johnliddlephotography

Frozen moments from the infinity that is time


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Crossing Paths

Perhaps the greatest joy of travelling is the opportunity to meet new people. Even though most meetings are short and one-time occasions, they nevertheless leave an impression that stay with us long after we return home.

In this post I show some of the people I met or encountered on my visits to Japan. Most images were shot with the subject’s permission and a few were irresistible photographic opportunities. There are many more shots in the archive, but I chose to limit myself to twenty selections based entirely on my personal preference.

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

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Tokyo Station

My first visit to Tokyo was during the time Tokyo Station was undergoing significant refurbishment and I recall being disappointed that the station’s glories were hidden behind scaffolding and screens. When I returned the second time my disappointment continued and I was mentally associating Tokyo Station with the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, which I had visited when it too was shrouded from view. Perhaps I’ve discovered my superhero skill!

However, timing is everything and a few days later when I again passed through Tokyo Station, the scaffolding and shrouding was gone and a beautifully restored station could again be appreciated. Everyone seemed to be stopping to look, even locals, many of whom probably used the station every day.

I don’t know how Tokyo Station compares statistically to other Japanese and international stations, nor do I wish to know. What I do know is that for such a large station I have always found it quite easy to navigate, primarily due to good signage in both Japanese and English. Nevertheless, upon viewing the restored exterior for the first time, I must admit to being a little surprised at its architectural style. My first impression was that it did not appear to be very Japanese and would not be out of place in western cities.

First impressions are, however, prone to mellowing when one has had time for reflection and so it was in this instance, especially when viewed from above. The station fits its surroundings and the more I reflected, the more I came to the view that it is a quite imperial structure befitting its close proximity to the Imperial Palace.

Several of the photographs were taken from the rooftop of the Kitte Shoka shopping centre opposite the station, which allowed one to more fully appreciate the quality of the restoration work and see detail that would not have been possible from street level. Whenever I can access an elevated position, I always regard it as a photographic treat. The detail shots (e.g. pics 7, 8 & 10) show, in my opinion, exceptionally good craftsmanship. The copper work is sublime and as the copper patinates with age and acquires those wonderful greens that come with patination, the aesthetic will change progressively and the station’s character will similarly change.

The crowning glory (pic 8) is, of course, the domes – simply magnificent! These were destroyed during the 1945 bombings and not replaced until now. Whilst it has taken a long time, it has been worth the wait and as well as being true to the original design, they add an important Japanese element that will surely become a defining feature of the Marunouchi skyline.

When visiting Tokyo, don’t rush through this station. Take the time to enjoy it.

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


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Kyoto Station

First time visitors arriving at Kyoto Station could be both impressed and surprised when they disembark at Kyoto’s large and ultra-modern central station. Anyone expecting the station to match Kyoto’s reputation as Japan’s cultural jewel is likely to be surprised at the towering, futuristic edifice that is Kyoto Station.

The station is Japan’s second biggest station building and at 470 metres in length and fifteen storeys tall is also one of the nation’s largest buildings. Typical of large Japanese stations it is more than just a station and also incorporates the ten storey Isetan department store, a large underground shopping mall, a hotel and several local government facilities. Welcome to Kyoto – starting with a little bit of culture shock.

Its central location, with the main exit on the Karasuma side exiting directly into downtown Kyoto, establishes the station as not only a transportation hub, but also a general community hub.

In this post I have attempted to give readers some idea of its impressive architecture with several photographs of the main concourse (pics 5 to 8) combined with other shots that play with the “meeting place” role served by stations everywhere. I was always amused by Platform 0 (pic 3) as I can’t think of another platform zero I’ve come across, though I readily admit to not being expert on train stations.

