Photographers have been chasing the light since the 1820s when Nicephore Niepce successfully recorded an image using camera obscura. Before Nicephore Niepce, there were pioneers who contributed since the 1700s, creating a knowledge base from trial and error until Nicephore Niepce perfected the process with a lasting photographic image. My experience chasing the light as a professional photographer began more than 30 years ago, and I’ve always relied on the beginner’s mindset to guide me. My preferred themes are adventure and travel, and both are best served when I’m in the Za-zen zone paired with similarly minded visual artists who are also chasing the light to photograph spectacular moments in time. Non-natural visual artists are constantly distracted by the little things and have a narrow appreciation of their surroundings. Their chi is anticipating the next text message or update, but that steals the power and energy from breathing the moment. During my photography adventures, I encourage participants to remove distractions from their mindset such as setting their smartphones to ‘Do Not Disturb’ or ‘Manner’ mode while in the field. This allows the participants to reduce the amount of background noise interfering with their understanding of the beginner’s mindset.
The beginner’s mindset, in my opinion, must include a chapter on awareness for our environment and surroundings while on Zen photography-orientated adventures. Weather charts have been a fixture in my life since my childhood because I grew up in a wilderness town in northern Canada. Summers were short, yet filled with fun and excitement. My first trip to polar bear country was at age four, and I can still recount that experience. Also, my family went on two month-long canoe trips on river systems, such as the Nelson River and Harding Lake. Harding Lake is only accessible by canoe or air and is still the same to this very day. At age eight, I went on my first canoe trip, and even at that young age, my family and mentors had already taught me to respect and appreciate true wilderness, our environment, and First Nations People globally. Even then, my family were climate activists and worked closely with the founding members of the most widely known Environmental Climate Change movement groups. Because wilderness adventure photography and environmental sustainably is so important to me, I am constantly aware of how my actions, the actions of my team and participants on my workshops impact the environment, no matter what theme my workshop is focused on, such as birding/wildlife landscape, cloudscapes, architecture, among my many visual art themes.
My first few months in Japan were spent in the suburbs of Kanagawa Prefecture just outside of Tokyo, with my partner, now wife, Manami and her family. The forested mountains in the area are beautiful and lush with an abundance of hiking trails, monkeys, wild boar, deer, exotic bamboo forests, but after that first few months, I felt the need for some touring and exploration time. I had already acquired my Japanese driver’s license and purchased my Honda 650 Africa Twin. After a few days of planning, I was off to Mt. Fuji, where my family had booked me into a campground. The campground was crowded, and I knew I would be better off camping on the hiking trails of Kanagawa; I checked out after two nights. Luckily, the morning I had decided to check out, I met a kind Japanese gentleman who spoke English, explaining to me that it was permitted to camp around the forest of Mount Fuji. After half a day of searching, I found my new campsite on a well laid out hiking trail, with a small stream nearby, on the Northwest base of Mt. Fuji, in what I would later learn is named (Aokigahara – The Sea Of Trees). That night I slept calmly in the natural world. The following morning, I woke up unusually late, well after sunrise, due to the lack of light coming through the trees at my chosen campsite. After breakfast, I thought I would do a little hiking through the beautiful lush peat moss filled forest. After a few steps off the trail I was shocked, and luckily, I realized the ground beneath me was unstable with the possibility of volcanic crevices or a lava tube similar to those of Hilo, Hawaii. Lava tubes are natural underground passages that allow lava to stream beneath the surface of a lava flow—sometimes kilometers from the point of eruption. After the lava drains and dries, it leaves behind massive caves and tunnels. Carefully, I kneeled and spread my body out on the ground; I found I was walking on a thick layer of rich tundra peat moss with pockets of razor sharp lava rock below me. This was my first of hundreds of adventures in the Mt. Fuji – Aokigahara Forest, a forest with no soil with trees that grow in natural volcanic composted planting pots; during my numerous explorations, I have uncovered dozens of accessible ice caves and tunnels. 20 years later, I am still using the same trails when entering the forest while leading Mount Fuji Japan Photo Tours. The biggest difference now is the trail is sometimes busy with Japanese school children on fields trips. They are being educated on the forest’s eco-system, its natural beauty, and volcanic magnetic field facts, not the folklore that has haunted the forest for generations. The Aokigahara forest spans over 3000 hectares, and the forest is comprised primarily of Hemlock Fir, Japanese Cypress, other evergreens, and broadleafs such as the Longstalk Holly, Japanese Andromeda, Oak, Fuji Cherry, and Maple. The forest’s popularity is growing among nature photographers and fine art photographer with its incalculable mythological forms appearing from tree roots and moss growing in, around, and over volcanic lava and up the trees.
