Hawaii: Underwater Adventures

This week I’m in Hawaii spending some time underwater and working on some new SCUBA certifications. I just earned my Nitrox rating as well as my Advanced Open Water certification, for which I picked these five specialties: Deep Dive, Underwater Navigation, Peak Performance Buoyancy, Wreck Diving and, why not, Underwater Photography. All the dives were boat dives booked through Aaron’s Dive Shop, located in the town of Kailua on Oahu. I have been using Aaron’s services for all of my dives ever since I earned my Open Water PADI certification because of the knowledge and friendliness of the staff, as well as the quality of their customer service. My Enriched Air Nitrox course took place entirely in Aaron’s classroom, located above the shop, and consisted on going through the knowledge review of the course book and spend a great deal of time doing exercises to calculate the body exposure to nitrogen, oxygen, limits, etc. The course ends with a comprehensive written exam, which is submitted to PADI before a Nitrox card with photo is issued. Without that card no diving operation will provide enriched air.
The first actual dive took place the following morning with the boat leaving around 7:30 to visit a few wrecks. This time I was diving for the first time with 32% and 36% oxygen blend (normail air contains 21% oxygen), I didn’t feel any difference. As I needed to focused with the tasks required for my Advanced Open Water certification I did not bring my camera, something that didn’t take me long to regret. The first dive of the day was down to a wreck, which I had visited before, but still fascinating. I think wrecks are my favorite thing to dive and it will not be long before I go for my full Wreck Diving certification, a more in-depth (no pun intended) course that goes into the technical ways to explore and map a wreck while remaining safe. The second dive was my Navigation dive and, with the aid of a compass, I was instructed on how to find my way underwater.
The next morning, same time, two more canisters of Enriched Air were ready for me on the boat. While the other divers on the boat prepared for their fun dives, with my instructor I reviewed the tasks and topics for my dives: Deep and Buoyancy. The first dive found me with a huge grin on my face at the depth of 33 meters (100 feet). We dove to the wreck of an old World War II fighter plane: a Corsair, the only true wreck on Oahu and I felt as if I was a miniature diver inside an aquarium, with the model plane below me surrounded by sand, and fish of all variety circling the wreck. Visibility was over 30 meters and the deep blue of the ocean faded to a soothing azure. Once again I wished I had my camera, but diving at that depth for the first time I wanted to concentrate on my tasks.
I took one day off from diving to rest and catch up with old friends and before I knew it I was back on the boat with the new air tanks waiting to be used. This time I had my camera and was looking forward to photograph some sea turtles as our dives were going to be at the turtles cleaning station. Unfortunately the ocean was pretty rough, both at the surface and below and we had to change our plans, since visibility was reduced to only about two feet at the original dive spot. During the entire time of the two dives I played with the controls of my Canon G10 in its underwater casing and took both still and video. I quickly learned that the diffuser which came with the casing is completely useless, so I stopped shooting with flash. That made the  colors look somewhat washed out (and some disappeared completely) on the photo, although thanks to my mask and its special coating my sight still retained the reds at a little more depth than a regular mask would. Without strobes (direct flash doesn’t work underwater as there are too many particles suspended between the camera and your subject which get an overdose of light if you fire the flash directly at them) it’s hard to get good photos and they will mostly look blue, but it was fun to do it and it gives me a better understanding of how light works underwater.

Review: HDRSoft’s Photomatix

(Discount Coupon Available Below)

In photography and Image Processing HDR (High Dynamic Range) is a technique that allows a much greater range of light intensity from the lightest to the darkest area of an image than a regular image produced by a common camera. Tone mapping techniques aim to reduce the overall contrast so that an image with greater luminosity range can be displayed on devices that are not capable of showing that range while, at the same time, maintaining localized contrast. This can also be exaggerated in order to create artistic effects.
True high dynamic range photos can be obtained by capturing multiple shots of the same scene with different exposures  and merging them in a software like HDRSoft’s Photomatix. This is what I use for all my HDR needs.

Now, I can already hear some of you groaning: “HDR looks so fake…” – Well, it doesn’t have to. As a matter of fact, HDR can look as real as human eye can see (remember that our eyes can see by far a much greater contrast than the sensor of the best camera in the market), or as artistic as you want it to be. In my experience as a photographer I came across all sort of HDR/Tone Mapped images and I can guarantee you that a job well done cannot be always told apart from non-HDR/Tone Mapped images.

There were times when a photographer would have to give up a particular shot (or be very creative about it) because the light just wasn’t right. Your classic example would be a dark interior with bright light coming from the windows: you want to show the interior as well as the scenery outside of the windows but the sensor of your camera (or the film) cannot resolve such a high contrast; it’s either one or the other. Photoshop has many times come to our help: if the contrast isn’t excessive we could create an adjustment layer and modify highlights, shadows, etc. in a particular area of the image. In case of excessive contrast, though, that technique can only get a close approximation to reality, I’m saying a close approximation because for as powerful as it is, Photoshop cannot create data that is not there, the missing highlights were not captured in the first place, and the part of the image that is too dark cannot be lightened over a certain amount or it will become highly noisy. Landscape photographers face scenes with high contrast all the time and many times we have been able to overcome this problem by using a split neutral density filter. Unfortunately it only works when there is a net distinction between the dark side and the bright side of the image, as when we are taking the photo of a sunset over the sea. Suppose you want to shoot a “tunnel” created by a canopy of trees where the ground is dark, the canopy itself is brighter and the “end of the tunnel” is really bright; or maybe you want to shoot the movement of the waves under a boardwalk. Fortunately, for these and many other situations, HDR software comes to our help. There are many programs out there, and even Photoshop CS4 can merge to an HDR image (with a serious lack of options and a serious lack of speed), but in my opinion the best one in the market is Photomatix. I don’t want to get into fine details because the web abounds of reviews of this excellent program as well as tutorials so let’s just take a look at some of the features…

