Category Archives: My Big Fat Life

Where Did the Summer Go?

Earlier this year, I was finishing up a submission of photographs for my stock agency. Since switching to digital, I haven’t been so assertive about sending out my photos, which is kind of ironic since one reason why I continue to use digital is because it has become very difficult to submit film to most publications outside Japan. But the real reason is that having two kids, a full-time job that’s 90 minutes away from home, and having extra odd jobs to help support my family means that time and money for photography isn’t what it used to be when I was single. And that’s actually the other important reason why I keep shooting digital. Maintenance of film photographs does require extra time and cost, the luxury of both I am lacking.

So, I was preparing the data to go along with the submission and I noticed that in recent years all my photography is done in a few regular annual outings: once in late December or early January, once in early May during Japan’s Golden Week holidays, once in mid-August during the O-Bon holiday, and once more on November 3rd or 4th which is a national holiday and the best time to shoot autumn scenery in the local mountains. Considering that I used to go climb mountains 8-12 times a year plus have several day trips out means that my accumulation of photographs has slowed considerably. I now have only a few morning outings in a year and if I am lucky, one trip for the NHK World program Journeys in Japan, which hasn’t been shooting since COVID came around.

Well, the summer holidays have passed now, and I actually had two plans to go out for exploring and hiking. The first was supposed to be a visit to a steep ravine deep in the mountains of Saitama. I new the location but when I arrived, I could not find any way to get down into the ravine. People had posted about a hike there but it seems getting down into the ravine was not so obvious. Instead I hiked up a ridge called Kuroiwa almost to a small hut but stopped just short to look at the view from a small lookout point. Though it was good to actually hike again and not just hunt for photographic subjects, I discovered that going down was much harder than I ever recall experiencing for a long time. My toes seemed to be ramming hard into the toe of my boots with every step. As well, I felt that the muscles used for breaking with every step hadn’t been given any exercise for two years, even though I have been going to a fitness centre on and off (when my schedule permits me) for the past two years.

The second hike was supposed to have been up one of the Hyakumeizan, Sukaisan, which I can see from a road not far from my house. However, it began raining two days before the hike and continued raining for six days straight. So that hike was postponed until next month or later.

Normally, I would have a couple of dozen photos to upload to Flickr and have a good story to tell. But I’m afraid there’s little to show for this year. Maybe I’ll try for two outings in autumn.

To Be or Not to Be on TV

At the beginning of each year I make a list of objectives to accomplish before the year is over. Since having children, the list of objectives that can possibly be reached within the year has grown smaller. May of 2010 saw my last overnight trip to the mountains until my trip to Yakushima in 2013. And that trip has turned out to be my last hike anywhere. I did manage a visit to the Arasaki Coast early in 2014 but only a day outing and no hiking or mountain photography was involved.

As for writing objectives, I have found it very difficult to feel inspired to write about photography and mountaineering when I have not been able to do much about enjoying it. I actually wrote some things last autumn and had full intention of submitting them to potentially promising publications; however, between an increased work schedule and family obligations, I lost the enthusiasm. There have been times over the last three years or so where I felt very much like just taking a year or two off from any professional pursuits in photography and writing. That would remove some of the uncomfortable pressure, that feeling that I am not doing enough. But the Yakushima adventure seemed that it may have opened up a new door for me.

Originally, when I was asked to be a reporter for NHK World’s program “Journeys in Japan”, I told myself that it may very be a one-time-only gig. I was lucky to be asked but I couldn’t expect that I was beginning any new kind of chapter in my career. But during the studio recordings of the voice overs and later at the year end party again, I heard so many compliments and encouraging remarks about my performance that I felt it was safe to look forward to being asked again. I was told that we’d be going back to Yakushima for a winter episode, however, that plan was soon quashed. Still, the producer said that he hoped I would work for them again.

Last spring, things really began looking up. Someone from TBS contacted me about a new program that would begin airing later in the year. Soon after, I met with some people putting together another program for NHK World. It looked really promising, too. And then a third person met with me to discuss the possibility of being on a program about Japan’s 100 mountains of distinction, the Hyakumeizan. Finally, the production company who had done the Yakushima episode told me that they were working on a plan for me to go to Yamagata in the fall. My only concern it seemed was having to take so many days off work!

The first news to come back to me was about the mountain program. No, someone wielding more power in the decision making had decided I was not to be in the program. TBS simply didn’t contact me after I had filled out their questionnaire about interesting places near where I live. As for the other two programs, I sent a message to both of them advising of my autumn schedule and when I’d best be available for shooting. The Yamagata one didn’t reply but the other one did. They explained that the shooting schedule had been pushed back into next spring, but they would definitely be contacting me. That left me with only one more hope.

On Saturday, December 8th I emailed the Yamagata / Yakushima production company about an idea I had. I got a reply very soon. They told me that the winter in Yakushima plan was still alive and that the producer was trying to work something out. Of course, I was told, I would be the reporter. That left me feeling a little more positive about things. So maybe this winter or spring I might have a chance to work for some television program again. That’ll be wonderful if I can. They have even given me a tentative departure date but cautioned that this is not 100% confirmed. The plan might never take off.

