Japan in June, day 10

I woke at 7am, had a coffee and recharged my phone and camera batteries before beginning to pack for the long trip back to the UK.

The sky outside my window was lead grey and for the first time since I arrived the air hung heavy with anticipated rain.

As I packed I mentally worked through my “to do list” for the trip and with the exceptions of: see Mount Fuji (partially achieved) and photograph Japanese fish and chips (on today’s list) I think I’ve achieved everything I set out to do.

One meeting sadly had to be cancelled but the list item I most expected to fall through (shoot fireflies at night) worked out.

In ten days I’ve walked 220km, all while carrying a 10kg back pack in 25-28 degree heat.

It’s been exhausting but I’ve really enjoyed it.

I’ve visited 7 cities in 10 days, 4 of which I’d never been to before, and of the three return cities I’ve visited parts I’d never been to before in two of them; I’ve shot around 2000 images; visited 6 galleries and seen 9 separate exhibitions; tried new food and drink; used new forms of transport but also took time to revisit some old favourite locations and restaurants.

I’ve created images for 3 separate on going collections and exhibitions while beginning work on an entirely new project.

All in its been a very enjoyable, exhausting but rewarding trip and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to make it.

The plans for today were simple: Check out of the hotel, place my suitcase in storage near to the train station (for easy departure later this evening) then try to relax, finish shopping, eat and generally try to squeeze the last drops out of what has been a very successful trip.

I’ll update as time (and wifi connection) allows during the day!

Update 1: (via McDonalds Shinsaibashi)

11.30 am.

Most of my gift shopping has been done, probably going to have issues getting some of the items home due to fragility/size but I’m sure I’m well under the 25kg weight limit.

Stopped off for a tea, and some internet access, before taking a final street photo wander around shinsaibashi and dotonburi.

My plan remains to visit The Hub later for fish and chips (and more free wifi!) Before picking up my case and heading out towards the airport.

Update 2: Youamza: 2.30pm

After McDonalds earlier I visited Shinsaibashi and moved on to Amerikamura and chilled in the sun for a while before finishing my gift shopping and trekking all the way to Den Den town for some import music only to find nothing I wanted.

I tried to get to The Hub only to find its closed until 4pm today so the chances of the fish and chips photography just decreased dramatically as I’d been planning on leaving Osaka before 5pm to increase the chance of actually getting a seat on the train out to the airport!

Instead I returned to a lovely little bar that Hayley and I discovered last time we were both here and relaxed with a beer (and some free wifi for the update!)

Possibly my only selfie of the trip – taken at Amerikamura earlier this afternoon as I did a spot of people watching in what is probably one of the best areas in Osaka to just chill and watch the world go by. It’s a great location where Japanese punks mix freely with j-pop fans, the glamorous beautiful people, the fashion conscious, rock and roll types and the homeless.

Anything goes and that’s why I like it!

Today we even had a Japanese biker sporting a leather jacket, arms full of tattoos and a rather fetching WW2 Nazi Swastika attached to his leg! As I said, anything goes!

So, after a beer and a blog update, it’s back to the train station to retrieve my bag, attempt to pack my new shopping into the case without breaking anything before heading for the airport line for Kansai International Airport and the long trip back to Scotland.

I’ve got a very busy few days ahead but hopefully I can begin to edit and share some of the images from the trip on social media over the weekend.

I hope you’ve enjoyed hearing about the trip! At the moment I don’t have any fixed plans to return, but with lots still to do I think it’s safe to say I’ll be looking to return to Japan sooner rather than later! You can also keep up to date with the various business ventures on my website and Facebook pages! (Also if you haven’t already – please go follow my Instagram page as many of the new pics will appear there first!)


Japan in June, day 9

Hiroshima Mon Amour!

After three attempts so far, today was my last chance to finally visit Hiroshima on this trip as my Shinkansen pass expires at midnight tonight, so, despite just 5hrs sleep I was up again at 6am, bag packed, coffee consumed then off on my way to Daikokucho for the underground trip to Shin-Osaka.

At Shin-Osaka the first thing I did was dropped into the ticket office to reserve a seat (lesson learned from Tokyo!)

I was in luck; the next train to Hiroshima was to leave in 25 minutes and there was one unreserved seat left on the train so I booked that and set off to the platform to find my boarding point and buy some snacks.

My seating partner left the train at Okayama so from that point to Hiroshima I had an empty seat beside me and I dozed off for an hour or so before we pulled into Hiroshima station and I stepped off at what is now officially the furthest west in Japan I’ve ever been.

My first impressions of Hiroshima was that it seemed a very nice, quiet, city – clearly with a huge “elephant in the room” issue hanging over it. Even at the shinkansen station it was obvious that few, if any, tourists were here for anything other than the atom bomb history and the iconic Bomb Dome.

I had memorized a route to the dome on Google maps but it was a 32 minute (approx 2.5 mile walk) each way through unfamiliar streets and about 25 minutes into the walk I began to doubt my sense of direction as an expected landmark hadn’t materialised. I decided I needed to double check my location so needed wifi access and spotting a nearby McDonalds I decided it was lunch – and location confirmation – time!)

McDonalds always have at least one Japanese only meal on the menu so I selected the Teriyaki Burger meal and sat down to check my location on Google maps.

Turns out my sense of direction was spot on and I was just 2 minutes walk from the Bomb Dome.

Meal eaten and directions confirmed it was a short walk to the Bomb Dome (Hiroshima Atomic Bomb Hypocentre). The iconic image of Hiroshima the world over.

After taking lots of photos from different angles of the dome, I crossed the river into the Peace Park.

