Wednesday, April 15, 2015

There for everybody

Japan’s oldest mountaineering magazine may also be its most broadly representative

When a copy of Yama to Keikoku magazine thumped into my mailbox – I say thumped because Japan’s most venerable mountaineering magazine is also its bulkiest – it was like meeting an old friend after a long absence.

And, let me admit it, it was gratifying to see Project Hyakumeizan’s local crag on the April edition’s cover, and even more so to find an article about One Hundred Mountains of Japan heading up the news section.

After basking in the glow of this publicity, I leafed through the entire magazine. The news section is followed by a photo feature on Echigo-koma-ga-take, which happens to be the twenty-fifth of Fukada Kyūya’s celebrated Hyakumeizan – although he prefers to call it Uonuma-koma-ga-take. “When they gleam white under the heavy snows of Echigo, I can scarcely believe these peaks barely exceed two thousand meters,” he writes. YamaKei’s glorious photography shows why.

Next comes a lengthy feature – more than 40 pages – on knee problems and what to do about them. Every possible angle is covered, from symptoms to special exercises, and better walking techniques to medical interventions. It’s good to see that YamaKei caters to mountaineers of all ages. (Ouch – excuse me – it’s that twinge again.)

Skipping over some more photo pages, on Kaikoma (Hyakumeizan no 77), we come again to Project Hyakumeizan’s local crag. This feature – by the tireless Ōhata Kimiko, who also wrote up the Hyakumeizan translation – explains how to climb the Matterhorn in the company of a handsome and courteous Swiss mountain guide. O-tsukaresama Ōhata-san!

After the breathless exertions of the Hörnli ridge, it’s good to take refuge in the beechwoods of northern Japan. In another photo feature, route plans are provided for sylvan wanderings on mountains in Yamagata, Gunma, Okutama, Ōmine, and Shimane. Come to think about it, these locations cover most of the beech tree’s entire range within Japan.

Then, if your knees can take it, comes an account of a mid-winter traverse of the Kurobe valley, one of the snowiest regions on the planet, culminating in an ascent of the spiky and exposed Yatsumine ridge. If think you might enjoy 猛ラッセル, this will be your article. Trust me on this.

Should ultra-deep snow not do it for you, you might prefer hiking up some Latin American volcanoes. A feature on “the mountains closest to outer space” explains how to tackle the likes of Cotopaxi and Chimborazo – the latter summit being further from the centre of the earth than Everest’s, they say.

Towards the back of the magazine, the Hyakumeizan crop out again – but with a novel twist. On page 164 – I did mention the magazine’s heft, didn’t I? – appears the final instalment of a manga series on climbing Fukada Kyūya’s one hundred mountains – in which the writer/cartoonist attains Poroshiri-dake in Hokkaidō, her 100th summit.

YamaKei was founded in 1930 as Japan’s first mass-market mountaineering and hiking magazine. It was not alone in this niche for long. Within a decade or so, a small host of would-be rivals sprung up, with titles such as Alpinism, Yamagoya (Mountain Hut), Hiking, Cairn, Yama, Tozan to Haikingu, Yama to Kōgen (Mountains and uplands) and Tanken (Exploration).

Why is YamaKei the only one of these pre-war titles that still exists? Excellent writing and photography, as seen in the current edition, are certainly two good reasons for its survival.

But this can’t be the whole story – for example, it was the now defunct Yama to Kōgen that commissioned and published the series of mountain essays that became Nihon Hyakumeizan.

Perhaps the secret sauce is that YamaKei takes a panoramic view of mountaineering and mountaineers. Its coverage ranges from hiking through to hard-core alpinism, from how-to tips through to expedition reports, from Honshū’s mountains through to the Himalaya. Just like Fukada Kyūya’s Mt Fuji, YamaKei is there for everybody.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Farewell to photography?

Or maybe not, depending on who you are and what you’re trying to do

I’ve become a fan of the Week in Review feature over there on Bre’er Hendrik’s Hiking in Finland site. It was on this roundup of recent outdoor-related blog articles that I came across a thought-provoking post by New Nomads. The title says it all: The Story and the Lens: Why I Put My Camera and my Pencil Down.

Kamikochi, Japan Northern Alps: photographers at dawn

In brief, the writer put her camera down after realizing that:-

“It separated me from where I was, almost as if I had surrounded myself with a wall of opaque bubble wrap and then carved a 35 millimeter hole to look out from. What I really wanted was to figure out how to BE with beauty, you know, just hang with it, so I started leaving my camera at home and haven’t picked it up since.”

