Wednesday, November 30, 2016

A meizanologist's diary (11)

October 20: watching NHK’s weather feature over breakfast, we’re finally able to put some numbers on our observations. We’ve noticed how warm it is this October - how could we not? In our student days, October mornings used to be crisp, cold affairs out here in the Fukui countryside.

Autumn as it should be (Kurobe valley)
In those days, the leaves would already be red and gold up on Hakusan, frost pillars would be pushing out of the ground, and, if you didn’t look lively, you might be mugged by a sudden snowstorm. All that is unimaginable this year. There isn’t even a dusting of snow on Hakusan, the trees are still more or less green and the bears are still wide awake. As for snowstorms, you’re much more likely to be bitten by a viper.

Now NHK explains why. “Autumn has been shortened,” the announcer says. The average temperature in recent Octobers has been 1.9°C higher than the average temperature for the month during the 1980s. (I’m not sure whether he’s talking just about Fukui, or for the whole country.) Of course, recent Decembers have been warmer too, but by a lesser margin – only 0.9°C warmer than in the 1980s. The figures don’t look that alarming, until you consider that the world today is only a few degrees warmer, on average, than during the Ice Ages.

Exploring the moulin in the Kuranosuke coire
On another morning, NHK reports on a deep hole or “moulin” that has appeared in the Kuranosuke snowfield high up on Tateyama’s eastern flank. This is the first one that has appeared in these parts for eleven years.

The Kuranosuke snowfield
(photo: Tateyama Caldera Sabo
The savants of the Tateyama Caldera Sabo Museum are shown boldly roping down into the shaft, taking measurements as they go. On the way down, they encounter a layer of shattered boulders, evidence of some ancient rockfall centuries ago.

“Moulin” usually refers to the deep blue pits that drain surface streams down into the icy depths of alpine glaciers. Several thousand years ago, there would have been a real glacier in the Kuranosuke corrie.

But a survey in the 1980s did discover hard-packed ice layers at the bottom of its permanent snowfield that were 1,700 years old. Let’s hope the moulin closes up again before that ancient ice is all washed away.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

A meizanologist's diary (9)

October 18: The answer is the snow-covered summit of Jiigatake. At last, I can reply to the question so many people have asked me – that is, from which vantage point in the Japan Northern Alps did Peter Skov take the photo that adorns the cover of One Hundred Mountains of Japan?

The question can now be answered because Peter and I have met up at last, in a station coffee shop at Higashi Omiya, close to his workplace. I say, at last, because – incredible as it may seem – this is the first chance we’ve had to actually meet, although Peter several years ago volunteered his magnificent image for the book’s front cover (left), sight unseen of the publisher or translator.

Taken on a mountain hike in late 2007, the original picture (below) also appears in Peter’s first photo book, The Japan Alps and in an online album. The view is westward, across Obuchizawa, towards Harinoki in the foreground and Yakushi in the far distance. For me, and I hope the book’s readers, it captures the essence of the Japan Alps: “vast, mysterious, sublime, as if wrapped in some purple cloud”, as another mountain artist expressed it.

Afternoon cloud sea, by Peter Skov

Sipping a less than sublime iced cocoa from a plastic receptacle, I put the inevitable question – what kind of camera did you use? It seems that Peter, like this blogger, decided to stay aloof from the mediocre early generations of digital cameras. So this picture was taken through a 24-85mm zoom lens on an old-fangled Minolta SLR with Fuji Velvia film, which may at least partly account for the subtlety of the image’s colours and tones.

A book prominent on both our bookshelves is Mountain Light, a kind of photographic manifesto by the late but still inspirational Galen Rowell. As Peter points out, pictures like this one amply vindicate Rowell’s claim that, if handled with care, 35mm film cameras can produce printed images that give larger formats a run for their money.

Peter’s freezer is still full of film, but these days there is less time to use it – the arrival of a baby daughter, the Skovs’ second child, has ruled out long mountain weekends for now. So what does a mountain photographer do when he can no longer get to the mountains? Peter’s answer was to change both focus and medium.

