花鳥風月, Kachou Fuugetsu: “experience the beauty of nature, learn about yourself.”
A tangle of scrub pine, roots bone-white in the gunmetal blue of a Hokkaido dusk. Around us low, forested mountains rolled out to sea. In one direction, the Russian Far East; in another, Tokyo and main-island Japan. Only 1500 meters (4500 feet) above sea level, but the harsh climate of Hokkaido — Japan’s northernmost, frontier island — put us already well above treeline. Below, I knew, higuma brown bears, cousin to the grizzly back home in Canada, foraged among the bamboo grass for bedtime snacks. We stood in the triangular shadow of the summit as night crept up-slope, looked over a lightless wilderness, and marvelled at the irony of two city kids from Canada travelling halfway around the world, to one of the most urban and densely populated parts of Asia, to wind up alone on a mountaintop in bear country.
Grizzlies weren’t high on the list of things my admittedly eclectic research on Japan had prepared me for: a sporadic diet of Lone Wolf and Cub, Black Rain, Kurosawa movies, Akira, and Godzilla, had prepared me more for the 85 million-person conurbation on main-island Honshu, the Tokyo-Osaka megalopolis. Nature, for all I knew, was limited to the disciplined gardens of bonsai trees and ikebana flower arrangements, rather than big-N Nature red in tooth and claw.
But in fact, as I was quickly learning, this high tech, near-future, post-industrial nation still has plenty of countryside and even wilderness. In fact, in many parts of the archipelago it seems more like the people are squeezed into what arable land exists, mainly on the coasts, while large parts of the island interiors remain uninhabitable, and thus undeveloped.
Of course, Hokkaido is not main-island Honshu. In fact, that’s kind of the point:
Japan is a surprisingly big and diverse place. 6,000 islands hang pendulously from wintry Russian Far East, all the way to distant Taiwan in the semi-tropical south. Honshu, Kyushu, and Shikoku and to an extent Hokkaido and Okinawa make up the bulk of what most visitors think of as “Japan,” but there are literally thousands of smaller islands which unfurl into the East China Sea.
Some islands are heavily developed, such as main-island Honshu with the Tokyo-Osaka conurbation (though, as you will learn, there’s still a lot of wildness left even on Honshu); others still have untouched forests of antediluvian fern and palm — such as on Iriomote — and millennia-old cedar — on Yakushima — at their mountainous hearts.
Snow trekking and photography in Japan’s North Alps winter garden.
R. and I visited the popular mountain resort of Kamikochi in the Japan Alps for the first time back in May of 2015, during the busy Golden Week holiday here in Japan, and loved it. The volcanic ponds, the dramatic mountain scenery, and troupes of wild macaques along the rivers and in the forests more than made up for the crowds of daytrippers around Kappa Bashi bridge. So over the winter break we returned and discovered a whole new side in the off-season: Kamikochi as winter wonderland.
Maybe it’s the location, in a river valley high in Japan’s North Alps and accessible only by way of a 1310 metre (4300 foot) long, dark, underpass through the mountains. From November, the tunnel is closed to cars and buses; you have to hike in, ten sweaty minutes uphill in the headlamp darkness, the insect-like click of hiking poles on asphalt reverberating in the windy passage.
Or perhaps it’s the weather. Even in this El Nino winter of 2015, when Tokyo temps are still in the double digits, Kamikochi has a good 30-40 centimetre (12-16 inch) base layer of fine champagne powder snow, which transmogrifies the European Alps-like mountains, and the volcanic, particoloured ponds and streams around Taisho Ike Pond and Kappa Bridge into a winter wonderland, silent but for the jingle of Christmas sleigh trekkers’ bear bells, the swish of snowshoes and cross-country skis, and the occasional, disconcerting avalanche-like boom of hikers on the boardwalk.
Or perhaps it’s the situation, the shops, hotels, restaurants, and guesthouses shuttered for the season.
For whatever reason, Kamikochi in winter has a secret-garden-like fuinke, atmosphere, to the place. This winter holiday, R. and I joined an overnight snow trekking tour based out of Taisho Ike Hotel. We were extremely lucky with the weather — the guide later said it was the finest he’d seen in years — and we took a lot of photos of snow-covered ponds and rivers, mountains, and tree-and-bamboo-grass forests.
My first winter break in Japan seventeen(!) years ago, while all my friends went off to Thailand, I spent a couple of weeks sleeping wild on Okinawa and Iriomote jima in the off season. Trip of a lifetime! One of I’ve written about elsewhere, and may soon also tell here on Big Sushi…
Meantime, in the spring of 2013, I finally made it back to the Yaeyama islands, this time to Ishigaki jima – with a day trip to Taketomi jima. While it was spring this time and not winter, we still hit it in the off season – which is how I like it anyway. Fewer crowds. More unstable = more interesting weather.
I shot most of these pictures with the Olympus E-P1 and – for reasons that escape me now, since I already owned a couple of fine prime lenses – the 14 – 42 kit zoom lens.
An easy 40-minute climb from the ropeway station at Senjojiki Cirque, the approach to Kiso-Komagatake, “Horse Head Mountain,” and surrounding peaks make an easy day-trip adventure into the alpine zone and thin air of high-mountain adventure. I’d write it up, but wes at Hiking in Japan has already nailed it. The only thing I’d add, and this is true any time you’re high up, is to remember the hat and sunblock. The air is thinner up here, and the sun’s rays stronger. Both R. and I were a little negligent, and we both ended up with sun- and windburn, and blistered lips. Continue reading “Japan Photo Hike: Kiso-Komagatake, Chuo Middle Alps”→
Autumn is settling over Tokyo, but in the town of Kogamane — four and a half by bus from Tokyo — in the highlands of Nagano prefecture, it’s in full flourish. Kogamane is at1660 meters (4,980 feet) elevation, and is home base to the cable car ropeway that carries hikers up to Senjojiki Cirque and the peaks of the Chuo Central Alps. But Senjojiki is another story… coming soon! Continue reading “Japan Photo Hikes: “Koyo,” Autumn Leaves at Kogamane, Nagano”→