Sunday, November 21, 2010

“Above the clouds”

In mountaineering too, Japan’s Imperial House sums up the spirit of the age, from Taishō alpinism to the Hyakumeizan boom.

On this December morning, the alpine chill on Kaimon belied the modest altitude. As I brushed through dewy bushes to the summit shrine, a brass plaque affixed to a boulder caught my eye: it told me that the little stratovolcano had recently been visited by personages “from above the clouds”. Apparently, my interest in the One Hundred Mountains was shared by no less than the Crown Prince and Princess of Japan.

The Imperial House looks back on almost a century of mountaineering tradition. Fittingly for an institution that sums up the nation’s aspirations, princes of the realm started climbing when everybody else did – in the reign of Emperor Taishō (1912-1926). It was then that strong economic growth touched off Japan’s first mass mountaineering boom, as city dwellers sought to reconnect with nature.

As if to gratify them, the Army surveyors came out with their new 1:50,000-scale maps of Honshu’s mountains – by 1913, the second year of Taishō’s reign, most of the Japan Alps was covered. The first guidebooks appeared, complete with course times and transport connections. Huts proliferated and, with them, paths. The new trail that led from Kamikōchi to Yarigatake was significant enough for a prince of the realm to open.

After presiding over that ceremony in the summer of 1916, Prince Higashikuni (1887-1990) took the chance to climb Yari (above). Reasons of state may have influenced him. He’d noted how Britain’s Duke of Connaught had taken time out from an official visit to descend the Tenryū River in a sampan – an adventurous excursion. If Japan’s Imperial family did not bestir itself, Higashikuni feared, the first royal ascent of Yari might fall to some foreign blue-blood. A year or so later, the Prince went on to climb Tateyama.

While mountaineering was a duty or a pastime for Higashikuni, it was a passion for Prince Chichibu (1902-1953), the second son of Emperor Taishō. After making several forays to the Hida range, including a visit to Tateyama (above) in the snow season, the "climbing prince" set his sights on the Swiss Alps. In this, he had the ideal aide-de-camp, the alpinist Yuko Maki, who had galvanised Japanese mountaineering circles in 1921 with the first ascent of the Eiger’s Mittelegi ridge.

The Prince’s big chance came at the end of his year at Oxford, where he had taken up residence at Magdalen College. In July 1926, Maki arrived in Grindelwald, underneath the Eiger, to sign up five of the region's best alpine guides. These included Samuel Brawand and Heinrich Fuhrer, who had led the way on Maki’s climbs of, respectively, the Eiger Mittelegi and Canada’s Mt Alberta, another famous first ascent.

In August, the Prince arrived and undertook two training tours in the Bernese Oberland. It was agreed that the guides could address their client as “Herr Prinz”, the German equivalent for “Your Imperial Highness” being too cumbersome in tense alpine situations. Then the party moved on to the giants of the Zermatt area, where they tackled Monte Rosa, the Lyskam, the Matterhorn and the Zinalrothorn. Unfortunately, military duties prevented Brawand from accompanying them to the Valais.

Needless to say, it was the Matterhorn ascent that got the most press attention, even though the Prince’s party also climbed the considerably more difficult Schreckhorn in the Bernese Oberland. The Prince’s feat seemed to lash the journalist from Time magazine into a frenzy. This is how he set the scene:

Years pass when no man can conquer and bestride "The Old Hag of the Alps"—the Matterhorn. Humpbacked, she towers, and her hump is a jagged ridge from which many have slithered down to death. About her hungry lightning tongues lick often, winds howl, and evil legends cluster grim and hoar. Sometimes, when a climbing-hatchet slips and sickening pebbles roll, it seems that the Hag chuckles. . . .

As the Hag kept her peace that day, the party felt confident enough to make a full traverse of the mountain: “Daring,” continued the Time correspondent, “the Prince proceeded straight over the hump (the Italo-Swiss frontier) and prepared to descend by the far more dangerous Italian route, necessitating straight drops by means of Alpine ropes of several hundred feet.”

