Friday, October 28, 2016

A meizanologist's diary (5)

October 12: As the Tateyama Museum lies on a pilgrims' route, it’s only right that getting there should be a bit of a mission.

You waft into Toyama on a sleek Shinkansen – so far so good – then, warping back some decades, change onto a rattletrap railcar, which rocks and rolls up its single track, stopping at every weedgrown halt, until it deposits you – the only passenger to alight – at a deserted platform on a wooded slope above the Jōganji River.

From there, it’s a two-kilometre hike (unless you try assuming a taxi) up a winding road to the village of Ashikuraji. In this season, the country air tingles with the smoke of bonfires burning waste straw, and you nod to the farmers as you stroll past. Everyone has time to greet each other out here.

Finally, you walk past a torii fronting an age-old cedar grove – this must be one of the most important shrines on the pilgrimage route – and turn left into the grounds of the Museum.

The two ladies seem pleased to see me at the ticket desk (¥300, not including the special exhibition), perhaps because so few meizanologists happen through their doors on a weekday morning. That’s a pity, because this is a museum that no self-respecting mountain fan should miss. The recommended route through the permanent exhibition starts on the third floor with a reproduction beech wood and a display of the local geology. These I give shortish shrift, as I prefer to inspect my trees and rocks in situ.

Pay dirt, so to speak, is struck on the second floor, which devotes itself to the Tateyama faith, its origins, and the rituals surrounding Onba, a kind of earth mother deity. My eye lights on two wooden figures of the Buddha, each with a hole in the left breast (yakizu). This reminds me of the relevant passage in the Tateyama chapter of Fukada Kyūya's Nihon Hyakumeizan:

Tateyama was among the first of Japan’s mountains to be climbed. While Saeki-no-Ariwaka was provincial governor of Etchū, in the first year of Taihō (701), it is recorded that his son Ariyori pursued a white hawk deep into the massif’s fastnesses. There he saw a vision of the Three Great Buddhas and, swept up in adoration, straightway established the Tateyama Daigongen shrine.

It turns out that Fukada’s account is incomplete. The full story is that, after pursuing the hawk into the mountains, Ariyori shot an arrow at a bear. On searching for the wounded animal, he found to his horror that he’d hit a figure of the Amida Nyorai instead – hence the hole in the statues. The shrine was founded as an act of penance.

By feudal times, the Tateyama faith had spread across the country. Again, Nihon Hyakumeizan takes up the story:

That the mountain has been celebrated from ancient times is probably due to the prestige of the Tateyama Gongen or avatar. Until the Meiji government took steps to disentwine the Buddhist and Shinto religions, monks thronged the temples at the mountain’s foot, at Iwakura-ji, as well as Chūgū-ji within Ashikura-ji. In serving the avatar, each monk visited his followers all over the country every year, giving out amulets and urging people to climb Tateyama to pay their respects at the summit shrines. Etchū’s trade in herbal remedies may have originated in this way.

Making my way via a video of Utō, a Tateyama-themed noh play, and past an opulent mandala, as well as a mock-up of a sacred cave, I come at last to the objects I’d come so far so see – the crozier and spearhead found atop Tsurugi, Tateyama's rugged neighbour, on the mountain’s first modern ascent, in July 1907.

In a display cabinet that could have been borrowed from some high-collar bijouterie, the ritual implements are somehow smaller than I’d expected, yet otherwise look just as Fukada describes them: “The spearhead looks all but uncorroded, while the tip of the staff has acquired a beautiful green patina.”

Traditionally, the objects were assigned to between the second half of the Nara period and the early Heian period. Recently, though, an assay of their metals has cast doubt on this thesis – although without suggesting any definite alternative date. Looking at the artefacts in their brightly lit cabinet, I find myself wondering how they could possibly be so well-preserved if they’d lain exposed on a mountaintop for twelve hundred years.

Let prospective visitors to Ashikuraji be warned. You’ll need more than an hour or two here. There’s more to the village than just the Museum. There is a Panorama Hall, with a video presentation on the history of the Tateyama faith, there’s a perfectly preserved example of a traditional lodging house for pilgrims, and there’s a separate small museum on the mountain’s climbing history.

Alas, I’m out of time, if I’m to get home at a reasonable hour. I spare a few minutes to glance at the Museum’s special exhibition on depictions of the Buddhist hells. There were eight levels of eternal damnation, apparently, graded by degrees of turpitude, much as in Dante. Then I step outside.

For my sins, a fox has made off with the fine morning while I've been occupied, and he's wrapped the mountains in cloud. I start down the road towards the station at a rapid trot, trying to outpace a squall rolling in from the opposite direction.

