“A Love Story” by Emily Sekine.

I don’t remember the first time I saw Mount Fuji, but it was most likely from the rooftop of my grandparents’ house in Tokyo. As a young girl, during summer visits to Japan with my family, I would climb up to that rooftop in the morning to help my mother hang the laundry. At some point during this work of clipping up undershirts, we would pause. Our necks craned southwest, we would peer out beyond our quiet neighborhood in the sprawling capital, to a certain point around a hundred kilometers away. We were searching for the volcano.

Some days, the loftiest peak in Japan seemed to float there, miraculously, in the sky. But usually the sky was too overcast, and we were met with an endless tangle of buildings, roads, and railway tracks, dotted with trees. Searching for Fuji through the haze of the metropolis became a kind of daily ritual, marked by the scent of fresh detergent and the sensation of sweat beading on foreheads.

One of those summers, my parents took the family on a day trip to the Five Lakes, a famed resort area in the foothills of Mount Fuji. I must have been in late middle school or early high school—an age when I was hard to impress. Still, even as a sullen teenager, I was quietly thrilled at the prospect of finally seeing the mountain up close. The problem was that, despite our close proximity, the 3,776-meter tall peak was nowhere to be found. Her image, reproduced everywhere, taunted us—the graceful cone printed on glossy postcards, miniaturized into keychains, and woven into socks. Disappointed that we had managed to spend an entire day on her flanks without actually seeing Fuji, my parents decided to give up and head home. It was dusk when we boarded the bus back to Tokyo.

Then, in those moments just before the sun dropped below the horizon, the volcano suddenly appeared: majestic, severe, and imposing. We watched, wide-eyed, from the moving bus windows, as the peak transformed along with the hues of the deepening sky. Alive with light, the volcano morphed from a fiery red to a rusty brown, via sultry shades of purple and blue. With each phase, the mountain’s character also seemed to change. My mother gasped, then noted reverently, “So that’s why Hokusai always depicted Fuji in so many different colors!” And, like that, I was in love.

Later, I came to understand how searching for and observing this volcano had become a sort of national pastime—one that has long preoccupied artists, poets, scientists, and other devotees across the Japanese archipelago. Hokusai’s woodblock prints, which my mother had referenced that day at the Five Lakes, are among the most recognizable meditations on the mountain’s ever-shifting form. First produced in the 1830s and collected as the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, the now iconic series playfully depicts Fuji as a familiar presence in a variety of urban and pastoral landscapes. These images are part of what helped to establish the image of Mount Fuji as both a symbol of Japan and as an object of aesthetic reverence for viewers around the world.

The propensity of Fuji to hide in plain sight, only to reveal herself so spectacularly, is part of the volcano’s enduring allure. As the haiku master Bashō famously wrote in the late 17th century, upon passing through a checkpoint in Hakone, a hot springs area nearby, and finding the cone obscured:

In the misty rain
Mount Fuji is veiled all day—
how intriguing!

Even today, if you happen to find yourself on one of the Tōkaidō trains that travel frequently across the heartland of Japan, you will find that passengers look up from their phones as they approach Mount Fuji. They know that to catch any kind of glimpse of the notoriously shy volcano as they speed by—even, say, one edge of her summit peeking through the clouds—is a triumph.

The enigmatic peak has long been held sacred, understood as both a kami (a god) in her own right and as the dwelling place and/or the manifestation of a diverse range of other deities, whose origins scholars classify as Shinto, Buddhist, and Taoist. During the Edo period (1603–1868), the worship of the volcano grew into an established devotional cult, known as Fuji-ko. The practice of climbing the mountain—or the “god-body” (goshintai)—in order to show devotion and receive blessings became trendy among urbanites. Shrines related to Mount Fuji, called Sengen shrines, spread all over Japan in this period.

Those who could not make the pilgrimage to Fuji in person—such as women, the infirm, and the elderly—would visit miniature replicas of the mountain, called Fujizuka. Creators of these mounds, which were built all across Edo, tried their best to faithfully recreate the original. They used pieces of volcanic rock that had been carried from Mount Fuji back to the capital, planted striped Kuma bamboo grass (sasa veitchii), crafted tiny lava caves, marked out the 10 “stations” along the trail that pilgrims take to the summit, and built small shrines at the peak or foot. At sunrise on New Year’s Day, people would dress in their finest attire and climb to the top of their mini-Fujis in order to look out towards the real volcano. Of the 130 Fujizuka that once existed in Edo, many have been destroyed or moved, but some are still preserved.

