Twenty views of Mount Fuji

I’m trying to keep the blog in a sort of chronological order and because of it takes quite a bit of time I’m roughly a month behind events. But every now and then something so amazing happens sharing it takes precedence over the rest. This weekend was one of them.

Mt. Fuji on an autumn afternoon (1st)

Mt. Fuji on an autumn afternoon (1st)

Some of the Vulcanus interns were visiting their host companies and the rest of us got Friday off. We have read about the Fuji-Q Highlands amusement park and also that the Q stands for 3 hour queues on peak days. A regular Friday therefore seemed like a very good time to visit the park, home of the 4 (former) world record roller coasters. We definitely got our share of both excitement and the Q-ueues (a bit over an hour for each big ride) while enjoying the excellent weather and views of Mt. Fuji. We sadly didn’t manage to visit all 4 of the big coasters, the queue for the last one was inexplicably closed down 3 hours the park’s before closing time. We compensated with other thrilling rides and the Ferris wheel at sunset. In the evening the rest of the thrill-seekers left for Tokyo but I decided to stay in the Fuji Five Lakes area at a hostel to relax in an onsen and to enjoy the hopefully good weather and views the next day.

Fuji Five Lakes is an area around the northern base of Fuji, famous for the five volcanic lakes, hills, forests, amusement park and of course Mt. Fuji itself. My hostel was close to the largest of the five lakes – Kawaguchi – so I planned to rent a bike and ride it around for the day. Right from the get go the views had been absolutely spectacular and I was stopping very often to admire the scenery and to snap some photos here and there. I planned on riding the bike to the neighbouring lake Sai but had to abandon the plan after realising the mamachari bike besides being small and heavy isn’t really made for going up a proper hill. Instead I continued around Kawaguchi and ended up taking a gondola lift up to Kachi Kachi Mountain (named after a tanuki and rabbit folk tale).

Exhausted I realised it’s going to be easier to take the bus, so I boarded one and headed around Lake Sai to the infamous Aokigahara forest. Aokigahara, also a Sea of trees (Jukai), is more known as the Suicide forest to the western world. It grew on the remains of Fujisan’s eruptions, is very large, flat, and almost impassable. I arrived at the Wind Cave, which is more or less right in the heart of the forest, took a look at the quite unimpressive cave then wandered around a bit for the remainder of the hour until the next bus arrived. My first impression, while still near lots of tourists, was that the forest is beautiful. It had the same fall colours I’ve been enjoying for most of the day. It wasn’t until about 10 minutes in along a public trail through the forest that I realised a very strange uneasiness. It was very quiet, it was slowly getting darker, and it did seem that on every side of the trail there were vast amounts of unwalkable terrain. I also had no signal on my mobile phone but the GPS was still working. Maybe the eeriness came from looking into it all before coming (typing the name of the forest into youtube will result in documentaries that are not for the squeamish) and wouldn’t feel as strange if the infamy of the forest hadn’t preceded it. I went back along the path and got on the bus to leave the forest behind, having seen just enough.

My final destination was the Fuji Sengen shrine, a shrine to the mountain itself. I got to it just as it was getting dark and I was seeing the last of Fuji for the day. After that it was back to Fuji-Q Highlands where the bus to Tokyo was picking me up. I was absolutely exhausted at the end of the day but also couldn’t stop smiling, it had been incredible.

The title is a reference to Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, a famous series of woodblock prints by Hokusai. The artistic value of the series and my photos is of course incomparable, but I still feel like I have had more than a privilege to get a day with Fujisan in all its glory. Next time I see it this close will hopefully be on the way to the summit!

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On shrines and temples (part 1)

I am at a point where visiting a shrine or temple is no longer a fascinating experience. After a while the minor ones just all seem the same – seen one seen them all! This is the result of 3 trips I did that focused mostly on viewing shrines, the first one was just wandering around the dorm, going to the closest temple and then finding there are many more in the vicinity. I saw them all and they seemed very interesting and mystic but that was probably because I was visiting them at night and felt I will probably end up cursed by the time I get back home. The second was a trip to Kamakura and Enoshima, Kamakura was the capital of Japan during the appropriately named Kamakura period of Japanese history and because of that it’s full of history and impressive, large temples and shrines. During the third trip to Nezu and Yanaka – the older parts of Tokyo that were not destroyed during world war two or by earthquakes – was when I started to see the ‘not another temple’ sentiment build.

Some of the following statements may be not quite correct and anyone interested should look at more credible sources. Shinto is the indigenous Japanese religion, mostly focused on celebrating life. Shinto shrines are usually built to house sacred objects that hold parts of the gods (kami) or next to sacred mountains or trees which are also a connection with the gods. Shrines are characterised by different barriers that separate a holy place from the rest of the world, the most famous examples of these are the large gates – torii – and the guardian lion-dogs, the komainu (example below). The most sacred building of a shrine (the main hall – honden, where the kami is enshrined) is not accessible to the public, it is usually connected to another hall – the hall of worship, which can be entered. Another important part of a shrine is a basin with water where visitor purify themselves before entering.

