Frozen moments from the infinity that is time


Cherry Blossoms Everywhere (Kyoto)

Objects that attract admiration and generate excitement are typically those that have a measure of rarity; yet this does not apply to Japan’s cherry blossoms, except in the sense that the season is short. Indeed, in terms of supply, cherry blossom is ubiquitous. They can be found almost everywhere. In public and private spaces; in avenues of serenely subtle colour and as solitary trees lighting up otherwise desolate places; in urban and rural areas; and in meticulously tended gardens or growing untended in their natural habitat.

Wherever they are found, they enhance the space and draw attention to their surroundings. To demonstrate this I have chosen a selection of photographs taken at various Kyoto locations, which contain two common subjects, namely buildings and cherry blossoms.

The first four photographs featuring old buildings are scenes that have doubtless been enjoyed for many seasons. The welcoming view of the Sakura blossoms framed by the temple entrance (pic 1) is an invitation to enter and enjoy an interlude of quiet contemplation. By contrast, the magnificent Sakura highlighted against the classic dark timbers of old Japanese temple buildings (pic 2) stops one in one’s tracks to enjoy the visual feast. Nevertheless, the sight of blossoms through the temple doors then draws one’s attention inwards.

The Hanami scene (pic 3) is another example of a beautiful Sakura tree, framed in this instance by the structure of the Sanmon Gate, itself the subject of an earlier post (January 27, 2014) where this photograph was previously shown. Completing the sequence of sakura and older buildings is Renge-ji (pic 4), a small temple admired for its gardens and where the Buddha statues appear to be savouring the visual feast within which they reside.

I am unsure as to the history of the old industrial building (pic 5) located near the Keage Incline – a favoured Hanami spot in Kyoto. The building’s proximity suggests it may have been part of the infrastructure for the Lake Biwa canal network, though every time I passed I couldn’t help but imagine a future life as modern loft-style apartments. Residents would wake to a wonderful view at this time of year.

Pics 6 and 7 show a wide and closer shot of Sakura trees lining the canal running alongside Kyoto’s International Exhibition Hall, where the modern architecture and the timeless Sakura coexist harmoniously in yet another example of Japan’s ability to blend the old with the new.

Following is a series of five shots (pics 8 to 12) of private residences alongside the Philosopher’s Path – another popular Hanami location, as well as a pleasant walk at any time. The Sakura show an ability to enhance various architectural styles and building materials, such as timber, corrugated metal and masonry.

This ability to enhance is further shown at pics 13 and 14, where older style buildings are lifted by the neighbouring presence of cherry blossoms in bloom. Finally, at pic 15, a contemporary apartment building is similarly lifted, suggesting that whatever direction future building developments take, there will always be a place for the ubiquitous and inspiring Sakura.

(Please click on any of the following images for an enlarged view.)


Hanami (cherry blossom viewing in Kyoto)


Hanami means to view the cherry blossoms and would be a frequently used word across Japan at the present time as people plan their hanami experiences before the fragile blossoms disappear for another year.

To limit the meaning of hanami to “viewing” is somewhat incomplete, as I believe careful observation of the accompanying images will reveal. Hanami is more of an appreciation and celebration, not only of the blossoms per se; but of life itself and those with whom hanami is shared. To even be a viewer of hanami, as was my position in capturing these photographs, is an uplifting experience.

If I were asked for one word to describe what I observed, the word would be “joy” – a simple yet significant word. When joy is felt, other emotions such as happiness, peacefulness, love and even reverence are brought into play.  To think that little pink/white blossoms can evoke such emotions is testament to the power of nature to build the human spirit and is, in my view, an inherent strength of Japanese culture to harness this subtle power for individual and community good.

The photographs were taken at a number of Kyoto locations, though location is insignificant in this instance. Whether located in one of Kyoto’s most sacred or most nondescript locations, the cherry blossom is appreciated. Indeed, I recall thinking during my walks through Kyoto, that the solitary trees one finds in otherwise plain areas may even have the greatest significance.

Let me discuss the photographs and I will try to be brief. The young girl crossing the narrow bridge over the canal (pic 1) is an everyday sight in Kyoto. Add the presence of cherry blossoms and her pink clothing and the image becomes poetic. Similarly, the generations passing on the bridge (pic 2) talks of the timeliness of the season’s appeal and the seasons of life.

Look closely at the faces of the businessman (pic 3) and the father with his adult daughter (my assumption) at pic 4. What do you see? Apart from more pink clothing worn by the daughter (there is a trend here); their faces show appreciation for the object of their gaze. What were they looking at? An old sakura tree, draping its blossoms over the wall of Ryoanji’s famous karesansui (pic 5). The wall alone is an object of beauty, which, during the cherry blossom season, becomes mesmerizing.

