Camping in the Japanese Highlands with Snow Monkeys

Landscape & Environment

August 21, 2020 ·

Blain Harasymiw

During summer every year, I start looking forward to my Autumn Leaves Photo Tours and my Hokkaido Photo Tour that are usually just around the corner, or I start planning my photo adventures locally to picturesque locations like Mt. Fuji, Sado Island or the city of Yahiko in Niigata where the autumn leaves are breathtaking and bring people from all over Niigata, all over Japan, and even some international visitors to witness the beautiful reds, golds, and oranges that arrive each year.

However, what’s been exceptional this year is that my family, team, and I around Japan are off the grid.  We are spending our days either in the Japanese highlands with Japanese macaques or at my traditional Japanese countryside home, a 10 minute walk to a sparsely populated 3 kilometer long beach.  We are supporting our worldwide frontline healthcare workers during this trying period, and I will not be hosting any group photo excursions until my annual Cherry Blossom Photo Tour in 2021.  Part of staying safe is being mentally healthy, too, and everyone’s adventurous spirit propelled us to take a photo expedition because spring and summer had been spent in a self-imposed lockdown.  Our mid-summer getaway had to wild enough to slake our thirst for adventure while remaining as safe as possible.  A primary prerequisite was that the location has wildlife, preferably snow monkeys (Japanese macaques), birds, deer, a waterfall or river, and a spectacular landscape with sunrise or sunset view.  Safety and comfort while on an expedition are two more key considerations for me, so I spent hours over several days checking weather charts and locations; it’s summer in Japan, and that means severe humidity and extreme heat.  For a safe summer camping adventure in extreme heat, even in the highlands, a mountain river with waterfalls close to camp is a must as the waterfall will work as a natural air conditioner, keeping the weather around camp cool and refreshing.  After much research, I found an acceptable off the grid location.  We set up camp with the nearest homestead about 3 kilometers downhill.  We drove up in our SUVs into the highlands bordering Niigata and Yamagata, where we removed ourselves from the incessant deluge of information about the pandemic and inescapable social distancing.  My team and I could then turn our attention to nature and local wildlife that surrounded us.

For over 20 years, I have visited with the snow monkeys hundreds of times, interacting with over 50 troops across Japan.  Contrary to the touristy image associated with the Japanese macaque, identified as the snow monkey because they are the most northerly living non-human primates, photographers may enjoy visiting with them during any season.  Of the more than 100,000 wild snow monkeys across Japan, less than 250 of them congregate in three separate troops in the region around the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park in Nagano, Japan, and this location represents over 99.5% of where visitors go.  Rather than take the risk today of standing elbow to elbow with many other photographers, I have the luxury of encountering snow monkeys as an adventurer and photographer in the wild.  However, when hosting clients, the Snow Monkey Park represents a 100% certainty of encounter whereas if I were to track them in the wild, I could guarantee a Teteatete, but it may take days to track down a troop, and there’s a high probability of snow monkeys displaying aggressive behavior protecting their troop and being territorial which makes photography challenging.  At least once a year, I have a request from clients or a commercial assignment to track and photograph or film snow monkeys.  Almost every troop in Japan has at least one or several members who are fitted with radio collars for tracking.  Consequently, anyone dedicated to the task should successfully be able to track a troop of Japanese macaques.   With camera in hand and every time I visit with these beautiful sentient beings, I am happy, eager with enthusiasm and prepared to say ‘hello,’ pay my respects to the Alpha and the elders in the troop, and meet the youngsters. One word of warning, this type of adventurous photography is lean.  There are no cafes or boulangeries providing hot coffee and freshly baked baguettes at your beck and call, but I do provide comforts at base camp.



It’s challenging to skirt the line between establishing a safe area where the Japanese macaques manifest enough curiosity to visit and also respecting the fact they are wild and should not be too comfortable around a human campsite.  It takes years of experience, the beginner’s mindset, and an open heart to understand and uphold the boundaries that exist between the wildlife I have encountered all my life and the human world in which I live.  As part of my life’s work, I have spent over six years in the deep bush, surviving, communing with nature, and practicing shinrin-yoku, forest bathing.  The reason I have a camera in hand today, mostly in the wild, is that I was born into an adventurers’ family, and we were taught how to survive, photograph, and respect the wild, and I fancy documenting our natural world.  I have been honing my survival skills since my youth, and I have put boot to ground on well over 100 countries on every continent, and I have been tested on every terrain with my camera. With snow monkeys, I am overjoyed at experiencing their individuality.  Whenever I’m leading an adventure in Japan or elsewhere on our planet with clients, friends, or family, I practice and share the beginner’s mindset.


