Dave's Photo & Travelblogue

Photo shoots. World travel advice. Tips on Munich & environs.

Shuni-e Fire Ceremony

The yearly Shuni-e ceremony at Todai-ji temple in Nara, Japan must be one of the ancient pyrotechnic wonders of the world. Reportedly it’s been held every year since 752! And this temple complex is a world heritage site. Yes, the temple is made of wood.

According to Wikipedia, “Every night, ten select believers (eleven on March 12) shoulder large pine torches as long as 8 meters and weighing as much as 80 kilograms. Girded with swords and staves, the torch-bearers climb a flight of stairs and run along the balcony of the Nigatsu-dō, showering sparks on the public below. It is thought that these sacred sparks will protect the recipient from evil. The monks also chant, perform ritual circumambulation, and wave swords to ward off evil spirits.”

Here’s a short video of the ceremony on Mar. 11th, 2012.

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Taking photos of this is hard. You will want a VR- or IS- stabilized lens, a wide aperture (f/2.8 or wider would be nice), and a big D-SLR sensor. Times of 1/15 to 1/3 second at wide aperture can yield nice shots without having to pump the ISO too high.

Shuni-e Torch 1

Here’s another shot, with the torch-bearing monk in motion! He is running along the walkway while twirling the torch on his shoulder.

Shuni-e Torch 2 in motion

For my final trick: tell me this isn’t the most amazing shape you’ve ever seen made of glowing sparks.

Shuni-e Torch 3 bird

If you ever plan to visit Nara, the first half of March is the time to do it!

The one tip to get a good place in front of the Nigatsu-do balcony: arrive early. If you are late you will be half a kilometer away in a parking lot with a crappy view obstructed by a big tree. (To get a decent photo from there you’ll need a tall tripod and a 400mm+ pro lens costing six thousand dollars).

On this (Sunday) night, I arrived at around 5 for the ~7pm ceremony start. I had my choice of viewing position, so got an awesome spot. After a short thunderstorm (which thankfully cleared) and a nice hot coffee from a vending machine, this amazing ceremony was the reward!

Posted 4 years, 11 months ago at 9:48 pm.

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Japan in Timelapse

These timelapse videos were made with a Nikon D7000 on Dotonbori Street in Osaka, in a Belgian bar in Kobe, and from the Granvia hotel overlooking Kyoto train station. You get a little flavor of the variety of city life in Japan!

Personally: I really love how fast you can eat peanuts and drink beer at one frame every 5 seconds. (Cheers, Alan!)

Try to spot a giant crab, a Belgian monk (?), a snow squall, a Shinkansen bullet train, and an elevator dancing to the beat of my background music.

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When you are shooting a timelapse indoors, do try not to set the camera on your food+drinks table. But sometimes you have no choice… hehe. Here’s Kyoto train station at dusk…

Kyoto Train Station at Night

Posted 4 years, 11 months ago at 8:41 pm.

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Awesome Japan Stuff

Japan is a mystifying country where everything seems completely FOREIGN and new to westerners. I think that’s part of why so many of us love Japan and its (to us) oddities!

Here’s my video of a few typical crazy Japanese experiences: conveyor belt running sushi, baseball’s 7th inning stretch, the washlet Japanese toilet, and the opening of an iSetan department store where everyone bows to you as you walk by.

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For travelers: what was the oddest (but obviously most AWESOME) experience you ever had in Japan?

Octopus advertising Takoyaki

Posted 4 years, 12 months ago at 7:59 pm.

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Royal Mouriya Kobe Beef

Looking for a Kobe Beef restaurant recommendation in Kobe, Japan? Here’s my story from Royal Mouriya / MOPR on Ikuta Road in Kobe.

We originally intended to go for the lunch course at Misono, the inventors of Teppanyaki style steak. Unfortunately they allow the last lunch order at 1:30, and we arrived at 1:45. On our way south along Ikuta Road we saw the sign for Royal Mouriya and headed in for their lunch course.

