Sir Rutherford Climbs Mount Fuji – Part 1

 I

 “What’s that, Hirobumi?” Sir Rutherford Alcock asked taking his pipe out of his mouth and waving it in the general direction of the huge map of Japan on the wall opposite his desk.
“What’s what, Sir Rutherford?” the secretary asked following the swaying of the pipe as it moved erratically up and down the country from Hokkaido to Kyushu.
“The hilly thing, just south of Edo.”
“That, Sir Rutherford, is Mount Fuji,” said the secretary a note of pride in his voice. “The highest and most sacred mountain in Japan.”
“Is it, by Jove?  I’ll climb it this weekend.”
“But Sir Rutherford!” Hirobumi exclaimed jumping out of his chair where he had been typing a menu. “It’s a dangerous volcano!”
“So?” Sir Rutherford asked, puffing gently on his pipe and gazing into the distance.
“Well, there are rivers of boiling lava.”
“I’ll wear some boots.”
“Huge rocks falling out of the sky.”
“And a hat.”
“And, they say, there’s a beautiful young goddess who throws people into the boiling crater.”
“I’ll wear some aftershave.”
“But Sir!  It’s terribly dangerous.”
“Nonsense, Hirobumi.  It’ll be just like a stroll in the park.  Besides Toby could do with a walk.  He’s been looking very bored recently.”
Toby, the Scottish Terrier looked up from where he was stretched out on the carpet and gave a little yawn.
“But what about the dinner for the American ambassador on Friday evening.  I’ve typed the menus and everything.” Hirobumi held up some neatly folded pieces of card.
“Oh, we’ll do that alright.  But make sure he’s on his way home in a wheelbarrow by midnight and we’ll set off for this …. Mount Sushi at dawn on Saturday.”
“We, Sir Rutherford?” Hirobumi asked a slight tremble in his voice.
“Yes.  You’re coming too.  You look like you could do with a spot of exercise.”
“Oh..umm.. right.  And by the way sir, it’s Mount Fuji.”
“What? Oh yes, yes, yes.  That’s the one.” Sir Rutherford continued to suck on his pipe and gaze at the map.

II

“There’s something I’ve been meaning to talk to you about,” said Sir Rutherford as he and Hirobumi rode slowly along the road towards the great gate at the western edge of the City of Edo on Saturday morning.
“Yes, Sir Rutherford?”  Hirobumi asked lost in his own thoughts.
“Well, it’s just that I know your English is superb; second to none really in these parts.  But now and then there are occasions when perhaps the words are understood but the message isn’t.”
“Oh, yes, Sir Rutherford,” Hirobumi tried to sound interested but had no idea what his employer was trying to say.
“Hmm.  Take last night for instance.  I know I said to make sure that the American ambassador went home in a wheelbarrow after dinner but I actually meant a carriage.”
“But you said…”
“I know I used the word wheelbarrow but I expected you to grasp the meaning carriage with horse and actually, taking into account the huge girth of the American Ambassador, perhaps two horses would be more appropriate.”
“Oh I see,” the secretary furrowed his brow. “Will there be much trouble?”
“I’m not sure,” Sir Rutherford replied slowly, “but I think we might lose Hawaii.”
“Hawaii?”
“Yes, it’s a group of islands in the middle of the Pacific in the shape of a 5 and an ‘oh’.  It’s not really that important and I doubt if it will play any part in Japan’s future.”
“I am sorry, Sir Rutherford,” the servant sounded genuinely remorseful.
“Oh don’t worry, Hirobumi.”  Sir Rutherford learnt over in his saddle conspiratorially and whispered, “By the way, well done for using the wheelbarrow we collect the horse pooh in.  Very good thinking.  Very good.”

