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.

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