Kamui Mintara – The Playground of the Gods: Part Two

There were eight of us. Leading the way was the guide, Mr. Morishita, a thirty-something man from Chiba who had fallen in love with the nature of Hokkaido and was now working as a guide, leading folks into the mountains all over the island. I followed him and listened as he explained about the vegetation and the landscape. Behind me was the cameraman, Mr. Tsujinaka. TV camera operators always strike me as being so calm and mild-tempered, and Mr. Tsijinaka was no different. He was also taller than me. Tethered to his camera by microphone cord was Mr. Okawa. When he had stepped up to me at the airport to introduce himself as the sound recorder, I had immediately recognized him and interrupted him, “Okawa-san! Long time no see! We worked together on Yakushima four years ago.” Indeed, he was the same sound engineer from my first Journeys in Japan gig.

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Camera and sound – shooting ukon’ utsugi blossoms

The director, Mr. Ichino came next. We had first met during my winter trip to Yakushima and he had called on me last year to climb Akagisawa in the Kita Alps and explore Kumonodaira for the TV program. This was my third time working under his direction. Bringing up the tail, or sometimes rushing up to the front to be out of the camera view, were three young men serving as porters. One was twenty-five and studying for his masters degree in Sapporo and the other two were first year university students. The 19-year-old Yamada made an impression on me as he was so enthusiastic about mountains and commented on the first day, “To be getting paid to climb mountains is the best!”

We descended from Kurodake down the slope from the summit to a broad and almost level bench. The clouds would sometimes erase the world and leave us walking in grey mist. Other times they would grant us glimpses of the green-coated, rugged lava landscape off to the distant left. Mr. Morishita pointed out more species of wildflowers and I kept recording their names in my iPhone note pad. As I looked at the obviously wind-blasted environment, I began pondering why so many species of flowering plants had made their homes in this harsh landscape. Why not only a few species?

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Iwabukuro – Pennellianthus frutescens

The path descended once more and the vegetation rose up around us. Japanese rowan took over for the creeping pine and the flowers beneath the green canopies stood taller. The familiar white blossoms of bunchberry dogwood appeared in a large patch. I remarked to Mr. Morishita that these flowers had grown in the woodlots of my neighbourhood. In fact, whenever I climb mountains in Japan I always encounter familiar plants that I know from the Fraser Valley of British Columbia, Canada. The climate of higher elevations in Japan is similar to that of the latitude of my homeland.

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Gozentachibana – Bunchberry dogwood Cornus canadense

We emerged from the greenery to cross a large strip of snow filling a shallow ravine and on the other side we were met by a wonderful garden of green hummocks with white blossoms. I was glad to know that the shelter and tent site were just around the corner because that meant I could steal moments of downtime to dash over here and photograph the scenery properly with a tripod. While on the move, I have to always capture everything handheld, which I prefer not to do if I can use a tripod. When I go out to photograph on my own, the camera stays mounted on the tripod.

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Chinguruma – Geum pentapetalum

The shelter buildings were simple and rudimentary, single-floor, wooden structures. There were only rooms for sleeping and toilet facilities, which required pedaling a wheel-less bicycle to churn a large screw that mixed up the waste with sawdust and bacteria. There was a table and a couple of chairs next to a small bookshelf and a reception desk that sold a few items like bear bells. Outside were picnic tables, and following a path through some bushes led one to the tent site. Tents were provided by our guide and his crew and each of us got his own one-man tent except for the guide and his team, who shared a large dome tent spacious enough for all of us to sit inside and share meals together, which were also prepared by the guide and his team.

This is where we stayed for two nights and from where we made out excursions out to explore and learn about the flowers and other plants. This is when Mr. Morishita would share with us his knowledge of alpine flora.

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Komakusa – Dicentra peregrina

Kamui Mintara – The Playground of the Gods: Part One

Alpine wildflowers. I like them. I stop to photograph them. I know a few of their names. And now I was standing amidst the rugged rocky peaks of a volcano complex in the centre of Hokkaido for the purported reason of having come to see wildflowers. Not the volcano. Not the steaming fumaroles and the sulphureous deposits. Not the dozen or so varieties of volcanic rock. I said I was here to see the wildflowers and was told that my interest in geology was not important to the program. Well, okay then. Let’s check out the wildflowers.

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Big Snow Mountain – Taisetsusan. That’s the Japanese name. The aboriginal Ainu people called it Kamui Mintara – the Playground of the Gods. Central Hokkaido is home to some volcanic mountain ranges, and the highest summit of them all is Asahidake – 2,291 metres – in the Taisetsusan Mountains. The whole area is a remarkable natural wonder: a volcanic plateau with soaring cliffs replete with cascading ribbons of white water, hot springs, volcanic cones and craters, noxious volcanic gases, and beautiful ponds. It is also host to vast alpine meadows, and from base to summit, there are approximately some 270 species of wildflowers.

