Chance encounter with a man who spent nineteen years studying Mt Fuji's weather
A wet weekend in Switzerland prompted a visit to a show of cloud photography at the Winterthur Fotomuseum. My eye was caught by a film loop of speeded-up clouds. In fact, the clouds were flowing past a strangely familiar cone. In flickering, sparking black-and-white footage, winter stratus streamed over the peak, lenticular clouds nibbled at the clear skies of spring, and a summer cumulus boiled up over the scorching southern flanks…
I looked at the programme. Apparently, the video loop was compiled from film clips made in the early 1930s by Abe Masanao (1891-1966). It seems that this so-called Professor of Clouds (雲博士) devoted much of his life to recording the clouds and wind currents around Japan’s most famous mountain.
After completing his studies at Tokyo University’s science faculty, he set up an observatory in 1927 near Gotenba, on Mt Fuji’s southern slopes. Then, equipping it with all manner of meteorological gear, much of it purchased on journeys abroad, he spent the next nineteen years documenting every nuance of the atmosphere's behaviour over and around the sacred peak.
Abe was particularly fascinated by Fuji’s cap clouds. Usually heralding the approach of a front, these wave formations hover numinously over the mountaintop, shape-shifting by the minute. Abe recorded them in volume after volume of still photos, using trigonometry to plot their ground track and sometimes using cameras separated by several kilometers to make stereo images.
But by far the best way to capture such clouds was in time-lapse movies, a technique so novel that he had to invent his own camera. The medium, he thought, suited the subject. Lenticular clouds look as if they are stationary yet, in reality, they consist of water droplets that blow ceaselessly through them. In a similar but opposite way, a host of static pictures, flickering past, creates the illusion of a moving image on a cinema screen.
Abe doesn’t seem to have come up with an all-embracing theory of clouds. Rather, he saw his role as setting down the phenomena as completely as possible, so that others could use the data as they wished. In 1937, the Central Meteorological Observatory (the precursor of today’s meterological agency) acknowledged his efforts when it recognized his institute as an affiliate.
After the war, Abe moved to Kamakura, far from Mt Fuji, leaving his observatory as a kind of museum. Following his death, the Gotenba city authorities took the instruments and records into storage, where they remain today. Meanwhile, the observatory fell into disrepair. The trees around it have grown so high that they hide all but Fuji's summit –and those tantalising, mysterious clouds, perpetually shape-shifting.
The Winterthur Fotomuseum runs “WOLKENSTUDIEN – Der wissenschaftliche Blick in den Himmel" until 12 February.
Fuji-san: oinaru shizen no kensho, Yomiuri Shinbunsha, 1992.
Vielen Dank to Hellmut Völter for posting the video of Abe's film clips (see first link above) so that we can all admire and enjoy them.
Top three photos are from the exhibition website of Fuji-san no Juku no Mori (富士山樹空の森), a recently opened theme park at Gotenba. Not sure if the exhibition is permanent or temporary or whether it includes the instruments and publications that the Gotenba city authorities took into storage after Abe-sensei's death. Perhaps somebody closer to the spot can find out?