Thursday, December 29, 2011

The origins of alpinism (1)

How Kojima Usui inaugurated the Japan Alpine Club and a rich tradition of mountain writing

I had long thought of climbing Yari-ga-take.
Why was this?
Because Yari is high, Yari is sharp, and Yari is steep.

These words introduce the account of Japan’s first alpine excursion. The motivation is recognisably modern – to climb a mountain not to worship it or survey it, but simply because it is high, sharp, and steep. Because it’s there.

The story of this climb begins in 1896 when a 23 year-old bank clerk emerges from a bookstore in Yokohama clutching a copy of Shiga Shigetaka's best-selling Theory of Japanese Landscape (Nihon Fūkeiron) in its sixth edition. This purchase leads directly to a pioneering ascent of Japan's fifth highest mountain, a meeting with an English missionary, and the founding of the Japan Alpine Club, as well as a tradition of mountain literature that is the equal of any in the world.

The future bank clerk was born in Takamatsu, on the island of Shikoku in 1873, the year in which the samurai class was officially abolished. His father – of samurai stock - was a customs official at the city's harbour. While Kojima Kyuta was still a boy, his father moved the family to the growing international port of Yokohama, a city of greater opportunity. Kyuta was enrolled in the Yokohama Commercial High School, where he received a good grounding in English. "Knowledge of commerce would be the thing for the new generation," his father thought.

Graduating in 1892, Kojima dabbled in journalism, contributing numerous articles to Bunko, a literary journal. One essay, “About Miss Higuchi Ichiyō”, impressed the editors so much that they invited Kojima to join the magazine's editorial board. By this time, he’d already exchanged his given name, Kyuta, which he'd always disliked, for the nom de fudè of Usui.

This was in 1896, a turning point in Kojima Usui's life. In the same year, he joined the Yokohama Specie Bank, the forerunner of the Bank of Tokyo, a career change that consigned his writing to the evening hours. It was around this time too that he made the fateful purchase of Shiga Shigetaka’s masterpiece.

If Kojima had been looking for something more in his life, he certainly found it in Nihon Fūkeiron. He read the book again and again, "carefully trusting it as though it was the scripture of natural beauty". What especially captured his attention was the appendix to the book, curiously entitled "Tozan no kifū wo kōsaku subeshi" (Cultivate the mountaineering spirit). And, within that treatise, one passage in particular haunted him:

Start out from the village of Shimashima. After ascending for about eight hours, you will reach the hut on the Tokugō pass at about 1,500 metres in altitude; from there, in about three leagues, you will find the Miyagawa hut, which you can regard as the foot of the mountain proper; from Miyagawa, climb six leagues or seven hours, and you will reach the summit; for the first three of these hours, you will follow a fast-flowing river that cuts through granite walls; mountains made of granite rise skywards one above the other; as you leave the river, the mountains become still more precipitous, the view more and more impressive, the granite presenting its mysterious forms as if it were a huge landscape painting; as you continue, you will step onto snow, and at times you will see ptarmigans, bears, and mountain goats (kamoshika). In short, if you want to know the real nature of granite mountains, then you must by all means climb Yarigatake.

It matters little that Shiga probably cribbed much of this appendix from the English-language Handbook for Travellers in Central and Northern Japan, published by Ernest Satow and A G S Hawes a decade or so earlier. Nor that the Japanese author had scant personal knowledge of mountain-climbing. For the effect on Kojima was electric; on reading the passage about Yari, as he later recorded, he felt "as if his heart and soul had been blown away".

Kojima could not set out for Yari right away. For one thing, his bank allowed him a bare ten days or so of annual leave. For another, he knew nothing about mountain travel, even though he resolved now "to get involved more deeply with mountains". His first ventures were modest and it wasn’t until 1899 that he first climbed above the 2000-metre mark, on Asama volcano.

From the start, there was a literary angle to his journeys. The travel essay, or kikobun, he thought, would be "a good way to demonstrate one's writing skills and techniques". He attempted to give a new twist to this well-worn genre by describing places that previous authors had ignored. Published in 1899, his first book, Sentoh Shohkei, draws its materials from rambles on the plains, along rivers or in the low foothills.

In the following year, Kojima made his first foray onto one of Japan's high mountains. Climbing Norikura, an extinct volcano and his first 3000-er, he got a first glimpse of his ultimate goal:-

Jagged peaks heaved themselves into the air like waves, the clear ranges lapped up against my feet, and among them one wave rose higher than the rest, breaking through the violet shadows and shaking the purple light as it thrust from the centre of this raging ocean, and this, my guide said, was Yari.

Actually getting there took a little longer. Among the causes of delay were his parents, who were opposed, a dearth of accurate maps, and – most vexing of all for the prototype salaryman-alpinist – that desperate shortage of annual holidays. Nevertheless, after one false start, Kojima reached Yari's summit in 1902, together with his friend Okano Kinjirō, an oil company employee.

The Yari climb led to an introduction to the English missionary and mountaineer, Walter Weston (as described in the post on Shiga Shigetaka). Acting on Weston’s suggestion, Kojima and six friends formed their own "Mountain Club" in 1905. At first, it was known simply as the "Sangaku-kai", on the model of Britain’s Alpine Club.

A few months later, the club launched its journal, Sangaku ('Mountains'), with Kojima as its first editor. In an early issue, Kojima boasted that "Except for some literary society, I know of no other society that has more poets and writers than ours." By design, mountain writing would be almost as important in the new club as mountaineering itself.

Now opened what Kojima termed "Japan's golden age of mountain exploration". In 1906, the year after the Sangakukai was formed and accompanied by Takatō Shoku, another founder member, he traversed the ridges between Tsubakuro, Jōnen and Chō-ga-dake in the Northern Alps. One of the party’s aims was to verify that a mountain called Ōtensho-dake really existed and, if so, where it was situated. Large-scale maps were still unavailable – although the surveyors were busy doing the groundwork – and so mountain travel still included an element of exploration. In writing up this trip, Kojima was the first to use the word “juso” (縦走) to describe a long traverse across high ridges, now a standard term in the Japanese hiking lexicon.

In the following two summer seasons – when the novel by Nitta Jiro suggests that he was attempting to race the government surveyors to the summit of Tsurugi – he explored the river valleys that run through the Southern Alps, also traversing the Three Mountains of Shirane. It was on this trip that Kojima spotted and named the famous Buttress of Kita-dake.

In 1909, he returned to the Southern Alps again, traversing the Akaishi range. That trip gets him one of several mentions in Fukada Kyuya's Nihon Hyakumeizan (One Hundred Mountains of Japan):

Warusawa-dake was then climbed in July 1909, by those distinguished pioneers of the Japan Alpine Club, Kojima Usui, Takano Yōzō, Takatō Shoku, Nakamura Seitarō, and Saegusa Inosuke. On the summit, they found signs that others had been there before them. Three shrines of unvarnished wood stood there and a rusted iron banner leaned into a rocky niche. And nearby, the pilgrims had left scattered on the ground wooden tablets inscribed with the name of the deity Arakawa Daimyōjin.

In 1910, Kojima essayed a long traverse from Yari via Mitsumata-renge to Washiba, and then followed the headwaters of the Kurobe over to Yakushi-dake. The following year, he traced the ridge between Hodaka and Yari. In 1912, he was on Senjo and Shiomi in the Southern Alps, and in 1913 he visited Sugoroku and Kasa-ga-dake. Then, in 1915, this golden age came to an end when Kojima’s bank posted him to Los Angeles.

