Thursday, May 25, 2023

The irresistible rise of the mountain clubbists

By convention, Japanese alpinism started on 17 August 1902, when two salarymen from Tokyo scaled Yari-ga-take, a 3,180-metre peak in what would soon be rebranded as the Northern Japan Alps. Three years later, after a nudge from the mountaineering missionary Walter Weston, one of the salarymen – Kojima Usui – went on to found an alpine club, the first in Japan and all of Asia.

 A Sangaku-kai party on the Ushiro-Tateyama traverse in 1910

It’s a compelling story and true as far as it goes. But how does it correspond with what actually happened? When writing history, it is always wise to heed Mark Twain: ““In the real world,” he jibed, ”nothing happens at the right place at the right time. It is the job of journalists and historians to correct that.”

And, indeed, some of the facts in the first paragraph do need to be kick-tested. First, Kojima Usui was surely not the first of Japan’s new middle-class town-dwellers to inspect the future Japan Alps. For instance, we learn from Japan’s most famous mountain book that Kōno Toshizō and Okada Kunimatsu made the first recorded ascent of Shirouma (2,932 metres) as early as 1898.

And, in the same year, students at the Fourth Higher Normal School – the forerunner of today’s Kanazawa University – formed a “travel club” (旅行部). This, somewhat subversively, the scientist and alpine historian Matsumoto Yukio deems to be the first club convened in Japan to undertake mountain activities.

Student alpinists: members of the Matsumoto High School
mountaineering club, founded in 1920

All this means that, when Kojima Usui and his colleagues did found their own alpine club, in October 1905, they found a receptive audience. Within a year, the new club had several hundred members, including a good cross section of Tokyo’s cultural and scientific elite. The latter made themselves prominent in the articles published in the first edition of “Sangaku”, the club’s journal, which included articles by Ogawa Takuji, Yamasaki Naomasa, Tanaka Akamaro and Takeda Hisayoshi.

Founded on the model of Britain’s Alpine Club, its Japanese counterpart started out simply as the “Sangaku-kai” (‘Mountain Club’). But, in early 1909, it shifted to its current name of “Nihon Sangaku-kai”, which is usually Englished as the “Japanese Alpine Club”.

Meanwhile, mountain clubs were mushrooming all over the realm. Some of the more eminent ones were the Hida Sangaku-kai in 1908, the Nagoya Aizankai in 1909, the Kobe Sōai-kai in 1910, the Shinano Sangaku-kai in 1911, the Hokkaidō University Ski Club in 1912, and a “mountain club” at the Tokyo Dai-ichi High School in 1913 that almost immediately morphed into a “travel club”. It was with this same club, as an “Ikkō” student in the 1920s, that Fukada Kyūya, the future Hyakumeizan author, gained some early mountaineering experience.

The Dai-Ichi High School students before setting out
from Nakabusa Onsen in July 1913

In its very first year, the Dai-ichi High School’s mountain club was involved in a celebrated incident. Between 20 July and 8 August 1913, some forty of its members, mustered into four groups, traversed the high ridges from Nakabusa Onsen via Tsubakuro and Yari-ga-take to Kamikōchi – a route pioneered only a few years before by Kojima Usui himself.

The fourth group, led by one Oki Misao, came down into Kamikōchi on 4 August, then climbed Yake-dake and Mae-Hodaka on the next two days. On the evening of the 6th, understandably ebullient with their haul of peaks and passes, they settled down to a celebratory “kompa” in their lodging house at Kamikōchi.

The students had just launched, uproariously, into their school song when a knock was heard at the door. And there stood a one-eyed foreigner, who addressed the company in clear if somewhat unidiomatic Japanese: “My wife and I would like to go climbing tomorrow. We all love the mountains. But would you kindly pipe down.”

Mr and Mrs Weston with the Dai-Ichi High School
mountaineering club, Kamikochi, August 1913

No hard feelings ensued from this symbolic collision between the alpine pioneer and the new Taishō era of mass mountaineering. Next morning, the students lined up at the Kappa-bashi bridge, together with the Westons, for a group photograph. And, via the travel club’s yearbook, the same photo was transmitted down the generations to the alpine historian Matsumoto Yukio, the grandson of one of the students lined up at Kappa-bashi on that August day in Taishō 2…


Okubo Masahiro, Horiguchi Mankichi and Matsumoto Yukio, Nihon no Shizen Colour Series, Nihon no Yama, Heibonsha, 1988.

All images are from the Yama to Keikoku illustrated history of Japanese mountaineering (目で見る日本登山史 by 川崎吉光、山と渓谷社)

Friday, May 19, 2023

Age shall not wither them

Back in February, Project Hyakumeizan and a visiting friend carried out something like the twentieth edition of their annual “geezers’ ski-tour” in the Alps. They neatly compensated for their advancing ages – now well over a century in aggregate – by halving the height of the mountains attempted.

Geezers on tour: halving the height of the mountains works well

Such compromises wouldn’t appeal to Carlos Soria Fontán. The news just came in that an injury has forced the 84-year-old Spanish mountaineer to abandon his attempt to reach the summit of Dhaulagiri. This was one of the two eight-thousanders he had left to scale to claim the title of the oldest climber to conquer the world’s 14 highest mountains.

Normal folks tend to wind down in retirement. But Carlos Soria’s climbing CV shows that the normal rules may not apply to him. Indeed, it seems that he started his eight-thousanders campaign when many people would already be drawing their first pension payments.

According to Wikipedia, Soria is the only mountaineer to have ascended ten mountains of more than 8,000 metres after turning 60, and he is the oldest person in history to have successfully climbed K2 (65 years old), Broad Peak (68 years old), Makalu (69 years old), Gasherbrum I (70 years old), Manaslu (71 years old), Kanchenjunga (75 years old) and Annapurna (77 years old). Gasp.

As you’d expect, the literature of “silver-age mountaineering” is rather slim. There was Karl Blodig (1859–1956), of course, who came out of retirement at the age of 73 to make solo ascents of the Aiguille du Jardin and the Grande Rocheuse. This was because these peaks had recently been added to the generally accepted list of 4,000-metre alpine summits, all of which he wanted to climb. 

And there was the immortal W H Tillman (1898-1977), who went down with his ship at the age of 79, on his way to climb in Antarctica. But I'm not aware that either of these paragons left any hints on how to keep alpinistically agile in old age.

One top mountaineer who did reflect on ageing was Furukawa Yoshikazu, a pioneer of Japan’s heroic post-war phase of alpinism. He was also a founder of the second Rock Climbing Club of Japan (RCCII), an elite group of hard-core alpinists. Having helped to put up rugged lines such as the Bernina Route on Tsurugi and the Furukawa Route on the Takidani Grepon, he recorded these experiences in a memoir entitled simply My Crags (わが岸壁)

In his afterword, Furukawa, then 41 years old, mused what would happen when his peak performance was behind him. Would climbing after that high point of achievement still be alpinism, he asked himself. It would depend, he decided, on his attitude, ie his inner self:

So what kind of attitude does alpinism consist in? When your climbing involves taking a line towards the highest point, we’re constantly asking ourselves if we can really do this, whether we can get up it at all. A wall of fear looms over us, but we have to keep pushing ourselves up against it, struggling against our own selves. Isn’t this alpinism, when we confront ourselves while climbing a mountain? … But if you shirk the difficulties and climb only within your comfort zone, you may look like an alpinist on the outside but, in reality, you are no more than a hiker. But I don’t mean to impose my views on anybody as to what they have to do to be an alpinist, or how they have to behave as one. After all, it’s a free world. I do venture as far as to clarify what alpinism could mean for mountaineers in their declining years.

