Empty Roads

Kyoto Back Street

What is it about empty, lonely roads that we like so much? After all, we are there ourselves, at least physically there. But even when not technically empty, there is just something about those long stretches of road, devoid of masses of people and sounds, that simply appeals to us. And as easy as it would be to say that this appeal rests primarily on the absence of others, or other things, it would be somewhat inaccurate to claim as much. On the contrary, it seems to be the constant presence of others, of that relentless humanity around us, that makes us appreciate these empty roads that much more. As only noise can make those quiet moments that much sweeter, or daylight such a great antidote to those long, wintry nights, the solitude of these roads, and what they mean to us, would totally lack meaning if it were not for its opposite condition.

But while empty, these roads were never made for speed. Rather, they seem to have been constructed for the sole purpose of stretching time, and for the type of movement and grace associated with a Viennese waltz. One floating step after another, we slide down a circuitous trail along these straight roads, head looking left, then right, as if afraid to miss any of the emptiness along the way. And for a brief moment, those lonely roads are ours, and we become as reluctant to share them as we are reluctant to share our last breath. When the end of that road comes before us, as it always will, we will turn around and take that long, longing look at the well-worn road behind us, only to realize that only the roads ahead of us are empty and not the ones we leave behind.

 

The Surprise That is Osaka

Osaka River

One of the great things about travel is that there is no requirement to stick to the familiar and the popular. In fact, lately I have been paying a lot more attention to travel destinations that hardly anyone recognizes at a social gathering. You see, most people stick to the familiar, to the popular places where tourist companies deposit endless armies of umbrella totting tourist groups. Not that there’s anything wrong with visiting those famous locations, for they are indeed full of “must see” attractions. The point is that by now they have become far too familiar to everyone, with endless photos and printed material dedicated to their immortality.  This level of exposure has somewhat taken away the mystery that once accompanied their distant locations.  What’s more, many of these famous places have recently been making the news because of the local aversion to uncontrolled tourism, which kind of sets the mood for when we all get there.

Osaka Department Store

Thus, for a while now, I’ve been putting my attention to the periphery, to the less-traveled places where I’m finding renewed enthusiasm for the travel life. And that is what brought me to Osaka, Japan. Heard of it but have never been there? You’re not alone. This large port city with its incredibly vibrant business community has to be one of the best kept secrets in the world. It hides in plain sight, as most travelers have only ventured 30 minutes away by train to splendid Kyoto. And yet, if you value great food, friendly locals, and a shopping experience second to none, Osaka must be at the top of your list of places to visit. Everything from some of the world’s largest covered and underground markets to the European designer scene can be found somewhere between the Namba and Umeda metro stations. And even if your plans did not involve eating and shopping yourself to death, you just can’t help it. When tiredness sets in, the side streets around Kitahama, with its sexy champagne bars and rowdy English pubs is where you want to end your day. Yes, Osaka is all that and more, and it just doesn’t want to let go of you.

Osaka Shopping

But not all is hectic in Osaka. Just like every other major Japanese city, once you leave the city center behind, a whole new world of traditional neighborhoods and quiet oases sit there as if frozen in time. Like an antidote to the rest of the city, these are the places where old ways are not really old. Places where you are met at the entrance of a restaurant with a simple bow and a polite greeting by an impeccably dressed hostess. Places where small, manicured gardens give new meaning to the concept of reflection. And places where you find yourself suddenly immersed in the mystery and romanticism of a faraway culture that up to then only existed in the old narratives of explorers from another era. A feeling that forms the very essence of the travel life.

Osaka Restaurant Wall

 

 

Revisiting Kyoto

Silver Palace Garden

It’s been a long time since I’ve been in Kyoto, Japan. In fact, and if my memory doesn’t betray me, it has been around 24 years since I set foot on this ancient capital. Over these years, however, it became impossible to get thoughts of Kyoto off my mind. The shrines, the Shogun castles, and the well-worn streets of Gion were almost reaching the level of fantasy in my mind. I simply had to go back, someday. Just didn’t think it would take me this long to return. But even if late, I couldn’t be happier to get back to this wonderful city of geishas and polished wood temples. It is indeed a special place, and one of the “must see” cities of the world that lives up to its reputation, but also a somewhat changed city from the one I visited as a relatively young man.

