Thursday, July 23, 2009

Accident of time

The recent tragedy on Tomuraushi recalls a century-old accident in the mountains of Chichibu.

Fickle island weather turns Japan’s mountains into a deadly trap. Last week, eight elderly people died when a storm hit Tomuraushi, a mountain in Hokkaido. Three years ago, four women succumbed to exposure after a summer blizzard caught them on Shirouma, a summit in the Northern Alps. Sad to say, both peaks belong to the “One Hundred Mountains of Japan”, suggesting that their fame may sometimes lure the ill-equipped or unwary to their doom.

If so, the blame can hardly be laid at the door of the Hyakumeizan author, Fukada Kyuya. Although he chooses to dwell more on the sunnier side of mountaineering, he doesn’t minimise the dangers and annoyances. You only have to look at the essay on Kobushi-dake, a 2,460-metre mountain near Tokyo, to find an accident that is hauntingly similar to the more recent ones above:-

Kobushi-dake was the scene of the first mountain accident that I can recall hearing about. It caused an outcry. Indeed, if the news travelled as far as a country lad like myself, it must have created quite a shock. Unlike the present, where fatal accidents are reported every week during this mountaineering boom, in those days - and I'm certain this was in 1916 (Taishō 5) - mountaineering was still regarded as something of a hazardous adventure. The fuss was all the greater because four of the five victims were students who had just entered the Imperial (now Tōkyō) University, with all the promising future ahead of them that this implies. Just one of the party survived.

For that reason, the name of Kobushi-dake imprinted itself on my memory. Later I ascertained that the accident happened not on Kobushi-dake itself but on Hafu-yama, as the students were ascending to it. They lost the path in dense woods and died of exposure in a torrential storm. However, these events were reported as "the accident on Kobushi-dake" and that is how I came to read about it in my magazine for boys.

(Nihon Hyakumeizan, Chapter 64)

Assiduous researches by Iain Williams of the Toyohashi Alpine Club have now cast additional light on the Kobushi-dake accident. A contemporary account of the tragedy was published in a 1917 volume of Inaka, the newsletter of the Mountain Goats of Kobe. Appropriately, the article is entitled Dangers of Mountaineering:-

There is a crying need for good huts and shelters in the Japanese Alps, especially in the vicinity of climbing centres such as Kamikochi and Nakabusa onsens. Perhaps some attention may be paid to this by an apathetic public when a few more students have lost their lives from exposure. Here it may be as well to touch upon the inexpediency of climbing in bad weather, and an insufficiency of supplies in the way of the food problem. Take the typical case of some students from the Imperial University accompanied by a teacher from the Fukagawa Primary School, who set out at the latter end of July 1916 totally unprovided with a sufficient quantity of food and with absolutely nothing in the way of camp equipment to explore the forests on the mountain of Kokushi and Kobushi, which are reported to be situated on the borders of the three provinces of Kai, Shinano and Musashi. The following is taken from the obituary notices published by local papers under the head-lines of:- “Fate of the Missing Mountaineers,” “Perils of Reckless Mountaineering,” etc.

“The mountaineering fever among the Japanese runs so high that many are reckless enough to attempt mountain climbing without carefully counting on the difficulties and dangers besetting such journeys. On the afternoon of the 6th inst. a young man staggered into a saw mill at Mitomi-mura more dead than alive. After medical treatment, he was able to tell his story.

The party, after purchasing 1 to of rice at Hirose, Mitomi-mura, Yamanashi Ken, climbed the mountain. They passed the night at Shimomata and made for Mt. Kobushi, which adjoins Mt. Kokushi, 8550 ft., on the following morning. While they were proceeding towards the summit, they lost their way. Meanwhile heavy rain set in and as it was impossible to continue their climb, they had to return. One of the students, Koyama Hidezo, suddenly became ill, and two of the party set out to get water. In their search, they got separated in the mist, and Nakamura, the only survivor of the party, had to pass the night alone in the forest. After wandering in the forest for several days almost demented by hunger, fatigue and anxiety, he at last reached the saw mill as described above. Search parties were organised, and started for the forests under the leadership of police inspectors. A party of searchers succeeded in discovering the bodies huddled together, death evidently being due to hunger and exposure. According to a doctor who accompanied the search party, they had been dead four or five days. The bodies were taken to the Maruzen Saw-Mill, and relatives were sent for to establish identification.”

