MotoGP Weekend at the Circuit of the Americas

High speed and close quarters
High speed and close quarters

What a great weekend!
Beside photography one of my passions is sport bikes. Last weekend I flew down to Austin, Texas to watch the MotoGP race at the Circuit of the Americas with the hope of capturing some good photos of this event, for once leaving behind landscape photography. For those of you who don’t know what MotoGP is, it is the motorcycle equivalent of the Formula 1 car race.
I got there before the bulk of people arrived and was able to spend quite a bit of time around mingling with the bike makers staff and exploring the grounds to find a good spot and indeed I found one. I only brought one lens with me, the Canon EF 100-400 L coupled with the 2X Extender and my Canon 7D which gave me an actual 1200mm focal (manual focus at that point).

_MG_3787
Marquez grabs the first place in front of Dovizioso

Photographing races is all about speed, for that reason I left the 5D Mark III home and took advantage of the 7D high frame rate. This is an exciting event and I look forward to going again next year, the one thing I would do different though is I will take advantage of the loan program of the Canon Professional Services Platinum Membership. If you are a die-hard Canon user like myself (and Canon does have a phenomenal customer service, I’m not sponsored by them so this is a honest assessment based on years of experience) you have probably collected a number of Canon cameras and lenses which have a point value toward a CPS membership level: Silver, Gold or Platinum. In Europe the CPS program works a little differently and it is not based on points but on number/type of cameras and lenses owned.

andrea2
Andrea Iannone and Andrea Dovizioso, Ducati racers

Back to the MotoGP, the event lasts for 3 days (Fri-Sun) and it’s a great opportunity for speed shooters as well as those photographers who do not have experience shooting high speed subjects but want to try. In that case I recommend taking advantage of the whole three days (there are several qualification races and Sunday is the actual competition), and there is plenty to be entertain with besides the races. I was surprised to see such a high number of people supporting the Italian racers or Italian bikes and Ducati’s Andrea Dovizioso took home the second place, with Yamaha’s Italian rider and world champion Valentino Rossi taking the third place. First place went, with little surprise on anyone’s part, to Honda and its Spanish rider Marc Marquez who once again used his own kind of magic to take a good 3 seconds lead (eternity!) on the Ducati. It was fun and I hope to see you there next year!

 

 

_MG_3817b
Marc Marquez of Honda, his bike is inclined approx. 64 degrees.

 

Maverick Viñales
Suzuki Ecstar Maverick Viñales in a tight turn.

 

South East Asia Part 1: Vietnam

hkg1
Hong Kong by night

If there is one place capable of capturing the collective imagination with visions of fabled treasures, unexplored jungle, ancient rituals and mysterious cultures the Angkor temple complex is certainly it. It is the lifetime dream of the traveling photographer, on par with Easter Island and Machu Picchu.

Flying over the jungle for a while with views of lakes and river and lush landscape, I stretch my neck left and right trying to catch a glimpse of Angkor Wat but our route does not take us in its proximity. The landing at Siem Reap airport is smooth and right on time. While our Cambodia Angkor Air Airbus taxis to the terminal my excitement grows, as images of stone faces and jungle covered ruins plays in my mind.
I have been traveling with my friend Michelle for a while now, and we have recently met some other friends from Wyoming down in Sihanoukville (where we just flew from). Together we hop on the Tuk Tuk that is waiting outside of the terminal to take us to our guesthouse: the Seven Candles.
I want to spend a few words on this place in case you, dear reader, end up in Siem Reap a day or another. Seven Candles (http://www.sevencandlesguesthouse.com/) is more than a guesthouse, it’s a school for rural children and part of the profits go to the education of these children. Please take a moment to read about the foundation: http://www.sevencandlesguesthouse.com/#!our-foundation.
Lori Carlson, a transplant from Austin, Texas manages the guesthouse. She has a quick smile and many helpful tips, which contributed to making our stay more enjoyable,

