Flowing with the tides

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My long awaited return to Oarai finally materialized this past weekend when a friend and I boarded the charmingly old train to deliver us to the solitary station of the quaint seaside town. We went to go to Isosaki shrine (my second time there) and take photos- the goal of the excursion being getting a new profile picture for my aforementioned friend. What this meant to me was that I had a model to direct for portraits- which felt nice after about a 5 month break from my agreement I had with my brothers fiance to be her fashion blog photographer (it turns out moving across the world puts a monkey wrench in those plans). So we arrived at the station and went swiftly via taxi to the shrine- bumping into many a tourist upon entry. We snapped away and promptly steered ourselves to the famous Tori gate in the sea that the shrine is known for. It was my second time there but this time I was taken aback by the tide- the tide being low during my first visit. This time was different- it was high tide, and the waves were thrashing down with incredible power again the rocks and the gate respectively. I scanned the area and climbed up one of the larger rocks to get in position to take photos- nearly getting blasted with sea water as I went. It was awe inspiring to see the water pass through- although remembering it back now I realize I must be over dramatizing my memories. Either way- going back left a very strong impression on me, and made me want to do more weekend trips in the future- god save my wallet.

Neon Kitchen

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As the humidity of summer dies down, as does the season itself. On this particular rotation around the sun I found myself once again in the Kansai region of Japan- scuffling through the well worn alleys of Nara, Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe. This region may as well be another country entirely- the feeling communicated through the concrete pulse of its streets being almost paradoxically opposed to the Kanto region and (more specifically) that of Tokyo. Even the most mundane of objects are reversed- something as mundane as which side of the escalator to stand on being differentiated with an almost audacious sense of pride. Osaka specifically is the city that I find the most electrifying, with the fondest memories eroding in my black heart being situated in the district of Shinsekai- having stayed there on two separate occasions. In the center of this technicolor dreamland is the Tsutenkaku tower- being surrounded by countless restaurants and stores all begging for you to pop in and spend the greater part of a weeks salary of some sort of delightful food and tacky souvenir respectively. The streets are lined with neon signs screaming at you to spend a minuscule second of your precious attention span to uncover the meanings of their gaudy advertisements. It's an all out assault on the senses- and a magnificent one at that. Nothing will ever compare to the first time I looked up from the rain dashed streets of Shinsekai to see the Tsutenkaku tower jutting out as the neon beacon of energy and life of the region. I may have returned to my rice field surrounded home in Kanto, but my heart shall indefinitely remain in Kansai where I hope one day, your heart can come and meet it too.

Summer dancing

Over the past weekend there was a major celebration known as the Komon Festival (黄門まつり) held over the course of three days. The first night was the fireworks celebration- where what seemed to be the whole population of the prefecture in attendance to view the rather spectacular explosive display over the local lake. The night was a contradiction, taking the usually quiet and relatively uneventful city and transforming it into a pulsating center of life and festivities. The festival started with a literal bang as the colorful sparks from the fireworks fluttered throughout the humid summer air. The following day was a massive parade crossing through the main street of the city- thousands of performers marching up and down to the sounds of various traditional drum beats. The third and final day was highlighted by the carrying of the mikoshi- or portable shrine (神輿)- down the main street. It was insanity, with crowds of volunteers in traditional garb clambering around each mikoshi- chanting and clapping as they hobbled it down- nearly cracking underneath the enormous weight of it. I attended all three days of the spectacular festival- and although I may be sunburned and seemingly permanently dehydrated by the sun and humidity- it was definitely worth the effort of going. The transformation of the city into one of energy and excitement was wonderful to see- being a direct contrast of the everyday goings on that I have grown accustomed to. The streets were crowded with families, couples in yukata, friends drinking beer, children running and laughing through the street as life sprang from every corner. It was a good reminder of what pure joy can look like- ecstasy incarnate tumbling down the narrow streets.  

Glowing dreams

It's festival time here in Japan, and I am ready for it. From my experiences of Japanese festivals, there will be a copious amount of public drinking, various out of tune karaoke masterpiece performances, and expensive food vendors along a packed, narrow street. I'm excited- especially at the chance of seeing street performances and fireworks (camera in hand of course). This image was captured at a local shrine that has hundreds of paper lanterns on display (for some festival related reason, I'm unsure of the specifics)- turning the usual calming spot into quite a spectacle to be seen.

