Friday, November 15, 2013

In the matter of Mrs Weston

A pioneering lady alpinist in late Meiji Japan

For Japanese alpinism, 1902 marked an epoch. In August, Kojima Usui climbed Yari-ga-take, a feat that led to the founding of the Japanese Alpine Club. And, in the same month, the geographer Yamasaki Naomasa found signs that these mountains had once been glaciated.

Frances and Walter Weston  

The year was no less epochal for Walter Weston (1860-1940). On April 3, the mountaineering missionary at last married - he was now well past his forty-first birthday. The bride was Frances Emily (1872-1937), the second daughter of Sir Francis Fox, a civil engineer.

At this time, Weston was between his first and second stays in Japan, serving as the priest in charge of Christ Church at Wimbledon in Surrey. Later in the same year, Mr and Mrs Weston would take ship for Yokohama, where they would both work for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel.

Also propagated during this stay, which lasted until 1905, was quite a bit of mountaineering. The couple's alpine adventures were later written up in Weston's second book about Japan, The Playground of the Far East (1918) - which also covers the Westons' second stint in Japan (Walter Weston's third), from 1911 to 1915.

Mrs Weston soon made the acquaintance of Mt Fuji and its notoriously fickle weather. As her husband later recorded,

Early one July, my wife and I were not only imprisoned, at a height of 10,000 feet, by a storm which raged on the mountain for three days, but our coolies refused to go to the actual summit, and we had to finish the climb alone in the tail end of the typhoon … Now, on each occasion my wife has climbed Fuji with me such storms have been our lot .

Even greater excitement awaited the Westons at Kamikōchi, the gateway to what was then being rebranded as the "Japan Northern Alps". In those days, a herd of cattle belonging to the breeding farm of the Nagano Prefectural authorities used to graze the right bank of the Azusa river. It was here, one summer afternoon, that the Westons were confronted by an angry bull:

Suddenly, to our astonished gaze presented itself the form of this fierce monster planted firmly in the path no more than a dozen yards ahead. There he stood, waving his uplifted tail, pawing the ground, and shaking his huge, sharp horns with alarming and increasing energy… At the moment my wife happened to be in front of me … In answer to an agitated exclamation, "He's coming for me, what had I better do?" the only natural reply was, "You take cover to the right, and I'll go to the left," a manoeuvre no sooner suggested than executed .

Frustrated in his efforts to gore the Westons, the bull then chased good old Kamijō Kamonji into the middle of the river. Fortunately, the mishap did nothing to dampen the faithful guide's regard for his missionary client and friend.

Yari-sawa with Yari-ga-take in the background
As her sangfroid during the bull incident would suggest, Mrs Weston did not shrink from steep ground. A photo shows her taking part in a roped ascent of Yari-ga-take, the spire-shaped peak above Kamikōchi. Just as in Weston's first visit to Yari, two decades earlier, the party was guided by old Kamijō, this time accompanied by his son and Kamijō's dog. (Sorry, Hana, this hound may have scored the first canine ascent of the spire-shaped peak.)

Climbing Yari
In the summer of 1913, the Westons headed for Shirouma, a peak that had previously eluded him. By this time, modernity had reached the Northern Japanese Alps. Trains now ran where, on his first visit to Japan back in the 1890s, Weston would have walked or taken a horse-drawn basha. A new light railway took the couple as far as Shinano-Ohmachi, from where they hired a "spacious landau" that had seen better days. At Akashina, they stayed at a hotel which advertised itself as a "station of the Japanese Alpine Club".

On foot now, they traced the "delightful route" up to Nakabusa. There, with immense pride, their host told them that one of the springs had been found by a government analyst to contain traces of radium - a prospect that the English couple "could only view with sentiments somewhat mixed".

Next morning, a four-hour scramble in the cool air of the fragrant forest took them to the ridgeline south of Tsubakurō-dake. Then they traversed over Ōtensho, before putting up for the night in a comfortable bivouac cave at Ninomata-koya. An eleven-hour tramp on the third day brought them down into Kamikōchi, where the whole onsen crew turned out to welcome them. For was the first time that a "European party" had ever traversed this route, Weston recorded.

