Monday, February 20, 2017

Snow records, past and present

Ibuki's record-breaking summit snows give way to a sign of the climatic times

The Financial Times rarely troubles itself with Japan’s hundred mountains. But last week, the pink pages celebrated Ibuki-san, Fukada Kyūya’s Hyakumeizan no. 89. Writing in the FT’s travel section, Nick Middleton, an Oxford University geographer, marked the anniversary of the world’s deepest-ever snowfall, which was recorded 90 years ago on the summit of this 1,377-metre mountain near Nagoya.

Snowy Ibuki-san: woodprint by Hashiguchi Goyoh

On 14 February 1927, the snow was already more than nine metres deep on Ibuki, when an “astonishing” 230 centimetres fell in 24 hours, bringing the total depth to 11.82 metres. Japanese meteorologists call these large mountain snowfalls “yamayuki” (mountain snows), notes Middleton. They occur when cold, dry air sweeping in from Siberia pick up heat and moisture on its way over the Sea of Japan. You get the drift.

Unsurprisingly, most of that snow falls on the mountains lining the Japan Sea coastline. Yet Ibuki sits as close to Japan’s sunny Pacific coastline as it does to the traditional “snow country”. This apparent anomaly might be resolved by a glance at the map below. It reveals a gap in the Japan Sea coastal range, through which those cold winter winds can blow through onto Ibuki. (There’s more detail on this blog.)

Some years ago, a mid-winter summit climb and camp by meizanologists Chris White and Wes Lang suggested that Ibuki-san still likes to defend her snowy reputation. (The female pronoun is surely justified, as Wes has since named his daughter for the mountain.) Readers who want to emulate their feat might want to hurry, though. Last December, Ibuki set a more ominous record. The first snow fell 22 days after the average date, the latest "hatsuyuki" ever seen on this mountain.


Financial Times, "A Geographer’s Notebook: the world’s biggest snowfall", 17 February 2017

Wes Lang, Tozan Tales, Ibuki – the search for beauty

Chris White, i-cjw blog, Mountain redeemed

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Images and ink (31)

Image: Ski-mountaineers below the Mönchsjochhütte, Bernese Oberland, at dawn (photo by Alpine Light & Structure)

Ink: From "Mountains (For Hedwig Petzold)" by W. H. Auden:

 ".... Those unsmiling parties,
Clumping off at dawn in the gear of their mystery
For points up, are a bit alarming;
They have the balance, nerve,
And habit of the Spiritual, but what God
Does their Order serve?"

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Sudden dearth

Are Japan mountain blogs falling by the wayside, and does it matter?

“Mr Bond, they have a saying in Chicago: ‘Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, the third time it's enemy action’.” So says Goldfinger in the eponymous novel by Ian Fleming.

The same could be said of the mountain blogging scene....

It’s been like that with Japan mountain blogs in English. First, Tom Bouquet’s Volcanoes in Japan fell dormant. Then Hanameizan and i-cjw went more or less quiet. Mountain blogs were not the only ones to fade: Through the Sapphire Sky, an inspired writer on cross-cultural topics, took all her posts down, wiping out a trove of insights into gardens, the Epic of Gilgamesh and disaster-film monsters. Harumi, we miss you.

Blogs bloom and wither all the time. That’s happenstance for you. It matters only when more wither than bloom. Then bloggers get less chance to interact. It's the interaction that's crucial. On this blog, for instance, Mountain revolutionaries would never have been posted if Bre’er Ted in Kyoto hadn't prompted me. Thanks, Ted. Without conversations like that, a blog ends up like the sound of one hand clapping.

The malaise may go beyond Japan. Over on Hiking in Finland, Hendrik Morkel has recently complained that compiling his deservedly popular Week in Review feature isn’t rewarding enough. I share your pain, Bre’er Hendrik, whether the rewards are actual revenue or just reader traffic. Though, like other fans, I hope you’ll keep that excellent review going somehow.

