Thursday, January 24, 2008

Slow train to Kaimon-dake

No need to rush when climbing Kyūshū's southernmost Hyakumeizan, a volcano with a relaxed attitude to life

Speed is safety, mountaineers say. You fly to Japan at high Mach. Bullet trains hurry you across country, blue sparks blazing from their pantographs. But to climb Kyūshū’s southernmost volcano, you slow down. Indeed, the pace slackens as soon as the Tsubame super-express arrives at Kagoshima terminus. “You mean there are only two trains to Kaimon-dake tomorrow morning?” I asked the station clerk incredulously. “That’s right,” she said, “At 5.02am or 10am.”

Next morning, fortified by a "bottomless" cup of coffee in an all-night Joyfull restaurant, I boarded the early one. The diesel rail car rejoiced in an all-yellow paint scheme and the name of “Na-no-hana” (rape blossom). Sprawling across the upright seats were some schoolboys in naval academy uniforms. Burly and sunburned, they resembled miniatures of Saigo Takamori, the nineteenth-century revolutionary from these parts. One lad snored away in a corner, a green towel wrapped around his head.

At Ibusuki, the students left and I changed to an even older diesel car. This one, its weather-beaten white paint streaked with oil, was innocent of a name. Being December, the stars were still bright in the sky when we reached Kaimon. I walked towards the mountain, now a velvet silhouette against the dawn, until I found a vending machine. It proffered a Boss Coffee – purporting to be the Boss of them all since 1992 – which I sipped until there was light enough to venture onwards.

It was wise to make haste slowly: a roadside signboard warns that the woods of Kaimon are pitch-dark after sunset (or, indeed, before dawn). To make the point, a cartoon sun waves “bai bai” as it slips below the horizon. Even at midday, only a meager few rays pierce through the canopy of evergreen oaks that cloak the mountain. Either hike in daylight or bring a headtorch.

Like Mt Fuji, Kaimon-dake is a dormant stratovolcano, almost perfectly conical. Unlike its big brother, it is a mere 924 metres high. It also takes a more relaxed attitude to life. While Fuji has erupted many times in history, most recently in the eighteenth century, Kaimon has exerted itself only twice. During an outbreak in the sixteenth year of Jōgan (874), black smoke filled the sky and ash rained down, forcing the local shrine to remove to a safer distance. The Imperial court promoted the shrine to a higher rank, apparently propitiating the volcano. Since then, except for a second throat-clearing* in 885, it has kept a towel wrapped round its head.

These details are taken from Fukada Kyūya’s Hyakumeizan, soon to be published in English as One Hundred Mountains of Japan. “Although the mountain is less than one thousand metres high, it rises straight from the sea,” adds the Hyakumeizan author. “It is therefore more than a stroll to the top. …. Rather than taking a direct line uphill or zig-zagging, the cunningly laid path spirals up the mountain.”

In Fukada's time, the dense woods gave way to scrubland at mid-height, opening up views out to sea. Today, it seems that the trees persist almost all the way to the summit – perhaps they have climbed higher in the warming half-century since Hyakumeizan was written. From time to time, I caught glimpses of the sky through clearings. The last glade before the summit revealed the spectacle of Kaimon’s shadow stretching over the western landscape. Yes, it had been worth catching the early train.

At the top, daphne (Daphniphyllum), bush holly (Ilex crenata), and other evergreen shrubs cover the dimple of the old crater. I defer to Fukada for these plant names. There is also a small shrine and a triangulation point surmounting a pile of boulders. One of them carries a plaque commemorating the visit of the Crown Prince and Princess, who also collect Hyakumeizan summits. As for the view, the sea surrounds Kaimon on three sides, with land only to the northeast.

I was back at the station before noon. Thoughts of a rapid return to Kagoshima were dashed. The next up train would come only in two hours and, rather than wait, I caught the down train instead. With a roar from its soot-encrusted exhaust stacks, the diesel rail car gathered way down the buckled tracks, lurching from side to side as it rattled through brick-lined tunnels and long shady cuttings where the trees met overhead. Head-high palisades of pampas grass (susuki) waved aside as we passed. In the cab, the driver and the conductor swayed in unison as the train rocked and rolled ever deeper into the countryside.

This time, I was the youngest on board. At each stop, a stooping pensioner or farmer would get on or off, cloth-wrapped bundle in hand. Deeper and deeper into the countryside rumbled the rail car, like a magical conveyance in one of Miyazaki’s animated films, while the passengers disappeared one by one. “Just you and me now,” said a crone clad in blue cotton trousers, a smile crinkling her face. Then she too was gone.

Look back at Kaimon-dake from the west and the summit appears sawn off, just like its big brother's. From this angle, the volcano really does deserve its honorary title of Kagoshima-Fuji. And it's hardly surprising that Fukada Kyuya promoted this elegant cone into his list of one hundred eminent mountains, even though it falls short of his minimum height for a "Meizan" of one and a half thousand metres.

We reached the end of the line at Makura-zaki, famous to Japanese railway buffs as the southernmost station in all Japan. Makura-zaki means Pillow Cape, and the town lives up to its somnolent name. At lunchtime the main street was all but empty in the weak winter sunshine. There was time to buy another can of Boss from Honshu's southernmost vending machine before the train left for Kagoshima.

Some time later, the echoing tunnels, sweet-potato patches, and waving avenues of susuki grass gave way to the outskirts of the big city. Something had faded. “Thank you for showing me the good old Japan,” I said to the conductor, who bowed in reply as deeply as his peaked cap would allow without sliding off. Tomorrow, it would be the bullet train back to Tokyo.

*describing the 885 eruption as a "throat-clearing" could be misleading in the light of Tom Bouquet's recently published and excellent guide to Kaimondake. Apparently, the eruption was comparable in scale and results to the catastrophe that buried Pompeii.


Nihon Hyakumeizan by Fukada Kyūya, soon to be published in English as "One Hundred Mountains of Japan"

More Hyakumeizan photos at: One Hundred Mountains of Japan images

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The mother of all Meizan

Here is the Hakusan chapter (no. 87) of “One Hundred Mountains of Japan”, an excerpt from the forthcoming English translation of Fukada Kyūya’s classic collection of essays about Japan's most remarkable mountains.

