In the Hall of the Spider King

June 18, 2009 | Filed Under Uncategorized 

The Philippine tectonic plate crashes into Japan like a beaching battleship, it’s prow rising from the surf; this is the Izu Penninsula. Still it judders from time to time, showering earthquakes up and across the Kanto plain, while its many hot springs are a reminder that Vulcan’s forges hammer away not far from the surface. Yet the folds of its hills and valleys lie within an hour of Tokyo, and so it is that we dash headlong to it at the first sign of a break in the monsoon rains.

We camp not far from the base of Mt Amagi, the jagged half-moon remnants of a long dead volcano, and our goal for the next day. In a quiet valley by a river choked with boulders we pitch the tent, before making our way to the local hot spring where we poach ourselves lightly in the gathering dusk. Small wisps of high cloud move fast across the moonless sky with the westerly breeze, a suggestion that the fine weather will be short-lived; our little window grows smaller, and we resolve to get up at first light to beat the rain. It’s dark by the time we reach the tent, but the air is filled with the chorus of frogs in the rice fields and the glow of fireflies, who dart in and out of the wasabi leaves which line the banks of the river.

The next day breaks with grey clouds cruising the peaks, heavy with the threat of rain. Even in our haste, though, we cannot resist stopping the car at the Joren waterfall on the way; 5a.m. on a Sunday is probably the only time you’ll ever see it devoid of its usual coach parties and tourists. We make our way down along the path towards the roaring waters below, where we startle a white crane which has been drinking in the pools. It takes elegantly to the skies, crossing in front of the waterfall once, then again, then off into the early morning sky.

At the old Amagi tunnel we start out along a deserted road which winds slowly up next to a gushing river. Spider webs lie thick across the path, heavy with dew, and we duck below them or with silent apology cut through them with a stick. Two deer, drinking from the river below, run crashing up the opposite slope as we approach, pausing on the opposite bank to watch us pass with doleful black eyes. A baby mamushi, one of the few mildly poisonous snakes in Japan, slithers across a nearby rock. It’s hard to imagine you are only 100km from the heart of Tokyo.

As we climb, the forest changes from farmed cedars to primeval buna beech woods. These islands were once covered with these beautiful trees, but now they are so rare that the maps actually make a special note of areas where the buna still grow.  Where the ground below the cedars is a dead carpet of fallen brown needles, the buna forests are filled with grasses and bushes, with airy canopies that spill the early sun in pools of light below. Where usually I would climb quickly through forest, the better to get to the open skies of high ground, today I linger and we run from tree to tree delighting in their crooked shapes and strange branches.


The path narrows, and presently the trees too close in, so close at times that their branches mesh across the track like a leafy tunnel. We reach Haccho-ike pond at around 4000 feet, where we eat fresh corn on the cob and watch the mist swirl across the water, while unseen frogs chirp from the banks.

As we climb further along the ridge, towards the summit and towards the coast, the weather starts to close in. The fog lies across the primeval buna, like a scene in an ancient Japanese folktale. It’s the kind of place you might lie down to sleep for five minutes, only to wake and find a hundred years gone by. The fog brings down with it the scent of blossoms from some shrub we cannot find, but it perfumes the forest sweetly like earl grey tea. Through the mist and this scent we pass, just we two. We haven’t met another soul all day.

The summit of the Amagi range, and the highest point in Izu, is Mt Banzaburo. As we approach, we hear voices, and then we make out a score of climbers who have made their way from the quick loop up the eastern side of the mountain. The summit is small and crowded, too cloudy to make out a view, so we tag the peak and quickly disappear back into the forest from which we’d come.

“How far did we walk?” Yuka asks as we arrive back at the car.
“About 25 something kilometers.” I reply.
“That was great. We should come to Izu again.” she says, and I grin, aiming the car squarely for the nearest hot spring.

The legend of Joren waterfall goes like this:
A woodcutter rested by the waterfall one day, and as he dozed in the hot sun he noticed that a wasp-spider (jomo-gumo) was winding a web around his leg. “She must have mistaken my leg for a branch”, he thought to himself, and with a stick carefully twisted the silk from his leg and laid it on the ground. With that, there was a mighty shaking of the earth, and a great hole opened up, swallowing the stick and the web. The woodcutter ran to his village, telling the villagers “The master of the Joren waterfall is a beautiful wasp-spider. But if he catches you, he will wind his web around you, drag you to his lair and you’ll never leave!”. The villagers never approached the waterfall again.

