Tag Archives: Peter Skov

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.

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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.

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)

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.

tree

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

pothole

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.

Akagi 08

Akagi 12

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.

Meeting Martin

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It was a November afternoon, nine years ago, when I stood partway between the tent site and the summit of Jiigatake in the North Alps—the Kita Alps—of Japan. Obuchisawa had disappeared beneath a tide of clouds, and across the slow-motion waves of undulating vapour, Harinokidake and Rengedake rode the mists like islands. Far beyond in the western distance stood Yakushidake, one of the Hyakumeizan. Overhead, a different kind of sky was created by clouds with loftier ambitions. The tripod was placed on the slope and adjusted, the 35mm Minolta already mounted. Click! Whirrrr. The scene was captured on Velvia 50. Eight years later, that very scene adorns the cover of the English translation of Kyuya Fukada’s “Nihon Hyakumeizan” – One Hundred Mountains of Japan.

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How did this happen? By what stroke of tremendous good fortune did I find my photograph associated with the national institution that is Fukada’s Hyakumeizan, that personal list that became considered by so many as the definitive one? Good gravy! I don’t think I can recall exactly. But it has everything to do with the book’s translator, Martin Hood and the fact that we both share our mountain photography on Flickr.com.

It was no doubt Martin who made the first move. Someone who posted photos from the European Alps commented on my Japan Alps photos. That must have been how it started. And I am certain that I would be correct in surmising that an Internet friendship ensued from that point on. But it was only after learning the true name of this Flickr user (we both employ user names) that I recognized I had come across it before. While gathering information for my own book project on the Japan Alps, I came across several informative blog posts on a site called One Hundred Mountains, and furthermore, I seemed to recall having read an article somewhere online whose author was Martin Hood.

Martin, back in those days, was searching for a publisher for his translation of the Hyakumeizan book. He had begun it originally as a method of keeping up his Japanese when he left the country back in 1995. However, the project unexpectedly turned into book proposal and a blog that continues to this day to feature more and more of the most obscure and unheard off Hyakumeizan-related information to ever be presented to the English-speaking world. Initially, the book project itself faced great obstacles as promising publishers one after the other rejected the book. At last though, success prevailed with the University of Hawaii Press, and in December of 2015 the book at last entered the world to much fanfare by the blog’s most devout fans.

So how about that cover?

As Martin assembled photographs for the book, he—in all his good grace—consulted my self-published (blurb.com) book of the Japan Alps and selected a few promising images. Granting my permission, I sent the selected images as files to the art director at UHP. With a little artistic license and some computer editing, my photograph earned the distinguished honour of becoming the cover shot of this great literary work.

Some weeks ago, Martin managed to find his way over to Higashi Omiya Station, a hop skip and a jump away from my work place. It was far too brief, the time allotted for us two to finally meet after years of Internet friendship. Nevertheless, for about 56 minutes, the two of us sat across from one another at a small table in a burger and coffee shop and tossed questions and remarks back and forth like an Olympic table tennis match. We could have talked all afternoon, but Martin had another engagement and I had to get back to work. We both agreed, however, that when the Fates would next make it possible for our paths to cross, we would plan better and hopefully have more time, perhaps even enough for a day hike. I have my thoughts on Ryogamisan, a Hyakumeizan in Saitama.

Japan UP! Magazine

My interview was published in the October issue of Japan UP! magazine. It’s a free magazine available in the Los Angeles area.

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Winter in Yakushima – Chapter Three: First Day There

I should have chosen the meal Mr. Kurihara had chosen. It was what had first appealed to me because it sounded like a meat and rice dish. But I ordered something else instead which came with a lot of soup – spicy soup – and though it was good, looking at Mr. Kurihara’s lunch confirmed that my original choice should have been the better one.

This first day on Yakushima was going to be pretty easy going for me. Our schedule included visiting the shop and studio of two artisans who work with the wood of the yakusugi, the island’s famous cryptomeria trees of thousands of years of age. The wood sold in those shops was of course not cut from living trees but salvaged, as I heard, from the rivers after storms. Yakusugi wood is very dense and sinks, and this they say makes it excellent for working with.

