johnliddlephotography

Frozen moments from the infinity that is time


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The Peacefulness of a Kyoto Garden

 

Globalisation, digitalisation, social media, rampant consumerism, the threat of terrorism and the seemingly endless debate about global warming intrude our daily lives and tend to discourage enjoying the natural beauty of our environments. Are we at risk of disconnecting from nature? For those such as farmers and naturalists whose lives revolve around the natural world, there is little risk. However, there are those at the opposite end of the spectrum who have effectively disconnected and live their lives wholly within urban and virtual environments. For those in the middle, perhaps it is time to think seriously about the role of nature in our lives, else we risk being swept further into the vortex of an artificial environment.

I recently experienced virtual reality for the first time and whilst I readily admit to enjoying the experience, I find myself wondering how this technology will impact on our lives. The technology is awesome and the scientific and commercial applications to facilitate forward planning decisions are obvious. I also know my limitations and that there are certain things I will never try, which I have come to accept. However, virtual reality will inevitably enable me to have those experiences without the risks (real and perceived) that hold me back. Even low risk experiences such as travelling to foreign countries or walking through a forest will be available to all by donning goggles and earphones. For some or many, which remains to be seen, this may become the mode through which they experience the natural world. What implications might this have for our ongoing individual and collective health? It is only my opinion, but I intend not to pursue virtual experiences where I have the opportunity to pursue the real experiences. What will you do?

Today’s selection of photographs have nothing to do with the above discussion except that they are real and remind me of the peaceful moments I experienced in gardens in Kyoto. Travelling can be hectic at times and it was always nice to find tranquil spaces where one could slow down, listen to the flow of moving water and the rustling sounds of wind moving through trees punctuated by birdsongs. Our green spaces provide this opportunity, not to mention the fundamental joy and benefit of being outdoors. If you read this and have not visited a green space in the past week, I challenge you to visit your nearest park or garden to maintain the connection that is surely fundamental to our existence.

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

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Nishiki Market (Kyoto)

I think it is fair to say that markets hold a certain fascination for travellers. Kyoto’s famous Nishiki is no exception, though it is different to the sprawling open-air markets that one generally comes across.

Nishiki is a narrow alley housing some hundreds of stalls that continues to resemble a traditional shotengai or shopping street. Not only does it retain a traditional feel, Nishiki can be accessed from Shijo-dori, which runs through the commercial centre of Kyoto and is home to banks and luxury stores. The contrast is fascinating! In the space of a few minutes, one can move from browsing designer labels in glitzy department stores to immersion in the sights, sounds and smells of a market that has occupied the site for around 700 years. Popular with locals and tourists, Nishiki is known as “Kyoto’s Kitchen” and is the location of choice for the city’s top chefs given the range of fresh, seasonal produce to be found there.

I regret not spending more time at Nishiki, but I hope this selection of shots will give some idea of this old fascinating market.

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


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Bullet Train Ride

Travelling on Japan’s Shinkansen network was always a pleasure. Comfortable, safe and on-time performance makes it an obvious choice and it is easy to understand how the service has become such an integral part of Japan’s transport system and indispensable to business travellers.

After recently watching a documentary on the Shinkansen, which showed the behind-the-scenes organisation and attention to detail, my admiration of the service is further enhanced. The documentary also served to jog my memory of a trip I made from Kyoto to Tokyo where I took photographs along the way. The images are titled simply by the time of day and are shown sequentially in the order they were taken. The first pic is a Kyoto scene and the final pic a passing shot of a Tokyo suburb.

Train travel is always a good way to see slices of a country and some of my observations from this slice of Japan are:

  • The compactness of Japanese homes and the general tidiness of the neighbourhoods along the line.
  • The lack of graffiti and other signs of petty vandalism to property that often characterises properties adjoining railway lines.
  • The changing weather patterns during the trip, which ranged from bright sunshine to wintry scenes.
  • The extent of horticultural and aquacultural activities, including traditional rice crops and several installations utilising glasshouses.
  • Typical views showing Japan’s mountainous terrain.
  • Evidence of Japan’s industrialisation, including one of the nation’s most iconic brands (SONY).