Picking up a used Sony digital camera – handier than film for dealing with weak early-morning light – he started photographing scenes on his way to work in Saitama. Appropriately, the inspiration for this project came as he was descending from one of his last mountain hikes, on Ryōgami, a member of the Hyakumeizan.

The resulting collection, Little Inaka, is a reminder that you don’t need to visit a national park to find camera-worthy scenery in Japan. And Peter demonstrates that you can apply the same skills to the woods near your house as you do to the Japan Alps, alternating the broad panorama with season-by-season micro-landscapes worthy of Elliot Porter, another influence on his work.

I also appreciate the colour palette of this collection. It’s lively enough to sustain the images, even on the printed page of the Blurb edition, but stops well short of the spectral and tonal shoutiness that seems to have overtaken so much landscape photography these days. One sign that Peter has hit the right note is that it’s all but impossible to say, if you didn’t know already, whether the original medium was film or digital. These are colours that you'd recognise in nature.

Early morning fog, Saitama, by Peter Skov

The Sakitama burial mounds – a group of tumuli from the third to the seventh centuries – appear several times in Little Inaka – indeed, one is on the cover. Their enigmatic forms run through the seasons as a kind of unifying theme, rather like the school belfry in Maeda Shinzō’s Seasons of a Hilltop Tower.

Alas, there won’t be any more images of Sakitama for the moment. Last summer, the Skov’s moved house, taking the burial mounds and other Little Inaka sites out of early-morning stroll range. But Peter is already scouting new locations for the next photographic project. And, who knows, NHK may be back with another idea for a mountain documentary – the last one took Peter back to the Northern Alps.

“When artists get together, they talk about where you can buy cheap turpentine,” said Picasso. I could talk about turpentine – or cameras, lenses and locations – all afternoon with Peter. But the next appointment beckons, far across that vast abyss of time and space that men call Tokyo. I remember only when I’m on the train that I forgot to take a photo of Peter. So this post will have to do with a screenshot from his NHK page. Mōshiwake arimasen....

Monday, November 14, 2016

A meizanologist's diary (8)

October 16: “Ara-mah!” The Sensei’s exclamation of surprise is more than justified. For what could be more improbable than a chance meeting, well into the twenty-first century, on a local train somewhere in Hokuriku, between the instigator of Nihon Hyakumeizan, a book first published in 1964, and its translators more than half a century later.

Yet, without a doubt, the figure balancing carefully towards us along the swaying railcar is none other than Ohmori-san – who, as a young magazine editor back in 1959, saw fit to commission a series of essays about one hundred selected Japanese mountains. We first met him last year, at the Japanese Alpine Club in Tokyo.

The Fukada Kyuya Museum at Daishoji
The three of us are on our way to Daishōji, the small town between Fukui and Kanazawa that numbers the Hyakumeizan author as one of its most famous sons. We’ve been invited to a seminar on the book’s translation by officials of the Fukada Kyūya Yama no Bunkakan, a museum to the writer’s memory.

The Bunkakan is a graceful old wooden building, shaded by a magnificent gingko tree in its courtyard. In Fukada’s youth, it housed the offices of a textile firm. In an aery first-floor room, floored with tatami, I expound on the role that the “white mountain” Hakusan played in the Englishing of Japan’s most famous mountain book.

Hakusan was Fukada Kyūya’s native mountain. It was the first high one he climbed – indeed, the same is true for his translator. While a student in Kyoto, I climbed Hakusan with the Sempai.

Then, when I was at a loss on how to research the book’s introduction some years ago, it was the Senpai who brought me a copy of Heibonsha’s “Hito wa naze yama ni noboru no ka” (Why do people climb mountains?). This very readable history of Japan’s mountaineering history was co-edited by a certain Ohmori Hisao. Yō no naka wa semai, na …

After the seminar, we are invited to pay our respects to Fukada’s grave. The Sensei and I decide to walk there, taking in the author’s childhood home on the way. There is still a small printshop at the address, just as there was in Fukada’s day, although the business has since passed out of the family. A photo at the Bunkakan shows a young Fukada (with bicycle) standing in front of the house.

