Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Hot & Cold Hyakumeizan challenge (8)

Travelogue continued: over a cup of green tea, we ask what kind of a book is Nihon Hyakumeizan anyway ...

December 1, Tokyo: deep in the concrete badlands of Akasaka, I’m sipping tea with two executives from a publishing company. They are sympathetic but, no, they can’t take on Project Hyakumeizan’s English version of Japan’s most famous mountain book.

Several publishers in English-speaking countries have also taken a look at “One Hundred Mountains of Japan”. One complained that it contained “too many obscure Japanese place names”. A more serious objection is that the book doesn’t fit into any single category, although it’s mixed from equal portions of travel, adventure, and literary essay.

In Japan, bookshops have solved that problem, if it is one, by giving the book a whole shelf – for Hyakumeizan itself and all its many spin-offs. Up to 20,000 copies of the original Japanese book are sold every year, more than four decades after it first appeared.

But the potential publishers of the English version have raised a serious question. What kind of book is this anyway? If pressed for an answer, one might turn to the Ontake chapter:

The more deeply you go into a long-held tradition, the more secrets and surprises it yields up. Mighty Ontake is like that. The mountain's inexhaustible treasury of riches is like some endless storybook with its pages uncut. As one follows the rambling plot along, one is always looking forward to reading more. Every page yields things never found in other books. Ontake is that kind of mountain.

Nihon Hyakumeizan is that kind of book.


The Hakusan chapter of “One Hundred Mountains of Japan”

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Hot & Cold Hyakumeizan challenge (7)

Travelogue continued: at Fuji Sengen shrine, Konohana Sakuya Hime keeps her secrets close

29 November: every year about this time, Japanese mountaineers climb Mt Fuji to hone their axe and crampon skills for the winter season. And, as workmen alpinists, we too kept this custom. We’d take the southern, Fujinomiya route, safer in winter than the Yoshida trail, and we’d top out under the frozen torii that marks the ‘okumiya’ or middle sanctuary of the Fuji Sengen shrine. Technically speaking, we’d been venturing further into the shrine’s precincts every cramponed step of the way from the eighth station – a 1974 court decision had formally awarded ownership of the entire summit area to the shrine.

But we’d never visited the shrine itself. With a spare day in hand, I now had time to remedy that omission. The Shinkansen dropped me at Mishima, where I changed to a local train. At Fuji, where the view of the volcano is blocked by huge mountains of wood chips waiting to be transformed into paper, I changed to an even more local train that wound its way up to Fujinomiya.

The deity of Fuji is a goddess, Konohana Sakuya Hime. Today she’d wrapped her summit in white clouds, but her general location was clear from the gradual but relentless steepening of the land north-east of the town. I headed in that direction and soon came to the first of two enormous torii.

A wedding party was being photographed on the steps of the main hall and so I moved off sideways to look at the spring-fed pool where pilgrims used to purify themselves before starting up the mountain.

Who was the first to make his lustral ablutions in this pool? En-no-gyoja is often credited with the earliest ascent of Mt Fuji (in 633, according to Nihon Hyakumeizan), but some accounts have him flying to the top of the mountain. Leaving this semi-mythical figure aside, we come to Monk Matsudai, who is said to have built a shrine at the summit in 1149. In the 1930s, relics of a very old structure were found on the crater rim, lending credence to this story.

By the Muromachi period, pilgrims were regularly wending their way up the mountain – I glanced at the shrine’s brochure and saw that a contemporary scroll-painting shows that very scene. However, the reproduction was too small to show the details of the route, which must have followed the so-called Murayama trail, now fallen into disuse. Perhaps the shrine could show me a larger version…

I crunched my way over the gravel to the shrine office. The way led past a well-preserved lava bomb from the mountain’s upper slopes and, somewhat improbably, a wind-carved ventifact brought from Antarctica by crew members of the survey and support ship, 'Fuji'. (See comment below from Hanameizan.)

I bought a votive tablet from the white-robed shrine maiden at the counter and asked if it might be possible to see the famous scroll. She narrowed her eyes, as if to inspect me more closely. It was almost like being scrutinized by Konohana Sakuya Hime herself. You mean the mandala, she said. No, I don’t think we ever display it, but you might find a copy in the prefectural gallery of fine art. Try there, she suggested, wrapping herself even more snugly into her white robe. The audience was at an end.

On my way out, I passed by a rack festooned with votive tablets. I took a closer look at the inscriptions: ‘may I get married this year… please can I pass my nursing exam …pray for safe driving.” Then another wedding party came along the flag-stoned path. There seemed to be about one an hour.

