Saturday, 31 May 2014

Rhododendrons on High: Hinokiboramaru (檜洞丸), Tanzawa Mountains

Some mountains draw attention for the marvellous views they give across their surroundings. Others, however, concentrate all that beautiful intensity into themselves, and discharge it in through your boots with every step you take. The mountain featured today falls into the latter category, and is especially popular in the last days of May, or early June, when the way to its summit erupts in white azaleas.

Make no mistake though. Hinokiboramaru (檜洞丸) is no overcrowded, tourist-encumbered Ōyama or Takao-san. Proximity to these flowers is something each of the people in these photos has earned by offering up buckets of sweat and lactic acid. This 1600m peak, whose name denotes a “circle of cypress caves”, lurks deep in the Tanzawa mountains, and an excursion up and over it is less a hike than a swashbuckling, sinew-grinding adventure.

The beauty of the Tanzawa mountains is in their diversity, and here that colourful variegation is on show in all its glory. To demonstrate your worthiness to see it, Hinokiboramaru lays down challenges no less mercurial: the paths and environment transform before your eyes, zone after zone, each time settling into a new configuration for you to negotiate. Expect plenty of this:

And this:

And certainly no shortage of this:

As well as a fair bit of this:

And if you are lucky, perhaps even this:

So while it does not demand specialist equipment or more preparation than other day hikes, Hinokiboramaru is not for the faint of heart. The way up the mountain is somewhat strenuous and often narrow of path, while the ridge that follows presents challenges of an above-average technical difficulty, featuring a rumbling series of ladders, hand-assisted or chain-assisted rock climbs and boardwalks. Injury opportunities are plentiful if you aren't careful, and if you get stuck, the only way out of this remote mountainscape involves misery, expense and a helicopter.

But don't let that put you off. These mountains reward you commensurately for every ounce of courage you put in, and so long as you approach them with respect, a cool head, and even only moderate fitness, you will be able to get from beginning to end of this route and feel better for it. The area is well looked after by the Tanzawa national park authorities, with excellent signposting and trail maintenance. Even dogs and small children do this walk, as encountered on this occasion, on a day when the average age of people on this hike seemed nonetheless well over fifty.

Do, however, plan well. Good hiking shoes are absolutely essential, as is enough food and water to last you the full way. Pay attention to the weather forecast and do not go on a day with a significant chance of rain, which would make this walk's many high and narrow trails too precarious. And avoid trying it in winter unless you have special equipment for the ice and snow, along with past experience with such conditions.

It takes about an hour and a half to get from central Tokyo to Shin-Matsuda (新松田) station on the Odakyu Line, followed by another hour on the Fujikyū Bus (1180 yen either way, regular and runs throughout the day, click here for timetable) to reach the West Tanzawa Nature Classroom (Nishi Tanzawa Shizen Kyōshitsu, 西丹沢自然教室), where the walk begins and ends. As the walk can take a good six to seven hours, an early start is strongly advised.

Friday, 23 May 2014

The Strange Case of Sex Segregation in Japanese Hot Springs

The partition of humankind.

1) Hot Springs and Public Bathing in Japan
2) Traditions of Mixed Bathing
3) Segregation: the Gender Guillotine
4) Why is gender segregation in onsen a problem?
5) An Onsen Restoration?

1) Hot Springs and Public Bathing in Japan
The onsen (温泉), or hot spring, is a thriving institution of Japanese cultural life. Geothermally-heated water from Japan's volcanic depths has been harnessed for public bathing for thousands of years, and to this day these communal hot spring baths are widespread, popular, and highly diverse.

Onsen may be indoor or outdoor; may come in shiny, developed urban establishments offering a half-dozen separate baths, or in traditional little ryokan (inns) deep in the rustic wilds. Though they can be found anywhere in Japan, they especially cluster around volcanically active tourism areas like Hakone, where it is common to find each establishment advertising the unique mineral compositions of its water and associated medical benefits. Indeed, to invoke the healing powers of the onsen is to appeal to the earliest days of its heritage, when, it is said, hunters discovered these springs in their pursuit of injured animals, who would soak therein to heal their wounds.

