Friday, January 30, 2015

"Characteristics of the Japanese mountain landscape" (2)

Continued: a disquisition on the aesthetics of Honshu's mixed volcanic and alpine scenery, by Kojima Usui, founder of the Japanese Alpine Club

Cover of an early edition of Shiga
Shigetaka's Nihon Fukeiron
When we compare our mountains with those of the Himalaya and the Alps, certainly those ranges have things ours do not. But, by the same token, our mountains have things that those others do not.

As to what those things are, we have volcanoes in addition to plutonic and sedimentary rocks, and landscapes formed by the creative and destructive effects of those volcanoes, and I don’t believe that anybody would deny that it is this blend of landforms that gives the mountain scenery of Japan its special character.

Mountains of the Himalayan and Alpine type can be formed more or less anywhere as long as the crust of our gradually congealing planet continues to warp and tilt, throwing up large or small elevations.

Volcanoes, however, erupt only along the lines defined by today’s volcanic fronts so that, even in this country of volcanoes, they are arrayed only in specific places. In the Kinki and Sanyōdō, and on Shikoku, among other regions, there are with few exceptions no volcanoes worthy of the name, even if some volcanic rocks have been extruded in the past.

Our country’s most prominent volcanic front is, of course, the Fuji Belt, with Mt Fuji itself as its syntaxis and anchor, weaving southwards through Hakone and the Izu peninsula out to sea, and northwards under Kaya-ga-take, Kana-ga-take and Yatsu-ga-dake.

Standing opposite them, across the graben of the Chikuma River, are the purely sedimentary ranges of the Shirane and Kaikoma mountains, throwing into relief as nowhere else even in Japan the contrast between sedimentary and plutonic rocks, and highlighting the particular character of each.

In those Akaishi mountains and in the Japan Alps, or at their foot, where the clearly defined strata are free of volcanic ash, one would expect to find fossils as a means of assigning them to the appropriate geological eras. So far, alas, although many people have looked for them, no such fossils have come to light and one scholar now active in Shinshū opines, as if with a sigh, that volcanic ash may after all have buried beyond reach such indispensable indicators for the geological timescale.

Yet it is precisely there – where the Fuji Belt converges on the Kamanashi hills cast down from the Kaikoma range, and to the north, where the Ontake and Tateyama volcanoes erupt from the Hida range, that the volcanic and sedimentary rocks of the Japan Alps are thrown together in inextricable confusion – that the unique scenic character of the Japanese mountains creates a landscape unparalleled in the Himalaya, roof of the world though it may be, or in the European Alps with all its endless profusion and variety of peaks.



Beta translation from Kojima Usui, Characteristics of the Japanese mountain landscape (日本山岳景の特色), originally published in "Nippon Arupusu (1910), Vol IV, reprinted in Nippon Arupusu, Iwanami Bunko edition, 1992.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Was Walter Weston a gear freak?

Or, how to kit yourself up for mountain action in mid-Meiji Japan

Must admit, I'm a sucker for those lightweight hiking kit reviews over there on Bre'er Hendrik's blog. Same with Ken Rockwell's ruminations on cameras. (Ladies, excuse us - this is a guy thing.) But the other day, this gear fixation got me wondering. Was it ever thus?

The compleat mid-Meiji alpinists: super-guide Kamijo Kamonji (left) and
mountaineering missionary Walter Weston (right)

Maybe it was. I mean, you'd expect an Anglican missionary of the late Victorian age to be above such crass materialism. Yes, it's Walter Weston (1861-1940), I'm talking about here. And, to be sure, most of his best book is admirably free of commentary on the latest kit. He just gets on with his Mountaineering and Exploration in the Japanese Alps (1896).

But, wait a moment, there in Chapter XVI - "Hints on Outfit, Provisions, etc" - out comes Walter Weston's inner nerd. And surely we hear a note of self-exculpation in his preamble: "As it has been intimated that some hints on travel in the higher mountain districts of Japan might be profitably added, a few suggestions are accordingly offered in the hope that they may be of use to those whose experience has not yet reached to the districts remote enough from the beaten tracks to need a little special care and preparation for travel of a rougher kind than that to which the ordinary visitor is accustomed."

Now Bre'er Hendrik himself couldn't have put that more eloquently.