Have you noticed that crowd shots often throw-up a person who immediately catches the eye? For example, in pic 9 “Over there!” we have the gentleman at bottom centre pointing and mouthing directions to another person out of shot. Or maybe he was telling me not to take his photo – sorry! It is enjoyable to have a bit of fun titling such photos and, of course, it is pure speculation on my part, but pics 12 to 14 suggest widely contrasting emotions. The young woman at pic 12 has the worried, confused look of someone who may have been stood-up; whereas the woman in pic 13 is a study of calm and patience; and at pic 14 we have a woman who clearly knows where she is going. Look at the woman and station guard at pic 10 “How can I help” engaged in an apparently earnest conversation. I wonder what about?

I fondly remember Kyoto Station as the starting point of many trips and the source of nourishment when returning late at night and I hope this post gives others some insight into a magnificent modern building that serves as the doorway to one of the world’s greatest cultural cities.

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


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Homeless in Tokyo

When travelling it is easy (and not at all unreasonable) to seek out pleasurable experiences and pay little attention to social issues that may be of greater concern to us in our home cities.

Homelessness is an issue that seems to be common across all countries and the more highly developed and relatively affluent societies such as Japan are not exempt. This may come as a surprise given Japan’s homogeneity in class terms where it is estimated that more than 90% of Japanese people are deemed to be middle-class. In many other western societies, a rate of 90% would be considered a thing of the past and an unattainable dream in today’s world where western governments are disproportionately influenced by corporate rather than societal concerns.

Nevertheless, people fall through the cracks in all societies and it is estimated that Tokyo alone has more than 5000 homeless – mostly men over 40, many of whom are likely victims of changes to Japan’s corporate culture where Salarymen (and women) can no longer assume that loyalty will be rewarded with jobs for life.

I did not seek out photographs of the homeless, though with the benefit of hindsight it would have been an interesting project. One must be sensitive to individuals’ needs and for this reason I tended, in most instances, to resist taking such shots. However, in terms of general observations, I was never troubled or approached for money by homeless persons in Japan, something that certainly does not apply in my hometown. It was also noticeable that they were, in effect, not noticeable on city streets, at least during the day. One would encounter homeless people sleeping rough around subway stairs at night, but during the day I mostly came across the homeless in parks, where they would sit quietly and contemplatively on the benches. Their possessions would, for the most part, be stowed away in less obtrusive areas of the park.

The convention seemed to be that people leave the homeless alone and vice versa. Whether such mutual respect and tolerance will continue if the issue worsens is difficult to predict. In fact, the only time I recall seeing the homeless openly express some anger was in Kyoto prior to a long holiday weekend when the police were not allowing the homeless to settle in the vicinity of Kyoto Station.

All the selected shots were taken in parks; some in Ueno Park – a very popular recreational area, particularly at weekends when families flock to visit the nearby zoo, galleries and museums. Others were shot in a smaller park across the road from Tokyo’s billion-dollar Metropolitan Government Building, an irony impossible to ignore. Indeed, pic 3 shows a rather forlorn homeless person resting within the forecourt of the Government Building.

Of the other images I wish to comment on only the first (pic 1) and the last (pic 10), in that I personally consider these images to be the most powerful. When I shot Bed is a Park Bench (pic 1) and checked the image on my camera’s screen, my first instinct was to adjust the exposure and shoot a second image. Fortunately this instinct was quickly replaced by the realisation that the image was far more powerful as shot and did not require a face to communicate the hardships faced by homeless persons. Similarly, Not Quite Alfresco Dining (pic 10) shows a person who has seemingly become inured to eating most if not all their meals in public view and foregoing the dignity that we take for granted.

If this subject and/or images have upset anyone, I do apologise, but the subject is real and alive wherever we live and I hope this post will encourage viewers to pause and reflect.

(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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Streets of Asakusa

To conclude this series of posts on Asakusa I have selected shots to show what visitors may typically see if strolling the streets of this interesting and often quirky area.

Designed by Phillipe Starck, the renowned French designer, the “Flamme d’Or” (Flame of Gold) atop Asahi’s Super Dry Hall (pics 1 and 2) is difficult to miss. The Super Dry Hall takes the shape of a beer glass and is quite architecturally striking in its own right, but absolutely unmissable with the 300 ton Flamme d’Or perched like a crowning glory. The building to the left is the Asahi Beer Headquarters, with the complex of buildings occupying the site where Asahi started brewing beer over 100 years ago.