The Fukada family's printing shop, then and now

Daishōji is still a quiet country town where, if you listen carefully, you can catch a few echoes from Fukada’s evocation in Nihon Hyakumeizan:-

My native mountain is Hakusan. You could see it from the top floor of the house where I was born, from the gates of our primary school, from the banks of the river where we used to catch minnows, from the sand dunes of the beach where we swam, in short from just about anywhere in our town. There it was, right in front of us, noble and beautiful. As the name promises, it was a white mountain for fully half the year.

We wander into a shrine on the wooded hill that bounds Daishōji’s southern edge. Entering the peaceful grove, we realise that, not for the first time, we are uncertain of our position.

Back in the street, a random passer-by must be accosted. Fukada Kyūya’s grave? Certainly – you’ll find him up that flight of stone stairs, through the gateway. It’s good to be in a town where everybody knows your favourite author.

Fukada’s gravestone is a simple granite stele. You could see Hakusan from here, our guide tells us, until yonder pine tree grew up. We then walk to Enuma Shrine to visit another, more elaborate, memorial to Fukada.

The stone panel is engraved with one of the author’s best-known poems.

Before supper, we have a few minutes in the Yama no Bunkakan’s museum.

Ohmori-san and I linger beside a cabinet with one of Fukada’s manuscripts, a copy of Bungei Shunjū, one of Japan’s leading critical monthlies, and a 1959 edition of a now-defunct mountaineering magazine. Together, these items sum up the genesis of Nihon Hyakumeizan, but it’s best if Ohmori-san tells the story:-

As Hōbundō was a small company, I had to do everything by myself. While editing books, I also had to help edit magazines. Thanks to this, I acquired the necessary skills on the job. One day, the editor of the monthly magazine Yama to Kōgen (Mountains and Highlands) retired, and I was asked to take on this work.

Just then, I came across Mr Fukada’s essay on “Uncrowded Meizan – in pursuit of repose and solitude,” which he’d written for a special issue of Bungei Shunjū. It was in this article that he first floated the idea of ‘a hundred famous mountains of Japan’. “That’s it!” I thought to myself – this would definitely make an excellent project.

You see, I wanted to make something more of this magazine than just something for outdoor or mountaineering club members. And the literary prowess and the mountain experience that Mr Fukada brought to the table was exactly what I had in mind. So I called on him at his home in Setagaya, did some negotiation with him, and got his agreement to write.

Regrettably, you won’t find this history in the introduction to One Hundred Mountains of Japan – that’s because I only learned it after we went to press. But I hope to correct this omission, if there is a chance to reprint the book one of these days.

Over supper – we are now in a fine ryōtei – we are introduced to Oki Masato, a retired professor of architecture, who has recently published an authoritative book on the Indian Himalaya. Even without this information, I can see by Oki-sensei's bearing that I’m sitting opposite a veteran of the Greater Ranges.

In the early 1960s, Oki-sensei was one of many young climbers who visited Fukada Kyūya at his Setagaya home to seek advice on unclimbed Himalayan peaks. In 1965, as a member of the renowned Meiji University mountaineering club, he took part in a first ascent of Daulaghiri II (7751m). It is probably no coincidence that Fukada reminds us in his Hakusan chapter that Daulaghiri is the ‘white mountain’ of the Himalaya.

Our conversation is momentarily drowned out by some lively demonstrations at the other end of the table. One of our hosts is to be heard toasting Ohmori-san on commissioning Nihon Hyakumeizan. Ohmori-san brushes aside the compliment: “It was the obvious thing to do.” Our host is unabashed: “It’s a book that brings people together” he insists. And with that nobody can cavil.

The passport issued to "Kyuya Fukata" for his Nepal expedition

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

A meizanologist's diary (7)

October 14: A shrill “Kyaaah!” from up ahead tells me that the Sensei has met a snake. Bears, by contrast, leave her unfazed. By the time I get there, the hapless viper has wriggled off into some hole. It’s unseasonably warm; in our student days, no self-respecting snake would have sunned itself on a mountain path in mid-October.

