Omikuji are fortunes written on strips of paper that visitors can buy at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. People can make a small donation and select a random fortune from a box. The omikuji contains a general fortune which varies between great luck and great curse. The fortune paper also includes fortunes regarding different aspects of life, such as business, travel, studies, romance and marriage. If the fortune is bad, it is customary to tie the paper to a tree in a shrine. The reason for this is that the bad luck will stay at the shrine instead of following the person. It’s a similar custom to writing a prayer on an ema with the exception that with ema people can specify what they wish from the future.
Prayer plaques at the Heian shrine (and a giveaway!)
First things first: I’m currently running a giveaway on Google+ and Instagram! A Japanese friend of mine sent me a few copies of his band’s new album “Adaptation”, so I decided to give them to someone who might like the music. Participating is simple and doesn’t require you to follow anyone if you don’t want to. The giveaway ends next Sunday, so if you’d like to get the album, go to Google+ or Instagram right now! The album is also available for listening on Spotify.
Here’s a music video for the song Ruri by Panic Soup:
The image above is one of the places at the Heian Shrine where people can hang small wooden blocks called “ema”. People can buy these wooden plaques from shinto shrines, and write their wishes on the plaque and leave it to the shrine in the hope that the gods will grant their wish. In the one in the image, a person wishes her mother good health.
There’s a short walk from the giant torii gate to the actual shrine. You enter the shrine through the main gate, called Ôtenmon, pictured above. The Heian shrine is a shinto shrine built in 1895 to commemorate the 1100th anniversary of Kyoto, and it was modeled after the old Kyoto Imperial Palace. In reality, many of the buildings have been rebuilt in the late 1970s after a fire ravaged the shrine, but that doesn’t make the shrine any less majestic.
In addition to the great torii gate which, being 24,2 meters tall, is one of the tallest in Japan, the Heian shrine is also known for its gardens. Having a tight schedule we decided to see them another time, but at hindsight we definitely should’ve visited the gardens as well. The entrance to the gardens costs 600 yen, but the entrance to the shrine itself is free and there’s plenty to see there too if you just want to admire the buildings. Even though I have been to the Heian shrine a couple of times, the size of it still blows my mind. I hope the following photos give you some idea of the size of the area.
The building on the corner in the photo above is called Sôryûrô (Blue dragon tower) and on the other side of the yard there is another one called Byakkorô (White tiger tower). The photo below shows a close-up of the Sôryûrô.
The morning after we returned from Sendai we left Tokyo again, this time for Kyoto. We managed to got up early enough to be on our way to Shinjuku and Tokyo Station at 8 a.m. We’d already developed a routine for the mornings, which made getting on the way faster. This time we bought the Shinkansen tickets from Shinjuku on our way to Tokyo, so all we had to do at Tokyo station was to find the right platform. Our train left at 10:30 we started our journey to Kyoto. The train was quite crowded, but we managed to find seats and less that three hours later we were standing at Kyoto station, wondering where we would spend the night.
After an unsuccessful attempt to get a woman in the tourism info to help us and calling a few hostels with no success we found our way to the service desk of the International Tourism Center of Japan (it used to be located in the ninth floor of the station, but has since been closed). A helpful woman working there organized us fairly cheap hotel rooms for the three nights we were planning. The only catch was that we had to switch to another hotel after the first night. Still, it was better than staying outside, especially since it was the typhoon season and it had rained like crazy the entire day.
We stayed the first night in a hotel called Alpha Kyoto on Sanjo Dôri. I was thinking of writing a short review of it, but found out some time ago that it has been shut down, so I guess there’s no point. It was a fairly nice place and we actually ended up staying there twice. Although we had thought that it would better not to reserve hotels in advance because we had a lot of people to meet in Japan and needed to keep our schedule flexible, at hindsight it was a stupid thing to do and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who wants to enjoy their holiday. The only positive thing was that the weather was so bad that we wouldn’t probably have done much sightseeing on the first day anyway.
Anyway, here’s a few photos from our room. The opening image of this post is a view from the room across Aneyakoji dôri.
You can see the hotel on Google Street View below (the building with 7 Eleven):
New year, new tricks
We’re already well into 2015 and I’m ashamed to notice that I’ve let this blog and my other social media endeavors wither as I’ve become busy with all kinds of work and photography-related things. That is about to change, however. As an unofficial new year’s resolution I’ve decided to post more images this year and also resuscitate my Tumblr and Facebook accounts.
I’ve had big plans for this website and my photography for a long time, but never really got around to implementing any of them. So this might as well be the year to do that. As a first thing, I’ve added links to the sidebar to my images that are available for licensing on Getty Images and Alamy.
If you’re on Instagram, you can go to my account to see some travel photos that don’t end up in this blog. That’s also the place where I’m currently the most active and where I post new photos first, so if you want to see what I’m up to, follow me there. Even you don’t have an Instagram account, you can go to the Instagram page on this website to see the latest images.
The photo above is from the shinkansen (bullet train) platform at Tokyo station. I took this a few years ago when I was traveling around Japan. We were heading to Kyoto but had to wait for the staff to clean the train before we were allowed to board the train.
Nikka’s Miyagikyo Distillery
Nikka distilleries were established by a man called Masataka Taketsuru, who established the company’s first distillery in Yoichi in Hokkaido in 1934. The Miyagikyo distillery in Sendai was established in 1969. Interestingly, before launching his own company, Taketsuru helped to establish Japan’s first distillery for the company that would become Suntory. There’s a short history on Nikka’s website if you want to read more.
