Category Archives: landscape photography

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.

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.


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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


Tilted sedimentary rock at the Arasaki Coast, Kanagawa

Waterside is available at 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.


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 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!

The Arasaki Coast

Photography has produced some remarkable coincidences related to people for me. I have quite a few stories where my quest for images has in a very unexpected way connected me or reconnected me with people. Take for example my friendship with a Mr. Hiramatsu of Yokohama. Many years ago I entered a photo contest sponsored by the photo association AMATERAS. The contest was open to non-members as well and my photograph was selected to be part of their exhibition in Ginza. For an additional fee I could also have my photo published in their annual book, a thick and weighty publication worth over 20,000 yen per copy. I agreed and when the book finally arrived I was awed by some of the stunning and clever images. As my name Peter appeared among those photographers whose names started with “ヒ”, Mr. Hiramatsu’s photo was a page or two from mine. It was a sunset shot from the Arasaki Coast, a curious location on the Miura Peninsula where alternating layers of sandstone, mudstone, and tuff have been tilted to about 70 degrees. Intrigued by the photo possibilities there, I went for a visit a year later.

Skip ahead several years to the time I had recently become a member of the Society of Scientific Photography in Japan and my photo was to be exhibited at their annual exhibition. Volunteers were needed to fill the reception seat and greet visitors. I thought volunteering would be a good way to put me in touch with some of the members and I found myself sharing the duty with a young (30-ish) Mr. Hiramatsu. As we chatted about our photography it came out that we both had had photos exhibited and published in the same AMATERAS exhibition and photo annual. After he described his photo, I realized that he was the one who had captured that photo of the Arasaki Coast.

Well, onto March 31, 2014. My co-worker and fellow photography enthusiast, Sebastian Bojek, accompanied me on a trip back to the Arasaki Coast. I picked him up around 1:30 a.m. as we planned to arrive before dawn, and followed Route 16. We reached Arasaki Park perhaps an hour before sunrise – later than planned as we had gotten off the toll road near the end a bit early and soon found ourselves on the opposite side of the peninsula. Getting back added road time and our expected snooze time was lost. Nevertheless, we selected one of the few paths that lead from the parking lot and went straight to the shore. It was here that Sebastian realized that he had left his hot shoe (the thingy that screws into the bottom of the camera and connects it to certain types of tripods) at home. With his Mamiya 67 in this low light a tripod was absolutely essential. I lent him mine while I selected a spot and pulled out my gear. I managed a couple of digital shots by setting the camera on an elevated crest of rock while Sebastian exercised his Mamiya.

An angler on the rocks of the Arasaki Coast.

An angler on the rocks of the Arasaki Coast.

The sediments of the rocks here were laid down tens of millions of years ago. Oceanic sediments of sand and mud were frequently interrupted by volcanic fallout from the nearby eruptions of the Izu volcanoes and the early volcanoes that existed prior to Mt. Fuji’s birth (Mt. Fuji stands beautifully in the distance but is too young to have contributed to these mille-feuille layers). As the Izu volcanic group slid into Honshu, it wrecked havoc on the local rock formations. The Tanzawa Mountains were pushed up, the Median Techtonic Line and its associated metamorphic belts were bent inland, and the sediment beds at Arasaki were titled to around 70 degrees and pushed up to form a new shoreline. The Pacific waves now wear away at the exposed rock but the sandstone and mudstone is softer than the tuff and so ridges of black rock form their own wave crests above the wave troughs of consolidated oceanic sediments. This makes for a fabulous geological landscape.

The darker, more resistant layers are volcanic tuff.

The darker, more resistant layers are volcanic tuff.

Still tuff

Still tuff

The lighter layers are sandstone or mudstone.

The lighter layers are sandstone or mudstone.

Waves constantly attack the rocks.

Waves constantly attack the rocks.

When the going gets tough, the tuff doesn't go anywhere so easily.

When the going gets tough, the tuff doesn’t go anywhere so easily.


After shooting at our first location, we followed another path around a headland and found ourselves at Arasaki’s most well-known view: a raised knob of striated rock with pine trees growing on top. There were also caves (closed to the public for safety reasons), arches, and more views of this unusual strata.

There are caves...

There are caves…

...and arches!

…and arches!

Pines atop the knoll

Pines atop the knoll

Wave approaching!

Wave approaching!

Back lighting

Back lighting

We spent another couple of hours here and it was noon by the time we returned to the car with thoughts of exploring elsewhere during the flat light of day. This we did, first driving on past Kamakura and Shonan only to find that most shoreline access was accommodated by pay parking only. We turned around and found a small fishing boat harbour of no great consequence where we were able to relax on a concrete pier and eat lunch. Back at the peninsula, we wandered with our cameras between some fishing boats that were pulled up from the water before returning to the park and stealing a much-needed short nap time in the car.

By five o’clock we were back at the water’s edge and the tide had come in. Our sunny sky had become hazy and clouded over so we missed any great sunset. Sebastian found a good spot on a cliff and once more borrowed my tripod for some twilight photography while I once again rested my camera on a rock and attempted some 30-second exposures. Though I shot a lot with my DSLR, the most important mission on this trip was to shoot with my Tachihara 5×4. I used the last of my QuickLoad film, a type of sheet film that was discontinued at the end of 2010. I also shot in 6×7 and 35mm format as well.

My Tachihara

My Tachihara

QuickLoad film - last exposure!

QuickLoad film – last exposure!

Composing and focusing

Composing and focusing

Final prep before exposure

Final prep before exposure

Our drive back was long a tortuous for me as we drove through one endless city in order to avoid the toll roads. Hemi, Yokohama, Kawasaki, Tokyo… only the changing names on the road signs told me where I might find us on the map. Cars and trucks were frequently parked on the side of the road, forcing me to change lanes often; convenience stores without parking lots outnumbered those with parking lots; and motorcyclists used the gap between the two lanes of cars as their own lane, often weaving without signalling. With less than an hour’s sleep in 24 hours, I somehow managed to get Sebastian back to Kawagoe and reached my home by midnight. However, as I always say, the discomfort and hardship of any photo outing passes within a few days at the most but the photos will last much longer. Now I have selected my favourites among my digital captures and the film is going in for developing. I thank my wife for permitting me a spring vacation day for photography while she stayed home minding our kids, which is certainly more stressful and tiring than driving through Tokyo!

After sunset - 30-second exposure

After sunset – 30-second exposure

TAG! – I’m It!

