Archives for posts with tag: Japan

I’m currently winding up a week-long business trip to New Brunswick, NJ, and I didn’t bring my camera this time. Thing is, I learned some time ago that this particular series of meetings involves being locked away in hotel ballrooms, which are generally not photogenic, and since New Jersey in November is not a welcoming climate for this thin-blooded, hothouse flower of a Southern Californian, there’s little allure to wandering the undoubtedly charming streets outside. Other business trips, however, have offered more photogenic opportunities both inside and out. I take my job very seriously, of course, but in any business trip there can usually be a little time to venture outside a bit to see what’s up within a block or two of the hotel. So today, some examples, in no particular order, of some of the photos I’ve taken wherever my work-related travels have taken me…

Glazed clay Buddhas lining a wall of the White Dagoba, Beihai Park, Beijing

Glazed clay Buddhas lining a wall of the White Dagoba, Beihai Park, Beijing (meeting of conference organizers)

Interior of Aldred Building, Montreal

Interior of the Aldred Building, at 509 Place d’Armes, Montreal (board meeting series)

Elevator bank and walkways of the Marriott Marquis in Atlanta, Georgia.

Elevator bank and walkways of the Marriott Marquis in Atlanta, Georgia (board meeting series).

Chihuly, "Ikebana Boat" at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art

Chihuly, “Ikebana Boat” at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art (conference)

Plaza surrounding the Indiana Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument, Indianapolis, Indiana

Plaza surrounding the Indiana Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, Indianapolis, Indiana (conference)

Farmer selling dates by the side of a country road north of Beijing, China trip II

Farmer selling dates by the side of a country road north of Beijing, China trip II (conference)

Public Garden, Boston, Massachusetts.

Public Garden, Boston, Massachusetts (board meeting series) Setting up for a wedding photograph at Kushida Shrine in Fukuoka, Japan

Setting up for a wedding photograph at Kushida Shrine in Fukuoka, Japan (conference)

Today’s low-tech randomizer brought me to a series of photos taken during a business trip to Fukuoka, Japan in March 2012. The three photos here really expressed a lot of “Japan-ness” for me. Let’s see what they are…

First, this is just somebody’s front porch. I was walking around sidestreets in the city and came across this home. With the paper lantern, bicycles, architecture, and umbrella, it dredged up fond (but now disturbingly distant) childhood memories of storybooks and National Geographic articles about Japan. Obviously, Japanese culture cannot be boiled down to a doorway somewhere in Japan’s sixth-largest city, but for me it was a strangely expressive moment.

doorway in Fukuoka Japan with bicycles, umbrellas, and a paper lantern

Next, a detailed view of Jotenji Temple, built in 1242:

Jotenji Temple roof

And finally, sticking with the temple theme, the Tochoji Buddha is the largest seated Buddha statue in Japan (10m, or about 33 feet high) . The title of this photo, “Big Buddha” is absolutely not disrespectful: there is a sign at the foot of the stairway leading to the statue that reads: “Big Buddha is Upstairs.” This photo is also contraband: I was asked (after taking the photo) to please not photograph the Buddha. Given the absence of signage prohibiting photography, and there having been no direct request to actually delete the photos I’d taken, and having made a generous donation to the temple restoration fund, I don’t feel particularly bad about it. (Hm, it appears we have met the Ugly American, and he’s closer to home than we’d care to discuss.)

Big Buddha

(All photos were taken with a Nikon D90)

Once upon a time, I would have enjoyed a nice meal in a pleasant restaurant, and would likely have told people who weren’t there about it later, using colorful and descriptive language. Today, that is no longer even close to good enough. Between the twin evil temptations of the iPhone’s built-in camera and Facebook (all too easily accessible through the same phone that takes pictures), I can now share the bite-by-bite experience with the world, in real time, with images and commentary. No longer content to simply go out to a nice restaurant for dinner—or cook something wonderful myself—the act of dining is now somehow less satisfactory if I haven’t been able to brag about it (or bemoan its horribleness) with non-present others. No longer is it sufficient to share a pleasant meal with the people who are actually seated around the table; now I have to involve people all over the world with the visual and critical components of the meal. The photos aren’t great, even if the food often is. I used to just eat food. My iPhone has made me a foodie, and a rude one at that.