This was the Prince’s first and last expedition to the high mountains. His studies at Oxford had to be cut short when his father’s illness took a turn for the worse later that year. Back in Japan, heavy responsibilities awaited him as the brother of the new Emperor. The year after his return, he entered the Army’s officer training school and married the daughter of Japan’s ambassador to Washington. Their first summer holiday together was a walking tour in mountainous Gunma Prefecture: “I began to wonder if being walked off one’s feet was another of the requirements of a princess,” wrote Princess Chichibu in her memoir, The Silver Drum.

The Prince took his Army career seriously. Disdaining to exploit his position as a member of the Imperial family, he studied far into the nights during his officer school years and endured his fair share of arduous field exercises. Army service had its compensations, however. In 1934, he was posted to Hirosaki in the extreme north of Honshu as commander of the 31st Infantry Regiment – incidentally, the unit that came unscathed through the infamous “Death March on Mount Hakkoda” incident in 1902 when almost 200 men from the unlucky 5th perished in a blizzard.

Life in the snowy north was congenial: “I do not think we ever had more time to ourselves than in those Hirosaki days,” recollected the Princess. Although there wasn’t much time for the mountains, the couple practised their skiing in the foothills of Mt Sasamori and, when spring came, went picking edible bracken shoots on the slopes of Mt Iwaki. On another occasion, the Prince had to stand for hours on the summit of Iwaki in the rain as the observer of a military exercise.

In the end, these exertions may have been the death of him. The ranks of the Army were rife with tuberculosis and, in 1940, Prince Chichibu was diagnosed with the disease. The following year, the couple moved to a villa near Gotemba, where the country air would be more salubrious than in Tokyo.

The close view of Fuji was also heartening: “Gazing at the mountain from Gotemba, he said he began to see aspects he had never dreamed existed: the way it changed according to the season and even in the space of a single day … It was a mountain you could never tire of observing. Indeed, he told me, there was something awesome and unapproachable about the way it soared, quietly aloof.” (The Silver Drum)

Prince Chichibu died in January 1953 at Kugenuma, still within sight of Mt Fuji. On the lawn of the villa at Gotemba, his likeness in bronze, clad as a mountaineer complete with rucksack, continues to gaze out at the mountain. It is an appropriate tribute: “There is hardly a peak in Japan which he did not scale,” wrote his widow, “from the Japanese Alps to the Chichibu Range, from which he derived his title. Mountains gave him spiritual freedom and peace of mind, and he liked the discipline.”

Half a century later, two more members of the Imperial family are drawing spiritual freedom and peace of mind from the mountains. The present Crown Prince takes in peaks whenever official duties permit – he climbed Uluru on a visit to Australia in his high school days, and he visited the highest peaks in England, Scotland, and Wales during his time at Oxford in the 1980s. The British summits were shrouded in mist, as is proper for these climes.

The Crown Princess-to-be, Owada Masako, also discovered mountains at an early age: there is a photo of her and her twin sisters on a family trip to Shirouma – a mountain that, as Hyakumeizan author Fukada Kyuya remarks, “is a good one for introducing people to the high peaks”. Such experiences were probably infrequent, though, as Masako-sama spent much of her childhood in the foreign capitals to which her diplomat father had been posted.

Are the Crown Prince and Princess now systematically collecting the One Hundred Mountains of Japan? Project Hyakumeizan dares not approach the Imperial Household Agency to ask, but the plaque on Kaimon-dake suggests that the answer might be ‘yes’. Not that the question matters much. Ultimately, as the Hyakumeizan author himself said, the One Hundred Mountains represent no more than a personal selection. And the motives for climbing Japan's mountains go deeper than the dubious pleasure of ticking items off a list. Indeed, a distant ancestor of the Prince captured them perfectly:

Countless are the mountains in Yamato
But perfect is the heavenly hill of Kagu;
When I climb it and survey my realm,
Over the wide plain the smoke-wreaths rise and rise,
Over the wide lake the gulls are on the wing;
A beautiful land it is, the Land of Yamato!

