Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Autumn meizan (4)

Travelogue continued: getting to know Hakusan again after a long gap

The life-size tyrannosaurus left me discombobulated, lunging, as it seemed, out of the pre-dawn twilight. Not that I took it for real, of course. As the Sensei explained – she was driving – the hulking beast, made of nothing more terrifying than papier-mâché, stands guard over a new dinosaur museum. But that was exactly what worried me: the creature was new.

As a rule, mountaineers aren’t fond of change – we like our mountains the way they are. This morning, though, innovations leapt out at every bend in the road. That’s only to be expected when you revisit a favourite mountain for the first time in decades. When we reached the end of the long forest road, the Sensei parked her van in a multi-level car park; in the old days, this was just a patch of gravel.

Shrouded in mist, our mountain looked suitably mysterious. Hakusan is one of Japan’s three most sacred summits, along with Mt Fuji and Tateyama. It was the home mountain of the author who wrote up the Nihon Hyakumeizan, and the first high one that he climbed.

Fukada Kyūya wasn’t fond of change either. In his book, he has this to say about “famous mountains” that let themselves be Disneyfied:

A peak that people admire from morning to night, that they crown with a shrine, necessarily qualifies as an "eminent mountain". A true spirit of reverence inheres in such places. Unfortunately, the crowds mobilized by mass tourism have debased some of these mountains, hallowed by tradition though they once were, and driven the mountain gods from their haunts. Such mountains are no longer eligible as Meizan.

Is Hakusan at risk of losing its Meizan brevet? As we shrugged on our packs in front of a grandiose visitor pavilion, I was starting to worry. The spirit of reverence seemed to be in abeyance around here. True, the climbing path leads out under a concrete torii, but this structure serves mainly to funnel visitors over giant doormats. These are supposed to wipe the seeds of alien weeds from hikers’ boots, said the Sensei. A little later, she pointed out such an intruder, sprouting by the path.

Cloud kept our valley in shadow, though fitful shafts of light played on distant hills. Soon we stopped to take off our jackets: in the old days, frost pillars would push out of the ground in this season, and snow would already have dusted the summits. Today was more late summer than early winter. No wonder those alien plants are moving uphill.

Coming up to a pair of mountain birches that mark the start of Hakusan’s sub-alpine zone, the Sensei patted the silvery bark and announced them as old friends. A while later we reached the midway hut at Jin-no-suke. Or rather we reached the large blockhouse that replaced the small wooden hut which used to merge unobtrusively into the hill. We took our half-way break on the new concrete terrace, where once there was a forest glade.

Above the hut, we came to an outcrop of conglomerate rock, rounded pebbles frozen into a concrete-like matrix. Not the kind of rock you’d expect half way up a not-yet-extinct volcano; you could almost see the gravels rolling along the bed of some ancient river, washed down from a vanished mountain range.

It turns out that we were looking at the Tetori Group, the very formation that, lower down the mountain, yielded up the dinosaur bones for the new museum. The Sensei, who indulges my interest in rocks as a harmless eccentricity, walked on ahead while I took a photo. Some novelties do have to be accommodated, even if they go back more than a hundred million years.

Climbing back into the realm of lava, we passed a giant boulder that must have surfed downhill in one of Hakusan’s eruptions. Now the view opened up across a plain of rustling panda grass. This was Midagahara, the Buddhist name signalling a kind of boundary zone to the upper world. Years ago, we’d met the monks of Eiheiji here, black-robed and straw-sandalled, each carrying down a creel full of empty drink cans. No sign of them today.

At around 2,200 metres, panda grass gave way to an avenue of creeping pines. The gnarled branches looked to be in good health, green and glossy, with no trace of the strange blight that was reported last year.

We came up to Murodo. For a century or more a large hut has dominated this belvedere below Hakusan’s summit cone. Now a cluster of huts sprawls across the plateau, big enough for 700 guests at once. This late in the season, all were shuttered. A few hikers were brewing up on gas stoves on the concrete ledges under the eaves. Most wore down jackets against the autumnal chill.

