Japan: a visit to Sensoji shrine

When you visit Tokyo, a must visit if you are in the area of Asakusa is certainly Sensoji, the oldest shrine of the city. A visit to Sensoji shrine is not only the occasion of watching Japanese and their beliefs which intricates elements of Shintoism along with Buddhism. It is also the occasion of watching numerous ladies and men dressed up in elaborate ceremony kimonos.

A very old shrine

Sensoji (浅草寺)is so called because it is another way to read the character for “Asakusa”, where the temple is located. I mentioned earlier that Sensoji was the oldest temple in Tokyo, and its establishment dates back to 645 AD. Obviously, the current temple looks too new to still be the original temple. All the more as the area was destroyed in the WWII bombardments.

Despite the current relative “freshness” of the shrine building, Sensoji still carries a special weight in the heart of the Tokyo dwellers. Before entering the temple grounds themselves, there is a very famous shopping street, Nakamise street, mainly targeted to tourists, but still very interesting for visitors. Originally, the street appeared when traders obtained the permission to set up shops in the street leading to the shrine, several centuries ago. While the shops may have been chased away from time to time, and were destroyed to the ground in WWII, today they are back into their prime.

Nakamise street
The incredible vibe of Nakamise street, near Sensoji

Things to buy in Nakamise street

Since you are already there, you may want to buy some souvenirs. It might be the occasion to buy some Geta, those traditional Japanese wooden sandals (very comfortable, by the way).

There are shops like the below shop, but while expensive on the main street, you find some interesting deals either in made to order geta or generally sized geta in side streets.

Geta shop
A geta shop in Nakamise street

I got my own geta from a side street with a very lovely couple. They fit well, and are just as comfortable as the Berkemann slides I habitually wear too.

My Japanese geta
The pair of Geta I bought in Japan. Stylish and easy to wear.

There are plenty of sites explaining how to wear geta, but the general idea is that they should be slightly smaller than your foot. That way, your feet hangs out a little bit.

Besides geta, the side streets also display some lovely fans as these hand painted ones (a bargain at 1,100 JPY).

Hand-painted fans
Hand painted fans near Nakamise street

The gate to the shrine

The gate to the shrine itself is painted in tones to remind of thunder. This is logical, as it is called Kaminarimon (雷門, “Thunder Gate).

Kaminarimon
The Kaminarimon gate of Sensoji

It is nearby that I asked the two lovely Japanese girls if I could take their picture in kimono and they kindly agreed.

Japanese girls in Kimono
Nihonjin girls in Kimono

As much as possible, it is recommended to ask the permission of people to take their picture, as generally, it is frowned on taking pictures even in a public space. A smile and a few words in Japanese help a lot in that respect.

It must be said that shrines and temples are often places used for photoshoots of kimonos. Like this group where they were focusing on the elaborate obis (the “belt”) of these furisode. A furisode is a ceremony kimono worn by unmarried young girls and is typically recognizable by the long floating sleeves.

Photoshoot of kimonos
A photo shoot of kimonos focusing on the elaborated obis.

When shooting your picture, if you know some Japanese, it will allow you to distinguish between the “real” Japanese in kimono and those tourists who wear kimonos to have photo sessions.

For example, the two young ladies below were from Hong Kong (!) and immediately corrected me when I asked if I could take their picture. They kindly agreed nevertheless to have their picture taken.

HK tourist in kimono
A Hong Kong tourist posing in Kimono

The shrine

The meaning of Sensoji probably escapes me a bit, but from inside the shrine itself, you can have a nice view on the bustle in the courtyard as well as on the Kaminarimon .

View from inside of Sensoji
A view from the inside of Sensoji

Later, as we went back, our daughter, Maria-Sophia fell in love with the gacha machines. She was too cute, asking to buy one of those little balls with premiums inside.

Little girl and gacha machine
When a little girl falls in love with a gacha machine

In short, either for shopping or for visiting the shrine, Sensoji is absolutely the place to go if you come to Tokyo.

Nakamise street another angle
Nakamise street and the bustling activity

Ueno Park in Tokyo: from blooming Sakura to red maple leaves

On day three of my stay in Japan, I headed to Ueno park. To be completely honest, I had been there the day before, where I managed to shoot already some pics. The main highlight of the day was finding a cherry tree starting to bloom in the middle of December. The whole Ueno park offers a study in contrast ranging from blooming sakura to red maple leaves.

Climatic change?

The habitual season for cherry blossoms is around April to May. Here, we are at the beginning of winter and seeing cherry blossoms flower in December is pretty unusual to say the least. It must be also said that winter has been pretty mild so far in Tokyo. It should also be pointed out that sakuras are forecasted to be blooming as early as 15th of January in Okinawa, for example.

At any rate, the sakuras attracted a lot of tourists who were visiting Ueno park. Some were respectful, others pulling down the branches to make sure they were in the picture with them.

Photographically, shooting sakuras in front of a local shrine was the perfect way to suggest Japan and all its loveliness.

