Thursday, May 22, 2008

One hundred pioneers

An early explorer weaves his way through Japan's most famous mountain book

“Here is God’s plenty,” declared the critic and poet John Dryden. He was speaking of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and their procession of sharply delineated characters. But much the same could be said of “One Hundred Mountains of Japan”, with its colourful gallery of monks and mountaineers, writers and botanists, soldiers and surveyors.

Some of these pioneers weave through the book rather as, in life, they forced a way through unknown peaks and passes. One such is Matsuura Takeshirō, who journeyed through the wilds of Ezo (later Hokkaidō) between 1845 and 1858, laying the foundations for the later development of the northern island. We first meet him as a 27-year-old explorer, composing a poem about Akan-dake (Chapter 4) after his first ascent of this shapely 1,503-metre volcano:-

The wind ceases to ruffle the water.
I retrace my way along the cliffs in my boat in the light of the setting sun.
On the water I see the shadow of the silver-shining mountain, a thousand spans high,
The mountain I climbed yesterday.

March 28, Ansei 5 (1858)

A few pages later, he is responsible for the naming of a future city in the vicinity of Tokachi-dake (chapter 7). Here is how Hyakumeizan author Fukada Kyūya tells the story: When Matsuura Takeshirō first visited this place and made as if to drink from this river, a local Ainu cried out "Piei, piei!" to stop him. "Piei" meant that the water was greasy from the sulphuric effusions of Tokachi-dake. The name Biei stems from this incident. The town was founded in 1896 (Meiji 29), and its name was originally written with the characters for beautiful (美) and for excellent (英). The latter character is also used to represent "England", however, and, in the wake of some chauvinistic thinking, it was replaced with a rather more difficult ideograph …

In alpinistic terms, Matsuura’s greatest feat was the mid-winter ascent of Yōteizan, a Fuji-like stratovolcano of 1,893 metres to the south of Sapporo. He set up a shrine at the mountain's foot on February 2, 1858 and then addressed himself to the ascent:

On the evening of February 3, he stopped at the second station, but could not sleep for the cold of this winter night. Continuing on his way early the next morning, he watched the sun rise from the fourth station. At the sixth station, he climbed above the tree line. At the eighth, the slope steepened and in the afternoon of that day, he at last reached the summit … Taking place as it did more than a century ago, this mid-winter ascent of a mountain almost 1,900 metres high was a feat of amazing audacity. In subsequent summers, the landmark peak was presumably climbed by a number of local people but it was not attempted again in winter until 1912 (Meiji 45) when the Austrian military envoy Theodor von Lerch, the father of skiing in Japan, set off for the peak on skis. However, he did not reach the top.

Fukada next runs across Matsuura’s trail in the Kansai region, when he discovers a monument to him on the wooded summit of Ōdai-ga-hara-yama (Chapter 90). As Matsuura grew older, he confined his travels to the home islands, pioneering a route up Ōdai-ga-hara-yama in Meiji 18 (1885).

On February 4, 1888, on his way to climb the mountain once again, Takeshirō collapsed and died of a brain haemorrhage. He was seventy years old. In his latter years, he had built himself a tiny but elegant retreat. To an account of why he built the little scriptorium he added the request that, when he died, its materials should become his funeral pyre and the ashes scattered on Ōdai-ga-hara-yama. So intense was Takeshirō's devotion to this place …

In retrospect, there is a sad irony in this passage. Less than a decade after publishing these words, their author, like Matsuura, died of a brain haemorrhage while climbing a long-sought mountain. Thanks to Fukada's writings, though, the character of the great explorer, and those of a hundred other pioneers, will live for ever in the pages of Nihon Hyakumeizan.


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

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The gateway

Volcanism and a mountain faith endure on Japan’s ‘August mountain’

Turning our backs on the hubbub of the ski resort, we moved towards the torii. Through its pillars we saw a snowy track leading towards the shining bulk of Ontake. We passed as if through a gateway to another world.

That, of course, is exactly how generations of pilgrims have seen this 'August Mountain', the centre of a durable religious tradition. Before 1945, Ontake-kyo was one of the thirteen officially recognized sects of state Shinto. In the past, relates Fukada Kyuya in “One Hundred Mountains of Japan”, holy mountains were legion, among them Fuji, Chōkai and Tateyama, to name but a few.

