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Thursday, November 30, 2006

Kyoto International Manga Museum

京都国際マンガミュイジアム

Kyoto International Manga Museum, KyotoKyoto, better known for its traditional arts, is now home to two of Japan’s premier manga institutions: Kyoto Seika University, which is the only university in Japan to offer an undergraduate major in manga; and the Kyoto International Manga Museum, which recently opened.

The latter opened on November 25th in a renovated former elementary school in central Kyoto, on Karasuma Dori just north of Oike Dori. The museum was the brainchild of Seika officials, and is Japan’s only museum devoted entirely to the modern art form born in Japan.

The old school has been beautifully renovated, leaving much of the original structure as it was. The former classrooms now serve as galleries, performance spaces, libraries, and there is a room on the history of the school; corridors have drawings on most of the available wall space.

The outside too is lovely. The school playground has been covered in that rarest of commodities in Japan: a lawn. Children and adults roamed the green space not sure exactly what to do, but enjoying it nonetheless. The exterior of the building as well was thoughtfully redone in a color befitting Kyoto.

Kyoto International Manga MuseumThe Museum has also clearly considered one of its core constituencies—young people. When you enter the facility on the first floor, the first attraction is a drawing area. Pens and pencils and paper are provided and set out on large tables; children (of all ages) immediately gravitated towards the tables. Next, farther in and next to the elevator, is an artist who will do manga-style portraits. Last, in all of the galleries, there are shelves and shelves of books and magazines that are there to be read and handled. Young staff were there to guide and help.

Including a basement, the Museum has four floors. The basement is a library and research facility; the first floor consists of the entrance, a café, a museum shop, and a library for pre-schoolers. The second floor is where the main galleries are. Large open rooms feature manga from around the world. The third floor is a “research zone,” with some manga better not seen by pre-teens.

Tickets are 500 yen for adults, 300 for junior and senior high school students, and 100 yen for elementary school age children. Children not yet in school enter free.

Perhaps the only criticism is that there is virtually no English guidance or information. As the medium is visual, this is perhaps petty. However, many non-Japanese visitors--clearly tourists--were in attendance the day we went, and no doubt would benefit from knowing about the magazine cover or drawing they were looking at.

Kyoto International Manga Museum
Karasuma-Oike, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto, Japan
Tel: 075-254-7414

Directions: The Museum is a one-minute walk from Karasuma Oike subway stop, which is on both the Karasuma and the Tozai lines.

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Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Arimatsu

有松

Arimatsu, located in Midori-ku in south east Nagoya, was an old Edo-period (1603-1867) post station town on the Tokaido highway between Kyoto and Tokyo.

Edo-style merchant's house - House of Oka

Arimatsu's claim to fame are its intricate Arimatsu shibori (tie-dyed fabrics). The technique is used to produce colorful designs for cotton kimonos, yukata, noren, handkerchiefs and table cloths.

Shibori

As the industry is still carried on to this day, many of the original merchant houses have been preserved. There are a number of shops and shibori museums where visitors can purchase both traditional and more contemporary tie-dyed products as well as try their hand at producing them.

Arimatsu Narumi Shibori Kaikan is a good place to start.

The technique found its way to the Nagoya area when craftsmen from Oita in Kyushu, skilled in the shibori technique were ordered to help in the construction of Nagoya Castle by the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu and later settled in the area. The most influential figure in the history of Arimatsu's tye-dye industry was Takeda Shokuro, whose memorial can be seen just behind the car park of Arimatsu Narumi Shibori Kaikan.

Arimatsu's colorful festival is held on the first Sunday of October and consists of a street parade with floats and participants in traditional costume celebrating Arimatsu's history as a shibori center and Tokaido post town since 1608. The floats have mechanical dolls (karakuri) riding on top of them - one of which can even write!

Hotei-sha Float used in the Arimatsu autumn festival

If you stroll down the main street of the old quarter there are a number of fine, preserved merchant houses, with Nurigome-style, anti-fire, clay coatings and second-floor latticework windows, including Takeda's house, which are all well-worth a look. The original buildings were destroyed by a fire in 1784 and the houses seen today date from after that year, when the buildings were rebuilt with thick plaster walls and tiled roofs as a defence against fire.

