Monday, April 30, 2012

Roadmap to mountain writing

A survey of who wrote what during Japan's first half-century of alpine literature

If you were looking for a roadmap to Japan’s rich landscape of mountain writing, you’d seek out a guide. The ideal candidate would be a scholar alpinist who’d written a fair bit of mountain literature himself. That would be somebody like Tanabe Jūji (1884-1972), professor of English literature, pioneer of the Chichibu range, and a prolific all-terrain writer.

Fortunately, Tanabe (above) did indeed draw up such a roadmap. In the summer of 1943, he published a short essay on modern mountaineering literature (現代山岳文学について). What follows is summarised and adapted from that survey.

Mountain literature began in the Meiji era, says Tanabe, at least if we define the genre as mountain travel literature - which accounts for the greater part of mountain literature. People wrote up mountain ascents before Meiji, of course, but these were incidental episodes within travel diaries or the like.

Two examples are Bashō’s visit to the Dewa Sanzan in his Narrow Road to the Deep North and Suzuki Bokushi’s excursion to the flat-topped summit of Naeba in his Snow Country Tales. Several Meiji-era writers also recorded their travels in mountainous regions, including Kōda Rohan and Chizuka Reisui. But, again, the mountains were more or less incidental to their journeys.

The originator of true mountain literature – where the mountain is the main object of the journey – was Kojima Usui (1873-1948), the banker, writer and founder of the Japan Alpine Club. Kojima started out as a travel writer – his first book, Sentō Shōkei (扇頭小景) published in 1899, described lowland rambles.

What transformed Kojima (above) into Japan’s first mountain writer was the shock effect of reading Shiga Shigetaka’s Nippon Fūkeiron – the book on the landscapes of Japan that prompted him to climb Yari-ga-take in 1902. This ascent led to a pivotal meeting with Walter Weston a year later. Over tea, the mountaineering missionary introduced Kojima not only to the idea of a club for alpinists but to John Ruskin’s famous essay on Mountain Glory.

It was after the Weston meeting that Kojima became a true “mountain writer and researcher”. His sway over later mountain writing is difficult to understate. When, together with six like-minded friends, he founded the Japan Alpine Club – it started life simply as the Sangaku-kai, on the model of Britain’s long-established Alpine Club – Kojima also ensured that it would have its own journal. The first edition of Sangaku came out in the spring of 1906, the year after the eponymous club held its first meeeting.

All subsequent Japanese mountain writers, says Tanabe, were directly or indirectly influenced by Kojima Usui. All, up to Tanabe’s time of writing, got their start as mountain writers by contributing articles to the Japan Alpine Club’s journal. Among these Sangaku authors were the scientists Tsujimoto Michimaru, Tsujimura Isuke (most famous for his Swiss Diary), and Takeda Hisayoshi, who started their writing careers in the last years of Meiji. Then, in the Taishō era, came Kogure Ritarō, Kanmuri Matsujirō, and Tanabe himself.

As a club journal, Sangaku wasn’t sold in bookstores and did not attract the attention of a broader public. But some Sangaku writers started to publish book-length works in the Taishō era. Tanabe’s Pilgrimage to the Japan Alps and Chichibu came out in Taishō 8 (1919), for example, and Tsujimura Isuke’s Swiss Diary in Taishō 11 (1922). So, although mountain writing flourished in the Taishō era, it remained the preserve of a small coterie of authors with links to the Japan Alpine Club.

It was not until the early years of Shōwa that the mountain travel journal reached a broader public. That was when mainstream authors started to turn their hands to mountain essays, novels and poetry. In this light, Akutagawa Ryūnosuke was something of a front-runner, climbing Yari-ga-take at the age of 17 in August 1909 (Meiji 42). He wrote up the ascent as Yarigatake Kikō.

Mountain books published in the first few years of Shōwa included Takabatake Tōzai’s Yama wo iku, Kanmuri Matsujirō’s Tateyama Gumpō, and Tanabe Jūji’s own Yama to Keikoku. Fukada Kyūya’s Waga yama yama – an early mountain work of the Hyakumeizan author - appeared in Shōwa 9.

