Monday, May 25, 2015

Images and ink (24)

Image: Torii at Murodo shrine, Hakusan of Kaga, October 2014

Ink: Hokkaido Highway Blues: Hitchiking Japan, by Will Ferguson

My second ride of the day took me to Matsuyama City The vehicle was the same type of boxed truck I had ridden in Kyushu, but instead of pachinko machines it contained the clippings and debris of flowers and an aroma so strong it gagged me. It was like being trapped in an elevator with Aunt Matilda of the excess perfume.

The driver was a stocky man with flyaway silver hair, and, in one of life's quirky little coincidences, his name was Saburo. "But my family name is Nakamura," he said. "Nakamura Saburo. No relation to Emon." He was on his way into Matsuyama City to meet his daughter Etsuko, who was flying in from Kobe. I was a big man he said, slapping me on the chest.

Had I climbed Mount Fuji yet? Yes, I said, I had. And then, in my typical suave and bon mot way, I repeated the witticism about how it is a wise man who climbs Mount Fuji once, and a fool who climbs it twice.

There was a long pause. And then slowly, deliberately, Saburo said, "I have climbed Mount Fuji three times." Oh. "Well," I said, "I guess that would make you a ... a wise fool." He roared with laughter. "Yes!" he said, not in agreement, but in a sort of Eureka! way, as though that were the formula he had been looking for to sum himself up. ''A wise fool," he said, and smiled to himself with that special affection eccentric people often have for their own foibles.

"I have climbed every mountain in Japan," he boomed. "Every mountain!" "Every mountain?" I said, offering him a chance at abridging this bald statement. "Every mountain," he said and proceeded to list them. It was a long list. "Mountains put us closer to the gods," he said. "Japan is a land of thirty thousand million gods! Atop the mountains, the sky and the land meet. The gods are there. I have met the gods."

He actually said that: I have met the gods. He was either flamboyant, passionate, or mad. "Really?" I said. "The gods? What did they, ah, look like? Were they like ghosts or could you touch them?" He gave me a look of sorrow and exasperation, and said in one extended sigh, "The gods are the mountains. They aren't real in the way you say. The gods exist in the act of climbing a mountain, a sacred mountain."

He shook his head and gave up. We drove awhile, surrounded by the smell of flowers no longer present (much like the gods themselves, I imagine).

He shifted in his seat, and then, again with a sigh, decided to take another stab at it. "I climb mountains, right?" Yes. “And mountains are closer to the gods, right?" Yes. "In fact mountains are gods." He waited until I nodded before he continued. "So when I – we, anyone – even you – climb a mountain, climb it with sincerity, the gods –"

He looked across at me. I smiled back in what I hoped was an attentive way. He opened his mouth as if to speak, but changed his mind. The theology lesson was over. I never did figure out if he had actually met the gods – like a close encounter of the divine kind – or if he was just speaking figuratively. He didn't seem like the type of man to resort to metaphors, he was too rooted and no nonsense.

Monday, May 18, 2015

The nature of Nihon Hyakumeizan

What One Hundred Mountains inherited from the Wanderers of the Mist 

Ever since One Hundred Mountains of Japan was reviewed in Canada (see previous post), a ghastly suspicion has been gnawing. That, maybe, Nihon Hyakumeizan isn't a genuine mountain book at all.

Preposterous, I hear you say - how can a book with a hundred summits in its title not be a mountain book? But bear with me a moment. Real mountain books are by guys - usually guys, I'm afraid - who wear stinky fibre-pile jackets while seeing how dead they can get. (Make that tweed jackets for climbers of an earlier generation.) Their books rarely sell, unless they luridly recreate spectacular accidents.

Nature writing, by contrast, draws a wider, if less aggressively fit, clientele - folk who like wandering lonely as a cloud over hill and dale, or at least reading about it from the depths of an armchair. Often appearing at times when ecosystems threaten to crumble, classics in this line can sell quite prolifically - just as the original Nihon Hyakumeizan did from 1964 onwards.

So could it be that Japan's most famous mountain book owes its broad popularity to a whiff of nature writing?

