Climbing the Mountain
Grace Song, Bryn Mawr College, Class of 2014
"Climbing the Mountain" is a woodblock print from Hokusai's series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji donated by Margery Hoffman Smith, a Bryn Mawr College alumna from the class of 1911. As a founding member of the San Francisco Society for Asian Art, a member of the Japan Society, and an avid collector of Japanese art, Smith donated many ukiyo-e prints among other Japanese artworks to Bryn Mawr College (Munro, n.d.).
In this print, instead of providing an iconic view of Mount Fuji as he has done in other prints of the series, Hokusai places Mt. Fuji as the backdrop, focusing on the activity of mountain asceticism or shugendō.
"Climbing the Mountain" sets itself apart from the rest of the series in many ways. In the rest of the series, whether it is the main focus or not, or whether it is close to the viewer or far away in the distance, Mt. Fuji is almost always depicted in its iconic, familiar image: triangular in shape and, topped with a snow-white peak. For example, in "Field in Owari Province" (Figure 2), the focus is on the craftsman who is making a barrel. By framing a white peak in the distance within the circular shape of the barrel, Hokusai draws the viewer's attention to Mt. Fuji. Even if only the peak of the mountain is portrayed in the distance, Mt. Fuji seems to have the power to draw the viewer's eyes and declare its presence. The circular shape of the barrel and a dash of red ink also evoke the sun, and its central placement in the print hints at the Japanese flag, commonly known as hinomaru in Japanese.
Although the exact date when hinomaru ("circle of the sun") motif was first used is still a mystery, it is known to be used on military pennants during the 15th and 16th century (Axelrod, 2009). Artworks that were produced before the time of Hokusai such as the six-paneled folding screen depicting the battle of Nagashino in figure 3 illustrate flags with sun motif, signifying the importance of the sun motif in the society (Japan Fact Sheet, n.d.). Framing Mt. Fuji within reinforces its significance as a national symbol of Japan. Japanese word for Japan, "Nippon" or "Nihon" literally means "origin of the sun." A distant view of Mt. Fuji, instead of diminishing its impact, evokes a sense of sacredness. The mountain overlooks a hardworking man from far away. It is as if to say that Mt. Fuji may not be close to the man physically, but it is ever so present and central in his life. In contrast, this iconic view of Mt. Fuji is not visible in "Climbing the Mountain," and yet the sacredness of the site is perfectly captured in this print. A group of men makes a pilgrimage to the mountain, and the physically strenuous climb is illustrated by a group of resting climbers and a man who offers his hand to his fellow climber on the lower left side of the print (Figure 4). Heavily bent backs and reliance on the walking stick is also portrayed on the lower right side (Figure 5). Yet, the presence of white cloud that wraps around the rocky edge of the mountain adds a mystical ambiance to the composition. Generous use of red-pink tones in the print offers a sense of motherly warmth, and the composition of spiritual trainers who are cradled by both the harsh and comforting nature of the mountain further enhances the notion of Mt. Fuji as a maternal figure or a sacred figure that both overlooks and awes people.
Mt. Fuji has long been considered as a sacred place in Japan and remains an entity that is both worshipped and feared, as it is still active. People imagined the snow-covered peak of Mt. Fuji to be the connection to the celestial space where kami (god/goddess) reigned, and believed Konohanasakuya-hime, the goddess of blossom, would protect them from volcanic eruption . The name Konohana ("tree-flower") refers to the short-lived beauty of the cherry blossom, and this, while romanticizing the ephemeral nature of human life, strengthens the Shinto belief that within every living being dwells a god, and that it is beautiful (Mori, 2005). Konohanasakuya-hime has an entire series of shrines, called Sengen shrines (Kitaguchihongu Fuji Sengenjinjha, n.d.). The main Segen shrines are at the base and summit of Mt. Fuji, but there are more than 1,000 across all of Japan. Mt. Fuji is also closely tied to the emperor of Japan, who is believed to be a direct descendant of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, the most important goddess in Shinto religion (Cartwright, 2012). Konohanasakuya-hime's husband, Ninigi-no-mikoto who is the grandson of Amaterasu is known as the great-grand father of the first emperor, Jinmu Tennoh.
One activity that resulted from the worship of mountains is shugendō; roughly translated as "path of training to achieve spiritual powers," shugendō is a hybrid of different beliefs such as Shinto, Buddhism, and Taoism. Yamabushi, or mountain climbers, entered a cave after a rough hike, which symbolized entering of a womb and re-emerging as newborns (Hardacre, 1983). During the Edo period and Meiji period, however, the practice of shugendō was highly regulated or banned. The Tokugawa Shogunate issued strict regulation for shugendo practice in order to protect his militaristic power, while during the Meiji Restoration, the emperor declared Shinto as an independent state religion separate from Buddhism and banned shugendō as a superstitious activity not suitable for modernized Japan.
The last eruption of Mt. Fuji occurred about 300 years ago, during the Hoei era (1701-1708). While people have been living in a long period of peace since the last eruption, as such volcanic activity is cyclical, there is also a constant threat and uncertainty of the next eruption. One example that demonstrates this sentiment is a disaster novel Japan Sinks.
In 2006, a film based on a best selling novel written by Komatsu Sakyo, Japan Sinks (Nihon Chinbotsu) was released. The original story was published in 1973 and the first film based on the story directed by Moritani Shiro was released in the same year. In the original novel, a series of earthquakes due to the movement of the tectonic plates underneath the Japanese islands and the volcanic eruptions cause numerous deaths and sinking of the land. Government officials create a plan to evacuate the Japanese people to other countries such as the U.S., England, Switzerland, etc., while scientists desperately try to find a solution to stop the sinking of Japan. Ultimately, Mt. Fuji erupts, causing Japanese people to migrate and settle in different parts of the world and live as refugees as the country sinks below the ocean. As if to reassure that such disaster can be prevented by the advancement of science, the 2006 film of Japan Sinks, however, presents a different ending. The protagonist, Onodera Toshio, who is a submarine pilot, prevents the great eruption of Mt. Fuji by sacrificing himself in a mission to explode the tectonic plates under water from further advancing.
After the triple disaster of 3.11 in northeast region of Japan, it was found that the internal pressure of the lava chamber has increased, putting Mt. Fuji to a highly eruptive state (Torres, 2013). Japan is an earthquake-prone nation, and regular drills and education to prepare for the natural disasters from the early age may be the reason for the citizen's ability to maintain calm composure and follow the instructions efficiently. Nonetheless, the 9.0 magnitude earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear melt-down chaos, which took away more than 18,000 lives, has caused the most feared, possibly the worst-case scenario in the Japanese archipelago to resurface within its society: the volcanic eruption of Mt. Fuji (Oskin, 2013). Continuous existence of shugendo practice as well as expression of anxiety projected through media such as literature shows that Mt. Fuji remains as both a sacred place and a presence of constant threat for the next big disaster.