Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Tsurugi enigma

A recent study deepens the mystery of who made the first ascent of Japan's most rugged 'famous mountain' - and when

Defended by its iron citadels and snowy moats, Tsurugi's summit was long held to be inaccessible, writes Fukada Kyūya in Nihon Hyakumeizan (One Hundred Mountains of Japan). According to legend, this was the mountain where Kōbō Daishi wore out a thousand pairs of straw sandals in vain attempts to scale it. And this was, in truth, the last peak of the entire Japan Alps to be conquered.

At last the day came when Tsurugi was stripped of its mystery. On the thirteenth of July 1907 (Meiji 40), a government survey party reached the summit. It turned out that they were not the first to visit what they had assumed to be an untrodden peak. In fact, the mountain had been climbed long before, as the surveyors realised when they discovered on the summit a spearhead and the tip of a priest's staff.

This scene is recreated in the film Tsurugi - Ten no Ki - during which the famous guide Uji Chōjirō stumbles across the relics in a patch of grass. If the film is to be believed, the discovery didn't do either the guide or his clients any good. When they learned that Tsurugi had already been climbed, the Army top brass lost all interest in applauding or promoting the surveyors' mountaineering achievement.

Today, the spear and the staff can be seen in the refurbished Tateyama Museum in Toyama. This is how Fukada describes them in Nihon Hyakumeizan:

About a foot in length, the spearhead was used as a ritual weapon by adepts during their ceremonies on the summit. As for the priest's staff, the tip measuring some eight inches in length and three in breadth, this was found to be extremely old. Scholars conclude that it dates from the T'ang dynasty (618-906) and is similar to the staff held by the Buddha of the Longmen caves in China. After centuries of exposure to wind and weather, the objects were found lying a little apart from each other. The spearhead looks all but uncorroded, while the tip of the staff has acquired a beautiful green patina.

The relics were dated to between the second half of the Nara period and the early Heian period by the archaeologist Takahashi Kenji, who published a paper about them in 1911. And since then, as the Hyakumeizan quotation shows, Takahashi's opinion has generally prevailed.

Until, that is, the Tateyama Museum curators decided to revisit the subject a few years ago. Teaming up with the Gangoji Institute for Cultural Properties Research in Nara, they subjected the bronze alloy of the staff to x-ray fluorescence. The alloy does contain copper and tin, reported the curators in 2007, as every self-respecting bronze should. It also has a smidgeon of lead in it. Unfortunately for the Takahashi thesis, though, the alloy has not a trace of antimony - a metal which was commonly mixed into bronze made in the Nara period.

Inconveniently, x-ray fluorescence cannot, on its own, show when a metal object was made - it can only reveal what kind of metal the object is made of. So the recent study has deepened rather than dissipated the mystery of when the enigmatic spear and staff reached Tsurugi's summit.

In the end, Fukada Kyūya's thoughts about this episode remain as valid as when he set them down on paper, some time in the early 1960s. This is what he says in the Tsurugi chapter of Nihon Hyakumeizan:-

All this means that some bold monk did succeed in climbing this supposedly inaccessible peak. When and by what route he performed this feat remains obscure. Nor do we know whether he was the one who brought up the spearhead and the staff. Or whether the objects were deliberately placed there to commemorate the ascent or if they were left behind as the sole witnesses to some disaster, perhaps when their owner succumbed to a sudden change in the weather. What is certain is that some mountain mystic made this ascent, fired by unshakeable courage and an iron will.


Nihon Hyakumeizan by Fukada Kyūya, in the forthcoming translation as One Hundred Mountains of Japan

Details of the Tateyama Museum/Gangoji Institute for Cultural Properties Research study from this blog

Illustrations: Tsurugi-san woodprint by Yoshida Hiroshi; spear and staff from Hito wa naze yama ni noboru no ka?, Volume 103 in the Taiyo Bessatsu: Nihon no Kokoro series (Heibonsha, 1998); mountain mystic: still image from Tsurugi - ten no ki film.


wes said...

many thanks for the Tsurugi update. I'll have to check the museum the next time I'm in Toyama.

I always wondered which route that original monk took, as the Hayatsuki ridge is the less technical of the two.

Kittie Howard said...

I believe you posted about someone who later climbed a mountain in straw sandals. Anyway, there's something about climbing a mountain in sandals that is True Grit.

☆sapphire said...

Thank you so much for this very interesting post. The spear and the staff must have been used by a mysterious adept or adepts a long time ago maybe in the Nara period. May I write the rest in Japanese, for the names in it are very difficult to write in English?

一年、ありがとうございました。よいお年をお迎えくださいませ。Happy Holidays!

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Sapphire: many thanks for your comment - yes, it seems certain that some of Japan's high mountains were first climbed in the Nara period. According to Nihon Hyakumeizan: "Hakusan was opened in the first year of Yōrō (717) by the monk Taichō, the first mountain in Japan to be climbed for religious ends ..." Whether Tsurugi was one of them, however, is still a mystery - especially after those metallurgical tests on the staff and the spear. But the mystery adds to the allure of this story. It's somewhat like the mystery of Mallory and Irvine on Everest in 1924 - they disappeared into the clouds and, to this day, nobody knows whether they reached the summit or not. Rather like the spear on Tsurugi, Irvine's iceaxe was found about ten years later, leaning neatly agains a rock. But this only added to the questions surrounding their disappearance....