Wondering What They See

Look Up While Walking

I often wonder what the subjects of my photographs think when they see me with a camera pointing in their general direction. The optimist in me would like to think that what they see is a creative in action, someone who has somehow managed to set himself free of the daily trappings of the world in order to pursue the higher calling, that of creating photographic art. Wouldn’t that be nice. However, I’m not sure that is the case, or at least not the case in the majority of situations. I have no doubt that for some people, finding themselves on the receiving end of a telephoto lens is the functional equivalent of finding themselves unwittingly facing a weapon. Not that they think for a second that the lens will do any bodily harm to them, but rather that their selection as your subject from amongst the crowd could prove to be somewhat of a disconcerting feeling. Why me? Who is this person? Has he or she been following me? Why is that photographer so fixated on me? We could go on forever with these questions.

What the subjects of our photos may not realize is that in the vast majority of cases, photographing them is a form of flattery, of recognizing their uniqueness in a particular setting or situation. Most serious photographers are extremely selective, and when they pick a person or a place as the subject of their photos, rarely it is with the intention of accentuating something negative. Look at a site like Instagram on any day, and what will immediately jump at you is the overwhelming positive nature of the photographs. This applies to photographers of all kinds, from the casual mobile photo enthusiast to the equipment-heavy pro. And while there will always be a few rotten apples in the bunch, their numbers are absolutely minimum compared with the millions of photographers who are using the their skills to tell a happy story. With their captures what they are saying is that you, the subject of their photographic interest, are special, a key figure in a creative process, and the unique protagonist of a story in the making. The photographer may be insignificant to you, but you are not insignificant to them. In that brief fraction of a second when the shutter clicks, you immediately become an integral part of a larger photographic narrative the world is eager to see, or at the very least, should see.  The photos that will be part of that story will remind people that there is a lot more to the world than their own, limited surroundings.  They will remind them that humanity is constantly on the move in a world that is forever changing.  The photographs, like the great travel narratives, will be part of the living record of society, of its people, and of the places that occupied our imaginations and time. The necessary proof of the wonders and tribulations of the world we all lived in.

 

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.

 

Meandering Through Hong Kong

Old and new are in full display along the magestic Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong.
Old and new are in full display along the magestic Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong.
One of the many hidden gems in the Central region of Hong Kong is a small sitting park just a few blocks from Queen's Road Central.
One of the many hidden gems in the Central region of Hong Kong is a small sitting park just a few blocks from Queen’s Road Central.
A few blocks from the Star Ferry Terminal in Tsim Sha Tsui sits one of the greatest tributes to Shakespeare you'll find anywhere in the world.
A few blocks from the Star Ferry Terminal in Tsim Sha Tsui sits one of the greatest tributes to Shakespeare you’ll find anywhere in the world.
The view from inside the Star Ferry Terminal in Hong Kong Island.
The view from inside the Star Ferry Terminal in Hong Kong Island.
Restaurants in Hong Kong are everywhere, but if you dig a little, you will be rewarded with some great, off-the-beaten-path finds.
Restaurants in Hong Kong are everywhere, but if you dig a little, you will be rewarded with some great, off-the-beaten-path finds.
Old fish markets sit side-by-side with modern Hong Kong in the Central area near Hollywood Road.
Old fish markets sit side-by-side with modern Hong Kong in the Central area near Hollywood Road.
Shiny new buildings provide an imposing backdrop to a myriad of small, traditional markets in Hong Kong.
Shiny new buildings provide an imposing backdrop to a myriad of small, traditional markets in Hong Kong.
The relentless fast pace of life in Hong Kong does take its toll on the locals.
The relentless fast pace of life in Hong Kong does take its toll on the locals.
The intricate lift machinery at Victoria Peak makes sure the historical tram makes it up the steep mountain without a glitch.
The intricate lift machinery at Victoria Peak makes sure the historical tram makes it up the steep mountain without a glitch.
One of the many quaint establishments along the hillside Hollywood Street in Central.
One of the many quaint establishments along the hillside Hollywood Street in Central.
A visitor takes in the view of Victoria Harbor, undoubtedly one of the most scenic places on earth.
A visitor takes in the view of Victoria Harbor, undoubtedly one of the most scenic places on earth.

As the pilot announced our descent to the Hong Kong airport, images of an exotic, long-lost world kept creeping into my mind.  I kept thinking of 1841 and the first Opium Wars that led to the British acquisition of Hong Kong under the 1842 Treaty of Nanking as if it were yesterday.  I guess some part of me wanted to walk back into that world to witness the chaotic, yet exciting period of discovery and adventure in history.  It is as if Hong Kong (at least for me) made more sense by looking backwards than looking forward.  Unjustly as it may sound, it was the city’s past that fascinated me more than its future.  This feeling didn’t last long, for as soon as I debarked the aircraft and came face-to-face with Hong Kong’s slick, shiny airport and its modern airport express train, a new, futuristic concept of the city entered my consciousness.  Maybe it was the city’s crowded streets full of hastily moving people, or maybe the incredible heaven-reaching architecture surrounding Victoria Harbor that refocused my attention to the future.  Not sure.  But one thing is undeniable the moment you set foot in Hong Kong: that this is a vibrant, energetic city being driven into the 21st Century by an eager, youth-centered population bent on making its mark on the world stage.  The city’s energy could be felt everywhere, and it was quite contagious.

But to say that Hong Kong has moved on from its past would be overstating the fact.  Along with its shinny new high-rise buildings, a myriad of traditional, old-world markets line its narrow streets and alleyways.  This is specially the case on Hong Kong Island and the Central sector of the city, where you will walk past a majestic, modern building just to come face-to-face with a street restaurant that does all its cooking right there on a street kitchen.  Venture to either side of the longest electric escalator in the world, the Central Mid-Levels staircase, and you will soon find yourself a century back in time amidst butcher shops and street vendors selling everything from Mao’s little red book to elaborate jade jewelry.  And when crossing the imposing Victoria Harbor to visit the famous Tsim Sha Tsui district (and Bruce Lee’s famous statute along the Avenue of Stars), you will have your choice of either riding the ultra-modern city metro system or the historic Star Ferry across the bay.  Old and new, side-by-side, against a backdrop that you will not find anywhere else in the world.  As I boarded the plane for my return trip to America, I realized that Hong Kong had showed me that the future only makes sense in relation to the past.  As the city wrestles with its place in the world in a new century, it seems to find its safe footing in that long-gone colonial past.  Like an alchemist, it continues to blend its many potions in the hope that something new and exciting results from its many efforts.  If you ask me, I think that this old alchemist is up to something great.