Sunday, July 30, 2023

Funiculars on Mt Fuji (1)

Many have proposed railways and cable cars, but nobody has built one – yet.

Mt Fuji recently opened for its tenth summer season as a UNESCO world heritage site. Yet officials are already fretting about overcrowded huts and paths, to say nothing of the perpetual traffic jams at the fifth station bus terminals. Some might be musing that Mt Fuji would be better off with an efficient mass transport system.

If so, they are not the first to think such thoughts. Proposals for mountain railways on Mt Fuji go back more than a century. In 1908, Saburi Kazutsugu (1864-1924) suggested one from the Shizuoka side. Nobody at that time could have been better qualified to build it. As a railway engineer, Saburi could point to an impeccable track record, so to speak; he ended his career as president of the Korean Railway Company. 

He also had a convincing “hook” for the project, which he aimed to complete in time for a world fair commemorating the 50th year of Emperor Meiji’s reign. But that anniversary never happened, and nor did the railway.

Nobody was in the least discouraged. The Taishō period (1912-26) saw three separate proposals, starting with a mountain railway project in 1914, and two cable car schemes, in 1922 and 1924. Like Saburi’s, all these projects would have started on the mountain’s south-facing slopes.

Thus, it was all but inevitable that somebody would soon champion a route from the eastern side – as if to re-enact the age-old rivalry of the towns that presided over Mt Fuji’s two main pilgrimage routes: Fujinomiya in Shizuoka Prefecture and Fuji-Yoshida in Yamanashi.

Yamazaki Kamekichi
(Photo: Citizen)
The most ambitious east-side proposal came from Yamazaki Kamekichi (1870-1944), a precious metals tycoon and Tokyo politician. Yamazaki was accustomed to thinking big: among his other achievements, he founded what later became the Citizen watch company. In 1935, he sketched out a cable-drawn funicular railway that would start in Fuji-Yoshida and run in a tunnel, buried some 40 metres deep, all the way up to the summit.

To let passengers catch their breath on the journey, the funicular would also feature a stop at the fifth station. “Women and children should be able to make the ascent,” Yamazaki said, adding that foreigners too would find the service useful, as they rarely had time to climb Mt Fuji on foot. As for the mountain scenery, the tunnel would leave it undisturbed.

Yamazaki too had a hook: he meant to open his funicular in time for the Olympics scheduled for Tokyo in 1940. As for the engineering challenge, a mere funicular seemed eminently fungible when set beside the proposals for a Japan-to-Korea undersea rail tunnel that were floating around at the time.

Yamazaki’s plan found some unexpected supporters. One was Fujiki Kuzō, the journalist and pioneer rock-climber. When interviewed for a travel magazine, Tabi, he pointed out that Nikkō, Mt Kōya and Kyoto’s Atago-yama all had cable cars, so why not Fuji too? (The media of the day seem to have applied the word “cable car” indiscriminately to both aerial ropeways and cable-drawn funicular railways that ran in tunnels).

Others were less convinced. The heavyweights of the Japanese Alpine Club, who had helped to face down Saburi’s plan, now lined up against this one. Kanmuri Matsujirō, best known as the pioneer of the Kurobe River, expostulated that a funicular would open the way to “geisha girls and drunken revelry” on the summit. The club’s elder statesman, Kojima Usui, chimed in too: “Mt Fuji is not a matter of profit and loss: it is a national treasure and a natural masterpiece.”

In the end, the all-powerful Home Ministry spoke for all the naysayers: “One can hardly approve of slithering (‘sura sura’) up the nation’s most sacred mountain in a cable car, where traditionally people have sweated their way to the top, chanting ‘rokkon shōjō’ in order to purify their souls,” fumed an official.

And, with that, the Yamazaki plan was kicked into touch. And so too was an entirely separate – and rather prescient – proposal to build a road to the fifth station….

Friday, July 28, 2023

Ontake reopens; stay alert

Restrictions on hiking to the summit of Mt. Ontake, a volcano in central Japan, will be lifted from tomorrow, Saturday 29 July, reports the Mainichi Shimbun. The summit area has been closed to hikers since the deadly eruption in 2014, in which more than sixty people lost their lives.

Fumaroles on Ontake, summit region, c.1992

From 10 am Saturday, entry will be allowed to a ridge that connects the 2,936-metre Otaki peak to the highest 3,067-metre Kengamine peak, an area particularly affected by the volcanic disaster, the newspaper says, adding that access to some hiking paths near the summit will remain restricted.

