Earth, Wind, Fire and Water
The cicadas charge the air overhead with their thick electricity, each their own pulp-tv ray-gun of mind-control. It’s a price we pay for the shade we seek beneath the coniferous pylons in this small corner of Fujisan Hongu Sengentaisha shrine. Today, the heat rains down on us on a record-breaking scale, and these cedars offer the only shelter. 300 years ago, it was heat from a different source that would have burned down on us; and the trees alone would have offered little protection.
Give and take
Give and take. Mayu-chan hands me a green bud of some sort, from a small plastic bag she’s holding. It’s the third or fourth time one of the children has offered this stranger a small token of welcome, and for a second I stand there wondering what this will taste like. Not a moment too soon, Mayu catches my hesitation and laughs loudly, gesturing to the attentive ducks in the pond at our feet. Her hand at the ready, she reaches out to stop me as I quack and try to put the bird-feed in my mouth. We stand side by side as both fish and fowl fight over the offerings from these two strange land creatures. Land, air and water; the fascination the alternative worlds induce. Three separate worlds with such distinct borders. Yet how exotic, the otherness of the places we weren’t born into.
In the eruption of 1707 and 1708, creatures from land, air and water, all perished as the Earth opened up and spat forth ton upon ton of fire and ash. It was the last time Mt Fuji, Fuji-san, erupted, reducing us in our thousands back to our most primary elements. But not the first time. Sengentaisha shrine was built some 800 years earlier in a bid to pacify the anger rained forth by the mountain. Still today, festivals are held to pray for the safety of the thousands who dare to scale this conical-shaped kiln. However hard people may pray here for their continued safety, scientists predict that some volcanic activity is to be expected in the not too near future. The hand that feeds us.
Mayu-chan and I, worlds apart, sit down under the trees to eat our bento-lunch of fish and fowl. Give and take. We watch the fat koi-carp enjoy their post-lunch siesta in the pond beneath us.
Water. Otoosan is perched on a rock in the middle of the river. The children splash in and out of the current, with little eddies of calm amidst ripples of high pitched laughter. At Shiraito-no-taki, White Thread Falls, water dangles around a wooded basin, fine strands of white against a dark background. People weave in and out of each other to watch the display of Nature spinning a thick yarn of river from the thousands of hairline fossets that run lightly from the spool rim. We gather and sit to watch the falls combine their efforts and march down the gorge strong as a flood.
Amidst all this, Otoosan sits strong as a rock, an island in the stream. The children dance around him in and out of the parade. Further off, Fuji looms larger than before from beneath its cloak of clouds.
It’s early evening and Ken is teaching the children to fish. From a rowboat in the middle of Kawaguchiko lake, Fuji’s famous symmetry, now unclad, languishes to the South-East, tranquil as the oars pulling though the water. MK is suspended in air, a 5-minute cable-car ride to an unfettered vantage-point above the lake, now white hot with the setting sun. We’re not flying, we’re hanging, the sensation of which gives a cable-car ride an extra frisson. The sense of being about to fall to earth is stronger in a cable-car than an airplane, where gravity seems a less straightforward dilemma. The faces around us have a different look about them. Flying and hanging, aspirations and fears. Why are we so interested in transcending our natural habitat, and fearful of being brought back down to earth?
MK stretches out in front of Fuji as the mountain stretches out in front of its surroundings. It’s a dynamic sight. You don’t just climb this mountain because it’s there. Or to say you’ve done it. That would be such a waste. You climb it because it’s a magnificent object. It is a thing of great beauty. And there is the unknown.
It’s 4.20am. Our group of 8 left the hotel just under 2 hours ago and we are at the 5th station, halfway up the pitch-black slope. This is the starting point for our climb ahead. It’s cold as winter and as yet we are the only people here. Gradually the sky loosens itself from the mountain and we can make out the darker shape before us, rising up to the stars overhead, each one burning its own cold path through the night. Headlamps fitted, boots fastened and canned coffees finished, we take our first faltering steps up the sleepy flanks.
Why are we so fascinated by water? It’s the night before and SH, Ken and Otoosan lie like fat koi-carp in the outside hotel onsen overlooking Kawaguchiko lake. Our bodies consisting of 85 per cent water (a certain percentage of dinner-table refreshment cocktailed into that), only a bag of skin separates us from our spring-water surroundings. If we were to let ourselves out, we’d soon be diluted, mixed together and washed down to the shore below. Is this the fascination? A remembrance of some sort?