(Emperor Jomei (r.593–641) in the Manyōshu)


The Silver Drum: A Japanese Imperial Memoir, by Princess Chichibu (published by Global Oriental)

1000 Poems from the Manyōshu: The Complete Nippon Gakujutsu Shinkokai Translation

Erinnerungen an Yuko Maki von Samuel Brawand, guide of Grindelwald (PDF)

Historical photos are from 目で見る日本登山史, 山と溪谷社 (編集) (Yama-to-Keikoku-sha: Illustrated History of Japanese Mountaineering) and The Silver Drum; photo of Crown Prince and Princess from YamaKei magazine/Imperial Household Agency.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The last bear

Will Japan save its black bears or follow Switzerland's sad example?

Bear stories remind me of a faded photograph that hangs in a museum in a remote corner of Switzerland. The carcass lies on the ground, flanked by the hunters who brought it down. Everyone in the village has turned out to witness the spectacle.

Right now, quite a few bear stories are coming in from Japan. On 12 October, a bear attacked a nurse, then holed up in a daycare centre near the town of Katsuyama, Fukui Prefecture. It was shot the next day. On 27 October, a female bear was shot on a patch of waste ground next to a kindergarten at Ono, a nearby town. Her two cubs were captured but died, probably of stress, before they could be released on the mountainside. Another bear was shot near Katsuyama just a few days ago. These are the stories from a single corner of just one of Honshu's 34 prefectures. They are unlikely to be isolated incidents.

It was a hot, dry summer in Japan. The weather may have shrivelled the berries and nuts that the bears live on, driving them down to the valleys. A similar pattern was seen in the hot summer of 2006. That year, 4,251 bears were shot on Honshu, accounting for an estimated one-third or perhaps half of Japan’s entire population of Asian black bears. (The northern island of Hokkaido is home to a different species of bear.)

Nobody in Japan wants to extirpate the bears. They are protected by law, but may be killed if they attack or pose a threat. Unfortunately, people and bears are crossing paths ever more frequently, as unseasonable weather and changing land-use force the animals out of their usual habitats. This is a slow-moving ecological disaster with no easy answers.

It was on 1 September 1904 that Padruot Fried und Jon Sarott Bischoff, the two hunters in the photograph above, brought their quarry down to the Engadine village of Scuol. At that time, of course, they had no idea that they’d just killed Switzerland’s last native bear. How long will it be before this scene is re-enacted in Honshu?


Japan's black bears 'face extinction' article from the The Guardian, January 2007

In Japan's managed landscape, a struggle to save the bears: a balanced and well researched overview of the plight of Japan's black bears, by Winifred Bird, October 2009

Sunday, October 24, 2010

North ridge boogie

Taking the slow way to the summit of Mae-Hodaka, Japan Northern Alps

“I had never deliberately kicked a situation into the full-tilt boogie. The other side had always taken care of that readily enough.” (Heaven’s Prisoners, James Lee Burke)

In the orange gloom of the tent, I looked up from the book – Andy’s book, to be precise, but he was asleep. “The full-tilt boogie”: encountered half-way up one of Japan’s highest mountains, the phrase had a resonance. We’d come here to boogie, certainly. But, like most weekend alpinists, we’d rather not escalate matters as far as the full-tilt boogie-woogie.

On May Morning, we’d heaved absurdly heavy packs to our shoulders and staggered through the bare groves of Kami-kochi. Awaiting us was a gully choked with avalanche debris. Our Koflach boots slipped off frozen divots or plunged us knee-deep in hidden holes. We meant to take the longest possible route to the summit of Mae-Hodaka, a local 3,000er, hauling with us tent, cooker, sleeping bags, crampons, axe; everything, to adapt a Japanese advertising tagline, for beautiful climbing life.

The object was not, of course, to have fun – not even Type III fun. For this was a “gasshuku”, a Golden Week spring mountaineering training camp. Fittingly, the spur we were climbing was named for Keio, an elite private university with a famous mountaineering club. Back in the 1930s, the Keio lads helped to pioneer full-tilt, expedition-style climbing in Japan. They came this way in mid-winter 1938, hauling a ten-man tent (below) which they pitched with the aid of hewn-off tree branches.

The German and British expeditions of the early 1930s – among them, Nanga Parbat ’32 and Everest ‘33 - had galvanised the student climbers of Japan. Imanishi Kinji and his crew were early off the mark, founding the Academic Alpine Club of Kyoto in 1931 specifically to pursue Himalayan ventures. As a start, they had to master a new set of techniques – setting climbing camps progressively higher up the mountain until the summit was in reach.

