Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Matterhorn versus Mt Fuji

Or can there be “Meizan” outside Japan? Text of a presentation given at the Japanese Alpine Club in Tokyo on 16 October.

Ladies and gentlemen of the Japanese Alpine Club, friends and fellow mountaineers. It is a privilege to be invited to speak in these surroundings. The Club is so deeply woven into the history of Nihon Hyakumeizan – its author was after all your 1,586th member – that a pilgrimage to your offices must be deeply meaningful for any fan of Fukada Kyūya’s most famous book.

Woodprints by Yoshida Hiroshi
Today, the question is whether there can be “Meizan” in countries other than Japan. This interesting topic was suggested by Ohmori Hisao-san in his recent review of the English version of Nihon Hyakumeizan in the JAC newsletter. But, before I try to answer that question, let me say a few words about the translation.

Two decades ago, I spent six years in Tokyo working for foreign banks. It was an average commercial banker’s life except at weekends, when I was a very average all-round mountaineer – belonging to a club affiliated with the Japan Workers’ Alpine Federation (the Shinjuku bloc), and going out every weekend, in a weatherbeaten Subaru, to yama-ski, rock-climb, sawa-noborise, or do alpine routes.

At that time, we had no special interest in “Meizan”. I knew the word, of course, and bought a copy of Nihon Hyakumeizan, but there was no time to read more than a few chapters. It was only when I moved to Switzerland that I had enough leisure to read more. And, although Switzerland has great relief, I sometimes felt nostalgic for the Japan Alps.

One day, I translated the Hakusan chapter to see what it would sound like in English – and then I realized that Nihon Hyakumeizan is a masterpiece. With the help of a friend at Fukui Jin-ai University, we decided to translate the whole book. Soon we were e-mailing and Skyping almost every day. Then we got married.

1. How to translate “Nihon Hyakumeizan”?
If you translate Nihon Hyakumeizan, you first have to translate the title. Soon after the project started, I was able to discuss that question with Fukada Shintarō, the author’s son, over coffee at a Renoir café in Tokyo.

“Famous mountain” is somehow not right, Fukada-san thought. So, in the end, the title of the book in English is just “One Hundred Mountains of Japan”. We didn’t so much translate “Meizan” as skirt the question altogether.

The basic problem, as Ohmori-san points out in his book review, is that there is no equivalent word for “meizan” in any European language. Not in English, nor in German or French or Italian. The word doesn’t exist because the concept doesn’t exist.

2. What is a ‘Meizan’ anyway?
So, before we can go looking for Meizan outside Japan, we have to ask what a Meizan is. How do you recognise one when you meet it?

“Meizan” as a word comes from China. I’m not sure how old the word itself is, but the concept goes back to China’s Warring Countries period (475-221 BC). That was when people started talking about the country’s Five Great Peaks (五岳). Later on, these eminences were joined by Four Sacred Mountains of Buddhism (四大佛教名山) and a similar set for Taoism (四大道教名山). Today, there is Gazetteer of China’s Famous Mountains (中国名山志), published by the China National Microfilming Center for Library Resources – in sixteen volumes. We surmise that China has a lot of Meizan.

Ur-Meizan: The Purple Heaven Palace on Mt Wudang, China
In Japan, the definition of Meizan has varied over time. In the afterword to Nihon Hyakumeizan, Fukada Kyūya mentions Tachibana Nankei’s discussion of mountains (“Meizanron”) in his Tōyuki, the account of a journey to eastern Japan that the writer made in 1785. Nankei names 25 mountains, starting with Fuji, Hakusan and Tateyama, the so-called Sanreizan, or three great sacred mountains of Japan. Indeed, most of the mountains in his list had religious traditions. But Nankei never says exactly what he means by the word Meizan.

About a century later, the journalist and pundit Shiga Shigetaka published his Nihon Fūkeiron (1894), a ‘theory of the Japanese landscape’. His purpose was to illuminate the national character of the Japanese by highlighting what is special about their surroundings. And, for Shiga, what differentiates Japan’s landscape is its volcanic features– plutonic rocks, hot springs and eruptions. So Meizan are necessarily volcanoes. No other type of mountain appears in the book’s woodprint illustrations.

Not everybody agreed with Shiga’s take on Meizan, even at the time. The Kojiruien was a 51-volume collection of historical documents that was compiled between 1879 and 1914 under the initial direction of Nishimura Shigeki, an official at the Ministry of Education. The encyclopaedia contained a list of 102 mountains, divided into high peaks, volcanoes, and “famous” mountains (Meizan) such as Arashiyama in Kyoto, Kasugayama in Nara and Obasuteyama in Shinano. These are exclusively places that appear in classical poetry. Few or none are volcanic, and most are low (less than 1,500 metres).

