Monday, May 27, 2024

A meizanologist's diary (75)

4 April: Pressure breathing has to be the secret, I decide – normally, I’d have no difficulty in keeping pace with the Sensei but today, every time I snap an image with my mobile phone, it’s all I can do to catch up with the ladies. My, they are moving. What’s more, they’ve been conversing all the way. So, for them, talking must be a form of pressure breathing …


Not that altitude is going to be a problem on Iwagomori-yama, one of Tsuruga's Three Famous Mountains. And Alpinist A. the Sensei’s friend, has further truncated its 765.2 metres by parking her car at the top of a pass. The rain has let up, but the trees are still dripping as we start off through the cloud forest of the Rei-Nan coastal range. 


Through mist-fogged glasses I observe what appears to be a mixed forest. We scramble up a rock step, its rugosities rough to the touch, which reminds us that the mountain's name could be translated as "Secluded among the rocks". Fragments of this granite strew the path, making the going less slippery than one might expect from the previous day’s downpours. 


At about 600 metres, we dip down into a grove of graceful beech trees. Once again, I’m amazed how low this cool temperate-zone species will grow on Fukui’s coastal hills. But for how long will they do so, given the rapid upshifting of climatic zones? It seems that Kyoto University has similar concerns at its Ashiu Forest Research Station, not so far from here. 

In the next decade, the savants warn, the lower limit for the beech trees will rise by three hundred metres, all but wiping them out within the bounds of the Research Station's mountains...

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

A meizanologist's diary (74)

3 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):


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.