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