Wednesday, May 22, 2024

A meizanologist's diary (74)

4 April: by chance, we find ourselves back on the shores of Suigetsu-ko, the lake of seventy thousand varves. We are bivvying in an opulent ryokan prior to climbing a nearby mountain tomorrow – just as well we’re not bivvying for real, as it’s been raining all day. 


Yet the weather might be the least of our objective hazards. An unexceptionable fish is served at supper, not unlike a scaled-down flounder. As our host is hovering assiduously over the table, I ask him what it is. “Fugu,” he replies, “fresh from Tsuruga Bay.”


Not an eyebrow flickers among the Sensei and our friends, but I have to confess that a frisson runs down my spine – after all, fugu has enjoyed a certain rep among travellers in Japan ever since Engelbert Kaempfer wrote it up as “the poisonous Blower Fish“ back in the 1690s …

People that by some long and tedious sickness are grown weary of their lives, or are otherwise under miserable Circumstances, frequently chuse this poisonous Fish, instead of a knife or halter, to make away with themselves. A Neighbour of my Servant at Nangasaki being so strongly infected with the Pox that his nose was ready to drop off, resolv’d to take this Meal, in order to get rid at once both of his life and distemper. Accordingly he bought a quantity of this poisonous Fish, cut it into pieces, boil’d it, and in order as he thought, to make the poison still stronger, he took soot from the thatch’d roof of his house, and mix’d it with the rest ….

Kaempfer notwithstanding, I eat my fish up. Our host continues to assiduously hover – he has a way with that – and, besides, the cuisine is too good to waste. 

After dinner, I pinch my fingertips, testing them for the faintest hint of a tingle that is said to be the first sign of fugu poisoning. But, no, nothing. It looks as if we’re going to get away with it. As also, more surprisingly, did Kaempfer’s servant’s neighbour back in the day:

After dinner he laid himself down to die, and soon falling mortally sick, he brought up not only the poison he had taken, but a large quantity of viscid, sharp, nasty matter, probably not the least cause of his distemper, and by this means found life and health, in what he sought for death, for he recover’d and was well afterwards.

Well, thank goodness for that. When we retire, it's still raining. Now, at least, all we have to worry about is the weather. 



Tuesday, May 7, 2024

A meizanologist's diary (73)

 2 April, 7 am: 30 kilometres south of Suzu, we slow for the first section of collapsed road. The highway here made the mistake of running along a ridgeline – which, like a shaped charge, focused the earthquake’s energy into its apex, triggering landslip after landslip. The bus lurches down onto a temporary bypass before picking its way carefully around the undermined tarmac.

Three months and one day after the Noto Peninsula earthquake, we are on our way to Suzu City, the worst-hit town after Wajima, right at the peninsula’s tip. The Fukui authorities have been sending in a daily busload of volunteers since the roads were reopened back in February. And today the Sensei is sending in the two of us.

Collapsed wooden buildings in Suzu City, Ishikawa Pref.
(Image from Quick Report of preliminary reconnaissance
of the 2024 Noto-Hanto Earthquake - see link in text) 

The bus retraces the path of the New Year’s Day shockwaves in reverse. First we see villages that look entirely undamaged, except for blue tarpaulins stretched across the house roofs where tiles were dislodged. Next come roadside graveyards where the stone monuments have toppled over, or a temple belfry has developed a drunken lean. Then come the abandoned or collapsed houses.

We stop off at Noto Satoyama Airport, north of Anamizu. The buildings look to be in perfect shape, unlike the car park and forecourts, which are cracked and broken from liquefaction effects. We get a ten-minute break: “These will be your last working toilets,” our minder says. 

8:50 am: the bus arrives opposite Suzu City’s Ikigai Katsudo Senta. It’s taken more than four hours to cover the 218 kilometres from Fukui. Under an awning, we are briefed on our tasks and how to go about them. If we are asked to do anything dangerous, we have the right of refusal. As for etiquette, please do not take pictures, and refrain from inadvertently patronising local people with expressions such as “taihen desu ne” (it’s tough, isn’t it).

Indeed, “taihen desu ne” may understate what we see next. Deployed in a two-ton truck and two mini-trucks, we drive a short way to our work site. Today’s job is to clear the wreckage of a collapsed kura (storehouse). The house it belongs to is more or less upright and intact, although bereft of power, water and drainage. 

