Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Autumn meizan (4)

Travelogue continued: getting to know Hakusan again after a long gap

The life-size tyrannosaurus did discombobulate me - not that I took it for real, of course, though it seemed to lunge at us out of the twilight. As the Sensei had already explained – she was driving – the hulking beast was made of nothing more terrifying than papier-mâché. And it stands guard over a new dinosaur museum. But that was exactly what worried me: the creature was new.

As a rule, mountaineers aren’t fond of change – we like our mountains the way they always have been. This morning, though, innovations leapt out at every bend in the road. That’s only to be expected when you revisit a favourite mountain for the first time in decades. When we reached the end of the forest road, the Sensei parked her van in a multi-level car park; in the old days, this was just a patch of gravel.

Shrouded in mist, our mountain looked suitably mysterious. Hakusan is one of Japan’s three most sacred summits, along with Mt Fuji and Tateyama. It was the home mountain of the author who wrote up the Nihon Hyakumeizan, and the first high one that he climbed. "I could write for ever about Hakusan," Fukada Kyūya wrote, "so much has the mountain given me."

Unfortunately, the instant success of Fukada's book greatly increased the popularity of the mountains he described. That is all the more ironic in the light of the acerbic comments about new roads, ski resorts and summit installations that he sprinkles through his mountain essays. For Fukada was an arch-conservative. In the afterword to Nihon Hyakumeizan, he has this to say about “famous mountains” that let themselves be Disneyfied:

A peak that people admire from morning to night, that they crown with a shrine, necessarily qualifies as an "eminent mountain". A true spirit of reverence inheres in such places. Unfortunately, the crowds mobilized by mass tourism have debased some of these mountains, hallowed by tradition though they once were, and driven the mountain gods from their haunts. Such mountains are no longer eligible as Meizan.

Could Hakusan too be in danger of losing its Meizan brevet? As we shrugged on our packs in front of a grandiose visitor pavilion, I was starting to worry. The spirit of reverence seemed to be much in abeyance around here. True, the climbing path leads out under a concrete torii, but this structure serves mainly to funnel visitors over giant doormats. These are supposed to wipe the seeds of alien weeds from hikers’ boots, said the Sensei. A little later, she pointed out such an intruder, sprouting by the path.

Cloud kept our valley in shadow, though fitful shafts of light played on distant hills. Soon we stopped to take off our jackets: in the old days, frost pillars would push out of the ground in this season, and snow would already have dusted the summits. Today was more late summer than early winter. No wonder those alien plants are moving uphill.

Coming up to a pair of mountain birches that mark the start of Hakusan’s sub-alpine zone, the Sensei patted the silvery bark and announced them as old friends. A while later we reached the midway hut at Jin-no-suke. Or rather we reached the large blockhouse that replaced the small wooden hut which used to merge unobtrusively into the hill. We took our half-way break on the new concrete terrace, where once there was a forest glade.

Above the hut, we came to an outcrop of conglomerate rock, rounded pebbles frozen into a concrete-like matrix. Not the kind of rock you’d expect half way up a not-yet-extinct volcano; you could almost see the gravels rolling along the bed of some ancient river, washed down from a vanished mountain range.

It turns out that we were looking at the Tetori Group, the very formation that, lower down the mountain, yielded up the dinosaur bones for the new museum. The Sensei, who indulges my interest in rocks as a harmless eccentricity, walked on ahead while I took a photo. Some novelties do have to be accommodated, even if they go back more than a hundred million years.

Climbing back into the realm of lava, we passed a giant boulder that must have surfed downhill in one of Hakusan’s eruptions. Now the view opened up across a plain of rustling panda grass. This was Midagahara, the Buddhist name signalling a kind of gateway to the upper world. Years ago, we’d met the monks of Eiheiji here, black-robed and straw-sandalled, each carrying down a creel full of empty drink cans. No sign of them today.

At around 2,200 metres, panda grass gave way to an avenue of creeping pines. The gnarled branches looked to be in good health, green and glossy, with no trace of the strange blight that was reported last year.

