Dave's Photo & Travelblogue

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

Karaoke, Japanese Style

For my final day in Japan, I got up quite late after a night of clubbing. A word to the wise: clubbing in Tokyo is serious business. The subways stop a bit after midnight, and taxis are paid in gold bars or firstborn children. So once you decide to go out, you’re in until dawn!

Anyway, on July 3rd I headed to the seaside district of Odaiba. There’s a lot to do and see: shopping, Tokyo’s huge Ferris wheel, the Future Museum (officially the emerging sciences and technologies), waterside stuff, and cool Toyota showrooms.

I took a ferry to Odaiba from Asakusa, where I saw this building known to locals as “the golden turd.” Well, it’s supposed to be a flame representing the heart of Asahi beer, but judge for yourself:

Asahi Super Dry Hall, a.k.a. Golden Turd

Unfortunately due to my late wake-up (and I do mean late), I missed the Future Museum with its Honda walking robot. But Toyota rocked!

Yes, that’s right. A car showroom rocked my day.

First there was the museum of old cars in the Mega Web shopping complex (free):

Cars in the Toyota Museum in Mega Web

Then, a showroom of new cars with lots of concept vehicles and a few rides (like a self-driving car!). Also, free (well, not the rides). I got a laugh out of this decorated city car:

A cute car in the Toyota Mega Web showroom

After this adventure I met friends for KARAOKE! If you go to Japan, you have to do karaoke with some Japanese. Not only is it a great way to chill with the natives, but they are good singers! I bet due to the culture’s love of karaoke, they have the highest singing skill of any nation.

One of these people is not Japanese. Hint: super tall!

Did I mention that karaoke is all in private rooms? You don’t have to embarrass yourself in front of fifty strangers in a bar… just your closest friends, and perhaps some people you met in a hostel, or out clubbing the night before (haha).

Waaahoooo! Now THAT is some awesome singing.

So here’s my shout out to all my new Japanese friends (who shall remain anonymous). We’ll have to meet again next time I’m in Japan! DAVE LOVES KARAOKE!

Rock on Karaoke singers!

After all that singing I feel an Elwood moment (or perhaps Ellwood if you go by the street name where I used to live). I feel like saying… “We’re getting the band back together.” Long live Electric Bacon! That is all.

Posted 7 years, 1 month ago at 3:52 pm.

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Learning the Streets of Tokyo

Street Photography.

This discipline is not about perfect focus, optimal exposure, or straight-vertical buildings.

It’s about taking the pulse of a living city, by showing its inhabitants going about their daily lives on the streets. Of course, if the subjects know they’re being photographed, it ruins the scene. Anonymity and unawareness bring these fleeting moments to life, in a way no funny pose can.

Old woman crossing the street near Asakusa

Alfie Goodrich offers photography courses on various topics in Tokyo. I highly recommend to try out one of his offerings via Japanorama, or ask for a private class, as I did on July 2nd. You can’t imagine how much I learned in just a couple of hours!

Japanese woman in a decorated street near Asakusa

One note: this kind of photography probably isn’t possible everywhere. In a lot of western countries, someone might punch you if they realize you’re taking their photo without asking first. And you’d better not take any photos of kids in the west, either. But after exploring street photography, I have a lot more respect for the results.

Sky Tree with Umbrella

Done right, street photography is not meant to expose anyone’s flaws or look up their skirt. It is a means of bringing a city to life. I’d be honored if a random photograph of me in Munich helped to color the city for lovers of photography who might come across it on Flickr. So, if you see me partying at Oktoberfest or wandering on Neuhauser Strasse, snap away!

Tourists near Shinjuku

Thanks again to Alfie for the amazing lesson. I look forward to another session the next time I visit Tokyo! I’ll end with a few photos that really show what Tokyo is about.

I’d seen these “levitating chopsticks” a few times, and apparently this girl was as mesmerized by them as I was!

Levitating chopsticks and admirer

Style. Fashion. And, everyone is constantly playing with their mobile phone, mp3’s, or both.

MP3s on the mobile near Shinjuku

Finally: this older woman has it all. Sun-umbrella, matching outfit, and (of course) a germ mask.

