What happened was, tired in an airport looking for lightweight reading, I grabbed The Last Defender of Camelot, collected late works of Roger Zelazny, who was at the centre of the SciFi universe a few decades back. It has a piece called 24 Views of Mount Fuji, by Hokusai which won a Hugo in 1986 and as a story is only OK but as a narrative wrapped around a famous set of pictures it’s awfully good. On impulse, I typed “hokusai 24” into Google, to discover that there are 36 pictures in the original series, but that Tim Eagen, back in ’98, poked around the Web and assembled the 24 images from the Zelazny story; a fine piece of curatorship and really an essential companion to reading the story. Looking at one of them, I thought: I’ve been there. There’s an amusing narrative to accompany the views.
Kamakura · It was in the fall of ’96, I’d just gone indie and was looking for consulting gigs. I got an offer to go speak in Japan at the Keio University Executive Program. Sounded like fun, so I went. It was fun; in the picture below, the blond fellow in the second row from the top with the blue shirt is Ted Nelson; yes, that Ted Nelson. It’s an honour to be in the same room as Ted, who has, in one lifetime, raised more important questions than any ten other famous geeks; I usually disagree with his answers, but it’s the questions that matter.
The event was at a big hotel in Kamakura, which is a tourist town south of Tokyo, justly famous for its Great Buddha and other temple complexes. Plus, it’s also got a nice beach and furthermore, as a vacation spot, it’s just packed with very decent little restaurants that are friendly when a gringo tourist comes in gasping for beer after walking around the temples in the 35°C summer heat.
Typhoon! · Anyhow, on the last morning of the conference there was a genuine typhoon (one of the not-that-many words, by the way, that English took from Japanese). It was a severe one, the railway shut down and those of us who’d counted on getting back to Tokyo that night were stranded. By mid-afternoon the winds were dropping off and the rain had stopped, so I went for a walk on the beach. It was wild and blustery and quite wonderful.
Pretty soon, I wasn’t alone on the beach, and most of the other people had cameras; some of them big cameras with monster telephotos. I of course had a little pocket point-n-shoot model; after this afternoon of blowing spray and sand on the beach, it was never the same again. It gave its life for Art.
These pictures, by the way, were grainy and scratched and tilted and fairly heroic PhotoShopping only just pulls them into the “acceptable” column. They’re interesting in a documentary sense I think rather than for their modest beauty. And I have self-indulgently made the full-size versions 1600 rather than the usual 1024 pixels across for the benefit of those with big screens.
If I’d had a nice SLR with good lenses, imagine the pictures I might have. But I probably wouldn’t have taken the nice camera to Japan for the KIEP, and I sure wouldn’t have had it in my pocket on the post-typhoon beach.
To the West was a pretty little island, very Japanese.
The storm, as you could see, was really dropping off, the light changed minute by minute as the sun fell and clouds rose.
What’s that peeking out from behind the clouds behind the town? Now I knew why all the photographers were on the beach.
The clouds rose some more and the sun set some more. That shape...
No photograph could ever capture the vastness, the mountain tossing great curtains of sunset and shadow across half the sky, shifting minute by minute.
Sometimes, you just get lucky.