Sunrise at the Airport

Sometimes the smallest things in life are the most beautiful. This is the scene from Kansai International Airport (KIX) this morning I’m Osaka, Japan, as the sun rose. Headed to another major Asian city near you this morning.

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A Solemn Walk

A Solemn Walk

Yesterday I had the pleasure of capturing this image in Nara, Japan, on Coming of Age Day where women who turn twenty years old wear their kimono, put on their best makeup, and go to the local shrines and temples. While there were many kimonos to be photographed, this was my favorite photograph I took of people during the day.

This is a scene which would be hard to replicate outside of Japan.

The Kobe Luminarie – A Pearl of Western Japan

Certain places are always at the top of the list when it comes to travel and visiting Japan. Kyoto, Tokyo, Hokkaido, Okinawa, Osaka, and a few others are always mentioned as unique places to go or places to go during different times of the year to take in festivals or local cuisine. One town, Kobe, must be on you “to visit” list if you come to Japan in the winter. It is a beautiful place with such a unique history of interactions with the West, different architecture, and some historical gems, but one thing sets it apart from the rest of Kansai: the Kobe Luminarie. 

Last evening, I joined two old friends from Philadelphia and headed down to see the Kobe Luminarie, located in the central district of the port city. From the beginning, it was evident that the event would be a sight to behold for all. This was my first time to the Luminarie. It was even the first time for my friend that lived in Kobe several years ago. We were so excited for the event and the brisk cold could not dampen our expectations. Traffic was stopped in many different places in the city to make way for pedestrians heading waiting to see the Luminarie. Even the path heading to the Luminarie itself was lit with grandeur. I was a little homesick at this point, as the main street in my hometown lights its trees in a similar fashion. 

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After a few more minutes of walking, we turned a corner, and off in the distance we could see the front gate to the Luminarie. It was truly remarkable! The twinkling lights, the bright colors, and the gasps and gawking of other visitors was very memorable. I stopped to take a few photos, as well. Here’s the first glimpse of the gate. 

After a few more minutes of walking, we turned a corner, and off in the distance we could see the front gate to the Luminarie. It was truly remarkable! The twinkling lights, the bright colors, and the gasps and gawking of other visitors was very memorable. I stopped to take a few photos, as well. Here’s the first glimpse of the gate. 

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As we neared the street shrouded in lights, even more interesting things came to light. Western-inspired Latin music plated through speakers, helping lead the tour of the Luminarie. The meaning and importance of both the Luminarie and music goes much deeper than the casual observer would know. Following the Kobe Earthquake of 1995, the Luminarie was established as a memorial of those that lost their lives in the devastating earthquake. The musical scores all centered around the theme of “light” and “continuation” towards a better and brighter future. The luminarie and music had quite the harmonious relationship as you approached the first segment of the Luminarie. 

After taking a few more photos, we entered the first segment of the Italian-built Luminarie. The lights lined the street for several hundred yards and helped create a unique scene in an urban center like Kobe. I certainly did not feel like I was in Japan during this whole adventure. All the while, one of the friend with me on this adventure told me that one of his family members was singing in the musical group which sang the official songs for the event!Image

After traversing the twinkling walkway, we made our way to what can only be described as a beautiful cathedral of light and sound. The next structure in the Luminarie appeared, to me, as a church-like memorial and work of art. European-inspired classical Latin music played in the vicinity and I felt like I was back in the streets of Montreal or Quebec City. Many fellow visitors had a similar sense of admiration when we approached the second component of the Luminarie structure. I have included a few photos of my favorite part of the Luminarie.

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As more elegant music played and the smells of fresh yakitori filled the air, we passed by the final exhibition in the Kobe Luminarie, a much more colorful and modern-looking work of art. 

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Other places in Kansai have Luminaries and light shows, but none can compare to the display in Kobe. The meaning and importance of the Luminarie coupled with its meticulous setup and musical integration make it an absolute must-see for those of you who may be in Japan next winter, before Christmas. Sharing this moment with two of my friends also helps make it memorable for me. 

The Kobe Luminarie is truly a pearl on the necklace of Western Japan. 

All images (c) 2013, Erik Jacobs. erikabroad.com

Into the Leaves: Kyoto at its Finest

As someone who grew up in Central Pennsylvania, I was always accustomed to the presence of beautiful foliage when the calendar started to hit November. Even though I was often forced into raking or mowing up the leaves on my yard, I have always had an appreciation for the changing of the seasons. In my youth, I read about the beauty of Kyoto’s leaves, but never thought the changing of the seasons would be very different than that of the interior Northeastern United States. I was about to find out how wrong that assumption was.