A mountain watches over the home village of most Japanese people. Tall or short, near or far, some mountain watches over our native village like a tutelary deity. We spend our childhood in the shadow of our mountain and we carry it with us in memory when we grow up and leave the village. And however much our lives may change, the mountain will always be there, just as it always has been, to welcome us back to our home village.

My native mountain is Hakusan. You could see it from the top floor of the house where I was born, from the gates of our primary school, from the banks of the river where we used to catch minnows, from the sand dunes of the beach where we swam, in short from just about anywhere in our town. There it was, right in front of us, noble and beautiful. As the name promises, it was a white mountain for fully half the year.

Pure white in winter, the mountain's mantle of snow grows ever more dappled as spring wears on, with most of the lingering patches gone by mid-June. In late autumn, the mountain is touched by white again. The first dusting of snow just streaks the summit regions. Then it spreads so that, by mid-December, that flawless mantle of pure white is back until the following spring. The snow is formed when cold winter winds blow in from Siberia across the Japan Sea and meet with the great barrier of the Hakusan range.

Many readers will have seen from one or other of the mountaintops of central Japan how, far to the north, Hakusan appears to float on a sea of clouds. And, I wager, the sight woke in you a sense of elegance with an undertone of loneliness. Hakusan is one of our country's highest mountains, after the Japan Alps and Yatsu-ga-take. Traditionally, "Hakusan of Kaga" is regarded as one of Japan's three sacred mountains, together with Fuji of Suruga and Tateyama of Etchū. Strictly speaking, it straddles the provinces of Echizen and Hida as well as Kaga, but is known as "Hakusan of Kaga" because it looks most impressive from that direction.

And I can say with confidence and pride that the finest view from anywhere on that plain of Kaga is from my home town. Not only do the main peaks Gozen and Ōnanji balance each other to perfection, but it is from here that Hakusan's sheer height and breadth can best be appreciated. When I returned to my home town after the war and led an isolated, fugitive life for three years and a half, it was Hakusan that consoled me.

After I had stayed up all night at my writing, I used to get to my feet and look outside at dawn when the first rays of light peeped through the window. If it was clear enough to see the mountain, I would walk out to the edge of town where nothing would bar my view and gaze my fill on its pure white slopes.

But it was in the evening, when the last glow of the setting sun steeped it in roseate hues, that Hakusan reached its finest pitch of beauty. As I watched while the day faded into shades of gray, those subtle transitions of colour hinted at something more than earthly.

Fine winter days are far and few between in the Hokuriku region. But on one of those rare cloudless evenings, when the air was clear and cold enough almost to crackle, Hakusan floated there in the pale moonlight like a work of fine crystal chased in silver. It was a scene drawn less from reality than from some land of fantasy.

Hakusan was opened in the first year of Yōrō (717) by the monk Taichō, the first mountain in Japan to be climbed for religious ends. It also receives mention in the Manyōshū as the first snow-capped mountain that travellers set eyes on after leaving the capital, centre of all culture in those days, on their journey along the Great North Road to the far provinces. Then as now, people were amazed by the sheer flawlessness of the mountain's white mantle. Hakusan also makes frequent appearances in literature after the Kokinshū, most often as an example of a "mountain deep in snow". Benkei and Yoshitsune, Basho too on his weary journey down the "narrow road from the deep north" passed under Hakusan and gazed up at its snowy heights.

Hakusan, which means simply 'white mountain', shares its name with Mt Blanc in Europe and Daulaghiri in the Himalaya, 'daula' denoting white and 'ghiri' mountain. Hakusan is our white mountain. It is sacred to the deity Hime-gami, "hime" meaning 'princess'. As legend has it, Hakusan of Kaga was dedicated to this goddess for its beauty while Tateyama of Etchū, with its more masculine character, was made over to the male deity Oyama-gami. Certainly, few mountains combine such a presence with such grace.

And the mountain is as beautiful from the climbing path as it is from below. Amid the creeping pine and the alpine flowers of the summit are one or two ancient craters in which pools of dark-blue water lie. Together with the snowpatches that feed them and the surrounding rocks, they form a natural garden. Even in the summer, one can easily escape the noisy crowds on the peak and escape into this almost untouched sanctuary, pristine in its silence.

When I first climbed Hakusan as a middle-school student, it was the first time that I had ever visited a mountain where snow lay even in summer. Until then, I had only played about in the foothills near my home and so this was the real beginning of my mountaineering career. Since then I have explored Hakusan and its environs many times.

I could write for ever about Hakusan, so much has this mountain given me.

Extract from "One Hundred Mountains of Japan", the forthcoming English version of "Nihon Hyakumeizan", a classic book about the mountains of Japan first published in 1964 by writer and mountaineer Fukada Kyūya.

More Hyakumeizan photos at: One Hundred Mountains of Japan images

Monday, January 21, 2008

Fuji-wise by owl-light

A spring ascent of Japan’s highest mountain stays just ahead of the weather

Between us, we had been typhooned off it in summer and soundly rebuffed by a late December snowstorm. In this last venture, we had envisaged dinner for six at the bottom of the crater, a folly that the mountain shrugged off. Still other attempts never made it beyond the ticket barriers in Shinjuku. And now it continued to glitter provocatively in the spring skies, as if to underline the fact that Paul had only two more weeks to make the ascent before his return to Europe. Yes, that familiar bulk on the horizon had become the Obsessive Cone.

So it was that we found ourselves at the Gotemba Fifth Station at midnight on Friday, April 7th. This is one of the lowest starting points for a Fuji climb, offering, by the same token, one of the longest slogs to the top. The original plan had been to bivouac in a derelict tea-house, but the Cone gleamed so alluringly in the moonlight that we immediately set off uphill.

Although the air temperature was a toasty zero, the snow, which started as soon as we were off the abandoned ski ground, was frozen hard, presumably by radiation cooling. The moon set behind the ridge of Hoei-zan at around 2am, but starlight on snow was just sufficient to show us the way from one marker post to the next. Those posts were intended to guide the relief crews and their porters to the summit radar station, but they served us just as well.

