Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Mountains of character

On writers who choose to write about peaks as if they were people

"A mountain becomes great as a human personality does, by extending its influence over the thoughts, words, and actions of mankind." Such are the opening words of Ten Great Mountains (1940), a title that could not fail to attract the attention of a blogger dedicated to Japan's One Hundred Mountains.

One of ten
These ten great mountains were written up by Graham ("R L G") Irving (1877-1969). A teacher of French and mathematics at Winchester, the famous English public school, Irving took a select group of his pupils to the Alps every summer and led them, without guides, up difficult ridges and faces. It was on one of these ascents that George Mallory, the most brilliant of Irving's protégées, found the inspiration for his essay comparing a day well spent in the Alps to "some great symphony".

But we digress. In selecting his mountains, Irving had to answer the same question as a later Japanese author - on what criteria should they be chosen? In the end, it was "personality" that counted. As Irving explains, "Besides actual height there are many things that contribute to make a mountain great: its position, its form, its character, its history, everything that is embodied in the personality it has developed with the spirit of man." Finally, he settled on Snowdon, Ben Nevis, Mt Cook, the Matterhorn, Ushba, Mt Blanc, Mt Logan, Nanga Parbat, Kangchenjunga and Everest.

Is it right to attribute human characteristics to the natural landscape? The art critic and mountain aesthetician John Ruskin (1819-1900) thought not. To do so, he sneered, was to commit a "pathetic fallacy". But Ruskin was a repeat offender against his own stricture. In the same book that denounces the pathetic fallacy, he did not shrink from describing mountains as "lifted towards heaven in a stillness of perpetual mercy". Or glaciers as the last resting place of archangels.

For pathetic fallaciousness was rampant in those days. In a poem of 1897, Thomas Hardy sees the rugged character of Leslie Stephen projected onto the Schreckhorn's "spare and desolate figure". A pioneer alpinist, Stephen had made the Swiss mountain's first ascent a few decades earlier. As the editor of a London journal, he'd also been the first to recognise Hardy's literary talent; perhaps the novelist and poet felt he owed him one.

Imbued with the spirit of Leslie Stephen

Objections to the pathetic fallacy have never made much headway in Japan. After all, Shinto has always taught that mountains, trees and waterfalls have souls - or share in the universal 'kami' - just as people do. Be that as it may, few of the Meiji-era Japanese mountain writers felt any qualms about transposing the natural scene into human terms.

Here, for example, is the short story and travel writer Kōda Rohan (1867-1947) describing his first encounter with the Hodaka massif:

Beyond the broad declivity in front of us rose up a noble and lofty range, manly in aspect, inspiring both awe and joy. Caught unawares, I was moved almost to tears. A reckless urge to reach out for the mountain took hold of me. For a moment, it was hard to say whether I held the mountain in my gaze or the mountain held me in his.

Kogure Ritaro
Yet more anthropomorphic in his writing style was Kogure Ritarō, the archivist and pioneer alpinist. This is Kogure on Kinpu-san, a peak in his beloved Chichibu mountains:

This is a splendid mountain. It rises in solitary state above the rest of the range and it can hold up its head in the company of any mountain in all Japan. Just as we call somebody who achieves something from the ground up a man among men, so this mountain has strength of character that makes it a mountain among mountains, compare it where you will.

Not by accident, Kogure is one of the most-quoted authorities in Japan's most famous mountain book, the Nihon Hyakumeizan ("One Hundred Mountains of Japan"). That shouldn't come as a surprise, because, just like Kogure, the Hyakumeizan author aimed to humanise his subjects: "Mountains have character in greater or smaller measure, just as people do," wrote Fukada Kyūya in the afterword to his book: "And mountains, like people, must have character."

At times, it seems that Fukada's mountains soak up the character of the people living among them. Or is it the other way round? Here is the Hyakumeizan author explaining why Chōkai has always been accorded first place among the mountains of Tōhoku.

