Japan, like any other place, is what you make of it. That’s why, rather than reading on current sociopolitics or debito.org, I’m brushing up on my dearest Lafcadio Hearn.
And boy does he fly.
[…] we come to the end of the cemetery, to the verge of the great grove.
Beyond the trees, what caressing sun, what spiritual loveliness in the tender day! A tropic sky always seemed to me to hang so low that one could almost bathe one’s fingers in its lukewarm liquid blue by reaching upward from any dwelling-roof. But this sky, softer, fainter, arches so vastly as to suggest the heaven of a larger planet. And the very clouds are not clouds, but only dreams of clouds, so filmy they are; ghosts of clouds, diaphanous spectres, illusions!
In fact, with Lafcadio, we are nowhere but in Faërie itself:
Elfish everything seems; for everything as well as everybody is small, and queer, and mysterious: the little houses under their blue roofs, the little shop-fronts hung with blue, and the smiling little people in their blue costumes. The illusion is only broken by the occasional passing of a tall foreigner, and by diverse shop-signs bearing announcements in absurd attempts at English.
And the ultimate consequence of all these kindly curious looks and smiles is that the stranger finds himself thinking of fairy-land. Hackneyed to the degree of provocation this statement no doubt is: everybody describing the sensations of his first Japanese day talks of the land as fairyland, and of its people as fairy-folk. Yet there is a natural reason for this unanimity in choice of terms to describe what is almost impossible to describe more accurately at the first essay. To find one’s self suddenly in a world where everything is upon a smaller and daintier scale than with us—a world of lesser and seemingly kindlier beings, all smiling at you as if to wish you well—a world where all movement is slow and soft, and voices are hushed—a world where land, life, and sky are unlike all that one has known elsewhere—this is surely the realisation, for imaginations nourished with English folklore, of the old dream of a World of Elves.
When I read this kind of thing, I cannot avoid thinking of the latter Empire of Japan… But ah, my cynicism is just a thinly-veiled mask for “oh man how I wish I was there”.
“Oh, you must climb Fuji”, says literally every Japanese person I know. “It will be in season”. I don’t have the heart to tell them that being in season makes me want to not climb it, that being a crowded, overpriced, touristy “attraction” makes me want to stay well away from it. There must be like a hundred thousand million awesome little places to see, udon stands and worker’s restaurants, intimidating little dive bars and hidden pockets of concentrated culture—why flock with everyone to a single place like moths to a lamp?
“Wikipedia is an encyclopædia”, says a warning in the Japanese page for Mt Fuji. “It is not a website to upload pictures of Fuji-san”. The article is currently locked.
But. Tourists or not, it’s Fuji. Hokusai’s Fuji, Hiroshige’s Fuji, Yuki wa furi-tsutsu Fuji. And, it’s full of things I enjoy: it’s a mountain to climb, a literary reference, and an animistic holy place, and there’s a haunted suicide forest to the side. The Gods know when I’d have this kind of opportunity again. Besides, there are ways to be indier. Trails like Yoshida Sengen or Murayama must be less crowded than just starting at Kawaguchiko 5th, and according to Shinto priest Pat Ormsby, they’re, like, totally authentic experiences. Also, the Internet says the climb’s a lot busier at night, because people want to see the rising sun. So couldn’t one, er, climb during the day, calmly enjoying the scenery, then watch the setting sun at the peak, spend the night in a rented hut in the friggin Fuji, and then watch the rising sun anyway?
And then I read rumors that Fuji is due a particularly violent eruption any moment now, and I couldn’t keep the blasé pretence anymore. Of course, these rumors are probably pseudoscience, and skeptics will say there’s no way to be sure (though it is late according to historical precedent). But the factuality of it has little bearing in how good a story it makes. Self-ironies aside, I find climbing to be a powerful experience; what would it be like to tread the skin of the living dormant dragon? In fact, I’ll probably be irrationaly afraid because death by Fuji would make too much narrative sense: spend your entire life wanting to go to Japan; work hard; finally go to Japan; climb to the top of Japan; die in Japan, in an earthshaking explosion of fire, in Japan.
And enormously high above the line of them towers an apparition indescribably lovely—one solitary snowy cone, so filmily exquisite, so spiritually white, that but for its immemorially familiar outline, one would surely deem it a shape of cloud. Invisible its base remains, being the same delicious tint as the sky: only above the eternal snow-line its dreamy cone appears, seeming to hang, the ghost of a peak, between the luminous land and the luminous heaven—the sacred and matchless mountain, Fujiyama.
He didn’t go there, did he? But he did. “Fujiyama”!
However, on second look, they say this word was not so weird around the Bakumatsu period, so who knows, perhaps in Lafcadio’s time it was still plausible. Where did we gaijin get “Fujiyama” from, anyway? I think in waka it’s usually just “Fuji”, not -yama nor -san. The first verifiable Western hit I can find in Google Books is Dickins’ translation of the Hiak Nin Is’shiu (1866):
Tago no ura ni uchi-idete mireba, shiro-tahe no Fuji no taka ne ni-yuki wa furi-tsutsu.
LITERAL VERSION.—“Just as I sally out upon the shore of Tago I look round, and lo! the snow has fallen on the high peak of Fuji (Fusi-yama).
The Glossary, too, has: “Fuji, name of Fusiyama”. Is this spelling just a reflex of the kana? (And “Hyak”: we already have the Edo vowel devoicing? And “Ishiu”: my old doubt again: did they had a glide at this point? That would explain Brazilian “jiu-jitsu”, & other things). Looking for “Fusi” we find a few more interesting hits, including the Diccionario geográfico universal, dedicado A la Reina Nuestra Señora from 1831:
FUSIYAMA, alta mont. del Japon, en la isla de Nifon, prov. de Suruga, á 17 1/2 leg- S.O. de Yedo, cerca de la bahia de Totomina. Pasa por la mas alta del Japon. Su cima está cubierta de nieves perpetuas y sale de ella algunas veces un humo muy espeso y de un hedor insoportable.
FUJIYAMA, high mountain of the Japon, in the island of Nifon, province of Suruga, at 17 1/2 [leagues?] S. W. from Yedo, about the bay of Totomina. Believed to be the highest of the Japon. Its peak is covered by perpetual snow, and from it sometimes come out a smoke very thick and of intolerable stench.
Clearly señor José Torner is not a Lafcadio… And again we have linguistically interesting orthography—we all know it was really Yedo at this time, but what about Nifon? Just a Jesuit spelling leftover?
A few years later we get more evidence for native Fujiyama :
The peak is represented as being almost inaccessible by reason of a broad barrier of fine sand on its acclivity; and is, moreover, the reputed residence of Eolus, and the entrance to the hades of Budhistic mythology, inasmuch, as the summit is rarely clear of mist or clouds, and there are traces of an immense crater near the top. The priests of Yamabus often refer to this mountain in their incantations, and use the name Fusi-yama, as a kind of watchword.
The Chinese Repository, Bridgman & Williams, volume 6, 1838
So it seems at least plausible that, in Lafcadio’s day and place, “Fujiyama” was not just a foreigner’s condescending stereotype but a word that one could actually hear in his Japan.
I wonder how many other Lafcadian japonaiseries were one day things you could really see.