There wasn’t much for me to do. We entered the shop of the first artisan. There was yakusugi wood for sale everywhere. Some pieces were in their natural form, just lacquered and set on a display shelf where they looked like natural works of art. Others had been shaped into bowls, chop sticks, even furniture. The price was not cheap at all. I made it a quest to find the most expensive item in the store and found a large vase for 810,000 yen! But there were larger items set back on a broad stage in one corner of the store. These items included slices of large logs that could be used as a seat, a table, and even a wall unit with shelves and cabinet doors. The prices for these were either set too far back for me to make out the numbers or they simply had no price displayed.

Shop display of yakusugi wood

Shop display of yakusugi wood

After filming in the store a little, the TV guys went with the artisan to shoot him working in his workroom. I wandered about the store with my iPhone only and tried to get some record shots of the more beautiful pieces. I found that switching the setting to “noir” gave me some rather artistic-looking monochrome images. I was pleased enough with my results to show the woman who was minding the shop. Whether out of politeness or genuine delight, her response was very positive: “The wood looks really different in the black and white photos. You captured the natural beauty of it and turned it into a new work of art.” I had to agree that the tightly–cropped black and white images emphasized the beauty of the tree rings and the flow-like patterns.

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ball wood hole wood

At the next shop, I asked the artisan if I could take photos. While the other three set up their tripod and recorded some of the items on display, I tried shooting hand-held. Because of the rather dim lighting, I had to change the ISO setting and ended up with grainy photographs with a very shallow depth-of-field, many of which weren’t totally sharp either as the exposures were often made at ¼ second. But it kept me entertained while having no work to do.

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Outside there was a river and a bridge nearby. I went there to see if there was any natural scene to photograph and while studying the boulders in the river, a bird with a yellow-breast came and alighted on a boulder beneath me. Without my telephoto lens I couldn’t expect to get a decent photograph but I took a few record shots. Then back at the taxi van I spotted some ferns growing out from a rock retaining wall. I saw our driver and recalled that when he had taken us to a high bridge over the Anbo River on my previous visit, he had stopped to pluck some ferns for tossing over the rail so we could watch as they sailed and spun slowly down to the water far below. I approached him and told him of my memory. He still didn’t recall having been my driver 18 months prior, however, he did recall throwing the ferns as he does that occasionally to show his passengers.

After saying farewell to the wood artisan and his wife, we drove round the northern tip of the island and over to Nagata Village. Part of our northern passage included driving over a low mountain route and here I noted that some leaves had turned yellow and as well, there were some nanakamado – related to the rowan or mountain ash – that had turned red. Our driver told us that only the day before, the temperature had been very cold and in some places there had been ice and frost. The forest on this climbing road looked like it was in mid-autumn.

The scenery on this road was familiar to me. I recognized the two small mountains (hills really) that projected into the sea on the wick-like northern tip of the island. Soon there were the beautiful and inviting sands of Inakahama Beach where I had seen the sea turtle hatchlings making their way to the sea. Kuchinoerabushima, a volcanic island to the west northwest, was issuing white smoke into the clouds. I considered how Sakurajima, Kirishima, and the volcano of Satsumo Iwojima had all been smoking. I expressed my thoughts to the driver and he confirmed my observation by saying that the volcanoes of the chain running north/south through Kyushu and into the ocean were all in an increased state of activity.

At Nagata Village we got out and looked into the clouds obscuring the mountain summits. From here we should have been able to see Nagatadake, the second highest mountain on Yakushima and neighbour to Miyanouradake, the highest and our goal in three day’s time. Yet even though the clouds were low, we could still see that snow was at the higher elevations. The clouds stirred and sunlight broke through in places. Beautiful as it was, the mountains were not going to reveal much about themselves just yet.

IF

I was asked to walk along a bridge and look at the mountains and also to the sea. Then at one spot I had to stop and address the camera. I was back on Yakushima and this time hoping to climb Miyanouradake in the snow. Indeed there was snow to be seen on the mountains. We did two takes of this brief monologue and then Mr. Mori captured a little more of the local views before we loaded back into the van and drove back to Miyanoura Town.