Kyoto is always towards the top of all travel destinations in all of the Japan-centric tour books, websites, magazines, etc., and for good reason. The city is truly beautiful. From the temples in far off Arashiyama to the often photographed Kiyomizudera to the shops and bamboo groves in between, Kyoto is a remarkable place for both traveler and Japanese resident, alike. Being this is my second time living in Japan but only my first time here in the autumn, I made sure to venture to one of Kyoto’s most famous events this weekend and take in the spectacle that is leaf viewing (Japanese: 紅葉 Kouyou).

My friends and I hopped into the JR train bound for Kyoto from Sannomiya, Kobe, early in the morning to start this day. After an hour on the fast and comfortable ride, we had arrived at our first stop on the day’s tour: Arashiyama. Arashiyama is west of Kyoto proper and is famous for its shopping streets near the Oi River, the Iwatayama Monkey Park, a host of temples, and a large bamboo grove. We were off to a few of the temples and to take in the view along the water. No monkeys today.

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We started the day off at Tenryuji to see what the famous temple and ponds would have to offer. Nearly as soon as we arrived, we were not disappointed. The grove of trees leading up to the ticket gate already had some trees sporting a full array of autumn colors. Ranging from light green to deep red, these trees were a sign of things to come for our day trip.

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Once we entered the official temple grounds, another iconic Japanese autumn scene was upon us. A room covered with tatami mats set in front of our eyes. As we peered over the tatami and envisioned tea ceremonies past, the foliage at Sogen Pond became visible. This whole scene was classic Japan, as far as I was concerned.

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We continued our way through the temple complex, gawking with hundreds of other tourists at the changing leaves, not knowing what to expect around the next turn. The photos outside showed Sogen Pond in its best state, but what could we possibly expect? There was no way the scene could look as good as presented on the ticket booth, was there? Here’s how the garden looked. Remarkable.

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With gargantuan koi swimming throughout the pond and a perfectly manicured Japanese rock garden in the foreground, we all took a second to take in this beautiful scene. The vibrancy of the red and yellow cast against the permanence of the evergreens helped make this photograph. If we had come here one day earlier or later, the colors would not have been as contrasting as they were today. Lest I forget, kimonos were in full force, as well.

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We continued onward, and upward, traversing more paths filled with vibrant leaves and tourists taking hundreds of pictures. With a mossy undergrowth to our left and right and changing leaves in front of a backdrop of pines and Kyoto, this location offered a unique view.

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After snapping a few more pictures, we continued onward to the river to see the leaves cast against the water and famous rowboats in the region. Little did we know, thousands of other tourists had the same exact idea.

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Amidst the rickshaws, children’s strollers, and masses of people, we ate some homemade karaage on the banks of the river before we continued onward to watch all of the boats on the water. Thee backdrop of boats on the river made the whole scene quite spectacular.

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After a long walk back to Arashiyama Station (and a few sweets and special Japanese drinks along the way), we were back on the train and headed to our next destination on this trip, Tofukuji. Tofukuji is famous for its bridge over a small brook that traverses the temple grounds. surrounding the bridge and an expanse between the other side of the temple are Japanese maples and other trees. These iconic trees were nearing peak color on Sunday and we were in for a real treat even though so many tourists were there at the same time. While monks waked down the stone paths amid the tourists, I stopped to take several photos of the leaves. Here is what I saw:

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Isn’t this a remarkable image? We were all taken back when we saw the leaves and could not believe the wide array of colors right in front of us.

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No trip to Kyoto is complete without visiting the famous Kiyomizudera Temple, so we decided to make this our last stop of the day. To facilitate ore visitors and an unforgettable evening, Kyoto illuminates the temple at night during leaf viewing season and the results are beautiful, to say the least. As soon as you exit the train station in Kiyomizu, there is a strong beam of light that goes straight through the nighttime sky, guiding you towards the temple. Everyone on the train from Western tourists to kimono-wearing Japanese headed towards the beam. Once you get close enough, here is what you see.

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The leaves were illuminated, as well.

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While not in perfect bloom, the colors in Kyoto this weekend made for an interesting and photogenic day trip. The combination of green, red, yellow, and orange is something I never saw before in such vibrancy back on the East Coast of the United States. If people are trying to see these leaves at their peak, I would suggest going to Kyoto as soon as you can. The nights in Kansai have been getting colder and the leaves have been falling off of the trees here in Kobe. You should take advantage of your proximity to Kyoto if you live in Kansai and go see these leaves if you have the opportunity.

I had a great time and recommend a similar day trip in Kyoto to anyone visiting Japan this fall.

