A Stay At Aoni Onsen In Aomori Prefecture, Japan

During a recent travel photography project, I had the pleasure of staying at Aoni Onsen in Aomori Prefecture. Aoni Onsen is a Japanese inn with a number of natural hot spring baths (called onsen in Japanese) around the grounds. There are many such lodges scattered throughout Japan, but Aoni Onsen is unique in two ways. First, the inn is remote, tucked away in the mountains far enough to lose all cell phone signal, and with no other buildings in sight. At least during the winter, the inn is only accessible by a shuttle provided by the inn, since the road is narrow and covered in ice and snow. Second, Aoni Onsen has almost no electricity. The grounds are illuminated entirely by lamps, including the rooms, hot springs, and dining area. Thus the full name is actually Aoni Onsen “Lamp No Yado,” meaning something like “Lamp Lodge.” It’s not just about the lighting though – there are no electrical outlets, and there is no wi-fi or internet connection of any kind available. You are well and truly off the grid.

To be honest, I was a little nervous before the trip because of how disconnected Aoni Onsen is. My anxious, modern mind imagined all kinds of scenarios and perceived threats that could not be easily handled in such a remote location. But I came to realize that a place like Aoni Onsen is just what the anxious modern mind really needs. This forced unplugging, this internet and technology detox of sorts proved to be mentally refreshing.

I was visiting for work, so I did have to take a lot of photographs (though I would have done that anyway), but that didn’t interfere with the impact the trip had on me. Upon arrival, I instantly felt like I had traveled back in time. You hear that phrase thrown around a lot in Japan-based travel, but I think it was legitimately true in this case. You are immersed in the remoteness and antiquity of the lodge as soon you enter the lobby, and I personally felt a rare sense of inspiration and desire to explore.

The crowning glory of Aoni Onsen is, as the name implies, the onsen experience. Aoni Onsen has at least 4 or 5 different hot spring baths, each with a unique atmosphere. All have views of the surrounding natural scenery, including one that is outdoors and within view and earshot of a waterfall. There are actually several outdoor baths, though in the middle of the cold Aomori winter, I found the indoor baths to be warmer and more relaxing. That said, after sitting for a spell in the hot water indoors, it was pleasant to sit in the lukewarm water outdoors for a bit while listening to the flow of the waterfall in the distance.

Because onsens are public baths, you always bathe fully before entering. Typically there is a standard Japanese bathing area with a stool and shower, but that was not the case here. The bathing area uses the same running water that feeds the onsen, but it is built so that the water drains away from the bath itself. There is soap and shampoo provided, but that is about the only similarity to your typical onsen experience. It was a bit more challenging for me to bathe because of this, but reflecting on it, I would tell you it added to the overall experience. There’s nothing fake about Aoni Onsen. It is intended to be a place to retreat from the modern world. You’re not there to be pampered, you’re there to decompress and free your mind from the weight of modernity. These seemingly small details make that possible.

While the onsen is worth the trip all by itself, the other elements of the lodge were just as enjoyable. Rooms at the lodge are simple but cozy. Since there is no electricity, the room is heated with a gas heater. It kept the room so warm that I ended up opening my window slightly to lower the temperature a bit. Sleeping on the floor in a cozy Japanese futon, with the only light that of a dim oil lantern and the only noise that of the nearby stream, was one of the most relaxing sleep experiences I’ve had on a work trip or traveling period. After I got up in the morning, I ended up getting back into bed for a bit just to relax and watch the falling snow outside my window.

Both dinner and breakfast were Japanese meals using local ingredients. The authentic Japanese cuisine could prove challenging for some, but personally I loved it. I sat with my group at small tables on the tatami floor, which for me made it all the more relaxing. There’s no pretense – just a simple homemade meal in a traditional Japanese setting. I was surprised how quiet everything was despite the fact that there were other guests sitting nearby. I suppose the overall atmosphere of the lodge encourages this. The small team I was traveling with was able to use a separate tatami room after dinner to sit and chat for a while before we went to the onsen. This lounge room was perhaps the most traditional room of them all, with a kind of fire/cooking pit in the middle of the table and various Japanese decorations about.

I was fortunate enough during our stay to have plenty of winter weather. In fact, it snowed almost the entire morning, coating everything with a generous layer of clean snow, which highlighted how much of a natural getaway Aoni Onsen is. If you’ve ever lived in a snowy area, you know the muted serenity of a fresh snow. The calming quiet was broken only by the flowing stream, almost making me forget I was at a lodge at all. Based on the sights and sounds, I could have just as easily been on a hike through snowy woods. I’m sure it looks completely different in the summer or autumn, and certainly beautiful in those seasons as well, but I’m glad we were able to visit in winter. Aoni Onsen seems like it was built for this season especially.

