Spring in Japan – day 4

A great day spent in the north of Osaka; a day of firsts and of seeing an old favourite in a new way.

The morning started with breakfast at Umeda before boarding the train to Ishibashi and the connection to Minoh.

I mentioned yesterday that I had a print for a man we met last year and was hoping to give him a copy as a gift. As we approached Minoh station what began as a good idea started to change as we joked about how the whole scenario might appear from his point of view… he’d be sitting in his usual spot feeding his friend the crow when suddenly a strange western fellow turns up, presents him with a photograph of himself which he probably doesn’t even remember having taken, then is asked to pose for another, this time WITH the weird westerner! At the very least it’s a strange start to the day for the man, and at worst it’s kinda creepy! My Japanese isn’t that good that id be confident in my ability to explain what was going on before it became awkward so the whole thing began to feel like a bad idea suddenly!

So, it was with some trepidation that we started out on the 4km walk to the falls at the head of the wooded valley of Minoo Park! As we approached the spot where he usually sits I was in two minds about even approaching him but the issue never arose as his seat was empty and there was no sign of the friendly crow.

We paused for some photographs at a temple which was surrounded by blossoms in full bloom before continuing onwards past the spot where we encountered a troup of monkey’s last year and on up towards Minoo Falls.

About a kilometre from the falls we discovered the route was closed due to typhoon damage (We later saw evidence of a huge landslide) so we had to take a detour along a path I’d never even noticed before which climbed higher than the main route before skirting the side of a hill and dropping back down to re-join the main pathway, beyond the damaged section and just a short climb from the waterfalls.

Although the detour was much harder on the legs and the path a lot less defined, i think I preferred the new route. It reminded me of Scotland; it was a lot more rugged and natural and felt familiar even though I’d never been there before.

At the top we paused to take some photographs, despite there being very few blossoms on this part of the walk.

I was asked by a couple of ladies to take some photos using their mobile then we sat down for some lunch.

As we were eating I noticed an old branch on a tree high above the pathway which was being side lit against a backdrop of a cherry blossom tree. I grabbed my camera for an “arty” shot of the twisted branch against the delicate pink background but just as I was about to take the shot a huge monkey casually wandered along the branch and sat down to groom itself in the sun.

It was perfect timing as id already changed to my 70-300mm zoom lens so i grabbed a few shots of the monkey with the blossom background before he turned and casually disappeared again into the trees. I’ll post one of the images of him when I get back home to Scotland.

(Above: (c) H.Boardman)

The return back down the path was interrupted only by pausing to take more blossom pics at the temple. The man and his crow friend still weren’t around so we headed back to the station, armed with a snack of maple leaf tempura, then set off on route to the nearest monorail station.

(Above: (c) H.Boardman)

I’d never been on the monorail in Osaka. In fact I didnt even realise there was a monorail system until a Google search a couple of weeks ago for the “best place to see Sakura in Osaka” suggested our next location, “expo 70 park” in the northern town of Suita, a suburb of Osaka.

Built for Japan’s great world exposition in 1970, expo 70 park is a legacy project which utilizes much of the infrastructure left over after the expo wound up in September 1970.

Before getting started on my description of the park and the Cherry Festival which we found ourselves involved in, i should state that the camera on my mobile phone didn’t do justice to the numbers of people and Sakura trees involved. I’m hoping that the images captured on my main camera will, but im not confident as it is difficult to describe let alone photograph the sheer scale of the festival!

Containing around 5500 cherry blossom trees, the festival is a riot of white, pink and vermilion as tens of thousands of visitors wander around the park, picnicking, photographing and generally just enjoying their day out in the sun surrounding by the amazing spectacle of Hanami in full bloom.

The whole thing had the feel of a summer music festival rather than a natural phenomenon and the crowd was loving the show.

Everywhere you looked there were families playing in the sun, boating on the lake, eating traditional foods, laughing and just appreciating this fleeting display by nature.

Every little breeze was accompanied by a blizzard of blossom leaves which settled on visitors and the pathways like confetti. It was like walking in a snow globe for a while!

It was such a privilege to be able to experience the festival at full bloom, so we wandered around aimlessly for a while just enjoying being there before settling down near a line of food tents with a couple of ice cold Asahi beers to relax in the sun.

Watching families playing football, baseball and flying kites we reflected on just how lucky we were to be here and just how fleeting this event really is. A trip this time last week would have probably found an almost empty park, as would a visit a week from now… out timing has been perfect!

After a break we decided to return to the monorail station and retrace our route back to Umeda and then Daikokucho and the apartment.

All in all, today has been the best day so far in terms of photo opportunities. If I’ve captured a single image today which encapsulates even a fraction of what it was like to experience the festival then I’m sure I have an image which will find pride of place in my exhibition back in Glasgow in July.

Tomorrow is a free day. We had planned to do everything we did today, tomorrow, but we brought it forward for fear of missing the peak of the blossom season.

