Nenokami Falls

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Excited about my new project, which I have tentatively decided to call “Scenic Saitama”, I bought a map book of the prefecture and a guide book for hiking. A long list compiled of waterfalls, gorges, and mountains of interest was checked and locations were marked in the map book. Then on Sunday, April 15th, the first target was visited: Nenokami Falls.

The falls looked to be one of the more impressive cascades in Saitama, based on Internet research; however, they were not so easy to actually find. Turning north on R284 from R37 in Chichibu City, the falls’ location is soon reached, but there is no sign on R284. A short distance up the road, there is an illustrated map that shows the falls are just back down the road. Nothing gave away the secret location though, and I decided to cross a small bridge. From there I could see the gorge. Once across, however, there was still no signage until I decided to turn the car around near a rock and soil yard and an old summer cottage type of place that looked unused. Up on a slope behind this place was a tower with a ladder, which I later found out was a rocket launching site for a local festival.

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It was here when I turned around that I spied a weathered sign and a wooden footpath leading to the trees. The sign explained that the falls tumbled over an uplifted bed of sandy mudstone from the middle to upper Triassic Period. The falls measure roughly 13 metres across and 13 metres high. I followed the boardwalk to the trees where it made a left turn. And there ended the public access. A moss-covered picnic table sat on a viewing deck with part of the wood beam railing collapsed, and from this hazardous-looking vantage point, I could see the twin cascade below. But behind me, where the boardwalk made a 180-degree turn and transformed into steps leading down the steep slope, yellow tape marked with the Kanji for “Entry Not Permitted” blocked off access.

Judging by the current condition of things, I wondered if the steps down were rotting. The boardwalk was sagging in places. I decided to chance it and go carefully. I stepped over the yellow tape and cautiously made my way down to the stream below.

Without incident!

IMG_4322Once down by the water’s edge, it was easy to go about photographing. The one big disappointment was that I often had to remove plastic garbage from the scene. I also found plenty of litter had been dropped from the road above down a washed out chute in the steep slope. A propane tank and a paint can also sat among the rocks. Once again, human beings prove their great love, care, and respect towards nature. I later found a large sign proclaiming, “Nature is everyone’s treasure. Please don’t litter!” But sure enough, the next place I scrambled down to the river, there were many cans and other rubbish.

Evidence of human idiocy aside, the rocks of the falls captured my attention. Facing the cascade, I noticed that the cliff to my left and the largest of the boulders in the stream were a light grey colour and very fine-grained. To my right, however, the rock was a pale but warm sand colour and without clearly marked edges or strata. The stream appeared to have cut a gorge where these two rock types meet. The falls though, tumbled over a precipice of mudstone.

If you should try to visit Nenokami Falls, look for the rocket launching tower and soil and stone yard. There you can park at the side of the road and go down the sagging boardwalk, look over the collapsed railing of the mossy viewing deck and possibly ignore the “keep out” tape and venture on down to view the falls from below. I did!

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Saitama is 44th!

Recently the annual ranking of Japan’s prefectures based on overall attractiveness was released, and Saitama ranked at number 44. This is not a surprise as Saitama usually ranks in the 40s and only ever achieved a ranking of 39 once between 2009 and 2017. The ranking is conducted by Brand Research Institute Incorporated (a translation from Kabushiki Gaisha Burando Sogo Kenkyusho – 株式会社ブランド総合研究所) and is based on a number of aspects such as a prefecture’s landmarks, scenic places, tourist attractions, promotion and advertising, appearances in dramas and movies, and attractiveness as a place to reside.

Topping the list as always were Hokkaido, Kyoto, Tokyo, Okinawa, and Kanagawa. Bottoming out the list was Ibaraki Prefecture, which proudly holds the 47th position year after year, except in 2012 when it came in 46th. Some prefectures continuously hold a certain position such as Nagasaki, which can always be found somewhere between 9th and 11th position except in 2015 when it peaked at 5th place. Other prefectures float around, like Miyazaki, which has drifted between 12th position in 2015 and 25th position in 2014 over the years between 2009 and 2017.

