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Mt. Fuji from Heda Port on the Izu Peninsula
Mt. Fuji from Heda Port on the Izu Peninsula

Photographing Japan’s Izu Peninsula

I got hired to speak about photography in Yokosuka Japan, and whenever one of these speaking engagements happens in foreign place I like to spend a little extra time there to throw a new twist into my portfolio.

Japan hadn’t been on my bucket list ever since I became too old to cross country ski. When younger I wanted to ski inn to inn through the Japanese Alps as they have connecting trails where you can ski from one village to another. I wish I hadn’t wasted so much of my youth on frivolity, and so little on substantive travel. Is frivolity the wrong word for child rearing? Well I would be in Japan speaking about photography, so I wanted to get some landscape, travel, lifestyle and culture photos for my presentation and Google images was the place to search for photo fodder.

At first, a Google “Japan landscape” search only turned up the predictable coy ponds, temples, and shrines. I had to dig deeper, a few more keywords turned up a beautiful little place not far from my speaking engagement, the Izu Peninsula. The Izu Peninsula appeared to resemble the Oregon, and Washington coasts replete with cliffs, and sea stacks, only with a different kind of trees. The crystal clear water though was more like those of South Seas. Izu it was. I figured I could get some good seascapes, as well as “off the beaten path” culture photos.

Despite Japan’s great mass transit system, landscape photography requires a car. As I learned to drive on the wrong side of the road on the freeways of Tokyo, I was relieved to reach the south of the city alive. Here I was pleased to find Japan was green, very green, the gamut of green from the lime color of the prodigious bamboo to the dark olive of the pines. Rural Japan is a very green place. It was also very steep, lots of mountains everywhere. Japan was rapidly impressing me.

Mt Fuji was just northwest of the peninsula and sometimes could be seen when Fujisan as the Japanese know the mountain, decided to reveal himself to his admirers below. I know Mt. Fuji was problematic so I rented a hotel room with a distant Fuji view that wasn’t close to anything, but provided a central location which afforded the ability to be most anywhere in a couple of hours, including Mt. Fuji.

As usual, my central location idea was faulty because the Izu is so mountainous, to get anywhere requires negotiating roads that are better suited to Toyota Supra’s, Nissan 350Zs, and Mazda RX-7s, and is a speedsters nirvana for a kawasaki-ninja-zx12r or Suzuki GSX-R1000. Although my Toyota Sienta was sufficiently fun on these roads I was still very far away from everything time wise. The average speed limit was about 40 Kilometers per hour.

My photography goal was landscape/ seascapes, hopefully with Japanese accents. It would be nice to capture some traditional agriculture and fishing is a big part of their heritage so I wanted to capture the fishing culture also. I didn’t want to waste time on the usual geishas, temples, and coy pond gardens. The other Japan was more up my alley.

As a wildlife/landscape photographer trying to fake my way through as a travel writer had me looking for photo fodder that had never been on my list before like food. Landscape and wildlife photographers often don’t care about food, it is a time-consuming inconvenience that often manifests itself as granola bars, bags of nuts, and cliff bars, but that isn’t what the foodie traveler is interested in reading about.

My centralized location, the Winery Hills Hotel, always required an early start, dang the Japanese for not participating in daylight savings time. It got light early, and got dark early as well. My departures were usually somewhere short of 4 AM.

I imagined that driving this magnificent coast would be similar to the views of California’s Big Sur Coast, and Italy’s Amalfi Coast, those steep, windy roads; however, weren’t covered in a canopy of trees as they are on the Izu. The Izu mountains were riddled with abundant tunnels to easier transverse the mountains, in Japan and Europe they tunnel through the mountains, in the USA they build roads over the top and around the mountains. the valley bottoms are largely reserved for farming, as the hills are too steep and leafy for food production. Unlike the USA where we build cities across our best farmland, the Japanese build on the hillsides instead. Some day we also will have to get our cities off our farmland.

The most intriguing landscape Google revealed was a fishing village called Heda Port which sometimes sported a towering Mt Fuji for a backdrop when Fujisan was in the mood. Like many giant peaks, Mt. Fuji makes its own weather, weather that manifests itself as a stormy blanket which keeps the Icon of Japan hidden most of the time. The Izu had many more gems than a big elusive massif though so I would have plenty to shoot while I waited for Fujisan to smile upon me. I would come here often.

