Back in 1860 a British fellow became the first foreigner to climb Mount Fuji. That man’s name was Sir Rutherford Alcock. Stop laughing at the back! At the time of his climb he was British Ambassador to Japan and his request to climb the sacred mountain was not without opposition. This was a time when Japan was still deeply suspicious of foreigners. Alcock himself stated in his book, The Capital Of The Tycoon, ‘ No doubt the whole policy of the existing rulers is to limit and restrict, as far as possible, all locomotion of foreigners and all intercourse, commercial or social, with the natives.’ He was also, however, given other reasons, of a snobbier nature, for why he should abandon his idea of the climb. It would seem, you see, that back then climbing Mount Fuji was an adventure of the great unwashed. Alcock records that, ‘…although they go in numbers, strangely enough it is only the poorer classes….It appears….that it is not consistent with the dignity of the Daimio, or even an officer of any rank, to make the pilgrimage, perhaps because too many of the greasy mob must unavoidably come in close contact with them.’ He added that he was urged that, ‘It was not fitting in a person of the rank of a British Envoy to make the pilgrimage, limited by custom, if not by law, to the lower classes!’
But Alcock was determined and finally was granted permission to make the journey, writing in his memoir of the event that after he had convinced the powers that be to allow him to make the trek, he ‘..met not only with no farther obstruction, but…everything was done by the officials and Government to make my journey both pleasant and safe.’
He made it. The first foreigner to conquer Japan’s highest mountain, and upon his descent, decided to pop in to the town of Atami to sample the famous hot springs and erect a monument to himself. On it reads the boastful inscription, ‘I am the first non-Japanese to have climbed Mt Fuji and visited Atami.’ His basking in glory, however was short-lived as there occurred an awful sadness. It concerned his faithful Scotch terrier, Toby.
Alcock had brought his beloved dog with him to Japan and had taken him along on his trek to Fuji. Whilst relaxing at Atami, they popped out to have a look at the Oyu geyser, thought at the time to be one of the mightiest geysers in the land and one which apparently no foreigner had yet set eyes upon. Here was a force of nature that could send jets of scalding water ten metres into the air. Perhaps Toby liked the warmth that seemed to emanate from the earth, but it seems he got a bit too close. Indeed, he stood right on top of the bit of the ground from which the water spurted and with a whoosh out it came. No sooner would Alcock have had time to admire it and ask, ‘Why Toby, did you hear a little yelp with that skoosh just then? Toby? TOBY?’ when the dog would have come tumbling down to earth, little more than a scalded ball of wet fur.
Alcock arranged a funeral for his lost companion and now, next to the monument exalting his climbing triumph, stands a simpler memorial to his canine chum, a stone on which is inscribed, ‘Poor Toby, 23 September 1860’. Poor Toby indeed. A sign at the memorial suggests that the little dog’s sacrifice was a turning point in British-Japanese relations! At the time of poor Toby’s demise, the Japanese and the Brits didn’t much care for each other, but Alcock reported home that the Japanese had treated him with great kindness in his grief and suggested that Britain should not regard Japan as an enemy. The sign claims that Britain took note, stating, ‘Thanks to his report and advice, Great Britain’s public opinion towards Japan turned favourable.’ You can still visit the geyser and watch it spout, but these days it an artificial ejection. The geyser had already spurted its last when, in 1962, it was falsely revived and now pops up with timed regularity, much reducing the chance of surprised dogs being unexpectedly boiled alive.
Were Alcock around today he would no doubt be thrilled to learn that in 1992, another memorial was erected in his honour. He’d probably mention it if you met him, say, in the supermarket or something. It stands at a point roughly 2,400 metres up on what is now the Fujinomiya trail, and a relief of his face is attached to a chunky lava rock. Underneath the relief it says, ‘I did this way before you!’. Okay, it doesn’t really.
To further foster the friendship between Britain and Japan kick-started by Toby’s unexpected and spectacular watery propulsion, the city of Fujinomiya invites the British Embassy staff to the climbing season’s opening ceremony on July 1st each year. Flowers are laid in memory of Alcock, and the morning after a reception in the town itself, members of the Embassy usually begin their own attempt to reach the summit.
Mount Fuji had already been climbed for hundreds of years by the time Alcock conquered her, but it had been very much a man’s mountain. Women were not permitted upon Mount Fuji. Some said that the temperamental female deity within would get jealous of women, others simply that ‘unclean’ women had no place on a sacred mountain. But seven years after Alcock’s climb, Britain had another first when Lady Fanny Parkes – Oh get out! – wife of the fantastically impressively sideburned British Ambassador, Sir Harry Parkes, ignored the naysayers and reached the summit completing a double glory for Brits with names that make schoolboys snigger. The U.K. now had the claim to fame of first foreigner in both the male and female Mount Fuji climbing categories! In 1868 the start of the Meiji Era saw a reformation in Japan and with it the long ban on woman climbing Mount Fuji was lifted. Parkes though, had simply ignored the ban anyway and made her way up in the days when women really weren’t supposed to. Tish tosh and buggery damn to Jonny foreigner and his blasted rules! Tally ho and up we go! Rule Brittania, what ho!