Hakone, one of the most popular onsen hotspots in the greater Tokyo area.

Onsen are enjoyed naked. Some foreigners, especially those from countries with comparable public bathing traditions, find this familiar and comforting; others, disconcerting. As with the former, nudity in onsen traditionally lacks any sexual connotations. I have written before about sexuality in Japanese culture on this blog, observing that on the whole – though of course this is to generalize – attitudes in Japan to such things tend to be significantly less sensationalistic, horrified, taboo-ridden or moralistically indignant then in those cultures in the grip of sex-negativity.

The onsen reflects this more sober attitude, which is surely a great cultural strength. After all, unclothed, we can only observe the reality that we are all equal, stripped of our thousand masks and symbols of constructed social status. Nudity becomes not a source of shame – whose unpardonable idea was it to make it one in the first place? – but on the contrary, an empowering affirmation of natural freedom and common humanity. So befits the onsen's power: to provide refuge from the hectic lifestyles of beleaguering capitalist modernity; to bond and relate with others, not as superior and inferior but as human and human; and above all, simply to relax.

Onsen may be culturally seminal in their own right. Kokeshi like these originate from small traditional onsen deep in the Tōhoku countryside, whose artisans would hand them out to patrons. They have grown into a symbol of the region, and these onsen still produce kokeshi in their own distinctive styles.

And yet...

There is one glaring fault in this seemingly splendid narrative. One critical dimension, which, misaligned, brings misfortune upon the otherwise so worthy story of the onsen.

It is, of course, gender. But it derives, in this case, from an extraordinary historical twist.


2) Traditions of Mixed Bathing
From the natural hot springs of prehistory, where hunters or monks might have soaked with cranes or bears for company, to the sophisticated bathing establishments of nineteenth-century Edo, men and women bathed together. Indeed, there is evidence that early Christian missionaries, visiting Japan before it closed itself off to foreigners, looked upon these mixed bathing practices with horror, and struggled, unsuccessfully, to suppress this practice among their converts. The Japanese, it is considered, responded with reciprocal disdain and bemusement, coming to view these Europeans as unclean and smelly because they did not bathe.

Dōgo Onsen, in Ehime, Shikoku, one of the oldest onsen in Japan. This onsen was also the inspiration for the bathhouse in the Studio Ghibli film Spirited Away.
Besides the foreigners, it seemed few people took issue with mixed, non-gendered bathing, and those who did, like the missionaries, could neither persuade nor compel the Japanese to change it. That is not to say public bathing did not play host to other divisions and conflicts – if not of gender, then certainly of class and race. This was the case, for example, when public bathing practices spread among the common people in the Edo period, with its rigid social stratification, and the samurai, outraged at the very thought of dishonouring themselves to bathe with the likes of merchants – perhaps, to be reduced to equality through shared nudity – imposed class-segregated spaces and bathing times. And more recently, certain onsen in Hokkaido got into trouble when they were sued, successfully, for policies of refusing entry to non-Japanese, apparently out of frustration with drunken Russian sailors.

The tradition of men and women bathing together, however, generated no such controversy – until recent times. Somehow, all of a sudden, after thousands of years of mixed bathing, it is now the norm for onsen to strictly segregate male and female spaces. Almost every onsen you go to, especially in the cities, has separate baths for men and women; and while mixed onsen (kon'yoku, 混浴) still exist, they are very much on the normative margins, and you typically have to delve deep into the countryside to find them.

So. What happened?

3) Segregation: the Gender Guillotine
Finding reliable, authoritative sources on this matter is difficult – especially with my limited lingual skills still precluding access to the Japanese literature – but most commentators point towards the Meiji Restoration and the late nineteenth century, when Japan hurtled to “modernise” by absorbing European values, customs and knowledge, and incorporating them into its own national journey. After three hundred years closed to foreign influences, Japan now set about actively infusing itself with them: and this included, unfortunately, the Euro-American world's terrible heritage of simultaneous fear and obsession with sexuality.

