Monday, April 24, 2017

Sakura diary (1)

14 April, Narita: as soon as the tyres squawk onto the runway, I realise this trip is singularly ill-timed. Over there, a whole row of them coyly enfold the airport’s fuel tanks in their luminous billows. Later, as the Shinkansen hurtles westwards, they flicker past the windows like a faulty neon tube. On arrival in Fukui, they’re everywhere – crowding the streets and riverbanks, lighting up the tawny hillsides with intermittent puffs of pallor. In the manner of a frontal assault – people do call it the sakura zensen – the cherry blossom rolls northwards. Resistance is futile.

15 April, Fukui: if we can’t avoid them, then we may as well view them. I accompany the Sensei up Asuwa-yama, the hill on the edge of town. Under the flowering trees, pensioners take selfies with their smart phones. This is a weekday, so crowds are moderate. Tomorrow, on Saturday, the police will be out here trying to unscramble the gridlocked roads. Such congestion is traditional:-

Hanami-kago gakute shōtotsu sakuragari

The sedan chairs jostle as they vie to view the blossom (Yūsei, 1680)

I’ve nothing against cherry blossoms, of course – without them there’d be no new cherry trees. It’s just their in-your-face evanescence that’s objectionable: surely, life is short enough without being confronted with the fact at every street crossing.

Now, here we go again – the breeze swirls the petals round us like a snow squall, wilfully re-enacting those famous words in Tale of the Heike: “The proud endure not; they are a mere dream on a spring evening and, no less, the mighty must fall, as blossom drives before the wind ….”

Fortunately, we have other business to occupy us. The name of William Eliott Griffis (1843-1928), a Meiji-era yatoi, will live forever in connection with Fukui. Embarrassingly, though, his actual stay was almost as transient as a cherry flower's. In 1871, not long after graduating from Rutgers University, the young American came to the feudal school as a science teacher on a salary of $2,400. The Fukui authorities even built him a Western-style house.

Alas, Griffis soon got itchy feet and, the following year, decamped to a more prestigious job in Tokyo. Although this was much to the chagrin of his hosts, Fukui seems to have forgiven him, and the house was recently reconstructed. At the Sensei’s suggestion, we drop in to inspect it.

Surfing the exhibits, a minor meizanological discovery is made – Griffis may have been the first foreigner to climb Hakusan, the 2,702-metre dormant volcano that looms to the city’s east. At least, that was his ambition, as he phrases it in a letter to his sister Maggie dated August 20, 1871. The full story is found in his collected letters.

Outside the house, the museum curators have erected a hardboard cut-out of Griffis, complete with a puritanical hat, leaving a hole where his head should be for visitors to poke their faces through. A cheeky young soul does just that as we walk past. Yes, after more than a century, I think Fukui and Griffis have at last reached a very satisfactory accommodation.

Friday, April 21, 2017

A home mountain stirs in its sleep

Volcanic earthquakes detected under Hakusan

NHK Kanazawa reports that, on 20 April, more than 40 small earthquakes occurred under Hakusan - the volcano in Japan's Hokuriku district best known as the home mountain of the Hyakumeizan author. One tremor of magnitude 2.2 occurred near the summit at 1.30 am. Bursts of seismic activity are not unusual under long-dormant volcanoes: on 1 December 2014, more than 150 small tremors were detected in the same area.

The title of this magazine article reads: "X-day for the looming Hakusan eruption".
Well, maybe not quite yet....
According to Wikipedia, the bulk of Hakusan dates back to eruptions that happened 30,000-40,000 years ago. In those days, the edifice may have been higher than Mt Fuji. In a kind of coda to the main action, Ken-ga-mine, a subsidiary summit, welled up as a lava dome about 2,000 years ago. Hakusan most recently erupted in 1659. Eruptions were also recorded in 1554, 1042 and 706 – the earliest one taking place just over a decade before Monk Taichō made the mountain's first ascent.

In yesterday’s episode, the type of low-frequency tremors that signal the movement of magma or volcanic gases was absent, suggesting that an eruption is probably not imminent. So it’s unlikely that the 1,300th anniversary of Taichō’s ascent, which falls this summer, will be marked or marred by a volcanic outburst.

Monday, April 10, 2017

A mountain called Freedom (3)

Concluded: a disquisition (crux pitch) on liberty and climbing literature

The next pitch was mine. Easing up foot by foot, I strove to weld the rubber of my Scarpa rockshoes onto the smooth limestone; handholds weren’t much on offer. The negative energy left behind by our departed fellow-climbers was palpable: it dragged more heavily than the weight of our twin 9mm ropes.

Allan's lead: the crux pitch of Freiheit Südwand
Doubt festered: this must be the “smooth slab” mentioned in the topo, but signs of human passage were lacking – no friendly crampon scratches and, more to the point, few pitons or gear placements to stop a fall. I carried on until I found two old pitons in a corner. This had to be a stance. When Allan came up, we reviewed the topo. Now we understood why the Swiss crew had bailed; the cliff reared up in our face like a barrier.

Without barriers, of course, alpinism would be void of meaning. Still, one can have too much of a good thing. Few climbers have faced as many barriers as did those trapped within Poland’s post-war command economy. Even their path to mountaineering was enmeshed in bureaucratic restrictions. Aspirants received an official card stating where and when they could climb, almost like a driving license.

For expeditions, hindrances mounted to Himalayan proportions. First, climbers had to obtain a passport, ideally without agreeing to spy for the security services. Then they had to get hold of hard currency, to pay for the trip. In Katowice, home to one of the country’s most activist alpine clubs, they abseiled down factory chimneys for a living, paint-brush in hand. Others smuggled whisky into Pakistan.

These stories are recorded by Bernadette McDonald in Freedom Climbers. For once, a publication more than justifies the blurb on its cover: “One of the most important mountaineering books to be written for many years”. The paradox of the Polish climbers is that, the more obstacles they met with, the harder they climbed, and the better they became.

A line: West Face of Gasherbrum with the Kurtyka/Schauer route
(photo: Freedom Climbers)
For more than a decade, Polish climbers made a specialty of hard winter climbs on big Himalayan peaks. The lines they put up were awe-inspiring, as was the casualty rate. McDonald estimates that some eight out of ten of Poland’s top expedition climbers died in the mountains during that period.

Memorial plaque to Polish climbers below Lhotse
(Photo: Freedom Climbers)
When they summited Everest in February 1980, the first-ever ascent in winter, Pope John Paul II congratulated the expedition members, urging them to “Let this sport, which demands such a great strength of the spirit, become a great lesson of life, developing in all of you the human virtues and opening new horizons of human vocation.”

