Archive for May, 2008

An American Go Player in Japan

One reason Japan has had some allure for me is that the game of Go is played here widely (although it originated in China). There is an extensive professional circuit as well as a less refined culture of play for lowly rank amateurs like me.


My first stop on my go tour was the largest go organization in Japan, the Nihon Kiin in Tokyo. I did what was surely a very impolite thing in Japan – I showed up unannounced. It was like a pilgrimage to Mecca of sorts – you just go!


So an unlucky office worker there was gracious enough to show me around the 7-8 story building, eventually leaving me in the small but well done go museum, so he could get back to his work. Here is one of the general go playing rooms.

In Kyoto I had the good fortune to stay at the country home of Matsumoto-san, a very strong go player who the tirelessly helpful Yoshi-san introduced me to. Mr. Matsumoto was the epitome of Japanese hospitality, offering me his traditional wooden Japanese home in Yoshitomi, outside of Kyoto. Here he is in his sitting room – and what is that on TV – a professional go tournament (Michael Redmond was giving commentary)!


 And of course we had the opportunity to play a few games of go in this room at his house:


Needless to say, Matsumoto-san came out ahead. And his hospitality extended beyond his home. He took me to Osaka where I was able to get a new go board (to replace the one that was stolen along with my car before I left for Japan). And the friendly woman at the store GAVE me a nice set of stones after hearing about the theft.

And then he took me to the Kansai Kiin, the other big go organization in Japan. He had set up a meeting with none other than Maeda-sensei, a professional player of the Kansai Kiin whom I had met at past go congresses. We had tea, and he showed me around the building and then came the holy grail of go. He was able to show me a professional tournament game being played in the top pro playing room – and let me quietly take a quick photograph. Truly the inner sanctum of the Japanese go world. But I know, a bore to the non-go players out there.


Again, domo arigato gozaimasu Matsumoto-san, Yoshi-san, and Maeda-sensei!

Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.



Intro to Kyoto 101

Kyoto is a very deep subject, so this will only be a quick introduction. On the surface, Kyoto looks something like this:


As you can see, It is indeed a modern city with all the trappings and ‘beauty’ modernity provides. But hey, we don’t die of diarrhea, and we don’t wash our laundry on rocks by the river. In contrast to Tokyo, Kyoto (they are anagrams you know) is very laid back and relaxed. Of course New York might feel relaxed after Tokyo as well. But there is an undeniable ease about the place.

When one reads about Kyoto, you get the impression you will be going back in time, with it’s centuries old temples and traditions. This is indeed the heart of Japanese cultural and spiritual life. Kyoto was once the imperial capital of the country. But that was then, this is now.  The first impression might be ‘what is all the fuss about?’, but of course all these grand sites are indeed here. One just needs to know where to look – or follow the hoards of Japanese tourists and religious pilgrims. And even when one is not looking, there amidst the crassly current, is a temple or old wooden house tucked away somewhere.


Yea, Kyoto is indeed two worlds. There are ancient temples hidden away in unlikely corners as well as in the hills surrounding the city. And at night, the glow of the lanterns can draw you towards an incense filled temple, or a fine Japanese restaurant, or maybe a Geisha house. One never knows. But the city has a low key mystery about it. As a foreigner, it’s a puzzle one can never crack.

So one might see a Geisha on the streets of Gion, the old Geisha district. Or is she just a Japanese wannabe, paying for the privilege to don the expensive kimono and the white face for a day. One never knows…

And away from some of the brash architecture of modern Japan there are these wooden homes and businesses, often down narrow lanes. So pristine and pure in form…


And I am very lucky to have been invited into the home of Matsumoto-san (a friend of a friend) who lives in the country outside of Kyoto. But that’s another post.

And of course there’s the Shinto shrines and the Buddhist temples and the confusing blending of the two all around the city.


But this is just an intro course, so we will have to dig deeper later.


Meanwhile, Back in Tokyo…

The people keep cramming onto the subway.


They keep running around looking either all business or like a cartoon.


Or just plain hip!


Even though this is arguably the largest city on the world, so many things here are small. Like this bar called Forbidden Fruit I peaked into to grab this shot of the hip woman all alone in the tiny bar.

And while the city is busy being hip, cool and weird, it’s always efficient. The trains run like clockwork, the taxi cabs have automatic doors, there are always little voices speaking things softly in Japanese when walking into a store, or onto the elevator. Most doors in business and offices are automatic or you push a button were the doorknob would be and the door slides open. Just like Star Trek!

Even food is delivered efficiently. Like in this sushi place, where the food goes around on a conveyor and you pick what you want to eat.


It’s enough to make to make your head spin…


Which is a good reason to go up north into the mountains to the town of Nikko, with it’s serene temple complex of Toshu-gu set among the trees. But first you must walk by (not over) this historic red bridge called Shin-kyo, which dates back to 1636.


