Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The sawa of light

A late-season trip to climb a river in Japan’s Northern Alps

“So you’re not going to take us to Akagi-sawa, as you promised,” said Chiemi at our alpine club’s monthly meeting. Chiemi is from Osaka, a city where they don’t do subtlety. She was also our capable and efficient secretary, who kept the club from falling apart. I did some reckoning. September was almost over and the first snows can fall on Japan’s Northern Alps early in October. There was no time to lose. “OK, we leave on Friday night.”

Osaka folk are known for their good taste, as well as their assertiveness. Chiemi had picked an objective that no discerning sawa climber should miss. A “sawa” is the Japanese word for a canyon, a glen, a gulch, you get the drift. Or rather it isn’t. A canyon calls to mind a dusty gorge where cacti and tumbleweed jostle for a thin trickle of water. A glen is a burn prattling its way between heather-lapped granite boulders. As for a gulch, let’s not even go there; the perils of translation are many enough already.

Suffice it to say that a sawa starts as a rill on some cloud-capped ridge, threading its way through thickets of creeping pine, before gathering force, cascading down into forests of beech or cedar, leaping over waterfalls and brawling down rapids. Sawas can be Mirkwoods, sombre and menacing, or light and aery, like Rivendells. Of these, the lightest and aeriest is Akagi-sawa. Small wonder that Chiemi had set her heart on it.

So, at 9pm on October 7th, the Subaru lurched out of its parking bay with a full stick of five mountaineers aboard. Unfortunately, this was the Friday before a fine three-day weekend and the whole of Tokyo wanted out. We crawled for hours in nose-to-tail traffic until, in the wee hours, we broke free and cruise-climbed into the highlands of Shinshu. It took until 7am to reach Oridate, the end of the road. Such are the preliminary austerities that must be performed by city-dwellers who would seek the enlightenment of Akagi-sawa.

After the crowds of Tokyo, this flank of the Northern Alps seemed extraordinarily empty. Once there was a village here, but now it lies at the bottom of a reservoir. The story is told in Fukada Kyuya’s “One Hundred Mountains of Japan” (Hyakumeizan): “This place, Arimine, was the traditional starting point for Yakushi, but we arrived only to find it had fallen into disuetude. The villagers had sold their ancestral lands to a hydro-electric power company and, pocketing the money, had left their mountain home for ever. Here and there remained a derelict hut, propped up on rotting pillars. A row of gravestones in the untended grass completed the picture of desolation.”

We shouldered our packs and set off up a well-made path towards the Taro-yama pass. Near the top, black-and-white martins (iwa-tsubame) still flitted to and fro, pushing summer to its limits, just as we were. Their big brothers, the alpine swifts, had already flown off south. In the afternoon, we dropped down into the Kurobe valley and arrived to a hospitable welcome at the Yakushi-zawa hut. We may have been the last guests of the year.

We turned in early. As the hut stands on a wooded promontory between the mighty Kurobe river and a lively tributary running down from Yakushi-dake, the sound of tumbling waters is louder than central Tokyo’s traffic. Yet, even at this volume, there is something immensely calming and soporific in the rushing of a mountain torrent. Its sounds must be non-random, something like the contrabass in a symphony. Whereas traffic noise, especially in Tokyo, must be truly “white” or chaotic… I fell asleep before these thoughts could be pursued.

At breakfast (green tea, rice and pickles), the phrase “aki no kehai” (秋の気配) floated into the conversation. Outside, one could indeed smell autumn in the air. Those who had wet suits donned them. We set off upstream. For the first hour or so, we moved in the green shadow cast by the looming massif of Kumo no Daira, the Field of Clouds. Fortunately for those who hadn’t brought them, the wetsuits weren't needed; thanks to the lateness of the season, we could wade passages of the river that would have to be swum in high summer.

A knight’s move across a slab gave us the freedom of the De-ai, the pool where Akagi’s stream flows into the main gorge. Shafts of light filtered between the cedars, conjuring wavering circlets of golden light in the shallows. Is this one of the most beautiful places on the planet, I wondered. If so, it competes for the title with stretches of Akagi-sawa itself. We traversed into the tributary on a rock ledge, then waded up easy slabs through rushing sheets of water. Leaving the stately grove of trees behind, we exchanged its cool green light for the boundless radiance of an open mountain sky. We leapt over boulders, sometimes avoiding waterfalls, sometimes climbing them through the falling water. The mood was pure holiday; we were at play in a sawa of light.