We may visit Himeji, or possibly go back to Kyoto. I’ll let you all know tomorrow!

In the meantime, I’m sure ill be dreaming of blossoms tonight, it’s pretty much all I’ve seen all day!!

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Spring in Japan – day 3

Today was probably a taste of things to come now we’re in Hanami season; as we ventured out of Osaka to the outskirts of Kyoto to visit the lovely little town of Arashiyama there were crowds everywhere!

Ive been to Arashiyama everytime I’ve been in Japan, apart from last year, so I know the area well, but I had no idea whether the blossoms would transform the town in the same way they do elsewhere else.

I needn’t have worried because by the time the local train from Katsura had pulled into the tiny station it was clear that it’s another great location to see and photograph the blossoms at full bloom. Even the platform was filled with passengers taking photos of the trees which lined the outside of the station!

The town itself was the busiest I’ve ever seen it. As we made our way down to the river we even came across people setting up for picnics under the blossoms, despite it only being 10am in the morning! Many of them were still there when we returned later in the day!

First stop was the “kimono forest” a place I’d heard of before but never visited. The “forest” comprises of around 600 two metre high tubes, each filled with a brightly coloured kimono of different design. Apparently it’s best to visit around dusk as the tubes are all illuminated from within but it’s still a nice place to visit in the early morning.

After the kimono and a quick snack of skewered chicken with a spicy Japanese sauce we were off towards the Bamboo groves, swept along by a seemingly endless flow of people photographing trees, taking selfies and generally enjoying the views.

Eventually we reached the Bamboo groves and as expected they were jam-packed full of visitors.

The bamboo forest itself wasn’t really any different than on previous visits but with the absence of low hanging giant tree spiders and the occasional glimpse of brightly coloured cherry blossoms just beyond the Bamboo it was a pleasant walk up to the traditional gardens of Okochi Sanso, despite the crowds.

After a wander around the gardens and a traditional whisked green tea and sweet cake we were off down through the Bamboo again to Tenryu-ji, a world heritage site with a beautiful water garden, traditional temple buildings and shrines.

The temple was so nice with the blossoms in full bloom that I forgot to take any pics with my phone for the blog but i did grab a lot with my camera so look out for these when I get back to Scotland.

After the temple we headed down to the river again and started off along the river path, stopping to watch boats passing and to take photos of the tree lined hills on the opposite side of the river where evergreen trees and maple were mixed with the occasional brightly coloured cherry or Apple blossom tree.

We sat for a while just watching the world go by, snapping images of the passing boats, wildlife and the changing light across on the hillside.

It was a great way to spend an hour or so, before heading back into town for a lunch of breaded chicken with rice, egg and pickled vegetables, miso soup, and a local beer.

Fed and refreshed we set out towards our last stop of the day, the monkey park, which is 500ft up in the mountains above the town. It’s a bit of a hike up, especially after a large lunch and carrying 8kg of heavy camera gear but we reached the top soon enough and it was certainly worth the effort as we were rewarded with some amazing views out over Arashiyama and on towards Kyoto. It was interesting trying to pick out some of the locations in distant Kyoto which we’ll be visiting later in the trip.

We were a little early for new born monkeys which normally arrive in April / May but we did catch a glimpse of what looked like a little one year old amongst the adult Macaque monkeys.

After taking way too many photos of monkey’s we set off once more back down the hill towards the railway and the trip back. The return train from Arashiyama to Katsura was filled to overflowing! It felt like we had to take turns inhaling – the train was so full!

Eventually we all poured out onto the Katsura platform and separated into the Osaka bound and Kyoto bound factions. The trip from Katsura back to Umeda was a lot less busy and with the warm sun and energy levels at a low point after almost 8 miles of walking it was difficult to stay awake as the train gently rocked us back and forth in the late afternoon sun.

Once at Umeda the walk back to the Umeda underground woke us just enough to get us back into another seriously overcrowded underground train for the short trip back to Daikokucho and the apartment.

Tomorrow we’re off to a new location and an old favourite. The former, expo 70 park, is considered the best place in Osaka to see the blossoms at full bloom. I’ve never been, nor have I travelled on the monorail system which is how we will arrive. Should be an interesting trip!

In addition to Expo 70 park, we’ll be revisiting Minoo Park. Again, ive no idea if Minoo has many blossom trees, but this visit is for something more anyway.

We met a lovely man last year who had befriended a wild crow and visits him every day with food which the crow then hides for all the other, more timid, crows. I grabbed a few pics of them together and I’ve included an image of him with his friend the crow in my upcoming exhibition in Glasgow so as a thank you I’ve brought a print of that image with me in the hope we’ll meet him again so that I can give him a copy.

I’ll let you know tomorrow if we manage to catch up with them again! 🙂

Spring in Japan- day 2

BLOSSOMS!

Woke this morning an hour or so before sunrise and already it was clear that it was going to be a lovely sunny warm day, so we decided to get out at dawn in the hope of getting a few snaps before the rush hour crowds swept through the streets of Osaka.