At this point, like Auric Goldfinger, one starts suspecting that more than coincidence is at play. Is enemy action to blame? Try a Google search on “death of blogging”, and you’ll see what I mean. Twitter and its ilk has taken over, leaving blogs stranded like beached whales. Blogs don’t deliver the traffic that Facebook does, says Mother Jones.

Or, to quote the New Republic, we’re in a post-print world, where social media move at the speed of images, not the slowness of words,  This paragraph from Jeet Heer's thoughtful article particularly resonates:

The Japanese have a word for blogs that have fallen into neglect or are altogether abandoned: ishikoro, or pebbles. We live in a world of pebbles now. They litter the internet, each one a marker of writing dreams and energies that have dissipated or moved elsewhere … But the feeling of community and camaraderie in pioneering a new medium—the fellowship of the hyperlink—is no longer palpable.

Not everybody sips the defeatist Kool-Aid. We're fortunate that, among Japan-based outdoor bloggers, Bre’er Ted keeps roaming the old highways, Bre'er Tony can't stop climbing Japan, and, on Ridgeline Images, Bre’er David is working an increasingly rich vein of haikyo visits that mash up hikes with history. As for Br’er Wes, rumour has it that he’s parlayed his authoritative Hiking in Japan posts into a book contract.

That’s right, a book. You know, these read-only media are going to be the next big thing. If you’re still out there, readers, remember you read it here first.

Friday, February 3, 2017

The making of a Meiji mountaineer (3)

Continued: a translation of Kogure Ritarō's A talk about mountaineering

Later, in my high school days, I dragged quite a few friends with me to the mountains, doing my best to sell them on my own enthusiasms. As we were in Sendai, we went out one Saturday to Izumi-dake, a mountain nearly twelve hundred metres high about five leagues northwest of the city that is so ideal for weekend expeditions. We camped out for the night, then climbed to the summit on Sunday and looked out at all the mountains bordering Ōu province, before descending. In April, one could slide down a fairly long snowfield, but even though everyone agreed that this was fun at the time, only two or three of my companions decided they liked mountains and went on climbing them afterwards.

Pilgrims on Mt Fuji (Umagaeshi): woodprint by Yoshida Hiroshi
One of these, for some unknown reason, became a devotee of waterfalls, and so, one summer, he went out in search of waterfalls that I’d never heard of, such as Shōmyō, Hirayu and Hakusui, and as he walked along the Itoigawa highroad towards Matsumoto, he saw the high mountains of the Tateyama and Ushiro-Tateyama range and, discovering that quite a few of these mountains keep their snow into summer, he learned the peculiar names of some of them, such as North and South Goryū. When we met up back at the dormitory, and he asked if I know these mountains, I was embarrassed. So I asked if he’d actually climbed them, and when he admitted he hadn’t, I told him he had nothing to boast about then and felt somewhat relieved. As Shiga Shigetaka's Theory of the Japanese landscape hadn’t yet come out, there was no way of discussing the matter further.

The mountains in question may have been South Goryū or Kashimayari-ga-take. Later, I realised that I should have dug into the matter more thoroughly. But I had no way of knowing, as I had no detailed knowledge of the place. This man later caught a lung infection and died on the island of Hachijōjima just last year. After this episode, my first mountain friend was Tanabe Jūji, who was originally a devotee of the sea but, as everybody knows, has since achieved great things in the mountaineering world.

At the end of the day, the reason that the friends who originally came with me to the mountains didn’t end up as mountain aficionados is that they found the effort of climbing too much of a grind. If you can’t appreciate mountains while accepting the grind of climbing, then it’s only natural that you’ll fall by the wayside. Although we ourselves are apt to say that a climb was more strenuous than amusing, mountaineering gives us so many interesting experiences that we’d never dream of giving it up. But thirty-five or six years ago, people didn’t think like that. Now that mountaineering has parted from religion, and has become a mere hobby, people have lost their motivation to improve their skills, no matter what their potential, in line with the trend of the times. I can’t help being amazed how far “fashion”, if I may be permitted to use the word, holds sway over people.