Japan's first modern essay in that genre came out in 1898. To console himself after the breakdown of his first marriage, the writer Kunikida Doppo had retired from stressful Tokyo to the rural village of Shibuya - yes, that Shibuya; his lodgings were near today's NHK Centre - where he spent a few months wandering the woods and fields of Musashino. Today, a century after this sylvan Arcadia went under successive waves of concrete and tarmac, people know the region as Saitama.

Entitled Ima no Musashino, Doppo's account of these wanderings is less a short story than a loose ragbag of historical references, diary jottings and personal reminiscences. There's a sense that this isn't the traditional kind of terrain for Japanese writers - in the first few pages, we learn that oak woods cover the rolling plain, not the pine forests favoured by the classical authors.

In fact, Doppo admits, "It is only recently that I have come to understand the beauty of deciduous woods, something I first learned in reading this following passage from a short story." And then he quotes a page-long passage about an autumnal birch wood from Futabatei Shimei's translation of a short story by Ivan Turgenev, adding, as if to belabour the point, that "It was the power of his description which first led me to an appreciation of the beauty of deciduous woods."

Musashino in 1815, from a print by Suzuki Nanrei
Tastes in landscape were certainly changing at that time. Just four years before Musashino appeared, Shiga Shigetaka published Nihon Fūkeiron, his best-selling "theory about Japanese scenery". In an age when Western influences threatened to overwhelm Japan, Shiga's aim was to show that the national character was rooted in the country's unique geography. Yet, to pursue this most Japanese of agendas, he had to ransack a whole shelf-load of foreign books, most of them British.

As we have seen, Shiga's book inspired a young banker to climb Yari-ga-take, write Japan's first work of mountaineering literature, found the Japanese Alpine Club (this was in 1905), and rebrand Honshū's highest mountains as the Japan Alps. This in turn touched off a wave of mountain writing that culminated, six decades later, in Fukada Kyūya's Nihon Hyakumeizan. It is hardly a coincidence that Shiga's Nihon Fūkeiron gets a mention on the very first page of Nihon Hyakumeizan - without Shiga's ground-breaking work, Fukada's book could not have existed.

References to this Meiji-era re-casting of the Japanese landscape run right through Nihon Hyakumeizan. Chapter 61, for instance, opens like this:

According to Dr Shinmura Izuru, the word kōgen, meaning "upland", did not appear in Japanese literature until the Meiji period. True, there were places called Takahara, written with the same characters, but kōgen is now used in the sense of plateau or tableland, perhaps as a translation of those foreign terms. Whatever the word may mean, uplands aroused little interest up to the Meiji period...

These words introduce the charms of Utsukushi-ga-hara, a plateau that rises to just over 2,000 metres above Matsumoto. There's no need to sweat when bagging this summit today: according to Br'er Wes's Hiking in Japan site, you gain only 129 metres vertically while walking from your air-conditioned bus to the highest point. Real mountaineers - the sort who attire themselves in stinky fibre-pile - may well ask, incredulously, what this soft-touch summit is doing in a book that also includes such tiltyards of alpinism as Tsurugi-dake.

As if anticipating that very question, Fukada starts his next essay with these words:

Strange to say, but I believe that there are mountains for climbing and mountains for recreation. In the former category, the peaks are attained only by sweaty, lung-bursting efforts that merit a yell of exultation when you get there. You can stroll up the latter type with a song on your lips. As mountains, they do require one to go uphill but they don't force you to make single-mindedly for the summit. When the going is pleasant, they tempt you to wander off onto side-tracks or to lie down and watch the clouds go by.

Kiri-ga-mine: from a drawing by Takahashi Tatsuro

This is by way of promoting Kiri-ga-mine (1,925m), another undramatic altiplano in central Honshū and the very epitome of a recreational mountain. "From the foot of Kuruma-yama," Fukada recalls, "several trails or vestiges of trails wandered out into the broad grasslands that rolled away seemingly without limit. Only the hut-warden could thread this maze of pathways without error, although getting lost was no hardship. Every time we climbed Kuruma-yama, indeed, it was by a different path."

