Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Meizan spring & autumn (5)

Failing to see Mt Fuji from Hakusan's separate mountain

Was it really necessary to get up two hours before daylight? I may have been rash enough to put the question to the Sensei over our pre-dawn cup of coffee. “You’ll see,” was all she said.


Soon after daybreak, we were walking up through a shadowy forest. The sun had yet to climb over Chiburi-one, the ridge we were heading for. Now I was beginning to understand the early start – geographically speaking, Bessan may be only an appendage to the Hakusan massif. Yet, as the name suggests, it is a “separate mountain”, and to climb it, you need to raise yourself through much the same interval – sixteen hundred vertical metres – as for Hakusan.

In the half-light, the huge trunks rose around us like columns in a Romanesque cathedral. The Sensei pointed out a particularly magnificent tree. It’s a konka, she said. Eh, I asked, what kanji do you spell that with? She gave me a funny look. Ah, naruhodo, a conker.

We stopped to fill our water bottles at a spring from central casting – a little rill of snow-chilled water, clear as crystal glass, burbling out from under a mossy arch of boulders. No wonder the trees like it here. As we climbed on in the growing light, the giant horse-chestnuts, oaks and katsura gradually gave way to beech trees.

On the ridge proper, we passed through a stand of maple, their leaves backlit a dramatic yellow against the liquid-blue autumn sky. Now we were in the realm of the kōyō, the autumn colours for which Japan’s mountain forests are justly famed.


But – or was this just a nostalgia attack? – perhaps those autumnal ochres and maroons and crimsons weren’t flaring quite as they used to. Stripping off another layer of fibre-pile, I wondered if it was just too warm to start the leaves turning properly.

We sat in a beech grove, sipping the cool water, munching sweet natto, and looking out at the white fringing to Hakusan’s summit crest yonder – yesterday’s clouds must have sprinkled down a little snow, the year’s first.

A clatter of rotor blades cut into our musings – a dun-coloured helicopter, a military spotter, choppered its way up the valley, then circled back. This hatsu-yuki no longer belonged to us.

Refreshed, we climbed into the realm of the dake-kamba, the rosy-barked high mountain birch. An exposed path led across a flank of the ridge. Fortunately, the black earth of the path was dry. Then suddenly we left the trees and moved up onto a grassy hogsback.


There’s sometimes a large snake here, sunning itself, said the Sensei, whose encounters with the local wildlife include quite a few bear and viper sightings. Privately, I hoped it was too late in the year for such denizens, but you never know your luck in these warming times.

Lunch was taken on a comfortable rock slab beside the refuge hut, some two-thirds of the way up the ridge. Beside the hollow-log water-trough, a sign invited us to clean our boots with the washing-up brushes provided. The idea, it explained, was to stop alien seeds from the lowlands migrating into the alpine zone. Truly, times have changed around here.

Again our musings were interrupted – this time, the whup-whup of rotor blades came from a big Bell helicopter, complete with chin-turret for its gyro-stabilised cameras. Apparently, a visit from NHK. And already the craft was sashaying to and fro across the summit ridge opposite, reeling in footage of the year’s first snow for the evening news show.

When the whine of the twin turbines had died away, we pried ourselves off our sun-warmed slab and turned to the last part of our climb. End-on, the top of Chiburi-one looked almost alpine. Soon our boots crunched through the first shards of ice while, all around, the creeping pine boughs that fringed the path rustled and whispered as they shed last night’s frozen snow.

On the col, a cold wind blew. Taking shelter in a hollow, the Sensei delegated the summit push to me. Ten minutes along the level ridge I came up to a small shrine, fringed with icicles – it’s said that Taichō Daishi, the monk who “opened” Hakusan in that first year of Yōrō (717) also pioneered the Chiburi ridge route to this subsidiary peak.


Beyond a summit marker inscribed with our height – 2,399 metres – the rocky spine of Honshū floated above a blue gulf of low-level haze. My gaze tracked rightwards from the hacksaw serrations of the Northern Alps – yes, there was the pimple of Yari and the statelier domes of the Hodaka massif – across a gap to Ontake, isolated and aloof – and then further still, southwards, to the indistinct ripples of the Chuo Alps.

