Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The days the rope broke

An eerie fascination with severed cordage seems to cut across all cultural barriers

On 14th July, 1865, at 3.45pm - the exact moment would be imprinted for ever on the face of a smashed pocket watch belonging to one of the victims - Douglas Hadow slipped from his stance on the Matterhorn's icy upper slopes, cannoned into the expert guide Michael Croz, who was trying to place the young Englishman's boots into secure holds, and precipitated what is probably the most famous disaster in mountaineering history.

The Matterhorn accident 
Edward Whymper and two Swiss guides, the Taugwalders, father and son, survived only because the rope linking them to their falling companions snapped like twine when the load came onto it. The weak rope, which can still be inspected in Zermatt's alpine museum, became a focus of the official enquiry and much subsequent speculation - why had the Taugwalders used it when, according to Whymper, the party still had plenty of stronger cordage on hand?

In the end, the Taugwalders were acquitted of blame, but the lingering damage to their reputations was so severe that the elder man emigrated to America, only returning to Switzerland shortly before his death.

Now, on the 150th anniversary of the Matterhorn's first ascent, a Swiss TV documentary has sought to rehabilitate the Swiss guides. They used the weak rope, so the journalists hypothesise, because Whymper had hastily cut his way out of a "good" rope, a few hours before the accident, so that he could race Croz up the final snowslopes to the summit. So Whymper himself was to blame for the Taugwalders' actions, by ruining one of the party's stronger ropes.

Whymper's ropes in the Zermatt alpine museum

Strange to say, this theory had a previous airing - exactly fifty years ago. To mark the "Matterhorn centenary" in 1965, the eminent ski-mountaineer and travel entrepreneur Sir Arnold Lunn brought out a book with that title. In it, he takes more or less the same line as this year's Swiss documentary makers - that Whymper created the problem for which the hapless Taugwalders took the rap.

For his pains, Lunn earned himself a stern riposte from two writers in the Alpine Journal, the official voice of Britain's Alpine Club. In reviewing Matterhorn Centenary, D F 0 Dangar and T S Blakeney pronounced as follows:-

A story that Lunn seems to wish to accept as true is the yarn that Whymper had himself cut the rope, at the time when he and Croz were preparing to race to the summit of the Matterhorn . Hearsay stuff of this sort cannot be accepted; it came to one of us from G. E. Howard, who had had it from A. E. W. Mason, who said he heard it said by Whymper after a very good dinner, where the wine had flowed freely. Almost anything might be said or thought to be said in such circumstances; we would need to know, before taking it seriously, how sober the diners were, Mason as much as Whymper. Did Mason hear Whymper aright? Did he recount what he heard aright? Considering the utter needlessness of cutting the rope on this occasion - it would be much simpler to loosen the knot than to have to grope for a knife and then cut the rope and considering the improbability of Hudson standing by silently, and not objecting to the cutting taking place, we submit that, unless it can be well authenticated, to accept this story is simply absurd.

Far be it from this blogger to rekindle a controversy that is best allowed to smoulder out. Instead, the aim of this post is to highlight the emotions and symbolism that swirl around the humble alpine climbing rope. What is it about a rope? The idea that one might break is enough to send a frisson down the spine of any climber. As for deliberately cutting the rope - embodying as it does the ties of trust and mutual reliance that bind a mountaineering party together - the mere thought conjures up a sensation of almost metaphysical horror.

Be that as it may, scholar-alpinist Claire Éliane Engel noted in 1950 that the Zermatt affair had touched off an entire subgenre of mountain literature, all of it revolving around severed ropes. According to her seminal A History of Mountaineering in the Alps:

The Matterhorn accident suggested a new and exciting notion to non-climbers. Alpine ropes are liable to break or be cut, though it is surprising to think of the violent jerks they can sustain. Thus it came about that the cut rope became one of the typical features of novels written by non-climbers, and occasionally by a climber. In Tartarin on the Alps, Alphonse Daudet has the rope simultaneously cut by the two men who are tied to it. The cut rope makes a majestic reappearance in one of the short stories of La Croix du Cervin, by Charles Gos - a story which greatly agitated the guides of Zermatt. It comes out again in the fantastic setting of Rex Warner's Aerodrome, where the villain of the plot, having had his rope duly cut by his rival, falls an unrecorded number of hundreds of feet without being killed.