But an annex built over a garage leans dangerously towards our work site. Fortunately, earthquake aftershocks are now far and few between: some weeks ago, a volunteer was killed when such a tremor caused a damaged building to collapse.

We start off collecting shattered timbers and load them into a mini-truck. When the vehicle’s tyres start bulging out at the bottom, a volunteer drives it to the dump site. 

While the trucks are away, I take a look round. Over the road, an old farmhouse has sagged into the ground, as if from exhaustion. Its tiles have stayed on, although the roofline now curves and buckles like the back of some ancient sea beast. The ubiquitous blue plastic sheets shroud two vans parked nearby against the sea air. Otherwise, nobody seems to have started clearing up. 

Collapsed wooden buildings in Suzu City, Ishikawa Pref.
(Image from Quick Report of preliminary reconnaissance
of the 2024 Noto-Hanto Earthquake - see link in text) 

When the two-tonner comes back, we start clearing the black-glazed roof tiles. Now we’re starting to understand why clearing up after an earthquake is so labour-intensive, and why it’s worth bussing in volunteers from afar. Tiles, timber, metals and plastics all have to be separated, sorted and trucked to different parts of the communal dump - tile by tile, beam by beam, plastic sheet by plastic sheet.

There really are a lot of tiles here. It’s a shame that nobody will reuse them, and it saves space if they are smashed into fragments as we load the big baskets on the two-tonner. To save time, we adopt human chain tactics - passing the tiles from hand to hand up to the loader on the truck, who flings them down into the big creels. 

While all the trucks are away at the dump, we take our noon break. We’ve brought our lunch, including drinks, from home, as there is no running water, and nowhere to buy food here. Fortunately, the Sensei has laid in a more than adequate supply of rice balls and tangerines. We even have a thermos of coffee.

There are twelve volunteers today, although the bus could have taken twenty. Over there is K-san, whose helmet and attached Black Diamond head-torch instantly identify him as a mountaineer – good, that makes three of us. There are one or two college students. And there is a middle-school maths teacher who is using his school holidays to help out. Today, he’s brought along his son too. 

After lunch, we finish off the tiles and turn our attention to a last load of mixed timber. No, bamboo does not count as timber; all the stems have to be separately piled for disposal somewhere else. A couple of pictures are lying on the ground – the metal frames can go for recycling. On closer inspection, a large and beautiful print turns out to be a completed and framed jigsaw puzzle – is it really all right to break that up? Somebody put a lot of effort into it…

Collapsed wooden buildings in Suzu City, Ishikawa Pref.
(Image from Quick Report of preliminary reconnaissance
of the 2024 Noto-Hanto Earthquake - see link in text) 

The maths teacher asks me to ride with him in the two-tonner’s last run to the municipal dump. He knows all the routes around Suzu, he says in English – this is his twentieth day of volunteering since February. We drive along the coast along what, up until 4.10pm on New Year’s Day, was an idyllic stretch of old houses set amid gardens and groves. This part of town was hit first by the earthquake and then by a tidal wave, says the teacher. Some of the buildings are intact, some careen on their sides, and still others have collapsed so that their eaves are level with the ground. 

Surrounded by camellia bushes and fruit trees, it was the old houses that gave Suzu so much of its charm. About 65% of the city’s housing stock was built before 1981, according to this report, the highest proportion in Japan. In the earthquake, the old houses became death-traps: more than a hundred lives were lost in Suzu alone, close to half of the peninsula’s overall toll.

At 3.30 pm, we knock off work. As we have to detour through Anamizu in the rush hour – the highway can take inbound traffic only – the ride home is even longer than in the morning. When we get back, late in the evening, the Sensei says she has been thinking a lot about the people who lived in that house. There is still so much to be done, tile by tile, beam by beam, sheet by sheet …

Monday, May 6, 2024

A meizanologist's diary (72)

30 March: for some days, on the Sensei’s local hill, we’ve seen strollers anxiously inspecting the buds of some glossy-leaved plants at the roadsides. And today their patience is rewarded: the katakuri or fawn lilies (Erythronium japonicum) are in full bloom. It’s a noble flower, says the Sensei. Don’t you mean ‘gracious’, I ask. No, I mean noble, she replies.


