giant Buddha). Striding along, munching natto with chopsticks, bamboo overhead, sweating profusely, the world seems anew. After getting lost briefly, I find the bronze Daibutsu, which is extremely impressive, having being cast in the 13th century, 13 metres tall, and weighing 93 tonnes. It moved forward a metre in an historic earthquake. Flowers and incense lie before his huge folded hands. It is getting late, so I grab a green tea ice cream (a bit too sweet and floral), some taco doritoes (delicious) and get the train back home.