Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Images and ink (13)

Ambiguous weather by threepinner
Ambiguous weather, a photo by threepinner on Flickr.
Image: Mt.Bieifuji ( left ) and Mt.Biei, up from Shirogane-onsen, Biei, Hokkaido.

Ink: How Biei came to be Biei, from Nihon Hyakumeizan (One Hundred Mountains of Japan) by Fukada Kyūya (1964):

When Matsuura Takeshirō first visited this place and made as if to drink from this river, a local Ainu cried out "Piei, piei!" to stop him. "Piei" meant that the water was greasy from the sulphuric effusions of Tokachi-dake. The name Biei stems from this incident. The town was founded in 1896 (Meiji 29), and its name was originally written with the characters for beautiful (bi) and for excellent (ei). The latter character is also used to represent "England", however, and, in the wake of some chauvinistic thinking, it was replaced with a more difficult ideograph.


Many thanks to "Threepinner" for posting the elegant header picture on his flickr site, whence it comes here. Photography fans should visit his flickr pages to see more superb mountain photography from Hokkaido.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The professor of clouds

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?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Men in a hurry

The mountaineers who saw out Honshu's golden age of mountain exploration

Permit me to introduce Messrs Kogure and Tanabe. They look like men in a hurry, and well they might - since the Japan Alpine Club was formed, just eight years ago, most of Honshu's high mountains have already been explored. And soon the surveyors of the Army General Staff will issue the first modern maps of the mountains, banishing the thrill of discovery forever.

So now is a last chance to grab a piece of the action. This is August 1913, and the duo are setting out from Kamikochi to walk until they run out of mountain. They'll press north along the backbone of the Japan Alps, past Yari and over Tateyama, ever northwards, until the ridges falter away under them into the Japan Sea. For thirteen days, they'll follow paths as faint as dreams, or none at all, through the creeping pine and the drifting clouds.

Their conversation should be as elevated as the terrain. Both are Tokyo University men, yet both were brought up in remote villages that still adhered to the old mountain faiths. In this, they recapitulate, in their own experience, Japan's shift from traditional mountain worship to modern alpinism.

Kogure, we've met before. As for Tanabe, a recent graduate in English Literature, he's a devotee of Wordsworth and Walter Pater. Perhaps these high-mountain expeditions help him burn with that hard, gem-like flame. Although, as he's slight of build, he also complains about the heavy loads that they oblige him to carry.

Tanabe Jūji (above) was born in 1874, in a village near Toyama where people still worshipped the mountain deity of nearby Tateyama. However, Tanabe was frail as a child and didn't apparently go on pilgrimage. He went up to Tokyo Imperial University in 1905, where he got to know Kogure Ritarō and acquired a taste for travel and mountain literature.

His own mountain career got under way when he graduated from Todai, started on a teaching career, and moved into the same lodging house as Kogure. They made ambitious traverses the length and breadth of the Northern Alps, but are most often remembered for their explorations of Kogure's native hills, the forested Chichibu range near Tokyo. The aspirant painter Nakamura Seitaro, then still a student, joined them on many of these forays.

The Kogure-Tanabe partnership lasted eleven years - seeing out the end of what Kojima Usui called Japan's golden age of mountain exploration. Tanabe wrote up these mountain travels as "Pilgrimage to the Japan Alps and Chichibu" published in 1919. The title gave him some misgivings: "At present, there's no suitable word to describe the mountain ranges now collectively referred to as the 'Japan Alps'. Alas, though, I can't at the moment think of a better one."

Actually, Tanabe's problem with the Japan Alps went deeper than a purist's objection to a katakana loanword. At about this time, he'd started to feel the need for a change in his mountain journeys. Whatever it was that he sought, it was more likely to be found among the wooded ridges and gorges of the Chichibu mountains, where the hoary old trees were festooned with Spanish moss, than on the austere heights of the Japan Alps.

