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.
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.
Bryanthus gmelini – chishima tsugazakura. Just pretty flowers…?
…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
), 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.
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.
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.