This dedication to the volcano was also connected to the sense that she could, at any point, become active again. Spiritual understandings of volcanoes in Japan have tended to emphasize this dualistic nature—they offer grace and redemption, as well as provoke anger and chaos. After the powerful Jōgan eruption in 864, the government instituted rituals of pacification and worship in an effort to manage the volcano’s excessive powers. This eruption continues to leave an impressive mark on the landscape, in an area known as Aokigahara, or “Sea of Trees” (jukai). The forest covers a wide swath of around 12 square miles, where lava once poured over the ground, turning it into a black, blistering sea.

On that summer day when my family went to see Mount Fuji, before we boarded the bus back to Tokyo, we somehow ended up in Aokigahara. For the most part, people living nearby have long avoided going too deep into this forest. It is all too easy to become lost or disoriented; some say that the magnetism in the lava renders compasses useless. And even more hauntingly, the place has, over the years, become famous as a suicide spot. Although I didn’t know it at the time, people who are unsure of their decision to end their lives sometimes bring camping equipment with them, then forge a trail into the deep recesses of the forest, where they spend a few days in quiet contemplation. Suicide watchers patrol the area, looking for ropes, plastic bottles, and tents—a trail of crumbs that may lead either to a rescue or, in some cases, to a corpse. That day, the forest was eerily beautiful, with well-maintained hiking trails and underground lava caves. Moss carpeted the uneven ground of lava, and trees and plants spindled their way out of the cracks at uncommon angles. But the place left us all feeling profoundly unsettled.

For a long time, whenever I remembered that day in the foothills, I was left alternating between these two distinct impressions: the majesty of the volcano, bursting into full color against the evening sky, and this dark, desperate forest of lava.

Years later, when I moved to the eastern coastline of the Izu Peninsula in order to conduct fieldwork for my doctorate, it so happened that I took up residence in an aging house with a coveted view of Mount Fuji. As I hung laundry out to dry on the creaky rooftop deck, I quickly picked up my old habits. This house was geographically closer to Fuji than my grandparents’ home in Tokyo, so both the view and my chances of seeing the peak were better.

Soon, I found myself growing preoccupied. Most mornings, immediately after waking up, I would climb out onto the deck, eager to see the mountain. While working inside, I’d position myself at an awkward angle near a certain upstairs window, just so that I could keep an eye on the horizon. On days when the volcano proved elusive, I was left with an undeniable sense of yearning.

Sometimes, I brooded over the possibility that the volcano might be reawakening. In the news, I read that a team of international geoscientists had observed increasing pressure in Fuji’s underground magma chamber, which suggested the sleeping giant might be entering a period of increased activity. An eruption of around 10,000 years ago was the one that had created the volcano’s gently sloping, nearly symmetrical ridge lines—but this rarefied beauty was a matter of chance. What shape would the mountain take if it erupted again?

But mostly I admired how, even in her supposedly dormant state, the volcano transformed constantly. She changed, sometimes vividly and sometimes subtly, with the seasons, the angle, the atmosphere, the clouds, the sun, the mood.

However, as with most matters of the heart, the more in love I fell with the volcano, the more complicated my feelings became. For one thing, as I started to familiarize myself with the environment around my new home I became aware of what it meant to view the mountain from that vantage point, rather than from the capital. And I started to realize what I might be missing through my singular focus on Fuji.

Around that time, as part of my fieldwork on volcanoes and earthquakes, I was attempting to become a kind of amateur geologist. This meant that I spent much of my time exploring the landscape and trying to learn the names, characteristics, and histories of the nearby mountains. From a training course I took with local residents, I learned why Mount Fuji towered so far above her surroundings: The stratovolcano (or composite cone) is actually three volcanoes piled on top of one another, grown taller with successive bursts of lava and ash. I was also surprised to discover that the volcano, which sits at the juncture of three tectonic plates, would not exist without the Izu Peninsula. As the landmass that came to be known as Izu journeyed towards the mainland through tectonic shifts, the insistent force of the Philippine Sea Plate had pushed up the ridge of mountains of which Mount Fuji is a part.