Woman crossing the street near Shinjuku

More than any of my other photos so far, I feel that the ones I’ve shown today capture Tokyo in a nutshell. Is there any particular photo that you really like? If so, why?

Posted 7 years, 1 month ago at 3:42 pm.

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Cool Old Dude

I must admit, I didn’t take many photos on July 1st. And most of what I did take, I can’t post here. The Modern Art Museum in Tokyo allows photos (very cool!), but they do not allow posting or public use due to copyright laws. I do recommend the museum to art lovers: it’s not huge, but the admission is cheap (about $4) and they have interesting paintings and photos.

A lot of the art was very similar to Western styles. You can very much see the influence of European and American artists on the Japanese artists of the 1800’s and 1900’s! Even a non-art-expert like me could feel it, and my Turkish friend from the hostel (minoring in art, if I remember) confirmed my suspicions.

Later in the day I went by Akihabara, an area on the east side of Central Tokyo with 10,573 shops: electronics, anime, appliances, manga, hobbies, maid cafes, pachinko parlors, and more. Pachinko is a kind of somewhat-legal gambling, where you win dumb prizes that you sell back for money in a shop next door (at least so I read in a guidebook). I guess it’s about as exciting as slot machines (woo… hoo?).

Pachinko parlor, a bit like slot machines

I was trying to be discreet by not photographing any people in the pachinko parlor, but I still just got one this one photo before being yelled at. “No photo, no photo!”

By the way, what’s a maid cafe, you ask? One of the many things I didn’t try: it’s a cafe where the waitresses are dressed up like pre-teen hookers. They stand on the street handing out flyers, wearing high heels and fishnets, short skirts flying as they giggle with the foreign guys they lure in. I’m pretty much against such things, so I’m glad no one dragged me to one. Though I am curious, (ahem), purely from a societal-interest standpoint.

Someone stole the radiator from my car as a CPU heatsink

That photo changed the subject right quick, didn’t it? Okay, so electronics are not super cheap in Japan, but you can find absolutely anything. Prices are a wee bit higher than the US, but probably below Europe.

I particularly liked this sign: “Cool Old Dude” – “I Love Akiba”

Cool Old Dude in Akihabara

A nearby shop brought back reminders of childhood. It was filled with plastic and pewter models of giant humanoid robots. Anyone remember Voltron?

One thing that impresses me about Japan is the variety of beer. Sure, the standard beers aren’t that exciting. But for about $3-4 a bottle, you can get micro-brewed beer of all different varieties. Made in Japan, no less!

Tokyo Great City Beer

I tried a stout a few days ago that was a bit like Mackeson, one of my favorites. Today, however, I went for nigori sake, a cloudy/unfiltered sweet sake. Delicious!

Tomorrow’s post is one you won’t want to miss. I learn street photography from Alfie Goodrich, one of the most-known (and I think most-talented) photographers in Japan. Sign up with the orange RSS or Email buttons in the left sidebar to be notified when the post is up!

Posted 7 years, 1 month ago at 3:16 pm.

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Japanese Peter Griffin?

One question for anyone from Hiroshima: who is this guy whose caricature is on this Carp-themed bar? (the Carp are Hiroshima’s baseball team). He’s got Peter Griffin’s famous, ah,  double . . . balled . . . chin. And how does he eat with no mouth?

Hiroshima Carp themed bar/restaurant

I’ve been traveling around Japan on the shinkansen – Japan’s ultra-fast bullet trains that criss-cross the country. On June 30th I headed back toward Tokyo from Hiroshima.

JR Line Shinkansen train in Japan

The shinkansen is amazing compared to airplanes.

You can arrive on the platform anytime up until departure and just walk on. No security check or ticket/passport check. Bring any food and drinks you want. Luggage weigh-in: nope. Speed is up to around 300km/h (~190mph).

One drawback is that it’s incredibly expensive, so Japanese usually just take the shinkansen if their company is paying for it. Foreigners can get a JR Railpass for varying durations if they are visiting for tourism, which is definitely worth it.

Note: if you want a Railpass, you have to buy a “Railpass exchange order” in advance, before leaving home for Japan! You cannot get a Railpass in Japan unless you’ve pre-purchased this exchange order, and it’s only available for tourists.