Pic 6 illustrates why the Philosopher’s Path is a time-honoured hanami location and further along the path, one finds a group of old friends sharing another hanami season at pic 7.

Hanami can be and is often enjoyed alone, as shown by the young woman (pics 8 and 9) apparently lost in admiration of the season’s blooms. What is she thinking? What is she remembering? What is she wishing for? Only she knows, but look closely at the patterns on her kimono. Could she be wearing her hanami kimono? Whatever the answer to these questions, I sense she will have remembered these frozen moments.

The season is a time for parents and children of all ages. At pic 10 we see a father tenderly supporting the tottering early steps of his daughter, experiencing what may be her first hanami. In years to come, one wonders whether she will be in a photograph such as pic 11, where two women of different generations celebrate another season, again exhibiting tenderness and love.

Communal groups also form in popular locations such as the Sanmon Gate (pic 12), where the steps form ideal viewing platforms. Hanami can even dispel myths. Anyone who thinks the Japanese are always quiet and reserved would change their views after spending time around groups like those at pics 13 and 14. Office juniors are often assigned the task of securing a location for after-work hanami celebrations and from what I observed, their efforts and lonely hours are well rewarded with convivial and loud company.

Finally, it is a season where romance can also bloom and even if short lived, it’s not every day that sharing a takeaway meal on a concrete seat can be an atmospheric experience (pic 15). Happy hanami (pic 16) is intentionally placed last, simply because it is an infectiously happy shot and if we could all have moments like this throughout each year, the world would be a happier place.

Thank you for reading and looking at my personal interpretation of a cherry blossom season in Kyoto. I hope you can see some of what I saw and I’d be delighted if you see and feel much more.

(Please click on any of the following images for an enlarged view.)


This gallery contains 16 photos


Crossing Paths with Omikoshi (Tokyo)

This week’s post continues the chaos theme by recounting the day I kept crossing paths with an Omikoshi.

 It happened one Sunday when I visited the Nihombashi district in search of old Edo style buildings.  As is so often the case the primary objective was trumped by something more interesting.  Crossing the bridge over the river I noticed a crowd outside the Mitsukoshi department store and crowds must, of course, be investigated.  Drawing closer I could see that the focus of activity was an object I later learned to be a mikoshi, for which omiskoshi is the honorific form.

 Anyone who has experienced or seen images of Japanese matsuri (festivals) will be familiar with mikoshi.  A brief description is that they are portable Shinto shrines used to transport deities between (say) a main and temporary shrine.  They typically resemble a miniature shrine building and are often crowned with a phoenix bird statuette.  I don’t know what they weigh, but they are substantial objects and are mounted on rails to be carried by their followers.

What impressed me most was the sense of community and the happy nature of those preparing to transport the mikoshi through the streets of Nihombashi.  One often hears that Japanese people are reserved … well this was not the case on this particular Sunday in Nihombashi and everyone I approached welcomed me.  Perhaps it helped that I was the only foreigner around.

 The photographs are shown in sequence and I hope they communicate the energy of the occasion, which builds as the procession moves.  Allow me to draw attention to a few shots.  The first person I noticed through the crowd was the gentleman in “Standing Guard” (pic 3).  He did not move from his post until the procession started and he looked as if he was indeed guarding his mikoshi.  Participation is an equal opportunity as shown by “Women Power” (pic 6) and “Next Generation” (pic 10), where women and children share the load with men of all ages.  It was very much a family event and one can imagine the children in these photos being accompanied by their children in years to come.

 My favourite shot is “Success” (pic 9), where the men at the front, who had carried the mikoshi from the start showed their joy at reaching the rest stop.  Unfortunately, I must apologise for this and other shots being somewhat blurred – the result of my having been drawn into the scrum and being jostled while trying to walk backwards.  However, I’m happy to trade some blur for the experience.

 There must have been well over a hundred people involved, with fresh people taking over from others in a spirit of seamless cooperation and teamwork.  Except of course for the men at the front – they were staying the journey.  Throughout the journey the followers chant “wasshoi” over and over in a rather hypnotic rhythm and indeed, it did seem for some people to be somewhat of a spiritual experience.  By the way, I believe “wasshoi” means to share a physical load.

 From time to time I tried to resume my search for the Edo style buildings, but kept crossing paths with this and other mikoshi.  Even when I decided it was time for a refreshment break I still couldn’t escape.  Sitting at Starbucks window I had a great view of the mikoshi continuing its journey (pic 15) – they made me feel soft and lazy.

 I didn’t find the Edo style buildings, but I think the photos show the day worked out pretty well.

