Monday, June 10, 2019

Guide to the high mountain trails

Review: Tom Fay and Wes Lang's Hiking and Trekking: The Japan Alps and Mount Fuji

Now this is big. Tom Fay and Wes Lang have brought out their guidebook to Japan’s high mountains, the first new one for almost two decades. It follows in the Vibram bootprints of Lonely Planet’s Hiking in Japan (2001), long out of print, and Paul Hunt’s Hiking in Japan: An Adventurer's Guide to the Mountain Trails (1988).

You can trace their lineage all the way back to Ernest Satow and Albert Hawes, who came out with their A Handbook for Travellers in Central & Northern Japan in 1881. This was a general vade mecum that included side trips to many high peaks, Fuji, Hakusan, Yari-ga-take and Tateyama among them. It was this guidebook that sped Walter Weston on his way to his Mountaineering and Exploration in the Japanese Alps.

If Tom and Wes are part of a long tradition, how do they stack up against it? The question is easily disposed of. The two writers know their territory, being long-term residents of Japan and certified meizanologists. And they had the wit to team up with Cicerone, a specialised publisher of hiking and trekking guides. Heck, the very name of this imprint means “guide”.

The result is all but a foregone conclusion. Applying two decades of progress in printing technology, Hiking and Trekking: The Japan Alps and Mount Fuji regales you with full colour pages, all photos, maps and elevation profiles included (Wes's posts on these topics over on Tozan Tales are well worth reading). The crisply written route descriptions come with course times based on ground truth. If you still get yourself benighted, this guidebook won’t be to blame.

Introductions then and now
You get the measure of a guidebook’s ambitions by dipping into its introduction. Back in 1881, Satow and Hawes prefaced their Guide with more than a hundred pages on Japan’s geography, botany, zoology and religions. The sections on ferns and Buddhism are particularly good, as is the practical advice:

The shooting season begins on October 15 and ends on April 15. Licences can be obtained at Tōkiō from the Police authorities, and the open ports and Ōzaka from the Prefecture, fee 10 yen (paper). The applicant has to enter into a written engagement to observe certain regulations … This covenant expressly stipulates that the holder of the licence shall not shoot beyond Treaty limits.

Picking up the baton just over a century later, Paul Hunt chose to go light on religion in the introduction to his 1988 guidebook. On the other hand, and as you’d expect from an author who came to prospect for oil in the Japan Sea, he provides a very lucid and complete summary of Japan's natural history and geology:

The present zone of active volcanoes, which is known as the Green Tuff Zone, has been active since the Miocene, and is the youngest tectonic zone. It is found on the continental side or the inner belt of the island arc systems, where subsidence and deposition of sediments in basins has occurred. During the Miocene, large-scale submarine volcanism occurred in these basins … These lavas, extruded in an aqueous environment, were altered and changed to a green colour – hence the name Green Tuff.

In their own introduction, Tom and Wes stay away from the Green Tuff. Instead, they zero in on practical matters such as how to get a SIM card for your mobile phone (be reassured in this: “Japan is a technologically advanced country… “). Alas, they have nothing to say about shooting licences  – although, for Bambi’s sake, there are enough deer up in those hills to justify a bit of culling.

 Their route descriptions focus on the practical too. Where Paul Hunt mashed up guidebook with travelogue, blending his personal reminiscences into route descriptions, Tom and Wes are all business. Instead of picking just a few flagship hikes, as Hunt does, they outline a dense web of trails through the highest mountains – and, of course, on and around Mt Fuji.

Each approach is, or was, the right one for its time. While Hunt had to reintroduce Japan's mountains to a foreign audience after a long hiatus in English-language guidebooks, Tom and Wes have a readership that already knows quite a bit about hiking in Japan. So detailed coverage is the right way to go.

So much information is packed in here that not much room is left for background colour. Here and there, though, the authors do drop a tantalising detail or two, such as the hut-warden’s “notorious” temper on Notori-dake. Or the rumour that rocks were piled up on the summit of Oku-Hotaka (3190m) in the Northern Alps so that it could overtop its southern rival, Ai-no-take (3189m), as Japan’s third-highest mountain.

It’s no coincidence that both these vignettes involve mountains in the Southern Alps. For my money, one of Tom and Wes’s achievements is to drag this shy and retiring mountain range out into the limelight. For various reasons – difficult access, less obviously dramatic scenery – these mountains have always played second fiddle to their northern and central counterparts. By stoking many a hiker's ambition, the write-up of Trek 13, a traverse of the entire Southern Alps, will do much to correct this deficit of attention.

The southern reaches of the Southern Alps are particularly remote. Tom and Wes can’t alter that fact, but they do show you how to use such transport links as there are to best effect. And they are particularly good on what flowers and rocks you’ll see along the way. I learned from their route descriptions that the pinkish (radiolarian?) chert which forms Kita-Dake Buttress actually outcrops on many mountains further south too.

So there you have it. A solid, practical guide, based on decades of mountain experience, and all packaged – at a reasonable price – in a durable plastic wrapper. It’s good that the book will hold up well, as, on past performance, it will be a decade or so before we get another English-language guide to any of the Japanese mountains.

Next up
When we do, here’s a wish-list. Now that Tom and Wes have so thoroughly written up the Japan Alps, the big remaining blank on the map is Hokkaidō – surely those Hidaka and Daisetsuzan mountains deserve an English-language guidebook to themselves. The same might be said for many individual regions, such as the Kansai or Kyushu. Or, if you're into the Green Tuff, how about a guidebook to Japan's burgeoning population of geoparks and geomuseums?

There’s no need to go far to find other terrae incognitae. Yes, Mt Fuji, I’m looking at you. Hidden in plain view of Tokyo, Japan’s top mountain is surprisingly reclusive when it comes to English-language hiking information. Tom and Wes include workmanlike information on four of the main climbing routes, plus a satellite peak – but that still leaves the Murayama trail, the O-chū-dō, the lakes, lava fields and caves, and the circuit of the mountain’s foot, among scores of other possible Sehenswürdigkeiten.

A detailed guidebook to Mt Fuji: now there’s an idea – you know, if you started compiling one now, you might even get it published in time for the Tokyo Olympics.


