Spring in Japan – day 10

I wasn’t going to blog about today’s activities but as something eventful happened later in the day I thought I’d record the day after all.

Universal Studios a few years ago was probably my least favourite day in all the times I’ve been to Japan, so i was in no hurry to return, but, with rain and strong winds forecast and little chance of getting any photography done I reluctantly agreed to spend the day surrounded by people in rain soaked costumes queuing for hours for 5 minute rides and maxing out credit cards on wizard cloaks, butterbeer and Spider-Man ponchos.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s an amazing experience and I totally get the attraction, especially for kids and the young at heart, but as i dont like rollercoaster rides, hate crowds and despise queuing for hours on end for anything it’s not really a day out designed with me in mind!

I probably had the only permanent frown in the entire park as we weaved and dodged our way through tens of thousands of excited visitors and around the various rides and shows, each one staffed by beaming perma-grinning staff keen to make our visit memorable.

To be fair, the staff are amazing and I definitely couldn’t do what they do. From a constant stream of photo requests to a never ending line of expectant children they must fall into bed each night utterly exhausted and unable to raise another smile until they’re next back on duty!

As we watched one member of staff instructing children on how to use their newly purchased interactive wizard wands on the various floating, spinning and rattling smart items around the park, one smiling assistant siddled up beside us and whispered enigmatically “it’s magic” before wandering off to smile at someone else…

I’d have to agree with him… the park was magically generating money on an industrial scale!

After several hours of narrowly avoiding being struck down by the grumpy old git fairy or whatever the Harry Potter equivalent of that is, we decided to rescue me from my torment and return to the station for the trip back to Namba.

Back in Namba, where the only costumes on display were the manga fans on route to Den Den town we wandered back in the general direction of the appartment, trying to decide on what to do with the remainder of the day.

Almost by chance we came upon the park we visited first thing on day 2 – the park where we first saw the cherry blossoms in full bloom.

Almost every single bloom had fallen or been blown from the trees. It really struck me just how lucky we have been on this visit.

We arrived the night before the blossoms fully opened, managed to visit and photograph them in some great locations, in brilliant sunshine, witnessed them wane and fall and now we’re catching their final moments. I couldn’t have asked for better timing and considering the Sakura officially blossomed early this year, and the blooms more transient than normal due to the sudden temperature drop and the change in the weather, the fact we caught them at all is surprising but to have been here for the entire cycle in a brief 12 day window booked 195 days in advance from the other side of the world – THAT is the real “magic” of today’s blog!

I may be a muggle but perhaps i do believe in a little magic now! (Just don’t tell anyone!)

This is the same park just 9 days ago…

Tomorrow we’re off back to Osaka Castle for some more before/after shots then it’s a day of shopping and relaxing before our final day of the trip on day 12.

Spring in Japan- days 8 and 9

Day 8 was spent shopping in and around Osaka. We visited Shinsaibashi and picked up a few presents, had lunch in Dotonburi then continued with the shopping in Namba Parks before finding a lovely little bar near BIC Camera (where I treated myself to a new LED light for portraits back home – watch this space for details of this new service when I get back!)

We spent an hour or so watching the world go by from the bar before heading out on the 15 minute walk back to the appartment.

Day 9 started early as we prepared to set off on the trip out to Wakayama prefecture and the mountain temples and cemeteries of Koyasan.

It’s usually a fairly straight forward trip to Koyasan; train to Hashimoto, change for train to Gokurakubashi then cable car up the last 1500ft to Koyasan.

Recently though a typhoon caused damage to parts of the line and the route was closed for a while – it only reopened 3 days ago – so there are still disruptions to several of the services; it’s a tribute to Japanese efficiency that despite these disruptions, and several more train changes than would normally be required, we still arrived in Koyasan on time and feeling like the trip went hassle free and according to plan.

Koyasan is another of the locations I’ve visited in all four seasons now and yet again it didn’t disappoint.

Okunoin, a cemetery with over 200,000 tombs doesn’t have very many cherry blossom trees, but it didn’t really matter as it was obvious from the train journey that the few blossom trees they did have had almost completely lost their blooms, proof of just how brief the blossom season is and just how lucky we’ve been to catch it at all!

Everytime I visit Koyasan I find areas I’ve never noticed before and today was no different. The forest seemed to be filled with incense smoke today as we wandered aimlessly along the paths which fan out from the main pilgrims path beneath giant Japanese cedar trees, some of which are nearly 200ft tall.