We came up to Murodo. For a century or more a large hut has dominated this belvedere below Hakusan’s summit cone. Now a cluster of buildings sprawls across the plateau, big enough for 700 guests at once. This late in the season, all were shuttered. A few hikers were brewing up on gas stoves on the concrete ledges under the eaves. Most wore down jackets against the autumnal chill.

We'd left Murodo below when the clouds were rifted away, like a prestidigitator's tablecloth, to reveal a wild hassle of sunlit hilltops tumbling away in the distance. From out to sea, the clear autumn light cascaded over our mountaintop. Was it in search of visions like this that old Monk Taichō pioneered the way up here in the first year of Yōrō, almost a millennium and a third ago?

At the summit, the wind from the sea blustered against a stone revetment. Behind it sheltered the “okumiya”, the innermost sanctuary of the Hakusan shrine. Brightly dressed folk paid their respects in front of the weathered timbers. Others, at the trig point a few yards away, took selfies. We stepped up to the highest point and looked down at the little crater lake, faithfully reflecting the sky as it always has done.

The Sensei led the way – this is her native mountain too – to a sheltered spot below some boulders, and unpacked three of her industrial-strength onigiri. Our lunchspot faced inland, towards the Japan Alps. Ranges of lower hills rolled away at our feet, as if paying homage to our peak. Hakusan is a high mountain.

Some might cavil at that assertion. After all, Hakusan tops out more than a kilometre below Mt Everest's base camp. Or, to put it another way, you'd have to jack Hakusan up by the best part of two kilometres before it could face off against the Matterhorn. Yet Hakusan never fails to impress me as a mountain of stature.

Tucking into one of those industrial-strength onigiri, I wondered how this could be so. Something to do with the expansive views of an “island peak”, perhaps. Or the way that the summit cone stands aloof from the sublunary world of trees and grass. Or the frost-sculpted landscape of the craters below – the stepped slopes and snow hollows must be some of the southernmost periglacial features on this side of Honshū.

The Sensei interrupted my thoughts. “Just below us is the cave where Monk Taichō meditated,” she said. “With my mountaineering club, we visited it once – it took a while to find, searching around on those steep slopes.”

Naruhodo, I realised, however often you visit a “famous mountain”, there’ll always be something new to discover. It’s almost like a continuing conversation, one with a person of depth and character. I looked over at the Sensei at this, wondering if I should run the idea by her, but she was busy with her own onigiri. As for Hakusan, you know, one could do a lot worse for a Meizan-in-law…

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Autumn meizan (3)

Travelogue continued: long day's interview into night on Arashima-dake

October 24: The Sound Man is having trouble. And if the Sound Man is in trouble, then we all are. I mean, you can't do much of a TV interview without a Sound Man.

While waiting for him, we're having an extended lunch break - I'm tucking into one of the Sensei's industrial-strength onigiri - on the summit of Arashima-dake. Nowhere could be more fitting, the local office of NHK has decided, as a location for an interview about the forthcoming translation of Nihon Hyakumeizan. After all, this is the eighty-eighth of Fukada Kyūya's One Hundred Mountains of Japan.

There's no need for the enamelled panorama table nearby, as the Sensei knows every one of her local mountains and most of the far-off ones too - that's Ontake in the hazy distance, still steaming. Closer at hand, under the flawless autumn sky, the array of peaks is just as Fukada describes it in our favourite book:

From the summit, Hakusan dominated the view . In front of it were arrayed the lesser peaks of Hō-onji, Kyō-ga-dake, Aka-usagi-yama, and Gankyōji, the playground of the Fukui Mountaineering Club. The Buddhist names of many of these mountains are said to trace out the route that Taichō Daishi took when he made the first ascent of Hakusan.

The Sensei is particularly proud of Kyō-ga-dake - it's a former volcano, she says, and you can clearly see the crater. I turn in that direction, but the mountain looks a bit broken down, if you ask me. But I never disagree with the Sensei, especially about local mountains.

That reminds me: we're up here for an interview, but we're still missing the Sound Man. Over there, by the trig point, Yahara-san, the NHK cameraman, is setting up a heavy-duty video camera. And Miura-san, the director, is looking at her list of questions. Both know their way about mountains - Yahara-san is as likely to be found filming in the Himalaya as he is in his native mountains of Fukui, while Miura-san hails from serrated Shinshū. But the Sound Man, summoned at the last moment from NHK's office in the flatlands of Nagoya, is still missing.