Tom Fay and Wes Lang, Hiking and Trekking: The Japan Alps and Mount Fuji, Cicerone, 2019

David Joll , Craig McLachlan and Richard Ryall, Hiking in Japan, Lonely Planet, 2001

Paul Hunt, Hiking in Japan: An Adventurer's Guide to the Mountain Trails, Kodansha International, 1988

Ernest Mason Satow and Lieutenant A G S Hawes, A Handbook for Travellers in Northern & Central Japan, John Murray, 1881

Wes Gibbons, Teresa Moreno and Tomoko Kojima, "Field geotraverse, geoparks and geomuseums", Chapter 12 in Teresa Moreno et al, The Geology of Japan, Geological Society, 2016.

Monday, June 3, 2019

"At the same time good nerve is indispensable"

Continued: from Tateyama to Kurobe with Satow and Hawes in 1884

The Muro-dō hut is open for the accommodation of pilgrims during 50 days, from July 20 to September 10. No bedding is procurable, nor any food but boiled rice. To the summit (of Tateyama), called Go-hon-sha, is a distance of 1 ri. A short stretch of level ground, partly covered with snow lies between the hut and the base of the upper ridge. The ascent thence is almost direct and, as far as the first shrine (860 ft. above the·Muro-dō), tolerably easy. Beyond this point, however, it becomes difficult.

View of the Kurobe River
Woodprint by Yoshida Hiroshi 
From the second shrine (1,050 ft. above the Muro-dō), the first view of Fuji is seen, and a short climb then lands the traveller upon the ridge, from which the actual summit of Tate-yama, crowned with a very picturesque temple, rises sharply. The ascent from the Muro-dō can be accomplished in 1 hr., not including stoppages.

The summit, on a clear day commands a most imposing survey on every side. The number of mountains to be distinguished is perhaps greater than from any other elevation in Japan. To the extreme left, looking eastward, are seen Miō-kō-zan, Miō-gi-san and Yone yama in Echigo, Nan-tai-zan near Nikko, To-gakushi san and the volcano of Asama yama in Shin-shū.

Towards the S. rises the range of Yatsu-ga-take, with the isolated peak of Tateshina yama, beyond which are seen the simple cone of Fuji, the high summits of Shirane and Koma-ga-take in Koshū; further S. again are Koma-ga-take and Ontake in Shin-shiū; Yari-ga-take, Norikura, Kasa-ga-take, and, in closer proximity, Yakushi-ga-dake, all in Hida; while almost due S.W. is Haku-san, on the borders of Kaga. Below to the W. lie the plains of Kaga and Etchū, the latter watered by the Jin-dzū and Jō-gwan-ji, and to the N. the view is bounded by the Sea of Japan.

Instead of descending to Ashikura it is possible to take a short cut to Kurobe by crossing over the ridge of Jō-do-san and entering the valley of Gozen-dani. The distance is said to be only 2½ ri, but the difficulties of the journey are so great that Kurobe can hardly be reached in less than 6 or 7 hours. The path branches off left from the first shrine above the Murodo, and descending a grassy slope, comes to a difficult and dangerous talus of loose stones.

It next follows the rocky course of a cold mountain stream, then crosses a gentle snow slope, and rejoins the river-bed of the same stream. Further on it ascends a tributary stream flowing down the valley on the left of Jō-do-san, and then diverging to the left up a smaller bed, crosses the ridge dividing Tate-yama from the valley of the Zara-goye. This part of the journey is extremely fatiguing, the ascent to the top of the ridge being very steep and precipitous. Near the summit the path winds to the 1., and soon begins rapidly to descend.

Great care is now required to avoid bruises from the sharp stones which form the side of the hill, as they are treacherously hidden by the creeping dwarf alder and thick masses of bamboo grass. On reaching the stream at the bottom of the ridge, its course should be ascended for ½ hr. to the point where it is crossed by the Shin-do (see p. 314). At the hamlet of Kumano, 1½ ri from Toyama, the road crosses a bridge over the Kumano-gawa, and continues on to Okubo, a village straggling along a tedious avenue of fir-trees and bamboos.

From this point, it ascends to the hot springs of Yaki, where it enters the mountains and ½ ri on crosses a ferry over the Jiodzū-gawa to Sasadzu, which, like most of the hamlets along this route, consists of but a few miserable huts. Ascending the left bank through very pretty scenery, it reaches Ioridani (Inn, by Akaza Kiū-shi-rō). In summer, when the silkworms are being reared in every room, the odour which these insects emit and the flies which they attract make it almost impossible to stay anywhere in the valley except at this inn and the temple mentioned below…

Advertisement from the Satow and Hawes guidebook, 1884 edition

Yoshino (accommodation at the house of Muramatsu Kichi-shi-rō; the quarters are poor, but the people are very obliging) Close to this village, the Jin-dzū-gawa is crossed by a kago-no-watashi.

This substitute for a bridge is constructed in the following manner. Four stout hempen ropes are secured to each bank of the river, at a point where it narrows and cuts its way between some fine rocks.Suspended to these ropes is a cradle of very simple structure, consisting merely of a plaited wicker circular bottom over which are bent two hoops made of tough branches crossing each other at right angles and firmly secured to the bottom. The ropes across the river pass under these hoops and thus the cage is hung.

Pole-bridge at the foot of the Abo Pass
Photo by H J Hamilton, in Walter Weston's Mountaineering & Exploration in the Japanese Alps

The cradle is hauled across by lines attached to it from either side of the river, and the method of crossing is to get into the cage and to be pulled over by men on the bank. Another way of crossing, and the one which is usually adopted by the peasant, is thus. He enters the cage, plants his feet firmly against the lower part of the hoops, leans well forward, and clasps the rope above him with his hands, and then by a series of jerks like the leaps of a frog, takes himself and the cage across to the opposite side. It requires great practice to be able to perform this antic, and at the same time good nerve is indispensable.

The main point seems to be not to lose the hold with the feet; the jerk is performed from the knee and hip, and unless great care is taken an inexperienced person may find himself hanging from the rope with the cage left behind him.

Fine masu (salmon-trout), weighing from 4 to 8 lbs., are taken in the river. A four-pronged spear, which fits into a staff having a stout line attached to it, is used for catching these fish. Ai and iwana are also taken by netting. The seasons for fishing are the end of spring and the beginning of autumn.