Furukawa (b.1923) passed away a few years ago after a long and distinguished career in both alpinism and technical research. But judging by his afterword, and if he was still around, he’d probably be giving Carlos Soria Fontán a big hand.


The Guardian, “Spanish climber, 84, injured in bid to be oldest to scale world’s 14 highest peaks”, 17 May 2023

Furukawa Yoshikazu, Waga ganpeki (My crags), Yama to Keikoku-sha, January 1975

And if you want to keep cragging into your dotage, there are some good tips over on the Climbing magazine website.

On a whim?

Project HaMo (translation): a very short essay from the Swiss Alps

A glorious late summer day. A hundred thousand peerless peaks rise into the sky: grassy hills, rocky pinnacles, snow peaks, narrow ice ridges, tall and short,  a multitude of old friends and countless strangers.

"As innocent and quiet as only a harmless pinnacle can be..."
Photo by courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure

There they parade themselves, beckoning and inviting, each in its own way: that one offering its green pillows for an easy repose, the dark one hinting at scrambling pleasures, the snow dome with its a morning’s worth of devotions, to say nothing of that promising ice ridge … Look how they beckon!

A young mountaineer sets out cheerfully, as if answering a summons. How could he resist? Which one of the mountain throng was it? Won’t it be hard for him to make his choice? Unerringly, he cleaves to his path, carelessly leaving behind whole chains of mountains, each of which could enchant him, as he weaves through the massifs. On foot, he marches up a long valley surrounded by marquee peaks, further and further, inexorable.

Somewhere in the serried rows of mountains a gap yawns and a valley opens up, one like a thousand others, and beyond it, hardly to be remarked by mere mortals, beckons a little white peak, as innocent and quiet as only a harmless pinnacle can be.

The mountaineer quickens his step as he enters the valley. Suddenly a fever seizes him, and breaking into a run, he finally achieves the summit, overjoyed to be on his little white peak.

As for those hundred thousand other peaks, could it be that they are envious?


This is an excerpt from a centennial of Ihr Berge (1916), a mountain memoir by Hans "Hamo" Morgenthaler (1890-1928). Translation (c) Project Hyakumeizan.

Friday, May 5, 2023

Tozan-shi (6) – Japan discovers the Himalaya

How a cultural warrior inspired climbers to explore the Greater Ranges

Conveniently for mountain historians, it was in 1900 that a Waseda professor finished translating Marie de Ujfalvy-Bourdon’s Voyage D'une Parisienne Dans L'himalaya Occidental, the first book on the Himalaya ever to be published in Japan.

Climbers on the summit ridge of Nanda Kot, 1936

Strictly speaking, nobody in Japan needed Mme de Ujfalvy-Bourdon to learn of these great mountains – they’d been there for centuries, shimmering in the awareness of monks and scholars. And as soon as ordinary folk could travel abroad, it was a monk who was among the first to translate such vague aspirations into action. Indeed, Kawaguchi Ekai (1866-1945) was already well on his way to Lhasa when the Japanese version of the Frenchwoman’s book came out.

But Kawaguchi’s exploits belong more to the history of exploration. For would-be climbers in the Himalaya, the key influencer – as we would call him today – was Kanokogi Kazunobu (1884-1949). 

More than most, Kanokogi (right) was a bundle of paradoxes. During the war with Russia, as a young naval officer and a practising Christian, he is said to have stopped his vessel, against orders, to rescue shipwrecked sailors from the enemy fleet. Later he renounced Christianity and signed up with the Yūzonsha, an ultra-nationalist group and a pulpit from which he inveighed against liberalism, democracy and individualism.

After his naval service, Kanokogi launched into an academic career, studying philosophy at Kyoto, then Columbia, where he wrote a master’s thesis on Nietzsche (1910), and finally Jena in Germany, where he married the German-Polish daughter of a philologist and wrote up a doctoral thesis on the philosophy of religion (1912) – you can still buy a reprint of this book today. By the time the First World War broke out, he was back in Tokyo teaching philosophy at Keio.

Along the way, the young philosopher had picked up a good knowledge of the Alps. In 1911, he’d set out from Jena on a walking tour of the usual Swiss tourist spots, distilling these experiences into a book entitled Alpine Travels (アルプス行). This recommended him to Maki "Yūkō" Aritsune, who signed him up as a kind of advisor or elder to the mountaineering club he was founding at Keio in 1915. As to where alpinism fitted into Kanokogi’s broad range of interests, a professor who has studied his thought says that

Kanokogi found respite from his anxieties concerning Japanese society in his frequent mountain-climbing expeditions. Yet even those escapes were related to his political outlook, for his love of the mountains, which he acquired in Germany, was inspired by a Nietzschean quest for enlightenment upon craggy peaks. Other German influences were also at play: contact with nature held an important role in volkisch thought, a hodgepodge of romanticism and nationalism that contributed to Nazi ideology. Kanokogi considered the mountains an appropriate environment to hone the qualities necessary in the future leaders of his totalitarian state. It was thus to prepare a generation of students for service as philosopher-kings that he founded alpinist clubs at Keio and at Tokyo Imperial University.

In 1918, Kanokogi resigned from Tokyo University, where he'd also helped to found a mounaineering club, and travelled to India. Given a miserly 15 day permit to visit the Kanchenjunga region, he managed to climb a minor peak of 4,810 metres – the first Himalayan ascent by any Japanese citizen. Then, before he could get in touch with Indian pro-independence activists – another purpose of his journey – he was arrested by the British authorities and deported back to Japan. Nevertheless, he’d shown young mountaineers that Himalayan peaks could be reached and climbed.

View of Nanda Kot, from the 1936 expedition

One who got Kanokogi’s message – at least, the mountaineering part – was Mita Yukio (1900-1991). As a founder member of the Keio mountaineering club, he joined Maki in pioneering winter climbing and ski mountaineering – indeed, it was Mita who skied through a blizzard to Tateyama Onsen to raise the alarm after Maki’s party got into trouble in January 1923.

Despite this tragedy, which resulted in the death of Itakura Katsunobu, Maki saw these excursions as training for the Greater Ranges: after his return from the Mittelegi Ridge in 1921 he visited Yamamoto Isoroku, soon to become famous as a proponent of naval air power, to ask if the oxygen masks used by military aviators might be adapted for Himalayan climbers.

