Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Masters of the silver age (3)

Concluded: Japan's post-war mountain photographers gain an international reputation

Inconveniently for historians, the effect of the second world war on the arts is hard to sum up neatly. As we’ve seen, some mountain photographers just picked up where they’d left off. For others, the war marked a turning point. One such was Tabuchi Yukio (1905-1989). Up to March 1945, he’d spent more than a decade teaching science at middle schools, and studying butterflies in his spare time. Nobody in the photographic world had heard of him.

Tabuchi Yukio at work
Having lost his home in the fire-bombing of Tokyo that month, Tabuchi moved to the village of Azumino in central Nagano Prefecture, at the foot of the Japan Alps. Henceforth, he’d make his living as a freelance writer of teaching materials. He established himself on the mountain photography scene with his first collection, published in 1951. Its title can be taken as a manifesto: Tabuchi Yukio – masterpieces of mountain photography (田淵行男- 山岳写真傑作集). His emphatic style of deep shadows and dramatic skies drew in part on the use of high-contrast copy film combined with red filters.

Mt Asama at sunrise, by Tabuchi Yukio
Butterfly sketches
by Tabuchi Yukio
Pursuing his twin passions of butterfly and mountain photography – Tabuchi liked to jest that no weather could stop him taking pictures, as clouds suited the butterflies and blue skies the mountains – he followed in the tradition of the Japan Alpine Club’s naturalist photographers such as Takeda Hisayoshi and Takano Takazō (see first post in this series). Indeed, he is one of the few photographers who gets a mention in Fukada Kyūya’s One Hundred Mountains of Japan:

Every mountain has its special benisons to grant. Jōnen offers bold young climbers no crags or challenging gullies but for those of an artistic temperament its elegant form is an invitation, yielding limitless subject matter to the photographer and painter. Ridgeways (尾根路, 1958), a collection by the photographer Tabuchi Yukio is a case in point. Living as he does in a farming village close by its foot of the mountain, Tabuchi has come to know the mountain as closely as if it were in his back garden. "Jōnen and Ōtaki-yama are the mountains I visit most often. I must have climbed them more than a hundred times," he says. From this extraordinary devotion spring masterly photographs that illuminate the mountain's every mood.

By going freelance, Tabuchi was ahead of the curve. In December 1960, Prime Minister Ikeda set out to double Japan’s national income. And before the decade was out, the plan had so far succeeded that a growing number of mountain photographers could think of pursuing their art on a full-time basis. As this naturally called for a representative body, the Japan Mountain Photography Group (日本山岳写真集団) was established in 1967 by nine professional photographers.

Shirahata Shiro
One of the group’s founders, and its leading light, was Shirahata Shirō. Nothing if not dedicated to his profession, Shirahata had a few years previously postponed his wedding three times in favour of spending the necessary funds on a Linhof Super Technica M3. To acquire technical mastery, he had started out in photography by apprenticing himself to Okada Kōyō (see previous post), on occasion porting the master’s gear all the way up Mt Fuji.

A traditional discipleship did not mean that Shirahata would slavishly imitate his mentor’s style. While Okada and his peers worked primarily in black and white, Shirahata made his name in colour. Selling his first colour picture to the Yama to Keikoku magazine as early as 1961, he went on to compile colour albums of the Nepal Himalaya, the Karakorum, the Rockies and both the European and the Japanese Alps. All of these volumes were also published in foreign languages, winning Shirahata an international reputation – except for the Japan Alps collection, which – ironically – contains some of his best images.

From Himalaya, by Shirahata Shiro

Large-format avalanche, from Himalaya by Shirahata Shiro
The Japan Mountain Photography Group remained prominent well into the Heisei era. In the tenth year of the reign (1998), 14 members of the group published the collection “Mountain voice” (the English-language title is spelled out in katakana), to which Iwahashi Takashi was a major contributor. Yet mountain photography is far from a monoculture. Outside the group, Fujita Hirokichi is known for his large-format Himalayan pictures, and Ōmori Kyōichirō for his aerial surveys of the Japan Alps and the Himalaya.