The AACK’s first experiment with this “polar method”, as they called it, was a two-week expedition to Mt Fuji over the 1931 year-end. They divided into climbing and support teams, put four camps on the mountain, and spent several days on the frozen and wind-blasted summit. Keio was quick to get in on the act: the following winter, they went to Nishi-Hodaka. Later, they tackled Tsurugi, Yari, and Kita-Hodaka, all in mid-winter. These “gasshuku” had but a single aim: to train for the Himalaya.

In the winter of 1934/35, the Kyoto club made a first winter ascent of the ferociously cold Mt Pekto (above), on the Korean-Chinese border. That was the cue for a whole series of student expeditions to the most frigid corners of the Japanese empire – the Kurile islands, Sakhalin, northeast China, and the high mountains of Taiwan. In the end, it was neither Kyoto nor Keio but the Rikkyo University men who bagged Japan’s first major Himalayan summit, Nanda Kot, in 1936.

Now we were following in the postholes of these expeditionary pioneers. Gasping like Himalayan climbers, we reached a flatter spot on Keio Ridge. “That’ll do,” said our leader – a Keio man – although the clouds had cleared and it was hardly past noon. We were granted a brief pause before the reason for the early stop was revealed: “Now we’ll dig a tent platform here,” said Yamada-san, unpacking his shovel and indicating a spot hull-down, off the ridge.

As every expeditioner should be, our leader was thorough. Instead of merely checking the forecast, he’d phoned the meteorological agency for a personal consultation. Tomorrow’s front, he’d been advised, would stop us climbing and we’d better be well encamped. Thus briefed, we shovelled with a will. By evening, the tent was embedded so deeply into the snowslope that a hurricane couldn’t have shifted it.

We woke on May 2 to a gentle sussuration on the orange flysheet – light snowfall that later turned to the pitter-patter of sleet. We festered in our sleeping bags, snoozing or reading. Around noon, there was a muffled curse from Andy: his sleeping bag had soaked up a puddle that had formed in a corner of the tent.

Next morning, we moved on under a grey sky. Now we were on the main crest, heading for Mae-Hodaka along its north ridge. The way was narrow; the drops on both sides sizeable; we concentrated on our footwork. When we paused, which was often, we looked down a breathtaking sweep of snow into the great glacial scoop of Karesawa. There, like a sprinkling of pixels, a virtual town of multi-coloured tentage had been established by the Golden Week climbing hordes.

Mostly, we boogied, unroped, until brought up short by an icy runnel that led upwards through a vertiginous grove of dake-kamba. This called for some full-tilt cramponing, kicking hard into the grey and rippled ice. Fragments spalled away from the steel points, jostling and tumbling down the gully. Then we were over the big hump in the ridge and climbing down into Go-roku col.

This time, care was called for when digging a platform for our tent, and even more so when shovelling snow into our cooking pot. Go-roku col is, it appears, a popular place. Expeditioners on Everest and Denali know the problem well.

A clear, cold morning on May 4 made for firm, crisp snow. Our crampons bit well into the creaking styrofoam. For an hour, Caspar and I boogied higher on the steepening ridge, now on the left of the crest, now on the right, as rocks and cornices dictated. Yamada and Andy were somewhere ahead. Here and there we made belays of the boot-axe variety, more for practice than from necessity. Once we waited on a shadowed ledge while a traffic jam of climbers cleared itself.

We came to the last tower. I hadn’t expected any difficulties here: in summer, a cleft in the rock is climbed by pressing a boot sole onto each face and so ratcheting oneself higher. That technique doesn’t work so well in crampons, especially when the rock is slathered in a film of glassy ice. I extended a tentative set of front-points, tried to move them higher – until, with a chalk-on-slate screech, the crampon sheared through the ice-film and dropped me back into the snow.

Behind, Caspar was driving his axe deeper into the snow in search of a firmer belay. And well he might. What next? I looked round the side of the ridge; a vertiginous sweep of snow falling hundreds of metres – no hope there. Then it had to be the chimney. Perhaps, with a bit of luck, I could reach that rusty piton, five metres up, without becoming unstuck… Could it be, I wondered, that matters were about to escalate into the full-tilt boogie-woogie? Before the question could be answered, a rope’s end whacked into the snow at my feet. “Thought you might need a bit of help,” Andy called from above.