Dawn found us performing the tea ceremony (Epigas-ryu) at 2,700 meters; unfortunately, the tea house itself was buried up to its eaves in hard-frozen snow, affording little in the way of shelter for the guttering stove and climbers. Day revealed an open expanse of hard firn-snow, smooth except for the odd ripple, with no windslab or avalanche debris. Just to be on the safe side, we kept toward the rocky rib which is the summer route to the top, and soon the monotonous crunch of snow under crampon was varied by the merry zing of axespike on lava. It was a bright morning, but the usual Fuji wind now kept us grabbing for support on whatever rock or guardrail came to hand (this is a well furnished cone).

We reached the top at 9:00am, the air temperature still a cosy minus 5 degrees C. As the crater was drifted in places to a depth of tens of meters, rash thoughts of a closer inspection were soon dropped. Veil cloud now announced the arrival of a front. We took the hint to descend in haste. On our way down, we met the freezing level coming up at 2,500 meters. After taking a look at the hole made by Fuji’s most recent eruption in 1707, the Hoei crater, we were back at the Gotemba roadhead by 12:30.

Shortly afterwards, the Cone was further truncated by lowering cloud and spindrift driving across the upper slopes. There remained a long trudge in the rain along the road down to Gotemba. The bad weather came too late to spoil Paul's last mountain outing but in good time to trash all the sakura-viewing parties planned for the next day. Cherry blossoms, like summit joys, are fated to be evanescent.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

On Amagi, your meizan may vary

An uncertain attempt to follow Fukada Kyūya through the cloud forests of Izu

The Hyakumeizan author Fukada Kyūya stayed away from the mountains of Izu until after the second world war. As he explains in One Hundred Mountains of Japan:

Another reason I did not climb Amagi was, quite simply, that this sheet of the 50,000-scale map was not available to us, as it covered an area deemed to be of military significance. And mountaineering without maps did not interest me. After the war, the army was abolished and the Amagi map came out of hiding. The mountain lies on the Izu sheet of the 50,000-scale series. I was glad that forbidden zones had vanished from the face of our beautiful land but, at the same time, I feared that quiet and rustic places would fade away if the country was opened too far. Indeed, the mountains of Izu now feel rather hemmed in by civilization.

Strange to say, forbidden zones still lie in wait for those who venture here. We'd come to retrace Fukada's route across the Amagi range, Izu's highest mountains, but this immediately involved us in a trespass. Today, Togasa-yama, Fukada's starting point, is owned by a religious sect. An unfriendly notice at the start of the track warned that tozan is kinshi but we eased past the barrier and some friendly workmen waved us on. Then the clouds came in. At the summit, a cluster of NHK microwave antennae loomed through squalls of sleet.

Not everything has been modernized beyond recognition. Time still runs slower on the Izu peninsula. That morning, the Hikari super-express had brought us to Atami. There we hopped onto a local train that wound its way in and out of cliffs and coves to Ito, a town that measures out its hours at the rate of the fish drying on racks along every street. Then we wandered along a beach of black sand until an ancient bus could take us up to the foot of Togasa. Izu still works its rustic charms, as it did in Fukada's day:

The name of Amagi-san has appealed to me for years. It must have been in my high school days, when we had returned to the dormitory after a holiday, that a friend told us about his trip to the Izu peninsula and it was in that conversation that I first heard the name of Amagi and of an obscure hot spring village tucked into its surrounding valleys. Trips to Izu were then popular among students. Among them was Kawabata Yasunari, author of The Izu Dancer, and in those days, there were many students like the one depicted in his masterly novel … the name of Amagi had lodged somewhere in my mind and its every mention conjured up an image of a mountain in the warm south, steeped in poetry and legend.

Geologically speaking, Izu really is a separate world. If the savants are to be believed, a tropical island came sailing up from the southern seas one and a half million years ago, and smacked into Honshu. This created the Izu peninsula and kicked up a rash of volcanoes. One of these is Amagi, the crumbling relic of an ancient caldera.

Next morning, with a bright sun pushing through the vapours of a retreating front, we started up Banjiro-dake. The path to this first peak wandered between mossy boulders and stands of himeshara (peony trees of the Stewartia monadelpha variety). The smooth pink bark of these elegant trees was still glistening from the night's rain.

As we scrambled down a ridge of andesite on the far side of Banjiro, clouds came rolling up again from the extinct crater. In good weather, this part of the hike affords a splendid view of Fuji but today we glimpsed the snow-covered cone only for a moment, drifting between layers of stratus. The sun dimmed as we ducked into a tunnel of asebi (Pieris japonica), a shrub that makes animals tipsy if they graze on it. At least, this was the story offered by a helpful billboard by the path, saving us the trouble of looking it up later.

At 1,406 metres, the next and highest peak, Banzaburo-dake, rises just one hundred metres above Banjiro, but this is enough to make a difference. As we climbed higher, we noticed that beeches start to share the ground with the himeshara, the trees of the cool north mingling with those of the warm south. I imagined these beeches as stragglers left behind by a retreating army, corralled on the highest ridgetops. How long can they hold out in a world of rising temperatures?

On this mid-March day, global warming was in remission. Grey mist drifted through the bare trees and moisture dripped from the branches, as if in some Brazilian cloud forest. Gnarled trunks lurked in the gloom like monsters. The path led on over lonely cols and through glades carpeted in russet by last year's leaves. It was somewhere around here that Fukada had planned to bivouac. But he discovered that these modest heights can be surprisingly cold:

I had thought to spend the night out on tranquil Amagi-san, but when I came along the ridge to Hacho pond the gathering chill put paid to this romantic plan. So I went down from the pass to Yugano and put up at a simple inn. Places like this with hot springs are another of Amagi's blessings. When I woke next morning, the camellias and orange trees on the opposite slope once more conjured for me that vision of the warm south.

Somewhere we left the last beech tree behind and came to the crater lake of Hacho pond, its verges nicely manicured with concrete edging. Alas, this showpiece had retired behind a thick wall of fog. Another billboard informed us that our hiking day was over; a landslide had closed Fukada's original traverse route and we would have to take a shorter route down to the valley. Seek to follow the master and your meizan may and probably will vary …

Quotations from Fukada Kyūya's Nihon Hyakumeizan are from the English translation soon to be published as "One Hundred Mountains of Japan".

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Tekari creeping pine question

Forest trees seem to be replacing haimatsu on the summit of Tekari-dake: are hotter summers or hikers to blame?