The 2014 disaster – a so-called phreatic eruption – was all the more devastating because of a complete lack of warning signs. In its wake, Japan’s Home Ministry and its Meteorological Agency issued a leaflet for hikers to raise awareness of volcanic hazards. Now that Ontake is open again, it might be time to take another look at those guidelines.


Mainichi Shimbun, "Entry bans around Mt. Ontake summit to be lifted after 2014 eruption", 26 July edition.

Hazard alert: Japan’s authorities issue volcano safety guidelines for hikers”, One Hundred Mountains (this blog), May 2017.

Monday, July 10, 2023

Mountain chapels: a user’s guide and other matters

A tourist brochure introduces the cultural life of an alpine community

Map-reading errors can be productive. I made several on my way over to Vals – disgraceful, I know – causing me to miss the mid-afternoon bus from this remote village in the Swiss canton of Graubünden. So, while waiting for the last one, there was plenty of time to browse through the tourist office’s brochure, which was conveniently on offer beside the bus stop.

A view of Vals in late autumn
Image by courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure

If glitzy hotels and high-octane après-ski are what you seek, then Stories of Vals won’t be for you. Instead, this unusual brochure introduces, season by season, the village’s fifteen mountain pastures, the people who farm them, the cuisine, the trails, the architecture and some of the architects, including a two-man partnership from Japan. Winter sports do get a look-in, although the cable car technician who introduces them strikes a note of diffidence that you might not hear in Zermatt:

Vals is only a small skiing area. Alongside the cable car, we operate three button lifts. That’s how it used to be in a lot of skiing regions. We are ‘retro’ in the truest sense of the word, which makes us special – places like this are not easy to find any more.

Mountain chapels get many more pages than skiing does. In addition to the village church, there are 14 chapels scattered around the 176 square kilometres of the Vals district. It falls to Matthias Andreas Hauser, the parish priest, to take us on a tour. Places of worship have been built wherever people live and work, including up on the summer alps, he explains.

But the chapels are more than just branch offices of the parish church. As Hauser recalls

As kids we never entered chapels in groups; the chapel was a personal thing. In one time of adversity, I visited the chapel in Camp, offered up a two franc coin and beseeched Mary mother of God to help me find a missing watch – a gift from my godfather on the occasion of my first communion. I never would have dared to do such a thing in the village church, the home of the Lord, who made me nervous. In a chapel, you felt much closer to the beloved saints … These chapels were always a personal space, offering a kind of private audience with the representatives of heaven.

Charmed by the mountain landscapes, and probably the chapels too, outsiders are apt to tell the Valsers “You live in a paradise” (see page 79). If so, it’s a paradise that was hard won. As the brochure explains, the village was first settled by emigrants from the Valais region some 700 years ago, making it a German-speaking enclave in Switzerland’s mainly Romansch-speaking Surselva district.

The newcomers had to make do with the inhospitable upper reaches of the valleys they settled, as the low ground was already occupied. Which may have instilled a culture of making the best out of whatever comes to hand. This is the story behind the village’s thermal baths, one of its most unusual attractions – hot springs are relatively uncommon in this part of the world.

In the early 1980s, the Hotel Therme was racking up such heavy losses that its house bank – one of Switzerland’s largest – leaned on the community to take it over. And this the villagers did, although not before beating the price down by a handsome amount.

The Vals community then signed up a gifted but volatile architect to make something special out of the thermal baths. After an expensive and tenterhook decade, a radically new hot spring building duly emerged, helping to put Vals on the map for tourists everywhere.

But not too much on the map. To keep their village the way they like it, the Valsers have hit on an elegantly simple formula: 1,000 people; 1,000 sheep (there are some cows too) and 1,000 guests at a time. On a summer evening, there must also be a good thousand swifts and swallows too, wheeling over the roofs and dipping low over the river.

I still had a few pages to read when the evening postbus arrived. The first kilometres of the road down to the valley run through a precipitous gorge, carved by the river into beds of slate laid down in some ancient ocean trench.

Before leaving the parish altogether, the driver eased the bus past a chapel that abutted on the road. In the old days, says Father Hauser, the path down to Ilanz actually ran right underneath the chapel, through a tunnel of brickwork. 

In the mountains, as you know, wayfarers need all the protection they can get. Especially if their map-reading is so-so...


Stories of Vals, published by Visit Vals AG, translated from the German-language original, introduced by Stefan Schmid, Director of Tourism – thanks to Marisa Schmid for sending Project Hyakumeizan a back-up copy.