Yet their sacred aura has dissipated in the light of modern mountaineering, Fukada continues. Ontake alone retains its bands of pilgrims, their rituals and their customs. If you climb the mountain on a summer's day by its front route from Ōtaki and Kurosawa, the white robes of the faithful, among them both children and greybeards, will even now limn out the path ahead. These people are not climbing the mountain for sport. I know the owner of a teahouse who would otherwise take no interest in mountains, yet never fails to make her annual pilgrimage to the top of Ontake.

In March, however, there was nobody to be seen on the mountain except our party of three. We started skinning up an icy couloir – icy enough to enforce respect, it proved, as O-san, who lacked ski-crampons for his new light-weight boards, slid away downhill. Fortunately he ended up in a patch of creeping pine, not much the worse for wear. We carried our skis the rest of the way up to avoid another toboggan-run. Mt Fuji started to peep over the rim of the Central Alps behind us as we climbed higher.

When Walter Weston came this way in the summer of 1894, the Ondake faith stood at its meridian. As an alpinist and Anglican missionary, Weston took a professional interest in mountain religion, devoting a whole chapter of his book to this side-trip from his end-to-end traverse of the Japan Alps. Near the summit shrine, the three-man party witnessed a group of pilgrims in communication with the world beyond:

Closing his eyes, the nakaza (medium) sat silent and still. His companions broke out into a subdued chorus of prayer. Soon the face of the medium began to turn a livid hue. Unearthly gaspings issued from his throat, and the gohei (ritual wand) trembled and shook violently in his hands. His eyes turned upwards in their sockets until only about half the iris was visible. A series of convulsive jerks at length brought the gohei to a standstill above his forehead. This was a sign that a god had come. Thereupon the maeza, a pilgrim who had been all the time acting as a sort of precentor to the rest, bent reverently towards the medium. With his forehead lowly bowed on the rock between them, he inquired the “honourable name” of the august visitor who had now replaced the personality of the medium by his own presence. In a hoarse whisper came the reply, “I am Fukan Reijin.” This was the posthumous name of the canonized mountaineer who, exactly a century before, had made the first ascent of Ontake from the Odaki side …

Pilgrims still thronged the mountaintop and there was “no shortage of trances” when Carmen Blacker, a Cambridge anthropologist, made the first of three visits to Ontake in the 1960s. But a “devastating change” awaited her on her last field trip, in August 1967. A road had been driven up to the mountain’s seventh station and a “streamlined concrete structure” had replaced the huts at Tanohara, where the pilgrims used to break their ascent. “Very soon, I was confidently told, there would be a téléférique ‘ropeway’ to the top of the mountain. No one would then have to climb at all, and the craters would be filled with teahouses, from which cheerful amplified music would banish loneliness. Eventually the trances would disappear and Ontake would join the company of those other erstwhile holy mountains where only … the odd inscribed stone survives to remind the lay climber that, in the past, the ground beneath his feet was considered so holy that only the duly purified might tread there.”

Mountains have their own agenda, though. In October in 1979, Ontake threw a tall pillar of smoke and ash into the sky, as if to warn off the téléferique and teahouse builders. The powerful but shortlived eruption was the first ever recorded on the mountain. And this explained the roar that now started to prevail over the noise of the wind and the swish of our skis on the snow. As we reached the ridgeline, passing the lion-dogs of a shrine half-buried in snow, we saw a shallow crater from which three pillars of steam jetted into the deep blue of 3000 metres.

Nearby stood an enigmatic monument, comprising a bronze orb surmounted by a lightning bolt or perhaps a corkscrew. It was unclear whether this stele pre-dated the eruption or was put here to commemorate it. Like the shrine buildings, it looked well maintained, suggesting that the Ontake faith lingers on, banked up like the mountain’s inner fires. Indeed, the Ontake-kyo website lays claim to more than half a million adherents and our guidebook assured us that, although “the number of pilgrims is ever fewer, as age takes its toll, in high summer you can still see their lights winding from the foot of the mountain to its summit.” Truly, as Fukada Kyuya writes, this mountain has unsuspected depths and heights. We paid our respects at the summit shrine and turned for home.


