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.
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!
Aoi-ike or Blue pond is a relatively new tourist attraction around Biei, Hokkaido; very beautiful with dead trees in a blue pond. Of course the pond wasn’t blue frozen over, so the choice for black & white film was no issue.
The scenery was lit up at night making it a magnet for photographers who, probably because they wanted to catch snowflakes in the foreground, couldn’t stop using their flashes resulting in images of walls of white in the heavy snowfall with no trees visible. I guess you need to know what you’re doing to get the effect right and probably using your flash in automatic mode wasn’t the correct way as it was pretty much pitch dark even with the lights so the flashes were bright like nuclear explosions. (A “feature” of a DSLR on a tripod is that everybody standing behind you gets to see the result on the tiny screen and I checked out the results of quite a few of my fellow photographers — it didn’t look like any of them had any “keepers.”) 🙂
Anyway, a lot of my long exposures were ruined by the flashes and I tried to out-wait them for an hour or so, but in the end I gave up and returned at another night which turned out to be exactly the same. In the end I returned during the day time as the pond was just a couple of kilometers from our hotel at Shirogane Onsen on the way to Biei.
Ameyoko Street market in Ueno just next to the Ueno JR station (Shinobazu Exit) is always a good idea to visit when in Tokyo, but just before New Year it is very crowded when fish and other food things required for the New Year celebrations are sold there cheaply and lots of people want to profit. A perfect chance for a spot of street photography! Everybody was very accommodating, I guess I wasn’t the first one to put a camera in their faces.
The market is a constant drone of “sen en, sen en (1000 yen, 1000 yen)” with which the vendors promote their wares and I suppose it doesn’t really matter that we bought a same-sized chunk of the same fatty tuna for 500 yen a week later. 🙂 And it was crowded, so very crowded. The police was present in drones and had even constructed a platform to keep an eye on the crowds from above. Surprisingly people had led children and even carried babies into the crowds.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 🙂
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. 🙂
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.
This will be a challenge as the best part of the Chichibu pilgrimage was the countryside and its friendly people whereas the Tokyoites are using a social Botox and dealing with the crowded streets and public transport by pretending they are alone. A lot of this pilgrimage will be done by public transport instead of walking which will be another big difference that I’m not particularly keen on.
For reference I bought the Kindle edition of The Tokyo 33-Kannon Pilgrimage: A guide to ancient Edo’s sacred path book by Marcus Powles which contains a wealth of information. Unfortunately the small hand drawn maps in the Kindle edition are almost indecipherable on my 3rd generation Kindle so I collected the locations of the 33+3 temples of the book in a Google map to be used in addition to the book.
Every October 24, on top of Mt Komagatake in Hakone, the Goshinkasai Motomiya Reisai festival takes place. It is an important festival for the Hakone shrine and it consists of lighting a fire of which burning coals will be distributed to all related shrines in the area. This year, the top of Mt Komagatake was covered in clouds which gave a special feel to this matsuri. In the photo to the right, two Shinto priests are using a bow drill to light a fire while two others are trying to keep them out of the strong winds. Once the torch was lit, the Guuji (head priest) of the shrine brought it to the pyre and light it. The ceremony continued with a miko dance and offerings of sasaki branches and prayers. By this time the pyre was ablaze and the priests circled the fire clockwise and anti-clockwise after which some coals were collected in a special box and brought to the nearby shrine. The ceremony had taken place in some ancient ruins of what once had been a much larger shrine. Once this part of the ceremony was finished, we walked over to the tiny Hakone Shrine Motomiya (“original shrine”) and got in for the second part of the ceremony. The shrine was packed but I was happy to stand in the back and bowed when everybody else bowed and clapped my hands twice when everybody else clapped their hands twice. Before the start of the ceremony outside, we each had made a donation to the shrine for which we had received tickets in return. Once the ceremony inside the shrine was finished, this ticket gave us a naorai, a thank-you gift from the shrine with an Ofuda, a nice bentō, some sake and katsuobushi shavings.
Access to Mt Komagatake
Access to the top of Mt Komagatake is via the Komagatake rope-way which is not covered by the Hakone Freepass, but the freepass gives you a small discount on the price of a round trip ticket. Inexplicably, there is no bus connection from Hakone or Motohakone to the Komagatake rope-way station which probably explains the few non-Japanese at the matsuri. Although the rope-way is only a little over three quarters of an hour walk from Motohakone, about 2km lead over a treacherous and dangerous road with many curves and no space to walk on either side. It is probably best to take a taxi to the rope-way station.
The Guuji offers a branch of a sasaki shrub to the kami. The altar already contains many other gifts of fruits, fish and sake.
The pyre ablaze
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