Photographer Tomoki Imai has been a blur of activity since we reached the lookout point halfway up 601-meter Mount Higakure in the Futaba district of Fukushima Prefecture. Despite it being late April, with cherry blossoms in the forests and hamlets lower down, snow flurries and freezing conditions in the mountains the day before made long-range shooting virtually impossible. So Imai was in a hurry to make up for lost frames.

After some pre-production work — kicking away knee-deep snow on the observation deck and removing twigs and branches in his line of fire — the 39-year-old artist finally pauses. Then, looking up from the ground-glass eyepiece of his vintage camera, he gazes at the subject of his scenic portraits for the past two years: the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant leaking radioactivity on the horizon just 12 km away.

Daytime access to certain mountains on the outskirts of the town of Okuma, where the stricken Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) plant is located, was finally lifted in December last year — some 21 months after the Great East Japan Earthquake that triggered the nuclear catastrophe. Since then, this is the closest Imai has ever got to the focus of his artistic quest.