Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Convergence of the twain

Mountaineers on the summit of Kasagadake watch the continuing eruption of Ontake 
(Photos taken on 28 September, courtesy of A Mikami/H Yamada, Fukui Mountaineering Club)

Geological timescales and human lives converge but rarely. When they do, there is tragedy. It seems unfitting to comment on the Ontake disaster from something as frivolous as a blog. Instead, the Vox Populi column in the Asahi Shinbun says what needs to be said.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Summit duty

A memoir of life on Mt Fuji by Hirai Yasuyo, former head of the summit meteorological observatory

I had a 40-year career with the Meteorological Agency, much of that time in work related to the Mt Fuji summit observatory. After retiring to my native Izu, I like to look out for Mt Fuji whenever I’m somewhere you should be able to see it from. These days, it’s often hazy whatever the time of year and I don’t see the mountain as often as I used to. When I do see its distant shape under a clear sky, it’s like meeting an old friend, and I remember all the things that happened up there and all the people I used to know.

Call of duty: de-icing the instrument tower

I came to the summit observatory quite by chance. A magazine that I used to look at in my school’s reading room sometimes serialized novels by Nitta Jirō, and that was how I first heard about the observatory and got the idea that I’d like to work there.

In 1954, I was hired to make weather observations at the Meteorological Observatory on Izu Ōshima island. In those days, that meant taking temperature and pressure readings at set times in a set order, and also making visual observations of weather phenomena. I remember sweating quite a bit over those on-sight assessments of clouds and sky conditions.

Porters above Hoei-zan

As the observations had to be made rain or shine, I sometimes sheltered under an umbrella as I made my measurements out there by the instrument box. Until, one day, I heard one of my seniors comment to a team leader as follows: “The young guy seems to be out there at the instrument box with an umbrella. But we used to just stand out there in the wind and rain making our observations, didn’t we.” After that, I decided that I would go out into the wind and rain like that, so that I could feel the weather unsheltered.

Around that time, I applied for re-assignment to the Mt Fuji observatory, and all of a sudden I was able to realize my dream of working at the summit station. And so, on April 5, 1956, I stepped off the train at Gotemba and was overwhelmed by the snow-covered bulk of the mountain.

On the way to the summit
Next day, before dawn, we left the refuge hut at Tarobō for what was to be my first-ever Mt Fuji climb. We had to break trail through the snow on the slopes of Hōei-zan before taking a break for breakfast at the refuge hut above the Seventh Station. From the Eighth Station onwards, on a stretch they called “Tarumi”, we were climbing on a steep sheet of blue ice. By the Ninth Station, I was so close to collapse that I was barely making sense any more. In fact, I tripped and fell over, but somebody who came to meet us quickly stopped my feet sliding with his axe, so that nothing worse happened.

The sun was low by the time we reached the summit station. Ash-grey clouds floated past under the darkening sky and a weird “bōōō” sound emanated from the depths of the vast crater. Laying eyes on this scene for the first time in my life, I could hardly believe that it belonged to this planet.

My apprenticeship in the ways of the observatory started on the morning after a blizzard. The first job was to bash the accumulated hoarfrost from the instrument tower. “This is how we do it,” grunted a colleague, as he grabbed a wooden mallet and started pounding at the steel framework, sending the ice shards flying with the vibrations. This is just the hoarfrost you always get when clouds come drifting across a summit and their supercooled droplets freeze onto any object they meet, creating an ice build-up. Up here, though, just about everything that projected above the ground would ice up – the frost was everywhere. Every time a low pressure came along the Pacific coast in winter or spring, that instrument tower would rime up overnight to a depth of several tens of centimetres.