Hardly by coincidence, it was in the same year that the famous strike at the Lenin Shipyards broke out, the first step towards Poland’s liberation. But when, later in the decade, Poland did rejoin the free world, the effects on its alpinists were ambiguous. They shared in the generally increased prosperity, they could vote their governments in and out, and they could travel freely. They were free. Yet something went missing.

In her epilogue, McDonald quotes an article written by Voytek Kurtyka in 1993: “Almost physically I sense in Poland the subsiding of the great mountain inspiration. I believe it is being replaced by the onerous awareness of a new era and the necessity of meeting its demands.” The great age of winter alpinism in the Himalaya was over.

Climbing above the Fählensee (Altes Südplattli, top pitch)
“Climbing is not a symbol or poetic metaphor of life – it is life itself,” wrote J A Szczepański, a Polish climbing author. At times, Allan and I might have agreed with him. Right now, though, we just wanted this climb to end. Unfortunately, an awkward little wall, almost overhanging, blocked our upward progress. This, in a most unmetaphorical way, was clearly the crux of our climb.

“Would you mind leading the next pitch too?” Allan asked. Actually, I’d rather not, I replied – fighting the negative energies of the third pitch had sapped my resolve, or so it seemed. “OK,” said my partner, a man of few words, “then give me some gear.” And, for one last time, Allan got us out of a jam. Backing up an old peg with a chock, he scrabbled his feet upwards and onto a ledge. The key to the climb had been unlocked.

View from the Südwand
The first party to come this way had no sticky rock slippers to help them, or ingenious chocks. Climbing in the summer of 1928, they moved up the smooth slab and mastered the crux pitch in nailed boots, trusting their lives to a hawser-laid hemp rope. Walter Pause records their names as Ernst Holdenegger, Robert Hollenweger and companions. I’m unable to find anything more about them. But they were the first to win the freedom of this wall.

It seems that they didn't name it, though. A record from 1873 shows the master of the Fählenalp – we could see the roofs of its huts sprinkled like confetti on the meadow far below – explaining to a visitor, perhaps a local official, that they’d always known that beetling crag as the “Freiheit”. By this, they meant simply a summit that rises free of its neighbours, like a master cheese-maker among cowherds.

One afternoon in the Alpstein

So this Freiheit marks no victory or political démarche, still less a feat of alpinism. Instead, it was named by the men, to borrow the words of the alpine traveller James Forbes, “who live during all the finest and stirring part of the year in the fastnesses of their sublimest mountains, seeing scarcely any strange faces, and but few familiar ones … so accustomed to privation as to dream of no luxury, and utterly careless of the fate of empires or the change of dynasties.” This freedom is untainted.

Utterly careless as to how our crag got its name, Allan and I sprawled on a cramped belvedere of tussock grass. What mattered, on Freiheit's summit, was to free our feet from our sweaty climbing shoes, pull on hiking boots, and coil the ropes. And surely we’d earned a minute to take a swig of water and eat our neglected sandwiches. Only a minute, mind. Already, the slanting sunlight hinted that we should set about finding a way down.


Auf den Bergen ist Freiheit! Der Hauch der Grüfte
Steigt nicht hinauf in die reinen Lüfte;
Die Welt ist vollkommen überall,
Wo der Mensch nicht hinkommt mit seiner Qual.

On the mountains is freedom; no clammy breath
Mounts there from the rotting caves of death!
Blest is the wide world every where
When man and his sorrows come not near.

Friedrich Schiller, The Bride of Messina (1804), Act IV, scene vii; translation by George Irvine (1837).


Freiheit Südwand in Walter Pause, Im schweren Fels: 100 Genussklettereien in den Alpen, 1967

Benjamin R Barber, The Death of Communal Liberty: A History of Freedom in a Swiss Mountain Canton, Princeton University Press (reprint 2015)

Interview with Yvette Vaucher in Patricia Purtschert, Früh los: Im Gespräch mit Bergsteigerinnen über siebzig, Hier und Jetzt, 2011

Felice Benuzzi, No Picnic on Mount Kenya, originally published as Fuga sul Kenya, 1947

W H Murray, Mountaineering in Scotland and Undiscovered Scotland, Baton Wicks

W H Murray, The Evidence of Things Not Seen (autobiography), Baton Wicks, 2002

Robin Lloyd-Jones, The Sunlit Summit: The Life of W. H. Murray, 2014

Bernadette McDonald, Freedom Climbers, Heritage House, 2012

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

A mountain called Freedom (2)

Continued: a disquisition (alpine III/IV+) on liberty and climbing literature

The only way out is up, we decided. Quite a few mountaineers have felt the same way, and not only about the pitch in front of them. Yvette Vaucher, looking back on her career as one of Switzerland’s top alpinists, spoke for many when she said:

What attracted me is the freedom. There's so much freedom in the mountains. You choose where to go; there are no instructions. We're free. Nobody tells us you can't go here, can't go there. We trust the mountain. And it's only we ourselves who can decide whether we can get up something or not. That's freedom. And freedom is important for your whole life, whether you climb or not.

Yvette Vaucher: she chose to climb
(photo: courtesy of Schweizer Illustrierte)
In the Switzerland of the 1960s, women had to overcome a mountain of social barriers if they went climbing. None of these, in July 1966, could stop the husband-and-wife team of Michel and Yvette Vaucher putting up a breath-taking direct line on the Dent Blanche’s north face. Even so, some hindrances proved insurmountable. Women couldn’t become guides, for instance, because at that time only men serving in the Swiss army could qualify for the necessary training courses.

Camp on Mt Kenya: an illustration from No picnic on Mount Kenya
Some mountaineers have faced more literal constraints on their liberty. When the Italian alpinist, Felice Benuzzi, was interned by the British in a wartime camp in East Africa, with no hope of escape to a friendly country, the effects of imprisonment threatened his sanity:

Forced to endure the milieu we seemed almost afraid of losing our individuality. Sometimes one felt a childish urge to assert one's personality in almost any manner, shouting nonsense, banging an empty tin, showing by every act that one was still able to do something other than to wait passively. I have seen normally calm people suddenly rise from their bunks and climb the roof poles of the barrack, barking like monkeys. I felt I understood them, and they had my full sympathy.