A great philosopher and teacher of Zen, D.T. Suzuki, once said, “I like Zen because whatever you do is Zen and everywhere and everything is Zen.” Japanese dogma has made “Zen,” a household word known around the world. Japan’s aesthetics are drawn inspirationally from elements of nature and Buddhist teachings. The art of traditional Japanese getaway is to appreciate the aesthetically pleasing elegant simplicity that our natural surroundings provide and has inspired and fascinated generations of philosophers, adventurers, and artisans. The spiritual master, Shunryu Suzuki, was born a short drive from my Kanagawa, Japan home and photography studio.  He lived and taught the beginner’s mindset, as I do now.  The “beginner’s mindset” in Zen Buddhism is called ‘Shoshin,’ having an attitude of openness and lack of preconceptions when approaching any subject or travel, even when applying it an advanced level, similar to the awe and wonderment a beginner would express interacting with a fresh scene or subject for the first time.  For as long as I can remember, I have striven to hold strong and live the beginner’s mindset.  A technique that works for me is meditation before and after photography, helping me clear my mind of any preconceived notions and brings me back into the beginner’s realm.  Often when I am photographing, I am in an altered state of consciousness, so my camera is not just a tool that I am using more an extension of my mindset.



If you’d like to find some adventure and meet the concierge of the Zen forest once social distancing subsides, my team and I have experiences and Japan Photo Tours and Workshops for every type of adventurer.  Also, the sun’s solar minimum is now subsiding, so I will be offering  Aurora Borealis photo tours along with polar bears hopefully next year or in 2022.  This will be the first time I plan on resuming Aurora Borealis Photo Tours since the solar minimum began.  Plus, my team and I have a few other destinations that are in development.



Blain Harasymiw and Matthew Diaz

August 2020

Blain Harasymiw (Hair-some-you) is a pro photographer, adventurer, historian, Buddhist, wildlife conservationist, and educator, and he respects all sentient and non-sentient beings. Japan is over 70% unpopulated mountainous wilderness!  So Blain is hopeful that this winter or next, he can introduce Matthew to wild snow monkeys, hot springs, and a camping trip in Japan’s wild, mountainous frontier.

(Editors note: The Luminous Landscape has initiated plans to host a meditation and photographic group trip to Japan. The owners and editors of Lula (Josh and Irene Reichmann Cortes) are professional mindfulness and meditation facilitators with decades of Buddhist training and meditation retreat experience. Irene for example has spent years working and living in South Korea and Japan involved in her practice. Both Josh and Irene have gone on pilgrimage to Mongolia and elsewhere with renowned teachers. Blain’s own practice and unique experience in Japan makes this a wonderful opportunity to share in offering a profound learning retreat for all photographers aiming to sharpen the inner and outer lens! Stay tuned as details develop over time or reach out to get involved!

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Blain Harasymiw

Who better to write about Blain, then his sister. Blain grew up in a wilderness town in northern Canada. Summers were short, yet filled with fun and excitement. His first trip to polar bear country was at age four, and he can still recount that experience. Also, our family went on month-long canoe trips that were only accessible by canoe or air and is still the same to this very day. Wilderness is a way of life for us, and everyone did their part as survival depended on it. At eight, Blain went on his first canoe trip, and even at that young age, he knew to respect and appreciate true wilderness. Our luxury was watching the bright evening sky filled with stars and the Borealis dancing around us. Our camera gear was light and compact, and our mother custom made watertight cases to ensure our memories were kept safe. Film was even more safeguarded. I can still envision the 70′ (21 meters) escarpment that we climbed with our supplies and three canoes to bypass the cascading waterfalls mere feet away. On another trip, we came across a beaver dam like none we had ever seen. The river disappeared, and we were in a boundless lake of entwined forest. Blain was so eager to investigate, yet at age ten we took caution, and he stayed in the canoe. Years later, where is Blain? He's on the front page of a national newspaper for canoeing. This was no ordinary canoeing; this was early spring canoeing. Bystanders on shore thought he was stuck in an ice jam. I know my brother well, and the reporter's pictures confirmed that he simply walked off the ice pulling the canoe. Blain is one of the few that I would trust in a canoe or on a wilderness adventure. In Blain’s late teens we spent many summers together adventuring waterways that few maps could tell us what lies ahead. A few years later he took those adventures to new heights and with a camera in one hand and ambition in the other he set off to the Canadian Rockies to make his mark. This is where he met his wife, Manami. His stories of the outback and mountain climbing came to life when he sent me the first of many photos. As time passed Blain’s passion turned towards becoming a professional photographer, and to no surprise a few years later he was offered a position in an acclaimed Japanese photography company. For more than 20 years, Blain has called Japan home. His photography assignments have taken him to remarkable places throughout the world, and many of his photos were published in magazines, books and displayed on billboards. Now as a freelance photographer and with a busy schedule, Blain and Manami always find the time to take me on non stop adventures when in Japan. Imagine hiking through thick brush and forest, no trails, no markings, what incredible fun! Then it appears in all its glory; Mt Fuji. With me, Blain takes no beaten path. Blain’s wild spirit can find adventure anywhere; just around the corner of his home or up to the highest accessible regions of Japan. To experience the true beauty of a country, as a photographer or simply wanting to take in the sites, a professional photographer is the way to do it and my brother Blain will truly deliver to you a new perspective of Japan like no other.

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