Then as the year of my least activity in the photography field drew to a close for me, I received good news. Someone producing programs for Fuji Television sent me email about a program to air in February. A TV station in Kumamoto was doing a series about fresh water its influence on Japanese culture. Would I be available to go to Miyagi Prefecture in January? Dates were discussed and then the winter holidays began and I heard nothing for two weeks. But Monday night I received a call and Tuesday morning I met with the producer, director and assistant director. They asked me many questions and explained about the program. That plan was set.

So next week, I will be off to Miyagi for two days. Basically I am to do as I did in Yakushima: photograph specific scenery and talk to local people. Only this time it will all be in Japanese, my comments and thoughts as well. Am I up for it?

You bet!

On Location: Yakushima – Day Three (Cleansing Water)

“I think you should take something out of your pack. It’s too heavy.”

That’s what Mr. Hatanaka had told me before we had come up the lower slopes of the mountain to shoot the scene where I meet the young men collecting water for the Goshinzan Festival. Now I was looking at my pack and thinking that if I took out the camera bag I could reduce the weight considerably, but the pack would look deflated. The director had given instructions to the crew and came over to me.

“Did you take something out?”

“If I take something out, the pack will obviously look different from when I was hiking.”

“But I think it’s too heavy for you.” Why was he concerned about me carrying the pack now? I had just had it on my back for 20 kilometres across the mountains.

“Are we walking far?” I inquired, doubting that it was so necessary to lighten the load.

“I don’t know,” Mr. Hatanaka replied with a shrug.

“Will I be carrying it a long time?” I asked. I was trying to find out the reason for his suggestion.

“I don’t know!” This time his reply expressed impatience. It was difficult to know whether he was really becoming agitated or it was just his well-learned and very well delivered line in English. Because his job had him traveling overseas frequently, Mr. Hatanaka spoke English almost flawlessly, at least at a conversation level, and though he had a distinct accent, he spoke certain sentences very much like a native speaker, with all the right inflections and stressed syllables. Though I had felt in his voice before that what he had said was not for debate, this was the first time I felt that I was possibly testing some limit. At the same time, I couldn’t understand why he would be impatient. If I had to remove something from my pack it would take a moment, so why not just go with the pack as it was? Part of the problem was that although I had been given a schedule of our shooting plans, things were being amended on the fly and even though I often overheard the directions to the crew things weren’t always explained to me directly until some plan was put into action or unless I asked. At some point, I just gave up looking at the schedule and just sat back waiting to be told what we were going to do next.

“I’ll just take the pack as it is.”

“Are you sure?” The switch from a remark of impatience to a remark suggesting sympathy once again had me wondering if he wasn’t just really good at delivering lines in English with all the right inflections, a perfect mimic of what he had heard before.

“I’ve carried it so far. I can carry it a little more.” I smiled reassuringly at him.

The crew had followed a nearly invisible path through some deciduous trees that grew in the cleared area next to large concrete retainer. These concrete barriers can be found on mountainsides across Japan, serving to hold back rocks and fallen logs that heavy rains would otherwise wash down the ravines. They were there to slow the otherwise rapid erosion process.

A group of young men were dressed in white robes and an elder man was there in attire of a Shinto priest. We were here to film the scene where I encounter the men scooping pure mountain water for the festival. According to the script, I was to ask them what they were doing and then follow them to the site of the festival. After they had filled a large round wooden container with water and placed it on a rack designed to carry it on one young man’s back, I went up and ask the last person in the entourage what they were doing and he replied that they were preparing for the Goshinzan Festival. Then the group in white went over to a pick-up truck and clambered into the back and were driven back down the mountainside.

Collecting Yakushima's very clean water

Collecting Yakushima’s very clean water

Aquarius - the water bearer carries water for the festival

Aquarius – the water bearer carries water for the festival

We hung about the creek for a while, the crew shooting a few nature scenes while I was trying to capture a small whirlpool in the clear water. In a deep pool, water was likely draining out through the stones and somewhere coming out on the other side of the retaining wall. The vortex was so perfect and the distortions of the stones at the bottom were so beautiful in the swirling curves of the water. Mr. Hatanaka had shaken his head at my photographing rocks. Now he observed me shooting only water. I think he didn’t understand exactly. Maybe he was worried about the photos he would select for use in the program – would there be only shots of rocks and water?

Vortex - a whirlpool in Yakushima's mountain water

Vortex – a whirlpool in Yakushima’s mountain water

Kikuchi-san had explained to me on the mountain that most mineral water available in the stores has a hardness rating of 40 to 80. Yakushima’s mountain water is rated at 10. I guessed with all the granite rock, there were very few soluble salts and minerals to harden the water. Kikuchi-san had said the water was great for cooking rice or making miso. I said it must also be good for washing one’s hair.

We returned to the hotel afterwards and had a bit of time before the festival was to begin. My hiking pants looked terrible with marks left where water and sweat had dried. It was still very hot, so I took my pants into the shower and gave them a good rinsing, and then hung them outside the window in my room. After taking a shower myself, I killed time in my room pant-less because they were the only pair I had taken with me. I re-organized my things and prepared my camera for the festival. The pants didn’t completely dry in time for our departure but they were dry by the time we reached a shrine near the site of the festival.

