Thursday, January 15, 2009

Chiyoko’s Fuji

When Nonaka Itaru made plans to spend the winter of 1895 on the summit of Japan's highest mountain, his wife realised she had to save the aspirant meteorologist from sacrificing himself to science ...

To save her husband, she'd have to deceive him. That much was obvious after Itaru came back from Mt Fuji in February. Flushed with the success of his solo climb – the first ever ascent in winter – Nonaka Itaru could no longer see any flaws in his plan. He'd dreamed for years of making an original contribution to meteorology. Now the way was clear for action.

In the coming summer, he’d build a hut on the summit of Mt Fuji, almost four kilometres above sea level. Then he’d climb up there in October, and take weather readings through the winter of 1895. Nobody had ever before made a round-the-year record of atmospheric pressure at such an altitude. Success would give Japan a lead in the nascent science of weather forecasting…

The scheme was already bold. What tipped it into recklessness was Itaru’s resolve to take weather readings every two hours, night and day – even though Wada-san, Itaru’s sponsor at the Tokyo Meteorological Observatory, had told him that six readings a day would be quite enough.

Chiyoko knew her husband. They'd been married a few years and, besides, they had practically grown up together back in Chikuzen. She knew how the famous stubbornness of Kyushu folk can boil over into folly. If Itaru went up that mountain alone and tried to fight its ferocious winter without proper food or sleep, he wouldn't come back alive.

So – with her own streak of Chikuzen obstinacy – Chiyoko made her own plans. After spending the summer in a village at Mt Fuji’s foot, helping Itaru organise the hut’s construction, she’d travel back to her parents’ home, drop off her three-year-old daughter, Sonoko, and make ready to climb Fuji and join Itaru for his winter vigil. All without telling Itaru, of course, or he’d put a stop to her preparations.

The hut was finished in late September and Itaru took up his vigil there soon afterwards. As soon as the coast was clear, Chiyoko set out for Kyushu, a three-day journey. When she turned up unannounced, little Sonoko asleep on her back, her parents were first delighted, then concerned. Have you displeased Itaru in some way, her mother asked.

Kneeling on the tatami, Chiyoko explained her plan – if she didn't go up the mountain, she would soon have no husband. The parting with Sonoko brought tears, but she knew where her duty lay. In the first week of October, she was back at the village at the foot of Mt Fuji. The mountain loomed overhead like a colossus, snow-covered to its midriff.

Early on the morning of the 12th, she set out from Nakahata escorted by her brother, Kiyoshi, and two porters. As the light began to fade, they reached the hut and hammered on the door. Itaru slid the door aside and looked out at his visitors - first amazed at them, then aghast: "What on earth are you doing here?" he asked.

The first-ever mid-autumnal marital tiff on Mt Fuji is a short one

Escorted by her brother Kiyoshi and two porters, Chiyoko reached the summit of Mt Fuji as daylight was fading. Crunching through the first snows of the season, they reached the small hut tucked under the volcano’s highest crag. When Itaru opened the door, he looked first amazed, then aghast.

"What on earth are you doing here?" he asked. There’s no need to worry, Chiyoko reassured him, everything is fine at home. "In that case," said her husband, "there's no need for you to stay. You can start down as soon as it's light tomorrow." To which his wife rejoined: "And that I will not, for reasons I'll explain later. And as I've made up my mind, it doesn't matter what you say - I'll not be leaving this mountain for my life."

Without another word, Itaru stepped back into the hut. It wasn't just the biting cold and the wind that had silenced him, or the presence of others. As he'd learned during a few years of marriage, there is in this world one thing more obdurate than the will of a Chikuzen samurai. And that is the will of a Chikuzen samurai's wife.

Nobody slept much that night, as all had to sit up. The hut had been designed to accommodate one man, and now five people were crowded around the red-hot stove, listening to the wind as it buffeted the crags above.

When morning came, Chiyoko stayed. As her brother Kiyoshi left, his figure vanishing into the enveloping clouds, she briefly felt a pang of loneliness. Then she set about putting things in order. There was some work to do in that department.

The Nonakas were not left in peace for long. Around noon on October 28, there was another knock on the sliding door. Chiyoko tugged at the handle, only to find the door frozen shut. The visitors had to climb in backwards, through the small window. After brushing themselves free of snow, they introduced themselves as Matsui and Mejika, members of the famous Hōkōgikai.

This was the patriotic association that had recently sent an unofficial flotilla to the Chishima islands, to assert Japan's claim over these northern territories. Their attempt to overwinter in the sub-arctic archipelago had ended in fiasco the previous year.