For me the most vivid memory at a Japanese festival is the time I burned my mouth on takoyaki (internal temperature was about 587 degrees Celsius)- so let's just say I'm eager to replace that memory with one that is 1) tastier and 2) actually worth remembering. I love the festivals in this country- it truly feels like an event. When I moved here it was just as the sakura blossomed so there was a festival that week that I went to. It was as typical as you could get, as I walked through with drink and overpriced yakisoba in hand. The sakura were beautiful, it was quite the introduction to my new life here in this country. Thinking back now... that was only three months ago, but it feels like three years: the crispness of the memories fading like spoiled film (magenta and all.)

My good friend here keeps turning over that fact in his mind, stating that due to the amount of new experiences we have been going through- time moves slower mentally for us. He's right- thinking back through every weekend in Japan so far I have only had one weekend where I did, "nothing". Perhaps I should relax, my bank account would certainly thank me for that- but you know what? I won't. let's keep moving forward- there's still so much to do here. 

Tokyo blaze

It's been bloody hot in Japan this summer. I come from a desert- with perfectly normal dry heat combined with a almost laughable lack of natural water- so let's just say that I am not used to this level of insane humidity. Let's set this scene: it's 34 degrees C, 75 percent humidity and sunny as can be- so logically I decided to hop on the two hour train to Tokyo and have a full day of shooting with a photographer friend of mine who was visiting- rather than stay confined to the air condition interior of my countryside apartment. Him and I, along with two additional photographer friends he invited, wandered around the sticky streets of Tokyo cameras in hand. We stopped in many a tourist site, starting in Shibuya, then Tsukiji, followed by Shinjuku and finally stopping at Tokyo Tower. By this time, the sun was setting and my friend group spent two hours in an observation deck trying to snap the perfect picture of the tower- accompanied by the seemingly entire population of hobbyist photographers in the city. This was my fourth visit to Tokyo tower- further cementing it as my favorite place in Japan. The reason for this love is mainly due to my first visit- it being the inciting incident for my want to move to Japan. I remember the moment very distinctly- I was walking towards the tower as the sun was setting, crossing through the temple placed right before the tower (which you can see in the photo on the lower left hand side.) I recall having a very powerful epiphany moment of, "I want to live here" coupled with the very pragmatic reaction of, "oh no, this is going to make my life a whole lot more complicated." Well- it has been three years since that moment and here I am, typing this article away in the messy chaos of my Japanese countryside apartment. The actual process to get here was- just as predicted- very complicated, but worth every second of the effort it took to get to where I am now. I'll never forget that moment before the glistening tower- truly an instant encapsulating a life changing decision. Next goal, to move to Tokyo- I'm sick of all the rice fields where I live.

Seoul searching

So I just returned from my first trip to Korea- marking it as the official 27th country that I've been to! I went to visit my best friend who has been living there for the past six months- catching him right before he takes his flight back home next week. I meet up with him at the airport and he acted as my tour guide my entire weekend in Seoul. This trip complimented the trip we took together to Japan last year- where I showed him around and planned it myself. I left my Seoul trip in great hands- everyday we did something unexpected and exciting. He and I function as counterbalances for one another- our personalities providing an equilibrium of calm and ambition that only true friends can create together. It was interesting to see how the six months of living abroad effected him, how his outlook on life changed and the subtle changes in his sense of fashion (not as many Hawaiian shirts this time around). Although wandering the streets of Seoul taking photos and seeing the tourist sites was spectacular- the true moment that stood out to me was the night where we ate Korean style pancakes and shared bowls of rice wine in a decrepit underground drinking hole that my best friend knew of. The atmosphere was as thick as the smog in LA during rush hour- as we were surrounded by groups of savvy Koreans young and old drinking, smoking, and laughing more and more as the night progressed. The energy of the entire city was contained in that room at that moment- providing choatic and fun ambiance as he and I talked about random anecdotes of our post-move-abroad lives. The glorious night was topped off by 1,000 won (roughly dollar equivalent) ice cream waffle sandwich, and watching street performers practice their routines on the streets of Seoul. This trip provided that backdrop for many quirky and interesting stories- culminating to the farewell at the airport before I returned to my life in Japan. For the record, when a sign says a check in line should take five minutes- expect to wait for at least fifty. Ridiculous. 

Edge of the worlds.