He alludes to this change of heart in the preface to his book. "It seems to me that, rather than introducing the Japan Alps, I've put most of my effort into describing the Chichibu range." Later, in an essay entitled "Thoughts about Mountains", he explained his new thinking as follows:

We don't look at mountains in the way that romantic or symbolist poets do, using them as mere subjective scaffolding in order to sing about themselves. Rather, we look at mountains objectively, seeking out points of congruence between them and ourselves. This is by far the most free, the most natural way of looking at them, and you can appreciate the mountain's character as a mountain. This is how the English poet Wordsworth approached all of nature. He strove to see nature objectively and, more than any other poet, he was capable of submerging himself in nature. And it is only through this powerful serenity of contemplation can we become one with the mountains.

Getting married may also have helped to change Tanabe's life. So might his appointment, in 1922, to a professorship at Hosei University. For whatever reason, he was no longer a man in a hurry; peak-bagging and mountain exploration had lost their meaning for him. Instead, he was more inclined to wander, alone and contemplatively, over passes and along old roads such as the Kiso Kaido or Basho's route to the deep north, less like a modern mountaineer than an itinerant haiku poet.

He didn't entirely turn his back on the high mountains. He became head of Hosei University's mountaineering club and even took up skiing. Yet something was missing in this modern age, when every mountain had long since been mapped and named. Nothing, it seemed, could bring back the splendour of those youthful ridgeways to the Japan Sea.


When I was at school in Tōkyō, the Jōetsu mountains were less explored than they are today and the Northern Alps still fairly inaccessible. So I did most of my mountaineering in Oku-Chichibu, using Tanabe Jūji's "Pilgrimage to the Japan Alps and Chichibu" and the Chichibu issue of the "Sangaku" journal that I found in a second-hand bookshop. In those days, there were few paths, mountain huts were thin on the ground, and signposts almost non-existent. With rice and soya beans, a hatchet and a saw in our packs, we would light out for the empty mountains. If we had two or three free days, we preferred to spend them walking around the mountains of Chichibu, not in Tōkyō.

(From Fukada Kyūya's Nihon Hyakumeizan in the forthcoming translation as One Hundred Mountains of Japan)


Outline of Tanabe's life from Hito wa naze yama ni noboru no ka?, Volume 103 in the Taiyo Bessatsu: Nihon no Kokoro series (Heibonsha, 1998)

Quotation from Tanabe's essay comes from Miyashita Keizo's Nihon Arupusu: Mitate no Bunkashi, a book on the Japanese interpretation and importation of the Alps published in 1997.

Photos copyright of Yama to Keikoku illustrated history of Japanese mountaineering (目で見る日本登山史 by 川崎吉光、山と渓谷社).

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Images and ink (12)

Ink: On Tokachi-dake, from Nihon Hyakumeizan (One Hundred Mountains of Japan) by Fukada Kyūya (1964):

Today, the sulphurous smoke vents not from the main crater but from the so-called New Crater that opened on May 24, 1926. The sudden explosion overthrew the crater wall, sending its debris and volcanic detritus cascading downslope in all directions. Fed by melting snowfields, the resulting mudflow cut a swathe of destruction for twenty-eight kilometres, burying homes, devastating countless fields, and snuffing out one hundred and forty-four lives.


Many thanks to "Threepinner" for posting the elegant header picture on his flickr site, whence it comes here. Photography fans should click on the picture to see more of Threepinner's mountain photography from Hokkaido. The photos of the 1926 eruption (as mentioned in the text) are by courtesy of Hokkaido Science Education Center

Monday, January 9, 2012

Purple mountains

The painter who joined the pioneers of Japan’s golden age of alpine exploration

“Except for some literary society, I know of no other association that has more poets and writers than ours,” said Kojima Usui about the Sangaku-kai, soon after he founded Japan’s first alpine club. Perhaps he should have mentioned painters too. There was at least one in the Sangaku-kai. Nakamura Seitaro joined the club just two years after its inauguration. That was in 1907, the same year that he started as a student of the Tokyo Institute for Business Training (商法講習所|), the predecessor of today's Hitotsubashi University.

Nakamura was born in 1888, the only son of a couple who ran a shop selling yukata. He got his first training as an artist by practising the patterns used to dye the linen. While still at school, he organised a group of friends to go hill-walking. Joining the Sangaku-kai would allow him to tackle bigger mountains and perhaps even find new ways up them.

