Outside magazine, October 1997
Saturday, May 01, 2004

Do We Transcend Before or After We Purchase the Commemorative Eel Cakes?

Attempting Mount Fuji, where nature, religion, sport, and schlock form the most holy of alliances

By: Susan Orlean

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The smallest Mount Fuji I saw while I was in Japan was in the backyard of a Shinto shrine that sits next to a Tokyo fire station and across the street from a grocery store where you can buy sake in a box and $18 cantaloupes. The shrine is called Ono-Terusaki, and the little Mount Fuji in its backyard is called Fujizuko, and they are located in Shitaya, an unfancy low-rise neighborhood you would never visit unless you were looking for miniature mountains. I went to see Fujizuko on a blazing hot July Sunday when the sky was the color of cement and the air was so thick it felt woolly. The real Mount Fuji is only 60 miles from Tokyo, but the scrim of smog around the city cut off the view. No one was on the streets of Shitaya that morning, and all the houses were perfectly still except for a few damp kimonos flapping on balcony clotheslines. I wandered around the neighborhood for half an hour before I finally found the shrine, a homely ninth-century building dedicated to a scholar of Chinese classics who died in a.d. 852 and was said to have enjoyed landscapes. I walked around to the back of the shrine, and there I came upon the mountain. It was made of blackish lava chunks and was shaped like a piece of pie propped up on its wide end, exactly like the real Mount Fuji, only this Fuji was about 16 feet high, whereas the real one is 12,388. Someone who really liked Mount Fuji built the mountain in 1828. The mountain was flanked by a pair of stone monkey-faced dog-lions, and there was a sign that said, fujizuko is a miniature mountain that an imitation man made in the image of mount fuji. this precious mound is preserved on good conditions.

I looked at the mountain for a while and rang a doorbell, and after a moment a student priest came out and gave me a look. He was dressed in a snow-white robe and slippers and had kissy lips and a grave handsome face. He didn't speak English and I don't speak Japanese, so we just smiled at each other until a middle-aged gentleman who was also visiting the shrine said he would attempt to translate for the priest. The gentleman said that the priest said that there was a time when Japan was not in order and people felt a pain about the abusement of the land, and there were problems, lots of problems, with the gods, or maybe it was problems with the crops, but anyway then a man went climbing Mount Fuji and by climbing he tried to make the world in order and he prayed many crops or gods would come in good condition and then the world of Japan became in order and through his feelings he built the mountain. As the gentleman was translating I felt a profound sense of mystery and confusion in my very own mind but I also sort of understood what he was trying to say. I then asked the gentleman to ask the priest if he had ever climbed the full-scale Mount Fuji. The priest giggled and shook his head, so I asked whether the priest planned to climb it anytime in the future. The two men chatted for a minute. At last the gentleman turned to me and shrugged his shoulders and said, "I believe he says, 'No way.'"

The reasons people don't climb mount Fuji are various. Sometimes they just forget to do it. There is approximately one Japanese cab driver in New York City, where I live, and he is one of the people who happens to have forgotten. He also happened to be the cab driver who took me to the airport for my flight to Japan. He was driving a new nice-smelling Honda minivan cab and had a silver Mount Fuji key chain swinging from the ignition. He became excited when I told him I was going to Japan to climb Mount Fuji. He said that he had always planned to do it himself but then he kept forgetting and the next thing he knew he had moved permanently to the United States.

Sometimes the reasons people have for not climbing are more existential than forgetful. When I first got to Tokyo I went to visit Kunio Kaneko, an artist who makes woodblock prints of Mount Fuji. At his studio, every wall was hung with his pictures of the mountain — in indigo blue, in orangy-red, covered with gold leaf, outlined with silver ink. There were drawers full of Fuji prints and racks of note cards of Fujis and one wall with pictures of kimonos and happi coats and those traditional Japanese wooden platform sandals that make you walk like you're drunk. Kaneko is in his late forties and has longish hair and broad shoulders, and he was wearing beat-up khakis and green Converse sneakers. He spread his pictures out for me to see and told me that he divided his life into two: the years before 1964, when the air was still see-through and Fuji was always visible from his backyard in Tokyo, and the post-1964 years, when pollution got so bad that he almost never saw Fuji except on rare stainless winter days. Kaneko said that he thought about the mountain all the time. Since he seemed slightly outdoorsy and had devoted so much of his work to the mountain, I assumed that he had climbed it, maybe even several times. When I asked him about it, he looked bashful and replied, "No, I have never climbed it." He shuffled together some of his prints and slid them into a drawer. "I always stay at a distance at the bottom so I have a perfect view," he said. "I don't climb it because if I were on the mountain I couldn't see it."

