Tokyo, Japan

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Chou Sen Ji in Shibuya II

The grounds were simple, but exquisitely appointed. Not a piece of trash could be seen anywhere. A few wild cats ran about the temple grounds, but they appeared well fed. The priest, caretaker, or visitors must be feeding them. Approaching one or two, they darted off to the rear, where a large graveyard extends to the JR tracks.

The temple's name is 長泉寺: Chou Sen Ji. It roughly translates as long (water) spring temple.

The entrance is guarded by a single large tree. A sign is carefully placed by Shibuya City (a section of Tokyo) that registers it and restricts cutting and pruning. When I was young, we had a similar tree in our backyard in London. Recently exploring the depths of my new neighborhood, Shimo Kitazawa, inside remaining estates, I have seen trees adorned with similar signs, untouched by the ravages of the last war.

Chou Sen Ji in Shibuya I

This weekend I went for a walk in Yoyogi Park, one of Tokyo's largest public parks. Along the way, I stumbled across this gem on Meiji Dori (明治通り). The street is packed with Tokyo's hippest shops. Mostly "select" shops where merchandise from a variety of domestic and overseas designers is gathered according to specific theme: skateboarding, hip-hop, punk, etc.

A pale yellow wall proceeded the entrance, buffeted only by the main road. Two elephants carved from granite greeted visitors from atop posts. I was the only person inside the temple. (This is common in the lesser-known ones.) Usually temples are guarded by two lions: one has its mouth open and the other closed. A long driveway paved with pebbles led from the main street to the temple's main building.

This picture is oddly cropped due to the ten story Brutalist apartment block seated to the right.

On either side of the driveway, parking spots have been sold or rented to luxury car owners. This is an oddity of Tokyo temples with land to spare. If they want to generate revenue without selling land, they pave, then rent. Still, this temple had the class to pave with a lighter colored, chunkier gravel. The offset was delicate.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


Is it Ohshima or Oshima? Big Island is what the Japanese call it. The Chinese characters are 大島. The first is pronounced as a long "o" sound. Sometimes this is translated as "oh-shima" and other times "o-shima".

This picture is from the pier of Oshima in Tokyo bay. This pink rocket took me from an urban port in Tokyo (Takeshiba) straight to the island in about an hour.

The island has a year round population of less than ten thousand. And thanks to liberal spending by the Japanese government, there is always an airport large enough to handle jet aeroplanes. Ridiculous.

At the center is an expired volcano, so all the beaches are black sands. Sitting on the beach was hell because the sun felt twice as hot. Fortunately, the water was clear and beautiful. Coves around the edge of the island gave ample opportunity for snorkeling and scuba diving. Groups of Japanese divers dotted the black beaches with their shiny air tanks.

Monkey Island Fireworks II

My friend took this picture. I am in the foreground.

Monkey Island Fireworks I

Summer fireworks are a tradition in Japan. Districts in and around Tokyo schedule their performances so that residents can see fireworks each weekend for six to eight weeks in the summer.

I went to a few shows this summer. Sarushima (猿島 - Monkey Island) was the most impressive. A private company sold a limited number of boat tickets -- less than 500 -- to a tiny island in the center of Yokosuka bay (横須賀港), the site of a major US military base south of Tokyo.

Barges in front of the island lit an incredible display of fireworks. The night was breezy and cool, and there was plenty of space on the beach. This is a true rarity at Japanese fireworks. Usually, cities cordon off a viewing area too small for the number of visitors. Crammed together in the sweltering humidity of a Tokyo summer can be torturous!

Monday, September 22, 2008

Shinjuku at Night VII

And then walking away, arm-in-arm.

Shinjuku at Night VI

At the other end of Golden Gai, I caught this couple, embracing.

Shinjuku at Night V

One Coin Champion Bar sits on the edge of Golden Gai, one of Tokyo's most famous post-war bar districts. It dates from the 1950s. Tiny buildings house bars with less than ten seats. And to discourage anyone but regulars, seating charges are prominently displayed. According to some guidebooks, locals don't pay the surcharge.

Champion Bar is quite the opposite. Run by a Fillipino lady well-known inside the Tokyo Fillipino community, she runs a open-air karaoke bar. All drinks are one price: 500 yen. This is very cheap given its location in Shinjuku. Inside you will find an eclectic mix of backpackers, English tutors, and curious open-minded Japanese.