Meanwhile, the name of Kojima Usui had been almost forgotten. His early period of literary creativity had ended in 1915, when his bank posted him to its Los Angeles branch. Returning from America in 1927, he made up for lost time by publishing another shelf-load of mountain titles, including Hyōga to mannenyuki no yama, Shōsai no gakujin, Arupinisto no shūki, and Haimatsu no nioi.

The early Shōwa period also saw the publication of books by Takeda Hisayoshi (a Sangaku-kai founder member), Ōzaki Kihachi, Uramatsu Sumitarō, and Kawada Miki. Women writers made an appearance: Kuroda Hatsuko and Murai Yoneko are “well known”, Tanabe says, and, more recently, Kawano Fujiko had published her Yama no sugao. Another “important product of the Shōwa era” was Kogure Ritarō’s Yama no omoide; its author had only previously published articles in Sangaku and other journals.

Mountain travelogues present the writer with a substantial challenge, Tanabe warns. They stand or fall by the description of nature but, pile on too much detail, and they degenerate into mere guidebooks. So the writer’s task is to make it literary. Within the limits set by the facts, he has to describe nature, incident, and imbue the work with his individual character. Guidebook accounts are of little value.

Mountain novels are an even rarer feat, Tanabe continued. Indeed, it’s a matter for debate whether they are even possible. Travelogues are based on the writer’s experience, but novels are not so simple. One basic problem is that the average reader doesn’t live in the mountains. If a novel limits itself to mountaineers’ concerns, it just becomes a man-vs-mountain adventure story. Thus the raw material for a mountain novel is limited. Even so, Chisaka Masauchi, “a mountaineer with a superb imagination”, managed to publish Yama no nakama, a novel about mountaineers.

If mountain novels are to achieve any wide appeal, they have to be set where people live; for example, in mountain villages. But there are few actual examples of such novels either in Japan or abroad, not least because writers get few opportunities to experience life in a mountain village. Works of pure imagination, such as Izumi Kyōka’s Kōya Hijiri, are rarer still.

The Meiji era produced little or nothing in the way of mountain-related poetry. But making a name for themselves in the early Shōwa years were Tomita Saika, Maeda Tetsunosuke, Ōzaki Kihachi, Nakanishi Godō. Then there is the pastoral poet of Yamagata Prefecture, Takemura Toshio, whose collection Arakusa also includes fine mountain poems.

Mountain writing, Tanabe concludes, is a new art form. And any new form of art requires decades to produce a masterpiece.


About modern mountain literature (現代山岳文学について), by Tanabe Jūji, an essay collected in Yama to Keikoku (Iwanami Bunko)

Friday, April 20, 2012

Treading the eightfold ridge

A narrow path into the deep blue sky of the Japan Alps

We would have been amazed, Tim and I, if we'd known that folks once doubted whether Japan had "Alps". I mean, what could be more alpine than that dome floating above us, blindingly white, like a miniature Mt Blanc? Or that arete whip-sawing its way down to this snowy knife-edge …

Ah yes, the knife-edge ridge we'd just paused on. Something seemed to be troubling Tim. "It's the rope," he said. "Surely, it should be shorter." We had a few metres out, enough - so I thought - should one of us fall, to give the other an extra split-second to save our lives by leaping off the opposite side of the ridge. "Isn't it OK as it is?" I asked, and on we went.

Endless debates swirl about the topic of correct comportment on sharp ridges. Some go roped. Others dispense with the rope altogether, arguing that it serves no purpose except to drag a second victim to his death. But we didn't even discuss the no-rope option. Didn't some Alpine Club geezer say that a man who climbed without would net a salmon or shoot a fox?

Anyway, we weren't going to fall off. The snow was crisp and, as for the weather, Golden Week - Japan's late-spring series of public holidays - was living up to its name. After climbing a snow ridge on Shirouma the previous weekend, we'd decided to follow up with Yatsu-mine on Tsurugi, an altogether more rugged proposition.