Why am I concerned with Saitama’s ranking? Because it has been my place of residence for 18 years. Located just north of Tokyo, Saitama has acquired the image of being a bedroom community for Tokyo workers and students. On a TV program a few years ago comparing Saitama and Chiba, TV personality Matsuko Delux of Chiba barked a claim that Saitama had nothing and reeked of potatoes. Saitama has also the unfortunate nickname “Dasaitama”, which incorporates the pejorative term “dasai” – uncool, unfashionable, outmoded, and even clumsy or loser – with the prefecture’s name. But all things considered, it maybe can’t be helped that Saitama ranks so low.

The bedroom community view is unavoidable. With the densest area of population being in the Kawaguchi/Warabi/Saitama City area, just north of Tokyo, and the two main train lines, the Takasaki and Utsunomiya Lines, running straight through the prefecture and heading off to Gunma and Tochigi Prefectures respectively, it’s easy to understand how Saitama can be seen as a residential area for workers, students, and shoppers of Tokyo. Historic sites such as the old buildings of Kawagoe City or the tumuli of Gyoda simply do not have the same pull as Kanagawa’s Kamakura or even historic sites in Tokyo. Saitama’s mountains and narrow river gorges are of the same mountain orogeny and rock types as those of western Tokyo and also neighbouring Yamanashi. Add to that the fact that there is only one train line that connects Tokyo to Saitama’s mountain city central Chichibu and that once in Chichibu it’s not so convenient to reach the areas of natural scenic splendor, and you can see that Tokyo residents are not likely to be pursued to make the effort, especially when they can enjoy similar nature in western Tokyo. Besides, Tokyo has its own attractions such as Sky Tree, Asakusa, the Imperial Palace, or Tokyo Disneyland, which is actually nearby in Chiba. For day trips, Tokyoites are more likely to visit Chiba or Kanagawa than Saitama’s more difficult to reach places. For longer holidays, the hot springs, mountains, coastlines and cuisine of the Tohoku, Hokuriku, or Kansai regions are also going to be more alluring. As for the rest of Japan, those visiting the Kanto area will likely have their sights set on the nation’s capital, Disneyland or the beaches of Chiba, or Yokohama and Kamakura in Kanagawa. Saitama is just a throughway and the final passage to reach Tokyo.

Nevertheless, don’t let that convince you that Saitama has nothing of interest. The populous south eastern corner includes Saitama Super Area where concerts and large-scale events are held, Saitama Stadium for soccer matches, and Seibu Dome, home of the Seibu Lions. There are many lesser-scale historic sites and hilly parks and zoos replete with green forests. We find three of Japan’s Hyakumeizan – those 100 distinguished mountains – in Saitama and one of the hyakusen (one hundred selected) waterfalls. Nagatoro boasts being the birthplace of geological study in Japan and visitors can enjoy riding in large wooden canoes down the Ara River past cliffs of metamorphic rock.

As a long-term resident of Saitama, I can add to the list of natural attractions many river gorges and countryside and mountain views, though I have noted that a lot of places I have discovered are not well known and rarely if ever promoted. Some places are discoveries I made by turning down a winding mountain road or clambering through the trees to reach the riverside. By coincidence, I decided late last year to make my next book project and exploration of hidden and lesser-known places of natural beauty in Saitama. The tentative title was “Secret Saitama”, though I am now considering calling it “That’s Saitama”, a play on the near-phonetic similarity to “Dasaitama”. Watch this space for more news as the year progresses.

Looking at the 2017 prefectural ranking list again, we notice Gunma and Tochigi Prefectures just above Saitama. This is perhaps more surprising as Gunma is home to many mountains and waterfalls and one of Japan’s three biggest hot spring towns, and Tochigi is home also to many famous mountains and falls, lakes and natural scenic areas, and Nikko, which must be among the top three historic sites in Japan. I can understand by this that Saitama is with very good company then.

I leave you now with a few of the photos that are earmarked for this next book-making project.