Had Mrs Engel published her history a few years later, she could also have mentioned Japan's best-known mountaineering novel in the paragraph above. For Inoue Yasushi's Hyōheki (The ice wall) also hinges on the failure of a climbing rope.

The story was serialised in the Asahi Shimbun for two years before Shinchōsha published it in book form in 1957. Later, the novel was to spawn two different TV dramas and a full-length feature film. Commercially speaking, it was almost certainly among Inoue's most successful productions.

The action unfurls when top alpinists Uozu Kyōta and Kosaka Otohiko attempt a first winter ascent on the fearsome east face of Mae-Hodaka. Just before they reach the summit, in a blizzard, Kosaka takes a fall - and vanishes into the abyss. The rope has broken! Or has it? The climbers were using one of the new nylon ropes, supposedly indestructible, and people soon start to suspect that the rope didn't break of itself. Was it cut, indeed?

Just before the accident, Kosaka had confided in Uozu that he was having an affair with a wealthy businessman's wife, and soon Uozu too finds himself more closely involved with the glamorous Minako than is altogether prudent. Meanwhile, it emerges that the company that employs Minako's husband supplied the nylon fibres to the manufacturer of the lethal rope...

Leaving these romantic and melodramatic embellishments aside, Inoue took the mainspring of his plot directly from real life. On the second day of 1955, first-year university student Wakayama Goro was climbing with two colleagues on the east face of Mae-Hodaka when he slipped. The 8mm nylon rope, guaranteed to take a strain of one ton, parted where it ran over a rock above Wakayama's head, causing him to fall to his death.

Scene of the real-life 1955 accident on Hodaka-dake

A public controversy now erupted. The victim's brother, an engineering graduate, demonstrated that an 8mm nylon rope would fail under just body weight if it ran over a sharp edge. For its part, Tokyo Rope insisted that its nylon ropes were many times stronger than the old-style hemp climbing ropes, and held a public demonstration in April 1955 to prove the point. This made it seem as if Wakayama's mountaineering club, the Ganryō-kai, had been mistaken to question the safety of nylon ropes.

The Ganryō-kai's next step, in July 1956, was to self-publish a 310-page report on its concerns about nylon ropes, which it sent to mountaineering organisations and publishing companies. At first, official bodies including the Japanese Alpine Club, took little notice. However, Inoue Yasushi appears to have heard of the report and to have interviewed Wakayama's brother and another member of his party while researching Hyōheki.

Hyoheki: the Saturday TV drama version

Meanwhile, the Ganryō-kai's case was strengthened by several more accidents involving rope failures. Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry later estimated that up to 20 climbers might have lost their lives in such accidents. Yet it wasn't until June 1975, more than twenty years after Wakayama's fatal fall, that Japan became the first country in the world to introduce official safety standards for climbing ropes. By that time, it was no longer regarded as safe to climb on 8mm ropes, even if they were doubled up for use as twin ropes.

There is a curious echo of the "nylon rope affair" in Nihon Hyakumeizan (One Hundred Mountains of Japan), which like Hyōheki, was published by Shinchōsha. The chapter on Hodaka-dake ends with a threnody on the mountain's dangers:-

Not a few have failed to return. Ōshima Ryōkichi and Ibaraki Inokichi are just two who gave up their lives on Hodaka. Winter climbing too takes its annual toll. Kosaka Otohiko and Uozu Kyōta are two more names, albeit fictional, in a roll that will never end. And with its cruel beauty the mountain will continue to lure men to their doom.

References

Schweizer Radio und Fernsehen, Tatort Matterhorn, documentary broadcast on 13 July 2015

A Word For Whymper: A Reply To Sir Arnold Lunn, by D F 0 Dangar and T S Blakeney, Alpine Journal, 1966

Hyōheki (The ice wall), by Inoue Yasushi - available in German translation as "Die Eiswand".

Nihon Hyakumeizan by Fukada Kyūya, translated into English as "One Hundred Mountains of Japan", University of Hawaii Press, 2014.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Ariake-yama (2268m)

Being a translation of the “lost chapter” from the original Nihon Hyakumeizan series in Yama to Kōgen magazine.

In the old days, a “meizan” was an attractively shaped mountain that loomed over one of the main highways. By “attractively shaped”, I mean that people of that era favoured regularly shaped mountains, like Mt Fuji, as they had yet to discover the beauty that resides in deformity. In those days, scarcely any mountains of the future Japan Alps made it onto the honour roll of notable mountains, because they were either too remote from civilisation or too uncouthly shaped. One of the few exceptions was Ariake-yama.

