Torii gates of Fushimi Inari

A torii (鳥居, literally bird abode, Japanese pronunciation: [to.ɾi.i])  is a traditional Japanese gate most commonly found at the entrance of or within a Shinto shrine, where it symbolically marks the transition from the profane to sacred – Wikipedia

I took a walk through the torii gates leading up to the Fushimi Inari shrine.

It was a long walk, on a hot and humid day,  with crowds and crowds of people.

I did not make it past the profane.

Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto, Japan. August 2017

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When a Kimono is not a Kimono

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Red Kimono in Kyoto

When is a kimono not a kimono? In summer, when it’s called a Yukata.  Actually, a yukata is a lighter, more casual version of the kimono, typically made with unlined cotton fabric.  Kimonos are far more formal, have more layers of clothing and are traditionally made with heavy, lined silk.

Where in Japan is the best place  to do street photography of people in kimonos?   In Kyoto and Osaka … but it probably won’t be Japanese in those kimonos.

Dressing-up in a kimono for day is a popular tourist activity. For about 3,000 yen you can be fully  outfitted in a kimono of choice complete with make-up, hair styling and wooden shoes. For an additional fee you can even ‘rent’ a photographer the day.  In Kyoto I saw many young ladies in kimono/yukatas walking about.  I admired their vigor, especially  on the hot (36F degrees) days of August when I was melting in my shorts & t-shirt.

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Yukatas at Sumiyoshi temple in Osaka

The ladies in kimonos offered good context for my holiday pictures.  Harder to find were interesting street shots.

My ‘Red Kimono’ picture was taken in Kyoto’s Shirakawa-minami Dori district. I like it because of the initial focus on the brilliant red pattern on the furi sleeve, then the elaborate obi tie in the back and finally, the girl’s incongruous blue french nails.

Kyoto & Osaka, Japan. August 2017

Tokyo Noir

Hidden away from the glittery lights of Shinjuku is a warren of  bars and pubs called Golden Gai.  Like Omoide Yokocho the bars are tiny, eclectic and cater to only  a handful of customers.  Walking through the narrow alleys, it feels like old noir Tokyo – dark, moody, a little seedy and very mysterious.

Here are a few peeks into doorways and staircases …

… and always intriguing are the glimpses of people hidden in bars.

Tokyo, Japan. July 2017

2016 Review

It’s still January right? I can still reflect on last year and highlight my Best of 2016?

Actually, this started out as a  post about my Best of 2016 until I realized I was choosing photos for which I hadn’t yet published a story.

Why not? Sometimes it was because the story wasn’t big enough and the photo was all there was of the telling.  Other times, it was because the story was too big and I wasn’t up for the telling.

In any event, here are some of my favorite photos of 2016 and the stories that were never published.

 Omoide Yokocho in Tokyo

Omoide

Omoide Yokocho or “Piss Alley” is a small, iconic bar district in Tokyo.

It’s not the most friendly place. In fact, one of the bars on the outskirts has an explicit “No Tourists” sign (written in English for those pesky foreigners).

However, further inside the boundaries where the yakatori stalls are cheek to jowl with the izakaya bars, the hosts are friendlier and the atmosphere more welcoming.

I was waiting on my kushiyaki plate and fiddling with my camera, when I noticed this gentleman across the alley. A quick nod was all I needed to take this shot.

Tokyo, Japan.  January 2016

MAG marker in Laos

MAG maker in rice field

In Laos I learned some new words.

MAG. UXOs and Bombies.

Mines Advisory Group.  Un-eXploded Ordnance. Little bombs.

During the Vietnam war  there more than 580,000 bombing missions over Laos. That’s equivalent to one bombing every  eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years. Thirty percent of these bombs did not explode. They remained dormant but live and were (are) hidden dangers to civilians years after the war had ended.

Walking through Laos we learned very quickly to stay on MAG cleared paths. Random rambling could be deadly.  UXOs are still being found today.

These little blocks indicate MAG cleared  safe zones.  They seem so innocuous.  Faded rocks on well trodden foot paths. Stepping stones on quiet streams. Gentle  reminders that bucolic rice fields were once war zones.

Plain of Jars, Laos.  February 2016

Border Guards at the DMZ South Korea

North & South at the DMZ
North & South at the DMZ/JSA

Our coldest and wettest day in South Korea was spent at the DMZ/JSA.   It was appropriate weather for visiting a site that was bleak, dark and overwhelmingly desolate.

The tale of border patrol between North and South Korea is sad.

On the North side of the Joint Security Area (JSA), there’s a heavily armed soldier aggressively watching the border for South Korean attacks and North Korean defections.