Of course I am like a kid in a candy store in theses temple complexes. And I could have a tantrum since photography is almost never allowed inside. But I mostly take it with Zen calm (and maybe sneak one if no one is looking).

Tomorrow it’s off to Kyoto, the cultural and spiritual heart of Japan.

But before I uh, go, take a look at this detail from the temple in Nikko. Looks like they are playing my favorite game – go!




Holier Than Thou?

First of all, it’s nice to be traveling with friends (and friends of friends), but starting every morning at the Starbucks right near our hotel is a bit much guys! Not to mention it’s right beside a Krispy Kreme, where the line runs way out the door every night. For fairness and full disclosure, I did indulge once, just to support a North Carolina original.

Fortunately my friend Larry (who planned out his Japan trip to every, last, excruciating detail) had highlighted many of the same things I wanted to see. So I have done my best to hang with them, until, invariably, I stop to do some photography and they move on. That’s ok, really, I am fine on my own. So anyway, we have been to lots of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, which is one of the things I want to see.

On the surface, these various religions and faiths look very different, but at the core they are strikingly similar. Sure, when the Japanese Buddhists put there hands together to pray, that make a loud slap, as if to wake the lazing Buddha before them, but still the hands are reverently together. Same same – as they say in broken English all around the world.

Yesterday, we took a trip south out of the city to the seaside town of Kamakura. Which is famous for this giant, if not a bit green, Buddha:


These temples are very interesting, often with long pathways leading to them, sometimes very dramatically. Thare are usually large gates that overhang the pathway marking the entrance to the temple grounds. Incense are a big part of the ritual of these temples, very much like with Catholic or Orthodox Christianity, and these were burning in a spherical container in front of the big B himself.

At another temple, we were fortunate to encounter a wedding being performed. Who would have thought I would come all this way to shoot a wedding! It seemed like I was working harder than the official photographer there. Meanwhile, the guys were impatiently waiting for me back at the entrance, but I wasn’t going to miss this.

In a place like this!

Sorry guys.


Blade Runner Meets the Beaver

Tokyo, what can I say? This place is big and bizarre. Brash and yet oddly quiet. If you have seen the movie Blade Runner, you have a taste. If not, rent it, it’s great. There are countless parts of the city with buildings covered with 5-10 story video screens, huge advertisements, lights, neons, and signs of all shapes, sizes and colors. Yet walking the streets seem relatively quiet. People don’t talk loud. Rides on the extensive subway are odd for their quiet. No one uses a cell phone while on the trains. Not to say no one uses cell phones here, they are glued to them. But they do email and all kinds of other things, often transfixed for long periods of time.


There is a retro feeling about the place because everyone is so well behaved, polite and formal. And they dress so well, the men are always wearing suits by day. And then there are the lights. Hugh TV screens on every corner, screaming lights that more than make up for the relative silence of the city. I am not sure I have even heard a horn used yet. But the lights can’t be missed.


Food has been fun. Many restaurants have fake versions of the dishes they serve. The first night I had just taken a picture of the display in the window when we decided to go in and eat.  And since the menu was not in English I could not tell them what I wanted. So I brought the picture up on my camera screen and zoomed in to my dish, and bingo, instant communication. Technology has been a problem, but it can also help!

Enjoy your dinner. I enjoyed mine (bottom right).


Technology problems

All is well here. I have been having a number of technology problems that have kept me from getting pictures on the blog. But rest assured I am taking many pictures, and am continuing to try to get this working.

Tokyo impressions coming soon.

The Polar Express

You might think that to get to Japan via New York (where I flew through) you would fly over the Pacific Ocean. But actually to make this long flight, well, fly, they do this sensible thing and fly the shortest path, which in this case took m right over the Arctic NORTH of Alaska and through Siberia. It was a very weird and desolatetete landscape all covered in snow with no signs of human habitation.

So lucky for me the flight was only 13 hours! Problem was we were flying so fast that the sun never set, despite the fact when we arrived a little early here it was only 2 in the afternoon – the next day! So for me, the sun never set on may 17th, and today in the land of the Rising Sun it rose on the 19th.

Hopefully you are confused, so am I.

What is also confusing is this little place they call Tokyo. Some 20 million people jostling for space where there is little. On my first glance it seems like a confusing jumble buildings and roads. I met up with my friends with no problem and we are staying in a tower in the heart of the city. But this city seems to have a few hearts, so we areat least in one of them. I as able to stay awake long enough to get dinner and wander around some at night before collapsing in bed at about 10:00. Yup that’s right, 10:00. That was about 9 in  emorning East  coast time – THE NEXT DAY.

And the first night’s view from the hotel.