Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Nihon Hyakumeizan: in search of ground truth (8)

Travelogue continued: further speculations on why Fukada Kyuya chose Takachiho as the pre-eminent “Meizan” of the Kirishima National Park

November 18: Standing on the crater rim of Karakuni-dake, I could see the whole diagram. To be sure, Karakuni is the highest mountain in the area, but its crater wall has collapsed and the caldera is overgrown. This is a Retired Volcano, one that has taken a vow of silence. The action has all shifted to the east, where youthful Shinmoe steams and Takachiho’s bare slopes testify to recent outbursts.

Craters, new and old, pock the massif. In this Martian landscape, only one summit breaks the horizon – the elegant belvedere of Takachiho. According to the savants, a crater once truncated this peak too, before a lava dome grew up in its place.

“A mountain must have an air of distinction,” wrote Fukada Kyuya in his afterword to Nihon Hyakumeizan: “What I look for is an extraordinary distinctiveness.” That would make Takachiho the natural “Meizan” of the massif. In a world of calderas, the considerable protuberance is king.

Although I suspect that this isn’t the full story – Fukada never set much store by geomorphology – it’s time to move on; the sun is slanting ever further towards the horizon. To the south, the crater lake of Onami glints alluringly.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Nihon Hyakumeizan: in search of ground truth (7)

Travelogue continued: attempting to understand the Hyakumeizan author's logic while traversing the Kirishima National Park late in the day

November 18, 10am: not tempura, not sushi, still less shabu-shabu, Japan’s national dish is, without a doubt, curry rice. A steaming plate of this national essence - the sole item on the menu at the tourist pavilion underneath Takachiho-mine -is just what I need after the early-morning excursion to that summit.

The day is yet young and the poster on the cafe wall is giving me ideas ... Could I perhaps carry on round the Kirishima circuit, traversing Naka-dake, over Shinmoe to Karakuni, and so back to Kirishima Jingu? I ask the kindly mama-san for her opinion. She eyes my weatherbeaten gear for a moment, but seems to find reassurance in my somewhat professional-looking Italian lightweight boots. “You should be able to get back before dark,” she says.

With that send-off, and another Zeitaku coffee to wash the curry down, I’m out under the bright and blowy sky again, yomping up the mild slopes of Naka-dake on a well-made path. A solitary azalea blossom is discovered nestling in a sheltered corner; in summer, this whole hillside would wave purple in the wind. Later, I fall in with a retired JR train driver and we find a scattering of gentians, late-blooming like their alpine counterparts. This lee slope harbours an almost spring-like warmth.

11.30am: Cresting Shinmoe-dake, we’re suddenly in another world. In front of us, the slope drops away into a crater of Krakatoan amplitude. In its centre, the waters of a lakelet ripple an extra-terrestial cobalt hue. Meanwhile, twin pillars of steam spiral up on the north wind, as if to emphasise that this ‘new burning’ volcano is still very much alive.

The scene is so spectacular that I momentarily wonder why the Hyakumeizan author chose Takachiho-mine as the representative of the Kirishima range and not this mountain. Was it perhaps because Shinmoe featured as the villain’s lair in the Bond film ‘You Only Live Twice’.? Understandably, any mountain that kept the company of characters such as Ernst Blofeld and Kissy Suzuki would forever forfeit any claim to Meizan status ….

I have to shelve this speculation because the JR train driver is telling me about a ruined forest of carbonized tree-stumps in a lava flow somewhere to the north. Alas, there won’t be time to investigate it. The sun is drawing ahead; the sail of Karakuni-dake is still far off. The train driver turns back, and I head into a gully on far side of Shinmoe. In the shadows, winter has taken over; frost pillars push out of the ground and my boots crunch through remnants of an early winter snow shower.

No, I decide, the Bond film explanation won’t work. Nihon Hyakumeizan appeared in 1964 and the Bond film three years later. False though it is, the hypothesis contains a grain of truth: Fukada Kyuya didn’t let himself be impressed by mountains that depend on mere spectacle for effect. To be selected for his compendium of one hundred eminent Japanese summits, a Meizan or ‘famous mountain’ must be distinctive, historically significant, and possessed of a certain ‘dignity’. Sheer altitude or mass wouldn’t cut the mustard.

