Sunrise Country – DAY SIX

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Hello again and welcome back to our Japanese journey! The sixth day was about to be a typical hot day, as springs seem to be quite warm and sunny in Kyoto. We started our journey for the day, walking the small streets that lead to Horikawa Dori, on our way to Nijo Castle. On the map, Nijo Castle was quite close from our place and we decided it was about time to see it.

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On our way, we have found an open supermarket. The diversity of sushi, sashimi, maki, nigiri and temaki was simply astonishing. Different types of sake, too. We bought some small things to have on the route ahead, but our thoughts remained glued to the fresh fish products, just prepared in that very morning.

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It was a nice stop to refresh ourselves in the cool air inside the shop and refill our backpacks for the long day ahead of us. Not too far from this supermarket, we finally found the entrance to Nijo Castle.

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Nijo Castle, or Nijojo (二条城, Nijōjō) was built at the very beginning of the Edo Era, for the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. Later it became a residence for the Imperial family. It is one of the most important landmarks you need to visit in Kyoto.

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In 1994, UNESCO designated Nijojo as a World Heritage Site. The feudal architecture is wonderfully preserved. The castle itself includes 3 areas : The Nonmaru Palace, The Ninomaru Palace and the gardens that surrounds the buildings, along with 2 concentric rings of fortifications, to guard the Shogun’s residence.

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This place holds, for so much time, a powerful print of Japan history. The construction was finished in 1626 and since then, it stands as an example of engineering, marvelous in its simplicity and efficiency, although its complex elements reside in the beautiful artistry, used to decorate the entrances and the buildings.

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After leaving the Nijojo, our way drove us to the JR Nijo Station. We needed a train ride, to get us to one of the most amazing places in Kyoto (and Japan and the whole world). From Nijo Station, to Kyoto Station and then, also by train, (thanks to our 2 week JR Passes) straight to the Inari Station.

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After a pleasant walk on a narrow, but very crowded streets, passing right in front of the train station, along the small Omiyage shops and little restaurants, we have finally found the right way to go.

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We came here to see an important Shinto shrine, in southern Kyoto, named Fushimi Inari Taisha (伏見稲荷大社). It is the essential shrine, among thousand other shrines, established in 711 in honor of the Shinto God of Rice.

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Rice means food, it means the very basic support of life, but it also means sake and Inari is the protector of this fundamental aspect of life.

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Grains, rice, sake are symbols of wealth. Visiting Fushimi Inari Taisha to pay your respect to the God of rice, seems like the right thing to do for many people. And we have seen a lot of people, Japanese people and also tourists from around the world.

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The shrine Fushimi Inari Taisha is also acclaimed for its thousands of gates, named Torii, which are well over 10.000. They wind over the hills behind the shrine and its entrance, into the forests of the sacred Mount Inari.

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Those trails go in a zigzag pattern. Sometimes you feel like you walk up this mountain, trapped in a maze. Although it didn’t feel like a maze of confinement, but more like a path to meditation. To self revealment. It was a place of revelations.

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Well, when you get a moment of silence and loneliness, away from so many groups of visitors, you can touch that inner silence, blending with the outer silence.

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It is magic. It feels like this is the place to be, to think. A place where you must return, as soon as possible and as many times as you can. Fushimi Inari Taisha have imprinted in me a strong emotional message, that I have tried to talk about here, in a previous article.

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We have explored those paths for quite some time, until the evening made its presence. I didn’t want to leave, there were still many other paths left unexplored. We made a promise to ourselves that we should return. Explore more, feel more of it.

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We have noticed many statues around the shrine. The kitsune foxes are Inari’s messengers. Some of them had a key in their mouth, the key for the rice granary.

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I was time to go. It felt like there were less tourists, than when we came. For a travel photographer, less tourists or no tourists, in such important venues is a real treat. I had my Fujifilm X+1 and my pro-grade zoom lens XF 16-55mm F2.8 WR all the time. The results in low light were quite good.

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We have left a little Torii on a wall full of similar wooden Torii, as a reminder of a magnificent day we had together in such an extraordinary place. Then we left, heading our way to the Inari Station, back on the route we came, by train.

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From Inari Station, we didn’t travel for too long, until we have arrived at Kyoto Station. This is an impressive place. The impression of vastness is only surpassed by the real dimensions of this station : it is much bigger than you see it.

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Outside, we were immersed in the cool and fresh air of the night and a beautiful show of light and water with classic music in the background, caught our attention. And every time I was at Kyoto Station, I simply loved the image of the Kyoto Tower, mirrored in the immense glass wall of the station building.

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Then, the final stage of our journey for the day : waiting, in line, for the bus to get us home, on Horikawa Dori. It was, as usual, a long day, but filled with beautiful things that we saw and felt.

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Just before getting home, we had our usual “Briefing Room” moment. We were a little dry after such a long journey and the beers were really tasty : Asahi Super Dry, Kirin and Sapporo. Family Mart, in times of need, is a trustworthy friend. The next day would have no important venues to visit. We just set that day as a free day, to celebrate in a relaxed mood, my 40th anniversary.

All photos and text – © Sebastian Boatca 2016 / http://www.sebastianboatca.com

Sunrise Country – DAY ZERO

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I have waited for a long time to catch my breath and get the force to write this story. Well, it’s not quite a story, but more a compendium of my personal impressions of my short journey to Japan.

As a travel photographer, I have quite a few photographs and I still work on them, selecting them, processing them. Sometimes I just leave them as they are, SOOC (straight out of camera). I realize this is not just „another” travel article, like the previous ones. I’d like to put it in a chronological order and maybe tell the world what was interesting in my trip, day by day.