That passage, in particular, might pay homage to Doppo, who eulogises the wandering paths of Musashino which

...twist and turn through the woods, across the fields and there are so many forks that it is easy to go round in circles. The paths vanish constantly into woods, emerge into fields and vanish again, so that you can never keep track of anyone as he walks along. But for all that, the paths of Musashino are much more rewarding than any others, and people should not distress themselves at getting lost, for wherever you go, there is something worthwhile to see, hear and feel.

The parallels are suggestive - the twisting paths, the eclectic range of sources including foreign writers, the references to a novel style of landscape. In the end, though, there can be no proof that Fukada alludes to Doppo - for the later author makes no direct mention of the earlier one, at least within Nihon Hyakumeizan. At the same time, it's hardly conceivable that Fukada didn't know of Doppo's essay. After all, his own home in suburban Setagaya sat, and still sits, at the heart of the vanished idyll that Doppo had called Musashino.

What may be said for certain is that both authors liked to wander through pastoral scenery. There was even a newly minted word for this activity, as Fukada explains in his Utsukushi-ga-hara chapter:

With the advent of mountaineering in Japan, uplands started to gain a following. In fact, they acquired the same sort of status as mountains in people's minds. Silver birches, once thought a nondescript kind of tree, now took their place in every romantic landscape. Patches of waste ground set aside for grazing became "pastures", another new word. Beyond them rose distant mountains as if glimpsed in a pastoral idyll by Segantini, the Swiss landscape painter. Suddenly, wandering through the uplands or kōgen-shōyō became a recognized part of mountaineering.

Kōgen-shōyō had solid economic reasons going for it too. Although the nascent Japanese Alpine Club was remarkably inclusive - it welcomed both scientists and schoolboys, bank clerks and writers (indeed, its founder Kojima Usui was both), artists and attorneys- the subscription would have been a show-stopper for many potential recruits. Kunikida Doppo certainly couldn't have forked out the required one-yen fee, although he did publish a joint collection of poems with a future member - this was Tayama Katai, who joined the club during its early years.

So the need soon arose for a lighter, cheaper style of mountain excursion. That need was met when middle-school teacher Matsui Mikio (1895-1933) and his friends founded the Kiri-no-tabi-kai in 1919. These "wanderers of the mist" preferred one or two-day hikes to the Japanese Alpine Club's multiday expeditions, complete with guides, porters and expensive tinned food. And they favoured the lower ranges of Chichibu and Tanzawa, close to Tokyo, over the distant Japan Alps.

Ozaki Kihachi
Soon they had a manifesto of their own, to set against the voluminous literary outpourings of the Alpine Club. This was Kawada Miki's best-selling guide to one- and two-day walking tours in the Kanto region, Ichinichi, futsuka yama no tabi.

The translator and poet Ozaki Kihachi discovered the mountains after buying a copy: "I treated this book like a Bible of mountaineering," Ozaki recalled, "and it was always in my pack when I went walking." On meeting the author, he signed up with the Kiri-no-tabi-kai too. The club was good for his literary output: three years after joining it, Ozaki published Journeys and sojourns (Tabi to taizai), Japan's first slim volume of mountain poetry.

One might have expected the  toffs of the Japanese Alpine Club to have walked separately from the less well-off Kiri-no-tabi folk. But this expectation would be quite wrong. In fact, Takeda Hisayoshi and Kogure Ritarō, two stalwarts of the Sangaku-kai, were quick to join the Kiri-no-tabi-kai - whether they were invited, or if they asked to be let in, is not known to this blogger. And, at a later stage in his life, Ozaki Kihachi became a senior member of the Japanese Alpine Club. So the alpinists appreciated the attractions of the wanderers, and vice versa.

The hut on Kiri-ga-mine
"Once before the war I spent an entire summer on Kiri-ga-mine and learned to appreciate this recreational mountain to the full," recalls Fukada Kyūya in the relevant chapter. "From my room on the upper floor of a hut ... I could see Norikura, Ontake, and Kiso-Kaikoma right in front of me. Next door was the literary critic Kobayashi Hideo. Whenever the weather was fine, we would drag out the hut owner, Nagao Hiroya, on walks all round the plateau."

