Saturday, July 22, 2017

Images and ink (38)



Image: Ski-mountaineer below the Mt Vinson icefall, Ellsworth Mountains  (photo by Alpine Light & Structure)

Ink: A letter from Henry  "Birdie" Bowers to his mother before setting off on Captain Scott's last expedition to the Antarctic:

 ".... My aims and objects in going into dangers and difficulties are well known to you. They are not for self-advancement or anything sordid as you know. The chief thing that impels is the indefinable call that is unexplainable as it is insistent. It cannot be otherwise and was foreknown from the beginning. Your son is one of the few in this prosaic age who can have the privilege of realizing what must have been a commoner thing when the world was younger."

From 'Birdie' Bowers of the Antarctic by George Seaver, John Murray, 1938.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Chronicle of a flight foretold

How Amelia Earhart and Brad Washburn went their separate ways

Surfing the current vogue for alternative facts, the History Channel recently revived a hoary old theory that the pioneering aviatrix Amelia Earhart crash-landed on the Marshall Islands and was taken prisoner by the Japanese military. An old photo was cited as evidence – which was swiftly debunked by a blogger, who pointed out that the photo was taken two years before Earhart vanished midway through her round-the-world flight.

Amelia Earhart in 1937, standing in front of her Lockheed Electra
(Photo: Wikipedia/Smithsonian)
By coincidence, exactly when the History Channel was airing its programme, Project Hyakumeizan was reading a biography of the inspirational Bradford Washburn, explorer and mountaineer. Washburn was also a qualified pilot and, when he got the chance to hear about Earhart's plans, this enabled him to predict with some accuracy how the flight would end. Here is the story in his own words.

One day l got a phone call from George Putnam, my old publisher, and he asked me to come to his house in Rye, New York. He was married to the famous pilot Amelia Earhart, who was planning to fly around the world. He called to ask me to spend the weekend with them, but said only that they had "something very interesting to discuss" with me.

I had never met Amelia, and found her just as charming and pleasant as I had heard she was. And she looked exactly as she had in all the pictures I had seen: tousled hair, boyish smile, pullover sweater, relaxed, informal, delightful. All supper, Amelia told me that she was putting together plans for a round-the-world flight in the summer of 1937, and that she was interviewing a number of people as possible navigators. They talked a lot about her plans, and threw out some ideas about the trip ...

After supper we spread out a mass of maps on the living room floor, and Amelia and I sat on the floor while she described her plan in great detail. I saw a key flaw in her plan for navigation between Darwin, Australia, and Howland Island. (Howland Island is a sliver of land in an immense mass of trackless ocean about a mile and a half long and a half mile wide.) I asked her how she planned to hit it at the end of a two thousand-mile flight without a single, intermediate emergency landing spot. She replied: dead reckoning, and star and sun sights. We never even got to discussing where she was going to land: on a beach, or a small, specially prepared field. At that point I thought the problem wasn't landing, it was how to get there.

They made it seem as if they might be sounding out my interest to be the navigator, and people later said, "You turned her down." I said, "Nothing of the sort." She may have had that in mind, but it certainly was not expressed to me in that way ....

The big discussion that I got involved in was locating Howland Island. I said, "The one part of this flight that I'm very scared about, if I were to be involved, would be how you are going to find Howland Island." From Darwin, Australia, it was a thousand-mile leg. I knew that that the airplane flew most economically to conserve fuel at an altitude of 12,000 feet. Suppose you got out there after a thousand miles. You knew the chances were very high that you'd have fractocumulus clouds- a mass of small, ragged clouds torn loose from cumulus clouds - each throwing a shadow on the surface of the water. Well, as you neared where you thought Howland Island ought to be, based on the passage of time, some of those clouds might begin to look like Howland Island. 

What you needed was a radio on Howland Island. If you had somebody there who could talk to you on the radio, and let you know your position, that would be a big help. Or if you just had something that sent a signal, dah-di-dah, dah-di-da, all day long, you could home in on that point. Without that, you needed to see the island to locate it. If you went down under the fractocumulus clouds and there wasn't an island, it was just a shadow, that would force you to fly back up to 12,000 feet, wasting a lot more fuel.

I told her, "You've got to have a radio on Howland Island." Amelia insisted that it wasn't necessary. I said that a big, complex radio installation wasn't at all necessary, just an automatic signal sent out continually. Any sort of signal that you could pick up with a Radio Direction Finder. If she had asked for a young radioman to do this she would have had hundreds of volunteers in a moment. In fact, she was so popular that I'm sure she would have found a score of very competent operators who would have paid her for the fun and privilege of doing it.

