Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Phantom glaciers

Could ice still be lurking within the rock glaciers of the Yari-Hodaka ridge?

If you don't know what you're looking for, you'll certainly miss it. This applies as much in the Japan Alps as anywhere. When I traversed over Naka-dake, on my way towards Yari, I must have walked right by it. Perhaps even over it. Cloud could have been an extenuating factor but ignorance was the main barrier to seeing what was right under my feet.

It was only later, in Switzerland, that I made my first acquaintance with a rock glacier. That was in the Val Sassa, right down in the country's southeastern corner. One autumn afternoon, I hiked past a long berm of black rocks that ended in a shovel-nosed snout (photo below). Skulking there in the bottom of a valley, it looked not unlike a vanquished dragon.

If still alive, a rock glacier creeps slowly downhill, its rocky mantle borne along on an icy bed hidden far below the surface. Dead rock glaciers, of course, go nowhere. Some savants say that rock glaciers originated as pure-ice glaciers, but then got themselves covered with rubble. Others say that rock glaciers were rocky from the start.

Be that as it may, it turns out that the Japan Alps too have rock glaciers - in fact, the academicians have found as many as eight on the main ridge between the two "famous mountains" of Yari and Hodaka (see chart in Aoyama paper below). Rock Glacier Eight (RG8) is a particularly magnificent example, as the header photo shows. Yet this was the one that I walked right past.

Could these rock glaciers still be alive? On the face of it, the chances seem slim. Hotter summers in the Japan Alps mean that permafrost couldn't exist below 2,800 metres, which is hardly lower than the highest ridgelines. And none has been found in this area.

But one researcher holds out hope for "probable permafrost occurrence within several rock glaciers". Perhaps that's enough ice to make them, if not true glaciers, then ghosts of glaciers past.


Shimizu Chōsei, Hyakumeizan no Shizengaku (Nishi-Nihon), Kokon Shoin 2002 (for photo of Nakadake rock glacier)

Aoyama, M, Permafrost environment in the Yari-Hotaka Mountains, southern part of the Northern Japanese Alps, in Proceedings of the 8th International Conference on Permafrost, 2003

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The folklorist and the mountaineer

Japan's most famous mountain book may have borrowed more from the father of Japanese ethnography than first appears

Hayachine is a mountain that sits “far from the smoke of human habitation” in north-east Japan. As reported in Nihon Hyakumeizan, it has a reputation for weird goings-on:

In another tale, a villager went to Hayachine to gather bamboo. As he was cutting great swathes into the bamboo grove, he found a gigantic man asleep on the ground. His sandals alone, woven out of bamboo and set by his side, were three feet long. The man was sleeping with his face towards the sky and letting loose great snores. Then there is the story of the burly monk who cast spells on people and the one about a giant who darted terrible bolts of fire from his eyes. All these tales of ghosts and goblins hint that Hayachine sits on a somewhat different plane from the normal world.

The tales were originally told by Sasaki Kyōseki, a native of the district, to Yanagita Kunio (1875-1962), who wrote them up in Tales of Tōno (Tōno Monogatari), published in 1910. Sometimes called the father of Japanese ethnography, Yanagita gets just one mention in Japan's most famous mountain book. But it is an important one. "Tales of Tōno is one of my favourite books," writes Fukada Kyūya in the Hayachine chapter of One Hundred Mountains of Japan (Nihon Hyakumeizan).

On the face of it, the hard-scrabbling Hyakumeizan author and the patrician Yanagita had little in common. Fukada was the son of a printer; Yanagita married into an upper-crust family, taking his wife's name. This made him wealthy enough, after spells as a bureaucrat and a journalist, to establish himself as a private scholar. His first post as a government official, with the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce, took him all over Japan. It was during these business trips that he first became interested in recording local folk customs.

Taking his cue from his father, a physician who became a Shinto priest, Yanagita was conservative and patriotic. His interest in folk religion developed naturally from a youthful interest in kokugaku, the so-called National Learning that had helped to inspire the Meiji Restoration. In 1908, Yanagita himself got his chance to buttress the ruling institution, when he was appointed as Secretary to the Imperial Household Agency. In 1915, he served as Master of the Imperial Ceremonies for the coronation of the Emperor Taishō.