Eventually, he struggles to the summit, larding the ground with sweat, his face perilously grey with the effort of porting a full-size boom mike and a ponderous box of recording gear up a 1,524-metre hill. This might be the first mountain he has ever climbed. Lesser men would have given up long ago. I feel a pang of guilt: surely, we should have given him more help.

But the show must go on. In minutes, the video and sound gear is deployed, and Miura-san asks the first question. "How did you come to translate Hyakumeizan?". I'm inclined to reply "In a fit of reckless insouciance," but realise that my rusting Japanese skills won't stretch to that. So I just say that, after moving to Europe, there was more time to read the book and I soon realised that it deserved every bit of its classic status. And that's true too.

Thanks to our late arrival, the sun is now blazing down and I've had to take off hat and sunglasses to face the camera. Even in October, the light is intense at this latitude. I ask Yahara-san if I can put on some sun protection - better not, he says, as it would look crummy on video. OK, all art demands sacrifice.

Next question - which do you prefer, the European or the Japanese Alps? Each in its special way, I reply, or words to that effect. So what's special about the Japanese mountains, Yahara-san follows up. Shinrin desu ne, I say - it's the woods, isn't it. After all, that’s what Walter Weston said, though more eloquently: "the magnificence of the dark and silent forests that clothe their massive flanks."

We move over to the summit shrine. The sensei bows and folds her hands; I just stand there, respectfully, of course. "What do you think of when you see a shrine like this?" asks Yahara-san. Well, surely all 'famous mountains' should have a summit shrine. As the Hyakumeizan author observed about another mountain, "The Japanese will never cease from putting shrines on their favorite mountains."

Arashima-dake has had a shrine for a long time. Fukada noted it when he came this way in the 1950s or 1960s:

I noticed that the summit shrine contains several figures of Jizō, one of them sculpted in the first year of the Genji era (1864). Yes, I nodded to myself, this mountain has been revered and people have come up here to pay their respects for centuries.

Interestingly, the shrine on Arashima-dake was taken down in a summit clean-up that took place a few years ago. For a while, the mountaintop was bare. But the local people clearly thought the shrine should be replaced.

Come to think about it, it's not so different in Europe. Around the start of the twentieth century, the Swiss and Italian villages of Zermatt and Valtournanche decided that their local mountaintop should be consecrated. After the Italians had fabricated a tall summit cross from wrought iron, no doubt at considerable expense, teams of mountain guides took two summer seasons to haul it up the mountain. And there you can see it to this day, on the Matterhorn's summit, with the Latin names for each village worked into the crossbar: Patrumbor and Vallistornench

Alas, there isn't time to develop this theme in a news clip that's destined to last no more than a few minutes. So I just say that a mountaintop without a shrine (or cross) would seem - the word eludes me. "Mono-tarinai", suggests the sensei. Yes, that's it exactly – something would be missing.

It's time to go down. A sharp-edged section of ridge leads away from the summit. A few summers ago, somebody fell off there, observes Yahara-san. The body was only found when somebody remarked the stench rising from the gully below. We head carefully down the slippery path, between ramparts of panda grass, towards the dark and silent forests below.

Or not so dark. Slanting in under the trees, the afternoon sun backlights the leaves in spangles of red, yellow and gold. Yahara-san darts to and fro with his video camera, capturing seasonal footage. We have plenty of time to appreciate the autumn colours as the Sound Man is coming down almost as slowly as he went up - a sprained foot is now adding to his woes. But he still insists on carrying his own pack.

