Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The meaning of Mt Paektu

How North Korea taps into the symbolic voltage of a mysterious volcano

Has Kim Jong-un taken up winter mountaineering? Exactly a month ago, he was again bestriding the Korean peninsula’s highest peak. A local newspaper, the Rodong Sinmun, reported that "His eyes reflected the strong beams of the gifted great person seeing in the majestic spirit of Mount Paektu the appearance of a powerful socialist nation which dynamically advances full of vigour without vacillation at any raving dirty wind on the planet."

Kim Jong-un bestrides Mt Paektu in December 2017
It’s easy to mock the style of North Korean pronouncements. But this may run the risk of underestimating their effectiveness, warns B R Myers, a North Korea-watcher based at Dongseo University in Busan, South Korea. In his view, the regime’s “ideology has generally enjoyed the support of the North Korean people through good times and bad”, adding that about half of the refugees who make it over the border to China end up by voluntarily returning home.

Mt Paektu (the "white-headed peak") figures prominently in this propaganda. Visits to its snow-covered summit by the Supreme Leader often preface or follow important decisions, alleges a popular UK newspaper. Kim Jong-un last visited the peak in September 2016, right after the country’s fifth nuclear test. He was also there in April 2015, just before executing a former defense chief, and in November 2013, before executing his own uncle, among other top officials.

North Korean commemorative stamp showing
Kim Jong Il atop his native mountain
And this is to say nothing of the mountain’s ubiquity as a backdrop for the Kim dynasty in all manner of official productions, from postage stamps to oil paintings.

In his book, The cleanest race – how North Koreans see themselves and why it matters, B R Myers offers a convincing explanation for this prominence. Many see North Korea as a hardline Marxist-Leninist regime. Yet this is misleading, Myers says. For, when Kim Il-sung established his regime in the late 1940s, he chose not follow the model of his Soviet mentors but reached instead for Japan’s pre-war emperor cult, to which Korea had been intensively exposed during the country’s period as a colony.

Painting of (l to r) Mrs Kim, the infant Kim Jong-un and Kim Jong-Il 

This thesis explains a lot. It makes clear why members of the Kim dynasty are often depicted riding on a white horse – typically in a mountainous setting – an imperial motif that can be traced back as far as Napoleon. As for Mt Paektu, it simply replaced Mt Fuji as a symbol of national prowess. This, in turn, explains why official sources so assiduously insist on Mt Paektu as the birthplace of Kim Jong-il, the present Supreme Leader's progenitor.

In doing so, they tap into a legend that a mythical founder of the Korean nation descended on the peak thousands of years ago. In effect, “Kim Il-sung turned his whole family into a divine entity. He knew theocracies last longer than any type of regime,” says Song Bong-sun, a historian at Korea University in South Korea, as quoted in the Taipei Times.

Even the snow in our header picture fits this narrative, as a symbol of the cultural and ideological purity that North Korea preserves from corruption by the foreign-dominated south. So the answer to our opening question – has Kim Jong-un taken up mountaineering – is clearly “no”. Rather, he’s revealed himself as a master of misapplied meizanology – the art and science of divining a mountain’s meaning. And, in Kim's case, of exploiting it too.

The majestic spirit of Mt Paektu ("White head peak")
Photo: Wikipedia
Of course, Mt Paektu is no Mt Fuji. Sited on the remote northern border, it never figured as centrally in Korea's classical literature and art as Mt Fuji did in Japan’s. And at 2,744 metres, it tops out a full kilometre below its Japanese counterpart – although its altitude is curiously similar to that of another "white mountain", Hakusan (2,702 metres), one of Japan’s three most sacred peaks.

A crater lake from central casting (Landsat image)
Even so, Mt Paektu does have a "majestic spirit", to borrow the Rodong Sinmun's wordsIt has mystery – nobody is quite sure how a volcano managed to grow so far from an obvious plate boundary – and it has a magnificent crater lake, on a scale that hints at the incalculable menace lurking beneath. But suggestions that a gigantic eruption might be triggered by nearby bomb tests – thus hoisting the regime with its own petard – are probably wishful thinking.

