Wednesday, June 15, 2016

But who was first?

Mountain ascents can be traced to the dawn of Japanese history if not beyond

A luminary of the American Alpine Club recently got in touch to enquire if there is any evidence of "prehistoric" first ascents in Japan. Another AAC member, no less than Royal Robbins, once said that every first ascent is a creation, in the same sense as a painting or a song. That’s why alpine historians and guidebook writers alike take great pains to establish who was first on a particular mountain or route.

Taicho Daishi: the first high-altitude monk?

Records of mountaineering creativity go back a long way in Japan, thanks to the country’s great relief and a tradition of historical writing that dates back to the eighth century. According to the Hyakumeizan author, Mt Fuji was first climbed as early as the year 633, by the mountain mystic En no Ozunu, making this the highest peak in the world to have been scaled at that time.

Alas, the claim needs to be treated with a pinch of salt. Not only is En no Ozunu as much a semi-legendary as a historical figure but, in some accounts, he is said to have skimmed magically up the mountain every night. Perhaps he did it for the frequent flyer miles.

Summit shrine on Hakusan
In the Hakusan chapter of his most famous book, Fukada Kyūya puts forward a more credible early ascent. When the 2,702-metre volcano was opened in the first year of Yōrō (717) by the monk Taichō, it became the first high mountain in Japan to be climbed for religious ends, he says. Again, though, caution is in order. As Fukada grew up in its shadow, he would have lent a partial ear to any claims of priority on Hakusan’s behalf.

And sceptics might question if Taichō made his ascent at all. A modern scholar warns that “much of the story of Taicho's career is certainly fiction, yet enough details of his life correspond to information in other, more reliable sources to conclude that certain aspects are in all likelihood true”. Whether Taichō’s ascent of Hakusan is documented by one of those more reliable sources is a question that will have to be left for another time.

Moreover, there are rival claimants to the title of first Japanese ascent for religious ends. According to Wolfram Manzenreiter, Iide-san (2,105 metres) was opened in the second year of Hakuchi (651), by the monk Chitsū. However, in the relevant chapter of Nihon Hyakumeizan, Fukada makes no mention of Chitsū. Instead, he quotes from a shrine "testimonial" to the effect that the mountain was first climbed by none other than En no Ozunu – perhaps using up all those air miles.

Jizo figure on Iide-san (Wikipedia)
What can’t be contested is that, from the earliest historical times, monks roamed far and wide among Japan’s high mountains. Kūkai’s account of Monk Shōdō’s ascent of Nantai (2,484 metres) in 782 has the ring of real-life experience. In an inspired comparison, Fukada Kyūya likened the ageing monk’s feelings of joy and grief, when he reached the summit fifteen years after his first attempt, to those of the Himalayan pioneer H W Tilman atop Nanda Devi in 1936.

Less accessible mountains waited longer for first ascents. Situated far from the capital and wracked by violent eruptions through the Jōgan era (859–878), Mt Fuji probably kept all its suitors at bay until the eleventh century. Remoter still, the 3,000-metre peaks of central Honshū – later to be rebranded as the Japan Alps – remained outside the ken of literate folk until feudal times. The first recorded ascent of Yari-ga-take (3,180 metres), again by a monk, took place as late as 1828.

Proof of priority: the sword and staff from Tsurugi-dake
The monks got everywhere, though, leaving few or no first ascents for modern alpinists to claim, at least on Honshū. When, in July 1907, a party of army surveyors reached the summit of Tsurugi, the most rugged peak in the Japan Northern Alps, it turned out that they were not the first to visit what they had assumed to be an untrodden peak. In fact, the mountain had been climbed long before, as the surveyors realised when they discovered on the summit a spearhead and the tip of a priest's staff.

The relics on Tsurugi do raise an interesting question. Could the origins of mountain religion and mountain ascents be traced back even further, beyond the dawn of history? After all, some of Japan’s mountains have clearly been sacred from ancient times. For instance, burial mounds at the foot of Mt Miwa in Nara Prefecture show that the hill was revered for centuries before writing reached Japan. But what exactly the mountain stood for must remain for ever obscure.

Indeed, the obscurity of ancient traditions lies like a cloud over Mt Miwa and other sacred peaks. Because they left no records, we will never know what people of the pre-Asuka periods believed about mountains, and whether they climbed them. Is that what Princess Nukata was hinting at in the lines – possibly Japan’s oldest set of mountain verses – that the seventh-century poet and priestess contributed to the Manyōshū, Japan’s earliest poetic anthology?

O sweet-wine
Miwa Mountain
Until blue-earth
Nara Mountain's mountain crest
Should come between
And you be hidden in behind,
Until road-bendings
Should pile back upon themselves,
To the very end
I would have kept you:
O my mountain,
What right
Have heartless clouds to cover you?


Do you dare to hide
Miwa Mountain in this way?
At least you, O clouds,
Should have greater heart than that:
What right have you to cover it?

(translated by Edwin Cranston)


Fukada Kyūya, Nihon Hyakumeizan translated as One Hundred Mountains of Japan

Mikael Adolphson, Edward Kamens, Stacie Matsumoto, Heian Japan: Centers and Peripheries

Wolfram Manzenreiter, Die soziale Konstruktion des japanischen Alpinismus: Kultur, Ideologie und Sport im modernen Bergsteigen, Vienna, 2000

Edwin A. Cranston, A Waka Anthology, Volume One: The Gem Glistening Cup, Stanford University Press, 1993

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