Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Haute route (2)

Continued: a chain of cause-and-effect on Japan's high-level ski traverse leads to a bar in Shinjuku

4-5 May: The weather trapped us at Sugoroku for two days. We were now a select company – only seven ski-mountaineers remained en route, from the twenty of so who had set out from Tateyama. Two fast skiers had managed to steal a day’s march at Sugo – and had probably reached Kamikochi by now – but the rest had dropped out at Taro, which affords an escape route down to Toyama.

That left our own trio, and two other pairs: there were two younger men, Sugiyama and Morita – who made planetariums for a living. Then there were Ninomiya, the warden of a hut on northern Yatsugatake, and his companion, a stocky individual who wore a perpetual grin and braided his hair into a somewhat samurai-like pigtail. He introduced himself as Yamada, the owner of a bar called “Wadachi” in Shinjuku. We should drop in sometime…

Yamada had once climbed with the late Hasegawa Tsuneo – we’d met the super-alpinist the summer before he was avalanched in the Himalaya – and the bar-keeper was now carrying the ice-axe that Hasegawa had used on his solo winter ascent of the Matterhorn’s north face.

6 May: a break in the weather – or, at least, a higher cloud-base – let us make a late start up the Nishikama, the western ridge leading up to Yarigatake. A long undulating snow arête led us to the base of the final upswing. Before we got there, the clouds came down again.

When the ridge narrowed, we had to take off our skis and carry them. Some way past the Io Nokkoshi col, we became aware of a low hum – our ski-tips were buzzing with static electricity. Fortunately, no lightning bolt followed, but we moved into a hollow until the charged-up cloud passed by.

Conditions on the steep part of the Nishikama were full. We kept left, close to the edge, to avoid losing the way in the driving mist and snow. Caspar went ahead, route-finding, while Sue and I followed on the rope. It would have been all too easy to walk, Hermann Buhl-like, over an edge. We arrived at the Yari hut at 3.30pm, after five and a half hours en route.

Sugiyama and Morita, who’d arrived earlier, had stood outside for half an hour blowing their whistles to guide us in. We went out immediately to perform the same office for Yamada and Ninomiya, who were somewhere behind. Unfortunately, they’d drifted right of track and came up to the col via the gully that the hut uses as a rubbish tip, their crampons spiking through old tin cans and plastic bags.

7 May: on a bright morning, Caspar and I went out to climb Yari. We clambered onto the summit to find Yamada taking a photo of Hasegawa Tsuneo’s ice-axe, which he’d propped up against the frosted-up summit shrine. Then, very carefully, we all down-climbed the icy rocks back to the hut.

For almost the last time, we snapped our boots into our ski-bindings and looked down Yari-sawa. Below our ski-tips, a snowy highway swooped down into the Kami-kochi valley. Or perhaps an icy highway. Yamada fell at the first turn and tumbled, head first, down the steep stretch, missing the rocks by a few yards. Perhaps Hasegawa’s ice-axe was looking after him.

Caspar managed to ski down the troublesome slope, but Sue and I walked down on crampons, carrying our skis: the wind had burnished an ice-crust to a marble-like hardness. Further down, the spring breeze had softened the snow and we skied onwards to the Yarisawa lodge. A kamoshika was grazing on a grassy slope above us as we started the long walk-out to Kami-kochi.

Back in Tokyo, we wasted no time in visiting Yamada in his bar. Finding it took all the navigational skills we’d honed on the Haute Route and more. In time, this became a routine. But Yamada's bar would never be easy to find. You’d head into the narrow defile that leads between the Seibu Shinjuku station and the badlands of Kabukicho. Then, confused, you’d stop and look at the laconic set of coordinates – “2−45−6” – on the scruffy bit of paper in your hand. Surely there was no bar here?

And then you’d notice a steep flight of stairs leading down into the earth at your feet, like the rabbit’s hole in Alice in Wonderland. You’d catch sight of the sign lurking in the shadows below you – “Wadachi” – done like an old-style station nameplate in white-on-brown lettering. You’d push through the heavy door and step, so it seemed, into a brightly lit mountain hut – dark-timbered beams, a traditional wooden sled doing double duty as a table, the walls hung with photos of expeditions and mountains and alpinists, present and past. A signed portrait of Hasegawa Tsuneo beamed down from a place of honour over the bar.

And from behind the counter, out would step Yamada with his big grin – “Let me shake the hand of the man who skied the Haute Route (or Mt Vinson, or Manaslu as the case might be),” he’d say. And then he and his wife would get to work behind the bar on their famous cuisine.

Wadachi became a fixture with us. It was our Mermaid Tavern, or perhaps the clubroom of an unofficial Alpine Club. Sawa Control even took his business associates there. After we left Japan, we dropped in on Wadachi every time we revisited Tokyo.

Many years later, I happened to pass through Shinjuku on a grey December evening. There was just time for a beer at Wadachi before going on to the next appointment. I found my way to the building at “2−45−6”. Yet something was wrong: the station sign was missing. Then I saw a workman in tan overalls crouching on the steps down to the basement – but why should he be unscrewing the bannister rail?

Gnawed by foreboding, I ran down the steps and pushed open the door. No bright lights; the room was lit only a single bulb. Yamada-san did not step out from behind the bar. He was standing as if bemused in the middle of the room, surrounded by boxes. The wooden sled had vanished; the old skis and ice-axes taken down from the walls. Hasegawa was gone too, leaving a dusty rectangle on the wall.

The grin came back to Yamada’s face as he stepped forward to greet me. Wadachi was closing, he explained. The long recession had deprived the salarymen of their expense accounts or even their jobs. Mountaineers were feeling the pinch too. His wife had been ill. Ends would no longer meet. I noticed a glint in his eye as he added, still smiling: “After thirty-one years, we thought it was time to pack it in.”

As he spoke, he seemed to be casting about for something. His eye lit on a cabinet that was still attached to the wall. “These whisky glasses,” he said, reaching for them. “One is for you, and please take the other two to England, for Sue and Sawa Control. Please give them my regards.”