First of all, Photomatix is very easy to use, you can actually drag and drop images in its interface and with just a few clicks that don’t require anything more than following on-screen instructions you get your first HDR image. For the power users, though, the possibilities are nearly endless. There are so many ways to tweak you final results that you could spend hours playing with it (and you probably will).
The program comes as a stand-alone as well as plug-ins for Photoshop CS2, CS3, CS4, Lightroom and Aperture. At the start-up of the stand-alone application we are presented with an empty window and a small menu window (the Workflow Shortcuts window). Click on “Generate HDR image” or “Exposure Fusion” then browse and select or drag & drop the images that you want to use (these can be either RAW or JPEG). In the next step we choose if we want to align hand-held images and how (I find that the option “matching features” gives better results); Reduce Noise and Chromatic Aberrations, Reduce Ghosting Artifacts (in case you have movement in the images, like leaves); and then some more options that are specific to JPEG or RAW. We click OK and let the software work. After some time which varies on the complexity and size of the image, the file format, and how powerful your computer is, we are shown a preliminary version to which we will apply Tone Mapping using standard setting or customizing any or all of the many options available. After playing with the interface for a while we can create a pretty realistic scene. We can also save a lot of time with the Batch Processing interface that is filled with options ranging from the number of exposures to the Color Profile and a lot more.
As I mentioned, the software can do an alignment of multiple exposures for hand-held shots. I prefer to use a tripod, but it’s not always possible and the results I’ve seen with the automatic alignment are great.

Photomatix comes both in 32 bit and 64 bit versions for Windows and Mac. The 64 bit version naturally only runs in 64 bit Operating Systems. A 32 bit Operating System can only address up to 3 GB of RAM because of physical limitations that cannot be overcome. If you want to use 4GB of RAM or more you need to use a 64 bit version of the OS or this will see the amount of memory but will not be able to address it. My main computer is a custom built PC with Windows 7 64bit and Photomatix 64bit runs flawlessly on it. If you are upgrading your PC from XP or Vista to 7, the good news is that the upgrade DVD contains both versions. As with all upgrades there might be some incompatibilities between old 32bit software and a 64bit OS but so far (and I was a beta tester of Windows 7 64bit since July 2009) I have found none; even Photoshop CS4 and Lightroom 2.0 come with 32 bit and 64 bit versions. On the plus side, if you have more than 3GB of RAM your PC will always run at the very least a bit faster in the 64bit version. Personally, I don’t think photographers and video editors should be allowed to use 32bit Operating Systems 🙂

These are the version of Photomatix and Plug-ins available for sale:

Photomatix Light is a stand-alone program which allows the merging of bracketed exposures into one single image with Tone Mapping or Exposure Fusion and also does an automatic alignment of hand-held photos.

Plug-In for Photoshop CS2, CS3, CS4 provides a tone mapping method for this well known Adobe software.

Photomatix Plug-In for Aperture 2.1 or higher provides HDR Tone Mapping, automatic alignment of hand-held photos, and options for reduction of noise and chromatic aberrations in HDR images.

Photomatix Pro is a stand-alone program with options for Exposure Fusion, HDR Tone Mapping, Automatic Alignment of hand-held photos, reduction of ghosting, noise and chromatic aberration in HDR images, Batch processing and includes an Adobe Photoshop Lightroom plug-in. It can also convert a single RAW image into a pseudo-HDR image with Tone Mapping and an option to modify the White Balance.

Photomatix Pro Plus Bundle includes Photomatix Pro as well as the Photoshop and Aperture plug-ins.

HDRSoft has agree to provide a 15% Discount using coupon code:  LucaDianaPhoto

EXAMPLES:


The three original Exposures
This is the final result optimized in Photoshop for contrast in the windows
HDR Tone Mapped from 3 Exposures on tripod
HDR Tone Mapping Final Result 3 exposures
Exposure Fusion of 3 images

 

Review: Cotton Carrier

Hiking is a big part of the landscape and wildlife photographer’s life and mine but this means that we often return home with lower back pain and a chafed neck caused by the camera strap. I also find annoying having the camera hitting me  repeatedly in the stomach while I walk with the strap around my neck. My old Minolta 9Xi suffered major scratches from constantly hitting my belt. Some time ago I purchased a camera backpack which does the job of easing the carrying part, but what if the situation arises when you need your camera quickly in your hands? Take the backpack off your back, open it, remove the camera, watch the critter go, place the camera in the backpack, wear it again and keep hiking without that unique shot. I’m sure this situation is familiar to many photographers.

