In December 2012, at the tail end of our Japan holiday, we had a 48hr layover in Hong Kong, the dynamic former British colonial outpost, dangling off the edge of China, that has still clung on to its special status as something simultaneously Cantonese and… not. Still a haven of finance, expat excess (rooftop bars aplenty) and Western influence, Hong Kong manages to maintain its own distinct culture, soaring, impossibly thin tower blocks concealing jumbles of wet markets and street food vendors at street level. And the food… oh, the food. Dim sum and xiao long bao of the highest order. More on that later…
Our short but intense visit to Hong Kong definitely left us wanting more, and since we have some friends there who gave us such good tips this time round, we would love to return and explore at a more leisurely pace next time.
As usual, more shots can be found over on Flickr….
Last week I went on a work trip to Rome, my first visit in nearly 20 years, for one night only. So imagine my surprise to find myself there, totally by coincidence, the same night that a new Pope was elected…
Of course I knew that it was a possibility, but I figured that it was pretty likely that I would miss the event itself due to being at the office, and that it would be enough, perhaps, just to visit Saint Peter’s Square and see the pilgrims and the curious waiting for that magic puff of white smoke.
After I finished my day’s work and was dropped off next to the Forum, I snapped a few shots and then checked into my hotel before a look round the old quarter.
I took my new mini tripod out with me, and had the smaller Lumix LX7 in place of my normal Canon 7D, it being a work trip. It was raining and I got some nice shots of the Pantheon and the Piazza della Rotonda in the rain.
Then, as I meandered around in the area of the Piazza Navona, bells began to ring, and, sensing something might be amiss, I started walking in the direction of the Vatican, 1km away and on the other side of the Tiber. As I walked, a quick check of Twitter confirmed that white smoke had indeed been sighted, indicating that the Cardinals had selected a new Pope after several rounds of voting.
Learning this, I hurried through the back alleys of the Centro Storico towards the Tiber. Once out onto the riverbank, the evening rush hour traffic was besieged with pedestrians crossing haphazardly across towards the Ponte Vittorio Emmanuel II, which was blocked to vehicle traffic and was now full of Romans, tourists and pilgrims walk-running across to the Borgo Santo Spirito, the wide avenue leading to Saint Peter’s Square and the Vatican. There was a palpable sense of excitement and urgency, as all knew the square would fill quickly now that the word was out.
I entered the square, where tens of thousands were already present, a sea of umbrellas interspersed with roving camera crews interviewing anyone they could find to fill airtime while they awaited the coming announcement. I managed to make it inside the main crowd barrier, undergoing a cursory bag and body check, and then I was in, amongst the faithful and the merely curious (I definitely fall into the latter category).
Then the waiting began. I tried to fill the time with taking pictures of the Swiss Guards on ceremonial manoeuvres, and by putting my LX7 on the tripod, held in aloft in my head to get overhead pictures of the crowd. Typically for being in the middle of a historical event in the 21st century, everyone was in possession of a mobile phone and/or camera, and of course this meant that the 3G network folded. I tried in vain to share a photo or two with the folks back home.
Soon enough, the balcony lit up, the red curtains parted, and French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran made the formal announcement we had all been waiting for: “Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum… habemus papam!” – “I announce to you a great joy… we have a pope!” The new Pope was announced as being Cardinal Bergoglio of Argentina, a Jesuit, who would be the first pope to take the name Francisco (Francis). This thrilled the crowd as not only was he the first Jesuit, the first South American, and the first Pope Francis, but he shared the name Francisco with the current star of the Roma football team – surely a good omen. Some Argentineans nearby waved their flag around like they had just won a football match.
One of the things that struck me that night in the Vatican was that when the announcement was made, and when the new Pope appeared for the first time, a sea of camera screens appeared in the audience: it seemed virtually everyone (myself included) was recording the event despite the TV cameras and press doing a much better job of it. Charlie Brooker was right, we have turned into a world of passive recorders, drones with phones. I realised that this would not have been the case in 2005 – as digital cameras were not nearly as pervasive – and the iPhone had not yet been released.
After a time, the papal rug was hung over the balcony, the Cardinals appeared along the side balconies, and the red curtains parted again to reveal the new Pope Francis. He waited a while for the crowd’s raucous applause to die down, and then began simply “Brothers and sisters… good evening!” He was disarmingly humble, and the crowd ate his words up, rapt with attention.
