Photo of the Week #003

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Okunoshima, Japan | 11.12.2016
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3 Recommended Plum Blossom Spots in Kyoto

As mentioned previously in my “Plum Blossoms in Kyoto” post, I’ve promised to write down a list of recommended plum blossom spots here in Kyoto. Since there aren’t exactly a lot of plum blossom spots as compared to the mighty cherry blossoms, I could only list down 3 locations. Unlike my “5 Favourite Photography Spots in Kyoto” post, the rankings here will be in order, with #1 being my top recommendation. So here it goes…

 

1. Jonangu Shrine

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Plum Grove at Jonangu Shrine | 28.2.2017

Hands down, this is the best location for me when it comes to plum blossoms. Most of you might not know anything about this place or have never even heard about it before. Well, I don’t blame you. It’s rather underrated and mostly overlooked due to its location and its less-than-famous name in travel guides and travel websites.

Jonangu Shrine is located south of Kyoto station, probably around 30 mins subway ride (approx. 10 mins) and on foot (approx. 20 mins). You can also opt to take a bus from the shrine to Takeda station but hey, it’s nice to take long walks once in a while, right?

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Plum Blossoms at Jonangu Shrine | 28.2.2017
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Plum Grove at Jonangu Shrine | 28.2.2017

Anyway, the site of Jonangu was once said to be the part of a huge imperial palace of retired Emperor Shirakawa, with his mausoleum actually located nearby. Amazing, isn’t it?

Jonangu Shrine now of course, is more popular for its wonderful plum blossom garden that has about 150 weeping plum trees and numerous varieties of camellias. The man-made hill on which these trees are planted create a beautiful and interesting landscape, making it a paradise for nature photographers. It is best to visit around late February or early March to see the plum blossoms.

Take note that it might get slightly crowded, especially during weekends, so it’s always best to go early in the morning.

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Plum Grove at Jonangu Shrine | 8.3.2016
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Plum Blossoms at Jonangu Shrine | 28.2.2017

 

Access

From JR Kyoto Station’s Shinkansen Hachijo Gate

– 10 minutes by taxi (about ¥1200)
– 15 minutes by R’EX (Kyoto Rakunan Express) bus
(Departs every 20 minutes; Fare: adults ¥300, children ¥100)

From Takeda Station on the Kyoto City Subway Karasuma Line

– 3 minutes by taxi or 15 minutes on foot

From Takeda Station on the Kintetsu Kyoto Line

– 3 minutes by taxi or 15 minutes on foot

 

Plum Blossom Garden

Hours

February 18th – March 22nd

9 am – 4.30 pm (Last entry is at 4pm)

Admission

Adult – ¥600

Elementary/Middle School Students – ¥400

 

 

2. Kitano Tenmangu Shrine

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Plum Blossoms at Kitano Tenmangu Shrine | 25.2.2016

Much more popular than Jonangu Shrine, Kitano Tenmangu Shrine is said by many visitors to be the best location to look for plum blossoms. This historic shrine boasts a huge plum grove of about 2000 plum tree blossoms. Yes, that’s right. That’s more than 10 times the number of trees in Jonangu Shrine. The garden is quite huge in size too, but so too is the number of visitors. So please be prepared for the huge crowd!

If you’re planning to visit Kitano Tenmangu Shrine for its plum blossoms, I would recommend you to come on the 25th of February. Every year, the shrine holds an event called the ume matsuri, which means “plum festival”. You will be surprised to know that on this day too, there is a Tenjin-san flea market going on. It is an outdoor street market within the shrine’s grounds and outside of it. A number of goods are sold such as handcrafts, kimono fabrics, jewelry, wooden crafts, Buddha statues, traditional Japanese dolls, lucky charms, home décor accessories, and so on.

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Plum Festival at Kitano Tenmangu Shrine | 25.2.2016
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Plum Blossoms at Kitano Tenmangu Shrine | 25.2.2016

Anyway, on this day, one of the main events along with viewing the plum blossoms is the special outdoor tea ceremony, called baikasai. In this ceremony, you will be served hot matcha tea and traditional Japanese sweets by several Geiko and Maiko. As you probably have known, Geiko and Maiko are traditional Kyoto idols known worldwide for their grace and beauty. This is therefore a very rare opportunity for visitors to see them up close and maybe exchange a few words!

