It seems to me, albeit very late at night and when a little weary, that if your profession, hobbies and passions involve reading, literature, history, walking, nature, photography and the politics of existence, travel is the perfect companion and a kind of utopian space for a family to spend time outside of themselves and their daily lives.
The four of us agree we wish to return to Japan as soon as feasible. Miss 6 and 9 have done well with the food and the culture. They are relatively seasoned travellers and have been ‘trained’ to walk many a mile without complaint. I love how they are completely happy to spend hours following a not too clearly defined trail, as well as spending time in a temple or bookshop, all the while talking endlessly with each other, and their parents, about what we are experiencing. We do not have much time left of our 21 day trip and know how little we have seen or understood of Japanese culture. Our appetites have been whetted for more travel here, perhaps in another, less wintry, more autumnal season. Reading about Japan, especially Japanese authors, will undoubtedly have to sustain us during the interregnum.
Books & Literature
I have managed to finish a couple of Haruki Murakami’s books while travelling, as well as a some histories and travel guides but have a very long ‘to read’ list. Victor introduced me to some quality Japanese literature during the day we spent hanging out in Tokyo and in some good bookstores. My whole family has used booko.com.au to ensure that many books, not available on the Kindle, will greet us some afternoons when we have all returned to our regular weekly lives. New authors to read (mostly secondhand books in the mail) include: Ryu Murakami, Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, Osamu Dazai and Hitomi Kanehara. I tend to read more non fiction than fiction so Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World by Theodore C. Bestor has been ordered too and I was delighted to see that the writings of Lafcadio Hearn (aka Yakumo Koizumi) about Japan (between 1890-1904) are mostly free for Kindle. My Japanese Table: A Lifetime of Cooking with Friends and Family is also in the post.
The kids have discovered, predictably, the pleasure of manga. The turning point was a visit to the original Tokyo Shinjuku branch of Kinokuniya and the absolutely impressive Kyoto International Manga Museum, where we sat and read for quite a while, mostly Ghibli Studio films we knew like Kiki’s Delivery Service and Spirited Away. Lucy found A Certain Scientific Railgun and Sarah, Fruits Basket. It was sad for all of us that we cannot read Japanese as obviously there’s such a treasure house of manga that we will never experience. However, we emailed the librarians back home in Kiama to help us out and they said that their manga collection is growing.
The Challenge of History
We almost decided not to travel to Hiroshima. The thought of what happened at 8.15am on the 6th August being too terrible to contemplate, or visit, especially for Miss 6. How do you explain dropping an atomic bomb on people to a kid who has just graduated from kindergarten? Our approach, tell her everything, as if she was an adult, about why – and the horror. Miss 9 did a good job in explaining what happened too but some of the museum exhibits were too gruesome for all of us. The vagaries of chance or luck and historical moira had to be discussed too when we were in Kyoto, the capital of Japan for a millenium, that was spared this annihilation reputedly through the work of an American scholar. Originally Kyoto was the most likely city to be bombed. It is awful to contemplate destruction of what prevails in Kyoto, including the tradition of maiko and geiko we saw in Gion, if ‘the bomb’ had been unleashed on this city of shrines, castles and temples. We were glad we went to Hiroshima and the kids learnt a great deal. Miss 9 said, “I never realised how much was destroyed and how terrible it was for so many people”. They had both read ‘Sadako’ but visiting the museum and shrine of remembrance in the Peace Park brought it all home. Books are great but this kind of experience is truly memorable at any age.
Snow, monkeys, ryokan and onsen
Our family has never really spent much time in snow. In fact, the kids first experience of heavy snow was in Nagano last week. They truly had a ball. So did I, waking before dawn in that city to take photographs in a magical snow-mantled temple kingdom. You will see what I mean by checking out a couple of the pics below of the the truly impressive Zenko-ji. It even snowed in Tokyo too I am told, disrupting the trains, so much of Japan was beautifully clad in white.
We then travelled to nearby Yudanka, from Nagano, where we had a Japanese inn booked and saw much, much more snow. It was a truly memorable experience to stay at Jinpyokaku, a historic ryokan – ‘loved by many writers and artists such as Yasunari Kawabata, Soseki Natsume, Akiko Yosano, and Fumiko Hayashi’ – for two nights while we made the pilgrimage to see the exquisite snow monkeys bathe in their hot springs. We watched the snow fall, without pause, for two days from our window and out walking. Our ryokan experience has been a highlight of the trip and I’m certain the weather conditions added to the magic. Bathing in the hot spring/onsen every day was particularly fun and relaxing for us (as was our exquisite breakfast and dinner dining experiences at the ryokan).
We stayed at this particular location as it is very close to one of Japan’s most famous wildlife experiences and, indeed, it was brilliant. Walking in heavy snow, to see the nearby Japanese macaque (snow monkeys), was a once in a lifetime experience. I made it twice in a lifetime by returning the next day, by myself, to take some pictures. It was challenging to take photographs due to the snowy conditions but it was very interesting watching the snow monkeys interact with each other.
I beat the monkeys (and the other tourists) to their hot springs on my second visit and waited for them to arrive. It took a while to thaw out on returning to the ryokan. See the hot spring the monkeys hang out in the pic. below and here’s a slideshow of my favourite Japanese Macaque photos taken while snow fell heavily.
We had a funny, quite serendipitous experience one day in Kyoto. My partner was looking for a restaurant near the Emperor’s Palace and we couldn’t find it but had looked for so long she was determined not to be defeated. We finally found the place and the guy behind the counter explained there was no food, only drinks. Undeterred we sat down and had some chai and cocoa. The place was truly eccentric, photos and bric-a-brac everywhere. Bob Dylan was playing, not in person but he could have turned up easily enough. It reminded me of countless places in India and Nepal where travellers hang out and had a counter-culture vibe. I sent out the following tweet:
I then picked a couple of the books of street photography while waiting for the chai and realised that all was not what it seemed at first. Soon tweeted:
The owner is a great photographer. Kai Fusayoshi’s street photography is truly brilliant and widely recognised. I ended up spending quite a bit of time checking out his work and previous exhibitions. I loved that he had an ‘on reading’ collection of bookish pics from around the city. Kai was kind enough to let me take some photos and signed some books for me. Interestingly enough, he does not work with digital images. His battered old Nikon camera certainly had more character than one would expect of an inanimate object.
Kai is exhibiting in New Zealand shortly and I suggest you check out his website to read about his interesting life and career. He has beautifully chronicled the life of the city he lives and captured some timeless images. Here is his Facebook page.
Exploring Kai’s work has me thinking about my own approach to photography. I certainly have snapped many photos in recent years while travelling and certainly enjoyed doing so in Japan too. However, I am struggling to find my way with street photography though, both stylistically and technically. I love wandering, looking for arresting images but am finding my Nikon D700 big and noisy. The iPhone is quite useful but not quite right either and my Lytro is only good for very staged shots. I know the best camera is the one you have with you but suspect I’d like a new Fujifilm X100s when it comes out. 😉
It has been a great trip and we still have two days remaining. We have had some truly awesome experiences and much to think about. Part III, a final reflective post, will be written when I return to Australia, after some time thinking on the plane but in the meanwhile, considering you have made it this far, you may wish to read Part I and the third post here. Thanks for reading this long post to the end ;).
Featured image: cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo by Darcy Moore: http://flickr.com/photos/darcymoore/8383501740/