Nihon Hyakumeizan by Fukada Kyuya, in the forthcoming translation as “One Hundred Mountains of Japan”

Mountaineering and Exploration in the Japanese Alps, by Walter Weston

The Catalpa Bow by Carmen Blacker

Ontake-san, Area Mappu, Yama to Kogen Chizu series no.7, Guidebook by Shimada Osamu

More about the 'de-sanctification' of Ontake on In the Pines

Saturday, May 17, 2008

A hound does the round

The peak-bagging border terrier who builds on a lengthy tradition of canine alpinism

Despite the evidence of her name, Hana is a border terrier of British origin. Now she lives in Tokyo and takes her master up the Hundred Mountains of Japan, one by one. If this stretches credulity, please refer to her website and blog. Strange to say, though, Hana is not the first dog from England to climb a Notable Mountain of Japan. For that honour surely belongs to Toby, who ascended Mt Fuji in the company of Her Majesty’s Consul-General to Japan, Rutherford Alcock, in 1860.

Alcock, it will be recalled, was sent to the “Capital of the Tycoon” to assert his government’s rights under the new treaty with Japan. In the summer after his arrival, he resolved to make a tour of the country, starting with a “pilgrimage to Fusiyama”. Topping out on the famous mountain in July, Toby and Alcock therefore became, respectively, the first terrier and foreign dog-owner to make the ascent.

How evanescent, alas, are summit joys. After their triumph on Fuji, master and dog made their way to the hot-spring resort of Atami. From their lodgings, they set out to view the Oyu geyser, famed for “shaking the earth with its vigorous blasts”. And there hapless Toby strayed over the vent just as the geyser erupted in a paroxysm of scalding water and superheated steam. A modest stone still stands on the spot today, reading simply ‘Poor Toby, 23 September 1860’.

The memorial is no more than he deserves. For Toby could lay fair claim to being the first canine alpinist, at least in the English-speaking world. His climb predated by at least half a decade those of the illustrious Tschingel. The latter was a “small bloodhound or a large beagle” given to W.A.B Coolidge by the guide Christian Almer after a failed attempt on the Eiger in 1868. Over the next decade, master and hound went on to notch up a total of 66 alpine peaks and passes together, including several 4000-metre summits in the Bernese Oberland. They even went back to the Eiger and got up it.

Is it safe to take your dog climbing? Tschingel’s first great climb, the Blümlisalphorn (12,044 feet), was nearly her last. “She was very tired,” records Coolidge, “and her paws were cut by the ice – this often happened, but she would not be left behind … on the final slope she slipped, being still an inexperienced climber, and began to slide down the snow slopes toward the Oeschinen lake, but was luckily rescued by one of our porters, who caught hold of her collar in the nick of time.”

Later, though, Tschingel developed a strong set of alpine skills. On one steep and crevassed glacier, she went ahead as usual, smelling at doubtful spots to see if the snow bridges were strong enough to bear her “for she had a marvellous instinct for avoiding crevasses … The guide, seeing with what skill she found the way, cried out all at once, ‘Let us follow the dog!’ and so we did.”

For all her epic peaks and passes, Tschingel died in her sleep in front of the kitchen fire at home in Dorking on June 16, 1879. And so we wish Hana, the Tschingel of Heisei, a similarly long and storied career among the Hundred Mountains of Japan.


For the story of Tschingel, see Alpine Studies by W. A. B. Coolidge

More about the tragic tale of Toby

Thursday, May 8, 2008

The meaning of Meizan

The distinctive charm of selected Japanese mountains that are more or less famous

Visitors to this blog will soon come across the term “Meizan”. But what exactly is a Meizan? Those in search of an answer would do well to consult Craig McGinty, a professional Japanese-to-English translator and a pioneer of Hyakumeizan studies in the English language.

In his paper Making a Mountain of Mountains: The Term 名山 According to Fukada Kyuya, McGinty argues that it is misleading to translate 名山 simply as “famous mountain”, as the Japanese characters for ‘meizan’ might suggest.

Indeed, he points out, some of the mountains that Fukada Kyuya chose for his magisterial “One Hundred Mountains of Japan” were distinctly obscure, at least until Fukada summoned them into the limelight.

So if a Meizan is not necessarily famous, what distinguishes it? The best definition, suggests McGinty, is the one provided by the Hyakumeizan author himself. In the afterword to his book, Fukada stipulates that mountains must fulfil three conditions to be included in his list:-

First, a mountain must have stature. It must be a mountain that anybody would rejoice to see. Height alone is not enough. I reject run-of-the-mill mountains. I reject mountains that lack the severity or the power or the beauty to strike people to their hearts. Mountains have character in greater or smaller measure, just as people do. Mountains, like people, must have character.