When his address was concluding, I was mindful of a dinner commitment with a colleague that I was almost certain to be late for, and I knew that this square would take a while to empty, so I moved towards the edges. Soon enough everyone had the same idea and the sheer number of people trying to get out of the north side of the square through the colonnades turned into a somewhat dangerous crush, as the barricades were rammed on the other side with latecomers who hadn’t managed to get in, and the guards were slow to open the gates.
After a hair-raising 10-15 minutes we managed to squeeze out of the gates and into the street, where I saw two groups of nuns from the same order bound up to each other and, squealing like schoolgirls, proceed to jump on each other and group-hug. Pretty sure I will never see that happen again.
Returning to the main avenue, a stream of people left Saint Peter’s the way they had came, nuns and all.
Although I am not religious, I felt incredibly fortunate that the first night I happened to be in Rome in 20 years coincided with the historic announcement of the new Pope. It’s not often you get this sort of chance to see history in the making, up close, and it’s humbling when you think of the relatively tiny number of people in the history of the Catholic Church who have actually been present to witness these announcements.
I only wish I had brought my big camera. The LX7 is a great little camera but no match for a proper DSLR with a good lens on it.
If you’ve made it down here this far, I will “reward” you with my own compilation of amateurish home video from the night:
The next morning I had an hour or so to look around the Centro Storico again before going to work, so I checked out the Pantheon again, before heading back to the Forum and the Colisseum. This short taster definitely whetted my appetite to return to Rome armed with more time, a proper camera, and my trusty travel companion and soon-to-be wife.
Of course, as usual you may find more photos from this set over on Flickr.
I was extremely fortunate that my first night in Rome in nearly 20 years coincided with the selection and announcement of the new Pope, Francis. More photos to come when I get back to London.
One of the things that struck me tonight in the Vatican was that when the announcement was made, and when the new Pope appeared for the first time, a sea of camera screens appeared in the audience, it seemed virtually everyone (myself included) was recording the event despite the TV cameras and press doing a much better job of it. Charlie Brooker was right, we have turned into a world of passive recorders, drones with phones. I realised that this would not have been the case in 2005 – as digital cameras were not nearly as pervasive – and the iPhone had not yet been released.
I found myself in Paris for work at the end of last week, and despite having little time and the weather being uncooperative, I managed to get a shot or two. I look forward to returning in better weather.
Japan so far:
- Hakone and Nara
- Osaka and Fukuoka
- Mount Aso, Kurokawa and Kumamoto
- Hiroshima, Miyajima, and Koya-San
This post is a photo tour of the beautiful sights of Kyoto, with its many temples, shrines and stunning gardens, as well as the remote mountain town of Takayama and its surrounding traditional villages.
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. And there are more photos from these locations available on Flickr.
Kyoto is one of the most famous cities in Japan, the former Imperial capital justly famed for its numerous cultural landmarks, the city which gave the world the geisha and set the standard for Japanese haute cuisine. Though it is a major tourist magnet now, both for foreign and domestic visitors, parts of Kyoto retain their charm. The city’s reputation for refinement survives despite now being part of one continuous conurbation with Kobe and Osaka, the latter a decidedly more blue-collar town.
The flipside of this is that as an independent traveller, Kyoto is also an occasionally frustrating city once you set about actually trying to explore it. If you don’t find yourself near one of the few subway lines, you rely on buses and taxis to get around, or bicycles if you are brave enough. Once you get to any of the major sights, you will find it completely swarmed with Japanese and other tourists. And, sadly, perhaps as a consequence of the tourist overload and the refined reputation, it is harder there to just walk into a restaurant or bar and get a warm welcome, if indeed you are let in at all. Still, this is one case where advanced research paid off and we were able to enjoy some great food whilst we were there, and did manage a friendly drink or two.
And of course there is the scenery….
Kiyomizu-dera Temple and southern Higashimiya
The Kiyomizu-dera Temple is justly celebrated as one of the major attractions of Kyoto, and isn’t shy about advertising itself either – a powerful spotlight beam emanates from the hill behind the site and sweeps across southern Kyoto, drawing in tourists by the coach load. This was easily the most crowded religious site we visited, and as it was our first night we were anxious about the rest of our time in Kyoto – were we to be jostled like human bowling pins for the entirety of our time here? But it was (just) worth it to see the famous view of the temple’s main hall suspended over the illuminated autumn-colour gardens. How I managed to get any sharp photos I couldn’t tell you…
Moving on from the Kiyomizu-dera we walked through the old-town pedestrianised hillside streets of southern Higashimiya, past a number of temples, to the Chion-in and its gardens, the famous Yasaka Shrine with its central dance hall lit by rows of (sponsored) lanterns every night, and ending up in the Gion district, home of the famous Geisha.
