Walking in Ueno Park

One of my favourite subjects is actually people. No, not just pretty girls (who make good subjects, too!), but also older folk whose faces tell stories, couples loving their children, artists painting and so on. Ueno Park, I have found is actually a pretty good place for this and the nearby city streets give a nice taste of new/old Tokyo, though the people are a bit less relaxed once they are back in the busy smoke of the city.

Ueno park has also been refurbished a lot, to make way for Tokyo’s 2020 Olympics bid. Of course, I have no idea whether that’ll be successful or not, but I wish the city luck.. Anything which makes the place nicer and more livable is fine in my book and if it costs money, well, that’s the way it is. It’s a fantastic and fascinating place and it would be great to give more people the excuse to discover it.

So anyway, here are some of my park life shots. I actually really enjoy watching people, especially when they are relaxed and having a good time. I’d say it’s quite therapeutic. Whilst nature offers its own glorious, beautiful and inspiring displays, closer to home fellow humans are easier to relate to and have just as much grandeur and beauty in their admittedly smaller lives. I go here pretty regularly. often with different camera and lens combinations, so expect to see more of this!

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Deep Nikko in Winter

Taking of the beauty and grandeur of nature, no place comes to mind quite like Nikko. The place offers some simply awe-inspiring views and immersion in a natural world that once covered this planet. I don’t just look at the places and events taking place there- I feel them. They make me more alive, too. Though I may have posted some of these earlier, here they are with a little more explanation of how I felt to see them. I really wish more people would learn to appreciate nature. I don’t mean just worrying about the state of the environment for people, which I consider a form of egotism (however enlightened it may be), but a concern for the planet and life on it in and of itself, valuing more than  just the human species, which are in a sense it’s custodians. I believe such thoughts are sometimes called ‘deep ecology’ and get criticised for their lofty, trans-human aims, but if you don’t aim high, your arrows are bound to fall short.

Anyway, I digress, but the point is that I don’t want these just to be pretty pictures, or to think of these places just in terms of their beauty. We should all work together to protect the Earth we live on, and a first step on this path is overcoming the cultural and linguistic barriers that have held us back from co-operating for so long. So let me take you on a little tour of Deep Nikko (‘Oku Nikko’), from the bus ride onwards, in the winter. Oku Nikko is the protected, national park area, whereas the area nearer the station is filled with cultural treasures, as well as some less dramatic natural ones. I plan on making another post about Autumn when I usually go for the gorgeous colours).

The first thing is to get the bus from the station, to or past Chuzenjiko lake. The view from the bus is magnificent and a good reason to go to Nikko in the first place. It is a steep and winding road up and over the mountains. This year, I went once by bus and once with friends by car.

View from the bus

View from the bus

Next you will find yourself at the lake itself. I would generally go straight to Kegon Falls by foot from here, or ride the bus further, as the lake itself isn’t so interesting. But in the middle of winter, the rocks near the shore were covered with amazing icicles. It was freezing cold to photograph, right by the windy lake as it was, but the sights were quite primal  Nature at it’s essence, with no filters in between. As always, it surprises me how beautifully designed everything is, even the icicles, far from being mere frozen water randomly forming, have intricate, fractal-like designs. Randomness is a human idea, not a real, existing natural phenomenon was my mantra, as I witnessed beautiful fractals emerge from the complex combination of forces.

Icicles by Chuzenjiko

Icicles by Chuzenjiko

Next, here is Kegon Falls, where the vertically-falling water makes even more intricate designs. I spent some time here by myself photographing in wonder at it all. It was like a great painting, or cathedral, or both. Of course, it also depends on how you see it. To that extent, nature is like a mirror. The waterfall itself is infamous for suicides, with one famous writer saying he wanted to escape into the infinity of the water-fields. Fortunately, guard rails and the like make this harder to do now.

Kegon Falls

Kegon Falls

Kegon viewing platform

Kegon viewing platform

Down the elevator and closer to the falls (zoomed in, though)

Down the elevator and closer to the falls (zoomed in, though)

 

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Inspiration

Kawaguchiko-1810_1_2 HDR 2 It’s not about being better than anyone, or even everyone…

It’s about being as good as you can be.

Kegon Falls Virtual Tour

Here is a short video made from footage I took when I went up to Nikko to see the frozen waterfalls and snowy landscape there recently. I was quite astounded by the natural beauty, especially of Kegon Falls (Kegon-no-taki), which seems to me like very sophisticated art, such as I can hardly comprehend. I found it so detailed and harmonious, it is hard to believe.

I hope this video relaxes and inspires you as it does me.