All photos and content in this post (c) Erik Jacobs, November 18, 2013, erikabroad.com. All rights reserved. 

Unforgettable Hong Kong (Day 1)

My one friend once told me, “There are only three great cities in the world: New York, London, and Hong Kong. Someday you will see for yourself.” I had my doubts, but once I moved to Japan I knew I had to go to Hong Kong to see if my friend was a soothsayer or if Hong Kong was overhyped. My friend certainly hit the nail on the head when it came to Hong Kong being one of the world’s “great cities.”

Before I travel, I often create expectations and conceptions about how places will be, how the people will be, and how enjoyable a certain location will be. Sometimes I am dissappointed and other times my expectations are completely destroyed as a destination outshines even my highest expectations. I must admit that Hong Kong destroyed all of my expectations and then some. My journey to Hong Kong with one of my close friends (and Macau in its own right) is an adventure I will never forget.

Things got off to an interesting start- a start that is only possible in Japan. Because public transportation in Japan shuts down between basically midnight and between five and 5:30AM, it was impossible to make it to the airport in time for checkin and security clearance prior to our 8:30AM departure to Hong Kong. The trip to Kobe would have taken too much time. As a result, my friend and I pulled and all-nighter on the cold, hard, wooden benches of Kansai International Airport Terminal 2. I will undoubtedly have to do this again because of the early nature of some of Japan’s international flights, but this is something to which I do not look forward, even in the slightest. We took advantage of the free rental blankets at the airport, made some new friends who were bound for Korea, and slept as best as we could for about four hours.  Once the terminal filled with people bound for Taiwan and South Korea, we were alive, awake, and ready to take on Hong Kong. Following a quick money exchange and an old school walk on the tarmac, we were onboard and ready to start our adventure in Hong Kong. I had to do the obligatory Richard Nixon wave and peace symbol before boarding. Image

Walking on the tarmac towards the Hong Kong-bound plane. © 2013 Erik Jacobserikabroad.com 

Four hours and one long nap later, we touched down in Hong Kong and it was so exhilarating to know I had finally arrived to one of my top travel destinations! Ever since I have been a child, I wanted to visit Hong Kong and I knew I was only a few minutes away from getting the coveted passport stamp to finally verify I had made it to the former British Colony! There was one catch- Hong Kong (and Macau) STOPPED issuing passport stamps in July! I was so disappointed when I passed through immigration and a flimsy card stating my permitted length of stay was stapled into my passport. One of my favorite things about travel is getting passport stamps and I was robbed of the Hong Kong stamp! The disappointment quickly faded as we headed towards our first destination of the whirlwind trip: Hong Kong’s famed Big Buddha. Image

Hong Kong International Airport. © 2013, Erik Jacobs. erikabroad.com

Following a short and remarkably easy ride on Hong Kong’s MTR, my friend and I exited and “minded the gap” as we made our way toward the Big Buddha. After a stellar hour long wait in the serpentining lines, we made our way onto one of the crystal cable cars for the unforgettable ride going through Hong Kong’s rolling hills and lush forested areas en route to the Buddha. If I can make one recommendation here, you MUST pay a few more Hong Kong Dollars and get the crystal carriage cable car for two reasons: First, the line is much shorter than the standard carriage line. Secondly, you can see through the bottom of the carriage and view some winding trails through the mountains, several inlets, and various other cool spots during your ride. The view was amazing. Image

Cable cars. © 2013, Erik Jacobs. erikabroad.com

After a trek through a heavily tourist area filled with nick-knacks, trinkets, and fake souvenirs, we had finally arrived at one of the most iconic images of all of Hong Kong: the staircase leading up to the 1996-built big Buddha statue. The view was completely breathtaking when you reach the bottom of this staircase. Unfortunately due to bad lighting with the sun directly behind Buddha, the photo cannot give this scene the justice it truly deserves.

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Even though this Buddha was only finished in 1996, the amount of tourists and locals alike at this site was incredible. Buddhists praying, Asian and Western tourists taking photos, and the Korean comedy group outside one of the shops along the route there stuck out the most to me. Of course a trip to this Buddha would not be complete without a photo posing just like the largest sitting Buddha statue in the world.

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Posing with big Buddha. © 2013, Erik Jacobs. erikabroad.com

After another breathtaking ride on the cable car (this time at sunset) and checking in at our hotel on Hong Kong Island, my friend and I began our journey to another one of Hong Kong’s must-see attractions: Victoria Peak.