Fortunately, the smart people at Cotton Carrier thought of a system that allows for the camera to be in the near-ready position at all times and reducing the fatigue from carrying it around your neck. The system consists of a vest that wears comfortably under or on top of any other garment and can be fitted with a side holster (sold separately or as part of a package) that allows for carrying a second camera. I often hike with two cameras: my Canon 5D Mark II fitted with the 24-105 L and the Canon 50D (soon to be replaced by the 7D) with the 100-400 L, in this case the side holster is a welcome addition. For the times when I’m only interested in shooting landscape, I can remove the holster or, using a rubber band, I can even use it to carry a small bottle of water.
I took the Cotton Carrier out for a few test hikes and I was immediately surprised by how well it distributes the weight around the shoulders/upper back area. The vest, actually, is streamlined enough to allow the use of a backpack on top of it. For my test hikes I picked a variety of terrain: flat, uphill, downhill, in thick brush, off-trail and rocky. In all these situations the Cotton Carrier revealed itself to be of great help. In some of them, like hiking on rocky uphill terrain off the trail I’d say it was nearly essential. Not only could I stop worrying about my camera swinging around, but I was able to use both my hands to gain a solid grip on the rocks while ascending. On flat terrain I also took a test run, jogging moderately without touching the camera to see if the carrier would come in handy in that situation. Every once in a while I find myself having to run from a spot to another with the camera strap around my neck while holding it by the lens. Needless to say after a few yards the fun is over. Not only was I able to run faster with the Cotton Carrier but the weight of the camera was once again greatly minimized.
The system comes in black only, the new model has just been upgraded with a hard anodized aluminum hub (the part that gets screwed at the base of the camera) and at first is a little hard to lock but the company has informed me that after 20 or so ins and outs it will slide more smoothly; which in my experience turned out to be true . The package comes with an instruction sheet (with photos) for a step by step set-up as well as a care and maintenance sheet. It took me only minutes to set it all up and adjust it to my body without even taking a look at the instructions (but do make sure that the arrows marked on the hub points in the right direction). The vest will fit a small person as well as a large one as the straps and Velcro are highly adjustable. The system is covered by a 1 year warranty against manufacturer’s defects.
There is an additional accessory for tripod use but I did not get a chance to test it. Toward the end of the day there were times when I completely forgot I was wearing it.

With winter approaching, as I often shoot snow sports for magazines I look forward to wear this over my winter jacket while I snowboard. Skier photographers will be able to use their poles while still carrying their camera at the ready. This system has definitely revolutionized the way I carry my gear.

In conclusion, my impression of the Cotton Carrier system is highly favorable. It’s light, comfortable, efficient and once folded small enough to pack anywhere: luggage or backpack. It will definitely become an essential part of my photographic equipment. Prices start at $109. Accessories are also available.


Click this text to go to the COTTON CARRIER website

Japan Day 13 – Tokyo (Ghibli Museum)

A simple “Ii o-tenki desu-ne” was sufficient to launch me into a 3 hour Japanese conversation. That ubiquitous phrase, meaning “Nice weather, isn’t it?” is often used as a conversation opener. Little I knew, when I offered it politely at the passenger sitting next to me on the Shinkansen to Tokyo, that the older lady would become immediately curious about my entire life and understood the sentence as “I speak perfect Japanese, why don’t you go on and throw all you can at me and see how I score?” I feel like I’ve learned more Japanese in the three hour train ride than I did in the past two weeks. She relentessly questioned me about my travel, my origins, if I like her country (she smiled and nodded satisfactorily when I told her that I loved the geography and found the people to be the most hospitable I have ever met) and she went on telling me about her visit to Tokyo. I had to pull my faithful dictionary every now and then, and she waited very patiently for me to understand and reply. My advantage as an Italian is that when I hear a Japanese word I know exactly how to spell it, making it easier to look it up. The day before, Chakie was actually quite surprised that, listening to a song on the radio in her car, I could repeat the words correctly.
At noon, she opened her bento box and offered to share it with me; I politely declined saying I would eat once in Tokyo. I didn’t feel like subtracting her of part of her meal, for as appetizing as it looked. The trip was very pleasant and I enjoyed our conversation, which added an extra glimpse into the life of Japanese people. After the necessary “Ja-Mata” (Goodbye) and her “Gambate Kudasai” (Good Luck) I left the train station heading to the subway toward Asakusa, to the twin hostel of the one where we previously stayed. A small double room, no windows, was $20 each. You can still get a bargain in Tokyo.
Lindsey had left Osaka earlier in the morning with the intention of hiking around Mount Fuji, of which I caught a glimpse of the base from the train as it was completely enveloped in the clouds, enough though to show me how massive it is. My plan was completely different: tour Mitaka, in the suburbs of Tokyo, and visit the Ghibly Studios. This was the fulfillment of another childwood wish: I grew up immersed in Japanese animation and Ayao Miyazaki has always been a favorite of mine among Japanese animation directors/creators with such acclaimed movies as Princess Mononoke, Laputa: Castle in the Sky, Lupin, My Friend Totoro, Nausicaa and my all time favorite: Conan, the boy of the future (based on Alexander Key’s rare novel “The Incredible Tide”). I was lucky enough to make a reservation as often tours are sold out months in advance, so at the train station I hopped on a yellow bus painted on both sides with Miyazaki’s famous character and shortly after, with excitement, crossed the gate to a childhood world. At the gate the attendant took my reservation voucher and gave me a ticket, which is actually a celluloid frame from a random movie; with much joy mine is from “Castle in the Sky,” an instant collectible.
Part of the museum is build underground and entering it feels a bit like being inside a Disney park, they even have a cinema where a movie expressely made for the studios is shown.
The studios/museum was being visited by people of all nationalities as well as all ages, I even met several Italian tourists. The part I liked the most was the roof where, after climbing on a winding staircase, other than having a great view of the rest of the facilities, I could stare up at a replica of a giant gentle robot from the movie “Castle in the Sky.” People were taking turns to take snapshots of themselves with it. For those who have not seen this movie yet I strongly recommend it (Distributed by The Walt Disney Studios in the U.S.): it’s set in a not too far future, but contains elements from classic Disney tales. It’s not by chance that Miyazaki is known as the Japanese Walt Disney. The biggest difference is that in Disney movies you always have a battle between good and evil, whereas in the Ghibli movies at the end the evil is not so evil and turns out it has a heart, too. Photo opportunities abound here, too. Sure, it’s not your typical landscape but, just as in a Disney park, this is living artwork.
I returned to the station by foot, crossing a green park and along a beautiful and lush avenue with lanes divided by trees, flowers and a stream… who would have guessed, a stream in Tokyo. Lindsey arrived soon after my return to the hostel; she said she hiked a lot but had been unable to see Mount Fuji, I think the photos of this famous volcano will have to wait until my next trip to Japan. We walked out for dinner and found a place near the station with prices comparable to those of a candy bar and then took a train to Ginza to take more photos of neon lights and the Tokyo Tower. Lindsey made me notice how Japanese cities seem to go through a transformation at night, I have to agree with that.