Back home, I look up the katakuri in a book about the flowers that appear in the Man'yōshū. If you accept that katakuri were known as “katako” back in the eighth century, then there they are in a poem by Ōtomo no Yakamochi (Man'yōshū XIX.4143):

もののふの八十娘子らが汲み乱ふ寺井の上の堅香子の花

Which PoetryNet translates more or less as:

A crowd, a host of maidens
Drawing their water
From the temple well;
Like a cluster of fawn lilies.

As I thought, says the Sensei, who is more learned than she lets on, the invocation introduces a noble subject. By the way, where did you find that book? Isn't it the one I remember buying together in Nara, I ask. You mean, she says, the book that I bought you there…

Our memories, evanescent as flowers. And vice versa, of course.

Saturday, May 4, 2024

A meizanologist's diary (71)

28 March (cont’d): on the way home, I have to change trains in Matsumoto. There is time to slip out of the station and pay my respects to Monk Banryū, whose fine bronze statue has presided over the station plaza since 1986. Appropriately so, since it was from a local temple, the Genkōji, in the ninth year of Bunsei (1826) that he started out on the first of his pilgrimages towards Yari-ga-take. Although not via the station, of course.


On previous visits, I hadn’t noticed the accompanying signboard, installed beside the statue by the local Lions Club. “On July 20, 1828,” it proclaims, “Banryu Shonin overcame many hardships to become the first climber in history to reach the summit of Mt. Yarigatake. Fifty years before William Gowland, the Englishman who named the Japanese Alps, reached the summit on July 28, 1878, Banryu Shonin’s historic ascent left behind an immortal achievement that marked the dawn of modern alpinism …”

History is slippery stuff. Admittedly, Fukada Kyūya, in the Yari-ga-take chapter of his One Hundred Mountains of Japan, does agree that “The first to climb it was Banryū …”. But, a few pages later in the same book, he all but contradicts himself in the chapter about nearby Kasa-ga-dake, a mountain also climbed by Banryū, in 1823. Here Fukada implies that other monks, including Enku (1632–1695), had long been subjecting themselves to a “Trial of Five Mountains” in the region, these being Kasa, Hodaka, Yake-dake, Norikura - and Yari.


So was Banryū really the "first climber in history" to top out on Yari-ga-take? The question probably wouldn't have meant much to the monk himself. As Scott Schnell points out in a luminous essay (Believing is seeing: A Religious Perspective on Mountaineering in the Japanese Alps), Banryū never spoke of climbing, let alone conquering a peak. Instead, when visiting a mountain, he used the same word that others would reserve for entering the sacred precincts of a shrine or temple. 

Thursday, May 2, 2024

A meizanologist's diary (70)

28 March (cont’d): on the way home, I drop in at the Yukio Tabuchi Memorial Museum in Azumino City. I used to think of Tabuchi Yukio (1905–1989) as a science teacher-turned-photographer, but a copy of his collected essays picked up in a second-hand bookshop in Tokyo reminds me of his talents as a writer.


After handing over the ¥300 entrance fee, I instantly understand why those essays are collected under the title of “Ki-iroi tento”(The yellow tent). For standing opposite the door is the namesake tent itself, as personally designed by Tabuchi for bivvies while stalking high-altitude sunrises. So the photographer and writer was also a pioneer of lightweight camping gear.


Speaking of the sunrises, I’m surprised at first not to see any of Tabuchi’s trademark high-contrast black-and-white mountain photography on the walls. As the repository for the photographer’s entire archive, the museum regularly rotates the photos it shows, and today’s exhibition focuses less on the mountains than on the scenery of Azumino during the 1960s.


On second thoughts, nothing could be more appropriate. You could say that Azumino was the making of Tabuchi. After his house in Tokyo was requisitioned during the air raids of 1945, he moved to the mountain-fringed altiplano north of Matsumoto. 


At the age of 40, this was a new start. Soon his photos started appearing in magazines and he published his first photo collection at the age of 46 – a natural progression from the photo scrapbooks he’d been in the habit of assembling. Then he went professional as a photographer and writer.


When Japan started on its high-growth period in the 1960s, Tabuchi saw all too clearly what would happen to Azumino. As its familiar rural scenes started to vanish under the pall of ribbon development, his photographs became their threnody. Even the faded mid-Showa hues of the colour prints glow with nostalgia for a lost world.


