"Photographing Kamikochi has changed my life", said photographer Hisanori Sasahara who has been visiting the Kamikochi highlands to take photos of its scenery and starry night skies almost every month for the past ten years. Sasahara never used to specialize in nature photography, but now, he photographs Kamikochi exhaustively every season, morning, day and night in order to show more people how beautiful Kamikochi is.
Kamikochi is designated as a National Cultural Asset for being home to some of Japan’s most valuable landscapes, and it is a highly popular destination among both Japanese and international tourists. Every year, Kamikochi’s countless landscapes and sites such as the Taisho Pond, the Myojin Pond and the clear waters of the Azusa River, captivate and enrich the souls of around 1.5 million visitors. Sasahara is just one of the many people who have been captivated by the majestic natural landscape of Kamikochi. We asked him about what continues to drive him to photograph the natural landscape and starry skies of Kamikochi.
Captivated by the mountains’ many faces and the beautiful, sparkling, emerald-green waters
Interviewing with a photographer, Hisanori Sasahara
What made you start taking photos of Kamikochi’s nature?
Sasahara: It all started ten years ago when I came to Lemeiesta Hotel for a food photography job. That was my first time visiting Kamikochi. I remember how I got out of the car and was in awe of how pristine the waters of the river in front of the hotel were. It was during the rainy season and the weather was bleak - it looked like the rain was only just holding off. So I came back another day when it was sunny because my curiosity about what the scenery would look like on a clear day got the better of me. Right from the moment I got off the bus at Taisho Pond, I was absolutely mesmerized by the view of the mountains and waters. Ever since, I decided I would visit Kamikochi once a month to take photos.
At first, I was just taking photos to post on my blog and it wasn’t for work. But around three years in, more people started asking me if they could use them for posters and ads. It felt great knowing that I was exposing more people to the splendor of Kamikochi through my own photos.
So many different things make Kamikochi fascinating, but what I particularly want people to know about is the same breathtaking landscape I came across when I first saw Kamikochi. The same majestic landscape where the mountains contrast the sparkling emerald-green waters. I try not to retouch the photos as much as possible because I want to capture and show Kamikochi’s natural landscape exactly as it is. I still feel this way even now.
In pursuit of Kamikochi’s unique natural landscape in each of the four seasons
You’ve photographed Kamikochi in all sorts of different seasons. What makes Kamikochi enticing in each season?
Sasahara: During each season, I get to see a whole different side of the landscape as it changes completely and I always make new discoveries regardless of when I visit. I think this is what makes me want to return to Kamikochi again and again. For example, spring is the mountain climbing season when there’s still some snow left. The contrast between the snow, the waters and the greenery is striking, and it’s a popular season with international tourists as well. It’s also my favorite season.
Summer is wonderful because the snow disappears from the mountains and there are more differing shades of green which deepen over time. The greens complement the emerald-green waters well, and it’s very beautiful. Summer is also the season when you can see the Milky Way in the night sky as soon as it gets dark.
Autumn in Kamikochi is basically synonymous with the yellow autumn leaves of the Japanese larch tree. The leaves start becoming more and more ablaze with color from around mid-October and the sight of the mountains turning yellow is something you can only see in Kamikochi.
In winter, the tunnel is closed and the only way you can reach the area is by foot, so only a few people are able to visit. But I still met a person from Thailand once, who intentionally came to Kamikochi in winter when no one was around so that they could experience the tranquility.
I never get bored of taking photos of Kamikochi because even if it’s in the same day and at the same location, everything from the position of the clouds to the way the branches are growing change to reveal a different side of the landscape. Kamikochi and its many different faces really is a must-see for everyone.
The river, the Milky Way and the stars: a harmonious view of the night sky reserved for overnight guests.
You’ve been taking photos of not only Kamikochi’s landscape, but also its starry skies for many years. What makes it so unique and beautiful that you recommend it to other people?
Sasahara: People should really come and see how beautiful the mountains, the surface of the water and the starry sky all look altogether. Recently, I’ve been talking about Kamikochi’s starry sky at all sorts of places to try and make it better known. I think above all, what makes this starry sky unique to Kamikochi is how it can be seen together with the stunning view of the mountains and rivers. The Milky Way appears just above the river in front of Lemeiesta Hotel. The contrast between the pristine waters on land and the Milky Way is idyllic, and is a magnificent sight that only overnight guests can see.
Seven years ago, I held a trial photography class for the guests at Lemeiesta Hotel. I made the subject matter the starry sky and this ended up being well received by both the guests and the hotel, so from then on, I started holding the photography sessions regularly and I still do so now. The Milky Way I saw when I first started holding these sessions was also the turning point for me personally, as I became more absorbed in photographing the starry skies of Kamikochi. The best time to see the stars is in July and August at around 8-9pm and it’s definitely something that people should come to experience.
Create lifelong memories with your very own camera by capturing a sky filled with stars
Every month, you hold a photography session at Lemeiesta Hotel to take photos of the starry sky. What is the most important thing for you when you’re photographing the sky with the guests?
Sasahara: I think the most important thing for me is that people are enjoying taking photos of the starry sky in an out-of-the-ordinary environment, regardless of whether they are on their own or with their families. I’m fortunate enough to have repeat guests who participate every year and even guests who travel a long way just for the photography sessions. I’ve even had some people who were so moved that they started crying and thanking me for showing them such a beautiful starry sky. If people can just be themselves and appreciate the nature, the starry skies will surely come to hold a special meaning.
When I started hosting the starry sky photography sessions seven years ago, there weren’t that many people who were taking photos of it. But now, cameras are more advanced, and the guests can easily take beautiful photos of the starry sky even with their own mirrorless cameras. These days, a lot of people also enjoy looking at Mars and other planets through a telescope and they can take photos of the actual stars as well. I want lots of people to know about Kamikochi’s starry sky and come to photograph it, so even if the weather is bad, I try to wait outside for as long as I can to make the session possible for the guests. If you’re visiting Kamikochi, try to stay the night so you can relax and appreciate the nature and the starry sky.
Starry Sky Photography Sessions at Lemeiesta Hotel
Learn about the beauty of Kamikochi and photography techniques from photographer Hisanori Sasahara, exclusive to guest staying at Kamikochi Lemeiesta Hotel!
Date: Specific date about 4 times a month
Participation fee: Free (for Lemeiesta Hotel guests only)
What to bring: SLR camera, tripod (some tripods are available for rent at the hotel), warm clothing
Kamikochi Lemeiesta Hotel is located in Kamikochi, one of Japan’s leading resort areas. Surrounded by the majestic Japanese Alps, guests can enjoy the nature walks during the day, and millions of stars above during the night. The 100% natural hotspring and authentic French cuisine also contribute to making your stay even more luxurious.