So we'd hiked in from Tateyama two days ago and pitched our tent in Tsurugi-sawa on snow stained yellow by the dust that drifts in from China on the spring winds. Although we'd left the cherry trees blooming at the mountain's foot, up here, winter was making a convincing last stand. A snow shower pattered onto our flysheet next morning, keeping us tent-bound. Snow ptarmigans croaked in the distance as I snoozed and Tim read an alarmingly graphic book about a slave revolt. At noon, we switched on our radio and heard the NHK announcer promising us a "satsuki-bare" tomorrow – a perfect May day.

NHK was as good as her word. On May 3, well rested, we were away well before dawn. Perhaps too early; wrapped in the Stygian blackness of Tsurugi-sawa, we walked past the entrance to Chōjirō-dani and had to retrace our steps. By the time it was light enough to switch off our head torches, we were already climbing the snow ramp towards the ridge, high above the gully. The angle was steep and we made sure of every step by driving our axe-shafts into the snow.

At 6am, we climbed onto the col between Peaks Two and Three. From here, we could see a serried array of gendarmes and towers blocking our way to the summit. Yatsu-mine was dubbed by Uji Chōjirō himself – the guide who led the government surveyors on the first modern ascent of Tsurugi in 1907. Whether the ridge really does have eight peaks, as the name suggests, is uncertain. Right now, the tossing crests gleamed so brightly in the spring sun - yesterday's fresh snow had covered up the Chinese dust - that we could hardly count them. Hastily, we put on our sunglasses.

A short climb up a snowy crest took us to our first abseil, down a notch in the ridge. I think it was on the ensuing traverse that Tim raised the question of the rope. He was right, by the way - in such places, the authorities advise short-roping or using none at all. Then a second abseil, from Peak Four, took us into the camp site of a party of four, who were just packing up after a night on the ridge.

A longer ramp now took us up to a spire-like rock pinnacle. From here, we took a moment to enjoy what guidebooks like to call a 'magnificent position', with views south to the spire of Yari sixty kilometres away. At our feet, the great sweep of snowy Tsurugi-sawa curved away, just like the alpine glacier it once was.

We didn't pause long: this climb had better be finished before the sun got too high. Two abseils on faded in-situ slings took us down to the col between Peaks Five and Six. The climb up the face of Peak Six took a steep snow-wall, but conditions were better than the previous week.

In places, there was even a sprig of creeping pine (haimatsu) to grab. (A resinous fragrance greets the nostrils as you climb through patches of this hardy and mountaineer-friendly tree.) And the air was still, which was fortunate given that much of the ridge enforces a Blondin-like poise.

Yatsu-mine must have looked even airier to its pioneers. Nothing quite like this had ever been climbed in Japan when a party from Waseda University ventured here in July 1923. Quite possibly they compared it with the Mittelegi Ridge (below) on the Eiger, which Maki Yuko (left) had climbed two years before. This was the epoch-making first ascent that galvanised student mountaineers into tackling higher, more difficult routes all over the Japan Alps.

Competition was intense: a month after the Waseda crew made its reconnaissance, one from Gakushuin made the first full ascent of the ridge. In April 1934, climbers from Keio, Waseda and Gakushuin added the first snow ascent. It was in their illustrious crampon-prints that we now followed – all unwittingly, alas; we weren’t greatly into mountaineering history in those days.

I’d been worrying all week about the abseil point from Peak Seven, described by the guidebook as difficult to find if the stance is covered by snow. And, one may surmise, even more difficult to abseil from. Fortunately, the crisp snow afforded an easy downclimb to some tapes draped around a solid boulder. I added another long loop of shock-cord as insurance, which met with the approval of another party waiting its turn to descend. That was the last abseil on the ridge itself.

We needn't have hurried. Stood or seated about on the col below us were several other parties, all waiting to climb a narrow section of ridge beyond. The scene reminded me of a Tokyo subway poster, then current, that warned commuters against the hazards of excessive crowding. Stop the kakekomi (crush), it said.

After almost an hour's rest, enforced by the kakekomi, Tim was able to lead over another patch of steeply creeping pine to put us on the final snow slope. At noon,we pulled up onto the eighth and final rock pinnacle. We hadn't finished yet - we still had to abseil down to the San-no-mado col and then climb up to the true summit of Tsurugi - but this was the end of our eightfold ridge.

