#801. A photo trip to Japan – part 1

#801. A photo trip to Japan – part 1

Like every country with a rich culture and history, Japan offers many facets to the visitor. Unlike most countries, though, it exposes a layering of ties between past and present and the contrast between modernism and past is very striking, a fact I only barely scratched the surface of, during my first ever visit, a couple of weeks ago.

Of course, you can chose to discover the country in whichever way you prefer. During our recent stay, we rubbed shoulders with westerners who limit their visits to two words and one activity (“get wasted”), and gallon-sized plastic bottles of (really) cheap whisky are available for all to purchase in liquor store to support that vision of tourism. We met others who raided temple after temple their noses in books and eyes full of knowledgeable wonder. Others still seemed to enjoy touring famous sites on buses with stops at every popular landmark. Others shopped till they dropped. Others must have visited every museum and gallery in reach. More than anything else, humanity is an organism that thrives on diversity, and tourism highlights this fact in interesting ways.

We (my wife and I) set out on a walking holiday. We chose to walk (over 140 miles !) in between the places we had planned to visit in order to discover the little streets & alleys that lay in between and house everyday life in the country, and peel the different layers of time we met along the way.

Now, I’ve never been very good at history, neither enjoying it, nor understanding the urge of our school system to force feed me a discipline of which the various learnings are so obviously ignored day after day by the powers that be. I couldn’t care less about this king or that bishop and their lust for conquest and power, just glorified animals with the ability to speak and kill more efficiently. I loathe having to learn anything that has no relationship or impact on my life just because someone in an office decided it was important. Famous ruins leave me cold, just stones on the floor and ink in books, not even telling a story. To be honest, I was not a very good student at all, back in the days. But history was a particularly low point on my scorecard 😉 (btw, I ended up getting a pretty good PhD in Machine Learning some years later. So if your kid is a dunce, don’t worry, just help him/her find out what he’s passionate about. Pareting advice, over).

But Japan …

Japan has a deep respect for living history that is so contagious that even a duffer like me can only pick up his jaw from the floor and start listening to the stones.

I don’t care whether it’s older or less old, more or less authentic, than a roman street or a greek ruin. What’s fascinating is that it feels alive, it’s respected and it’s used daily rather than sanctuarised.

In Kyoto, 700 year old temples made of wood are visited and explored by millions of people every year, every nook and cranny exposed and pounded (fragile paintings are often protected), floorings squealing as they flex about their ancient nails. Cars drive about in little stone alleyways, swerving around the maintenance teems keeping them fresh and dapper.

When something gets battered by a rival clan, a fire or an earthquake, it is rebuilt, using the same wood and exact same techniques that were employed all those centuries ago. This gets documented and exposed, rather than hidden as a humiliating sign of youth. It’s a very different approach to preservation. Not one that would speak to everyone but one that gets my vote. If they rebuilt a roman villa, I’d visit that. Rubble on turf? Not so much 😉

In Oceania, rock paintings tens of thousands years old are constantly being added to by current dwellers of the land, updated, edited, alive. Maybe it’s a Pacific thing. A different relationship to the past.

What’s really interesting in Japan is the interplay between modern life and history. All around temples and gardens, you can find Japanese tourists being photographed in traditional clothes and drones of young women walking the cities in colourful kimono.

But in Tokyo, you will see women wearing similar garments in their everyday life, and do they look elegant in those!!! Traditional mixes with contemporary everywhere. Tiny temples nestling in between tall towers. Whole areas of tiny wooden houses dating from the 1920s and that miraculously escaped the bombings of WWII. Samurai homes that were inhabited up to 20 years and now open to all (literally open, in the street, with no guard, no entry fee, no visible supervision!!!). Geisha and Maiko invited to fusion cuisine dinners.

Not only does there seem to be great mingling between periods of history, but everyday Japanese life also seems to be a complex mix of modernism and tradition, of the archaic and the contemporary. Nowhere is this more evident than in the extraordinary rail service which will start you off in a futuristic machine and will deal with the final leg of your journey in something straight out of the history books.