It is also possible to see the impressive festival floats at the Arimatsu Festival Float Museum (Open 10am-4pm; closed Wednesday; Tel: 062 621 3000) and in the other large store houses where they are kept.

The contrast between old and modern Arimatsu could not be more stark and the station area is dominated by a huge Aeon store and a new elevated highway, the contemporary successor to the old Tokaido, is under construction just outside the town.

Arimatsu and the Tokaido with an elevated highway under construction in the background

Access: Arimatsu station on the Meitetsu Honsen Line from Nagoya station.

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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Autumnal Nagano

長野の秋の姿

The autumnal slopes and aquamarine water of Koshibu valley

I was lucky enough to spend some time in Shinshu (信州), the old name for Nagano, earlier this month. The mountainous area near Matsukawa in southwestern Nagano was well ahead of Kyoto in terms of autumnal tints, as this picture shows. Calcium carbonate washing down from the limestone of Mt. Akaishi lends the Koshibu valley waters a milky cast that reflects the clear blue skies and russet hillsides in an otherworldly aquamarine.

Mountain views in Oshika

My host is a brisk, inveterate driver of the windy road up from Matsukawa to the mountain village of Oshika (大鹿, literally 'big deer') where I spent my long weekend. This is the view from the village, marred only by power lines. My visit coincided with the first snow on the peaks.

I was not there so much to lounge around and look at the view as to learn some practical skills. My first task was to assist in the repapering of some of the paper shoji panels in my room. Water liberally applied from a cloth softens the paper and makes it a breeze to strip it off the squares of the wooden frame. A little trickier is applying the glue and new paper in a neat and permanent fashion.

Apple jelly, and the view through my shoji

On the table in front of the shoji panels is a jar of apple jelly, which I bought at the local produce festival down the valley. Apples are Nagano's signature crop, but there are many other fruits and vegetables to be shown off -- and this is exactly what the festival provides a venue for.

Prize-winning daikon

Prize daikons, carrots and other root vegetables stretch along tables and sport competition placings. While you can't help yourself to the prize-winners, there are plenty of other things to snack on, such as the local mochi-on-a-stick, charcoal-grilled right before you.

Freshly grilled mochi

And, of course, there is the local entertainment, this year a group of young ethnic-dance enthusiasts.

Ethnic dancers

Enthusiastic young dancers

It is hard to match the relaxed warmth of the local produce festival in Oshika. As the days grow colder, it is such a sunniness of local spirit that will sustain the residents through the long winter to come.

A blur of autumnal tints through tree trunks



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Monday, November 27, 2006

Colors of Autumn Ginkgo Tree in Japan

銀杏

ginkgo After the Susuki begins its display, and before the full intensity of the Maple's red leaves, the Ginkgo tree puts on its show.


ginkgo in Japan Ginkgo Bilaba, known as Icho (銀杏) in Japanese, are a very ancient species of tree, and the species here in Japan came originally from China.

Japanese ginkgo Shrines and temples will often have a solitary Ginkgo tree towering over them, and its golden display can be seen from a distance like a beacon.


ginkgo leaves in Japan As they shed their leaves, a golden carpet is made underfoot.


Japanese gingko Following the leaves, the fruits of the female trees then drop, and a foul smell ensues. Inside the rotting flesh of the fruit can be found a very nutritious nut, Ginnan, though only those with a weak sense of smell will be able to spend long collecting them.

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Japan images by Jake Davies

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Christmas in Shinjuku

新宿のクリスマス

Christmas has come early to Tokyo, as it has to most commercial centres in Japan -- as early as October in some places! But the commercial hub of Shinjuku makes sure that no-one misses the message.