All in vain; the first drops spatter onto the pavement. Just at that moment, a white car sweeps to a halt just ahead. The driver gets out, points a camera at something in the road, and gets back in again. The car starts off, then – as if thinking better of it – stops again. The near-side window winds down: “You’d better come with us,” says a woman’s voice from the passenger seat – surely, it’s the driver’s wife – “it’s going to rain properly now.”

And they’re right. So heavy is the downpour that nobody sees the turnoff to Chigaki station. But not to worry; perhaps they could drop me further down the line, and in the meantime I can thank my rescuers properly for their kindness. They are a retired couple from Shikoku, making a tour of the Hokuriku region.

“It was lucky we stopped just then,” explains the driver. “I travel around the country photographing drain covers, and I’d just spotted a good one when we overtook you.” This is an unusual pursuit, I'm about to remark - when I reflect that, as hobbies go, drain-spotting makes a lot more sense than flogging the length and breadth of Japan to pursue a list of peaks selected, on purely subjective grounds, by a hard-up writer half a century ago. “Naruhodo,” I say, and leave it at that.

The car’s satnav seems to soak up some of the couple’s geniality. As the first convenient station for my drop-off, it picks out Iwakuraji – one the villages mentioned in Nihon Hyakumeizan. In days gone by, pilgrims would make this their last stop on the lowland plains, before winding up into the hill country of Ashikuraji, their base for the Tateyama ascent. Now, thanks to the Shikoku couple, I can visit both centres in a single day.

After waving my benefactors goodbye, I walk into the station building and look for somewhere to buy a ticket. Failing to find a vending machine, I look into the stationmaster’s office. To my surprise, it contains a stationmaster. In a quiet monosyllable or two, he issues me a ticket to Toyama and tells me the next train will be along in half an hour.

To pass the time, I start inspecting a row of faded photographs arrayed along the wall of the waiting area. They show men and women in Meiji-era dress. Clearly a film set of some sort, though it’s hard to see how they relate to this somnolent station.

Before I have a chance to ask, the stationmaster is at my side. He’s obviously quite proud of these pictures. “When they made Tsurugi – Ten no ki,” he explains, “they used this building to stand in for Toyama station. It was the only place left that looked old enough.”

Now, I remember. An old friend brought me the DVD from Japan soon after it came out. In the film’s opening scene (above), the young Army surveyor steps down from his train into a bustling crowd at Toyama station (above) - it is, of course, the summer of 1907.

Soon he’s ordered to make Tsurugi’s first ascent, for the honour of the Army. And one of the last scenes (below) is set on the summit, where Uji Chōjiro, the veteran guide, catches sight of two unfamiliar objects lying in the grass – the bronze crozier and a spearhead, both remarkably well preserved. This incident too is immortalised in Nihon Hyakumeizan:

At last the day came when Tsurugi was stripped of its mystery. On the thirteenth of July 1907 (Meiji 40), a government survey party reached the summit. It turned out that they were not the first to visit what they had assumed to be an untrodden peak. In fact, the mountain had been climbed long before, as the surveyors realized when they discovered on the summit a spearhead and the tip of a priest’s staff...

I turn to thank the stationmaster for making this connection. Meizanologically speaking, he’s made my day.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

A meizanologist's diary (4)

October 11: to Kanazawa, first to take a turn around Kenrokuen. The famous garden is approached through the grounds of the old castle.

This was where Fukada Kyūya did his military training in the pre-war years, when the castle housed an army base. In off-duty hours, it’s recorded that the future Hyakumeizan author would climb a tower and console himself by gazing through the wooden gratings at distant Hakusan, his native mountain.

Kenrokuen was supposed to combine the six aspects of a perfect garden: spaciousness and seclusion, artifice and antiquity, water-courses and panoramas – I take this from the excellent website of the prefectural authorities.

Yet one wonders how much of the original vision has survived fire, repurposing as a public park, the depredations of war – the pines were tapped for fuel – and repeated restorations. Never mind, the sacred mountain of Horai is still there. Indeed, by some accounts, there may even be two of them, one floating in the Hisago-ike pond, and another in the Kasumi-ga-ike.

Then to the prefectural history museum, which occupies a fine brick building that once served as an arsenal. The meizanologist’s eye was caught by a wall tableau showing a dense network of temples across Hokuriku that were dedicated to mountain religions. Not all of them belonged to the Hakusan faith.

On the way back to the station, there was just time to drop in on the Ishikawa Institute of Modern Literature, which inhabits part of the former Ishikawa No.4 Higher Normal School buildings. An exhibition on mountain writers runs until November 27, to mark the new “Mountain Day” national holiday (August 11) and front-run next year’s 1,300th anniversary of Hakusan’s first ascent by Monk Taichō. (We will hear more about him soon.)

