Walking to Gunma

Once there was a time when I traveled around Japan and even around the world to photograph and explore landscapes. These days, I am restricted to wherever I can go for a few hours in the early mornings. That means I spend my photography time fairly locally, and for the last few years I have been concentrating on exploring the mountain roads in western Saitama Prefecture. After moving to Kumagaya City, I am now within a half-hour’s drive of the local mountains, and there’s a convenient toll road that gets me way out into the heart of the mountain region in less than another half hour.

During the beginning of May there’s a holiday period known as Golden Week. I took advantage of one morning to wake up very early – at 2 am – and drive out to a road that was closed to public traffic. From the gate, I have always wondered what lay beyond as sheer cliffs of rock jutted upward from the steep green mountain slopes. So, at 4:20 am, I parked my car by the gate, shouldered my camera bag, and slung my tripod over my shoulder and proceeded to hike up the road. For the first 20 minutes or so, the road was pretty rugged. In one section I would have been pretty wary of driving my car over the rocks and dips. But after exiting a short tunnel, the road was nicely paved all the rest of the way. I mean, it looked to have been paved within the last year as there were only a few scratch marks where a fallen stone may have been scraped over the asphalt under the wheel of a truck. Mountain roads such as this one usually bear the scars and wounds of falling rock impacts or the spreading of cracks due to the slumping of the earth beneath the road. So this was fresh work here!

At the start of the hike, it was still pretty dim, and the scenery was not revealed in full colour glory yet. I passed some of those verticle climbs, a steep gorge, and dry runoff chutes cut into the rocks of the slopes. My plan was to keep hiking until I hopefully had some views in time for the sunrise, but it soon seemed that such views were not about to present themselves at any time soon if there even were any. So I relented to my desire to start photographing.

The road climbed gently and serpentine-like for a while before hitting a switchback and there it began climbing more steeply. I found chunks of limestone on the road but saw no sign of the parent rock until I rounded a bend and found a large limestone outcropping with a few caves facing out to the road. These caves were not deep and the usual cave formations such as stalactites, flowstones, and soda straws did not exist here. There were still some modest formations to discover and many broken pieces littered the ground outside the caves. I discovered several hooks attached to the cave walls and recognized this as a rock climbing practice site.

After exploring the cave area, I continued up the road until I finally came to the road closure at the other end. It was just after the exit of a long tunnel whose other end was in Gunma Prefecture. Two young men had driven up by car and were apparently disappointed that the road was closed. I continued into the tunnel, which became so dark that I could not see a piece of wood on the road and I kicked it accidentally.

After reaching the Gunma side, I turned around and made the trek back to my car. In the light of the morning now, I found many beautiful spots where the river ran through gorges and ravines of diorite. I again made a few stops for photography.

I finally reached my car at 11:30 and began the drive back but stopped when I saw more limestone outcroppings with boulders of marble in the river. My next plan will be to ascend another road that I am sure I drove up some 18 years ago to a pass called Mikuni Touge. This crosses over to Nagano. I went to this road a couple of years ago but it was closed after a point. I may have to walk to Nagano when I visit there again.

Aside from photos, I also made a video of the excursion. It can be viewed here.

More photos are at Flickr here.

An Autumn Outing

It’s the truth about having a family. You just don’t get outside as much as you’d like. And though when the kids were younger I tried to get them to enjoy the outdoors, these days it’s only the walk to school that gets them outside. So my own outings are precious as they are spread far apart and last only three or four hours.

Last week, November 3rd was a holiday, and I stole away in the early hours and drove out to Nakatsukawa Keikoku deep in the mountains of Saitama. I had some targets in mind; however, as is often the case, I got sidetracked when I stopped to photograph the Nakatsu River and discovered a fascinating little ravine and gorge near the rest rooms. There were exposed section of diorite, and this intrigued me as this is now the second time I have found diorite in the mountains of Saitama. The mountains here are largely comprised of sedimentary rocks like chert and limestone and metamorphic rocks like schist. So, to discover exposed diorite – an igneous rock – sheds light on the geologic history of the area.

With most of my time used up here, I went on up the road a little further to find one more location where I could lose myself in photographing. I discovered a waterfall just off the road that had no proper access but could be reached with a little intrepidness.

