“A wise man will climb Mt. Fuji once; only a fool will climb it twice.”
Mt. Fuji can be an elusive creature. Japan’s tallest mountain and active volcano is notorious for revealing picture-perfect views of its snow-capped peak one minute and then disappearing into a fog-shrouded outline of itself the next. It’s as if the mountain engages visitors in a one-sided game of hide-and-seek. I couldn’t begin to imagine what Fuji-san, as it is affectionately called, would have up its volcanic sleeve on this early morning visit.
Herb and I were headed out from the port city of Shimizu, population around 32,000. We had signed on for a tour to the shrine where climbers pray before ascending Mt. Fuji as well as a visit to the beach and seaside pine grove where views of the magnificent mountain have served as inspiration for Japanese painters. On the half-hour drive, our guide Yoko (yes, she told us, her mother named her after Yoko Ono) talked about Mt. Fuji’s role as a pilgrimage destination. Since ancient times, the summit has been thought of as a sacred place, she said, and making the climb is part of Japanese tradition.
“You go up the mountain and get reborn and come back with energy.”
Fujisan Hongū Sengen Taisha Shrine
As we walked into the shrine, Yoko gave us a little background on Shinto etiquette, first stopping at the purification station to demonstrate the proper way to scoop the water into our hands and then splash it on our mouths. She talked about how to make a wish at the wishing box, which we had practiced in Tokyo…toss coin, bow twice, clap twice, make a wish while putting the palms of your hands together in a praying position and bow again. And she told us about ceremonies for children, where parents bring babies and three-year-olds to the shrine for a special blessing, later returning for another blessing ceremony when their sons are five and daughters are seven.
Like Tokyo’s Meiji Shrine, Fujisan Hongū Sengen Taisha Shrine sits in a peaceful wooded setting with now-familiar torii gates and vermilion red buildings. But what’s different here is the view of Mt. Fuji, a moody cone-shaped spectacle looming over an ordinary-looking street. Even with its famous snow-capped top hidden in the clouds, it’s an imposing sight.
Japanese Pancakes Part 2
Near the shrine entrance, we passed a Japanese Pancake stand, just as we’d found at Nakamisi-dori in Tokyo. These pancakes were different, however. Rather than baked in miniature pagoda- and lantern-shaped muffin pans, they were being cooked on a griddle and placed together like a sandwich, with a filling between the two cakes. The aroma was so tempting that we decided to try one, opting for a lemon filling. And like its counterpart creations in Tokyo, it was delicious!
Miho no Matsubara
More than 30,000 pine trees fill Miho no Matsubara, a sacred forest that spills onto a four-and-a-half-mile black sand beach on the Miho Peninsula. The paved path leading into the forest is dusted with pine needles. Interesting-looking monuments lie almost hidden beneath the trees. Some of the pines are 200 to 300 years old, Yoko tells us. They symbolize long life, she says – evergreen and everlasting.
The beach lies at the end of the trail. It’s a rocky, rugged-looking place with stones and brush imbedded in the black sand. Sailboats and a few splashing waves complete the foreground landscape, but the main attraction is the large and looming backdrop of Mt. Fuji. It’s easy to see why this spot has been featured in so many Japanese paintings. There’s a real sense of mystery here, as if it’s the only place on the planet where the great mountain can be seen.
On the drive back to Shimizu, Yoko talked a little more about our day at Mt. Fuji. And then she did something that I had never experienced with a tour guide. She stood at the front of the bus, picked up the microphone, closed her eyes and began singing. I recognized the melody instantly – a song called “Sukiyaki” – and was captivated by Yoko’s unbridled desire to serenade us so seemingly effortlessly.
When we returned home, I looked up the song and learned that it had spent three weeks at the top of the American Billboard charts in June 1963. I’m fairly certain I hadn’t heard it since those long-ago days, but yet the familiar tune came rushing back. And now whenever I think of Mt. Fuji, I will also remember that song and the lovely woman who made it come to life as our tour bus rambled along, on the road to Shimizu.