Friday, March 27, 2009

The Hot & Cold Hyakumeizan challenge (18)

Travelogue concluded: learning respect for Arashima-dake

8 December: Never diss the mountain you are about to climb. On approach marches, Sherpas take this principle so much to heart that they eschew all drinking, swearing, and lechery. Not that we were using profane language or thinking impure thoughts on our drive towards Arashima-dake – the Sensei, for one, wouldn’t hold with that. Even so, I fear that we may have offended our peak's tutelary deity.

“You know,” said the Sensei as she guided the van deftly over the frozen road, “Arashima gets low ratings on internet forums. It’s as if people are asking why it was chosen as one of the Famous Mountains.”

Now it’s true that Fukada Kyuya provoked some of these doubts himself – he says in Nihon Hyakumeizan that he considered other mountains in this Hokuriku district as alternatives. But he hadn’t climbed them, so Arashima was chosen by default. All the same, it might have been wiser not to raise this touchy subject in the mountain’s presence.

And there it was, now, looming against the orange glow of a winter dawn. There were the “two gentle ridges” described in Hyakumeizan, spreading out to embrace the small plain like the paws of a sphinx. We were heading for the ski-ground at the mountain’s foot. Soon the van was parked on frozen snow and we were unloading our gear from the back.

The Sensei had borrowed an extra pair of snowshoes. They were made by a company more famous for its petrol stoves, but I was glad to see them nonetheless – the lack of such aids had led to my summary rejection by Rishiri-dake two weeks previously.

I did a quick calculation: Arashima is 1,523 metres high, but we’d parked several hundred metres above sea level, so we had a mere 1,200 metres to climb. ‘Mere’… I shouldn’t even have thought that word, let alone said it out loud. Mountain kami-sama may be very sensitive about their height.

We walked up a short ski-piste and entered the woods, following a trail trampled into the deep snow. “They were wearing kanjiki,” deduced the Sensei. Kanjiki are traditional snowshoes, formed from a hoop of bamboo and tied onto the boot with rope thongs. People have used them here for centuries; they’re even mentioned by the twelfth-century all-terrain poet, Saigyō. But I was sure we’d get further with our high-performance footgear from the Seattle stovemakers. This peak was a sure thing…

The Sensei drew my attention to the trees, beech perhaps, with maple or holly lurking in the understorey. Dead branches hung down here and there. Perhaps they had taken ill from the exhaust fumes of all the tour buses that crowd the summer car-park, my companion suggested. Or it might be that the trampling boots of the peak-bagging hordes have exposed their roots. This is the curse of the Hyakumeizan: any mountain so designated attracts armies of visitors, thus robbing it of the charms that attracted Fukada Kyuya in the first place…

I began to wonder if the internet scribblers who diss Arashima have a point. After all, the mountain scrapes in above Fukada’s own minimum height stipulation by a mere – that word again – 23 metres. And to describe it, as Fukada does, as “sternly Matterhorn-like” is frankly preposterous. Could it be that the author was guilty of insider trading or plain misrepresentation in raising this mountain to the ranks of the Hyakumeizan?

Consider the charge sheet: Fukada was born in the neighbouring prefecture of Ishikawa, but his mother was from Fukui and he went to school there. That would prejudice him in favour of slipping a prominent Fukui peak into his celebrated list of One Hundred Mountains. Prior to its debut in Hyakumeizan, Arashima was pretty much unknown outside the prefecture …

The prosecution was warming to its case when we left the dingy lower woods and stepped up into the radiance of a beech grove in winter. Shards of hoarfrost glittered in the morning sun as the wind blew them through the open rides between the trees. The sky was blue, but a faint halo surrounded the sun. That is always a bad sign in the north country. Already we were losing the favour of this mountain.

We came out into a glade called Shakunage-daira. It was a pretty place, even without its namesake rhododendrons, buried as they were metres deep under the snowdrifts. We paused for some food and tea.

“Now the work begins,” said the Sensei, nodding to the other side of the glade. I saw what she meant. Yesterday’s trailbreakers had come this far and no further; from now on, we would have to make our own tracks. “No problem,” I said blithely, “with these excellent rackets, we’ll make good time.” The Sensei looked skeptical but said nothing.