Febrile festive shopping For that last-minute Santa hatAt this store you can purchase that last-minute tacky Christmas-party costume or the latest in long-lasting, power-saving, multiple-sequencing LED tree lights.
The atmosphere isn't exactly festive on the narrow streets, where harried pedestrians bustle, marginalised by constant traffic and overshadowed by towering blocks that double as gaudy advertising hoardings.
Welcome to Shinjuku

But there are many cosy cafes in the side streets at which one may take a break and indulge in a seasonal drink such as a shortbread latte or a silver-ball-topped cappuccino. Couples are out in force enjoying the late-autumn sunshine before the real Christmas weather sets in.
Strolling in the backstreet sunlight
In summary, Shinjuku is much less dressed up for Christmas than some of its up-market neighbours such as Omotesando, Aoyama and Roppongi (see my next blog), but it knows how to have a good time -- or at least its many pachinko parlours, 'fashion health' centres and discount stores are one version of a good time. If these are too much for you, simply let the crowds lead you through the skyscrapers to eateries that range from Kansai noodles through Korean barbeque to top-flight European cuisine and Southeast-Asian buffets.
Let the crowds take you where they will


Arashiyama Autumn Leaves

嵐山 第二回
A rare two-level pagoda at Nisonin
Arashiyama is finally colouring up as the temperature comes down. It's the right time to explore temples such as Tenryuji (天竜寺) and Nisonin (二村院), pictured, the latter where the poet Teika completed the immortal collection Hyakunin-Isshu(百人一首, One Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets).

Below a priest explains Teika's enshrinement at the temple, viewed through the chain that functions as a water down pipe when it rains.

A priest giving his take on Teika
There are also plenty of historic and literary spots that are non-religious, such as Rakushisha (落紫舎), the House of Falling Persimmons, which the haiku poet Basho stayed at three times.

Zabuton for two at Rakushisha
The banana tree on the grounds is said to have provided Basho with his pen name, basho (芭蕉).

Basho's banana palm? At this time of year, after all the season of "mellow fruitfulness" as the Western Romantic poet Keats put it, many plants are putting on exotic displays of fecundity. Anyone who can identify the fecundity below, please let us know! (And no, it's not a persimmon....)

Mystery fruit Given Arashiyama's poetic pedigree, it's little surprise that even haiku are in bloom in the neighbourhood at this time of year!

A haiku hangs outside a local residence

Arashiyama Part 1

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Geta

下駄
Click here to listen to the clack-clack of traditional Japanese geta clogs on JapanVisitor podcast.

Geta: Japanese clogs.Geta are traditional Japanese clogs, but more like wooden flip-flops than an enclosed shoe. They are distinctive for being mounted of two blocks of wood, fore and aft, which in turn give geta their distinctive clip-clopping (in Japanese karan-koron) sound when being walked in.

My first three years in Japan were spent deep in the Japanese countryside in the late 1980s. Geta took my fancy immediately upon seeing them, and I bought a pair. However, a teacher at the junior high school I taught at - in a word, my Japanese 'mother' - took one look at them parked in my genkan (entranceway) on her subsequent visit to my place and told me most gently that if I were to actually wear them 'people will think you are a foolish fellow'!

Regretfully, therefore, I let them sit in the genkan, and eventually during one of my moves must have gotten rid of them. Now a lot older, and clearly no wiser, I indeed regret having let them go. The streets of Tokyo would, I'm sure, delight in drily echoing my foolishness.
Click at the top for one of Japan's most nostalgic sounds, the sound of geta.

Image © 2004-2005 Vanessa Oguchi, All Rights Reserved

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Images by Vanessa Oguchi

Friday, November 24, 2006

Hot Staff

ホット・スタッフ (「熱い社員」)

Click here to watch bright, flashing, life-size animated Tokyo roadside construction warning signs.


Donna Summer's 'Hot Staff' on karaoke.Went for karaoke with a few workmates. It was a tiny little second floor room looking out over a street in Tokyo's Yotsuya district, less than a minute's walk from the office.

Half a dozen or so of us sat around drinking, eating snacks, laughing and talking, while one or two of the company belted it out over the mikes.

