Posted by: tsubakuro | September 7, 2010

Waking Up on the Moon

Stories behind the photos in The Japan Alps photo book, available from

One of the classic views of the Japan Alps is from the Karasawa Cirque in the Kita Alps in autumn when the rowan leaves have all turned a brilliant red and there is a thin layer of ice in a pool of water that reflects the peaks of Oku-hotakadake and Karasawadake. The best of the rowan leaves and autumn colours in the Kita Alps occurs usually during the second weekend in October, which is also a long weekend since Undonohi – Athletic Day – is on Monday. Unfortunately for me I do not get to take advantage of this three-day luxury because my work schedule has me not only working on Saturdays but also Sundays on this particular weekend thanks to the fact that one of the kindergartens our school works with has its Sports Day on the Sunday of that weekend and I usually have to attend.

In 2008 I was busy during that weekend yet again but the following week I heard the happy news that the colours were late turning that year, and a photo in the paper showed hikers climbing up past rowan bushes that were still somewhere between green and yellow/orange. I very much had been hoping to shoot vivid autumn scenery at the Senjoujiki Cirque in the Chuo Alps and was planning to go the following weekend for an over-night trip. So, the news of the autumn scenery in the Kita Alps being delayed stoked the fires of my hopes for hitting the mountains at their autumnal prime. However, when I stepped off the cable car and out of the hotel into the Senjoujiki Cirque I was shocked and disappointed to discover that all the leaves had already fallen from the trees here. Neither rowan nor dakekanba had any leaves left on their bare branches. And as I set up my gear to try for the standard shot of Houkendake from the bottom of the cirque I realized that I had forgotten to bring the shoe that fits on the bottom of my cameras so that they can be securely locked onto the ball head for the tripod. How was I going to shoot landscapes with extreme depth-of-field or in the low light of dawn and dusk with being able to secure the cameras to the ball head?

My plan was to do the short hike up to the main ridge above of the cirque and follow it along to Utsugidake where I intended to stay at the emergency shelter below the summit. Under clear skies I began my trek, stopping to capture a few scenes while the light was bright enough for holding my camera on the tripod with my hands while shooting with small apertures.

At Kumasawadake I found myself facing a typical dilemma: stay here to shoot the sunset or press on to make more headway on the trail. There were many great boulders of granite about which made for some excellent foreground subjects for the mountain views, and as the sun was starting to go down, the light was getting warmer and the shadows longer. This would be a great place from which to shoot the evening light and sunset. But I still had about two hours of trail time left at least. On a few occasions in the past, I had chosen to press on and found myself at sunset in places not very conducive to good landscape photography, so I decided to stay here and see what I could do without being able to fasten my cameras down tight. Needless to say, shooting was a challenge. I couldn’t shoot vertical views, and combining the huge boulders with mountains on the horizon put me in the very difficult situation of trying to use f/16 and f/22 with a precariously balanced camera. I remember one moment where I pushed the cable release and after the shutter closed and the mirror came plunking down in the Pentax 6×7, the camera tipped off the ball head from the vibration and into my waiting hand as I had anticipated the possibility of the camera falling.

With the sun down I considered that I might not make it to the emergency shelter tonight. There was a lodge between the peak of Ustugi and Higashikawadake but it was closed for the season. Perhaps I could just sleep somewhere around the lodge, I figured. I didn’t have a tent this time. Twilight fell over the mountains and an hour after sunset I finally snapped on my headlamp. The mountains lost their details to the night shadows and the stars spread out across the clear sky. There was no moon yet.

By seven thirty I had been hiking for an hour and a half from Kumasawadake and Utsugi’s black form rose into the night. I couldn’t see how close I was and it seemed with each dip and crest I was not even reaching the lodge. At last I stood on a small peak on the ridge and decided that I would just throw the sleeping bag down here. There was a good flat area on mostly granite gravel and sand and only a few rocks and almost no dwarf pine boughs around. The sky remained clear with little more than a light breeze, cold though the breeze was. I put out my ground mat and sleeping bag, packed my things in the bag to keep the batteries from freezing, and used my pack as a kind of wind block. After a bit of warm food and drink, I pulled the sleeping bag closed and settled in for the night.

Around eleven I awoke because of a chill draught that was coming in through the opening in the sleeping bag. I turned onto my belly and tried to close the hole. But as I glimpsed the view outside I was surprised to notice how bright it was. I slid forward and stuck my head out into the night air that was now around freezing. From ground level I peered across a foreground of gravel and sand and a couple of bare rocks. They were positively lit up by a bright light from somewhere outside the narrow scope of my view from inside the sleeping bag. In the distance, the black two-dimensional silhouette of Utsugidake filled the lower portion of the sky while above the stars coldly shone down from deep space. There was not a cloud, only that endless black sky stretching beyond hundreds of thousands of light years and the light of a million blazing suns that were reduced to tiny points of light by the unfathomable distances of space.

What a strange view. I was lying on a landscape of nothing but rock and sand. The mountain’s bulk beyond gave no hint of vegetation and above was only the universe. In this mysterious light I could easily imagine I was lying on the surface of the moon. All was grey, white, and black. I was an astronaut that had fallen on the surface of the moon! I pulled back the opening of the sleeping bag and turned to see the source of the light. It was, of course, a gibbous moon that had come over the eastern horizon and was hanging low over the Tenryu Valley and the city lights, completely dominating the view for brightness. This grand-looking lemon-shaped orb, still coated with a pale orange/yellow from the atmosphere through which it shone, had turned the appearance of my bedroom for the night into a simulacrum of its own surface. I took a moment to marvel once more at the scene and let my imagination run its wild course before the cold seeping into my sleeping bag convinced me it was time to batten down the hatches once again and stay snug inside my cocoon of down.

The following morning I repeated my struggles with low-light photography and then descended a short slope to the lodge. From there the scramble up to Ustugi was longer than I had anticipated but I made it. After a bit of time being the only person around since leaving Harinokiodake the day before, I was joined by two young guys on the summit. It was a bit of a long stretch back down and I descended into forests with beautiful autumn colours. However, nothing could top that remarkable sensation of waking up on the surface of another celestial body under that black sky of the universe!

Looing back to Kiso-komagatake and Houkendake from Harinokiodake



  1. Yes! As I was reading your description of that ridge to Utsugi, I knew exactly where you were and could perfectly picture those stars up above!

    I haven’t used a tent for two years now (except when Mrs CJW comes along). The bivy can be a little cold and awkward, but there’s nothing like opening your eyes in the middle of the night to watch the shooting stars, or the moonset….

  2. Chris, I would love to go without the weight of a tent. Then I could more easily bear the weight of all that camera gear! As for waking up under the stars, I recall one night with a cheap tent on Jounen when the wind flattened the tent on me during the night. I put my sleeping back on top of the flattened tent and slept beneath the stars. I awoke a couple of hours later under a black sky that was lit up suddenly by approaching lightning. It was at that point that I dragged my gear into the front room of the lodge and quietly waited for the dawn.

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