Monday, February 23, 2009

The Hot & Cold Hyakumeizan challenge (16)

Travelogue continued: searching for ground truth on Sakurajima and finding the meaning of Meizan

6 December: “Do you feel lucky, punk, well, do you?” There comes a point when every mountaineer should ask himself that question and I’d just reached it. Ahead, the ridge narrowed to a crumbling knife-edge of loose volcanic ash.

Suddenly I could see the whole diagram. The dense thickets of pine and razor grass that I’d fought my way through below were actually my allies. Their roots held the volcanic rubble together into a broad hog’s back.

Above the tree-line, however, erosion had honed the ridge to a lethal sharpness. One crumbling foothold here and the next stop would be the hard lava slabs of the gully below. Well, how lucky did I feel?

Sakurajima is not a famous mountain or ‘Meizan’. That is to say, Fukada Kyuya didn’t choose the volcano for his A-list of One Hundred Mountains of Japan. But that didn’t stop him climbing it. In fact, he set out the same day that he stepped off the night ferry from Yaku-shima, in December 1939. As I had just returned from the same island, it seemed reasonable to follow in his footsteps.

There was at least one defect in this plan. Since Fukada’s day, Sakurajima has stirred into life several times. On one occasion, it dropped a five-ton volcanic bomb on a nearby hotel. As a result, Fukada’s path to the volcano’s north summit has long since fallen into disuse. In fact, nobody could even tell me where it used to be, until volcanologist and fellow blogger Tom Bouquet gave me a steer.

So I’d crossed over from Kagoshima on the early-morning ferry and, thanks to help from a kindly farmer and a truck-driver, soon found the start of the ridge. Then I followed the trails of wild boar upwards, shouldering a way through dense brushwood, until I picked up the line of the old path. Somebody had marked part of the way with pink twine. Then I emerged above the treeline and the knife-edge ridge blocked the way. Well, punk …

Far to the north, snow squalls were sweeping over the Kirishima massif, home to another of Fukada Kyuya’s favourite volcanoes. Above, the narrow ridge led up to steep slopes of rubble and the tilted raft of Kita-dake’s summit block. Yesterday’s cold front had dusted it with snow.

The mountain was certainly showing another side to its personality. From afar, Sakurajima takes the form of a long, low ridge. Only the omnipresent smoke-plume distinguishes it as one of Japan’s most active volcanoes. Move closer, though, and those seemingly inoffensive slopes disintegrate into wild tangles of forest, gully, cliff and crest.

On balance, I was not feeling lucky enough. Yet it was frustrating to give up so close to a summit that is less than 1,200 metres high. By turning back, I would not top out on Kita-dake, the highest of Sakurajima’s three tops, and I would not look down into the old crater, where, in Fukada’s day, weekend trippers had spelled out their names in white stones.

Nor would I be able to follow Fukada and his companion as they climbed down into the old crater of Kita-dake and crossed its floor. When they climbed to the opposite rim, they were astonished by sight of the smoke churning into the sky from Minami-dake, the active summit. Drawn as if magnetically by this vision, they clambered down onto an eroded col, a relic of another old crater, then climbed a narrow ridge to the central summit. Finally, and with bated breath, they hauled themselves up a rocky slope onto the very edge of the active crater.

Below them was a declivity “like an iron tub” but more than 120 metres deep, according to the map. Steam jetted from the wall opposite them, the plume seeming to change its position from time to time. Vapour was also wafting up from below their vantage point. They took some photos and started down a chute of snow-covered rubble on the mountain’s western slopes. “An unpleasant descent,” Fukada records, “and hardly one to be recommended to beginners.”

I was scarcely looking forward to my own descent. For a start, mountaineers who turn back must deal with what might be called the John Ruskin Syndrome. As that all-terrain literary critic wrote from Chamonix to his father in 1863, “this I know and find practically, that if you come to a dangerous place, and turn back from it, though it may have been perfectly right and wise to do so, still your character has suffered some slight deterioration; you are to that extent weaker, more lifeless, more effeminate, more liable to passion and error in the future…”
I suggested that Ruskin kindly kept his observations to himself, and set off down the ridge. Immediately I fell liable to error, if not passion, and lost my way in the thicket. It took even longer to descend than it had to come up and I staggered out onto the road scratched, sweaty and out of sorts.

