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.

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