Again in Seoul

Gwanghwamun

My favorite time to write is while on public transportation, be it on an airplane or a train. Here I am, sitting on a plane from Detroit to Salt Lake City on my way home from a quick getaway to Seoul, South Korea. And a quick getaway it sure was. I left Montana on Tuesday morning and returning today, which is Friday. That gave me a full day in Seoul. Sure, that’s not much to see the city but the whole purpose of this trip was a chance to fly the upper cabin of the Delta Boeing 747 one more time before it retires at the end of the year (United will be retiring theirs as well soon). And I also had been to Seoul before (see my previous blog post: A Stroll in Seoul), so one could say this is a continuation of my previous trip as I focused on sights that were new to me. Seoul is a fascinating and vibrant city where people are quick to smile and a dollar goes  long way (it’s still only about $4 for a one way train ticket from Incheon airport to the city and a 2 liter bottle of water will cost you less than a dollar). I confess that I didn’t go out seeking photograph opportunity on this trip, I was just happy to be there. Well, it’s not that photographic opportunities do not abound, it’s more like the light was just not the best. A sunny day will give you strong light with harsh shadows and a sunny day is what I go (but who am I to complain), so perhaps once home, as I start cataloging these new photos, I will work on some black and whites as that gives more justice to harsh lighting conditions.

I like to walk and this trip was no different than many others where I consumed the bottom of my shoes. I arrived on Wednesday night after a 13 hours flight from Detroit (and 2 other flights before that) and after dropping my small backpack at the hostel I booked by Hongik University for a whopping $16/night (breakfast included), on a direct train line from the airport, I went to explore the neighborhood and find something to eat. I really like that area, Hongik University has a fun, multicultural, night life and it’s brim with cheap restaurants, coffee shops and beer houses. I will most likely stay there again.

Namdaemun Market

The next morning I took the subway to Namdaemun Market. One could find all sort of things here, it reminded me of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. There’s an above ground section, that spans across a large area and multiple small alleys, as well an underground claustrophobic as well as rich of all sort of merchandise section. I truly enjoyed both as I walked around taking pictures and GoPro video while being greeted by the smiles of many merchants.
I wasn’t there to buy stuff (although there’s so much I would buy) but I love this city, and I think they could tell.

Library and City Hall

In one of the small alleys I found several restaurants displaying a variety of locals dishes and tantalizing smells. Letting a gracious lady lure me inside one of them I try a typical Korean dish which was still new to me:  Bibimbap (literally: Mixed rice. It’s served as a bowl of warm white rice topped with sautéed and seasoned vegetables chili pepper paste and soy sauce). I loved every bite, as it contained several flavors that perfectly married each other. I liked it so much that on my flight from Incheon to Detroit I had it again as it was one of the meal options.

Satisfied with my lunch choice I, once again, took the road to walk toward the City Hall. This is a gorgeous modern glass building that sits just across the Deoksugung temple area which I had visited on my previous trip (see past blog post: A Stroll in Seoul). I would recommend spending time in this area to anyone interested in travel and architectural photography. The harmony of the lines in those buildings just make for some great shots. Walking down this large avenue I arrived at my destination, the Gwanghwamun Gate and temple complex. I shared some of the sights with a young woman from Holland (originally from Syria) whose name is Arua, if memory serves me correctly. As we took each other’s pictures we talked a bit about world events. Of course we touched a bit on the topic of Syria, and she made me realize how hard it is for people who only have the Syrian passport to travel anywhere as most countries will not accept that passport for entry. It is sad that a whole people can be discriminated based on their nationality. I have not met a whole lot of Syrians but those I met where beautiful people with a quick smile, a sense of humor and a will to share what they have with other cultures. I hope they will find peace soon.

Hongik University area at night

After another walk to the subway station I took a train to the National Museum of Korea. Those who are museum lovers will find thousands of artifacts to entertain them for the whole day; those who are not will still rejoice from the gorgeous setting and building, the many collections inside that are worth at least a quick browsing, and the fact that admission is free.