Sashimi Sampler at Sushi Studio, Long Beach CA

This particular post is uniquely not designed to show off photos of which I’m particularly proud. In fact, I’m possibly anything but proud of the photos here, in terms of technique and artistry. But the point is not really that I took these photos (something about which I’m normally quite self-promotional and hubris-y), but that I was able to take them.

(For those of you who care about such matters, the specs for my phone(iPhone 4, model 8E200) are these: 5.0 Mpixels (2592 x 1936); 1/3.2″ back-illuminated CMOS sensor; 4:3 aspect ratio; 35 mm film camera crop factor: 7.64; Low ISO 80; 3.85 mm lens focal length; f/2.8 lens aperture; Autofocus: tap to focus.)

I’m not alone in this. Just last night I was in a fairly upscale, fairly dimly-lit celebrity-chef restaurant in San Francisco, and alarmingly bright iPhone flashes were going off at every table, every time a new (beautiful and delicious) course was brought to the table.

Delicious, melt-in-your-mouth duck breast at Michael Mina's in San Francisco

Fancy-shmancy grilled cheese sandwich and tomato bisque appetizer at Michael Mina's in San Francisco

Let me be clear, I don’t do this every time I go out. Thanks to the nature of my profession, though, I have frequent opportunities to eat in remarkable and/or relatively exotic places. Those occasions seem to be “special” enough to be shared with others. However, there’s still that whole photus-interruptus thing that niggles at the back of my conscience–but I’ve learned to ignore those conscience-niggles for some time now.

For example, I was in Japan last month, and was served a large squid who, despite having been partially sliced up, showed a number of signs of still being quite alive: its tentacles were waving about frantically, the eye visible to me was moving.

live squid on a plate

Live squid served at a restaurant in Fukuoka, Japan

The Japanese diners at my table merrily dug in without a break in the conversation, and I don’t criticize them for it, cultural norms being the relative and fluid things they tend to be. I, however, very quickly learned the limits of my appetite for culinary experimentation: If it’s trying to get away from me, then I’m probably not interested in eating it. (I should note that I am a huge fan of sashimi, which is a fancy way of presenting chunks of raw fish; however, the chunks are, while fresh, inarguably deceased. They are neither looking at me, nor trying to wiggle across the tablecloth and thence to the sea and safety, making them therefore fair game for my chopsticks.) Had I had my wits propertly about me (I was, admittedly, a little horrified at the time by the squid’s plight; I have already in a previous blog post admitted to a certain fondness for snails, and squids and common bivalves don’t seem to be that far removed from one another) I should have used my iPhone’s video capability to record a few seconds of squirmage. Opportunities for additional, more showy rudeness lost.

In any case, being presented with a living, wiggling creature who was clearly not 100% content with its status as an entrée is a remarkable and (for me) singular event, possibly appropriate for recordage. Being mindful of not offending my local colleagues, I tried to be as subtle and quick as possible in photographing the critter.

But just because a plate is particularly prettily presented, or just because a dinner is especially good, or even not particularly dead, shouldn’t give me tacit permission to withdraw from socializing with the real, flesh-and-blood people around me in order to chronicle the experience for others.

I made this pizza myself, and had to show it off on Facebook immediately, whether anyone cared or not.

Further, those Others, I should mention, may or may not be particularly interested that I’m having some yummy sushi. Oh, no one has complained yet, and everyone seems to have fallen into a social convention in which conversation and dining momentarily suspends while I (or someone else at the table) focuses our plastic slab. It may become, if it hasn’t already, part of the social rhythm of dining events.

I don’t think my qualms will stop me, though. Technology has a way of making itself insidiously essential, and the interruptive photo event is not likely to go away, any more than all the laws in the world will stop some folks from merrily chatting away on their (non-hands-free) phones as they barrel down the freeway, or failing to turn off ringers in theatres, or surreptitiously “check their email” every thirty-seven seconds during a particularly dull business presentation.

I don’t feel good about my Interruptive Photo Events; in fact I feel quite bad about them. But often I feel quite bad about a surprising number of things I do, and I’m unlikely to stop this one any time soon. At least not until the next technology leap permits new and as yet unexplored rude behavior.