Architecture appears to follow a similar logic. Instead of distroying whole swathes of their architectural past as China is doing in cities such as Shanghai, the Japanese make the old cohabit with the new. This leads to very chaotic scenery, but one that is full of soul and charm, unlike the alignments of glass buildings that only herald our fear of death.

In fact, could it be that our very different relationship to death (reincarnation vs this is the end, my dear friend) helps explain a lot of the differences between our cultures when it comes to history and historical artifacts? We make a big deal about the Elgin marbles and Pompei, for example. It seems to me that preserving them behind chain or glass is just trying to fight entropy in a puerile attempt to preserve the past from death, while killing its significance in the present. Why not let everyone explore freely, touch and why not recreate some buildings to fuel the imagination? If some parts get damaged, so what? That’s the cycle of life and death. Just get people to rebuild, nurture a living tradition, create exotic jobs, involve others rather than sanctuarise and protect at all costs?

Anyway, enough with the long intro 😉  This is just to say that what I found the most fascinating in Japan was the coexistence of time frames that we, in Europe would have segregated. And that’s probably what guided my camera the most.

But back to this series. How can I make it useful to you, the reader?

I guess I’ll just take it area by area, describe what I found the most visually interesting and give the practical hints and tips I wish I’d known before arriving. My very limited experience of the country extends to parts of Tokyo, Nagano, Kanazawa and Kyoto. So I’ll deal with those cities in turn and provide pics, facts and guidance for each.

It would really be great if those of you with more experience added info via the comments so that these pages could become a living resource. I would then update the pages accordingly.

So, let me give you a quick taste of things to come.

Tokyo

Abfab. My favourite place of the tour. My wife prefered the more tranquil Nagano and the network of lovely villages and mountains it serves as a hub to. Tokyo has the famous neon signs, the shopping, the crossings, the museums, the temples. Think of a Japanese image and you’ll find it in Tokyo. What sticks to my mind most, besides food that’s too good to be true, is the maze of little alleys in between the main arteries. Here, we found artisans carving wood in minute workshops, others working ceramics, others polishing knifes sold for the price of a small car … and a tranquility that’s distinctly at odds with the image of the stressed out salary man shoved into a packed train and returning exhausted and half drunk to a home 60 miles away. Not that that isn’t a reality. It’s a reality you can chose to see if you wish to but really won’t come across when walking through that magical city unless you deliberately chose to.

If you can only visit one city, to me, make it Tokyo (others will recommend the more relaxed Osaka or more historical Kyoto). Tokyo, like London, is one of those cities you can return to over and over again and not ever get bored of discovering new stuff every time.

Nagano

Nagano was a complete surprise. We stopped a couple of days on the way to Kanazawa, to take a stroll around Matsumoto castle and visit Obuse, the last dwelling of fantastic artist Hokusai. It turns out Nagano is really a great base for exploration of the nearby mountains, a fascinating place in its own right with, again, fantastic food, and temples – both in town and in the hills – that could keep a tog happy for days and a really nice art museum. If we had to do it again, we’d probably skip Kanazawa and spend more time in Nagano.

Kanazawa

The city has one of the most enormous castles you can think of, with some highly entertaining educative material about building techniques and a very nice modern art museum. Next to the castle grounds is a garden famous throughout the world : Kenrokuen. An hour’s bus ride away sits the little village of Shirakawa-go that has preserved 250 year old thatched roof houses that people still live in.

 

Kyoto

Hmmm, Kyoto … A polarising one, that one.

On the one side, Kyoto has, by far the most impressive temple complexes and it would take you weeks to photograph them all. They are truly beautiful and vast.

 

On the other, Kyoto has by far the most tourism, with all the negative side effects. Some parts are really disappointing. Some are enchanting.