Yuka was right, Izu has a way of getting under your skin. That old spider still has some powerful magic.

Comments

31 Responses to “In the Hall of the Spider King”

  1. holdfast on June 18th, 2009 6:47 pm

    The benchmark for outdoor blog photography is right here. Wow.

  2. Martin Rye on June 18th, 2009 7:41 pm

    HDR photos are incredible. Japan is incredible. That walk was incredible. As Holdfast said “WOW”

  3. Ted T on June 19th, 2009 12:55 am

    We were lucky to hike through buna groves last week, along the Nara/Mie border. Wickedly gorgeous trees! In Rashomon, think those may be buna in that classic scene of the woodcutter coming across the body of the samurai. And in Throne of Blood, with the fortune teller. Kurosawa sure knew how to evoke the primeval…

  4. Damian on June 19th, 2009 2:03 am

    I have to agree with holdfast. Both your photography and your writing, cjw, are precious gifts to your readers. I await each post in anticipation. Thank you.

  5. George on June 19th, 2009 10:01 am

    Amazing story and photos. I usually prefer ice and snow, but this is a place I’d really like to visit. Hard to believe it’s somewhere in Japan. It feels like something out of Tolkien’s Middle Earth — Lothl√≥rien perhaps?

  6. brb on June 19th, 2009 1:27 pm

    An onsen after a hike is one of the best things in life.

    Great hike and photos!

  7. billywest on June 19th, 2009 2:24 pm

    This summer, I’ll be looking to get out into the wild and I’ll be using your blog for inspiration, my friend.

  8. Captain Interesting on June 19th, 2009 6:54 pm

    Great photos, and it’s good to see the Amagi mountains in the green season. No snakes in the winter, though, when Fukada Kyuya did the traverse….

  9. Peter Skov on June 20th, 2009 2:25 am

    As usual, your post inspires me to write many comments.
    Izu has always been a remote place in my mind and a mysterious one. I know many people who have been there and yet I have only ever visited once, during a weekend when two typhoons passed over two days.

    The waterfall is surely a site to behold and I am greatful for the tip to visit early. The forest is like from a fantasy story. Especially the first photo fills me with inspiration to return to the woods and do some photography there. I seem to spend most of my film on mountain scenes these days but it was in the forest where I first practiced photography.

    The buna trees were virtually non-existent on the Japanese Isles during the last glacial period but slowly made there way north on the islands as the climate generally warmed. They are among my favourite trees.

    I also enjoyed the spider legend. I wonder what really happened.

    Regarding your comment on my post, I think being a photographer is best defined in the results, and among your photographs there are always images that delight and amaze your audience. If not a photographer, then I would call you a damn good photographer.

  10. Clint on June 20th, 2009 6:45 am

    Wonderfully written, great photos, of course, as is the norm on this blog.

    The mist in the trees really adds to the atmosphere in those shots. I wish I could have visited this area before I left; as you mentioned, it is so close to Tokyo..

  11. Mikael on June 20th, 2009 10:16 am

    These pictures reminded me of a book by nature photographer Takeshi Hosokawa I’ve had stashed away in a box ever since moving almost two years ago. Now it retook it’s place in the bookshelf. Again, your images would also look right at home printed on good paper between hard covers.

    On a side note, I will finally get a bit of a climbing fix when visiting the in-laws in Asahikawa for two weeks next month. Probably some day-hikes and scrambling on and around Asahidake. Long overdue.

  12. David on June 20th, 2009 6:40 pm

    It’s rare to find a good writer, climber, and photographer in the same person- I think that’s what draws me to this blog so much. I love the shots in the forest- woods are always beautiful when you’re physically there, but getting them to pop on film is tough. Are those HDR?

  13. wes on June 21st, 2009 1:43 am

    Glad to see you’ve got the blog fixed, and are back up to posting. Great account of Amagi – sorry you didn’t have the outstanding views of Fuji. (I guess I’ll have to write up my Amagi report at some point in the future)

    I’m looking forward to seeing what peaks you choose for the short summer climbing season…

  14. CJW on June 21st, 2009 7:36 am

    Holdfast – you are far, far too generous. But thank you!

    Martin – we had a great walk on Amagi, it’s a beautiful place. It really was hard to believe we were only 100km from the world’s most populous metropolis.

    Ted T – I know the scene in Rashomon you mean, and I think you’re right. By the way, have you seen the Kurosawa Digital Archive? It’s here, should you wish: http://www.ss.i.ryukoku.ac.jp/pearl/pages/pearl/index.html# – some great stuff in there.