We'd left Murodo below when Hakusan played one of its best tricks – the clouds rifting away, like a prestidigitator's tablecloth, to reveal a wild hassle of sunlit hilltops tumbling away below. From out to sea, the clear autumn light cascaded over our mountaintop. Was it in search of visions like this that old Monk Taichō pioneered the way up here in the first year of Yōrō, almost one millennium and a third ago?

At the summit, the blustering wind from the sea broke against a stone revetment. Behind it sheltered the “okumiya”, the innermost sanctuary of the Hakusan shrine. Brightly dressed folk paid their respects in front of the weathered timbers. Others, at the trig point a few yards away, took selfies. We stepped up to the highest point and looked down at the little crater lake, faithfully reflecting the sky.

The Sensei led the way – this is her native mountain too – to a sheltered spot below some boulders, and unpacked three of her industrial-strength onigiri. Our lunchspot faced inland, towards the Japan Alps. Ranges of lower hills rolled away at our feet, as if paying homage to our peak. Hakusan is a high mountain.

But how high? Hakusan is more than six thousand metres lower than Mt Everest. Or, before it could stand any chance of facing down the Matterhorn, you would have to jack it up by the best part of two kilometres. Yet Hakusan is a mountain of stature.

Tucking into one of the Sensei’s industrial-strength onigiri, I wondered how that could be so. Something to do with the expansive view of an “island peak”, perhaps. Or the way that the summit cone lifts itself above the ordinary world of trees and grass. Or the frost-sculpted landscape of the craters below – the stepped slopes and snow hollows must be some of the southernmost periglacial features on this side of Honshū.

The Sensei interrupted my thoughts. “Just below us is the cave where Monk Taichō meditated,” she said. “With my mountaineering club, we visited it once – it took a while to find, searching around on those steep slopes.”

Naruhodo, I realised, however often you visit a “famous mountain”, there’ll always be something new. It’s almost like a conversation, one with a person of depth and character. And as for Hakusan, you could do worse for a Meizan-in-law, if you get my drift…

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Autumn meizan (3)

Travelogue continued: long day's interview into night on Arashima-dake

October 24: The Sound Man is having trouble. And if the Sound Man is in trouble, then we all are. I mean, you can't do much of a TV interview without a Sound Man.

While waiting for him, we're having an extended lunch break - I'm tucking into one of the Sensei's industrial-strength onigiri - on the summit of Arashima-dake. Nowhere could be more fitting, the local office of NHK has decided, as a location for an interview about the forthcoming translation of Nihon Hyakumeizan. After all, this is the eighty-eighth of Fukada Kyūya's One Hundred Mountains of Japan.

There's no need for the enamelled panorama table nearby, as the Sensei knows every one of her local mountains and most of the far-off ones too - that's Ontake in the hazy distance, still steaming. Closer at hand, under the flawless autumn sky, the array of peaks is just as Fukada describes it in our favourite book:

From the summit, Hakusan dominated the view . In front of it were arrayed the lesser peaks of Hō-onji, Kyō-ga-dake, Aka-usagi-yama, and Gankyōji, the playground of the Fukui Mountaineering Club. The Buddhist names of many of these mountains are said to trace out the route that Taichō Daishi took when he made the first ascent of Hakusan.

The Sensei is particularly proud of Kyō-ga-dake - it's a former volcano, she says, and you can clearly see the crater. I turn in that direction, but the mountain looks a bit broken down, if you ask me. But I never disagree with the Sensei, especially about local mountains.

That reminds me: we're up here for an interview, but we're still missing the Sound Man. Over there, by the trig point, Yahara-san, the NHK cameraman, is setting up a heavy-duty video camera. And Miura-san, the director, is looking at her list of questions. Both know their way about mountains - Yahara-san is as likely to be found filming in the Himalaya as he is in his native mountains of Fukui, while Miura-san hails from serrated Shinshū. But the Sound Man, summoned at the last moment from NHK's office in the flatlands of Nagoya, is still missing.