Note: I am having a terrible time with this new WordPress. I have tried formatting the photographs a dozen times nearly and they come out poorly every time. The first photo is squished. The next three should be all the same size but they are not. I’m afraid this new WordPress is proving to be too frustrating to use.

Nakatsukawa – River and Canyon
Right near the restrooms at Onamesawa.
Looking up Onamesawa
The waterfall off the road at Aiharasawa.

Rains of 2020

The rainy season around here typically begins sometime in early-June though it may begin earlier or later depending on the year and any influences from El Nino or la nina. In my twenty years of rainy season experience, it usually begins with some rainy days prior to the official meteorological pronouncement that the baiuzensen (the Plum Rain Front) has come and the rainy season – tsuyu – is officially upon us. In many years, the final two weeks are filled with clear skies and sweltering hot weather. When the weather forecaster declares that the rainy season is over, I have many times responded by saying, “But it stopped raining two weeks ago!”

Unless you enjoy photographing wet scenery (as I do sometimes), it’s not very inspiring to wake up early and head out with an umbrella in one hand and a tripod in the other. In recent months, I have spent much more time on my other hobby: listening to music and researching about music history where it relates to heavy metal and progressive rock. My research and video presentation making keep me up late at night, so I don’t really want to think about getting up two hours later to drive out somewhere in the rain in hopes of finding something worthy of the time and mental effort (sleepy head!) required to make photographs seriously. Reflecting back on this year so far, I made two worthwhile trips in January and an unsuccessful hike in March. And that is all she wrote!

The good news is that during the period that I drove to work instead of taking the train, which was due to the threat of Covid-19, I found many lovely countryside scenes in other parts of Saitama which I had not yet explored. I even captured a few smart phone snaps that were not bad and made videos at a few places to include in videos I was making for our English School. However, I only brought the camera along once for the purpose of photographing scenery, and I was late leaving work that day and so I was only able to explore and shoot for about 20 minutes before the sun set behind the clouds and trees. That was back in April or May sometime.

Yes, that pesky virus has upset things a lot. Usually, I go away somewhere in July or August for an episode of Journeys In Japan. I always reckon that the gigs could stop any time, but I received a lot of praise for last year’s Hakusan episode and so I was certain I’d get a call again. However, location TV program shooting in Japan has been curtailed thanks to the virus.

So, with all the rainy days continuing week after week, bring heavy flooding to some parts of the country, and with the general discouragement towards traveling, I haven’t felt inspired to get out and do more exploring and photography.

But there’s a third hindering factor. As I discovered in January, many mountain roads were washed out in places during two typhoons we had last year. That means access to remote waterfalls and gorges, as well as hiking trails, has been cut off to vehicular traffic. Of course I could park and walk; I prefer to be on my feet anyway. But more walking adds to the time of trips that are already limited to a few hours away from home.

There is of course no really good reason for not going out if I really want to. I can try to get more sleep. I can still go to locations where the roads are intact. I can still bring adequate rain protection. I just haven’t really felt motivated to do so.

Corona Care

Tuesday, April 7th, 2020

Today it was announced that the English school I work for would close until May 7th. This was in light of the circumstances which are rapidly approaching what we most feared: that the new coronavirus would begin spreading more and more rapidly in Japan as it has in other countries.

The decision is probably in everyone’s best interest, but we already closed down for two weeks in March, a decision that was carefully considered by our bosses. It was to be done in a way that would not cost the school by having to pay back tuition fees thus insuring that there would be money to pay teachers at the same time guaranteeing students classes would be made up. Now we need to consider a reality where it will be more difficult to cover missed classes and worse, one where teachers are going to have to accept a salary of only 60% of what they – we, I – had been used to. That will be difficult for those of us who have been just barely squeaking by under the usual circumstances.

The rise of infection cases had been very slow. When the virus first began spreading in China, it was on the cusp of the Chinese New Year holiday. Suddenly, reports were out about this new threat but too late to stop holiday travelers from coming over to Japan where they then bought boxes and boxes of masks. In a short time, Japan was the number two infected country. This changed quickly when a super spreader in Korea caused a rapid escalation in infected cases. The Korean government acted swiftly in response and managed to keep the death toll remarkably low.

