Thousands of slender, towering bamboo stalks rustle in the gentle breeze as the sun comes out for the day and filters soft light down to the trail below. The early bird gets the worm, and the early photographer gets a famous Japanese icon all to himself for an hour.
I am in awe – the prior afternoon I could barely move when scouting the location. Hundreds of tourists passed through the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, taking their selfies before heading on to Tenryuji Temple, the monkey park, or whatever other to-do list item their Kyoto guidebook detailed. I was already in a love-hate relationship with the forest: sure, it is indeed magical. In fact, I don’t know that I’ve ever even seen bamboo in my life. Maybe at a zoo? But, what I hated, aside from the crowd, was the brevity of it all. The path through the forest seemed only 100 meters long. Arashiyama isn’t exactly in the center of Kyoto – it takes some time to find this place. And it’s over so quickly. I didn’t expect a miles-long gallivant through the jungle, but I thought it would take more than two minutes to walk through.
That all changes now. Here, now, I am alone and it feels like the forest goes on forever, in every direction. Left, right, straight ahead, and most importantly – up. These bamboo stalks are humongous, reaching straight toward the heavens. What has changed? Was the absence of tourists all I needed to love this place? No, it was a change in perspective. The day before, I had rushed to the grove to see a place I’ve looked at photos of for years. I raced through the forest (as quickly as the river of people would allow) and that was it. I didn’t savor the moment. Realizing I was just like those tourists with their guidebooks, I let out a deep sigh. So often, I’m too focused on crossing off bucket list items to appreciate what’s right in front of me. So here, now, I stop and stare at the mysticism of the forest. I stand there for what seems like forever, getting lost in the experience. At first, all I can think about is the portfolio photo I want and that every lost second could matter if tourists start to show. But eventually, that worry leaves me and I am completely at peace.
Later, after coming out of the trance, I’m still alone. I thank the photography gods for the opportunity given to me and begin to compose my shot. I aim for a slight worm’s eye perspective: I want the diagonal lines of the trees to add drama. A full hour passes and another photographer arrives, and soon afterwards, a whole platoon of photographers – part of a travel photo tour. I chat for a minute and then head home content.