Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Masters of the silver age (2)

Continued: How Japan's mountain photographers ventured into the Himalaya 

Ishizaki Koyo
Meanwhile, Japan’s mountain photographers were venturing abroad. Two, indeed, reached the Himalaya more than a decade before the country’s alpinists did.

Ishizaki Kōyō (1884-1947) is remembered today mainly for his delicate paintings in a traditional style, but his photography too was accomplished.
He started climbing mountains when he went up to Kyoto to study art, joining the Japanese Alpine Club in 1908.

It was Ishizaki who took the summit photo when, the following year, JAC members made the second ascent of Tsurugi in modern times, following in the footsteps of the Army surveyors two years before.

Summiting Tsurugi in 1909: photo by Ishizaki Koyo
In 1916, Ishizaki travelled to India with the aim of visiting sites associated with the Buddha. In Kashmir, he climbed Mahadev Peak (3,966 metres). Some of the resulting prints are hand-tinted, colour film being in its infancy.

Scene on Mahadev Peak, hand-tinted print by Ishizaki Koyo
Another Himalayan traveller, Hasegawa Denjirō (1894-1976), earned his living as a furniture designer, numbering the Imperial court among his clients.

Hasegawa Denjiro

He was successful enough to take what would now be called a long sabbatical. In 1927, he traversed the Himalaya into Tibet and photographed the holy mountain of Kailash. Returning via Kashmir, he did the same for Nanga Parbat. A collection of these photos was published in 1932 as A Himalayan journey.

The holy mountain of Kailash, by Hasegawa Denjiro
At home, the promulgation of the national parks from 1931 onwards opened up a new market for travel and scenic photography. Two noted landscape photographers of this era were Okada Kōyō and Yamada Ōsui.

Okada Koyo at work
In later life, Okada earned himself the nickname of “Fuji no Kōyō” for his devotion to the iconic volcano. One of his images provided the basis for the elegant engraving of Mt Fuji on the old 500 yen note (you can visit the mountain where the photo was taken over on Ridgeline Images) . Illustrations were also in demand from the new magazines starting to spring up from the late Taishō years. Asahi Camera appeared in 1926, followed by Japan’s first mountaineering monthly, Yama-to-Keikoku, in 1930.

Two views of Mt Fuji, by Okada Koyo
By now, photography had a mass following, thanks to light and convenient 4 x 6.5 format cameras with eight frames on a roll of film. In 1936, a “Camera Hiking Club” or CHC was founded in the Tokyo Shitamachi quarter. Photographers associated with this organisation included Funakoshi Yoshibumi, Miura Keizō, known for his skiing photography, and Kazami Takehide (1914-2003), who joined the CHC in 1936.

In 1939, Kazami, Funakoshi and other CHC members founded the Tokyo Mountain Photography Association, which morphed into the Japan Mountain Photography Association (日本山岳写真協会) in 1947 to reflect its increasingly national membership. Kazami’s career spanned a remarkable sixty years. He served in the Imperial Navy during the war, as a photographer. After being repatriated from New Guinea in 1946, he set up a photographic supplies shop in the Ginza. Etude of Alps, his first photo collection, was published in 1953, followed by Going to the mountains (山を行く) in 1957.

Pages from Kazami Takehide's "Going to the mountains"
The Alps, whether Japanese or European, were not enough for Kazami. In 1958, he accompanied Fukada Kyūya, the soon-to-be Hyakameizan author, and two other mountaineers on an expedition to the Jugal Himal. Their objective was the Big White Peak (7,083m), so-called by three Scottish lady climbers. They didn’t get up it, but Kazami achieved the expedition’s high point on the east ridge by taking turns to break trail with a Sherpa companion. There the brown plains of Tibet were glimpsed through the clouds.

The Big White Peak expedition team:
Kazami Takehide (on the right), next to Fukada Kyuya

Kazami’s first visit to the Himalaya resulted in two books, the expedition journal, for which Fukada wrote the text, and a photo collection on the Jugal Himal. Nepal must have appealed to Kazami; he went back there in 1960, the year he closed his shop and went fully professional as a photographer. His photo collection on Nepal’s mountains and its people was translated into English. After half a century, Japan’s Himalayan photographers had started to gain an international reputation.

Senjogahara, by Hasegawa Denjiro

Next: into the age of colour. 

Friday, June 16, 2017

Masters of the silver age (1)

A snapshot history of mountain photography in Japan

Conveniently for historians, mountain photography in Japan sprang into being at the same moment as modern mountaineering. A photo of the Great Snow Valley on Shirouma, the White Horse Mountain, graced the very first issue of the new Japanese Alpine Club’s journal, published in April 1906.

Shirouma by Shimura Urei: as published in the Alpine Journal
The photographer, Shimura Urei (1874-1961), was the club’s 18th member, joining immediately after it was launched in the previous October, and remained closely associated all his life – after the great Kanto earthquake of 1923, the club’s office was moved temporarily into his house.

Shimura Urei
Before retiring to Tokyo, Shimura was a teacher at the Nagano middle school. He started out using the school’s camera to record the alpine flowers and landscapes of that mountainous province until, tiring of this mediocre kit, he invested ¥110 – equivalent to two months’ salary or more – to buy himself a top-of-the-line Goertz Dagor lens. He also had to pay porters to carry his camera and tentage up into the mountains. More than one image was lost when the porters, impatient to see a real photograph, ripped open undeveloped plates.