This “de-icing” was the toughest work all through the snow season. When the ice shards blew back in your face, the pain was like needles thrusting into you. At first I relished the work as something you’d only get to experience on summit duty, but later as the gales pierced me to the core and the effort made me fight for breath, the job started to grind me down. Up there, on that tower, hacking at the ice in the pitch dark, I’d start thinking “Why does it have to be me? Does anybody care that I’m way out here battling the ice on top of Fuji?” It was at those times that the sheer isolation of Japan’s highest summit would get to me.
The radar dome in winter

In those days, Fujimura Ikuo, the observatory head, would sometimes come up and tell us that weather phenomena were never the same twice – if you don’t record them at the time, they’re lost forever, he’d say, to impress on us the seriousness of our responsibility and mission as meteorological observers. He’d also say, when the team was trying to bash every last scrap of ice from the instrument tower, that we should only clean things up as far as was needed for good measurements. In fact, we should go as easy as possible. “If you drive yourselves too far, you’ll not last long on summit duty,” he told us. After that, I decided to give the job about 80%, so that I could always keep something in reserve. And I think that this was one reason why I was able to continue serving so long on the summit.

My summit duty years started in 1956, when I applied for the transfer from Izu Ōshima. Then, after stints in Tokyo, I was up there again from 1960 to 1964 and from 1971 to 1983. Adding in the years that I spent at the Mt Fuji base offices, I spent more than 30 years in work that involved the summit station. As these years spanned Japan’s economic high-growth period, I witnessed a great deal of change in both society and life at the summit station during this time. In 1964, radar and automated weather measurement systems were installed, which meant that the work changed from taking readings manually to maintaining and monitoring the measuring equipment. As for our living environment, this changed dramatically in 1973 when the new building was completed and the electricity supply upgraded. Instead of the old building, where the only place you didn’t feel cold was next to the charcoal stove, we had a fully airconditioned new building, where you could sleep in a warm room. Compared with the old building, where you had to creep into bed under a frosted-up futon, this was undreamt-of luxury.
Automation comes to Mt Fuji

Other innovations included better mountaineering kit and safety measures, and we introduced a SnowTrac for the first part of the uphill haul. And our logistics were revolutionized when we started using the bulldozers to freight up supplies in summer, leading to a dramatic improvement in both the quality and quantity of our food. In winter, though, the weather could still cause delays in the food supply, and I have fond memories of a three-day stretch where we had nothing to eat with our rice except salt-dried squid and soy sauce.
Dining area in the summit weather station

As for mountaintop itself – the wind, the cold and the thin air – nothing could change that. Climbing up and down the mountain in winter during the shift changes was pretty much as tough as it was in the early years of the summit station. And, even though the instruments had been modernized, things went on icing up just as before, so that the only way observations could be kept up was for the summit team to go out in the same old way to bash at the ice encrustations on the instrument tower and the radome.

Shift change
Yet I did see changes during those thirty years, even if only gradual ones – little rockslides around the summit, new fissures opening up in the crater and the Great Gully of Ōsawa, and so on. And there was the way that the knotweed (オンタデ、Aconogonon weyrichii) and other alpine plants kept creeping up the mountainside, bit by bit, towards the summit.

Some things changed more rapidly. One was the spread of the town lights below. Up until the late 1950s, except for the Tokyo-Yokohama area, you could distinguish the lights of one town from those of another all along the coast at night. In the 1960s, however, the lights started to spread into the dark patches between towns, and from the 1970s the whole Kantō plain as far as Enshū became just a single mass of luminosity, a sea of lights.

Another of those changes was air pollution. When I first climbed the mountain in 1956, there was a splendidly clear view all round. Under that azure sky, you could gaze down at the whole Kantō spreading out below, at the Chubu mountain ranges, and the islands of Izu floating on the ocean. In those days, we had to make a visual assessment of the visibility below us, how high the haze came up and how thick it was. You could clearly see the upper limit of the haze as a sharp dividing line against the sky, and we used to record its height against the backdrop of the Akaishi mountains. In the 1960s, the height and density of the haze might have fluctuated a bit, depending on conditions, but it rarely swamped the 3,000-metre ridgeline of the Akaishi mountains.

In 1971, when I came back for summit duty after a seven-year gap, I was in for a shock – there were now many more days when the haze buried the mountains and you couldn’t see the ground below, even when the sky was cloudless. Air pollution had become a serious problem in Tokyo from the early 1960s; now you’d often see a thick haze layer in all directions.

Haze layers develop when you have the right meteorological conditions, such as several days under a ridge of high pressure, but it’s not the weather that has changed around Mt Fuji. Rather, the spreading haze is coming from the proliferation in pollution sources and the growing volume of polluted air.