I was asked to be there for an upcoming episode of Journeys in Japan, my fourth appearance on the program. Previously I had climbed mountains on Yakushima and scrambled up waterfalls in the Kita Alps. Adventure and new challenges had been the order in the past. This time I was going to explore alpine meadows and learn about flowers. I was excited about the trip! There was the possibility of climbing Asahidake, which would have been my 35th Hyakumeizan. There was also word of a species of flower that grew only near a bubbling mud pit and nowhere else in the world. Visions of a Japanese Rotorua came to mind. In addition, part of the itinerary included seeking out the Ezo brown bear, the higuma. For me, the wildflowers would be but a pleasant bonus.

Taisetsusan’s summer weather is a wreck. High peaks stand above the pastoral hills and fields where cows graze, and those peaks trap every current of moist air passing through, forcing them up into the cooler air and causing clouds and rain to frequently hold parties at the higher elevations. A playground indeed. For the weather Gods. Our director had been there three weeks earlier, running the course that he’d planned for the program. Running through fog and strong winds and not seeing a damn thing! “Why did I come here?” he reflected as he told us about his reconnaissance trip. “It was just training for running in the mountains.”

The weather Gods were there for the summer break. The first night it rained in the Sounkyo Canyon where we stayed in a hotel. But the sun came out in the morning and we rode the gondola and chair lift under blue skies. True to mountain weather form, however, as we made our way up the trail to Kurodake, clouds drifted in and erased the view.

The flowers were blooming. It was no surprise to see many varieties of blossoms or even to see large swaths of alpine flowers. But as the guide began pointing out species after species, I began to appreciate why Taisetsusan was known for its flora. 

A bush-like plant called ukon’utsugi was particularly interesting. A tube like blossom in pale yellow, it had a clever method of communicating to insects about its pollen. The inside bottom of the blossom was a golden orange colour, which is easily seen by visiting insects. This is like an open for business sign, saying, “Pollen here!” Once the pollen has been removed, the colour changes to a deep red – “Pollen sold out!” In this way, insects can soon find where to get pollen and the plant can ensure insects don’t waste time searching depleted pollen stores.

The clouds enveloped the mountain. At the summit, I smiled and shook hands with my guide in a grey shroud. To our surprise, another film crew was there. With two cameras and larger staff, the NHK Hyakumeizan TV program crew were also covering a story on Taisetsusan.

It was then that the clouds began to part and views across the highland between the peaks were revealed to us. Cameras were parked on tripods and the precious moment was captured. The clouds played a game of conceal-and-reveal a couple of times more before we began to move on, descending toward the Kurodake shelter and tent site. Now we were heading into the world of alpine vegetation. I did not anticipate how interesting it was going to be.

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Ukon’utsugi – Weigela middendorffiana

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Chishima kinbaisou – Trollius riederianus

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Chishima fuurou – Geranium erianthum

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View from the summit of Kurodake – Hokuchindake (centre) and Ryoundake (right)

April was a good month

Spring came in a hurry. It always seems to and yet it still takes me by surprise. Each year I swear that April is my favourite month as I feel inspired to get up early and get out to photograph somewhere. During the winter, my early morning outings are limited to Sundays as I need to be home early on other days. Monday to Friday my kids need to go to school and I go to work early some days, and Saturdays I also have to leave for work early. But in April the sun rises early enough that I have time to get out and do some shooting.

My first trip was out to part of the Tsuki River just before the Ranzan Gorge, which I have visited a few times before. First, I stopped on some countryside road to shoot some misty fields when I stumbled upon a large old tree spreading out majestically.

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Then I moved on to the river and checked out the Toyama Pothole before exploring the gorge a little from the entrance end.

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Soon it was time for the cherry blossoms, and I went to a favourite old location, the burial mounds at Sakitama in Gyoda.

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As I am working on completing a new book called, Waterside, I wanted to visit a few more waterside locations and decided to visit Onuma, a crater lake on Akagisan, a volcanic mountain less than two hour’s drive north of where I live. I went out early to get there before the sunrise but I didn’t anticipate the -5 degrees temperature or the blasting icy wind. I wasn’t dressed for it, so I stuffed my spring jacket with a cloth shopping bag from the car for extra insulation.

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My last outing was another early morning start, this time to Ryogamisan, a mountain in Saitama and again less than two hours way by car. I hiked up the trail to photograph the stream where it flows over some exposed chert beds. I’ve climbed the mountain twice before and each time wanted more time to photograph the rocks and the stream.