More specifically, at pic 12 “12.48pm” one can observe (around the middle-right of the shot) a small cemetery located within the fields. One observes these small cemeteries throughout Japan, which one would also expect to include a shrine honouring those who have passed. Seeing Mount Fuji is, of course always a thrill for visitors and I like the symbolism of Fujisan watching over a group of baseballers in the foreground of pic 15 “1.20pm”. Similarly, in pic 16 “1.22pm” the twin symbols of Japan’s ancient iconic mountain meeting an industrial scene reminiscent of the nation’s post-war growth seems quite apt.

Until next time – safe travels.

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


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Noren

On my first or second day in Kyoto I recall observing a young woman diligently photographing all the noren along one of Kyoto’s most popular entertainment streets. At the time I thought it to be a little obsessive, but understandable given their generally attractive appearance. It was not long before I was smitten by the addictive power of noren and started to build my own collection, some of which are shown here, including a number that would also have been photographed by the young woman whose addiction had started earlier.

What are noren? In effect, they are rectangular lengths of fabric similar to curtains and as well as being used at the entry to commercial establishments, they are also used internally to divide spaces. They offer a very Japanese way for (mainly) traditional businesses to display their brand name/logo, which is typically written in kanji. Noren used at the entry to establishments are generally hung at between half to three-quarter length, with the more up-market venues tending towards longer noren. The final shot on this post (pic 15) is a good example of how the noren provides a reasonable measure of privacy to patrons, whilst offering a tantalising glimpse inside for we “mere mortals”.

I found noren to be more widely used in Kyoto, which is not surprising given Kyoto’s emphasis on traditional aspects of Japanese culture. Nevertheless, one also encounters noren within the more traditional areas of greater Tokyo, though I must say I do not recall seeing anyone in Tokyo with a serious noren addiction.

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


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Kimono

It is almost a year since I last posted on this blog. During this time I noted that some bloggers I follow had similarly quiet years and I look forward to again reading your posts when the time is right. Others kept powering on and those I thank for their entertaining posts and inspiration.

This year I want to finish my series on Japan and thought I should start with an iconic subject, hence my choice of kimono – instantly recognisable as Japanese. I have taken a broad approach to my selection of photos by including different types of kimono from the ceremonial to the more lightweight yukata and by showing kimono worn by women of different generations.

Being of the wrong gender and nationality I can only speculate why Japanese women continue to wear kimono and at the risk of being corrected, I suspect that wearing kimono represents a connection to past generations, to Japanese culture and as an affirmation of their nationality. Other reasons might simply be that wearing kimono feels good and is something they like to do.

The opening shots (pics 1 and 2) show two young women engaged in viewing the cherry blossoms and my observation of each was that they were very much “in the moment”. Would wearing western clothing have lessened their experience? Only they would know, but I do know my experience was enhanced by their presence at those locations.

Shichigosan (pic 3) is a Shinto festival where three and seven year old girls in formal dress receive blessings. Unfortunately I arrived late and this is literally the only shot I was able to capture. I see a proud young girl in a splendid kimono posing for a “milestone family album” shot that, in future years, may remind her of a special day in her life. Will this experience encourage her to wear kimono in her later life? Again, only time will tell, but festivals such as Shichigosan provide important opportunities to expose children to their cultural heritage.

The closest I have come to a personal kimono experience is shown at pic 4, where this colourful arrangement occupied a corner of a tatami room at the traditional Japanese house I rented in Hiroshima. Looking at the photo brings back pleasant memories of the stay.

I have included a selection of photos (pics 5 to 8) to show that wearing kimono does not hamper everyday activities such as shopping, with women in several cities shown going about their business. My favourite from this group is the woman doing her Christmas shopping in Dotonbori (pic 5), who encapsulates the Japanese ability to combine the traditional and the contemporary; in this case kimono, modern handbag and cell phone.

One also sees many younger women in kimono, especially during times of celebration such as celebrating the autumn colours (pic 9) or simply enjoying the fantasy of dressing as a geisha for the day (pic 11). I first noticed the elegant woman in pic 12 for the furoshiki she was carrying – a simple square of cloth that can be configured for multiple uses, including carrying goods. Someone else obviously noticed her, but whether wearing kimono or not it would seem that body language tells the story.

