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Japan – Kyoto and Takayama

February 12, 2013 1 comment

Japan so far:

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

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…

Main Hall of Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Kyoto

Main Hall of Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Kyoto

 

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.

The Golden Pavilion, Kyoto

The Golden Pavilion, Kyoto

 

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…

Togetsukyo Bridge, Arashimaya, Kyoto

Togetsukyo Bridge, Arashimaya, Kyoto

 

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?

Silver Pavilion, Kyoto

Silver Pavilion, Kyoto

 

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.

3 ages of sashimi knife, Roan Kikunoi Restaurant, Kyoto

3 ages of sashimi knife, Roan Kikunoi Restaurant, Kyoto

 

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.

Giant torii gate at entrance to Fushimi Inari Shrine, Kyoto

Giant torii gate at entrance to Fushimi Inari Shrine, Kyoto

 

TAKAYAMA

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 old town by night

Takayama old town by night

Sunday crowd at the Kyoya izakaya, Takayama

Sunday crowd at the Kyoya izakaya, Takayama

 

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.

Gassho-zukuri farmhouses, Ogimachi, Shirakawa-go

Gassho-zukuri farmhouses, Ogimachi, Shirakawa-go

 

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 – Hiroshima, Miyajima and Koya-San

January 22, 2013 1 comment

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

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.

A-Bomb Dome, Peace Memorial Park, Hiroshima

A-Bomb Dome, Peace Memorial Park, Hiroshima

 

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.

Serving Hiroshima-style Okonomiyaki, Okonomi-mura, Hiroshima

Serving Hiroshima-style Okonomiyaki, Okonomi-mura, Hiroshima

 

MIYAJIMA

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

Sumo rikishi on the Miyajima Ferry

Sumo rikishi on the Miyajima Ferry

 

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.

Pagoda of the Itsukushima Shrine, Miyajima

Pagoda of the Itsukushima Shrine, Miyajima

 

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…

Parkland and Autumn Colours on Mount Misen, Miyajima

Parkland and Autumn Colours on Mount Misen, Miyajima

Panorama of Hiroshima Bay from Mount Misen, Miyajima

Panorama of Hiroshima Bay from Mount Misen, Miyajima

 

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…

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.

Shingon Buddhist pilgrims, Oku-no-in Cemetery, Koya-san

Shingon Buddhist pilgrims, Oku-no-in Cemetery, Koya-san

 

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.

Japan – Mount Aso, Kurokawa, and Kumamoto

January 11, 2013 4 comments

Japan so far:

This post is a photo tour of Kyushu, Japan’s southern island, including the national park around the active volcano Mount Aso, as well as the spa town of Kurokawa and finishing up in the Kumamoto, dominated by an infamous samurai castle.

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

MOUNT ASO
We hopped an early morning train from Fukuoka south along Kyushu’s west coast and changed to a rental car. After getting our heads around Japanese road signs, and puzzling out the sat-nav system (in which you enter phone numbers, not addresses, to locate your destination) we headed through Kumamoto’s suburban sprawl, which could be mistaken for Anywhere, USA, east into the hills of central Kyushu. We were headed for the national park around Mount Aso, a set of active peaks and a boiling sulphur lake in a crater, all of which sit in one of the largest calderas on Earth. It makes for a dramatic landscape, and one that you have to take care with – the viewpoint over the crater is regularly shut down when the sulphur emissions get too strong, and there are bunkers in which visitors can shelter in the case of any violent eruptions. But it’s worth visiting as the turquoise sulphur water bubbling away, and the columns of steam shooting a hundred feet in the air, are a sight to behold…. and the rolling grasslands in the plains around the caldera made for a very enjoyable drive.

 

KUROKAWA
After a lovely outing to Mount Aso, we headed down through the mountain passes into the forested valleys south of the caldera region, ending up in Kurokawa, an onsen town built around a pretty bend in the river, hosting scores of ryokans catering mainly to more mature Japanese tourists whose idea of a fun day is to lounge around in a yukata robe and flit around from one outdoor hot spring bath (rotemburo) to another, and retire in the evening to be pampered in traditional Japanese ryokan style. We were keen on this, as it happened, and we chose an excellent inn just outside the main town, the Sanga Ryokan, because it had its own pretty stretch of river, seemed smart, and boasted no less than five separate rotemburo. Aside from all this, it had incredibly pretty traditional rooms and the food was edging onto what you would get in a high-end kaiseki restaurant. We could have stayed there longer. Sadly, we had only the one night.

 

KUMAMOTO
In the morning, after another lovely rotemburo at another ryokan set beside a river with a waterfall, we took our time driving back to Kumamoto, as the weather turned sour. We felt very lucky to have gotten a lovely sunny day to see Mount Aso, and so we arrived in Kumamoto fairly happy with our lot. We (just) had time to pop over to Kumamoto’s samurai castle, infamously besieged and burnt down during the Satsuma Rebellion in 1877, which was the loose basis for the film The Last Samurai. Sunset arrived and we were ushered out (politely, of course)

 

That’s all from Kyushu. The next instalment will bring us back onto the main island of Japan and will feature Hiroshima and its monuments, the idyllic island of Miyajima, and then we will head off into the mountains to stay in a Buddhist temple and visit Japan’s most prestigious…. cemetery.

Japan – Osaka and Fukuoka

January 7, 2013 5 comments

Japan so far:

After the forested temples of Nara Park, a short train ride brought us back into modernity with a bang and deposited us right into the middle of the buzzing burg of Osaka. Later, we moved on to Fukuoka to catch the yearly sumo tournament.