In the summer of 1925, Maki took Mita along with Hayakawa Tanezō and three Swiss guides to make the first ascent of Mt Alberta (3,619m) in the Canadian Rockies. By this time, Mita had graduated from Keio and had decided to join a trading company. He did well in business, ultimately rising to headup the Singapore branch of Iwai Sangyō, a forerunner of Nisshō Iwai and hence today's Sojitz.

Unsurprisingly for an alpinist of his calibre, Mita’s professional success did nothing to dull his Himalayan ambitions. A posting to India put the Himalaya within closer reach and, in the winter of 1931, he got as far as the Rohtang Pass (3,980m) with a party of 13 porters and sirdars. Alas, the weather prevented the planned ascent of a nearby peak of 4,500 metres, which Mita saw as a preliminary to attempting Kanchenjunga. And then his hard-won three weeks of leave were over.

Porting loads on Nanda Kot, 1936

In the end, Mita could do nothing more than look on as expeditions from Europe fanned out into the Himalaya. In 1931 alone, Paul Bauer led his second expedition to Kanchenjunga, and Frank Smythe succeeded on Kamet (7,756 m), the highest peak anybody had so far climbed. Mita reported on these and other expeditions to his colleagues in Japan, exhorting them to train for expeditions in the winter mountains.

Mita’s frustrations were widely shared. In June 1931, three former students of Kyoto’s elite Third High School had set up the Academic Alpine Club of Kyoto. Their aim was specifically to climb in the Himalaya. To do so, they first had to master a new set of techniques – setting climbing camps progressively higher up the mountain until the summit was in reach. The AACK first tested this “polar method” on Mt Fuji over the 1931 year-end. But after Japan left the League of Nations two years later, the country’s growing international isolation got in the way of everybody’s Himalayan ambitions.

High on Nanda Kot in 1936

In the end, it was neither the AACK, nor Mita Yukio, but a Rikkyō University expedition that bagged Nanda Kot in October 1936, helped by an experienced crew of Sherpas led by a veteran sirdar who’d been on both Everest with the British and Kanchenjunga with the Germans. The expedition leader, Hotta Yaichi, had been inspired and encouraged by Hasegawa Denjirō, a furniture designer by appointment to the Imperial court ,who’d gone to view and photograph Mt Kailas and Nanga Parbat in 1927-28. Nanda Kot was Japan’s first and only pre-war Himalayan summit.

After the war, Kanokogi was arrested as a war criminal, spending some months languishing in Sugamo Prison until released on grounds of ill-health. Meanwhile, the members of the AACK were rekindling their Himalayan ambitions. In October 1952, Imanishi Kinji, one of the club’s founders, led a reconnaissance expedition to Manaslu (8,163m). The following year, a party led by Mita Yukio made a serious attempt on the mountain’s northeast face, reaching a height of 7,750 metres. In 1954, yet a third expedition, led by the aforesaid Hotta Yaichi, was blocked by obstructive villagers and diverted to another mountain.

Finally, in 1956, the summit was reached via the mountain’s north side, making Manaslu “Japan’s eight-thousander”. Led by Maki Yūkō, this expedition was organised by the Japanese Alpine Club, like its predecessors, but it was nonetheless an AACK man, Imanishi Toshio (no relation to Imanishi Kinji), who was the first to top out. The academicians had at last made good on their prewar Himalayan dreams. 


Yamazaki Yasuji, Nihon Tozan-shi, Hakusui-sha, 1969 reprinted 1975.

Christopher Szpilman, "Kanokogi Kazunobu: Pioneer of Platonic Fascism and Imperial Pan-Asianism", Monumenta Nipponica, vol 68, no 2, 2013.

Hito wa naze yama ni noboru no ka, volume 103, Taiyō Bessatsu: Nihon no kokoro, Heibonsha 1998.

Kinichi Yamamori, "Japanese Mountaineering in the Himalaya before and after World War II", (translated, edited and supplemented by Tom Nakamura), The Himalayan Journal, no 73, 2018.

Hotta Yaichi, "The ascent of Nanda Kot", The Himalayan Journal, no 10, 1938.

Photos of the 1936 Rikkyō University expedition to Nanda Kot are from Yama to Keikoku's Me de miru Nihon no Tozanshi.

Monday, May 1, 2023

"If we don't get to grips with this, we will lose our snowy mountains"

Switzerland’s Sonntagszeitung yesterday interviewed Zurich-based glacier researcher Matthias Huss on why another massive melting of the alpine glaciers is imminent. What follows is a summarised translation.

The Swiss glacier monitoring network GLAMOS, which Huss heads up, has inspected 15 glaciers throughout Switzerland in recent weeks. They regularly survey the major glaciers in April, because the maximum snow depth is reached around this time after the winter snowfalls. 

During last year’s measurements, Huss noticed that again there was alarmingly little snow – a factor that accelerated the historic glacier melt in the disastrous summer of 2022. At that time, more than 300 million tonnes of snow and ice meltwater flowed from Swiss glaciers in a single week in June. That's enough to fill an Olympic swimming pool every five seconds.

"What is happening now is something I have never seen before," Huss told SonntagsZeitung in September 2022. One might think that nature would ease off after such a drastic and record decline. But the new measurements that Huss and his team have taken show the contrary.

Unfortunately, practically all the glaciers are in as bad a condition this year as they were in April 2022, and in some cases even worse. Only in the very west of the country are things looking better. Across Switzerland, the measurements are once again far below average. The condition of the Swiss glaciers is now critical for the second year in a row at the start of the melting period.

So the risk of another record glacier melting is increasing. In 2022, there was as little snow in April as there is now, and that was one of the main reasons for the record melt. But there was also a very warm May, and then a hot summer. It would be less bad for the glaciers if it stays cooler this year, as in 2019 when the melting started late.

Climatologists expect even higher global temperatures this year than in 2022. The risk is very high that we will have another massive loss of glacier ice. If there is no snow in winter, there is no "food" for the glaciers, and the ice has no protective layer when the temperatures rise. This time last year, there was practically no snow on the Findel glacier above Zermatt.

The Findel Glacier above Zermatt in 2009
Photo by courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure

It's more or less the same again this year. Again, there is only a thin layer of snow on the Findel glacier, even though these measurements were taken up on the Cima di Jazzi, at 3,800 metres. This also poses a risk for the team taking the measurements, as normally there are several metres of snow up there in April. This covers the crevasses, and the GLAMOS team previously never had to rope up. But last year and this year, the crevasses were hidden under only a thin layer of snow, and there was a danger of breaking through.

Remnants of a glacier collapse, Morteratsch Glacier, 2011
Photo by courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure

This year, Huss was also on the Strahlhorn, at over 4, 000 metres – this was the first time that the monitoring programme had made snow measurements at over 4,000 metres. To their astonishment, there was no snow even at these altitudes. The bare ice showed through. It is possible that in May, when it slowly gets warmer, some more snow will accumulate. But we don't know that yet.

This may also be an effect of last year's record melt. In autumn, there was only a glassy, icy surface left on the Strahlhorn instead of a layer of old snow. On this surface, the snow didn't stand a chance in the winds up there. It was simply blown away, and this was seen very impressively.

