From the outside, looking in through the window

Introduction

I contribute regularly to the different forums dedicated to travel to Japan, like the Japan Guide which has been around forever. Regularly you come across questions from people who have travelled to Japan before, visited the typical locations like Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima, Miyajima, Takayama, Kanazawa, etc. and are struggling to take their upcoming trip to Japan to the next level and are scouting for suggestions.

I noticed that Japanese tourists in their own country and Japanese locals do a lot of activities, interesting things, that do not immediately occur to non-Japanese tourists and they hesitate to join in. Often there is no reason for not doing the same other than being unfamiliar with it. Bringing your trip to Japan to the next level means that you should really try to experience Japan as a Japanese tourist, in my opinion, therefore not staying on the outside of Japan and just looking in through the window, but instead enter and become Japanese.

Off the beaten tourist track

Assuming that you have visited Kyoto, Nara, etc. during previous visits, the first thing I would like to recommend to repeat visitors to Japan is not to automatically turn west from Tokyo and stay between Tokyo and Hiroshima but maybe explore Tohoku, Hokkaido, Shikoku or Kyushu, or cross Japan and travel along the Sea of Japan coast. Seek out the countryside and get out of the big cities for a while and do not automatically make it Takayama, so many more towns to choose from!

Onsen

A visit to an onsen seems to be on everybody’s wishlist which really makes me happy, I love visiting onsen especially the rural ones in Tohoku. See here for some blog posts of remarkable onsen that I visited. A great way to enjoy an onsen is to stay at a ryokan but this is definitely not the only way to get a good soak. In onsen towns like Naruko Onsen, for example, you can buy a “Spring Tour” ticket that allows you to visit different onsen in the town. In the more isolated areas of Japan you can often find onsen that are not more than a shed with a box to put the fee in and the best water imaginable. These are the onsen I now prefer.
Often the foreign tourists seek out onsen with private baths to avoid getting nude in front of strangers. Ryokans do sometimes offer this option but frankly I would recommend to do as the Japanese do and just enjoy the soak, nobody is looking and you’ll have all the onsen to pick from, not just a few.

Food

Japanese tourists will travel far to sample some special cuisine. If you have watched Japanese TV, you must have seen the many programmes about food and visits to little towns and exploring the local specialities there. By now you know that Japanese food is much more than sushi, make sure that you know the local specialities of the areas that you visit and dig up the best restaurants. A great way to sample the local food is to stay at a ryokan.
Surprisingly, it seems that breakfast at a ryokan sometimes is a problem for tourists being used to something sweet or light at that time of the day. Breakfast at a ryokan is often made up of fish, miso, pickles and rice and everybody eats the same unless there is a breakfast buffet; I can wholeheartedly recommend trying the Japanese breakfast.

If you’re in a bind finding a restaurant in a town you know little about, a safe option is an izakaya style restaurant where you can try your pick from an extensive menu.

Temples

All the tourists visit Buddhist temples and enjoy the architecture and the temple grounds, I’m sure, but at the bigger Buddhist temples it is common for people to join in with the morning ceremonies and only few tourists do this. We did this at Zenkō-ji in Nagano; it really is quite the experience. You do have to get up early but this is where jet-lag can really help you out. 🙂
If you’re flying home via Narita and decide to stay at the town of Narita for your last night in Japan (recommended!) you will stop at the big temple complex of Narita-san, no doubt. At Narita-san, every hour there is a Goma fire ritual held that lots of Japanese people join. You can enter too, you’ll be surprised how few of us tourists do but it is so worth it.
Opportunities like this you can find almost everywhere in Japan, stop by the local tourist information and ask about it.

Temple stays

Temple stays or shukubo, as they are called in Japanese, are growing in popularity with the foreign tourists. There seems to be a misconception and a lot of people think that shukubo are limited to Mt. Koya, but that is not true, many Buddhist temples in Japan offer this option and the best shukubo I did was at Taiyoji Temple near Chichibu near Tokyo.
At a good temple stay you eat the vegetarian food (shojin ryori), copy sutra, do zazen meditation and join in with the evening and morning ceremonies, chanting the sutra, etc.. Some people mentioned that they had done a temple stay but had declined to join in with any of the activities, that is just silly to me.

