Of all the beautiful objects in “the land of the holy gods,” as the Japanese call their country, none are more beautiful than Fuji Mountain and Lake Biwa. The one is a great cone of white snow, the other is a sheet of heaven-blue water, in shape like a lute with four strings.
Sweeping from twenty square leagues of space out of the plain and rising twelve thousand feet in air, Fuji, or Fusi Yama, casts its sunset shadow far out on the ocean, and from fourteen provinces gleams the splendor of its snowy crest. It sits like a king on his throne in the heart of Suruga Province.
One hundred and thirty miles to the west as the crane wings her flight, in the heart of Omi, is Biwa Ko, the lake of the lute. It is sixty miles long and as blue as the sky whose mirror it is. Along its banks rise white-walled castles and stretch mulberry plantations. On its bosom rise wooded islands, white, but not with frost; for thousands of herons nestle on the branches of the trees, like lilies on their stems. Down under the blue depths, say the people, is the Dragon shrine (Riu Gu), where dwell the dragon-helmed Kai Riu O, and his consort, the shell-crowned Queen of the World Under the Sea.
Why do the pilgrims from all over the empire exclaim joyfully, while climbing Fuji’s cinder-beds and lava-blocks, “I am a man of Omi”? Why, when quenching their thirst with the melted snow-water of Fuji crater, do they cry out “I am drinking from Lake Biwa”? Why do the children clap their hands, as they row or sail over Biwa’s blue surface, and say: “I am on top of Fuji Yama”?
To these questions the Japanese legend gives answer.
When Heaven and earth were first created, there was neither Lake of Biwa nor Mountain of Fuji. Suruga and Omi were both plains. Even for long after men inhabited Japan and the Mikados had ruled for centuries there was neither earth so nigh to heaven nor water so close to the Under-world as the peaks of Fuji and the bottom of Biwa. Men drove the plow and planted the rice over the very spot where crater and deepest depth now are.
But one night in the ancient times there was a terrible earthquake. All the world shook, the clouds lowered to the earth, floods of water poured from the sky, and a sound like the fighting of a myriad of dragons filled the air. In the morning all was serene and calm. The sky was blue. The earth was as bright and all was as “white-faced” as when the sun goddess first came out from her hiding in the cave.
The people of Omi awoke, scarce expecting to find either earth or heaven, when lo! they looked on what had yesterday been tilled land or barren moor, and there was a great sheet of blue. Was it sky? Had a sheet of the “blue field of heaven” fallen down? Was it the ocean? They came near it, tasted it. It was fresh and sweet as a fountain-rill. They looked at it from the hill-tops, and, seeing its outline, called it “the lake of the four-stringed lute.” Others, proud of their new possession, named it the Lake of Omi.
Greater still was the surprise of the Suruga people. The sailors, far out at sea, rubbed their eyes and wondered at the strange shape of the towering white cloud. Was it the Iwakura, the eternal throne of Heaven, come down to rest on earth out of the many piled white clouds of heaven? Some thought they had lost their reckoning; but were assured when they recognized familiar landmarks on shore. Many a cottager woke up to find his house, which lay in a valley the day before, was now far up on the slope, with the distant villages and the sea visible; while far, far above shone the snowy head of a mountain, whose crown lay in the blue sky. At night the edges of the peak, like white fingers, seemed to pluck the stars from the Milky Way.
“What shall we call this new-born child of the gods?” said the people. And various names were proposed.
“There is no other mountain so beautiful in all the earth, there’s not its equal anywhere; therefore call it Fuji, (no two such), the peerless, the matchless mountain,” said one.
“It is so tall, so comely, so grand, call it Fuji, (rich scholar, the lordly mountain),” said another.
“Call it Fuji, (never dying, the immortal mountain),” said a third.
“Call it, after the festal flower of joy, Fuji” (Wistaria) said another, as he decked the peak of his hat with the drooping clusters of the tender blue blossom. “It looks blue and purple in the distance, just like the fuji flower.” Various as the meanings of the name were, they sounded all alike to the ear. So, without any quarreling, all agreed to call it Fuji and each to choose his own meaning. To this day, though many a learned dispute and the scratching of the written character on the sand with walking stick, or on paper with pencil, or on the palm of the hand with forefinger takes place, all pronounce the name alike as they rave on the beauties of Fuji Yama.
So went forth into the countries bounding “the four seas” the belief that there was a white mountain of perfect form in Japan, and that whoever ascended it would live long and even attain immortality; and that somewhere on the mountain was hidden the elixir of immortality, which if any one drank he would live forever. Now in one of the kingdoms of far-off China there lived a rich old king, who had abundance of treasures, health, and many children. But he did not wish to die, and, hence, spent his days in studying the lore and arts of the alchemists, who believed they would finally attain to the transmutation of lead into gold, find the universal solvent of all things, the philosophers’ stone, the elixir of life, and all the wondrous secrets which men in Europe long afterward labored to discover.
Among the king’s sages was one old man of mighty wisdom, who had heard of the immortal mountain of Japan, and, learning of the manner of its appearance, concluded that the Japan Archipelago contained the Fortunate Isles and in it was the true elixir of life. He divulged his secret to the king, and advised him to make the journey to the Land of the Rising Sun.
Overjoyed at the good news and the faithfulness of his loyal sage, the king loaded him with gifts and honors. He selected five hundred of the most beauteous youths and virgins of his kingdom, and, fitting out a fleet, sailed away to the Happy Isles of the East. Coasting along the shore until they recognized the glorious form of the mountain, they landed and began the ascent. Alas! for the poor king. The rough sea and severe storms had worn on his aged frame and the fatigues of the ascent were so great, that before reaching the top he fainted away, and before the head of the procession had set foot on the crater edge the monarch was dead. Sadly they gave up the search for the elixir of life, and, descending the mountain, buried their master in the Province of Kii. Then, in their exuberance of youth and joy, thinking little of the far future and wishing to enjoy the present, they separated in couples, married, and, disposing of their ship and cargo, settled in the country, and colonized the eastern part of Japan.
Long afterward, when Buddhist believers came to Japan, one of them, climbing Fuji, noticed that around its sunken crater were eight peaks, like the petals of their sacred lotus flower. Thus, it seemed to them, Great Buddha had honored Japan, by bestowing the sacred symbol of Nirvana, or Heaven, on the proudest and highest part of Japan. So they also named it Fuji, “the sacred mountain”; and to this day all the world calls this sacred mountain Fuji, or Fusi Yama, while the Japanese people believe that the earth which sunk in Omi is the same which, piled to the clouds, is the lordly mountain of Suruga.