Sunday, November 9, 2008

Weighing up Walter Weston

Was the mountaineering missionary really the “father of the Japan Alps”?

Awarded Japan’s Order of the Sacred Treasures (fourth class) in his lifetime and now commemorated by an annual festival and a bronze plaque at Kamikochi, Walter Weston (1860-1940) looms large over the history of Japanese mountaineering.

The peak-bagging English missionary also figures prominently in Nihon Hyakumeizan, where he appears in the Shirouma-dake, Yarigatake, Hodaka, Jōnen-dake, Ena-san, Hō'ō-zan and Sobo-san chapters. In Japan's most famous mountain book, he is twice described as "father of the Japan Alps".

Now fellow blogger CJW raises a subversive question. “It seems rather unfair that Walter Weston casts such a long shadow over the history of early Japanese climbing when one reads accounts such as Banryu's,” he writes, referring to the monk who climbed Yarigatake, a peak in Japan’s Northern Alps, more than half a century before the English cleric made the ascent. Could it indeed be that Weston has taken more of his share of the limelight?

The debunking game
Debunking historical figures is a popular sport. Just look at how Lytton Strachey pots at eminent Victorians or Roland Huntsford trashes Captain Scott. Should one wish to go after Walter Weston in the same way, plenty of ammunition lies at hand. Father of the Japan Alps? Weston neither invented nor popularised them within Japan. (See Inventing the Japan Alps.)

Well, then, should he be regarded as a pioneer of gaijin mountaineering? Again, not so. The earliest significant ascent by a foreign resident is generally accepted to be Rutherford Alcock’s ascent of Mt Fuji on July 6, 1860 (or September 11 according to the modern calendar), almost three decades before Weston arrived in Japan on the first of his three visits.

True, Alcock’s climb was motivated by politics rather than sport – the British envoy wanted to assert his rights to move freely within Japan under the terms of the 1858 treaty – but it lacked for nothing in mid-Victorian style. The party celebrated their arrival on the summit with a twenty-one gun salute (led by Alcock’s pocket pistol), then sang the national anthem, and toasted the Queen’s health with a bumper of champagne.

As only diplomats could move freely at that time, they naturally accounted for the earliest wave of mountaineering by foreigners. Thus the second and third gaijin ascents of Fuji were made, respectively, by the Swiss and Dutch ministers in Japan. (The Swiss, led by Caspar Brennwalt, planned to bivouac on the summit but met with a thunderstorm that forced them to seek shelter in a pilgrim’s hut. That was six years after Alcock’s climb.) Ernest Satow also ranged widely through the mountains of Honshu during his first diplomatic posting to Japan, from 1862 to 1883.

The second wave

Hot on the heels of the diplomats came the savants. The Russian botanist Carl Johann Maximowicz (1827-1891) arrived in Japan late in 1860 and, in the course of the next two years, walked from Hokkaido to Kyushu, taking in mountains such as Unzen, Aso, Hiko, and Kuju on the way. Mountain exploration was incidental to his purpose: Maximowicz sent home 72 chests full of herbarium specimens. Another botanist, the German Wilhelm Doenitz, climbed Nantai and Fuji in 1875.

Geologists and geographers were no less active. In 1874, Benjamin Smith Lyman (1835~1920), an American mining engineer and surveyor, explored the Daisetsuzan while seeking the source of the Ishikari river. The following year, Heinrich Naumann (1854 –1927), a German geologist attached to the Kaisei Gakko, climbed Asama. Another geologist, John Milne (1850 –1913), known as the inventor of the seismograph, visited Iwate, Chokai, Gassan and Aso during his spell in Japan as a foreign advisor, which lasted from 1875 to 1895.

The real father of the Japan Alps
If any of these professionals deserved the title ‘father of the Japan Alps,’ it was probably William Gowland (1842 –1922), an English mining engineer employed by the Osaka mint between 1872 and 1888. Gowland was the first to compare the Hida mountains to their European counterparts. This he did in a chapter on the Hida and Etchu mountains that he contributed to the Handbook for Travellers in Central and Northern Japan, an early English-language guidebook compiled by Ernest Satow and Albert Hawes. In this account, published in 1881, he described the pinnacled ridges of central Honshu as something "that might perhaps be termed the Japanese Alps".

Gowland was well qualified to write about the Japanese mountains. While assessing the country’s mineral resources, he travelled widely through the Hida, Shin-Etsu, and Chubu ranges. In 1873, he climbed Ontake, in 1875, Tateyama, and in 1877, Norikura and other peaks in the Northern Alps. He may or may not have been the first foreigner to reach the top of Yari-ga-take. He also climbed Chokai, certain peaks in the Nikko region, and Odaigahara. However, he left no comprehensive record of his mountaineering, preferring to focus on his pioneering archaeological studies.

The Japan Alps from end to end
All this means that, when Walter Weston arrived in Kumamoto in 1888 – the year that Gowland went home – foreigners had already been exploring its mountains for a generation. There was at least one English-language guidebook to the back country of Honshu. And, as Weston himself noted, no less than 2,248 miles of railway had already been laid. These new arteries helped him cover a lot of ground during his first summers in Japan. And what he lacked in priority - which he never claimed - he made up for in sheer dynamism. He even mooted a traverse of the Japan Alps from end to end.

If Weston pioneered anything in Japan, it was probably the concept of mountaineering for fun rather than for diplomatic or scientific purposes. It was a novel idea at the time, and especially so for some citizens of Shinano-Omachi, the Big Town in Shinshu:-

After libations of tea had unloosed their tongues, they began to ply me with questions. “What is your honourable country?” “Have you come to search for silver mines?” “No, then it must be crystals?” That I was simply climbing for pleasure I found it very hard to persuade them …

This vignette appears in Mountaineering and Exploration in the Japanese Alps, which was published in 1896, the year after his return to England. Well received, Weston’s first book helped to bolster his standing in Britain’s Alpine Club, which had elected him a member in 1893. His paper on Mountaineering and Mountain Superstition in the Japanese Alps appeared in the club’s Alpine Journal (no.17), which is probably the oldest mountaineering periodical in the world. When Weston returned to Japan in 1902, as rector of St Andrew’s church in Yokohama, these connections were to win him new converts to the cause of alpinism.

Tea with Walter Weston

Quite unaware of Weston’s activities, the Yokohama-based banker and writer Kojima Usui had mounted his own expedition to Yari-ga-take in 1902. After their return, his sole companion on that trip, Okano Kinjiro, heard about the missionary and quickly arranged a meeting, which took place in Weston's drawing room some time in 1903. It was here, over a cup of tea, that Kojima laid eyes for the first time on copies of the Alpine Club's journal, as well as sundry items of modern mountaineering gear.

This conversation led, two years later, to the foundation of the Sangakukai or Japan Alpine Club. Kojima was also the moving spirit behind the club's own journal, Sangaku (“Mountain”), which was launched in the spring of 1906 on the explicit model of the Alpine Journal. All this makes Walter Weston, if not the father of the Japan Alps, at least the moving spirit behind modern alpinism in Japan.

The source for Hyakumeizan
Sangaku became a principal source for Fukada Kyuya, when he came to write the series of magazine articles that later became Nihon Hyakumeizan, now translated into English as “One Hundred Mountains of Japan”. Himself a member of the Japan Alpine Club, Fukada ransacked articles by Kojima Usui, Makino Tomitaro, Takato Shoku and a host of others in his researches on mountain lore and mountaineering history. On occasion, Fukada even used the journal as a guide for his own explorations:-

When I was at school in Tōkyō, the Jōetsu mountains were less explored than they are today and the Northern Alps were still fairly inaccessible. So I did most of my mountaineering in Oku-Chichibu, using Tanabe Jūji's Tours in 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.

Take away Sangaku, and it is fair to say that Hyakumeizan would be a different and slimmer volume. Perhaps less colourful too. Maybe Weston deserves some credit for encouraging good mountain writing in Japan. Along with the founders of the Sangakukai, that would make him one of the great-grandfathers of Nihon Hyakumeizan.