In former days, you could always expect to see Fuji from Izu, but I feel that in recent years that’s no longer true. And, as I’ve spent most of my life involved with Mt Fuji, I can’t help feeling that we’re losing something of great value.

Seeing Mt Fuji obscured by haze isn’t just about losing a view – it’s a sign that air pollution and environmental destruction are getting worse. My hope is that, by continuing our scientific observations, we can shed light on the state and causes of that environmental degradation, so that we can finally do something about it.


Translated from "Harukana Fuji-san wo nozomeba" in (ed) Dokiya Yukiko, Kawaru Fuji-san Sokkojo, 2004. Images are also from this book except for header image, which is from Fuji-san: oinaru shizen no kensho, Yomiuri Shinbunsha, 1992.

Images and ink (19)

Image: Night view of Mt Fuji by Kobayashi Kiyochika.

Ink: Canto X, 1943 Mt Fuji poem by Kusano Shimpei, translated by Leith Morton:

Japan's symbol
Even at night doesn't sleep.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

“Give me radar”

The precise origins of the radar station atop Mt Fuji are veiled in mystery

Nineteen-sixty-four was when Japan got its mojo back. It was the year the Olympics came to Tokyo and when Prime Minister Satō Eisaku took on the mission to double the national income. The Tokyo monorail started running in September, and the first bullet trains a few weeks later. For sheer high-tech panache, though, those feats were upstaged when a grossly overloaded helicopter came flailing in towards Japan’s highest summit.

August 15, 1964 was an exceptionally calm day on Mt Fuji. It had to be. Onlookers held their breath as they watched the boat-hulled Sikorsky edge closer. They knew the cage-like structure dangling from the S-62’s load-strop weighed something like 600 kilos. They also knew that the helicopter could normally lift only 450 kilos while hovering at this height. To save weight, all surplus kit had been stripped from the helicopter, side-door and co-pilot’s seat included. Even so, the approach would be touch and go.

It’s unclear – at least to this blogger – exactly who decided to build a radar station on Mt Fuji, and when. Conventionally, the story starts with Typhoon Vera, which struck the Ise Bay region on September 26, 1959, battering and inundating the city of Nagoya. The storm killed more than 5,000 people, left an estimated 1.5 million homeless, and injured almost 39,000 more victims.

Another tragedy on this scale might be prevented if a weather radar could give better warning of a typhoon’s approach and intensity. But where to site one? You could put a radar on a southerly island, such as Hachijōjima and Torishima (both were considered). Or you could put it on high ground. From the summit of Mt Fuji, for example, a radar could look eight hundred kilometres out to sea.

Pursuing this logic, Japan’s Meteorological Agency submitted a budget request to the Ministry of Finance in 1961. The finance officials were concerned about the brevity of the building season on Mt Fuji’s summit: if the project was to be completed in two years, as planned, all the building work would have to be crammed into two summer seasons of just 40 days each.

A hard-driving meteorologist named Fujiwara Hiroto handled the Agency’s negotiations with the ministry. He argued the project could finish on time if building materials were moved up the mountain as soon as the snow started melting in the spring. This “snowline-chasing strategy” was sufficiently persuasive to secure a budget allocation of 240 million yen.

Even before building started in 1963, it became clear that existing portage methods wouldn’t work. Horses and “goriki”, the traditional carriers on Mt Fuji, couldn’t handle the volume. As for helicopters, the pilots briefly went on strike when asked to hoist panels that might flutter out of control in the slipstream. What to do? Caterpillar D2s were brought in, first to bulldoze a trail all the way to the summit, then to freight up the heavy supplies, two tons at a time.

Excavating the foundations posed another challenge. Before they could dig into the iron-hard permafrost of the summit rocks, the construction crews had to thaw it with blowtorches. Yet they kept to their schedule. By mid-summer 1964, the radar building was virtually complete, except for the all-important geodesic dome that would shelter the rotating parabolic radar antenna.