Now it was obvious that Konohana Sakuya Hime had better things to do than cater to the idle curiosity of foreign tourists. Apart from marrying folks, she protects women in childbirth, prevents houses burning down, commemorates the dead, comforts the fearful, and cures all manner of illness. There was more to Fuji that we’d ever suspected in the days we used her for crampon practice.

This is how Fukada Kyuya concludes his essay on the mountain in Nihon Hyakumeizan: Fuji is there for everyone and yet, soaring into eternity, stands for something beyond any man's grasp.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Hot & Cold Hyakumeizan challenge (6)

Travelogue continued: even on a rainy day in Hiraizumi, it’s impossible to escape the Hundred Mountains altogether.

27 November: Armed with a Japan RailPass, one might roll southwards down the Tohoku mainline knocking off Hyakumeizan ascents like a deranged gunman prowling a corridor. The list of potential victims would include Hakkoda – the express showed me its tumbled peaks, already deep in snow, as we passed by – Iwate, Azumaya, Hayachine, Adatara, ….

The weather forecast put paid to these fantasies of serial Hundred Mountain enchainements. A vigorous cold front was moving in and the mountains were already drifted deep. It would be wiser to visit Hiraizumi and do some sight-seeing.

I walked into the tourist office beside the station at dusk. Asked for the cheapest hotel in town, the helpful lady at the counter indicated the Villa of the Drunken Crane. That would be ¥5,500 for lodging with meals, she said, but you’ll find it somewhat… Here she looked down, as if searching for the missing adjective on her computer screen. Somewhat is fine, I said, as long as the price is right.

Finding the Villa of the Drunken Crane in the dark would have been easier if the illuminated sign that once blazoned its presence had not been lying in several pieces on the ground. I stepped through the sliding glass door – unusually for today’s Japan, you had to open it yourself – to be greeted by a musume. “Welcome,” she said, “and we’ll have payment up front.” I proffered my passport as well, but the musume said they didn’t bother with that here.

Then she showed me to a room – it had a washing line strung across it – and suggested that, if I wanted a bath, I might want to try the onsen up the road. I found out why when I tried the ryokan’s own bathroom – no running water, not even cold, so that intending bathers had to dip a bowl into the stagnant tub to wash themselves down.

After a hasty ablution with as little water as possible, I went down to the reception room downstairs. At least, I presumed it was the reception room, although it had derelict furniture piled in one corner. Supper, consisting of a seared fish, some pickles, and a noodle concoction in an iron kettle, was already laid out on a low table.

The musume stepped out of the kitchen bearing a tub of warm rice: it appeared that she united the roles of receptionist, cashier, chef, head waitress, and chambermaid. This may have accounted for her efficient manner.

Surely I had stepped into one of those dilapidated country inns that Kawabata portrays in his novels. All it lacked was a rustic geisha with a chequered past and this person, I sensed, would soon step into the plot.

Strange, but this ryokan was starting to grow on me: those of us who hail from dysfunctional countries, where the plumbing never runs on time, may find themselves ennervated by the sheer perfection of Japanese trains and housekeeping. Much as we appreciate the convenience, our system responds with something like a mild immune reaction to all those p-words – punctuality, punctiliousness, precision. So places like the Villa of the Drunken Crane make us feel at home. Call it “kichinto-phobia”, if you will.

Encounter with Basho
27 November: awoke to the sound of rain. I borrowed an umbrella with rusting ribs and stepped out into the more than adequate precipitation. The road up to the Chusonji, the most famous temple in all the north country, led into the heart of a clammy mist. Moisture dripped from the trees. It was raining in 1692 when the haiku master Basho passed by and, now, at the top of this hill, the raindrops were still trickling from the bronze nose of his statue.

The shelter that encloses the Konjikido, the Hall of Light, was full of schoolchildren.


All June’s rainy days
Have left untouched the Hall of Light
In beauty still ablaze

(tr. Dorothy Britton)

The famous haiku was emanating from a loudspeaker as I stood behind a stocky girl. Her pink rain-cape proclaimed: The natural leader and smartest of all the Disney crew. Since 1928. Mickey Mouse. The gilded Konjikido was completed in 1124, the taped commentary told us. It enshrines the ashes of Kiyohira, the natural leader and no doubt the smartest of all the Fujiwara. After consolidating his power in the Tohoku region, he greatly extended and enriched the Chusonji temple, although only his mausoleum survives of the buildings he commissioned.