Sobriety was restored by a holdless wall of black rock over which the river plunged free into a foaming cauldron. We accepted the gentle admonition and, switching our heads back into ‘climb’ mode, took to the broken-down cliff to our right. High above the river, we scrambled back onto flat ground through a miniature wood. Its gnarled and stunted pine trees might have graced a temple garden, so faithfully does nature in this sawa imitate art.

Above the waterfall, we took Akagi-sawa’s right-hand fork, heading directly for the summit of its namesake mountain. By now, we were wading, if at all, ankle deep, the water’s force sapped by every side-stream that we passed. (In this, a sawa climb is somewhat like one of those modern novels where the story is told backwards. To a passing sawa climber, tributaries appear to subtract their water from the main river rather than contribute it.) The stream dwindled to a rill and then a trickle. We stepped out of the sawa just before it ended, or rather began, in a bank of tumbled earth. The guidebook remarks on a “bright field of alpine flowers” (明るい花畑) at this spot, but only withered stems remained at this late season. After divesting ourselves of sawa gear, we walked on towards the skyline ridge.

Late that night, the Subaru was running northwards towards the cliffs of Oyashirazu, where the Northern Alps march down to the coast. In the left-hand seat, Chiemi was looking out to sea, where a bright lane of stars arched toward the horizon. “荒海や佐渡によこたふ天の河,” murmured Chiemi, quoting some fusty old haiku master. (“Over the ocean spray, all the way to Sado Island, stretches the Milky Way.”) Our secretary had enjoyed her weekend.


“One Hundred Mountains of Japan”, the forthcoming English translation of Fukada Kyuya’s Nihon Hyakumeizan

Sawa guidebook to the Kanto and surrounding regions (関東周辺の沢、若林岩雄他著) by Wakabayashi Iwao, Hakusan

Monday, April 7, 2008

Sunrise on the pines

A rare optical phenomenon is ably analysed by a physicist and alpinist. Not that this will sell his book

As we came up a mountain path in the blast-furnace summer of 2003, the pine trees above us flared into a burst of silver brilliance. (See photo, which was taken in Switzerland's Berner Oberland.) This effect is best seen when you stand below a ridge, just within its shadow, keeping the sun slightly below the skyline. Then the trees nearest the sun light up with intensely bright fringes of light, while nearby motes and insects become drifting sparks of silver fire. The nimbus seems to burn brightest around pine trees, perhaps because their needles act as diffraction grids, bending the light around themselves into the eyes of the onlooker.

The phenomenon did not escape the ever-observant John Tyndall (1820-1893), a physicist now remembered chiefly for his work on atmospheric optics – and also for a glittering alpinistic career that included an inspection of the Matterhorn and the first ascent of the Weisshorn. Here is the account of sunrise on the pines from Chapter IX of his "Mountaineering in 1861":-

I must here mention a beautiful effect which I observed from Randa on the morning of the 18th of August. The valley of St. Nicholas runs nearly north and south and the ridge which flanks it to the east is partially covered with pines; the trees on the summit of this ridge as you look at them from the valley being projected against the sky.

What I saw was this: as the sun was about to rise I could trace upon the meadows in the valley the outline of the ridge which concealed him, and I could walk along the valley so as to keep myself quite within the shadow of the mountain. Suppose me just immersed in the shadow: as I moved along, successive pine trees on the top of the ridge were projected on that portion of the heavens where the sun was about to appear, and every one of them assumed in this position a perfect silvery brightness. It was most interesting to observe, as I walked up and down the valley, tree after tree losing its opacity and suddenly robing itself in glory …

Professor Necker was the first who described this effect, and I have copied his description in ‘the Glaciers of the Alps’. The only difference between his observation and mine is, that whereas he saw the stems of the trees also silver bright, I saw them drawn in dark streaks through the lustrous branches. The cause of the phenomenon I take to be this: You have often noticed the bright illumination of the atmosphere immediately surrounding the sun; and how speedily the brightness diminishes as your eye departs from the sun’s edge. This brightness is mainly caused by the sunlight falling on the aqueous particles in the air, aided by whatever dust may be suspended in the atmosphere.

If instead of aqueous particles fine solid particles were strewn in the air, the intensity of the light reflected from them would be greater. Now the spiculae of the pine, when the tree is projected against the heavens, close to the sun’s rim, are exactly in this condition; they are flooded by a gush of the intensest light, and reflect it from their smooth surfaces to the spectator.

Every needle of the pine is thus burnished, appearing almost as bright as if it were cut out of the body of the sun itself. Thus the leaves and more slender branches shine with exceeding glory, while the surfaces of the thicker stems which are turned from the sun escape the light, and are drawn as dark lines through the brightness. Their diameters, however, are diminished by the irradiation from each side of them.

