Saturday, December 23, 2023

A Christmas story

Not even trench warfare could dampen their sense of humour: a climbing story by C F Holland from the winter of 1915 …

After marching about a farmyard in a snowstorm most of the night, guarding sundry articles, mainly broken spades, I had retired to the guard-room and was endeavouring to make myself comfortable on a bed of ammunition boxes. Alas! the goddess of sleep, discouraged by the hard circumstances, fled from me. By chance, I observed a magazine lying near, and on opening same was charmed to find a climbing story among its contents. Speedily I was engrossed in its thrilling episodes and entranced by the vistas opened up of new climbing possibilities.

It really was a most wonderful tale and may be summarized as follows. (May I say that I have tried to make this summary as veracious as possible and have erred rather on the side of understatement than the reverse). The party consisted of five, led by a Swiss guide named Fritz who spoke English with any amount of local colour, and was completed by two men and two girls; the scene being laid in the Rockies. 

Swiftly are we plunged “in medias res.” They are “doing rock work,” and are attached to a rope, twelve feet between each couple, they are descending and come to a steep slab, as I took it to be, with a profound precipice beneath. There are no holds. What to do? Obvious solution of difficulty - to slide. The guide slides, the hero slides, they all slide, the guide first because he is leading, the heroine last because she is the weak member of the party; but according to the illustration she is attached to a rope fore and aft, so that the suggestion occurs to me that they may have roped down this obviously difficult place without knowing it. Horrors! She slides badly and is just going over the edge when the hero seizes her, by the leg, and she is saved. Strange to say though, she is annoyed because she considers the hero too masterful.

However, after a few words they proceed. Thrill follows thrill, the rope behaves badly and makes at one point a most dastardly attempt to belay the leader, but with great presence of mind and at great personal risk the heroine removes it and another danger is averted. But worse is to follow; the rope, evidently annoyed at being thwarted, gives all its attention to doing the heroine in. A second time it is foiled, this time by the hero, who again seizes the heroine, by the leg, who is thus saved from being thrown over another precipice by the now thoroughly infuriated rope.

We breathe again, but it is a cunning as well as a determined rope and alters its tactics. This time it saws itself against a convenient rock and breaks between the heroine and the person above her with the awful result that the portion of the party above her proceeds in blissful ignorance of this fact and eventually reaches the top of the mountain before the broken rope trailing behind is discovered, while hero and heroine are left an embarrassed couple, so embarrassed in fact that the idea of shouting does not seem to have occurred to them (a weak point in an otherwise convincing narrative).

I mentioned that the lady was previously a bit fed up with the hero, and now a trial of willpower ensues. She refuses to be led and repeatedly tries to advance but is as often foiled by her companion who seizes her each time, by the leg, and pulls her back. In the end he leads, but the result is hardly satisfactory as after overcoming countless difficulties, such as crossing a slope of shale just above the usual fathomless abyss, and dodging several avalanches, an unclimbable slab appears. No real attempt is made to climb it but no holds can be found, and the hero, upset by an incessant stream of sarcastic comments from the girl, breaks down and weeps. The scene is an affecting one “I wish I could die to save you,” sobs he, and she weeps too, whereupon he calls her his darling and they embrace. “I wish I could die too” cries she , a wish which seems likely to be gratified. However, mutual endearments follow, apparently for several hours.

“But” says the author, “do they die?” Sly dog, he knew all the time. No! is the joyful answer. At this point I paused and indulged a while in contemplation, wondering how the author would extricate them from their perilous position. Perchance some great airman would fling them a rope and drag them to safety, the hero holding the rope in his teeth and the heroine in his arms; or an avalanche falling upwards might take them over the mauvais pas.

But the solution proved commonplace. Suddenly a cheery face peers over the top of the impossible slab, it is the face of Fritz, the Swiss guide. He points out to them “invisible crevices in the rock by means of which they may climb up.” This they do, and reach the top of the mountain. And so this remarkable tale draws to a triumphant and happy conclusion with their marriage on safely getting to the bottom again.


Text was originally published by C F Holland as “Another climbing story: a MS from ‘Somewhere in France’” in The Journal of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club of the English Lake District, War Issue, vol 3, no 2, November 1915 – this issue is also of interest to meizanologists as it contains a report on “Two climbs in the Japanese Alps” by the Rev. Walter Weston, MA, FRGS, AC.

The image is from an illustration (for an advertisement, detail) by Ernst Platz in Bergsteigermaler: Ernst Platz by Maike Trentin-Mayer, published by the Deutscher Alpenverein, Bruckmann, 1997.

