Wednesday, August 25, 2010

“Mountains that women can climb” (2)

Continuing the story of Japan’s women mountaineers: how the Otenba of Taishō pushed out the boundaries. The second posting of a three-part series.

Conveniently for cultural historians, the start of the women’s movement in Japan can be traced to 1911, the year before Emperor Meiji died. That was when Hiratsuka Raichō started her “Blue Stocking” journal with its manifesto for women: “I am a new woman. It is my daily desire to become a true new woman. What is truly and forever new is the sun. I am the sun.” 

Inconveniently for alpine historians, no such proclamation came from Japanese lady mountaineers. Nor was any discernible movement started. The ladies just went climbing. If a milestone must be highlighted, one might pick the August day in 1923 (Taishō 12) when Murai Yoneko (1901–1986), accompanied by three guides, completed her traverse of the Hodaka mountains to Yari-ga-take. The crossing of the narrow and crumbling Dai-Kiretto was an “adventure for a lady”.

  Murai started her climbing career in 1917 when, as a sixteen year-old, she climbed Mt Fuji with her nurse and a servant (“jii ya, baa ya”). This she did with the full encouragement of her father, a journalist turned novelist turned culinary experimentalist. 

The following year, she topped out on Tateyama. After enrolling at Tokyo Women’s University, she spent the first summer vacation at Kami-kochi, camping and climbing mountains in the company of her brother. In April 1931, she climbed Mae-Hodaka and Oku-Hodaka in the snowy season and, later, she took up rock-climbing and ski-touring too. 

 Murai extended the boundaries, but she was by no means the first to assert a woman’s right to climb. As we saw in the previous post, the power of religious sects to bar women from sacred summits had been abolished as early as 1872. More significant, though, was the government’s edict of the same year that, henceforth, girls would receive the same number of years of compulsory education as boys. 

 By 1905, the year the Japan Alpine Club was founded, there were a hundred schools for girls in Japan; at some of them, mountain excursions would soon be commonplace. In 1914 (Taishō 3), for example, a group from a high school in Matsumoto climbed Shirouma, another high peak in the Northern Alps. The picture below shows students from an Ochanomizu girls' high school on their way to Mt Fuji in 1919.

  Societal trends may have favoured women who climbed mountains in Taishō Japan, but social attitudes took a while to catch up. Eyebrows lifted and tongues tut-tutted when Murai Yoneko climbed Tateyama, a sacred mountain. Other lady alpinists were derided as “otenba” (tomboys) or met with misplaced commiseration: “Poor Mrs Kuroda,” her neighbours sighed, “being forced to eat bread and getting dragged up mountains”. Kuroda Hatsuko (b.1903; pictured abseiling above) was not looking for sympathy. She’d been in thrall to the hills since a girlhood visit to Mitsutoge, an eminence near Tokyo that affords panoramic views of the far-off Southern Alps. Her climbing career started when she married Tokyo University engineering graduate and mountaineer, Kuroda Masao: they visited Amagi on their honeymoon in 1923. Perhaps that year really does represent a milestone. 

 Soon the Kurodas were tackling sterner stuff. With her husband as climbing partner, Mrs Kuroda notched up first female ascents of Ko-Yari, Tsurugi Yatsu-mine, and Kita-Hodaka’s East Ridge, all destinations that require rock-climbing skills and a head for heights. Some of her exploits got into the newspapers. “The scarier it gets, the more I want to get to grips with it,” she said. That included winter mountaineering: on New Year’s Day 1931, the Kurodas climbed Yarigatake, Japan’s fifth highest mountain. 

She kept on climbing - and eating bread too - after her husband’s death. And she parlayed her knowledge of nutritional science into a book on food and gear for mountain-climbers. Another book describes her climbing experiences. In it, she relates how, at last, she reached the Southern Alps she’d set her heart on from Mitsutoge. From the ridge on Akaishi-dake, she saw in the clouds a rainbow-hued shadow that eerily mimicked her when she raised her ice-axe: it was the brockenspectre. Sunrise on the summit moved her beyond words and she bowed her head, knowing that she’d never see anything like this again. Then there was Sakakura Tokiko (b.1910). The daughter of a hunting man, she was introduced to the hills at an early age. When she went out to work at the age of 17, she immediately joined the company mountaineering club. Its activities included a winter ascent of Tanigawa-dake, famous for its deep snows and unforgiving weather. She climbed mountains all over Japan, and visited the Alps and the Himalaya too. 

 Along the way, she was elected a member of the prestigious Japan Alpine Club – it formed a women’s section in 1949 – but she had her own ideas on how a club could be run. So, in 1955, she formed her own, for women only. The Edelweiss Club would encourage women to climb at their own pace. After all, what counted wasn’t the number of metres climbed – it was what the climbers brought back in their hearts. 

 Like Kuroda Hatsuko, Sakakura wielded a deft pen, writing several guidebooks and a history of women’s mountaineering. On occasion, she churned out sixty manuscript pages in a single day. Hard work kept her young; at the age of 85, she traversed Yarigatake. 

By this time, she was pioneering the way less for women – that cause was surely won when Tabei Junko summited Everest on May 16, 1975 – than for Japan’s growing cohort of “silver age” alpinists. But this is another story, and one yet to be written. 


 Marius Jansen, The Making of Modern Japan, Harvard University Press 

  Hito wa naze yama ni noboru ka (人はなぜ山に登るか), Taiyō Bessatsu, Autumn 1998 – a summarized history of Japanese mountaineering. 