John Tyndall's pen was as mighty as his alpenstock yet, sadly, his alpine books are more out of print than in. By comparison, Whymper's Scrambles in the Alps continue to sell and sell. The truth is that exquisite nature observations, combined with accounts of safe and cheerful climbs – as practised by Tyndall – don't fly off the shelves. It takes a spectacular accident – Whymper on the Matterhorn, Joe Simpson on Sula Grande – to move a mountaineering book into the mass market.


The glaciers of the Alps & Mountaineering in 1861, by John Tyndall (Everyman's edition)

Sunday, April 6, 2008

The twentieth-century Tōhoku express

We drive – or are driven – to the Deep North and visit two of Japan’s Hundred Mountains

The Subaru’s headlights seemed to be dimming even faster than dawn was breaking. Unfortunately, this was no illusion. Soon a total electrical failure brought us coasting to a halt on the borders of Yamagata. It was an inauspicious start to our compact edition of Narrow Road to the Deep North.

The original Narrow Road was traced in 1689 by the haiku master Matsuo Basho, who immortalised the journey in a classic travel diary. Now, our all-weather tyres were following in the prints of the poet’s straw sandals. The bold plan was typical of Yamada-san, our hard-driving leader. Starting from Tokyo, Saturday morning, we would strike northwards on the Tōhoku Expressway, rendezvous with two friends from Gunma, cross Honshu from east to west, and then ski-climb two of Japan’s more northerly “Hundred Mountains”. We would cram the 1,300-kilometre round trip into a single weekend. By comparison, Basho allowed himself five months.

Thanks to our Gunma friends, the electrical impasse was soon solved. Yamada went into Yamagata in the other car and bought a replacement battery. This let us drive the ailing Subaru into town so that its distributor could be replaced. Mobile again, we crossed the Mogami river, its roiling tide of snow-melt freeze-framed by the bridge girders as we speeded over. There was barely time to recall Basho’s haiku on this famous view (“How swiftly…”) before we started up the mountain road to Gassan, the first of our mountains.

By coincidence, our visit fell on the same day of the same month as the poet’s. Here is Basho’s account:

Wearing chain necklaces of mulberry paper to keep us free from impurity, and bleached cotton hoods, we were led by a so-called Strong Man, a mountain guide, as we climbed for nineteen miles through cloud and mist and over ice and snow until it seemed as if we too shared the very path of the sun and moon. When we reached the summit, we were thoroughly chilled and could hardly breathe. The sun had already set and the moon had come out. Making ourselves a bed of bamboo grass with twigs of bamboo for a pillow, we lay down and waited for the dawn. (tr. Dorothy Britton)

Our own ascent was, by necessity, truncated. We took a chair lift to gain the shoulder of the mountain and then walked up higher, through banks of alpine flowers. Having skis, we were able to avoid a bamboo grass bivouac by a quick run down a snow-filled gully. The lower slopes, which belong to the ski resort, were hazardous with fluorescent-clad youth bashing down the slushy moguls.

Driving down to the Japan Sea coast, we found a campsite in a pine grove just north of Sakata. A barbecue ensued; fortunately, there was only one other camper, a lone motorcyclist, who crawled out of his tent to complain about the noise and was promptly invited to join in. Next morning, we drove through Kisakata on the way to our next mountain. There was no time to stop and, in any case, the beautiful lagoon described by Basho ceased to exist after the 1964 earthquake jolted the entire coast upwards. Already we could see the faint bulk of Chōkai, our second objective, soaring through the spring haze. Soaring is the operative word here, as Fukada Kyūya notes in his Nihon Hyakumeizan:-

Taking somewhat after the region's inhabitants, the mountains of the north-east come across as heavy and solid, if not downright lumpish. Chōkai, though, is untouched by this ponderousness. The mountain seems to soar. Viewed from Sakata, one would almost say that it cuts a dash. Only an isolated peak like Chōkai, no straggling ridge, could carry this off … Just to look at this mountain is to understand why it was venerated. The rusty, rugged summit rocks fall away into gentle slopes that merge into the surrounding plains. In days when gods were still believed to walk abroad in the mountains, this grace of form combined with a hint of menace must have inspired awe in men's hearts.