View of Kyoto City

Ancient Kyoto remains as wonderful as ever. The squeaky, labyrinth halls of Nijo Castle, the magnificence of Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Pavilion), the lush gardens of the Imperial Palace, and the mysterious streets of Gion are all there, and more. With 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and about 160 temples, Kyoto will keep you as busy as you want to be. But while this impressive array of famous places to see are reason enough to book those plane tickets, for this old traveler it was a more serene part of Kyoto that held the greatest attraction. These were the empty streets of Gion very early in the morning before the crowds appeared on the streets, the narrow lanes of Nakagyo Ward with its hidden temples, and the twisty, steep streets around Minamimachi and the Kyoto Ryozen Gokoku Shrine. To walk these ancient streets as the first rays of sun are appearing over the horizon is nothing short of subliminal, an imaginary trip to the times of Shoguns and merchants who once roamed the city streets. And when the crowds inevitably show up, there’s no better place to hang out than at the Nishiki Market between Teramachi and Shinmachi or the incredibly busy Shinkyogoku shopping district. No personal space here, just wall-to-wall people in search of all sorts of delicacies, from the familiar to the absolute bizarre. These two sides of the city, the contemplative and the mercantile, pretty much appear everywhere you travel in Kyoto.

Ancient Kyoto

But something about Kyoto has definitely changed in the past 24 years. The biggest change has to do with the amount of people traveling there for holidays. From the Golden Temple to every major shrine in the city, the amount of visitors borders on the incredible. New hotels and a greatly renovated central train station appear to struggle to accommodate the onslaught of tourists like “yours truly” descending on the city from all corners of the world. A city that has always been famous is perhaps even more famous today than ever, if that is even possible. The result is that if you are looking for that Zen feeling that comes to mind whenever we think of Kyoto, you really have to work on the time of day you plan to visit most neighborhoods there. It’s still there, but not at all times of the day.  The good news is that all sorts of modern transportation options are available throughout the day, so getting to places is relatively easy.

Geishas

Busy or not, Kyoto and its ancient cultural heritage are not to be missed in a lifetime. In contrast to Tokyo’s forward looking personality, Kyoto is all about looking back. History, that much neglected concept in so many parts of the world, becomes something that like the wind, you can actually feel in Kyoto. A sudden realization that while much has been gained with time, much has also been lost. And as in other great and ancient cities around the world, the forces of modernism and history are engaged in a fearless battle for people’s feelings and attention. These dual forces define modern Japan, and make it one of the best travel destinations in the world. Can’t wait to get back.

 

Everyday Tokyo

Meiji Shrine Scene

It’s been a long time, and yet, upon my return to the wonderfully busy city of Tokyo after many decades, I have found the city as enchanting as the day I left, if not more so. Like Hong Kong, Tokyo is packed with people and activity, with pedestrians crisscrossing each other with the grace and precision of professional ballerinas. I had read some recent travel articles describing the city as a monument to organized chaos, and perhaps that is an apt initial description of what a traveler encounters when taking the first foray into its busy streets. But once you get the hang of the city, you will just marvel at how precise and organized everything is. Even the seemingly intractable metro system is easy to navigate and quite logical in its layout. The smooth and on-time rides to anywhere in the city is something that people back home can only dream about.

Shibuya Shrine

But what makes Tokyo so special above everything else is the diversity of its neighborhoods. From classy, elegant Ginza to rowdy, loud Akihabara, the vibrant neighborhood scenes are a marvelous study in contrasts. Need more excitement, then head on to Shibuya with its world-famous intersection crossing and incredible array of restaurants. Camera and tech shopping? Then it is Shinjuku you want to visit, with the imposing Yodobashi mega store right outside the metro station and Bic Camera not far down the street. Not sure if there is such a thing as a technology center of the earth, but if there is, it surely has to be right here in Tokyo.