 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) 

 Hiroko Seiwa and Akio Funahashi, History of Japanese Mountaineering and Women in the Light of their Relations to Religion, Faculty of Education, Kochi University, 1982

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Hyakumeizan: images & ink (4)

Illustrated excerpts from One Hundred Mountains of Japan

Image: Sunrise on Eboshi-dake, Japan Northern Alps, woodprint by Yoshida Hiroshi (1926)

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

I once stayed at the shrine office on Oyama and I will never forget the dawn and sunrise I saw on that occasion. As I watched, the mountain peaks all around seemed to wake into life as they floated above a sea of cloud. This sight convinced me instantly that Tateyama is one of the great mountains of the world.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Waders of the lost arc

Journey without head torches in a season with no sun through a small river corridor

Figuring we’d get wet anyway, we spent most of the rainy season climbing rivers. The weatherbeaten Subaru was carrying us to our longest excursion yet when it emerged that nobody had remembered a head torch.

“Guys,” I remonstrated, “this is West Tanzawa we’re heading for.” This was by way of saying that the western half of the range is wilder, gnarlier, less manicured. In the eastern hills, you’ll find little tin signs identifying the more popular mountain streams and even some of the waterfalls. Such frippery is eschewed in the west, which is an hour or so further from central Tokyo.

In these western rivers, you follow your nose. And this, surely, is the charm of sawa-nobori; river climbing is the one mountain discipline where you find your own way, through pools and gorges, past waterfalls and up cliffs. There are no bolt ladders to guide you, no crampon scratches, no ski traces, not even footprints. Instead, you match your judgment, and your climbing or swimming skills, to the river’s flow.

That said, the gravel pan where we parked was scored with bulldozer tracks, for not even West Tanzawa has escaped the heavy machinery of man. To get into the river, we scrambled over a high concrete entei. These dams are designed to control the erosion of ruling party’s mandate, a function they perform by diverting liquidity into the construction industry.

At last, we were properly awash, edging along rock-shelves above deep pools of brown water or wading through shallower stretches, the pebbles pressing through the thin soles of our sawa boots. Ahead, Ogawa-dani-roka faded into the sylvan gloom, a lost arc of tumbling water under a canopy of foliage and many-layered monsoon clouds.

The sawa’s name translates as “Small River Corridor”. To call it the “the Kurobe of Tanzawa”, as the guidebook does, is to overdose on hyperbole, given that Ogawa-dani cannot start to match the scale and majesty of the gorge that drains the Northern Alps. For all that, it is more a river than a mountain stream, especially during the June rains.

I kept that in mind as we approached the first obstacle – a chockstone that channels the river’s full force into a low but energetic waterfall. To my relief, a jammed log helped us up. Only one of our party fell off, and we fielded her on the rope.

Sawa-nauts go about their business with two eyes open, one for the terrain and one for the scenery. Next came a treat for the scenic eye, a mossy staircase spiralling upwards beside a step in the river. The pattern repeats in thousands of gorges across Japan, yet every iteration is subtly unique, as if some master gardener set out to create countless variations from just a handful of elements – water, rock and sand.

Rounding a bend in the river, we found our path blocked by a giant boulder. This the guidebook calls the Tsuru-tsuru-no-O-iwa, or Big Slippery Rock. The description fits the slimy runnel that sawa-nauts must scrabble up if they wish to continue their journey. At the same time, it does less than justice to the boulder’s mass, poise, and elegance of form.

These qualities somehow brought to mind the Japanese national anthem, a brief verse that entreats the Emperor to perpetuate his reign “until pebbles grow into great boulders lush with moss”. Around then, much ink was being expended about whether the anthem should be sung at school graduation ceremonies. Perhaps the great boulder of Ogawa-dani would crumble into pebbles before that debate ended. Yet few national anthems are less chauvinistic than Japan’s; the words are taken from a collection of medieval poems…

Some of our companions might like the comfort of a rope, suggested the vice president, who'd joined me atop the boulder. We should bring them up one by one, she said, even if it took longer. Make it so, I agreed, for neither of us held with the quicker but dodgier method of having folk secure themselves by sliding prusik knots up a fixed rope. As for time pressure, we probably wouldn’t need the rope again after this.

By the same token, not much was to be expected from the scenery upstream. Strange, I mused, how worthwhile climbing and memorable sawa-scapes run inextricably together. The insight might be trivial or it might not but, either way, there was no leisure to reflect on it.

In the gathering gloom, I glanced at my watch; with luck, we would get away without the head torches we hadn’t brought. A little later, we clambered out of the river and found the homeward path. Under the deeper shade of the forest trees, the pallid flowers of the kuchinashi glimmered like ghosts.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Hyakumeizan: images & ink (3)

Illustrated excerpts from One Hundred Mountains of Japan

Image: The Kurobe River, Japan Northern Alps, woodprint by Yoshida Hiroshi (1926)

Ink: On the Kurobe River, from Chapter 53 (Washiba-dake) of Nihon Hyakumeizan (One Hundred Mountains of Japan) by Fukada Kyūya (1964):

Speaking of the Kurobe, Washiba is the cradle for the infant plashings of this river, far-famed for the appalling depths of its gorges below. Stand on the summit of this mountain and you can see, plain as daylight, how the young Kurobe starts life. The source is a modest rill that you could cross with a stride. Soon it is raging on its way, through deep-cut chasms, into pools and hollows, plunging over waterfalls. The headwaters of the Kurobe are like the face of a boy fated to a turbulent youth.

Captured by the Kurobe