Thursday, December 21, 2023

A meizanologist's diary (48)

2 November: as there is the flight back to HEL this evening, we can afford only a short walk. Monju should fit the bill: it has just one metre of altitude for each day in the year.

Ascending this miniature Meizan by its northern flank, you pass by places such as Murodō and Ōnanji, names that echo those on the sacred mountains of Tateyama and Hakusan. But today we dispense with this cultural baggage by taking the west ridge. From a layby at the end of the road, a muddy runnel leads up into the woods.

No shrines or jizō statues are met with until we reach the Oku-no-in (“Inner sanctuary”). Here a gigantic split boulder goes by the name of Tainai, like the famous lava caves at the foot of Mt Fuji.

Leaving the Sensei to take a rest, I step over a col to the summit shrine. The wooden fane has been magnificently rebuilt, after a typhoon shoved it bodily from its foundations a few years ago.

A new signboard promotes Monju's connection with the Hyakumeizan story – it records that Fukada Kyūya, then in his fourth year at Fukui Middle School, came up here with three companions in November 1919 and inscribed their names inside the shrine.

How exactly these graffiti have been preserved is unclear – are they still in situ inside the shrine’s doors, or have they been taken down to some archive or museum? I’d like to take a closer look, but people keep coming up to pay their respects to the shrine.

Another signboard attracts my attention, this one revealing a darker side to Monju’s history. Meizan or not, the mountain served as a fortress during the Warring Country period, to either defend or subjugate the people below, depending on your viewpoint.

As an army veteran himself, the Hyakumeizan author had no illusions about the military usefulness of mountains. After he has expatiated on the medicinal herbs of Ibuki (1,377 metres), for example, the summit view prompts these thoughts:

The plain looked so peaceful, yet it was precisely there, in the Genki and Tenshō eras (1570-1592), that the most bloody battles had taken place. Right in front of my eyes lay the killing fields of Shizu-ga-dake, Anegawa, and Sekigahara. Looking at the little hills spread out below, I could imagine how the generals of old found this ideal terrain on which to practice their deadly stratagems.

Well, it was probably naïve to have overlooked the strategic potential of this well-placed Meizan, I tell myself as I aim my phone camera at the signboard. In peace time, we tend to forget that mountains have other uses besides hiking, climbing and collecting herbs.

Just then, atop the sign’s supporting post, I notice a dragonfly basking in the sun. The strangest thing, though – did it just wink at me ... ?

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

A meizanologist's diary (47)

1 November: “Let’s climb the mountain,” says a gaudily painted signboard at the foot of Shimoichi-yama. Then we pass placards enjoining “Let’s keep the beautiful scenery forever” and, while we’re at it, “Let’s walk sprightly”.

As she is teaching this afternoon, the Sensei has sent me on a 6km route march along the local river bank, to a hill overlooking her native city. A path known as the “Miru-king” circuit (ミルキングロード) leads to the summit and then loops down to the starting point. “I find it best to go anticlockwise,” she adds without explanation.

I’m still wondering why anticlockwise, and whether “Miru-king” has anything to do with cows, when the next series of exhortatory placards is met with: “Let’s enjoy the natural woodland” and “The satoyama is enjoyable.”

On this sweltering afternoon, the satoyama looks more scruffy than enjoyable – Tokyo is boiling up to its hottest November day since 1923

The sign that urges “Let’s keep ourselves hydrated” has it right. It’s more than warm enough for hornets too, as another sign warns. Fortunately, none are buzzing about. 

In spring, though, the forest floor must shimmer in a purple haze of fawnlilies (katakuri) under the shade of the magnolias (ho’o-no-ki), redvein maples (urihada-kaede), mountain ashes (azukinashi) and sawtooth oaks (kunugi) – needless to say, we’re obliged to helpful labels for these identifications. 

Are these trees native to the hill, or were they planted? I’ll have to ask a geobotanist – where is a Takahashi Kenji when you need him?

On the summit, such as it is at 260 metres above sea level, an elderly man is taking in the view. Turns out he is a retired chemical engineer. On a clear day, you could see Hakusan from here, he says. “Miru-king”, it seems, has to do with “miru”(seeing) the sweeping panorama from this eminence. Naruhodo na.

