Hokkaido The Art of Simplicity

Given the heat and dry weather we have experienced during this summer many landscape photographers will now start to cast their minds back to fresh winter mornings with snow and ice. Hokkaido is probably one of the most beautiful places to be in the winter months and this is the reason we run our workshop there. We are now excited and preparing for our forth aspect2i photography workshop in Hokkaido and we thought we would share an article Paul Gallagher wrote for On Landscape Magazine about his first experience of this amazing place accompanied by previously unseen images from both Michael Pilkington and Paul Gallagher. We hope you enjoy it!

I have been fortunate to photograph many landscapes in a variety of different countries throughout the world but the photographs I had seen of Japan always seemed to have a difference that was difficult to categorize and I have always been drawn to places that may challenge me as a photographer. My default position is to normally head to locations that could be regarded as remote, or certainly feel that way. As well as feeling a long way from cities and towns, the landscapes I regard as my favourites are ones that appear almost untouched, although in reality, this is seldom the case as almost all of the landscapes I have experienced have been modelled and influenced by the hands of mankind. One of the main factors that made Japan, and Hokkaido in particular, fascinating was the apparent simplicity of the place, certainly in the deep winter months. One of the approaches I take as a landscape photographer is to distill the elements of the landscape down to understandable parts of a composition so that the photograph is not an overwhelming record of every aspect of the scene.

The other appeal for me was most of the work I had seen in Hokkaido that captured my attention was taken in the winter months. Hokkaido is a place that is almost guaranteed beautiful winter snow, and lots of it, from the months of October though to March. It is the very occurrence of snow that puts a veil over the landscape and masks all but the woodland and some of the artifacts of the farming activity here that ceases completely during the winter.

After some deliberation I decided to make the journey to Hokkaido in early March and meet a local guide there. First impressions are of course very important and I would be lying if I did not say I was a little underwhelmed by the place making my way from the airport to my first hotel. The first thing that became apparent over the next few days was that very little of the island is what I would regard as remote and the island consists of many small towns that are linked by roads that service vast areas of managed farmland. Equally, the areas at the coast are semi-industrialised by the vibrant fishing industry which ranges from modern fishing ports to hundreds of small fisherman’s houses and huts that are occupied during the fishing seasons in the warmer months of the year.

The sensation of remoteness was made quite apparent by the silence of the place with the deep snow and blanketed white open spaces. It seemed that everything was on hold other than the quiet and slow movements of people to local shops in the towns and villages that we passed through. In contrast to the beauty and pristine snow covered landscape, the villages and towns looked tired and worn-out with snow drifts piled high on the road sides with access to homes and shops cut out of them. Cars and gardens were buried in meter deep snow and the only hubs of activity were the local gas stations and 7Eleven stores.

Also at the coast there are hundreds of fishermen huts lining the roads that consisted of corrugated structures surrounded by old rusting trucks and machinery, seemingly abandoned, but all of which will be brought to life when the sea-ice melts away upon the arrival of Spring and the fishing season also springs into life. All of the above added to the ‘feel’ of the place and how the onset of the winter had changed everything for the season. My experience of the landscape was one of mystery and, after a little time, intrigue and excitement. The distillation process that I have practiced all of my career was challenged here as much of my surroundings were already blanketed in white so I was essentially faced with elements that I had not had the pleasure of seeing before on such a huge scale. Furthermore, with my passion for the black and white photograph which has been with me all of my photographic career and given the lack of colour other than the blues in the sky, I was beginning to quickly appreciate I was in the perfect landscape for me.

Besides some of the truly natural environments I visited in the mountain areas, most of the lowlands clearly showed signs of mankind. The tree lines on the edges of fields that act as a form of wind break from the ferocious winds that come from the surrounding seas. These fascinated me in their uniformity and, quite unlike natural woodland, the trees seem to stand on guard bravely facing the harsh conditions. Trees became a very important part of what I wanted to photograph in Hokkaido and what I did photograph in Hokkaido. I was intrigued how the trees seemed to compliment the open and negative space of the landscape. They accentuated the rise and fall of the undulating farmland as well as being grouped together as copses as if in small communities on hilltops. In the mountain areas the trees were contorted and old with some meeting their final demise in the cold mountain air. I recall vividly one particular afternoon high up on a mountain pass and I saw trees perched high against an ever changing sky that transformed from milky blue with wispy clouds to heavy snow laden grey. The relationship of the trees and the sky changed constantly as did the personality of the trees and their interactions with each other.

The signs of farming activity presented themselves in many ways from simple fence lines separating fields devoid of anything other than snow, to greenhouse structures that had been prepared for the winter by removing the plastic canopies as the weight of the snow would crush the simple tube frames. Some of the farmsteads were literally surrounded by a sea of white snow.

All the time I was in Hokkaido I was working in a landscape that was in a static state. The people there seemed to be almost sitting it out and waiting for the thaw of spring to arrive. The silence the snow causes is quite fascinating indeed. We have all experienced snow at some time and know that it dampens down reflected sound, but when the snow is of this magnitude, nothing but the sound of the occasional passing car and rush of wind will disturb your concentration. At the sea edge the winds can be bitter and if there is a snow storm brewing, as there often is, then the contrast of white landscape and dark clouds above was a reward for me to photograph. The light and cloud can be transient. One morning I was photographing a beautiful area of silver birch trees when the cloud suddenly cleared and the resulting long slender shadows cast from hundreds of trees onto the clean flat snow will be something I will remember for many years to come. The opposite set of circumstances was travelling into a blizzard and noticing how any form of harshness or contrast in the landscape was muted by the amount of wind carried snow. Everything was soft and bright and the trees became ghostly figures in the distance.

So what are my thoughts now having been to Japan in the winter and left my own footprints behind? I have learned that preconceptions of the wider landscape from photographs are just that, preconceptions, and they can be far from reality. In fact, that is the case for all photography, but in Hokkaido the beauty consists of millions of little facets of the landscape amidst surroundings that you would not expect. It is certainly like no other winter landscape I have photographed before and it was an amazing experience to photograph in a single ‘mode’ for the entire time I was there. What I mean by this is the basic elements of the place remained the same, namely the stark and simple elements of the landscape the winter conditions allow you to see for many months of the year. In a way, the distillation is done and you are actually left with a landscape which you have to distill further in the vast open white spaces. Many names or labels can be applied to photographs of Hokkaido in the winter. Call it “minimalism’ or ‘simplicity’ but in reality it does not actually fall neatly into any category.

Our aspect2i photography workshop in Hokkaido runs from 1st to 10th of February 2020 which will be led by professional landscape photographer and co-founder of aspect2i, Paul Gallagher. As this is one of our most sought after workshops we only have very limited places left.



Paul Gallagher and Michael Pilkington