There are lots of reasons the Japanese do climb Mount Fuji. They climb it because it's tall and pretty and has a grand view, because some of them think God lives inside it, because their grandparents climbed it, or because climbing Mount Fuji has been the customary Japanese thing to do for as long as anyone can remember. In a way, the enduring attraction of a Mount Fuji pilgrimage is a remarkable thing. The Japanese have always revered their landscape and scenery, but they seem perfectly at peace with fake nature, too-only in Japan can you can surf at an indoor beach and ski on an indoor slope and stroll through exhaustively manipulated and modulated gardens of groomed pebbles and dwarfed trees and precisely arranged leaves. Sometimes it seems that the man-made Japan has eclipsed the country's original physical being. Still, the symbolism and reality of Mount Fuji remain. The mountain may have pay phones on the summit and its own brand of beer, but otherwise it persists as a wild and messy and uncontrollable place-big, old-fashioned, and extreme. That is, nothing like what I expected Japan to be. I wanted to go to Mount Fuji because I imagined it would be a trip to the un-Japan, a country I wasn't sure even existed anymore except in nostalgic dreams.

It was a terrible year to climb Fuji, really. The official climbing season opens July 1 with a ceremony at the base of the mountain in the Sengen Jinja shrine, and usually thousands of climbers would attend the ceremony and ascend the mountain that day. Some would be dressed in traditional pilgrim costumes: white kimonos and pants, straw waraji sandals, a mushroom-shaped hat, a walking stick. Most of the rest would be in Gore-Tex and T-shirts saying mount fuji: the most highest mountain in japan and welcome to mellow village and joyful my scene morning bunny mount fuji. In Tokyo that same day, less ambitious climbers hold another ceremony at the Ono-Terusaki Shrine and scramble up all 16 feet of the miniature Fuji; similar observances would take place at each of the 40 or so other miniature Mount Fujis in greater Tokyo. But this was the summer of ghastly weather in Japan. In the weeks before opening day two typhoons passed through; the first one hit Tokyo and raked across Fuji, covering the climbing routes with snow and filling the access roads with mud and rocks, while the tail end of the second typhoon added to the mess on the mountain. The opening ceremony was held but was sparsely attended, and access to Fuji itself was postponed until July 10, then postponed again for another 24 hours. The day I arrived in Japan the tanker Diamond Grace had run aground and was bleeding crude oil into Tokyo Bay. In the south yet another storm struck, and on the island of Kyushu mud slides killed almost two dozen people. In Tokyo a heat wave jacked the temperature above 100 degrees, and everyone walked around looking broiled and stoic, dabbing their foreheads with washcloths and flapping lacquer fans. I was so hot that I had to hide from the sun every afternoon in my hotel room. I would fall in a heap onto my futon and crack open a Kirin Beer and turn on a Japanese program called Jungle TV, which was hosted by two guys who did things like race each other on rowing machines while wearing business suits and teach themselves to cook bouillabaisse while being harassed by a pet monkey. I started wondering why exactly I wanted to climb Mount Fuji, but I did, and even after an earthquake bounced me around my hotel room I was still good to go.