After this I went back to Hongik University area to relax and grab some dinner. The next morning I had a 6am alarm clock to get me to the airport in time for my 10am flight.

Seoul has so much more to offer, but I’m truly intrigued by the beautiful sights advertised in posters around the subway stations. With mountains, rivers, waterfalls and lakes, as well as gorgeous foliage colors, it seems that South Korea will be calling my name sooner rather than later.

City view from the National Museum of Korea
Bibimbap

 

 

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New Article Published

EV Mag SmallThis past week I had another article published, this time in New Zealand online magazine for photographers “Extraordinary Vision”
EV is a beautiful magazine, available on Android and iOS platforms (you find it in the app store), which goal is to expand the way a photographer sees things allowing thus to help him take better and unusual photos. I hope you will enjoy my article, it contains some cool photos I took on Easter Island.

The article is called “Beyond the Ocean: Rapa Nui” and you can download a free copy (and more) until July 15th here: https://extraordinary-vision.com/free-issues

Review: ThinkTank Photo Airport Accelerator

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Fulfilling a lifetime dream

My most recent trip was to a destination I had wanted to see all my life: the remote Easter Island (Rapa Nui). This island has captured the imagination of more than one photographer and it had been on my bucket list of must-see places for a very long time. Typically, because of its remoteness (and expense) this is not a trip that one does often, so I wanted to be ready to capture the beauty of the island without compromise. Rather than traveling with my most used lenses I decided this time I had to bring along my whole collection and two bodies: my full frame  Canon EOS 5D Mark III and my crop Canon EOS 7D. Having a second body is not strictly necessary, but I wanted to be ready in case anything happened to my main camera. I contacted my friends at Think Tank Photo who asked me to provide a list of the equipment I was taking along as well as a description of what type of travel I was planning to do (hiking, not checking any luggage with the airlines). After a few days they recommended and provided one of their bags: the Airport Accelerator V2.

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Stylish and well designed

The bag arrived in just 3 days in a well packed box. My first impression was of a sturdy well-designed bag, somewhat light and slightly large. It would definitely fit on the overhead bin of the plane, but a nice surprise would come later. A little side pocket on the top contains a steel wire with lock, a definite bonus for those who seek extra safety, handles on two sides (those who read my article “Get Your Gear Home Safely” on the Popular Photography May 2013 issue know I’m a big fan of handles, they extend the life of the bag greatly when checked with an airline) and straps that turn the carry-on bag into a backpack; these straps also have ever-useful “D” rings. The back is very well padded and seats well against my back as I hike. There are two zippered compartments for laptop, tablets, cables, etc. plus the main compartment for 2 camera bodies and a whole assortment of lenses. The main compartment has 3 zippered  pockets which I used for business card holder, postcards, extra memory cards in their original packaging, pens, markers and more. Other than the two cameras I brought along the following Canon lenses: EF 10-24mm L, EF 15mm L fisheye, 100mm L Macro, EF 100-400 L, EF 50mm and a Rokinon 14mm which I had just received but never tested. I also had a GoPro Hero 4 Black with an assortment of accessories, remote timer for the cameras, several filters, egg cooking timer (useful for time lapses with the GoPro), a lens/sensor cleaning kit, 4 batteries, charger, a lot more cables that I can count, 1 laptop and 2 tablets. The bag also contained a waterproof cover which fortunately I didn’t get to use. Everything fit comfortably inside it. Outside there’s also a pouch for a small tripod (which I used) and comes with two straps to hold the tripod in place on the top end.

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The Airport Accelerator fits under the seat of a plane. Bonus!

By the time it was zipped up and locked (the main compartment and secondary can be locked with a separate lock; I always keep spare combination TSA approved locks around) its weight was about 35 lbs/16 Kg, definitely more than I wanted to carry on my shoulders but for this journey well worth the effort.