In the end, you almost have to applaud how adeptly the three Kims have co-opted their top mountain into shoring up their legitimacy. At the same time, one wonders how long it will take their regime’s arch-antagonist – himself no slouch at self-aggrandisement – to take a leaf out of their meizanological playbook. Or, on second thoughts, perhaps it really is better not to go there.


B R Myers, The cleanest race - How North Koreans see themselves – and why it matters, Melville House, 2010.

Banyan column, "Peak patriotism", The Economist, December 16, 2017

"Only a rumbling volcano could make North Korea and the West play nice", New York Times, December 9, 2016

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Freedom of the hills?

Aiguille de la Tsa, September 2011

"Mountain is mountain, and city is city," our club's president used to say. This koan meant that, while the city dweller's life is minutely regulated, mountaineers take responsiblity for themselves. But what happens to mountaineering when well-intentioned authorities start setting rules in the name of safety? The philosopher/boulderer Francis Sanzaro weighed the consequences in a required-reading op-ed in last Sunday's New York Times:

Keep our mountains free. And dangerous.

Monday, January 8, 2018

“How to be a master climber in six easy lessons”

Hints on mountain safety and life-leading from a pioneer of hard rock

Pat Ament in the 1970s
(Photo: Wikipedia)
Any claim to deliver mastery in six easy lessons sounds like clickbait. Except that, in this case, the title belonged to a blue pamphlet on the shelves of a local second-hand bookshop. And the author was none other than Pat Ament (right), who helped to lift American rock-climbing into the 5.11 grade during the 1960s. So, for a trumpery coin, the slim volume (it runs to just 78 pages) was redeemed from its dusty limbo.

How to be a master climber in six easy lessons is no textbook, I discovered. If you want to find out how to equalise slings or set up abseils, look elsewhere. Instead, it offers a philosophy drawn from a long climbing career and distilled into print during the 1990s. Climbing, writes Ament, is an art, where art is defined as “anything that expresses uncommon care”. Master climbers strive for self-perfection through the perfection of their art.

Mastery is not about grades or competition. “The master climber is above all trustworthy. He exercises care in everything and reveals no lack of guardianship over the safety of companions.” His only allegiance is to good judgment. One's grade is what one leads on-sight, in good, strong style, in safety. Master climbers climb for the right reasons, consider each hold, pay attention to detail, and back up everything. Wry ink-drawings by the author press home his points.

Ament’s final lesson is about listening to your inner voice – climbers have lived or died, depending on whether they took the hint: “One must attune oneself to whatever subtle ideas strike and may prove to be guidance or warning – if only from an inner, more intelligent, perhaps spiritual self. And one must be willing to respond to the guidance.”

One may be saved again and again by virtue of the ability to hear, says Ament. For those who can listen, "Each day becomes a kind of calling, with space and beauty and light." Climbing has the potential to speak to the soul a certain calm, but this feeling speaks to a person most loudly when his heart and thoughts are the most silent.

To this, the reader can only say Amen(t).

"How to be a master climber in six easy lessons" by Pat Ament, published by Two Lights, Boulder Colorado, May 1997, with illustrations by Pat Ament.

The six lessons as summarized in Pat Ament's own words:

Lesson 1: Grow Up. Climb for your own reasons, as a means of personal joy, art, and fulfillment, and also with a desire to contribute to the wellbeing of others. Perfect the experience of climbing and safety. Most of the attributes of mastery are available to all climbers, not just the elite. Learn who you are and what is best for you. Respect others, but be yourself.

Lesson 2: Look Closely At Each Hold. Develop an acute sense of awareness of footwork and the relationship between safety and good, careful, artful technique. Practice constant and continual awareness, no matter the difficulty of the climbing and no matter your general level of ability.

Lesson 3: Climb Only What You Want To Climb. Try not to follow the persuasions of the mainstream, unless those persuasions are good. Beware of the unconscious influence of the media, peer groups, and friends. Don't let friends or others determine what is right for you. Make your own choices and judgments about everything in climbing.

Lesson 4: Start With Your Shoelaces Tied (Get everything in your favor). Adjust everything, even to minute details, so that it suits and helps you. Climb with the right friend, when the weather is right, etc. etc. Be good at experience. Create and apply care to all that you do. Nurture your life.

