The Fleeting and the Elusive / by Michael Ryan

I finally decide to get close to nature far from city lights and any chance of a cappuccino.

Cityscapes are more my thing – well I live in a gigantic city (of somewhere between 22 and 30 million people depending on what source you read) that’s as flat as a pancake fresh from a fight with a steam roller. I know how to compose a cityscape. But when I’m in the countryside... well where have all the buildings gone? It’s really not the same trying to frame a picture when all the familiar elements are missing. Where are all the hard edges and vertical lines? I do wish I had more opportunities but the nearest countryside is a few hours flight away.

And if I did create an opportunity where would I go and what kind of landscape would I choose? Understanding the myriad of potential shots in any one location I knew I had not developed a strong sense of what mother nature has to offer me aesthetically. I didn’t want to wander around in a bamboo forrest or a lake district snapping left, right and centre, returning home only to find I had hundreds of ‘not bad’ photos and not one good one. Never mind how I know that can happen! (Really, never mind, you mind your own business!)

 Lost! Waylayed at a mysterious junction.

Lost! Waylayed at a mysterious junction.

So I researched the genre thoroughly i.e. I watched Thomas Heaton on YouTube. He’s a highly entertaining and talented landscape photographer if you’re at all interested. In many of his videos I saw him eek out a great photo from a scene or a simple crack in a rock face or fallen leaves that I would stomp right over and figured it could be a folly to even try. However inspired by his Matterhorn video, it hit me. Yes, that’s the kind of scene that appeals to me, the singular and the monumental. Architectural, almost. And while not wiling to fly to Europe I was only a few hours away from Mt. Fuji. Or so I thought!

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 There is nothing spooky to see here.

There is nothing spooky to see here.

As my wife had wanted to take a trip to Japan anyway it was an easy sell. We booked flights and hotels and off we took for a one week tour of Tokyo, Fuji and Nagoya. And that was my first mistake. Each of these destinations was an excellent choice on their own. I don’t think I need to sell Tokyo to anyone. Or even Mt. Fuji and the Japanese countryside with it’s quaint (if somewhat reminiscent of many horror movies) little wooden houses. And Nagoya offered a range of family fun from Legoland to the Zoological & Botanical Gardens as well as shopping and just generally enjoying the geniality.

The Japanese are worldwide famous for being inventive and innovative if not simplistic. From technological innovations to architectural marvels and delicious food to adorable cartoon characters. So was everyone on a week off when the railway system was designed? I’ve been to Japan many times and almost every time I get stymied by the complex web of train companies, rabbit warren stations, and multiple ticket trains. I once took a bullet train that required two tickets. But I couldn’t get the stall to open with either of the tickets. I eventually called for help and the station attendant showed how I had to sandwich them together and put them through the machine at the same time to open the gate. Of course!


Suffice it to say that we got lost and laywayed on our route to Mt. Fuji several times. What should have taken 4 hours (and I don’t believe that for one minute) took an entire day, 7 trains and a taxi to a hostel that nobody had heard of. We nearly missed the curfew and were only ten minutes away from being homeless in the mountains. I was quite addled by the exasperating journey and regretted booking that part of our family trip to Japan. I must confess I grossly underestimated travel times between all of our destinations even by bullet train. By the end of the the second day we had spent more time on trains than sightseeing. They might seem like they’re fast but only if you’re going from A to B. If you have to get to F or N then it’s going to take military level planning and scheduling.

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An early riser fishing in the shadow of Fuji San 

 Sunrise hits the peak of Mt. Fuji

Sunrise hits the peak of Mt. Fuji

Despite the myriad of beautiful shots on the internet Mt. Fuji is famously elusive as most days it’s peak is obscured by cloud. And that’s if you manage to get there in the first place. But I do know a couple of things about photography and weather. It pays to get up early and the weather, anywhere in the world (with the possible exception of Los Angeles) can change dramatically in seconds. And seconds, albeit at the right moment, is all you need to get a good landscape shot. So after a hearty breakfast from the finest refrigerated goods Seven Eleven has to offer I set off in the dark with some vague directions to a ‘nice view’ on the water’s edge. It was dark and dismal with low cloud but it had stopped raining and I could see the bottom of a mountain across the lake. So I set up my camera on my travel tripod took a few shots to work out the exposure and waited and hoped that the cloud cover would lift. Nothing changed for quite a period but eventually visibility improved to the point where I could see that I had my camera pointed in the wrong direction at what was basically a hill across the lake. And now I could see the base of the giant Mt. Fuji rising off into the distance. Though still no Mt. Fuji itself. Thankfully all alone at that point I spun my camera around and waited some more. And waited. I’m used to having to take my time with certain shots but there’s something soothing about standing on the edge of a lake waiting for Fuji San to reveal itself that made me feel quite content and at peace. I can see why the Japanese are so spiritual. It no longer mattered so much to me I got the shot or not (and I’m not even sure what ‘the shot’ would be anyway). The previous day’s anxiety just drifted away and the waiting was now a reward in itself. After all I was on holidays and had no client and no deadline to worry about.

 Geese fly south over Mt. Fuji

Geese fly south over Mt. Fuji

But finally my efforts were rewarded. Though not fully cleared the clouds partially dissipated just as the rising sun hit the peak. I didn’t get ‘the’ shot but I got ‘my’ shot. It’s not a picture postcard photo but that was not what I wanted to experience anyway. And for the next hour the peak peeked out from behind the clouds every now and then and I captured the moments. And it was thrilling. I enjoyed the passing of time and the peace and quiet of the countryside. I started to notice and chatted with a few early morning fishermen along the banks of the lake as well as other tourists.

It wasn’t long before my girls joined me and my wife enjoyed the stroll along the lakeside with the view of Fuji and captured a great shot with her iPhone. It really pays to be in the right place at the right time. Though my three year old was a little less impressed and didn’t give Fuji more than a cursory glance she had a good time in her own way.

 The Botanical Gardens, Nagoya, Japan.

The Botanical Gardens, Nagoya, Japan.

Soon enough we had to catch a train and make our way to the next port of call, Nagoya, where we were staying for several days thankfully. My daughter thought we were back in the same hotel as Tokyo, they were quite similar, and wanted to know why they had changed the bedside table lights. She didn’t seem to notice the whole city had changed. That one morning by the lakeside with those few moments of peak visibility and the gentle breeze wafting down from Mt. Fuji had cleared my head of all the stress of getting there in the first place. Rather than think ‘never again’ which had been close to my mood the night before I was resolved to return again some day with more time, better planning and plenty of patience. Or perhaps a guide. Not a guide to Mt. Fuji but a guide to the Japanese railway system.