After the walk through Okunoin we went shopping for a while before boarding the bus for the short trip back to the Koyasan cable car and the trip back down off the mountain.

When we arrived at Gokurakubashi we had a choice of routes back to Osaka: local train back to Hashimoto or limited express straight to Osaka Namba. The limited express required an additional upgrade payment and as we were in no great hurry we opted for the local train, but as it pulled into the station at Hashimoto it became clear that, due to the schedule changes, we faced either a 40 minute wait for the connecting train, or just 5 minutes if we upgraded and caught the express. That was an easy choice! Upgraded and reserved seat tickets in hand we travelled in style back to Osaka, pulling into the station not long after we’d have just boarded the regular service at Hashimoto had we waited..

The evening was spent in Namba eating and having a few beers in one of our favourite bars before walking back to the appartment just after midnight through the still busy streets of Namba.

We’re at Universal studios tomorrow so not sure if I’ll blog about that… There’s only so many ways you can describe 2hr queues, over priced plastic toys and hotdogs! (or long meat buns as I saw some described earlier in the week!)

I’ll also try to capture a few images of the fading blossoms before they’re gone completely. They have almost all fallen now and trees which were pink and white just a week ago are bare with only the light green shoots of new growth to show for what was a spectacular few days. There is a strong wind forecast for tomorrow so it’s very possible that this will strip the last of the petals from the trees and we will have experienced the entire blossom cycle by the time we depart again late on day 12.

Spring in Japan- day 7

According to the morning news the cherry blossoms were beginning to fall all around the Kansai region so with one “must see” location still to visit on this trip, today’s itinery kinda picked itself.

“The Philosophers Walk” in Kyoto is a pedestrian path that follows a cherry tree lined route alongside a canal between Ginkaku-ji and Nanzen-ji temples.

I’ve visited the walk in late autumn and winter but spring is the must see time due to the Sakura.

We travelled through to Kyoto, changing to the underground at Karasuma / Shigo before travelling on to Keage.

Our first stop was the Keage incline, a small railway siding dating back to 1891 which was closed in 1977, restored and re-opened as an important national historical site in 1996. Both sides of the incline are lined with cherry blossoms and the site is very popular with locals and visitors at this time of the year.

We watched another few weddings / photoshoots at the incline before heading down towards the Nanzen-ji temple to join the steady stream of walkers following the philosophers walk.

The walk is stunningly beautiful even though we were visiting as the blossom was on the wane.

Every little breeze lifted a new flurry of white and pink petals into the air that slowly settled back down onto visitors, the pathway and the canal. At times even the water seemed to flow white and pink as the gentle current swept the delicate petals along until they reached a barrier then spun in tiny pink whirlpools on the surface.

I was so wrapped up in trying to capture all this on camera that I forgot to take any shots on my mobile for the blog so all images of the philosophers walk are copyright H.Boardman. (Thanks!)

Once again if I’ve managed to capture even a fraction of the beauty of this walk in a single image then the whole trip has been worthwhile.

As you may know, I’m a Buddhist and I carry a small Buddha that I bought years ago in Thailand everywhere I go, so we decided that a photo of the statue in some blossom would make for a nice image so here is a preview of that shot…

After the Philosophers walk we returned to the underground at Keage then back to Kyoto for a light lunch on the banks of the Kamo River.

Initially the plan was to visit and climb Mount Inari again then head to Kiyomizu Dera for sunset but we delayed slightly too long on the river bank watching huge Kites (the birds not the manmade flying type) stealing food from crows and gulls. Back home Kites are quite rare and solitary but we counted six in the skies over the Gojo Dori bridge as they swooped and harassed the other birds into dropping their food before fighting over the scraps between themselves.

If you follow my blog regularly you’ll know I’m no expert on wildlife or wildlife photography but it was great to just watch as these huge birds dominated the sky above Kyoto, sweeping as low as 10-20ft above the crowds on the bridge.

From Gion-shijo station we travelled one stop to Kiyomizu-Gojo where I was brutally assaulted by a local!

