Friday, May 19, 2017

How not to have a blast

Japan’s authorities issue volcano safety guidelines for hikers

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

How volcanoes can damage your health

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

Red captions mark the active Nihon Hyakumeizan

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

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

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

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

The message is clear: these hazards are for real.

Related posts: volcanic excursions

Asama: Serious steam

Asama: The inner world

Asama: Fires of Tartarus

Bandai: Sole survivor

Mt Fuji: Journey to the centre of Mt Fuji

Gassan and Chōkai: The twentieth-century Tōhoku express

Kaimon: Slow train to Kaimon-dake

Ontake: The gateway

Sakurajima: The hot and cold Hyakumeizan challenge

Yake-dake: Burning mountain, bad snow

Yake-dake: Seasons of a stratovolcano

Saturday, May 13, 2017

The making of a Meiji mountaineer (5)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


This is a beta translation of a chapter (登山談義) from Mountain Memories (山の憶い出), as republished by Heibonsha in 1999 and edited by Ohmori Hisao. Kogure Ritarō (1873-1944) grew up in a mountain village where people still made regular pilgrimages to Mt Fuji and Ontake. He made his way via the new Meiji educational system to Tokyo, where he joined the Japanese Alpine Club a few years after it was founded, and later became its president. For more about the celebrated mountain meeting at Kirigamine in August 1935, see the introduction to One Hundred Mountains of Japan.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Images and ink (36)

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Sakura diary (5)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Sakura diary (4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Sakura diary (3)

15 April: at Imajo, the sakura glow brighter under a leaden overcast. The townlet lies south of Fukui, yet its cherry trees have yet to start shedding their petals. That may be due to a slightly cooler climate, thanks to the wooded hills that backstop the town’s southern boundary. These we’ve come to inspect.

We start our climb of Fujikura up a flight of stone steps that leads past vegetable gardens to a shrine.

A sign warns us about bears, but the wire fence at the wood’s edge suggests that wild boars are the real menace around here, especially if you grow vegetables. This slope will soon shimmer blue with dog violets (katakuri), says the Sensei, but we seem to be a few weeks early. Ah well, you can’t have your sakura and see your katakuri too.

The grey skies spit with rain as we zig-zag higher. The Sensei wears a cagoule, and I wield an umbrella, which is bad for my balance. “Shall we give up?” she asks, sensing my lack of enthusiasm for this slippery path. “Give up what?” I reply, “We haven’t got anywhere yet.” Fujikura does not promise to be one of our more inspirational outings.

At half height on the ridge, we pass a course of stonework and the bramble-filled shadow of a ditch. Apparently, there was a castle here during the warring country period, although too little remains to prompt Bashō-style ruminations on forgotten warriors’ deeds. Besides, I remind myself, we don’t do mujō.

Crossing from Fujikura to Nabekura, the twin summit, we enter a beechwood. At 500 metres or so, this seems remarkably low for trees that favour a cool climate. A snowpatch that we crunch through as we start descending the northern slope helps to explain the presence of a particularly magnificent beech grove, the leafless trees sheltering the path like a pillared hall.

Lower down, we come across a climatic signal of another kind. The tree trunks in a plantation of cryptomeria are bound up in plastic twine – to protect them against deer, explains the Sensei. In days gone by, the snow would have been too deep for these animals to make a living up here.

As the rain has stopped, a late lunch is taken on the steps of a deserted temple. Tucking into the Sensei’s industrial-strength onigiri, we’re too hungry to be distracted by the flowering tree over by the belfry. The operative haiku is this one:-

花よりもよしや吉野の葛団子 (17th century; anonymous)
 Hana mo yoshi ya, Yoshino no kuzudango

Lo, they beat the blossoms; Yoshino’s kudzu dumplings.

(Translation: Robin D. Gill)

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Sakura diary (2)

14 April, Fukui: It’s easy to get swept away by the blossoms, though. Walking past the remains of Fukui Castle – the donjon burned to the ground centuries ago – we see swirls of petals floating on the moat’s dark waters. They bring to mind a song about snow-flakes vanishing into a winter sea. Perhaps best not go there. Or is it ice floes endlessly adrift in the Denmark Strait?

Samazama no koto o omoidasu, sakura ka na

Many, many things they call to mind, those cherry blossoms (Basho)