As this was the first measurement to be made above 4,000 metres, Huss can’t say how often this has happened. But it is clear that at these altitudes the glacier has to feed on snow. Ice is always lost in the lower part, even in cooler years, and this must be compensated for in the upper part. If a glacier receives too little or no snow in winter, then it can't accumulate. So if it's losing mass at 4,000 metres, no glacier can withstand that in the long term. No snow, no glaciers, it's very simple.

It has been raining at lower altitudes for the past week, and there was an appreciable catch-up in snowfall during April. However, the measurements made by GLAMOS show that this was not enough to make up for the overall deficit of the dry winter.

The Jungfraujoch in 2017
Photo by courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure

On the Jungfraujoch (3,463 metres), for example, snow measurements have been taken every year since 1921 using exactly the same method. Up till now, the snow that falls there in winter has always melted only partially in summer, allowing the glacier to accumulate. But last summer, for the first time ever, more snow melted than had fallen the winter before. So for the first time there was a loss on the Jungfraujoch. That was also because there was so little snow in 2022. This winter, however, GLAMOS found even less snow in the same places at the end of March.

In the west of Switzerland this winter, there were some weather conditions in December and January that brought a lot of snow. That's why, for example, the Tsanfleuron glacier near Les Diablerets is even a little above average. But conditions are particularly bad in the southern Valais, in Ticino and in the Engadine. On the Pers glacier right next to Morteratsch, there should be over two metres of snow on the tongue at this time. GLAMOS often found less than one metre.

Of the 20 glaciers that GLAMOS measures precisely, the team had to stop measuring three last year. In 2023, the team will probably also have to give up the measurements on the St Annafirn glacier above Andermatt. Not because the glacier is completely gone, but because it has simply collapsed so much. It is dissolving and is now only covered by debris. It is no longer worthwhile to continue measuring. It would also be too dangerous because of the falling rocks from the unstable rock faces. Last year, boulders were falling continuously.

Switzerland’s small glaciers will be lost, even if global warming is limited to 1.5 degrees, and that is already a huge challenge for the international community. “We have to try to stabilise the climate in such a way that we can at least still save the large glaciers. If we don't manage that, we will lose our snowy mountains. In summer we will have only grey rubble,” Huss says.

Huss is campaigning for the adoption of the Climate Change Act, on which Swiss citizens vote on 18 June. Opponents say that the law is too expensive, that a different path should be taken. Huss comments that “We definitely don't have time to debate for decades. We have been talking about climate change for at least 30 years now. The climate models have been confirmed and we are already suffering from extreme events worldwide. We have to act now.”

“When you stand on a glacier like this, when you go to the same place again and again and see how quickly the landscape is changing, it becomes very clear. And for us in Switzerland, climate protection is also landscape conservation. If we want to preserve our beautiful Alpine panorama, if we still want to ski in winter instead of sliding down white synthetic snowchutes, then we have to stop climate change. As a wealthy country, Switzerland can and must make its contribution here. And we can afford to pay for it. In the long run, this will pay off in any case.”


Oliver Zihlmann,  «Wenn wir das nicht schaffen, dann verlieren wir unsere weissen Berge», Interview with Matthias Huss, head of GLAMOS (Swiss glacier monitoring programme), published on Sonntagszeitung website on 29 April 2023.

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Wilting walls

A warming southern ocean bodes ill for the snows of Tateyama

Tateyama’s famous snow corridor opened to visitors on 15 April this year. As CNN reports, the centrepiece is half a kilometre of roadway excavated between snow walls that have sometimes towered up to a height of 20 metres. A tour bus provides scale in the brochure photos used to advertise this spectacle.

Image by courtesy of the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route

A one-day excursion to this mountaintop might set you back as much as ¥30,000, even starting from nearby Nagano. But will the punters get what they pay for? In recent years, some have been disappointed. As one visitor reported on TrustPilot, “The irony was that, at the Murodo snow wall, the wall had melted such that it only came just above the top of the bus. Certainly not as impressive as the photos in the brochure indicated.”

The date and year of this comment – May 2016 – could be significant. Tateyama sits in one of the world’s snowiest regions, where the winter winds sweeping in from Siberia pick up moisture from the Japan Sea and dump it liberally on any mountain that stands in the way.

Even so, climate change is starting to bite. Seasonal snow accumulations in Japan were already shrinking a decade and more ago, except in northern Tohoku and Hokkaido. But the maximum snow depth in 2015/16 was the lowest in 16 years, say eight meteorologists who simulated the weather dynamics behind that exceptionally lean winter.

The dearth of snow in 2015/16 coincided with one of the most severe El Niño events – a warming of the equatorial Pacific Ocean – seen in a century. And, as the eight meteorologists conclude in their paper, “Analysis of the four largest El Niño events shows that warmer Aprils around Japan can be a typical response,” adding that yearly variations probably also played a role in the weak snowfall.

As it happens, the World Meteorological Organization recently warned that we may be heading into another El Niño phase, following three years of “an unusually stubborn and protracted La Niña”. So, if you want to see the Tateyama snow walls in their full glory – they are right now looming around 13 metres over the road – it may be wise to pony up that ¥30,000 soon, while La Niña still reigns.


Maggie Hiufu Wong, “On the ‘rooftop of Japan,’ a stunning 20-meter-deep snow corridor reopens to visitors”, CNN Travel, 14 April 2023.

Takahashi Hiroshi, “Long-term trends in snowfall characteristics and extremes in Japan from 1961 to 2012”, International Journal of Climatology, December 2020.

Hiroaki Kawase, Akira Yamazaki, Hajime Iida, Kazuma Aoki, Wataru Shimada, Hidetaka Sasaki, Akihiko Murata, Masaya Nosaka, “Simulation of Extremely Small Amounts of Snow Observed at High Elevations over the Japanese Northern Alps in the 2015/16 Winter”, Scientific Online Letters on the Atmosphere (SOLA), 2018, vol 14.

World Meteorological Organization, WMO Update, El Niño may return, 1 March 2023.

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Images and ink (50)

Image: The Wetterhorn from Rosenlaui, image by courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure.

Ink: From Johann Peter Eckermann's Conversations of Goethe with Eckermann and Soret, translated by John Oxenford, George Bell & Sons, London, 1883.

I turned the conversation back to Shakspeare. "When one, to some degree, disengages him from English literature," said I, " and considers him transformed into a German, one cannot fail to look upon his gigantic greatness as a miracle. But if one seeks him in his home, transplants oneself to the soil of his country, and to the atmosphere of the century in which he lived ; further, if one studies his contemporaries, and his immediate successors, and inhales the force wafted to us from Ben Jonson, Massinger, Marlow, and Beaumont and Fletcher, Shakspeare still, indeed, appears a being of the most exalted magnitude ; but still, one arrives at the conviction that many of the wonders of his genius are, in some measure, accessible, and that much is due to the powerfully productive atmosphere of his age and time." 