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I have one more location to hit for my book project. But there will likely be a second one to add. Early this month, I was asked to go to Daisetsusan in Hokkaido for another episode of Journeys in Japan. I am sure to get some waterside photos up there.

One final bit of good news, my book Little Inaka was reviewed briefly in Fuukei Shashin – 風景写真, a Japanese landscape photography magazine.

An Unfinished Petra?

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A couple of years ago, there was a TV commercial in Japan for Google with a group of traveling friends who ask Google to locate the “Japanese Machu Pichu”. Google gives them the Takeda Castle in Hyogo Prefecture. Certainly there are some similarities – the stone remains of a mountaintop construction – but of course the scale of the Takeda Castle is much smaller, the mountain much lower, and the purpose of the initial construction quite different. It brings to mind how the highest ranges in Japan were christened the Japan Alps after the loftier and more extensive ranges of Europe.

Are these misnomers or do they bring false expectations? Are they exaggerations or blatant “wannabes”? Take them as you like. But I found the Petra of Japan last weekend.

I had originally planned to drive up Mt. Akagi to the crater lake and shrine for the national holiday on the 11th, but a road condition update stated that snow tires or chains would be necessary after last Thursday’s snow. Being aware that I may require a backup plan, I began searching the Web for places of interest around Mt. Akagi. That’s when I stumbled across a photo of the Yabuzuka Quarry in Ota City, just near the border to Kiryu in Gunma Prefecture.

The photo depicted towering stone walls cut into volcanic tuff. There seemed to be openings with chambers beyond. Trees and vegetation hung over the sheer cliffs. It immediately made me think of Petra in Jordan even though there were no ornate carvings and the rock type was not sandstone. What was the story behind this place? Upon first glance, I did not know it was a quarry. Further investigation revealed it to be so. Regardless of it not being an abode of ancient peoples, I wanted to go there, and it became the first stop for my companion and me early that holiday morning.

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There was no large parking lot and no tourist centre. No one and no structure was present to indicate that we were entering a historic site. A narrow road led into the hills and to the side there was a small graveled clearing capacious enough to accommodate at the best three economy-sized vehicles. A well-aged sign indicated that this was the entrance to the Yabuzuka Ishikiriba, or stone-cutting place. A simple path lead through the forest and into a gap cut into the hillside. Once through a narrow opening we stood in the centre of the old quarry, cliffs rising straight up all around us and an amphitheater leading off to the left to some dark chambers with a second open chamber before us. Steps appeared cut into the rock here and there but none ever reached ground level. Holes had been bored into the rock in places and in the one open chamber some wooden poles and platforms remained in place several metres above the ground. If this was Petra, it had only just been started before becoming abandoned.

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This, however, was not a Japanese Petra. The Yabuzuka Quarry was first opened in the middle Meiji Period. Around 1903 the quarry officially opened with up to 350 workers at its peak. The tuff – a rock made of compacted and consolidated volcanic ash from 20 million years ago – was easy to cut and was used as foundation stone in buildings. It was discovered though that tuff is very porous and easily absorbs water (it makes a great water filter as I learned in Miyagi two years ago). The rock here also contains small stones so that it was not the best quality for construction use, cheap though it was. By the Showa year 30 (1955) the quarry was closed. High up on the ceiling in the open chamber one can see some Kanji written in red and the year 1959.

The Yabuzuka Quarry makes for an interesting visit, and nearby there is the Yabuzuka hot spring spa, a country club, and a reptile centre.

It’s no Petra but we easily passed a couple of hours photographing the quarry ruins.

To see more photos, please visit my album on Flickr.

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Waxing Apples

Gordo Bennett is the mastermind behind GorMusik, a music project that combines Gordo’s blazing fretboard skills with his exquisite use of orchestration software (this means that Gordo can compose music that sounds like a symphony orchestra or components of an orchestra are playing). Gordo has been playing guitar since the seventies and performed in bands for many years. In more recent years, he was a part of a project called Simplexity, from which he then departed in order to work on his solo project, GorMusik, which released its debut “Fun in Outer Space“.

More recently, Gordo took part in and played an integral role in the creation of the music on the Colin Tench Project album, “Hair in a G-String“. As well, he arranged music for Josh Leibowitz and Ronald Marquiss and is a contributing composer for the United Progressive Fraternity project. After a busy 2016, Gordo turned his attention toward his next two projects: GorMusik’s forthcoming sophomore release “Progtopolis” and another project called GorFusion.