The park was busy; there were several group tours, some Japanese school children were busy making notes and listening to their teachers, while tourists photographed and sat around in the sun.

I spent some time trying to find new views of the dome but it’s such an iconic location i struggled to shoot anything original…

From the Peace Park I set off down a riverside path towards Hiroshima Castle.

The castle was a lot quieter than I’d been expecting so I spent some time just wandering around before continuing on back towards Hiroshima station and the Shinkansen back to Osaka.

I liked Hiroshima and had initially planned to visit a few more locations but those will have to wait until another time as tonight is my last night in Japan and I’ve been so busy I’ve not had much time for gift shopping!

I booked a seat on the next available Shinkansen (not the Hello Kitty one which was sitting at a nearby platform when I arrived…)

It was just under 2hrs back to Osaka and as this was to be my final shinkansen trip of the visit I thought I’d push the boat out and order a red wine to celebrate what has been a very busy but productive trip.

Back in Osaka I discovered that it had been raining heavily in my absence (typical!) So as I made my way back from the subway to the hotel I got soaked but was happily snapping away, grabbing images of reflections and puddles and anything else rain related.

After what will probably be my last basu of the trip 😦 I headed back into Namba for some gift shopping.

I have a full day in Osaka tomorrow as I wait for my flight back to the UK so I’ll be able to finish the shopping tomorrow, plus hopefully visit The Hub for some Japanese style Fish and Chips… (last item on this trip’s to do list – simply so I can photograph the meal as part of a new exhibition idea I’ve been working on!)

I’ll recap tomorrow before I leave but this feels like the most successful trip (in terms of career progression) to Japan to date. I set myself a number of goals before the trip and most, if not all, have been achieved. (Sometimes by complete luck!)

I have a clearer idea of what I need to do next and most importantly where my weaknesses are in terms of succeeding in Japan – so i have a lot of work to do when I get back to Scotland.

It’s been pretty much full on since I arrived and I could probably do with a holiday when I get back but I already have some lab work to do on my return. (I literally step off the plane 20 hrs after leaving Japan and will have to drive to Fife then Glasgow to do some work before finally getting back, dropping off the bags and – hopefully – getting some sleep before I’m back on duty in the lab at 8am the next morning!)

And some people think I’ve been on holiday!

Japan in June, day 8

I’m writing this around 2/3rds of the way through day 9 as it’s been a very busy couple of days!

Day 8 started with me rising around 5am with a plan to head to Hiroshima for the day, but overnight I’d received messages from Andrew Thomas, an English film, commercial and documentary producer, director and writer who I’d met back in August when I was last here.

Andrew lives in Nara and had invited me to go spend the day there, with a view to introducing me to some parts of the city I hadn’t visited before, catching up on some potential collaboration ideas and just hanging out for a day. There was also the possibility of photographing fireflies after dark which was one of the original reasons this trip was happening at this time rather than later in the year.

So Hiroshima was shelved again (sorry!) and instead i made my way to Nara, ancient capital of Japan. Once at the station I made my way through Nara deer park (quite a few baby deer bouncing about on this visit) then on to the floating pavilion of Ukimi-do.

I’d discovered this pavillion last August entirely by chance when walking to the Nara museum of Photography but it was very busy at the time. Today it was quiet so I walked around snapping away for a while.

Andrew had brought his car so for the first time in 7 trips to Japan I found myself in private transport heading for our first stop of the day, the mountain viewpoint of Zoshicho high above Todai-ji temple and with stunning views across Nara.

We spent some time at the summit catching up with business ideas then it was back into the car and down to Nara for a visit to the former home of Japanese photographer Taikichie Irie.

After a tour of the house we set off on a walking tour of Nara, stopping at locations which Taikichie Irie had photographed many years ago and comparing the locations now with his photographs. It was very interesting to see the changes that have taken place in such a relatively short period of time, albeit a time of great upheaval as much of his work was carried out in the aftermath of the Second World War and against a background of American occupation.

After the tour we set off for a bite to eat (I had a spicy lamb curry with rice!) and a glass of locally brewed IPA ale. (Which was lovely!)

Food consumed and with sunset not too far off we made our way to the Buddhist temple of Nigatsu-do, another location I’ve never visited before and a great spot to watch the sunset.

Unfortunately tonight’s sunset was very overcast and didn’t quite work photographically but it’s a great location and one I’ll definitely revisit on my next trip to Japan.

As the light started to fade we set off for a potential viewpoint where fireflies had been spotted the night before.

It clearly had great potential as several locals, many of whom had professional looking camera equipment with them, were already set up with cameras trained on a small grassy area, surrounded by trees and with a small stream running through it.

I selected a nice viewpoint, set up my tripod and camera and the waiting began… it was quite a while after sunset and in almost today darkness before the first wave of “ooooh” accompanied the first glimpse of a dim green light which pulsated in the darkness several times before disappearing again into the dark. One became two then three and then more as the air above the stream came alive in tiny glowing spheres of green/yellow light which would arc and dance around the base of the trees and over the water.

It was an amazing sight, something I’d never seen before (except on tv) and I was lucky to get to photograph it.

Since getting back to the hotel I’ve had a look at the images and can confirm that – at first look anyway – I managed to capture a few amazing images of these tiny creatures as they lit the forest floor in what is, just like last years Sakura season, a very fleeting and transient season in Japan.

Once again I cant believe how lucky I’ve been with timing!

After an hour or so photographing in the dark we decided head back into town for a beer and a bite to eat.

We visited a lovely little place called Kura where we relaxed for a while with local people, local food, a beer and some absolutely amazing Sake. Most of the sake I’ve tried back home is quite bitter but the one we had tonight was really smooth and easy to drink.

