Tag Archives: Japan

Kamui Mintara – The Playground of the Gods: Part Four

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The crater rim with Asahidake in the far distance.

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

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

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Looking back to Kurodake. Ryoundake is on the left.

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

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Milky waters below the Nakadake hot spring

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

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

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Yet even more flowers with Asahidake in the background.

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Steaming gases on Asahidake.

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Kamui Mintara – The Playground of the Gods: Part Two

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

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Camera and sound – shooting ukon’ utsugi blossoms

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

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

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Iwabukuro – Pennellianthus frutescens

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

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Gozentachibana – Bunchberry dogwood Cornus canadense

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

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Chinguruma – Geum pentapetalum

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

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

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Komakusa – Dicentra peregrina

Kamui Mintara – The Playground of the Gods: Part One

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

Taisetsusan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ukon’utsugi – Weigela middendorffiana

17M チシマキンバイソウ

Chishima kinbaisou – Trollius riederianus

19M チシメフウロウ

Chishima fuurou – Geranium erianthum

44M 黒岳より北鎮岳

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

April was a good month

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ryogami 15

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

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

An Unfinished Petra?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Case of Mistaken Identity

Previously, I reported that a new photo book of the Japan Hyakumeizan – One Hundred (Famous) Mountains of Japan – had been published and one of my photographs appears in the book. Very excited about the book’s release, I hurried to purchase a copy only days after it went on sale. Then the story became more interesting.

My stock agency contacted me with questions about a mountain in the Kita Alps known as Kasagatake. As with the photo in the book, they asked me to identify the summit and confirm that the mountain in the photo was Kasagatake of Hyakumeizan fame. I asked what was going on, somehow imagining that perhaps some new interest had come to my photographs or the Hyakumeizan mountains. The story was as follows:

The photo of Kasagatake in the book was provided by another stock agency and it was the wrong mountain. Kasagatake is in Gifu Prefecture but the photo in the book was of a Sanbyakumeizan (300 Famous Mountains – there’s a 101 to 200 list and a 201 to 300 list) that also goes by Kasagatake. The location on the map, the elevation, and the brief summary of the mountain were all correct for the intended mountain but the photo was of a different peak.

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Kasagatake of Nagano, mistaken for Kasagatake the Hyakumeizan of Gifu

So the publisher was looking for a photo of the correct mountain and as it turned out, I had three with the agency. As I had it explained to me, the book is going to be reprinted with the correct photo. It still won’t be for some months but when the reprint comes out, I will have two photos in the book!

Little Inaka

When my son was born in 2008, I still had a fair bit of freedom. It was a good year for earnings from photography and writing and I was beginning in earnest to complete my book project on the Japan Alps. When I was away, my wife took our infant son to her parents’ home.

In 2010 things changed. My wife became pregnant with our second child and it was not so easy for her to bring our growing boy to her parents’ house as there was not enough space and he was restless. I wrapped up my book project a little early, managed a few more hikes and a trip abroad to attend my sister’s wedding. After that, my adventures seemed to have come to an end, at least for the time being.

Not wanting to give up photography entirely, I began a project of shooting locally. I purchased a used DSLR and chose some places that were within reach. I would wake up in the early morning and go out somewhere to shoot, trying to make it home by 7:30 to help get ready for the day. Three years later, my son entered elementary school and I had to be home by 6:45. We moved house and autumn brought later sunrises. My three years of early morning photography were also temporarily wrapped up. I had, however, amassed a few hundred photographs or more and set about putting them into a book. The result is this: Little Inaka.

The locations are the Sakitama Burial Mounds in Gyoda City, Hatcho Park in Yoshimi Town, a rural area in Higashi Matsuyama City, and a rural area straddling Ina Town and Ageo City. All places are in Saitama Prefecture, Japan.

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A tumulus at the Sakitama Burial Mound Park in Gyoda City