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