I was given some free time after we checked into our business hotel, a two-story structure with a restaurant and additional rooms across the street and up a slope a little. I decided to wander down to the nearby seashore and as I did, I passed some peculiar rocks that looked just like enormous cracked eggs. One house had two set at the corner of its garden but the next house had several bordering the garden and carport. This house, in fact, had an unrealistically large collection of rocks and shells which appeared to have initially been placed in some attractive arrangement but later on simply accumulated in a pile like some scrap yard for beachcombers.

Day 1 07 rocks1

I went down to the river mouth and as the sun was just setting out of view the sky was changing colour. I had only my iPhone and using the proHDR application I snapped a few pretty scenes and sent one to Mr. Suzuki at the production company. The sky was clearing and the clouds were few. He replied with an enthusiastic, “What a Wonderful Yakushima!” which was an intentional use of the previous program’s title.

Day 1 081

I examined many of the rocks at the seashore. Most of Yakushima is composed of granite but along the northern and eastern shores there are several other kinds of rock that were either part of the original ocean floor that was pushed up with the uplifting of the granite pocket or rock that had collided with the island as a result of plate movement.

Returning to the hotel, I passed the giant egg collection again and spotted an elderly woman stooped over a bucket in the carport. I called out a greeting and we were soon engaged in a dialogue about the rocks and her collection. The rocks, she said, used to be found fairly frequently down along the shore and she enjoyed taking them home with the help of a friend who had a pick-up truck. However, with age she no longer can take rocks home so easily. Friends and visitors who know of her hobby like to bring her interesting items they find on the shore, and so her collection continues to grow. There were corals, large shells, and a great many rocks of interesting colours and bands. She had no explanation for the eggs except that they were of marine origin and were usually found on the shore after a big storm. I looked closely and noted that they were composed of sandstone. This meant that with their ovular form and fracture patterns they were likely concretions – rocks that had formed by the natural cementing together of sand or mud. I had seen the famous concretion boulders in Red Rock Coulee, Alberta and at Moeraki Beach in New Zealand.

Back at the hotel, we met with Mr. Koga, who would be our guide. Finding a guide had been the key factor to making this trip possible and for my participation, as I explained in Chapter One of this series. My previous guide, Mr. Kikuchi, had not been available. Next, an American woman living and working as a guide on the island had been selected. However, she was tied up by the three-day training course for guides, which also meant that most guides on the island were occupied until February 14th. Mr. Kikuchi had then asked Mr. Koga, who had the level two guiding licence for winter mountain guiding, to organize our expedition.

Mr. Koga was a gentle and soft-spoken man with white in his hair, though he looked to be my age or slightly younger (he was in fact just three years my junior). He was pleasant and polite and as he spread out a map of the mountains and discussed the route with Mr. Ichino, the director, I understood he knew the trails well. The summer trail, he explained, was under a metre or two of snow above the tree-line, however, I had been assured by Mr. Ichino that we would not need crampons or snowshoes. Mr. Koga was looking after that detail.

Each of us was given a sealed bag with various small snack items. Two weeks prior to leaving for the island, we had been given a list of required gear to bring, and I had either already owned my own gear or had gone out to buy a couple of essential items. I had not, however, been able to procure any over-gloves at my local outdoor goods store. Mr. Koga would bring some for me. Each person would be responsible for carrying his own gear and snacks and drink, but three porters would carry up the extra food and drink supplies as well as additional camera gear for the filming of the program. The weather for the next four days called for clouds and rain in the morning of day one, clouds and strong wind on day two, clearing skies on day three, and clear skies returning to overcast on day four with the possibility of rain. Fair enough. It sounded as good as we could expect. I had no idea of how perfect this forecast was going to prove to be.

Mr. Koga departed and we four went to the hotel restaurant where we celebrated our forthcoming mountain adventure with beer and a meal of flying fish. Come the morning I would be back among the trees and mountains.

As I walked under the stars back to my room, I observed that the sky was clear. Rain in the morning? The clouds had all cleared away. I knew, though, that rain in the morning was as good as given. It was just hard to believe as Jupiter and a twinkling night sky watched over Miyanoura Town that first night.

To Be or Not to Be on TV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You bet!