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.

Rabbits, rabbits everywhere!

Okunoshima is a small island located in the Seto Inland Sea within Hiroshima prefecture. This place is a little off the beaten path but thanks to the Internet and social media, Okunoshima is slowly making a name for itself. Chances are you’ve seen some video or article about it on Facebook. If not, welcome to Japan’s very own rabbit island.

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Yep, an island populated by rabbits. Just the sound of it had me going “D‘aww…“.  The rabbits are wild – they don’t like to be handled or petted but they will approach humans and tolerate some amount of petting for food.

IS7A6261The weather was beautiful that day. There were not many people around so it was quiet and peaceful. I can probably sit around all day photographing the rabbits go about their business.

IS7A6286Now let’s get to the twist of the story. Despite the cute and cuddly front, Okunoshima has a dark history. This island was used to manufacture and store chemical weapons during the war. In fact, one theory suggests that the rabbits were originally used for testing chemical weapons and were released after the war was over. Another theory is that the rabbits were released on the island by schoolchildren on a field trip.

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The ruins of war time buildings can still be found on Okunoshima. This building was the power plant that used to supply the island’s energy demands. Today, only the outer shell of the building remains. It has been left in a state of disrepair so naturally people are not allowed inside for safety reasons.

IS7A6347Elsewhere on the island, there is also a hotel (where you can buy rabbit food) and a museum on poison gas weapons. Unfortunately, the museum was closed when I visited – it was the end of the year holidays. Oh well, more time for the rabbits.

IS7A6272Finally, there is an observation platform with some great views of the Seto Inland Sea. Getting to the platform requires one to negotiate a rather steep uphill climb though. But you can always take breaks along the way to feed some rabbits. Yes, rabbits are everywhere on this island.

IS7A6488Here’s the view from the observation platform. The transmission tower seems a bit out of place in the photo but I thought it provided an interesting subject contrast (man-made vs nature).

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I had a pleasant day at Okunoshima. It was the perfect combination of two things that I like – history and kawaii (that rhymes!). I highly recommend making a day trip to the island if you are in Hiroshima. This would be a great place to bring the kids I reckon.

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Getting to the island is a little tricky as you need to time your trains correctly followed by a short ferry ride. I was stuck at the station for 1 hour waiting for the next train. D’oh! For directions to Okunoshima, I referred to this article from ZoomingJapan.com.

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