Way up to the Big BuddhaOur trip began in Tokyo, with a 26 hours stopover to show my friend Michelle around the city since this was her first time, and continued to Hong Kong were three days were just enough for a visit to the Po Lin monastery, a few museums, catch up with old friends and have dinner at my favorite Nepalese restaurant. From there we flew to Ho Chi Minh City (the old Saigon) in Vietnam for a quick tour of the city. We arrived at midnight and a short taxi ride took us to the hotel in the city center. Asian hospitality never ceases to amaze me: not only was the location of our hotel convenient, but our room was large, modern, had a huge bathroom window overlooking the city and the hotel had a beautiful rooftop restaurant/bar where we could enjoy a delightful meal and drinks for just a few dollars. The staff was, of course, very friendly and helpful too.
The following morning’s rain did not stop us from enjoying the city. We took a rickshaw to visit the local market (similar to a bazaar) which was overfilled with trinkets and souvenirs that made me wish I had any room in my small backpack, the only luggage I dragged. When the rain finally stopped and a bit of sun came out, we walked to the War Remnants Museum. The visit was somber, the museum was full of people but hardly any word was spoken, as the many photographs on the wall grabbed everyone’s attention. I had a sense of déjà vu, projecting myself in the Atom bomb museum I had visited in Hiroshima years before. It’s incredible to see the kind of atrocity people are willing to commit in the name of some temporary political ideology, but it’s good that we have places like this that can remind us of the past and push us to be better people to ourselves and those around us. Taking photographs is allowed in most parts of the museum, but I limited myself to a few shots of machinery in the front yard.hkg3

The good mood returned in the evening with a walk in the business district, watching and avoiding the movement of thousands of scooters, which was quite an adventure in itself. If I were asked what are the three most difficult things I have done in my life, I would say that crossing a street in Vietnam was definitely one of them. We concluded the evening with a visit of the Saigon Skydeck. Located on the 49th floor of the Bitexco Financial Tower, at a height of 178 meters, we enjoyed a night view of the city and its myriad of lights from above. A lengthy walk home and a pleasant dinner on the roof was all that was left for the day, the following morning was going to be spent for the most part on a bus to the capital of Cambodia: Phnom Penh.

Ho Chi Minh City from the rooftop restaurant

Alaska: Denali National Park

In a well rehearsed goodbye, Mt. McKinley shows its majestic body above the clouds and begs me to come back. I smile at it from my airplane seat and I feel a mix of excitement and sadness as the mountain view recedes from my eyes. My visit to Alaska was short, barely 3 days but it was intense, both on the amount of miles I covered as well as the number of wildlife I’ve seen. The experience quite unique: my first wolves sighting, grazing bull moose, grizzly cubs wrestling, rivers running toward an infinite landscape… Denali National Park conquered my heart. A park that has nothing of the fast paced, bumper-to-bumper, Yellowstone rush hours, a park that was created for nature to preserve itself rather than to become an overpopulated vacation destination. I got a taste of this immense wilderness and I’m addicted. In the next few months I know I’ll be busy planning a return, a comeback in grandeur where I’ll be able to see more, to experience more and to lose myself in a land beyond time; me and my camera. Take only pictures, leave only footprints behind.

