Saturday, April 20, 2024

A meizanologist's diary (68)

27 March (cont’d): perhaps by default, the Sensei and I increasingly practise the art of Slow Mountaineering. For like it or not, we’re never going to make it down to the Masutomi hot springs in forty-five minutes, as could Yamaki-san in his youth. Instead, we amble down the road, soaking up the afternoon sunshine and listening to the first tentative birdsong ripple through the bare woods. The Sensei even tries whistling back to a nightingale.

Taking a short cut across a bend in the road, we happen across the old path down to Masutomi. This guides us to our next appointment – with Kogure Ritarō, no less. Not the man himself, of course, but his monument, which stands on a slight eminence amid an aery grove of silver birch trees. The slanting sunlight floods in through the leafless branches.

It was a memorial service here, records Fukada Kyūya in Nihon Hyakumeizan, that brought him to Mizugaki. We can imagine that Fukada and Kogure were well acquainted – Fukada joined the Japanese Alpine Club in June 1935, the very same year that Kogure became the club’s president. This explains why Fukada calls him the “doyen (dai-senpai) of our mountaineering community” in his chapter on Kinpu-zan, the sixty-eighth of his Hundred Mountains.

By the time Fukada wrote those words, Kogure was no longer there to appreciate them. He died in May 1944, during his ninth year of office as the Japanese Alpine Club’s president. It was a difficult time to be a mountaineer, let alone head up Japan’s pre-eminent mountaineering association. The fine bronze relief on the monument – by Satō Kyūichirō says Fukada – shows a face worn down by the cares of office.

This is not the youthful Kogure, with his bristling beard, striding out in August 1913 for an epic traverse over still unknown ways through the Japan Alps. In the above cartoon by the artist and fellow JAC member Nakamura Seitarō, Kogure and his companion, Tanabe Jūji, look like an ill-assorted pair, thrown together by chance because they lodged in the same Tokyo boarding house. Yet outward appearances may deceive.

For unlike most of the born-and-bred townsmen and professionals who made up the ranks of the early JAC, both Kogure and Tanabe started life in the deep countryside – Kogure in Gunma and Tanabe in Toyama. And both were brought up in villages that still adhered to the mountain faiths. Kogure even went on a pilgrimage to Mt Fuji at the age of thirteen.

Later in their lives, both men turned away from long and arduous forays through the big mountains. Instead, they turned their attention to the Chichibu region, closer to home and quieter than the increasingly crowded thoroughfares of the Hida range. This is why Kogure’s monument looks out towards Kinpu-zan, a peak that he said “could hold its head up in the company of any mountain in all Japan”.

It wasn’t just Kogure and Tanabe, of course. The idea of shorter, cheaper and lighter-weight excursions made sense to a growing number of Tokyo-based salarymen and women too. In 1919, a club was founded especially for them; Kogure joined up too, as did other eminent JAC members such as Takeda Hisayoshi. 

And there, we see, is the club’s name, the Kiri-no-tabi-no-kai (“Wanderers of the mist”) immortalised in bronze, alongside those of the monument’s other sponsors – which include the Japanese Alpine Club, its local Yamanashi section, the prefectural mountaineering federation, and the Masutomi hot springs …

The Masutomi hot springs! If we want to get there before the sun sinks below the opposite ridge, we’d better get going. Last year’s leafmould rustles under our boots as we walk down to the road. I’m still thinking about Kogure, though – he and Tanabe were early exponents of a movement known as “contemplative mountaineering” (静観的登山). Now how is that different from Slow Mountaineering I find myself wondering …

Friday, April 19, 2024

A meizanologist's diary (67)

27 March (cont’d): when we come down from Mizugaki, we find that the warm sun has melted the morning’s powder snow, transforming the path through the woods into a spring-like avenue. Steam is wafting gently up from the road in front of Mizugaki Sansō. 

We drop back into the lodge for an after-lunch coffee with our host, Yamaki-san. A local man – there’s a village of that name on the way to Nirasaki – he and his wife have been running Mizugaki Sansō for forty-four years, taking over after the early death of his elder brother. In those days, there was no road down to Masutomi, but he could still run down the path to the hot spring village in three quarters of an hour. As for the mountain, he might still climb it one last time before retiring ….