Ariake-yama and its triple-crowned summit (Wikipedia)

Today, rather few people know Ariake-yama. Of those who do, not many pay the mountain much regard. And, although the ridgeways between Yari-ga-take and Tsubakuro may be crowded enough to qualify as an Alpine “Ginza”, fewer still pay much attention to Ariake-yama even when they find it rearing up at them on their way to the foot of Tsubakuro. Rather, their eyes are drawn to the more imposing heights beyond. Ariake, it seems, has been consigned to the meizan of past ages.

In former times, though, people would direct their gaze not to those indistinct higher peaks but to the shapely mountain right in front of them, revering Ariake-yama as the Mt Fuji of Shinano Province. In an age when the Northern Alps were still “terra incognita”, Ariake was celebrated by no less a poet than Monk Saigyō:

In Shinano on a day
It sent me awestruck on the way 
To Hosono, the sight 
Of mighty Ariake on the right

And then there are these lines by Monk Yūgyō:

By this moon’s kindly light
 I will not lose the narrow
 Road to Hosono, although
 It leads me under Ariake’s height

Ariake-yama seen from Otensho-dake; print by Yoshida Hiroshi

According to an old chronicle, the mountain was opened in the second year of Daidō (807), when the great avatar Tohanachi Gongen was enshrined there at a place sacred to Ame-no-Uzume, where this goddess of dawn, mirth and revelry had manifested herself as a Buddha to save all living things. The mountain was once called Tohanachi-dake or “Door Away Peak”, in honour of the legend in which the sun goddess Amaterasu shut herself up in a cave and was coaxed out again when the goddess Ame-no-Uzume performed a comical dance. At which the god Tajikarawo-no-mikoto wrenched away the cave’s door and hurled it to earth at this very spot.

I came across this chronicle, the Record of Ariake’s Inauguration (Ariake Kaizan Ryakki), in Mr Kumahara Masao’s book on the dawn of Japanese mountaineering. By this account, the mountain mystic Yūkai, finding it lamentable that people had altogether given up climbing this sacred mountain, set out with his youngest brother in the sixth year of Kyōho (1721) together with fifteen or so villagers from the hamlet of Itadori at the mountain’s foot, and found his way over trackless slopes to the summit. There they stayed overnight and descended the next day.

The first path up the mountain was presumably opened on this occasion, as the chronicle says. And after a small shrine was installed on the summit, people came every summer, from far and wide, in droves to climb the mountain.

For evidence that this custom lasted into the Meiji period, we need look no further than Walter Weston, the mountaineering missionary and so-called Father of the Japan Alps, who climbed Ariake on August 14, 1912, in the first year of Taishō. Presumably he’d heard of Ariake’s reputation as a “meizan” of long standing. Most people associate Weston with Mountaineering and Exploration in the Japanese Alps (1896), and rather fewer are aware of his later book, The Playground of the Far East (1918), which also concerns itself mainly with the mountains of Japan. This is probably because there is no translation. It is in this later book that he describes his ascent of Ariake.

Weston came to Nakabusa-onsen with the intention of climbing Ariake and Tsubaruko-dake. He was accompanied to the hot spring village by the guide Nemoto Seizō, with whom he’d climbed Myōgi, but set out for the mountain with the landlord of his inn too, as well as three more people; a journalist, a photographer and an artist who happened to be staying there.

The artist, as I learned only a few years ago, was none other than Ishida Ginshō, who is still alive and well in Kiso. From the sketchbook that Mr Ishida took with him on the Ariake climb, and still has in his possession, we see that there was a proper shrine on the summit and that, just beside it, Weston and his companions stretched themselves out on a rock to rest. According to Ishida, Weston was a real gentleman and chanted the mountain pilgrim’s traditional refrain, rokkon shōjō (may the six senses be purified) as they climbed.

In his book, Weston records that they reached the summit in less than three hours, walking up a forested path to reach a summit “bellevue of unusual interest”. As we’ve noted, Ariake was one of the first mountains in the Northern Japan Alps to be opened. Yet it has since so far fallen out of favour with the times that it hardly features even in guidebooks. I’ve heard too that the path has become horribly overgrown. When seen to best advantage, though, from somewhere due eastwards along the Takase River, the summit appears to wear a triple crown and elegantly trails its ridges to right and left. And then it’s easy to understand how Ariake came by its title of Shinano-Fuji.