Taking somewhat after the region’s inhabitants, the mountains of the north-east come across as heavy and solid, if not downright lumpish. Chōkai, though, is untouched by this ponderousness. The mountain seems to soar. Viewed from Sakata, one would almost say that it cuts a dash. Only an isolated peak like Chōkai, no straggling ridge, could carry this off.

Except perhaps in Tōhoku, readers of Nihon Hyakumeizan liked the way that Fukada associated them with their mountains. Soon after the book came out in 1964, it won a major literary prize. "This is one of the most original works of criticism that I've seen in recent years," remarked one of the judges. "The objects of critical thought are, in this case, mountains. The author has chosen to write about mountains as if they were people."

In Japan, this was the moment when mountains of character went mainstream.

Friday, March 28, 2014

For what it's worth

A Taishō-era meditation on the meaning and worth of mountaineering

Is it worth it? This is the question that floats to the surface after a mountaineering accident. Following his epoch-making first ascent of the Eiger Mittelegi ridge in September 1921, Maki “Yūkō” Aritsune (1894-1989, picture left) returned to Japan and set about training up a new generation of Japanese alpinists.

At first, all went well. On March 30, 1922, he led a group of young ski-mountaineers to the top of Yari-ga-take. In the summer, he held a technical training camp in Karesawa, in the heart of the Northern Alps.

Then came nemesis: in January 1923 on Tateyama, one of Maki’s companions collapsed and died of exposure in a snowstorm. The victim, Itakura Katsunobu, was one of the most promising and experienced of Japan’s young alpinists. As the son of a former daimyō, he was also a scion of the aristocracy.

Explanations were needed, and responsibility had to be taken. Maki fulfilled both obligations in an essay entitled “On the death of Itakura Katsunobu” (板倉勝宣の死). In the opening passage, he also weighs up the meaning and worth of mountaineering itself:

The evolution from summer to winter mountaineering is a natural one. If we want to get to grips with ice and snow, we have to go to the mountains in winter. In the summer mountains, all that remains to be developed is climbing technique – that is, rock climbing or “klettern”, to use the German word. Now, if we were happy just to follow in the footsteps of our predecessors, there would be no particular problem – we would have no need to seek out any new paths for ourselves. 

But if we wish to build on the experience and knowledge of our predecessors and to push out the frontiers, even if only a little way, then we’ll always be seeking out new paths. That said, it’s quite permissible for a mountaineer to have ordinary, humdrum ambitions, as long as these don’t diverge from the true path. In any mountaineering activity worthy of the name, I believe that the people involved derive some value from it. 

In this particular case, however, I would deeply regret it if confusion were to be caused by my own failure or by the aspects of mountaineering that can invite misunderstanding. As Sir Francis Younghusband observed, one could look at mountaineering either as an art form or as the youthful spirit of a people finding expression in a sport. Yet, whatever one’s view or interpretation, mountaineering is a complex and multifaceted activity. 

As one might surmise from the existence of a word such as “oromania”, mountaineers have an undeniably compulsive disposition, one that couldn’t contemplate a life without mountains to climb. There are the delights they find in exploring the vast and beautiful mountain world of nature. There are the hardships they overcome or the tranquil state of mind they attain as they stand aloof from the world. Each mountaineer finds his own kind of satisfaction. 

One thing is constant, though; once you are dealing with the vagaries of mountains and weather, a certain level of risk is unavoidable. Some might say that it’s unwise to expose oneself to danger. I would say, rather, that one should oppose that risk by proceeding with both courage and the maximum degree of caution. To go forward not defensively but with resolve – this is surely the sound and substantial way.


Maki Yūkō, "On the death of Itakura Katsunobu", in selected essays published as "Mountain journeys" (山行).

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Hyakumeizan of relative height

A philosophical attempt to upset the established order

Height above sea-level isn’t everything, I realised while musing on the difficulty of defining a mountain – a topic touched on in the previous post. I mean, if you climb to 4,810 metres in western Europe, you are standing on top of Mt Blanc, with the world laid out at your feet. But the same altitude in Tibet hardly raises you above the level of the dusty plateau.