Then there is Shirakawa Yoshikazu who started out with collections on the Alps and the Himalaya, diversified into travel photography and forests, and then documented “one hundred famous mountains of the world” (世界百名山) – a project that paid homage to a magazine series left unfinished by the original Hyakumeizan author at his death in 1971.*

Shirakawa’s global Hyakumeizan was published in 2007. By coincidence, this was the year that Nikon introduced its “second generation” digital cameras. For many mountain photographers, even serious ones, the days of film were numbered. But this is another story. Like Zhou Enlai’s famous comment on the French Revolution, it may even now be too early to say what effect the digital takeover will have on Japan’s mountain photographers. Only one thing is certain: theirs will continue to be one of the most happening mountain photography scenes on the planet.


Joe Bensen, Souvenirs from High Places: a visual record of mountaineering, Mitchell Beazley, 1998

Sugimoto Makoto, "Yama to shashin" in Ohmori Hisao (ed), Hito wa naze yama ni noboru no ka, Autumn 1998

Tateyama Museum of Toyama, Yama wo toru: yama e katamuketa hitotachi, exhibition publication, 1998

*Although, unlike Fukada Kyūya, who consulted only his own taste in selecting his candidate mountains, Shirakawa delegated the task to an international committee of mountain illuminati, including Chris Bonington, Kurt Diemberger, Wang Fuzhou, Maurice Herzog, Edmund Hillary, Harish Kapadia, Edouard Myslovski, AI Read, Nazir Sabir and Pertemba Sherpa. See Wikipedia for the complete list of Shirakawa’s 100 mountains of the world.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Masters of the silver age (2)

Continued: How Japan's mountain photographers ventured into the Himalaya 

Ishizaki Koyo
Meanwhile, Japan’s mountain photographers were venturing abroad. Two, indeed, reached the Himalaya more than a decade before the country’s alpinists did.

Ishizaki Kōyō (1884-1947) is remembered today mainly for his delicate paintings in a traditional style, but his photography too was accomplished.
He started climbing mountains when he went up to Kyoto to study art, joining the Japanese Alpine Club in 1908.

It was Ishizaki who took the summit photo when, the following year, JAC members made the second ascent of Tsurugi in modern times, following in the footsteps of the Army surveyors two years before.

Summiting Tsurugi in 1909: photo by Ishizaki Koyo
In 1916, Ishizaki travelled to India with the aim of visiting sites associated with the Buddha. In Kashmir, he climbed Mahadev Peak (3,966 metres). Some of the resulting prints are hand-tinted, colour film being in its infancy.

Scene on Mahadev Peak, hand-tinted print by Ishizaki Koyo
Another Himalayan traveller, Hasegawa Denjirō (1894-1976), earned his living as a furniture designer, numbering the Imperial court among his clients.

Hasegawa Denjiro

He was successful enough to take what would now be called a long sabbatical. In 1927, he traversed the Himalaya into Tibet and photographed the holy mountain of Kailash. Returning via Kashmir, he did the same for Nanga Parbat. A collection of these photos was published in 1932 as A Himalayan journey.

The holy mountain of Kailash, by Hasegawa Denjiro
At home, the promulgation of the national parks from 1931 onwards opened up a new market for travel and scenic photography. Two noted landscape photographers of this era were Okada Kōyō and Yamada Ōsui.

Okada Koyo at work
In later life, Okada earned himself the nickname of “Fuji no Kōyō” for his devotion to the iconic volcano. One of his images provided the basis for the elegant engraving of Mt Fuji on the old 500 yen note (you can visit the mountain where the photo was taken over on Ridgeline Images) . Illustrations were also in demand from the new magazines starting to spring up from the late Taishō years. Asahi Camera appeared in 1926, followed by Japan’s first mountaineering monthly, Yama-to-Keikoku, in 1930.

Two views of Mt Fuji, by Okada Koyo
By now, photography had a mass following, thanks to light and convenient 4 x 6.5 format cameras with eight frames on a roll of film. In 1936, a “Camera Hiking Club” or CHC was founded in the Tokyo Shitamachi quarter. Photographers associated with this organisation included Funakoshi Yoshibumi, Miura Keizō, known for his skiing photography, and Kazami Takehide (1914-2003), who joined the CHC in 1936.

