Mid-December, life was grand. Bookings were at an all-time high. My team and I were gearing up for our traditional Japanese Year-End celebration, and I was looking forward to leading a record number of photography workshop participants in 2020. However, conditions can change from clear blue skies to whiteout thundersnow in the blink of an eye. The global storm began for me in 2020 with an alert from a former colleague who was in Beijing, China on my Iridium Satellite Communications Device about something new called the ‘coronavirus.’ At present, I am a professional photographer and have been since my early years; however, my background includes experience as a rescue specialist with boots on the ground fortunately and unforgettably wearing Hazmat suits from time to time, and this same situation allowed me to photograph landscapes, wildlife, and cultures that not even NatGeo or other civilian film and photography expedition organizations and companies could guarantee safe crew travel. Only now, these locations and cultural experiences are becoming accessible. At this juncture in my professional life, I was required to use a pseudonym for my photography. From my previous experience dealing with contagions, I knew 2020 would be a year that would not only change my photographic landscape but also the lives of every sentient being on our planet for some time.
After receiving the virus info, I immediately started making a list and mapping the spread using my previous skillset as my guide. That list firstly consisted of my clients, friends, and family travel destinations, international trade routes, and flight paths originating from Wuhan, where the virus was said to originate and was spreading exponentially. It was not a pandemic yet, just a growing concern. However, the early reports left a pit in my stomach. Echoes of Ebola, SARS, Avian, and Swine Flu rang through my head as I began my planning. I felt the coronavirus could have a higher presence in Hokkaido because of direct flights from Wuhan Tianhe International Airport (WUH) to New Chitose International Airport (CTS), and the Sapporo Snow Festival was kicking off during Chinese Lunar New Year when tens of thousands of hard-working individuals travel to Hokkaido visiting locations such as the snow festival which is widely advertised throughout China as a weekend getaway, while millions of other Chinese travel to other international tourist destinations. What we didn’t know then, was that the unusual and unseasonably warm winter across Japan led to a decline in tourism, what I interpreted and still believe to be a healing mantra from the medicine buddha.
Due to higher temperatures and melting ice, several of the huge sculptures were deemed unsafe and were falling apart. All of these factors led to close to a million fewer visitors, and the snow festival ending several days earlier than scheduled.
Moreover, about 90% of ski resorts across Japan during the 2019-2020 winter season were in dire need of snow and were closed as a result. I do not have much desire to attend the Sapporo Snow Festival or visit ski resorts because after having gone a few times 15 or so years ago, I appreciate what they have to offer, but for me, Hokkaido in winter is all about the untamed, authentic wildlife photography adventure of a lifetime including pack-ice and snowy landscapes.
Sapporo is in western Hokkaido full of tourists, but I feel that the eastern part of Hokkaido has more to offer those interested in traditional Ainu culture, and those who yearn for stories of the authentic, cultural Hokkaido experience that resonates a vibe similar to that of Alaska and the Inuit, First Peoples of Canada and the USA. However, the local avian inhabitants such as the Steller’s Sea Eagle, the Shima Enaga – Long Tailed Bushtit, and the Red-crowned cranes are exclusive to Hokkaido. And if I had anything scheduled on my itinerary in the western part of Hokkaido, I would have scrubbed it and added a destination in the eastern part of Hokkaido, a region relatively untouched by the coronavirus even today. If my scheduled workshops went as planned, I would be in Hokkaido now leading a private photo workshop for participants from New York. As the scheduled workshop time drew closer, a few hotel owners who are longtime friends triple checked my cancellations just in case I showed up, and while we were talking, they reported that there are no coronavirus cases in their vicinity.
Even at these complicated times, my friends would have made space despite being closed for everyone except local travelers. We were neighbors, and I suspect the reason they checked several times was more for concern about bringing European or North American travelers to their hotels, which would require cordoning off a section of their hotel just for us. Even if my friends hadn’t requested it, I would have asked for the same treatment to keep everyone safe, even if it was just myself. I was scheduled to lead several expeditions starting in February and spanning through spring from Hokkaido to locations all over Japan, which held the ephemeral cherry blossom. I was not as concerned about my upcoming Wildlife Hokkaido February workshop as I was about my March-April clients who I knew would bear the brunt of the outbreak based on inside information that I received; therefore, I called an emergency meeting with my team, and I decided for safety’s sake, we should send out an alert message for the best course of action based on the WHO, CDC, and my calculations to our clients and family members.