Overcoming such tribulations, Shimura built up a valuable collection of pressed alpine plants that is still preserved, discovering in the process a new kind of flower on Shirouma. A photo of the same mountain was sent to the ubiquitous Walter Weston, now back in England, who used it to accompany an article that the mountaineering missionary published in the Alpine Journal edition of February 1906. Another of Shimura’s photos appeared in Weston’s second book about the Japanese mountains.

Snow valley by Shimura Urei
Shimura’s lengthy explorations of the Japan Alps get him a paragraph in Fukada Kyūya’s One Hundred Mountains of Japan, although more as a pioneer than as a photographer:

The first mountaineer to pass this way was Shimura Urei in the summer of 1907, approaching from Eboshi. As he stood on the summit, he wrote, "I saw a small pond below and to the south, for all the world like an eruption crater … this crater on Washiba is probably a surprise for the world." In that pioneering era, such unexpected discoveries were not uncommon in the Northern Alps. Today, mountaineering is much more convenient but it has lost this element of surprise and wonder. (Washiba-dake)

Many other members of the early Japanese Alpine Club, notably the scientists, took their cameras into the mountains. Glass slides were favoured, presumably for their scientific precision, by Tsujimoto Mitsumaru (1877-1940), who had won an international reputation for his discovery of squalene.

Rock shelter in the Northern Alps, by Tsujimoto Mitsumaru
Takeda Hisayoshi (1883-1972), a founder member who later authored the first guide to Japan’s alpine plants, took photos to document his botanical forays. As for his kit, a Goerz Roll-Tenax and a favourite Piccolette accompanied him on his second trip to the Oze marshes, in 1924, as well as three lenses, twenty-odd films and photographic plates.

Another JAC founder, Takano Takazō, the entomologist, collated eight collections of mountain photography under the series title of “High mountains, deep valleys” (高山深渓) between 1910 and 1917, assisted by a group of about 15 fellow enthusiasts. Meanwhile, Tanaka Kaoru (1898-1982) used his camera on his geological excursions, and Kanmuri Matsujirō (1883-1970) extensively photographed the Kurobe Valley, often using new-fangled film cameras for their lightness and convenience in that rugged terrain.

Hokari Misuo
One who stuck with traditional glass plates, for their artistic properties, was Hokari Misuo (1891-1966). An uomo universale of the Japan Northern Alps, Hokari’s life centred around Yari-ga-take, the so-called Matterhorn of Japan.

As mass mountaineering arrived in Japan, he opened the mountain’s first hut, in Yarisawa, in 1917 (Taishō 6) and a decade later, built another, on the col below the peak, which is still owned and operated by his descendants. He also wrote a biography of Banryū, the monk who first climbed Yari, a book that Fukada Kyūya later acclaimed as “masterly”.

Hokkari's original hut in Yarisawa
Although his equipment may have been old-style, there was nothing traditional about Hokari’s marketing. In 1921, he opened a gallery, the Hokari Shashinkan, in a decisive step away from the gentlemanly amateurism of the Japan Alpine Club. For Hokari looked to his photos for at least part of his living, like those other grand masters of black-and-white alpine photography, the Abraham brothers of Keswick, the Tairraz père et fils of Chamonix, Bradford Washburn and Jürgen Winkler.

The Taisho eruption of Yake-dake, by Hokkari Misuo

Particularly memorable are the prints showing the volcano of Yake-dake, both during and after the Taishō eruption of 1915 that created the eponymous pond. Many since Hokari’s day have photographed the mountain and its lakelet, but few to such effect.
Yake-dake after the eruption, by Hokari Misuo

Hokari's view camera

Next: How Japan's mountain photographers headed for the Himalaya

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Images and ink (37)

Image: Mt Fuji from Lake Kawaguchi, woodprint by Yoshida Hiroshi

Ink: Translating Mt Fuji, from Sanshirō by Natsume Soseki

Sanshirō had completely forgotten about Mount Fuji. When he recalled the Mount Fuji he had first seen from the train window, having had his attention called to it by Professor Hirota, it had indeed looked noble. There was no way to compare it with the chaotic jumble of the world inside his head now, and he was ashamed of himself for having let that first impression slip away. Just then Hirota flung a rather strange question at him.

"Have you ever tried to translate Mount Fuji?"

"To translate it... ?"

"It's fascinating how, whenever you translate nature, it's always transformed into something human. Noble, great or heroic.”

Sanshirō now understood what he meant by translate.

"You always get a word related to human character. For those poor souls who can't translate into such words, nature hasn't the slightest influence on them when it comes to character.”

Thinking there was more to come, Sanshirō listened quietly. But Hirota cut himself off at that point.

Somewhat related post: Mountains of character

Sunday, June 4, 2017

One evening at the Karesawa bivouac (4)

Concluded: a translation of pioneer alpinist Ōshima Ryōkichi's meditation on life and death in the mountains

Itakura "One Day" Katsunobu in 1922
And, indeed, there was much for me to ponder then. Dark, regretful thoughts pursued me; a great burden oppressed my heart. For the mountains exerted this mysterious hold on me, and all I could think was that death on a mountain would be a judgment of fate that I should accept with good grace when the time came.

