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.


Wednesday, April 3, 2019

A meizanologist's diary (24)

20 March: we coast in above Niigata at more than 1,000 kilometres an hour. Not bad for a vintage Airbus, although one should thank the jetstream for a fifth of that groundspeed. So meteoric is our progress that I almost miss the sprawl of mountains that slides past my portside window.

And sprawl is the operative word here.

Iide is more a range than a mountain, writes Fukada Kyūya in One Hundred Mountains of Japan: The enormous massif sprawls over the three prefectures of Niigata, Yamagata, and Fukushima.

The Hyakumeizan author liked to view his mountains at a leisurely pace, ideally on foot or, at a pinch, from the windows of a train. In our day, though, a glimpse from a speeding jet can sometimes help to illustrate his words:

We simply followed the main ridge system, Fukada wrote, but this was to ignore the lengthy ridges that spread from this axis and the deep-drawn valleys between them. Seeing how the massif sprawled out in all directions, I sensed an infinitude of mysteries lurking within.

There’s barely time to snap a photo of that wild dendrite of ridgelines before the engines fade to a whisper and we start slanting down towards Narita, still hundreds of kilometres away. Wait, isn’t that Bandai-san coming up now? Goodness, it's one Meizan after another on this flight....