I often walked past the teahouse in pic 13 and every time the hostess greeting patrons at the door was smiling. One could not imagine her wearing anything other than kimono. Finally I have chosen to close the post with several photos of a Shinto bride taken at Tokyo’s Meiji Jingu, whose kimono epitomises elegance.

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


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Karesansui

Karesansui is the Japanese word for dry landscape gardens. Introduced to Japan as landscape concepts from China and Korea around the seventh century, the form progressively evolved to take on a distinctive Japanese style. To borrow a relatively modern terminology, karesansui may be described as minimalist in their design, an approach consistent with the Japanese view that frugality is virtuous.

Karesansui are gardens for the mind, designed to encourage contemplation and meditation. From my experience of viewing karesansui I can certainly attest to their ability to induce a contemplative state of mind. Alas, my meditative skills are very limited, but one can imagine such environments being conducive to intense meditation for skilled practitioners.

I regret not having spent more time visiting and photographing karesansui, but in this post I offer a selection of shots from Kyoto’s Ryoanji and Ginkakuji temples. Ryoanji is considered to be the finest example of dry landscape gardening and Ginkakuji’s expansive Sea of Silver Sand and large (Mount Fuji) sand cone is quite unforgettable.

Photographs are a poor substitute for the real experience, but I hope you will experience a little appreciation of these wonderful and enduring gardens.

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


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Sanjusangendo (Kyoto)

Sanjusangendo is, at 120 metres), Japan’s longest wooden structure, with the name literally translating to “33 intervals” to denote the number of intervals between the building’s support columns. The temple’s other major claim to fame is for the 1001 statues of Kannon (the goddess of mercy), which are housed within the temple hall. Originally built in 1164 and destroyed by fire in 1249, the current structure dates from 1266.

Unfortunately my photographs are restricted to external views given that photography is banned inside the temple hall. This is always disappointing, particularly when it seems to be motivated by a desire to increase souvenir sales and when a blind eye is turned to those taking “selfies” on phone cameras.

Nevertheless, there is a “silver lining” and by focusing on exterior shots, one has the opportunity to highlight the quiet beauty and strength of traditional wooden structures, not to mention the wonderful hues that result as wood ages. My personal favourite is the final shot, simply because it is a timeless view that may have been shared by many over the centuries.

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


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Bukko-ji (Kyoto)

Kyoto has an embarrassment of riches in the form of its impressive temples and shrines representing several Buddhist disciplines. Tourists, local and international, flock to enjoy the history and ambience of the better-known and grander temples, especially during the peak Autumn and Spring periods when nature’s allure is magnetic.

Other temples exist more quietly and this is where one finds Bukko-ji. I was fortunate to be staying near Bukko-ji, which I passed most days on my way to and from my apartment and one day I acted on my daily reminder that “I must visit here before I leave”. Since visiting, it remains as a most memorable visit and serves as an example of the jewels one often finds by simply wandering away from the main thoroughfares.

Bukko-ji has a long history of teaching Shin Buddhism and promoting its message to: “Become a real human under the guiding light of the original power of Amida.” Founded in 1212 by Shinran Shonin, Bukko-ji moved to its present site in central Kyoto in 1586 and today sits comfortably within a neighbourhood of apartment buildings, hotels and other businesses. We talk today of community hubs, but I wonder how many can claim to have served the role for over 400 years.

Two halls joined by a connecting bridge dominate the temple complex. To the left is the Amida Hall or Hondo (main hall), where the statue of Amida Buddha is enshrined and to the right is Daishl-do (Great Priest’s Hall), where the seated statue of Shinran Shonin is enshrined. Typical of Japanese temples, the wide eaves provide protection from the elements and allow worshippers and visitors to move freely between the halls. Indeed, I would go as far as claiming that walking on the smooth boards, polished over time by many feet, as one of life’s simple pleasures.

The selected photographs aim to emphasise two aspects of Bukko-ji and arguably similar Japanese temples. The external shots remind one of strong beauty. Built from solid native timbers, these wooden structures are built to last and stand with an unspoken invitation as safe havens. The internal shots show a quiet, serene environment that invites contemplation. Softly filtered light, expansive tatami floors, classic scenes depicted on painted wall panels, statues of revered deities and splendidly adorned altars combine to make time spent in either hall a memorable experience.

