Thursday, March 26, 2015

Review: One Hundred Mountains of Japan

The Hyakumeizan translation is reviewed in the Japanese Alpine Club newsletter:

This full translation of Fukada Kyūya's Nihon Hyakumeizan has been eagerly awaited.

The book has an introduction that summarises the development of mountaineering in Japan. As I've seen in France and Switzerland, people there are well aware of the activities of Japanese climbers in the Alps and the Himalaya, but they know almost nothing about Japan's mountains and mountaineering world. The only Japanese peak they know is Mt Fuji.

The introduction starts out by describing the arc of Fukada's life in mountains and literature from its start in Daishōji to its end on Kaya-ga-dake. Then it surveys Japan's traditions and literature of travel from the age of the Manyōshū to the Edo period, through the beginnings of modern mountaineering in the Meiji period, and the growth period after the second world war.

Tani Bunchō, Suzuki Bokushi, Tachibana Nankei are introduced, as are the doings of Ernest Satow, William Gowland, and Walter Weston. Then come the 1902 ascent of Yari-ga-take by Kojima Usui and Okano Kinjirō, and their subsequent meeting with Walter Weston, as well as the catalytic influence of Shiga Shigetaka and his Theory of the Japanese Landscape. Unlike European alpinism, Japanese mountaineering was inspired by literature, not science, and this had a formative effect on Nihon Hyakumeizan, it is argued. Certain personalities such as Takeda Hisayoshi, a founder member of the Japanese Alpine Club, and Kogure Ritarō are introduced in separate sections.

The introduction is pleasant to read, and there is a good eye for detail in the narrative, which takes in diverse aspects such as the motivation for Kojima's epoch-making Yari climb - neither religion nor surveying, but quite simply "because it's there"; Kogure's ruminations on the most distant mountain that can be seen from Tokyo; and the famous meeting of alpinists on Kiri-ga-mine in the summer of 1935, in which both Fukada and the critic Kobayashi Hideo took part.

However, the word "meizan" in the book's title is left untranslated, although a note before the introduction explains why this was done. This reminds me of a conversation with the late Miyashita Keizō, a member of the Japanese Alpine Club and professor emeritus of German literature at Keio University - one of his works is referenced in this book. You can translate the Japanese words "meibutsu" or "meisan" with the English word "specialty", and likewise "meisaku" goes neatly into "masterpiece". But how do you translate "meizan"? As far as I can recall the professor's reply, there is no equivalent word in German. That seems to be the case in all European languages: there is no concept for "meizan" and hence no word for it. And, as you can't really call all of Fukada's one hundred "meizan" either 'famous' or 'notable', the translator has chosen to imply rather than translate that "mei-" element, or else he simply spells out the Japanese words "Nihon Hyakumeizan" in roman letters.

There is also a glossary of people, which looks to have been quite a labour. The one hundred or so entries seem to encompass pretty much everybody who appears in the book. Ranging from En-no-ozunu to Higuchi Ichiyō and Matsuura Takeshirō, the names are referenced to the chapters they appear in. Laudably, the names are given in the usual Japanese order - family name first - which is how they appear in the text too. The only exception is on the title page, where we read of "Kyūya Fukada"- why do this when the Japanese order is used in the main text? There are also some regrettable slips in some of the readings of mountain and personal names, as well as in the references. That said, I would like to see this introduction and the glossary of people mentioned in the text translated for Japanese editions of the book.

For this book is, all in all, a very good way of introducing a global audience to the unique work of literature that is Nihon Hyakumeizan, born as it is in our mountains - as well as to the mountain culture, history and traditions that the book embodies.

In fact, I wonder how many Japanese there are who have this sort of knowledge in their heads. My hope is that this translation will help to increase the number of mountain-lovers worldwide who have come to know and appreciate the Japanese mountains.

The translator is an Englishman who has climbed about one third of the Hyakumeizan, and there is photo in the book showing an ascent of Tsurugi-dake in the snow season. According to the evening edition of the Asahi Shimbun on January 7, he worked on the translation together with his wife, Harumi Yamada.