I’m going to Yakushima and it’s all thanks to my tags.

Tags, as most know by now, are what you add to a post – any kind of post like a photo upload, blog post, or even comment – to help people find your post when they search the Internet for information or photos about something. Let’s say you upload a photo of Tsurugidake in the Kita Alps. You could add tags like, “Tsurugidake,” “MountTsurugi,” “Kita Alps,” “Japan Alps,” “Japanese mountains,” “Japanese nature,” “mountains,” and so on. When someone searches for any of those topics, your photo will come up in the search somewhere, hopefully on the first page.

I have another blog here on WordPress where I post about my published work, interviews, newspaper appearances, etc. I started it because I thought that when my name is in print somewhere, Japanese people can’t find much about me on the Internet except in English. Since the purpose of the blog is to provide more information about me, I use tags using my name in Katakana, tags about a foreigner in Japan who climbs mountains or makes photographs, and tags related to the posted topic. As WordPress comes with a nice stats feature that allows you to see how many hits and visits you get per day, what those people saw on your blog, and what they were searching for, I always like to look at those stats during the week or two after my work has appeared in some publication. It’s interesting to see if the number of hits has increased during that post-published period and if people are using my name in their searches. If they are, then it means they are exactly taking interest in me, be it as a photographer, a climber, a foreigner or whatever.

I also like to see what people are searching for on all my WordPress blogs so I can see if they are finding what they are looking for when they come to my blogs. Because I often post with the purpose of sharing information (see my 100 Famous Mountains of Canada blog for an example), I want to be sure that what I post about is being found by those who search for that topic. Are the search engines just bringing people to the home page or is the actual post of the sought topic coming up? It also lets me know if I have to add tags to specific posts to help seekers of that topic actually arrive at the post about that topic. Don’t you hate it when you search for a topic and click on a hit only to find yourself scrolling and scrolling through someone’s blog wondering how deeply buried the relevant post is?

Back to my Japanese WordPress blog, as I was recently published in Nippon Kamera magazine, I wanted to check if people were searching for my name (if they were then that means they noticed my photographs). Looking back over the last couple of weeks, I saw people searched not only for my name in Katakana and alphabet, but also for topics like “Foreign photographers living in Japan,” “Photos of foreigner families,” “Nihon Alps Foreigners,” and a bunch of others (all in Japanese of course). I actually prepared a list for a post on this topic, but the other day my 2-year-old daughter brought my list to me and asked what it was and I told her to put it back on the desk and now I can’t find it. Anyway, one search item caught my interest: “Japanese mountains foreign climbers”. I wondered, as I often do when I see some of the search topics, who is doing the searching and for what purpose are they searching. Two days later, I found out about that one.

During a break at work, I checked my email and saw a message from a company called KAFKA. They are a production company for TV programs, and the sender informed me that they produce an English program for NHK called Journeys in Japan. Each program features a travel destination in Japan with a foreigner visiting and experiencing the local delights – scenery, food, warm hospitality. KAFKA was looking for someone who could climb Miyanouradake on Yakushima and take photos of Yakushima for one of their upcoming shows. Could I do it?

This was perhaps on of the most exciting messages I have ever received. After a further exchange of messages I found that they needed someone tough enough to climb the 1,935 metres (no problem) and someone who had not been to Yakushima before. There was some festival that I would have to attend, too. We agreed that I would come to their office in Shibuya on June 24th.

So, yesterday I went and met with the producer and the man who will be directing the shoot. The reasons why I was what they were looking for were not only that I am a photographer and climber who has never been to Yakushima but also that I have not yet been on TV in Japan before (other than a three-second clip of me talking with a Japanese friend during a show about homestay in Canada on a local cable station in Yokohama 14 years ago) seemed to be a plus and that I was very enthusiastic about going.

We discussed what I will have to do and what they expect. It seems very straight forward: I will just have to react naturally to my experiences. In the week prior to meeting them, I read a fair bit about Yakushima and they were rather impressed by my knowledge, but more importantly, that I was so eager. And why not be? Yakushima is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a national park, and an ecological reserve, and Miyanouradake is a Hyakumeizan. There are the oldest and biggest cedars in Japan and some fantastic granite boulders in the sub-alpine area. The forest should be amazing as some areas have never been logged. In addition to all the wonderful nature, I may have a chance to see loggerhead sea turtle babies making their way to the sea after hatching. NHK is picking up the tab and paying a modest fee for my “reporter” services. This is really a kind of unexpected dream come true. The weather is most likely to be pretty wet but I don’t mind so much. I’m from the Pacific Coast of Canada and I’ve hiked a lot in Japan in the rain. I am used to being bedraggled.

So, there you go. Be very wily when choosing your tags for your posts. It could just get you an offer of a lifetime.

Coming Soon: The Kingdom of Sandstone

The June issue of Nihon Kamera (日本カメラ) should feature some of my photographs from my trip to Nevada and Utah in October of 2010 (which I never finished writing about).

I sent a submission to the magazine back in August, 2011. After a few months without a word, I contacted the magazine in February, 2012 and asked what the status of my submission was. I was told that they were holding on to the photographs and short text and still considering it. For nearly a year I kept thinking about calling. I became worried because in 2010 and ’11, I had four submissions at three other publications disappear – something that had never happened to me in all my years of submitting photographs to magazines. I called at last this January but the editor was unavailable.

I called again a week later and was told the same thing, though the person with whom I spoke gave me his name. Three weeks passed before I called once more, this time asking for the person who had given me his name. He was out at the time. Finally, I called a fourth time, and this time when I was told he was out I explained my situation to the woman on the line. She asked me to wait a moment and then, without given his name or a greeting, a cheerful man came on the line sounding as if we’d already been talking long enough to be on good speaking terms that such trivialities as usual Japanese phone manners were not necessary. I didn’t mind his informal way; his news was what I had been hoping to hear.

The man told me that they were thinking about running my photographs in the June issue. He confirmed that they had my email address (my submissions always include postal address, telephone number and email address but every time I am asked anyway) and said that they would send a PDF later on and ask me then to check it over and provide any essential information not yet included. I am sure my tone of voice conveyed my gratitude more than my words could carry.

The photographs are from Red Rock Canyon and the Valley of Fire in Nevada and Zion and Bryce Canyons in Utah. The text contrasts the rather violent and vertical orogeny of Japan’s geologic history with the somewhat sedate sedimentary layering and fluvial erosion of this region of North America, whose periods of volcanic activity and tectonic uplift are not as dramatic as the creation of the Japan Archipelago. Due to the eons of peaceful sedimentation and erosion these spectacular canyons were able to form.

