No explorer with backpack and camera in hand can escape the consequences of the decisions they have made. Two shining examples are Edmund Hillary or perhaps the Donner party. My team and I know the axiom ‘Fortune favors the bold’, as we have all been tested by the elements. My current team and I came together in Japan, and we have spent over 20 years together chasing the light discovering the ultimate photographic landscapes, flora, fauna, and wildlife opportunities, illuminating every visual artist’s theme, putting boot to ground on over 300 of Japan’s 6,852 islands. We continue scouting as adventurers should and shall. In our years of scouting in Japan, some of the highlights have been photographing the Steller’s Sea Eagles, snow monkeys, Mt. Fuji, Geisha and Kyoto, Nara, working with the First Nation’s people of Japan, the Ainu, and the Tokyo all-night tour of the city’s glittering skylines and the Shibuya pedestrian crossing, the busiest in the world, and our travels have also led us to the Kumano Kodo, one of Japan’s still active pilgrim routes that’s history reaches back a millennium to arguably Japan’s most famous power spots, Mt. Fuji. Unique and exotic Japan is a wondrous paradise, especially to live, and for the visitor, it’s home to countless scenes of exotic Zazen. For example, photographing and exploring historical sights in Japan, or journeying on pilgrim routes that pre-date the Sengoku period of Japan which lead through the metropolis’ such as Kyoto, Osaka, Nagasaki, Kagoshima, Kanazawa, Nara, Sapporo, Hakodate, Hirosaki, and Hachioji, Tokyo, and to locations where all ranks of samurai, artisans, and pilgrims tread the same locations off the beaten path such as Nikko, Hakone, Kamakura or the Fuji Five Lakes among myriad other Japanese must-see locations.
One of my philosophies is that every explorer and inspiring leader has two sides. The first side is the cool-headed, calculated leader who understands risk-taking and the limitations and potential of every person that has joined the adventure. The second side is pure instinct, and when extreme adventurers with years of experience form a sponsored team, the desire to experience the extreme increases exponentially, taking on objectives that 99.9% percent of people on the planet would not even consider doing alone, and at moments of peak intensity, every extreme adventurer knows they need to establish an equilibrium between the intensity of any sentient being striving for survival yet outwardly expressing the serenity and calm of a Zen Buddhist monk. No matter what the endeavor, a true leader must emerge, or the group could go the way of the Donner Party. The leader should consider himself or herself first among equals, and then adventures such as summiting one of the world’s Top 100 peaks after caravanning along a pilgrim’s route, snowboarding off a mountain face with a parachute, jumping out of perfectly functional airplanes with a parachute, snowboard, and ice axes are all on the menu. This list is only introductory; there are so many more extreme zones to explore. During the start of my extreme expedition days, nobody had a smartphone or social media accounts to post feats or locations, but we did stay in touch with our loved ones and some sponsors by satellite phone. In those days, most explorers were academics or on sponsored teams, like NatGeo, The North Face, Helly Hansen, and Mountain Hardwear, among others. Today it’s rather weird; many consider themselves adventurers or photographers on social media. Only in recent history have there been queues to summit Mt. Everest, with most snapping a selfie with a smartphone to commemorate the experience. I feel adept using technology, but I still refuse to carry a smartphone, nor do I want to purchase one. I like privacy at home and on my adventures and the ability to immerse myself in whatever I’m experiencing. That being said, I don’t like to toot my own horn, and I rarely share what team or explorations I have been a member of or what books, magazines, or videos my works are published in. My thinking always returns to the Zen Buddhist Beginner’s Mindset. I recall reading an interview that Ansel Adams did, and the question was something similar to: “which photo or assignment is your best or your favorite?” His reply was telling: “The photo I’ll take next.” Part of being an individual who thrives in extreme sports is having a motto or credo not to overshare what adventures we take part in. Everyone involved knows our deeds, and we feel no need to continually bring up or share photos on social media because we are looking forward to our next adventure. Honestly, I joined social media late, and I’m still not entirely on-board with it and may never be, but I’ll stick with it and see what develops for now.