Then the conversation turns to the Russo-Japanese war – just how did we get there? It seems that the British helped to finance Japan’s war effort, via the so-called Takahashi Loans. I confess to having once visited the Battleship Mikasa at Yokosuka, one of the assets so financed. The fact that Takahashi Korekiyo was later assassinated for his pains is out of scope for this discussion. 

A grass snake slithers off the path as I start down. Remarkable: a grass snake in November, although – come to think of it – the Sensei met with a viper on a nearby mountain at around the same season a few years ago. 

I'm going to have to walk sprightly now to get home before dark. Carrying on down and anticlockwise – perhaps the Sensei wanted to keep the heavy stuff till last – I encounter one last signboard:

Instead of encouraging me to ganbare, it records that the hill served as a fortress during the Warring Country era. In those days, the expansive view had a strategic purpose, and it was armed men who did the miru-king up on Shimoichi-yama.

Tuesday, December 5, 2023

A meizanologist's diary (46)

31 October: the Sensei is concerned about me visiting Tokyo at Halloween – scary things happen on the Yamanote Line, she says. Even so, I manage to navigate the badlands of Okubo without encountering more than a couple of witches and vampires. My destination is heralded by a sign proclaiming the Society for the Valid Utilization of the Mt. Fuji Weather Station.

But today’s morning coffee is to be taken with members of the Fuyō Nikki no kai. This is an association dedicated to researching the story of the meteorologist Nonaka Itaru and his wife Chiyoko, who sojourned on the summit of Mt Fuji in the winter of 1895 – where they made round-the-clock weather observations to within an inch of their lives.

In the chair is Professor Dokiya Yukiko, a moving spirit behind the re-utilisation of the former Mt Fuji Weather Station buildings for wider-ranging atmospheric research. Also present are Satō-san and Takahashi-san, two former members of the former weather station summit crew – Takahashi-san helped to toast the famous weather radar farewell, when it was shut down for the last time in 1999.

And it’s very good to see Ohmori Hisao again, who – in addition to commissioning the series of magazine articles that became Nihon Hyakumeizan – also edited the Mt Fuji memoirs of Nonaka Itaru and Chiyoko. Surprisingly, this was the first joint edition of their writings. 

It’s not often that scientists and literary folk sit down around the same table. And not for the first time, I wonder about the overlap between the Fuyō Nikki no kai, with its literary and historical focus, and the Mt Fuji Research Station – which supports hard science, such as the programme that recently discovered microplastics in clouds.

Yet today it all makes perfect sense: the Mt Fuji Research Station traces its origins to the tiny summit hut occupied by Nonaka Itaru and Chiyoko in 1895. It carries on tradition of scientific adventure that goes back for more than a century …

Back in the Sensei’s hometown, after a four-hour journey by Kagayaki and Thunderbird, a very lively Halloween party has broken out on the station concourse. Surely it must be quieter on the Yamanote Line this evening....

Sunday, December 3, 2023

A meizanologist's diary (45)

30 October: as it’s a Monday, only the leisured classes can visit the mountains. Almost everyone in the group is retired, including our leader, the president of the local mountaineering club. By the same token, we are all – as Falstaff so eloquently put it – if not clean past our youth, then with some smack of age in us.

The president is leading us up his local “Hausberg”, Nosaka-dake, this time by its western ridge. In the cool morning air, we gain height at the kind of stately but steady pace favoured by the best Swiss guides.

The view out over Tsuruga bay has already started to expand when we pass a sign to a “pilgrim’s rock” (Gyōja-iwa). Could it be that this mountain has more of a history than it lets on at first acquaintance?

Emerging onto the wooded summit ridge, we look in vain for the woods of autumn. Here and there a maple tree, or some of its leaves at least, have assumed their customary scarlet. For the most part, though, the trees look drab, as if uncertain of the season.

Arriving on top in less than guidebook time, I realise that we’ve just received a masterclass on how to go about mountaineering when starting to relish the saltness of time. 

Taking advantage of the warm sun – though it is a pity about the kōyō – we distribute ourselves around the summit marker to eat our rice balls and sweet potatoes; four years ago, a chill wind drove us into the refuge hut.

Small wonder that Nosaka-dake boasts one of those prestigious primary triangulation points. For a mountain of just 914 metres, the views are spacious – northwards, to the Japan Sea’s horizon and, to the south, more like a sea than a lake, the glinting shield of Biwa-ko. From here, you could easily credit the legend that Mt Fuji was built from the spoil left from digging out the lake.

Reluctantly, we start down. This time, we’ll do a traverse, descending via a ridge on the mountain’s north side. The beech woods have been cleared here, to make way for a line of pylons distributing electricity from Tsuruga’s nuclear power stations. 