Pride of place was accorded to Fukada Kyūya, as a native of Ishikawa – he was born in Daishōji, halfway between Fukui and Kanazawa, and lived in the latter city for a few years after the war, until his wife got fed up with the snowy winters. Poignantly, one photo showed the Hyakumeizan author on his last mountain (below).

On display were some of the manuscripts for Nihon Hyakumeizan: the blocky yet serviceable script recalled Fukada’s remark that his best-known book was written with a pair of mountain boots. Below the manuscripts could be seen a copy of Yama to Kōgen, the mountain magazine where the essays that were to form Nihon Hyakumeizan first appeared.

It was good to see the English version accorded the honour of a display cabinet too:

Also on show were books by Inoue Yasushi (“Hyōheki/Die Eiswand”), Izumi Kyōka (“Kōya Hijiri”), Nitta Jirō (“Hakkōda-san/Death March on Mt Hakkoda”) and Tani Kōshū, a manga and science fiction writer.

The photos of Inoue Yasushi visiting the Japan Alps (above) and practising with an ice-axe (below) help to explain why his famous mountain novel has the ring of authenticity.

Alas for English speakers, the only translation of Hyōheki is in German. Now there’s a challenge for somebody….

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

A meizanologist's diary (3)

October 10: the bear scuttles deferentially across our downward path and disappears into the bushes. Nothing to worry about, says the Sensei, who was the only one to see it. It was just an ichinensei – a yearling cub. Quite cute, indeed.

Genanpo (“Gingko Peak”) is where you’d expect to meet bears. So retiring is the mountain that, while driving in this morning, we aren’t sure even where to find it. But Amber sorts us with her GPS-enabled phone, and we discover the trailhead after one false start. Judging by its overgrown state, this is not a popular way up. If mountain mystics pioneered this path, as some say, it must have been a while back.

It’s said that books like Nihon Hyakumeizan have encouraged a star system among Japanese peaks. Anointed eminences, such as Hakusan just over the prefectural border from here, erode away under the boots of Meizan-seeking multitudes. Whereas summits without name or fame, like this one, have so few visitors that the wilderness has overwhelmed them.

That’s how it seems when we are sidetracked into a dead-end by a wild hassle of boar trails. For the third time in an hour, we become uncertain of our position. We consult a pair of elderly men who’ve come up to gather mushrooms. Fortunately, one of them helped to restore the path about ten years ago. Yes, it’s overgrown in places, he says, though you should be able to find it if you keep going straight upwards.

It isn’t only the trail that has fallen into disuse. On a previous trip, the Sensei noticed a patch of “oren” (Coptis japonica Makino?), one of fifty herbs with a prominent role in Chinese medicine. It was probably planted here by somebody from a nearby village. Now, only scattered plants remain in this clearing. The Sensei digs one up to show us the orange nodules among its roots. Apparently they have a bitter taste, which may explain why oren was used as a vermifuge.

We climb up through the plantations of cryptomeria. This is the “satoyama”, or the part of the mountain that is used by villagers. Or rather used to be used. The trees look neglected, their bark shredded by nibbling deer or clawed by bears. Weird fungi colonise rotting logs.

Despite the mountain's name, not a single gingko tree is to be seen. Apparently, the silver (金) in the mountain's name refers to a mine that was once worked here. Stands of beech mark the boundary with the “okuyama”, the wild ‘mountain beyond’. In one place, where branches block the path, Amber takes to a rocky streambed to find a way round. Up on a treeless ridge, clouds come drifting in as we navigate waist-high seas of panda grass.

The Sensei, a veteran of bushwhacking in Oku-Etsu, the part of Echizen province best translated as ‘the back of beyond’, insists on going ahead – it would be easy to lose sight of the path here and drown in seas of sasa.

A jizo figure, hiding in the depths of a yew bush, announces the summit slope – at 1,440 metres or so, the mountain isn’t high enough for creeping pine. We munch our onigiri beside the summit shrine. There are four or five other people there, but their shirts aren’t ripped and their hair isn’t full of twigs and leaves. They must have come up by an easier way.

It’s on the way down that the Sensei sees the bear cub, patrolling between the ‘wild mountain’ and the ‘village mountain’. We take a leaf out of Tanaka Yōki’s book – in his lecture yesterday, he described how, questing the mountains of Hokkaidō, he chanted “o-jama shimasu” (je m'excuse de vous déranger) to give the bears warning. We chorus in alto, soprano and baritone as we yomp down through the gloomy satoyama.

Back in the van, I encounter another of the mountain’s denizens. Something is clambering up my shirt, fortunately on the outside. I open the window and toss out a brown and sturdy-looking tick. Bears and ticks – you shouldn’t take them home with you. They don't make good pets.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

A meizanologist's diary (2)

October 9: to Daishōji, the birthplace of the Hyakumeizan author, to hear a slide presentation by Tanaka Yōki. The self-styled adventure racer is the first and only person to have completed a round of Fukada Kyuya’s one hundred mountains of Japan “by fair means” only – that is, entirely on foot, except for the sea crossings, for which he used a sea kayak.