Work trips like these tend to be a bit of a whirlwind. Especially at inns and hotels there’s not always a lot of downtime, and it can be hard to relax with the pressure to photograph everything. It was wonderful to be able to work in such a slow-paced environment. It didn’t feel like work at all. Aoni Onsen is so low-key, primitive, and remote that it felt like a simple getaway.

If you’re ever in Japan and want to go somewhere that not everyone goes to, and the idea of getting truly unplugged sounds appealing, I’d encourage you to visit Aoni Onsen. The modern world will still be there when you return, though you may wish it wasn’t.

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    Top 10 Photographs of 2021

    As the year draws to a close, it’s time to choose my top 10 images from 2021. This year has been quite good for photography considering the restrictions the pandemic has presented, as I’ve been able to travel for photo assignments to several different locations around Japan. I hope you’ll enjoy this year’s favorites, and if you have any of your own, feel free to share a link in the comments!

    Number 10: Taitosaki Lighthouse, Chiba Prefecture

    The Taitosaki Lighthouse is one of several along the Pacific Coast of Chiba Prefecture, and while the lighthouse itself is fairly standard, the location and views are arguably the best of them of all. This image was one of the first I took on the DJI Air2S which I purchased this summer. I think the aerial view really brought something special to the location.

    Number 9: Cherry Blossom Blizzard In Tokyo

    One of the images I have long wanted to capture that of a sakurafubuki (a blizzard of cherry blossom petals blowing in the wind). This spring, I visited a park not far from house just over the river in Tokyo to try to capture the sight and was gifted with this magical scene. Mission accomplished! You can see a video of the fall blossom petals here: Sakura Snow

    Number 8: Autumn Colors And Mt. Iwaki in Aomori Prefecture

    One of my favorite assignments this year was shooting autumn colors in Aomori Prefecture. The team got up very early the first morning of the trip to capture the sunrise in the mountains. We weren’t sure how it would go, but we were treated with an impressive display of colors and a view of Mt. Iwaki, the “Mt. Fuji” of Aomori Prefecture. It was a long and tiresome day, but well worth it. You can see a behind-the-scenes video of this trip here: Autumn In Aomori

    Number 7: Morning Fog In Yamanashi Prefecture

    This came from an early autumn morning in mountains of Yamanashi Prefecture. Although I had gone up the mountains to see views of Fuji, I found the morning fog rolling through the valleys below was equally as beautiful.

    Number 6: Mountain View Of Mt. Fuji

    This summer my family took a camping trip to the Mt. Fuji area, staying at Motosuko on the northwestern side. After some exploring online, I found an interesting spot I wanted to check out on a mountainside about 45 minutes away. Thankfully I was able to drive up, although the road certainly left much to be desired. Although I couldn’t see the sunset from the location, the view overlooking Mt. Fuji is one of the best I’ve seen. You can see 4K video from this spot along with other Mt. Fuji footage here: The Beauty Of Mt. Fuji

    Number 5: Silver And Gold In Aomori

    Number 5 is another from the Aomori summer project, this one coming from the Hakkoda ropeway. The ropeway can be a bit of a challenge to photograph from, as you’re moving, shooting through a window, and often competing with a car full of other people looking to take images. That’s part of why I like this one so much, but I especially like the way it captures the colors and feel of the season in the mountains of Aomori.

    Number 4: Aerial Sunrise Over Lake Kawaguchiko

    This is another from my autumn trip with my family to Lake Kawaguchiko, at the base of Mt. Fuji. I’ve really enjoyed using my drone this year, and this image is another where the drone shined. Part of what I love about this image is that my family was staying at a hotel that was visible in the shot. It’s rather that I get shoot beautiful scenery and go immediately back to them to have breakfast together.

    Number 3: Flowing Water On The Oirase Stream

    I visited Aomori Prefecture for two photo assignments back in 2017, but I returned to the United States before the summer and autumn projects. So I was pretty excited to be able to return this year for a second edition of both. The summer project was one of my favorites I’ve done. It was longer than my regular projects at 5 days, and I was able to enjoy some great company with the other people working on the project while we visited some of Aomori Prefecture’s best scenic spots. This was my favorite image though, from Aomori’s famous Oirase Stream. It reminded me a lot of New Hampshire – and for anyone who knows me, that is a major compliment!