References

Ohmori Hisao, Yama no tabi, Hon no tabi (A journey in mountains and books), Heibonsha 2007.

Fukada Kyūya, Hyakumeizan igai no 50 meizan (百名山以外の名山50), Kawade Shobō Shinsha.

See previous post for the story of how this essay was dropped when the original Hyakumeizan series was republished in book form. But why was it dropped? History does not, it seems, relate. You decide...

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Hyakumeizan 101

On chance and contingency in one man's choice of Japanese summits

The One Hundred Mountains of Japan were never meant to be definitive, even if they're now marked on every Japanese hiking map. When Nihon Hyakumeizan came out in 1964, the author Fukada Kyūya said that, if the book were reprinted, he might well change a mountain or two. His contemporaries didn't take his list too seriously either. The whole idea was no more than "the witty conceit of a literary man", as scholar/alpinist Imanishi Kinji remarked.

Iwasuge-yama in Nagano - once a Meizan, but no more (photo: Wikipedia)
Imanishi was right. No list of mountains based on purely subjective criteria could possibly be definitive. Fukada chose his mountains for their stature ("height alone is not enough"), their historical significance, and their "air of distinction". He did stipulate a minimum height of 1,500 metres, but even that was negotiable - two of the one hundred, Tsukuba and Kaimon, come in below this bar.

In the afterword to his book, Fukada makes it clear that his choice is an entirely personal one. Moreover, his taste in mountains may well have changed with every peak he climbed:

Ex-Hyakumeizan:
On the way to Hoken-dake.
When asked which mountain is my favorite, my answer is always the same. It is always the mountain I have last climbed, the one that has left the freshest impressions on my senses. It is probably the same with the above-mentioned mountains. If I had climbed them more recently, they might well have been included in the list. Choosing among favorites is always difficult.

Choosing is always difficult: Fukada's words are borne out by the pre-history of his most famous book. He made his first attempt at selecting one hundred eminent mountains in the late 1930s. Of the twenty or so that he wrote up before the series was abandoned (and the magazine folded), four didn't make it into the canonical post-war Hyakumeizan - for those who might like to climb them, the ones that fell by the wayside were Iwasuge-yama, Hōken-dake, Tarō-yama, and Yu-no-maru.

As related elsewhere on this blog, what we know as today's Nihon Hyakumeizan started as another, completely new, series of monthly articles, published between 1959 and 1964 in Yama to Kōgen magazine. Then these articles were collected in a book. But not quite all of them - for some reason, Fukada decided to drop one of the magazine articles and replace it with an essay about a different mountain.

The "new" mountain is Oku-Shirane-san (Chapter 37 of the book), a volcano in the Nikkō region. And the one that was dropped was Ariake-yama, in the Japan Northern Alps. That, of courses, raises an intriguing question -why was Ariake, a handsome triple-crowned peak, deep-sixed? So that readers can make up their own minds, a translation of the original article will be published on this blog soon.

Or, better still, you could climb the mountain yourself. You might think of it as Hyakumeizan number 101.

References

Ohmori Hisao, Yama no tabi, Hon no tabi (A journey in mountains and books), Heibonsha 2007.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Rationalism and respect

One need not preclude the other, especially in the high mountains

"Police in Malaysia have arrested a British woman and three other western tourists after they posed naked on top of the country's highest mountain in a stunt that some indigenous people believe may have caused a deadly earthquake days later." So begins the Guardian's story about last week's incident atop Mt Kinabalu (and you can read the rest of the report here for yourself).

Bare summit: Mt Kinabalu without tourists (Wikipedia)
To some, it might seem quaint that tourists can be thrown in the clink for dissing a geological feature, even one as high and magnificent as Kinabalu (4,095 metres). And they might find it even more bizarre that the tourists' antics could be blamed for a natural disaster that killed 18 climbers a few days later. One wonders, for example, what the religious commentator Richard Dawkins - recently interviewed, by exquisite irony, in the very same newspaper - might make of this.

To a meizanlogist, though, the Malaysian story comes as less of a surprise. After all, you only have to leaf through Japan's most famous mountain book to find similar episodes. Take Banryū, for example, the Buddhist monk featured in the Yari-ga-take chapter of Nihon Hyakumeizan. After making the mountain's first ascent, in 1828, he wanted to rig the rocky spire with chains, so that his followers could climb it safely. But the local villagers stopped him because, at the height of the Tempo Famine, they blamed his mountain-climbing for their bad harvests.