On the wall of the café hangs a photo showing a Yosemite-like pillar of smooth granite – look closely at it, and you see a climber rounding a massive overhang, his companion belaying him from close by. I’d forgotten that Mizugaki has long been a forcing-ground for extreme rock-climbing talent, as you can read in this thoughtful article from Alpinist magazine.

“Yes, that’s one of the granite towers on the left of the Mizugaki ridge,” explains Yamaki-san – the climbers were friends of his. It wasn’t the rock-climbers, though, who first discovered that buttress, he adds – at its base, there used to be an inscription in Sanskrit, but this has weathered away so that only a single character remains to be seen.

Fukada Kyūya’s chapter on Mizugaki-yama has this to say about Mizugaki's Urgeschichte: “…evidence that the mountain was known in ancient times is found in a story that Kōbō Daishi’s name and other old writings are carved into a cliff in the upper reaches of Amadori-sawa. Although I have not myself laid eyes on these inscriptions, the story shows that this mountain has a past.”

, I say to myself, as we set out on our walk down to Masutomi, a real Meizan always has hidden depths. Neither of us suspects, though, that we'll soon learn that this insight is as true literally as it is metaphorically ...

Monday, April 15, 2024

A meizanologist's diary (66)

27 March: during the early hours, the wind and rain fall suspiciously quiet. At dawn, we see that a light snowfall has dusted the trees around Mizugaki Sanso. Our quest for the eponymous Meizan starts at 7am when we skate across the frozen road in front of the lodge. The path through the woods winds between huge boulders, all steeped in an eerie blue penumbra; the sun has yet to climb above the ridge.

We haven’t gone far when we meet a youth, still wearing crampons, on his way down. A camera of estimable calibre outs him as a mountain photographer. Sure enough, he started his climb at 3am so that he could top out before sunrise. Alas, he reports, the summit was still wrapped in cloud (“gas”), but soon afterwards he was able to capture the first light on Mt Fuji.

Abashed at our own leisurely approach, we continue working our way through the eldritch shadows. I start wondering when we’ll actually get a view of our mountain. Clearly Mizugaki is one of those Meizan that likes to manage its stage appearances with a certain eclat – like the Matterhorn, for instance, which steps out from behind a buttress only as your train is just about to arrive in Zermatt….

Without warning, we step out both into the sunlight and the presence of Fukada Kyūya's 69th Meizan: there it looms across the valley. “Can one describe this mountain as a medley of crags?” the Hyakumeizan author asks before answering his own question: “It is not the only mountain with crags, but what is unique about Mizugaki is the way it mixes its crags with its trees. Rocks seem to sprout directly from the dense pine woods.”

A pause is indicated at Fujimi-daira, an encampment that may have been named before a pine grove grew up to obscure the view of Japan’s top mountain. After restoring ourselves with one of the Sensei’s home-grown sweet potatoes each, we proceed on crampons, the better to deal with the ice weeps that lie in wait here and there.

Crampons are possibly not ideal for crossing the sawa that divides Fujimi-daira from Mizugaki itself. The stream is still frozen over, but only just: water wells up into the prints cut by my steel-toothed boots and, while watching the Sensei start across the sketchy ice, I’m oddly reminded of just such a tense moment in Commodore Peary’s race to the North Pole

I watched them from the other side with my heart in my mouth—watched the ice bending under the weight of the sledges and the men. As one of the sledges neared the north side, a runner cut clear through the ice, and I expected every moment that the whole thing, dogs and all, would go through the ice and down to the bottom. But it did not.

Relieved that she did not, and that our feet are still dry, we scramble up the opposite bank. Dominating a clearing, a gigantic roulade of diorite awaits us there. Fukada too was impressed: “There we were confronted by a huge boulder, split by a vertical cleft – a quite magnificent boulder.”

Leaving this behemoth on our left, we follow the photographer’s tracks into a shallow watercourse. Our crampons bite crisply into the leafmould under the powder snow or the occasional frozen cascade.