A small disturbance interrupted the pupils’ diligent note-taking – Frenzy 55, according to the name on his raincape, had dropped his pencil into the offertory box. Smiling indulgently, an attendant was retrieving it for him.

We proceeded to the museum. An imposing Amida Nyorai stood close to the entrance. Inside the railing, oblivious as the wooden statue itself to the whispering schoolchildren, a purple-robed priest knelt on a cushion, murmuring sutras or perhaps a requiem.

There are whole armies of souls to pray for here, starting with that of the legendary warrior Yoshitsune, who met his end on the hill over the river. It was to appease them that Kiyohira built this temple after two ferocious campaigns to dislodge his opponents in the north. Centuries later, Basho distilled this history into seventeen limpid syllables:


A mound of summer grass:
Are warriors’ heroic deeds
Only dreams that pass?

(tr. Dorothy Britton)

On this off-day, I don't expect to trip over Nihon Hyakumeizan, but the museum has a surprise in store. In the second room, a magnificent scroll awaits. Characters of gold range boldly across an azure ground. Immense merit must have accrued to those who inscribed this text. The museum identifies it as part of an Issaikyō, a votive rendering of the entire Buddhist canon, with all its sutras, precepts, and commentaries. Issaikyō means ‘all the sutras’.

The explanation shed light on something I’d read in Nihon Hyakumeizan about a nearby mountain:-

According to one old document, "the true name of the mountain is Issaikyō-yama, but local people call it Azuma". If so, it appears that Issaikyō-yama was revered as the principal summit. Legend has it that the name commemorates the inhumation of a scroll of Buddhist scriptures by Kūkai.

Even if this incident is more fable than fact, mountains such as Kōya loom large in the historical life and legacy of Kūkai (774–835), also known as Kōbō-Daishi. Pioneer monks make frequent appearances in Nihon Hyakumeizan, causing it to reverberate with echoes from the age of faith. Perhaps merit also accrues to those of the book's votaries who manage to climb the full canon of one hundred mountains....

Returning to the Villa of the Drunken Crane to hand back my dripping umbrella, I’m welcomed at the door not by the musume but by the elderly beldame required by the plot. “Rippa-na se-no-takai hito (a fine upstanding fellow)” she says to my face, apropos of nothing much. Quite at a loss for words, I can only bow deeply.

Yes, the Villa of the Drunken Crane is somewhat. But it can’t be recommended too highly for the kichinto-phobic.

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Hot & Cold Hyakumeizan challenge (5)

Travelogue continued: A tussle with The Thicket enlivens the second inspection of Rishiri-dake. Alas, to no avail.

25 November: Back in the Woodstock decade, a guru by the name of Lito Tejada Flores wrote an essay on the Games Climbers Play. Climbing, he said, could be considered as a hierarchy of climbing-games, each defined by a set of rules and an appropriate field of play. There is the Bouldering Game, the Crag-climbing Game, the Continuous Rock-climbing Game, and so on.

No such rules apply in The Thicket. Here it’s a Crawling Game. More mole than mountaineer, I’ve been crawling on knees and be-mittened hands for the best part of an hour. And I’m still not clear of The Thicket’s low-hanging boughs. The hoar-frosted twigs and branches tear at my pack and clothing like a demented lover.

And the day started so well. At 5am, I set out from the ryokan on foot. Mr Watanabe is away on business and it would have been churlish to allow Mrs Watanabe, the ryokan's owner, to drive up the icy road (although she offered). A new dusting of snow made the footing safer but the temperature had fallen to minus 4.4C according to the public onsen's digital thermometer. Fortunately, the wind has dropped. Despite the longer walk, I’m an hour ahead of yesterday’s schedule and get up to yesterday’s high point by 10am.

For a moment, the chances of a summit bid look good. Then, somewhere above 1,000 metres, The Thicket intervenes. Nothing for it but to set to work, swimming through the deep snow under the first corridor of low branches. Naruhodo, I think as I crawl onwards, those who would win Rishiri-dake in winter must first abase themselves, like adepts of the tea ceremony stooping to enter a rustic pavilion.

The line of the path zig-zags up the ridge and, in the absence of red marker tags, only the occasional sawn-off branch hints at where the track may be. Stray off that line and you soon find yourself ensnared in brushwood. The two hundred metres or so through the frosted trees takes more than an hour, but that’s fine. Once on the ridge, the wind will have blown the snow clear or packed it firm, so that I can run lightly up to the summit. On this reasoning, I’ve turned down the snowshoes so kindly offered by several friends.

