Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Meizan militant

When politicians tap into the prestige of pre-eminent peaks

As widely reported, Kim Jong Un made it to the top of the Korean peninsula's highest mountain last Sunday. His purpose was to meet and address a group of Korean People's Army fighter pilots. "Climbing Mt Paektu provides precious mental pabulum more powerful than any kind of nuclear weapon," the Supreme Commander told the assembled airmen, according to the DPRK's press release of April 19.

Rave review: Kim Jong Un addresses the troops
Of course, this is not the first time that political leaders have sought to arrogate to themselves the prestige of a "famous mountain". One only has to turn to Chapter 98 of Japan's most famous mountain book to find another example. Somewhat disingenuously, the Hyakumeizan author Fukada Kyūya chose to entitle that chapter "Kirishima", which is the name of the surrounding national park, not the mountain that is actually Fukada's subject.

Commemorative stamp showing
Mt Takachiho
For the real focus here is Mt Takachiho, well known to anybody brought up in the pre-war school system. When singing the song that celebrated "the cloud-piercing peaks of Takachiho, the trees and herbs that deck its slopes", those pre-war pupils would have instantly recognized the reference to the spot where Ninigi-no-mikoto, a scion of the gods and ancestor of the imperial line, descended from heaven to earth.

Fukada climbed Takachiho at an inflection point in its modern history:-

I made my first visit in 1939, before the Pacific War but during the economic boom stimulated by the advances in China. A sumptuous path up the mountain was under construction for the following year, which would mark the 2,600th anniversary of the National Foundation. This was the time when slogans such as "Proclaim the majesty of the Emperor" and "Sacred dedication of Labour" greeted the eye at every corner.

As Fukada notes, Takachiho is mentioned in the Kojiki, Japan's oldest chronicle. But a lack of detail in this record of ancient matters led to embarrassment in the run-up to the 2,600th anniversary celebrations. When the Ministry of Education instructed the governors of ten prefectures to identify sites that could be associated with the Emperor Jimmu, the officials of Kagoshima and Miyazaki advanced the claims of two rival mountains as candidates for the anniversary celebrations.

In the end, the Ministry of Education never did decide in favour of one candidate or the other. This did not stop Takachiho playing a prominent part in the 2,600th anniversary celebrations. As Kenneth Ruoff records in his survey of that year, the mountain (or both of them) appeared on postcards, pamphlets, and posters. It even featured in the winning speech of a contest organized by a magazine for girls, when Matsuyama Fusako of Kagoshima Prefecture recounted her experience of having prayed atop sacred Takachiho on the morning of January 1, 1940.

Celebrations on November 11, 1940, of the
2,600th anniversary of the National Foundation
By 1964, when Fukada published Nihon Hyakumeizan, these celebrations were fading from memory. But the mountain's symbolic charge was still apparently strong enough to dissuade him from using its name as the chapter title. There is a sense, in the essay's concluding words, that Fukada is reclaiming Takachiho for ordinary mountaineers like himself:-

But times have changed. While it would have been unthinkable in pre-war Japan to climb the mountain in anything other than a spirit of deep reverence, the bonds of this repressive ethos have now fallen away. We can now climb this cheerful southern peak and enjoy this land of legends to our heart's content.

North Korean commemorative stamp showing
Kim Jong Il atop his native mountain
The parallels between the pre-war celebrations on Takachiho and last Sunday's performance atop Paektu hardly need pointing out. The Japanese mountain is linked with an imperial ancestor; Paektu is said to be the birthplace of Kim Jong-il, progenitor of the present Supreme Commander. But in case anybody should fail to appreciate the peak's significance, the DPRK's press release spells it out: "Mt Paektu is the ancestral mountain and the sacred mountain of revolution associated with the soul of the Korean nation."

The authors of the relevant Wikipedia article wouldn't disagree with that assessment: "Koreans consider Mount Baekdu as the place of their ancestral origin," they say. And the volcano is  one of Korea's three most sacred peaks, just as Hakusan is one of Japan's "Sanreizan". By every one of Fukada Kyūya's criteria, it would seem - stature, history and extraordinary distinctiveness - Mt Paektu has always qualified as a pre-eminent Meizan, or 'famous peak'. It is this prestige that the Kim dynasty has sought in recent decades to appropriate for itself.

