Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Tales of the Genjiro

Climbing a snow ridge on a mountain that rises far above its altitude

As its name suggests, Tsurugi has all the sharpness and rigour of a sword .... Defended by its iron citadels and snowy moats, the summit was long held to be inaccessible. (From Nihon Hyakumeizan, Chapter 48, by Fukada Kyuya)

May 2, 9pm, Hiyoshi: a weatherbeaten Subaru is parked athwart the station entrance. This is Tokyo, so nobody gives us strange looks as we clamp four pairs of skis atop Yamada-san’s car. We cram four expedition-sized packs into the back and drive off into the warm evening. When the destination is Tsurugi, it’s good to be prepared.

May 3, 5am, Ogisawa: awake from a bivouac at the tunnel bus terminal to find heavy flakes of snow falling. This is no weather for heading into the avalanche arcade of the Kurobe valley, so we drive down to Ohmachi, the big town in Shinano. The ‘fester’ (an off-day in the mountains) was invented in Scotland, but it has been refined to perfection here.

We soak and sleep away the day at the municipal onsen, then return to Ogisawa. There we pitch our tents in the tunnel system; no point in braving the outdoors until we actually have to.

May 4, 6am, below Kurobe No.4 Dam: in the shadow of the great concrete barrier, we snap Koflach boots into the ski-bindings and strain to lift our packs. Each is now heavier by the weight of a two-litre keg of Kirin beer. Our patron from Gunma, who holds a degree in brewing, doesn’t believe in thirst. Anyway, this is a Golden Week ‘gasshuku’ or training camp. It’s all about suffering. And drinking, of course.

10am, en route: we’re suffering: the slope is too steep to ski up, so we’re now carrying the skis on the packs, or – déclassé, I know – trailing them on a lanyard. The sun is starting to soften the snow, so that we plunge deeper with every step.

Of course, we could avoid this effort by taking the cable car up to the top of Tateyama, then skiing more or less downhill into the Tsurugi valley. But then we wouldn’t suffer enough.

3pm: with the skis sinking grievously into the late-afternoon mush, we top out on Hashigo-nokkoshi. Suddenly, Tsurugi fixes us with his gaze – that might seem a strange way to put it, but such is the spell that this mountain casts. Frowning down like a bouncer barring the way to a night club, the mountain plants three buttresses, a massive knuckle, right in front of us. Do we feel lucky? Well, do we?

5pm: Tsurugi-sawa is deep in evening shadow as we pitch our tents. We’ve chosen a site tucked defensively under a buttress, in case there’s a repeat of yesterday’s snowfall. Huge avalanche tracks bear witness to the hazard. Then, tent by tent, we light the stoves and start cooking, crouched in the doorways to evade the growing chill. While we eat, the ridge above us congeals into a featureless but menacing silhouette. We’re too tired to care: we’ll deal with it tomorrow.

May 5, 5am: tomorrow is announced by the blittering of electronic alarm watches. As the grey half-light steals into the valley, we’re crunching our way over hard-frozen snow towards a shadowy indentation in the buttress. Our patron knows the way: like most of Japan’s Himalayan veterans, he learned his trade on Tsurugi. Indeed, the ridge we’re heading for helped to shape one of Japan’s Himalayan pioneers.

Look in the authoritative Nihon Tozan Taikei (Climbing Guide to Japanese Mountains), and you’ll read that the first ascent of Genjiro One (Ridge) was made by Imanishi Kinji on July 9, 1925 – though Imanishi records the year as 1926. Either way, Imanishi was in his early student years at Kyoto University. He’d chosen the College of Agriculture rather than the more prestigious science school, so that he’d have more time for climbing. Mountains and natural history were his twin passions.

It should be no surprise to find Imanishi’s name in the guidebook. As the scion of a silk-weaving family from Kyoto’s Nishijin district, famous for its fine brocades, he must have had a good eye for a line. Genjiro is the most logical route to the top of Tsurugi from this side, a ridge that vaults in two aery bounds from valley floor to summit.

