As a pro photographer living in Japan, I have had assignments and led Japan photography tours to almost every prefecture across Japan, but two of my favorites are leading a Hokkaido photo tour and leading a Niigata private photo tour and assignments. And both of these prefectures are the wild frontiers of Japan. And I have satellite offices in both Niigata and Hokkaido, but my Hokkaido office is currently unmanned due to Covid-19, and my staff left Hokkaido for the Kanto region, and because I am presently in Niigata Prefecture. Usually, this time of year, I would be with the entire family at our main home in Japan, just outside of Tokyo in Kanagawa, but this year, we have canceled Christmas and New Year Holiday parties, and we have made the decision to remain in Niigata due to its relatively low numbers of Covid-19 cases; in Niigata, as of December 23, 2020, there are a total of 448 cases 72 active and 3 fatalities. This is a stark difference from our main home in Kanagawa, a few kilometers from Tokyo, where the Covid-19 case numbers are in the tens of thousands. My wife and I invited our immediate family in Kanagawa to come and live with us until Covid-19 is a thing of the past. Still, they decided to remain in Kanagawa, so I sent them 3M N95 masks and sanitizers, hoping they make it safely through. Even now, 3M N95 masks are widely available in Japan. During the first half of the pandemic, they were hard to come by, but just the other day, I bought a few hundred 3M N95s with fresh air vent without a problem. The disturbing part for me about this is that at hospitals or other medical facilities outside of the COVID wards, all staff are wearing ordinary medical masks. And in Niigata, Tokyo, Kanagawa, I have only seen my staff and family wearing N95 masks.
Internationally I am in constant communication with friends, family, and clients. I tell them of the numbers in Niigata and across Japan, and most say, “Oh, wow! That is low,” or “Wow, is that ever good,” and then a few continue to comment that, “if I were there, I would go out and eat at restaurants and be able to enjoy photography with you.” I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I then inform them we are in self-quarantine, we only go shopping once or twice a month, and we do not eat at restaurants or go out for trips to enjoy photography even during autumn colors this year. Instead of enjoying Japanese autumn leaves, I spent five weeks staining the cedar siding on my house, plastering and doing carpentry on my 100-year-old traditional Japanese home. And our only outing this year since March was twice for camping with snow monkeys in the backcountry, and I triple checked with friends who live in these regions that there were no people milling about or camping in the region; they went up to check the camping area and gave us the green light. And this will be the first winter I can remember not leading my annual group Hokkaido Photo Tour that includes Mt. Fuji and an ancient Kofun site and is known across Japan as a power spot. It has an ancient Shinto Shrine built over it. I also include an original Samurai Castle plus snow monkeys; then we fly off to winter wonderland Hokkaido. This photo tour and the majority of my photo tours are business class, and I usually pay for all beverages, plus all meals are included, and I have water, juice, and snacks in the SUVs.
Niigata has more appeals than low Covid-19 numbers. It is a birder's paradise because of its position on Japan’s main island, Honshu. Over 600 bird species have been recorded across Japan, and the majority are migratory, more than 60%. Approximately 60 species are endemic or sub-regional endemic. 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. And Niigata is right in the middle of these lines and is in the busiest birding migration route in Japan, and possibly Asia. Japan is latitudinally long at over 3,000 kilometers long and has 6,852 islands. I have led workshops on over a hundred of these islands and have explored and photographed on over 200 of these islands, probably closer to 300. I have been scouting Niigata for over five years, and last year, I finally had a new route open for autumn. It was a fully booked and amazing photo tour, but the Covid-19 situation means no workshops this year, so I am looking forward to the autumn of 2021 or 2022 instead. Niigata is truly a wild and beautiful part of Japan, and I am much more comfortable visiting and living in the wild frontier than I am visiting and living in a city or the suburbs; I am a backcountry person through and through.
Recently, I published another article on The Luminous Landscape, and here is an excerpt from that article about Niigata and my time in the prefecture.
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).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.
The Luminous Landscape has thousands of in-depth articles and hundreds of hours of video tutorials and is one of the world’s largest photography forms; it’s a great place for photographers of any level, from beginner to pro. The Luminous Landscape was founded by Michael Reichmann in 1998, and today Michael’s son, Josh, stepped in to lead the Luminous Landscape, and The Luminous Landscape’s future looks bright and prosperous. Josh and his wife, 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. In their own words, my 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. I’m looking forward to partnering with the Luminous Landscape again and, I'm excited to integrate photography with Buddhist meditation and philosophies. This will be a groovy Japan photo workshop at our most sacred cherished power spots on and off the pilgrim's routes.