For now, it’s only our words that are woven together. Yarns of the kind of languid tones that bathing induces. Words slip out like sighs. Relief. Suspension. Like a primeval fish, Ken pulls himself out into the night air and hangs over the side, watching the fireworks below on the shore below.
Water is not designed to run uphill. As yet, though, the ascent is unchallenging and the path is pretty easy to follow. Already the stars are fading and by the time we level with the cloud-cover, the top of the mountain has started to glow a bright volcanic red. As our small group makes its way upward, a steady trickle between the rocks, the colour of the mountain changes, the red flowing down the sides at a steady pace. The anticipation of being swallowed up in the glow temporarily halts us and for a few minutes our eyes turn eastwards till the sun finally shows itself and spreads across our faces like a grin. Everyone is aglow with the moment. It’s a moment of warmth shared by the shivering group.
Fire. Shin-chan and Mayu’s faces are alight. Mid-evening next to the lake rejoices to the sights and sounds of fireworks. For a time we are all transformed into children, as our sparklers and senko-hanabi jump and twirl and spell out our jinxes and charms retina-thick. The six of us, all yukata-clad, circle the flames like exotic nocturnal moths. Like cherry-blossom, our wands flicker, then burst into life and burn bright for their few moments of existence, before returning to darkness. Onlookers are not simply compelled by the flame, but the knowledge of its finiteness, and the attempt at putting it off as long as possible. Shin-chan lights his firework from the flame of his father and in turn passes it on to others. When all have perished, we collect the bones scattered around the lakeshore and head back inside.
There are a bumper pack of 108 volcanoes in Japan, Fuji-san being the biggest banger of them all. Scientists have predicted that should there be a major eruption any time in the near future, not only would thousands perish, the entire Japanese economy would collapse. For now though, the mountain deity Konohana-no-sakuyahime is content in her slumber. Volcanic ashes to ashes, dust to dust, but definitely a sleeping giant, not a dead one.
Ahead of me, Chie and Setsuko make their good-humoured way up the spectrum of volcanic rock that makes up the mountain path and its surroundings. The going isn’t easy and the air is getting thinner. It’s tough on us all, not just the children who receive constant encouragement from their mothers behind them. Occasionally we stop: to breathe, to drink. Chie and Setsuko tend to their children with bottles of water and canned oxygen. In, out, in, out. Our bodies drink in and absorb the elements.
Air. Overhead there are birds. The air above, the sky is the domain of those blessed with flight. If you have a fear of flying, you’ll never get to experience the strange wonderland of the kingdom above the clouds. Or so we normally think. Clouds are seen from below; but how amazing a fairground ride it would be to be able to climb up and through the cloud cover to see them from above. An elevator to an outdoor platform, where we can peak through the marshmallow landscape and see our Lilliput world below.
From the 7th stage upwards we are firmly above the clouds. We’ve left our world behind. Here there are no politics. No taxes. No wars. Here there is endless azure sky above and a bright white sea of neutrality below. We, on foot, have climbed up and out of our normal existence. We’ve travelled through the clouds, without our feet even once having left the ground. We are Jack up the beanstalk. We are giants. And we are here in our hundreds. The ascent up this tower of Babel, this enormous anthill, attracts some 200.000 every year, a third of them visitors from other countries. There is a definite camaraderie that accompanies the climb. Words of encouragement and congratulation abound, acting as a communal current pulling you along. When you feel you are going under, the calls of “gambarre” help resuscitate you. Otsukaresama desu. Morning. Good luck. Joint struggle as a bonding agent.
Transformations. Otoosan is at the head of the group, demontrating the pace, pointing out the route. Now, on this his 8th ascent, he controls the pace, in turn controlling how our bodies physically respond to this environment. A few times, I hang back, then catch up, noticing how quickly pulse rate jumps from RnB, through Club Classics and into Trance. Steady does it. Tortoise and the hare. The wind whips round us like cold slaps in the face. It seems to make breathing less of a challenge though, as you can gulp at it without too much extra effort. It’s cold up here. But the sun is stronger also: from behind his large shades, SH, still bringing up the rear, is gradually starting to resemble Spiderman, face crimson, hands blistering red. We breathe deeply. We drink, we eat. Our lungs strain to fill our chests. Our muscles expand and harden, our blood now solid in our veins. We burn ourselves off, our sweat pouring from us and evaporating almost immediately, carried off by the winds. We breathe. We eat. We drink. We are earth, wind, fire and water.
