Sunday, November 9, 2008

Weighing up Walter Weston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The second wave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tea with Walter Weston

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

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

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

When I was at school in Tōkyō, the Jōetsu mountains were less explored than they are today and the Northern Alps were still fairly inaccessible. So I did most of my mountaineering in Oku-Chichibu, using Tanabe Jūji's Tours in the Japan Alps and Chichibu and the Chichibu issue of the Sangaku journal that I found in a second-hand bookshop. In those days, there were few paths, mountain huts were thin on the ground, and signposts almost non-existent. With rice and soya beans, a hatchet and a saw in our packs, we would light out for the empty mountains. If we had two or three free days, we preferred to spend them walking around the mountains of Chichibu, not in Tōkyō.

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


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

Mountaineering and Exploration in the Japanese Alps, by Walter Weston

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

Photo: from Wikipedia entry on Kamikochi


Anonymous said...

Thanks for another illuminating account. Weston's book exudes simple enthusiasm for climbing mountains without any ulterior motive. But I wish his book had included a list of gear, to reveal why he needed so many "coolies" to carry it all.

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Hanameizan: and I think you have hit on another reason for Weston's fame - "Mountaineering and Adventure" is quite simply a very good book. As Weston's ego doesn't get in the way, he writes a lively, lucid portrait of Japan as it was in the 1890s. By the way, if you are looking for Walter Weston's kit list, you will find it in Chapter XVI (page 317ff) "Hints on outfit, provisions etc". Much recommended. It begins ..."With regard to dress, a Norfolk jacket with plenty of pockets and loose knickerbockers of a strong grey flannel will be found serviceable ..." There are also hints which might still apply at all times in all places, viz: "One generally finds that on many of the highways of foreign travel in Japan, the manners of the innkeepers, &c., are extremely objectionable. There may be other explanations, but one certainly is this: the lack of politeness and courtesy too often shown by the foreign traveller himself, the repetition of which in succeeding instances comes at last to be reflected in the unmannerly behaviour of the native himself."

Anonymous said...

Not having read much of anything about mountaineering history(besides Capt. I. and CJW blogs), I'm not sure how much my opinion counts for anything, but it would seem that Walter Weston could be credited with popularizing alpinism in Japan, being the spark that brought it into the mainstream as recreation. It seems important to ask, did Weston himself claim to be the father of alpinism in Japan, or was the label placed on him by others, seeking a face for this new sport? In a way, it reminds me of the "discovery" of the Americas by Christopher Columbus. He was not technically the first European to the "new" continent, but his adventure coincided with a period of history which was ready to take advantage of his example.

Anonymous said...

I think Leonard Cohen said "Any startling piece of work has a subversive element in it". I'm glad if I could serve as the subversive element for this fascinating post.

I'm tempted to try that Norfolk jacket and flannels look though..

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Kamoshikabob: thanks for reading the post. Yes, you raise an important question here. No, I don't think that Weston ever did claim to be a pioneer - and, although he had several seasons to his credit in the Swiss Alps, he hardly mentions that in his books. He was a genuinely modest man, which helps to account for the affection which he is remembered in both England and Japan. And he seeks to be scrupulously accurate - in the first few pages of the book, he mentions that he is after the "third ascent" of Yarigatake - this is intriguing: does he mean after Banryu and Gowland? It isn't clear from the text.... So, it is really other people who have labelled him "father of the Japan Alps". And maybe, because he wrote a good book and others such as Gowland neglected to write at all about their mountain trips, he does tend to loom large in his readers' minds.... But deservedly so, I feel.

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Chris: thanks for stopping by - and I apologise for the self-indulgent length of this post. (There are so few other distractions in Zurich...:) You could do worse than a Norfolk jacket, by the way - wasn't that what Mallory & Irvine were wearing when they attempted Everest. Together with windproof cotton jackets, this was still standard kit for the high-altitude climber in 1924.... Maybe a bit heavy for the light+fast school, though.

Iainhw said...

A very interesting write up on the early gaijin climbers in Japan. Whilst I think it a little pointless to weigh up Weston or question him being what some have labelled as the father of the Japan Alps, I did enjoy what you wrote. A few years ago I delved into Weston's adventures reading his books and fishing out journal papers at the RGS. I've also got a keen interest to find out more about Gowland's climbs. The Paul Smith and LP Hiking in Japan books make reference to him and his so called Japan Guide of 1888, which doesn't exist. I guess they were referring to the Satow and Hawes guidebook to which you refer. I actually thumbed through that book in the RGS library without realising Gowland contributed to it and didn’t find it particularly interesting. I have copy of a paper on a lecture Weston gave at the RGS back in 1895. Gowland was at the lecture and spoke after Weston. In brief he states that he climbed, with his colleague Dillon (who I know nothing of), Ontake. In subsequent years they climbed tateyama and yakeyama. He also ascended Yari, Jiidake, Gorukudake and Norikura without Dillon, claiming that they had not previously been ascended.
I also have a couple of old brown and white postcards I picked up in Kamikochi a few years, one of Gowland and a partner (Dillon?) standing on what I think is the eastern side of Yari. Maybe another gaijin took the picture? The other picture shows some folks sitted at their camp on the riverbed with yakedake in the background. Maybe Weston’s camp?
I climbed Ontake 2 weeks ago and since returning home I have found rereading Weston’s account in mountaineering and explaration in the japan alps fascinating, I also enjoyed tracing his route on the map. Another point which you did not make about Weston is that as well as writing very informative accounts and presenting v detailed lectures at both the RGS and Alpine Club he was also a keen photographer and captured on film many Japanese mtn scenes many of which are in his books and accounts.
I am off to a lecture at the Alpine Club tomorrow evening and whilst there I will make a copy of Weston’s obituary which according to wikipaedia is in the Alpine Journal vol 52. Maybe I will find further interesting info on him.
Iain Williams