That remark was telling – for Walter Weston, the pioneering days were over. In 1892, he’d climbed Yari years before either the Japanese surveyors or Kojima Usui got there. But now the roles were reversed – it was the gentlemen of the Japanese Alpine Club, led by Kojima himself, who had pioneered the long ridge route that the Westons had just completed.
Climbing in the Alps

All this meant that it was a bit late for Mrs Weston to break a trail of her own. The Japanese women of the Taishō era didn’t need role models from abroad – they just went climbing. As for foreign women climbing in Japan, that particular taboo had been shattered half a century before, when Mrs Parkes, wife of the British minister to Japan, accompanied her husband to the top of Mt Fuji.

Curiously, it may have been back in Europe that Mrs Weston helped to blaze a trail. Her climbs in the Swiss Alps made her eligible to join the Ladies' Alpine Club, founded in 1907 by the hard-driving Mrs Aubrey 'Lizzie' LeBlond.

Indeed, that was the only option for a lady mountaineer at the time. The original Alpine Club, of which her husband was a proud member, would not admit ladies until 1974. In Japan, piquantly, the Japanese Alpine Club formed a women's section in 1949, modernising itself more quickly than the model on which it had been founded…

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Tao of sawa

Is sawa-nobori, the Japanese art of river-climbing, just an offshoot of modern alpinism - or is it something entirely different? After pondering that question in a previous post, I came across this quotation from Mishima Yukio's novel, The Sea of Fertility:

Mahayana Buddhism, especially the Yuishiki school, interpreted the world as a torrential and swift rapids or a great white cascade which never pauses. Since the world presented the form of a waterfall, both the basic cause of that world and the basis of man's perception of it were waterfalls. It is a world that lives and dies at every moment. There is no definite proof of existence in either past or future, and only the present instant which one can touch with one's hand and see with one's eye is real.

Related post: The ahistoricity of sawa

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Cirques of controversy

How pioneer Japanese alpinists weighed into the great debate over Japan’s vanished glaciers

"Viewed from afar, the gentle lines of its skyline suggest a serene and settled character. The splendid accents of the ridgeline save the mountain, despite its huge mass, from any hint of ponderousness. These accents are the three cirques that carve deeply into the upper slopes, adding to their form a note of tension … The snow lingers longer in these amphitheaters, outlining them crisply." (Nihon Hyakumeizan, Senjō-dake)

Senjō-dake (photo courtesy of Yama to Keikoku)

When writing up Senjō-dake, a mountain in Japan’s Akaishi range, Fukada Kyūya (1903–1971) pays tribute to the mountain’s elegant cirques. But no guess is hazarded as to how these “splendid accents” could have formed. Fukada may have had reason to avoid this question. For cirques like these lay at the focus of a long-running controversy that lasted well into the writer’s own lifetime. And, like Fukada himself, several of the protagonists were members of the Japanese Alpine Club.

It was Yamasaki Naomasa who started this one. As we have seen in a previous post, it was in the summer of 1902 that the young geographer discovered evidence for an ancient glacier beside Shirouma’s Great Snow Valley. And, on returning to Tokyo, he wasted no time in announcing his findings.

Evidence for ancient glaciers? The striated "Red Rock" on Shirouma
Asking rhetorically, “Did Japan really lack glaciers?” (氷河果たして本邦に存在せざりしか), Yamasaki’s public lecture sent a frisson through academic circles. A summary that appeared in a newspaper article was translated into English – by a Bank of Japan official, no less – and picked up in the February 1903 edition of Science, then as now the most prestigious of scholarly journals.

Alas, few accepted his arguments. Where in Japan, they asked, do you see obvious moraines and deep “drifts” of pulverised rubble –the debris that clearly marks the paths of ancient glaciers all over the Alps or the Himalaya? Undismayed, Yamasaki continued to press his case. In a second public lecture, delivered in September 1904, he suggested that ancient glaciers might have honed the razor-sharp ridges of Yari-ga-take and other high mountains.

Side moraines on the Morteratsch glacier, Switzerland

Still, his peers were underwhelmed. In 1911, the palaeontologist Yokoyama Matajirō published a paper on fossils from the Bōsō Peninsula that purportedly showed that Japan had enjoyed a tropical climate during the Ice Ages. Two years later, this conclusion was overruled by another geologist, Yabe Hisakatsu, who found that the fossils dated from after the Ice Age. But, still, nobody could find the missing moraines and drifts.