Now I was going to experience what a festival is like on Yakushima.

On Location: Yakushima – Day Two/Three (Under the Stars)

Mr. Ohkawa was disguised as a Bedouin nerd. He had a white towel over his head which framed his glasses under his cap. “What’s the matter?” asked Mr. Sasaki. “Bugs,” came a simple reply with a tone of stating the obvious. Indeed, in the last light of the day, dozens of small brown flies were visiting each of us. Not actually biting, the main irritation was their relentless desire to walk on the skin of our arms and faces. I was reminded of scenes from African safaris where lions recline in the shade and flies swarm about incessantly. But the bugs would not stay long. Mysteriously, they vanished with the sun, leaving us pest-free after dark.

Kikuchi-san was preparing a local meal for me: Satsuma miso soup. Satsuma is the old name for the area around Kagoshima, and the miso soup he was preparing included chicken, mushrooms, carrots, and sweet potatoes. He said this miso soup was sweet compared to miso I may have had in other parts of Japan. Yes, usually miso soup is a bit salty.

The meal was all part of the program. I, the foreigner traveling in Japan, would try some local home cooking. Kikuchi-san, when I asked him, said he usually doesn’t include camping meal preparation as part of his guide services but he was doing it because he was requested to do so for the TV program. Not that he was begrudging about it. He cooked as earnestly and naturally as he provided information and looked after his clients. The food was really good too. I have often seen on Japanese TV how some celebrity will try some local dish, accepting a mouthful, pausing, and then exclaiming how delicious it is. It looks so formulated and fake that I remain partially disbelieving usually. But Kikuchi-san’s Satsuma miso really hit the spot. Perhaps it was because of the hunger built up after a long day of hiking. No matter. I thoroughly enjoyed his single-burner camp stove cooking.

Our water supply was back up to desirable levels; however, the amount of water available at this hut/tent site was despairingly sparse. Six pipes protruded from a dry ravine wall – four of them dry, one of them dripping only, and one trickling reasonably. Everyone staying there that night had to get water from that one pipe. It was here that I opened my 2-litre bottle and along with the ravine pipe trickle, I filled up my 250ml bottles for easier drinking the next day. While I was doing so, a deer came out of the trees and stood watching us with mild interest for several moments before ambling on into the forest again.

Come bed time, it seemed the plan had changed again. We were not going to sleep in tents. Outside the mountain hut was a wood deck where many people had been sitting and chatting while eating. Only a couple of tents had been set up and the rest of the visitors had gone off to the hut. We were just going to sleep out in the open. I was asked by Mr. Hatanaka to try to shoot a series of night sky photos which he would later show in sequence to create a kind of time lapse view of the Milky Way crossing the sky. I stayed up a half hour trying to get a decent set of images for him.

An unusually clear night sky over the forests of Yakushima

An unusually clear night sky over the forests of Yakushima

I slept well under my canopy of the cosmos and there were no mosquitoes. We awoke at 3:30 again, the TV crew leaving ahead of us to reach the Jomon sugi and prepare for my arrival. Kikuchi-san and I stayed back a bit, and then moved off through the dark forest with our headlamps lighting the way. We stopped for an easy breakfast of noodles (prepared by him), and as the sky through the trees began to glow orange and the luminous crescent moon kept position in a darker corner of the sky, we gradually approached the Jomon sugi.

Sunrise in the forest

Sunrise in the forest

Just around the bend from the famous tree, we were asked to wait. Sunrise came to the forest and the thick tree branches and trunks caught the deep orange light of daybreak. Day three on Yakushima had begun. Kikuchi-san’s radio crackled and permission to proceed was granted. Now it was my turn to be lead to the viewing deck before one of the oldest living things on the planet: the great Cryptomeria japonica known as the Jomon sugi.

On Location: Yakushima – Day Two (Over the Mountain)

IF

“Look! A xenolith!”

Mr. Sasaki’s video camera followed me as I gesticulated over the tilted face of a granite boulder. A low mound of smoother dark grey rock stood out from the rough mineral matrix of the granite. We were above the forest line and exposed granite boulders sat on every peak and cropped out from the mountainsides. We had come to a rest at one such nest of giant stone eggs at a saddle between two lesser peaks.

“You can see this dark rock is different from the granite rock surrounding it,” I explained enthusiastically. “When the bubble of magma swelled up bellow the crust, the existing rock above it probably broke off in pieces and fell into the cooling magma. It makes sense that we should see this at the top of the island if the granite here was at the top end of the intrusion. So, this is a xenolith, a word from old Greek where ‘xeno’ means foreign and ‘lith’ means rock. So this is a foreign rock.”

I was sure Mr. Hatanaka would say something about me blabbering on about the rocks again, but I was back in college geology class and on a field trip to Caulfield Park in North Vancouver where a xenolith had shown up unmistakably in the white granite rock and our professor had pointed it out and explained about it. I took a photograph and he remarked that I was more interested in taking pictures than notes. If only he knew that 24 years later I still remembered very well some of the things he had said. I took a photograph here on Yakushima as well and I was later to be surprised to see my little lecture on geology – albeit a truncated version – was to be used in the program long with the photograph.

