David Notkin's and Cathy Tuttle's "Japan Stories" (1990-91)

8 August 1990, Japan Stories #6: Fuji, Football, Frogs, Fireworks

For those of you who are interested, it turns out that foreigners weren't eligible for the beard contest. Too bad.

Also, little "Lusty" has grown-up. The other day we saw a little girl wearing a t-shirt that said "Leper."

A couple of weeks ago a friend of ours took us to the Sumida-gawa (Sumida River) Hanabi (which is "flower" + "fire" = fireworks). This is an annual affair, attended by between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people. (By the way, converting big numbers between Japanese and English (and vice versa) is something that even experienced bilingual speakers have trouble with because in English we group by three-digits (thousands, millions, billions, etc.) and in Japanese they group by four-digits (ten thousands, hundred millions, etc.).) The fireworks are fired from two separate bases on the river, about 2 kilometers apart. We could only see the fireworks from one of the bases, but they were still the best fireworks I've ever seen.

We showed up at around 5:30 hoping to get a seat somewhere. The three stops of the subway were packed (about like that I described in going to the baseball game a couple of weeks ago). And the papers had recommended buying a return ticket on arrival, to avoid the lines at the machines on the way back. This, it turns out, was a fabulous idea. Well, our friend Yoshi took us up a street parallel to the river. On the way, we got fans (with a map of the area) that were being given to everyone and some beer (to go with the M&Ms we were bringing along). When we got to the park where Yoshi thought we'd be able to get a seat, it was already packed. This football-field sized wire-fence enclosed area had a couple of pathways but the rest was covered with plastic groundcloths staking out areas for families and groups. There were some really tiny spots left, and Yoshi took us to one, and asked the people nearby if they could give us some room since he had some "gaijin" with him. Instead, they actually gave us another area they had staked out about 10 meters away. But even stranger than that was that everyone (except for the vendors and an occasional rebel) took their shoes off to walk across this patchwork quilt of groundcloths. It was, however, all on top of dirt so these cloths (and all our feet) got filthy. But that's tradition!

It's hard to describe even one specific display, and these lasted for almost two hours. They started with this incredible flare that looked like a huge fountain starting right on the river. It was a stunning and exciting beginning. After about an hour, they started a contest among 12 firework companies. Each was permitted something like 50 separate shells and up to one minute. There were judges, I understand, although I never heard the results. In any case, the contest was the least exciting part. Cathy's theory is that they are designed by the oldest, senior men in the companies, and that they don't have the creative spark anymore. In any case, it was worth fighting the crowds to see these fireworks. Don't miss it if you're in Japan in late July.

Sumo tournaments are held six times a year. The latest one, held in Nagoya, finished about two weeks ago. We watched a lot on TV, and I became pretty fascinated. The huge guys and the actual bouts are amazing, but the entire ritual (which I understand nothing about) adds to the spectacle. Sumo is largely based on Shinto-ism, so the referee is dressed in a traditional outfit of some sort, the wrestlers throw salt in the ring for purification, and so on. As with everything in Japan, there is a hierarchy of wrestlers. After this tournament, the winner was promoted to "yokozuna", which loosely translates to grand champion. This is a rank that is awarded by committee and is a lifetime position (since it is awarded while the wrestler is still active). Yokozuna who start to lose their touch before they retire are generally pressured to resign rather to embarass the entire sport. I'm attaching a brief from the sports pages of the Japan Times. I like to compare this to installing someone in baseball's Hall of Fame:

"Asahifuji Performs 'Dohyo-iri'"

Newly promoted yokozuna Asahifuji performed a ritual dohyo-iri (ring-entering ceremony) at Tokyo's Meiji shrine on Friday to mark his installation as the 63rd sumo grand champion. The 30-year-old Asahifuji, who won the Nagoya Grand Sumo title last Sunday, received the yokozuna certificate and the white sash from the Japan Sumo Association president, Futagoyama, in a ceremony attended by association officials and six members of the yokozuna promotion council. He ended the installation rite with an offering of a sacred sprig to the Shinto deities. Flanked by two junior colleagues from his Oshima stable -- Kyokugozan as tachi-mochi (swordbearer) and Kyokudozan as tsuyu-harai (dew sweeper) -- the grand champion braved the sweltering afternoon hear to complete the ceremony before an audience of some 3,000 fans.

Cathy has seen several articles in the Japan Times about raids on "yakusa," which are the organized crime groups in Japan. The thing that she has noted is that although they often arrest 50 or 100 people, there is usually at most one handgun confiscated in the raid.

