29 October 2006

Takao-san & Yakuoin Temple

Another trip to Tokyo, and this time the weather co-operated. For the last few weekends I have been looking forward to photographing fall colours, but every time I ventured out there wasn't much to come back home with -- just some shots with a hint of scattered browns and yellows -- not the torrent of blazing red like I keep seeing in all the travel posters in the train stations around Osaka.

Taken last year

Despite the allure of cosmopolitan Tokyo, I kept to my custom of seeking nature on the weekends and asked the smiling clerk at the Haneda airport tourist office for good places for nature hikes around Tokyo. This would actually be a first for me: avoid the Tokyo magnet and head for the hills.

After a few suggestions I decided on Takao-san, a 600-metre high mountain about an hour west of Shibuya on the Keio line. Takao-san is well known for the diversity of plants one can see on its well maintained hiking courses. (There are six courses, each with a different theme). Again, the blazing reds would escape me. Another few weeks, I guess. By then the trees would be bare and under twenty centimetres of snow in my home country but Japan --and it's FOUR seasons-- is different. Wait more I must.

Takao-san chair lift

It was another pleasant hike. Or --to be honest-- it would have been, had it not been for the chair lift. R had on her high heels so a climb was out of the question but I wasn't about to complain about missing a climb -- we both had been up before dawn to get the early flight to Tokyo and would have to be active until late at night with an engagement in Odaiba. I managed to get a few shots during the 12-minute ride halfway up the mountain, but that was a real challenge, with a bag of sweetened roasted chestnuts fighting for my attention the whole way up. Gosh, amaguri is delicious!

Surrounding hills

At the end of the ride, after a few minutes walk, we were rewarded by a spectacular view of the smog that engulfs distant Tokyo. Following the path and mingling with many other day-trippers, we came across Yakuoin Temple, a Shinto-Buddhist site built in 744 by Emperor Shomu. It is noted for its connection with Tengu, a winged, long-nosed deity with special powers who resides in mountains. A number of statues of the mythical being can be seen here, since Takao-san was considered a sacred mountain and thus a centre for mountain worship.

Tengu statue

Yakuoin temple is the main attraction of Takao-san. There is also a monkey zoo, and many interesting trees along the paved paths. Takao-san is also home to a kind of flying squirrel, but I didn't spot any. The views are supposed to be noteworthy, but on this day we could only see smog creeping over the nearby hills. We didn't make it to the mountain peak because we ran out of time. I found this temple somehow different to others I had visited, and I lingered around to take some pictures:

More information on Takao-san can be found here (Japan National Tourist Office).

28 October 2006

More like "Hopeless"

Now just what would a smoker be hoping for...? Lung cancer later rather than sooner...?

24 October 2006

Fantasy on Maishima Island

It is surprising how few Osakans know of Maishima. Admittedly I didn't know about it either until recently --even after having lived here for seven years. But it is a real gem, as I discovered on the weekend. Maishima is one of a few artificial islands lying to the west of the mainland, in the Osaka Bay Area. (On the other, better-known islands can be found Tempozan Harbour Village and The World Trade Center). Although Maishima is huge, there are no subway or train lines providing service there. Instead, it is accessible by bus from either Osaka, Nishikujo or Sakurajima stations. I say it is a gem because there are few other places in Osaka where you can plop down on a patch of grass and have a nice picnic or afternoon nap without the din of traffic or other urban nuisances nearby. And --to my knowledge-- there is no other patch of grass with a seaside view.

The northern edge of the island is grassland, bordered by a few trees on one side and cement pylons on the other, half submerged in the water. No pretensions here, just grass. That's all I need. I sat down and took in the view of the mouth of Yodogawa River, dotted with a dozen or so small sailing dinghies from a nearby sailing school. Every now and then one of the sailboats would flop sideways into the water and the unlucky student, after an unscheduled swim, would have to cling to the keel before the instructor raced over in his motorboat to help set the vessel upright.

Close by there is Hokko Yacht Harbour, with a surprising number of tall, luxurious yachts moored there. Next to the harbour there is a gleaming white suspension bridge connecting Maishima to Konohana-ku in Osaka proper, and next to the bridge, just on the edge of Maishima, a pair of buildings that can't fail to catch your eye. They proved to be the main attraction of this island for me. The colourful buildings, crowned with huge golden orbs and covered with nonsensical windows and curved red or yellow stripes, seem completely out of place, like a gigantic LEGO building or a set piece from a children's fantasy movie.

They are the Osaka City incineration and water treatment plants, designed by celebrated Austrian architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser, and built around the time Osaka was bidding for the 2008 Olympic games during a frenzy of government spending in an effort to boost its image as an international, forward-looking city. I guess that meant making an otherwise unpleasant, unwanted utilitarian site into a playful, spirited and fantastical hulk of architecture. It succeeded, at least from this photographer's point-of-view. Rarely have I found a public building so interesting to look at.

At a cost of around 61 billion yen it infuriated most taxpayers, and also failed to help nab the Olympics. But it is a feather in Osaka's hat, a point of creative frivolity for an otherwise ho-hum city. That's proven by the constant attention it receives from out-of-town visitors, especially those interested in architecture. It is also acclaimed for its ambitious attempt at balancing efficient waste treatment with environmental conservation.

I am still puzzled as to why I didn't know about it until recently, but maybe that's because there is no real attempt to promote it to the general public. Perhaps the city government is still smarting from the scandal it generated years ago when it first opened. (Some consider it just another white elephant in a city where other pressing urban issues have been ignored.) Ironically, that was shortly before Universal Studios Japan opened, and passing motorists on the nearby highway 5 often mistook it for the colossal theme park on the mainland to the east. See a map of the Osaka Bay Area.

