Frozen moments from the infinity that is time


Concrete Buildings

Concrete must surely have a claim to being the most important and indispensable building material of modern times. Its ubiquity is, however, not met with universal acclaim, with opinions varying along the spectrum of beautiful to ugly in relation to its contribution to our streetscapes and urban environments.

I will leave individuals to decide where they stand on this subject and perhaps, like me; you find examples of each within your local environments.

Concrete is, however, the common factor between the photos chosen for this post, which grew from my desire to share a few photographs of a rather interesting house in Harajuku (Tokyo). The shots are by no means an attempt to document the range of concrete structures one finds in Japan – they are simply shots of buildings that appealed to me.

The Harajuku Wedge is my name for the building shown by pics 1 to 4. It was a few minutes walk from where I was living and I remember my first view being the angle shown at pic 1, where it looked more like a freestanding wall. As one moves around to behold the view shown at pic 2, the shape changes from a sliver to a wedge and clearly becomes a residence cleverly utilising a small footprint. The dominant use of concrete is further seen from the detail pics (3 and 4), where the use of other materials and plantings soften the raw harshness of the concrete. I never tired of looking at this building on my walks and for me; it serves as a good example of innovative architecture.

The Nagano Cube (pic 5) may lack the visual impact of the Harajuku Wedge, but it begs the question of whether it represents an emerging style in a country where space is always in short supply. Cubes tend to be divisive in architectural terms and are another of those “love or hate” design options. Nevertheless, the style maximises space; would appear to be energy efficient judging from the array of solar panels on the roof; and seemed to blend reasonably well with its neighbours.

A different look altogether is what I called Asakusa Chic (pic 6) where the use of industrial materials, including concrete, have been used to create a residence that integrated nicely with its residential/industrial neighbourhood. I wish I could have seen inside, as I distinctly remember wondering if this may have been the Tokyo equivalent of warehouse conversions. My final Tokyo inclusion is a Ryotei (high class restaurant often involving entertainment by Geisha) in Mukojima (pic 7), an area of Tokyo where older style buildings can be found due to the area being less heavily bombed during World War 2. Whilst the building presents as rather conventional, its style is nevertheless distinctly Japanese and consistent with the generally discreet external appearance of such establishments.

Downtown Osaka (pic 8) was shot from my apartment window and perhaps most clearly shows the ubiquity of concrete, as well as the boxy, space efficient styling. Despite this, I still find the view interesting and to borrow a friend’s observation, the colourful billboards and street advertising found in Asian countries brings life to otherwise bland scenes. The second Osaka image (pic 9) is a building in the Dotonbori area, where the more fluid shapes within the external steel staircase adds an (almost) art deco feel to an otherwise plain concrete structure.

To conclude this little sojourn into the world of concrete, pic 11 was shot at Kyoto’s Garden of Fine Arts. In reality the name is somewhat misleading in that the garden has no plant life, nor does one find works of fine art. Instead one enters an imaginative space where popular works of art have been reproduced within an open-air gallery of concrete, steel and glass, which perhaps will become the subject of a future post.

Is there a moral to this post? Well, to be honest, it started as a simple desire to share shots of a building that caught my eye and held my interest, but morphed into something a little more. As a material, concrete can rightly be described as dull, boring, bland, plain and any other number of similarly uncomplimentary terms. It has, however, become our building block and when used imaginatively has the potential to add interest and beauty to our lives. It reminds me of an old saying that: “a good tradesman never blames his tools”.

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


Snow Monkeys (part 2)

A friend told me that upon viewing a print of pic 1, his friend’s eyes turned to moons and she asked if those creatures are of this earth. Frozen moments in time become forever and I am happy to have this image forever. Leaving aside the visual effect of steam rising from the hot waters into the cold air and the shroud like appearance of the baby’s matted fur, it is fundamentally an image of a mother’s unconditional love for a child. Look at the eyes. Mother and child appear as if in a trance. Her entire being is focused on caring for her child and her child has surrendered to the comfort of a mother’s care. Many adjectives come to mind, but I have said enough and will now allow viewers to read the photograph through their own eyes and experiences.