What were the Hōkōgikai men doing up here? In a way, their madcap scheme resembled Nonaka's venture. It had been an attempt by private individuals, desperately short of funds and knowhow, to undertake something that would normally be reserved for the state. The same could be said, by the way, for the Antarctic foray of Lieutenant Shirase, another Hōkōgikai man, who would later win both notoriety and fame with his do-it-yourself attempt on the South Pole.

The next day, Itaru acknowledged these kindred spirits by penning a waka in their honour:

I pray to heaven
To protect these strong men
Defenders of our country's
Northern marches

As the Hōkōgikai party had brought up letters, Itaru and Chiyoko had sat up the whole night, inkbrush in hand, writing replies for their guests to take down with them. A price was paid for this loss of sleep. Chiyoko was already plagued by high-altitude headaches. Now the dry air caused her throat to swell up so that she was unable to eat or speak. How can I go on like this, she asked herself, seeing that, left alone, everything up here goes to rack and ruin…

In the second month of the Nonaka winter vigil atop Mt Fuji, things start to get difficult

Chiyoko was already plagued by high-altitude headaches. Now the dry air caused her throat to swell up so that she was unable to eat or speak. How can I go on like this, she asked herself. After a week, she could bear the pain no longer. She got Itaru to sharpen up a gimlet and plunge it into the swelling at the back of her throat. The relief was like a blessing from heaven. After that, the pain gradually eased, day by day.

Meanwhile, winter was stealing up on them. Since late October, frost had coated the hut’s walls and ceiling. Now everything that had moisture in it froze solid. Sugar crumbled and lost its taste, pickled plums shrivelled into rock-hard pellets, rice quickly congealed into a block that you couldn't dent with a pair of fire-tongs.

Yet Chiyoko was enjoying herself. She was amused by the way she had to smash through an icy crust before she could drink her tea. She laughed, and so did Itaru, when he mistakenly touched a writing brush to an iron tool and no amount of pulling would unfreeze its bristles.

One day, she had to go out to collect ice for the pot, but the door was again frozen shut. Pouring hot water over it only sealed the door more firmly shut. Realising there was no other way, she wrenched the window open and crawled out backwards. Whereupon the wind seized the hem of her kimono and blew it about her ears. Fortunately, there was nobody outside to see.

Regaining her composure, she looked about at the extraordinary landscape. Far from being overmastered by her surroundings, she was fascinated by them. Looking carefully at the unearthly scene, she made a mental note for her diary:

The icicles at the cliff’s edge did not hang down, as they usually do, but grew at the wind’s behest, some jutting sideways from the rocks, others thrusting skywards in serried ranks. They looked to me like a mountains of swords, an awe-inspiring sight.

Itaru had chosen to build his hut on the very edge of Fuji's western rim, in the teeth of the prevailing winds. Rebounding from the cliffs, the spindrift blew through every cranny in the hut. The couple tried hanging blankets down the inside walls, but still the wind pierced through. It seemed to flay the skin rather than freeze it.

With blankets hung all around, the hut’s interior was dark even during the day. Indeed, she thought, the world of darkness will be like this. Yet conditions in the hut were nothing like as harsh as the cave at Kamakura where that medieval Prince Morinaga was imprisoned. (Where did she get that kind of learned allusion? Well, you’d expect no less from a noh-master’s daughter.)

While keeping up her diary, Chiyoko also had to worry about the store-keeping. They were using more charcoal, firewood, sugar, pickled plums – in fact, just about more of everything – than they expected. However, they couldn’t very well survive the ferocious winter of Mt Fuji if they didn’t burn wood and charcoal as they needed to. Now things were starting to get difficult, she reflected...

In the second month of Itaru and Chiyoko Nonaka's winter vigil on the summit of Mt Fuji, the cold and the monotonous diet start to affect their health ....

Soon she had something more to trouble her. Around November 5, her arms and legs started to swell. Two weeks later, her eyes gummed up. Itaru was full of concern. The couple decided on a change of diet. At first, they’d lived mainly on rice, but the low boiling point at this height made it almost impossible to cook properly. From now on, they chose to eat kudzu starch and adzuki bean gruel sprinkled with sugar at every meal.

The change in regime seemed to work. By the end of the month, Chiyoko felt better. But both she and Itaru had lost their appetites – now they were eating only twice a day, living mainly off gruel. They could no longer face the tinned meat.

Itaru had meanwhile dug out the threshold so that the frozen door could, at last, be opened. This was timely, because on December 12, they heard a great shout from outside: “Oi, Nonaka-san, are you alive in there or are you dead?” The door was pulled open and in came two men from Nakahata, beating the snow from their coats. The village headman and a porter had brought gifts and letters with them.

