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.