By now it was getting late so I headed back on the second last train of the night to Osaka then the walk back through the quiet streets of Namba to my hotel, getting back around midnight.

A great day (thanks Andy!), another “to do” off the list (photograph fireflies after dark) and some business plans made for future work.

I fell into bed and after 20 minutes or so of catching up with emails and messages from back home I was fast asleep!

Hiroshima tomorrow… honest!

Japan in June, day 7


Today was to be my day off, a day of relaxing, shopping, and just “being on holiday” but when I woke the sky was dark and threatening rain, and there was a noticable breeze in the air so I decided to take all my camera gear with me – just incase the rain finally arrived!

My first task of the day was a 1 mile walk to Shi’Tennoji temple as I knew there were some gift shops in that area – one of which in particular I visited several times in August to stock up on incense!

So off I went for the brief walk to the temple but when I got there I discovered that they had a market set up, kinda like a car boot sale type thing back home.

I bought a couple of gifts, including a very old looking, slightly damaged, plaster and fabric painted mask which I’m hoping will be repairable and then repainted when I get back home…

Oh and you know how back home most markets these days have an owl or birds of prey stand set up for visitors to have photos taken etc? They dont do that here…

They have monkeys in shorts on stilts. Beat that Glasgow Fort!

I visited the incense shop (3 boxes bought – 30% of my target buy) then made my way back towards the hotel to drop off shopping cache 1 before heading out again for shopping cache 2.

On the way back I took a small detour to explore Shinsekai during the day. The place has a very different feel to it in daylight but its probably just as busy!

I wandered around for half an hour or so snapping everything and anything that caught my eye before… it finally happened… rain!!

I’m calling it rain. Coming from Scotland, which is the ancient Pictish word for “why’s it always chucking it down here?”, it felt more like a warm and slightly refreshing spray but up went everyone’s umbrellas while those who came out unprepared sought shelter beneath canopies and in restaurants.

I loved it! The cool breeze, the warm “rain”, if only there had been a few million midges it would have felt like a Glencoe summer’s day!

I left Shinsekai for my hotel with a brief stop at the local Family Mart for some milk and breakfast items when I noticed that they did cans of Orange flavoured Suntory Highballs! I just had to try one of those!

It was nice, but, I’m still giving the prize for the best one so far to the Highball Bar in Kyoto.

Shopping dropped off and highball consumed it was time to head out for trip 2 of the day: The Canon Gallery in Osaka.

My plan was to compare and contrast with the Tokyo gallery and decide which to approach first when I get home.

The Canon gallery in Osaka is located within Festival Tower West which is near Yodoyabashi subway.

The current exhibition is a bit of a specialist taste (all of the images were of trains) but the general layout of the gallery was similar to the Tokyo one, although the Tokyo space was a lot darker, which I think I preferred.

As well as the gallery this Canon facility had a repair shop and a sales room so I spent some time drooling over some of the lenses on sale…

That monster to the right was ¥1,750,000 which is just a little below £13,000. Not bad considering this was just a small part of the full Canon lens range!

After the Canon store it was a quick subway trip into Shinsaibashi for some shopping. I’m not the most patient when it comes to shopping so after an hour or so I’d had enough and made my way to the okonomiyaki restaurant I mentioned the other day for a lovely tomato and pork okonomiyaki.

Fed and, yes, after a beer, I stopped off at The Hub, a British themed bar near Namba which has free wifi – just so I could catch up with messages and emails. Honest… 😉

From The Hub the plan was back to drop off shopping cache 2, have a quick basu (bliss again!) Get changed and head back out, but by the time I got back I’d changed my mind about heading back out so it was a bath and an early night.

Going to try to get to Hiroshima tomorrow so 6am start, leave the hotel around 7am and get to Hiroshima around 10.30.

That’s the current plan anyway…

Japan in June, day 6

I woke this morning and the first thing I did was check the weather forecasts. Osaka was still due some serious rain and thunderstorms while Tokyo was to start off overcast with a chance of rain later.

I decided to visit the gallery early, as per yesterdays blog, then head for the Shinkansen back to Osaka.

It was a brief 5 minute walk to the gallery, but I was early so I stopped off for a coffee on route, and still got to the gallery just 10 minutes after opening time.

The gallery is, as its name would suggest, linked to Canon, the brand of camera I’ve used since 1986 when I bought my first ever SLR, the Canon A1 film camera.

I entered the gallery and was immediately impressed by the work on display. An exhibition by a Japanese photographer who’s photo style and choice of subject was very like my own.

Fortunately he was at the gallery this morning so we had a chat about his work and he explained how one image in particular was taken (using a technique I’m going to try to replicate back home in Scotland)

After a chat with the photographer and the gallery staff I bought his exhibition photo book, which he kindly signed for me, before i returned to the hotel to check out.

Tokyo was tempting me to stay as a light rain began to fall – which was very welcome after the unrelenting heat of the last few days – but I was resigned to returning to Osaka and the chance of some lightening bolts in my photos!

I found my way to the station easily enough and even found the correct shinkansen platform I needed BUT I hadn’t reserved a seat for this trip…

When I bought my green card pass the instructions I received were fairly clear: Reserving a seat was essential during rush hours (7-10am, 4-6pm) but all other times there was no need to reserve.

My train was at 12.33 so I didn’t make a reservation and proceeded straight to one of the three green cars…

Before continuing, I should explain that I had wondered about this part of the process before. In the UK if a seat is reserved on a train theres usually a note to say, either electronically above the seat or at it’s most basic a ticket stub on the chair.They have nothing like that on the Shinkansen so there literally is no way of telling, visually at least, if a seat has been reserved for the journey or not.

