Japan’s early masters of Alpine photography and their breathtaking views

by Alice Gordenker

Special To The Japan Times

Although Japanese have long gone into the mountains on spiritual pilgrimages and to gather food, fuel and medicinal herbs, it was only in about 1900 that mountaineering emerged in Japan as a recreational pursuit. Within a decade or so, all the important peaks had been climbed and mountaineers turned to more difficult ascents in unknown territory.

“Valleys and Peaks,” which runs alongside the Shimooka Renjo exhibition at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, introduces the stunning alpine photography of Matsujiro Kanmuri (1883-1970), who broke new ground with his climbs in the Kurobe Gorge of Toyama Prefecture and Misuo Hokari (1891-1966), who worked to make mountaineering more accessible.

Kanmuri was initially reluctant to take a camera into the mountains, fearing that he’d get so focused on taking pictures that he’d fail to appreciate the nature. But his first view of the Kurobe River from the top of Mount Tate changed his mind; he wanted others to see the beauty of the mountains. Although photographic equipment then was heavy and cumbersome, he began to carry cameras on all his trips. He composed beautiful views of peaks and valleys, characterized by his skillful use of natural light. Some of his photographs capture scenes that were lost forever when parts of the gorge were flooded in 1961 to accommodate a hydroelectric plant.

Hokari first climbed Mount Yarigatake, which straddles the border between Nagano and Gifu prefectures, in 1915. At that time, anyone going into the mountains had to hire porters to carry the food and gear they would need. In an effort to make mountaineering more affordable, Hokari started a group to build lodges where climbers could stay overnight. At first he took photos only to document his climbs, but in around 1921 he acquired a large-format view camera and began serious alpine photography. He sold souvenir photos to help fund his lodges, and as his skill developed, his work began to appear in books, magazines and travel posters.

In addition to about 140 photos, the exhibition brings together related books and magazines. While the images stand as art, and testament to the beauty of nature, they also serve as fascinating documentation of the equipment, clothing and methods used before World War II, when mountaineers were truly blazing new trails.

“Valleys and Peaks” at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography runs till May 6. ¥700. Closed Mon. (except April 28 and May 5). http://syabi.com/e/contents/exhibition/index-2146.html