This will be the second time a portfolio of my photographs appears in Nihon Kamera. Previously eight images from New Zealand’s South Island were published.

The Climber Within

When I was 12 years old, I went to a week-long summer camp event – five days and one weekend overnight. On the first day I caught sight of a beautiful blonde girl about my age or a year older. Throughout the week, any chance I got I tried to get near her to interact with her. On the last day she sat in front of me on the bus and I managed to spark up an animated conversation with her. Her stop was one stop before mine and mine was the last stop. As we neared her stop I tried to sum up the courage to ask for her phone number. But I did not. And she disembarked and summarily went out of my life.

Twenty-nine years later I doubt that getting her phone number would have made any big difference in my life now. But from that experience I learned (in retrospect years later) that when the time is now you have to act. Otherwise you watch the pretty blonde walk away and out of your life.

Grass and shadows at Yunoko

February 11, 2012. My 41st birthday. My wife has begrudgingly agreed to let me out of the house, even though I say that if it were not a national holiday I would be at work until late anyway. There’s no climbing mountains or photographing landscapes when out with the family, only shooting pictures of the kids. Last year I went out only twice and this year I’d like visit the mountains at least three times. My wife complains that I am free while she is stuck minding the children. But I don’t feel free knowing there is great pressure for me to make the most out of this single day. The question that has nagged me since I realized I would get a three-day weekend was whether this should be a photography outing with the possibility of a climb or a climbing outing with some photography. Last year’s trips to Tateshinayama and Ryogamisan produced few usable images because I was on the move most of the time. My submissions to Yama-to-Keikoku calendars have produced no published winners in the last three years and I have run out of “fresh” material to submit. And I gave my stock agency all my work from 2008 to 2011 that they had not yet received. In short, I have next to nothing in fresh material, and a hike to the summit means making fewer photographs, therefore, I should choose the spend time photographing over climbing in order to have photographs to submit. That’s the logic, anyway.

My target terrain is the area known as Oku Nikko. Beyond Chuzenjiko (Lake Chuzenji) and between the mountains of Nantaisan and Nikko Shiranesan lies the wetland of Senjogahara and the steaming hot spring-fed lake of Yunoko. This was where I have decided to spend my day, keeping the possibility of climbing Nantaisan seriously up front. I left home at 3:30 and arrived at Senjogahara well before sunrise. The weather report said temperatures would be between -9 and -5 degrees in Nikko, but I am quite a bit above the city, at over 1,300 metres. The air is pretty chill and even with a few layers of clothing on and a woollen hat covered by a hood I feel the cold. I set up my 4×5 camera on the viewing deck and use a bench as a Stairmaster to keep myself warm inside while waiting for sunrise. When the light does appear, it is to either side of my composition. It seems the sun is rising behind Nantaisan which looms behind me. I manage a few shots in 35mm and one composition in 4×5 before packing it in. Now what? Climb Nantaisan or head over to Yunoko?

Winter beauty at Yunoko

It is not yet 8 A.M. and so I drive to Yunoko. In the background, a white mountaintop draws my attention. I feel the compulsion to get up there! Imagine the photographs to be captured with snowbound trees in the foreground and the rockier parts of the mountain coated in thick white. I approach the ski run with snowshoes in hand. Is there a way to go up the mountain from the ski run? A sign says that there is, but I imagine the slow climb in the snow and the time it will take and figure that I would be better off trying to shoot more photographs. Instead I decide to walk around Yunoko and shoot the sunlight in the steam coming off the lake. But the route around the lake is closed due to heavy snow.

I return to Senjogahara and seek out a good viewpoint of the mountains east and southeast. The snowshoes come on and I follow a cross country trail to a promising spot where I then leave the trail and began pushing deep holes into the soft snow.

Senjogahara with the trunk of Nantaisan on the right

I struggle with the scenery. It is beautiful but not coming together for me in the viewfinder. It’s hard work getting the right composition in 4×5. I tramp about in the snow, scouting for a better foreground, at last returning to the trail. Somewhere there is a great scene here but I can’t find it. By now it is nearing noon. I had said that if I were to attempt Nantaisan I would start at 10:00 o’clock at the latest. It is already too late and I am still not feeling that I have found that special place where I can easily lose myself and emerge with a heap of satisfactorily exposed film. At last I stomp down a depression in the snow just of the trail and shoot Nantaisan as seen from between two white birch trees.

Wind blowing through trees at Yunoko

Not sure what they were doing but they were carrying what looked like oxygen tanks and making holes in the ice

From Lake Chuzenji, Nantaisan looks like a neat conical heap of a mountain. It doesn’t look very high because the lake is at about half the elevation of the mountain. Simply, the mountain fails to inspire me to climb it. However, from this other view at Senjogahara, I can see how the volcanic crater had burst apart with a stream of lava on one side. From this view the mountain looks exciting. I am starting to feel a strong urge to get up on Nantaisan; the long arm of one side of the broken crater looks totally accessible. By now I have also learned to distinguish which peak is the summit of Oku Shiranesan. This mountain too, of which I knew nothing prior to coming, is looking very attractive in its mantle of white. But a winter mountain is not something one climbs as a quick jaunt up and down. It’s a project that takes hours. It takes three times longer to climb a route in winter than it does in summer. That much I know is sensible calculating. I am not going to get up very far on Shiranesan, and Nantaisan was said to be a short but gruelling climb. I have to remind myself that this is a photography outing by my own choosing and that climbing will have to wait for another day.

Ice at Ryuzu Falls

I go to visit Ryuzu Falls and shoot ice formations on the rocks. It is engaging photography and I experiment with multiple exposures while turning the focusing ring. Sunlight glittering off the ice formations becomes constellations of light in my viewfinder. But it is while running up the steps to the next terrace of the falls that it occurs to me that I am getting exercise for the first time today. As my heart pumps I feel the joy of physical exercise. I don’t like exercising for the purpose of exercising but getting a workout while climbing is a pleasure. Again I look back to Nantaisan.

Ice at Chuzenjiko

The last hour of my visit is spent around Lake Chuzenji just driving and exploring and looking back at the mountains. The wind here is viciously Hibernian. Water from the lake is freezing on the dock pilings. I look at the two mountains and consider how it would be to climb one on one day and the other the next day over a weekend. If I were a single man without a family I could come back the next week or later in the month. But these two mountains will have to wait longer for me.