Right now, though, an ugly-looking wall blocks the magic line and we rope up in anticipation. On a closer look, the obstacle isn’t so difficult: ledges lead up to what the guidebook describes as a 草付き(grassy) zone, where stunted birch trees can be grabbed for support. Meanwhile the haimatsu affords secure footing for our crampons, so that the scent of pine wafts up as we pass.

“Don’t fall off here,” warns Rob, as he disappears over the top of the wall. Soon I see why: a short but knife-edged section of ridge awaits. When walking a tight-rope, it’s best to concentrate on keeping everything as normal as possible. So I try to channel a stroll along Ginza 4-chome as we inch our way over the aery gulf. When I dare to look up, Rob is already tackling a steep snow tower.

Himalayan-style, we’re now pausing every few metres, though it’s the deep snow, not the altitude that slows us. The scale of this ridge starts to impress: “The pure white of the snow glitters amid those towering pinnacles to create the most emphatically alpine scenery in all Japan,” says Fukada Kyuya in Nihon Hyakumeizan. We haven’t read him, but we wouldn’t disagree.

When Imanishi Kinji came this way, Japan’s golden age of mountain exploration was over. By then, the Japan Alps were mapped, and all the major summits climbed. Now the game was to find “variation routes” via more difficult ridges or faces. Some had even bigger ideas. Having honed his rock-climbing on Tsurugi, Yuko Maki made the first ascent of the Eiger’s Mittelegi Ridge in 1921, a feat that fired the imagination of Japan’s mountaineering activists.

Imanishi set his sights still higher. A few years after his Genjiro ascent, he founded the Academic Alpine Club of Kyoto with the aim of tackling Himalayan peaks. The path was strewn with obstacles: the AACK’s plans for Sikkim and K2 were scuppered by Japan’s international isolation. So, instead of the Himalaya, the AACK cut its teeth on expeditions to Karafuto (1932), the ferociously cold winter mountains of northern Korea (1934), Inner Mongolia (1938), and Micronesia (1941).

World events also forced Imanishi (left) to keep re-inventing his academic career. He started out as an entomologist, before morphing into a pioneer ecologist, ethnographer and, finally, primatologist. He got his Kyoto University professorship at the age of 57. Meanwhile, he held fast to his Himalayan ambitions. In 1952, he was finally able to take a reconnaissance party to Manaslu, the world’s eighth-highest mountain. This paved the way for the successful Japanese summit expedition of 1956, headed by none other than Yuko Maki.

One shouldn’t push these Himalayan associations too far. Excellent training for the greater ranges though Tsurugi may be, nobody suffers from altitude sickness here. Alas, immunity is not so easily guaranteed from that other mountain affliction, the Foaming Tankard Syndrome. When an acute case of FTS hits us on the slopes of Genjiro’s second tower, we can soon think of nothing but those two-litre kegs of beer cooling in the snows of base camp. Surely the summit cannot be far?

It can. Topping out on the second tower, we see the ridge fall away in front of us. A precipitous gap separates us from the main body of the mountain and, by extension, from our beer. Now what? Had we read Imanishi, we would have learned that “downclimbing the second tower is too difficult; abseil necessary”. We soon come to that conclusion ourselves, helped by some urgent gesticulations from Yamada-san, who is already on the far side of the gap.

Morning gives way to afternoon while we’re backing delicately down to the stance – the usual rusty pitons and faded slings – and faffing about with the rope. We only notice that the sun has moved on after we’ve touched down on the snow 20 metres below the tower. At last, the way to the summit (and the kegs) is open.

The view opens out as we move higher. To right and left, we’re flanked by the Chojiro and Heizo snow gullies, named for mountain guides of the golden age. Genjiro-one was also named after a guide, in this case Saeki Genjiro, who built the first hut in Tsurugi-sawa. It is said that Imanishi named the ridge for Saeki when he learned that the guide had found a way up the ridge a year or two before his own ascent.