This geological history is a point of pride among residents in Izu. But there is also, at times, a sense of ambivalence, and sometimes even resentment, at the attention lavished on this close neighbor. And no one, I discovered, was more jealous than Ōmuroyama.

Around where I lived, Ōmuroyama was by far the most alluring of the nearby mountains. At 580 meters above sea level, she was tiny in comparison to Fuji. However, her distinctive form was immediately recognizable. The volcano was almost completely exposed and barren of trees—a form carefully maintained through the ceremonial burning of all of the vegetation covering the cone’s slopes every February. With her gently rising sides and deep crater, people said that Ōmuroyama resembled an inverted rice bowl, a mass of pudding, or a woman’s breast.

From the summit, this mountain offered one of the best views around: a sweeping panorama of Sagami Bay, the surrounding mountains, and, in the distance, another view of Fuji. However, my neighbors warned me that I should not praise Mount Fuji from the top of Ōmuroyama. The reason was this: The kami of the two mountains are estranged sisters, and the goddess enshrined at Ōmuroyama grows resentful when she hears people fawning over her sister.

This story reaches back into an ancient past—to the age of the gods, the era that is written about in some of the oldest written records of Japan, from the 8th century. The details of the story vary in different retellings, but the basic plot is as follows: The god of the mountains, Ōyamazumi, had two daughters, who were very close. One day, the god Ninigi saw the beautiful younger daughter, Konohanasakuya-hime, the goddess of blossoms, and he was immediately enamored with her. He asked Ōyamazumi if he could marry Konohanasakuya-hime, but the mountain god asked Ninigi to marry the older daughter, the less beautiful Iwanaga-hime, the goddess of stone. In some versions, Ninigi refuses, his eyes set squarely on the younger daughter. In other versions, he agrees to marry both sisters, but he ends up ignoring and mistreating Iwanaga-hime. Eventually, he returns the stone goddess to her father. Iwanaga-hime grows resentful. The two sisters argue and grow apart.

Meanwhile, Konohanasakuya-hime becomes pregnant after spending only one night with Ninigi. The jealous god is doubtful of the paternity of the unborn children. Konohanasakuya-hime, in order to prove her fidelity, declares that she will set fire to the hut she is in. She proceeds to safely give birth to three children, as flames rage around her. This part of the story is what makes Konohanasakuya-hime a very popular deity, associated with safety from fire and healthy childbirth, in addition to Mount Fuji and cherry blossoms.

But there is another part of the tale that sometimes gets left out. Despite her good fortune and fame, Konohanasakuya-hime misses her sister. That is why she continues to stretch upwards: She is trying to get a better view of Iwanage-hime in the distance.

She is a mountain grown ever taller, out of longing.

Iwanaga-hime, meanwhile, remains a much less celebrated deity. The ugly sister, it seems, has none of her sister’s charms. Many Japanese do not know her by name. But some people I talked to from the Izu Peninsula seemed to feel deep sympathy with the maligned, unattractive sister. It is said that because Ninigi chose Konohanasakuya-hime over Iwanaga-hime, human lives are short and ethereal, like cherry blossoms, rather than eternal, like stone.

Of course, if asked, most people will laugh and say that they do not believe these stories.

The point is that it’s unfair to constantly compare the two mountains. Could you really blame Iwanaga-hime for getting angry after listening to the constant praise being showered on her sister?

Gradually, I started to realize that the volcano I had loved since childhood was not exactly the Mount Fuji that everyone else knew. Of course, ways of understanding and representing this mountain have shifted over the centuries. Yet, more often than not, it has been Mount Fuji’s apparent steadfastness that has been celebrated, rather than her transience.

During the Meiji period (1868–1912), when Japan was going through a period of rapid modernization and Westernization, what emerged was a kind of fixation with seeing this mountain as the symbol of the nation itself. The beauty of Mount Fuji was often discussed explicitly by Meiji ideologues, as evidence that Japan was equal or superior to other nations. The newly created national curriculum emphasized the unique features of the volcano as a natural object, encouraging students to study, visit, climb, draw, and compose poems and sing songs about the volcano. Increasingly, over the decades of war-mongering and imperialism that preoccupied the nation in the early 20th century, Mount Fuji was put to use in ultra-nationalistic propaganda, as the patriotic backdrop for shows of military might.