Sangaku: the first edition
Given the orographic nature of the subject matter, it was all but inevitable that the debate would spill over into “Sangaku” (‘Mountains’), the journal of the newly formed Japanese Alpine Club – which Yamasaki had joined within a year of its inauguration. Indeed, Yamasaki had contributed an article on the snows of the high mountains (高根の雪) to the very first volume of “Sangaku”, published in 1906.

But Yamasaki was not party – at least, directly – to the controversy launched in the same pages a few years later. In the November 1911 edition, two articles were published, one putting the case for ancient glaciers and the other opposing it. The first, (日本アルプスと既往の氷河) argued that former glaciers had carved out the shapely cirques found on many high ridges throughout the Japanese Alps. A map was included of these suspected glacial landforms, the first ever attempted.

The author was Tsujimura Tarō, then a 21 year-old university student. Tsujimura’s enthusiasm for mountains was such that he too had joined the Japanese Alpine Club just after its inauguration, making him its youngest member. If his “Sangaku” article read like an uncritical redaction of Yamasaki’s views, this should not be surprising: on entering Tōkyō University, Tsujimura had immediately started attending the professor’s lectures.

In 1911, the editor of “Sangaku” was Kojima Usui, the banker and part-time writer who, six years before, had brought together the founding members of the Japanese Alpine Club. Kojima had taken a close interest in Yamasaki’s theories since 1902 and made a point of attending his public lectures. Yet he never allowed his personal friendship with the geographer to sway his independent judgment on the glacier question.

As editor, it is likely that Kojima had the chance to see Tsujimura’s contribution before setting down his own views. His own piece, which was placed after Tsujimura’s, dealt ostensibly with the permanent snowfields of the Japan Alps, with reference to the Hodaka massif, the 3,000-metre peaks that anchor the southern end of the Northern Alps range (日本アルプスと万年雪関係附穂高山論). Effectively, though, Kojima delivered a 29-page rebuttal of Tsujimura’s 19-page article.

The Hodaka massif from Tokugo Pass
Japan’s cirques were formed differently to those of Europe, Kojima noted; their headwalls were less steep, implying that permanent snowfields, not glaciers, had carved them. In this, he followed John Tyndall (1820–1893), the British physicist and pioneer alpinist, who had proposed that snowfields could slip downhill like glaciers, imitating some of their erosive powers.

As for the moraines and the striated rock that Yamasaki had found on Shirouma in 1902, Kojima hadn’t seen them for himself and so he wasn’t able to judge their worth as evidence for ancient glaciers. And he concludes by suggesting that his fellow Japanese alpinists should take up the search for moraines and other glacial landforms.

Yamasaki Naomasa
 In the re-worked version of the article that appears in his collected works, Kojima added a further argument. Japan’s volcanic craters, he observed, only retain their pristine shape if the parent volcano is still active; the moment a volcano falls silent, erosion starts to destroy its features. By the same token, Japan’s cirques are too crisply defined to have been created by glaciers that vanished 20,000 years ago; instead, they must be the product of some continuing agency – namely, the perpetual snowfields that scour them.

At first sight, Kojima’s scepticism seems difficult to explain. After all, the banker was just then tirelessly promoting “The Japanese Alps” as a term for the high mountains of central Honshū. In fact, he’d chosen the title “Nippon Arupusu” to adorn his collected mountain writings, of which the first volume came out in 1910. Not all his peers welcomed this neologism. Yet evidence for ancient glaciers could only have strengthened the case for awarding the alpine brevet to the Hida, Kiso and Akaishi ranges.

Could it be that Kojima picked up his glacial scepticism from Walter Weston (1860–1940), the English missionary and mountaineer? The question is raised by Ono Yugo, Japan’s pre-eminent glacier expert of modern times, whose paper on the 1911 Sangaku debate is the main source for this post. Kojima certainly did take over the concept of the Japan Alps from Weston, who had embedded them in the title of his own memoirs – Mountaineering and Exploring in the Japanese Alps, published in 1896.

It was Weston too who, on his second visit to Japan, had originally suggested the idea of an “Alpine Club” to Kojima. The proposal was floated during a conversation over a pot of tea at Weston’s flat in Yokohama in early 1903 and the club itself was formed two years later, in October 1905. For this contribution, the newly formed “Sangaku-kai” or Japanese Alpine Club promptly elected the Englishman as its first honorary vice-chairman.

