Japan: The Maibara Tree Says Goodbye to Lake Biwa
Updated: Jan 29
Maibara is a little town located in the Shiga Prefecture of Japan. It is situated in the northeastern part of the prefecture, on the eastern shore of Lake Biwa, the largest lake in Japan, and extends up to the Ibuki Mountains and the border with Gifu Prefecture. Maibara is part of the Biwako Quasi-National Park and is particularly known for Mount Ibuki, the highest point in the prefecture.
Fine Art Print © O. Robert
But it is primarily for its remarkable tree that I know the town of Maibara. It is not remarkable from a botanical or scientific standpoint; rather, it is for its presence, its position on the shore, and its quality as a solitary tree. In short, as you may have guessed, it is remarkable for photographers who have had the chance to encounter it on their journey around Lake Biwa.
Discovering the place in winter
This was the case for me, over 10 years ago when I had the pleasure of photographing it during a snowstorm. It was a memorable photo session during which I thought I had irreparably frozen my Pentax 645, as it was covered in frost and snow after just a few minutes.
Indeed, convinced as always that the act of photographing was more important than my equipment, I resolved to leave the car alone to set up my tripod and camera in the freezing cold. It was the first (and only) time in my life as a photographer that I felt it was snowing horizontally. The strong wind accompanying the fine, moist snow blew directly in my face, thus ruining the lens of my camera.
My equipment: GITZO Mountaineer S3 and S3 ball head. The ultra-stable and durable carbon tripod for landscape photography in all conditions. An investment for life.
Regardless, as the body of the Pentax 645 was sufficiently heavy and my GITZO tripod was perfectly stable, I embarked on a series of long exposures. Not without difficulty, and by repeatedly sweeping the sleet that settled on the filter, I finally managed to produce the photo below.
Fortunately, neither the camera nor the lens suffered any consequences from this challenge. One of the main reasons why I am so satisfied with Pentax equipment.
Fine Art Print © O. Robert
Also, over the years, this elegant tree has become one of my landmarks on the lake. I visited it almost every time and in all seasons. Sometimes even without a photographic ambition, but just for the pleasure of the eyes, or to sit for a moment by the water and admire a summer sunset.
The panorama of the lake from this peninsula is also exceptional, especially in the evening. The visual clearance is interesting, notably due to the shape of this strip of land, as shown in the photo below. A haven of peace popular for fishing or for locals who go there to swim or picnic from spring onwards. Curiously, the site is quite unknown to tourists. Perhaps this is because it is hard to find.
Whatever the case, this place is undoubtedly one of my favorite sites (read the article on my top 10 recommended photography sites around Lake Biwa).
Fine Art Print © O. Robert
The End of an Era
Considering its situation and all that it had endured for decades, I was far from thinking that this tree could have any fragility. And yet...
It was during a trip in February 2017 that I discovered the sad scene. The tree had been ravaged by the violent storm of late 2016. It had literally split into two parts, and several branches were torn off. Debris littered the ground and left little hope that this tree could have a future.
© O. Robert
Knowing the Japanese and their sense of safety, everything leads me to believe today that the right part will be cut and removed. It is even likely that this tree will be cut down. Unfortunately, it does not represent an important tree for the local population.
Being a poplar (one of the few species that can live with its feet in water), it does not constitute a remarkable botanical subject. If it were a cherry tree (sakura), I would probably not have the same thoughts. Because in this case, everything would be undertaken to support and protect it, as they do anywhere else in the country.
But as in Japan, anything can happen and even the opposite, it is also possible that the tree is simply secured and left as it is on the spot to avoid the "unnecessary" expenses that felling it would entail. To this day, I still hold out some hope.
My equipment: URTH+. High-definition ND filters (Japanese glass) for long exposure photography.
I plan to return to the site as soon as possible to check for myself. If, by some good fortune, it has been preserved, I will publish an update to this article, along with a new series of photos. Regardless, and if it were to be preserved, it is unlikely that the Maibara tree will ever regain its splendid and majestic silhouette.
Today, all I have left are my few photographs to remember a subject that has marked my photographic life on the shores of Lake Biwa. Another example that reminds us of the importance of capturing in images those simple things that create everlasting memories. I think only photographers can understand and share this feeling. Once again, our medium proves that it is indeed the guardian of time that inexorably passes and the eternal witness of the ephemeral.
My Book: "Miroirs d'eau From Léman to Biwa", published by Glénat. Available on this site.
Getting to Maibara
Otsu, the main city on the shores of Lake Biwa, is the best starting point for visiting the lake region. To get from Otsu to Maibara, there are several options:
1. Train: The quickest and most convenient way is by train. From Otsu Station, take a JR Biwako line train to Maibara Station. The journey takes about 30 to 45 minutes, depending on whether you take an express or local train.
2. Bus: There are also bus services between Otsu and Maibara, but they are less frequent than trains and the journey is generally longer.
3. Car: If you prefer to drive, you can rent a car. The drive from Otsu to Maibara takes about an hour, depending on traffic.
4. Bicycle: For cycling enthusiasts, biking the distance is an attractive option. The route along Lake Biwa offers beautiful scenery. Plan for several hours, as there will be many stops due to the spectacular landscapes along the way.