Thursday, August 30, 2012

Hot Springs and Mountain Towns

Yesterday I had the great cultural opportunity to go enjoy one of Japan's hot springs. Hot springs are a big deal here.  It is something everyone in Japan is familiar with.  If you are a fan of Japanese cartoons and or Japanese games you may already know quite a bit about hot springs.  But for the rest of you I'll try to explain what this boiling mountain water is all about.  Fist off here is the story. There is a mega grocery store here in my little city of Ogaki that was getting a group of people together to rent a bus for a bus tour of some mountain touristy hot spots. The all inclusive price for the bus, tour, hot springs, lunch buffet, and city tour of Takayama was only $60, so I jumped on. I had been to Takayama the first year I was in Japan, and going back there sounded great with a camera.  Also I had never been to a hot spring before and i knew that $60 was a steal.  Got up bright and early Wednesday morning at 5 am and got on the bus.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that there were many extra places along the way that we would would be stopping for suvaneers, and Sake tasting at small mountain breweries.  I'm a big fan of rice wine so free sake was a fun surprise.
The hot spring we were going to was a part of a very nice hotel which is where the all you can eat buffet was.  I stuffed myself sick on shrimp, chicken, miso soup, and a lot of other Japanese food. 
So getting back to the fact that hot springs in Japan are a big deal.  I found out that people come to hot springs for reasons ranging from relaxing, simple bathing, and receiving some health benefit from the minerals in the water.  I learned that the hot springs we were visiting were good for your skin.  Now unlike hot springs in the U.S. here you have to strip down totally naked.  Since nakedness is a foreign idea for westerners it is uncommon to see them at hot springs at all.  Because of this obviously i wasn't allowed to bring my camera but I found some photos online that give a pretty good  feel for what hot springs are like.  Also this may seem a strange concept but going to the hot springs is a very social thing. (hence the bus FULL of people)
People hang out, bathe, and relax in the 100+ F temp waters. So when in the hot springs you do have a towel but it is only for drying off.  you should rinse off in soap and water before getting in the hot waters.  sometimes in Photos or cartoons you see people wearing their towel in the water.  That is only to suit western viewers who have an issue with naked people.  I don't know if you would be thrown out of the establishment if you wore your towel, but it wouldn't surprise me if it would happen.  Keeping the water clean is a big deal. Now of course it is summer here and I could only bear the water for about 30 min.  But these places are open year round and extremely popular in the winter. In fact if you google Onsen (the Japanese word for hot spring) you will mostly find marketing adds for winter.
After finishing the hot springs we jumped back on the bus and rode up to Takayama.  Takayama is amazing because it is a really old city with tradition architecture like something out of samurai movie . I was thrilled to shoot here again.  Unfortunately I was only giving 2 hours to roam and shoot so i chose to shoot totally digital since I don't know if I'll ever go back here at all. It is a lovely city and I had fun filling up my memory card with RAW files.  If any of you ever have the opportunity, go to Takayama.  I would love to shoot here at night.  It is really a fantastic town.  Walking up and down the streets you almost feel like you are apart of a different time. When I get back to the USA I'll possess my photos.  So keep an eye on my Flickr account around October to see them pop up.
Me watching a movie on the bus

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Test Shots Photo Shoot

So yesterday I had a great time shooting with my model for the hour, Shin.  I found this great location behind a department store and i thought to myself "This would look really cool as the sun goes down, and would be a great place to learn how to use my mono light by playing around with it." This guy cuts my hair while i'm here in Japan.  His passion is street fashion that is unique to Japan so i found it fitting to ask him to pose here in the element that his clothing fits.  Really there wasn't any point to this shoot apart from trying to figure out this new expensive piece of equipment that i bought.  For all geeks and photogs out there I'll go over some of the challenges. Fist off, this obviously is a digital photo which i shot RAW, but my main format and camera choice was film. I was using the digital basically as a light meter since i don't own a fancy light meter. Basically I wanted to underexpose the background to create contrast and really show the mood of the place. The biggest challenge was the film camera i intended to use flash sync was a max of 1/30 second. (really slow) If you haven't used a flash before basically shutter speed controls how much ambient light enters the camera.  At 1/30, a lot of light is being let in, so i had to wait until the sun was setting which meant i had 15min to shoot in that light. Because the shutter speed is so slow I couldn't get as shallow depth of field as i would have liked. I would have liked to have shot at f5.6 to make the background a little less detailed, but the slow flash sync forced me to shoot at f22-f16. Also I'm new to using a studio flash so I was just moving the mono light around until i found the position i liked.  not familiar at all with lighting arrangements.  This is also why I used the my digital Nikon to see what the image would look like. 
The digital Images aren't great but that is becasue i didn't proses them yet.  they are still how the RAW files looked out of the camera.  They look pretty good which gives me hope for the negatives i shot to look amazing out of the lab.

