Into the scrum pt 2: Sakura 2019

Beginners are interesting, because they do things differently.

If you rely on people to always do the same thing, every time, the same way… because it works, and it’s proven, it takes a beginner to jar you out of that. Sometimes, a beginner can see something obvious, that the experts, deep inside a situation, miss. That new insight can lead to huge leaps forward, and it’s truly the experts that listen with open minds, that don’t discount the beginners; they are the experts that improve the state of their arts.

But usually, those open-minded experts will put you into a relatively safe position to try your brilliant new insight, and then laugh when it fails comedically. As a photographer, I rarely get to see the photos from the other photographers that cross my path, so I would never call any of them beginners.


Well, yeah. There were a lot of beginners in the scrum when I went to take photos of the Chureito Pagoda.

I was prepared for that. More prepared than I had initially planned to be. But… yeah. Lots of beginners. And I knew there was going to be.

The Chureito Pagoda is famous, and it should be. It has a jaw-dropping view of Mt. Fuji, and it’s surrounded by sakura. For that short time every year, when the sakura are blooming, it is an utter madhouse, and the opposite of the peaceful, serene photo you see. And I knew that going in.

I knew it because all the factors were showing positive. The weather was supposed to be beautiful. The kigo (the sakura) were blooming, on the cusp of the elusive “mankai.” And access… it doesn’t get any easier than being right next to a train station, a short hop from a major resort town, and a slightly longer hop from Tokyo.

That’s when that fourth factor, attitude, becomes critical. You know it’s going to be Charles Barkley and Dennis Rodman all night, so embrace the suck, and get your job done.

Prior Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance.

The Six P’s.

With any landscape shoot, that’s what you do. Check the weather. Check  the topo. Check the kigo. Know what you need in an emergency, and what resources are externally available. And, of course, double check your gear.

That’s what I was doing with fellow photographer Ben Torode just before leaving home and heading to shoot. Cameras, tripod, remote, memory cards, batteries…. And he said, Tim, you’re forgetting something critical. Whisky. I laughed. But also, I filled a flask with some 12-year-old Jameson, and stuck that in a side pocket.

Much more critical, in my mind, was the empty thermos I had packed already. Depending on the trains, it’s a two or three hour trip out there. But there’s a convenience store right next to the station. The first thing I did when I got off the train was go pee, and fill up my thermos with piping hot coffee. The fresh-made conbini coffee in Japan is the best coffee you can get for a buck. I also brushed my teeth, because that’s just what you do. I flossed at home, so I was good for that.

From the station, it’s basically a short, steep hike up a hill, to the plateau where the pagoda is built, and then another short little uphill climb to the viewing platform the’ve built. And when I got there, it was almost full. Tripods take up space, and accidentally bumping a stranger’s tripod is… well, it’s probably unlikely to get you knifed. Usually. There was one last spot on the end for me, and I grabbed it. At 8:30pm.

In typical Japan style, most of the photographers weren’t there. It’s a pet peeve, but people will place their tripods to “reserve” their spots, and then skedaddle, and come back way later to take photos. It irritates me, because it introduces money into the equation. If you can afford to bring two tripods, because you are driving, and you paid for a hotel, or have a camper, you put your crappy tripod out at like 3pm the day before, go eat dinner, hit a bar, go to bed early in your hotel bed, and then hop in the car and come back at 4am for sunrise. In the meantime, that other photographer without those resources has been sitting in the cold for 8 hours, and has been polite enough not to just chuck your tripod over the cliff. I do really love that Japan’s respect for people’s stuff means that instances of tripods being chucked over cliffs are exceedingly rare, but the practice of using a tripod to “save” your spot is one I think badly of.

So I don’t do it, and I came prepared. I grabbed my spot on the corner of the viewing platform, set up my tripod, and then I inflated my camping mattress and pulled out my bivvy sack. My spot was in the left corner, so I was up against a fence and a tree, a perfect out of the way spot.

One would think.

I knew that, according to the forecast, the clouds were going to hang around until about 1:30, so I set an alarm and tried to get some sleep. It was a little difficult to drift off, because every 5 minutes or so, there was a new group of photographers excitedly shouting “Oh! It’s full!” in surprise. 6 P’s people. Of course a famous sakura viewing place is going to be crowded. Plan for it.