On many fronts, Japanese culture resisted this wave of corrupted morality. We should be in no doubt as to the scale Europe's sexuality mistakes had reached at this time, best exemplified perhaps by the overwhelming puritanical pretentiousness, and gender ruthlessness, of Victorian Britain. The Japanese, with no serious history of systematic prejudice against sexual diversity, were even so influenced to criminalize homosexuality in 1872, though this law only lasted eight years before it was abolished. To this day, Japan's approach to sexuality remains, if not at all exemplary, then at least distinct.

Distinct may be very much the word.

The resilient and venerable tradition of mixed bathing, however, at last began to buckle. I do not have the material to provide a blow-by-blow account, but it seems to have been a gradual process, accompanied by the twentieth century's rapid changes in Japanese life. Some point to Japan's concern to appear morally “civilized” to the Europeans, to convince those empires of its own great power status, or later to avoid upsetting foreigners at the 1964 Olympics. Others suggest that with the rise of private bathtubs and decline in traditional community life, public bathing became increasingly redundant both for hygiene functions and for communal interaction. Whatever the case, turning a millennia-old custom on its head like this must have required extremely thorough transformations in all its aspects, from underlying values to the routines of daily life, from political will to long-term national ambitions.

The final blow, it seems, came in the 1950s during the U.S. occupation, when the Japanese parliament passed laws making it compulsory for onsen to segregate male and female bathing areas. That this was now culturally possible, under the weight of that ancient heritage of mixed bathing, is astonishing enough. But there was one further irony: apparently these laws were the work not of the American occupiers, but of women members of parliament, asserting themselves at the crest of the post-WWII wave of Japanese feminism and sexual equality reform.

Nowadays, from my conversations here with foreigners and Japanese alike, it seems gender segregation in onsen is taken for granted, and the idea that it was ever any different stirs genuine surprise. I raise this matter frequently, because it is such a good example both of today's ubiquitous gender problems and the historical fact that culture, tradition and gender norms can and do change, and change dramatically. Responses have ranged from an astonished “but mixed bathing is what monkeys do””, to a contemptuously dismissive “it's Japan, deal with it” – of which the spectacular ignorance, in the latter's case, has hopefully been demonstrated here.

Although the statement that monkeys do it, while devoid of any inherent moral implications for us, is not in itself inaccurate. But these fellows here are suspected of quite different gendered problems in their own onsen practices – specifically, exclusion based on power relationships. But until we solve our own problems, we perhaps hardly stand on the moral high ground to lecture other animals.

4) Why is gender segregation in onsen a problem?
There are three main reasons that gender segregation in onsen should be of concern.

The first, and most immediate, is that it is excludes people. Consider, for example, families, lovers or friends who wish to relax in the onsen together. Consider people of a more complicated sexual or gender status, such as transgendered or intersex people, who already have to fight for the right to be recognized for who they are in all aspects of life, against societies which would lump them into unrepresentative binary categories of “male” and “female”. And consider people – I myself am in this number – who are fundamentally made miserable by gender segregation, finding in it an purposeless rift down the centre of humanity that divides us against each other for no reason, and who metabolically cannot relax in a gender-segregated environment.

Segregation denies the pleasure of relaxing and communing in an onsen to all these groups of people, where previously it would have been equally available to them since time immemorial. And this is not trivial. Exclusion, especially of minorities, followed by arrogant denial and dropping responsibility onto the excluded, is one of the most shameful failures of virtually all human societies throughout their histories, histories we need not revisit here. To defend or ignore it is to be complicit in one of the most dangerous cruelties of our kind.

The second concern is that segregation worsens the gender problem. The gender problem, we should be clear, encompasses gender inequality and the subjection of women but runs a lot deeper still. At its core, gender itself is the problem: the destruction of our common humanity caused by an artificial social rift between women and men, followed by gender alienation – the assertion of rigid differences between those and separation of their spheres of life; gender conflict – the creation of a power struggle between them, of which the subjection of women is the main current expression; and gendered hostility to human diversity – the refusal to recognize that each of us is different, the expectation that each of us must live by these strictly-defined gender categories and norms, and the punishment and persecution of those of us who do not.