Last week Cathy went to the "Gawa Matsuri", or Toad Festival, at Mt. Tsukuba. This festival is to honor toads that have been made into grease, which is used to help heal cuts and scrapes. She missed the bus and would have had to wait for two hours, but a Japanese salesman offered to take her there. They made good time, with only a few stops to hand out special toad fans, toad keychains, and toad towels to various stores along the way. They got there about 11AM, he hustled Cathy into the main tent to show her off to all the locals. Two beers later she got to look around a little, including take the "death defying cable car ride" to the top of Mt. Tsukuba. Apparently, it was the wimpiest ride ever. Cathy did see a couple of toads at the festival, but they were all in aquaria. She was upset, however, to miss the part of the festival where guys carry around human-size toad effigies. But she came back with toad fans, toad keychains, and even some toad grease, so it wasn't a toad-al loss.

Last weekend had an All-American part (football) and an All-Japanese part (Mt. Fuji).

On Sunday, I went to the Tokyo Dome (or the Big Egg, or "Bigu Eggu" as it is listed on maps) to see the second annual American Bowl matching the Seattle Seahawks and the Denver Broncos. I didn't have a ticket beforehand, but I bought one from a scalper. I paid 10,000 yen (between $65 and $70), which was face value; bargaining is tough when you don't know the language. (It was a little strange, though. After we "negotiated" the deal, he handed me the ticket and started walking away. I, of course, followed him and gave him the money. I assume all this was illegal, but in the US it is impossible to imagine the guy giving you the ticket before he's got the money. I guess even the slimey scalpers in Japan are honest.) My seat turned out to be excellent, about 20 yards from the corner of the endzone.

They announced that it was a sell-out of about 48,000. I figure about 5-10 lost the game rather than making the Broncos win it. (For you Seahawk fans, I have two questions: First, did Chuck Knox lose weight? He looked really gaunt, as best as I could see through my binoculars. Second, where was Cortez Kennedy, the new first round draft pick? I couldn't see him anywhere, and he's hard to miss.)

Of course, the real pleasure wasn't the game, but the spectacle. For instance, having separate food stands for Japanese food and American food. And a special table for specially invited guests (not me!) to pick up their "omiyage" (gifts). And the two small blimps (inside the Dome) advertising Toshiba's Dynabook and welcoming the Seahawks and Broncos. And the playing of the national anthems: only Americans stood for the "Star Spangled Banner" (*not* sung by Roseanne Barr), and fewer than half of the Japanese stood for their anthem (and I have no idea what the tradition is in this regard). The bilingual program is great, too, and will be available in a couple of weeks in Frankye Jones' office for those of you in the Seattle area. Watching the Japanese watch the Seagals (and the Bronco cheerleaders) was one of the best parts: bleached blondes and black women are not so common around here, especially ones wearing skin-tight pink bikinis.

The halftime show was incredible. In addition to both sets of cheerleaders, they had about 300 Japanese high school girls (I'm guessing here) put on a show on "American Music in Motion." They started off wearing sunglasses (which marks you as a "yakusa" here, as Cathy has been told several times) and playing fake guitars to Elvis music. (I *might* have seen Elvis in the grandstand, but I'm not sure since it was only a quick glance. I guess it wasn't him, since I can't imagine eel is his favorite food.) Then they put on white leotards and white lace capes and flew around the field like Peter Pan (and no, I have no clue what the connection to American Music was). And on and on. Afterwards, the best thing was watching the Japanese girls getting their pictures taken with some of the cheerleaders, and then watching them try to imitate the cheerleaders' movements: Japanese bodies just don't seem to shake like that.

Two other things. First, the game clock was often incorrect, since (presumably) the Japanese timekeeper didn't know much about football. So three or four times during the game, the chief referee would announce on his crowd microphone to "hold the clock for seven seconds, until the line judge gives the signal." Of course, this never worked, since the timekeeper didn't know what "hold the clock" means, who the "line judge" was, or what "signal" he would give. Second, on my way out, one of the "guides" (I know, it said on his armband) was spinning the revolving door (so we wouldn't have to) and thanking us each for coming. Imagine that at the Kingdome? Nah.

Fuji-san was an experience. Because of the crowds. And because of the weather.

We started out Friday morning by bullet train to Mishima. At Mishima we got the bus for a two hour ride to the New Fifth Station, at around 2300 meters (Fuji is 3776 meters high). In addition to Cathy and me were Yoshi Tada, his 63-year-old mother, and Katsuro Inoue (a professor at Osaka University). The only thing unusual on the bus ride was that we stopped for about 10 minutes at the HOW ("Humanity Overlaps World") amusement park. Roller coasters and everything, if Fuji isn't enough for you. We also got a great view of Fuji, which is a nearly perfect, extremely beautiful volcanic peak.

