Monthly Archives: November 2013

On the Kumano Kodo

I am hiking on the Kumano kodo at last. It seems like a long time ago that I started planning this trip. Amazingly, everything is working. To get to the trailhead from Mt Koyo, I took a bus, a cable car, three trains, and another bus. This first night I am staying in a country guesthouse in a village named Takahara—or “high fields” in English. The inn hangs high above a valley, and maybe tomorrow morning will have fog and clouds caressing the mountains and clinging to the valleys.

Tree and Reflection © Harold Davi

Tree and Reflection © Harold Davis

It was a reasonably tough ascent to get here, over old gnarled tree roots and a rocky path that has been trod by pilgrims for literally millennia. Every once in a while a shrine or a marker reminded me of the history. The topography is steep, with erratic ups and downs, and a chill autumn wind helped make sure that I did not tarry too much. Fortunately, here in Takahara I have dinner, a warm bed, and a hot communal bath. Ah, joy indeed for the distance hiker!

Posted in Japan, Monochrome

Of Deer and Men

There are many things both old and new to be seen when wandering Nara, Japan. I particularly liked the gardens and temples. But oddest of all are the tame deer wandering everywhere. These are not like our deer, they are Cervus nippon, a long-haired species.

Isuien Garden © Harold Davis

Isuien Garden © Harold Davis

The icon-based signs warn tourists in Japanese and pictures that the deer are wild animals. They may butt, bite, and are unpredictable. This wildness is questionable—the deer are subsidized, and largely subsist on “deer cakes” purchased by visitors. I don’t doubt they are capable of taking a nip out of one, but this doesn’t inhibit anyone from trying to get a photo with their little one astride—or kissing—a deer.

Garden Wall, Nara, Japan © Harold Davis

Garden Wall, Nara, Japan © Harold Davis

I don’t get the sense that these deer are the sharpest animals in the animal toolkit. Maybe that is what millennia of partial domesticity does for you. They seem to amble around all over the place, for the most part amiably, pooping and trying to schnorr from visitors anytime they see anything they think might be edible. Trust me, deers, my camera is not food!

Posted in Japan

Coming into Nara

I took a casual inter-urban train from Kyoto to Nara. The ride was about an hour. Nara is a city with ancient roots—it was an imperial capital before Kyoto, and that means going back at least a thousand years. But like Kyoto and the other Japanese cities I’ve seen so far on this trip the outskirts and areas around the train station are all too modern, with grim high-rise blocks extending in every direction.

Nara Manhole Cover via iPhone © Harold Davis

Nara Manhole Cover (via iPhone) © Harold Davis

After passing through the train station gates, Nara Station feeds seamlessly into a multi-story department store. The ground floor cafeteria is called La Vie Francais, and serves what is called French food—definitely tasty stuff, and inexpensive enough, but not like any French food I’ve ever seen before. I had a kind of chorizo sandwich on a bun, and an orange-flavored croissant with a swirl pattern in the dough.

My travel agent said the Ryokan where I was staying was about a fifteen minute walk from the train station. Unfortunately, the directions weren’t very good—and the distance was several kilometers. Not being Lightning McQueen, I took an hour or two to get lost, ask directions, get lost again, and so on. The iPhone shot above is of a decorative manhole cover I passed on my way. The cities may be crowded but many touches are simply pretty!

Garden at the Sakuraya © Harold Davis

Garden at the Sakuraya © Harold Davis

Finding the Sakuraya Guesthouse made the schlepp from the train station worthwhile. This is an old-style 150 year old building in old Nara, a quiet and quaint area of alleys, shops, and ancient buildings. And I was welcomed with extraordinary courtesy and grace. Now on to explore Nara!

Posted in Japan, Photography

Sayonara Kyoto

It is with sadness that I leave Kyoto behind. I hope I come back soon to this mysterious city (both ancient and peculiarly modern)—so I can learn more of its secrets, and spend more time photographing its beauty.

Gion at Night © Harold Davis

Gion at Night © Harold Davis

Posted in Digital Night, Japan, Photography

Getting lost is good

Getting lost can be frightening, and at the least provokes anxiety. But getting lost can be good because it compels one in adventures and directions one would not have undertaken otherwise.

Bamboo Forest © Harold Davis

Bamboo Forest © Harold Davis

Take today. Normally, I am pretty good with maps, and have a good sense of direction. But there is something about being a functional illiterate in Japan that keeps throwing me when I try to read the maps. Either that, or the maps are intentionally confounding. But let’s face it, Kyoto has maze-like aspects in any case.

Getting back to today, it was supposed to rain. So I started out by exploring the Kyoto Nishiki food market. As Chris Rowthorn, the author of the Lonely Planet guide to Kyoto puts it, “There is something strangely enjoyable about touring a food market where over half the goods on display are utterly baffling (is it a food, a spice, or some sort of Christmas tree decoration?)”