Shiranesan from Chuzenjiko

Once down from the spaghetti noodle road of Irohazaka, I catch glimpses of Nantaisan in my mirror. Whenever I completed a hike in the past, I would always look back at the mountain whose summit I had just visited as much as possible while walking or driving away. But there is no sense of accomplishment when I looked at Nantaisan. I had not been to the summit and I was unable to content myself by thinking that I had chosen to make this a photo outing. I wonder what views I might have captured from the summit of Nantai. This was more than just photography. I needed to feel I had at least attempted to climb a mountain. But why was that so important? Twenty years ago it was all about getting the photographs. In the last few years, however, it has become more about reaching the top. The mountain is a challenge to climb. It does not care one way or another about who climbs it. But for someone like me, a mountain – a least one of these minor league proportions – offers me a chance to challenge myself, to climb over my own internal mountains. To reach the summit means that I have beaten any voices inside me that whined about physical strain, exerted muscles, a heavy pack, or cold wind. Life is not a beach. It is a mountain. And every time I reach a summit I feel satisfaction with myself. “I did it again!”

But I didn’t do it this time and more than ever I feel I have to get back to Nantaisan and Shiranesan. And so it has me thinking – though I have always maintained that I don’t need to climb all 100 Hyakumeizan, there’s nothing wrong with trying to climb more. Climbing them gives me an opportunity to visit mountains outside of the Alps upon which I focused nearly all my photographic efforts in the last few years. I have climbed 31 of the 100 by now. Could I reach 50 by the age of 50? That would mean 2 or 3 mountains a year over the next 9 years. Totally possible. I could make a list and begin planning. I could still expect to get lots of photographs. Hmm… The big question is what would the wife think? And is it fair for me to think of solely my own personal ambitions while she stays home minding the often difficult-to-handle children? At least with photography I can say I am working. But then again, the money earned from photography has until now gone towards paying for photography. Could I possibly get some good stories to write about as a climber? I sure think so.

It seems that somehow over the recent years, I have grown beyond just hiking and photographing. Now I really need to get up mountains. I can’t look at an attractive mountain without thinking how I would get to the summit. Somehow a climber has grown within. I don’t need to play in the big leagues. Even the little league summits can help me enjoy life more.

Nantaisan from Chuzenjiko

Desert Storm – Part Two

A Brief Encounter with Zion National Park

The thousand-metre high cliffs of Navajo Sandstone in Zion National Park had been familiar to me in photographs since I was in junior high school. Landmarks such as the Patriarchs, the West Temple, and the Great White Throne often showed up in books of natural wonders of the western United States and in photo publications I enjoyed. Zion was appropriately named because it was in all respects for me sacred ground. Here was where several chapters in the long history of Mother Earth were opened up to read in spectacular cliffs, canyons, buttes, and caps. In addition, here was the hallowed ground where so many great landscape photographers of the past and present set down their tripods and tripped their shutters.

From Saint George, Utah, the rocks beside the road were mostly red and weathered into peculiar sculptures that could resemble the petrified organs of some mammoth beast trapped in the strata of the earth. Turning off the I-15 at Hurricane, we left the fantastic red rock landscapes behind and drove past flat-topped table lands, many with layers of black basalt on top. Soon the West Temple came into view again loomed ever nearer. Then the road snuggled up close to the hills at Rockville and Springdale. I marvelled at the huge weathered blocks of sandstone that were tumbled and jammed into the small stream channels carving into the rock. Then at last the mountain-like red cliffs of the Watchman took a chunk out of the sky. It had been cloudy all morning but now the clouds were breaking into long tracks and moving to the north. I had heard of four consecutive days of rain up this way but it seemed the weather was turning around in our favour.

There was a $25 entrance fee for our vehicle but that covered all three of us too. A sign had said that the visitor centre parking lot was full; however, we found an open stall in the overflow parking. Though we had left at 7:30 it was now around noon. We had stopped for gas and a rest in Saint George but it had still taken us three and a half hours in total to reach the park. We decided to take the shuttle bus that ran up the canyon. The system was really convenient. The bus was free to ride and there were nine stops along the way including the visitor centre. One could get off the bus at any stop and then board another bus later and either continue up the canyon or catch a bus heading back down. The buses ran every six to eight minutes and ran from just after sunrise to after 9 pm. The buses all ran on propane, and the implementation of a shuttle bus system was meant to eliminate the chains of private vehicles belching exhaust into the canyon as the tourist traffic had increased significantly since the 1960s.

(It is ironic to think that in the 1960s and early ’70s, the Sierra Club was producing very large format photo art books, many of the landscapes of the Colorado Plateau, in an effort to create public awareness of the need to preserve these beautiful and delicate environments. The result of greater public awareness was that more and more people came by car to see the parks and as in the case of Zion Canyon, the huge increase in vehicular traffic actually helped to deteriorate conditions in the park. Of course the Sierra Club is not responsible for this but I am sure their books did capture the minds of many people who otherwise might not have gone.)

We boarded a bus and as we drove past the red cliffs with white caps a recording played, explaining about the sights around and the history of the park and canyon. We went straight to the last stop at the Temple of Sinawava and got off. The North Fork of the Virgin River comes out from the narrow canyon walls here and winds around a sandstone tower known as the Pulpit.

The Pulpit

Knowing my parents were not intending to stay long, I dashed to the river side and set up my view camera. It takes time to set up the camera and get the focus adjustments right, so I rushed while trying to make sure I got a good composition as well. Then I tried some 6×4.5 shots of the cliffs and the Pulpit and finally shot some 35mm scenes as well. After 25 minutes I found my parents sitting on a bench at the bus stop. “Did you get some good shots?” my father asked as he always does. I replied that I think I did but was only able to make maybe three or four compositions in total. We rode the bus to the stop at Big Bend and again I hurried to get something exposed on my film. We got out one more time at the Court of the Patriarchs stop and I dashed up to the viewpoint only to find it unsatisfactory. My parents came slowly up the path while I found what looked like a trail leading up higher. Ignoring the beginnings of a mild asthma attack (I always get these when I suddenly start running or walking quickly up steep trails) I ran up the sun-baked clay slope and soon found a clear patch where I could look over the trees to the three great towers of sandstone that were Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and a smaller tower known as Mount Moroni. All three cameras were put through the works before I packed up and went down to the bus stop where my parents were waiting again.