 

To me, Kyoto is best appreciated if you’re not discovering but have researched. If you’re there with a purpose, visiting for a reason, it is unique in the world. But as a photo destination, it can be tough, with zillions of people all over the shop and opening/closing hours that do not play well with the best hours of light.

 

 

Recommendations

Without getting into the specifics of every city, here are a few general recommendations that have made our own trip a lot sweeter.

 

Get a JR Pass. Unless you plan to stay in a single area, the Japan Rail Pass offers a very easy way to travel. Just show your pass to the guard at the turnstiles and you’re through. If you use it a lot, the sense of freedom it offers is priceless. Note that many trains require previous booking, which you can easily do in the ticket vending machines in most stations. But many others don’t. About 50% of shinkansen offer non reserved coaches, which are occupied on a first come first served basis.

 

Get an unlimited data SIM card. You’ll find plenty of those at the airport. Or you can book in advance and have it sent to your hotel, if yo know your way around your phone’s settings. You can get a 3Gb card or an unlimited one. Unless you’re on a strict budget and will only use data for some messages, go for the unlimited package (about USD 60 for 15 days unlimited data). The transfer speeds in major cities is science fiction to me and the ability to use Google Maps all day long and to backup my photographs on the fly made this card an absolute no brainer.

 

Create a Google Map of the areas you want to visit: go to Mymaps, click “Create a New Map”, search for a place, add to map. Done. When on site, just clic on the icon you want to get to, click itinerary and off you go on foot or on public transport. Not once did we get lost and we got to see far more than if we’d relied on old school maps or guides.

 

Learn a few words. Basic Japanese is simple and pleasant and people really appreciate you trying. Just a few words gets a large smile on most people’s faces. Of course they (mostly, not always) speak far better English than I speak Japanese, but those “Hello”, “Please”, “Thank you”, “Have a nice day”, “Goodbye” … really are great icebreakers that also show your respect.

 

 

That’s it for now. Please, do share your feedback and knowledge of the area to make this series an engaging one for those who have yet to discover it 🙂 Thanks! Arigato gozaimasu.

 


Update

 

Readers have begun to share their photos and insights. Thank you very much.


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14 Comments

  1. Avatar
    jean pierre (pete) guaron December 19, 2018

    You did dun good – particularly your advice on “how to”. When I read questions in chat groups, suggesting that the french are extremely rude to tourists, I find myself asking “did this clown learn NOTHING before he went there? – like ‘bon jour’ and ‘merci beaucoup”‘? The other advice is good stuff too – travel agents know heaps, but unless they’ve actually been there, they won’t know that.
    Back to the theme.
    Pascal it’s always* a question of “viewpoints”. While I do understand your point of view, I have a friend who married a girl from Osaka** and others who have been going to Japan fairly regularly who adore Kyoto. Similar stuff applies to France – I daresay a majority of tourists place Paris at no. 1, but my accountant prefers Lyon and I’m split, because of my love of the south of the country.
    [* I’m skipping the people with “opinions” – I’m no longer prepared to engage, with them!]
    [** he & his wife, and his mother in law, spent Christmas Day at my apartment here, years ago – mum couldn’t speak a word of anglais, and I have no japonaise, so we had to improvise – and everyone had a WONDERUL time!]
    Et vive la différence! – if we all had the same viewpoint, there’d be nothing left to talk about. Isn’t DS all about “la différence”?
    Example – I can’t agree with your comments on preservation – without it, there’s nothing to see but what poured out of a factory in China last week, and that would be too boring altogether. But your description of history lessons reminds me vividly of being force fed “english literature” while I was trying to turn over the pages of one of my french detective stories, under the desk – and, of course, ALWAYS seating myself at the very back of the class. I was never told my ranking, but my parents seem to think no. 1 son was the brightest lamp bulb on the ceiling and that no. 2 was as thick as two short planks [Aussie gergot!] So how come the light bulb was the only one of the three of us to fail a subject at university? – and no. 2 was the only one to get an Honours Degree?
    I devoutly believe in a lot of things – in this context, I believe devoutly in the idea that each of us should do what WE want, with an utter disregard for the chatter in the background. Because it is only by “doing” that we ever see what we’ve done. And seeing it is the only real path forward, to learn how to do it better or to stop mucking around and do something else – something better! – instead.

