Tag Archives: Japanese nature

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.

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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

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.

9M ウコンウツギ

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)

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

Winter on Yakushima – Chapter 10: The Final Day

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Back in August 2013, the last day of the five-day trip to Yakushima had been planned by Mr. Hatanaka as a day for fun. Our shooting objectives wrapped up more or less, we went river kayaking, visited a hot spring, and went souvenir shopping before heading back to the airport. This time, under the directorship of Mr. Ichino, even with eight days we were busy shooting until the last moment. Had I not wandered out exploring one late afternoon between returning to the hotel and meeting for dinner and found a large souvenir shop, I would have had to do all my souvenir shopping at the meagre store in the tiny airport.

We’d had a lot of experiences already. After our four-day mountaineering trek, I had felt that we had already accomplished our prime objective and that the rest was just filler. However, the visit to Unsuikyo was a treat in itself and learning about the white pines as well as other aspects of the Yakushima forests and their problems confirmed that every day spent on the island was educational and fulfilling.

So, on our final day there, we were off round the east side of Yakushima and heading to the southern part. Our first two stops were for some views of rivers and mountains. Once more I saw the view of the Anbo River from the high bridge over the waters.

The Anbo River looking downstream

The Anbo River looking downstream

The Anbo River looking upstream

The Anbo River looking upstream

Next was Senpiro Falls, which I was eager to see. It is one of Japan’s 100 selected waterfalls (hyakusen no taki 百選の滝) and I hadn’t received the chance to see it on my previous visit. The waterfall itself is impressive as it plummets over a granite precipice, but more than that, there is a huge slope of exposed granite to the left side. When it rains heavily, not only does the waterfalls flush with white water but streams of white streak the face of the granite slope like ribbons. We were in for yet another day of fine weather as only a few small clouds scudded across a vast azure sky. As an added surprise, we found a cherry tree in bloom at the parking area!

Senpiro Falls

Senpiro Falls

The grand view

The grand view

In spite of the feeling of freedom that imbued my spirits, we were on a schedule still. I wandered down the path to a viewpoint of the falls and snapped a few shots only to find Mr. Ichino approaching from behind with the words, “Alright, let’s getting moving now.”

We next visited a seaside hot spring that is only accessible when the tide is out. I have had a few memorable hot spring experiences in Japan but this was a first – there was no bath house! I simply walked down a concrete walkway to where a line was painted and the instructions to remove footwear. Once my boots and socks were off I walked over to where several pools of varying sizes had been made with concrete between the rocks and boulders that comprised the sea shore. It was here that I disrobed – no screen or cover – and slide into the hot water. The view from the pool was unusual to say the least. In the near distance beyond the wavelets of the hot spring pool, the waves of the ocean crashed and foamed over the rocks. The tide was out for now. When it came in again, the hot spring would be submerged.

Seaside hot spring

Seaside hot spring

I tried to relax and enjoy the moment. The ocean thundered with restraint not far to my right. Black and grey rocks surrounded me and green coastal vegetation covered the slope nearby. In the distance to my left, green mountains with grey protrusions of stone made their skyline under the blue heavens. Mr. Ichino and Mr. Kurihara stood some distance away while Mr. Mori darted about here and there with his camera. Ordinarily, towels are not permitted in the hot spring water and swimwear is strictly prohibited. But for filming purposes, one may bring a towel to cover oneself. I had wrapped a typical white hot spring towel around my hips and was trying to be at ease in the hot water; however, buoyancy caused my hips to raise up and the towel came loose more than once. This required constant adjustment and an effort to sit in the water and still look relaxed without worrying about offering a peep show to the camera (was he using a zoom lens?). I closed my eyes. I opened them and looked thoughtfully at the sea and the sky. And when I looked at the greenery and rocks, I was sure to see a camera lens pointing my way.

After several minutes, two elderly men came to join me. They were local residents but retirees from Tokyo. They came to the hot spring daily, or at least when weather permitted. They explained that locals referred to the tide schedule to plan their visits. For those who didn’t like the water too hot, it was best to dip in shortly after the tide had receded and the water was still mixed with cool sea water. Those preferring hotter water could wait until the hot ground water had heated the pools more. My two new companions were supposed to have played tennis but the wind was too gusty that day and so they retreated to the relaxing waters of the seaside hot spring.

Next we were on a flower hunt. Our first stop was near a large hotel overlooking the sea. Along the road leading to the hotel there were hibiscus flowers blooming. Mr. Mori shot different takes of me walking past the red blossoms and then we each had time to shoot on our own.

Hibiscus in February

Hibiscus in February

Next we were off to a sunflower patch. Canola was also in bloom. I marvelled at the thought that we were experiencing spring scenery around here with all the blossoms: sunflowers, canola, hibiscus, and cherry, among a few others we had noticed from the window of the taxi van. Yet only a few days prior we had been tramping through snow beneath ice-encrusted trees in the mountains of the interior and seen leaves of yellow and red round the northern tip of the island. How remarkable to consider seeing three seasons in one week on such a small island!

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Our flower session over, we were at last on our way back to the airport. I sat comfortably and felt satiated having seen and done so much. It had been a long time since I last enjoyed so many things on a trip of such length. But I had not had enough of Yakushima. For I understood that the mountains in spring were another sight to behold and there were still places of interest I had not yet visited. Could I hope to return again some day?

As our flight crossed the sky over Yokohama, I could see snow streaking past the window. The snow turned to rain as we descended to Haneda Airport. The hibiscus blossoms, the blue sky and green mountains, and the silver waves on the sea were now confined to memory. Our journey was over. We collected our luggage and parted ways. The three members of the TV crew would still meet again and possibly work together again. Meanwhile I thanked them and set off on my own, returning to my ordinary life. What a wonderful job it must be working for documentary television. Maybe I would be so lucky as to be asked to do this again someday.