It’s the evening following the climb. In a different onsen, two hours from Fuji, we bathe ourselves in the oldest hot-spring in Izu. Here, for a thousand years, people have come to soak and comfort their tired physiques. Today, it’s an instrument that has served us well. The aches we feel are trophies of achievement. They feel good. Humans never evolved to sit at desks, to spend the sum of their existence sitting at the computer or slumped at the bar. Our bodies evolved to toil the earth, walk and climb and move. To work. To do what traditionally was referred to as a proper job. These aches and pains are different sensations completely from the pain experienced from a wound. Even when these aches are more intense than the latter, people express them with more lightness. Otsukaresama deshita. Job well done.
There is no charge to climb Fuji. That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s not a commercial enterprise also. Dotted all the way up the paths are refreshment stations, and if you’re not inclined to carry a heavy load of food or drink yourself, you should budget for up to 5 times what you’d pay down below. Small bottles of water change hands for 500 yen. A cup noodle up to 750 yen. Use of a toilet between 100-200 yen. Overnight stay at the various stations can cost up to 8000 yen, basically for a place to lay your head and a bowl of curry rice. By the time we near the top, we’re several thousand yen each the lighter, but we’d stopped caring about the prices some time earlier. Up here, money seems to be an anachronism, or at the very least the currency’s normal value is forgotten and seems more fluid. The possessing of it has been replaced by more basic needs and aspirations.
We have one stage to go and Ken is still smiling. Most of the others in the group have withdrawn into themselves as we push for the final furlong. To our sides there are as many bodies strewn around the path as there are volcanic rocks. It’s the first day of the obon holidays, the busiest day of the year, and occasional traffic-jams are forming. It’s not climbing for the purist, but the multitudes shouldn’t put you off. The views from here are spectacular, as you look down at the clouds and catch glimpses of the ‘real’ world in the pond water underneath. At times, our new world seems to be at a strange tilt, as the angle of the slope becomes the norm. The mountain itself has disappeared now. There is no famous shape anymore. Just this strange otherworldly landscape above the clouds. People are fast asleep on the ground; some simply resting or waiting for their friends. Others are taking in the moment in anticipation of reaching the summit. Most of the hard work has been done; the knowledge is there that we can reach the top.
Lunchtime the next day finds MK queueing for some cold drinks at a seaside resort. A local yakuza member in bright beachwear, shorts and t-shirt, is buying kakigoori for his 6-year-old daughter. A radio is playing J-pop in this beach-bar and someone is calling for a portion of yakisoba from upstairs. A Brazilian teenager inflates a killer whale and two girls hose the sand off their backs and legs. MK is back in her real world. Her body reminds her of what she undertook the day before, but already it has taken on a dreamlike feel. The memory of the fun of running down the volcanic sand route on the descent, every step taking us a leap forward, is now a world away. The fairytale of tiptoeing back down through the woods in the clouds seems like a mirage that has moved on. But when MK looks over to the North and catches sight of Fuji towering above, there is something different from life before. Elsewhere, along the beach, Ken, Mayu and Shin-chan are fishing for aji. they too now look over at the imposing mountain and view it with a difference. They can see where they’ve been. They can pinpoint the place where they reached the top. The image, whether in front of them, on one of a thousand picture postcards or posters, in books or on screen, will never again be what it once was. There’ll now always be a connection.
We reach the top at lunchtime 24 hours earlier. The climb has taken 8 hours. It’s time for pats on the back, handshakes and photo opportunities. Ken has brought his fishing rod and SH a Starbucks coffee. Cameras are passed around and peace-signs are in abundance. We’re at the highest point in Japan. We made it and we feel 100% better for that. Mayu and Shin-chan are a foot taller, their tales back at school will be taller still. And deservedly so.
Important things in life lie not in the imaginary construct of future or past. They’re physical. Acts. Moments in real time. Now.
Over lunch, in wasabi capital Shuzenji, Otoosan teaches the kids how to grind fresh wasabi, solid into paste, then mixed with soba. We are all relaxed now, melted into the soft seats of the restaurant. The 3-day trip is toasted with beer and orange juice and celebrated with seafood that is the local delicacy here. There are no longer solid, hard borders in the group. We’re all at ease, more fluid in our interaction. Connections have been forged in the heat of a summer day. The day we climbed a volcano together.