Friday, October 12, 2012

Haute route (1)

A chain of cause-and-effect on Japan’s longest high-level ski traverse

Excuse me, before we get going, while I pour myself a whisky. This glass? You’ve noticed how it’s engraved with “Wadachi” in hiragana, and next you’ll be asking how it got here, all the way from Shinjuku …

28 April: Like many a Japanese mountaineering tale, this one opens with an overloaded figure clomping through the world’s busiest station. I made the 11.20pm “donko” with a minute to spare. Sue and Caspar were already aboard the late-night slow train with battered blue cars – the one that stops at every halt between Tokyo and the Shinshū highlands, spilling out first sozzled salarymen and then sleep-deprived mountaineers. We braced ourselves across the hard seats for a long and smoke-ridden journey.

29 April: after being spilled out at dawn onto the deserted platform of Shinano Ōmachi, we took the taxi up to Ogisawa. Here we boarded the tunnel bus through to the Tateyama cable car.

By 10am, we were 3,000 metres higher and ¥6,000 poorer. Now we could toss our skis onto the snow, snap our Koflachs into the beaten-up Silvretta 404 bindings and haul ferry-weight packs to our shoulders. Then we shuffled our boards into the uphill track and headed out towards the gap in the caldera rim. Our J-Haute Route was under way.

Purists might object that Japan’s longest high-level ski traverse lacks the grandeur of its European original. And, admittedly, you won’t meet with glaciers or the Matterhorn in the Northern Alps of Shinshū. As if to compensate, the storms here are wilder and the gaps between refuges longer. As for escape routes, they are far and few between.

For now, the skies were blue. Harassed by a lively spring wind, we came up to the breche on Tateyama’s caldera rim. Somewhere in the southward haze lurked Yarigatake’s spear, separated from us by sixty-odd kilometres of high, snowy ridgelines. It was a view that demanded our respect and got it.

The Haute Route was quick to claim its first victims. While stripping off his climbing skins, Caspar let drop a ski that ran away several hundred yards. Minutes later, on this first downhill run, I pitched headfirst into the gloppy snow, smashing my favourite sunglasses. Sue slid sedately downslope; she’d done this before.

The weather closed in as we climbed the opposite slope, buffeting us with knock-down gusts on the ridge above Zaratoge. We found our way through driving billows of grey mist to the Goshikigahara hut, on its tilting plateau of ancient lava.

30 April: J-Haute Routers should, if they can, make a one-day dash from Goshikigahara that vaults them over the giant bulk of Yakushi to Tarōdaira. For that is where the next open hut awaits. For us, though, this was never going to work. Clouds were tumbling low as we left the hut at 5am, and the snow hadn’t frozen.

Labouring through the slop, we tackled the first of three intermediate peaks on our route. Where the ridge narrowed down, we added the skis to our loads, tying them onto the packs in an A-shape, or towing them behind on a lanyard. By mid-morning, we’d had enough. Postholing our way on foot to the top of the third peak, we saw Yakushi’s north ridge swallowed up by the racing clouds; no way forward there.

We’d prepared for this scenario in our planning session. If we had to stop short of the next hut, we’d bivouac – for which purpose we were carrying camping gear as well as shovels and snow-saws for carving out a snowhole. But snowholing didn’t look too attractive under these lowering skies. And the snow was sodden and grey.

At this point, we came up on the hut at Sugo col – still buried to its eaves in snow, of course, and shuttered for the winter. Except, it seemed, for one window that stood open. We heard voices within; a Japanese party was already in residence. I crawled into the narrow gap between roof and snow and made enquiry; yes, there was still plenty of room.

1 May: snow, wind, and rain. We festered in the hut’s dark-timbered gloom, firing up the Epigas stove for an occasional brew. It was good not to be huddling in a dripping snowhole. The wind was warm, suggesting that the weather wasn’t going to improve.

2 May: we followed ski-tracks up the broad ridge to Yakushi’s summit at almost 3,000 metres. But what worked well on the way up betrayed us on the way down. Still in cloud, Caspar short-swung his way elegantly into the wrong gully, following an errant pair of ski-tracks. We discovered their perfidiousness when we met a solo Japanese ski-mountaineer carrying his skis back up the slope.

At this point, I pulled out map and compass, took a bearing, and led the party – including the errant soloist – masterfully into another wrong gully. We’d just realized our mistake when, like a magician sweeping a silk cloth from a table, the clouds parted to reveal the hut. We reached it an hour after everyone else.

In the evening, a member of the local mountain rescue party came to our room to sample our brandy and offer some of his Suntory in return. Somehow the talk turned to the Great Waterfall of Tsurugi, which his team had visited the year before. Unfortunately, the river had swept away one of the party on their return journey.

3 May: setting out at 5.30am, we skinned up Kitanomata, traversed a long hillside, then climbed to 2,840 metres up the steep reverse slope of Kurobegoro. The east side of this mountain encloses a huge scoop, carved by an ancient glacier into a shape like that of Ben Nevis or the Snowdon horseshoe.

We skied down the face of this giant bowl, then contoured round to the valley under a pale blue sky, heading for Mitsumata-renge, our next mountain. As we climbed again, we looked back towards Tateyama: the distant peaks faded into the yellow haze of dust blown in from the Yangtze plains. Soon after we reached the hut at Sugoroku, in mid-afternoon, the clouds closed in again ...


Monday, September 17, 2012

The other nine-eleven

Sorry: no post about the Japanese mountains this month (yet). But, if you'd like to read something about Switzerland's nineteenth-century 9/11 (see above), please hop over to Project Hyakumeizan's other blog, Swiss Ops.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Mountain at the end of time

The monks who climbed Mt Fuji to preserve the faith in a declining age

Who was first? Could it have been Konji? Or Ransatsu? Both monks climbed Mt Fuji before or around the mid-eleventh century. But nobody can say with certainty who made the earliest ascent, since none of the pioneers left a record of his feat.

Mt Fuji was no soft touch in those days. A would-be climber first had to brave the trackless wildwood that shrouded the mountain's flanks, the bears and wild boar crashing away through the undergrowth.