Karaoke takes place in front of twenty of your "closest" friends. Price of embarrassment: 100 yen. Fortunately, there are two microphones. A friend can bail you out of the high notes in Mariah Carey's Dreamlover.

Shinjuku at Night IV

A slight turn to the right gives a great shot of Tokyo's incredible night time scenery. The silhouette of a man waiting at the huge crosswalk, while a taxi approaches, contrasted with the wall of buildings lit with neon signs. Welcome to Kabukicho.

In my previous experiences in New York and San Francisco, I came to love the ground floor shops that dominate shopping districts. The street-level floor in any building in Manhattan or central San Francisco is prime territory. Unless inside a multi-floor store, often a flagship, stores rarely have their entrances off street-level. Restaurants and bars are also similar.

In Japan, many buildings in red-light districts dedicate their street-level space to an array of elevators used to lift customers to restaurants, bars, and clubs high above the streets. Shinjuku has the tallest all-restarutant/bar/club buildings I have seen anywhere in Japan.

This photograph gives an incredible view of these buildings, sometimes ten or twelve stories high. A single neon sign normally runs the height of the building advertising each business and their floor number.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Shinjuku at Night III

This is the main entrance to Kabukicho, Japan's most famous red-light district. When I first arrived in Japan, I couldn't understand how such a outwardly conservative country could have so many seedy districts. After having lived here for more than two years, I now realise this phenomenon is more complex first impressions might imply.

Firstly, neon, unlike many parts of the United States, does not immediately indicate the neighborhood is sleazy. Somewhere between old downtown Las Vegas (think Golden Nugget) and Times Square, neon came to signify red-light districts. Having seen a few different East Asians cities -- Tokyo, Taipei, Seoul, and Hongkong -- there is neon everywhere in business districts. Even innocent family restaurants are often peppers with neon signs. It is no more than an advertisment.

Secondly, a red-light district in the West immediately implies prostitution. This is not necessarily the case in Tokyo. While prostitution exists, it is a tiny part of these neighborhoods. Streetwalkers are rare. Most of the activity centers around eating with a small group of friends -- a pair of mixed pairs is the best from my experiences, and then continuing to karaoke (カラオケ) or a bar.

Shinjuku at Night II

To walk to Memory Lane from Shinjuku station east exit, you need to walk under the JR tracks. I was lucky this night, as a young man was playing an acoustic guitar and singing. This underpass feels like the transfer passages of the New York City subway. The overhead steel I-beams rumble and shake as each train passes. The walls have been painted, layer over layer, year after year, probably for more than fifty years. The caged florescent lighting casts a jaundiced glow over the walkers and players.

This is the major pedestrian passage to the other side of the train tracks, so an endless variety of people pass through. At one point, when I was taking photographs, a salaryman stopped to have a chat with the musician. From what I can gather, they discussed his repertoire of tunes. The man made a request, then waited and listened, impressed.

Most street musicians create CDs to sell when they play in public. Most are very good on the street, so I try buy the CD. I used to do the same in New York City. Unfortunately, musicians are not allowed to play in the Tokyo subway stations, so they play outside. Some neighborhoods have a regular stream of musicians stopping to play their instruments -- Yurakucho, Ikebukuro, and Shinjuku are three good ones. And I have yet to see the same player twice.

Shinjuku at Night I

I bought a tripod recently so I can take better pictures in low light. A previous post talked about how cheap you can get a full tripod for just 3,000 yen. I got mine at BIC Camera, one of the mega-electronics chains in Tokyo.

Last Monday was a holiday in Japan, so I went out to Shinjuku thinking it would be calmer than usual. I was wrong; it was packed. Young people were out like it was a Friday night. Restaurants and bars were brimming with packs of twenty- and thirty-somethings. Many were even wearing suits. Who wears a suit on a Sunday? Even in Japan, I am unsure. Sometimes salespeople wear suits on a Saturday. You can see them when riding the subway, but Sunday is quite rare.

If you exit from higashi guchi at Shinjuku station (新宿駅の東口 -- east side exit), you end up on the border of a famous red-light district called Kabukicho. The massive display of neon lights and the mixture of people provides many good photo opportunities.

