Jim Friesen - Photography

We left the mountains while the hurricane held a blanket of cloud over southern Japan. By the time we approached Tokyo we were seeing the kind of beautiful skies that seem to appear most often after extreme weather. Before long we were back in the underground subway system and then, as on our arrival, emerging into the Tokyo night life.




Angela and I found our Ryokan after getting to street level and getting into a cab. When we showed the driver the address he laughed and told us to walk up half a block and turn right. We checked in, put our luggage away and went for a walk. I was beginning to feel the pull of home and the fatigue that two weeks on the road can inflict on a sixty-year-old travel-neophyte. I put my larger SLR away and decided to only carry my point & shoot for the last 48 hours of our trip. 

Ange wanted to see 'Electric Town'. I would have been happy sitting in one of the comfortable lounges we passed, watching the Japanese World Series, but I knew Angela wanted to spend part of the next day on her own so I stuck with her.

'Electric Town' is one of those areas with neon canyons and super-sized billboards. Young women, dressed as sexy French maids, would come out of doorways and try to entice me into the restaurants where they worked. Apparently this was very popular with young men with under-developed self-esteem. There is no sex involved but the customers are pampered and flirted with. I wasn't comfortable taking pictures of these young women. You'll have to take my word that they exist. I understand that the fashions change unexpectedly; French maids one day - cheerleaders (or whatever) the next.

In among the highrises of the area you might find a little art-deco restaurant like the one below.
The next day we got up as early as we could and made our way to the Tokyo fish-market, grabbing a macha latte on the way. Of course Angela made friends with the barrista before we left.

The Tokyo Fish Market is something else. We have the Granville Island Market in Vancouver but this was bigger and different. You have to wake up and get there by six a.m. if you want to see the fish auction. We didn't do that but we did get there in time for sushi breakfast.



Before we had breakfast I wanted to buy Michael a special present. It was great being with Angela but I thought a lot about the people at home and I wished Mike could have been with us. I decided on a hand-made knife. 
bg_29761390379840.jpgI stopped at this kiosk and started to talk to a young chef from Hawaii (he looked like Chad Owens). He assured me that these guys were famous and he came to Japan specifically to buy some knives from them. I picked one out and they put Mike's initials on it. I was thrilled.

Then it was time for breakfast. Angela was in a bind. She wanted the best sushi in Tokyo and so she thought that the best places would be the ones with the longest lines. But she didn't want to wait 40 minutes to eat. I told her that we were in the Tokyo Fish Market; how bad could any of them be. And besides, the ones with no lines probably tried harder (the old Tilden car rental motto). She relented.

bg_29771390379897.jpgWe had a fabulous feast of sushi and, when we left, there was a line-up a half a block long outside the place where there had been no line-up when we went in. I felt like Solomon.

From there we went to the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. I was in heaven. Angela left and I have to admit that I was a little anxious about getting around Tokyo on my own. My friend Doug had agreed to meet me at the Shibuya subway station. I got there, thought I was lost, got some confusing directions and ended up back where I started. I couldn't help but think of the wonderful movie, 'Enlightenment Guaranteed'. It was one of the reasons I was in Japan. I saw myself in a tent on the streets of Tokyo and getting a job as a waiter in a bar where they dress in leiderhosen and play oompahpah music. But I took pictures as I wandered.


If you watched the trailer for 'Enlightenment Guaranteed' you will recognize the man in the photo below. He is the Japanese laborer that I have seen in so many movies. Heroic and proud, whether polishing the floor of a monastary, turning the grinding wheel of a mill or cleaning the handrail of an escalator, as this man was.
I finally found the place where I was to meet Doug. If you don't know the story of Hachiko, here it is.
I had gotten there almost two hours early because when I set out I expected to get even more lost than I did. It gave me a lot of time to look around. I haven't talked about the fashions in Japan, especially Tokyo. They were interesting.
Shibuya has the multi-direction intersection ...
Lots of shopping opportunities ...
places where you can destress by petting kittens ...
and everything for keeping up with the latest fashion trends.

I found a beautiful area under a section of elevated subway tracks ...
and even some more bicycles against walls!