A simple “Ii o-tenki desu-ne” was sufficient to launch me into a 3 hour Japanese conversation. That ubiquitous phrase, meaning “Nice weather, isn’t it?” is often used as a conversation opener. Little I knew, when I offered it politely at the passenger sitting next to me on the Shinkansen to Tokyo, that the older lady would become immediately curious about my entire life and understood the sentence as “I speak perfect Japanese, why don’t you go on and throw all you can at me and see how I score?” I feel like I’ve learned more Japanese in the three hour train ride than I did in the past two weeks. She relentessly questioned me about my travel, my origins, if I like her country (she smiled and nodded satisfactorily when I told her that I loved the geography and found the people to be the most hospitable I have ever met) and she went on telling me about her visit to Tokyo. I had to pull my faithful dictionary every now and then, and she waited very patiently for me to understand and reply. My advantage as an Italian is that when I hear a Japanese word I know exactly how to spell it, making easier to look it up. The day before, Chakie was actually quite surprised that, listening to a song on the radio in her car, I could repeat the words correctly.At noon, she opened her bento box and offered to share it with me; I politely declined saying I would eat once in Tokyo. I didn’t feel like subtracting her of part of her meal, for as appetizing as it looked. The trip was very pleasant and I enjoyed out conversation, which added an extra glimpse into the life of Japanese people. After the necessary “Ja-Mata” (Goodbye) and her “Gambate Kudasai” (Good Luck) I left the train station heading to the subway toward Asakusa, to the twin hostel of the one where we previously stayed. A small double room, no windows, was $20 each. You can still get a bargain in Tokyo.Lindsey had left Osaka earlier in the morning with the intention of hiking around Mount Fuji, of which I caught a glimpse of the base from the train as it was completely enveloped in the clouds, enough though to show me how massive it is. My plan was completely different: tour Mitaka, in the suburbs of Tokyo, and visit the Ghibly Studios. This was the fulfillment of another childwood wish: I grew up immersed in Japanese animation and Ayao Miyazaki has always been a favorite of mine among Japanese animation directors/creators with such acclaimed movies as Princess Mononoke, Laputa: Castle in the Sky, Lupin, My Friend Totoro, Nausicaa and my all time favorite: Conan, the boy of the future (based on Alexander Key’s rare novel “The Incredible Tide”). I was lucky enough to make a reservation as often tours are sold out months in advance, so at the train station I hopped on a yellow bus painted on both sides with Miyazaki’s famous character and shortly after, with excitement, crossed the gate to a childhood world. At the gate the attendant took my reservation voucher and gave me a ticket, which is actually a celluloid frame from a random movie; with much joy mine is from “Castle in the Sky,” an instant collectible.Part of the museum is build underground and entering it feels a bit like being inside a Disney park, they even have a cinema where a movie expressely made for the studios is shown.The studios/museum was being visited by people of all nationalities as well as all ages, I even met several Italian tourists. The part I liked the most was the roof where, after climbing on a winding staircase, other than having a great view of the rest of the facilities, I could stare up at a replica of a giant gentle robot from the movie “Castle in the Sky.” People were taking turns to take snapshots of themselves with it. For those who have not seen this movie yet I strongly recommend it (Distributed by The Walt Disney Studios in the U.S.): it’s set in a not too far future, but contains elements from classic Disney tales. It’s not by chance that Miyazaki is known as the Japanese Walt Disney. The biggest difference is that in Disney movies you always have a battle between good and evil, whereas in the Ghibli movies at the end the evil is not so evil and turns out it has a heart, too. Photo opportunities abound here, too. Sure, it’s not your typical landscape but, just as in a Disney park, this is living artwork.I returned to the station by foot, crossing a green park and along a beautiful and lush avenue with lanes divided by trees, flowers and a stream… who would have guessed, a stream in Tokyo. Lindsey arrived soon after my return to the hostel; she said she hiked a lot but had been unable to see Mount Fuji, I think the photos of this famous volcano will have to wait until my next trip to Japan. We walked out for dinner and found a place near the station with prices comparable to those of a candy bar and then took a train to Ginza to take more photos of neon lights and the Tokyo Tower. Lindsey made me notice how Japanese cities seem to go through a transformation at night, I have to agree with that.