Those ripples … I wish I’d looked harder in that direction. According to Michio Masunaga in his magisterial book on the mountains of Echizen, an Edo-era scholar named Kuroda Tomoari (1792-1859), who climbed Bessan in search of medicinal herbs, reported that he saw Mt Fuji from here.


Is this really possible? By consensus, Japan’s highest mountain can’t be seen from the top of Hakusan, fully 300 metres higher than Bessan, because the line of sight is blocked by Ontake. As for Bessan, Masunaga-san says that Mt Fuji would simply be hidden by the earth’s curvature; he himself, in a lifetime of mountaineering, has never seen the mountain from Bessan.

Hoping to settle the question, I later looked at my copy of the Handbook for Climbing Mt Fuji. Unfortunately, this invaluable reference just muddies matters further - it has a map that suggests that Mt Fuji can indeed be seen from the prefectures of both Fukui and Ishikawa, in which the Hakusan/Bessan massif stands. But, if so, where are those lofty viewpoints?


There was no time to pursue such enquiries now. The Sensei would be freezing in her bower of creeping pine, and we’d better be heading down – the sun was already westering tendentiously towards the Japan Sea.


Sixteen hundred downward metres are hard on the knees. Ours were laughing, as the Japanese say. Yet we managed to keep the sun in the sky until the lowermost woods. Then he dipped below the ridge and we were left darkling. Stars were pricking through the forest canopy by the time we reached the Sensei’s van. There was no need to ask again why we'd got up so early.



Sunday, November 22, 2015

Meizan spring & autumn (4)

Kyōgatake: a volcano that has taken the vow of silence

If you want to get to know a mountain, it’s best to visit in the company of its local guardians. So I leapt at the chance to inspect Kyōgatake with members of the Fukui Mountaineering Club, including its venerable president, Michio Masunaga. Appropriately, the summit we meant to climb is the highest that lies wholly within the borders of the club's home prefecture.


Skippping the first few hundred of Kyōgatake's 1,625 metres, we parked the cars half-way up Hozuki-one (“Moon-keeping ridge”). Clouds loured over the plain below, just as you'd expect from Hokuriku weather in October. A rainbow flickered out over nearby hills and rain started to spot.


We set off past a sign warning us about the vipers. Although snakes aren’t the most likely source of toxin in this season: “Don’t touch that, or you’ll come out in a rash,” said the Sensei, pointing to a shrub with crimson leaves. It seems that urushi, the plant that provides the resin for lacquer ware, has much the same effect on human skin as poison ivy. I took a photo for future reference.


Only one, mind, as Masunaga-san was setting a brisk pace up front, belying his 82 years. Indeed, this being a Monday, almost everybody in the group was of pensionable age, except for the Sensei and myself. Yet we didn’t manage to catch up with the advanced guard until they stopped for a breather. We nibbled hill food under two intertwined trees that go by the name of “Adam and Eve”.

This nod in the direction of religious syncretism could mislead. As the Hyakumeizan author points out, the mountain names around here are firmly in the traditional camp. “In front of Hakusan,” Fukada Kyūya writes in his essay on Arashima-dake, “are arrayed the lesser peaks of Hō-onji, Kyō-ga-take, Aka-usagi-yama, and Gankyōji, the playground of the Fukui Mountaineering Club. The Buddhist names of many of these mountains are said to trace out the route that Monk Taichō took when he made the first ascent of Hakusan.”


Kyōgatake means ‘Sutra Peak’, suggesting that a religious scroll might have been buried there. Lending credence to that theory, a sutra case was discovered near the summit in 1997, stamped with a seal that indicated that it had been brought here from Kai Province some time after the second year of Dai’ei (1522). A racier account of the name’s origin has the monks of Heisenji bringing their precious scrolls up here to burn when their monastery was sacked.


We recommenced our walk in a file no less disciplined than the far-famed “Kolonne” of the Swiss Alpine Club – the Sensei and I tried not to straggle this time. Just after we emerged from the trees on a grassy ridge, Masunaga-san stopped again. But this time it was for edification, not refreshment.

Here was the perfect place – our leader extended a ski-pole in a proprietorial manner – to observe where Kyōgatake’s ancient crater had collapsed, sending debris cascading down into the plain. That was in Jōmon times, about five to seven thousand years ago, about a million years after Kyōgatake's eruptive heyday.