Visitors will usually spend some time walking through Shin-Nakamise (pics 4 to 7), an undercover arcade running parallel to the more famous Nakamise Dori approach to Sensoji Temple (refer to previous post).

On the outside streets there is much to catch the eye. The Nimi building, or as I prefer to call it, the Tea Cup building (pic 8) presents as an eccentric novelty. However, it is actually in keeping with Asakusa’s hosting of many businesses supplying product to the hospitality sector, an example of which is a vendor’s display of takeaway food trays (pic 9).

Translation is always good for a laugh and although the antique shop’s wares (pic 11) appear interesting, my attention was initially caught by the misspelt word (“planing” rather than “planning”). Nonetheless, I freely admit that their attempt is much better than I could manage if operating in reverse.

Tokyo must go close to being the Starbucks capital of the world (pic 15) and yes I did succumb to taking a break and enjoyed looking out over Asakusa life from an upper level vantage point. Just as Starbucks is everywhere in Tokyo, so are bicycles (pic 16) and titling the shot as “bicycle calamity” is probably unkind. What most impressed me about this and other bicycle parking I observed in Japan was the general absence of security devices to prevent theft. I read recently that one of the reasons for the low crime rate in Japan is the high proportion of travel made on foot or by bicycle and perhaps there is some credence to this argument.

I felt a bit sorry for the rickshaw operator being passed by the cyclist at pic 17, as it is was hardly a fair contest in “power to weight” terms. It never ceased to amaze me how fit the rickshaw operators are and their ability to maintain conversations with their clients while jogging along.

I have shown the house at pic 18 in a previous post on concrete buildings and am indulging myself by reposting here as an example of the innovative architecture one finds in contemporary Japanese residences. By contrast, I also offer pic 19 as an example of how small many Japanese residences are.

My farewell to Asakusa is pic 20, which serves to remind that no matter how busy and bustling life can be, water and greenery combine to create opportunities to enjoy tranquil moments.

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


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Sensoji Temple – Asakusa

With an estimated 30 million visits a year from locals and tourists, it is safe to conclude that Sensoji Temple is Asakusa’s most popular drawcard. First established in 645 AD, Sensoji is Tokyo’s oldest temple and has been revered by many influential historical figures through the ages, as well as by the general population. Sensoji is devoted to the Bodhisattva Kannon who is regarded by followers as the most compassionate Buddha and is seen as a source of benevolence and relief from suffering.

Judging from my personal visits the temple is always busy, somehow befitting its background as the centre of Edo (present-day Tokyo) culture. Such busyness also fits well with Tokyo’s image as a bustling, vibrant metropolis.

Looking back from the temple steps (pic 1) through the Hozomon Gate to Nakamise Dori gives some impression of the temple’s popularity. Indeed, for some visitors it is likely that the highlight of their visits will be walking the gauntlet that is Nakamise Dori (pics 2 to 4). This is a long approach path through rows of souvenir shops and food stalls. Whilst such an approach to Japanese temples is quite common, I found Nakamise Dori to be overly commercial, though its longevity suggests that my view may be in the minority. Nevertheless, it is an interesting place to observe the contrasting and sometimes individualistic dress styles of visitors.

Japan has many impressive temple gates and the Hozomon Gate (pics 5 and 6) is yet another. First built in 942 AD, the Hozomon Gate has been destroyed twice; firstly by fire in 1631 and again in 1945 during the bombing of Tokyo. The current structure of steel-reinforced concrete houses many of Sensoji’s treasures in its second-storey; including a copy of the Lotus Sutra that is a designated national treasure. Standing almost 23 metres high, 21 metres wide and 8 metres deep, it is a commanding presence and a worthy gateway to Tokyo’s oldest temple. However, the most eye-catching feature is the large red chochin (lantern) weighing approximately 400 kilograms that hangs from the gate’s central opening.