The dome could not be assembled on-site, and it was too big for the bulldozers. That left only a helicopter lift. But, even after taking out all surplus kit, the S-62’s pilot doubted if it could hover at this height. Still, the job might be managed, he reckoned, if a gentle headwind of not less than 5 knots but no more than 10 could provide the chopper with some “dynamic lift”.

As just such a zephyr was promised for the early morning of August 15, the S-62 clattered off the tarmac near Fujinomiya just after breakfast, hooked onto its underslung cargo, and started labouring up Mt Fuji’s southern flanks. Climbing to just above the summit, the pilot turned his straining craft into wind and set up his approach towards the gesticulating figure standing on the domeless roof of the radar building. Just at that moment, the breeze died and the helicopter shuddered as the pilot struggled to compensate for the lost lift. Then, while at least one onlooker braced himself for a spectacular accident, the S-62 nosed in over the roof. In that instant, workmen leapt out from cover and grabbed the structure’s rim to align it with the hold-down bolts. The dome had landed.

Thanks to this high-wire episode, the new building was completed on time. The following August, the 1,500-watt Mitsubishi Electric-built radar tracked its first typhoon. After that, the station remained continuously in service until November 1999, when the radar was switched off for the last time, and its faithful service toasted in frozen beer at a “gokuro-sama” party under the radome. In 2004, the summit weather station closed too, ending 72 years of continuous human habitation atop Mt Fuji.

So much for the outline history. But, as you’ve noticed, this narrative stays curiously mum on who exactly was the first to propose siting a radar station on Mt Fuji. An obvious place to look for a smoking gun would be Fuji Sanchō, a lightly fictionalised account of the project. The novelist, who went by the nom de fudè of Nitta Jirō, was none other than Fujiwara Hiroto, the real-life Meteorological Agency man who handled the discussions first with the finance ministry and later with the big electronics companies that competed to supply the radar.

Nitta Jiro
(Photo: courtesy Bungei Shunju)
Unfortunately, Nitta sets his opening scene in the Finance Ministry, shedding little or no light on how the project started life. There are hints, though, that the novel’s hero, a not-even-thinly disguised Nitta/Fujiwara, had been following the technology ever since Japan set up its first weather radar during the early 1950s. That adds up. By background, Fujiwara Hiroto was a wireless engineer, not a meteorologist, and had spent his career mainly in the Agency’s instrumentation department. So perhaps the novelist was, quite literally, the author of his own story.

Another suspect is Fujimura Ikuo (we’ve met him before, as the instigator of the famous Mt Fuji ‘sit-in strike’ in the winter of 1932). Like many members of Japan’s business and administrative elite, the long-standing head of the summit weather station was fond of a game of go. At some point, perhaps in 1960, he was challenged to a match at the summit of Mt Fuji by Kobe Michinosuke, the president of Hazama-gumi, a construction company.

At this point Kobe’s staff intervened, fearing their boss might not survive the rigours of the climb. Graciously, Fujimura agreed that the match could instead take place at the Fukuda-ya, a favourite go venue in Tokyo. In gratitude, the company president asked if he could do anything in return. Fujimura thought for a moment before replying: “Give me a radar station.”


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

Dokiya Yukiko, Kawaru Fuji-san Sokkojo, 2004.

Images and ink (18)

Image: Auspicious Mt Fuji by Kataoka Tamako (1905-2008).

Ink: On Mt Fuji, from Nihon Hyakumeizan (One Hundred Mountains of Japan) by Fukada Kyūya (1964):

The phrase "hachimen-reirō", meaning "graceful in all its aspects", was coined with Fuji in mind. Its form keeps its beauty whether viewed from north or south, east or west. All other mountains have their quirks, from which they draw their individual charm. But Fuji is simply vast and pure. In fact, I'm tempted to call it magnificently vulgar. Yes, would-be intellectuals might want to say that such starkness is tantamount to vulgarity. In the end, though, we all have to submit to this magnificent vulgarity.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Nonaka scoop

How a Meiji-era mid-winter epic on Mt Fuji was first broken to the English-speaking world

How humiliating. Until recently, Project Hyakumeizan believed that Portland-based Professor Andrew Bernstein and this blog were the first to introduce English readers to the detailed story of Nonaka Itaru and Chiyoko – the couple who endured 82 days on the summit of Mt Fuji in the winter of 1895 in a bid to take high-altitude weather readings.