The route and the mountain (from No Picnic on Mount Kenya)
Until, that is, he had the idea of climbing nearby Mt Kenya. Just to plan the feat was a release of sorts: “Life took on another rhythm; it had a purpose.” In January 1943, Benuzzi stole out of the camp at night with two companions. They were laden with two weeks of hoarded food, a home-made tent, and ice-axes improvised from two hammers purloined from the prison workshop. After climbing high enough to gaze down on the camp from above, the change of perspective went beyond a mere shifting of sightlines:

"Look there! Isn't that the railway line?"
"Must be. And there's the wood by the church of Nanyuki. And further on ... Yes, it's our camp!"
"Wrong! It is not our camp that you see. It is the camp where we were prisoners."
"I apologise," I answered studying the scene with the aid of the binoculars: "I can see the big black barracks of Compound E!" I added. "Would you mind pulling that branch towards you, so that I can see better? ... Thank you. It is Compound E!"
"I can hardly believe that we were ever there!"

A forest camp (from No Picnic on Mount Kenya)
After planting the Italian flag on a subsidiary summit, they returned to the internment camp. There was nowhere else to go; their rations had run out. They’d achieved what they wanted though, as the original title of Benuzzi’s subsequent book makes clear: Escape on Mt Kenya – 17 days of liberty!

Unlike the bold Italian trio, we hesitated to turn back – the descent path from the Freiheit’s south wall is known as the Mörderwegli, we’d heard, which about sums up its hiker-friendliness. Then again, the wall above us betrayed no hint of weakness. Walter Pause must have mis-stated; he gives the hardest pitch as IV minus.

Allan volunteered to take the first rope-length, a trivial 3c according to the topo. But the shattered limestone flakes, resembling a vertically arrayed bed of knives, did not reassure. Nor did the lack of protection. Yet our leader mounted the pitch as unperturbed as an aristocrat ascending the scaffold.

The epithet is borrowed from W H Murray, the very doyen of prisoner/alpinists. After taking part in a restoration of climbing standards in his native Scotland during the 1930s, Murray joined the Army, was commissioned as an officer, and shipped out to the Middle Eastern theatre, where he was captured in June 1942.

To relieve the tedium of an Italian prison camp, he started to write up his pre-war climbs, relying only on his memories – far better for the quality of writing, he later said, than recycling old climbing diaries. In these efforts – although he was much too modest to make the comparison himself – he joined a select band of incarcerated authors, Boethius and Cervantes among them, who have penned classics from a prison cell.

Much of the book was already written, partly on repurposed toilet paper so legend has it, when the prisoners were moved to a camp in German territory. There the Gestapo found Murray’s manuscript and confiscated it. Undaunted, Murray set to work again. The second version, he thought, was better than the first.

The book may also have absorbed elements of the mystical creed, based on meditation, that a fellow officer introduced to him at the second camp. Finally published in 1947, Mountaineering in Scotland has never been out of print since. And, although Murray went on to become a prolific author, his writing never again reached such heights as it did behind the barbed wire fences of Marisch Trubeau Oflag VIII-F.

Murray gives his years in captivity no more than two short chapters in his autobiography, and rarely spoke about them afterwards. Yet they left their imprint throughout his writing. Describing a stalker’s cottage in remote Glen Affric, he wrote in Undiscovered Scotland, his second mountain book:

A house standing alone in wild country always appeals profoundly to Mcintyre and me. It suggests to us peace, beauty, the perfect freedom from interruption that gives a chance of understanding the things we love. … My unaided imagination could conceive no more delightful home. However, such a picture of freedom from worldly concerns is a symbol, not to be mistaken for reality. I often meet people living amid scenes of peace and beauty whose hearts share neither attribute. At first I used to be puzzled, dismayed, and even made miserable at finding them not only dissatisfied with their lot and disgruntled with society, but worse still, given over to disparagement of their neighbours. The breeding of ill will had become a chosen task. But true peace, that blessed by-product of an integrated heart and mind and will, depends on no scenery. It can be had everywhere - when the means are known.

That’s an unusual reflection to find in a book of climbing reminiscences. One wonders if it could have been written by an author who hadn’t experienced what it means to lose your liberty. "Into the heart of mountain literature," says Robert Macfarlane, “Murray smuggled the spirit." And, one might add, some exceptional insights into the meaning of freedom.

Up on Freiheit, the second pitch brought us onto a small ledge. Suddenly we had company. Two Swiss climbers were just pulling their ropes down; evidently, they’d just rappelled in from above. “We couldn’t find the route,” they explained.

In hindsight, we might have asked them how this crag got its name. But too late: having rigged their next abseil, our interlocutors vanished down the cliff.


Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Images and ink (35)

Image: Asama erupts in 1783, from Illustrations of Japan (1822), by Dutch trader Isaac Titsingh. He wrote: “The flames burst forth with a terrific uproar ... Everything was enveloped in profound darkness ... A great number of persons were consumed.”

Ink: On Asama-san, from Nihon Hyakumeizan (One Hundred Mountains of Japan) by Fukada Kyūya (1964):

Together with Aso in Kyūshū, Asama is the very model of a Japanese volcano. It has trailed smoke from its summit for untold ages, it was born in a roiling cloud, and its plume is far-famed to this day. While in normal times it emits only the faintest white wisp of vapor, Asama occasionally throws restraint to the winds and blows its stack. In just the last two decades, there have been more than 1,800 eruptions, large and small. This adds up to an amazing frequency of outbursts over the volcano’s lifetime. One of the most famous was the eruption in the third year of Tenmei (1783), when the lava surged forth for several kilometers, ravaging the foot of the mountain with fire. The famous Oni-Oshidashi, or Devil’s Flow, is a relic of that episode.

Image courtesy of the Bodleian, Oxford: the “Volcanoes” exhibition is on at the Weston Library from 10 February to 21 May 2017.

Related post: Serious steam

Thursday, March 30, 2017

A mountain called Freedom (1)

Investigating the links between life, liberty and climbing literature

Preoccupied with the abseils, we took our crag’s name on trust. The last rappel slid us out of a stone-raked slot and away into free air. While the ropes untwisted and our boot-tips described a slow downward spiral, the corrugations of Switzerland’s Alpstein massif scrolled by, viewed as if from a well-sited revolving restaurant. Then the wide-screen panorama cut to a close-up of an ice-choked recess in the cliff we were descending. To my relief, I touched down on the rubble glacis below our wall before another rotation could start. “Ropes free,” I called up to Allan. And so we arrived at the foot of Freiheit Südwand.

Pendant: abseiling into the Freiheit Südwand

The crag’s name had leapt out at me from an old book. Surfing a second-hand shop in Tokyo’s Kanda district a few years before, I’d lit on a copy of Im schwerem Fels (On hard rock), a compendium of alpine climbs by Walter Pause. Opening it, I happened on a dramatic black-and-white photo of a limestone wall, somewhere in eastern Switzerland. Freiheit! The idea of a mountain called freedom somehow resonated.

