In search of civilisation

November 4, 2008 | Filed Under Uncategorized 

The sun sets over the Boso peninsula, briefly illuminating the folds of the mountains which stretch like crumpled linen all the way to the Pacific. We dash down from our outlook and through the darkening forest, back to the deserted temple which will be our home for the night.

In fifteen years this was my first visit to the mountains of Boso in southernmost Chiba prefecture. Chiba is to Tokyo what New Jersey is to Manhattan. Or so it seemed to me. Scrap metal yards and freeways compete with factories and soulless strip malls for space, the only seeming countryside being the tatami mat network of rice fields you see from the plane as it spirals down into Narita. Yet where the Philippine plate dives below the North American plate, mighty techtonic forces have conspired to fold, rumple and raise that old sea bed into mile upon mile of ridges and valleys. The result is that here, less than a hour’s drive from Tokyo, deer sing in the mist and hawks circle the firs and cedars which cover the hills. Hardly a soul disturbs us as we make the short hike up.

The temple itself is half built into a cave which has been carved out of the sandy rock below the peak. Just a single room with a small altar, a red tin roof and a statue of the Kannon which gazes sliently at the valleys below. A sign at the entrance tells us that this outcrop has been a stopping point for pilgrims since the 7th century. The walls inside the shrine are covered in neat charcoal grafitti recording the names and dates and hikers and pilgrims now vanished. There are many dates from before I was born, and there will be many more after I am long gone.

We light a fire in another alcove carved from the cliff.  Potatos mutter in their foil jackets in the coals. Garlic cloves and onion bulbs are roasted, matsutake mushrooms covered in soy sauce and grilled on green sticks. Aromas sweeter than incense drift past the cold nostrils of the Kannon. Before long my friends bring out hand drums and start beating soft Asian and Latin rythms into the night. I fetch the Hopi Indian flute from my pack and as the warm wine hits my head I can imagine myself to be playing much better than I probably am.

As the fire dies and I drain the last of the wine from my paper cup, it occurs to me that I’ve just spent the most civilised of evenings. It’s amazing how far from civilisation you have to travel in order to do that.


31 Responses to “In search of civilisation”

  1. Captain Interesting on November 4th, 2008 5:18 pm

    Welcome back to the world of blogging – we were beginning to become concerned. I enjoyed the account and photos of the Boso – never managed to visit the place, but your photos and writing capture a distinct character and atmosphere…. The header photo in particular is magical.

  2. Martin Rye on November 4th, 2008 5:55 pm

    I would pay for photos like those. So calm and tranquil as allways.

  3. Beth on November 5th, 2008 4:07 pm


    Beyond Stunning photos and the way you write is totally captivating! You should be making a living from this!
    I am very very impressed – I can’t wait to meet you!


  4. George on November 6th, 2008 1:19 am

    Where did you learn how to take photos?? I wondered to myself as we looked them over. Like my wife says, there’s some shashin-magic there.

    Looking forward to more!

  5. cjw on November 6th, 2008 8:44 am

    Captain – hope I didn’t cause too much concern! My folks were over from the UK for a couple of weeks, hence the shots earlier from Kyoto and Nara. I was really impressed by the Boso Peninsula – it really does look like that top photo. So close to Tokyo too. Who’d have thought?

    Martin – you’re too kind, but thank you. I have to say, it was a very chilled out weekend.

    Beth – um, thanks!

    George – I just point and shoot. But I shoot a lot. I read that the best photographers used to reckon on 1 good photo per 36 roll. I get about 1 per hundred…

  6. wes on November 6th, 2008 12:56 pm

    brillant photos! I knew you’d have something planned for the long weekend. I hope you’re able to make it up Tsurugi again later this month. The Tateyama web cams are showing a nice base on the Alps!

  7. Philip Werner on November 6th, 2008 11:02 pm

    What an incredible photo of Bosa! I second Martin’s comment. I’d pay for photos like these. How do you do it?


  8. butuki on November 7th, 2008 7:11 am

    Looks like you got out to the Kamogawa area in the south, no? I’d really like to know which trail you walked… I’ve been only recently developing more interest in hiking in Chiba because it is so hard to get out to the other, higher mountains from where I live in northeast Chiba. Even then, you know that it is easier for you to get to southern Chiba than it is for me??? Takes me three hours and a half from Naruto, not including whatever buses I have to change to!

  9. Dan R on November 8th, 2008 12:59 am

    Wow Chris. I used to live in Kashiwa, right in the north of Chiba and I totally dismissed the whole place as the Essex of Japan (what other hinterlands can it be alikened to?).

    I realised what I’d been missing when Top Gear of all things had a race between two presenters taking public transport and one (Clarkson of course) driving the new Skyline GT-R. They went from (I think) Toyama or thereabouts, to a temple on Boso with a giant Buddha carved out of the rock.

    Frustratingly it was on just after we’d got back from visiting the in-laws. A few weeks earlier and I would have been able to get out and see it for myself! Thanks for the inspiration – I won’t miss it next time.

    Great photos.

  10. billywest on November 8th, 2008 2:51 pm

    Very nice. This post put right there in the moment with you.

  11. Shane on November 9th, 2008 12:00 am

    Beautifully written tale and great photos. I too live in Chiba and have been meaning to get out to Boso for a while – I might just do it now. Thanks for the inspiration.

