It’s been a good year, again. A lot of travel (43 cities, 12 countries, 100K+ kilometers), a lot of laughs, a lot of good food. A promotion and the largest deal we’ve ever done closed at work. And, most importantly, a kind young lady agreed to marry me. I end 2012 feeling very fortunate.
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In January I returned to Scotland in winter, this time to the Isle of Skye, accompanied by my good friend (and accomplished photographer) Corin Dimoupolous and guided by local expert landscape photographer David Langan. We spent a long weekend exploring the island, and, weather permitting, shooting a few landscapes.
The coldest month saw us on a mini-break to an even colder place: Berlin. Despite icy temperatures we had a great time exploring both the historic and modern aspects of this vibrant city. We ate well and drank better.
MARCH, APRIL, MAY
These months were fairly quiet, at least in terms of photography for me, as they consisted mostly of a series of work trips which didn’t allow much time for quality snapping. Must do better.
However, I did manage a few shots around London in the downtime.
June saw another personal trip to France for a wedding in the Dordogne – but first stop was a few days in Paris. (More Paris shots can be found in the original blog post.)
After Paris we moved to the Dordogne and Limousin region for our friends’ wedding. This was a lovely few days in rural southern France, touring the medieval fortress towns along the river, and eating as much duck, pate, and Limousin beef as we could manage. Again, for more photos go and check out the original blog post.
JULY AND AUGUST
In the late summer, London was host to the 2012 Olympics and we were lucky enough to visit the Olympic Park as well as going to see the Men’s Hockey and the Men’s Basketball Final. It was a magical time in London, and I will always remember what it was like to be here in the thick of it.
In late August I went back to Paris for the first of a series of work trips there, and I managed to catch a perfect summer’s day along the banks of the Seine.
We began September with a lovely late-summer break to the Cyclades: a two-part trip to Mykonos, famed for its maze-like streets and raucous nightlife, and Santorini, land of a million postcard views. More photos can be found in the original blog post.
The morning after I returned from Santorini, I boarded another flight to Bangkok for work. Fortunately I allowed myself an extra day there to get reacquainted with this city, and to sample some of the myriad food delights on offer in its street stalls and markets…
Early October saw me on yet another work trip, this time to Ankara and Istanbul in Turkey, where I was fortunate enough to have a few free hours to myself here and there to wander the old town and the nightlife district of Beyoglu. It’s always good to return to Istanbul.
NOVEMBER and DECEMBER
November and December were all about our trip to Japan and Hong Kong. Though I am only about a third of the way through processing the photos from that trip, what I have gone through thus far is encouraging and more photo reports from this trip will be gracing this blog over the course of January. Of course, this is the trip that hosted the aforementioned proposal, so it has a special place in my heart.
First up: Tokyo
And, of course, the rural beauty of Hakone and Nara:
That’s about all for 2012, photo-wise at least. I am happy that we’ve had a fulfilling year. Here’s to 2013 being bigger and better!
Happy New Year
For the second instalment in our Japan trip, we find ourselves travelling through the very distinct landscapes of Hakone – a volcanic spa area near Mount Fuji – and Nara, a verdant and picturesque former imperial capital filled to the brim with centuries-old landscaped gardens, temples, and shrines.
NOTE If you are reading this in a news reader such as Google Reader, or inside Facebook on a tablet, you might want to open this in a dedicated browser window as the photo layout may work better. Also, there are more photos from these locations available in the corresponding set over on Flickr.
After our first few days in Tokyo, we were city’d out and ready for a change of scene. A quick Shinkansen bullet train and then a series of switchback local trains found us in Hakone, an area of volcanic scenery, hot springs, geysers and lakes surrounding Mount Fuji. It is also an extremely popular destination for Japanese tourists as it is so close to Tokyo. So, at times, one feels like one is at an amusement park, in an endless series of queues to board various funiculars and cable cars. But the moment your cable car comes over the first ridge and you see Mount Fuji dominating the horizon, it’s all worth it.
One of the obligatory and fun bits of the day tour of Hakone is Owakaduni, halfway along the ropeway, which is a national park area on the side of a mountain which is perforated with steam geysers venting sulphurous gases from the volcanic water table below. It is the done thing amongst the Japanese day trippers to visit this area, take a photo of the geysers, and then queue to buy an egg which has been boiled black in the sulphurous waters. We skipped the egg.
