Monday, 31 March 2014

Twin Peaks: Tsukuba-san (筑波山), Ibaraki

On a clear day, look out from a high vantage point in Tokyo, such as Tokyo Tower or the Skytree. To the west the mountains ring the horizon, a reminder that everything here, even this urban infinity, subsists at the pleasure of Japan's volcanic geology. At one extreme, Mount Fuji watches on in its silent vigil. Towards the other, the imposing ice-capped spine of Honshu rears redoubtable in the background.

East towards the sea, however, everything is flat. There is scarcely a hill to be seen. But there is one exception: a conspicuous double-mountain to the northeast, all the more peculiar for how it has that skyline all to itself.

It is Mount Tsukuba (筑波山) – one of the 100 Famous Japanese Mountains. The principal mountain in the flat southern half of Ibaraki Prefecture, it overlooks the “Science City” of Tsukuba, a 1960s planned concern devoted to scientific research and discovery which houses the prominent University of Tsukuba, as well as an Annex of the National Archives of Japan.

Mount Tsukuba has two peaks: Nantai-san (男体山, “male body mountain”), at 871m high, and Nyotai-san (女体山, “female body mountain”), the rightfully taller at 877m. A sacred mountain, the peaks are respectively associated with Izanagi and Izanami, the ancient Shinto deities who mythologically birthed Japan's islands, gods and people. The Tsukuba Shrine at the mountain's base is one of the oldest in Japan; people have been coming there to worship the mountain for 1,300 years.

Tsukuba Shrine.
Tsukuba-san is notably not volcanic. It is composed mostly of granite, and features many large boulders and rock formations for which it is famous, each bearing its own resemblances or stories. The best-known of these is the “Toad Rock”, whose apparent likeness has given Tsukuba-san a permanent cultural association with toads now profusely represented in its installations and merchandise.

The “Toad Rock”. Note the mass of stones in its “mouth”. More on how they got there later.

Add to this the mountain's superb variety of trees and seasonal flowers, the panoramic views across its surrounding flats, and its easy accessibility, and you have a recipe for another massive mountain touristification phenomenon. The saddle between the two peaks has been colonised by restaurants, souvenir shops and viewing platforms, serviced from two directions by a cable car and a ropeway. Fortunately humanity's works have not nearly overwhelmed it so much as, say, Takao-san, but if you go, do not expect to have much of the mountain to yourself except in the most immiserating weather conditions.

The view north from the saddle.
This does however make Tsukuba-san a flexible day's outing. Only an hour and a half from central Tokyo by public transport, it offers a relaxing family excursion with much to enjoy for dogs and small children, requiring only as much physical exertion as you are comfortable putting in. As a more serious walk, it offers a steep but forgiving hour-and-a-half ascent up the mountain, and a rocky ramble across and down which in total can be completed in as few as four hours, or five to six if you opt to explore multiple paths or take your time around the top. Experienced hikers will find little to challenge them, but Tsukuba-san is perfect for unconfident beginners seeking to gauge their endurance, or for some good exercise to get back in shape.

To get there, take the Tsukuba Express train from Akihabara Station; the Rapid service takes only 45 minutes. At Tsukuba station, take Exit No. 3, then go to Bus Stop No.1 for the bus to Tsukuba-san (about 40 minutes, 700 yen one-way, timetable here). Get off at either Tsukuba Shrine Entrance (筑波神社入り口, Tsukuba Jinja Iriguchi), or Tsutsujigaoka (つつじヶ丘), depending on which side you want to climb from. This article covers a circuit starting and ending at the shrine. The mountain's routes are well-signposted, with maps on frequent display, and there are clusters of restaurants and shops at both starting points and at the top.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

On Suicide, or Suicidogenic Societies

Warning: this article deals frankly with the subject of suicide. Some readers may find these themes distressing.

If you have come upon this article because you (or someone you know) is considering suicide, please click the header for the full article and go straight to the end for a crucial message I would like to give you (or them). I will not attack you, nor disservice you with the kinds of statements you have likely already had inflicted on you.

Currently, about 30,000 people commit suicide in Japan every year.

That is a harrowing enough statistic – double the number of deaths from the March 2011 Triple Disaster, every year – but it also confronts you directly in daily life here. I have yet to find myself on a Japanese train that gets traumatically stopped because somebody jumped in front of it, but a number of close friends have, and such incidents recur nigh-daily on my Facebook feed or in local news. I did, however, experience it in the UK, when a London-to-Newcastle train I was on last autumn got taken out of service because of it.

No human society is alone in this. Suicide represents about a million deaths a year across the world, spanning every country on the planet. This is a global problem of hideous proportions.

When people talk about somebody jumping in front of their train, it is typically with the deepest sympathy for those affected. The thousands of passengers inconvenienced; the driver who could not brake in time, and will watch those gruesome images play out for the rest of his or her days; the bystanders who caught sight of the carnage; the police and rail staff who have to clean up the entrails and blood; and any friends or family resultantly bereaved.

But I have noticed that any reference to the person who jumped, in contrast, tends to lack compassion. The suicidal person, one hears, is selfish. “Why couldn't they have just done it somewhere else?” The sentiment is of cold disdain for his or her apparent weakness, cowardice, lack of concern for others. And it may be expressed with a certain passivity, the language of shrugs and avoidance and “well, you know”s, as though the act of suicide morally cheapens the deceased, makes them somehow too distasteful to merit the privilege of entertainment on the commentator's tongue.