Peter Skov, the Canadian photographer who contributed the cover photo, was featured in Gakujin magazine in November 2009 and September 2011. The cover design for the paperback edition is fresh and original. There is also a hardback edition.

Ohmori Hisao, Japanese Alpine Club

Monday, March 23, 2015

Masterclass on Karamatsu

Learning the arts of high-mountain survival with a sensei of snowholes

Although Karamatsu-dake is not one of the original One Hundred Mountains of Japan, it does make the “New Hyakumeizan” listing that favours easier-to-reach mountains for Japan’s silver generation. This distinction it owes to the Happo ski resort’s lifts that waft you straight to 1,800 metres from the valley floor. The summit looks out towards rugged Tsurugi, one of the most alpine views in all Japan. And the long straggling ridge holds its snow into April, making it the ideal venue for a snowholing masterclass.


I’m not sure why Matsuo-san had decided to instruct us in the art of digging in. It could be that his fatherly instincts were prompted by an incident on Yatsugadake where two Workmen Alpinists were benighted while working down a steep gully. They'd saved themselves from freezing by excavating a shelter in a snow wall with their ice-axes and a teaspoon.

Be that as it may, nobody could be better qualified to teach snow holing. Matsuo-san is a true Setsudo Hakase, a doctor of mid-winter bivouacs. In his younger days, he had overnighted in deeply cryogenic places like the summit of Kashimayari, there to await and record the year’s first sunrise.

Here was why we needed those lifts. To combine his twin passions of snowholing and photography, Matsuo-san had brought along so much gear that he had to turn his skis into a makeshift sledge. So we set out looking more like a trans-Antarctic survey than a party of weekend ski-tourists. A damask fold of cloud curled over the nearby summits as we started out, adding to the expeditionary feeling.

There was no need to go far. Picking a likely looking snowbank on the lee, southward side of the ridge, Matsuo-san snapped together a sonde and demonstrated how to probe for a suitable depth of snow. Evidently, the snow was not only deep enough but had good holding powers too – the lower half of the probe stayed embedded in the drift.


We set to work under a hot spring sun. Some snowholing precepts you’ll read in all the manuals – site the door on the downwind side (almost automatic when digging into a lee slope), and angle the entry way slightly upwards, so as to trap warm air in the dwelling. Others are obvious when you think about it – mark out your territory by parking your skis around it, unless you want an unexpected guest to come crashing through the roof at dinner time.

One point: if you’re building a snowhole for five, then snow shovels are, quite literally, not going to cut it. You might get away with them in fluffy early-season snow, but for the sterner consistencies of spring névé, you’re going to need snow-saws, the sharper and toothier the better. Saw the snow into blocks, and lift out with the snow shovels.

Brandishing our new snow-saws like the finest Gassan blades, we took it in turns to tunnel. Quickly we discovered another key principle of snowholing – allow plenty of time. A comfortable five-person bivvy is going to take three to four hours of unremitting labour to finish. So forget about leaving it until nightfall to start work.

Once we’d roughed out the sleeping chamber, Matsuo-san took out of his pack a large sheet of thin polythene and pinned it to the ceiling with small bamboo pegs – a lightweight solution to the usual irk of unrefined snowholes, which is water dripping from the roof. Remember you read this tip here first.

Even in spring, the temperature on Karamatsu drops suddenly once the sun sinks below the ridge. It was time to test our new abode. Leaving our packs in the vestibule, we snake-crawled inside one by one – yes, the ceiling was low, but no more humiliating than the average teahouse. The Yamato Nadeshiko, like a Heian lady disappearing behind a screen, took up residence in a far corner; possibly she found the company too raucous.


Well exercised by the sawing and shovelling, we slept soundly in our quiet subnivean cocoon. How quietly we didn’t fully appreciate until next morning, when we compared notes with two friends who’d overnighted on the ridge above – slatting and flapping in the stiff night wind, their tent had been as lively as a Roppongi tavern, and they hadn’t had a wink of sleep. Not a wink.

