By Brent Madison

Impressions from the small roads of Japan’s most famous landmark
At the top of the stairs, the men stood waiting around and smoking cigarettes. They sweat in their long skirts and fanned themselves. Around them, people climbed wooden stairs into the old, dimly lit Shinto shrine, cramming into the tight corners.

“It’s like this all day, you know,” fifty year old Jaaki Sano remarked dryly, taking off his hard-lacquered straw hat.

“Well, I think this is interesting,” I replied in defense of my being there.

Mr. Sano raised his eyebrow and pulled out a cigarette. “Interesting, eh?”

A young priest stuck his head out between a short curtain hanging in front of the tight, main entrance. “It’s time. Come in.”

The men removed their sandals and hats, then ducked through the curtain of the shrine. The tiny building groaned, packed with sweating guests, priests, their various offerings and now, the men I had been following all day.

Just hours before, Mr. Sano had been a crane operator for his family’s construction business. But now, he and the other men kneeling just inside the moss-blackened shrine were Samurai, Japanese warriors. In a yearly re-enactment, the men take on the roles of the archer-retainers to the military general, Yoritomo. Almost 900 years ago, the general made a hunting trip around Mt. Fuji, and the local people have been celebrating it ever since.

Inside the shrine, a priest started his throaty reading of prayers for the newly re-born warriors. Mr. Sano pulled the sleeve of his fawn-patterned hapi up to look at the time on his diamond-studded Rolex. Slowly, he glanced back at me as I peeked through the curtain behind them into the dark room. His mouth had a slight smile and he raised his eyebrow again sardonically as if to say, “See, not that interesting…”

I watched the men as they waited through their presentations and ceremonial cleansings . These were repeated six times that day at various shrines around the volcano.

A subtle mix of dichotomies weaves through the culture and people of Japan and nowhere is that more apparent than in the shadow of Japan’s most famous landmark, Mt. Fuji. Although living under the world’s most photographed mountain, the people around the volcano are basically ignored. It is these people I have come to live amongst, learn about and photograph. I watched with interest as these new samurai merely endured the noisy, age-old prayers and rituals, and I pondered the delicate balance that has become modern Japan.

Many here regard themselves as lucky to have a daily view as splendid as Mt. Fuji. It truly is the symbol of Japan and there is an unspoken pride in being the keepers of such a treasure. The nearly symmetrical volcano often towers over those of us living on the extended floes of its base. But it can just as easily go unseen. Mt. Fuji creates its own weather patterns and often disappears in mist and balloon-like clouds.

The volcano provides much of the area, even Tokyo, with water. It is that water which drew so many factories here. People travelling along the Tomei highway, which runs along the Pacific coast, get their first shock – and an easy peek into the Japanese dichotomy. On one side Mt. Fuji towers in its natural beauty, a goddess worshipped by a religion that deifies almost any part of nature. A national symbol, Mt. Fuji represents Japan. On the other side of the highway sprawls the eyesore of Fuji City. If you imagine Mt. Fuji as the sloping ankle of a foot, Fuji City is a bleeding, stubbed toe.

It is said that there is a smokestack for every day of the year in Fuji City. The clean water that filters from the porous rocks at the base of Mt. Fuji attracted paper mills here. Now the air stinks of rotten eggs from boiling pulp, and streaks of steam and smoke blow in flat lines across the city on ocean breezes. The rivers are stained with dyes and chemical run-off.

Mieko Yamashita lives in Fuji City with her family. You can see the top third of Mt. Fuji, over the pipes, wires and smoke stacks, from her house. She tells me that her first memories of life were of being thrown into her family’s bomb shelter. At the time, the Pacific War was coming to a climax and US bombers droned overhead on their way to more productive targets. Her father helped to create his own bit of fortune during the post-war years, turning the family’s rice fields into a small paper mill which grew to a large-scale business. His mills were sold long ago now. She and her husband run their own juku or “cram school,” aiding high school children through the blitz of tests and homework necessary to try to enter Tokyo universities. She took me on a rainy, winter day to see middle school children and their parents waiting for the unveiling of high school entrance test scores. In the ten seconds it took Fuji High School teachers to pull white sheets off lists of admissions, “successful” lives were made and lost.

Mrs. Yamashita explained, “If they get into a good high school, they may get into a good college. If they get into a good college, when they graduate, they can pick their jobs. Either way, it starts here.”

With little zoning in Japan, the Yamashita’s house is tucked between a paper mill and a new, large-scale supermarket. Outside of her house trucks grunt by, loaded with pulp from US forests via the Washington-based company, Weyerhaeuser. Other trucks roll in the opposite direction with huge spools of finished, wound paper. Somewhere nearby, a commuter train passes through town and her house shakes.

I sit with Mrs. Yamashita’s husband, Yoshihiro, outside in their small yard listening to Mozart on an old tape player. Mrs. Yamashita comes out of her house with fried-noodles, which we will eat outdoors.

“Isn’t it a lovely day?” she asks in perfect English, oblivious to the noise and fumes. “Kami sama, kanshashite, itadakimasu,” Thank you God for what we will receive. Tolerance is a way of life, summed up in the frequently used phrase, Shigata ga nai, “Nothing can be done.”

The surfers in the turbid waters where the rocky Fuji River meets the Pacific Ocean are not so tolerant of the derelict, local environment. Tides wash up everything here from hypodermic needles to discarded washing machines. Joe Hughes, a fifteen year resident of the area, came here after getting out of the US Marine Corps. Supported by the English school he owns, he spends much of his free time surfing waves at the mouth of Fuji River. I went with him for a day.