The carriage was fairly empty so I selected a seat at the back and sat down.

Just before the train was due to leave a stern faced fellow came on and insisted I was in his seat, i immediately apologised and got up to leave but after one of those “bloody tourists” kind of looks he pointed in the direction of the unreserved cheap seats up front and said “go to those” in a tone which really annoyed me.

Now i know I was in the wrong and normally I’d just walk away to avoid a fuss but today I thought nope… so instead I made my way to the conductors office (on the train) and explained the situation; a quick check on his system showed several unreserved seats for the full trip to Osaka so I selected one of those.

The conductor kindly showed me to the seat – which was further up the same car as Mr Stern-face, so before sitting I caught his eye and politely and respectfully bowed to him, desperately trying to avoid a chorus of “milk, lemonade, chocolate” as I did so… he was not happy!

As I’ve said, I know I was in the wrong and that he had every right to ask me to move and I was more than happy to move, even going to the point of being overly apologetic, but it was that dismissive look and tone that bothered me.

Anyway, thought I’d share this incident to let anyone thinking of using the Japan Rail Pass that on busy routes it’s probably best to reserve a seat regardless of the time and avoid any potential embarrassment, despite the advice given with the card…

Settled in my new seat, the Shinkansen left Tokyo slightly later than scheduled and as we whizzed towards Nagoya the rain became heavier and heavier. Clearly this gave me absolutely no chance of seeing Mount Fuji but did give me increasing confidence that I’d made the right decision in leaving Tokyo early.

The only view of Fuji-San I had today…

I arrived back in Osaka and as I’m sure you could have guessed, it wasnt raining. :/

There were signs that it had been raining earlier but the torrential downpour and thunder I’d been hoping for never showed 😦

I got back to the hotel, left my Tokyo bag and headed back out for a walk and some food – ever hopeful that the downpour would arrive any moment.

It didn’t, so I headed for a restaurant, ordered teriyaki chicken, rice and miso soup, then headed back to the hotel.

At the moment I’ve nothing planned for tomorrow. It was to be a rest day and a day for souvenir shopping. The weather forecast says “heavy rain with thunder” but after today I’m taking that with a large pinch of salt!

If I do wake to heavy rain then I’ll switch things around and have a photo day. Otherwise I’m planning on a chilled out day for a change!

June in Japan, day 5

So far not a single day has gone to plan!

I had scheduled to leave my hotel in Osaka this morning around 5.30/6am and make my way to Shin-Osaka in the hope of booking a green car seat for the early morning trip to Tokyo but thanks to a persistent customer who clearly had no idea the world was round and had different time zones I was still awake and answering lab questions at 1am. When I finally got it sorted I couldn’t sleep until after 3.30am so when my alarm went off at 5am I really wasnt in the mood for trekking across Osaka for a 3hr train trip!

I snoozed the alarm and grabbed a few more hours before setting off just after 9.30, getting to Shin-Osaka and booking a left-side window seat in the green car for the 10.16 train to Tokyo.

Left hand side window was important because this was the side where Mount Fuji would appear as we sped by on our way to Tokyo. (Weather permitting!)

It was another great trip on the Shinkansen; I managed to snap a few images from the train as we whizzed through Nagoya and on towards Tokyo but the elusive Mount Fuji was only partly visible with the summit shrouded in thick clouds and mist. Perhaps I’ll see more of it on my way back tomorrow!

I arrived in Tokyo and was immediately struck by how busy it was! Compared to most places in Scotland, Osaka can be a little overwhelming when it comes to crowds but Tokyo makes Osaka seem quite quiet!

For comparison purposes I googled the following:

Scotland has a population density of: 65 people per square km

Glasgow, Scotlands biggest city is: 3400

Osaka is: 4640

While Tokyo is: 6180

The entire population of Scotland is only 5.4 million, and it is estimated that the population of greater Tokyo is around 18 million!!

My first, not insignificant task on arrival at Tokyo station was to find my way out! The place is huge and the large number of tourists stopping in the middle of walkways to check maps and mobile phones without warning doesn’t help! Eventually (by luck more than design) I found myself at precisely the right exit I needed to get to my hotel.

I was a little early for check in so I walked to the hotel anyway to confirm I knew the way before retracing my steps back to the nearest metro station, Kyobashi, to take the metro to Ebisu which is the closest station to the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum.

Before visiting the museum I took a walk around the Ebisu district for half an hour or so (not entirely planned!) Before making my way to the museum.

It’s a very impressive building, with three floors of exhibition space, most of which – if I’m honest – is way out of my league in terms of being allowed to exhibit there, but it was interesting to get a feel for what is considered “exhibition material” in Japan. I’ve visited several galleries now and I’ve noticed a real difference in the aesthetics of Japanese exhibitions as compared to UK exhibitions. I’m not suggesting that one is better than the other but there are certainly differences and I’d say that something that would be considered for an exhibition in the UK might very well not be considered in Japan. And of course, vice versa.

Very interesting though and food for thought for when I come to pitch ideas (which is after all why I’m here!)

After the museum I wandered back to Ebisu station and took the underground back to the Ginza district of Tokyo where my hotel is based.

I must say that I was very impressed with the hotel and the room, considering it was a last minute booking and was selected purely on the basis that it’s about 10 minutes walk from Tokyo station!

I dropped off my bags, took a quick bath (deep basu again – bliss!) Then headed out again into the night to explore.