And that's where our discussion ended. When I finished, George made a comment I will never forget: "If you're going to all that trouble to get a radio there, the book will not be out for Christmas sales." He was essentially using Amelia's flight as a promotion for the book he was going to publish.

Amelia had no response to what I'd said. She didn't say, "I don't agree," or "I don't like that." Nothing. I went back home to Boston and never heard from George Putnam or Amelia Earhart again. As navigator, she chose Fred Noonan, a fellow who had navigated for Pan American's Pacific flights.

In 1937, flying from Burwash Landing to Fairbanks with the famous pilot Joe Crosson, I heard the news that Amelia Earhart had disappeared. As far as we know, Amelia and her navigator never made it to Howland Island. Why she refused to bring a copilot, why her radio planning and execution were so unsatisfactory, nobody will ever know. If I'd been asked, I'd have refused to go under the conditions planned. And a navigator who was far more experienced than I failed to do the job with the equipment at hand. Amelia Earhart's greatest liability was probably her extraordinary optimism, which in this situation exceeded the bounds of reason.

Perhaps the calumnious conspiracy theory about Earhart’s disappearance can now be ditched for good and all.

References

Bradford Washburn, An Extraordinary Life: The Autobiography of a Mountaineering Icon

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Masters of the silver age (3)

Concluded: Japan's post-war mountain photographers gain an international reputation

Inconveniently for historians, the effect of the second world war on the arts is hard to sum up neatly. As we’ve seen, some mountain photographers just picked up where they’d left off. For others, the war marked a turning point. One such was Tabuchi Yukio (1905-1989). Up to March 1945, he’d spent more than a decade teaching science at middle schools, and studying butterflies in his spare time. Nobody in the photographic world had heard of him.

Tabuchi Yukio at work
Having lost his home in the fire-bombing of Tokyo that month, Tabuchi moved to the village of Azumino in central Nagano Prefecture, at the foot of the Japan Alps. Henceforth, he’d make his living as a freelance writer of teaching materials. He established himself on the mountain photography scene with his first collection, published in 1951. Its title can be taken as a manifesto: Tabuchi Yukio – masterpieces of mountain photography (田淵行男- 山岳写真傑作集). His emphatic style of deep shadows and dramatic skies drew in part on the use of high-contrast copy film combined with red filters.

Mt Asama at sunrise, by Tabuchi Yukio
Pursuing his twin passions of butterfly and mountain photography – Tabuchi liked to jest that no weather could stop him taking pictures, as clouds suited the butterflies and blue skies the mountains – he followed in the tradition of the Japan Alpine Club’s naturalist photographers such as Takeda Hisayoshi and Takano Takazō (see first post in this series). Indeed, he is one of the few photographers who gets a mention in Fukada Kyūya’s One Hundred Mountains of Japan:

Butterfly sketches
by Tabuchi Yukio
Every mountain has its special benisons to grant. Jōnen offers bold young climbers no crags or challenging gullies but for those of an artistic temperament its elegant form is an invitation, yielding limitless subject matter to the photographer and painter. Ridgeways (尾根路, 1958), a collection by the photographer Tabuchi Yukio is a case in point. Living as he does in a farming village close by its foot of the mountain, Tabuchi has come to know the mountain as closely as if it were in his back garden. "Jōnen and Ōtaki-yama are the mountains I visit most often. I must have climbed them more than a hundred times," he says. From this extraordinary devotion spring masterly photographs that illuminate the mountain's every mood.

By going freelance, Tabuchi was ahead of the curve. In December 1960, Prime Minister Ikeda set out to double Japan’s national income. And before the decade was out, the plan had so far succeeded that a growing number of mountain photographers could think of pursuing their art on a full-time basis. As this naturally called for a representative body, the Japan Mountain Photography Group (日本山岳写真集団) was established in 1967 by nine professional photographers.

Shirahata Shiro
One of the group’s founders, and its leading light, was Shirahata Shirō. Nothing if not dedicated to his profession, Shirahata had a few years previously postponed his wedding three times in favour of spending the necessary funds on a Linhof Super Technica M3. To acquire technical mastery, he had started out in photography by apprenticing himself to Okada Kōyō (see previous post), on occasion porting the master’s gear all the way up Mt Fuji.

A traditional discipleship did not mean that Shirahata would slavishly imitate his mentor’s style. While Okada and his peers worked primarily in black and white, Shirahata made his name in colour. Selling his first colour picture to the Yama to Keikoku magazine as early as 1961, he went on to compile colour albums of the Nepal Himalaya, the Karakorum, the Rockies and both the European and the Japanese Alps. All of these volumes were also published in foreign languages, winning Shirahata an international reputation – except for the Japan Alps collection, which – ironically – contains some of his best images.