Then I remembered the two tangerines in my pack. Just after stepping off the ferry that morning, I had been consulting my map when a small van pulled up. A woman in field attire had jumped out, pressed the two mikan into my hand and asked me where I was going. Then she insisted on driving me partway up the hill. “When you get back,” she suggested, “just tell the tourist office to pass a message to the Nakamura who grows giant radishes and we’ll know you’re safe.”

Sakurajima’s farmers are justly proud of their daikon, which thrive in the same black ash that makes for such unsatisfactory ridge-climbing. There is even a Giant Radish festival. I peeled one of Mrs Nakamura’s tangerines: it was delicious too.

I hadn’t walked far when a turbo-diesel roar announced a heavy vehicle grinding up the road. From the purple metallic paint and chrome exhaust stacks, I recognised the truck that had stopped for me in the morning. The driver wound down his window, a grin creasing his face under the punch perm: “How did it go?” he asked. “I didn’t get far, but thanks for dropping me off at exactly the right spot. O-sewa ni narimashita…” I replied with a bow. This was becoming a remarkably sociable volcanic excursion.

I walked on down the road between tangerine plantations carved out of the tangled woods. The ripening fruit shone like constellations in the shadowy groves. Clouds of kites wheeled overhead and orange-breasted finches hopped through the bushes; birds seem to like it here.

The volcano is a good habitat for people too, I reflected. It gives them fertile orchards, hot springs (Fukada stayed at one after his climb), and limitless employment for the construction crews who build anti-erosion dams across its gullies. Acknowledging this bounty, the Koike school playground even has a miniature volcano for the children to scramble over.

Or is it a bomb shelter? Those who live on volcanoes have to reckon with the occasional conniption*. Just up the road from here, a sign advises construction workers to take cover “when you see stones come flying through the sky like a flock of crows”.

This blend of familiarity and respect reminded me of another island volcano. One winter afternoon, I’d admired the steam pluming from Etna’s summit craters while gaps in the clouds below revealed rich tracts of vineyards and olive groves. Sicilians call their volcano “’a muntagna”, as if there were no other. Sometimes they even speak of “la nostra signora”.

La nostra signora … the words could describe the gilded Kannon that I had just walked past. Standing on a strip of land between the coast road and the sea, the statue looked as if it belonged to a private shrine. Perhaps she was there to intercede with the mountain.

As the ferry drew away, Sakurajima seemed to rise into the sky while the port town at its foot dwindled into the distance. I realised that I’d misjudged this volcano. Even if it didn’t make Fukada Kyuya’s A-list, it has a presence and stature of its own. And it is most certainly The Mountain for all who live around it. Looking back over the wake of the ferry, I felt privileged to have made the acquaintance of this splendid Meizan.

*this may understate the violence that Sakurajima can sometimes be capable of. See this account of the Taisho eruption from the New York Times. (Incidentally, the NYT should be applauded for its generous and enlightened policy of free access to its archives.)


Photo of crater: Japan Meteorological Agency, report on Sakurajima

Tom Bouquet, Guide to Japanese Volcanoes: Sakurajima

Fukada Kyuya, essay on Sakurajima, in Hyakumeizan Igai no Meizan 50. As for Nihon Hyakumeizan, Sakurajima almost made the cut, but not quite. In his afterword to his most famous book, Fukada says, “I allocate six mountains to Kyūshū, to which one might add Yufu-zan, Ichifusa-yama, and the volcano of Sakurajima.”

The full quotation from John Ruskin’s often-quoted letter:

"That question of the moral effect of danger is a very curious one; but this I know and find practically, that if you come to a dangerous place, and turn back from it, though it may have been perfectly right and wise to do so, still your character has suffered some slight deterioration; you are to that extent weaker, more lifeless, more effeminate, more liable to passion and error in the future; whereas if you go through with the danger, though it may have been apparently wrong and foolish to encounter it, you come out of the encounter a stronger and better man, fitter for every sort of work and trial, and nothing but danger produces this effect."

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Hot & Cold Hyakumeizan challenge (15)

Envoy to Yakushima: Hananoego high moor tells a harrowing tale of destruction and redemption

Sometimes the landscape can be as hard to read as a shy girl sitting in a corner. From her unassuming mien, one would never guess at the epic story she has to tell. That was the case with "Japan's southernmost mountain bog", where I paused only long enough to snap a photo in my rush to escape from the top of Yakushima (see previous post).