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The West Peak of Futagoyama

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A hidden gorge along the Ara River

02 Chichibu

Bukozan at dawn

05 Tokigawa

The Toki River

02 Saitama Mountains

Dawn somewhere in the mountains

08 Saitama Mountains

A hidden waterfall

Formally Introducing “Waterside”

Musician Devin Townsend has stated in interviews that once he’s completed an album he loses interest in it. He says that creating the album is part of an emotional experience and once it’s done, he is ready to move on from the emotions behind the album and looks forward to the next thing. I can relate. I’m often very excited about projects coming to fruition but once they’re done my interest rapidly wanes and I begin to think about what is to come next.

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Sea cave at Onamitsuki Coast in Chiba

Sadly, this means that the energy I have to put toward promoting my projects is quickly sapped. Take my latest book project, Waterside, for example. I worked on it for nine months, making special trips out to places for the sole purpose of filling out the project to a nicely rounded representation of landscapes featuring water. When I received the book, I was very pleased. It is, quality wise, perhaps the best project I have done using Blurb dot com. I eagerly showed it to adult students at the English school where I work. I sat down with my wife to let her look at and comment on the photos. And then I just left it on the shelf. The next project already coming together in my mind.

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The Daigaku Pond at the Taisetsu Highlands in Hokkaido.

Naturally, I should have given this book a very nice introduction on my blog, here. So, here it is!

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The Ara River at Aketo in Fukaya City, Saitama

Waterside is a collection of landscape images featuring bodies of water, including seasides, rivers, lakes, and ponds. It began after I moved to Kumagaya City in Saitama and started thinking about where I could continue to do early morning photography as I had done for my previous project, Little Inaka. I started with visits to nearby Arakawa – the Ara River – and also drove a little farther away to the Ranzan Gorge. By January of this year, I had a small collection of riverside photographs which I thought would look good in print. I looked through my digital photo files and selected images from Yakushima, the Arasaki Coast in Kanagawa, other places in Saitama, and the Kita Alps of Japan. I was very pleased with my selection and began putting the book together.

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The Upper Kurobe River in Toyama

Originally I wanted to do a small project of 60 to 80 images. Little Inaka was a whopping 180 pages and was more of a vanity book. I wanted something small, less expensive and beautiful. But I noticed something: I had only two seaside locations and only one lake. So, this spring the plans were set in motion to visit three more locations, and in addition to that, I was going to Hokkaido for the NHK World program, Journeys in Japan. I considered a couple of more locations but it became clear that it would be easy to keep adding places to photograph and end up with another 180-page book.

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Kumonodaira Plateau and Suishodake, Kita Alps

I decided to organize the book by locations. Because each outing produced at least a few images I wanted to share, having a location as a feature with anywhere from 2 to 12 photographs would allow me to organize the book with some text and use a few shots from each outing. I am satisfied with the resulting work.

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Tilted sedimentary rock at the Arasaki Coast, Kanagawa

Waterside is available at blurb.com as are my other blurb books, Little InakaThe Japan Alps, and This Little Corner, which is a book of film photographs from British Columbia, Canada. Discounts become available throughout the year, so anyone who is interested can leave me a comment and we can discuss about the discount codes when they become available.

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The Upper Anbo River in the mountains of Yakushima

Up and Running!

Before I take time to write a proper blog entry, I wish to make a quick announcement about my latest book project, “Waterside: Photograph’s from the Water’s Edge“.

I began working on it early in the year, or perhaps late last year, when I decided that I had a number of very nice waterside-themed images from around Saitama, Japan, and other places in the country, as well as some good ones from Canada.

As the project developed, I decided to add more locations and I began setting out very early in the morning or even the night before to reach locations that were a little far from my home. Last weekend, I finally made it to the last location for the project, the Onamitsuki Coast in Chiba.

Only 30 minutes ago, the finalized book was uploaded to the blurb.com web site and it’s ready for previewing and ordering.

In other news, the NHK World program, “Journeys in Japan” episode about Taisetsusan in Hokkaido is available for view-on-demand at the web site. You can watch the incredible scenery, the wild flowers, bears, and me!