There’s a Harry Chapin song that goes, “All my life’s a circle / Sunrise and sundown.”  And there’s a folk hymn made famous by the Carter Family, among others, that asks, “Will the circle be unbroken…” Dead or Alive described how “You spin me right round, baby / right round like a record, baby / Right round round round.” Blood, Sweat & Tears told us about the Spinning Wheel (that’s got to go round), and Tommy Roe’s head got all Dizzy (and it’s you, girl, making it spin),  and the Lion King reassured us all about the Circle of Life (which, of course, keeps great and small on the endless round). So many songs about circles.

Well, enough of that. If it’s not obvious by now, I’m obsessing a little bit about circles. Last time, I wrote about a recent trip to Japan, and I’m still thinking about that trip, for a number of reasons. So while I was looking at my photos from the Great Japanese Adventure, it occurred to me that there were a lot of, well, round things.  An unusual number of photos that featured circles, or circular objects.

Now admittedly, my compositions often tend toward the geometric, whether or not they’re abstract. I’ve frequently caught myself carefully cropping in the viewfinder, trying to split an image precisely between, say, wall and sky, or to catch just the exactly right angular perspective on part of a structure.

(I like cropping in the viewfinder, by the way. It’s helpful, at least to me, to think about what the final image will look like as a photo (photo qua photo, as one might have said back in graduate school, when one was pretty much utterly unbearably smug and self-important, as opposed to what one is now, which is–well, never mind that). That is, I may be looking at reality, but the viewfinder helps me think about the art I’m finding in the reality. But more on that some other time. For now, it’s all about circles.

And of course, I’m not opposed to circles on principle.  I have been known, from time to time, to capture circular compositions over the years.

But this many circles in a one-day photoshoot—that’s something sort of new and unexpected for me.

Now, it may be that there are just more circular things in Fukuoka than anyplace else, although that seems unlikely. It may be that in my cultural and linguistic panic (described previously), I sought the homey, snuggly, psychological comfort of round objects more than hard-edged angularity. Or it may just be utterly random, one of those little happy chances that sometimes occur without need for elaborate explanation. That’s probably the most likely explanation, but where’s the fun in that?

In any case, it is—to me at least—an interesting bit of kismet that for whatever reason my eye gravitated toward round stuff in Japan. Oh, I took my share of hard-angled geometric shots, of course, but the raw ratio of round to angular in this collection is…surprising. I’m open to suggestions regarding why this happened. A general bored disinterest is also, of course, always welcome.

Anyway, make of it what you will, here are Some Round Things, fresh from Japan:

Decoration on the gate to a Buddhist cemetery

Manhole cover in an alley. Fukuoka, Japan.

Clock on the facade of the Hakata rail station

Incense urn at Tochoji Temple

Roof of Jotenji Temple

“Japan,” someone told me, a few days before I left, “can be an acquired taste.”

Well yes.

Sensory overload, to put it mildly. I do not speak Japanese (well, other than a mangled arigatou gozaimasu and the occasional konnichiwa, which, while rendering me unfailingly polite, somewhat severely limits my normally sparkling conversational skills), so I found myself suddenly, virtually illiterate upon my arrival in Fukuoka, some 550 mile southwest of Tokyo on the island of Kyushu. Fukuoka is the eighth largest city in Japan (metro population 2.5 million, which makes it roughly the size of Chicago, the third largest city in the U.S.).  Perhaps as a result, the city is not really focused on the tourist trade, so helpful non-Japanese signage and speakers were not in the abundance they might be in Tokyo, for instance.  (Although the Convention and Visitors Bureau says Fukuoka is second only to Tokyo for convention business in Japan, so what do I know?) Still, the city was clean and attractive, and literally everyone I came into contact with was warmly polite and pleasantly patient with my hopelessly incompetent efforts to navigate my way around. Local residents happily participated in various spontaneous acts of international street mime (it’s astonishing how much information about local-versus-express trains can be communicated without words) and responded in a friendly and helpful way to my mute map-pointing and no doubt hysterically amusing pronunciations of place names.