At that thought, I felt an undertone, an “Unterton”, of youthful spirit and joy; a “Lebensglaube” spread through my heart. However much you think about death – and however strongly you feel it – the bright spirit of youth will shine through the gloom. Though none of us would wish for a death in the mountains, let alone seek one out, we should accept our fate without regret if it should come, as our “Prädestination”.

Above us, the night sky was clearing. The stars glittered in their countless numbers, as if hinting at the depths of eternity and setting in perspective the significance of a single life or the concept of a person’s existence.

And then it happened: a lone shooting star momentarily unfurled its dazzling tail across the sky, as if imparting a revelation. It was as if the world had been created anew. Suddenly, a friend’s voice broke through the heavy silence, as if some bond had been released. He was smiling as if some fount of happiness had overflowed within him:

“Hey, we’ll all die someday, and the mountains too will pass away.” I have to admit that I may not have recorded these events just as they really happened. Yet everything is set down here as it really was, whether that is the experiences on the mountain that I’ve described, or the fragments of our conversations that I’ve woven in. The only thing is that they may have happened at different times in different places. But, for the purposes of the above account, I’ve represented them here as if they all happened at the same time and place.

Every time we met, we talked about mountains, and from every angle. Sometimes, we’d talk about the practical (“praktisch) side of mountaineering, at other times the discussion would range widely over the metaphysical aspects. As we were young, we’d get really self-important while we talked all kind of things through. That kind of passion may be the true mark of youth. On occasion, our unvarnished fervour or “Leidenschaft” must have seemed rather childish. Or, looking backing on it after a while, there was a terribly jejune seriousness about it all. One might go so far as to admit the atmosphere was somewhat odd. But that was all the same to us. I think that people are always groping their way forward.

Yet I doubt whether today is quite the same as yesterday. So it makes no difference how great the gulf or how long the lapse of time since then. That’s why, with the aim of making this a kind of testament to our times, I’ve pulled together this account of things just as they were, without embellishing or making things up. It could be, then, that some of our thoughts might seem naïve, at least in part. But retailing all that wasn’t my intention in writing; this would have been foolish and mistaken. I will say this, though. What drove me to write this piece was to set down a part of what I could grasp in my hands when I had the power to pursue the true path of mountaineering in my youth. Trivial or strange as it may be, this is why I ventured to add this postcript.


Translation of Ōshima Ryōkichi, Karasawa no iwagoya no aru yoru no koto (涸沢の岩小屋のある夜のこと), in Yama kikō to zuisō (山 紀行と随想) edited and introduced by Ohmori Hisao.

The bad news about Ueli Steck came in just as Project Hyakumeizan was completing this translation. There is a moving and thoughtful tribute by Steve House on the Patagonia blog. Every generation or so, alpinists like Steck redefine the limits of the possible in mountaineering. Possibly we’ve progressed less far in dealing with the dark side of alpinism, its “penalties and dangers”. As Steve House observes,

When a major climbing figure like Ueli dies, there is always second-guessing and criticism. In my opinion, Ueli got more than his fair share of criticism. Most of the criticism, I believe, was rooted in human insecurity. People didn’t believe anyone could do what he did; their own personal fears were too overpowering to even allow the possibility of his excellence and achievement. Or they believed the risks he assumed were unjustified …

Over a century ago, Alfred Mummery anticipated such criticism in the last chapter of the book that sums up his alpinistic achievements – My climbs in the Alps and Caucasus, first published in 1895, the year that he disappeared while exploring the Rakhiot Face of Nanga Parbat. 

One generation later, in Taishō Japan, Ōshima Ryōkichi, drew on Mummery’s words to set down his own thoughts on the meaning of alpinism. The article translated above was published in the December 1924 edition of a climbing journal. Less than four years later, Ōshima himself fell to his death, on a spring ascent of the north ridge of Mae-Hodaka. He was just 28 years old.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

One evening at the Karesawa bivouac (3)

Continued: a translation of pioneer alpinist Ōshima Ryōkichi's meditation on life and death in the mountains

So the four of us held our peace, each of us sensing, in himself, the mood of the others. And we were well aware that what each of us was silently thinking about was the fate that would inevitably befall some of us when climbing mountains. While we’d been chatting after dinner just now, we’d fallen to talking about a companion we all knew, whom we’d lost last winter, and how the previous summer he’d been with us up here, in the rock cave, and we’d spent a pleasant few days together. And then, as if by tacit agreement, we’d dropped the subject and fallen silent. We went outside, sat ourselves down on the rock and fell silent.

Kita-Hodaka: photo from an early editon of Oshima's writings
So, until that moment, we’d all, each in his own heart, been focused on the same thought, as if on a single point of light that appeared in all our minds – when suddenly the sound of a stone falling from the crumbling heights of Karesawa-dake rang out, breaking the silence two or three times as it bounded from the cliff. Then that impenetrable silence descended again.

That was the moment. As if tired of thinking, somebody threw out a question.

“Well, what do you think about dying in the mountains?”

Since we’d all been thinking about the same thing in the same way, it was as if we’d been looking for somebody to break the ice. Then these words were spoken. And, of course, they struck a chord. Up there on the high mountain, in the dark, we’d all been struggling to find the words to describe a new creed about these cruel “Gefahren”, the mountain hazards that could at any time rob us of our friends or even our own lives.

Somebody replied at once:

“Well, if you go climbing mountains, that’s what you’ve got coming to you.”