On the other side of the train tracks is a pair of narrow alleys. One of which was pictured at the very beginning of my blog. It is called Omoide Yokochō (思い出横丁) or "Memory Lane". Many guidebooks feature it as a slice of Old Japan. Its sister alley is less well known, but is still brimming with restaurants and activity.

The featured photo above is from the sister alley, and the wall on the right holds back the roaring JR trains.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

A Dog's Life

I took this picture outside the 24 hour bookstore and cafe (Tsutaya) at the corner of Roppongi Hills. Nothing very Japanese about it, but this is where people in the area come to rest with their dogs. The area is quite wealthy, so there is a huge variety of dogs -- small and large, regular and exotic.

If I could own a dog, this would be it. Big, sedate, and always looks concerned. What is that about aging labrador retrievers? He probably spends his days in a large air-conditioned apartment with a skyline view!

Big Freezer, Big Tuna

Foreigners visiting Japan never tire of Tsukiji. This is the central market famous for its tuna auctions. Probably more "sushi-quality" tuna is actioned here than anywhere else in the world. Admittedly, I don't visit this place enough. About once a year when someone is visiting, I take them or recommend it. I realise during my visit each time, how much find the trip can be.

The tuna auctions can be hard to find, even for people who speak little Japanese and can read the signs in Japanese (me!). Fortunately, a friendly shop merchant gave a ride on his buggy to some friends and I. Don't be discouraged: Tsukiji is enormous, but each time I go there are more signs to guide tourists. Finally, merchants are realising these so-called "tourist" people come carrying cash.

At this rate, in about twenty years, Tsukiji fish market management will get their heads in order and make a full show of the morning auction. Think: tour buses, entrance fees, interviews, picture taking, and Ye Olde Gift Shoppe.

One tip: The lighting is quite low inside the main freezer where the auctions happen. Using a flash is too intrusive, so bring a tripod, or be prepared to waste many frames getting lucky with a still hand. Any big electronics store in Tokyo has cheap tripods for 3,000 yen or less (about $30). These are also handy for taking photographs at night.

You cannot see it in this picture, but above us are giant chillers trying to keep the room at freezing temperatures. This place felt like a giant meat locker. When I used to shop at Sam's Club in Ohio, they had giant refrigerators for dairy products. Similar effect, but here was much colder.

Free Baby Car Parking

This picture reminds me of National Geographic magazines. When living in the United States, I was a faithful reader for many years. (Unfortunately, overseas postage rates are quite high, so I no longer subscribe. Not a hint, just a fact.) Often, an interesting photo is featured with an explanation.

This is mine. Where is this and what are those? I went to see a exposition in Tokyo of children's toys at "Tokyo Bigu Saito" (Tokyo Big Sight). You can imagine how many children attended. In this city of eight million, surely ten of thousands visited over the weekend. In the West Hall (See the kanji 西?), one large area was reserved for baby car parking.

From the looks of it, there was no cost to enter, no security guards, and no locks on these cars. Thank you again, Japan, for reminding me how safe it is to live here. If this were New York City, either armed guards from private security firms would demand entrance fees or thieves would fill their trucks!

I didn't plan the blurring effect, even though it looks very National Geographic-ish. It just happened; the lighting in the hall was low enough to cause the shutter on my automatic camera to stay open longer than usual.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Chiyoda Chunnel

I took this picture at the Meiji Jingu Mae station on the Chiyoda line in Tokyo. It reminds me of pictures I saw of the The Chunnel as a kid. Chiyoda is a subway line built in the 1970s. Period architecture dominates! Even the trains themselves feel dated, like a Gerald Ford suit.

Chiyoda line stations always look faded, even other lines much older. Something about the depth and quality of construction caused many of the walls and tunnels to leak. Tokyo Metro has the odd policy of taping plastic sheets over these leaks. In no time, the water has sprouted a healthy colony of green scum. I have even seen two litre bottles strategically taped to the ceilings of stations to catch drips.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Taman Negara : Riverboat

I haven't explained the main title of this post series yet. Taman Negara means "national forest" in Malaysian. If you ask the locals about taman negara, they will say, "Which one?" If you ask backpackers, they will say, "The jungle?"