From Himalaya, by Shirahata Shiro


Large-format avalanche, from Himalaya by Shirahata Shiro
The Japan Mountain Photography Group remained prominent well into the Heisei era. In the tenth year of the reign (1998), 14 members of the group published the collection “Mountain voice” (the English-language title is spelled out in katakana), to which Iwahashi Takashi was a major contributor. Yet mountain photography is far from a monoculture. Outside the group, Fujita Hirokichi is known for his large-format Himalayan pictures, and Ōmori Kyōichirō for his aerial surveys of the Japan Alps and the Himalaya.


Then there is Shirakawa Yoshikazu who started out with collections on the Alps and the Himalaya, diversified into travel photography and forests, and then documented “one hundred famous mountains of the world” (世界百名山) – a project that paid homage to a magazine series left unfinished by the original Hyakumeizan author at his death in 1971.*

Shirakawa’s global Hyakumeizan was published in 2007. By coincidence, this was the year that Nikon introduced its “second generation” digital cameras. For many mountain photographers, even serious ones, the days of film were numbered. But this is another story. Like Zhou Enlai’s famous comment on the French Revolution, it may even now be too early to say what effect the digital takeover will have on Japan’s mountain photographers. Only one thing is certain: theirs will continue to be one of the most happening mountain photography scenes on the planet.

References

Joe Bensen, Souvenirs from High Places: a visual record of mountaineering, Mitchell Beazley, 1998

Sugimoto Makoto, "Yama to shashin" in Ohmori Hisao (ed), Hito wa naze yama ni noboru no ka, Autumn 1998

Tateyama Museum of Toyama, Yama wo toru: yama e katamuketa hitotachi, exhibition publication, 1998

*Although, unlike Fukada Kyūya, who consulted only his own taste in selecting his candidate mountains, Shirakawa delegated the task to an international committee of mountain illuminati, including Chris Bonington, Kurt Diemberger, Wang Fuzhou, Maurice Herzog, Edmund Hillary, Harish Kapadia, Edouard Myslovski, AI Read, Nazir Sabir and Pertemba Sherpa. See Wikipedia for the complete list of Shirakawa’s 100 mountains of the world.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Masters of the silver age (2)

Continued: How Japan's mountain photographers ventured into the Himalaya 

Ishizaki Koyo
Meanwhile, Japan’s mountain photographers were venturing abroad. Two, indeed, reached the Himalaya more than a decade before the country’s alpinists did.

Ishizaki Kōyō (1884-1947) is remembered today mainly for his delicate paintings in a traditional style, but his photography too was accomplished.
He started climbing mountains when he went up to Kyoto to study art, joining the Japanese Alpine Club in 1908.

It was Ishizaki who took the summit photo when, the following year, JAC members made the second ascent of Tsurugi in modern times, following in the footsteps of the Army surveyors two years before.

Summiting Tsurugi in 1909: photo by Ishizaki Koyo
In 1916, Ishizaki travelled to India with the aim of visiting sites associated with the Buddha. In Kashmir, he climbed Mahadev Peak (3,966 metres). Some of the resulting prints are hand-tinted, colour film being in its infancy.

Scene on Mahadev Peak, hand-tinted print by Ishizaki Koyo
Another Himalayan traveller, Hasegawa Denjirō (1894-1976), earned his living as a furniture designer, numbering the Imperial court among his clients.

Hasegawa Denjiro

He was successful enough to take what would now be called a long sabbatical. In 1927, he traversed the Himalaya into Tibet and photographed the holy mountain of Kailash. Returning via Kashmir, he did the same for Nanga Parbat. A collection of these photos was published in 1932 as A Himalayan journey.

The holy mountain of Kailash, by Hasegawa Denjiro
At home, the promulgation of the national parks from 1931 onwards opened up a new market for travel and scenic photography. Two noted landscape photographers of this era were Okada Kōyō and Yamada Ōsui.

Okada Koyo at work
In later life, Okada earned himself the nickname of “Fuji no Kōyō” for his devotion to the iconic volcano. One of his images provided the basis for the elegant engraving of Mt Fuji on the old 500 yen note (you can visit the mountain where the photo was taken over on Ridgeline Images) . Illustrations were also in demand from the new magazines starting to spring up from the late Taishō years. Asahi Camera appeared in 1926, followed by Japan’s first mountaineering monthly, Yama-to-Keikoku, in 1930.