The era after the Sangakukai’s founding had also been a golden age for Kojima's writing. All the while, he was adding to his oeuvre at a prodigious rate, his inkbrush (as his brother recalls) fairly hopping and skipping over the manuscript pages. In 1910, he came out with the first of four volumes on the “Nihon Alps”, his choice of title helping to establish the modish new name for these mountain ranges. He also found time for a book on Japanese woodblock prints and landscape art.

At the same time, Kojima was searching for a style that would better suit his subject. His early travel essays were written, perforce, in a conventional literary language, larded with figurative language and Chinese-influenced phraseology. Typical of this period is the following excerpt from his 1902 essay on the exploration of Yarigatake:

In height, a full 11,700 shaku or feet above sea level, Yari surpasses the rain clouds whirling at his foot, he rises head and shoulders above the mountains that surround him, as if abruptly demanding their fealty and their acclaim for his royal majesty. Yes, the mountains of this region may be the greatest and tallest of all Japan, they may exceed all other Japanese mountains in stature, indeed there are none here but lofty mountains of unrivalled magnificence, yet still they bow down before him; none of them would dare flout his command, whether Hakusan of Kaga to the west, Ontake of Shinano to the east, Tateyama of Etchu to the north, or Norikura of Hida to the south. Like the Four Deva Kings, they surround and salute him from far and near, one standing guard with a white band of snow on its forehead, another with an icy sword raised above its head, one riding astride a stout horse that bristles its mane, as if about to trumpet forth a neigh, and if anyone, be they a sentient or a non-sentient being, dares to approach, these guardians would hurl down lethal rocks, let slip their winds, or blow down their mists, never desisting until the trespasser kneels and begs for mercy…

Only a few years later, Kojima decided that this ornate, elliptical language was no longer "fit for the description of nature full of life". Instead, he sought "a new style of Meiji" that would let him depict the natural world as it really is. Kojima was not, of course, the only one in pursuit of a new style. As a part-time literary critic, he would have been aware of parallel efforts such as those of the philologist Mozume Takame (1849-1928), who, In an essay of 1886 entitled Genbun Itchi, had called for written Japanese to be brought closer to the spoken language. A novel that applied that principle, Futabatei Shimei's Ukigumo (Drifting clouds) had also recently appeared.

As an aspiring nature writer, however, Kojima would find no exact model among compatriot novelists or essayists. That meant looking abroad for inspiration. English writers impressed him, particularly Byron. The English poet’s works, he wrote, “are more strictly topographical than those of Wordsworth and Shelley, dramatising and giving meaning to places readers might themselves visit, often in vivid and sensuous terms.”

This comment sheds light on the type of style that Kojima was seeking to develop for himself. According to Nobuko Fujioka, the breakthrough came in 1907 with the publication of an essay entitled Umpyō (Above the clouds). As it turned out, though, Kojima's stylistic model was less the poetry of Byron than the prose of John Ruskin, whose descriptions of nature in Modern Painters and elsewhere shaped the literary tastes of several generations. Modern Painters Volume IV - which contains the famous chapter on "Mountain Glory" - was introduced to Kojima by Weston at their first meeting in 1903. "I didn't understand a word of this," Kojima recorded later, "but, when I heard Ruskin's name, I felt like bowing my head."

Kojima clearly followed up on Weston's hint. Indeed, the great Victorian sage – who, like Kojima, was both an art critic and (briefly) a member of an alpine club – is cited by name in an essay on Mt Fuji that Kojima published after his return to Japan in 1927. In that essay, the characteristic concave curve of the volcano's slope is described as follows:-

The arc described from the contour of the summit shrine, some ten thousand feet above sea level, down to Ōmiya, at the foot of the main route up the mountain – this arc, slanting, somewhat steeply, yet always in an easy, serene, almost carefree way, across a flawless sky – this gigantic line is, except for the sea horizon, the mightiest that the eye will ever see in this country.

It’s surely not too much of a stretch to see Ruskin's influence in the great arc of this perfectly controlled periodic sentence, slanting as it does, in easy, serene and almost carefree clauses, towards that dramatic and irrefragable conclusion.

Be that as it may, this passage happens to be the only quotation from a modern writer that Fukada Kyuya chose to adorn the Mt Fuji chapter of his Nihon Hyakumeizan (One Hundred Mountains of Japan), which was published in 1964.

This tribute was no more than Kojima’s due. For he did much more than just found the Japan Alpine Club – of which Fukada was the 1,586th member – and kick off a golden age of mountain exploration. By inaugurating the journal Sangaku, he provided his literary successors, especially Fukada, with a treasure trove of material and quotations. Even more importantly, Kojima invented a way of writing about mountains and encouraged others to find their own voice. Where once samurai had pursued ‘the way of the ink-brush and the sword’, Kojima saw to it that henceforth Japan’s mountaineers would go out onto the hill with an ice-axe in one hand and, figuratively speaking, a pen in the other.

(Continued: How Kojima assembled the six other founder members of the Sangaku-kai.)


Details of Kojima Usui’s early life, climb of Yari, and literary development come mainly from Nobuko Fujioka's article, Vision or Creation? Kojima Usui and the Literary Landscape of the Japanese Alps (Comparative Literature Studies, Vol 39, no 4, 2002).

Details of Kojima's climbing career come mainly from 多才なアルプニスト:小島烏水 article by 瀬戸島政博 (Setoguchi Masahiro) The Japan Journal of Survey, September 2008.

Thoughts about the influence of Ruskin on Kojima’s writing were prompted by Miyashita Keizo's Nihon Arupusu: Mitate no Bunkashi, a book on the Japanese interpretation of the Alps published in 1997.

And Project Hyakumeizan is indebted to the Sensei for the translations from Nihon Fūkeiron and from Kojima Usui’s Yarigatake no Tankenki (Account of an exploration of Yarigatake). Translations from Nihon Hyakumeizan from the forthcoming translation as One Hundred Mountains of Japan.

Photo of Kojima Usui copyright of Yama to Keikoku illustrated history of Japanese mountaineering (目で見る日本登山史 by 川崎吉光、山と渓谷社).

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Tsurugi enigma

A recent study deepens the mystery of who made the first ascent of Japan's most rugged 'famous mountain' - and when

Defended by its iron citadels and snowy moats, Tsurugi's summit was long held to be inaccessible, writes Fukada Kyūya in Nihon Hyakumeizan (One Hundred Mountains of Japan). According to legend, this was the mountain where Kōbō Daishi wore out a thousand pairs of straw sandals in vain attempts to scale it. And this was, in truth, the last peak of the entire Japan Alps to be conquered.

At last the day came when Tsurugi was stripped of its mystery. On the thirteenth of July 1907 (Meiji 40), a government survey party reached the summit. 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.

This scene is recreated in the film Tsurugi - Ten no Ki - during which the famous guide Uji Chōjirō stumbles across the relics in a patch of grass. If the film is to be believed, the discovery didn't do either the guide or his clients any good. When they learned that Tsurugi had already been climbed, the Army top brass lost all interest in applauding or promoting the surveyors' mountaineering achievement.

Today, the spear and the staff can be seen in the refurbished Tateyama Museum in Toyama. This is how Fukada describes them in Nihon Hyakumeizan:

About a foot in length, the spearhead was used as a ritual weapon by adepts during their ceremonies on the summit. As for the priest's staff, the tip measuring some eight inches in length and three in breadth, this was found to be extremely old. Scholars conclude that it dates from the T'ang dynasty (618-906) and is similar to the staff held by the Buddha of the Longmen caves in China. After centuries of exposure to wind and weather, the objects were found lying a little apart from each other. The spearhead looks all but uncorroded, while the tip of the staff has acquired a beautiful green patina.

