Wednesday, January 31, 2024

A meizanologist's diary (55)

11 January: after an enjoyable evening soaking in the hot baths of the hospitable Mount Inn, I take the early bus back to Nihonmatsu station. 

On the platform is a signboard advertising the town’s main attractions. Top of the list is yesterday’s summit, Adatara-yama. For good or ill, one has to admire the “Hyakumeizan effect” – the power of a book published fully sixty years ago to attract hordes of free-spending hikers and mountaineers to a specific set of one hundred mountains ….

Monday, January 29, 2024

A meizanologist's diary (54)

10 January: “The winter mountains are fearsome,” says the taxi driver as he wafts me up to the trailhead on Adatara-yama (1,700 metres), the twenty-first of Fukada Kyūya’s one hundred mountains. You know, it might almost be the mountain itself speaking.

When I arrived at Dake Onsen yesterday, spindrift was blowing this way and that over the frozen road, driving grey mists veiled the summit ridge and, downwind, a massive rotor cloud hovered over the valley like some alien spaceship. According to Yamap and the other online oracles, nobody had adventured themselves on the mountain that day.

This morning looks friendlier, though – the wind has dropped and the ominous rotor cloud has vanished. The taxi driver drops me off at the ski piste above Dake Onsen, I fill in a tozan-todoke form to tell people where I’m going, and swing my pack onto my shoulders – it contains both crampons and snowshoes, as the Yamap respondents seem to have been using either or both in the last few days. So, with all types of footgear available, what could possibly go wrong…

The blue sky lasts until we get to the Kurogane Hut – I choose this route out of several alternatives, because the Hyakumeizan author started his ascent there. 

Taking a break to munch on one of the Sensei’s home-grown sweet potatoes, I realise that I’m embarrassed: I seem to have left the large-scale map of the mountain back in the hotel and there are no tracks to follow up ahead.

A man working on the hut is able to point me in the right direction. After assailing what seems to be a blank snow slope, I tsubo-ashi my way into a stunted wood and start guessing at where the summer path might run by looking for the odd stretch of yellow guide rope and gaps between the trees.

The footing alternates between deep pockets of powder snow in the hollows and jagged rafts of lava blown clear by yesterday’s wind. Fortunately, my ragged old gaiters – veterans of winter climbing in Japan thirty years ago – have enough moral fibre left to keep my boots dry. Wet feet should be avoided in these temperatures.

Snowshoes go on to cross the deeply drifted lee slope across to Mine-no-tsuji. I pop up on this col just in time to catch a last glimpse of Adatara’s lava pinnacle opposite. Then it vanishes into driving clouds. A fox has made off with the fine morning.

But, no matter, some mountain wizard seems to have left a set of bootprints heading in the right direction and there is still the small-scale map. The footsteps lead up to a second col, which is furnished with a set of frozen-up signposts.

This must be Ushi-no-se. In summer it may resemble an ox’s back, but right now it serves as an acceleration zone for a rambunctious northeasterly. In summer, the ground would be yellow, thanks to the volcano’s effusions; now it’s a sheet of wind-blasted snow crust.

When the Hyakumeizan author passed this way, clouds prevented him seeing into the huge crater of Numa-no-daira below, but I am granted a quick glimpse before the mists close in. The vast declivity looks more like Greenland than Honshu at this moment.

“Snow crystals are letters from heaven,” wrote Nakaya Ukichiro (1900-1962), the pioneer of snow science. Up here, the icy spicules sandblasting my face put their message more bluntly. Get out of the wind or be blast-frozen, they say. I drop below the ridgeline on the eastern side and start traversing across a flank of frozen prawns – ebi no shippo – which crumble into ice-dust under the snowshoes.

The summit flits helpfully out of the racing cloud just as I start to wonder where it might be hiding. Sheltering behind a rock, I swap snowshoes for crampons. Perhaps not strictly necessary, but the spikes give extra assurance up a snowy passage protected by what appears to be a spare length of light-gauge lavatory chain.

The summit visit is abbreviated – no time for a selfie. Then down a short ladder, half-buried in snow, back to the ridge – abseiling  down the lavatory chain does not appeal. I follow tracks, not mine, back along the summit ridge. Then they vanish, leaving me once again embarrassed. Here is the frozen-up signpost at Ushi-no-se, but how to find the way to the next col in this murk?

I try heading downhill in vaguely the right direction, but soon realise I’m uncertain of my position – in this whirling cloud, you could end up anywhere, and quite possibly in the winter-quarters of those “aggressive bears” that an English-language sign at the ski piste warned of.