Snowholes, though ... you gotta dig them.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Watch out for the easy places

Sage climbing advice from a literary essayist of the Kamakura period


Snowsqualls harried us as we approached the hut. Getting there involved a climbing traverse across a slope so icy that the ski-crampons could hardly bite. We found it a bit sketchy. Afterwards, the Sensei said that in such places she always recalls the advice of Kenkō. Who was he, I asked. He published a blog called Tsurezuregusa, she said - only Sei Shonagon ever got more page views, they say. Suitably admonished, I looked up the relevant passage. It runs like this:-

A man who was famous as a tree climber was guiding someone in climbing a tall tree. He ordered the man to cut the top branches, and, during this time, when the man seemed to be in great danger, the expert said nothing. Only when the man was corning down and had reached the height of the eaves did the expert call out, "Be careful! Watch your step coming down!" I asked him, "Why did you say that? At that height he could jump the rest of the way if he chose." "That's the point," said the expert. "As long as the man was up at a dizzy height and the branches were threatening to break, he himself was so afraid I said nothing. Mistakes are always made when people get to the easy places."

Sage advice, that. According to Donald Keene, whose masterly translation is quoted above, Yoshida Kenkō was a Buddhist priest who lived from 1283 to 1350. The essays collected in Tsurezuregusa (Essays in Idleness) centre around court life and customs around Kyoto. But the paragraph above makes me wonder if he didn't, in his younger days, sneak out and climb a famous mountain or two.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

"Characteristics of the Japanese mountain landscape" (4)

Continued: a disquisition on the aesthetics of volcanoes and alpine landscapes by Kojima Usui, founder of the Japanese Alpine Club

Once on the heathland of Oiwake, I came upon a young student making a sketch of Mt Asama, the volcano quiescent, as if slumbering in its robes of tawny velvet. Just at that instant, the mountain woke to life with a thunderous explosion, throwing up, one after another, great hydrangea heads of scabrous, sulphurous smoke, into a column that reached up from the crater to the clouds.

In an instant, the mountain took on a sombre, apoplectic tone and the student, seeming to despair of capturing such a sudden change, gave up on his sketch and glancing in my direction, exchanged an uneasy smile with me. Such dramatic scene-changing might be all very well in the play of light falling from a fairweather sky, but how on earth could something as solid, so resolutely un-plastic, as Mt Asama undergo such an instantaneous transformation.

This sense of an emotional outburst, or outright rage, really can be evinced by volcanoes I believe, solid and inorganic as they may be. In the same way that you see the blue veins stand out under a person’s sensitive skin, or see his face suddenly change colour, volcanoes too are seething with skins of soft sand, or ash or tilth that form clean-cut lines and shapes when eroded by the flow of water or etched by sliding snow.

Looking at the hundreds of gullies on Mt Fuji – take Dainichi-sawa or Sakura-zawa, for instance – and you see that all are formed by the erosive force of water or snow, and when you start out climbing the mountain by the Gotemba route, you’ll see two hillocks of rubble projecting about a hundred feet above the ashy slopes of Hoeizan, stretching their skirts southwards.

This is Ni-tsu-zuka, the twin volcanoes or side vents (or, as the savants say, parasite cones, although I question whether it is fitting to call them so when they are part and parcel of the parent volcano rather than something alien, as in the plant world, that battens on a host plant of a different species) on whose black sands the wind whistling down from the mountain scours its tracks.

All volcanoes are characterized by a magnificent simplicity, but if you look at them closely, you can see the traces left by the wind and, although this phenomenon is by no means confined to volcanoes, it is on the soft, easily scoured flanks of volcanoes that such traces are most clearly etched.

References

Beta translation from Kojima Usui, Characteristics of the Japanese mountain landscape (日本山岳景の特色), originally published in "Nippon Arupusu (1910), Vol IV, reprinted in Nippon Arupusu, Iwanami Bunko edition, 1992.

Image: courtesy of Ueda Cable Vision.