Segregation in onsen, despite the surely honourable motives of those parliamentarians who made it compulsory, worsens the problem of gender. It assumes the need for separate male and female spaces, then embodies that assumption and has it taken for granted. It places a literal barrier between frank, sober, relaxed communication between men and women as equal human beings, in the one institution – certainly in Japan – where this was most possible. In so doing, it further separates the “male” world and the “female” world, and thus delays a future in which this may once again be a world for us all.

The third problem is that it worsens our broken sexual paradigm. The paradigm, that is, in which we refuse to possess an informed and sober understanding of our kind's sexuality, regard it sensationally with fear and excitement, and load it with a negative moral charge as though it is somehow dirty or shameful.

In the onsen's case, this mainly involves the automatic association between nudity and sex, something not present in the onsen's history until the coming of foreign influences. Why do so many people now support segregation? The reasons I have heard usually involve discomfort about being naked in front of people of the other sex, something which – though there may be sound reasons in this day and age – is surely learned, not inherent, and certainly not inevitable.

Frankly, we have to get past this. Mastery of our natural sexuality necessitates that we surpass all senses of bodily negativity that centuries of false moralities and gendered pressures have conditioned in us. The onsen, until so recently, was a most radiant demonstration that this is possible: that human beings could socially interact without the slightest aversion to their own or one another's naked bodies. Now it has been twisted into an opposite embodiment: a place of tension where alarm bells explode at the sheer emergence of a male body and a female body into line of sight of each other, for fear first that such is automatically a sexual event, and second that this makes it bad. For the deliverance of humankind, both assumptions warrant torpedoes.

5) An Onsen Restoration?
None of this is to say, of course, that solving these problems is a simple matter of de-segregating onsen. The depressing fact is that attitudes have changed, and it will take a lot of effort to change them again. It seems evident that the majority today – The damned majority! Always the problem! – are comfortable with segregated onsen and would resist the restoration of mixed bathing. Though inevitably I have questioned their assumptions, people are of course entitled to their opinions, and I would not want these people excluded from a comfortable onsen experience any more than those who are presently. It seems that any solution would thus have to retain some segregated onsen spaces for those who, at least for now, would not be at ease in a mixed-sex setting.

Then there are issues like wani. Literally “crocodile” or “alligator” in Japanese, this refers to certain men who have got into the habit of haunting mixed onsen to harass women, by staring at them for hours on end or approaching them menacingly. This, however, seems to me not so much an argument against mixed onsen as an argument against harassment – and of the responsibility of all of us, onsen proprietors in particular, to uncompromisingly maintain no-harassment environments.

It would be an interesting experience to get into an onsen and then see one of these is in it.

So in today's context, perhaps the only solution would be for onsen to offer both mixed-sex areas and segregated areas, so that all comers could choose the baths most suited to them. But of course, this would demand both money and land, as most onsen would have to expand their premises and build more baths to accommodate it. We must ask, though, whether that cost – any cost – could compare with the cost of exclusion. For after all, what price can be put on that most valuable of institutions: a space where all people, regardless of sex or gender or anything else, can associate together, in their most primary natural forms, as free and equal human beings?

It will probably take decades, at best, to re-align the resources, the social attitudes, and the political and corporate will towards restoring the onsen. But the day must come, the day can come, when huge changes come again to the story of Japanese hot springs. After all, it has happened before.

That will be a good day, though it might come too late for me. I know that I may have to bear this frustration for the rest of my days. At the end of a gruelling hike in the mountains, when no release would be better than a purifying soak in Japan's volcanic waters, I know that instead, I must sadly walk on past that welcoming blue curtain with the “ゆ” on it, because the gendered circumstances therein would only aggravate, rather than relax me. When my female friends here excitedly suggest a visit to the onsen, I know that I must decline, and bear their puzzled looks as they head out of the door, because I would not be able to join them in communion and would instead be segregated away to sit, on my own, on the other side of an insubstantial but unbreakable bamboo fence.

Once or twice, I have been instigated to try that. It is a horrible feeling. Alienation. I raise my eyes to that partition, and within my heart swells a molten inferno, a terrible rage at humanity's mad, pointless, meaningless severance between male and female, its division of humans against humans. And I glare, as though the sheer flames of my anger might burn that barrier to ash.