This is the coast of Morocco. If you intently squint, you can make out the vague murky outline of the European Spanish coast through the hazy pre-rain shower clouds on the far end of the dazzling blue water. This is the meeting point of two cultures, two languages, two worlds. To me, this is what travel is- going beyond what is known and discovering different methods of accomplishing the basics of human happiness. This exact moment overlooking the African coast reminded me of when I was a child visiting the horrendously overcast British territory of Gibraltar during a family trip. Gibraltar itself (aside from the famous rock of Gibraltar) stood out to me because of a rather revolting burger that my father refused to stop eating, and a certain missed opportunity.

What was this opportunity? Going to Morocco via ferry. My father rented a car (I believe) and we drove through the southern tip of Spain, eventually finding our way to a port with a ferry that would have allowed us to go to Morocco briefly. We did not- the opportunity presented itself, and then drifted away to the avenues of my subconscious. The moment of rejection was not grandiose, but it was memorable. At the time. I was a terrified anxious child (now a fully grown terrified anxious adult)- not wanting to deviate from the plan of the trip that was made, fear of the unknown fueling my anxieties. This reaction of mine was a major contributing factor on why we didn't go. I had the opportunity to expand myself- but it was not seized. I was scared to embrace what I could not understand. I could see the coast of Africa through my out-of-style child sized spectacles, but it was purposefully left a mystery. As my body and mind grew- this moment of fear I experienced stuck with me- serving as a reminder of what happens when things are played safe and when things are left unfinished. To be frank, it bothered me.

That was until this year, when I finally stepped foot on African soil for the first time. I have traveled throughout North America, Europe and Japan, but the brief trip to Morocco was something truly extraordinary. It felt different, carrying a unique pace and energy than any other place I have visited. I walked through the old town market, had some tea, and made my way to the cliff side overlooking the African coast. That moment onlooking the opposing European coast signified the end of a micro-drama within my self conscious, demonstrating what can happen when the fear of the unknown is met head on.

Walking through the protest

So I accidentally became a photo journalist for an afternoon. As stated, it was completely unintentional- at the time I was being a typical tourist in London doing typical touristy things- which led me to Trafalgar Square. I came, I saw, I conquered (much like the British empire in the 18th century). While I was leaving, I noticed a man carrying a sign with some rather colorful words against the current president of the United States (somehow), Donald Trump. That sparked my interest, so I followed him. Before I knew it I was in a swarm of protesters, all protesting against Brexit with a variety of signs and flags. And just like that, I felt like a photojournalist- albeit unpaid. I spent the next two hours of my life that day walking against the crowd snapping away photo after photo. I always wanted to be part of a live protest, and that was my first one. I felt like a salmon swimming up stream with the flurry of people (miraculously I did not get pit-pocketed) as I felt the energy of the protest. It was quite a show, having live music, dressed up animals, silly hats, and of course the aforementioned rude signs. The protest marched all the way to Westminster, where they had Sir Patrick Stewart play on video as he gave his thoughts on Brexit. It was at this point I decided to depart the protest, the people per square inch were far too many- even by comparison to a cramped Tokyo train during rush hour. I eagerly await the next opportunity to do something like this again- just the question is, when will that be?  

Palace of promises- and half remembered stories.

So a little before I was born (about 4 years ago if I'm counting right) my Dad promised my Mom that he would take her to Alhambra Palace in Grenada, Spain. This persistence arose from the experience he had when he first went to Grenada. For those who don't know my dad (all of you) he is a meticulous planner- having every idiosyncrasy of a trip planned out months before the rubber souls of his beaten up running shoes touch the ground of his target destination. So logically, his visit to Grenada was completely unplanned- being the antithesis of who my dad is as a traveler. In short, it was because of a girl. My dad had all these plans set in place and then the girl he was traveling with told him about going to Grenada- being a site of particular interest in the likely coffee stained pages of her travel book. My dad did an uncharacteristic leap of faith, went, and loved it. He was enamored by the beauty of the area and culture. At least- I think he was, he's the kind of man to collect film canisters full of sand so who knows what goes through his mind- probably some sand, or flags (or both). To cut a short story even shorter, when he began dating my mom, he promised to take her to Grenada one day- that day of fulfillment occurring the better half of two decades later. Plot twist- I was there (obviously). I accompanied them as it would be the last opportunity to travel with them, or really be around my family in general, before I made the hair brained commitment of moving to Japan. So after decades of promising, thousands of dollars spent, 3 planes taken, lack of sleep, and riding a cramped bus full of the aggravated elderly, we finally arrive at Alhambra. After such a trek we just had to stop at the majestic restroom- the clear height of high society. The palace was packed, and after wandering around it for the better part of 3 hours- I can understand why. The palace was one of the last Islamic controlled areas in Spain- and the influence shows in the beautiful architecture. I had heard of this place my entire life- and I did not think it would meet my expectations. I pushed it to the back of my mind, to let it rot away along with my childhood imaginary friend and dreams of being a international super spy- but the experience not only surpassed my expectations, but it moved me emotionally. My father is a goal oriented person, so seeing him complete one of his goals to please my Mom was moving in a way that is difficult to explain in romanized letters to strangers on the internet. So promises made, promises kept. One less thing.

