Friday, May 4, 2012

Notes of a summer trip (1)

A mid-Victorian scientist's excursion to the mountains of central Honshu: Part 1 – epic on Yatsugatake

The fireflies they would never forget. On the third day out of Tokyo, they'd engaged oxen to take their baggage across the Shōmaru-toge - the pass was too steep for horses. Progress was slow (today you’d get there in an hour on the Seibu line) and night fell as they came down into Chichibu. "The brilliancy of the fireflies was remarkable; on several occasions indeed it was almost impossible to resist the belief that the light proceeded from a cottage door."

Robert William Atkinson had come to Japan in 1874 to teach chemistry at the Tokyo Kasei Gakko, which later became part of Tokyo University. Like those of many a Victorian scientist, his interests ranged far and wide. While in Japan, he investigated how Tokyo got its water supply (a matter of some moment in a time of cholera), wrote a book about the secrets of sake-making, and explored the mystery of smoothly polished bronze mirrors that somehow projected the image of a Buddha.

But now was the summer vacation of 1879 and it was "Yatsuga-take, Haku-san, and Tate-yama", three of Honshu's highest mountains, that he wanted to explore. With his colleagues Mr Nakazawa and William Gray Dixon, a Glasgow man who taught English, Atkinson set off from Tokyo on 16 July. They took along a flower press and a barometer kindly lent by Ernest Satow. The plan was to traverse Chichibu and cross the Jumonji pass over to Yatsugatake, then make for southern Hida and climb Hakusan, before travelling up through Toyama to the sacred mountain of Tateyama.

Chichibu impressed them. Some hours after leaving Omiya, the scenery was "more magnificent than anything I had hitherto seen in this country, and indeed will bear comparison with some parts of the famous Yosemite valley ... a sharp bold rock stands out like a sentinel and, though on a smaller scale, recalls El Capitan". But in the Shin-Otaki valley, the cottages were charmingly "Swiss-looking". Everywhere the Japanese lily (Lilium auratum) was in bloom; the air was "oppressive with its fragrance". On one plant, there were no fewer than fifteen flowers.

The path to the Jumonji Pass led steeply past a small shrine erected to twelve Buddhist deities. The way was so narrow that the travellers had to shoulder their way through dew-laden stands of bamboo and sword-grass, "by which in a very short time we were thoroughly soaked". That didn't stop them making a meticulous note of the flowers. At the pass, their guide made a sudden dive into the recesses of the forest and returned triumphantly with a specimen called Oren, a species of Coptis, probably brachypetala. The bitter root, the guide said, was used as a "vermifuge".

On the other side of the pass, they were amazed to find a plain of wildflowers, called the "Hara", that people were only now starting to cut up into fields for buckwheat. Atkinson wondered that the utilization of such a fertile spot should have been delayed, "as the general opinion is that every available spot in the country is made use of".

For his part, Dixon was enraptured:-

Pines, firs, birches, alders, etc., were sprinkled over the prairie. And beyond the vista of the valley towered the great high ridge of Yatsu-ga-dake, with the slanting rays of the waning afternoon sun overspreading its pale blue side like a bridal veil. The whole scene was so Arcadian, that it almost seemed strange that there floated not down from the slopes the strains of the Arcadian shepherd's lute. ... Nowhere in Japan have I witnessed a scene so soft, so peaceful, so Canaan-like, so like what a painter might have chosen as a representation of Paradise.

At a village called Ochiai, the party found lodging in a "cottage" where thousands of silkworms, lying on shelves, were greedily munching mulberry leaves, making a noise exactly like that of a heavy fall of rain.

On July 21, the party started out for Yatsugatake. Route-finding was not straightforward. At Umi-no-kuchi, "we found the most complete ignorance prevailing concerning the roads or even the possibility of ascending the mountain, which could be well seen from part of the village. At last the oldest inhabitant of the village, on being applied to, said that it could be ascended from Umijiri, where a guide could be obtained."