Taisetsusan Television

I knew I should have typed up my final post in the Taisetsusan series soon. This week, NHK World broadcasted the Journeys in Japan episode on Taisetsusan. It’s now on view on demand.

See below.

https://www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/en/vod/journeys/20170912/

Kamui Mintara – The Playground of the Gods: Part Four

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The crater rim with Asahidake in the far distance.

Fuujin, the Aeolus of these eastern islands, was out playing on our third and final day up on the plateau. The plan had been to hike to the summit of Asahidake, the highest point in Hokkaido, but the wind was so strong this morning. The guide warned that it wouldn’t be worth anything because we’d be fighting to keep from being blown off the summit. The director already had a back up plan: we would bypass the mountain and descend by the Nakadake hot spring route.

We set out with clouds gathered over the highest peaks and went once more over to the crater. There was no stopping for flowers this morning. As we began climbing above the crater, the wind became even stronger. When it blew crossways over the trail, I had to walk leaning sideways into the wind in order to keep balance. We looked back across the plateau and saw Kurodake in the distance. We climbed up slopes of snow stained red from the dust of red volcanic rocks. There were many colours in the stones up here: brick red, mustard yellow, near-black grey, purplish red, ash grey, rusty brown.

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Looking back to Kurodake. Ryoundake is on the left.

On our right was Hokuchindake, the second highest peak in Hokkaido. Here we turned left and followed the crater rim, the wind once more coming at us in force. Then the trail split and we turned right, descending below the southern slopes of Asahidake. An impressive cleft opened up in the rocks and below that, yellow and white mineral deposits in the stream told us that we had reached the hot spring. I always take notice of the rocks in hot spring areas because they look so different. Some look like concretions of volcanic particles while others look like corroded volcanic rocks. Bubbles emerged from a pool that someone had created by encircling part of the stream with rocks. Thick wrinkled mats of moss grew on the otherwise sparsely vegetated slope above the stream.

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Milky waters below the Nakadake hot spring

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Marsh marigold bloom along the stream below the Nakadake hot spring.

Continuing further down the trail, we once more encountered broad meadows of wildflowers, and the cameras went into action yet again. The clouds were slowly lifting and patches of blue released searing beams of sunlight upon our necks. There were streams flowing through tunnels of snow and small ponds. Great monoliths of volcanic rock stood upended amidst the greenery in the distance. Then at last we came around to the northwest face of Asahidake where steaming fumaroles hissed and roared. This was near the gondola and with a well-built boardwalk going around ponds and offering views of the steaming holes and mountain reflections (on still days). Tourists flocked in the area, a good number of them Chinese and Korean. After a little more filming, our journey in the mountains came to an end here. Below we said farewell to Mr. Morishita and two of the porters but kept the young Yamada for our continuing adventures. Tomorrow we were going to seek out the Ezo brown bear we needed someone to carry the tripod!

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Yet even more flowers with Asahidake in the background.

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Steaming gases on Asahidake.

Kamui Mintara – The Playground of the Gods: Part Three

M50 北鎮岳と凌雲岳Playground of the weather gods. The sky was clearing up overhead while the sun sank behind a thin explosion of clouds. Twice, a weak evening light crept across the northern volcanic landscape, spotlighting snow patches and lava rock, but there was no final climax, no stupendous finale of alpine light. Though I was inside my tent and sleeping around eleven o’clock, Mr. Tsujinaka stepped outside and saw the Milky Way stretching clearly across the heavens.

I didn’t need to go outside to know what the weather was like at 3 a.m., though. As the wind battered my tent, the sound of rain drops being flung against the fabric was familiar enough. At four, I stuck my head out into thick fog and handfuls of rain being tossed in the gusts like rice at a wedding. The morning plan to record the sunrise from the nearby Keigetsudake was unquestionably off, and word was that the morning shoot was on hold until the weather improved. The rain abated soon, however, and I set out alone to photograph along the trail not far from camp. The wildflowers had droplets clinging to them and, as I was to discover, there was a variety of volcanic ejecta to examine.

At last, bright patches began appearing in the sky and our crew set off to return to the summit of Kurodake. One porter joined us, carrying the large tripod, while the other two went down the mountain for supplies (beer and other things).