Mount Fuji is the highest mountain in Japan. Its peak is nearly two and a half miles above sea level, and its base has a circumference of 78 miles and spans both Yamanashi Prefecture and Shizuoka Prefecture. The mountain is a 10,000-year-old volcanic cone that last erupted in 1707. Scientists believe it is dormant rather than extinct. A nearby mountain named Yatsugatake used to be higher than Fuji, but then the jealous and bellicose Fuji goddess Konohanasakuya-hime decided to knock over Yatsugatake so Fuji could be supreme. The first documented ascent of the mountain was made by a Shintoist pilgrim named En no Ozunu in the eighth century; the first Westerner to climb was Sir Rutherford Alcock, the British consul, who ascended in 1860 with his Scottie dog Toby. The world's oldest mountain-climbing picture, painted in the fifteenth century, depicts monks climbing Mount Fuji. Only religious pilgrims were allowed to climb until the nineteenth century; women were not allowed at all until 1871. Fuji's six climbing routes are divided into stations; the route I planned to take has ten. The Fuji Subaru highway to the Fifth Station was opened in 1965, and with it came millions of visitors by tour bus and subsequently tons of trash and erosion problems that continue to threaten the mountain. Mount Fuji is so pretty and so weirdly symmetrical that people have always believed it was supernatural and sanctified. The most fervent Fuji worshipers are the members of the Shintoist sect Fuji-ko, whose founder, the sixteenth-century monk Fujiwara no Kakugyo, supposedly climbed Fuji 128 times and lived to be 106 years old. Fuji-ko pilgrims stay in special shrine lodges at the base of the mountain, wash themselves in the purifying water of the five lakes nearby, get blessed by a priest, and then time their ascent so that they arrive at the summit at sunrise. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as many as 10,000 Fuji-ko would climb each year, but these days they are far outnumbered by ordinary Japanese and tourists.

Before I left for Japan I obtained an introduction to a man in Tokyo named Fumiaki Watanabe, who was going to have me over for dinner as part of an official international friendliness program. All I knew about him was that he was recently retired from his position as an internal auditor at an Exxon subsidiary. The minute he heard from our intermediary that I was planning to climb Fuji he proposed skipping the dinner and instead going with me on the climb. This to me was a huge surprise. I kept being told that every year half a million people drive to the Fifth Station of Fuji and 200,000 climb to the summit, but so far I hadn't managed to find a single person who had done either. I was starting to wonder how much of the Japanese devotion to climbing Mount Fuji is abstract and conceptual and how much of it involves the material experience of putting on shoes and walking. It turned out that Mr. Watanabe was a materially experienced climber. He had climbed Fuji more than ten times, had skied into its crater and down its side, and was 70 percent of the way to his goal of climbing the hundred highest peaks in Japan.

It was decided that Mr. Watanabe and I would climb together but that our dinner would go ahead as planned, and one evening I rode the subway to the southern edge of Tokyo, where he and his wife and son live. He met me at the station and almost without a word gestured toward the exit. He walked quickly, pushing his bicycle, which like every Japanese bicycle I saw was low-built and sturdy, like a fifties Schwinn, and had a plastic bag wrapped around its seat. Mr. Watanabe was low-built and sturdy himself, with a baldish head and bright eyes and a small, solid body. In the very best possible way he looked a little like Jiminy Cricket. That night we spoke about the beautiful dinner Mrs. Watanabe had made for us, about the differences between Americans and Japanese, about how tradition in both countries is melting away. Mrs. Watanabe was wearing Western-style casual clothes, but she decided to show me the formal kimono that she said she hardly ever wears anymore. Once she brought it out she decided to dress me in it. The kimono was cool and silky and as heavy as water. It required special underwear with multiple belts and bows, and had a wide sash tied over a pillow that sits in the small of your back. It took about 15 minutes to get the whole thing on. Then, as I sat there trussed up like a fancy turkey, Mr. Watanabe began laying out his plans for our climb.

We left two days later on a bus that threaded through the steep hills and rice fields between Tokyo and Fujiyoshida, the town at the base of the mountain where we were going to spend our first night. The bus was full of vacationers carrying take-out bento-box lunches and overnight bags. Mr. Watanabe brought a big rucksack and was dressed in a long-sleeved shirt, a gray pinstriped vest, wool knickers, and hiking boots with bright red laces. The boots looked well-worn. He said that he managed to go climbing about ten times a year. I wondered whether he was going more often now that he had retired. "Yes, I have had the opportunity," he said. He shifted in his seat. Everything he said sounded measured and elegant. "My plan is to now climb the highest peak on each continent. I would begin with Kilimanjaro, then Aconcagua, and then, of course, McKinley."

