Category Archives: Travel

Narita and Naritasan

With departures to Europe leaving Narita airport late morning or early afternoon, this means that a last night in Tokyo always results in getting up very early to catch the first Narita Express trains to be in time at the airport to make the flight. Of course it is not unthinkable in Tokyo that an earthquake or a typhoon knocks out the train traffic for a few hours, so that is why we typically stay the last night in Japan in Narita town rather than Tokyo and lately this has become the last two nights as Narita with Naritasan in its centre is actually a very nice place to visit!
Of course this is not a new idea and loads of tourists are doing this, profiting from the relatively cheap hotels and the convenience of a free shuttle bus to the airport that most, if not all, Narita hotels provide.

Narita town is as nice as any Japanese town but with some very good restaurants, especially the unagi restaurants are famous. At the heart of Narita town lies the big temple complex of Naritasan which makes a visit to Narita worthwhile from a touristic point of view too.

Naritsan pamflet
Naritsan pamphlet

Naritsan pamphlet

One thing the pamphlet only hints at is the unique chance Naritasan offers to join the devotees and visitors in the Goma ritual. Normally if you want to join in at a Buddhist temple in the morning ceremony, you need to get up pretty early. I would still recommend that you do this to give extra substance to your visit to Japan, but the great thing with the Goma ritual is that it is held every hour from early morning to late afternoon. I see so many tourists watch the ritual from beyond the glass wall, but it is just a matter of taking your shoes off, putting them in a plastic bag and sitting down inside to be part of it. When they hit that enormous taiko drum, you’ll jump like everybody else!
And when the ceremony is done, make sure to hand your wallet or camera or anything you would like to be blessed to the monks who will hold it in the smoke of the ritual for a second.

It is so easy to come back from a trip to Japan and have only stood at the window glimpsing in. Like a visit to an onsen, joining in at a temple ceremony should be high up on your lists of things to do for a successful trip to Japan. It is not difficult to join in and I can assure you that it gives a great feeling of satisfaction. Typically there are no thresholds other than our own hesitation and insecurity and I haven’t seen the tourist guide yet that explains any of this, they’re always just going on about who build this and when, but leave out so much practical information. We had a great experience at Zenkō-ji temple in Nagano and lots of other places but with so many foreign tourists and visitors at these places, I’m always the only foreigner joining in, and I’m telling you, you guys are missing out! 😀

nomaku sanmanda bazaradan senda makaroshada sowataya un tarata kanman Homage to the all-pervading Vajras! O Violent One of great wrath! Destroy! un tarata kan man
nomaku sanmanda bazaradan senda makaroshada sowataya un tarata kanman
Homage to the all-pervading Vajras! O Violent One of great wrath! Destroy! un tarata kan man

Make sure to pick up one of the business card sized note that contains the mantra to the Fudo Myo-o deity that is chanted during the Goma ritual, see above for the text in Roman characters and translation.

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The Family of Man

Over a week ago we visited Clervaux Castle to see the Edward Steichen collection of The Family of Man, 503 photos by 273 photographers from 68 countries consisting of 37 themes. Steichen brought the collection together for the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) first in 1955 and it has travelled the world and been exposed in over 150 museums before the final integral version was installed in Clervaux Castle in the North of Luxembourg.
Photos by artists such as Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dorothea Lange, Robert Doisneau, W. Eugene Smith, Diane Arbus, Robert Frank and Ansel Adams and many more. I loved it! The day we visited it was relatively quiet and photography is allowed as long as you don’t use a flash. Duh!

The last photo in the collection is A Walk To The Paradise Garden by W. Eugene Smith, to close on an optimistic note, I guess. I’m a big fan of the photos of W. Eugene Smith, if you do not know his work make sure to check him out today, but although this photo is well executed it also contains little truth to me and the photos of W. Eugene Smith are usually bursting with truth. I’m sure most people would disagree, but I would not have ended the Family of Man exhibition with this photo…

Shot on Kodak TRI-X film at EI 800, developed in HC-110 dilution B for 11 minutes, agitation: 2 inversions every 30 seconds
Shot on Kodak TRI-X film at EI 800, developed in HC-110 dilution B for 11 minutes, agitation: 2 inversions every 30 seconds
Shot on Kodak TRI-X film at EI 800, developed in HC-110 dilution B for 11 minutes, agitation: 2 inversions every 30 seconds
Shot on Kodak TRI-X film at EI 800, developed in HC-110 dilution B for 11 minutes, agitation: 2 inversions every 30 seconds
Shot on Kodak TRI-X film at EI 800, developed in HC-110 dilution B for 11 minutes, agitation: 2 inversions every 30 seconds
Shot on Kodak TRI-X film at EI 800, developed in HC-110 dilution B for 11 minutes, agitation: 2 inversions every 30 seconds
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Japan Trip Winter 2015 / 2016