A story that I will share was an adventure for most yet only sightseeing for others, which you can see in the front page clipping above from a few years back while I was visiting family in Canada and decided to take my dog, Zeus, out for an afternoon paddle on a river in early spring. I have been canoeing the waterways of the world since I was old enough to be in a canoe, so a few ice jams or even being held up for 30 minutes didn’t bother me in a puncture-proof canoe. I had provisions in the canoe, and most importantly, experience. Unfortunately, some passersby transposed their anxiety onto me while I was delayed in a small ice jam and called emergency services to ‘save me.’ I told the bystanders in no uncertain terms that I didn’t need saving by anyone because I knew that the ice jam would shift, and in a few short minutes to an hour, I would continue my paddle downriver and would be picked up before sunset. However, the emergency service corps arrived in about 15 minutes, and they hurriedly prepared to send out two rescuers in wet suits in a Zodiac boat, but before they could depart, I identified myself as a rescue specialist and exclaimed, “Get the line guns!” “A what?” was their reply. I found myself shouting where on their vehicle they could find the line gun, as I thought to myself, “Go Away” and then “What a waste of time and Canadian taxpayers’ money.” After giving a crash course in how to load and use the line gun, they fired but got the projectile and line tangled up in the trees above them. The second try was a dud shell, so after two failed attempts, I was in the same state I had been since the start of this debacle. Finally, the two rescuers attempted to cover the 40 meters in their Zodiac boat to reach me, but as they were approaching the 20 meter mark, I could hear the ice jam beginning to shift, and after a quick survey of the ice jam around me, I warned them to “Stay back” and “Get to shore!” They had no lifeline on their Zodiac, and I expressed my displeasure with their lack of proper preparation loud and clear. Moreover, a Zodiac boat could have been punctured by a foreign object in the ice, the ice itself, or even trapped in an ice jam, and from the ‘rescue workers’ actions to that point, I didn’t trust them, so there was no chance of Zeus or me getting in that boat. The shift in the ice occurred as I knew it would, and I jumped out on an ice sheet and then back into my canoe, then paddled myself and Zeus to shore in about 10 seconds. It was then they threw me a lifeline, which I summarily rejected. Thirty minutes later, the emergency workers also finally made land. When I docked, I asked to speak to the Fire Chief and exchanged a few words before resuming my trip downriver. A few days later, I had lunch with the Fire Chief, and he offered me a position to train his rescue workers for winter river rescues, but rather than myself, I recommended a colleague who took the reins and trained their teams so they could potentially help someone who needs an actual rescue.
Choices have consequences, as I mentioned earlier, and every extreme adventurer on average will spend at least a year hospitalized due to unforeseen events, sometimes as many as five or more. I’ve been lucky, as my total inpatient time has been capped at two years from several mishaps. Doctors have told me three times that I won’t walk right or even walk at all. I was in the category of an adventurer whose life expectancy was markedly shorter than the average human being. Mother Nature does not care which professional outdoor gear and goods sponsorships you have; your life can still be cut short by way of an avalanche or other act of God. While sitting in the hospital and then at home after my last mishap, thinking about my rehabilitation, I talked it over with my wife, Manami, “We need to try something different.” She replied, “A different…country?” I said, “No, let’s take an adventure on the other side of Japan, a healing adventure for the both of us.” We then discovered what would become our second home, the community of Echizenhama, where we moved into and helped completely renovate a 100-year-old kominka (traditional Japanese home). I knew the restoration would be arduous, and the only people qualified were traditional Japanese master carpenters, people who are the contemporary embodiment of generations of dedicated craftsmen. Individuals who have received the teachings as apprentices and understand the form and function of a nailless Japanese home with bamboo, straw, and fermented mud used as insulation and to improve structural support. The craftsmen are keeping traditional Japanese construction alive, which is becoming rarer and rarer, less than 5% of carpenters know this craft, and I have a feeling the concierge of the Zen forest intervened on our behalf to help keep the Japanese tradition alive for a little longer. These master carpenters tend to the structures around Japan’s power spots so people in Japan today can marvel at the Japanese dogma and dedication where the master carpenter’s trained eye tuned to every detail. And their commitment to their craft makes visiting castles, temples, shrines, and traditionally built homes possible in the modern age.