"Will you start soon?"

He lifted an eyebrow and said, "Perhaps I'll have the opportunity."

"Alone?"

"Yes, I believe alone," he said. "To tell the truth, Mrs. Watanabe has a problem because she becomes very...tired. She also walks a bit slower than a...normal person." He paused again and then added, "I believe I should learn to be more patient."

Entering Fujiyoshida, you pass a McDonald's and a pachinko gambling parlor and then a Mount Fuji made of flowers-a mound of red salvia and impatiens in pink and white. Just beyond it was the famous Fuji Sengen Jinja shrine. The long pathway to the shrine was dim and unearthly and lined with stone lanterns and tall red trees. Mr. Watanabe said the trees were called fujitarosugi, which translates as "boy cedar tree of Fuji." There are thousands of cedars encircling the mountain, forming what people call the Sea of Trees or the Forest of No Return. This forest is one of the most popular places in Japan to commit suicide — every year several dozen bodies are recovered in it — and it is one of the most popular places to headquarter a religion. There are almost 2,000 officially registered religious organizations located around the base of the mountain, including a number of Nichiren Buddhist sects, the faith-healing Ho no Hana Sanpogyo group, and the ancestor-revering Fumyokai Kyodan religion. Until it was evicted recently, the subway-gassing Aum Shinri Kyo cult had its headquarters here, too.

We stopped at the Fuji Sengen Jinja shrine and walked under the boy cedar trees to the main structure, an ornate building made of reddish wood that had been slicked to a dull shine by the drizzle. The place was deserted except for a little boy who was studying his reflection in a puddle and a priest who was padding around in his white tabi socks, closing up for the day. The priest was in a hurry to leave but he agreed to give us a condensed version of the traditional Shinto preclimb blessing. He motioned for us to stand in front of the shrine. As he chanted and banged on a small brass drum, the rain began to patter and a gust flicked the water in the trees onto the ground.

We finally arrived at our hotel, a Western-style high-rise building that had its own amusement park, called Fujikyu Highland, whose attractions included a Ferris wheel and the highest roller coaster in Japan. On the hotel grounds there is a perfect 1:200 scale model of Mount Fuji and the five lakes to the north; guests can climb the small mountain and also visit the Mount Fuji museum located inside the artificial peak. The enormous picture windows in the hotel lobby would have offered a staggering view of the real Fuji if the weather had been clear, but it wasn't, so that night after dinner we sat in the lobby and gazed in the direction of the rain-shrouded Fuji, over the top of the scale-model Fuji, to an outline of Fuji made of neon glowing in the spokes of the Ferris wheel. You can walk up Mount Fuji, or you can run up (the Mount Fuji Climbing Race has been held every year since 1948), or you can roll up in a wheelchair (first done in 1978), or you can wait to go up until you're really old (as old as Ichijiro "Super Grandpa" Araya, who climbed it when he was 100, or Hulda "Grandma Whitney" Crooks, who did it at 91). Or you can ride a horse to the Seventh Station, the rental horse drop-off point, and then walk the rest of the way. The next morning, as Mr. Watanabe and I were sitting in a cold mist at the Fifth Station getting ready for the climb, a horse rental guy walked over and introduced me to his pony, Nice Child. The guy was wearing a Budweiser hat and rubber boots that had articulated toes. Nice Child looked like a four-legged easy chair, and I was really tempted to take the man up on his suggestion that I ride rather than walk. It was a lousy day to climb a mountain. Many of the pilgrims at the trailhead were wearing garbage bags, and the only scenery we could see was the Fifth Station gift shop and a cigarette vending machine that had the phrase today i smoke printed on it at least a hundred times. "I believe only crazies will be climbing today," Mr. Watanabe said, looking at a group of climbers who were eating rice balls and hot dogs and shouting at one another.