Up on the ridge, I regret that mistake. The wind is certainly strong – mugger Boreas is back – but my unshod boots still plunge deep. As one authority puts it, “precipitation is adequate” on this island. We’re now in a different zone. Instead of trees attacking from above, there’s now the creeping pine lurking below the snowdrifts to contend with.

Deep snow is how creeping pine survives the winter – the bushes slow the wind, banking the snow up into a luxurious counterpane of insulating drifts. Every step is now a gamble. With luck, my boot lodges on a firm branch of pine just below the snow surface. More often, I break through into the hollows beneath the bushes.

I kick my way up a steep flank of frozen snow – much too cold to waste time putting on crampons – and clamber onto a flat section of the ridge. This is point 1218 on the map, and Boreas is waiting. Spindrift plumes off the ridge and the loose straps on my rucksack beat a tattoo. A frosted cairn looms, and I shelter behind it for a break. Ice rattles in the water-bottle and my chocolate has frozen into a solid billet, so there’s only bread to eat. The wind blows, snow flies, I’m enjoying myself.

Out to sea, the sky is clearing. Rebun, a nearby island, sits like a pancake in the blue-grey sea. But Rishiri still has its head in the clouds. Strange how this peak resembles Mount Analogue, the mythical summit in Rene Daumal’s novel. Both occupy circular islands and rise straight from the sea. Mount Analogue lies at the end of the world, Rishiri at the end of Japan. You can only find Mount Analogue if you believe in it, you can only visit Rishiri if you believe in Nihon Hyakumeizan…

The parallels were becoming far-fetched. But Rene Daumal’s Lay of the Luckless Mountaineers certainly rings true:-

We’ve been climbing for twenty-five thousand hours
And we’re not yet in sight of the lower slope…
You’re slogging in cheese when you break through the glaze.
The cloud tastes like nitric acid,
And you stare two paces into solid white.

Fact is, I didn’t get up early enough. The bivouac hut is attained shortly before noon. The summit, a mere 500 metres higher, flickers briefly into view through clouds and snow-showers and I’m briefly tempted to toss time-schedules aside and just keep going. Then I remember that I’d promised Mrs Watanabe to get back before 5pm. (“But it’s already dark by then,” she protested.)

I weigh the consequences of staying out later: Mrs Watanabe would phone the policeman, who would phone the fire-brigade (which does double-duty as the mountain rescue team) and then Rishiri’s finest would come slip-sliding up that icy road in their red engine, bell clanging, siren wailing, axes at the ready … No, it’s not to be thought of. With an apologetic nod towards the summit – the kami-sama must be lonely up there, shivering away in his little shrine – I reluctantly turn back.

As I come out of the woods, the sun sets amid gold-fringed clouds. Shortly after 4pm, I’m walking back towards the town when I see headlights approaching along the icy road. Even before the lights resolve themselves into a Toyota van, I know who is driving. Mrs Watanabe has come to check up on her lodger. I was worried, she says. After all, she has invited a cousin, another mountain guide, and myself to dinner that evening at her daughter-in-law’s sushi shop and it wouldn’t do to have one of the guests stranded up on the hill…

26 November: the best weather so far – fully seven degrees warmer than yesterday and only the very top of Rishiri-dake was in cloud – but I’d already told Mrs Watanabe that I was leaving. Too late to start up the mountain now, and anyway bad weather was coming in tomorrow. Up there, the kami-sama in the summit shrine was throwing up his hands in disgust: you beat the mountaineer up a bit, just for fun, then you give him a fine day and what does he do with it – he wastes it. The kamisama was right. To squander such weather on boats and trains…

There was time to walk up on the headland before the ferry left. A plaque marks the graves of soldiers sent up from Aizu, in present-day Fukushima prefecture, in 1808. Their mission was to defend the island from the Russians but quite a few perished from the cold, babbling of green fields as they died.

As the Wakkanai ferry drew away, writes Fukada Kyuya in Nihon Hyakumeizan, the island slowly resolved itself into a single peak, floating over the waves and drawing its ridges up into itself in a superb sweep. The island is the mountain.

Once again, Rishiri became an ideal peak rising straight from the ocean. Still I regretted not making another try at it. Then I remembered Mount Analogue: “The ultimate symbolic mountain,” says the narrator of Rene Daumal’s novel, “is characterised by its inaccessibility to ordinary human approaches … For a mountain to play the part of Mount Analogue, its summit must be inaccessible.”