As with any other locations that I have recommended in my blog, it is always best to go early in the morning, or you can also go late in the afternoon, right before it closes its gates to visitors.

 

Access

From JR Kyoto Station

– 30 minutes by Kyoto City bus 50 or 101 (¥230)

 

Plum Grove

Hours

Early February – late March

10 am – 4 pm

Admission

Adult – ¥700 (includes traditional sweet & matcha tea)

Elementary/Middle School Students – ¥350 (includes traditional sweet & matcha tea)

 

Tea Ceremony

Hours

Every 25th of February

10 am – 3 pm

Admission

¥1500 (includes traditional sweet & matcha tea)

 

Flea Market

Hours

25th of every month

6 am – 9 pm

Admission

¥1500 (includes traditional sweet & matcha tea)

 

3. Kyoto Imperial Park

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Plum Blossoms at Kyoto Imperial Park | Image by jpellgen @ http://bit.ly/2GdtrsO

This location is for those who prioritises peace and serenity, while at the same also getting to enjoy the plum blossoms.

The 1300 meter long and 700 meter wide park also serves as recreational space for both tourists and residents, featuring attractive, broad gravel paths and lawns. The park is even bigger in size as compared to the other locations in this list, and has a huge area set aside just for tree groves, which include cherry trees, plum trees and even maple trees too! Though each tree in the park had its admirers, there was really only a small scattering of people around, and so you can enjoy the blooms in a more relaxed and pleasant manner.

Admission is free and the palace grounds are open to the public all year round, so you can actually take morning or afternoon strolls here while admiring the blossoms!

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Plum & Cherry Grove at Kyoto Imperial Park | Image by jpellgen @ http://bit.ly/2DHkedE

 

Access

From JR Kyoto Station on the Kyoto City Subway Karasuma Line

– 7 minutes by subway (alight at Marutamachi station)
– 10 minutes by subway (alight at Imadegawa station)

 

Kyoto Imperial Park

Hours

No closing hours

Admission

Free

 

 

 

 

Military Archery Ritual in Kyoto

The Mushajinji Ritual Dispels Bad Luck & Brings Good Fortune

This is a ritual which not many people have heard of, even the locals. It is called the Mushajinji ritual, which is a military archery ritual held at Kyoto’s Kamigamo Shrine. It is said that the origin of this event started in the imperial court during the Heian period as means to dispel bad luck.

It is a special event where people dressed in traditional attire shoot arrows at a target 1.8 meters wide. By shooting arrows at the target, they are praying for good fortune as well as to repel evil away for the coming year.

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Kamigamo Shrine Archery Ritual | 16.1.2016
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Kamigamo Shrine Archery Ritual | 16.1.2016

 

Symbols of the Targets & Arrows

The targets are not just any targets that you have seen before. They have the word oni written on the back, which means “demon” or “ogre”. So, as you might have already guessed by now, the targets symbolise misfortune, whereas the arrows act as purifying agents.

The ritual usually takes place in mid-January at 11am in the morning. If you want to be in the front row however, I strongly recommend that you arrive early, probably about an hour earlier. If not, you would have to keep on tip-toeing or go all the way to the back, nearer to the entrance of the shrine where you can’t see what’s happening.

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Kamigamo Shrine Archery Ritual | 16.1.2016
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Kamigamo Shrine Archery Ritual | 16.1.2016

Anyway, at 11am, you can see a host of men and women in old style court attire assemble in the open grounds on the shrine precincts. Two priests will then officially begin the ceremony by firing special whistling arrows at the targets before the other archers line up to fire off volley after volley.

I have seen it myself and honestly speaking, when my friend first invited me to observe this ritual, I wasn’t quite interested. I thought it’s just a typical archery event, where all I’m going to see is a man with a bow let fly a quiver of arrows.