    Damian – it’s my pleasure, truly. If I can bring back even a little of what we’ve seen, then I consider it a job well done.

    George – I know what you mean. For me, forests are usually something to get through as quickly as possible. But there’s something about those buna… You’d like Amagi. Just make sure you take the long route from the old Amagi tunnel, you won’t meet a soul – the quick trail from the golf course on the other side gets rather crowded apparently.

    brb – glad you liked it, and I am in 100% agreement about the onsen! That, and an ice cold nama beer…

    Billy – that’s great to hear! You know where you email me if you want any pointers or routes. Rainy season almost over…?

    Captain! I can see why Fukada did it in winter, the views must be wonderful. I can quite see us paying our respects to Amagi again some time on a crisp, clear winter’s day in the near future.

    Peter – I think your 4×5 would very much enjoy a trip to Izu! And I would certainly enjoy seeing the results of such a trip. Joren waterfall is well worth a visit (and there are many others which we didn’t get the chance to explore). I’m still kicking myself that we weren’t quieter as we descended to it, because a shot of that crane drinking in the pool would have been a beauty..

    Clint – I’m sure you’ll be back to Japan at some point, and when you are then Izu is just a stone’s throw away. I’m looking forward to seeing your shots of Turkey in the meantime!

    Mikael – didn’t know you were married to a Hokkaido gal! That’s a great area by all accounts. I haven’t been to Asahi-dake yet, but it’s definitely on the climb list.. Hope you have fun up there!

    David – thank you for your kind words, it always means a lot. The only HDR is in fact the waterfall. The rest are lightly post-processed to compensate for the lighting conditions. At long last, I’ve stuck a “tutorial” up about photography in general: http://i-cjw.com/blog/photography-brain-dump/ which might explain things a bit.

    Wes – it’s great to be back! Looks like the blog is stable, although there are some wrinkles (I lost all my categories :-( ). Definitely want to see your shots from Amagi – as I said above, the next climb needs to be on a crystal-clear day, I think. Still ruminating on this summer – Shikoku is a definite, and I have a crew set to climb Shiomi next weekend if the weather forecast miraculously changes. Other than that, it will be the usual map & dartboard approach to planning..

  15. KamoshikaBob on June 22nd, 2009 12:00 am

    Good to see you back!
    Buna may be rare on your side of the island, but they rule the forest slopes of snow country. The deeper the snow, the thicker the buna. Here on the Nagano/Niigata border, our buna forests can’t quite match Shirakami-sanchi, but they are only three hours from Tokyo.

    On a personal note, when I was growing up, we made several family trips to Izu, but always stayed on the coast. Amagi and the interior sounds fascinating.

  16. hanameizan on June 22nd, 2009 2:55 am

    CJW, I’m envious of the route you took! Although the route from the golf course was deserted last winter, there is no waterfall. And in winter, those beautiful gnarled trees lack the rich colours of your photos.

    The buna forests are indeed marching northwards. They will still be in Honshu even in our grandchildren’s lifetimes, but FFPRI research suggests they are doomed in the long term.

  17. hanameizan on June 22nd, 2009 9:18 am

    PS – thanks a lot for posting the explanation of your photographic techniques. But as suspected, there’s no easy way to emulate your pics.

  18. Mark on June 22nd, 2009 7:30 pm

    Amazing images in words and pictures. I never miss one of your posts – they never fail to inspire.
    Thanks.

  19. RedYeti on June 25th, 2009 12:08 pm

    Inspiring and well written post Chris.

    Nice to see a different side of the mountains too.

    I had a feeling that most of the images weren’t HDR. Nice to know I’ve got some feeling for it ;)

    The “green tunnel” image (4th down) is very reminiscent of many lanes in Sussex. We were pleased to have one leading to where we had our party at the weekend so that the Swedish guests in particular could experience it.

  20. Chris B on June 25th, 2009 1:37 pm

    Absolutely stunning photos.

    Do you offer any of these at interfacelift or deviant art as wallpapers??

  21. Clint on June 27th, 2009 2:18 pm

    Chris, I started noticing a bunch of hits on my blog from your Photography Dump page. Noticed you cannot leave comments so I thought I would comment here. I was quite surprised and incredibly flattered to see you link to my blog like that. I wanted to thank you for that!