Gordo and I have been friends via Facebook for some time now, and he has shared not only his music with me but also my photography with others. To show my appreciation for his friendship, last November I sent him a copy of my book “Earth Cycles”. Little could I have guessed that he would send me a message asking me to do the track artwork for his next release, a GorFusion track entitled “Waxed Apples”.

Photography for me has nearly always been “found” photography; I photograph what I see while exploring the outdoors. But here was a concept piece. I had to think about not only an image of waxed apples but how to create such an image in a way that was both album artwork-like and that Gordo would feel suited his work. I had some ideas and looked forward to trying them out.

My image was exactly of waxed apples – heavily waxed, far too waxed. I considered the wax dripping off. That was easy enough to put together. Just melt some wax, dip the apples, place them in a basket on my dining table and shoot. But it was not to be so simple. No stores sold only wax, and so I had to buy a box of white candles and break a few of them into a foil-lined cooking receptacle, like the kind you use to heat milk, and place that in a pot of water for boiling. Our all-electric stove top only accepts certain types of crockery, so melting wax in an empty coffee tin like I did at day camp when I was a kid was not an option.

It took much longer to melt all the candles than I expected. Also, my kids were using the dining table, and so as an alternative I arranged a small table in my workroom, placing it by my window where sunlight was shining through the curtains. The background was a cluttered mess, so I placed a photo frame box in behind the table and hung a plain sweatshirt over it.

When the wax was finally melted, I dipped the apples in and arranged them in a bowl (my mother-in-law’s) and tried a couple of shots.

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Then one of the wax coatings popped off as I rearranged one apple. I redipped it in the melted wax, but by now the wax was thickening and the dipped apple became gloppy. Perhaps this was the right look of “disgusting”?

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How about taking a bite out of one apple? Ugh! Wax on my teeth after that!

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I sent some shots over to Gordo to hear his opinion. He said he preferred the shots where the apples looked like apples. The sun had moved and the light was no longer optimal. Next week I’d try again. For now, all the wax shells could easily be pulled off.

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For the next session, I suggested including the band name in there somewhere. Gordo wanted to add GorFusion as well, if I could pull it off. I thought I could easily carve the name in an unwaxed apple that Gordo suggested be in the photo and maybe I could somehow write in the wax of another apple. But this was more challenging than I first believed. Scraping the wax with a hole piercing tool from the screwdriver set, I learned pressing too hard could fracture the wax shell, but too delicately would require carving over the same path several times. Also, I had less success with getting a clean bite in the wax. It also cracked! In the end, this session served to be only another series of test shots. Oh, and my mother-in-law had been given her bowl back, so I had to use a basket that my wife cautioned me not to mess up with wax.

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Both GorMusik and GorFusion needed to stand out more clearly. In addition, I was learning that I had to see where the shadows of the curtains were falling at all times so that important areas were not being under lit. Then there was light falling into the basket that had to be blocked, then background had to be checked for shadows and light and wrinkles, and I had to try reflecting light on the darker side of the set up by using a white envelope that was at hand. I shot nearly a dozen frames for each new idea as all the important details were considered, monitored and checked, and apples were adjusted so as to show off their important features (name etching and bites) just right without giving it away that they were only half covered in wax!

By the third time round, I thought I had it, except that the apples I bought were bigger and somehow the wax didn’t adhere so thickly after one dip. Gordo liked the shots but pointed out that the bitten apple didn’t look waxed.

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Stooping over my camera in a cramped space with my computer on behind me, I was shooting, checking, adjusting, uploading, selecting, and emailing photographs. At last, Gordo said he was happy with this one. And by the way, I had learned to bite first, then dip in the wax, removing the wax after it had hardened. But I also added some cosmetic work by carefully improving the shape of the bite with a knife. I also had to keep going back to the bite to carve out oxidizing spots that had turned brown.

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I felt there was little better I could do with my camera as I had already tried so much. But I had a nagging feeling that there was more to be achieved. And yet I don’t have Photoshop and do very little photo editing. What could I do to push the final image a step further?

I decided to try something using Instagram’s filters. I used two different filters and made some additional adjustments, then sent them to Gordo. He was stunned. He said he particularly loved this one.


I had to admit, I was finally feeling that we were reaching somewhere. Gordo lamented not adding in bassist Joe Serwinowski’s name. At first I thought I’d have to leave it up to him as my lack of photo editing skills left me incapable. But then I recalled the app Juxtaposer which allows you to layer two images and erase the top image as much as you need to create the image of a single photo out of the two shots.