The view from relative altitude

Fukada Kyūya made a nod towards that resolving that awkwardness in the afterword to his One Hundred Mountains of Japan. A mountain’s height, he suggests, is one thing; its stature quite another. In the end, though, his choice of mountains is purely personal, based mainly on their aesthetic and historical appeal. Thus the Hyakumeizan author neatly sidesteps the philosophical question of what constitutes a mountain.

Others have taken a more rigorous approach to the problem. The other day I happened on a list of one hundred mountains of the world ranked by their “primary factor” or prominence. Prominence here is defined as the minimal vertical drop from the summit one has to descend before one can ascend a higher peak. In effect, it is a measure of how far a mountain stands proud of its surroundings.

Relatively high

In this ranking, Mt Everest is still Top Mountain; indeed, it has to be, by definition, for no higher peak can be ascended. What is interesting about this ranking by prominence is what happens lower down the table. Aconcagua (6962 metres) vaults over the heads of numberless Himalayan peaks into second place. And Mt Blanc, as befits its lordly eminence over the lesser Alps, makes it all the way up into 11th place.

Clearly, it helps to be an “island peak” if you want to make a good showing in this table. As a result, big volcanoes do well – some might say disproportionately so. Even modest Mt Fuji (3776 metres) is promoted to 35th place. For their part, Kilimanjaro (5895 metres) is up there in fourth place, Damavand (5610 metres) in 12th, and Mauna Kea (4205 metres), the roof of the Hawaiian islands, in 15th.

Mention of Mauna Kea made me wonder, though. Isn’t this ranking by prominence just as arbitrary as the traditional ranking of mountains by absolute height above sea level? For, in reality, Mauna Kea rises not from the sea’s surface but from the sea floor, which on average is more than 4,800 metres deep in these parts. So the real Mauna Kea is a structure that rises almost 9,000 metres from its base – higher than Everest.

Top of the world?

This doctrine of “real topographical relief” could dangerously subvert the established order. And, in the hands of Koaze Takashi, a professor of geography at Meiji University, it does just that. Measuring from the depths of the nearby Japan Trench, reckons the professor, Mt Fuji rises a breath-taking 12,000 metres above its base. And, he estimates, Everest could only rival that elevation if the sediments in the Ganges Basin were excavated down to the offshore bedrock.

Could it be that, in terms of true planetary topography, Mt Fuji is now the highest mountain in the world?


The Earth: an intimate history, by Richard Fortey, for the maunderings about Mauna Kea.

Yama wo yomu (Reading mountains) by Koaze Takashi, Professor of Geography at Meiji University.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

A mountain for philosophers

How the Shirane Mountains of Kai, or one of them, morphed into today's Kita-dake

Once again, a reader of this blog raises a thought-provoking question. This is the message that came in from "Anon" the other day:-

My son is doing a report for school on Mount Kita in Japan. We are having trouble finding what kind of mountain range it is and the history of the mountain. Do you have any ideas or resources?

Anon’s mention of a school report reminded me of a certain Peanuts cartoon:-

“Mountains are so you can climb to the top and see where you’ve been.” How cute. Yet, come to think of it, Lucy’s “operational definition” is not so naïve. For, in truth, mountains – “Mount Kita” included – are quite slippery customers when you try to pin them down as concepts. The basic problem is that it’s hard to tell where one mountain stops and another begins.

This very question has spawned a small but dense academic literature on the ontology of mountains. Here – no kidding – you’ll find philosophers and geographers agonizing about whether mountains can be considered as objectively real. As two of these savants put it, "individual mountains lack many of the properties that characterize bona fide objects [such as tables and chairs]".

Social construct or fiat object?
This being the case, the two savants (see references), lean towards the conclusion that a mountain is a social construct. In other words, Mt Everest exists only because people agree that it does:

As an object, therefore, which was delineated, marked out, demarcated, set into relief in this fashion, and thereby also named, Mount Everest exists only as a result of human beliefs and habits. In this sense Mount Everest is, like downtown Santa Barbara … a product of socially established beliefs and habits. It is a fiat object.