Excerpted from Ernest Mason Satow, CMG, and Lieutenant A G S Hawes, A Handbook for Travellers in Central & Northern Japan: Being a Guide to Tōkiō, Kiōto, Ōzaka and Other Cities; the Most Interesting Parts of the Main Island Between Kōbe and Awomori, with Ascents of the Principal Mountains, and Descriptions of Temples, Historical Notes and Legends, London, John Murray. The link leads to the 1881 edition, but the text above comes from the 1884 edition.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

“The Muro-dō is in a most wretched condition”

With Ernest Satow and Albert Hawes to the top of Tateyama in 1884

Tate-yama is the name given to the lofty summits lying on the eastern border of the province of Etchū, and which, together with the jagged peak of Tsurugi-dake, form the northern extremity of the most considerable range of mountains in Japan. The highest of the peaks (Go-hon-sha) is about 9,500 ft. above the level of the sea.

Tateyama-Bessan: a woodprint by Yoshida Hiroshi
The main ascent leads up the western side of the mountain from the hamlet of Ashikura, which can be reached either from Kamidaki or Harimura (see p. 315). There are no inns, but good accommodation can be found at the house of Saiki Masanori.

In a grove of trees close by is situated a small temple dedicated to Ariyori, the hero who first succeeded in ascending Tate-yama. After death he was deified and to the present day pilgrimages are made to the mountain, which is still sacred to his memory. His grave stands close behind this temple within a small railed enclosure. It differs from the ordinary style of grave, being a mound about 8 ft. square, built up to a height of 4 or 5 ft. with stone-faced sides.

On the top of this mound grows a small evergreen called shirokake. The temple, name Ōyama no jin-ja, is simply an unpretending wooden building. It contains a shrine of red and black lacquer ornamented with the crests of the family of Ariyori and of the former dai-mio of Kaga. The ceiling consists of square panels, on which are painted various designs of birds and flowers.

Advertisement from the Satow and Hawes guidebook (1884 edition)

The road up the mountain at first winds along the r. bank of the Jō-gwan-ji-gawa, and crossing a rapid stream which flows down from the Sho-mio taki, a cascade of some considerable height on the slope of Tate-yama, reaches the Zai-moku-zaka, where commences the actual ascent, which at first is extremely steep, in many places up almost precipitous rocks.

The trees of this part of the forest are singularly magnificent. Some well-formed hexagonal columns of andesite over which the way passes are the subject of the following legend. Ages ago, when the original Tate-yama temple was being built, a quantity of timber had been cut and prepared on this hill to be brought down, but a woman who had ventured up carelessly walked over the prostrate trunks, which immediately changed to stone. The name of Zai-moku-zaka, 'Timber Hill,' was bestowed on the place in consequence.

Near the top of this hill from an opening on the l. the Shō-miō-taki can be indistinctly seen through the trees. For upwards of 3 ri beyond this point the ascent is very arduous, especially after heavy rain, when the path is little better than a track of liquid mud, in most places more than a foot in depth. Occasionally deep pools, decayed roots of trees, branches and other rotten debris add their quota to the difficulties. Emerging on to a plateau, and continuing for 1 ri, the path from the baths of Riū-zan-jita falls in on the r. (see p. 315).

Higher up the road ascends the rocky beds of several small streams, and passes r. a large flat block of stone, supported vertically and called kagami ishi (mirror rock), beyond which, on looking back, there is an extensive view of Etchū with its numerous rivers, of the promontory of Noto and of the sea, and nearer, of the Yu-gawa valley. A little further on a narrow path on the 1. leads to a point from which a distant view is obtained of the Shō-miō-taki.

The road now ascends the boulder-covered side of the mountain, passes over several streams, and skirting the bottom of a snowy slope, crosses a bare shoulder to the Muro-dō (hut). During the whole ascent from Ashikura to the Muro-dō, a distance of over 20 miles, the only shelter to be got consists of 3 wretched sheds. One of them, however, about 4 ri from Ashikura, possesses a spring of good water. Beeches and huge cryptomerias are the most common trees on this mountain, but they occupy separate localities, divided off by deep ravines. Chestnuts and horse-chestnuts are also met with.

In a valley situated about 6 ch. to the 1. of the Muro-dō are the remarkable solfataras of Ō-Jigoku The road thither, after passing between two tarns, one of which, to judge from the appearance of its almost vertical sides, is most likely an old crater, reaches the brow of a hill which commands a birds-eye view of the springs. The whole valley below seems as if it were alive with bubbling pools of boiling mud and sulphur.

Descending the stony side of the hill the soft and crumbing bottom of the valley is reached. It is here advisable to be careful in picking the way, for in some places the small hillocks of sulphur over which it is necessary to pass are unbearably hot and a false step might plunge the unwary visitor into the depths of the boiling liquid below.

The bottom of the valley is broken up by two or three mounds composed of a mixture of sulphur and a white rock. Jets of steam mixed with sulphuretted hydrogen issue from clefts in the sides of these mounds, in one place with a terrific noise, and with such force as to carry lumps of the deposited sulphur 10 to 15 ft. away.

In some of the pools boiling water of a dark green colour is projected to a height of several feet, and falling back into its pit, is again thrown up with equal violence. In others, a yellowish mud is tossed about with the same activity. The temperature of these pools varies, that of the highest being 190°F.

The Muro-dō is in a most wretched condition, and the traveller must not be disappointed at having to put up with great discomfort. One of the worst annoyances is the wood fire. The hut becomes filled with smoke, blinding and painful in the extreme, and it is only possible to avoid its suffocating effects by lying flat on the floor.

The hut is open for the accommodation of pilgrims during 50 days, from July 20 to September 10. No bedding is procurable, nor any food but boiled rice ....