Japan Day 12 – Kanazawa

For today’s excursion, the city of Kanazawa, we took the Shinkansen to Nagoya and from there an express train to our destination. On our way in, just out of the city our view was filled with majestic mountains still covered in snow. Kanazawa, located on the North-West coast of the country, faces the Japan Sea and is an historical city of fascinating beauty, famous for its white castle, founded in 1583, and for being home of what is considered one of the best three gardens in Japan: the Kenroku-en (Kenroku-en means “garden which combines six characteristics” – these are: spaciousness, serenity, venerability, scenic views, subtle design, and coolness). The other two gardens are: Koraku-en in Okayama and Kairaku-en in Mito.
The day was sunny and warm so we avoided any public transportation and walked instead. We spent a good part of the morning venturing around the old town, with its wooden buildings, in awe for the details of the architecture.
A side of the city is surrounded by lush hills, and Lindsey, feeling in need for a hike went in that direction, while I set course toward the castle and the gardens. The nicest way to get to the castle and the gardens is an avenue that climbs and twists with shops and restaurants opening on one side. Just like many other places we visited in Japan, this too has an abundance of trees and blooming flowers, and cherry trees here were just starting to come to life, making Kanazawa rival with Kyoto for sheer beauty. I was feeling quite hungry since lunch time had come and gone, and after walking back and forth in front of a few restaurants I picked one for lunch. The hostess walked me upstairs and showed me a nice big table in front of the open balcony with a direct view of the castle. The waitress, few seconds behind, was very nice but seemed a bit perplexed as I ordered two miso-based dishes; I’m guessing that when in Japan one should stick to a single miso dish, probably the equivalent of ordering two pasta dishes at a restaurant in Italy. After a few minutes she came back with a glass of water (misu) thinking that I mispronounced the word. A laughter after, which included the neighboring tables,  I made myself clear on the fact that I wanted the two soups and, although still perplexed (this must have been a very awkward order for her, but hey, I love miso), she put the correct order in and returned later with my food, which was tasty and satisfying. I noticed that the price of a meal in tourist areas is pretty consistent around the country: about $10.

Once taken care of the rumbling stomach, I made my way toward the garden and rejoined with Lindsey. Together we spent several hours exploring and admiring the cure and details put in this place: we had found another photographer’s paradise. We walked out of the gates at sunset time and we enjoyed watching the sun setting over the castle, which unfortunately was already closed, so we walked a bit more around this pretty town before making our way back to Osaka.

A Meal with a View

Japan Day 11 – Miyajima & Hiroshima

Beware of Deer!

Without any doubt, in this trip filled with adventures and humor, to me the evening spent in Hiroshima was the most emotionally draining part of the journey, but let’s go in order… 

Not even one minute here and I already got robbed!

After passing Osaka and Kobe the scenery changed from urban to gentle hills to urban again surrounded by tall hills and lots of green. I can never get tired of the Japanese landscape, it’s so photogenic. Arriving in Hiroshima the thing that jumped to my eyes the most was the large quantity of green spaces and the beautiful hilly background. We expected to see a regular city with tall buildings and not much else, and because of that we came with the intention of skipping the city almost entirely and head instead to the shrine island of Miyajima (also called Itsukushima). Later on we came to regret this decision as we realized that Hiroshima deserves some time to be seen and appreciated, but we made the most out of our time to see as much as we could of this city. What else can you do when you have to 15 days to visit a country that deserves a lifetime? 

The Shrine and Cherry Blossoms

At the station we hopped on a local train which took us out of the city, to the harbor , where we paid for a ferry ride to Miyajima. The ride was only just over ten minutes long, and ferries ran every fifteen minutes. Although short, the ferry ride gave me a chance to photograph the Torii of the Itsukushima Shrine from the water, using the tall hills of the island for background. This is the first view of the world famous Torii one gets as they approach the land mass, and the scenery can change drastically as the tide retreats during the day. Out of the ferry we were given maps of the island with local attractions and hiking trails. I barely made it out of the gates when a deer snatched the map out of my hands and started chewing on it, to much tourists amusement. I tried to chase it to get my map back but all I could achieve was petting it on the head. There were many deer at the dock, all seeking attention and food. Supposedly wild deer, they are so used to tourists that they behave more like domestic cats, walking slowly among the crowd and rubbing themselves on people: an attraction of their own. Many of these had their antlers cut, so not to cause damage, and I noticed a sign which read: “Do not approach deer with antlers.” We just did what million other tourists before us have done and took many photos with these unlikely pets. 

The Itsukushima Torii

Once our excitement for the animals faded a bit we walked along the shoreline toward the town center and soon arrived in front of the Torii on the water. The tide was high and it seemed as if the sacred gate was floating. On the water we could also see many poles, used for the oyster fields, another reason for which Miyajima is famous. Carts and little shops roasting and selling these delicacies were scattered around the town, so we stopped at one and took place in line to savor the seafood; these were some of the biggest oysters I had yet to see. Grilled on an open flame I had to wait a few minutes before I could eat mine, but once I did, a delicious taste filled my mouth: best oysters ever.

We visited a 5-storey Pagoda, which we had seen from the boat, and later entered a park to a trail that serves as foot access to the tallest hill of the island. There is an aerial tram that serves one of the peaks but our favorite method of locomotion is walking, and a long and steep hike it was. We crossed a few people on the way up but not as many as we expected to see; the trail climbed under a forest and next to a stream that once in a while offered some low waterfalls. A sign said that monkeys lived in the forest but we didn’t see any, what we saw was more deer, totally oblivious of us. The hike took us to an elevation of 550 meters (about 1,800 feet) and we still couldn’t see below us because of the thick woods. We arrived at a small temple, and stopped to pay our respects to the flame that, legend has it, has been burning for nearly 1000 years, kept alive by the monks. The smell of incense permeated the inside of the small dark wooded temple, making us forget the long climb and rejuvenating our spirit. Another short walk and we got to the summit, where a majestic view of the green beauty of Hiroshima Bay and the city presented itself in front of us. On the opposite side the enchantment of the Pacific Ocean and numerous islets, some inhabited some not, and more oyster poles, opened below us. All these islands, including ours, where entirely covered in a lush vegetation. It’s beautiful to see that not all places where humans have set their foot have lost their natural charm. The place presented us with more photographic opportunities and I shot a lot of memory card space using my super wide-angle. Our way down, different than the way we took to come up, wasn’t easy. If anything, it was made substantially more difficult by the effort of keeping a constant slow speed on a tortuous downhill steep path. After walking for about 9Km (5.5 miles) which felt like 20 we were once again in the village and immediately noticed how, during the hours we spent away, the tide had retreated. The big Torii wasn’t floating on the water anymore but was instead surrounded by land and many people walked to it, while many other searched the now dry seabed for mollusks filling their bags with the exquisite seafood.