A few years later, she took a break from writing on a similar logic – the writing was getting in the way of experience.

Imaging the Great Aletsch Glacier, Switzerland
This reminded me of an essay on “Learning to see” by Barry Lopez. The writer started to take photography seriously in the mid-1960s. Although National Geographic didn’t warm to his style, he did manage to publish some wilderness images in a prestigious Time-Life book series. Oddly enough, it was this very success that started to raise doubts in his mind:

“I was pleased to see my work included in these volumes, but I realized that just as the distance between what I saw and what I was able to record was huge, so was that between what I recorded and what people saw. Seeing the printed images on the page was like finding one’s haiku printed as nineteen-syllable poems.”

Lopez’s disenchantment was accentuated by the loss of colour and sharpness when he tried printing images from his original colour slides. In another blow, a box of three hundred of his best original images slid off the back of his motorbike, never to be seen again.

But what finally put the kibosh on his photographic ambitions was an encounter with a polar bear. After busily snapping away at the bear as it swam off into a snow-squall in the northern Chukchi Sea, Lopez discovered that he could no longer accurately bring to mind what had happened:

“Remembering what had happened in an encounter was crucial to my work as a writer, and attending to my cameras during our time with the bear had altered and shrunk my memory of it. While the bear was doing something, I was checking f-stops and attempting to frame and focus from a moving boat.”

Taking the incident as a warning, Lopez sensed that he “wouldn’t pick up a camera ever again”. Some years later, he distilled his northern travels into Arctic Dreams, a perennial best-seller. The book went out unillustrated, except for a handful of line drawings.

Few mountaineers doubt the value of recording their experiences, especially on camera. Snapping away is easier than writing, after all. But one who did have a qualm was no less than the thinking man’s Himalayan alpinist, Doug Scott.

As a member of Chris Bonington’s Everest South-West Face expedition in 1975, Scott summited at sunset together with Dougal Haston. The resulting photos are probably among the most spectacular ever taken from the mountain; one of them adorns the cover of Bonington’s book about the expedition (right).

Afterwards, though, Scott started to wonder how these images were affecting his memory of the experience:-

“Speaking now for myself, there comes the saddening realization that the view from the top of Everest which I now have in mind’s eye is very possibly no longer the magnificent pure naked wholly coloured vision of the moment, but consequently wholly coloured by the slides I then took and have seen so many times since.”

Project Hyakumeizan has had a similar experience. Skiing on Switzerland’s Oberaar glacier at dawn, we raced along a golden glare-path laid down by the rising sun. As we realized that we’d never see anything like this again. I tried to make a mental note of the colours – even the shadows glowed, like wild thyme, in a luminous shade of violet-blue – and we took a few photos, not expecting for a moment that they would remotely capture what we saw. And they didn’t – not even remotely.

Oberaar Glacier, Switzerland: on a golden glare-path
Yet disappointment on Everest didn’t deter Doug Scott from persevering with mountain photography. In fact, his photographic autobiography, Himalayan climber, is notably well illustrated. And, on a more modest level, I haven’t noticed my film and card memory consumption dropping any after that ski-tour down the Oberaar Glacier.

Perhaps the problem with photography is when your interpretation of the scene starts to falsify what you actually experienced. If you just want to document what you saw – photographing what is there – you can probably live with the compromises entailed in taking a photograph. If, however, you aim to create Art – to show what never was there in the first place – then those compromises might start to obtrude.

As Picasso said, “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth, at least the truth that is given to us to understand.”

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

"Characteristics of the Japanese mountain landscape" (5)

Continued: a disquisition on the aesthetics of volcanoes and alpine landscapes by Kojima Usui, founder of the Japanese Alpine Club

After explaining what volcanoes are like in isolation, I now want to explain how these dynamic, active, furious, temperamental mountains lurk within the Japanese Alps, bursting forth in all their magnificent starkness to create a unique mountain landscape.

Eruption of Yake-dake in 1925
In the Japanese Alps, the resort of choice for the Yari-ga-take Range, where people throng every summer to bathe, is the hot spring of Kami-kōchi. All around soar great cliffs of hard igneous rocks such as porphyry or granite, all having passed through the fire into what one might call the prime of life, where they now form the backbone of Honshū and gird up the great hall of our main island, these domes and pinnacles soaring to ten thousand feet above the valley of Kami-kōchi (the very characters 神川内 suggest a river running through it).

Tucked away at the bottom of these mountain walls, Kami-kōchi’s flat valley floor is equally renowned for the beauty of its woods and waters. Yet the beauty of these emerald waters and the verdant woods all testify to the fact that Kami-kōchi, together with its surrounding scenery, was formerly a lake – and one that owed its existence to the activity of a volcano.