The southbound Super Soya leaves Wakkanai soon after 1pm. As the express rounded a bend somewhere south of the town, a magnificent peak came into view beyond the snowcovered dunes, an ideal mountain rising numinously to an immense height. In the golden afternoon haze, distance was impossible to judge …

On high, remote in the sky, above and beyond successive circles of increasingly lofty peaks buried under whiter and whiter snows, in a splendour the eye cannot look on, invisible through excess of light, rises the uttermost pinnacle of Mt Analogue…

For a moment, I was amazed: surely no mountain like this could exist around here. Or anywhere. Then I realised that it was Rishiri I was looking at, a long cloud still trailing from its summit. Just as the tourist blurb said: It’s only for a moment spending in the wilderness but the memory leaves forever.

Monday, January 5, 2009

The Hot & Cold Hyakumeizan challenge (4)

The travelogue continued: digression on the art of the fester, leading to a bear story and an historical excursion

24 November (continued): All mountain trips should provide for a fester – for anyone new to this blog and its terminology, I don’t, of course, mean some kind of undesirable suppuration here. Far from it. A fester, in Scottish mountaineering parlance, means leisurely downtime, either in a tent or, better still, in a bothie with a warm fire and a bottle of Talisker. Incidentally, the Japanese verb for fester – in the Scottish sense – is “chinden (沈殿) suru”, which means “settling out”, as sludge does in a septic tank. This suggests that climbers’ minds work in much the same way all over the world.

Be that as it may, festers must be adapted to local circumstances. The ideal Japanese fester (or chinden) begins in a hot spring and then slouches its way towards a warm expanse of tatami and an ample supply of liquor.

But you have to cut your kimono according to your cloth. After the strenuous efforts on Rishiri-dake that morning, I hung my wet gear to dry in front of the petrol stove, building up a good fug, and cracked open a tinnie of Kirin. Outside, on the benighted beach, the waves rasped on the frozen shingle.

Next I picked up a weighty history of Rishiri from the Maruzen Yado’s well-stocked library. Immediately, the volume shed light on a curious incident related in Nihon Hyakumeizan, the book that had brought me here.

"Rishiri is too far from the mainland to harbour vipers or other snakes, wrote Fukada Kyuya in Hyakumeizan. Nor are there bears, unusually for a mountain of Hokkaidō. A brush fire at Teshio on the opposite shore did once prompt a bear to swim over the strait and take up temporary residence, but it has left no trace. Perhaps it swam back to the mainland.

Unfortunately, it didn’t get the chance, the History of Rishiri told me. Apparently, a bear did have the temerity to swim ashore in 1912. But local hunters peppered it with shot before it had the chance to swim away again. And that’s how Mrs Watanabe, this ryokan's owner, likes her island: “No bears and no snakes: Rishiri is a nice place,” she had remarked earlier in the day.

Another fleeting visitor to Rishiri was Ranald MacDonald, whose name I’d noticed on the map – a monument marks the spot where he came ashore in 1848. This story too was in the big blue book propped beside my can of Kirin.

Like the bear's, MacDonald’s was an adventurous spirit. He was born in 1824 in what is now Oregon, the son of a Scottish fur trader, and a Chinook Indian woman known as Raven or, sometimes, as Princess Sunday.

The Indian side of MacDonald's family told him that their ancestors had come from Asia and the boy developed a fascination with the East, supposing that it might be home of his distant forebears. To follow up these speculations, MacDonald dreamt up a plan to visit Japan, which was still closed to foreigners.

In 1845, he quit his job at a bank and signed onto a whaling ship as a sailor. Three years later, he persuaded the captain to set him adrift in a small boat off the coast of Hokkaidō. On July 1, 1848, he came ashore on Rishiri, where he pretended he had been shipwrecked. The local Ainu, who had picked him up, sent him on to the local daimyo, who in turn despatched him to Nagasaki, the only port allowed to trade with the Dutch.

It was there that MacDonald was able to fulfil his destiny as Japan’s first (native-speaker) English teacher. An increasing number of American and British ships had been approaching Japanese shores, but no Japanese had yet mastered the English language.

Such foreign language experts as there were had concentrated their efforts on Dutch. Fourteen of these samurai were accordingly sent to MacDonald to study English under him. One of them, Einosuke Moriyama, later served as an interpreter during the negotiations between Commodore Perry and the Tokugawa Shogunate.

After ten months, MacDonald was taken aboard a passing American warship. He wrote up an account of his Japanese adventure for the US Congress, but these notes were not published until long after his death. Unrecognized for his pioneering voyage (and teaching efforts), he died in poverty in 1894, while visiting his niece. His last words were reportedly "Sayonara, my dear, sayonara..."