For Nakamura was fortunate enough to start his climbing career during Japan's “golden age” of mountain exploration, when mountaineers had to find their own way without the help of modern maps. In 1909, he joined Kojima on a traverse of the Southern Japan Alps. Unable to splurge on expensive foreign kit, Nakamura got a local smithy to bash out an alpenstock. This may have been Japan’s first domestically produced ice tool.

Atop Warusawadake the party discovered that pilgrims had been there before them. Recorded in the club’s journal, Sangaku, the incident was later quoted in Nihon Hyakumeizan (“One Hundred Mountains of Japan”):

On the summit, they found signs that others had been there before them. Three shrines of unvarnished wood stood there and a rusted iron banner leaned into a rocky niche. And nearby, the pilgrims had left scattered on the ground wooden tablets inscribed with the name of the deity Arakawa Daimyōjin.

In the late autumn of 1911, Nakamura climbed Saru-ga-dake (2,629m), shod in newfangled crampons (at that time, they were still called “kana-kanjiki” – iron snowshoes). This was the first time that a peak in the Southern Alps had been tackled in winter conditions.

In 1913, he joined Kogure Ritaro and Tanabe Jūji for part of their epoch-making traverse from Yarigatake in central Honshu all the way northwards to the Japan Sea. In 1917, he climbed volcanoes on Java and the Celebes and in 1919 he again teamed up with Kogure for an exploration of the Kurobe valley – they got as far as Ike-no-daira in Sen'nin-dani before porter troubles and lack of food forced them to cut short the trip.

Although Nakamura had already decided to become an artist, he left his painting materials at home for these youthful expeditions. From now on, though, he went into the mountains specifically to paint and his works started to appear in exhibitions and in the pages of Sangaku. In 1936, he founded the Japan Association for Mountain Art and exhibited seven paintings at its inaugural exhibition, including one of summer snow on Tateyama (below). He died in 1967, at the age of 79.

Inevitably for a Sangaku-kai member, Nakamura was also a writer. Perhaps inspired by that youthful encounter with pilgrims’ relics on Warusawadake, he published three books on Japan’s mountain religions. Dealing as they did with the mystic aspect of the mountain world, these studies were of a piece with his paintings. The unexplored mountains of his golden age were “vast, mysterious, sublime”, Nakamura wrote, “as if wrapped in some purple cloud, enshrined in the inner recesses of my heart”.


“Yama to Bijutsu” chapter in Hito wa naze yama ni noboru no ka?, Volume 103 in the Taiyo Bessatsu: Nihon no Kokoro series (Heibonsha, 1998).

Quotation from Nihon Hyakumeizan from the forthcoming translation as One Hundred Mountains of Japan.

Images of Nakamura's paintings are by courtesy of this website. Paintings show (from top to bottom) the snowfield on Yarigatake; glacial corries on Tateyama; a study of a creeping pine (haimatsu); summer snow on Tateyama, and an edelweiss.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The origins of alpinism (2)

The story of the Sangaku-kai continued: How Kojima Usui's furious scribbling helped to found Asia's first alpine club

Kojima Usui was always clear about the chain of events that led him to found the Sangaku-kai, later to be known as the Japan Alpine Club. As related in the previous post, he picked up a copy of Shiga Shigetaka's Theory of Japanese Landscape (Nihon Fūkeiron) in 1896, and was inspired by the book to climb Yarigatake a few years later. This led to the famous meeting in 1903 with Walter Weston, the mountaineering missionary, who suggested the idea of a club.

But what happened in the two years between the fateful meeting with Weston and the Sangaku-kai's actual formation in 1905? Here the story lacks detail. According to Kojima, the blame for that lies with the Great Kanto Earthquake, which devastated Tokyo and Yokohama in September 1923. By that time, Kojima was working as his bank's representative in California, but he'd left all his papers relating to the prehistory of the Japan Alpine Club - hundreds of letters - at his parents' home.

When the earthquake struck, the house was badly damaged and the family took refuge for the night in a nearby bamboo grove. While they were away, the house was looted. Quite why the thief should make off with bundles of old letters is obscure. But, Kojima adds vengefully, if the felon had wiped his nose with them, "may it wrinkle up like that of a Nambu salmon".