Visiting and touring Japan with camera in hand is fantastic, but the biggest challenge for international photographers who wish to see authentic Japan and visit the right power spots has always been to find the right partnership. And I am a firm believer in scouting a region. At the bare minimum, it takes me two years to scout a region before I will lead a photo tour to that region; sometimes, the preparation takes up to five years. Just a week or two of sampling of a region once will not show me enough of the seasonal weather patterns for my planned photo tour, so thorough scouting is necessary. Natural phenomena such as typhoons and winter blizzards, among others, could occur or any number of other difficulties. After my scouting topographically learning weather and the suns horizons at locations to take my clients for my photo tour, I make a point during my scouting to stop in and introduce myself to the local camera club, local authorities, such as rangers, emergency services, police, and other agencies, so I know which roads and pathways, mountain passes, and volcanoes are high and low risk, and my team and I map all of this on a paper map and digital map with Garmin Base Camp which I always have on hand. I firmly believe photo workshop leaders who scout for only a few days a week or two are dangerous for their clients. I would not trust them to lead me anywhere, as they do not know the roads or backroads, or emergency service numbers, or who to call, and most likely, they do not speak the country’s language. Even if they do have a tour guide, that tour guide is probably cut from the same cloth as the workshop leader, so is not an experienced explorer and does not carry a compass nor understand how to relay their position by GPS coordinates, relying instead on a smartphone. Wi-fi in the backcountry is intermediate at best. And in many areas in Japan, emergency services in the backcountry will not come in to clear a road of fallen trees or rescue you in the middle of a typhoon or a volcanic eruption, so best of luck relying on a smartphone and limited knowledge of the surroundings. My advice to anyone who wants to take a photo workshop safely is to use a local team and not go with who is trending on social media or Google unless they are using a local, experienced team. I can’t emphasize enough the need to do your own research before joining a photography workshop in Japan or anywhere.
If you need more proof that an experienced team is the best way to see authentic Japan, I’m going to share an example of a rare happening to my team and me that occurred this February while I was leading my annual Hokkaido Photo Tour. The following is another excerpt from an article published on The Luminous Landscape.
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. 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. 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 shut down. 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.
In closing, 2020 has been challenging, a year that I am happy to say is nearly over, but it’s also been one to remember, as I recall other occasions that I’ve tested my survival instincts to help myself to be able to help others. This year has cast me into the role of teacher, as I educate the people in my community and in my prefecture about how to improve their daily habits to maintain high levels of safety. As I mentioned above, I have put myself and my immediate family into self-imposed lockdown. And I estimate we will be able to pop our heads out to breathe fresh air in about March, and hopefully, portable test kits will be available this winter with a high level of accuracy. I have my annual Essence of Cherry Blossom Sakura Cross Country Photo Tour planned for April 1 - 11, 2020, but I feel I will most likely postpone it until 2022. But I am hopeful that my Essence of Autumn Cross Country Journey - Japan Photo Expedition and my annual Mt. Fuji Autumn Leaves Photo Tours will be good to go, and my Hokkaido Photo Tour schedule for February 14, 2022, Valentine’s Day start will be good to go. All of these photo adventures are close to fully booked, and I am looking forward to getting back to chasing the light.
My Japan Photo Workshops will have a slightly different complexion going forward. There are many conspiracy theories being passed around regarding Covid-19, but I am not buying into them. All my conclusions concerning Covid-19 are built from provable facts from reliable sources. “Covid-safe” is a pipe dream! I’ve seen and read about companies claiming their businesses are ‘Covid-safe.’ As a former frontline care worker myself, I am sure the assertion of ‘Covid-safe’ is directed to calm consumers and not actually indicate true safety. The only way I’ll run tours if there is a vaccine, portable test kits, and clients are going to have a choice of N95s with fresh air vents unless a client has breathing difficulty. All clients will be tested on arrival. Moreover, I will test all clients before they get into the SUV and sit beside anybody else. There will be Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) sets for every client. Plus, every hotel will get double and triple checked for proper sanitization. I will walk every room to ensure safety before anyone enters the hotel. The hotels which I choose to stay in the future with clients are accommodations I have been welcome to for years, and most will be way off the beaten path.