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Monday, November 4, 2013

No Girls Allowed On Mt. Fuji

I lived in Japan for three years plus and never once did I see Mount Fuji - even when I was supposedly at the foot of it. It's why I don't believe it exists... like atoms and Africa. Never seen'em. LOL.

Anyhow...my original idea for a blog today was to see WHO the first foreign woman was to have climbed Mt. Fuji. It was tough to find out more information than a name, but her name is: Lady Fanny Parkes, the wife of then British ambassador to Japan in 1869.

She climbed Mt. Fuji, reaching the peak's summit... that is an important fact to note, because until just before her climb, women were forbidden to climb the mountain to the top, but could ascend part-way.

Here is everything I could find out about Lady Parkes.

Born as Fanny Plumer, she married Sir Harry Smith Parkes (巴夏禮) who lived from 1828–1885, and was a 19th-century British diplomat who worked mainly in China and Japan.

I'll do a biography on Sir Harry Smith Parkes one day soon, but just know that he asked Edmund Morel to come to Japan to help build the country's first railroad (see HERE).

In 1856 while in England, Parkes met Miss Plumer, who was the granddaughter of Sir Thomas Plumer (the first Vice Chancellor of England) while at the home of a friend.

Describing Fanny Plumer, a friend wrote: "She was a a beautiful girl... tall, well-proportioned, and graceful, her coloring rich and soft, her features expressing sensitiveness and the power of warm emotion; her dark brown eyes full of intelligence and speaking earnestness of purpose. She possessed in a large degree the power of fascination in which all her family were remarkable."

After a short (in my opinion - bit perhaps not for the era) courtship of six weeks, Parkes and Plumer were married on New Years Day of 1856 (January 1), at St Lawrence's Church, Whitchurch.

So... while Sir Harry Smith Parkes served in Japan as ambassador, Lady Parkes took it upon her self to break Japanese tradition and climb herself a sacred mountain.

Let's look at Mt. Fuji briefly. Metaphorically, since I still don't think it exists.

  • elevation rise of 12,388 feet;
  • is the 35th most prominent mountain in the world;
  • it is the tallest mountain in Japan;
  • it is still considered to be an active volcano, but has not erupted in a couple hundred years.
  • its crater is 820 feet deep, and;
  •  has a crater surface diameter of 1,600 feet.
The name 'Mt. Fuji', or as the Japanese call it "Fuji-san (富士山)" in Japanese - actually has the origins of the name in a bit of dispute.

While some believe it to come from the Ainu language (original inhabitants of Japan), that means "everlasting life." Other linguists say it comes from the Yamato language of the original settlers after the Ainu and refers to Fuchi, the fire goddess from Buddhist traditions.

Call it what you will, we do know for a fact that the Japanese historically (and certainly not all Japanese today), harbor a bit of disrespect towards the Ainu, and believe them to not be as smart of sophisticated as the Japanese people... so it is possible it could come from an Ainu word... but no one would admit to that.

Mt. Fuji was once considered to be the center of the universe, by the locals. As such, it is much revered and has over 13,000 small shrines built around and on it.

Even now, 1000s of mantra-canting pilgrims with jingling prayer bells, wearing straw hats, pure white robes and white canvas foot mittens climb to the top, but stopping at its stations to pray and to walk around the crater.

Buddhists then and now believe they gain enlightenment when they succeed in climbing the mountain... especially for their 33rd and 88th such climbs.

Some Buddhist worshipers will leave their sandals on the top of Mt. Fuji to raise its height... to make sure it will remain the tallest peak... to ensure the mountain goddess doesn't get jealous.

Of course, there are other Buddhists who think it is okay to jump into the crater of Mt. Fuji because they will reach nirvana with their death - while simultaneously ruining the day for everyone else.

I like the part about people leaving their footwear at the top to make it taller... of course, that footwear is not taken into account when calculating the elevation.

There is a bit of ancient Japanese folklore regarding the height of Mt. Fuji.

Once upon a time, Mount Haku was another sacred mountain (also known as Yatsu-ga-take) was once higher than Mt. Fuji. 

Once the female deity of Fuji and the male deity of Haku (Gongen-sama) had a contest to see which was higher," the myth goes. "They asked the Buddha Amida to decide which was loftier. It was a difficult task. Amida ran a water pipe from the summit of Yatsu-ga-take to the summit of Fuji-san and poured water in the pipe. The water flowed to Fuji-san, so Amida decided that Fuji-san was defeated. Although Fuji-san was a woman, she was too proud to recognize her defeat. She beat the summit of Yatsu-ga-take with a big stick, so his head was split into eight parts, and that is why Yatsu-ga-take (Eight Peaks) now has eight peaks.

That female deity is known as Konohanasakuya-hime (木之花開耶姫), and she was supposed to be the princess of the blossom and the symbol of delicate earthly life.

Now... as mentioned earlier, women were not allowed onto Mt. Fuji. Or at least that ban was repealed  in 1868 with the restoration of the Emperor over the Shogun and his battle-worn governing.

While women were free to climb the mountain, I can't find any evidence that any Japanese woman chose to do so until after Lady Parkes did it.

Why? There was same heavy voodoo attached to why women were banned from climbing Mt. Fuji.

Let's take a look:

According to another legend, a jealous female goddess lived inside it... and if a woman ever attempted to climb the mountain, she would get jealous and erupt. To prevent eruptions, women were banned from climbing it.

While the first known ascent of Mt. Fuji was by a male Buddhist monk in 663AD, pilgrimages to climb it became quit common by the ninth century AD. Just not by women.

I think it also had something to do with women being considered impure... that whole bleeding once a month thing... it's also why women were not allowed to enter a sumo wrestling ring... and why sumo wrestlers cleanse the ring by the tossing of salt into the air and onto the clay surface. Keeping it clean and pure.

FYI, I was told by more than a few Japanese folk that the reason Japanese people love to own white cars is because it represents purity... and everyone wants (but isn't) to be pure.

Now... more Japanese folklore (believe what you will), suggests that the many caves in the mountains and coasts of the country are highly reminiscent of the female womb.... and when one walks through a cave, they essentially go through a rebirth... and gain a new life.

Because of that, Mt. Fuji is also thought of as a womb. It has caves at the base of the mountain, which are called o-tainai... which translates into "inside of the womb".

At Mt. Fuji, there are eight such o-tainai...two of which: Funatsu tainai and Yoshida tainai have been declared World Heritage sites.

Dr. Watanabe Michihito in the Funatsu tainai. from the website: https://sge.lclark.edu/2012/06/05/lava-trees-and-wombs/
Now... since these two o-tainai are beside the Yoshida tōhai route that takes people from the base to the peak of Mt. Fuji, many travelers visit them before walking the path... and when they visit, they purify themselves by washing their body in the cave waters.

These o-tainai are sacred places for those who wish for true purity on their Mt. Fuji climb.

Of course, those who need it the most - the women - well, they could enter the o-tainai... but they still weren't allowed to climb the old sacred mountain. (I was being sarcastic with that comment, by the way... someone should invent a sarcastic font!.)

Anyhow... thanks to Lady Parkes defying Japanese sacred customs and proving that a volcano need not erupt every time a woman climbed a mountain, the Japanese women learned they could do it to.

So... even though women WERE allowed to climb Mt. Fuji before Lady Parkes historic climb, no Japanese woman chose to do so.

And... that's the end of my simple biography on Lady Parkes... originally a two paragraph blog entry... and now one that examines the psyche of Japanese women, Buddhism, social customs and more. And no... I could not find a photo of her.

I suppose I just thought a strong woman deserved more than a few dull lines.

Cheers,
Andrew Joseph

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