We had heard how crowded it would be, but we really had no clue. Starting at New Fifth Station, which is one of the more common routes (out of four or five), there was a line of people literally as far as the eye could see. I'd guess that on average there was a person every two or three yards, and in many places people were on each others' heels. On this route there are stations --- which have sleeping huts, sell food and drink (you can tell the height you're at by the price of a soda), etc. --- every 20-40 minutes. Although the climb doesn't come close to requiring equipment, it is more than an easy hike. The ascent is pretty quick and the footing isn't so good in lots of places. In many parts they have ropes strung to help pull yourself along, or at least to steady yourself. (Cathy's ankle is pretty weak, so the ropes (and her cane) helped a lot.)

People climbing came in all shapes, sizes, and ages. A surprising number of young children were making this pretty strenuous climb. And there was virtually no complaining from any of them. We saw one boy, maybe 12 or 13, who looked a bit retarded, who was roped to some family to make it possible for him to climb. But the most amazing sight was the elderly nun who was climbing almost on her hands and knees. She was dressed in white robes and was clearly making a pilgrimmage to Fuji. We were tired (this was near the Eighth Station), but watching her climb gave us lots of added energy.

The weather was absolutely beautiful. Sun shining, clear views of the mountain, and great vistas. A little later, Fuji's peak formed a shadow that was stunning: I've never seen anything like it. We were aiming to get to the "Kyu Go Go Shakku" (something like the "ninth and a little bit more") hut for the evening; then we were going to rise around 4AM and climb the last 600 meters to watch the sun rise from the crest. Cathy, Inoue-san, and I made it to the hut, but the Tadas stopped at the Eighth Station, since she was having some trouble with the altitude. The hut, which cost us each 3600 yen ( $25), was packed. We were put in a room maybe 10x20 feet. The three of us were given two futons and three pillows (on top of "tatami" mats). Later on, three more people were added to the room. I think the other room was far more crowded, but again they accommodated the "gaijin." People were in and out all night, since the climbing takes place 24 hours a day. Sleeping wasn't too easy.

In any case, at 3:30AM the proprietor came in and turned on the light to wake us up. I had a headache and was nauseous, which was almost certainly due to altitude sickness. In addition, the weather was terrible, with lots of wind and some rain to go with it. (But people were still climbing up, in the dark with flashlights. I figured another person came up to the station about every 5-10 seconds.) We decided to go on to the top, since we weren't allowed to stay in the hut (without purchasing another session, I guess). The climb was pretty tough due to the dark and the weather. We made it, although we couldn't see the sunrise because of the clouds. Cathy found a thermometer that said it was right at the freezing point. At the top there is another hut (Tenth Station), a little post office, and a small shrine.

About 5AM, the Tadas made it to the top, after rising around 2AM to start their climb. I was still in bad shape, as was Mrs. Tada. Also, the weather was getting worse: it turns out that Typhoon Vernon was in the neighborhood and there wasn't much promise of improved weather soon. So we decided to start our descent, down a different (and supposedly easier) route. The weather turned worse. It was extremely scary, with some of the heaviest, most biting winds I've ever been out in, along with rain (and even some snow) on and off. We stopped briefly at a hut or two (for some tea and rest) early on in the descent, but the last three hours there were no open huts. And no place to protect yourself from the driving wind or rain. The first hour or so was on paths that ranged from very rocky to loose rocks, some of which was easy and some of which was very hard on Cathy. The last two or three hours were on an extremely soft gravel slide that went straight down the side of the mountain. This part was a little easier to walk on, and was even fun at times. As we got further down, the sky started to clear, we started to see land (rather than clouds) down below, and the end was in sight. Of course distance is deceptive, so we had a long way to go still, but somehow we felt like we were out of the worst of it, and we were. By the time we made it down to the bottom (to the old Fifth Station), we were bone dry from the hot sun, but we were dirtier than you can imagine. (My jeans, after three washings, still have some ground in dirt. And our washer conked out for a while after getting too much dirt in its filter.) The bus and train ride home were (happily) uninteresting. Cathy was so sore that she could hardly leave the house for two days. And we both slept for hours. But we made it, all the way to the top and back. Alive!

There is a Japanese saying that a person who climbs Mt. Fuji once is smart but that a person who climbs it more than once is a fool. Go ahead and try to figure out whether we agree with this wise old saying.

Stay tuned...