Taking Measure of a Mountain

Students examine the many faces of Mount Fuji.

Students examine the many faces of Mount Fuji during an immersive study program in Japan.

On a clear morning in early August, a roomful of Lewis & Clark College students awoke on tatami mats in a pilgrims’ inn on the northeastern flank of Mount Fuji. The lodging, a large house set off from the main road, was built centuries earlier for those making religious treks up the iconic volcano, considered by many Japanese to be a sacred mountain.

The 12,389-foot peak had gripped the students’ attention since they’d arrived in Tokyo, and in the weeks since they’d examined the mountain’s wide-ranging significance both past and present, from its evolving physical landscape to its exalted spiritual influence.

After a traditional breakfast that included rice, fish, strips of nori, and soft-boiled eggs known as hanjuku tamago, the students and their two program leaders took a shuttle to a trailhead at the foot of the mountain, where they took their first steps on a 5.7-mile ascent to the summit.

“By that time, we’d already learned so much about Mount Fuji that it was really exciting to finally climb it,” says Kara Scherer, an environmental studies major from San Francisco.

Fuji: An Ideal Laboratory

Japan’s tallest mountain was the focus of a seven-week overseas program last summer led by Associate Professor of History Andrew Bernstein and Associate Professor of Geological Science Elizabeth Safran.

Bernstein began exploring the idea several years earlier as part of an initiative called Situating the Global Environment, the brainchild of Environmental Studies Professor Jim Proctor and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. One component of the initiative called for offering overseas study programs that emphasized situated research, which is designed to shed light on global environmental phenomena by studying a specific place and aiming to draw out both generalities and particularities.

Halfway up Fuji, students share a group hug. Halfway up Fuji, students share a group hug.Bernstein, a scholar of Japanese history who is writing a book on the mountain (see page 13), invited Safran, a geologist in the Environmental Studies Program who explores how landscapes evolve, on a reconnaissance trip in 2012. Both soon recognized the opportunity to use Mount Fuji as the focal point for an interdisciplinary program that explored various dynamics, both human and non-human, typically studied in isolation from each other.

“There’s nothing analogous to Fuji in the U.S.” in terms of symbolic stature, says Safran. And there’s no other way to understand the mountain’s significance, Bernstein adds, than to examine it through various lenses and disciplines: geology, land-use history, religious symbolism, politics, economics, and more.

“This program served as a great opportunity to examine the multitude of actors and processes that come together to make this particular mountain an iconic place known around the world,” says Bernstein.

Ecologist Michihito Watanabe explains his butterfly research to Kyle Miller and Peter Nocka. Ecologist Michihito Watanabe explains his butterfly research to Kyle Miller and Peter Nocka.He singled out the Fujisan Club, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting Mount Fuji’s environment, and its director, Naoko Aoki, for making key introductions and offering critical logistics support. 

The trip attracted 13 students from a range of academic majors: economics, history, biochemistry and molecular biology, East Asian studies, and environmental studies. Many were drawn by not only the subject matter, but also the alluring location.

Japan is a modern, developed democracy whose history is well documented—characteristics that make life easier for foreign scholars. Yet it is different enough from the United States—and other parts of Asia, for that matter—that students such as Ariel Gold reported an initial “sensory overload.”

“It was Asian, but it was Western,” says Gold, an East Asian studies major who has lived and studied in China. Musical toilet seats in public bathrooms, 7-Elevens offering sandwiches with caviar, and hordes of people waiting in orderly lines were among the notable features that made Japan seem so different from places students had experienced inside and outside the United States.

As Safran puts it, “Japan is familiar in certain ways—it’s comfortable, modern, well-functioning—and yet it can feel totally unfamiliar in others.”

One Subject, Many Angles

Mount Fuji is familiar to people throughout the world. Its exceptionally symmetrical cone-shaped peak makes it the archetypal “stratovolcano,” according to Safran. Made of alternating layers of lava and volcanic debris, it’s in the same geological family as Mount Saint Helens and other peaks in the Cascade Range. But further investigation reveals a mountain made almost entirely of basalt—atypical among stratovolcanoes—and marked by “effusive as well as highly explosive” eruptions—an anomaly among basaltic volcanoes, Safran says.

Associate Professor Andrew Bernstein learns how to play the koto. Associate Professor Andrew Bernstein learns how to play the koto.Mount Fuji’s unique geology influences what’s found on its flanks today. For example, the permeable rock filters water down to springs on its south side, making the region well suited to industries that rely on a steady supply of freshwater. The northern side abuts a mountain range, producing a series of lakes that anchor a sizable tourist industry.

Sorting out the historical influences on Fuji’s present-day land cover was the topic of the students’ primary research project—and a good example of the program’s interdisciplinary mindset.

Students split into groups to investigate the geology, botany, and land-use history of three recent lava flows on the mountain’s northern side. Ecologist Michihito Watanabe of the Mount Fuji Nature Conservation Center served as their guide and led the botany group, while Bernstein and Safran headed up the history and geology groups, respectively.

In each group, students carried iPad minis preloaded with maps that showed Fuji’s geology and what covered the land at five different points in time beginning in the 1890s. They formulated their own related research questions, hypotheses, and data collection plans.