 "You are perfectly right," returned Goethe. "It is with Shakspeare as with the mountains of Switzerland. Transplant Mont Blanc at once into the large plain of Lüneburg Heath, and we should find no words to express our wonder at its magnitude. Seek it, however, in its gigantic home, go to it over its immense neighbours, the Jungfrau, the Finsteraarhorn, the Eiger, the Wetterhorn, St. Gothard, and Monte Rosa; Mont Blanc will, indeed, still remain a giant, but it will no longer produce in us such amazement."

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Images and ink (49)


Image: View from the summit of Mt Blanc, image by courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure. 

Ink: From Mark Twain's account of climbing Mt Blanc virtually, via a telescope view from Chamonix,  A Tramp Abroad, 1880
Presently we all stood together on the summit! What a view was spread out below! Away off under the northwestern horizon rolled the silent billows of the Farnese Oberland, their snowy crests glinting softly in the subdued lights of distance; in the north rose the giant form of the Wobblehorn, draped from peak to shoulder in sable thunder-clouds; beyond him, to the right, stretched the grand processional summits of the Cisalpine Cordillera, drowned in a sensuous haze; to the east loomed the colossal masses of the Yodelhorn, the Fuddelhorn, and the Dinnerhorn, their cloudless summits flashing white and cold in the sun; beyond them shimmered the faint far line of the Ghauts of Jubbelpore and the Aiguilles des Alleghenies; in the south towered the smoking peak of Popocatapetl and the unapproachable altitudes of the peerless Scrabblehorn; in the west-south the stately range of the Himalayas lay dreaming in a purple gloom; and thence all around the curving horizon the eye roved over a troubled sea of sun-kissed Alps, and noted, here and there, the noble proportions and the soaring domes of the Bottlehorn, and the Saddlehorn, and the Shovelhorn, and the Powderhorn, all bathed in the glory of noon and mottled with softly gliding blots, the shadows flung from drifting clouds.

Overcome by the scene, we all raised a triumphant, tremendous shout, in unison. A startled man at my elbow said:

“Confound you, what do you yell like that for, right here in the street?"

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Legends from the Alps

Review: an exhibition at the Swiss National Museum shows that folk tales have propagated themselves far beyond the alpine valleys

Loose scree and steep snow are the least of your problems if you want to cross over to Alp Blengias, an almost deserted valley in the Swiss canton of Graubünden. On a bad day, when the clouds scud low over the ridges, you might also encounter, guarding the pass, a phantom rider on a ghostly palfrey. Just one glimpse, they say, will seal the doom of any wayfarer unlucky enough to meet him. Bearing this tale in mind, I chose a fine day for the traverse but still I wondered - what if ...

"Sennentuntschi" figurine from the Calancatal, Grisons
Photo: Swiss National Museum

If you need to know what kind of supernatural terrors you might face in the mountains, then you might want to take in “Sagen aus den Alpen” (Legends from the Alps), the current exhibition at the Swiss National Museum in Zurich. It is guaranteed to send a chill down your spine.

“This exhibition contains photos which may not be suitable for children,” says a sign posted at the entrance. Nor are the curators kidding. A crude doll in a showcase (see image above) is enough to give anybody nightmares. Carved by nameless cowherds on a high pasture in the Calancatal, an obscure corner of Graubünden – that canton again – it almost thrums with a voodoo vibe.

The folktale underlying this exhibit recalls the legend of Pygamalion – the classical sculptor who carved a statue so exquisite that it came to life. But while Ovid’s rendering of this metamorphosis ends happily, the alpine version takes a much darker turn.

The Sennentuntschi comes to life: from the 1972 stage play
Photo: Swiss National Museum

Having fashioned a "Tuntschi" out of wood, rags and straw on their lonely alp, the cowherds ("Sennen") treat it like a companion. They speak to her, and some even – as the exhibit’s label euphemistically puts it – “abuse her”. When the creature comes to life, she seems at first to put up with her lot. But when the time comes for the cows to be driven back down to the valley, the Tuntschi exacts a terrible revenge …

In the 1970s, the Basel author Hansjörg Schneider turned the ”Sennentuntschi”story  into a successful stage play. But, when aired in 1981, the television version caused an outcry among Switzerland’s more conservative viewers. A so-called Action Committee for Customs and Morals filed a lawsuit against the television company, getting as far as Zurich’s district court before they were forced to desist.

Legends from Graubünden, we surmise, are apt to take a particularly sombre and moralistic turn. The ghostly rider of Blengias is typical of the genre: the protagonist, after cheating his brother out of an inheritance, was condemned to roam eternally in the guise of an equestrian ghost. But the Grey Leagues have no monopoly on alpine gloom.

Witches making weather, woodcut by Michael Greyff, 1489
Photo: Swiss National Museum

Whether or not related to the Sennentuntschi, witches are another of the exhibition’s themes. (Could it be that misogyny is a bit of a thing here?) A broadsheet (below) reports on how three “Hexen” were burned at the stake in 1555 at Derneberg, a locus safely far away from today’s Zurich in both time and space (Lower Saxony). Yet it was just down the road, in Fribourg, and as late as 1731, that a Swiss community most recently turned an alleged witch to ashes.

Books too could be consigned to the flames. For good or ill, legends have enormous staying power. William Tell is a case in point. Although the folk hero is supposed to have inspired the founding of what became the Swiss confederation, in 1291, there is no trace of him in historical records from that time. Yet, when a scholar pointed out in 1760 that the Tell legend bore a suspicious resemblance to a traditional Danish saga, the people of Altdorf publicly incinerated a French edition of his work.

William Tell, as depicted (post-Schiller) by Heinrich Jenny in 1868
Photo: Swiss National Museum

Being outed as a fable did nothing to harm William Tell’s literary afterlife. After Friedrich Schiller dramatised him in 1804, the Tell story went global – there is even a Tagalog version of Schiller’s play.

You could argue that the “Toggeli” has had a similar export success. According to the exhibition’s blurb, this is a spirit that “usually visits through the night, forcing its way through cracks or knotholes to settle on a sleeper’s chest. It weighs sleepers down or throttles them, and causes them to have nightmares.”

Toggeli in action, illustration by Melchior Annen/Peter Balzers, 1908
Photo: Swiss National Museum

It was surely a Toggeli that the Zurich-born artist Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) depicted in his painting “The nightmare” (1781), which shows an incubus crouched on a woman’s chest. Mary Shelley was sufficiently impressed to have fashioned a scene after it in her Frankenstein novel. And Fuseli’s style, if not the picture itself, is said to have inspired the poet and painter William Blake. When it comes to the supernatural, the exhibition suggests, what starts in the Alps might well not stop there.

Fuseli's Nightmare, 1781

Up on the pass to Alp Blengias, I'm happy to say, no phantom rider was lying in wait. Grassy slopes led down into a valley completely deserted, according to the map, except for a single alp hut. Approaching this dwelling, it seemed that somebody had planted beside it a gnarled piece of wood. Or perhaps it was a crudely fashioned statue that, from a distance, looked convincingly like slim human figure standing on one leg, arms raised in the classical yoga pose. Then, as I came closer, the figure started to move….

You know, even on a fine summer day in the Alps, you sometimes get to see the strangest sights.