The relics were dated to between the second half of the Nara period and the early Heian period by the archaeologist Takahashi Kenji, who published a paper about them in 1911. And since then, as the Hyakumeizan quotation shows, Takahashi's opinion has generally prevailed.

Until, that is, the Tateyama Museum curators decided to revisit the subject a few years ago. Teaming up with the Gangoji Institute for Cultural Properties Research in Nara, they subjected the bronze alloy of the staff to x-ray fluorescence. The alloy does contain copper and tin, reported the curators in 2007, as every self-respecting bronze should. It also has a smidgeon of lead in it. Unfortunately for the Takahashi thesis, though, the alloy has not a trace of antimony - a metal which was commonly mixed into bronze made in the Nara period.

Inconveniently, x-ray fluorescence cannot, on its own, show when a metal object was made - it can only reveal what kind of metal the object is made of. So the recent study has deepened rather than dissipated the mystery of when the enigmatic spear and staff reached Tsurugi's summit.

In the end, Fukada Kyūya's thoughts about this episode remain as valid as when he set them down on paper, some time in the early 1960s. This is what he says in the Tsurugi chapter of Nihon Hyakumeizan:-

All this means that some bold monk did succeed in climbing this supposedly inaccessible peak. When and by what route he performed this feat remains obscure. Nor do we know whether he was the one who brought up the spearhead and the staff. Or whether the objects were deliberately placed there to commemorate the ascent or if they were left behind as the sole witnesses to some disaster, perhaps when their owner succumbed to a sudden change in the weather. What is certain is that some mountain mystic made this ascent, fired by unshakeable courage and an iron will.


Nihon Hyakumeizan by Fukada Kyūya, in the forthcoming translation as One Hundred Mountains of Japan

Details of the Tateyama Museum/Gangoji Institute for Cultural Properties Research study from this blog

Illustrations: Tsurugi-san woodprint by Yoshida Hiroshi; spear and staff from Hito wa naze yama ni noboru no ka?, Volume 103 in the Taiyo Bessatsu: Nihon no Kokoro series (Heibonsha, 1998); mountain mystic: still image from Tsurugi - ten no ki film.

Friday, December 2, 2011


Two workman alpinists acquire some respect for snow When it hit, I announced ‘avalanche’ in tones as flat as those of a waiter setting down a mint julep. (“Your snowslide, sir.”) Or so Richard later alleged. I might have said more if the rushing snow hadn't instantly plunged us, face-down, out of control, into its tumbling smother. After surfing for 30 metres or so, we fetched up on the surface. The ride was not uncomfortable, except for the sensation of drowning. We revisited the scene of this adventure a summer or two later. Pausing on our way up to a climb, we sat in the hut’s shade, sipping our Pocari Sweats, and looked on as Japan's most expensive wall took shape. Every few minutes, the helicopter would stagger in from a nearby rubble field, a boulder swaying from its load sling. Then the pilot would ease his straining craft into a hover and carefully juggle the latest building-block into place. Cost what it might, the new barrier would come in cheaper than rebuilding the hut. This chalet-like lodge sits at the focus of the Karesawa cirque, right in the centre of the Japan Northern Alps – an insalubrious place to be in mid-winter. More than once, the building has been demolished by avalanches that hit with the force of a shinkansen. Watching the new defences rise higher boulder by boulder, we realised we'd been lucky. Yet these are far from being the deadliest snowslides in Japan. Top contenders for that title might be the airborne powder chutes that haunt the precipitous Kurobe River gorge. In February 1936, one of these swooped through the darkness onto a construction site at Udo-dani. A 70-ton steel bridge was blown off its supports, landing two hundred metres away. Two years later, in the early morning of 27 December 1938, a powder avalanche unfurled silently down the steep walls of Shiai-dani, another building site for the Kurobe hydroelectric project. It flattened a four-storey barracks, killing more than eighty workmen in their sleep. Fragments and bodies were hurled up to six hundred metres through the air. In local dialect, these Kurobe avalanches are called "hou", a name that captures their foam-like character. More air than snow, they blast obstacles rather than bulldoze them – only shattered trees or buildings betray their passing. Eerily little in the way of snowdrifts is left behind. Many years after the Shiai-dani accident, a group of researchers went back into this valley in mid-winter. Warily, I imagine, they placed instruments in a known avalanche track. From these, the savants deduced that the front of a large "hou" can travel at 200 kilometres an hour, with some internal waves moving at twice that speed. One slide left an icy track behind it, but the snow it piled up below was hardly knee-deep. If “hou” practise a kind of snow ninjutsu, wet slides are the yokozuna of the avalanche world. Also known as “soko-nadare” (base avalanches), these clear out a snow gully to the ground, ripping out trees and rocks as they pass. A soko-nadare is described by Suzuki Bokushi (1770-1842) in his Snow Country Tales:- A man from Uonuma set out on an errand on a warm March day and didn’t come back. When his family raised the alarm, the villagers went out to look for him. At a nearby pass, they found a huge wall of snow blocking the road. Perplexed as to where they should start digging, they hesitated until an old man suggested a novel expedient. Taking several younger men with him, he went to the nearest village, borrowed some roosters, and brought them back. Then he scattered feed over the snowbank and let the roosters wander about as they wished, pecking at it. One of the roosters suddenly rose up, stretched its wings, and crowed, whereupon the others all flocked together and began crowing at the same place. The old man turned to the younger men holding shovels and said, “That’s where he is! Start digging!” And everyone dug at once. Digging deeper they suddenly came across a patch of snow dyed red with blood. Digging still deeper, they found the body, with one arm and the head ripped off. Next they found the arm but not the head. Finally, after enlarging the hole and digging here and there in the wall of snow, the head, too, was found. Buried all this time in snow, the poor fellow looked as if alive. At this sight, the wife, who had been standing nearby with her children the whole time, grasped her husband’s severed head and held it in her arms, while the children threw themselves over their father’s body, crying and lamenting. (Summarised from Snow Country Tales.) Uonuma, in today’s Niigata prefecture, is on the Japan Sea Coast. This is – or used to be – one of the snowiest regions in the world. Every winter, from December onwards, the low-pressure zones come trucking in from arctic Siberia. After soaking up moisture from the sea, they dump it in massive snowdrifts on the mountainsides. Accumulations of up to twelve metres have been recorded on Tateyama, a nearby Meizan. In the mountains of Echigo, spring avalanches gouge deep furrows that show up on aerial photos as comb-like patterns streaming out leewards from the ridgelines. One June, we went to inspect a snow-gully in this region. After an all-night drive from Tokyo, we ported our skis through a beechwood, with the tips catching on every branch. Coming out from under the forest canopy, we stepped onto the snow and snapped our boots into the bindings. Grey and hard as cement, the snow was pitted with sun-cups filled with grit and leafmould. Higher up, we had to weave our way between boulders and torn-off tree-branches. This had clearly been a lively place during the spring snowmelt. And even now, living up to its name of Ishikurobi-sawa (Stone Tumbling Gully), it tossed a few boulders down at us as the afternoon sun started to warm the upper slopes. Reaching the summit over a last snow-stripe, we looked out over the rolling peaks of the Iide massif. From here, we could see that the ridge-tops bounding our gully were sharp-edged and ragged. This too is the work of the avalanches that scour down them in spring, says Koaze Takashi, a geographer. By contrast, the ridges on the Pacific side of Japan are rounded and easier to travel. Snow shapes these mountains. It carves out distinctive, straight-sided avalanche troughs on steep faces – as seen on Echigo-Komagatake (below) – and it leaves strange hollows in the ground that even the academicians find difficult to explain. Snow also dictates what plants can grow and where – creeping pine on wind-blasted ridges, the rowan (nanakamado) in the sheltered zone under cornices. Indeed, snow has taken over where Japan's vanished glaciers left off. Ten thousand years ago, the Great Snow Valley of Shirouma was one of the largest glaciers on Honshu. Even today, the permanent snow lies so deep that its lower layers have compacted into ice. If it flowed, this Daisekkei would still be a glacier. As it is, the avalanches rule. Folk who insist on camping here in winter should sleep with pocket-knife in hand, ready to cut their way out of a buried tent. Karesawa used to hold a glacier too, though a smaller one than Shirouma’s. By the same token, its avalanches pack that much less punch. After picking ourselves up from the one that hit us that Golden Week, we met with a zone of quicksand powder, so fluffy and bottomless that we had to swim our way across. Not a good place to get buried. Later, we passed by Byōbu, its clifftops lost in cloud, and watched as avalanche after avalanche crashed down its gullies. Already the Northern Alps had instilled in us a deep respect for snow. References A study on high-speed avalanches in the Kurobe, by H Shimizu et al (1980). Snow Country Tales: Life in the other Japan (北越雪譜) by Suzuki Bokushi, translated by Jeffrey Hunter with Rose Lesser (1986). Geomorphological Features of Avalanche Furrows in Heavy Snow Region in Japan, by T Sekiguchi et al (2005). Geomorphic processes at a snowpatch hollow on Gassan volcano, northern Japan, by Y Kariya (2002). Yama wo yomu by T Koaze, Professor of Geography at Meiji University. Black-and-white photo of avalanche gully on Echigo-Komagatake is from this book. Cautionary tales Avalanched in the Shirouma Daisekkei by i-cjw Half-dead in Hakuba: how I survived an avalanche in Japan, by Seth Lightcap