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

OSAKA

Osaka is a paradox – a city with seemingly little to see from a typical tourist’s viewpoint, but a city that remains nonetheless very compelling. Aside from Osaka Castle and a couple of other attractions, the main pull for Osaka has a rather more hedonistic bent. This is, after all, the city which boasts a special word for “eat until you drop” and the same might be said of the attitude towards drink. More working-class and street-food-oriented than its big brother Tokyo, less stuffy than its neighbour Kyoto, Osaka is proudly brash and boldly neon.

To get it out of the way: yes, we did visit Osaka Castle. Sadly, we did so having suffered the after effects of our first night out in Osaka, so we might not have been best placed to appreciate a seven story climb through a museum stuffed to the rafters with Japanese pensioners and with little in the way of English commentary. We did however appreciate the walk, and the obligatory green-tea ice cream cone in the park outside.

 

But, dear reader, the main event in Osaka is the nightlife. This is truly a city that looks better when the sun goes down and the neon signs ignite. Ridley Scott famously quoted night-time Osaka as his inspiration when designing Blade Runner, and he returned here to make the Michael Douglas-starring yakuza drama “Black Rain”. In any case, we enjoyed galavanting up and down the Dotonbori canal and main street, and even ventured far enough abroad to Shinsekai, the dodgier end of town, to go up a pointless viewing platform in a faux-Eiffel Tower and eat many varieties of fried foods. A good time was had by all.

 

Of course, we occasionally saw the dark side of hedonism (or perhaps Japan’s ever-fluctuating economy) and Osaka had its fair share of down-and-outs, including this poor chap:

Homeless Man under Overpass, Osaka

Homeless Man under Overpass, Osaka

 

FUKUOKA

After a couple of nights’ liver damage, and a daily rate of one okonomiyaki per person (which is frankly unsustainable) we moved on to Fukuoka, a medium sized city at the north end of the southern island of Kyushu. Fukuoka is another place one could reasonably say held little in the tourist-magnet department in terms of sightseeing, but for those of a foodie persuasion, Fukuoka is a bit of a mecca. Not only is it the home of the lovely and very-bad-for-you Hakata-style tonkotsu ramen, but there are also heaps of street food vendors in stalls called yatai lining the many waterways running through the centre of the town.

Yatai food stalls along the river, Fukuoka

Yatai food stalls along the river, Fukuoka

 

The main reason we had for coming to Fukuoka, aside from the lovely food, was to visit the 2012 Fukuoka Grand Sumo competition on its penultimate day. I had been to this same competition in 2007 but timing then meant that I could only stay for the midday session, when the lower-ranking rikishi (fighters) had their bouts in front of an empty hall. This time, we had ensured that we arrived in Osaka with enough time to enjoy the full afternoon of competition, being able to see the higher echelons of competitors in the juryou and maku-uchi divisions (the latter including the highest class of Yokozuna). This time, as the afternoon wore on, the crowd filled in and the hall was soon filled with raucous cheering, no doubt enhanced by copious amounts of beer and sake being consumed in the seats and boxes all round. This was definitely a higher class of sport than what I had previously witnessed.

 

Next time we’re going to venture south into Kyushu, into rolling grasslands, volcanic lakes, burbling hot springs, and samurai castles…. see you then!

My 2012: Photographic Year-End Review

December 30, 2012 3 comments

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.

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.

JANUARY
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.

 

FEBRUARY

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.

John Terry, Frank Lampard, Meirelles and Bosingwa - Champions of Europe

Farringdon Approach

 

JUNE

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.)

Eiffel Tower from the Palais de Chaillot, by night

Sunset at the Louvre

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.

Castelnaud-la-Chappelle

Canalside door, Brantome

 

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.

Boules on the Paris Plage

Sunset in Paris

 

SEPTEMBER

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…

 

OCTOBER

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
Luke Robinson

Japan – Hakone and Nara (a photo report)

December 24, 2012 5 comments

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.

HAKONE

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.

Mount Fuji from the Hakone Ropeway

Mount Fuji from the Hakone Ropeway

Mount Fuji from Owakaduni, Hakone

Mount Fuji from Owakaduni, Hakone

 

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:

Hakone Lake Panoramic (Mt Fuji in Background)

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.

 

NARA

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.

The woman on the stairs, Nara Park

The woman on the stairs, Nara Park

 

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.

Yoshikien Garden

Stone Steps, Autumn Colours and Leaf Fall, Yoshikien Garden, Nar

Stone Steps, Autumn Colours and Leaf Fall, Yoshikien Garden, Nar

 

Isuien Garden

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.

Pond and Todaji Temple Gate, Isuien Garden, Nara Park

Pond and Todaji Temple Gate, Isuien Garden, Nara Park

Flowing waterfall, Isuien Garden, Nara Park

Flowing waterfall, Isuien Garden, Nara Park

 

Todaiji Temple

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.

 

Nigatsudo Hall

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.

Japan – Tokyo (a photo report)

December 19, 2012 11 comments

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.

Shinto Wedding, Meiji Jingu

Shinto Wedding, Meiji Jingu

 

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.

Traditional Chrysanthemums outside Meiji Shrine

Traditional Chrysanthemums outside Meiji Shrine

The very first signs of autumn colour (momiji) in Meiji Gardens

The very first signs of autumn colour (momiji) in Meiji Gardens

Kimono-clad women laughing together, Meiji Garden

Kimono-clad women laughing together, Meiji Garden

 

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.

Strangers, Tokyo Rockabilly Club, Yoyogi Park

Strangers, Tokyo Rockabilly Club, Yoyogi Park

Gingko trees beginning to drop, Yoyogi Park

Gingko trees beginning to drop, Yoyogi Park

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.

Western Tokyo and Mount Fuji from the Tokyo Metropolitan Governm

Western Tokyo and Mount Fuji from the Tokyo Metropolitan Governm

 

Next up: the Fuji region of Hakone, and the tranquil park and temples of Nara.