Friday, April 6, 2018

Brief idyll

How a visit to Kamikōchi, with some help from Mr and Mrs Weston, brought together two Taishō-era artists

Takamura Kotaro and Chieko
Readers of Nihon Hyakumeizan encounter the sculptor Takamura Kōtarō and his wife Chieko in Chapter 21. A poem by Takamura portrays the artist couple sitting on the slopes of Adatara-yama, a 1,700-metre mountain in Fukushima Prefecture. There’s hardly a hint in the Hyakumeizan chapter of the sad trajectory of Chieko’s life, which Takamura would later immortalise in a series of poems.

It turns out that mountains had earlier helped to bring Takamura and Chieko together. The story of their visit to Kamikōchi in the Japan Alps is described in a prose memoir of Chieko’s life that Takamura wrote two years after his bereavement. While staying in that mountain valley, the couple met several luminaries of Japan’s mountaineering and artistic scene, as Takamura records...

It was Chieko's pure, single-minded love that finally pulled me out of my go-for-broke mood of decadence and saved me. For the two months of August and September in the second year of Taishō, I stayed at the Shimizu-ya in Kamikōchi, Shinshu, and made fifty to sixty oil paintings for the Seikatsusha's exhibition that I held with Kishida Ryusei, Kimura Sohachi, and others at the Venus Club in Kanda that fall.

In those days, anybody who wanted to go to Kamikōchi used to start from Shimajima, go through Iwanadome, and over the Tokugō Pass; it was quite a distance. During that summer, staying in the same inn were Kubota Utsubo and Ibaragi Inokichi, as well as Mr and Mrs Weston who had just come to climb Hodaka.

View of Kamikochi, woodprint by Yoshida Hiroshi
As September began, Chieko came to visit me with painting materials. When notified of this, I went over the Tokugō Pass to meet her at Iwanadome. Leaving her luggage to her guide, she had climbed lightly dressed. The mountain people were surprised at what a good walker she was. I guided her, again crossing the Tokugō Pass, this time with her, to Shimizu-ya.

Her joy at the scenery in Kamikōchi was great. From then on we walked around, making drawings, with me carrying our art supplies on my shoulders. At the time she appeared to have some minor problem with her pleurae, but while on the mountains it didn't develop into anything serious. It was then that I saw her paintings for the first time. She had a considerably subjective view of nature that was in a way unique, and I thought that it would be interesting if she grew to be great.

Kamikochi was used as a pasture for horses and cattle from 1885 to 1934.

I painted everything I observed: Hodaka, Myōjin, Yaketake, Kasumizawa, Roppyakutake, the Azusa River. Even in her sickbed in later years Chieko would look at one of the self-portraits I did at the time. Once the Westons asked me if Chieko was my younger sister or my wife. When I said she was a friend of mine, they smiled with some incredulity.

Bridge over the Azusa River
If the Westons and the Takamuras had sought to change the subject, they might have talked about the bulls. In those days, cattle and horses were grazed at Kamikōchi over the summer. In The Playground of the Far East, Walter Weston describes how he and Mrs Weston met a "fierce monster" during their evening walk, which they escaped only by dashing for cover in different directions. Something similar happened to the Takamuras. The incident is recorded in one of the Chieko poems:

Ah, you are so frightened because
You saw what just passed
Like a spectre,
thundering through those black pines,
an avalanche in this zone of deep silence,
now completely gone,
that cattle herd on a mad run....

Soon, unfortunately, the couple had more to worry about than stampeding cows. Kōtarō takes up the story again:

About that time, with the headline "Love on the Mountain", a newspaper in Tokyo wrote with exaggeration about the two of us in Kamikōchi. It had probably expanded on a rumor from someone who had gone down the mountain. The article again grated on the nerves of our families.

Autumn scene in Kamikochi

On the first of October all of us on the mountain went down to Shimajima. The magnificence of the yellow leaves of the katsura trees that filled the bosom of the mountain at the Tokugō Pass was unforgettable. Chieko, too, often recalled it and talked about it.

The newspaper article worried Takamura’s parents, with the result that, a year later, he asked them to let him marry Chieko. This they did, allowing the couple to set up a household in Takamura's atelier. And after that, he records, "for a very long stretch of time we lived in poverty".


A brief history of imbecility: poetry and prose of Takamura Kōtarō, translated by Hiroaki Sato, University of Hawaii Press. All quotations in italics are translations by Hiroaki Sato.

Photos of the bridge and the horses grazing at Kamikochi are by courtesy of the Chubu Regional Forestry Office.


Unknown said...

This past autumn I ran into one of their contemporaries in Katsuo Watanabe who has according to the NHK World documentary “Mt. Hotaka: Climbing to the Roof of Japan” been painting the scenery of Kamikochi for an incredible 56 years. He spends the summer living in his tent at the Konashidaira Camping Ground.

Project Hyakumeizan said...

David: thanks for reading - and for the fascinating information about Katsuo Watanabe. I look forward to meeting up one of these days, so that I can say that I met somebody who met somebody who knew the Takamuras! By the way, I updated the post with an image showing Kamikochi in use as a pasture. The Takamuras must have been among the last people to be chased by a bull in Kamikochi, as no more animals were grazed up there after 1934 ...