The footprints lead us underneath some large yet delicately poised rocks. “What would we do if there was an earthquake here?” asks the Sensei, to which the obvious reply is “Let’s not even think about it.” As a welcome distraction from this train of speculation, we get our first glimpse of Mt Fuji through the trees.

Looking up, we see a mighty crenellation thrusting its way into the empyrean – this must be the far-famed Ohyasuri-iwa, which translates as “Big File Rock”. If anybody should find the name disappointly mundane, Fukada commiserates with them in this very chapter of his Hyakumeizan:

When our ancestors named mountains, they certainly did not trouble themselves to consider mountaineering organizations looking for titles for their magazines. Far from being inspiring, the names they chose were extremely down-to-earth. Taking their cue from a mountain's color or shape or state, they came up with names like Spear (Yari), Red Peak (Aka-dake), or Landslide (Ōkuzure). Or they borrowed from the implements in their daily round, as in Basket (Zaru), Saddle (Kura), or Screen (Byōbu) …

To the last, though, Mizugaki is a drama queen. Grazing past the Big File, we come up against a headwall that threatens to block all progress to folk who don’t climb 5.11. But the path then skirts defly around its base, and enfilades the summit block from the back. After pulling up one last set of chains, we step up through a portal in the trees onto the topmost granite platform.

Truly, the weather has smiled on us. Spring is rolling up the valleys, yet it grants us the kind of visibility that is normally afforded only on a deeply subzero winter day. From long-limbed Fuji floating on the southern horizon, our gaze sweeps over the Southern Alps – there is Kita-dake, the mountain for philosophers, snowy Senjo with its crisp-cut glacial couloirs, and gloomy Kaikoma, the Finsteraarhorn of Japan – past the sprawling massif of Yatsu-ga-take in the middle distance – towards the distant white cupolas of the more northerly Northern Alps. Can it really be the twin spires of Kashimayari that we see up there?

The chilly north wind has dropped, letting us take our lunch in the shelter of some trees. Overhead, a swiftly moving train of jetstream cirrus reminds us to enjoy the view while it lasts…

Thursday, April 11, 2024

A meizanologist's diary (65)

24 March (cont), Tokyo: we come to the office of the NPO Mt Fuji Research Station for a cup of tea but find ourselves imbibing the raw materials of history. Round the table are members of the Fuyō Nikki no Kai, an association dedicated to researching the story of Nonaka Itaru (1867-1955) and his wife Chiyoko (1871-1923), who spent more than two months in the winter of 1895 taking weather measurements on the summit of Mt Fuji.

We are careful not to spill our tea. For on the grey metal office table in front of us is the manuscript of Nonaka Chiyoko’s journal, Fuyō Nikki, just as she set it down in the early months of 1896, with the couple’s high-altitude ordeal still fresh in her memory.

The manuscript of Fuyo Nikki, with editor's remarks

All of us lean in for a closer look. Despite their age, the pages show scarcely a stain or a mark – except, that is, for the scrawls of a red pen, perhaps applied by the editor of the Hōchi-shinbun, which published the journal in 17 instalments during 1896. And the paper still looks astonishingly fresh, as if Chiyoko had just laid down her brush and left the room.

Another document is more formally bound than Chiyoko’s working manuscript – and is written in a different, more cursive, hand. As Nonaka-san, the grandson of Itaru and Chiyoko explains, this is a fair copy of the newspaper articles, as personally compiled by Chiyoko’s father, Umetsu Shien.

Umetsu Shien's fair copy of Chiyoko's articles

Umetsu must have been quietly proud of his daughter’s feat in climbing Mt Fuji unannounced and hence ensuring her husband’s survival. And as a literary man himself – he was a noh master in the entourage of one of Japan’s last daimyōs – he would have been particularly pleased that his daughter too could wield an inkbrush deftly.

We are both moved and motivated. Via various printed editions, the manuscript on the table was the starting point for Ohmori Hisao’s modern Heibonsha edition of Chiyoko’s and Itaru’s books - and the first to combine them - which in turn paves the way for the first English version of Fuyō Nikki and selections from Itaru’s Fuji-Annai (“Guide to Mt Fuji”). Please bear with us – you know these things take time. But we feel immensely privileged to have seen where everything started …

Umetsu Shien's autograph and title page

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

A meizanologist's diary (64)

24 March: on our way to visit friends in Ogikubo, a Tokyo suburb, we drop into the local Hakusan shrine – the actual Hakusan, some 360 kilometres away in Ishikawa Prefecture, is the Sensei’s local Meizan, and therefore your correspondent’s mountain-in-law. As an additional incentive, from a previous visit I remember a small flock of cats a-prowling in the shrine’s grounds.