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

Mountaineering and Exploration in the Japanese Alps, by Walter Weston

Hito wa naze yama ni noboru no ka?, volume 103 in the Taiyo Bessatsu: Nihon no Kokoro series (Heibonsha, 1998) for a short summary of early foreign mountaineering in Japan

Photo: from Wikipedia entry on Kamikochi

Friday, October 31, 2008

Translation exercise

This text, from Mount Analogue by René Daumal, is quite well-known in English-speaking mountaineering circles:-

Definitions - Alpinism is the art of climbing mountains by confronting the greatest dangers with the greatest prudence. Art is used here to mean the accomplishment of knowledge in action. You cannot always stay on the summits. You have to come down again... So what’s the point? Only this: what is above knows what is below, what is below does not know what is above. While climbing, take note of all the difficulties along your path. During the descent, you will no longer see them, but you will know that they are there if you have observed carefully. There is an art to finding your way in the lower regions by the memory of what you have seen when you were higher up. When you can no longer see, you can at least still know. . .

But we wondered how it would sound in Japanese. The translation here is by my Japanese teacher, Nagao-sensei:-





Saturday, October 25, 2008

The courteous mountain

A crumbling stratovolcano drives home lessons in winter climbing

Showering down, shredded leaves and powder snow told me the pitch was difficult. The rope crept through my hands hesitantly and with long pauses. Above, Yamada-san was prising each foot of progress from a minefield rake of snow-covered rock and panda grass.

The day had started well; we’d yomped up an icy gully, then attacked the foot of the ridge, crampons sparking in the gloom as they bit into the frozen lava. Then we lost the plot. I avoided a frail catenary of snow on the ridge, only to be suckered into a wall on the side of the crest.

Now Yamada was paying for that mistake. If it had been a mistake, for neither us could say whether we were off-route or on. Time was no longer on our side: while our backs were turned, the winter sun had vaulted over the mountain’s summit. Now it was plummeting towards the horizon. Even in the sunlight, the air was bitterly cold and I shivered on the belay stance.

Yatsu-ga-dake has always been a place to practise austerities. In former times, monks and mystics made a mandala of this crumbling stratovolcano. For them, its peaks and ridges enshrined a whole pantheon of avatars, buddhas, and mountain deities. Echoes of their sutras linger in Gongen-dake, Jizo Col, Amida-dake, Kannon-daira, Sekison Ridge and the other place names that map out a moral universe.

There is even a Pilgrim's Hut, but, these days, it overflows with fibrepile-clad hikers and climbers. Yatsu has become a seminary of winter mountaineering. That's why were here, of course. First, we made forays onto the snowy summits. Then we graduated onto frozen waterfalls, ice-gullies, and mixed rock-and-snow ridges. Right now, though, I was wondering if we'd gone a ridge too far. If Yamada was struggling, the pitch was difficult.

I eased the rope out another foot or two. Strange are the thoughts that come to mind on a belay ledge. Like a bubble from the abyss, a passage from the war novel “Das Boot” floated up. After the submarine is depth-charged to the seabed, the narrator tells himself, “After all, this is exactly what you wanted. You were up to your neck in easy living. You wanted to try something heroic for a change. ‘To stand for once before the ineluctable…’ You got drunk on it all. ‘… where no mother cares for us, no woman crosses our path, where only reality reigns, grim in all its majesty…’ Well, this is it, this is reality.”

In just one respect, our plight did match that of Lothar-Guenter Buchheim’s crew: the only way out was up. "Kakuho!" drifted down from above. At last, Yamada had reached a ledge. "Just watch out when you climb,” he added, "the belay's so-so." That I could believe: we hadn’t found a solid one all day. Retreat was impossible. I started up the face, crampons scraping for the holds lurking beneath the snow and panda grass.

Every time I reached up, the snow that Yamada hadn't dislodged cascaded down my sleeves. Well, this was it, this was reality, uncomfortable in all its tiresomeness. Half-way up, I found a solitary sling wrapped around a creeping pine root. It was the only point of running protection in the whole pitch and, not for the first time, I mentally saluted the leader's nerve.

Up to now, I'd thought of Yatsu-ga-dake as a courteous mountain. Courtesy, in this sense, meant that the mountain keeps its hazards in plain view. The risks involved in climbing on Yatsu are obvious. In this, it is unlike Mt Fuji, for example, whose facile, open snow slopes lure people into fatal slips every year. And the weather here is less fickle than in the Northern Alps, where snowstorms blow up out of nowhere.

Courteous doesn't mean indulgent, though. If you go out into snow-laden gullies when the warm haru-ichiban wind blows, expect to be avalanched. If you forget to clip into the belay atop the first pitch of the Shodoshin Crack, you will fall the distance. We'd witnessed such accidents. Even the most courteous of mountains drives home its precepts with rigour.

It was Yatsu-ga-dake that dealt to Fukada Kyūya, the Nihon Hyakumeizan author, his first bitter lesson on the dark side of mountaineering. Described in “One Hundred Mountains of Japan”, the episode took place just a month or so after Fukada had entered Tokyo University to study literature:

We stayed at Akadake-Kōsen hut, two or three years after it had been built, and next day, climbed to the summit. Then we picked our way along the rocky ridge over Yoko-dake to the broad, grassy top of Iō-dake. The difficulties were now over, I thought, and gave a sigh of relief. But I was much mistaken. A moment later, my companion fell to his death. Even now, when I see the steep wall on the north side of Iō-dake where he met his end, hard by Umi-no-kuchi, the pity of it strikes me anew.

Yoshino Mitsuhiko underwent an even harsher trial. As teenagers, in the winter of 1948, he and a companion set out to traverse the main ridge of Yatsu-ga-dake. They crossed Aka-dake in a blizzard, then made the fatal mistake of trying to return to a hut on the ridge rather than continue descending. The companion collapsed from exhaustion, forcing them to bivouac in the open. After three nights of storm and sub-zero temperatures, the companion died, his legs already frozen blue below the knees. Yoshino made it back to the hut, where he hovered for days between life and death. He scrawled a farewell message on the back of his map:

I address this note not to my parents or my brother but to the mountain I love most. The mountain has taken my friend. And it will certainly take me to heaven too, just as it took my friend. Or to hell. The mountains of either place will look beautiful to me. Perhaps I can be a guide in the mountains of hell. Farewell everybody – I’m starting on my journey to hell…

The rescuers found Yoshino soon after he had written these words. He survived, but lost the front halves of both feet to frost-bite. That didn’t stop him from becoming a formidable alpinist in later life, notching up several hard new routes in the Japan Alps, as well as the first Japanese ascent of the Eiger north face.

Today, Yatsu was driving home lessons thick and fast. Shy away from one difficulty and you'll run up against a worse one later. Fail to read the guide-book or the terrain, and there's no way of knowing whether you are off-route or on. And how time flies when you are having fun….

I came up to Yamada, who was belayed to a single piton driven into a block of so-so lava. Now it was my turn. I set off into the powdery snow. A few metres above the belay ledge, the rope still innocent of running gear, I found myself confronting a rock step. Quite trivial, except that the only way up would involve stepping onto a suspect nub of lava at about knee height.

Ideally, climbers should check in their imaginations at the base of the climb. Mine was in overdrive. If it were only the frost that held this rock together, my front-points would lever the hold off the wall. For a brief moment in the afternoon, I would hang in space, the rope floating in loose coils like an astronaut's tether. Then my crampons would dig into the snowy glacis below, rotating me outwards as my deadweight continued to gain momentum. I would tumble past the belayer, in a classic demonstration of Fall Factor Two. With a force of half a ton or so, the rope would whip tight on that solitary piton ...

"Well, are you going to make that move?" interrupted Yamada. This was an order rather than a question. I moved up, heart in mouth. The nub held and I arrived at the next belay ledge: "Kakuho!" Now Yamada-san was coming up to the rock step. I saw his helmet move up – and then lurch backwards, out of sight. A rattle of stones announced that the suspect projection had parted company with the cliff. Fortunately, Yamada hadn't followed it, saving himself by a cat-like twist onto safe ground. Yatsu had just read us another lesson.

A while later, we topped out. Arrayed around us, the eight peaks gleamed golden in the level rays of the sun. Above towered Akadake, scene of Yoshino's week-long agony. There was Io, the Sulphur Peak, where Fukada's friend met his end. Closer to us was the gully where two of our own friends had made a forced bivouac in a snow-hole, fortunately without losing appendages.

Yes, we might have reflected, anything that can happen on a mountain has happened on Yatsu. Its eight peaks set the stage for courage and fear, triumph and tribulation, light and shadow, the beauty and – what did Fukada say? – the pity of it. For a moment, the sun steeped in red the sheer cliffs of the Daidoshin, a mandala of mountaineering for avatars of hard-core alpinism.