Then came Italy and Iran, Europe, North America. Across the globe, the virus was spreading and the death rate climbing. But not in Japan. Some people speculated that the number of cases was low because the government wasn’t adamantly testing en mass. The Olympic Games were at stake and the government did not want to have to cancel after all the money and hope that had been invested. But even after a few weeks had passed and the Games postponed, the rate of infection remained surprisingly low. If there had been so many carriers of the virus, the death rate would surely be increasing by now.

Some pointed out that Japan experiences influenza season from November to February every winter season and so already practices to prevent or at least inhibit the spread of flu viruses was already in practice. Japanese wear masks, wash hands, sterilize and sanitize surfaces, make little physical contact, and stay home when ill in most cases. Perhaps that’s one reason why Covid-19 was not infecting people by the hundreds daily. In March, schools and theme parks closed, events were cancelled, and alcohol wipes, gel, and sprays sold out everywhere. So did toilet paper because a rumour spread that toilet paper was produced in China where factories were standing idle. It was in fact nearly all produced in Japan.

Then came the first cherry blossoms and with them the Japanese tradition of gathering in parks and sitting under the blossoms while eating and partying. New cases of infected people began appearing more than before. People were requested to stay home on the weekend of March 28 and 29. Mother nature helped out by dumping snow around the Greater Tokyo area. Bread and pasta sold out in the stores the night before.

But there was no stopping the rise. Sixty people infected, seventy-two people infected, 80, 100, 120… Each day the number of infected people was higher than the day before. I quick look at America’s situation told the government that something had to be done and soon. And at last, we have begun a state of emergency that gives the prime minister certain authorities where his decisions can save lives. But unlike other countries where the rules can be enforced with varying degrees of severity, the Japanese constitution doesn’t permit the government to use force of any kind on the public. Requests can be made. Companies and individuals can choose to hunker down and follow the requests or to go their own way and risk not only their own lives but the lives of all the people around them.

Until now it hasn’t been easy to comply. Basically, people need to work. They commute to work usually riding trains that become increasingly crowded as they approach downtown. At least for the sake of earning a pay cheque and putting food on the table, people go to work. Many companies have asked their employees to work from home or to begin work later and stay later in an effort to thin the rush hour crowds somewhat. Teleconferencing has replaced business trips. But there is still one great weakness and that is people’s desire to get on with their ordinary lives. Especially young people are accused of going out and about, people who may be silent carriers. Then there has also been news about people who test positive but defy doctor’s orders to stay home.

Another problem has been all the air traffic coming in to Japan. Until recently, Japan still accepted flights from Europe and several other places. A German friend of mine told me his parents just walked off the plane and came to his house. He also said that five other friends arrived in Japan and went out around Tokyo. No testing. No quarantine. But the confirmed problems have been from Japanese nationals who returned from abroad, went home, and then showed symptoms of having caught the Covid-19 virus. One family was even tested at the airport, but then they took off to go home before the test results were in. They were positive.

Strangely, Japan has dealt with the viral outbreak so far in a split approach of closure and cleanliness versus lax rules about testing and quarantine. The rise in cases was sure to come, like a typhoon that churns over the ocean south of Kyushu, biding its time before rushing across the length of the archipelago and lashing out with savage gusts and torrential downpour.

From the end of February, my co-workers and I discussed buying extra food in case of a lockdown. We watched the world’s infection rates rise up and heard about the increasing death toll. In the good ol’ U S of A, President Trump denied repeatedly that there was anything to be concerned about in spite of what experts were telling him. Then suddenly there was a crisis and he quickly blamed Obama, denied having any responsibility, talked about his TV ratings, played golf, and then proceeded to snatch away masks bound for Germany. What a hero!

Tomorrow we will have a meeting about what to do and what can be done. Most importantly, how much can we expect to lose of our pay and how can the company survive the next month?

Then I will likely have many days of no work and it would be good to put my time to use. There’s so much to do I could spend eight hours a day for the whole month. There’s photo work, writing, cleaning up, organizing, cleaning out, video-making… But I have also a family to look after. The two weeks that my school was closed in March, I ended spending roughly six hours a day doing cooking, cleaning, shopping – all kitchen-related work! When I had an hour of free time, it was usually spent just keeping up with email, social media, and my turns on Words With Friends. I really must try harder to get constructive work done this time.

It’s late. It’s already very late. Tomorrow… er… today, morning brings a new future to my reality.