It may be a while before anybody is able to reclaim Korea's "white-topped mountain" for the ordinary mountaineer.


More photos of Kim Jong Un atop Mt Paektu, courtesy of DPRK (I presume) via The Guardian.

Ruoff, Kenneth J., Imperial Japan at Its Zenith: The Wartime Celebration of the Empire's 2,600th Anniversary, Studies of the Weatherhead East Asia Institute, Columbia, 2010.

Translator's Introduction to One Hundred Mountains of Japan, the English version of Nihon Hyakumeizan.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

"Characteristics of the Japanese mountain landscape" (6)

Continued: a disquisition on the aesthetics of volcanoes and alpine landscapes by Kojima Usui, founder of the Japanese Alpine Club

Mikuri-ga-ike on Tateyama
(Photo courtesy of Sunnybeauty on flickr)

When one compares not just Kami-kōchi but the Japan Alps in general with their European counterparts, it’s as if our volcanoes in some way and in certain aspects make up for the lack of glaciers in our Alps of Japan.

In the Swiss Alps, for instance, glaciers have created a wealth of mountain lakes but, in our Japanese Alps, the five pools on the summit of Ontake, Ō-ike and Nyū-ike on Norikura, as well as Midori and Mikuri-ga-ike on Tateyama can all be ascribed to the action of volcanoes.

Indeed, these pools are higher than the alpine lakes, and what they lack in depth and extent, they more than make up in the clarity of their waters. North of Yari-ga-take, below the granodiorite summit block of Washiba, there is a little crater lake around which scorched blocks of lava lie scattered like fragments of coral around a reef.

It is in such sights, I venture to say, which are hardly to be encountered in any other mountain range, that the special character of Japan’s mountain scenery consists.



Beta translation from Kojima Usui, Characteristics of the Japanese mountain landscape (日本山岳景の特色), originally published in "Nippon Arupusu" (1910), Vol IV, reprinted in Nippon Arupusu, Iwanami Bunko edition, 1992.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

There for everybody

Japan’s oldest mountaineering magazine may also be its most broadly representative

When a copy of Yama to Keikoku magazine thumped into my mailbox – I say thumped because Japan’s most venerable mountaineering magazine is also its bulkiest – it was like meeting an old friend after a long absence.

And, let me admit it, it was gratifying to see Project Hyakumeizan’s local crag on the April edition’s cover, and even more so to find an article about One Hundred Mountains of Japan heading up the news section.

After basking in the glow of this publicity, I leafed through the entire magazine. The news section is followed by a photo feature on Echigo-koma-ga-take, which happens to be the twenty-fifth of Fukada Kyūya’s celebrated Hyakumeizan – although he prefers to call it Uonuma-koma-ga-take. “When they gleam white under the heavy snows of Echigo, I can scarcely believe these peaks barely exceed two thousand meters,” he writes. YamaKei’s glorious photography shows why.

Next comes a lengthy feature – more than 40 pages – on knee problems and what to do about them. Every possible angle is covered, from symptoms to special exercises, and better walking techniques to medical interventions. It’s good to see that YamaKei caters to mountaineers of all ages. (Ouch – excuse me – it’s that twinge again.)

Skipping over some more photo pages, on Kaikoma (Hyakumeizan no 77), we come again to Project Hyakumeizan’s local crag. This feature – by the tireless Ōhata Kimiko, who also wrote up the Hyakumeizan translation – explains how to climb the Matterhorn in the company of a handsome and courteous Swiss mountain guide. O-tsukaresama Ōhata-san!

After the breathless exertions of the Hörnli ridge, it’s good to take refuge in the beechwoods of northern Japan. In another photo feature, route plans are provided for sylvan wanderings on mountains in Yamagata, Gunma, Okutama, Ōmine, and Shimane. Come to think about it, these locations cover most of the beech tree’s entire range within Japan.

Then, if your knees can take it, comes an account of a mid-winter traverse of the Kurobe valley, one of the snowiest regions on the planet, culminating in an ascent of the spiky and exposed Yatsumine ridge. If think you might enjoy 猛ラッセル, this will be your article. Trust me on this.

Should ultra-deep snow not do it for you, you might prefer hiking up some Latin American volcanoes. A feature on “the mountains closest to outer space” explains how to tackle the likes of Cotopaxi and Chimborazo – the latter summit being further from the centre of the earth than Everest’s, they say.