Lesson 5: Double Everything. Double everything -- not only at each rappel and belay anchor. There are hundreds of doubling nuances and a backup system for almost anything. Make a fine science of doubly protecting yourself. Double, i.e. expand, your level of safety, awareness, and understanding.

Lesson 6: Listen To The Inner Spiritual Guidance Or Warning. There is guidance to be had in life. Some of it comes from within or from intuitive and perhaps spiritual sources. The most important aspect of safety, as well as joy, may be to attune oneself to (and respond to) such promptings when they occur.

(c) Pat Ament, 1997

More to read by Pat Ament:

To become as a child

Look to your soul, by which you might be

Topical quotations (from "To become as a child"):-

Royal's first climbs up the 3,000-foot walls of El Capitan were done in a spirit of festivity. Climbing, above all, was play. Climbers are, in essence, children. French philosopher Denis Diderot described children as essentially criminal. According to Diderot, it's our good fortune that the physical powers of children are too limited to permit them to carry out their destructiveness. We wouldn't want a child to be in charge of the nuclear arsenal, for example, although world wars have been the result of people who, as adults, hadn't progressed beyond the selfishness of a child. A vision of the child taken from scripture suggests that children are innocent and follow their hearts as best they know how. This kind of child, a vision of receptiveness and purity, of honesty, and simple play, seems an appropriate model for the climber.


I didn't have to grow into the world very far before I sensed and saw the spiritual carelessness and sometimes viciousness of the climbing world. There were poisoned spirits in the Boulder community and also in the larger world of climbers—the jealousy of one, and the smallness of another. C. S. Lewis said, "We must picture hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment." Such a statement attaches itself to the way things began to exist in and around climbers, as I began to make that transition out of childhood into adolescence.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Conic impressions (5)

1 November (pm): after lunch, there’s time for one more Fuji mound. Although my phone is no better than a brick in this country, I can still use GPS (Go ask at Police Station) to find it. The officer at the Sendagaya kōban helpfully points me south-south-west, past the Metropolitan Gymnasium. Then there’s a street of glitzy cafes and boutiques to thread before the pine trees of the Hatonomori Hachiman shrine come into view.

The approach path to the Sendagaya Fuji starts awkwardly beside a row of russet torii. Tall visitors should duck carefully under their cross-beams. I hope nobody saw me bang my head. A nearby signboard shows that this Fujizuka aims to reproduce all the features of its great original.

Nor does it fall far short in that aim. This is the feature-richest Fujizuka that I've so far seen. Near the seventh station, Jigigyō Miroku himself is met with, in the guise of a stone figurine sitting within a small lava cave.

And, unlike the other three Fujizuka I’ve visited, this one has a proper summit shrine or “oku-miya”, just as on the real mountain.

There's even a tiny birdbath, which a tag identifies as the Kinmeisui, a little pond that sometimes forms, or used to form, on the real Mt Fuji's southern crater rim.

Another signboard explains that the mountain was built in 1789, making it one of the oldest Fujizuka in the city centre.

Lava blocks (“kuroboku”) from the real volcano were used only around the summit area, but this economy is decently concealed by the authentic panda grass (“kumazasa”) and topiary that deck the lower slopes. Although it had to be reconstructed after the Great Tokyo Earthquake in 1923, the mound preserves its original shape, the signboard says.

Light is fading. There is just time at the shrine office to buy an o-mikuji (fortune paper) bound in a brass ring. It prognosticates in four languages – Japanese, Chinese, Korean and English – suggesting that this inner-city shrine has adapted itself urbanely to the shifting flows of international tourism.

This is what it says:-

10. Great Good Fortune: throw out old stale habits for something more suitable to the age and, like a withered tree that buds in the spring, your destiny will be blessed with good fortune like a rebirth.

Illness: you will recover
Love/marriage: you will have much happiness
The person you await: he will come
Lawsuits: you will win
Lost item: you will find it
Buying & selling: do at the same time
Building/moving: after due consideration
Travel: favorable
Money: matters improve
Examinations: you will succeed

Now it’s time to head for the Japanese Alpine Club in Ichigaya for the evening appointment. It’s only when I’m standing on the station platform, with the yellow Chuo Line trains hammering through every few seconds, that I realise how peaceful it had been in that pine grove, atop the miniature volcano. Isn’t that one reason why we go and climb mountains?

