“Working on light” in the national parks of Japan
The Aso Caldera in southwestern Japan is a volcanic depression of gargantuan proportions. Nearly 25 km at its widest point, the caldera – one of the largest in the world – is so large that around 45,000 people live within its sloping walls, with space for them. rice fields and vegetable farms, two train lines and an active volcano. Driving between the north and south rims takes over an hour.
These are the superlatives that drew veteran National Geographic photographer Michael Yamashita to Aso-Kuju National Park on the main southwestern island of Kyushu in the early 1990s. New Jersey native Yamashita, 72 , has spent more than four decades filming in places that are difficult to access and sometimes unwelcoming: China, Japan, Iran, Cambodia, Korean DMZ, India, Burma, Afghanistan. He followed in the footsteps of ancient adventurers, from Marco Polo to Japanese poet Matsuo Basho. In his line of work, Yamashita had to combine physical strength, artistic sensibility and a hint of derring-do. “The photograph concerns a rectangle. Equally important is what you keep in the picture and what you forget, ”he said on a video call from his New York home.
Yamashita had personal reasons for going to Aso Caldera. He was exploring his own ancestral roots in Kyushu, the westernmost of Japan’s four main islands, for a National Geographic story. In four months, he estimates he shot over 800 reels of film – roughly 28,800 frames – exploring the culture and terrain of an island slightly larger than the state of Maryland. “I’m looking for what makes Kyushu special,” he says.
Accompanied by an experienced local guide, Yamashita traveled through Aso-Kuju National Park on reconnaissance trips, imagining the scenery at different times of the day. “In a place like this you want to know, where are the best views, from which mountain? How to show this landscape in its best light? “
Aso-Kuju National Park was one of Japan’s first national parks, designated in 1934. Today, there are 34 national parks along the archipelago that collectively attract over 371 million visitors per year. . Each park is a unique representation of the island’s terrain – swamps, moss-covered forests, towering peaks, rugged coastlines, and coral reefs – stretching from the subarctic Hokkaido Prefecture to the subtropical Okinawa Prefecture.
The giant Aso-Kuju caldera is believed to have been created by four large volcanic eruptions, which occurred between 90,000 and 270,000 years ago. For thousands of years, people have lived inside the caldera and worshiped the five volcanic peaks – Mt. Taka-dake, Mt. Naka-dake, Mt. Neko-dake, Mt. Eboshi-dake, Mt. and Kijima-dake, collectively referred to as Mt. Aso. Local residents are also intimately aware of the awe-inspiring forces of nature they live with: an active volcano, Mt. The last major eruption of Aso dates back to 2016.
For Yamashita, the park was Kyushu’s most spectacular scenery. He was up before dawn and out until nightfall, photographing images that bore no resemblance to Japan’s dense, neon-lit cities and cutting-edge technology: susuki the pampas grass, their downy tops bathed in morning light; forests, shrouded in fog, fading away; tourists on horseback appearing as colored dots on a grassy mountainside; bubbling sulfur ponds and steaming hot springs. “National Geographic is about geography, so we’re trying to show the earth,” he says. “I try to show something normal in a spectacular way. My job is to stop the reader, so that as they leaf through this story, they’ll say, “Wow! That’s great!’ and I want to watch it.
You couldn’t ask for a more spectacular subject than Mt. Aso, one of the largest active volcanoes in the world. To see it from above, Yamashita hired a helicopter. As the late afternoon sun was setting, he peered through the open helicopter door for smoke billowing from one of the craters. “I’m working on the light – in this case it’s sunset. We do a 360 around the volcano and I film continuously with 3 cameras and different lenses. As I finish a roll, my fixer reloads the film and I shoot with a different camera and a different lens. At the same time, I tell the pilot to fly where I can get the best picture possible, ”he says. “The smoke from the volcano being white, it defines the image. I try to fill the frame with this beautiful light and shades of white, thanks to this very intense sun.
Aso-Kuju isn’t the only national park Yamashita has photographed. For a story about the origins of Japanese gardens, he flew to Ise-Shima National Park, Mie Prefecture, in 1989. Within the 148,000 acres (72,678 hectares) of the park are forests evergreen, mountains, ridged limestone coasts and coves dotted with islands. and pearl farms and fishing fleets that carry prized catches of Ise-ebi (Japanese lobster) shrimp and pufferfish.
Yamashita’s focus was Ise Jingu, an approximately 2,000-year-old shrine that is considered the holiest of the indigenous Shinto religion in Japan. He went in search of a square of small white stones bounded by wooden poles and rope. In Shinto belief, deities inhabit stones, trees, mountains, and other objects in the natural world. It would be a far cry from the lush gardens of the West which were depicted in 19th century paintings by people like John Constable, Camille Pissarro, and Claude Monet.
In another enclosure of the sanctuary, he came across a different stone – large and red and deliberately placed among small rocks, in the middle of a courtyard – perhaps another example of the belief in deities inhabiting natural objects. “You sit down and stare at it. It can mean different things to different people. In my opinion, the Japanese garden is all about the imagination – what do you imagine this is? ”he says.
Perhaps more than any other place in Japan, Hokkaido, the northernmost prefecture, exerted the greatest pressure on Yamashita. This was the subject of his first article for National Geographic, published in January 1980. He returned several times, most recently during the winter in early 2020 – his last trip abroad before the pandemic did. interrupts the trip – for whistling swans and red-crowned cranes in Akan-Mashu National Park and Hokkaido’s highest peak, Mt. Asahidake, in Daisetsuzan National Park.
At Mt. Asahidake, he had to wait two days for the strong winds to subside before he could safely ride the cable car to the base of the summit. “I’m up there and the sun is beautiful,” he said. Which doesn’t mean he had it easy. To capture the shots he wanted of “big snow” and hikers and fumaroles spewing out steam and sulphurous gas, Yamashita had to put on snowshoes and walk up the path. “The snow is deep and you suck the wind because you’re so high up there” – over 2,280 meters above sea level, he says. The top of the mountain is close to one of Yamashita’s favorite spots, Asahidake Onsen, a small village (now part of nearby Higashikawa) of lodges and hot springs.
On her trip, Yamashita also spent a few days photographing Whooper Swans and Red-crowned Cranes around Akan-Mashu National Park. Most of the photos he has taken convey a feeling of extreme cold that comes from what he calls “the blue hour”. “The sun has set. The light comes from the sky, giving this snow a blue tint that gives you a real feeling of cold. I love this blue light, ”he says. “That’s why I come to Hokkaido.” It’s the kind of jaw-dropping scene that National Geographic has repeatedly turned to Yamashita for. “My roots are all about Japan. My first story was Japan – and it’s always a place I return to.