The blossom forecast on Japanese tv (yes they really do have that) announced that blossoms were now in full bloom in and around Osaka so the carefully made plans for today were completely trashed in favour of a visit to a local park, followed by a long walk around Namba on the look out for cherry and Apple trees!

At the local park we found that it was true…

Even in the low light, with an early morning haze hanging over the city the trees looked amazing.

After a while, with it still quite early, we decided to head over to the Castle Park to see if the trees there were the same.

We arrived around 7am to find the park quiet apart from some keen photographers, dog walkers, joggers and around 50 Japanese military personal with armoured vehicles and machine guns!

The castle park looked amazing as I ran around grabbing shot after shot of the blossoms. I had to remind myself to put down the camera every once in a while otherwise I wouldn’t have had any images from my phone to use in the blog!

The camera phone didn’t really do justice to the range of colours so im looking forward to sharing some of my camera images with you all on Facebook and Instagram when I get back!

After an hour or so of wandering around snapping away it was obvious that the news about the blossoms had filtered through as bus loads of people began to turn up, with people literally running into the park to pose with and photograph the blossoms in full bloom before the rest of the crowds turned up!

Ive tried all day to come up with a similar event in the UK where people just get out and celebrate nature in such numbers and with such obvious passion and enjoyment and I can honestly say I can’t think of a single example. It seems to be an uniquely Japanese thing and its something I feel very lucky to be a part of right now.

Business men in suits on route to work were stopping to photograph trees they probably walked past every morning for months without looking up; from the youngest to the oldest everyone seemed caught up in the excitement of it all and it was infectious! I was running around with the rest of them snapping away, taking close ups, “arty” shots, etc. With no regard to composition or the usual care taken when I’m out photographing normally.

I really need to get some good quality images on this trip that I can add to the upcoming exhibition and also to illustrate an article I’ve written for a popular photography magazine, so i kinda need to have some good quality black and white images soon but the riot of colour and the excitement of realizing that despite all the things that could have gone wrong in the last 195 days of preparing this trip, we’d managed to arrive the day before the blossoms bloomed took over and I was swept up with the crowd and snapping at everything and anything that looked like blossom!

After a walk around the Castle and in the middle of a large and growing crowd of people we decided to call it a day and head back to the city centre for some breakfast and to take care of the planned admin for the day.

It was still only 10am as we queued for our rail passes the set off to track down some food.

This afternoon was spent in the Umeda area doing some early gift shopping before calling it a day and heading back to Namba for food, a well earned beer and then the walk back to our appartment.

Tomorrow is a trip to Arashiyama on the outskirts of Kyoto. I didnt visit this location last year so im looking forward to the trip. Bamboo groves, temples, gardens, monkey’s and hopefully lots of blossom. I just hope I can show a little more control around the blossoms!

Oh, and the heavily armed soldiers? No idea what was going on. Last I saw them they were preparing to abseil over the side of the huge walls that overlook the moat which surrounds the Castle. Not to be outdone by the civilians, the military had a photographer with a drone recording whatever they were up to.. it may have been my imagination but im convinced the drone spent more time sweeping over the blossoms and hovering above the trees than it did recording the soldiers. Even the military, it seems, gets caught up in the moment sometimes! 🙂

Spring in Japan- day 1

Of all my trips to Japan, this was the one that was most finely balanced in terms of timing. I had to book the flights 195 days in advance, aiming to be here for an event which is famously difficult to predict and which can begin anytime over a 4-6 week period and can last for as little as 7 days. Short of block booking a 6 week holiday over March and April, which unfortunately wasn’t an option, there was always going to be an element of luck around this trip.

Even tour operators who specialise in tours to see the famous Hanami, cherry blossom festival, warn that trips solely to see the blossoms will rarely catch them in full bloom, so fleeting and unpredictable is the event.

So, right up to the point of boarding the plane it was still far from certain that we would even catch a glimpse of the blossoms, let alone see them in full bloom.

The latest forecast is that the best time to view the blossoms in Osaka this year will be a four day window around March 31st to April 3rd, so fingers are crossed, but nothing guaranteed.

I was encouraged slightly when leaving the airport to find cherry blossom decorations everywhere. While on the train into Osaka, we passed roads lined with cherry blossom trees beginning to bloom, so its just possible that the timing will work out… or still fail miserably!

Apologies in advance for the blogs over the next 10 days or so…

If the timing has worked and luck is with us, you’re about to be subjected to day after day of pink cherry blossom photos! If my timing has failed and my luck ran out, you’re about to experience day after day of self pity, moaning and whinging from yours truly!

Read on at your peril! 🙂

Day 2 will see a brief trip to Osaka castle to see if the blossoms are in full bloom there, followed by some shopping around Umeda and the purchase of tickets etc for the rest of the break. We may even fit in some okonomiyaki in Dotonburi later in the day. 😉

Im writing this at 4am on day 2, don’t you just love jetlag?!