Eventually, he struggles to the summit, larding the ground with sweat, his face perilously grey with the effort of porting a full-size boom mike and a ponderous box of recording gear up a 1,524-metre hill. This might be the first mountain he has ever climbed. Lesser men would have given up long ago. I feel a pang of guilt: surely, we should have given him more help.

But the show must go on. In minutes, the video and sound gear is deployed, and Miura-san asks the first question. "How did you come to translate Hyakumeizan?". I'm inclined to reply "In a fit of reckless insouciance," but realise that my rusting Japanese skills won't stretch to that. So I just say that, after moving to Europe, there was more time to read the book and I soon realised that it deserved every bit of its classic status. And that's true too.

Thanks to our late arrival, the sun is now blazing down and I've had to take off hat and sunglasses to face the camera. Even in October, the light is intense at this latitude. I ask Yahara-san if I can put on some sun protection - better not, he says, as it would look crummy on video. OK, all art demands sacrifice.

Next question - which do you prefer, the European or the Japanese Alps? Each in its special way, I reply, or words to that effect. So what's special about the Japanese mountains, Yahara-san follows up. Shinrin desu ne, I say - it's the woods, isn't it. After all, that’s what Walter Weston said, though more eloquently: "the magnificence of the dark and silent forests that clothe their massive flanks."

We move over to the summit shrine. The sensei bows and folds her hands; I just stand there, respectfully, of course. "What do you think of when you see a shrine like this?" asks Yahara-san. Well, surely all 'famous mountains' should have a summit shrine. As the Hyakumeizan author observed about another mountain, "The Japanese will never cease from putting shrines on their favorite mountains."

Arashima-dake has had a shrine for a long time. Fukada noted it when he came this way in the 1950s or 1960s:

I noticed that the summit shrine contains several figures of Jizō, one of them sculpted in the first year of the Genji era (1864). Yes, I nodded to myself, this mountain has been revered and people have come up here to pay their respects for centuries.

Interestingly, the shrine on Arashima-dake was taken down in summit clean-up that took place a few years ago. For a while, the mountaintop was bare. But the local people clearly thought the shrine should be replaced.

Come to think about it, it's not so different in Europe. Around the start of the twentieth century, the Swiss and Italian villages of Zermatt and Valtournanche decided that their local mountaintop should be consecrated. After the Italians had fabricated a tall summit cross from wrought iron, no doubt at considerable expense, teams of mountain guides took two summer seasons to haul it up the mountain. And there you can see it to this day, on the Matterhorn's summit, with the Latin names for each village worked into the crossbar: Patrumbor and Vallistornench

Alas, there isn't time to develop this theme in a news clip that's destined to last no more than a few minutes. So I just say that a mountaintop without a shrine (or cross) would seem - the word eludes me. "Mono-tarinai", suggests the sensei. Yes, that's it exactly – something would be missing.

It's time to go down. A sharp-edged section of ridge leads away from the summit. A few summers ago, somebody fell off there, observes Yahara-san. The body was only found when somebody remarked the stench rising from the gully below. We head carefully down the slippery path, between ramparts of panda grass, towards the dark and silent forests below.

Or not so dark. Slanting in under the trees, the afternoon sun backlights the leaves in spangles of red, yellow and gold. Yahara-san darts to and fro with his video camera, capturing seasonal footage. We have plenty of time to appreciate the autumn colours as the Sound Man is coming down almost as slowly as he went up - a sprained foot is now adding to his woes. But he still insists on carrying his own pack.