But it is right under one of these steel intrusives that we find a community of autumn gentians. They seem to like it out here, under an open sky.

Sunday, November 19, 2023

A meizanologist's diary (44)

27 October: supper is shabu-shabu in northern Kyoto with senior members – let’s face it, we’re all senior in this company – of the university’s Academic Alpine Club. As mentioned elsewhere, the Academic Alpine club of Kyoto was founded in 1931 to pursue first ascents in the Himalaya, a mission it has pursued single-mindedly over the decades.

I do wonder, as we sit down around the dark wooden table in the homely ryotei, how many thousand metres of vertical Himalayan ascent my hosts have collectively accounted for but – apart from a chance mention of Shishapangma, probably not by the normal route – the conversation takes another turn.

Takahashi Kenji (circled) with members of the AACK, 1930s
Photo courtesy of the Academic Alpine Club of Kyoto

We’re here because of a book – one that was given to an alpine club in Switzerland the best part of a century ago by Takahashi Kenji (1903-1947), known as Japan’s first geobotanist. Together with Imanishi Kinji (1902–1992) and Nishibori Eizaburō (1903–1989), two friends from his schooldays, Takahashi was one of the AACK’s principal founders.

Three climbers on Yari-ga-take, probably late 1920s
From Nihon Arupusu (The Japan Alps) as presented by Takahashi Kenji to the AACZ

When the three of them pioneered a new route up Tsurugi-dake’s formidable Chinne – this was still in their schooldays – it was Takahashi who led the crux pitch. He was also one of the first to explore Kita-dake’s Buttress. Later, he helped to modernise skiing techniques across the whole country, promoting them through two books and a series of “gasshuku” (training camps).

This was in the 1930s, following his return from Europe. It was while studying in Zurich under the renowned ETH geobotanist Eduard Rübel (1876–1960) that Takahashi presented our club with a book about the Japan Alps. Inside the front cover, is a dedication in fluent German to mark the AACK’s founding:

“An AACZ Zürich! Von Dr. Kenji Takahashi. Zum Andenken bei der Geburt von unserem AAC Kyoto. (1931. Juni),” the inscription runs.

The book's chance rediscovery is what has brought us together for the evening, together with what seems like an inexhaustible supply of Kirin. Senior as we are, nobody is old enough to recall Takahashi himself. But the colour plates in the magnificent book he gave us bring back a whiff of those heady pioneering days in the Japan Alps…

Around the campfire, Japan Alps, 1920s (?)

Morning at Kamikochi, late 1920s (?)

Crevasse in a snowfield, Northern Japan Alps
(all three colour plates above are from Nihon Arupusu,
published by Shinkosha, Tokyo, June 1930)

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

A meizanologist’s diary (43)

26 October: on the flight from HEL, the sun comes up somewhere over central Asia. A range of nameless mountains scrolls by, their arid wrinkles thrown into crisp relief by the morning light. 

Was it not in these parts, somewhere near Kashgar, that Eric Shipton (1907-1977) had his revelation about the curious effect of too many unclimbed peaks on the alpinist’s psyche?

On even the most familiar journeys in this part of the world, unexplored ranges are such a commonplace, so much the order of the marching day, that to cross a side-stream whose source is known usually calls for excited comment; a peak distinguished with a name stands like a lighthouse in a limitless sea. This is enchanting, no doubt, but over-familiarity with these conditions has, I find , one unfortunate and rather disconcerting result. I appear to have lost a good deal of my interest in climbing mountains. Not entirely; but much of the rapturous enthusiasm seems to have gone. I recall, for example, my intense eagerness to make the second ascent of Mount Kenya, which for some months was a ruling passion of my life, and with some sadness contrast it with the nonchalance with which I gaze at a view of half a dozen peaks, greater in height, equally beautiful in form ...

