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.

 

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.

 

Return, And Return Again

Mary Livingston Ripley Garden

The road less traveled. We’ve all heard of it and would like to think that our lives are spent down that unmarked, desolate trail where everything is discovery and excitement. I know this because I’m one of those dreamers, constantly looking for the entrance to that road everywhere I travel. In fact, in the few instances where I have actually found that entrance, I have been rewarded with great photographs and incredible experiences. The effect is so uplifting, that no matter how many times you experience it, you just can’t have enough of it. So there we go every chance we get, down backstreets and narrow alleyways in faraway lands looking for that something to recharge our lives and fill them with the wonderment that very few daily experiences can match.

This constant pursuit, however, could easily make us miss the wonders that lie right before our eyes on that well traveled road. I have to admit that my frequent sojourn down the well traveled road has more to do with limitation of funds and time, but whether by design or imposition, I have come to discover that the familiar always holds a mystery or two for the visually creative types. That is because on different days and times of year, the backdrop changes, as does the light and the intensity of the colors. And thus the photo above, which shows a place I have photographed a million times from just about every angle imaginable over the years. Notwithstanding this level of photographic attention, this is the first time I publish a photo of the fountain at the Smithsonian Institution’s Mary Livingston Ripley Garden. Not that I believe that this is a perfect photo, but rather that for the first time, there was blue in the sky, the light was about right, and the eternal crowds were nonexistent. It is the same place I’ve visited far too many times in the past, but one that chose to reveal itself in a complete new manner simply because I stayed away from that road less traveled. I guess the familiar, when seen with fresh eyes, will never cease to surprise us. So as we look for those roads less traveled, perhaps it bears remembering that sometimes the wonders we’re looking for can also be found along those familiar roads.

Finding Meaning In Fractions Of A Second

Circle Lovers

Why is it that we search for more meaning in a photo after we have taken it than at the time the photo is being captured? I’m sure that there are many explanations for this, but for me, it all has to do with frame counts. Let me explain. In the process of acquiring a particular photo, we observe the world as a continuous video, a sequence of fast-moving frames that get processed inside our brains with a refresh rate that mimics the speed of light (or so it seems). If we watch a person walking, we don’t particularly remember the uniqueness of any particular step, or gesture, or scene complexity. It just flows from one side to the other in a perpetual motion, and at the end we kind of remember the overall occurrence of having seen someone walking. It is a factual story that in all its generosity, allows our imaginations to rest without bother.

Photographs, on the other hand, disrupt our imagination’s slumber and literally compel us to “fill in the blanks” of the story. In true Sherlock Holmes fashion, it makes us leap from that frozen fraction of a second into all sorts of directions and plots. A delayed reaction from the moment of capture, for sure, but perhaps the essence of why we capture images in the first place. That is not to say that seeing life as a moving video is any less rewarding, but rather that just like we tend to remember particular scenes in a movie, photographs are the particular scenes of our visual movies. They anchor us to a place and time like no moving object can, and feed that which is the essence of us all: our imaginations. That is why in the photo above I simply do not want to know more about this couple, for it is more fun to “imagine” lovers on a sunny day reading from her latest writings and oblivious to the passing of time. Reality? Perhaps not, but as long as I look at that photo, I’ll pretend that it is.

 

Hiding In Plain Sight: The Dumbarton House

The magnificent rear garden of the Dumbarton House. [Click photos for larger versions]
The magnificent rear garden of the Dumbarton House. [Click photos for larger versions]
The serene lower terrace right off the Herb Garden at the Dumbarton House.
dumbarton3
Stairs headed up to the Herb Garden.
dumbarton4
The majestic front section of the Dumbarton House with its wraparound brick walkway.

Here is yet another one of those “hiding in plain sight” stories. Ever heard of the Dumbarton House in Georgetown, DC? Well, neither had I. That is, until the last 48 hours or so. In fact, I wasn’t even looking for it, as I was driving along Georgetown’s Q Street on my way to the eccentricities of Dupont Circle, my photography destination for the day. Considering how enchanting this Dumbarton House is, I am kind of glad that I never made it to Dupont that morning, even if my discovery soon led to disappointment when I discovered that the House itself did not open its doors until 11:00 AM for inside-the-house tours. Thus, the early bird did not catch the proverbial worm this particular morning.

Like other houses built around 1800 in the area (almost all of them private properties closed to the general public), the simple elegance of the mansion bespeaks to a world that is almost unimaginable by today’s standards. It is described as a fine example of Federal Period architecture of the type that began dotting the Washington area during the early days of the capital. And while the attached East Park and Herb Garden are beautifully serene, the gem of the outdoors has to be the section right behind the house itself, were blooming flowers perfume the morning air with the soft embrace of a morning sun. A quiet, little-known hamlet surrounded by busy streets and busy people, and a reminder of how rewarding it can be to take a detour from our charted journeys in order to see where our tired, wandering feet will take us.

A City Begins To Bloom

There is no greater magic that witnessing the arrival of spring with all its magnificent colors.  Nikon D800, AF Nikkor 14mm f/2.8D ED.
There is no greater magic that witnessing the arrival of spring with all its magnificent colors. Nikon D800, AF Nikkor 14mm f/2.8D ED.
The grounds around the U.S. Capitol literally turn into a garden during the early days of April.  Nikon D800, AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G.
The grounds around the U.S. Capitol literally turn into a garden during the early days of April. Nikon D800, AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G.

Paris?  Kyoto?  Florence?  Of course.  Washington, DC?  Really?  Yes, really.  Like those magnificent cities east and west of us, this city by the river undergoes a major transformation with the arrival of spring.  I’m even tempted to say that the city, and in some very dramatic way, gets in touch with its sensitive side.  Even the light is transformed during this time of the year, with grey, overcast days giving way to skies that are so blue that you could be forgiven for thinking you were staring at the heavens in Provence.  The longish days, with their mellow temperatures and orange morning light, are nothing short of nature’s unabashed public display of affection for us all.  And everywhere you look, from the small John Marshall Place Park along Pennsylvania Avenue, to the mighty Capitol grounds, and beyond to the breathtaking Cherry Blossoms lining the Tidal Basin, you are rewarded by nature’s unselfish color spectacle.  In this light, and under endless pink canopies that nature so graciously has shared with us for too brief a moment, it is easy to forget Paris, Kyoto, and Florence.  In fact, they never came to mind.  I had my city instead.