I was impressed. Hearing that Kyōgatake had once been a volcano was like discovering that some placid senior citizen, a pillar of the local community, was notorious in his youth for a blazing temper and riotous excess.

Actually, you could extend that remark to the whole landscape we were looking at – yonder was Arashima-dake, apparently a model of orographic sobriety. But if you’d been standing here 20 million years ago, say the savants, you would have seen eruption after eruption. Later, the volcanic edifice crumbled away, but the day was saved for future Hyakumeizan enthusiasts when a bleb of igneous rock welled up to form today’s peaceable summit. So today you start climbing the mountain on volcanic debris and end up on top of a granitic dome.

A little later, plumes of steam and smoke would have billowed from a seawards direction as red-hot lava surged out into shallow coastal waters. Then these effusions hardened and crystallised into elegant hexagonal pillars of basalt. Today, you can watch crack-climbing fans clambering up them at Tojinbō, Echizen’s answer to the Giant’s Causeway.


Masunaga-san had timed his briefing well. A little further on, we clambered up a wooden ladder past a wall of gritty grey and unmistakably volcanic rock – like frozen porridge – showing through the russet and yellow foliage.

Another steep slope led up to an intermediate top known as Shakushi-dake, which may have been the original name for the whole mountain. From here we could look down into the hollow left by the crater collapse – so much like a Lost World under these overcast skies that all it needed to complete the scene was a brace of pterandons flapping their way up out of the mist-raking treetops on leathery wings.


On the far side of Shakushi is another col. It was here that “a long time ago” Masunaga-san had bivvied in a snowhole during a winter climb of Kyōgatake. They’d started from the ski-ground at Rokuroshi and took the whole day to get this far, using a rope to traverse the narrow parts of the ridge.

Reading this account in Masunaga-san's book on 150 mountains of Fukui, I was reminded that these mountains have a bipolar character, balancing a benign face during the warm seasons with arctic asperity in mid-winter.

As he and his companions climbed the mid-winter mountain, he only sound was the crunch of their traditional snowshoes (kanjiki) biting into the drifts. The snow-laden trees merged into the mists, blurring the world into a milky whiteness: “It felt as if, little by little, we were being absorbed into the landscape.”


Another steep slope took us to the true summit. Once again, the Sensei and I found ourselves scrambling to keep up as, gripping handfuls of sasa or a grimy rope, we A-zeroed ourselves up the muddy runnel of a path.

Inland, the clouds had completely blotted out the most eminent Meizan of the whole Hokuriku region. Yet we didn't miss the view much. Geologically speaking, Hakusan is a mere upstart when compared with the ancient heritage of our own peak. Sometimes, maturity has its charms too.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Meizan spring & autumn (3)

Fujisha-ga-dake: following in the footsteps of Fukada Kyūya

Maitta, na. The poem wasn’t there – there was still a wooden post in the ground, but both plaque and poem were gone. Oh no, said the Sensei. I can’t say I was bothered, though. It was too splendid a day to worry about one tanka or haiku more or less.


Sometimes I suspect that Hokuriku folk are playing the Seattle game – they talk up their fogs, mists, rains and snows to put off potential migrants from the overcrowded cities on the Pacific coast – who might otherwise surge over the mountains, in zombie-like hordes, and turn these rural provinces of Ura-Nihon into another concrete wasteland...


But, if that really is their game, they’ll need to keep quiet about days like this one. The morning shrugged off its last mists as the Sensei drove her van up the mountain road. A sturdy suspension bridge took us across a reservoir’s tea-green snowmelt and then in the strengthening day we’d rambled up through the beech woods.

On this May morning, the light roared vertically down onto our summit from a cloudless zenith. The glare picked out every leaf and shrub in hyper-real viridian. Westwards, the ultramarines of the Japan Sea merged into an azure sky.


Was it a day like this when Fukada Kyūya, the future Hyakumeizan author, was captured by the mountains? “My hometown is Daishōji, in Ishikawa Prefecture,” he records in an essay on the mountains of Echizen, “but my mother was from Fukui, and that’s why I went to Fukui Middle School (today’s Fujishima High School). So the blood of both Kaga and Echizen courses through my veins. And, in my final year at primary school, the first mountain I ever climbed was Fujisha-ga-dake, which straddles the border between the two prefectures. Although it is only 942 metres high, the mountain that overlooks my hometown is elegantly formed.”