After World War II, however, the flexibility of Fuji as a symbol enabled the mountain to be reimagined, yet again, as a symbol of peace. Though stripped of some of its more explicit ties to nationalism, the volcano has continued to be claimed by some Japanese in the postwar period as a central figure in the creation of an essentially harmonious attitude toward the natural world. For instance, D.T. Suzuki, who helped to popularize Zen Buddhism outside of Japan during the postwar period, has sweepingly suggested that the presence of Mount Fuji in the center of the archipelago has made Japanese people as a whole into nature lovers.

Not everyone sees it that way, of course. When the Japanese government considered nominating Mount Fuji as a World Heritage site, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) asserted that the physical environment of the mountain had been so heavily degraded, due to industrialization, agriculture, and tourism, that it would not meet UNESCO’s strict environmental regulations to be registered as a “natural” site. Local environmental organizations, such as the Fujisan Club, made considerable efforts to reduce the amount of pollution on and around the volcano by installing low-waste toilets and helping to clean up the massive amounts of trash that have been illegally dumped around its base. However, when UNESCO finally granted World Heritage status to Mount Fuji in 2013, it was as a cultural site, as a “sacred place and source of artistic inspiration,” not as a natural one.

When I climbed the mountain the year after the World Heritage status was bestowed on Mount Fuji, there were so many hikers that the trail to the top resembled a queue at an amusement park—all of us stumbling over each other in the dark to reach the summit in time for the sunrise. Some hikers seemed disappointed by the crowds and the stands along the trail, busily hawking instant noodles and bottles of oxygen. “There are vending machines at the top!” they exclaimed with disdain. They felt they had been tricked somehow, and the Fuji they imagined no longer existed.

For me, somehow, it was the opposite. Being that close to Fuji—in all of her impurity—only made me love the mountain more.

Unlike Mount Fuji, whose reputation preceded her, I knew nothing about Ōmuroyama before I moved to the Izu Peninsula. The first time I spotted the mountain, I was with Nobu-san, a kind-hearted, retired court stenographer who was acting as my volunteer guide for the day. He had taken me to the top of a lighthouse along the coastline. From there, the volcano, with its barren slopes, cut a striking figure. The process of burning the pampas grass covering Ōmuroyama, which has continued more or less consistently for around 700 years, turns the cone dramatically black in the late winter. In the spring and summer, the mountain returns to a fresh, bright green. There is a seasonal poetic word for this time when the buds began to erupt: “laughing mountain” (yamawarau). But by late autumn, when I was seeing the volcano for the first time, the grasses had faded to golds and browns.

Around 380 million tons of lava flowed from Ōmuroyama during an eruption around 4,000 years ago. The cooled lava from this eruption significantly extended the total land mass of the peninsula, creating a relatively even plateau between the mountains and the coastline. The flatness has made this part of the peninsula especially amenable to human habitation. Today, the area known as Izu Kōgen (the Izu plateau) is a popular vacation and retirement area, dotted with vacation homes, golf courses, restaurants, coffee shops, hot spring resorts, and museums. In the midst of this dense activity, most of the volcanic history is hidden. But, from the top of the lighthouse that day, as our eyes approached the coastline, the layers of concrete, metal, and wood gave way to the ground of lava below. Jagged and energetic, even in its stillness, the igneous rock was mostly black, the color of squid ink, with dusty shadings of red, brown, caramel, and rose. I tried to imagine the lava flowing out from the volcano, carving a bright path of destruction and creation all the way to the sea.

We came down from the lighthouse and made our way to a bridge suspended across a narrow inlet cut into the lava coastline. Underneath, dark turquoise waves rushed in and foamed against the base of the cliffs. The land cut a severe line straight down into the sea, then curved in and out, the deep gorges and inlets evidence of centuries of relentlessly pounding saltwater. In a country where much of the coastline has been heavily engineered, a place like this felt rare, even wild. It was drizzling that day, and raindrops clung to the hardy scrubs and the black pine trees (kuromatsu) surrounding us. We crossed the bridge and made our way to an outcrop of basaltic rock jutting out from the coast. The ground was ragged and uneven, and my feet felt clumsy on its moss-covered crevasses and contortions.

We were standing on the place where the hot lava had stopped and frozen in its track, I realized. A sign nearby referred to this site, in a strangely poetic line of English, as “a veritable pageant of new land formations and waves.” In Japanese, the phrase for “veritable pageant” (kyōen) conveys the image of a banquet, overflowing with many kinds of dishes. The lava and sea seemed to offer up a sense of celebration, abundance, feasting.