Then the endless upper slopes, slip-sliding in the ash and menaced by tottering lava-boulders. At last, more dead than alive from the cold wind and thin air, the monks might have forced a way to the volcano's rim and looked down into the cobalt-blue crater lake, its waters still seething with the heat of recent eruptions.

Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that these pilgrims never documented their adventures. Making a name for themselves was the last thing on their minds. Rather, their mission was nothing less than to prepare for the end of the world - a period of decay fated to begin in the year 1052.

All Buddhist traditions agreed that the founder's teachings, the Dharma, would degenerate with time. Chinese scholars thought that the True Dharma would last for no longer than five centuries after the Buddha's death. After that, the authentic faith would give way to mere Semblance Dharma.

Then would come the Final Age, when the Buddha's teachings would be altogether forgotten. And this period of decadence would start just one millennium after the Buddha's death - a terminus that most judged would fall in the middle of the eleventh century.

In these Latter Days of the Law, how should a pious monk seek to preserve the Buddha's words? One answer was to bury them, as if in a time capsule, to await future ages or even the return of the Miroku himself. The first to make the attempt is said to be Ennin (794-864), a Tendai patriarch who copied the Lotus Sutra and enshrined it in a small stupa atop Mount Hiei, Kyoto's guardian mountain, in 831.

Even before the Latter Days dawned, sacred scrolls were being buried all over Japan. Sutra inhumations are known from Kyushu to as far north as Dewa and Mutsu. The texts were inscribed on paper or silk scrolls in rich inks that were occasionally mixed with blood.

Ennin himself is said to have gone into retreat for three years to carry out his transcription. He grew the hemp to make the paper for his scroll, wove together his own brush out of twigs and grass rather than use animal hairs, and performed three full prostrations before writing each character.

Sutras were typically buried within temple grounds or atop mountains, there to await the Buddha's return. "I have erected a three shaku-high statue of Miroku on Yasugamine (one of the seven great mountains of Japan)," recorded a monk named Jōe in 1082, "and have transcribed a Lotus Sutra to be buried there. My prayer is that it will be used when Miroku comes to preach the Dharma beneath the Dragon Flower Tree…"

During their heyday, from the middle of the eleventh century to the middle of the twelfth, some 170-odd sutra inhumations are thought to have taken place in Japan. (The practice was unknown elsewhere in Asia.) And, even before this period, a bold monk thought of burying a sutra-bearing reliquary as close to Miroku's Tosotsu heaven as would be possible anywhere in the realm.

The timing was right. After the huge eruptions of the Jōgan era (859-877), Mt Fuji settled into quiescence, with one last outburst in 1083. Now the way was (more or less) clear for a pioneering ascent.

A newly discovered record reveals that Monk Ransatsu visited the summit in the year 983, followed by Nichidai in 1057. (Monk Konji also made the ascent, but his climb is undated.) Nichidai brought with him sacred texts in gold script and placed them in a cave near the summit. When Monk Matsudai climbed to the summit a century later and rediscovered the cave, he was moved to tears at his predecessor's devotion.

One of these monks did succeed in transmitting the Buddha's teachings to a future age. In 1930, bronze artefacts and a number of scrolls all inscribed in vermilion ink were discovered in a cave to the south of Mishima-ga-dake, one of the eight "petals" of Mt Fuji's crater rim.


D. Max Moerman, The Death of the Dharma: Buddhist Sutra Burials in Early Medieval Japan. Black and white images of sutra burial and reliquaries are from this article.

Shizuoka-Yamanashi Joint Council for Mount Fuji World Cultural Heritage Registration, Mt Fuji: The Wellspring of our Faith and Arts. Header image of a Mt Fuji mandala is from this book.

Monday, July 16, 2012

First ascent

So who was the first to climb Mt Fuji? And could it have been a Heian-period scholar?

Once again, the most interesting questions on this blog come from the readers. “What do you think of Miyako no Yoshika (都良香)? He might have climbed Mt. Fuji in the 9th century…” writes fellow Japan blogger Sapphire, in a comment on a previous posting.

Miyako no Yoshika (834-879, picture right) was a scholar and statesman of the Heian court. Today, he is most famous for having written up the earliest convincing account of Mt Fuji’s crater. This appears in an essay entitled A Record of Mt Fuji. Unfortunately, history doesn’t relate whether he saw the crater for himself, or heard about it from somebody else.

According to Nihon Hyakumeizan, Japan’s most famous mountain book, Mt Fuji was ascended by the mountain mystic En no Ozunu, in the year 633. This made the mountain the first of its height in the world to be climbed. But En no Ozunu is a semi-legendary figure, and some accounts have him flying to the top.

And, if we allow flying – an ethically dubious ploy – then En no Ozunu might have been beaten to the post by Prince Shotoku (574–622). For quite a few paintings show the Asuka-period constitutionalist vaulting over Mt Fuji on a magical black steed (below).

By 1149, in the late Heian period, people were climbing Mt Fuji for real. In that year, Monk Matsudai built a well-attested shrine on the summit. But he was probably not the first to find a way up there. So could it indeed have been Miyako no Yoshika who first climbed Mt Fuji, more than two centuries earlier?

On the face of it, the ninth century would have been a bad time to make the attempt. Three huge eruptions wracked Mt Fuji between 800 and 865, the last one so extravagantly effusive that it created a new lake at the mountain’s foot. Yoshika’s own account of the volcano describes how a new parasite cone suddenly appeared in March 803.

Even if he wasn’t put off by these fulminations, Yoshika had a lot of business to keep him in Kyoto. He was a lesser private secretary (shō-naiki) in the administration, and a professor of literature too. In 870, he set the civil service entrance examination for Sugawara no Michizane, who later became the greatest scholar-statesman of the age.

Intriguingly, the exam’s second question required Sugawara to “Analyse earthquakes” – elucidating why the normally still earth moved, how the Chinese explained the phenomenon, and how the Buddhists in India explained it. Michizane first presented the Confucian view – that the earth heaved when the emperor’s virtue was inadequate and the government was in disarray – and then added a Taoist interpretation of earthquakes for good measure.