However, Nihon Fūkeiron was much the more influential book. A best-seller, it told Japanese readers what they wanted to hear about themselves at a time of unequal treaties and the war with China. A young bank clerk, Kojima Usui, bought a copy in 1896 and was inspired to climb Yari-ga-take. On the strength of this experience, he later introduced himself to Walter Weston, the mountaineering missionary, who suggested the idea of an alpine club.

In October 1905, Kojima and six companions founded the Sangaku-kai, Asia’s first alpine club – this was 110 years ago almost to the day. And Weston and Shiga were elected as the new Sangaku-kai’s first honorary vice-chairmen. This is not to say that Kojima was in complete agreement with Shiga on the subject of Meizan. In an essay about the "Characteristics of the Japanese mountain landscape", he explicitly distances himself from the Nihon Fūkeiron author:-

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.

Writing half a century later, Fukada Kyūya inherited Kojima’s more balanced view of what makes for a Meizan. Published in 1964, that former year of the Tokyo Olympics, Nihon Hyakumeizan features about 45 volcanoes and 55 other mountains. You might almost say that this all-embracing view of Meizan reflects the liberal and inclusive Zeitgeist of the middle Shōwa years.

Fukada also took the trouble to carefully define what he meant by a Meizan. This is a brief excerpt from the afterword to his book:

First, a mountain must have stature … Mountains, like people, must have character.

Secondly, I attach great weight to a mountain's history. No mountain with deep and long-standing links to humankind could be excluded from my list …

Thirdly, a mountain must have an air of distinction. A mountain with this quality calls attention to itself as surely as a distinctive work of art …. What I look for is an extraordinary distinctiveness.

Apropos extraordinary distinctiveness, I took this picture (above) a few years ago, on an early-morning flight between Tokyo and Osaka. Out of a misguided sense of mischief, I leaned forward and asked the two young ladies sitting in front of me what this mountain might be. Gratifyingly, I got a response that was every bit as incredulous as one might expect. Obviously, the question was absurd. For this Meizan has it all – stature, history and a limitless air of distinction. As Fukada wrote, “Fuji is there for everyone and yet, soaring into eternity, stands for something beyond any man's grasp.”

3. So can you have Meizan outside East Asia?
Having pinned down what we mean by a Meizan, we can turn – belatedly – to the question whether they exist anywhere other than in Japan and China. Fortunately, Fukada Kyūya himself provided a clear answer to that question. When he died in 1971, he was working on a series entitled Sekai no Hyakumeizan, or One Hundred Mountains of the World. The plan was to publish three ‘meizan’ articles a month in Gakujin, a mountaineering magazine. The 41 peaks written up by the time of his death were later published as a book.

Looking at the European Alps, Fukada anoints Monte Rosa, the Marmolada, Mt Blanc, and the Schreckhorn as World Meizan – but, surprisingly, not the Matterhorn. It’s probably fair to assume that Fukada would have included this eminent 4,478-metre peak at a later stage. Be that as it may, this year happens to be the 150th anniversary of the Matterhorn’s first ascent, so I will ask here if the Matterhorn actually qualifies as a Meizan – using Fukada’s own criteria.

Viewed as a cultural property, the Matterhorn has a lot in common with Mt Fuji, the Meizan of Meizan. For a start, there are Matterhorns all over the world, just as local “Mt Fujis” outcrop all over Japan. Ama Dablam is the Matterhorn of the Himalaya, Mount Assiniboine is the Matterhorn of the Rockies, Yari is the Matterhorn of Japan, and so on. So the Matterhorn lacks nothing in the way of “stature” or “distinction”.

But what about its history? Ever since that fateful ascent on July 14th, 1865, the Matterhorn has played a central part in the history of mountaineering. Before that date, though, the mountain was almost invisible to the world. It doesn’t even appear on a map until about 1680 – and, even then, not under its modern name. Local people called it simply the “Horu” (horn) or, on the Italian side, “La Becca” (the rock). Indeed, they still do.

Astonishingly, the earliest depiction of the Matterhorn that I can find is this watercolour (right) by the Zurich-based patrician and pioneer geologist, Conrad Escher von der Linth. It was painted on August 14, 1806. Compare that with Mt Fuji, which has appeared in poems and paintings, many of them masterworks, for more than one thousand years.

Before the eighteenth century, most European scholars and travellers didn’t go far out of their way to look at mountains. Unlike in Japan and China, mountains had little religious significance. In fact, they were seen mainly as useless and dangerous places, as suggested by this fourteenth-century painting of St Nicholas rescuing a traveller in mountainous terrain. In alpine countries, what people were interested in were passes through the Alps, not the Alps themselves.