One summer more than half a century ago, a writer and a botanist paused for breath on a remote summit. At that time, few people climbed Tekari-dake (2,591 metres), the last high mountain in the Southern Alps. That would change after 1964, when Tekari took its place in the best-selling Hyakumeizan – the One Hundred Mountains of Japan. Here is how the Hyakumeizan author, Fukada Kyuya, describes that visit:-

Our summit was cramped. A short distance away was a rather wider elevation on which the Imperial Survey Department's triangulation point stood. We opened a tin of pineapple and perched ourselves for a rest on the roots of a creeping pine. This was, in fact, the southernmost limit for creeping pine in all Japan, our porter confirming that none grew on the mountains further south. And when we looked in that direction at the peaks of Kagamori-yama, we saw that they were covered with dark forests where creeping pine could obviously not exist. This, it seemed to us, was the southernmost point of the Japan Alps.

"If this is the most southerly creeping pine in Japan, then it's actually the southernmost in all Asia," said my botanist friend.

After the trip was over, I mentioned that we'd seen Asia's most southerly creeping pine to Takeda Hisayoshi, whom I run into from time to time. To which the professor, who is not without a sense of humour, charmed me with the reply that this was, in fact, the most southerly creeping pine on the planet.

We left the summit, but not before my friend had taken a photo of the world's southernmost creeping pine. This friend was none other than Tanabe Kazuo and it is his photo, under the caption "Southern limit of creeping pine (Tekari-dake)", that appears in a monograph on the high-altitude vegetation of Japan authored by himself and two other professors, Takeda and Takenaka. The accompanying text reads as follows:

"To the south of Tekari-dake, the last outpost of the Akaishi range, the terrain drops away with remarkable sharpness and there are no more peaks with rocky outcrops. This being the case, it is hardly possible that creeping pine grows any further south than this mountain. Nor are there mountains of sufficient height in other mountain ranges to the south of this point. Creeping pine is unknown, for example, on Ena-san, Ibuki, Ōmine, Hōki-Daisen, or on any mountain in Shikoku or Kyūshū."

Thus it was that Tekari became a mountain of botanical significance.

Mountaineers have a love-hate relationship with creeping pine (haimatsu in Japanese and Pinus pumila in botanist-speak). They reach for a thank-god branch as their feet scart about on some crumbling cliff. Or they fight through its impenetrable thickets as they top out of a sawa and struggle towards the distant ridgeline (see photos in this article). But most would be sad to hear that creeping pine no longer covers Tekari's top. When a hiking group (from the Tokyo IAC club) passed by in 2006, the leader observed that a grove of tall forest trees now surrounds the summit marker. Few, if any, signs of creeping pine remain.

None of this adds up to much of an ecological upset. Even on Tekari, thickets of creeping pine still grow on the ridges that lead towards the summit. Elsewhere, the plant straggles across mountaintops all the way from Lake Baikal through Siberia, Korea, and down through Japan as far as the Southern Alps. In central Honshu, creeping pine takes over where the trees leave off, typically around 2,400 metres.

So what is happening on Tekari? Could hotter weather be raising the treeline, forcing the alpine zone into retreat? That general threat is raised by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in a report on the regional impact of global warming. However, the savants behind the Kyoto Protocol conclude that haimatsu is a tough enough customer to look after itself: "Subalpine conifers may expand into alpine regions under the influence of global warming – though this expansion would not disturb the upper vegetation zone, which already is occupied by well-developed creeping pine (Pinus pumila) scrub." So the case against climate change is, as they say in Scotland, not proven.

If not global warming, what then? One could do worse than consult
Takeda Hisayoshi (1883-1972), the eminent botanist mentioned above in Hyakumeizan. Takeda was the son of Takeda Kane, a samurai daughter, and Ernest Satow, an English diplomat who first came to Japan in 1862. Born and brought up in Japan, he went on to study at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew in London. Later, he helped to found the Japan Alpine Club and published the first ever guide to Japan's alpine flora. Amazingly, at least one version of this work is still in print, a student edition co-authored by none other than Tanabe Kazuo, the Waseda botany professor who is also mentioned in the Hyakumeizan excerpt.

Takeda seems to have been fond of creeping pine, perhaps because he could be somewhat of a tough customer himself – he is most famous in Japan for facing down a scheme to turn the Oze marshes into a reservoir. Haimatsu is "the pre-eminent plant of Japan's alpine zone", he says in the introduction to his guidebook. Yet its realm has no hard-and-fast boundaries. Sometimes it condescends to grow beneath the treeline. And, although it is capable of growing on any of Japan's alpine summits, that doesn't mean that all peaks are so favoured. The rocky top of Shirouma (2,933 metres) sported a good growth of haimatsu when Takeda first went there in 1906. Now, he observes, it is bald, the creeping pine either crushed underfoot by hikers or (horrors!) consumed in campfires. By contrast, less frequented Kita-dake still has its haimatsu.

This observation could explain the creeping pine conundrum of Tekari-dake. After the mountain gained in popularity as a Hyakumeizan peak, trampling feet might have cleared the summit of haimatsu, opening the way for faster-growing forest trees to take over. Even if this were confirmed, though, we still wouldn't know what has happened to the world's southernmost creeping pine. According to Takeda's guidebook, this used to grow not on Tekari, but on Shinanomata-dake (2,332 metres), a few kilometers further south. But does it grow there still? Maybe somebody should go and have a look. But no campfires please …


Hyakumeizan by Fukada Kyuya, translated into English as One Hundred Mountains of Japan. According to unconfirmed information on a website, Fukada visited Tekari-dake in 1936. So the changes in the summit vegetation described in this article have taken place - if they have taken place - over some 70 years.

IPCC Special Report on The Regional Impacts of Climate Change
An Assessment of Vulnerability, Chapter 10, Temperate Asia – Mountain Regions, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

Nippon Kozanshokubutsu Zukan (Gakusei-ban) by Takeda Hisayoshi and Tanabe Kazuo, Hokuryukan, Tokyo, first published 1961 (re-issued 1999)

Hito wa naze yama ni noboru no ka?, volume 103 in the Taiyo Bessatsu: Nihon no Kokoro series (Heibonsha, 1998)

Monday, January 14, 2008

Weaver of the snows

The great winters of Echigo make their last stand on Makihata-yama, one of Japan's Hundred Mountains

"I propose this beautiful but shy mountain as the pre-eminent summit of the Joetsu border," writes Fukada Kyuya about Makihata-yama. Even without reading the Hyakumeizan, quite a few mountaineers have formed the same opinion. And this was why, early one February morning, a van belonging to the Kakinuma Kimono company disgorged four of us into the village street of Shimizu. After driving overnight from the Big Smoke, it was good to inspire the cold air of Ura-Nihon, even if softly falling snowflakes mingled with every breath.