Invariably I was lead to study about the various species here in Japan and how their surroundings affect them. I discovered that more than 600 bird species have been recorded in Japan to date. Moreover, more than 60% are migratory. Approximately 60 species are endemic or sub-regional endemic. Japan is latitudinally long at over 3,000 kilometers and has 6,852 islands, and I have explored and photographed on over 200 of them. Japan’s flora and fauna are divided by two ecological lines, the Blakiston’s Line which is between Hokkaido and Honshu, and the Watase Line which is just below Kyushu. My observations prompted me to open a satellite office, actually it’s an amalgam of an office, studio, and home, a 100 year old traditional Japanese home with an irori (charcoal burning fire place with accompanying ceiling vent) and tatami mats. Many evenings are spent around the fire, making rice cakes and partaking of delicious green tea. Niigata is platinum for the birding, landscape, and oceanscape photographer. Niigata is almost equidistant between the Watase Line and the Blakiston Line, so during the migration seasons, hundreds of Japan’s 600 recorded species land in my neighborhood and nest in my backyard. During the winter, about one kilometer from me, there are over 3,000 Whooper Swans who feed in the rice fields and nest in the small lakes and ponds.
Hokkaido wildlife, specifically, is internationally recognized for its abundance and diversity. The Steller’s Sea Eagles are huge, beautiful, and fierce birds of prey; they have been known to feed on fawns. Local children don’t walk alone, but normally these massive birds of prey along with other fierce raptors feed pack-ice in the rich fishing waters of Japan’s north. My team, clients, and I board chartered vessels to photograph the Steller’s Sea-eagle in their natural feeding ground on pack ice. The white-tailed eagle, which is smaller and native to Japan, also feeds on pack ice next to the Steller’s sea eagle; tensions are high when fishing and the white-tailed eagle hold there own with the much larger and legendary sea eagles. People who have explored Hokkaido with me have photographed hundreds of eagles clutching live fish in their talons in flight, and while feasting, legendary air and land battles break out over who will chow down. Some Steller’s who are badly injured during these epic conflicts have to summer in Hokkaido, unable to join the migration back to the Kamchatka Peninsula where they breed and feast on fish.
So, if you visit Japan with me, you can enjoy birding and possibly experience an encounter with the largest herd of Sika Deer numbering close to 1,000 when they gather if my team and I feel that you possess the beginner’s mindset and you have the calm required. The paths are not for faint of heart, and it involves 4X4ing over ice where I must have calm and be able to read the Pacific Ocean tides and weather charts as we travel to make sure we can safely return. In the past five years, I’ve had three groups worthy and who would not panic in the experience. My other group were great wildlife photographers but were not calm, hardcore explorers with the beginner’s mindset. One of my core rules is never to break a group, but it has happened. On one occasion, half of my group went cross country skiing/snowshoeing with me, and the other half stayed with Jacque, a co-leader, with the SUVs in business class seating and accommodations. Both worlds have their appeals. Both groups were able to photograph the red-tailed fox, white-tailed eagle, black kite, golden eagle, and many other subarctic species. Sunrises and sunsets are extraordinarily beautiful on the Hokkaido stretch of coastline if you know the magical spots, as my team and I do.
Living in and leading photography orientated workshops in Japan for over 20 years, my interest and respect for wildlife, the wildlife culture, biodiversity – cultural values, and the human footprint on our environment and nature drove me to rid myself of my western ignorance, even knowing I was a Buddhist and considered somewhat enlightened at the time I entered Japan. I embraced Za-zen and shinrin-yoku a facet of Japanese Zen culture. Japanese Zen culture blends several different elements seamlessly together. People who don’t know Authentic Japan living inside or outside its territory have the conception that it’s a non-stop shoulder to shoulder experience with people packed in like sardines wherever you go in urban sprawls with bullet trains, traffic jams, and roadways overflowing with commuters, but in reality, over 70% of Japan is unpopulated Zen mountainous wilderness.