Reading this story, I was momentarily enthused. Perhaps Miyako no Yoshika was a would-be geophysicist, born a thousand years before his time. If so, he would naturally have wanted to climb Mt Fuji, taking samples of the ash and meticulously recording the still-steaming lava streams as he went…

Alas, a re-reading of Yoshika’s Record of Mt Fuji disabused me. The essay doesn’t support the idea that Yoshika was a proto-scientist. Indeed, it’s clear that the author’s real concerns lay elsewhere than the crater; which is described more or less as an afterthought. What really fascinated Yoshika were the supernatural “Immortals” said to inhabit the upper slopes, or the angels who were seen dancing in the clouds over the summit.

For Yoshika, it seems, there was no dividing line between the “natural” and “supernatural”. In Heian times, nature and super-nature were larger and more mysterious than humans could possibly imagine. A quaintly outmoded way of thinking, one might have thought – at least, until last year, when those waves crashed ashore that were higher than anybody could possibly have imagined.

So perhaps Yoshika didn’t climb Mt Fuji after all. Yet there is still something appealing in the idea of him hanging up his court robes on the back of his office door – perhaps after a stressful day examining the impossibly precocious Sugawara – sneaking out of the Palace incognito, and then hopping aboard the evening Shinkansen to Shizuoka for a quick run up Mt Fuji...

As for Sugawara - I'd almost forgotten him - he got the equivalent of a “D”, the lowest passing mark. As you see, there was next to no grade inflation in Heian Japan. And rather little mountain-climbing too.


Robert Borgen, Sugawara No Michizane and the Early Heian Court

Miyako no Yoshika, A Record of Mt Fuji

Picture of Miyako no Yoshika from Wikipedia; cartoon of Shotoku Taishi from this blog.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Avalanche on Mt Fuji

A lethal conspiracy of high winds, new snow and a lee slope

Thursday’s tragedy on Mont Blanc calls to mind a similar disaster on the slopes of Japan’s highest mountain. On the morning of November 28th, 1954, parties from three university mountaineering clubs were practising their winter alpine skills at the bottom of Yoshida-Ōsawa (right), the deep gully running down the volcano’s east flank.

At 10.40am, an avalanche started at the top of the gully, triggered the snowslopes below, and gathered them into a massive slide that cascaded as far as the third station level.

When the snow-rubble settled, 15 students from Tokyo, Keio and Nippon Universities had lost their lives. The original caption of the picture below, showing rescue operations near the third station of Tsubakuro-sawa, is “Requiem for our friends who sleep on Mt Fuji”.

Windslab avalanches of the type that swept Mt Maudit this week are less frequent in the Japanese mountains than in the European Alps. That's because Japan's maritime climate produces a warmer, more cohesive snowpack, with fewer avalanche-prone weak layers. But heavy falls of new snow, high winds and a lee slope – as on the east side of Mt Fuji – can combine for deadly effect on any high mountain.


Guardian newspaper: Mont Blanc avalanche was unavoidable, say authorities

Photos are from 目で見る日本登山史, 山と溪谷社 (編集) (Yama-to-Keikoku-sha: Illustrated History of Japanese Mountaineering)

More about the power of snow in the Japanese mountains: Avalanche

Friday, July 13, 2012

Approach with awe (2)

A Japanese theologian's view of mountain religion in Japan (continued)

"Veneration of mountains by the Japanese goes back as far as the ancient Jomon period. This veneration of mountain as god or as the abode of spirits was amalgamated with the Chinese Way of Ying and Yang and also with esoteric Buddhism. The legendary founder of Shugendō, the Japanese way of reaching salvation by practising spiritual exercise in the mountain, was called En no Ozunu, who lived in the seventh century.

In the Heian period (tenth to twelfth century) mountain veneration prospered, increasing the number of Shugendō practitioners. These were called yamabushi because they practised a ritual in which they are to receive the spiritual force of the mountain (yama) contacting it through lying (bushi) on the ground . With the spiritual force of the mountain, and the ability to perform some esoteric religious rituals, they were thought to be able to perform superhuman magic.

People thought their prayers to be especially meritorious and flocked to them whenever they toured through the villages and population centres. At the core of Shugendō was a religious fascination for the mountain as god or as the abode of the spirits. When Chinese cosmological speculation and a complicated ritual of esoteric Buddhism are added to this mountain reverence, it has become by itself a complex religious phenomenon.

The yamabushi's main motivation for going to the mountain was to acquire supernatural magical powers by engaging in special spiritual and physical exercises. Shugendō must be seen as a different phenomenon from the retreat into the mountain to seek personal salvation in the beauty of nature, which was discussed in the previous chapter.

A number of mountains in Japan have become centres of Shugendō during the long centuries since the tenth century. One of these is the mountain cult centred about Mount Fuji. The name of Hasegawa Kakugyō (1541-1646) is associated with Mount Fuji as the one who opened up the mountain for religious purposes. Kakugyō was the founder and organizer of Fuji-Kō, the Mount Fuji Devotional Associations. He taught that the god of Mount Fuji called Sengen Dainichi, is the creator of all things, and that those who believe in this god will live a long and happy life.

In the middle of the Edo period the outstanding leader of Fuji-Kō was Jikigyō Miroku (1671-1773). He became a devotee to the god of Mount Fuji. when he was seventeen years old, from that time climbing the mountain once a year to deepen his devotion to the god of Mount Fuji. In 1771 he became the head of the Fuji-Kō movement. He published his own 'Theology of the Mount Fuji God' in 1729, in which he said that the god of Mount Fuji is the giver of all good things, including the rice harvest.

His message to the people who were not engaged in agriculture was also positive. Faith in this god of Mount Fuji would make people honest and diligent, he said, and consequently they would become happy and rich, and live a long life. What he said bears a strange similarity to the view expressed by the social scientist Max Weber about Protestant ethics and capitalism..."


Excerpted from Kosuke Koyama, Mt Fuji and Mt Sinai: a pilgrimage in theology

Friday, July 6, 2012

Painting Fujiyama

Book review: In Mt Fuji, Icon of Japan, Harry Byron Earhart explores the meaning of Japan's most famous mountain.