Denali truly is a haven for a landscape, as well as a wildlife photographer. In just a day I saw more wildlife than what I’d see in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks in a year. By mid-afternoon yesterday I watched a large number of caribou walking lazily across a valley, two rams and many sheep, two wolves, ten grizzlies, four bull moose, two golden eagles and so much more.
The mountains were hidden by what felt like perennial clouds and the rain was nearly incessant, but that made for richer greens and allowed me to take some spectacular landscape images. If you come here for a limited time, as I did, take a green bus to Wonder Lake and if you’re lucky enough your driver will give you plenty details about the place and will be capable of spotting wildlife before anyone else sees it, mine did. The bus stops whenever somebody shouts “Stop! I saw something!” and that increases the amount of time it takes to get to destination, but remember: it’s about the travel itself. With so many alert eyes on board it won’t be long before you get your chance to come home with the photograph of a bull moose or grizzly you always wanted to take. My personal recommendation is to seat on the driver’s side of the bus, heading west, as you’ll be directly facing a more dramatic landscape as well as areas where the animals are more likely to be. This was just an explorative trip for me, already knowing that I would’ve wanted to come back, and it gave me ideas of what to do next time I visit Denali; how to manage my time in the park; what to do and see and most importantly what to bring. My gear of choice this time was: my Canon 7D (I left the 5D Mark II at home as I wanted the extra reach of the 7D but didn’t want t be bothered by the weight of two bodies), Canon EF-S 10-22mm for those special landscape shots, Canon EF-100-400mm L IS, Canon EF-24-105 L IS. These two ended up being the most used lenses, particularly the 100-400 which made more than one person jealous. Sure, I was wishing I had the new Canon 800mm, but how many people can hand-hold that lens for more than 10 seconds without getting tired? (Without even considering the nearly-prohibitive price of that lens ).Also, remember that you’re on a bus for a long time, therefore you’ll have vibrations and bumps and the 100-400 is a lot easier to handle, hiking with the 800mm might not be wise. Moreover, with the 7D crop factor it becomes an actual 160-640mm lens. When the bus stops because of nearby wildlife you cannot get off as park regulations forbids that, but you can get off the bus at any other time and hike from there until you’re ready to jump back on-board, which could be an hour or a week later, according to your taste and preparation
The other accessory that has become essential to me is my Cotton Carrier, no more hiking getting bruises on my neck or back pain (read a review here). I also brought a circular warming polarizer but I never got a chance to use it. With so many wildflowers in July it’s also a good idea to bring a macro if you enjoy capturing the details of plants and flowers.

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.

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 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.

Japan Day 7 – Kyoto

Japan’s ancient Capital is known worldwide for the variety of temples, gardens and cherry trees, which, unfortunately for us, had already lost their blossoms and had started to sprout leaves. One of the fascinating parts of our trip is that traveling across this country, which extends for hundreds of kilometers north to south, we can literally witness all the phases of the Spring season, from early to late conditions.
We immediately walked to the main temple, which at the time was being refurbished. The hangar built for the occasion wa so big it could comfortably hold an Airbus A380; the temple is just as impressive, one cannot stop to look at it in awe and feel so tiny next to it. A guide we met there, or rather who came to meet us because he felt like practicing some English, just like many Japanese we have met before, told us that the temple is around one thousand years old and is built entirely in wood without the use of a single nail. Really impressive. Needless to say, the best lenses for the job would be a wide angle and a macro. We walked for about 10 minutes to a hostel described in our Lonely Planet guide, which, since our trip to Peru, has become our favorite guide. The hostel was very pretty and modern looking, painted in nice bright and relaxing colors, but unfortunately full. We have a tendency not to book much, if anything, in advance. We travel with a very flexible schedule, listening to what locals or other fellow travelers have to say about a particular place and take it from there. Too often people travel thousands of miles to end up in your typical overpopulated tourist destinations, not us. Although there are occasions when we feel we need to see why a place is so popular, we leave plenty time to explore countries off the usual tourist path. We try to understand why locals like certain places and absorb as much of their culture as we can. Sometimes, as in this case, there are drawbacks, like not finding a room in a recommended place, but not all is lost; with a positive attitude something good always comes out, and so it was. The girl at the reception called several other places for us but at a time like that nothing was available. This is Kyoto, and every person who visits Japan from another country visits Kyoto, without counting the thousands of tourists arrived from all parts of Japan itself. In less than an hour, though, we found a hostel near the Imperial Palace; we hopped on the subway and after walking around the neighborhood for a while and asking several times for direction (remember: Japan has no addresses) we arrived at the door of what seemed like an abandoned building. The inside was dark (and scary) but it was clean; our room was located in the back of the building at the top of a tight staircase, it was small, had no windows and was nearly pitch black. The good news was that nobody else was occupying it, and the other good news was that the hostel had bicycle rentals for the equivalent of $5 a day.