Raising a toast to Ranald MacDonald with the last drop of Kirin, I closed the book and moved the rack of rapidly drying mountain gear a little further from the stove. It wouldn’t do to burn down the Maruzen Yado. I set the alarm for a 4am alpine start – there was unfinished business on Rishiri-dake – pulled the futon over my head and let the sound of the waves lull me to sleep.

It had been a good fester, even without a bottle of Talisker.


Wikipedia for the full story of Ranald MacDonald

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Hot & Cold Hyakumeizan challenge (3)

The travelogue continues: Boreas blows feelingly on the nothernmost of Japan's one hundred famous mountains

23 November: Winter has come early to Wakkanai. On the way to the ferry port, a sign cautions that “A fall accident from the quay appears. Refrain from the admittance of the quay…” That’s no idle warning. I learn later that a car skidded into the docks a week or so ago. The driver barely escaped with his life.

The ferry goes by the name of Boreas Soya, surely an auspicious one for a ship that plies northern waters. A snow squall descends as the ship edges away from the wharf. Beyond the harbour mole, the ship begins to lift and plunge into a white-capped seaway. Snow-flakes flurry across the deck and vanish into the ink-black waves.

I walk a weaving path to a forward window. Rishiri is still hiding in a squall, although a darker loom in the clouds ahead betrays its presence. We are approaching an invisible island, much as the bold crew of the yacht Impossible does in Rene Daumal’s novel, Mount Analogue. Like that fictive peak, Rishiri is something of an ideal mountain. This how Fukada Kyuya, the Hyakumeizan author, encountered it:-

I'll never forget the starkly beautiful form of Rishiri, silhouetted against the evening sky. Seen from the neighbouring island of Rebun, it rose up across the shimmering sea, rose up not as a facsimile of Fuji, to which it is sometimes likened, but as a jagged rock, steeped in gold by the rays of the setting sun….The whole island seems to surge upwards into its central peak of 1,700-odd metres.

Today, the whole island seems to surge upwards into the driving clouds. There’s no hint of colour, let alone gold, in this starkly monochrome scene. Spray wisps over the bow until we enter the island’s lee. The ferry docks and I walk carefully up the frozen road to the town.

A concrete bank is embossed with flower pictures; the islanders are proud of their alpine flora, and with good reason. According to Hyakumeizan, no fewer than eighteen alpine plants carry the prefix “Rishiri”. I’m not even properly into town when I see one of these adorning a plaque in a shop window: "Rishiri Hinageshi," the blurb proclaims, “Mt Rishiri with beautiful figure of a mountain done Rishiri Fuji and a popular name of in stratovolcano constituting Rishiri Island. Write it at the summit of a mountain from halfway up a mountain and various alpine plants bloom in profusion and the several extends to 310 kinds. A view from the summit comes down to a word of splendid. In Mt Rishiri. It’s only for a moment spending in the wilderness but the memory leaves forever.”

That’s a passable, even poetic, summary of the island’s attractions but, right now, Boreas is piercing through layers of fibre-pile like a mugger’s knife. The question is whether I can find accommodation before the north wind does me in. Accosting a hapless passer-by – in fact, the only passer-by – I ask for advice. Mr Satoh, the house-painter, is unfazed. He spots the ice-axe on my pack and instantly grasps that he is dealing with a Hyakumeizan junkie. He recommends Mrs Watanabe’s Maruzen Yado. Her son is a mountain guide and they know about Rishiri-dake. He shows me to the ryokan, which is open, although deserted, and shouts up the stairs of the house opposite. Nobody locks their doors here.

Mrs Watanabe appears and welcomes the unexpected visitor. Yes, her son is a guide but he’s taken himself off to Indonesia – well out of Boreas’s way – to do some surfing. Apparently nobody climbs Rishiri at this time of the year. Hardcore climbers attack the steep ridges of the southface later in the winter season and her son plans to mark the descent route for them with ‘akanuno’ (red twine twisted round tree branches), but he hasn’t yet done so. However, if I insist, she’ll let the local policeman know of my plans – thus constructively filing a tozan-todoke (mountaineering plan), as local rules require – and her husband will drive me to the start of the path tomorrow. This is a kind offer and I accept gratefully.

Then I go out to buy some food. Under the grey skies, the streets are magnificently bleak. I’m reminded of an Osaka friend, who in his youth was sent off to teach at Abashiri, in the middle of Hokkaido. In the winter, he said, the only hint of green was when the traffic lights changed.