Times change; the Dangers of Mountaineering remain constant.


Kobushi-dake chapter of Nihon Hyakumeizan by Fukada Kyūya in a forthcoming translation as One Hundred Mountains of Japan

"Dangers of Mountaineering" republished from Inaka, the newsletter of the Mountain Goats of Kobe, Volume 6, 1917. Many thanks to Iain Williams of the Toyohashi Alpine Club for rediscovering and copying the source edition.

Photo of rescue helicopter over Tomuraushi by courtesy of 楽して登る日本百名山, a website (in Japanese) with much useful information on climbing the One Hundred Mountains

Friday, July 17, 2009

When Fuji swayed

Two minutes to noon on September 1, 1923: the three-man party were about to start their ascent of Japan’s highest volcano when the mountain heaved under their feet. This account of the Great Kanto Earthquake originally appeared in Inaka, the newsletter of a Kobe-based mountaineering club.

Three of us had planned to ascend Fuji by moonlight on Friday night, August 31st, see the sunrise from its summit and return on Saturday night, September 1st. We left Subashiri on horseback at four o'clock on Friday afternoon, two riding as far as the third station; one making the mistake of riding on to the fifth station through a gale in the pitch darkness, with a horse that alternately stood stock still or plunged at a gallop into black space!

At the fifth station, the guide insisted on our waiting for the moon to rise. In the meantime, it began to rain fiercely, so that there was nothing to do but spend the night on the floor of the flea-infested hut. After midnight, a Britisher arrived with his Japanese wife and her mother all drenched.

In the morning, the rain still didn't let up. We complained of being bored. At half-past eleven, however, it had suddenly cleared below and above. The guide, nevertheless, could hardly be persuaded to start with us, protesting that it would be dangerous in such a wind and, then, that he must have his gohan, or rice, first anyway. We were standing in front of the hut all ready to begin the ascent when the earthquake came. It was terrific.

The earthquake and panic
One cannot describe the way the whole mountain shook and heaved, or the sickening sense of helplessness one felt. Everything seemed to give way. The stones built against the hut all tumbled, the ground cracked in front of it, and we all scattered trying to find safety, not able to go where we tried to, running and falling down, as one does in a bad dream. Two of us went forward to the cleared space of a former avalanche, but rocks were flying and spinning down. Finally no one could stand, and we all sat on the ground wherever we happened to be.

A place of safety
There must have been a lull when the guides called and beckoned to us all to come to the left of the hut, where a large clump of low shrubs would check the descent of the falling rocks. We stood there, each holding on to the trunk of one of the shrubs, while it seemed as though the mountain would shake itself to pieces. I fully believed we would all be either swallowed up in a crevice or caught in an eruption. There were cracked places everywhere. If the rain had not softened the ground, there might have been even greater crevices. I can still see the top of Fuji swaying. While we stood, the Japanese mother praying aloud, the guides from the sixth station rushed down, telling us to run!! – big boulders were coming!! The wind had dropped, followed by a stifling stillness. Clouds again obscured the view.

A long, long descent
Without loss of time we began the long descent of several miles, over broken ground, past landslides and fallen boulders and some fallen trees. In places, the trail was torn up and impassable. The low stations had stood somehow, but all the benches under one were flat. The shrine was badly knocked up.

As I was gesturing in conversation with the young Japanese lady, our excited guide turned back and expostulated, "Don't walk with your hands! Walk with your feet and walk fast!" Thinking Fuji had been the centre of the action, we talked about how worried my sister in Tokyo would be, she knowing that I had been on it! Even when we found the big torii at the foot of the mountain down and saw the havoc everywhere below – the monument, the chaos of broken things in the wrecked houses, the numbers of houses, especially those with heavy grass roofs, that were flat, we still supposed we had experienced the greatest severity of the shocks on Fuji. Innocently we asked for the basha to return the ten miles to Gotemba! Many were being used as shelters with the wheels taken off. No coolies were to be had to carry our luggage, so taken up they were with their damaged homes.

The quivering earth
We soon realized that it might be months before the road could be used for vehicles. It was too bad to go over even on foot the first part of the way, so that we had to follow the bed of a gulch, where the ground was frequently cracked, and the way obstructed by fallen trees. The road was upheaved every once in a while, banks had given way, trees fallen on it, and all the bridges were down. It was ticklish work getting down to the tottering planks and crossing one by one over the shaky wrecks. The ground quivered all the time between the almost continual earthquakes. One of the three felt seasick several days from it.