The Freiheit and Hundstein cliffs (photo from Im schwerem Fels)

After I moved to Zurich, Allan dropped by on a world tour. We’d already climbed together in the Alps of Japan and New Zealand; now it was time to sample the grand originals. I showed my visitor the topo in Pause’s book – Grade III/IV, yep, we should be able to manage that – and without ado, we drove down Switzerland’s A3 autobahn and up a forest track. Leaving the weatherbeaten Subaru at the end of the road, we walked over a pass and down to a guesthouse at the end of a lake. The valley reminded us of a Norwegian fjord, its walls soaring up at an alarming pitch.

Fjordland: or the Fählensee one summer morning
When you think about it, this part of the Alps is where you’d expect to find a mountain called Freiheit. Mountains are the “house of freedom God hath built for us,” says William Tell in the play by Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805). Granted, Tell lived in another canton, if he ever existed, which the savants say he didn’t, and Schiller intended his play for a German audience. Still, the myth has taken root. Every year, at Interlaken, an extravagant open-air production of this play perpetuates Tell’s memory.

Montesquieu (Wikipedia)
As for the mountains, serious scholars have attributed Switzerland’s unique brand of democracy to them. Liberty, says Montesquieu (1689-1755), “reigns, therefore, more in mountainous and rugged countries than in those which nature seems to have most favoured”.

And this seems convincing until you look over the border at, say, Austria, whose political culture has developed quite differently. Take, for example, the late Jörg Haider, a controversial politician with a liking for Lederhosen. Worryingly, the right-wing party he used to lead bears exactly the same name as the mountain we now planned to climb.

Was it for some victory of the Swiss confederation, perhaps against those less democratic neighbours, that our Freiheit was named? This wasn’t the moment to speculate. The abseil had landed us on a slanting terrace of limestone fragments – and more of this stuff, it seemed, might come shattering down at any moment. Let’s admit it; we were impressed with our surroundings. Far below, as if seen from a BASE jumper’s perspective, the green waters of the Fählensee glittered; above beetled the cliff we’d come to climb. We edged carefully across the stony ramp to the start of our route.

One thing was clear; the only way out was up.


Friday, March 17, 2017

Putting Mt Fuji on the map

Who was the first Westerner to portray Japan's top mountain?

Some visitors to Japan are more productive than others. In a stay of just two years, the naturalist and physician Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716) catalogued the country’s flora, discovered that the ginkgo tree was far from extinct, as then believed in Europe, made two visits to Edo, and presented himself to the Shogun.

"Fusino Jamma: een zeer hooge en Zonderlinge Berg"
Detail from a map in Engelbert Kaempfer's History of Japan (High Dutch edition)

On his way to and from the capital, Kaempfer passed close by the foot of Japan’s top mountain. In his History of Japan, published posthumously in English in 1727, he lauds "The famous Mount Fuji in the province of Suruga, which in height can be compared only to Mount Tenerife in the Canaries". Fuji, he continues, "is conical in shape and so even and beautiful that one may easily call it the most beautiful mountain in the world .... The poets and painters of this country never end praising and portraying the beauty of this mountain".

Map of Suruga Bay, showing Mt Fuji (top right)
The German doctor never got the chance to make the first gaijin ascent of the iconic volcano, leaving that honour to Rutherford Alcock a century later. Instead, according to Professor H Byron Earhart (see References), he may have made its first graphic depiction by a Westerner. A sketch appears within an engraving of the Tōkaidō route through Suruga Province that illustrates his book. Interestingly, the summit region is shown as divided into three peaklets.

Mt Fuji: the traditional view
Japanese artists had long depicted the mountain with three peaks – as shown in a famous ink painting of Mt Fuji and the Seiken temple once attributed to Sesshū (1420-1506). Yet this configuration had less to do with ground truth than with an artistic convention, probably rooted in Buddhist numerology, that sacred mountains should have triple crowns. It seems fitting, somehow, that Kaempfer's pioneering image of Mt Fuji should pay homage to this centuries-old tradition.


H. Byron Earhart, Mount Fuji: Icon of Japan, University of South Carolina Press, 2011.

Map images: courtesy of the East Asian Library, University of California, Berkeley

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The making of a Meiji mountaineer (4)

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

When they went unescorted by a sendatsu, one might think it would be quite problematic for these unversed pilgrims to make their way safely on unfamiliar mountains without maps, but the fact is that the way was well thought-out, the route was always the same, as were the stops for food and lodging, so that they would eventually reach their preacher as long as they followed this routine. Then too, there were at least three signs on each of the guesthouses that clustered around every post station, marking them as the lodgings for various congregations such as the New (一新講), the Original (故信講), the Reverent (崇敬講), the Divine Wind (神風講) and the Kantō Schools (関東講).

Avenue of cryptomeria trees: woodprint by Yoshida Hiroshi

As most of these names were used to show that the congregation so identified stayed here, the effect was somewhat provincial. For example, I seem to remember that the Divine Wind congregation came from the shrine of Ise, while the Reverents (Sūkei) were probably worshippers of Kompira. As for the New Congregation (whose name was also written as 一新講社), this was a widespread association of inn-keepers that was probably formed around 1881 or 1882, although I haven’t investigated the matter thoroughly. Anyway, there was at least one guesthouse with its sign at every post station.

A guide booklet, as issued by the New Congregation to its pilgrims

When staying at a guesthouse of the New Congregation, the landlord of the first lodgings would give a first-time traveller a booklet of about ten sheets of paper, of 3-5 size (about 9cm x 15cm). The cover was printed with the character for open (開) in white within a red circle, and the characters for the New Congregation (一新講社) below that. The landlord would write his name and stamp his seal in the book and give the traveller a letter of introduction to the next lodgings. Unlike one’s baggage, one would always keep the letter of introduction on one’s person, so that there would be no fear of dropping it or handing it to the wrong person on the way. The letter of introduction would say:-


I’d like to introduce this guest to you; please look after them well during their stay.



This guest stayed with us; when they arrive, please ensure they are well looked after and take good care of them.

Or, sometimes we were given a printed letter from the lodging house we were due to stay in next, and in that case there would be the following additional remarks:


We don’t send out touts. If touts from other lodgings pretend to be travellers and try to do you a favour by speaking ill of us and recommending another lodging house, or if rickshaw men say such things, please don’t listen to them and stay with us.

In this way, one could find the way to one’s destination quite easily, especially when travelling alone, and the letters were extremely valuable as a way of making a booking, as the custom was in the old days. Apart from showing the way between post stations, they had very useful maps to mark the sights and ancient monuments along the way.