Sagen aus den Alpen, an exhibition at the Swiss National Museum in Zurich, runs from 16 December 2022 to 23 April 2023.


Peter Egloff, Pygmalion forever!, Blog zur Schweizer Geschichte, Swiss National Museum

Leo Tuor, Giacumbert Nau: Bemerkungen zu seinem Leben, Roman, Limmat Verlag, 2014.

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Images and ink (48)

Image: Mountain lake on Rophaien, Canton Uri, Switzerland, image by courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure. 
Mountains were not new to him; but rarely are Mountains seen in such combined majesty and grace as here. The rocks are of that sort called Primitive by the mineralogists, which always arrange themselves in masses of a rugged, gigantic character; which ruggedness, however, is here tempered by a singular airiness of form, and softness of environment: in a climate favorable to vegetation, the gray cliff, itself covered with lichens, shoots up through a garment of foliage or verdure; and white, bright cottages, tree-shaded, cluster round the everlasting granite. In fine vicissitude, Beauty alternates with Grandeur: you ride through stony hollows, along strait passes, traversed by torrents, overhung by high walls of rock; now winding amid broken shaggy chasms, and huge fragments; now suddenly emerging into some emerald valley, where the streamlet collects itself into a Lake, and man has again found a fair dwelling, and it seems as if Peace had established herself in the bosom of Strength.

Monday, March 13, 2023

Retreat of the snow monsters

Back in the 1980s, Project Hyakumeizan was astonished at the snow monsters on Hakusan. More soberly known as “juhyō” (tree ice), these are the fantastic figures wrought by the trees encrusted with the snow and hoar-frost swept in by the blizzards from the Japan Sea. You can still see them up there, but perhaps not for much longer.

Ice monsters on Hakusan, Advent Sunday 1981

The problem is the climate. Ice monsters will all but vanish from Japan by the end of the century unless climate change slows, warns Fumitaka Yanagisawa, a professor emeritus at Yamagata University’s Research Institute for Ice Monsters and Volcanoes of Zao, as reported in the Asahi Shimbun.

Using historical records, Professor Yanagisawa has established that juhyō previously flourished in a wide arc stretching from Hokkaidō in the north to Ishikawa’s Hakusan massif in the south. But this range has has been shrinking, both from southern end and, less obviously, from the north – where, in Hokkaidō, the mountains are no longer high enough to support the special conditions in which juhyō thrive, namely temperatures of minus 10–15 degrees, two to three metres of snow, and strong northwesterly or westerly winds with a speed of 36 to 54 kph, among others.

Yōteizan, Hakkōda, Zaō, Hachimantai, Azumaya, Hakusan, even humble Makihata – many of the mountains named by Professor Yanigasawa as current and former juhyō habitats also belong to the One Hundred Mountains of Japan. Indeed, the snow monsters put in an occasional appearance in Japan’s most famous mountain book:

I first visited Zaō when word of its frozen trees was first reaching the outside world. At that time, the only shelter above Takayu hot springs was the Kobold Hut belonging to the former Yamagata High School. After that visit, I went to the massif to ski every winter. After the war, however, I have not returned, fearing the crowds that must now overwhelm it …

It would be a pity if the juhyō were to join the Kobold Hut* and a pristine Zaō as half-forgotten footnotes in the history of Japan’s mountains …


Sakata, Tatsuro, Climate change quietly slaying Japan’s ‘juhyo’ ice monsters, Asahi Shimbun, 12 March 2023

Alan Taylor, Juhyo: The Snow Monsters on Japan’s Mount Zao, The Atlantic, 22 January 2020

*It seems that the Kobold Hut has survived to this day, now owned by Yamagata University: see this blog post.

Friday, March 3, 2023

“New ways” renewed

A forgotten path through Japan's Northern Alps is to reopen. Or perhaps even two of them.

Just at the point when it would have been too tedious to go back, the path vanished. A washout had gouged into the ridge, taking the trail with it and leaving a steep scarp of choss. We teetered across on sketchy footholds, trying to ignore the misty abyss below. “Another one of these and this will start to be not such a great idea,” I muttered. 

Sawa Control prospects the Takemura Shindo, c.1992

 We had been warned. Discussing our plan to take the shortest line back to Shinano-Ohmachi from the Mitsumata Hut, the hut warden had hinted that the Takemura Shindō – our intended way – had long ago fallen into desuetude (perhaps not his actual words).

The heavy rains and snowfall of the Japan Northern Alps will quickly obliterate a path, once it's left to look after itself. Had we thought about that, we might not have plunged down this dilapidated “new path” so carelessly. But, heck, we’d just come up the Kurobe River. And – as Sawa Control put it – we might as well go and take a look …

Thirty years after we teetered across that sketchy washout, some welcome news has just come in from Kyodo. Next summer, an even more direct route down to Shinano Ohmachi will reopen, thanks to the efforts of the Mitsumata Hut’s present warden, Itō Kei. For the past year or so, Ito has been restoring the path that his late father opened in 1956, at the height of Japan’s first post-war mountaineering boom.

Kei’s father, Itō Shōichi, started out researching aero engines for the military in the 1940s. After the war’s end, he turned his attention to the remote Kurobe region, clearing trails, and building or rebuilding several huts, including those on Kumo-no-daira and Mitsumata. He inaugurated the Itō Shindō – an entirely new route – as a direct way down to Shinano-Ohmachi, making the trip possible in a single day. And, for two decades or more, summer hikers thronged the path.

Building the Ito-Shindo in 1953
Photo courtesy of the Kumonodaira Hut

By the 1990s, though, it seemed as if a lull had fallen over Japan’s mountaineering scene. Older maps showed huts that no longer existed, and more than one long-distance path in the Northern Alps had fallen into disuse or even faded from the maps. Fortunately – after that sketchy traverse – Sawa Control and I were able to find enough traces of the Takemura Shindō to take us safely down to the Takase River valley, and so home. The autumn colours in that wilderness were unforgettable.

So it's good to see that, in parallel to Mr Itō’s efforts, the present Mr Takemura – a grandson of the Takemura who built the eponymous path – is also hoping to attract more traffic to this region. As the Takemura Shindō runs past the Seiransō, the hot spring refuge run by the Takemura family, this would help to revive the valley as a destination for hikers and mountaineers.

Judging from the Kyodo News article, the mountaineering scene is currently enjoying a revival. To pay for the expensive new suspension bridges for the new Itō Shindō, Itō Kei turned to crowdfunding – and raised 13.6 million yen, far exceeding his target. At the same time, the report says, he doesn’t want to over-restore the path. Instead, the idea is to leave some places for the hikers to find their own way.

According to a founder of the Japanese Alpine Club, Japan has both high mountains and deep mountains. The deep ones (深山) are where “no roads nor even forest tracks can penetrate, where you find your way along paths as faint as dreams, or along narrow ways, clambering over rocks and tree roots – such are the rigours and the rewards of the deep mountains.”

Now thanks to Messrs Itō, father and son, and to Mr Takemura, mountaineers will soon have two new/old routes back into the heart of the deep mountains. Just don’t forget your bear-bell.