*** Here is an excerpt from the Hokkaido February letter:
***Greetings, February 14th, is just days away, and I am looking forward to the start of our Mt. Fuji, Samurai Pilgrimage Day, Snow Monkey Photo Ops, then Hokkaido Winter Wonderland and Wildlife Expedition highlighting the Steller’s Sea Eagle, Sika Deer, the Red-crowned cranes, and other wildlife including one of my favorite healing, secluded milky-white hot springs after a hard day on boats photographing in the pack-ice. Also, I have changed our lodgings for the final four nights from the Pacific Coastline to inland due to heightened seismic activity in the region, as our coastline lodgings would have placed us in a tsunami zone. Also, our new lodgings inland are four-star and have nightly visits from the largest fish owl species on our planet, the Blakiston’s Fish Owl, which is revered by the First Nations People of Japan, the Ainu.*** Travel Advisory ***Currently, in Japan, medical masks are mostly sold out, so please bring medical masks that you can purchase from your local drug store or online, we have coronavirus to contemplate. Currently, I have no cancellations, and I hope there will be none as your trip is now at 100% pay, and if you cancel, I could only give you a partial discount on another photo workshop at a later date.
Please be safe, and here are our recommendations:
1. Wear medical masks when in the vicinity of large groups of people, or people you don’t know, and eye protection is highly recommended.
2. When not in your trusted surroundings, please do not touch any part of your body or face without first washing your hands or using alcohol wipes. You can get alcohol wipes at your local drug store or online.
3. When opening doors to washrooms, stores, etc., use a hand towel, tissues, gloves, or your sleeve; please try not to touch common places where a virus or bacteria can thrive.
4. If someone sneezes or coughs near you or you are near a large group of people, and you feel uncomfortable, remain calm because you are wearing a medical mask and eye protection, but please use alcohol tissues to wipe your ears, nose, mouth, and around your eyes, just to be on the safe side. Also, if this happens to you, dispose of your mask and put on a new one after you have re-sanitized yourself.
5. A few meals will be eaten at a buffet-style restaurant. Firstly, I will have medical gloves for you for the utensils to pick up foods. I recommend you bring medical gloves with you as well, just in case you need them before we meet. Also, when picking up a plate, please do not choose the top plate, please pick the second or third. And please wipe your utensils with alcohol wipes as they are communal. Also, make sure to wipe down your table.
6. For all canned and bottled drinks and wrapped fast foods from convenience stores or vending machines, before opening, please wipe them with alcohol wipes.
Japan is considered to be the cleanest, safest, and one of the most beautiful and greenest countries in the world. And our infrastructure and medical facilities are top-notch. And please know you are in good hands not just with my team and I, but with the entire population of the kind and caring people of Japan.
Looking back, as a result of our team’s careful planning and safety precautions, Hokkaido 2020 went off without a hitch, but there are some forces beyond the control of humankind. 95 times out of 100, a weather system leads to the predicted outcome. It’s the 5% that you have to be prepared for. During 2020’s Hokkaido Wildlife-Landscape Photography Workshop, I was dutifully consulting the weather charts at 30-minute intervals as I do every day when in mountain regions as weather conditions can change in a breath. As I was closely monitoring weather charts, a blizzard with thundersnow was forming with high winds on a potential collision course for our path, but there was only a 5% chance that the weather system would come our way; a 95% chance it would simply blow out and not affect us. It was 1 pm on day eight of our photo workshop, and the last golden hour sunset photo op was at Lake Yamanakako, Mt. Fuji, Yamanashi, Japan 1,600 km away. This fateful day, I should have listened to my inner voice and that of The Steller’s Sea Eagles, Sika Deer, and other raptors, ravens, and wildlife like the red-tailed foxes. They were being bashful and evading our viewfinders due to the bleak and unrelenting weather that was to come. Remember that 5%? I decided to tempt the Fates and go for the sunset photo op, but the Fates are fickle, and sometimes they decide they want their pound of flesh risked in the wager. This was one of those times. After taking some unforgettable golden hour photos, the trip back to the hotel was expected to be just over an hour, and the blizzard a distant memory.