Sakuras blooming in Ueno park.
The blooming sakuras in front of a shrine in Ueno park

Contrast with Autumn colors

The real interest of seeing sakuras blooming was when you contrasted that to the fiery red maple leaves seen further in the Ueno zoo park.

If you are a photographer who is not living in a tropical country, then you know that the razing winter sun provides light of an exceptional quality and this is true again in this case. The razing light showcase the delicate texture of the leaves in this picture.

At the same time, Japan is unique in providing you both the colors of autumn and the loveliness of spring. Where else can you have blooming flowers by the side of autumn leaves?

Spring and Autumn contrast
Contrast between blooming flowers and autumn leaves in the sunset

Winter light is ideal for portraits

At the same time, winter light is perfect for portraits, as the light is soft and gives a special glow on faces. Using shadows, I managed to take an interesting portrait of my daughter among the toris of Ueno Park.

Maria-Sophia in winter light among toris
I shot Maria-Sophia among the Tori in Ueno park using the delicate winter light to shine on her face

Further, on the way to Ueno zoo, you can find lovely stone gates which offer an interesting pattern shot.

Stone gates in Ueno park
Stone gates in Ueno park

Ueno park: a place to visit in Tokyo

Tokyo has many parks, but Ueno park has the peculiarity of presenting both, the traditional Japanese characters with a local shrine and some lovely and interesting contrasts in seasonal pictures.

Do not miss the local shrine either! Called Kaneji, it is interesting for the lovely sunset light in the evening.

Kaneji temple in sunset
Kaneji temple in sunset

The most interesting part is probably their selling lucky charms with a “hello kitty”.

HK charms
Interesting charm for safe delivery with a Hello Kitty…

In short, Ueno park is a lovely subject for pictures. If you are in Tokyo, don’t miss visiting it!

How to get there?

Of course, the answer depends from where you are. But the safe bet is to get down at Ueno metro station which you can reach with either the Hibiya or the Ginza lines.

Dragon and Tiger pagoda

In my previous post, I mentioned about visting the Eslite bookstore. Thereafter, I decided to visit one of the main landmarks of Kaohsiung, namely the dragon and tiger pagoda. Built with two giant figures of the said animals through the mouth of which you must enter, this pagoda is another must-see in Kaohsiung.

A bit out of the way

To be honest, reaching this pagoda takes some effort as it is located quite some way from any MRT station.

I will provide instructions at the end of the post, but in short, it takes a long walk from the MRT Kaohsiung Arena to reach the pagoda. I was lugging of course, both my camera bag and a tripod. On the way to the pagoda, I came across a railway crossing manned by a guard. Originally, I wanted to shoot the rails extending in the distance with the sunset light, but the guard asked me to pass behind the barrier.

The guard was so kind as to propose me to set up my tripod at his place, as a train was passing. Thanks to him, I managed to get a spectacular shot of a train rushing in the sunset.

Train at a railway crossing in Kaohsiung, Taiwan
Kaohsiung: a train rushes at a railway crossing while a guard stands watch

I continued walking on that endless road, and carried on the last bit of the road barefoot, as my feet were truly tired from dragging in my flip-flops. It is strange how my feet got less tired thereafter.

A pagoda built pretty recently

The pagoda’s colors come across as extremely gorgeous during the day as well as at night. This is probably due to the Pagoda not being very old, as it was built in 1976.

At night, the effect is quite stunning, especially if you take the time of using a long exposure. The lights and the color take a special golden hue which makes it look quite special.

Dragon and tiger pagoda
The magnificent dragon and tiger pagoda in Kaohsiung

Other sights

The dragon and tiger pagoda is not the only stuff to see around the lake where it is located. A bit further is another pagoda, called the “Spring and Autumn pavillons”, which was built in 1953. It thus predates the dragon and tiger pagodas, but it is still the same gorgeous style.

 

Near the Tiger and dragon pagoda, the spring and autumn pavillons
Near the Tiger and dragon pagoda, the spring and autumn pavillons rise.

This is not the only sight. If you just turn your back to the dragon and tiger pagoda, then you can play on patterns and lines as in this picture.

Patterns near the Tiger and dragon pagoda
On the gangway to the dragon and tiger pagoda, you can see these decorations which make for a nice pattern.

Again, from a technical point of view, the best results are obtained with a tripod and long exposure, which may run counter to the expectation of some people of “traveling light”.

An old temple.

In the same area, you can also see an older temple, the Tzu Chi temple, the facade of which is heavily ornated.

Tzu Chi temple
Just opposite the Dragon and Tiger Pagoda, stands the Tzu Chi temple.

Tzu Chi is one of the four major Buddhist sects in Taiwan, hence not astonishing that they have a temple in such a prominent position. In this very syncretic typical aspect of Asian Buddhism, the temple hosts Chinese gods as well…

But after coming to this place for shooting the pagoda, I was not going to linger. Up on my list was the Ruifeng night market. So, to save time (and also because I was tired!), I caught a marauding taxi to that place. But that’s the subject of a next post…

Wat Sanam Chai – An unknown ruin of Thai history

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Wat Sanam Chai, a temple in ruins in the city of Suphanburi, is an interesting visit, far from the throngs of tourists in the neighboring Ayutthaya.