From my group of three hostel-goers (that’s right, hostellers eating Kobe Beef!), two of us ordered the 7,000 yen 150g Kobe Beef lunch special (not on the regular menu; I believe it was A4 BMS 6-7 Ribeye Kobe Beef). For Americans, that’s $85 for 5 1/2 oz of ultra-prime meat. The chef brought out the steak and happily allowed me to take all the pictures I wanted:

Royal Mouriya Kobe Beef Ribeye

Here’s a closeup of the marbling in the large center section of beef:

Kobe Beef Marbling

Our chef sliced up the meat, separating out the fat (which would be cooked separately and used to make the sauteed vegetables later).

Slicing and dicing Kobe Beef

The pieces of meat were mostly put to the side to be cooked one at a time; vegetables were added to the mix on the grill. The pieces of fat from the Kobe Beef were sliced very small. Note, this is not theatrical like teppanyaki in the US. There are no flaming onion volcanoes, no flying shrimp, no egg being juggled between the knives. Just precise Japanese cooking.

Kobe Beef and vegetables

As our chef was cooking, we enjoyed a really excellent salad:

Royal Mouriya salad

At this point it got interesting. The chef served us each a ~50g piece of the steak from the center section. However, my piece (which I ordered VERY RARE) was the one which had been on the grill the longest – I estimate 6-7 minutes. Now, this is way too long for rare. And my compatriot who had ordered medium: his steak had been on the grill for less time than mine. When I asked about this, I think the chef realized the error (which I later figured out). He had misunderstood my American VERY RARE as the Japanese (stereotypical) mispronunciation of VERY WELL: VERY RERR. At least, that’s my guess.

So, what did our master chef do to save the day? He removed the mis-cooked 50g of my center section, and brought us an entire second steak. Then he sliced and diced that one along with the remaining parts of the first steak. There’s no better way to recover from a misunderstanding than to give a (high paying) pair of guests 550g of the world’s most expensive steak for the price of 300g. Here’s my VERY RARE Kobe Beef on the plate:

Kobe Beef on the plate

Sides were asparagus, salt, pepper, crispy fried garlic, and several other things I couldn’t quite name. After serving all the chunks of world-class beef, our chef mixed the (mostly cooked down) crispy fat pieces with bean sprouts and other vegs:

Kobe Beef Fat and vegetables

Overall the meal was worth it for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I wouldn’t do it often, but if I visit Kobe again in several years I’ll definitely return. Lunch specials are a great way to sample this fantastic meat without breaking the bank. Though I am sure you won’t regret it if you go for dinner and spend a bit more for a fancier, multi-course meal at either Mouriya or Misono.

Thanks to our fantastic chef and the whole staff!

Royal Mouriya Staff

Sorry for the blurred waiter; I had focused already when he joined the shot (hehe). To find the restaurant, walk north from Sannomiya Station on Ikuta Road and look for the Royal MOPR sign on the right side of the street. There’s a bit of cyrillic on the signs, I guess it’s a bit of a Russian theme.

Royal Mouriya MOPR sign

Enjoy your Kobe Beef at Mouriya, or wherever you sample it!

Posted 5 years ago at 5:38 pm.

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Yakitori Surprise

For those who’ve seen other cultures’ meat on a stick, this is not satay! Yakitori is the Japanese version of meat on a stick. Meaning, a different sauce (hehe). And generally the meat (at least in restaurants I’ve been to) is very high quality.

Octopus Yakitori

My only quandary was: what to order? To give you an idea of what I mean, here’s the daily special menu:

Torizo Menu

The standard menu was no less confusing, and had limited pictures. Fortunately the server spoke a few words of English and knew how to draw. I think I ordered squid based on his drawing, but it looked like octopus to me (photo above). It was delicious with lemon and mayonnaise. For the next course I odered “Ahh… chicken?” and this seems to be a cubed chicken leg fit onto 3 skewers: fantastic!

Chicken Leg Yakitori

Of course nothing goes with beer and grilled snacks like edamame: boiled and salted soybeans. You squeeze them out of the husk (which isn’t eaten). Edamame are the standard appetizer at all US sushi restaurants, I definitely recommend to give ’em a go.

Edamame

Also of note, there was a strange fish tank with small plants swirling inside. My only guess is it was a fresh seaweed tank. There’s always something new in the world that I haven’t ever seen! That must by why I keep traveling…

Posted 5 years ago at 3:22 pm.

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Japanese Mascots Sell

What better way to advertise than with a mascot? Japan takes that to a whole new level on Osaka’s Dontonbori street. Let’s start with Spider Man, or rather a chubby spider-Satan baby.

