Since I moved to Japan five and a half years ago, I’ve been keeping all of my pictures of this country in a folder on my desktop computer. Commingled as they are, it’s hard to know exactly how many pictures I took in this year alone (those of you out there who are MUCH savvier at computers than me, feel free to speak up) but I DO know that when I got back from my trip to Takayama, Kanazawa and Kyoto last month, I’d filled two memory cards with 1047 images.
So how did I narrow it down to my five favorites? Technically, I didn’t. This is a two-part post so you’re getting ten. 🙂 It was tough, though, and I am sure I am missing some great photos that are simply lost to the archives at the moment. But in what felt like a (blessed) banner year of travel around Japan, here are 5 shots that manage to encapsulate some of my favorite moments. (There is no order to these or those in the next post.)
1. Lavender in Hokkaido
I finally made it back to Hokkaido when it wasn’t buried under a gazillion feet of snow. Not that I didn’t enjoy the Sapporo Snow Festival a few years ago, but I much prefer to do my traveling when I can feel my extremities. And Hokkaido is so much more beautiful, in my opinion, when it’s not blanketed under a thick, wet carpet. Fields and fields of lavender and wildflowers greeted us at every turn in the central part of the island and the weather was perfect for outdoor activities like hiking. I know we should try somewhere else for our vacation next summer, but it’s oh so tempting to go back.
2. Festivals, festivals, festivals
We missed out on a lot during our first year in Japan. Really, when you think you only have one year, you pack in so much but it’s impossible to even come close to seeing it all. We did get out a lot when we lived in Tokyo but we rarely caught any local or big festivals for some reason. In Okinawa, we couldn’t escape the drums of Obon, but we were always busy working when other events were on, it seemed. This year, we’ve somehow managed to stumble across some notable festivals without even trying. One of my favorites was the rice planting festival in suburban Osaka back in June. In the midst of a frenetic, concrete-strewn city, here was a group of participants practicing the age-old tradition of sowing that year’s rice crop. Even though I didn’t know a whole lot about rice at that point, I found the ritual strangely fascinating.
3. Kenrokuen Garden
I can’t not include a garden picture. I’m a sucker for gardens. This year, I managed to hit two of Japan’s top three gardens but frankly, they don’t need titles like that to impress me. I have a neighbor here in Kumamoto whose garden has the most outstandingly beautiful peach blossoms in the spring. Doesn’t matter the size, I find these microcosms of the natural world make my heart sing in ways I can’t explain. And my photos just never seem to do these places justice. This shot was taken in Kenrokuen in Kanazawa just a little over a month ago. That still ranks as one of the most satisfying garden visits I’ve had in Japan – a truly lovely place.
I couldn’t decide between this picture or about ten others just like it. This one was from a lunch I had at Akasaka Tantei in Tokyo back in March. It’s not even the food on the plate here that made me use this shot, though to combine the exquisiteness of kaiseki with the flavors of my old home of Okinawa was truly a special treat. It’s really just an illustration of how I think of Japanese cuisine. Presentation is everything. And the presentation is nearly always perfect. Who wouldn’t want to eat food that looks like this? I’m all about a variety of tastes in my meals and I love that I can essentially eat 20-25 different flavors in one sitting, even if some of them are only one or two bites. I never get tired of Japanese cuisine and it will be the thing I miss most someday when I am no longer living here.
I’ve seen photographers in Kyoto staking out streets in the Gion district for hours, just waiting for a geisha to appear. I’m not that fanatical but I do understand the rush of seeing such a fabled beauty flit through the streets as dusk falls. I’ve seen a few maiko (and one or two full-blown geisha) on my trips to Kyoto but never more than a quick glance or a glimpse through a restaurant or taxi window. Here was the first maiko who wasn’t running away from me! And I didn’t have to fork over hundreds of dollars to see her either! Every Sunday, you can catch free 15 minute performances by maiko at the Kyoto Traditional Crafts Museum from 2pm-3pm. The maiko dance for a few minutes and then sit there basically posing while they answer questions (in Japanese) and allow their picture to be taken. Admittedly it does take a bit of the mystique out of the experience, but it allowed me to see things (like her hair accessories, makeup and kimono) that I otherwise would never have had the opportunity to examine.
Five down, five to go. Stay tuned for the rest of my top ten photos of 2013 in just a few days!