On a train traveling post-overnight flight from Sydney to Tokyo I saw it in the distance and gasped. It vanished as quickly as it had appeared – a single snow-capped mountain sitting in the city skyline – Mount Fuji. In disbelief I looked around at other passengers for confirmation of what I had seen but received none. To this day, I’m still not sure what I saw was real.
This moment echoes that of author Cathy Davidson, as described in her book 36 Views of Mount Fuji which I was reading at the time:
En route to Tokyo to visit one friend, I saw Fuji from my train window. The disembodied voice of the conductor came over the p.a. system…as we came abreast of Mount Fuji, he told us in a tragic voice that it was too rainy today to see Fuji-san, directlyto our left. Then his murmur changed to a gasp of wonder: “Subarashii!” he exclaimed (Spectacular!). For one moment, the leaden clouds parted and there stood Mount Fuji, snowcapped and gleaming.
In another second, the clouds closed back over the mountain and all was grey again. We turned to each other then, as if to reassure ourselves that we had really seen what we had seen. We bowed to one another; several people came forward to shake my hand. “Subarashii,” we repeated, in whispers.
We had travelled to Tokyo previously but never paid much attention to the mountain. Looking out across Tokyo’s vastness we could never quite pinpoint where on the horizon we should aim our gaze, and, as the guidebooks will tell you, Mount Fuji is more often than not obscured by clouds. Now, with just this uncertain taste, I was forever waiting for it to appear and desperately wanted a photo to prove I had been in its presence.
For foreigners with just a basic understanding of Japanese, the country’s reverence for Mount Fuji seems aptly conveyed through the use of the honorific suffix ‘san’ after its name: Fuji-san. It was somewhat disappointing then to find out that ‘san’ in this context translates simply to mean ‘mountain’. My affectionate references to Mount Fuji Mountain rendered immediately culturally cringeworthy.
On our last morning in Tokyo, sitting at a different table to usual at breakfast, we realised that Fuji-san had been on this side of the building all along. It was a rare clear morning and we gazed intently at the mountain until it disappeared. On the train to Kyoto, a kind Japanese man pointed out Fuji-san to us as we sped past. We fumbled for our cameras. Like my bird-watching father’s photographs of rare birds, the photos of the mountain we managed to take all turned out too distant or blurry or halfway out of frame.
Now at home I often think of Fuji-san, unfairly comparing it to our own humble ‘Black Mountain’ (a significantly less revered but ever present landmark in Australia’s capital city). A colleague who lived in Tokyo for some time has two large photos of Mount Fuji in his workspace. He is a minimal and unsentimental man, with no other pictures of pets or children or trinkets adorning his desk. It is interesting that he still feels the need to spend his life in the presence of that great mountain despite being so far away. I am grateful for it, for as I catch glimpses of the photos in the distance from my desk, Fuji-san remains present in mine as well.