Four Seasons in Oirase Gorge
Oirase Gorge, located at the base of the Hakkoda Mountains in Japan and within the boundaries of the Towada-Hachimantai National Park, has to be one of my favorite places to relax. Oirase, pronounced O-ra-sey, Stream flows from Lake Towada and runs 14km through a deciduous forest, winding its way downhill until it reaches fertile farmlands where it is used for irrigation. The trail in Oirase Gorge follows the stream's meandering path and provides an excellent nature experience in all seasons.
Being located within an hour's drive from where I live, I have had the privilege of experiencing this wonderful area in all four seasons. Each season presents its own unique signature beauty in the Gorge and each has its own challenges when it comes to trying to best capture that beauty.
After the lang, harsh winter, the mountains are ready to make the most of the short growing season. Spring is fleeting here. As the vegetation quickly bursts with vibrant green new growth and the stream quickly reaches peak flow from the snow melt, plants of all kinds get right to business and start blooming throughout the Gorge.
Delicate wildflowers can be found for a few weeks each spring, giving hints of color to the now-shaded understory. Wild azaleas find patches of sunlight and gather directly on the banks of the stream. Other flowers such as the Tiger Lily prefer to be a bit further back near the trail. There are just so many small dots of color making their presence known through the blanket of ferns on both sides of the Gorge that make Spring a wonderful time to visit.
Photo tip: If planing a trip during Spring, bring a tripod, rain gear, and patience. Due to the low lighting created due to the dense foliage a tripod is well worth carrying. Spring is also a very wet season in this area, so being prepared for a bit of rain will keep you dry and shooting. With the topography, many times the Gorge is quite windy, so patience is important to get all the leaves in focus or to get a tack-sharp macro.
The deep greens of healthy, mature leaves blanket Oirase Gorge during the summer. Being the only outflow from Lake Towada, the stream still runs swiftly. During the heat of summer and years where rain is not as prevalent, some of the smaller waterfalls that flow from the sides of the Gorge may dry up. That being said, there are still plenty of waterfalls that are continuous throughout the year.
Even as far north as we are here, some days the temperature can reach over 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32+ degrees Celsius). The Gorge is typically several degrees cooler due to the abundant shade and funneled breeze, making it an ideal place to visit if you are in the area during this season.
Along the trail there are benches and areas where you can dip a toe into the icy cold waters for a moment of refreshment. Due to the status as a national park, however, there is no swimming allowed and rarely will you ever see a local wading.
Photo tip: Please remember good trail manors and give way to hikers. The walking path along the stream is narrow and thus a tripod can take up the entire width if one is not careful. Also, remember this is a national park and as such, going off trail is highly discouraged. Please respect ropes and signs, even if others do not.
One thing to be aware of in Summer is the traffic. The road through the Gorge runs parallel to most of the trail and in late Spring, early Summer, tour buses start bring in loads of passengers to see the area. There are bus stops up and down the trail and you will often see guided tours, with the tour guide holding the classic flag on a stick, roaming small portions of the trail where the main waterfall attractions are located.
The other type of group you may see, and I have run into several times, are filming crews. Many come here to shoot commercials or local interest stories. When I was interviewed by one of the nationally distributed Japanese papers, they asked if we could meet here so they could photography me working in this setting.
My suggestion to avoid the most foot traffic as well as bus traffic, is to get there early, park at the mid-point (Ishigedo rest area) and start hiking towards Lake Towada. This means you will be slowly going uphill on your way out and downhill on the way back to your vehicle. Starting at this location also allows you enough time to see and photograph your way to the lake and back without rushing for a leisurely day.
If you dont have all day, chose to visit either early in the day or late afternoon and auto hike. Auto hiking meaning moving from one point to another with the car and only hiking short distances along the actual trail to reach the prime locations.
Photo tip: Be sure to look for small details that make up the scene. This is an area for intimate or abstract landscapes versus the epic scene.
Autumn is by far my favorite season in the Gorge. That being said, it is also everyone else's favorite time and the crowds on weekends can be atrocious! Domestic visitors come from as far away as Tokyo and Osaka (400+ miles) to see the fall foliage here. Visit mid-week if you can and make sure to get there early for parking and best light.
Colors only last three, maybe four weeks, at most and it is highly dependent on the winds. A good wind storm can knock many of the leaves down earlier than expected. But the colors in this area are just so beautiful regardless of how long they last! Each tree adding its own tone to the overall palette of the forest. The layers are what really make this location special, in my opinion.
Photo tip: A circular polarizing filter is a must for shooting here in autumn. It takes away glare from the leaves and water, giving the image additional saturation and contrast, allowing the full range of colors to present themselves to the viewer.
Photo tip: Use neutral density or polarizing filters to allow longer shutter times. This can give you interesting images that play with both color and texture contrast, such as in this image. A longer (slower) shutter speed allowed me to capture the branch with colorful leaves against the greenish waters as well as allowing the fallen leaves to become golden blurs while being washed down stream. For images like this (above), make sure to take multiple frames as you will not know until you get home and view them on a larger screen what water patterns you like best.
Going multiple times throughout the season, I was able to photograph various points along the route when they were at their best. The challenge is then getting good weather, photographically, on the days I have available to shoot. In all seasons I like visiting when there are overcast skies as the clouds act like a huge soft box and I don't need to worry as much about sunbeams creating highlights on the waterfalls. However, in autumn, its a toss up as I do like the beautiful glow back lit leaves get when the sun is out.
Cold. That is how I describe winter here. Going out in the weather only increases the chances of being cold. Yet, it is worth it. The whole area, not just the Gorge, is beautiful under a blanket of fresh snow. And thick that blanket gets, too.
In the Gorge, by mid-season, the snow on the trail can be several feet thick. Snowshoes are required if you want to actually walk the trail or anywhere other than in the road, which stays open year round, thanks to the dedication of the road crews here.
This past season, I did not get to explore the Gorge as much as I would have liked during winter as I was spending much of my free time learning to snowboard with the hopes of using this skill this year to get into areas of the mountains that would otherwise be inaccessible to photographers during winter. I am, however, confident I will get there this year to grow my portfolio of winter landscape images and images from Oirase Gorge.
Photo tip: When shooting in cold or sub-freezing temperatures, carry an activated hand warmer in your pocket with your spare batteries. This will help them keep a charge and will rewarm your cold ones to re-energize them for further use. Also, make sure you are dressing for the weather to include gloves you can manipulate your camera while wearing. The last thing you want to do is have to be taking your gloves on and off to shoot, loosing all the warmth in your hands each time.
Photo tip: Use your histogram when shooting in snowy conditions. Snow tends to trick your light meter, thus you will need to manually compensate for the perceived brightness. This will help keep your highlights under control while compensating appropriately for the shadows.
So there you have it. A simple, photographic review of what each season has to offer photographers at Oirase Gorge. I hope you have found this helpful and please feel free to reach out if you have any questions or will be in the area. Cheers!
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