We wait for him again above the abandoned ski-piste. The sun has gone behind the ridge by now, and the pampas grass glows palely in the gathering dusk. Eventually, the Sound Man limps into view and I realise that, all day, it’s been our colleague from the flatlands who’s been cultivating the true mountaineering spirit. This time, the right words spring unprompted to mind. They are gaman and konjo. By the time we get to the cars, the light really is going.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Autumn meizan (2)

Travelogue continued: a summit meeting with the master of Tozan Tales

October 23: the Raichō ("Snow Ptarmigan") express arrived on time at Osaka station. That was good, because Wes Lang and I had arranged a rare summit meeting. And there was Wes now, waiting at the Sakurabashi exit. As a doyen of the Kansai Hyakumeizan scene, Wes should need no introduction to readers of this blog, as most will likely be frequent visitors to his Hiking in Japan guide and Tozan Tales.

Wes was looking a bit leaner than when we'd last met - an enforced sojourn with the local health system was to blame. You can read about this episode on Wes's witty yet perceptive blog, TB Tales. Others might have been discombobulated by the experience but, to a mountaineer of Wes's stamp, even soggy hospital toast can be turned to good account. The man is irrepressible.

But I digress. We had an hour before Wes had to entrain for his afternoon class in Kobe, so we headed for the Eikokuya café - how appropriate - atop one of the Ekimae area's tall buildings and ordered two morning sets. Being possessed of healthy appetites on this cool autumn morning, we desisted from turning the toast slices into caricatures of Mt Fuji.

Since we last met, Wes has turned his attention from Fukada Kyūya's Nihon Hyakumeizan - been there, done that - to the local equivalent, the One Hundred Mountains of the Kansai Region. The list has received the closest thing to official sanction in the shape of a handsome guidebook published by Japan's oldest publisher of mountain books and journals, Yama to Keikoku - a battered copy of which Wes now spread out on the counter in front of us.

"You know," he said, after taking a bit into an egg sandwich, "the Kansai really is unbeatable for mountain variety." As an ex-Tokyo man, I almost raised an eyebrow here - I mean, what with Tanzawa and Chichibu, and that cone-shaped mountain on the skyline, the Kantō didn't seem too bad for variety either. But Wes was in full swing now: "Where else can you hike up mountains within the city limits?", he asked rhetorically, pointing at Mt Rokko over yonder in the haze.

I had to admit that, for sheer in-your-face accessibility, the mountains round the Big Slope and its environs go one better than Tokyo. But what about variety? In reply, Wes turned to the contents page in his Yama to Keikoku guide - a quick glance of the pencil ticks against the mountain names revealed that he's a good way through the one hundred.

Not having encountered the Kansai Hyakumeizan before, I was intrigued to see which mountains entered into this list: Atago, Hiei, Ikoma, Ōmine, Ōdaigahara, Hyō-no-Sen, the "Icy Mountain" where no less an alpinist than Katō Buntarō cut his winter-mountaineering teeth - yes, these are Meizan that can hold their heads up in any company. But what was this? My eye lit on Hōrai-zan, a mountain on the shores of Lake Biwa - the train had passed by its foot that morning. It seems incongruous that you can ride a cable-car up to the summit of a mountain named for the Western Paradise.

Well, any listing of famous mountains is likely to stoke controversy - it seems that the original Kansai One Hundred were selected by Nakanishi Seiichirō, an experienced mountaineer. He was presumably miffed that Fukada Kyūya had let only four Kansai peaks into his original all-Japan Hyakumeizan. But Nakanishi came in for criticism himself, allegedly because he favoured summits in the southern Kansai districts over those in the west. The Yama to Keikoku listing was a later attempt to redress the balance, it's said. By the way, I'm indebted for this information to On Higher Ground, himself a Kansai resident.

Fortunately, the Eikoku-ya has a "bottomless" policy when it comes to refills. Starting on our second cups of coffee, we turned to the current mountain scene. There's a lot going on. Blogs and message boards mean that it's easier than ever for like-minded Meizan-seekers to meet up and arrange trips. Wes's recent Hiking in Japan camp at Togakushi is a case in point. And blogs are the ideal place to write up trips and publish compelling photography afterwards. All in all, it's never been a better time to be a foreign mountaineer in these parts.

