Saturday, February 14, 2015

"Characteristics of the Japanese mountain landscape" (3)

Continued: a disquisition on the aesthetics of volcanoes and alpine landscapes by Kojima Usui, founder of the Japanese Alpine Club

Unlike previous theorists of the landscape, I don’t favour volcanoes as special to the exclusion of all other mountains, nor am I taken with the idea, like some young people today, of excluding the volcanoes from the Japan Alps, as if they were some kind of unwanted stepchildren.

Illustrations of volcanic rocks from Shiga Shigetaka's
Theory of the Japanese Landscape (Nihon Fukeiron) 

If the beauty of volcanoes lies, as many have noted, in their dignified solemnity of form, and that of alpine mountains in their ice and snow and ridgelines, then the beauty of volcanic mountains must consist in their contours and colouring. Compared with alpine mountains, where you sometimes have to climb over ice and snow, the stark, bare boulders of Japanese volcanoes must be tackled as pure rock scrambling.

If this is what you choose, you should not garb yourself in two layers of clothing, or wear crampons and nailed boots over three pairs of socks, or carry an alpenstock, as in some alpine expedition, but tramp onwards in straw sandals and so work your way up to the summit crater, grabbing hold of ochre boulders so that you can at last touch the congealed effusions of former eruptions, like so much frozen bile.

What makes volcanoes beautiful is the way they show the exquisiteness of their form. I’ve read my Ruskin thoroughly, but I find it utterly tedious to read the landscape aesthetics of a person who never experienced volcanoes – in fact, it’s like being preached at in a foreign language. In his Stones of Venice Book 1, Chapter XX, Materials of Ornament, Section XIX, Ruskin describes the line of a small glacier of the second order, about three quarters of a mile long, on a spur of the Aiguille de Blaitière at Chamonix as “the most beautiful simple curve I have ever seen in my life” (he was then thirty-three years old).

To which I say, unhappy Ruskin, that he never saw a woodprint of Hokusai or Hiroshige and thus could never even imagine the exquisiteness of the curve presented by Mt Fuji on its left-hand skyline. This is the great line that falls - if you stand looking up from somewhere between Yoshihara on the Tōkaidō and Iwabuchi - that falls in one strong, bold catenary sweep from an altitude of 3,788 metres, a line that all but thrums with tension as it falls through the pure empyrean of an autumn or a winter sky. Or it is the line that, in the vaporous days of spring and summer, almost fades from sight, like the easy curve of a kite’s string.

Apart from the horizon on land or sea, this is the mightiest line, curved or slanting, that you’ll ever see in our country of Japan, and so I am convinced every time I gaze up at it from the train on that Tōkaidō line.



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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