The visitors were shocked at Nonaka’s appearance – now he too had started to suffer from the swollen legs and arms that mark the onset of scurvy. And Itaru did not deny that he sometimes felt at the end of his tether. “But it’s for the good of our country, and I’m determined to see it out,” he insisted when the villagers suggested that he came down from the mountain to recover his strength. “I don’t think I’m in such a bad state that I’m going to die,” he said, putting an end to the discussion.

The villagers were reluctant to leave the couple in their evidently weakened state, but the wind was blowing more and more wildly, threatening to cut off their retreat. Itaru seized a pencil and jotted down a message for the family in Tokyo: "We were prepared for hardship at the summit, and we're still safe and sound, so please tell everybody not to worry about us." Then he implored the villagers not to reveal that he was ill.

The village headman was moved. “Any man who undertakes a great project needs enormous patience and the wholehearted support of his wife,” he said, turning to Chiyoko. “And now I see all the more clearly how true that is. Please take care of yourselves.” With that, the two men made their way out into the howling spindrift. Chiyoko said nothing, but a glow of happiness suffused her, as if a deep red peony of kind thoughts had burst into flower.

All Japan is taking an interest in the fate of the couple overwintering on the summit of Mt Fuji - but now Nonaka Itaru's health begins to fail...

While talking to their guests, the couple had time to look only at the letters from their family. Only after the porters had left could they read the others and now, for the first time, they realised that the whole of Japan was taking an interest in them. The newspapers, it seemed, had stamped a seal of wholehearted approval on Chiyoko's decision to join her husband.

Huddled over the table in their hut, Itaru and Chiyoko opened the rest of their letters. Several were poetic tributes - elegantly written waka - from complete strangers.

Gazing at Fuji morn and night
And looking up at its lambent snows
I cannot help but think of those
Secluded on the mountain's height

Thus trilled the wife of the Asahi Newspaper's editor. Another missive came from the head of a religious sect, and there was even a small packet enclosing a generous sum in gold pieces and a poem from Viscount Mōri Mototoshi, the governor of Shimonoseki. Most welcome of all, Itaru's sister Tsuruko had sent up some quilted jackets that she'd made herself.

Itaru still insisted on taking all the weather readings by himself, twelve times a day. But exhaustion was setting in. By mid-December, he was struggling even to cross the hut's tiny living space without taking a rest. As they'd finished all the adzuki beans, they now had to subsist on kudzu starch gruel. But soon they were down to the last day's ration even of that.

Chiyoko wondered what to do - although the new diet had brought down the swellings on Itaru's arms and legs he would have a relapse if the gruel ran out. Wada-sensei of the Meteorological Observatory had said he would make a visit soon, bringing supplies. But would he arrive in time?

In late November, with food stocks running low at the summit observatory on Mt Fuji, Itaru is weakened by scurvy. Then his sponsor from Tokyo arrives for an inspection…

Would Wada-sensei of the Meteorological Observatory in Tokyo bring more supplies in time? Chiyoko didn’t know but she set to work drawing up a list of essentials. They were low on adzuki beans, sugar, umeboshi, dried oranges, noodles and many other things. She exchanged grim jokes with her husband: many a conversation began with the phrase “Even if we starve ourselves to death…”

As November 21st marked the anniversary of the death of Itaru’s grandfather, the couple decided to hold a small ceremony. Itaru wrote his grandfather’s name on a strip of paper and Chiyoko placed an offering of soup and a scrap of bread in front of this makeshift shrine. There wasn’t much else they could give.

Just as they were finishing their prayers, the couple heard voices outside, over the sound of the wind. Was this a dream? No, four of the Nakahata villagers had climbed up to visit them. They’d escorted Wada-sensei as far as a hut at the eighth station of Mt Fuji, where he’d stopped, and they’d return tomorrow, bringing the meteorologist with them.

They were as good as their word. The next morning, Wada-sensei stamped the snow from his boots at the entrance to the hut and made his way into the dark interior. When his eyes had adjusted to the gloom, he was shocked at what he saw. It was as the porters had said: Nonaka Itaru was in a bad way; he was a changed man.

Wada was not a man to approach matters obliquely: “If you want to live, you need to get off this mountain now,” he told Itaru. “When we last met, you promised me that, if you felt your life was in danger, you’d do your best to go down before matters got out of hand.”

Itaru admitted that he’d said just that. “But I don’t think I’m so ill that I might die in the next day or two,” he said. “Couldn’t you just bring me some medicine, so that I can get over this illness and carry on my mission?”