Satan Spider Man Ghost?

Of course, dragons are always popular… until they eat your cue ball in the middle of a billiards game. Or roast your sheep and eat your children.

Dontonbori Dragon

There are so many angry mascots that I could’ve made a post titled “Angry Sushi Chefs.” I’m not sure I’d want to eat anything prepared by this guy. Did he spit on the fish? I think so.

Angry Sushi Chef

Damn, it’s time for appetizers and I’ve got a hankering for squid. But the nearest fish joint is miles away! Never fear, Calamari Boy is here… is that a squid-based throwing disc or what?

Calamari Man?

As I remember this guy is the Ganko sushi chef. I’m not sure if he wants to serve sushi, or perform a finishing move with chopsticks. Mortal Kombat style!

Another Angry Sushi Chef

Double shot! I’ve no idea what the Japanese Elvis in the foreground is selling, but the blowfish just behind him are for Zuboraya, where I tried Fugu yesterday.

Vegas Guy

Bluto seems to lead a double life: besides fawning over Olive Oyl, he also sells curly fried thingies in Japan.

Bluto eating chips?

An octopus selling Takoyaki is like a cow advertising McDonald’s. “Eat me! Over here… that’s right. My legs, diced up in a ball of fried dough with bbq and mayo on top. What are you waiting for!”

Octopus advertising Takoyaki

Pastéis de Nata are Portuguese egg custard tarts. Makes perfect sense that a British guy is advertising Portuguese desserts in Japan. Though I must say, they were just as tasty as the ones I ate in Lisbon!

British dude selling Portuguese tarts

So, there’s today’s view of Osaka’s most brilliant shopping street. Definitely give it a try if you’re in Osaka! And be sure to eat at the most outrageously advertised restaurant you see. If the mascot is angry that can only be a good sign. 😉

Posted 5 years ago at 10:05 am.

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Fugu at Zuboraya

If you’re looking for reviews/recommendations of a good restaurant in Osaka, Japan to try Fugu blowfish, read on! My recommendation is definitely for Zuboraya in Dotonbori…

Who hasn’t heard of Fugu, the poisonous blowfish? Japanese love to eat it, perhaps to prove they are masters of otherwise deadly sea creatures whose organs contain toxins that can paralyze our bodies. Yep, including the lungs… making it hard to live. In fact in my book Demon’s Bane, the characters used this poison as a weapon.

Fugu nigiri trio

Becoming a Fugu chef is not easy. One must practice for years before taking a test to be allowed to prepare this potentially fatal delicacy. On top of that, as I learned from reading some internet articles, Fugu doesn’t taste particularly great on its own; special recipes are needed to enhance its flavor. Guests won’t keep coming back just for the thrill if it tastes bad, and no one will pay the high prices Fugu commands for a bland strip of fish. So the chefs at Zuboraya have nice dishes with flavors that complement the Fugu, like spicy garnishes and lemony soy sauce with the nigiri.

Fugu sushi closeup

As I wasn’t expecting much flavor-wise, I went with a small nigiri set of three pieces for 800 yen ($10) rather than blow 3000+ yen on a big Fugu meal. I ordered some Unagi (sea eel) on the side, and cold sake (the best accompaniment).

Fugu and Unagi

The Fugu was lightly seared and was served with a lemony soy sauce, I guess designed to enhance the flavor (or give it some flavor). It was a bit chewy in texture, not soft like good tuna or salmon. Clearly a lot of work goes into making palatable Fugu dishes, because the fish doesn’t intrinsically taste good. But people do want to eat it for the thrill, and they’ll pay (really) good money for it, so… good work, Zuboraya chefs! Their location in Dotonbori, where I survived the ordeal treat:

Zuboraya Dotonbori Osaka

Overall, I’d recommend trying Fugu if you are at all curious. If you go to a known restaurant with licensed chefs (which is probably all of them in Japan), I wouldn’t have any concern about the safety. Your only choice then is whether you just want to say “Yep, I tried it,” or you want a big, luxurious meal. For a multi-course banquet of sashimi, soup, and the trimmings you’re looking at 3000+ yen compared to under a thousand for a few pieces of nigiri. I’m saving my yens for Unagi, Ikura, and Ama-Ebi washed down with Nigori-Sake!

