Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Nihon Hyakumeizan: in search of ground truth (12)

Travelogue continued: a distant view vindicates Kujū-san as the pre-eminent mountain of Bungo Province

November 20: After visiting two of its summits and a troublesome gully, I'm still bemused as to why Fukada Kyuya elevated this massif to the ranks of his one hundred notable mountains. The Hyakumeizan author seems to have had doubts too; his Kujū chapter begins half-apologetically: "Overshadowed perhaps by the lofty reputations of Kirishima, Aso, and Unzen, Kyūshū's highest mountain is often overlooked. For it is, in fact, Kujū-san."

Height alone, though, does not make a mountain 'famous'. In the manifesto attached to his book, Fukada insists that a mountain must have a special character or significance to qualify as a Meizan. Yet, by his own admission, Kujū's scenery lacks distinctiveness: "Rather than lording it over his fellows, Kujū presides over an oligarchy. Moreover, all these peaks are tholoid-type volcanoes, making them even harder to tell apart."

The troublesome gully has ejected me in front of a huddle of mountain huts. Steam wisps into the air behind them. This is the Hokke-in, a hot spring once patronised by mountain mystics. Austerities may not have been all they practised: a signboard by the path records that the hermitage was shut down for being too "lively" (nigiyaka).

So what is this mountain about? Without vouchsafing an answer, the path leads me across a grassy plain, over a low col, and down to the road-head.

2.30pm: resplendent in a uniform that wouldn't disgrace a naval commodore, the venerable driver is guiding his bus down the switchback roads towards Bungo Nakamura. Still high on the mountain, we grind in low gear through a tilted landscape of woods and small fields. Nature and people seem to get on well together here.

The bus stops at a school. A teacher looks on as five children climb into the bus. The boys head for the back, where they open a window to yell out to their friends. The bus driver says two words in a tone of naval asperity and the window is smartly closed. Two small girls sit very straight in a front seat, their toes hardly brushing the floor.

At the next stop and the one after, the mothers are waiting for their children by the roadside. Few people seem to be around in these villages and even fewer children. Probably the inhabitants have been leaving for decades. Some of these children will leave too, sucked into the big cities by the jobs and the bright lights. But, wherever they go, they'll carry this tilted landscape with them. Kujū is their mountain: "We spend our childhood in the shadow of our mountain and we carry it with us in memory when we grow up and leave the village,” Fukada wrote: “And however much our lives may change, the mountain will always be there, just as it always has been, to welcome us back to our home village.”

We're still only half-way down the mountain. The driver makes his bus back and turn through hairpin bends with minuet-like grace. Then he pilots us into a gorge where fan-vaulted basalt shows through the last red and gold leaves of autumn.

4.30pm: I consult the station-master at Bungo Nakamura. His must be the only station in Japan where the sheds for steam locomotives are still standing, complete with a rusting turntable. There's still an hour to wait for Yufuin-no-Mori express back to the big city. Time runs slowly here. The usual denizens of a Japanese high street - the Dennys, the Starbucks, the Seven-Elevens - have yet to reach this town. There’s no call for these merchants of haste in Bungo province.

If you want to buy a bento or a can of coffee, then you buy it from a grocery shop that a family has owned and run for generations. Down the street, the pachinko parlour is named for Hawaii in faded silver letters. In those days – how along ago was that? - Hawaii was still an exotic place. People emigrated there for good; they couldn’t flit across for a four-day Jalpak tour. A poster touts the town as 'the Japan you grew up in'.

Just before the light goes, Kujū-san manifests itself as a distant silhouette beyond those crumbling engine sheds. Now I start to understand. That gently undulating skyline of long-dormant lava domes - what could be more appropriate as a backdrop for the meandering and unhurried pace of life in Bungo? Kirishima is for fans of brash young volcanoes; Kujū for folk of a more mature and considered taste. The view from this station platform makes everything clear: sometimes you just need to step back from a Meizan to appreciate its full stature.

Now I regret not stopping for the night here. You don't often get to stay in a town that has arrested time – and what other insights might such a place confer? – but the express is sliding up to the platform and the station-master, who has kindly reserved me a seat, is standing nearby with his white-gloved hand raised in salute. Too late to change my mind ...

Monday, February 15, 2010

Nihon Hyakumeizan: in search of ground truth (11)

Travelogue continued: a map misunderstanding leads to an unpleasant quarter of an hour in a snow-dusted sawa. We continue to question the Meizan status of Kuju-san ....

November 20, 9.30am: The top of Kuju-san is bleak and cold. After passing over the central summit of Nakadake, I’m just looking for the fastest way outta here. A dotted green line on the map appears to offer that.

Beware of green dotted lines. The path heads downhill, through clutching thickets of azalea bushes, just far enough to make turning back too much of a chore. Then it fades into a landslip, a cliff of rocks embedded, none too soundly, in a crumbling matrix of dark-brown ash. I avoid this hazard by taking to the stream-bed, clambering over rounded boulders. My boots skid off patches of frozen snow.

Just at the wrong moment, the sun comes out, loosing stones from the cliff. One splashes down into a nearby rockpool. I scurry across the danger zone, hoping that nothing big enough comes down to spoil my day. Much later I emerge onto the regular hiking trail. A sign points back the way I came, warning that the gully route has “dangerous places”. Or maybe just one dangerous place; you never can tell in the Japanese language.

I’m still wondering why Fukada Kyuya designated Kuju-san as one of the Hundred Most Famous Mountains in Japan ….