Speaking of fashion, I can’t deny that the “fashion” (if that is the right word) for mountain pilgrimages in my village helped to attract me towards mountaineering. Every year in August, in the slack season, congregations of twenty or thirty people would set off from Mt Fuji or Ontake or Hakkai-san, while smaller groups of three, four or five people, or just individuals, would seek out more distant places, such as the Three Sacred Mountains of Dewa, Ōmine in Yamato province, or Osore-zan in the Nambu region.

Misty morning at Nikko: woodprint by Yoshida Hiroshi
Closer to home were Mitsumine, Kōshin and Nantai. Of course, this was mountaineering for a religious end, so people’s knowledge of these mountains was rather sketchy, and they were only vaguely aware of whether a mountain was high or low, or how many passages were rigged with chains and so on. For instance, if you asked people who’d climbed Ontake if there were any high mountains nearby, you’d likely hear that there weren’t, except that Mt Fuji looked fairly high. So I was gobsmacked when I later climbed Ontake for myself and saw Kisokoma-ga-take, Norikura and other high peaks staring me in the face.

Even so, when the congregations came back, handed their thank-you gifts and souvenirs round the village, and spent half a leisurely day telling their travellers’ tales, there is no doubt that these mountain mysteries, wrapped round in strange legends, held my attention and made my eyes bulge with amazement, stoking both my fascination with mountains and my desire to climb them, whether I was aware of it or not. I can see myself sitting there, a shaven-headed lad, snotty nosed, mouth agape, listening for all I was worth to the loud voice of the man telling the tale, right by me, in a tea-house, served with pickled plums, or candied red-pickled ginger, or stuff like that.

(To be continued)

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The making of a Meiji mountaineer (2)

Continued: a translation of Kogure Ritarō's A talk about mountaineering

In those days, farming villages weren’t distressed as they are today; they were very peaceful places, bustling with people, women too, and in our hill country – although what we spoke of as “mountains” included flat ground with forests and dry fields – we used to go out collecting bracken in spring and mushrooms in autumn. I enjoyed these forays too, although rather more the mountain-climbing than the bracken-harvesting or mushroom-picking. It was probably then that I caught the mountaineering bug.

Village near Mt Fuji: woodprint by Yoshida Hiroshi
The lure of high places is also felt in our childhood tree-climbing; perhaps everyone has felt this. In a small way, it’s how an adventurous, aspiring spirit expresses itself. In his Theory of the Japanese landscape, by way of introducing the charms of mountaineering, Shiga Shigetaka writes how he once climbed up to a high tower and describes how he felt looking down at the people going back and forth below. Although, if it’s a sense of superiority you’re looking for, I’d say that climbing a tree always beats going up to a second-floor window, as I’m sure you’d agree, and this is probably because the second floor is not enough to satisfy an adventurous, aspiring spirit.

We used to vie with each other in climbing trees on the way home from school. Once I clambered about a hundred feet up a sawtooth oak, and, when I looked down, I saw how small my friends had shrunk to tiny heads with their arms poking out from them, as if their heads were walking by themselves. Then I felt dizzy, and I was too afraid to climb down, so that I had to be rescued by a grown-up. In mountaineering terms, you could say I’d got myself into a pickle.

But I am straying from the subject; the first mountain I ever climbed was Akagi. When I was six, my grandmother took me along to Yu-no-sawa, where she was going to take the waters but, as I don’t remember much except being frightened by stories of tengu, being surprised at the lake on the mountain, and ice being carried away from an icehouse, I doubt if this contributed much to my later love of mountains.

Then, at the age of thirteen, I climbed Mt Fuji. Today, when a nine-year old girl has climbed the mountain and a youngster of eleven can brag about having scaled Ko-Yari, this may not sound particularly novel, but in those days it was almost beyond imagining. There were adherents to both the Fuji faith and the Ontake faith in my village and, as our family belonged to an Ontake congregation, I normally wouldn’t have been allowed to climb the other sect’s Mt Fuji before I’d had the chance to climb Ontake for the first time. But it turned out that another boy of my age was going up Mt Fuji, and I was so envious and made such a fuss that the sendatsu, the Mt Fuji guide, made an exception for me as I was just a child and let me tag along.