In parting, here’s a pufferfish in the Osaka Aquarium: this lucky guy is not for eating :-)

Pufferfish at Osaka Aquarium

Happy Fugu…

Posted 5 years ago at 4:07 pm.

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Welcome to Japan!

Nothing says “Welcome to Japan” quite as well as the Osaka train signage in kanji. Okay, they do (briefly) switch to English for a few seconds. It’s similar with the announcements: 30 seconds straight of talking in Japanese, then one sentence of English. So far I am completely satisfied with that small percentage of English… after all, I am in Japan!

Osaka JR Train Signage

For lunch I visited this place, Ponpocotei near the Tsuruhashi station.

Ponpocotei Restaurant

First meal in Japan for this trip was Okonomiyaki! This is a thick, savory pancake about 6″ in diameter. I tried octopus & pork as my fillings. Those are fish flakes on top of the bbq sauce and mayonnaise.

Okonomiyaki in Osaka

The chef cooks it at a grill behind the counter, then serves it on your own personal in-table grill to keep it warm while you eat. Delicious!

Ponpocotei Okonomiyaki Closeup

I may have mentioned at some point: I love my Nikon 35mm f/2 for food closeups. :-)

Posted 5 years ago at 11:06 am.

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Homemade Sushi

I love eating raw food. Usually it just tastes better to me, and has a great texture compared to most things cooked. And in today’s markets, it’s relatively safe for healthy adults to eat several kinds of meat & fish raw. (Disclaimer: I am not a doctor nor a nutritionist, and I take no responsibility if eating raw food makes you sick).

Below is some of my homemade sushi from a few days ago. I always buy the fish in a high-end market, and ask the fishmonger what he recommends for sushi. Often they say “Nothing today, come back on xxxx” – and I definitely respect that. Usually they have tuna and salmon; on the right days sometimes another one or two. You can also find frozen sushi (such as pre-cooked Unagi, or eel) in some Asian shops.

Homemade tuna and salmon sushi - Maguro, Sake

Of course to get this nice blur, I used my 35mm f/2. ISO was cranked up to 800 to avoid using a flash, and I white-balanced on an empty plate before shooting.

Homemade sushi - Eel (Unagi) on the right

Despite that I once ate raw chicken in Kyoto, I don’t recommend that for everyone. Nor would I ever recommend eating raw pork, because the consequences are too dire. But I’ve never been sick from raw beef or fish. Of course I only consume these in countries where I trust the food processing chain.

So, if you live in a well-developed country, check out the best fish market you can find in town – maybe you, too, can make your own sushi for a fraction of the restaurant price!

Posted 6 years, 5 months ago at 4:28 pm.

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50-Lemon Can

My last day in Japan was American Independence Day. Sadly I didn’t spend July 4th with any Americans, or see any fireworks. Most of the day I was on a train or plane. But I did see a few cool sights along the way.

As I got very little sleep the days before departing, I tried out this little treat on the express train to Narita. According to a friend, it’s what hung-over Japanese salarymen drink on the way to work. This can has 50 lemons’ worth of vitamin C! “Eeeexcellent, Smithers.” <tents fingers diabolically>

IMG_5085

After a long day of flying, I arrived in Bangkok and caught a shuttle bus into town. It started pouring just as I stepped off the bus, so I splurged for a taxi… it was 40 Baht (about $1.25) from the bus dropoff to the Baiyoke Sky Hotel.

I was only on floor 25 of this very cool 84-floor building, the tallest in Thailand at over 300 meters! Here’s the view from my room:

DSC_6195

It was not a bad deal considering the nice buffet breakfast, and adding in that I could go to the top of the building at floor 84 for free, night or day. I wouldn’t stay a whole week here (a bit pricey), but for a couple days, it was great relaxation and an even better view.

DSC_6192

That’s it for now. I’ll have night pictures from the tippy-top at floor 84 coming up. That was tricky due to the super-annoying revolving platform which would make any long-exposure tripod photos useless. I found a way around it, though – mu-hahaha!

What’s the tallest building you’ve ever been in / up? Currently I’m on Taipei 101, over 500m. When I visited Dubai, the Burj Khalifa (a.k.a. Burj Dubai) wasn’t done yet.

Posted 6 years, 8 months ago at 3:19 pm.

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