Return to Tokyo

Ever since I left this city five years ago I’ve been dying to get back. I’ve never traveled to the same place twice, always figuring that there’s so many new places out there to explore that I’d be doing myself a disservice by revisiting places with so much left out there I haven’t seen. Tokyo changed all that. I’ve tried visiting new places since then, but my mind was always bringing me back here. Even before this very trip I was seconds away from booking a flight to the Balkans, but a last minute impulse forced me to check flights to Tokyo before I clicked that button. And well, here I am.

I was afraid for a long time that if I came back here it’d just feel like I was trying to relive my past trip, and would ultimately leave feeling unsatisfied. I can happily say that was not the case whatsoever. I had such a great time here, and Tokyo is so huge I was even able to spend maybe half my time exploring completely new parts of the city.

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72 Hours in Hong Kong

Four years. It had been four long years since I last left the country. I sort of went into why in my last post, but the short of it is that the travel bug had just inexplicably left me. It didn’t stay gone for too long though, fortunately, and I just got back from a 2 1/2 week trip to Hong Kong and Tokyo. Sort of a re-tracing of a portion of my 2012 trip, mostly to focus on some photography and just spend time hanging out in the two coolest cities I’ve ever been to.

On this trip I brought three cameras with me; two film and one digital. The film cameras I brought were essentially the same ones I brought on my last trip to these two cities. My Fuji GS645S medium format rangefinder with its built-in 60mm f/4 lens was used sparingly (mostly for nighttime tripod photography), and my Minolta XG-M (which I had actually purchased at a used camera market in Hong Kong back in 2012 after the shutter died on my X-570 in Bangkok) with its 50mm f/1.2, which I regrettably didn’t use at all this time in Hong Kong, but was my workhorse in Tokyo. My third camera, the digital, is a Ricoh GR I’ve found myself shooting with more and more, as it’s just so convenient since it fits right in my pants pocket and is with me pretty much wherever I go. Not to mention the fantastic results it produces. Dare I say they’re almost film-like.

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Spain, Holland, Belgium and London

So I took this trip almost 4 years ago. I wasn’t too happy with my pictures so I had been dragging my feet in posting them. At this point it’s no longer all that fresh in my memory, so I’ll do my best but I may miss a few things here and there.

First up is Madrid. I had arrived in Spain late at night after taking the ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar from Tangier, Morocco. I arrived in the port city of Tarifa, where I hopped on the next bus to Algeciras to spend the night. First thing in the morning (actually, knowing me.. probably closer to noon) I hopped on a train to Madrid and started exploring.

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Morocco

This post has been a long time coming. In January of 2013 I flew into Tangier, Morocco. I wasn’t sure exactly what it was I was doing, or even where I was going on this particular trip, I just knew I wanted to be somewhere different.

I arrived in Tangier’s relatively tiny airport though a connecting flight in Madrid. As much as I’ve flown in my life, I can never seem to remember to bring a damn pen with me to fill out customs forms and whatnot. Luckily I sat on a bench in the airport with about a half-dozen other people, all Moroccan, who were all in the same boat, waiting our turn for the lone pen being passed around. I had actually noticed that everyone I had seen getting off my flight appeared to be Moroccan. I knew I was traveling in the off-season as it was January, but I thought there’d at least be another traveler to talk to, maybe explore the medina with.

After making it through and getting outside a little before noon, I decided to put my contacts in. My eyes were super dry after the flight, and I was sitting outside on the ground having a pretty tough time when a nice Morrocan girl came up to me and offered me some eye drops out of her purse. She smiled and nearly ran away after she had given them to me, but I think (I hope) I was able to thank her in broken Arabic before she left.

Once I hopped in a cab outside the airport and told the driver to head to the medina, I was in for a fun ride. The painted lines in the road didn’t seem to have any meaning here, and every time a light turned green, my cab driver bumped the car in front of us to alert him it was time to get moving. I arrived at the entrance to the medina about 15 minutes later, dusted myself off, and from there it was a mad dash to find my guesthouse so I could drop off my backpack and go exploring.

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Japan Part 2 – Tokyo, Kanagawa and Hakone

I arrived in Tokyo via bullet train, or Shinkansen, from Kyoto. I had toyed with the idea of taking a more budget-oriented approach towards getting here but I’m glad I didn’t. Seeing the countryside whizzing by me at 170 miles per hour inside my whisper-quiet cabin was an experience in itself, not to mention all the time I saved over taking the much slower, local trains.

So ¥12,000 and 2 hours later we pulled into Tokyo Station, and I strapped on my backpack and headed out. I felt like a kid again, ready to start his first day at a new school.

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Japan Part 1 – Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto

Arriving in Osaka was a very odd experience for me. I had never been to Japan before in my life, however for some strange reason I was hit with a strong and persistent sense of nostalgia. From the moment I stepped off the plane, for the next 24 hours or so I felt like I was revisiting someplace from my distant past. I’ve come to the conclusion that either Osaka is a great representation of what America was like in the late 80s, or I was Japanese in a former life.

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Hong Kong

I had arrived in Hong Kong right around sunset. Now the airport was pretty far from the city, so by the time I had arrived in Mong Kok it was already dark. I’ll never forget stepping off that bus into the streets of Kowloon for the first time; I can only describe the experience as feeling as if I was on a movie set. The narrow streets walled in by towering concrete buildings, thousands of people lit by a sea of neon lights, cars and buses whizzing by on this calm, 70 degree night. It was one of the most surreal things I had ever experienced. My camera had died a few days earlier in Bangkok, but taking pictures was the last thing on my mind. Over the years I’ve found that in times like this, it’s best to just take everything in and live the experience rather than trying to capture it, as no picture I could have taken would be anything close to how I’d remember it.