Kyodo News, “Son reviving legendary mountain trail to fulfill father's dying wish”, 10 February 2023

Asahi Shimbun, 廃れた登山ルート、願う再興竹村新道開削の後継者ら (Heirs to the builder of the Takemura Shindō hope to revive abandoned mountain path), 29 October 2022

Kumonodaira Hut website: History of the Kumonodaira Hut


Wednesday, March 1, 2023

“The most beautiful pyramids of ice”

Translation: Horace-Bénédict de Saussure visits the Glacier des Bossons at Chamonix during the Little Ice Age

Like that of the Bois, the Bossons glacier is a spectacle of the Chamonix valley that most visitors will see. We pass below this glacier on the way to the Prieuré and there, at a small hamlet called the Bossons, which doubtless lent its name to the glacier, the guides await who offer to conduct travellers thither. 

Ice pyramids on the Glacier des Bossons
Engraving by Samuel Birmann of Basel (1793-1847)

It is a charming path, first through a small alder wood along the stream that comes out of the glacier, then through meadows and finally through a forest of fir trees. This last stretch is difficult because of its steepness, which is some thirty or thirty-one degrees. After overcoming this slope, the glacier is at hand, and one has the pleasure of seeing very close by the most beautiful pyramids of ice. As I have remarked before, wherever glaciers rest on a level plane, their surface is also more or less flat, but where they rest on a slope, their ice blocks topple and cram themselves together, taking on varied, often grotesque shapes and attitudes. Continuously washed by the waters that melt from them, the steep sides of these ice towers are absolutely clean and brilliant; neither sand nor gravel is to be seen on their flat surfaces, and they gleam a dazzling white where they reflect the sunlight, or a beautiful aquamarine green where the sun shines through them. Seen through the fir trees, which they often overtop, these brilliant and colourful pyramids make the most striking and extraordinary sight.

At the top of this short if steep ascent, one finds a stretch where the glacier rests on a level plane and offers a more or less equally flat surface. There, after crossing the dyke of stones and gravel that bounds borders almost any glacier, one can climb down onto the ice, cross the glacier and return to the Prieuré by a different route from the way up. As it is much narrower than that of the Montenvers, this glacier exhibits only a few of the great phenomena which we see on the Glacier des Bois. Nevertheless, there are quite large crevasses, and one can get an idea of the waves which we have compared with those of a rough sea. Travellers who have seen the Glacier des Bois can therefore dispense with the Bossons glacier but those for whom the Montenvers excursion is too strenuous would do well to go up to the Bossons, which is much lower.

Seen from the top of the Brévent, the Bossons glacier seems to descend directly down the side of the Mont Blanc valley. It is true that some optical illusions must be in play here, since the extreme brightness of the snow and ice, together with the absolute lack of aerial perspective because of the air’s purity, deprive the eye of any means of measuring distances, so that Mont Blanc, seen from Plianpra or from the top of the Brévent, appears to hover almost directly above the lower end of this glacier, even though there is really a horizontal distance of more than a league and a half. In spite of this distance, however, it is quite certain that snow and ice stretches uninterrupted from the summit of Mont Blanc to the bottom of the Bossons glacier. More than once, people have even attempted to reach the summit of Mont Blanc by entering this glacier at the top of the eminence known as La Côte, which separates it from the Taconay glacier.

Going up the eastern bank of this same Glacier des Bossons, one arrives at the Glacier des Pèlerins under the foot of the Aiguille du Midi, and then one can skirt the foot of the other aiguilles as far as Montenvers, making one’s descent along the Glacier des Bois. I did part of this route in 1761 but with too much haste; fearing benightment among these wildernesses, my guide made me descend with such haste that, as I was not yet fit enough to run through these mountains, I stumbled at almost every step. I did not return to Chamonix until well into the night, and this in a state of agitation and fatigue from which I had great difficulty in recovering.


Translated from Horace-Bénédict de SaussureVoyages dans les Alpes, édité et présenté par Julie Boch, Genève, Georg éditeur, 2002

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Chiyoko’s centennial

The Tokyo-based Fuyō Nikki Society yesterday published a blog post to mark the 100th anniversary of Nonaka Chiyoko, The Fuyō Nikki no kai is named after the travel diary in which Chiyoko recorded the epic sojourn that she and her husband Itaru made on the summit of Mt Fuji during the winter of 1895, while they took weather observations. She died a century ago on 22 February 1923, during a flu epidemic, at the age of 53. 

Nonaka Chiyoko in 1914, at the age of 43

The couple held out on the summit for almost three months, surviving both blizzards and beri-beri, a deficiency disease. As they eventually had to be rescued, novels and films have represented their feat as a heroic failure. Yet, in fact, they did succeed in paving the way for a more permanent summit weather station. From 1932 onwards, meteorologists lived year-round on the summit for more than seven decades.

That chapter of the mountain's history ended in 2004, when the weather station on Mt Fuji closed. After automated instruments replaced the human observers, the summit buildings were scheduled for demolition. But at this point, a volunteer group stepped in, with a plan to borrow the facility from the official sector and turn it into a centre for high-altitude research and education. And this they have done by setting up a registered non-profit organisation with an operating budget of some 30 million yen a year.

There is a certain symmetry here. By personally taking the initiative, Nonaka Itaru and Chiyoko showed that year-round high-altitude research was possible on Mt Fuji. And now, after many decades when Japan’s official meteorological agency ran the weather and radar station, high-altitude research on the summit is again back in private hands. Some hundreds of researchers have taken advantage of the repurposed Mt Fuji summit station duirng the summer seasons. But nobody spends the winter up there anymore.

Related posts

Chiyoko's Fuji

And see also "Eighty-Two Days on Mt. Fuji" in Alpinist, no 78, Summer 2022 edition.

Thursday, February 9, 2023

Tozan-shi (5) – Japan discovers the Alps

Among Japan’s earliest emissaries to Europe, who was the first to see the Alps? Was it Kurimoto Jōun (1822-1897), who stayed in Bern and crossed the Mont Cenis Pass while travelling on a diplomatic mission in 1867. Or, as Ohmori Hisao speculates, could it have been the four youths sent to Italy by a Christian daimyō in the tenth year of Tenshō (1582), who might just have glimpsed the distant Dolomites from some high tower in Venice?

Men in black: Kaga Shotaro and his guide on the Jungfrau, 1910

To mountaineers, the question is moot. For, alpinistically speaking, Japan’s discovery of the Alps had to await its first mountaineering boom, which took off in the Taishō era (1912-1926). True, Kaga Shōtarō (1888-1954), had scraped in at the very end of Emperor Meiji’s reign, when he made his guided climb of the Jungfrau in 1910, but it took a few more years for real momentum to gather.

Although Kaga was the first of his countrymen to summit a Swiss four-thousander, he was more tourist than alpinist – while holidaying in Switzerland, he was supposed to be attending an international exhibition in London, and he dropped his newly purchased ice-axe into the river at Lucerne before he even got to the mountain. But his feat found a ready audience at home, and a report duly appeared in Sangaku, the Japanese Alpine Club’s house journal.

