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Visit to Meiji Shrine

Visit to Meiji Shrine

I’ve started working on videoing many of the special places in Japan. Our first outings with video gave us quite a bit of shaky cam material, so this past trip we dragged along a tripod and definitely got better result. Visiting Meiji Shrine is a standard tourist activity, but few westerners know about the sacred Kagura dance that you can attend, since everything about it is in Japanese. We were lucky enough to have along one of Esprit’s guides who took us to this very special event. Unfortunately, no video is permitted, so all I can say is the 1/2 hour sitting on the tatami mats on your knees is worth the experience – it’s quite unique and very Japanese. In the meantime, we could do video of other parts, so here’s a short sample of the...
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Kurashiki’s Storehouse of Photos

Kurashiki’s Storehouse of Photos

The name “Kurashiki” means “storehouse village,” and during the 17 century Kurashiki became a prosperous market where rice, cotton, and sake were collected from the surrounding area and shipped off to other parts of Japan. The warehouses of Kurashiki are still there, and this architecture gives this town its special appeal. Full of traditional Japanese-style buildings and canals, Kurashiki is one of the most picturesque towns in Japan and a great place to take some wonderful photos. We arrived there in the pouring rain, however, after spending the night at a wonderful five-room ryokan right on the main canal, we awoke to a splendid day for exploring and photographing the fabulous fall colors.    In addition to all the charming sights, however, right before we left we came upon a Japanese wedding.  The Japanese are very big on having very special weddings and they range widely from elaborate dress-up affairs in high end hotels all the way to staged photos in picturesque settings.  I don’t think they could have gotten more picturesque than Kurashiki in the fall, so we got the special treat of being able to join the hordes of tourists and the professional photographer in documenting this couples...
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Off the Map

Off the Map

We usually use those small local tourist maps when getting around in new towns and cities in Japan, and they’re usually handy.  But on a trip to Koya-san we ran into an unusual problem… the city is small and the map seemed pretty good, but it turns out that with one wrong turn or misread of a path, you are quickly off the map.  And because of the scale, we didn’t realize it for quite some time.   But getting off the map can yield some great results – we found ourselves at a wonderful temple that had no visitors and was a sea of calm on a very busy holiday weekend in this mountain town.   The stillness of the late afternoon, the half-hidden temple almost overgrown with plants, the prayer papers lining the trees and the vibrant fall colors (which didn’t translate into the photos, alas) were a wonderful...
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Stones out the Window

Stones out the Window

One of the really wonderful things about traveling in Japan is the sudden bursts of the Japanese aesthetic when you least expect it.   Because I needed to inspect a large number of hotels on a recent trip to Japan, I found myself going in and out of a wide variety of places, some of them quite simple and even some that westerners would consider tacky.  Not all the hotels in Japan are minimalist escapes from the day-to-day.   But there is one thing that I noticed on many of my inspections that I found quite charming – which is the unexpected and hidden gems that would be placed throughout the hotel to gently remind the traveler of life’s beauty.   I saw rock sculptures that were like micro-gardens, small stands of bamboo strategically placed to add some green and carefully lit ceramic pots nestled into small cubby-holes in hallways.   And each time I came upon one of these gems, especially in very prosaic settings, I was reminded again of the Japanese sense of...
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Naoshima Island

Naoshima Island

One of the places that you won’t find in guidebooks, but is fairly well-known to people in the art world, is the Benesse House Art Museum on Naoshima Island in the Inland Sea. This isn’t a typical Japanese place, nor is it reminiscent of traditional Japanese culture. This is a place where you actually spend the night in a museum. The rooms are all integrated into the museum, so after closing hours, you can wander amidst the various works of contemporary art located throughout the complex. Getting to the island involves a (too-short) ride on a ferry from the port at Uno which arrives at the island town of Miyanoura Port. A bus from the hotel whisks you off to one of the various properties in the complex, where you go from the general hussle-bussle of travel in Japan to the serene quiet of an island retreat. There are several places to stay in the complex, but the most appealing are in the Museum itself or, even higher up the hill, in the Oval. The views from the Oval are magnificent: In addition to the Oval, the views from the Museum (slightly lower on the hill) are just as great. Here’s a picture from Room 302: There are two different places to eat in the complex, a Japanese restaurant and the Terrace restaurant, that has more western-style food. After 15 days in Japan, it was great to have another meal that surprised us with it’s variety and freshness. Almost all the food in Japan was good, but the food at the Terrace restaurant was a special treat. Finally, there’s the art. Even for those not especially interested in contemporary art, it’s a very unique experience to view the variety of pieces in the quiet reflection of evening. The place is so quiet, and so big, that it’s easy to feel like you’re the only people there – even though I knew the hotel was completely sold out for our stay. So maybe it is a good thing that the guide books haven’t found this place...
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Moon Over Hakone

Moon Over Hakone

There are moments in travel that transcend the mundane and capture in a split second the essence of an experience.  Such was the sight at the end of a perfect day exploring Hakone – the clackety-clack of the cable car as it ascended up to Soun-zan, the precariously swinging gondola over the billowing steam with Fuji-san looming ahead, facing into the brisk autumn wind on the pirate boat ride across Lake Ashi, a quiet walk through the cedars that formed the Tokaido road,  and a typically crowded bus ride back up the mountain to a stay at the fabulous Gora Kadan.  The weather was perfect, the food sublime and the view, from the top floor in the private bath on the balcony,  was of a brilliant moon rising over the mountains...