Fukada certainly didn’t succumb to heightism in the Kirishima National Park. Right now, I’m heading across a wooded col for Karakuni-dake. It is the tallest mountain in the massif, and this by several hundred metres, yet, like Shinmoe, it gets hardly a mention in Nihon Hyakumeizan. As for the climb, it starts in slimy stream-beds and finishes over tracts of scoria that skid underfoot like ball-bearings. Much what you would expect from a time-expired volcano.

3pm: The sun is leaning tendentiously towards the horizon – at last, I’m standing on Karakuni’s crater rim. Despite the generous tracts of hoarfrost on its walls, the caldera is less imposing than the view eastwards, over the way that I’ve walked.

Now I can see the whole diagram. And it’s crystal clear why Fukada chose Takachiho as the pre-eminent Meizan of the region.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Nihon Hyakumeizan: in search of ground truth (6)

Travelogue continued: the Mountain of Heaven keeps its secrets close

18 November: Standing in front of the vending machine, I decide that it has to be a Zeitaku. True, there’s no clear reason why this “extravagant” can of coffee justifies its higher price, but I feel that I’ve earned one anyway. Getting here involved a pre-dawn, seven-kilometre hike up the lower slopes of the Kirishima massif and the sun is only now starting to gild the conical tops of the volcanoes.

Now the real work begins. Chapter 98 of Nihon Hyakumeizan mentions that the summit of Takachiho, the most celebrated of these peaks, is adorned with an “Ama-no-sakahoko” – which one authority translates as a “three teeth fork-shaped weapon staked upside down”. A what? Project Hyakumeizan’s translation of Japan’s most famous mountain book demands an elucidation. And the only way to get it is to climb up and have a look.

The Zeitaku clunks down into the vending machine’s nether regions, whence I retrieve it. Though advertised as “hotto”, it is no more than tepid, but on this frosty morning, every joule of extra heat is welcome. Refreshed, I can now address myself to the mountain.

A concrete torii marks the way. Passing through it, I find myself walking over an desolate expanse of raked volcanic clinker. Centuries ago, the principal Kirishima shrine was founded here in a bid to placate the volcano. But Takachiho proved implacable; after the shrine buildings were several times buried or incinerated, they were rebuilt several kilometres down the mountain, at the present-day Kirishima Jingu.

Half an hour later, I’m at the Horse’s Back, a ridge leading over to the main summit. The cold, as well as the view, is impressive: Boreas-kun, or a fellow mugger from the home of the arctic winds, has followed me down from Hokkaido and his stiletto breath knifes through my layers of fibre-pile.

When I look up from the camera – a photogenic wisp of steam is curling out of the volcanic cauldron below – a small figure has appeared below, climbing at an impressive pace. Expecting a lycra-clad youth to run up, I'm mildly surprised to see a wizened face sheltering deep inside the hood of the blue cagoule. He introduces himself as Hidaka-san, 63 years old, recently retired from a video games maker, and now on his 1,403rd ascent of Takachiho.

The ideal guide has materialised, but keeping up with him is no small challenge. We set off uphill at a blistering pace. Fortunately, we soon come to a small shrine, just below the summit slopes. While other hikers walk past, Hidaka-san stops for a moment to pay his respects, first wiping his hands on a frozen piece of cloth that hangs from a safety rope. Naruhodo, I presume, one of the faithful has brought up a towel steeped in holy (although frozen) water, so that supplicants can purify themselves. I wipe my hands too; it never hurts to show a mountain a little extra courtesy.

Hidaka-san knows every detail of this mountain. He points out a scatter of quartz pebbles that look quite different from the reddish lava all around us – did people bring them here? We stop again to look at the hoarfrost. It’s the first of the year, he says.

Then we top out. On this bright and windy mid-November day, we are seeing the mountain just as Fukada Kyuya saw it almost exactly seventy years ago:-

On this bright and windy mid-December day, the air was crystal clear and the view magnificent. Besides the Kirishima mountains, we could see as far as Sakurajima, Kaimon-dake, and Noma-dake. .... Standing alone on this sacred peak where the scion of a deity came down, I looked out over the land of the legendary So-no-kuni. Reflecting deeply about the foundation of the imperial line, I could hardly bear to move from the spot. At about the same time, the poet Saitō Mokichi visited the mountain and composed a host of verses, of which this is one:

At the summit I draw breath,
This great, this cold, this high
Mountain of heaven, Takachiho

Fukada climbed up here in 1939, the year before Japan celebrated the 2,600th anniversary of the National Foundation. In those days, every Japanese schoolchild learned that Ninigi-no-mikoto, descendant of the sun goddess and progenitor of the Imperial line, stepped down from heaven onto the summit of this mountain.