In 1939, Kazami, Funakoshi and other CHC members founded the Tokyo Mountain Photography Association, which morphed into the Japan Mountain Photography Association (日本山岳写真協会) in 1947 to reflect its increasingly national membership. Kazami’s career spanned a remarkable sixty years. He served in the Imperial Navy during the war, as a photographer. After being repatriated from New Guinea in 1946, he set up a photographic supplies shop in the Ginza. Etude of Alps, his first photo collection, was published in 1953, followed by Going to the mountains (山を行く) in 1957.

Pages from Kazami Takehide's "Going to the mountains"
The Alps, whether Japanese or European, were not enough for Kazami. In 1958, he accompanied Fukada Kyūya, the soon-to-be Hyakameizan author, and two other mountaineers on an expedition to the Jugal Himal. Their objective was the Big White Peak (7,083m), so-called by three Scottish lady climbers. They didn’t get up it, but Kazami achieved the expedition’s high point on the east ridge by taking turns to break trail with a Sherpa companion. There the brown plains of Tibet were glimpsed through the clouds.

The Big White Peak expedition team:
Kazami Takehide (on the right), next to Fukada Kyuya

Kazami’s first visit to the Himalaya resulted in two books, the expedition journal, for which Fukada wrote the text, and a photo collection on the Jugal Himal. Nepal must have appealed to Kazami; he went back there in 1960, the year he closed his shop and went fully professional as a photographer. His photo collection on Nepal’s mountains and its people was translated into English. After half a century, Japan’s Himalayan photographers had started to gain an international reputation.

Senjogahara, by Hasegawa Denjiro

Friday, June 16, 2017

Masters of the silver age (1)

A snapshot history of mountain photography in Japan

Conveniently for historians, mountain photography in Japan sprang into being at the same moment as modern mountaineering. A photo of the Great Snow Valley on Shirouma, the White Horse Mountain, graced the very first issue of the new Japanese Alpine Club’s journal, published in April 1906.

Shirouma by Shimura Urei: as published in the Alpine Journal
The photographer, Shimura Urei (1874-1961), was the club’s 18th member, joining immediately after it was launched in the previous October, and remained closely associated all his life – after the great Kanto earthquake of 1923, the club’s office was moved temporarily into his house.

Shimura Urei
Before retiring to Tokyo, Shimura was a teacher at the Nagano middle school. He started out using the school’s camera to record the alpine flowers and landscapes of that mountainous province until, tiring of this mediocre kit, he invested ¥110 – equivalent to two months’ salary or more – to buy himself a top-of-the-line Goertz Dagor lens. He also had to pay porters to carry his camera and tentage up into the mountains. More than one image was lost when the porters, impatient to see a real photograph, ripped open undeveloped plates.

Overcoming such tribulations, Shimura built up a valuable collection of pressed alpine plants that is still preserved, discovering in the process a new kind of flower on Shirouma. A photo of the same mountain was sent to the ubiquitous Walter Weston, now back in England, who used it to accompany an article that the mountaineering missionary published in the Alpine Journal edition of February 1906. Another of Shimura’s photos appeared in Weston’s second book about the Japanese mountains.

Snow valley by Shimura Urei
Shimura’s lengthy explorations of the Japan Alps get him a paragraph in Fukada Kyūya’s One Hundred Mountains of Japan, although more as a pioneer than as a photographer:

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. (Washiba-dake)

Many other members of the early Japanese Alpine Club, notably the scientists, took their cameras into the mountains. Glass slides were favoured, presumably for their scientific precision, by Tsujimoto Mitsumaru (1877-1940), who had won an international reputation for his discovery of squalene.

Rock shelter in the Northern Alps, by Tsujimoto Mitsumaru
Takeda Hisayoshi (1883-1972), a founder member who later authored the first guide to Japan’s alpine plants, took photos to document his botanical forays. As for his kit, a Goerz Roll-Tenax and a favourite Piccolette accompanied him on his second trip to the Oze marshes, in 1924, as well as three lenses, twenty-odd films and photographic plates.