    • Avatar
      pascaljappy December 19, 2018

      Thank you Jean Pierre. Yes DS is about “la différence” 🙂

      I’m not against perservation at all, but feel that we put too many things behind chains and glass. To the point that they become abstract and very difficult to relate to. Particularly when you’re a kid an forming your most important experiences. I think that’s probably why France has so many theoreticians and so few people who actually do things (heck, even startups are grown in specialized zoos, here).

      Believe it or not, they have kindergarden and schools in those temple districts. Kids spend their days in those. Can you imagine what that does to their love for the past? And can you imagine the sacred Louvre being handed to kids as a year-in, year-out playground? Or Versailles, or Herculanum?

      Each of us should indeed be encouraged to find what we want and then trained the excel at that. This (Japan, again) is a wonderful example : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1moRfIXCfak (48 minutes long 😉 )

      • Avatar
        jean pierre guaron December 20, 2018

        I had a friend like that, for years – he trained as an apprentice clockmaker here, at Garrard’s in London, and in Vienna, for a total of something like 8-10 years, before setting up his own clockmaking business. Master craftsmen are indeed a “dying breed” – we need more of them, to maintain heritage buildings, works of art and all sorts of things.
        And I fully agree with the idea we should be encouraged to find out what WE want, and then train for that. My father was furious when I told him I had no interest in going to University – it simply wasn’t my idea – I wanted to create, not sit at a desk – work with my hands (and preferably in the open), not be shut up indoors working with my brain. Why do so many people think you have to be stupid, to do that? Is Michelangelo supposed to be stupid? – or Monet? – or Faberge? (Not – I hasten to add – that I am suffering from any delusion about achieving what they did – LOL)
        Parents who live out their fantasies, through forcing their children, should be taken out the back and smacked!

  2. Avatar
    philberphoto December 19, 2018

    Wow! What a post! Wonderful pictures, but not only. The essence of Japan resonates throughout the post, permeates it, percolates through it. Kudos, congrats, whatever…
    But that is not the most important, as it merely concerns images, content, style and storytelling. No, what matters is THE GEAR, of course. Pascal shot these images with a camera that infuriates him, and with the least expensive lens in his bag. Yet the images are glorious. So, should we conclude that Pascal makes a big fuss over nothing? No, no, no. The answer lies elsewhere. Pascal uses a camera body from Sony. And, surprise, surprise, when he shoots in SonyLand, the pics are wonderlicious. THAT is the answer. Pascal, go back to Japan, and you will fall in love with your camera again. You profess love for the Hassy, much closer to your roots, ’tis all. Hassy Schmassy!!!

    • Avatar
      pascaljappy December 19, 2018

      I think the Sony’s falling apart, its grubby rear screen, it’s peeling faux leather, all make it feel like an antique in the land of Wabi Sabi. That’s got to be it 🙂

  3. Avatar
    Cliff Whittaker December 19, 2018

    Pascal, I have three words to say about your photography in this post: WOW!!, WOW!! and WOW!!. I don’t like the word “wow” but in this case take it as an exclamation of joy. Beautifully done to bring out the essence of people and place.
    I had the “pleasure” of being in Okinawa for 18 months. I put “pleasure” in quotes because unfortunately most of my time was spent training in the jungle on the north end of the island. I didn’t get to explore much of the culture…. other than a few bars on a couple of weekends.
    Three years later I was in Tokyo for a few months. More specifically, the military hospital at Camp Zama where I ended up while putting to practical use what I had learned on the north end of Okinawa.
    I have often wished I had had more of an opportunity to explore the culture and architecture and I regretted not having an opportunity to learn more of the language.
    I did make make a few 35mm snapshots which I have maintained in an album (unlike digital images which would have been gone by now) and which mean quite a bit to me.
    Thank you for the beautiful pictures and for the insight into making the most of traveling in Japan.