“Well maybe, but does that mean that everybody who climbs has it coming?”

“Not everybody, of course not. If you’re lucky, you can get away with it. There are people who climb and nothing ever happens to them.”

“And what kind of people are those that get themselves killed?”

“Come to think about it, they’re people like ‘One Day’ (Itakura Katsunobu). That’s what his older brother said to me, when we were on the train together to Toyama, after ‘One day’ was killed. My own brother was always saying to me I’d get what was coming to me in the mountains one of these days, so that was music to my ears. You could say his words caught my attention, although I was also moved by them. They reminded me of what Mummery said – it was something like this, I think: “It is true the great ridges sometimes demand their sacrifice, but the mountaineer would hardly forgo his worship though he knew himself to be the destined victim.” And so I talked with H. all night, so that I was completely exhausted the next day … But when you look at people like Mummery and One Day and see what happened to them. Well, they both got killed, didn’t they. But it’s not just this kind of person who gets killed in the mountains. People who behave recklessly or carelessly, they get killed too. But that’s not the problem, is it? The problem’s getting killed when you take care, you’ve done your homework and you’re sure of yourself. In that chapter by Mummery on the penalties and dangers of mountaineering, he goes into the dangers in detail, and there are a whole bunch of them. But there are a whole bunch of ways of avoiding them, and so winning through. But then he says there’s no way that a mountaineer can avoid bad luck, and that’s when he comes up with the sentence I just quoted. That was what happened to One Day."

"In Mountains and skis, One Day says this: “As far as one can be certain of anything, if you make cautious and modest progress, step by step, then another aspect of the mountains, one you’ve never dreamed of, will gradually start to resonate in your heart.” Maybe that was what drove him; why he was killed. If you go that far, the rest is up to luck; I’m convinced it’s luck. For people like him, mountaineering is not just a hobby or a sport, is it."

These words came vigorously, without a trace of fatigue:

“A sport or hobby? Of course not. For me right now, mountaineering is much more special than a hobby or sport. I can’t say exactly what it is, but it befits me much more than either of those things.”

Sitting there in the dark, somebody else gave a terse reply to the previous speech. There was silence for a while. Then, “Anyway, when people recognize that you can die doing this, they’re not joking about,” murmured somebody, as if cutting himself off. It was one of our company who’d been with our friend when he’d died. Out of all of us, he was the one who’d had the most intense experience at that point. More than any of us, he knew the inner meaning of a disaster in the mountains. Yet, he’d never spoken about this, making no move to reveal his thoughts to the rest of us. But now he had just this to say: “Since then, I’ve had a hard time keeping myself away from the mountains. I loved Tateyama before, of course. But since then I’ve loved the mountain even more.” He said nothing further. Again, our conversation stalled and everyone was left to mull over his own thoughts alone.



This is a translation of Karesawa no iwagoya no aru yoru no koto (涸沢の岩小屋のある夜のこと), by Ōshima Ryōkichi, in Yama kikō to zuisō (山 紀行と随想) edited and introduced by Ohmori Hisao.

"Well, what do you think about dying in the mountains?" This question, in the above passage of Ōshima's essay, leads to a discussion that leans heavily on the Edwardian alpinist A F Mummery's defence of alpinism in the last chapter of My Climbs in the Alps & Caucasus. As Ohmori Hisao points out, Ōshima refers to "that chapter by Mummery on the penalties and dangers of mountaineering" - whereas Mummery actually wrote about the "Pleasures and penalties of mountaineering". This may explain why Ōshima's essay ends on a less positive note than Mummery, whose last words are these:-

But happily to most of us the great brown slabs bending over into immeasurable space, the lines and curves of the wind-moulded cornice, the delicate undulations of the fissured snow, are old and trusted friends, ever luring us to health and fun and laughter, and enabling us to bid a sturdy defiance to all the ills and time and life oppose. 

Monday, May 29, 2017

One evening at the Karesawa bivouac (2)

Continued: a translation of pioneer alpinist Ōshima Ryōkichi's meditation on life and death in the mountains

Oshima (centre) and Maki Yuko (right)
on the summit of Yarigatake, March 1922
There were four of us, and we’d just come down through the coire of Karesawa from the north peak of Hodaka. It was now getting dark. Somehow, we’d threaded our way through the rocky debris that obstruct the floor of Karesawa. It was a perfectly clear, calm summer evening, with the sunset clouds still glowing above the jagged ridgeline of Byōbu-iwa, right in front of us.

Down below, not a sound disturbed the silence that had descended over the rock cave that evening. In that all-pervading evening calm, the mountains enfolded us. Now, on Karesawa’s floor, we were just returning to that dusky abode, the rock cave where we’d so often enjoyed a good conversation and rest. Just then, to our right, the sunset’s embers were still glowing on the very spire of Hodaka and the deep purple shadows were stealing upwards toward the top of Sennin-iwa.

Meanwhile, the dark shadow of night was already creeping over the distant valley. It was exactly then that we reached the rock cave and lit our fire of creeping pine boughs. By the time we’d finished our modest supper, night had embraced us. It was a quite splendid night, sprinkled with stars. The silence enfolded everything, as if wrapping the heights in its embrace.

