Mount Fuji was stunning in its symmetry. I stood across the gulf, on a dock in Shizuoka, enveloped by a mesh of white cottontail plants bending with the breeze. Black sand spread before me, coarse grains eroded from the basaltic rock carried ashore from Mount Fuji, Japan. Debris had accumulated in the brush – cardboard, aluminum cans, chunks of Styrofoam coolers – debris from fishing trips past, debris neatly consolidated and tucked away by small Japanese fishermen. They said hello as they passed with their tall boots and their lines, quiet men and women welcoming two foreigners into their hometown.
After nearly a year in Japan, Shizuoka felt more familiar than foreign, from the clipped Japanese chatter wafting over from the parking lot to the miniature vans and trucks packed to the brim with fishing gear. Every few minutes, a faint roar erupted, carried in from the little league baseball game I had passed on the road on the walk in. Far away from the cement and concrete grayness of Nagoya, Shizuoka’s miles of green houses, colorful flowers, and wide open fields were a (literal) breath of fresh air. From the opposite direction – perhaps a distant school or soccer field – came a cadence of bongo drums and brass instruments, the tinny voices of children wafting across the plains.
Mount Fuji, or Fuji-san, has long been a sacred mountain. The native Ainu revered the great peak. Shintoists consider the peak sacred to the goddess Sengen-Sama, who embodies nature. The Fujiko sect believes the mountain is a being with a soul. Japanese Buddhists believe the mountain is the gateway to a different world. It is the most climbed mountain in the world; over 100,000 people trek to its summit each year.
I had come not to hike the mountain but to take in its beauty, to absorb the panoramic view hikers are not able to capture as they traverse it. Though Fuji-san’s peaks were snow-less the sky was clear, allowing onlookers to absorb the mountain in all of its glorious symmetry.
I made my way down the beach, weaving around waves and fishing lines. High above the water, a tiny plane cut through the sky. White with red stripes, the plane whizzed as it passed, a steady trail of smoke snaking behind it. It flew with a wobbled, frenetic energy, as if eager to get to its destination.
It took a few minutes to register the plane was a toy, a stunning replica of a small passenger plane, controlled by someone I had no sight of. I watched, awestruck, as the engine choked and the plane spiraled, nose-first, toward the water. It wailed and sputtered and, mere inches above the waves, pulled its nose up to the sky, showing off in a series of loop-the-loops before shooting off down the coast.
I thought immediately of my grandfather, my paternal grandfather, now a decade deceased. My grandfather had an affinity for planes, for helicopters, for things that flew. As a kid he had fashioned a makeshift parachute to his back and jumped off the roof, to the horror of my great-grandmother. As a young man he flew planes to train for the war, but ultimately spent Christmas of ’44 on the ground, driving tanks, as the battle bulged onward. As a father of four and a grandfather of seven, he flew small planes recreationally, occasionally taking one of the kids up for a ride, to the horror of my grandmother. Whenever she scolded my grandfather for his antics, he would smile sweetly, tip his head to the side, and say “I love you, dear!”.
My grandfather was interested in physics, in the way things rose and fell, the way they found their way back. His thirst for knowledge was never satiated, his curiosity without bounds, his desire to push the limits tempered only by his obligations as a husband, a father, a grandfather. Sundays I would tear through the side door, yell hello to my grandmother and make my way downstairs to find Grandpa. I could picture the scene before I saw it: Grandpa standing in his small workshop off the basement bathroom, talk radio chattering in the background. I would see his back first, his head bent over the wings and tiny parts of the model planes he crafted from balsa wood, the planes we would later chase through the field. Planes that – if you threw them correctly, with just the right speed and just the right arc – landed smoothly, quietly, in the shin-high grass.
He had long dreamed of hang-gliding. As a kid, I pictured him soaring off a cliff in northern Michigan, a stunning blaze of brightly colored sails against the reddening sky. But by the time activities like hang-gliding and sky-diving went mainstream – meaning, they were administered by professionals and deemed, for the most part, “safe” – grandpa was a tad too old. He was mentally and physically solid, sound as an ox, but his wildest times were behind him.
In honor of my grandfather’s seventieth we found the next best thing: a hot air balloon ride. I was eight at the time and too light to accompany him. I stood close to the basket as the crew removed the stakes from the ground, as the ropes wriggled free. I waved, heart pounding, as propane blasted up into the balloon, as the long nylon gores filled with air. When the basket left the earth, shifting westward with the wind, I ran alongside it. I must have run a half mile through that field, watching as my grandfather, beaming from ear to ear, became smaller and smaller, watching until he became a speck high above the treetops, the vibrant red balloon a cape carrying him, finally, onward and upward.