Students enter one of Fuji's lava tubes. Students enter one of Fuji's lava tubes.“We were all trying to determine the major player in today’s land cover,” explains Joshua Proto, a biochemistry/molecular biology major from San Leandro, California. “We got our separate sets of data, but then came together as a group and talked about what we found. What does this all mean? How can we connect this data, and how can we make a story out of what’s happened here?”

Proto said the research exemplified the kind of thinking encouraged by Lewis & Clark’s Environmental Studies Program: “It’s important to understand all the factors that contribute to a specific place,” he says. “From those factors, you gain an understanding that things are more complex than they seem.”

Cultural Immersion

Exploring that complexity took students from one side of the mountain to the other over the course of the program. Highlights included:

  • Lectures on Mount Fuji from experts including a volcanologist, an official from the government’s environment ministry, a local ecologist, and scholars of Japanese religion.
  • Visits to shrines and temples, including the headquarters of one of the largest Buddhist sects in Japan.
  • Tours of a sake brewery and a toilet-paper factory, both of which use Mount Fuji’s spring water.
  • Two days with a forestry expert learning about the changing economics of Japan’s plantation forests.
  • Fuji-related cultural events, including a festival in which male participants helped carry through the streets a palanquin with sacred fire to celebrate the Fuji deity.

Gabe Kohler, an environmental studies major from Spokane, Washington, most enjoyed partaking in a ceremony that marked the opening of Mount Fuji’s traditional climbing season. He watched as robed practitioners of a syncretic tradition known as Shugendo chanted prayers, shot arrows into the surrounding woods, and invited onlookers to write wishes onto prayer sticks before tossing them into a bonfire.

Associate Professor Elizabeth Safran and Max Haworth  photograph soil samples. Associate Professor Elizabeth Safran and Max Haworth photograph soil samples.“It was a really welcoming experience to be there,” says Kohler, who got the chance to chat with Shugendo adherents and villagers at a meal after the ceremony. “It’s something I’d never be able to do if I were just traveling on my own.”

Students reflected on their experiences by composing blog posts for a new website, “Imagining the Global,” an effort involving five Northwest colleges to promote innovative online collaboration on global issues in which Lewis & Clark’s Environmental Studies Program plays a leading role. Their entries usually focused on one of three “dyads”—global and local, continuity and change, or nature and culture—pairings meant to help interpret what they encountered in the program.

The idea is that students participating in current and future overseas programs will read the posts and compare their own experiences, as well as contribute their own thoughts on the same topics.

“It was helpful to have these structured but flexible lenses through which students could view their experiences,” says Safran, “and to report more than just what happened to them, but to reflect on them in a more structured way.”

A Peak Experience

Climbing Mount Fuji proved to be a test of endurance rather than technical skill. Conditions were good; it rained only briefly. There were also rest stations with food and drink along the way. And no one got sick from the altitude.

Max Haworth assists in a trash cleanup around Fuji. Max Haworth assists in a trash cleanup around Fuji. In fact, the biggest challenge was something that Pacific Northwest climbers aren’t accustomed to: traffic jams on the trail. “It’s rather like standing in line at an amusement park in places,” says Safran.

The students reached the 8th of 10 stations a little after sundown, and spent the night bundled side by side in sleeping bags in a lodge packed with 250 climbers. Earlier, Safran and Bernstein had scratched plans to climb another two hours to the cold, crowded summit before sunrise. It was a fortuitous decision, Safran notes, since they awoke to see the summit shrouded in fog—and a breathtaking sunrise unfolding in front of them.

“I think the sunrise was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life,” says Gold. “It’s as if you’re standing on top of the world, looking out over everything. The whole top of Mount Fuji was submerged in clouds, but we had the clearest view.”

The summit was still socked in—and chilly—when the group arrived in mid-morning wearing hats and gloves and clutching cans of hot coffee. There they talked with a permafrost expert based at the weather station atop the mountain, visited a Shinto shrine, and stopped by the tiny post office to mail postcards they’d carried up (for the novelty of receiving a “Mount Fuji” postmark).

They descended via a different route that took them south past the Hoei craters, evidence of the volcano’s last eruption in 1707. As they rounded one of the craters, a fierce wind almost blew them off the trail. “We all had to hit the ground,” recalls Bernstein. The students were, true to form, unfazed. “They were game for everything,” he adds. “I think that’s what made the program so successful.”

Japan now factors prominently in several of the students’ upcoming plans. Proto is considering returning to teach English through an exchange program. Kohler is at work on his senior thesis, refining the independent research he did in Japan on land-use transitions. Gold, who has extended family in China and had planned to further her studies there, instead is writing her senior thesis on bicultural students in Japan. Thanks to a grant from the Student Academic Affairs Board, she was able to return to Japan over winter break to research the topic.

Scherer, a sophomore, says her experience has encouraged her to take advantage of Lewis & Clark’s liberal arts curriculum to “see things from a bunch of different perspectives.”

“I think that the program made me realize each side of the story is different, and the way you see the story might not be the only way or the right way,” she says. “Maybe there isn’t a correct way at all.”

Dan Sadowsky is an independent content producer and strategist based in Portland.

Cooling off in Lake Sai after a long day of research. Cooling off in Lake Sai after a long day of research.