The softly falling syllables of its name are yet another reason to number Makihata among the hundred most notable mountains of Japan, Fukada adds. As "hata" means a loom, the summit may once have enshrined a weaver goddess. The explanation is tentatively offered. Yet there is something beguiling about the idea of a mountain that tirelessly weaves the passing clouds into snow.

The weaver was busy that day. From the village, we moved up through slanting beechwoods, the white mist and heavy snowflakes muffling all sounds. Then the bottomless powder gave way under my skis. Tumbling down a slope, I fetched up against the bole of a tree. In the end, the snow was too much for us. It was still sifting down when we peered out of our tent next morning.

Even the forest seemed to be struggling to cope. To bear their lading of snow, say the savants, these beech trees evolved more resilient branches than their front-of-Japan cousins. Less well adapted, we retreated to Shimizu and consoled ourselves at the Ueda-ya, a ramshackle minshuku, with steaming bowls of sansai-soba. The broth is made from violin-head ferns plucked from the very slopes we'd skied, although presumably in another season.

On the wall was an old ink-drawing of a man wading through the snowdrifts on kanjiki, the traditional bamboo snowshoes. When we asked, the old lady of the house explained that the illustration came from Tales of the Snow Country by Suzuki Bokushi (1770-1842), a local merchant who set down for posterity the rigours of the Echigo winters.

It is as well he did. As cold weather goes out of fashion, the drifts that smothered houses and even electricity poles fade into folk memory. The same is true for the tunnels that Niigata villagers used to dig from house to house, the ceaseless work of snow shovelling and all the other arts of winter survival on the Japan Sea coast. These days, the plains often get away with a mere dusting of snow.

Up in the hills, the big winters stage their last stand. In places such as Shimizu, the snow still reliably buries small sheds up to their eaves. Forget to dig out your Subaru and it soon morphs into a rounded drift. When we visited Makihata on another ski trip, we lunched on the roof of a two-storey mountain hut.

One summer, the snow was still there in late July when we climbed Komeko-sawa, a mountain stream falling from Makihata's shoulders. This time, the weather was perfect. We drove between viridian seas of young rice and pitched our tents in a new official campsite. Then we repaired to the Ueda-ya for supper. We asked a young couple about the old lady who had looked after us on previous visits. Out tilling the fields, they said.

Next morning, we walked into the sawa at half past five. For the first half hour, our boots stayed dry, the river having sunk into the bouldery bed of the gorge. Water appeared only when rubble gave way to firm slabs. After evading some waterfalls by crawling along a path between stunted beech trees, we got the rope out for the first real obstacle, a rock step beside a cascade.

As we rounded the next bend, there it was: a large snowbank of avalanche debris, filling the gully from side to side. The party ahead had chosen to go over the top, but its members looked worried as their smooth-soled sawa boots skated about on the pitted crust. We chose instead to go under the snow, through a broad-arched and dripping tunnel. After twenty yards or so, we scrambled back into daylight over snow-blocks.

Two or three cascades later, we came to a succession of slabs. By some trick of perspective, these formed a royal road leading straight into the sky. Perhaps I was too taken with this effect for, having just warned everyone to take care, I slid away down a slimy chute. Falling off Makihata threatened to become a habit.

Below the summit, the stream narrowed to a rill between grassy banks. Failing to match the guidebook to the terrain, we made an escape bid up a ridge. This took us onto a flower meadow spangled with orange lilies and yellow bellflowers. Fukada Kyuya came this way in April 1936, on one of many ski trips: "On the col below the summit, several freshets bubble forth and small cherry trees scatter their blossoms about when the snow melts. It is a charming place. But clouds came in to take away the wider view."

See Wes's Tozan Tales for a more recent visit to Makihata-yama. The snow is still there, even in July ....


Mori o yomu by Oba Hideaki, Shizen Keikan no Yomikata series, (Chapter 4)

Snow Country Tales: Life in the Other Japan by Suzuki Bokushi, translated by Jeffrey Hunter with Rose Lesser

Hyakumeizan by Fukada Kyuya, translated as One Hundred Mountains of Japan

Inventing the Japan Alps

How a mining engineer, a missionary, and a banker helped to name the highest mountains of Honshu

"Although they have now been subsumed into the 'Japan Alps', the northern, central, and southern sectors of these mountains also go by the native names of the Hida, Kiso, and Akaishi ranges," writes Fukada Kyuya (1903-1971) in his One Hundred Mountains of Japan. There is a faintly skeptical ring to that sentence, as if the Hyakumeizan author harboured a preference for Japanese names over foreign. But, by Fukada's time, the Japan Alps had well and truly taken root, whatever the regrets of linguistic purists.

Guidebooks and websites usually credit the invention of the Japan Alps to William Gowland (1842-1922), a Meiji-era mining engineer who came to Osaka to work at the Imperial Mint. Gowland was the complete Victorian professional; he habitually wore a frock coat and silk hat even when tapping a blast furnace. His out-of-hours interests lay more in the direction of Japan's prehistory than its mountains; he is now remembered as the father of Japanese archaeology for his two books on the ancient burial mounds known as kofun.

Gowland roamed through the Japanese backcountry in the late 1870s mainly to survey the country's mineral resources. He did visit Yari-ga-take in 1878, but it is uncertain whether his purpose was anything as frivolous as climbing to the top. On the strength of these travels, he contributed a chapter on the Hida and Etchu mountains to the Handbook for Travellers in Central and Northern Japan, an early English-language guidebook. In this account, published in 1881, he described the pinnacled ridges of central Honshu as something "that might perhaps be termed the Japanese Alps".