Buddhism arrived to Japan from China and ended up being incredibly influential throughout the history of Japan. Different forms were more prevalent at different times, one of the more famous ones to people outside Japan is the Zen Buddhism, which became very popular during the Kamakura period. In Buddhist temples the big halls that house the Buddha(s) are usually open to the public, they are large and have very prominent roofs. The temples also feature large gates (mon) through which a visitor must pass to get inside and to (in some cases) purify themselves. Some of them feature protectors of the Buddha like the komainu or other angry gods. The famous pagodas and large bells are also features of Buddhist temples.

Listing the features of temples and shrines would leave visitors confused when they started seeing features of shrines in temples (such as torii and purification wells), they would also be surprised to find that some shrines enshrine a Buddha. This is the result of more than a thousand years of melding and blending of both religions, which as far as Japan is considered shouldn’t even be considered separate in the sense Europeans usually view different religions. Japanese people go to Shinto festivals (matsuri) and visit shrines (and also temples) on New Year’s Day. They get married in the Shinto tradition and buried in the Buddhist one. It’s therefore no surprise that the temples are also a big mixture of features, that makes them all the more interesting to explore!

Peaceful coexistence at a temple in Nezu

Peaceful coexistence at a temple in Nezu

The following photos are from around my dormitory and the Nezu-Yanaka-Ueno trip. I don’t think I ended up cursed but I did end up a bit tired of temples and shrines by the 20th one. We all did.

The next photos are from a trip to Kamakura and Enoshima Island. I visited the top 3 most important Zen Buddhism temples, Kamakura’s largest Shinto shrine, the Daibutsu, and explored a few other paths that resulted in the discovery of a tengu shrine. Tengu are Japanese mythological creatures that reside on mountains and are usually depicted with long noses. I have always found them interesting so finding a shrine devoted to them after quite a walk up numerous stairs was a very nice reward for exploration. I was also able to witness a Shinto ritual being performed by a priest and participated in a traditional tea ceremony.
At Enoshima Island I learned the temples are mostly devoted to couples and that is quite evident when most of the visitors are couples trying to get some divine help with staying together. I didn’t end up seeing Mt. Fuji from the top of the observation deck but I did see a supposedly rare statue of a naked water goddess!

Luckily Japan is still packed with national-treasure level shrines and temples, I look forward to visiting places like Nikko, Kyoto, Nara, Miyajima Island, Koya Mountain, and many more. Most of this post was written about two weeks ago but never finished, that was when I felt quite sick of holy places. Since then I have actually visited Nikko and had a very up close experience with a festival at the neighbourhood shrine. I also plan on looking into the commercial side of shrines and temples, they seem quite an industry! Next time!

There’s always sunshine after a typhoon

Nasa's photo of typhoon 18

Nasa’s photo of typhoon 18

After earthquakes and volcanic eruptions Japan got served a typhoon today. It seemed it’d be a lot worse, on October 3rd its strength was reported equivalent to a category 4 (out of 5) hurricane – a super typhoon. By the time it actually arrived it got downgraded to a category 1 equivalent, still the gusts of wind exceeded 180km/h and it has rained non-stop from Sunday to Monday midday. The world names the typhoon Phanfone, Japan seems content calling it #18, the 18th typhoon of the season.

The view from the top floor as the typhoon moves on

The view from the top floor as the typhoon moves on

The arrival of a typhoon means that most of the train lines are suspended or experiencing heavy delays, because of that most schools (including mine) cancel the classes and some companies allow their employees to work from home. Others aren’t that lucky and have to brave through the rain and wind with mostly useless umbrellas and hope the operational trains will get them to work sort of on time. The typhoon’s damage from what I manage to catch on the TV and websites were a few flooded train tracks, a landslide hitting another track, 600 flights were delayed, and a lot of grumpy residents trying to ignore nature’s best attempts at inconveniencing them. Unfortunately there seem to have also been a few dead/missing people, 3 US airmen were swept to sea while taking photos of the waves crashing on the shore and a student’s missing after going surfing. While common sense might tell us to avoid doing things near or at sea with an incoming typhoon, surfers are of a different opinion.

The secon building of the Fujitsu cross culture center having water pumped from the garages

The secon building of the Fujitsu cross culture center having water pumped from the garages

My experience of the whole ordeal is nothing special. My window got battered by the sideways rains and I could hear the wind howling around the neighbourhood. Apart from that there wasn’t much to see that would indicate anything out of the ordinary happening. What was extraordinary was that as soon as the typhoon has passed, the skies cleared up and I remembered reading how the hours following a typhoon are exceptionally clear. I grabbed my camera and ran for the top floor of my building and managed to finally see it – Mt. Fuji! It has evaded me for over a month but now it has finally showed itself in the distance. It is usually hard to see because my vantage point lacks proper height and during the summer the air is too hazy, the typhoon luckily blew all that away and I can cross seeing Fujisan off my to-do list.

Fujisan in the distance finally shows itself

Fujisan in the distance finally shows itself

I headed for lunch and a stroll around the neighbourhood to see if there are any traces of the typhoon left, but apart from a few streets seeming like they were at some point flooded and leaves on the ground there wasn’t much damage. There was a cistern pumping water out of the parking garage of our complex of buildings, that wasn’t too surprising given the amount of rain that fell. Since the Nanbu line started running again the station was busy with people going and arriving. Fujitsu employees were finally getting to work and pensioners were cleaning up the streets. By evening it’ll be like nothing out of the ordinary happened, just another day in Japan.

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