Happy with the visit of this quite unique place, we waved our goodbyes from the sea to the island, the Pagoda, the Torii and the paper-eating deer. 

The Ocean and Oyster Beds

The one thing we had to visit at all costs in Hiroshima was going to close in a few hours so we rushed to its location as fast as we could: the A-Bomb Museum. The museum was created with the willingness to spread a message of peace to the world, in the hope that what happened to Hiroshima and Nagasaki would never again be repeated. Passed a bridge we arrived at the ruins of a building now known as the “A-Bomb Dome.” When the bomb exploded above the city, on that August 6th 1945, the detonation happened on top of the dome and that’s the reason why this building was nearly spared as the 

The Dome seen through the Peace Monument

detonation irradiated away from this point. The city made strong efforts to preserve it for the future generations, as a witness of what happened, even if many wanted it demolished to remove the painful memory. Today, the ruins of what used to be a beautiful building have been declared world historical patrimony. The bomb, exploded at a height of 600 meters above the city, caused the death of about 200,000 people, many of which students, as the city was a university city during the war. The museum was just ahead, a nice looking modern building of concrete and glass. Upon entering  we rented some headphones for the English translation of the displays. The main room, right after the entrance hall, offered a history of Japan in the decades that preceded the war. The rest of the visit was dotted with objects, documents, and storytelling of the 

events of that day and what followed. This was overwhelming for anyone who cares at the very least a bit about humanity. Even Lindsey became unusually quiet for the rest of the evening.
Closeup of the A-Bomb Dome

I was impressed and baffled on how the Japanese have remained objective in telling just the events without any feeling, I don’t think any other country could have managed. We slowly and quietly walked out of the museum and, except for a few comments at the moment, we never discussed it again. It’s as if the pain felt by this nation permeated our skin. I left thinking that the world would be a better place if all people of Earth visited this museum.

We walked some more under the evening lights of this beautiful city and treated ourselves to some nice Hiroshima-style Okonomiyaki before catching our train to Osaka which we rode without saying a word. We were exhausted. 

The A-Bomb Dome

Japan Day 10 – Takamatsu (Island of Shikoku)

This morning we drove to Takamatsu, a city located on the island of Shikoku (one of the major Japanese islands connected by bridges). The trip took place partly inland, through cities and developed areas and partly through the countryside and coastline, with a total time of about 3 hours. We broke it a little taking a break after crossing the first bridge to rest and enjoy the view of the Pacific Ocean; this was the first time we saw the ocean in Japan. Shikoku is connected to a smaller island, which in turn is connected to the mainland, so to get there we crossed two huge bridges. On the top level are the car lanes while on the bottom level there are the train tracks.

Once in Takamatsu we visited the gardens of the Ritsurin Park, which is pretty famous in Japan for its beauty; as a matter of fact this one is considered one of the three most beautiful gardens in the country. Here we spent a large part of the afternoon. Photo opportunities abound, as every corner seems to offer something special, unfortunately the weather deteriorated, and although it didn’t rain hard, the constant drizzle of the late afternoon made the visit somewhat less enjoyable  from a photographic standpoint.

Ritsurin Park

Being further south we were beyond the cherry blossom season, but a little hint of white on the cherries remained; most of the other flowers had not bloomed yet, late Spring would be a better time to visit this park. Following one of the trails we hiked up a small hill which gave us a bit of a bird’s view of the park and provided a nice location for photographing one of the old-style wooden bridges which decorate the gardens.
Chakie took us for lunch to her favorite Udon restaurant, just a short walk from the gardens. This typical family run soba shop was filled with people sharing tables and counters for a tasty hot meal; no tourists here except for us. This was some of the best Udon I had in the trip, and a large meal was barely $2.40.

Ritsurin Park

On the way back we stopped a few more times to look at the scenery and by the time we got back to Osaka it was already 8pm. Since we were all hungry again (I decided to nickname this trip: “A photographic trip through the culinary side of Japan”) Chakie took us to a sushi restaurant, the type with a conveyor belt. People will seat at a table and there’s a conveyor belt that goes around the restaurant carrying plates. Each plate was 100 yen (about $1) and had 2 large pieces of sushi. The premium sushi are served on a double plate therefore costing 200 yen. One picks up any plate he/she likes and the waitress brings the drinks. Once finished the plates are pushed into a slot on the side of the table where a computer counts them and the waitress brings the check.  There is also a touch screen on which it’s possible to make special orders which, once arrived on the belt by your table, will cause a bell to ring. These are placed on plates of a different color, so people know that it’s a special order and don’t grab it by mistake. I found this restaurant to be efficient, fast, entertaining,  and cheap. We ate a lot and the check turned out to be $10 each including drinks and dessert. Good luck getting any sushi for that price Stateside. If you happen to be in Hawaii look for a sushi restaurant of the “Genki Sushi” chain (on Oahu there is one in the Ala Moana Shopping Center and one in Waikiki; on Maui there’s one in Lahaina), it works on the same principle.