As for following a compass bearing, the obvious resort in such a situation, this would require the large-scale map that I left in the ryokan. Instead, I climb back to the ridge and find a strange-shaped rock that I remembered passing. And there, like a long-lost friend, is the track that the steel teeth of my snowshoes had left on the way up. Problem solved, sort of.

At Mine-no-Tsuji, the wind has obliterated all the morning’s tracks. But a line of exposed rocks with painted circles guides me off the ridge. Below the cloud and wind, a snowy path materialises, which leads away through a wind-stunted wood.

Ahead, the rotor cloud has warped out of hyperspace again, hanging low in the sky over Nihonmatsu like an alien starship. Yet now, at least, it’s showing me the way off the mountain.

Friday, January 26, 2024

A meizanologist's diary (53)

5 January: the Sensei decides that our winter mountaineering season will open on Takekurabe-yama, a local eminence. We crunch across the hard-frozen snow of a dam parapet and start off up a gully, zig-zagging higher on a sketchy path. Soon we start hearing the chop-chop of Chinooks and other heavy helicopters as they fly north on missions to the Noto Peninsula.

A wooded ridge leads up to a snowpatch that suckers us into putting on snowshoes. We soon have to take them off again, as most of the snow has melted on the south-facing slopes where the path now takes us. When the snow starts again, I keep my snowshoes off as I am following a series of fresh bootprints.

Unlike this mountain wizard (仙人), as I think of him, I keep sinking into the snow, whether because I am heavier, or because the wizard passed by when the snow was still frozen. Either way, we are in post-holing purgatory: the operative word is “tsubo-ashi”. The Sensei even has to caution me about my language.

By the time that we resort to snow shoes again, my boots are awash with melting snow. Too late, I think of the gaiters riding in the bottom of my pack. 

We pull up on the north summit of Takekurabe (964.3 metres) somewhat after noon. Just as we do so, the mountain wizard comes up from the opposite direction – skimming over the snow, he is on his way back from the mountain’s south summit. 

Annoyingly, the south summit overtops ours by just over eighty metres. It also sports a hut, although some apparently have murmured that no such refuge should desecrate a summit already dedicated to a shrine of Hakusan Sansho Daigongen.

We gaze over the intervening gap at the south summit and estimate that it would take us another hour or so to get over there and come back. The westering sun reminds us that winter days are short. By the time we decide to go down, the wizard has vanished. We find ourselves walking – or in my case squelching - back over the dam not long before dusk. How did such a lowly mountain take us so long?

In his book on 150 Fukui mountains – why stop at a hidebound one hundred? – Masunaga Michio says that folks like to infer from “Take-kurabe” (“height-measure”) that each of the twin peaks vies with the other to be the highest. This is a common enough theme in mountain mythology. Today, though, I felt that it was my sense of snow conditions that was measured. And, let’s admit it, found a bit wanting.

Hakusan from Takekurabe-yama

Thursday, January 25, 2024

A meizanologist's diary (52)

4 January (continued): walking back to the Sensei’s car from the museum, we find ourselves wondering whether the many long cracks in the tarmac are recent or not. But only briefly. When we light upon a drain shaft that appears to have been thrust bodily out of the ground, the matter is settled.

To find out more, I walk back to the museum’s office. Yes, confirms the curator, all this happened during the initial earthquake shock on New Year’s Day – the museum building, being constructed to the latest standards, rode out the shock undamaged, but the grounds around it liquified – water gushed out of the ground – cracking pavements and breaking up the carpark.

The curator invites me on a quick tour. Liquefaction was responsible for the damage to the stone staircase, which is why we had to enter the museum through the ground-level door. It also caused a mudslide that blocked a stream flowing into the nearby lagoon – it was mainly the waterlogged soil within a narrow zone close to the lagoon that was prone to liquefaction. A backhoe digger had to brought in to clear the channel before the stream overflowed its banks.

Thanking the curator, I walk back to the car. Its navigation system would reckon that Kaga City, the museum’s location, is about 160 kilometres or 100 miles south of the earthquake’s epicentre.

The energies let loose under the Noto Peninsula three days ago are unimaginable – they heaved up coastlines metres above their former level, so that small ports turned into sandy beaches. And perhaps, with earthquakes like this one summing over millennia, they may have shifted the whole top of the peninsula sideways. As for the human cost …

(Source: Wikipedia)

Echoing through my mind are the words of Terada Torahiko, founder of Tokyo University’s earthquake research institute: “Shouldn’t you be amazed by this?”

