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