Wada-sensei has climbed Mt Fuji to insist that Itaru and Chiyoko cut short their winter vigil. Now the debate becomes heated…

Itaru was dismayed at the suggestion that he should end his stay on the summit: “Couldn’t you just bring me some medicine, so that I can get over this illness and carry on my mission?” he asked.

Wada seemed to be moved: “I’m impressed by your spirit,” he said, “but, alas, mind can’t always prevail over matter – and I’m far from sure that your health is going to hold up much longer. You have to understand that I’ve climbed up here not as Wada the private person but as Wada with the authority of the Emperor’s commission behind me. So I really must ask you to come down with us.”

Itaru wavered: nobody could defy the Emperor’s command – but where was the proof of that authority? Wada was outraged at the question: “There’s no need for evidence in a situation like this. You have no right to doubt me!” he said.

“I don’t doubt you,” replied Itaru in a conciliatory tone, “but please understand my position. I let people know that I would see out the winter here, and what are they going to say if I give up now because of some trivial illness? It would put me in a very difficult position. My aim is to build a larger observatory up here, and if I can’t succeed, it’s better to stay up here and die – if I give up now, people will think it’s impossible to survive the winter up here…”

But at last Itaru had to accept Wada’s order. He looked so dispirited that tears came to the eyes of the army captain and police officer who’d accompanied Wada-sensei. It was at this moment that Chiyoko spoke up: “Won’t you reconsider?” she asked Wada. “My husband has devoted himself to this work for seven years. It would be a bitter defeat to go down now – couldn’t you let him stay a while longer?”

“Surely even a woman can’t be that unreasonable,” Wada retorted, raising his voice. “Your courage is admirable, but can’t you see how sick your husband is? He’ll die if he stays up here any longer. Surely you’ve made enough weather observations by now…” For a moment, Chiyoko was stunned by the vehemence of Wada’s words. Then she burst into tears.

Wada-sensei of the Central Meteorological Observatory organises the highest and most perilous mountain rescue ever attempted in Japan

Time was moving on: “We need to hurry before the weather turns,” urged Wada-sensei as he gave out orders. He’d seen at once that Itaru and Chiyoko were too debilitated to descend the mountain themselves; they would have to be carried. Itaru was too weak to demur but, as he was hoisted onto the back of a porter, he found the strength to murmur one last poem:

As the catalpa bow
Springs back, so will I;
Do not believe
That for long I go

Then Chiyoko, in her turn, was hoisted up and the party set out into the whirling maelstrom outside. When gusts of spindrift blew up in their faces from inside the crater yawning at their feet, it seemed to Chiyoko that the two porters Kumakichi and Tsurukichi stood their ground against the raging elements like the pair of Deva kings who guard the gates of a temple.

With the rest of the party helping to steady them against the buffeting wind, the porters made their way along the narrow rim of the crater to the shrine buildings, half-buried in snow, next to the Ginmeisui. In this season, of course, there was no trace of that shallow pool of water and snow-drifts had buried the buildings to their eaves.

Here the party paused. Wada-sensei peered down into the clouds at the gulf beneath. Where was the steep gully that led down to the eighth station? Wada’s party had come up it only this morning, but the wind had already erased their tracks. Should they trust themselves to the soft snow over there – that might be less dangerous than the icy sheen of the snow in the bed of the gully … Or maybe they’d better take to the rocks, somebody suggested.

With infinite care, the porters started downwards, kicking their primitive crampons into the ice, while Wada and his companions did their best to steady them with ropes. The gully channelled the furious wind into their faces, so that they could hardly breathe. Slumped on Kumakichi's back, Itaru felt the cold as a crushing weight on his chest, a weight that he could bear no longer. His eyes frozen shut by the blizzard, he sagged into blackness…

Wada-sensei carries through his rescue of Chiyoko and Itaru from the summit of Mt Fuji. And what happened then.

As Chiyoko was the first to be carried into the stone hut at the eighth station, she didn't know anything was amiss with her husband until the porters gently laid his inert body by the fire. His eyes were frozen shut and he was barely breathing. Helped by the police officer and army captain, Wada-sensei spent several hours trying to revive him.

Sometime in the middle of the night Itaru opened his eyes and the rescue party were able to relax their efforts. Next day, on December 23rd, the porters rigged up carrying frames for their passengers and, once more, Itaru and Chiyoko were hoisted up. Again, the wind hurled the snow into their faces as they left the hut, but this time they were protected by the mittens and hats provided by Wada-sensei.