Is this sense of satiety just a matter of ageing, or perhaps no more than a personal quirk? Shipton thinks not:

I am not alone in this. I have often remarked, for example, how little members of the Mount Everest expeditions used to avail themselves of the opportunity, for many of them unique, of climbing virgin peaks around the Base Camp or in Sikkim. The excuse was rarely valid that the exhaustion of high climbing or lack of time prevented them …

How, then, to explain this feeling, Shipton asks himself. Could it be that anonymous mountains fail to pique an alpinist's competitive spirit? Or that mountain-climbing has its roots in the instinct to explore, and so loses its allure once there is a whole new region to explore? But neither explanation, he decides, will hold water:

It does not account for the fact that, in my present mood, I would undoubtedly be more stirred by a view of the Peuterey Ridge than by a ridge of twice the size of an unknown mountain … There is some quality about a buttress on Scafell that urges us to climb it which is lacking in a cliff that is less well-known by reason of the very profusion of precipices in which it is set. So, I find, it is with mountains themselves. Some kind of intimacy, either personal or historical, seems to be necessary, without which we are oppressed by an overwhelming sense of loneliness and awed by the insignificance of our achievement.    (Eric Shipton, Mountains of Tartary)

I'm still ruminating about Shipton's musings when, some hours later, we coast in over Matsue, on the Japan Sea coast of Honshū. And there is Daisen! 

Even from a height of several thousand metres, the dissected edifice of this extinct volcano distinguishes itself as a Meizan. Although scarcely less barren than those nameless mountains of the desert, it stands aloof over all its neighbours. It is steeped in legend and history – even its shadow has featured in a famous novel. As the Airbus starts its descent into KIX, no mountaineer with a window seat on the left-hand side of the plane could fail to be stirred by the sight of that crumbling ridgeline….

Saturday, October 14, 2023

Images and ink (52)

: Lake at Gokyo Ri, Khumbu District, image by courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure.

Ink: From Ella Maillart, The Land of the Sherpas (1951).

Some bamboo poles indicated the miraculous sin-remitting spring. We quenched our thirst and Topgi filled his gourd with sacred water to take home with him. Only a lake of clear, calm waters can reflect an immutable peak or the infinite heaven, both symbols of perfection. For initiates the lake stands for the world of thought, the mind, which can only apprehend the absolute when it has become clear and calm. Here the fevered mind of Siva, who had drunk the poison of the world, mastered itself at last by concentrating every thought on the peace of this ineffable lake, goal and crown of that inner pilgrimage which alone is the true one.

Friday, October 13, 2023

Images and ink (51)


Image: The proprietor at Sonam Lodge, Khumbu District, image by courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure. 

Ink: From Ella Maillart, The Land of the Sherpas (1951).

The hardy Sherpas scarcely feel the cold - any more than did the grandparents of our own mountaineers who lived in conditions so primitive that they would appal us. In the highest villages of Switzerland there are still many houses more wretched than those I saw in Nepal. I visited at least fifteen houses in all as I dealt out medicines to people suffering from abscesses, coughs, malaria and dysentery. The size of the rooms varied according to the substance of the owner, but the plan remained the same. My feeling of well-being was probably due to the happy proportions of an interior which exactly fulfils the needs of its inhabitants - as the round yurt does those of the Mongol - and had nothing to do with their degree of cleanliness! Comparison with the rich houses of the Tyrol, the Engadine or the Bemese Oberland would be pointless, but if one recalls the highest villages in the Trentino, the Valais, the Maurienne or the Vanoise, where life is reduced to the bare necessities, it becomes apparent that few mountain people are as well off as these Sherpas. When, a year later in London, I showed my film of Nepal, the colonel of a Gurkha regiment came up to me after the lecture. He spoke of the war in Asia and of the astonishing dignity of Gurkha soldiers in Japanese prisons. "Now I understand," he said. "They had behind them, as a part of their spiritual fibre, this perfect background. Compared with the poorer inhabitants of the overpopulated south, they are real aristocrats."

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Mt Fuji, Meizan of aerological science

Microplastics detected for the first time in mountaintop clouds

Researchers from Waseda and other Japanese universities have found fine particles of plastic – microplastics – in clouds, reports the Guardian. This study may be the first to have sampled clouds for this form of environmental pollution.

Using “string-type passive cloud collectors”, the scientists sniffed the air from the tops of Mt Fuji (3,778 metres) and Mt Ōyama (1,252 metres) in the nearby Tanzawa range, both mountains that figure prominently in Japan’s most famous mountain book. Samples were also collected at Tarōbō (1,302 metres), on Mt Fuji’s lower slopes.

The researchers then looked at wind trajectories to work out where the plastic particles came from. As you’d expect, the summit of Mt Fuji attracts a superior range of pollutants. This may be because the winds that blow over Ōyama and Tarōbō come mainly from China, while the top of Mt Fuji also receives airborne tribute from Southeast Asia.

The aerologists follow in a lengthy tradition. They collected their high-altitude samples at the Mount Fuji Research Station. This comprises the buildings of the old weather station, which a non-profit organisation repurposed for summer-only scientific observations in 2007. 