There was no time for reflection then, of course. I was trying to coil the rope, in large loops, faster than the sun was setting. "Good one," I said to Yamada as I stowed the gear in my pack. "Yossha," he acknowledged and tightened his crampon straps another notch. We certainly didn’t want to trip up now.


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

“The accident on Yatsugadake” (八ヶ岳の遭難) in Yamagutsu no Oto by Yoshino Mitsuhiko

Monday, October 20, 2008

Tekari-dake: smoking gun of climate change?

New photo from intrepid author of Tozan Tales suggests that the treeline is rising in Japan's Southern Alps

In Nihon Hyakumeizan, Tekari-dake is described as the southernmost point in Asia (and therefore the entire world) where creeping pine grows. Creeping pine or "haimatsu" gives the high mountain tops of Japan much of their character. Technically speaking, it belongs to the “sub-alpine” vegetation zone.

The Hyakumeizan author, Fukada Kyuya, also says that the summit disposes of a good view to the south. At least, that was the case in 1936, when he visited the mountain.

But more recent visitors have had trouble seeing either the view or the creeping pine. That's because a small wood of forest trees appears to have taken over the summit. The photo above shows the current situation. Wes Lang – author of the
Tozan Tales and Hiking in Japan blogs – took the picture just a month or two ago, when he climbed Tekari while completing his round of the one hundred mountains.

The photo immediately knocks down one theory – that the creeping pine was eroded off the summit by the constant to-and-fro of hikers' feet. It shows that the trees have come up from below en masse. Is climate change to blame? And when did the trees start arriving on the summit? More research is needed… And it would be good to find a photo that showed the summit area in 1936 or thereabouts. Maybe it's time to hand this one over to a local expert.


Wes Lang just discovered a group photo (left) that shows the area around the summit marker of Tekari-dake in 1965. That part of the summit was clearly wooded then, much as it is now. So maybe the trees have been there for some decades. But have they been there since 1936? We still need that photo.... Original of the photo shown left comes from this web-page.


Photo credit: many thanks to Wes Lang and congratulations on completing your round of the One Hundred Mountains. See also Wesu's account of how to climb Tekari-dake

For more on creeping pine and rising treelines, see previous blog postings:-

The creeping pine question reloaded

The Tekari creeping pine question

Nihon Hyakumeizan by Fukada Kyūya in a forthcoming translation as One Hundred Mountains of Japan.

Friday, September 26, 2008

One Hundred Pioneers (4)

The botanist who saved Oze - and brought taxonomical rigour to Japan’s most famous mountain book

Whenever Takeda Hisayoshi appears in Nihon Hyakumeizan (One Hundred Mountains of Japan), he speaks with authority. Here he delivers an ex-cathedra statement about Tanzawa, a range of hills near Tokyo:-

Rigorously precise in matters of mountain science or literature, the professor never allowed an ill-considered opinion to pass, writes Fukada Kyūya, the Hyakumeizan author. I said in a book of mine … that all Tanzawa's valleys boasted wonderful streambeds and that these started right in the upper reaches of the valleys, not halfway down as in other ranges. That, I glibly hypothesised, was because the mountains were old, allowing time enough for all parts of the watercourse to be evenly eroded.

This caught Takeda's attention, who instantly despatched a postcard. "You suggest that streambeds in the Tanzawa massif are so estimable because the valleys are old. In fact, the very opposite is the case. It's rather that, during the earthquake of 1923 and the ensuing torrential rains of the following January, the ridges collapsed into the valleys and buried them in rubble … .yours etc." I still treasure that postcard.

Fukada seems to have been both abashed and honoured by the intervention of this formidable professor, his senior by two decades.

Takeda Hisayoshi was born in 1883 as the second son of Ernest Satow, the English diplomat. His mother was Takeda Kane (left), the daughter of a samurai family, who is described by the biographers as Satow’s common-law wife. They met during Satow’s first posting to Japan, from 1862 to 1883. As an officer in the consular and later the diplomatic service, Satow was never able to officially marry Takeda Kane, and she stayed in Japan when he moved to his next posting, in Siam. The family was reunited for five years from 1895, when Satow returned to Japan as Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary.

Although Satow (right) kept his official and private lives rigorously separate, his diaries and letters show that he remained in close contact with this family. An entry for December 30th after his return to Japan records the following excursion with his sons, now fifteen and twelve years old:

Started at 10 with the boys for Shidzuura near Numadzu, a brilliant day, on foot and to the top of the pass by 11.20 reaching Karuizawa at 12.15. Started again at 1.5 and walked to Hirai where we rested half an hour, and off again on foot at 2.55. Here Saburō (Satow’s manservant) and Hisakichi (ie Hisayoshi) took kuruma, while we continued on foot thro’ Daiba and Yamashita, crossing a low pass just behind the village of Tōgo, and getting into the main road at Yamakiwa arr. at the Hōyōkan in Shidzuura at 5.15, standing betw. Saigō’s villa and the Kai-hin-In, a hospital. This is a new and elegant house. I gave a chadai (pourboire) of 5 yen and we were well treated in consequence. There is a fine grove of pine-trees on the sandy shore, and the position is a beautiful one. Temperature much warmer than Atami.

On this evidence, one may conclude that the Takeda boys inherited stout pairs of legs from their father. Earlier, Satow had roamed widely in the Japanese mountains. In the course of several summers during his first Japan posting, he’d traversed Okutama, visited Fuji, Asama, Haruna, Akagi, and Nikko-Shirane, crossed Tanzawa, climbed Ontake, Yatsugadake, Hakusan, and Tateyama, and made first gaijin ascents of Nōtori and Ai-no-take in the Southern Alps.

Among Satow’s companions on his mountain tours was Frederick Dickins (1838-1915), a naval surgeon-turned-lawyer and amateur botanist. Dickins had a particular eye for ferns, which he collected in Japan and sent back to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. Ferns were big in Victorian England. Satow shared his friend’s interest in the flora; he later presented a paper on the cultivation of bamboos to the Asiatic Society of Japan.

Unlike Dickins, Satow never had a plant named for him. Rather, his most important service to science was to pass on his botanical enthusiasm to his second son – perhaps on mountain walks during summer retreats to Hakone or Lake Chuzenji, where Satow built a villa. Hisayoshi was 17 when his father was posted to China, leaving Japan for the second time. (He made one more visit, on the way home from China in 1906.)

After attending middle school in Tokyo, Takeda founded the Japan Natural History Society with some fellow students. He was already collecting alpine plants enthusiastically and published his findings in the Society’s journal. Meanwhile, he broadened his range from Nikko to Yatsugadake and then to Kaikoma, Togakushi, and Nikko-Shirane.

These activities brought him into contact with Kojima Usui around the time when Walter Weston suggested to the banker and writer that he should form a climbing association along the lines of Britain’s Alpine Club. As a result, in 1905, Takeda Hisayoshi became a founder member of the Japan Alpine Club. That also seems to have been the year when he cut loose in the big mountains; after a trip to Oze, he climbed Fuji, Yatsugadake, and Shirouma. Much later in his life, Takeda served as the JAC’s president for a few years.

From 1910 to 1916, Takeda studied botany in England, first at Kew and then in Birmingham. In the end, Satow sent him home to his mother, who was lonely. (Hisayoshi’s brother had been diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1900 and was advised to live in America, where he died.) His studies abroad provided the foundation for an academic career with appointments first at Kyoto University, then at the universities of Kyushu and Hokkaido. He published the first guide to Japan’s alpine flora, one version of which is still in print, as well as a literary tribute to Oze.

In Japan, Takeda is most famous for helping to defeat a plan to turn those famous upland marshes into an artificial lake. “What a place is Oze,” he wrote in 1925, “teeming with rare plants and the landscape of unusual beauty. From a scholarly point of view, it is an inexhaustible treasure-house of riches. As such, the government’s approval for plans to convert it into a reservoir, and this for motives of raw profit, strikes me as regrettable in the extreme. In fact, it is a national scandal. Is Japan’s landscape doomed to be despoiled at the hands of the Japanese themselves?” So Takeda thundered, and with ultimate success. Today, Oze is a national park and a bronze plaque at Hinoemata, a nearby village, preserves the eminent botanist's memory.