I try to get a view of the Ame-no-sakahoko, which projects from the mountain’s highest point like a stumpy bronze post, but it’s hard to see the details. Also, I don’t want to disturb Hidaka-san, who is standing respectfully in front of the small summit shrine. Before I can move closer, I find myself invited with two other hikers into the small shrine-warden’s hut.

The hut is dug into the side of the slope like a cave, but a shaft of early-morning sunlight like an emissary of Ameterasu herself lights up its snug interior. Two large rising-sun flags are revealed, hanging from the rafters. Hidaka-san is busily pointing out some photos on the back wall: they show three generations of hut wardens or priests. Another photo depicts a snowbound Ama-no-sakahoko with a winter dawn behind it.

The Ama-no-sakahoko! I’m not getting very far with my researches: in fact, I’m not even sure whether this hut forms part of a shrine or a monument. After a few more minutes sheltering from the wind, Hidaka-san suggests that we walk round the summit. The north slope affords a better view of the enigmatic pillar, but, on this side, hoarfrost obsures the curious human face that is said to adorn the halberd’s shaft.

The bronze doesn’t look weathered. In Hyakumeizan, Fukada says that “We do know that the monument is not particularly ancient.” In an essay published in the early 1900s, the banker-writer-mountaineer Kojima Usui refers to it as “recently excavated”. Yet it apparently already stood there in 1866 when the samurai activist Sakamoto Ryoma passed by on his honeymoon.

I’m with an expert guide to this mountain and I’m not going to let the chance slip. I put the question bluntly: “How old is the Ama-no-sakahoko?” Hidaka-san laughs: “Well, if we knew, it wouldn't be so mysterious, would it…” The present pillar is probably not the original, though, he adds.

We start down. As we pass the small outer shrine, Hidaka-san unties the piece of towelling from the boundary rope. “Are you going to recharge it?” I ask. “No, it’s just a piece of garbage,” he says. With that, he’s off again, leaping down the sharp-edged lava furrows like a kamoshika on its way to a tryst.

Preferring to keep my knees and neck intact, I don’t even try to follow him. Instead I look back at Takachiho, this great, this cold, this mysterious mountain of heaven. As I watch, the summit rocks seem to slash their way through the hurrying sky like a triple-bladed spear.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Nihon Hyakumeizan: in search of ground truth (5)

Travelogue continued: learning that all mountains are local on Mt Bandai

15 November: Surely it shouldn’t be so cold on top of an active volcano. Streaks of sleet cut across the boulders as I pick my way to the summit shrine. This is a surprisingly modest one: the god of Mt Bandai makes do with a mere nesting box, or so the tiny shrine appears in comparison with the well-appointed sanctuary I’d seen on Rishiri-dake. As for offerings, a pair of one-cup sake containers, both empty, perch on a stone ledge.

Could it be that this deity has fallen out with his followers? As Fukada Kyuya records in Nihon Hyakumeizan, Mt Bandai exploded on the morning of July 15, 1888 (Meiji 21). Under the ash clouds, all was dark as night while, from a distance, a pillar of smoke was seen to rise three or four times as high as the mountain. Then the smoke billowed out like an umbrella to cover the sky. This was the original mushroom cloud, although without the strontium fall-out.

The eruption centred on Little Bandai, towards the northern end of the ridge. The mountain was blown from the face of the earth, and lava flowed out to the north, overwhelming the village of Hibara and killing or maiming five hundred people. The eruption also wiped out 517 horses and cattle, and devastated almost 28,000 acres. The country several leagues to the north of the volcano was laid waste and a river dammed up into a chain of lakelets ….

A mushroom of cloud was again hanging over the peak when I set out from Inawashiro this morning. But rain held off while I headed up the long main street. The town was deserted at this early hour; my footfalls echoed off shuttered shop-fronts and empty rooming houses, all blitzed by Japan’s two decades of recession.