Abandoning the fire, we tumbled out of the cave and sat ourselves down on a rock in the midst of that chill summer evening in the mountains. In the black night sky above us, stars glittered like fish scales in every colour and brightness. We sat there silently, the four of us on that rock, sucking on our pipes, each wrapped in his own thoughts.

Our mood was attuned to everything around us that night. We weren’t in awe of the mountains, as we would have been on a night of thunderous rain and gales; instead, they conveyed to us this tranquility, this peace, this somehow significant silence. “While the mountain may sometimes impress its mood on the spectator, as often the spectator only sees that which harmonises with his own,” writes Mummery in his account of the first ascent of the Matterhorn's Zmutt Ridge, and certainly our mood that evening was of the latter type.

Behind and beside us, rock walls and towers loomed as jet-black shapes in the gloaming, but they neither intimidated nor overawed us. Rather the mountains that more than half-encircled us felt as if they were sheltering the rock-cave in their midst, as if gently rocking us mountain babies to sleep in a cradle. Perhaps my phrasing is too fanciful, but that’s how beneficent the mountains felt to us. Yet this great silence did not tempt us to sing or jest, for the mountains’ mood and our own were in perfect harmony.



This is a translation of Karesawa no iwagoya no aru yoru no koto (涸沢の岩小屋のある夜のこと), by Ōshima Ryōkichi, in Yama kikō to zuisō (山 紀行と随想) edited and introduced by Ohmori Hisao.

Ōshima Ryōkichi (1899-1928) crammed a whole lifetime’s worth of mountaineering and writing into a brief decade. In just the year after his compulsory military service, he managed to spend fully 110 days in the mountains. He explored the ranges of Tōhoku and Hokkaidō as well as the Northern Alps. And he learned French, German, English and Italian in order to read alpine literature in its original languages. Two particular influences were A F Mummery and the French-Swiss alpinist Emil Javelle. According to Ohmori Hisao, the opening section of this essay owes something to Javelle’s evocations of the alpine pastoral.

The photo is from this blog.

Friday, May 26, 2017

One evening at the Karesawa bivouac (1)

Translation: a meditation on life and death in the mountains by pioneer alpinist Ōshima Ryōkichi

We were fond of that bivvy rock in Karesawa. It’s hard to think of any other high place that was so welcoming. “Rock cave” (iwa-koya) was the right name for it, formed as it was by the hollow under a big flat rock on top, and surrounded by piles of rock fragments in front. There was no trace of anybody’s handiwork, so that it looked natural, in keeping with its name, which was all the more pleasant. Around it, Japan’s highest, most magnificent rocky peaks rise to more than 2,500 metres.

View from the Karesawa bivvy cave
There are few lodging places to be found so high, so free, and so congenial. Or so splendidly remote from human existence. Lying on a bed of withered creeping pine boughs, you can look out from under its rocky eaves towards the summit of Mae-Hodaka and the spreading snowfields on the ridges (Grat) and corries (Kar) of Byōbu-iwa. The roof is so low that you have to crouch or lie down the whole time. As far as the scenery goes, since the cave lay on the corrie’s floor, all you could see was the peaks of the surrounding crags, the corrie’s walls, and the scoop of Karesawa, and you couldn’t even see the Azusa River valley.

Few people come this way; it’s a quiet place, and that’s exactly what we like about it. After bringing up rice, miso, a few sweet things and a bit to drink, so as to set up camp and settle in here for four or five days, I feel quite refreshed, as if for the first time I’ve come to a place where I can really smell the mountains.

When the weather’s fine, and as soon as we’ve had breakfast, we set off with ropes over our shoulders to tackle any of the surrounding rock walls we fancy, or topping out on one of those nameless “Nebengipfel” (subsidiary summit), we grant ourselves a bit of a “Gipfelrast”, or it might be interesting to clamber up a “Gratzacke” (jagged ridge) and build a “Steinmann” (summit cairn) there.

And when we’ve had enough, we’d come down to the cave and do a lizard on the big rock that forms its roof. When I say “do a lizard”, that’s what one of us said two or three years ago when he came up here, and so that’s the term we use. It means lying down and sunning oneself atop the flat rock, belly flat to the sun-warmed stone, just like a lizard, closing one’s eyes and pleasantly dozing off without a thought in one’s head.

If the weather’s bad, we’re more like mountain rats, though. We don’t think of coming out of our hole until the clouds lift. In fact, we can’t get out; we can hardly move, for fear of accidentally hitting our heads, so low is the roof of our cave. So then I lay my head towards the back of the cave and just lie there. As we’re high up here, when the weather’s bad, it’s very cold. Rain drips from the rocky eaves and seeps through the rock. Wind blows in from nooks and crannies.

Even so, there is nowhere as pleasant to be as this cave; it’s a tolerable place in both fine and rainy weather. We say what we want to say, eat what we want to eat, and climb to our heart’s content. From time to time, we toy with the idea of having a hut worthy of the name, but only in winter or spring. But we don’t need one in summer, if we can find a natural one like this more or less anywhere. Even in summer, though, our rock can be buried in snow if you come up here too early in the season.

Anyway, one of the pleasures of visiting Kamikōchi in the summer is to come up here with my companions, talk things through, and climb our hearts out. I write here, though, about one particular summer evening with my friends at the rock cave. My hope is in some way to record our companionship at that particular time.



This is a translation of Karesawa no iwagoya no aru yoru no koto (涸沢の岩小屋のある夜のこと), by Ōshima Ryōkichi, in Yama kikō to zuisō (山 紀行と随想) edited and introduced by Ohmori Hisao.