From the saddle here we would follow a relatively easy path through bamboo grass as it rounded mountainsides, dipped into small valleys, and climbed up to the ridges. The sky remained clear overhead and the wind was only a pleasant breeze. The sun continued to beat down, and though the air temperature was very comfortable the intensity of the sunlight meant it was time for a hat and sunscreen.

IF

Mr. Hatanaka and the others went ahead and up the mountainside a little. Kikuchi-san and I waited, spying a deer on a nearby ridge, silhouetted against the sky. When given the OK, we clambered down from the boulders and walked through a parted sea of bamboo grass. Above our heads, Mr. Sato’s helicopter camera buzzed and whirred. We walked about 50 metres and then were asked to go back and do it again. We walked this same stretch about three times while Mr. Sato got the shot he was looking for. This exercise would repeat again on another stretch where we would have to retrace our steps four times until the right scene had been captured. The shots were to be aerial views of Kikuchi-san and I as we hiked along the mountain trail with the sub-alpine scenery spreading out around us.

IF

After some time, we came to rest at a tired out stream where colourful vegetation stood out from the uniform pastel green of the bamboo grass. The question of water was raised but Kikuchi-san said there were two spots coming up shortly where we could refill our bottles. By now the summit of Miyanouradake loomed in the distance and we knew the final leg of the ascent would be a real ascent, climbing up a steep path and leaving this easy-breezy ridge routes behind.

We came to the water spots but there was no babbling stream or burbling spring. Water came as a trickle in both places. Kikuchi-san expressed that his concerns had been realized. Since the end of the rainy season a couple of weeks prior, Yakushima had been deprived of its famous rains. The springs were reduced to a miserly output. It took perhaps nearly a minute to fill up a 250ml bottle and there were ten of us with thirsts to quench. We refilled, drank, and refilled again. One of our guys was later to remark that he realized the value of water after this hike.

Now we embarked on the final leg of our climb. I had not carried my pack up a mountain for three years but felt no less challenged than usual. Still, I huffed and puffed up the path, all the while being wary of the video camera behind me and knowing that whenever we paused it was likely to be raised and pointed at me. Later when we viewed some of the footage from our hike, I saw myself panting and with infrequent smiles.

Do these peaks look like breasts or is it just my male perspective?

Do these peaks look like breasts or is it just my male perspective?

A pill bug or guess-which-part-of-the-elephant

A pill bug or guess-which-part-of-the-elephant

Then at last we made it up to the summit. Kikuchi-san offered a handshake and I soon shrugged off my heavy pack. The view was truly spectacular. Most prominent was the next mountain and second highest on the island, Nagatadake – 1,886 metres. Then we had all the other high peaks of the interior and views to the lower peaks of the coastal mountains. Out in the ocean we were able to see Tanegajima, a fairly flat island in contrast with mountainous Yakushima and where a rocket would launch in two days time; Kuchierabushima and the volcanic island of Satsuma Iwojima along with its neighbour Takeshima, and the southern tip of Kyushu with the miniature Mt. Fuji, Kaimondake under a cap of clouds. We would also be able to make out Sakurajima – Japan’s most active volcano – as the clouds shifted during the afternoon.

Nagatadake (永田岳), the second highest mountain on Yakushima - 1,882 metres.

Nagatadake (永田岳), the second highest mountain on Yakushima – 1,886 metres.

Looking back the way we came. The peak on the right in the middle distance is Kuromidake. We hiked around the two peaks on the left.

Looking back the way we came. The peak on the right in the middle distance is Kuromidake. We hiked around the two peaks on the left.

On the summit, Kikuchi-san explained about the genesis of Yakushima and I translated for the camera. We visited a shrine built in between two huge granite boulders and Kikuchi-san explained about the history of takemaeri – a traditional practice of the old villagers of visiting the local mountains to pray to the gods. I had some time to shoot both with the DSLR and the 35mm. But then it came down to lunch or the 6×7. I hadn’t eaten breakfast yet and had only munched on a few snacks during rests. I reluctantly chose to eat a meal, knowing I needed one, and sure enough, before I was even finished eating came the announcement that we would begin descending to our camp in ten minutes. My medium format camera would have to wait.

The hike down was even more beautiful than the hike up, partly because we had stunning views of Miyanouradake and Nagatadake much of the way before we re-entered the forest, and also because the sun was moving into late afternoon position and the light was getting better and better. On the way through the sub-alpine sea of bamboo grass, we encountered more deer and another monkey who were up lazily enjoying the fine weather and plentiful food supply. At one point I also found a dyke of non-granite – a point where the granite intrusion had cracked and molten material had filled in the gap, cooling to become another rock-type.

IF

Looking back to Nagatadake

Looking back to Nagatadake

Miyanouradake on the right and Okinadake on the left

Miyanouradake on the right and Okinadake on the left

The last couple of kilometres through the forest were the hardest for me. I was becoming very tired and needed a short moment for distraction, meaning a pause for photography. I continued to catch sight of little vignettes of forest beauty with evening sunlight adding a soft warm glow. How I ached to take off my pack, set up the tripod, and shoot a few frames. But we always had to press on. My toes felt swollen in my boots. My body was feeling the toll of a day of exercise with a pack after three year’s hiatus. The most trying, however, was not being able to stop to capture the beauty. When a view opened up between the trees I paused for a handheld shot but it was not satisfactory. This was not how I photographed nature.

