Blue Hour in a Zen meditation forest with camera in hand at the base of Mt. Fuji, and I was awoken out of my slumber by the din of closing tripods behind me just as the magical blue hour rung its bell and the enchanting party of vibrant colors had begun. Quickly, I halted the gear being put away and illuminated the pathway with my headlamp extending the session for 15 minutes as everyone gathered around to view the spectacle and share in the rich, vibrant colors with the misty blue-purple haze that blue hour naturally provides given all the conditions align. “Welcome to long exposure photography time,” I said to participants on my annual authentic autumn in Japan workshop as I tipped my hat to the concierges of the Zen Meditation forest.
For more than two decades, I have been exploring the Mt. Fuji region, and I am drawn to FujiSan – as a moth is to a flame – thus I insist on introducing the iconic symbol of Japan to visiting photographers even when the project’s focus is in winter and birding or landscape photography in Hokkaido plus Snow Monkeys in Nagano or even on a commercial gig, or in the opposite direction on Honshu, the main island of Japan where the sacred volcano Mt. Fuji resides. Mt. Fuji has been worshipped over for thousands of years, even before this island nation was called Japan, beginning with the First Nation’s People, the Ainu. The Ainu understood Mt. Fuji’s inherent cultural and spiritual value. Mt. Fuji stands essentially unchanged for ages, representing something larger and more meaningful than the nation itself. It carries the essence of the people and the natural world. The Ainu know this and lend the appropriate revery to Japan’s iconic peak. Other parts of Japan, such as capital cities have changed. Nara was the first capital, then Kyoto, and now Tokyo. With every age, the capital changes to reflect a new focus of power and interest for the people of the nation. In the year 864, Mt. Fuji erupted for 10 consecutive days casting cinders and ash as far away as Edo Bay. Fujisan became a sacred volcanic peak because the powers that be used their faith to interpret the guiding force behind the continuing volume of the lava flow. That lava flow phenomenon created the Aokigahara Forest, The Sea of Trees; it’s a phenomenal, legendary forest that spans two thousand and four hundred hectares across the Northwest base of Mt. Fuji. My recommendations always come rooted in the form of personal experience, and Mt. Fuji and its surrounding area are no different.
Twenty plus years later, I am still using the same trails when I am leading a Mount Fuji Photography Workshop spanning into the prefectures of Yamanashi, Shizuoka, Kanagawa, Nagano, and on the beaten path in Tokyo when the visibility is clear to view Mt. Fuji. For your information, and for those who are planning to visit the base of Mt. Fuji, it is not accessible to everyday visitors. Of the Five Fuji Lakes (there are actually two more plus the ocean and several mountain ranges), using mass transit, you will only have easy access to two of the Fuji Five Lakes, and time schedules restrict you. On my Mt. Fuji Photography Workshops, I never use public transportation because of how limiting it is, but some of my colleagues who run on the beaten path photo workshops use it, but even my colleagues comment on how bored they are just making money from the garden variety international tourists who don’t know better. As mentioned in a previous article, Japanese school children on field trips come first before the common international tourist, and the children are being educated on Mt. Fuji’s spiritual essence and the natural beauty of the iconic symbol of Japan by enjoying their outing in and around the base of Mt. Fuji deep in the Aokigahara Forest, the Sea of Trees. Thankfully, the educators, teachers, and the children are getting front row seats to the show while the ordinary tourists are relegated to the perimeter.
It took me five years to feel comfortable hosting
Photography Workshops in Japan to learn the lay of the
land. After extensive mapping and planning, I finally felt
ready to showcase Japan. More than geography, as I have
done globally, I immersed myself in a cultural and
sociological educational cram session bash, as an amateur
historian, I hold my own with directors and university
professors. One such spirit of Japan is the samurai and
Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s Hagakure “Hidden Behind the
Leaves” (Hidden Behind the Leaves is NOT from the
Yamaboshi Clan People (assassins or ninja) as most would
suspect who are educated in Japanese historical language
usage, society, and culture) this is the book of the samurai,
Bushido. And I am often frustrated and amused by my
colleague’s use of part-time tour guides whose expertise in
Japanese culture extends about 100 kilometers from their
hometown or what they learned during secondary
education. Locals claim that they are ‘Japnese’ and
therefore are well-read in their entire nation’s history,
climate, and language, but I have found this rarely to be the
Japan is 3,000 kilometers long, with 6,852 islands, with 47 prefectures and several dialects of Japanese and cultural differences, the climates range from tropical to sub-arctic and everything in between. As an illustration of my point, a client, Paul K. from Victoria, Canada, asked me while photographing in a shrine complex with a zen garden at the base of Mt. Fuji this autumn, the meaning of wood carvings and stone statutes that are in and around the temple and zen garden some of which are national treasures. A licensed female Japanese guide commented when viewing similar carvings at a temple in Kyoto that I am familiar with that there was ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in the Japanese thinking regarding these carvings. I was dumbstruck by her evaluation because that’s how I would express the concept to a child, not to a client who was paying top dollar on my photo workshop and rightfully expecting authentic untold stories of Japan, with the real zen culture photographic experience. The carvings she was referring to are expressions of spirituality (Reiji Holy Spiritual Animals) as well as scholarly and philosophical-mystical beings of Buddhist and Shinto folklores.