Ōshima Ryōkichi (1899-1928) was one of the student mountaineers mentored by Maki Yūkō when he returned from his first ascent of the Eiger’s Mittelegi Ridge in 1921. Ōshima took part in Maki’s ski ascent of Yarigatake the following winter, also a first. In this heady but dangerous epoch, the young climbers were rapt with enthusiasm for developments in European alpinism – hence the German terms embedded here and there in Ōshima’s essay above. At the same time, their ambitions too often ran ahead of their experience in the high mountains. The first victim was Itakura Katsunobu, son of a Meiji-era prime minister, who died in a snowstorm on Tateyama in January 1923. The essay translated here is a meditation on the death of Itakura, known as “One Day” to his friends, and what it meant for Japan’s pioneer alpinists.

The photo, showing the view from the rock cave bivvy in Karesawa is from this blog. According to the same blog, the rock cave no longer exists.

Friday, May 19, 2017

How not to have a blast

Japan’s authorities issue volcano safety guidelines for hikers

One-third of Japan’s popular One Hundred Mountains are active volcanoes. This can lead to tragedy. In September 2014, a sudden eruption on a volcano in central Honshū killed 63 people. Some of the victims were never found. To raise awareness of these hazards, Japan’s Home Ministry and its Meteorological Agency have recently issued a leaflet for hikers.

How volcanoes can damage your health

What follows is an outline summary of the Japanese text (PDF). The front sheet of “Be prepared for hiking on volcanoes” (火山への登山のそなえ) marks the location of Japan’s 110 active volcanoes – “active” means showing signs of life, or having erupted within the last 10,000 years. The 33 active volcanoes selected by Fukada Kyūya for his One Hundred Mountains are distinguished in red.

Red captions mark the active Nihon Hyakumeizan

Next are points to keep in mind when climbing a volcano:

  • Eruptions can occur without warning, so stay alert to what is happening in and around the crater.
  • If you see any unusual venting of steam or gases, take refuge or descend immediately and warn the local authorities, police or Meteorological Agency (which is responsible for monitoring volcanic activity in Japan).
  • As volcanic gases are heavier than air, they tend to collect in hollows and valleys. Stay out of such locations.
  • Keep your mobile phone on and check for official hazard alerts. Be aware of whether your phone has a connection to the network. Information about mobile phone coverage is published on the websites of some phone companies, or marked on certain hiking maps. Try to establish whether and where you will have mobile phone connectivity before you leave home.
  • During an eruption, there is a major risk of death or injury from flying stones and lava bombs near the crater. Get away from the crater and take shelter in a hut or behind a rock. If you have them, put on a helmet and goggles, and breathe through a face-mask or towel.

Things not to leave home without
In addition to your normal hiking kit, map and compass, you should consider carrying a copy of the local volcanic hazard map, which will show you the range of previous eruptions, and also places to take shelter. A helmet, goggles and a towel will protect against ash and other fall-out, as will a rain-jacket. A headlight will help in bad visibility. And don’t forget a spare battery for your mobile phone and emergency rations/water for yourself.

The last sheet of the leaflet starts with a reminder of the 2014 Ontake disaster. Then (see top graphic) two cartoon volcanoes present the various types of eruptive threat – showers of heavy rocks that can fly up to four kilometres from the vent; smaller stones with a lethal range of 10 kilometres; volcanic ash that may, in the leaflet’s measured language, “affect your breathing”, pyroclastic flows that burn and bury; volcanic gases and mudflows. Each category is illustrated from an eruption in living memory.

The message is clear: these hazards are for real.

Related posts: volcanic excursions

Asama: Serious steam

Asama: The inner world

Asama: Fires of Tartarus

Bandai: Sole survivor

Mt Fuji: Journey to the centre of Mt Fuji

Gassan and Chōkai: The twentieth-century Tōhoku express

Kaimon: Slow train to Kaimon-dake

Ontake: The gateway

Sakurajima: The hot and cold Hyakumeizan challenge

Yake-dake: Burning mountain, bad snow

Yake-dake: Seasons of a stratovolcano

Saturday, May 13, 2017

The making of a Meiji mountaineer (5)

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

In this way, the people of a congregation would go on long pilgrimages to their special mountain for a week or more, or even several weeks. Thus, most of the notable mountains had already been climbed, except for those in a small part of what’s now known as the Japan Alps. But if there had been any indomitable monks like those pioneer mountain mystics of old, who tirelessly opened up new mountains and proselytised their faith, I can scarcely imagine that they would have left any mountain untracked. So this is a piece of good luck for us.

Climbing a snow valley at Harinoki, woodprint by Yoshida Hiroshi (1926)
The important thing to note is that most of these mountaineers were commoners. While the city-dwelling aristocracy and the literati were celebrating Mt Fuji simply as something to look at, the commoners were climbing mountains all over the place. Of course, the power of faith is part of the explanation, but one can’t help feeling that the vigour of this mass mountaineering movement and that commoners were organising group ascents from quite early times can be put down mainly to the fact that Japan’s mountains are easy to climb in the summer.