It turns out that Hananoego High Moor – as she is formally known – harbours an infinitely more dramatic record. Captured not on a digital sensor but in successive layers of peat, these images were brought to life by several talented academicians. One of them was Yasuda Yasunori, a scientist from Kyoto University, who took core samples in 1983 and analysed the pollen trapped in them. This is the story outlined by his research.

If you'd hiked up here about 6,300 years ago, a dense forest would have filled your view. Then as now, the pollen confirms, the big cryptomeria were kings. But among them stood box trees, evergreen oaks, and magnolias – trees that today grow only several hundred metres lower on the mountain. In this warmer climate, the forest climbed high, so that trees covered the summits instead of rocky outcrops.

In its last days, a heavy lading of ash may have blanched the leaves of the old forest. North-west winds would have brought this fall-out from a tall conical island about 50 kilometres away. Today, Yakushima's volcanic twin, or what is left of it, is known as Kikai. Smoke and ashes probably tumbled from its vent for months or years before anything more serious happened.

The peat doesn't record the exact fate of the forest when Kikai exploded with the force of five Krakatoas. If the base surge had not already smashed it to matchwood, it would have succumbed to the pyroclastic flow. This was a wall of searing gas and ash that flashed the sea to steam as it passed. If they were still standing, the old cedars would have flared like torches when the heat rolled over them.

A thin seam of white pumice within the peat conjures up a blasted, tree-less landscape. After the eruption scoured off the island's vegetation, these tell-tale volcanic debris washed into the moor while ravines gnawed at the unstable slopes. For decades or centuries, Yakushima was a hulk. Then plants started to creep up the mountainside. Among the first to colonise the ash drifts were rhododendrons (shakunage).

Eventually, the cedars came back to the marsh, but not the evergreen oaks and magnolias. Perhaps the climate cooled after Kikai darkened the skies with thirty cubic miles of ash. It certainly cooled later. People returned too, leaving traces of charcoal in the post-eruption layers. But they probably did not stem from the island's original inhabitants. For, when Kikai vanished, so did early Jomon civilisation all over Kyushu.

I should have reserved more time for Hananoego. She tells quite a tale for a small patch of soggy ground. One wonders what kind of a story those layers of peat and pollen will imprint over the next few centuries.


Influences of the Vast Eruption of Kikai Caldera Volcano in the Holocene Vegetational History of Yakushima, Southern Kyushu, Japan by Yasuda Yasunori, International Research Center for Japanese Sladies, Kyoto University, in Japan Review, 1991, 2: 145-160

Guide to Satsuma-Iwojima (Kikai) by Tom Bouquet

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Hot & Cold Hyakumeizan challenge (14)

Yaku-shima concluded: A dark night’s passing turns into a noki-shita horror show

4.30pm: the path comes out into a waterlogged clearing. This is Japan’s southernmost mountain bog, a noticeboard says. A pool reflects the westering sun as tinted clouds brush the wooded ridge above. And now I really do have to hurry: there’s no more than an hour of light left.

5pm: I switch on my headlamp outside the Yodogawa hut. Under the forest canopy, the darkness is almost palpable enough to run my nose against. Get careless now, and it would be easy to stray off the path and disappear down a gully. An hour later, I emerge onto the forest road. Safe, sort of. Now for the four-hour hike back to the coast.

6.40pm: I pause for a moment by the Kigen Sugi, a tree said to date back to the dawn of history. The sky is so dark that not even the cedar’s topmost boughs can be seen, but I listen to the wind. It’s not every night that you hear the wind blowing through a tree that seeded itself before humanity discovered iron.

8pm: the moon sails into the clouds. Walking down the dark, dark road, I spot a tiny blue light ahead, shining like a good deed in a naughty world. As I get closer, I see that it’s a camping lantern and that it’s illuminating the interior of a car.

Then the beam of my headtorch picks out the bulk of a silver Nissan Patrol with Hamamatsu plates. Hamada-san has just finished his pot noodles when I knock on the window. He is as surprised as I am. We exchange news – he did a training run up today and will go for Miyanoura-dake tomorrow. He warns me it’s a long way down to the coast and says he’ll drive me there, an offer I deflect – he’s already saved my day once, after all – by saying I’m going to bivvy just a bit further down the road.