Secondly, I attach great weight to a mountain's history. No mountain with deep and long-standing links to humankind could be excluded from my list. A peak that people admire from morning to night, that they crown with a shrine, necessarily qualifies as an "eminent mountain". A true spirit of reverence inheres in such places …

Thirdly, a mountain must have an air of distinction. A mountain with this quality calls attention to itself as surely as a distinctive work of art. What I value is the essence, be it of form, feature, or heritage, that makes a mountain uniquely itself. I do not concern myself with humdrum, run-of-the-mill mountains. It may be true that, as all mountains are different, all have distinguishing features. But this is not enough. What I look for is an extraordinary distinctiveness.

Additionally, I stipulate an altitude of at least one thousand five hundred metres. This does not mean that I respect mountains simply for their height, but only that a mountain must have a certain stature to enter the lists … For the reasoning behind my two exceptions to this rule, Tsukuba-san and Kaimon-dake, I refer you to the relevant chapters.

Yet, as Fukada admits, an element of chance as well as individual taste creeps into any selection like this one. A mountain could only advance into the ranks of the Hyakumeizan if Fukada had himself climbed it.

Thus, he records, “I would dearly like to have included Oizuru-ga-dake or Ō-kasa-yama from the Hakusan range of the Hokuriku. Not only was I partial to these mountains of my home town, but I hoped to introduce their hidden charms to the wider world. Unfortunately, I had climbed neither, so there was nothing for it but to pass on with a sigh of regret.”

Ultimately, Fukada concludes, the One Hundred Mountains of Japan represent a personal choice and he makes no claims for them beyond that. And, he adds somewhat mischievously, “if there is a chance to reprint the book, I may well change a mountain or two.”

For good or ill, it is too late for that now. Marked on every hiking map and enshrined in scores of spin-off books, the Hyakumeizan are now firmly embedded in Japan’s mountain traditions.


Nihon Hyakumeizan by Fukada Kyuya, in the forthcoming translation as “One Hundred Mountains of Japan”

Making a Mountain of Mountains: The Term 名山 According to Fukada Kyuya, by Craig McGinty, in the JLD Times, newsletter of the Japanese Language Division of the American Translators Association

Photo: one Hyakumeizan from another - Mt Fuji at dawn, seen from mid-height on Kaikoma

Monday, May 5, 2008

Serious steam

Japan’s most active volcano puts on a show that blows away all scepticism

As Yamada’s Subaru popped up over a ridge, we scented rather than saw our quarry. Asama was out there somewhere but, like an old-time destroyer laying down a smoke screen, the volcano had wrapped itself in its own sulphurous exhalations. Thanks to the previous day’s typhoon, the mountain was putting forth its largest steam eruption in years.

It was flattering to be received with this display, I remarked to my companions. “Hmmph,” was Yamada-san's reply, which meant – and I’d learned in about fifty mountain days to decode such messages – that hiking up volcanoes fell beneath the dignity of an alpinist but, seeing as the season was too late for proper climbing and we’d done a few good routes that autumn, he’d cut me some slack this once.

Even if it was suspect by Yamada’s standards, I felt that my enthusiasm could be excused. For Asama is the very model of a Japanese volcano, as no less an authority than Fukada Kyuya says in his One Hundred Mountains of Japan.

It has trailed smoke from its summit for untold ages, it was born in a roiling cloud, and its plume is far-famed to this very day," writes the Hyakumeizan author. "While in normal times it emits only the faintest wisp of white vapour, Asama occasionally throws restraint to the winds and blows its stack. In just the last two decades, there have been more than 1,800 eruptions, large and small. This adds up to an amazing frequency of outbursts over the volcano’s lifetime.”

These outbursts are why the Japanese Meteorological Agency classifies Asama as a “Class A” volcano, or one most likely to commit acts of spectacular violence.

We drove round to the windward side of the mountain, parked the car at Kuruma-saka pass, and started walking. A strong and chilly “tree-blaster” now kept the mountain’s fumes away from us. Coming up a wooded slope to another pass – actually a notch in an old crater wall – we got our first clear view of Asama, a huge cauliflower of vapour boiling silently from its central cone.

We went on, following the ridge of the old Kurofu crater. Soon we came to a sign that counselled us to go no further, which we ignored, and, nearby, a concrete pill-box that did make us think. To justify the shelter’s existence, Asama would have to toss rocks several kilometres from its central cone.

The mountain can, of course, do much more than that. The pill-box wouldn't have been much use in 1783. Starting in May that year, sporadic explosions of pumice slowly built up into a continuous eruption. In the first days of August, a huge column of smoke darkened the skies over nearby hamlets. Lightning flickered up and down the sifting skeins of ash.