Snapshot

Snapshot

When we finally reached camp there was still daylight. I was glad to be there and out of that mentally fatiguing situation but in the same breath I couldn’t help but think that there had been time for a short stop or two.

On Location: Yakushima – Day Two (Through the Forest)

3:30 A.M. I awoke and dressed, throwing the last couple of items in my pack. Today I was going to climb Miyanouradake. I met the others in the hotel lobby. Outside it was dark but still very warm and the sky remained clear. We loaded our packs and bags into the taxi van and set off for the mountains.

During the winding ride up past landscapes obscured in blackness with the occasional glimpse of distant lights near the coast, the camera and a spotlight were turned on me and I was asked for a short monologue about Miyanouradake and my interest in the Hyakumeizan. I spoke to the camera and at times let my gaze stray off to the shallow world of light in the taxi’s headlights. Mountains. My home territory. I knew what I was talking about.

We reached the trailhead. A few other vehicles were already parked there. We would not be taking the route up past the Jomon sugi like most people do but rather another lesser used route, and then descend by the route to the famous tree. We’d all been given two bentos, one for breakfast and one for lunch, but this early in the morning I was not hungry, especially after the previous night’s meal. Everyone else filled up while I wandered further up the road to check out the scenery. Daylight was soon to break.

My guide, Kikuchi-san and two porters who would help carry our camp gear and filming equipment arrived. We had met the day before when he came to our hotel and we discussed the plan. I had been told that we would stay in a cottage or hut and so I had not brought my tent or ground mat, only my sleeping bag. But the plan got changed and we were going to stay in tents that he would provide. I figured that I could do without my ground mat.

For the start of the trek, I was filmed greeting Kikuchi-san and asking him to guide me up the mountain. We set about our hike that would take us through the forest, over the highest peak on the island, and back down into the forest near the Jomon sugi – 11.5 kilometres in total for the first day. We were both wired with mics and Mr. Sasaki followed close behind with the video camera, and behind him Mr. Ohkawa with the microphone boom. Mr. Sato with his flying camera, video engineer assistant Mr. Hazui, director Mr. Hatanaka, and the two porters made this trek of a foreigner hiking with his Japanese guide a small caravan.

Kikuchi-san was a small and very thin but wiry man. He weighed less than my wife and carried a pack almost half his weight. He had moved to Yakushima about 10 years ago and now ran an outdoor goods store called Yakushima Messenger that also provided guide services. He was easy to talk to and had a deep knowledge of the island. As I had read a lot prior to coming, I was able to verify my knowledge and add copiously to it. During our hike through the forest, he often stopped to point out some tree or other plant, a flower or insect, and tell me about it. We encountered a wood leach that did not suck blood. I noticed stag beetle and was informed that it was the Yakushima oni-kuwagata, a devil stag beetle. It was not of great size compared to the ones boys usually get excited about, but its pincers curved up slightly at the tips giving the impression of devil horns.

We came across our first Yakusugi – an impressive sylvan monument aged over two thousand years. Though not very tall, the convoluted and gnarled wood with various other species of plants growing from its heavy limbs and clutching at the trunk left us without a doubt that we were in the presence of one of the senior denizens of the wood. The fir trees here were also so enormous that I did not recognize them for what they were.

A Yakusugi. Trees over 1,000 years old become Yakusugi. Younger than that they are only kosugi or little sugi.

A Yakusugi. Trees over 1,000 years old become Yakusugi. Younger than that they are only kosugi or little sugi.

Fir trees. There were jokes about decorating them for Christmas and using the helicopter camera to put the star on top.

Fir trees. There were jokes about decorating them for Christmas and using the helicopter camera to put the star on top.

Our party reached the first resting point and we threw down our packs. The crew went ahead over a bridge to inspect the angles for shooting Kikuchi-san and I as we crossed. Mr. Hatanaka said I had ten minutes. I pulled out the tripod and began exploring the nearby moss-covered roots and trunks. I found a good spot and heard his voice call out, “Five minutes,” and barely a minute later, “Okay, Peter. Time to go.”

Limited time only: rushed as I was, I neglected to check the focusing here.

Limited time only: rushed as I was, I neglected to check the focusing here.

The nature from the bridge was sure a delight, though. A stream flowed so smoothly and silently that it made nearly a perfect mirror for the sunlit tree branches. I quickly fired off a couple of shots from the bridge. At the other side it seemed I had a moment to go back but before I could start shooting further I was called again. They needed to shoot a scene of me concentrating on photographing a tiny cedar sapling sprouting from a luxurious bed of moss. I obliged and hoped that I would be able to steal a few minutes back on the bridge with the camera on the tripod. But it was time to saddle up again.

Resting the camera on the rail of the bridge because there was no time to set up the tripod.

Resting the camera on the rail of the bridge because there was no time to set up the tripod.

The camera shooting the other camera shooting.

The camera shooting the other camera shooting.

