Posted by: tsubakuro | August 21, 2010

At World’s End

Stories behind the photographs in The Japan Alps, a photo book available at blurb.com

Akaishidake. The name for me resonates with symbolism and reverence. It somehow has a magnetic force to draw my imagination and send a shiver of excitement surging through my spine. Exactly why, I can’t say. It is not because Akaishidake is the namesake of the Akaishi Range or because it is a Hyakumeizan. And it’s not likely that its almost feverish charm for me is because it is Japan’s 7th highest summit – seven being a magical number. Considering its immediate northern and southern neighbours, the mountain does not have the mass of the Arakawa Sanzan, nor does it have the graphic harmony of Hijiridake’s Kanji (聖): the Saint Mountain. Perhaps it has to do with Shiro Shirahata’s photos of Akaishidake from Senmaidake, a lesser peak on the shoulder of Arakawa-higashidake – a.k.a. Warusawadake, or maybe it’s the lure of ice age excitement as Akaishi bears the most southern evidence of glaciation in Japan. Again, I can’t be sure. But when I came down Arakawa-nakadake and saw the wide green skirts of Akaishi with a head of rock protruding from the frayed upper hemline, I felt the size and weight of the mountain in my soul.

In the Minami Alps of Japan there are few mountains that can compete with the rugged and treacherous splendour of the Kita Alps. The tree-line is higher in the south, the mountains less glaciated. Where in the Kita Alps one may find keeling towers of rock and capacious cirques with perennial snow patches, the mountains of the Minami Alps are generally more conservative in form and appearance even though their elevations may rival that of their northern brethren. Akaishi’s rocky top is barely a tiara surmounting a voluminous green dress that expands immensely as it falls into the valleys below.

During what is perhaps the week of the most capricious weather all year – the O-Bon holiday week when the weather changes as often as the faces of the dice on a Vegas craps table – I chose to make my debut in the very southern region of the Minami Alps in 2008. I knew to expect all kinds of weather and rapid changes on any day. I made the long hike up from Sawarajima to the Senmai Lodge and tent site under clear skies only to enter a misty and phantasmagorical wooded landscape once I reached the lodge. There was early morning rain, sunlit views on the way up Arakawa-higashidake, clouds at the summit, and a ferocious wind on the morning I awoke on Arakawa-nakadake that chilled the air to seven degrees Centigrade. When the sun glared down upon me as I got my first good view of Akaishidake from the northern approach from Nakadake, I felt the mountain an overwhelming force drawing me to its broad flanks.

However, as I set up my 4×5 camera to capture the awesomeness of the view, a sneak layer of cloud cover began encroaching from the west, and Akaishi’s small but proud rocky summit thrusting up to 3,120 metres above sea level was engulfed without ceremony. My one exposure of the cloud-covered mountain was made after waiting patiently and hopefully to no avail for a retreat or thinning of the clouds. When at last I reached the summit there was little to see but rock, scrubby alpine vegetation, and the summit marker. On a bus to Hirogawara once, a fellow hiker had told me that when Rev. Walter Weston had returned from Akaishidake he was reported to have said, “I missed the view but I viewed the mist.” Those words could hardly draw the same smile from my face on the summit as they had when I heard them on a bus that was taking me to a yet-to-be-had adventure. It was a matter of shoganai, that Japanese saying of acquiescence that comes in so handy so often. What can you do? That’s life (in the mountains). C’est la vie. After lingering about the summit – perhaps in wait of a revelation or sign from the mountain itself – until I felt the chill of a million almost microscopic water droplets drifting into the fibres of my clothing and making it damp, I decided that it was best to start making my way to the next camp. I began picking my way down into the steep sawa below one of the cirques and crossing the exciting metal catwalks suspended above the trees and tied to the sides of the rockier parts that afforded no path. The sky remained calm and grey all afternoon at the Akaishi Lodge and tent site. There was no hint of the forthcoming drama.