Frank Sinatra's My Way on karaoke.
The karaoke index books, both of them, were yellow pages thickness, packing in not only almost every Japanese song ever written, but thousands of English, Korean and Chinese numbers too. Even the Japanese staff sang a lot of English songs. I dueted Frank Sinatra's 'My Way' with one of them, introduced them to Dolly Parton's '9 to 5', which went down very well, and indulged in a bit of 70s nostalgia with Donna Summer's 'Hot Stuff' which - perhaps appropriately in that it was a work do, and in that I had sung '9 to 5' before it, was hilariously mispelt in the book as 'Hot Staff'! 'I need some hot staff, baby, this evening, gimme some hot staff, baby, tonight'. Made me sound something like boss of a whorehouse on the phone to a recruiting agency.

Roadworks signs on a Tokyo street.Cycled home along Shinjuku-dori very carefully (had had one or two schochus) and stopped to take a short mpg movie of the flashing, pulsing, life-size animated roadworks signs that you can see by clicking the link at the top of this entry. Unfortunately the vivid colors of the animated guy doing the waving didn't come out well at all, but the shape of the figure is clear enough.

Buy online the toy that has charmed Japan, made in Japan: Kewpie - from GoodsFromJapan.

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Thursday, November 23, 2006

Susuki Japanese Pampas Grass


susuki Nothing says "Autumn" like susuki.

Literally.

If the word susuki appears in a Japanese poem or haiku, then the reader instantly knows the poem is set in autumn.

susuki pampas grass

Susukisaka umi hetomukai arukunari

The path
Of Japanese pampas grass
I walk to the sea

susuki One of the seven flowers of Autumn, Miscanthus Sinensis, sometimes known as Japanese Pampas Grass, or Japanese Plume Grass, grows to a height of 2 metres, and its silky white flowers catch the light and cause shimmering displays wherever it is found.

Its reeds were once used for thatching roofs, and nowadays its domain is threatened by the invasive Goldenrod from America.

susuki
Conversely, in America, Susuki-known as Fairy Grass, is invading the domain of the native Goldenrod.

Susuki can be found typically in the gravel beds alongside rivers, and wherever land is untended.

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Japan images by Jake Davies

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Yotsuya Tokyo

四谷 東京

Yotsuya, Chiyoda ward, Tokyo.Yotsuya, (literally 'Four Valleys') only a few minutes walk from Nagatacho, the political center of Japan, and the imperial palace, is one of Tokyo's main business districts: vibrantly busy by day but almost dead at night.

The shot on the right is of Yotsuya-Mitsuke intersection, looking down Shinjuku-dori, just in front of Yotsuya Station, which serves the JR Chuo line, the subway Marunouchi line, and the subway Nanboku line.





Yotsuya, Chiyoda ward, Tokyo.
Behind the rows of mainly 10- to 15-storey buildings that line the main thoroughfare of Shinjuku-dori, are tucked away one or two very pleasant parks, some elegant residences, and numerous restaurants.








Yotsuya, Chiyoda ward, Tokyo.Today was an exceptionally beautiful autumn day, with bright silvery sun, dry, clear air, and just cool enough to keep you on your toes but not make you shiver.

The colors were vivid, as was the contrast of light and shade, and the clarity of everything brought even the most distant things to life.








Yotsuya, Chiyoda ward, Tokyo.I snapped a few photos during lunchtime, enjoying the reflections, the contrasts, and the sharp outlines. There's something about shadow on a bright, clear day, creating sometimes dramatic silhouettes, or pockets of quietude and intimacy.

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Sunday, November 19, 2006

Book Review: Photography in Japan 1853 - 1912

日本の写真史 1853年 −1912年

Photography in Japan: 1853-1912, by Terry Bennett

Terry Bennett has created a work of art. In Photography in Japan, Bennett documents not just the Japanese and foreign photographers—who would today be considered either artists and/or workaday professionals—and their photos but also the seismic changes that took place in Japan from the opening of the country in the mid-nineteenth century to the early part of the 20th century.

Photography in JapanThere are 350 images that document Japan's evolution from feudal society to modern nation-state. The pictures range from the cinematic and panoramic to the everyday and homey. Images of fierce unsmiling samurai are terrifying—and a stark reminder of Japan's not so distant past as a warrior nation. In addition, there are several shots of murdered Westerners who, as a result of perceived slights—not showing enough deference at a chance meeting—against the aforementioned samurai were slaughtered on the spot.