  12. david on November 9th, 2008 6:52 am

    Beautiful photos: what did you shoot them with, were filters used, and what sort of settings if you bothered to record that?

  13. cjw on November 9th, 2008 7:04 am

    Wes – had a very mellow weekend in Boso. I’ve been watching the webcams at Tateyama too, and am very much looking forward to a few good days up there. Gotta get some more rope and couple of snow flukes though…

    Butuki – yes, about 10km northwest of Kamogawa city. You can find the trail in Chapt 25 of Day Walks Near Tokyo ( It’s short and easy, but I think you’d enjoy the views.

    Dan – I know what you mean. My image of Chiba was never good. Who’d have thought that it had such beautiful places?

    BillyWest – many thanks!

    Shane – it always makes me happy when someone reads a post and it inspires them to go and take a look at the area for themselves. If you’re in Chiba then Boso seems like a great area to explore. Some great onsen down there too…

  14. cjw on November 9th, 2008 7:11 am

    Hi David – people keep asking me this, so I’m going to write a short post about it either later tonight or tomorrow. Stay tuned…

    Edit: actually, I’m going to do it properly, which will take a bit more time. I want some before/after shots to show some of the differences. Be patient!

  15. cjw on November 9th, 2008 8:37 am

    Philip – my apologies, I just found your comment stuck in the spam filter! I’m very flattered. I will definitely get working on a post which describes what I do..

  16. taintus on November 9th, 2008 10:46 pm

    I really enjoy your posts and photos.

    I’m intrigued by the dichotomy you hint at in your last lines. How do you define civilization?



  17. julian on November 10th, 2008 1:28 am

    Like many others, I’m looking forward to learning how you produce such consistently amazing photographs.

  18. Jason on November 10th, 2008 2:21 am

    Yes, I’m going to have to go and check out that peninsula in Chiba now. Thanks for putting it on the map.

    Many have said great photos, and I agree, I’ve thought for years that this site produces the best shots of Japan, at least nature and mountain shots.

    As cjw said, which I agree with also, the key to getting good shots is to take a lot. Often I’m at the 1 good out of 100 taken ratio! I went to Nikko recently and took about 800 shots. I liked only about 4 of them!

    I look forward to the post describing your photo gear.

  19. Jason on November 10th, 2008 2:27 am

    Ah, I just saw on Flickr the top photo is an HDR.

  20. cjw on November 10th, 2008 10:21 am

    Taintus – a good question. Maybe it would have been more accurate to have said “city”, or “Tokyo”, instead. It was a civilised evening because we shared every element of it, from building the fire to cooking the food to entertaining ourselves. You don’t get that much in the city. But I’m mighty fond of the city, too.

    Hi Julian – now I’m nervous. I feel like the Wizard of Oz just before the curtain gets pulled back..

    Hey Jason – thank goodness we live in the digital camera age. I’d be flat broke if I shot real film. Or maybe the threat of penury would make me a better photographer.

  21. taintus on November 11th, 2008 1:57 am


    Thanks for the reply.
    I agree that it was a very civilized evening; and one that, indeed, you rarely find in the city. Even in Japan’s cities I’ve always enjoyed nights drinking at the park the most–who needs izakaya? Course such revelry gets me into trouble back in the states.



  22. Tom on November 12th, 2008 2:41 am

    Absolutely fantastic. I’m always speechless when I look at your posts – please keep it up!! More people need to know about this side of Japan…

  23. cjw on November 12th, 2008 11:32 am

    Taintus – yes, that is definitely one of the joys of Japan :-)

    Tom – I’m pleased you said that. If this blog has any purpose, then it’s that – to show people the Japan beyond the cities..

  24. Kirt Cathey on November 13th, 2008 9:00 pm

    Great write-ups and great pics. Keep it coming. Thank you for pointing out the links. Yes, I am a white hat/researcher and only apply techniques in controlled situations.

    You hadn’t posted something in so long that I started to wonder… Great picture of the temple below as well.

  25. cjw on November 13th, 2008 11:25 pm

    Kirt, thanks as always. I was a little concerned that you might not have been aware your links were hitting your RSS feed.

    Any plans to get out this weekend? I’m trying to decide whether to go up to Ho-o Sanzan, or stay in bed to shake off the last of my ‘flu. Choices, choices..

    [EDIT: sadly, it's going to be a shaking off the 'flu weekend....]

  26. Melanie on November 19th, 2008 7:41 am

    What a wonderful sounding evening and place to spend it in.

  27. cjw on November 19th, 2008 9:41 am

    Sure was, Melanie. I can definitely see myself going back there. Maybe one of those cold, crisp winter weekends. We saw the faintest outline of Fuji from the top of the hill, but on a clear day the view would be amazing.

  28. drew on November 22nd, 2008 4:55 pm

    beautiful shots and narration. you’re lucky to be there and to have these amazing stories.

  29. Vikingslav on December 23rd, 2008 2:01 am

    A well-rounded piece with delicious imagery and stunning photos…
    A perfect exemplar of an exemplary blog. I take my hat off to you….

  30. cjw on December 24th, 2008 12:15 pm

    Drew – I just saw your comment, a belated thank you!

    Vikingslav – many thanks, much more to come in 2009 if the gods are willing…

  31. Dude, I Want Your Japan Life | Tokyo Filter on February 14th, 2010 6:34 am

    [...] couple of my favorite posts are: In search of civilisation, and Fishing for [...]

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