Fujisha-ga-dake, a "Fuji-imitating peak"
(Photo courtesy of Yama to Keikoku magazine)

In the next paragraphs, Fukada explains what set him on the path towards his famous One Hundred Mountains:

People don’t just fall in love with mountains. They need some kind of impetus. In my case, somebody praised me for being a strong walker – if you want to get somebody to do something, the first thing to do is flatter them. In my hometown, there was a lad called Inasaka Kenzō, five years older than me, who was already studying medicine in Kanazawa at the time I started middle school. Ken-chan was a mountain-lover who was already doing climbs in the Northern Alps, and it was this great sempai who first taught me mountain ways. And a good guide is the second thing you need if you’re going to really get involved with something.


On this blindingly bright top, the first thing that involved me was to slap on more sun-cream. And the second was to sit down on a convenient log and sink my teeth into one of the Sensei’s industrial-strength onigiri – we’d had an early start. Around us, couples and families were spreading out picnic cloths and tucking into their Hello Kitty lunch boxes – Fujisha is still a good mountain for children. Primus stoves were roaring too, so that sybarites could sip hot soup or filtered coffee while gazing out into the blue distances.

Equipment choices were simpler in Fukada Kyūya’s youth:

I climbed many of our local mountains while I was in middle school. For seven and a half sen, you could buy a sheet of the Army General Staff’s 1:50,000 scale maps, and I liked to mark mine up with red pencil lines to show where I’d been. There were still no rucksacks and so I just slung my schoolbag over my shoulder and set off in straw sandals and leggings. By the time I went on to high school in Tokyo, I’d fallen completely in thrall to the mountains.

In high school, he fell for poetry too. Under the nom-de-fudé of Kyūzan (“Nine Mountains”), he churned out haikus and, with friends from his native Hokuriku, started a school literary journal. His enthusiasm for seventeen-syllable effusions faded after he moved on to Tokyo University – short stories and novels were more the thing now – but he kept composing the odd verse all through his life. It was one of these later poems that the Sensei wanted to show me. Somebody had recently put it up on this mountaintop, she said.


We walked over to a neighbouring clearing but found it empty, except for that telltale post. The poem had flown. Or somebody had taken it down. Probably Fukada would have preferred it this way – not a few of his Nihon Hyakumeizan chapters end with acerb comments on people who try to embellish mountaintops with statues, monuments and other tat: “You never saw such things in the old days and, speaking for myself, I prefer my summits unencumbered with them,” he wrote in the chapter on Senjō-dake.

In the end, we didn’t need a text – the Sensei discovered that she could remember the poem and, on the way down the mountain – note to potential visitors from Omote-Nihon: this path is horribly slippery even in fine weather – she recited it to me:-

山の茜を顧みて/一つの山を終りけり/何ののわが心/早も急かるる次の山

Yama no akane wo kaerimite/hitotsu no yama wo owarikeri/nan no toriko no wagakokoro/hayamo isogaru tsugi no yama

Still the evening peaks are burning
And though our climb is hardly done
My captive heart’s already yearning,
Aye desperately, to find our next one.

When the meaning of these words had trickled through, I looked at the Sensei with amazement. It was as if old Fukada had just read our minds. “So, where will you take us next?” I asked.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Meizan spring & autumn (2)

In the cloud forests of Arashima-dake

“This is our revenge attack,” said the Sensei as we scrambled aboard the van. Her turn of phrase startled me, until I realized that she was talking about our failed winter attempt, a few years ago. As Arashima-dake is a mere 1,523 metres tall, this had been a signal defeat.



Now, in mid-May, we should be able to get our own back. Though, when we parked at the hamlet of Nakande, a sprinkle of farmhouses and kura on a hillside laddered with brimming rice paddies, it looked far from certain who would be exacting the advertised revenge.


A sodden blanket of cloud had expunged all the mountains of Echizen. We set off up a forestry trail that led into a realm of dripping pines. Already, I wished that I’d greased my boots more thoroughly. For her part, the Sensei didn’t remark the weather – after all, clouds and rain come bundled with her back-of-Japan territory.


