When Akira Chiba reached the top of Mount Yarigatake a dozen years ago and stared out into the volcanic gas clouds that wreathed its peak, it was the realization of what for some is a long-held dream. He had just summited the last of the 100 mountains listed in a popular book by Kyuya Fukada — a goal held by many Japanese mountaineers, including Crown Prince Naruhito. Reaching the marker, though, he was not overcome with elation. He experienced the normal exhilaration of summiting a mountain and a longing for distant peaks, one that he has continued to indulge.
Climbing ‘100 Famous Japanese Mountains’
Below are edited excerpts from a conversation conducted with Mr. Chiba through a translator about climbing mountains in Japan.
Q. How significant are mountains in Japanese culture?
A. Many regions have a “home mountain” that is adored by locals. Once, while hiking Mount Kurikoma, I came upon a shrine for the mountain god, nestled under a cliff, and suddenly felt the faith of all the people who lived at the foot of that mountain. In the past, mountains were holy objects, partly because the rivers that flowed from them nourished the fields. People would bless them and pray to be spared from drought, and farmers would look to them to gauge the seasons.
For example, in my hometown of Miyagi, in early spring the melting snow on Mount Kurikoma forms into a lingering shape on the mountainside. It looks something like a horse and signals the arrival of the planting season.
Q. What do people look to to learn about mountains in Japan?
A. “100 Famous Japanese Mountains,” published in 1964, which chronicled the favorite climbs of Kyuya Fukada. Before him, Tani Buncho, a painter during the Edo period, had already made a list of 90 celebrated mountains. Buncho’s list was chosen from a painter’s point of view — mountains that melted into the scenery, often near villages — while Fukada’s list had the view of a modern alpinist. He chose deep mountains, many of which could only be seen from the summit of other mountains, and based his selection on three criteria: grace, history and individuality.
Q. What are some good examples of such mountains?
A. Mount Tsukuba has a low altitude among the 100, but its history is steeped in legend. You can even find its name in the oldest surviving anthology of Japanese poetry. People relate to this mountain as an intimate place, because its two peaks, one male, the other female, are said to make a couple. Many people visit the shrines there seeking marital blessings.
And part of the Japanese spirit was built by Mount Fuji. However, beware, the Fuji boom of past years still continues, and every summer about 300,000 visitors show up to hike it.
A good example of grace might be Mount Rishiri, a volcano island that floats atop the ocean in the north part of Hokkaido. This type of mountain is beautiful to look at, because its ridgeline slopes directly into the sea. From the top, you can see many islands, even ones far off in the distance.
Once, I stood there in the evening, and as the sun dropped into the ocean, the sky became serene and I could see all the homes on those islands gradually lighting up. It was an unforgettable experience. I stood there completely still, watching, and my tears wouldn’t stop.
The fact is, I would probably recommend 95 percent of these mountains, but I don’t think Fukada had meant for people to only hike these 100. There are so many worthy mountains in Japan. I believe the intention of his list was to encourage a mountain climbing spirit. In the book he would insist, “These are my best 100, which are yours?”
Q. So besides the 100, which would you recommend?
A. There is a small mountain hut, called Funakubo-goya (Funakubo-lodge), in the Northern Alps between Mount Nanakura and Mount Renge. It’s a homey place, kept by a very warm old couple and some volunteers. The wife makes hearty meals for mountaineers, using edible wild plants and dried food. It was so yummy, I had to return the next year.
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