    Number 2: A Colorful Mt. Fuji Sunset

    As you can see, some of my favorite images from the year come from Mt. Fuji, but looking at them I think it’s easy to see why. The conditions were amazing during both trips with my family, and, well, I had my family! In fact, this shot was taken with my wife standing right next to me, which made it even more special. I don’t think I’ve ever seen as beautiful a scene as this at Mt. Fuji, and I’m not sure I ever will again. the color and clouds combined for something truly magical.

    Number 1: Cherry Blossoms Along The Miyagawa River In Gifu Prefecture

    Early in the year I had a 3 day photo assignment in the Hida region of Gifu Prefecture. It’s a beautiful area, and I was excited to be able to go for cherry blossom season. The season was a bit off this year, with the peak hitting quite early. Although we were slightly late (and although it was very cold), this scene ended up being my favorite from cherry blossom season and from the year as a whole. Cherry blossom season is always my favorite time of year here, and this was the best of it. I highly recommend visiting Hida for cherry blossom season if you ever can! You can check out a behind-the-scenes video of that trip here by the way: Three Days In Hida Furukawa

    Thanks so much for checking out my top 10 images from this year! I hope you enjoyed them, and appreciate you joining me. I hope you’ve had a wonderful 2021, and here’s a to a healthy and happy 2022. May this be the year the pandemic moves into history!

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    Autumn At Matsudo Hondoji Temple

    One of my favorite destinations for autumn colors in Japan happens to be in the town where I live here – Matsudo Hondoji Temple. Although it is a temple (founded in the 13th century, in fact!), it’s really more a mixture of a temple and garden, with careful landscaping and gardening work done throughout the year. In the spring, cherry blossoms take the stage, followed by a large display of hydrangeas in late spring to early summer. But in my opinion autumn is the main show, with numerous Japanese maple trees spread throughout the grounds.

    A variety of autumn Japanese maple trees covering a staircase at the entrance of Matsudo Hondoji Temple

    I generally prefer to visit the temple grounds in the late afternoon for the lighting. Especially with the sun so far down in the sky, you can get lots of beautiful light in the trees (and thus lots of backlighting), as well as long shadows in all the right places. The peak colors are usually around late November to early December when the sun goes down around 4:30, so I find arriving around 2pm gives me enough to explore and enjoy the best light of the day. I also find this time of day is one of the least crowded times of a day to go.

    A set of four red Japanese maple leaves on a branch in Japan

    Along with exploring the light around the gardens, I also enjoy finding the small scenes of the temple. I used to be very focused on the big picture always breaking the wide angle lens. I still enjoy using that lens in some situations, but I find at a place like Hondoji, the little scenes share the experience more than the big picture. It’s the little things that I notice more than everything all at once. Between the leaves and the unique architecture, there’s always something small to examine in detail.

    (Click On An Image To See It Larger)

    I’ve visited Hondoji a number of times over the year, but I think this year’s autumn colors are possibly the best I’ve ever seen. Maybe I just went at the right time this year, or maybe the weather helped out, or maybe both! Either way, I’ve never been at a time that I thought it the colors were bad, and if you’re looking for a good place to explore a uniquely Japanese autumn, Hondoji is the place to go. Usually the entrance fee is 500 yen, although this past year when I’ve gone the entrance has been free, perhaps because of the pandemic. The entrance area alone is amazing and that part is always free, but it’s worth the 500 yen to explore the beautiful gardens which no doubt take a lot of work to manage throughout the year.

    Orange Japanese maple leaves that look similar to flames on a tree in Japan
    Star-like leaves hang on a branch of a Japanese maple tree in autumn

    Thanks for taking the time to read and take a look at my photos. If you’d like to see more images from here and around Chiba Prefecture, check out my gallery here: Chiba Prefecture Gallery From Les Taylor Photography.

    And if you’d like to watch a Youtube Short from behind the scenes doing some photography around Hondoji, check that out below!

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      Autumn In The Yoro River Valley, Chiba Prefecture

      About a week ago I took a trip to the Yoro River Valley here in Chiba Prefecture. Although I live in Chiba Prefecture, my area is basically one with Tokyo, so we don’t have a lot of nature in my town, and it’s easy to forget how beautiful this prefecture really is. The Yoro Valley is a great place to be reminded.