I had always heard fables about Hong Kong being the shopping Mecca of East Asia but never truly gave those claims the credence they probably deserved. After having lived in Tokyo for a few months in early 2011 as a study abroad student, I though nowhere in Asia could possibly beat Tokyo when it came to glamorous stores, ritzy stores, or sheer opulence. I was resoundingly incorrect. The walk from our hotel to the famed Victoria Peak Tram took us through a shopping mall which hosted stores like: Marc Jacobs, Burberry, Cartier, Gucci, and other top dollar stores, stores I had never seen before outside of a magazine or New York City. I was in awe at the wealth I had only started to see in Hong Kong. Things got even more interesting when we made our way to the tram.

I had never ridden a vehicle on such a steep incline in my whole life. Last summer, I attended language school in Oakland, California, and frequently went to San Francisco for sightseeing, eating Japanese cuisine, and visiting Fisherman’s Wharf. During that time, my friends and I took an obligatory ride on the outside of one of San Francisco’s cable cars. While those streets were steep, the Victoria Peak Tram took steepness to a whole new level. The tram ride felt like it was on more than a 45 degree angle for the entire ride up to the summit. As the car increased speed, the steepness also increased to the point where people were holding on for dear life as they attempted to stand in the cable car. I have added a photo from the inside of the car to give you an idea what this ride resembled. Image

Inside the Victoria Peak Tram. © Erik Jacobs, 2013. erikabroad.com

Following this ride, we had finally arrived at Victoria Peak, although a clear view of the city was not yet available from the tram exit. Already only in our first few hours of our four day excursion to Hong Kong and Macau, I felt our trip had met its moment of truth. Ever since I saw the first photo of the nighttime view from Victoria Peak, I knew I had to go there. I had pumped up this view to be as good as the Grand Canyon, but in a different way. The lights, the buildings, and the view had to be breathtaking, didn’t they? On the ride up to the top, I had noticed that the Bank of China lights were off and I feared for the worst. I will let you be the judge of how the view was at Victoria Peak before I write any more. Image

Stunning Victoria Peak. © 2013, Erik Jacobs. erikabroad.com

As you can surely see from this photo, reaching the top of Victoria Peak and peering over the handrail was one of the happiest and most rewarding travel moments I had ever experienced. The view there was everything I had imagined, and then some. The glistening skyline off of Victoria Harbor, the twinkling lights in all directions, the cool wind coming across the viewing balcony, the messages on the International Commerce Centre, and the moving lights on the Bank of China Tower combined with some new friends I made (more on that in a later post) to make this a night I will never forget. While this world seemed expansive, I was also reminded that the world is such a small place. A friend of mine from Japan happened to be there at the exact same time with his parents! We said our hellos and continued onward with our evenings. Moments like that are just one more reason why I love to travel.

I even went ahead and purchased one of the commemorative photos they had for sale. Someday I will proudly hang that in my room alongside my photo atop Roppongi’s Mori Tower in Tokyo. Image

Me with Hong Kong and Kowloon in the background. © 2013, Erik Jacobs. erikabroad.com

While the next morning called for a 4:45 am wakeup to make our ferry to Hong Kong, that did not seem to matter at all during our first night in Hong Kong. Never in my wildest dreams did I think Hong Kong could live up to the expectations I had built for the better part of 15 years. Happily, the city destroyed all of those expectations on the first night. From the rural and cultural Buddha to the urban and unforgettable Victoria Peak view, I had a feeling that the best of Hong Kong was yet to come. After a long walk back to our hotel, I settled down for a short night’s sleep.

A Little Bit of Indian

From the day I first set foot in Kobe, I have heard, relentlessly, that Kobe is an “international city,” whatever that is supposed to mean. Sure, there are many more foreigners here than most other places in Japan. Many of them are not tourists, either. There is a large international business community and there are many English teachers in addition to  other professions. I went down to Harborland with a few friends yesterday to take in the Indian cultural festival and I must say it was very cool.

As soon as we got near Merikan park, the smell of Indian food and the faint sound of traditional Indian music was evident. I knew it would be quite an interesting afternoon with some of my newest friends.

I sampled some great Indian food (but not curry) and also had a great day in the perfect weather that appears to be buttressing the end of a long and hot summer here in Kansai. We partook in Indian beer, naan, some spicy chicken, and a few other delicacies while traversing the several aisles of food tents and trinket shops. Here are some of the better photos from the afternoon.

Before today, I did not like Indian food in the slightest. That being said, several kinds of spicy chicken have started to grow on me. Maybe I will give some of their curry a second shot here in a few weeks. There are plenty of Indian restaurants very near where live.