Conservative as he was, Yanagita was no narrow-minded chauvinist. He probably read more widely in foreign literature than any other writer of his day. While still a student, Yanagita studied Grimm's Fairy Tales, which drew his attention to folk literature. Later, the writings of British folklore scholars helped to provide a framework for his early researches. When he was sent to Geneva from 1921 to 1923 as a delegate to the League of Nations Mandate Commission, he took the chance to stock up on foreign ethnographic works, adding to an already impressively comprehensive private library.

He applied these studies in fieldwork through the length and breadth of Japan. While investigating remote dialects, Yanagita found that the oldest forms - in one case, the words for a snail - were preserved in the most remote districts. By extension, such places were where the most ancient and authentic customs and beliefs would be found. It was no coincidence that Yanagita chose Tōno, deep within the "Tibet of Japan" in remotest Iwate prefecture, as the locus of his first and best known survey of folk literature.

Yanagita's researches on festivals and ballads led him to conclude that ancestor worship, or more precisely worship of ancestral spirits, lay at the root of the Japanese people's religious sensibility. In his essay About our ancestors (Senzo no hanashi) written in the closing months of the second world war, he wrote that one of the key characteristics of Japanese religiosity was that the souls of the dead remain in Japan. That is, instead of going to the Pure Land or returning to nothingness, they congregate especially in the mountains near their village communities, there to watch over their descendants.

This essay is nowhere cited in Nihon Hyakumeizan. But the attention and respect paid to summit shrines, village festivals, pilgrimages and other rites and observances throughout the book suggest that Fukada Kyūya borrowed rather more than a handful of folktales from the father of Japanese ethnography. Such traditions sum up the people's relationship with their history and their surroundings - including their local mountains.

On at least one occasion, Fukada had the opportunity to hear Yanagita's ideas on rural traditions at first hand. The month after the young writer joined the Japanese Alpine Club in 1935, he and his wife escaped the summer heat by taking a room in a mountain hut on Kiri-ga-mine, a high plateau in Nagano Prefecture. For a week, their fellow guests included Takeda Hisayoshi, a founder member of the Japanese Alpine Club, Kogure Ritarō, a rugged explorer of the Japanese Alps and Chichibu, the poet Ozaki Kihachi - and Yanagita Kunio.

Perhaps it shouldn't be too surprising to find a Yanagita-like respect for local customs and traditions in Nihon Hyakumeizan. Especially in Japan, mountains are embedded deeply into people's beliefs and rituals. After climbing Arashima-dake, one of his own local mountains, Fukada concluded as follows:

I noticed that the summit shrine contains several figures of Jizō, one of them sculpted in the first year of the Genji era (1864). Yes, I nodded to myself, this mountain has been revered and people have come up here to pay their respects for centuries.


Yanagita Kunio and Japanese folklore studies in the 21st century, Ronald A Morse (editor)

Yanagita Kunio: An Interpretive Study, by Kōichi Mori, in Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, Vol. 7, No. 2/3 (Jun-Sep., 1980), pp 83-115

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Unstructured situations

When trivial decisions lead to fateful outcomes

With bated breath, I’ve been reading Br’er Wes’s gripping account of an unstructured situation on a winter mountain in Japan. In four instalments so far, he's told how he and his hiking partner lost the path, started to descend a gully and then found themselves struggling down ever-steeper, rougher terrain as night came on….

Not a few mountain days have ended like this. All it takes is a chance alignment of events, compounded by a trivial error or two. Sometimes the outcome is harmless – we are glad to have Wes back, safe and sound - sometimes less so. As when Fukada Kyūya, in his first year at Tokyo University, received a message from two of his juniors.

In April 1926, life was good for Fukada – of course, we can’t call him the Hyakumeizan author yet, as that book lay almost forty years in the future. A few weeks before, he’d entered the literature department of Japan’s most prestigious university, and now he’d just been invited on an interesting trip to the spring mountains.

Yamasaki and Yoshimura, two students at his former high school, wanted to visit Yatsu-ga-take. They’d borrowed ice-axes, snowshoes and crampons from the school’s Travel Club, but didn’t feel up to tackling the mountain on their own. Would Fukada like to come too and guide them?