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Thailand

So after about a 20 hour overnight train ride from Penang, I had arrived in Bangkok. Now, Singapore and Malaysia were hot, but there was just something a little more oppressive about the heat in Bangkok. I had arrived at around 10 AM and I’d soon come to find out that the mornings in Bangkok are incredibly humid, even in January. By around noon though it eased up quite a bit, and by early afternoon the humidity was almost non-existent. Luckily this wasn’t really much of a factor for me after the first day or two as I’m much more of a night person. In fact even while traveling I could probably count the days I was out and about before noon on one hand. On the other hand, getting to bed at 3 or 4 AM was much more likely.

After getting out of the station, I started to make my way to the infamous Khao San Rd with a few new friends I had met on the train. After a relatively short bus ride we found ourselves in the midst of what is apparently party central for backpackers on a budget. We found a couple of rooms pretty quickly for about 7 bucks each (with air conditioning), and spent the next few days generally just lounging around being bums. We did check out a few of the temples in the old town of Bangkok, but public transportation is rather limited in this area so we mostly just hung around Khao San and lived it up amongst the melange of bars, restaurants and massage parlors. This may sound counter intuitive for someone on a budget like myself, but keep in mind that a one hour massage in Bangkok will run you anywhere from 5 to 10 dollars. It wasn’t hard to convince myself to find a way to work them into my daily budget.

There were temples scattered all over the place here in old town. I didn’t end up touring the grounds of the Grand Palace, but there were dozens of other equally impressive temples, or ‘wats’ everywhere you looked. Here are just a few.

This is a view of the Grand Palace from inside the grounds before the entrance gate. I had planned on going in, but the entrance fee was a little steep (with most of the other temples being free), and they didn’t allow medium format cameras inside, which I found a bit odd.

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Malaysia

After I left Singapore I made my way through Malaysia. I only spent about 4 days here, with my time divided between Kuala Lumpur, several overnight trains and a stopover in Penang. After hopping on a night train from Johor Bahru across the border in Malaysia, I arrived in Kuala Lumpur just as the sun was rising.

The Petronas Towers in downtown Kuala Lumpur. Each one of these towers is taller than the Empire State Building, and they were the tallest buildings in the world when they were built. They’re currently ranked at 6th tallest, and are just over half the height of the new tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

My time in Kuala Lumpur was spent mostly in the Chinatown area, although I did walk around the city quite a bit during the day. Chinatown was filled with curbside food carts serving satay, clay-pot chicken and a variety of other Malay dishes.

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Singapore

First up in my upcoming series of posts will be Singapore. For those of you that don’t personally know me, I spent this past winter backpacking around Asia. I started right after New Years in Singapore, spent about a week there before traveling up to Malaysia for a few days, and then spent about 3 weeks in Thailand between Bangkok and the Chiang Mai/Chiang Rai area. After that I took a quick plane ride out to Hong Kong where I spent a couple weeks, and then flew out to Japan to finish off my trip. I ended up spending 5 weeks total in Japan, starting in Osaka, hitting up Kobe, Kyoto, Hakone, Yokohama, Kawasaki, and finally Tokyo. I figured I’d start out in the hottest places, and slowly move north to the colder areas as the season ended. This ended up working out great because Singapore was an excellent place to get my feet wet in Asian culture. Most people in Singapore speak English, nearly all signs are in English and the city itself even had a very western feel to it. As my trip went on I got into progressively more eastern cultures, ending in Japan which probably would have been very difficult to start out in due to the severe lack of English-friendly amenities. Overall I couldn’t have been happier with the way everything came together.

Before I left on my trip I met a fellow photographer by the name of Rizal on flickr. We talked a bit before I left and planned to meet up once I got over there. Originally we had just planned to go out for a quick shooting session around Singapore, but between Rizal and his friends he introduced me to we ended up getting together almost every day I was there. He even brought me into the Arab Quarter to find a hookah lounge after I mentioned my affinity for shisha. Read on a bit for more on these guys.

I brought three cameras with me on this trip; two main cameras and a backup. The two main cameras were my 645 medium format rangefinder, the Fuji GS645S, and my Minolta X-570 SLR with a few lenses. The Fuji 645 has a fixed lens, being a 60mm f/4, and for the Minolta I brought my 50mm f/1.2, 28mm f/2.8 and 135mm f/3.5 lenses. I brought a little over 100 rolls of film with me, 72 being 35mm and 30 being medium format. I actually ended up running out in Japan and had to purchase film there for almost double what I paid back home. My entire film stock was Kodak Portra, with the 35mm split almost evenly between 160 and 400 speed, and the 120 split between 160, 400 and 800. I also brought a mini travel tripod with me which served me alright in Southeast Asia for the few times I wanted to use it, but once I started getting into more serious night photography over in Hong Kong I ended up purchasing a much larger and sturdier tripod over there. Oh, and my backup camera was a tiny little 35mm rangefinder, a Yashica Electro 35 CC with a 35mm f/1.8 lens. It came in handy a few times when I didn’t want to bring one of my larger cameras out with me, and for a few days when my Minolta’s shutter died in Bangkok. Well, that’s enough writing. On to the pictures.

The Singapore Artscience Museum, in front of the downtown skyline and Marina Bay.

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