10pm: still hiking down the mountain road. Outraged hoots and crashes in the bush indicate that the monkeys prefer to have the mountains to themselves at night. Seawards, an occasional flicker of electric blue runs along the horizon. As you can’t logically have summer lightning in the middle of winter, I decide that the flashes must be emanating from lighthouses on Tanegashima.

11.30pm: I reach the first sign of civilisation, a vending machine. Although it purports to be the passport to drink paradise, I keep going. The glare from its illuminated cabinet lights me far along the road.

11.45pm: The coastal village of Ambo is deserted, shuttered, dead, dark. But not quite silent: the sound of karaoke wafts to my ears. I follow the music to its source, drop my pack, and slide open a glass door. The singers – it is a duet – don’t miss a beat. Raggedy figures stumbling out of the jungle late at night are clearly nothing unusual here. In the lull before the next song, I order a plate of yaki-soba.

While the noodles are sizzling in the pan, the mama-san asks where I’m going next. Back to Miyanoura, I say, to catch the ferry. A man with a mop of white hair looks up from his sake. STORM! he says in English, miming wind and waves so vigorously that he almost swipes his bottle from the table. The mama-san remonstrates: the gaijin-san can speak quite good Japanese, so why not just speak normally. But White Mop is just getting into his stride: WAVES! STORM! FERRY! NO! STOP! he mouths.

5 December, 00.15am: with this warning ringing in my ears, I pay for the yaki-soba and step outside. A bit of cloud, but still a calm night with some stars: I can’t believe that a spot of bad weather is going to stop the MV Hibiscus, a 1,000-tonner disposing of 8,000 horsepower. So I’d better get myself to the ferry port. Unfortunately, Miyanoura is 20 kilometres away, as a roadsign reminds me. What now? I’m reminded of a joke involving an economist and a can of baked beans on a desert island. Assume a tin-opener, says the economist.

Assume a taxi
I try assuming a taxi and, on cue, a black Toyota Crown drives up. The passenger door, bearing the logo of the Nankoku Taxi Company, swings open by itself. The elderly but immaculately be-suited driver says, apologetically, that Anbo to Miyanoura will set me back about ¥6,000. That’ll be fine, I say. Lord Powerscourt has about run his course for today. On the way, the driver tells me about the weather: it’s much too warm for the time of the year, he says. Quite often by this time, the mountain-tops are white with Japan’s southernmost snows.

00.45am: The taxi driver cancels the meter when it reaches ¥5,500, well before we reach the ferry port, but I pay him the agreed fare anyway. Most late-night taxis you have to call. Only very special ones materialise when you assume them. The driver is concerned about my plans for the night. No need to worry, I say, I’m going to bivouac “noki-shita” – under the eaves of the ferry terminal.

01.30am: Noki-shita turns into the Noki Horror Show. I’ve just settled down under an arcade when a sheet of electric blue ripples across the sky. For a second, the mountains stand out as a crinkled black silhouette. Then the display repeats itself, this time with a roll of thunder for emphasis.

I scramble to my feet and consider the options. A shed for fork-lift trucks offers a more convincing shelter. I get there just before the first squall beats a furious tattoo on the tin roof. When it eases, the squealing of hawsers takes up the refrain as nearby ships strain at their moorings. The thunder moves on, but the rain continues to lash down. With this more than adequate precipitation, it’s going to be a cooler night than expected. I hope Hamada-san is OK, high up on the mountain in his Nissan Patrol.

7.20am: between the harbour pier-heads, there is nothing to be seen except for tumbling wave-crests that streak the black water with foam. The MV Hibiscus stays away. Later, an efficient clerk of the Iwasaki Steamship Company rebooks me on the hydrofoil – the sea-state is just within limits for the Toppi (‘flying fish’), as this one is called.

10.20am: As the gas turbines spool up with a rocket-ship whine – these really are jetfoils – the captain warns that he’ll turn back if the weather worsens. The occasional wavetop slams hard against the hull as the hydrofoil weaves through the swell, but we keep going. Behind our bucketing craft, Yaku-shima recedes into the heart of a dark cloud.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Hot & Cold Hyakumeizan challenge (13)

Yaku-shima continued: No time to linger on the summit of Japan’s southernmost famous mountain

2.20pm: the trees are thinning now, as we approach the alpine zone. A wooden ladder helps with a rock step, and then I squeeze through a cleft into a new world. Ahead, much closer, is the green pyramid of Miyanoura-dake. The sun is now running ahead, and it takes the rock at a grazing angle, picking out the curious rectangular inclusions of a quartz-like mineral in the grey stone.