Northwestern Kyoto: The Golden Pavilion, Imamiya Shrine and Koto-in Temple
The next morning, we gingerly approached the Golden Pavilion, knowing it was one of the other “must-see” sights of Kyoto, and I remembered the last time I was here having to elbow my way past hordes of school groups to see anything. Mercifully, we happened to hit during a relatively quiet period, and were able to enjoy the temple grounds a bit more. We decided to have a walk through Northeast Kyoto after that, and ambled our way across to the Imamiya Shrine and finally to the Koto-In Temple, the latter experiencing a fantastic display of autumn colours in a serene setting.
Western Kyoto: Arashimaya and Tenryuji
After a comedy of errors getting from Northwest Kyoto to the Arashimaya district on public transport (perishing hunger and poor map reading skills do not make for a great combo) we topped up with some gorgeous soba noodles before ambling back out to the waterside to see the famous Togetsukyo Bridge, with its ludicrously colourful hillside backdrop, and just managed to make it along the river and into the picturesque gardens of the Tenryuji Temple before the sun went down and we were escorted out, politely but firmly, by a security guard with an illuminated wand, who put us in mind of fleeing from a menacing Darth Vader…
Eastern Kyoto: Silver Pavilion, Philosopher Path, Honen-in and Eikando Temples
The next day we struck out early for the Philosopher Path in eastern Kyoto, with the Silver Pavilion at the northern end, and a sedate amble along the canal path heading south to visit the small Honen-in temple and then to the larger complex of the Eikando temple, which boasted stunning autumn colours. Sense a theme here?
We had to run off after sampling the morning’s temple visits, because we had a lunch date with one of Kyoto’s finest kaiseki ryori / haute cuisine restaurants, Roan Kikunoi. This was a stunning foodie experience, down to personalised printed menus walking you through the many exquisite courses (more on this in a later post). One of the things we were fascinated with, sitting at the bar, was the deft knifework of the various chefs, especially when slicing sashimi or trimming fillets. I asked about the knives they used, and the head chef laid out the three knives below. It turns out they all started off the same length, but that the lengths they are now are a result of five-year increments of multiple sharpenings per day. Amazing.
Fushimi Inari Shrine
The last major religious sight we would visit in Kyoto is one I missed on my last visit – the Fushimi Inari Shrine, with its famous ranks of thousands of red torii gates flanking paths snaking up the hillside, leading to miniature shrines with offerings and fox kami statues aplenty. There were also various Shinto ceremonies going on as we made our way around the grounds, jarring in a way as so many of the temples and shrines we visited seemed to be almost deconsecrated, odes to the past, and here was one that was still very much active.
From Kyoto we made our way North up into the Japan Alps, to the sleepy mountain town of Takayama. Famous for its preserved old town with its wooden buildings, Takayama is altogether more accessible than Kyoto was, though as we got there in the late afternoon and didn’t clock onto the fact that all of the tourist-oriented shops and restaurants in the old town area shut down precisely at 5pm, we wandered about for a while in the twilight increasingly worried that we had made a mistake and that Takayama was in fact not open for business. Thankfully a bit of research prior to the trip meant we ended up in a friendly (and, more importantly, open) izakaya where we sat around low tables, grilled our own Hida beef over a charcoal brazier, and were regaled with local drinking songs by the increasingly-inebriated neighbouring table. In fact we found Takayama locals to be by far the most welcoming and gregarious the Japanese we encountered on our trip, and we ended up exchanging rounds of drinks and plates of food and getting riotously drunk. So drunk that, defying all reason, we walked into an otherwise anonymous-looking door because we heard karaoke coming out of it, and ended up spending the evening in the company of the elderly mama-san and a couple of other old coots who had nothing better to do on a Monday night….
Takayama is also a handy jumping-off point to tour various preserved farm villages in the nearby valleys. We visited one called Ogimachi in Shirakawa-go, where a number of historic gassho-zukuri thatch-roof farmhouses sat nestled in the valley, and, as the early-morning sun began to melt the snow off the roofs, the steam rising off of them made for quite a sight.
Well that’s about it from Japan, barring a food-related post I have been mulling. The next stop will be the final set of photos of this trip, from a brief but very enjoyable stopover in Hong Kong. Considering we got home over two months, it’s about time!
Japan so far:
This post is a photo tour of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, the shrine island of Miyajima, and the mountaintop temple complex and cemetery of Koya-san.
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. And there are more photos from these locations available on Flickr.