Monday, November 21, 2011

The author of alpinism

How modern mountaineering in Japan was called into existence by a nature writer who never climbed a mountain.

In 1894, the country was a powder keg. The explosive potential lay in a wild profusion of mountains to climb, a rising class of energetic young men with money to burn, and new railways that could carry the men to the mountains. In short, Japan was primed for the outbreak of modern mountaineering. Except that, so far, nobody had thought of becoming a mountaineer.

Strange to say, this volatile mixture was touched off by a writer who probably never climbed a mountain in his life. As for the match he used to light the blue touchpaper, it was a treatise that went by the less than incendiary title of "Theory of the Japanese Landscape" (Nihon Fūkeiron). Yet, within a few years, it was this book that inspired Japan's first attempt at modern mountain exploration.

At a young age, Shiga Shigetaka (1863-1927) was sent by his samurai-class guardians - his father had died when he was six - to a naval preparatory school. This was less to prepare him for a naval career than to give him a head start in the English language - a skill that would clearly come in useful when dealing with the foreigners who were both threat and inspiration for Meiji Japan.

In 1880, Shiga moved on to the Sapporo Agricultural College, the forerunner of today's Hokkaidō University. The college had been founded with American help and classes were taught in English up to 1882. While polishing his language proficiency, Shiga steeped himself in contemporary ideas. Darwin became a strong influence on his own thinking.

Sapporo graduates were trained to become the nation's elite - "Boys be ambitious!" they were told by the college's founder, William Smith Clark. Alas, the jobs on offer when they graduated didn't necessarily match up to expectations. Shiga became a botany teacher at a junior high school in Nagano. This job imploded, as did the prospect of any further employment nearby, when in a fit of frustration he insulted the prefectural governor.

Shiga's big break came in 1886, when he persuaded the Imperial Navy to let him join a training cruise to the South Pacific. Actually, the Navy turned him down at first, only relenting when Shiga reminded them how the British navy had invited Darwin on the voyage of the Beagle. (This parallel must have meant something to Shiga; when he later discovered that an HMS Beagle had been sold to Japan, he tracked down the ship. Salvaging a small piece of timber, he installed it in a place of honour in his tea-house in Yokohama.)

If the Navy had taken a bet on Shiga, it was swiftly rewarded. Within a few weeks after landing back in Japan, the writer published Nanyō Jiji, a best-selling account of his voyage on board the screw sloop Tsukuba. For Shiga, it had been a formative journey: the ship had visited the Caroline Islands, Fiji, Samoa, Hawaii, Australia and New Zealand - all either colonised by western powers or otherwise under their sway.

Colonialism was not all bad. Shiga was impressed by the British administration in Australia, and again by the ethos of hard work and sacrifice that he sensed in New Zealand. At the same time, he was horrified by the plight of the native peoples. The Darwinistic implications were clear: backward cultures would be subjugated by those from more advanced civilisations.

After his meeting with a Maori chief, Wi Tako, Shiga wrote: "Alas! Japan could become another New Zealand. As I look up at the autumn skies of these Southern Seas, I fear the threat to my home country far away. Having witnessed such cultural and racial oppression in New Zealand, I - as a son of the new Japan - must take immediate action to make my people aware of this possibly happening back home." (Nanyō Jiji)

Back home, Shiga became the editor of Nihonjin, a magazine established in 1888 to restore national self-confidence. In the very first issues, Shiga launched on the theme that he would later develop in Nihon Fūkeiron - the relationship of the Japanese people with the land of Japan. In the second edition, he wrote:-

The influence of all environmental factors of Japan - her climate and her weather conditions, her temperature and humidity, the nature of her soil, the configuration of her land and water, her animal and plant life and her landscape, as well as the interaction of all these factors, the habits and customs, the experiences, the history and development of thousands of years - the totality of these factors has gradually, imperceptibly, developed in the Japanese race inhabiting this environment a unique kokusui (national essence).

Landscape into kokusui: that pretty much sums up the essence of Nihon Fūkeiron. The theme is fully worked out in Shiga's masterpiece. Take, for example, this description of pine trees in the mountains:-

Standing against fierce winds, they distinguish themselves from other trees. What a graceful picture they present . Their trunks, branches, twigs and leaves defy all gusts of wind. Even after other feeble trees wither, they still remain alive. If they happen to be cut by an axe, they fall to the ground triumphantly, in a manner no other trees can display. Thus, Japanese pine trees typify the characteristics of our fellow countrymen. (Nihon Fūkeiron)

According to Shiga, such pine trees exemplify "tettō" - unspoiled wilderness scenery - one of the three qualities that distinguish Japan’s landscapes. The other two characteristics are "shōsha" (elegance), best exemplified by the autumnal beauty of Japan's maples, and "bi" (beauty), as seen in the nightingales and blossoms of spring.

Shiga grounds his aesthetics in geographical fact: Japan owes its magnificent forests and flora to its enormous climatic variation, from sub-tropical to sub-arctic; its high humidity imbues the landscape with a special hue; heavy rainfall sculpts its landforms into intriguing crags and gorges; and, above all, the country has volcanoes.

Shiga was lucky with his timing, getting Nihon Fūkeiron to press just after the start of Japan's war with China. Readers were in the right mood to be compared to storm-defying pine trees. Within eight years, Nihon Fūkeiron was reprinted fifteen times. So many copies rolled off the presses that you can still easily and cheaply pick up early editions in the bookstores of Kanda.