Even the railings between the sidewalks and the streets seemed worth looking at.
Doug finally arrived and we wandered Shibuya, going into guitar shops, buying tobacco and a lighter that didn't use fuel but electricity and charged by being put in a usb port. That was for a friend of mine back home but some of the tobacco came in handy later. He also helped me find an inexpensive set of headphones that I would be able to use on the flight home, rather than those awful three dollar ear buds that Air Canada sells.
We stopped for a meal and a beer and I convinced Doug to help me get back to my Ryokan. It had a bar and we finished the night drinking and smoking some of the very strong cigarettes that I had bought. There were a lot of travellers there that night from all over the world, and one quite inebriated local who said Kurasawa was not a very intelligent director. I told him that made Kurasawa perfect for me. Doug met a young man from Malta who shared his beliefs regarding pantheism and disco's debt of gratitude to German techno-pop bands. It was a fun night.
The next morning Ange and I got up, had our last 7-11 breakfast and wandered Tokyo until it was time to go to the airport.

Time for one last meal.
I was looking forward to going home and sad to leave at the same time. 
bg_29981390380553.jpgBut mostly I was grateful for having had the opportunity to step outside my world and see something brand new; something I had almost decided I would never have the chance to see. 


bg_30001390380808.jpgI came home with a pocketful of Japanese coins, foreign ink on my passport for the first time, at least a thousand photos and a head full of memories; many that I haven't shared here but hopefully I can tell you about in person some day.

I also found a little watch, rescued it from beneath the feet of the subway passengers on the way to the airport. I didn't have the opportunity to find a 'lost and found', so I kept it. I have it still; and as long as it runs, it will be on Japan time.

Thank you all for giving me the opportunity to relive a special time. And thanks for your generous comments. I can't forget to thank Sydney for helping us plan this trip, you did a great job.

But most of all, thanks Ange!



The long commute. 


When we left Kyoto we ended up using five or six different buses or trains, including a cable car, to get us to and up the mountain to Koyasan, and a Buddhist monastary there, where we spent the night.

We met a lot of wonderful people during our stay in Japan; the designers from Mexico and the Canadian couple from Calgary, Yasuko in Hiroshima and Raphael in Kyoto to name just a few; and some we met on a train. There was a charming couple from Redding, England, that we met on the train to Hiroshima and kept bumping into while we were there; and finally, Christoph, a young (to me) German who had just finished a contract with an international think-tank and was taking a six month vacation to travel the world. He was going to another monastary in the same area as us in Koyasan. We helped each other find our transfer stations and eventually got where we were going. He has sent me some beautiful photos of his travels and if I can figure out how to share them in future blogs I will. 


A typhoon was moving onto Japan while we were travelling and it added another texture to our time there. We watched the landscape and the weather change. 











This last trolley train took us up the mountain to the town where we would be staying. By then the rain was coming down steadily.




All the train travel we did during those two weeks in Japan, and the need at the end of the day to defrag my brain, left a lot of time for reading. I ended up reading three novels and a number of short stories from 'The Oxford Book Of Japanese Short Stories'; by far the most reading I had done in that short a time in years. The novels were 'A Little Yellow Dog' by Walter Mosley (one of my favorite American crime fiction writers), which I had brought with me; and two novels that I found in a small English Used Book Store in Hiroshima. One was 'A Drink Before War' by Dennis Lehane (another hard-boiled fiction writer that I sometimes enjoy) and the other was a book that Angela had read and thought I might like; 'The Night Circus' by Erin Morgenstern. It is a romance with magical imagery and recurring symbols, especially of fire and water, that seemed to take on a personal resonance during our stay in Koyassan.

We were escorted to our room by a young monk who spoke a little English. He was ninteen years old and had been in the monastary for two years. It was a large room and luckily there was a heater in one corner as the temperature had dropped considerably.

Angela joined a medition group somewhere in the monastary and I wandered with my camera performing my own style of meditation. 







We had another simple but delicious meal, prepared and delivered by the monastary. I enjoyed an onzen bath; how I miss those. We made our beds and fell asleep to the sound of the wind ticking rain on the windows. We would be waking early.