Fukada doesn't mention it in Nihon Hyakumeizan, but for the space of a week during that summer of 1935, the Kiri-ga-mine hut hosted a gathering of some twenty or so representatives of Japanese mountain and cultural circles, including members of both the Japanese Alpine Club and the Kiri-no-tabi-kai. Takeda Hisayoshi was there, as were Kogure Ritarō, Yanagita Kunio, the father of Japanese ethnography, and Ozaki Kihachi. It is no coincidence that Nihon Hyakumeizan is enriched by the writings and doings of each of these luminaries.

The year after the celebrated summit meeting, the hut on Kiri-ga-mine burned down. In a few years, the Kiri-no-tabi-kai was gone too: like many another mountaineering club, it was dissolved during the second world war. Yet its inclusive spirit may live on in Nihon Hyakumeizan and its catholic selection of mountains.

The big peaks of Japan are prominent in Fukada's list - how could they not be? - but the lower hills, the ones that harassed city-dwellers can escape to at weekends, also get their due. One of these is Daibosatsu-dake (Nihon Hyakumeizan, Chapter 70), strictly speaking more of a pass than a peak, and a favourite haunt of the Kiri-no-tabi-kai's founder.

If it's true that the Wanderers of the Mist influenced Fukada's choice of mountains, that might help to explain the dual character of Nihon Hyakumeizan - a mountain book that also appeals to people who prefer just to stroll through the uplands, wander onto side-tracks, or watch the clouds go by.


Musashino in River Mist, and Other Stories by Kunikida Doppo, translated by David G Chibbett, Kodansha International (those were the days)

Nihon Hyakumeizan, translated as One Hundred Mountains of Japan, University of Hawaii Press

Photos of Ozaki Kihachi and the hut on Kiri-ga-mine courtesy of Yama to Keikoku illustrated history of Japanese mountaineering (目で見る日本登山史 by 川崎吉光、山と渓谷社).

Monday, May 11, 2015

Musings inspired by Mountain 99

The first English-language review for Nihon Hyakumeizan raises an interesting question

Unaccountably, the New York Times books editor hasn't been in touch. So the scoop of being first to review One Hundred Mountains of Japan in English has fallen to the Alpine Club of Canada's Sean McIntyre. In the April newsletter of the club's Vancouver Section, he describes how he climbed Kaimon-dake, the miniature but perfectly formed stratovolcano that Fukada Kyūya wrote up as the 99th of his "famous mountains".

Photo of Kaimon-dake from the original Nihon Hyakumeizan

Mr McIntyre is clearly familiar with Japan. "Japan is a land of lists," he writes. "There's the top spots to watch the sun rise and top city skyline night views. Every spring, people search out the country's top places to watch cherry blossoms. There are magazines and television programs dedicated to the must-see attractions and experiences; folks pursue them with a missionary's zeal in what often becomes a lifelong quest."

A lifelong quest - well, any Hyakumeizan-bagger will recognize themselves in that phrase, even if some manage to knock off their peaks in a far shorter time. What McIntyre says next, though, grabbed even more of my attention: "One Hundred Mountains of Japan was published when the Japanese wilderness had largely been tamed; Tokyo was hosting the Olympics and the nation had just launched its first high-speed train. As the country sped forward, Fukada's work offered a significant insight into the nation's soul."

That's a most telling point about the book's timing - Nihon Hyakumeizan came out in 1964, which was indeed the year in which Japan got its mojo back. But, as with most economic progress, there was a dark side. In Tokyo, traffic policemen had to carry small oxygen cylinders during their shifts, in Yokkaichi, people gasped for breath in the sulphur-laden air, and in Kyūshū the name of a small harbor town was about gain unwanted international notoriety.

Looming environmental disasters have little in the way of upside. One small consolation may be that, like the pieces of grit that prompt pearls to form, they sometimes catalyse great works of nature writing. It was no accident that the Lake Poets published their manifesto in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, that Thoreau's Walden started selling as America set up its own smokestack mills, or that Kunikida Doppo eulogized the fields and woods of Musashino just as Tokyo's conurbation was poised to roll over them.