Yet another strand runs through Tabuchi’s photography. Like many children, he was fascinated by butterflies. Unlike most, he developed a formidable talent for drawing and painting them: the museum has some 470 sketches and paintings in its collection.


And, as his skills with a camera evolved, he started photographing the insects too. Touchingly, his magisterial book on the alpine butterflies of Japan is dedicated to his wife.



Ah yes, the cameras: a glass-fronted cabinet deploys a complete armoury. The Rittrecks, Koniflexes, Asahiflexes and Mamiyas look less than user-friendly by today's standards. I shake my head, astonished at the virtuosity of Tabuchi’s close-up images of flowers and insects; even with the latest technology, few can aspire to making pictures like these …



But I do aspire to making the next train, having promised the Sensei to be back for a late supper. Alas, there will be no time to investigate Tabuchi's collaboration with the folklorist Mukaiyama Masashige on yukigata, the patterns left on mountainsides by the melting snow. And the reading room full of reference works below the exhibition hall will also have to await another visit; even an extra hour of browsing here won't do full justice to the manifold talents of Azumino’s uomo universale. 


Retrieving my weatherbeaten pack from the Memorial Museum's friendly staff and adding a souvenir photo book as well as a biography to its weight, I step out into the grey afternoon and start walking towards the station. Ariake-yama, the hundred-and-first of the Hundred Mountains, looms ahead. 


And there, rising above the intervening ridges is Jōnen-dake, the mountain that Tabuchi is said to have climbed two hundred and six times, a yellow tent in his pack, in search of the natural world.






Wednesday, April 24, 2024

A meizanologist's diary (69)

27 March (cont’d): as we take leave of Kogure Ritarō, we note that his monument stands at a place called Kanayama, or “Gold Mountain”. A signboard by the road attests to the name's literal truth: the metal really was mined here in the days of the warlord Takeda Shingen (1521-73), who used it to finance his campaigns. Moreover, says the sign, after a hard day’s digging, Takeda's miners found that the local springs had remarkable curative powers …


Continuing our walk down the pleasant river valley, we arrive at Masutomi just before the sun dips below the ridge. A mini-truck proclaiming the Mizugaki Hunting Club (in English) is parked outside our ryokan’s entrance. Perhaps that explains why our host looks rather more rugged and tanned than most people who sit behind a hotel reception desk.


While signing in, I’m reminded that Masutomi distinguishes itself as a “Radium Onsen”. In Japan, it seems, this has been a thing for quite a while. Visiting Nakabusa Onsen in August 1914, the mountaineering missionary Walter Weston heard his host reporting “With immense pride … that one of the hot springs had been found by a government analyst to contain traces of radium.” Yet Nakabusa was only following where Tokyo led: a year before, a “Radium Institute” spa had opened in the Ginza, complete with a Madame Curie Café.

A century later, one might think folk would be more circumspect about their millirem count. Still, if the Wall Street Journal is to be believed, the Fukushima meltdown did little to quench the popularity of Japan's radioactive hot springs. Which is presumably why one of Masutomi’s peer resorts still boasts “one of the most radioactive springs in the world”, and one that “purifies the bod where the legend of the white wolf remains”.


To resolve this apparent paradox will require nothing less than a hot investigation. So, after changing into the provided yukatas, the Sensei and I shuffle off to our respective baths. In the corridor, we pass an in-house shrine to the “gongen” of the waters – surely an unusual feature in a ryokan. All the more intrigued, I proceed into the changing room and drop my yukata in a wicker basket.

Half expecting to see the blue glow of Cherenkov radiation, I slide open the glass door to the baths. Anticlimatically, though, there is only a large pool, its water slightly turbid with a whitish silt and, beside it, a small pool of quite ordinary clear water. Since a geezer is already soaking meditatively in the large one, towel neatly folded on top of his head, I opt for the smaller one. This proving to be pleasantly warm, I too zone out for a while, towel folded on head. 

Back in our room, the Sensei and I compare notes. The water was tepid, she says, and it says you have to sit in it for half an hour to get any benefit. What do you mean, I ask – my pool was quite nicely warm … Then you were in the wrong pool, the Sensei declares: didn’t you read the notice explaining that the large pool was the one with radium in it?

