30.9.2009 – Sendai at night

After resting for a while, we decided to hit the town. We had planned to find a restaurant that serves a local specialty, cow tongue, but decided that cows need their tongues more than we do. Instead, we walked around in department stores, of which there are plenty around the train station, bought a sushi set, some rice balls, beer and a couple of cans of chuuhai from a convenience store. The good thing about being in a foreign culture is that you don’t have to go after the weirdest thing to be surprised – if you’re in Japan for the first time, you can find plenty of interesting things to taste in a convenience store. We then found a small park near the East exit of the train station and had dinner there while watching people walk by. We didn’t spend too much time downtown, but we took a short walk around the city and took some photos before heading back to the hostel.

Sendai Station East Exit

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Sendai Station West Exit

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Taxis at Sendai Station

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Ekimae dôri street passing by the station

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On our way back to the hostel we stopped at another convenience store and got some late night snacks and a few drinks. Back at the hostel we had a quick shower and assembled to one of our rooms to check the photos from the day and to plan the next day. Even though the hostel was generally nice, there’s one more thing worth mentioning about Japanese hostels: the walls are often paper-thin. That particular night there was a group of three guys staying in the hostel and one of them was snoring really loudly. It’s not extraordinary that you can hear sounds from the neighboring rooms, but this guy was a couple of rooms away from us. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for his two friends.

For those of you who are interested in numbers, we traveled about 450 kilometers on our first day on the road (or tracks). I’ll try to keep track of the distances and the cost of tickets for those who want to know how far you have to go with the Japan Rail Pass until it pays itself back.

Here’s a short video of the first day. Sorry for the terrible image quality, the video wasn’t shot with a state-of-the-art equipment. The song is by a Japanese band called STAn.

Ryokan Chitoseya

Since we hadn’t booked a hostel in advance, we had to settle for what was available when we got there. The nice people at the tourist counter managed to arrange us a room at a traditional hostel called Ryokan Chitoseya (also called Chitose Youth Hostel).

Chitoseya isn’t located too far from the station – it takes about 20 minutes by walking to get there. Currently a single room costs 5,460 yen and a twin room 4,935 yen. If you’re on a budget and don’t mind sharing a room with strangers, they also offer a dormitory option. A traditional Japanese breakfast costs an extra 1,000. When we stayed there, the three of us got one single room and one twin room and the shared cost was 3850/person, not including breakfast. If you haven’t had a Japanese style breakfast before and/or if you plan to do a lot of walking, it the breakfast is definitely worth the price because it will take you a long way. The breakfast included cooked rice, miso soup, pickled vegetables, egg, salad, a potato croquette, spinach, and green tea among other things.

Like most Ryokan, the rooms at Chitose are traditional Japanese rooms with tatami mats, so you’ll be sleeping on the floor. The only furniture in rooms is a table and a TV and the rooms don’t have en suite bathrooms, so you have to use the toilet in the hallway. When we stayed there, you could take a bath at certain times in the morning and evening, but according to the FAQ on their website you can now bathe anytime you want. The hotel does not have a wi-fi, but there is a (old) coin-operated computer for browsing in the lobby. The hostel also has coin-operated washing machines. One thing worth mentioning is that the owners were very friendly and helpful and seemed genuinely interested in us.

Ryokan Chitoseya

Our room at Chitoseya

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A view to the garden from the window

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Ryokan Chitoseya

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Although Chitoseya is very affordable, it’s probably not the cheapest option, especially if you’re traveling alone. Sendai has a lot of Western-style hotels that offer cheaper rooms with better facilities in rooms, but if you want to stay in a more traditional hostel and experience Japanese hospitality, it’s definitely worth a visit.

Tomorrow everything will be better

Tomorrow everything will be better

I’m still working on bringing my old travel blog over to the new site, but I’ve also been working on some old images. This one was taken in Sendai and I intended to process it as a “realistic” travel image until I realized that there was a person in this image. I can’t believe that it took me four years to notice that little detail, but that changed the way I saw this image entirely and I decided took make it dark and moody. Once I’d decided to ditch realism, I went ahead and removed a utility pole that I didn’t like and applied split toning to give the image the look that I wanted.