Monday, 19 May 2014

More Old Ways - Momokura-yama (百蔵山) and Ōgi-yama (扇山), Otsuki-shi, Yamanashi

A recent mountain article on here introduced the Ōtsuki valley, a corridor of roads, farms and suburban settlements through the mountains, joining Tokyo with Yamanashi's central basin. Here we have another mountain walk route, this time on the valley's north side.

Two mountains feature prominently here. Momokura-yama (百蔵山) stands at 1003m above the hamlet of Saruhashi (“monkey bridge”). To its east is Ōgiyama (扇山) at 1138m, so named for apparently resembling a spreading fan from the south. Both offer very pleasant views of classic Japanese countryside, of peaceful villages with their farms and rivers and rails and roads, nestled amidst rolling mountains and lush mixed forests with Mt. Fuji dominant in the background.

The old Kōshū Kaidō (甲州街道), one of the Edo Five Routes, also runs through here, albeit mostly superseded by its modern successor, National Route 20. Like the more prominent Tōkaidō road, this was another of the old ways in and out of the Kantō plain – but where the Tōkaidō connected Edo to the west, the Kōshū Kaidō penetrated inland to the important provinces of Kai and Shinano (now roughly Yamanashi and Nagano, respectively). The final part of this walk traces the route through the old post station settlement of Inume.

Momokura-yama (百蔵山), with the Chūō Expressway in the foreground.
The summit of Ōgiyama (扇山).

This walk is tough. It features regular ups and downs, including two prolonged strenuous climbs and a steep descent in the middle, as well as a protracted slog along tarmac at the end. On the other hand, the paths are in excellent condition and very well signposted, facilities and vending machines are plentiful in the opening and closing stretches, and there are plenty of options for shortening the route. The final hour and a half can be skipped altogether by bus, although the marvellous scenery makes it well worth seeing it through on foot.

Plan for around seven hours of walking if you attempt it. And at this time of year, be sure to bring sunscreen and plenty of water to sustain yourself in the powerful heat.

To get there, take the JR Chūō Line out to Saruhashi (猿橋) station, where the walk starts. It finishes at Shiotsu (四方津) station, three stops back towards Tokyo.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Japanese Walks - Images and Reflections

At the time of writing, I have been in Japan for four months since returning here in January. My search for ways to obtain a visa and suitable work, despite considerable struggle, has so far not been successful, and becomes deeply frustrating and embittering.

Nonetheless. When I opened this blog in 2011, nothing portended that so much of it would come to be occupied by the rocks, trees, rivers, animals, temples, shrines, and miscellaneous spectacularness of Japanese mountains and forests. Indeed, it was with lamentations on the England Riots that year – or rather the appalling reactions to them in the UK – that I created this blog, and I fully expected that politically-charged, contentious topics like that would remain its constant focus.

To an extent, this has been the case. It has accumulated commentary on the madness of humankind and a broken reality; on our species's problems of gender, and failure to come to terms with its own sexuality; on heroism, and on suicide; on the political and social concerns of human rights, or of neckties, or of video games. Even when suffused with two and a half years of Japan, the focus has often been on burning historical problems, sometimes unresolved and still menacing today, or otherwise constituing layer upon layer of fascinating heritage or fuzzy animals.

But I notice, especially in recent times, the explosion of nature walks I have posted here over these years. Perhaps this reflects the impression Japanese walks have made on me – for it is a unique thing, walking in Japan, in regions so wild yet so accessible, each place with its own secret stories and shapes. And at times like these, beset with humanity's malevolent creations like visa regimes and pitiless economic structures, these wild places offer some of the last respites available into an Earth which, so mercifully, still connects to a beautiful universe, unsullied by prejudices, conformities and submissions.

In tribute, then, I post here some of the best images from each of the natural places in Japan I have had the privilege to walk. Some I have written up on this blog; click the links for guidance, in those cases, for how to explore them too.