2 November: Travel: favorable, the fortune paper is as good as its word. The airline upgrades me to business class. Seat 5D is not by a window but, no matter, soon after take-off a miniature Mt Fuji, complete with a fresh new snowcap, floats briefly in the centre of an opposite porthole, blue with distance, mystic, ineffable. And this time, it’s the real thing.

Conic impressions (4)

1 November: I’m staying at a hotel near Minami-Senju, which seems to bother the old friend I dined with yesterday. “Isn’t it a tough area?” he asks. Now, wait a moment – I mean, how many other rail stations in Tokyo have a bronze statue of Matsuo Bashō in front of them? For this is where the all-terrain haiku poet started on his Narrow Road to the Deep North, although presumably not by taking the Jōban Rapid Line out of town.

As if to burnish the cultural credentials of my chosen location, the hotel’s concierge tells me that yet another Fujizuka is within walking distance – that of the Ono Terusaki shrine. Accordingly, I set off on foot (like Bashō himself), only southwards down the roaring skillet of Route 4, the trunk road that links central Tokyo and Nikkō. Perhaps the rush hour was the wrong time to attempt this; within minutes, my eyes are stinging from the fumes and grit.

As soon as possible, I veer off to the right, into a different world. Instead of the flyblown eateries, battered vending machines and shuttered workshops on the main drag, here are narrow streets lined with leafy trees and homely taverns.

There is even a sento or two – OK, one of them has morphed into a coin laundry, but the other is still functioning as a traditional public bathhouse, doubtless with a traditional painting of Mt Fuji across its walls.

Mt Fuji! That reminds me – we’re supposed to be questing for Fujizuka. As my mobile phone is defunct, I accost a hapless passer-by. Pointing out the way, he says he’s happy that a visitor is taking an interest in his local shrine. In this miraculously preserved fragment of Tokyo’s old “shita-machi”, people seem to be proud of their local Mt Fuji. Another leafy street, past more small shops – no chain supermarkets here - and I’m there, walking between two noble ginko trees into the sacred precincts.

Lurking in a shadowy corner is a tumbled mound of boulders – lava, I presume – held together, seemingly, by the roots of the saplings and weeds that sprout from all its nooks and crannies. For all its chthonic unkemptness, though, this Mt Fuji lacks the height and bulk of its peers at Otowa and Shinagawa.

The small scale and primitive form – more mountainside than manicured rock garden – hint that I’m looking at one of Edo’s earlier Fujizukas. A helpful signboard confirms that it was constructed in 1828. And it turns out that an earlier version dates from 1782, making it only a generation more recent than Edo’s first Fujizuka.

Adherents of the Mt Fuji faith trace their origins back to Hasegawa Kakugyō, born in 1541 and said to have died 106 years later in the same cave on Mt Fuji, the Hitoana, where he performed austerities on tiptoe for one thousand days and nights. But it was a later follower, Jikigyō Miroku (1671-1733), a successful oil merchant and proselyte, who turned the Fuji congregations or “Fuji-kō” into a mass movement.

Jikigyo Miroku
Jikigyō had a wife and three daughters. This became especially relevant to the story of Fujizuka in the sixth month of 1733, the year after the Kyōhō famine, when Jikigyō climbed Mt Fuji for the last time, with the firm intent of fasting to death – for his motives, Emily Scoble’s excellent paper on miniature Mt Fujis explains the background.

In the thirty-one days before he succumbed to hunger and cold, Jikigyō gave sermons that his acolytes noted down as holy scripture. And one of his teachings was that women ought not be thought of as “impure”, as held by mainstream religions of the time, and should hence be treated as equal members of the Fuji-kō. As women were nonetheless officially banned from climbing Mt Fuji, he suggested that a replica could be built in Edo that anybody – young or old, male or female – could climb “as long as the world exists”.

His wishes were realised by his disciple, Takada Tōshirō, a landscape gardener, who put up Edo’s first miniature Mt Fuji in 1765 . Starting a tradition of his own, he used real lava from the lower slopes of Mt Fuji for the body of his mountain and soil from the summit for the top.

