Tag Archives: Japanese nature

Walking to Gunma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More photos are at Flickr here.

An Autumn Outing

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

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

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

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

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

Inspection of the Arima Gorge and the Shiraiwa Ravine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colours of the White Mountain

Me at Aburaike

Me photographing at Aburaike on Hakusan Photo by Tomohito Anrui

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

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

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

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

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Midorigaike: source of fables

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

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Orthoquartzite stones from the Asian Continent inside conglomerate rock

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

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

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

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

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

Too see more photos, please visit my Flickr page.

Kegon Falls of Chichibu and a Highland Farm

With the Golden Week holidays beginning at the end of April and continuing through the first few days of May (May 1st and 2nd being regular work and school days), I had planned two early morning outings into the Chichibu Mountains of western Saitama. Unfortunately, unanticipated car trouble has for the moment kept me from making a second trip (a visit by train is still possible but I can’t be out there before sunrise); however the first trip was very successful.

Chichibu Highland Farm 秩父高原牧場

Coming down from Yorii via R294 and turning onto R11, then slipping onto R361, I followed the road up to the Chichibu Highland Farm area. Divided into several parts, the farm appears this time of year as patches of green grass broken by stands of trees and surrounded by forest. Farm houses and barns can be spotted here and there, and there are places for families to park and visit. At 5:00 am, though, I was more concerned about capturing the dawn scenery. Apparently, by the end of May, the fields should break out in colorful reds and pinks as poppies bloom.

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Nihongi Pass 二本木峠

The route reaches Nihongi Pass, and there is a small place to pull over and park. Here is a short trail leading up a small peak and a campground nearby. What got me to pull over was the explosions of varying shades of pink mountain azaleas amidst the trees. There was more pink than green below the tree canopy and it was certainly a stop worthy of the Scenic Saitama photo project.

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A Secret Cave

My next stop was a small cave that I had discovered while driving back down R284 in April. At that time it was just a reconnaissance visit, but this time I returned and made a good time of examining the rocks. The cave is easily missed as it is down a steep slope and at the creekside, and grasses along the road partially obscure the view. Even while I was down there visiting, at least four vehicles passed on the road and not one driver looked down at me. The cave is yet another example of the many limestone formations in the mountains of Saitama.

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Kegon Falls of Chichibu 秩父華厳の滝

One of Japan’s most famous waterfalls is the punchbowl falls of Nikko in Tochigi: Kegon Falls. Draining from Lake Chuzenji, the water plummets over a lava rock precipice into a bowl-shaped cavity known as a punchbowl. Coming from British Columbia, I know at least two other excellent examples of such falls.

In Chichibu there is no lava rock, and no grand punchbowl. But there is a quaint little cascade that slips down a chert rock face and drops into a pleasant, shallow green plunge pool. This waterfall bears the appellation Kegon Falls of Chichibu. Though only a minnow in comparison to its namesake, the cascade itself is very lovely. The draining water tumbles through a gorge of striated rocks – the strata all crumpled and crooked – and flows down into a typical mountain ravine. There is parking, a small structure advertising soft ice cream for sale, and a path leading to view points below the gorge, below the falls, and above the falls next to a road. The road leads on to two more waterfalls, roughly 600 metres and 1,000 metres away.

Soft green crowns of flowing maple leaves surround the falls and plunge pool when viewed from the path leading to the road above, and I know that I will have to return in autumn when the maple leaves are turning colour!

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Nenokami Falls

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

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

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

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

Without incident!

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

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

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

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Formally Introducing “Waterside”

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

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Sea cave at Onamitsuki Coast in Chiba

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

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The Daigaku Pond at the Taisetsu Highlands in Hokkaido.

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

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The Ara River at Aketo in Fukaya City, Saitama

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

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The Upper Kurobe River in Toyama

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

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Kumonodaira Plateau and Suishodake, Kita Alps

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

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Tilted sedimentary rock at the Arasaki Coast, Kanagawa

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

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The Upper Anbo River in the mountains of Yakushima

Kamui Mintara – The Playground of the Gods: Part Four

M61 間宮岳

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.

M64 中岳温泉

Milky waters below the Nakadake hot spring

M40 エゾノリュウキンカ

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!

M67 裾合平の花畑と旭岳

Yet even more flowers with Asahidake in the background.

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Steaming gases on Asahidake.

Kamui Mintara – The Playground of the Gods: Part Three

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

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

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

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

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

M24 コマクサ

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

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

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

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Bryanthus gmelini – chishima tsugazakura. Just pretty flowers…?


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…or a subterranean shrub?

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

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Green meadows indicate places that receive deep snow in winter.

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

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

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

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?

32M イワブクロ

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.

26M ゴゼンタチバナ

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.

05M チングルマの花畑

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.

22M コマクサ

Komakusa – Dicentra peregrina