Pilgrimages

Buddhist pilgrimages are probably not the first thing you think of to do as a tourist but the interest is certainly growing. The most famous pilgrimage in Japan is the Shikoku Pilgrimage of 88 temples which is 1,200 kilometres (750 mi) long and can take anywhere from 30 to 60 days to complete on foot. A shorter, more manageable pilgrimage for a tourist is the Chichibu Pilgrimage in and around the town of Chichibu close to Tokyo. This pilgrimage is about 100 kilometres long and can be walked or done by public transport in a few days. There are many other pilgrimages around Japan, you probably already visited some of the temples of the Tokyo 33-Kannon Pilgrimage without you being aware.

Festivals

Festivals (or matsuri as they are called in Japan) are fun and diverse; if you have a chance, book your visit to an town or an area around a festival.

New Year

The New Year holiday, like Obon in August, is maybe not the best period to visit Japan as transportation is packed beyond capacity and almost everything is closed on New Year’s Day, but it gives you the chance to do hatsumode on New Year’s Day or shortly thereafter like virtually all Japanese people do. Hatsumode is the first shrine or temple visit of the New Year, you typically buy good luck charms and drink sweet sake. It also includes queuing up for an hour or so to get to the front of the shrine to say your prayers, but that is all part of the fun. I’ve now spent New Year in Japan twice and each time doing hatsumode was a unique experience and I wouldn’t have wanted to miss it for the world.

What else?

Above are just my suggestions to make more of a trip to Japan. Let me know your ideas in the comments.

Reciprocity for Android

Updated!

I wrote an Android App last year that I felt I needed myself when I was out and about in the field photographing long exposures. I’m happy that it has now more than 2000 active installs and I have taken all comments into account and released an updated version.
As you are well aware of, most films do need correction of the exposure time for reciprocity failure to avoid underexposing your negatives for exposure times of over a few seconds. This really gets important for night photography, when using filters and for Large Format or pinhole photography. All information is contained in the App so no data connection is needed when you’re on a photo shoot abroad, on top of a mountain or in the deep countryside without any connectivity.
I do not miss the folder with printed and weather-beaten PDFs with tables of exposure correction information for the different films that I had to rely on before. 🙂

The Reciprocity App has the following features:

  • Easy to use and usable on Android devices of most sizes.
  • Lots of B&W, colour and slide film included in the App, and this list is growing with every update.
  • Include filter factors in the exposure time calculation.
  • Include bellows extension in the exposure time calculation.
  • Built-in timer to use the calculated exposure.

See the screenshots below.

Ease of use:

Growing number of films supported:

Details about the calculation:

Built-in timer:

Reciprocity formula

In addition to the film manufacturer supplied reciprocity information, I used the findings of Howard Bond from his article in the Photo Technique magazine which had been formulated into an easy formula by Patrick Gainer.

It is a simple App, but packed with the reciprocity details of most black and white films currently being sold and a growing number of colour and slide films. Works fine on new and old Android phones as well as on Android tablets.
It’s free, make sure to grab it!

Coltrane “LIVE” at the Village Vanguard

The story of finding my first album on the Impulse! label which had such a big impact on my life. I now own loads of other albums on the Impulse! label 🙂

At high school age in the late 70s, friends of mine got into Jazz Rock and listened to the CTI albums by Deodato and Hubert Laws, etc.. I liked the saxophone and got more into the albums of Grover Washington Jr.; Live at The Bijou was my favourite for a long time. However, after a while I felt I could handle music with a bit more substance and started reading a few books on Jazz and the New Thing. Of course, the records of John Coltrane were recommended by everybody. None of my friends had anything by Coltrane and my normal records store had nothing either, so I had no chance to listen and understand what it was all about.
One day I happened to step into the records store we normally ignored as it virtually had nothing of interest, certainly no Jazz, except, it had a small crate with some Jazz records and among those records I found Impulse! A10 Coltrane “LIVE” at the Village Vanguard. You could see that the records in that crate had survived multiple sales and discounts.
I bought the record and, at home in my room, I put it on my turntable.