If there was a dominant memory I took away from my two days with the Snow Monkeys at Jigokudani, it was that of having witnessed the importance of family at its most elemental level. Stripped of the comforts we often take for granted, bar nature’s gift of hot springs of course, this community of Japanese macaque demonstrate care and tenderness whilst surviving in a wild and often inhospitable mountain environment. To my eyes, pic 2 is an image of togetherness, with pics 3 and 4 emphasising the parent/child bonding that we hold so dear in our human societies. Pic 3 is especially interesting as it shows rare eye contact with an adult monkey. In their society, direct eye contact is a sign of enmity and the adult monkeys are expert in averting their gaze away from the camera lens.

The younger monkeys are more inquisitive and as can be seen from some of the images (pics 5 to 11), will stare directly into the camera. Watching the young monkeys at play is captivating and prior to the cuteness presented at pic 5, the two youngsters were playing boisterously. They may not know it, but such play prepares them for adult responsibilities and one wonders what adventures the future holds for them.

Maybe I have strange mental images of bats, but Batmonkey (pic 7) is so named because that was the image that popped into my head when this sopping wet monkey emerged from the hot springs to dry off. The curiosity of the young is further shown at pic 9 – a one handed shot leaning over the pool, with the camera facing directly down as the youngster looked directly up. It was pleasing that I was not perceived as a threat and was allowed to take the shot free of intimidation.

Pic 10 is a favourite image, where the young monkey seems equally engrossed in chewing a twig and checking out this alien at the side of the pool. Mum’s hand offers the security of knowing that protection is near, not that it was required. Look at this monkey’s unmarked face and big innocent eyes. Compare it to the faces of adult monkeys; all of who exhibit some scars of life and one can appreciate the rigorous life to come.

Tough love is also practiced, not that you would know it from the expression of the young monkey in pic 11, who had recently surfaced from a parental dunking. Prior to this photo, the monkey had been held under the water and walked around the pool by a parent – presumably as part of their training to survive their environment. No damage seems to have been done.

There is much time spent on grooming, either on a personal basis (pic 12) or with the help of a friend (pic 13). (This is an opportune time to point out that what may appear as blemishes in some photos are, in fact, dirt and vegetation caught in the monkeys’ fur. I do not like to extensively edit photographs and to edit away such objects would have been to misrepresent the monkeys’ true appearance.)

The harshness of life on the mountain is apparent at times and the adult monkey at pic 14 appears somewhat weary and worn. One must also remember that they live in a hierarchical community and this realization struck me from my observations of the old monkey at pic 15. He spent his time on the fringes. Part of the community, but no longer in the midst of the action. In years past, he may have been one of those dominant males that created so much tension on the first day of my visit. I felt sorry for this old monkey and although he retains a proud bearing, his plight is not dissimilar to that of many older people in our communities. Perhaps we are more alike than we really realise.

Before leaving Nagano I took this shot of the mountains as night fell. Not a great shot, but it felt nice to know the monkeys were up there somewhere.

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


Snow Monkeys (part 1)

Japanese Macaque monkeys can be found in various locations throughout Japan, but only at Jigokudani Yaenkoen can one observe the monkeys bathing in hot springs. These monkeys are more popularly known as Snow Monkeys and have featured in many nature documentaries filmed by people of international renown. However, there is always room for one more humble commentary on these wild enchanting creatures.

Jigokudani is about a forty-minute bus ride from Nagano Station, followed by a walk of thirty to forty minutes to reach the monkey park located in a valley near the Yokuya River – a mountainous area in central Japan. Given that Nagano (the host city for the 1998 Winter Olympics) is less than two hours from Tokyo by Shinkansen, the visit can be made as a day trip.

This post is the first of a two-part blog, with today’s post concentrating on giving some idea of the area where the monkeys live, as well as introducing the monkeys of course. In the next post, I will share more images of young monkeys and their parental bonds.

The photographs were taken over two visits on consecutive days, with each of the days providing quite different experiences. There was an air of tension on the first day, apparently due to the comings and goings of the community’s dominant adult males. They are used to getting their own way and one did not need to be an expert naturalist to observe the hierarchical nature of the community. As is found in most wild animal communities, size and strength are key attributes.