Most of the guidebooks (read: Rough Guide and Lonely Planet) refer to the virgin rainforests of West Malaysia as Taman Negara. This is it.

The tour is organised by two competing companies. They include bus fare from Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown to Jerantut. This is a small Chinese town south of the river junction. At the boat dock, you board small, low, locally-built river boats. My jungle guide would later explain these boats are built from a special tree and its sap is used as waterproof sealant in the joints. Due to strong southern currents, the trip lasts about three hours heading north and two hours south. The seat cushion was so thin my legs were numb by the end!

Side note about the expression "small Chinese town": I thought my guidebooks were being politically incorrect when used it to describe towns. Until I visited them. The landscapes in "small Chinese towns" are dominated by Chinese businesses. In the three that I visited, Chinese signs covered about 75% of the town. In other places, it was 25% or less. Many places have had little migration (in or out) over the last fifty years, so their ethnic make-up has barely changed. Many towns were founded outside mines, as the Chinese were used as laborers. After the British left and the republic was formed, many Chinese stayed and continued their families and businesses. Hence today's term: Chinese town.

About the photograph: It confirms beginner's luck and my strategy of over-photographing! (I usually shoot five to twenty shots, rapid-fire, to be safe about lighting and focus.) I was reviewing my fifteen pictures of the boat docking area to select the best for this entry, when I noticed the sky in this photo. If you have ever watched storm chasing documentaries and wondered where you can find similar cloud formations, they are a regular occurrence in Malaysia. A storm may sweep through and last for thirty minutes or less. The gathering and clearing of clouds before and after the storm is an amazing sight.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Taman Negara : Oil Palm Plantations

When I was researching remote destinations for backpackers in Malaysia, I spent a lot of time searching on Google maps. From the air, most of West Malaysia appears like a checkerboard. Oil palm plantations dominate -- I repeat: dominate -- the landscape. (Click on the link to see a sample on Google maps.)

I tried many times on my bus trip to Taman Negara to capture these vast fields. And, I tried again on my trip to Kuala Sepating (to see the mangroves). Since I was always traveling at high speed on a highway bus, it was difficult to take steady photographs. Additionally, my view was obstructed by thick, tinted windows.

Of all my oil palm plantation pictures, this is my best. The sheer distance of the path between two rows -- nearly to the horizon -- should help you to understand the magnitude of these plantations. Sometimes I would drive for thirty minutes on a highway bus and see (almost) nothing but oil palm plantations. Small villages would appear for a few seconds, but then be swallowed by more endless rows of oil palms.

The palm is beautiful to me. Not having grown up with palm trees in my childhood, I was amazed when I first visited Los Angeles in high school with my father. California has a landscaping addiction to palms. They make good city dwellers, so they are planted everywhere it is warm enough to grow. Even the chilly bay of San Francisco is lined with fattened palms. That first time, I marveled at their symmetric beauty. At the oil palm ages, it grows in height significantly, up to twenty meters. Past a certain producing age, they are cut down, and new palms are planted. You could see this pattern repeated endlessly in the countryside. One hundred or more rows of mature trees were followed by a clearcut area where new trees one or two meters high were planted.

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia XVIII

The cover of my Rough Guide to Malaysia has a photograph of a beautiful spotted butterfly feeding from a flowered vine. I tried to duplicate this same shot at the Kuala Lumpur butterfly park, but I was unable. My camera is too simple to capture butterflies moving so quickly. Either I could not focus correctly, or the butterfly was gone too quickly. And I tried many times.

The vine with red flowers in the background grows hanging from a special palm. The flowers have a cup shaped opening with lots of juicy nectar for butterflies and insects.

To understand the scale of this picture, the leaf in the center is as wide as your hand. The butterfly was about six inches across. Amazing that it sat still so long for me to photograph.

One last thing: How do they make a butterfly park? Put up a giant net, remove the predators, and provide lots of butterfly breeding grounds and food (read: nectar). They even spray sugar water on picked flowers floating in water so that butterflies do not go hungry if nectar is low in the flowering plants. They also work to always have at least some plants flowering in the gardens.

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia XVII

Forgive me for the endless photographs of colonial buildings, but Kuala Lumpur has done a very nice job of preserving them. It is also one of the few places I have visited that was not destroyed by a war in the last fifty years. The Japanese ruled Malaysia during the Second World War as a colony, but left most buildings standing.