The first tests were at the airport: the full bag went through the TSA scanner without a  glitch. My first flight out of Jackson Hole, Wyoming was on a regional jet (those with a small overhead bin, because of which, larger carry-ons won’t fit and have to be “valet” checked to the door of the plane at destination). The big surprise here was that my Airport Accelerator actually fit (tripod removed) under the seat in front of me, and that made me a lot less anxious about the rest of the flights (3 flight to reach Santiago plus a fourth one 4 days later to reach Rapa Nui).

_MG_5823After Easter Island I flew to Sardinia, Italy which took another 5 flights, were the pack was brought on the plane as carry-on. In Sardinia I lightened up its weight and took it on a long steep hike through the hilly countryside. Regardless of the scorching sun, the Airport Accelerator felt very comfortable on my shoulders.

My back suffered a bit from the heavy weight of the backpack while on Easter Island, but as I said, I really overdid it, add to this that I’m 5’6″. The backpack is very comfortable and padded in all the right places and if anything it alleviated the pain. I don’t think I would carry a full pack on a long mountain hike (I should rent a yak for that), and it was not designed with that purpose in mind, but for trips with mixed transportation were there isn’t a lot of non-stop walking involved this backpack would be my first choice.

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Fits well under the seat of a United Airlines plane.

 

 

Click the link to access my affiliate ThinkTank page.

 

 

 

South East Asia Part 1: Vietnam

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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

Last Minute Trip to Argentina: Part 1

 

Casa Rosada in Buenos Aires
Casa Rosada in Buenos Aires

As I flip through the pages of my Lonely Planet guide to Argentina I feel an excitement growing like I haven’t felt it in a long time. In the past few years I have traveled near and far (mostly far). Just a week ago I was strolling along the roads of Munich; before then I was in Italy just in time to witness the birth of my first nephew;  two months ago I had the opportunity to visit my old college roommate in his beautiful hometown: Stockholm. So far this year I’ve been to five new countries and about to make the sixth as well as returning to several others. Every place I see is special in its own way: be it the orange sands of Wadi Rum, an ancient cemetery in Japan where spirits seem to breathe on the back of your neck, or the warm azure waters of Palau in Micronesia. Every place has given me unique memories and wonderful emotions (I couldn’t stop my eyes from getting moist while watching the sun breaking through the clouds from below while I was standing at the top of the Haleakala Mountain in Mau; or falling into a revered silence as the clouds broke up to reveal the ancient Machu Picchu before me) but all this traveling has taken its toll, it has taken a little bit of the magic of the unknown away. It is a bit like working in a movie set after another (which I have done): you will never watch a movie the same way. You will still enjoy it, but it will be different. I’ve gone from place to place making my wishes come true, loving it, but at the same time feeling like something was missing.

Buenos Aires is a bright and lively city
Buenos Aires is a bright and lively city

This time is different, though. I feel the excitement building up and I can’t wait to be at destination. This trip was not planned; maybe that’s what makes it so different and appealing. I sat in front of my computer yesterday, on my birthday, working on some photos, when out of nowhere I thought of Argentina. I quickly typed “weather in Ushuaia” on my browser but the results were less than encouraging: I would have left a cold place for another, not in the mood for that. I switched the search to “weather in Bariloche” and the results were much better: sunny with 27C/80F.

I type this half-way between Denver and Atlanta; tonight I will be on a flight to Buenos Aires where I will meet up with some friends flying out of Houston. I’m getting shivers from this, I already know, amazing adventure that is about to start.

How Else Would You Celebrate Your Arrival in Buenos Aires?
How Else Would You Celebrate Your Arrival in Buenos Aires?

Bariloche, gateway to Alta Patagonia and home of some of South America’s most scenic National Parks is my mother’s dream place. This trip is dedicated to you, mom. Thank you for giving me the positive energy to make it happen and also thanks for never stopping guiding me: with your curiosity, your intelligence, your creativity and your compassion.

