October 17, 2019

Fujisan Hongu Sengen Taisha

Found at the base of Mt. Fuji in Fujinomiya, the venerable Fujisan Hongu Sengen Taisha has honored Japan's iconic peak since time immemorial.

The devastating Typhoon Hagibis roll in on Japan in the early autumn of 2019

F@$#ing typhoons…

Right now, I am supposed to be traveling up to northern Japan on a bullet train to spend time in the mountains with a group of ascetics known as Yamabushi. Alas, these travel plans are now completely FUBAR due to the fury of Typhoon Hagibis, a storm that is being heralded as the worst typhoon in over a millenia. Stuck with the prospect of being trapped indoors for the next two days, possibly with no electricity, I’m going to make the most of the situation and cover a topic that I’ve been wanting to write about for some time. This time, we’ll be taking a look at Mt. Fuji but not as a mountain to climb. Instead, we’ll delve into the peak’s ancient past as an object of spiritual worship. Note that this one might get a bit complex so be sure you’re settled and ready to read a heavy piece before proceeding.

To begin, understand that Mt. Fuji has been revered as a sacred mountain for as long as Japanese have lived on the main island of Honshu. Archeological evidence shows that as far back as Japan’s Jomon period (14,000 BCE — 1,000 BCE), people were revering the mountain in what can only be described as a form of proto-Shintoism. The current site was actually home to dual peaks that had emerged from the earth due to the crags sitting atop the junction of three tectonic plates. One day though, the old Mt. Fuji cataclysmically collapsed, leaving behind the current, new Mt. Fuji that we see today. I imagine it must have been a mighty shock for the hunter-gatherers living in the vicinity at the time.

Truth be told, little is known about what form the worship of Mt. Fuji took in the days of yore. Archeologists have done what they can to piece together what they can yet much has been shrouded by the mists of time. Much of the information on hand regarding the mountain as a religious site dates from the first millenia of the common era. For example, the first recorded ascent was only in 663 CE by an anonymous Buddhist monk. Before that, those following proto-Shintoism would have seen the peak as the home of the gods and not have dared to desecrate this hallowed ground with their presence. Obviously, this belief has changed over time but even today, people continue to view Mt. Fuji as a holy site.

Much of the veneration of Mt. Fuji has centered around the Fujisan Hongu Sengen Taisha complex (Fujisan is the name most Japanese use to refer to Mt. Fuji). Located at the base of the mountain in a town called Fujinomiya, this sepulchre to the mountain has roots that predate history itself, nonetheless the current site is rather ancient as well. Per imperial records, the location was established during the reign of Emperor Suinin with the first incarnation of the shrine finally being completed under Emperor Keiko. Allegedly, this period was one of intense volcanic activity which would lead one to surmise the complex was likely erected to appease Mt. Fuji’s fiery god.

Traditionally, Fujisan Hongu Sengen Taisha was the starting point for those looking to make a pilgrimage to the summit. Tragically though, the site is but a shadow of its former self. Eons ago, the complex was one of the grandest shrines of its day but over time, earthquakes have claimed many of the structures erected at the behest of Tokugawa Ieyasu in the early 1600s CE. These days, only the Honden (main hall), Haiden (prayer hall), and gate remain. Despite the fact that Fujisan Hongu Sengen Taisha has been ravaged by seismic forces over the years, it is still impressive to behold. The Honden, for example,has two-stories and was built in the Sengen-zukuri architectural style that was named after this shrine.

Getting to Fujisan Hongu Sengen Taisha

A bullet train rushes past Mt. Fuji in Japan en route to Fujisan Hongu Sengen Taisha

While many of Mt. Fuji’s attractions in the Kawaguchiko area can easily be reached, Fujinomiya is a bit of a hike. Located on the southwestern side of Mt. Fuji, the trip to this city will require that you make a few transfers. For starters, you’ll need to take a bullet train to Mishima Station. As always, refer to a service like Hyperidia for schedules. Be careful not to board any of the Nozomi bullet trains as these skip over much of central Japan and only stop in Nagoya. Once you reach Mishima Station, you’ll need to take the JR Tokaido Line to Fuji Station. From there, you’ll need to make yet another transfer to the JR Minobu Line. Your final destination will be Fujinomiya Station.

The entire journey from Shinagawa will take you approximately two hours. With that said, a visit to Fujisan Hongu Sengen Taisha should be thought of as a day trip. If you’re looking for a neat add on to your Fujinomiya adventure, know that the venerable Mishima Taisha is just a short walk away from Mishima Station. A small deer park on the shrine’s grounds provide additional motivation for a visit and especially so if you’re not going to explore Nara Park. Given that you need to transfer at Mishima Station anyway, I’d encourage you to consider this additional attraction should you have the time. There’s also Rakuju-en nearby where one can indulge in some impressive traditional greenspace.