OK, at 613 metres, this isn’t a very high mountain. We’ve chosen it so that we can get away with a late start. A more meizanological reason for climbing Ochi-san is that it was the first mountain to be “opened” by Taichō, the monk who later pioneered Hakusan (2,702 metres) in the first year of Yōrō (717).

The start of our own climb is marked by a modest signboard, showing Ochi-san as it was in the heyday of mountain pilgrimages. We zig-zag up through a dense plantation of sugi (cryptomeria). Unlike the one on Genanpō, this grove is well-tended. We exchange good mornings with a quartet of foresters, who are preparing to shin up the trees with spiked boots and climbing gear in order to trim off the lower branches.

Sultans of silviculture
Above the sugi, we start meeting with the labels – each new variety of tree is labelled with its Japanese names and in English too. Unwisely, I start photographing every one, slowing me up so much that I’m far behind the Sensei when she sees the viper. Thus I miss my chance to meet Gloydius blomhoffii.

In the shadow zone

The labels underline Japan’s astonishing biodiversity. I remember a conversation with Ben Jones, the curator of Oxford University’s Harcourt Arboretum. Unlike other temperate regions, he explained, the Japanese islands were never scraped clean by the ice ages. This let a whole herbarium of plants survive that were razed out in more northerly climes. A year or two ago, Ben was in the Chichibu mountains collecting seeds from one of these old survivors for Kew Gardens. (And, for true plant otaku, here is a day-to-day account of that trip.)

Under the greenwood tree

The path leads onto a straggling ridge. I’m surprised to meet the first beech trees at just over 300 metres – that seems low for this part of Honshū, but perhaps their lower limit has been “downshifted” by the hard Hokuriku winters. Signs marking the “stations” (gome), just as on Mt Fuji, remind us that we’re on a sacred mountain.


Just above the fifth station, we take our first break at a pavilion that enshrines jizō statues. Some are missing their heads. The Sensei says they lost them during the Meiji government’s campaign to separate Buddhism and Shinto in the 1870s. I look at a date scratched on one of the headless figures – perhaps the third year of Tempō (1832). The post-Meiji ones seem to be intact.

Spring time

After dropping down to a spring that issues from a rockface, we start on a steeper section of ridge. The sunlight filters through a mixed canopy of beech, maple and hornbeam. We pass a Japanese stewartia (natsu-tsubaki) romantically entwined with a Korean whitebeam (azuki-nashi).

A little later, a cherry tree afflicted with witches’ broom disease (tengusūbyō) hints at nature’s darker side.

Now slippery with moss, the path tops a rise and drops into a level glen of fir trees (momi). A torii heralds the main sanctuary.

From the engawa of a building that combines the shrine itself and a mountain hut, an elderly man seems to be waiting for us. “Did anything leap out at you on the way?” he asks – could he have heard the Sensei’s “Kyaah”, I wonder. Then he invites us in for tea.

We make our way past a shed full of jizō figures (these seemed to have kept their heads) to a flight of stone steps leading to the summit sanctuary. As Ochi-san is an eminence in Fukui’s coastal range of hills, the view is all-encompassing.

Westwards, a band of fog elides the boundary between sea and sky while, inland, a single sweep round the skyline takes in all of Hokuriku’s famous mountains, from Hino to Arashima, Kyō-ga-take and Fujisha.

Beyond them lies the district’s highest Meizan, still without a shred of snow. “It was from here that Taichō first saw Hakusan,” the Sensei says. This seems right. Any meizanophile would see the distant mountains beckoning to them.

We present ourselves again at the door of the priest's house. When we have settled ourselves around the irori, a traditional sunken fire-pit, Otani-san serves out bowls of miso soup, while we share the celebratory red rice presented to us by the Senpai’s wife yesterday evening. They go well together. Dessert is a blackened banana each.

Between April and November, Otani-san lives up here for ten days at a time, going down intermittently to stock up on food. Fortunately – he is over eighty – you can drive all the way up the mountain. The eldest sons of his family have been priests for thirty-one generations; his daughter, a primary school teacher, will carry on the tradition. Before taking over from his own father, he worked for JR and the city administration.