Imperial Palace Moat

Akihabara Crossing

And then there is the more quiet, sedate part of Tokyo. Strolling along the Imperial Gardens and the forest grounds surrounding the Meiji Shrine in Shibuya you would be forgiven for thinking that you were in another world, a sudden feeling of solitude taking over your senses. This shifting landscape character, and the gentleness of its everyday people, are what make Tokyo such a wonderful city. Drumbeats followed by poetry. Like the silk in its famous kimonos, the city flows in a constant, rhythmic movement that is both captivating and disarming. A city not to be missed in a lifetime.

 

Low Season, High Spirits

Homer Spit Boat Junkyard

Homer Marina

Shore Watching

Fisherman Boots

I love to travel in low season. Granted that not much is happening after the masses of tourists dwindle to a trickle in any part of the world, but that is precisely what I find so enchanting about going places. It is a way of finding plenty in the absence of rather than in the abundance of. And Homer, Alaska with its pristine environment, was such a place in mid-September. Almost barren of tourists and wanderers, the majority of local businesses closed for the season, and the first salvos of the inevitable Alaskan winter beginning to appear, the setting was nearly perfect for the advent of a much-needed, mind-clearing brew. Long, bundled-up walks by the rocky beach during the early morning hours, beautiful sunrises over the glaciers in Kachemak Bay State Park mountain range, and long, sumptuous seafood dinners washed down with California wines under the dark-blue skies of Cook Inlet, were the perfect antidote for this city dweller. Think of it as food for the soul, a reset for lives too occupied with too many “silly little nothings.” And the silence, whith only an occasional interruption by the high-pitched call of a passing seagull, or the rhythmic drumroll of the crashing waves. I’m not accustomed to hearing those sounds these days, and yet, their unpretentious melodies brought back memories of places far away, of lives already lived, and of times when dreams and the imagination were as unencumbered as the wind flowing down Kachemak Bay on a September morning. There, along those cold and desolate nordic rocks and the majestic ocean keeping guard over sleeping glaciers, I was reacquainted with someone I once knew, so very long ago. I guess sometimes it does take a distance of over 4,000 miles to arrange such a meeting with those we once knew.

 

 

It’s All In The Attitude

The Container

Is it possible to find happiness inside a commercial shipping container? Obviously, the answer to this question depends on a whole slew of factors. But be that as it may, my interest remains on those who would actually answer “yes” to this sort of question. This is specially the case in big cities like Washington, DC where long, sour faces have become the modern Venetian masks of the average worker. Ever ride the metro during the rush morning or afternoon hours? You would be forgiven for thinking that smiling has been officially banned in the city. More than that, you could also be forgiven for thinking that you have become invisible, or transparent at the very least. No eye contact, no acknowledgement of your presence, and definitely no smiling. Strangers doing their best to ignore each other while sharing the same space, the same direction, and the same universe.

But then, when you least expect it and are about to give up on humanity, something different happens. Right there in the middle of grumpy city, and inside a hot metal shipping container, the very meaning of happiness and friendliness. No suits, no high-paying job, no ideal working conditions, and no high-flying college diploma on the wall. Just the mere presence of a photographer looking into the container was enough to do away with invisibility. As if being transported into another Second World galaxy, I was suddenly blinded by the toothy smile of an alien DC character and his incredible good attitude. An unsolicited display of friendship immediately followed, ending in a gladiators’ duel of who could express the most effusive “great talking to you” goodby. Walking away with my camera, I couldn’t help but think of the words uttered by the late Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh: “There is a brief moment when all there is in a man’s mind and soul and spirit is reflected through his eyes, his hands, his attitude. This is the moment to record.” A chance encounter, a lifted spirit, and a much needed shot of faith in humanity. Away I went with a little more bounce on my steps and a much needed reminder of the power of good attitude.

 

A Play Anyone?

