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).

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