 (Please click on any of the following images for an enlarged view.)


Chaotic Calm at Shibuya Crossing (Tokyo)

Chaotic calm!  Yes, I know it sounds like a contradiction of terms.  Nevertheless, it is how I see Tokyo’s famous Shibuya Crossing.

Shibuya Crossing may very well be Tokyo’s most recognisable place given its inclusion in travel documentaries, photographs and movies such as “Lost in Translation”.  The popular vision of the crossing, where five roads intersect, is of crowds of people crossing in all directions.  All the lights change at once and when the lights change to green it is like observing an old-fashioned infantry charge.  However, rather than clash, the scene becomes one of chaotic calm.  Pedestrians and cyclists plot their course from one side to the other, artfully avoiding each other in a demonstration of humans’ innate ability to move through crowded areas with a minimum of contact.  Watching this human choreography unfold from a vantage point such as the Starbucks (pic 14) overlooking the intersection is wondrous and entertaining.

For those who like statistics, the adjoining Shibuya Station is the third busiest in the Tokyo metropolis, thus ensuring the constant supply of people crossing.  At peak hour it is estimated that approximately 2500 cross at each cycle.

The action is round-the-clock given Shibuya’s popularity as an entertainment and shopping precinct, hence any visit to Tokyo should include at least one walk across this famous crossing.

In this post I have included a few of the traditional wide shots, but have mostly tried to show a sample of the individuals one encounters.  Where have they come from?  Where are they going?  Who are they meeting?  Simple questions underscoring that each person in the frame is an individual story coming randomly together at a point in time.  A random collection that will never again be repeated.

My first photo shows Hachiko’s statue – a famous Shibuya landmark and a popular meeting point.  In brief, the statue commemorates the loyalty of a faithful dog to its owner, very similar to Edinburgh’s Greyfriar’s Bobby.  Each morning, Hachiko would walk his owner (a college professor) to Shibuya Station and return each evening to greet his owner’s return.  One day his owner did not return, which became the start of Hachiko’s long vigil of faithfully waiting for the impossible.  Local traders and family members cared for him as best they could, but eventually he succumbed to age and the elements.  This bittersweet story has been captured in the movie “Hachiko – A Dog’s Story” starring Richard Gere.  Well worth a look!

The remaining photos are a small sample of whom you might see during a visit to Shibuya Crossing.  If you see yourself in any of the pics, please let me know and I hope I caught you from a good angle haha.

(Please click on any of the following images for an enlarged view.)


Tenryu-ji (Kyoto)

Tenryu-ji Temple located in Kyoto’s Arashiyama district is one of those places for which adjectives were invented.  However, perhaps pointing out that Tenryu-ji is the first ranked of the Five Great Zen Temples of Kyoto will stand as sufficient testimony to its significance through the ages.

Magnificent buildings within magnificent gardens within a delightful town make a visit to Tenryu-ji an experience to savour and remember.  My first visit was on a holiday weekend during autumn and although the crowds made it impossible to take internal shots, the communal enjoyment and celebration of the autumn colours further enhanced the experience.  An earlier post (Autumn in Japan) included several shots from Tenryu-ji and further examples of the autumn hues are shown here via the photographs of the Sogen-chi Pond.  When pondering the scene, bear in mind that by retaining the same structure since their design in the fourteenth century by Muso Soseki, these gardens have truly passed the test of time.

A return visit some weeks later on a quieter day provided an opportunity to leisurely enjoy the buildings and the interior spaces.  The use of dark, heavy timbers creates atmosphere and the joy of walking on timbers smoothed over the years by the steps of countless visitors is one of life’s simple pleasures.

Sitting on the Tatami floors in the Hojo (main hall) looking over Sogen-chi Pond to the landscape beyond is when one really appreciates this place.  The views are serene and I distinctly remember reflecting on how difficult a monk’s life would have been centuries ago, yet how apt a reward to be able to recharge one’s spirits by gazing over a view such as that still seen today.  From that moment I have thought of Tenryu-ji’s underlying character as regenerative.

A walk through the temple buildings reveals links to the past.  One such link is the image of Daruma (pic 9), the Indian Buddhist monk considered to be the founder of Zen Buddhism.  Similarly, pic 10 shows a shrine to Emperor Go-Daigo who lived and studied in a villa on the site of the present temple.  Following his death, Ashikaga Takauji (the first shogun of the Ashikaga shogunate) ordered the villa’s conversion to a Zen temple.

Of course, there is always place for fun amidst history and a popular attraction is a little ornamental pond where visitors delight in trying to land coins onto the frog statues.

(Please click on any of the following images for an enlarged view.)