Sword Mountain

In 1964, mountaineer Kyūya Fukada published a book, called 100 Famous Japanese Mountains.

He subjectively selected crags above 1,500 meters (with a few exceptions) that excelled in terms of grace, history, and individuality. The list ranges from Mount Fuji at the top of Japan to Mount Tsukuba, which reaches just 877 meters (2,778 feet).

Included in this list is Tsurugi-dake in the Toyama Prefecture. Tsurugi means “sword” in Japanese, giving us the fantastically named Sword Mountain. In addition to a magnificent moniker and gorgeous curves, Sword Mountain boasts another claim to renown. As modern climbers looked to summit the peaks of Japan, Sword Mountain was the last on the list of 100 to be scaled; by all accounts, it was the last unclimbed mountain on the entire Japanese archipelago. 

Sword Mountain from the northwest - photo by Hanoitaxi

Mount Tsurugi is part of the Hida Range, the Northern Alps. The 65-mile range forms a Y-shape and includes three peaks that hit 10,000 feet. Tsurugi’s altitude barely misses this mark, rising 9,839 feet or 2,999 meters.

For many moons, geologists believed no glaciers existed in East Asia south of the Russian region of Kamchatka. Recently, however, they discovered three small glaciers exist on the slopes of Mount Tsurugi and Mount Tate, thanks to the region’s heavy snowfalls.

Partially for this frosty nature, historical novelist Jirō Nitta called Sword Mountain “Tsurugi-dake ten no ki.” This phrase translates to “the most dangerous mountain climbable.” With this reputation, it makes sense that Sword Mountain might be the final frontier of Japanese mountaineering.

View from Mount Bessan - image by Alpsdake

As glorious as this mountain is, our tale really begins during the attempt to ascend Sword Mountain for the first time.

In either 1890 or 1907, the Japanese Imperial Land Survey of the General Staff decided the unclimbed mountain needed to be summited. Despite some nominal research, we cannot determine whether one of the above dates is correct and the other erroneous or if some sort of confusion arises thanks to differing Japanese calendars. The Cultural Heritage Site for Toyama Prefecture lists the date as 1890, while the website for the Japan Alps (and others) prefers the 1907 figure. Despite the strange discrepancy, both dates at least sit in the same general period. In either the late 19th century or the early 20th century, humans decided to ascend Tsurugi-dake.

And they succeeded, but that’s not the fun part.

When they found themselves on the acme of Sword Mountain, an accomplishment supposedly achieved by no human, they found these:

Scepter and sword found on summit of Sword Mountain - image from Toyama Bunkaisan

Waiting for the explorers at the top of the uncharted Sword Mountain was a sword!

Imagine believing you had triumphed in a gnarly adventure, something someone had never done before, only to find that you could not claim to be the first. At least, in this instance, the climbers managed to discover something culturally significant and scarce. In addition to the sword, they also found a cane or scepter.

These items indicated that priestly trainees had climbed Sword Mountain in the distant past. The artifacts date to the Nara period, which occurred between 710 and 794. They had waited patiently on the summit for over a millennium for the next climber!

Obviously, humans had stopped climbing the mountain during the period of recorded history when humans cared about crag glory. Perhaps the nomenclature of Sword Mountain, likely titled for its pointy visage, is far more apropos than we might have realized, a story of daggers lost to antiquity.

How many other first human achievements were preceded by our ancestors in the distant past? Even if that answer is a large number, most of them are probably not accompanied by ancient relics!

Further Reading and Exploration

Tsurugi-dake – SummitPost

Mt. Tsurugi-dake – The Japan Alps

Copper tin cane head attached iron sword (discovery of Mt. Tsurugi) – Toyama Cultural Heritage

100 Famous Japanese Mountains – Peakbagger

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