Takeda is also commemorated in Nihon Hyakumeizan. True, the professor makes no more than four appearances in the book but his influence pervades every chapter. When Fukada Kyūya, the Hyakumeizan author, passes through a field of flowers, we learn exactly what he saw; dandelions (タンポポ), or flowering quince (草ボケ) or purple corydalis (紫ケマン) or maiden violets (少女バカマ) – these from just the Ibuki chapter. This exactitude didn’t just happen; in the Kirigamine chapter, Fukada reveals how he brushed up his botany:-

In the summer, the plateau was covered in the head-high white florets of Japanese parsley (Angelica polyclada) and the orange blossoms of the daylily (Hemerocallis dumortieri var.esculenta). Whenever I went out, I liked to gather up a medley of flowers and bring them back to identify on a flower chart.

Fukada went up to Kirigamine just after being elected to the Japan Alpine Club in 1935, and spent the entire summer there. For a space of five days that season, the hut hosted a gathering of some twenty luminaries of Japanese mountain and cultural circles, many of them JAC members. Among them was Takeda Hisayoshi.
Hyakumeizan does not mention this week of walks and lectures, but it is easy to imagine that the distinguished professor impressed on the young author the need for rigour and accuracy in botany. Thus it was that Takeda Hisayoshi came to make a signal contribution to mountain literature.


Nihon Hyakumeizan by Fukada Kyūya in a forthcoming translation as One Hundred Mountains of Japan. Takeda Hisayoshi appears in the chapters on Tanzawa, Tanigawa, Shiomi, and Tekari-dake

Hito wa naze yama ni noboru no ka?, volume 103 in the Taiyo Bessatsu: Nihon no Kokoro series (Heibonsha, 1998) for a short biography of Takeda Hisayoshi

Wikipedia articles on Ernest Mason Satow and Frederick Victor Dickins

Japan’s botanical sunrise: plant exploration around the Meiji Restoration, by Peter Barnes. Originally published in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, and now online at

Chapter on Ernest Satow from Britain and Japan: Biographical portraits, by Hugh Cortazzi, Ian Nish, and James Hoare

Report on a meeting of the Asiatic Society of Japan: presentation by Ian Ruxton on the diaries of Sir Ernest Satow, British Minister in Japan 1895-1900

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Weston renaissance

The classic book on mountaineering and adventure in nineteenth-century Japan is republished

After a long hiatus, Walter Weston’s classic Mountaineering and Exploration in the Japanese Alps has returned to print in English – thanks to Elibron Press and Amazon’s booksurge, a print-on-demand service. The book was first published in 1896 but hasn’t been available in English for years.

An Anglican missionary, Weston first came to Japan in 1888. After a stint in Kumamoto, he served as chaplain in Kobe from 1889 to 1895 – this was also his most intensive period of mountaineering. Ascents of Yari-ga-take, Hodaka, Norikura, and Kasagadake, among others, are recorded in the book that has just been republished.

In Japan, Weston’s fame has burned undiminished. He is remembered, among other things, for helping to set afoot the Japan Alpine Club, founded in 1905, and is commemorated every year by a Weston-matsuri at Kami-Kochi. At least one of the two Japanese translations of Mountaineering and Exploration continues to be in print.

Walter Weston’s resuscitation coincides with an upsurge of foreign interest in the Japanese mountains – as reflected in cycling and hiking tours, foreign-run guiding services, and even the occasional book. Soon the time will be ripe for the publication of “One Hundred Mountains of Japan,” the English version of Fukada Kyuya’s classic vade-mecum to Japanese summits …

Sunday, September 14, 2008

An audience with the Tsurugi Ōtaki

Like many before us, we are irresistibly drawn to a Great but Phantasmal Waterfall

Let’s admit it, there was a hint of tension on the bus. We sat on its lengthwise benches, bulging packs between our boots, like paratroopers on the way to the drop zone. And now a taped female voice was telling how, during the building of this tunnel, just here, the wall crumbled and a mountain river roared in, drowning a whole platoon of engineers. Hardly the story we wanted to hear when we were on our way to inspect Japan’s most phantasmagorical waterfall. But then I noticed the logo on a nearby tourist’s backpack. In big black letters, it said HAVE A NICE SURVIVAL. I nudged Sawa Control and he laughed. We would be all right. We debarked from the bus and stepped out through a steel door into the Kurobe valley.

If you read its characters literally, Kurobe means ‘the black region’. For dark indeed are the canyons that the river has carved through Honshu’s Northern Alps on its rollrock ride to the Japan Sea. And like some black hole, the Kurobe pulls people irresistibly into its depths. For us, a Pioneer Laser Disc – remember those? – was all it took. A year or two back, Sawa Control had bought one containing an NHK documentary about the region. I came round to the big house in Takanawa for a viewing.

The programme started with a helicopter flying out over the river’s headwaters, the scene set to the opening strains of Bruckner’s fourth symphony. The hunting horn beckons over the string tremolos as the young river cascades down a mountainside into the gorges below.

But we hadn’t been invited around for a musical appreciation. And now Sawa Control was back-tracking the video. Again, we were hovering over a chasm so deep that the river below had vanished into the shadows. Somewhere down there gleamed the spray of a giant waterfall, but the walls of the gorge rose too steeply for the camera helicopter to get close. This, explained Sawa Control – he’d clearly been asking around – is Maboroshi no Ōtaki, the Great Phantom Waterfall of Tsurugi.

Back in my apartment, I took down the well-thumbed Climbing Guide to Japanese Mountains, a set of volumes that suggests limitless ways to get yourself into trouble. A glance confirmed my forebodings. This is what the book says about Tsurugi Ōtaki:-

The reason that few climbers visit the Kurobe Bessan and Great Fall area is the difficulty of the approach from Juji-kyō. When the water is high, the approach is completely impossible. Several accidents have already occurred on the approach.

Sawa Control was not a man to be put off by the minatory tone of a guidebook. With a background in ocean racing and fast-moving consumer goods, it was only natural that he should take to fast-moving water. Sawas and giant waterfalls were all grist to his millstream. Soon he was talking about a reconnaissance. Just to take a look, of course.

That October, we joined a hike down the Shimo-no-rōka, along the path that leads downriver from the Kurobe dam. A typhoon had just passed over and the sky was as clear as a note from a hunting horn. (By now, Bruckner’s Fourth was for ever associated in our minds with the Kurobe.) Autumn stood at its apogee: maples and ash trees shone red and gold against shadowed walls and the sun glinted from the burnished surface of the river. We walked carefully, and not only to appreciate the views: in places, the path is blasted from the side of the cliff and one false step might take you thirty metres sheer into the river. There is always an edge to the beauties of the Kurobe.

At Juji-kyō, where Tsurugi-sawa debouches into the main river, we eased our heavy packs to the ground and referred to the print-out from the Climber’s Guide. “From Juji-kyō, first climb the North Ridge (北尾根) following trace of a path for 30 minutes,” the book instructs. We set off into a thicket of mountain birch trees, pushing aside branches and slip-sliding on steep grass and mud. There was no trace of a path.

Quite a while later, the three of us climbed over or round a large block and picked up the next clue: “Then, diagonally across from some fir trees, descend a subsidiary ridge, traversing slightly into a small gully (runze)…” We found the fir trees and moved carefully down a small spur until we were brought up short on a wooded promontory. A muddy cliff below stopped progress, at least without a rope, but now at least we could see into Tsurugi-sawa. The gorge was already steeped in late-afternoon gloom. Of Tsurugi Ōtaki there was no sign: from this angle it lurks behind a buttress.

We were beginning to understand how this waterfall had picked up the epithet of “maboroshi” (幻) or phantasmagorical. No account of it exists from early times. In the feudal period, the Kurobe region fell within the domains of the Maeda clan. The daimyōs sent their so-called okuyama-mawari to patrol its inner mountains. These constable yeomen left meticulous records, but none mentions the waterfall.

In 1907, the dominant peak of the area, Tsurugi, was climbed by a party of government surveyors. Looking down, they would have seen the avalanche-choked gorge of Tsurugi-sawa sawing its way through the intervening ridges towards the main river. Their observations set the agenda for the next wave of explorers, the gentlemen alpinists of the Japanese Alpine Club and their peers.