Posters

Quick, think of Washington, DC and what is the first thing that comes to mind? No doubt, images of politicians, government, and power brokers galore. Below that layer most people will probably think of lobbyists, spies, embassies, and huge governmental businesses. Keep the conversation going for an hour or more, and perhaps, but only perhaps, someone will think of the incredible art scene that has made the area one of the leading arts centers in the country, despite all the more “serious” stuff that constantly goes around it. Really, dig in and you will find some of the best companies in the world, with local talent that would rival the best of New York. What’s even better is that most theaters in the area sit right next to some of the best restaurants you’ll encounter anywhere. These are not usually the kind where you have to dish out a thousand dollars for a meal for two, but rather the kind of trendy, modern, type that populate most travel magazines. At the risk of leaving some out, I would much rather not start naming them here, but check out here, and here, and you’ll see what I mean. There’s actually a lot of fun to be had in the city, provided there’s not a politician within a thousand feet from you.

 

The Refuge Of Simplicity

Purple

Butterfly

There is something refreshingly simple about visual isolation. Not sure whether it is because of what we choose to leave out or because what we choose to accentuate. But whether it is the result of subtraction or addition, our enjoyment of visual scenes seems to be directly related to this simple visual arithmetic. Everyone has their favorites, but for me, subtraction seems to win most of the time. That is not to say that my intent is to photograph a single object in a scene, but rather that in every scene recorded, I find it more appealing when something within that scene plays a dominant or prominent role. It could be a castle at a distance, or a gentle hand over a book, whatever. What matters is that the photo is clearly anchored on an object, or a theme, as opposed as having every item in the photo compete for your attention. Granted, though, that focusing on an object is not as complicated as focusing on a theme. A photo of flowers will always be easier to capture than a photo depicting melancholy. But something must dominate the thought process, something must stand out to be remembered, and if a photographer is lucky or skillful enough to capture both an object and a mood, then that is payday in a creative’s life. Easier said than done, but undoubtedly the magnetic force that keeps us on the eternal journey of discovery.

 

Loving County Fairs

Friends Together

The Caretaker

Competition Judge

Rooster

Everyone has his or her weaknesses. It’s only human. One of mine is a recurring one, and by recurring I mean like once a year, but not more in deference to my waistline. I’m talking about your traditional, run-of-the-mill county fair, where your shoes get dirty with God-knows-what, and where even the mention of new wave cuisine could find you fed to the animals for lunch. Not that I have a drop of farmer in my blood. On the contrary, as a self-proclaimed urbanite, you are more likely to find me eating al fresco at some city bistro rather than standing devouring a turkey leg with my bare hands while some unknown red sauce drips down my cheek. That is, most of the time, because come summer, it is the county fairs that get my attention (this year, the Loudon County Fair, to be precise), and I frankly couldn’t care much about those bistro. It is secret sauce I want, lots of it, and I want it on everything from greasy fries to corndogs.

But county fairs are a lot more than a food pilgrimage for me. They are also therapy. That is because there, amongst the people bathing pigs, parading cattle, and taking care of show goats, I will also find the kind of real people that you rarely see in the big cities. You can’t pretend much when you’re rubbing clean a pig and herding goats the next minute. Things are, well, what they are. No pretentiousness, no bragging, no posturing, no nothing, but heroes all in my eyes. As I see it, the farmers who take part in these county fairs are some of the key linchpins in that complex system which feeds every one of us. And that is why taking out a day to see the fruit of their efforts is something I never miss every summer. They don’t even mind being photographed, which is an added bonus. All I know is that it always feels good being out there learning about things I don’t know anything about and spending some enjoyable moments with people I have never met before. Just can’t wait for next time, and those corndogs better be there.

 

Small Picture vs. Large Picture

Beyond Distraction

Why take in the sights when you can be staring at your mobile phone? That should have been the title of this post, for the epidemic of small screen fixation has by now reached astronomical levels. The day I took this photo, I had to literally move out of the way because a young woman went right through the space I was occupying a mere fraction of a second before, while her eyes were glued to her mobile’s tiny screen. Don’t think she ever saw me, or cared for the shadow that jumped out of her way so she could barrel through without a concern in the world. And as to the gentleman in the photo above, I stood next to him with my camera for nearly ten minutes, never to see him raise his eyes from his phone, or care for a second to anything that was going on around him, which obviously was plenty enough.