    Also, your write up is extremely well thought out and I would say great advice, especially the parts about having a tripod, your camera handy at all times, and trying small adjustments during post processing which can yield amazing results.

    Since I shoot in RAW all the time, I find Lightroom is super easy to manage everything and process your photos with. I do like to talk that program up to anyone who will listen!

    Thanks again!

  22. CJW on June 28th, 2009 10:41 am

    KamoshikaBob – good to hear from you too! I might have to take a trip over to the yuki-guni to see those buna forests – I was very taken with what I saw of them on Amagi. If you ever get down to Izu, I’d definitely recommend exploring the interior a little.

    Hanameizan – you might like to try that long Amagi traverse when you’re back on your feet – it’s quite a gentle, but long walk. I’ll post the Yamareco link (thanks for that introduction!) and GPS file at some point, and you can take a look. I’m having a great time with the GPS, by the way.

    Hi Mark – I’m glad you enjoyed the post! Thank you for reading.

    RedYeti – that lane must have framed your celebrations perfectly! I’m sure all your guests enjoyed it.

    Chris B – been a while! Interesting idea, thanks for suggesting it – I might well set up a deviantART account and start posting some of these. I’ve used wallpapers from them for years, maybe it’s time to give something back :-)

    Clint – I very much like the HDR work you do, and it was a pleasure to be able to reference it. I’m also very glad you approved of the tips in the article! I’m going to have to think about shooting in RAW – I downloaded the trial version of Lightroom a while ago, and I need to make some time to get to know it properly. Your encouragement is appreciated!

  23. RedYeti on June 29th, 2009 12:20 pm

    Chris, Clint – Lightroom: Excellent bit of kit.

    I’ve played around with all the RAW editors I could find. Lightroom beats all of them hands-down.

    It’s not quite as intuitive an interface as they’d like you to think, it takes a little practice, but it’s well worth it.

    The ability to control light and saturation in certain parts of an image I’d now be lost without. It’s giving us back control that we had in a real dark room (over-burning etc).

    And the Heal tool can save an otherwise excellent image from being marred by a stray cigarette butt or similar.

    Worth every penny I think.

  24. CJW on June 30th, 2009 6:14 am

    Ah, you twisted my arm, guys – next purchase, Lightroom :-)

    (after the new sleeping bag, axes, another harness, new PLB, Jetboil Helios…)

  25. Clint on June 30th, 2009 3:41 pm

    Well I am not sure how much you are into editing your shots, but there are some presets that I downloaded a while ago that can sometimes make shots turn out amazing with a single click.

    I often use 2 versions that are named after the movie 300 because they give the photos a 300′ish type of look that I really like. I usually dial a few sliders back toward normal and work from there.

    I think I can figure out how to extract those presets and email them; if anyone is interested, let me know.

  26. Dave Hollin on July 18th, 2009 10:14 pm

    superb, simply superb

    I want to go

    now!

  27. CJW on July 26th, 2009 4:14 am

    Clint – I wouldn’t mind getting those presets if you could send them to me – cjw at the site address… many thanks in advance!

    Dave – I can’t recommend Japan highly enough as a hiking/climbing destination. If you’re interested, maybe take a look at the Lonely Planet Hiking in Japan book – it’s a good starter, with some decent routes and the only resource that has maps in English!

  28. Dave Hollin on July 27th, 2009 8:06 pm

    thanks for the info re the book. Have always had a fascination with Japan and its one of my dream destinations for a vacation

    :)

  29. Janet on September 28th, 2009 6:11 am

    Hi, just discovered your blog while googling “amagi traverse”. it’s fantastic – the photos, the writing. I am planning on doing the Amagi traverse this Friday following the trail from lonely planet guide. It will be my first “hike” since I fractured my leg during a fall while trekking. Is it really gentle? don’t want to do anything challenging as I will be on my own and also developed a fear of heights from the fall. Any advice will be appreciated.

  30. CJW on September 28th, 2009 10:25 am

    Hi Janet!
    I’d describe the Amagi traverse as being quite gentle – but to be honest, I feel uneasy recommending it as your ideal first rehabilitation hike, especially if you’re on your own. It’s a relatively long trail with no alternative exits, no huts or water sources, and quite possibly very few other hikers up there. Terrain-wise, it’s easy – a climb up at the start and down at the finish, but generally the trail is well marked and cared for, with no precipitous drops or exposures, and mainly within the (beautiful) buna woodlands.
    I wonder if one of the trails up around Nikko, or maybe Mt Takao, might not be a better choice initially?

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