Two views of Mt Fuji, by Okada Koyo
By now, photography had a mass following, thanks to light and convenient 4 x 6.5 format cameras with eight frames on a roll of film. In 1936, a “Camera Hiking Club” or CHC was founded in the Tokyo Shitamachi quarter. Photographers associated with this organisation included Funakoshi Yoshibumi, Miura Keizō, known for his skiing photography, and Kazami Takehide (1914-2003), who joined the CHC in 1936.

In 1939, Kazami, Funakoshi and other CHC members founded the Tokyo Mountain Photography Association, which morphed into the Japan Mountain Photography Association (日本山岳写真協会) in 1947 to reflect its increasingly national membership. Kazami’s career spanned a remarkable sixty years. He served in the Imperial Navy during the war, as a photographer. After being repatriated from New Guinea in 1946, he set up a photographic supplies shop in the Ginza. Etude of Alps, his first photo collection, was published in 1953, followed by Going to the mountains (山を行く) in 1957.

Pages from Kazami Takehide's "Going to the mountains"
The Alps, whether Japanese or European, were not enough for Kazami. In 1958, he accompanied Fukada Kyūya, the soon-to-be Hyakameizan author, and two other mountaineers on an expedition to the Jugal Himal. Their objective was the Big White Peak (7,083m), so-called by three Scottish lady climbers. They didn’t get up it, but Kazami achieved the expedition’s high point on the east ridge by taking turns to break trail with a Sherpa companion. There the brown plains of Tibet were glimpsed through the clouds.

The Big White Peak expedition team:
Kazami Takehide (on the right), next to Fukada Kyuya

Kazami’s first visit to the Himalaya resulted in two books, the expedition journal, for which Fukada wrote the text, and a photo collection on the Jugal Himal. Nepal must have appealed to Kazami; he went back there in 1960, the year he closed his shop and went fully professional as a photographer. His photo collection on Nepal’s mountains and its people was translated into English. After half a century, Japan’s Himalayan photographers had started to gain an international reputation.

Senjogahara, by Hasegawa Denjiro

Friday, June 16, 2017

Masters of the silver age (1)

A snapshot history of mountain photography in Japan

Conveniently for historians, mountain photography in Japan sprang into being at the same moment as modern mountaineering. A photo of the Great Snow Valley on Shirouma, the White Horse Mountain, graced the very first issue of the new Japanese Alpine Club’s journal, published in April 1906.

Shirouma by Shimura Urei: as published in the Alpine Journal
The photographer, Shimura Urei (1874-1961), was the club’s 18th member, joining immediately after it was launched in the previous October, and remained closely associated all his life – after the great Kanto earthquake of 1923, the club’s office was moved temporarily into his house.

Shimura Urei
Before retiring to Tokyo, Shimura was a teacher at the Nagano middle school. He started out using the school’s camera to record the alpine flowers and landscapes of that mountainous province until, tiring of this mediocre kit, he invested ¥110 – equivalent to two months’ salary or more – to buy himself a top-of-the-line Goertz Dagor lens. He also had to pay porters to carry his camera and tentage up into the mountains. More than one image was lost when the porters, impatient to see a real photograph, ripped open undeveloped plates.

Overcoming such tribulations, Shimura built up a valuable collection of pressed alpine plants that is still preserved, discovering in the process a new kind of flower on Shirouma. A photo of the same mountain was sent to the ubiquitous Walter Weston, now back in England, who used it to accompany an article that the mountaineering missionary published in the Alpine Journal edition of February 1906. Another of Shimura’s photos appeared in Weston’s second book about the Japanese mountains.

Snow valley by Shimura Urei
Shimura’s lengthy explorations of the Japan Alps get him a paragraph in Fukada Kyūya’s One Hundred Mountains of Japan, although more as a pioneer than as a photographer:

The first mountaineer to pass this way was Shimura Urei in the summer of 1907, approaching from Eboshi. As he stood on the summit, he wrote, "I saw a small pond below and to the south, for all the world like an eruption crater … this crater on Washiba is probably a surprise for the world." In that pioneering era, such unexpected discoveries were not uncommon in the Northern Alps. Today, mountaineering is much more convenient but it has lost this element of surprise and wonder. (Washiba-dake)

Many other members of the early Japanese Alpine Club, notably the scientists, took their cameras into the mountains. Glass slides were favoured, presumably for their scientific precision, by Tsujimoto Mitsumaru (1877-1940), who had won an international reputation for his discovery of squalene.

Rock shelter in the Northern Alps, by Tsujimoto Mitsumaru
Takeda Hisayoshi (1883-1972), a founder member who later authored the first guide to Japan’s alpine plants, took photos to document his botanical forays. As for his kit, a Goerz Roll-Tenax and a favourite Piccolette accompanied him on his second trip to the Oze marshes, in 1924, as well as three lenses, twenty-odd films and photographic plates.