A decade later, that hint was taken up by Walter Weston (1861-1940), who was sent to Japan from his native England by the Church Missionary Society in 1888. A veteran of two seasons in the Swiss Alps, Weston used the Handbook to plan his own ascents of Yari, Hodaka, and other summits. When he wrote up these experiences, he was less circumspect than Gowland. Indeed, the title of his book, Mountaineering and Exploration in the Japanese Alps, is a manifesto in itself. And he promoted his destinations into the first rank of alpine peaks:

Snow-seamed ridges and noble peaks of 10,000 feet and more in height stand up in dark sharp outline against the opalescent sky of the dying day. Yarigatake, the "Spear Peak", the Matterhorn of Japan; Jonendake, with its graceful triangular form that recalls in miniature the Weisshorn, queen of the Pennine Alps; and further southward the massive double-topped Norikura … each arrests the eye with a characteristic profile.

Published in 1896 in London, Weston's book left the Japanese quite unaware of the Alps on their doorstep. But that was about to change, thanks to a Japanese best-seller. In 1894, the same year that Weston went home to England, the journalist and pundit Shiga Shigetaka published Nihon Fukeiron (On the Landscapes of Japan), a discourse on the country's scenic beauties. In the longest chapter, about mountain scenery, Shiga urged readers who wanted to "know the essence of granite mountains to climb Yari-ga-take by all means".

One who took this advice to heart was Kojima Usui (1873-1948), a young banker who wielded a journalistic pen during his spare time. Inspired by Nihon Fukeiron, Kojima reached the summit of Yari-ga-take in 1902. Like Weston, he succeeded only on the second attempt; Yari was no soft touch in the days before the road and the tunnel went through to Kami-kochi. But deferred gratification gave Kojima the material for a whole series of magazine articles that were later collected as An Account of an Expedition to Yarigatake.

Walter Weston had meanwhile returned to Japan and was now living in Yokohama, not far from Kojima. The two were introduced in 1903, their first meeting taking place in Weston's drawing room. 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. Weston was a proud member of Britain's Alpine Club, to which he had been elected in 1893.

This conversation led, two years later, to the foundation of the Sangakukai or Japanese Alpine Club. Kojima was also the moving spirit behind the club's own journal, Sangaku, which was launched in the spring of 1906. A few years later, his essays started to be reprinted in a series of volumes entitled Nihon Arupusu. The Alps had arrived in Japan, along with the rudiments of modern alpinism.

Of course, it wasn't quite as simple as that. Always sensitive to the threat of excessive Westernization, Shiga Shigetaka came up with an alternative Japanese name – which translated roughly as the "Honshu Central Transversal Range" – but Kojima objected that this geographically accurate term could never connote a truly alpine sense of height and grandeur. A debate then ensued over exactly which mountain ranges qualified as the "Alps". Gowland, after all, had applied the term only to the Hida mountains. Weston wisely left the question open.

In 1906, the alpine historian Takato Shoku moved to exclude the Kiso mountains (today's Central Alps) from alpine status. To which Kojima Usui rejoined in Sangaku that, if the Kiso and Akaishi ranges were disqualified on grounds of snowline, geology, or lack of glaciers, then one must also deny the alpine brevet to the Hida range. In other words, it was all Alps or nothing for Japan's highest ranges.

Again Kojima prevailed. Within a few years, Japan's first mountaineering generation reached consensus on what constituted the Northern, Central, and Southern Alps. In 1915, an early chapter of Japanese alpinism closed when Kojima moved to Los Angeles to head up the Yokohama Specie Bank's new branch. Over the next decade, he climbed extensively in the Sierra and Cascades, and sealed his reputation as an agent of intercultural exchange by introducing Japanese readers to the writings of John Muir.

In retrospect, it seems surprising how few people favoured the Hida, Kiso, and Akaishi labels over the katakana "Arupusu". One reason may be that these Japanese names were rooted no more deeply than the "Japanese Alps". In fact, suggests cultural historian Miyashita Keizo, they were coined by the pioneer geologist, Harada Toyokichi, for his Geological Structure of the Japanese Archipelago, published in 1889. Thus the Hida, Kiso, and Akaishi terms were possibly even less familiar to the average Meiji-era mountain-lover than the word "Alps". Even today, Harada's creations, if that is what they are, smack somewhat of officialdom and the scientific world.

The rest, as they say, is history. Within a decade, the concept of the Japan Alps percolated outwards from the mountaineers into popular usage. And today, a century after Kojima and his colleagues hammered out their definition of the Japanese Alps, the nearby cities of Matsumoto and Omachi are twinned with Grindelwald and Innsbruck; Karasawa echoes annually to the strains of an alphorn concert; and photos of "Edelweiss" feature in the mountaineering magazines as frequently as "usuyukisō". The importation of the Alps is complete and there is no putting this particular set of katakana back into the bottle.

This article is indebted to Fujioka Nobuko's paper, Vision or creation? Kojima Usui and the literary landscape of the Japanese Alps (in Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 39 No.4, 2002). It also draws on Kären Wigen's Discovering the Japan Alps: Meiji Mountaineering and the Quest for Geographical Enlightenment (in the Journal of Japanese Studies, 31:1, 2005) and on Miyashita Keizo's Nihon Arupusu: Mitate no Bunkashi, a book on the Japanese interpretation of the Alps published in 1997.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Burning Mountain, bad snow

Uncertain ski-touring on a short but active Japanese stratovolcano

March 27, 1994: As we'd heard Yake-dake was going to blow – the savants, with their tiltmeters and seismographs, had picked up murmurings from somewhere beneath – we decided to pay a farewell visit. If one believed the Japan Times, there was no time to waste, so Caspar and I clamped our touring-skis on top of the weatherbeaten Subaru and took off from Shinjuku in the graveyard hours. It was still dark when we raised the neon signs of the Matsumoto love hotels.

Yake-dake, the Burning Mountain, is the only volcano in Japan’s Northern Alps. At 2,458 metres, it is rather lower than the surrounding alpine peaks. Yet, as Fukada Kyūya writes in his One Hundred Mountains of Japan, its singular character more than makes up for its stature. “No other mountain in the range can puff smoke from its summit,” he points out.

Indeed, Yake-dake has puffed more than enough smoke to lend the Japan Times article a whiff of credibility. It notched up 23 eruptions between 1907 and 1939, and another in 1962-1963. This is after all the mountain that, at a stroke, transformed the scenery of the Azusa river, when an eruption created Taishō Pond. As Fukada comments, “some people may like to persuade themselves of nature's stability by quoting the Chinese poem about the mountains and rivers remaining unchanged as civilisation crumbles. Yet this dramatic shift in the scenery hints at the enormous forces lurking within our little volcano.”

