Friday, July 26, 2013

The alpinist who turned to art

About a late-Meiji tea party with far-reaching cultural consequences, and not just for mountaineering

Yokohama, early 1903: the exact date is lost to history, although we do know that it's 4pm on a Saturday afternoon. Two fit-looking and immaculately be-suited Japanese men are ringing the doorbell of an apartment in "B" building at No. 219 in the upmarket Yamate district of Yokohama.

They're amused, but hide it perfectly, when a middle-aged Englishman shuffles to the door, reminding them of a character in a comic kyogen sketch - he's very short-sighted in his remaining eye, and he's forgotten to pick up his spectacles, hence the oddness of his gait in the darkened corridor. The most fateful meeting in the history of Japanese alpinism is about to begin.

The one-eyed missionary - yes, it's Walter Weston - is delighted to meet the young Japanese. From his previous stint in Japan, he knew about the monks and pilgrims who have been climbing to the tops of mountains for centuries. But, until he heard from Kojima Usui, who has just presented himself, he'd had no idea that people might be climbing Japanese mountains for fun.

Readers of this blog will be familiar with what happens next, but here's a précis. Over a cup of tea, Kojima and Okano Kinjirō, who have recently climbed Yari-ga-take together, hear about Britain's famous Alpine Club, of which the missionary is a proud member. As a result of this conversation - and some subsequent chivvying by Weston - the Japanese Alpine Club is founded two years later, in October 1905.

But that was by no means all. Before the conversation turned to alpinism, Weston read out to his visitors some passages on "Mountain glory" from John Ruskin's Modern Painters, a five-volume book about the genius of J M W Turner. At the time, Kojima was somewhat baffled by this cultural encounter. But he later sought out Ruskin's books for himself, and so assiduously that his own writing style started to channel the sage's cadences.

After introducing Ruskin, Weston showed his guests a mountain woodprint that he'd collected. Even works of the ukiyoe masters could be picked up quite cheaply at the time; they weren't much appreciated in their home country. This particular picture was one of Hokusai's masterpieces, the Hodogaya on the Tokaido Road (above) in the Thirty-six views of Mt Fuji series. "And now, for the first time", Kojima records, "I appreciated that ukiyoe was an art form that should by no means be despised."

This too was a cultural learning with consequences. Soon, Kojima was collecting for himself. His banker's salary gave him the means and, besides, prices were still modest. Among other classics of the ukiyoe tradition, he was able to pick up two of Hiroshige's Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido series - Night snow at Kanbara, and Shono in driving rain (above). He also wrote an essay about Hiroshige's Kōshu Diary, one of several books on Japanese art that appear in his collected works.

In 1915, the bank sent Kojima to run its branches in San Francisco and Los Angeles. The posting would last for 11 years. That gave him the opportunity to start collecting Western prints, largely etchings. Usui's passion for art is revealed in his diaries. He records how one day, after discovering a Millet and a Whistler in a small Los Angeles frame shop, he went out and skipped through the pouring rain. He also bought versions of Van Gogh's Portrait of Dr Gachet (L'homme a la pipe, right), Gauguin's Nave Nave Fenua (Terre delicieuse) and three Picasso etchings.

In the end, Kojima amassed around 900 Japanese prints and more than 500 Western ones. The international reach of his collection mirrored his positive, late-Meiji attitude to the world. Unlike the nationalism of Shiga Shigetaka, one of his mentors (and later an honorary vice chairman of the Japanese Alpine Club), there was nothing defensive in Kojima's stance towards the West. The unequal treaties were on their way out even before he'd started his career.

Kojima's home life was expansive too. His family went with him to America and they came home with nine children. Sixty years after Kojima himself passed away, one of his heirs sold the art collection to the Yokohama Museum of Art. Appropriately, it has stayed in the city where Kojima grew up. An exhibition was mounted in 2007, just over a century after the momentous afternoon tea appointment with Walter Weston.