As we stepped onto its final peaklet, the plains of Toyama rose into sight, and beyond them the glittering sheen of the Japan Sea. From Tsurugi, you look out westwards into a limitless blue distance - there's nothing higher until you get to the Urals. Or maybe even the Himalaya. We gazed into the blue and thought about that infinity of mountains to climb. Above our heads, alpine swifts and swallows carved the air. And now the clouds were starting to drift up from the valley.


Yama to Keikoku magazine, March 1994, Classic routes of Japan series no 12, Yatsu-mine main ridge. (剣岳八ツ峰主稜)

Monday, April 16, 2012

Old masters of Meizan (2)

The landscape painter who made the first all-Japan survey of famous mountains

Tani Bunchō (1763-1840) is the second authority mentioned by Fukada Kyūya in the afterword to his One Hundred Mountains of Japan. The son of a well known poet, Tani studied landscape painting in a Chinese-influenced style from an early age. Then, thanks to a long-standing family connection, he went into the service of Matsudaira Sadanobu, the daimyō of Shirakawa Province.

Sadanobu encouraged Tani's development as an artist. In 1793, while acting as regent for the Shogun, he took the young painter along on an inspection of coastal defences near Tokyo. The resulting landscapes, many with Mt Fuji in the background, were collected as the Kōyo Tanshō Zu - or "Exploring scenery away from public duty".

It may have been on this trip that Tani hit on the idea of painting famous mountains. Over the next decade, Tani made several long journeys, some lasting several months. Among other subjects, he depicted the islands of Matsushima, scenes in the Yamato region, and the Kōrakuen garden in Kanazawa. In the process, he became a successful and sought-after artist. Some critics carp that he took on too many commissions in his later career, leading to a decline in the quality of his art.

Be that as it may, it wasn't until the turn of the nineteenth century that Tani had seen enough mountains to make up a collection. His Meizan zufu (Chart of Famous Mountains), published in 1804, consisted of 90 paintings of 88 mountains (two peaks were painted twice over). The collection was reissued in 1812 as Nihon Meizan zufu. Tani depicted his mountains in a crisp and realistic style; the use of perspective may owe something to Western artistic influences then flowing into Japan by way of Nagasaki, a city that Tani had visited.

Thanks to his privileged status as a retainer to one of Japan's most powerful rulers, Tani was able to range even further afield than Tachibana Nankei. Accordingly, his list of Meizan includes five from the northern island of Ezo (later to be restyled as Hokkaidō) and five from Kyushu. Except for Shikoku, which Tani hadn't visited, the Nihon Meizan zufu was effectively the first all-Japan selection of notable mountains.

Height wasn't much of a concern for Tani. Fewer than thirty of his mountains rise higher than fifteen hundred metres. This is mainly because he set out to depict mountains that could be seen from the main roads of his era. Moreover, the high mountains of central Japan were more or less unknown in his day. As a result, rather few of Tani's selection coincide with Fukada Kyūya's One Hundred Mountains.

It may be, though, that the painter was closer in his thinking to the Hyakumeizan author than might at first appear from his choice of mountains. In many of Tani's illustrations, the mountain provides a setting for people going about their business in the foreground - travelling, farming, fishing. These mountains are not remote or sublime but part of Japan's daily life. In Tani's pictures, just as Fukada observes in his Hakusan chapter, "A mountain watches over the home village of most Japanese people ."

Why did Fukada choose to highlight Tachibana Nankei and Tani in his afterword when rather few references are made to them in the main text? Undoubtedly, they help to dignify the sport of selecting lists of mountains by aligning it with Japan's political establishment and cultural traditions - Tachibana representing the Imperial court and the travel diary genre, while Tani is associated with the Tokugawa authorities and a classical style of landscape art.

Was it a coincidence that Tani and Tachibana took an interest in mountain scenery at roughly the same time? Both men are representatives of what Herbert Plutschow calls an "Edo-period Enlightenment" - a late eighteenth-century efflorescence of individualism in literature, rationalism in philosophy, and renewed vigour in the sciences. In eighteenth-century Europe, scientific enquiry helped to motivate the first feats of alpinism - most notably the ascent of Mt Blanc by Horace-Bénédict de Saussure in 1787.