On Kurodake, the sun broke through the clouds again and once more we were bestowed with views across the landscape. Then we went from Kurodake back down and crossed the plateau to the edge of the great crater on the southwestern side of the complex. As we walked, Mr. Morishita explained about the flowers and plants. We passed more windswept scenery and places profuse with greenery and blossoms. Some plants had finished blossoming, others had yet to produce flowers, and then there were a couple of dozen that were in bloom.

Species like the komakusa (Dicentra peregrina), iwabukuro (Pennellianthus frutescens), and the Ezo tsutsuji (Therorhodian camtschaticum) grew in the sand and gravel of the windy areas. They grew low to ground because of the strong winds that persist year round, and many of the species had fine hairs for trapping moisture from fog. The komakusa has a single rhizome of 50 to 100 cm length and, according to Mr. Morishita, the plant can move its location up to 10 cm in a year.

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Dicentra peregrina – komakusa. The queen of alpine flora in Japan.

The creeping pine, a.k.a. the Siberian dwarf pine or Japanese stone pine, is called haimatsu in Japanese (Pinus pumila). It gets its English names from being both low-growing and its nature of slowly moving across the ground. Mr. Morishita pointed out how the shrubs were bare and dried with roots exposed on the windward side but produced green needles and cones on the leeward side. He explained that the plant continues to set down new roots from the front while its rear (windward side) becomes exposed and desiccated. Thus the plant slowly advances away from the wind. Creeping pine indeed!

For me, the most remarkable plant was the chishima tsugazakura (Bryanthus gmelini). What appeared as tiny white blossoms standing no more than three centimetres above a mat of pine-like needles was actually a shrub. Mr. Morishita drew our attention to the woody branches and roots that were exposed where the wind had removed the soil. Looking at it that way, I could see how a miniature tree was growing essentially underground and only the leaves and blossoms rose above the soil. As with other windy area species, this plant also produced new roots on the leeward side of the wind as the windward side became exposed. Several other species grew together in clumps of clay-like soil and made little islands of green that stood above the flat, grey volcanic sand and gravel. The landscape took on a whole new impression for me as I saw it now as a dynamically changing scene of hummocks that were eroded from one side while small plants gripped the soil and survived by perpetually moving as their roots were exposed.

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Bryanthus gmelini – chishima tsugazakura. Just pretty flowers…?


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…or a subterranean shrub?

In areas of deep snow, blossoms grew in broad hummocky swaths. Here the wind was less damaging and the soil was covered in vegetation. In places, small pools of water were surrounded by false-hellebore, low straw-like grasses, and various species of blossoming plants. The highest plant here was the Japanese rowan, nanakamado (Sorbus commixta), which grew in lush, green bushes. These too had a game plan of not growing too high as rabbits would seek out their twigs to nibble as the deep snows melted. By staying low, they assured themselves of un-nibbled twigs for producing buds once the snow was gone.

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Green meadows indicate places that receive deep snow in winter.

Before long, my head was swimming with thoughts about how these plants had each adapted to this harsh world high above the green hills beyond the slopes of the volcanoes. But soon we reached the crater and the clouds, which kept lifting and sinking, once again rose to reveal the landscape before us. The crater was wide and flat and a branch-work of streams in grey and yellow fed a central stream, the Akaishi River, which flowed out of the crater and through a gulley across the plateau. It eventually tumbled down over the cliffs of the Sounkyo Canyon. Mr. Morishita explained that there was once a lake in the crater but the waters had made a breach and the lake flowed out.

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The source of the Akaishi River: inside the main crater of the Taisetsu Volcano Group

The walk back to camp was quick-paced with only a few stops for further filming. The sun came out over Keigatsudake and the young Yamada and I made the quick climb to the summit. From here we looked out over green forest and some distant emerald fields. The only structures we could see were a couple of the hotels in Sounkyo. The wind was ferocious, however, and after a little we went back down. Yet again, there was no grand sunset, no alpine light. Nonetheless, a successful day of shooting had come to an end.