Seeing Fuji

From my backyard, officially, I can see Mount Fuji. The iconic volcano rising from the plains southwest of Tokyo and Yokohama, is a stunning site no matter where you stand. But when I say I can see it from my house, I draw jealous gasps of “Really?” from Tokyoites. Saying you can see Mount Fuji from your house is like saying you have a view of Central Park to New Yorkers or a view of the harbor to Hong Kong-ers.


Everyone knows where Fuji is. After all, it’s the most iconic image of Japan, coming in ahead of kimonos, chopsticks and sushi. Because of the low plains surrounding it, Mount Fuji is visible from very far distances, even as a small bump on the horizon it is instantly recognizable.


Everyone in the Tokyo area usually has a feeling for just where Mount Fuji is, like Muslims always know in which direction Mecca lies. Many people can catch the occasional glimpse of Fuji from where they pass by a break in apartment complexes, a window in an office walkway, or a small hill or elevated bridge.


But those are just quick peeks. It’s hard to find a place in Tokyo or Yokohama where you can sit down to leisurely contemplate the setting sun throwing the elegant curves into evening relief. If it were an everyday thing, maybe there would be more contemporary poems and paintings of Fuji. As it is, Fuji is confined now to color illustrations, ersatz woodblock print images, or fixed-up high-res photos.


To see Fuji from my house, I can’t just stroll out onto my back porch. I have to lean over the edge of the balcony, or hoist my butt up on the rickety cinderblock garden wall, and stretch my neck. Recently, a repair project on the power lines meant cutting down a bunch of trees. The lines went back up, but the trees stayed down. So now, I don’t have to lean quite so far to catch a glimpse.


That view, even leaning and stretching for it, always packs a “wow.” Set alone across the plains of Kanto, Mount Fuji is a unique bit of geography that rises up majestically, like a question to ponder.


I can see a bit better from around the corner, where a sliver of a hillside park offers a bench with a little note about this being yet another “Fujimi” spot. “Fujimi” translates as “place to see Mount Fuji,” and all around the Tokyo, Yokohama and Kanto region, there must be thousands, even millions, of Fujimi Roads, Fujimi Parks, Fujimi Hills, Fujimi Resorts, Fujimi Apartments. Stores, restaurants, product brands and people are all named “Fuji.”


That little moniker boosts not just the prestige, but also the price of whatever it attaches to. Many of those places still have an actual view of Mount Fuji that has not been blocked by building developments. Tokyo and Yokohama sprang up from nothing after the war and plastered the skyline with whatever was immediately needed, not what was aesthetically optimal. Daily Fuji-viewing became shuttered by progress.

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My view out back is very congested. I have to edit out all the obstructions in my head to enjoy the elegance of the sun setting behind its poetry-inspiring slopes. Before my vision reaches Fuji, I have to de-select the neighbor’s house, a tangle of electric power lines, an ironwork scaffold for the lines, baseball field lights and a couple of high-rise apartment buildings in the distance.


My very first view of Mount Fuji was from a train passing by, and I was shocked to see the factories in the plains below, puffing out smoke. You don’t have to be a nihilist poet to figure out the symbolism. In many ways, the irony of that first impression has remained.


By this point in Japan’s development, there are hardly any straight shots of Fuji left. Advertising photos and documentary footage has to be doctored to remove the clutter. Of course, you can travel to one of the gorgeous mountainous lakes that surround Fuji like a necklace. But that means going on a special trip.


What remains most is the memory of Fuji as it once was, even though that memory comes in glimpses, fixed-up images or in-head editing. Fuji has become an image first, one that can be seen only indirectly, or in pieces, never whole. Mount Fuji seems to rise as much from past images as from the plains below.


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And maybe it was always so. The first mention of Fuji goes back to the Man’yoshu, the oldest collection of poems in Japanese from the 8th century AD. Nowadays, the poems have turned to advertising.


Maybe because of that, Mount Fuji always seems like it is keeping its distance from Tokyo. Or maybe Tokyo, knowing it can’t compete, keeps its distance from Fuji.


But just the same, I’ll settle for my view of Mount Fuji out back. I gaze out at the slope, mistaking it for clouds on hazy or rainy days, and feel that it always comments, like a quiet relative, on the mega-city of Tokyo, reminding me that as amazingly huge and intriguingly developed as Tokyo is, there is always something else competing for our wonder.

© 2016 - Michael Pronko
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