Hakone, as it turns out, was not the photographic treasure trove it might have been for me. This is not because of any fault of the subject matter, but of the preoccupation of the photographer with a more important capture. Back in 2007 I was very impressed with the beauty of the view from the Hakone Detached Palace Park on the shores of Lake Ashinoko, and took this panoramic:
We have the picture above enlarged and hanging on our wall at home, and take great pleasure in contemplating it. So, it seemed like a nice place to propose marriage. Much rejoicing followed, though we never found this exact spot again, given the context, the view was just as impressive.
In a bit of a happy post-engagement haze, we moved on to Nara in the Kansai region. Nara was Japan’s first permanent capital, established in 710, and attracted powerful families, becoming a political and religious power centre. The legacy this left is a small, attractive city of low buildings, but the main attraction of Nara is certainly the large Nara Koen (park) and the various temples, lakes, gardens, tame deer, and bountiful autumn colours to be found therein.
Within Nara Park there are some stunning gardens, chief amongst them the Yoshikien and Isuien Gardens, adjacent to one another and both examples of immaculate landscaping in harmony with the surrounding countryside. Of course, in common with most Japanese gardens, these were liberally sprinkled with Japanese maple and gingko trees, and as we were bang in the middle of the autumn colour peak, there was a brilliant show of leaves, both on the trees and on the ground.
Isuien Garden was build as a “mirrored landscape” mimicking the hills surrounding it, and meant to draw your eye towards the main gate of the Todaiji Temple in the background.
The main temple in Nara Park is Todaiji, the largest wooden structure in the world. The main Buddha hall or daibutsu houses a 15m bronze Buddha image as well as guardian demon statues.
The Todaiji Temple has a sub-temple up on a hill – the Nigatsudo Hall – which is (yet again) situated within some amazing autumn foliage.
Kasuga Taisha Shrine
Finally, nestled in the southeast corder of Nara Park is the Kasuga Taisha Shrine, the most important Shinto religious site in Nara. Kasuga Taisha is known as the Lantern Shrine, with hundreds of stone lanterns littered throughout the forests surrounding it, and hundreds of worshipper-donated bronze lanterns hung throughout the main complex. There are also regular donations of rice, cabbage, and sake to keep the kami spirits appeased.
That’s it from Hakone and Nara. The next episode will take us back into the cities of Osaka and Fukuoka, where we will see neon nightscapes, samurai castles, and sumo. See you then.
In this inaugural post covering our recent three-week trip to Japan and Hong Kong, I will cover the vibrant, pulsating, and overwhelming city of Tokyo. We began and ended the Japan leg of our trip here, spending about four full days here, and could easily have done a week if given the opportunity.
Tokyo is a city of contrasts, and although it is not outwardly a beautiful city, it is one that rewards the intrepid urban explorer with scenes of utter urbanity right next to jaw-droppingly beautiful parks concealing peaceful shrines and temples.
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When we first landed in Tokyo, it was an assault on the senses, but a very welcome one. Staying in Shinjuku that time meant that we were right in the heart of the restaurant and bar scene, and we wasted no time getting stuck into an izakaya (pub with food), visiting my favourite (tiny) bar “Albatross” in the Shomben Yokocho (“piss alley”) and ending up at a late-night ramen joint where we had to order through a vending machine.
The days we spent thereafter (on both visits) were spent covering a great deal of ground in both Western and Eastern Tokyo, and below is a selection of the experiences we had. As per usual there are many more photos to be found in the equivalent set over on Flickr so I do encourage you to check them out.
Yoyogi Park and the Meiji Shrine
As per last time I visited Tokyo, the first morning of our trip happened to be a Sunday, and the best thing to do on a Sunday if you are in West Tokyo is to head down to Yoyogi Park and the Meiji Shrine. The former because there are usually odd people about (more on that later) and the latter because there is usually a Shinto wedding or some other ceremony going on. We were in luck because (as on my last trip here) the Seven-Five-Three “middle childhood” blessings were taking place at the Meiji Shrine, which meant loads of adorable Japanese kids in kimonos with their elegant parents only too happy to pose for photos.
Near the Meiji Shrine is the Meiji Garden, which is well worth the ¥500 (£4) entry fee as it is a lovely imperial garden set around a teahouse and a small lake, lush with vegetation and with the maples just beginning to show the very first signs of the autumn colours (momiji), and with kimono-clad women laughing amongst themselves.