For it was here that the Shiratani volcano erupted, an outlier of the Iodake volcano (also known as Yake-dake), which is an extension of the Norikura ridge within the Ontake volcano chain. Together with those of Iodake itself, these eruptions dammed up the rivers flowing along the contact line of the Chichibu Paleozoic strata and the granites of the Azusa River fault zone and created a lake of considerable depth, according to a certain geologist.

In this way, the effusions of the Iodake volcanic group pent up a mighty lake, but in time the waters of the lake made a breach, creating today’s Takahara (or Jinzū) River and the Azusa River (a tributary of the Shinano River), with Iodake as the intervening watershed.

For its part, the lake dried out into islands, river plains, and hillocks. Even after creating today’s Kami-kōchi, though, Iodake has continued to shape the valley, sending down mudflows to block the river anew, creating a secondary lake in the entrancing form of Tashiro Pond, where in autumn the withered leaves of the willows sway yellowing to and fro as coveys of ducks sweep in to fish the shallows.

In this peaceful valley, the verdant forests have taken root in the rich soils bequeathed by the volcanic rubble and, on the first floor of the hot spring building, patrons in their bathrobes sit around gazing up at the cliffs of Hodaka and Kasumizawa-dake and have nothing better to do than complain about the food. But they should never forget that it was a volcano that made their easy chatter possible, by creating the backdrop for it.


Beta translation from Kojima Usui, Characteristics of the Japanese mountain landscape (日本山岳景の特色), originally published in "Nippon Arupusu (1910), Vol IV, reprinted in Nippon Arupusu, Iwanami Bunko edition, 1992.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Story of a review

It seems scarcely possible that the same person who commissioned the original Nihon Hyakumeizan in the late 1950s could, more than half a century later, be the first to review One Hundred Mountains of Japan, the book’s English version. Yet exactly this has just happened.

The generous and perceptive review of the translated Nihon Hyakumeizan that you read in the previous post is by Ohmori Hisao (above), one of the Japanese Alpine Club’s senior statesmen. The original Japanese version of the review appeared in a recent JAC newsletter.

An authority on the European Alps, Ohmori-sensei has a long list of mountain and travel books to his name. He also introduced the latest edition of Fuji Annai and Fuyō Nikki, the journals by Nonaka Itaru and Chiyoko of their 82-day sojourn atop Mt Fuji in the winter of 1895.

In the late 1950s, Ohmori-sensei was working for a small publisher in Tokyo, Hōbundō, having recently studied French at university. It was probably thanks to this background that he got to know Fukada Kyūya, the future Hyakumeizan author, who was then translating a French mountaineering work for Hōbundō.

Here Ohmori-sensei himself takes up the story:

As Hōbundō was a small company, I had to do everything by myself. While editing books, I also had to help edit magazines. Thanks to this, I acquired the necessary skills on the job. One day, the editor of the monthly magazine Yama to Kōgen (Mountains and Highlands) retired, and I was asked to take on this work. 

Just then, I came across Mr Fukada’s essay on “Uncrowded Meizan – in pursuit of repose and solitude,” which he’d written for a special issue of Bungei Shunjū. It was in this article that he first floated the idea of ‘a hundred famous mountains of Japan’. “That’s it!” I thought to myself – this would definitely make an excellent project. 

You see, I wanted to make something more of this magazine than just something for outdoor or mountaineering club members. And the literary prowess and the mountain experience that Mr Fukada brought to the table was exactly what I had in mind. So I called on him at his home in Setagaya, did some negotiation with him, and got his agreement to write.

The Nihon Hyakumeizan series as it first appeared
in "Yama to Kogen" magazine
The rest is history. What later became the definitive One Hundred Mountains of Japan started life in the March 1959 edition of Yama to Kōgen. Chōkai and Nantai were the first essays to appear. Readers subsequently voted this the best feature in the magazine, which published two of Fukada’s mountains every month until April 1963. The articles were collected and published by Shinchōsha in July 1964 in an edition that you can still buy today.

It’s good to know that the work’s original commissioning editor is also still going strong. Domo o-sewa ni narimashita, Ohmori-sensei!

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Review: One Hundred Mountains of Japan

The Hyakumeizan translation is reviewed in the Japanese Alpine Club newsletter:

This full translation of Fukada Kyūya's Nihon Hyakumeizan has been eagerly awaited.