By the time I left the covered Nishiki Market it had started to rain lightly. I walked over to the Hankyu Kyoto train line station, planning to change to the Keifuku Arashiyama Line, with a last stop near temples and the Bamboo Forest. I checked with the nice man overseeing the gate to make sure I was going the right way, he even pointed to the track for me.

As it happens, the train on the track was an express, and before I knew it we had zoomed across the Katsuragawa River, and were rushing away from central Kyoto. Since the rain had turned into a downpour I figured that being on a train wasn’t so bad, but I was definitely in the process of getting lost.

To make a longish story short, I got off at the first stop the express came to, and with the help of some nice youths wearing some kind of uniform  took a different train route up the west side of the Katsuragawa River on the local Hankyu-Arashiyama Line. The hard rain had stopped, and the landscape was fresh and moist.

I was off my map, beyond metropolitan Kyoto, and I after the last train stop I had to cross a bridge onto an island, walk up the island, and cross another bridge. Not so hard, because I was following the crowds.

Katsuragawa River © Harold Davis

Katsuragawa River © Harold Davis

Did I mention they have lots of crowds here, and lots of festivals as well? I had a great deal of fun being lost and getting found, and snacking my way from the Arashiyama street stalls.

When I got there I found that the Bamboo Forest is more path than forest, with taxis, rickshaws, couples being photographed in wedding dress and tux, and plenty of tourists and well as locals, with a loud train line running nearby. It was quite beautiful anyhow.

Posted in Japan, Photography

Wandering through gardens and temples

I spent the day wandering through and photographing some of Kyoto’s many gardens and temples with my camera. Mostly in the vast Nanzen-ji temple complex. I also walked the so-called Philosopher’s path (named after the twentieth century philosopher Kitaro), and visited Ginkaku-ji temple (sometimes called the Silver temple). One of the temple complexes I was most impressed with visually was Zenin-ji, which is a series of pavilions and pagodas built up the side of one of Kyoto’s steep mountain ravines. This is something out of a fairy tale, or maybe the Lord of the Rings.

Old Tree, Konchi-in Garden © Harold Davis

Old Tree, Konchi-in Garden © Harold Davis

I am trying to come to grips with how this society can be so sincerely religious, yet at the same time so secular. The vast majority of Japanese would describe themselves as Buddhist and Shinto. Kenzo explained to me that Shinto takes care of earthly things—children’s rites of aging, having prosperity—while Buddhism takes care of death and spiritual matters, with this blending sometimes called “syncretic.” There is a logical disconnect between the beliefs of Buddhism and Shintoism, but many people believe in both, and Shinto shrines and purification rituals coexist quite happily with Buddhist temples.

Under the Aqueduct at Nanzen-ji

Under the Aqueduct at Nanzen-ji © Harold Davis

At the same time, this is an incredibly secular society, where an amazing array of things are for sale in vending machines, and all taxi drivers wear jackets, ties and white gloves.

Shintoism is very straightforward in its ancestor worship, animism and openness at the temples about “being a business.” The logic is the same that I’ve heard in Western cults—if you want to be prosperous in your business, then you should make an offering to a faith that is also about prosperity. The animistic roots and totemic animal—the fox—of Shintoism come from early concerns with prosperity, where the fox ate the rat that ate the rice. The fox meant less rats and more rice to eat. This a faith that harks back to our early roots, and appeals to the part of each of us that identifies with the animal kingdom.

Reflections in a Japanese Garden © Harold Davis

Reflections in a Japanese Garden © Harold Davis

I find myself less reconciled to the march of admission fees to all the Buddhist temples, however. Once you get into a given famous temple, having paid one admission fee, you are all to often hit up for another (substantial) fee to see this famous Shoji screen, or that famous inner garden.

A photography student of mine whose day job was as an ecumenical lawyer once noted to me that “all religions are businesses.” I suppose it does take money to keep up the ancient structures and elegant gardens. But I wish the crass commercialism of some these temples weren’t hidden behind elegance—and I find the Shinto approach at least more straightforward.

Posted in Japan, Photography

Hidden glimpses of the beautiful

What is it about Kyoto that makes it so attractive to Japanese, and to people from around the world? Why was Kyoto Steve Jobs’s favorite place to visit in the world? The attractions of both old and new Kyoto are very real—but elusive and mysterious.

Old Kyoto © Harold Davis

Old Kyoto © Harold Davis

I think that Kyoto doesn’t give up her secrets easily. Part of the point is that there is always more here below the surface than meets the eye. It is a major religious center for two venerable faiths (Buddhism and Shintoism), a university city with a respect for education, and surprisingly sexy.

Beneath the contours of the modern Japanese city, and the mad dash of visitors from around the world with their checklists of important sites, lies a rich and strange culture that we can only catch glimpses of—a world seen in the relationship of shadow to contour, distant lights of ancient structures twinkling in the twilight, and a hidden glimpse of the beautiful.

