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.

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