View of the Bernese Oberland by Tsujimura Isuke

One who heard Kaga’s message, and at first hand, was the botanist and writer Tsujimura Isuke (1886-1923). In January 1914, Tsujimura made guided climbs of both the Mönch and the Jungfrau, thus making the first Japanese winter ascents of any Swiss four-thousanders. In an echo of Japan’s mountaineering past, Tsujimura’s party found Walter Weston’s business card tucked into the guest book at the Bergli Hut.

On the heels of these triumphs, nemesis followed. On the way down the aptly named Schreckhorn, Tsujimura’s party was avalanched. But he got to marry Rosa, the kind nurse who had looked after him in hospital. And the accident also made good copy for his fluently penned Swiss Diary (スウィス日記), which in turn promoted the Alps to the up-and-coming generation. “It was the Swiss Diary that taught me what the Alps were about,” wrote Matsukata Saburō (1899-1973), “and what beautiful realms of nature and human emotions are to be found there.”

Tsujimura Isuke

In the event, it was Maki “Yūkō” Aritsune (1894-1989), the son of a newspaper proprietor, who got there first. Arriving in England, nominally to study, he wasted no time in heading for Switzerland and making the first Japanese ascent of the Matterhorn, in August 1921. In September, he and a trio of elite guides from Grindelwald followed this up with the first ascent – by anybody – of the Eiger’s Mittellegi ridge.

In the same summer, the diplomat Hidaka Shinrokurō (1893-1976) danced on the summit of Mont Blanc, after making the first Japanese ascent. Later in his career, Hidaka was the last foreign diplomat to see Benito Mussolini alive.

It was the Mittellegi climb, though, that galvanised Japan’s mountaineering world. Coached at the Keio and Gakushūin universities by Maki, who’d brought back trunkloads of climbing gear from Europe, and inspired by his example elsewhere, student climbers rapidly upped their game, undaunted by the occasional casualty.

One of Maki’s most fervent disciples was the above-quoted Matsukata Saburō. The son of a former prime minister (by his third concubine) and a graduate of Gakushūin’s High School, he went on to study economics at Kyoto University. While a student there, in July 1922, he took part in the first ascent of Yarigatake’s gnarly northern ridge, the Kitakama.

Prince Chichibu's party traverses the Matterhorn, August 1926

In 1924, Matsukata moved to Europe to study and climb. In 1925, having picked up progressive ideas under Kawakami Hajime, his sensei at Kyoto, he published a book on Marx and Engels together with Kaji Ryūichi, another economist. In the same year, he joined the Swiss Alpine Club and, by basing himself at Grindelwald’s Hotel Adler, just like Maki before him, he positioned himself to team up with Matsukata in escorting Prince Chichibu – also notionally studying abroad – on his alpine climbs in August 1926.

Boot camp: Uramatsu Samitaro

Uramatsu Samitarō (1901-1981) was another of the gilded youths who climbed in the Alps during the 1920s – for, in that era, it was very necessary to be one of the former in order to indulge in the latter. Like Matsukata, he went to Europe as a student, but ended up spending four summers and three winters (or possibly three summers and four winters) in the Alps, reaching about forty summits in all.

To traverse the Meije, one of the more difficult peaks, Uramatsu teamed up with Matsukata. They were guided by Sam Brawand, who'd climbed with Maki on the Mittellegi, and Emil Steuri from Grindelwald. An epic ensued when a thunderstorm assailed the party on the summit ridge. Unfrazzled, Uramatsu went on with Brawand and Steuri to make the first ascent of the Wetterhorn’s South-West Ridge on 24 August 1928. The route is still graded D+. This time, the weather gave them an easier time on the summit ridge. As Uramatsu recorded in the Alpine Journal:

We lighted our pipes. I felt my thought was melting away into the endless Alpine sky. The valley of Grindelwald was flooded with the midday light. Eiger, Monch and Schreckhorn were sleeping under the blue sky. I was happy to be a mountaineer.

Matsukata could not share in this adventure, as he’d already gone home to Japan, where he took up a post with the South Manchurian Railway Company. But he and Uramatsu were still willing to stick their necks out. When the League of Nations came out with its Lytton Report in 1931, criticising Japan as the aggressor in Manchuria, the climbing duo, with a cousin of Matsukata’s, hastily translated the report into Japanese, hoping to produce a version that was less likely to inflame public opinion than the official one. Alas, their efforts to change the course of history proved far more evanescent than their mountain writings, some of which have become classics.

Kagami Yoshiyuki in full flight

Then there was Kagami Yoshiyuki, who went up to Cambridge University at the age of 18. Relatively unknown in the Japanese climbing world, he engaged the Swiss guide Gottfried Perren in 1929 to put a new line up on the southeast face of Mont Maudit. This the Alpine Journal recognised as the “Kagami Route”. A few years before, he’d traversed from the Dent d’Herens to the Matterhorn in record time, and climbed two-thirds of the way up the Matterhorn north face, more than half a decade before the Schmid brothers got there. He was equally proficient in skiing and, on the ice rink, he is said to have partnered both Sonja Henie, a top skater, and the singer Josephine Baker.

As Kagami’s record suggests, the leading Japanese climbers were now as proficient as the top alpine guides. Kagami climbed without guides too, as when he teamed up with Frank Smythe, a professional mountaineer, on a cold and dangerous attempt on the Eiger’s Southwest Ridge in January 1929. “I have seldom imbibed any fluid more gratefully than the hot tea from Kagami’s thermos flask,” recorded Smythe in his account of the adventure, “A winter tussle with the ‘Ogre’”.

By this time, of course, the Alps were almost passé in the minds of the next generation of Japan’s student climbers. Inspired by the first European expeditions to the Himalaya, they were now mulling ways to follow suit. But this is another story…


The prime source for this post is Ohmori Hisao’s chapter “Nihonjin to Yoroppa-Arupusu” in Hito wa naze yama ni noboru no ka, volume 103, Taiyō Bessatsu: Nihon no kokoro, Heibonsha 1998

Uramatsu wrote up his Wetterhorn climb in the Alpine Journal, 1930 edition, pp 260 ff.

F S Smythe describes his Eiger winter attempt with “Y Kagami” in Climbs and Ski Runs: Mountaineering and Ski-ing in the Alps, Great Britain and Corsica, William Blackwood and Sons Ltd, 1931

For Matsutaka and the Lytton Report, see Ian Nish, Japan's Struggle with Internationalism, Kegan Paul, October 2000, p 182. Matsukata is quoted as follows:

Around the beginning of October 1932, we were shut up in a room in the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, absorbed in the task of translating the newly-published report of the League of Nations Lytton Commission on the Manchurian Question. The nature of the report was a matter of great concern for Japan at the time, and for three days we concentrated on the work from morning to night without once leaving the hotel, feeling that it was necessary to translate the document into Japanese as accurately and speedily as possible and to publish it.

Images are from Hito wa naze yama ni noboru no ka and the Yama to Keikoku illustrated history of Japanese mountaineering (目で見る日本登山史 by 川崎吉光、山と渓谷社)