    • Avatar
      pascaljappy December 19, 2018

      Thank you so much Cliff (blush).

      What did you train in on Okinawa? I would love to visit Okinawa ! My wife and I both practise karate so we’d both like to spend some time there. But there seems to be so much else to see there.

      • Avatar
        jean pierre (pete) guaron December 20, 2018

        EEK!! – don’t tell MY wife that!

  4. Avatar
    Cliff Whittaker December 20, 2018

    Pascal, I was doing jungle warfare training for a year with an airborne unit preparing to go to Vietnam. After that I lived most of one winter in a tent at a special forces camp up on the north end of the island and did nothing but shoot every day, six days a week. Long range marksmanship training.
    It never got colder than about 40F but we were right on the ocean and the wind was a constant 10-20 mph. The tent flapped all night. It was the coldest 40F I ever felt.
    You’re right. There is much more to see in Okinawa than I experienced, although I did get to visit some galleries and some good restaurants in Kadena and Naha. And I finally developed an appreciation for rice dishes. I couldn’t stand rice when I was a kid (probably because of the way it was fixed at home). But I learned to love beef fried rice and even sukiyaki with some of the local beer. I never did gain much of an appreciation for warm sake, though. It kicked my butt before I could develop a taste for it. :))

    • Avatar
      pascaljappy December 20, 2018

      Wow, that’s impressive. Some memories, although the context obviously wasn’t good!
      Interesting, we didn’t eat much rice durong our stay, except in a few sushi. Most of the food was noodle based. I was expecting a lot more rice.

      Sake is not my favourite either. We tasted cold and warm and neither really convinced us. It must be an acquired taste. To me, there’s too much taste of alcohol and too little flavour, compared to wine, for example. But sake lovers probably think exactly the opposite 😉 I’d willingly give it another try if it mean visiting Okinawa, though 😉

  5. Avatar
    Dallas Thomas December 20, 2018

    Pascal, what can I say but congratulations on an excellent article, this one would be up there as one of the best I’ve read on Dear Susan. Your photos are so complementary, well done.

    • Avatar
      pascaljappy December 20, 2018

      Thank you very much Dallas 🙂 Japan is very inspiring!

  6. Avatar
    Steve Mallett December 22, 2018

    Pascal, wonderful piece with some truly lovely images that makes me want to go immediately! As for history, it’s become of more interest as I’ve aged; a matter of having more of my own I imagine. Having ancient stuff around and actually in use is hugely appealing to me as I’ve always loved the juxtaposition of old and new when done well.

    When at school I was completely disinterested in history and would generally figure at the bottom end of the class in exams with 11% or 17% or some such. Except for one exam where that year we’d studied Garibaldi, who for some reason enthralled me, as well as a random Austro-Hungarian war, the details of which I somehow absorbed and both of which figured as questions in the exam. When the results were read out, in reverse order, I made it past my usual position and kept on waiting for my name to come up. It got to the point where I thought I had been forgotten until finally, top score, Mallett. Boy was I smug and sat there expecting major praise from Mr Hussey. Instead he was apoplectic that I had just proved what he always suspected – that I was downright lazy. The next exam normal service resumed. Moral of the story – do what you’re interested in.

    • Avatar
      jean pierre (pete) guaron December 23, 2018

      Steve, we would have been great friends, if we’d been in the same class. I had similar problems from the age of 10 till I left university.
      Worst was when they subject us to an IQ test. Up till then, I was OK so long as I passed everything and got a few credits. After that blasted test, it didn’t seem to matter if I got 110%, my parents were still told I was bone lazy and should try harder.

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