Inspection of the Arima Gorge and the Shiraiwa Ravine

January 2nd, 2020. My first outing of the year. Even with the completion of my book of Saitama scenic photographs, I continue my exploration of the mountains of my prefecture of residence. The plan was to find a viewpoint of some mountains I visited two years ago and be there before sunrise. However, I accidentally entered the wrong location into the navigation computer and ended up arriving an full 30 minutes after sunrise at an insignificant mountain pass with no view, the road sloping downward before me toward the Tokyo border.

I decided to go on free exploratory mode and simply go where I thought I might find something to study and possibly photograph. My first stop was the dam at Lake Naguri in Hanno City. After a brief view from the dam, I started up the engine and drove fifty metres to a road block. It seems that Typhoon Hagibis (a.k.a. Typhoon #19 because it was the nineteenth typhoon of 2019) had caused a landslide right behind the dam administration office and effectively cut off the road around the north side of the lake.

IMG_3578 I had to drive across the dam and up the road on the south side. I had decided to drive up a small forestry road that twisted and turned across the upper mountain ridges cutting very close to the 800m high peaks before slithering back down to Route 53, which was the way I had come up before turning off to the dam in the first place. It looked promising until I hit a chained off road on the right and was forced to turn left. Well, we would see where this route led.

As I drove, I spied some layers of sediments alongside the Arima River. They were rather pronounced and I stopped to grab a few snaps.

As I drove more, the sediments continued to catch my attention. In all my explorations of ravines and gorges in Japan, I have never seen such pronounced and persistent sedimentary deposits. What was especially puzzling was that trees seemed to be growing up through these sediments as though the mix of rocks, gravel and sand had been deposited recently. I also noticed that some black hoses that snaked along the ravine also sprouted from the sediments as much as a metre or more below the surface. These had to be very young sedimentary deposits. But how young?

My travels up the road soon came to an end. Typhoon 19 had wreaked havoc on a section of the road. It seemed that water had traveled beneath the asphalt causing the road to sink in trenches and finally collapse at a bend in the road where the water could empty out into the ravine. A hundred metres or so up the road, the stream had wiped out a section of road.

On the way back down, further inspection of the mysterious sediments revealed a possible explanation. Green grass-like blades were sprouting from under roughly 50 cms of sediment. The grass was still alive but clearly had been buried. Nearby sat a large boulder with a cap of sedimentary deposits. That boulder could in no way keep a cap of sand and gravel on through a full summer/autumn season of thunderstorms and typhoons. The torrential rains would have washed it away. However, since Typhoon 19 there had been no heavy rainfalls of any significance, only usual rainy weather.

It was my deduction that either the dammed waters of the lake had flooded right back up the ravine or a clog of fallen logs had dammed the ravine. In either case, the ravine had filled up with raging muddy water charging down the mountainside causing an excessive amount of sediments to be deposited rapidly, covering hoses, grasses, and boulders. The river quickly cut through the layers since the typhoon but the sediments remained at the river banks, crumbling away little by little in the dry air even as I stood and examined them.

With that plan of exploration ended, I drove up into Kami Naguri, a small hamlet along the Iruma River, and stopped for a brief visit at a waterfall with no sign, only steps leading up to a Kanon statue overlooking the falls. For my final effort to find a place to set up my tripod, I went to the Shiraiwa Ravine to see how far I could get. I soon spotted a lovely gorge in a tributary stream. Red chert was exposed with alternating layers of light grey chert, and large boulders of limestone had fallen into the gorge from somewhere above. This place occupied me for the next hour or so.

At last I drove on to see how far the road went, but soon I came to yet another dead end. This time the reason was that a mine had formerly operated here. The concrete foundations of the structures were all the remained. In the distance, a bluff of limestone protruded from the tree-covered mountains. This was Shiraiwa – White Rock, the namesake of the ravine with its white boulders of limestone.

At last it was time to head back, but not before crossing over on more pass to see if there were any mountain views to be seen, which had thus far eluded me. I had a slight glimpse between the trees at Amamezasu Pass.


More photos from the chert gorge can be seen at Flickr.

Raging River of Fear!

Oh, okay! Pardon me for being slightly hyperbolic. The title of this post was inspired by an old song by Captain Beyond. Nevertheless, a raging river it was.