Himeji Castle on the hilltop

On the way to Tokyo, I stopped at Himeji Castle, one of the best-preserved castles in Japan. It retains its original style without much modification, displaying at every turn how it was built almost entirely with defense from invading Samurai in mind.

Irregularly-spaced steps at Himeji Castle

Steps are unevenly spaced so that invaders would have trouble running up them, keeping their eyes focused on the ground instead of watching out for arrows. Gates and passages are low to make warriors duck, and many passages would be tough on horseback. The final entry path to the main keep is sloped downhill, to confuse enemy commanders who are used to following uphill paths to such keeps. Dungeons & Dragons fans would love the construction of this place!

Himeji is undergoing renovation, but I was lucky that it’s not yet fully covered with scaffolding (as it soon will be, until 2014!). Only the center courtyard/castle was closed to visits. I saw a lot of the surrounding castle buildings and got many pictures with little or no scaffolding. But check on the status before you visit, because it might be a disappointment if you can’t even see the castle on the hilltop.

Read tomorrow’s entry for a better feel of Tokyo, when I visit the Modern Art Museum and Akihabara Electric Town!

Posted 7 years, 1 month ago at 3:00 pm.

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The Sacred Island

Miyajima Island, near Hiroshima, is considered sacred. The O-Torii, a huge gate in the ocean near the island, bears witness to this. I visited on June 29th, and hiked up to the top of Misen Mountain, 529.8 meters above sea level. Unfortunately the top was in a cloud, but it was a good hike. Here’s the Torii at high tide:

The Torii at Miyajima

There’s so much to see on Miyajima (weather notwithstanding) that I don’t even know where to start. I’m just gonna throw cool stuff out there, and you’re gonna want to visit.

Tame deer roam freely around the island. You can pet them, they’ll pose for you, and they will try to eat food or papers out of your backpack.

"Hey Bob, how do you feel about seafood for lunch?"

Miyajima claims to have invented the rice scoop. To back that up, they have the world’s largest wooden rice scoop on display in the shopping street: 7.7m long and 2.5 tons. Of course you can buy rice scoops of all sizes (well, except this one) in nearly every store in town.

Largest wooden rice scoop in the world

“Look Ma, here I am in front of the Torii!”

Deer in front of the Torii

The strangest thing I saw all day, by far, was Doctor Fish. For 500 yen (about $6) you can have some fish clean your feet, eating away the dead skin. Sounds a bit gross, but it feels really nice, like a foot massage.

Skin-cleaning fish at Doctor Fish

THEN there are the temples and pagodas… the list of cool sights just doesn’t end.

Itsukushima Shrine

“Hey, there’s something on your butt. Let me just see if it’s flowers.”

Tail-sniffing deer

I finished off the day with an amazing meal out with a Japanese friend, Nina. She is also a world-renowned okonomiyaki cook. But the story of the restaurant where we went will have to wait for another time, because it was nine courses of Japanese deliciousness!

Tomorrow: I visit another castle, the best-preserved one in Japan, on my way back to Tokyo.

Posted 7 years, 1 month ago at 3:26 pm.

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The World’s First Nuclear Attack

Hiroshima was the site of humans’ first use of nuclear weapons on a populated city. The Peace Museum does a very good job of describing the buildup to this, and stays quite neutral in telling the story. They don’t condemn the attackers outright, but also don’t give loaded opinions about the Japanese involvement that brought on the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the first place.

A-Bomb Dome, below, survived by being almost directly below the detonation point – there was very little sideways force to topple the structure.

A-Bomb Dome in Hiroshima

Visiting Peace Park on June 28th was quite a sobering experience. But there are rays of hope in this place, as I feel that anyone who visits here is unlikely to ever support the use of nuclear weapons.

Every year, children from around the world send paper cranes in memory of a Hiroshima child who died of leukemia several years after the bombing. She had hoped that by folding 1,000 paper cranes, her dream of recovery would come true. Unfortunately, she was wrong.

Paper Cranes at a memorial in Hiroshima

The names of all known victims of the atomic bombing are kept in ledgers in the Cenotaph. Behind it is an eternal flame, which remains lit until the world is rid of all nuclear weapons, and A-Bomb Dome in the distance.

