Photography by Thaddeus Pope
Water and images of water are everywhere in Japan, an island nation blessed with abundant rainfall; water courses through mountain valleys, flowing over towering waterfalls, and winds through broad river beds to the surrounding seas. Flowing water is a symbol of movement, dynamism, and change. Its only constant quality is its mutability; no rivulet is the same from moment to moment. The ebb and flow of water is manifestation of the transformative power of nature, as seen in the changing seasons, shifting fortunes, and the rushing journey from birth to death.“Japanese Design” Kenneth Straiton
Formed in the late Miocene period by shifting volcanic arcs, the islands of Japan are situated on multiple tectonic plates in a volcanic zone known as the Pacific Ring of Fire. As a result of tectonic activity, Japan is threatened by powerful natural phenomena, including earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions. Though blessed with ample rainfall, which aids the cultivation and irrigation of paddies and farmland, Japan also frequently suffers from devastating typhoons and destructive mudslides. It is then perhaps no surprise that the Japanese have developed an intimate and inescapable relationship with the natural world, and that Shintoism, the indigenous religion of the country, is deeply reverent of nature. This relationship was for me the catalyst for embarking on a photographic project exploring the wild nature of Japan, with a particular focus on water and waterfalls.
A Land Shaped by Water
Water holds special significance and possesses powerful symbolism in Japan, with expressions of waves, waterfalls, rain and rivers to be found across all areas of Japanese life and permeating the art, culture and religion of the country. The mountainous and heavily forested islands of the archipelago are both bisected and fed by vast networks of streams, rivers and lakes. In a process that has taken place over millions of years, these waterways have carved deep valleys in their upper reaches and formed fertile plains in the lower ones, enabling the Japanese to grow rice and other crops and to establish villages, towns and cities along their banks.
As water travels from mountains and lakes towards the sea, its journey is occasionally made all the more dramatic with waterfalls. One of nature’s most emblematic and picturesque sights, waterfalls have captured the imagination of Japanese artists, writers and craftsmen throughout the ages. In poetry, for example, Matsuo Basho (1644–1694), the foremost poet of the Japanese haiku tradition, composed numerous verses on the subject of waterfalls.
In the visual arts, “A Tour of the Waterfalls of the Provinces” is a series of landscape woodblock prints by the renowned Japanese artist, painter and printmaker Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) and was the first ukiyo-e series to depict the theme of falling water. Completed around 1833–1834, each of the eight waterfalls in the series was rendered using a different aesthetic approach, employing varying compositional devices, vantage points and stylistic techniques to emphasise the unique religious, curative and scenic qualities of each location. In these paintings, Hokusai reminds us of our place in nature, with the human inhabitants of each scene rendered as a small part of the larger magnificent whole and nature itself depicted as a living thing capable of surmounting humankind with indifference as it continues along its constant and imperturbable path.
In Shintoism water is considered sacred, and spirits known as kami are believed to inhabit nature, including trees, rivers, mountains and animals, as well forces of nature such as storms and earthquakes. It is believed that kami respond to prayer and can influence both natural and human events.
Since ancient times, priests and parishioners of the Shinto faith have taken pilgrimages to sacred waterfalls, lakes and rivers to commune with and appease the kami and to perform ritual purification ceremonies known as misogi. Some who visit waterfalls undertake takigyo or misogi harae, meaning waterfall meditation, which involves literally sitting or standing within the path of the water’s descent. Such purification ceremonies may also occur as part of a traditional festival or matsuri. The practice of misogi brings the participant into a more intimate union with nature, reminding them of their place in the natural order and the endless flow of life while purifying that person of negative energies. It is believed that if a person is able to withstand the harshness of the practice, they will be better able to face adversity, accept one’s role within the cycle of life and prepare themselves for their inevitable death with dignity and grace.
The Waterfalls of Tottori Prefecture
There are 517 officially named waterfalls in Japan, many of which are located in remote mountain regions with no direct access, which only adds to their mystery and allure. In 1990 the Japanese Ministry of the Environment compiled a list of the top 100 waterfalls of Japan, appropriately titled One Hundred Waterfalls of Japan. Though I hope to photograph a good number of the waterfalls on that list, I am currently focused on the waterfalls of Tottori Prefecture in the Chugoku Region of Honshu, the westernmost region of the largest island of Japan.
Located on the Sea of Japan in an area known as the San’in, meaning the northern, shady side of the mountains, Tottori has broad coastal and mountainous areas as well as Japan’s largest sand dunes. Though sparsely populated, Tottori is an extraordinarily beautiful part of Japan, with an ancient and storied past and many natural, historical and cultural attractions.
The three cities of Tottori prefecture are Tottori City, Kurayoshi and Yonago, which developed along the Sendai, Tenjin and Hino rivers, respectively. These rivers provide water and hydroelectric power to the people of the prefecture and irrigation to tens of thousands of hectares of rice paddies. In their mountainous upper reaches, each of these rivers boasts dozens of impressive waterfalls, including two from One Hundred Waterfalls of Japan: Amedaki, near Tottori City, and Daisendaki, near Yonago.
With this project, which is still very much in its infancy, I aim not only to photograph all of the waterfalls in Tottori prefecture but also to encourage a greater number of tourists to visit this overlooked but truly stunning part of the world – with the ultimate goal of helping to boost the growth and development of the local economy, following the decline that resulted from the coronavirus pandemic. I hope to realise that objective by sharing my work online with an international audience and, once the pandemic has passed, by hosting long-exposure waterfall photography workshops. For more information about these workshops, please continue reading.
Waterfall Photography Workshops
Would you like to learn how to photograph moving water to give it that soft, elegant and heavenly look? Would you like to visit places of outstanding natural beauty and spiritual significance in one of the most picturesque prefectures in Japan? If the answer to both of these questions is “yes,” I hope you’ll consider joining one of my one-day waterfall photography workshops, which I offer for individuals or small groups in various locations throughout Tottori prefecture, Japan.
These workshops are aimed at those who wish to experience awe-inspiring waterfalls and the surrounding nature while developing the long-exposure photography skills required to capture the true essence of each location. In these workshops, which are held on location, I teach the basics of using neutral-density filters with a long exposure and slow shutter speed to create dynamic, dreamlike photographs of moving water. I also cover the fundamentals of composition, lighting and colour and how best to combine the natural elements in a given scene to convey a sense of the beauty and power of the natural world.
The waterfall(s) selected for the workshop will be determined based on the participants’ level of physical fitness, hiking experience, access to suitable clothing and footwear, weather conditions, time constraints and any other circumstance/s. Please be aware that some locations are inaccessible at certain times of the year, especially during the rainy season and winter months. Sightings of black bear or reports of mudslides may also prohibit visiting a particular waterfall. Safety is the number-one priority!
If you’d like to visit some exquisitely beautiful locations while learning or developing photography skills, please don’t hesitate to get in touch via the contact page or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
All images copyright © 2020-present, Thaddeus Pope. All rights reserved. Written permission required prior to any usage.
Tottori Tourism Guide (English)
Click on the image below for information about travel, sightseeing, food and accommodation options in Tottori, Japan.
Information Regarding COVID-19