 

The record only contains 3 songs:

  • Spiritual
  • Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise
  • Chasin’ the Trane

The opening notes of Spiritual immediately sold me, it felt like coming home. The bass clarinet of Eric Dolphy intertwined with the soprano saxophone of Coltrane; and that drumming by Elvin Jones! It was out of this world to me.
The most influential and intensive song without a doubt is Chasin’ the Trane and I can understand that this must have been maybe too intensive at the time.

Yuyado Daiichi Onsen

We didn’t stay at Yuyado Daiichi Onsen but drove by and stopped for a soak, most onsen allow day spa access for a few hours a day for a modest price. It is a great way to enjoy the famous onsen although some of these places have great rooms and cuisine that you don’t get to enjoy. At Yuyado Daiichi Onsen we paid ¥600 which was a very fair price considering the many baths.

Fireplace

There were so many rotenburo to enjoy; we were lucky to have arrived early as it did take time to explore all the baths. As I was the only one in the baths for some time, I shot the following video:

The great AirBnb we had in Tokyo

We found this great AirBnb in Tokyo (Higashimurayama-shi) with good access to Shinjuku, Ikebukuro and Kawagoe by train! The place was a whole traditional Japanese house with tatami areas, a cosy kotatsu table, large kitchen, bath, a garden and two bedrooms upstairs. And only at a 5 minutes walk from Seibu-en train station. We had used AirBnb around Tokyo before but never found such a nice, spacious place.
Recommended!

Located at less than 5 minutes from the house, Lake Tama has a great sunset view of Mount Fuji. In the other direction is a forest for a great hike with a nice link to the My Neighbor Totoro film by Hayao Miyazaki.
And did I mention that it is next to Seibu-en amusement park? 🙂

Sunset over Mt Fuji

Look at these beautiful doors of the futon storage in the bedroom, amazing!

Pretty doors

Wakoto Onsen

Close to Kotan Onsen and also on Lake Kussharo is Wakoto Onsen which is located on that tiny peninsula that is so recognizable for Lake Kussaro. This rotenburo is a bit more secluded and even though it was just as cold when we visited Kotan Onsen, the windchill was a lot less and we didn’t feel like we were freezing.

The view was excellent but the water was a bit dirty with clumps of algae that floated around and occasionally stuck to our bodies. All in all, it was a great experience and both Wakoto and Kotan rotenburo are recommended!

Kotan Onsen

Along Lake Kussharo in the tiny town of Kotan, the locals have created a rotenburo (outdoor hotspring) bordering the lake. We visted this December with a temperature of -5 C in a gale that must have had a windchill factor of -20, or so.

Disregarding the outside temperature, I got into the bath and enjoyed a nice soak as the water had a great temperature. However, getting back into my clothes was freezing cold but I wouln’t liked to have missed this experience for the world!

Access to the rotenburo is free of charge.

Koshikawa Onsen

The other day we visited Koshikawa Onsen, a tiny, old building along the 244 leading to the south-east out of Shari, Hokkaido. It is an unmanned onsen and you pay the 200 yen fee by putting the coins in a box. It seems the be mainly frequented by locals and travellers who have heard of the place. The building looks a bit run-down but the bath is nice and the water is hot.

Koshikawa Onsen

I do treasure these tiny onsen as anybody can go to the big baths of Yufuin or Hakone, but in my romantic view this is much closer to the way onsen were used in the past before it was all about the souvenirs or the drinks. There are still the leftovers of a much older Japan out there for those who bother to look.

A 100-temple Kannon pilgrimage

The 33 temples of the Bandō Sanjūsankasho (“The Bando 33 Kannon Pilgrimage”) form together with the 33 temples of the Saigoku pilgrimage and the 34 temples of the Chichibu Kannon temple pilgrimage, a 100-temple Kannon pilgrimage.
Now free Android apps for all three of these pilgrimages are available from the Android store.

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Of the three pilgrimages, at a mere length of 100 km, the Chichibu 34 Kannon pilgrimage is best suited for the tourist who can only dedicate a limited amount of time and would like to walk the pilgrimage. And as Chichibu is, undeservedly, still largely undiscovered by the majority of the tourists, you have a chance to enjoy a lovely area of Japan that is less than an hour from Tokyo by train.
See also here.

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