May 25, 2008 | Filed Under Uncategorized
At 4a.m. the rain was still pounding like a canon on the roof of Kijitei, the restaurant owned by Yuka’s parents, which nestles in the verdant foothills outside Chichibu. The grey dawn filtered through the paper screens, while the frogs sang in their damp delight outside. I’d planned a fast, light climb up Mt. Ryogami this morning. But the thought of knee-high mud, cold water trickling down my neck, and probably no view at the top had me crawl back under the warm futon instead. There would be other days.
Mt. Ryogami’s black, jagged teeth jut defiantly against the skyline to the west of Chichibu city. These mountains hold gold and other metals; some of the nation’s first-known coinage was found in these parts, and there were commercial mines here until recently. There are hidden villages too, huddled half way up the valleys. One is rumoured to comprise the the direct descendants of the defeated Heike clan, who fled to the hills when the forces of the Minamoto routed them after the battles of the 12th century. The heirlooms of more than one homestead are scraps of faded cloth, said to be the remnants of battle standards and armour over eight hundred years old. The women still filed and blackened their teeth in the manner of the medieval Japanese court until the middle of last century. Life does not change quickly here.
The present name for Mt. Ryogami comprises two characters, “both/two” and “god(s)”, and so it is said to be named for the ancient deities Izanagi and Izanami. But as Fukada points out in his Nihon-Hyakumeizan, there is nothing to suggest a duel or twin nature to the mountain, no double peak or other characteristic. Instead he takes us through the history of its various appellations. Formerly it appears to have been known as Mt. Yokami (eight-day-visible-mountain). Further research suggests that originally the mountain was known as Mt. Ya-okami (eight-headed-dragon mountain), which makes far greater sense. Its serrated edge on a fine day is clearly the spine of some mighty serpent, and on the map one can just trace the eight heads leading from its peak, much as one can trace the five heads of the dragon which lead from Mt. Goryu (five-headed-dragon-mountain) in nearby Nagano.
The rain clears by mid-afternoon, and my mother-in-law continues with my instruction in the tea ceremony. Just as the mountains of Chichibu have shaped and formed the attitudes of this outpost of Tokyo, so the tea ceremony has shaped Japan’s cultural and psychological vocabulary. To be bad or unskilled at something in Japanese is to be “nigate“, literally “bitter-handed”, a word originally describing a tea ceremony neophyte whose concoctions were tanic and undrinkable. We whisk the powdered tea as the late afternoon sun streams through the windows and catches the magnificent ramparts of Mt. Buko, the symbol of Chichibu so cruelly devastated by the excavations of the Onoda Cement Company. Further off Mt. Ryogami is no doubt enjoying a magnificent sunset too. My father-in-law bravely offers to try my first attempt, and brings a cup to his lips.
I’m going to stick to climbing mountains.