Two of the three Patriarchs - Abraham on the left and Isaac in the centre - and Mount Moroni on the right.

In truth, though the scenery of Zion was astounding in its beauty, I was finding it difficult to be truly astounded. Perhaps because I already knew of what to expect I felt I was only seeing in real life what I had seen so often in photographs. But I think it was more so because I didn’t have the chance to really set foot on the rock and soil and take a moment to simply observe the naturally beauty and let it stir me into action. Before long we were back at the visitor centre and looking through the books and various souvenirs. My parents bought a book/CD/DVD set for my son and were searching for something for my wife. They also bought a small photo book of Zion landscapes. I grabbed a Utah Rocks T-shirt with pictures of five of Utah’s most famous places for naturally sculpted rock and a calendar by David Pettit who was pictured on the back using the same Tachihara 4×5 that I have.

We sat outside under a clear blue sky and ate lunch, me with one eye on my watch because we were planning to go to Bryce Canyon next. It was when we had finished lunch my mom said that she felt there was no time to head on to Bryce Canyon and that we should head back to Las Vegas. It was only around four o’clock and I had heard it was only an hour more to Bryce. Sunset was just at seven. We still had time. But she said they had seen so much in Zion already and there was a long drive back to Vegas. If I really wanted to see Bryce I could go by myself the next day. I was in a way surprised that they could just stop like that and talk about heading back so early. For me, it was that I had just shaken hands with Zion and exchanged a few pleasantries but had not yet begun any intimate conversation. And Bryce had been a dream destination for me since my elementary school days when I enjoyed looking through geology books. But I understood that the day with my parents was meant to be a day with them and not my own day of exploration. The arrangement was that I would strike out on my own the next day and they had offered to lend me the rental car so that I wouldn’t have to rent my own.

After a bit of discussion, my father seemed to be in favour of trying for Bryce. My mother agreed without overt reluctance and we pressed on up to Canyon Junction where the road turned east to Bruce Canyon. Here we were immediately confronted by a road closure. A construction worker came over and explained the road was closed. We asked if there was another way to get to Bryce Canyon. He told us that we should go back to Hurricane and take the route north to Cedar City. From there we could get over to Bryce Canyon. I checked the map and saw that it was going to take a fair bit of extra time to circle all the way round like that. If we were lucky we’d get there around sunset and then have a very long drive back again. Instantly my desire to reach Bryce dissipated and I was all for heading back to Las Vegas without regret. There was nothing we could do. But those red towers of Zion Canyon reminded me that I still had a purpose were I to stay.

We stopped in Springdale for a moment and checked out a shop selling rocks and a photo gallery shared the building. I went in and saw on the walls some incredible photographs of Zion Canyon and some of the local semi-arid landscape scenery. The photographer was a young guy perhaps in his late twenties named Steffan ( I asked him about his camera and he told me that he used a Wistia 4×5 and also a medium format camera sometimes too. His film preferences were Fujichrome Velvia and Ectachrome too. How wonderful it was to find another photographer who still pursued landscape photography with film and in large format too. As antiquated and almost obsolete as shooting film with a view camera may seem in today’s modern digital age, there were still professionals who wouldn’t abandon their 4x5s. Since I was planning to return in the morning and spend the day I asked his advice about where I should go. At first I wanted to visit the Emerald Pools and make the climb up to Angels Landing but his photographs of the Narrows – a place farther up the canyon where the 1,000-metre high cliffs closed in to within five metres apart – revived in my mind images of Eliot Porter’s from Glen Canyon, whose cliffs and amphitheatres now lie drowned in the waters of Lake Powell. Stephen totally recommended the hike up to the Narrows but said both the Emerald Pools and Angles Landing would be worth the effort. Likely there would be not enough time for all of them. We discussed his forthcoming book, printing processes, and the principles of capturing great images that didn’t require lots of post processing before I left his gallery and collected my parents for the ride back.

A short distance west of Springdale, looking southeast.

So, we turned around, and as the sun was sinking in the west and the sweet light was just beginning to touch up the landscape and photographers were just stirring from their mid-day sedentary pursuits, I began the long drive back to Las Vegas without the opportunity to enjoy shooting this unbelievable landscape in the warm light of late afternoon. Being the driver, I forced a few turn outs on local backroads until I found a decent view over sage brush and sand to some mesas in the distance. The landscape began to glow warmly as the sun edged its way toward the horizon. Then we drove on into the gathering evening and into the night. It was 12:30 by the time I got to bed after dinner in Las Vegas and a shower at the resort. My plan, now discussed with my parents, was set. Off to the Valley of Fire State Park at 5 am; leave there around 8:30 and head for Zion; stay until after sunset and drive back to Vegas; and then head over to Red Rock Canyon for the dawn shoot. I fell asleep quickly.

On the Roof of Japan

I arrived at work after the Golden Week holidays and was handed a box. It was my Grivel g10 wide crampons that I had ordered, as recommended by i-cjw. I had hoped to take them with me on my latest outing to the North Alps but alas, the delivery was scheduled for ten days after I ordered them and they arrived too late.

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I know I had been sleeping because I had been dreaming. But it had been a hard night of trying to catch some winks sitting almost straight up in a coach that had left Tokyo at 11PM the night before. It’s dawn now. Yakedake seems suddenly right outside my window, very near and very large. Clouds hang around the mountaintops. The air is misty and cool, the landscape grey and bleak. Dirty snow melting below the ash-coloured erosion-scoured grooves of Yakedake gives the impression that the volcano erupted only a few weeks ago. Coming up to Kamikochi, the Hotakas loom hugely over the valley. With mists still clinging to the high summits and fresh snow gleaming white, I realize that photographs never truly can convey the immensity of these mountains. The clouds slowly clear away and I feel as though I have arrived a little early for the party that Nature is about to throw for everyone. The weather forecast for the next three days predicts only sun and some clouds. No rain!

I have lots of time. I only need to reach the Karasawa Cirque today and it’s no later than 6:20 when I start off from the bus loop. At the Kappa Bridge I drop my pack on a picnic table bench and fish out my camera bag. I take my time shooting the mountains with their white mantle. Without my Grivel crampons, I brought snowshoes, but felt a little foolish when I saw none of the other hikers had snowshoes. Now, that fresh snow makes me feel slightly vindicated.