The two riders with Toby trotting between them reached the main westward gate of Edo and passed through with barely a wave of Sir Rutherford’s diplomatic papers.  Once outside they surveyed the landscape beneath them under the rising sun.
“So that’s Mount Sushi, is it?” said Sir Rutherford nodding towards a peak on the horizon.
“No, sir.  That’s Mount Fuji,” his servant gently corrected him.
“Well, where’s the fella we’re going to climb?”
“That’s it.  Mount Fuji.”
“They changed the name?”
“No.  Yes.  No.  I don’t know.  They may have changed the name, sir, but not since Wednesday afternoon.”
“Well.  Let’s head for Mount ughha….. That mountain over there.”
Hirobumi and Toby followed Sir Rutherford as he galloped down to the first of the endless sea of rice fields.  The Tokaido road stretched onwards into the distance with birds flying overhead in the blue sky and the green stalks of the rice plants waving in the breeze.  After 2 hours of riding through this landscape, Sir Rutherford turned to his secretary and said,
“Here’s a good game we can play that will help you study English no end.  I’ll look around us and choose an item I can see and then I’ll tell you the first letter.  You then have to guess what I’m thinking of.  OK?”
“Yes, I think so, sir,” replied Hirobumi with some trepidation.
“Good man,” said Sir Rutherford and then carefully looked around.  His lips parted into a feint smile and he said,
“I spy, with my little eye, something beginning with, ‘R’.”
“Rice field,” Hirobumi replied without hesitation.
“Excellent.  Well done, Hirobumi.” Sir Rutherford was very pleased at how quickly his companion had picked up the game.  “You give it a go.”
“Very well, sir.  I spy with my little eye, something beginning with ‘R’.”
“R-eh?” said Sir Rutherford scratching his chin.  “That’s a tricky one…. Rainbow?”
“No, Sir.”
“Reindeer?”
“No, Sir.”
“Rickshaw?”
“No.”
“Ripe apple?”
“No.”
“Ripe strawberry?”
“No.”
“Ripe b..”
“It’s not ‘ripe’ anything, sir.”
“Oh….. red apple?”
“No.”
“Red strawberry?”
“NO”
“Rainbow?
“You said that already sir!”
“Oh, did I?  I’m usually pretty good at this game.”
“It’s over there, sir.  In the rice field.”
“Reindeer?”
“You said that already too, sir.  And there are no reindeer in this part of Japan!  Not in the spring! Certainly not in a RICE field!”
“Yes, I see what you mean.  Not enough room with all those rice plants.”
“That’s it.  Well done, sir.”
“What?”
“Rice plant.  You said it, sir.  Oh, a million congratulations to you.”
“Oh, right.  I told you I was a bit of a natural, didn’t I?”  Sir Rutherford puffed out his chest with pride.  “One more time?”
“I’d love to, Sir Rutherford.  But maybe we should stop at that inn up ahead for some lunch.”
“Excellent idea, Hirobumi.  All this thinking has made me hungry.”   

III

The riders approached a large hut with a straw roof.  Smoke was drifting up through a hole in the centre of the roof and some chickens were clucking around at the back.  An old woman was drawing water from a well and hobbled a few steps towards Sir Rutherford and Hirobumi as they dismounted. 
“You’re not the only one with linguistic skills, Hirobumi.  Let me take care of this.”
And then to Hirobumi’s horror,  Sir Rutherford grabbed the old woman’s hand and began shaking it vigorously.  As was his custom when speaking to foreigners, Sir Rutherford spoke loudly and slowly.
“HOW DO YOU DO?  MY NAME IS SIR RUTHERFORD ALCOCK,  AMBASSADOR FOR HER MAJESTY QUEEN VICTORIA TO THE IMPERIAL CHRYSANTHEMUM COURT OF JAPAN, SURGEON (RETIRED) OF THE MARINE BRIGADE, DEPUTY INSPECTOR-GENERAL OF HOSPITALS (ALSO RETIRED), EDITOR OF RIDDLES MONTHLY AND UNBEATEN CONKER CHAMPION AT MY SCHOOL FOR THREE YEARS RUNNING.  WHOM DO I HAVE THE PLEASURE OF ADDRESSING?”
The old woman looked in a very startled way from Sir Rutherford to his secretary and then Toby who was jumping around barking.  Sir Rutherford smiled broadly raising his white bushy eyebrows.
“Eh?” the old woman eventually managed to say.
“EH?  WHAT A LOVELY THOUGH RATHER SHORT NAME.  NOW, MY DEAR, WE ARE IN NEED OF SOME VICTUALS FOR WE HAVE HAD A HARD RIDE THIS MORNING AND A CHALLENGING GAME OF I SPY.  COULD YOU RUSTLE UP SOMETHING FOR US.  AND SOMETHING FOR MY DOG.”  Sir Rutherford smiled again and pointed at Toby who was now rolling on the ground. 
“Nani suru?” she asked.
“YES, A BOWL OF SOUP WOULD BE A GOOD START!” and Sir Rutherford rubbed his stomach enthusiastically.
The innkeeper’s face now broke into a smile showing only one yellow tooth.  She began to laugh in a hoarse raspy way which soon turned to a hacking cough.  Sir Rutherford looked at her with concern but she backed away from his once again extended hand and after a few more seconds composed herself.  The old woman then gestured for the two men to precede her into the hut.  Just before she closed to the door, the innkeeper reached down surprisingly quickly and grabbed Toby roughly by the collar and dragged him inside.