At the halfway point on the return, to jog my memory of my wager, winds began to howl and grow stronger and stronger, peaking between 40-50 m/s or about 160-170 km/h, super typhoon strength winds. These winds created hellish whiteout conditions as the snow was ripped away from the mountain peaks and lashed across the open farmlands onto the road like an arctic cat-of-nine tails, hastily building inescapable snowdrifts. Some of these flash snowdrifts can even reach window height on a normal vehicle, so sedan luxury SUVs and passenger vehicles aren’t able to plow through these snowdrifts, and when one tries, they get stuck. This is why I always have at least one hardcore SUV in our motorcade, and I am the driver.
The sun had just set, and I had Martin, a German colleague, riding shotgun who was checking online weather charts. Whenever the motorcade paused, I read the weather charts to anticipate what conditions were coming, and to my relief, the snow was dissipating. Only the stubborn wind remained to create the hellish whiteout conditions. We were also constantly checking topographical maps for forested areas that blocked the wind gusts and provided us a sanctuary giving our eyes and mind a much-needed rest from the perfect wind storm. During this somewhat hair-raising ordeal, we were in contact with everyone in the motorcade, so everyone knew the precise distance to the next forested natural windbreak. When travel resumed, Martin served as a second set of eyes to keep the vehicles on the road. Between infernal gusts, we used the arrows posted above the prefectural highway to inch the lead vehicle forward, a distance of about 18 meters between markers. For 30 seconds to a minute, we were in motion, then whiteouts, and we had no choice when in the open farmland fields but to come to a dead stop for upwards of 5 – 10 minutes.
Mother Nature had a secure grip on us, and she did not want to let us go. On some occasions, even though the arrows are posted a few meters above the road, they weren’t visible nor the flashing lights above them. All of a sudden, I saw headlights and hazard lights from multiple vehicles heading in our direction. I was becoming cautiously optimistic because we were more than halfway back to our lodgings, and there were enough forested areas to give us protection. Boom! Car height snowdrifts. Boom! Nobody could see the road. All the traffic was at a dead stop, and I knew exactly where the road had taken us. Images of the family who perished in the exact spot in 2013 ran through my mind and chilled my blood, but I cowboyed up and focused on what needed to be done to assure everyone’s safety. As all this was happening, I made a command decision. It was time to bring all the participants into my SUV that was not stuck and could plow through the snowdrifts and leave all the camera equipment in the less agile luxury SUVs. Once the storm broke, I knew we would be able to return to the SUVs and claim all the camera gear and the vehicles, but safety dictated a slow and methodical return to a hotel or shelter. I was confronted with a choice, either push forward into the unknown toward our mountain lodgings or make a u-turn to the closest village 10 kilometers behind us.
