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!

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!!

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


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?!

Hebrides: Island 17 of 51: Isle of Tiree

Isle of Tiree: Population 653 (2011), Mull Group, Inner Hebrides


Somehow a month slipped by between my last Hebridean island and today, and it’s felt like no more than 4 or 5 days.  It’s scary just how fast time flies when we’re too busy with our “must do this today” day jobs… just another example of why we should all make the most of our time; blink and a month’s gone by!  (Since writing this intro another WEEK has gone by before I was able to post this…!!)

I realized that I needed to get back out on my Hebridean project as soon as possible, but, if I’m honest I had five or six very good business reasons not to do the trip today, but, as there are only two days a week where it’s possible to get to Tiree and back in a single day, and I’m already booked up for the next two weeks, I decided to do it today anyway,  so, after a few hours sleep, I woke at 2am, packed the camera gear, filled myself with coffee, and set off at 3.30am towards the town of Oban on the west coast of Scotland.

Normally when heading for Oban this early in the morning, I’d go west through Glasgow, over the Erskine Bridge and along the western shores of Loch Lomond, but this morning was different as I knew several sets of road works lay between me and Loch Lomond, so instead I headed north towards Stirling and from there, west through the villages of Doune, Callander and Lochearnhead.

I don’t think I saw another car as I drove north along pitch black roads, through Callander and out along the shores of Loch Lubnaig.  A light mist was rising from the loch, which, combined with moonlit hills and wisps of vapour swirling around the glens on the opposite side of the loch, gave the whole scene an eerie otherworldly feel.  It reminded me of a project I had planned many years ago, but, never quite got around to doing.  I made a mental note to make a start on that work as soon as possible as the views this morning were exactly what I’d had planned.

If I hadn’t been on a tight schedule to get to Oban, I’d have probably pulled over and made a start on that work this morning as the conditions were perfect, but, reluctantly I continued northwards, up through Glenogle, narrowly avoiding some red deer which seemed to appear out of nowhere as they lept a small stream onto the road in front of me before just as swiftly running off to the left and down towards the foot of the glen.

By the time I’d reached Loch Awe, the stars had gone and the moon had dipped so low that it seemed to sit on the summits of the hills as I drove through the narrow Pass of Brander.  A little later, as I reached the outskirts of Oban, it had sunk even lower and appeared huge over the houses on the opposite side of the bay, so I pulled over and snapped a quick shot.  (apologies as it’s hand-held so a little shaky!)


I made my way to the car park near the ferry terminal, changed to my walking boots – still caked in blood red mud from my walk two days earlier at the Devil’s Pulpit – then walked around past the station to the terminal to buy my tickets for today’s adventure.

I’m not sponsored in any way by Caledonian MacBrayne (I did ask them at the start of this project if they’d be interested in featuring my blogs on their social media – an offer which they completely ignored…) but I have to say, the cost to visit the Hebridean islands has really come down in recent times…


Four hours sailing each way, so, an eight hour cruise in total, for just £20.60 return.  You can’t beat that!

The sun had risen by the time we slipped berth and began the outward journey, past Kerrera and out into open water as we headed towards the Sound of Mull.


The weather was perfect, so after a quick coffee to wake myself up, I headed out onto the deck to snap some photos of Mull and the mainland as we sailed along the narrow Sound of Mull which separates the island from the Ardnamurchan peninsula.

insta_3W2A0864(Above: Mull from the ferry / Below: Ardnamurchan)

As we approached Tobermory, it quickly got around the deck that dolphins had been spotted swimming alongside the ferry, so we all headed over to the side to see if we could spot (or photograph!) them…


With around an hour to go before our first stop at the Island of Coll, I decided to head indoors for some breakfast as I wasn’t sure what the food situation would be like once I got to Tiree and as I hadn’t eaten today I thought it was a good idea to have a meal before the planned 5hr hike on Tiree…

I got some breakfast and settled down at a window to watch the world go by when something caught my eye just at the side of the ferry… a couple of dolphins were swimming alongside the ferry, just under the surface, then suddenly they’d leap out of the water before plunging back under. It was fascinating to see – and so close I could almost touch them.

After a couple of minutes (or in breakfast terms: a sausage, some mushrooms and a little bit of egg…) they seemed to tire of the game and swam off back towards the open water.

I finished breakfast and was just sipping down the last of my mug of tea when I noticed, no more than 30ft from the window, a HUGE slow moving basking shark idly swimming in the opposite direction, again just under the surface, but, with it’s dark red / brown body perfectly lit by the sun against the clear blue-green water.  I watched as it cruised past the ferry before gulping down the tea to get back on deck in case there were more to photograph…

Of course there wasn’t but it was great to finally see a basking shark in the wild.  That was a first for me!  Magnificent creatures.