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Monkey Business in Japan

Monkey Business in Japan

Have you ever been somewhere where you knew, for certain, that you would never return in the rest of your life? When I set foot in Arashiyama, Japan, two years ago with my study abroad program, I knew I would NEVER return to that city again. However, I was more certain that I would never go to the monkey park that is located atop one of the smaller mountains just across the river that traverses through Arashiyama.

I first went there with some friends during a trip to Kansai and was amazed by how many wild monkeys ran about freely without a fear of humans. You can feed the monkeys, take photos of them, and get very close without any fear of attack or something going wrong. I had the pleasure to return there on Saturday with a friend I met at language school last summer.

Aside from the amazing view of Kyoto from above, there are countless opportunities to capture priceless memories. Check out these monkeys drinking at the small pond at the top of the mountain while a koi feeds on a floating leaf. This picture is worth a thousand words.

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A Kimono in Kyoto

A Kimono in Kyoto

I took this stunning photo on a bridge in Arashiyama, just west of Kyoto, Japan, on Saturday, October 12, 2013. The scenery at this location was truly remarkable, but having the chance to take this candid photo truly made my day. The perfect peach color of her kimono and the bow coupled with the mountainous scenery makes this a photo I will never forget. Erik Jacobs (c) 2013

Walking into the Sunset in Kyoto

This Sunday, I hopped aboard the JR Rapid Express train at Kobe’s Sannomiya station to revisit one of my favorite travel destinations from my 2011 study abroad experience: Kyoto. What I had hoped would be an enjoyable day ended up being a nearly perfect day in many different aspects. 

As soon as I stepped outside my door in rural Kobe, I knew that today’s weather would be absolutely perfect for photography and sightseeing in Kyoto. The first time I visited Kyoto back in the winter of 2011, it was a cloudy day that was not very accomidating to quality photography. I took many photos, but not too many to worth keeping or printing. They all exuded a feeling of the day’s bitter cold and dreariness. Today’s weather would be rather different. While it was the hottest October day on record for Kobe, there was very little humidity. 

Upon arrival in Kyoto about one hour after departing from Sannomiya, I was instantly hit with the positive memories from my entire study abroad program and my initial trip to Japan. Have you ever been somewhere for the first time and you thought that you would never return to that place again? The first time I went to Kyoto, I knew, for certain, that I would never return. As a result, I took in as much of the city as I could. From Arashiyama and its monkey park, to downtown Kyoto and the shopping in the train station, I did it all. Today’s return and a probable return on Saturday with a friend allowed me to slow down and take in more of the sights and sounds than I was able to during my first visit to Kyoto. 

This time for reflection and observation took me back to 2011, as I relived heading to the famous sites with my friends and the joy we all experienced as we entered Kansai for the first time. Long-forgotten memories of getting on the wrong train and being hopelessly lost in rural Kyoto and desperately phoning our chaperone for help and other memories of enjoying a green tea flavored parfait on the streets after drinking a warm, pancake-flavored, vending machine drink rushed back to me all at once.

History even had a way of repeating itself as I nearly boarded the incorrect train bound for Arashiyama in the hectic Kyoto Station. All I could do was chuckle to myself as I nearly made the same mistake as I did years ago. The only difference this time is that I have a handle on Japanese and should not have made any of the mistakes I did two years ago!

I took a moment to take in all of the sites for a second time as I crossed the bridge into Arashiyama. It was amazing how all those positive memories from years ago came rushing back all at once. The memories and the places that hold forgotten memories helped make today a perfect day. I was taken back to the excitement of walking across the bridge to begin the ascent to the monkey park. I remembered which flags were flying outside of Kyoto Station. I even remembered what we ate for lunch that day during our free time in the city. The brain is so amazing as it keeps so many memories locked away, waiting fo rthe perfect time to reveal them once again.

The third aspect that made today perfect was the scenery. While I stayed confined to an area adjacent to Arashiyama, the scenery was absolutely perfect. Whether I was riding the one car train between Arashiyama and Kinkakuji Temple, walking through the streets, or heading down the bamboo walkway, the lighting and the atmosphere of the entire day was perfect. Joyful tourists filled the air with conversation and laughter and the clear air and clear skies allowed the sun to illuminate the area in a way I had never seen in the past. Kinkakuji glistened in the sun and the bamboo walkway became a perfectly lit walkway through a subdued forest. I even got a glimpse of some geisha riding a rickshaw before departing towards Kyoto. I started my day walking through the city and revisiting old sites and ended my day watching a young woman walk off into the sunset in the groves of bamboo stalks. 

The following photo is the best representation I can provide as to why today was an amazing day in Kyoto. May you all have the ability to walk off into the sunset someday like I did today. Image