So what to make of this collective obfuscation that has enveloped our society? From a photographer’s point of view, it kind of makes our lives a little easier, as no one even notices you unless you appear digitally within their screens. But even this is a double-edged sword, so to speak, because as it becomes easier to photograph the phone zombies out there, the activities in which they engage while we click away are becoming a lot more boring. For too many people, the big picture has lost too much ground to the small picture. Life around them seems to have become too boring, specially when compared to the constant refresh of their mobile screens. People just don’t go away with the click of a button, and conversations will always require more words than texting. That small screen sure sounds a lot more convenient, not to mention less time consuming. The problem is that you just can’t fit enough of life into one of those tiny screens, and no matter what you do, those small screen will never love you back for that matter. It glows without shining a light on you, and for a price.  A temporary necessity transformed into a constant one. A window to all but what surrounds you.  And there’s always a lot going on around us.

 

Ai Weiwei Does DC

Weiwei Exhibit

During the hot summer months, I tend to hang out around the great museums in Washington, DC. Not only do they have some of the best art collections in the world, but they are also the perfect places to try some creative photographic techniques. And did I mention the air conditioner? Well, that too. But no matter what my photographic intentions are during these wanderings, I never seem to take too many photos. I’m just too distracted. You see, I continue to be fascinated by the creativity of the artists, old and contemporary, whose work dot these galleries and who’s incredible talents generally make me feel like some sort of artistic anti-matter. So mostly walk and look, camera hanging from my neck like a heavy adornment, and all the while gawking at the simple genius of those who have seen form and color in ways that I can only dream of.

On this particular day, my fascination was all with the famous Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and his current exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum downtown. Now, I had heard a lot about this “dissident” artist and his head-butting with the Chinese government through news reports and documentaries, but this is the first time I had a real chance of seeing his work in person. What’s more, it all consisted of Legos. Yeap, the kind of plastic pieces we buy for our children. Mind you, though, that these were not ordinary Legos, as they are better described as portrait mosaics that happen to be made of colorful plastic squares. And on the floor, which forced you to look down as if lowering your stare before the authorities. Absolute genius. But it all left me with somewhat of a sore neck. Not from looking down, but rather from the weight of that rock attached to a strap around my neck which barely got any use during the exhibit. It figures.  Once again, I was too busy seeing to worry about my camera.

The Modern Gentleman

The Gentleman

Ah, to be a gentleman. There are not many words in the English language that are mere doors into a larger context than the word “gentleman.” Not that the term holds as much connotation in the modern world as it did a century ago, but rather than its mere use gives rise to all sorts of controversial interpretations of its meaning. For some it is merely descriptive, or at the very least, representative of an era when well-dressed men with impeccable manners and taste, roamed the earth. For others, its mere use is the functional equivalent of a war song, a remnant of an era when men with all sorts of predatory faults dominated the earth at the expense of just about everyone else. The word just seems to flatter some while insulting others. Such are the times in which we live.

Are we to conclude, then, that the whole notion of a “gentleman” is being rendered irrelevant in a world consumed with informality and industrial-size social conflict? My first reaction is to say no, but I’m afraid that my opinion may be wrong, or at the very least, outdated. As a nostalgic compromise, then, I would like to say that while the concept may not be totally dead, it may have been pushed underground, so to speak (I guess wearing a jacket while carrying a dog residue bag isn’t helping matters much either). Whatever the case, the word is quite controversial in modern times, and it may have to do to a large extent in our ability to achieve a commonly-accepted notion of what a gentleman is, or should be. But even if we strived for a common definition, I’m not sure that the attempt would find much agreement amongst folks out there. In some sense, we all kind have an image in our heads of what a gentleman is, or how should he act (a milder version of James Bond perhaps?), but these thoughts may be heavily infused with heavy doses of nostalgia, movie characters, or some self-created misconceptions. So, what are we to conclude about a gentleman today? I’m not sure, and will have to admit that I rarely see anything approximating such a species. The closest I’ve ever gotten was this person who I recently photographed in Georgetown, but that bag he’s holding may just put him slightly short of the threshold. Or does it? I hate to admit it, but these days I’m not sure where that threshold is.

 

Why Not Lancaster?