Hiroshima is famous for all the wrong reasons. Back in August 1945 it was a military garrison town, but hadn’t been extensively targeted by the Allied bombing raids that had devastated many of Japan’s other cities. It was therefore thought a prime target to test the first atomic bomb deployed in anger. This was treated primarily as a deterrent to urge Japan to surrender, but touring the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum makes you realise that the US military also treated it as a scientific endeavour, wanting to see how much damage and how many casualties would be caused. This chilling experiment resulted in over 100,000 deaths, both directly and over time, and of course devastated the city centre.
In the islands that were directly under the centre of the bomb blast, several buildings half-survived and are preserved as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, chief amongst them the Atomic Bomb Dome.
The Atomic Bomb Dome is set in the Peace Memorial Park, which contains a number of moving monuments including the Children’s Peace Memorial, the Cenotaph, and of course the Peace Memorial Museum, which has a harrowing set of exhibits of items recovered from the blast site.
Of course, nowadays Hiroshima is a thriving, commercial city, and one thing it is famous for is a special type of okonomiyaki that is layered rather than mixed, as one would find elsewhere. In fact, in Hiroshima there is even a miniature okonomikayi theme park called Okonomi-mura with several floors of competing vendors.
A short train ride down the coast of Hiroshima Bay will bring you to Hatsukaichi, from where you can board a ferry to the shrine island of Itsukushima, popularly known as Miyajima. I made it here last time round, as you can see over on Flickr.
Before we could board our ferry, though, we ran into this odd couple who reminded us of our recent time in Fukuoka…
On the island itself, one of the most famous symbols of Japan is the bright red torii gate sitting out in front of the main Itsukushima Shrine. When the tide is high, it appears to float offshore. It is, of course, besieged by camera-wielding tourists like yours truly. However, a little persistence, and a disregard for little things like cold and sleep, can yield rewards.
The actual Itsukushima Shrine itself is no slouch in the looks department – it was built on stilts so that it too appears to float when the tide is in – and it boasts a lovely pagoda.
Finally on Miyajima, up a series of cable cars, is Mount Misen, where one can enjoy a walk through some scenic woods before enjoying a panorama of Hiroshima Bay. We rather foolishly did not allow ourselves enough time to do this venture justice, and had all of 10 minutes to look around at the top before throwing ourselves back down the mountain…
From Miyajima we had to rush to catch a train back to Hiroshima and thence to Koya-san. This was by far and away our most stressful day of travel, and went roughly like this: ferry, local train, bullet train, subway, local train, local train, an awfully steep funicular up a mountainside, and finally bus. But the reward was ending up in the serene mountain surroundings of Koya-san…
Once we finally got to Koya-san we hopped off our bus, glad that that our epic journey was over, and curious about the next 24 hours. Koya-san is nestled in a valley at 800m in altitude, surrounded by peaks of the mountain range of the same name. Koya-san is known as the spiritual centre of the Shingon sect, one of the mainstream varieties of Buddhism in Japan. The town exists to serve its temples, not the other way around, and the temples are an important centre for pilgrims adhering to Shingon, who can be seen wandering through town in white jackets, conical straw hats and walking sticks.
We were to stay in the Ichijo-in, one of the temples offering shukubo or temple lodging. This intrigued us as we knew that it was not going to be your normal ryokan experience: not only were we going to be served dinner and breakfast in our room, but it was to be shojin ryori – completely vegetarian. We were also curious about being invited to participate in the morning ceremony the following day, which would involve a 6AM start and, apparently, some meditation.
As we entered the gates we were immediately welcomed into the temple – by a monk – with a short purification ceremony in which we rubbed dried incense powder together between our hands. We were welcomed into a pretty decent-sized tatami room, with a comfortable electric blanket over the table’s seats, served tea, and then the host monk surprised us by launching into a fluent English conversation and asking us whether we wanted beer or sake with our meal. What followed was a surprisingly lush, well-presented and delicious meal which we meat-eaters found extremely satisfying. We had some time to relax after that and get an early night’s sleep before the next morning’s ceremony.
Early the next morning, we wrapped up tight into our warmest layers, put on our slippers and shuffled through the temple to the main hall, where we sat and listened to the head monk and the four acolytes chant sutras for over half an hour, while various supplicants made their way up to an offering box to find their fortunes, and we shifted from seating position to seating position on the tatami floor, all too aware that behind us, 70-year-old Japanese folks were calmly sitting on their ankles and not moving an inch.
Soon it was time to go out and see the town. We got an early start as we had heard that it was more atmospheric in the morning. It did not disappoint.
