Summer is for Dancing

Summer in Japan can be hot and humid and the very idea of dancing in the streets on a warm summer night may sound a little crazy to some but it’s a tradition deeply rooted in Japanese culture. Awa Odori (literally Awa dance) originating from Tokushima Prefecture of Shikoku (that’s one of the four main islands of Japan) is a popular dance style in summer.

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According to the Wikipedia page, the Awa Dance Festival in Shikoku attracts over 1.3 million tourists each year. Now that’s a lot of people! Legend has it that this style of dancing was born during a feudal lord’s celebration of the completion of his castle. The townspeople having consumed a generous amount of sake began to dance and play musical instruments in their drunken state.

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Tokyo also has it’s own rendition of the Awa Odori Dance Festival (albeit at a much smaller scale) throughout the months of summer. I went to two of them at Kagaruzaka and Shimokitazawa, both lively neighborhoods in Tokyo.

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Probably the most eye catching part of the dance is the costume, in particular the hat worn by the ladies. It’s straw woven hat and is known as amigasa in Japanese. As for the history and design of the amigasa, well I couldn’t find anything much on Google. If you know, leave  me a comment below :)

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I noticed that in all Japanese customs or festivals, there are always people of all age groups participating. Like this elderly gentleman. He’s definitely got the moves like Jagger.

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And then there are the children. The children who are always greeted by exclamations of “kawaii!!!” by every Japanese women in the audience. They are kinda cute… especially the ones who look like they have no clue what they’re doing.

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More importantly, I think it’s a great practice to ensure the continuity of Japanese culture. Some of them may be a little too young to understand what’s going on but I think it’s important to inculcate such values from childhood. The fact that these festivals continue to be held in the middle of a modern and bustling metropolis like Tokyo is a testament to this practice.

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As I was doing my research for this post, I read that there’s going to be a big Awa Dance Festival in Paris in 2015. Apparently hundreds of dancers from Japan will be flown over to perform. I think that speaks volumes on the popularity of the Awa dance style that Japan deems it fit as an “import” product.

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If you’re ever in Tokyo during the summer months, this is a dance festival I highly recommend. Better yet, make a trip to Tokushima, to the place where it all started and witness the biggest dance festival in Japan.

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Summer is for Matsuri

Many Shinto shrines hold their annual festival or matsuri over the summer months. Open air stalls selling food, toys and carnival games are setup in the shrine grounds to entertain the crowd. It’s a lively affair reminiscent of the pasar malam (night market) culture in Malaysia.

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One of the must-sees is the procession of people carrying the mikoshi around the neighborhood which worships in the shrine. A mikoshi (palanquin) is a portable shrine, sort of like a vehicle that transports the local deity as it travels around.

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Groups of people take turns to shoulder the mikoshi. As they travel they sway and move the mikoshi from side to side (believed to “amuse” the deity) accompanied by chants and music.

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I attended the Hanazono Shrine Matsuri (which actually was held in late spring but there are plenty of other matsuri in summer) and followed the mikoshi procession around Shinjuku.

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There was one part of the course where the procession goes under an overhead bridge. I thought taking shots from directly above the mikoshi would make for an interesting and different angle. So I ran ahead of the procession and this is one of those shots.

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I like the contextual contrast of people performing age old traditions in the backdrop of modern Tokyo with it’s sleek buildings and colorful signboards.

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Yep, the sun is setting. It was a day long affair. I’m sure there were plenty of sore shoulders there but they soldiered on.

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Finally, we made our way back to the shrine. It was extremely crowded and I had no chance of even getting near the front. I seem to have many photos of people’s backs in this post.

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After a closing speech and shouts of otsukaresama deshita (good job!), the participants immediately got down to dismantling some parts of the mikoshi. I assume it’s to prepare it for safekeeping until it’s services are required again the following year.

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Summer is for Fireworks

Summer is the season of fireworks in Japan. There’s bound to be a fireworks show going on somewhere in Tokyo (or the neighboring areas) on the weekends of July and August. I like photographing fireworks but I’m not a big fan of crowds… and these fireworks crowds do get pretty intense.

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On August 5, we had the 29th Kanagawa Shimbun Fireworks Festival in Yokohama. Fortunately for me, the launch site was just down the road from my office building. I took my camera to work and setup my gear right in a meeting room just before the show started. Naturally it raised a few eyebrows… especially among my more hardworking comrades.

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The shot below is my personal favorite of the night. It came towards the end of the 1 hour show as I got the hang of timing the camera shutter in bulb mode.

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I waited a good 30 mins before leaving my office building and yet the subway station was still crowded. There’s a sense of order in the chaos, as volunteers direct people to enter and exit the stations in an efficient manner. But nope, still not a fan of the crowds.

The Shogun’s Resting Place

Nikko is another popular escape for the city folks. Located north of Tokyo (2 hours by train), Nikko is famous for its historical sites and natural scenery (especially during autumn season).

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Among all of Nikko’s historical sites, the most famous is none other than Toshogu Shrine, final resting place of one of the most powerful shogun in Japanese history, Tokugawa Ieyasu. To house a man of such stature, Toshogu Shrine is indeed unlike any other shrine in Japan with buildings which are decorated with intricate and detailed carvings. It is indeed fit for a king.

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The Yomeimon Gate is probably the most famous structure within the shrine complex… UNFORTUNATELY it is currently under renovation and covered by scaffolding (apparently  until 2019). So, I didn’t even bother to take a photo. But here’s a Google image search link for your viewing pleasure.

