Saturday, May 2, 2009

Japan Impressions

Guys, this will be my very first Blog and I am so excited to share my impressions from our recent Tokyo trip with all of you.

We boarded a Mongolian Airlines direct flight from Ulaanbaatar to Tokyo and in less than five hours we have finally escaped the much too long winter in the land of Genghis Khan. And as the saying goes: “The first impression counts…” so have we fallen in love with Japan from the moment we have landed in Tokyo Narita International Airport. Coming from the land of yet blue sky, but – in April - rather deserted vegetation and just brownish-yellowish colors we were amazed about the lush green and extensive foliage of Japan in the midst of spring.
We had now ten days ahead of us to discover the beauty of Tokyo and its surroundings but also Japan’s old traditions and in contrast its modern trends. Our plans should bring us to the world’s largest fish market, to some colorful parks in Odawara, but also and foremost to the bottom of Mount Fuji. One day has been put aside for our teenage daughter Nathalie to go teeny shopping in Harajuku. But we also wanted her to enjoy one of Japan’s largest amusement parks and to discover some fascinating caves. And last but not least we were determined to eat as many sushi as we possibly could!

Tokyo Skyline
Arrived at our Tokyo hotel I had first to soak in the modern architecture which is so much missing in Mongolia. A romantic full moon evening inspired me to some night shots in Tokyo’s busiest streets of Shinjuku. A leisurely stroll brought us to Kabukicho, Shinjuku’s entertainment and red-light district, indeed a “sleepless town”. While that may not have been the right area for our teenager, we soon realized that establishments geared to women customers were as popular as those for men. After all it was not a bad area for a family walk, maybe due to the fact that it was still early in the evening or simply because it was just more entertainment than ‘red light’. The most shocking of all was probably the pachinko parlors. These huge gambling halls were packed with obsessed customers sitting and starring into these insane machines. Behind most gamblers there were buckets of metal balls, the “ammunition” that was shot into the pachinko’s in the hope of the big win. The noise and cigarette smoke in these places were unbearable so that we could not stand it for even a minute.
On the way back to the hotel we noticed another rather surprising fact for such an otherwise so well organized and highly developed city: Some poor beggars sleeping in carton boxes under the bridge. Well enough for the first day and a good lesson for our daughter that the good the bad and the ugly are all very close to each other. While the Japanese friendliness and correctness was completely overwhelming, we found it almost grotesque that everybody just patiently waits at a red traffic light. Tell me in which other city in this world people are willing to walk you to your destination rather than just sticking out their hand into some direction. Courtesies that otherwise you could only experience in luxury hotels i.e. the question “Is there anything else I can help you with?” we heard several times from complete strangers who were willingly helping us to find our way.

Fish Market

The Tokyo fish market was one of the highlights of our Japan trip, for which we were waiting with a lot of anticipation. We got up at 5 AM and left our lovely hotel suite without even a coffee. Nathalie decided to stay home, which – at the end – was a smart decision. As usual we used the sophisticated underground system to reach our destination and made it to the world’s largest fish market by 6AM. What a hustle and bustle in these halls. Apparently, the fishes are not only coming from the Japanese seas, but many are flown in frozen from all over the world. We moved cautiously between the displays of fresh and frozen fishes and the actively moving handlers. “Watch the electric cart approaching from behind and the water hose on the left, the tuna that gets halved right in front of you and the unidentified crawling creature at your feet!”
There was so much to see and look out for, an abundance of photogenic subjects and actions that we did not know where to start.

And again, here was this friendliness of the hard working people, who could easily have been annoyed by so many tourists obstructing their work, but seemingly we didn’t and got always a friendly smile and a cool pose every now and then.

Japan Traditions
Japan has an incredibly interesting history and long traditions, but in the same time has reached a state of modernity like no other country. What appears to be high-tech elsewhere is just common standard here. Or where else have people got that much used to colorful wending machines, high speed trains or robotic maids?
Therefore, old traditions and futuristic lifestyle are not surprisingly going side by side.
While we are walking through the Yoyogi park we had the pleasure to witness a traditional Japanese wedding ceremony at the Meiji shrine. Yet a few hundred meters further passing over the Jingu bridge we have arrived in ultra fashionable…

Important to say that it was a Sunday, seemingly the day when there is a bit of time left to live old traditions and fashionable craziness. Should you not have known – and please never admit this to your teenage children, unless you have no problem in being declared the family’s old-timer – Harajuku is THE place to see, socialize and shop the latest teeny fashion.

I used to say: “In life, there is nothing for free”. Well, I changed my mind. In Harajuku you get – believe it or not – free hugs. What a great marketing idea to distribute free hugs and become the talk of the town because of it? In order not to be blamed for stealing a Japanese scheme maybe soon I will introduce free shoulder claps or hand shakes back home…

What a petty people were moving so fast. I wish I had more street photography experience to capture this colorful mix of lolitas, punks and cosplayers. They were obviously enjoying the attention.

Japanese Food
One objective of this Japan trip was to eat as many sushi as we possibly could. Needless to say, we LOVE sushi. Especially salmon and tuna. As anyone can imagine, we were not too spoiled with fresh seafood in landlocked Mongolia. Besides the lavish breakfast and dinner buffets at the hotel we made it to numerous nice and typical Japanese eateries in and around town and I have to say: Japanese food is delicious. Our favorite was the rotary sushi restaurants, where the delicious tidbits are passing by on a conveyer that makes you feel to be in the land of cockaigne. Probably the freshest sushi we could have had was at the Tokyo fish market. But to stand in line for half an hour or more was not so much our plan at 7 o’clock in the morning. We soon noticed that Japanese food is not only about fresh fish, but the ramen noodles, the sukiyaki and teppanyaki were equally delicious.