But the weather station itself could trace its origins back to the winter of 1895, when Nonaka Itaru and his wife Chiyoko held out for more than two months in a small hut, making weather observations at the very highest point of Mt Fuji.

In those days, of course, the clouds were entirely free of fine particles of plastic.


Yize Wang, Hiroshi Okochi, Yuto Tani, Hiroshi Hayami, Yukiya Minami, Naoya Katsumi, Masaki Takeuchi, Atsuyuki Sorimachi, Yusuke Fujii, Mizuo Kajino, Kouji Adachi, Yasuhiro Ishihara, Yoko Iwamoto and Yasuhiro Niida, “Airborne hydrophilic microplastics in cloud water at high altitudes and their role in cloud formation”, Environmental Chemistry Letters, August 2023.


Wednesday, September 20, 2023

“Screaming for relief”: a modest proposal for Mt Fuji

Less transport rather than more may be needed to deal with overcrowding

Only weeks have passed since this blog posted a disquisition on the century-long backstory of the funiculars, cable cars and railways proposed for Mt Fuji over the past century.

Since then, the online media have been erupting almost daily with articles about the present-day overcrowding on the mountain. Mt Fuji is “screaming for relief” says CBS; “Japan says swarms of tourists defiling sacred Mt Fuji” reports Reuters; “Is that sustainable?” asks the Japan Times, only a little less hysterically. 

To deal with the overcrowding, various nostrums are floating about. Charge a higher “peak fee” say some – at present, would-be Fuji climbers can fork over a ¥1,000 fee for “maintenance and conservation”, but only if they feel like it. Meanwhile, Nagasaki Kōtarō, the governor of Yamanashi Prefecture, would like to replace the Fuji Subaru Line roadway with a light railway, the better to control visitor numbers.

Fair enough, but Project Hyakumeizan wonders whether these worthy proposals go far enough. Supposing, he muses, all vehicles – whether buses or light railways – were prohibited on Mt Fuji, so that its suitors would climb the mountain all the way from its foot. 

From the town of Fuji-Yoshida to the top of Mt Fuji is a vertical distance of almost three vertical kilometres. Yes, visitor numbers would certainly fall. Few would make it above the fifth station. But those who did would again drink in the high-altitude serenity that befits a sacred peak.

You know, it might even be quiet enough up there to hear the mountain breathe a sigh of relief...

Thursday, August 31, 2023

“Yamanashi governor proposes light rail system for Mt Fuji”

Now how’s that for timing? Just weeks after this blog published a lengthy disquisition on past plans to run a cable car or funicular up Mt Fuji, the Japan Times reports that Nagasaki Kotaro, the Governor of Yamanashi Prefecture, has revived his proposal to replace Mt Fuji’s Subaru Line road with a light railway. 

Speaking at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in Tokyo on Tuesday 29 August, Nagasaki said that replacing the road with a railway would help to meet the conditions under which UNESCO designated Mt Fuji as a World Heritage site ten years ago.

A railway, Nagasaki explained, would help the authorities to better control visitor numbers at the Subaru Line fifth station, and transform it into something that blends with the natural landscape, emphasises the mountain’s spirituality and improves tourist satisfaction.

As a next step, Yamanashi prefecture will conduct a feasibility study for the light rail system and work towards informing and building consensus among stakeholders, including local residents, by the end of March 2024.

Like a fine wine, Governor Nagasaki’s plan has been maturing for a while. SoraNews reported that his plan was approved by Yamanashi officials in February 2021. 

And the plan to replace the Subaru Line road with rails has been simmering for longer still. As far back as September 2018, the Yomiuri was reporting that the Mt Fuji light railway “may become reality”.

If it does, please remember that you read it here first ....


Anika Osaki Exum, “Yamanashi governor proposes light rail system for Mount Fuji”, Japan Times, 29 August.

Oona McGee, “Mt Fuji railway project receives approval from Yamanashi officials”, SoraNews24, 9 February 2021.

Yomiuri Shimbun, “‘Mt. Fuji railway’ may become reality as panel to start discussion”, The Japan News/Asia News Network, 26 September 2018.

Friday, August 25, 2023

Ageing bulls

How Mt Fuji got its unique fleet of heavy-lift dozers

Sumimasen: I forgot to post on 11 August, Japan’s Mountain Day. For a blog oriented towards Japan’s mountains, this was culpable. While scrambling to catch up, I happened across a blog that did mark last year’s mountain-themed national holiday. 