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Kamigamo Shrine Archery Ritual | 16.1.2016

Everything Was Done to Perfection

But I was wrong. The entire ritual was done to perfection. The archers were very detailed in everything that they did, starting from the beginning when they were preparing to shoot until the act of firing the arrow. It was definitely a sight to see. The elegance, perfection, respect and emotions being put into this ritual was very impressive. I’ve got to say that I was indeed very lucky to have captured all of these elements in my photos. I couldn’t thank my friend enough.

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Kamigamo Shrine Archery Ritual | 16.1.2016

When Will It Be Held This Year?

This year, the Mushajinji ritual will take place on the 16th of January and it starts at 11am. Admission is free. So if you are interested, I recommend you go check it out, and maybe let me know what you think about the event!

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Kamigamo Shrine Archery Ritual | 16.1.2016

 

Plum Blossoms in Kyoto

Do You Know What Plum Blossoms Are?

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Plum Blossoms at Jonangu Shrine | 28.2.2017

Say what? Plum blossoms?

Yes, those are exactly the reactions that I usually get when I show them photos of plum blossoms. The fact is that, many people don’t even know what plum blossoms are. Most of them only know about cherry blossoms, also known as “sakura”, but when asked about plum blossoms, they shrugged their shoulders and gave me that “What did you say?” look on their faces.

Plum Blossoms Are Japanese Apricots

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Plum Blossoms at Jonangu Shrine | 28.2.2017

Plum blossoms, or also known as “ume”, are actually Japanese apricots. They are sometimes regarded as late winter or early spring flowers. Foreigners outside of Japan will probably think that plum blossoms are not popular in Japan as cherry blossoms. However, that’s definitely not true!

Plum blossoms are just as popular as cherry blossoms, but there aren’t just as many plum blossom viewing spots as there are for cherry blossoms. The successful marketing campaign to attract tourists to visit Japan during the cherry blossom season had also somewhat caused all the plum blossom viewing culture to be overshadowed by their much successful counterpart.

See the Plum Blossoms in February or March

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Plum Blossoms at Jonangu Shrine | 28.2.2017

Hence, there aren’t as many visitors at plum blossom viewing spots as compared to the overcrowded (and sometimes overrated) cherry blossom viewing spots. So I strongly recommend you to visit at least one of the plum blossom viewing site in Kyoto if you are here in February or March. This is definitely a plus point for nature photographers or those who just love to look at flowers without being interrupted by other visitors rushing and taking such a long time to take photos.

You’ll be delighted to know that you can actually find many different varieties of plum blossoms in the whole of Kyoto prefecture. As you walk around the grounds of temples & shrines including public parks, you will be able to see the plum blossoms scattered around. If you are a nature fanatic, I would highly recommend you to come visit during the plum blossom season!

If you are hoping that I come up with a recommended list of places to visit for plum blossom viewing in Kyoto, don’t worry! I will do that very soon!

 

 

5 Favourite Photography Spots in Kyoto

As a language school student from ARC Academy for roughly around 2 years since I came to Kyoto, I was fortunate and lucky to have quite a lot of free time to spend on. Class typically lasts for around 3 hours 15 mins. It can be either in the morning or in the afternoon, depending on your Japanese proficiency level. The upper-intermediate and advanced levels are usually in the morning (9.15am – 12.30pm) while the beginner and lower-intermediate level classes take place in the afternoon (1.30 – 4.45pm).

From the class timings that I’ve shown you right here, I believe that you could imagine just how much free time we have as students from this school. We have homework, of course, but from what I’ve observed, the higher the level you are in, the least likely that you’re gonna do the homework.

So yes, there’s a lot of free time. Some of my classmates would just stay at home and procrastinate. Some would spend hours binge-watching TV shows on Netflix. Some might be working their part-time jobs. And then, there’s me, who goes around Kyoto city taking photographs.

“…where there are temples, shrines or gardens, there will certainly be promising photo spots”

I love taking photos in Kyoto, especially during spring and autumn seasons. This city also has a lot to offer to photographers like myself. You can literally find countless photo spots with scenic views at amazing angles, all in this very city. To me, where there are temples, shrines or gardens, there will certainly be promising photo spots.

I’ve compiled a short list of my top 5 favourite photography spots in Kyoto. Do take note that all the locations are sorted in random order.