We’d decided on the longer route, a straggling ridge leading in from the west. This avoids the abandoned ski-ground that lies at the foot of the “normal route”, a field of broken dreams. And besides, the Sensei added, the long ridge has its own kind of charm as you follow it along, now rising now falling, through stands of beech that save the mountain views till last.


The mountain would certainly stay hidden today – I could hardly see the Sensei ahead, as she stepped between the first few beech trees. And, although it wasn’t actually raining, every breath of wind brought down a shiver of condensed mist droplets from the canopy.


Adequate precipitation is part and parcel of life in these parts. In his book on the 150 notable mountains of Fukui – why stop at a hidebound one hundred? – Masunaga Michio reports a legend from Wakasa Province, in the southern part of what is now Fukui Prefecture. So much gold sand is washed down from Arashima-dake, a chronicle relates, that even the trout (ayu) in its streams have golden scales.


Arashima is a mountain of undoubted character (山格), says Masunaga-san, in a nod towards its status as one of the so-called One Hundred Mountains of Japan. This judgment is backed by his many years as the venerable president of Fukui’s oldest mountaineering club. And a good part of the mountain’s character can be ascribed to the wild extremes of weather that the ceaselessly eddying Siberian highs and lows haul in from the Sea of Japan.



Masunaga-san has experienced Arashima-dake in all her aspects. His first climb was on a crystalline October day; under a sky as clear as a bell-note, he saw the Northern Alps strung out in the distance, like a string of snowy pearls. One winter, he made a solo ascent, through frosted beech groves swaying in the blizzard, to summit snows that merged into the racing clouds.


Early summer is a quiet season. Apart from the occasional sussuration of falling droplets, only a distant cuckoo broke the silence. The mist kept us focused on foreground details – last year’s sasa leaves carpeting the black mud of small swamps that lay across the path. Here and there in the drifting fog, a pink or white blur hinted at clusters of mountain rhododendrons in bloom – this time, Shakunage-daira, the junction of the two main ridge routes, would live up to its name.


The summit was socked in, making the recently installed panorama board on the summit particularly redundant – the view hardly reached as far as the shrine, just across the clearing. There was no reason to hang about; perhaps Arashima had won this revenge match after all.

We didn’t look back until we were half-way down the ridge, pausing for breath and an industrial-strength onigiri, on the small eminence known as Ko-Arashima. Only then, for the first time that day, did we see our mountain – the clouds had started to lift.


A snow gully seaming the summit flank reminded me of Nihon Hyakumeizan – in the relevant chapter, a relative of Fukada Kyūya tells him that, when just enough snow is left to make a Y in the gullies on this side of the mountain, that's how the fishermen used to know it was time to start catching ayu – those gilt-edged fish again – in the Kuzuryū River.

"But they wouldn't have talked about a Y-shape in the old days," queries the Hyakumeizan author.

"That's right. They called it a deer's antler," comes the reply.

Antler was the right word, says Fukada. And, in fact, a long snowpatch just like the prong of an antler was glittering there now, for us as it was for him.




Thursday, November 5, 2015

Meizan spring & autumn (1)

Taking the measure of Mt Hino, a Meizan in miniature

“I have to work tomorrow, but you can climb Hino-san,” the Sensei had said as soon as I’d stepped off the plane. And now, next morning, we were at the drop zone and the van’s door was sliding open: “There you go – just two hours up, one down, so you won’t need much food,” she said, handing me a map and a packet of peanuts. “See you on the other side.”


With that she was off, and I was left to confront Mt Hino. Rising all of 794 metres above the blue rooftiles and telephone wires of suburban Takefu, could this eminence really be a Meizan, a famous mountain of Japan, as advertised? From the carpark, there wasn’t much to see: just a wooded ridge, with no hint of the pyramidal profile that supposedly makes Hino the “Mt Fuji of Echizen”.

The path started diffidently, slipping between two houses into an unkempt pine grove. Then the forest gloom lifted to reveal a pair of stone lanterns and, beyond, the sunlight filtering through old trees onto a lightly steaming shingled roof. If such a Shrine from Central Casting stands at its foot, I began to realise, there must indeed be something to Mt Hino.