How vending machines migrate to the top of Mt Fuji
(Photos courtesy of Coca-Cola Bottlers Japan)

The post came from Coca-Cola Bottlers Japan, who run the high-altitude vending machines that regale summer visitors to Mt Fuji’s crater rim. As the post explains:

Mt. Fuji was listed as a World Cultural Heritage in 2013 under the name "Fujisan, sacred place and source of artistic inspiration". This is why our vending machines are painted brown so as not to disturb the scenery.

Unlike snow ptarmigans, the brown vending machines do not turn white in winter. Instead, they migrate, returning to the lower world in August and climbing back to the 3,778-metre summit every July. This they accomplish not by flying – helicopters would cost too much – but riding on the freight deck of a converted bulldozer.

Mt Fuji’s famous “bulls”, as they are katakana’d, go back a long way. When a permanent summit weather station was established in the 1930s, the meteorologists depended on packhorses and their drivers to carry up their food and supplies. The horses could get to about 3,600 metres, struggling to go any higher in the thinning air. From there, human porters, the so-called strong men (強力), took over for the final stretch to the top.

This system endured for decades. But it reached its limits in the early 1960s, when work started on a giant weather radar for the summit station. Big Sikorsky helicopters hauled up the first batches of ready-mixed concrete, but Mt Fuji’s treacherous winds soon showed up their limits too. Large panels proved especially troublesome: when asked to sling these high-risk loads under their choppers, the pilots briefly went on strike.

Helicopters too had their limits 
(Photo from Dokiya Yukiko, Kawaru Fuji-san Sokkojo)

The solution, devised just in time to keep the building programme on schedule, was to doze a track to the top of Mt Fuji. Two-ton “bulls” pioneered the way, zig-zagging all the way up the mountain’s southern flank, and dumping their spoil into the Hoeizan crater. As the road was dug out, a team of four or five men would walk below the slowly advancing dozers, to “field” any rocks they dislodged and stop them bouncing down onto climbers or pilgrims.

A Cat from the classical age of weather station operations
(Photo from Dokiya Yukiko, Kawaru Fuji-san Sokkojo)

As the trail improved, successively heavier “bulls”, minus their blades and sporting a makeshift freight deck, could be used to freight food and supplies up the mountain. So the two-tonners gave way to three-tonners, and then to the mighty Caterpillar D4 and D5 models.

For this was surely the heroic age of the Cat. Three specially modified D8s called Pam, Colleen and Mary Ann went to Antarctica as part of America’s contribution to the International Geophysical Year in 1957-58, and a D2 was air-dropped at the South Pole, where it was supposed to dig in the new base there. Alas, the parachutes ripped away, and instead the dozer dug itself deep into the ice-sheet.

Heroic age: an IGY Cat parachutes to the South Pole
(Photo: Emil Schulthess)

But we digress. By contrast with the derring-do Down South, bull operations on Mt Fuji have been remarkably safe. This is not to say that driving one to the top of Japan’s highest mountain is without risk. According to the novelist Nitta Jirō, a bulldozer was once avalanched. And the more usual objective hazards include thunderstorms and stonefall.

One reason for the good safety record may be that the bull drivers know their mountain. It probably helped that the first of them were recruited from the ranks of the packhorse drivers (馬方), whose jobs were almost hereditary. One of these was Igura Norio, who started as a packhorse driver in 1937, and switched to the bulldozers in 1963.

Ironically, Igura records, it was thanks to the horsemen that bulldozers were introduced at all – when they used one to help construct a stable for their packhorses, it was they who discovered how well bulldozers could tackle Mt Fuji’s steep and cindery slopes. At first, the drovers-turned-bull drivers missed their amiable steeds. But, then again, the machines didn’t shy away in panic if a hiker suddenly loomed out of the fog, and nor did they collapse from high-altitude overwork.

Having done himself out of a job as leader of the packhorse drivers’ union, Igura ultimately became responsible for all supply operations to the summit weather station. And his son took over in this role until the manned weather station closed in October 2004, so ending more than seven decades of year-round human habitation on Japan’s highest summit.

Bulldozer trails on Mt Fuji, as revealed by early snowfall

The “bulls”, however, keep running. Now operated by a company called Fuji Concrete Service, they still take supplies up to the old summit weather station’s buildings, which now house atmospheric researchers during the summer months. They also deliver to the mountain huts, and take down the mail from Japan’s highest post office.