These mass ascents meant that there would be thousands or even tens of thousands of climbers, but except on their chosen route, the mountain wasn’t devastated. For example, when we had to relieve ourselves, we dug a hole, did our business on a sheet of paper, and tidied up afterwards; we were always extremely reluctant to desecrate the mountain. Standing on the top of Shirouma, I couldn’t help feeling sad at the way that beautiful sward was being trampled from end to end. As we keep climbing the mountains that our forebears opened for us, in new ways, and pass them on to the next generation, surely we should want to avoid passing them on in a shop-soiled state.

As my mountain-climbing evolved from such circumstances, it’s only natural that I can’t entirely escape my origins. So I wear Japanese garb over my straw sandals and leggings, don a rush mat against the rain, keep an oiled paper cape ready, hang my baggage from panniers, and wear a hat of cypress bark instead of a straw one. I’ve been told by Mr Fujiki that this makes me look like an itinerant swordsman of old, and indeed there could be some similarities, as this was the traditional garb for travelling. Of course, as a pilgrim, I didn’t carry a short sword or a fighting staff, but fortunately I was able to keep climbing mountains in this way up to the end of the Meiji years, without any accidents, and it was only when I first met the new city-dwelling type of climber, never having heard of such a thing, that I realised to my amazement just how many people like climbing mountains. And among those people are the founders and inaugural members of the Japanese Alpine Club.

Sunrise on Mt Fuji (Goraiko): woodprint by Yoshida Hiroshi

The downside of traditional mountaineering dress is when a storm hits. As you can’t put up an umbrella, all you can do is wrap it tightly in the straw mat and tough things out. I once got caught in this way while climbing Kaikoma from the Todai valley, and I still remember how we struggled to avoid succumbing to the cold. In those days, we’d stay the night at the summit, so as to enjoy the view of sunrise at leisure on the next day, as we felt safe sleeping on an open summit, even if it was colder, rather than camping in a gloomy wood. As for food, I sometimes walked carrying enough large balls of baked rice for three days, but I doubt if such tribulations can be imagined by anybody who hasn’t experienced them.

Well, I’ve rambled on for long enough with my talk, but if you’ve learned something from it about the way mountain-climbing was in those days, then I will consider myself more than amply rewarded.


This is a beta translation of a chapter (登山談義) from Mountain Memories (山の憶い出), as republished by Heibonsha in 1999 and edited by Ohmori Hisao. Kogure Ritarō (1873-1944) grew up in a mountain village where people still made regular pilgrimages to Mt Fuji and Ontake. He made his way via the new Meiji educational system to Tokyo, where 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.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Images and ink (36)

Image: "Pollinger breaks through", photo by Edward Whymper, from Whymper’s Scrambles with a Camera, edited by Peter Berg, former Hon. Archivist of the Alpine Club

Ink: Poem by I A Richards, the literary critic and alpinist, to his wife, Dorothy Pilley

Recall the Epicoun:
Night, welling up so soon,
Near sank us in soft snow.
At the stiff-frozen dawn,
When Time had ceased to flow,
- The glacier ledge our unmade bed -
I hear you through your yawn:
"Leaping crevasses in the dark,
That's how to live!" you said.
No room in that to hedge:
A razor's edge of a remark

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Sakura diary (5)

19 April: Narita again: after circling back over the airport, the Airbus heads due north, tracking up the spine of Tohoku.

Looking through gaps in the cloud, passengers in the right-hand seat rows can play Meizan sudoku.

Over Hokkaido, the track turns slightly left, so that we coast into Siberia far to the north of Vladivostok. At first the big Siberian rivers roll brown with meltwater; after lunch, washed down with a glass of economy-class pinot noir, they’re frozen into silent braids.

We continue on this hyperborean heading, overflying nameless mountains, until Siberia’s northern coast heaves into view under the starboard wing, somewhere north-west of Norilsk.

The Barents Sea winks blue at this season; the water is open as far north as the eye can see. In just one place, though, ice-floes have crowded up on a lee shore.

Perhaps it's the pinot noir. Looking down on the brash ice, I so far forget myself as to think of ... white petals floating in an old castle moat. How mortifying: even at this distance, the cherry flowers have cast their spell. As they always will.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Sakura diary (4)

17 April, Eiheiji: early on a Monday, the town is almost deserted. Under the temple’s colonnade of old cedar trees, it’s as tranquil as it was in my student days. Those concrete dormitory buildings are larger than I remember them, though.

Some of their occupants are already out and about. Above the temple, we pass a working party of novice monks who are weeding and cleaning the watercourse. Eiheiji’s founder would have approved; streams and rivers were important to him:-

Water extends into flames; it extends into thought, reasoning and discrimination; it extends into awareness and the Buddha nature. Descending to earth, it becomes rivers and streams. We should realize that, when water descends to earth, it becomes rivers and streams, and that the essence of rivers and streams becomes sages.

Aiming to trace this stream to its source, we follow in the footsteps of the sage who wrote those words. The way is soon interrupted by a sizeable concrete dam. At this point, we can either take a long way round by road – more than a kilometre, says the sign – or duck under a yellow-and-black rope and take a flight of steps straight up the side of the obstacle. The choice is easy.

Ignoring a warning sign about avalanches – snow? what snow? – we duck under the rope. A few minutes later, the error of our way is borne in on us. A TV-sized rock has smashed down onto a stair landing, all but demolishing the steel railings. Smaller stones lie all about in puddles of meltwater. “Let’s get out of here,” I say to the Sensei, needlessly; she’s already pounding the stairs as fast as she can.