The season is late this year. Nine years ago I came during the Golden Week holidays. It poured rain the day my girlfriend and I arrived. The green leaves were just opening and the snow was nearly all melted. I remember seeing a turtle in the ponds near Tokusawa and the mountain toads mating furiously in the huge puddles near the Tokusawa campsite, long gelatinous tubercles of black eggs twisted and ropy in the churning brown water. This year there is still snow beside the trail, there are no opening buds yet, and there are no turtles or mountain toads. The forest floor is only just wiping the sleep of snow grit from its eyes.

It’s a familiar walk to Yoko-O and the mountain views are spectacular as always. The gradual ascent to the Karasawa Cirque takes me over well-trampled snow and offers views of Byobuiwa – the great glacier-carved rock face – and Kita Hotakadake. The snow becomes deeper and softer and I begin making post holes. It’s time to switch to snowshoes. They work wonderfully. I join the ranks of climbers and hikers making their pilgrimage to the snow-filled bowl of the Karasawa Cirque.

There are over 200 tents at the campsite. I quickly mark off my space and begin levelling off a slope so that I can have an even tent floor and a protective wall to keep the wind from blowing my tent away. My tent is bigger than I thought and I have to dig more than anticipated. I’ll be sure to get one of those small shovels for next year. That evening, clouds that covered the sky over Oku Hotakadake, Karasawadake, and Kita Hotakadake catch the setting sunlight and the sky looks beautiful.

I am up at 1:00 AM and eat a light breakfast and prepare my outdoor clothes. It’s not below freezing here but close. By 1:40 I am on my way up Kita Hotaka. Partway up, however, I realize I won’t reach the summit in time for sunrise. There’s a tempting ridge nearby that could get me a view of Hotaka and Yarigatake. I try to get up but the slope is getting steeper and steeper. Crampons would really come in handy now, I think to myself.

Looking back I can see the horizon has turned orange. Sunrise is coming soon. I need more time to get up this ridge. I have a decent view of Mae and Oku Hotaka but the greed of having a shot at Yarigatake as well has me trying for the top of the ridge. There are some rocks up ahead. If I can just reach them I can clamber up to the top of the ridge. The problem is that there is ice just below the snow at the base of the rocks.

I turn and suddenly the mountains are glowing orange. Damn! Like the dog that wanted both pieces of meat (or bones) I am now caught with the unfortunate prospect of totally missing the morning alpine glow. I should have stopped and set up. I begin trampling down the snow with my snowshoes, trying to make a platform on which I can drop my pack and set up my tripod. Stomp, stomp, stomp. There’s just enough space for me to squat and shoot. But it’s too late. The sun must have gone behind a cloud. The light fades. I get a couple of shots with some very faint orange glow on the snow, a bluish sky with a hint of orange and pink on the horizon, and the moon over Oku Hotaka in a thin veil of cloud. I wait for the glorious dawn light to return but it doesn’t. Later only diffused white sunlight shines through.

I now consider going back down to the main route up Kita Hotaka but the top of the ridge seems so near. Taking off the snowshoes and putting on my small crampons, I kick my boots into the snow and get up to the rocks, then go back to retrieve my pack. The last reach to the rocks is tricky but I expect that once I am on the rocks I will feel in control much more. But I am not. The grade of the slope when viewed from below has deceived my perception of the true nature of the angle. I am near the top of a minor cirque and the grade is about 150% here or more. Furthermore, the rocks have ice around them and in the cracks. It’s not easy getting a good grip and for a minute or two I am hanging on with no place to move.

At last I find a way up the rocks but at the top there is only more thinly covered ice and still several metres to the top of the ridge. I finally acquiesce and decide I have wasted enough time here. Slipping and falling here would be a very rough tumble back down. With some difficulty I get back to my platform and then work my way down in boots and small crampons. It goes quickly. The ground levels out to a much more comfortable grade at about 7:00. With so much time I decide to just go for the top. It’s not hard. There are so many boot prints that I just pick a good set and follow them. I stop partway for some photographs and then keep going. At last I reach the summit of Kita Hotakadake.

The tent village in the Karasawa Cirque

Having missed the sunrise shoot, I decide to stay a night in the hut. That way I figure I will get the sunset and sunrise shots that every mountain photographer wants. But it’s only 11AM and I have time to kill. I scout the views, eat something, and then just sit and relax with Yarigatake and the North Alps spread out before me. I doze a little, only to be woken by snow sliding off the roof of the hut and hammering me in the back!

Suddenly I see a familiar face. It’s an acquaintance from the All Japan Alpine Photography Association. He published a book of Mont Blanc photos through Yama-to-Keikoku Publishing and his work regularly appears in that company’s calendars. He has come with his wife and some other members of the association I haven’t met yet. We chat in the hut for a while and I discover that another member is also a member of the Society for Scientific Photography, of which I too am a member. In addition, his office is one station away from where I work. Small country.

Snow steps from the summit of Kita Hotakadake to the hut

Outside again I see another familiar face. “Peter-san,” a friendly voice calls out. Wrapped in a hood, a jolly face with glasses and white beard stubble beams at me. “Kumasawa desu.” Ah, Mr. Kumasawa! We first met in January last year in Nishizawa Ravine in Yamanashi. We had both been out photographing and were walking back to the parking lot together when I struck up conversation with him. He too is a member of AJAP and we met for the second time last year in September at the AJAP exhibition. He was quick to spot me up here on Kita Hotaka.

Yarigatake and the North Alps

In the late afternoon, I check out the views. The light is nice and I decide to get some shots. I want to be ready for sunset but I know that nothing is ever promised except the next day in nature and so I shoot a few scenes in 4×5, as well as with my 250mm lens on the 645 camera and a few 35mm shots to boot. Before dinner, the summit of the mountain is already filling up with tripods. The best spot is taken. I decide to shot from in front of the hut because it’s not as crowded and there is almost no wind – good conditions for large format camera set-up.

After dinner the sun slips into a soft haze. The warm glow everyone hopes for doesn’t come. At last an orange daystar fades in the haze and there is no alpine glow. That leaves the next morning only!

I stay in the hut dinning area and chat with other people until 9. There are lots of interesting and funny people. One woman has been climbing for only 7 years but she has done 91 of Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains. Another guy is a real card. He looks like a native of the South American jungles but he insists he is Japanese. He is full of jokes and quick wit.

I am tired but it’s hard to sleep with all the activity going on. People are snoring or getting up and coming back to bed. It’s too noisy for me.