From what I can tell tourists on their first visit to Tokyo are expelled from the country if they dont visit Shibuya crossing on their first night (that crazy crossroads where all the crossings go green at the same time and walls of people rush towards each other)

So off I went to film/photograph this icon of overcrowded Tokyo. I must admit, it is incredible to see and it reminded me of that scene from the film Braveheart where the opposing armies run at each other and seem to merge into each other for a few seconds before there’s a clash of steel and carnage!

Every other person at the crossing was vlogging, blogging (erm) or generally influencing social media in some way and very few people seemed to actually want to get from one side of the road to the other!

That said, I crossed every single crossing, filming some and photographing the others so who am I to judge!?

I took some time to wander the back streets of Shibuya but if I’m honest it’s a little too busy for me.

There was another part of Tokyo I wanted to visit at night, Golden Gai in Shinjuku. It’s a district full of bars, restaurants and clubs, some of the bars are so small they only hold 5-6 people.

I went and forgot to take any photos with my mobile (sorry!) But I did snap a lot with my camera so hopefully some of those have worked out and will be shared when I get back.

After a walk around Shinjuku I returned via the Tokyo metro (which was still way too busy even though it was 10pm at night!) to Kyobashi in Ginza. My intention was to go straight to the hotel but I noticed a rather photogenic side street filled with tiny bars and a karaoke bar at the end (with what I can only assume was Godzilla on the mic as I passed!!)

I wandered around the street snapping some photos before heading back to the hotel.

My plan for tomorrow was visit another gallery, then do some tourist stuff at the imperial palace and gardens…but…

The latest forecast for Osaka for tomorrow states “heavy rain and thunderstorms”. After sweating and dehydrating my way through most of this “rainy season” I’m determined to get some rain on me so my current thinking is visit the gallery first thing, grab the shinkansen back to Osaka, dump my bag in the hotel and get soaked for hours and hours in Osaka!

Hope you’re all enjoying the blog! Sorry it’s not as touristy as usual!

Will I finally see Mount Fuji in all its glory tomorrow?!

June in Japan, day 4

I finished yesterday’s blog by confidently stating that I was going to Nagoya today.

I didn’t go.

After sleeping on the idea for a few hours I decided that just arriving in a new city (the 4th largest in a country with some pretty huge cities!) without any planning was probably a bad idea. Knowing my luck I’d get home to find I’d missed an amazing scene by just one street or completely missed the biggest “must see” event of the year, so instead I opted to visit Kobe instead, allowing me some time to research locations in Nagoya over the next few days…

Kobe is one of those places I’ve whizzed through on my way somewhere else many times over the years. (Including twice on my recent Okayama trip!) For some reason I’ve never got around to actually getting off the train and exploring.

I’m really glad that I broke that habit today!

It’s a lovely town, the port area in particular has a real holiday town feel to it.

I started by taking the shinkansen from Shin-Osaka to Shin-Kobe (I’ll not bore you with the details, it’s SO yesterday’s news… :P) and 13 minutes after leaving Osaka I was stepping off the train in Kobe.

(For the record, it took me a LOT longer to get from my hotel – in Osaka – to Shin-Osaka station than it did to travel from there to Kobe by shinkansen. It’s an amazing system and, again, I cant believe I’ve never used it before this trip!)

Anyway, from Shin-Kobe I made my way to the Kobe underground station which is part of the same building, accidentally walking into maybe 15-20 photographers and TV camera crews who were there to film/photograph someone famous or important. I saw the man (from the back) as he brushed past me before jumping into a blacked out car but I’ve no idea who he was! (If anyone is watching Japanese news tonight and can tell me who that was I’d be grateful! Also, look out for me, I’m the burnt nosed Scotsman carrying a huge camera bag in the background!)

I caught the underground one stop to Sannomiya station and set off on what I expected would be a 16 minute walk to Port of Kobe tower. Unfortunately I set off in the wrong direction, slightly, and about 20 minutes later found myself at The Port of Kobe ferry terminal instead. Still on the coast but a bit further from my intended destination!

I followed the coast road for another 15 minutes until I could see the distinctive red Kobe Tower above the container ships and port buildings and then used that to guide me into Meriken Park.

Once in the park my first stop was at the Port of Kobe Earthquake memorial park.

When the Great Hanshin Earthquake struck just after 5.46am on January 17th 1995, around 300,000 people were displaced from their homes, over 37,000 people were injured and more than 6,000 died. Kobe was the closest major city to the earthquake epicentre and was hit by the strongest tremors.

In the aftermath the city decided to preserve parts of the damaged sea defences so that future generations could see just how powerful and devastating the quake had been.

This section of the old harbour wall was stabilised and now stands witness to the terrible events of that day. The twisted concrete and lamps are a powerful reminder of just how much energy can be released by a natural disaster such as this.

After spending a while photographing the earthquake memorial from multiple angles I set off to explore the rest of Meriken Park.

It’s a lovely open space, with great views back over Kobe and out towards Osaka Bay. There are cruise boats, a steamboat restaurant and a variety of grand hotels in the area, not to mention of course, Port of Kobe Tower.

A 108m (354ft) tower completed in 1963, the tower has several siteseeing floors, a rotating restaurant floor and many shops and cafes. I wandered over to the tower and shot lots of photos but didn’t go in on this occasion. Maybe next time?

Next stop was for lunch! I selected a restaurant on the opposite side of the dock with a view back towards the tower and Meriken Park where I had a lovely meal.

Beef burger, topped with an egg, spicy sauce, sliced beef steak, vegetables and potato croquettes. All washed down with a Suntory beer. Lovely it was too! (Also – for the record – that’s the same beer in both pics! Honest!)