Curving across the head of a gully, the track angled towards the ridge. A glimpse of the sky showed a halo ringing the sun, always a bad sign in these parts. “Here in the North Country it is rarely possible to say whether it will be fine or cloudy on the morrow,” says the local meteorologist quoted by Bashō in his Narrow Road to the Deep North. Perhaps it was as well that the Sensei had pointed me up a small mountain.


Somewhere below the ridgeline, I happened on the first of Hino’s way stations – like Mt Fuji or any other self-respecting sacred mountain, there are ten “gome” on the way to the top. Here, every station is marked by a placard hand-painted by the children of a local primary school. Irritatingly, each tells you how much further it is to the summit.

Soon after the "400 metres to go" mark was a signboard marking the spot where women in former days had to turn back - aligning Hino-san with more famous sacred mountains such as Omine in the Kansai region.

Near the top, the path gave way to bare rock. Further progress was enabled by slimy footholds, worn into the slope by generations of pilgrims or perhaps placard-painting schoolchildren. This is the kind of place it’s usually better to climb than descend.

 As it happened, Fukada Kyūya had to descend this mauvais pas, shod only in lightweight "Caravan" shoes. Had I arrived here about half a century earlier, I might have met him and Mrs Fukada coming the other way. The Hyakumeizan author records in an essay on two Fukui mountains, written in the mid-1960s, that he had been attending a middle-school reunion at Awara Onsen and decided to take in Hino-san the next day, possibly in a slightly hung-over state.

Fukada was traversing the mountain in the opposite direction from mine – because his wife Shigeko first wanted to pay homage to the memory of Nakatomi no Yakamori, a minor official who was exiled in about 740 AD to the hamlet of Ajimino, at the eastern foot of Hino-san.


Nobody knows what Nakatomi did to deserve his banishment, but his name will live forever as the co-author of a series of sixty-odd poems, collected in Book XV of the Manyōshū, that he exchanged with his wife, a clerk in the Imperial Treasury, who was left stranded and bereft in the distant capital.

From a few of these finely turned tanka, it may be surmised that Nakatomi drew little comfort from gazing up at the rugged skylines of Echizen Province:

In blue-earth Nara
The great avenues run smooth
Fine to walk on
But these stony mountain trails
Make hard going for my stumbling feet.

(Aoni yoshi/Nara no ōchi wa/yukiyokedo/kono yamamichi wa/yukiashikarikeri)

Translated by Edwin A Cranston: A waka anthology: volume 1: A gem-glistening cup, Stanford University Press.


Now, apt quotations from the Manyōshū, some quite recondite, run like a motherlode through Japan’s most famous mountain book, all the way from the chapter on Adatara in Tōhoku (“If you leave your bow of Andatara spindlewood too long/You will never string and draw it with an easy swing …”) all the way to Ishizuchi-yama on Shikoku.

So perhaps it was Shigeko who mined this ore for the hard-pressed Hyakumeizan author, always scrambling to meet his monthly editorial deadlines. As Fukada’s essay records, at the time of their Mt Hino ascent, she was making a special study of Japan’s oldest collection of poetry. Was it on this very mountain excursion that she tipped her husband off about the the Manyōshū, and its treasury of mountain references?


These musings were interrupted by the summit. The path led through a torii to an open grassy knoll surmounted by a shrine. Just below was a shelter for ceremonies: a signboard requested that visitors refrain from using it for profane purposes, such as partying or worse.


Several pensioners – this was a weekday – were already admiring the view out over the Fukui plain. One wandered over and took charge: “Now you should visit the real summit,” he said, leading the way through some bushes to the trig point. On the way back, we passed a new-looking monument of polished obsidian. “It commemorates the yamabushi,” explained my guide.

The monument piqued my interest – the yamabushi were the mountain mystics and pilgrims, adhering to a syncretic Buddhist and Shintō faith, who opened up many of Japan’s sacred mountains. Were there still yamabushi in Fukui, I wondered. My guide thought not. But, if not, who installed that handsome stele of obsidian, and why?


These were interesting questions but, alas, there was no time to pursue them. While we were talking, the gathering veil cloud had snuffed out the last glow of the sun. I bowed to my guide and hurried off down the eastern ridge. The steep and slippery mountain trail, to say nothing of its pendent spiders’ webs, was certainly harder going than a smooth avenue in blue-earth Nara. But it wouldn’t do to keep the Sensei waiting.