Inspection of Rishiri-dake
24 November: at 6.30am, it’s still dark as we go slip-sliding along the icy, rutted road in Mr Watanabe’s Toyota van. He drops me off at the summer camp – now frozen and deserted – and I set off into the woods, after promising to be back by nightfall. At first the going is easy: shallow snow along a track beside a streambed. I don’t have my rain jacket on, which is a mistake, as I brush through powder-laden fronds of bamboo grass and saturate my fibre-pile outer layer with snow.

A watery dawn breaks as I emerge from the trees. Then the work begins. Generations of Hyakumeizan-baggers have eroded the summer path into a deep trench, which is now filled with snow. Lurking beneath knee-deep drifts are slippery tree-roots and iced-up boulders. Tiresome stuff.

As progress falls below the statutory 300 vertical metres an hour, summit prospects start to recede. The clouds are lowering and the wind strengthens as I reach the ‘first viewpoint’. Mugger Boreas blows spindrift into my face as I take a hasty look out to sea. Snow-squalls stalk over Rebun, the neighbouring island. At 900 metres or so, we reach the creeping pine. Where the snow has bent its branches down onto the path, you have to choose whether to crawl under or climb over. Whichever way, your pack snags on some obstruction.

At 1040 metres (my watch altimeter is now working only intermittently, its batteries sapped by the cold), the creeping pine gives way to a thicket of dake-kanba (mountain birch). In summer, the trees would probably form a green arcade over the path. Now the frosted boughs hang a bare metre or so above the snow. OK, that’s enough for today. The clouds are lowering and I’ve already expended enough energy to light up Sapporo for a week. It’s too cold to stop for lunch and my bar of Swiss chocolate has congealed to such an adamantine solidity that I fear for my teeth.

Back in town, I report progress to Mrs Watanabe. In some recent years, she says, you could have walked up Rishiri-dake at this season on a more or less snow-free path. This year is different, though. The TV forecast says that “ma-fuyu” (true winter) conditions have come to Hokkaido a full month early. In fact, it will be even colder tomorrow. That’s fine with me: after all, if you come ridin’ on a rockin’ diesel all the way to the northernmost Japanese island, it would be a pity to find it looking like Saitama. There's still time for another attempt on the mountain.

The Hot & Cold Hyakumeizan challenge (2)

The Hyakumeizan travelogue continued: riding a rocking diesel to the deep north

22 November: once you have exchanged ¥72,250 for a three-week Japan RailPass, a stern economic logic takes hold. To amortise that investment, you have to travel as far as the pass will take you. And that means heading north, to the end of the line at Wakkanai at the utmost tip of Hokkaido. This is a journey that can just about be shoehorned into a single day.

Then a short ferry ride takes you over to Rishiri, the first of Fukada Kyuya’s hundred mountains and the most northerly in all the realm. The local tourist office has warned that winter has come early to the island – a blizzard was blowing when I phoned them – but we’ll worry about that when we get there.

The Hayate super-express slides out of Ueno at 7.42 and, as it works up to speed, twin-peaked Tsukuba, the first famous mountain to be sighted on this trip, goes drifting backwards on the right-hand side – just as Fukada Kyuya, the Hyakumeizan author, describes it:

When I ride a Tōhoku line train in the daytime, I always look forward to seeing Tsukuba. The summit is rifted into twin peaks that appear to their best advantage from between Mamada and Oyama. Beyond Oyama and on the way to Koganei, the peaks drift too far apart, spoiling the clean-cut rift between them. Those two peaklets are the making of Tsukuba and, in former times, were revered as male and female deities. The eastern peak, Nyotai-san, is sacred to the goddess Izanami and the western one, Nantai-san, to her consort Izanagi.

Mildly intoxicated by two cups of MacDonald’s coffee and the onrush of this magnificent Shinkansen, I can almost hear the summons of the deep north. Some time after Sendai, the fine morning gives way to snow-squalls, which reinforce the arctic accents of this journey.

Passing Morioka, one should be able to see Iwate-san - the finest view that a train window can frame in all Japan, says Fukada Kyuya - but the volcano's slopes are already white and its summit is lost in cloud. Perhaps this wintry weather is becoming too much of a good thing.

Hachinoe is end of the line for the Shinkansen and the pace slows to mere express speed. At Misawa, heavy snowfall obliterates even the nearby hills and I’m asking myself it if it isn’t already cold enough already.

