Friday, July 18, 2014

Summit of achievement

How Satō Junichi revived the dream of an all-year weather station on Mt Fuji

When, much against his will, Nonaka Itaru was rescued from his self-imposed ordeal atop Mt Fuji in December 1895, he did what any self-respecting Chikuzen samurai would do and composed a defiant tanka:

As the catalpa bow
Springs back, so will I;
Do not believe
That for long I go

Alas, the would-be meteorologist never did get together the money to build a better summit hut. Worse still, there were many who wrote off his efforts to take mid-winter weather observations: "Nothing of serious value resulted from his enterprise," sniffed Frederick Starr, an anthropologist and Mt Fuji devotee, writing in 1924.

Mr & Mrs Nonaka
(from a movie version of their story)
But this may be unfair. Nonaka and his wife Chiyoko, who loyally supported him during their 82-day sojourn, had proved that human beings could survive, if only just, on Mt Fuji in mid-winter.

And Nonaka’s goal – to take a year-round series of high-level atmospheric pressure readings – was one that would have been endorsed by any contemporary with an interest in the accuracy of weather forecasting. Indeed, one such contemporary was no less than a prince of the realm.

By profession, Yamashina-no-miya Kikumarō (1873–1908) was a navy man. He attended the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy and received a commission as a sub-lieutenant in 1894. At about the same time, he was sent to attend the staff college of the German navy, where he no doubt got to grips with the latest meteorological thinking. Back in Japan, he decided to make his own contribution to the science and, in 1901, put up the funds to build a weather station on Mt Tsukuba.

Prince Yamashina at the
battle of Tsushima
As all Hyakumeizan fans will know, at a mere 877 metres, Tsukuba is the lowliest of Japan’s One Hundred Mountains, and building an observatory on its summit was intended only as an interim step. For Prince Yamashina’s ultimate purpose was the same as Nonaka Itaru’s – to site the world’s highest year-round weather station atop Mt Fuji. But the Nonakas’ experience may have served as a caution not to be too ambitious at the outset.

A young meteorologist by the name of Satō Junichi (1872-1970) was appointed to oversee the Tsukuba observatory. Like the Nonakas, Satō was born in northern Kyūshū – the obstinacy sometimes attributed to natives of this region may be a not irrelevant character trait when it comes to siting weather stations atop high mountains. In 1893, he’d gone up to Tokyo to study at a scientific institute (東京物理学校).

In January 1907, twelve years after the Nonaka adventure, Satō scaled Mt Fuji to see for himself if it would be possible to survive up there in mid-winter. The weather was fine and the successful climb filled him with confidence. Then came an unexpected blow: in May the following year, the sudden death of Prince Yamashina deprived the Mt Fuji project of its main patron and sponsor. Satō was forced to look for alternative employment.

Satoh Junichi
In 1920, he shipped out to Japan’s recently acquired territory of Karafuto for a four-year stint as the head of the meteorological observatory. In his novel about Satō’s life, Nitta Jirō speculates that the meteorologist was attracted by the island’s extreme climate – in mid-winter, trees are said to explode with the cold. Indeed, the parallels between Sakhalin and the summit of Mt Fuji in winter cannot have escaped the would-be high-altitude researcher.

Two years after Satō’s return to Honshū, in 1926, a private benefactor (鈴木靖二) offered to fund the construction of a Mt Fuji observatory and Satō was appointed to lead the project. The following year, a small hut, large enough for Satō and a few government meteorologists, was completed at Yasu-no-kawara, a flattish area on the south-eastern rim of Mt Fuji’s crater. For the time being, though, observations would only be taken during the summer.

That would not satisfy Satō for long. And time was pressing – he was now 56 years old. In December 1927, he set off from Gotenba, accompanied by a few young meteorologists, to attempt another winter ascent of Mt Fuji. But the upper slopes were frozen so hard that their crampons wouldn’t bite, and they were forced to turn back. A similar attempt in December two years later also failed. Now time was running out.

On January 3, 1930, Satō set out again, this time accompanied only by the porter, Kaji Fusakichi (1900-1967), who would one day be famous for climbing Mt Fuji a record 1,672 times during his lengthy career. This ascent has taken on the stature of a minor epic within the annals of Mt Fuji.

Somewhere above the seventh station, in a storm of wind, Satō lost his footing and took a long, battering fall down the icy slope, knocking himself out on the way. But Kaji revived him, and the pair reached the summit hut as night was falling.

Once there, they settled in for a long stay. Too long, perhaps. Deprived of fresh food, Satō started to suffer from beriberi, a deficiency disease that probably increased his vulnerability to frostbite. Yet when Kaji urged him to retreat, he retorted that he didn’t want to become “a second Nonaka Itaru”. And so they held out until February 7 before descending. By that time, some of his fingers had been blackened by the frost back to the second joint.

Commissioning the summit observatory atop Mt Fuji
on August, 1, 1932
In the end, Satō did not risk his digits in vain. His exploit - and, no doubt, his gaman - had impressed the public and, even more importantly, the meteorological establishment. In the following summer, the summit hut was rebuilt, expanded and, on August 1, 1932, formally put into commission as the Provisional Mt Fuji Summit Observatory of the Central Meteorological Office.

On that August day, after the ceremonies and the group photograph, Satō prepared to descend the mountain. He was 61 years old; from then on, the station would be run by alternating monthly teams of young Met Office staff, year in, year out. He would no longer be needed.

Before he left, though, there was one more note to write up in the hut logbook: “Anemometer contacts are worn; need to be replaced.” And with that injunction, the old meteorologist set off down the burning slopes of the Gotenba trail for the last time.


Frederick Starr, Fujiyama: the Sacred Mountain of Japan, 1924

Chiyoko’s Fuji: Selected excerpts from the English translation of Fuyō-Nikki, 1896, translation by Harumi Yamada, 2013

Fuji-san: oinaru shizen no kensho, Yomiuri Shinbunsha, 1992

Obituary for Satō Junichi from Japan Meteorological Society Journal

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