Thursday, June 20, 2013

The ahistoricity of sawa

Tracing the Japanese art of river climbing back to its mysterious roots

Solitary sawa-naut
At first sight, the history of Japanese mountaineering seems clear-cut. Monks and mystics started climbing high mountains in the eighth century. Mt Fuji got its first ascent two or three hundred years later. In the Edo period, some people went up mountains just for fun. But modern alpinism didn’t arrive until 1905, when Kojima Usui and friends founded the Sangakaku-kai or Japanese Alpine Club…

What about sawa-nobori, though? How do we fit the art of river gorge climbing into this historical sequence? My usual reference work doesn’t even try. If you look at YamaKei’s illustrated history of Japanese mountaineering, the topic is relegated to a couple of pages in the last-but-one chapter. Even then, the book doesn’t venture to suggest how sawa-nobori originated, or whether it relates to other branches of mountaineering.

Several sara-nauts
For these origins seem to be truly obscure. According to Yoshikawa Eiichi, author of an excellent ‘how to’ book, nobody can agree if sawa-nobori represents a uniquely Japanese art, or whether it merely split off from Western-style alpinism. Yoshikawa favours the latter view, but offers no evidence. And, he admits, attitudes towards sawa-nobori have radically changed in recent decades.

When Yoshikawa first joined a mountaineering club, sawa-nobori was just a lowly rung on the ladder that led from hiking to Himalayan climbing. It ranked above mountain walking, but below rock-climbing and alpinism. Young climbers would climb sawas in ordinary mountain boots until they were confident enough to tackle big rock routes in gnarly places like Ichinokura-sawa. In those days, the mark of an expert sawa-naut was that he never got his feet wet.

Kanmuri & Co explore the Kurobe River
Like many traditional hierarchies, this one broke down in the 1960s. During the Woodstock decade – actually, in Japan it was more of a riot-and- teargas decade – river climbing finally broke free and became a sport in its own right. Thus far Yoshikawa. I’d add that the process was probably helped by the appearance of specialised kit – such as the wet socks and wading boots with brillo-pad soles that you can buy in any Japanese mountain gear store today. Now sawa-nauts were willing, eager even, to get their feet wet.

Fast forward two decades, and we find a young activist applying these tools to the ultimate sawa project. Shimizu Tetsuya spent two autumns in the late 1980s exploring every tributary and gorge of the Kurobe region in the heart of the Japan Northern Alps. This included a highly technical solo through the precipitous Tsurugi-sawa ravine. Sawa-nobori was no longer an apprenticeship for beginners; as practised by Shimizu, it had evolved into an extreme sport that drew on every advanced rope-trick in the alpine manual.

Kanmuri & Co inspect Juji-kyo
But – hold it – did Shimizu really represent a new wave? You could say that, except for his ultra-modern climbing techniques, he followed very much in a tradition. Take Kanmuri Matsujiro, for example, who spent many a summer in the 1920s exploring every nook and cranny of the Kurobe valley. And then there was Tanabe Jūji (1884-1972), another Japanese Alpine Club man, who turned away from high mountain expeditions to explore the less rugged Chichibu hills. It was among their forests and gorges, he explained, that he felt most at home.

Kanmuri and Tanabe could draw on a lengthy heritage. Their thoughts about nature can be traced through a long line of writers and poets far back into the middle ages. This tanka, by Saigyō (1118-1190), the all-terrain poet of late Heian times, captures the very essence of a sawa climb:

In Tsurugi-sawa

making my way 
through the whirling rapids of Miyataki river
I have the sense of being washed clean
to the base of my heart

(translation by William Lafleur)

Come to think about it, the poem helps to explain why sawa-nobori is hard to set in a historical context. You can always pin down when a new set of techniques – such as aid-climbing or ski-mountaineering – came in. But river climbing has always been less of a technology and more of a state of mind.


Yoshikawa Eiichi, Sawa nobori: nyumon to gaido, Yama to keikoku, 1990 (top two photos are from this book)

Yama to Keikoku illustrated history of Japanese mountaineering (目で見る日本登山史 by 川崎吉光、山と渓谷社) (lower three black-and-white photos are from this book)


One summer, three workman alpinists set off up a sawa in the Nasu volcanic range. This was a river gorge in the Mirkwood mould, dark and dangerous. When a thunderstorm broke out, rocks started tumbling from the overhanging cliffs. The crux waterfall was surmounted by a scary pitch on steep, holdless slime, unprotectable by piton, bolt or chock.

As daylight faded, they came to a dell with a level floor and pitched their lightweight bivvy tent in a nest of panda grass. Nasu is far distant from the marquee peaks of the Japan Alps. Yet it was here that the sawa-nauts were overtaken by an odd sense – just a passing thought, really – that never again would they come so close to the heart of the Japanese mountains.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Wind resistant

As the Japan Alps are among the better ventilated mountains on the planet, local alpinists have devised a special stance for riding out knock-down gusts. Here Ito-san from Yokohama shows how it’s done – legs akimbo, body weight driving the ice-axe handle vertically into the snow, so as to make a tripod. Practise often: it might save your life one day.