I took a step forward and sank deep, just as if red-hot stoves were attached to my feet. The softness of the new snow was to blame, of course, not the high-tech shoes. Suddenly, 1,200 metres seemed like a long way. We waded across a connecting ridge to the main body of the mountain.

I'd got back into my stride and was preparing Fukada's defence in the Hyakumeizan misrepresentation case - namely that the author wasn't the first to include Arashima in an all-Japan list of famous mountains - when the Sensei interrupted my thoughts. “Next we have Mochi-ga-kabe,” she announced.

That sent a chill down my spine. Mochi are the glutinous rice-cakes that regularly choke to death numbers of hapless New Year revellers. A wall named Mochi could bode no good. Soon my fears were realized. A short but steep ramp barred the way. A tentative kick with the high-technology snowshoes dislodged a small snow-slide, revealing blue ice underneath.

In need of a good reason to go on, I found one when I looked over my shoulder and saw the Sensei standing there, arms folded. She seemed to be expecting action. It wouldn’t dare, I decided: Mochi-ga-kabe wouldn’t dare avalanche while a university professor and a member of the illustrious Fukui Mountaineering Club was looking on.

I set to work. Every step up caused the snow to collapse and minutes ticked away before I could work high enough to grab a spray of panda grass and haul myself up in vegetation-assisted A-zero mode. Not even The Thicket on Rishiri had called for such unwholesome tactics.

As soon as we came up on the main ridge, the sharp easterly found us. Stray fronds of panda grass rattled in the wind. While I waited for the Sensei to join me, I looked for a friendly beech trunk to shelter behind, but there were none. Now we stood among sparse stands of mountain birch. Strange, it seemed, to have climbed so quickly through vegetation zones – maple, beech, and birch – especially when the deep snow had slowed us so much.

I looked at my watch: 1.30pm already! Clearly a fox was at work here, speeding up time and stretching distances. While we tackled Mochi-ga-kabe, he’d also made off with the blue sky. A pall of cloud had come posting up from the horizon and buried the sun in its grey tendrils.

We could allow only another half-hour if we wanted to get down before nightfall. I hurled myself at another slope of deep snow, only to be smothered in its mochi-like depths. Slowly I engineered a trench towards the skyline. The Sensei followed, hardly less laboriously. We seemed to be re-enacting Death March on Mt Hakkoda, albeit with a smaller cast.

At 2pm we came out on a small top, above the trees and within sight of the top. Well this would have to do for the day. We allowed ourselves a minute to take in the view. Behind us loomed Hakusan, luminously pale against the darkening skies. Below, like a snowy patchwork, was spread the snowy plain of Ono, sprinkled with farmsteads.

Above, spindrift plumed Everest-style from the ridge; this mountain clearly insisted on being taken seriously. “There used to be a hut and an antenna up there,” said the Sensei, “but they knocked them down because this is a Hyakumeizan. They also took away the shrine.” No wonder the kami-sama is aggrieved, I thought: it must be mighty cold without a shrine to bivvy in.

We started back. Even the downhill going was slow, but again I noticed how soon the dake-kamba (birches) gave way to the beech woods. Perhaps the fox had rearranged the scenery too.

It turns out, though, that Arashima’s treelines really do bunch more closely together than on other mountains. Its beech trees give way to birch at a mere 1,420 metres, compared to 1,700 metres on nearby Hakusan and in the Northern Alps. The savants ascribe this downshifting of vegetation zones to the mountain's exposure to the Siberian winds sweeping in from the Japan Sea.

That makes Arashima, climatically speaking, the equal of a higher or more northerly eminence. It has the stature of a famous peak, even if it packs its height into a smaller interval.

The light was fading when we got back to the car. As we drove away, All Angels playing on the CD drive, I looked back and saw a black bar of cloud, like a sword, hanging over Arashima-dake. For the first time, I considered the meaning of its name: the wild island peak. Yes, this is a mountain that deserves the utmost respect.


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

百名山の自然学西日本編 by 清水長正

Random acts of mountain photography by Project Hyakumeizan and (more) by the Sensei

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Hot & Cold Hyakumeizan challenge (17)

Travelogue continued: getting to know the Hyakumeizan author in his home town

7 December: I boarded a time machine at Osaka station. The bull-nosed Raicho express dated back to my student days, but now I meant to ride it much further into yesteryear. Yes, I was aware that a regular Japan RailPass does not even cover night trains, let alone time travel, but a voyage into the past was necessary if I was to get to know the Hyakumeizan author better.

