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Happy Halloween everyone!!
So what do Jack-O'-Lanterns and ghosts have to do with Japan or nature photography you might be thinking? Well, you would be right. Usually Halloween is not one of my photography subjects.
But a few years ago my interest in nature came in handy for creating some eerie looking Halloween shots.
I needed some scary images for a wall display at school, and I knew straight away where to go to find a dark spooky Halloween like location. I took some Jack-O'-Lanterns that my students had carved down into a sacred forest behind an old shrine.
Because In Japan, the biggest, oldest, gnarliest trees, are always found in the sacred forests that surround shrines. These sacred groves are called chinju-no-mori 鎮守の森 in Japanese.
The trees and plants that grow in shrine grounds are all sacred, and damaging them is taboo. They are only ever pruned if they are a danger to nearby homes or if they fall over in storms. Left to grow naturally for centuries many of these majestic trees are now huge and have even become one of the main features of some shrines.
Most of the large trees in Japan were felled centuries ago for lumber and fuel. The remaining old trees in parks, gardens and schools are pruned annually so do not grow very big. Unless you get along way away from the cities, there are hardly any large trees other than the ones growing in these shrine forests. That is pretty amazing considering that more than 60% of Japan is forests.
Some of these sacred shrine trees are many hundred years old.
When large branches break off them, huge hollows are left in their trunks.
These holes are called hora 洞 in Japanese.
Hora like these, are perfect for ghosts and Jack-O'-Lanterns. But more importantly, these holes in large shrine trees are now important habitats for native fauna like bats, owls and mandarin-ducks, which need large spaces for nesting and roosting. These animals can't find large hora anywhere else because all the large trees are kept small. The gigantic trees of the sacred shrine groves provide the perfect home for them.
A baby owl in a large tree hollow.
One of my favourite birds is the Ural Owl. Called Fukurou フクロウ in Japanese, these owls are massive and need large holes to nest in. Almost all the nesting pairs that I have seen are in shrine grounds. Outside of the nesting season, the sacred forests also provide a good habitat because they are generally left untouched and so have lots of mice and moles which the owls like to eat.
An adult female Ural owl.
Ural Owls are nocturnal of course, so the best time to see them is at dusk or dawn, especially in winter when food is scarce and they are forced to hunt for longer.
This next photo was taken at night, so it may be hard to see the owl depending on your computer. Don't worry, if you can't see it you're not going blind. And if you see ghosts instead, that's just because it's Halloween and you are imagining things!
Ural owls raise 2-3 young, which leave the safety of the hole after just a few weeks. They are big, white and fluffy, and attract lots of attention from predators. Their main method of survival is to stay still and silent in the tree canopy during the daytime hours. For a month or so after they leave the nest, baby owls need the cover of the thick forests to stay hidden. Once again the sacred shrine forests provide the perfect place for this.
A young owl hiding in the forest canopy.
Owls are fascinating, and over the last few years I've spent lots of time observing them and so I have developed a good mental map of where the oldest and gnarliest forests are now. I never thought that mental map would come in handy for creating Halloween images though!
Two baby Ural Owls sheltering from the rain in shrine canopy.
This is a photo from my book. Pg 107
Happy Halloween, and I hope your job and play comes together sometimes too!
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