During a Friday lunch break, I tried to see if I could pull it off. Just as an experiment, I wrote Joe Serwinowski Trout & Bass (a play on the fish and the instrument – duh), and snapped an iPhone shot of the paper on a table by a window. I was concerned about getting the right lighting to match the conditions in the original photograph and thankfully noticed that in front of the basket there was a patch of shade. I ran the snap through the same Instagram filter and made some adjustments for colour and tone.


This was a bit roughly done. This was just a test. The final result using Juxtaposer was this:

I sent it off to Gordo immediately because he was officially releasing the track Friday evening his time in Buffalo NY and it was already Friday afternoon for me in Japan. If the music was going to be ready for listening and downloading by then, I wanted the artwork to be ready. The image received Gordo’s unreserved approval. I offered to redo the scrap of paper more neatly but he said it was great the way it was.

Thus, my sessions with waxing apples came to an end. No more need to mess up pots and the kitchen counter with wax. I can’t look at the image myself and see it as artwork for a piece of music. I see it as something I’d been fiddling with and finally made for an Instagram post. However, it is a proud moment to say that I’ve done my first piece of work for commercially released music. Most importantly, Mr. Gordo Bennett is pleased with the result!

The true reward for me was the whole process of formulating a concept and working it through with Gordo, bouncing ideas off each other and trying to make them part of the developing concept, and then finally seeing all the ideas come together in an image that I feel superseded what I had first believed myself capable of achieving.

Waxed Apples!

Meeting Martin

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It was a November afternoon, nine years ago, when I stood partway between the tent site and the summit of Jiigatake in the North Alps—the Kita Alps—of Japan. Obuchisawa had disappeared beneath a tide of clouds, and across the slow-motion waves of undulating vapour, Harinokidake and Rengedake rode the mists like islands. Far beyond in the western distance stood Yakushidake, one of the Hyakumeizan. Overhead, a different kind of sky was created by clouds with loftier ambitions. The tripod was placed on the slope and adjusted, the 35mm Minolta already mounted. Click! Whirrrr. The scene was captured on Velvia 50. Eight years later, that very scene adorns the cover of the English translation of Kyuya Fukada’s “Nihon Hyakumeizan” – One Hundred Mountains of Japan.

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How did this happen? By what stroke of tremendous good fortune did I find my photograph associated with the national institution that is Fukada’s Hyakumeizan, that personal list that became considered by so many as the definitive one? Good gravy! I don’t think I can recall exactly. But it has everything to do with the book’s translator, Martin Hood and the fact that we both share our mountain photography on Flickr.com.

It was no doubt Martin who made the first move. Someone who posted photos from the European Alps commented on my Japan Alps photos. That must have been how it started. And I am certain that I would be correct in surmising that an Internet friendship ensued from that point on. But it was only after learning the true name of this Flickr user (we both employ user names) that I recognized I had come across it before. While gathering information for my own book project on the Japan Alps, I came across several informative blog posts on a site called One Hundred Mountains, and furthermore, I seemed to recall having read an article somewhere online whose author was Martin Hood.

Martin, back in those days, was searching for a publisher for his translation of the Hyakumeizan book. He had begun it originally as a method of keeping up his Japanese when he left the country back in 1995. However, the project unexpectedly turned into book proposal and a blog that continues to this day to feature more and more of the most obscure and unheard off Hyakumeizan-related information to ever be presented to the English-speaking world. Initially, the book project itself faced great obstacles as promising publishers one after the other rejected the book. At last though, success prevailed with the University of Hawaii Press, and in December of 2015 the book at last entered the world to much fanfare by the blog’s most devout fans.

So how about that cover?

As Martin assembled photographs for the book, he—in all his good grace—consulted my self-published (blurb.com) book of the Japan Alps and selected a few promising images. Granting my permission, I sent the selected images as files to the art director at UHP. With a little artistic license and some computer editing, my photograph earned the distinguished honour of becoming the cover shot of this great literary work.

Some weeks ago, Martin managed to find his way over to Higashi Omiya Station, a hop skip and a jump away from my work place. It was far too brief, the time allotted for us two to finally meet after years of Internet friendship. Nevertheless, for about 56 minutes, the two of us sat across from one another at a small table in a burger and coffee shop and tossed questions and remarks back and forth like an Olympic table tennis match. We could have talked all afternoon, but Martin had another engagement and I had to get back to work. We both agreed, however, that when the Fates would next make it possible for our paths to cross, we would plan better and hopefully have more time, perhaps even enough for a day hike. I have my thoughts on Ryogamisan, a Hyakumeizan in Saitama.

Journeys in Japan – The Kurobe River

My adventure in the Kita Alps and around the Kurobe River is now available for view on demand!

Here are some iPhone screen shots.