Contrast these with the many shots of children and home interiors, geisha relaxing while not on duty and nudes. These show the softness for which Japan continues to be known.

Also of interest are Bennett's descriptions and biographies of the photographers themselves. What lives they lead! The serendipitous routes that brought them to Japan, which had just opened in mid-century, are themselves worthy of a book.

As a result of mid-nineteenth century Japanese politics, there are many, many shots of Nagasaki and Yokohama, two of the earliest and largest foreign settlements. Both were what can only be described as small fishing villages. For anyone who has been to Yokohama, in particular, in the last 30 years, these shots are from another universe. The bay in Nagasaki, at least, is still recognizable; the pictures of Yokohama, in contrast, are otherworldly in their antiquity and grace.

In the early sections, the cityscape in Yokohama is completely “Japanese” in appearance. Later in the 19th century, a jarring photo has rickshaw drivers resting or waiting for customers on a street. But for the men, it could be taken from Paris or London from the same period. The buildings and street have been completely made over and rebuilt in a single generation.

Plus ca change.

This is a wonderful book that can be looked at—and read—over and over again.

Photography in Japan: Buy this book from Amazon
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Saturday, November 18, 2006

J-League Supporters

Jーリーグの応援

Listen to the sounds of Urawa Reds soccer supporters

I went to see Nagoya Grampus Eight play Urawa Reds in Toyota in the J-League today. Urawa supporters, from the grim Tokyo suburbs of Saitama Prefecture, have the most fearsome and loudest reputation in Japanese soccer and it is certainly deserved from my experience today.



What the average hard core supporter can see of a J-League game
Urawa top the J-League and are on course for their first J-League title. Nagoya, backed by the wealth of Toyota Corporation and playing many of their home games in the state-of-the-art Toyota Stadium, should be up there challenging but tend to languish season after season in mid-table mediocrity.

Category 3 seats at 4,000 yen a pop were sold out so I went for the 2,200 yen "free seats" which meant just standing anywhere you could in the aisles or behind the main banks of seating in the corridors.
I spent the first half off to the side of the main flag-waving "oendan" (supporters' group) watching the rather drab, slow-paced football fare on offer, with the traditional soccer terrace smell of tobacco and beer oozing up from around me.


Urawa supporters off to the side of the hard-core fans
Urawa fans kept up a selection of impressively-loud orchestrated chants and hand signals for most of the first 45 minutes. One or two were reminiscent of a Nuremberg rally but on the whole just variations on global soccer standards.
Besides whistling Nagoya when in possession, none of the noise seemed to have much relevance to events on the pitch. This was a chance for mass karaoke and an opportunity to let off some steam after the working week.

After a half-time beer spent watching Reds fans in wheelchairs smoking cigarettes, I decided to brave the hard-core mosh pit directly behind the goal. Big mistake, this time. After a few minutes of watching the match, taking occasional photos and not jumping up and down along with everyone else, I felt an aggressive tap on the shoulder and was told this area was for "oen" (support).

Hard core Urawa fans - just before things turned nasty

I ignored that and carried on but a few moments later the abuse started coming in from both left and right. The guy on my right shouted "Get outto - oen ni jama" (Get out, your disturbing my support!) and pushed me in the chest. I staggered back knocking over the person behind me and decided this was time to leave.

Nagoya went on to win the game 1-0. I beat a hasty exit, not wishing to run in to any of the by now, no doubt, irate Reds fans I'd clearly incensed. Or did the result really matter? There was no obvious real disappointment or anger after Grampus scored, that you'd experience amongst football fans in England or Italy. The Red chanting just started up again with even more fervor.

I've taken photos in the hard-core zones at both Osaka Gamba and Cerezo Osaka, and though the fans don't like it, this is the first time I've felt physically threatened. I won't be doing it again.
The areas behind the goals are for committed, replica shirt-wearing, pogoing, chanting fans only.

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Friday, November 17, 2006

Japan Communist Party

日本共産党

Listen to the sounds of the Japan Communist Party campaigning

Nakano-Sakaue MacDonalds, Tokyo.Had gone to bed last night without doing my breakfast prep ritual, so had to cycle bleary eyed and cold to the local McDonald's at 8 this morning.