Kojima Usui, An alpinist's journal, "Weston wo megurite"

Tokyo Metropolis magazine, Art exhibition review, "The world of Kojima Usui"

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Blight at 2,000 metres

Is all well with the representative tree of Japan’s alpine zone?

This just came in from Hakusan, the home mountain of the Hyakumeizan author. The photo below shows a creeping pine tree (haimatsu, Pinus pumila) affected by some kind of blight or rust that has turned the tips of its branches a reddish colour.

None of the experienced local mountaineers in the photographer's group could recall having seen creeping pines in this condition before, at least on this mountain. Several more haimatsu thickets in the area of San-no-mine, a subsidiary peak, were blighted in the same way.

Haimatsu is the representative tree of Japan’s mountaintops. “The scent of creeping pine” (Haimatsu no nioi) is the title of an essay on the joys of mountaineering by Kojima Usui, the founder of the Japan Alpine Club. On Hakusan, haimatsu thickets extend from the summit regions, at about 2,700 metres, down to about 2,000 metres, the tree’s lower limit, where this photo was taken.

According to a botanical garden’s website, the tree, when cultivated, “is susceptible to tip blight, rusts and rots. Pine needle scale can be a serious problem in some areas. Sawflies, moths and borers may appear.” That said, these afflictions shouldn't be much in evidence when haimatsu is growing in its natural habitat. Unless, perhaps, the habitat has changed. This year, Japan’s rainy season came late. Less rain fell than usual, while temperatures were much hotter than average.

Image courtesy of Kita-Nihon Shinbun
On Tateyama last year, the haimatsu withered in the vicinity of Jigoku-dani when the valley’s fumaroles started to emit more sulphurous volcanic gases than usual (photo, right). But this was apparently a localised problem.

Volcanic gases are unlikely on long-dormant Hakusan. More plausible culprits for the blighted haimatsu could include industrial pollution (see Yellow sand, black snow), rapacious caterpillars or competition from other plants.

It may be that the Hakusan blight is also a localised problem. Or something more widespread may be going on. Has anybody else seen haimatsu thickets that are affected like this on other Japanese mountains?

Update on 24 July

The same group of mountaineers who sent in the Hakusan photos went to the Karamatsu/Goryu area in the Northern Alps on the following weekend. These mountains are a good distance inland and further north than Hakusan. 

And there (see photo right) they found more evidence of the haimatsu rust or blight. The "rusty" bushes were at a height of 2,300-2,500 metres and were mixed in with healthy bushes. So this is not an isolated problem.

Update on 27 July

Hanameizan reports that most of the haimatsu bushes on Amida-dake (in the Yatsu-ga-take range) are tinged with rust (see picture right). Also, he adds, some other conifers and bushy plants appeared to be scorched.

Update on 26 August

Hanameizan is just back from a long hike from the Japan Sea Coast to Karamatsu: "From Nihon-kai to Karamatsu (Tsugami Shindo), the haimatsu tips were burned pretty much everywhere. Will be interesting to see whether the state worsens or improves next year," he reports (see picture below).

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Into thin air

The artist who gave up his life to the mountains

In October 1944, even to think of visiting the Japan Alps was frowned upon. So there were few people around, or none, to see the bent figure start up the scree slopes of Karasawa. Hunched under his pack, the man seemed to be carrying on his shoulders the cares of the entire country. Yet, like an automaton, he kept moving, step by gruelling step, up the slanting trail towards the col.

Mountains had marked all the waypoints of his life. He was born in 1888 under the southern slopes of Mt Fuji as Kageyama Inokichi. When his natural parents gave him up for adoption at the age of three, he took the name of his new family, Ibaraki. From then on, he was brought up in Yokohama, a melting-pot of cultural influences from the West.

How and when Ibaraki Inokichi decided to become an artist - and why he decided to pursue yōga, the Western style of painting - is obscure. But he learned his trade under Asai Chū (1856-1907), one of the most prominent pioneers of oil painting in Japan. Around this time, he got to know Kojima Usui, the founder of the Japan Alpine Club, who lived in the same neighbourhood.