(Continued in next post)


Excerpted from Ernest Mason Satow, CMG, and Lieutenant A G S Hawes, A Handbook for Travellers in Central & Northern Japan: Being a Guide to Tōkiō, Kiōto, Ōzaka and Other Cities; the Most Interesting Parts of the Main Island Between Kōbe and Awomori, with Ascents of the Principal Mountains, and Descriptions of Temples, Historical Notes and Legends, London, John Murray. The link leads to the 1881 edition, but the text above comes from the 1884 edition.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

“An egg may be fairly cooked in about half an hour”

Around the top of Mt Fuji in 1884 with Ernest Satow and Albert Hawes

The summit of the mountain consists of a series of peaks surrounding the crater, the diameter of which is not far short of 2,000 ft. The descent into it, down the loose talus of rock and cinders close to the huts at the top of the Murayama ascent, is extremely easy, but it is advisable to take a guide from the hut. In 20 min. the bottom is reached.

Pilgrims on Mt Fuji: woodprint by Yoshida Hiroshi
The floor, which is formed of cinders, inclines slightly from W. to E., and is intersected by small stream-beds, which at the E. end terminate among the loosely piled lava masses which form the core of the mountain. All round, except where the descent is made, rise precipitous rocky walls, from which large pieces detach themselves from time to time with a loud crackling sound like that of musketry. On the W. side, immediately under Ken-ga-mine, there is usually a large snow slope. The depth has been variously calculated at 416, 548 and 584 ft. The return to the edge may take about 25 min.

Before dawn the pilgrims betake themselves to Ken-no-mine, the peak on the W. of the crater, and the true summit of the mountain, to await the sun's rising. As the luminary approaches the horizon and all the clouds about it glow with the most brilliant hues of red flame, the feeling of longing expectation seems almost to overcome them; but as soon as the burning disk appears, they greet it with devoutness, rubbing their chaplets between their hands and muttering prayers to the great deity.

Map of the Mt Fuji region, from the Satow and Hawes guidebook

This point commands the most extensive view over the surrounding country. To the S. stretches the deep gulf of Suruga, shut in on the E. by the lofty promontory of Idzu, and confined to the W. by Mio-zaki at the termination of the long range which divides the valley of the Abe kawa from that of the Fujikawa.

S.W. is the broad pebbly bed of the Fujikawa running out to sea, its course above the point where it crosses the Tō-kai-dō being hidden by the lower hills. Westwards are seen all the lofty peaks of the border range of Ko-shiu and Shin-shū, from the angular granite obelisk of Koma-ga-take, with its lesser neighbours Ji-zo and Ho-o-zan, the three summits of Shirane, known as Kaigane, Ai-no-take and Nodori, the Koma-ga-take of Shin-shū that rises between the Tenryū-gawa and Kisogawa, Ena-san in Mino and the top of Shichi-men-zan near Minobu.

Further to the right, extending northwards, come the Japanese Alps, the great range that divides far-off Hida from Shin-shū, among which may be distinguished Norikura, Yari-ga-take and further remote in Etchū the volcanic summits of Tateyama. Gradually moving E. again, along the northern horizon, we distinguish the mountains near Zen-ko-ji, Ken-no-mine and the extinct volcano Mio-ko-zan, on the edge of the depression through which passes the road to Echigo.

Nearer in the foreground rise the innumerable summits of Yatsu-ga-take, and then casting our glance further N. we perceive Asama-yama's smoking crater, the mountains of the Mikuni pass, then all the Nikkō mountains, Shirane, Nan-tai-zan and their attendants. E. of Yatsu-ga-take is seen Kim-bu-sen, easily known by its rounded shoulder and the pillar of rocks at the summit; then Yakushi and Mitsumine in Chichibu, till the eye loses itself in a confusion of lower ridges.

On the eastern side of the crater, from almost at any point that may be chosen, the eye rests on a prospect less sublime, but surpassing this in beauty. Far away across the plain is distinctly visible the double top of the sacred Tsukuba in Hitachi, while further south we see the outer edge of the rich Kwanto plain, with Tokio lying far up the bay of Yedo; then in succession Capes Sagami and Su-no-saki, the smoking summit of Mihara yama on Oshima, the coast of the gulf of Sagami, and nearer in the foreground the beautiful lake of Hakone peacefully embosomed in green hills.

The traveller will rarely be fortunate enough to obtain a perfectly clear view from the summit of Fuji, but the best chances undoubtedly are just before and at sunrise. Nor will the pilgrim be wholly fortunate unless he sees the superb cloud effects which the mountain affords. These are most likely to be enjoyed in ordinary summer weather, between noon and 6 o'clock in the evening, and they are truly magnificent.

The summit of the mountain remains clear, but its shoulders and waist are surrounded by billowy masses of dense white vapour of indescribable splendour. Here and there a momentary break may permit a glimpse of the earth beneath, but usually nothing can be seen landward but this vast ocean of cloud, amid which the peak stands as the only island in the world. Turning seaward, the ocean itself can be seen over the circumambient vapour, and affords a striking contrast to the turmoil and restless change of form of the clouds themselves.

A curious phenomenon may also sometimes be witnessed at sunrise from the western side of the summit. As the sun's rays appears above the horizon the shadow of Fuji (in Japanese, Kage-Fuji) is thrown in deep outline on the clouds and mist, which at that hour clothe the range of mountains to the west. Descending again from Ken-ga-mine, the path passes under it, and just above the steep talus called Oyashirazu, Koshirazu (‘recognising neither parent nor child’), from the notion that people in danger of falling from it over the edge of the crater would not heed their dearest relations who might be sharers of the peril, but strive to save themselves as best they might. The name is found in many parts of Japan.

Continuing N., it skirts the edge of the cone, passing a huge and precipitous gorge which appears to extend downwards to the very base of the mountain. This is the Ō-sawa, the lower limit of which is perhaps about 6,000 ft. above the sea, or only about half-way from the summit. Passing across the flank of the Rai-iwa, it goes outside the wall of the crater, ascends the 'Shaka no wari-ishi,' Sakya's Cleft Rock, and leaving Shaka-ga-take, the second loftiest peak behind, descends to the Kim-mei-sui (' golden famous-water'), a spring of ice-cold water, situated on the flat shelf between the N. edge of the crater and the outer wall. This is probably supplied by the rain-water which falls on the side of the encircling wall of the crater, and percolates through the porous rock and cinders.

Ascending again, it passes the row of huts at the top of the ascent from Yoshida and Subashiri, and reaches a torii which commands the best view of the crater. Here it turns again to the left, and goes outside the wall of the crater, underneath the Kwan-non-ga-take.