Alas, our time was soon up. Wes showed me the way to Kinokuniya - by now, I wanted to buy my own copy of the Kansai Hyakumeizan - and then vanished into the crowd. Too late, I thought of a final question to ask him. And that is, will he be able to finish his round of the Kansai One Hundred before he becomes an oto-san .... ?

Friday, October 31, 2014

Autumn meizan (1)

Travelogue: a distant view of Mt Fuji leads to a poetic eruption

October 21: And there it was now, sliding under the port wing at 450 knots – the Boeing was still climbing. As I’d let ANA assign me a seat on the wrong side, I had to scurry across the plane and peer through a miserable porthole in the rear door. But Mt Fuji never disappoints. There it was, soaring above a scattered cloud-deck, a conical island in a limitless blue ocean.

Like some mountain fashionista, Mt Fuji was modelling a turban-like capcloud. A shawl of rotor cloud trailed in its lee. I clicked away with my pocket camera until the spectacle drifted away aft. Returning to my seat, I noticed that the man in the row ahead had his newspaper open at a topical headline: “Three prefectures hold disaster drill to prepare for Mt Fuji eruption”.

That was quick, I thought – it’s only three weeks since Ontake blew and they’re already practising for the next one. Turns out, though, that this exercise had been planned for months – after all, the authorities drew up a “hazard map” for the mountain years ago. The drill scenario seems to have been based on the 1707 eruption on Mt Fuji’s southern flank.

The eruption of Ontake seen from Kasa-ga-dake (Photo: A Mikami)

Do the authorities know something we don’t? Well, probably not. A volcano’s intentions are notoriously hard to read. From time to time, seismometers have picked up movements of lava deep underneath the mountain – and, so far, nothing has happened. One thing is certain: Mt Fuji will erupt when it feels like it. Years ago, a poet summed up the matter perfectly:

Sometimes clouds furry like mufflers wind round and round Fuji
Sometimes classic pince-nez clouds float close by
The Osawa landslide must have carved out a huge mass of mountain
That too does not bother Fuji
Leaving everything to humanity and physics
Before long it may yet poke out again a tongue of fire.
That too is left to nature
Fuji is there
Fuji simply exists
Heaven overhead always

(From "Fuji" by Kusano Shinpei (1903-1988), Selected Poems 1943-1986 translated by Leith Morton)

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Meizan of science

Ten years ago today, the manned weather station on Mt Fuji closed, ending 72 years of continuous human habitation on Japan's highest summit. Here is a timeline on how Mt Fuji has served as a platform for science and weather observations, with links to related posts

1828: Ninomiya Keisaku, physician, Dutch scholar, medical botanist and student of the German doctor, Philipp Franz von Siebold, climbs to the summit and estimates its height by measuring the air pressure, yielding an altitude of 3,794.5 metres - less than 20 metres adrift from the height as triangulated by modern surveyors.

1880 August: Thomas Mendenhall weighs the earth by conducting gravity experiments on the summit, assisted by Tanakadate Aikichi and others. So accurate is the pendulum clock he devises for this purpose that a similar one is later used to measure the speed of light.

1889: Nakamura Kiyo'o and Kondō Hisajirō make a 38-day series of weather observations respectively from a stone hut on Kusushi-dake, one of the eight peaklets around the crater of Mt Fuji, and from beside Lake Yamanaka.

1895: officials from the Central Meteorological Office take readings on the summit during the summer. They too use a hut on Kusushi-dake. In the following winter, independent meteorologist Nonaka Itaru attempts to overwinter in a self-built summit hut under Ken-ga-mine, the highest summit, supported by his wife Chiyoko. They endure the cold and beri-beri for 82 days, before being rescued in December.