That evening, we camped for the last time, in a pine grove down in the valley. Yamada-san was cooking; we’d taken it in turns. First course was a seaweed and tuna salad, the fish from a generously sized can. Hmm, I thought, our leader had scraped and teetered his way up that icy chimney weighed down with half a tent and a stock of sundry canned goods too. How did he do that?

I never found out the answer, because courtesy obliged us to entertain our neighbours, two girls from Yokohama. They’d pitched a tent beside their steeds, a brace of fearsomely rugged and mud-spattered Africa Twin trail bikes. Apparently, they worked the elevators in a department store. Always be extra polite to department store lift attendants: you never know what they get up to at weekends.


Historical photos and outline history of student "gasshuku" of the 1930s are from 目で見る日本登山史, 山と溪谷社 (編集) (Yama-to-Keikoku-sha: Illustrated History of Japanese Mountaineering)


In the Taishō period, Hodaka became the arena for alpine and winter climbing. In the seminary of mountaineering skills formed by its four three-thousanders, the youthful elite of the university mountaineering clubs then in the forefront of mountaineering endeavour vied to open up new routes ... By the outbreak of the second world war, most of Hodaka's ridges, faces, and gullies had been explored. As Matsukata Saburō wrote, "Some nook or corner of the mountain still concealed a narrow ledge, a dance floor for a tengu, defended by sheer precipices on three sides and backed by a cliff, inaccessible to all but the true alpine adept. And, if you could only get there, the edelweiss would be blooming in sheets all around. Those were the kind of day-dreams we indulged in." Yet only a mountain on the sheer scale of Hodaka could harbour dreams like these.

From Nihon Hyakumeizan by Fukada Kyūya - in translation as "One Hundred Mountains of Japan"

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Life and death on Japan's Matterhorn

Visiting Yari-ga-take in November, we follow in the footsteps of a pioneer winter soloist

Shinu-ze! You’re gonna die,” said the grizzled mountaineer, though there was a twinkle in his eye. A lot of snow had fallen for early November and we’d asked him if we could get up Yari without crampons. One of us didn’t yet own a pair and the other, out of solidarity, had left his behind. Yet it was too bright an afternoon to think of dying, and so we nodded and smiled, and ploughed on up Yari-sawa, knee-deep through the drifts.

Waiting for Allan in the shadow of Sesshō Hut, I wondered who had named the refuge with the characters for ‘kill’ and ‘life’ and why. A rustling from above distracted me: rivulets of snow were tumbling down Yari’s sunward face. From this angle, the mountain really did look Matterhorn-like.

It was Walter Weston, the mountaineering missionary, who first dubbed Yari the “Matterhorn of Japan”. But the comparison really doesn't hold. Yari barely tops 3,000 metres; the Matterhorn stands more than a kilometre higher, rearing over Zermatt like a cobra ready to strike. By contrast, Yari is a cheerful chandelle of rock, less an independent peak than a tall gendarme punctuating the main ridge of Japan’s Northern Alps. Presumably Weston wanted to promote his book.

An hour later, we were sitting round the supper table in the hut’s dark-timbered gloom. There were few guests – the hut on the col had already closed for the season – and all were here to climb Yari on this final weekend of the season. A Mr Morimoto was anxious that we appreciate the mountain’s heritage. We’d heard of Monk Banryū and Walter Weston, of course – whose pioneer ascents the English-language guidebook mentioned – but who was this Katō Buntarō (photo above left) that Morimoto-san was telling us about?

The Japanese climbers were surprised that we hadn’t heard of him – the Katō who’d blazed meteor-like through the firmament of early-Showa alpinism. Fortunately the evening was young, so there was time to remedy our ignorance. Katō Buntarō was born in 1905 in Hamasaka, a village on the Tango peninsula, north of Kyoto. The village children spent a lot of time at the beach: Buntarō dominated their underwater swimming contests; he could hold out longer than everyone else.