Towards the back of the magazine, the Hyakumeizan crop out again – but with a novel twist. On page 164 – I did mention the magazine’s heft, didn’t I? – appears the final instalment of a manga series on climbing Fukada Kyūya’s one hundred mountains – in which the writer/cartoonist attains Poroshiri-dake in Hokkaidō, her 100th summit.

YamaKei was founded in 1930 as Japan’s first mass-market mountaineering and hiking magazine. It was not alone in this niche for long. Within a decade or so, a small host of would-be rivals sprung up, with titles such as Alpinism, Yamagoya (Mountain Hut), Hiking, Cairn, Yama, Tozan to Haikingu, Yama to Kōgen (Mountains and uplands) and Tanken (Exploration).

Why is YamaKei the only one of these pre-war titles that still exists? Excellent writing and photography, as seen in the current edition, are certainly two good reasons for its survival.

But this can’t be the whole story – for example, it was the now defunct Yama to Kōgen that commissioned and published the series of mountain essays that became Nihon Hyakumeizan.

Perhaps the secret sauce is that YamaKei takes a panoramic view of mountaineering and mountaineers. Its coverage ranges from hiking through to hard-core alpinism, from how-to tips through to expedition reports, from Honshū’s mountains through to the Himalaya. Just like Fukada Kyūya’s Mt Fuji, YamaKei is there for everybody.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Farewell to photography?

Or maybe not, depending on who you are and what you’re trying to do

I’ve become a fan of the Week in Review feature over there on Bre’er Hendrik’s Hiking in Finland site. It was on this roundup of recent outdoor-related blog articles that I came across a thought-provoking post by New Nomads. The title says it all: The Story and the Lens: Why I Put My Camera and my Pencil Down.

Kamikochi, Japan Northern Alps: photographers at dawn

In brief, the writer put her camera down after realizing that:-

“It separated me from where I was, almost as if I had surrounded myself with a wall of opaque bubble wrap and then carved a 35 millimeter hole to look out from. What I really wanted was to figure out how to BE with beauty, you know, just hang with it, so I started leaving my camera at home and haven’t picked it up since.”

A few years later, she took a break from writing on a similar logic – the writing was getting in the way of experience.

Imaging the Great Aletsch Glacier, Switzerland
This reminded me of an essay on “Learning to see” by Barry Lopez. The writer started to take photography seriously in the mid-1960s. Although National Geographic didn’t warm to his style, he did manage to publish some wilderness images in a prestigious Time-Life book series. Oddly enough, it was this very success that started to raise doubts in his mind:

“I was pleased to see my work included in these volumes, but I realized that just as the distance between what I saw and what I was able to record was huge, so was that between what I recorded and what people saw. Seeing the printed images on the page was like finding one’s haiku printed as nineteen-syllable poems.”

Lopez’s disenchantment was accentuated by the loss of colour and sharpness when he tried printing images from his original colour slides. In another blow, a box of three hundred of his best original images slid off the back of his motorbike, never to be seen again.

But what finally put the kibosh on his photographic ambitions was an encounter with a polar bear. After busily snapping away at the bear as it swam off into a snow-squall in the northern Chukchi Sea, Lopez discovered that he could no longer accurately bring to mind what had happened:

“Remembering what had happened in an encounter was crucial to my work as a writer, and attending to my cameras during our time with the bear had altered and shrunk my memory of it. While the bear was doing something, I was checking f-stops and attempting to frame and focus from a moving boat.”

Taking the incident as a warning, Lopez sensed that he “wouldn’t pick up a camera ever again”. Some years later, he distilled his northern travels into Arctic Dreams, a perennial best-seller. The book went out unillustrated, except for a handful of line drawings.

Few mountaineers doubt the value of recording their experiences, especially on camera. Snapping away is easier than writing, after all. But one who did have a qualm was no less than the thinking man’s Himalayan alpinist, Doug Scott.

As a member of Chris Bonington’s Everest South-West Face expedition in 1975, Scott summited at sunset together with Dougal Haston. The resulting photos are probably among the most spectacular ever taken from the mountain; one of them adorns the cover of Bonington’s book about the expedition (right).