Within a few years, Fujizuka started to mushroom all over Edo and even in surrounding districts, although they didn’t seem to catch on further afield. Print artists included them in their famous views of Edo. Hiroshige cleverly juxtaposed the one at Meguro with the real Mt Fuji. The air was less hazy in those days, thanks no doubt to the dearth of trucks on the roaring skillet of Route 4.

On the slopes of a six-metre-high mock-Fuji that he completed at Takadanobaba in 1779, Takada fashioned a miniature Tainai cave, a tiny shrine at the fifth station, and ten climbing “stations” along a zigzag ascent path, as did many of his imitators. Unfortunately, I can’t see if the Ono Terusaki Mt Fuji shares these features, because a sturdy metal gate stands in the way. And the gate is guarded by two stone monkeys, making reference to the tradition that Mt Fuji was thrown up in a single night during a Kōshin year. Clearly, casual climbing is discouraged: this Fujizuka will not be trivialised.

Turning towards the shrine’s buildings, I keep my camera switched off. Although it’s still early in the morning, there’s hardly a moment when somebody isn't paying their respects in front of the main sanctuary, whether an old man, or a mother with her baby in a sling, or salaryfolk on their way to work.

Prayers are said to be particularly efficacious for success in the academic and theatrical worlds. Atsumi Kiyoshi, of the “Otoko wa tsurai yo” series, got his first big break after praying at Ono Terusaki. So there’s no need here for the plaintive sign I saw yesterday below the Shinagawa Fuji: “Let’s pray at least once a month at our local shrine.”

As if materializing from thin air, a white-robed maiden has appeared in the shrine office – surely it was empty a moment ago. She finds my range instantly: probably my little round glasses have betrayed me as an aspirant meizanologist. “If you’re interested in Fujizuka, we’ve just recently published this book …” And effortlessly, as if possessed by a fox, my wallet opens and ¥1,800 passes over the wooden counter.

Flipping through the first pages of my purchase, I see at once that this is an insider job. “The O-Fuji-san of Great Edo” (a rough translation of the Japanese title) is published by a committee of the Tokyo Association of Shinto Shrines that researches the Mt Fuji faith. Right at the start, they've included a fold-out page with a lengthy genealogy of all the divinities involved. This seems to have been downloaded directly from the Kojiki.

Map of Fujizuka in Tokyo (detail)
From the O-Edo no o-Fuji-san guidebook
What gets my full attention is the sketch map printed across pages 18 and 19. It shows no fewer than 70 Fuji mounds in greater Tokyo – the westernmost is out beyond Hachioji. Then, after some hints on how visitors should comport themselves, the book launches into a shrine-by-shrine guide to the city’s Fujizuka (curiously, I can’t find the Otowa Fuji that I climbed yesterday, perhaps because it resides within a temple’s grounds).

Mountain-opening festival at Ono Terusaki shrine
Photo from the O-Edo no o-Fuji-san guidebook

After reading a few entries, I get the point. The Fuji mounds belong to shrines, and the shrines serve the local community. That’s especially true of the Ono Terusaki shrine: if you want to climb its miniature Mt Fuji, you have to wait until the official yama-biraki “mountain-opening” ceremony on 30 June and 1 July each year and join in the festival. Then anybody can climb the mountain, says the guidebook, “from tiny tots to old folks”.

Oddly enough, Jikigyō Miroku doesn't get much of a write-up in the book's introduction (he was said to have been a difficult character), yet here the authors seem to echo his very words...

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Conic impressions (3)

31 October: there’s still two hours of daylight, and I remember once seeing a Fuji-like mound from the train to Haneda airport. So I head to Shinagawa and ask at the Keikyū line wicket gate. The clerk’s head bobs inside his office to consult a colleague and then bobs out again. All I have to do, he says, is to take the slow train as far as Shin-Bamba, the “new horse place”.

That sounds just right – traditionally, a bamba was where you dismounted from your steed and proceeded on foot into the sacred precincts of a shrine. I dismount from the slow train at the wrong end of the platform and proceed on foot a little further than necessary. But the shrine is hard to miss: it is fronted by a torii with dragons writhing up its supporting columns.