Monday, January 22, 2024

A meizanologist's diary (51)

4 January: we visit the Nakaya Ukichiro Museum of Snow and Ice in Kaga City. Up here, just inside Ishikawa’s prefectural border, the rice fields are lightly dusted in white. Snow was Nakaya’s core business; he is best known for cataloguing its crystal types and establishing a classification system that paved the way for the ones in worldwide use today.

Nakaya Ukichiro researching
snow in the Tokachi region
We are lucky to find the museum open at all – the stone steps leading up to the usual entrance have been roped off. So we find our way in via the museum office instead. The main exhibition hall presents a timeline of Nakaya’s life – born in Kaga in 1900, attended the elite Kanazawa Fourth High School, went up to Tokyo University in 1922 to study physics …

In retrospect, it might seem obvious that a bright young physicist from Japan’s snow country would devote his scholarly life to the white stuff. But real life is less straightforward. In his second year at Tokyo University, the year of the Great Kanto Earthquake, Nakaya came under the mentorship of Terada Torahiko of RIKEN, whose scientific watchword was “Aren’t you amazed by this?” (fushigi da to wa omoimasen ka?)

Terada would strongly influence the way that Nakaya went about his investigations. As the latter recalled:

Terada considered a ‘physics of form’, concerning which he frequently said ‘If the forms of the phenomena are the same, they are governed by the same laws. To pass over the similarity of forms as merely a superficial agreement is to act as a person who doesn’t understand the true meaning of the word ‘form’. Terada’s words have a very deep meaning, for he not only meditated on the idea but he did actual research into the forms that appeared in various phenomena: his research into fractures, electric sparks, sparklers and the flow of charcoal calligraphy ink all shared the underlying theme of research into forms.

After the great earthquake of September 1923, an event that probably altered Japan’s political evolution, Terada would go on to found Tokyo University’s Earthquake Research Institute, with Nakaya's help. But it was a smaller-scale disaster that shifted the younger man's trajectory. When an airship of the Imperial Navy exploded in mid-air in March 1924, Terada asked his student to help him find out why.

Photos of electrical sparking by Nakaya Ukichiro

The scientists concluded that an electrostatic discharge had ignited the airship’s gasbags, which led Nakaya to a study of electrical sparking. Via graduate studies at London University, where he studied x-rays, this work took him to an assistant professorship at Hokkaido University.

Researching snow in Hokkaido

According to Wikipedia, the Sapporo-based university was short on funds and experimental equipment. Snow, on the other hand, was available in unlimited quantities. The 3,000 snowflake photos published by Wilson Bentley (1865-1931) were a further inspiration to Nakaya, who had built up his own expertise in micro-photography while recording electrical sparks.

The mountain lodge where Nakaya photographed snowflakes

Having found his metier, Nakaya went out into the Hokkaido mountains to study and record snow crystals. After documenting their forms in some 3,000 macro photos, he then sought to reproduce the way that snowflakes form, ultimately persuading the world’s first artificial snow crystals to form on a rabbit’s hair.

Supercooled water freezes instantly 

At this point, a museum attendant rounds us up for a live demonstration of supercooled water. We breathe into a freezer cabinet to see how “diamond dust” forms and watch how a bottle of supercooled water freezes almost instantly when shaken – just as supercooled cloud droplets freeze solid when they hit the wings of a plane.

Airframe for icing experiments at Niseko, 1943

The same insights inspired Nakaya’s research during the war years. A superannuated military aircraft – some say a Zero fighter – was dragged up to the top of a mountain near Niseko in 1943 and left to accumulate ice in the freezing winter winds. Nakaya also experimented with artificial fog dissipation. Sooner or later, scientific theory would always yield up practical applications, he believed.

A landscape by Nakaya Ukichiro
painted while convalescing in the Izu Peninsula

There was more to Nakaya than snow science. We had already admired some of his paintings – Terada-sensei encouraged his students to draw and paint as a way of honing their observational skills – and on our way out, we noticed the cover of a children’s book that Nakaya wrote and published for his two daughters. For the literary arts too were part of his philosophy:

I am not knowledgeable about modern methods of specialised education. However, reflecting on my own childhood experiences, I suspect that perhaps an outwardly unscientific education may have an unexpected effect of enhancing feelings of wonder about nature. The dreams of childhood may be unrestrained and nonsensical, but I would advise against suppressing such dreams too quickly. Children who do not know about sea monsters (umibōzu) and river demons (kappa) are unfortunate. Not only are they unfortunate, but they may also be deprived of a true scientific education if the umibōzu and kappa are expelled too soon from their worlds.