So there is a proud tradition of nature writing in the face of environmental doom. But does Nihon Hyakumeizan rightly belong in it? That line of enquiry will have to be pursued in a future blog post. Meanwhile, many thanks to Mr McIntyre - or may I call you Sean? - for raising this fascinating question.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The ubiquity of Kūkai

Book review: a guide to a mountaintop retreat that explains why a Great Teacher continues to live everywhere in memory

How did Shiomi-dake (3,047m), the "salt-viewing peak" in Japan's Southern Alps, get its name? According to Japan's most famous mountain book, hunters in a nearby village used to explain that the local people could never get enough salt. Hearing of this, the great monk Kōbō Daishi climbed the mountain, looked out from its summit at the sea and summoned its salt to the valley below.

Kōbō Daishi, also known as Kūkai, is everywhere in Fukada Kyūya's Nihon Hyakumeizan. His account of another monk's pioneering ascent is quoted in the Nantai chapter. And, in legend at least, Kūkai himself is said to have climbed Iide-san in the Tōhoku region (Chapter 19), buried a scroll of sutras on Issaikyō-yama (Chapter 20), and to have worn out a thousand pairs of straw sandals in vain attempts to scale Tsurugi-dake (Chapter 60).

A quick glance at Kūkai's Wikipedia entry shows that Kūkai wouldn't have had much time to climb mountains. The potted biography does suggest, however, why the famous monk plays a central part in Japanese cultural history. The son of a noble family fallen on hard times, Kōbō Daishi was born in Shikoku in the year 774. Around the age of 30, he joined an official embassy to China, where he deepened his knowledge of Buddhism.

After returning to Japan, he was appointed to run the Tōdaiji temple in Nara, formulated the doctrines that underpin Shingon, one of Japan's four great Buddhist sects, and supervised the building of the Tōji in Kyoto. He also rebuilt what is still the country's largest reservoir, in Shikoku. Some say he invented the kana writing system too. That is quite a lot to pack into sixty-two years.

If you want to find out about somebody, though, you have to visit them at home. And the best way to do that, in Kūkai's case, is to board a battered white train of the Nankai line at Namba station in Osaka and head down to Kōya-san. Founded by Kōbō Daishi in 816, this is the mountaintop monastery where the Great Teacher entered his final meditation in the spring of 835. Some say he meditates there still.

Before boarding that train, or if you live inconveniently far away, you might pick up Sacred Kōya-san by Philip L Nicoloff, a professor of English at the University of New Hampshire. I reached for my own copy after my curiosity about Kōbō Daishi was piqued by his ubiquity in Nihon Hyakumeizan. And I was not disappointed.

For this is quite simply one of the most remarkable books about Japan that I've encountered in the last decade. Yet, strange to say, Google references to reviews in newpapers, magazines or journals are far and few between. The book doesn't seem to get many mentions on blogs either. So here goes.

Sacred Kōya-san: A Pilgrimage to the Mountain Temple of Saint Kōbō Daishi and the Great Sun Buddha - the subtitle gives a good idea of where the book will head - is best described as a contemplative guide. It starts by recalling a typical present-day visit to one of the temple lodgings atop Kōya-san, before introducing Kōbō Daishi's life and the history of the monastery.

The next chapters guide us across the mountaintop's temples and institutions, through the the famous cemetery, towards the inner temple. The cemetery's long and gloomy cedar avenues provide another hint as to why Kōya-san is so important to the life of the nation - everyone is there, from poets to pilots, from scholars to soldiers, from pre-Tokugawa chieftains to corporate leaders. In fact, there are roughly as many memorials to corporate managers and their employees as there are to feudal-era daimyōs. Such is the continuity of Kōya-san's twelve centuries.