Visitors should heed the warnings that the animals are wild, albeit used to and reasonably comfortable with the close presence of humans. I found this out firsthand when my confidence rose and I ventured too close for a photograph. My subject took offence, became snarly and charged. His bluff was enough and I retreated – warned and unharmed, not to mention providing some entertainment for others present. A little while later a Japanese woman was similarly charged and we enjoyed a short conversation about our war stories.

I clearly remember her saying that despite being hit on the leg, she still loved the monkeys.

On the second day and in the absence of the dominant males, the atmosphere was more relaxed and free from any aggression. Perhaps this is not unlike human communities where moods can vary in accordance with those present and the underlying social dynamics. Each monkey has their role and it is fascinating to be able to observe their social interactions at such close quarters.

I visited when autumn was yielding to winter, as can be appreciated from the first image of an adult monkey bathing in the hot spring, masked by the rising steam hitting the cold air. He was considerably warmer and more comfortable than I was at that time.

Pics 2 to 5 provide a rough chronology of the walk to the monkey park. Pic 2 shows the view of the valley from the Kanbayashi Onsen bus stop, followed by a section of the path (pic 3) one takes to reach the snow monkeys. The climb is quite gradual and apart from a couple of steep sections is not arduous. One is almost there (pic 4) when the little village comes into view, where onsen type accommodation is available if one wished to stay on the mountain. My first view of the monkeys (pic 5) was that of several scampering over roofs and I am sure the residents’ windows are kept closed. When viewed together with pics 11 and 12, it can be seen that apart from the luxury of their hot springs, the monkeys are living in a challenging physical environment where snow covers the ground for some four months every year.

The remaining photographs feature the stars of the show and present monkeys enjoying the warmth of the pool (pics 7 and 8); sharing each other’s warmth (pic 10); monkeys in pensive mood (pic 14) and posturing pose (pic 15). You may have guessed that pic 9 is one of the dominant males mentioned earlier. A wider shot would have shown him commanding the pool without a care in the world.

In closing, I would like to say hello to Vladina and Jonathan whom I met during my visit and who, I am sure, have been expecting the Snow Monkeys to make an appearance on my blog. Here they are and I hope they bring back happy memories.

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


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Cafés & Coffee

For a country where the tea ceremony is an integral part of its cultural heritage, the Japanese people also appear to enjoy the pleasure of lingering over a coffee – particularly in the major cities where cafés abound.  Currently, the coffee scene is dominated by franchise operators, although one does find interesting independent cafés, which, as the coffee culture becomes more established, are likely to become more popular.

The first three photographs show examples of three popular franchises and I must say I would not be surprised if Tokyo is the Starbucks capital of the world.  They are everywhere!  The Shibuya Crossing Starbucks (pic 1) is probably the most prominent and is a great place for people watching, as is the Café Doutor (pic 2) overlooking the Ginza Crossing.

However, the variety and individuality of independent cafes can be seen from the other photographs such as Kyoto’s Café Yoshiko (pic 4) where customers can enjoy views of autumn colour and cherry blossom in season.  Similarly, the stark white minimalist look of the café in Niigata (pic 6) is so Japanese and The Deck at Harajuku (pic 7) is a great place for a warm snack and coffee.

Other places I remember fondly is Binya café (pic 8) in Ebisu.  I first came across Binya while walking to Tokyo’s magnificent Museum of Photography.  Enjoying coffee served in fine china is relaxing and a nice break from the hectic pace of life so characteristic of Tokyo and the temptation to order “takeaway”.

Wandering through Kiyojima (one of Tokyo’s old areas) led me to MuuMuu Coffee (pics 9 & 10) where I enjoyed lunch and a chat, only to learn that the barista had learnt his skills working in cafés in Melbourne (my home town).  Sometimes it truly is a small world.

My final shots are of Café Mazekoze in Nagano where I was (as usual) wandering the streets after visiting the Zenkoji Temple.  I was at first attracted by the bric-a-brac outside, but upon walking through the door I was immediately allured by the aroma of freshly brewed coffee.  Quite irresistible!  Again, conversation with the owner revealed another “small world” experience in that her sister now lives in Edinburgh – where I was born and grew up.  It is meetings like these that enrich travel and as so often happens, I left with a recommendation to visit another nearby temple.

Coffee breaks not only refresh us, but they can result in lasting memories of places visited.  I hope these photos help you to remember similar experiences.

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