After Mr. Watanabe talked me out of renting Nice Child, I put on my pack and tightened my laces and went into the gift shop and bought a traditional pilgrim's walking stick — plain and squared-off, with jingle bells hanging from the top to ward off evil spirits and plenty of room for yakiin, the brands you can get burned onto your stick at each station along the way to the top. I also wanted to buy the Fuji-shaped cookies or cheesecakes or bean-paste patties or jellies, or the Milk Pie biscuits in a box that said, fujisan: nature is a great existence. if you become angry or nervous hold communion with nature. The trouble was I'd already picked up some eel jerky and some octopus jerky at a 7-Eleven near the hotel.

We planned to climb to the Eighth Station by sunset, spend the evening in a mountain hut, and wake up at 2 a.m. to finish the climb so we would reach the summit by sunrise. We had reserved space at a hut called Fuji-san Hotel. From the sound of the name I thought maybe it was a luxury hut, but Mr. Watanabe rolled his eyes and assured me that all the accommodations on the mountain were more hut than hotel. "Do you know how silkworms live?" he asked. "They live on wooden shelves. That is what the huts are like — silkworm shelves."

I was taken aback. "You mean the huts are infested?"

"No," Mr. Watanabe replied, "the huts have shelves, and we are the worms."

I walked a few feet behind him, stepping on and around nubbly black lava rocks and loose pebbles of red pumice. The terrain was sheer and treeless. On a sunny day it would have been beastly. Rock larks flitted around, and green weeds grew under some of the overhangs, but otherwise the mountainside was blank. After about an hour I started wondering where one would relieve oneself in such a lunar landscape. "We will be at the Sixth Station in just a few more minutes," Mr. Watanabe said. He hesitated for a moment, pressed his finger to his lips and then said, "There you will find a cozy adjacent hut." In a few minutes we did in fact reach the station, a big wooden lean-to hut with a cozy adjacent unisex hut beside it, both clinging to the mountainside like barnacles. Inside the big hut you could get your walking stick branded and buy crackers and souvenirs and any one of a dozen brands of beer, as well as a $12 canister of Mount Fuji Congratulations Do It Now Oxygen. About 40 climbers were milling around, dripping and sweating and gobbling snacks. One delicate-looking older woman dressed in what looked like pajamas was taking gulps from a canister of oxygen, and the man with her alternated gulps of oxygen with swigs of beer. Four U.S. Navy enlisted men came into the hut. They seemed quite excited. "Hey!" one of them hollered. "Anyone got any sake?" I went outside on the deck, where a bunch of Chinese students were eating dried fish and cookies and taking snapshots of one another. Two of them were speaking to each other on their cellular phones and were shrieking ecstatically. One of the Chinese girls came over to me and gasped,"We are wanting to speak Japanese! We are wanting to speak English! But our heads are filled with Japanese!"