A crazy idea, thought Colonel D W Johnston. Nevertheless, he would have to choose his words carefully. After all, the proposal had come from his boss, General Twitty. With a sigh, he started dictating a memorandum: "26 March 1945: The proposed project of attempting to give Fujiyama some color other than that seasonably endowed by nature is not favorably considered for the following reasons."

Painting Mt Fuji would be both difficult and dangerous, Johnston objected. Even if the mountain's tint could be changed, people living at a distance might not notice. And if they did, then "Japanese propagandists would undoubtedly seize on this as another 'inhuman act of the beastly enemy' and would consider it in the same light as the desecration of a national shrine, which, in fact, it is."

And so the infamous plan to paint Mt Fuji was kicked into touch. As a psy-ops venture, it was a non-starter. Leaflets tossed out of aircraft would be far more cost-effective, as Johnston's memo pointed out. In another sense, though, both the colonel and the general had seized on something important. Mt Fuji is a symbol of immense significance. But what exactly does it signify?

For the first time in decades - perhaps for the first time ever - an English-speaking expert has attempted to answer that question in a full-length book. In Mt Fuji: Icon of Japan, Harry Byron Earhart has provided a rich overview of Mt Fuji's history as a symbol in Japanese religion, art, literature, and even in wartime propaganda - you can read the latter chapter, which sits rather oddly with the rest of the book, online here.

Earhart is the emeritus professor of comparative religion at Western Michigan University and has taught and published in the field of Japanese religion for four decades. Fittingly, the core of his latest book is the development of religious worship on and around Mt Fuji. This alone is an epic story, and one that is inextricably linked with the evolution of Japan's culture and polity.

Monk Matsudai was the first to establish a summit shrine on the mountain, probably in 1149. By the Muromachi period (1337-1573), pilgrims were making regular ascents, usually after visiting one of the shrines at the mountain's southern foot. A contemporary mandala painting shows a procession of monks or pilgrims winding their way up the endless slopes of the Maruyama trail.

Today, the Maruyama trail has more or less faded from the map. In fact, it had fallen into disuse long before the modern roads were built to the mountain's fifth stations. This was partly because the Maruyama yamabushi, the direct heirs to Matsudai, made the mistake of supporting the wrong side during the civil wars that wracked sixteenth century Japan.

By contrast, the Great Shrine of Ōmiya had a good warring countries period. Emerging from the conflict with the support of the warriors and the Tokugawa family, it formally wrested control of Mt Fuji's summit cone from the Murayama sect in 1679 - and it continues to enjoy legal title to the mountain above the eighth stations to this day.

But the Sengen Ōmiya shrine had little to do with the most significant Edo-period religious movement centred on Mt Fuji. This was founded by a wandering ascetic known as Kakugyō (1541-1646), whose successors encouraged the common people - farmers and townspeople - to found Fuji pilgrimage associations, the so-called Fuji-kō.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the Fuji-kō had so many followers that the movement was starting to worry the feudal authorities. (The parallels with today's Falun Gong sect in China are striking.) Inheriting these suspicions, the Meiji government coerced one of the leading Fuji-kō sects into becoming an approved branch of the newly established state-controlled Shintō.

Official approval seemed to mark the start of a slow decline for the Fuji-kō. Today, no more than a handful of congregations exist. Or it may be the case that some Fuji-kō groups morphed into new religions, such as Maruyamakyō. During the 1980s, Professor Earhart was able to make contact with three different Fuji-centred congregations and join them on their annual pilgrimages to the mountain.

Taking the chance to distribute a questionnaire to his fellow pilgrims, Earhart asked them why they were climbing Mt Fuji. These were some of the answers he received:

"A Japanese does not need a reason to climb Mt Fuji."

"From long ago, Fuji has been close to our existence, and by climbing Fuji we become physically and spiritually refreshed."

"I am allowed to climb Fuji together with all my ancestors who climbed Fuji, and those who wanted to but were not able to climb Fuji."

"To know myself, and to realise peace with myself within nature."

"I climb in order to renew myself."

"To purify my own heart."

I have a feeling that it will be a while before any researcher gets closer to the meaning of Mt Fuji than that.


Mt Fuji: Icon of Japan, H Byron Earhart, University of South Carolina Press

Thanks to Dave Fedman of Stanford University for the anecdote about painting Fujiyama. The source is a declassified US Army memorandum.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Mountain revolutionaries

The monks who reclaimed Ontake as a sacred summit for ordinary people

Unwittingly, we behaved just as Fukada Kyūya said we would. Big-booted, ice-axe-wielding alpinists feel out of place here, wrote the Hyakumeizan author back in the 1960s. They shun the peak as too popular and avoid it. The few mountaineers who do come here tend to avoid the summer season.

And so we ski-climbed Ontake on a crisp, clear winter day, laying our zig-zag tracks up a flank of hard-frozen snow. On the summit plateau, at 3,000 metres, it was the steam-jets pluming from the new crater that captured our attention. Not being greatly into mountain history, we didn’t give much thought to the statues and monuments, half-buried in snowdrifts, that marked out this ancient volcano as one of Japan’s most sacred summits.

Besides, the harrying breeze made it too cold to hang about. After posing for photos at the summit shrine, we snapped our big boots into our Silvretta 404 bindings and pointed the skis downhill. After that, there was no reason to revisit Ontake. Until, that is, the other day when an e-mail came in from Ted, a fellow Japan blogger and aficionado of the old Nakasendō road:

On one of my walks, writes Ted, I came across a small Ontake shrine between the towns of Nakatsugawa and Ochiai, both in Gifu. There was a small group of people there, in the midst of their cups, the prayers now done. I asked them what was going on, and they told me that it was a ceremony in honor of Kakumei Reijin (覚明霊神), who 'opened' Mt. Ontake. Try as I might, I can't seem to find the 'human' name for this deity, who this person actually was. Do you have any idea?

Well, it turns out that Kakumei Reijin isn’t mentioned even in Nihon Hyakumeizan, Japan’s most famous mountain book. But a quick look at Google and some other references hinted at a fascinating story.