Chiyoko and Itaru Nonaka and their Mt Fuji summit hut
But no. It turns out that both of us were scooped by Lafcadio Hearn, who had the advantage of climbing Mt Fuji just a year or so after Mr and Mrs Nonaka were rescued. His account is embedded within his essay "Fuji-no-yama", as later republished in Exotics and Retrospectives (1898). The relevant paragraphs are quoted below:

A Japanese meteorologist named Nonaka attempted last year the rash undertaking of passing the winter on the summit of Fuji for purposes of scientific study. It might not be difficult to winter upon the peak in a solid observatory furnished with a good stove, and all necessary comforts; but Nonaka could afford only a small wooden hut, in which he would be obliged to spend the cold season without fire! His young wife insisted on sharing his labors and dangers. The couple began their sojourn on the summit toward the close of September. In mid-winter news was brought to Gotemba that both were dying.

Relatives and friends tried to organize a rescue-party. But the weather was frightful; the peak was covered with snow and ice; the chances of death were innumerable; and the goriki would not risk their lives. Hundreds of dollars could not tempt them. At last a desperate appeal was made to them as representatives of Japanese courage and hardihood: they were assured that to suffer a man of science to perish, without making even one plucky effort to save him, would disgrace the country;– they were told that the national honor was in their hands.

This appeal brought forward two volunteers. One was a man of great strength and daring, nicknamed by his fellow-guides Oni-guma, "the Demon-Bear," the other was the elder of my goriki. Both believed that they were going to certain destruction. They took leave of their friends and kindred, and drank with their families the farewell cup of water– midzu-no-sakazuki--in which those about to be separated by death pledge each other. Then, after having thickly wrapped themselves in cotton-wool, and made all possible preparation for ice-climbing, they started – taking with them a brave army-surgeon who had offered his services, without fee, for the rescue. After surmounting extraordinary difficulties, the party reached the hut; but the inmates refused to open! Nonaka protested that he would rather die than face the shame of failure in his undertaking; and his wife said that she had resolved to die with her husband.

Partly by forcible, and partly by gentle means, the pair were restored to a better state of mind. The surgeon administered medicines and cordials; the patients, carefully wrapped up, were strapped to the backs of the guides; and the descent was begun. My goriki, who carried the lady, believes that the gods helped him on the ice-slopes. More than once, all thought themselves lost; but they reached the foot of the mountain without one serious mishap. After weeks of careful nursing, the rash young couple were pronounced out of danger. The wife suffered less, and recovered more quickly, than the husband.

According to Nonaka Chiyoko, who wrote her own account of this episode, the porter who rescued her was called Tsurukichi. So it was this very goriki (“strong man”) who later guided Lafcadio Hearn on his much less eventful ascent. This means that, unlike Professor Bernstein and myself, Hearn was able to get his story from a first-hand participant in the Nonaka story.

Well, it’s no disgrace to have been scooped by the maven of Matsue. After all, before he came to Japan, Hearn pounded the streets of Cincinnati as a journalist. Nor was Mt Fuji his first try at adventure writing – while working for the Cincinnati Commercial, he agreed to be carried to the top of the city’s tallest building on the back of a steeplejack. But this is another story altogether.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Images and ink (17)

Image: Autumn view of Mt Yōtei by Kataoka Tamako (1905-2008).

Ink: On Shiribeshi-yama, from Nihon Hyakumeizan (One Hundred Mountains of Japan) by Fukada Kyūya (1964):

On the way by train from Hakodate to Sapporo, two mountains catch one's eye. The first is Koma-ga-dake and the second Shiribeshi-yama. In contrast to the breathtakingly stylish peak of Koma, Shiribeshi-yama is almost oppressively thick-set. As if to justify its traditional appellation of Ezo-Fuji, the mountain's regular form means that it looks much the same from any viewpoint. I strongly oppose simplifying the name of this mountain to plain Yōteizan. A name with deep historical roots, Shiribeshi-yama is recorded in the Nippon Shoki with an entry as early as the fifth year of Saimeichō (659) ...