The only way to regain my spiritual and physical strength was a new challenge, and I had always envisioned myself in a traditional Japanese home. After a five-month search, my wife and I found the perfect kominka in Echizenhama. All the stars aligned, and every piece of the puzzle naturally fell into place. Within a week, we had the house chosen and master carpenters, amazingly, all three of whom were in their 70s, who were ready to lead the complete restoration. In a meeting during the planning, Sanada-san, the lead master carpenter in the presence of his wife, told me before they started, “This is our last job.” For old time’s sake, they took on the project for my family. At first reluctant, they sensed our connection to the home and the land, so they gathered their traditional Japanese tools and got to work with an entourage of sub-contractors in charge of foundation cement, roofing, kitchen, plumbing and fixtures, and preserving the original Japanese architectural aesthetic. From the roofing, the flooring, and the aged wood support beams, everything was stripped down to a skeleton then built back up. Echizenhama was perfectly positioned amid an onsen hot spot, the Sea of Japan, and a Buddhist sanctuary where nuns and monks have been trained since the inception of Buddhism into Japan. Moreover, all my neighbors were kind and welcoming. I knew that I had found a place to mend my broken body and spirit and a place to call home. While my wife and I assisted with the housing reform, the carpenters built a storage shed with a door and window to which I affixed my cooking tent. For five months, I channeled my inner outdoorsman and slept comfortably while I followed my daily rehabilitation regimen. The master carpenters taught me how to use tools to restore a traditional Japanese home, an assortment of skills. Becoming proficient in the ways of traditional Japanese carpentry was one of my rehabilitation benchmarks. Glue, saws, and sandpaper were my new best friends. I have always fancied myself a modern-day MacGuyver, so I was a quick study, and at the restoration’s end, I was no longer using crutches to get around. The doctors who were initially in charge of my rehabilitation thought walking unassisted would always be impossible. When I arrived at the office for my check-up with just a walking stick, their mouths gaped open. With the help of Echizenhama and the power spot it rests on, my body was mostly healed. This is the power of my new home in Niigata, Japan.
Once I had received the power from my home, I re-joined my adventures in Japan and a few abroad, happily spending about two of the last four years in Echizenhama, but traditional homes need maintenance and upkeep, and the master carpenters warned me as they finished my kominka that as I had chosen traditional stained cedar siding, that it would need to be re-stained 4 – 5 years later. As predicted, 4 – 5 years later, when the scaffolding went up around my home, I understood the magnitude of the project I had undertaken. Every surface of my home needed my attention, and I set myself to the project of applying layers of cedarwood stain, glue, and lumber to fix here and there. The sun had bleached some of the color of the walls, and I knew that some areas would positively soak up stain requiring three to five coats to make an even color. With my beginner’s mindset and tools in hand, I scaled the steps to the first wall I would stain and communed with the house. No words were spoken, but I know that sentiments were exchanged. The house prepared itself for its beautification and maintenance, and I prepared myself for the 5-week project of dedicating approximately 10 hours a day, six days a week, to complete, so it was time to give back some of the power I had received from my home and change roles from healed to a healer. As I had regained my strength during the time I observed while my kominka was restored years before, I knew I had to be involved with every step of the process.
During my time spent at my Niigata base camp, it has been gratifying to explore and make it truly a place to call home. I started personal pilgrimages as Zen Buddhist monks, Shinto Priests, artisans, the samurai, local citizens, and even travelers from abroad such as William Adams, known widely as Samurai Williams, one of the few non-Japanese who had done so in the Edo Period. More than one kind of samurai has walked these ancestral paths throughout Japan, and I, myself, have been treading on the same samurai paths from past generations in search of inner peace and where the energy of Japan naturally resides, on pilgrim’s routes and focused in power spots, as on Sado Island in Niigata. Niigata is a prefecture in Japan where authentic Japan thrives, where samurai and Buddhist treasures are hidden from the eyes of ordinary tourists but on full display for people who know what questions to ask and what to look for. Sado Island specifically is home to the Kodo drumming troupe, which traces the routes of their power taiko drumming back to the origins of Japan itself. Not only musical expression, but Sado is home to untouched temples and traditions that have been protected since their inception into Japanese custom.
Another symbol of Japan’s rich history is the Kofun period. There are over 160,000 Kofun sites, including villages, places of worship, and burial mounds spread across the country, and thousands of them can be found in Niigata. I know the locations of hundreds, and as a historian, I have made it my job to research the origins and learn the history surrounding these fascinating archaeological phenomena. Only a handful of the mounds are officially recognized by the caretakers, the Imperial family, so there are exploring and adventure to be had, and I always rise to the challenge. As mentioned in a previous article, Kofun builders are a mystery to the common Japanese person and possibly the emperor himself because he is not allowed to view or handle some of the sacred relics. This was documented during the most recent coronation. Only the highest-ranking Shinto Priests were allowed to view and handle them. The reasons for this escape me, as if the answers may shake up the tidy historical narrative. I would be curious to see the DNA test results of several sarcophagi held in the Kofun mounds. If you’ve ever given serious consideration to the cuneiform language and the legacy the creators have left, you would be acquainted with the origin of the torii gates. And the Ainu stories tell us of a people different from Asians in the Kofun Period.