Suphanburi is a city of historical significance as it is located on the direct pathway for invading armies from Burma. That’s why a number of battles were fought on those grounds, and Wat Sanam Chai is a reminder of one of these battles.

A mausoleum

Wat Sanam Chai nowadays is in ruin. Originally built as early as 1203 AD, the current ruins date back to the Ayutthaya period. The main feature is a sort of tumulus, or pagoda, originally thought to have been 70-80m high. In 1961, during restoration works at that pagoda, human remains and ashes were found inside the tumulus. It appears that beyond being a temple, it was also the resting place of warriors who had been killed during the frequent clashes with the Burmese armies. Several battles were fought with Burma in this province in the Ayutthaya period. The symbol of the province is, after all two war elephants fighting…

Peacefulness

Wat Sanam chai sunrise
Sun rising in the morning fog is an unforgettable experience at Wat Sanam Chai.

Where Ayutthaya has too many tourists for its own good, Wat Sanam Chai appears to be out of time itself.

Peacefulness imbues this place, mainly because of its remoteness and the lack of visitors. However, the presence of some Buddha statues do remind that this is still  a place of worship for Buddhists. You should also remember it is a place of rest where dead warriors lie. Just let the peacefulness imbue you and think about the centuries of history and war about which these ruins talk in their silence.

Another Buddha statue located behind the Pagoda itself.

How to get there?

Several ways, the train being the most inconvenient. You are better off if you can drive or have a driver take you there. As this place is a bit off the track, you will have to follow the google maps provided below to reach the ruins. It is not far from the main highway from Bangkok, but you must have nevertheless to make  a dangerous u-turn on the highway…

Ideally, this visit would be combined with the artisanal drum-making village of Ekkarat, and a tour to Ayutthaya.

Man Mo Temple in Hong Kong

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During a photography meetup, a couple of weeks ago, I visited this quaint little temple called the “Man Mo temple”. It is peculiar for its location among high-rises in the very touristy area of Central. As this area is frequented by a lot of tourists, so is the temple too.

What is special about Man Mo temple?

Located on Hollywood road, this is one of the oldest temples of Hong Kong dating back to at least 1847 according to the temple’s website.

For Chinese, the temple is dedicated to the Gods of Literature, Man Tai, and the God of War Guan Yu (also called Mo Tai, hence the name “Man Mo” for the temple).

Photography

Today, because of the number of Asian tourists who come to burn incense, the place is pretty frequented, but the low light and the candlelight allow to shoot some pretty atmospheric pictures of the worshippers.

How to get there?

You can see the exact location on this map. Either you take a taxi to Hollywood road, or you can simply get down at Central MTR and then take a stroll up in that typical area. Upper Lascar Row, the famous antique shop street is nearby, so you might add it to your itinerary.

 

 

Ayutthaya and its marvels

Wat Mahathat in Ayutthaya

One of my preferred cities in Thailand was Ayutthaya. About one hour drive from Bangkok, it exuded history at every angle. Although a very touristy place, it is also a place which contains an extraordinary calm and peacefulness, far from the bustling Bangkok, for example. Contributing to that feeling is probably the numerous ruins that fill the city, the peaceful gardens and the feeling that life is somehow stopped.

One of the subsisting seating Buddhas at Wat Mahathat

The ruins of Ayutthaya

After its destruction by Burmese armies in 1767, and the horrors and destruction committed during that sack, Ayutthaya never recovered its original place of capital of the Siamese empire. A marking memory of the destruction can be found in the rows of beheaded dancers.

 

In Ayutthaya, a memory of the destruction wrought by the Burmese invaders can be found in these rows of beheaded dancers.

You wonder if the peace you find in that city is not also some heritage of its bloody history. Where ruins and walls cannot be silent enough to remind you about the past destruction and sorrow which took place in that city. History is mixed with current day life and at every angle you see a scene that takes you back to the past.

What to do in Ayutthaya?

Nowadays, it is lovely to visit to see the remnants of the architecture of the Siamese XVIIIth century, as well as some traces of the past violence, such as the beheaded dancers. With the short distance from Bangkok, it is perfectly suitable for a day trip. Nevertheless, I should warn you never to ride the elephants. These animals are tortured to serve as tourist amusement tools, and you are definitely not helping them by helping to perpetuate this industry.

Pink elephant
A mahout colors an elephant in pink in Ayutthaya

When you have five minutes and want to relax, you may go and have a coffee at Iudia on the river, the lovely coffee shop and guesthouse facing the ruins of Wat Phutthaisawan.

To get there, you can either take a bus or a boat (with the caveat that transportation in Thailand is absolutely haphazard and roads extremely risky). Train is not recommended for the sheer discomfort and time it takes to get to destination. Self-drive might be safer, provided you can handle the adventurous Thai traffic.