Monday, June 3, 2013

The surveyors

How the map-makers led the way for Japan's modern-day mountaineers

The first modern ascent of Mae-Hodaka was all but fatal for its instigators. After topping out on the 3,090-metre peak and marking the highest point with a wooden peg, the two men started their descent. At that moment, the Army man slipped. His guide looked on, aghast, as the survey officer’s body bounced and tumbled, limbs flailing like a rag-doll’s, down twenty, forty, sixty feet of granite slabs before slamming onto a ledge.

The survey marker on Tsurugi in 1909

As quickly as he dared, the guide picked his way down the treacherous gully and edged across to the inert figure, hardly daring to hope. Amazed, he heard a groan; the Army man was still alive. Then, half-supporting and half-carrying his bloodied client, the guide brought him down to Kami-kōchi, where he kept a lodge. The legendary Kamijō Kamonji had pulled off the Meiji era's first high-mountain rescue.

Oku-Hodaka seen from Mae-Hodaka

As for the "damaged surveyor", he was discovered a few weeks later by Walter Weston, recuperating from his wounds at a nearby hot spring. Undismayed, the mountaineering missionary continued with his own plans to engage Kamonji and repeat the Mae-Hodaka ascent. The guide and the Englishman made an efficient team, as Weston records in his Mountaineering and Exploration in the Japanese Alps:-

"Before 1.30 we were on the highest pinnacle. Driven into a crack in the rock I found a small stake, which marked the visit of the War Office surveyor some weeks before. As I looked down the rocks, where Kamonji pointed out the line of his fall, it seemed incredible the man could have survived."

Tate Kiyohiko
Tate Kiyohiko (1849-1927) was a tough customer. Not only did he survive his fall but, by the following year, he was fit enough to climb two more 3,000-metre summits. Together with the three mountains he'd already scouted, these tops would host the five "primary triangulation points" for the War Office's mapping of the Northern Alps. His name appears neither in Weston's book nor in Kojima Usui's account of the same accident. Yet he was one of the true pioneers of the Northern Japan Alps, at least in modern times.

Indeed, he was a pioneer among pioneers. It was no accident that Tate took responsibility for siting the all-important primary markers. For his career went back to the very outset of modern map-making in Japan. At the age of 22 or so, in July 1871, he'd joined the survey department of the new Ministry of Public Works. In 1874, these civilian map-makers were brought into the Home Ministry's Geographical Department. A few years later, they were out surveying among the highest mountains of Honshū, as Japan’s most famous mountain book records:

Occupying the position that it does, Akaishi has a name that resonates through the centuries. A party from the Home Ministry's geographical bureau reached the summit in 1879 and erected a survey marker there. A permanent triangulation point was installed a decade later, just a year after Japan's Land Survey Department was established. These efforts laid the groundwork for the 1:50,000-scale maps that are so indispensable to our mountaineering ventures today. (Nihon Hyakumeizan, Akaishi-dake)

Army surveyors carry a 50-kg theodolite into the mountains.
By this time, the Army had started its own map-making unit, which was folded into the new Staff Department in 1872. A French military mission helped it get up to speed on the latest surveying techniques. In 1888, the Army's General Staff unit, as it was now known, took over responsibility for the national survey and, with it, the map-makers of the Home Ministry too. The merged unit became the “Land Survey Department” mentioned in the quotation from Nihon Hyakumeizan above.

Five years later, the Army surveyors were filling in the remaining blanks on the new maps of Honshū. And Tate was on hand to lead the way into the high mountains. In 1893, he set the first primary triangulation point for this part of the survey by climbing Ontake, the isolated volcano at the southern end of the Hida mountains (the Japan Alps hadn't yet been invented, of course). In the same summer, he reached the summits of Shirouma and Mae-Hodaka, the scene of his near-demise.

The survey tower on Shirouma

In 1894, the veteran surveyor – now in his mid-forties – placed markers on the volcanic peaks of Norikura and Tateyama, the final primary triangulation points for the Northern Japan Alps. In fact, each peak in the survey had to be climbed three times - first to identify a suitable spot for the triangulation point, then to build up a high wooden marker, and finally to take the survey measurements themselves. Tate's role was to find the right spots; the work of building the survey markers and taking the theodolite measurements was left to colleagues.

Surfing the Great Snow Valley 
Every step in this process was recorded in a so-called "Ten-no-ki", a record of each survey marker's position, the costs and efforts involved in setting it up, and the survey results. As these dossiers make for dry-as-dust reading, it is fortunate for posterity that Tate supplemented them with some lively and presumably unofficial sketches. One of them (right) shows him tobogganing down the Great Snow Valley of Shirouma, seated on a torn-off branch of creeping pine that a porter is hauling along.