Footwear for "districts remote enough from the beaten tracks to need
a little special care and attention"

Not that these hints aren't worth listening to. When it comes to dress, Weston was onto layering a century before Mark Twight, and with so much more style: "a Norfolk jacket with plenty of pockets, and loose knickerbockers of a strong grey flannel will be found serviceable, whilst for underwear the lightest and thinnest woollen, or silk-and-woollen, vests and shirts are best, since there is less risk of getting a chill after being over-heated. The best material for this is that made by Dr. Jaeger's Company."

Best for ordinary walking

He also gave straw sandals a try, as still used by sawa traditionalists: "The waraji give a better foothold on smooth rocks than hob-nailed boots, but the latter are best for ordinary walking." The blue-cotton gaiters known as kiya-han also get a good review, as they "afford much more protection to the legs than woollen stockings when a way has to be made through the rough undergrowth so often found on the lower slopes of the mountains."

As for bivouacs, Weston's solution could be even lighter than CJW's minimalist set-up: "In such cases a good substitute for a tent can be made by means of three large pieces of strong oiled paper. One piece is shaped by folding it over a line stretched between two uprights, and the other two are tied to it by strings fastened on the edges."

Not needed if you have oiled paper

Yet, there's a limit to how far he's willing to adopt local methods. OK, the "native kōri", a kind of wicker basket (you can get yours here), is convenient for carrying "provisions, books, instruments etc". But for everything else, "the Swiss rück-sack is far better". Same with lighting: "A railway reading-lamp is a great boon when in country places, where the native lamps are usually of a poor kind; and it is far more satisfactory also than the native chōchin when walking has to be done at night on strange roads or rocky hillsides."

Rück-sacks are better
Now we cut to the chase: "The question of food is, to most persons, of considerable importance." Can't argue with that, though not everybody will share the good missionary's British tastes: "Bovril makes a capital soup, and where hot water for this cannot be got, Valentine's meat juice, with a little cold water, is a valuable stimulant." Also on the menu is Halford's curried fowl, and De Jongh's cocoa "for those who care for that kind of drink."

Regarding trail mix, "A handful of good prunes, raisins, or dates may be put into the pocket at the beginning of a climb, the last being especially sustaining as well as tasty during the walk." Much cheaper than PowerBars too.

For costs, alas, have surged between Weston's day and ours. Away from the main thoroughfares, he advises, "innkeepers usually charge from 15 to 40 or 50 sen for hatago ('supper, bed, and breakfast'), though a chadai is of course expected in addition." Compare that with a crisp ten thousand yen note for a single hatago in today's mountain huts. One sen was worth 100th of a pre-inflation yen, you will recall.

Giving gaijin mountaineers a bad name

Fall out with your host, though, and you probably have only yourself to blame: "One generally finds that on many of the highways of foreign travel in Japan, the manners of the innkeepers, &c, are extremely objectionable. There may be other explanations, but one certainly is this:- the lack of politeness and courtesy too often shown by the foreign traveller himself, the repetition of which in succeeding instances comes at last to be reflected in the unmannerly behaviour of the innkeeper himself."

Now there is a hint that's timeless. And it isn't even about the gear.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

"Characteristics of the Japanese mountain landscape" (1)

Honshu's volcanoes and alpine mountains are braided together as if in a chain of platinum and steel, wrote Kojima Usui, the founder of the Japanese Alpine Club ...

When we travelled in our student days, the “famous mountains” of Japan were practically all volcanoes, so that if you’d climbed Mt Fuji, it stood to reason that all other mountains were lower, smaller, less impressive. In those days, apart from the volcanoes of Tateyama and Ontake, all we knew of the mighty range now called the “Japan Alps” was Kiso-komagatake (which is composed mainly of biotite granite). And I can’t help smiling to recall that, when I saw in a list of mountains the name of Shiramine in the Akaishi mountains as the next-highest peak after Mt Fuji, none of us at that time, neither my friends nor my teachers, had any idea where this Shiramine might be situated.

Illustrations from Shiga Shigetaka's Theory of the Japanese Landscape 
I was born in Sanuki on Shikoku, where the Emperor Sutoku lies entombed on a “Shiramine” that is mentioned in both Ueda Akinari’s Tales of Moonlight and Rain, and Kōda Rohan’s acclaimed Tales of Two Days. But joking aside, I thought, it can’t possibly be this Shiramine that is meant.