Street Candids in Ueno

One of my favourite types of photography is the street type. Capturing the lives of people, with brief snapshots of their lives. Each photo in this field should tell a story, preserving for posterity those fleeting moments that make up so much of the human experience. Generally, for intimacy and inconspicuousness, short, relatively wide lenses are often used for this and also small, range-finder style cameras are prefered.

Yet there is certainly a place for the candid taken from a distance. The intimacy can be just as real, with the space bridged by the lens. I took my Nikon P510 out for a stroll in Ueno. I found the range of images I could capture quite miraculous, all without scaring anyone or feeling like an intruder.

A little note here might be appropriate- I intend to turn this more into a photo-blog, or at least a blog with more photography as an art-based features.

Ancient Forests in Suwa Jinja

Living in my old place, I used to make frequent trips to the local temples Tozenji and Hondoji, both amazing places to visit and near to Kita-Kogane station. I like the sacred, quiet atmosphere in these places, which as a former religious studies student appeals to me over the hussle and bustle of the city (though interestingly enough, viewed the right way they are both sacred manifestations of life) and find myself watching my watch a lot less when faced with the questions of eternity. Also, they are great refuges for nature, in the form of collosal trees and beautiful gardens, which in a city poor in greenery is a great resource to have. Now that I live in Toyoshiki, my nearest place is Suwa Jinja.

Japan has many Suwa Jinjas, the original being located in Nagano prefecture, which makes the one I like to visit so much a kind of ‘franchise’ of sorts. Due to it’s location and tall, shady trees, it is best before sunset, when it quickly gets dark and is amazing in the early morning. Some of them are reputedly hundreds of years old, one is even said to be several thousand years of age. There are also some remarkable statues there, designed by a modern artist, which are far less ubiquitous than the ones you usually find in temples or shrines here. Sitting amongst the trees all year around, they almost seem to have a life of their own.

The general atmosphere conjures up a fantastic world, reminding me something of the universe of the Zelda games or Narnia. The quality of light there is incredible and having what remains of the ‘ancient forests’ of the title there mean it comes through the trees creating shadows and spotlight-like patches of light. In fact, it seems to me to be another real-world photo studio. Very early in the morning, with the pink light of dawn spreading slowly overhead, you can even here the rhythm of Sanskrit chanting and taiko drums, as the priests who live there prepare for and celebrate the day ahead. It all gives an atmosphere of timelessness, of a space that is neither old nor temporary, just endlessly vivid and new.

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The Best of Kyoto? (A Poll)

A Short Guide to Kyoto

Kyoto

No trip to Japan could be complete without a visit here. Yet how to make the most of what is usually only a few days, to visit a city that’s evolved over centuries of continuous and even ongoing civilisation? Having been there quite a few times, each at considerable expense, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are indeed a hard-core of ‘must see’ sights, which can fairly be called unmissable. Other experiences await, but these are, for me at least, the highlights that should not be missed.

Ryoanji

The rock garden here is at once mysterious and beautiful. Not the beauty of an ornate cathedral, but the simple beauty of what you would expect from a piece of classical zen art. Contemplate the stones and try in vain to see them all at once (it’s impossible). Then wonder… am I at once being contemplated, too?

 

Kinkakuji

Some call it ancient tack, others a rich experience, but you owe it to yourself to see for yourself. Once a countryside retreat with Chinese-style garden, it only became a zen temple after his death, hence the relatively sumptuous surroundings. To my mind, the sight of the golden pavilion reflected in a lake teeming with local wildlife is unforgettable. It will eclipse any preconception you may have of a temple being a staid place of worship, as you experience the life and dancing sunlight of the gardens surrounding it. Don’t be afraid to have your picture taken in front of it. Everyone does and are you not also both someone and ‘everyone’?

Ginkakuji

Often compared to its golden twin Kinkakuji, this ‘Silver Pavilion’ offers an arguably superior garden, with a mysterious and carefully raked dry sand garden to go with it. The cone-shaped ‘moon viewing platform’ figure is quite unique and has an otherworldly feel to it. Walking along the path will bring you to a viewing platform with some broad views of the city and you will know you’ve been to one of the most highly esteemed temples in Japan.

The Philosopher’s Path

Otherwise known as, “Tetsugaku no michi”, this is a pleasant, canal-side path you can follow from Ginkakuji to the temple Nanzenji. In springtime it is especially nice, as it is lined with the seasonal cherry blossoms, but really any time of year it is a pleasant way to travel between temples by foot, seeing or sampling the various small shops, cafes and restaurants lining it. Watch out for the delicious local flavours of ice-cream, such as sweet-potato or sesame-paste and also for a famous dog who loves along this, happy to pose with visitors.