The trail was not difficult at all. It was mostly a gentle ascent through a rich forest of primordial beauty. This area had never been logged. We were inside the UNESCO site boundaries. The path was littered with white cubic stones. These I recognized as the nodules of orthoclase feldspar, which occur in rather large sizes in Yakushima granite, a testimony to the cooling process of the magma having been slow enough to allow for the formation of feldspar crystals but still too quick to permit large quartz crystal growth.

We began to climb more steeply and after a time, our path took us between shorter trees with views to the nearby mountaintops. Upon one such peak there sat a sourdough loaf-shaped boulder that looked as though it had been sliced and ready to serve. Kikuchi-san explained that it was called “Tofu Iwa” or “Tofu Rock”. This was not the original Tofu Rock, however. Another rock with more squared proportions acquired the name first. But a surveyor mistakenly believed that this was the rock and had it recorded for the maps.

We came up near Kuromidake, a popular peak with a path branching off to the summit. A viewpoint nearby offered us views over the trees and to four consecutive small peaks. Kikuchi-san said we would be passing between the one on the far right and the one to its immediate left. But first we had to descend to a peat bog nestled in a small valley between the great knolls of granite.

Just beyond them thar hills... are more of them thar hills.

Just beyond them thar hills… are more of them thar hills.

At the peat bog, a doe and a fawn were grazing. We stayed on a boardwalk and I shot some of the scenes with the deer. Then Mr. Hatanaka gave me directions while Mr. Sato got his helicopter into the air. The buzzing of the six props, which sounded like some gigantic insect, startled the deer and they bolted into the bushes. I nevertheless continued my charade of photographing the wildlife as the helicopter flew before my camera lens.

Oyako - parent and child - out for a graze at the peat bog, Japan's most southern peat bog thanks to the cooler climate up in the high mountains.

Oyako – parent and child – out for a graze at the peat bog, Japan’s most southern peat bog thanks to the cooler climate up in the high mountains.

It was time for the final climb up out of the trees. We made a stop at a clear stream to fill up our water bottles. Though the map showed plenty of spots to get fresh water on our way to the summits, the recent dry weather left our guide wondering about the situation. I pointed out a small tree that resembled the alder trees of Canada’s west coast. Kikuchi-san seemed unfamiliar with it. Everyone shouldered his pack in full confidence that we would be able to find fresh water again soon. Was I the only one to pack an extra 2-litre bottle just in case?

Precious water. What could be more necessary under the searing sub-alpine sun? A hat?

Precious water. What could be more necessary under the searing sub-alpine sun? A hat?

Up we went and broke free of the forest. For the next few hours nothing would obscure our views of the summits of Yakushima.

On Location: Yakushima – Day One (Around the Island)

“So what to you think about this beautiful waterfall? Tell us about your feelings.”

This was not an easy question to answer. Quite simply, this was just another waterfall to me. Had I been some city kid or a desert Bedouin, this waterfall might have delighted me to delirium. But I had already seen many of the great waterfalls of western Canada and also the famous ones in Yosemite Valley. Even in Japan had I seen some falls that left a respectable impression. Ohko Falls was nice enough, but today it was on low power. I was much more concerned with shooting images of rocks and water and pretending to be fully concentrated upon the falls for the TV camera.

I looked at Mr. Hatanaka the director and wondered what to say and whether I should say it looking into the camera lens or at his face. I realized we had not decided how I was to conduct my monologues and I was not sure now what was best. I looked at Mr. Hatanaka and answered that the falls were impressive enough and then made some comments about the water-worn rocks and the small trickles on the right where a foaming cascade should have been. Whether this satisfied him or not, I never found out. But the scene was not to appear in the final program I later discovered. All the better for having cut it, I feel.

I was informed that it was time to move on, and while the others made their way back to the van, I stole a moment to shoot a rock detail along the path. A belt of quartz had infiltrated a crack in the host rock. Yakushima is composed of mostly granite, but it is actually comprised of seven different main rock types as others such as metamorphic rocks and sandstone can be found in many places along the coast from the east side, over the north end, and down the west side a little. The southern part of the island is granite right down to the waves and below. My frequent enthusiastic comments on the rocks were to often provoke remarks hinting at exasperation from Mr. Hatanaka like, “You are only interested in the rocks,” and “I want you to show interest in the rest of the nature, too.” But he had little to worry about. There was much I would express interest in as the days went by.

IF

Once all back in the van, we continued heading north up the west side of the island. The road became a narrow, serpentine mountain track with steep slopes falling away to our left. Sometimes through the trees we could see the foaming waves on the massive boulders that protruded from the forest cover like talons from feather or hoofs from fur. Cars and tourist buses often came against us with surprising speed. Sometimes either we or the oncoming vehicle would have to reverse and pull to the shoulder so that the other vehicle could pass.

Along this narrow paved band slithering through the island forest, we encountered the yakushika and yakusaru – deer and macaques – which were often spotted lounging near the roadside, the deer chewing on leaves and the monkeys inspecting each other’s fur. One monkey was making a terrible screeching/screaming sound. I recorded it on my iPhone. It reminded me of my two-and-a-half year-old daughter. Later when I let my wife hear it, she made the same remark. Though the deer were still a little wary of the bipeds that emerged from the metallic hulls of stopped vehicles, the macaques didn’t really seem to care. I employed my usual animal psychology techniques for getting near wild animals but as long as I moved non-aggressively, the monkeys didn’t seem much concerned about my presence or that of the crew or other camera-snapping intruders.

