Posts Tagged ‘landscape’

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 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



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…


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

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.


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.


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 – 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.


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.



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.

A Winter Trip to the Isle of Skye

February 1, 2012 7 comments

Last weekend I flew up to Scotland for a jaunt out to the Isle of Skye, accompanied by my trusty pal Corin and our able guide, David Langan, who escorted us out to the Isle of Skye for a full long weekend of trekking around Skye in search of the perfect landscapes. We braved 300m+ vertical hikes and gale-force winds in pursuit of our photos. I am happy to say that one or two of them came out.

Glen Shiel Reflection

Elgol Sunset

The Old Man of Storr, Sunrise

Glen Brittle Fairy Pools

Talisker Bay

Breakish Beach looking out over Applecross

Ord Beach - Rock Detail

Ord Beach (View of Loch Eishort)

The photo below may be somewhat pedestrian, but I had to shimmy out on to a ledge over a giant cliff to get it, which was the only way to shield the camera / tripod from the gale-force winds on the clifftop. The winds were so fierce, a waterfall nearby was blown back over the top of the cliff before any water actually fell. So this photo gets included, no matter the quality!

Neist Point Lighthouse

Duisdale Beach

Duisdale Beach, Sunrise

Torrin Beach - View of Loch Slapin and Blaven

These and more photos can also be seen over on my Flickr feed.

South Africa 2011: Kruger National Park Photo Report 4 – Landscapes

December 8, 2011 2 comments

Now, if I am totally honest, I wasn’t on the hunt for landscapes in the Kruger. For one thing, we spent every waking moment looking for wildlife. For another, you’re only allowed to get out of your car at certain points, and there’s no clambering through the bush trying to get that perfect framing of mountain, tree and sky. Taking landscapes out of the side of a car window is not ideal. And, regrettably, while Kruger is often beautiful, with wide expanses of veldt broken by a solitary tree, it is also quite often either A) flat or B) barren, and from about a half hour after sunrise to a half hour before sunset, the sun is a blazing presence, obliterating all shadow detail and washing out colours left, right and centre.

All this is a roundabout way of apologising that quite a lot of the pictures below feature, well, trees.

Kruger Lookout Point Panorama

Kruger Park - The Lonely Road

Kruger Landscape with Elephants

Kruger Park Landscape

Kruger Park Sunset

Kruger Park Sunset

Well, that’s it for the South African photos (finally, a month after arriving home). Next up are shots from New York from a short trip there last month. Then, I think, a roundup of 2011.