Nor was this an isolated incident. When, sixty-odd years later, Walter Weston wanted to climb a nearby mountain, the same villagers, or their descendants, reacted in much the same way:

The mountain-loving Anglican missionary came as far as the foot of Kasa-ga-dake in 1892 and the following year, but on both occasions superstitious villagers prevented him from climbing it. It was only on his third visit, in 1894, that he succeeded, on August 1, in attaining the long-sought peak. He was accompanied by a young hunter who laughed at the villagers' fears. Weston loved the rustic simplicity of Japan's mountain villages, but the inhabitants of Gamata believed that demonic spirits haunted Kasa's precipices and ravines. If a stranger were conducted thither, some fearsome tempest would lay waste their village, or so they feared. In the second decade of the Meiji period, people in most remote villages would have believed something of this sort.

Writing in 1964, Fukada Kyūya, the Hyakumeizan author, seems to imply that such beliefs are extinct. And, in some wealthy industrialised countries, they may be just that. Elsewhere in the world, however, the Malaysian incident suggests that they are in good health. In fact, one might expect to find such beliefs anywhere that people feel their survival depends on the bounty, not to say the whims, of nature.

The people who live at the foot of Mt Kinabalu were certainly shocked by the behaviour of the Western tourists. They probably felt a taboo had been broken. Their reactions reminded me of an episode written up by the explorer and ethnographer Knud Rasmussen after his 20,000-mile sledging expedition through the North American Arctic between 1921 and 1924.

Photo from "Across Arctic America" by Knud Rasmussen
Rasmussen undertook this journey to study the intellectual and spiritual lives of the Eskimo peoples. He was particularly interested in the superstitions and taboos of his hosts. The easy bit was to find out what those beliefs were: everyone could tell him what must be done or avoided in any given situation. The difficulty came when he asked them the reasons for their actions. In fact, the Eskimos seemed to regard him as unreasonable for asking them to justify their rites and ceremonies. Until, one evening, one of Rasmussen's Eskimo companions suddenly rose to his feet and invited him to step outside:

It was twilight, the brief day was almost at an end, but the moon was up, and one could see the stormriven clouds racing over the sky; every now and then a gust of snow came whirling down. Aua pointed out over the ice, where the snow swept this way and that in whirling clouds. "Look," he said impressively, "snow and storm; ill weather for hunting. And yet we must hunt for our daily food; why? Why must there be storms to hinder us when we are seeking meat for ourselves and those we love?"

Why?

Two of the hunters were just coming in after a hard day's watching on the ice; they walked wearily, stopping or stooping every now and then in the wind and the snow. Neither had made any catch that day; their watching had been in vain.

Why?

I could only shake my head. Aua led me again, this time to the house of Kuvdlo, next to our own. The lamp burned with the tiniest glow, giving out no heat at all; a couple of children cowered shivering in a corner, huddled together under a skin rug.

And Aua renewed his merciless interrogation: ''Why should all be chill and comfortless in this little home? Kuvdlo has been out hunting since early morning; if he had caught a seal, as he surely deserved, for his pains, the lamp would be burning bright and warm, his wife would be sitting smiling beside it, without fear of scarcity for the morrow; the children would be playing merrily in the warmth and light, glad to be alive. Why should it not be so? "

Why?

Again I could make no answer. And Aua took me to a little hut apart, where his aged sister, Natseq, who was ill, lay all alone. She looked thin and worn, and too weak even to brighten up at our coming. For days past she had suffered from a painful cough that seemed .to come from deep down in the lungs; it was evident she had not long to live.

And for the third time Aua looked me in the face and said: "Why should it be so? Why should we human beings suffer pain and sickness? All fear it, all would avoid it if they could. Here is this old sister of mine, she has done no wrong that we can see, but lived her many years and given birth to good strong children, yet now she must suffer pain at the ending of her days? "

Why? Why?

After this striking object lesson, Rasmussen and Aua returned to the hut, and renewed their interrupted conversation with the others. "You see," observed Aua, "even you cannot answer when we ask you why life is as it is. And so it must be. Our customs all come from life and are directed towards life; we cannot explain, we do not believe in this or that; but the answer lies in what I have just shown you. We fear! We fear the elements with which we have to fight in their fury to wrest out food from land and sea. We fear cold and famine in our snow huts. We fear the sickness that is daily to be seen amongst us. Not death, but the suffering . And therefore our fathers, taught by their fathers before them, guarded themselves about with all these old rules and customs, which are built upon the experience and knowledge of generations.'' (Across Arctic America, Chapter IX, Faith from fear.)