Yakushika

Yakushika

Yakusaru

Yakusaru

It was late in the afternoon when we stopped by a beach and the sea turtle museum on the island’s northwest side. Kuchierabu Island was clearly visible across the silver waves and Satsuma Iwojima – a volcanic island – was also on the horizon. The beach was heavily eroded by the waves and the sand was a very pale shade of beige that was slowly gathering the warm light of the late afternoon. Large cracked and rounded granite boulders breached the sand closer to where the green had paused at the edge of the beach. I would have loved to stay here until sunset for some water and rock in warm light photography but we had to press on. Mr. Hatanaka was touching base with all the people we would be meeting according to the shooting schedule, and next we had to stop at the site of the Goshinzan festival which I was to attend in two days time.

IF

Preparation for the Goshinzan Festival

Preparation for the Goshinzan Festival

When we finally drove into town and stopped for a traffic light, I felt it had been quite some time since I had seen one of those. There are not many busy intersections on Yakushima. The population is under 15,000 and most of it is spread between the towns of Anbo and Miyanoura.

By early evening, the sky was an almost oppressive blue as the setting sun seared the back of my neck. We returned to the hotel for a dinner that was very tasty, in spite of the dining room looking no more glamorous than a warehouse staff room. Flying fish was served and the long fins were edible and crunchy. A draught of cold beer really hit the spot.

Flying fish

Flying fish

Then we had to get to bed early. Next morning we were getting up at 3:30 and heading for the mountains. I was going to climb up to 1,936 metres – the summit of the highest mountain on the island, Miyanouradake.

On Location: Yakushima – Day One (Arrival and Ohko Falls)

Yakushima is known for its rain. The locals claim that it rains 35 days a month. The director, Mr. Hatanaka, assured me that it doesn’t rain everywhere on the island simultaneously as the mountains that capture the moisture-rich air from the Pacific also help distribute the clouds so that there are dry places even when the skies are crying. I came with new boots for wet, wet weather and a new set of rain jacket and pants. But when I arrived, the weather was surprisingly fine. A harsh sun beat down from a blue sky with only some harmless cottony billows stretching above the mountaintops.

Fine weather at Yakushima Airport

Fine weather at Yakushima Airport

Stepping out onto the airfield, the video camera followed me as I beamed at the scenery beyond the tiny airport and commented on my good fortune with the weather. Some travelers must have thought I was someone famous because soon I was accosted by a man who asked me to pose for a photograph with his mother and father and later again to pose with him. I obliged cheerfully. I had experienced the same thing years before in China where the presence of a Caucasian foreigner who could utter a few meagre words in Chinese had caused much excitement among the natives.

Our first stop was our hotel and home for the next few days. In the very modest but comfortable enough hotel, we each had our own room. After a few moments to prepare for the first adventure, we clambered back into our taxi van – our ride for the next few days – and we headed south to begin our circumnavigation of the island. The sky remained mostly a strong blue while the sun shone with a heat that was almost heavy. Hibiscus and other large blossoms adorned the roadside. Varieties of palm trees and tropical-looking trees filled the green spaces. Small, one-story houses cropped up between the greenery with ocean views beyond. I immediately thought of Hawai’i. Had those low peaks rising in the background bared layers of red or black lava instead of grey granite it would have been easy to believe I was in the middle of the Pacific and not so near Kyushu.

IF

We drove around the southern tip pf the island and up to see Ohko Falls first. Though the name is written with the Kanji “Big River” and would normally have been pronounced “Ohkawa” like our sound man’s family name, in the local dialect the word for river became “ko”. I was asked to wait by the van while the crew went ahead to check out the location. This was so that I could be filmed seeing the falls for the first time and reacting naturally and so that the cameraman, Mr. Sasaki, would know where to go and the director would know where he wanted me to go. He came back and told me to walk up to the main viewing area and then climb up on a large boulder and start taking pictures.

It was here where the Yakushima weather turned “normal”. A brief shower made me think about the rain clothes I had left back in the hotel. But there was nothing to worry about. Once again the rain stopped and the clouds permitted windows to open up onto the blue beyond.

Ohko Falls - 大川の滝

Ohko Falls – 大川の滝

When the island is wet, Ohko Falls crashes down in a double-cascade – like a parted curtain – over a steep, 88-metre-high rock face. It is one of Japan’s 100 selected waterfalls and one of two on the island. However, apparently this fine weather we were experiencing had been persisting quite unusually for some time now and the volume of the falls was at barely a third. Still a nice enough waterfall, I followed the directions and set about photographing the cascade from atop a large boulder. I was to find that this boulder would be where I would get most of my photographs because the flying camera cruised past me several times and I had to remain on that boulder. I did manage to get down to the water’s edge a little and shoot some different views of the rocks and falls, but I was soon asked to return to my elevated exile and continue photographing.