I hope the photographs give readers some insight into Bukko-ji and serve as a reminder that Kyoto has many more hidden jewels. My memories from the visit include the friendliness of administrators and other staff I met during my visit; the absolute joy of being the only visitor there and having the halls to myself; the feel of the tatami; and most of all the feeling of calm and of life slowing down, if only for a while.

May Bukko-ji still be there for another 400 years.

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


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Sakura Remembered (Kyoto)

Once experienced never forgotten is but one way to describe Japan’s cherry blossom (Sakura) season. These delicate pink/white flowers that visit fleetingly, yet around which so much goodwill is generated stay in one’s memory.

I will not pretend to understand the phenomenon of Sakura and the celebrations (Hanami) that will be taking place in Japan as this post is written. Nevertheless, around this time of year, no matter where I am, I find my thoughts drawn to and remembering the Sakura. For Japanese people the bond to the Sakura grows season by season and perhaps the same applies to non-Japanese who have lived in Japan for some years.

As concern grows over our environment and as modern life separates us more and more from nature, I must admit to some envy at Japan’s annual celebration of the Sakura and the nation’s more general appreciation of the seasons. Whilst Japan has its own environmental challenges, I cannot help but think that such widespread appreciation of nature is a positive force for the future.

In March/April 2014 I posted a series of images and thoughts on the cherry blossom season and with this post I have included some additional shots taken at various locations around Kyoto. Once experienced never forgotten.

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


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Ginkakuji (Kyoto)

Located in Kyoto’s foothills, the ideal way to visit Ginkakuji is on foot via the Philosopher’s Path. Turning right at the end of the path, the final leg is uphill between rows of souvenir shops and food outlets, well placed to cater for hungry visitors on the way in or out or both.

Ginkakuji dates back to around 1480 and is a most significant temple. Originally built as a retirement villa for Ashikaga Yoshimasu, a shogun dedicated to the arts, Ginkakuji became a centre for contemporary culture that was to become known as Higashiyama Culture. Arts that developed and flourished during this time include arts that are seen today as synonymous not just with Japanese art, but with Japan. Imagine being at the centre of a culture developing the tea ceremony, flower arrangement, poetry, Noh theatre, garden design and architecture and one gets an idea of life around Ginkakuji at that time. Of even more significance is that the culture extended beyond the enjoyment of the aristocratic circles and filtered through to impact more broadly on the whole of Japan.

Ginkakuji is visually impressive in a rather uncomplicated way in that it relies on relatively few elements to deliver a serene environment for those who have lived there and for those of us able to visit only fleetingly. In this post I wish to draw attention to three key elements.

The best-known building is the Silver Pavilion (pics 1 and 2), named after an intention to cover the building in silver to both imitate and contrast with Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) built by Yoshimasu’s grandfather. Despite the original plan never being carried out, the building has aged gracefully and its survival through many fires and earthquakes since is a tribute to its architects and builders.

Also dating back to the temple’s foundation, Togo-du (pics 3 to 5) is the oldest example of Shoin architecture in Japan, the architectural style still governing how most contemporary tatami rooms are designed today. Within the building was the Dojinsai tearoom where Yoshimasu would often take tea and which many scholars consider to be the predecessor of the Tea Pavilion.

The Sea of Silver Sand (pics 6 to 9 and 11 to 13) is impossible to miss upon entering the grounds and when viewed from the higher reaches of the garden. It is, of course, a lovingly cared for dry sand garden that commands the eye, drawing one’s gaze towards the Silver Pavilion and the large sand cone named “Moon Viewing Platform” reminiscent of Mount Fuji.

A key element featured here only incidentally, is Ginkakuji’s magnificent gardens – an absolute must see in autumn. One of the many features is the moss garden, glimpses of which can be seen in pics 2 and 5. From there, one follows a path that meanders around the hillside overlooking the temple buildings and where even the fencing (pic 10) is impressive. The meandering path invites one to stop frequently to enjoy the views over the temple grounds and beyond to Kyoto (pics 11 to 13), a view that I always found delightful.

Ginkakuji is one of those places that make one relax and slow down. It is serene; it is tranquil; it invites contemplation and meditation; and this is largely due to the vision of a Shogun interested in arts and culture who, despite reigning in bloody war torn times, set in place the foundation for arts that came to be defining elements of Japan.

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