Maitta na, I exclaim to myself, as my investigation, hot or otherwise, collapses into a heap of methodological rubble. A gentle knock on the door interrupts the conversation, and the ryokan’s maid – seemingly its only staff member – brings in the supper trays. Washed down with a bottle of Kirin, the simple but tasty fare promises to set us up for an excellent night’s sleep, the river murmuring to us from beneath the window. After a long day, this will surely be a remarkably therapeutic experience after all ….


28 March: waiting for the train home at Nirasaki, we have a panoramic view over the town from the platform. But a thick layer of low cloud hides our mountain of yesterday. Never mind, the first swallows are flitting to and fro over the rooftops like fast neutrons. Spring has come.

Saturday, April 20, 2024

A meizanologist's diary (68)

27 March (cont’d): perhaps by default, the Sensei and I increasingly practise the art of Slow Mountaineering. For like it or not, we’re never going to make it down to the Masutomi hot springs in forty-five minutes, as could Yamaki-san in his youth. Instead, we amble down the road, soaking up the afternoon sunshine and listening to the first tentative birdsong ripple through the bare woods. The Sensei even tries whistling back to a nightingale.


Taking a short cut across a bend in the road, we happen across the old path down to Masutomi. This guides us to our next appointment – with Kogure Ritarō, no less. Not the man himself, of course, but his monument, which stands on a slight eminence amid an aery grove of silver birch trees. The slanting sunlight floods in through the leafless branches.

It was a memorial service for Kogure here, records Fukada Kyūya in Nihon Hyakumeizan, that brought him to Mizugaki. We can imagine that Fukada and Kogure were well acquainted – Fukada joined the Japanese Alpine Club in June 1935, the very same year that Kogure became the club’s president. This explains why Fukada calls him the “doyen (dai-senpai) of our mountaineering community” in his chapter on Kinpu-zan, the sixty-eighth of his Hundred Mountains.


By the time Fukada wrote those words, Kogure was no longer there to appreciate them. He died in May 1944, during his ninth year of office as the Japanese Alpine Club’s president. It was a difficult time to be a mountaineer, let alone head up Japan’s pre-eminent mountaineering association. The fine bronze relief on the monument – by Satō Kyūichirō says Fukada – shows a face worn down by the cares of office.


This is not the youthful Kogure, with his bristling beard, striding out in August 1913 for an epic traverse over still unknown ways through the Japan Alps. In the above cartoon by the artist and fellow JAC member Nakamura Seitarō, Kogure and his companion, Tanabe Jūji, look like an ill-assorted pair, thrown together by chance because they lodged in the same Tokyo boarding house. Yet outward appearances may deceive.

For unlike most of the born-and-bred townsmen and professionals who made up the ranks of the early JAC, both Kogure and Tanabe started life in the deep countryside – Kogure in Gunma and Tanabe in Toyama. And both were brought up in villages that still adhered to the mountain faiths. Kogure even went on a pilgrimage to Mt Fuji at the age of thirteen.

Later in their lives, both men turned away from long and arduous forays through the big mountains. Instead, they turned their attention to the Chichibu region, closer to home and quieter than the increasingly crowded thoroughfares of the Hida range. This is why Kogure’s monument looks out towards Kinpu-zan, a peak that he said “could hold its head up in the company of any mountain in all Japan”.


It wasn’t just Kogure and Tanabe, of course. The idea of shorter, cheaper and lighter-weight excursions made sense to a growing number of Tokyo-based salarymen and women too. In 1919, a club was founded especially for them; Kogure joined up too, as did other eminent JAC members such as Takeda Hisayoshi. 


And there, we see, is the club’s name, the Kiri-no-tabi-no-kai (“Wanderers of the mist”) immortalised in bronze, alongside those of the monument’s other sponsors – which include the Japanese Alpine Club, its local Yamanashi section, the prefectural mountaineering federation, and the Masutomi hot springs …

The Masutomi hot springs! If we want to get there before the sun sinks below the opposite ridge, we’d better get going. Last year’s leafmould rustles under our boots as we walk down to the road. I’m still thinking about Kogure, though – he and Tanabe were early exponents of a movement known as “contemplative mountaineering” (静観的登山). Now how is that different from Slow Mountaineering I find myself wondering …








Friday, April 19, 2024

A meizanologist's diary (67)

27 March (cont’d): when we come down from Mizugaki, we find that the warm sun has melted the morning’s powder snow, transforming the path through the woods into a spring-like avenue. Steam is wafting gently up from the road in front of Mizugaki Sansō. 