1927: meteorologist Satō Junichi builds a summit hut for weather observations, supported by a grant from Suzuki Seiji, president of the Tokyo School of Motoring.

1930 January-February: now in his fifties, Satō Junichi overwinters in his summit hut, supported by porter Kaji Fusakichi, proving that round-the-year weather observations are possible. Kaji will go on to climb Mt Fuji a record 1,672 times during his lengthy career.

Inaugurating the Mt Fuji observatory on August 1, 1932
1932: the government budget provides for one year of observations at the summit observatory as part of Japan's contribution to the Second International Polar Year. At the end of the one-year period, meteorologist Fujimura Ikuo and his team refuse to come down from the summit hut, so that observations can continue.

1934: the future of the summit observatory is secured by a grant from a foundation recently established by the Mitsui zaibatsu after a right-wing extremist had assassinated its director-general Takuma Dan.

1936: now officially styled the Mt Fuji Summit Observatory of the Central Meteorological Office, the observatory is moved from Yasu-no-kawara, a flattish area on the crater's south-eastern rim, to a new building on the mountain's highest point, Ken-ga-mine. In the same year, physicists from Nishina Yoshio's research group at Riken visit Mt Fuji to study cosmic rays.

1944: a squad of soldiers run a high-tension cable all the way from Gotemba to the summit to power a wireless relay station. The summit weather station also gets a direct electricity supply for the first time.

1945, July 30: the summit station is attacked by two enemy fighters. Some of the staff are injured by flying debris. This is the most damaging of three strafing attacks on the summit installations during the last two years of the war.

1964: the weather radar station is completed on Ken-ga-mine after a dramatic helicopter lift to bring in the surmounting radome. In the following year, the post office issues a 10-yen commemorative stamp and the radar tracks its first typhoon.

1985: the radar is upgraded with digital signal processing and colour output display.

1999 November: the radar is shut down and the famous radome is later taken down to a museum at the mountain's foot. From now on, typhoons will be tracked by satellites and two newer radar stations, one at Makinohara in Shizuoka and the other on Kurumayama in Nagano.

2004, October 1: the manned weather station closes too, ending 72 years of continuous human habitation on the summit of Mt Fuji. Automated instruments will continue to relay meteorological observations from the summit to a base station.


This timeline is adapted from the one on the website of the Society for the Valid Utilization of Mt.Fuji Weather Station, an NPO that seeks to preserve the buildings of the summit station for continued scientific activities. Additional information is from (ed) Dokiya Yukiko, Kawaru Fuji-san Sokkojo, 2004.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Convergence of the twain

Mountaineers on the summit of Kasagadake watch the continuing eruption of Ontake 
(Photos taken on 28 September, courtesy of A Mikami/H Yamada, Fukui Mountaineering Club)

Geological timescales and human lives converge but rarely. When they do, there is tragedy. It seems unfitting to comment on the Ontake disaster from something as frivolous as a blog. Instead, the Vox Populi column in the Asahi Shinbun says what needs to be said.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Summit duty

A memoir of life on Mt Fuji by Hirai Yasuyo, former head of the summit meteorological observatory

I had a 40-year career with the Meteorological Agency, much of that time in work related to the Mt Fuji summit observatory. After retiring to my native Izu, I like to look out for Mt Fuji whenever I’m somewhere you should be able to see it from. These days, it’s often hazy whatever the time of year and I don’t see the mountain as often as I used to. When I do see its distant shape under a clear sky, it’s like meeting an old friend, and I remember all the things that happened up there and all the people I used to know.

Call of duty: de-icing the instrument tower

I came to the summit observatory quite by chance. A magazine that I used to look at in my school’s reading room sometimes serialized novels by Nitta Jirō, and that was how I first heard about the observatory and got the idea that I’d like to work there.

