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."
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.
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.
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."
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?