Alas, it is no longer possible to meet with Fukada Kyuya in person - he died in 1971, while climbing a mountain - but a museum commemorates him in his birthplace of Daishoji, Ishikawa prefecture. If you want to get to know somebody, you have to visit them at home, and this was why I was heading for the north country in an antiquated express train.

“My native mountain is Hakusan,” writes Fukada in Nihon Hyakumeizan. “You could see it from the top floor of the house where I was born, from the gates of our primary school, from the banks of the river where we used to catch minnows, from the sand dunes of the beach where we swam, in short from just about anywhere in our town. There it was, right in front of us, noble and beautiful.”

And there it was, noble and beautiful, as we came into Daishoji late in the afternoon. Winter had come early, veiling Hakusan in pure white. True to the description in Hyakumeizan, its summit snows swept down from the ridgeline in a flawless folds, unblemished by outcrops or shadows.

The sun was setting as we walked into the museum, which occupies a large and dignified wooden building just across the river where the young Fukada Kyuya used to catch minnows. An elderly curator met us at the door to welcome us to the Fukada Kyuya Yama no Bunkakan. The museum is run and staffed by volunteers from the Friends of Fukada Kyuya Society (深田久弥を愛する会), our guide explained.

Not for the first time, I wondered if Nihon Hyakumeizan is a book or a movement or even a cult. Apparently, the Ai-suru Kai was founded about a decade ago to collect and preserve memorabilia of the Hyakumeizan author.

The Hyakumeizan author? Well, I’ve taken to describing him so in this blog, but the tag might mislead. Before we’d even shuffled away from the entrance hall in the museum-provided felt slippers, our guide waved his hand at an entire bookcase of works – stories about north country girls, a war novel, collected essays, books about the Himalaya and Central Asia, and, of course, several more books about the Japanese mountains. This was a reminder that Fukada already had four decades of literary activity behind him before he published Nihon Hyakumeizan.

We moved on to a ‘kura’, a former storehouse, which was appropriately full of mountaineering gear. A pair of wooden skis with primitive leather-strap bindings recalled a descent of Mt Fuji in March, a feat which even today should be undertaken only by experts in favourable conditions.

On the floor was pitched a high-altitude tent with a round hatch, somewhat like the window of a tea-house. This was the door that Fukada and his two companions crawled in and out of at their high camp on Big White Peak (7,083m) in the Jugal Himal. Although they didn’t make the summit, the expedition is significant as one of the first Japanese forays to the Himalaya after the second world war.

Writers are like icebergs: you see in their books only as much of them as they allow you to see. Hyakumeizan offers few hints or none that its author climbed in the Himalaya or skied down Fuji. Fukada keeps himself largely in the background. Often he barely mentions his own experiences when describing a particular summit. Yet the book distils an entire life of climbing and writing. The almost ego-less style accounts for the paradox of Hyakumeizan: an intensely “personal choice” of mountains that nonetheless became a national institution.

We thanked our guide and walked briskly down Daishoji’s main street. Daylight was ebbing and we still wanted to pay our respects to the house where Fukada was born on March 11, 1903. We came up to an old wooden building, fronted with a sliding glass door to the shop on the ground floor. A sign in the window advertised that New Year cards could now be ordered. Fukada was the son of the local printer, and the business continues to this day, although it has passed out of the family.

Daishoji is a small town – the Raicho doesn’t stop there – and it’s quite possible that you can still see Hakusan from the top floor of Fukada’s former house. Fukada could certainly see the mountain when he moved back to Daishoji for a few years after the war. At that time, he was writing a novel based on his experience as a platoon leader in China. Quite often, he must have looked out of the window:

Fine winter days are far and few between in the Hokuriku region. But on one of those rare cloudless evenings, when the air was clear and cold enough almost to crackle, Hakusan floated there in the pale moonlight like a work of fine crystal chased in silver. It was a scene drawn less from reality than from some land of fantasy.

The sun had already set and a chilly breeze was getting up. As we walked back to the car, we glimpsed Hakusan at the end of a side-street. The summit snows glowed with an unearthly radiance, as if illuminated from within. On this rare fine winter evening, the mountain had presented itself as Fukada Kyuya saw it sixty years ago.

For a brief moment, at least, the Japan Railpass had permitted a trip out of time.