Passing through the Hozomon Gate brings one into an area (pic 7) where official temple souvenirs and worship related materials such as amulets, incense and scrolls may be purchased, beyond which lies the temple’s main entrance. Upon entering the main hall, one’s eye is immediately diverted upwards to a series of impressive ceiling paintings (pic 8), which, despite the different subject matter, reminded me of Kyoto’s Kennin-ji (covered in a December 2014 post). Ceremonies occur throughout the day and although one’s view is generally restricted, it is always satisfying when one can experience any temple ceremony (pic 9).

Some respite from the crowds can be found within Sensoji’s gardens, which, as can be seen from the glimpse viewed from the left-hand exit of the main hall (pic 10), are quite beautiful in their own right. Within the gardens are many statues of deities, including those at pic 12 where the statue to the right of the shot is said to represent the image of the Bodhisattva Kannon. I have always found Jizo (protectors of children) statues to be rather comforting (as in pic 13) and given that Sensoji is associated with compassion, it seemed an appropriate way to conclude this post.

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


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Looking for Old Tokyo – Mukojima

Mukojima adjoins Kyojima and was, therefore, a logical area to look for examples of old Tokyo. Located on the east side of the Sumida River, Mukojima was fortunate during the 1945 bombings to avoid the extent of devastation experienced elsewhere. Whilst this has resulted in well-preserved shitamachi (low town) zones, there is also much evidence of an area in transition as new developments have followed the opening of the nearby Tokyo Skytree in 2012.

There was a second agenda to my walk through Kiyojima and that was to find geisha, given that Mukojima is one of the few areas in Tokyo where real geisha train and work. I could have joined an organised tour and been guaranteed success, but I much preferred to simply wander and trust in luck and instinct. As can be seen from pics 11 to 14, the mission was accomplished.

After wandering the streets for some time I came across an area that just felt right and decided to wait on a corner and play “paparazzi”. Well, after a short time I heard the familiar clip clopping sound of footsteps and the jangling associated with the hair ornamentation worn by trainee geisha on their way to engagements. A short while later an older woman came by (pic 14) carrying her shamisen, a stringed instrument used to accompany geisha during performances.

This post marks my 50th post and although it has taken longer than I had expected, I would like to thank those people who follow, read and comment on my blog. Your participation is most appreciated and I hope you will continue to find the blog interesting.

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


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Looking for Old Tokyo – Kyojima Shopping Street

I concluded my previous post by describing Kyojima as a place with a “village feel” and this is most evident by spending time in Kyojima’s shopping street. I’m unsure as to the street’s name, but I think it is Tachibana Ginza, though my advice is to just wander around Kyojima and you will find it, as I suspect all streets lead to the shopping street (shotengai).

Despite enjoying my base in Harajuku during my stay, I wished Harajuku had such a place to shop for fresh foods and it is a reminder that streets like these are under threat in all developed societies. It is such a shame that future generations may never experience the sense of community from buying their everyday needs from merchants who rely more on friendly relationships than slick marketing programs. At a personal level, I recall my Father’s butcher shop being a social hub where people would share local news (and gossip of course), not to mention his knowledge of customers’ favourite cuts ensuring their ongoing patronage. The shrink-wrapped equivalent from the supermarket is …. well it’s not an equivalent at all is it?

Kyojima’s shotengai is old Tokyo, yet it fits new Tokyo if one listens to Kyojima’s newer residents. Urban planning is always a difficult and challenging process, yet one hopes a way can be found to retain these old shotengai within the inevitable urban renewal process. Given Japan’s reverence for maintaining old traditions, it is perhaps more likely to succeed than other nations.

Today’s photos start with MuuMuu Coffee (pics 1 and 2), which also features in an earlier post (Cafes on January 6, 2014), followed by a selection of shots showing shopkeepers and customers. I was quite taken by the wheelchair bound woman (pic 3) enjoying a relaxing shopping expedition accompanied, one assumes, by her son. Can one be this relaxed in a food hall?