Also I learned while i was shooting this that working with someone that doesn't speak your languages is a challenge.  I didn't take into account that every time i was around him before i had a translator with me.  She was working during the shoot.  Also I should familiarize myself a little bit more with good poses becasue I wasn't really sure how i wanted him to look after i got set up.  I didn't want it to look too much like a senior photo or a fashion shoot so i thought the poses i kind of showed him through charades would be ones you might see someone be in if he were just bumming around the place.

Well that is that.  I definitely need more practice and become more familiar with the methods i need and the tools i am using, but that is exactly what this shoot is about.  I didn't know what i needed to know before and now i do.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

What I'm Up To Part 2

Here we go again. Time for me to slow down and write an update about what I've been up to. I've been doing a lot of moving around.   Been exploring the Japanese nature for the first time and it is a blast. If you don't mind eyes full of sweat and a hike constantly uphill with a backpack with 40 lbs + of camera gear, it is the best time ever. Japanese mountains are beautiful. At dawn and dusk they are white mist clouds cling to the tree tops.  When it rains the mountainside becomes a cascading slide, as water drains down to the cities below.  Trails are many times hundreds of years old and have the sweet treat of finding some sort of old building or structure that use to be where some lord use to live, or had some sort of importance in an ancient war.  It is a landscape photography playground, and i was playing on it. 
I arrived to the first mountain in Kaizu-shi and the sun was quickly setting. I wanted to get to the top and shoot the mountainside in twilight. I was glad to see there was a fast option of getting to the top.  Instead of taking a long winding path up the mountain that would take a long time and would cause me to miss my chance at getting the shots i wanted, there was an old stone stairway going strait to the top. There was an old man exiting the steps and i thought to myself, "he came down pretty fast. This is the way to the top, and i'll have a little extra time to set up."  The person who was with me decided to take the long winding path and i soon found out why. The top of the steps were about 200ft up and this was a steep climb. Each step was almost knee high, and i had the 40 + lbs bad on my back.  I've been doing a lot of walking the past month so i feel this won't be a problem.  I crack on and up the steps i go.  I'm racing the sun, and ignoring the burn in my legs, and the sweat in my eyes. About 1/4 of the way up I turn and look down and see my friend is gone and the old man sitting at the bottom.  Still feeling good I continue on. About half way up the steps I begin to slowdown and take a breathing break. I turn around once again and HOLD ON, THE OLD MAN IS ON MY HEELS. I start up that stares again and it isn't long and he passes me.  There wasn't any turning back now, I was half way up and that old guy passed me. I get 3/4 of the way up and I'm really beginning to  regret taking the steps. I look up and see the old man on his way back down the steps. I'm justifying in my head  that taking the steps was a good idea becasue it is going to be worth getting to the top before the sun sets and with extra time. I continue, now using my hand on the steps in front of me. This last 1/4 of the climb took a while.  my legs were shaky, sweat was in my eyes, and i was thinking "how am i going to walk down after this?" I reach the top and guess who is on my heels again. WHAT THE HECK OLD MAN? ARE YOU EVEN HUMAN? Now that i'm at the top i find a place to put my backpack down and start setting up my large format camera.  Did taking the steps save me time? Not really.  Like 60 seconds later here comes my Japanese friend.  Well we both beat the sun and i did have an extra min to set up.  If nothing else it was cool walking up very old steps that maybe a lord and samurai once walked.  I took my shots of the mountainside and big clouds that had formed at twilight on 4x5 Velvia 50 slide film. I'm very excited to get them developed to see how they turned out.
When you go to the mountains it is a good idea to bring dinner with you.  That is exactly what this photo above is. This is a Japanese style lunch box called BENTO. Our bento has chicken with two kinds of sauces; honey, and miso, egg roll type things, pumpkin with sesame seeds, cabbage, mini omelet,  and cherry tomatoes.  The triangle shaped things in the top of the photo are rice wrapped in seaweed, called onigiri. It doesn't look like much but on a hot hike like that day it is all we needed and was quite filling.
Soon the sun went totally behind the mountains and the city lights came out. Right now in Japan is festival time and the music and drums from the city below could be heard warmly on top of the mountain. We were just about to make our way down from the mountain when a firework show began, a few cities away. We watched the fireworks for a while before the bugs came out and decided we were dinner. When I got back to the car I couldn't stop my legs from shaking.
A different day went back into the mountains but this time instead of climbing them we walked down to the base and explored the rivers. This was a rainy day which was great becasue it cooled everything down to a comfortable 80F. I forgot to put my SD card back into my camera so i don't have any digital photos to show you.  The river is a great place for camping and we did see some people with tents on the rocks along the river and cooking fish they had caught.   It is an awesome view.  Everything is up from the river.  mountains and trees are all the eye can see.  The sounds of rain in the trees, water turning over the river rocks, and evening cicadas humming out their song.  The river has a blue color to it.  I guessing from minerals in the mountain, carried down by the rains.
Last week was a holiday week in Japan called Obon. Obon is a Buddhist event focusing on dead ancestors. Most Japanese celebrate it weather Buddhist or not. It is a time when a person puts flowers and cleans the family grave.  Spirits of dead family members are believed to return to the family alter for a visit at this time. I don't know too much about this but it isn't a morning time.  It is more like a reunion and many Japanese use this time to visit living family as well. People also have fun at a festival during this time and dance a traditional dance called "Bon-Odori." This has been a practice in Japan for over 500 years.