Another JAC founder, Takano Takazō, the entomologist, collated eight collections of mountain photography under the series title of “High mountains, deep valleys” (高山深渓) between 1910 and 1917, assisted by a group of about 15 fellow enthusiasts. Meanwhile, Tanaka Kaoru (1898-1982) used his camera on his geological excursions, and Kanmuri Matsujirō (1883-1970) extensively photographed the Kurobe Valley, often using new-fangled film cameras for their lightness and convenience in that rugged terrain.

Hokari Misuo
One who stuck with traditional glass plates, for their artistic properties, was Hokari Misuo (1891-1966). An uomo universale of the Japan Northern Alps, Hokari’s life centred around Yari-ga-take, the so-called Matterhorn of Japan.

As mass mountaineering arrived in Japan, he opened the mountain’s first hut, in Yarisawa, in 1917 (Taishō 6) and a decade later, built another, on the col below the peak, which is still owned and operated by his descendants. He also wrote a biography of Banryū, the monk who first climbed Yari, a book that Fukada Kyūya later acclaimed as “masterly”.

Hokkari's original hut in Yarisawa
Although his equipment may have been old-style, there was nothing traditional about Hokari’s marketing. In 1921, he opened a gallery, the Hokari Shashinkan, in a decisive step away from the gentlemanly amateurism of the Japan Alpine Club. For Hokari looked to his photos for at least part of his living, like those other grand masters of black-and-white alpine photography, the Abraham brothers of Keswick, the Tairraz père et fils of Chamonix, Bradford Washburn and Jürgen Winkler.

The Taisho eruption of Yake-dake, by Hokkari Misuo

Particularly memorable are the prints showing the volcano of Yake-dake, both during and after the Taishō eruption of 1915 that created the eponymous pond. Many since Hokari’s day have photographed the mountain and its lakelet, but few to such effect.
Yake-dake after the eruption, by Hokari Misuo


Mountaineers on Yari-ga-take, by Hokari Misuo

Next: How Japan's mountain photographers headed for the Himalaya

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Images and ink (37)


Image: Mt Fuji from Lake Kawaguchi, woodprint by Yoshida Hiroshi

Ink: Translating Mt Fuji, from Sanshirō by Natsume Soseki

Sanshirō had completely forgotten about Mount Fuji. When he recalled the Mount Fuji he had first seen from the train window, having had his attention called to it by Professor Hirota, it had indeed looked noble. There was no way to compare it with the chaotic jumble of the world inside his head now, and he was ashamed of himself for having let that first impression slip away. Just then Hirota flung a rather strange question at him.

"Have you ever tried to translate Mount Fuji?"

"To translate it... ?"

"It's fascinating how, whenever you translate nature, it's always transformed into something human. Noble, great or heroic.”

Sanshirō now understood what he meant by translate.

"You always get a word related to human character. For those poor souls who can't translate into such words, nature hasn't the slightest influence on them when it comes to character.”

Thinking there was more to come, Sanshirō listened quietly. But Hirota cut himself off at that point.

Somewhat related post: Mountains of character

Friday, May 19, 2017

How not to have a blast

Japan’s authorities issue volcano safety guidelines for hikers

One-third of Japan’s popular One Hundred Mountains are active volcanoes. This can lead to tragedy. In September 2014, a sudden eruption on a volcano in central Honshū killed 63 people. Some of the victims were never found. To raise awareness of these hazards, Japan’s Home Ministry and its Meteorological Agency have recently issued a leaflet for hikers.

How volcanoes can damage your health

What follows is an outline summary of the Japanese text (PDF). The front sheet of “Be prepared for hiking on volcanoes” (火山への登山のそなえ) marks the location of Japan’s 110 active volcanoes – “active” means showing signs of life, or having erupted within the last 10,000 years. The 33 active volcanoes selected by Fukada Kyūya for his One Hundred Mountains are distinguished in red.


Red captions mark the active Nihon Hyakumeizan

Next are points to keep in mind when climbing a volcano:

  • Eruptions can occur without warning, so stay alert to what is happening in and around the crater.
  • If you see any unusual venting of steam or gases, take refuge or descend immediately and warn the local authorities, police or Meteorological Agency (which is responsible for monitoring volcanic activity in Japan).
  • As volcanic gases are heavier than air, they tend to collect in hollows and valleys. Stay out of such locations.
  • Keep your mobile phone on and check for official hazard alerts. Be aware of whether your phone has a connection to the network. Information about mobile phone coverage is published on the websites of some phone companies, or marked on certain hiking maps. Try to establish whether and where you will have mobile phone connectivity before you leave home.
  • During an eruption, there is a major risk of death or injury from flying stones and lava bombs near the crater. Get away from the crater and take shelter in a hut or behind a rock. If you have them, put on a helmet and goggles, and breathe through a face-mask or towel.