I also decided to give the site yet another facelift. It wasn’t too long ago that I changed the theme and restructured the site, but I found that the theme I was using didn’t met neither my needs nor my expectations. It was a pain to update and customize so when I had a chance to try the current theme from Graph Paper Press, I didn’t think twice about switching it. I really like the new simple look, and thanks to the responsive design, now the site looks great even on mobile devices! And there’s more! I’ve also added a new page that displays my latest Instagram images – you can access it from the left sidebar menu. Hope you like the changes.

Photographing traditional Japanese martial arts

Jidai Matsuri

A few weeks ago a friend of mine asked me to photograph a Suiō-ryū Iai Kenpō seminar here in Jyväskylä. Suiō-ryū Iai Kenpō is a style of classical Japanese swordsmanship, and what made this seminar special was that the sōke, or grand master, of Suio-ryu participated in it with a number of other teachers from Japan. Needless to say, I was a bit nervous when I went there because I’ve never photographed events like this before and also because asked to take a portrait of the current sōke Katsuse Yoshimitsu Kagehiro during the day.

It was an interesting day in many ways and a great opportunity to spend a day with inspiring teachers and enthusiastic students. In case you’re wondering, the above photo is not related to Suio-ryu in any way. It’s a shot from the Jidai Matsuri festival in Kyoto, taken in 2010. If you want to see photos from the actual seminar, there’s a few at the website of the Finnish branch of Suio Suiō-ryū.

The portrait of Katsuse Yoshimitsu Kagehiro that I made is also on the website.

By the way, if you want to stay up to date on my posts in various social networks, follow me on Twitter or Facebook. I use them as outlets for additional and exclusive stuff that doesn’t make it to this blog.

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30.9.2009 – Day 3, part 1: Tokyo-Sendai

On the third day our plan was simply to get ourselves to Sendai. We’d planned to get up early, but that didn’t happen because of jet lag and we ended up leaving to the station at noon. We stopped by a convenience store on the way to the station to get breakfast and umbrellas because it was still raining.

We took a train to Shinjuku and from there to Ômiya. As when we came to Chôfu, the Keiô line was packed but it wasn’t so bad because we had only small bags with us. We got to Ômiya at 2 pm and reserved seats to the 2:22 bullet train to Sendai. I’m not sure if taking the bullet train from Ômiya instead of Tokyo station saved us any time, but it was kind of fun to go there anyway.

Waiting for the bullet train at Ômiya station

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Once we’d settled on our seats, we ate the rice balls and other snacks we’d bought earlier and had some coffee. The speed and comfort of the bullet trains never cease to amaze me. We reached Sendai at 15.37, so the 321 kilometre trip took only about an hour and 15 minutes.

Breakfast on the bullet train

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A view from the Tohoku line bullet train

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Because our group doesn’t seem to be familiar with the concepts of planning and preparation, we hadn’t booked a hostel in Sendai. After arriving to the station, we located the tourist information booth and they kindly got us rooms at a youth hostel called Chitose Youth Hostel or Ryokan Chitoseya, which was about 20 minutes walk away from the station. We could’ve taken a bus but we decided to walk so that we could see the city. The walk was actually quite pleasant because the weather was cooler and less humid than in Tokyo. Walking turned out to be a good choice because on our way to the hostel we bumped into the woman who owns the place.

29.9.2009 – Day 2, part 2: Tokyo

Luckily our friend called us soon afterwards and told us that he’d managed to take care of whatever business he had and that we could head to his apartment in Chôfu. We had some lunch in a MOS Burger near the station while waiting for my friend, handed him some souvenir chocolates, cleaned up and headed to Akihabara to meet Kazuo, a friend of mine from the time I when I was studying in Japan.

We met Kazuo and his sister at the Electric Town Exit of Akihabara station. Somehow he still recognized me even though my hair is shorter and my glasses are far less conspicuous. Then again, there weren’t other foreigners around, at least ones looking as lost as we did. We had a cup of coffee near the station and went walking around Akihabara to find me a new electronic dictionary. After I’d got my new toy, we decided to see Tokyo Tower.

Tokyo Tower

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Tokyo Tower is a 333 tall communications and observation tower located on the Minato ward of Tokyo. The tower has two observation decks, one at 145 meters and another at 250 meters. Designer Tachû Naitô based the design on the Eiffel tower in Paris, but made Tokyo Tower 13 meters taller because, according to the president of the company owning the tower, it would be meaningless if the tower wouldn’t exceed the height of the Eiffer Tower. The tower was built in 1958 and has now been replaced by a new taller tower called Tokyo Sky Tree.