The torii’s rococo style hints at the shrine’s history – founded in 1187, but rebuilt much more recently, mostly in postwar concrete. The Fuji-zuka can’t be missed either, looming over the busy street almost menacingly. It too is rather new. Started one year after the Meiji Restoration, it was completed in 1872, as one of the city’s very last Fujizuka. Then, exactly half a century later, it had to be bodily moved to make way for the new Keihin road, whose four lanes roar underneath it rather as the Tōmei expressway rumbles past the foot of the real Mt Fuji.

To climb the Shinagawa Fuji, you hang a left half-way up the steps to the main shrine. Immediately, you find yourself out on a slope of lava boulders, already high above the street. As on the Otowa Fuji, stone pillars mark each of the mountain’s ten “stations”.

Near the eighth station, a prominent rock recalls the lava buttress under which the Fuji-kō's martyr, Jikigyō Miroku, fasted to death in 1733. (The authorities of the Fuji Sengen Shrine wouldn't let him fast on the summit, lest his death there ritually pollute it.) If you go to the real mountain, you'll find his memorial on the Yoshida Route:

Memorial to Jikigyo Miroku on the real Mt Fuji
Photo by courtesy of
Closer to the summit is a miniature shrine:

If there’s a Tainai cave too, I must have overlooked it. Indeed, this Mt Fuji is so high and steep that you need to watch your footing carefully.

At the summit, a family is looking at the view. Our collective gaze sweeps out over the station, eastwards across the mangrove swamps of Odaiba. Before the buildings intervened, I’m sure you could have seen as far as Chiba across the bay.

Then I discover that the Shinagawa Fuji has a trick that the real mountain can’t emulate – that is, instead of having to descend the way you came, you just step down a few feet into the pine grove of the main shrine, elevated as it is high above the street on a natural bluff. Quite unlike the interminable and knee-punishing screes of the Subashiri Route.

When the train pulls out of Shin-Bamba station, the evening sky backlights Shinagawa’s Fuji as a clot of anarchic shadows set amidst the regular crenellations of the city skyline, mountain wildness against civic order. The contrast is arresting, yet nobody gives the scene a second glance.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Conic impressions (2)

31 October: inspiration strikes as I drag my suitcase along the gritty streets of Minami-Senju. Mt Fuji! There’s no time to climb the real thing, of course (and my RailPass expires in a matter of hours) but miniature Mt Fujis are dotted all around the city of Tokyo, I’ve read – surely, there’ll be one or two within reach. A quick scan of the hotel’s internet reveals two “Fuji mounds” close to the Yamanote Line.

An hour later, I’m walking past two large buses and then up the steps to Gokokuji, near Mejiro. The sign on the gate promisingly announces the temple as a “Dai-Honzan” – a great main mountain – alluding no doubt to its allegiance to the Shingon Sect, founded on Mt Kōya by Monk Kūkai. The main building houses a famous Kannon, allegedly brought all the way from India, and today also two busloads of schoolchildren, who are listening to a priest in purple robes.

Back-tracking to the temple’s gateway, I find I sign inviting me to "go up" the Otowa Fuji. No second bidding is needed. A flagstoned path leads past a flower-bed and over a stone bridge across a dry watercourse.

A few steps up the slope is a stone stele announcing the first station – I’m impressed: not only the mountain, but every detail of an actual ascent has been miniaturized.

A little further on is a small cave, which might correspond to the actual Hitoana cave on Mt Fuji, where Kakugyō, the founder of the Fuji-kō sect, meditated on tiptoe for a thousand days and nights.

Or perhaps it represents the Tainai, another cave on Mt Fuji, said to assure safe childbirth. As the climb steepens, a small shrine comes into view on the skyline, as might happen on the real mountain. A "great rock" guards the summit approach, mimicking a prominent buttress on the real mountain.

The summit view downwards is convincingly steep. Lumps of lava-like rock may have come from the real mountain. In days gone by, plants as well as rocks were brought from the real Mt Fuji to build these miniature ones.

Down at the base, a toddler is starting her first ascent, step by painstaking step, belayed by her mother's hand. I nod to them as I go by. You never know, we might be witnessing the start of a distinguished alpinistic career.