Shadow of the Temple

Shadow of the Temple © Harold Davis

Posted in Japan, Photography

Noriko tries to poison me

Well, not really. In actual fact, Noriko took me to a wonderful, varied and seasonal dinner at a restaurant with no external signage in the Gion district of Kyoto. The kind of restaurant, and meal, that tourists can generally only dream of having in Japan.

Fugu via iPhone © Harold Davis

Fugu via iPhone © Harold Davis

I was half way through a tasty dish of some kind of baked fish with a subtle barbecue sauce when Noriko said, “Don’t worry, they are licensed here.”

I must have looked blank, because she continued, “This is Fugu!”

I must have still looked blank, because she said, “You know, Blowfish. It’s also called ‘Pufferfish.’ The poison fish.”

Licensed to what? Licensed to kill?

“There’s no danger,” Noriko continued. “The poison is near the intestines. The only people who die are those who eat the intestines anyway, because they are greedy people and the intestines taste so good. The government licenses people who serve this fish.”

At which point she translated our conversation for the immaculately clad-in-white, smiling and bowing chefs behind the counter, who thought it was hilarious. I pantomimed doubling up and keeling over from the poison, which they thought was even funnier, then allowed as I trusted them.

I told Noriko I wished I’d known about the fish before I’d eaten it so I could have photographed the dish with my iPhone. She said, “In that case, I’ll order it prepared a different way. But after you photograph it, you must eat it, you know.”

You can see in the iPhone shot above that the slices in the second dish of Fugu are so thin they are translucent.

Thank you, Noriko!

Posted in iPhone, Japan, Photography

Getting to know Kyoto

I don’t know what to make of Kyoto yet. Coming from Tokyo on the Nozomi Super Express #23 bound for Hakata, a Shinkanzen (bullet train) among Shinkanzen, it was clear that the coast of Japan is densely populated. There are no small cities in Japan.

Kyoto Canal © Harold Davis

Kyoto Canal © Harold Davis

So it should not have surprised me when the outskirts of Kyoto were fairly brutal in their urban leanings, with a train station crowded with hordes going in every direction in apparent chaos that is in fact efficiency. The decorum makes up for a bit of this, with all the uniforms so roles are apparent, and the bows to arriving and departing buses and Shinkanzen (it is a deeper bow for a Shinkanzen than for a normal train!).

All that said, when you find the old Kyoto—temples beyond count, canals, ancient alleys and streets—it more than makes up for the rest. I’m looking forward to some real exploring tomorrow!

Posted in Japan, Landscape, Photography

Coming into Tokyo

We were landing at Narita, Tokyo’s biggest airport. Waking up, I groggily pulled the shade up and looked down on an almost nighttime landscape wracked with fog. There was something familiar about the way things looked below—perhaps a bit more crowded together and a bit more orderly than the scene from above when landing at an American airport, but the same idea. Simultaneously, the landscape seemed incredibly different and foreign. Disoriented from the eleven-hour flight, I wondered what Japan had in store for me.

Imperial Palace Moat © Harold Davi

Imperial Palace Moat © Harold Davis

Taking the airport bus into Tokyo Station in a light rain, reflected lights glistened outside. I seemed to be passing through endless, grim industrial suburbs broken by occasional gaudily-lit odd sights: a neon yin-yang symbol high up in the night, the Hotel The Baron (looks like a castle), the very decorative Hotel Hibiscus (I assume a love hotel), and the very oddly named Hotel The Bale (I don’t even want to think about what goes on in here).

Healthful Smoke © Harold Davis

Healthful Smoke © Harold Davis

Wandering Tokyo is an almost unbelievable mixture of past, present and future. It is architecture made manifest, as if Dickensian ghosts of the past and future had collided in arena comprised of one part understated elegance and one part high kitsch. And always people. Lots of them live here.

At Sensoji Temple there were vast throngs of packed people, shown in the photo inhaling smoke supposed to help with health issues (see photo above).

I was drawn to a kind of huge open closet with many marked drawers. It turned out it was a way to learn your fortune. Junya warned me that this temple was supposed to have a high ratio of bad fortunes to good ones, and maybe I should go to a temple with a reputation for better fortunes. But it was too late. I had already dropped my 100 Yen into the box. There was nothing for it but to go on.There was a way to ritually hang the bad fortunes on a nearby tree to hopefully negate the effect if worst came to worst.

Fortune's Drawers © Harold Davis

Fortune’s Drawers © Harold Davis

First, I shook up a rectangular container containing things that looked like pick-up sticks. Then I pulled my pick-up stick out. It had a number, which was keyed to the numbers on the drawers. Inside the correctly numbered drawer was my fortune.

I drew No.29 Good Fortune: “Everything you worry about and trouble some affairs are almost over. If you do your best, you will be successful in this society and become well-known… Making a trip will be good.”

So, a positive omen!

Rainbow Bridge Ramp © Harold Davis

Rainbow Bridge Ramp © Harold Davis

Posted in Japan