How the maps commemorate the men who found the way for Japan’s mountain pioneers
Chōjirō Gully, Genjirō Ridge, Heizō Col, Kinsaku Junction, Kisaku’s New Path – the names have an antique ring, like those of Kabuki actors. Adorning mountain features across Honshū, they memorialise the guides who supported Japan’s golden age of mountain exploration.
The idea of a golden age was borrowed from the pioneers of the European Alps by the Meiji-era banker, alpinist and writer, Kojima Usui (1873–1948). By his account, the final decade of the Honshū version started at the inauguration of the Japan Alpine Club in 1905 and lasted into the century’s teens. That was when the Army surveyors started bringing out the first modern maps of Japan’s mountainous regions.
In his essay “Yama mata yama”, Kojima explains that, by tacit agreement, the Meiji alpinists rarely named natural features after themselves. Guides, though, deserved and got such recognition: in the absence of proper maps, gentlemen amateurs and professional surveyors alike depended on the local knowledge of their hired men.
There was even a golden year within the golden age. According to Usui, this was the exceptionally productive season of 1909, in which guides figured prominently. That summer, Uji Chōjirō (right) took four alpinists to the top of Tsurugi, the first time that amateurs had climbed it. It was Chōjirō, of course, who had found the way for the Army surveyors who made the mountain’s first modern ascent two years previously. “Ah me,” sighed Chōjirō, “and I swore that I’d never again set foot on this fearsome mountain.” But he did, and his name is immortalised in the snow gully that he pioneered.
The same season, Saeki Heizō guided Tsujimoto Mitsumaru to Yakushi-dake. Dr Tsujimoto had just won scientific fame by isolating (from sharks) the lipoprotein squalene; now, thanks to Heizō, he was able to make the first detailed inspection of Yakushi’s glacial cirque.
Saeki Heizō started out as a “chūgo”, a guide for the white-robed pilgrims to Tateyama. Thus he summed up in his own career the transition from religious to secular mountain climbing. Appropriately, he lent his name to a snow gully and a col on Tsurugi-dake, Tateyama’s rugged neighbour.
Meanwhile, the veteran hunter Kamijō Kamonji (left) was edging across the Dai-Kiretto (colour picture above) in the company of Udono Masao (1877-1945). Kamijō had guided Walter Weston up Yari in 1895, but the Kiretto, a narrow ridge between Kita-Hodaka and Minami-dake in the Northern Alps, represented a greater challenge to Meiji-era mountaineers. Unlike Weston, they had no experience of alpine climbing.
Udono (right) was another of the pioneers who made a passage from religious to secular mountain-climbing. His father was a farmer who also served as a village “sendatsu”, the leader of a troop of pilgrims in the Fuji-kō sect. Thus it was that Udono first climbed Japan’s highest mountain at the age of 12. Making a career as an agriculturist, he sent his application to the newly formed Japan Alpine Club from Korea, where he was working for the colonial forestry agency.
The “epoch-making” Dai-Kiretto traverse – the epithet is Kojima’s – was no mere sporting feat: Udono carried in his knapsack a barometer, a thermometer and a pedometer with a view to making a detailed survey. His report appeared in Sangaku, the Japan Alpine Club’s journal, complete with a sketch-map that assigned names to all the intermediate peaks. Alas, none were called after Kamonji, but you can still visit the “Kamonji hut” in Kami-kōchi.
A fourth expedition of 1909 was Kojima’s own, to Warusawa-dake in Southern Alps. The mountain had acquired that name just a few years before, when one of Kojima’s fellow alpinists, Ogino Otomatsu, had spotted it from a nearby valley. As recorded in the first volume of Sangaku (and later quoted in Nihon Hyakumeizan), the incident captures the very essence of this exploratory era:-
"From time to time, we could see through the trees, on the other side of the valley, a mighty peak, bare-topped and reddish, in the midst of the Akaishi range. When I asked Kōhei, our hunter-guide, what it was, he called it Warusawa on account of the extremely dangerous gully that drains the waters of this mountain into the Nishimata. This sounded much as if he had just said the first thing that came into his head. As there are neither books nor people to tell you the names of the mountains, rivers, and places hereabouts, I am recording everything just as I hear it from Ōmura Kōhei."
A century later, Kōhei’s name for the mountain has stuck, despite misguided attempts to rebrand the peak as Higashi-dake. In such ways, the guides helped to shape the golden age – by finding the routes, porting the loads, making paths, building huts, and naming or bequeathing their own names to mountain features. As long as there are maps and mountaineers to read them, their achievements will live for ever.
Kojima Usui, Yama mata yama, essay in An Alpinist’s Notebook 小島 烏水, アルピニストの手記 (平凡社ライブラリー)
Hito wa naze yama ni noboru no ka?, Volume 103 in the Taiyo Bessatsu: Nihon no Kokoro series (Heibonsha, 1998) for a short biography of Udono Misao
Nihon Hyakumeizan by Fukada Kyūya in a forthcoming translation as “One Hundred Mountains of Japan”
Black-and-white photos from 目で見る日本登山史, 山と溪谷社 (編集) (Illustrated History of Japanese Mountaineering); colour image of Dai-Kiretto by Project Hyakumeizan
Udono Masao's account of his Dai-Kiretto traverse can be found here