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  • Writer's pictureOlivier

Japan: Photographing the Seaweed Cultures of the Ariake Sea

Updated: 1 day ago

The Nori seaweed farms, with their entanglement of geometric nets, offer a unique landscape for photographers, especially in the field of minimalism. These structures lend themselves to interesting artistic compositions. They highlight the duality and ephemeral beauty of nature, as well as our intrinsic relationship with it.


Japan: Photographing the Seaweed Cultures of the Ariake Sea

The Ariake Sea, located on the island of Kyushu, is known for being the country's largest inland bay. Characterized by its vast mudflats and spectacular tides, it offers a changing and dynamic landscape. It is famous for its ecological richness and is also renowned for its production of Nori seaweed and seafood.


Introduction

The Ariake Sea has several features that make it particularly interesting for photography. It is known for having one of the largest tidal ranges in Japan (reaching 6 meters), which creates constantly evolving landscapes.


Photographers can thus capture the transformation of the landscape at low tide and high tide, having a variety of scenes in a single location. These moments create images that are both dramatic and subtle, with nuances of light and complex shadows.


Moreover, the region around the Ariake Sea is rich in culture and traditions, including traditional fishing and aquaculture techniques. Photographers can explore these human aspects, adding a cultural dimension to their images.


Finally, for enthusiasts of minimalist photography, the Ariake Sea, with its stretches of calm water, structured seaweed farms, and open horizons, offers an ideal setting for clean and peaceful compositions. It is a place of contrasts and diversity, offering a rich canvas for creativity, whether through capturing its natural phenomena or the interaction between man and nature.


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What Are the Nori Seaweeds

Nori seaweeds are a type of edible marine algae, scientifically known as Porphyra spp. They are an integral part of Japanese cuisine, primarily used for wrapping sushi and as a garnish or seasoning in many other dishes.


The cultivation of Nori is a significant industry in Japan, with an annual production estimated at around 10 billion sheets. Nori seaweed farms are mainly found in coastal areas, where they are cultivated on nets in shallow waters. The Nori production cycle is seasonal, typically starting in September and ending in the spring.


The process of transforming Nori is complex and has been refined over centuries. After harvesting, the seaweed is washed, chopped, pressed into sheets, dried, and then toasted. This slow and artisanal process is similar to the making of traditional Japanese paper, Washi.


For more information on the process of making Nori sheets from seeding to the plate, read my article on the seaweed farms of the Ariake Sea.


Japan: Photographing the Seaweed Cultures of the Ariake Sea

Photographing Nori Seaweed Cultures

What are the culture supports made of

Numerous independent aquaculture farms share the 1,700 km2 of the Ariake Sea. All use the same cultivation techniques, namely, the use of long mats suspended between bamboo or plastic stakes.


These nets are placed in lines and form almost perfect geometric structures at water level. These amazing shapes, which appear and disappear with the tides, are perfect subjects for long-exposure seascape photography.


Although some nets remain in place all year round, it is only in winter that the seaweed is harvested. At this time of the year, Nori covers these endless mats with a thick black coat that contrasts with the water color and the milky skies typical of Japan during this season. Therefore, from November to February is the best time to photograph the aquaculture farms.


At other times of the year, the few nets that remain in place are not always of remarkable aesthetic appearance. Devoid of these black algae, these nets more resemble abandoned relics than a fishing structure.


My equipment: GITZO Mountaineer S3 and S3 head. The ultra-stable and lightweight carbon tripod. The ultimate reference for landscape photography and long exposures. An investment for life.

My equipment: GITZO Mountaineer S3 and S3 head. The ultra-stable and lightweight carbon tripod. The ultimate reference for landscape photography and long exposures. An investment for life.


Surprisingly, it's also what gives them a certain charm and represents a photographic interest depending on the location. However, the forests of stakes are very much present and allow for some photographs of absolute minimalism for enthusiasts of this style.


As mentioned earlier, aquaculture farms are present all around the Ariake Sea. It is entirely possible to tour them in 3 or 4 days depending on the time you take to photograph. However, I strongly advise planning at least a week on site to take advantage of the other places in the region, which are also worthy of photographic interest. See my articles on the Ariake Sea and its region.


Japan: Photographing the Seaweed Cultures of the Ariake Sea

Why these supports are interesting in minimalist photography

Nori seaweed farms provide a unique blend of simplicity, rhythm, naturalness, and tranquility, making them ideal subjects for minimalist photography. Here are some reasons:


1. Simplicity of Structure: Nori seaweed farms are composed of simple lines and repetitive structures. These lines and networks of taut ropes create a graphic effect that lends itself well to a minimalist approach.


2. Interaction with Water and Light: The calm water surrounding the seaweed farms creates reflections and plays of light that can be captured in a clean and artistic manner. The water's surface can serve as a neutral backdrop, highlighting the structures of the farms.


3. Natural Color Palette: The natural hues of the seaweed and water offer a limited color palette, which is a key characteristic of minimalism. This limitation of colors can help create a more focused and impactful image.


4. Rhythm and Repetition: The repetitive patterns of the seaweed farms form visual rhythms that attract the eye and create a sense of order and calm, aligned with the principles of minimalism.


5. Tranquility and Timelessness: Seaweed farms often evoke a sense of tranquility and continuity over time, aligned with the themes of quietness and timelessness often sought in minimalist photography.