The inn was dark and smoky.  The old woman bellowed at an old man who was stirring an iron cauldron of oil over a fire in the centre of the room.  He paused in the action of dropping a fish into the boiling oil and starred at Sir Rutherford and his secretary.  The old woman shouted again startling the old man who dropped the fish in the cauldron with a sizeable splash which sent some boiling oil over his bare feet.  He began to jump around the room in pain doing a strange dance, rubbing each foot in turn.  Some other men who were seated around the fire eating rice and fried fish burst into laughter wickedly at his misfortune.  The innkeeper scolded her husband a third time and he limped to a corner and picked up a couple of cushions for the two new guests.
“I say,” said Sir Rutherford, “this is a jolly place, isn’t it?”
“Yes, Sir Rutherford,” said Hirobumi, “it does have a certain character.”
“Oh look.  They must be animal lovers too for they’re taking care of dear Toby first,” Sir Rutherford observed as the old woman half carried, half dragged the dog behind a screen.
“Yes, Sir Rutherford but I think..”
“WHAT’S THAT YOU SAY?  YOU WANT US TO SIT HERE DO YOU?”  Sir Rutherford gestured with his riding crop at the recently placed cushions and pulled Hirobumi down with him.
“Sir Rutherford, I don’t want to alarm you but..” Hirobumi had caught sight of the old woman raising an axe behind the screen and really was trying not to alarm his employer.
“GOOD DAY TO YOU GENTLEMEN,” Sir Rutherford was addressing the three men seated around the fire. “MY NAME IS SIR RUTHERFORD ALCOCK, AMBASSADOR FOR HER MAJESTY QUEEN VICTORIA TO THE IMPERIAL CHRYSANTHEMUM COURT OF JAPAN, SURGEON (RETIRED) OF THE MARINE BRIGADE, DEPUTY..”
Sir Rutherford was interrupted by a dull thud from behind the screen, then some fierce barks, a lady’s scream and then a series of angry curses which made the men seated around the fire squirm with embarrassment.  Toby rushed out from behind the curtain closely followed by the woman, still holding the axe and blood flowing from a bite wound on her other hand.  The dog darted around the room barking uncontrollably while the woman tried to grab hold of it again all the while swinging the axe wildly.
“It looks like Toby didn’t like what was in the pot, eh, Hirobumi?”
Just then the old woman tripped over a log which was propped near the fire and cannoned into the large black cauldron.  The oil spilled out of it and was instantly ignited by the fire below.  The fire quickly spread across the floor and everyone ran for the exit.  The door was thrown open and Toby was first through into the sunshine.  Coughing and spluttering the people just stood in a semi-circle around the inn as the roof soon caught fire and flames leapt high into the sky.  Even Toby was silenced by the sight.  It was Hirobumi who recovered first.
“I think we should be going, Sir Rutherford,” he said urgently.
“Really?  Don’t you think we should help?  I’m sure I could organise these people into some sort of bucket chain from the well.”
“No, that won’t be necessary, sir,”  the servant replied watching the old woman in alarm who was looking from the burning inn to the axe in her hand to the two strangers who had just destroyed her business. “There are local customs and superstitions which need to be observed at times like these.”
“Oh, that sounds terribly interesting,” said Sir Rutherford as he was manhandled into his saddle by the terrified secretary.
“Yes, it is but unfortunately foreigners are forbidden to observe the rituals,”  Hirobumi spoke quickly giving the ambassador’s horse a hard slap on the hindquarters.
“Well, I wouldn’t like to intrude.  GOODBYE DEAR LADY.  WE SHALL BE SURE TO DROP BY ON OUR WAY BACK,” the English gentleman called over his shoulder as the axe landed harmlessly in a tree on the other side of the road.

IV

Sir Rutherford Alcock and Hirobumi spoke little for the rest of the afternoon as Mount Fuji gradually became larger as they approached it.  Hirobumi was beginning to wonder if they would live long enough to be killed on the mountain.  Sir Rutherford was thinking about how they would tackle the mountain because neither of them had ever been there before. 