In April 1919, he joined the Mitsubishi marine diesel factory in Kobe as a trainee draughtsman. Making drawings for heavy machinery production was arduous, exacting work. To let off steam, Katō played table-tennis back at the dormitory. And so he might have remained, a ferocious and focused ping-pong player, had not somebody thought of organising a marathon walk along Mt Rokko, the miniature mountain range that rises behind the city of Kobe.

One by one, all the other participants dropped out along the 50-kilometre course, but Katō kept going, trudging home at 9pm. The mountain air had agreed with him. Now he started training in earnest, setting himself long road-marches all round the prefecture. Once he walked 100 kilometres at a stretch, coming back to the dormitory at 2am. Sometimes he walked home to Hamasaka, on the opposite coast.

At the same time, he was delving into mountain literature, raiding the library of the Kobe Walking Society and asking a senior’s advice about the Northern Alps. A strategy started to take shape; Katō did nothing on impulse. In 1925, he made his first foray to the mountains, a summer hike from Renge Onsen to Shirouma, followed by a Mt Fuji ascent. The same year, he made two autumn trips, to Ōdaigahara and Daisen. Two more years of summer and autumn hiking followed, as Katō tested out his new environment.

Then the pace quickened. In February 1928, he made his first winter foray, to Hyōnosen, the highest mountain within easy reach. In May, when the Japan Alps are still deep in snow, he went to Tateyama and Tsurugi, using skis for the first time, and carried on to Yari and the Hodaka mountains. The following year he went to Yatsugatake in January: Katō’s career as Japan’s foremost winter alpinist was under way.

All these journeys were solo. “As I’m not good at skiing or rock-climbing, parties that do those things wouldn’t welcome me as a member,” he explained (冬富士単独行) “And so I more or less have to go to the mountains alone; it’s not because I espouse some sort of rigorous ideology of solitary climbing.” That wasn’t quite the full story, though, as he admitted in another essay (単独行について): “If mountaineering is about gaining knowledge and hence solace from nature, then surely you gain the most knowledge and the highest degree of solace from solo mountaineering.”

Now came the great mid-winter expeditions that made his name – and they were expeditions, meticulously planned and executed, with equipment checked off against a list as it was packed. Some of the gear Katō invented himself: a celluloid faceplate, for example, that he slid inside his woollen balaclava helmet to keep the spindrift out of his eyes. He was also an original thinker when it came to food: his provisions included pasted-fish kamaboko for the protein, as well as karintō, a deep-fried pastry confection, and sweet natto beans for energy. (“You might try them yourselves,” suggested Mr Morimoto, nodding at us from across the table.)

Thus equipped, Katō set off in January 1930 to cross the Northern Alps from west to east. He managed this feat in ten days, starting at Sarudani, climbing over Yakushi and descending to the Kurobe river, then crossing Eboshi-dake before returning to civilisation at Shinano-Ohmachi. In February, he took in Kashimayari and Hari-no-ki, two more high peaks in the region.

All the while, he was noting the behaviour of weather and snow – how, in mid-winter, a three-day cycle sets in, of sunshine, cloud, and storm – and how to read the cues, perhaps a slant of cold wind after a storm, that signal when it is safe to start out. Avalanches were intensively studied: when snow started falling, it was relatively warm and cohesive, he observed, but the temperature then dropped. That meant that avalanches were most likely to come down right at the end of a storm.

This was fascinating, we agreed, but why had Morimoto chosen to invoke the memory of Katō just here? Well, Yari looms large in this story. Like some strange attractor, it was a pole around which Katō’s alpine wanderings revolved. It was to Yari that he headed in August 1926, on his second summer trip to the Northern Alps. After striding across from Tsubakuro, he climbed the spire-like peak on the same afternoon. Clouds hid most of the view as he and others on the summit raised a triple “Banzai”. Then he went down to the Sesshō Hut – which had started existence as a hunting lodge, hence its curious name.

He came back the following year, in mid-October. His new boots were too heavy, but at least they were good for kicking into the frozen snow on Yari. (Lacking crampons ourselves, we’d have to take a leaf out of his book tomorrow.) On the same day, he walked out over a pass to the village of Shimajima, getting there just before 10pm.