As much of Japan is volcanic, I’m still expecting to find some kind of lava in the centre of the island. But this is no volcanic rock: it looks like granite. Later researches indicate that Yaku-shima is more akin to Taiwan than to mainland Japan. It consists partly of sediments scraped off the Philippine Plate as it plunged under Eurasia. A blob of igneous rock later welled up into this melange of sandstones and mudstones, breaking out into crystalline pimples as it cooled. It is these bunions of orthoclase, embedded in granite, that are scraping at my pack as I ease myself through the rocky gap.

2.30: tea-break amid a cluster of granite domes set, like a collection of Moores or Hepworths, in a park-like expanse of bamboo grass. Now that no trees obscure the view, I notice a long bar of cloud hanging in the eastern sky. Lenticulars usually herald bad weather, but the balmy sunshine makes it hard to take this warning seriously. Reluctantly, I rise from my granite bench and address myself to the final slope.

2.45pm: generations of Hyakumeizan-baggers have worn a trench deep into the turf. Snow meltwater has smeared the path with ribbed ice. Here and there I have to take to the bamboo grass beside the way to make progress but my ice-axe doesn’t come into play.

The people who advised me to bring the axe were right, though: it can snow heavily on Miyanoura-dake. A foot of snow covered the summit when Fukada Kyuya, the Hyakumeizan author, topped out. In fact, the academicians have calculated that the mountain gets almost ten metres of rain or snow every year. Precipitation is adequate.

3.00pm: no shrine crowns the summit of Miyanoura-dake, just a humble wooden marker post inscribed with the altitude of 1,935 metres. The view is more impressive than this modest figure would suggest. To the west, scattered clouds trail their shadows on a silver sea. Eastwards, lenticulars shape-shift silently over a foreground of rocky outcrops. Puffy clouds are starting to drift over the ridge to the south – and that’s where I have to go.

Having attained a long-sought peak, the Hyakumeizan author liked to take his time. “Scrambling between the boulders, we hauled ourselves onto the summit and lay down to sun ourselves like the lizards. We spent a pleasant hour here, chatting and looking down on that wilderness of rocks … The hour I spent on that bright and peaceful top was as close to heaven as one gets in this world.” These are typical summit comments from his writings.

Fukada was in no rush. He got to know his mountains over the course of a lifetime: he was already in his sixties by the time Nihon Hyakumeizan was published. Would that we could emulate his unhurried style today. But the sun is leaning at an ominous angle towards the horizon and it’s time to press on.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Hot & Cold Hyakumeizan challenge (12)

Yaku-shima continued: In the Senior Common Room of the Giant Cryptomeria

12 noon: a steep wooden staircase leads up to the Jomon Sugi, said to be the most impressive of Yaku-shima’s giant cryptomerias. The viewing platform in front of it is like the audience chamber of a monarch. A platoon of blue track-suited high-school students has just arrived. Committing an act of lèse majesté, they turn their back on the tree as they organize themselves for the group photo.

Some used to say the Jomon Sugi was 7,000 years old, but the academicians have set to work and calculated an age of a mere 2,000 years or so. Journeying into another ancient forest, the narrator of a famous novel by Joseph Conrad says that “Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were king.”

Here too the big trees are king, but this is no Heart of Darkness. These light and aery woods stand more than a thousand metres above the mangroves and riotous sub-tropical vegetation of the coast. We’re one storey higher than the pine forest too, with its louche flowers and shrubs. Up in these cool airs, the forest breathes a genial, collegiate atmosphere, as if inhabiting some sylvan Senior Common Room.

A collegiate forest? If that’s a heresy against tooth-and-nail Darwinism, you might look to Imanishi Kinji for support: “In a forest, the orderly arrangement of members … is probably the most logical: they avoid conflict, and as many as possible have access to adequate light or nourishment,” he wrote in The World of Living Things (生物の世界).

With its emphasis on collaboration as well as competition, Imanishi’s book offers a very Japanese view of nature. Looking up at this stately grove of trees, each one standing a considerate and respectful distance from his neighbour, I could see exactly where the great sensei was coming from.