The Zen Blue Hour Forest Photography Session was a blast. There is a multitude of images from that one Zen Garden and region, which is best viewed in the autumn and spring light. The images attached to this article are a few of those mind popping images that I captured in the misty blue- purple haze, we had the perfect overcast weather on our last two days at the base of Mt. Fuji, late November Autumn 2019. There are several zen gardens at the base of Mt. Fuji, and some are isolated housing national treasures in the buildings with mind-boggling zen gardens and no people ambling aimlessly. No one is queuing to take a photo as they do in capitals of Japan: Nara, Kyoto, and Tokyo in the so-called zen gardens or a few kilometers away at a lake with all the tourists. Aren’t zen gardens supposed to be sublime and private? If so, why are people lining up to take photos? My camera settings for the zen blue hour autumn leaves session were about 1/min – 3/min at f16 f11 ISO100 and these long exposure techniques pull every element in the image from the shadows and performs a balancing act, this creates an abstract process of the mind to create more vibrancy, an image the naked eye is unable to perceive. In one session, I specifically requested photography with no shadows and a touch of mist from the Zen Forest concierges, and to honor my request, a fog bank was called in, and the participants on the workshop received a few minutes of golden hour lighting with just one or two rays of sun breaking through, and then the blue hour was illuminated flawlessly. The fiery orange and red autumn leaves appear even more radiant with the colors having nowhere to hide.
My annual autumn in the Mt. Fuji photo tour concluded in December, and it was a photogenic cultural experience with sweet and pure Niigata sake fueling our evenings’ philosophical, cultural, historical, photographic discussions. During these times, I find discussing gear mundane. Throughout my 30 plus year career, I have been associated with the premiere names in photography, Gitzo, Manfrotto, Nikon, Canon, Wacom, Mac, Smithsonian, National Geographics, The Luminous Landscape, and others. Uniqball is the new kid on the block, true to its name, is one of a kind, and I feel they are selling themselves short. They claim that their gear is designed specifically for the wildlife and landscape photographer, but I feel that their products benefit every photographer and videographer. They still have a way to go for cinematographers, but they need a little push in the right direction from the right source. Since acquiring the UBH45XC Ballhead with X-Cross Clamp, plus the IQUICK3POD 36.4 tripod, and the UNIQBALL PANNING ARM and other accessories six months ago, I have had no desire or felt any need to use Gitzo or Manfrotto ballheads or tripods. Winter is upon us, and to give an honest and complete review of any product, I need to work with that product a full year in all conditions. My coming schedule is winter in Hokkaido, and my annual spring Cherry blossom pilgrimage, Kyushu to Hokkaido. I will first test my UNIQBALL gear on Japan’s most northern island, Hokkaido, photographing the romantic mate for life Red-Crowned Cranes, The Steller’s Sea Eagle, and various other raptors species, plus the largest herds of Sika Deer on our planet and stunning land and oceanscapes. I will also be testing the gear in Nagano and Niigata, which happens to be in the top 10 snowiest and harshest winter environments on our planet as well as home to Japan’s snow monkeys and huge numbers of migratory Whooper Swans whose colonies can number well over five thousand in a single flock. The final test of Uniqball’s gear will be photographing cherry blossoms combining Japan’s ephemeral sakura with Shinto Maidens, Maikos, and Geisha in spring wear and locations such as Matsumoto Castle, Takeda Castle, and the base of Mt. Fuji including the infamous Chureito Pagoda and the purple haze zen gardens.
Blain Harasymiw + Matthew Diaz