Remembering the Flight JL123 Crash (1): Osutaka-no-One

Although I have written a few posts about the JL123 crash (for example, a summary of the crash, the isho (last messages), about the significance of the isho; also follow this link for a list of posts related to my research on JL123), and have written in articles and books about the memorialisation of the crash (for example, Dealing with Disaster in Japan: Responses to the Flight JL123 Crash, Osutaka: A Chronicle of Loss in the World’s Largest Single Plane Crash, Developing a Model to Explain Modifications to Public Transportation Accident Memorials, and one about disaster narratives, which includes discussion about the novels and dramatizations related to the crash), I’ve not done any posts yet about the memorialisation of the crash on this site. Having done a number of posts about the memorialisation of other accidents (see a list here or on the page Developing a Model to Explain Modifications to Public Transportation Accident Memorials), it seemed odd that I hadn’t done any about the JL123 crash. To do it justice, I’m going to split it into several posts, starting with this one about the crash site itself, Osutaka-no-One (御巣鷹の尾根).

I don’t want to duplicate too much what I have written elsewhere about the site. In other posts of this sort I have provided a summary of the event a link to the Wikipedia site. I’m not doing that here as (a) you can find a summary here, and (b) there are issues with the Wikipedia site. The English version is quite different to the Japanese one. The English one contains many problems, including a doctored picture (see below). I have written about the problems before in Dealing with Disaster in Japan and have previously tried to deal with some of the issues, but my edits were always removed, so I gave up. I am writing a chapter for an edited book which may also discuss this issue further.

The JAL123 page on Wikipedia (15 April 2020) still showing the doctored image as discussed in my book Dealing with Disaster in Japan.

Before going any further, let me clarify some details about the name of the crash site itself. The official name is Osutaka-no-One, literally the ridge on Osutaka. However, the site is actually on Mt. Takamagahara. Seemingly the adoption of ‘Osutaka’ owes much to the power of the media, with this name being used both by the Yomiuri Shimbun in its headline of 13 August and also in some television reports that morning. Although today there is one, nearby, mountain called Osutaka-yama, historically the village of Ueno-mura (where the crash site is located) had many ‘Osutaka-yama’ – that is 36 mountains in Ueno-mura have been referred to as ‘Osutaka-yama’ – mountains (yama) where hawks (taka) were caught during the Tokugawa Period (1603-1868) for the Shōgun. With no definite or indefinite particles in Japanese language, the difference between ‘an Osutaka-yama’ and ‘the Osutaka-yama’ is not clear.

Let us now look at how to visit Osutaka-no-One. I actually recommend doing this after you have been to Irei-no-Sono in central Ueno-mura and ideally also the Safety Promotion Center.

A map of Ueno-mura. The lowest marker is the crash site, while the one next to it is the car park.

Although you can use the car’s satellite navigation system (by finding the point on the map and getting it to give directions), there is little need as it is well sign-posted and in many areas the reception is poor or the current road deviates from the route in many databases, so is of little use. You need to start by heading west out of the central part of Ueno-mura along national route 299. You will come to a signpost for Osutaka-no-One (御巣鷹の尾根) with a turning to left just before a bridge, next to a post office (on to route 124). The road to Osutaka-no-One has been greatly improved over the years, with new tunnels being constructed, in order to aid with the construction of Ueno-dam, which you will pass en-route. The road is very narrow in places and frequently suffers from rock falls and landslides. It is therefore recommended that you check that the road is open before departing. Ueno-mura posts information on its website (in Japanese). There is a small car park at the end of the road, from where you can then walk to the crash site. The drive takes 30 to 40 minutes.

At the car park there is a small map of the site and walking sticks, made by local school children, are provided for those who need them. From the car park to the focal point of the crash site it is about 800m and in that distance there is a rise of 182m. Along the path there are a few benches to rest on. Part way you will also find a memorial which has been made for those who are unable to cope with the final climb to the crash site. There are usually free maps of the crash site to take away here. Slightly further up you can access a hut for resting in (overnight stays are also possible) and toilets. Further up you reach a point where the path forks (there is a board with a map of the site here), I would recommend that you follow the main path left to Shōkon-no-Hi (昇魂の碑) before looking around the rest of the site. As you go up the main path there are a couple of alternative paths which have more gradual gradients, but will bring you back to the main path further up. Having looked around Shōkon-no-Hi and some of the other areas, you can go round to Sugeno-sawa, where the rear section of the plane finished up. You will now be near the bottom of the site and the path will bring you back to the point where you took the left fork (now going straight-on) to Shōkon-no-Hi.

The focal point of the crash site is built upon where one of the helipads was constructed in the wake of the crash. As well as the main memorial stone, Shōkon-no-hi, there is also a bell and places to leave messages (paper and pens can be found in a box near the bell). If you look to the ridge behind you on your left hand side you should still be able to make out the gauge in the ridge made by the right wing of the plane. Following the path to the left of the bell and up the hillside you will find a number of other memorials – a statue of Kanon, a hut containing various mementos and messages left by izoku and visitors and memorial stones detailing the time and date of the crash and the names of the victims. Continuing up this path you will come to the bohyō for the captain, co-pilot and flight-engineer before coming to the ‘rock X’ (batsu-iwa), where some of the plane impacted. This effectively marks the highest point of the crash site, so you should now retrace your steps back down to one of the other junctions. If you follow the signs to 4A, 4B, etc. you will be able to get to go round and down to Sugeno-sawa.

Due to the scale and topography of the site, even with a map, it can take some time to get used to its layout and I would recommend taking some time to walk around and see the variation in bohyō designs, for example. The various areas are clearly labelled and so finding the exit to the site should not be a problem when you need to leave. For those wanting to see Kyū Sakamoto’s bohyō, you will need to go to area 7D. You will find there is one memorial with the names of all of the victims on it (unlike the one at Irei-no-Sono) and I find this one of the most impressive sights due to the scales involved to fit 520 names on.

Please remember to respect the site and not to tamper with anything you see there. As the car park is very small, and to ensure that the izoku are able to visit without problems, non-izoku are requested not visit the site before 2pm on 12 August. Also note that the crash site is inaccessible from around 15 November until 28 April (varies year to year due to the weather).

My sketch of Osutaka-no-One

I remember when I started researching the crash in 2007, I had first thought about whether there would be a way to do it without needing to visit the crash site itself. I felt it would be too sad and morbid. In the end I decided to go for the anniversary that year. I am so pleased that I did. Not only didn’t I find it a sad and morbid experience then, I found walking around the site to be very calming. It was great to be somewhere without a mobile phone signal. I have been back many times since and even slept the night at one of the yamagoya in 2010. Although I do so less now, back at home, I sometimes walk around the site in my mind. As odd it may sound, Osutaka-no-One and Ueno-mura is one of my favourite places in Japan. I now have a special connection with it. This became particularly evident when, in 2010, I was enjoying thinking about the lack of mobile phone service when the idea that what would happen if someone was trying to contact me to let me know that my son had been in accident. I remember thinking how odd this one – particularly as I also have a daughter and other family. I put it out of mind until I returned to Tokyo and discovered that my son had been in an accident the previous day (he was fine after some minor surgery) at about same time as I had been at Osutaka-no-One.

For more information about the crash site and what you can see there, please see my photographs and read my publications (as detailed at the start of this post).

See also my video about Remembering the JL123 Crash

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