Naming mountains

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

Japan and New Zealand, though located on the opposite sides of the Equator, share many geographical and geological features such as long coastlines, volcanoes, and hot springs. The two countries are also known around the world for their beautiful mountains. However, the commonality between the two countries vanishes when it comes to naming their mountains.

Most mountains in Japan are named after their geographical locations such as Tokachi-dake, Iwate-san, and Tsukuba-yama, where dake, san, and yama are variations in Japanese for the word “mountain”. There are also many mountains whose names literally capture their visual images such as Tsurugi-dake (Mt. Sword), Yariga-dake (Mt. Spear), and Hakuba (Mt. White Horse). What is most striking about the choice of names for Japanese mountains is the fact that not a single mountain of the so-called “one hundred famous Japanese mountains” is named after a real person. The sole exception, if it can be called that, is Sobo-san, which would be Mt. Grandmother in English as the Japanese word “sobo” means “grandmother”. The name of Sobo-san was given to this mountain in the southern island of Kyushu because on its top is a shrine in honor of Toyotamahime, not a historical figure but a mythological figure who was the grandmother of Emperor Jinmu, the legendary first emperor of Japan.

In New Zealand, in sharp contrast to Japan, most mountains are named after historical figures such as Mt. Cook, Mt. Tasman, Mt. Vancouver, Mt. Hicks, Mt. Hamilton, Mt. Graham, Mt. Dixon, and Mt. Darwin. It goes without saying that Mt. Cook is named after the British explorer Captain James Cook (1728-1779), and Mt. Tasman after the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman (1603-1659). In fact, the names of Cook and Tasman also appear in the names of a strait, Cook Strait, and a sea, Tasman Sea, the former for the strait between the North and the South Island and the latter for the sea between New Zealand and Australia. Other mountains listed above are also named after real persons whose lives are connected with the history of New Zealand in one way or another. Charles Darwin (1809-1882) is credited with one mountain named after him because he was in New Zealand in 1835 during his trip around the world on the HMS Beagle.

Crossing the Tasman Sea from New Zealand to Australia, we come across an interesting example of a mountain—or a rock formation—named after mythical figures in the region called the Blue Mountains in New South Wales. Known for the dramatic scenery with rugged mountains, steep cliffs, deep canyons, underground rivers, and cascading waterfalls, the Blue Mountains is one of the places Charles Darwin visited during his stay in Australia in 1836. The sandstone rock formation called “Three Sisters” is one of the most spectacular landscapes in the Blue Mountains, attracting millions of visitors every year. Of the three rocks that comprise it, Meehri is the tallest at 922 meters, followed by Wimlah at 918 meters, and Gunnedoo at 906 meters. It is not difficult to infer that these are Aboriginal female names. According to an Aboriginal legend, the three sisters, who lived in the Jamison Valley as members of the Katoomba tribe, fell in love with three brothers from the rival Nepean tribe. Since inter-tribal marriage was forbidden, the three brothers decided to capture the three sisters by force, inciting a battle between the two tribes. A witchdoctor of the Katoomba tribe turned the three sisters into rocks in order to protect them from being captured. When the witchdoctor was killed in the battle, no one was left to turn the three sisters back into humans. Thus, they still stand as rocks to this day, overlooking the beautiful valley, and will continue to stand there until rain and wind gradually erode their gracious figures into a pile of sands.

There is another mountain with the name of “Three Sisters” in the Canadian Rockies near Canmore, Alberta, which lies to the east of the Banff National Park. This is a massive mountain with three peaks, much bigger than “Three Sisters” in the Land Down Under.

The three peaks are named: Big Sister (also called Faith), which is highest at 2,936 meters, Middle Sister (Charity), which is 2,769 meters high, and Little Sister (Hope), which is 2,694 meters high. The three peaks were once called “Three Nuns” because they were said to resemble, when covered with snow, the figures of three nuns praying. The current name, “Three Sisters”, was given by George M. Dawson (1849-1901), who did an extensive survey of Western Canada, as this name appears in a map he created in 1886 of the area covering the Canadian Rockies. Calling them Faith, Charity and Hope after martyred saints, some have argued, would not sit well with Canada’s Protestants. But for all Canadians—and for all visitors from around the world—these majestic peaks stand high into the sky as a reminder of three Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity.

The way in which mountains are named thus varies from country to country. But does it matter how mountains are named? After all, is not a mountain a mountain no matter in which country it is located? It certainly does, for by giving the name of “Three Sisters” we feel more affinity to a rock formation than just calling it “Three Rocks”, leading us to develop an awareness about the importance of living in harmony with the natural environment. As for “Three Sisters” in the Great White North, calling “Middle Sister” Charity reminds us the importance of observing the universal virtue of agape in our relationship with our fellow human beings, for as Paul the Apostle writes in his First Epistle to Corinthians, “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.”