Now he had the measure of autumn, he felt ready to tackle the snows of spring. In May 1928, he visited the Yari-Hodaka range for the first time on skis. A few years later, he was confident enough on skis to head for Yari in mid-winter. Avalanches roared down from the sunward slopes as he entered Yari-sawa. On Yari itself, his crampons bit well into the hard snow; he preferred snow-work to rock.

Next day, an unstructured situation developed. On Oku-Hodaka, the highest peak in the massif, a blasting gale froze his eyes half-shut and he backed off – too late. Night fell as he was still skiing down the snowbowl of Karesawa, where a treacherous crust tripped him up at every turn. A torch might have helped, but he didn’t have one.

At 8pm, he picked a bivvy site beside a rock. Taking off his boots, he stepped into his rucksack, standing up all night so that his wet trousers wouldn’t cling to his legs and chill him. Luckily, it snowed heavily, keeping the temperature up; his clothes didn’t freeze and he got away without frost-bite.

Katō’s last visit to Yari was in January 1936. This time, a colleague, Yoshida Tomihisa, came with him. The abandonment of his solo ethos was not the only change in his life. A year or two previously, he’d got married. Now he came home every day to a real house instead of the grim company dormitory. “I’m back, Hana-chan,” he’d call out cheerily at the door. Soon he had a baby daughter to greet too.

In April 1934, he’d managed a week in the Northern Alps with Yoshida. They tackled the North Ridge to Mae-Hodaka, tunnelling their way up through a snow-filled chimney. What prompted Katō to climb with a companion? Marriage may have mellowed him, or he felt the need for a rope partner to tackle more difficult routes. Or, as Fujiki Kuzō suggested, he may have harboured ambitions for the Himalaya. If so, he might well have concluded that climbers could only succeed there as part of a strong team. British expeditions had recently returned to Everest, after the decade-long lapse that followed the deaths of Mallory and Irvine in 1924.

Whatever their dreams for the future, Katō and Yoshida overnighted at the hut on Yari’s col on January 2, 1936. Their immediate plan was to traverse the Kita-kama, the serious and committing ridge that extends north of Yari. A blizzard was raging when they woke the next day, forcing them to weigh their summit chances against their dwindling stock of food and annual leave. After breakfast, they went out into the driving snow and started up the ice-encrusted rocks. That was the last time that anybody saw them alive. When the bodies were found, in the deep valley on the far side of Yari, a newspaper lamented the passing of a life “like a national treasure”.

We slept well in the cold hut, waking to a bright, calm morning. After breakfast, we went out to climb Yari. In places, the snow had a hard glaze, and we used our axes to cut footholds or, ramming the picks into icy runnels, we belayed ourselves carefully over rocky steps.

This was our first trip to a high mountain. Later, we’d go on to climb in three different sets of Alps, in Japan, New Zealand, and Switzerland. Great summits have this effect: they draw people to them and, for good or ill, alter the orbits of their lives. In the 1820s, Yari pulled in Monk Banryū, who made the first recorded ascent. Some decades later, it attracted the first generation of foreign climbers, including Walter Weston.

Then came the Army surveyors, closely followed by Kojima Usui and Okano Kinjirō in 1902. Their ascent led to a fateful meeting with Weston, who suggested to Kojima the idea of founding a Japanese Alpine Club. You could say that that Yari helped to shape the whole history of modern Japanese mountaineering. When it comes to stature and influence, Yari is every bit the peer of that other Matterhorn. Perhaps Weston wasn't so far off the mark to make that comparison.

One last move brought us up in front of the summit shrine, a lineal descendant of the one to which Kato Buntaro presented his business card one cloudy August day in 1926. Nobody raised a triple ‘banzai’, though Allan and I may have so far forgotten ourselves as to shake hands. Above us the sky was blue, yet veil cloud was already stealing up from the south.