OK, OK, I hear you objecting, but what does all this have to do to do with “Mount Kita”? After all, one only has to go to Wikipedia to find that Kita-dake is "the second tallest mountain in Japan, after Mount Fuji, and is known as ‘the Leader of the Southern Alps’.” Isn’t that clear enough?

As it turns out, though, the Leader of the Southern Alps is, ontologically speaking, as slippery a customer as any. In his write-up in Nihon Hyakumeizan, Fukada Kyūya virtually admits as much.

Everyone knows that Fuji is Japan's highest mountain, but ask people which the second-highest is and few will be able to reply. And even when they learn that it is Kita-dake, most will be unable to tell you where the mountain is situated. If you mention Shirane in the province of Kai, you may get a flicker of recognition because it is under this name that the peak appears in a famous passage from the Tale of the Heike, a medieval martial romance:

"In dismal spirits, Shigehira traversed the ivied path at Mount Utsu and journeyed beyond Tegoshi. Snowy peaks appeared far to the north; and, upon making enquiry, he was told they were the Shirane Mountains in Kai. He expressed his feelings in verse, restraining tears:

I do not desire
to cling to this wretched life,
yet, most happily,
I have survived to behold
the Shirane Mountains of Kai."

The Three Mountains of Shirane (photo: Wikipedia)
The difficulty here is that the “Shirane” name doesn’t exactly correspond to today’s Kita-dake – it rather refers to the whole snowy ridgeline that you see from the Yamanashi plains. To be sure, some folk used “Shirane” to refer only to today’s Kita-dake. That is, unless they were writing poems, in which case they sometimes preferred “Kai-ga-ne”.

If this seems confusing, remember that there wasn’t anything special about Kita-dake in those days. Unlike nearby Kaikoma, it wasn’t much of a destination for pilgrims. Nor was it prominent in the landscape, like Mt Fuji. And nobody back then was interested in climbing mountains just because they were high.

Climbing mountains because they are high (or steep) is a new-fangled idea. In Japan, it came in with the Meiji period and its first exponent was a young banker and journalist by the name of Kojima Usui. As is well known to readers of this blog, Kojima chose Yarigatake for his mountain expedition of 1902. This was partly because he thought the spire-shaped peak was the second-highest mountain in Japan and still unclimbed. As it happened, he was headed for disappointment on both counts.

Survey tower on Yari
When Kojima scrambled up Yari on August 17, 1902, he found that the cramped summit was already marked by a wooden survey tower. The Army surveyors, who were preparing Japan’s first series of modern maps, had topped out before him. As they’d already surveyed the Shirane mountains, it soon became clear that Yari had to concede the title of Japan’s second-highest mountain.

It was probably the Army surveyors who decided to fix on the name Kita-dake for their new maps. “Kita-dake” – which just means ‘the northern peak’ – may have appealed to the military mind as a pragmatic way of cutting through the taxonomical chaos. After all, Kita-dake is unarguably the northernmost of what even today are known as the “Three mountains of Shirane”.

At that time, unfortunately, it was still far from certain exactly which three summits comprised the “Shirane San-zan”. This led to a vigorous debate within the newly formed Japanese Alpine Club:-

This, of course, raises the question of which mountains the chronicle was actually referring to, an issue vigorously debated in our day by Kojima Usui and Takatō Shoku in the pages of the Sangaku journal between 1912 and 1914 (from the seventh to the ninth editions). The two protagonists brandished an impressive array of old maps and documents at each other, while third and even fourth parties uproariously stuck their oars in. While our forebears enjoyed a more leisurely pace of life than our own, as this episode suggests, one must admire the vigor with which they strove to clarify our orographic nomenclature. (Nihon Hyakumeizan)

Kita-dake, now with added "Buttress"
In the end, it was the Army’s choice of names that prevailed, thus deep-sixing centuries of literary usage. It is not known (to this blogger) exactly when “Kita-dake” became official. But Kojima Usui himself used that name when he visited the mountain in 1908.

It was on this trip that Kojima named Kita-dake’s most salient feature – the long rock pillar running down its east face. As no suitably rugged native word came to mind, Kojima opted for the English “buttress” – and, suitably transliterated into katakana, Kita-dake Buttress it remains to this day.