In the summer of 1919, no fewer than four parties converged on the area. One, led by Kondo Shigekichi, tried to descend Tsurugi-sawa on avalanche snow debris, but was stopped by open water above the Great Waterfall. Meanwhile, Numai Tetsutarō worked his way down to the main river from the Shinano side, whence he caught glimpses of the elusive sawa. The ubiquitous Kogure Ritarō was also sniffing about, but porter trouble and lack of food cut short his trip. At the same time, a party of surveyors and hydrologists were assessing the river’s potential for a hydro-electric power project. To carry their researches further, they started work on a path along the Kurobe’s lower gorge in 1924.

A few years earlier, the Kurobe river had also come to the notice of Kanmuri Matsujirō (1883-1970). Born into a family who had owned a pawnbroking business in Tokyo for generations, ‘Kanmatsu’ had climbed Fuji before he was twenty. In 1917, he sighted the Kurobe from the summit of Tsurugi and was instantly enthralled. Between 1920 and 1927, he made foray on foray into the valley, tracing the ridges that bound it and naming features such as Juji-kyō, all the while checking and correcting the government’s new maps. “The Kurobe itself says nobody knows me better than Kanmatsu,” a friend wrote in an epigraph to Kanmuri’s book on the Kurobe, a two-volume work that sums up the trials and triumphs of that pioneering age.

Tsurugi-sawa made Kanmuri work hard for his knowledge. In the summer of 1925, he made three unsuccessful attempts to approach the waterfall, each from a different ridge or gully. It was not until 1927 that he at last found his way into the tributary’s hidden gorge, by the very route we were following. The Great Waterfall had received its first embassy from the outside world.

Like Kanmuri himself, we would need to come back another day. Evening shadows were stealing up the ridges as we retraced our steps and started down. Fortunately, I was below the others when I slipped on a patch of steep mud and gently skidded into a large boulder. As I scrambled to my feet, I felt the refrigerator-sized block shift. Seconds later it was crashing down the side of the ridge, smashing saplings to matchwood as it bounded towards the river. I looked on, appalled. Even Sawa Control had an unaccustomed look of worry on his face: “You know, I climbed over that thing on the way up,” he said.

Two years later, we were back. This time, there were four of us and in our packs we had 70 metres of lightweight spinnaker sheet – sourced from Sawa Control’s yacht club – as well as climbing ropes. Nothing would be left to chance. At Juji-kyō, we found that somebody had cut a neat path up the steep ridge, saving us the trouble of pushing through the bushes. But why?

The mystery was solved when we reached the wooded promontory above Tsurugi-sawa and found a blue nylon backpack resting against a tree. An ice-axe had been planted in the ground beside it. We’d heard something about an accident in the gorge a year or two before – cardiac arrest while crossing the torrent swollen with snow melt-water – and presumably the rescue party had cut the path up the ridge to make way for the recovery. “But at least he’d seen the waterfall he’d set his heart on,” our informant had said.

In a thoughtful frame of mind, we tied off the long rope to a pine tree and, one by one, abseiled into Tsurugi-sawa. This was no high-mountain rappel, with feet lightly grazing some sheer wall of clean granite, but rather an all-terrain, steep-angled, fly-blown bushwhack through weeds and saplings. Once we'd made a graceless landing in a streambed, we could take a moment to appreciate the gorge's scale. “Now that we have lost Taiwan,” wrote Kanmuri, “there is no more precipitous declivity in all the realm.”

I would take our predecessor's word for that, but Tsurugi-sawa struck us as impressive rather than beautiful. Dispensing with the ornamental windings that lend other gorges their charm, the river has karate-chopped itself a brutally straight and steep-sided trench through the rock, as if in haste to complete its run to the sea. Walls and buttresses of brown stone pressed in on all sides, making us glad of the fixed rope we’d left to assure the line of retreat. Still we could not see the elusive waterfall. We surmised that it must lurk behind the curious twin-eared rock tower that blocked the view upstream.

The plan was to set up camp on the true right bank, then cross the stream and continue on the morrow. We found a grassy platform about ten yards from the river and pitched our Dunlop tent, adding a cheerful splotch of man-made orange to the gorge’s late-afternoon gloom. After a supper of freeze-dried comestibles and a swig of whisky, we hit the sacks to escape the evening chill.

A few hours later, sleep was interrupted by a peal of thunder and the sudden patter of rain. Hands groped for head-torches and four anxious faces snapped into view. A vigorous but ill-informed discussion ensued about the likelihood of a flash flood. The consensus decision – to roll over and go back to sleep – was underpinned more by sloth than good judgement. Indolence lucked out: after a few more demonstrations, the storm moved off to harass somebody else. Sometimes only a few millimetres of rain separate a nice survival from four bodies bobbing on the waters of the Japan Sea. In the morning, we could fill our cooking pot without stirring from our sleeping bags; the river had come up to our door.

After a breakfast of instant noodles and coffee, we garbed ourselves in wetsuits under climbing gear. “Route will now vary according to water level,” advised the Climbing Guide to Japanese Mountains, before advocating a “Tyrolean traverse” to the other bank. As we weren’t sure how to do one of those, we settled for a “Sawa Control traverse” by which the weightiest of our number braved the torrent and then brought the rest of us across one by one. After the night’s downpour, this was no trivial undertaking; the rope twanged at middle-C as the white water buffeted us.

We had the top of the Great Waterfall in sight and Young Ken was banging a piton into the last obstacle, a waterworn slab, when we realized that, once again, our time was up. If we were to be out of the Kurobe by nightfall, we would have to leave now. Either that, or fail to show up at the office on Monday morning, a mark of dishonour among Workmen Alpinists. Reluctantly, we turned our backs on the Ōtaki a second time. Besides, it was drizzling again and we didn’t want to push our luck with the rising water.

A few weeks later, Sawa Control and I came back, just the two of us. This was our last chance; we were playing into penalty time. Heartened by the HAVE A NICE SURVIVAL slogan that we’d spotted in the tunnel bus, we strode across the Kurobe dam to start the 15-kilometre hike down to Juji-kyō. The air was chilly; the morning sun no longer reached the river. Snow had already dusted the mountaintops. Yet the last leaves of the mountain ash still flared a luminous yellow on the slopes above us. It must have been a day like this that moved Kanmuri to compose his ode to autumn:-

The leaves come dancing, swirling
Over leagues of river and gorge
On the wings of the tree-blasting gale

Slanting into the vale, the sun
Turns each to a glinting firework
The countless leaves, whirling through the air

Turn the jade-green stream into a crimson river.
From Tateyama, Yakushi, Aka-ushi,
The autumn wind roars down.

Behind this brilliance shimmers something unfathomable.
Borrowing a day from the forgotten summer
The valley bathes in light, flinging away its leaves without a care.

Under the high blue heaven
Under the silver-tinged peaks
Starkly the wood holds out its limbs.

As if frozen solid
Into the limpid river
Trout hang without motion.

In early winter, no shadow of autumn
Falls across this gem-like valley
As I let the clear heart of nature
Lead me into an infinite world.

Moving quickly to keep warm, we reached Juji-kyō in record time. Today the scramble up the wooded ridge felt like a well-rehearsed routine. By late afternoon, we’d repeated the abseil into Tsurugi-sawa and pitched our ridiculously lightweight tent. Next morning, we were up early. Again we walked through the patch of head-high weeds on the true right bank of the river, the dew-laden leaves giving us a preliminary soaking before the river crossing. Now the lateness of the season helped us; a lower water level allowed us to link arms and stagger across the river like drunks supporting each other on the way home from the pub.

The climbing rope only came out of the pack as we addressed the final rock step. “I’m sure you can do this,” said Sawa Control, displaying, as he handed me the sharp end, the motivational skills that had taken him to the top of his industry. Several metres of water-soaked slab later, I started to feel the need for the more substantial reassurance of a running belay. Fumbling a piton from my rack, I drove it into a likely-looking fissure. Ring-a-ding-ding, sang the peg hammer, ring-a-ding-blat… Maledictions! The tool had glanced off the piton onto my thumb. I lowered myself back down the blood-beslubbered slab for running repairs.

The second attempt went better; from the piton, I skittered across to a ledge by means of a tension traverse (“a what?” asked Sawa Control, when I announced it – “Kind of like a Tyrolean one,” I replied). Then I clipped a nylon climbing ladder (truly we were leaving nothing to chance) into a second piton and made a step up. And then we were there. We scrambled between mossy boulders and made our way into the precincts of the Ōtaki.