The road wound uphill past a derelict hotel. Most of the windows were intact, a testament to the self-restraint of Inawashiro’s schoolboys, but a loose shutter banged in the wind. The desolate scene made me regret my complaints last night about the ryokan’s defective hot water system. The landlady was doing well to keep her establishment open at all.

Ahead, the pylons of a dormant ski-lift marched towards the cloud ceiling. Once above these installations, the path came out onto a wooded ridge. Higher up, the vegetation became more verdant.

Kagami-no-numa nestled in the reed-fringed vestiges of an explosion crater, as peaceful as some ancient temple’s moon-viewing pond. But clouds veiled the peak it should have reflected.

While waiting for a ray of sunlight, I was overtaken by an elderly pensioner. Improbably, he’s on his way to a party; the couple who run the hut on the shoulder will open for the last time today before going down for the winter. When we get to the hut, though, it’s shuttered and silent. Bales of cloud and drizzle drive by on the wind. Yoshida-san, as he has introduced himself, shelters in the hut’s lee while I go on to the summit.

After my short interview with the summit shrine, I pick my way carefully down the slippery track. Smoke is now pouring invitingly from the hut’s flue-pipe. As I step inside, my glasses fog up from the warm fug. When they demist, a lively party materialises in front of me; seemingly out of nowhere, a hut-full of hikers has convened and every bench and seat is occupied. Overhead, damp jackets drip and steam from washing lines and nails.

A space opens at the table and I’m invited to sit down next to the members of a senior citizen’s mountaineering club. The hut warden brings over a bowl of miso soup; everyone gets one on the house, he explains, because it’s the last day of the season. I buy a cup of coffee to wash the soup down and start de-frosting. Then I notice that the hut is selling Hyakumeizan bandanas and buy two.

Not that there is much interest in the One Hundred Mountains of Japan. Except for me, everybody in the hut is here because Bandai is their local mountain. They may not say it in so many words, but they’d rather climb Bandai in every season, year in and year out, than rush around the archipelago knocking off an arbitrary list of summits drawn up by some writer from a distant prefecture …

Come to think about it, the Hyakumeizan author himself never intended to draw up such a list. “A mountain watches over the home village of most Japanese people,” he wrote: “Tall or short, near or far, some mountain watches over our native village like a tutelary deity…” All of Fukada’s mountains watch over somebody’s native village. And, as in Bandai’s case, occasionally menace it.

It was time to move on. A few minutes below the hut I took a moment to read the sign warning climbers not to stray from the path, on pain of suffocation from seepages of poisonous volcanic gas. Some while later I came out underneath the racing clouds, which now framed a prospect of Lake Inawashiro, its waters glittering in a stray beam of sunlight. Still the rain held off.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Nihon Hyakumeizan: in search of ground truth (4)

Travelogue continued: a serendipitously discovered chart confirms that Rishiri is a volcano that stands way out of line

13 November: A rugged individualist. That’s the character that comes irresistibly to mind as I watch Rishiri recede in the wake of the mid-morning ferry back to Wakkanai. But, hold on, I remind myself as I duck out of the battering wind on the boat deck, a volcano is just a pile of slag. Only people can be individualists, rugged or otherwise.

The ferry docks at Wakkanai several hours before the train is due to leave. There is time to wander through the town. Is it just me, or is a subtle sense of humour at work here? There’s the King Tyranno pachinko parlour (although the real King Tyranno around here is the north wind) …

… and the three good-luck cats lined up in the window of the national lottery office.

Then I discover a bookshop. Flicking through a tome on the volcanoes of Hokkaido, I learn that Rishiri is still considered to be potentially active, even though its most recent eruptions took place 8,000 years ago.

What really catches my eye, though, is the map* showing the locations of Hokkaido’s volcanoes. All but one are lined up neatly on a so-called volcanic front running approximately south-west to north-east. They stand exactly where the savants expect them to be, like grade-school children rising obediently to attention in a classroom.

Rishiri alone stands way out of line, erupting from mid-ocean hundreds of kilometres behind all the others. I feel relieved; Rishiri is truly a non-conformist among Japanese volcanoes. A rugged individualist one might say ….

*from 北海道の活火山、北海道新聞社 2007