The Seikan tunnel between Honshu and Hokkaido, the longest undersea rail crossing in the world, takes my mind off these misgivings: the altimeter watch reads minus 240 metres at the tunnel’s low point. This is about as close to the centre of the earth as you can get on a Japan RailPass. It’s warm down here too: the windows mist up on the outside as the train begins its slow climb back to the light.

Strangely, there’s less snow in southern Hokkaido than in Tohoku. At Hakodate, we change onto the Sapporo-bound express. The train goes by the name of Super Hokuto (Great Dipper), and that’s exactly the direction it is heading.

It’s dark by the time we reach Hokkaido’s principal city. The Super Soya, bound for Wakkanai, the ultima thule of Japan’s railway network, pulls out of the frost-bound station at 5.16pm. It too is designated as an express but takes almost five and a half hours to get to its final destination: Hokkaido is big. The train's battered sides tell of encounters with blizzards, frozen snowdrifts, and falling ice. At Asahikawa, the front of another train is bearded in heavy whorls of snow. Yes, it's definitely cold enough now.

With a noisy blast from its diesel units – electrified track ended at Hakodate – the Super Soya forges onwards into a night almost unrelieved by the lights of habitation. The train sways from side to side along the frost-warped rails: we are riding on a rockin’ diesel. The tagline was coined for something else, but it fits the Super Soya well.

Alongside, the snow deepens by the mile but the wheels still hammer out their rock-and-roll beat. In midwinter, when the snow drifts window-high, the trains run silently like phantoms through the white landscape.

At sixteen minutes to midnight, the Super Soya squeals to its final halt. A few yards ahead, the tracks run into a mound of snow. This is the end of the line. Wakkanai is frost-bound and deserted. I skate over the icy pavement to the nearest hotel.

Only a night porter is on duty. I ask about the ferry to Rishiri. No need to get up early, it seems. The ship that would have run the 7am departure rammed the pier during a blizzard a few days ago and is out of service. Winter has come early to Wakkanai.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Hot & Cold Hyakumeizan challenge (1)

A hobbyhorsical foray along the length and breadth of Japan in pursuit of a publisher and (let’s admit it) some famous mountains too

It’s unusual to start a travelogue with a warning. But one is needed here. Have no truck with these Hyakumeizan, the One Hundred Mountains of Japan. Once hooked, you are lost – you’ll find yourself bivvying in sub-zero temperatures like CJW, running up peaks with your dog like Hanameizan, telling Tozan Tales like Wes, sniffing the fumaroles like Tom Bouquet, or even (like this blogger) flying in from abroad to get your fix. So read no further, would be my advice. Unless, of course, you are already a Hyakumeizan addict, and then there's no hope for you anyway....

Flying with Sei Shonagon
21 November: In winter, it’s the dawn. That’s what Sei Shonagon, a literary luminary of Heian Japan, would have said: in winter, it’s the dawn that’s beautiful. We’re somewhere over Siberia when the eastern sky starts to glow underneath the airliner’s gently rising and falling jetpods. Although, if Sei Shonagon were travelling today, she wouldn’t be looking at exactly this view. No, she’d be reclining elegantly in first class, au grande horizontale. And nothing as vulgar as an engine would obstruct her appreciation of the rosy horizon.

Even if we happened to be sitting side by side, though, the conversation might falter. Sei Shonagon is an eminent diarist, who has sold untold millions of her famous Pillow Book. Today, literary agents would be beating paths to her door. So she wouldn’t be impressed that I’m flying to Tokyo to seek a publisher, even if it is for the English version of Fukada Kyuya’s Nihon Hyakumeizan. A book about one hundred Japanese mountains, she would enquire. And, you mean to say, people actually spend their lives (and ruin their complexions) trying to climb all of them? “How very otiose,” she would say, retreating behind her fan with a simper.

Nobody can accuse Sei Shonagon of excessive enthusiasm for the outdoors. Yet even she had occasion to invoke the deity of a famous mountain. As when, one winter in the late 980s, the courtiers built snow mountains in the palace gardens and she rashly boasted to the Empress that hers would last until mid-January: “ ‘Oh, Goddess of Mercy of Hakusan,’ I prayed frenziedly, ‘do not let our mountain melt away.’”

I’m wondering if it would be churlish to mention this episode when she tells me to bring my seat back into the upright position and stow the tray. Wait, that’s not Sei Shonagon – the instruction comes from a flight attendant and we’re already dropping towards Narita. What a shame – all too brief was my date with the Heian period’s second most famous authoress. But at least we’ve established that she too was a Hyakumeizan devotee. On one occasion, anyway.