However, if your only information about Japan is from a World Map, you may think Japan is a tiny island nation because many of its riches are not immediately evident. Yet, Japan is 3,000 kilometers long, and 70% is unpopulated wilderness, which means that every region of the country holds different treasures. Niigata prefecture shines particularly brightly because of its pristine nature, where you can dip your cup into the water of any fresh, high alpine mountain stream to drink, as Niigata is naturally shielded by high mountains from Fukushima. In my opinion, Niigata is equal to Hokkaido in landscape and nature. Yet as I mentioned before, Niigata is similar but different than other regions such as Hokkaido, as the wildlife and landscapes widely vary, so rather than the Stellar’s Sea Eagle, Red-crowned Crane, Ezo Red Fox, and the White-tailed Eagle, a few kilometers from my home in a lake, I have the pleasure of seeing 1000s of Whooper Swans from autumn to spring, plus Niigata an abundance of Black Bears, and medium-sized goat-like or antelope-like mammals of the genus Capricornis called Kamoshika. In Niigata, as with most of Japan, several camping locations off the beaten path are close to snow monkey troops. More than 600 bird species have been recorded in Japan to date, and Niigata is in the middle of Japan’s busiest migratory birding route. Considering that 60% of the bird species are migratory, the avian visitors to Niigata are too numerous to count, and that means that amazing birding photo ops exist year round.
Speaking of year-round events, Niigata is home to countless astounding ancient festivals that happen throughout the year, and during summer specifically, you can spend equal time reveling in the food stands, the yukata-clad (summer kimono) men and women, the performances, and the rich cultural mores expressed in dance and ceremony. If a quieter ceremony is what you desire, with a more serene sanctuary for meditation and spiritual focus, then as a traveler and avid searcher for my spiritual center, I know the shrines, temples, and peaceful locations where you can shut out distractions and fully imbibe in Niigata Japan’s authentic serenity. Perhaps you need to clear your mind and soul with a sunset or an astonishing seascape. If you visit Niigata in spring, you can view the most breathtaking sakura the country has to offer or autumn’s golds, oranges, and reds in the true wild frontier of Japan. Niigata has all these experiences and more. Another distinction that Niigata shares are, unlike the metropolitan centers where there is passive surveillance of visitors, Niigata’s residents share a collective understanding that individuals from any nation sometimes require a pilgrimage and will respect your privacy as you find your spiritual center. Maybe the way to your heart is through your palate? You’re in luck. Niigata is famous for fresh fish, healthy food, and organic agriculture, unlike its Kanto-region based cousins. And the piece de resistance is Japanese rice wine, saké. Niigata has, hands down, the best rice in the country and, as a result, the most flavorful and sumptuous rice wine. On every photo adventure, I carry a bottle or two, one drinks like water, and one with just a little more spice for those seeking a little more adventure.
The concierge of Zen forest helps me find Japan’s energy and introduces me to the different possibilities that exist while photographing iconic Mt. Fuji, Hokkaido, or anywhere. Still, I felt most guided when they led me to Niigata. This sort of spirituality, or ‘flow’ as I sometimes call it, does not inhabit just one Japanese location. Many locations possess a singular sort of energy or flow, and I have spent more than two decades harnessing that energy to create still images and video that add quality and depth to my lives and those of the people who choose to stand with me and let the static and interference of the outside world fade away and honor the sentient beings and nature captured in our photographs.
Blain Harasymiw (Hair-some-you) has been sharing some of his stories and adventures about Niigata with Matthew Diaz, and it’s clear that even though Matthew has lived here for 9 years, he still needs to explore the backcountry and join in the off the beaten path festivities for good times and celebrations infused with some soothing meditation. Once social distancing calms down, Blain and Matthew will set out to explore Niigata and tick off a few more of Japan’s 6,852 islands. We have our sights set for the autumn of 2021, and we feel by then or in 2022, the world will be unlatched, healing with celebration and meditation.