Seconds before I was about to start the process of safely transferring everyone to my SUV – BOOM! – I heard something like a shovel scraping the road, and I then I saw a huge tractor shoveling and clearing the road; the shovel car cleared the snow so expertly it was just inches away from the front of my SUV. I thought they were going to smash my windshield. “Wow! What precision,” I thought. As the roads were being cleared, other emergency workers were pulling vehicles out of the snowdrifts and other vehicles that were stuck, which meant all our vehicles would be able to reach a shelter for the evening. My co-leader and I asked the emergency road rescue workers if we could proceed to our mountain lodgings about 8 kilometers away. The response was an emphatic, “No. The roads were unknown and 99.9% impassable.” Their counsel jogged my memory of spending 3 – 4 days in my country home in this area sequestered to my home hot springs due to the heavy snowfall and blizzards. The weather could be so severe that for days at a time, there was no power. Because of how often the region has extreme weather, most locals have a back-up generator and thermal hot springs as part of their home. Overnight the snow could pile up to waist height, so my SUV was out of the question as was any vehicle with rubber tires. Even a tractor would have to shovel itself out. Our guardian angels told everyone to follow them and started guiding all vehicles to the nearest village. As soon as we reached the village, everyone went their separate ways, and I remarked to myself about the lack of markings on what I thought were government snow-clearing rescue vehicles. I even recalled seeing ‘rental’ written in Japanese on one of the tractors. Despite being told the roads were impassable, I felt that a return to our original lodgings was still possible using a different route, so I topped up the gasoline for each vehicle in our motorcade at the nearest gasoline stand which was on the verge of closing. The elderly gentleman in charge of the station opened the doors so my co-leader, Martin, and I could come in, rest, and enjoy a warm cup of Japanese green tea. While fueling up, my co-leader and I called highway services, but there was no answer, and the police also said not to return, so we checked online and all the roads we highlighted in red, which meant impassable.
In spite of me being a local, everyone’s advice, including the elderly gentleman at the gasoline stand, was to not return to the lodgings because this was a once in a decade windstorm. Of all the counsel I received, I took the elderly gentleman’s the most serious because he was born and raised in the area and his insights were born from experiencing prior windstorms. I knew my SUV would make it, but the others would not. My co-leader could see my mind was racing, and she needed to ground me in this world. Her next statement did just that, a godsend. While on the way to the village, she had called our lodgings and miraculously arranged rooms for everyone in the village we had just arrived in. A sister business hotel to our 4-star accommodations had made room for everyone, so rather than an emergency shelter or sleeping in the vehicles, everyone had a single private room with shower and bath, and hot springs on the 1st floor. After settling in and a small hot meal, I called a friend in Japan’s main emergency disaster relief agency, as I knew they should have a log of our rescue and all rescues across Japan. To our surprise, there was no log entry of our rescue or road clearing, just a warning that the highways in that area were completely shutdown. After a few seconds of silence, we came to the same conclusion and shouted, “local volunteer rescuers!” My colleague and I then discussed the number of fatalities in Hokkaido associated with severe winter conditions similar to the flash blizzard that caught us.
The conversation turned to the local farmers and residents in communities across Hokkaido, who of their initiative, had started something akin to a community watch program where cameras are placed in high-risk areas where people have perished, and there is always someone monitoring during winter or when there is a weather warning. The community always rent rescue snow-clearing equipment in case the need arises to make sure there is no repeat of prior tragedies. To reward their heroism and express my thanks, I made a donation, a year’s worth of gasoline. After hanging up, I made my one final check to make sure everyone was settled in their rooms with provisions, and then I fell asleep before my head hit the pillow. In the am, I woke before sunrise to enjoy the hot springs, then, later on, we all enjoyed a hot breakfast. We called local road services, and they informed us that the roads to our mountain lodgings would not be cleared until about 8 am.
When the time was right, our group returned to our original lodgings. After freshening up, we started the day early with a fresh blanket of beautiful winter wonderland snow, and everyone was well-rested in mind, body, and spirit. We concentrated on artful zen-inspired minimalist photography with an emphasis on groves or singular winter trees. The hostility of the storm faded and provided us a winter frame to capture photos constructed with zen-inspired simplicity and calm.
As the days passed, participants flew back to Tokyo and homeward, Martin and I had planned a two-week photo excursion island hopping in Kyushu doing oceanscape and landscape photography wandering ancient pilgrim routes that zen monks and the legendary samurai used before us, but he stayed with me for only a week in Hokkaido after everyone left, flying home early from Tokyo. Soon after, the coronavirus spread worldwide, becoming the pandemic that we are experiencing today. I knew what had already arrived and what was still to come, and I needed to tell my clients of the April Cherry Blossom Photo workshop what to expect as they prepared to come to Japan. My Terms and Conditions laid out a specific course of action, but I knew from the moment I received the alert from my former colleague that 2020 would not be a year for normal business practice. It was time to be considerate of my fellow sentient beings and reach out with kindness and understanding.
