Monday, April 24, 2017

The first foreign ascent of Hakusan?

How William Eliott Griffis made a pioneer climb of Hokuriku’s pre-eminent Meizan

Sunday Afternoon, Aug. 20th 1871

W E Griffis in 1877
I leave at 5 o’clock tomorrow morning to reach Hakusan. I hope by Tuesday afternoon. Hakusan means White Mountain – Mont Blanc. I hope to put the first foreign foot on its crest, to measure its height and settle the question whether Fusiyama (sic), the queenliest mountain in Japan, perhaps in the world, is also the tallest in the Sea Empire.

Fukuwi, Aug. 28th 1871

Dear Maggie.

How swiftly flies time after all, in spite of its seeming detailed slowness. I am vividly reminded by the above date that tells me that only two days more of summer remains. I have just returned from my expedition to Hakusan. I set off at 5 A.M. last Monday, travelled 10 Ri, 23 and a third miles on foot, and rested and staid all night at Katzu Yama ( mountain of victory) in the large temple of the city, being finely entertained (by Gov. order) by a jolly old Buddhist priest. I being the·first foreigner ever seen there, of course created a sensation of the first class. The streets were jammed and packed with people eager to scan the to-jin from crown to sole. In fact, as I passed through all the towns on my route, the excitement was tremendous. The town people turned out en masse, and lined the streets by thousands. All the side streets leading to the main avenue were crowded with running people determined to see the to-jin by all means. Their patience was marvelous.

W E Griffis and students of the Kaisei Gakko in Tokyo

Waiting at the doors and back of the house, they would stand for hours to catch a glimpse of him by any means. Yet, in all my trip, even after six months acquaintance with this polite people, I am still freshly pleased with their innate politeness. From Katzu Yama, our pathway was very mountainous, and we were most wholesomely tired, when we arrived at the hotel-village at the foot of Hakusan. Here we found two good hotels, and ate like bears and slept like rocks. There was also a natural hotspring and bath-house, which I enjoyed very much. Iwaboochi and Amori (attendant officer & paymaster - government paying all the expense) were too tired, next morning to attempt the ascent. So I, and Sahei my servant, Amori's servant, a guide and a porter, ascended together. The distance to the top, is 10 English miles, and fearfully rugged, up steep precipices, over narrow ridges a foot wide with precipices on each side, thousands of feet deep, over round and sharp stones, past beds of snow, through miles of timber, finally over bare stones and volcanic rubbish.

We left the hotel at 8.30 A.M. and reached the shelter-house half a mile near the top at 3.30 P.M. having halted an hour for dinner. All the party being very tired desired me to wait till morning before ascending to the top, to measure the height, but I could not trust the weather, and after resting a half-hour began the final ascent. It taxed my muscle and nerve to the full, but the reward was grand. On the topmost peak, was a shrine of Amida, protected from the terrific wind blowing there, by heaps and walls of stone. Near by, lay the ruins of a small temple blown down 27 years ago. I secured a sheltered place among the rock, and by the aid of a blanket, boiled water and tested its boiling point; it boiled at 195, which makes the height of Hakusan about 9,230 feet, a little more than two-thirds the height of Fusiyama. The sight from the peak of Hakusan was sublime. It is an extinct volcano, and the crater is several hundred feet deep, full of volcanic debris, banks of snow, and a small lake frozen over ten months in a year. There are three points or jagged peaks to the crater, and I stood on the highest point. All round, leagues on leagues rose ranges of mountains and solitary peaks in proud solitudes. All the vallies (sic) lay filled with the drifted curling masses of white-mist clouds. Three glittering rainbows spanned the eastern sky, and their bases seemed buttressed on the peaks, as if disdaining a lower resting place. The setting sun departing through massive jagged clouds of a fiery red and dun seemed the awful beginning of a judgment day of doom; while between the rainbows on one side and the hideous gloom on the other the level sun-rays shot through hosts of luminous silvery clouds that moved like victors hosts toward the rainbow-gate of heaven. With the wind blowing with grant force, the everlasting hills rising in eternal stillness, and this ancient volcano sleeping in repose, with its bald ruins on its top, and its centre and base tufted with forests, added the wondrous scenery of the sky. I shall never forget the sight, and felt well repaid for the toil of travel and ascent, and the weariness and sorrows that succeeded. These let me relate.

Mr and Mrs Griffis revisit Fukui in 1927
Hakusan is a holy mountain. It was first ascended, and a path on it made by a priest in the 3rd (sic) century. To this day, pilgrims ascend it during June, July & August, sometimes as many as 100 together, though generally 5 or 6. Of course where pilgrims are, these fleas will congregate. About 1000 feet below and a mile or so distant from the top is a rude but sheltering house, in the best room of which our party slept. My servant Sahei, is a jewel, and proved himself worth more than gold, on the journey, anticipating my every want. After making me a splendid supper, and then kneading my tired limbs (a Japanese and excellent remedy for weariness) I lay down to sleep, but sleep came not. I had drunk coffee, and supposed that kept me awake, but did not suspect the cause until next day revealed about 200 red bites. I slept about an hour only all that night, which in spite of last night’s rainbows blew a tempest and poured a flood all night. I descended the mountain in an almost blinding flood of rain having no umbrella, but a wide conical Japanese hat. The descent taxed my tired limbs terribly, but at the hotel, hot baths, rest, good bed and food were doubly enjoyed, and to know I had gained the result proposed was very pleasant. We travelled 15 miles only next day, resting again at Katsuyama. Thence, being tired, we took norimons and were carried to Ono, a city of 8,000 people. We were met as in all our journey by an officer sent out to greet and conduct us, and preceded by servants &c who kept back the crowd, &c. We rested and slept, not in a hotel, but by gov. invitation, in the house of the richest man in town, a gorgeous house in all respects. Thence we took norimons and arrived in Fukuwi after an absence of seven days. We walked about 120 miles, and rode norimons about 30 or 40. I feel stronger in health and better every way physically. School opens next Friday, Sept. 1st, and I am glad of it. At present, the Gov. pays all my travelling expenses, even to food &c, but when the Doctor & Cap't. Brinckley (sic) come, they will let me pay my own; an arrangement which is perfectly fair.

My new house is nearly finished and is really a splendid affair. I feel quite proud of it. For the sake of having all the paint paper &c healthfully dry, I shall not enter it until about Oct. 1st. I forgot to tell you that during my trip to Hakusan, I saw enormous quantities of raw silk, tobacco, cotton, indigo, and tasted the new corn and potatoes at many places.


Excerpted from Griffis' Fukui letters : William Elliot Griffis pioneer educator, author of The Mikado's Empire / Gurifisu fukui shokan, edited by Eiichi Yamashita, 1934, reprinted 2009.