Things not to leave home without
In addition to your normal hiking kit, map and compass, you should consider carrying a copy of the local volcanic hazard map, which will show you the range of previous eruptions, and also places to take shelter. A helmet, goggles and a towel will protect against ash and other fall-out, as will a rain-jacket. A headlight will help in bad visibility. And don’t forget a spare battery for your mobile phone and emergency rations/water for yourself.

The last sheet of the leaflet starts with a reminder of the 2014 Ontake disaster. Then (see top graphic) two cartoon volcanoes present the various types of eruptive threat – showers of heavy rocks that can fly up to four kilometres from the vent; smaller stones with a lethal range of 10 kilometres; volcanic ash that may, in the leaflet’s measured language, “affect your breathing”, pyroclastic flows that burn and bury; volcanic gases and mudflows. Each category is illustrated from an eruption in living memory.

The message is clear: these hazards are for real.

Related posts: volcanic excursions

Asama: Serious steam

Asama: The inner world

Asama: Fires of Tartarus

Bandai: Sole survivor

Mt Fuji: Journey to the centre of Mt Fuji

Gassan and Chōkai: The twentieth-century Tōhoku express

Kaimon: Slow train to Kaimon-dake

Ontake: The gateway

Sakurajima: The hot and cold Hyakumeizan challenge

Yake-dake: Burning mountain, bad snow

Yake-dake: Seasons of a stratovolcano

Saturday, May 13, 2017

The making of a Meiji mountaineer (5)

Concluded: a translation of Kogure Ritarō's A talk about mountaineering

In this way, the people of a congregation would go on long pilgrimages to their special mountain for a week or more, or even several weeks. Thus, most of the notable mountains had already been climbed, except for those in a small part of what’s now known as the Japan Alps. But if there had been any indomitable monks like those pioneer mountain mystics of old, who tirelessly opened up new mountains and proselytised their faith, I can scarcely imagine that they would have left any mountain untracked. So this is a piece of good luck for us.

Climbing a snow valley at Harinoki, woodprint by Yoshida Hiroshi (1926)
The important thing to note is that most of these mountaineers were commoners. While the city-dwelling aristocracy and the literati were celebrating Mt Fuji simply as something to look at, the commoners were climbing mountains all over the place. Of course, the power of faith is part of the explanation, but one can’t help feeling that the vigour of this mass mountaineering movement and that commoners were organising group ascents from quite early times can be put down mainly to the fact that Japan’s mountains are easy to climb in the summer.

These mass ascents meant that there would be thousands or even tens of thousands of climbers, but except on their chosen route, the mountain wasn’t devastated. For example, when we had to relieve ourselves, we dug a hole, did our business on a sheet of paper, and tidied up afterwards; we were always extremely reluctant to desecrate the mountain. Standing on the top of Shirouma, I couldn’t help feeling sad at the way that beautiful sward was being trampled from end to end. As we keep climbing the mountains that our forebears opened for us, in new ways, and pass them on to the next generation, surely we should want to avoid passing them on in a shop-soiled state.

As my mountain-climbing evolved from such circumstances, it’s only natural that I can’t entirely escape my origins. So I wear Japanese garb over my straw sandals and leggings, don a rush mat against the rain, keep an oiled paper cape ready, hang my baggage from panniers, and wear a hat of cypress bark instead of a straw one. I’ve been told by Mr Fujiki that this makes me look like an itinerant swordsman of old, and indeed there could be some similarities, as this was the traditional garb for travelling. Of course, as a pilgrim, I didn’t carry a short sword or a fighting staff, but fortunately I was able to keep climbing mountains in this way up to the end of the Meiji years, without any accidents, and it was only when I first met the new city-dwelling type of climber, never having heard of such a thing, that I realised to my amazement just how many people like climbing mountains. And among those people are the founders and inaugural members of the Japanese Alpine Club.

Sunrise on Mt Fuji (Goraiko): woodprint by Yoshida Hiroshi

The downside of traditional mountaineering dress is when a storm hits. As you can’t put up an umbrella, all you can do is wrap it tightly in the straw mat and tough things out. I once got caught in this way while climbing Kaikoma from the Todai valley, and I still remember how we struggled to avoid succumbing to the cold. In those days, we’d stay the night at the summit, so as to enjoy the view of sunrise at leisure on the next day, as we felt safe sleeping on an open summit, even if it was colder, rather than camping in a gloomy wood. As for food, I sometimes walked carrying enough large balls of baked rice for three days, but I doubt if such tribulations can be imagined by anybody who hasn’t experienced them.