I glance at my watch, a somewhat absurd gesture in front of a two thousand year-old cedar. I’m increasingly aware that a one-day traverse of Yaku-shima is not a feat. It is a crime.

1.30pm: the forest is filled with hooting and rustling at my approach. Clearly I am not particularly welcome. As I sit down for a bite to eat on the bench outside the Shin-Takazuka hut, an unwardened concrete structure, monkeys emerge from a nearby thicket. Keeping a watchful eye on me, they lope across the path.

After lunch, I pass a pair of monkeys sitting in a tree. One looks at me dubiously as I point my camera. Just because I’m used to this, says his long, expressive face, doesn’t mean I like it.

“It always astonishes me how simian they look,” I can almost hear him observe to his silky-coated companion, “but their manners put them quite beyond the pale.”

“Too, too, otiose,” she agrees, ripping another bunch of leaves from a twig. Strange how her turn of phrase reminds me of Sei Shonagon....

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Hot & Cold Hyakumeizan challenge (11)

Yaku-shima continued: while channelling Lord Powerscourt, we run across the trail of Toyotomi Hideyoshi

9.20am: below the Tsuji pass, a surprise awaits. The path along the river valley follows the rails of an old miniature railway, once used to take timber to the coast. After the mud and tree-roots of the Shiratani path, the smooth planking between the rusty rails will make for good speed toward the island’s centre.

But not too fast: there’s plenty to look at. The sun filters between the pine trees, fringing the wayside ferns with light. Three hundred different kinds of fern grow on Yaku-shima, of which 42 live at their northern and 43 at their southern limit. The island is a kind of crossroads between the temperate north and the tropical south.

Today, tropical temperatures have gained the upper hand and, as I strip off a layer of fibrepile, I notice the trunk of a fallen forest giant, new saplings already sprouting from its mossy decay.

Every few hundred yards, little plaques herald the plants one would see in spring or summer. Tropical species rub shoulders with semi-alpines, glossy garden flowers with rude insectivores.

Here blossoms the Yakushima camellia, there the Satsuki azaleas, cousin to the alpenrose. In the shade the sinister green funnel of the “viper weed” (Arisaema serratum Schott) lies in ambush for an unwary bluebottle.

11am: another signboard brings me down to earth. If you haven’t passed this point by 10 ‘o clock, it warns, then forget about visiting the Jomon Sugi, the most famous of the island’s giant cryptomeria trees – or you won’t make it back by nightfall. Problem is, I’m heading for Miyanoura-dake, which is almost five map hours beyond the Jomon Sugi. Then a few hours more to get off the hill.

Recalling Hamada-san’s words of warning, I have to concede we’re heading rapidly into Muri City. It may be time to channel Lord Powerscourt. To summon up the shade of this eighteenth-century English peer, I should explain, you turn to James Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (or recall it, if need be) and take inspiration from the following passage:-

Lord Powerscourt laid a wager, in France, that he would ride a great many miles in a certain short time. The French academicians set to work, and calculated that, from the resistance of the air, it was impossible. His lordship, however, performed it.

I allow myself ten minutes rest. Then fortified by a cheese butty and that soul-stirring phrase, “His lordship, however, performed it”, I start uphill.

11.40am: first stop is the Wilson Kabu, the sawn-off relic of what must have been a sky-raking cedar. Even the stump has the presence and almost the bulk of a Martello tower. As I reach its clearing, a young couple are taking flash photos of the little shrine lodged in the stump’s innards.

Who was Wilson and why did he cut down the tree, I wonder. Later, some internet research clears up the mystery. Ernest Wilson was an English plant collector, who visited Yakushima in 1914 and introduced the stump to a wider audience. He was innocent of the tree’s overthrow.

That deed is ascribed to no less than Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who personally ordered the tree to be felled in 1586. The dictator wanted its timber for the Hōkō-ji (方広寺) temple in Kyoto, which he vaunted would house a Daibutsu even bigger than the one in Nara. A thousand priests from eight sects gathered for the dedication in 1595 – Hideyoshi was big on ceremonial bling – but the temple collapsed in a large earthquake the following year.

Even if the great tree’s wood survived this disaster, it certainly went up in flames a few years later. Careless workmen set the refurbished Daibutsuden ablaze in 1602 and it burned to the ground. Less than two decades after it was taken from its native forest, the timber of a three thousand year-old tree had turned to smoke and ashes.