I should probably explain the above statement before continuing…

On the way out of the station I noticed that Hayleys backpack was open so as we climbed the stairs out of the station I reached out to close the bag. A local man who was walking in the opposite direction saw what I was doing and with no hesitation alerted Hayley to what was happening then rattled me on the arm to get me to stop! He obviously assumed I was trying to steal from her and took it on himself to stop the crime! I was at least 25 years younger and over a foot taller than him but he didn’t even pause before setting about me. I laughed, then Hayley laughed as we tried to explain what was going on; then he laughed and hit me again anyway before walking off giggling to himself!! What a great guy, and what a great sense of community where someone would intervene so quickly to help a stranger. Even if it meant potentially putting yourself in danger.

Kiyomizu-dera is a Buddhist temple and world heritage site in the hills above Kyoto. The name comes from a sacred waterfall deep in the temple (Kiyomizu means pure water)

Probably one of the best locations for watching sunset in Kyoto we watched the sun set over the city last year from this site and vowed to return again as soon as possible.

The sunset wasn’t quite as dramatic as last winter but we had a lot more time to explore the temple and look for new angles so im hopeful that I’ve got some nice images to share when I get back.

As the sky darkened we walked back to the train station for the journey back to Osaka.

There won’t be a blog tomorrow as its a day off. A day filled with shopping, eating and no doubt a beer or two. If anyone would like anything specific from Japan let me know!

Day 9 will involve the long journey out to Wakayama and Mount Koya. Another location ive been lucky to visit in all four seasons.

I hope you’re all enjoying the blog!

Spring in Japan – day 6

When planning was underway for this trip, Himeji was one of the anticipated highlights. Technically the visit wasn’t scheduled for another few days but the blossoms are starting to fall now and we didn’t want to risk missing this iconic location so plans were shuffled and ideas shelved so that we could take the long trip out past Kobe and along the shores of the inland sea to Himeji and it’s iconic castle.

Before getting started on the days activities I should probably explain something about me and my relationship with Himeji!

Japan has a fast food / cafe chain which is similar to the Greggs chain back in the UK. Last year I inadvertantly discovered a pastry which was so good, I ended up searching out branches back in Osaka just to see if they sold the pastry!

The item looks for all the world like a good old fashioned sausage roll, but with a Japanese twist… the sausage tastes like it has been marinated in teriyaki sauce and before baking, is coated in a spicy bbq type sauce then lightly coated in a fine flaky pastry and baked… the result is amazing!

On most days, my itinery for Japan pretty much starts with times for trains, sunrise and sunset, ideas for photographs, notes from last visit, etc.

My plans for today simply starts with… “Himeji. Visit Mr Donuts”

After a tea and a pastry (I’ve no idea what they are called) we boarded the bus for the trip to the Mount Shosha ropeway and the Buddist temples high up on the hillside beyond.

While on the way, we passed Himeji castle and it looked amazing in the early morning light rising from what looked like a sea of white and pink.

We continued on to the ropeway and quickly found ourselves high above the city with miles of quiet wooded paths, temples and Buddist statues and shrines between us and the main temple complex.

We wandered for an hour or so until we reached the main temples, made famous in the film “last samurai”, where we visited the museum, took way too many photos and then headed out to a viewpoint overlooking the city for a light snack and some drinks.

After a short break we returned to the ropeway, stopping for chat with a fellow traveller who was on a solo four week tour of Japan from Portland, Oregon, before decending back down the ropeway, boarding the bus and setting off once more on route to the much anticipated Himeji Castle.

We arrived at the castle in the early afternoon and it had clearly been much busier earlier in the day from the neatly packed piles of waste in the designated waste zones. As always, the park itself was spotless and litter free.

We first visited a garden on the outskirts of the castle walls, which was lovely, before heading around to the main entrance, but not before we were stopped by a lovely old man who wanted to know where we were from and if we were enjoying his home town of Himeji. Just another example of how friendly and welcoming Japan is.

After a chat, he shook our hands and went off on his way and we wandered around to the castle entrance.

The park in front of the castle was still very busy as people enjoyed what is beginning to feel like the end of Hanami. The blossoms have darkened in colour, there are green shoots showing where only a few days ago all was white or pink and every light breeze is accompanied by a blizzard of petals which seem to fall in slow motion or hang in the air before settling silently onto the heads of those sitting in the shade or into the upturned hands of children who eagerly run around trying to capture the pristine petals before they touch the ground.

We found a few vantage points to shoot the castle from (didn’t want to go into the castle again on this trip) then made our way back out towards the main street for some lunch.