Outside the Meiji Shrine and Garden is Yoyogi Park, a large green space providing some respite from the surrounding intense urbanity of Shinjuku, Harajuku and Shibuya. Yoyogi Park on Sundays typically means a mixture of different “tribal” groups coming out to play, such as the Tokyo Rockabilly Club (previously) and cosplay people dressed up in animal suits. But today was pretty quiet in the park, even for such a nice day, and so we were able to enjoy the gingko trees beginning to shed their leaves.
Ueno Park and Yanaka
One afternoon towards the end of our trip we trekked up to Ueno Park, another haven of tranquility in the midst of the Tokyo sprawl. By this time the autumn colours had well and truly arrived in Tokyo, and it made a dramatic backdrop to the small shrines dotted amongst the park’s small hills and dales.
Near Ueno is an old neighbourhood (shitamachi) called Yanaka that is one of the last surviving pockets of low-rise “Old Tokyo” that remains. It is dotted with quiet market streets and various temples and shrines. In one of them we were approached by an 81-year-old man with good English who explained that there was a monument to a poet and his famous lover, a real beauty of her time, and that he had had the honour of hosting an actual blood descendant of the poet’s lover at the temple. We were suspicious at first but he gave us a print of a painting he had done to commemorate a line in the poem about someone letting a boy’s pet sparrow fly away. A lovely and odd little encounter, very Japanese.
Tokyo Sky Tree and Asakusa
A new addition since my last visit, the Tokyo SkyTree now looms over northeast Tokyo and you can use it to orient yourself wherever you might be, being that it is 684m / 2080ft tall. There are observation decks at 350m and (if you pay an extra 50%) at 450m. We attempted it one afternoon but were put off by extremely long queues. Returning the next morning we would have been OK if not for high winds causing restrictions to the operations of the lifts. More queueing ensued, and, in a very Japanese (i.e. crowded) fashion we finally got to go up the thing after a total time investment of four hours. Was the view worth it? Juuuuuuust barely. I am not sure I would go through that again; I imagine that for Tokyoites it’s somewhat the same as New Yorkers’ attitudes to the Empire State Building. Something for the tourists.
Much more rewarding is the other de rigeur visit of northeast Tokyo, which is to Asakusa and the Senso-ji temple therein, whose massive front gate complete with giant paper lantern is a symbol of Tokyo. A long street, packed with visitors sampling temple-themed pastries and deciding whether to buy plastic swords, leads back to an open space with another large gate, a five-story pagoda, and the main hall. All around are places to determine your fortune, often by donating a ¥100 coin and gaining the privilege of shaking a stick out of a tin, then matching the script on the stick with a series of drawers, retrieving a piece of paper with your individual fortunes. Our fortunes were mixed, but Nicola’s prophetically told of success in marriage awaiting her…
Tsukiji Fish Market
Something I missed last time around is the famous fish market of Tsukiji, in southeastern Tokyo. It was imperative that we visit it this time, as evidence continues to mount that the current, rather organically-grown market will be shuttered in the next couple of years, moved to some brand-spanking-new state-of-the-art facility where the real work will go on at ground level and tourists will be confined to some overhead gallery. Which is, on balance, appropriate given that it’s a wholesale market and the tourists just get in the way in the old setup, but I would have felt robbed had we not been able to wander around the tiny lanes, dodging motorcarts and stepping around discarded tuna heads, interacting with the market sellers and watching the meticulous process of filleting a sea eel up close. Behind glass and/or upstairs from the action will be a very different kettle of fish indeed.
In any case we were spared the ignominy of rising at 3AM to contest for a place watching the famous tuna auction, as it was now December and the auction was closed to the public for the busy holiday season. So we arrived jauntily at 9AM to see the wholesale market, and found to our delight that there was plenty of frozen tuna still to be seen, it’s just that in this case there was nobody yelling about it. We were OK with this.
That’s about it from the Tokyo side. We went to many more places in Tokyo than this, of course, and there were a host of nightlife and eating establishments that we may well document in due course. But Tokyo is too vast to ever fully capture, and that is surely a good thing.
Next up: the Fuji region of Hakone, and the tranquil park and temples of Nara.