We wait for him again above the abandoned ski-piste. The sun has gone behind the ridge by now, and the pampas grass glows palely in the gathering dusk. Eventually, the Sound Man limps into view and I realise that, all day, it’s been our colleague from the flatlands who’s been cultivating the true mountaineering spirit. This time, the right words spring unprompted to mind. They are gaman and konjo. By the time we get to the cars, the light really is going.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Autumn meizan (2)

Travelogue continued: a summit meeting with the master of Tozan Tales

October 23: the Raichō ("Snow Ptarmigan") express arrived on time at Osaka station. That was good, because Wes Lang and I had arranged a rare summit meeting. And there was Wes now, waiting at the Sakurabashi exit. As a doyen of the Kansai Hyakumeizan scene, Wes should need no introduction to readers of this blog, as most will likely be frequent visitors to his Hiking in Japan guide and Tozan Tales.

Wes was looking a bit leaner than when we'd last met - an enforced sojourn with the local health system was to blame. You can read about this episode on Wes's witty yet perceptive blog, TB Tales. Others might have been discombobulated by the experience but, to a mountaineer of Wes's stamp, even soggy hospital toast can be turned to good account. The man is irrepressible.

But I digress. We had an hour before Wes had to entrain for his afternoon class in Kobe, so we headed for the Eikokuya café - how appropriate - atop one of the Ekimae area's tall buildings and ordered two morning sets. Being possessed of healthy appetites on this cool autumn morning, we desisted from turning the toast slices into caricatures of Mt Fuji.

Since we last met, Wes has turned his attention from Fukada Kyūya's Nihon Hyakumeizan - been there, done that - to the local equivalent, the One Hundred Mountains of the Kansai Region. The list has received the closest thing to official sanction in the shape of a handsome guidebook published by Japan's oldest publisher of mountain books and journals, Yama to Keikoku - a battered copy of which Wes now spread out on the counter in front of us.

"You know," he said, after taking a bit into an egg sandwich, "the Kansai really is unbeatable for mountain variety." As an ex-Tokyo man, I almost raised an eyebrow here - I mean, what with Tanzawa and Chichibu, and that cone-shaped mountain on the skyline, the Kantō didn't seem too bad for variety either. But Wes was in full swing now: "Where else can you hike up mountains within the city limits?", he asked rhetorically, pointing at Mt Rokko over yonder in the haze.

I had to admit that, for sheer in-your-face accessibility, the mountains round the Big Slope and its environs go one better than Tokyo. But what about variety? In reply, Wes turned to the contents page in his Yama to Keikoku guide - a quick glance of the pencil ticks against the mountain names revealed that he's a good way through the one hundred.

Not having encountered the Kansai Hyakumeizan before, I was intrigued to see which mountains entered into this list: Atago, Hiei, Ikoma, Ōmine, Ōdaigahara, Hyō-no-Sen, the "Icy Mountain" where no less an alpinist than Katō Buntarō cut his winter-mountaineering teeth - yes, these are Meizan that can hold their heads up in any company. But what was this? My eye lit on Hōrai-zan, a mountain on the shores of Lake Biwa - the train had passed by its foot that morning. It seems incongruous that you can ride a cable-car up to the summit of a mountain named for the Western Paradise.

Well, any listing of famous mountains is likely to stoke controversy - it seems that the original Kansai One Hundred were selected by Nakanishi Seiichirō, an experienced mountaineer. He was presumably miffed that Fukada Kyūya had let only four Kansai peaks into his original all-Japan Hyakumeizan. But Nakanishi came in for criticism himself, allegedly because he favoured summits in the southern Kansai districts over those in the west. The Yama to Keikoku listing was a later attempt to redress the balance, it's said. By the way, I'm indebted for this information to On Higher Ground, himself a Kansai resident.

Fortunately, the Eikoku-ya has a "bottomless" policy when it comes to refills. Starting on our second cups of coffee, we turned to the current mountain scene. There's a lot going on. Blogs and message boards mean that it's easier than ever for like-minded Meizan-seekers to meet up and arrange trips. Wes's recent Hiking in Japan camp at Togakushi is a case in point. And blogs are the ideal place to write up trips and publish compelling photography afterwards. All in all, it's never been a better time to be a foreign mountaineer in these parts.

Alas, our time was soon up. Wes showed me the way to Kinokuniya - by now, I wanted to buy my own copy of the Kansai Hyakumeizan - and then vanished into the crowd. Too late, I thought of a final question to ask him. And that is, will he be able to finish his round of the Kansai One Hundred before he becomes an oto-san .... ?