I’m talking about Arakawa River (kawa actually means river so there’s not much point in stating the term “river” twice but it does sound better than “Ara River”).

After Typhoon Hagibis, or #19 as it was simply known in Japan, rivers across the country were swollen to the max and some burst their embankments or stormed out of their beds to wreck muddy, silty, soggy, soaking havoc on towns and rural villages. A friend of mine in Kawagoe, Saitama – one of the disaster zones – saw the water reach his parking space in front of his house before the rain most fortunately stopped and the waters receded. People on lower land across the street had indoor pools of brown water.

My neighborhood in Kumagaya City was not adversely affected. Water drained away properly and the tall trees by the shrine near my house remained upright with all major limbs intact. The following morning, the wind continued to blow but the sky was clear and fresh. I drove out to Aketo in the neighboring city of Fukaya, to a place where I have sometimes photographed Arakawa from a shelf of hard clay that spreads out along the river shore. Above this is a concrete slope with a walking path at the top and a concrete path lined with a railing following the river just a few meters above the waters’ surface.

The scene was vastly altered by the typhoon. Instead of the calm waters of the river gliding by, I saw a torrent of wild chocolate milk water throwing fits of foaming rage. The concrete path was under water in places and the railing was damaged in several places by trees and large branches that the river had cast violently into the railing. The river was bank to bank and swiftly thundering down its course. Sticks, branches, and lots of plastic refuse was piling up a few meters higher up the slope from the river, telling me that earlier the river had been up higher than where I was standing. All in all, an impressive sight that had me clicking away with my camera.





Colours of the White Mountain

Me at Aburaike

Me photographing at Aburaike on Hakusan Photo by Tomohito Anrui

It’s already August and a month has passed since I was away visiting Hakusan for the NHK World program, Journeys In Japan. With the program due for broadcasting on NHK World on the 13th of this month and on NHK BS1 on the 14th, I have been eager to get at least one blog post up about the trip. But July is a busy month for me and so it’s only now I can finally set fingertips to keyboard keys.

Hakusan is one of Japan’s three sacred mountains, including Mt. Fuji and Tateyama, and was enshrined in the year 717. Prior to that, the mountain figured prominently in the local Shinto lore as it still does today. The Shirayama Hime Shrine was established before Buddhism was ever introduced to the Japanese islands. As both Shintoism and Buddhism revere the mountain in their own ways, there was a lot of interesting information about the human history and the folklore of the mountain. But while my visit to Shirayama Hime Shrine was mostly about the beliefs surrounding the mountain, the caretaker at the Rinsai Temple had a lot to say about the history as we looked upon a detailed mandala of the mountain and its pilgrimage routes. Once more the story of the Meiji government’s claim that since the emperor was a descendant of gods Japan had no need for Buddhism came up. Last year I had heard about how hundreds of Buddha statues on Mt. Fuji had been decapitated while the main pilgrimage route had been virtually erased. At Hakusan a similar tale was told of desecrated statues and the erasure of the principal pilgrimage route. The old caretaker did not speak favourably of the Meiji government who also brought Japan to war with other countries. He threw in a remark about how the modern government is linked to previous governments through succession.

Some of the folklore of Hakusan was easier to appreciate. One tale told of a man who went before the large crater pond of Midorigaike in the volcanic crater-pockmarked region of the mountain’s summit and a dragon emerged from the pond. I wondered if the “dragon” had not been a steam vortex formed from rising heat from the naturally heated crater. Dust devils and fire tornadoes form from rapidly rising heat and so a “steam devil” might have been the dragon, not so far off the mark I think considering that in Japanese a tornado is called tatsumaki – dragon twist.

Another fable told of a man who went to Midorigaike and under the heat of the sun, he placed his hands in the water to cool them. When he withdrew them, he felt the sun burning his hands more and they had turned red. He placed them in the water again and felt soothed. But after withdrawing them once more, his skin was red and burning. He proceeded to put his entire arms into the water and eventually his legs and body. Each time he removed the submerged body part, he felt his skin was burning in the sun. At last he went completely into the water and soon died. The explanation is that the crater pond was either still scalding hot or the water was acidic.