Pages of a pilgrim's booklet, showing route and sketch maps

Of course, the paper and print quality of these booklets was poor, and the script would sometimes fade, leading to misunderstandings. In the booklet for the Nakasendo route to Kyoto that I got at the Tsutaya in Kiso-Fukushima, it said you could climb Kisokomagatake either from Agematsu or Nezame, and so I changed my plan to climb from Agematsu and saw the splendid sights of Nezame-no-toko before tackling Kisokomagatake on the following day. According to the map, there was a pond on the summit known as Tama-ike, but when I topped out I found only a hut and no pond. Then, when I found Nō-ga-ike, another pond, I thought this must certainly be Tama-ike and wrote it up as such in my account of the journey for my school magazine. Later, I was sorry to see that this passage was quoted, without much alteration, by Professor Yamasaki Naomasa in the Kisokomagake section of his Geography of Greater Japan.

However, after talking about this at the mountain meeting, when I got back to Tokyo, I found another booklet, which happened to have been issue in October, in which I saw that Tama-dake and Nowaka-ike were written side by side. As the characters other than “tama” and “ike” had been effaced in the notebook I originally looked at, it turned out that I’d carelessly confused this Tama-ike with Nō-ga-ike, so that I’m forced to redouble my apologies. However, in fact, it may be that the pond really was called “Nowaka-ike” because the katakanaワdoes not look as if the small stroke on top of that character (which would make it an ウ) had faded. Thus Nowaka-ike must be the correct name, which was later corrupted into Nō-ga-ike. The notebook also writes what seems to be the Kanekake Rock as Kanesashi Rock. So, if the current name is correct, then the notebook is mistaken. Even with the odd mistake like the one noted above, however, the notebooks were much more useful for people who rarely made journeys than today’s 1:200,000-scale maps.

Style of the well-dressed pilgrim
(Image courtesy of Kotobank)

Congregations like these were organised everywhere, not just in our village and, when on pilgrimage, the groups were led by experienced leaders. Interestingly, these leaders, the so-called sendatsu, often came from the lowest orders of society, and by some rigorous but unwritten agreement, as soon as a group came together, whether its members were rich or poor, and regardless of social status, every body was on an equal footing and the sendatsu’s word was law, so that to oppose it was unthinkable. Speaking of these arrangements, there could be no question of washing these precious garments, as the pilgrims’ white robes had received the inky stamp of each sacred mountain visited, so that one couldn’t help reeling back in disgust if one ever got into a carriage with them. Even in this age of the train, there must be quite a few people who have felt a bit faint if they’ve had the misfortune to be seated with such people.

The members of the congregation, except for the sendatsu, were allowed to wear their ordinary clothes while travelling to the mountain but, as soon as they reached it, they had to change into what we called gyō’i (行衣) or pilgrim’s garb. Even today you can see such scenes. Although this may be less true of congregations from the countryside, groups from the city tend to be fairly riotous and their sendatsu have lost the authority they used to have. So even if they don’t stink out their fellow passengers, they get on their nerves with their drinking and carousing. This is inevitable, as serious pilgrimages fade away, to be replaced with trips that have the atmosphere of a light-hearted mountain excursion. This is not to say that there wasn’t a pleasure-seeking element even in those mountain pilgrimages of old, once the pilgrims were away from the mountain, but the religious element has now greatly faded, leaving the pleasure-seeking to dominate.

To be continued

Monday, March 13, 2017

Images and ink (34)

Image: A view of Fusiyama  from from Jules Trousset's Nouveau dictionnaire encyclopédique universel illustré, Paris: La Librairie Illustrée, 1885-1891

Ink: An early European account of Japan's top mountain, from John Swan's Speculum Mundi; or, A Glasse Representing the Face of the World (second edition, Cambridge, 1643):

"In Japan there is a mountain called Figeniana, which is some leagues higher than the clouds. And in Ternate among the Philippine islands there is a mountain, which (as Mr. Purchas in his pilgrimage relateth) is even angry with nature because it is fastened to the earth, and doth therefore not onely lift up his head above the middle Region of the aire, but endeavoureth also to conjoyn it self with the fierie Element. And of the mountain Athos between Macedon and Thrace, it is said to be so high, that it casteth shade more than thirty & seven miles. Also the mount of Olympus in Thessalie is said to be of that height, as neither the winds, clouds or rain do overtop it. And (although I omit others of exceeding height) it is also written of another mount so high above the clouds, that some who have seen it do witnesse that they have been on the top of it, and have had both a clear skie over their heads, and also clouds below them pouring down rain and breaking forth with thunder and lightning; at which those below have been terrified, but on the top of the hill there was no such matter."

Image: courtesy of Old Book Illustrations.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Dispelling the mountain gloom

A new look at how the Alps were appreciated in past centuries

It’s always refreshing to see a young scholar laying into received opinion. That kind of frisson comes from reading “Rethinking mountain gloom” by Dawn Hollis in the latest edition of Alpinist magazine. Hollis takes her axe to the idea that, before people started to climb in the high Alps late in the eighteenth century, most Europeans disliked and avoided the mountains.

Thomas Burnet
As her first witness, Hollis summons an English churchman by the name of Thomas Burnet (1635?– 1715), who crossed the Simplon Pass from Switzerland to Italy in August 1672 in the company of the Earl of Wiltshire. Almost a decade later, Burnet published his ruminations on the Alps in a book entitled The Sacred Theory of the Earth. He concluded that mountains were not part of God’s original design, but instead resulted from the chaos unleashed by Noah’s flood.

A controversy ensued, perhaps like the one that erupted in our own times when Luis and Walter Alvarez proposed that a giant meteorite had snuffed out the dinosaurs. But what surprised Hollis, when she read the responses to Burnet’s theory, was that most took issue with Burnet’s negative view of mountains. Mountains, these opponents argued, were useful as well as beautiful: they were the source of rivers, the habitat of wild animals, and served to keep warring nations apart.

Title page of the Sacred Theory

Taking the hint that at least some people thought well of mountains in pre-modern times, Hollis sought out additional accounts of alpine positivity. And she found plenty. One example she cites is by John Chardin, a jewel trader, who claimed to have ascended Mt Caucasus in December 1672 and was struck by the clouds that “roll’d under my feet, as far as I could see, so that I could not but think of myself i’ the Air, though … I trod upon the ground.”

Map (detail) by Johannes Schalbetter showing Mons Silvius (aka the Matterhorn), 1545.

It may be that one can take revisionism too far. For, surely, something must have changed at the end of the eighteenth century. Take the Matterhorn, for instance. A mountain of its description, although not necessarily under its modern name, was marked on maps from perhaps 1545. Yet the first full-on portrait of the mountain dates from as recently as August 14, 1806. The watercolour in question was painted by Hans Conrad Escher von der Linth (1767-1823), who was on a tour to elucidate the geological structure of the Alps.