A notice by the entrance tells us that the shrine venerates the goddess Izanagi and that it dates back to the Bunmei period (1469-1487), when a certain Nakada Kaga no Kami built a shrine here. Legend has it that, when Nakada’s younger brother was suffering from a severe toothache, the Hakusan oracle appeared to him in a dream and advised him to eat with chopsticks made of bush clover twigs. And lo, when he did so, the toothache was cured.

We walk up a long stone path shaded by tall trees and come out into a spacious courtyard. As it’s a Sunday, the shrine is quietly busy, with visitors coming and going every few minutes to pay their respects. Strange to say, when this main sanctuary was renovated in 1967, a pile of bush clover chopsticks was discovered under the old building, presumably brought there as offerings by supplicants hoping to be cured of their toothaches.

But where are the cats that I’d promised the Sensei? Not one is to be seen. Instead, two fine felines of polished stone have materialised – at least, I don’t remember seeing them previously – one attending the shrine’s lustral basin (“temizuya”) and the other asleep on a wall. The mystery of the missing cats deepens …

When you come to think about it, though, the real mystery is not the lack of cats but the proliferation of Hakusan shrines. For every prefecture has at least one, excepting Okinawa and possibly Hokkaido, and there are some 2,700 to 3,000 nationwide, estimates varying by date and source. In any case, they far outnumber shrines dedicated to Sengen, the goddess of Mt Fuji. Now there would be a mystery to investigate…

Monday, April 1, 2024

A meizanologist's diary (63)

22 March: we haven’t visited Ochi-san (616 metres) since the pandemic. Nor have we heard any news of Otani-sensei, the genial guardian of its summit shrine, who always used to invite us in for tea at his lodge. So, following in the footsteps of Monk Taichō, who inaugurated the mountain a millennium and a bit ago, we drive the short distance from the Sensei’s hometown.

As if to warn us that everything must change, a brash new map heralds the start of the trail. But the factory forests of cryptomeria are much as we found them before. We make as much haste as we can through these monotonous groves towards the mountain’s fourth station, where the satoyama’s more natural woodlands take over.

Even though the woods are still bare, helpful signs identify the various trees. In short order, we pass a five-leaf chocolate vine, a Japanese clethra, and a linden arrow-wood. Almost with relief, we stumble upon a mountain cherry – now here’s a tree we’ve actually heard of. 

But a Chinese hackberry? No, me neither – such is the biodiversity of these hills that the English language can hardly encompass it.

More or less where the snow starts, so does a succession of Jizō statues. These too are new; the Sensei has heard they are carved from a non-local stone. Donated by local dignitaries, they appear to be celebrating a recent exchange with Buddhists from Thailand. 

We seem to be the first up the path today – nobody else’s footprints mar the freshly fallen powder. Soon we’re climbing the last slope up to the great trees that ring the Ochi-san shrine – this is the grove that Otani-sensei used to celebrate in his sermons and newsletter articles.

We’re surprised to find well-trampled snow around the shrine buildings: surely Otani-sensei can’t already be in residence, so early in the year? Then the door of the lodge opens, and out steps the old priest’s daughter. Greetings are exchanged; we remember meeting each other up here before the pandemic, when Otani-sensei introduced her as his successor. Alas, we are too late to renew our acquaintance with Otani-sensei himself: he passed away last May …

Accompanied by a work crew, Otani-sensei’s daughter has come up the mountain for the first time this year, to prepare for the spring opening. After she leaves for home, we climb the final steps to Ochi-san’s inner sanctuary. This is where Taichō used to meditate; snowy Hakusan looms palely in the distance. 