COPIED FROM WIKIPEDIA: "Bon Odori originates from the story of Maha Maudgalyayana (Mokuren), a disciple of the Buddha, who used his supernatural powers to look upon his deceased mother. He discovered she had fallen into the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and was suffering.[3] Greatly disturbed, he went to the Buddha and asked how he could release his mother from this realm. Buddha instructed him to make offerings to the many Buddhist monks who had just completed their summer retreat, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month. The disciple did this and, thus, saw his mother's release. He also began to see the true nature of her past unselfishness and the many sacrifices that she had made for him. The disciple, happy because of his mother's release and grateful for his mother's kindness, danced with joy. From this dance of joy comes Bon Odori or "Bon Dance", a time in which ancestors and their sacrifices are remembered and appreciated."

Friday, August 10, 2012

Beetle Mania

Today I'm writing you about The Beetles in Japan. No no not the band the beetles but actual beetles and the popularity of keeping them as pets.  The Kabutomushi also known as Trypoxylus Dichotomus is many boys' and even some girls' pets.  These critters are so popular that Japan even has a Holiday for them in some parts of Japan.  Also they often appear in advertising as cute little cartoons, just as a bear, mouse, cat or dog would in the USA.  In the USA you might see a kids TV show with robot space dinosaurs.  It is the same in Japan except they are robot space beetles.

In the spring, bug nets, bug tanks, mulch, food, and bate appear for sale, and kids all around Japan buy into bug hunting. You could just be a geeky boy or girl who is interested in catching a bug to observe, but for most boys the motivation for catching these critters is for battle. The Kabutomushi is able to lift hundreds of times it's own body weight, and it's shell is very hard.  Kids love to battle these bugs. Kids think it is so much fun and looks cool, one beetle lifting another above its head and tossing it down to its defeat.  Many Japanese mothers protest this and forbid their boys from participating.  I believe it isn't cruel to the animal. They aren't pinching each other to death. In the whild they do this fighting over a mate. Up in the tree tops if you can toss all the other males to the ground, you win.  Their pincers don't squeeze the live out of each other and the hard shell protects them. Plus the lifespan of the beetle in the while and in captivity is only a few months. They are more likely to die from you not feeding them properly than in battle.  So am I pro beetle fighting? You bet I am.  It is a good competitive active activity for young boys.  If they are out catching bugs and battling their friends, it means they aren't sipping soda in front of the TV.
Sadly I live pretty much in the city and these bugs like to keep far away from urban areas.  Luckily for me, these guys are so popular I can buy them in most pet stores in the city, or order them online. they go for about $5 a bug. I bought four just in case one or 2 died. I've named them John, Paul, George, and Ringo.  So why would I buy them?  I didn't buy them to make them fight.  My purpose for buying them is to photograph them.  As all of my USA readers know, we don't have this kind of bug where I live. 