We drop back into the lodge for an after-lunch coffee with our host, Yamaki-san. A local man – there’s a village of that name on the way to Nirasaki – he and his wife have been running Mizugaki Sansō for forty-four years, taking over after the early death of his elder brother. In those days, there was no road down to Masutomi, but he could still run down the path to the hot spring village in three quarters of an hour. As for the mountain, he might still climb it one last time before retiring ….

On the wall of the café hangs a photo showing a Yosemite-like pillar of smooth granite – look closely at it, and you see a climber rounding a massive overhang, his companion belaying him from close by. I’d forgotten that Mizugaki has long been a forcing-ground for extreme rock-climbing talent, as you can read in this thoughtful article from Alpinist magazine.


“Yes, that’s one of the granite towers on the left of the Mizugaki ridge,” explains Yamaki-san – the climbers were friends of his. It wasn’t the rock-climbers, though, who first discovered that buttress, he adds – at its base, there used to be an inscription in Sanskrit, but this has weathered away so that only a single character remains to be seen.

Fukada Kyūya’s chapter on Mizugaki-yama has this to say about Mizugaki's Urgeschichte: “…evidence that the mountain was known in ancient times is found in a story that Kōbō Daishi’s name and other old writings are carved into a cliff in the upper reaches of Amadori-sawa. Although I have not myself laid eyes on these inscriptions, the story shows that this mountain has a past.”


Naruhodo
, I say to myself, as we set out on our walk down to Masutomi, a real Meizan always has hidden depths. Neither of us suspects, though, that we'll soon learn that this insight is as true literally as it is metaphorically ...

Monday, April 15, 2024

A meizanologist's diary (66)

27 March: during the early hours, the wind and rain fall suspiciously quiet. At dawn, we see that a light snowfall has dusted the trees around Mizugaki Sanso. Our quest for the eponymous Meizan starts at 7am when we skate across the frozen road in front of the lodge. The path through the woods winds between huge boulders, all steeped in an eerie blue penumbra; the sun has yet to climb above the ridge.


We haven’t gone far when we meet a youth, still wearing crampons, on his way down. A camera of estimable calibre outs him as a mountain photographer. Sure enough, he started his climb at 3am so that he could top out before sunrise. Alas, he reports, the summit was still wrapped in cloud (“gas”), but soon afterwards he was able to capture the first light on Mt Fuji.

Abashed at our own leisurely approach, we continue working our way through the eldritch shadows. I start wondering when we’ll actually get a view of our mountain. Clearly Mizugaki is one of those Meizan that likes to manage its stage appearances with a certain eclat – like the Matterhorn, for instance, which steps out from behind a buttress only as your train is just about to arrive in Zermatt….


Without warning, we step out both into the sunlight and the presence of Fukada Kyūya's 69th Meizan: there it looms across the valley. “Can one describe this mountain as a medley of crags?” the Hyakumeizan author asks before answering his own question: “It is not the only mountain with crags, but what is unique about Mizugaki is the way it mixes its crags with its trees. Rocks seem to sprout directly from the dense pine woods.”


A pause is indicated at Fujimi-daira, an encampment that may have been named before a pine grove grew up to obscure the view of Japan’s top mountain. After restoring ourselves with one of the Sensei’s home-grown sweet potatoes each, we proceed on crampons, the better to deal with the ice weeps that lie in wait here and there.


Crampons are possibly not ideal for crossing the sawa that divides Fujimi-daira from Mizugaki itself. The stream is still frozen over, but only just: water wells up into the prints cut by my steel-toothed boots and, while watching the Sensei start across the sketchy ice, I’m oddly reminded of just such a tense moment in Commodore Peary’s race to the North Pole

I watched them from the other side with my heart in my mouth—watched the ice bending under the weight of the sledges and the men. As one of the sledges neared the north side, a runner cut clear through the ice, and I expected every moment that the whole thing, dogs and all, would go through the ice and down to the bottom. But it did not.

Relieved that she did not, and that our feet are still dry, we scramble up the opposite bank. Dominating a clearing, a gigantic roulade of diorite awaits us there. Fukada too was impressed: “There we were confronted by a huge boulder, split by a vertical cleft – a quite magnificent boulder.”


Leaving this behemoth on our left, we follow the photographer’s tracks into a shallow watercourse. Our crampons bite crisply into the leafmould under the powder snow or the occasional frozen cascade.