The guide obtained, they went on to overnight at Honzawa, a hot spring house. Atkinson took the chance to apply his chemically expert nose to the waters. They smelled "of sulphuretted hydrogen, though not so strongly as the water of Kusatsu or of Yumoto (Nikko). The temperature was 92.5°F as it entered the tank, though whether it mixes with cold water before entering I could not ascertain."

Next morning, Atkinson and Nakazawa started out for the mountain at a quarter to eleven - something had delayed their guide. Dixon stayed behind; the rigours of the approach had been too much for him. Climbing towards the shattered volcanic cone of Mikaburi-yama, the party emerged from a tangled and grasping wood into an even more intractable zone of creeping pine. After lunch in a sheltered hollow, they continued along the narrow ridge in the direction of Aka-dake.

The worst piece of climbing was where the branches of the creeping pine hung over the precipice and nobody could be certain of stepping upon and not over the ridge: "This part, I confess, I got over on hands and feet in fear and trembling, sincerely glad that we did not intend returning the same way …"

To be continued


This account is adapted and summarised from R W Atkinson's report "Notes of a summer trip" in the Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan Volume VIII, Yokohama 1880. Full text of this volume is available online thanks to the Internet Archive and Google Books. Good on yer, Sergey and Larry.

Quotations attributed to W G Dixon are from the "Mountain and Flood" chapter of his book "Land of the Morning", which is also available online. Thanks, Iain, for finding this reference!

Background details and photo of R W Atkinson are from Masao Watanabe, The Japanese and Western Science, translated by Otto Theodor Benfey.

Photo of Japanese lily is from Wikipedia. Could the the other flower (larger photo) be a toyaku rindo (Gentiana algida), by any chance?


Iainhw said...

Excellent posting and yet more exposure of Japanese mountain history.

Advance apologies if you already know this and are going to use it it the continuation of this posting but since reading this piece last night I have been thinking more about Dixon. Firstly it appears he was an English Lang and Litt man and not an engineer. A quick google of his name revealed the following link:
Secondly I had remembered there was a sketch in the Mede miru Nihon tozanshi Yama to Keikoku book of the summit of Tateyama with Yari in the distance. I had in my mind that this was an Atkinson sketch, but after rereading it was actually Dixon's. My next thought was what was the source of the sketch and the above link has come up trumps with mentioning Dixon's book, "The land of the morning", which thankfully is availabe to read on line, I haven't read it yet but had a quick look at the "Mountain and Flood" chapter. I'm really looking forward to reading the rest of the book.

For some reason I thought Atkinson was a missionary like Weston but I'm obviously wrong. I thought I first read about Atkinson in Paul Hunt's Hiking in Japan book but after checking it last night I found no mention of him. Hunt did mention yet another wandering Brit, Marshall who he claims climbed Yake Dake back in 1875 (presumably from the north?. Does anyone know any more about Marshall?

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Iain: many thanks for reading and, even more, for the further researches - you are right about Dixon's subject (have corrected that point) and, no, I hadn't noticed his sketches in the Me de mire tozanshi. How excellent that they've been, sort of, immortalised. Will certainly borrow them to illustrate that posting. And I will certainly take a look at "The Land of the Morning". This all goes to show that there was a lot of gaijin-esque mountaineering going on before Weston hove onto the scene....

Edward J. Taylor said...

Sounds like a hell of a summer...

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Ted: And, you know what, we've hardly started yet.... :)

David Mantripp said...

You've got me trembling just at the thought of that ridge!

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Although, should you ever visit the place David, be reassured that there is now a steel ladder to help you across the gap that turned back Atkinson & Co....

Anonymous said...

I'm back to reading your blog regularly now. I enjoyed the story of the couple who wintered on Fujisan, the tales of the Hyakumeizan proposers prior to Fukuda and now this series here. I especially enjoyed reading here about the Chichibu area as it is within sight of my daily commute and I have photographed within the area countless times. The description here, though, barely matches my impression, and I attribute that to the changes the area has undergone over the intervening decades. It is still a beautiful area though, particularly the Otake area with only scattered villages clinging to steeply sloping mountainsides.

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Tsubakuro - glad you could relate to the Chichibu descriptions. I now wish I'd got to know the valley better. Somehow we always headed out to other regions...