Please indulge my musings about our travels for a few posts during January. My family has arrived for three weeks in wintry Japan during our summer holidays. We are currently exploring Tokyo and surrounds with the assistance of a JR Pass and some very generous Japanese volunteers. Already, after less than a week in the metropolis we feel both welcomed and impressed with the people and place. In fact, it is hard not to feel a little jealous, if you have lived in Sydney and do not drive a car, about both the cleanliness and efficiency of the systems in Tokyo. We cleared customs, collected our baggage and were on a clean, modern train using our rail pass in minutes. The train we caught to Sydney airport had no running water or soap, the toilet was disgusting and splattered with graffiti. There was no employees, in comparison to the well-staffed Japanese system, in sight.
Why is this so?
In coming weeks I will endeavour to understand, even though it will be superficial, especially with out being able to speak Japanese, cultural differences and attitudes observed while we wander the country, with a view to understand what it is in the Japanese psyche that creates such wonderful public spaces and systems (with a keen eye out for paradox).
We have explored several suburbs of repute around Tokyo, especially Asakusa, where we are staying in a great location at Retro Tokyo. The kids really enjoyed the exotic nature of the food markets around the nearby Sensoji Temple. They watched a snow monkey perform tricks while I wandered, taking photographs of the sophisticated, fashionably dressed Japanese tourists and stallholders working.
On a Sunday we visited the Meiji Shrine in Harajuku and enjoyed walking through what felt more like a forest than a park with thousands of residents and visitors. My daughters enjoyed the costumes, fashions and affectations on display as we explored the streets around the train station. It is a very hip part of town and it is wonderful to see how the old and the new, the traditional and the outrageous, seem to blend seamlessly in this city. Akihibara, or ‘Electric Town’, also gave us a view of Tokyo that had my daughters more interested in anime than before. They were very fascinated by the girls walking around ‘in character’ and their spacey, doll-like appearance. In such a traditional society there are fashion extremes that would turn most heads and we had a lot of fun people-spotting.
The JR Pass really enables us to travel inexpensively around Tokyo as well as within the city. The pass does not cover the entire city but being able to use the Yamanote line allows us access to most places with just a few extra yen for traversing the metro system. It is amazing to see how efficiently, even during the sardine madness of peak hour, the system works with so many people jammed into the space. A few employees standing at key junctures ensures the smooth transit of the commuters at large station. It is however, nice to get out of the city into wonderful World Heritage listed sites of great beauty and historical significance so close to the metropolis.
Our first ride on a ‘bullet train’, to Nikko, further convinced me at how rundown our rail infrastructure is in NSW. The ease in which we booked tickets, changed them and speed of the trip were excellent. Mr Takeda, our volunteer guide, kindly showed us the truly awesome Shinto shrine, Nikkō Tōshō-gū and the magnificent Kegon Falls and nearby lake.
There’s an abundance of temples to explore around Kamakura. We visited the Hasedra Temple, Kenchoji and the local Daibutsu. Mr Takeda explained some of the etiquette for visiting Shinto shrines as well as some of the superstitions about good fortune when we were in Nikko. We continued to notice how prevalent seeking good luck is for many pilgrims and tourists. We guessed they were having fun although, when Lucy pulled ‘a nine’ (out of ten) from the barrel she was quick to reassure herself it was just a superstition
Travelling and photography are perfect companions. I am starting to rethink what gear is best for travelling and know this will be an ongoing and ever-evolving pleasure. My iPhone is great but D700, with multiple lenses is very heavy and obtrusive, especially for street photography or when walking long distances. The shutter is very noisy. My approach, rather than carry all my gear, is to choose a single lens for each day. When at the Tsukiji fish markets, a 105mm f/2.8 macro lens seemed best. When wandering around in the crowds of Asakusa or Harajuku, my 85mm f/1.8 is lighter and good in low light. The 70-200mm is just too heavy and obtrusive but does capture such gorgeous, pin-sharp shots, that one really wishes to lug it everywhere. The 24-70mm is the best general purpose lens, especially if only taking one out for the day knowing one will need some wide-angled shots. I do covet a Leica M10 but have not the funds to indulge in such expensive, German precision camera gear. I haven’t used my Lytro so far but hope to have some success with it when we visit the snow monkeys, in the north of the country, next week. I will definitely use a tripod to photograph the monkeys as it is driving me a little crazy that some of my shots are not as sharp as I am shooting handheld all the time at the moment. The picture below, of my delectable sushi lunch at the fish markets, is just not sharp as it should be but there wasn’t room, even if I had it, to set up my tripod in the restaurant.
My youngest daughter is enamoured with her camera. Sarah made a documentary (well, she did lots of talking while recording) as we walked around and had fun with her camera. She seems more interested in taking photos than looking at them and definitely has mastered the controls of her coolpix. She often points out shots for me and comments on the nature of the light. She spotted and titled the ‘frozen in time’ photo below.
Part II will be written next week. I am currently waiting for Victor Davidson to arrive. We plan to explore more of Tokyo today and my daughters have many question for our Japanese speaking friend to answer, as do I.