Much as the wares on display in Ginza’s food halls impress me, is not the timeless appeal of Toshi’s greengrocery (pic 4) just as impressive? The personalised service and sense of community is aptly conveyed by pics 7 and 8, where Yumiko can be seen attending to an elderly customer (pic 7) and enjoying a chat with a local resident (pic 8). Yumiko’s café serves a range of popular snacks including takoyaki (octopus balls) and taiyaki, which are fish shaped cakes served with hot fillings such as red bean paste.

Perhaps pic 9 is most reminiscent of old Tokyo through the photographic memories on display. I would like to be able to tell you more about this shop, but it was untended each time I passed. Pics 10 and 11 are shots of students visiting from Kanazawa to promote their city. I remember them well. My presence became an opportunity for English practice and it was fortunate I had visited Kanazawa a few days earlier.

I suspect most visitors to Tokyo would not visit this shotengai and I hope this post may encourage more visitors. Visiting the Ginza and Kyojima’s shopping street may be at opposite ends of the shopping spectrum, but each is a “wow” experience.

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


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Looking for Old Tokyo – Kyojima

How well do you really know your city? Perhaps the answer depends on the size and population as much as any other factor and for those who live in large cities, I suspect there are many areas that are rarely visited. I know this applies to my life in a city of approximately 4.4 million people. Extrapolating this to a sprawling metropolis such as Tokyo suggests that vey few Tokyoites would have an intimate and comprehensive knowledge of their city. For tourists and short-term residents, the challenge of seeing the range of cities within a city is even greater.

One of the things I was keen to do when visiting Tokyo was to visit areas where “old Tokyo” could still be seen and experienced, though I freely admit that I was barely able to scratch the surface. The plan was simple: catch a train to areas of interest and wander around.

This will be the first in a series of “Looking for Old Tokyo” posts, starting with Kyojima, originally designated as a farming area according to old shogunate law. This heritage is most visibly experienced, quite delightfully, by strolling through Kyojima’s narrow winding streets that follow the pathways through long gone paddy fields and irrigation channels. This was aptly described as Kyojima epitomising Tokyo in the sense that Tokyo is a city that has never had a plan, a city centre or any visible order.

Kyojima is also described as an accident waiting to happen. It sits at sea level; has many older style wooden houses; and is susceptible to earthquakes given its alluvial soil. Add to these a lack of firebreaks and its narrow streets and one gets the picture that it would not be the place to be during a major earthquake. Despite all this Kyojima has survived not only earthquakes, but also escaped the firebombing of Tokyo during the Second World War; hence its appeal to those looking for glimpses of old Tokyo.

Kyojima is nevertheless showing signs of change, as will be seen from several of the photographs, yet maintains strong elements of the earthiness of a shitamachi (low town) where the buildings show the inventiveness of residents’ use of available materials to make repairs.

I had expected to find an older demographic and was not surprised to come across the three people waiting for the bus (pic 1) – one of my favourite shots. However, a short while later when wandering through the streets I met an English woman who now resides in the area. She explained that the area is becoming increasingly attractive to younger people due to lower rents and property prices compared to other parts of Tokyo.

People are also being drawn to Kiyojima through the proximity of the Tokyo Skytree, which towers over the area (pic 2). Skytree is Tokyo’s tallest building and a popular destination for local and international tourists, with many venturing further afield to explore the adjoining areas.

Kyojima lacks green open spaces, yet there is no lack of greenery on view through pot plants on or outside almost every building. Readers may also notice the presence of bicycles in most shots and there is no doubt that cycling and walking are the preferred forms of local transport.

I will let the photographs tell the rest of the story and will end by saying that I left Kyojima feeling happy. I found it to be an engaging place with a friendly atmosphere and what I would term a “village feel” where people know and care for their neighbours. Progress is already encroaching as it inevitably must, but I hope the spirit of old Tokyo continues to live on here.

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