Another JAC founder, Takano Takazō, the entomologist, collated eight collections of mountain photography under the series title of “High mountains, deep valleys” (高山深渓) between 1910 and 1917, assisted by a group of about 15 fellow enthusiasts. Meanwhile, Tanaka Kaoru (1898-1982) used his camera on his geological excursions, and Kanmuri Matsujirō (1883-1970) extensively photographed the Kurobe Valley, often using new-fangled film cameras for their lightness and convenience in that rugged terrain.

Hokari Misuo
One who stuck with traditional glass plates, for their artistic properties, was Hokari Misuo (1891-1966). An uomo universale of the Japan Northern Alps, Hokari’s life centred around Yari-ga-take, the so-called Matterhorn of Japan.

As mass mountaineering arrived in Japan, he opened the mountain’s first hut, in Yarisawa, in 1917 (Taishō 6) and a decade later, built another, on the col below the peak, which is still owned and operated by his descendants. He also wrote a biography of Banryū, the monk who first climbed Yari, a book that Fukada Kyūya later acclaimed as “masterly”.

Hokkari's original hut in Yarisawa
Although his equipment may have been old-style, there was nothing traditional about Hokari’s marketing. In 1921, he opened a gallery, the Hokari Shashinkan, in a decisive step away from the gentlemanly amateurism of the Japan Alpine Club. For Hokari looked to his photos for at least part of his living, like those other grand masters of black-and-white alpine photography, the Abraham brothers of Keswick, the Tairraz père et fils of Chamonix, Bradford Washburn and Jürgen Winkler.

The Taisho eruption of Yake-dake, by Hokkari Misuo

Particularly memorable are the prints showing the volcano of Yake-dake, both during and after the Taishō eruption of 1915 that created the eponymous pond. Many since Hokari’s day have photographed the mountain and its lakelet, but few to such effect.
Yake-dake after the eruption, by Hokari Misuo

Hokari's view camera

Next: How Japan's mountain photographers headed for the Himalaya

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Images and ink (37)

Image: Mt Fuji from Lake Kawaguchi, woodprint by Yoshida Hiroshi

Ink: Translating Mt Fuji, from Sanshirō by Natsume Soseki

Sanshirō had completely forgotten about Mount Fuji. When he recalled the Mount Fuji he had first seen from the train window, having had his attention called to it by Professor Hirota, it had indeed looked noble. There was no way to compare it with the chaotic jumble of the world inside his head now, and he was ashamed of himself for having let that first impression slip away. Just then Hirota flung a rather strange question at him.

"Have you ever tried to translate Mount Fuji?"

"To translate it... ?"

"It's fascinating how, whenever you translate nature, it's always transformed into something human. Noble, great or heroic.”

Sanshirō now understood what he meant by translate.

"You always get a word related to human character. For those poor souls who can't translate into such words, nature hasn't the slightest influence on them when it comes to character.”

Thinking there was more to come, Sanshirō listened quietly. But Hirota cut himself off at that point.

Somewhat related post: Mountains of character

Sunday, June 4, 2017

One evening at the Karesawa bivouac (4)

Concluded: a translation of pioneer alpinist Ōshima Ryōkichi's meditation on life and death in the mountains

Itakura "One Day" Katsunobu in 1922
And, indeed, there was much for me to ponder then. Dark, regretful thoughts pursued me; a great burden oppressed my heart. For the mountains exerted this mysterious hold on me, and all I could think was that death on a mountain would be a judgment of fate that I should accept with good grace when the time came.

At that thought, I felt an undertone, an “Unterton”, of youthful spirit and joy; a “Lebensglaube” spread through my heart. However much you think about death – and however strongly you feel it – the bright spirit of youth will shine through the gloom. Though none of us would wish for a death in the mountains, let alone seek one out, we should accept our fate without regret if it should come, as our “Prädestination”.

Above us, the night sky was clearing. The stars glittered in their countless numbers, as if hinting at the depths of eternity and setting in perspective the significance of a single life or the concept of a person’s existence.