At five a.m. we were up and dressed and down the stairs, ready for the two rituals we wanted to be part of. The first was a relatively straight forward morning prayer and I did not take pictures. But the second was a Fire Ceremony and I had to. 

I do not pretend to know how the fabric of the universe is woven, or what influence we have on its shaping. For this ceremony participants were invited to write their wishes on a stick of wood and present it to the priest to be burned in the fire. I presume that the prayers are released into the air where they can manifest their influence. I did not offer a wish but I don't judge those that did. Seeing their faces I could only imagine the trials that had brought them to this place and could only hope that any hardships they were facing could be lessened by their presence on that morning. While the fire burned, outside the rain fell.




Angela and I returned to our room, ate a healthy breakfast and dressed for the weather. We packed our bags, went down stairs, where we left our luggage, and went out to explore the area. We had read about a famous cemetary nearby. 

If you can imagine our entry from the subway tube into the glare and noise of Tokyo as a kind of birth, then it was appropriate that as our life in Japan ended we should be in a cemetary. The number of stories that must have died in that graveyard is staggering to my imagination. It seemed to go on forever.









Angela and I seperated as we entered the gates. I wandered slowly with my camera, trying to protect it from the rain, and she walked ahead to be with her own thoughts. I met a couple, around my age, who handed me their camera and asked me if I would take their picture. They were from the south-west United States and, when I told them I had always wanted to photograph that part of the world, the man took out a card and handed it to me, saying that if I ever made it down there I should give them a call. It felt wonderful to be standing in the rain, in a mountain forest in Japan, and being invited, by someone I had never met before, to visit them in the American desert.

When I realized how large the cemetary was I became afraid that I wouldn't find Angela. Suddenly, there was Christoph, the German think-tank escapee, who said he had just seen her and she was not far ahead. By the time I found her the rain was coming down hard so we found a cab and started the long trip back to Tokyo.




Whatever you celebrate, and however you celebrate, I hope this is a happy time of year for you and yours.

And may there be a partridge in your pear tree!


We spent five wonderful days in Kyoto. Historically Kyoto is the home of the Shogun and the Shogun was the military leader of Japan. The above picture is of the Nijo Palace, the Shoguns' primary residence. It is surrounded by a moat, and gravel paths. The gravel was used so the guards could hear anyone approaching in the dark. Even the hallways were designed so that the floors would sing like nightingales (any weight would cause the slats to rub together making a birdlike noise) so intruders could not sneak into rooms and attack the Shogun or his guests.

Here are more pictures of the Palace and its grounds.



The fall leaves were just beginning to turn. If we could have stayed another two weeks we would have seen some spectacular landscapes.


One day we went into the mountainside and spent the afternoon in an open air onzen. The Japanese bathing experience is wonderful. They have co-ed onzens but Angela and I were at one where the men and women used seperate facilities. No cameras were allowed but if you go back to Kyoto - Part 1 you will find a link to a book of photos that will give you an idea of what it was like. You take off all clothes, bathing suits are not allowed, and wash yourself while sitting on a wooden bench, using a hand shower, soap and a cloth. When you are fully clean you enter a hot bath. Ours was a large marble tub that could comfortably hold over a dozen people. There were only four or five of us that day in the men's side. The water in this one came from natural sulfur pools and is very hot. In some baths there might also be a cold bath to cool down in. You can lay in the hot bath, listen to birds and smell the pine trees. Your thoughts rise up like steam and drift away with the clouds in the deep blue sky. I know, I'm getting carried away but it was a beautiful way to spend the afternoon. I used five or six different onzens while in Japan but this one was special.

We also visited the Bamboo Grove in Ashiyama. Among the many mistakes of a novice traveller that I made was not going to the grove on a weekday. We waited till Saturday of a long weekend to go. Another mistake was leaving a non-density filter on my camera without realizing it. For two days I couldn't figure out why my exposures were so slow (doh). I would love to go back and try it again.

I used my point & shoot for this shot.

I used the slow shutter speed to get some bamboo abstracts.
A cemetary connected to the grove. 

And back in Kyoto. There seemed to be so many of these little alleyways throughout Japan.