Among Shiga's audience was a 23 year-old bank clerk and aspirant writer in Yokohama. Kojima Usui read Nihon Fūkeiron again and again, "trusting the book as if it was the scripture of natural beauty". What especially captured his attention was the appendix to the book, curiously entitled "Tozan no kifū wo kōsaku subeshi" (Cultivate the mountaineering spirit). And, within that appendix, one passage transfixed him:

Start out; ascending about eight hours from the village of Shimashima, you will reach the hut on the Tokugō pass at about 1,500 metres in altitude; from there, in about three leagues, you will find the Miyagawa hut, which you can regard as the foot of the mountain proper; from Miyagawa, climb six leagues or seven hours, and you will reach the summit; for the first three of these hours, you will follow a fast-flowing river that cuts through granite walls; mountains made of granite rise skywards one above the other; as you leave the river, the mountains become still more precipitous, the view more and more impressive, the granite presenting its mysterious forms as if it were a huge landscape painting; as you continue, you will step onto snow, and sometimes you will see ptarmigans, bears, and mountain goats (kamoshika); if you want to know the real nature of granite mountains, then you must by all means climb Yarigatake.

It matters little that Shiga probably cribbed much of this appendix from the English-language Handbook for Travellers in Central and Northern Japan, published by Ernest Satow and A G S Hawes a decade or so earlier. Nor that the Japanese author had scant personal knowledge of mountain-climbing. For the effect on Kojima was electric; on reading the passage about Yari, as he later recorded, he felt "as if his heart and soul had been blown away".

Getting to the mountain took a little longer: his parents were opposed, accurate maps didn't exist and - most vexing of all for the prototype salaryman-alpinist - he could take barely a fortnight's annual leave from his bank. Nevertheless, after one false start, Kojima reached Yari's summit in 1902, together with his friend Okano Kinjirō, an oil company employee.

It was only on their way to the mountain that the pair learned that they would not be making a first ascent. Government surveyors had beaten them to the summit by a few months, leaving behind a trigonometric marker post (above). Still, Kojima felt that the climb was worth writing up and, the following year, his account appeared in instalments in the Bunko magazine.

Arguably, Yarigatake Tankenki (Exploring Yarigatake) was Japan's first work of modern mountaineering literature. Or perhaps Japan's first work of modern mountaineering literature in Japanese. For, when he published it, Kojima was still completely unaware that an English mountaineering missionary had preceded him to the summit of Yari eleven years earlier.

Walter Weston had written up his climb in Mountaineering and Exploration in the Japanese Alps, published in London in 1896. But the book was hardly known in Japan at that time - it wasn't until later that it was translated.

So it was only by chance, in the summer of 1903, that Okano Kinjirō, the Standard Oil man, saw a copy of Weston's book at a colleague's house and learned of the author's climbing activities in the previous decade. Then he discovered that, in the meantime, Weston had returned to Japan and was now living close by, in Yokohama.

An invitation to tea with the Englishman soon followed. Weston showed Kojima and Okano an alpenstock and other pieces of equipment, as well as several issues of the Alpine Journal, the year book of Britain's long-established Alpine Club. Okano was much taken with the kit; for Kojima, however, it was the idea of a club that took hold. Two years later, in late 1905, he and a small group of friends formed their own "Mountain Club" - known at first simply as the "Sangaku-kai" after its model.

One of the earliest acts of the new Japan Alpine Club was to elect Walter Weston as its first honorary member and vice chairman (right in picture) and Shiga Shigetaka (left in picture) as its second. Yet, by Kojima's own account, the priority could well have been reversed. As far as he was concerned, the birthplace of the Sangaku-kai was Yarigatake. “Thanks to that climb,” he continued, “I got to know Weston, from whom I learned that there were alpine clubs all over the world. Before that, nobody had ever suggested to me the idea of a club. But, as to why I climbed Yari in the first place, that was because I’d been inspired by a book – none other than that of the late Shiga Shigetaka-sensei. We are all obliged to this great instigator.”


The biographical information about Shiga Shigetaka above comes mainly from Masako Gavin's full-length biography, The Forgotten Enlightener: Shiga Shigetaka.

Additional detail on Nihon Fūkeiron comes from Kären Wigen's article on Discovering the Japanese Alps: Meiji Mountaineering and the Quest for Geographical Enlightenment (The Journal of Japanese studies, Volume 31, Number 1, Winter 2005).

The quotation from Nihonjin magazine is via the chapter on Shiga in Julia Adeney Thomas's book, Reconfiguring Modernity: Concepts of Nature in Japanese Political Ideology (2002)

The account of how Kojima came to climb Yari, meet Walter Weston and found the Japan Alpine Club is mainly from Nobuko Fujioka's article, Vision or Creation? Kojima Usui and the Literary Landscape of the Japanese Alps (Comparative Literature Studies, Vol 39, no 4, 2002).

The closing quotation from Kojima Usui is from his essay on the foundation of the Japanese Alpine Club (山岳会の成立まで)

And Project Hyakumeizan is indebted to the Sensei for the translation of Shiga's (or perhaps Satow's or Hawes's) instructions on how to climb Yari.

All photos copyright of Yama to Keikoku illustrated history of Japanese mountaineering (目で見る日本登山史 by 川崎吉光、山と渓谷社).

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Images and ink (11)

Image: Above the clouds, woodprint by Yoshida Hiroshi (1928)

Ink: Fuji, a poem by Kusano Shinpei, translated by Leith Morton:

A snowslide on Fuji swallowed the lives of 15 students in a matter of seconds
This mountain unlike any other in Japan.
Fuji does not believe that a column of monks is too heavy.
Nor that a mountain observatory is too noisy.
Sometimes clouds furry like mufflers wind round and round Fuji.
Sometimes classic pince-nez clouds float close by.
In the sea of trees even snow-grouse have multiplied.
The Osawa landslide must have carved out a huge mass of mountain.
That too does not bother Fuji.
Leaving everything to humanity and physics.
Before long it may yet poke out again a tongue of fire.
That too is left to nature.
Fuji is there.
Fuji simply exists.
Heaven overhead always.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The wolf and the wild boar

An ecological parable from the beech forests of northern Japan

Reading Brett Walker's book on the Japanese wolf led me to the case of another vanished beast. You won’t find any wild boar in Japan’s snowy Tohoku region today. With their short legs and their need to dig up fodder from the forest floor, the animals can’t live through winters where deep snow lies for seventy days or more.

In the past, those northern winters must have been even colder and snowier. Yet records from the Edo period show that wild boar once roamed as far north as Aomori, right at the top of Tohoku. In fact, so many of them were raiding farmers’crops around Hachinoe in 1749 that they caused a famine during which 3,000 people starved to death.

Despite all efforts to wipe them out, wild boar continued to thrive in northern Japan until the nineteenth century. Then, at some point in Meiji times (1868-1912), they went into decline. The last Tohoku boar was hunted down in 1907. This was just two years after the demise of Japan’s last wolf.

Was there some link between the fates of wolf and boar? The question had to go unanswered until the 1990s, when ecologists in Poland made studies of the country’s Carpathian mountains. This region resembles Tohoku in its rolling beech woods, cold winters, and deep snow cover.

Lynx, wolves and wild boar still roam the Polish forests. Unsurprisingly, the researchers found that the wild boar often furnish lunch for the wolves. So much so, that when the wolf population grows, the number of boar shrinks, and vice versa.

What was less expected is that the wolf returns this favour. During the winter months, the boar can't dig through the snow and frozen ground to get fodder. So how do they survive? Seemingly, by foraging on the leftovers from wolf and lynx kills.