A video compilation I made of the videos that my wife and I recorded during our trip to Japan last December/January. We need to get a camera with shake-reduction, but somehow the shakiest parts are the most fun to watch 🙂

We had some great time and I’m glad that we spent a lot of our time in new areas for us like Nagano and Hokkaido, those areas were so rewarding! I’m getting pretty bored with the touristy areas of Tokyo like Shibuya, Ginza or Shinjuku and the crowds at Ikebukuro were overwhelming, but Ueno, the busiest area by far, always stays fresh for me as you can tell from the video. 🙂

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Michael Kenna & the copse

If you are a fan of the work of Michael Kenna, like I am, you recognize the scene in the photo below from his photo books or from the very inspiring video that he put up on his website. If you haven’t watched it yet, take a few minutes and watch it now and you’ll love it. This photo is taken around Biei in Hokkaido and this is an amazing area, especially in the snow, and a very popular area for photographers these days.

Fuji Neopan Acros 100 at EI 100, developed in HC-110 dilution E for 7 minutes. Agitation: 2 inversions every 30 seconds.
Fuji Neopan Acros 100 at EI 100, developed in HC-110 dilution E for 7 minutes. Agitation: 2 inversions every 30 seconds.

For me the most remarkable thing in the video is that Michael and his assistant enter the field and plough through the snow to find the right spot to take the photo. When I visited in January, the fields at several of the famous locations around Biei were roped off and large signs in Japanese, Chinese and English every 20 meters indicated that it was forbidden to enter the fields, including the area around this copse. But as you can see in my photo, people do enter the field nevertheless; damaging the seedlings, spoiling the shots with their tracks for us who decide the follow the rules and triggering investigations by the forestry ministry. We ran into a car of the ministry and a guy was taking eyewitness reports about the people who had entered the field that morning.
I’m not saying that Michael Kenna behaved incorrectly, it is clear from the video that the field was not roped off and no signs were visible at the time. But I’m saying that if it is roped off and if signs are indicating that it would hurt crops to enter the field, people should follow the rules. You might have your shots, but what if the farmer is fed up with the constant damage and decides to level the copse and end this great location for everybody forever? You probably don’t care about that, as I said, you have your shots… 🙁
Normally I never hesitate to shoot first and ask questions later, but the reason for the ban was explained and I would hate to leave tracks that would impact all the other photographers that would come after me as is obvious from my photo. Thanks for nothing!

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Hokkaido in winter

Hokkaido in winter is a photographers’ paradise, and it is packed with photographers. We’re in Biei and we see cars and taxis coming and going around the famous trees in the area and we keep meeting the same people at the different locations. It is all understandable, the scenery vaguely reminds me of Luxembourg and the gentle slopes are very different from the steep mountains that make up most of Japan. The snow transforms all and a row of trees or a small copse becomes an object of beauty.

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However, as everybody appears to be taking the same pictures, it is time to use the fact that we’re here for a few days and explore. I wanted to make my way to the coast as well, but the weather is frankly horrendous over there and I’m not really temped to end up getting stuck in a snow drift or caught out on a road with black ice even though the Nissan we rented is a 4WD. Best to see if we can find some areas around Biei that are not packed with too many photographers.

Additional: We found some great locations on the way to Furano, very nice!

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Copying sutra at Taiyo-ji temple

As part of a temple stay (shukubo) at Taiyo-ji temple, you get the chance to copy sutra. No calligraphy experience or knowledge of kanji is required (I know, I’m really bad at calligraphy and being left-handed doesn’t help either as all the stroke directions of a kanji are defined by right-handed people — I push the brush where they would pull it and v.v.) 🙂 The habit of hand copying sutra is considered a merit and is a devotional practice.
The monk speaks English and Taiyo-ji temple is very accommodating for tourists from everywhere wanting to get the shukubo experience.