MMemorial Cenotaph in Hiroshima

Besides the sobering yet hopeful Peace Park, the city of Hiroshima itself shows little evidence of being completely flattened 65 years ago. But there are a few scars visible. Most of the newly-built temples are small structures, tucked in between office buildings and parking lots:

A temple over a parking garage in Hiroshima

The vibrant feel of the rebuilt city is reflected in the gaudy nightlife district, and in the city’s enthusiasm for their local baseball team, the Hiroshima Carp.

Nagarekawa District of Hiroshima

Overall, my impression is that Hiroshima has recovered and even thrived in the wake of the bombing. The city strives to be an example of why nuclear armaments should be eliminated, and reminds us of the horrors that occur when such a weapon is targeted at a city. Let’s hope it never happens again.

To end on a lighter note, since there is a game tonight: GO CARP!!

Posted 7 years, 1 month ago at 3:45 pm.

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Monkey Alert

June 27th was a ten miler. At least, by the end of the day I felt like I’d walked ten miles. Nijo Castle, in the center of Kyoto, was definitely worth the trip – although I was a bit disappointed on a few counts. So don’t get quite as excited as I did beforehand.

You can’t take photos inside the castle. The “Nightingale Floors,” designed to squeak with each step to alert the Shogun to intruders, don’t squeak much anymore (and sound nothing like a bird). And in the very nice gardens, 80% of the paths were roped off – so views and camera angles were quite limited.

On the upside, it’s very old, has a rich history, and is quite a beautiful work of architectural art. Here’s my attempt an an artistic shot of Nijo Castle sans tourists.

Nijo Castle in Kyoto

And one of the gardens, filled with very traditionally-pruned trees:

Garden at Nijo Castle

I also visited the Manga Museum (no photos allowed), and the Kyoto Gyoen National Garden where the Imperial Palace is located (not open to tourists, but sometimes private tours).

While in the garden, I saw a cluster of Japanese with massive cameras pointed at the canopy of a huge camphor tree. I joined this crowd of 400mm f/4 lenses with my puny 200mm f/5.6, and managed to spot this guy. If I’d known Japanese, I would have asked to try the big Nikon (it was around 400-600mm, not sure). Here’s the sharpest I could do without a tripod, using my 18-200mm VR.

Some kind of Japanese owl, I suppose

Did I mention that I love Japanese Maples? Especially the red-leafed ones!

Red Japanese Maple

I’ll just include one shot from Arashiyama Monkey Park, where some very tame Japanese Monkeys (also known as Snow Monkeys) live. I still have to email the monkey family this portrait. You have no idea how long it took the parents to get their little one to stay still for the camera.

Japanese Monkey Family Portrait

Tomorrow I visit the first city in human history to be nuclear bombed. What is Hiroshima like now, and how do they portray their grisly legacy? I’ll do my best to show you.

Posted 7 years, 1 month ago at 3:03 pm.

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No, DON’T Eat My Shorts!

I toured around Kyoto on June 26th with a new friend from the hostel. It rained the whole day, but I did manage to get a few cool shots of these turtles in the park around Toji temple:

Why are these turtles crowding onto this rock?

This Five-Storied Pagoda is a national treasure. It had a few “bests,” I think including the tallest wooden structure in Japan.

Five-Storied Pagoda at Toji

I love Japanese Maples. The overall family is my favorite kind of tree. I managed to find a bit of contrast despite the rain, and got this nice photo of trees in Maruyama Park, by the Gion district.

Japanese Maple

At the edge of the park I found this beauty parked in a patch of grass. I’m once again impressed by the D90 and Nikon’s VR (Vibration Reduction) system. It was almost dark by the time I got this handheld, no-flash photo. Does anyone know what kind of car this is?

Old car in Japan

I wandered through the Gion district, but didn’t see any Geisha, as it was raining. Neither they nor I had much desire to be out and about. This scene greeted me under one awning:

Don't eat my shorts!

Today I definitely observed a bit of the flavor of Kyoto! Everything from the sublime to the obscene. Tomorrow: I go to a castle in the center of the city, known for its “nightingale floors!?”

Posted 7 years, 1 month ago at 3:23 pm.