Bad karma continued to hover over the Hōkō-ji. Rebuilt by Hideyoshi’s son, the temple was destroyed in another earthquake in 1662, then struck by lightning and consumed by fire in 1798. Today it exists only as a sub-temple of another foundation.

A few minutes above the Wilson Stump, I hear a jingling from above. Turns out to be a hiker with a bear-bell on his staff. “Do you really need to alert the bears?” I ask, for there are none on Yakushima. “No,” he jests, “this is to ward off the humans.”

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Hot & Cold Hyakumeizan challenge (10)

Yaku-shima continued: long day’s journey into benightment on Japan’s southernmost famous mountain

4 December: Dawn is breaking when I come on deck. The ship’s foremast bisects Yaku-shima, which lies athwart our course like a long and rumpled cloud. Somehow, I’d been expecting a kind of southern anti-Rishiri, a single mighty summit rising from the ocean, but Yaku-shima has a different character. As Fukada Kyuya describes it in Nihon Hyakumeizan:-

Miyanoura-dake sits at the island’s centre, closely flanked by Nagata-dake and Kuromi-dake. Attended by a host of lower summits, these three mountains top 1,800 metres. The island’s inhabitants count some three hundred and thirty summits, or “take” as they say in their dialect. From the sea, indeed, it is a mountain rather than an island that rears its head above the waves, a mountain that is collectively known as Yae-dake.

As the light grows, the cloud resolves itself into a complex array of peaks and deep-cut valleys. Yaku-shima is certainly no Mt Fuji of the southern ocean. From the sea, it looks more like a lotus blossom, with subsidiary summits radiating out like a calyx around Miyanoura-dake. And that peak, with its distinctive horns, looks dauntingly far off.

7.20am: The ferry docks and I ask about. Yes, there is a bus up to the trailhead, but it won’t be leaving for another hour. Precious daylight will be wasted. As I ponder the options – walk into town, perhaps, and find a taxi? – diesel turbo-powered salvation rolls up in the shape of a silver Nissan Patrol with Hamamatsu plates. Hamada-san leans out – would I like a lift? He clears some camping gear off the front passenger seat and I climb aboard. We motor through the small town, then turn sharp right into the hills. Hamada-san has saved the daylight.

8.20am: at the Shiratani Hiroba carpark, a sign welcomes you to the National Park: “We hope you have a good time on Yakushima island enjoy it’s rich the natural beauty.” In the green shadows of morning, the path leads out over a field of giant brown boulders, then follows a wooded river valley up to a pass. I’m enjoying it’s rich the natural beauty already. A few minutes into the hike, a Bambi-sized deer skitters across the path. I waste time trying to photograph it, unaware that deer are everywhere in these mountains.

8.40am: as I fill my water-bottle at the Shiratani Sanso, a concrete refuge hut, the warden comes out. Asked how far Miyanoura-dake is from here, he says I’ll have to stop over at a hut this side of the peak. “Don’t get benighted,” he warns. Every year, people get lost in the dark and stray down a gully, to emerge days later from the jungle, their clothes in tatters, like latter-day Lieutenant Onodas. Some are never seen again. So desu ka, I say, not daring to mention that my plan assumes benightment. I will try to avoid disappearing into the jungle, though.

Back on the path, a signboard draws attention to the first cryptomeria trees, the Yaku-sugi for which the island is famed. These ones, says the sign, regenerated from stumps that were cut down to make roofing tiles. So this is not a virgin forest but more like a wood of pollarded beeches, the trees sprouting anew after each harvest.

The gnarled and sinewy trunks are remarkable enough, but it’s the roots that really grab my attention. Writhing and interlacing over the ground, they grip the island in a firm embrace. “When we say that organisms live, between the options of living and dying, we can say they live because they chose to live,” wrote Imanishi Kinji (1902-1992) the visionary scientist, explorer and alpinist. This sentence appears in the last chapter of The World of Living Things (生物の世界), a book in which Imanishi summed up his thinking on evolutionary theory before he was shipped off to the war.

These trees have certainly chosen to live. As the signboards relate (this is an earnestly educational trail), some have been cut down to stumps twice or more – and then sprouted exuberantly back towards the sky.

Imanishi too had something of a sugi spirit. His evolution from entomologist into a pioneer ecologist, ethnographer and, finally, primatologist was not planned from the outset. Rather, every time that world events blocked his path in one direction, he branched out in another.

