Theatres of Cross: Nobeyama

Resting at an altitude of 1,345m, a couple of hours west of Tokyo in the Nagano prefecture, Nobeyama lies almost exactly at the midpoint of Japan’s main island, Honshu. At this latitude, the winter weather, even at sea level, can be fierce enough to freeze over Japan’s ports. And Nobeyama is mountain country. Specifically, it is part of the Yatsugatake Mountains, a range whose most prominent peak, Mount Yatsugatake, was once said to exceed 8,000m, that elevation attained only by the true giants of rock and ice.

Back then, so legend has it, Yatsugatake kept company with the likes of K2, in Pakistan, Kanchenjunga, on the Nepal-India border, and the goddess mother of all the snows herself, Mount Everest. It is a Yatsugatake that exists now only in legend, sent crumbling by a jealous rival, the deity Konohanasakuyahime, protector of Mount Fuji. Located on the shores of Lake Kawaguchi in the Chubu region, Fuji is modern Japan’s highest mountain – and tops out at a paltry 3,776m.

Geologists, for their part, like to point out there may be some truth to Yatsugatake’s claims, theoretically at least; the Yatsugatake range is considerably older that the geological formations around Mount Fuji, and millennia of erosion have done much to diminish its peaks. The highest in the Yatsugatake range still standing is Mount Aka, at 2,899m.

Despite their diminutive status – Japan does not have a single peak above 4,000m, nor one that is home to a single glacier – the mountains around Nobeyama have a heritage in alpinism, a sport once considered the preserve of westerners, which compares favourably with the rest of the world. The Japanese Alpine Club was founded in 1905, and while it lagged behind the British equivalent, whose inception came in 1857, by the best part of half a century, it was inaugurated only three years after the American Alpine Club, established in 1902.

Leading alpinists from around the world were first alerted to the possibilities for mountain sports in these parts thanks to the Reverend Walter Weston, a visiting English clergyman whose seminal work on a nearby range, Mountaineering and Exploration in the Japanese Alps, was first published in 1896. By 1910, the Japanese military had contracted the services of a leading Austrian climbing instructor, Theodor von Larch, who also lead ski-mountaineering excercises on the slopes of Mount Fuji. Today, Japanese teams can be found at the base camps of all the world’s 14 peaks that soar above 8,000m.

Yet for all the allure of such behemoths, fictional or otherwise, it would be unwise to underestimate the challenge posed by the mountains on Japan’s home soil. The Yatsugatake range that stands sentinel above Nobeyama is still high enough for an ice-climbing season that lasts from November to mid-April. There is also the small matter of contrasts, and the extent to which this exacerbates conditions.

The difference between the summer and winter seasons in the high mountains of Europe is much less marked than it is in Japan, where high terrain undergoes a complete transformation during the snowy season that lasts from late December to early April. In the mountains here, a single fall of snow may well exceed three metres, the sort of vast, uncompacted volume that provides ideal ordnance for avalanches. Temperatures of –20C are considered modest and blizzards are a constant threat. In more northerly reaches, conditions during the snowy season are so severe they are sometimes ranked the equal of the Himalayas during the monsoon season – a time when only the foolhardy venture out – and deaths in Japan’s own climbing season are sadly all too common.

Even at lower elevations, that more recent European import that marks out Nobeyama, the sport of cyclocross, is not insulated against extremes of weather. At 1,345m, the severity of a sea-level winter is amplified significantly. Nobeyama’s local train station, for instance, the highest in Japan, maintains a large, open-air pit and bench behind its main toilet block for when – not if – the flushing toilets freeze over. Throughout winter, a simple journey down Nobeyama’s main street can become quite the ordeal should a whiteout blizzard descend upon the town. The thick morning frosts are referred to as ‘diamond dust’, glinting upon the fields that are said to produce Japan’s sweetest cabbages, lettuces and corn.

In addition to the proximity of world-class mountaineering and cyclocross racing, Nobeyama is known for producing some of Japan’s most successful speed skaters, the thin, cold air not taxing the lungs but fortifying them; the Winter Games were held in Nagano in 1998, the same games where ski legend Herman Maier won both giant slalom and super-G gold medals. The town is also famous for its relationship with stars of another kind, and the Nobeyama Radio Observatory, part of the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, has long stationed a radio telescope here.

The view from the heavens is a fitting leveller in some ways; from space, it is hard to see which mountains of the Earth possess the greater vertical prowess. So, whether you’re camped beneath a ridge in the teeth of an angry wind, grinding through the mud on a final bid for glory, or surrendering your dignity above a frozen pit as the morning train approaches, winter makes the mountains around Nobeyama as tough a place as any.