Wintry Japan: February 2018 (Part 7-Kyoto)

In my last posts from Japan, we had spent several bitter but productive days in Hokkaido shooting sea eagles, Japanese cranes and whooper swans, as well as dreamy, snow-covered landscapes.  In Hokkaido, I sprained my ankle, which was now a dusky purple and a real impediment to maneuvering around in snow.  I had also developed a whoop all my own, a cough so consuming my chest ached as though a whole team of interns had practiced CPR on me.  I have intentionally neglected up to now to mention that whooper is actually pronounced hooper, lest my coughing word play fall flat.  Just when I thought things couldn’t get worse, the worst was actually yet to come…

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

We were up at 5 am to be packed and ready for departure at 6 am. Stooping over, peering at the hot water dispenser on a low Japanese table, trying to figure out which chicken-scratch Japanese script button to press, I coughed at just the wrong moment, sending my lower back into instantaneous and agonizing spasm. Which made packing a suitcase on the floor just that much easier. This was the nadir of my physical misery on this trip.  Luckily, this was a travel day and not a shooting day.  All I had to do was propel myself in and out of the van, and onto a plane, which I managed, albeit slooowly.

After flying to Tokyo Haneda, there was a long walk to the gate for our flight to Kyoto (Kansai). Short moving sidewalk sections were positioned every other gate or so.  I caught a ride for the last few gates from a motorized cart. Steve had gone ahead with my tote bag, in which was my boarding pass with the flight number and gate information. I managed to communicate in Japanese to the cart driver that I was going to Kansai, gate 68. The cart moved so slowly it was only marginally faster than me at hobbling speed. I was tickled by the tinkling music of the vehicle and the choice of tune, especially in light of our train shoot bust of the prior day.  Imagine a Japanese rice cooker singing “I’ve been working on the railroad, all the live-long day” and you have the picture.

When the cart neared the final turnoff, Greg flagged me down from a sushi restaurant. Thanking the driver, I said “Asoko ni, tomodachi ga imasu.”  (My friend is over there.)  The sushi was remarkably good, and cheap (about $12 US)!

Taking advantage of my temporarily handicapped status, I limped up at the pre-boarding call, completely forgetting I had Steve’s boarding pass.  Greg zoomed up behind me in the aisle of the plane, saying Steve was stuck at the gate without it. I looked back at the distance I had just traversed, which, with a heavy photo backpack, a back trying to spasm again and a sprained ankle, now looked like a formidable length.

Instead of swimming upstream and having to make two more, slow, interminable traverses, I elected to proceed into the plane, where I succeeded in communicating to one of the stewardesses what the situation was:

“Shuujin no chiketto o motto imasu.”  Which means, “I have my husband’s ticket.”  And after a meaningful glance down towards my foot and a head bob in the direction of the boarding gate, she understood, grabbed the boarding pass and took off toward the gate, saving me from an agonizingly slow upstream struggle.  When Steve’s silver head appeared eventually at the entrance to the plane, I knew I had succeeded in making myself understood.

In Kyoto, we installed ourselves at Rinn Shichijo Ohashi, our lodging for the next 2 nights.  Thankfully, a good night’s sleep unknotted my back, but I was grateful to revert back to my new limping and coughing baseline.

Back in Kyoto and the Kamo-gawa River.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Walking the dog in the Arashiyama bamboo forest in western Kyoto

We bundled into the van at 6 am in the cold dark, heading east to Arashiyama and the bamboo forest.  This was the first time we had ever been there early enough to avoid the normal constant stream of humanity. At that hour, it was easy to set up tripods and shoot, with and without people.  Surprisingly, Karen had a run-in with a female photography guide who tried to claim the public space for her exclusive use, but Karen stood up to her.

Karen had to take a stand when another photographer/guide tried to stack a claim in this very public space, the Arashiyama bamboo forest.

A sublime space: Arashiyama bamboo forest, Kyoto

Towering bamboo in Arashiyama, Kyoto, Japan

Our next stop was to a temple complex we had visited before with Naomi in 2014, Daitoku-ji. Like Naomi, Susan suggested it as a crowd-avoiding selection.

A calm alternative to better known temples: Daitoku-ji Temple in Kyoto

There are multiple sub-temples within Daitoku-ji, some of which are open to the public.