On the way a Japanese, who had made tea out-of-doors, offered us the cups, placing three boxes in the middle of the road for us to sit on, and they were worth more there at that time than thrones in any palace!

We looked back toward evening, and saw a purple Fuji standing serenely calm, at that distance with nothing to mark the great agitation, except the slight change in the outline of its summit.

M. C. A.


Article is republished from Inaka, the newsletter of the Mountain Goats of Kobe, Volume 18. Original title is The climb that failed and the article is annotated "From the Far East, October 6, 1923".

Many, many thanks to Iain Williams of the Toyohashi Alpine Club for rediscovering and copying the source edition.

Pictures come not from the Inaka article but from a collection of photos from Old Japan painstakingly collected, scanned, and published on Flickr by "Okinawa Soba". Clicking on an image will take you to his pages. Thanks, Soba, for having the generous and public-spirited noodle to assemble all these invaluable and historic pictures.... Gokurosama!

More about the effect of the Great Kanto Earthquake on the mountains near Tokyo in the posting about Takeda Hisayoshi

Friday, July 10, 2009

Seasons of a stratovolcano

A long-lost eyewitness account of a volcanic eruption reveals the violent past behind Kami-kōchi's idyllic landscapes

As the bus comes out of the Kama tunnel between Shima-jima and Kami-kōchi, writes Fukada Kyuya in Nihon Hyakumeizan, Yake-dake suddenly confronts you, as if the volcano stands guard before the mighty host of peaks beyond. The scene is well known, yet every time I see it afresh, as if for the first time.
On this crisp November morning, though, we couldn’t see Yake-dake at all. The last night bus of the year arrived so early that the little volcano still lurked in the pre-dawn shadows of the higher mountains. As it was too dark to start walking, I joined the group of photographers lined up like militiamen by the banks of Taishō pond. In few minutes, a fusillade of camera shutters would greet the first rays of the sun as it gilded the tips of the Hodaka range.

Taishō Pond was created in 1915 (Taishō 4) when Yake-dake erupted and sent mudflows cascading down into the Azusa river. While shivering in the gloaming, I wondered how this cataclysm might have appeared to an eyewitness. Now, thanks to the assiduous researches of Iain Williams of the Toyohashi Alpine Club, my curiosity has been more than satisfied. He has discovered an account by J Merle Davis, a missionary and associate of the Mountain Goats of Kobe, who happened to be the only guest at a local onsen when the volcano exploded. Here is Davis’s story:-

Sunday morning, June 6, I was awakened at seven by a series of earthquake shocks, which grew in intensity until it seemed as if the house would fall to pieces before we could get out of it. As I reached the door, half dressed, with an ear-rending concussion the big mountain, whose base is only two miles from the hotel, begun to get busy. From its eastern slope, a mile below the old craters at the summit, it blew out a volume of rocks, mud, and steam, smoke and ashes in a vast column, while the roar of Vulcan's forge mingled with the smiting of his sledge upon the anvil, filled the whole valley with a pandemonium of sound as the granite cliffs hurled the echoes back and forth at one another.

A heavy cloud of smoke rolling in huge puffs and waves, spread over the whole valley, turning bright sunshine into twilight. Soon ashes began to fall, but I must confess I did not wait to measure them for I was already making good time up the river path toward Shima-shima. At the bridge, a mile above the hotel, by the way a splendid viewpoint, I began to get ashamed of myself, and as nothing worse than a shower of light ashes had happened and since breakfast was waiting down the river, I returned. All day long the mountain roared in heavy pulsations, as the wind brought the sound of the crashing rocks and trees and escaping steam.

Four new craters had opened on the volcano, about half way between base and summit. From one of these, a stream of mud and rock was pouring out and slipping down the slope to the river, a thousand feet below. Toward night, a heavy rain began to fall, and after a second day of torrential rain and constant volcanic activity, this morning dawned upon as strange a world as the imagination could possibly picture.

A glorious alpine valley, with splendid fir and beech forests as fine as grow anywhere in Japan, but a valley from mountain top to river bottom sprayed, dripping, and drowned with mud. An area of forest, mountain, and valley fully ten square miles in extent is covered with a coating of volcanic slime from half an inch to four feet in depth.