Fushimi Inari Taisha

If you’ve ever seen photos of seemingly endless ‘tori’ red shrine gates stretching into the distance like some kind of optical illusion, you may well have been seeing images of this shrine. Though many go here for the hiking trails (both long and short, you can go as far as you like) in the surrounding countryside, it’s these gates themselves that make the place so memorable. Who knows, maybe you will feel drawn to the mysterious Inari, the Japanese rice god, who through his fox messengers is at turns both wise and mischievous. Foxes and racoon-dogs are held to be magical animals, capable of shape shifting into humans, often alluring femme fatales, in Japanese folklore. This natural, or even supernatural ambivalence makes for an enigmatic deity, one who must be placated as often as possible, to keep the good fortune flowing.

Kyomizu-Dera

You may think that the Buddhists were too austeer to ever imagine building a Cathedral-like structure. Well, think again. From the massive surrounding grounds to the elaborate, palace-like structures, this is an exercise in (relative) enormity. The views and rich feelings to be had here are quite unlike any other temple I’ve been to. Welcome to a cultural nexus of not only past, but present and probably future Japan. Even more than other temples, this would be good to visit ‘in season’, to appreciate the changing season’s effects on the surrounding nature and indeed the nearby hills’ wilder versions of the same. Yet, it is worth visiting all year around, so don’t let that stop you from enjoying it to the full. High on a hill itself, the walk up passes many small and entertaining shops selling all manner of festive wares, then once up there, the view of the city and fresh breezes will take your breath away.

Gion

If you have any image of historical Japan, it probably includes the geisha. Well, you might be surprised to hear that they are still around, if in limited numbers. This is one of the few districts in which you can see them, or their apprentice . It is also a teeming urban hub with something of the ‘shita-machi’ feel of an old capital’s downtown. Maybe you’ll see something here, maybe you won’t, but you are sure to feel the atmosphere.

Arashiyama

This is more of a place to enjoy nature alongside a canal than a home to temples or shrines, but still is worth a visit for the atmosphere alone. Away from the hustle and bustle of what has become a very modern city, here you can relax beside the flowing water and be surrounded by trees. It’s also a very popular spot with young Japanese visitors, who you can see milling around the waterways, which gives it the sense of being more a living place of celebration than a historical one.

Nara

Nara, though generally considered a companion visit to Kyoto, is in reality another ancient capital, with its own, older history. Some of the oldest remains of Japanese civilisation are to be found in Nara Prefecture, where it is situated and even here you can find a much more primal, ancient sort of place. With the charming deer park to pass through and wooded settings, it is in some ways one of the most scenic places in Japan and a good place to either feed, or watch others feed, the deer. Nara has Todaiji, one of the oldest temples in Japan and coming complete with a colossal 50 meter high pagoda. Nearby, in Todaiji, tremendously sized bronze statues dominate the room of the Daibutsuden (great Buddha hall), in the largest wooden structure in the world.  Don’t forget the extraordinary shrine of Kasuga Taisha which is worth the long walk through the deer park to get to; as with anything, if you have the time.

Ohara

If you have time, this countryside location is home to some of the most serene temples in all of Japan. When Kyoto itself became too busy, some monks got on their proverbial bikes (though more probably horses) and made their way here to set up San-zen-in, a temple whose garden is based around… wait for it… moss! Yes, here you stroll through exquisite and scenic moss, dotted with symbolic objects that make it all seem like a tremendous and even cosmic landscape. The simplicity of being surrounded by nothing but shades of green and the quiet atmosphere, which inspires another type of silence altogether, makes this one of the most authentically ‘Zen’ temples ever to be made.

Kurama

Now this is for those who have a longish time in Kyoto, or just want to make a ‘full Japan’ experience of being there, as Kurama is an onsen town, like Ohara, outside the main city. Here, high in the hills are incredible onsens and a couple of relatively minor, but still dramatically impressive temples. The surrounding scenery is also quite beautiful, though the whole trip will take you a bit out of the way of Kyoto’s more ‘mainstream’ cultural riches.

Thus ends this short guide. It is not intended to be exhaustive and many other sights exist, some of which are a bit out of the way and further from the tourist trail. One such is Kokodera, the moss temple, yet as it needs a reservation, it is something for another trip perhaps. Don’t forget also the treasures to be found in museums, some of which are located in the temples themselves.

Note- All my hyperlinks here are to the wonderful Japanguide.com website, my virtual Bible for traveling in Japan. Be sure to check here for seasonal updates, as they have information about festivals, Sakura and autumn leaves that is hard to accurately get anywhere else (in English). Best of all, it’s all in one place and all free! Many thanks to the writers there for their excellent and even essential service to us Japan travellers.