The Nakaya family at home in Tokyo, 1930s

 Appropriately, the museum's next live demonstration appeals as much to the imagination as the intellect. We watch as a museum staffer takes a fresh block of ice out of a handy freezer cabinet, shines a bright light on it, and shows us how melt cavities form inside the ice, almost like snowflakes in reverse. Named for John Tyndall, the Victorian scientist and alpinist, the phenomenon was further investigated by Nakaya in the 1950s. 

Demonstrating how Tyndall figures form

Like negative snowflakes, Tyndall figures appear in an ice-block 

By this time, he was attached to the US Snow, Ice and Permafrost Research Establishment (SIPRE) in Illinois. Among other projects there, he studied how snow can be milled to make surfaces hard enough for roads and runways. Under the auspices of SIPRE, he also visited the Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska and Thule in Greenland, where he researched the crystalline structure of glacier ice:

After a two-year study of single crystals of ice, I came to the conclusion that can be summed up in one sentence: ice is a metal.

Nakaya at an ice laboratory in Greenland

From 1957 onwards, Nakaya spent four summers at Site-2, a research station located 400 kilometres inland on the Greenland ice sheet, taking part in early attempts to bring up ice cores for climatic research. Increasingly he was thinking about how ice and snow fitted into a bigger picture:

Because of the global increase in atmospheric temperature since the beginning of the 20th century, glaciers in many places worldwide are shrinking or retreating. The cause is an increase in CO2 due to the automobile-dominated society and the cutting down of forests. Warming of the climate will melt the ice in Antarctica and Greenland leading to a sea-level rise, and lowlands all over the world will be in danger of being submerged.

Such insights are familiar today, but Nakaya published these words in 1957. The aim of his research now was to understand how the global water cycle – how snow turns to ice in glaciers and so returns to water – interacts with the climate. But time was running short.

Ultimately, Nakaya’s fascination with Greenland was the death of him. Before his last trip to Thule, he refused to visit a doctor, knowing that a check-up would reveal health issues that would prevent him travelling. He returned to Tokyo exhausted by the journey, and died in April 1962.

In a sense, it was inevitable that Nakaya's life’s work would remain unfinished. For, as he himself said, “No amount of investigation into a block of ice could reveal all its myriad secrets.”

Sunday, January 21, 2024

A meizanologist's diary (50)

2 January: Monju (365 metres), an eminence south of the city, is a convivial place on the second day of the year. Citizens of all ages, from toddlers to pensioners, converge on the summit shrine for their first visit (hatsu-mode) of the year.

A friend tells us that the venerable Masunaga Michio, doyen of the local mountaineering scene and author of Fukui no yama 150 (One Hundred and Fifty Mountains of Fukui), has preceded us to the summit by at least an hour. By the time we arrive, the shrine priest has already run out of dragon talismans.

Monju makes up for its modest altitude by a wealth of cultural associations. A votive tablet by the shrine doors records that the sanctuary was rebuilt after a typhoon with the help of a donation from an adept of Shugendō, the old syncretic mountain religion. What this says about the success of the Meiji-era efforts to disentwine Buddhism and Shintō - and extinguish Shugendō - may need further research …

In the evening, we’re watching TV when a conflagration is reported live from Tokyo’s Haneda airport. An incoming JAL Airbus has collided with a Coastguard plane loaded with supplies for the earthquake victims. The scale of the Noto disaster is only starting to filter through on the news channels.

Saturday, January 20, 2024

A meizanologist's diary (49)

1 January: Somewhere over central Asia, on another flight from HEL, the New Year’s sunrise touches off a haiku:


Appropriately, a dragon-shaped cloud writhes its way underneath the Airbus as we fly towards Beijing. Then another couple of hours to KIX. The long journey from Europe ends smoothly when the Hokuriku line limited express pulls into Fukui station, on schedule at 16.06 pm.

Four minutes later, I’m looking for the Sensei and her car in the station forecourt when the earth shifts underfoot. The bus shelter I’m standing under wags to and fro with an audible creaking, while the reflections on the glazed frontage of a nearby building ripple as if in a breeze. Nobody seems alarmed but I decide to stay under the bus shelter until the shaking stops, just in case those glass panels start coming adrift.

The Sensei and I find each other. Her Toyota has just announced to her that an earthquake is in progress. It repeats itself a few minutes later when we are stopped in traffic. The warning is otiose; we can feel the car swaying.

Meanwhile, on the radio, the NHK announcer urges anybody near the coast to escape (“nigete!”) to higher ground – tidal waves up to five metres high could be rolling in near the quake’s epicentre, up in the Noto Peninsula.

By the time we get home, it’s clear that any tidal waves won’t be on the scale of those that devastated the Tōhoku region in March 2011. But what about the damage wrought by the earthquake itself? At this point, we have no idea …