Believe it or not they are really good models.  most of the time they have no desire to go anywhere. (pretty lazy bugs)  The just sit where I put them.  if they try to move they can't get traction on the paper i set them on so they still don't go anywhere.  Note, they can fly, but mime have yet to try. I think you would agree they look pretty cool  photographed on the endless white background.  Today I plan to shoot them with my large format camera.

In the next day or two I will let them go in the wild.  I'm sure customs won't let me bring them home alive and it would just be a pain to try packing them.  They belong in Japan. They were fun to shoot, watch, and play with.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Summer Fest

Why is Logan wearing a dress? Well I'm not exactly. I'm wearing Japanese Yukata, (Summer Kimono), a bit of formal wear.  To all you non Japanese people it looks exactly the same to a kimono. To Japanese people it is very different from a kimono though. It is only one layer whereas a kimono is normally two or more layers.  Yukatas have traded the rather pricy and warm silk threads for the more summery cotton. The sleeves are the same as a kimono, big baggy places to keep your money, sweat rag, and small things you've bought.   They aren't quite as formal as a kimono, you might wear to a wedding if you are Japanese, but I would still call it quit formal.  people really only wear them now for festivals and even though the cotton is less expensive, the price tag for mine rang in around $120.

So what is the big deal about Japanese Matsuri (festivals)?  I know a few of my readers are into Japanese comics and might have learned a cultural thing or two there. But to all the rest who don't know festivals in Japan are a little bit more important and a little bit more meaningful than our fruit festivals around home.  Of course they look similar, games, food, crowds, businesses handing out things, kids having fun, young couples loving it up, and older couples sitting watching the world go by.  Most Japanese festivals bring traditional old culture, and community to life.  Traditional songs are played, and traditional dances are danced.  It reminds Japanese people of who they are in the world and where they came from.

Ofcouse here is Japan, so some of the similarities are different. festival food can be fried chicken and cotton candy like we have, but also includes very Japanese foods like Tako Yaki (octopus ball), Okonomi Yaki (Cabbage Pancake), Miso Ice cream, Milk Snow Cones, Squid on a stick, and many green tea flavored things, from ice cream to cake.

Check out the videos below.

Monday, July 30, 2012

What i'm up to Part 1

Some have been inquiring about my everyday activities.  I thought I would write this little entry to give you an idea of the fun I've been having.  As you can see in the first photo I went to some fireworks.  The city of Ogaki put on an amazing show on the 28th, which lasted a little over an hour.  The end of the rainy months marks the beginning of summer and this show also marked it.  I would say about 1/4 of the people who lined up along the river to see the fireworks were dressed in their Yukata (summer kimomo) and geta (wooden saddles).  I do own a yukata but didn't have time to get into it since before the show I was beating the heat, along with  every other kid in Japan, at a water park.  This water park had a lazy river where I floated contently almost the whole time.  I hope to go again soon and often since it was super affordable.  Entrance only cost around $3 per person.
I also recently got my hair cut in a Japanese style by fashion savvy Shin Suzaki, pictured left.  The hair cut has really made a difference in the way Japanese people view me.  Before the hair cut, Japanese people would view me as a visitor  and not attempt to talk to me knowing I probably don't speak Japanese.  Now that I look like I belong a little bit more they still view me as an outsider but I fit in a little bit more and I've noticed more Japanese will attempt to talk to me and make eye contact. Also Shin has agreed to model for me.  After asking him I explained the photo really is a story about you.  I want people to understand a little about you when they see your photo.  I want a little bit of lifestyle, little bit hobby,  and little bit color that adds to the feeling of you.  He said street clothing is his hobby. This makes it very easy to make him stand out in the photo since his clothing is unique to begin with. For lifestyle, we works and lives in a very urban area, and I found a good location near where he works to shoot him. As for color he like the cold feeling gray, or silver adds to him.  The location I chose to shoot him continues this feeling. I haven't set up a day and time for the shoot yet but I think I'm ready to Rock-N'-Roll. Cross my fingers and pray for the best.

Even though at times it is hellishly hot here I really enjoy walking around, far and wide, getting and understanding of the layout of the land.  In the last few weeks I've covered a lot of land by foot.  Ive never been a person afraid to get lost, and I can't say I've ever really been lost.  I do feel a bit uneasy when I don't know where things are. Where is the train station? what is the fastest way to get there? Where is the park? What is the fastest way to get there? What is the fastest way to get from the park to the train? Where is the mall? Where is food? And so on.  Now I have a pretty good grasp of all of this in my little city. Everything I need or want is within 1 1/2 hours walk.  Really not that bad since I have all the time in the world on the days I have alone.  It is a much slower pace but I really like that. I really get to see and pay attention to detail on foot, whereas in a car or buss I'm only catching glimpses. Even a bicycle is a good pace.  Unfortunately I don't have one, but the crocks I wear are good for walking, so that is what I do.  The long distance walks and high heat, has really helped my weight loss along.  I've lost about 6 lbs and I'm sure I would have lost more if I weren't eating ice cream 3 times a day to cool off.

