Japan is one of the most volcanic countries on the planet. It boasts over 100 volcanoes in different states of activity; active, dormant and extinct. And Mount Fuji, located around 60 miles south-west of Tokyo, is the largest (12,388 ft) and most famous of them all. The mountain’s fame is largely due to its remarkable symmetry, which features in numerous works of art (perhaps the most famous of these being Hokusai Katsushika’s Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji).
Mount Fuji’s prominence in Japanese culture has also resulted in a rich mythology surrounding the mountain, which over the years has become home to several gods and goddesses. The volcano has not erupted in over 300 years, the last one being 1707-1708, which has led Fuji to be attributed to more peaceful deities; as opposed to the more violent gods of the Icelandic volcanoes for instance. Konohanasakuya-hime, the Shinto goddess of Mt. Fuji, is attributed to life and cherry blossoms, and is said to keep the mountain from erupting.
However, one story in particular has interested me surrounding Mt. Fuji: the mountain is the climactic feature of one of the world’s oldest science-fiction stories- The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. The tale originates from the 9th or 10th century. The author is unknown.
Once upon a time, there was an old bamboo cutter, who one day discovered a child three inches tall inside the hollow bamboo. He and his wife adopted the child, and everyday from then on, the bamboo cutter would find a stalk of bamboo filled with gold.
The child grew into an adult in the space of three months, and became so beautiful that the bamboo cutter kept her from hidden from the rest of the world, and from any admirers who came to propose to her. Anyone who saw her fell in love with her, but she (since named Kaguya-hime) rejected every single one. She set elaborate tasks for them to attempt, only to fail in rather humorous ways.
When the Emperor of Japan prosed to her, he was again rejected, though this time without a trial. Kaguya-hime told him that she could not marry him since she was not from Japan, though the two of them remained in contact. Kaguya-hime eventually revealed that she could never settle down on earth- she was sent to Japan from the moon in order to protect her from a celestial war. The gold that the old bamboo cutter had found was sent to pay for her upkeep.
When her people returned to collect her, the Emperor of Japan tried to stop Kaguya-hime from leaving, but he and his men were blinded by a strange light and could do nothing more to prevent her. Before she left, Kaguya-hime gave her parents her robe as a memento; and the emperor the elixir of life, which would grant him immortality, and a letter. She returned to the moon, forgetting everything about her time on earth.
The emperor, overcome with sadness at the loss of his celestial love, asked his servants for the closest location to the moon. The location selected was none other than the highest point in Japan. At the top of Mount Fuji, the emperor and his servants burned the letter in the hopes that it would reach the moon from there. Not wanting to live forever without his love, the emperor also threw the elixir of immortality into the fire. However, the elixir caused the fire to never stop burning, and from that day forward, the top of Mount Fuji was always ablaze.
For more information on Mount Fuji, I recommend:
Muneshigi Narazaki’s Masterworks of Ukiyo-e: Hokusai “The Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji”, translated by John Bester (published in 1972 by Kodansha International Ltd., California)
For information on the Shinto religion and mythology:
Jean Herbert’s Shinto; at the Fountain-head of Japan (published in 1967 by George Allen & Unwin Ltd., London)
For The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, I recommend Donald Keene’s 1956 translation, published here: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2382982