Snowy Wonderland

By a lucky and rare coincidence, it snowed on Friday night and I woke up to some stupendous views of my local shrine, Suwa Jinja. It was truly a winter wonderland, with snow slowly falling from the trees and light shining between branches. A little old lady was there too, carefully taking shots her camera sensei recommended. It was fun talking with her and I got some insight into the way the shrine had been arranged. I feel in this peaceful little place I had a taste of what the sights must be further north, luckily without needing to shovel mounds of snow all the time (sometimes it’s so deep there, they have to clear passages every two hours). Just the magical beauty of nature, something C.G. will never catch up with (I think!) The dramatic lighting, the contrast of bright, fluffy snow with deep greens and browns of the huge trees there was unforgettable.

It doesn’t snow much here, so it is always a great sight, worth making the most of. I headed out with my D300 fitted with my sadly under-used Nikon 17-55mm and I have to say, I really love this lens. As zooms go, it really captures a really beautiful image, crisp and detailed, with a nice bokeh. Usually it’s too heavy to take on a trip with me alongside other stuff, so my Tamron equivalent fills in, but for a one-lens adventure outside my door, it works just perfectly.

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In Search of Heavenly Beauty

We went to Fujimi Kogen, in Nagano Ken, to see their colourful lilies. ‘We’ in this case is the Rio camera group who I go on various trips with, being great company and giving me the chance to join them for adventures into Japan’s incredible wildernesses (or near-wildernesses). Most of the people who go on these trips are retired, I just have the time and have saved up for the camera gear! In this case, there was a 2:15AM pick-up, early by anyone but a night nurse’s standards, but designed so as to arrive there at 5:30 for sunrise. Today was a first for me, involving a photo-course led by a pro photog into how best to capture the lilies. When we got there, the sun was still rising to it’s zenith over a nearby ridge of mountains, forming, I suppose, the Japanese Alps, with a huge pale of mist around their bases.

Morning mists

Our Camera Sensei

My fellow photographers all looked very serious and well prepared. I wondered why they all wore white trousers when it was obviously going to get very hot soon, once the sun rose. Soon, I was to find out… Then we made our way to see the flowers, walking at a brisk pace. They were already looking incredible in the fairly dull early morning light, a rainbow of planted colours amidst boulders and shirakaba (silver birch trees). We set our cameras up on tripods, in two groups. Then, a first for me, he arranged them to get optimal views and we were invited to go around and look through the viewfinders to see the results. I felt a little underpowered with my DX system alongside their D3s and D700s. There was even a Pentax MF Digital on display, a rare creature I thought only existed in photographer’s imaginations.

Even so, what he was able to compose was incredible in each case. He showed us how to have some of the dark shadow in the background to give contrast to the scene, which gives it more ‘pop’. Then he composed, always including and sometimes focusing on a white flower. Why?, you might ask, with those being the least interesting of the selection? It was to give a nuance of them, emphasizing the rainbow effect of all the others. You could sense his deep love and reverence for the nature around us. I felt very lucky to be there first thing in the morning. In fact, this special course, by reservation only, takes place before the park opens to thousands of visitors at 9:00. As the sun rose, beautiful, warm rays illumined the scene, giving it all a heavenly feeling.

Warm light

Mountain Mists

A great touch of nature’s artistic side was a cloud of mist, or low-lying cloud, that suddenly drifted into the scene, giving it more depth and mystery, almost as if it was following his command when he announced it. After taking some more views of the scene, including one I uploaded straight from my iPhone, I switched to my 90mm to take some macros of the flowers. Looking down at my legs, I found the reason for the long trousers. The seemingly beautiful insects hovering around the flowers had decided breakfast was served and I was to be it! Afterwards I took a nap and then went up the chair life to see the views from the top. Down again for lunch- fresh cold soba and tempura, including some deep-fried lily bulbs that taste nice than they sound. The lilies weren’t  all ready here, but I could zoom in on some and get a great effect, especially with the gorgeous surroundings.

Lily Macro

Chair Lift

Weighing Peaches

Next up was a peach farm, where we got a beautiful selection for around 80 yen each. It was cute to see two kids weighing them for their parents. Then, an onsen. It was refreshing, vivifying clear water, slightly sticky from the minerals in the area. We could supposedly see Mt. Fuji from the rotemburo (outside bath), but it was too cloudy, so I include this image for reference! Finally, more noodles for dinner in the form of an old favorite of mine- hot to, famous for the area. Simple and full of mountain vegetables, with the heaviest thing being pieces of pumpkin. Delicious and very filling. Luckily, Nagano was so cool that day that eating hot food didn’t feel too out of place.

Hot Bowl of Hotto

Straight, No Chaser.

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