The duties of a priest are various. Once, he had to take down a small shrine that stood in the way of a housing development and haul it all the way up here. Today is quiet but tomorrow a hundred schoolchildren will visit the mountaintop. If they want to read up about the shrine’s foundation, Otani-san has a short print-out ready for them.

Ascents of Ochi-san book-end the story of Monk Taichō’s life. A plausible date for his birth is the month of June in Hakuhō 11 (682), in the village of Asōzu, now part of Fukui City. Curiously, one of the Sensei's relatives was born there too.

The dates are deduced from a biography, the Taichō wajō denki that was published some centuries later. As a child, Taichō is said to have fashioned Buddhist images out of mud and, at the age of fourteen, he climbed Ochi-san for the first time, where he venerated the Eleven-Headed Kannon.

In 716, when Taichō was thirty-four, the goddess of Hakusan appeared to him in a dream, and the following year he climbed the mountain. According to Nihon Hyakumeizan, this was the first ascent of a high mountain in Japan for religious ends. On the summit, the goddess appeared to him again, this time in the guise of the Eleven-Headed Kannon.

In 722, he journeyed to Nara, the capital, and cured the Empress Genshō of an illness. In 736, he visited the capital again, and received from Monk Genbō a copy of an Eleven-Headed Kannon sutra. The following year, the ninth of Tempyō, he performed a rite of repentance to ward off an outbreak of smallpox that threatened the capital. For this he was raised to the high monastic rank of “wajō”.

Returning to his home province, he climbed Ochi-san again in the second year of Tempyō-Hōji (758) and retired to a cave to meditate. He died in 767 at the age of eighty-six.

It's time to go. We bow to the priest at his door, receive his blessing, and start down. One tends to forget that, even if autumn days are now unseasonably warm, that doesn’t make them any longer than they used to be. Shadows are lengthening by the time we reach the Sensei’s van.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

A meizanologist's diary (6)

October 13: to dinner in Kobe with the Senpai. The Senpai and I go back some decades. In our student days in Kyoto, we climbed Hakusan together. Just below Murodo, sandwiched between layers of rainy season clouds, we met the monks of Eiheiji, the Zen temple founded by Dōgen, filing down the narrow path in their black robes and straw sandals. Although I hadn’t yet learned the word for “reihō” (sacred peak), this scene got the concept across handsomely.

Much later, the Senpai made a vital contribution to Project Hyakumeizan by providing, in best just-in-time fashion, a copy of Heibonsha's Hito wa naze yama ni noboru no ka (Why do people climb mountains), a kind of who’s who in Japan's mountaineering history. At that time, I’d just started writing the introduction to the Nihon Hyakumeizan translation and was struggling to find out more about all the early mountaineers it mentions. The Senpai’s book set me on the way to finding the answers.

We stagger off home burdened with a large bag of delicacies furnished by the Senpai’s wife. Tucked into it are some mountain brochures that the Senpai thinks we might find interesting. Brochures for mountains? At first, I admit, I’m put off by the idea of marketing famous mountains like soap-powder. But a closer look helps to change my mind.

The brochure for climbing Mt Fuji is well-produced. It has a set of detailed maps, complete with realistic course times, for climbing the mountain from the Fuji-Yoshida (eastern) side. There’s good advice on planning your approach and what to bring – although do people really now wear helmets against stonefall on the Yoshida trail? Perhaps times have changed. At any rates, these hints should help to cut the accident rate.

What really gets my attention, though, is that the brochure gives you all the information you need to climb Mt Fuji from the mountain's foot – even though the authors recognize that most will take the bus to the Subaru Line station at 2,500 metres before starting to walk.

You start out from the big torii in the centre of Fuji-Yoshida and walk (or take a taxi) up the road to Naka-no-Chaya, the middle tea-house. A neat new pavilion has replaced the ruined teahouse (below) that you used to see here twenty years ago. And then up through the forest to Umagaeshi, the place where the horses used to stop ...

Climbing Mt Fuji this way takes more time - just over five extra hours, according to the map - but you'll walk in the path of pilgrims approaching their "reihō".