Tokyo and other major urban centers have lost touch with Authentic Japan. Tokyo is one of the safest cities on the planet to visit, yet the majority of Tokyo residents are not native to the region; they were, once upon a time, simple countryfolk. In contemporary Japan, most long to pilgrimage home during the Buddhist Obon summer holiday to reflect on their roots in Authentic Japan. They return home to the countryside to greet their family and parents with material gifts from the city, or omiyage in Japanese and with Buddhist prayer beads in hand. Obon is a time in Japan to honour the spirits of one’s ancestors. Outside the bustle of Tokyo, Osaka, Sapporo and other large urban centers, zen gardens at the Buddhist shrines and temples come alive during Obon, the natural landscapes have a calming effect and individuals naturally and seamlessly meditate without thought to do so, to gaze inside themselves and still their mind which translates to shared respect, and that respect emanates outside the individual to positively impact their footprint on others and the environment. On many occasions, friends staying at my Niigata beach house will walk to the store 15 minutes away, and it transforms into a one or two hour excursion infused with forest therapy at our local Zen Buddhist garden and shrine. It always happens. I never worry when visitors are a little behind schedule. I know precisely where they are, and I let them enjoy that moment of Zen.
From the amateur to master photographer, the Visual Arts in their purest, most fulfilling manifestation should be experienced as an adventure of a lifetime. Every photographer should be honored and humbled; today we have access to such amazing and advanced camera gear for our expression. Unfortunately, most photographers are not taking advantage of the today’s technological breakthroughs in our industry. I’m not explicitly referring to camera gear. A camera, for me, is simply an extension of my perspective; I’m so familiar with the past and present generation’s gear, it’s effortless for me to use. When I stumbled upon the D.T. Suzuki’s teachings and the beginner’s mindset, his philosophy regenerated my perspective back to the moment I first picked up a camera. I then understood I had been living his teachings since my youth. Mentors guided me from an early age to respect my environment, my surroundings and to treat all sentient and spiritual beings as my family. Unfortunately, preconceived notions about what constitutes lead to a confirmation bias. An adventure chasing the light will only show people with preconceived notions the fallacy of their perceptions and opinions. Authentic Japan is a beautiful and zen filled land where it took me 7-10 years to stop calling myself a visitor, and each time I learned something new, I would blend it into my subconscious, creating a deeper understanding. This practice rewards me sharpening my senses and constantly recalls me to the beginner’s mindset as each day brings me one more learning opportunity. When anyone wants to learn from me and contacts me without pretenses or under the guise of wanting to join a workshop, I have no problem sharing locations for wildlife encounters with Sika Deer, Steller’s Sea Eagles, or any other of Japan’s amazing wild inhabitants and landscapes, but knowing the location is only the beginning. For example, Roberto Hofman of Amsterdam who works for KLM reached out to me with no guile, asking for help assembling his itinerary from the snow monkeys to Hokkaido for him and his partner, so they would not run into any trouble. I helped from start to finish, and I asked for nothing in return. We spoke on the phone and emailed, and he asked to meet while I would be in Hokkaido. He picked me up at my hotel in Kushiro, and we spent the morning photographing the Red-crowned Cranes. His kindness in giving an edible memento from Amsterdam was more than enough compensation. I consider him a friend, and he has become a talented wildlife photographer. Zen means balance and calm, two aspects of humanity that may seem easy to achieve and obtain, but the majority cannot comprehend and achieve what D.T. Suzuki set out to teach. Suzuki-san’s teachings have lead me to adopt a multitude of photographic themes. To my agent, my multitude of theme is a contradiction for him, and we constantly battle about it, especially with photographic exhibitions and print. The expectation is to follow one theme, but my wild spirit and the beginner’s mindset go hand in hand which refuse to be constrained. I chase the light for everything in, on, around, and above the earth. My best work comes when all the distractions fall away, and even Zen is not in my consciousness.
Blain Harasymiw and Matthew Diaz