When I came to read Shiga Shigetaka’s Theory of the Japanese Landscape, I did get to know a little more about mountain names, but this book deals only with volcanoes and mountains of igneous rock. Mountains of sedimentary origin get but a cursory mention, and there’s no way of finding out about Shiramine or Akaishi. In the chapter on granitic mountains, I read that “After those composed of volcanic rock, Japan’s highest mountains are all made of granite (except for the Shirane mountains of Kai, which are formed from chert)”. This was when I realised that the Shirane in Kai was one and the same peak as the “Shiramine” that forms the highest point of the Akaishi range. These days, anybody with the slightest familiarity with mountain geography would know this, but I mention it just an example of how clueless we were and how shallow our knowledge of the mountains except for the time-honoured volcanoes.

Today, of course, the entire Japanese Alps have been traversed by the Army General Staff surveyors and members of the Japanese Alpine Club, from the Akaishi range in the south through the Kiso range in the centre to the uplands and mountains of the Hida range in the north. Untrodden sanctuaries and virgin forests are no more.

As for the 1:50,000-scale General Staff maps, it’s said that the ones covering the Japan Alps and other mountains sell best of all. In contrast to former days, mountaineering buffs now deem only mountain ranges and ridges to be worth climbing, whether of sedimentary or of igneous origin. Volcanoes tend to be looked down on as paltry and second-best. Yet, having put forward a theory of volcanic landscape, I would say rather that one should first climb a volcano to appreciate the sublimity of the Japanese Alps and then launch into those Alps in order to acknowledge the beauty of volcanoes.

Indeed, I would go further. The most remarkable characteristic of Japan’s mountain landscapes is that the Japan Alps and the volcanoes of the Fuji belt, each with its mighty peaks of about 3,000 metres, are braided together as if in a chain of platinum and iron.



Beta translation from Kojima Usui, Characteristics of the Japanese mountain landscape (日本山岳景の特色), originally published in "Nippon Arupusu (1910), Vol IV, reprinted in Nippon Arupusu, Iwanami Bunko edition, 1992.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Category killer

Nobody can say what kind of book Nihon Hyakumeizan is, but please don't let that stop you from enjoying the translation

Ah, the oxygen of publicity. Thanks to an article in the Asahi Shimbun, pre-orders on Amazon's Japanese site have temporarily lofted One Hundred Mountains of Japan into best-seller territory. For two weeks or so, the book duked it out among the top 100 foreign titles. It even nipped briefly (so to speak) at the heels of Fifty Shades of Grey.

A funny thing happened during this heady period. For a while, the book held the top slots for any Amazon Japan-listed foreign book in three widely differing categories - travel, ecology and science. "Travel" seems logical enough - I mean, you do have to cover quite a swathe of territory if you plan to climb all of Fukada Kyūya's favourite mountains.

But science and ecology? In all fairness, prospective readers with a technical bent should be warned of possible disappointment. Given that mountains are piles of rock and dirt, it's amazing how little space Fukada gives to geological ruminations. You will usually look in vain if you want to find out what a mountain is made of. Although, as noted before on this blog, the Hyakumeizan author did know his flowers.

This embarrassment of categories calls to mind a conversation that Project Hyakumeizan once had with the commissioning editor of an eminent publishing house. This took place soon after the translation was completed, a few years back. Unfortunately, said the editor, he couldn't take on the book - it wouldn't sell because it didn't fit into any recognizable genre.

Actually, he had a point. One Hundred Mountains is devilishly hard to categorise. Not unlike the geological mélange of Kita-dake, that mountain for philosophers, it blends together bits of this and bobs of that - a soupçon of travelogue here, fragments of literature and history there, all mixed up, but with masterly assurance, into a zany matrix of zuihitsu-style essay writing.

This categorical confusion is nothing new, by the way. When the original Nihon Hyakumeizan first came out, in 1964, it promptly won the Yomiuri Prize for Literature - in the category for biography and criticism. Biography? Criticism? Fukada's former climbing companion, Kobayashi Hideo, who was on the panel of judges, explained his advocacy as follows:

This is one of the most original works of criticism that I've seen in recent years. The objects of critical thought are, in this case, mountains. The author has chosen to write about mountains as if they were people. To do so, he has engaged with them face-to-face, so to speak, in all the remotest corners of our land.