Afterwards, though, Scott started to wonder how these images were affecting his memory of the experience:-

“Speaking now for myself, there comes the saddening realization that the view from the top of Everest which I now have in mind’s eye is very possibly no longer the magnificent pure naked wholly coloured vision of the moment, but consequently wholly coloured by the slides I then took and have seen so many times since.”

Project Hyakumeizan has had a similar experience. Skiing on Switzerland’s Oberaar glacier at dawn, we raced along a golden glare-path laid down by the rising sun. As we realized that we’d never see anything like this again. I tried to make a mental note of the colours – even the shadows glowed, like wild thyme, in a luminous shade of violet-blue – and we took a few photos, not expecting for a moment that they would remotely capture what we saw. And they didn’t – not even remotely.

Oberaar Glacier, Switzerland: on a golden glare-path
Yet disappointment on Everest didn’t deter Doug Scott from persevering with mountain photography. In fact, his photographic autobiography, Himalayan climber, is notably well illustrated. And, on a more modest level, I haven’t noticed my film and card memory consumption dropping any after that ski-tour down the Oberaar Glacier.

Perhaps the problem with photography is when your interpretation of the scene starts to falsify what you actually experienced. If you just want to document what you saw – photographing what is there – you can probably live with the compromises entailed in taking a photograph. If, however, you aim to create Art – to show what never was there in the first place – then those compromises might start to obtrude.

As Picasso said, “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth, at least the truth that is given to us to understand.”

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

"Characteristics of the Japanese mountain landscape" (5)

Continued: a disquisition on the aesthetics of volcanoes and alpine landscapes by Kojima Usui, founder of the Japanese Alpine Club

After explaining what volcanoes are like in isolation, I now want to explain how these dynamic, active, furious, temperamental mountains lurk within the Japanese Alps, bursting forth in all their magnificent starkness to create a unique mountain landscape.

Eruption of Yake-dake in 1925
In the Japanese Alps, the resort of choice for the Yari-ga-take Range, where people throng every summer to bathe, is the hot spring of Kami-kōchi. All around soar great cliffs of hard igneous rocks such as porphyry or granite, all having passed through the fire into what one might call the prime of life, where they now form the backbone of Honshū and gird up the great hall of our main island, these domes and pinnacles soaring to ten thousand feet above the valley of Kami-kōchi (the very characters 神川内 suggest a river running through it).

Tucked away at the bottom of these mountain walls, Kami-kōchi’s flat valley floor is equally renowned for the beauty of its woods and waters. Yet the beauty of these emerald waters and the verdant woods all testify to the fact that Kami-kōchi, together with its surrounding scenery, was formerly a lake – and one that owed its existence to the activity of a volcano.

For it was here that the Shiratani volcano erupted, an outlier of the Iodake volcano (also known as Yake-dake), which is an extension of the Norikura ridge within the Ontake volcano chain. Together with those of Iodake itself, these eruptions dammed up the rivers flowing along the contact line of the Chichibu Paleozoic strata and the granites of the Azusa River fault zone and created a lake of considerable depth, according to a certain geologist.

In this way, the effusions of the Iodake volcanic group pent up a mighty lake, but in time the waters of the lake made a breach, creating today’s Takahara (or Jinzū) River and the Azusa River (a tributary of the Shinano River), with Iodake as the intervening watershed.

For its part, the lake dried out into islands, river plains, and hillocks. Even after creating today’s Kami-kōchi, though, Iodake has continued to shape the valley, sending down mudflows to block the river anew, creating a secondary lake in the entrancing form of Tashiro Pond, where in autumn the withered leaves of the willows sway yellowing to and fro as coveys of ducks sweep in to fish the shallows.

In this peaceful valley, the verdant forests have taken root in the rich soils bequeathed by the volcanic rubble and, on the first floor of the hot spring building, patrons in their bathrobes sit around gazing up at the cliffs of Hodaka and Kasumizawa-dake and have nothing better to do than complain about the food. But they should never forget that it was a volcano that made their easy chatter possible, by creating the backdrop for it.


Beta translation from Kojima Usui, Characteristics of the Japanese mountain landscape (日本山岳景の特色), originally published in "Nippon Arupusu (1910), Vol IV, reprinted in Nippon Arupusu, Iwanami Bunko edition, 1992.