During my visit, I noticed two carvings which attracted a great number of tourists lining up to take selfies photographs.

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The first one is the carving of the Three Wise Monkeys. “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” You’ve probably seen it somewhere before, in a book or poster. If you’ve ever wondered where the concept came from, well this is the place.

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And then there is the carving of a sleeping cat, the Nemuri-neko. It is said that the sculptor spent 8 months studying and perfecting his sculpting to make the Nemuri-neko as realistic as possible. I think he did a darn good job. Wouldn’t you agree?

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Passing the Nemuri-neko and climbing up a long flight of stairs will lead you to the tomb of Tokugawa Ieyasu. The area around the tomb feels quite different from the rest of the shrine complex. It’s not as heavily decorated and more minimalist in nature.

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And that’s a wrap for Toshogu Shrine. It’s a shame that the Yomeimon Gate is undergoing renovation but I think the rest of the shrine is still worth a visit.

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Hakone – Come for the views, stay for the onsen!

If you ever need a break from the hustle and bustle of city life in Tokyo or Yokohama, Hakone is the place to go. Famous for its natural beauty and hot spring (onsen) inns, Hakone is about an hour’s journey by train. Perfect for a day trip or weekend getaway.

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For my itinerary, I got the Hakone Free Pass and followed the popular Hakone Round Course (details in the Japan Guide website) stopping at the places that seem interesting.

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Owakudani was an interesting stop – an active volcanic area with so much sulfurous fumes going around I felt like I was back in my school chemistry lab. That is not fog or steam in the photo. It’s the fumes I speak of.

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I stayed the night in a hot spring inn by Lake Ashinoko. It was a rainy and gloomy weekend with temperatures cold enough that I had the misty breath effect. So it was just pure, pure bliss when I got into the inn’s hot spring for a dip.

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The next morning, I took some time walking along the lake. The weather was was still dark and gloomy. There was thick fog clouding the mountains which really created a mythical and surreal kinda atmosphere. The downside is Mt. Fuji gets hidden as well under all that fog.

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Amid the blur and fogginess, I spotted this man in his boat doing some fishing. It was the perfect recipe for a moody photograph.

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At noon, I took a boat across the lake. Actually they look more like pirate ships. I’m surprised popular manga/anime franchise One Piece has not tried to cash in on this (or have they?).

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My last stop was Hakone Shrine. A beautiful shrine surrounded by lush forestry facing Lake Ashi. It would have been a peaceful place if not for the throngs of tourists.

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Overall, I think Hakone is a tad touristy but a great destination to escape from the concrete jungles of Tokyo. Though if you’re looking for views of Mt. Fuji, I’d prefer going to Lake Kawaguchi instead.

Started 2014 with a bang! (literally)

On the first day of 2014, I visited the town of Iwakuni (about 45 mins by train from Hiroshima). Iwakuni’s claim to fame is the Kintai Bridge.

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I arrived to hear loud “booms” ringing through the air. On approaching the Nishiki River, I saw a row of people dressed in period armor firing antique matchlock rifles. Apparently it’s an annual new year event in Iwakuni to kick start the new year.

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After the event, everyone had a chance to take a closer look at the rifles. This man was explaining the firing mechanism of the rifle to curious observers.

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As for us shutterbugs, we continued doing what we love most – taking more photographs. This young lady was kind enough to pose for us.

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After the event, the “army” marched across the river on the Kintai Bridge. You can see Iwakuni Castle up on the hill in the background. I included it in the composition to give it a victory march sort of vibe.

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Now that there are no more distractions, I finally had the chance to take a closer look at the Kintai Bridge. Supposedly constructed entirely by wood without the use of any nails, it’s a pretty damn impressive feat of engineering.

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There’s a 300 yen fee to cross the bridge. However, if you’re not willing to pay there’s a normal bridge about 10 mins walk down the river.

Finally, here’s a shot of the bridge at sunset. I stacked a pile of rocks to use as a makeshift tripod to get this shot.

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And this concludes my week long adventure in Hiroshima during the 2013 year end holidays. Now to get started on my 2014 backlog of photos to edit…

Fighting fire with fire

I coincided my visit to Miyajima with the fire prevention festival (known as Chinkasai) held annually on 31 December. As night fell, tourists and locals gathered along the narrow street facing the famous torii gate awaiting the festival to start.

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It’s a bit difficult to explain what actually happens. Basically, groups of men carry a gigantic torch on their shoulders and parade around the relatively small area while chanting “yoi yoi”.

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There’s also a smaller version for the kids. Cute eh?

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Smaller torches are then offered to everyone to be lit from the fire of the big torches. The fire is blessed and traditionally people bring the fire home to be used for cooking the new year meal. Today, people take the extinguished torch home instead as a fire protection charm for the new year ahead.

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Everyone gathering around a small bonfire for warmth and to light their torches. It was a chilly winter night as I remembered.

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While it’s a spectacular and fascinating event to attend, I must admit it’s rather dangerous (they do have emergency personnel on standby). In the photo below, the men perform “stunts” by spinning the giant torch. Naturally, everyone got out of the way swiftly.

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It was a really intense and interesting festival though it got me thinking… creating a huge fire hazard in order to prevent future fires is rather ironic, no?

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Considering that my current line of work is in fire safety I’m hoping that I got my fair share of fire prevention blessing for 2014. Seven months on, it’s so far so good for me. Heh.

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