The hardy bamboo grass, the terror of the climber, is beaten prone in the mud, mile upon mile of magnificent timber, the pride of the Imperial Forestry Reserve, is groaning, bending and breaking under literally tons of mud to the tree. Sharp reports and rending crashes fairly filled the air all day, as the great firs one after another refused longer to bear the strain of their load.

We have all seen a great forest with tree limbs drooping to the very ground under a fresh fall of heavy wet snow, but in place of the spotless winter covering, picture if you can, a clinging, sticky, slate-coloured mud, a mud that covers everything and oozes off the tree limbs upon you as you slip and stumble in the slime. A mud world; and but two days ago the fairest valley in Japan!

Yet even in the wanton destruction of the volcano, a feature of real beauty has been added to Kami Kochi, for it now boasts a blue alpine lake, a mile and a half in extent, filling the lower end of the valley, a sheet of water in which the snowy crags and pinnacles of Hodaka yama are mirrored. The same mud that was blown over the landscape like escaping steam, flowed for twenty-four hours down the mountain side, carrying huge rocks and trees and, in an ever widening stream, stripped a clean path through the forest, a path a mile long and four hundred yards wide in its lower reaches.

Into the river bed, at its narrowest point, the very portal of the valley, slipped this stream of mud, building a dam of mighty forest trees and rocks and filling the interstices with sticky mud. The Azusagawa, the chief affluent of the Shinanogawa, the largest river of the main island, was squarely stopped by this stone and timber barrier which must be full 60 feet in height. The waters of the river backed up to form the lake and are now running over the top of the dam, down a spill-way in a wild cataract, a full quarter of a mile in extent …..

The musketry of camera shutters interrupted my reverie – the sun had touched the top of the Hodakas, and it was time to be moving. I crossed the river at Tashiro Bridge, where another battalion of photographers was straining to capture the frosted trees by a smaller pond. Behind their backs, Yake-dake’s reflection floated luminously in the still waters. One fine autumn day, wrote Fukada Kyuya, it seemed as if Yake-dake had donned a coat of many colours. And so it seemed to me too.

But today, continued the Hyakumeizan author (in 1964), Kami-kōchi is a seething hive of activity that centres more on tourism than alpinism. Such mountaineers as there are shoulder their packs and vanish swiftly in the direction of the mountains, leaving the environs of Kappa-bashi and Taishō Pond to the day-trippers with their raincoats and sports shoes. Above them looms Yake-dake, a simple, half-day climb. The tourists would gain much if they added it to their list of sights to see.

Taking Fukada’s advice, I headed uphill through stands of larch trees flaming in their autumn yellow. The path flirted with the edge of an erosion gully, then led me to the hut on the volcano’s northern shoulder. By now, my boots were crunching through the season’s first light snows. The hut warden had long since packed up and gone down. I wandered on up to the summit, which was occupied by a group of lively pensioners, fresh from the previous day's conquest of the highest peak in the Central Alps.

Yake is a convincing if compact volcano: steam vents from a large fumarole and sulphur encrusts the frozen earth around several other vents. In the centre of the crater, there is a straight-sided shaft, just large enough for an Empedoclean leap, that plummets to dark and unfathomable depths. As Fukada Kyuya observes, this is a summit that leaves you in no doubt that you are standing on top of an active volcano.

The mountain can be descended to the south, by a path down to Naka-no-yu, where an onsen used to ply its trade before the Abo tunnel was built. In 1995, a steam explosion killed four construction workers there, showing that titanic forces still lurk beneath the tranquil scenery. As I walked down through the beech woods, the autumn wind wrested the last leaves from the trees.


Eyewitness account of Yake-dake eruption by J Merle Davis, from “Inaka” (Vol II, 1915), the newsletter of the Mountain Goats of Kobe (see previous posting) - many thanks to Iain Williams of the Toyohashi Alpine Club for rediscovering "Inaka" and for generously sending me this extract!

Yake-dake chapter of Nihon Hyakumeizan by Fukada Kyūya in a forthcoming translation as One Hundred Mountains of Japan

Black-and-white photo of Yake-dake in 1925 by Hokari Misuo, a pioneer mountain photographer, from 人はなぜ山に登るか, volume 103 in the Taiyo Bessatsu: Nihon no Kokoro series (Heibonsha, 1998)