This one is called the Sultan Abdul Samad building. Unfortunately, it is not open to the public, but it is strung with lights that are switched on each evening. It is an amazing view, seeing the lighted arches pierce the nighttime darkness.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia XVI

On the backside of the grounds surrounding this mosque, I found a banana tree. It looks like the pipes of an organ, the way the bananas have arranged themselves.

Living in California in the early 2000s made me think about my food more than any time in my life previously. Never before had I felt so divorced from its production. Living on my own as an adult (and paying bills) for the first time, I finally saw how odd it was to eat bananas 365 days a year. Where do they come from? I thought. (Wikipedia nugget: "Bananas are grown in at least 107 countries.")

We take for granted the humble banana. It's nice to see real stuff growing. That's something I haven't seen a lot of in my mostly urban life.

Driving through the countryside of Malaysia, I occasionally spotted trees with paper bags tied to the ends of the branches. Only later did I learn, reading a Malaysian memoir, this is common practice to preserve mangoes from bats and insects.

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia XV

Visiting Malaysia was the first time I had entered a mosque. I have only seen one or two before this trip. I must confess that I know very little about the required customs for prayer. I learned that people must (at least) remove their shoes and wash their feet prior to entering the prayer floor.

Don't mistake this star-shaped pool for a kiddie pool. The devout used simple, plastic ladles to scoop water and wash their feet. Others poured the water over their feet as they climbed the short steps from the path.

Shoes were neatly aligned around the curved stairways.

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia XIV

I promised you that beautiful mosques exist in Kuala Lumpur. Here is Jamek Mosque (or Masjid Jamek to the locals). To quote my Rough Guide to Malaysia, "There's an intimacy here that isn't obvious at the modern, much larger national mosque to the south, and the grounds, bordered by palms, are a pleasant place to sit and rest."

So that we don't all get caught in the "Islam is bad" story, remind yourself that Notre Dame in Paris or Westminter Abbey in London can hardly be called intimate. There is a real intimidation factor to these buildings -- like the national mosque pictured earlier.

This mosque is special for a few reasons. It was designed and built by a British architect who previously served in India, so he brought a different type of design to Malaysia. One thing difficult to capture in photographs (given the lighting and my equipment) is the pink hue of the bricks. The mosque was built at the junction of two rivers that are the very reason for this city's name: Kuala Lumpur. Transliterated into English, it means "muddy confluence". (Click on confluence if you aren't study for your SATs at the moment to remind yourself that it means a joining of two rivers.) The grounds are subtle, but lush and welcoming. You might call it jungle landscaping. Finally, the mosque prayer area is open to the elements, and raised only slightly above the surrounding walkway. All of this makes it feel more like a neighborhood place where locals might gather to pray, rest, and socialise. Not surprisingly, local Muslims do just that.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia XIII

Having lived my entire life in areas covered by deciduous trees and pines, I am unaccustomed to such lush settings. Nothing could prepare me for the urban jungles of Malaysia. (I presume much is the same throughout Southeast Asia.) Consider that Western Malaysia was one giant rainforest until two hundred years ago when the British arrived to plant plantations of oil palms, rubber trees, and coconut trees. Look for yourself on Google maps, or look out the window on any countryside road; most of the land is now covered by oil palms plantations.

The remaining spots of undomesticated lands simply spring to life, growing as they had for millions of years previously. (Taman Negara rainforest is over one hundred million years old.) I was continuously overwhelmed by the effortless beauty of a tree-lined street, or a massive tree jutting out in a pedestrian walkway. A few inches of concrete were no match for the root systems of these hulking trees.

In the countryside, many homes had coconut, mango, and banana trees in their yards. As one native said to me at Silverfish Books, "This is God's country. Throw a few seeds on the ground, and (a few years later) you have a mango tree."

In this picture, I was walking to see the drum circle at Perdana Lake Gardens. This corner is one of the main entrances to the northern section of a large park on the west side of Kuala Lumpur that once held British estates.

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia XII

Across the street from the national railways headquarters is the old main railway station -- Kuala Lumpur Station. Also known as KL Station. It was replaced in 2001 by KL Sentral Station which is one stop to the south.

A hotel and restaurant are also contained within this building.