The summer Olympics have started as all of you know.  Team spirit is very strong in Japan and there is major excitement. Unfortunately I don't have a TV this year, so I haven't been watching the games.  My cell phone does have a TV tuner on in it but it only works well outside and the sun is too bright to see anything really.
This has been my time here in a nutshell really. Stay tuned for the next couple post.  I really want to write on the culture here.  Have some fun photos to share.  Plan to use my digital camera a lot more this week so I can show you what I see. Please follow my blog if you want to keep up to date.
Until next time, じゃ、またあしたね。

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Japanese food is unlike anything I can fine in the USA.  I often crave it's flavor when I am at home.  Trust me people, Japanese restaurants  in the states don't even come close to matching the wonderful flavor of true Japanese food.  Some of the dishes I have eaten, I never knew could taste so good.  Top left photo (for example) is eggplant and tastes like heaven.  Same goes for the photo under it, which is octopus (one of my favorites). Meals can range from 5 course feasts to just a bowl of noodles. But weather it is 5 plates of something or one bowl of something, it is always satisfying and filling. It surprises me how easy some Japanese food is to make.  In the past I haven't been a big fan of curry, but here there is an easy curry dish I was taught how to make and i got to say it is pretty good for how little effort is spent making it.  Oil a pan, fill the pan up with large cabbage leaves, fry for 30 seconds, add curry powder of your liking, mix and serve.  How many calories? I don't know but a lot less than a hamburger and tastes a lot better too. Although, don't get me wrong, I still enjoy a good hamburger and do make them while I'm here.

Japanese food is definitely one of my favorite parts of being in Japan.  For those of you wondering, I am well practiced in the art of eating with chopsticks.  I wouldn't call myself a chopstick grand master but I can pretty much do as I please with them. 

So what is Japanese food? How is it different from Chinese eats? Japanese food emphasizes freshness. I worked in a restaurant a few years and when I say fresh I don't just mean never been frozen or canned, although that is a good start with describing the food here.  I also mean the overall feeling and flavor you get when you eat fish, rice, cabbage, or whatever it is a straight up, unveiled flavor. It is hard to explain if you ave never eaten this food.  Think about this.  Have you ever eaten a tomato right off the vine, still warm?  you get an unveiled flavor.  You taste many things: water, acids, all the chemistry that makes up that fresh all in inclusive flavor.  When you eat Japanese food you are tasting the fish. If there is a sauce, it isn't hiding the fish's flavor.
As far as flavor, what is "Japanese". From my experience Japanese flavor is Miso, Wasabi, Radish, Cabbage, Buckwheat, Egg, sea weed, rice, curry, green onions, leeks, and any kind of ocean creature. Things taste more tangy than sweet, but not salty.

Japanese restaurants have no problem serving you raw ingredients that you cook right in front of you on a HOT dangerous hot plate. Pretty cool right? Totally.  Here people aren't stupid and burn themselves. Kids even do it. In the 2 above photos we are eating at an Okonimiyaki restaurant, where we cook our own food with the ingredients we choose. Okonimiyaki is basically a Japanese pancake where the batter is made of egg, cabbage, pickled ginger, green onions, and then whatever meet, cheese, and vegies you would like to have in it.  I have heard Okonomiyaki has the meaning to the effect of "As You Like It". Just as good as the Shakespearean play. If you aren't a fan of Shakespeare, don't worry it still tastes pretty good.  Okonomiyaki is one of those things that I have never been able to find in the USA so if you want to try some you'll probably have to look up online how to make it or visit Japan. Okonomiyaki just like Cajan can be found in the North but it is really a Southern dish hailing from Osaka.

Green Tea is pretty much the national flavor when it comes to sweets. Green tea ice cream, green tea tarts, and green tea gummy treats.  Fresh fruit and mint is popular.  I'll wright an entire post about Japanese sweets.  Right now I have other things I would like to wright about more and I don't have enough pictures of Japanese sweets yet.  Please subscribe and keep a look out for new installments of my blog.