Pilgrims on Mt Fuji: woodprint by Yoshida Hiroshi
The Fuji congregation in my village had the strange custom of ritually drinking water along the way. Whereas the Ontake congregations made ablutions in water, the Fuji ones drank it. As to how this custom arose, all the old folks have passed away, and now we have no way of knowing. We drank one cup of water on the first day, two on the second day, and so on until we got up to five cups on the day we started on the mountain from Fuji-Yoshida. Since we drank the water after breakfast, just before starting out every day, this was quite an effort. We’d try to eat breakfast as early as possible so that we could take our time getting ready. The guide had a wooden bowl with a lanyard hanging from his belt. The aluminium canteens that we use today may owe something to this practice. Anyway, the bowl held about eight measures of water, so about five bowlfuls meant four gō (almost a litre), and we’d drink that off in one swig, and we used to practise this water-drinking before setting out.

As on Ontake pilgrimages, one wasn’t allowed to circumambulate Mt Fuji’s crater on one’s first visit, but I managed to persuade the guide to let me do so, as I was only a child and so it wouldn’t count as a transgression. What I remember fairly well from this trip is the crowds in the mountain huts pressing in on me, eating mochi as the other food was so dreadful, and drinking delicious sweet sake. My memories of the mountain itself have faded to a blur. But the fine mid-August weather held, so that the views were good and you could take in the surrounding mountains with one sweep of the eye. Among them, I remember recognising Akagi when it was pointed out to me, and being delighted when I saw the sea for the first time ever. Also I remember being shocked when I realised that the simple skyline that I saw from my village was, in reality, a much more complicated affair.

What I took away from my Mt Fuji trip was quite simple; that mountain-climbing was very much for me. That is to say, I thought that climbing to high places was for me; it was only much later that I learned to appreciate the true joys of mountaineering. I might grumble that, if only I’d found a proper mentor and undergone the right training, I would have made something of myself as a mountaineer. Anyway, I did discover, by luck more than judgment, that mountaineering was the best way of satisfying that youthful spirit of curiosity and adventure, and that was a feat in itself.


Monday, January 23, 2017

The making of a Meiji mountaineer (1)

Translation of A talk about mountaineering originally given by Kogure Ritarō at the mountain meeting on Kirigamine in the Japan Northern Alps on August 20, 1935.

“Talks” are something that, traditionally, only old geezers give, as we see so often in “Another talk? Don’t strain yourself, now.” But, as you have to listen to the maunderings of an old man whether you like it or not, I’m grateful to Mr Ishihara for choosing just the right topic – “a talk about mountaineering” – and I apologise up front if anybody finds it boring.

Kogure Ritaro on a mountain
(photo: courtesy AACH)
I have to confess that, although I’ve been climbing mountains for a while, unlike young Tanabe Jūji and many other friends, I’ve made no effort to do what I can’t do, namely look at mountaineering from an intellectual point of view – or, still less, a philosophical and scientific one – to ask what mountaineering means or what effect it has on us. That’s just not my thing. If I did try to climb mountains this way, however many times I tried, the results would be pretty meagre and unlikely to contribute much to the mountaineering world. If I couldn’t stop analysing things to death, as people do nowadays, I’d end up leading an amazingly foolish kind of life. I just like mountains, singing their praises, and enjoying them – as I always have done and always will do. If there are any young mountaineers around like me, then I take pity on them as being similarly afflicted.