Well, I was more inclined to walk around these buildings than go to USJ. What a visual treat. Tours of the buildings' interiors are available too. Bring your camera.

Maishima Island deserves more attention for a weekend getaway. There are stadiums, sports fields, small parks, a seaside promenade, a pottery village, rental lodges and camping sites. No shopping malls. Yet.

For more information on the Maishima plants, see Laura the Explora's write-up for Kansai Scene magazine and the Maishima Plant home page.

For more information on the Osaka Bay Side Area visit the Osaka Visitor's Guide.

21 October 2006

Birds Overhead

Near my place there is a flock of pigeons that circle around endlessly every morning.

18 October 2006


Sunset view from Hasedera, on the way back from Akame 48 Waterfalls.

14 October 2006

Akame 48 Waterfalls

Another blue-skied autumn day. I was up early and decided to get some fresh air.

An hour on the Kintetsu train from Namba to Akameguchi followed by a short bus ride brought me to Akamedaki, just across the border into Mie prefecture. It's famous for its hiking trail dubbed "48 Waterfalls" (Akame Shiju-Hattaki) although there aren't half as many as that -- more like just a dozen or so. But it is a very pleasant hike, and I managed to get a lot of pictures (see gallery). The path follows a meandering stream studded with moss-covered boulders and flanked by tall trees. It is about three kilometres long, gently climbing through the Taki-gawa valley alongside a tributary of the Nabari river.

From the bus stop a short walk past a row of five or six restaurants and souvenir shops brings you to a salamander centre, which also serves as the entrance to the trail. Amphibians from all over the world can be found on display here, alongside the giant salamanders that call the Taki-gawa valley home.

The first waterfall greeted me shortly after starting the hike, past a bend in the stream. It and many others that follow are just textbook waterfall shots (like the one above) -- all you need is a tripod and an accurate exposure at a shutter speed of 1/2 or 1/3 seconds. For me the most exciting shots were around some small rapids on a flat part near the end of the hike, where white water swirls around moss-covered rocks. Nature is on your side, as there are many convenient spots to set up your tripod.

Nature also rewards you for not giving up. The farther you go, the more shots there are, the best being towards the end of the path. Sure, the large waterfalls are nice shots, but they are almost cliche. Looking around carefully you can see many other things to photograph, like the aforementioned rapids. I almost made it to the the end of the path (where there was a magnificent waterfall, apparently) but decided to turn around because I had spent way too long meandering along the rapids. The last bus was leaving at 4:10pm and I had to rush back down to make it.

The Akame Shiju-Hattake falls was a welcome reprieve from Osaka. As I rode back on the train I recalled how struck I was by the thick green vegetation that never let up for the entire way, and how the sound of birds gave way to the roar of rushing water as I walked upstream. The most indelible impression was how autumn had just begun to make its mark on the surrounding forest. At times a gust of wind would loosen the branches and a swirl of red and yellow leaves floated in the air before landing in the water. A touch of magic to ease the swirl here in Osaka.

There are 39 pictures in the "Akame 48 Falls" gallery on my photo site.

10 October 2006

Fishing in Akashi

Yesterday --a national holiday-- was a beautiful autumn day, and how did I spend it? Getting a sunburn while fishing near the Awaji-Kaikyo Bridge, the world's longest suspension bridge. It is almost four kilometres long, connecting Akashi, near Kobe, with Awaji Island, in the Japan Inland sea.

The entire area was crowded with people and their fishing rods: men, women and children, young and old alike. My mates and I, much like everyone else there, didn't have much luck, as the fish didn't seem to be biting. We were hoping to catch aji, horse mackerel, but ended up getting only about a dozen small isaki, grunt. But it was loads of fun, and a dip in a nearby hot springs afterwards was just divine after all that beer in the blazing sun.

Midosuji Parade 2006

On Sunday the annual Midosuji parade was held. I had never attended before so I didn't know what to expect. However, I had a feeling there would be more interesting things to photograph than the floats and parade participants. I was right.

I hardly took any pictures of the people walking in the parade. Instead, I watched the people watching the parade, and thus photographed a parade of humanity in all its charms and quirks. I want to keep the anonymity of the subjects and as a result there are many shots I elected not to upload to my gallery. (There are a couple of pictures, however, that clearly show a person's full facial features, and I have decided to include them in the project anyway). Generally my aim was to retain a detached observer's viewpoint and keep my subjects unidentifiable. When looking at the pictures, I hope it feels like we are really just looking at ourselves.

Go to my photo Web site to see the full gallery of 40 images.

03 October 2006


I strolled around shinsaibashi.

Blowfish and pipes.

Reflection of Don Quijote building in Dotobori canal.

Signage along Dotonbori.

Sidewalk menu.

Noodle shop.

02 October 2006

Arrows in Tokyo

I had a gig in Tokyo this weekend. The first thing I had packed was the camera. I'd be free on the Sunday, so I thought of going to Nikko for another photo project. Nikko is a small town of unusual temples about 2 hours by train north of Tokyo and a popular weekend retreat for Tokyoites.

The weather didn't co-operate so I decided to cancel that. It rained most of the day and at first I was a little annoyed by the bad luck. Then while taking the subway, something caught my eye. It was nothing more simple than an arrow on the floor.

Before long I saw another arrow, and then another, and decided to make a project out of... arrows. Soon all I could see were arrows, everywhere. I rode the subway looking for them, until it was time to take the shinkansen back to Osaka.