Moon Viewing on Fuji Mountain.
We had been travelling for almost 24 hours when we arrived at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport. Flying over the ocean with a large group of pilgrims from Los Angeles, the natural fatigue of jet lag air travel had caught up with me. My weeks of preparation ahead of our journey had reached a fever pitch just prior to our flight’s departure, which had been delayed for some unexplained reason. Because I was acting as a trip leader and responsible person, I had not allowed myself even a moment of relaxation and was now feeling exhausted.
A delegation of clean-cut young Japanese men met us outside of the airport customs station. They introduced themselves with bowing formality. Outside the terminal doors, three large tour buses were waiting to carry our group to our destination – the Taisekiji Buddhist temple complex on the slopes of Mt. Fuji.
I had visited that place before, and I was looking forward to the quilted futons and soft tatami mats of the temple’s lodging rooms. I was eager to collapse and relieve my weary body in the aftermath of a long journey. Such was not to be, however, as our new host soon informed us.
A young Japanese guide, about my age, boarded our bus and found a seat next to me. He introduced himself over the bus’s P.A. microphone as, “Katsuhiko, call me Katsu.” Fortunately, we had Japanese/English speakers among our group who helped smooth the translation of Katsu’s surprise instructions.
He informed us that we would not be travelling directly to our destination. The serene Buddhist temple with the tempting futons I dreamt of would not be our first stop. Instead, we would be taking a “scenic detour” around Mt. Fuji, to arrive at Taisekiji about six hours later.
Weary, disappointed groans from our group greeted this news. Our enthusiasm at being in Japan was dampened by the prospect of spending another six hours on a scenic bus tour of Mt. Fuji. It was near dark in Japan; and as we traveled through the maze of Tokyo traffic the strange streetlights and garish neon signs seemed an uninviting “scenic route” to our destination. But we had no choice; we accepted another delay and detour with resignation. Our attitude changed to anticipation when Katsu explained that it was Sensei, our mentor, who had suggested and organized this scenic detour around Mt. Fuji -to witness the autumn full moon.
Even though Katsu attempted to explain, in broken English, Sensei’s plan to divert our large party around the slopes of Mt. Fuji in darkness, the true meaning of “moon viewing” was largely lost on our group. “Tsukimi” or “Otsukimi” refers to the Japanese tradition of holding parties to view the harvest moon. The custom is thought to have originated with Japanese aristocrats during the Heian period; influenced by the Chinese custom of Mid-Autumn Festival, they would gather to recite poetry under the full moon.
Our bus caravan plowed its way through the highways away from Tokyo in gathering darkness, slowly ascending the slopes of Fuji mountain (Fujiyama). Japan’s signature landmark, Mt. Fuji is worshiped by some as a spiritual being, a living entity of immovable spiritual substance. Through the bus windows that night, the shadow silhouette of the mountain was dimly prominent on the darkened horizon, so that we felt its presence at every turn.
Our first stop was at a large “tea garden” restaurant catering to bus travelers. Our weary group alighted from the buses as if in slow motion and trudged into a large tearoom cafeteria adjacent to a beautiful traditional style Japanese garden. Refreshed in body and mind with strong green tea, we took a stroll into the garden.
Our second stop further up the mountain gave us a perfect vantage to witness the growing full moon just over the tree line. Another splendidly graceful Japanese garden beckoned to us. By now, Katsu and I had formed a bus tour friendship; sharing stories of our Buddhist practice and learning from each other. Katsu taught me about the ancient tradition of “moon viewing” inherited from the poet-aristocrats of ancient times, inspiring memories and imparting a mutual appreciation of life’s transient beauty-in-a-moment.
The rising full moon had just crested the horizon, illuminating the world-in-miniature garden with its peculiar reflected light. Perfectly manicured and articulated shrubs among the rocks and gentle stream created a magical solitude apart from the bustling commotion of the crowded restaurant. The splendid orb of a rising full moon announced its domination of the night sky. We boarded our buses again with more willingness; refreshed and eager for more of the “moon viewing” we had tasted.
The Japanese “tsukimi” tradition invites the participants of moon viewing to compose spontaneous poems as they experience the mutually shared moment. The moon’s transcendent light is immortalized in European literature and music as well. Many romantic-era poets and composers used the setting of “moon viewing” to evoke a sense of mystery and romance. Compositions such as Claude Debussy’s “Claire de lune” (Moonlight) and “La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune” (The Terrace of Audiences in the Moon Light) create impressions of such scenes. The poet, Paul Verlaine, composed a poem entitled “Claire de lune”
In that graceful garden under the full moon, I felt a powerful impression of eternal moment caught in an island of lunar light with my new friend, Katsu. As he explained all this to me. Katsu felt it too, and we looked into each other’s eyes with unspoken recognition – the bond of a mutual understanding.
On our third stop that night, higher up the mountain and above the tree line, the great lunar orb shone unobstructed like a bright giant lantern in a black sky. The peak of the enormous mountain, snowcapped and mysterious, loomed over us and reflected the moonlight, illuminating the world below. The great expanse all around was dreamlike, a “Land of Tranquil Light”.
Katsu, now earnestly offering his friendship, asked if we could make a vow together – to live and work as Bodhisattvas throughout our lives. I can never forget this dramatic moment, and today I hold it in my heart as one of my life’s greatest treasures. We composed short poems for each other:
Moon Viewing Moments
in perfect subtle gardens
Hearts’ eternal promise
revealed on a moonlit mountain
Will our youthful vows
yield blessings that endure?