Road trip: An onsen tour of Northern Tōhoku

We just got back from a trip to Japan where we spent 10 days on a road trip along the fabulous onsen in the north of Japan. It is probably a good thing that most tourists have split Japan into a just a handful of areas where you are supposed to go for certain activities, and ignore better locations elsewhere: For example, most tourists are convinced that for a temple stay you go to Koyasan, for the countryside you visit Takayama and for an onsen you visit Hakone or Yufuin. If things were only this simple… 🙂
Although I would like to see more people get more out of their trip to Japan, frankly I’m also glad that they spend their time between Shinjuku and Kyōto and don’t bother taking a shinkansen north. I guess I’m selfish that way

We rented a car to get to these places. After a certain number of visits to Japan, you realise that a JR Japan Rail Pass, a great bargain, only gets you to a limited number of locations and at that time you book a rental car and explore the areas only served by the occasional train or bus service and beyond and start to enjoy a lot more of Japan.

These are the places in Iwate, Aomori and Akita that we visited and we stayed at most of these ryokan. Very recommended!

  • Fujisan ryokan (鉛温泉 藤三旅館) in Hanamaki.
  • Maruhon ryokan (まるほん旅館) in Shimofuro
  • Kuwahata onsen (桑畑温泉 湯ん湯ん) in Ikokuma
  • Yachi Onsen (谷地温泉) in Hōryō, Towada-shi
  • Tsuta Onsen (蔦温泉) in Towada-shi
  • Sukayu Onsen (酸ヶ湯温泉)
  • Iiduka Ryokan (飯塚旅館) in Kuroishi-shi
  • Kojima Ryokan (嶽温泉 小島旅館) in Dake onsen
  • Koganezakifurofushi Hot Spring (黄金崎不老ふ死温泉) in Fukaura-machi
  • Or Oga Sakurajima Resort HOTEL Kirara (男鹿桜島リゾートHOTELきららか) in Oga-shi

Look forward to more detailed descriptions of all of these in a few weeks. I do have to point out that onsen in northern Japan are hot! Scaldingly hot! That’s how the locals like it. 🙂

Circular walks in Luxembourg

One of the things we like to do in our weekends is to walk one of the many circular walks that the Luxembourg tourist organisation has laid out around Luxembourg. Just a matter of following the blue arrows to get to the most beautiful areas of Luxembourg and safely back to your car.

It has happened to us once or twice that logging had cut down trees with the blue markers causing us a bit of a head-ache. 🙂 Recently we load our smart phone’s offline map with the GPX file from the trail from Waymarked Trails and that solved all problems.

Large format shooting checklist

My Large Format photography checklist for my Cambo SC 4×5 Monorail camera.

Loading:

  • Insert all dark slides with ‘silver’ side showing into the film holders.
  • Load film, the side with the notches goes to the upper right.
  • Make sure the dark slides are pushed back all the way.

Shooting:

  • Set up tripod, one leg towards the subject.
  • Put camera on the tripod, point it roughly to the subject.
  • Use spirit level to make sure that the camera is level and that the film plane is vertical (if desired).
  • Attach dark cloth to the camera, open the lens and focus using the loupe.
  • Move the tripod connector on the monorail if it’s not possible to focus correctly.
  • Use tilts and swings to fine-tune the focus desired and composition.
  • Close the lens.
  • Measure light and decided on exposure.
  • Take reciprocity into account.
  • Set aperture and exposure on the lens.
  • Insert film holder using the lever, release the lever again.
    (This lever may be specific to my Cambo camera)
  • Make sure the camera hasn’t moved on the tripod.
  • Pull out the dark slide.
  • Expose the negative.
  • Put back dark slide with the black side showing to indicate that this side has been exposed.

Developing:

  • The Mod54 holds 6 sheets max.
  • Align the notches of the film sheets to the top left.
  • Make sure the centre column of the tank is aligned correctly so the agitator can be used.

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:

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