Back in safety we take breath. Inevitably, the road that leads round the reservoir is planted with cherry trees. For a change, their blossoms are tinged a bright cerise. We find them rather louche. At the head of the lake, we rejoin the watercourse, which promises to take us into the heart of the mountain.

To this day, scholars can’t say for certain why Zen master Dōgen gave up a comfy billet in the capital city and moved to the wilds of Echizen. This was in 1243. It may be that he’d exhausted the patience of his peers at the Enryakuji – after all, he was busy subverting their doctrine – or simply that a follower had offered him a tract of land. Or perhaps he just wanted to be in the heart of the mountains:-

These mountains and waters of the present are the expression of the old buddhas. Each, abiding in its own dharma state, fulfils exhaustive virtues … Since the virtues of the mountain are high and broad, the spiritual power to ride the clouds is always mastered from the mountains, and the marvellous ability to follow the wind is inevitably liberated from the mountains.

These words open Dōgen’s Mountains and water sutra (Sansui-kyō), one of the essays that make up his Treasury of the Eye of the True Dharma, a summation of the theology that he developed after his study tour of Cha’an monasteries in China. Intriguingly, the Sansui-kyō was written just a few years before his move to Echizen.

Today, the marvellous ability to follow the wind is denied us. In fact, both we and the wind lack puff. An unseasonable warmth bears down – yesterday the mercury nudged 30°C in Tokyo – and, while we toil higher, the sunlight thins and fades. As so often in this north country, the weather has started to turn.

“To be in the mountains is ‘a flower opening within the world’," says Master Dōgen. “Those outside the mountains do not sense this, do not know it. Those without eyes to see the mountains, do not sense, do not know, do not see, do not hear the reason for this.”

The flowers opening beside the track give us reason to pause – perhaps more than strictly necessary. Aster-like ichirinsō, white as the sakura, alternate with patches of purple kikuzaki ichirinsō. The path never veers far from the stream, which runs in a direttissima line straight up the mountain. It follows that the going is steep.

In the old days, before people went hiking, the only way up a mountain would have been to follow a sawa or watercourse. So the abruptness of this path might suggest that it originated in early times, lending credence to the tradition that Dōgen came this way.

About where the stream dwindles to the merest trickle, we pass under the boughs of a mixed oak and beechwood. The path comes out into a wooded dell, where stone buddhas, each in a rough shelter of piled stones, distil green thoughts in a green shade.

This, explains the Sensei, is the site of Daibutsu-ji, the temple that gives the mountain its name. Dōgen founded it the year after he arrived in Echizen, using it as a place to continue the meditation he’d placed at the heart of his doctrine. After a year or two up here, he relented on his followers – who might, like us, have found the climb a hard morning’s work – and moved down the valley to Eiheiji.

With the ridgeline now in sight, we zig-zag up a slope that is a-quiver with iwa-uchiwa (“rock fans”, translates the Sensei, although probably she does not mean in the Rod Stewart sense). When we top out on the bare grassy summit, a party of fit pensioners is already sitting in a circle, finishing their lunch. My, they were fast. Or were we slow?

We find a fallen log to sit on and broach the Sensei’s industrial-strength onigiri.

While eating, we admire the ghostly profile of Hakusan to the east. Close by, white magnolia flowers flutter against a backdrop of bare trees. Lunch is short: the cold wind is bringing an ominous band of dark cloud towards us.

The other party start out along the ridge, instead of descending the way they came, tempting me to follow. After all, tradition says that Dōgen came from that direction when he discovered the site for the Daibutsuji temple. The Sensei has other ideas: “You can go, but I’m going straight down,” she says, with a nod at the glowering clouds.

As I know better than to challenge the experience of a local guide, the ridge traverse is kicked into touch. The wind drops as soon as we dip below the ridge, confirming Dōgen’s good judgment in siting his temple, but the skies continue to darken.

Still, there’s time to head a short distance up a side-valley to visit a waterfall. The Sensei recalls coming here one autumn, before the dam was built. In those days, you had to climb round the waterfall to reach the beech woods of the upper valley, flaring red and gold. Since then, steel ladders have been installed next to the waterfall. We wonder who put them there - was it a hiking club, for the convenience of sawa climbers, or were the dam authorities responsible?

Although we say that mountains belong to the country, says Dōgen, actually they belong to those that love them. When mountains love their master, the wise and the virtuous inevitably enter the mountains. And when sages and wise men live in the mountains, because the mountains belong to them, trees and rocks flourish and abound, and the birds and the beasts take on a supernatural excellence. This is because the sages and wise men have covered them with virtue. We should realise that the mountains actually take delight in wise men and sages. (Translation by Carl Bielefeldt)

Really, the waterfall would look better without those steel ladders. By the lake, the yamabuki glow yellow in the gathering gloom.

We feel the first drops of rain as we come in under the great trees of Eiheiji. The monks are still at work in the river, except for an overseer who is recording their efforts with a large camera. It’s good to see that Eiheiji shoots Nikon. The temple also seems to be exploring co-branding opportunities with a local firm of bulldozer-makers:

A full downpour starts just as we reach the Sensei’s van. That night, a tempest of wind and rain buffets the house. In the morning, the cherry trees will be stripped bare; the white petals gone even from the gutters, all washed away overnight.