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Japanese Packaging – Dry Ice, Please

I walked out my hostel door June 25th on a mission to see gardens, visit temples, and take in the atmosphere of Kyoto. My first stop was the Shosei-en gardens, which have a small (500 yen) entry fee. Quite reasonable; so far nothing in Japan was more than 600 yen entry, about $7. The lake at Shosei-en was particularly scenic and peaceful, even on a cloudy & rainy day.

Lake at Shosei-en garden

I tried one of these small plums (one that had fallen on the ground). It was really sour. But they certainly look nice:

Plums at Shosei-en garden

Next I saw the big temples in the middle of Kyoto, each of which is part of a spiritual complex occupying a whole city block. The temple on the east side is the biggest wooden building in the world – my lens wasn’t wide enough to get it all in one shot! Here’s the slightly smaller west temple, Hongwanji, in a 12-photo panorama.

Hongwanji Temple complex panorama

What surprised me most about the day was this cream puff. They cost 126 yen, or about $1.40, so I ordered one. Before I knew it, the puff was packed in a fancy bag and sealed with a metallic foil sticker. The saleswoman then filled another small bag with dry ice chips, placed that in a cardboard box, taped it shut, and put it in the bottom of a third bag, with the cream puff bag on top. They said something about three hours, which I suppose is the time this thing would keep before getting home to the fridge.

I ate it five minutes later.

Green Tea cream puff kept chilled with dry ice

The green tea cream puff was divine, just like everything made with green tea here. In case you want less packaging, try some waving and hand-motions. That worked the next time I bought a slice of cake, and I got away with two less bags. Long live the environment!

There’s almost no end to what I saw today. Here are the vermillion gates of the Inari shrine. I thought it was going to be just one row of these gates. Actually it’s about 4 kilometers of them, with shrines every few hundred meters. Local businesses donate money for the gates; I suppose it brings good fortune.

Orange gates at the Inari shrine in Kyoto

Here’s one of the hand-washing pools at Inari. Drooling Dragon!

Hand-washing pool at the Inari shrine complex near Kyoto

I’ll have to do more articles about this day after my return to Germany. The raw chicken on rice (with an uncooked egg yolk on top) is something that many Japanese I spoke to hadn’t even seen! Anyone ever eaten raw chicken?

Posted 7 years, 1 month ago at 3:43 pm.

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Biggest Fish Market in the World

Before I left for Kyoto on June 24th, I headed to Tsukiji, the largest fish market in the world. Every day, more varieties of seafood are sold here than most people have ever heard of. Nowadays, they only let two groups of 70 tourists view the famous tuna auction; I decided not to get up at 3:30 to try and catch it. BUT I did see a lot of those tuna being carted around and sliced up, after my 7:00am arrival at the market. I think these are tuna?

Fish being sliced up at Tsukiji in Tokyo

Here are the unlucky ones responsible for my favorite sushi – eels:

Eels! Eels for sale!

Are these scallops? I’m not sure.

Shellfish at Tsukiji

A varied assortment:

Huge assortment of seafood at Tsukiji

These crazy carts drive around everywhere loaded with the day’s purchases, trying (not so hard) to avoid running over tourists.

Crazy carts!

As this cart drove by (while I wanted 2h in line for Sushi Dai), a block of this frozen fish (I think tuna) fell off, skittering across the pavement. You can be sure, it was recovered FAST.

Don't lose the fish!

Since I spent the rest of the day getting to Kyoto, I have some nice shots from there as well. I’ll just throw in one: a beef okonomiyaki, Kyoto style, at the homey Kawa restaurant. It’s north of Syomen street, just east of the Takase river (a tiny canal). Very nice cook, and the first time I sat Japanese-style for a meal on tatami (straw) mats, with no pit under the table to sit “western style.” And the okonomiyaki was good.

Okonomiyaki at Kawa restaurant in Kyoto

In real life, you can see the fish flakes bending back and forth as the heat rises from the okonomiyaki. It’s almost like the dish is alive! If you want to read about this Japanese delight, check out my prior okonomiyaki post. Have you ever found one in a restaurant in your town?

Posted 7 years, 1 month ago at 3:29 pm.

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