That might explain how the wild boar of Tohoku endured the long winters. It also suggests why they died out in the north country. Traditionally, the boar’s disappearance was explained by swine cholera, a disease brought into the country with imported pigs when Meiji Japanese acquired a taste for tonkatsu.

Disease can't be the full story, as wild boar have survived in warmer parts of Japan. In Tohoku, however, the boar suffered a double whammy. First, they lost their winter food supply when the wolf went extinct –then the absence of their main predator meant that sick or weak wild boar continued to spread the swine cholera unchecked.

The secret liaison of wolf and boar is just one of the web of dependencies that makes up a forest. Pull on one thread, such cases suggest, and the ecosystem may unravel somewhere completely unexpected. What hidden connection will those northern woods next reveal?


Hito wa naze yama ni noboru no ka?, Volume 103 in the Taiyo Bessatsu: Nihon no Kokoro series (Heibonsha, 1998) - chapter on the Japanese wolf

Picture of wild boar from Wikipedia

And see Sapphire Sky for an update on the urban wild boars of Kobe ...

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Images and ink (10)

Image: Peaceful Rishiri, woodprint by Yoshida Hiroshi (1938)

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

I'll never forget the starkly beautiful form of Rishiri, silhouetted against the evening sky. Seen from the neighbouring island of Rebun, it rose up across the shimmering sea, not as a facsimile of Fuji, to which it is sometimes likened, but as a jagged rock, steeped in gold by the rays of the setting sun The whole island seems to surge upwards into its central peak of 1,700-odd metres. ... This ideal mountain floating on a shimmering sea can only be Rishiri.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Good kama, bad kama (3)

The Kitakama concluded: scaling the final chimney in the footsteps of alpine pioneers

We granted ourselves a ten-minute lunch break on the greenwood col. No more, because the afternoon clouds were already boiling up from nearby ridges. Scrambling to our feet, we addressed ourselves again to the Kitakama. No soft lead-in was offered or taken. Rising abruptly from the col, Pinnacle 8 was a fifty-degree slope of leafmould and stony tilth. Security, if any, was found by gripping the whitened roots of the creeping pine, some of which broke off in our hands.

If we’d hoped to see Yari after topping this rise, we were disappointed. Instead, the view was filled by the triangular bulk of the Doppyō, a peak in its own right. Evading its in-your-face challenge, we took to aery traverses on the west side, some on sound rock and some on rubble-strewn ledges that tilted downwards over impressive spaces. In one place, huge blocks were poised over the path like some Temple of Doom device in an Indiana Jones film.

Yet the rock looked almost sound when compared with the horror show of Sulphur Ridge, which reared its spiny length along the other side of the Senjo valley. In the heyday of post-war alpinism, people used to traverse those serrated towers of Digestive Biscuit, but we felt no desire to emulate them. That would certainly be a ridge too far.

Donald had just disappeared round the side of a small peaklet when I felt the rock tremble; a muffled thud sounded from somewhere far beneath. Before I could panic, Donald's head reappeared over the ridge. Not to worry, he’d just trundled a large boulder into the snow gully below.

This incident reminded us to keep our heads switched on. Like any great alpine climb, the Kitakama demands ceaseless vigilance; the exposure is continuous and the route's remoteness gives it a special atmosphere of isolation and menace. Rescue, if any, will be a long time coming. In those days, there was said to be only one civilian helicopter pilot in Japan who was qualified for alpine rescues.

Right now, though, it was thirst rather than the scenery that was getting to us. Somehow, in the excitement of our river-crossing a few hours before, we’d omitted to refill our water bottles. This was a mistake; the ridge proved to be as dry as Prohibition. Meanwhile, the sun, the heat, and the cracking pace set by Donald had the sweat rolling down our foreheads.

By Peak 15, we were assailed by the Foaming Tankard Syndrome, a syndrome that prevents its victims thinking of anything else. Finding an unexpected patch of flat ground – this must have been Yari-daira, a favoured bivvy site for winter and spring ascensionists – we took a break. My water bottle was long since empty, but Donald shared the last drops of water from his own. Such gestures live for ever in a mountaineer’s memory.

At 3.45, Yari's shadowy north face loomed above us. Fortunately, the climbing proved less formidable than it looked. We scrambled up the left arête until it steepened, then side-stepped rightwards into a commodious chimney that wafted us to the summit.

Maybe I don’t remember that right, because the mountaineering missionary Walter Weston, who pioneered this route in 1912, was of a different opinion. He called it the hardest and most interesting climbing he’d ever done in Japan - excepting only his Ho'o-zan feat. (Weston's party too trundled a boulder that “splintered itself as it ricocheted from point to point and then fell into and down the couloir in a thousand fragments”.) Watch out for this stuff.

As Weston and Nemoto Seizo, his guide, traversed in from the south side of Yari to reach this climb, they didn’t make the first ascent of the Kitakama. That honour fell to rival teams from Waseda and Gakushūin universities who raced each other up the ridge on a July day in 1922. This was the year after Maki Yuko made his epoch-making first ascent of the Eiger’s Mittelegi ridge; suddenly, in Japan, long alpine ridges were all the rage.

We finished our own ascent some time after 4pm, popping up on the summit beside two artisans who were busy bedding in a new shrine. After half an hour’s relaxation amid the drifting afternoon clouds, we made our way down the mountain’s south side to the hut where a be-dreadlocked student from Cambridge brought us foaming cans of Asahi. All we had to repay this kindness was a solitary packet of cashew nuts. Although, of course, it had come all the way up the Kitakama.


Walter Weston, The Playground of the Far East, Chapter VIII, The Northern Alps Revisited - New Faces of Old Friends

日本のクラシック ルート3、槍ヶ岳 北鎌尾根、山と渓谷 1993/6月号

And, for the Kitakama ridge in a more modern idiom, see CJW's account of his recent solo ascent.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Good kama, bad kama (2)

The Kitakama ridge continued: unknowingly, we take a break at the scene of a famous mountain tragedy ...

Perched on the roots of a mountain birch, we ate our cheese butties and looked down on the wooded col. The dappled sunlight filtered through the trees, suggesting to us a sylvan idyll - until we noticed, scattered among the weeds, the rusting tins, empty gas cartridges, and shreds of tent fabric that hinted at desperate struggles against the elements. This col, we sensed, could be a happening place.

Indeed it can. In the summer of 1949, a search party moved south from here, scanning the snow for tell-tale clues just like the ones in front of us. Soon they found an abandoned cooking pot, then a shovel and a glove. Acting on this evidence, another group struggled up the trackless valley to the west of the Kitakama. And there they discovered the bodies of the two climbers, still huddled in the melting snowbank of their last bivouac.

Matsunami Akira was born in 1922 at Sendai, in the same year that the Kitakama ridge was first climbed. He made a name for himself as a mountaineer before graduating from middle school, even soloing a route on the fearsome cliffs of Tanigawa's Ichinokura-sawa. Because it was convenient for the Northern Alps, he applied to Matsumoto's elite high school, but was detained on Hodaka by a snowstorm on the day of the entrance examination.

That forced a change of plan. Moving to Tokyo, he joined the famous Tosho-keiryūkai club and passed the entrance exam for Tokyo Agricultural University, already a hotbed of mountaineering activity.

Now began the heyday of Matsunami's career. While some top climbers specialise in a particular cliff or region, he was everywhere, putting up new routes on Tanigawa, on Yatsugatake and in the Southern Japan Alps. The first winter ascent of No 1 Ridge (topo below) in Takidani in February 1939 was a milestone in the advancement of Japan's alpine climbing standards.

