Mount Fuji – Photographing Japan’s Sacred Mountain. Vol.4. Daybreak in the Wintry Woods – Mt Takazasu
February, the month that always brings the heaviest snowfall, finds me trudging through deep snow like a monk on a penitential journey. I keep asking myself what on earth I’m doing here; a question soon answered by the arrival of the dawn. The storm that brought all this snow during the night has subsided and rays of sunlight arrive from a hundred and fifty million kilometres away to pierce the frozen air. As the crimson fades from the summit of the mountain, a clear dawn reveals Mt Fuji bathed in gold.
A voice in my head calls out a greeting. “I’m back!”
Early February is the coldest time of the year and I’m heading for Mt Takazasu, my camera at the ready. The sun comes up a little before seven in the morning at this time of the year, so with this in mind, I leave home intending to get to the Mt Takazasu hiking trail carpark by five in the morning. I calculate that this will give me an hour and a half to climb to the photography spot, and time to get set up before sunrise. The image of Mt Fuji glowing golden amid freshly fallen snow in the early morning sun is a scene I’ve been waiting several years to capture, but have never quite had the opportunity.
It takes ten minutes by four-wheel-drive to get to the photography spot via a forestry track when there’s no snow on the ground, but if there’s snow, you have to hike in. The freshly-fallen snow is knee-deep, and I know I’ll have to give myself at least an hour and a half to make it in time. There’s already a car in the carpark when I get there. I figure that if this is someone who, like me, has been waiting for these precise conditions, they must be a pretty experienced photographer.
Snow boots on, I head slowly towards the trail, shouldering my equipment. The snow is at least a foot deep and getting steadily deeper as I climb, making it increasingly harder to pull my boots out of the snow. Cursing under my breath, I realise it’d be easier to plough my way through the snow if I was using crampons. I’ve gone into the snow to take photos any number of times, but never on such steep terrain as this. As I follow the trail left by the person ahead of me, the light from my headlamp reflects back off the crystalline snow, stabbing sharply at my eyes. The pain is intense.
The climb suddenly gets steeper. With the snow slippery underfoot, it’s hard to make headway. At best I’m gaining less than a foot with each step, taking more five minutes or more just to advance just a few metres. My breathing feels shallow and I start yawning from lack of oxygen. I keep having to rest in order to gather my strength. When I start to feel thirsty, I realise that in my haste to make it in time for sunrise, I’ve forgotten to bring my water bottle. I try eating snow, but weirdly, no matter how much I eat, there doesn’t seem to be any moisture in it and I’m still thirsty. Then I remember a television show about mountain climbing, where they melted a bucketful of snow and ended up with less than half a cup of water. Realising how pointless this is, I abandon the idea of eating snow.
Feeling strangely disconnected from my body, I climb a steep slope and finally reach a more level section of the trail. My progress is still just as slow. Trudging mindlessly on through the snow, I feel like an ascetic monk undertaking a journey of penance.
About an hour after setting off on my climb, I reach the photography spot. With the sky beginning to lighten, it seems I’ve made it just in the nick of time. The guy ahead of me already has his tripod set up and his camera ready. I call out a greeting but he doesn’t reply. He’s younger than I expected.
I turn my attention to Mt Fuji and the beautiful swathes of deep snow stretching from the summit down through the Yoshida Ōsawa valley on the north-eastern flank of the mountain and into the armed forces training grounds at the base of the mountain. The branches of the trees around me are still heavily laden with snow, a scene you only get to see the morning after a heavy dumping of snow.
“So glad I came!” A feeling I have every time Mt Fuji smiles down on me.
The late Maruyama Gaku’s corporate life took a sudden turn when he was struck down by a life-threatening heart condition in 2003. He survived against all odds after a series of operations and credited his recovery in part to the sense of hope he gained from looking at images of Mount Fuji. He in turn began photographing Japan’s sacred mountain as part of his post-operative rehabilitation therapy. From 2007 he used those images to help ease the hearts of gravely ill patients in hospitals. Sadly, Maruyama Gaku was again taken ill and passed away in February 2020.
Judy Evans is a high school teacher of English and Japanese, and a Japanese-English translator. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Japanese and Art History and has studied production horticulture and landscape design. Judy has a keen interest in the internet environment and has administered websites for a number of organisations. She lives on a small farm in rural New Zealand and is a frequent visitor to Japan.