IF

My usual approach to photography can be rather meticulous. I will explore and roam around. I will change cameras and lenses as I see fit. With enough time at my disposal, I will shoot until I am satisfied that I have captured enough. And if there’s time after a short rest, I may just get up and shoot a little more. But this was not really my photo outing, not really my trip to Yakushima. This was to be for a TV program and my time for photography was largely meant to be part of the program. The time I was to have to shoot as I wished was to be very little. As such, I had to accept that I was doing a job for the production company and that my 35mm would see little action, my 6×7 even less, and my tripod would often have to remain strapped to my pack. At Ohko Falls was perhaps the one time when there was actually too much time to shoot because I was restricted in my movement but had more than enough time to consider what to shoot. Yes, I had to accept these things. And I did. Because they were paying for everything and paying me. Any photography I could get done for my own pleasure was just a bonus. So, I accepted the circumstances and decided to just enjoy everything and make sure I did my job as well as I could.

Reduced waterfall

Reduced waterfall

Light and dark - a boulder opposite the falls

Light and dark – a boulder opposite the falls

On Location: Yakushima – Day One (Beginning and Introduction)

Getting up at 4:15 after only four and a half hours sleep was not an issue. I was going to Yakushima, and if getting up so early was what was required then that’s what I would do.

At 4:50, after the final needful items were packed, I slipped into my new hiking boots, and headed out the door with my big pack on my back and camera bag on my chest. It looked heavy and cumbersome but the back pack was not full as in the old days. I was going to Yakushima for five days but wouldn’t be hiking for but two days only. I didn’t need to carry lots of food and water, and no tent either. Just clothes, a sleeping bag for one night, and a handful of usual items I carry with me like rain gear, emergency kit, head light, and so on.

My camera gear easily outweighed the back pack as I was bringing my DSLR with a new 16mm-105mm lens, my 35mm film camera with four lenses (20mm, 24mm-85mm, 50mm with 2x converter, 75mm-300mm), and my 6×7 with a 45mm and a 90mm lens, plus a selection of filters like ND grads, circular polarizers, and a close up filter. Of course, the tripod was packed as well.

I walked the 20 minutes to my station and caught the first train of the day bound for Tokyo. Though it was a Thursday and I was concerned about transferring in Tokyo during the morning rush commute, I experienced no hassles. I arrived at Haneda Airport and met up with the director, Mr. Hatanaka and was introduced to the crew: Mr. Sasaki, video; Mr. Hazui, video engineering assistant; Mr. Okawa, sound; and Mr. Sato who would operate the radio-controlled flying device (called “the helicopter”) with camera attached. This was going to be one very exciting and new experience for me.

As I wrote in my previous blog entry, I had received email from a production company in Tokyo that produces a program called “Journeys in Japan” for NHK World. They had asked me if I would go to Yakushima and climb the highest mountain there and participate in a festival for one of their upcoming episodes. I gladly accepted.

A screen shot from my iPhone as we drove around the southern tip of the island. The piece of land just visible under the 17 in the time at the top is Sakurajima, the volcano that erupted again on August 18th.

A screen shot from my iPhone as we drove around the southern tip of the island. The piece of land just visible under the 17 in the time at the top is Sakurajima, the volcano that erupted again on August 18th.

Yakushima is a small, partly circular island located about 60 kilometres south of Kagoshima, on the island of Kyushu, the most western of Japan’s four main islands. Yakushima falls under Kagoshima Prefecture’s jurisdiction. It is an island composed mostly of granite which formed beneath the ocean crust between 15.5 and 14.5 million years ago when a bubble of magma rose from the mantle and cooled below the surface. Tectonic activity in the area caused the granite rock that formed to rise slowly up out of the sea and the island, which is still slowly rising, now reaches a height of 1,936 metres at the summit of Miyanouradake. This mountain and the seven next highest summits collectively make up the eight highest summits in all of Kyushu!

Yakushima has been connected to Kyushu in the past during ice ages when the sea level was low enough to allow for the formation of a land bridge. During these times, many plants and animals were able to migrate to the island. However, for the last 10,000 years or so, Yakushima has been cut off from the mainland since the end of the last glacial period and the sea once again swallowed the land bridge. As such, for ten thousand years the flora and fauna of Yakushima have been living independently from their mainland ancestors and there are now out of the 1,900 species on the island roughly 200 sub-species living on Yakushima, all of them tagged with the prefix “yaku”. For example, nihon saru and nihon shika – the Japanese macaque and deer respectively – are yakusaru and yakushika.

Because of the island’s rather high altitude (for such a small, non-volcanic island), there are three biozones: coastal, mountain forest, and sub-alpine. Additionally, Yakushima boasts the most southern range of some temperate species and the most northern range of some tropical species. The main attraction of Yakushima’s biosphere is the yakusugi – the Yakushima version of the Japanese cedar or cryptomeria. These trees tend to grow in the moisture-rich valleys between the granite peaks at about 1,000 metres elevation. The environment suits them well and they can live to be thousands of years old. The Jomon Sugi is the oldest tree on the island. Some believe it to be 7,200 years old. Carbon dating of a tree ring sample put the age at 2,170 years; however, the core of the tree has long since rotted away, leaving us with hundreds of years of lost data. As my guide was later to say, “Does it really matter how old the exact age is?” The fact is that it is an impressive and very old living thing. But as I was to learn, there are many impressive and interesting things about the life on Yakushima.

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.