“Guys here light fire to this shit on the beach at least once a week,” he explained pointing around us. Piles of trash and wood were scattered in a continuous spread for kilometers down the beach. Behind the scene, chimneys spouted white smoke. “I’ve always got some kind of infection or other from the water, but hey, you got to surf.”

The Fuji River has the distinction of splitting Japan into East and West. Following its stony banks northward back towards Mt. Fuji leads the traveler into staggered valleys and bamboo-filled, low-lying mountains. I followed one of the tiny roads which ran along a tributary of the Fuji River into the palm of a tiny valley. There I met 68 year old Sumiko Sano, winnowing buckwheat in a wicker basket. Like many of the farmers in the shadow of Mt. Fuji, she was warm and friendly – and as curious about me as I about her. Surrounded by fields and bamboo, clean air and quiet, I was in a different time, a different land.

In old but strong hands, she showed me the grain she was preparing from which to make buckwheat noodles, a ubiquitous part of the traditional New Year’s meal. Steam rose over a knoll from a local hotspring used for bathing. I had to agree with the many people who told me that farmers in the area are rich.

On the opposite side of Mt. Fuji, another farmer named Sano tended his rice fields, which rose in layers up the base of Mt. Fuji. The volcanic soil is fertile and dark and can produce two rice harvests a year. As I photographed him, I commented on how many Sanos I had met around Mt. Fuji. “If you throw a stone around here, you’ll hit a Sano,” he laughed.

I have seen many of the “Sano kind” here. Living simple lives, farmers keep a tight hold on the traditions and land. In each field, age-old, tiny stone gods keep frozen watch. This lifestyle affords the luxury of a spacious, rich existence (which is also subsidized nicely by the government), and generally nurtures genial and generous personalities.

But this is not only a farming area. It is also the playground of Tokyo. On weekends, streams of cars pour out of the capital in a flow that only ebbs on Mondays. For the most part, it is the space that attracts them.

Five lakes, the Fuji go ko, puddle in the northwest section of Mt. Fuji. Surrounding each lake, small shops, restaurants and strange collections of “museums” vie for business. Unlike Western tourist towns, these cities still retain their small-town feel and have spent little on making the towns any more attractive than necessary. But they do not really have to. Where else can businessmen from Tokyo come to fish on the weekend?

To help educate me to the great outdoors of Japan, my friend Makito took my wife and me hiking. “There is a great view of Mt. Fuji up ahead,” he said as we scrambled up the final, steep leg of an older, nearby volcano, Mt. Ashitaka.

In a clearing, we rested while a snow-capped Mt. Fuji filled the sky in front of us. Far below, Fuji Safari Park vans made their tight circuits amongst the high-fenced sections of the park. Out of place, we laughed as roars from lions clearly filtered up to us at our high lookout. Just as we began to relax, the ground shook below our feet. We stood alert as a low boom filled the air. Makito pointed down at the right flank of Mt. Fuji. “Artillery!” he called.

The US Marine Corp and Japan’s Self Defense Force take turns blasting shells into the side of Mt. Fuji, as if trying to wake the sleeping giant. A huge section of the peace-loving country’s national symbol is reserved for military maneuvers, armor and infantry training – and today, artillery.

Of course, the traditional lure of climbing Mt. Fuji continues to be a major attraction. During the official climbing season, from July 1st to August 31st, tens of thousands of people climb up in weaving, colorful lines amongst barren, jagged rocks. Just under 70,000 people made the 3,776 meters to the top last year alone. Atop the volcano, battered Shinto shrines welcome tired pilgrims. Worshipping the goddess, Konohana no Sakuya Hime no Mikoto (Goddess of Blossoming Trees) young priests rotate in one-month shifts, working at the amulet desks and charging 300 yen ($2.50) for those who want ink “chops of achievement” on their climbing sticks.

Shrines of the same Shinto sect lie scattered in a circumference around Mt. Fuji. It is this mountain-worshipping sect that presented the re-born samurai archers to Mt. Fuji for purification and safety. Back at the main shrine, the festival was about to begin.

The main attraction that day would be the archers firing their arrows from horse back. Thundering past targets at 40 kilometers per hour while guiding the horses with only their feet was reason enough to have lengthy ceremonies for safety.

With the ceremonies finally over, the time had arrived for the action to begin. In the courtyard of the shrine, priests pounded stakes into the ground and set up fresh, bamboo poles to hold triangular wooden targets. The horses were paraded and fireworks boomed overhead to announce that the festival was underway.

Looking at the entire scene, Jaaki Sano smoked another cigarette and winced as charges exploded just above us. I asked if the explosions had a religious meaning. He pointed up and said, “Yeah, come spend your money.”

Changing the subject to the task at hand, I asked if he was nervous about his coming test of skill. “Why should I be?” he asked honestly.

“Well, it looks dangerous,” I replied, then for good measure added, “and look at all the people here watching.”

He laughed and looked at me. The other, now-blessed samurai laughed too.

“We aren’t doing the shooting. The shrine has hired professionals from Tokyo to come in and do that.” He paused, and raised an eyebrow, “Not that interesting, is it?”

Brent Madison is a photojournalist who lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand. View his work at
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For an archive of these stories go to the Editors’ Choice link on The Flying Carpet; for more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.