After the meteorologist had briskly organised helpers to steady the two porters on the icy slopes, the party continued its descent. Below the eighth station, the angle of the slope would gradually ease but the wind buffeted them as strongly as ever. At the third station, a doctor met them, and a few hundred feet below, the villagers from Takigawara had brought up a cart for them. Late that night, they reached the village. Itaru's face was so frost-bitten that he still couldn't open his eyes.

Over the next few days, they were visited by scores of people from near and far, strangers as well as friends. A large pile of paper charms accumulated beside their beds. In case they didn't work, the University of Tokyo also sent one of its most eminent physicians to attend them. Itaru quickly regained his strength and set to work sketching out an improved observatory. If the summit hut were made of brick, for example, it would better keep out the wind and cold. He was determined to go back up there ...

And what happened afterwards?

As the years passed, Itaru refined his plans for an observatory. But he never did go back to Mt Fuji in winter. Nor was he able to join Japan's meteorological service. As for the pressure measurements that he and Chiyoko had so arduously gathered over their eighty-odd days on the summit, nobody ever made much use of them. Chiyoko's application to join the Japan Meteorological Association was turned down.

By contrast, Wada-sensei's career flourished. After Japan consolidated its grip on Korea, he was sent there to head up a new weather station. Unfortunately, this deprived Itaru of his mentor and patron. Instead of pursuing his dream of meteorological research, he eked out a living in Tokyo, supporting his family by renting out a house. More children arrived - there would be six in all - but little Sonoko, the toddler Chiyoko had left with her parents, took ill and died a few years later. She was just seven.

Yet Mr and Mrs Nonaka's feat was not forgotten. Somehow, in the best tradition of the glorious failure, it had captured the nation's imagination. Ten years after their return from Mt Fuji, we catch a glimpse of Chiyoko seeing off the multinational "Fuji Winter Ascent Corps" at Tokyo Station. Apparently, she is a leading light of the Konohana-kai, an association of women who have climbed Mt Fuji. To this day, though, she remains the only woman who has survived the best part of a winter up there.

For his part, Itaru meets the "Fuji Winter Ascent Corps" at Gotenba and leads its members up to their base camp or starting point at Takigawara. It must be quite a cavalcade: Itaru is mounted on a white horse, escorting some forty-three persons - including two foreigners, a Spaniard and a "Miss Sturzenegger" from Switzerland - four rear-guards, five messenger pigeons and a dog. Wisely, Itaru chooses not to accompany this motley group on its summit attempt.

In early 1923, Japan was swept by a flu epidemic. One by one, Itaru and the children fell sick. After Chiyoko had nursed everyone in the family through their illness, she caught the fever herself. It was too much for her: on February 22, she died at the age of fifty-one. The story goes that the Japanese government wanted to honour Itaru. But the would-be meteorologist wasn't interested in accepting an award in his own name - the work on Mt Fuji had been as much Chiyoko's as his own.

In the end, the government did build an observatory on Mt Fuji. The year after it opened, Itaru was invited to make a visit. He was now sixty-six but still quite spry. Accompanied by Kyoko, his third daughter, he reached the windy summit on a summer day in 1933 and called in on the observatory staff.

One of the summit crew who received him was a Fujiwara Hiroto, just turned twenty-one. The young meteorologist was struck by Kyoko's looks - of all the Nonaka children, Kyoko was the one who most took after Chiyoko. Only much later did Fujiwara get the idea of writing a novel about her parent's winter ordeal on Mt Fuji. By that time, some four decades later, he had long been established as a successful writer of mountain literature under the pen-name of Nitta Jirō.

Fuyo no Hito, Nitta's novel about the Nonaka couple ends with the aged Itaru's return to Mt Fuji in 1933, recreating the old man's return to the crater rim. The final scene might be pure fiction. Leaning on Kyoko's arm, Itaru makes his way from the modern observatory up to the ruins of his old hut. Not much has been left standing by the snows and gales of almost forty winters. The old man's eyes light on a beam that somehow still stands upright. Musingly, he pulls a nail out of the bleached timber, wraps it reverently in a cloth, and shows it to Kyoko. "Look" he says, "This is where she used to hang her Russian parka; she hammered in the nail herself." Then, without another word, he turns to go down ...


Summarised from a (we hope) forthcoming full translation (not Project Hyakumeizan's) of Fuyo Nikki. This is Chiyoko's own account of the Nonaka attempt to overwinter on Mt Fuji. It was first published as a series of magazine articles and then collected together with her husband's Fuji Annai (Guide to Mt Fuji).

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