Behind him, a heavily armed soldier aims a gun at his head, aggressively watching him for his possible defection.

On the South side of the JSA, the ROK guards maintain a constant intimidation stance. They watch the North and South side of the border.

Across an expanse of about 500 meters, the South Korean guard stares down the North Korean guard.

It’s a stare down that’s been on going since 1953.

 Panmunjon, South Korea. May 2016

Hometown Burger & Fries

Queen St Diner

After a photo crawl through Toronto’s Graffiti Alley we took a break in a nearby Queen St diner.

It had been a perfect summer day.

Warm but not hot.

Fresh Canadian air and brilliant sunshine.

Vivid street murals which had popped with vibrancy and life.

It was a visual respite to hide out in a cool and dark diner.

And the burger & fries were excellent!

Toronto, Canada.  July 2016

Hong Kong Red

Hong Kong Red

The first time I visited Hong Kong was after a  year of living in Beijing.

After the rough and tumble turmoil of China, I remember wanting to drop to my knees and Thank God  for my return to urban sanity, order and control.

Since then much has changed.   I’ve lived in and visited better and worse cities. But I will always have soft spot for Hong Kong.

For me, this photo captures the city’s essence.  The mural’s wild graphics and kooky clown portray Hong Kong’s frenetic energy and character. The blur of the pedestrian adds the feeling of motion, a constant in this city that never sleeps.

Hong Kong.  November 2016

Shinjuku Monuments

I am not a fan of architectural photographs.

Intellectually, I know that skyscrapers are marvels of engineering, science and technology.  But as photographic subject matter?  Eh.  I find them cold and uninspiring.   Steel towers of glass and concrete cast shadows that look the same whether in Tokyo, Toronto and New York. This is particularly true on week-ends when the buildings are empty  and the streets are silent.

I went to Shinjuku’s skyscraper district on our last day in Tokyo.  It was a wet and wintry Saturday, so the streets were mostly empty and although there were people around, they were in the station and underground walkways.

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Underground pedestrian walkways

Above ground, taking photos of the buildings, I tried to inject life and depth into the scene. In one case, it involved framing the shot and waiting for someone to walk by.  In another, it was capturing skeletal trees and reflections.  However, I found the photos disappointing.  They looked exactly like it felt. Chilly. Cold. Sterile. I probably would have trashed them all, if  I hadn’t taken an accidental walk through some tombstones.

We’d seen a neighborhood cemetary from an overhead viewing deck.  Tucked in between buildings and hidden from the road, it was unidentified on maps but obviously old.   The burial plots were covered with moss and worn smooth with age.  The wooden sotobas, neat and straight, offered a warm visual contrast to the dark stone.   Together they were monuments to life, death and human endurance.   I framed the scene  with the skyscrapers in the background, the glass towers providing a distant echo of their homage.   This  picture redeemed the day for me.

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Monuments

Nishi-Shinjuku, Tokyo.  January 2016

Tokyo Conveniences – Part 2

A post on Tokyo conveniences would not be complete without a blurb on toilets.

The first time I visited Japan in 2009,  I was startled by the toilets.  Almost as much as I was by the Beijing toilets, but in a totally different way. Whereas the Chinese squat toilets forced me to get reacquainted with the basics, Japanese toilets scared me with their advanced electronics.

Japanese toilets are decked out with heated seats, water sprays, air dryers and music. The heated seats are kind of nice, especially in winter and after you get over the first-time shock.  The water sprays are  mysterious – they’re automatic sprays to wash your netheregions. How they work I’m not sure – I’ve never been brave enough to look and risk a facial.   The air dryers are practical, in theory.  The music is just wierd.  Apparently some Japanese like their privacy so much, they play music to distract eavesdroppers.   So make that two notches on the weird scale: toilet music and eavesdroppers.

My Japanese has not improved much over the years and my experience with new and improved toilets was interesting.   Normally the buttons are labeled with instructions and graphics.  Rarely are they written in English. In my recent visit, I was bewildered by additional new buttons.  My problem was I couldn’t tell which was to flush.  On the up side: one of the buttons was a speaker phone to get help.

Toto is the leading maker of Japanese toilets.  They have a Tokyo showroom which we’d attempted to visit but didn’t because they’d changed addresses and we were hopelessly lost.  I wish now that we had tried harder.