Oku-Tama, Tokyo Metropolis
The wild western reaches of Tokyo, around and beyond the far end of the JR Ōme Line.

Mitake-san (御岳山), a sacred and popular peak, with a cable car and a village centred around a big shrine.

Ōdake-san (大岳山), a distinct pointy peak with a scenic “rock garden” in a deep ravine.

Sengenrei (浅間嶺), a ridge in sleepy Hinohara village near the legendary Hossawa Waterfall.

Takamizu Sanzan (高水三山), or the Three Mountains of Takamizu, a relatively easy climb in Ōme with intriguing local shrines and temples.

Kawanori-yama (川乗山), a steep and stunning ascent up narrow ridges and mossy river valleys.

Gozenyama (御前山), a triangular peak that looms above Lake Oku-Tama, one of Tokyo's major reservoirs.

Takanosu-yama (鷹ノ巣山), an unforgiving 1,737m peak along a high ridge deep in Oku-Tama.

Takao-Jinba area, Tokyo Metropolis
The area around Tokyo's most popular mountain, which accommodates thousands of visitors every day.

Takao-san (高尾山), with cable cars, chairlifts, eight hiking courses, and a long association with tengu and ascetic mountain hermits.

Jinba-san (陣馬山), a good day's hike along the ridge from Takao, well-known for the white horse sculpture on its summit.

South Takao Ridge (南高尾山稜), much quieter than the main Takao-Jinba ridge, perched on the boundary of Sagamihara amidst evergreen forests.

North Takao Ridge (北高尾山稜), a much rougher ridge on Takao-san's northern deciduous flank, with unrelenting ups and downs above the haunted grounds of Hachiōji Castle.

Tanzawa Mountains, Kanagawa Prefecture
A dense cluster of mountains overlooking the suburban expanses of Kanagawa.

Kōbōyama (弘法山), in the hills above Hadano city, which erupt in pink blossoms during the sakura season.

Tōnodake (塔ノ岳), an archetypally classic Japanese mountain.

Nabewari-yama (鍋割山), with a tough climb to the summit and its famous cabin, where Mr. Kusano has served Nabewari udon for almost fifty years.

Hakone area, Kanagawa Prefecture
A great caldera in the corner of the Kantō Plain, filled with hot springs, heritage sites and natural beauty.

Komagatake (駒ケ岳), a grassy hilltop on the central lava dome near Hakone's highest point of Kamiyama (神山).
Kintoki-yama (金時山) on Hakone's northern rim, birthplace of Kintarō (“Golden Boy”) in Japanese folklore and – on a clear day – one of the best vantage points towards Mt. Fuji.
Myōjingatake (明神ヶ岳), along a ridge of towering bamboo and golden-rayed mountain lilies.

Yaguradake (矢倉岳), outside Hakone proper, a strategic peak overlooking Ashigara Pass, the old way in and out of the Kantō Plain.

Oku-Musashi, Saitama Prefecture
The mountains north of Tokyo, rising to the high wilds of Chichibu.

Hiwada-yama (日和田山), a pleasant hill above the flower fields of Koma, a sleepy village of ancient Korean secrets.
Izugatake (伊豆ヶ岳), a formidable peak in the Oku-Musashi mountains, known for its chain-assisted rock face climb and Ne-no-Gongen Temple.

Yamanashi Prefecture
A landlocked province of mountains surrounding the fertile Kōfu Basin, the first place you come to west out of Tokyo. Not had much experience here yet.

Kuratake-yama (倉岳山), a well-rounded mountain in Ōtsuki city, lower Yamanashi, which offers a bit of everything – mossy streams, an open ridge, and good views of Mt. Fuji.

Ibaraki Prefecture
The mostly flat expanses of towns and farms northeast of Tokyo, save for one distinctive mountain in the middle.

Tsukuba-san (筑波山), the somewhat touristified double-mountain of Tsukuba science city, decked in ancient temples and curious rock formations.

Mount Fuji
And of course – Japan's highest mountain, at 3,776m.

And to finish, a special bonus, perhaps the most magical mountain experience of them all: Kurodake, in Daisetsuzan National Park, Hokkaido.