Still the villagers did not flee; probably feudal laws kept them in place. On the afternoon of August 4, a wall of red-hot debris avalanched down Asama’s northern flank and rolled over four villages. Slabs of rock thirty metres long gouged huge trenches in the earth as they surfed downhill on waves of superheated gas and ash.

At Kambara, the villagers ran for their shrine, which stands on a small hill. Those who reached the top in time were saved. The skeletons of some who didn’t were excavated, two centuries later, from the buried steps leading up to the sanctuary. Altogether a thousand people died. Yet this is not the worst that a Class A volcano can do. The savants estimate that a previous eruption, in 1108, was twice as powerful.

On our peaceful December morning, we followed a rocky ramp known as the J-Band down onto the plain between the old crater walls and the newer central cone. Here and there icicles hung from pitted walls of lava. Now we were looking up at Asama’s central stack, where billow on billow of steam plumed away on the northwesterly wind. Frozen snow picked out the shadowy rills that seam the mountain's blackened slopes.

Here Yamada-san drew a line in the ash, metaphorically speaking. To go on, he said, would be to court a “dog’s death” (犬死) from flying stones. Naruse-san, a master of diplomacy, said nothing but didn’t offer to join me. I took the view that, as the volcano hadn’t tossed any rocks in the morning, it wouldn’t do so in the afternoon – a line of extrapolative reasoning that, admittedly, has often lost investors their money and, no doubt, imprudent volcano-lovers their lives. But my luck held as I took the slanting path up to the crater rim and peered over the edge into the fuming cauldron of vapour.

Actually, Yamada-san was right. Caution is in order around here. Flying rocks from Asama have clean-bowled about 30 of its visitors in the last century, including 11 victims in a single accident on August 14, 1947.

And this toll does not include those who wilfully immolated themselves in the crater. As recorded by Walter Weston in his Playground of the Far East, Asama became a “chosen resort” for youthful suicides in the early years of last century. Contemporaries laid the blame variously on disappointments in love or examinations and perhaps an excess of the German philosophy then in vogue among students.

As I stood there on the crater rim, a back-draught of wind fumigated me with an eye-watering whiff of the dragon’s breath. Taking the hint not to overstay my welcome, I ran downhill and rejoined my chilled companions. It was time to go home, but Yamada-san led off in a new direction. Leaving the J-Band behind, we headed west into a savannah of yellow winter grass dotted with stands of larch. The contrast with the volcanic wastelands above was improbable, as if we’d stumbled on a sylvan Lost World of Asama.

We pushed through the last few larch trees and confronted – or, at least, Yamada-san confronted – the wall of the Kurofu crater. The map shows a path up this obstacle, but apparently we weren’t going to waste any time looking for it. Without a word, our leader launched himself direttissima-style up a gully and we followed, grabbing shrubs, kicking holds in the crumbling ash, and trundling the occasional loose boulder. But Yamada-san was enjoying himself. “You know,” he said, when we reached the top, dusty, dishevelled, and out of breath, “that’s one of the best mountain days I’ve had this year.”

It had been a good outing, but the crater had kept its secrets hidden. This called for a return visit. A few winters later, I set off on skis from Mine-no-Chaya (“Peak Tea House”) and followed an old pilgrimage route past Uma-gaeshi (“Horses turn back”) and Gyoja-gaeshi (“Adepts turn back”). When I reached the skyline, I parked my skis a few yards back from the brink and walked carefully up to the crater edge. Snow and rubble sloped downwards for a short distance and from there the line of sight was uninterrupted until it met the crater floor a hundred feet below. Sheer walls all around the crater’s circumference cut off the Hadean depths from the upper world.

This is no soft-touch amphitheatre like Fuji’s, with its broken-down rim and easy ramp for those who want to visit the crater floor. Even the colours are different here. While Fuji’s vent has acquired a rich patina of terracotta and yellow hues, like some famous old tea-bowl, Asama’s cliffs are pale and monotonous, the tints all seared out of them. This is no place for human beings. Before pointing my skis southwards and away, I took a last look downwards. From the pink-grey ash on the crater floor, a wisp of smoke curled up.


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

The Playground of the Far East by Walter Weston

“108 active volcanoes keep agency shaking” by Eriko Arita, staff writer, The Japan Times, October 19, 2004