The book has an introduction that summarises the development of mountaineering in Japan. As I've seen in France and Switzerland, people there are well aware of the activities of Japanese climbers in the Alps and the Himalaya, but they know almost nothing about Japan's mountains and mountaineering world. The only Japanese peak they know is Mt Fuji.

The introduction starts out by describing the arc of Fukada's life in mountains and literature from its start in Daishōji to its end on Kaya-ga-dake. Then it surveys Japan's traditions and literature of travel from the age of the Manyōshū to the Edo period, through the beginnings of modern mountaineering in the Meiji period, and the growth period after the second world war.

Tani Bunchō, Suzuki Bokushi, and Tachibana Nankei are introduced, as are the doings of Ernest Satow, William Gowland, and Walter Weston. Then come the 1902 ascent of Yari-ga-take by Kojima Usui and Okano Kinjirō, and their subsequent meeting with Walter Weston, as well as the catalytic influence of Shiga Shigetaka and his Theory of the Japanese Landscape. Unlike European alpinism, Japanese mountaineering was inspired by literature, not science, and this had a formative effect on Nihon Hyakumeizan, it is argued. Certain personalities such as Takeda Hisayoshi, a founder member of the Japanese Alpine Club, and Kogure Ritarō are introduced in separate sections.

The introduction is pleasant to read, and there is a good eye for detail in the narrative, which takes in diverse aspects such as the motivation for Kojima's epoch-making Yari climb - neither religion nor surveying, but quite simply "because it's there"; Kogure's ruminations on the most distant mountain that can be seen from Tokyo; and the famous meeting of alpinists on Kiri-ga-mine in the summer of 1935, in which both Fukada and the critic Kobayashi Hideo took part.

However, the word "meizan" in the book's title is left untranslated, although a note before the introduction explains why this was done. This reminds me of a conversation with the late Miyashita Keizō, a member of the Japanese Alpine Club and professor emeritus of German literature at Keio University - one of his works is referenced in this book. You can translate the Japanese words "meibutsu" or "meisan" with the English word "specialty", and likewise "meisaku" goes neatly into "masterpiece". But how do you translate "meizan"? As far as I can recall the professor's reply, there is no equivalent word in German. That seems to be the case in all European languages: there is no concept for "meizan" and hence no word for it. And, as you can't really call all of Fukada's one hundred "meizan" either 'famous' or 'notable', the translator has chosen to imply rather than translate that "mei-" element, or else he simply spells out the Japanese words "Nihon Hyakumeizan" in roman letters.

There is also a glossary of people, which looks to have been quite a labour. The one hundred or so entries seem to encompass pretty much everybody who appears in the book. Ranging from En-no-ozunu to Higuchi Ichiyō and Matsuura Takeshirō, the names are referenced to the chapters they appear in. Laudably, the names are given in the usual Japanese order - family name first - which is how they appear in the text too. The only exception is on the title page, where we read of "Kyūya Fukada"- why do this when the Japanese order is used in the main text? There are also some regrettable slips in some of the readings of mountain and personal names, as well as in the references. That said, I would like to see this introduction and the glossary of people mentioned in the text translated for Japanese editions of the book.

For this book is, all in all, a very good way of introducing a global audience to the unique work of literature that is Nihon Hyakumeizan, born as it is in our mountains - as well as to the mountain culture, history and traditions that the book embodies.

In fact, I wonder how many Japanese there are who have this sort of knowledge in their heads. My hope is that this translation will help to increase the number of mountain-lovers worldwide who have come to know and appreciate the Japanese mountains.

The translator is an Englishman who has climbed about one third of the Hyakumeizan, and there is photo in the book showing an ascent of Tsurugi-dake in the snow season. According to the evening edition of the Asahi Shimbun on January 7, he worked on the translation together with his wife, Harumi Yamada.

Peter Skov, the Canadian photographer who contributed the cover photo, was featured in Gakujin magazine in November 2009 and September 2011. The cover design for the paperback edition is fresh and original. There is also a hardback edition.

Ohmori Hisao, Japanese Alpine Club

Monday, March 23, 2015

Masterclass on Karamatsu

Learning the arts of high-mountain survival with a sensei of snowholes

Although Karamatsu-dake is not one of the original One Hundred Mountains of Japan, it does make the “New Hyakumeizan” listing that favours easier-to-reach mountains for Japan’s silver generation. This distinction it owes to the Happo ski resort’s lifts that waft you straight to 1,800 metres from the valley floor. The summit looks out towards rugged Tsurugi, one of the most alpine views in all Japan. And the long straggling ridge holds its snow into April, making it the ideal venue for a combined snow holing and mountain photography weekend.