And then it happened: a lone shooting star momentarily unfurled its dazzling tail across the sky, as if imparting a revelation. It was as if the world had been created anew. Suddenly, a friend’s voice broke through the heavy silence, as if some bond had been released. He was smiling as if some fount of happiness had overflowed within him:

“Hey, we’ll all die someday, and the mountains too will pass away.” I have to admit that I may not have recorded these events just as they really happened. Yet everything is set down here as it really was, whether that is the experiences on the mountain that I’ve described, or the fragments of our conversations that I’ve woven in. The only thing is that they may have happened at different times in different places. But, for the purposes of the above account, I’ve represented them here as if they all happened at the same time and place.

Every time we met, we talked about mountains, and from every angle. Sometimes, we’d talk about the practical (“praktisch) side of mountaineering, at other times the discussion would range widely over the metaphysical aspects. As we were young, we’d get really self-important while we talked all kind of things through. That kind of passion may be the true mark of youth. On occasion, our unvarnished fervour or “Leidenschaft” must have seemed rather childish. Or, looking backing on it after a while, there was a terribly jejune seriousness about it all. One might go so far as to admit the atmosphere was somewhat odd. But that was all the same to us. I think that people are always groping their way forward.

Yet I doubt whether today is quite the same as yesterday. So it makes no difference how great the gulf or how long the lapse of time since then. That’s why, with the aim of making this a kind of testament to our times, I’ve pulled together this account of things just as they were, without embellishing or making things up. It could be, then, that some of our thoughts might seem naïve, at least in part. But retailing all that wasn’t my intention in writing; this would have been foolish and mistaken. I will say this, though. What drove me to write this piece was to set down a part of what I could grasp in my hands when I had the power to pursue the true path of mountaineering in my youth. Trivial or strange as it may be, this is why I ventured to add this postcript.


Translation of Ōshima Ryōkichi, Karasawa no iwagoya no aru yoru no koto (涸沢の岩小屋のある夜のこと), in Yama kikō to zuisō (山 紀行と随想) edited and introduced by Ohmori Hisao.

The bad news about Ueli Steck came in just as Project Hyakumeizan was completing this translation. There is a moving and thoughtful tribute by Steve House on the Patagonia blog. Every generation or so, alpinists like Steck redefine the limits of the possible in mountaineering. Possibly we’ve progressed less far in dealing with the dark side of alpinism, its “penalties and dangers”. As Steve House observes,

When a major climbing figure like Ueli dies, there is always second-guessing and criticism. In my opinion, Ueli got more than his fair share of criticism. Most of the criticism, I believe, was rooted in human insecurity. People didn’t believe anyone could do what he did; their own personal fears were too overpowering to even allow the possibility of his excellence and achievement. Or they believed the risks he assumed were unjustified …

Over a century ago, Alfred Mummery anticipated such criticism in the last chapter of the book that sums up his alpinistic achievements – My climbs in the Alps and Caucasus, first published in 1895, the year that he disappeared while exploring the Rakhiot Face of Nanga Parbat. 

One generation later, in Taishō Japan, Ōshima Ryōkichi, drew on Mummery’s words to set down his own thoughts on the meaning of alpinism. The article translated above was published in the December 1924 edition of a climbing journal. Less than four years later, Ōshima himself fell to his death, on a spring ascent of the north ridge of Mae-Hodaka. He was just 28 years old.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

One evening at the Karesawa bivouac (3)

Continued: a translation of pioneer alpinist Ōshima Ryōkichi's meditation on life and death in the mountains

So the four of us held our peace, each of us sensing, in himself, the mood of the others. And we were well aware that what each of us was silently thinking about was the fate that would inevitably befall some of us when climbing mountains. While we’d been chatting after dinner just now, we’d fallen to talking about a companion we all knew, whom we’d lost last winter, and how the previous summer he’d been with us up here, in the rock cave, and we’d spent a pleasant few days together. And then, as if by tacit agreement, we’d dropped the subject and fallen silent. We went outside, sat ourselves down on the rock and fell silent.