The ticket to the tower costs 820 and allows access to the main observatory located at 145 meters. At the second floor of the main observatory there’s a shinto shrine, where I offered my 10 yen to guarantee us a safe journey. The tickets to the upper observatory cost 600 yen, which we thought was a bit pricy, but Kazuo kindly offered to pay them. I probably don’t have to tell you that the night view of Tokyo from 250 meter was breathtaking – especially if you’re afraid of heights like I am. Unfortunately we only had an old compact camera with us (I forgot mine at my friend’s place), so these photos don’t do the view justice.
A View From Tokyo Tower

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On the way down we saw a genuine teen idol on the main observation deck! Ayaka Umeda from AKB48 was hosting a radio show there. She seemed to have a lot of interesting things to say. We learned that she likes ice cream and that the Back Street Boys song she played earlier reminded her of her teen years. It’s good to hear that she hadn’t forgotten – she was already 20, after all. Actually none of us would’ve even known who the girl was unless we happened to come by just as she was introduced and honestly, most of the other people present seemed to be more interested in view and the small windows on the floor, through which you could see the street below the observatory. She wasn’t bad on the radio though, and she actually sounded really natural although the show seemed to be scripted. It seems that she was the Tokyo Tower girl 2009, which is why she participated in various events there.

We had made plans to eat dinner with our host so we said farewell left our Japanese friends and headed to Chôfu. Our Finnish host took us to a small restaurant that served not all kinds of Japanese and Korean dishes and surprisingly they also had pasta on the menu. I opted for a bowl of soy sauce ramen that I had waited for a long time!

29.9.2009 – Day 2, part 1: Are we in Tokyo?

We landed at Narita airport at 6:50 am. It was raining, just as we thought when we left Finland, but despite the rain the weather was really warm. As we got out of the plane, we were greeted by the warm air that felt pleasent after the long flight. I still remember how strange that warm rush of air felt the first time I landed in Japan, and it has made me feel like home ever since. The nostalgia didn’t last long though, because within 5 minutes I was sweating like a pig, and I was only carrying my hand luggage at the time. We hurried to the passport inspection and got into the queue. While we were waiting for our turn, the lady from the back seat asked someone (maybe herself) the important question: “Are we in Tokyo?”

I had imagined that getting our fingerprints and taking our photos would take a while but it happened really fast. However, the clerk thought it odd that I didn’t know the address of the place where we were supposed to stay in Tokyo and held me at the inspection counter. Luckily he finally let me go when I gave him my friend’s phone number and told him that my friend will be waiting for us at the airport. As expected, the others got through without being asked anything. I should’ve known better, ofcourse, and keep all the necessary addresses and phone numbers at hand.

After we got our luggage and passed the customs, we picked up our rental cell phones from the Softbank counter at the arrival lobby and trodded to the nearest bench to rest. It was so warm and humid that even walking around the airport for a while with our luggage seemed like a huge effort. After setting our gear to the benches, we bought some beverages – water Kirin Ichiban beer C.C. Lemon soda. C.C. lemon must be one of the best sodas ever! If you don’t believe me, watch this commercial:

[youtubehq]18c3tyIkWmM[/youtubehq]

While we were figuring out what to do next, we gave my friend a call to check if he’s homeso we could drop off our luggage. It turned out that there had been a misunderstanding and he wasn’t even expecting us. Instead, he thought we’d head straight to Sendai from the airport and told us he wouldn’t be home until the evening. We thought that the best thing we could do was to go to Tokyo station, leave our luggage to a coin locker and kill time until 2 pm, when we were supposed to meet another friend of mine. We quickly exchanged our pre-purchased vouchers for the Japan Rail Passes at a JR ticket counter and reserved seats on the Narita Express train that would take us to Tokyo. It took an hour to get from Narita to Tokyo. I was excited to look at the scenery and tried to locate familiar places.

Apartment buildings on a train line from Narita to Tokyo
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We arrived at Tokyo at about 10:15 and located the lockers – which weren’t much use to us because my suitcase was too large to fit in even the biggest one! Now this was an unpleasent turn of events. The idea of dragging the suitcase with me in Tokyo or even around the crowded Tokyo station didn’t seem amusing at all…

28.9.2009 – Day 1, part 2: Paris – Tokyo

We had a two-hour layover at Charles de Gaulle Airport meaning we just had time to move to another terminal, pass the security check and do some souvenir shopping before boarding the flight. One thing that I find really annoying about this airport is that in addition to checking my laptop, they made me unpack all my camera gear on the conveyor belt, including all my lenses. This hasn’t happened to me anywhere else, but it seems to be normal procedure in France. I wonder if there are other airports that are as strict?