Today, though, we were more worried about the weather. As we turned off the motorway, a few flakes of snow whipped through the arc of the headlights. We parked the Subaru at Sawando and skied onwards into the gloom of a winter dawn. Staggering out of the iced-up tunnel into Kami-kōchi, we found a low-hanging blanket of cloud had expropriated the famous view. Kami-kōchi in winter is refreshingly empty: no tour buses, no tartan-skirted guides, no tourists, indeed nobody except for ourselves. Route-planning was simple too: we had no avalanche forecast, no guidebook, and no trails to distract us. All we had to go on was a mimeographed map published by a shadowy organization called the Ski Alpinism Research Association. This authority suggested that we should go left rather than right.

As for the weather forecast in those pre-internet days, there was only the fading memory of last night's TV report. Fortunately, the weather did not seem to be getting worse, so we found our way to the foot of the ridge indicated by the Research Association. This is the one that comes down on the left-hand side of Yake-dake as you look up at it. At first, the slope was so steep that we climbed straight up among the beech trees, skis strapped to our packs. After a few hundred feet, the angle eased, and we put our skis on.

For a moment, the clouds thinned and the bare branches cast faint shadows on the snow. The beech wood gave way to a grove of dake-kanba and then we came out on a broad open flank, the ridge above fading into the clouds. It is barely a thousand metres from valley floor to Yake-dake's summit, but the way the ridgeline vanished in the mists suggested infinite distances. At every step, the skis sank deep into the new snow, and I called to Caspar to stay well back just in case. Just how new was this snow? Or, to re-phrase that question, were we feeling lucky? To avoid tempting fate (this was before we had those battery-powered amulets that ward off avalanches), we edged uphill and away from the deep erosion gully on the right that looked keen to receive us if the slope went.

We continued to study the snow situation intensively. Caspar took over the lead and the trench-breaking. We reached the ridge, hauling ourselves out of quicksand onto wind-blasted crust. Some rocks loomed out of the murk and suddenly we were at the crater rim, in sunshine and above the flying clouds.

Apart from our own eyrie, only the very tops of the Hodaka massif rose above the heaving sea of vapour. No sign of steam from the crater below, or perhaps the stiff wind was shredding the plumes into invisibility. We hastily downed a cheese sandwich (no time for a brew) and stripped the climbing skins off the skis.

On the broad slope below, avalanche danger was forgotten. For myself, I was too busy trying to stay upright in that cement-like snow.Every time a ski dived too deep, and those times were many, a boot popped out of the Silvretta bindings and I measured my length in the white smother. The grey light didn't help. Caspar, meanwhile, was yee-hah-ing his way down in a series of forceful turns. It was not difficult to tell who had been brought up on skis.

My companion disappeared into the dake-kanba grove and just at that moment the afternoon sun broke through the mists, turning the silvery husk of the birch trees into gold. I took out the camera: yes, just right -the ski tracks wandering between those gnarled trunks into the wood's blue depths. All that is special about ski alpinism in Japan summed up in a single image. By the time we were balancing our way from rock to rock across the Azusa River, the skies were clear again. We looked back and saw the mountain for the first time that day, our ski tracks like a clumsy signature on a flawless composition.

木立 by Alpine Light & Structure

木立, a photo by Alpine Light & Structure on Flickr.


Nihon Hyakumeizan by Fukada Kyūya, translated as One Hundred Mountains of Japan

Kami-kōchi Shizen Handbook, Jiyukokuminsha 1994.)

Map: Area Map: Kami-kōchi or national 1:25,000 series.

Related post: Seasons of a stratovolcano: Yake-dake in autumn

Friday, January 11, 2008

The Dome in winter

An A1-Grade III cold soak at 3,000 metres in the Northern Alps of Japan

"Hodaka was formerly known as Gohei-dake," it says in Hyakumeizan, "perhaps because its serrated ridges resemble the sacred paper strips in a Shintō shrine." And so they did that morning, laden with new snow and biting crisply into a deep blue sky.

I was walking up a forest track with Nishimura Toyokazu, whom we'd met the previous summer while climbing in Takidani, the crags to the west of Kita-Hodaka. While soloing past us, he'd suggested we might like to visit the area in winter.

Now this was a handsome invitation: as Nishimura-san wrote the book on climbing in Takidani, there could be no better guide. Around this time, at the age of 49, he was making the transition from salaryman to professional mountaineer.

Starting at 6.15am on December 12, from the hot spring village of Shin-Hodaka, we were now on our way to the base of the mighty Seizanryo. This ridge, the western buttress of Karesawa-dake, forms a 1,500-metre highway to the top of the Northern Alps. The neighbouring peak of Oku-Hodaka was first climbed in winter as early as 1914, by a party from Keio University. They came up from the opposite, eastern side of the range, but this avalanche-prone route soon fell into disfavour for winter ascents. Since then, the Seizanryo, as Nishimura called it, has been the choice of Japan's hivernal alpinists.

The climb started through a steep, snowy wood over tiresome little rock steps. At about 2,400 metres, the pines gave way to dake-kamba (birches) and we stopped to pick up Nishimura-san's one-man tent, which he'd left as an intermediate camp halfway up the ridge. Few, he said, climb the whole ridge in a day, especially with packs loaded with a full week's provisions.

I began to understand why, as we struggled – no, this is not correct – as I struggled and Nishimura-san appeared to stroll up the intermediate peak of Kamata-fuji (2,742m). Here we had to plough through knee-deep snow along a sharp ridge-crest. Above Kamata-fuji, a rocky outcrop gives way to the iced-up upper slopes of the ridge. It was still a long way to the top and the wind had built up to a cold blast from the still airs of the valley.

We arrived at the winter hut of Oku-Hodaka Sanso at 5.00pm and, once we'd dug the door free, promptly pitched the two one-man tents inside the winter-room to cook and sleep in. Water froze instantly on the floor of my tent when I spilled some, but the tent was warmer than the minus-15 degree air of the winter room itself. We washed down the freeze-dried food with some brandy that had been travelling incognito in my pack as a flask of mugi-cha.