After Tate's last season in Hida mountains, his younger colleagues took on the work of setting up the secondary triangulation points. In 1902, they visited Yakushi-dake, Noguchi-goro, Kasa-ga-dake, Kashimayari, Sugoroku and finally Yari-ga-dake - narrowly beating the young banker and writer Kojima Usui to the top of that spire-shaped summit.

After a pause enforced by the Russo-Japanese war, the tertiary triangulation points were set up and surveyed in 1906 and 1907. During those seasons, the surveyors fanned out over the (soon-to-be) Northern Alps to Karasawa-dake, Minami-dake, Nishi-Hodaka, Suishō, Washiba, Otenshō, Aka-ushi, Mitsu-dake, Mitsumata-renge, Kurobe-goro, Nukedo, Tsurugi, Hari-no-ki, Jii-ga-take, and the “other” Yari-ga-take (鑓ヶ岳).

Shibasaki Yoshitaro
The ascent of Tsurugi, in July 1907 is, of course, the one dramatised in Tsurugidake – Ten no ki. This recent film makes great play of a supposed race to the summit between Shibasaki Yoshitarō, the Army surveyor (right), and the slightly effete gentlemen amateurs of the new Japanese Alpine Club or Sangaku-kai. But it’s doubtful whether any such contest took place; history relates that the leading lights of the Sangaku-kai were exploring the Southern Japan Alps in the relevant summer.

In reality, the surveyors had thoroughly explored the Hida mountains well before Kojima Usui and his friends founded their alpine club, in October 1905. But it would take some time for the Army to translate its survey results into actual maps. As a kind of consolation, therefore, the alpinists were left about a decade to discover the mountains for themselves. Then, in the mid-teens of the century, the Army General Staff started to bring out its detailed map series for the Northern Alps, dispelling some of their mystery in the process.

Surveyors at work: a sketch by Tate Kiyohiko
In later years, the Sangaku-kai’s old guard looked fondly back on this map-free “golden age of mountain exploration” (the phrase was invented or borrowed by Kojima himself). And some of this sepia-tinged nostalgia filtered down to the club’s younger members – even to Fukada Kyūya, who joined in June 1935, two decades after the golden age ended. This helps to explain the elegiac note sounded by such passages in Nihon Hyakumeizan as this one:-

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.

For their part, the surveyors had little time for nostalgia. The Army kept them ceaselessly on the move. As far as the General Staff were concerned, the Northern Alps were just a skirmish in their northwards drive to map every square metre of the Japanese islands. And when that campaign ended, there was a growing empire overseas that had to be accurately reduced to scale.

In this rolling advance, Shibasaki Yoshitarō was one of the foot-soldiers. And perhaps his story can stand for all of them. The year after his Tsurugi ascent he completed a survey in nearby Niigata prefecture. From 1909 to 1913, he was mapping first in Tohoku and then in Hokkaidō – where he also wrote a paper on Ainu legends. In 1914-15, he was back in central Honshū and found time to write up the first part of a monograph on the medieval battlefield site of Sekigahara.

Then he spent another two years in Hokkaidō, surveying the Ishikari and Kitami regions, as well as the northern island of Etorofu. In 1918-19, he accompanied the Army’s foray into Siberia (for what purpose remains obscure: possibly he was collating captured Russian maps), returning to Hokkaidō thereafter. Then the Army sent him to Taiwan, where he spent four years working on the secondary triangulation of the island’s central and northern districts.

Meiji-era mountain guides
In the end, the incessant expeditioning may have been too much for him. In 1930, Shibasaki suffered a stroke and, although he recovered enough to go back to work, he retired from government service in 1933. He died in January 1938, aged 64. Perhaps in those last years, there was a moment or two for recollection. Did Shibasaki look back then to Tsurugi as the high point among all his "Ten no ki", in that cool alpine summer, decades ago, when rugged Chojirō and Kinsaku found a way for him up the most difficult mountain in all Japan?


Seto Masahiro, Survey mountaineering in late Meiji times, Japan Journal of Survey, July 2008

Seto Masahiro, Shibasaki Yoshitarō: what happened then ( Part 1), Japan Journal of Survey, April 2009

Seto Masahiro, Shibasaki Yoshitarō: what happened then (Part 2), Japan Journal of Survey, May 2009

Yamada Akira, The day Shibasaki Yoshitarō climbed Tsurugi, Japan Journal of Survey, August 2008

Hakoiwa Eiichi, The role of the Army General Staff in surveying, Japan Journal of Survey, July 2008

Seto Masahiro, Kojima Usui, the multi-talented alpinist, Japan Journal of Survey, September 2008

Seto Masahiro, Uji Chojirō, the guide who supported Shibasaki’s survey party, Japan Journal of Survey, September 2008