They call it a Great Waterfall, but it is better described as a mountain river that leaps from its confines in a dark and narrow slot and hangs for a brief yet implausible moment in mid-air. Then, assenting to gravity, the water bends downward, forms itself into a solid column and crashes into the scalloped plunge pool below. Half-deafened by the water’s roar, we splashed through the shallows to escape the hurricane of spray that drives outwards from the maelstrom.

Regaining our breath on a bank of rubble, we looked about us. The river has carved a cramped amphitheatre in the heart of the mountains. In front us rose the slabby cliff of water-stained rock that guards the entrance to the higher reaches of Tsurugi-sawa – no further progress there, unless you wish to dice with the intricacies of artificial climbing techniques. On the right, a gully of shattered rock and dripping walls led steeply up to the aptly named Gando ridge, a crest of hacksaw pinnacles that bites into the sky.

The sky… We’d been so absorbed with the sight and sound of the Great Waterfall that we hadn’t noticed grey veil-cloud stealthily extinguishing the sunlight. Instantly, Tsurugi-sawa seemed to change key, from sombre to menacing. The weather forecast had promised us three straight days of fine weather, but here in the North Country it’s wiser to base decisions on kantenboki (観天望気) – roughly translatable as ‘keeping a weather eye open’.

Our audience with the Ōtaki was over. “We’re getting out of here today,” Sawa Control decided as we set up our abseil back to the lower gorge. A few hours later, we jumared our way back up our fixed rope to the wooded ridge and took our last look at Tsurugi-sawa. Night and the first drops of rain were falling by the time we pitched the bivouac tent by the side of the Kurobe river.

Next morning, under drizzling clouds, we walked back to the Kurobe dam. As we neared its massive wall, loudspeaker exhortations and other noises from the lower world floated down from above, a strange inversion. We walked into the tunnel system through the steel door and, for the first time in three days, the mighty roar of the river faded from our ears.


Colour photos by Project Hyakumeizan & Sawa Control; black-and white from 黒部川 by 村上兵衛、

Hito wa naze yama ni noboru no ka?, volume 103 in the Taiyo Bessatsu: Nihon no Kokoro series (Heibonsha, 1998) for a short biography of Kanmuri Matsujirō

黒部、冠松次郎、修道社 1951 (The poem comes from page 195 of Volume I)

剣沢幻視行、article by 和田城志 in The Iwa to Yuki (岩と雪) 1995-2 and 1995-4

Climbing Guide to Japanese Mountains Vol. V Tsurugi-dake, Kurobe, Tateyama
(日本登山大系/剣岳、黒部、立山)- see below for excerpt:-

From the Nippon Tozan Taikei (Climbing Guide to Japanese Mountains) 1981
Volume 5 Tsurugi, Kurobe, Tateyama

page 214

From the General Remarks

The reason that few climbers visit the Kurobe Bessan and Great Fall area is the difficulty of the approach from Juji-kyō. When the water is high, the approach is completely impossible. Several accidents have already occurred on the approach.

page 215

Approach to the Great Waterfall of Tsurugi

Take the Shimo-no-rōka path from the Kurobe dam, approximately 4.5 hours. As Tsurugi-sawa becomes a gorge about 200m from where it joins the Kurobe river at Juji-kyō, it is necessary to climb round on the right bank (= right bank of Tsurugi-sawa looking downstream). From Juji-kyō, first climb the North Ridge (kita one) following trace of a path for 30 minutes. Then, diagonally across from a fir tree(s), descend a subsidiary ridge, traversing slightly into a small gully (runze). After 80m, the gully debouches into a slight, gravelly widening of the Tsurugi-sawa. Route will then vary according to water level. Proceed along jumbled boulders along right bank for a while, then using bolt on cliff beside main stream, arrange Tyrolean traverse to cross to other bank. It is now possible to walk easily on the Gando ridge side of the river, which is fairly wide. From here, the spout of the Great Fall becomes visible. Further along the left bank, there is a snow bank. If there is sufficient snow, it may be possible to use snow bridge(s) to reach Tsurugi-sawa-daira. If not, climb slightly from the edge of the snow and arrange a further Tyrolean traverse to cross back to the North Ridge side of the river. Then go across the Tosaka-sawa snow bank to Tsurugi-sawa-daira. No snow lies in the daira in August and between the angular cliffs annual plants grow shoulder-high. This is the best place for a base camp. From the daira, cross the vegetated wall of the foot of Tosaka ridge and, on the far side, abseil down a gully back into the Tsurugi-sawa. Proceed along the right bank, climbing several large crags (iwa). Spray from the waterfall now sluices both the rock and the alpinist. When it is no longer possible to proceed on the right bank, find a shallow place and cross to the left bank for about 20m. Recrossing to the right bank, continue diagonally to the upper level until the waterfall is reached, its noise and spray like a typhoon. The plunge pool is slightly elevated. Climb between the rocks to emerge on moss-coated rock. Cross to the far bank in the shallows on the rim of the plunge pool to the gully at the foot of a deeply recessed wall. This is the start of the recessed wall route over the waterfall.

Friday, June 20, 2008

One Hundred Pioneers (3)

The explorer who recapitulated the history of Japanese mountaineering and broke trail for Nihon Hyakumeizan

Kogure Ritaro
Portrait by Ibaraki Inokichi
Much as a wave cloud hangs above Mt Fuji, the spirit of Kogure Ritarō (1873-1944) hovers over Nihon Hyakumeizan, Japan 's most famous mountain book. He bushwhacks his way up Hira-ga-dake in 1920 (Chapter 26) and puts in an appearance on Hiuchi (Chapter 34). He wages a campaign to rename Tanigawa-dake as Twin Ears (Chapter 30), and discovers that Naeba is the most distant mountain visible from Tokyo (Chapter 32).

We take our leave of Kogure underneath Mizugaki (Chapter 69) at Kanayama, where he is commemorated to this day with a bronze bust and an annual memorial service. If Kogure's ghost pervades Nihon Hyakumeizan, that should be no surprise. For his life recapitulated the whole history of mountaineering in Japan , from the monks and mystics who first scaled the country’s peaks to the modern sportsmen who climb for fun.

He was born in 1873 at a village in Gunma Prefecture where mountain-centred sects still held sway. His own family belonged to the Ontake faith (see also The gateway) and introduced him to the mountains at an early age. His grandmother took him up Akagi-yama at the age of six. At 13, he climbed Fuji with a neighbour who belonged to one of the mountain's sects, and his father took him to Bandai and Oze. Above all, he got to know his local mountains, the Chichibu range.

He also had time to study, and with effect. From a middle school in Tokyo, he went on to Sendai’s No.2 Higher Normal School (which later became Tohoku University). In 1893, the same year that he went up to Sendai , he traversed from Myōgi-san via Asama to Tateshina and then climbed Ontake with fellow members of his home sect. If Kogure needed any further encouragement in mountaineering, he found it in 1894 when Shiga Shigetaka published Nihon Fūkeiron (see Inventing the Japan Alps), with its call to arms for young alpinists.

Two years later, Kogure went over Hari-no-ki and across the Kurobe valley to Tateyama. The same year he climbed Norikura, Ontake, Kiso-Komagatake, and Kaikoma, as well as traversing from Kimpu over Jūmonji-tōge to Kobushi-ga-take. Even today, with the help of bullet trains and expressways, that would make a respectable haul of mountains for a single year.

After graduating from Sendai, Kogure entered Tokyo Imperial University but soon dropped out to pursue a literary career. Around this time he teamed up with Tanabe Jūji (1884-1972) to make a series of expeditions into Chichibu and the Northern Alps. This was the era when Japan's new generation of mountaineers set out to re-discover peaks that only hunters and mystics had previously visited. The spirit of that pioneering age is captured by Fukada Kyūya in Nihon Hyakumeizan:-

"It was Kogure himself accompanied by Fujishima Toshio who, in 1919 (Taishō 8) first forced his arduous way to the top of Sukai, a hitherto virgin peak. In those days, we still had mountains in Japan that nobody knew how to attempt, where you had to find your own way by trial and error, fighting your way through or under the greenery, and so finally winning the summit. In short, we still had mountains where you could still taste the true joys of mountaineering."