Pressing the pedal a fraction closer to the metal, we urged our Subaru upwards along the road that takes the mountain’s north-easterly ridge. For the last few kilometres, the fresh green foliage of old beech woods shaded the way. The car park lies at about 1,000 metres, just under half-way to the summit. When Fukada Kyūya climbed Chōkai before the war, he had to address every one of its 2,236 metres. Yet this was no loss, judging by the account the Hyakumeizan author gives in his magisterial “One Hundred Mountains of Japan”:-

I first climbed Chōkai from Fukura. We set off from this fishing village after visiting the vast stretch of sandy beach remarked by Tachibana Nankei in his Tōyūki at "the dunes of Fukura". Nowadays, a motor bus whisks you to the mountain's midslopes. No road of that sort then existed and so we started our climb at sea level. After reaching the summit on skis – it was mid-April – we swept down through the larch woods, with the deep blue of the Japan Sea looming ever closer through the tawny billows of the tree-tops.

Leaving the cars, we crossed a small marsh where the mizu-basho (skunk cabbage) were blooming before clipping into our skis for the climb. Most of the way was over reaches of smooth though grubby snow – the spring winds waft over dust from the mainland – but twice we had to struggle through spiky hedges that divided one snow patch from the next. Sooner or later in Japan, ski-mountaineering ends in a tussle with bamboo, creeper, and tendril. Four hours of sweaty labour later, we reached the northern crater rim, and sat down for lunch. The views were lost in the haze but one can refer to Hyakumeizan to fill in the gaps:-

I stood on the summit on a crystal-clear autumn day. We'd left the Komadome hut so early that the sky was still full of stars, with the Big Dipper, like a portent, hanging vertically above the ink-black ridge we were aiming for. The darkness became less palpable, as if shedding layer after layer, and we arrived at the Ōhira hut in full light. We climbed into the morning sunshine on the steep slope of Tsutaishi-saka. The autumn colours on the mountainside below us were beautiful beyond words. Hiding the lower world from view was a sea of clouds on which floated the graceful yet crisply limned shape of Gassan … As we climbed higher, more of Tōhoku's mountains hove into view, among them Iwate, Asahi, Iide, and Zaō, rising like islands above the cloud sea.

The rocks on which we were sitting looked scorched. Unlike Gassan and other retired volcanoes on the Japan Sea coast, Chōkai has erupted quite frequently during historical times. In March 1974, it sent a pillar of smoke and ash into the air, breaking a silence of one and a half centuries. In the middle ages, records Fukada Kyūya, the imperial administration responded to each of the mountain’s periodic outbursts by promoting its tutelary deity to a yet higher rank in the court hierarchy.

Today, there was only a minor eruption as Ohbayashi-san opened a can of beer that had been well agitated during its rapid passage from Gunma. There was no time to explore the summit area, with its pretty crater lake; the workmen alpinists would soon have to address the long drive back to Tokyo. As we skied down, a halo around the sun in slowly approaching veil cloud heralded the arrival of a Japan Sea front (“here in the North it is rarely possible to say whether it will be fine or cloudy on the morrow,” says the local meteorologist quoted by Basho) and, indeed, we found ourselves heading south towards Niigata under a characteristically gray sky.

After an onsen dip and dinner at a yaki-niku restaurant that rashly advertised all you can eat for ¥1,000, we passed through the Niigata toll gate to the KanEtsu Expressway at midnight. We still had many hours to go to Tokyo when a front tire burst on Yamada’s Subaru. The promised rain had now arrived, and we hastily unloaded all the packs in order to get at the toolkit. It was already Monday morning and there was not a moment to lose if we wanted to be in time for work, a point of honour among workmen alpinists. We were driven in those days.


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

Area Map No. 36 Chōkai-zan, 1989 edition, with introductory notes by 池田昭二

Wednesday, April 2, 2008


奥越後平標山の笹穴沢 沢登り伝 (English summary below)





15:00:下山を始める。石南花とブナの間に縫うように走るやせ尾根の道を駆け降りながら、ススキと浮かんできた雲の涼しさに初秋の気配を感じる。眼下には原生林が広がる。日本の緑豊かな山の森林とは違って、イギリスでは 原生林は今ではほとんど文学の中でしか生き残っていない。これからもより多くの人が沢登りで日本の原生林と親しめれば、最高だと思う。姿を消してしまったイギリスの原生林を悼んだかの有名な詩人の言葉を借りれれば、


− お気にめすまま (坪内訳)

English summary

The usual suspects climb Sasa-ana-zawa on Tairappyo-yama, a mountain in the Oku-Echigo region of Japan. Starting point is Kawafuru-onsen, a remote hot spring village. Highlight: a 300-metre stretch of water-smoothed slabs. The author attempts to avoid a daunting-looking waterfall only to find himself strung out on steep and slippery grass. Philosophical reflection: try to avoid the crux pitch and you’ll only find yourself in a worse mess. All ends happily, though, and on the summit, a bottle of wine, miraculously spared from the previous night’s “kompa”, appears from the leader’s pack. The Top Bard is invoked.