Walter Weston 
When it came to ancient glaciers, Weston was firmly in the camp of the sceptics. As recorded in his second book about Japan, The Playground of the Far East, he had personally seen no relic landforms during his mountain travels in Japan. All in all, the evidence for ancient glaciers was “slight and inconclusive”, he wrote, and, therefore, “it seems reasonable to conclude that the claims that have been advanced on behalf of glacial action in the Japanese Alps are not as yet sufficiently substantiated to merit acceptance.”

Although Weston published these words in 1918, long after his return to England, he most probably formed his opinions long before. During his second stay in Japan, he had taken an interest in the glacier debate and, just before leaving the country in May 1905, he had received an English version of Yamasaki’s original 1902 paper. According to Kojima, who commissioned the translation, Weston was unimpressed by the evidence presented there.

Whether or not Kojima was influenced by Weston, he certainly stayed true to his friend’s position. While never finally excluding the possibility that glaciers had once existed in Japan, he kept firmly to a neutral stance on whether the evidence adduced by the glacier enthusiasts actually supported that conclusion. And, as Ono Yugo points out, some of Kojima’s reservations about that evidence were well founded. For example, the moraine-like rubble heaps found within the basins of some Japanese cirques are not actually moraines – rather, they are “ramparts” formed from stones bouncing and rolling down from the snowfields above.

Alfred Hettner
But the case for ancient glaciers did not rest only on cirques. Soon after the “Sangaku” debate, geologists started to find signs that glaciers had once reached much lower altitudes. In 1913, Alfred Hettner, a visiting German geographer, found a scratched-up boulder in the Inekoki gorge of the Azusa River, above the village of Shimajima. Glacier supporters interpreted it as evidence for an ancient moraine; naysayers said that water erosion could equally well account for the stone’s markings.

In 1931, Ogawa Takuji, a geologist at Kyōto University, published a paper arguing that ancient low-altitude glaciers had created the moraine-like debris found at around the 1,000-metre mark on Yatsu-ga-take, an extinct volcano, and at other sites in Nagano Prefecture. This time, the case was strong enough to prompt a renewed search for glacial relics throughout the Japan Alps and in Hokkaidō.

Ogawa Takuji
One such foray was made by none other than Tsujimura Tarō, who had recently succeeded his mentor Yamasaki as professor of geography at Tōkyō University. For the locus of his search, he chose Senjō-dake in what were now known – irrevocably, thanks to Kojima – as the Southern Japan Alps.

Climbing into one of Senjō’s elegant cirques in the summer of 1932, Tsujimura found the evidence he’d been looking for: so-called “gekritztes Geschiebe” (scratched-up debris) in the terminology borrowed from German geologists. The parallel grooves on their smooth granite surfaces clearly showed that these boulders had been ground under a body of moving ice.

Five years before the Senjō discovery, Kojima Usui had returned to Japan after a twelve-year stint as manager of the Yokohama Specie Bank’s branches in San Francisco and Los Angeles. The chance to see live glaciers in America’s coastal ranges had not changed his mind on the question of ancient ice-streams in Japan. That didn’t stop him from continuing to write voluminously about the artistry of snow and ice in the mountains.

Just a few months before Kojima’s death in 1949, he returned to the glacier question in an essay on “The Hettner Stone revisited”. His last words on the matter hint at a softening in his stance: “If these cirques and roches moutonnée were to affirm the former presence of great glaciers in the Hida, Kiso and Akaishi ranges, then there would be nothing for it but to bow down our heads at the infinitely creative ways of Nature, this strange and mysterious shaper.”


Main source is Ono Yugo (2010): Kojima Usui and Tsujimura Taro — Arguments in “Journal of the Japanese Alpine Club (Sangaku)”over glacial landforms in the Japanese Alps. Journal of the Japanese Alpine Club( Sangaku),105,138-154.(in Japanese)小野有五(2010): 小島烏水と辻村太郎—日本アルプスの氷河地形をめぐる『山岳』での論争—.山岳,105,138-154.

For the importance of Ogawa Takuji’s 1931 paper, see R H Grapes, History of Geomorphology and Quaternary Geology, page 185.

For account of research on Senjō-dake, see Tsujimura Tarō's 1961 paper in Chigaku Zasshi (辻村太郎、本州山地の氷河堆積物)