Monday, March 9, 2015

By fair means

Climbing the One Hundred Mountains of Japan without fossil fuels

After Tim Macartney-Snape's sea-to-summit ascent of Mt Everest in 1990 and Göran Kropp's solo, unsupported, ascent of Mt Everest in May 1996 - without bottled oxygen and after cycling to Nepal all the way from Sweden ­- it was inevitable that somebody would apply the same thoroughgoing ethic to Japan's One Hundred Mountains.


That somebody turned out to be Tanaka Yōki, a thirty-year old self-styled "adventure racer", who climbed the One Hundred Mountains of Japan last year using only "human power". Starting out on 1 April on the southernmost of the peaks, Miyanoura-dake on Yakushima, he completed his 100th mountain on Rishiri-dake, at the northern tip of Hokkaidō, 208 days later, on 26 October.


"Human power" means what it says. Tanaka not only walked between mountains, trashing fifteen pairs of running shoes en route, but paddled a sea kayak over the sea crossings between Yakushima, Kyūshū, Shikoku, Honshū and Hokkaidō. "Using just my own motive power meant that I felt the full force of the changing seasons and Japan's beautiful nature," he said, adding that he was relieved when the journey was over.


Tanaka was born in Saitama, but his father moved the family to Furano in Hokkaidō when he was still a toddler - it seems that his father was captivated by the portrayal of the northern island in the TV soap drama, "Kita no kuni kara". He competed in cross-country skiing at a national level while still a student and later branched out into adventure racing, twice taking part in the Patagonia Expedition Race.


His human-powered "Great Traverse" was filmed by NHK for a television series. It also coincided with the 50th anniversary of the first publication of the original Nihon Hyakumeizan, although that might have been accidental.

References

Photos are from NHK's Great Traverse website

Friday, February 27, 2015

Meizan inspirations

How Japan's most famous mountain erupted into an Impressionist painting

As it was the Sensei’s birthday, we dropped in at Japanese Inspirations, a new exhibition at the Zurich Kunsthaus. If you happen to be an aspirant meizanologist, you meet Meizan everywhere. So it was no surprise to find Mt Fuji featuring in several landscapes by Hokusai and Hiroshige. The idea behind the exhibition is to highlight how these artists of the floating world influenced the Impressionists, by placing their prints side by side with paintings by Monet, Gauguin, van Gogh and others.


Some of the prints had once been in the personal collection of Vincent van Gogh. An enthusiastic fan of Hokusai and Hiroshige, the artist owned about 400 Japanese prints in all, papering the wall of his studio with them. As if in homage to the master, he even made oil painting renditions of two scenes by Hiroshige (above). The attraction of Japanese woodprints is explained in a letter to his brother:

I envy the Japanese artists for the incredible neat clarity which all their works have. It is never boring and you never get the impression that they work in a hurry. It is as simple as breathing; they draw a figure with a couple of strokes with such unfailing easiness as if it were as easy as buttoning one's waist coat.

Seeing these prints made me wonder what part Japan's top mountain played in van Gogh’s artistic development. He knew Hokusai’s famous views of Mt Fuji, urging his long-suffering brother in a letter of August 1888 to “take (ie buy) the Hokusais as well then, 300 views of the sacred mountain and scenes of manners and customs”. And he greatly admired The Great Wave, one of Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mt Fuji, commenting on it in another letter to his brother the same year:-

When Paul Mantz saw Delacroix’s violent and exalted sketch, Christ’s boat, at the exhibition that we saw in the Champs-Elysées, he turned away from it and cried out in his article, ‘I did not know that one could be so terrifying with blue and green’. Hokusai makes you cry out the same thing — but in his case with his lines, his drawing, since in your letter you say to yourself: these waves are claws, the boat is caught in them, you can feel it.



As any art historian will tell you, those waves with claws have crashed with resistless force into van Gogh’s Starry Night, painted less than a year after he wrote the letter quoted above. Mt Fuji itself, alas, seems to have been washed away in the process, unless you discern it, subtly transmogrified into that church steeple or those mountains in the picture’s background.


Unfortunately, the Starry Night wasn’t in this exhibition: quite understandably, the New York Museum of Modern Art wouldn't be keen to let the painting out of its sight.