Midorigaike: source of fables

Hakusan is a volcano that erupted atop layers of ancient sediments. The area of Ishikawa and Fukui Prefectures is made up of sedimentary deposits from rivers draining off the Asian continent back in the Middle Jurassic period to the Cretaceous. A species of raptor discovered in Fukui has been called the Fukui raptor. Other fossilized bones, plants, and shells can be found in the area, and my guide even pointed out a dinosaur footprint in a rock. The lower sedimentary deposits are all mudstones, sandstones, and conglomerate rocks which contain orthoquartzite stones originally from the Asian continent. But as one climbs higher, volcanic rocks replace the Mesozoic sedimentary rocks.


Orthoquartzite stones from the Asian Continent inside conglomerate rock

Hakusan is home to over two hundred species of plants, and about 18 of them have the appellation “hakusan” appended to them. This is not exactly because a Hakusan black lily is so distinctly different from other black lilies in the mountains but more so because Hakusan had established climbing routes by the time botanical research became a thing in Japan, and so many first recorded plants were from Hakusan. Of particular interest this time was the black lily – kuroyuri – known as a chocolate lily in the Pacific Northwest. My guide explained that at the high elevation of 2,400 metres there were fewer bees and butterflies to visit the flowers and help distribute pollen. So, the lily evolved a putrid fragrance in order to attract flies. Indeed, I had a whiff and yes, it did smell “like dirty pets” as I think I said on camera.

Our visit to Hakusan coincided with a spell of nasty rain weather crossing Honshu, but we were fortunate to have heavy rain only one night and then some moderate rain one afternoon. Following a stunning sunset, the next morning we were treated to a massively stunning night sky with the Milky Way arching overhead at 3 am. Then we were at the summit for a sublime sunrise. Our stroll past the ponds was rather hurried, but since we wrapped up shooting for the program by noon, I joined my guide and our two porters on a trek up to another of the three peaks at the summit and then we returned to one pond I had wanted to photograph more.

One other point of interest was a visit to Shiramine Town. The town was originally established as a suitable place for a base on the route to Hakusan but later became a silk town. Running a silk town was the perfect endeavor for Shiramine since its location is a narrow gap in the mountains; there’s little room for growing food. Mulberry bushes, whose leaves feed the silkworms, can grow on the mountainsides easily enough. The towns houses were built close together and each home produced silk. Silk was easy to transport out of the mountains because it was light and could easily be folded and carried. Furthermore, silk’s high value meant that silk producers could pay off their annual taxes with a smaller amount of product. That left them with more product to sell.

sandstone base

Real sandstone is an indication that the structure was built before the advent of concrete

For me, this trip encompassed geology, history, religious folklore, natural history in the way of flowers and small creatures, and photography. Once again, it was a deeply rewarding trip. The program, I have been told, has turned out very well.

Too see more photos, please visit my Flickr page.

Take Your Seat – Landscape Photos with an Invitation


A very special photo exhibition is taking place at the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo. It’s an exhibition of landscapes and scenic views captured in Japan and Canada by Canadian photographers, Randy VanDerStarren and his son Spencer. But there is a twist to this series.

In each photo, there appears a white director’s chair with red fabric. Now upon first glance, you might think, “So why the chair? Most of these photos are stand-alone, beautiful landscapes. The chair’s presence only distracts the eye. In the case where the chair does fit in, it looks more like a travel advertisement.”

Well, the fact that it’s a director’s chair has meaning. Until two years ago, Randy was a company man in a financial group and giving presentations on retirement planning (if I recall the story correctly). Having studied film, Randy realized that his life had come so far from where he had hoped to be. So he took a chance and took direction of his life.

For the last two years, he and his son, Spencer have travelled across Canada (all 13 provinces and territories in 24 days!), and also travelled in Japan, Thailand, Turkey, Hong Kong, the U.S., and a few other countries. They are scheduled to revisit Turkey soon, and all this time, that director’s chair has gone with them.

The interesting thing is that the simple concept of “take charge of your life” represented by that chair has intrigued the hearts of many. They have a book due out on Indigo this summer, and Turkey is expecting to release a book of their soon-to-be-captured images also this summer. Their Tokyo exhibition, originally scheduled to end in April, has been extended to July because an important embassy official decided that the exhibition would be perfect for visiting dignitaries at an upcoming summit. They currently have an exhibition on in Toronto and will also host one in Hong Kong.