Here the interesting phenomenon may be observed of steam still issuing from the soil in several places, one of which is so close to the path that it is almost impossible to avoid stepping on it, while another lies near at hand on the left, about 50 ft down the exterior of the cone, and a third is seen immediately underneath a wall of rock about 50 yards ahead. A few inches below the surface the heat is great enough to be unbearable, and an egg may be fairly cooked in about half an hour.

Beyond this point the path crosses a depression known as Sei-shi ga kubo, ascends the E. Sai-no-kawara, dotted with piles of stone in place of images of Ji-zo, the protector of children, descends to the Gin-meisui ('Silver famous-water') at the top of the Suyama ascent, and passing under the low peak named Koma-ga- take, arrives at the huts by the top of the path from Murayama.

Between this last point and the Ken-ga-mine is a small crater, named Konoshiro-ga-ike accessible from the N. The total distance round the large crater is said by the Japanese to be 1 ri or 2 miles, but this is no doubt an exaggeration. An hour may profitably be devoted to making the circuit, which will allow for pauses at all the best points of view.


Excerpted from Ernest Mason Satow, CMG, and Lieutenant A G S Hawes, A Handbook for Travellers in Central & Northern Japan: Being a Guide to Tōkiō, Kiōto, Ōzaka and Other Cities; the Most Interesting Parts of the Main Island Between Kōbe and Awomori, with Ascents of the Principal Mountains, and Descriptions of Temples, Historical Notes and Legends, London, John Murray. The link leads to the 1881 edition, but the text above comes from the 1884 edition.

Note: If you take eggs up Mt Fuji today, best to hard-boil them before you leave home - the hotspots described by Satow and Hawes have all but faded away since their day. Or so it is said. But perhaps somebody should go and take a look, just to make sure...

Friday, May 10, 2019

"No part of the country in so primeval a state"

Climbing Yari-ga-take in 1884 with Ernest Satow and Albert Hawes

Shimashima (accommodation at the Tsu-un Kwai-sha): Yari-ga-take (' Spear Peak') can be most conveniently ascended from this village. The way, a mere mountain path, strikes up the narrow wooded gorge of a torrent, crossing and recrossing it many times by log bridges. Here and there the bottom of the gorge being too narrow for both torrent and path, the latter is carried along platforms of small fir logs supported on struts above the stream.

View of Yari-ga-take
Woodprint by Yoshida Hiroshi (1876-1950)
Occasionally very picturesque spots occur, where rugged precipices of rock dotted with creepers and sparsely perched trees, rise from the boulder-strewn ravine. After a distance of 3 1/2 or 4 ri the road rises steeply up a pass, leading now and then through dense growths of bamboo grass and beds of a stinging-nettle which greatly impede progress.

The top of the pass is 7,000 ft. above the sea level, but high forest-covered mountains prevent a view from being obtained, excepting to the N., and here it is limited to the fine snow peak of Mio-jin-dake, seen just across the valley, and at whose foot the sleeping hut is situated. On the other side of this pass the landscape becomes more extended, and Jo-nen-dake comes in view, while just below, the Adzusagawa, even here a large torrent, is seen rushing in several streams over its wide bed.

At various points there are traces of an old road, along which in former days considerable traffic crossed this pass to Yamada and thence to Takayama. Descending to the torrent, some time is generally lost in finding suitable places for fording it, especially in July, when the snows are melting freely.

The sleeping-hut stands on the bank of a small stream, and is reached immediately after crossing (elevation 4,950 ft.) It is about 7 or 8 hrs. walking distance from Shimashima, but is rather too far from Yari-ga-take for a convenient ascent and descent on the same day; that at the base of the mountain, 3 ri further on (Miyagawa no Koya) is the best starting point, but it is difficult to reach in one day from Shimashima unless the baggage be sent on in front.

The traveller should start from here at daybreak, and in addition to the guide, should take with him a strong coolie to carry him across the torrent, which has to be forded many times, occasionally in places almost waist-deep.

The route for about 3 hrs. lies alternately up one side or the other of the bed or banks of this torrent: on the left, fine, steep, craggy granitic mountains rise to a height of 7,000-8,000 ft., but on the right are tamer wooded hills. Grand mountains are these precipitous masses of granite, surpassing in wildness any to be seen elsewhere in Japan, their curiously steep forms being not unlike some of the ideal crags depicted by Chinese artists.

Perhaps there is no part of the country in so truly a primeval state (with the exception of some parts of Yamato) than this torrent valley in the heart of the Shinano-Hida range, hunters seeking bears and the sheep-faced antelope or lesser game, being its sole frequenters.

Yari-ga-take is still not yet seen, but now the path strikes up a tributary gorge to the left, and passing the second hut, leads up the mountain through a forest. At an elevation of 6,400 ft. a rude shed called Akasaka no Iwa-goya, a camping-place for hunters, is passed, and just above here the forest ceases, and the first snow-field is crossed.

Hence the road lies mostly over snow, but just below the summit, between the peaks, the route winds up and among huge bare masses of rock piled in indescribable confusion. From the irregular resting of some of these crags, so called 'caves' are formed, and in these hunters take up their quarters whilst watching for bears. Ptarmigan are common here.

Hence, a stiff climb up snow and over debris and a rather dangerous scramble up one side of the peak, land the traveller on a table of a few square yards of rock, the top of the 'spear' of the mountain. From the Miyagawa sleeping-hut to the summit is said to be 6 ri. The ascent can be accomplished in 7 hrs. and the descent in 4 hrs.

The peak of Yari-ga-take consists of a hard weather-resisting brecciated porphyry, which is traversed by numerous foliated siliceous bands inclined at high angles and frequently contorted. To this hard rock it owes its height, and to the siliceous bands its jagged spear-like form.

Beyond Shimashima the road recrosses the stream, which is here lined with willow-trees, and passing through a pleasant grove of red pines, emerges on to the Matsumoto plain. At Niimura (accommodation at the Tsu-un Kwai-sha) kuruma can sometimes be obtained. The road is practicable for them all the way, even from Shimashima, were there any to be had.