Doi Festival - Jugawara
On the way to Mount Fuji we were passing by this colorful village of Jugawara a few minutes further southwest from Odawara, idyllically located between the Sagami Bay and the Izu-Hakone mountains. This region reminded us a bit of Ticino in our home country. Steep mountains, narrow roads, an abundance of flowers in the meticulously maintained little gardens. But the best of all was the fact that we could witness the Doi Festival in this picturesque little town. Local residents turn back the clock to the heroic days of feudal lords and their courageous warriors.Men and women dressed as samurai warriors parade through the streets representing the loyal army raised by Sanehira Doi to support Yoritomo Minamoto, the founder and the first shogun of the Kamakura Shogunate of Japan in the 12th century.

Monkey & Dog
While we heard about Japans love for small little dogs we were actually quite surprised to see wild monkeys walking in the streets of suburban Tokyo. Further away from the city in the Mount Fuji area we could even see troops of monkeys crossing the streets.
In contrast, the small little dogs could hardly be seen crossing any streets. They were rather carried by their owners or even pushed around in little comfortable doggy carriages. In the restaurants they would get served immediately some water, but not in a dog bowl under the table, no no for doggy water is served in a posh ceramic dish right ON the table.

Cherry Blossom
We were so lucky for having chosen early April for our trip to Japan, because nature could not have been prettier than during the time of Sakura or cherry blossom. An early morning stroll through the park of Odawara castle rewarded us with picturesque sites and beautiful smells. Sakura has an old deep rooted tradition in Japanese culture. It symbolizes good fortune and love, but also stands for feminine beauty. The transience of the blossoms, the extreme beauty and quick death, has often been associated with mortality. We were deeply impressed not only with the beauty of the wide spread cherry blossom, but also with the attention and respect these trees enjoy from the Japanese people.
Mt. Fuji
As a photographer, how could I visit Tokyo without going to explore Mt. Fuji. While the chances to see Fuji-san in clear blue sky are very slim during this time of the year I was dreaming of getting this marvelous combination of a blooming cherry tree, Fuji and a dark blue sky! During two days we surrounded this active volcano with that funny looking Japanese rent-a-car in order to capture that perfect shot. It turned out to be almost mission impossible. Mt. Fuji does not give away its beauty to everybody at anytime. While five marvelous lakes are surrounding the photogenic target, they are all located either in the north or northeast of Mt. Fuji and any lighting conscious person will realize fast what that means. Backlight or go up at 4 AM. Well, after all it was a family vacation and consequently, the 4 AM wake-up call was a no-no.

The Hakone area some 30 kilometers southeast of the 3’776 meter peak is not only a busy tourist region but with its scenic drives and lake Ashi an ideal and logic beginning of a Fuji adventure. Moreover, it is the home of Owakudani or the Great Boiling Valley as it is also called. I’d rather call it ‘devil’s home’ due to numerous steaming vents and biting sulfurous odor lingering in the air related to the nearby Mt. Fuji volcano. Impressive – or rather frightening – to see that albeit the volcano was inactive for the last 300 years, these active sulfur vents and hot springs are very much alive.
And yet again, another impressive business idea [this is how I imagine it happened]: There was once a farmer with a dozen of chickens who struggled to sell that handful of eggs his chicks produced every day. So he invented a tale that eating his eggs which are boiled in the steamy hot springs of Owakudani would prolongue your life by seven years(!). The only problem was that these boiled eggs would turn completely black from the extensive sulfur content of these hot pots. “What the heck!” thought the farmer and added to his tale that you should better not eat more than two and a half eggs (the odd number makes the whole story a bit scientific), as anything beyond that might be - deadly. Sure enough the tourists loved to prolongue life for a few years and kept buying the farmer's eggs ever since. Today, there may be a few thousand visitors a day to stopover at the steamy hills of Owakudani and the farmer certainly turned into one of Japan’s largest egg producer.

Fugaku Lava and Ice Caves
While driving around Mount Fuji on the search of the best angle, light and surrounding scenery for that “incredible” Fuji shot we have passed by two very interesting and indeed impressive spots, the Fugaku Lava and Ice Caves. These caves were the side vents during the last volcano eruption many hundred years ago. The far more than 100 meter deep caves were amazingly cold with a year round average temperature around freezing point. It was a funny feeling to get from an ambient 20ÂșC outside into a cave full of icicles. In ancient times these caves were used to store ice for the emperor.

Fuji-Q Highland Amusement Park
Close to the Fugaku Caves we planned another stop at Fuji-Q Highland Amusement Park in Fujiyoshida. That was a promise to our teenage girl to keep her motivated and happy too. For sure we could have stayed there the whole day and probably we would not have been able to do all the different rides. But seriously, once you have done the Fujiyama roller coaster – formerly the tallest roller coaster in the world! - you have either enough (me) or you are a potential roller coaster addict (my girl). For people my age I highly recommend not to do Fujiyama after lunch!! With 80 meters height and a speed of 130 km/h you make the math.

No surprise that the 10 days have passed much too fast. We enjoyed the Japanese hospitality tremendously and without any doubt, we will be back there soon.