Aua's explanation was reasonable enough from his point of view, Rasmussen had to conclude.

When it comes to rites and ceremonies, the true heirs of Aua may not be the Arctic's present-day inhabitants. Rather, they might be found among modern mountaineers. For, in truth, we are a superstitious and ritualistic bunch. Just look at all those lucky miniature teddy bears dangling from backpacks everywhere. (Be honest, now: would you leave home without yours?) And that seems to hold whether the mountains are in wealthy countries or less developed ones.


Blessing the ropes at Valtournenche (from Matterhhorn: Eine Besichtigung)
On the Italian side of the Matterhorn, for instance, the mountain guides take their ropes to be blessed by the priest of Valtournenche every autumn. There's a similar ceremony in rural Japan, I've heard. In the Himalaya, the Sherpas won't start up a mountain until they have conducted a puja. And rather few of their foreign clients would skip these purification ceremonies, even if such rites are not part of their culture at home.

The upshot is that mountaineers - like the Eskimo hunters described by Rasmussen- must deal with a world that is largely beyond their control. And when all those storms, seracs, crevasses, and avalanches are ranged against you, it seems reasonable - rational, even - to ask for all the help you can get. One might call it the alpinist's version of Pascal’s famous wager.

Yes, it may be that, rationally speaking, it’s impossible to offend a mountain. Any disciple of Richard Dawkins would hasten to reassure you on that point. But who would want to take the chance that they might be wrong. Anyway, it never hurts to show a mountain a little extra respect.

The news about the Kinabalu incident reached this blogger on a stiflingly hot evening. A few hours later, a tremendous thunderstorm broke. For the space of an hour, the lightning was almost continuous – the sort of display that is supposed to happen only in the tropics. In a nearby town, a woman and her daughter drowned trying to get their car out of a flooding underground garage.

After the storm, we swept the shredded leaves off our balconies, and got back to work, no doubt contributing our daily share of greenhouse gases poured into the atmosphere to further rile it. Eleven million tonnes of them according to my back-of-the-envelope calculation, just in one day. Yet, this being an advanced country, nobody suggested that the city's morals were to blame for the storm, still less that Nature needed to be propitiated.

I mean, that really would be irrational.

References

Knud Rasmussen, Across Arctic America, University of Alaska Press

Fukada Kyūya, One Hundred Mountains of Japan (Nihon Hyakumeizan), University of Hawaii Press

Michael Ganz, Marc Valance, Heinz Dieter Finck, Matterhorn: Eine Besichtigung, Werd Verlag

Monday, June 8, 2015

Images and ink (25)

Blue afternoon
Blue afternoon: image by Alpine Light & Structure

Image: Hakusan seen from Kasa-ga-dake, Japan Northern Alps


Ink: From One Hundred Mountains of Japan, by Fukada Kyuya

Many readers will have seen from one or other of the mountaintops of central Japan how, far to the north, Hakusan appears to float on a sea of clouds. And, I wager, the sight woke in you a sense of elegance with an undertone of loneliness.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Meizan of the mainland

Why meizanologists must start their researches in the Middle Kingdom

Sumimasen, but, when writing up the introduction for One Hundred Mountains of Japan, I didn’t delve far into the origins of the word "meizan”. The Japanese characters 名山 are often translated as “famous mountain”, but as you’ll learn from Craig McGinty’s pioneering study on the meaning of meizan, “famous” might overstate the case. But let’s not go there right now.

Ur-Meizan: The Purple Heaven Palace on Mt Wudang, China

Suffice it to say, the introduction to the English version of Japan’s most famous mountain book does not add much to McGinty’s findings. It takes a brief look at Tachibana Nankei and Tani Bunchō, two Edo-period luminaries who respectively wrote up and painted a selection of Japanese "meizan", before it moves on to Japan’s modern period of mountain exploration.

Recently, I was reminded that the origins of the meizan concept go back a long way further than the Edo period. Indeed, they go back further than Japan itself. A few weeks ago, Marcus Hall, who teaches environmental history at the University of Zurich, was kind enough to point me towards an essay on the famous mountains of China by Mei Xueqin and Jon Mathieu. Their scholarly dialogue opens up a perspective on the mainland origins of meizan.

