Sunday, December 30, 2018

A meizanologist's diary (23)

28 October: the Sensei’s alarm cat wakes us at 5 am: an early start is called for, even if today's objective is a pond rather than a mountaintop.

Breakfast is natto on toast, washed down with a pot of strong coffee. This cross-cultural experiment sustains us on our drive through Imajo, a sleepy village south of Fukui. A wooded valley then leads us into the eastern hills. So remote is the last village that some houses have been abandoned, their roofs caved in and bushes growing out of the windows.

We’re not the first to arrive at the carpark. Of a Sunday, Yasha-ga-ike seems to be a popular destination. Mist blurs the nearby peaks as we start off up a path that threads through a river gorge. Soon we have more to worry about than a big drop to the river: two hornets are tussling in mid-path. A wide berth is given.

The path zig-zags up through beech woods, bringing us up on the banks of a pool sited at the treeline’s edge. This is a quiet place, even with a score or so of fellow hikers appreciating the autumn foliage.

The still waters sit like a corrie between two mountains. This is a “pond cradled in nocturnal gloom”, if you insist on taking the characters in Yasha-ga-ike’s name literally.

Quite possibly, it was these crepuscular overtones that attracted the attention of the writer Izumi Kyōka (1873-1939). Whether or not he actually came up here – Kyōka’s home town of Kanazawa is quite a step away – he worked the place and its memorable name into a play. A Dragon Princess inhabits the pond and will protect the nearby villagers from flood as long as their temple bell tolls three times a day…

First performed in 1913, Izumi Kyōka’s play was later made into a film and, more recently, an opera. The latter’s director, as quoted in the Japan Times, believes that “Yashagaike” is a cautionary tale against a waning in the traditional sense of respect toward nature.

Did Kyōka draw on some pre-existing legend for his plot? There would have been no lack of material, whether from Yasha-ga-ike itself or some other mountain lake: judging from a quick scan of Nihon Hyakumeizan, there is no self-respecting pond in the entire realm without a guardian spirit, benign or otherwise. Take Mikuri-ike on Tateyama, round which a monk most unwisely attempted to swim three times. Or the “Little Marsh” on Akagi, where a serpent lurks that was once a fair maiden.

Turns out, though, that nymphs really do haunt Yasha-ga-ike. They’re those of a unique and endangered beetle, as advertised by a signboard that enjoins us not to sully the pond’s ecosystem in any way.

After duly appreciating the autumn foliage, we set out northwards towards Sanshū-ga-dake – twenty years ago, the Sensei led her students to this nearby summit along a well-made path. Since then, nature has reasserted herself – we struggle through the flailing bamboo-grass to a subsidiary peak, calling it a day before our clothes are ripped to shreds.

On the way back, the bushes suddenly rustle and heave behind us. A long moment of suspense ensues – flight is out of the question along this tangled ridge – before we see another hiker forcing his way out of the brushwood. As we start down the path towards the valley, still flushed with adrenalin, I reflect that a bear encounter – even an illusory one – goes a long way towards restoring that traditional sense of respect towards nature.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

A meizanologist's diary (22)

26 October (continued): starting down Amakazari, we swap the chill northside shadows for a sunny east-facing ridge. At first, the path is easy. Then the ridge pinches down into the spiny back of a stegosaurus. We put our hands to stone again.

After scrambling down the warm, dry rocks, we pause to admire their grey-green hue, subtle as a celadon vase. This must be the “hornblend porphyrite”, as marked on the Geopark map given us by our kind host this morning (“Agemasu!”, he said when I asked for one).

Descending into the trees turns the calendar back to mid-autumn. The blizzards of falling leaves we saw on the north side haven’t started here; instead, the woods flaunt their yellow and gold intact. We’ve arrived in peak koyo.

Now the going is easier, I wonder why Fukada chose this mountain as one of his elite one hundred. Amakazari lacks the literary fame of, say, Naeba and Myoko, two nearby Meizan. And, unlike them, it doesn’t top the 2,000-metre line. Nor, apart from Monk Rakan, was it a mountain that pilgrims sought out.

Perhaps that's why Fukada himself seems a bit diffident about introducing its attractions: Indeed, he writes in Nihon Hyakumeizan, most travelers will hardly notice this shy, almost petite mountain, spell-bound as they are by the ramparts of the Ushiro-Tateyama range towering over the road to their left.

After failing to scale the mountain’s northern side with his brother – this was in the early summer of 1941 – Fukada came back two weeks later, to try his luck from the Otari hot springs. This time his companion was Koba Shigeko, an acquaintance and perhaps a sweetheart from his high-school days. Shigeko is airbrushed out of the relevant Nihon Hyakumeizan chapter – with good reason, as Fukada was still married to his first wife at that time. In the end, four days of rain forced them to give up.