The footprints lead us underneath some large yet delicately poised rocks. “What would we do if there was an earthquake here?” asks the Sensei, to which the obvious reply is “Let’s not even think about it.” As a welcome distraction from this train of speculation, we get our first glimpse of Mt Fuji through the trees.


Looking up, we see a mighty crenellation thrusting its way into the empyrean – this must be the far-famed Ohyasuri-iwa, which translates as “Big File Rock”. If anybody should find the name disappointly mundane, Fukada commiserates with them in this very chapter of his Hyakumeizan:

When our ancestors named mountains, they certainly did not trouble themselves to consider mountaineering organizations looking for titles for their magazines. Far from being inspiring, the names they chose were extremely down-to-earth. Taking their cue from a mountain's color or shape or state, they came up with names like Spear (Yari), Red Peak (Aka-dake), or Landslide (Ōkuzure). Or they borrowed from the implements in their daily round, as in Basket (Zaru), Saddle (Kura), or Screen (Byōbu) …

To the last, though, Mizugaki is a drama queen. Grazing past the Big File, we come up against a headwall that threatens to block all progress to folk who don’t climb 5.11. But the path then skirts defly around its base, and enfilades the summit block from the back. After pulling up one last set of chains, we step up through a portal in the trees onto the topmost granite platform.


Truly, the weather has smiled on us. Spring is rolling up the valleys, yet it grants us the kind of visibility that is normally afforded only on a deeply subzero winter day. From long-limbed Fuji floating on the southern horizon, our gaze sweeps over the Southern Alps – there is Kita-dake, the mountain for philosophers, snowy Senjo with its crisp-cut glacial couloirs, and gloomy Kaikoma, the Finsteraarhorn of Japan – past the sprawling massif of Yatsu-ga-take in the middle distance – towards the distant white cupolas of the more northerly Northern Alps. Can it really be the twin spires of Kashimayari that we see up there?


The chilly north wind has dropped, letting us take our lunch in the shelter of some trees. Overhead, a swiftly moving train of jetstream cirrus reminds us to enjoy the view while it lasts…






Thursday, April 11, 2024

A meizanologist's diary (65)

24 March (cont), Tokyo: we come to the office of the NPO Mt Fuji Research Station for a cup of tea but find ourselves imbibing the raw materials of history. Round the table are members of the Fuyō Nikki no Kai, an association dedicated to researching the story of Nonaka Itaru (1867-1955) and his wife Chiyoko (1871-1923), who spent more than two months in the winter of 1895 taking weather measurements on the summit of Mt Fuji.


We are careful not to spill our tea. For on the grey metal office table in front of us is the manuscript of Nonaka Chiyoko’s journal, Fuyō Nikki, just as she set it down in the early months of 1896, with the couple’s high-altitude ordeal still fresh in her memory.

The manuscript of Fuyo Nikki, with editor's remarks

All of us lean in for a closer look. Despite their age, the pages show scarcely a stain or a mark – except, that is, for the scrawls of a red pen, perhaps applied by the editor of the Hōchi-shinbun, which published the journal in 17 instalments during 1896. And the paper still looks astonishingly fresh, as if Chiyoko had just laid down her brush and left the room.

Another document is more formally bound than Chiyoko’s working manuscript – and is written in a different, more cursive, hand. As Nonaka-san, the grandson of Itaru and Chiyoko explains, this is a fair copy of the newspaper articles, as personally compiled by Chiyoko’s father, Umetsu Shien.

Umetsu Shien's fair copy of Chiyoko's articles

Umetsu must have been quietly proud of his daughter’s feat in climbing Mt Fuji unannounced and hence ensuring her husband’s survival. And as a literary man himself – he was a noh master in the entourage of one of Japan’s last daimyōs – he would have been particularly pleased that his daughter too could wield an inkbrush deftly.

We are both moved and motivated. Via various printed editions, the manuscript on the table was the starting point for Ohmori Hisao’s modern Heibonsha edition of Chiyoko’s and Itaru’s books - and the first to combine them - which in turn paves the way for the first English version of Fuyō Nikki and selections from Itaru’s Fuji-Annai (“Guide to Mt Fuji”). Please bear with us – you know these things take time. But we feel immensely privileged to have seen where everything started …

Umetsu Shien's autograph and title page