And so the literary “Shirane” morphed by degrees into a thoroughly modern mountain, complete with paths and huts, flower fields for photographers, and a steep Buttress for alpinists to have epics on. In retrospect, it's a mercy that the name changed too. For the new Kita-dake had nothing in common with the Shirane of yore. Perhaps that's why the Hyakumeizan author concluded his write-up by calling it "a mountain for philosophers.”


Fukada Kyūya, Nihon Hyakumeizan, soon to be published in English as One Hundred Social Constructs of Japan

Barry Smith and David M. Mark, “Do Mountains Exist ? Towards an Ontology of Landforms”, Preprint version of a paper forthcoming in Environment & Planning B (Planning and Design)

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

So that I have the clear sky overhead

The explorer whose belly could store all the mountains and rivers of Yezo

Thanks to Japan's most famous mountain book, we know who Matsuura Takeshirō was. He was the explorer who journeyed through the wilds of Ezo (now Hokkaidō) between 1845 and 1858, laying the groundwork for the northern island's later development.

Matsuura Takeshirō 
In Nihon Hyakumeizan, Matsuura first appears as a 27-year-old wanderer, composing a poem about Akan-dake (Chapter 4) on the day after climbing this shapely 1,503-metre volcano. A few pages later, he is responsible for the naming of Biei, a town close to Tokachi-dake (Chapter 7).

In alpinistic terms, Matsuura's greatest feat was the mid-winter ascent of Yōteizan (Chapter 9), a Fuji-like stratovolcano of 1,893 metres to the south of Sapporo. He set up a shrine at the mountain's foot on February 2, 1858 and then addressed himself to the ascent, which included an overnight bivouac in subzero conditions. We next run across Matsuura's trail in the Kansai region, where he pioneered a route up Ōdai-ga-hara-yama in 1885 (Chapter 90).

So that is what Matsuura did, at least in connection with mountains. But what inspired his ceaseless wanderings? To answer that question, we have to look beyond the pages of Nihon Hyakumeizan. Fortunately for English-speakers, the explorer's life was written up by the anthropologist Frederick Starr in a slim pamphlet published in 1916.

What follows is based on Starr's account, with added detail from three other sources (see references). Starr first heard of Matsuura when he visited Hokkaidō in 1904 "to secure a group of Ainu for the outdoor ethnologic exhibit of the Lousiana Purchase Exposition at St. Louis". It turned out that Matsuura's travel journals constituted one of the most authoritative sources of information on the Ainu at that time.

 Matsuura Takeshirō's map of Hokkaidō 

Matsuura Takeshirō was born at Kitanoe in Ise Province in February 1818. His father had studied literature under Motoori Norinaga - whose "national learning" provided the intellectual underpinnings for the Emperor's Restoration in 1868 - and Takeshirō embarked on a similar education when he was sent, at the age of thirteen, to the school of Hiramatsu Rakusai in Tsu.

From the age of seventeen, Matsuura began "a remarkable series of wanderings" that took him all over Honshū, calling on men of letters, visiting shrines and places of historic interest, and climbing "notable and famous peaks". But it was while serving as a monk in a Zen temple at Nagasaki - he was now twenty-one - that news reached him of Russian ships approaching Japan's northern territories. This seems to have awakened his interest in Ezo, as Japan's northern island was then known.

Getting there took several years. One preliminary was to pay his respects to the graves of his parents, who had died during his wanderings. Another was to visit the shrines of Ise. As Starr explains:

"He desired here to pay respect to the national deities and sacred shrines, but, as a shaven priest of Buddhism, might not do so. Here was exemplified one of the most curious characteristics of the man. Though he continued his daily prayers, morning and evening, through his life, after the Buddhist fashion, he placed national loyalty above his Buddhist fervor; abandoning the priesthood, he permitted his hair to grow, and performed the duties of filial piety and national respect at Ise."

