On a clear day, the 14,411-foot peak of Mt. Rainier looms large on Seattle’s southern horizon. The glacial mountain has played a major role in the lives of people living in the region for centuries. Long before settlers arrived, Indigenous peoples called it home and, to many, it remains a sacred place. Early Japanese immigrants living in the region also regarded it with great respect, dubbing it “Tacoma Fuji” because it reminded them of Japan.
The history of the mountain as a recreation site coincided with the arrival of thousands of Japanese Americans in the region. Mt. Rainier was designated the nation’s fifth national park in 1899, and Northwest Nikkei joined hordes of other visitors to hike, picnic, photograph, and explore the mountain’s new network of pathways and roads.
Excursions to the mountain were especially popular among a budding group of talented Japanese American photographers, many of whom were pioneering members of the Seattle Camera Club. As David F. Martin and Nicolette Bromberg write in Shadows of a Fleeting World: Pictorial Photography and the Seattle Camera Club, two prominent members of this pioneering camera club, Dr. Kyo Koike and Iwao Matsushita, would often climb the mountain together and it “served as a spiritual wellspring for them.”
Koike often referred to Mt. Rainier as “the holy mountain.” He explained, “When I go out for my photographic trips, I see the mountain from anywhere in the vicinity of the city of Seattle. The snow cap is similar in the form to our holy Mount Fuji, so we Japanese often call it Tacoma Fuji.” This reverence was clear in his writing about a severe storm he encountered while resting at 10,000 feet. He came out of his tent and “looking back, there stood the holy peak of Mt Rainier…just before our face there was a sea of clouds, the top of the Tatoosh Range appearing and disappearing like sunken rocks amidst dashing waves.”
As the photos collected here illustrate, Koike was not alone in finding inspiration and joy on the rocky slopes of Mt. Rainier.
By Natasha Varner, Densho Communications and Public Engagement Director
Header photo: Two Issei men near Gibraltar Rock on Mt. Rainier, August 1920. Courtesy of the Tamura Family Collection.