Regrettably, Amazon doesn't rank the Hyakumeizan translation in either biography or criticism. But, as of Monday this week, the internet giant is performing a much more vital service - it is starting to ship the book, at least from its mother ship. Shipments from Amazon Japan will also start soon, I'm assured. So you can now buy one copy of the English-language Hyakumeizan, a mountain book, and get several extra literary genres packaged with it, at no additional charge.

Just don't expect me to tell you which they are, though.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

"Tei: A memoir of the end of war and beginning of peace"

Book review: how Tei Fujiwara brought her children to safety from Manchuria

This blog usually concerns itself with the mountains of Japan. But I hope reader(s) will excuse me if I introduce a book that has nothing much to do with mountains, unless they are those that lie athwart Korea, square across the path of desperate refugees fleeing from northern China in the second world war's aftermath.

One of those refugees was Fujiwara Teiko. Married to a meteorologist, Tei was one of the two million or so Japanese who lived in Manchuria and other parts of China during the 1940s. When the war ended, the Japanese military left the civilians to fend for themselves. More than 11,000 settlers died in the post-war turmoil, about a third by their own hand.

Those who wanted to live fled southwards, in the so-called hikiage. This book - originally entitled Nagareboshi wa ikite iru, quoting a song that gave the author hope - is the account of how Mrs Fujiwara brought her two sons and baby daughter to safety in a year-long odyssey down the Korean peninsula.

After her husband was taken to a Soviet labour camp, Mrs Fujiwara found herself alone, destitute and hungry. Before the journey south could continue, she had to survive - and keep her children alive - through a harsh winter in what is now North Korea, living on a cup of rice per day. Soon even that ration was cut.

Desperate privations throw the characters of her fellow refugees into stark relief. Some fellow Japanese cheat her. An unknown Korean gives her food, at the risk of his own reputation or even life. There are Soviet soldiers who give her cloth from their stores so that she can make rag dolls and sell them on the street.

This is a book that raises questions. As in, how would I behave if torn out of a comfortable middle-class existence and subjected to the pressures and deprivations of a refugee camp? And how do you summon up that last ounce of strength to cross the mountains that bar the way to safety? This is how Tei answers that question:

The road into the mountains wound its way into a valley between other mountains and turned into a narrow, shriveled trail. Eventually, even the trail disappeared. We followed the shadows, which swirled like a beautiful obi, on and on to the horizon. 

 The red mud on the trail refused to let go of our feet once we stepped in it. Sometimes we stuck in the muck up to our knees... If I had had to drag my boys, as I had done through the night, I couldn't have gone a step further. We would have sunk into the earth and died. Everyone went ahead of me and disappeared into the rain while I fell behind and was left alone on the trail. Somehow, I kept moving, driven only by the knowledge that my two boys were moving up ahead. 

 The rocks closed in from both sides. If I could get through this place, I sensed that there would be something up ahead. But what I found up ahead was a woman who had lost her mind...

Eventually, Mrs Fujiwara made it to the port of Busan, in the south of Korea, and was repatriated to Japan in September 1946. Three months later, her husband came back to Japan after being released from a labour camp in northern Manchuria. He had fared relatively well there, thanks to his skills as an electrical engineer, which proved useful to his captors.

In 1949, Tei Fujiwara wrote up her experiences, partly as a "last testament" to her children in case she succumbed to the after-effects of her ordeal. In the event, she not only pulled through - and is still alive today - but her book became a best-seller. It has recently been ably and fluently rendered into English by Nana Mizushima, who says in her translator's introduction:-

I try to write in a natural style which is enjoyable to read. I believe the translation should be invisible, just as the camera is invisible in a good movie. 

Let me just say here that she has succeeded magnificently. I read the book on a long and delayed journey across Europe and hardly noticed the time passing.

There is a final twist to this tale. Tei's husband resumed his career as a professional weatherman and rose to head up the Meteorological Agency's equipment division. In this role, he played a key part in commissioning the radar station on top of Mt Fuji. But he soon noticed that his modest official salary was eclipsed by the money rolling in from his wife's book. His competitive spirit piqued, he decided to try writing for himself.