An airport bus in Paris

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We got to board the plane 20 minutes late, because they were cleaning up the cabin, or at least that’s what we were told. As expected, most of the passengers were Japanese, and as they often do when they have spare time, most of them dozed off as soon as they got to their seats. A Japanese woman sitting next to me fastened her seatbelt, opened her French novel and went into coma before the plane even started moving. She actually slept through the take-off. For me the take-off was like the opening scene in Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety and I would’ve rather skipped it. I wouldn’t mind flying if I could skip the take-offs and landings, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

Teriyaki chicken on an airplane

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All in all the flight was extremely boring – partly because I was so anxious to get to Tokyo, and partly because the entertainment system kept crashing. The system didn’t allow rewinding or fast forwarding the movies so I would have to start watching the movie again from the beginning after every crash. Eventually I gave up watching The Hangover and watched some stuff I’d loaded on my Creative Zen. Our flight attendant was also very entertaining, because he stubbornly spoke to me in French although he knew that I couldn’t understand a word. The most exciting part of the flight was when the Japanese lady next to me tried to get something from the overhead luggage compartment and dropped a pair of crutches on an old man sitting behind me. It turned out that she was very good at apologizing in French.

After the sun set, I slept for about an hour and then just watched some TV until the morning. When we started approaching Japan I got a bit nervous; not because of we were about to land, but because this was my first time to Japan for seven years and I didn’t know if I would still be as thrilled about Japan as I was when I first lived their or if I would find it disappointing after having so much expectations.

Almost there. Photo by Teacher.

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28.9.2009 – Day 1, part 1: Helsinki – Paris

We woke up at 4:15 am and after a couple of cups of coffee and final packing manouvers we left to the airport at 5:30. It was raining and the weather was freezing in Helsinki, so leaving to Japan for three weeks was feeling like a better idea all the time. We were pretty sure that with our luck it would be raining in Japan too, but we thought that at least it would probably be warmer there. The check-in and security control went smoothly and when we were finally waiting to board the plane, it started to sink in that in less than 24 hours I’d be back in Japan.

Airplanes at Helsinki airport

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The first leg of our trip was a flight from from Helsinki to Paris. We chose to fly Air France, because it was the cheapest option and we could use the money we saved to buy 21-day Rail Pass that allowed us to use most trains operated by the Japan Railways Group, including the bullet trains. The breakfast served at the flight to Paris was supposed to be ratatouille and spinach omelette, and it wasn’t too bad. I was so hungry anyway that I would’ve eaten whatever they served. The nice thing about the flight was that they also served red wine, which made the flight and the morning much more enjoyable.

Breakfast in the airplane

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Lack of sleep and the red wine did the trick and I spent the rest of the flight half asleep.

Airplanes at Charles de Gaulle airport, Paris

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27.9.2009 – Day 0: Helsinki

I originally created this site as a travel blog when I visited Japan in 2009. This site has since gone throuh a number of changes and it’s now more of a photography site than a travel blog. I wanted to keep the original travel entries here, however, because personally I like to read this kind of travel descriptions.

During this trip to Japan, my first in seven years, I traveled from Tokyo to Kyūshū and a number of places in between, accompanied with my sister and her boyfriend. This was also when I started taking photography seriously after dabling with it a couple of years.

We left Jyväskylä to Helsinki a day before our flight so that we could stay overnight at my friend’s place and get to the airport early in the morning.

Ready to go - destination Tokyo

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I had been packing frantically the whole night and spent the first leg of the trip in a coma on the backseat. I woke up when it was time to eat our breakfast/lunch, which meant a couple of cups of coffee and a Japan-themed cake made by the others. The main ingredients of the cake were cream candies, chocolate and brandy – plenty of them. It tasted like a kiss from a chocolate-loving rummie, but it did the trick and woke me up.

Japan Cake

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After arriving at my friend’s place we left our luggage there, had dinner at the local Chinese restaurant, walked around for a while and bought some breakfast. We had to be at the airport at 6:50 in the morning, so we spent the rest of the evening watching TV and went to bed early.