In 1954, I was hired to make weather observations at the Meteorological Observatory on Izu Ōshima island. In those days, that meant taking temperature and pressure readings at set times in a set order, and also making visual observations of weather phenomena. I remember sweating quite a bit over those on-sight assessments of clouds and sky conditions.

Porters above Hoei-zan

As the observations had to be made rain or shine, I sometimes sheltered under an umbrella as I made my measurements out there by the instrument box. Until, one day, I heard one of my seniors comment to a team leader as follows: “The young guy seems to be out there at the instrument box with an umbrella. But we used to just stand out there in the wind and rain making our observations, didn’t we.” After that, I decided that I would go out into the wind and rain like that, so that I could feel the weather unsheltered.

Around that time, I applied for re-assignment to the Mt Fuji observatory, and all of a sudden I was able to realize my dream of working at the summit station. And so, on April 5, 1956, I stepped off the train at Gotemba and was overwhelmed by the snow-covered bulk of the mountain.

On the way to the summit
Next day, before dawn, we left the refuge hut at Tarobō for what was to be my first-ever Mt Fuji climb. We had to break trail through the snow on the slopes of Hōei-zan before taking a break for breakfast at the refuge hut above the Seventh Station. From the Eighth Station onwards, on a stretch they called “Tarumi”, we were climbing on a steep sheet of blue ice. By the Ninth Station, I was so close to collapse that I was barely making sense any more. In fact, I tripped and fell over, but somebody who came to meet us quickly stopped my feet sliding with his axe, so that nothing worse happened.

The sun was low by the time we reached the summit station. Ash-grey clouds floated past under the darkening sky and a weird “bōōō” sound emanated from the depths of the vast crater. Laying eyes on this scene for the first time in my life, I could hardly believe that it belonged to this planet.

My apprenticeship in the ways of the observatory started on the morning after a blizzard. The first job was to bash the accumulated hoarfrost from the instrument tower. “This is how we do it,” grunted a colleague, as he grabbed a wooden mallet and started pounding at the steel framework, sending the ice shards flying with the vibrations. This is just the hoarfrost you always get when clouds come drifting across a summit and their supercooled droplets freeze onto any object they meet, creating an ice build-up. Up here, though, just about everything that projected above the ground would ice up – the frost was everywhere. Every time a low pressure came along the Pacific coast in winter or spring, that instrument tower would rime up overnight to a depth of several tens of centimetres.

This “de-icing” was the toughest work all through the snow season. When the ice shards blew back in your face, the pain was like needles thrusting into you. At first I relished the work as something you’d only get to experience on summit duty, but later as the gales pierced me to the core and the effort made me fight for breath, the job started to grind me down. Up there, on that tower, hacking at the ice in the pitch dark, I’d start thinking “Why does it have to be me? Does anybody care that I’m way out here battling the ice on top of Fuji?” It was at those times that the sheer isolation of Japan’s highest summit would get to me.
The radar dome in winter

In those days, Fujimura Ikuo, the observatory head, would sometimes come up and tell us that weather phenomena were never the same twice – if you don’t record them at the time, they’re lost forever, he’d say, to impress on us the seriousness of our responsibility and mission as meteorological observers. He’d also say, when the team was trying to bash every last scrap of ice from the instrument tower, that we should only clean things up as far as was needed for good measurements. In fact, we should go as easy as possible. “If you drive yourselves too far, you’ll not last long on summit duty,” he told us. After that, I decided to give the job about 80%, so that I could always keep something in reserve. And I think that this was one reason why I was able to continue serving so long on the summit.