Let’s begin…

The journey to Japan was a dream I was dreaming since I was a teenager. The culture, the traditions, the history, the technology, the so-much-different aspects were like a magnet to me. I had a collection of photos with Japan and from time to time, I enjoyed watching them in a slide-show with some chill-out musical background. A perfect moment to remind myself what is the ultimate traveler dream.

After so many years of waiting, it happened this year. End of April, beginning of May – the perfect time to travel to Japan, in the company of my best friends and what a wonderful opportunity to celebrate my 40th anniversary – There!

From Heathrow – London to Narita Airport – Tokyo, the flight is about 12 hours. You get the chance to watch some new movies during the flight. We were 5 people on this journey. The feeling you are getting close to Japan gets really stronger when you see Mount Fuji from your airplane window. It’s so distant, so hard to photograph, but you know it’s there, like a guardian for this amazing country.

Narita Airport was the place were we exchanged the JR PASS vouchers with the real JR Passes. With such passes you can travel on the Japan Railways by train without worrying about buying tickets. You can reserve places, for free, but we often traveled without reservations in the regular cars. You feel like going to another city? Just get in the train, regular or bullet-train, the famous Shinkansen.

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Excepting the Nozomi and Mizuho trains, we could travel with all the other train types on the JR lines. And if you intend to travel more than, let’s say Tokyo – Kyoto (2 way trip), the JR PASS just saves you real money.

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From Narita Airport we took the NEX line, a modern train that brought us to Tokyo Station. This is a big place underground with so many train and subway connections and this was the place when for the first time we split our group in two. Me and Gabriel needed to go to Shinjuku. The other 3, my wife Anca, Adrian and Diana took the Shinkansen to Kyoto – our first destination and our city of residence for 9 days.

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Thanks to our JR Passes me and Gabriel took a train to Shinjuku Station. After just a few stations, we were outside, in the middle of an ocean made of people coming from all directions and going to all directions. This was my first step under the Japanese sky, on a hot and sunny day. Our destination? Map Camera.

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This is the place were my favorite camera store is placed. Thanks to my friend from Tokyo (professional photographer), I had a reservation made on my name, for a brand new camera and pro-grade zoom lens. And Map Camera was the right place, after comparing prices, shops, locations – thanks to the useful info I got from Bellamy from Japan Camera Hunter (many thanks!).

We took out our maps, smartphones with GPS and made our way to Map Camera, in a zone full of electronic stores. Here you can find Bic Camera and Yodobashi Camera – which are huge stores with plenty of photo equipment, but I find them more expensive. By foot, Map Camera is not far from the station. The people we ask for directions were very polite and helpful.

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Map Camera is a special place. A store on 5 floors I guess, each floor created for specific camera brands : Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Fujifilm, Sony, Panasonic, Leica. Gabriel was interested in Canon accessories (having his famous Canon 5D Mk2 with EF 17-40mm f4 L) and I was interested in Fujifilm (having on me just the small, but IQ powerful Fuji X100S). My reservation was for a brand new mirrorless Fujifilm X-T1 paired with a professional zoom, the fantastic Fujinon XF 16-55mm F2.8 R WR, but more on this in a separate, dedicated article. The people from Map Camera were kind, leaving you the feeling you would certainly come back to their store with great pleasure (which I did). As a tourist, I got my photo gear tax free, based on my passport.

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We left the store with a big smile on our faces, scouted the area for a while. So may stores that sell everything that requires electricity and the place is crowded with people, even at noon. But we had to got back to Shinjuku Station and get the Shinkansen to Kyoto and join our friends. We followed the same route and arrived in Tokyo Station.

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We wanted to be sure we’ll have our seats reserved so we took the reservation and got into a train, the Hikari type. Coping with fatigue, we were pleased than things just went according to our plan. According to Hyperdia, the website you want to check for train timetables, the trip from Tokyo to Kyoto, with Hikari Shinkansen takes 164 min. Not “so bad” for a distance of 514 km. This trip, without the JR PASS, would cost 8.210 yen (a little over 60 euros). And the ride was indeed smooth, fast and very comfortable. Plenty of space for our tired legs. We wished we had the same space in the airplane!

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By the time we arrived in the huge and crowded Kyoto Station, the night felt rapidly over the city. We went outside, stayed in the line, waiting for a taxi and got inside the spacious car. Our ride was about 1.700 yen (about 13 euros), not until the driver tried for almost 10 min to figure out our destination, even if we had a map, an address, a number, a name, both in English and Japanese.

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It seems they use a system of landmarks, an internal map of important points, buildings, names and institutions. If you say your hotel name or you live just in front of the hospital, it’s easier than having the complete address. Our accommodation was not in a hotel, but in a building with apartments to rent. After all this mental calculations, the driver started the engine and he seemed pretty determined and sure about our destination and its location.

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When we arrived, Adrian was waiting for us in the street, in front of our building so it was quite easy. We payed the driver (of course the „keep the change” system does not work in Japan – you get your change everywhere and you pay just the exact amount you have to pay – fair and square), took our luggage and rejoined the group in one of our super-small rooms, that kind of room that gives you the feeling you live on a cheap ferry-boat. It was perfect!

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It was the time for a quick meal from Family Mart and a local beer, Asahi (remember – Family Mart is your friend, as one of the best convenience stores in Japan). We shared our first impressions – we were really tired, but happy. This was our first night in Japan – I should call it “day zero”. The adventure was about to begin, only after a good night recovering well-deserved sleep.

Day One was just around the corner, waiting for us to wake up …

All photos and text – © Sebastian Boatca 2015 / http://www.sebastianboatca.com