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