Photo credit to Digital Trends web article
Toilet Bike Neo

Apparently they have  a poo-powered motor bike on display.  Despite its design, the Toilet Bike Neo is not actually powered by human waste.  The three-wheeled 250cc motorcycle runs on a biogas fuel, which is fertilized, purified and compressed from livestock waste and household wastewater. Toto revealed the bike in a 2012 media release (see DigitalTrends article here) but didn’t share its general production plans.

I didn’t see any on the streets of Tokyo.

Tokyo, January 2016

 

Tokyo Conveniences – Part I

 

FamilyMart – also called Famima

Thank goodness for neighborhood convenience stores.  At home in Toronto, corner stores like Mac’s Milk & 7Eleven are few and sparse.   In the olden days (before my car, mortgage and super sized refridgerators)  I used to make regular runs to Mac’s for milk and midnight snacks.  Milk, snacks and lottery tickets seemed to have been their main purvey.  However, with the advent of 24 hour mega drug stores selling groceries, pharmaceuticals and stamps and gas stations providing petrol, coffee and doughnuts, it’s no wonder that these convenience stores are slowly disappearing.

Not so in Asia.

In Singapore,  Cheers and 7Elevens are found in every train station. They sell everything from sandwiches, mobile cards and parking coupons.  In the rainy season Cheers is my main supplier of umbrellas.

In Tokyo they take it up a notch by selling railway tickets, bento boxes and emergency supplies of chapstick, socks and neck ties.  Yup. Neck ties. I guess it’s a common enough occurrence for Japanese salarymen to need replacement neck ties.  Maybe after an all-night bender at the local izakayas or all-you-can-drink nomihodais.

Personally, I relied on Tokyo’s FamilyMart for my daily lunch selection.

My favorite was freshly fried chicken for the nifty price of  180 Yen ($1.80 USD) a piece.    Aside from being cheap and tasty, it came with typical Japanese style packaging.

 

 

 

Shinjuku Walk amongst the Tombstones

Shinjuku CemetaryThe west side of Shinjuku is dominated by towering skyscrapers and wide avenues typical of New York city rather than compact Tokyo. It was a cold wet day and we were seeking out the indoor wonders of Japan. Specifically we were on a pilgrimage to the 26th floor of the Shinjuku L Tower which our guidebook said, housed the high-tech showroom of Toto’s latest and greatest in electronic toilets.

An underground maze of walkways connected the train station to the office towers.  After wondering around and we finally found the L Tower, only to discover that Toto had moved its showroom to another building.

No matter.

The view from the 26th floor was spectacular.  A panoramic view of Tokyo stretching far and wide.  From this vantage point we saw a interesting site. Unmentioned in the guidebook (and later, undiscovered in  Google searches), it looked like an ancient cemetery nestled amonsgt the ultra modern skyscrapers.   We decided to venture forth and explore.

The cemetery was a quiet haven, tucked behind the tall buildings, roads and flying overpasses.  The family plots were laid out in a rough grid of neighborhoods connected by crooked stone walkways.   A typical Japanese grave (haka) consists of a monument with a place for flowers, incense and water in front, and a chamber or crypt underneath for the cremated remains.  Beside or behind the tombstones are tall wooden stakes (sotobas) inscribed with the  post-humous names of the dead. The names are appointed after death to prevent spirits from being accidentally summoned when their life names are called. The stakes are provided shortly after death and in later years, during memorial services.

The family plots  seemed very old.  It was hard to tell from the inscriptions but the really old stones were worn down with age and moss. They were easily over a  hundred years old. It felt like they’d been around for a long time. Like they’d quietly watched the old Tokyo fade, change and re-build around them.

Tokyo, January 2016

Shinjuku Eye

Shinjuku Station (新宿駅 Shinjuku-eki) is a major railway station in the Shinjuku and Shibuya wards of Tokyo, Japan. It is the main connecting hub for four of the inter-city rail, commuter rail and metro lines.  More than 3.67 million people pass through it every day, making it the busiest transportaion hub in the world (according to the Guinness World Records.)

We were on our way to Nishi-Shinjuku to see the famous Toto showroom in the L Tower and the Pentax Forum in the Mitsui buildings.  We’d wandered around the labyrinth of underground walkways, craning our necks to peer at the over head signs for direction.   So much so that we almost missed the iconic Shinjuku Eye scuplture at the west exit.   Actually we did miss it on our first pass through and only by accident on our return trip, did  I see it.

The glass sculpture was created by Yoshiko Miyashita in 1969. Made of organically curved  glass, revolving lights give it a vivid and mesmerizing quality.  Capturing the light and reflection against the river of people walking by proved to be challenging photo shoot.  Luckily (and it was pure luck) I happened to get one good shot.

Shinjuku station, Tokyo, January 2016