*** The following is part of the second alert letter we sent out to all our clients: ***Hello, I am Blain Harasymiw’s personal assistant. Blain wishes he could speak to each of you personally, but he is currently on a private cherry blossom photography workshop. He has asked me to contact you on his behalf regarding the upcoming workshops for the spring of 2020. We understand your concerns about international travel this spring, and rest assured Blain’s photo adventures have taken him all over the world. He always takes every precaution and is in charge when leading photography expeditions to ensure everyone’s health and safety in the group as well as taking stock of those around and catering to us. Blain is watching the developments regarding Japan’s response, and with several safety measures being taken, as the human race, we are all hopeful the virus will soon be in steady decline. For every part of the journey under his care, he will do everything in his power to maintain your safety. However, he cannot guarantee that you will not be exposed to the virus while on your flight, train, or other means of transportation on your way to meet him, so please take all the precautions you can.
Blain understands your concern about the financial burden the coronavirus has created with regards to rescheduling or cancellation of photo tours. He understands that this is not a situation that falls into anything that resembles ‘normal circumstances,’ so he is disregarding his Terms and Conditions guidelines for cancellations and postponements. However, Blain has already paid in part or full for lodgings, air and boat travel, vehicles, and he has not yet included staff costs, so some cost will be incurred to offset those expenses. We earnestly hope that you choose to reschedule your workshop, and if you do so, you will be charged as little as 20%, depending on how much of the initial tour cost can be recouped. If the tour you would like to reschedule for has a different price, accommodations will be made. And we hope that we can host you some time in the near future.
If you are deciding to cancel or reschedule your photo workshop dates, please contact us as soon as possible so we can begin contacting our travel partners in lodgings, transportation, restaurants, and other locations to modify or cancel reservations and receive as much of a refund as possible; the longer you wait, the less you will receive for rescheduling your tour or an outright refund. We understand this is a difficult decision as these are troubling times, but please let us know before mid-March regarding the spring photo workshops. If you plan on going ahead with your scheduled photo workshop dates, Blain and the team will meet you with open arms, and he will do his very best to keep you virus-free.Namaste, Blain and Team In Japan.
Epilogue: After my Hokkaido and April Cherry Blossom adventures, I have maintained my precautions for myself and my family at the same level as they were before. Masks, eye protection, alcohol wipes, bleach, social distancing, and bunkering down at home have become staples of my day-to-day existence. As the coronavirus spreads, I have become even more vigilant, thinking back to my experience with Hazmat suits, I know even a tiny oversight can lead to sickness, so be careful everyone. I have also been reaching out in my community to share information and resources to help more people make responsible and healthy choices. I treasure all sentient beings on the earth, and I hope that as many as possible will see the light as the outbreak passes so they can find their smiles and mirth again. Humanity will recover. With my mala in hand, I look forward to meditating with clients in spite of the virus outbreak. Some of the greatest thinkers, such as Albert Einstein, valued the clarity and peace of mind that meditation provided, a momentary retreat from his philosophical and mathematical pursuits. Now, more than ever, we need to share the positive intentions and actions in our lives with each other. Even if the world is forever changed, I will still be there for all sentient beings through good and bad. Not for myself, not for personal gain, but for the privilege of indulging in my passion, being a successful visual artist introducing old and new friends to the perfect cherry blossoms, the concierge of the zen forest, and to all the wonderment that Japan holds.
Over the course of several meetings and conferences between Blain Harasymiw and Matthew Diaz, Matthew finally got Blain’s surname in his head and out of his mouth correctly. He used the pneumonic device: [Hair – same – you] and everything seemed to work out all right. Now, he’s passing along the pronunciation to all of you, so if you choose to join him on a Japan Photo Adventure, and you meet the concierge of the zen forest, you will be able to tell him exactly who introduced you. Adventure by Blain Harasymiw and Team and written by Blain Harasymiw and Matthew Diaz. Blain’s homepage: blaininjapan.com