Any truly authoritative study of meizan, it seems, would have to start with China’s Five Great Mountains (五岳), a grouping that dates back to the Warring Countries period (475-221 BC). It would also have to take in the hardly less venerable Four Sacred Mountains of Buddhism (四大佛教名山), and the Four Sacred Mountains of Taoism (四大道教名山). And this is to say nothing of mountains that may have acquired their fame more recently.

China must have a lot of meizan. Like Japan, only bigger, it is a country of mountains; some two thirds of its surface is corrugated. So the study of its meizan would probably take a lifetime. On second thoughts, it’s probably as well that the introduction to One Hundred Mountains of Japan limits itself to the home country. If we’d attempted to trace the origins of famous mountains back to classical China, I suspect the book would never have been published.

Fortunately for any meizanologist who wants to pursue that line of research, there exists a Gazetteer of China’s Famous Mountains (中国名山志), published by the China National Microfilming Center for Library Resources. This provides a comprehensive overview of research on the history of China’s meizan. In case you're thinking about climbing all of them, though, please note that this resource runs to sixteen printed volumes.

References

Mei Xueqin and Jon Mathieu, “Mountains beyond Mountains: Cross-Cultural Reflections on China”, in Crossing Mountains: The Challenges of Doing Environmental History, edited by Marcus Hall and Patrick Kupper, April 2014.

Photo of Mt Wudang, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Images and ink (24)


Image: Torii at Murodo shrine, Hakusan of Kaga, October 2014


Ink: Hokkaido Highway Blues: Hitchiking Japan, by Will Ferguson

My second ride of the day took me to Matsuyama City The vehicle was the same type of boxed truck I had ridden in Kyushu, but instead of pachinko machines it contained the clippings and debris of flowers and an aroma so strong it gagged me. It was like being trapped in an elevator with Aunt Matilda of the excess perfume.

The driver was a stocky man with flyaway silver hair, and, in one of life's quirky little coincidences, his name was Saburo. "But my family name is Nakamura," he said. "Nakamura Saburo. No relation to Emon." He was on his way into Matsuyama City to meet his daughter Etsuko, who was flying in from Kobe. I was a big man he said, slapping me on the chest.

Had I climbed Mount Fuji yet? Yes, I said, I had. And then, in my typical suave and bon mot way, I repeated the witticism about how it is a wise man who climbs Mount Fuji once, and a fool who climbs it twice.

There was a long pause. And then slowly, deliberately, Saburo said, "I have climbed Mount Fuji three times." Oh. "Well," I said, "I guess that would make you a ... a wise fool." He roared with laughter. "Yes!" he said, not in agreement, but in a sort of Eureka! way, as though that were the formula he had been looking for to sum himself up. ''A wise fool," he said, and smiled to himself with that special affection eccentric people often have for their own foibles.

"I have climbed every mountain in Japan," he boomed. "Every mountain!" "Every mountain?" I said, offering him a chance at abridging this bald statement. "Every mountain," he said and proceeded to list them. It was a long list. "Mountains put us closer to the gods," he said. "Japan is a land of thirty thousand million gods! Atop the mountains, the sky and the land meet. The gods are there. I have met the gods."

He actually said that: I have met the gods. He was either flamboyant, passionate, or mad. "Really?" I said. "The gods? What did they, ah, look like? Were they like ghosts or could you touch them?" He gave me a look of sorrow and exasperation, and said in one extended sigh, "The gods are the mountains. They aren't real in the way you say. The gods exist in the act of climbing a mountain, a sacred mountain."

He shook his head and gave up. We drove awhile, surrounded by the smell of flowers no longer present (much like the gods themselves, I imagine).

He shifted in his seat, and then, again with a sigh, decided to take another stab at it. "I climb mountains, right?" Yes. “And mountains are closer to the gods, right?" Yes. "In fact mountains are gods." He waited until I nodded before he continued. "So when I – we, anyone – even you – climb a mountain, climb it with sincerity, the gods –"

He looked across at me. I smiled back in what I hoped was an attentive way. He opened his mouth as if to speak, but changed his mind. The theology lesson was over. I never did figure out if he had actually met the gods – like a close encounter of the divine kind – or if he was just speaking figuratively. He didn't seem like the type of man to resort to metaphors, he was too rooted and no nonsense.