After joining the Japan Alpine Club in 1913, Kogure edited its journal, Sangaku, for several years. This, of course, was in addition to his day job at the Tokyo municipal archives. He became the president of the JAC in 1935 – the same year that Fukada Kyūya was elected – and continued in office for nine years. Increasingly, his writings sounded a warning note about what would now be called environmental concerns.

Kogure could wield a mighty pen, especially when he deployed it in the service of his beloved Oku-Chichibu range. Here he is on Kinpu-san (as quoted in Nihon Hyakumeizan, Chapter 68): "This is a splendid mountain. It rises in solitary state above the rest of the Chichibu range and it can hold up its head in the company of any mountain in all Japan. Just as we call somebody who achieves something from the ground up a man among men, so this mountain has a strength of character that makes it a mountain among mountains, compare it where you will."

Kogure chose to write about mountains as if they were people. Half a century later, in his Nihon Hyakumeizan, Fukada Kyūya followed this lead, a stratagem that won him the prestigious Yomiuri Prize for Literature in January 1965. As it happened, the panel of judges included a former climbing companion, the literary critic Kobayashi Hideo. He explained his advocacy as follows:

"This is one of the most original works of criticism that I've seen in recent years. The objects of critical thought are, in this case, mountains. The author has chosen to write about mountains as if they were people. To do so, he must have engaged with them face-to-face, so to speak, in all the remotest corners of our land."

Besides borrowing a literary device, Fukada also referred extensively to Kogure's "Sangaku" articles and such other works as "Mountain Memories". In this light, we may need to turn around the simile that heads this article. The wave cloud is Nihon Hyakumeizan. Like some luminous epiphenomenon, the book floats above the rugged expeditions and writings of Kogure Ritarō and his peers.


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

Hyakumeizan no Hito by Tazawa Takuya (TBS Britannica, 2003), a full-length biography of Fukada Kyūya

Hito wa naze yama ni noboru no ka?, volume 103 in the Taiyo Bessatsu: Nihon no Kokoro series (Heibonsha, 1998) for a short biography of Kogure Ritarō

Related post: The making of a Meiji mountaineer (translation of a speech by Kogure Ritarō)

Monday, June 16, 2008

Chasing the dragon

The crater lake on Washiba-dake in the Northern Japan Alps betrays the nature of the forces beneath, although not to us

How can a mountain with a pointed summit also sport a volcanic crater? This was the question that exercised me as we walked up the ridge towards Washiba-dake (2,924m), the Eagle Feather Mountain. Perhaps the so-called crater lake we’d heard about was just a corrie carved by some long-vanished glacier. Anyway, in a few minutes we hoped to see for ourselves.

We’d spent three days wading and walking up the Kurobe river. A passing typhoon had harassed us, but the sky had cleared overnight and, across the valley, the sun was rising over Yarigatake. For a few minutes, the summit of Washiba glowed yellow in the dawn light. Then the fogbank below us stirred into life. In minutes, the vapour surged up the slope and robbed us of our view. So we never saw Washiba’s crater, even though we walked right past it.

Fortunately, the weather was better one summer day in 1907 when Shimura Urei passed this way. Looking down from the summit, he immediately recognized the crater for what it was: "I saw a small pond below and to the south, for all the world like an eruption crater … this crater on Washiba is probably a surprise for the world."

The savants were soon on the case and proved that Shimura’s first impressions were correct. Six years later a geologist named Katō Tetsunosuke reported that the banks of the crater lake comprised two layers of lava. However, he thought that the crater was too small to be the lava’s source and was formed instead by the slumping of the molten rock as it cooled. A thin layer of ash and volcanic bombs was found scattered about, further confirming the crater’s fiery origins.

That deepened rather solved the mystery of Washiba-dake. For the mountain’s summit, just a hundred metres or so above the crater lake, is not volcanic. On the contrary, it is made of a coarse-grained granite, as we could see for ourselves even in the drifting mists. We crunched through its speckled, off-white fragments as we passed by Washiba’s invisible peak.

The fog surrounding the mountain’s split personality was partially dispelled by a later generation of geologists. The granite and tonalite body of the mountain, they say, congealed about 190 million to 170 million years ago from a deep-seated magma reservoir. Much more recently, these rocks were uplifted – we may imagine them rising gracefully from the depths like a Wurlitzer organ from the pit of an old-time cinema – and then revealed by erosion to grateful mountain-climbers. So their credentials are impeccably alpine: Mt Blanc was formed in much the same way

By contrast, the crater is a parvenu. It blew (or slumped) onto the scene a mere 6,000 years ago, as a last hiccup of the volcanic activity that wracked the nearby Kumo-no-daira tableland from about 300,000 to 100,000 years before present. Much in this account remains obscure, though, notably the source of the lavas that form Kumo-no-daira. Today, dense forest and boggy alpine meadows draw a veil over the volcanic past, but the terrain lets slip a few hints here and there. Washiba’s crater is one and another is found in the plumes of sulphurous steam that still vent from Io-zawa a few kilometres to the southeast.

Two years later, we went to Washiba again, reaching the summit in cloud and driving rain. Once more the mountain kept the secret of its crater to itself. According to the Hyakumeizan author Fukada Kyūya, the lakelet was known in feudal times as “Dragon Pond”. Somehow, we seemed to have offended the beast, perhaps by doubting the volcanic origins of his crater.

We were never able to make a third attempt but, surfing a Ginza gallery one lunch hour, I did find a woodblock print that shows the pond. In front of it, under a starry sky, two Taishō-period mountaineers are sitting round a campfire. Their antique habit and the pristine scenery call to mind Fukada’s closing words about the crater. “In that pioneering era, such unexpected discoveries were not uncommon in the Northern Alps. Today, mountaineering is much more convenient but it has lost this element of surprise and wonder.”


Nihon Hyakumeizan, in a forthcoming translation as “One Hundred Mountains of Japan”

Hyakumeizan no Shizengaku (Nishi-Nihon) by Shimizu Chōsei, Kokon Shoin 2002

Woodblock print by Yoshida Hiroshi, from Twelve Scenes in the Japan Alps series (1926), published in The Complete Woodblock Prints of Yoshida Hiroshi, Abe Shuppan

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The creeping pine question reloaded

Is climate change raising the treeline in Japan ’s Southern Alps and driving the creeping pine into retreat? Somebody should go and take a look at Tekari-dake (日本語要約は下にあります)

Are forest trees invading the summit of Tekari-dake (2,591 metres), the last high mountain in Japan ’s Southern Alps ? And is the creeping pine, the alpine shrub that previously covered the summit, now retreating? After a previous post raised these questions, some new photos* clearly show that tall trees surround Tekari's summit marker. Half a century ago, the Hyakumeizan author Fukada Kyūya describes the area as the southernmost point in Japan – or, indeed, Asia and the world – where creeping pine (haimatsu, Pinus pumila) grows.

So, what is happening on Tekari? To answer that question, somebody needs to go and take a close look at the summit. What is the extent of the forest trees and where did they come from? Maybe the staff of the nearby Tekari hut can shed light on those questions – do they remember when the forest trees appeared? Or have they always been there? Is there any creeping pine left? And where along the ridgeline does the forest stop and the creeping pine begin? It would help also to find a photo of Tekari’s summit in Fukada’s day. Fukada mentions in Hyakumeizan that his companion, a botanist, took such a photo. Maybe other photos exist.

Why does the creeping pine question matter? Well, it might just be an early sign of a rising tree line in the Japanese mountains. That would be significant, given that vegetation zones are expected to rise – and indeed are rising – as the climate warms up. Creeping pine won’t be the only loser, by the way. Japan ’s temperature-sensitive beech forests are also expected to retreat. Isolated pockets of beech, like the one in the Amagi mountains, will presumably die out.*

Might it be that Tekari is the front line in this ecological upheaval? It is too soon to leap to conclusions. Even if the forest trees can be proved to have replaced the creeping pine, the mechanism might not be global warming but something local – the haimatsu may have succumbed to a forest fire or the erosive feet of Hyakumeizan-baggers, for example. That said, the few scraps of evidence on hand are suggestive. “Thus it was that Tekari became a mountain of botanical significance,” says Fukada Kyuya in Nihon Hyakumeizan. Now it is again, and more than ever before.