As I’d been eating, we had sailed out into the Sea of the Hebrides and continued across to the first stop of the day, Arinagour on the Isle of Coll.
I have to confess, I was tempted to hop off the ferry here and count Coll as island number 18 – but that wouldn’t be fair to the 192 good people who live on the island, and I certainly couldn’t do the place justice in just 15 minutes, so I stayed on board and snapped a couple of reference shots as we waited for the cars to disembark, and the Coll vehicles to board.

insta_3W2A1039(above: The Isle of Coll, with The Isle of Eigg beyond)

I’m going to say something stupid now… something that could probably only come from a city dweller who grew up in a Glasgow tenement miles from the sea… but, you really only begin to appreciate the relationships between the various islands off the west coast when you start sailing around them all.  You can look at a map as often as you like and convince yourself that you know the geography of your country very well, but, it’s not until you actually get out there and sail around that you really get a feel for where everything is relative to everything else…

For some reason I hadn’t expected to see the small isles of Eigg, Muck, Rum and Canna today, nor the Black Cuillin of Skye, or the Paps of Jura.

Anyway… cars loaded and new passengers on board, we set off once more to head for Tiree, second of three stops and my destination.

Its another 40 minutes or so to Tiree, so I headed back inside to wait out the rest of the trip with a comfortable seat, as I wasn’t expecting to be seated much on Tiree!

We docked and I made my way down the walkway and onto Tiree, the most westerly of the Inner Hebrides and the 17th island in my quest to visit all of the permanently inhabited Hebridean islands.

insta_3W2A1087 I only knew one or two things about Tiree before I arrived, and some of that came from a Billy Connolly joke! (“The misty hills of Tiree”)

I knew (from the joke) that Tiree is flat – “you could play snooker on it” according to the Big Yin and indeed the highest point on the island is the summit of Ben Hynish which is just 463 ft above sea level.  I also knew it was home to a sizeable population of Corn Crakes, a relatively rare bird in the UK.

So off I set to explore parts of the north western end of the island, as the ferry left for it’s third port of the day, Castlebay on the Isle of Barra in the Outer Hebrides.

My planned walk took me out from the main village of Scarinish and north towards Traigh Mhor bay, turning left at Gott and heading out, away from the coast towards Loch Riaghain, and the western coast of the island.

insta_3W2A1121(above: the extremely flat Tiree landscape with Loch Riaghain in the foreground)

Just before I reached the western coast I stopped to watch an aerial battle between a Heron (I know what they look like) and another “big brown bird” – which I later had identified (thanks to the Boardman’s for the help!) as a Skua.  The battle raged for a while but as I’m not a wildlife photographer I was totally unprepared for the tussle and only managed to snap a few images using what is probably one of the worst lenses for wildlife photography… a 35mm wide angle!

Battle over, at least for me, I continued on westwards towards the coast past another 2 or 3 small lochs before the scene opened up in front of me and I had my first view of the west coast of Tiree and out in the distance, the Outer Hebrides on the horizon.

The route I had planned for today took me out to one of Tiree’s best known features, the Ringing Stone, a huge boulder balanced on other smaller stones which, when struck, rings with a metallic sound.  The stone was obviously important to ancient people as it was carved, over 4500 years ago, with elaborate cup and ring markings.


Of course, I had to try to get the stone to ring.  I struck it with a stone from the shore and sure enough it rings with an odd, metallic sound.  I tried a few more times and quickly discovered it’s a bit of a hit and miss thing, some times it rings, other times it doesn’t.

From the ringing stone, I continued northeast towards the Dun Mor broch, an ancient circular fort, thought to date from the 1st century AD.  The broch lies on the crest of a hill with great views out towards the small isles of Eigg and Rum.

After a wander around Dun Mor, I followed the coastal route southeast towards the stunningly beautiful beach of Traigh Bhalla before turning almost due south across the island to reach Traigh Mhor again for the long walk back to Scarinish.

insta_3W2A1277(above: Traigh Bhalla / below: Traigh Mhor)


I wandered back across Traigh Mhor towards Scarinish, pausing every few minutes to grab photos. It’s beautiful on a nice day and I’d definitely recommend a trip to Tiree if you get the chance!


I arrived back at Scarinish slightly early (an hour) for the ferry trip back to Oban, so I did what I always do… I found a pub!  I settled down in the Scarinish Hotel with a beer (from my hometown of Glasgow) and did a spot of people watching… my favourite hobby…!

You learn a lot about a place by sitting down where people feel comfortable and just listening.  Today was no different. I’ll not share what I heard as there’s every chance some of the people involved could read this, but, I learned a lot about island life, and, inter-island rivalry!  I learned about how people plan their life around the daily ferry visits and, more importantly, the winter / summer timetables.  It’s fascinating stuff and to someone like me who grew up no more than a few miles from the centre of the biggest city in my country, the second city of the entire British Empire, it’s riveting to listen to people discuss plans which involve a 4 hr sailing and a 3hr drive.

I honestly don’t know if I’d have the patience for that kind of life, but, I’m in total awe of those who do.

So… I started the day doubting if I should go and, if i’m honest, a lot of the problems which I feared might happen did happen – but, I’m so glad I took the time to visit Tiree. It’s a beautiful island which, as I’ve only seen about a third of it, is already drawing me back to visit again.

We sailed home, first to Coll, then back along the Sound of Mull, but, exhausted, I didn’t take many photos.  The early rise and the prospect of another 2.5hrs drive home (coupled with a 7am start tomorrow…) seemed to take the edge off any creative enthusiasm I might have felt.

We landed, on time, I walked back to the car, changed my boots – this time caked in silver sand – then set off home.  A perfect day and one I’m very glad I had.

photo blog of John McKenna