Late on April 14, the three students boarded a Chuo line train at Iidamachi. In the early hours of the next morning, they alighted at Chino and spent most of the rest of the day slogging through deep snow up to the Akadake-Kōsen hut.

On April 16, they headed for Io-dake, one of the crumbling volcano’s eight peaks, topping out at about 2pm – somewhat late in the day for such a short climb. But the snow was soft and dragged at their boots every step of the way. When they reached the flat-topped summit, the clouds blew away to reveal the long ridge of the Southern Alps. And, to the east, the students could now look down on the roofs of their intended destination, the Motozawa hot springs.

They’d planned to take the normal route down to the hot springs, from a low point on the ridge known as the Natsuzawa Pass. But, as they got up from their summit pause, they noticed a wooden signboard that promised a short-cut: “Motozawa – 18 cho”. The path wasn’t marked on their map – yet those roofs looked so temptingly close. Without much debate, Fukada and his companions voted for the short cut. The path led out across the top of a cliff band, but so far nothing they couldn’t handle. Then it ran under a snowbank and vanished. To turn back now, though, would be tedious – the hot springs were just below them.

Fukada led the way down the steepening slope, at every step driving his ice-axe handle into the slushy afternoon snow. Then he heard a shout: Yamasaki had slipped but managed to stop himself with his axe. This is getting dangerous, Fukada thought – and, in that instant, Yoshimura lost his footing and began to slide.

“Jam your axe in!” yelled Yamasaki, as Yoshimura tumbled past them. Then he was gone. As fast as he dared, Fukada edged to the brink of the cliff. Then he scrambled down the steep ground, in the corner of the cliff, clinging desperately to bushes. Before he reached the foot, he found Yoshimura’s body, hanging over the branch of a low tree, face downwards, lifeless.

Later, Fukada recalled that evening in an essay entitled “A friend who laid down his life in the mountains” (山に逝ける友人):

The feeling in that moment when I scrambled down the cliff, dragged Yoshimura from the branch of the tree where he was hanging and howled; the feeling as I ran, half-stumbling, down the snow to the hot spring to get help, the feeling, in that evening wind slashing down from the mountains, of having left somebody irrevocably behind, the feeling of hurrying frenziedly across those three miles of meadow, coming up against fences in the dark, losing the way; then, the next evening, while helping to bring the body down a country track, seeing Yoshimura’s father coming up to meet us, stepping forward to say my apologies, and then I could no longer stop the tears I’d been holding back.

The accident didn’t stop Fukada going to the mountains, even temporarily, it seems. Over the next decades, he amassed a great amount of winter and ski-mountaineering experience, and even led one of Japan’s first expeditions to the Himalaya after the second world war.

Naturally, there were close calls. Nineteen thirty-five was particularly eventful: in March, an avalanche almost took out his ski-touring group near Norikura; in June, he lost the way on Aizu-Koma-ga-take and scrambled down a rugged gully, at the cost of ripped trousers and a cut face; and then in August an epic river crossing ensued after heavy rain forced the party to abandon a traverse along the main ridgeline of the Southern Alps.

But none of these incidents seared itself into Fukada’s memory like the Yatsu-ga-take tragedy. When he came to write up the One Hundred Mountains of Japan, Yatsu could hardly be excluded – it is still one of the most popular high mountain destinations for today’s Tokyo-based mountaineers, just as it was in Fukada’s youth. Yet his praise for the mountain is curiously muted. And the chapter ends on a desolate note:

Forty years ago, when I first climbed Yatsu-ga-dake, it was still a quiet place … We stayed at Akadake-Kōsen hut, just two or three years after it had been built, and next day, climbed to the summit. Then we picked our way along the rocky ridge over Yoko-dake to the broad, grassy top of Iō-dake. The difficulties were now over, I thought, and gave a sigh of relief. But I was much mistaken. A moment later, my companion fell to his death. Even now, when I see the steep wall on the north side of Iō-dake, hard by Umi-no-kuchi, where he met his end, the pity of it strikes me anew.


Nihon Hyakumeizan in a forthcoming translation as One Hundred Mountains of Japan

Takatsuji Kensuke, Nihon Hyakumeizan to Fukada Kyūya