Unlike de Saussure (or Fukada Kyūya, for that matter), neither Tani nor Tachibana showed any inclination to set foot on the mountains they described. At most, their concern with "Meizan" showed that something was in the air. But the intensive exploration of Japan's mountains would have to await a far more thoroughgoing cultural revolution - that of the Meiji Restoration. And the impetus for that investigation would come from literature rather than science.


Khanh Trinh, Darstellung realer Orte: die "wahren Landschaften" des "malenden Reporters" Tani Bunchō

Images from Wikipedia and University of Tokyo, except for details (lowest), which are from this blog.

Listing of mountains in Nihon Meizan Zue (Japanese language)

Friday, April 13, 2012

Tsunami anniversary

Remembering Tohoku - and a forgotten disaster in eighteenth-century Ezo....

Project Hyakumeizan recently received a courteous invitation from the Japanese Embassy in Bern, Switzerland, to a photo exhibition on relief and recovery efforts in north-east Japan.

At the same time, I was reading Herbert Plutschow’s A Reader on Edo Period Travel - where I stumbled across an account of an eighteenth-century tsunami disaster by the Edo-period physician and author, Tachibana Nankei (see Old masters of Meizan). In the light of last year’s tragedy, the story is especially poignant. I hope Professor Plutschow will excuse me for quoting his translation of Tachibana’s account below.

"Nankei heard from the old people with whom he was staying at Minmaya, that, twenty or thirty years before, Matsumae [in southern Hokkaido] had been flooded by a tsunami. The old people told him that the deities and Buddhas had sent warnings but that the foolish people did not heed them and that all those who lived near the beach died.

The wind was still at that time and the rain clouds had moved away into the distance, but for no apparent reason the sky clouded over again. Now and then a light appeared at night, flitting from east to west in the empty sky. As time passed, this light grew brighter and, four or five days before the tsunami, the gods flew over the empty sky even in daytime.

One god rode on a dragon, which was flying on a cloud. Still another god, dressed completely in white, rode on an animal like an elephant or a rhinocerous. Some were very large and appeared in red, some in blue, but there were also small ones. The sky was filled with these strange-looking Buddhas and deities and they all flew from east to west. We all went out to watch them. Thankful for their appearance, we prayed to them every day. It was strange to be praying to visible gods.

Four or five days passed like this and, one evening, when I looked out towards the open sea, there was something white like a snow mountain. I said: “Look out! There is something mysterious in the middle of the ocean.” This thing came nearer and nearer until it seemed as if it would flood over the whole island. Then a huge wave came. This was the tsunami. “Run for it!” Old and young, men and women, all struggling to be first, ran in utter confusion.

But in no time at all it came, swallowing all the houses, the fields, the trees and plants, as well as the animals. No one living in villages along the shore survived. I saw this from a distance. This wave came in over thousands of ri over the ocean. It was high as a cloud and, until it came near the shore, it did not even look like a wave. It came in once and it retreated once.

No one could tell what caused this. All the people said to each other in fear that the reason why the gods were flying in the clouds at the beginning was to tell people that something terrible was afoot.

Nankei was unable to explain such phenomena rationally and ended his report simply by warning later generations that something like this could happen again …"


Herbert Plutschow, A reader in Edo period travel.

Woodprint illustrations by courtesy of University of Tokyo.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Old masters of Meizan (1)

The Imperial physician who put forward the first theory of famous mountains

The idea of a "meizan" - sometimes translated as "famous mountain" - didn't start with Fukada Kyūya. Indeed, the Hyakumeizan author went to some lengths to disclaim originality. In the afterword to his One Hundred Mountains of Japan, he points out that several authorities had previously drawn up lists of notable peaks around Japan.

According to Fukada, the first to advance a theory of famous mountains was Tachibana Nankei (1753-1805), a famous travel writer. This "Meizanron" is developed in Tachibana's Tōyuki, an account of the doctor's travels through eastern and northern Japan.

Born into a samurai family in Ise province, Tachibana (left) studied medicine in Kyoto and established himself there as a doctor. He must have gained some prominence in his profession, being appointed in 1786 as an Imperial physician and attending the Emperor Kōkaku's investiture the following year.