The pair of riders continued onward and saw the town of Yoshiwara in the distance but before they reached it, the road turned sharply to the right and slightly back towards Edo from where they had ridden that morning.  Hirobumi stopped his horse under a tree and with a smile said “This is a very special place, Sir Rutherford.”
“Is it?” asked Sir Rutherford turning round in his saddle, “Why is that?”
“This is Hidari Fuji,” the young man’s eyes lit up with pride and excitement, “I have dreamt of coming to this place all my life.”
“Hidari Fuji?” Sir Rutherford muttered, “No, no. Don’t tell me.  I’ll work it out… got it.  ‘Fragrant Toilet.’”
“What?”
“Hidari Fuji.  Fragrant Toilet.  It’s the cleanest toilet between…”
“No.  No.  It’s …”
“Old woman’s bunion!”
“No, it’s not … what’s a bunion?”
“It’s a deformity on your toe caused by…”
“No, it’s not that Sir Rutherford.  It’s …”
“A cure for hiccups.”
“No, please Sir Rutherford, let me explain in my own way.”
Just then Toby gave a quick bark and ran off at full speed along the road.
“Oh, looks like the young fellas seen a rabbit,” his master said.  “Better make sure he doesn’t get into any trouble.”  And with that the ambassador galloped after his dog, the road curving back to the left.
“Yes, Sir Rutherford.  You follow your dog,” Hirobumi said sadly and sighed as he took one last lingering look at Mount Fuji and slowly rode on.

“… OF RIDDLES MONTHLY AND UNBEATEN CONKER CHAMPION AT MY SCHOOL FOR THREE YEARS RUNNING,”  Sir Rutherford was just finishing his introduction as Hirobumi dismounted from his horse.  “I WONDER IF YOU HAVE ROOMS FOR MYSELF AND MY SECRETARY.”
The middle-aged woman to whom Sir Rutherford was addressing adopted the usual pigeon stance of looking from Sir Rutherford to the secretary and back again.  “MY DOG TOO, IF YOU DON’T MIND.  HE WON’T BE ANY TROUBLE,” and then after casting his mind back to events of the afternoon, Sir Rutherford corrected himself “WELL HE WON’T BE MUCH TROUBLE.”
“Oh, Sir Rutherford,” Hirobumi quickly stepped in and started to guide the Englishman away, “I do admire the way that you practise your communication skills at every opportunity.  It must be what makes you so flawless when you meet a real guesthouse keeper and need to arrange accommodation.”
“Eh?  What?” Sir Rutherford asked totally confused.
“Yes, excellent training,” the young secretary continued, “ but maybe next time it would be more productive if you didn’t chose the proprietoress of the Yoshiwara town hostel for the deaf and dumb.”
“Deaf and dumb?  Is that what the writing above the door said?”
“Yes, I’m afraid so, sir.  I know the kanji for ‘deaf’ does look a little like that for ‘hotel’ in a certain light, if the sun’s in your eyes and you are squinting a bit but believe me, those extra 6 lines do make a difference.”
“Oh, right, yes.  Well, just wanted to get the introduction right.  I didn’t want to miss anything out.  You know, editor of ..”
“That looks a fine establishment for us to rest at,” the secretary interrupted pointing up the road, “I would be honoured if you would allow me to make the arrangements.”
“Honoured, eh?  With the ‘u’ and everything.  OK, Hirobumi.  You give it a go.”
Within 5 minutes the pair of them were relaxing in the finest sitting room of the hotel, overlooking the garden below, their feet in bowls of soothing warm salty water, cups of hot green tea at their elbows and there was even a small basket and cushion for Toby to lie in.
“I don’t know what you said to the lady at the door, Hirobumi.  But it really worked a treat,” Sir Rutherford murmured sleepily.  “Perhaps you should arrange all the accommodation on this trip.”
“Yes, Sir Rutherford.  If you don’t mind.”
“No, no.  Not all,” Sir Rutherford yawned. “By the way.  That place we stopped at just outside town.”
“Oh, yes?” Hirobumi tried to hide his disappointment.
“Did you realise that it was the only point on the whole road today that Mount Sushi was on the left?  All the rest of the way it was on the right hand side,” he yawned again, “but because of that curve in the road, for just a few yards, Mount Sushi was on the left.  Remarkable…. Absolutely remarkable.”
“Yes, Sir Rutherford.  It was remarkable,” the secretary smiled and pulled the blanket up to the shoulders of his sleeping employer. 

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Comments
  1. Robert French of the Parish of Twickenham Common, Middlesex, England says:

    Gambete, Sir Rutherford! And if you do find my missing black glove on the top I would be eternally grateful if you would have your little Hirobumi chappy bring it back down again. Thanks awfully old bean!

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