Among the rice fields

I have been living in the Japanese countryside for the past two months now- and I'm really enjoying my new life here. To be frank however, there are a lot of rice fields around me- which is fine! Rice is cool (or should I say steamed?). I'm more accustomed to a city environment- and being a stone throw away from Tokyo facilitating this- but the countryside definitely does have it's charm (with a side of rice). The tipping point of the copious amount of rice around me was the moment my co-worker handed me a PET bottle full of uncooked rice. It wasn't a small bottle either- it was over a litre of rice. The kicker to the situation was that it was apparently all from her families rice farm- so I now have rich authentic Japanese rice. I know this place is countryside, but I was a little shocked to find that I knew someone who owned a rice farm. Joking aside, the gesture really moved me- I felt accepted and it was a welcome change of pace to the frantic goings on that is moving to a new country. I did look slightly ridiculous walking home holding a litre of rice in a PET bottle though- but the ends justify the means. I now have delicious delicious rice- it's probably organic too, score.

Oarai Isosaki Shrine

This past weekend I went on an adventure to a town called Oarai in the middle of the Japanese countryside prefecture of Ibaraki. I went there with the goal of going to Isosaki Shrine- a famous tourist site in the area. As you may have figured out by now, I am obsessed with Japanese shrines and temples- their aesthetics I find absolutely stunning. How I found out about the shrine is pure coincidence, the main tourist sites of Oarai were on the packaging of a bento I was eating for lunch the week before. I saw the gate in the sea and I just knew where I was heading to that weekend. It was quite a little journey for me to get there- waking up to get the earliest bus to go take a train to another train to the main town station. When I say countryside I mean in sincerely- looking out the window there was nothing but rice fields and forested areas. The train itself felt like a hold over from the 1950's- rust and all. I could literally feel each wheel grinding against the rail- but it had a certain charm to it (of which I still cannot put into exact words- ancient?). After passing many a rice field, I arrived at my destination and proceeded to walk half an hour to the shrine. The shrine itself was beautiful! However, I was there for the gate in the sea- that's the photo that enraptured my attention while munching of some cold karaage and rice. I came, I saw, and I did not conquer. I was there with the intention of getting a timelapse- but I have come to find that my ND filter wasn't quite dark enough so the water didn't turn out the way I wanted. However, I still took photos- so my main goal was fulfilled. It was beautiful that day and the gate in the sea was quite breathtaking. If you are in the area- I would recommend a visit. From Tokyo it would be about a three hour trip- but if you're a shrine fanatic like I am it's well worth it. Bring a hat though- because I forgot mine.

Japan night timelapse

Recently I've been a little obsessed with timelapses, and I finally starting figuring out how to one properly. I thought I would share my first night timelapse! Shot over the course of 25 minutes and it was great! I should've brought a book though. I'm planning on going back to tokyo and doing more, and putting a timelapse montage together and sharing it!

Fortune 500

Temples and shrines in Japan have fortune slips called omikuji- where you pay about 100 yen and shake a box containing sticks with numbers written on them until one of them falls out. You take that stick and go to the box with the corresponding number on it- and read your fortune. Hopefully the gods will be smiling upon you that day and you will receive a good fortune- although in my experience that is rare. Once you get your fortune, you have the option to tie it to designated stands (shown in photo) and go on your merry way. This was taken at Sensoji temple in Asakusa district in Tokyo- one of the most popular tourist places in all of Japan. Omikuji is a fun thing worth doing whenever you visit a temple or shrine- however if you are superstitious then be warned, you may not like the fortune you get! Good luck!