The first bridge on the way to Shikoku

Once back to the hostel we hugged Chakie goodbye, thanking her for the great hospitality, with the promise that we won’t wait another  ten years before we see each other. We went to bed excited at the prospect of visiting Hiroshima the next day. No earthquakes tonight.

Hot fresh food vending machines… that’s cool!

Japan Day 9 – Koya-san

It was nice, for a change, not having to wake up at six in the morning. Chakie picked us up at 9:15 and that gave us plenty of time to be ready for her. Together we went to the train station where we joined with her friend Tomoka (whom I had met in Honolulu about nine years before). Tomoka doesn’t speak much English so our conversation was a mixture of English, Japanese criss-crossed by some translation of Chakie. Shortly after we took the train for Koya-san (Mount Koya), the center of Shingon Buddhism, a mountain town about an hour and a half from Osaka famous for its sanctuaries and cemetery (declared World Heritage by UNESCO). The day was quite gloomy, with dark skies ad a hint of rain; we all hoped the weather wasn’t going to ruin our excursion. The train trip itself was particularly entertaining, especially when a group of about a dozen schoolgirls on a station’s platform, seeing us on the approaching train, pointed fingers toward us and laughed maniacally. I am sure much of the commotion was caused by Lindsey’s deep green eyes, and probably not being used to see many foreigners on that remote train line. When the doors opened the girls flooded the wagon running toward us and asked to take photos with them; from entertained we suddenly became entertainment. We conversed a bit, with much stupor on their part for hearing me speaking some Japanese; Chakie filled in with the story of our trip. They all listened with the utmost interest.

Once arrived at our station, the last one on the line, we disembarked to hop on a cable car similar to the one on Hong Kong’s Victoria Peak, which minutes later climbed the steep side of the mountain offering a breathtaking view of mountains and soon, the valley below partly hidden in the clouds. The journey was not yet over, and once at the top we had to catch a fifteen minutes bus ride to our destination across a thick forest of conifers. The bus dropped us in town, not far from a temple of majestic dimensions which serves as a gateway to the place. The temple was surrounded by immense centennial trees with a trunk so wide it would take four of us to embrace it. The stature of these trees was that of a tall tower and we felt minuscule standing next to them. We walked the road that goes from this sanctuary to the town and stopped to view other temples, until we arrived to the entrance of the cemetery. I wasn’t sure what to expect, I had seen other burial grounds in Japan, but Chakie had insisted that this needed to be seen. What makes this place special is that it is old, really old, ancient, and offers a vision both impressive and fascinating.

Rain started to come down in the afternoon, it wasn’t heavy but more than a drizzle, and constant; fortunately we had umbrellas as all hotels in Japan offer umbrellas for free (and all shops and restaurant have specifically designed umbrella sleeves with dispensers for not dripping indoors). The rain didn’t ruin our visit, quite the opposite, it created an atmosphere of mystery adding to the magic of the place. Being in a centennial forest (trees in Koya-san are 600 years old, we were told) with 500 years old tombstones and torii covered by a thick moss where everything is colored in a deep green was incredibly fascinating, it’s almost as if one becomes part of the scenery. The oldest part of the cemetery held an incredible beauty, just walking through it I could feel a sense of peace. A thin layer of fog permeated the wooded graveyard and I thought of ghosts. It was as if some spirits were hovering around me, but not to frighten me, rather to guide me. I never had that feeling anywhere else. We spent two hours wandering around the place, taking photos in the rain, contemplating the stones, lanterns, altars and torii. With more time in our hands it would have been a great experience spending the night here as Koyasan is one of the best places to spend “a night at the temple.” There are about fifty temples functioning as shukubo, temples where tourists are welcome to stay overnight, eat shojin ryori (the vegetarian meals of the monks) and take part in the morning prayers.

The rain stopped soon after we took the bus for a nearby town where we consumed a flavorful soba and udon home made meal before catching another bus to the cable car and make our way back to Osaka. In the city Chakie took us to some area we had not yet seen, and walked a few more miles under a light rain.

Dinner was in a semi-elegant place, on the second floor of a building with a view on the street, populated with a young crowd, where to have Okonomiyaki. Knowing my love for this dish, my friend picked one of the best restaurant in the area specialized in this dish where, here, was prepared in all three styles: Hiroshima style, Honshu style and Osaka style. The food was prepared in a exhibition kitchen, like the one in Kyoto, then brought to the table in the middle of which was a French plate to keep it hot. We had hot sake with the meal since it marries perfectly with sea food and felt like kings.

Japan Day 8 – Osaka

Canon EOS 30D + Canon 24-105 IS L f/4 1/6" ISO800

Our Shinkansen arrived in Shin-Osaka, the major train station, perfectly on time perfectly on time at 12:05pm. At the gates my friend Chakie was waiting for us and regardless of not having seen each other for eight years she spotted me from afar and threw herself in a warm embrace of Japanese exuberance which is typically reserved to very close friends. Chakie had worked at the Japan Pavilion in EPCOT at Walt Disney World while I worked at the Italy Pavilion, we were friends and neighbors for over a year. She is an excellent cook and often cooked at my place, and she gave me Japanese grammar and culture lessons. Our previous reunion had been in  Hawaii, while I lived in Honolulu. It always feels so good to see old friends, and with this kind of life true friendships are not measured on how often you see each other in a week. I often go many years without seeing some of my closest friends, and Chakie is one of them, but when we see each other it feels as if time had stopped and waited for us to get together again. But time doesn’t really stop, does it? One day you’re 25, you blink and 13 years have gone by, and here we are, old friends hugging each other again with a river of memories and emotions that flows between us without the need to say a word. Chakie took 3 days off work in order to show us around, there’s nothing like having a personal local guide.