Professor Nicoloff must be a very self-effacing sensei. I'm unable to find any reference outside his book as to why and how he undertook his many visits to Mt Kōya. Yet it is his personal experiences that make this book live. There is a memorable account of a night's vigil at Kobō Daishi's mausoleum. Although Nicoloff himself is not granted a vision of the Great Teacher, he relates the story of a veteran returning from the Pacific War in 1946:

I survived the war as a soldier, so I came to Kōya-san to give thanks. At eleven o'clock at night, I suddenly wanted to go to the Oku-no-in, the Inner Temple. I went with caution because I was wearing geta. It was very dark. I became frightened when I heard a bird singing among the old cedar trees. The stone Buddhas on both sides looked mysterious, very different than in the daytime. 

When I went past Naka-no-hashi and passed the memorial for Bashō I saw a very large man wearing a soldier's uniform walking in front of me. Since I was lonely, I asked him what time it was in a loud voice, but he didn't answer me, and walked quickly away. I wanted to catch up with him and say a prayer together, but he had disappeared in the darkness. I felt awkward but went to the Gobyō and gave thanks for my safe return. 

As I recrossed the bridge of the Gobyō I felt that someone was behind me. I turned around and saw the big man in uniform standing facing me and doing the gasshō. Then I thought, Odaishi-sama has just returned from the battlefield himself. I started weeping. I realized how fully Odaishi-sama too had shared the suffering of the war.

It was at this point in reading Professor Nicoloff's book that I started to understand why the Daishi is everywhere - not just on Kōya-san, not just in cultural history texts, but in folk memory outwards to the furthest corners of Japan...


Philip L. Nicoloff, Sacred Koyasan: A Pilgrimage to the Mountain Temple of Saint Kobo Daishi and the Great Sun Buddha, State University of New York Press, November 2007.

Friday, May 1, 2015

"Characteristics of the Japanese mountain landscape" (7)

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

Illustration of Mt Fuji from
an early edition of Nihon Fukeiron
The European Alps have limestone mountains, while ours do not. Limestone is leached away by the carbonic acid dissolved in water trickling down into the ground, or carried in subterranean streams, to form huge caves with narrow entrances, as can be seen in our own mountains of Chichibu and elsewhere. The Japan Alps have a cave known as the Demon’s Castle and the “Tsuitōshi” rock arch near Shirahone hot springs, but these minor masterpieces don’t add much to the landscape as a whole.

For there are no limestone mountains in our Japanese Alps. Thus we have nothing to compare with those Italian dolomite mountains in the European Alps, with their pure violet shadows and their rich array of peacock hues. Fortunately, however, the elegant forms of volcanoes such as Ontake, Norikura and, beyond the Japan Alps, Hakusan create a mountain scenery where – just as the European Alps combine “Swiss ruggedness” and “Italian grace” – the Japan Alps bring together in a balanced composition granite and quartz porphyry, the hard, rugged igneous rocks with the softer outlines of the volcanic rocks, composing a symphony of colour and line that is rarely seen in this world.

And thanks to the interplay of igneous and volcanic rocks in the Japan Alps, and to the ways in which they were extruded or erupted, they form on the one hand sharp sky-raking spires like Yari-ga-take and Kashimayari (depending in the latter case on the angle of view). Granite, on the other hand, generally takes the form of giant blocks, while volcanoes are conical, so that the mountains are built up in lofty domes that recall some magnificent temple framed by human genius. Heaving up their broad shoulders as they do, Hodaka, Kasumizawa, Kasa, Renge, Jōnen, Ōtenshō and Tsurugi are all mountains of this ilk.

Yet the great and gracious sovereign over all these Japan Alps, from north to south, ruling over them by both destiny and deserving, is none other than Mt Fuji. For not only does Mt Fuji surpass them all in altitude, in beauty of form, exquisite colouring and elegance of bearing, but she stands apart from them, as if on a raised dais and disdaining to join the throng of alpine mountains, preferring instead to raise her imperial throne in solitary splendour over the Pacific coast.

As the Japan Alps are inextricably linked with the Fuji volcanic belt in point of geological history, so must they be too in terms of mountain scenery. This being the case, it is unfathomable that anybody could have the presumption or the audacity to exclude our august Mt Fuji from any discussion of the special characteristics of Japan’s mountain scenery.


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.