I’m not sure why Matsuo-san had decided to instruct us in the art of digging in. It could be that his fatherly instincts were prompted by an incident on Yatsugadake where two Workmen Alpinists were benighted while working down a steep gully. They'd saved themselves from freezing by excavating a shelter in a snow wall with their ice-axes and a teaspoon.

Be that as it may, nobody could be better qualified to teach snow holing. Matsuo-san is a true Setsudo Hakase, a doctor of mid-winter bivouacs. In his younger days, he had overnighted in deeply cryogenic places like the summit of Kashimayari, there to await and record the year’s first sunrise.

Here was why we needed those lifts. To combine his twin passions of snowholing and photography, Matsuo-san had brought along so much gear that he had to turn his skis into a makeshift sledge. So we set out looking more like a trans-Antarctic survey than a party of weekend ski-tourists. A damask fold of cloud curled over the nearby summits as we started out, adding to the expeditionary feeling.

There was no need to go far. Picking a likely looking snowbank on the lee, southward side of the ridge, Matsuo-san snapped together a sonde and demonstrated how to probe for a suitable depth of snow. Evidently, the snow was not only deep enough but had good holding powers too – the lower half of the probe stayed embedded in the drift.

We set to work under a hot spring sun. Some snowholing precepts you’ll read in all the manuals – site the door on the downwind side (almost automatic when digging into a lee slope), and angle the entry way slightly upwards, so as to trap warm air in the dwelling. Others are obvious when you think about it – mark out your territory by parking your skis around it, unless you want an unexpected guest to come crashing through the roof at dinner time.

One point: if you’re building a snowhole for five, then snow shovels are, quite literally, not going to cut it. You might get away with them in fluffy early-season snow, but for the sterner consistencies of spring névé, you’re going to need snow-saws, the sharper and toothier the better. Saw the snow into blocks, and lift out with the snow shovels.

Brandishing our new snow-saws like the finest Gassan blades, we took it in turns to tunnel. Quickly we discovered another key principle of snowholing – allow plenty of time. A comfortable five-person bivvy is going to take three to four hours of unremitting labour to finish. So forget about leaving it until nightfall to start work.

Once we’d roughed out the sleeping chamber, Matsuo-san took a large sheet of thin polythene and pinned it to the ceiling with small bamboo pegs – a lightweight solution to the usual irk of unrefined snowholes, which is water dripping from the roof. Remember you read this tip here first.

Even in spring, the temperature on Karamatsu drops suddenly once the sun sinks below the ridge. It was time to test our new abode. Leaving our packs in the vestibule, we snake-crawled inside one by one – yes, the ceiling was low, but no more humiliating than the average teahouse. The Yamato Nadeshiko, like a Heian lady disappearing behind a screen, took up residence in a far corner; possibly she found the company too raucous.

Well exercised by the sawing and shovelling, we slept soundly in our quiet subnivean cocoon. How quietly we didn’t fully appreciate until next morning, when we compared notes with two friends who’d overnighted on the ridge above – slatting and flapping in the stiff night wind, their tent had been as lively as a Roppongi tavern, and they hadn’t had a wink of sleep. Not a wink.

Snowholes, though ... you gotta dig them.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Watch out for the easy places

Sage climbing advice from a literary essayist of the Kamakura period

Snowsqualls harried us as we approached the hut. Getting there involved a climbing traverse across a slope so icy that the ski-crampons could hardly bite. We found it a bit sketchy. Afterwards, the Sensei said that in such places she always recalls the advice of Kenkō. Who was he, I asked. He published a blog called Tsurezuregusa, she said - only Sei Shonagon ever got more page views, they say. Suitably admonished, I looked up the relevant passage. It runs like this:-

A man who was famous as a tree climber was guiding someone in climbing a tall tree. He ordered the man to cut the top branches, and, during this time, when the man seemed to be in great danger, the expert said nothing. Only when the man was corning down and had reached the height of the eaves did the expert call out, "Be careful! Watch your step coming down!" I asked him, "Why did you say that? At that height he could jump the rest of the way if he chose." "That's the point," said the expert. "As long as the man was up at a dizzy height and the branches were threatening to break, he himself was so afraid I said nothing. Mistakes are always made when people get to the easy places."

Sage advice, that. According to Donald Keene, whose masterly translation is quoted above, Yoshida Kenkō was a Buddhist priest who lived from 1283 to 1350. The essays collected in Tsurezuregusa (Essays in Idleness) centre around court life and customs around Kyoto. But the paragraph above makes me wonder if he didn't, in his younger days, sneak out and climb a famous mountain or two.