Katō Buntarō, Tandokko (単独行)

See also Manifesto of a solo mountaineer

Photos of Katō Buntarō and his era are from 目で見る日本登山史, 山と溪谷社 (編集) (Yama-to-Keikoku-sha: Illustrated History of Japanese Mountaineering)


Just as everyone wants to climb Fuji once, so anyone with a passing interest in mountaineering has to do Yari-ga-take. In the old days, one might say, Fuji was the summit of ambition, but the focus of modern mountaineering has now shifted to Yari. (Fukada Kyūya, Nihon Hyakumeizan)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Book review

The Japan Alps by Peter Skov: An outside person brings a fresh perspective to Japanese fine-art mountain photography

The strengths of Japanese mountain photography are also its weakness. So Olympian are the skills and vision of the undoubted masters – yes, I’m thinking of Shirahata Shiro here – that aspirants dare not plant their tripods anywhere but in the holes left by the maestro. Too often, the result is images that are technically perfect, but also generic and lifeless.

Peter Skov has avoided this trap. Carefully picking his own tripod sites, he’s put together a lively debut collection. Snow plumes from a ridge, a creeping pine tosses its branches to and fro in a stiff wind, ripples of cloud move swiftly across the sky: these are the living mountains, the way mountaineers experience them.

Winter in the North Alps
Originally uploaded by tsubame

The late Galen Rowell, an inspiration for many a mountain photographer, famously went out in search of the dynamic landscape. Peter Skov has gone out into the Japan Alps and found it. His vision is versatile as well as dynamic, the vistas are interspersed with micro-landscapes – a fire lily sheltered by a pine bough, komakusa flowers peeking out from between sandy quartz blocks – that show a mastery of significant detail. On his blog, he reveals himself to be an admirer of Eliot Porter. These pictures are a worthy acknowledgement of that influence.

Autumn in the Alps
Originally uploaded by tsubame

Peter Skov grew up in Vancouver, moving to Japan in 1999, one reason being to study the Japanese way of landscape photography. Judging by this book, he’s stirred these background elements into a very effective mix. The meticulous technique and the gear – film cameras, mostly large and medium-format – may be Japanese, but the viewpoint is his own. You don’t have to be a gaijin – an ‘outside person’ – to bring a fresh perspective to mountain photography, but sometimes it can help.

“The Japan Alps” is a self-published book, printed and distributed by No automated production process can do full justice to the original colour transparencies – Skov is an all-film photographer – and some images come off better than others. Snow scenes, being relatively monochromatic, do best, while autumn colours and high-contrast scenes have lost something in translation. Overall, though, the colour rendition is good enough to hint at the high quality of the original photography. And the splendours of the Japan Alps shine through.

Blue Sunset
Originally uploaded by tsubame

What is it about the Japan Alps? Even their strongest supporters – and your reviewer is one – can’t promote them into the greater ranges of the earth. They simply aren’t high enough. When it comes to photographic impact, though, they give nothing away to the Alps, the Karakorum, or the Himalaya. For proof of that bold statement, look no further than the works of Shirahata Shiro, who has planted his mighty tripod in all three ranges. Yet it is the Japan Alps that provide the maestro with his most compelling images.

Yakushi and Kanon
Originally uploaded by tsubame

That’s by way of saying that Peter Skov is working a rich vein. And this debut collection shows that he’s developed the skills – and, most importantly, the vision – to work it. What this reviewer would like to see now is a big publishing house – yes, Kodansha, it’s you I’m thinking about – getting out of its comfortable leather armchair and publishing a collection of fresh new mountain photography by up-and-coming artists, Japanese and gaijin alike. One of them should certainly be Peter Skov.

>View and buy "The Japan Alps" on

Above images are by courtesy of Peter Skov, linked from his Japan Alps gallery on Flickr. (Click on image to see larger version.)

Friday, September 3, 2010

Hyakumeizan: images & ink (5)

Illustrated excerpts from One Hundred Mountains of Japan

Image: Tateyama-Bessan, from the Northern Alps series, woodprint by Yoshida Hiroshi (1926)

Ink: On Tateyama, from Nihon Hyakumeizan (One Hundred Mountains of Japan) by Fukada Kyūya (1964):

White-robed supplicants flocked to Tateyama from every corner of Japan. Whatever the merits of prostrating themselves before the Gongen, many of these pilgrims must have rejoiced in the climb itself, on a mountain so varied in its scenery … Mida-ga-hara itself is an upland plateau, so beautiful with its scattering of pools and rich array of alpine flowers that pilgrims from the world below might well have thought themselves in heaven.