The Buddhist name “Kakumei”(覚明) is written with different characters from the Japanese word for “revolution”, which is pronounced the same way. Yet monk Kakumei (1718-1786) was indeed a revolutionary. He challenged the adepts and shrine authorities who held Ontake in their exclusive grasp, and opened the mountain to ordinary people. Unlike many a revolution, however, the movement he started has endured to this very day.

When Kakumei was born at Kasugai in Owari province (today’s Aichi Prefecture), the son of a farmer, Ontake had already been revered for centuries. Indeed, its very name means “Sacred Mountain”. Records from the Muromachi period (1392–1573) show that the austerities practised there by mountain mystics resembled those of Ōmine and Kumano.

Kakumei also came to Ontake as a hermit or yamabushi – the word means ‘one who hides himself in the mountains’. But he seems to have soon run afoul of the local shrine authorities with his revolutionary ideas of improving the mountain paths, so that ordinary people could climb the mountain. And letting them do so without undergoing the traditional seventy-five or one hundred days of severe purification rituals.

In the fifth year of Tenmei (1785), Kakumei took matters into his own hands. He climbed the mountain after purifying himself only with a “water austerity”, probably by standing under a waterfall at the mountain’s foot. This was by itself a challenge to the religious establishment.

The following summer, he made another ascent. Struggling with the burden of his sixty-eight years and frail as an autumn leaf from years of fasting, he made his way up to Ni-no-ike (above), a crater lake far above the clouds. And there, as the wind chased ripples over the cobalt waters, he gave up his spirit.

Ontake now had its martyr; next a proselytiser was needed. That role was fulfilled by monk Fukan (1731-1801), who came to the mountain in 1792. Fukan (right) pioneered a new way up the mountain – one that was more convenient for pilgrims coming from the fast-growing city of Edo – and founded hundreds of congregations or kō (講) all over the Kantō region. Known as Mitakekyō or Ontakekyō, the resulting movement gained official recognition as a sect within Shintō in 1882.

Thus far, the story has close parallels with that of the Fuji-kō, the congregations whose worship centred on Japan’s highest mountain. Mt Fuji too had its martyr, in the person of Jikigyō (1670-1733), who fasted to death in a rocky cell near the mountain’s sixth station. (The shrine authorities kept him away from the summit, for fear that his death would ritually pollute this sacred ground.) And Jikigyō’s self-sacrifice greatly increased the popularity and prestige of the congregations that worshipped Mt Fuji.

In time, both Ontakekyō and the Fuji-kō won so many converts that the feudal authorities started to worry about the sects as potential sources of unrest. (The parallel with the Chinese Communist Party’s current nervousness about Falun Gong is striking.) Inheriting these suspicions, the Meiji government coerced both movements (or large sections of them) into becoming approved sects within state-controlled Shintō.

It was at this point that the fortunes of the two mountain religions started to diverge. For the Fuji-kō, official recognition seems to mark the start of a long decline. In contrast, Ontakekyō has held up against the secularising trend of the modern age with surprising resilience. By 1938, for example, the two officially recognised Fuji sects reported about one million adherents between them. Ontakekyō had twice as many.

The extraordinary durability of the Ontake faith was noted by Fukada Kyūya in Nihon Hyakumeizan, which was published in 1964:

In the past, holy mountains were legion, among them Fuji, Chōkai, Tateyama, and Ishizuchi to name but a few. Yet their sacred aura has dissipated in the light of modern mountaineering. Ontake alone retains its bands of pilgrims, their rituals and their customs. If you climb the mountain on a summer's day by its front route from Ōtaki and Kurosawa, the white robes of the faithful, among them both children and greybeards, still limn out the path ahead. These people are not climbing the mountain for sport. I know the owner of a teahouse who would otherwise take no interest in mountains, yet never fails to make her annual pilgrimage to the top of Ontake.

Even today, reports Naoko Kobayashi, a researcher at Nagoya University, Ontake and its “great gods” are worshipped by an estimated 800,000 believers and more than 1,000 congregations. Among the reasons for the cult’s success, she suggests, is the strong belief in its reijin. This is the title given to deceased devotees of Ontake. Reijin are enshrined in reijin-hi, small stone monuments set up in groves at various places on the mountain.

Reijin-hi become the yori-shiro (the spirit abode) of a deceased Ontake adherent. And living relatives can use them as a means of communicating with the departed. This is the purpose of a shamanistic ritual known as the oza in which a practitioner (maeza) encourages the departed spirit to possess a medium (known as the nakaza). Graphic descriptions of such séances can be found in books by both Walter Weston and Carmen Blacker (see references).

While doing her fieldwork, Kobayashi met a woman who had just lost her brother:

An Ontake ascetic acted as the maeza. After the reijin possessed the nakaza, he stated that her brother was fine and in training near the Ontake Ogami in the next world. When the woman heard this, she started to cry. She said that she was relieved to know that her brother was fine in the other world.

The worship of reijin serves to tie the devotees to the Ontake faith. In this way, the reijin facilitates a form of ancestor worship, one of the most ancient elements in Japan’s culture. Moreover, concludes Kobayashi, “the chain of successors, from the believers to the reijin, perpetuates Ontake belief. As long as Ontake believers continue to worship the reijin, Ontake belief will continue.”


Nihon Hyakumeizan in the forthcoming translation as One Hundred Mountains of Japan

Naoko Kobayashi, Research report: The vital role of reijin worship in Ontake belief in SOAS Centre for the Study of Japanese Religions newsletter, January 2005 issue

D C Holtom, The National Faith of Japan: A Study in Modern Shintō, 1938

Walter Weston, Mountaineering and Exploration in the Japanese Alps

Carmen Blacker, The Catalpa Bow

All above images of Ontake after the first two are from Wikipedia (Japan)

Monday, June 18, 2012

Approach with awe (1)

A Japanese theologian's view of mountain religion in Japan

"Mountains have always held religious significance for people. Towering, mysterious, dangerous, overwhelming, some parts always appearing bright and visible, while others are shrouded in perpetual shadow, they are thought to be the abode of spirits, demons, and gods. Often the mountain itself is thought to be the connection between heaven and earth, the centre of the world, axis mundi.