Could it be that memories of this romantic interlude swayed the Hyakumeizan author's judgment when it came to selecting Amakazari for his list? The question has just floated to mind when the path rounds a corner, presenting us with a classic view – the cliffs of Futonbishi erupting, well, metaphorically speaking, above the rugged defile of Arasuge-sawa.

When, after the war, Fukada returned to Amakazari, it was this gully that led him and his guide towards the long-sought summit – in those days, there was no manicured path up the mountain. But the scenery in that gully must be spectacular, even if you need to keep a wary eye open for rocks bouncing down from above.

From this angle, Amakazari looks to the tourist like a bunched fist, punching its way clear of the moribund terrain that surrounds it. And, for once, the savants might agree with that touristic impression. A glance at the geological map shows how Amakazari’s igneous rocks have intruded through older, softer sedimentary beds.

Thirdly, a mountain must have an air of distinction, wrote Fukada in the essay explaining how he chose his mountains … I do not concern myself with humdrum, run-of-the-mill mountains. It may be true that, as all mountains are different, all have distinguishing features. But this is not enough. What I look for is an extraordinary distinctiveness.

Clambering over the gully’s parapet, we walk down into an easier country of woods and marshes - the iron-hard porphyrite has given way to sandstones of a loucher character.

In this hospitable landscape the trees grow taller and, before they hide the view, I glance back for a last look at Amakazari. Yes, Fukada was right: “Extraordinary distinctiveness," I find myself murmuring.

But there's nobody left to listen: the Sensei has gone on to find a sunny glade for our lunchtime halt.

Friday, November 23, 2018

A meizanologist's diary (21)

26 October: at 6.05 am, we step out of the lodge into gray half-light. Our ascent of Amakazari starts then and there. Without preliminaries, except to pay its respects to a small shrine, the path leaps straight into the vertiginous beech woods. Its boulders are greasy with dew and leafmould. Mercifully, fixed ropes draw the sting from aery traverses.

A cold wind finds us when we come up on a ridge. Autumn is all but over; the last leaves come fluttering by. The Sensei strides on ahead. Must be the natto we had for breakfast. Pausing to photograph a miniature garden nestling in a tree root, I look up to see her vanishing round the next zig-zag, bear-bell chiming prestissimo.

At this rate, we’ll be up before nine. The figures on my altimeter watch are spinning upwards like a fruit-machine’s. We skitter briskly across an exposed hogsback, the thunder of torrents rising from both sides.

Above, we scramble over little rock steps, A-zeroing from tree roots. A larger outcrop is scaled via an aluminium ladder, helpfully identified by a sign identifying it as the “aluminium ladder”. Nothing is being left to chance. Or perhaps it’s a subtle form of post-modernist irony.

Wayfinding was less straightforward when Fukada Kyūya came this way in mid-1941. At that time, he records in Nihon Hyakumeizan, there was no clearly marked path up the mountain and I soon tired of seeking out little tracks here and there. After getting utterly lost, I turned back. But the northern view of Amakazari-yama was memorable.

I’m impressed with the northern view myself. Overhead, glimpsed through the trees, a rat-coloured helm cloud scours across the summit. I can see us, if we get that far, bent double against the gusts, groping our way through the galloping mists across the mountaintop …

The Sensei is unfazed. On her side of Japan, I guess, you won’t do much mountaineering if you wait for balmy skies. I lose her again when I stop to inspect a small pond. While the gusts keep harrying the water surface, I give up on photography and set off in pursuit of the frenetically chiming bear-bell.

Throwing common sense to the winds, the path takes a direttissima line straight up the final slope (when Wes came this way, all of this lay under a vast snowfield). We gain height, boots skidding on muddy pebbles. Quite suddenly the sun is shining straight into our faces down a tunnel of bamboo grass. Emerging from the shadows into a bright morning, we find that all the clouds, rat-coloured or otherwise, have vanished.

At once, there is company. Having met just one other hiker on the northern path, we now see platoons of hikers filing up from Otari, the more popular route. All are then funnelled summitwards by a trench through the sasa, which hisses and flails in the blustering easterly. Placing our feet with extra care, we mince across the top of a steep gully and half-scramble through the rocks to the top.

Momentarily, the wind leaves us in peace. And, as we pull over onto to the summit platform, there are the statues meditating in a row, just as Fukada describes them: The old stone Buddhas all faced northwards towards Echigo, where across the intervening sea lay the long arm of the Noto peninsula. Mentally, I salute Monk Rakan, who is said to have carried them up here on his back.

Today, the Noto peninsula lurks somewhere beneath the haze. Yet the icy wind keeps the upper air clear, so that we see all the way across the mist-filled Fossa Magna, to distant Shirouma, whose tilting ramp soars above the dust horizon. Eastwards, Yakeyama heaves its volcanic tump over an intervening ridgeline while, to the north, we look down onto Koma-ga-take and, beyond, the ultramarine blur of the Japan Sea.