After lunch (they didn’t do Highballs or I’d have stayed longer to enjoy the view!) I set off for the walk to Nankinmachi (Kobe’s Chinatown).

Nankinmachi Square was really busy and while I took lots of pics with my camera i completely forgot to take any with the phone for the blog (sorry!) But I’ll share some when I get home.

From there it was a short walk to Motomachi shopping district, then back to Sannomiya for the underground back to Shin-Kobe.

There was a shinkansen bound for Shin-Osaka at the platform when i arrived so I hopped straight onto the green car and less than 15 minutes later stepped out into Shin-Osaka station for the subway ride back to the hotel. Another city visited and another “to do” off the list (“have steak in Kobe” – albeit not the vastly expensive Wagyu beef on this occasion! That’s a treat I’m saving for Scotland believe it or not! I’ve been invited for Wagyu beef at a Japanese restaurant in Edinburgh at some point in the near future!)

Back at the hotel I had an hour or two to catch up with a few work emails and messages from back home before another basu (I really need to get one of those fitted at home…) a quick change then back out again, this time for a walk to Shinsaibashi for some street photography and a bite to eat.

Shinsaibashi was much busier than I’ve seen it for a while and this made it quite tricky to get any interesting shots as there was always someone barging into the scene or stopping in front of the camera, etc. I’ll see how they look when I get back home but I’m not hopeful that I caught any exhibition grade images tonight.

Next item was food. I have a favourite Okonomiyaki restaurant in Osaka and nearby a lovely Tempura place. I decided to head to those thinking whichever was quietest I was having!

There was a queue outside the Okonomiyaki place so it was an evening for Tempura! My timing was good though as this place was full with a queue outside by the time I left!

Dinner was a set meal of miso soup, rice, pickled veg, deep fried chicken and a chilli dip. Lovely it was too!

After the meal i wandered back through Namba and Den Den towards my hotel. Snapping photos as I went. I was tempted to stop off at a local bar in Namba but as tomorrow is Tokyo Day 1 I have an early start. (5am!)

All in a bit more of a relaxed day than I’d originally scheduled which has allowed me to recharge a bit, shake off the jet lag, and get a little more used to the temperature and humidity levels.

As I mentioned above, it’s a 5am start tomorrow, underground back to Shin-Osaka and shinkansen to Tokyo! My first time in Tokyo, so looking forward to what this little village no one from outside Japan has heard about has to offer! 🙂

June in Japan, day 3

A lack of sleep last night meant I missed my planned shinkansen to Hiroshima. I still travelled to Shin-Osaka, more in hope than expectation, but the ticket office confirmed that all bookable seats were taken until the 11.08am train which wouldn’t reach Hiroshima until 12.34 meaning I’d only have a few hours in Hiroshima before I’d need to leave to return to Osaka.

This didn’t feel long enough to do the city justice so I decided to switch plans and head somewhere else instead. A quick look at the departure board settled it… Okayama!

I had planned to visit Okayama later in the trip – and later in the day as the gardens and castle I planned to visit are lit up at night – but with this seemingly my only realistic option I boarded the train and found myself a seat with a view by the window.

This was my first trip on the Shinkansen and thanks to my green card upgrade it meant I was travelling in style!

The carriage looked more like an airplane than a train and, as it was relatively late in the morning, it was all but empty.

I hadn’t long sat down when a lady came over and handed me a hand wash towel and a copy of my menu for the trip! Nice touch!

We set off exactly as scheduled and 13 minutes later we were pulling into Shin-Kobe. (Last year using traditional trains it took me around three times as long to get to Kobe!)

Before long we were whizzing past Himeji at twice the speed of seeing anything and I was officially further from my usual base in Osaka than I’d ever been (while still in Japan obviously!) – and it took me less than an hour to get there!

We arrived in Okayama on schedule and I set off to explore the city.

I didn’t really know what to expect from Okayama; other than I should visit the castle and the Korakuen Garden.

My plan had been to wander and explore the city before heading to the castle and gardens shortly before sunset but my lack of sleep was really beginning to take its toll so I opted to visit the castle and gardens first, thinking that if I couldn’t continue later then at least I’d got to see the main locations I’d planned to see.

The castle was a 2.5km walk away, along a fairly direct route so after confirming I was indeed on the correct road, I set off.

Near the castle I went down through an underpass below a busy road junction and stumbled across the above space beneath the city streets! In Europe the only yellow-green water you’re likely to find in a city centre underpass isn’t really photogenic but this spot was lovely!

Emerging from the underpass I was just a short walk away from the castle park and my first location of the day.

The general layout of the city of Okayama reminded me of Himeji but on a smaller scale. The street art and the general feel of the city felt very familiar which was good as I really like Himeji.

Unlike Himeji (thankfully) the castle is much smaller and, today at least, much quieter.

I went inside the castle – which was rare for me as I tend to avoid places with a “no photography” rule – but I’m glad I did. It has some amazing views over the city and the history of the place is interesting.

The original castle was completed in 1597 and was officially recognized as a national treasure in 1931 before someone (I’m looking at you America) completely destroyed it in an air raid at the end of June 1945, just a few short weeks before the end of WWII.

What is now standing on the site is a reconstruction from 1966 and as a wandered around I couldn’t help thinking how needless that destruction was, made all the more tragic by just how close it was to the end of hostilities. Of course I’m sure there will be many much more tragic parallels when I visit Hiroshima later in the trip but in some ways this one came as more of a surprise as I had no idea of the history until today.

After exploring the castle and grounds I crossed the Asahi River over the Tsukimi Bridge – a long and slightly bouncy suspension bridge with alarmingly low rails on either side! Perfect for photography but rather off putting when you can feel yourself bouncing up and down with little between you and the water below.

