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.

(To be continued)

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