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.

When does it become easier?

It has been almost 7 years since I left home.

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And yet I can never get used to leaving. Every departure is accompanied by a mixture of melancholy and nostalgia. A longing to return home, to simpler times.

Tomorrow I return to Japan after spending some time at home and I am once again filled with the same emotions that come with every departure.

I guess it’s true what they say. There really is no place like home.

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.

The Shrine Island

During my younger days, my impression of Japan was simple –  Japan is where anime and the best video gaming consoles came from (sorry Xbox fans). But there was also one image which I could not forget – a torii gate “floating” in calm waters with the sun setting behind it. That was (at least to my younger self) the most iconic image of Japan.

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Years later I will learn that the gate I saw is the torii gate of Itsukushima Shrine (which by the way, is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site) located on Miyajima Island. A perfect side trip during my stay in Hiroshima.

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So there I was seeing the gate in the flesh. Part of me felt like I was meeting a childhood hero. During high tide, the gate will be in water giving the illusion that it is “floating” in the water.

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At low tide, the gate sits on the wet, somewhat muddy ground. It’s not the most glamorous sight but I really enjoyed photographing how different people interact up close with the gate.

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I call this one “walk with me”.

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Finally, the mandatory sunset shot. Yep, it’s touristy but I’m a sucker for sunsets. Unfortunately, weather conditions were not ideal so this was the best that I could get.

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Anyway, Miyajima isn’t just all about Itsukushima Shrine and its torii gate. You can take the ropeway up Mt. Misen for some spectacular views of the Seto Inland Sea.

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Informative signboard is informative.

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There are also deer everywhere on the island. They are considered sacred as they are messengers of the gods in Shinto. The deer on Miyajima seem more interested in harassing tourists for food though…

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And that’s a wrap for Miyajima! Really glad that I had the chance to visit during my time in Japan.

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