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Sunday, April 21, 2002


Veteran lensman sets his sights high

Staff writer

After 30 years, Takashi Iwahashi hasn't lost any enthusiasm for his work. Even at age 57, he spends an average of 120 days a year on the world's mountain peaks and ridges, capturing their beauty on film.

News photo
Takashi Iwahashi

Such devotion has made him one of Japan's leading mountain photographers, famed for such works as the 80-page "Mount Tanigawa" (1975), the 144-page "The Rockies" (1992) and the 112-page "Yari, Hotaka" (1999), which focused on the highest peaks of Japan's Northern Alps.

In Tokyo in early April after two weeks in the mountains of Tateyama, Toyama Prefecture, a tanned Iwahashi spoke to The Japan Times about his career.

What was it like working in Tateyama?

During the winter, weather decides everything, so sometimes you can't do anything during a trip. Usually, you have just one fine day amid continuing days of blizzards in places like Tateyama. But it was quite lucky that I had three consecutive fine days this year. It was quite unusual for March. Even when it snows, I often go out to the mountain slopes to search for the tracks of snow grouse because the birds often appear at the moment a blizzard stops.

Is the climate in the mountains changing? Has it become warmer in Japan's mountains?

Definitely. Especially in the past 10 years, I've noticed many changes in the mountains that are thought to be caused by moderate weather and less snow in the winter. For example, in the Japan's Northern Alps, I found that itadori [Japanese knotweed], a species of plant that previously could not grow at high altitudes because of the temperature, was starting to replace alpine plants. I was quite shocked to see that.

What other changes have you noticed in the mountains over the past 30 years?

I've found that the sun looks less clear at sunrise. In the past, it looked brighter in the very clear air. But recently, the sun looks blurred, just as it does at sunset. Actually, the editors of my latest collection on the Japan's Northern Alps could not distinguish between the photos of sunrise and those of sunset. I suspect the smog may have become so thick that it's even affecting the clear mountain air in the morning.

News photo
The northern Alps of Mount Yarigatake seen over a field of alpine flowers in summer (above), and Mount Jonendake in a sea of clouds

You have said that your favorite mountains in the Japan Alps are the Mount Hotaka range. Why?

I think this is because they left such a strong first impression. Mount Okuhodaka there is one of the first 3,000-meter mountains I climbed in my university days. I have clear memories of the trip, including the troubles I had due to the inappropriate gear and tent I had brought along. I felt exhausted during training in the snow, but the mountain was extremely beautiful.

What led you into mountain photography?

I started taking photos while helping my father, who was a painter and used photos to record the scenery on which he based his paintings. Mountain photography was only a minor area of the field of photography 30 years ago, though I have to say it's not a major area even now. But people started to recognize the field after the rise in popularity of mountaineering, and several publishers started to focus on mountain photography.

What were those early days like?

It took me three years to put together my first collection of Mount Tanigawa, which was published when I was 30 years old. I would enter the mountain for about two weeks at a time, carrying about 60 kg of gear, including food such as potatoes and onions, water, a tent and a sleeping bag in addition to three big cameras. When I stayed on the Hokkaido mountain for three weeks, I reduced the amount of food I took after training myself to live on fewer meals.

Have you encountered much danger?

I think so. Electrical storms are the scariest. Several times, I've experienced lightning come down as if missiles fired just above my head. I hid myself in some bushes one time, but the lightning came every two minutes over a period of about 30 minutes.

What makes a good mountain photo?

If you want people to open a [photo] collection repeatedly, composition is crucial. You have to go to the [designated] place and wait till the conditions are agreeable. The best time may come once every three days or once a week. It depends.

After 30 years pursuing this line of work, do you find mountains keep presenting you with fresh challenges?

Yes. Mountains leave different impressions on me and provide me with idea for photos all the time. I have missed lots of could-be wonderful photo opportunities in the past. But the same conditions will never occur again.

What types of photos do you want to take in the future?

Not so many people have experienced climbing 3,000-meter-class mountains, but through my pictures, I want more people to know how beautiful the world up there is. And I hope more people, especially children and young people, will go to the mountains and experience nature. I've also recently come to think that my role is to tell people how nature that had long gone untouched is starting to suffer because of humans.

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