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Iain: it is an honour for this upstart blog to have a visit from the long-established Toyohashi Alpine Club and many thanks for your most interesting notes on the article - yes, you're right, the title was really aimed more to provoke than inform:) It would be most interesting to know more about Gowland - clearly he was a pivotal activist among the gaijin mountaineers - and it sounds as if you have already uncovered quite a lot about him. Your remarks prompted me to look again at Weston's book - and it's quite clear that they knew each other well - Weston's book has an appendix on geology which quotes Gowland's researches at length. I guess they met up at the Alpine Club. As for the guidebook, yes, that was the Satow and Hawes book - incidentally, according to my Japanese source, Weston contributed a chapter on mountaineering possibilities in Japan to a later edition (1894 is likely, W's last-but-one year in Japan - maybe you can find a copy at the RGS?) The point about photography is interesting too - in his preface, Weston says "most" of the photos in the book are by HW Belcher and HJ Hamilton - implying that some, perhaps, are his own. In that case, where are the originals? At the RGS? At the AC? That would be interesting to know ... Lastly, it would be interesting to meet up at some point - London over Christmas?

Iainhw said...

captain interesting - thanks for the reminder of my toyohashi alpine club days...
I'm afraid nearly all the info I have on Gowland I posted above. He wasn't an AC member and I couldn't find any evidence of him ever speaking there.
I managed to make a copy of weston's obituary this evening but it doesn't really tell us any more about his exploits in japan than what we already know. I was impressed though with his european mtn credentials, he really was a climber as opposed to a trekking mtn explorer.
Also made a copy of a paper/speech on the AJ he made on "Mountaineering and Mountain Superstitions in the Japanese Alps" which is almost the same as bits of the mountaineering and exploration book.
I smiled when I read your remark to my point about photography. I read the same passage this evening in the first edition of the book and wondered if anyone would correct me. I am sure I read somewhere that he was a keen photographer (can't remember the source...) I also recall looking at what I think was an Italian book on his photographs at the AC library a few years ago.
I can send you copies of all the journal copies I have if you're interested. I'd also like to know more about your japanese sources for info on the early gaijin mountaineers plus what you're up to in japan. I read your aka dake blog last night and was v jealous. Am looking forward to going through the rest of your blogs in due course. Would be delighted to meet up with you in London over christmas. I'm hoping to be back in japan for a couple of weeks over easter and would also be keen to climb with you if possible. The prefix to my gmail address is iainhw1@....

D. Fedman said...

Captain Interesting,
Great post. You do a great job dealing with the Weston mythology here.

I am a historian currently researching the history of mountaineering in Hokkaido. Is there any way I could get in touch with you? I have questions about your sources and your forthcoming translation. My email is

For anyone in the Tokyo area, I will be participating in a panel discussion on Japan's Mountaineering history hosted by Sophia University in June. Your participation would very much be appreciated.

Peter Skov said...

t of reading about this earlier this year. You mentioned a lot of foreigners that I hadn't read about. Yes, it is true that Weston popularized mountaineering as a sport. He was noted for his enthusiasm for climbing for the joy of it rather than as a political, scientific or religious excercise. I also read that he based his visits to the North Alps on the writings of Gowland.

Other important things I read about were many first ascents of peaks by hunters (Jonen Dake was possibly climbed first by local hunters and Weston found a cairn built on top) and also by employees the forestry mangement department who roamed the North Alps and sometimes climbed a peak.

I also read that when Usui Kojima clibed Kita Dake he found a piece of iron with a date engraved for... I think it was 1700 and something, 1752 maybe.

Surely there were many people climbing in Japan before Weston but as you pointed, he is probably celebrated as the father of mountaineering for his enthusiasm for climbing and making it popular.

Excelent post and I'd like to use some notes for reference.

Peter Skov said...

Seems my first sentence got cut off. I said, "I did a lot of reading about this earlier this year."

Just read through the comments. There are a few people out there I would like to talk to. Lots of people knowledgable about mountaineering in Japan.

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Peter: many thanks for dropping by. Walter Weston seems to be attracting a lot of attention. As you point out, Gowland and Weston knew each other well and Weston seems to have known about Gowland's mountain travels in detail. Your information about Kojima Usui on Kita-Dake is very interesting - would be interested to know what the source for that is... As for meeting up, I assume that you're based in Japan? Alas, I'm mainly located in Switzerland, but fellow bloggers CJW, Hanameizan, Wes, and Tom Bouquet all reside in Japan - see links from my blog if you want to get in touch with them. Lastly, please do use this blog for reference if you wish - and let me know if you come across any mistakes. I try to get the factual information right, but there's many a potential slip between Japanese source and English-language posting ....