Is it necessary to make excuses for Japan’s mountains? Not when the terrain is allowed to speak for itself.
Even their greatest fans tend to apologise for them: And so we bade our farewell to the Alps of Japan. They do not, it is true, display the glories of glacier-shrouded peaks, and the scale on which they are built is only two-thirds that of the famous Alps of Switzerland, wrote Walter Weston, the mountaineering missionary.
Is it really necessary to relativise Japan’s mountains? Fukada Kyuya, the Hyakumeizan author, didn’t think so. Mountains were the bedrock of the Japanese soul: “Japan is a mountainous country. Mountains are everywhere,” he wrote.
Well, you can’t argue with that. Of the country’s 47 prefectures, circuits, or major cities, only three – Chiba, Kyoto and Okinawa – lack mountains that rise above 1,000 metres. When it comes to quantity, Japan occupies the high ground.
The high ground is there because Japan sits on the junction of three tectonic plates. Its mountains are still rising fast. Parts of the Japanese Southern Alps gain 5 millimetres a year, which sums to a lofty 5,000 metres every million years – a Mt Blanc and then some. This growth rate leaves the Swiss Alps in the dust – they manage a mere millimetre or so a year – and puts the Japan Alps in the same league as the ranges of Taiwan and New Zealand, which grow at up to 10 or so millimetres a year.
How come, sceptics might ask, that we don’t see any actual Mt Blancs rising above Kofu or Matsumoto? Well, that’s because of the prodigious rates of erosion in those parts, explains Professor Koaze Takashi in his book, Yama wo yomu (Reading mountains). As the chart below shows, Japan’s mountains are being washed into the sea twice as fast as the Himalaya. You could say that erosion plays Godzilla to uplift’s Mothra.
Just as in a Godzilla film, the scenery is considerably reshaped by this struggle. As a result, the Kurobe gorge plunges proportionately deeper and narrower than its equivalents in the European Alps or the Himalaya, says Professor Koaze. The walls of Japanese river ravines may be lower, but they concede nothing in sheerness to the canyons of the greater ranges.
In fact, Walter Weston saw that for himself. After acknowledging their modest height, he continues his farewell to the Japanese Alps as follows: But the picturesqueness of their valleys, and the magnificence of the dark and silent forests that clothe their massive flanks, surpass anything I have met with in European Alpine wanderings.
Yama wo yomu by Koaze Takashi, Professor of Geography at Meiji University. Charts from Koaze op cit; cartoon courtesy of Yama to Keikoku magazine.