Searching for Mount Fuji

by Winifred Bird

Special To The Japan Times

What can be a more enticing invitation to travel than a good place name?

At age 19, an American wanderer in India, I drifted from Rishikesh to Shimla to Dharamsala on the current of fantasy those storied names wove inside me. Often, the reality of ramshackle hotels and tourist trinkets was a letdown. But Shimla! Ah, the beautiful dreams that name stirred up were worth whatever disappointments it later delivered.

Japan is full of good place names. Who can resist Utsukushigahara (Beautiful Field) in Nagano Prefecture, Ginza (Golden Seat) in Tokyo or the sad irony of Fukushima — Isle of Good Fortune? For many, though, Fujimi would be hard to beat — since its mi means “see” and the place name means “a view of Mount Fuji” — Japan’s most beloved peak.

Given that the mountain towers 3.7 km into the sky, quite a few places can, and do, claim an impressive view. Wikipedia lists three cities named Fujimi, eight Fujimi Bridges, and so many eponymous villages, standalone bridges and neighborhoods that I got lost counting.

One of those is a small farming and factory town straddling a 1,000-meter plateau on the eastern border of Nagano Prefecture. Nestled between the Japan Alps and the Yatsugatake mountain range, it is just over two hours by train from Tokyo and, ever since the rail line was completed in 1904, Fujimi has been a favorite with overheated urbanites. Formerly, they’d go to compose nature-inspired poetry or to convalesce at its tuberculosis hospital (or both, as the latter had its own literary magazine, titled Kogen). Today, most prefer to hike, bike or photograph wildflowers on the surrounding slopes.

I am not an overheated urbanite. I live in Nagano, actually on the lower slopes of a mountain, yet one Sunday last summer I decided to drive two hours from Matsumoto to Fujimi to check out its view of Mount Fuji. I suppose the name got the better of me.

Rolling into the shuttered town-center shopping street just before 8 a.m., I peered through my windshield and up at the cloud-filled sky. Magnificent clouds, really: thick, rich clouds whose charcoal-shaded banks entirely blotted out any peaks there might have been in the vicinity.

No problem, I told myself. I’ll just do a little sightseeing and wait that old mountain out.

My first stop was Trinity Benedictine Monastery, Japan’s only community of Benedictine monks, who follow the teachings of shared prayer, work and life laid out in the sixth century by St. Benedict of Nursia (now in the central Italian province of Umbria). Founded by Germans in 1931, the Roman Catholic community was disbanded during World War II. Afterward, Americans re-established it in Tokyo, and the monks moved to Fujimi in 1999 (there’s also a group of Benedictine Sisters in Hokkaido).

As Fujimi’s monks welcome anyone to their daily prayers, and also host retreats and tours, curiosity rather than any religious conviction drew me to the monastery’s cluster of brick buildings set in a quiet glade not far from Fujimi Station.

I was just in time for the 8 o’clock prayer held in a small hexagonal chapel designed by Tokyo architect Ken Takagi. Lined entirely in honey-brown wood, with a skylight revealing a patch of sky where the ceiling’s six sloping segments meet, the room felt like its own world. Black-robed monks sat in two banks of wooden desks facing each other, their hoods hanging in long points down their backs. The last few filed in and without a word the service of chanted prayers began.

The songs unfolded gently, filling the room with a deeply soothing hum. Now and then one of the monks walked to my side and silently pointed out the place in the prayer book. The perfect harmony of the men’s voices seemed to grow from and symbolize their long years of shared life. At the end, a bell rang and they filed out in a black line. I sat for a while in the empty room, letting the peace filter through me, and then walked back out into the gray morning.

From the chapel, I drove through steep wooded valleys and brilliant-yellow rice fields to Idojiri Archaeological Museum, which traces Fujimi’s own ancient history.

“Archaeologists call this area the Ginza of excavation sites,” museum director Seishi Higuchi told me as we walked through the cool, dark exhibit hall. The ornate pots, jewelry and tools on display are relics of the so-called Idojiri Culture which, some 3,000 to 5,000 years ago in the mid-Jomon Pottery Culture period, extended as far away as present-day Tokyo.

Archaeologists have amassed an astounding treasure trove since they began excavating the Idojiri sites in 1958. With Boy Scout-like eagerness, Higuchi led me to a tall cylindrical vessel richly decorated with spirals and god-figures — one of several “once-in-a-lifetime” finds he himself unearthed. Other vessels featured three-fingered frog-men, wide-eyed faces or the mazelike coils that gave the Jomon period its name, meaning “cord markings.”

“In this era for the first time the vessel became a canvas,” Higuchi explained. “Certain images had certain meanings. You could almost say they were pictographs. … Through these vessels we are able to investigate the spirit of the people.”

The culture Higuchi and his colleagues have conjured from clay fragments bears little resemblance to the rice-based, Shinto and Buddhist ones that followed. Stone arrowheads and cultivating tools speak of a people who hunted and farmed mixed grains, while the ornate vessels, Higuchi believes, point to reverence for the waxing and waning moon as a symbol of rebirth.

“They saw death as the prerequisite for new life,” Higuchi told me. Circles and spirals, and even frogs and snakes, all symbolized rebirth (frogs because they were associated with the moon; snakes because they emerge alive from hibernation each spring). Most traces of that culture are gone, but Higuchi suggested that today’s autumn moon-viewing parties may be a lone exception.

Reluctant to leave Higuchi and his bottomless well of archaeological lore, but eager to check the horizon, I said goodbye and stepped out into brilliant sunlight. Sunlight! Above me stretched an expanse of blue. Lowering my gaze hopefully, however, I found a neat ring of clouds settled over the distant mountains. It was time, I decided, for my last-ditch strategy: a trip up Mount Nyukasa, on the eastern side of town, from where — with luck — I would be able to crane my neck over the top of the clouds to gaze upon Mount Fuji’s elusive peak.

Fuji Panorama Resort manages most of 1,955-meter Mount Nyukasa, and has turned the upper half into a theme-park version of the outdoors. Visitors can enjoy 150 varieties of wildflower (and hosts of butterflies and bees) in the gardens; see more than 1 million lilies of the valley blooming in June; hike on boardwalked trails; take paragliding lessons; and ride in a “top-class mountain bike kingdom” (as the rent-a-bike pamphlet boasts).

The summit looks out over a 360-degree view of the Central and Northern Alps and the Yatsugatake range, but the only way there is by a ropewat which runs from late April through mid-November and is well worth the ¥1,600 round-trip ticket. Swooping up and over the forest, I watched through blue-tinted windows as the Yatsugatake range’s volcanic slopes emerged in a sweeping panorama, the houses below reduced to tiny red-roofed toys. On the down side of the cable, couples, families with dogs (yes, they are allowed) and hardy mountain bikers in helmets worthy of inter-galactic travel floated past, each in their own blue bubble.

Stepping out at the end point, I surveyed the hiking signs. A couple of hours would see me to the top and back, but I only got as far as the arrow pointing to a “View of Mount Fuji.” With a new surge of hope, I followed it to a lookout point. Only clouds. I went over to another lookout and leaned over the railing.

Below me, four men hefting huge backpacks arrived at a grassy meadow. They set the packs down and, like magicians pulling handkerchiefs from hats, extracted silky paragliders. Sails were laid out and packs strapped back on. Then, with a whoosh, the first sail caught the wind and the glider took off. The red arc floated gently over forested hills, riding the wind in lazy circles to the distant valley below.

I stood up and headed for the gondola. Somehow, though I never saw Mount Fuji, I didn’t feel a trace of disappointment.

  • Alex Dudok de Wit

    Doesn’t Ginza mean “silver seat”?