But since I haven’t ever asked myself why I like the mountains so much, this might have been just a chance freak of my character and its surroundings. For, as Mr Ozaki has observed at a small gathering of the Japanese Alpine Club, “everybody has the kind of temperament that could love mountains”. My home village had only hills of a mere two or three hundred metres, about a league away, but six leagues away was Akagi-san, the closest real mountain. As for the mountains you could see from the village, they weren’t as many as you can see from Tokyo, but there were quite a few, including Nantai, Sukai, Kesamaru and Hotaka, as well as Onoko, Komochi, Haruna, Asama, Myōgi, Arafuna, Mikabo and the Chichibu mountains. Tateshina and part of Yatsugatake could also be seen, as could Kusatsu-Shirane, Yokote, Iwasuge and Shirasuna in the Jō-Shinetsu direction, all gleaming whitely in the month of May. Mt Fuji, alas, could not be seen from the village, but from just a league to the east, it showed itself rising to the left of Bukō-san, above Mt Mitsudokke. Only to the southeast were no mountains to be seen. Of course, not even the old men of the village who’d been on mountain pilgrimages could name all these mountains exactly; I had to seek out the names at a later stage. But the strange legends surrounding these mountains, their varied forms and the way their colours varied from morning to evening – all this was more than enough to waken my infant curiosity to the spell of their mystery, deepened as it was by my viewing them at such a distance.



This is a beta translation of a chapter (登山談義) from Kogure Ritarō's Mountain Memories (山の憶い出), as republished by Heibonsha in 1999 and edited by Ohmori Hisao. Original text can be found on this webpage. Kogure (1873-1944) grew up in a mountain village where people still made regular pilgrimages to Mt Fuji and Ontake. After making his way via the new Meiji educational system to Tokyo, he joined the Japanese Alpine Club a few years after it was founded, and later became its president. For more about the celebrated mountain meeting at Kirigamine in August 1935, see the introduction to One Hundred Mountains of Japan.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

A mountaineering marriage

How a Taishō-era couple defied convention and explored the Japan Alps together

In those days, eyebrows tended to levitate at the mere report of female mountaineers  – although, as we have seen, that didn’t stop the ladies doing as they pleased, with or without male company. So it was a bold, even subversive, idea to go climbing with one’s spouse.

Hojiro and Hisa in front of their favourite tent
Minamisawa, July 1920

But Takeuchi Hōjirō (1885-1972) didn't see why he shouldn't travel to the mountains together with his wife. He'd married Okada Hisa (1898-1934) midway through Emperor Taishō’s reign, when he was 32 and she was 19, two years out of high school. By then, Hōjirō was already established in his career as an engineering officer on one of the NYK Line’s prestigious ships. And lengthy sea passages to Europe were compensated with generous shore leave - the ideal set-up, indeed, for lengthy summer tours in the Japan Alps.

Descending Kasa-ga-dake via Anage-sawa, August 1923
From the start, they were fit. On the way back from their honeymoon, in October 1917, Hōjirō  and Hisa walked all the way from Seki in Gifu Prefecture via Hida Takayama to Sasazu in Toyama Prefecture. Although they didn’t take in any summits, this lengthy expedition must have reassured Hōjirō that his wife was strong enough for future mountain expeditions.

Or it may have been the other way round. For the idea of more ambitious mountain tours seems to have come not from Hōjirō but from Hisa’s elder brother. To Okada Yōnosuke (1895-1946), mountain climbing had long been an adjunct to his other passion, for plant-hunting and the natural world.

Hisa and Yonosuke climbing Tsurugi, July 1920
It’s unclear when Yōnosuke decided to become a botanist; probably it was while helping his father cultivate the plants in the family’s greenhouse, or watching nearby farmers till their fields of wasabi.

Yonosuke on the Jungfrau,
in 1932
What’s certain is that Yōnosuke was fascinated by alpinism from an early age. As a middle school student, he’d attended an annual general meeting of the recently formed Japanese Alpine Club at the invitation of Kojima Usui himself, the club's founder and a friend of the family. The guest speaker was Shibasaki Yoshitarō, the Army surveyor who initiated the first modern ascent of Tsurugi.

Hisa did not accompany her brother on mountain trips before her marriage, but she shared his intellectual curiosity and avidly read his copies of Sangaku, the alpine club’s journal. Later she would use Sangaku articles to plan routes, and quote them in her own mountain writings.

The Okada family lived in Yokohama, a melting pot for foreign influences and a liberal atmosphere prevailed at home. At the same time, the Okada parents set great store by education, as one would expect from a family with a distinguished samurai background, and Hisa too went to a good high school.