Japan: Photographing the Seaweed Cultures of the Ariake Sea

A Subject Suited for Black and White

Although these structures are perfectly suited for color photography, Nori seaweed farms are particularly attractive subjects for black and white photography.


Black and white photography allows for a focus on composition, texture, and light, offering a unique and artistically rich perspective, in perfect harmony with the principles of minimalist photography. Here are some reasons:


1. Contrast and Texture: Black and white enhances the contrasts between light and dark elements. In the case of Nori seaweed farms, this can highlight the texture of the seaweed, the brightness of the water, and the structures of the ropes and stakes.


2. Visual Simplification: By eliminating colors, black and white photography reduces the scene to its fundamental graphic elements: lines, shapes, textures, and contrasts. This simplifies the composition and reinforces the minimalist aspect.


3. Shapes and Structures: Without the distraction of colors, the geometric shapes and repetitive structures of the farms become more pronounced, creating a strong visual composition that lends itself well to minimalism.


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4. Atmosphere and Emotion: Black and white can confer a timeless quality and a certain emotional depth to images. In the context of seaweed farms, this can help capture and convey the calm and serene atmosphere of these places.


5. Shadows and Light: Black and white photography is particularly effective for exploring the interplay of light and shadow. The light interplays induced by the cultivation nets create interesting patterns and visual dynamics that enrich the minimalist composition.


However, the significant presence of these aquaculture farms does not necessarily mean they are easy to photograph. Indeed, these characteristic expanses of nets are not really along the seashore. On the contrary, it is often off the coast that the conditions are most conducive to this culture.


It is not uncommon to see fishermen going in small barges through the aisles of nets. This obviously ruins the potential photographic minimalism of these scenes.


It is also difficult, if not impossible, to pinpoint specific locations where these expanses of nets can be photographed. Their locations vary each year. Therefore, it is necessary to take time and travel the shores of the Ariake Sea by car, scanning the horizon. It's also an excellent way to discover many other subjects characteristic of the region and Japanese culture, such as the Torii or the traditional fishing huts (Tanajibu). Read my article on the Tanajibu.


Japan: Photographing the Seaweed Cultures of the Ariake Sea

Prepare the Telephoto Lens

The distance of some structures requires a temporary switch from our favorite wide-angle to mounting a telephoto lens or a zoom on the camera. Photographing long exposures with such lenses has a somewhat disconcerting aspect.


The unusual exercise quickly becomes a challenge because even though the Ariake Sea is relatively sheltered from strong winds, it doesn’t mean there is no wind at all. Therefore, one must be very vigilant about the stability of their equipment.


Telephoto lenses and long focal length zooms are more sensitive to wind. The micro-movements of the lens are immediately noticeable in the image captured in long exposure. Moreover, these lenses present certain constraints in landscape photography, especially in terms of weight and sharpness, even at small apertures.


However, they also offer some advantages, such as the ability to isolate subjects and create interesting perspective effects. It is on this aspect that one must rely to isolate the seaweed cultivation nets offshore. It's a challenging exercise, but the results can sometimes be surprising.


Having visited around the Ariake Sea in all seasons, I can affirm that there are no more suitable times than others. It's a matter of luck.


My equipment: K&F Concept ND Filter Kit + magnetic ring and carrying bag. Rain-resistant treated glass. The ideal solution for photographing in difficult conditions without compromising on quality.

My equipment: K&F Concept ND Filter Kit + magnetic ring and carrying bag. Rain-resistant treated glass. The ideal solution for photographing in difficult conditions without compromising on quality.


Winter in Kyushu is nothing like winter in other regions of Japan. It's not really cold and the sun often dominates. This makes long exposures even more complex. But we love technical complexity and challenges in landscape photography...


Anyway, we have no choice but to deal with the whims of the weather. The best solution is to stay several days and scout locations. Then, return a few hours before sunset, which arrives very quickly in Japan. It's not uncommon to see the light drop drastically as early as 5 PM, and the use of ND filters quickly becomes complicated.


If you're an early riser (4 AM), you might be able to capture the first light of day through the nets, if the tide is high. But unfortunately, this magical moment only lasts a few minutes.


Japan: Photographing the Seaweed Cultures of the Ariake Sea

The Final Word

The Nori seaweed farms, when captured through the lens, become much more than mere aquaculture structures. They transform into a microcosm where art, nature, and philosophy meet.


In black and white, these streamlined farms are not just representations of simplicity, but they become symbols of the inherent duality of our existence. On one side, there is order and structure, symbolized by the clean lines and regular repetitions of the ropes and seaweed. On the other, there is chaos and the unforeseen, represented by the unpredictable movement of the water and the subtle variations of light and shadow.


This duality reflects our unending quest for order in a world that is often chaotic and unpredictable. The seaweed, cultivated with care and rigor, reminds us of our own relationship with nature: a constant attempt to tame it, while respecting its strength and spontaneity.


By capturing these scenes in black and white, the photographer does not merely document a landscape; they invite the viewer to a deeper reflection on nature and our place in the universe.


Each image then becomes a visual meditation on balance, harmony, and the ephemeral beauty of our world. It underscores that within simplicity and minimalism, there is often an unsuspected depth and complexity. The Nori seaweed farms, thus immortalized, become a mirror of our own search for meaning and balance in life.


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