August 14, 1806: the Matterhorn sits for its first portrait

So it seems that, even if Europeans didn’t actually dislike mountains before the nineteenth century, few actively bothered to seek them out. Even so, Hollis is surely right to insist that it is misleading to consign all pre-modern attitudes to a “mountain gloom” bucket  – she borrows “mountain gloom” and “mountain glory” from Marjorie Hope Nicolson (1894–1981), a pioneer in this strand of literary research, who used them as shorthand for the pre-modern and modern attitudes to mountains. She, in turn, borrowed the terms from John Ruskin, who meant something completely different by them.

Conrad Gesner
Few of the witnesses summoned up by Hollis could be less gloomy than Conrad Gesner (1516-1565), the learned doctor and botanist of Zurich. In a letter of 1541, to a fellow scholar of nearby Glarus, Gesner set out a remarkably modern list of reasons for climbing mountains:-

Most learned Avienus – I have resolved for the future, so long as God grants me life, to ascend divers mountains every year, or at least one, in the season when vegetation is at its height, partly for botanical observation, partly for the worthy exercise of the body and recreation of the mind. 

What must be the pleasure, think you, what the delight of a mind rightly touched to gaze upon the huge mountain masses for one’s show and, as it were, lift one’s head into the clouds? The soul is strangely rapt with these astonishing heights, and carried off to the contemplation of the Supreme Architect …. 

Philosophers will always feast the eyes of the body and mind on the goodly things of this earthly paradise; and by no means least among these are the abruptly soaring summits, the trackless steeps, the vast slopes rising to the sky, the rugged rocks, the shady woods.

Yet, when Hollis presented her thesis at the Alpine Club in London, she made out in the gloom of the lecture theatre an array of pursed lips and frowning faces, together with just one doubtful, bemused smile. Her audience was unconvinced. Among the critiques she received was that Gesner & Co amounted to no more than a few exceptions, “many of them already well known”.

Well, it depends what you mean by a few exceptions. For Gesner was not alone in appreciating the Alps. Scanning the relevant chapter in an old Badminton Library book on mountaineering – surely the Alpine Club has a copy – we find mention of one J. Müller, also of Zurich, who wrote up an ascent of the Stockhorn in 1536 in Latin hexameters.

Then, Josias Simmler (1530–1576) published the first part of his treatise on the Alps in 1574 – it describes the use of ropes to protect against crevasse falls on glaciers – and, finally, in 1605, yet another Zürcher, Hans Rudolph Rebmann (1566-1605) published a verse dialogue between two mountains.
Albrecht von Haller

This work is described by the Badminton author as plausibly “the most rambling and tedious poem ever published in Europe”. Still, it resonated enough to leave echoes in the works of Johann Jakob Scheuchzer (1672–1733), a natural philosopher of, yes, Zurich, and even in Schiller's play, William Tell (1804).

And readers remained avid for poetry on elevated subjects. When Albrecht von Haller (1708–1777), a physician and botanist from Bern, obliged them with a verse paean to the Alps in 1742, it enjoyed an “immense reputation”, went through thirty editions in the author’s lifetime, and was translated into French, English, Italian and Latin. That must have been enough to keep popular interest in the Alps stoked until, a generation later, the philosopher and novelist Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) took up the baton of marketing them to the rest of Europe.

So, unless these Swiss authors were themselves no more than exceptions, there would seem to be ample material at hand to support Hollis’s case.  I look forward to the day when she converts her findings from a doctoral thesis into the kind of book that ordinary mountaineers can read. It should be refreshingly iconoclastic.


Dawn L. Hollis, "Rethinking mountain gloom", Alpinist 57, Spring 2017 edition.

C T Dent, Mountaineering, The Badminton Library of Sports and Pastimes, Third edition, 1901.

Marjorie Hope Nicolson, Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory, The Development of the Aesthetics of the Infinite, 1959.

Jon Mathieu, "Ein «Gespräch zweyer alter Bergen»", Neue Zürich Zeitung, 25 October 2015.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Climbers who wrote

"Its besetting sin is triviality. There is too much talk about the details of travel...."
Woodcut from Edward Whymper's Scrambles amongst the Alps in the years 1860-69

An appreciation of English alpine literature from the start of the last century

From 1840 onward this literature began to grow at an increasing pace. The early awe of the mountains gave way before achievement. Achievement gave birth to a new and more intimate knowledge or the Alps. Between 1840 and 1870 practically all the highest peaks of Switzerland were conquered. Region after region delivered up its secrets - first the Oberland, then the Engadine and finally the Dolomites. A whole body of Englishmen mastered the secrets of snow-craft, and on their heels came another and even more adventurous band who developed a new school in crag-climbing. 

The men who performed these feats began to describe them. The people who remained behind had an eager curiosity to know what these heights were like, and there was a continuous demand for the literature of Alpine adventure. Thus there grew up a new literature of the Alps, the literature of the Alpine Journal and its writers; the books of Whymper, Mummery, Forbes and Conway; and, perhaps most distinguished of all, the sketches of Tyndall and Leslie Stephen.

What is the value of this literature as a contribution to English prose? Like the mountains with which it deals, it is strangely unequal. It rises to great heights and sinks to great depths. Its besetting sin is triviality. There is too much talk about the details of travel; about the meals, about the discomforts, about beds, about blisters, and above all about fleas. If all the passages in Alpine literature written on these topics were collected together, they would easily fill a volume bigger than the present. 

But in spite of these grave defects, the English climbing literature of the last fifty years has given us some great passages. It can even be said, indeed, that mountain climbing has actually created writers. Men like Whymper and Mummery were not literary men. They were climbers who took to writing. But they had a great theme and a great experience. The mere greatness of the theme has made them conspicuous writers. They have been raised by the subject to a higher level. They have ascended with the mountains themselves to greater heights.


From the foreword to the anthology In praise of Switzerland: being the Alps in prose and verse (1912) by Harold Spender (1864-1926)

Monday, February 20, 2017

Snow records, past and present

Mt Ibuki's record-breaking snows give way to an ominous sign of the times

The Financial Times rarely troubles itself with Japan’s hundred mountains. But last week, the pink pages celebrated Ibuki-yama, Fukada Kyūya’s Hyakumeizan no. 89. Writing in the FT’s travel section, Nick Middleton, an Oxford University geographer, marked the anniversary of the world’s deepest-ever snowfall, which was recorded 90 years ago on the summit of this 1,377-metre mountain near Nagoya.