Crossing the straits

A first attempt to cross the straits of Tsugaru was rebuffed by officialdom. So it wasn't until 1845 that Matsuura at last succeeded in getting passage to Ezo, where he travelled for seven months. On his second expedition, a year later, Takeshiro travelled as far as Karafuto (Sakhalin) and Cape Shiretoko before returning to Hakodate.

Matsuura built up friendships with his Ainu guides and started learning their language. He also kept detailed journals, recording everything he saw - plants, animals, human beings, life, customs, products, soils, topography, altitudes, drainage, coastlines. More than two hundred of these note books were filled with observations.

After his third journey, which took him to Kunashiri and Etorofu in the Chishima Islands, Matsuura started to assemble his observations into a series of reports. In the end, his writings on Ezo would fill thirty-five volumes. He also drew up maps. These were astonishingly accurate given that he had only a pocket compass and his own paces to measure directions and distances.

Partly as a result of these researches, the feudal government started to wake up to the northern island's strategic importance and appointed Matsuura as a kind of commissioner between 1855 and 1859. Although these duties took him to Ezo three more times, life as an official wasn't entirely to Matsuura's liking. When he left government service, he composed the following poem:

Laugh not, men of the world!
Though my house be small
My belly can store
All the mountains and rivers of Yezo.
For wealth and honours
I care not, as the years advance, 
So that I have the clear sky overhead.

Cape Erimo, based on a sketch by Matsuura

Matsuura's retirement from public service was temporary. In 1868, the new Meiji government appointed him judge at Hakodate. The following year, he became the 'development commissioner' for the northern island and submitted six proposals for its re-naming. These included Kaihokudō and Hokkaidō, which both included variations of the word Kai, the Ainu name for the island. In the end,  the government settled on Hokkaidō or "Northern Circuit". The name has stuck. In these years, Matsuura also helped with the transfer of the capital from Kyōto to Tōkyō, and served as adjutant to the governor of the new metropolitan region.

After again retiring from public life, Matsuura devoted himself to his personal interests. His house in Tōkyō become a centre for artists, poets, and men of affairs. He expressed his admiration for Sugawara no Michizane by dedicating a series of mirrors to shrines commemorating the Heian-era scholar official. And he made a yearly journey down the Tokaidō to visit his son in Ōsaka.

Mountains were not forgotten. Between 1885 and 1887, when Matsuura was almost seventy, he "opened" Ōdai-ga-hara-yama in Yamato Province, establishing shrines at seventy-five places around the wooded massif. As in Ezo, his aims were a mixture of practical and personal: he would follow in the footsteps of the semi-legendary mountain mystic, En no Gyōja, and overcome local superstitions - at the time, local people believed that a giant serpent haunted the mountaintop. At the same time, he would discover new tracts of arable land and find himself "a burial place in a spot beautiful by nature".

The stele on Odaigahara-yama

Matsuura was not greatly interested in money; he "desired neither to have a fortune in his life-time, nor to leave money at his death". A man didn't need much; he'd accomplished his life's work in Ezo on the slenderest of means. About two years before he died, he had the idea of building a small room of one-mat size. There had already been a house in Japan measuring one and one-half mats, he said, but never one of just a single mat.

The one-mat room was built onto Matsuura's house in Kanda. His friends contributed pieces of timber or stone from various famous and historic buildings. When it was finished, in late 1886, the little structure seemed to sum up Japan's cultural heritage - it included wood from the temple of Shi-tennō-ji in Osaka, a board from the library of the Kofuku-ji, a post from the Togetsu bridge in Kyoto and scores of other precious relics.

The One-Mat Room

Matsuura never intended the one-mat room to survive him. As Fukada Kyūya records in Nihon Hyakumeizan, "In his latter years, he had built himself a tiny but elegant retreat. To an account of why he had built the little scriptorium he added the request that, when he died, its materials should become his funeral pyre and the ashes scattered on Ōdai-ga-hara-yama." (Nihon Hyakumeizan, Chapter 90)

That account is accurate as far as it goes. What Fukada doesn't tell us is that Matsuura's wishes were disregarded. As a result, and after three moves away from central Tokyo, the one-mat room can still be seen today, as part of the Taizansō villa on the grounds of International Christian University in Mitaka, Tokyo. That is one tribute to Matsuura's memory. Others include a Memorial Museum in Matsusaka City, Mie Prefecture, and - as might be expected - a stele on Ōdai-ga-hara-yama.