The Photographer’s Blues

You have been taking photos enthusiastically for months, with subjects ranging from landscape to macro to long exposures and you have participated, or at least been lurking, in many online forums but all of a sudden you just don’t feel it anymore, you want to go out and take photos but can’t bring yourself to do it. You’ve just been diagnosed with a common case of the Photographer’s Blues. It happened to me last year; after years of being driven to search a variety of light conditions, new locations, new angles on old locations, being an active member of the photographic community and devouring books and magazines, I bumped into a wall. The motivation to grab my camera was completely gone and I worried if it would ever come back. As months passed and a large pile of unread photography magazines piled up on my coffee table I occasionally would look at my non-growing collection of photos in my hard drive. Something had to be done, I wasn’t going to let this “photographic depression” take over and put an end to what had been a passion since the age of six. My first step was creating a blog, if grabbing my Canons wasn’t the highest of my priorities, writing was still something I considered enjoyable and personalizing a pre-existing interface for my new WordPress blog was actually a fun task. Some of you might not be too big on writing, but a blog doesn’t need to be a collection of long essays, you can post quick thoughts or just images with a caption. At first it might be just for you and your family or close friends but as you grow a following, you will find more inspiration, motivation as well as materials since many will offer their ideas. After all, this article would have probably never been written had it not been for a fellow blogger’s complaint that she did not enjoy taking photos anymore. Besides a blog, and as a good complement to it, if you haven’t done so already, starting a website gives you exposure (no pun intended) as well as providing another outlet to your creativity. Even if you’re not computer savvy at all, starting a website today is easier than ever. Internet Providers like 1and1 or Zenfolio (check my website under Discount Offers for details) allow you to register your own domain name for a small fee and give you a selection of tools, as well as templates, to start a website in minutes. You can create pages of any kind as well as professionally looking galleries. If you have a larger budget and some HTML and CSS programming knowledge or are willing to learn them, a software like Adobe Dreamweaver will really allow you to have total control and flexibility over your creation.

Photographers are everywhere, and most of them are social people looking to learn new things or willing to share what they know. So, why not get in touch with other photographers in your community and start a club or a weekly meeting/photoshoot. Not only that’s a great way to make new friends, but everyone wins in terms of knowledge and portfolio images as well as finding a great enthusiasm booster. Starting something like that can be easily achieved with just a post on Craigslist. I was a very active member of the online community of a well known photo magazine, but ended up abandoning it because of the excessive spam (eventually everyone left). It was great times, we had weekly assignments, photo critiques and everyone had something to share. It always saddened me how the magazine management let something that great just die. Recently I created discussion forums on my own blog and I’m hoping to capture the same environment of cooperation that we had then, minus the spam. Search “create online forums” on Google and you will find enough tools to make your own. Don’t feel up to the task? Make yourself a promise to become involved in a discussion forum with at least two or three posts a week. And don’t be afraid to ask questions, those who have the answers are usually more than happy to share; we all like the feeling that comes from having helped someone.

If you can afford it, take a photography seminar or in-the-field workshop. You’ll learn from a pro and be taken to places you probably didn’t even know; and chances are you will learn functions of your camera that you didn’t even know existed or that seemed too esoteric.

I left the most exciting one for last: travel!

Get in your car, get on a plane, get on a cruise ship… just go somewhere new. I’m what you could call a professional traveler. To me traveling is a way of life. I like to see new places, explore new foods, meet new people. I can guarantee you that traveling doesn’t have to be expensive. I’ve flown to Europe for as little as $400 round trip from Los Angeles. My two weeks in Peru (and who doesn’t want to photograph Machu Picchu?) came to a total of less than $1,000 (flight included from Salt Lake City). A 4 nights cruise to Bahamas was $262 (gratuities included as well). All it takes is a bit of planning and some good price shopping skills. Go to new places and you will come home with a new collection of photos that you will be excited to share with friends and other photographers.

And if you really don’t or can’t get away from home, find the nearest forest near you and photograph trees. Get into the woods with a wide angle lens and explore its possibilities. Try to make those trees look as imposing as you can. You will like the results.

I’m writing this while sitting on the steps of NYC’s Metropolitan Museum of Arts. I hope my ideas make you want to grab your camera. I’ll end this article here as my right index is itching once again to press the shutter.

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.

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!