There was also a rather worrying warning on the other side of the bridge. Presumably as the city is quite close to the coast and therefore prone to the occasional tsunami alert.

Undaunted by the imminent danger I was now in I followed the path to the main gate and entered into what must be one of the most impressive Japanese gardens in the world. Designed in the Kaiyu (“scenic promenade”) style the garden presents the visitor with a new view on every turn of the path.

I even managed to photograph the Seiden (rice fields), another on my “to do” list although I was a little early as they are apparently best seen in late June / early July.

I spent some time photographing a huge black crow as it hopped around the rice fields looking for bugs, only to find later that the castle was originally nicknamed “Ujo” – crow castle – after the black lacquered appearance of the weather boards.

Odd coincidence I thought.

As expected, the walk combined with the heat and lack of sleep meant I was beginning to wane. I walked the 2.5km back to the station and found a place to eat (beef curry with rice and pickled vegetables!)

If anything the meal made me even more sleepy so rather than risk a further walk I decided to head back to Osaka on the next shinkansen.

Within 2 minutes of the train pulling out from the station I was fast asleep, waking only when the train stopped at Shin-Osaka a little under an hour later.

I returned to my hotel, fell into bed and slept for 2hrs, waking at 8.30pm. Determined not to sleep for the rest of the night I left for a brisk walk around nearby Shinsekai.

While in the area I had a light meal of kushikatsu the local street food (I opted for Scallop, green pepper and chicken breast despite the tempting trio of chicken gizzard, beef entrails and mixed giblets being on offer!)

Fed and increasingly tired again I returned to my hotel to write up the blog.

Tomorrow’s plan is Nagoya, a major city between Kyoto and Tokyo. Once again it’s an early start and this time I’ve no idea what to expect as I’ve deliberately left my research on Nagoya blank!

I still feel that I’ve yet to get into my stride with the photography. Most of what I’ve taken so far is more touristy / documentary and not as arty as I’d like. Perhaps Nagoya will be my muse and kick start my creativity? We’ll see tomorrow!

Japan in June, day 2

I woke this morning to clear blue skies and rising temperatures. Not what I was hoping for but still rather pleasant!

The first task for today was to visit the JR ticket office at Umeda to exchange the UK JR rail pass voucher for the actual rail pass.

I’d pencilled in 30-40 minutes for this, partly because I wasnt sure where the relevant ticket office was and partly because I wasnt sure how busy the service would be, if there would be any translation issues or complicated paperwork to deal with. It’s a testament to Japanese efficiency that it took all of 3 minutes to exchange, validate and issue my rail pass… no queue, no fuss, just handed over the voucher and my passport, signed a document and walked out with 7 days of free Shinkansen use!

Suddenly I was ahead of schedule!

My plan for today had been to travel to Kyoto, visit the Kyoto Museum of Photography, then go back to Kawaramachi, take the train to Kiyomizu, visit the temple (I’ve only ever been outside before) then head to Gion to visit the Leica Gallery before having a walk through Pontocho taking photos and eventually stopping for some food.

As I was half an hour early as I stepped from the train at Kawaramachi I decided to take a detour to nearby Maruyama park to see if it looked any different in this new, more flowery, season…

I wandered around for a while mainly snapping other park visitors, many of whom were out in colourful kimono before I headed out on my quest to find the museum of Photography.

I’d traced the route on Google maps street view several times so I felt like I had a rough idea of direction and landmarks to look out for. The planning seemed to pay off, the only surprise being that it was much closer than I expected based on the painfully slow click click progress I’d made on street view!

The museum is a lovely space filled mainly with work by Japanese photographers, but the themes of the work included lots of images from Europe. There are 2 floors, one of which seems to be a permanent exhibition, presumably by local artists while the other floor seems to be more of a curated show for a fixed period of time before it changes around again.

I was surprised to find a photographer I’ve been following for a while online in the permanent space.. I’d no idea he had work on show in the museum!

As you’ve probably guessed, the reason for the trips to gallery spaces and museums is that I’m hoping to pitch some ideas for future exhibitions here in Japan, ideally with some gallery representation and book sales to go with it! I spent some time talking to the staff member on duty, taking some cards and contact details in the process.

Needless to say i would love to exhibit my Japanese images in Japan so I’ll be in touch with all of the places I visit during this trip. Fingers crossed!

After spending some time looking at the exhibited works – then spending a little too much on photography books to support some of the artists – I set off to trace my route back towards Gion for the train ride to Kiyomizu.

On my way back I found a lovely little covered shopping street which I walked along snapping images of dimly lit shops and cafes. It was still rather early so the place was quite quiet but I’m sure it’s a hive of activity when busy.

I retraced my steps towards my original route then wandered back down along Shijo-dori to the station for the brief trip to Kiyomizu-gojo (if you’ve been following my blog for a while – this is the spot where an old man hit me thinking I was trying to steal from Hayleys backpack before realising what was going on, laughing and hitting me again anyway!)

It’s a 20 minute walk to the temple complex of Kiyomizu Dera but in the hot afternoon sun it felt more like 2hrs!

20 minutes and 2 bottles of water later I arrived at the entrance to the temple, paid my entry fee (Y400) and set off to explore what is an extremely busy and popular site.

While at the temple it suddenly became overcast and I hoped for a while that we might be in for another cloud burst like the one I experienced on my first ever trip to Japan (when I took my exhibition image “Cloudburst on Shijo-dori”) but the rain didn’t come although the shade was very welcome for a while!