Soon, we hopped back into the car and headed inland, immediately returning to the fray of human activity: paved roads, railway tracks, bustling neighborhoods. We moved in the opposite direction of the lava flow, until we reached the foot of Ōmuroyama. We turned into a large parking lot full of cars and tour buses, then walked towards the mountain, passing a restaurant and small stands selling souvenirs and sweets. We passed through a huge vermillion red Shinto gate, which traditionally marks the entrance to the world of the gods.

Ōmuroyama is what scientists refer to as a “monogenetic volcano,” meaning that it only erupts once, in a furious burst that is both its birth and death. The cone is formed from a delicate pumice-type rock, called scoria, that is easily damaged by trampling feet, so hiking the sides of the volcano has been forbidden for the past few decades. The only way up is by an automated chairlift, which costs the equivalent of around $5 USD per ride. I dangled my feet over the sides of the chair, feeling strangely weightless.

Once we reached the summit, we could see into the deep crater of the volcano, which had long been covered in grass. I noticed a small path that curved down into the crater, but Nobu-san didn’t lead us down there. Instead, we stuck to the main path—a sidewalk that curves around the entire circumference of the crater. Although it was a relatively easy walk, at this elevation, we were fighting against strong winds coming in from the sea. The hair on our heads whipped around as we laughed and struggled up the slight incline.

After about 20 minutes, we reached the top, slightly out of breath. A small sign with a dancing, smiling mountain, named Ōmuro-kun, congratulated us on reaching the summit. He offered us a greeting of “Otsukaresama!” This phrase is ubiquitous in Japanese conversation, especially among coworkers, but it is notoriously difficult to translate into English. It conveys appreciation for one another’s hard work and dedication. The mountain, in other words, had suddenly taken on the role of a well-known colleague, thanking us for doing the hard work of climbing it.

On the sign, Ōmuro-kun cheerfully suggested, “Let’s take a breath!” He asked us to take in the 360-degree panoramic view. To please feel (kanjitekudasai) the sky, the sea, the mountains, and the wind. Finally, he exclaimed: “Power to you!” (pawaa wo anata ni!!) The volcano, I came to understand, was what’s popularly known as a “power spot”—a place imbued with powerful cosmic energy, where visitors may receive healing or rejuvenation.

We took Ōmuro-kun’s suggestion and paused for a moment. Standing along the rim of the deep crater, we were treated to a spectacular view of the lava coastline and the surrounding towns and mountains, flush with autumn colors. We looked in the direction of Mount Fuji, but the mist and clouds obscured her figure. Perhaps it was for the best, given the circumstances. But I cannot deny it: I still wanted to see her.

During my time living on the Izu Peninsula, I learned how to look away from Mount Fuji. To pay closer attention, instead, to precisely where I was—to the vital forces and energies continuously moving around and through me.

But my long-standing relationship with Japan’s most famous mountain still taught me a great deal. About how to love expansively, without expecting anything in return. About how we are composed of vulnerabilities and complexities. About how we all exist not as singularities, but in kinship with all of the other beings and things that make up the world with us—the lava, gods, vending machines, minerals, roads, and saltwater. About impermanence: Mountains may change more slowly than the rest of us, but they, too, are subject to the transience of the world. To love Mount Fuji means recognizing that I may never know everything about her.

And, over time, it was this love for Mount Fuji that allowed me to love her sister, too.

When I returned the next time to Ōmuroyama, I took the other path, the one down into the crater. There, built into the inner wall of the volcano, was a shrine built for Iwanaga-hime—one of only a handful of shrines across the archipelago that is devoted to the stone goddess. Fittingly, the shrine wasn’t particularly notable or elaborate. It was simply a small altar, placed in front of an impressively large slab of igneous rock, the color of charcoal. The face of the rock was covered in a patchwork of greens: a pale, pistachio-colored lichen, a sharp, radiant moss, and tiny, dark, creeping leaves. Visitors had picked up pieces of rock from along the path leading into the crater and rested them on the altar. Most of the chosen stones were a deep red—a reminder, perhaps, that even in the humblest of forms, the earth holds the power of fire.

And there inside the crater, I stopped searching for her sister. I put my hands together, bowed my head toward the slab of stone, and found something like a prayer.

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