While viewing these gardens an insect stung me on my knee (I was wearing shorts). A guard noticed it, came over and without a word put a bandage on the bleeding wound. 





I loved the coke machine outside the Nature therapy center that persues health & beauty. A little ironic.
Even the parking lots were beautiful.

I believe this was part of the Philosophers Walk.
And at some point I started seeing Japanese brush strokes everywhere.
I found myself being intrigued by bicycles. Bicycles seem to be a lot more utilitarian in Japan than in Vancouver and used by a wider variety of people. They were often in the landscape and the combination of the new, to me, landscape and the practical but to my eyes beautiful bicycles was irrisistable. I took a lot of pictures of bicycles, usually parked against walls, but my favorite, and one of my favorite photos from the trip, was this one.
There were many memories from Kyoto that I didn't record with my camera, and may not be as interesting in the telling as they were in the living. I will always remember it as a time of fabulous meals (the Kyoto style mackerel sushi, ramen soup, and a unique pizza among them) as well as an exciting cultural buzz and powerful sense of tradition. But we had to leave. 
We had one more stop before we headed back to Tokyo.

We boarded the train leaving Hiroshima and were once again traveling through dream time.

My sense of being in someone else's movie came back when we were on an almost empty car with two large policemen who were escorting a young man in handcuffs. He looked small and vulnerable but I had no idea what he had done. That was where the real story was. I didn't take any pictures; I just looked out the window and thought about the near misses that littered my life.

We arrived in Kyoto ...

... and made our way to our Ryokan and to our room. There are many things that I did not spend as much time documenting as those things deserved; Japanese toilets (they take their toilets very seriously), onzens (click here to see someone who has given the Japanese bathing experience the time and artistry it deserves), restaurants (there were too many and the food was always wonderful), and ryokans (motels or travel lodges with small rooms). But they made this trip affordable and were charming. This was our room.

We went for a walk as soon as we stowed our bags. The Kamo River runs through Kyoto and we ended up walking beside it our first evening there.




bg_26791387168925.jpgThis photo of Angela, finding directions on her smartphone, is one of my favorite shots from the trip. 

Every meal was an adventure in Japan and that evening we found a great place near the ryokan where the chef worked on a large grill and put noodles and vegetables in a batter that he moulded into a cylinder and put on another grill in front of our place setting. We then put sauces on it and ate it. A poor description of an amazing meal.

The next day Angela wanted to explore on her own. I was sitting in the lobby of the ryokan looking hopelessly at maps when I saw a young man sitting across from me doing the same thing and with an equally confused look on his face. Raphael was from Paris and he was happy to join me on my photo safari. He became a friend during our stay in Kyoto. We decided to go back along the same route that Ange and I had taken the night before, but to explore it in more detail.


We went down random streets, taking photos of whatever struck our fancy, until we found a traditional garden. It was beautiful. 



Then we went back into the streets and explored the city.

Raphael made some friends. I believe they were Geisha in training.
bg_26861387170366.jpgKyoto has an entertainment district where Geisha and Geisha in training (half jewels) can be seen. These young women may be part of that tradition. You can find out a little bit about it here. There was a strange atmosphere in this aspect of the city, with cars and their drivers waiting outside houses ...


and drunk businessmen being chauffeured through the streets. I would have liked to have spoken with this young woman to find out what her life was really like; if she really inhabited a "flower and willow world". I stumbled onto her as Raphael and I wandered aimlessly through downtown Kyoto. There were a couple of other 'tourists/photographers who were trying to get a picture. One of them was a woman who ran past me trying to set up and cursing, "She won't stop so I can get a shot". I took this photo reflexively and later I felt as close as I've ever come to feeling like paparazzi. I hope that if she saw the picture she would forgive me.


I felt more comfortable taking pictures of this beautiful bird.


More of Kyoto to come.

Our next big adventure was a ferry ride to the nearby island community of Miyajima. It is famous for its floating shrine. I had seen a beautiful picture by a Vancouver photographer, Michael Levin, (I include a link to his work even though I know my photos will pale by comparison to his beautiful images) who also works as a printer where I get my ink, Tricera Imaging

We caught the ferry to  Miyajima. It was a beautiful ride across the bay.