When the war came, he was drafted into the army for two years, being demobilised in 1946. Those were hungry and bleak years in Japan's burned-out cities. They didn't quench Matsunami's spirit. In July 1948, he made the first ascent of Kitadake Buttress's Central Ridge (Chuo-ryō), a climb that most mountaineers still prefer to admire from a safe distance.

Around the same time, he conceived his boldest plan yet. With just one companion, Arimoto Katsumi, he would traverse the highest mountains of the Japan Northern Alps from end to end, in mid-winter. They would start by climbing the Kitakama, cross the narrow and exposed Dai-Kiretto, and scale the heights of Oku-Hodaka before descending at the foot of the Yake-dake volcano.

As if the route's length and technical difficulties were not enough, Matsunami and Arimoto decided to do without pre-placed dumps of food and fuel. Nor would they call on support parties, as was common practice for winter expeditions. That meant they'd have to carry twenty days' food and fuel on their own backs, as well as all their climbing and camping gear.

The weather was against them from the start. Matsunami went into the mountains ahead of Arimoto, planning to lift one load of supplies to the ridgeline before his friend joined him. While he was camping on the Kitakama, a day of unseasonable heavy rain soaked his tent. Then the temperature plummeted, freezing the canvas into an icy block.

When Arimoto came up to Yumata, the climbers decided to leave the tent behind; it was now too heavy to carry. Instead, they would dig snowholes or huddle under a flysheet ("zelt"). This was a fateful decision. On December 30, they crossed the suspension bridge at Yumata, heading for the Kitakama. The next day, they made their first bivouac on the ridge, shivering under the flysheet as it was lashed by hail and sleet. It was the worst night out that either had yet experienced.

On New Year's Day, the storm strengthened into a full blizzard, piling a foot of new snow onto an icy crust. Neither crampons nor snowshoes would work in this pother, but the pair made it as far as Kitakama col - where we were now sitting - into which they dug a snowhole. Then they did their best to dry out their sodden clothes over the roaring stove, until it started sputtering and misbehaving.

The storm pinned them in their snowhole for the whole of the next day. Until Matsunami could fix the stove, they had to burn petrol in an open can to stay warm and melt snow. Soot blackened the walls of the snowhole, but their clothes stayed sodden. Now they had to decide whether to go on or go down. Just at this critical juncture, the climbers looked out of their snowhole and saw a starry sky. Then Matsunami managed to jury-rig the stove.

Next morning, they went forwards. With Arimoto breaking trail, they made it to the foot of the Doppyō, a large pyramid-shaped peaklet on the ridge, by the evening of 3rd January. As the weather seemed to moderate the following morning, they succeeded in climbing the obstacle only to be caught in a blizzard of renewed ferocity as they came down the other side.

It was on this afternoon, in hindsight, that the jaws of the trap sprang shut. In the snowhole that evening, Arimoto discovered that he had second-degree frostbite to his feet. Later, the gale blew in the door of their shelter, covering the climbers with spindrift and soaking and freezing them anew.

With retreat to the north blocked by the bulk of the Doppyō, the climbers decided to jettison as much gear as possible - these would be the telltale relics found by the search party - and stake their lives on a dash towards Yari. But when they struggled out of the remains of the snowhole into the relentless blizzard, they found the straps of their crampons frozen into a solid tangle.

Without crampons, they were forced to start step-cutting their way along the icy flanks of the ridge. Blinded by the buffeting gusts of spindrift, Arimoto slipped and fell into a gully on the western side of the ridge. As he was too exhausted to climb back, Matsunami went down to join him. Unable to regain the ridge, they forced a way downwards through chest-deep snowdrifts. At 3pm, they dug another snowhole.

On January 6th, the blizzard still raging, Matsunami begins to sense there is no way out. His whole body is freezing; he's at the end of his strength. Arimoto can no longer move. Somehow, he himself could probably get down to Yumata, but that would mean leaving Arimoto alone. He can't do that, so he decides to stay and die. It is six o clock when he makes the decision to die with Arimoto, he records.

"Mother," he writes in his diary, scribbling with a pencil stub gripped in frost-bitten fingers, "thank you for your love - I'm about to join my father. We can't do anything more. Please forgive me. Ask Inoue-san to fix everything." He writes to Inoue, and puts in a note to other friends too: "Arakawa-san - sorry I couldn't return the sleeping bag."

And then: "We die, we dissolve into water, we flow into the sea, we feed the fish, then we become some body again; we just borrow our shape and go round for ever. Matsunami." He stops writing and wraps the diary in a waterproof pouch, and that is where the search party finds it, next to his camera, six months later.

We allowed ourselves ten minutes on that greenwood col. Then Donald nodded at the cumulus clouds that were starting to boil off nearby ridges: "We'd better get a move on," he said. I bolted down the remains of my cheese butty, got to my feet and swung the faded army-green pack to my shoulders. Yes, we'd better get going. We knew little of the Kitakama's illustrious history, but the scattered gear in front of us told its own story. We didn't want to spend the night out on this ridge.



Main source for the account of Matsunami Akira's last bivouac is his diary, which is reprinted with other of his mountain writings in "Fūsetsu no Bibāgu" (風雪のビバーグ Snowstorm Bivouac), a Japanese mountaineering classic. The book also contains an account of the search parties sent out after Matsunami and Arimoto were reported missing.

Photo of Matsunami above is copyright of this blog. Photo of Matsunami and Arimoto together on the Kitakama expedition is copyright of Yama to Keikoku illustrated history of Japanese mountaineering (目で見る日本登山史 by 川崎吉光、山と渓谷社). This photo was recovered from Matsunami's camera, after the accident. Aerial photos of Yari-ga-take and the Kitakama ridge are copyright of Ohmori Kohichiro from Kusatsu Kita-Arupusu (Japan Northern Alps from the Air).

Monday, October 24, 2011

Good kama, bad kama (1)

Getting to the foot of the irresistible ridge takes longer than expected...

Skiving off work early on Friday, we sprinted through Shinjuku station on a sweltering summer's afternoon. If we missed the 2pm Azusa express, we'd probably not finish our climb in time to park our black office shoes under our respective desks on Monday morning.

The day before, we'd run our plan by Etsuko, who worked for a foreign bank's operations department. That is, when she wasn't climbing tough routes in Tanigawa. Etsuko hadn't been positive: "Friend of mine fell off it in spring - never found the body. I think you should go for something easier," she said, looking vaguely intimidatory as she stood there in her blue office suit, arms folded.

Since Donald and I had only recently arrived in Tokyo, we sought Etsuko's advice for most of our alpine projects. And, like as not, ignored it. What deafened our ears to the voice of good sense this time was the encomium we'd found in the Climbing Guide to Japanese Mountains Volume VII: "With its illustrious history, the Kitakama Ridge of Yarigatake is a classic alpine route that calls into play every aspect of mountaineering skill."

That irresistible write-up propelled us first to Shinano Ohmachi, the Big Town in the highlands of Shinshu. Alighting there from the train, we just had time to threw down a katsu-donburi before taking a taxi up into a river valley as far as the second of three dams. We started walking at dusk, up the sloping face of the third dam, and then along a wooded valley. Above its velvet-black walls, the Milky Way luminously marshalled us forwards.

The stars shone steadily, undimmed by haze, as bats flitted in and out of our head-torch beams like night fighters. The weather would be good tomorrow. After three hours, we reached the Seiran-sō hut at Yumata for a late-night beer and a dip in the onsen. The sulphurous waters eased our muscles while steeping us in a vaguely Mephistolean scent. Fortunately, it was too dark to see our ridge looming up to the south.