Stuck on that train so disrupted at Durham station on a late autumn evening, the passengers around me saw fit to joke about it. Together they openly mocked that unseen, unknown, invisible someone who had departed from our world in circumstances they had no concrete information on.

Why couldn't they have done it somewhere else?” This feeling was bounced around with humour. With the most unhesitating amused contempt.

Still don't see my concern? Consider this account by Jay Griffiths in her Orion article, 'Artifice v Pastoral', in 2009.

This morning on the radio...I heard of an unhappy lad, only seventeen, who climbed up a multi-story car park and for some three hours he delayed, agonizing about his life and wondering whether to jump, a strange, sad Hamlet of suicide. A crowd of some seven hundred people gathered, and people in the crowd began jeering, cruelly goading him to jump. “Jump, you ****, jump,” it was reported...He jumped to his death. People in the crowd shoved forward to take pictures of his dead and mangled body, and the local chief constable reported that people in the crowd posted pictures of the scene on the internet after the event.

Perhaps you begin to see what I am getting at. But I want to make this real clear.

To those baying and bloodthirsty mobs; to those observers or commentators who casually remark about the patheticalness or selfishness or weakness of people who commit suicide as though they have half a bloody clue what they are talking about; to those who gallivant on their moral high horses and speak of suicidal people as though something of the dust and filth beneath them; and to those contemptible wretches on that train in Durham, who were mildly irritated by the delay but found that person's death funny: I say – enough.

That assault on suicidal people. That normative massacre. Enough. It stops. It finishes, today.

This is an article I have waited to write for years. I have only waited because I did not want to do it until I could do it properly.

Because you see, I've been there too.

Because I have known what it means to hanker for the freedom of my own demise for years on end, and to make an attempt on it.

Because I have stood at the brink, reached across the frontier, and shaken hands with death.

Because I knew then, as I already did, that we, the human species, have created horrors in life infinitely worse than anything death could present us.

And because, having turned my back on that frontier as circumstances contrived, I am not going to waste that experience by not bringing it down upon the sausage-machines of living hell our societies have created, which condemn millions, millions too many to a fate as soul-rippingly miserable as any we make films about or build monuments to or craft human rights treaties about – yet whose victims we jeer from that company with unparalleled scorn.

So I do not write on this lightly. The agony of knowing only to seek your own death is something no living being should have to experience. Not one. If you know it, or have known it, you know it is something you could not wish upon the vilest of your enemies. And a world in which this agony exists is suspect enough, but a world in which it exists for millions of people is a disgrace of metaphysical magnitude.

I write this because I want this travesty to end. I write this because I want no-one to ever have to go through it ever again. I write this because we, humanity, keep doing this to people, systematically, while denying our role in it. And because of my own experience of this, you will excuse me if I occasionally come across as just a bit furious in the following evisceration of all those people who, in their ignorance, their sanctimoniousness, or their desire to feel superior, have yet to recognise that their self-satisfied supercilious attitudes to suicidal people are actually quite a fucking contemptible thing.

That compassionlessness, that callousness, is precisely what transforms this into a world which drives people out of their lives in the first place. That is what I write this to assert.

Too long have we relegated suicide to taboo status, an inconvenience best not discussed, so that when it happens it can swiftly be blamed on the moral or cognitive poverty of the suicidal individual, as though all the rest of us are alright and suicidal people are just unwelcome anomalies in an otherwise functioning society.

Keep this up, and we will continue, day after day, to lose hundreds of thousands of human beings – all their love, all their dreams, all their diversity, all their contributions to making this a better world – until we lower ourselves to consider that our societies are causing suicide.

And let's be completely clear what causing means. It does not mean the “romanticisation” of suicide, as has become a popular scapegoat. It does not mean things like “positive cultural interpretations” of suicide, a charge so frequently hurled at Japanese heritage, for example. Scapegoats - all scapegoats. Thirty thousand shattered salarymen, alienated youths and miscellaneous tortured souls do not jump in front of Japanese trains or hang themselves in Aokigahara because they believe it brings supreme honour upon them in the name of the emperor or some such. That seventeen-year-old did not jump off the car park because he had taken on romantic ideas about the transience of life and eternal mystery of death or suchlike. And I did not walk into the Thames on that January afternoon because of any of that shit. I did it because other people had tortured me to death, while the social norms and structures established my suffering as 100% my fault, inscrutably and comprehensively, while completely ignoring all those others' malicious deeds, holding up those cruel norms and structures as though they were absolute and commonsense laws of the universe, and castigating me simultaneously for ethical failures and for mental disorder for not accepting those judgements without question.

There are few matters where I accept that you have to have directly experienced something to properly comment on it. That's usually too easy an excuse to silence criticism. But suicide is the singular exception. If you are capable of attacking suicidal people, then you simply do not know what it means when existence itself becomes a twisted abomination of torment devouring all time, space and reason. (Worse still there are known to be people who simply do not care, surely be the very originators of evil.)

So I am going to confront some popular myths here, myths as preposterous as they are shameful for ever entering our suicide discourse in the first place.
  • The myth that suicide is necessarily a choice;
  • The myth that suicide is necessarily selfish;
  • And the unspoken assumption that suicide is principally a problem with suicidal individuals, which reflects no further on the societies around them.