Posted by: tsubakuro | May 18, 2010

On the Roof of Japan

Oku Hotakadake from Kita Hotakadake

The Shinshu (信州) area of Japan is home to most of the top 100 highest summits in the country. It includes the three ranges of the Japan Alps, as well as the peaks of Yatsugatake, the western fringes of the Kai Okutama Chichibu Mountains, and the volcano chain on the border of Gunma and Nagano which includes Asamayama, Kusatsu Shiranesan, and Azumayasan. Because of all the high ranges and peaks concentrated in this area, it is known as Nihon-no-Yane, the Roof of Japan.

It was the first Golden Week holiday period in 50 years that it didn’t rain, and I was fortunate enough to have three days in a very important part of the Japan Alps. Taking the night bus from downtown Tokyo, I reached the foot of the Hotaka Mountains at Kamikochi at 6 AM on May 2. I spent the day getting up to the Karasawa Cirque – the largest glacial cirque in Japan – and setting up camp. The following day I woke up at 1 AM in order to try to reach the summit of Kita Hotakadake by sunrise. Alas, I was not swift enough on my feet and missed a brief but glorious display of alpine glow. I made it to the top of Kita Hotaka later that morning and so as not to miss any good evening light or sunrise the following day, I stayed in the hut at the summit. Unfortunately, the skies did not cooperate. The sun set in thick haze that evening and it was a dark and cloudy sky that greeted me at 4 AM on the last morning. Nevertheless, I was pleased with my accomplishments.

For the full trip report, visit my Tsubakuro blog here.

In the Karasawa Cirque

This trip was very important for the Sanmyaku project for two reasons. The first is that I still wanted to shoot more scenes of the Alps in spring snow. The second is that I wanted some more views from the Hotakas. Having been to the Karasawa Cirque only twice before, I shot almost image I took home with my compact digital or phone camera. Yet any book or even calendar of the Japan Alps includes photographs from this place. Having managed to get some very nice photographs of the Hotakas at dawn and dusk on my previous visit in the summer of 2007, I wanted to revisit the same views in a different season for contrast. Furthermore, as these mountains are the most rugged and craggy in all the Alps, I really wanted to shoot them with snow.

Yarigatake and the North Alps

Shooting in snow is still a challenge for me even after 21 years of using slide film. The standard rule of overexposing one stop does not hold true in many a situation. Depending on the angle of the sunlight, the time of day, the intensity of the sunlight, the weather conditions, and so on, a one-stop exposure can sometimes be too much, sometimes not enough, and sometimes almost or just right. Recently I have been overexposing too many captures, so I decided to overexpose by only a half-stop or full-stop, but no more. The result from this trip was that the bright daylight photos were all a little too light for my taste but the late afternoon and low-light morning shots turned out very nicely on 35mm slide film (Velvia 50). Eight of the nine exposures made with the 4×5 were on Velvia 100F and one on 50. The results were surprisingly excellent. All exposures are good and the ones made in the late afternoon of the second day are the best. I am really encouraged to shoot more with the large format camera.

The photos posted here were all captured with my compact digital.

Clouds over Jounendake

I still have five or six more target locations for this year but for the moment I require more funds. That means I need to get more stuff published. So, I had better get to work on it! I was looking at the Central Alps again in June but I think I won’t get out until July now and the glacial cirques of Senjoudake in the South Alps are my destination then. I’ll be looking for the summer wildflowers.

Looking down from Kita Hotakadake



  1. My, anybody who travels to Kamikochi by the Procrustean night bus has my respect. Shame about the weather, but you’ve certainly captured that soft spring light. Mmm, Karesawa: your photo brings back not-so-happy memories of being avalanched there at just this time of year. That was not a photogenic weekend….

    Good luck with the sales and keep the photos coming!

    • I was wondering about the avalanche possibility at the time. There were lots of minor slides but evidence of bigger things having happened. Even in a place as popular as the Karasawa Cirque one has to keep in mind that snowy mountains are still dangerous no matter how many people go there.

      Yes, the soft spring light was nice. But I still regret missing that one precious moment. Of my last three trips, that was the only time I had decent light at sunrise/sunset.

  2. As for the avalanche risk, Karesawa is dangerous because it’s (usually) a lee slope (east-facing, downwind from the prevailing westerlies). In our case, though, half a metre of new snow had come down overnight, and snow was still falling. So we were caught in what the Japanese call a “hyoso nadare” (loose snow slide). Less disastrous than a “soko nadare”, when the entire snowslope detaches from the underlying ground or ice. Those almost always spoil your entire day.

  3. As I recall quite a few people had their day spoiled in Yarisawa a year or two ago when 72 hikers were visited by a soko nadare rather suddenly. I always see the hyoso nadare in small volumes. Still, there is an eerie sound to that sibilance as the snow slips down the face of the slope. It’s like a snake that’s just warning you it knows you are trespassing in its territory.

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