As we were leaving another man stopped us and explained that he was learning English and wanted to know if we’d talk to him for a bit to help him improve. He asked where we were from, Hayley answered Manchester to which he replied “ah Manchester United!” My reply of Scotland was greeted with “Sean Connery” and “do you drink Scotch?”

It’s funny how people from other countries see us all eh?

After we said goodbye to the man (who’s English was perfect and needed very little practice!) It was time for some food.

We found a small cafe specialising in Okonomiyaki, which is more associated with Osaka than Himeji so we decided to give that a go to compare and contrast…

Himeji okonomiyaki is much lighter, the vegetables much more finely chopped and the sauce a lot less over powering. I liked it, although I think the Osaka version is still my favourite.

We returned to the train station, narrowly avoiding a second visit to Mr Donuts before setting off on the 2hr trip back to Osaka.

Tomorrow is a free day. We may return to Kobe, or visit Koyasan… the decision will depend on the weather tomorrow!

Spring in Japan – day 5

Today was a bit of an “open day”.

We had plans to visit either Himeji, Koyasan or go back to Kyoto but after spending some time studying the various weather / Sakura forecasts we decided to change plans completely and head to Nara instead.

Nara, ancient capital of Japan is one of the locations I’ve visited on each trip to Japan so i was keen to see how it had changed with the arrival of the blossom season.

We reached Nara in good time and stepped out into brilliant sunshine and a much busier main street than usual.

Ive learned over this trip that if a location is busier than usual over Hanami it’s because the locals know there are lots of blossoms in the area, if it’s the same as usual, they know that there are no blossoms or there were but they have fallen already. The steady stream of new arrivals at the train station gave some confidence that we were in for a treat today!

It wasn’t long before we encountered our first sika deer casually walking along the side of the road, bowing to visitors and happily accepting food and posing for photos.

We continued on towards the kasuga-taisha shrine, where we’d experienced the end of winter festival last year, pausing for an ice cream on route to stave off the effects of the increasing temperature. By the time we reached the shade of the forest which surrounds the Shinto shrines it was already well over 20 degrees and rising.

There was little evidence of blossoms in the pine, maple and camphor trees of the forest, so we wandered around the main shrine for a while, photographing the few blossoms we could find before heading back through Nara Park towards Todai-ji.

The park was filled with visitors enjoying the fleeting blossoms which on closer inspection have already begun to lose some of their brilliant white and delicate pink hues while the piles of fallen leaves have started to accumulate around the bases of trees and in any hollow where the occasional breeze can’t move them on.

There were crowds everywhere but unlike Osaka castle, or even Expo 70 park, there were very few vendors selling food or drink, so it was a lot more peaceful and visitors were relaxing with picnics and drinks brought from home.

Another thing we noticed at Nara is the large number of photo shoots taking place. Either couples in traditional kimono or couples in what looked like wedding clothes. Most of the subjects looked and acted like professional models while the photographers were all clearly professional so i presume that they were professional photo shoots rather than real weddings but it was interesting to watch them being posed and lit in what must have been some difficult photo conditions with the crowds and the harsh midday sun.

Not to be outdone, i sneakily snapped a few images too, which I’ll share on my return to Scotland. 😉

I had brought my new f1.4 sigma art lens with me to Japan specifically for low light images inside Todai-ji temple so we headed in to the shaded interior to put it (and me!) to the test.

The lens seemed to handle well in the difficult conditions and I’m interested to see the final results when I get back home.

The plan was to then visit the garden of Yoshikien, which is another location I’ve been lucky to get to see in all four seasons but on the way we stumbled across a walled garden which I’ve always assumed to be a private residence but turns out it’s a Buddhist training school and the zen gardens are free to visit and photograph.

After a while relaxing in the garden we moved on to Yoshikien and then returned to the main town centre for a bite of lunch (beef steak curry and rice with a local beer) and some shopping.

Tired but happy we returned to Osaka planning on having a night out in the city but exhaustion coupled with an early start tomorrow changed our plans and we settled down for a quiet night in with some Japanese tv instead!

Early start tomorrow. Himeji castle and Mount Shosha planned. I’m looking forward to this trip as Himeji Castle is usually listed as one of the best places in all of Japan to see the cherry blossoms.

They are fading quickly now though so i hope they are still there when we arrive!