Today, the works of Nitta Jirō - as Fujiwara Hiroto styled himself for literary purposes - are better known than his wife's. He was certainly more prolific, putting out four full-length historical novels about Mt Fuji alone. And his recreation of the Death March on Mt Hakkōda was made into a memorable film. But he never wrote at any length about his own experience of the hikiage. The memories were probably too painful.


Tei: A Memoir of the End of War and Beginning of Peace, by Tei Fujiwara, translated by Nana V. Mizushima

Account of how Tei's book inspired Nitta Jirō's career is from Fuji-san: oinaru shizen no kensho, Yomiuri Shinbunsha, 1992.

Monday, January 5, 2015

New Year resolution

Resolve may fade with time, but the blog goes on ...

At about half-height, my glasses began to steam up, adding to the pressure. Nobody tells you about this hazard in the ice-climbing manuals, I whinged to myself, and started to drive the axes too deeply into the glutinous blue wall, as if compensating for the fading visibility. Now every move sapped twice as much energy. Below, my belayer endured the shower of ice divots in silence, but I got the unspoken message: “Stop faffing, and get a move on.”

Just before the rope ran out, a darker blur loomed through the condensation. I lurched towards it, torn between haste and caution on the lumpy ice bulges. After wrapping a couple of grateful slings around a mountain birch, I wiped the mist off my glasses and looked upwards – the next pitch would take us up a spiral staircase of crystal into the heart of mountain. But this vision had to remain unrealised – my lead of Komatsuzawa F1 had burned up so much time that there could be no question of going further. After Yamada-san had come up, we rapelled to safety. Well, sort of. There was still the frozen river to descend.

In those days, we resolved to start the year as we meant to go on. So we'd pointed our weatherbeaten Subaru into the frozen Japan Southern Alps – the more rugged Northern ranges would be too much for our modest talents – hiked half the night up a snowy track to a bivvy hut, and then lit out before the year's first dawn for our chosen waterfall. Thanks to the recent eruption of Mt Pinatubo in the Philippines, and its climate-cooling effects, ice was everywhere in the Japanese mountains. And somebody had to climb it.

Fast forward a decade or two, and I have to confess my appetite has waned for pressing my nose up against a congealed cascade. The objective hazards of New Year excursions remain, though. We saw in the Year of the Sheep at a Swiss mountain hut. Our ski-tour on January 1st started tentatively – the avalanche forecast stood at Level 3 or “considerable”. And the forecast was not kidding. Less than twenty minutes after leaving the hut, we triggered a first “whoomf” sound, a sure sign of weak, avalanche-prone layers in the snowpack.

As in Komatsuzawa, we would have to forgo our summit. Pausing below an old moraine to strip the skins off our skis, we looked wistfully up at the Jammspitz and recalled the sage advice of Don Whillans: “The mountain will always be there tomorrow; make sure you are too.” A few hours later, we boarded the little red train back to the big city. From that you may surmise – and I won’t deny it – that my appetite for winter driving has waned too.

Back in town, an e-mail was waiting of the kind that warms the heart of any translator. “Can I get a copy of your book through a European distributor or should I just order it from the University of Hawaii press (in January/February)?” Well, Denis, Amazon appears to be telling prospective buyers of One Hundred Mountains of Japan that they’ll ship in mid-January, and I have no better information than that. As for distributors outside the United States, the book won’t reach them for another month or so. So Amazon or the University of Hawaii Press are probably your best bets for now.

Now the Hyakumeizan translation is out – or almost so – the question arises of what next. After all, Project Hyakumeizan is out of a job, so to speak. But one thing leads to another. The Sensei has just helped me to put the finishing touches to a translation of an essay about Japan’s mountain scenery by Kojima Usui (1873–1948), the banker, writer and founder of the Japanese Alpine Club. I look forward to sharing the disquisition on this blog soon.

Further ahead, there is a full translation to finalise of Nonaka Chiyoko’s diary of a Meiji-era mid-winter sojourn on Mt Fuji. Her adventure was recently the subject of an NHK mini-series. The translation might be published as an e-book. Unless anybody out there would like to consider bringing it out in conventional ink-on-dead trees format? If so, please get in touch. Now that would be another really welcome e-mail…

Meanwhile, Project Hyakumeizan wishes all readers a great start to the year. Be safe, don’t push your luck in avalanche conditions, and may your ski-goggles or spectacles never steam over.