Lancaster Central Market

Some attractions never get the amount of publicity they deserve. That seems to be the case with American central markets. You see, I am convinced that food is culture, and you simply cannot experience the culture of any country unless you experience their food and the social interactions that takes place around the local tables and the people who make it all possible. And if there’s a place to experience the local culture, it has to be in those unique, historical markets that dot the landscape everywhere from Istanbul to the colorful street markets of Asia. That certainly includes the many farmer markets of America, of which the oldest in existence (dating back to the 1730’s) is the colorful Lancaster Central Market in Pennsylvania.

While not as large as the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, the somewhat reduced size gives the Lancaster Market a little less of a commercial feeling, which translates into a somewhat more personal experience. And yes, the Amish are there with their wonderful fruit and baked goods offerings, but to my surprise, so are the Puerto Ricans, with their pulled pork and rice and beans. Nevertheless, it is the proximity to what one local described as the “bionic soil” of the old Amish farmland that makes the Lancaster Market so special. Drive along the luscious, winding farm hills of such towns as Strasburg, Paradise, and Intercourse (it really exists) and you will soon realize what makes this part of the country such a natural treasure. Stop by a local farm and try their home made Root Beer and jams, and you will regret not living closer to the area. I’ve always associated the state of Pennsylvania with great food, but after visiting the Lancaster area, I am elevating the state a few notches on my scale of places to visit any time you can. After all, food is culture, and as a self-appointed culture seeker, it is high time I become more cultured, so here I go.

 

Books

Reading Alone

Who buys paper books these days? Certainly, not me. I’ve gone purely electronic, for an Amazon Kindle with ten books fits nicely in your jacket pocket, but try to do that with paper books. It just won’t work. Paper books are chunky, unruly, lack build-in dictionaries, and demand a separate bag for storage. So, why not declare them dead once and for all and be done with it? Well, not so fast. From what I can see during my photographic roamings around major cities, paper books seem to be alive and well, and for one reason or another, lately I’ve begun to miss them. Looking through my photos I also discovered that while I tend to photograph lots of people reading books, I have yet to take a photo of anyone reading an electronic book reader. Why is that?

For starters, nothing beats the tactile feeling of holding a book. Their physical presence, while usually cumbersome, is also what keeps us engaged with its contents. We feel its weight on our hands, we see it, we judge it by its thickness, and we must actively secure it with one hand while the other gently waves its pages with a sweeping motion reminiscent of a professional harpist. And when we open a book, we experience that unmistakable exhilaration that comes from opening a window into a great view, a quickening of the senses driven by anticipation. The sweet perfume of a freshly printed book, a lonely title sitting prominently by itself on on a main page, and a first sentence to prepare us for the story that’s about to come. Yes, that first sentence that author Jhumpa Lahiri aptly described as “… a handshake, perhaps an embrace.” All of this I miss when holding my electronic reader. And every now and then, when nostalgia becomes too hard to bear, I too go out and buy a paper book, if anything to experience that warm embrace that never left my imagination. A feeling that has become collateral damage in a world consumed by technology, but one that hopefully will never die.

 

Pirates In Alexandria?

El Galeon

El Galeon Deck

Who doesn’t like a tall ship? I certainly do, and they are all the more pleasant if they happen to be Spanish Galleons of the swatch-buckling kind. Thanks to Spain’s Nao Victoria Foundation, which owns the ship, this marvel of the seas recently visited Alexandria, Virginia. Everyone (including yours truly) had a chance to walk on history, as this replica of the 17th Century tall ships graciously sat along the Alexandria shore as an apparition. Canons, Captain’s quarters, and heavily accented Valencian Spanish completed the picture. It was enough for your imagination to run away from you into a world of sea pirates and lost treasures at sea. The crew said that it took them about 30 days to cross the Atlantic from Spain, which compared to the less than nine hours it recently took me to fly back from Europe, sounds like a “no way” kind of trip. Then again, time, a little fresh air, and a sky full of stars, do have their virtue, provided you are not too seasick to enjoy them. There’s a thought. Well, I think I’ll stick to terra firma for now and leave the pirate thing to the pirates.