The statue of Matsuura at Kushiro

Yet the monument that Fukada Kyūya chooses to highlight in Nihon Hyakumeizan is a "small and inconspicuous" bronze statue that graces the front court of a public hall on a hill top in Kushiro, Hokkaidō. It shows Matsuura, writing brush in one hand and notebook in the other, gazing out in the direction of Akan-dake, as if mulling over the lines he has just composed to mark his ascent:

The wind ceases to ruffle the water. 
I retrace my way along the cliffs in my boat in the light of the setting sun. 
On the water I see the shadow of the silver-shining mountain, a thousand spans high, 
The mountain I climbed yesterday.

March 28, Ansei 5 (1858)

Akan-dake, the silver-shining mountain 


Fukada Kyūya, Nihon Hyakumeizan, in a forthcoming translation as One hundred mountains of Japan.

Frederick Starr, The old geographer: Matsuura Takeshiro, 1916 - reprinted by University of Michigan Library 

Henry D. Smith II,  Lessons from the One-Mat Room: Piety and Playfulness among Nineteenth-Century Japanese Antiquarians, Columbia.

Matsusaka's godparent of Hokkaido: the life of Matsuura Takeshiro, Matsuura Takeshiro Memorial Museum, Matsusaka City, Mie. 


Monday, December 2, 2013

A modest proposal

Should the Senkaku Islands be designated as a nature reserve?

Seeing that they've been in the news, I Google Earth'd over to the Senkaku (or Diaoyu) Islands. Not, of course, with the aim of stoking controversy, but just to see if there was any climbing potential. Which is rather poor, I'm sorry to report. Although the islets rise with promising steepness out of the ocean, the cliffs look loose and vegetated.

Besides, would-be climbers might disturb the short-tailed albatrosses (Phoebastria albatrus) that live there. In Japanese, this engaging bird is known as the "ahō-dori" ('foolish fowl'), a name that refers to its habit of letting people walk right up to it. In return for this trust in human nature, it was hunted almost to extinction in the nineteenth century.

Since hunting was banned, the global population has recovered to a few thousand or so - about 2,000 birds on Torishima, an island in the Izu chain, and a few hundred more on Minami-kojima, one of the Senkaku group.

Japan's Agency for Cultural Affairs long ago declared Torishima and the "ahō-dori" itself to be 'natural monuments'. Surprisingly, though, this distinction has so far eluded Minami-kojima, the bird's only other breeding ground. Now there's an idea. Perhaps it's time that the Senkaku Islands were designated a special natural monument or even a national park ...

Friday, November 15, 2013

In the matter of Mrs Weston

A pioneering lady alpinist in late Meiji Japan

For Japanese alpinism, 1902 marked an epoch. In August, Kojima Usui climbed Yari-ga-take, a feat that led to the founding of the Japanese Alpine Club. And, in the same month, the geographer Yamasaki Naomasa found signs that these mountains had once been glaciated.

Frances and Walter Weston  

The year was no less epochal for Walter Weston (1860-1940). On April 3, the mountaineering missionary at last married - he was now well past his forty-first birthday. The bride was Frances Emily (1872-1937), the second daughter of Sir Francis Fox, a civil engineer.

At this time, Weston was between his first and second stays in Japan, serving as the priest in charge of Christ Church at Wimbledon in Surrey. Later in the same year, Mr and Mrs Weston would take ship for Yokohama, where they would both work for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel.

Also propagated during this stay, which lasted until 1905, was quite a bit of mountaineering. The couple's alpine adventures were later written up in Weston's second book about Japan, The Playground of the Far East (1918) - which also covers the Westons' second stint in Japan (Walter Weston's third), from 1911 to 1915.