And, of course, the bulls keep Coca-Cola’s high-altitude vending machines flush with beverages. The most popular drink up there, says their purveyor, is "I LOHAS Tennensui", which consists of natural water from seven “carefully selected” water resources in Japan – including those of Daisen and Mt Aso, two of Japan’s older volcanic edifices.

So, if you ever patronise Japan’s topmost vending machines, and if you happen to raise a PET bottle of I LOHAS to your lips, please remember to toast the bulls and their drivers who hauled it up here.


Coca-Cola Bottlers Japan Holdings Inc, “A vending machine here!? On the top of Mt. Fuji, the highest location in Japan”, Corporate Blog, 1 August 2022.

Dokiya Yukiko (ed), Kawaru Fuji-san sokkōjo, Shumpū-sha, 2004.

Motoko Rich, “Mount Fuji’s Got Mail. A Bone-Rattling Bulldozer Ride Brings It Down”, New York Times, 13 August 2018 (as syndicated to the Seattle Times).

Nitta Jirō, Fuji Sanchō (novel), Bungei Shunjū, December 1967.

Operation Deep Freeze: 50 Years of US Air Force Airlift in Antarctica – 1956-2006, Office of History Air Mobility Command Scott Air Force Base, Illinois, October 2006.

Susono-shi Kyoiku-iinkai/Susonoshiritsu Fuji-san Shiryōkan, “Fuji-san sokkōjo: Nihon no kishō-kansoku wo sasaeta hitobito”, Tokubetsuten shiryōshū.

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Imaging the ice of yesteryear

Old paintings and photos of two vanishing alpine glaciers have recently been added to an international climate database maintained at the University of Bern in Switzerland. Glaciers are crucial climate indicators, reflecting changes in temperature and precipitation.

The Upper Grindelwald Glacier in 1835
Painting by Thomas Fearnley (National Gallery, Oslo)

Two institutions, Euro-Climhist and the World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS) collaborated on this effort. Euro-Climhist, housed at the University of Bern, compiles historical climate and weather data, including information on glaciers. The WGMS, based at the University of Zurich, collects and shares standardised glacier data.

In late 2021, Euro-Climhist and WGMS joined forces to preserve and share historical glacier images as part of the Euro-Climhist database. The paintings, photos and maps of the Grindelwald glaciers and Mont Blanc’s Mer de Glace will expand insights into past glacier fluctuations, helping researchers and the public to understand historical climate events and facilitating the assessment of current and future climate trends.

The Mer de Glace and its extent in the c17 (green) and c19 (red)
Reconstruction by S Nussbaumer and R Wolf

Historical glacier images play a crucial role in understanding interactions between glaciers and climate before the days of systematic measurements. Drawings, paintings, prints, and early photographs can document glacier levels dating back to the 16th century, with some help from meticulous analysis and interpretation of image quality.

The 300 or so images of the Grindelwald and the Mer de Glace glaciers, both well studied since the eighteenth century and before, have been enriched with metadata such as the artist’s name, descriptions and dates. Images are categorised into five types: drawings, oil paintings, prints, photographs, or maps, each varying in accuracy. Drawings and photographs are considered most precise, while oil paintings and prints offer valuable insights despite some imprecision.

First known depiction of Lower Grindelwald Glacier
Before 1642, by Joseph Plepp and Matthäus Merian
(Swiss National Library)

The project's pilot team consisted of researchers from the University of Zurich and the University of Bern, blending natural science, art, and environmental history perspectives. The initial series of integrated glacier images showcases the potential of historical images for understanding past climate trends. While the project focused on the Grindelwald glaciers and the Mer de Glace, more images from various regions could provide further insights.

The initiative was supported by MeteoSwiss, the national weather agency, within the framework of Switzerland’s affiliation to the Global Climate Observing System (GCOS), which gathers high-quality climate observations worldwide.

The Lower Grindelwald Glacier in July 1826
By Samuel Birmann (Kunstmuseum Basel)

The sensitivity of glaciers to climate fluctuations makes them vital indicators for climate change. Fluctuations in temperature and precipitation directly influence glacier size and mass. The alpine glaciers are shrinking fast due to warming temperatures and less snowfall, with this trend accelerating in recent years.


Translated and summarised from the MeteoSuisse blog, “Historische Gletscherbilder ermöglichen Rekonstruktion von vergangenen Gletscherständen”, 18 August 2023.

"Suddenly transported to a world forgotten by nature"

“Some courageous hunter might attempt this route”