The Fujisan Hongu Sengen Taisha Complex

A painted Japanese partition that depicts Fujisan Hongu Sengen Taisha

The Fujisan Hongu Sengen Taisha grounds are located exactly where they have stood for over 1,000 years. To get to the shrine, you’ll need to walk for about ten minutes or so from Fujinomiya Station. Here’s a link to a Google Map. Still, you shouldn’t really need it as it’s difficult to get lost. Signage for Fujisan Hongu Sengen Taisha is plastered all over the area so it’s really hard to miss. You’re going to want to keep your eyes out for a goregeous stream known as the Kanda River. The waters flow from the Wakutama Pond on the Fujisan Hongu Sengen Taisha grounds. As can be seen in the mandala above, in the days of yesteryear, this headwater was the site where those looking to challenge Mt. Fuji would first cleanse themselves.

Sadly, the formerly spacious Fujisan Hongu Sengen Taisha complex is not what it used to be. As the center of Japan’s story shifted from Kyoto to present day Kyoto (then named Edo) in the early 1600’s, the head shrine for Mt. Fuji lost in popularity to the more conveniently located Kitaguchi Hongu Fuji Sengen Shrine. Situated closer to the shogunate’s new capital, this sister sanctuary was the preferred site for those living in Edo. As such, the current Kitaguchi Hongu Fuji Sengen Shrine is visually more impressive than Fujisan Hongu Sengen Taisha to the southwest.

The present day incarnation of Fujisan Hongu Sengen Taisha does indeed feel small in comparison to what it must have been. Still, it’s important to remember that the official shrine grounds technically comprise everything above the eighth station on Mt. Fuji. This means that the summit, the crater, and the Okumiya Shrine found there is also considered part of Fujisan Hongu Sengen Taisha. When taking this into consideration, the head shrine for Japan’s most iconic mountain is indeed large. If you ever find yourself standing atop Mt. Fuji, try to appreciate this morsel of lore!

Before moving on, know also that the Fujisan Hongu Sengen Taisha grounds are at their best from late March to early April. The shrine is home to over 500 cherry trees which add an otherworldly degree of beauty to the already splendid complex. You’ll find these trees mostly along the shrine’s Sakura-no-baba path that also hosts an annual horseback archery contest every year on May 5th. Spring not work for you? Fret not. Fujisan Hongu Sengen Taisha also holds ceremonies in July and early September marking the opening and closing of the climbing season on Mt. Fuji.

The Picturesque Mt. Fuji World Heritage Center

The Mt. Fuji World Heritage Center near the ever-important Fujisan Hongu Sengen Taisha

As lovely as Fujisan Hongu Sengen Taisha is, there’s little documentation in English on site to help you understand its religious significance. Luckily, the neighboring Mt. Fuji World Heritage Center comes to the rescue. Established in 2017 to commemorate the listing of the mountain as a UNESCO World Heritage Site four years prior, this facility tells the tale of Mt. Fuji from a variety of angles. The inverted conical architecture pictured above makes up the Mt. Fuji World Heritage Center’s core. The entire concept was designed in such a way that the upside down cone creates a reflection on the pond thus taking on the shape of Mt. Fuji.

No doubt, the Mt. Fuji World Heritage Center is quite the sight to behold from the outside yet what’s on display inside really got me excited. Spread across five floors, you’ll find a wide variety of exhibits that detail different aspects of the mountain. For example, on “The Sacred Mountain” floor, you’ll learn all about how Mt. Fuji has been worshipped over the years. The Mt. Fuji World Heritage Center does a far better job of explaining these religious angles and the Fujiko cult that grew out of them than I can. So, rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ll just encourage you to visit yourself. Suffice to say though, this is some serious #DonnyThings deep content.

Seeing as entry to the Mt. Fuji World Heritage Center is only 300 yen, a visit to this facility is a must in my book if you’re going to be checking out Fujisan Hongu Sengen Taisha. And, if this isn’t enough reason to pop in, know also that the conical shape that makes up the center of the facility contains a spiral ramp. As you make the 193 meter-long ascent, you’ll witness time-lapse videos depicting what it would be like to actually scale Mt. Fuji. For those who are unable to actually make the climb, this is a great way to experience the breathtaking scenery.

The Mythological Origin of Mt. Fuji’s Name

An old man finds a small baby girl within bamboo and takes her home to raise her as his daughter

Wrapping up this piece, I’d like to end with sharing my favorite folktale about how Mt. Fuji got its name (though there are many theories, this one just feels right, at least mythologically speaking). While I could instead bombard you with the names of deities like Konohana Sakuya-hime or rant about the syncretic religiosity of Mt Fuji worship, these topics are better left to the Mt. Fuji World Heritage Center. There, you’ll have plenty of accompanying visuals to help you understand and make sense of the significance of these matters. Honestly, as much as I’d like to dive into the interplay of Buddhism, Shinto, and Mt. Fuji, I recognize that not all readers are quite as maniacal as I am.

