When I first arrived in Japan, my ideas of possible photo-opportunities were linked with the streets of rushing crowds, shinkanzen super trains hurrying at warp speed or, with a bit of a windfall, some geisha shots. But it was soon to change.
Regardless of the season, destination, and photographic interests, Japan offers a plethora of opportunities for any kind of photography you can think of. The longer I stayed there, the more frustrated I became of not being able to see and capture all the splendor. After two years, with several thousand transparencies in my files, I eventually left the country with my mind being haunted by wasted opportunities.
The first thing to spring into an outdoor photographer’s mind will be, how else, the conical symmetry of the nation’s sacred mountain – Mt Fuji (if you want to sound knowledgeable, call it “Fuji-san” not “Fuji-yama” as many people erroneously do). Well, Mt Fuji has got two faces. You can fall in love with her if you are lucky enough to see her on a winter morning.
Despite it has been photographed to death, the contour of the solitary peak mirroring in the untroubled levels of the five lakes, surrounding it from the north, is well worth running a few rolls of film through your camera. Beware though.
You will hate her if you are insane enough to climb the mountain in summer only to find it wrapped in tons of plastic bags and rusting cans that Japanese “worshippers” – several hundred thousand a year – leave behind to “decorate” their sacred mountain.
If you can’t help it, the only relatively sensible idea may be to start your climb late in the evening and photograph, weather permitting, goraiko – the sunrise from the summit. After you catch your breath, you may be rewarded with enjoying two Japanese symbols in one moment.
Seacoast of Rishiri
To those longing for off-the-beaten-track images, I would recommend to forget Mt Fuji and head far north to the Japanese hinterland. As far as where Mt Rishiri stands out from the Sea of Japan, northwest of the Hokkaido coast.
The two dwarf picturesque islands, Rishiri and Rebun, that form the main part of the Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park, are awesome locations for landscape, seascape, fauna and alpine flora photography all year round but the severe winter.
The most striking images I found there were, ironically, not nature-related; they were the derelict, web covered fishermen’s cottages scattered along the shore, with roofs and walls hurriedly patched with corrugated iron and millboard, with adhesive tape across broken windows and pieces of octopus being insolated on the clotheslines.
For a while, I could not help wondering whether it was still Japan that I was roaming about, and whether it was the end of the 20th century or one of my fallacious dreams.
About 150 miles south, in the heart of Hokkaido, there is the Daisetsuzan National Park, a scenic alignment of mountain ridges, volcanic peaks, some of which are still active, high-pitched gorges, steaming fumaroles, and an abundance of fauna and flora.
Having traveled Japan up and down, I found Daisetsuzan the last place in otherwise swarming country where you can hike for days without running into omnipresent hoards of tourists. I did a week-long hike across the park from north to south and met only a handful of similarly stubborn hikers.
The most rewarding moment came an early morning of the third day when I emerged from a mountain hut before 4 a.m. to witness an astonishing sunrise over a diminutive tarn under Mt Tomuraushi. The rest of the hike was less romantic, though. Overloaded rucksack, accumulated tiredness, and deteriorated weather sent me head-crashing down a steep slope, leaving me with broken wrist and ribs for the remaining two days off the beaten track.
When I finally reached a doctor in the nearest town, he further amplified my adventurous experiences: “Hmm, looks like a fracture, but I have no time to treat you”. Mind you, I was the only patient in his office.
One of the most popular outdoor locations on the main island, Honshu, is undoubtedly the Japan Alps. These soaring peaks, many of them over 9,000 ft high, are appealing to numberless treks through picturesque scenery.
You can explore them afoot or by a chain of trains and cableways built for holiday-makers to traverse the high summits from west to east without a trace of sweat. Sadly, the ease of access to these mountains makes them flooded by tourists during the high season.
From Mt. Aso – Kyushu
For images of steaming volcanoes, you are best off heading to the southernmost of the four main islands, Kyushu. Two of the most famous volcanoes, Sakurajima and Aso, are housed here, both offering extensive opportunities for photographers. But again, they are too famous and too easily accessible to let you enjoy them in full.
Even for hard-core outdoor photographers, it would be an inexcusable mistake to ignore the beauty of some of the traditional Japanese cities, Kyoto in particular. This city with a rustic atmosphere that used to be the capital of Japan for more than 1000 years is heaven for photographers, especially those with a weakness for Japanese tradition and culture.
Jammed with almost 2000 Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, many of them featuring magnificent gardens and colorful festivals, Kyoto offers myriad opportunities to exercise your photo gear. Soon after arrival, you will realize that you are looking at all the charm around through your camera’s viewfinder most of the time.
Temple garden at Koya-san
An excellent blend of natural beauty and traditional culture well worth scrutinizing with your photo-gear is to be found on Mt Koya in Wakayama prefecture, south of Osaka. Over 100 temples are nested 3000 feet above the sea level, offering splendid views of the landscape as well as meticulously raked rock gardens. At the top of it, you are welcome to stay overnight in several shukubo – temple lodges, which is an unforgettable experience itself.
One thing that I loved when backpacking in Japan was street safety. I had no problems to leave my rucksack for a couple of hours on a bench of a busy railway station with two camera bodies and three lenses inside. A tripod, as a clue to what’s in store, was attached to the pack. Try to do it in any western country and you are traveling light for the rest of your trip. The secure feeling makes it much easier to wander in Japan. The only thing I never left behind in unattended rucksack were exposed films. Just in case.
Japan is a cash society. Don’t rely on your plastic money and withdraw some cash immediately at the airport. Credit cards are becoming more common but it is still unlikely they will be accepted as payment in shops, restaurants or small hotels.
Traveler cheques are of no help either; these must be cashed at authorized moneychangers – banks and large hotels.
English is not widely spoken in Japan, which may be quite a problem when traveling throughout rural areas. Make sure you have got good bilingual maps when hiking.
Best times – the splendor of cherry blossoms in April and saturated colors of Japanese maples in November are second to none making spring and autumn the best seasons to stay on Honshu. If you are heading north, then summer temperatures on Hokkaido will be more tolerant of your camping intentions. Winter is an excellent period for those with an aversion to crowds.
Traveling – the speed, accuracy, and cleanness of Japanese railway services are legendary. If you plan to cover larger distances, Japan Rail Pass is a good option. These passes are issued for 7, 14 or 21 days and have to be purchased overseas, before entering Japan.
Accommodation – Japan offers a wide range of accommodation from pricey traditional inns (ryokan – 10,000-50,000 yen per night) to cheaper temple lodgings (shukubo – 5,000 yen /night), guest houses and youth hostels (2,500-5,000 yen/night). Book ahead during the high season.
Essential reading – Japan Inside Out (by Jay Gluck, Sumi Gluck, Garet Gluck), Hiking in Japan (by Paul Hunt), Lonely Planet’s guidebooks (Japan, Kyoto).
Internet resources – Japan National Tourism Association: www.jnto.go.jp, Japan Information Network: www.jinjapan.org,
Also, you can read all about the white ink tattoos on our previous post.