Yamashita: “Working the light” popular Japan’s national parks early 1990s.

The Aso caldera, in southwestern Japan, is a volcanic depression of massive proportions. Almost 16 miles (25 kilometers ) at its widest point, the caldera — among the world’s largest — is so big that approximately 45,000 people live inside of its sloped walls, together with space left for rice paddy fields and vegetable farms, two train lines and an active volcano. Driving between the south and north rims takes over one hour.

All these are the superlatives that enticed veteran National Geographic photographer Michael Yamashita into Aso-Kuju National Park, on the key southwestern island of Kyushu, in the early 1990s. A New Jersey native, Yamashita, 72, has spent over four years shooting hard-to-get-to and at times less-than-hospitable configurations: China, Japan, Iran, Cambodia, the Korean DMZ, India, Burma, Afghanistan.

He has followed the footsteps of early adventurers, from Marco Polo to Japanese poet Matsuo Basho. In his line of work, Yamashita has needed to unite physical strength, an artist’s sensibility, and a dab of derring-do. “Photography is all about a rectangle. Everything you maintain in the film and what your exit is equally significant,” he says, through a video phone from his house in New York.


Yamashita | image source

Yamashita had private reasons for visiting the Aso caldera. He had been researching his ancestral origins in Kyushu, the westernmost of all Japan’s four chief islands, to get a National Geographic story. Over four weeks, he estimates that he took over 800 rolls of film — about 28,800 pictures — delving into the terrain and culture of an island marginally larger than the state of Maryland. “I am searching for that which makes Kyushu particular,” he states.

Having an experienced local guide, Yamashita drove around Aso-Kuju National Park on scouting trips, imagining the landscape at different times of the afternoon. “At an area such as this, you wish to know, where would be the best perspectives, from what hill? How can I reveal this landscape in its very best light?”

Kuju National Park

Aso-Kuju National Park was among Japan’s first national parks, designated in 1934. Now there are 34 national parks across the archipelago that jointly attract over 371 million people per year. Each park is a special representation of these islands’ terrain — marshlands, moss-blanketed woods, towering peaks, craggy coastlines, and coral reefs — crossing from subarctic Hokkaido prefecture to encircle Okinawa prefecture.

Kuju National Park
Kuju National Park | image source

Aso-Kuju’s giant caldera is supposed to have been produced by four big volcanic eruptions, occurring between 90,000 and 270,000 decades back. For centuries, individuals have lived inside the caldera and worshipped the five volcanic peaks — Mt. Taka-dake, Mt. Naka-dake, Mt. Neko-dake, Mt. Eboshi-dake, Mt. and Kijima-dake, jointly known as Mt. Aso. Local residents will also be intimately aware of the amazing forces of nature they reside alongside: an active volcano, Mt. Aso’s last significant eruption was in 2016.

Kyushu’s landscape

For Yamashita, the playground has been Kyushu’s landscape in its most striking. He had been up before sunrise and outside before dark, shooting pictures which were like Japan’s dense, neon-lit cities and whiz-bang technology: areas of Suzuki pampas grass.

their celestial tops bathed in the morning light; woods, shrouded in darkness, fading into the distance; vacationers on horseback that seem as vibrant dots onto a mountainous mountainside; bubbling sulfur ponds and steaming hot springs. “National Geographic is all about geography, thus we attempt to illustrate the property,” he states. “I am trying to illustrate something ordinary spectacularly. My job would be to detain the reader, and so that in turning through this narrative they go,’ Wow! That is fantastic!’ And wish to stare at it”

world’s largest active volcanoes

You can not ask for a more glorious topic than Mt. Aso, among the world’s largest active volcanoes. To view it from above, Yamashita hired a helicopter. Since the late afternoon sun dipped, he peered down through the helicopter’s open doorway at smoke billowing from among those craters. “I am operating the light — in this situation, it’s sunset.

We’re performing a 360 round the volcano and I am shooting continuously using 3 cameras and unique lenses. As I complete one roster, my fixer is reloading the movie and I am shooting with a different camera and another lens. At precisely the same time, I am telling the pilot to fly at which I could find the best picture possible,” he states. “The smoke from the volcano being white represents the image. I am seeking to fill the frame with this gorgeous light and gradations of white, thanks to the very intense sunlight.”

 largest active volcanoes
largest active volcanoes | image source

Aso-Kuju is not the sole federal park Yamashita has photographed. To get a narrative about the roots of Western gardens, he also flew into Ise-Shima National Park, in Mie prefecture, in 1989. Inside the park, 148,000 acres (72,678 hectares) are evergreen woods, mountains, striated and limestone coastlines, and inlets dotted with islands and pearl farms and fishing fleets that haul in precious catches of Ise-Ebi shrimp, (Japanese spiny lobster) and pufferfish.

Ise Jingu, roughly 2,000-year-old shrine

Yamashita’s attention was Ise Jingu, a roughly 2,000-year-old shrine that’s thought to be the holiest in Japan’s native Shinto religion. He traveled in search of a patch of white rocks marked off by wooden poles and rope. From the Shinto view, deities inhabit trees, rocks, trees, and other areas of the organic world. It will be a far cry from the lush gardens of the West which were portrayed in 19th-century paintings from the likes of John Constable, Camille Pissarro, and Claude Monet.

In a different precinct of this shrine, he came across another rock — big and red and intentionally placed among little stones, amid a courtyard — may be another case of the belief in deities inhabiting organic objects. “You sit and consider it. It may mean unique things to different men and women. In my opinion, the Japanese garden is all about your creativity — what can you envision that is?” He states.

Maybe more than any other location in Japan, Hokkaido, the northernmost prefecture, has exerted the most powerful tug on Yamashita. It was the topic of his first story for National Geographic, released in January 1980. He’s returned several times, most recently during winter at ancient 2020 — his last overseas trip before the pandemic stopped traveling — to get whooper swans and red-crowned cranes at Akan-Mashu National Park and Hokkaido’s highest summit, Mt. Asahidake, at Daisetsuzan National Park.

Mt. Asahidake

Mt. Asahidake Yamashita
Mt. Asahidake | image source

In Mt. Asahidake, he had to wait for two weeks for strong winds to expire until it was safe to ride the ropeway into the bottom of the summit. “I am up there and the sunlight is amazing,” he states. That isn’t to say he had it simple. To catch the shots he desired of”big snow” along with trekkers and fumaroles belching steam and sulfurous gas, Yamashita needed to strap on snowshoes and increase up his way.

“The snow is heavy and you are sucking wind since you are very high up there” — over 7,500 ft (2,280 meters) above sea level,” he states. The mountaintop is near to one of Yamashita’s beloved areas, Asahidake Onsen, a very small settlement (currently a part of neighboring Higashikawa city ) of lodges and hot springs.

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