December 13: Snow was pluming from the nearby peaks as we started on our way to Kita-Hodaka. We were turned back at the top of Karesawa-dake by the force of the wind, which would have made the traverse of the exposed ridge below too dangerous.

December 14: wind, snow, cloud, fester – fester here in the Scottish sense of lying around doing nothing – leavened in the afternoon by a bracing excursion up to the peak of Oku-Hodaka. The rocks were encrusted in rime ice, or ebi-no-shippo (prawn frost) in Japanese, so-called for their resemblance to the crustacean. Blast-frozen ones, presumably. The savants say that Japan's average winter wind speeds greatly exceed those of the European Alps. That may well be so.

December 15: fine, allowing us to traverse over to Kita-Hodaka hut, our intended climbing base. The winter route follows the summer path up to the top of Karesawa-dake but then takes an abseil off in-situ bolts to a snow traverse. Then up deep and loose snow (avalanche danger) on the Nagano (easterly and lee) side of the ridge to skirt the intermediate peak of Karesawa-yari.

Maximum nervous tension is attained when the route traverses across the top of Takidani C-gully on the Gifu or upwind side of the ridge. Here hard-frozen snow banks out the summer path, forming an icy slope that leads invitingly towards one of Japan's biggest drops. Back in Tokyo, I'd been reading Lark Rise to Candleford, a memoir of life in a rural hamlet in England in the 1880s. One particular passage floated to mind now, as a rocky obstruction forced us closer to the abyss: “Not to flinch from pain or hardship was their ideal. A man would say, ‘He says, says he, that field o’ oo-ats’ got to come in afore night, for there’s rain a-comin’. But we didn’t flinch, not we. Got the last loo-ad under cover by midnight. A’most too fagged-out to walk home; but we didn’t flinch. We done it!’ Or, ‘Ole bull he comes for me, wi’s head down. But I didn’t flinch. I ripped off a bit o’ loose rail an’ went for he. ‘Twas him as did the flinchin’. He! He!’"

We eased past the obstacle on the front points of the crampons and using both axes rammed into the ice for security. I hope I didn't flinch. Even Nishimura was moved to admit that this passage was sukoshi yabai (slightly tiresome), as he waited patiently for me to make each tenterhook move. The whole traverse took three hours and 40 minutes, about an hour longer than the summer map time.

Nishimura-san then insisted on doing almost all the digging needed to clear the hut doorway. Intending patrons should note that the hut shovel is kept inside the hut, not hanging outside as at Oku-Hodaka. The resulting impasse can only be resolved by bringing your own shovel.

December 16: fine, with little wind. The Epigas stove scared up a breakfast of instant noodles. Nishimura-san abandoned his first objective, Crack Ridge, where the rocks were too prawn-encrusted, and we made for the north side of the Dome, which was in better nick. Another abseil ensued into the deep blue shade of the face. In Takidani, you descend into the the shadow and climb back into the light, as Nishimura-san observes in his guidebook.

Even in insulated plastic boots, toes started to freeze as we re-arranged the ropes and gear. Leading the one free and two aid pitches, Nishimura-san then made the Hokuheki (north wall) route look easy. It fell to his second to make it look difficult, as he followed in a cat's cradle of tangled étriers, crampon points snagging in the rungs of the nylon-tape climbing ladders. We were back at the hut at midday but sunbathing was ruled out by the snapping cold, calm as it was. In the evening, clouds moved in from the west. Just before the billowing sea of vapour surged over the hut, there was a far-off glimmer of sunset.

December 17: "Naha, 1020 hectopascals, wind: north-east, light, visibility, good; Minami-daito-jima …Naze …Kagoshima...": the NHK shipping forecast conjured up a vision of the warm south as Nishimura-san, with meticulous precision, noted down the isobars and fronts on a blank weather map. All this by candlelight, as the windows were shuttered and deep under snow. A fester day had started at Kita-Hodaka hut. The wait posed no problem, because Nishimura-san had pre-stocked the hut with depot cans filled with gas canisters, food, and even a spare radio and batteries for listening to forecasts. In fact, his were the only depot cans in the hut, prompting the question how many other winter mountaineers come this way.

New Year sees a few visitors, Nishimura said – the hut log revealed two Korean parties – but winter alpine climbing is generally less popular than twenty years ago. The inside of your sleeping bag cover is unlikely to frost up on a beach in Okinawa. In the pitch-black room, Nishimura-san told me about desperate bivouacs and alpine climbs. The cloud tops dropped briefly at sunset to allow a few glimpses of Yari. Though buried, we were not forgotten. In the evening, and on two other days that week, a friend of Nishimura's drove out from Tokyo as far as a service area near Yatsugatake specially to call us on a two-way radio and check that all was in order. This was before mobile phones.

December 18: awoken from a pleasant dream of lying on a beach, probably in Okinawa, by the noise of the wind. Nishimura-san was unimpressed: "You haven't yet seen what the Japanese winter mountains can do!" But this was the day appointed for our removal back to Oku-Hodaka and move we would. We could glimpse the ridge well enough through the driving clouds to find our way, and the main problem for me was misting and icing on glasses and ski-goggles. To see better, Nishimura-san wore no eye-protection and got a slightly frost-bitten face for his pains. Edging across the top of C-gully, I reminded myself not to fall off or, quite apart from disappointing Nishimura-san, I would never get to read the second half of Lark Rise to Candleford. Now that would really be yabai. The traverse took only three hours this time, opportunities for admiring the view being limited.

December 19: Nishimura-san was keen to round off the week with a lightning tour of the ridge to Nishi-hodaka and the Shin-hodaka cableway, a major undertaking that would require a bivouac if we failed to make Nishi-hodaka hut in a day. A poor weather forecast put paid to this scheme, somewhat to my relief. Instead, we opted to descend the way we come up, via the Seizanryo. Even though this is the most direct route off the ridge, we were not at the village until 2.30pm, from an 8.25am start. Only then could we confront that Last Great Problem of winter mountaineering: will the car start after a week standing out in the cold?


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

Article: "Karasawa-dake Nishi-one: Nihon no Kurashikku Ruto" in Yama-to-Keikoku, February 1994 edition

Lark Rise to Candleford: a trilogy by Flora Thompson about childhood and youth in rural Oxfordshire before the first world war.