Around 11pm, I woke up. Because I was being stepped on. I actually awoke to the old man falling from the trail-level, about a meter above the viewing deck. He must have thought the step was smaller. He then saw an “opening” (It wasn’t. It was blocked by my tripod and a fence) and walked over to it. Apparently emergency-orange and reflective silver are hard to see. As I was waking up and ascertaining exactly what his intent was, he stepped right on my chest. I shouted in surprise, and I don’t know what happened to him after that. He went off somewhere else, which really, is best for everyone.

I couldn’t fall asleep. Too many beginners. You can’t trust beginners.

There are some certain basic skills in life. Knowing how to tie your hiking boots is one of them. Knowing how to use a flashlight is another. Knowing that famous places will be crowded is one more.

The parade of surprised beginners, shocked that the viewing deck was full didn’t stop. All night. The other thing that didn’t stop was bad flashlight discipline. When there are 100 people taking photos, that one person pulling out their flashlight to check their settings ruins 99 photos. Well, 98. As the clouds scampered off, I set up my camera to take photos of the stars, so beginners not knowing how to disable their strobe, or not knowing how to use a flashlight, they didn’t have an impact on too many of my photos. Getting blasted in the face every five minutes with a bright light was annoying, but that wasn’t affecting my photos.

But it was affecting my attitude. But that’s ok. I came prepared. Thanks, Ben. I rolled up my kit, and put on my extra layers (Did I mention that beginners don’t bring extra layers? They just kinda shiver and look miserable). Then I pulled out my flask and took a sip of whiskey.

Take a nice sip of whiskey. Let it melt on your tongue. Breathe. And remember, they’re not bad people. They’re just beginners.

The old beginner who had put his tripod next to mine and “saved” his spot, he turned up sometime later. He was a jovial enough guy. He’ll never know that the one time he bumped my camera added 20 hours of work to my photo. He’s a beginner. It’s ok. It wasn’t ruined. Take a sip of whiskey. To his credit, he only bumped it the once, and was super careful after I asked him not to do that again. They aren’t bad people. They’re beginners.

The guy with the super bright light, who was in the back row because he got there late, he needed to check his camera settings. Because he’s a beginner. He doesn’t know his camera by feel yet, and doesn’t know where all those buttons are. And he doesn’t have a small red flashlight with him, or to use the dim light of his phone’s lock screen. The third time he looked at the back of his camera, spotlighting the pagoda that everyone was trying to shoot, he got shouted at. Because he’s a beginner. It’s all good. Take a sip of whiskey.

One of the features of the evening was someone, coming hours late to the party, asking the other photographers if they could put their tripod down in that spot there where there’s space (No, there totally isn’t space. People will be standing there when they are shooting, and any movement absolutely must not bump anyone’s tripod, and why would anyone trust a beginner who didn’t do basic research not to bump their tripod and ruin their trip?). It’s cool. Smile. Take a sip of whiskey. Kermit-style, even, when it’s down on the other side of the scrum.

Somewhere around 3am, I decided it was time to bust out that thermos of coffee. Its one of those where the screw-on lid doubles as a cup, and there’s a spring-loaded seal, so you push down to open it, and it makes that popping noise. When I opened the thermos, well, the best way of explaining it is like opening a can of cat food. Suddenly, I had 70 people staring at me. I kinda looked around and realized that I was the only one that brought coffee, on a mountain top that was about 0ºC, when clearly we had all gotten here early and were planning to wait out the whole night. Beginners.

The trick with star trails in the digital camera age is that you have to keep your camera in place all night. You need to take advantage of that blue-hour light to get a clean, low-noise image that you can layer the stars on top of. Unfortunately, Chureito Pagoda isn’t great for that. Just as blue-hour is getting good, the staff come around and make everyone pack up their tripods. Not great.

The answer is, you do the best you can. Unless you’re someone with enough pull to get them to bend the rules, because there’s always that person. As the tripods packed up, people started with their Barkley impersonations, jostling to fill that “magic” “space” that they can squeeze into and get a “better” photo. It’s ok. They’re beginners. Take a sip of coffee.

Eventually, after the colors of sunrise gave way to the colors of day, I took my leave, slowly wriggling out from my position at the front of the scrum, and made my way back to the station. As I was walking down the stairs at about 7am, some American girl said to her friend, “Oh! Some people came early!”