Kita-Hodaka: photo from an early editon of Oshima's writings
So, until that moment, we’d all, each in his own heart, been focused on the same thought, as if on a single point of light that appeared in all our minds – when suddenly the sound of a stone falling from the crumbling heights of Karesawa-dake rang out, breaking the silence two or three times as it bounded from the cliff. Then that impenetrable silence descended again.

That was the moment. As if tired of thinking, somebody threw out a question.

“Well, what do you think about dying in the mountains?”

Since we’d all been thinking about the same thing in the same way, it was as if we’d been looking for somebody to break the ice. Then these words were spoken. And, of course, they struck a chord. Up there on the high mountain, in the dark, we’d all been struggling to find the words to describe a new creed about these cruel “Gefahren”, the mountain hazards that could at any time rob us of our friends or even our own lives.

Somebody replied at once:

“Well, if you go climbing mountains, that’s what you’ve got coming to you.”

“Well maybe, but does that mean that everybody who climbs has it coming?”

“Not everybody, of course not. If you’re lucky, you can get away with it. There are people who climb and nothing ever happens to them.”

“And what kind of people are those that get themselves killed?”

“Come to think about it, they’re people like ‘One Day’ (Itakura Katsunobu). That’s what his older brother said to me, when we were on the train together to Toyama, after ‘One day’ was killed. My own brother was always saying to me I’d get what was coming to me in the mountains one of these days, so that was music to my ears. You could say his words caught my attention, although I was also moved by them. They reminded me of what Mummery said – it was something like this, I think: “It is true the great ridges sometimes demand their sacrifice, but the mountaineer would hardly forgo his worship though he knew himself to be the destined victim.” And so I talked with H. all night, so that I was completely exhausted the next day … But when you look at people like Mummery and One Day and see what happened to them. Well, they both got killed, didn’t they. But it’s not just this kind of person who gets killed in the mountains. People who behave recklessly or carelessly, they get killed too. But that’s not the problem, is it? The problem’s getting killed when you take care, you’ve done your homework and you’re sure of yourself. In that chapter by Mummery on the penalties and dangers of mountaineering, he goes into the dangers in detail, and there are a whole bunch of them. But there are a whole bunch of ways of avoiding them, and so winning through. But then he says there’s no way that a mountaineer can avoid bad luck, and that’s when he comes up with the sentence I just quoted. That was what happened to One Day."

"In Mountains and skis, One Day says this: “As far as one can be certain of anything, if you make cautious and modest progress, step by step, then another aspect of the mountains, one you’ve never dreamed of, will gradually start to resonate in your heart.” Maybe that was what drove him; why he was killed. If you go that far, the rest is up to luck; I’m convinced it’s luck. For people like him, mountaineering is not just a hobby or a sport, is it."

These words came vigorously, without a trace of fatigue:

“A sport or hobby? Of course not. For me right now, mountaineering is much more special than a hobby or sport. I can’t say exactly what it is, but it befits me much more than either of those things.”

Sitting there in the dark, somebody else gave a terse reply to the previous speech. There was silence for a while. Then, “Anyway, when people recognize that you can die doing this, they’re not joking about,” murmured somebody, as if cutting himself off. It was one of our company who’d been with our friend when he’d died. Out of all of us, he was the one who’d had the most intense experience at that point. More than any of us, he knew the inner meaning of a disaster in the mountains. Yet, he’d never spoken about this, making no move to reveal his thoughts to the rest of us. But now he had just this to say: “Since then, I’ve had a hard time keeping myself away from the mountains. I loved Tateyama before, of course. But since then I’ve loved the mountain even more.” He said nothing further. Again, our conversation stalled and everyone was left to mull over his own thoughts alone.



This is a translation of Karesawa no iwagoya no aru yoru no koto (涸沢の岩小屋のある夜のこと), by Ōshima Ryōkichi, in Yama kikō to zuisō (山 紀行と随想) edited and introduced by Ohmori Hisao.