Snowy Ibuki-san: woodprint by Hashiguchi Goyoh

On 14 February 1927, the snow was already more than nine metres deep on Ibuki, when an “astonishing” 230 centimetres fell in 24 hours, bringing the total depth to 11.82 metres. Japanese meteorologists call these large mountain snowfalls “yamayuki” (mountain snows), notes Middleton. They occur when cold, dry air sweeping in from Siberia picks up heat and moisture on its way over the Sea of Japan. You get the drift.

Unsurprisingly, most of that snow falls on the mountains lining the Japan Sea coastline. Yet Ibuki sits as close to Japan’s sunny Pacific seaboard as it does to the traditional “snow country”. This apparent anomaly might be resolved by a glance at the map below. It reveals a gap in the Japan Sea coastal range, through which those cold winter winds can blow through onto Ibuki. (There’s more detail on this blog.)

Some years ago, a mid-winter summit climb by meizanologists Chris White and Wes Lang showed that Ibuki-yama still likes to defend her snowy reputation. (The female pronoun is surely justified, as Wes has since named his daughter for the mountain.) If you want to emulate their feat, though, you might want to hurry. Last December, Ibuki set a more ominous record. The first snow fell 22 days after the average date, the most delayed "hatsu-kanmuri" (first snow crown) ever seen on this mountain.


Financial Times, "A Geographer’s Notebook: the world’s biggest snowfall", 17 February 2017

Wes Lang, Tozan Tales, Ibuki – the search for beauty

Chris White, i-cjw blog, Mountain redeemed

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Images and ink (31)

Image: Ski-mountaineers below the Mönchsjochhütte, Bernese Oberland, at dawn (photo by Alpine Light & Structure)

Ink: From "Mountains (For Hedwig Petzold)" by W. H. Auden:

 ".... Those unsmiling parties,
Clumping off at dawn in the gear of their mystery
For points up, are a bit alarming;
They have the balance, nerve,
And habit of the Spiritual, but what God
Does their Order serve?"

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Sudden dearth

Are Japan mountain blogs falling by the wayside, and does it matter?

“Mr Bond, they have a saying in Chicago: ‘Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, the third time it's enemy action’.” So says Goldfinger in the eponymous novel by Ian Fleming.

The same could be said of the mountain blogging scene....

It’s been like that with Japan mountain blogs in English. First, Tom Bouquet’s Volcanoes in Japan fell dormant. Then Hanameizan and i-cjw went more or less quiet. Mountain blogs were not the only ones to fade: Through the Sapphire Sky, an inspired writer on cross-cultural topics, took all her posts down, wiping out a trove of insights into gardens, the Epic of Gilgamesh and disaster-film monsters. Harumi, we miss you.

Blogs bloom and wither all the time. That’s happenstance for you. It matters only when more wither than bloom. Then bloggers get less chance to interact. It's the interaction that's crucial. On this blog, for instance, Mountain revolutionaries would never have been posted if Bre’er Ted in Kyoto hadn't prompted me. Thanks, Ted. Without conversations like that, a blog ends up like the sound of one hand clapping.

The malaise may go beyond Japan. Over on Hiking in Finland, Hendrik Morkel has recently complained that compiling his deservedly popular Week in Review feature isn’t rewarding enough. I share your pain, Bre’er Hendrik, whether the rewards are actual revenue or just reader traffic. Though, like other fans, I hope you’ll keep that excellent review going somehow.

At this point, like Auric Goldfinger, one starts suspecting that more than coincidence is at play. Is enemy action to blame? Try a Google search on “death of blogging”, and you’ll see what I mean. Twitter and its ilk have taken over, leaving blogs stranded like beached whales. Blogs don’t deliver the traffic that Facebook does, says Mother Jones.

Or, to quote the New Republic, we’re in a post-print world, where social media move at the speed of images, not the slowness of words. This paragraph from Jeet Heer's thoughtful article particularly resonates:

The Japanese have a word for blogs that have fallen into neglect or are altogether abandoned: ishikoro, or pebbles. We live in a world of pebbles now. They litter the internet, each one a marker of writing dreams and energies that have dissipated or moved elsewhere … But the feeling of community and camaraderie in pioneering a new medium—the fellowship of the hyperlink—is no longer palpable.

Not everybody sips the defeatist Kool-Aid. We're fortunate that, among Japan-based outdoor bloggers, Bre’er Ted keeps roaming the old highways, Bre'er Tony can't stop climbing Japan, and, on Ridgeline Images, Bre’er David is working an increasingly rich vein of haikyo visits that mash up hikes with history. As for Br’er Wes, rumour has it that he’s parlayed his authoritative Hiking in Japan posts into a book contract.

That’s right, a book. You know, these read-only media are going to be the next big thing. If you’re still out there, readers, remember you read it here first.

Friday, February 3, 2017

The making of a Meiji mountaineer (3)

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

Later, in my high school days, I dragged quite a few friends with me to the mountains, doing my best to sell them on my own enthusiasms. As we were in Sendai, we went out one Saturday to Izumi-dake, a mountain nearly twelve hundred metres high about five leagues northwest of the city that is so ideal for weekend expeditions. We camped out for the night, then climbed to the summit on Sunday and looked out at all the mountains bordering Ōu province, before descending. In April, one could slide down a fairly long snowfield, but even though everyone agreed that this was fun at the time, only two or three of my companions decided they liked mountains and went on climbing them afterwards.

Pilgrims on Mt Fuji (Umagaeshi): woodprint by Yoshida Hiroshi
One of these, for some unknown reason, became a devotee of waterfalls, and so, one summer, he went out in search of waterfalls that I’d never heard of, such as Shōmyō, Hirayu and Hakusui, and as he walked along the Itoigawa highroad towards Matsumoto, he saw the high mountains of the Tateyama and Ushiro-Tateyama range and, discovering that quite a few of these mountains keep their snow into summer, he learned the peculiar names of some of them, such as North and South Goryū. When we met up back at the dormitory, and he asked if I know these mountains, I was embarrassed. So I asked if he’d actually climbed them, and when he admitted he hadn’t, I told him he had nothing to boast about then and felt somewhat relieved. As Shiga Shigetaka's Theory of the Japanese landscape hadn’t yet come out, there was no way of discussing the matter further.

The mountains in question may have been South Goryū or Kashimayari-ga-take. Later, I realised that I should have dug into the matter more thoroughly. But I had no way of knowing, as I had no detailed knowledge of the place. This man later caught a lung infection and died on the island of Hachijōjima just last year. After this episode, my first mountain friend was Tanabe Jūji, who was originally a devotee of the sea but, as everybody knows, has since achieved great things in the mountaineering world.