Ginsekai
Shinsekai and Tsutenkaku Tower

Osaka is the third largest city in Japan and, like Tokyo, it shows a strong urban development although differences between the two cities are quite obvious. Many people say night life in Osaka has nothing to envy to the one in the capital and it even surpasses it. I like both cities, there’s enough variety, and the city geographical placement makes it a perfect base for day trips. This fact was so striking that we made our mind to spend several nights here, instead of just one as originally planned. As our usual we didn’t have reservations and after running out of ideas from our Lonely Planet guide we stopped at the station’s visitors center and they made several phone calls until we found one with available rooms and affordable for our budget. Neither Lindsey and I care for luxury or amenities when it comes to lodging; our priorities are the location and the chance to meet other travelers, so we keep our budget pretty low (if I have to chose between one week in a nice hotel for $1500 and one week in a hostel for $300 + a $1,700 lens for my camera I’ll always choose the second option).

Shinsekai and Tsutenkaku Tower

We walked the short distance to the Shin-Osaka International Youth Hostel and took the elevator to the 10th floor of a modern and aesthetically pleasing hammer-shaped building. The wide reception area combines a library corner and a smaller computer area with free Wi-Fi available; it looked clean, friendly and comfortable. Definitely the nicest looking hostel I had seen to date. The library offers books of narrative, manga and a wide section of travel books and brochures to help plan other destinations and is furnished with tables and chairs as well as couches and a large screen TV. Free coffee and tea service is offered in the evening. Most of the bedrooms (private with tatami and dorm style with western style beds) are located on the ninth floor and the hostel, other than regular showers, also offers two Onsen (common hot bath): one for men and one for women.

We liked this place so much that adding one night at a time we ended up using it for four nights. Finished with the check-in papers and dropped our luggage Chakie took us for a tour of the city. We visited a pretty garden adorned with waterfalls and statues (and Mr. Kawamura’s statue, a personal hero of mine, to Chakie’s amusement) and from there walked to the area known as Shinsekai, located in Naniwa-ku. I usually describe parts of towns as beautiful, clean, noisy, etc. but for Shinsekai all I could think of was “comical.” It’s a district unlike any other I’ve seen, be it for its shops, restaurants and people which have something amusing going for themselves. It’s hard to explain, it has to be seen. Shinsekai is an amusement district dating from prewar days and many compare it to Asakusa in Tokyo. Having stayed in Asakusa I failed to see the similarities. The major attractions here are the Tenoji Zoo and Park, which we briefly visited; a huge hot spring water park called “SPA World” (I promisedmyself on the next visit to Osaka I will spend a day there); the Osaka Municipal Museum of Art, and the Tsutenkaku Tower. This structure was built in 1956 in lieu of the original Tsutenkaku Tower, built in 1912 and dismantled in 1943 to provide iron for the war. The original tower looked part Eiffel Tower, part Arc de Triomphe.

Preparing Taco Yaki

After our visit to Shinsekai Chakie took us to a different part of the city for dinner. The advantage of going out with a local person (particularly in a country with different culture and language) is that one experiences things that normally tourists don’t experience, and so Chakie took us to eat at a Taco Yaki, literally a “octopus bake.” In this type of restaurant every table has four griddles where, once decided what to order, waiters will drop the ingredients (we ordered octopus, shrimps, shallots, cheese, and other things and used all four griddles) mixed in a semi-liquid flour based batter. Once the griddles are hot we scraped the food off and pushed it in the rows of “semi-spheres” and once the food is cooked the half-balls obtained are turned around so that the other side is cooked and the result is a ball of food with octopus or whatever ingredients were used. Taco Yaki was as good as entertaining… and hot. In the photos you can see the preparation as well as Chakie and Lindsey burning their tongues.

Atsui desu-ne

The dinner was so good and filling that a digestive walk became necessary and we strolled around the streets of Osaka lit up like Christmas with a million neon lights.  Chakie took us on a Ferris Wheel built on top of a building from which we could get a majestic view of the city by night. The view was truly breathless and here I could finally test my new lens, the Canon EF 24-105 L IS. Regardless of not being a bright lens with a continuous f/4 stop, the advanced Image Stabilizer built in this lens allowed me to take some pretty sharp night shots with the EOS 30D in available light only while the Ferris Wheel moved. I am sure of the fact that had not been for this lens I would have lost at least half of the photos taken during this trip. Plus, it’s the perfect companion for the photographer seeking to travel light.

Canon EOS 30D + Canon 24-105 IS L f/4 1/5" ISO800

We made plans for the next day: Chakie said she wanted us to see a place called Koya-San, an ancient cemetery. I wasn’t really thinking about visiting a cemetery on this trip, but this is the kind of unplanned things that we like to experience. It’s a bit out of the way, with a train + cable car + bus ride but Chakie is adamant that we must see it. We trust the locals.
Back at the hostel Lindsey went to bed and I was up in the library until around 1am typing on my laptop when, suddenly, I felt a vibration and saw the tower next to ours flexing left and right. I felt three brief earthquake jolts. An old lady, watching TV next to me, seemed alarmed for a second but the feeling was quickly replaced by curiosity as she switched channels to see if there were any reports. The next morning I learned the epicenter was right under Osaka and it measure 1 degree on the Richter scale. Lindsey never noticed. To me, it felt as if Japan was saying welcome.