As anniversaries of countries relationships with Canada come up, more nations are taking interest in the director’s chair project, which, incidentally is entitled “Take Your Seat”, inviting us all to sit in the director’s chair of our own lives.

Though the exhibition was not yet ready to be opened to the public, I was most fortunate to be invited for a tour of the photos by Spencer, and we talked for a fair bit before I was then introduced to Randy. As I noted, the chair begins to take on more meaning as you look at the potential symbolism. Take for example the cows in Saskatchewan staring at the chair. They stand together in a heard, each aware of the chair’s existence yet none of them bold enough to step forward from the heard.


I’m very thrilled for this fortuitous opportunity to meet the VanDerStarren’s and receive an in-depth view into their exhibition!

Follow the project on Instagram at takeyourseat or visit the project online at takeyourseatonline.com.

Wow! What a fascinating mountain!

I climbed Mt. Fuji once, way back in the summer of 2000. Back then, I’m sure I took interest in the volcanic rocks all around, but my memory of that hike is filled with two other outstanding impressions: my bout with altitude sickness and the amount of rubbish I found along the route up.

Word is that the rubbish problem is being better taken care of, though as I was told on my summer trek up the mountain for Journeys In Japan, the problem continues as more foreigners come to climb the mountain and people from certain parts of the world have less garbage disposal etiquette than others. Altitude sickness can be avoided by climbing the mountain more prudently—taking one’s time and stopping for the night on the way up in order to acclimatize. This time, that was not a problem. Rather than starting from the 5th Station at 2,400 metres and then hustling to the summit, we started from sea level and took our time with a one night layover due to bad weather at the 6th Station.

Ever since my first experience on Mt. Fuji, I always maintained that it was not such a beautiful mountain to climb but was rather a mountain to be appreciated while climbing other mountains. What a thrill to stand at 3,015 metres on the summit of Tateyama, on the opposite side of Honshu overlooking the Sea of Japan, and gaze across the ranges of the Japan Alps to the familiar stratovolcano rising above the Pacific!

But this time I held an entirely different opinion: Mt. Fuji was incredibly fascinating!

Moss Forest Path

We passed through mossy forests where jumbles of jagged volcanic rock were covered in thick, spongy moss that made the rocks look like a sea of green clouds. We stopped at a lava cave where monks from bygone days stayed for days or weeks as part of their asceticism. The real joy for me came as we rose above the tree line and so many varieties of volcanic rocks were practically all there was to see, save for a few hardy species of scrubby plants that held on to existence most of the way up the mountain.

Fujisan Lava Detail

During our one day layover, clouds and rain kept us hanging about the Shin Hoei Sanso. But when the rain abated for a spell, I was out examining the local rocks and spent a pleasant time finding subjects that, in lieu of being able to take home, I arranged and photographed.

The rest of the climb to the summit was only made difficult by the lack of time I had to photograph. While hiking through the Hoei Crater (the large cater on the southeast side of Mt. Fuji), I was directed to keep walking past the large volcanic boulders that appeared out of the fog. When the clouds parted to reveal the upper reaches of the crater, I had to face the camera and say a few words, only to turn and see an alien landscape of red slopes with exposed dykes of grey rock that looked like ancient walls from some long gone civilization.

Thankfully, at the summit I had about an hour and a half at the end of the day to scuttle about the crater rim and find interesting subjects. This was perhaps the highlight of the trip for me. At one spot, numerous boulders of rock looked as though they had been squeezed through a tube or flung like batter. Then there was the crater itself with so many colours! From my experience at the summit, I gained a whole new love and respect for Mt. Fuji.

The colours in the sky prior to the sunrise the next morning were incredible and the light in the clouds cast a glow on the rocks of the crater and rim. But I was on camera during this time and so I could not take time to photograph for myself. I knew that though. I had to accept it. Perhaps I can go back again someday.

From the very summit we had views across the three ranges of the Japan Alps (how nice it was to lay eyes on those old familiar peaks that I haven’t seen for eight years!), Yatsugatake, and the Kai Okutama Chichibu Mountains. It sure was crowded though with visitors standing in line for over twenty minutes just to grab a photo at the summit marker.

For now, let me tell you that if you have any interest or fascination with rocks, Mt. Fuji is an incredible mountain to climb!