My summit duty years started in 1956, when I applied for the transfer from Izu Ōshima. Then, after stints in Tokyo, I was up there again from 1960 to 1964 and from 1971 to 1983. Adding in the years that I spent at the Mt Fuji base offices, I spent more than 30 years in work that involved the summit station. As these years spanned Japan’s economic high-growth period, I witnessed a great deal of change in both society and life at the summit station during this time. In 1964, radar and automated weather measurement systems were installed, which meant that the work changed from taking readings manually to maintaining and monitoring the measuring equipment. As for our living environment, this changed dramatically in 1973 when the new building was completed and the electricity supply upgraded. Instead of the old building, where the only place you didn’t feel cold was next to the charcoal stove, we had a fully airconditioned new building, where you could sleep in a warm room. Compared with the old building, where you had to creep into bed under a frosted-up futon, this was undreamt-of luxury.
Automation comes to Mt Fuji

Other innovations included better mountaineering kit and safety measures, and we introduced a SnowTrac for the first part of the uphill haul. And our logistics were revolutionized when we started using the bulldozers to freight up supplies in summer, leading to a dramatic improvement in both the quality and quantity of our food. In winter, though, the weather could still cause delays in the food supply, and I have fond memories of a three-day stretch where we had nothing to eat with our rice except salt-dried squid and soy sauce.
Dining area in the summit weather station

As for mountaintop itself – the wind, the cold and the thin air – nothing could change that. Climbing up and down the mountain in winter during the shift changes was pretty much as tough as it was in the early years of the summit station. And, even though the instruments had been modernized, things went on icing up just as before, so that the only way observations could be kept up was for the summit team to go out in the same old way to bash at the ice encrustations on the instrument tower and the radome.

Shift change
Yet I did see changes during those thirty years, even if only gradual ones – little rockslides around the summit, new fissures opening up in the crater and the Great Gully of Ōsawa, and so on. And there was the way that the knotweed (オンタデ、Aconogonon weyrichii) and other alpine plants kept creeping up the mountainside, bit by bit, towards the summit.

Some things changed more rapidly. One was the spread of the town lights below. Up until the late 1950s, except for the Tokyo-Yokohama area, you could distinguish the lights of one town from those of another all along the coast at night. In the 1960s, however, the lights started to spread into the dark patches between towns, and from the 1970s the whole Kantō plain as far as Enshū became just a single mass of luminosity, a sea of lights.

Another of those changes was air pollution. When I first climbed the mountain in 1956, there was a splendidly clear view all round. Under that azure sky, you could gaze down at the whole Kantō spreading out below, at the Chubu mountain ranges, and the islands of Izu floating on the ocean. In those days, we had to make a visual assessment of the visibility below us, how high the haze came up and how thick it was. You could clearly see the upper limit of the haze as a sharp dividing line against the sky, and we used to record its height against the backdrop of the Akaishi mountains. In the 1960s, the height and density of the haze might have fluctuated a bit, depending on conditions, but it rarely swamped the 3,000-metre ridgeline of the Akaishi mountains.

In 1971, when I came back for summit duty after a seven-year gap, I was in for a shock – there were now many more days when the haze buried the mountains and you couldn’t see the ground below, even when the sky was cloudless. Air pollution had become a serious problem in Tokyo from the early 1960s; now you’d often see a thick haze layer in all directions.

Haze layers develop when you have the right meteorological conditions, such as several days under a ridge of high pressure, but it’s not the weather that has changed around Mt Fuji. Rather, the spreading haze is coming from the proliferation in pollution sources and the growing volume of polluted air.

In former days, you could always expect to see Fuji from Izu, but I feel that in recent years that’s no longer true. And, as I’ve spent most of my life involved with Mt Fuji, I can’t help feeling that we’re losing something of great value.

Seeing Mt Fuji obscured by haze isn’t just about losing a view – it’s a sign that air pollution and environmental destruction are getting worse. My hope is that, by continuing our scientific observations, we can shed light on the state and causes of that environmental degradation, so that we can finally do something about it.


Translated from "Harukana Fuji-san wo nozomeba" in (ed) Dokiya Yukiko, Kawaru Fuji-san Sokkojo, 2004. Images are also from this book except for header image, which is from Fuji-san: oinaru shizen no kensho, Yomiuri Shinbunsha, 1992.