I awoke well before daybreak and delighted at seeing a starry sky devoid of clouds through the tree branches. My goal was to reach Fujimidaira, a flattish shoulder on the ridge descending from Akaishi to Sawarajima. Through the trees my headlight swung and bobbed as I kept a good pace. I could hear but not yet feel the disturbed air beyond the trees. Not until I broke through the forest and stepped onto the exposed shoulder did I see a scene that held me transfixed with utter fascination and in the same token gripped me with a compelling instinct to flee.

I was alone on an isolated island of rock, dirt, and thrashing dwarf pine. The wind came at me with the force of a massive current that could almost sweep me away. To my right and left slept the black hulks of Arakawadake and Hijiridake. But the view before me was what filled me with trepidation. An ocean of cloud was dammed up behind Akaishidake and the mountain’s stature had succumbed to the overwhelming surge. A huge cap of grey vapour, almost liquid in appearance, was cresting the mountain’s summit like some nightmarish tsunami. The mass of grey not just cascaded but plummeted from the top of the mountain with a speed that was frighteningly un-cloudlike. Great plumes of cloud rushed down the slopes from which I had descended only the afternoon before. The titanic cascade of heaven seemed to be falling straight for me, and each time I beheld the spectacle of this unnaturally swift down crashing of the sky I feared that I would be inundated and made to vanish from the earth. Of course I knew better, and logic could quell my fears by simply observing that the clouds parted over the blade of the ridge crest and with a powerful whooshing sound they vanished into the darkness of the sawas. I was a mountain mystic, the last alive in this part of the world, watching heaven’s violent descent to earth and its meteoric obliteration, a reverse big bang as the sky collasped back into the shadows below.

A band of orange light lit the north eastern horizon and I knew it was time to prepare for the morning shoot. There was no way in that wind that I was going to get anything with my large format camera, so I took out the 6×45 and 35mm gear and arranged the lenses for quick use in a protected recess in some dwarf pine. Gripping the tripod with each exposure, I hoped to capture a sky that was unbelievably alive with colour. Alas, the wind was so strong that most of my 6×45 photographs were blurred enough that I deemed them unusable. Even the first 35mm photographs of an enormous pink and totally smooth cap of cloud adorning the peak of Akaishidake were blurred from the relentless gale. Only as the sun came up and the landscape regained its tones of summer’s matured verdure did the wind at last abate and the clouds over the summit dissipate and vanish. By the time other hikers came up to join me there was only a pleasant warm breeze blowing and a thin veil of cirrus clouds in irregular patterns that gave the impression of a sky stripped down to a threadbare state after the morning’s savage intensity. “What a gorgeous day,” people commented as I greeted them. I felt like a survivor, a lone soul who had seen the collapse of the world and lived to see the birth of a new one. But there I was, feeling the exuberance and joy of a sunny warm day in the mountains, the tense emotion of an hour earlier now a memory that was nearly beyond my ability to describe to anyone who had never stood before such a spectacle. For that, my visit to Akaishidake gave the mountain new heightened significance for me.

Not the photo from the book, but a view of the shrinking clouds that blustery morning on Fujimidaira

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Responses

  1. So it’s not just me – I have always had the feeling that some of the most spectacular mountain views/weather effects that I’ve ever seen have occurred in Japan – although, as one Japanese climber put it, the mountains are “teizan”. But your graphic account of the spectacle on Akaishi proves the point. Although your writing brings the scene vividly to mind, I did wonder if you plan to upload one of your photos of the mountain, to accompany the writing? Would be interesting to see one. Incidentally, I’m vastly impressed by your commitment in bringing no fewer than three different camera systems along on your hike – plus tripod, of course. You must have knees of titanium…. 🙂

    • Well, PH, before I started climbing mountains in Japan I was shooting landscapes in Canada and doing a lot of hiking but not much climbing. I had my share of interesting weather but rarely from the summits so I can’t really compare. I also only went hiking two or three times a year. In Japan I try to go several times a year if possible. But I do have a ni e collection of cloud and peak photos from over here.

      I actually prepared a photo to upload but when I slipped the SD card into the computer at work there was no image in the folder to upload. I’ll have to try again.

      My knees do take a beating but so far they hold up. Still, my pack is around 35-40kg only. I know of people who carry more. Thanks for reading.


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