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Zazen at Taiyo-ji temple

We visited Taiyo-ji temple in Chichibu for our second temple stay (shukubo) there a few days ago and my wife took this video of me doing zazen in the very beautiful zazen hall of the temple. The unique experience of this remote, mountain top temple makes me feel one with nature and at peace.
The monk speaks English and Taiyo-ji temple is very accommodating for tourists from everywhere wanting to get the shukubo experience.

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Daiba Park, Tokyo

For a unique view of the Tokyo skyline and the Rainbow Bridge, make your way to Daiba Koen, preferably after dark for some great night photography. And if you visit on a Saturday, wait for the fireworks at 7PM. The location as pointed out on the map below is pretty popular, as you can imagine, and I met several other photographers, we’re a great and friendly bunch no matter where we’re from. 🙂

Fujichrome Provia 100F
The Rainbow Bridge on Fujichrome Provia 100F
Easy access from central Tokyo via the JR Saikyo/Rinkai Line in the direction of Shin-Kiba, alight at the JR Tokyo Teleport station.

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Seni Onsen Iwanoyu

If you know us, you know that we like to visit onsen on our trips to Japan. Our favourite onsen resorts include Naruko Onsen, Nyuutou Onsen and of course Hanamaki. We’re clearly more into the rustic and smaller onsen of Northern Honshu than the larger pools in the south.

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And this year we can add Seni Onsen to this list. Iwanoyu at Seni Onsen is keeping a bit of a low profile on the Internet without an own home page but regardless of that, it is doing very well as you need to make reservations months in advance, often long before you are able to buy a ticket for your trip.  Robert Neff, in his book Japan’s Hidden Hot Springs has it listed as the best onsen in Japan. We booked late and only the best rooms were available so we decided to splurge and enjoy the full luxury that this ryokan has to offer which was a lot!

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Normally, at a ryokan you have a tatami room in which at night the futons are spread to sleep in. This time we had several rooms “en suite” and a private garden. The dinner was a long series of delicious courses often made of local produce, breakfast was pretty good too.

Dinner menu from the day we visited, delicious!
Dinner menu from the day we visited, delicious!

But the most impressive thing were the baths. The main bath is a cave dug into the rock that meanders left and right and you have to climb up for waterfalls to get to the depths of it. It has a bit of an Indiana Jones feeling to it. At the same entrance there are several other baths including an outside bath. These are the baths that you share with the other guests. Some are gender separated but the cave bath is mixed and you had to wear special shorts and a cover for modesty. Furthermore there are several private baths with an inside bath with jacuzzi and an outside bath. When you get in, you lock the door so you and your family can enjoy the bath in private.

The service, everything was immaculate and we’re already planning our next visit in two years time 🙂

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Zenkō-ji, Nagano

Before going to Seni Onsen Iwanoyu, we had a stay in a ryokan close to Zenkō-ji temple in Nagano.

That's me, walking towards the main building of Zenko-ji

During our visit of Zenkō-ji, we bought tickets to the inner sanctum (read the Wikipedia article about the treasures) and made our way to the tunnel in search of the Key to the Western Paradise of the Amida Buddha. The tunnel is pitch dark, as dark as a darkroom. What you do is to keep your right hand onto the cold wall and grope for the key. Of course, as it is busy, people keep bumping into each other so it is quite funny. For some reason my wife assumed that the ceiling would get low and crouched down. I’m standing about 40cm taller than her and the idea hadn’t occurred to me so we would had made quite the hilarious sight making our way through the tunnel together if only somebody had been able to see in there.

The next morning we went to the morning ceremony but as we got there early, we got to talk to one of the people working at the temple and as we still had time, he explained a lot and showed us around and showed us some other sights inside the other temple buildings. Then he led us to the building from which the 80 years old priest who would conduct the ceremony would come. This was very lucky as only local people were gathering here and it became clear that these people met up every morning: some were walking the dog, others were on their way to work. The priest emerged and everybody, including me, knelt down to receive a blessing from him which was a touch on the back of the head. We then made our way to the main temple again and where the ceremony was about to start. Very recommended!
After the ceremony was over, everybody made their way through the tunnel again and as it was even busier than the day before, it was even more fun. 🙂

Some thoughts:

  • No other non-Japanese tourists that I noticed went to the morning ceremony, why not? It really is a great opportunity to see the temple in action, it is not just an old building with some statues.
  • If you do decide to visit the morning ceremony, hold on to the ticket you bought to the inner sanctum, it will give you access to the tatami area the next morning.
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