This started to change in the eighteenth century, as natural philosophers started to take an interest in mountains as places for experiment, or as sources of insight into the origins of the earth. That was what the Swiss scholar Horace-Bénédict de Saussure was looking for when he crossed the pass below the Matterhorn in August 1789. In fact, it was Saussure who invented the modern form of the French name of the Matterhorn: Le Cervin. Two years before, he had made one of the first ascents of Mt Blanc. Not “because it was there”, but to do experiments and study the mountain.

Scientists had a lot to do with the modern exploration of the Alps. Granted, Edward Whymper, who made the Matterhorn’s first ascent, was an artist by profession. But his rival was John Tyndall, a physicist who originally came to the Alps to study glaciers. Although he lost out on the Matterhorn, Tyndall managed the first ascent of the incomparably beautiful Weisshorn a few years prior to Whymper’s triumph and tragedy. Alpinism and science were deeply intertwined in those early days.

By contrast, Japan’s high mountains were first climbed for completely different reasons – and more than a millennium before the high Alps were ascended. According to Nihon Hyakumeizan, Hakusan was opened in the first year of Yōrō (717) by the monk Taichō. Mt Fuji too was almost certainly first climbed for religious reasons, probably in the tenth century, although nobody knows whether the first ascent should be ascribed to the mountain mystic En-no-gyōja or, more likely, a monk with a name like Ransatsu or Konji.

If we stopped here, we might conclude that Meizan is a concept that makes sense only in East Asia, where mountains have a lengthy and rich cultural presence. The exploration of the high Alps had to wait for the advent of modern science, while the motive for early Japanese mountain-climbing was mainly religious. As for the Matterhorn – and the same is true for the rest of the high Alps – it goes only two-thirds of the way towards qualifying as a Meizan. Stature and an air of distinction it has in spades, but the historical and cultural backstory is sadly lacking.

4. Meizan everywhere?
I wonder, though, if matters are really so simple. Not all Japan’s mountains have a long history, even those featured in Nihon Hyakumeizan. Just look at the mountains that Fukada selected in Hokkaidō, for example.

As Fukada notes in his write-up of the very first one: “The earliest reference to Rishiri that I can find is from Makino Tomitarō writing in the second issue of Sangaku, the Japanese Alpine Club’s journal, in its first year of publication. This botanist and his party climbed the mountain from Oshidomari in August 1903 …” So, Rishiri-dake may have even less history than the Matterhorn.

A lack of history doesn’t mean that the mountain isn’t appreciated by the people who live at its foot. When Makino’s party reached the summit of Rishiri-dake, following the faint trace of a path and after spending two days on the mountain, they found a small wooden shrine, showing that local people had already been there.

Some years ago, I climbed Rishiri-dake for myself, in early winter conditions. When I reached the summit, a rather opulent shrine loomed through the freezing fog. Particularly noteworthy were the boat propellers attached to its base, like votive offerings. That suggested to me that the shrine was put there and kept up by local people, looking for help with the fish catch or the kombu harvest.

Much the same is true of the cross on top of the Matterhorn (below). It wasn’t installed by order of some remote government agency or church authority. Instead, the villagers of Zermatt and Valtournanche, at the mountain’s foot, decided around 1900 that their local ‘Horn’ or ‘Rock’ should have a cross.

With the costs shared by both the Swiss and the Italian villages, the cross was fabricated in Italy and its parts hauled up the mountain in the course of two summer seasons by a team of twelve mountain guides. And there you can see it to this day, with the Latin names for each village worked into the crossbar: Patrumbor and Vallistornench. Perhaps people feel about their local mountains in much the same way, whether they live in Japan, Switzerland, Italy or anywhere else.

It’s time to close. Maybe we should leave the last word to Luc Meynet, a figure in the Matterhorn’s history who has been all but ignored in the razzmatazz of this 150th anniversary year. Meynet (right) was neither mountaineer nor guide – he was a humble cheesemaker from Breuil, the village on the Italian side of the mountain. From time to time, he accompanied climbing parties as a porter, to earn some extra money so that he could look after his deceased brother’s children. On steep ground, he used to console himself that “we only die once”.

In this picture by Edward Whymper, he’s carrying the English alpinist’s tent, during an attempt on the southern side of the mountain in 1862. Meynet didn’t accompany the first ascent party in 1865. But, ten years later, he did reach the summit, in the company of an Italian group. When he reached the top, he is reported to have said “Now I can die happy, for I have heard the angels singing.”

Luc Meynet had no word for “Meizan”. Yet here, I venture to suggest, was a man who perfectly understood the meaning that lies beyond.

Thank you.