So, navigating through shoals of banquiers and their lamé-clad dames – this is Zurich, remember – we had a quick look round to see if Japan’s most famous mountain had left its mark on any other works by the Dutch master.

Standing in front of the Portrait of Père Tanguy (left), I thought that perhaps we’d struck lucky. The background to this painting shows a selection of Japanese prints, pinned to the wall of van Gogh’s studio, and there, right behind the subject’s hat, was a tell-tale shape  – conical in form, yet maddeningly indistinct.

One couldn’t be certain; the white blur might be the snowy profile of Japan’s most famous mountain. Or, then again, it might just be a cone of sherbert.

It turns out, though, that van Gogh painted three versions of this portrait - Père Tanguy was a figure of some importance to impecunious artists, kindly providing them with paint in return for a drawing or two. The picture shown in Zurich was the second version. But the final one (right), which today hangs in the Musée Rodin, Paris, shows Mt Fuji with dramatic clarity.

It’s as if, after years of absorbing the lessons of his Japanese mentors, van Gogh had finally gained total confidence in the power of line and colour. And, with it, the painterly panache to give the top Meizan its full due.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

"Characteristics of the Japanese mountain landscape" (3)

Continued: a disquisition on the aesthetics of volcanoes and alpine landscapes by Kojima Usui, founder of the Japanese Alpine Club

Unlike previous theorists of the landscape, I don’t favour volcanoes as special to the exclusion of all other mountains, nor am I taken with the idea, like some young people today, of excluding the volcanoes from the Japan Alps, as if they were some kind of unwanted stepchildren.

Illustrations of volcanic rocks from Shiga Shigetaka's
Theory of the Japanese Landscape (Nihon Fukeiron) 

If the beauty of volcanoes lies, as many have noted, in their dignified solemnity of form, and that of alpine mountains in their ice and snow and ridgelines, then the beauty of volcanic mountains must consist in their contours and colouring. Compared with alpine mountains, where you sometimes have to climb over ice and snow, the stark, bare boulders of Japanese volcanoes must be tackled as pure rock scrambling.

If this is what you choose, you should not garb yourself in two layers of clothing, or wear crampons and nailed boots over three pairs of socks, or carry an alpenstock, as in some alpine expedition, but tramp onwards in straw sandals and so work your way up to the summit crater, grabbing hold of ochre boulders so that you can at last touch the congealed effusions of former eruptions, like so much frozen bile.

What makes volcanoes beautiful is the way they show the exquisiteness of their form. I’ve read my Ruskin thoroughly, but I find it utterly tedious to read the landscape aesthetics of a person who never experienced volcanoes – in fact, it’s like being preached at in a foreign language. In his Stones of Venice Book 1, Chapter XX, Materials of Ornament, Section XIX, Ruskin describes the line of a small glacier of the second order, about three quarters of a mile long, on a spur of the Aiguille de Blaitière at Chamonix as “the most beautiful simple curve I have ever seen in my life” (he was then thirty-three years old).

To which I say, unhappy Ruskin, that he never saw a woodprint of Hokusai or Hiroshige and thus could never even imagine the exquisiteness of the curve presented by Mt Fuji on its left-hand skyline. This is the great line that falls - if you stand looking up from somewhere between Yoshihara on the Tōkaidō and Iwabuchi - that falls in one strong, bold catenary sweep from an altitude of 3,788 metres, a line that all but thrums with tension as it falls through the pure empyrean of an autumn or a winter sky. Or it is the line that, in the vaporous days of spring and summer, almost fades from sight, like the easy curve of a kite’s string.

Apart from the horizon on land or sea, this is the mightiest line, curved or slanting, that you’ll ever see in our country of Japan, and so I am convinced every time I gaze up at it from the train on that Tōkaidō line.

Continued

Reference

Beta translation from Kojima Usui, Characteristics of the Japanese mountain landscape (日本山岳景の特色), originally published in "Nippon Arupusu (1910), Vol IV, reprinted in Nippon Arupusu, Iwanami Bunko edition, 1992.