Well, I’ve rambled on for long enough with my talk, but if you’ve learned something from it about the way mountain-climbing was in those days, then I will consider myself more than amply rewarded.

References

This is a beta translation of a chapter (登山談義) from Mountain Memories (山の憶い出), as republished by Heibonsha in 1999 and edited by Ohmori Hisao. Kogure Ritarō (1873-1944) grew up in a mountain village where people still made regular pilgrimages to Mt Fuji and Ontake. He made his way via the new Meiji educational system to Tokyo, where he joined the Japanese Alpine Club a few years after it was founded, and later became its president. For more about the celebrated mountain meeting at Kirigamine in August 1935, see the introduction to One Hundred Mountains of Japan.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Images and ink (36)


Image: "Pollinger breaks through", photo by Edward Whymper, from Whymper’s Scrambles with a Camera, edited by Peter Berg, former Hon. Archivist of the Alpine Club

Ink: Poem by I A Richards, the literary critic and alpinist, to his wife, Dorothy Pilley


Recall the Epicoun:
Night, welling up so soon,
Near sank us in soft snow.
At the stiff-frozen dawn,
When Time had ceased to flow,
- The glacier ledge our unmade bed -
I hear you through your yawn:
"Leaping crevasses in the dark,
That's how to live!" you said.
No room in that to hedge:
A razor's edge of a remark


Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Sakura diary (5)


19 April: Narita again: after circling back over the airport, the Airbus heads due north, tracking up the spine of Tohoku.


Looking through gaps in the cloud, passengers in the right-hand seat rows can play Meizan sudoku.



Over Hokkaido, the track turns slightly left, so that we coast into Siberia far to the north of Vladivostok. At first the big Siberian rivers roll brown with meltwater; after lunch, washed down with a glass of economy-class pinot noir, they’re frozen into silent braids.



We continue on this hyperborean heading, overflying nameless mountains, until Siberia’s northern coast heaves into view under the starboard wing, somewhere north-west of Norilsk.




The Barents Sea winks blue at this season; the water is open as far north as the eye can see. In just one place, though, ice-floes have crowded up on a lee shore.


Perhaps it's the pinot noir. Looking down on the brash ice, I so far forget myself as to think of ... white petals floating in an old castle moat. How mortifying: even at this distance, the cherry flowers have cast their spell. As they always will.


Saturday, April 29, 2017

Sakura diary (4)



17 April, Eiheiji: early on a Monday, the town is almost deserted. Under the temple’s colonnade of old cedar trees, it’s as tranquil as it was in my student days. Those concrete dormitory buildings are larger than I remember them, though.


Some of their occupants are already out and about. Above the temple, we pass a working party of novice monks who are weeding and cleaning the watercourse. Eiheiji’s founder would have approved; streams and rivers were important to him:-

Water extends into flames; it extends into thought, reasoning and discrimination; it extends into awareness and the Buddha nature. Descending to earth, it becomes rivers and streams. We should realize that, when water descends to earth, it becomes rivers and streams, and that the essence of rivers and streams becomes sages.


Aiming to trace this stream to its source, we follow in the footsteps of the sage who wrote those words. The way is soon interrupted by a sizeable concrete dam. At this point, we can either take a long way round by road – more than a kilometre, says the sign – or duck under a yellow-and-black rope and take a flight of steps straight up the side of the obstacle. The choice is easy.


Ignoring a warning sign about avalanches – snow? what snow? – we duck under the rope. A few minutes later, the error of our way is borne in on us. A TV-sized rock has smashed down onto a stair landing, all but demolishing the steel railings. Smaller stones lie all about in puddles of meltwater. “Let’s get out of here,” I say to the Sensei, needlessly; she’s already pounding the stairs as fast as she can.


Back in safety we take breath. Inevitably, the road that leads round the reservoir is planted with cherry trees. For a change, their blossoms are tinged a bright cerise. We find them rather louche. At the head of the lake, we rejoin the watercourse, which promises to take us into the heart of the mountain.


To this day, scholars can’t say for certain why Zen master Dōgen gave up a comfy billet in the capital city and moved to the wilds of Echizen. This was in 1243. It may be that he’d exhausted the patience of his peers at the Enryakuji – after all, he was busy subverting their doctrine – or simply that a follower had offered him a tract of land. Or perhaps he just wanted to be in the heart of the mountains:-

These mountains and waters of the present are the expression of the old buddhas. Each, abiding in its own dharma state, fulfils exhaustive virtues … Since the virtues of the mountain are high and broad, the spiritual power to ride the clouds is always mastered from the mountains, and the marvellous ability to follow the wind is inevitably liberated from the mountains.