Awaiting us is a rusting metal signboard, written in an antiquated yet elegant script:

Enshrined here is a guardian spirit of Ochi-san who stands for the virtues of duty, generosity, patience and diligence. The essence is to accept whatever blessings you receive and to be straightforward, bright, pure and correct, undertaking all matters great and small in a cheerful, hopeful and grateful spirit without being waylaid by human desires or feelings of resentment …

We stand in front of the timeworn calligraphy for a moment. “I feel as if it was Otani-sensei himself speaking to us,” says the Sensei. Then we turn to go down.

Saturday, March 30, 2024

A meizanologist's diary (62)

16 March (cont’d): having voyaged through space in the morning, we opt to travel backwards through time in the afternoon. And thanks to the munificence of the local authorities, there is even a choice of vehicle: we can visit either the Fukui Prefectural Varve Museum and/or the Wakasa Mikata Jomon Museum, which stand side by side close to the Five Lakes of Mikata.

This is the ticket for a date with Deep Time

Since we have a long drive home, we opt for the varves only – which may be a false economy. For it turns out that both museums owe their existence to the Jomon people who lived beside the lakes from 12,000 to 5,000 years ago. When archaeologists started excavating their trash dump or "midden" of oyster shells in the 1960s, they found that the nearby lakes preserved a particularly fine and deep series of ancient sediments.

Paying our respects to a reconstructed Jomon dwelling

Thanks to its sheltered location, and with a bit of help from the local geology, Lake Suigetsu has yielded up one of the world's best series of varves, as such annual markings in the lakebed are known. And, for the trumpery sum of 500 yen each, the Sensei and I are ushered into their presence.

Vis-a-vis the world's longest unbroken varve series

During the 1990s, explains our guide, four sediment cores were taken from the bottom of Lake Suigetsu. When these were overlapped to cover gaps, the varves could be traced back for 70,000 years at a stretch, showing more or less one varve for every passing year. This – and surely we detect a note of pride in our guide's voice – represents the longest unbroken series of varves in the world. 

We are looking at a wall-mounted display of brownish strips. At first glance, these seem about as exciting as the understated neckties favoured by Japan’s more senior businessmen. Then the guide starts pointing out grey shimmers that cut across the general background of fine-grained stripes. “This one is the Tenshō earthquake in 1586,” he says, referring to a shock so violent that some islands in Ise Bay reportedly sank beneath the waves.

Signs of a shock that would spoil your day

Floods and volcanic eruptions too have signed the book of varves. Further along the wall – and so deeper in the stack – is another grey smear. This one, explains the guide, is ash from the Krakatoa-like explosion about 7,300 years ago of Kikai, a volcanic island south of what would one day become Kagoshima. The eruption not only obliterated the island, leaving only a flooded caldera, but it may also have terminated Jomon habitation in Kyūshū. Tephrochronologists love these ash deposits, of course, as they help establish more precise dates for volcanic eruptions. 

Pollen gets in your varves: expanded model of a typical grain

But there’s more. The Lake Suigetsu record is so long and detailed that, thanks to the organic material such as pollen grains preserved in the mud, it has become a kind of international yardstick for calibrating the carbon dating of archaeological finds. So, by counting up the varves, it is possible to know more exactly, for example, just when the Jomon folk turned their hands to pottery.

The climate changes before our very eyes

The Suigetsu yardstick is a long one. It covers the period for which carbon-14 dating can be reliably used - to about 50,000 years ago - and the oldest varves in the continuous series go back to the time when humans first left Africa, driven quite possibly by climate change. Meanwhile, the landscape around the lakes has morphed from a cold, dry steppe into a forest containing beech, oak and walnut trees during the Jomon era, and then again into today's cedar and camellia woods. 

Gazing in the general direction of Deep Time

Contemplating Deep Time can make the head spin: there is, as a pioneer of the discipline observed no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end in the geological record. So, for a breath of fresh air, we walk out onto an outdoors terrace. 

A fresh sea breeze ruffles the waters of Lake Mikata, into which the Jomon folk used to toss their discarded oyster shells. Over there, but out of sight behind a low ridge, lies Lake Suigetsu. Under its placid surface, the varves are still piling up at a rate of about two metres per millenium, our guide had said. And I find myself wondering how they will record our Anthropocene Era over the coming centuries ...