So, when it came to the events after the meeting with Weston (right), Kojima had to reconstruct from memory. - there might be gaps and errors in the narrative, he warns in his essay on the run-up to the Sangaku-kai's founding. If memory serves aright, though, his first move after meeting Weston was (characteristically) to write an article about him. This account, probably the first write-up of Weston's doings in Japanese, was published in a magazine for middle school students. It led to another meeting with the Englishman, who this time paid a visit to Kojima at his bank.

Starting with his "Account of the Exploration of Yarigatake" (1903), Kojima's mountain writings were now getting his name about. This saved him the effort of having to seek out like-minded folk. Indeed, all he had to do was wait for them to announce themselves. The first to pay his respects at Kojima's door was Takatō Jinbei, scion of a wealthy farming family from Niigata. Takatō's destiny was to bankroll the club during its early years to the tune of one thousand yen a year, a good sum in those days.

Then along came two students, Takeda Hisayoshi and Takano Takazō (left, photo taken, presumably, rather later in life). Both had a strong interest in natural history - Takeda had already written articles on botany, while Takano inclined to ornithology - and they had already founded their own club, the Japan Natural History Association. Takeda would later publish the first guide to Japan's alpine plants. Umezawa Chikamitsu was a third member of this group.

Another key man was Jō Kazuma, a lawyer and a member of the Tokyo city council. Later, he became head of the Korean court of appeals and also made a name for himself as an expert on the Meiji constitution. At that time, however, he still had time for his hobby, which was seeking out rare flowers in the mountains. He was the first to collect an example of the rare Tsukumogusa.

Soon they had a quorum: "Brought together by the mountains, and backed by Takatō's resources and energy, Jō Kazuma's social standing and statesmanlike judgement, the young naturalists' dedication, hard work and dash of romanticism, to say nothing of my propensity to recite Byron in the mountains and scribble away furiously, it was quite natural that we should end up by founding an alpine club."

Kojima is probably understating his contribution here. He had a talent for bringing people together, and not only on mountains. Later in life, for example, he acted as a negotiator of marital ceasefires between Yosano Tekkan and his wife Akiko.

Whatever the extent of Kojima's influence - and it was probably larger than he admits - the new Sangaku-kai met for the first time in Kojimachi, Tokyo, on 14 October 1905. Soon all its members and not just Kojima were scribbling furiously. The first edition of the new club's journal, Sangaku, came out the following spring.

Even before that, Takatō Shoku (Jinbei) published his magisterial Nihon Sangakushi (History of Japanese Mountains), a 1,200-page vade mecum to 207 peaks of the Japanese islands (including Taiwan) with contributions from Kojima Usui and several other Sangaku-kai members. Interestingly, an earlier version of the book was entitled "Nihon Meizan-shō (A Selection of Notable Japanese Mountains), foreshadowing the title of a much later author's masterpiece.

In this way, the Japan Alpine Club was almost literally written into existence. A bestselling book about nature had inspired its founder to start mountaineering. And Kojima's own writings were the operative instrument by which he gathered together the first few club members. Once Sangaku was established, the output of club members accelerated. In the end, Kojima's collected works would occupy half a shelf. And two collections of his essays are still in print today, as are two books by Takeda Hisayoshi.

The Sangaku-kai's belle-lettrist origins make an interesting comparison with the beginnings of alpinism in eighteenth-century Europe. There it was the savants who led the way, starting with Paccard, the young doctor who found the route up Mt Blanc, and continuing with Saussure, the scientist, who followed in his bootprints. In subsequent decades, there were Agassiz, Desor, Hugi, Forbes and Tyndall, who all made glaciers their study as well as climbing mountains. In Japan, by contrast, Kojima launched alpinism on a decidedly literary vector.


Kojima Usui: Sangaku-kai no seiritsu made. Essay in Arupinisto no Shuki (An alpinist's diary).

Anecdote about Kojima as a mediator between Tekkan and Akiko Yosano is from 多才なアルプニスト:小島烏水 article by 瀬戸島政博 (Setoguchi Masahiro) The Japan Journal of Survey, September 2008.

Photos copyright of Yama to Keikoku illustrated history of Japanese mountaineering (目で見る日本登山史 by 川崎吉光、山と渓谷社).