We could not have asked for better weather, the sun was warm and the sky deep blue without a cloud, for the first time since our arrival in Japan. We traded our preferred method of transportation (our feet) for two bikes and set out to explore this beautiful and intriguing city. People use bicycles a lot in Japan, including the major cities, but there are no bike paths so bikers use the sidewalks (except on crossroads, where there are bike paths used to cross the intersection). The typical Japanese courtesy behavior applies: everyone else has the right of way.
The further we moved away from the central area and the main train station and the more we felt like we were entering an immense garden, it’s quite easy to understand why this city is nicknamed the “Garden City.” With our bikes we pedaled along the bank of one of the rivers that cut the city in different areas enjoying this magnificent day to the fullest, until we found our way to the municipal gardens. We spent hours taking macro and close-up photos of tulips exploding in a myriad of colors and other beautiful flowers. The garden, which looked more and more like a canvas, was painted with small ponds and creeks, and also had a sizeable collection of bonsai. Crossing a wooded area we were surprised to find ourselves surrounded by large cherry trees in blossom and a very peaceful view: an older lady, sitting against a cherry tree, was drawing the pink scenery on a large pad. I snapped some photos of what would become one of my fondest memories of this trip.
Once back on the saddle of our bikes we slowly rolled once again along the river toward the Gion area, while enjoying a spectacular sunset. Gion is one of the most popular areas, if not the most popular, of Kyoto. It’s here that it is still possible to catch a glimpse of a real Geisha or a Maiko (the apprentice) and when we arrived the place was bustling with activity while an incessant flow of people moved in all directions, as attracted by the many lights. The street which cuts this quarter in half, with its cherry trees and river dancing on the side, is often referred to as the most beautiful street in all of Asia and it’s hard not to agree; regardless of the never-ending movement it gave us a sense of calm.

The neon lights of the shops combined with the light from the lanterns hanging outside of restaurants, and the street was dense with the odors of a myriads of foods prepared in the many restaurants of the area. We ventured in a darker and less populated street, looking for something more original and walked in front of a quaint restaurant with a large water tank by the entrance in which swam squid and other fish.

After peaking inside we knew we had found what we were looking for: four chefs were busy preparing food on a show-kitchen style counter, and the place was full with local people, no foreign tourists in sight. The waiter sat us at the counter where we quickly found ourselves absorbed in watching the cooks prepare their dishes with an elegant speed. After looking at the menu we quickly decided we wanted to try everything on it, and so we did; that was easily the best sashimi I ever had, and portions were very generous. Other than sashimi and sushi in all flavors we had several fish soups and dishes prepared with octopus, squid and shrimps. This was by far the most expensive meal we had in Japan; the two of us spent, including Sake, $61/€39. The same meal back home in Jackson would have easily been around $200.
We rolled out of the restaurant and spent an hour walking around trying to digest our lucullian meal before we jumped on our bikes and headed toward our scary hostel. I was in bed by 10pm, a record in this trip of late nights and sunrise awakenings.

Japan Day 6 – Takayama

Another early morning in our schedule with the train taking us to Takayama, a pretty town at the feet of the mountains well known for its Spring Festivals.We intended to spend the night there but all the hotels had been booked months in advance because of the local festivities. The landscape we experienced crossing the Japan Alps  has been quite different than whatwe have seen in the past few days.  Running along the bank of a river for a good part of the itinerary, the train took us through valleys and canyons, blooming cherry trees, country style houses, waterfalls and snow capped mountains.

Parade Float in Takayama

What made the trip even more interesting was the commentary, both in Japanese and English, broadcasted through the loudspeakers whenever we reached a location of particular interest. The breathtaking landscape had a definite alpine flavor, the name Japan Alps seemed quite appropriate.

