The first modern ascent of Mae-Hodaka was all but fatal for its instigators. After topping out on the 3,090-metre peak and marking the highest point with a wooden peg, the two men started their descent. At that moment, the Army man slipped. His guide looked on, aghast, as the survey officer’s body bounced and tumbled, limbs flailing like a rag-doll’s, down twenty, forty, sixty feet of granite slabs before slamming onto a ledge.
|The survey marker on Tsurugi in 1909|
As quickly as he dared, the guide picked his way down the treacherous gully and edged across to the inert figure, hardly daring to hope. Amazed, he heard a groan; the Army man was still alive. Then, half-supporting and half-carrying his bloodied client, the guide brought him down to Kami-kōchi, where he kept a lodge. The legendary Kamijō Kamonji had pulled off the Meiji era's first high-mountain rescue.
"Before 1.30 we were on the highest pinnacle. Driven into a crack in the rock I found a small stake, which marked the visit of the War Office surveyor some weeks before. As I looked down the rocks, where Kamonji pointed out the line of his fall, it seemed incredible the man could have survived."
Indeed, he was a pioneer among pioneers. It was no accident that Tate took responsibility for siting the all-important primary markers. For his career went back to the very outset of modern map-making in Japan. At the age of 22 or so, in July 1871, he'd joined the survey department of the new Ministry of Public Works. In 1874, these civilian map-makers were brought into the Home Ministry's Geographical Department. A few years later, they were out surveying among the highest mountains of Honshū, as Japan’s most famous mountain book records:
Occupying the position that it does, Akaishi has a name that resonates through the centuries. A party from the Home Ministry's geographical bureau reached the summit in 1879 and erected a survey marker there. A permanent triangulation point was installed a decade later, just a year after Japan's Land Survey Department was established. These efforts laid the groundwork for the 1:50,000-scale maps that are so indispensable to our mountaineering ventures today. (Nihon Hyakumeizan, Akaishi-dake)
|Army surveyors carry a 50-kg theodolite into the mountains.|
Five years later, the Army surveyors were filling in the remaining blanks on the new maps of Honshū. And Tate was on hand to lead the way into the high mountains. In 1893, he set the first primary triangulation point for this part of the survey by climbing Ontake, the isolated volcano at the southern end of the Hida mountains (the Japan Alps hadn't yet been invented, of course). In the same summer, he reached the summits of Shirouma and Mae-Hodaka, the scene of his near-demise.
|The survey tower on Shirouma|
In 1894, the veteran surveyor – now in his mid-forties – placed markers on the volcanic peaks of Norikura and Tateyama, the final primary triangulation points for the Northern Japan Alps. In fact, each peak in the survey had to be climbed three times - first to identify a suitable spot for the triangulation point, then to build up a high wooden marker, and finally to take the survey measurements themselves. Tate's role was to find the right spots; the work of building the survey markers and taking the theodolite measurements was left to colleagues.
|Surfing the Great Snow Valley|
After Tate's last season in Hida mountains, his younger colleagues took on the work of setting up the secondary triangulation points. In 1902, they visited Yakushi-dake, Noguchi-goro, Kasa-ga-dake, Kashimayari, Sugoroku and finally Yari-ga-dake - narrowly beating the young banker and writer Kojima Usui to the top of that spire-shaped summit.
After a pause enforced by the Russo-Japanese war, the tertiary triangulation points were set up and surveyed in 1906 and 1907. During those seasons, the surveyors fanned out over the (soon-to-be) Northern Alps to Karasawa-dake, Minami-dake, Nishi-Hodaka, Suishō, Washiba, Otenshō, Aka-ushi, Mitsu-dake, Mitsumata-renge, Kurobe-goro, Nukedo, Tsurugi, Hari-no-ki, Jii-ga-take, and the “other” Yari-ga-take (鑓ヶ岳).
In reality, the surveyors had thoroughly explored the Hida mountains well before Kojima Usui and his friends founded their alpine club, in October 1905. But it would take some time for the Army to translate its survey results into actual maps. As a kind of consolation, therefore, the alpinists were left about a decade to discover the mountains for themselves. Then, in the mid-teens of the century, the Army General Staff started to bring out its detailed map series for the Northern Alps, dispelling some of their mystery in the process.
|Surveyors at work: a sketch by Tate Kiyohiko|
The first mountaineer to pass this way was Shimura Urei in the summer of 1907, approaching from Eboshi. As he stood on the summit, he wrote, "I saw a small pond below and to the south, for all the world like an eruption crater … this crater on Washiba is probably a surprise for the world." In that pioneering era, such unexpected discoveries were not uncommon in the Northern Alps. Today, mountaineering is much more convenient but it has lost this element of surprise and wonder.
For their part, the surveyors had little time for nostalgia. The Army kept them ceaselessly on the move. As far as the General Staff were concerned, the Northern Alps were just a skirmish in their northwards drive to map every square metre of the Japanese islands. And when that campaign ended, there was a growing empire overseas that had to be accurately reduced to scale.
In this rolling advance, Shibasaki Yoshitarō was one of the foot-soldiers. And perhaps his story can stand for all of them. The year after his Tsurugi ascent he completed a survey in nearby Niigata prefecture. From 1909 to 1913, he was mapping first in Tohoku and then in Hokkaidō – where he also wrote a paper on Ainu legends. In 1914-15, he was back in central Honshū and found time to write up the first part of a monograph on the medieval battlefield site of Sekigahara.
Then he spent another two years in Hokkaidō, surveying the Ishikari and Kitami regions, as well as the northern island of Etorofu. In 1918-19, he accompanied the Army’s foray into Siberia (for what purpose remains obscure: possibly he was collating captured Russian maps), returning to Hokkaidō thereafter. Then the Army sent him to Taiwan, where he spent four years working on the secondary triangulation of the island’s central and northern districts.
|Meiji-era mountain guides|
Seto Masahiro, Survey mountaineering in late Meiji times, Japan Journal of Survey, July 2008
Seto Masahiro, Shibasaki Yoshitarō: what happened then ( Part 1), Japan Journal of Survey, April 2009
Seto Masahiro, Shibasaki Yoshitarō: what happened then (Part 2), Japan Journal of Survey, May 2009
Yamada Akira, The day Shibasaki Yoshitarō climbed Tsurugi, Japan Journal of Survey, August 2008
Hakoiwa Eiichi, The role of the Army General Staff in surveying, Japan Journal of Survey, July 2008
Seto Masahiro, Kojima Usui, the multi-talented alpinist, Japan Journal of Survey, September 2008
Seto Masahiro, Uji Chojirō, the guide who supported Shibasaki’s survey party, Japan Journal of Survey, September 2008