Later in the afternoon than Imanishi, we reach the summit. Today being the Boys’ Festival, somebody has planted a pair of carp streamers that flutter in the breeze. Behind us, a miniaturised Fuji lifts its head over intervening ranges. Clouds drift over lesser ridges far below. Westwards we see nothing but blue air; our mountain towers above all. Tsurugi, the map says, is just 2,998 metres high. Maps can be very misleading.


This post is too long already to include a riff on how science and mountaineering go together. But anybody who wants to research that topic should take a look at the extraordinary life of Imanishi Kinji. The article by Matsuzawa and McGrew (link below) covers both his scholarly and his mountaineering careers, while the second article, by Frans de Waal, describes how Imanishi's thinking continues to be influential today.

Imanishi Kinji and 60 years of Japanese primatology, article by Tetsuro Matsuzawa and William McGrew

Without walls: article about Imanishi Kinji by Frans de Waal (New Scientist)

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Film review: Tsurugidake - Ten no Ki

A film about a pioneering ascent plays fast and loose with the facts – yet captures the spirit of Japan’s golden age of mountain exploration.

The episode has passed into Japanese mountaineering lore. On the 13th of July 1907 (Meiji 40), a government survey party reached the summit of Tsurugi, a mountain as sharp-edged and rugged as its name suggests. It turned out that they were not the first to visit what they had assumed to be an untrodden peak. In fact, the mountain had been climbed long before, as the surveyors realised when they discovered on the summit a spearhead and the tip of a priest’s staff that proved to be centuries old.

Many years later, the meteorologist/novelist Nitta Jiro wove this incident into a novel that, more recently, has begotten a film. The storyline of Tsurugidake – Ten no Ki is straightforward: Shibasaki Yoshitaro, the surveyor in charge of mapping the Tsurugi area, is ordered by his military superiors to make the mountain’s first ascent before the gentlemen amateurs of the Japan Alpine Club get there. Nothing less than the Imperial Army’s prestige is at stake.

Although Shibasaki is more interested in cartography than kudos, he has no choice but to obey. He signs up local guides Uji Chojiro and Miyamoto Kinsaku and together they battle their way through rockfall, avalanche and storm towards the summit. On the way, they rescue a mountain mystic, and cross paths with the Japan Alpine Club group and its leader, Kojima Usui.

Beating the amateurs to the summit gets the surveyors no credit: the Army staff are miffed that a monk apparently reached the summit more than a thousand years before. By contrast, Kojima Usui is a good loser: in the closing scene, he congratulates Shibasaki (by semaphore!) for opening the mountain in a feat “that will be gloriously reported to posterity”.

It’s a ripping yarn, masterfully filmed, that sometimes doesn’t stray far from history. For the facts behind this tale are as remarkable as the fiction. The real Shibasaki Yoshitaro (1876-1938) was born in Yamagata, in modest circumstances. He made up for lack of schooling by self-study, showed a gift for numbers and, during his army service, passed the difficult entrance examination for the surveyor’s corps that was then part of the Army General Staff.

From 1904, he continued to work for the triangulation department of the survey as a civilian official. And, in July 1907, his party of surveyors really did make the first and second modern ascents of Tsurugi.

Awkwardly for the screenplay, Shibasaki delegated the actual first ascent, on July 13, to a subordinate and only climbed the mountain himself on the second visit, which took place on July 27 or 28. Nor is there any evidence that Chojiro came to the summit on July 13; indeed, religious scruples may have induced the guide to stop at the col of this "forbidden mountain".

But, to leave these tedious details aside, the surveying was spot-on: using a Carl Bamberg theodolite weighing 60 kilograms, Shibasaki came up with a summit height of 2,998.02 metres. The latest GPS-based techniques make it exactly 2,999.0 metres.

Where the screenplay of Tsurugidake veers furthest into pure fiction is in its depiction of Kojima's crew. The real Kojima Usui (1873–1948) did play a prominent part in founding the Japan Alpine Club in 1905. In the summer of 1907, however, history relates that he was exploring the Southern Alps of Japan, not the northern range in which Tsurugi is situated. So he was in no position to send Shibasaki semaphore messages, still less to start a race with him.