Today, Tachibana is remembered mainly for his travel journals. At the age of 30, in the early 1780s, he made a journey to western Japan and Kyushu, meeting with representatives of the Dutch East India Company at Nagasaki. As a man of science, he was impressed by what he saw of European optical instruments and maps.

In 1785, Tachibana set off on another long journey, this time to the eastern and north-eastern provinces. He even ventured into southern reaches of Ezo, the northern island that would later be known as Hokkaidō. Ten years later, he published accounts of his travels as the Saiyūki ("Journey to the West") and the Tōyūki ("Journey to the East"). His lively and opinionated style quickly won his books a wide readership.

It is in the fifth volume of the Saiyūki that Tachibana puts forward his "Theory of famous mountains". Everybody, he observes, says their own local mountains are the best in the world, yet this is hard to credit. "And, as I have travelled everywhere under heaven," he continues, "I thought I would attempt a fair discussion of this matter."

There follows a listing of some twenty-five mountains: "Among the highest, Mt Fuji comes indisputably first, followed by Hakusan in Kaga and Tateyama in Etchu. Then come Kirishimayama in Hyuga, Unzendake in Hizen, Komagatake in Shinano, Chōkaisan and, Gassan in Dewa, and Iwakisan and Iwawashiyama (Iwatesan) in Ōshū. Arrayed after these mountains are Hikosan in Buzen, Asosan and Kujusan both in Higo, Ubagatake in Bungo, Kaimondake in Satsuma, Takamine in Iyo, Enatake and Ontake in Mino, Ibukisan in Ōmi, Myōkōsan in Echigo, Togakushiyama in Shinano, Jizodake in Kai, Tsukubasan in Hitachi, Kodasan and Mikomagatake in Ōshū, and so forth."

Tachibana's listing has stood the test of time. Most of these mountains also appear in Fukada's one hundred summits. Yet this Meizanron may be as significant for what it omits as for what it contains. Notably absent is a discussion of the term "Meizan". Presumably, Tachibana felt that the word was so commonplace that it needed no definition. Then as now, the prefix "mei-" can be applied to anything notable or noteworthy, from a fine wine (meishū) to a particularly appealing hot spring (meiyu).

That said, Tachibana does drop some hints as to what might make a mountain notable. His first three - Fuji, Hakusan and Tateyama - have been known for centuries as the Sanreizan, or the Three Holy Mountains of Japan - an association that goes back at least as far as the early Edo era. Quite apart from their lofty altitudes and impressive forms, these mountains are revered as the centres of ancient religious traditions.

In a later paragraph of his Meizanron, Tachibana asks himself if Hagurosan and Yudonoyama should be included in his list of Meizan. Like the Sanreizan, these satellite peaks of the extinct volcano Gassan are religious mountains: "a place where the Buddha and the gods appear, and many people pay homage to them". Yet, and here a note of doubt creeps in, their height is "extremely low".

Although they are implied rather than stated, Tachibana's criteria for Meizan status are strikingly similar to Fukada's. To qualify for Tachibana's list, a mountain must have character and it must have history. And, ideally, it must be high, although neither Tachibana nor Fukada are dogmatic about a minimum altitude: both authors include lowly Tsukuba and Kaimon in their lists, neither of which tops 1,000 metres.

Yet height and stature do matter. Tateyama, says Tachibana, is "high and precipitous and picturesque". As for Hakusan, its perpetual snows make it look like a "gemstone cut from pure whiteness". Other mountains distinguished by their good form - meaning that they resemble Mt Fuji - include Chōkaisan, Gassan, Iwakisan, Iwawashiyama, Hikosan, and Kaimondake. Lastly, there is the southern volcano Sakurajima, surrounded on all sides by the sea, "like an incense burner set on a blue mat". Other Meizan may exist, Tachibana concedes, but he has discussed here only those that he has personally laid eyes on.

Next in this series: Tani Buncho, the gentleman painter who drew up the first all-Japan list of famous mountains.


Samizdat translation of Tachibana's Meizanron (thanks, Sensei!).