When we got to the other side I was glad that Ange and I were on our own. The tour groups followed a guide with a high flag and went straight to the main attraction. Ange and I took a long route up a hill that wound through the very small harbor town. 

The thing you should know about Miyajima is that small deer are left to roam freely throughout the community. It is similar to India and their sacred cows.


But there was more to the community than just the deer. So we took the path ignored by the others ...










... and found a delightful little community full of quirks. But as we descended and approached the main tourist area, it was once again the deer ...





... who definitely displayed some personality and a liking for ice cream.



We eventually got to the area of the floating shrine where all the tour groups had headed first.





The crowd was starting to thin out by the time we got there but it was still going to be difficult getting the shot I wanted. Iwanted to make my own Long Exposure shot of the "Floating Gate" Shrine. Finding a place to set up was hard enough as the best spots were popular with the other people chronicling their visit.

On top of the usual challenges that a long exposure photographer faces, I couldn't find my remote shutter release, which meant that I had to hold my finger on the shutter release for four minutes while the image exposed. We were losing time, as we had to get back to Hiroshima, and I was taking the second of what was supposed to be a two-photo-long-exposure-panorama, when I felt something pulling at a paper in my back pocket. I knew it was one of the deer, who are notorious pickpockets, and I thought it had taken my Japan Rail Pass (which at that time still had $300 worth of travel time on it). I abandoned my shot and tried to rescue the paper. Do you have any idea how strong a deer's jaw is? The paper was gone. Fortunately it was just an information pamphlet and not my rail pass. But I lost the photo as we had to catch a ferry and Angela had lost patience with my bumbling photo misadventures. 

I did manage one long exposure shot, and the difficulties I faced make it all that much more treasured.







These were the scenes that greeted me after a pleasant sleep (although I must admit, the plastic pebble pillows were a little uncomfortable) before we had breakfast and more conversations with the other guests. 


After breakfast our hostess walked us to the bus stop and when we realized that the buses were no longer on their summer schedules, and we would have to wait for an hour before one arrived, she hurried us into her car and drove us the 10 kilometers or more to the train station. I will include a link to the Inn's website when I find it, for anyone thinking of staying there.




This is our hostess with Ange outside the train station where she dropped us. As we were casually taking pictures in the parking lot, the train had already pulled in and was loading passengers. The station was empty by the time we entered, except for an elderly woman bent over a mop and washing the floor. When she saw us she left the mop and motioned us toward the ticket counter. The clerk sold us our tickets and the old woman ushered us with rapid hand gestures toward the stairs to the platform. It was at that point that we realized the train was ready to pull out, that we only had seconds to get aboard and the cleaning woman was hurrying us along, smiling and bowing the whole time. The trains are very efficient in Japan and don't generally wait, but the conductor had his head stuck out the window of the last car. He seemed to be watching for us and waved his hand to signal the "All clear" as we climbed aboard. It was a close call and we wouldn't have made it without help.

Our next destination was Hiroshima where we spent two night. People who travel a lot must get used to the coincidences that go with it. We had a pleasant conversation on the train with a British couple who were on a similar schedule (they had hired a tour company and we had the help of the fabulous Sydney to plan our trip. Thanks again Sydney!) and we ran into them in Hiroshima about three times before our trails finally parted. 

Hiroshima probably touches everyone differently. I did not expect as emotional a response as I ended up having. It was on our arrival and my thoughts had been circling closer and closer to the events that led up to and followed the dropping of the bombs on Japan that ended the second World War. I choked up as soon as I stepped off the train. It was sudden, intense and didn't last long but colored the rest of my stay. We checked into our hotel and went for a long walk through the city.










It ended with a visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. The burned out building above was directly below the bomb blast on that terrible day. That is why it was not completely destroyed.

We had a quiet evening walking around the streets of Hiroshima and having a wonderful Vietnamese meal at Mis Hoa's. After dinner, a hot bath and then sleep. The next day would be another special one. We were going to visit Miyajima Torii.



I took a break from editing Japan photos to work on some shots I took with Ed Peck of Sassamatt Images



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