Particular mountains have been endowed with the character of representing the entire universe, the cosmic mountain. ‘In China the capital of the perfect sovereign stood at the exact centre of the universe, that is, at the summit of the cosmic mountain.’ The religious significance the Himalayas played in Hindu religious thought is substantial.

The image of the mountain as axis mundi has inspired some of the most refined and impressive religious buildings of humankind, such as the hill temple of Borobodur in Java and the famous Angor Wat in Cambodia. They are cosmic mountains elaborated by religious symbolism.

In Japan since ancient times people have believed that the spirits of the departed reside on the mountains overlooking the villages, watching over their welfare. Eventually those spirits will become gods of the mountains, staying in the mountain during the winter months and coming out to the village from spring to autumn to help the villagers work in the rice paddy fields.

At a time of drought prayer is offered to the mountain. One name for a funeral procession is yamayuki, ‘going to the mountain’. A certain part of the mountain, always dark, is understood to be the location of ‘hell’ and another part, which appears brighter and happier, is the place of ‘heaven’. Thus the mountain itself suggests the totalities of light and darkness, life and death, salvation and damnation. The mountain must always be approached carefully and with awe…"


Excerpted from Kosuke Koyama, Mt Fuji and Mt Sinai: a pilgrimage in theology

Thursday, June 7, 2012

La montagne est toujours présente ...

All Japanese literature is mountain literature, according to literary critic Chiwaki Shinoda ... (scroll down for English version)

Dans la la littérature japonaise, la montagne est toujours présente, la quasi totalité des poètes japonais le chantent depuis Man’yōshū et même le paysage urbain n’existe sans elle. Evidement ce ne sont pas de hautes montagnes, ce sont des montagnes qui se trouve juste à côté des villes, ou derrière les villages, d’où descendent des rivières, et d’où les âmes des ancêtres nous surveillent; ce sont plutôt des montagnes spirituelles, puisque l’on croit aussi qu’en les gravissant on peut parvenir à la purification de l’âme. De la sorte, chaque montagne possède sa propre divinité, laquelle suppose un culte particulier. C’est dans ces hauts lieux que les moines bouddhistes établirent leurs temples et leurs monastères. Aussi, les récits qui racontent les origines de ces temples (shintoïstes ou bouddhistes) situent-ils leurs histoires dans les montagnes, car c’est là que le saint moine reçut invariablement la révélation après avoir passé une série d’épreuves. Ces histoires racontent également les mystères ou les miracles qui se sont manifestés sur ces hauteurs ....

Mountains are always present in Japanese literature; more or less all Japanese poets have written about them since the Man’yōshū and not even the urban landscape can exist without them. Obviously these are not high mountains, these are mountains that sit right next to cities, or behind villages, from which the rivers spring, and from whence the souls of our ancestors watch over us. They are, indeed, spiritual mountains, so that climbing them, it is believed, can purify the soul. In this way, each mountain has its own deity, each attached to a particular cult. It is in such high places that Buddhist monks established their temples and monasteries. The stories that relate how these Shinto or Buddhist shrines were founded are set in the mountains, because that is always where the holy monk received his revelation after undergoing a series of ordeals. Such stories also tell of the mysteries and miracles that have taken place in these high places ...


Chiwaki Shinoda: "La montagne dans la littérature japonaise" in Montagnes imaginées, montagnes représentées

Sunday, June 3, 2012


A Hyakumeizan encounter with the father of modern physics in Japan

eclipse in Fukui, Japan  by sunnybeauty
eclipse in Fukui, Japan , a photo by sunnybeauty on Flickr.

Only one solar eclipse is mentioned in Nihon Hyakumeizan, Japan's most famous mountain book. This was one that tracked directly over Shari-dake, a famous peak in Hokkaidō:

The Japanese will never cease from putting shrines on their favourite mountains and Shari-dake was so honoured in 1935. Its summit sanctuary is sacred to Ōyamatsumi-ōkami and Ame-no-mikumari-ōkami. In 1936, Dr Nishina Yoshio, who had come to the mountain to take measurements of cosmic rays during the solar eclipse that year, dedicated a torii gate of silver birch wood…

Cosmic rays were not Dr Nishina's principal line of business. The best part of a decade before the Shari-dake eclipse, he'd returned to Japan after several years in Copenhagen studying quantum physics under Niels Bohr. Back in Tokyo, he'd settled down to propagate that arcane new science within a small but enthusiastic community of researchers. It was this work that earned Nishina (left) his reputation as the "father of modern physics in Japan".

In 1931, he opened his own laboratory at Riken, Japan's national research centre for physics and chemistry (right). His leadership style was as novel as the scientific theories he propounded. This is how a young associate remembered it:

The word “organisation” gives an impression of formality, but the whole Laboratory was really a very easygoing, free and friendly group. We related to each other as equals, except in research, and the senior members were kind and solicitous towards newcomers like me. I felt then that this highly supportive atmosphere, exceptional especially in those days, was a naturally occurring phenomenon. However, in hindsight, I realise that it was probably a reflection of Dr. Nishina’s personal ambitions. I think he was eager to create the kind of atmosphere that he had experienced during his eight-year stay in Europe, in the circle of highly talented men who followed and revered Professor Niels Bohr…

By 1935, Nishina's main ambition was to build a cyclotron, along the lines of the pioneering particle accelerator that Ernest Lawrence had devised a few years earlier at Berkeley. With advice from Lawrence – who remained a life-long friend – construction of a small cyclotron started in 1936.

Meanwhile, Nishina had also started to take an interest in cosmic rays, as a source of sub-atomic particles with energies that no cyclotron could match. A cosmic ray research group was set up in 1931-32. This was a lively epoch in an emerging field of enquiry.

When a foreign group reported that some particles, perhaps neutrinos, were capable of penetrating deep underground, Nishina said “Interesting, let’s try it” – a characteristic phrase – and his group took their detectors to the innermost reaches of the Shimizu tunnel. Cosmic ray experiments were also installed on the roof of Riken, on an ocean liner, and atop Mt Fuji – transforming Japan’s most eminent Meizan, not for the first time, into a mountain of science.