Hmm, interesting: primeval mountains to the west, rows of upstart volcanoes in the east. The landscape seems poised to narrate a geological epic, probably of Cecil B de Mille-like grandiosity. Too bad that I’m in no shape to listen. The wind slices through my pile jacket like a Gassan blade, though the Sensei seems not even to notice it. "Cold, is it cold?" she asks. Definitely, it's the natto.

“We need to go down,” I hear myself saying.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

A meizanologist's diary (20)

25 October (continued): Even from twelve kilometres away, the mountain browbeats us. No wonder it shouldered its way irresistibly into Fukada Kyūya’s list of one hundred famous mountains. Cliffs beetle, ridges bristle, a rocky prow surges El Cap-like into the clouds. Can we really get up that thing?

We set off along the river bank towards our nemesis. Autumn grasses wave, just about holding their own against an invasive yellow weed that is spreading in from the coast. The interloper came in during Japan’s GHQ era, says the Sensei.

Soon we find ourselves uncertain of our position. Has our mountain somehow drifted north along the Itoigawa-Shizuoka Tectonic Line? No, the map reassures us. Yonder El Cap is actually known as Koma-ga-take. Our true objective, Amakazari-yama, still hides its head in the clouds. Well, says the Sensei, what else would you expect from a mountain written with the characters for ‘adorned with rain’?

When we walk through a quiet hamlet, nobody is around, not even in the village shop. This rustic emporium recalls the ones that you’d find thirty years ago, before those ubiquitous Seven-Elevens and Lawsons spread their just-in-time tentacles into the remotest parts.

Travelling was less convenient in those days – the village shops sold nothing that the passer-by could actually eat, except perhaps for stale cakes – but the pace of life was more measured. People seemed to have more time for everything.

By default, our approach march has slipped into this old-fashioned groove. Walking up to the lodge will take hours, yet we’ll see more than we ever could from the windows of a speeding taxi. The husks of insects by the road. Miniature shrines, complete with paper charms and lanterns, keeping watch over the rice fields. Fortunatus et ille deos qui novit agrestes ...

The clouds start to lift as we turn off the main road. Now a winding lane leads up into the foothills. We are so far impressed by the dense beech woods as to deploy our bear-bell. Opposite, the mellow afternoon light lets the cliffs of El Cap – sorry, Koma-ga-take – stand out in rugged relief. Slow is more.

Up here, the susuki grass reigns unchallenged by the yellow weed, as befits one of those seven flowers of autumn.

The hot springs show up after the sun has slipped below the ridge. In the chill evening shadows, the place seems as remote as it was in the days of the Hyakumeizan author. It was in the early summer of 1941 that Fukada came this way, together with his brother. In those days, the hot springs went by the name of the Kajiyama Shinyu. They were rebranded as the Amakazari lodge after Fukada’s book, published in 1964, summoned the eponymous mountain into the limelight.

We slide open the door and step into a wood-panelled entrance hall. All is dark and we can’t find the light switch. An elderly man comes out to greet us, explaining that he’s on his own, as the other staff have already left: the lodge closes for the winter in a few days and we’re the only guests. Our host is 75, he tells us, and has worked up here for a decade of summer seasons.

But the opulent dinner needs no apologies, even if the spacious dining hall feels a bit draughty with just the two of us to fill it. We turn in early. Our host advises a five o' clock reveille if we want to traverse the mountain.

Monday, November 19, 2018

A meizanologist's diary (19)

25 October: My, but this is a quiet place. Except for us, nobody gets off the train. When it rattles off southwards, the silence rolls in like a powder avalanche. We experience that moment, familiar to Arctic travellers, when the Twin Otter flies away, leaving you there on the glacier to fend for yourself.

We’ve alighted on the weed-grown platform at Nechi because this is the closest station to our objective - the north side of Amakazari-yama, the thirty-first on Fukada Kyūya’s list of one hundred mountains. But not that close: a twelve-kilometre approach lies ahead.

In high summer, the Amakazari hot springs lodge would send a car down for us. But today we’ll just have to walk. Making a virtue of necessity, we decide to do some sight-seeing on our way. A sign at the station directs us to a prime exhibit of the Itoigawa Geopark, just ten minutes away.

Courtesy Wikipedia
Rounding a wooded bluff on a nicely asphalted path, we come face-to-face with the Itoigawa-Shizuoka Tectonic Line. Or, more precisely, with its boundary fault. Excavated for our inspection, a muddy cranny runs down a cliff almost as dramatically as the famous crack that threatens to split the Earth in that 1960s B-movie.

Informative signboards bring us up to speed. Naruhodo: the ISTL is one boundary of the Fossa Magna, a giant rift valley cleaving its way from north to south across Honshū’s midriff.

