Sunday, September 14, 2008

An audience with the Tsurugi Ōtaki

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

page 214

From the General Remarks

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

page 215

Approach to the Great Waterfall of Tsurugi

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


Anonymous said...

Superb. Hauntingly, temptingly superb. Hope your summer has been good - your blog has been sorely missed.

Anonymous said...

I was beginning to wonder if you had fallen off some slippery rockface!

An epic adventure and a great report that captures the flavour of Sawa Control's epic sawanoboris.

Anonymous said...


Martin Rye said...

Wow, that was something else. I have not looked at your blog before, will now and keep it coming, as it is great.

Peter said...

I am running out of ways to compliment your splendid tale-telling but once again I am impressed.

Though I am not likely to get further than my feet will go without ropes, I have it in mind to visit this gorge someday. I also want to probe the upper reaches of the Takase River and return to Chris White's Patagonia, the Toda Valley. I have done a lot of shooting in tue upper stream of Arakawa and I am looking to visit other gorges. This one is high on the list.

I find it also interesting to read these pioneer efforts of exploring the Japanese wilderness because they are from the 20th Century. In a country with such a long history one would expect more earlier exploration. Though I guess it is because back in the pre-Meiji times exploration was for documentary purposes only and not for the thrill or the pleasure.

mitch said...




Project Hyakumeizan said...

Mitch様:thank you for your comment - comments are always welcome. Yes, the Kurobe never fails to impress. It's the realm of nature; people are there on sufferance, I always feel (maybe the same rules apply to Planet Earth, if we only knew it). Your news about the Shimo-no-Roka being choked with snow and so closed to autumn hiking traffic is interesting. That sometimes happens: it's not the first time. Anyway, I do hope you get the chance to see this scenery for yourself soon. Perhaps there will be less snow this year....

Peter Skov said...

Your profile is a bit shorter than the others, PH and I realized I was missing an important part of your adventures in Japan - the Sawanobori! So I am checking out some of your reports now.

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Welcome back, Peter - yes, sawanobori has to be the most unique aspect of mountaineering in Japan. Other countries have rock-climbing, winter-climbing, ski-touring etc, but only Japan (and perhaps Taiwan) have sawanobori. Will try to write more on the subject one of these days. Interestingly, sawanobori seems to lack clearly defined origins - nobody seems to know exactly how it started or when - much in contrast to alpine climbing in Japan, which has a detailed history with names, dates etc ...