But where did cosmic rays come from? If some came from the sun, then an eclipse should temporarily block them from reaching an earth-bound observer. The June 1936 eclipse in Hokkaidō provided Nishina's research group with the chance to re-test that hypothesis.

North wall, Mt. Shari by threepinner
North wall, Mt. Shari, a photo by threepinner on Flickr.

Some 800 kilos of kit were freighted from Tokyo up to a remote corner of Japan's northern island and then ported two-thirds of the way up the 1,545-metre Shari-dake. On June 19th, the scientists were rewarded with a clear view of the sun's temporary disappearance.

Others who stayed at the mountain's foot, including a British delegation were not so lucky; low clouds obscured their view. In the event, the needles of Nishina's apparatus barely wavered during the eclipse, confirming that cosmic rays originate from far beyond the solar system.

Annular Eclipse by tsubame
Annular Eclipse, a photo by tsubame on Flickr.

Then came the war. In May 1943, Nishina was put in charge of Japan's efforts to develop an atomic bomb. Or rather the Army's efforts. For the Navy had its own nuclear project and the two research groups hardly spoke to each other, so intense was the inter-service rivalry.

By January 1944, the Army's "N-Project" (N stood for Nishina, not for nuclear) had produced a rice-sized crystal of uranium hexafluoride. The next step would be to run a larger-scale refinement process using a thermal separator. But in March 1945, most of the Riken buildings burned to the ground after a bombing raid, effectively ending the project.

The N-Project brought down on Nishina's head a petty yet savage act of reprisal. In November 1945, a low-loader drove unannounced into what was left of the Riken compound. Soldiers started to break up the laboratory’s large cyclotron as the scientist remonstrated and his wife and secretary stood by and wept. Then the wreckage was dumped in the sea (below).

To this day, it is unclear who in the Occupation authorities gave the order to destroy the cyclotron – which had little or nothing to do with weapons research. No American scientists were consulted, for none would have approved the action.

Fortunately, Nishina was able to ally himself with American physicists such as Karl Compton, the president of MIT, to prevent Riken itself sharing the cyclotron’s fate. During the first desperate post-war years, he also oversaw a project to manufacture penicillin, as way of shoring up the institution’s finances.

Once Riken’s future was safe, Nishina prepared to return to physics research. But this was not to be. His colleagues were planning his 60th birthday party when he suddenly fell ill. The celebration had to be cancelled and he passed away on January 10, 1951.

Sixty years later, Riken continues to flourish as one of Japan’s leading centres of fundamental research. Cosmic rays are still a speciality. Recently, Riken scientists used them to illuminate the inner structure of Mt Asama, a volcano and yet another of the Hyakumeizan. One can almost hear Nishina-sensei murmuring his encouragement, “Mmm, interesting, let us try it …”


Nihon Hyakumeizan in the forthcoming translation as One Hundred Mountains of Japan

Dong-Won Kim: Yoshio Nishina: Father of Modern Physics in Japan

Thomas C. Reed, Danny B. Stillman: The Nuclear Express: A Political History of the Bomb and Its Proliferation

Many thanks to sunnybeauty, threepinner and tsubame for allowing me to link to their photos on flickr.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Sole survivor

When Mt Bandai erupted on 15th July 1888, the blast devastated the surrounding country and nearby villages. Some five hundred people were killed or injured. Probably the worst possible place to be was a hot spring lodge perched on the edge of the active crater. Yet, by a miracle, one patron of this ill-fated establishment lived to tell the tale. This is his story:

Mr. Tsurumaki, a priest of Echigo, who was staying at the Naka-no-yu spa on the edge of the crater at the time of the eruption, and who escaped death almost miraculously, sent us soon afterwards the following and minute account of his terrifying experience: - "I started from my native village on the 8th of July, in company with four of my friends, for Bandai-san, and arrived there on the 12th, i.e. three days before the catastrophe. I had been there before, in July, 1885, when I stayed three weeks.

On the day of my recent arrival (the 8th) the fog was unusually dense, and the volume of steam at Kami-no-yu seemed to have lessened. On the 13th the fog was denser still, and remained so till evening. The 14th was a bright day, the fogs of the previous day having cleared up. From about 10 o'clock in the morning of this date the flow of the spring began to diminish. But the fact that the amount of discharge is smaller in fine weather and larger on cloudy days is well-known among bathers, so that we gave no heed to it.

The morning of the 15th, which was the fatal day, dawned with a bright and pleasant sky, and the flow of the spring was as usual. At about 8 o'clock, however, there was a fierce convulsion of the ground, and we all rushed out of the house. In about 10 minutes (seconds?), while we were fearfully wondering what was the matter, a terrible explosion suddenly burst out from the slope of Kobandai, about one chō above a place at which steam has been issuing from time unknown. This was followed by a dense mass of black smoke, which ascended into the air and immediately covered the sky.

At this time, showers of large and small tones were falling all about us. To these horrors were added thundering sounds, and the tearing of mountains and forests presented a most unearthly sight, which I shall never forget while I live. We fled in all directions, but before we had gone many metres we were all thrown prostrate on the ground. It was pitchy dark; the earth was heaving beneath us; our mouths, noses, eyes and ears were all stuffed with mud and ashes. We could neither cry out nor move. I hardly knew whether I was dead or in a dream.

Presently a stone fell on my hand and I knew I was wounded. Imagining, however, that death was at hand, I prayed to Buddha. Later, I received wounds on my loin, right foot, and back. After the lapse of an hour the stones ceased to rain and the atmosphere had cleared from darkness to a light like moonlight. Thinking this a fine opportunity to escape, I got up and cried, 'Friends, follow me!'; but nobody was there. When I had descended about two chō, there was a second, and after another chō, a third explosion. In these sand and ashes were ejected, but no stones. I reached Ōdera at noon and there I received surgical treatment, etc."


Text and illustrations from S. Sekiya and Y. Kikuchi: The Eruption of Bandai-san - full report available on University of Tokyo website as originally published in Transactions of the Seismological Society of Japan. 13(2), 1890, pp. 139-222

More about Mt Bandai: a visit to the mountain in 2009