At 4AM I get up and quickly head outside. The sky is dark and without stars or moon. It’s calm in front of the hut but dark turbulent clouds are rushing over the mountaintops. It looks as though a serious rain storm is moving in. I suddenly wish I was camping down below at Tokusawa and not way up here with 8 to 9 hours to go to the bus stop. But as the sky lightens it seems there will be no rain. The clouds just continue to blow over the peaks, tilting about 25 degrees upwards as they come over the Yarigatake Massif. I decide to shoot some scenes anyway because mountains moments are not only sunrises and sunsets but also these foreboding dark skies as well.

From breakfast and on the day wraps step by step. I pack up and head back down to my camp in the Karasawa Cirque. On the way someone comes running past and asks if anyone has a cell phone with a signal. Someone above has fallen and possibly broken his right leg. The guy is down the mountain with amazing speed. I am trying very hard not to posthole and possible break a leg myself.

When I pass the lodge in the cirque a rescue crew of two is ready to go up. About an hour and a half after the guy first asked for a cell phone, the rescue chopper comes in. Many people in the camp site are watching and snapping away as the chopper comes in to land near the Karasawa Hut. I pack up and begin heading down in snowshoes.

The sun is beating down now, the clouds all dispersed. The snow is slushy and dirty looking. It looks really different from two days ago when it was still fresh on top. It’s a slippery route down and at last I remove the snowshoes and just stomp through the slush, my boots now soaked through anyway. It’s easy going from Yoko-O and even with short breaks I make it back to Kamikochi with 40 minutes to spare before the bus departs.

I missed the best light and then when I was in the right place at the right time the light didn’t come. But looking at the digital snapshots I feel quite pleased with my accomplishment. The snow-covered mountains are becoming less daunting as I go up and come down each time without discouraging incident. With my new crampons I am eager for the season to start again at the end of this year.

Hard Lessons Learned – Don’t Wimp Out!

Imagine being a mountain photographer and being up in the mountains during three days of optimal weather. Imagine having two mornings and two evenings of excellent lighting conditions and during those times having two spectacular evening light opportunities. Imagine it’s the best trip for light that you have been on all year.

Now imagine that during each spectacular moment you were in the wrong place to get the shots.

I chose Senjodake in the South Alps for my last hike of 2009. I had not yet photographed the South Alps in winter and as I had seen photos from Senjo I decided that I would go there. In summer the buses drive up to Kitazawa Pass and deposit hikers within a thousand metres of the 3,033 metre-high summit. In winter, however, one must start in the Todai Valley far below and hike some six hours up to the pass before beginning the climb to the summit.

I left Saitama early in the morning hoping to reach the parking lot at the trailhead by 10 o’clock. To save money I drove the local highways instead of taking the expressways. This turned out to be a bad decision. I arrived much later than expected and it wasn’t until 12:30 before I set out up the valley. With sunset at around 4:30 I knew I was going to arrive well after dark.

It had been snowing that night and morning and had stopped not long before I arrived. There was fresh snow on the cliffs and trees only a hundred metres up the mountainsides and clouds were only just clearing away from the peaks of Kai Komagatake and Nokogiridake. The Todai Valley is not a glacial valley but with the steep cliffs on either side, and a morass of rocks and boulders spread out very wide while the river braids itself past sand bars and driftwood. It looks a lot like the valley below the toe of the Franz Josef Glacier in New Zealand.

The path up the valley is not all that easy to follow. Pink ribbons mark the way which follows the left side of the valley up to the dam; however, I found pink ribbons in the trees on the right side and a path that had been used recently but not often. I followed this path a first but soon found myself trying to cross the river streams in various places in order to get over to the left side. Once on the correct path it became easier to see where to go. I stopped for one extended break when I couldn’t resist trying to photograph the clearing clouds over Kai Koma with the snow-covered boulders of the valley in the foreground.

In the Todai Valley

It took almost three hours of hiking time to reach the part of the trail that begins climbing up the mountainside. Though there are a few hard switchback parts, the trail was easier than almost any hike I had ever done in Japan. In spite of this, I began getting tired as the afternoon wore on. Maybe it was because I had slept only three hours before the eight-hour drive, or maybe because I was carrying a heavier-than-usual pack with the extra winter clothes inside, but I began losing my inspiration for reaching the top partway up.

As I climbed up through the trees, one of the most gorgeous displays of evening light began taking place. A small cloud stuck on the rocky summit of Nokogiri was catching the orange glow of sunset, as were the rocky crags and cliffs. Fresh snow clung to the rock ledges and reflected the light was well. Below the cloud was a purplish shadow. The colour and light were fantastic. I had only once ever seen such a gorgeous alpine glow display when I was in Chile a few years ago. Now it was happening again and I could not get a clear shot of the mountain. I considered a photograph with the tree silhouettes in the foreground and the alpine glow shining through, but no break in the trees that was sufficient enough came. At last I had to tell myself that I would have my chance the next day.

The moon began to illuminate the woods as the path climbed and climbed. I was getting hungry and tired, and my flashlight battery was getting weaker. I needed to stop and rest but I was wet with sweat under my jacket and I knew stopping now would get me a chill. I wanted to reach the lodge soon because from there it would be a short walk to the campsite. When I at last saw the roof of a building I was ready to throw down my pack and set up for the night. But it was not the lodge I was looking for. The time being already 6:30 I decided that I’d had enough and since there was room to set up a tent I would do so.

The tent put up a fight. It was not easy getting the poles though the fabric of the sheaths because there were less flexible in the cold air (it was around minus 8 degrees Celsius). At last I got set up and could climb inside for dinner, a change into dry clothes, and hopefully a good night’s rest. I set my alarm for five in the morning; however, come morning, I was still way too sleepy and burned out. I cancelled the wake-up call and continued trying to sleep even past sunrise.

When I finally got moving it was past 9:30! Very late indeed. I had checked the guidebook the night before and discovered that I was only 15 minutes away from the lodge and about 30 minutes or less from the campsite. I had made it that close and given up! Now, when I should already have been on my way up the mountain, I had to pack up and move camp, and then get started climbing.

It was not far to the lodge as the guidebook had promised and from there I went to find the campsite but stopped when I reached the sign for Sensui Pass. I went back up to the lodge and asked a guy working there about the campsite. Apparently I had found the path in by the sign. Then I asked about going up Senjodake. I was told that with the new snow there was no way I would get up there today as it would take over six hours likely. If I could leave very soon I might make it to Kosenjo, a shoulder on the mountainside that was just above the tree-line. I recalled it from a few years ago – there was a good view of Kai Koma from up there.