Yet a grain of truth might underlie this fetched-up tale of mountain rivalry. When, in 1902, the real Kojima Usui set out to climb Yari-ga-take, another high peak in the Northern Japan Alps, he was completely unaware that anybody had ever climbed the mountain before him. Imagine his surprise when he found on the summit a survey marker installed just a few weeks before by the Army surveyors. This incident was probably known to Nitta Jiro, who might have decided to weave it into his plot.

Whatever the merits of its storyline, Tsurugidake – Ten no Ki captures the essence of Japan’s golden age of mountaineering. Everybody is there: the mountain mystics who first opened Japan’s mountains, the surveyors who put the mountains on the map, the pioneers of the Japan Alpine Club, the guides who found the way, and even (if you look carefully) the books of authors such as Shiga Shigetaka and Walter Weston who first promoted modern mountaineering in Japan.

That golden age is dead and gone but anybody who wants to relive it could do worse than get this DVD and soak up 139 minutes of magnificently mocked-up Meiji-era mountaineering.


The title, Tsurugi – Ten no Ki, translates as Mt Tsurugi – Tale of the Triangulation Point. At some overseas film festivals, the film has been shown as The Summit: A Chronicle Of Stones to Serenity. The foreign distributors may have a point when they changed the title: few films about surveying parties have played to packed houses in Peoria. This one, though, deserves a wider audience.

Biographical information about Shibasaki Yoshitaro is from a paper by Aeka Ishihara of Keio University on “Das Dreiecksnetz: Gauss und die japanische Landvermessung in der Meiji-Zeit”, December 2007 (German-language version of a Japanese original).

Information on Kojima Usui from 多才なアルプニスト:小島烏水 article by 瀬戸島政博 The Japan Journal of Survey, September 2008

アルプニストの日記 by 小島烏水

All images from the film, courtesy (indirectly) and copyright of Toei/Fuji Television Network

And many, many thanks to the Senpai for providing the DVD!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The nightingales of Hiuchi

Skiing in the tracks of a pioneer botanist to the deep mountains of Oze

A nightingale is singing. What am I doing here, sleeping on tarmac? I open my eyes and see a black bulk, inches away. It resolves itself into a Bridgestone snow tyre. Events snap into focus. We’re here to climb Hiuchi, the volcano that rises above the Oze marshes, which is why, yesterday evening, we sent our cars skimming across Tokyo Bay, the bridge lights streaming back like tracers.

Around midnight, we arrived in a carpark outside Hinoemata. According to Nihon Hyakumeizan, this village lies deeper hidden in the mountains than any other in Japan. It used to be so poor, some say, that brides brought their own coffins as part of their dowries.

As the Gunma lads had already arrived, a “konpa” ensued. The party lasted as long as the beer, and then we sacked out in tents or, in my case apparently, on a Thermarest alongside a weatherbeaten Subaru.

Hō-hoke-kyo; the bird is singing. No, not a nightingale; this is an uguisu, a bush warbler said to mimic the Lotus Sutra in its song. Fully awake, I remember the rule: first man up, light the stove. Without getting out of my sleeping bag, I pump the MSR, prime and light it. Soon its roar drowns out the uguisu’s devotions.

Reluctant figures emerge from tents. Breakfast is hurried: the weather forecast gives us only a short window. And then there is that four-hour drive back to Tokyo. The snow being patchy down here, we tie our skis onto our packs for the climb and set off through a grove of old-growth trees.

What kind of trees? Takeda Hisayoshi would have known. The botanist first visited Oze in 1905. In point of fact, he wasn’t really a botanist yet – just a young man recently graduated from an elite high school. He inherited his interest in plants from his father, the English diplomat Ernest Satow, who had roamed the mountains of Japan in the company of an expert plant-hunter.

Takeda had learned about Oze in an article by a botanist who’d found plants otherwise known only in Hokkaido. He wanted to climb Hiuchi from the eastern side, but the guide would have nothing to do with this plan. Even experienced mountaineers would get themselves into trouble there, he said.

