The assignment is this: Go paragliding at Mount Fuji, Japan, to test out a new adventure-themed camera from Casio.
Before this, the closest that I had come to that iconic Japanese peak was some stall in Malaysia selling a mound of ice kacang (shaved ice dessert) capped off with milk to imitate a snow cap.
On top of that I will be asked to: Kayak in icy waters, trek in luscious forests and … learn how to make fresh soba noodles. As they say: "It's a tough job, but somebody's gotta do it …"
The camera that we, a group of journalists from Malaysia and Singapore, will be taking to the skies is the Casio Exilim FR100.
This is a novel gadget that can be split into two: One part has the lens, while the other is the main body (which has a 3-inch LCD touchscreen for you to control settings and view images). Both parts are connected via Bluetooth and can function up to 10m apart.
The split design enables us to place the lens anywhere we want. For example, our ever hospitable Japanese hosts suggest that we strap the lens to our shoes to capture most unusual viewpoints while we are paragliding.
The camera has a super wide-angle lens (16mm, f2.8) that allows us to capture a 107° view. This means that while it's up close, it can capture a great selfie (as the main subject) with a fabulous panorama as the background.
Adventure folks typically need a camera that will run in "hands-free" mode, so that we can keep both our hands on the handlebars (cycling), oars (kayaking), or, in our case, the various ropes of the paraglider.
Up till now, the classic action cameras have been small box-like video recorders such as the GoPro. So what is new or different with Casio's offering?
For one, despite the super wide-angle view, there is minimal distortion at the sides, compared to the typical rounded "fish-eye lens" view on the GoPro. The latter is more of a video camera while the emphasis of the FR100 is on capturing still photos.
OK, but how do you do that without hands?
Before getting into that, we have some safety tips.
"Whatever you do, don't stop. Just keep walking," says an instructor from the Sky Asagiri paragliding school.
We will be walking off the edge of a mountain slope in a tandem jump, facing Mount Fuji, and the advice is not to panic at the last minute, at take-off point.
It's a glorious sunny day with blue skies and Mount Fuji looms magnificently, unobscured by clouds. The wind conditions are perfect for paragliding: Enough for lift-off, but without sudden stormy gusts that could jolt the glider dangerously.
While trying to avoid crushing the family jewels, I get into my harness, and wait my turn. Soon, my flying instructor and I walk off the precipice and we are flying free as birds!
Not only is the view spectacular, but the soundtrack is sublime: A quiet breeze punctuated only by yelps of delight from other thrill-seekers.
We had all been told earlier that the showcase feature of the FR100 is its "Intelligent Interval" mode. Every few minutes, the camera will capture over 100 shots in rapid-fire succession, and then automatically filter out blur photos, or those which have cut off your head or body, keeping only the best shots in its system.
The idea is to allow totally "hands-free" (and worry-free) shooting while the camera does the work for you.
Since we live in the social media age where nothing has "really happened" until it's posted on Facebook, my camera is clicked onto Casio's custom-made selfie stick, which has separate docks for the lens and the main body.
This allows the lens to be further away from me (thus enabling it to capture a bigger view) while the camera's main body and its viewfinder are closer so that I can see what I am shooting.
OK, the only problem here is that I am a control freak who likes to get the perfect angles for my photos - so surrendering the controls to an automated picture-taking system goes against the grain.
So instead of a worry-free experience, there I am, swirling up in the sky and trying to take the Ultimate Selfie just as Mount Fuji swings into the background. But the camera is locked on auto-shoot mode and I struggle to do a manual override.
Amidst that wrangling, the lens comes loose from its dock (it's designed, for convenience, to come off with just one click) and goes tumbling down onto the ground.
Now, the FR100 is designed to be waterproof (up to 1.5m), dust-proof and even drop-proof - but that's only if it's dropped from a height of up to 1.7m, not from way up in the sky…
Walking amid tree tops
I later learnt that I should have put the camera on manual mode so that I could shoot exactly what and when I wanted. Luckily, the Casio folks have spare cameras handy so that I can still test out the Intelligent Interval mode.
After paragliding, it's time for a walk on ropes and loose planks amidst the tree tops at Risonare Yatsugatake resort in the Yamanashi prefecture (district), on the northern slopes of Mount Fuji.
Of course, an action camera also needs an anti-shake mode (for photos and videos) and the FR100 is good enough to capture sharp shots as I climb, crawl and clamber through assorted obstacles some 10m above ground. The fun is topped off by a zooming zipline ride.
I had tried to be creative during the climb and had strapped the camera's lens somewhere near my wrist. Now, if I want, I can instantly transfer the photos and videos to my smartphone using the Casio Exilim app (available on Android and iOS). But I balk when I see how the camera's auto-shooting has caught me in some, er, "interesting" angles.
The FR100 is more of a daytime adventure camera. It has a relatively small 1/2.3-inch sensor, so it's not exactly a champion of low light situations (putting the ISO setting above 400 creates too much "noise" or visible dots in the photos).
That night, we have a campfire and grill some marshmallows, and this is where the camera's intriguing "flash" - an optional accessory of a bright ring of LED lights that fits around the lens - comes into play.
Yamanashi is in the Fuji Five Lakes area which is renowned for hiking, climbing, fishing and skiing. So next day, we go for a relaxed forest trek.
The Intelligent Intervals can be chosen depending on what adventure you are doing. So in a fast and furious activity (say whitewater rafting), short intervals can be set (giving you many shots before the whole thing is over). In a more drawn-out activity, such as hiking, longer intervals can be set.
Since the camera's battery life is average (around 230 still photos on a full charge), I choose longer intervals to ensure I have enough juice for the whole three-hour trek. By lunch time, everybody is recharging both parts of their cameras.
Next, it's a full hands-on session: Kneading dough to make our own lunch (well, the soba noodles at least). This is when I see how the camera's selfie stick is transformed into an "intruder" stick.
With the lens attached onto one end, we can needle it into all kind of nooks and crannies, to get unusual angles of the soba-making work.
To end the day, we do some kayaking on a lake up in the mountains (altitude: about 1,500m). Yesterday's Mount Fuji sunshine has turned into bitter cold and all I have to keep my head warm is the hoodie on my wind-breaker.
This is when I put the camera into amphibious mode. While the lens is attached to the end of the stick, I can watch the viewfinder and take a selfie video above water. Then I plunge it underwater to see how, on live cam, a fish would look back up at me.
Ah… a camera that splits into two to tackle the twin worlds of air and water. It's been fun in Japan with this handy little gadget.