"Well, what do you think about dying in the mountains?" This question, in the above passage of Ōshima's essay, leads to a discussion that leans heavily on the Edwardian alpinist A F Mummery's defence of alpinism in the last chapter of My Climbs in the Alps & Caucasus. As Ohmori Hisao points out, Ōshima refers to "that chapter by Mummery on the penalties and dangers of mountaineering" - whereas Mummery actually wrote about the "Pleasures and penalties of mountaineering". This may explain why Ōshima's essay ends on a less positive note than Mummery, whose last words are these:-

But happily to most of us the great brown slabs bending over into immeasurable space, the lines and curves of the wind-moulded cornice, the delicate undulations of the fissured snow, are old and trusted friends, ever luring us to health and fun and laughter, and enabling us to bid a sturdy defiance to all the ills and time and life oppose. 

Monday, May 29, 2017

One evening at the Karesawa bivouac (2)

Continued: a translation of pioneer alpinist Ōshima Ryōkichi's meditation on life and death in the mountains

Oshima (centre) and Maki Yuko (right)
on the summit of Yarigatake, March 1922
There were four of us, and we’d just come down through the coire of Karesawa from the north peak of Hodaka. It was now getting dark. Somehow, we’d threaded our way through the rocky debris that obstruct the floor of Karesawa. It was a perfectly clear, calm summer evening, with the sunset clouds still glowing above the jagged ridgeline of Byōbu-iwa, right in front of us.

Down below, not a sound disturbed the silence that had descended over the rock cave that evening. In that all-pervading evening calm, the mountains enfolded us. Now, on Karesawa’s floor, we were just returning to that dusky abode, the rock cave where we’d so often enjoyed a good conversation and rest. Just then, to our right, the sunset’s embers were still glowing on the very spire of Hodaka and the deep purple shadows were stealing upwards toward the top of Sennin-iwa.

Meanwhile, the dark shadow of night was already creeping over the distant valley. It was exactly then that we reached the rock cave and lit our fire of creeping pine boughs. By the time we’d finished our modest supper, night had embraced us. It was a quite splendid night, sprinkled with stars. The silence enfolded everything, as if wrapping the heights in its embrace.

Abandoning the fire, we tumbled out of the cave and sat ourselves down on a rock in the midst of that chill summer evening in the mountains. In the black night sky above us, stars glittered like fish scales in every colour and brightness. We sat there silently, the four of us on that rock, sucking on our pipes, each wrapped in his own thoughts.

Our mood was attuned to everything around us that night. We weren’t in awe of the mountains, as we would have been on a night of thunderous rain and gales; instead, they conveyed to us this tranquility, this peace, this somehow significant silence. “While the mountain may sometimes impress its mood on the spectator, as often the spectator only sees that which harmonises with his own,” writes Mummery in his account of the first ascent of the Matterhorn's Zmutt Ridge, and certainly our mood that evening was of the latter type.

Behind and beside us, rock walls and towers loomed as jet-black shapes in the gloaming, but they neither intimidated nor overawed us. Rather the mountains that more than half-encircled us felt as if they were sheltering the rock-cave in their midst, as if gently rocking us mountain babies to sleep in a cradle. Perhaps my phrasing is too fanciful, but that’s how beneficent the mountains felt to us. Yet this great silence did not tempt us to sing or jest, for the mountains’ mood and our own were in perfect harmony.



This is a translation of Karesawa no iwagoya no aru yoru no koto (涸沢の岩小屋のある夜のこと), by Ōshima Ryōkichi, in Yama kikō to zuisō (山 紀行と随想) edited and introduced by Ohmori Hisao.

Ōshima Ryōkichi (1899-1928) crammed a whole lifetime’s worth of mountaineering and writing into a brief decade. In just the year after his compulsory military service, he managed to spend fully 110 days in the mountains. He explored the ranges of Tōhoku and Hokkaidō as well as the Northern Alps. And he learned French, German, English and Italian in order to read alpine literature in its original languages. Two particular influences were A F Mummery and the French-Swiss alpinist Emil Javelle. According to Ohmori Hisao, the opening section of this essay owes something to Javelle’s evocations of the alpine pastoral.

The photo is from this blog.