Mr. Watanabe wanted to push ahead, so we soon left and plodded up the jagged trail for another hour. By then the clouds had broken up, and below them we could see a big green patch that Mr. Watanabe said was a Japanese Self-Defense Forces training ground and some of the 117 golf courses that lie at the base of the mountain. I wanted to look at the view for a while, but the trail was getting clogged with other climbers, so we turned and continued. We beat the Chinese students to the Seventh Station and went in to get my walking stick branded. The stationmaster was a young man with bristly black hair and bright-red cheeks. He motioned me over to a fire that was burning in the center of the hut and then pulled out a branding iron that had been heating in it. After I paid $2, he branded my stick with his symbol — some Japanese characters and a drawing of Fuji. Then he told me he'd been working at the hut for 20 years and that he was the sixth generation of his family to run it. In the winter he works at a gas station. During the two-month-long climbing season he leaves his wife and children in the flatlands and comes to the Seventh Station with his mother, and they don't go back down until after the Yoshida Fire Festival, which marks the season's close. On a busy day he brands the sticks of 600 climbers. On a slow day, he said, he gets lonely. Mr. Watanabe and I reached the Eighth Station two hours later. That is, we got to the first of the seven Eighth Stations. The seven Eighth Stations are strung out along about an hour's worth of trail. All of the stations on Fuji are family businesses that have had the same owners for a hundred years or more, and they enjoy the spirited competition of the free-market system. The first Eighth Station calls itself The Authentic Eighth Station; the second one calls itself Originator of the Eighth Station; the third is The Real Eighth Station. As it happened, our Eighth Station, the nonluxurious Fuji-san Hotel, was the seventh of the Eighth Stations. By the time we wended our way past the preceding six stations it was dusky, and I was eager for dinner and the use of a cozy adjacent hut. The Fuji-san stationmaster was a jolly guy with a mustache and tobacco-stained fingers. When we arrived he and a few friends were sitting inside the hut watching the Yankees game in which Japanese pitcher Hideki Irabu made his debut. The television and a fire were the hut's sole amenities. Otherwise it was outfitted with a couple of wooden benches in the main room and, in another, two levels of wooden platforms that formed a communal bunk bed — the silkworm shelves. Mr. Watanabe grinned when he saw me surveying the quarters. "On the mountain for women it is very... harsh," he said. "I believe the goddess of Fuji was said to be very jealous and did not favor women climbers."

Because of the lousy weather, the mountain was unusually quiet that night. Typically there would have been about a hundred people at the hotel, but instead there were only two young Sony employees from Nagasaki and three of the stationmaster's friends. The Sony men went to sleep almost immediately. The rest of us ate a dinner of rice and then tried to warm up by the fire next to the television set. I stepped outside to see what I could see from 11,000 feet up. It was a cold, black night, and the cloud cover was still cracked open; below I could see the little lights of Fujiyoshida and the carnival neon of the Fujikyu Highland Ferris wheel.

After I went back inside, Mr. Watanabe offered everyone refreshments: banana chips and cocktails of Johnnie Walker Black and Takara Multi-Vitamin Water. "Very healthy," he said to me, holding up a can of Takara Water and a plastic cup. "It has many important minerals. Please, allow me to give you some." The stationmaster's friends introduced themselves as Boss-o Guide-o, Guide-o Carpenter-o, and Mr. Shinto Priest. Boss-o explained that he was in charge of all the guides working on Mount Fuji. After his second scotch and Multi-Vitamin Water he offered to make me an assistant guide next summer. Guide-o Carpenter-o was an assistant mountain guide in the summer and a carpenter in Fujiyoshida during the winter. He was the brother of Mr. Shinto Priest, who was a Shinto priest and also a part-time carpenter. Mr. Priest was a wild-eyed semibald-headed man who chain-smoked Virginia Slims Menthols and was wearing a padded coat, a terry-cloth towel around his neck, a wool beanie, and knee-high rubber boots, which had the combined effect of making him look like a cross-dressing Tibetan heavyweight boxer. He kept lighting his cigarettes with one of the station branding irons and then whipping off his beanie and rubbing his remaining hair while growling something crusty-sounding in Japanese. "That's a joke!" Guide-o Carpenter-o yelled to me, pointing at Mr. Priest. "That's a Japanese joke!" Even Mr. Watanabe, who may be the most gracious and proper human on earth, was roaring at the priest. "To tell you the truth, I believe he's quite crazy," he whispered to me. By then we had all had lots and lots of multivitamins. Mr. Priest was getting sort of sentimental, and when he was done with his hair routine he wanted me to sit on his lap or next to him and look at snapshots. I had my doubts, but they turned out to be pictures he'd taken of the shadow thrown by Mount Fuji at sunrise — a perfect sheer-gray triangle cast across an ocean of clouds, as amazing a sight as I've ever seen.