Fuji Rim Lava Collection The Foot and the Falcon

Fujisan Crater 12

The Murayama Route Kaisan Ceremony


August 21st is broadcast day

Emi and I stood just behind a row of men and one woman with her head shaved. They were completely clad in ceremonial wear. Before them was a rectangular pit lined with neatly-set volcanic rocks, essentially forming a high-backed pool with a low front. Four narrow pipes jutted out from the wall at the back and water was pouring from them, gradually filling the bottom of the pool. People were gathering behind us and the junior high students had separated with the girls standing beyond the pool and the boys nowhere to be seen. To the right side and also around the back stood many people, some wielding cameras. Our two cameramen were out in the crowd, and another local news team was there as well.

A few junior high boys came wearing ceremonial garb. The women with the shaved head fussed over one boy’s linen clothes. By her comments, I guessed she was his grandmother. Large conch shells were held up for some practice blowing. Two people got the two notes right but one man struggled like a novice on the recorder. The notes sounded more like an ill bovine ululation.


At last the ceremony commenced. Young men in loin clothes stepped into the pool and each under the water issuing from the pipes. Chanting and the rattling of beads began while the men under the water moved their arms into different poses not entirely unlike the ranger poses seen in action dramas for young boys. After the adult men stepped aside, junior high boys in loin clothes took turns stepping into the pool and standing under the water in prayer poses.

Once the cold water ablution part of the ceremony had ended, we tried to get a brief interview with the boys. They were typically sparse in their responses.

“How was the mizugori (cold water ablutions)?”
“Did you feel something spiritual?”
“I felt it!” (one boy)
“How many of you have climbed Mt. Fuji?”
(A show of hands)
“How do you feel about Mt. Fuji becoming recognized as a World Cultural Heritage Site?”
“It’s good!”

We interviewed two girls afterwards and their answers were expressed with great thought. The problem was that they spoke so softly that the sound recorder, Mr. Koyama, said that we probably couldn’t use their part because they were so hard to hear. The interviews continued with a couple of old men, only one of whom had anything to say and then again not in much detail. Finally, we got some decent responses from two middle-aged woman. One question I asked was if they felt it was better that Mt. Fuji became accepted as a World Cultural Site as opposed to the original hope for it to be recognized as a World Natural Site. They said they thought so but would have preferred it to have become both. Our director later asked me not to mention Fuji’s failure at becoming a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site because the application had been made a few times and each time it was rejected on account of the rubbish (as well as other points) and so it was a shameful and disappointing thing for the local people.

The ceremony continued after a short break with a crowd gathered around the trail head of the Murayama Route where it left the paved roads leading to the shrine and began meandering through the forest as a proper mountain path. A rope with white ceremonial paper flags was tied across the path. Someone drew a katana and demonstratively sliced the rope through the middle. An entourage of people followed the head of the shrine up the path. Shortly after, they returned via another path that came down between the main building and another smaller structure.

In attendance were two Miss Fujisans of Heisei 29 (last year) and the ambassador of the British Embassy in Shizuoka. I later heard that he was a “safe” guest as the British had in fact been the first foreigners to climb Mt. Fuji and they had done so via the Murayama Route. Inviting more prominent guests, such as the governor of Shizuoka, would attract the ire of rival shrines who were also claiming to be the head shrine of the oldest pilgrimage route.

After some chanting had been done before each of the shrine’s structures, the crowd moved to a cubic heap of fir tree branches. The ceremony reached its final stage here with more words spoken before the green boughs. Then a man came forth with a quiver of arrows and a bow. He first faced East and spoke some words before letting an arrow fly into the trees. He repeated the actions to the South, West, and North. When the arrows fell out of the trees, the junior high students rushed into the brush to retrieve it. Apparently it was good luck to retrieve an arrow.


At last, fire was set to the fir branches and soon a dense smoke was billowing out to the north and east, forcing people to move aside. The Miss Fujisans, the British Ambassador, and a few other distinguished guests took turns standing before the smoking heap, bowed, and placed wooden prayer sticks on the fir branches.

The ceremony was over. People slowly shuffled about, some going to get cold drinks as it was really hot under the sun. Others made their way to the shade and some back to their cars. The entire event was not over yet though. More was planned for the evening, including choosing the new Miss Fujisans for this year. But our time here was up and from the next day our journey would take us up the Murayama Route.