I realized that I was already possibly too late getting started and might have to give up my plans of photographing at sunset. But I had to try. I found my way to the tent site easily and took my time to get set up properly and pack my things for the climb. Knowing I would get back after dark I packed my stove and some food. I wasn’t going to come back to camp tired and starved like before. Once everything was ready and I had made a visit to the toilet at the lodge by the campsite, it was already noon. I put on my hat and felt something nudge my leg. My tent had moved with a strong gust of wind. There were a few other tents around and I saw that they were secured with sticks stuck in the snow. I went to the trees and looked around for some good sticks to jam into the snow and tie my tent to. At last, at half past noon, my tent looked safe and I was ready to hit the trail.

My tent, the blue one, at the campsite with Senjodake in the background

I knew it was almost crazy to leave at this time and as I went up I met several people coming down. After the third minor shoulder I met a younger guy coming down at high speed and he asked me where I was going. I told him I wanted to get above the tree-line and asked how long it might take. He said it should be another two hours. Two hours? It was already just past two o’clock by this time. If he was right I wouldn’t have much time to get ready for sunset. And then what about the hike back down? How late would I be back this time?

Kitadake from between the trees on the route up to Kosenjo and Senjodake

I decided to press on until 3 but I was losing enthusiasm again. I was not climbing up with purpose. I kept stopping and looking at each pink ribbon ahead of me. Each time the sun shone through the trees I hoped I was getting closer but each time I went up it was to just another minor shoulder. My snowshoes worked well where the path was wide enough or not so steep but in some places it was clear that crampons would have been ideal. I began to lament my laziness in the morning, my poor planning, and my lack of appropriate equipment.

At the fifth shoulder I could see Kosenjo above. There was no that much climbing left but still about 40 minutes to an hour. It was just approaching 3 PM and I had lost heart. The wind up there looked fierce and icy. I had extra clothes along. Should I put them on now? And what about the long walk back? Should I eat now? But then would I make it up there in time for sunset? If I ate before heading back then how late would I return to camp? I weighed all possibilities with a half-beaten heart and concluded that I should just head back down. I would stop at the fourth shoulder and eat something and then go back. This time was just a learning experience and next time I would know exactly what to expect and what to do.

At the fourth station I tried melting snow in my pot, which didn’t take too long, but it took much longer to get it to boil than I thought. I put on an extra shirt, wandered around, went up the trail and down a little twice, and still the water didn’t boil. It was a half hour later that finally I could poor hot water into my thermos and cup noodles. Once I had finished eating and packing it was already 4:10. I might as well have tried to climb up anyway! The frustration of having wasted so much time gave me a charge of energy. It was too late to turn and go back up again but I could go down quickly.

Around the third shoulder there was a decent view of Kitadake with alpine glow on it. I took out my cameras and managed to shoot the scene through the trees about 90% unobstructed. Now I was feeling fine. The distraction of photography had me in full form. Too bad I was heading back.

Down the trail I went as Kai Komagatake glowed orange and the moon rose into the sky. When twilight had turned the sky purple and the rocky peaks were still lit with the last of the fading light in the western sky, the moon hung over Kai Koma and Asayomine. It was another perfect scene which I could only appreciate through the trees. How I should have gone up anyway! I thought all the rest of the way down about how I could have managed to do this trip better so that I wouldn’t have missed the two best light shows I had seen this year in the mountains. Before I felt I had gone on long, I saw the lights of the lodge below.

I strolled into camp at 5:30. It had been one quick descent. I bought a Coke from the lodge, got water from the icy stream beside the tent site and prepared the second half of my dinner. While eating I attempted a 20-minute exposure of the tent site with Senjo in the background. At 7 three more hikers came in. The camp site was getting crowded now with about 20 tents. How many people were going to stay up here for the New Year’s Day sunrise?

My last card to play was a morning shot of Senjo from Sensui Pass. I set my alarm for 4:30 but during the night the battery in my cell phone died and left me without an alarm. I woke up when I heard other voices and slowly got myself out of the sleeping bag. I couldn’t dawdle too much, I knew. It was already 5:20. I heated water and ate, prepared my things, and dressed warmly with chemical pack heating pads in my shirt and socks. At 6:30 I was on the trail. By 7:00 the sun cast a weak orange light on Senjo, which I saw through the trees again. There was a thin veil of clouds in the sky.

At Sensui Pass the wind was howling. Grey clouds were over Senjo, but light was still on the peak. I chose a spot in some rocks and set up my 4×5. I had it all set up and was ready to shoot when I considered using an ND grad filter. I checked the exposure with the filter but decided that without would be better. At that moment the sunlight faded from the summit of Senjo. I had just missed the shot. Quickly, I rechecked the exposure and shot one sheet of film with sunlight on the trees in the valley below. Then that was the end of the sunlight for me. I had not only missed the morning light but by only seconds I had missed the second best shot. And I had been ready too. But I wanted to take my time to do everything right and as a result I missed my shot. Well, by now I could hardly be angry. This whole trip had been about missing photo opportunities because of bad timing or bad decisions.

Back at camp I took a few shots of the snow-covered rocks by the stream and then packed up to go down. Heading down the mountainside was fast but the long walk through the river valley took as much time going down as it had going up. I stopped once, inspired to shoot by the snow-coated boulders, the bare trees, and the moody grey sky building over Kai Koma, but after I had taken the time to dig out my 4×5 and had everything set up I noticed only then that there were five pink ribbons in my photo. I looked around for another photo op but by then I was rather fed up with wasting time, and so I just packed up and made every effort to reach the car without further delay.

I have to admit though that on my way back I found many interesting scenes with rocks, cliffs, and water and I came to recognize the charm of the Todai Valley. Perhaps I will go again someday just to photograph around the wide rocky riverbed. But I will also attempt Senjo in winter again, and this time I will be better equipped mentally to carry out my plan.

Looking at the snowy mountain scenes in the calendar my wife gave me, I feel I didn’t try hard enough this time. I should have continued the last 30 minutes to camp. I should have started up Senjo earlier and I shouldn’t have given up even though it was getting late. I missed out on the best shots because I didn’t set myself up right for getting them. Now I am looking to Shiomidake in March and I know I must not allow myself to slack off. I believe you get out of something what you put into it, and if I don’t try hard when it’s necessary I won’t bring back the goods.

The stream near the campsite