We walked through nearly-empty streets, eastwards towards Koya-san’s other main attraction, the Oku-no-in Temple and its surrounding cemetery. This graveyard is, for want of a better word, the most prestigious in Japan. It means something to be interred here, as it is said that the founder of Shingon Buddhism, Kobo Daishi, is merely resting in his tomb and will return one day – and if you are a Buddhist worth your salt then you want to be nearby when this happens. Many of Japan’s great and good, from important politicians, captains of industry, religious figures and so on are to be found resting here.
What has resulted is a seemingly endless forest full of mossy gravestones, memorial edifices, Shinto kami statues, torii gates, and even corporate-owned plots with branding intact.
As you walk deeper into the forest, and approach the main temple area – which is a sacred area in which you are forbidden to take pictures – you see more and more pilgrims on the paths. Once into the sacred area there is a small pagoda where the faithful can reach through a hole and try to toss a heavy stone up onto a grate to prove their spiritual purity. I am happy to report that I was able to achieve this, though how spiritually pure I was, I couldn’t tell you.
On our way out, just outside the sacred area was a stream, and a series of Jizō statues which one makes offerings to for the souls of children, unborn, stillborn or otherwise. This was a touching end to the cemetery walk.
On our way back into town we just had time to visit one more temple – that of the Kongobuji, the head temple of Shingon Buddhism. We enjoyed its rock garden and its spacious tea hall, where we rested our weary legs and supped matcha tea while we planned our next journey.
Koya-san was a memorable, exceptional experience that could only have happened in Japan.
Next up will be the final set of destinations in Japan: the refined temple metropolis of Kyoto, and the sleepy friendly mountain town of Takayama.
From time to time, I will use these “From the Archives” posts to highlight some of my photography from the period before I started this blog in late 2009. These photos have been publicly available on Flickr for some time but they have never before been featured on this blog. I hope you enjoy this blast from the past!
Four years ago (give or take a day) I was on a brief trip to the US that combined my grandmother’s 90th birthday celebration in South Carolina with a road trip up to Washington, D.C. to see the historic inauguration of Barack Obama to the office of the President.
Although as campaign volunteer for Clinton way back in 1992 I had met the then-Governor-Clinton and later had been invited to his first inauguration (along with untold numbers of other campaign workers), for one reason or another I never made it up to DC. So Obama’s was my first inauguration, and it was quite the event. Hundreds of thousands of us rose in the predawn darkness, frozen solid by the time we even got to the Mall at 4:30am, happy that we had made it into the closest “public” area to the Capitol, but reasonably sure we were still only going to be seeing Mr Obama on the TV screens as there was little hope of actually being able to discern him in person.
As the actual swearing-in was not until noon, we waited for seven hours in sub-freezing temperatures, bundled into every item of cold weather gear we could scrounge, standing on space blankets to try in vain to stop the cold from seeping up through the frozen soil on the Mall, watching the sun come up.
It was a fun day when all is said and done, though, because the crowd were so energised, it was like a festival. Of course there was a huge African-American contingent, as would be appropriate for the inauguration of the first black president, and everywhere you looked people flashed beaming smiles at you, black, white, or otherwise.
At some point in the morning they rebroadcast Stevie Wonder performing “Higher Ground” at the pre-inauguration concert from the previous day and this really got everybody fired up. From then on, as the sun began to impart the tiniest amount of warmth, the Mall took on a festival-like atmosphere.
Soon enough it was time for business, and the thrum of excitement ratcheted up as the TV screens showed Obama waiting to be shown out onto the terrace of the Capitol. The rest, as they say, is history….
Of course, once the (flubbed) oath of office and the speech finished, there were upwards of 1.8 million people in and around the Mall who had to find some way of getting away, and after trying in vain for an hour or so to find a Metro stop that wasn’t completely ram-jammed, we decided to walk back over the frozen Potomac to Virginia so that we could pick up transportation there. It was worth it though, to have been there and been part of the event.
The next day I returned to the Mall as I had some free time, and saw them cleaning up after the festivities. If anything the ground looked even more desolate and frozen than the day before.
After a short tour of the Capitol building (during which I tried in vain to see if we could get out onto the platform to pretend to be taking the oath) the few tourists who decided to brave the cold for the second day in a row all seemed to drift down towards the White House, where we knew Obama was settling into his first full day in office…
Of course, that was a different time, and a lot has happened since then. We are not so hopeful and bright eyed as we were four years ago, and in many ways we are more divided. But maybe the President can conjure up a little more of that Obama magic today…