 

1. Yasaka Pagoda

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Yasaka Pagoda | 7.8.2016

This location has got to be one of my favourite photography spots in Kyoto. Just like what Yusuke-s mentioned in his “Stroll around KYOTO: the Best Photo Spot in Higashiyama” article, this is “the most photogenic landmark in Kyoto”, and I have to agree with him 100%. The scenic view of Yasaka Pagoda along with the ever so charming street somehow makes you feel as though you time traveled back to the Meiji era.

Best Time to Visit?

Best time to take is right before sunset or after sunrise. The street would be empty at that time. Make sure to check the weather forecast.

 

2. Kinkakuji

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Kinkakuji | 16.1.2017

Kinkakuji, or also known as the Golden Pavilion, is a Zen buddhist temple in northern Kyoto. The temple’s top 2 floors are said to be covered in gold leaf. Kinkakuji is one of the most popular tourist attraction in Japan itself, so it will be crowded with locals and tourists alike. The temple is even more beautiful to look at during the winter season when snow falls occasionally. You can read my “Kinkakuji During Winter” post if you wanna know more about it.

Best Time to Visit?

The temple opens at 9am and closes at 5pm. I know you might be thinking that visiting the temple at 9am would probably be the best option, so as to avoid the crowd. However, that is not true at all. I go to school every morning and the bus that I always get on would pass by Kinkakuji. And I have also visited the temple at 9am. Little did I know that, that would be the worst time to visit.

At 9am, it is already packed with people. One by one, tour buses kept on coming in to the carpark. Therefore, countless large tour groups flock into the temple. In addition to this, there are also several Japanese high school and middle school excursions visiting the temple. And of course, there are the local Japanese visitors and the foreign tourists as well.

After several visits to Kinkakuji, I realised that the best time to visit is during lunch hour, probably around 11am – 1pm. At this time, there won’t be any high school or middle school students, and the number of large tour groups drops drastically. As a photographer, you wouldn’t want to be under pressure by other tourists who are dying to take photos of the temple or even getting pushed around by them. So yes, lunch time would be the best.

 

3. Keage Incline

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Keage Incline | 5.4.2016

Keage Incline is not as popular as the other locations in this list. Even some locals don’t know about this place. During the summer, autumn and winter, Keage Incline is kind of “dead”, but during the cherry blossom season, it suddenly comes back to life!

Keage Incline is a slope with railroad tracks that extends roughly about 600 meters and is located near the Nanzenji Temple.

Best Time to Visit?

Cherry blossom season. There are no better time to visit Keage Incline. During this season, crowds of people (not as many as compared to the other locations in this list) come to walk along the old railroad tracks and take photos of the beautiful sakura. This is definitely one of Kyoto’s must-see spots during spring.

If you want to visit during winter, you can check out my “Snowy Streets of Kyoto” post for information and photos!

 

4. Kiyomizudera

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Kiyomizudera | 18.10.2015

Everyone surely knows Kiyomizudera, right? Just like Kinkakuji, this Buddhist temple in eastern Kyoto is one of Kyoto’s most popular tourist attractions. It is also part of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto UNESCO World Heritage site. The site is currently under renovation, so please take note! I heard that its main hall is covered up to renovate the roof, so I’m afraid that you might not be able to take the photo that you wished for.

Best Time to Visit?

During sunrise and sunset. Its closing hours vary, depending on the seasons. Make use of this opportunity to take some beautiful sunrise and sunset shots. Make sure to do some research on the sunrise and sunset timings beforehand, as well as check the weather forecast before going! Take note that tripods aren’t allowed, but at the observation deck, where you can see the above view (in the photo), there are thick wooden structures where you could place your cameras for stability.

 

5. Byodoin Temple

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Byodoin Temple | 23.8.2015

Byodoin Temple is also another Buddhist temple which is recognised by UNESCO as a World Cultural Heritage. It is located in Uji city, south of Kyoto city. Uji city is popular for its Uji matcha, rich history and association with Japan’s first novel, the Tales of Genji.

Best Time to Visit?

Byodoin Temple is not as busy or crowded all year round, especially when compared to all the other locations in this list. So yes, you can visit the temple at any time.