Mrs Weston soon made the acquaintance of Mt Fuji and its notoriously fickle weather. As her husband later recorded,

Early one July, my wife and I were not only imprisoned, at a height of 10,000 feet, by a storm which raged on the mountain for three days, but our coolies refused to go to the actual summit, and we had to finish the climb alone in the tail end of the typhoon … Now, on each occasion my wife has climbed Fuji with me such storms have been our lot .

Even greater excitement awaited the Westons at Kamikōchi, the gateway to what was then being rebranded as the "Japan Northern Alps". In those days, a herd of cattle belonging to the breeding farm of the Nagano Prefectural authorities used to graze the right bank of the Azusa river. It was here, one summer afternoon, that the Westons were confronted by an angry bull:

Suddenly, to our astonished gaze presented itself the form of this fierce monster planted firmly in the path no more than a dozen yards ahead. There he stood, waving his uplifted tail, pawing the ground, and shaking his huge, sharp horns with alarming and increasing energy… At the moment my wife happened to be in front of me … In answer to an agitated exclamation, "He's coming for me, what had I better do?" the only natural reply was, "You take cover to the right, and I'll go to the left," a manoeuvre no sooner suggested than executed .

Frustrated in his efforts to gore the Westons, the bull then chased good old Kamijō Kamonji into the middle of the river. Fortunately, the mishap did nothing to dampen the faithful guide's regard for his missionary client and friend.

Yari-sawa with Yari-ga-take in the background
As her sangfroid during the bull incident would suggest, Mrs Weston did not shrink from steep ground. A photo shows her taking part in a roped ascent of Yari-ga-take, the spire-shaped peak above Kamikōchi. Just as in Weston's first visit to Yari, two decades earlier, the party was guided by old Kamijō, this time accompanied by his son and Kamijō's dog. (Sorry, Hana, this hound may have scored the first canine ascent of the spire-shaped peak.)

Climbing Yari
In the summer of 1913, the Westons headed for Shirouma, a peak that had previously eluded him. By this time, modernity had reached the Northern Japanese Alps. Trains now ran where, on his first visit to Japan back in the 1890s, Weston would have walked or taken a horse-drawn basha. A new light railway took the couple as far as Shinano-Ohmachi, from where they hired a "spacious landau" that had seen better days. At Akashina, they stayed at a hotel which advertised itself as a "station of the Japanese Alpine Club".

On foot now, they traced the "delightful route" up to Nakabusa. There, with immense pride, their host told them that one of the springs had been found by a government analyst to contain traces of radium - a prospect that the English couple "could only view with sentiments somewhat mixed".

Next morning, a four-hour scramble in the cool air of the fragrant forest took them to the ridgeline south of Tsubakurō-dake. Then they traversed over Ōtensho, before putting up for the night in a comfortable bivouac cave at Ninomata-koya. An eleven-hour tramp on the third day brought them down into Kamikōchi, where the whole onsen crew turned out to welcome them. For was the first time that a "European party" had ever traversed this route, Weston recorded.

That remark was telling – for Walter Weston, the pioneering days were over. In 1892, he’d climbed Yari years before either the Japanese surveyors or Kojima Usui got there. But now the roles were reversed – it was the gentlemen of the Japanese Alpine Club, led by Kojima himself, who had pioneered the long ridge route that the Westons had just completed.
Climbing in the Alps

All this meant that it was a bit late for Mrs Weston to break a trail of her own. The Japanese women of the Taishō era didn’t need role models from abroad – they just went climbing. As for foreign women climbing in Japan, that particular taboo had been shattered half a century before, when Mrs Parkes, wife of the British minister to Japan, accompanied her husband to the top of Mt Fuji.

Curiously, it may have been back in Europe that Mrs Weston helped to blaze a trail. Her climbs in the Swiss Alps made her eligible to join the Ladies' Alpine Club, founded in 1907 by the hard-driving Mrs Aubrey 'Lizzie' LeBlond.

Indeed, that was the only option for a lady mountaineer at the time. The original Alpine Club, of which her husband was a proud member, would not admit ladies until 1974. In Japan, piquantly, the Japanese Alpine Club formed a women's section in 1949, modernising itself more quickly than the model on which it had been founded…