Once in Takayama we got off the train, by now packed full with people, and once collected the Festival Program at the tourist office we headed toward center town on foot. It wasn’t long after leaving the station that we found ourselves in front of a shop full of crates overflowing with local delicacies. Every item was available from sampling and between a tasting of  vegetables, fruit, meat, fish, and an incredible variety of desserts we easily spent over half hour there. We were quite intrigued by some ash colored semi-sweet tablets that, Lindsey pointed-out, tasted like… dust. I became immediately addicted to the flavor while Lindsey disliked them at first but days later she was asking for them. Back on our trail we soon discovered that this town offered a lot of sampling, and it’s without any shame that we let that take care of our lunch, after all this was a cultural trip and we needed to understand the locals at all levels. Overall people were eager to let us try their cuisine and they encouraged the sampling.

Parade

The town was inundated by tourists arrived from all sides of the country and in certain streets it was very difficult to walk at a normal pace, in particular on one of the main streets where dozens of kiosks and tents, lined up on the river bank, offered anything from local sake to roasted fillets of trout on a skewer. We crossed a beautiful orange bridge and strolled on the main square, now lively with people in traditional and historical costumes, decorated floats used in the parade. It was not hard at all, for a second, to close our eyes and feel transported back to the land of the Shogun and Samurai.
We decided to escape the town for a moment for a chance to get a bird’s view of it and hiked up a steep road that continued on a narrow trail which took us to the top of a hill. The peacefulness of the forest was a nice contrast to the bustling scene below us and for a while we enjoyed until we got brought back to reality by the sounds of flutes, drums and we walked the steep slope back to watch the parade and the puppet show. Takayama has a fascinating history and traditions and the parade narrates it with the use of costumes, music and dances.

Sampling local food

We enjoyed the rest of the day walking around the many temples of which this city is rich and ate a Bento box and some delicious Kobe beef on a stick on the side of the river next to an old bridge before heading back in the evening to the train station, where our train to Nagoya left, without any surprise, perfectly on time.

Japan Day 4 – Matsumoto

The third morning in the Land of the Rising Sun started well before sunrise. I’m a morning person, and that helps a lot when you are a photographer as you want to be up early in order to catch the best light. As we opened the front door of the Ryokan we realized that the Castle was right in front of us, the night before we could not see it, it took us exactly two minutes to walk to it. Even if the sun wasn’t up yet, there was enough light to see every detail. The area was not deserted as one might have expected, but lively with old people taking a morning stroll and photographers checking their gear. We walked around the moss, inhabited by large Koi fish and huge swans and passed by a group of Japanese teenagers who were having a breakfast picnic on the grass in the castle’s park. They smiled and waved at us at our sight and we reciprocated. I figured foreign visitors were not popular that time of the year. I sat up my tripod and started playing with my camera setting while Lindsey took off for her daily jog. A few hours later we rejoined to take a tour of the castle itself and stepped within the walls, inside the inner gardens. The gardens cover a large area and our timing was just perfect: the cherry trees were in full bloom and painted the courtyard with patches of white, red and pink: a spectacular display of nature that has made Japan famous worldwide. By mid morning the place was full of visitors of all ages so after some time spent photographing the exterior we stepped in to learn a bit of the castle history and architecture. The castle was built by orders of the local Shogun (Lord) fearing an attack that never happened. The inside was made entirely in wood and dark with small windows, a nice contrast to the blue-heron colors of the outside. To reach the top floor we had to climb a staircase with a pitch of nearly 60 degrees letting room for some people to come down. 60 degrees is really steep.

Ended the visit to the castle we visited the adjacent museum which had a collection of objects from many different centuries and offered a wider explanation of the history of this region. Much of it was written in English.
After splitting and consuming a giant and very tasty hamburger (about 15cm / 12” wide) we strolled around town to get a better idea of what Matsumoto looked like and search for new photographic opportunities. Matsumoto counts nearly 300 thousand people, and yet it feels like being in a very small town, people are relaxed and the stress of city life is not felt.
Once back in the Ryokan we planned for the following day and headed out to dinner where we found a Soba restaurant, where, after being welcomed by the old owner, he cooked from scratch two delicious bowls of soba while we watched. We were the only people inside and appreciated the care he out in preparing our food, we decided that was the best soba we had had until then.
We packed our bags and managed to be in bed by 10.