Tokyo beat

During the past week was a stretch of public holidays in Japan known as, "golden week". Although I have heard of it before and my Japanese friends talked about it- it's sudden appearance in my life was rather unexpected. To be honest, I had completely forgotten about it (now I am kicking myself because I could have gone to Korea or Taiwan with proper planning.) Alas, I was in Japan- so I made the best of my lack of planning and took day trips to both Tokyo, Yokohama and Shinyokohama. Probably the highlight of the individual trips was my visit to Sensoji temple in Tokyo's Asakusa district. The temple is extremely famous- and it was my second time visiting it. The red gates and impressive architecture were spectacular- however the real stick out in my mind was a traveling performance of taiko drums that moved all around the market district just before Sensoji as well as the temple itself. The main attraction was a cart containing performers playing taiko, being led by a group of children in the front of the cart and middle aged to elderly men guiding the ensemble to wherever it was heading to next. I have seen many taiko performances, but this one was special due to the circumstance of golden week and the visit to the temple. The temple itself was absolutely packed with tourists, locals, and even a foreign film crew. I went in, got my fortune, took photos and gawked at the insane amount of people. It's an impressive area, definitely one of the better places Tokyo has to offer. Just don't burn your hand with the incense- I did that my first time and it took two weeks to heal properly.

Sky High

So I just visited Tokyo Skytree for the second time last week. It serves as a wonderful landmark, great for finding direction in a city that can sweep you up without a moments hesitation. After paying the absurd price- you can go up to the observation deck and get a wonderful view of the city of Tokyo. You truly do feel as though you're going up into the sky, complete with official cute mascots. Although I personally prefer Tokyo Tower- Skytree is a must see place and (depending on how much money you have left after a crazy night in Shinjuku the night before) worth the absurd asking price to visit the top.

Shin-Yokohama Ramen Wonderland

Today I woke up at 5:00am and trekked all the way to Shin-Yokohama to go see a Ramen Museum. As it turns out, it was less of a museum and more of a life sized ramen recreation of 1960's era Yokohama- complete with information staff in era accurate police uniform. It was a wonderland... of ramen. Every conceivable type of ramen was available to order- it was almost impossible to chose. In the end I did chose- I had the miso and tonkotsu based ramen while I wandered around the cramped hallways snapping photos. I heard about this museum vaguely a couple of years ago offhand from a friend and promptly left the suggestion in the, "to deal with later" part of my brain (some may call this the procrastination part) until the day that my friend Momoko invited me to go with our mutual friend Nick. Walking into the main attraction really did feel like stepping into a time machine, the vintage photos on the walls of the stairwell down aided in the transporting effect. I felt like I was in the last act of the Kurosawa movie, "High and Low" (a definite recommend for anyone who hasn't seen it). The most prominent sticking point of the experience was the plethora of neon lights spiced throughout the area, giving it it's much needed character. The Ramen Museum was a pleasant surprise- especially for the ramen lover at heart.

Shining shrines

Honestly, I have an obsession with Japanese shrines.  There's something about them that I find absolutely wonderful: the red colors, the rope, the architecture- I find it all enrapturing. The first shrine that I remember visiting was Fushimiinari Shrine in Kyoto. At that time I just moved to Kyoto for the month and it was the first weekend with my host family. I remember they were flipping through a magazine when I noticed a photo of the shrines famous gates. For those who don't know, Fushimiinari has hundreds- if not thousands of Torii (Japanese style gates) lined up through a mountain path. The first time I visited I didn't complete the full path- but upon my second visit I am proud to say I did the full course. The visuals of this shrine are what stick with me- I knew it from site due to the movie adaptation of, "Memoirs of a Geisha" which I had seen a couple years earlier after reading the fantastic book. It had been on my subconscious bucket list ever since that moment, and it did not disappoint. The amount of gates is slightly ridiculous, but it distilled in me a love of the Torii and a slight obsession in taking pictures of them- especially when they're orange. The climax of this interest was my first time to Miyajima island near Hiroshima. It's a long journey from the hub point of the Kansai region I inhabited, but well worth the voyage to see the world Famous Itsukushima shrine with the landmark of the massive torii gate in the sea. I have been two times, both offering distinct versions of the gate (with or without the tide in.) Personally, I prefer when the tide is out because you can go up to the massive gate and touch it with your fingers and see all the details of it. Creatures from the sea have made homes at the gates base, and various types of pocket change are shoved into the gates crevices. The experience felt larger than life, seeing something far bigger than one individual person. It was quite a moving experience for me. When the tide is in the gate appears as though it is floating in the sea- looking wonderful when the sun sets. No matter how hard I tried, I have not been able to capture the immense beauty of the place. I don't think I ever will be able to, but perhaps it's a beauty that is better left to the mind.