A number of years ago, I was walking along the rim of Lake Tanuki, looking for that perfect angle on what we’d hoped would be a beautiful sunrise.
No dice on the sunrise, Fuji was clouded in, as she is wont to be.
But we were still hopeful at the time, and we walked along the lake, watching the foreground elements, and where we knew Fuji would be. We could tell, as we walked, that we were getting closer and closer to where everything would line up with those weird ethereal rules of composition that are codified and broken, and yet instinctually, we all agree on them. And then we got to a big concrete platform in the woods. For photographers.
Because of course someone put it there.
Even on a tiny lake with no public transportation access, at the end of a hiking trail… if there’s a good view of Mt Fuji, people are going to know about it. Photographing Mt Fuji is a Japanese passion as old as cameras being in Japan, and their passion for viewing of Mt Fuji is literally ancient. I get it.
I have more than my fair share of Fuji photos. She’s a beautiful mountain. I am always excited when I can take the time to go off the beaten path and get photos of Mt Fuji from a new place. But I’m also not fooling myself about it. All of those “new” places are pretty old.
The truth with photographing Mt Fuji photos is that there are four major factors in how your experience is going to go. The first is the weather. You can’t do anything about it, and the riskiest weather yields the best results. Watch your forecasts, bring the right gear, and pray to the right gods. I have definitely used every trick in the book to get the weather on my side. And also, I’ve ended up alone, on a mountaintop, in a tent, listening to the heavy rain, looking on the weather radar at what can only be described as my own personal rainstorm, while the nearest towns are reporting clear and beautiful…
Kigo, or seasonal words, are a huge factor. You might be familiar with the need to include a seasonal indicator when writing haiku. That seasonality is pervasive is Japan. Restaurants change menus seasonally more that I ever saw in the states, and that need to include seasonal words in poetry extends to the visual arts. Similar to Monet’s haystacks, Japanese painters, and subsequently photographers, have been working those traditional seasonal indicators into their work since ancient times. A lot of these kigo are natural, or at least, are plants that have been sculpted into someone’s idea of the perfect view of Mt Fuji over the years. And I can’t deny the truth of it. Those spots are beautiful. And crowded. Everyone knows them, and everyone knows there’s a tiny window to see or photograph that “perfect” view.
The “koyo,” the turning fall leaves, and the sakura or cherry blossoms are probably the two most in-demand kigo, But it doesn’t stop there. One of those tests to see how much you’ve learned about Japanese culture is your ability to spot the kigo in art, and in advertising. There’s even talk about “modern kigo,” like the time of year when all the new graduates are wearing the same black suit, trying to do their best at their first office jobs, or rubber-boot-and-umbrella season, during the monsoon rains. But the more beautiful the kigo are in a spot for photographing Mt Fuji, the more accurate the term, “photographer scrum” is going to be.
Another major factor is access. The less effort it takes to go see a thing, the more people will go to see it. If there is no public transportation, if it takes hours to get there. If you have to walk. One of the things I admire about Jimmy Chin’s work is his dedication in simply getting to the places that he photographs. There are a ton of barriers to standing on a ledge a few thousand feet above the ground with Alex Honnold, and that’s why there weren’t 200 other people on the ledge, shooting with Jimmy Chin. You see a million photos of the Daibutsu in Kamakura, Tokyo Tower, Kiyomizudera… because these places are easy to access. How many photos have you seen of the Byodoin? It’s so beautiful that it’s on the 10 yen coin. But because it’s kinda a pain in the butt to get to, you almost never see photos of it. It’s not even that hard to get to. It’s just not as easy as all of the other amazing temples that are on Kyoto’s beaten path. Access changes everything.
And that… that is why I was focused on the fourth factor when I was heading out to take photos of the Chureito pagoda and Mt Fuji.
I knew the weather was going to be good. Or at least, I had all of weather-resources pointing me in that direction. I knew the kigo were in full effect. The sakura that the location is famous for were just short of full bloom. And I knew that the location was ridiculously easy to access. It’s a couple hour train ride and a short walk from the train station, and even easier to access if you’re staying at any of the hotels in the resort town right next to it. I knew that meant there was going to be a full-on photographer scrum.
So the fourth factor comes into play, attitude. It came into play when that trip to Lake Tanuki got rained out. We didn’t go away mad. We went and ate some awesome hoto, and had a good time taking photos of the things that we could take photos of. In the middle of my own personal rainstorm, I knew that I’d proved the viability of the location, and all it took was a second trip to nail the shot. I knew on this trip I had to embrace the scrum. The beginners, the unskilled, the pushy, the ignorant… they were all coming. I could either suffer, or I could steer into the skid and enjoy the ridiculousness.
And, oh, there’s ridiculousness.
Enough that you’re getting a second post.