光岳のハイマツ問題 - 地球温暖化の前兆か

深田久弥の日本百名山は昭和39年(1964年)に刊行された。深田久弥が南アルプスの最南端である光岳を訪ねた時、頂上は典型的な高山植物であるハイマツに覆われていたという。このハイマツは、結局、日本だけでなく、世界最南端のハイマツであるとのことだった。しかし、現在となって、光岳の頂上にハイマツはほぼあるいは全く見られなくなった。その代わりに、頂上付近は普通の森林樹木に覆われている。これは地球温暖化のせいか、それともほかのメカニズムがもたらしたものなのか。"国破れて山河在り" と中国の杜甫は詠ったが、地球温暖化の時代に入ると、山河も破れる恐れあり、か...



Nihon Hyakumeizan in a forthcoming translation as “One Hundred Mountains of Japan”

*in Saishinpan Nihon Hyakumeizan, Asahi Visual Series, 2008 May 18 edition, No.16, Hijiri/Tekari (Many thanks, Kawamata-sensei!)

The Potential Effects of Climate Change in Japan, Center for Global Environmental Research, National Institute for Environmental Studies, Environmental Agency of Japan – see Chapter 3: Climate Changes and Forests

Ecological Status of Pinus Pumila Scrub and the Lower Boundary of the Japanese Alpine Zone by Osamu Yanagimachi, Hosei University, and Hiroo Ohmori, University of Tokyo, paper in Arctic and Alpine Research, Vol 23, No.4, 1991 – establishes the lower and upper limits of creeping pine as temperature-sensitive.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

One hundred pioneers (2)

The monk who climbed Yari and the guide who saved his life

It was a late summer weekend in Japan's Northern Alps, perhaps the last before the snow came down. We were marching down the wooded path towards Kamikochi when we overtook the monks.

Alerted by the clink of climbing hardware in our packs, one of them turned as we approached. It was an unforgettable moment. To top the ensemble of his black vestments, rosary, and straw sandals, he sported a razor-sharp pair of blade sunglasses.

The monks and the mountaineers fell to talking. We had just done a route in Takidani. They had been singing sutras to the memory of Monk Banryū atop Yari-ga-take. The memorial service is performed without fail every year, the monks said.

Fukada Kyūya would have approved: “Banryū was a great alpinist. His achievements are recorded in the masterly biography by Hokari Misuo, but his role as a pioneer of the Northern Alps deserves to be known to a wider public,” he writes in “One Hundred Mountains of Japan” (Nihon Hyakumeizan). The monk appears twice in Fukada’s book, in the Kasa-ga-dake and Yari-ga-take chapters.

Monks and religious mystics opened up many of Japan’s greater mountains and Banryū was the last great representative of that tradition. Indeed, a popular history of Japanese mountaineering elevates him to a pantheon of just seven climbing monks – the others are En-no-gyōja, said to have ascended Fuji in the seventh century; Taichō, the eighth-century pioneer of Hakusan; the roughly contemporaneous Jikō of Tateyama; Shōdō (735-817), who first climbed Nantai; Hasegawa Kakugyō (1541-1648), founder of a sect centred on Mt Fuji; and Fukan (1731-1802), who did the same for Ontake.

Banryū was born in Ōyama-machi in what is now Toyama Prefecture, in 1782. By coincidence, it was in the same year, the second of Tenmei, that Monk Nan'ei from Sōyuji temple in nearby Takayama made the first authenticated ascent of Kasa-ga-dake. Forty years later, Banryū followed in Nan'ei’s footsteps, as Fukada records in Hyakumeizan:

After reaching the top in June of the sixth year of Bunsei (1823), he persuaded some local people to build a path. On August 5 the same year, eighteen people with Banryū at their head climbed the mountain again. As they watched a bright halo floating in the clouds, Buddha the Merciful appeared to them three times, causing them to weep tears of adoration while they paid their devotions. Banryū left a detailed account of this episode in his Record of the re-dedication of Katagadake. The following year, on August 5, Banryū led sixty-six people to the summit in honour of Buddha Amida. Again, the halo in the clouds was seen several times. It was on this occasion also that Banryū saw the noble form of distant Yari-ga-take and resolved to climb it, later achieving the mountain's first ascent.

The bright halo mentioned in this account must be the brockenspectre. This is a phenomenon caused by optical scattering that is often seen in the Japanese mountains. There’s a good write-up and some excellent photos in a blog post by CJW. The brocken in the photo above was seen on Kita-Hodaka, a 3000-metre peak just across the valley from Kasa-ga-dake.

Three years after the Kasa ascent, Banryū made his first attempt on Yari. Again, the story is taken up in Hyakumeizan:

Banryū came to the village of Ogura in Azumi-gun of Shinano province and put up there with the headman, Nakata Kyūzaemon. Nakata agreed to the monk's request and they forthwith started to prepare for the journey. With Nakata's brother-in-law, Matajūrō, who knew the mountains, they set out for Yari. Crossing Ōtaki-yama and Chō-ga-dake, they descended into Kami-kōchi, then followed the Azusa river up to a cave in Yari-sawa (now known as the Bōzu Iwagoya or Monk's Cave). Making this their base, they made a foray towards Yari itself, with Banryū chanting the nenbutsu as he went. However, that year they did no more than spy out the ground.

Undaunted, pious Banryū spent the next two years travelling through the provinces and collecting alms until he was ready once more to incline his staff towards Yari. This time, he bore on his back statues of the Amida Nyorai, Kannon Bosatsu, and Monju Bosatsu. Committing himself to their protection, he finally attained the summit of Yari-ga-take on July 28 of the eleventh year of Bunsei (1828). Having achieved his aim, he set up the three statues on the summit and sent up an oration of thanks to the Buddha for his mercies.

Banryū returned twice more to Yari, improved the path there, cleared the summit, and encouraged his disciples to make the ascent. He would also have safeguarded the ascent of the rocky spire with iron chains but for certain villagers who prevented him because, at the height of the Tempo Famine (1830-34), they blamed his mountain-climbing for their bad harvests. Only when better times returned did they grant his wish and allow chains on Yari …

There’s more to the story of Banryū, as we discovered on a ski-tour one Golden Week. On our way towards the west ridge of Yari, bad weather detained us at the Sugoroku Hut. Fortunately, our host, Koike Hisomu, maintained a goodly library for the use of his guests. As the spring storm buffeted the hut’s timbers, I lit on a book by Hokari Misuo and read with fascination about the monk’s third visit to Yari-ga-take.

Five years had passed since he first reached the summit and, in the meantime, hard times had fallen on the surrounding region. In August 1835, the year after the Tempo famine ended, Banryū set out for Yari again, hoping to make the ascent route easier for future pilgrims. He made his way up to the familiar cave in Yari-sawa together with Nakata Matajūrō, who had stocked it with rice, flour and a cooking pot. Then Nakata left the monk to his devotions.

Once more, Banryū was alone with Yari-ga-take. He meditated, waited for a fine day, climbed to the summit, and perhaps again saw the mystical, Buddha-like halo in the clouds. But August was now drawing to a close. Frost covered the ground every morning and the monk was now melting snow in order to cook his rice or barley. Intent on his rites and sutras, the monk paid no heed to the looming onset of winter.

Meanwhile, the five disciples whom Banryū had left in the valley were anxious. They broached their fears to Matajūrō, who immediately set off up the mountain. Arriving at the cave, he found the ground covered with new snow and Banryū debilitated by seventeen days of austerities. Sometimes carrying, sometimes dragging his friend, Matajūrō succeeded in bringing him down to Ogura in the last stages of exhaustion. He wanted to summon a doctor but Banryū refused, preferring to rely on the Nembutsu. In the end, he lost two toes on his right foot to frostbite.

Banryū stands out in several ways. He brought the tradition of mountain asceticism to the highest, most difficult peaks. And, unlike the other pioneers mentioned above, who belonged to more esoteric schools, he adhered to the popular Jōdo (Pure Land) sect of Buddhism, with its emphasis on everyday good works and saving others. Although a layman, Nakata Matajūrō was also faithful to Jōdo principles. He selflessly supported Banryū and carried out Japan’s first high-altitude mountain rescue. He should be remembered too.


Nihon Hyakumeizan by Fukada Kyūya in a forthcoming translation as “One Hundred Mountains of Japan”

Hito wa naze yama ni noboru ka (人はなぜ山に登るか), Taiyō Bessatsu, Autumn 1998 – a summarized history of Japanese mountaineering

Banryū (槍岳開祖播隆) by Hokari Misuo, Shin-Shinshū-sha, October 1963