More recently, he’s completed the second 100 mountains of Japan – that is the Hyakumeizan 200, less the ones he climbed before – again on foot and by kayak. The strait between Wakkanai on the Hokkaido mainland and Rishiri island alone took ten hours. Altogether, Tanaka covered more than 7,800 kilometres and climbed 110,000 metres, solely on human power.

There’s a brief outline of his original journey on this blog, and more detail on the second 100-mountain “Great Traverse 2” on an NHK website (in Japanese). By way of conclusion, Tanaka said he wanted to live an “arigato to ieru jinsei” – a life to be grateful for. Or should that be a life filled with gratitude? Either way, it sounds like a good way to live.

Monday, October 24, 2016

A meizanologist's diary (1)

October 8: Starting the annual trip to Japan - a meizanologist has to go where the Meizan are - I'm on the Tokyo-Haneda to Osaka-Itami flight and seated on the right-hand side of the plane.

Yet there’s no sign of Japan’s most famous mountain. Has it collapsed under the weight of visitors? After all, their number is said to have tripled since UNESCO designated Mt Fuji as a World Cultural Heritage site.

But then I notice the white hummock in the undercast – that must be where the volcano is lurking. What really captures the attention, though, is the huge stack of lenticular clouds riding on the mountain’s lee side. A colossal pile of crockery juggled on the winds by an invisible prestigitator.

Is there no end to this Meizan’s virtuosity? The plane steers well clear, though - and with good reason. This is a mountain that demands the utmost respect, from climbers and pilots alike.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The river is never the same (3)

Concluded: an excursion along the Kurobe River's Upper Corridor

Next morning, after coffee and noodles, we donned the clammy wetsuits and took to the river again, bracing ourselves for the moment when the cold water seeped inside our clothing. Shadows still filled the gorge as, waist-deep, we forged our way upstream. Halfway up a long straight channel, I lost my footing. For a moment, the sensation was infinitely relaxing. Reclining on my backpack, the current no longer buffeting, I watched the mountains slide gracefully upstream.

A phrase from a novel about a grass pillow floated to mind: “Approach everything rationally, and you become harsh. Pole along in the stream of emotions, and you will be swept away by the current. Give free rein to your desires, and you become uncomfortably confined. It is not a very agreeable place to live, this world of ours.” Swept away by the current – Soseki’s words of warning reminded me of the rapids lying in wait. Reluctantly, I rolled over and swam to shallower ground.

By the time the sun came over the ridge, we were coming up to Kinsaku Junction. With each tributary we passed, the river was losing a measure of its strength, like a wrestler reeling back into the fray after each successive round. Now we’d gained an edge, we could afford to look about and admire the scenery.

The mid-morning light turned each set of rapids into glittering cascades of tumbling crystal. Bypassing stretches of white water on bulging ledges of peerless white granite, we waded knee-deep through gravelly pools and sent the fish-fry darting away in front of our wavering shadows. The pink rope stayed in my pack; we wouldn’t need it again.

In the river’s higher reaches – the guidebook calls them the Inner Corridor (“Oku no Rōka”) – the mountains stand back from the river, letting the morning light flood down into the valley. After yesterday evening’s struggle in the shadows, we were now wading through a sawa of light. Somewhere after the Tateishi, a stone splinter that leans perilously towards the river, we splashed our way across the foot of a handsome stepped waterfall. There wasn’t much conversation; we were too rapt on threading our way through the gorge, merging our flow with the river’s.

Mahayana Buddhism, wrote Yukio Mishima in one of his last novels, interpreted the world as a great white cascade which never pauses. Since the world presented the form of a waterfall, both the basic cause of that world and the basis of man's perception of it were waterfalls. It is a world that lives and dies at every moment. There is no definite proof of existence in either past or future, and only the present instant which one can touch with one's hand and see with one's eye is real.

For half a morning, only the present instant was real. So absorbed were we by our weaving path past rapids and pools that neither of us could say for certain when the light faded. But when we hauled ourselves out of the river opposite the Yakushi-zawa hut, we saw that veil clouds had covered the sky. A spell had broken.


I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god - sullen, untamed and intractable …

T S Eliot, The Dry Salvages

You do not know how long you are in a river when the current moves swiftly. It seems a long time and it may be very short.

                                                        Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms, Ch. VII

"Oh, Eeyore, you are wet!" said Piglet, feeling him. Eeyore shook himself, and asked somebody to explain to Piglet what happened when you had been inside a river for quite a long time.

A A Milne, Winnie the Pooh