Saturday, 19 December 2009

Fuji, the culture of a volcano.

Christmas week is with us and back in London the weather has turned a bit sharp and chaos reigns:

More than 2,000 people have been evacuated from four Eurostar trains that were trapped in the Channel Tunnel after breaking down due to the cold weather.
Heavy snow hits UK Christmas getaway: Airports closed, flights cancelled, trains delayed and roads hazardous as eastern parts of England see up to 12cm of snow


Well, well, well, 12 centimetres of snow and absolute, unconditional chaos. Regular readers will of course remember that in the winter of 2007-8 Japan had the worst snow fall for 60 years and that resulted in the man in charge of the Shinkansen (known as Japanese bullet trains, the same as Eurostar bought to run) going on national television to apologise because the service was running 25 minutes late.

Shinkansen, a source of national pride

Yes, one of my favourites, the Shinkansen. One every ten minutes in all directions, expansive leg room, large seats, regular, polite and edible refreshment service at your seat as you go. The real joy of travel, fast, efficient, reliable and comfortable, if you ever come to Japan then have a treat and travel by Shinkansen.

For certain, you will never find four of them stuck in a tunnel because of the cold. The service to the northern island, Hokkaido, a place neck deep in snow during the winter, is connected by a tunnel that makes the channel tunnel (built with Japanese tunneling technology by the way) a much younger baby.

"The Seikan Submarine Tunnel was opened in March 1988 and runs beneath the seabed of the Tsugaru Strait, which separates the southern edge of Hokkaido from Aomori Prefecture on the northern edge of the mainland. This tunnel is a part of a railway that runs between Aomori City and Hakodate City in just two and a half hours, and was named by combining the two characters and pronunciations of Aomori City's "Ao (Sei)" and Hakodate City's "Hako (Kan)". The length of 53.85 kilometers (33.5 miles) makes it world's longest..."


Hokkaido: Sapporo Snow Festival

One of the real sights from the Shinkansen service is that of passing Mount Fuji. You really have to see this volcano for real to appreciate its size and impact on the human consciousness. I will try and describe the enormity of this geographical icon of Japan and whilst my words will only ever be a pale reflection of the reality, I believe at the end of this article you will see for yourself something of what I mean.

I have been talking about the tributaries of Japanese culture and pointed out the importance of hot water in the forming of Japanese identity. This water is the consequence of the unstable geography on which the islands and people of Japan rest. Volcanic landscapes prone to earthquakes, not the most ideal landscape for millions of people to crowd into but a plentiful supply of boiling hot water does offer some compensation.

This wonderful resource has permeated the culture with a deep belief in cleanliness. Not a recent development but a cultural condition hundreds of years old. Our western minds do not readily understand the extent to which this idea of cleanliness persists and our own concept of "clean" is actually woefully short of the Japanese standard. I am sure that the first time visitor to England from Japan is shocked by our general lack of hygiene but, of course, would never be so rude as to mention it.

An everyday example would be the provision of hand towels to wipe your hands before eating. The closest we get to this in the UK is in a curry house where we are given hot towels after eating!!! In Japan,most food outlets will provide a warm towel before you start to eat, all will provide a hand towel before food is served, even Moss Burger, the Japanese fast food franchise.

Moss Burger, small but perfectly formed.

You see, as with most things about Japanese culture, when you actually think about it then it makes perfect sense. Ask yourself, do you really want to wander around a city all day, drift in and out of stores, maybe work at a desk for hours, whatever you do you are touching this, feeling that and picking up some of those, and then you go and eat without washing your hands first. Yes, yes, yes, I know, we are all meant to wash our hands before we eat, we all know that, but when you pop into MacDonalds or such do you actually wash your hands before you pick that burger up? Are you provided with a hand cleaning towel anyway?

Next time you are in town and you see some Japanese people watch carefully when they get their MacDonalds or whatever. You will know they are Japanese because they will sit at a table, put their tray down and then reach inside their bag for a wet wipe to clean their hands with.

This is only the tip of the cleanliness iceberg the ultimate expression of which is something I call Japanese bath culture. On the every day level the domestic bath scene is supported by local bath houses. Remember that unlike like us filthy barbarians who like to wallow in our own dirt, the Japanese insist on showering and cleaning thoroughly before sitting in a bath of hot water. You see the bath of hot water is a soothing, relaxing social occupation not a method of cleaning, for that you use a shower.

The onsen, volcanic hot springs, is the epitome of this cleaning culture. Can you imagine English people going away to a hotel just so they can spend two days washing themselves thoroughly before luxuriating in mineral rich hot volcanic water. In Japan there is a national industry, a vibrant commercial sector dedicated just to this delight in hot water.

Jack in Onsen, Dawn 14.12.2009 Ryokan Terrace, Hakone Mountains

So I said I was going to talk about Fuji-san and whilst it may appear that i have strayed (how unlike me) actually the issue of hot water and Japanese culture is relevant to understanding the place of volcano god in the national psyche. The hot water comes from volcanic vents and bubbles forth in clouds of steam from the mountainsides. I have long argued that culture is the human interface with environment, the inevitable consequence of cognitive thought as a chosen vehicle for species evolution, and therefore the found structures in the environment are the driving forces of cultural development.

In early times, as witnessed in indigenous Australian culture, the landscape and all within it is the manifestation of the spirit world. For the human society lightening had to be the work of spirits, thunder was their voice... what else could these natural phenomena be. So too were the great mountains the manifestation of the nature spirits, huge demonstrations of power and strength, sacred places of the spirits or even a god in their own right. In totemic landscape mythologies of pre-city cultures life revolved around the beneficence or malignancy of these spirits.

So when we come to look at Fuji-san we have to understand the root of its history in the psyche and development of Japanese culture. And when we get our first glimpse of this volcano then you start to loose your breath at the sheer size of it. Fuji is absolutely enormous. In fact, when you land at Narita Airport, an hour and a half drive north of Tokyo, before you descend through the clouds you can often see Mount Fuji, a two hour drive south of Tokyo, majestically rising above the cloud base to the starboard.

But size is not the whole story, it is only when you get close enough to see the shape as well that you can begin to envisage the effect this icon has on the mind. From horizon edge to horizon edge a smooth arc slides up from each side to raise the chalice of the caldera to the sky. The form itself is a meditation in its own right. Even today your first view of Fuji should take your breath away, that is if your mind reacts to anything other than Playstations and Strictly Come Dancing. The existence of this gigantic, poetic natural form within the developing landscape of Japanese culture and its continuing, reliable presence within the history of the land and the people conveys the sacred in a way our cathedrals can only ever dream about achieving.

If you are going to have a sacred space at the heart of a culture then
no-one can deny the presence, physical and spiritual, of Fuji-san!


  1. I have to say, the picture of Fuji-san is just epic.

  2. Yes it is rather, especially as it is taken from inside a Shinkansen rushing past and probably about 40 kilometres at least from the base.

  3. At a time when Australia is getting bucketfulls of rain I can't complain. In this land of droughts and flooding rain, we don't often see such bountiful aqua as we are now blessed with. After a scorching Spring and brown earth, the rain is penetrating the first few millimetres of topsoil. Frogs and croaking in the fog. It's wonderful.