      A path leading through autumn colors in Chiba Pefecture’s Yoro Valley

      The Yoro Valley (養老渓谷 – Yoro Keikoku in Japanese) is one of the more popular hiking/walking destinations in Chiba’s Boso Peninsula, especially during autumn color season at the end of November and beginning of December. The path is quite long, though unfortunately I was only able to walk a small distance as part of it had been cut off by a landslide earlier in the year. Thankfully, there was plenty to photograph in the small distance I was able to explore.

      One of my favorite things about the Yoro Valley is the abundance of lovely waterfalls. Because the area is a peninsula, the flow of the waterfalls here depends heavily upon recent rainfall, but thankfully there has been enough recently to get a solid flow from most of the falls.

      Autumn colors at Chiyo Waterfall in Chiba Prefecture, Japan

      I’ve been to this area once before a number of years ago. On that day the weather was much nicer for walking and enjoying the day, but I thought the weather was perfect on this day for photographing the region. The clouds gave a nice diffused light, without which it would have been very difficult to take many of the photos along the river and the falls.

      A colorful Japanese maple with beautiful clear water in the background along the Yoro River in Chiba Prefecture, Japan
      A vibrant red Japanese maple above the upper area of Aawamata Falls in Chiba Prefecture, Japan

      As I said, I only explored a small fraction of the valley. There is a lot more I would like to photograph, but that will have to wait until next year. For this year, I think it was a very productive and enjoyable trip!

      Thanks for reading and enjoying the images. Please feel free to share if you enjoyed them, and check out these and more images from Chiba Prefecture at the gallery link here: Chiba Prefecture Photography Gallery

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        C.S. Lewis & The Why Of My Photography

        In the movie, “The Matrix,” the character known as the Merovingian argues that the only real source of power is knowing the why of things. It is when we understand why we make a choice, or why things happen as they do, that we are best able to embrace the life we live. I’m not sure if knowing the why brings power or not, but I agree it is an important question to ask ourselves about many things in life, and that includes something as basic as photography. Growing as a photographer means more than learning new techniques or buying new equipment. An important part of being a photographer is understanding what drives you to create images in the first place.

        Mt Iwaki towering over autumn colors in Aomori Prefecture, Japan

        For me, the answer to that question leads to a quote from C.S. Lewis. In his book, “Reflections on the Psalms,” while discussing the nature of beauty and man’s experience of it, Lewis says the following:

        “Just as men spontaneously praise whatever they value, so they spontaneously urge us to join them in praising it […] I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. […] The delight is incomplete till it is expressed.

        C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms Loc. 992-1001 (Kindle)

        As I was thinking about why I enjoy photography, that statement came to mind. For me at least, it answers the question. Of course, my motivation isn’t monolithic, but I think this is what initially gave birth to my passion for photography and is largely what continues to drive that passion now. Photography is a way of sharing those things around us which inspire delight, awe, and praise. Whether it’s a grand landscape or a simple scene in one’s backyard, photography provides a way to share the experience with others. A photograph says, “I find pleasure in this, and I would like to share that pleasure with you.”

        Sun beams illuminate morning fog over mountians near Mt. Fuji in Yamanashi Prefecture, Japan

        Why do I find pleasure in these things? That is a deeper question, but my faith plays an important role here. The Psalmist (upon whose writings Lewis was reflecting) speaking of God says, “Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.” (Ps. 139:14) My faith in God is the philosophical lens through which I see everything, whether I’m looking at a natural landscape or the glow of city lights. The one speaks of an intricately designed universe, intended to seed joy in the soul of man and point back to its Creator. The other points to the Divine spark in each human; God’s image in us which drives us to understand the world and create for ourselves, even if we frequently misuse this gift. The world is born of an Artist, and therefore is infused with artistry in all directions. For me, that background knowledge infuses these experiences with even deeper delight and a greater desire to share with others.

        People hanging out in the evening at a small pub in Aomori City
        The golden colors of dusk illuminate the skies and waters at Lake Teganuma in Chiba Prefecture, Japan

        As I said, my motivation is not monolithic. Photography also has a professional element for me in additional to this personal element, so things like doing a good job for the client or helping support my family play a role as well. I especially enjoy when my work can help others, such as the projects I’ve done in Aomori Prefecture. I have also photographed the brokenness of this world at times, and the importance of that is not lost on me. Photography can also be a way of mourning. But the reason I have a camera at all and still use it today – my key motivation in photographic creation – is this sense of sharing the delight of the world around me. I hope that people can experience at least a taste of that joy through my work.

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