Mr & Mrs Weston at Kamikochi
They must have got on well. Mountains became part of Ibaraki's life. In 1907, he visited Shinshū for the first time, staying at the same hotel in Kamikōchi as Walter Weston and his wife. The English missionary scolded him - a lifelong memory - when the young artist's late-night carousing got out of hand.

In August 1909, Ibaraki was invited by Kojima to join him on a long traverse across the Southern Alps. Also in the party were Takatō Shoku and Takano Takazō, both founder members of the club, and another young artist, Nakamura Seitarō. Unfortunately, the rigours of mountaineering were too much for Ibaraki, and he had to drop out of the group before they reached Akaishi, their ultimate goal.

This didn't put him off. In 1912, he joined the Japan Alpine Club, five years after Nakamura. By this time, he'd taken up a job as an art master in a primary school at Komoro, a village that huddles under the southern slopes of the Asama volcano. Distance didn't stop him keeping in close touch with his Alpine Club colleagues - some witty, if not entirely flattering, cartoons of Kojima, Tanabe Jūji, and other club worthies date from this period.

Tanabe Juji and Kogure Ritaro set off from Kamikochi: sketch
by Ibaraki Inokichi
Three years of teaching proved to be enough; in 1914, he went back to Tokyo, to attend the newly refounded Nihon Bijutsuin. There he fell in with two sculptors, Ishii Tsuruzo and Satō Chōzan, who may have influenced his style. In his later paintings, the mass and form of the mountains stand out almost in three dimensions - as in this 1935 portrayal of Jōnen-dake in early summer.
Jonen-dake by Ibaraki Inokichi

The picture is typical in other ways too. As Tanabe Jūji pointed out in the introduction to a published collection of Ibaraki's pictures, his mountains usually form the backdrop to a village, a road or some other haunt of humanity. Ibaraki was not yet a painter of the high mountains; he admired his subjects from the plains.

In 1936, Ibaraki joined with Nakamura Seitarō, Adachi Genichirō and Ishii Tsuruzo to found the Japan Association for Mountain Art. The following year, another artist of the Japan Alpine Club, Satō Kyūichirō, cast a bronze relief of Walter Weston, the club's instigator, which was installed with due ceremony close to the hotel in Kamikōchi where the relief's original had once had words with Ibaraki.

In 1942, the club decided to take the relief into safe-keeping. Feelings against foreigners were running high and, besides, the bronze, like that of many a village's temple bell, might be requisitioned for the war effort. The sad and possibly personally hazardous duty of demounting it fell to Ibaraki. The relief was taken first to Matsumoto and then to Tokyo, where it was stored in the Sangaku-kai clubroom at Toranomon.

Snow gully on Hari-no-ki
Something had changed for Ibaraki. No longer was he content to paint mountains from the valley. Now he was driven to climb and depict them from their highest ridgelines. Yet, even as his ambitions soared, his strength was failing him: in the summer of 1943, a friend spotted him, utterly exhausted, struggling to climb a rugged gully on the east side of Hodaka.

On October 2, 1944, Ibaraki did make it as far as the hut on the col above Karasawa. And, perhaps late in the afternoon, he may have started down the Hida side of the mountain. But he never arrived in the valley, on that day or any other. As for the original Weston relief, it was destroyed during the air raid of March 25, 1945. The plaque you see today is a replica, installed two years after the war. No sign of Ibaraki was ever found.


Not a few have failed to return. Ōshima Ryōkichi and Ibaraki Inokichi are just two who gave up their lives on Hodaka. Winter climbing too takes its annual toll. Kosaka Otohiko and Uozu Kyōta are two more names, albeit fictional ones, in a roll that will never end. And with its cruel beauty the mountain will continue to lure men to their doom. (From Nihon Hyakumeizan, Chapter 55: Hodaka-dake)


“Yama to Bijutsu” chapter in Hito wa naze yama ni noboru no ka?, Volume 103 in the Taiyo Bessatsu: Nihon no Kokoro series (Heibonsha, 1998).