So, on 6 July, the party set out from Yumoto on the normal route, over the Konsei pass. A porter helped carry the plant presses. Reaching Oze moor on the third day, Takeda and his companions wanted to botanize. But the guide and porter hurried on ahead. The path was hard to follow; here and there it faded out altogether. The party slipped and slid through the mud. They waded a river and struggled up the far bank. The evening mists were rising when they reached the Hinoemata hut.

Japan has high mountains and it has deep mountains, wrote Takeda in Oze to Kinu-numa, the book he later devoted to these moorlands. The high peaks, even rugged Tsurugi, have now been climbed, robbing them of their mystery. But that still leaves the deep mountains (深山), where “no roads nor even forest tracks can penetrate, where you find your way along paths as faint as dreams, or along narrow ways, clambering over rocks and tree roots – such are the rigours and the rewards of the deep mountains.”

In 1905, Oze was still as remote and untracked as anybody could wish. Indeed, Takeda’s party never reached Hiuchi’s summit, though they struggled about in the panda grass on its lower slopes: “The hardest climbing I ever experienced,” the botanist wrote. They spent a final night under a sheet of oil-paper draped over “a horse chestnut bough” (トチノキ). Not even the exigencies of a bivouac could blunt Takeda’s taxonomical precision.

Then they had to go home. Yet Takeda was not disappointed. He’d found a “treasure-house” of botanical riches, including a violet (ezo-murasaki) previously seen only in Hokkaido. His first visit to Oze would be written up for the first issue of Sangaku, the journal of the Japan Alpine Club, which Takeda would help to found in the autumn of that same year.

Emerging from the wood, we pass a shallow pond that transposes the sky into a deeper shade of blue. For the first time, we can see our summit: “As you stand on nearby Ayame-daira,” writes Fukada Kyuya in Nihon Hyakumeizan, “the full bulk of Hiuchi confronts you across an uninterrupted expanse of ground and I thought there could be no finer sight in the world. This shows Hiuchi at perhaps its best angle. That ridgeline almost pierces one to the heart, the way it traces out its near-perfect pyramid. And, with that langorous base, it is an exceedingly elegant pyramid."

We gain the col and an open view over Oze’s lake and marsh. Now it’s clear how Hiuchi created them, by damming two rivers with debris flows. Opposite looms Shibutsu, the mountain that marks Oze’s western boundary. Further away, the snow-streaked gullies of the Nikko-Shirane peaks shimmer in the hazy spring air.

Above the col we navigate a thicket of creeping pine. This characteristic plant of Japan’s alpine zone hints that Hiuchi is a mountain that is high as well as deep. If a bush warbler flew northwards from here, it would reach sub-arctic Kamchatka before meeting with any higher ground. We scramble up to the summit and throw our packs down on tumbled boulders. It’s time for lunch.

Twenty years passed before Takeda could again attempt Hiuchi. In the meanwhile, he’d sailed to England, studied in London and Birmingham, returned to Japan and then embarked on an academic career that would take him to professorships in three imperial universities. His second journey to Oze, in 1924, was easier: roads and paths were vastly improved. This was just as well, as the party now had - in addition to the plant collection apparatus and camping gear - two cameras (a Goerz Roll-Tenax and Takeda’s favourite Piccolette), three lenses and twenty-odd films and photographic plates.

The weather was unsettled: on the fourth day, a storm forced them to take shelter under tree – it was a tall Aomori fir – while they watched the hail shred the foliage and lash the nearby lake into foam. Next morning, they started up Hiuchi. They found scattered white sankayo flowers; the scent reminded him of a former girlfriend, one of the party said. Takeda noted how birch trees predominated in the gullies, with the evergreens preferring the open slopes.

They scrambled through the creeping pine and onto the tumbled boulders of the summit. Unlike ourselves, they could not tarry: a thunderstorm “like a volcanic eruption” was raking the Nikko mountaintops with its lightning and threatened to drift their way. The botanists made a hasty escape into a gully.

Then the rain eased. They paused to admire the white billows of a mountain cherry tree in full bloom and, at that moment, they heard the uguisu. A nightingale was singing.