The dominant language at my work-related functions was technically English. I say “technically” only because the subject matter was well outside my scope of comprehension—I was there in a staff capacity to support one of our sponsored techical conferences, not as a subject matter expert. The presenters, while obviously brilliant and eloquent, were talking about the theory, design and application of computer networks and distributed computing and information systems, referring to PowerPoint slides that that might as well have been in Kanji (and occasionally were) for all they made any sense to me.

Keynote Presentation with PowerPoint slide

Prof. Shoichi Noguchi presenting the Day 1 Keynote, "The Design Principle of the Robust Information and Communication System under the Great Natural Disaster" at AINA 2012, Fukuoka, Japan

But the conference was well-attended and smoothly-run; the banquets and dinners were delightful and collegial; the organizers and participants cordial and very interesting to talk with. I was able to do some operational good, solve a problem or two, hear some important concerns raised, and generally managed to not get in anyone’s way or unduly embarass myself, so I’d call it a rousing success.

But sensory overload, to say the least. I was very much a stranger in a strange land, surrounded by signs and announcements and graphics and flashing neon things and television broadcasts that made very little sense to my parochial mind. Where signage was in English, it was often in very random English, seemingly selected for how the words looked more than what their normally-intended meaning was. (The same presumably goes, perhaps, for all those Kanji tattoos that are so popular amongst the denizens of Southern California; oh sure the tattoo artist says 愚か means Luck and Prosperity, but you can’t run your bicep through Babelfish once it’s inked.)

I don’t like being illiterate. I really, really don’t. I’m not illiterate when I’m at home. It makes me nervous. I’m not xenophobic, but I am all about words, all about the ongoing narrating of my life that goes on somewhere in the back of my brain, so I suppose I’m naturally illiteracy-phobic. For a guy who loves photography, I’m still all about the words (those of you who bravely plow through these blogs know that by now).  If I’m all about words for the most part, then I’m pretty lost without them. In Europe and South America I may not speak the language but I at least recognize the letters as words, and the convenience of common Latin and Nordic and Romance roots makes the experience a little less like being on another planet. Combine the linguistic illiteracy with an accompanying cultural illiteracy (the book I read about Japanese history prior to my trip proved to be little help at all when, at dinner one evening, I was served a still-very-much-alive squid, its tentacles waving about as chopsticks descended) and I was very much adrift.

Like any other business trip, though, I made sure to make some time for me and the Nikon to wander about. And Fukuoka, while not necessarily a tourist magnet, has a lot of remarkable treats to offer the wandering photographer. And pictures, as we know, can be worth more than words—a comfort to the struggling foreign illiterate.

I also found that it helps, when feeling overwhelmed by a culture and language well beyond one’s comfort level, to go small. That’s often my tendency in photography, anyway: Look for patterns in the details, for pieces of the whole that make sense on their own, and focus on that. Vast landscapes, wide-angle street scenes—those don’t tend to be my interest or, particularly, my forté. Focusing more on the small stuff helped me feel more comfortable in a very large and confusing place. Looking for pattern and detail helped isolate the cacophony of image and sound around me, and eased me more gently into my environment.

Roof beams, Tochoji Temple, Fukuoka, Japan

Door to Buddhist Cemetery in Fukuoka, Japan.

Incense sticks in a large bronze urn, Tochoji Temple, Fukuoka, Japan

Green demon-mask at Kushida Shrine in Fukuoka, Japan

Conveniently, it was the beginning of cherry blossom time in Fukuoka, which provided the opportunity for different details. (Even more conveniently for the detail-minded, it was not yet full-blown cherry blossom time, so there were no breathtaking vistas of low-hanging pink and aromatic floral clouds lining park paths and creating landscape temptations.)

Cherry blossoms in Maizuru Park, Fukuoka, Japan

Of course, that’s not to say that some things weren’t well worth the risk of standing back and taking in the whole picture. Sometimes, I suppose, one has to take a deep breath and be very brave and look beyond the micro to face the big, scary world outside the details. There’s a lot to be seen in bits and parts and pieces, in the close-in and carefully-framed; it would seem, though, that there’s also something to be said for sometimes standing up and taking a good look around.

Setting up a Shinto wedding photograph at Kushida Shrine, Fukuoka, Japan

Orange pagoda tower at Tochoji Temple, Fukuoka, Japan

Samurai warriors in Maizuru Park, Fukuoka, Japan

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