The factory area was huge and we had to walk quite a while after the first gate until we arrived to the tourist area. The first stop was the distillery’s souvenir shop. I thought it resembled a retirement home, except that it was much more fun. The shop and its surroundings were crowded by old men and women, and judging by the way many of the old boys wobbled around, they had already had a taste of the local produce. Although there were a few visitors who weren’t quite that old, we were without a doubt the youngest people there.
The next tour was just about to start when we got to the information counter so we signed up and joined our group. The tour lasted about 30 minutes. It started with a presentation about the history of the distillery and then our guide took us around the distillery and explained the process of making whiskey.
After the tour we finally got to the good part – tasting Nikka’s products. During the tasting two Japanese men from our group, an older gentleman and a guy in his 40s, suddenly started a conversation with us. The younger man declared that he loves alcohol – and he probably did, because he told us that was going to visit a sake brewery the next day. After finishing our drinks we went back to the shop to buy something for the folks back home. In the shop, we were pleasantly surprised to see a bottle of 21 year-old Taketsuru waiting for us at the entrance! In 2009, the Whisky Magazine ranked the 21 old Taketsuru the best blended malt whiskey in the world, and it is manufactured right there at Miyagikyô distillery. it wasn’t a cheap bottle, but being one of the finest whiskey’s I’ve ever tasted, it was worth the price. And actually, compared to the price in Europe, it was quite a bargain.
After the shopping spree, we headed back to the station with our new family member and it just happened that the train back to Sendai arrived to the station as we entered the platform. We had thought of visiting Matsushima and the famous islands in the area, so we took a train from Sendai station to Hon-Shiogama, but it turned out that we had missed the last boat ride. Since we’d traveled all the way to Hon-Shiogama, we had dinner there and then headed back to Sendai. Matsushima would’ve probably been beautiful, but after spending such a wonderful day with whiskey, missing Matsushima didn’t feel that bad. After a light dinner we returned to Sendai once more and took the bullet train back to Tokyo.
And if anyone’s counting, with the fourth day over, we’ve traveled 885,5 kilometers by train.
We finally arrived in Sakunami a little past noon. Although the distance between Ayashi and Sakunami is only about 13 kilometers, it still took about 20 minutes to get there. When we stopped at Ayashi, I thought it was a quiet little station, but compared to Sakunami it was actually quite busy. Sakunami station was mostly surrounded by fields and forest, and there were hardly any passengers, although there was a taxi waiting for customers in front of the station. It seems that there is a hot spring resort with quite a few hotels and spas in Sakunami, but not having done our homework we had no idea of what the area had to offer.
We had to ask the station staff for directions to our destination, Nikka’s distillery, and while they seemed a little amused to find out where we were going, they were very helpful. A station employee actually ran to the nearest bus stop to check the schedule for us. Because we would’ve had to wait for 30 minutes for the next bus, we decided that we might as well walk because it was only two kilometers to the factory.
While I was talking with the station staff, my sister found out the terrifying secret of the Japanese countryside: there are MONSTERS everywhere! There was a butterfly the size of my palm resting on a phone booth next to the station building, and unfortunately this freak of nature wasn’t an exception in the local fauna. The brushes were bustling with all kinds of bugs from huge spiders to different kinds of beetles. While we were walking to the distillery, we also noticed that there were a lot of hornets about 2 inches long flying around and a lot of dead ones on the roadside. (I read later that they are common in the mountainous areas of Japan.) I was also later told that they cause more deaths in Japan than all the other wildlife combined. Strangely, I had never encountered wasps or other bugs of this size before, even though I have been camping in the countryside and the mountains in Southern Japan.
Here’s a few photos from Sakunami Highway that leads to the distillery:
See this photo on Flickr
The mountain above is called Kamakurayama. I read later that it is possible to go hiking there from the hot springs, so it’s a shame we missed that opportunity.
The distillery is just around the corner in the image above. Despite all the bugs it was a pleasant 20-minute walk to the distillery and although we spent a good amount of time goofing around and taking photos of the insects and other stuff, we managed to get there well before the bus. If you want to see the route to the distillery yourself, check the map with the street view below (turn left on the highway and head towards the big mountain):
Day 4 – Ayashi
After the dance performance, we hopped on a train that would take us to our next destination, Nikka’s whisky distillery in Sakunami! Actually the first train took us only half way there, to a small town called Ayashi, where we had to wait for another half an hour for a train to Sakunami.
Ayashi seemed like a really nice little town and it was actually a pity that we didn’t have more time to explore it. According to Wikipedia, Ayashi station was built in 1929, but it had its moment of glory in December 2001 when princess Aiko was born. Because the name of the station and the princess’ name are written with the same kanji characters, people rushed to buy platform tickets from the station to commemorate the event. In December 2001 approximately 84,000 tickets were sold at the station, when during the previous six months just over a hundred tickets had been sold. We didn’t know anything about it when we stopped there, of course.
While we where there, my sister and his boyfriend went to find some snacks from a convenience store, but I chose to stay near the station and took a few photos. I had foolishly worn a new pair of shoes during the first couple of days of our trip and my feet were already hurting from all the walking. Well, that was a lesson learned.
Although we didn’t have much time to explore Ayashi, there was one landmark that was visible all the way to the station. In the distant hills, there was a massive high-rise that really caught my attention. Apparently the building is called Nishikigaoka Central Heights. You can see it below on Google Maps – click the yellow man if the street view doesn’t open automatically.
View Ayashi in a larger map
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.
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.
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.