These words open Dōgen’s Mountains and water sutra (Sansui-kyō), one of the essays that make up his Treasury of the Eye of the True Dharma, a summation of the theology that he developed after his study tour of Cha’an monasteries in China. Intriguingly, the Sansui-kyō was written just a few years before his move to Echizen.


Today, the marvellous ability to follow the wind is denied us. In fact, both we and the wind lack puff. An unseasonable warmth bears down – yesterday the mercury nudged 30°C in Tokyo – and, while we toil higher, the sunlight thins and fades. As so often in this north country, the weather has started to turn.

“To be in the mountains is ‘a flower opening within the world’," says Master Dōgen. “Those outside the mountains do not sense this, do not know it. Those without eyes to see the mountains, do not sense, do not know, do not see, do not hear the reason for this.”


The flowers opening beside the track give us reason to pause – perhaps more than strictly necessary. Aster-like ichirinsō, white as the sakura, alternate with patches of purple kikuzaki ichirinsō. The path never veers far from the stream, which runs in a direttissima line straight up the mountain. It follows that the going is steep.


In the old days, before people went hiking, the only way up a mountain would have been to follow a sawa or watercourse. So the abruptness of this path might suggest that it originated in early times, lending credence to the tradition that Dōgen came this way.

About where the stream dwindles to the merest trickle, we pass under the boughs of a mixed oak and beechwood. The path comes out into a wooded dell, where stone buddhas, each in a rough shelter of piled stones, distil green thoughts in a green shade.


This, explains the Sensei, is the site of Daibutsu-ji, the temple that gives the mountain its name. Dōgen founded it the year after he arrived in Echizen, using it as a place to continue the meditation he’d placed at the heart of his doctrine. After a year or two up here, he relented on his followers – who might, like us, have found the climb a hard morning’s work – and moved down the valley to Eiheiji.


With the ridgeline now in sight, we zig-zag up a slope that is a-quiver with iwa-uchiwa (“rock fans”, translates the Sensei, although probably she does not mean in the Rod Stewart sense). When we top out on the bare grassy summit, a party of fit pensioners is already sitting in a circle, finishing their lunch. My, they were fast. Or were we slow?


We find a fallen log to sit on and broach the Sensei’s industrial-strength onigiri.


While eating, we admire the ghostly profile of Hakusan to the east. Close by, white magnolia flowers flutter against a backdrop of bare trees. Lunch is short: the cold wind is bringing an ominous band of dark cloud towards us.


The other party start out along the ridge, instead of descending the way they came, tempting me to follow. After all, tradition says that Dōgen came from that direction when he discovered the site for the Daibutsuji temple. The Sensei has other ideas: “You can go, but I’m going straight down,” she says, with a nod at the glowering clouds.

As I know better than to challenge the experience of a local guide, the ridge traverse is kicked into touch. The wind drops as soon as we dip below the ridge, confirming Dōgen’s good judgment in siting his temple, but the skies continue to darken.


Still, there’s time to head a short distance up a side-valley to visit a waterfall. The Sensei recalls coming here one autumn, before the dam was built. In those days, you had to climb round the waterfall to reach the beech woods of the upper valley, flaring red and gold. Since then, steel ladders have been installed next to the waterfall. We wonder who put them there - was it a hiking club, for the convenience of sawa climbers, or were the dam authorities responsible?


Although we say that mountains belong to the country, says Dōgen, actually they belong to those that love them. When mountains love their master, the wise and the virtuous inevitably enter the mountains. And when sages and wise men live in the mountains, because the mountains belong to them, trees and rocks flourish and abound, and the birds and the beasts take on a supernatural excellence. This is because the sages and wise men have covered them with virtue. We should realise that the mountains actually take delight in wise men and sages. (Translation by Carl Bielefeldt)

Really, the waterfall would look better without those steel ladders. By the lake, the yamabuki glow yellow in the gathering gloom.


We feel the first drops of rain as we come in under the great trees of Eiheiji. The monks are still at work in the river, except for an overseer who is recording their efforts with a large camera. It’s good to see that Eiheiji shoots Nikon. The temple also seems to be exploring co-branding opportunities with a local firm of bulldozer-makers:




A full downpour starts just as we reach the Sensei’s van. That night, a tempest of wind and rain buffets the house. In the morning, the cherry trees will be stripped bare; the white petals gone even from the gutters, all washed away overnight.