Heda Port wasn’t the only photogenic fishing village, there were dozens, but few had a Fuji view. The west coast of the Izu was rich with fishing villages and tourist destinations, places that I couldn’t even read the names of are also problematic to remember. Japanese vowels and consonants were indecipherable to me. Some though like Dogashima, Nishizu, and the Futo Coast provided some great sea stack photo opportunities along this lush and rugged coast.

Heading farther south I was pleasantly surprised to find macaque monkeys while searching for the sea stacks known as “the Minokake Rocks,” I never found the Minokake Rocks” that day, but the monkeys were a good substitute. My original planning included a trip to the Japanese Alps to see the monkeys, but because of excessive road tolls I scratched it off the list. Later in the week after long last I finally found the Minokake Rocks on the east side of the Izu south of Shimoda. I wish I had time to shoot them more; they surely would have been worth the time investment. Had I been able to find them earlier, I certainly would have.

Over the next several days, I learned the photogenic landscapes and returned repeatedly to the best until I learned the best light for them. I also kept a close watch in the vicinity of the elusive Fujisan. One day while returning to the room for a nap, nearly to my centralized location which was close to nothing, Fujisan stepped out to say hi. Defying the urge to nap I rapidly headed to Heda Port. Knowing there could be a short shooting window, I stopped at a golf course and got some insurance shots before continuing to Heda Port where I watched Fujisan disappear into his cloudy blanket. Good thing I got the insurance shots at the golf course.

I dropped down to Shimoda a few times; Shimoda was the biggest tourist village of the Izu, one trip there was only to buy souvenirs for the family, tee shirts with the kids.   The only t-shirts I could find said Hawaii on them. A tee shirt with Izu written on it would have been awesome.

After several days of shooting the coast I rolled the dice to try to find a large waterfall on the slopes of Mt Fuji hoping that if I closed the gap on the mountain by 40 miles, I might get lucky and get a good look at Fujisan by eliminating 40 miles of humid haze. Try as I might, I couldn’t find the waterfall but I did get a closer look at Mt. Fuji’s cloud cover, up close it is a lot like fog.

On my way back to the hotel from Heda Port on my last evening the moment before complete darkness I saw Fujisan to the north, I thought, maybe I have one last chance.

I awoke earlier than usual trying to figure out whether I should go check on Fujisan, then come back to check out of the hotel or to check out now incase the shooting was good and not have anywhere I had to be at a certain time. I opted for a 3:45AM checkout. Along the way to Heda Port, there is a popular rest area and Fuji view lookout that looks out across the Suruga Bay and the city of Numazu. This morning Fujisan was standing tall and proud and some wispy clouds insured a great sunrise. I decided to get some insurance shots here before dropping off the mountain to a seaport that could very well be enveloped in sea fog.

This landscape called for a panorama shot, Fuji on the far left, the city of Numazu on the far right and Suruga Bay stretched out between them. A series of six verticals would do it so I shot several sets as the warm rays of morning lit up the wispy clouds above Fuji.

Then it was time to drop off the hill to Heda Port, and it didn’t disappoint. After a couple of hours working the bay, it was time to exit the Izu Peninsula, since I didn’t have to return to the hotel I could head north by the ocean and see Suruga Bay and Numazu along the way.

Take away

Due diligence on Google had paid off again; the Izu Peninsula is awesome. If I were to plan another Izu trip I think I’d stay down by Dogashima, a target rich environment. Although if I didn’t already have a good Fujisan in my portfolio, I might stay at Heda Port instead. The rugged coast of Dogashima could offer up portfolio enhancing seascapes for a long, long time.

Although I saw many rice paddies along the valley floor, those working them didn’t provide the traditional look I have been hoping for so I didn’t shoot them. The villages themselves were also a disappointment, although some of the buildings had the Japanese flare, probably because of earthquakes, they were stick built frame like the USA and didn’t offer the ancient character of many villages of Europe. Because of tsunami danger, all seaports had sea walls that save villages but make photography more challenging.

The Izu is a stunning landscape and I am surprised I had seen about two Americans in a week, so they don’t cater to us on the Izu. This place an amazing destination for general tourism and a photographers’ nirvana, I failed to understand why I had never heard of it before, nor why it isn’t on the travel path of other Americans. Maybe it is because you can’t buy a tee shirt!

Oddly enough, my next stop was Yokosuka where I was scheduled to photograph the rock band "Plain White Ts."

Related article (Driving In Japan) funny read


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