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Nihon Hyakumeizan: in search of ground truth (10)

Travelogue continued: falling out of sympathy with a massif made of soft-swelling lava domes stores up trouble for later.

November 20: I ain’t getting no satisfaction. I started at 6am to get myself up here, but Kuju’s summit is bare, cold, bleak, unrelieved by shrine or crater. The massif's gently swelling lava domes don't impress. They can’t begin to compete with the spectacular caldera of Aso that floats on the misty horizon.

Two days ago, the volcanoes of Kirishima went all out to wow. They even produced an out-of-season azalea to show how they might look in spring.

The only blossoms here are the frost-flowers that garnish every bush and grass stem.

What was Fukada Kyuya thinking of when he made Kuju one of his Famous Mountains of Japan?

Volcanic drama is scant on this massif. Steam vents from a nearby ridge, but any industrial suburb could furnish more impressive plumes of noxious vapour.

I walk down to the saddle below Kuju, passing a small lake. This is as close to a real crater as we’re going to get. The placing of the stones in the water is inept; they do these things better in any temple garden.

Yes, we have a problem here. Falling out of sympathy with any mountain is risky. Lack of respect leads to inattention and that can plunge the unsympathetic mountaineer into a world of hurt. And, in the next posting, it will.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Nihon Hyakumeizan: in search of ground truth (9)

Travelogue continued: further musings on Takachiho-mine's Heavenly Jewelled Spear while night falls on the Kirishima traverse

November 18: I pass over the shrine-less summit of Karakuni and take the path down its southern slopes. A set of solidly framed wooden ladders takes the sting out of one steep passage. At its foot lies a cellophane-wrapped bouquet, together with some unopened cans of coffee and fruit juice. The offerings hint at a mountain tragedy – perhaps some senior citizen collapsed on his way up here.

In the wooded col below, I catch up with a group of seven or so hikers, who introduce themselves as a local fire-brigade on a works outing. They explain the bouquet: an 11 year-old boy got separated from his parents, wandered off the path and fell over an edge to his death. The accident caused a lot of commentary in the press.

The fire brigade is heading for Ebino Kogen, so-called (some say) for the shrimp-like pink hues of its pampas grasses. I’d like to see this spectacle, but Ebino is too far and so I opt for the more direct route to the road, past Ohnami.

Cut off by the high wooded cliffs that ring the crater, the slanting late-afternoon light has retreated from the lake. Ohnami’s mere is still and dark. A helpful signboard explains that it takes its name from a beautiful girl who threw herself into the lake, reverting to her true nature as the volcano’s tutelary dragon.

Dragon or no, this is an eldritch place. There seems to be a trajectory to this traverse: a morning full of light and vigour, an evening of shadows and tragic endings. I hasten down the steep path to the road, reaching it just as the sun touches the horizon.

Soon I have to switch on the new headtorch for the second time today. This morning, I caught a startled deer in its powerful beam. Now the light-shaft reveals a line of glowing eyes, perched atop a grassy bank above the road. Unearthly shrieks excoriate my passing.

After a while, the animals fall silent; the road has descended into a dark and lifeless factory forest. I’m still thinking about Takachiho-mine, and why the Nihon Hyakumeizan author Fukada Kyuya turned it into the centerpiece of his chapter on Kirishima. The answer, I suspect, lurks within its enigmatic summit totem, the Ame-no-sakahoko.

“I attach great weight to a mountain's history,” Fukada says in his afterword to Nihon Hyakumeizan. “No mountain with deep and long-standing links to humankind could be excluded from my list. A peak that people admire from morning to night, that they crown with a shrine, necessarily qualifies as a Meizan.”

Quite so, but what exactly does the spear signify? I thought back to the Kirishima chapter of Nihon Hyakumeizan. Sure enough, the clue is right there in the second paragraph:-

It was here that Ninigi-no-mikoto, a scion of the gods and ancestor of the imperial line, descended from heaven, according to the account of our country’s creation in the Kojiki. The chronicle calls the mountain "Kushifuru-take of Takachiho of Himuka".

I should have done my homework before climbing Takachiho. If I had, I would have found the Ame-no-sakahoho mentioned in first few pages of the Kojiki, where the “jewelled spear of heaven” is used to stir the first Japanese island into being. A condensed version of the story, from a later Shinto scripture, runs as follows:-

The two deities Izanagi and Izanami opened up Mt Sumeru and looked into the sea below but there was neither land nor island. So they thrust down the ‘reversed spear of heaven’(ama-no-sakahoko) and stirred and searched. The drips from the spear hardened and became an island, and the five characters A-bi-ra-un-ken appeared. Then a strange wind arose and the ‘five-cornered island’ was created. This was Awajishima. And many deities lived there…

Naruhodo, I would have thought – the Ame-no-sakahoko was literally present at the Creation. Of course, that doesn’t explain how the present halberd came to be planted atop Takachiho (some say that Ninigi brought it with him), or how it survived constant eruptions from that day to this. But, as Hidaka-san had observed, to demand answers to these questions would spoil the mystery.

Tiring of the long walk down the tarmac road, I take a path that offered a short-cut through the woods. A tiresome twenty minutes ensues, playing hide-and-seek with a grassy trail through the pitch-black forest. At last, the lanterns of the Kirishima grand shrine gleam through the trees. Under the cedars that surround the shrine, a movement catches my eye: robed in white, a priest is gliding like a ghost between the shrine buildings.