At that point there was no real point in going to sleep, since we were going to wake up in an hour to finish the climb. I lay down on my shelf and listened to the Sony men snoring and the rain as it started to dribble, then pour, then slam down on the tin roof of the Fuji-san Hotel. At about two in the morning, I heard the rustling of ponchos. Some two dozen climbers had arrived at the hotel, rain running off them in rivers, and outside on the trail I could see a dotted line of lights zigzagging up the mountainside. Most of the climbers wore their lights on their heads, so for a moment the scene looked like a subterranean mining expedition rather than the final stretch of a mountain climb. We dressed in a rush, and then Mr. Watanabe warned me about the end of the climb. "What we have left is the heart-attacking final 800 meters," he said, looking at me solemnly. "You must inform me before you become completely exhausted." Climbers were materializing all around us in the dark mist, each with a Cyclops headlamp shining in the middle of his forehead. We took our places on the trail and began trudging up the final steep stretch.

The line of climbers' lights now reached up to the summit and down to the seventh Eighth Station, where it vanished into the fog. The rain was falling in gobs, coming down harder and harder, and the fog was building up into a solid white wall; I would never have known we'd reached the summit except that Mr. Watanabe said we'd reached the summit and should stop under a shelter and have something to eat. The crater was there but I couldn't see it, and the whole of Japan was spread out underneath us but you'd never know it, and there were scores of people all around us but I couldn't make them out even though they were probably just a few feet away. I didn't really care. I was completely thrilled just to be on the summit. I was the highest thing in Japan! I wanted to run around the crater, but the wind had picked up to about 60 miles an hour, which would have meant running sideways if at all.

It is traditional for climbers to mail a letter at the Mount Fuji post office on the summit and to hike around the crater to each of the two shrines on the rim before descending. Mr. Watanabe suggested we should skip the post office and the shrines and simply head down right away. I wanted to stay. We held a vote and it was a tie, but then the wind punched me so hard that I changed my mind. I got the official summit brand burned into my walking stick and then started down into the fog, sliding heel-first into the loose pumice, the sheets of rain in my face.

For a while, everyone who saw Mount Fuji wanted to write a poem about it or tell a story about it or make pictures of it. It was described by a writer in the eighth century as "a lovely form capped with the purest white snow...reminding one of a well-dressed woman in a luxuriously dyed garment with her pure white undergarment showing around the edge of her collar" — in other words, like a lady with her bra straps showing. Unquestionably the consummate Fuji artist was the nineteenth-century printmaker Katsushika Hokusai, who made pictures of the peak for 70 years. Hokusai often called himself a crazed art addict and sometimes used the name Hokusai the Madman. Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, a collection of his prints, was published around 1823 and was a huge hit in Japan. Hokusai depicted Fuji covered with snow, half-covered with snow, bare, hidden by mist, capped by an umbrella cloud, in nice weather, with pilgrims climbing, with storks bathing in front of it, as seen from the bow of a boat, and viewed from a bridge in Tokyo. In some of the pictures the mountain fills up most of the space, whereas in others it is just a pucker on the horizon while the foreground is dominated by geisha girls loafing around or a guy building a barrel or someone trying to talk his horse into walking over a bridge. A few years later, when Hokusai was 74 and worried about his career, he recharged it by publishing a new collection, One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji. It was another huge hit. Hokusai was an inconstant man who moved 93 times in his life and changed his name 20 times, but for the 70 years he made pictures of Fuji, his image of the mountain never changed; it was always steep-sided, narrow-peaked, wide-bottomed, solitary, and simply the loveliest mountain you could ever hope to see.

When we got to the bottom of the mountain, Mr. Watanabe apologized for the weather and said he very much wanted me to come back so I could see Mount Fuji on a good day — that is, so I could see Mount Fuji at all. I told him that I wasn't the least bit disappointed and that anyway this seemed like the Japanese way of seeing the mountain, less with my eyes than with my mind's eye. I was a material climber but I had been won over to the conceptual side.

If we wanted a view, I told him, we could always go back to the Ferris wheel at Fujikyu Highland. "I suppose," Mr. Watanabe said. "However, I do not believe we will have the time or opportunity to ride such a vehicle." He was right, so we just blotted our soaked clothes and kicked the pebbles out of our boots and caught the next bus back to Tokyo, and before I left Japan I bought myself a copy of Hokusai's Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji.

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