Excerpted from Ernest Mason Satow, CMG, and Lieutenant A G S Hawes, A Handbook for Travellers in Central & Northern Japan: Being a Guide to Tōkiō, Kiōto, Ōzaka and Other Cities; the Most Interesting Parts of the Main Island Between Kōbe and Awomori, with Ascents of the Principal Mountains, and Descriptions of Temples, Historical Notes and Legends, London, John Murray, 1884 edition.

This route description may have helped to foment the first stirrings of modern alpinism in Japan. Shiga Shigetaka (1863-1927) is thought to have drawn on it in writing the chapter on mountaineering in his Theory of the Japanese Landscape (Nihon Fūkeiron), which appeared in October 1894. It was this book - and specifically this chapter - that inspired the young banker and journalist Kojima Usui to climb Yari-ga-take in 1902. This adventure led to Kojima's meeting, the following year, with the mountaineering missionary Walter Weston, who first suggested to him the idea of a Japanese Alpine Club. The rest, as they say, is history ...

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Images and ink (40)

Image: Alpine flowers in the Haut Val de Bagnes, Valaisian Alps, Switzerland

Ink: Slightly abridged from W E Bowman's The Ascent of Rum Doodle (1956), republished in 2001 by Vintage, with an introduction by Bill Bryson:

The journey to the Rum Doodle massif was uneventful ..The steepness of the valleys was such that the vegetation ranged from tropical to arctic within the distance of a mile, and our botanists were in their element. I am no naturalist myself, but I tried to show·an intelligent interest in the work of the others, encouraging them to come to me with their discoveries. I am indebted to them for what small knowledge I possess in this field. 

The lower slopes were gay with Facetia and Persiflage, just then at their best, and the nostrils were continually assailed with the disturbing smell of Rodentia. Nostalgia, which flourishes everywhere but at home, was plentiful, as was the universal Wantonia. Higher up, dark belts of Suspicia and Melancholia gave place to the last grassy slopes below the snow line, where nothing was seen growing but an occasional solitary Excentricular, or old-fashioned Manspride.

Monday, May 6, 2019

With oxygen or without?

A satirical yet cogent summary of the arguments for and against

We foregathered in the evening for a social hour, and many a spirited discussion took place at these gatherings. On one occasion we discussed the old question: should oxygen and other artificial aids be used on mountains.

Mallory and Irvine at Everest Base Camp in 1924, with oxygen sets.

Burley said that it was a lot of ruddy lumber; more trouble than it was worth. He told us about his friend Baffles, who carried an oxygen set weighing forty pounds to the summit of Mt Wurdle, only to find when he got there that the apparatus had been out of order all the time.

Wish said that this remark was typical of the layman's ignorant point of view. We had a unique opportunity to test our gear under rigorous conditions, and our duty was to do so. He asked Burley why; if he disagreed with its use, he was willing to use it. Burley asked whether Wish expected him to climb the ruddy mountain naked. Wish said that this was a typically unscientific argument.

He said he had long been aware that to some the ascent of the mountain partook of the frivolous nature of a sporting event. He himself took a sterner view. To him, the climax of our efforts would be the fulfilment of his own self-dedicated task of determining the melting-point of ice on the summit. He reminded Burley that without oxygen the exacting intellectual efforts which this delicate experiment demanded would be quite impossible.

Burley, rather tactlessly I thought, said that, speaking with wide experience and an excellent memory, he could recall nothing which approached this for futility … While they were arguing this point with their usual commendable frankness, Constant said that he deplored the narrow outlook of the others. He climbed solely to demonstrate the triumph of the spirit over adverse circumstances.

He said that artificial aids were unsportsmanlike; if they were carried to their logical extreme we might find climbers impaling the summit of a mountain with a long-range harpoon attached to a rope ladder. If summits could not be climbed unaided they were better left unclimbed. Prone said this was rubbish; if artificial aids were refused, tents and clothing must go with them. He asked Constant if his triumphant spirit was prepared to climb Rum Doodle in a loincloth or worse.


Slightly abridged from W E Bowman's The Ascent of Rum Doodle (1956), republished in 2001 by Vintage, with an introduction by Bill Bryson.

For an account of the original oxygen debate, see Edgar Schuler's take on the 1922 Everest Expedition and its use of "English air". Also Vanessa Heggie's article in the Guardian on "The great Everest oxygen debate: was anyone really a 'rotter'?"

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Images and ink (39)

Image: Mountaineers carrying kanjiki (traditional Japanese snowshoes) climb Dainichi-yama, Fukui Prefecture. 

Ink: Tanka by Monk Saigyō (1118-1190), the all-terrain poet of the Heian era (translation by William Lafleur, Awesome Nightfall: the Life, Times and Poetry of Saigyō):

sakashiku kudaru
tani mo naku
kajiki no michi o
tsukuru shirayuki

So steep and dangerous
is Mount Arachi that there's
no path down the valley
till one is made for snowshoes
by white snow fallen over all.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

A seasonal safety tip from the silk industry

Thundershower at Tateishi
Woodprint by Takahashi Hiroaki (Shotei), 1871-1945

In connexion with the silk industry, the chief celebration is that of the “God of Hailstones”, when in May the farmer resorts to the village shrine to petition protection of his precious mulberry trees from the dreaded scourge. 

These trees are believed to be always immune from lightning, and a man caught unprotected in the open in a thunderstorm has only to call out “Kuwabara”, i.e., “I am in a mulberry grove”, to ensure the prophylactic benefits of the tree invoked. 


Quoted from Walter Weston, A Wayfarer in Unfamiliar Japan, Methuen & Co, 1925

Saturday, April 27, 2019

A meizanologist's diary (28)

26 March: we’re on a local hill, admiring a cluster of kan’aoi plants (wild ginger, if you must) when a butterfly flutters by. It lands on the sunny road and spreads its wings.

“It’s a Gifu-chō, I think,” says the Sensei. And she is right. The plant and the butterfly depend on each other, the caterpillar feeding on the kan’aoi flower’s nectar and pollinating it in return.

Ryozan kan-aoi, Asarum nipponicum

The name of Gifu was bestowed by Nawa Yasushi,* a native of that prefecture, who identified the butterfly for science in 1883 – one shouldn’t say “discovered” because painters had been depicting it since the Edo period.

This Gifu-chō was in a hurry: it let me snap one photo, then fluttered on its way. Perhaps all its kind are in a hurry. The savants say that a Gifu-chō lives only one week after emerging from its chrysalis. Other savants say that time itself is an illusion. I wonder how long a week seems to a Gifu-chō.