At the end of the day, the reason that the friends who originally came with me to the mountains didn’t end up as mountain aficionados is that they found the effort of climbing too much of a grind. If you can’t appreciate mountains while accepting the grind of climbing, then it’s only natural that you’ll fall by the wayside. Although we ourselves are apt to say that a climb was more strenuous than amusing, mountaineering gives us so many interesting experiences that we’d never dream of giving it up. But thirty-five or six years ago, people didn’t think like that. Now that mountaineering has parted from religion, and has become a mere hobby, people have lost their motivation to improve their skills, no matter what their potential, in line with the trend of the times. I can’t help being amazed how far “fashion”, if I may be permitted to use the word, holds sway over people.

Speaking of fashion, I can’t deny that the “fashion” (if that is the right word) for mountain pilgrimages in my village helped to attract me towards mountaineering. Every year in August, in the slack season, congregations of twenty or thirty people would set off from Mt Fuji or Ontake or Hakkai-san, while smaller groups of three, four or five people, or just individuals, would seek out more distant places, such as the Three Sacred Mountains of Dewa, Ōmine in Yamato province, or Osore-zan in the Nambu region.

Misty morning at Nikko: woodprint by Yoshida Hiroshi
Closer to home were Mitsumine, Kōshin and Nantai. Of course, this was mountaineering for a religious end, so people’s knowledge of these mountains was rather sketchy, and they were only vaguely aware of whether a mountain was high or low, or how many passages were rigged with chains and so on. For instance, if you asked people who’d climbed Ontake if there were any high mountains nearby, you’d likely hear that there weren’t, except that Mt Fuji looked fairly high. So I was gobsmacked when I later climbed Ontake for myself and saw Kisokoma-ga-take, Norikura and other high peaks staring me in the face.

Even so, when the congregations came back, handed their thank-you gifts and souvenirs round the village, and spent half a leisurely day telling their travellers’ tales, there is no doubt that these mountain mysteries, wrapped round in strange legends, held my attention and made my eyes bulge with amazement, stoking both my fascination with mountains and my desire to climb them, whether I was aware of it or not. I can see myself sitting there, a shaven-headed lad, snotty nosed, mouth agape, listening for all I was worth to the loud voice of the man telling the tale, right by me, in a tea-house, served with pickled plums, or candied red-pickled ginger, or stuff like that.


Thursday, January 26, 2017

The making of a Meiji mountaineer (2)

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

In those days, farming villages weren’t distressed as they are today; they were very peaceful places, bustling with people, women too, and in our hill country – although what we spoke of as “mountains” included flat ground with forests and dry fields – we used to go out collecting bracken in spring and mushrooms in autumn. I enjoyed these forays too, although rather more the mountain-climbing than the bracken-harvesting or mushroom-picking. It was probably then that I caught the mountaineering bug.

Village near Mt Fuji: woodprint by Yoshida Hiroshi
The lure of high places is also felt in our childhood tree-climbing; perhaps everyone has felt this. In a small way, it’s how an adventurous, aspiring spirit expresses itself. In his Theory of the Japanese landscape, by way of introducing the charms of mountaineering, Shiga Shigetaka writes how he once climbed up to a high tower and describes how he felt looking down at the people going back and forth below. Although, if it’s a sense of superiority you’re looking for, I’d say that climbing a tree always beats going up to a second-floor window, as I’m sure you’d agree, and this is probably because the second floor is not enough to satisfy an adventurous, aspiring spirit.

We used to vie with each other in climbing trees on the way home from school. Once I clambered about a hundred feet up a sawtooth oak, and, when I looked down, I saw how small my friends had shrunk to tiny heads with their arms poking out from them, as if their heads were walking by themselves. Then I felt dizzy, and I was too afraid to climb down, so that I had to be rescued by a grown-up. In mountaineering terms, you could say I’d got myself into a pickle.

But I am straying from the subject; the first mountain I ever climbed was Akagi. When I was six, my grandmother took me along to Yu-no-sawa, where she was going to take the waters but, as I don’t remember much except being frightened by stories of tengu, being surprised at the lake on the mountain, and ice being carried away from an icehouse, I doubt if this contributed much to my later love of mountains.

Then, at the age of thirteen, I climbed Mt Fuji. Today, when a nine-year old girl has climbed the mountain and a youngster of eleven can brag about having scaled Ko-Yari, this may not sound particularly novel, but in those days it was almost beyond imagining. There were adherents to both the Fuji faith and the Ontake faith in my village and, as our family belonged to an Ontake congregation, I normally wouldn’t have been allowed to climb the other sect’s Mt Fuji before I’d had the chance to climb Ontake for the first time. But it turned out that another boy of my age was going up Mt Fuji, and I was so envious and made such a fuss that the sendatsu, the Mt Fuji guide, made an exception for me as I was just a child and let me tag along.

Pilgrims on Mt Fuji: woodprint by Yoshida Hiroshi
The Fuji congregation in my village had the strange custom of ritually drinking water along the way. Whereas the Ontake congregations made ablutions in water, the Fuji ones drank it. As to how this custom arose, all the old folks have passed away, and now we have no way of knowing. We drank one cup of water on the first day, two on the second day, and so on until we got up to five cups on the day we started on the mountain from Fuji-Yoshida. Since we drank the water after breakfast, just before starting out every day, this was quite an effort. We’d try to eat breakfast as early as possible so that we could take our time getting ready. The guide had a wooden bowl with a lanyard hanging from his belt. The aluminium canteens that we use today may owe something to this practice. Anyway, the bowl held about eight measures of water, so about five bowlfuls meant four gō (almost a litre), and we’d drink that off in one swig, and we used to practise this water-drinking before setting out.

As on Ontake pilgrimages, one wasn’t allowed to circumambulate Mt Fuji’s crater on one’s first visit, but I managed to persuade the guide to let me do so, as I was only a child and so it wouldn’t count as a transgression. What I remember fairly well from this trip is the crowds in the mountain huts pressing in on me, eating mochi as the other food was so dreadful, and drinking delicious sweet sake. My memories of the mountain itself have faded to a blur. But the fine mid-August weather held, so that the views were good and you could take in the surrounding mountains with one sweep of the eye. Among them, I remember recognising Akagi when it was pointed out to me, and being delighted when I saw the sea for the first time ever. Also I remember being shocked when I realised that the simple skyline that I saw from my village was, in reality, a much more complicated affair.

What I took away from my Mt Fuji trip was quite simple; that mountain-climbing was very much for me. That is to say, I thought that climbing to high places was for me; it was only much later that I learned to appreciate the true joys of mountaineering. I might grumble that, if only I’d found a proper mentor and undergone the right training, I would have made something of myself as a mountaineer. Anyway, I did discover, by luck more than judgment, that mountaineering was the best way of satisfying that youthful spirit of curiosity and adventure, and that was a feat in itself.