Fought the devil that said 'go for the hotcakes' and went for the salad bagel option. It looks healthier. Went upstairs and sat at one of the big group tables. My unshavenness, bleariness, loud shirt and foreignness got prissy Mr. Immaculate Houndstooth Jacket sitting almost across from me slightly hissy.

Gobbed the McD and back outside had to get off my bike as soon as I'd got on when I remembered I had to stock up on cash. Pulled extra out of my Shinsei Bank account in the ATM inside Nakano-sakaue subway station to top up my Mitsubishi-Tokyo UFJ account.

Went to Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ and tried to put the money in (the 'Deposit' button was lit up), but it rejected my card.

Called the bank's ATM center on the interphone.

'Excuse me but I was just trying to deposit some money, but the machine wouldn't accept my card.'

'What kind of card do you have? One originally from the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi or from the UFJ Bank?'

'A Tokyo-Mitsubishi one.'

'I'm sorry, but you can't deposit money until 8.45'

'But the 'Deposit' button is lit up.'

'Well, if it were a UFJ Bank card you could deposit money immediately, but because it's a Tokyo-Mitsubishi one, you will have to wait until 8.45.'

'So I should get a new card?'

'Yes, you could get a new card.'

'And then I could deposit money before 8.45 with it, right?'

'Yes, but you would have to open a new account with the UFJ part of the bank.'

'But I thought they were all one bank now.'

'Yes, they are, sir, but not all the systems are in place yet to cope with the merger.'

'OK, I see. Thank you.' (instead of exclaiming 'But they merged 11 fucking months ago!!')

'Thank you, sir, and our sincere apologies for the inconvenience'.


Japan Communist Party campaigning in Nakano ward, Tokyo.I couldn't be bothered waiting another 12 minutes, so went back to my bike, passing, as I did, the local Japan Communist Party candidate who was campaigning at the Nakana-Sakaue intersection talking through a speaker propped on a bicylce, with three men handing out pamphlets. She seemed like a sweet lady, and when I took her photo she went a little hoarse for an instant.

The flyers they were handing out were all about education policy and how the government's present policies are, if anything, encouraging bullying. Apparently the government is to start assessing schools according to their educational results. The Japan Communist Party says this will effectively give each school a
ranking, to the detriment of the ones that most need help, and thus increase pressure on everyone to 'succeed'. This, they say, will increase the tension kids feel and make the bullying problem worse.

Japan Communist Party campaigning in Nakano ward, Tokyo.Bullying is big news now as just a few days ago a girl killed herself leaving a note saying she couldn't stand any longer
the treatment she was getting from her basketball teammates.

Anyway, enough of that - check out the sounds of the Japan Communist Party candidate at the link at the top.

Funny traditional hanging faces for your wall - directly to your home

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Thursday, November 16, 2006

Hemp Mountain (Taimayama)

大麻山

Lion Dog This time of the year is the best time for walking in Japan. It's not too hot or humid, and the low winter sun creates bold shadows accenting the autumn colors. The air is clear and you can see much further, and while the full blast of colors have yet to appear, there is still plenty of nature's show to appreciate.

going up Taimayama I headed to Hamada to climb up and over Taimayama, Hemp Mountain. Until it was made illegal in the post-war American occupation, hemp was an important plant in Japan, and here in Shimane a lot of it was grown.

The narrow road heading up the mountain passes isolated farms with terraced rice-paddies.


View over Hamada After a gentle 90-minute walk the top is reached. Like too many mountains anywhere nowadays Taimayama is crowned with an array of TV, satellite, radio, and phone towers, but an observation tower has been built among them to offer fine views over Hamada and inland to the Chugoku Mountains.


Ginko leaves reflection The golden leaves of the ancient Ginko tree are common around shrines and temples. The smell of the rotting Ginko fruits laying under the tree is a smell not easily forgotten.

Drying persimmons Coming down the other side of the mountain, drying Kaki (persimmons) are a common sight. Last year I had a good harvest from the persimmon trees around my house, but this year raiding monkeys took eveything before they were ripe.

They obviously haven't had that problem here though.

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Japan images by Jake Davies