Kiyomizu means “pure water” and the name comes from this waterfall. Visitors queue to catch and drink the water which is said to have wish granting properties. I was now so hot that just drinking the water would have been my wish fulfilled had I queued!!

After spending some time photographing a few visitors I wandered back down to the temple entrance for the 20 minute walk back to the station.

For a brief moment at the station I toyed with the idea of going onwards to Fushimi Inari but decided against it and returned to Gion with a view to continuing my planned route.

Back in Gion I almost immediately decided to depart from my plan as I was becoming very dehydrated and not a little hungry so I went straight to Pontocho for a walk in the shady alleys, looking for somewhere to stop for a rest and a bite to eat.

After a dish of spicy fried chicken, veg and rice I wandered back towards Kawaramachi where i noticed a “Highball Bar” was open.

I was first introduced to the Highball through reading Murakami – almost all of his characters love the drink – but had never tried one. (I normally prefer my whisky straight and almost never drink fizzy carbonated drinks) but “try a Highball” was one of my stated goals for this trip so in I went to experience my first Japanese whisky Highball.

It was amazing! Soda, whisky with lots of ice and a hint of orange.

As I was congratulating myself on the goal achievement I noticed they also did a Chita Highball. The Chita is my favourite Japanese whisky (I came back with 3 bottles of the stuff on my last trip!) , so in for a penny in for a Yen i thought and ordered one of those too – this time with a draft Suntory beer to “cleanse the pallet” in between drinks… you know? Purely so I could appreciate the subtle differences in the two Highballs… 😉

Again another great drink but if I’m honest the original took the prize due to the subtle flavour the orange added (no orange in the Chita one).

Resisting the temptation to sample the rest of the menu I dragged myself reluctantly back to Gion, primarily with a view to visiting the Leica Gallery but also with one eye on Maiko spotting! I grabbed a few pics of Maiko making their way between tea houses but failed to visit the gallery as it appeared to be closed by the time I got there. One for another trip perhaps…

It was now around sunset so after another wander back along the river side and through the now bustling lanes of Pontocho it was back to Kawaramachi for the train back to Osaka and the underground to my hotel.

Back in my room I quickly took a bath (soaking in a Japanese deep basu after a long walk is amazing!) Before falling into bed to write this blog.

I have a trip to Hiroshima scheduled for tomorrow but this involves an early start. After walking 25km today carrying 10kg of camera gear in burning temperatures I may struggle to get up in time! If I do over sleep, my back up plan is a trip to the much nearer Kobe instead. Find out tomorrow which I do!

June in Japan – day 1

Not much to report for day one other than to say everything went to plan for the journey.

Emirates have been using the Airbus A380 from Glasgow since mid April and so I found myself sitting by the window of one of the largest commercial airliners in the world as it taxied from the Terminal before climbing, effortlessly, into a slightly overcast Scottish sky.

The trip to Dubai was largely uneventful other than I experienced that rare joy of having an empty seat next to me which meant lots of extra leg room! As always though I couldn’t sleep on the flight and arrived in Dubai tired and anxious about the connecting flight.

Flight times have changed in Dubai recently and where I used to have 3 – 3.5hrs to get from my arrival gate to the departure point for Osaka, on this trip my connection was cut to just 1 hr 50 minutes.

The usual delays in trying to disembark a huge airplane ensued and by the time I reached the security check for connecting flights I had just 1hr until the gate closed for Osaka! As we edged slowly forward I couldn’t help frowning at a sign on the far wall which proclaimed that it was 20+ minutes walking time to my next gate!

It took about 15 minutes of stop-start queuing until I emerged on the other side and set off on the quest to find my next gate.

20+ minutes was closer to 35 minutes with the terminal being so busy but thankfully I arrived at an open and already boarding flight with around 10 minutes to spare.

I boarded, this time sat next to two Japanese ladies on their way home from a Mediterranean cruise, tried to settle down to sleep but in the end resigned myself to catching up with some films.

Weather on arrival at Osaka was exactly what I’ve been hoping for on this trip! Grey, cloudy and with the threat of rain!

This is the start of the rainy season in Japan and while it doesn’t usually rain all the time, I’m hoping for at least a few days of rain as this will allow me to shoot some scenes differently and also allow me to get some images which will help with one photo project in particular!

Seas of umbrellas, reflected neon signs, dramatic landscape skies, flooded rice fields and fireflies at night are all on my photo “wish list” for this trip so I was more than happy with the weather when we arrived!

After the usual customs and security checks I stepped out into a very humid Osaka evening and made my way to the Nankai railway for the Express link into Namba.

It was a busy trip and the city was beginning to light up as I stepped off the train for the short walk to my hotel.

I’m staying in the same hotel I used in August as I found it a very handy base for exploring the Shinsekai and Tennoji areas to the south of Namba while it’s only 4 minutes walk to the nearest subway station and 15 minutes to the main railway hub for central Osaka.

The above image is the view from my room.

After check in I headed to the nearest 7 eleven store for essentials… coffee, milk, some asahi beer and a bite to eat.

It began to rain as a I walked back from the store, a sign – i hope – of things to come. It almost tempted me back out with my camera but 30hrs of no sleep won and I resigned myself to an early night…

Tomorrow is a relatively local day. I need to sort my Shinkansen pass and prebook trips to Tokyo, Okayama, Nagoya, Kobe, Hiroshima and a few other locations before heading to Kyoto for the day.

I hope to visit a few old favourites (ideally in the rain!) and a couple of new locations. I have a few galleries to visit too.

Just hope I’ve managed to sleep before then!

Anyone know any Japanese rain dances?!

photo blog of John McKenna