When Yōnosuke became a member of the Japanese Alpine Club a year after his sister’s marriage, the stage was set for him to discuss longer expeditions to the mountains with his new brother-in-law. The engineer and the budding scientist were already firm friends; in September 1917, Yōnosuke had walked up Mt Fuji with Hōjirō on what was the latter’s first high mountain trip. The experience clearly agreed with Hōjirō; ten days later, he repeated the ascent, by himself.

Starting in 1919, Hōjirō and Hisa made six tours into the Japan Alps over three separate summer seasons. In July 1919, they climbed Shirouma and a neighbouring peak, and made a second trip later in the month to Tsubakuro, Ōtensho and Yarigatake.

Hisa and Sue on Washiba-dake (?)

In 1920, they went to Kashimayari and Harinoki Pass, before crossing the Kurobe valley and climbing Tateyama and Tsurugi. On this trip, Yōnosuke came with them. In July 1923, the Takeuchi’s switched their attention to the Southern Japan Alps, climbing Kaikoma, Senjō, Ai-no-take and Kita-dake, Japan’s second-highest peak.

Climbing Chojiro-dani in July 1920

Later in the same month, they spent ten days in the Kurobe region, climbing Yakushi-dake, Mitsumata-renge and Kasa-ga-dake, accompanied by Hisa's younger sister, Sué. That seems to have been their last long trip to the mountains together, although Yōnosuke continued his mountain explorations both at home and abroad – in 1932, by which time he was a professor at Tohoku Imperial University, he summited the Jungfrau in the Bernese Oberland during a study trip to Europe.

On the summit of Tsurugi, July 30, 1920
Hisa and Hojiro, with guides Kitazawa and Nishizawa

Mr and Mrs Takeuchi documented their forays meticulously. Both kept journals of their travels, and when Hisa reached the summit of Tsurugi – the first known ascent by a woman – the feat was written up by Hōjirō for Sangaku and by Hisa herself for Shufu no tomo (below), a woman’s magazine.

Hōjirō’s article was introduced by none other than Kogure Ritarō, a long-standing editor of Sangaku and later the club’s president, who confessed himself not entirely in agreement with the concept of husband-and-wife mountaineering. From this we may surmise that Hōjirō and Hisa were somewhat ahead of their times.

In addition, Hōjirō left an exceptional photographic record of these mountain excursions. For any gearheads out there, his cameras of choice (above) were a Kodak Autographic Special and a Sanderson De Luxe, from Houghtons of London, both bought on trips abroad. For his part, Yōnosuke had a Zeiss Ikon, from the Carl Zeiss works in Jena.

Hisa in Chojiro-dani, July 1920

The photos show that Mr and Mrs Takeuchi felt at home in the high mountains. Take the expedition to Tsurugi, an ambitious objective for what was only their second alpine season. In the Chōjirō gully, where today’s climbers might use crampons, Hisa is shod only in straw sandals (see photo above). Yet she stands there, perfectly poised, on the steep and slippery snow. Hōjirō too adapted quickly to mountain life: he liked to forecast the weather with a home-made barometer and, on at least one occasion, persuaded the guides that the tent should be moved to a less exposed place.

On the north ridge of Yakushi-dake, July 1923

If mountaineering agreed with them so well, why didn’t Hōjirō and Hisa continue their tours after the summer of 1923? It's none of our business, of course, if there was some change in their working or family circumstances. But larger forces may have been at play.

Some weeks after the couple returned from their last excursion together, the Great Kanto Earthquake devastated their home town of Yokohama. Some historians see that disaster as the true watershed between the genial years of Taishō and the difficult times that followed. It seems also to have brought the curtain down on the alpine idylls of Japan’s first mountaineering couple.


Source of all information and photos above is a monograph from the Tateyama Museum of Toyama:

登嶽同道 : 竹内鳳次郎・ヒサ夫妻の山 : 富山県「立山博物館」平成22年度特別企画展

Copyright: The Tateyama Museum of Toyama