As his translator Pamela Asquith notes, the war prevented him going to study orangutans in Borneo. Instead he went to Mongolia, where he began field studies of pastoral tribes. That ended in 1946, when he had to leave Mongolia. Returning to Japan, he took up the study of animal behaviour, including Japanese macaques. This research took him to Yakushima, among other monkey colonies, and eventually to a Kyoto University professorship, at the age of 57. Durable as a cedar, he continued to publish until well into his eighties.

The sugi principle also guided Imanishi’s mountaineering career. In 1931, he founded the Academic Alpine Club of Kyoto specifically to pursue Himalayan climbing. But the Japanese army’s adventures in Manchuria and China scuppered their plans for the Sikkim and K2. Undaunted, the AACK went to Karafuto (1932), the ferociously cold winter mountains of northern Korea (1934), Inner Mongolia (1938), and Micronesia (1941).

After the war, they dusted off their plans for the Himalaya. It was Imanishi’s crew who picked Manaslu as the 8000-er that the Japanese should claim for their own and Imanishi personally led the reconnaissance expedition. So the AACK did finally get to play a pioneering role in the Himalaya. Like a pollarded cryptomeria, they were irrepressible.

9am: I meet the morning sunlight up on a low col. A girl is resting on a log. She is wearing pink and white sneakers, carrying a Hello Kitty backpack that can’t contain much more than a toothbrush, and says she too is heading for Miyanouradake. The word ‘muri’ comes to mind but I choose not to utter it. Somehow, the island will look after her.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Hot & Cold Hyakumeizan challenge (9)

Travelogue continued: the mountaineering plan for Japan’s southernmost famous mountain comes under critical review

3 December: “Muri,” says Hamada-san, “stark, staring, raving muri.” OK, maybe not his exact words, but that’s the gist. “Muri” translates as ‘unreasonable’ with a strong undertone of ‘completely bonkers’. In this case, the word referred to my hiking plans for the morrow. “Just look at the hiking times,” Hamada-san continued, “and you’ll see they add up to seventeen hours. And that doesn’t even get you off the mountain.”

We’re on the MV Hibiscus, a ferry-cum-cargo ship that makes a nightly run from Kagoshima to Yaku-shima. We’d just steamed past the pierheads when a wiry old man came up from the car deck and spotted the ice-axe on my pack. Introducing himself as Hamada from Hamamatsu, he said that he too was questing the Hundred Mountains of Japan.

After 34 years in property development, working “like a locomotive,” Hamada was starting his retirement by driving round Japan climbing one eminence after another. Here he pulled out a silk scarf showing all hundred mountains on a map, complete with the dates when each of his conquests had succumbed. About half remained unravished. Like me, he was now on his way to climb Japan's southernmost 'famous mountain', Miyanoura-dake.

Then he asked me about my plans for tomorrow. I spread out my guidebook and said I would find my way up (somehow) to this pass here – cross into this valley, so – then make a beeline to the central summit, thus …

It is at this point that Hamada-san pronounces the whole scheme ‘muri’.

I take a closer look at the hiking times, which are handily printed on Japanese maps. Yes, he has a point. I stop adding up when I get to seventeen hours. The total is too demoralising.

As Lord Salisbury famously observed, a great deal of misapprehension can be caused by the popular use of maps on too small a scale. Actually, I don’t even have a small-scale map, strictly speaking, just a guidebook to all one hundred mountains. This is a spur-of-the-moment trip. I go out on deck for some fresh air and a re-think.

By now, we’re well out to sea but a warm gale blows from the bows. Only the constellation of Orion, gently rising and falling above the foremast, marks this as a midwinter evening.

Some time after 10pm, we reach Tanegashima. The Hibiscus occasionally carries H2 rockets to the Japanese space agency’s launch pad on the island, but today the roaring fork-lifts must content themselves with battered containers. After off-loading them, the ship shuts down for the night: it stays in port until 5am, then sets out for the two-hour crossing to Yaku-shima.

Now it is time to turn in. On this working ship, passengers are somewhat of an afterthought. Persons of quality can book a cabin, but cheapskates must make do with a carpeted sleeping area. I pull out some blankets and, declining a gulp from Hamada-san’s proffered bottle of Suntory, stretch out in a corner. If the plan is stark, staring muri, I’m going to need some sleep.