Butterflies darting
so familiarly among the flowers
that bloom by the fence - 
I envy them, yet know
how little time they have left

Mase ni saku  hana ni mutsurete  tobu chō no
urayamashiku mo  hakanakarikeri

Monk Saigyō (1118-1190) translated by Burton Watson in
Poems of a Mountain Home

*Note: Nawa Yasushi gets a mention in Walter Weston's A Wayfarer in Unfamiliar Japan in the chapter on the Gifu Earthquake:

Turning townwards, among the many buildings spread at one's feet, notable for its purpose rather than its proportions, is the well-known Entomological Laboratory of one of Japan's most distinguished scientists, Mr. Sei Nawa, the results of whose long and laborious researches have culminated in the foundation of a school of agriculture mainly devoted to the teaching of economic entomology. 

At the end of some thirty years' work this indefatigable investigator had made the acquaintance of. no less than 10,000 species of insects, represented in his Institute by over 200,000 specimens. In the grounds he erected a monument to the memory of the myriads of small creatures immolated on the altar of scientific research. 

This was to be followed by the erection of a temple dedicated to Kwannon, the "Goddess of Mercy", likewise in their honour, and was moreover to contain one thousand images of the Divinity, carved from timber derived from the many Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines throughout the land which have specially suffered from the ravages of white ants.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

A meizanologist's diary (27)

25 March: Sipping a Deep Black while inspecting the Fukui-titan nipponensis – or perhaps it’s a mere brachiopod – I hope that, either way, the beast's shadow will be deep enough to hide my indulgence from the Sensei. She does not approve of my canned coffee habit, probably with good reason.

Alert readers will already have surmised that we’ve taken a road break close to Katsuyama, home to one of the world’s finest dinosaur collections. But our destination this morning is a nearby mountain that should already be looming in our windscreen.

Instead, all we see is a swirl of snowflakes. H-san, who has taken over the driving, is unfazed – it’s good to have an expert on environmental hazards at the helm. He deftly pilots the van up a winding road until we reach a barrier. It’s still snowing when we park, shoulder our packs and continue uphill on foot. Already I’m glad of that extra caffeine.

In better weather, Echizen Kabuto (1,319.6m) rises from the Katsuyama plain much as the Alps roister the horizon as seen from Bern, Switzerland’s capital city. OK, so the Alps are bigger, but Echizen Kabuto is closer, giving the same relative effect. Local television crews like to include it as a scenic backdrop for weather reports and the like.

Our group of five plods over the snow-covered road until we reach a pass and here, on the very cusp of Fukui and Ishikawa prefectures, we turn westwards. Ahead, a ridge horrid with trees twists its way up into the clouds. Easy there, I reassure myself, alpine ridges always do look more intimidating from head-on.

At a low point in the ridge, K-san, our Himalayan veteran, enjoins us to put on crampons. We need no second bidding. The map shows that we’ve reached Dainichi Pass, echoing our mountain’s original name. In fact, this Dainichi-yama is attested in records back to the Genroku era (1688-1704), says Masunaga Michio, the doyen of Fukui mountaineers, in his magisterial Fukui no Yama 150. And some still call it by that name.

As a mountain name, Dainichi has a ring to it. The Tōdaiji's Great Buddha in Nara is a Dainichi Nyorai. And there’s a Dainichi-dake on Tateyama, one of Japan’s three most sacred peaks. This recalls Fukada Kyūya’s observation in Nihon Hyakumeizan that the Buddhist names of many Fukui mountains are said to trace out the route that Monk Taichō took when he “opened” Hakusan in the first year of Yōrō (717).

We set off uphill, never straying far from the ridgeline. Enough snow has accumulated to bring avalanche risk to mind, although we’ve already avoided the most susceptible slope. Later, I ask H-san if there is any guidebook with this kind of route information. No, he replies, it’s all in our heads, meaning those of the city's mountaineering club members.

The night’s snow has frosted all the beech trees into white tracery. When sunbeams poke through the overcast, flakes of hoarfrost loose themselves from the branches and go sailing down the wind. The scene calls to mind an old black-and-white photo, taken by a veteran mountaineer, that conjures the ideal Fukui mountain – tier on tier of undulating snow ridges rising out of aery groves of beech.

Thanks to last night’s cold front, our crampons bite into a top layer of flawless white powder. The snow is so fresh not a single set of animal tracks is yet to be seen. Underneath, exposed by our bootprints, is nicotine-tinged firn-snow, stained by the loess blown from China by the spring winds.

Sorted out by the ridge’s strenuousities, we’re now straggling roughly in order of age and relative fitness. Appropriately, T-san is now in front, breaking trail. Not only is he the youngest but, as he lives in Katsuyama, this is his local mountain.

A short but steep step leads out of the trees: this must correspond to the rock band underneath the summit that gives the mountain its helm-like appearance – hence the name of “Kabuto”.

We step onto a big bare summit plateau, its snows contrasting starkly with the dark frown of a cloud bank beyond. Somehow I’m reminded of topping out on Mt Blanc. This is the very image of winter mountaineering in Fukui: snow and storm lend these mountains the gravitas of summits many times their height.

But we’re not going to be tested today. The north wind dies away and the clouds start to break up, letting us eat our lunch in warm sunshine. Tucking into one of her industrial-strength onigiri, I glance across at the Sensei. Like all our companions, she looks totally at home in her native mountains. No, there's no call for a guidebook here. And I think she's forgiven me the canned coffee.

The snow is starting to soften as we start our descent. In the beech woods, the hoarfrost has congealed into crystal-clear water-ice, so that the sunlight glitters in the treetops, as if through giant chandeliers.

Back in the valley, streams of meltwater ripple over tarmac, washing away the new snow. Here and there, the newly exposed road is starting to steam. In the space of a morning, spring has come to the Fukui mountains.

Friday, April 5, 2019

A meizanologist's diary (26)

23 March (continued): by this time, we’ve sussed the story-telling strategy: start with the local and particular, Itoigawa’s jade deposits, and travel outwards to the region’s eye-watering enchilada of different rocks. So, moving to the Fossa Magna Museum’s third exhibition hall, one would expect to be regaled by the biggest picture of all.