There are multiple sub-temples, some of which are open to the public.  The sub-temple Steve and I visited (Daisen-In) did not allow photography.  The older monk there was a flirt.  When I commented that the garden was very pretty (Kono niwa wa, totemo kirei desu), he responded “Not as pretty as you!”

We were turned loose in Gion for lunch.  Steve, Greg and I made a slow beeline for our Gion go-to okinomiyaki standard,  Issen Yoshoku, which has only one item on the menu, their cheap and delicious version of the Japanese savory pancake, a classic for a reason.

Issen Yoshoku in Gion has only their version of okinomiyaki on the menu and an interesting collection of “folk art” for decor.

In Kyoto, Greg liked the okinomiyaki at Issen Yoshoku and found a nice new girlfriend.

Afterwards, we dawdled over coffee and pastries at nearby Kiln coffee shop, another favorite from a prior trip,  and made a reservation for dinner that night.  We had had enough of Susan ordering for us, not soliciting any input from the group as to their preferences or even quantity of food.

Despite flurries of snow , there was no avoiding crowds at our afternoon destination, the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji).  Susan backed into a parking space, leading to another typically unhelpful interaction that so endeared her to me.

Me, realizing my backpack was in the back of the rental van and that throwing open the door would make it collide with a tree branch and scratch it, to Susan:  “My backpack is in the back, but the van is too close to this tree to open the door.”

Susan: “Don’t open it.”

So, she left me no choice (unless I wanted to throw a hissy fit, which was tempting) but to climb back into the van, past 3 rows of seats to the back, manuevering carefully with my sprained ankle and newly un-spasmed back, to lean over the last row of seats to pick up my pack and tripod, risking re-activating my back spasm .  Was it so unreasonable to expect her to pull the vehicle up an entire foot to make removing the gear more ergonomic?

Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, gorgeous from any angle.

Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, gorgeous from any angle. Tripods aren’t allowed, but I was able to fudge a little, using it as monopod and a walking stick.

Steve, Greg and I decided to walk to dinner at Kiln (, where we had a delightfully civilized meal, including confit of gizzards and oyster mushrooms with preserved lemon for Greg and Kawachi duck for me.  This was a literal milestone for me, as the walk was about a mile and my ankle was improved enough to slowly walk that distance.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Fushimi Inari, a Shinto shrine and signature sight of Kyoto.

Our final morning in Kyoto was a sunrise shoot at Fushimi Inari, the Shinto shrine in southern Kyoto, known for a seemingly endless series of stepped brilliant orange torii gates which form a stately procession up a verdant hill.  Torii means gate, and signifies the transition from sacred to profane.  A few people were out, but it was a much calmer scene than on our one prior visit, with Naomi in 2014.

Greg stepped toward the light for this shot from Kyoto’s famous Shinto shrine, Fushimi Inari.

From there, we had hours in the van driving towards Tokyo, which Greg and I whiled away watching movies.

His first recommendation (“What? You haven’t seen this?!”) was The Killing of a Sacred Deer, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos of The Lobster fame.  In the opening scenes, a heart surgeon played by Colin Farrell, who also starred in The Lobster, is revealed to have an initially ambiguous relationship with a teenage boy, Martin, played by Barry Keoghan.  Martin gradually insinuates himself more and more into the life of the surgeon and into his seemingly perfect home life with his wife (Nicole Kidman) and two beautiful children (Raffey Cassidy and Sunny Suljic), in increasingly creepy fashion. The conflict is hinted at in the title, which derives from the Greek myth in which Agamemnon must sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia in order to appease Artemis’ wrath after he slays a deer in her sacred grove.

We started The Square, directed by Ruben Östlund, whose 2014 film Force Majeure I had loved at the Sedona Film Festival in 2015.  With Greg repeatedly dozing off, we broke off watching with an hour to go, thinking we could finish it the following day on the final drive to Tokyo.

We had one final overnight and shoot in store before heading home, that iconic volcanic cone, none other than Mount Fuji, or Fuji-san as it is known in Japan.  We had a nice preview the previous day, from the plane.  Fuji-san is a famously elusive subject, frequently wreathed in clouds. We had one shot at capturing it, coming up in my next and final post from this series from Japan-stay tuned!


Nice view of Fuji-san’s cloud-crowned cone, from the flight to Kyoto, courtesy of the Iphone.

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