Next morning, we woke at four and set out at five. From the map, we reckoned we'd deal with the approach to our ridge in about two hours. We reckoned without "friction", as infantry tacticians might call it. The path southwards, overgrown with waist-high panda grass, hinted at what lay in store. Few seemed to pass this way.

And with good reason. The path led to a derelict suspension bridge that careened towards the rushing waters of the Amagami river. That took us into a deep gorge, which we traversed warily, now boulder-hopping just above the water, now crab-crawling worrisomely across washouts where the old trail had crumbled away. At one point, we teetered over a scarp-face on half-collapsed wooden catwalks.

The river has to be re-crossed just before the Deai, a meeting of streams. But the bridge marked on our sketch-map had quite vanished. With misgivings, we inspected the waist-deep torrent of meltwater and judged it worthy of our rope - the only time we would use it. After Donald had fixed a sling around a tree, I launched myself into the current like a high-speed drogue on the end of a log-line. The bracingly cold water surged up to my neck before I got across, gasping, to the other side.

Five or so hours after leaving the Seiran-sō, we squelched our way out of the shadowy gorge - taking our boots off for the river crossing had been out of the question - and emerged into a green amphitheatre, bounded to the east by the green walls of our ridge, still flecked with snow. At our feet, the mid-morning sun reverberated from a dazzling flood-plain of white boulders. 

Only now could we appreciate the scale of this ridge - we'd taken five hours just to bush-whack along its base, covering perhaps one-third of its five-kilometre length. And we hadn't yet gained much height towards that serrated ridgeline at 3,000 metres. We glanced anxiously at our watches; at least, the day was still young.

Our sketch-map showed that we should climb the gully opposite the ruins of a hut. But the encroaching woods had covered all traces of this lodge, leaving us without a clue as to the right gully. Unfazed, Donald took a compass fix off the spike of Yari, which now rose diffidently above the riotous press of trees, and proclaimed that we stood more or less in the right spot.

And he was right: walking over to the base of the ridge, we spotted a cairn, half-hidden in the weeds. A rugged scramble ensued, over boulders and the occasional dry waterfall. 11.30am saw us to the ridge-line, which at this point (between pinnacles P7 and P8) is still wooded. The weather was still perfect and the gully had yielded up to Donald a Goretex bivvy bag, fortunately without its former occupant.

More abandoned kit littered the small patch of level ground on the col. Clearly this was a happening kind of place in the snow season. I was about to sit down for a bite of lunch when Donald raised his hand. "Let's move out of the sh*t zone first," he said.


Friday, October 14, 2011

The lost wolves of Japan

A history of Japan's wolves packs some hard-hitting ecological lessons

Excuse me while I howl. I’ve been reading Brett Walker’s book on “The Lost Wolves of Japan” and it’s a sorry tale. Japan’s last wolf was killed by hunters near Washikaguchi, in the eastern Yoshino mountains, in January 1905. A monument marks the spot.

For much of Japan's history, wolf and human had rubbed along well enough. Wolves rarely attacked people, and people tended to hunt them only when lupine depredations got out of hand. (It seems that Japanese wolves had a special weakness for fresh horse.)

Indeed, the wolf was often seen as a kind of guardian spirit. Up near Morioka, in the North Country, when farmers encountered a wolf, they’d ask “O lord wolf, what do you say? How about chasing the deer from our fields?" Elsewhere, at shrines dedicated to a wolf-spirit known as the Large-Mouthed Pure God, his help was invoked to keep the fields clear of deer and other pests. The Ainu elevated the wolf to an even higher place in their pantheon. Their wolf-deity, Horkew Kamuy, is the hero of a resurrection myth.

The live-and-let-live attitude to wolves ended in the eighteenth century, when a devastating rabies epidemic spread through Japan. Infected wolves turned into ferocious killers; some even came down into the villages to attack people. (In Kaga, it is recorded, the animals acquired a particular taste for young serving wenches.) Village councils and feudal authorities took the matter in hand, organising mass hunts to deal with the menace.

In Hokkaido, the story was different. When modern ranches were set up in the 1870s to raise cattle and horses, wolves threatened their profitability. In one case, the Niikappu ranch lost 90 foals to wolves within a week. Why were those Hokkaido wolves so aggressive? Perhaps because they were hungry. The woodland deer on which they would normally feed had been decimated by severe winters and also by human predation – canneries had recently been set up in Hokkaido to export venison.

Whatever the reason, the ranchers responded without mercy. Taking their cue from American advisors, they set out traps laced with strychnine and even dynamite. An effective bounty scheme was set up: a wolf pelt or set of feet was worth seven yen. Wolves appear to have been extirpated in Hokkaido before they succumbed in Honshu.

A century later, many of Japan’s mountain regions are overrun with deer. Overgrazing has stripped hills that just twenty years ago were still lushly vegetated. If wolves still existed, they certainly wouldn’t go hungry.

Do they still exist? From time to time, hikers or foresters report that they’ve seen large dog-like creatures running through the woods. A few years ago, writes Professor Walker in his epilogue, members of a wildlife protection committee played recordings of howling Canadian wolves in the woods of eastern Yoshino - in the hope of luring out any survivors. But the forest remained silent.


Brett L. Walker, The Lost Wolves of Japan, University of Washington Press, 2008.

This post is (misleadingly) tagged as a review, but it can't in this space do justice to the depth and range of Professor Walker's book - which also delves into the evolutionary history of the Japanese wolf; investigates the question whether, in fact, there were two species of wolf or wolf-like creature roaming the backwoods; and compares various theories about the wolf's extinction.

See also Wolves in the snow: should Japan reintroduce the wolf?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Et in Arcadia Cs-137

Famous mountains fall victim to the taint of the Fukushima reactor accidents

In those days, on the way back to Tokyo, we'd pull off the Kan-etsu Expressway at the Tanigawa Parking Area, just after the long tunnel. Then we'd slew the weatherbeaten Subaru to a halt next to the public fountain, and fill every water bottle we had.

We might think twice about doing that now. The big city's tap water probably hasn't improved, but it may contain less radioactive caesium than do the mountain streams. That, at least, is my guess after looking at the "heat maps" of radioactive contamination recently published by Japan's science and technology ministry.

These charts show that the mountain ranges around the Kanto plain have generally soaked up more radioactivity - specifically the caesium 134 and 137 isotopes - than the low ground. Rain falls more heavily in the hills, washing out more of the plume that emanated from the derelict Fukushima reactors.

Quite a few "famous peaks of Japan" stand within the scope of the ministry's survey. What would Fukada Kyūya have made of this modern-day threat to his mountains?

There's no way of knowing, of course, as the Hyakumeizan author died (on a mountain hike) on March 21, 1971. This was just five days before the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant officially went into service. It's as if one era ended and another began in that far-off month forty years ago.


Many thanks to Wes for pointing out the relevant post in Michael Cucek's estimable current affairs blog, Shisaku. An article on the science ministry's survey can also be found in the Japan Times, which is also the source of the map shown here.

Advice for hikers:-

Interview in Yama to Keikoku magazine with Professor Katsumi Shozugawa on Wes Lang's Hiking in Japan website.

Japan Times articles:-

Okutama cesium level seen spiking

Effect of contaminated soil on food chain sparks fears

Economist article:-

Hot spots and blind spots

New York Times article:-

Radioactive hotspots in Tokyo point to wider problems