Although rift valley may be understating matters. Many savants believe that the fracture originated when two strips of land - Honshū’s future eastern and western halves -  broke away from the Asian mainland some 20-15 million years ago, like a pair of doors swinging open.

Be that as it may, the scenery around here has certainly shifted in an operatic manner. According to the signboards, the mountains to the valley’s west are hundreds of millions of years old, while the ones to the east – including, presumably, Amakazari – are mere whippersnappers, made of rocks that date back only a few million years …

The Sensei tolerates my geological reveries, but she’s more entertained by another series of signs. These claim that the ISTL is as much a cultural boundary as a geological one. Mochi, for example, are round in East Japan, but square in the West. Or did I get that the wrong way round?

As for natto, delicately described as “an acquired taste” in the relevant Wikipedia article, it is eagerly degusted east of the line, but finds less favour in the west. The Sensei doubts if matters are so straightforward: she knows quite a few natto-lovers in her native Hokuriku, starting with her own family.

We lunch (sorry, no natto) in a park pavilion below a bluff of rock that seems to have been kneaded like dough. This is pillow lava, extruded while the Fossa Magna was still underwater. With this we have to conclude our geological investigations: after all, we have a mountain to climb.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

A meizanologist's diary (18)

24 October: Appropriately for a gathering of meizanologists, even the refreshments come in the shape of famous mountains. This cake – a bit sweet for my taste but reasonably wholesome – takes its cue from Daimonji, the mountain in Kyoto where, every August, on the night of the O-bon festival, huge pyres blaze out to create a gigantic 大 figure (hence the term “bon-fire”).

Actually, we hadn’t planned to climb a mountain. The idea was to just to meet for coffee. So round a table this morning, under Kyoto Station’s soaring canopy, convened your diarist and a fearsomely fit-looking trio.

These worthies represent fully a quarter of all the gaijin mountaineers who have ever climbed Fukada Kyūya’s one hundred mountains. Wes Lang provided the estimate – he has a list on his phone – and he’d brought with him fellow one hundred-ers, William Banff and Kevin Bradshaw..

Stimulated by the Eikoku-ya’s “bottomless” policy of refills, the conversation is lively. Kevin and Project Hyakumeizan, who is only an aspirant meizanologist, reminisce about a mass ascent of Mt Fuji, perpetrated late last century.

If we ever wanted to restage this event (probably not), we will soon be able to refer to Wes and Tom Fay’s forthcoming guidebook to hiking routes in Japan’s high mountains – the section on Mt Fuji will cover the four main ascent routes.

Alas, the publication date has apparently slipped to March next year. But, when Cicerone Press does start shipping the book, it will be the best available English-language guide to the Japan Alps and Mt Fuji. “It has to be, because all the others are out of print,” says Wes. So all kudos to the authors and publisher for filling this yawning gap in the mountain bookshelf.

But what does a man do when he’s completed all 100 mountains? Well, there’s the Kansai 100, a regional simulacrum (Wes was just about to complete them when we held our previous summit), or the Yamanashi equivalent.

Or you could go for broke, like Bill Banff, and embark on the Sanbyakumeizan, a nationwide list of 300 eminent mountains, following in the footsteps of Tanaka Yōki and Grace the Yamaholic. Bill’s Hyakumeizan blog was already notable for its stylish photography – for the 300 mountains, he’s now adding well-turned video footage too. Way to go, Bill.

Perhaps overstimulated by the Eikoku-ya’s coffee, we decide that a summit meeting must logically include a summit. As the morning is all but over, we need to move fast. What about Daimonji-yama, just a few kilometres away in the city’s eastern hills? Just 447 metres high, which should do for the day. Appropriately, you can get there on the No 100 bus. In the end, though, we pile into a taxi.

Stopping only at a bakery (where we find the mountain-themed cakes), we launch onto the mountain’s west face. A muddy path is enlivened by scuttling land-crabs and an iridescent beetle (no wonder that amateur entomologists had a hand in founding the Japan Alpine Club).

We pause to admire the view from a concrete platform. Strewth, we’re only half-way up. But the view is worth it. Atago, one of those 300 mountains, lies slumped across the skyline.

A flight of concrete steps now leads upslope, direttissima-style. Conversation flags as we tackle this giant Stairmaster. Out ahead is Wes – what is this man on? – the rest of us trailing. Topping out at 447 metres, I suspect there is relief that, for most present, the one hundred mountains are already done and dusted.

We sit ourselves down in a pine grove. Unfortunately, the shade is patchy as some of its trees have been uprooted by a recent super-typhoon. Conversation resumes as we unpack the victuals. Wes mentions that he's convening his annual weekend at an onsen camp at Otari this weekend and they might climb Amakazari-yama, the mountain that eluded me yesterday. Now there's an idea...