Anyway, let’s dive on into this origin story. Once upon a time, there lived an elderly man in the vicinity of Mt. Fuji. This fellow made a living by cutting down bamboo stocks. These raw materials would be sold and then fashioned by artisans into a variety of traditional goods. One day, our bamboo cutter came across a stock that was glowing at the base. Now if you’ve ever seen a bamboo grove before, you probably know that they don’t usually glisten in such a manner. Believing this twinkling to be a sign, the bamboo cutter split the stock wide-open. Much to his surprise, inside was a tiny baby girl who was only the size of his finger.

Now, as these stories go, the bamboo cutter was childless and so decided to adopt the mysterious girl found among the stock. Given her peculiar discovery, the old bamboo cutter and his wife decided to name the babe Nayotake no Kaguya-hime (lit. Shining Princess of the Young Bamboo; most Japanese call her by the shorter moniker, Kaguya-hime). From then on, whenever the bamboo cutter was going about his routine, he’d often come across stocks brimming with gold. As you might imagine, this trove quickly made him quite the rich old-timer indeed. After all, it’s not every day that you stumble across a stash of gold.

As for Kaguya-hime, the thimble-sized girl soon grew into a jaw dropping beauty (you’d think that this overnight transformation would tip them off that something was awry but nope!). While the elderly couple tried to keep their chosen daughter’s knockout enchanting looks under wraps, word eventually got around. Soon, thirsty nobles from all across the realm traveled far and wide simply to catch a glimpse of the bewitching beauty. Of these, five high ranking individuals were particularly persistent in seeking Kaguya-hime’s hand in marriage. Eventually, they persuaded the bamboo cutter to agree to give his daughter’s hand in marriage. After all, he was a traditional man and wanted nothing less than a good life for his fostered kin.

While Kaguya-hime’s father may have been convinced, the daughter herself was not so keen. Not wanting to openly repudiate the man who had raised her, Kaguya-hime instead opted for a more subtle play. Rather than disagree outright, she cleverly devised five impossible missions for her suitors. Whomever actually achieved their assigned objective would have the privilege of taking her hand in marriage. Just how hard were these fool’s errands you ask? Well, let’s just say that my favorite quest of the bunch was to retrieve the begging bowl of Siddhartha Gautama (who you probably know as the historical Buddha).

Of course, none of the five aristocrats were successful but news of their failures eventually reached the emperor. A little more than intrigued by the rumors of this cloister bombshell in the provinces, he too set out to win Kaguya-hime’s hand. After catching but a mere glimpse of the bamboo child, the emperor was smitten and fell head over heels in love with Kaguya-hime. Of course, were he successful in wooing her, this wouldn’t be a story. Despite being the most eligible man in the country, Kaguya-hime turned down even the emperor. What’s more, she didn’t just do it once either as this descendant from the sun goddess wasn’t exactly blessed with the ability to take a hint.

One day, Kaguya-hime, the lifelong single, revealed to her adopted parents that she wasn’t actually from this world (who didn’t see that coming?!?!). Instead, she hailed from the Palace of the Moon. As for the gold that her father had found, it was sent to Earth along with Kaguya-hime as a means of subsidising her care. Apparently, in some versions of the tale, Kaguya-hime was sent down from the moon as temporary punishment for some crime. Regardless of how she ended up on Earth though, Kaguya-hime revealed to her caretakers that she would need to go back on the night of the next month’s full moon.

Kaguya-hime departs for the moon with her fellow people who came to claim her

Not wanting to lose his last chance, the thirsty emperor tried his best to stop Kaguya-hime from being taken back to the moon by the celestial beings that came to collect her. As you might imagine, his efforts were in vain but before the moon princess left this world for good, she had a few final gifts. To her adopted guardians, she gave her cloak to keep as a memento. To the persistent as can be emperor, she gifted a letter of apology for her refusal to wed him as well as a vial that contained the elixir of life. According to the tale, if one imbibed this liquid, they would be granted everlasting life. With her final gift given, Kaguya-hime thereafter departed Earth for good.

Following Kaguya-hime’s departure, the emperor was distraught. Devastated by his sorrows, he ordered his attendants to scale the highest mountain they could find and burn the letter as well as the elixir. In doing so, he hoped that his message would reach Kaguya-hime above. In homage to this final act, the tale asserts that the pronunciation for the word “Immortality,” which is read as “Fushi” in Japanese, became associated with the peak. Throw in a bit of etymological evolution that inevitably happens over the years and you get the name by which that crag is now known today, Mt. Fuji.

Until next time travelers…