Nor are we disappointed. Videos presented on two floor-to-ceiling video screens – no, make that three screens, one projected on the floor itself – rocks us with the Fossa Magna’s history. Moving maps, heaving and flowing in three dimensions, show how the valley started out as a kind of inland sea, shortly after the two halves of the future Honshū rifted away from the Eurasian mainland. This is ground-breaking stuff.

Better still, it’s up-to-date. As the centerpiece of the Itoigawa Geopark, the museum opened or re-opened its doors as recently as 1996, after what might be called “the new big picture” of Japan’s geological origins came to the fore. Yet proper respect is shown to the pioneers too. Opposite the video display is an exhibition dedicated to Edmund Naumann (1854–1927), a geologist who, while employed by the Meiji government, gave the Fossa Magna its name.

Naumann’s feisty, not to say abrasive, character probably accounted for the relative brevity of his tenure in Japan. But, by the same token, he got a lot done. The relics here testify to an enviable array of talents – Japan’s first geological map, for sure, but also watercolours that capture the charm of Old Japan, and (dating from after Naumann’s return to Germany) a drama entitled Götterfunken adapted from the folktale of Taketori Monogatari.

A fourth hall still awaits us. It threatens to be highly fossiliferous: “Funny ammonites named Nipponites from Hokkaido are must-see specimens,” promises the brochure, but we must demur.

While a self-confessed geo-taku (or is that ge-otaku?) could spend the whole day here, I’d prefer not to test the limits of the Sensei’s patience with petrifactions. The same holds true for a gallery of world minerals on the way out. Fascinating as they are, we still haven’t had lunch.

We do spare a moment for a showcase dedicated to Ono Ken (1932–2014), an engineer who worked for a local cement company – remember that peerless white limestone at Kurohime – and in his spare time roamed "the high peaks which fascinated a mountaineer", writing local guidebooks and pioneering a new trail. Along the way, he collected fossils and rocks, and took 180,000 slides, all of which he bequeathed to the museum.

Definitely it’s time for lunch now. We got out into the cold wind. Wandering back towards the station through the vegetable gardens, we come across the kind of sign used to mark ancient monuments. Sited atop the wooded bluff, the place would, in better weather, command a sweeping view over the town.

Four Jomon-era houses used to stand here, explains the Sensei. And their inhabitants may even have worked jade here. It wouldn't be surprising. In Itoigawa, whether past or present, jade is everywhere....

Thursday, April 4, 2019

A meizanologist's diary (25)

23 March: could it be that we’re uncertain of our position? From Itoigawa’s Shinkansen station, we followed road signs until a short cut offered itself up a wooded bluff. Now we find ourselves, still walking inland, amid a patchwork of vegetable gardens. Nothing for it but to press on, harrassed on our way by a cold wind from the sea.

We find our objective, a bunker-like concrete building hidden behind a scrubby stand of pines.

If you want to build a Fossa Magna Museum, I guess Itoigawa is the logical place, as the northern terminus of the famous rift valley that bisects Honshū. After all, the other end, Shizuoka, already has its Mt Fuji Heritage Centre. But you have to travel a bit, both by train and on foot, to get there.

After a warm welcome at the ticket desk – even on Saturday, visitors are none too numerous on this grey spring day – we find ourselves in an entrance lobby mocked up to resemble a river gorge, complete with real boulders of a pallidly greenish hue. Ah, naruhodo: this is a tribute to Itoigawa’s most famous feature, an entire cliff of jade just a few kilometres away.

Samples of this semi-precious rock fill the first exhibition hall. The Sensei is amused by the sign that enjoins visitors to touch the stones kindly. Jade we discover is not just green – there is white jade, purple jade, plain jade, veined jade. I’ve already soaked up the Japanese word for jade – hisui – but no need to worry: the museum’s exemplary labelling is in English as well.

On the way out of this gallery, we inspect samples of the enigmatic lobe-shaped pendants known as magatama. To this day, the Imperial regalia – mirror, sword and jewel – include such pendants. In prehistoric times, the Jomon and Yayoi people liked to carve them out of jade.

Yet, strange to say, around the time that Buddhism came to Japan, people seem to have forgotten where to find jade on the Japanese islands. The last known ornament made of Japanese jade, at least before modern times, was a magatama adorning an eighth-century statue of the Kannon preserved at the Tōdaiji.

The stone’s provenance remained obscure until a summer day in 1938, when a green rock of the right type was discovered by Eizo Ito, a local schoolteacher. He was inspired to search near Itoigawa by the writer Gyofu Soma (1883-1950), who deduced that precious stones mentioned in the Kojiki’s account of the legendary Princess Nunakawa might have come from this region.

The following year, a geologist from Tohoku University found a gorge full of enormous boulders of jadeite beneath a nearby mountain. Then another outcrop was discovered in a second gorge, not far away.

But how did the jade get here in the first place? A strategically placed video explains that jade is thought to crystallise out of superheated mineral solutions deep within an oceanic subduction zone, just like the one that is currently sliding under Japan from the east. Although, in those days, 250 million years ago, the subduction zone was probably plunging under what would one day become the People’s Republic of China.

Jade is almost always found with serpentinite, which is thought to buoy the deposits up from the depths and to lend them its green tinge. A similar mechanism may account for the veritable mélange of different rocks found in this part of the Fossa Magna.

We sample this lithic potpourri in the second gallery. A large boulder of limestone comes from just upstream of the jade boulders in Kotakizawa. It’s every bit as black as the stuff you’d find on the Eiger, the dusky hue suggesting that it formed in the shallow waters of a continental shelf. There, mud from river estuaries darkened the sediments that would one day turn to stone.

We’re more taken with the pearly white limestone that makes up the bulk of Kurohime-yama (why is it not known as Shirohime-yama?) and Myōkō, one of Fukada Kyūda’s One Hundred Mountains of Japan.

This limestone, the label tells us, grew up as coral in the pure seawaters atop a submerged volcano - there's even a reconstruction of the reef in a cabinet to show what it might have looked like to some antediluvian scuba diver. So no land sediments sifted in to pollute the stone’s alabaster sheen. The fossils in this Omi Limestone are kind of neat too.