#44 Zen Garden

For some inexplicable reason, I have more than just a passing obsession with carefully laid out rocks.

Now, in case you’re thinking about what a strange and rather sad obsession this is, let me just say… you’re not wrong.

It takes a special kind of person to have the ability to derive so much pleasure from pieces of nature that can’t be smoked. Yes, that kind person is me, but you’d be surprised at how many other normal-looking people also flock to famous places to silently ogle for an hour at raked sand.

Zen gardens are definitely very high up there in my favourite kinds of Japanese landscape (yes I have mental list of such things), which is quite impressive if you think about the kind of things Japan offers – glorious snow-capped mountains, miles of cherry blossoms along riverbanks and huge cities glowing with the neon lights of urban life.

Zen garden near Koya-san, Wakayama prefecture

I can’t say exactly what it is about these gardens that get me going except that there’s something about the fact that even though they are man-maintained, they still have a strong sense of natural beauty and an air of tranquillity about them.

Unlike gardens one might find in Britain (the kind I’m more used to seeing) Japanese gardens don’t try so hard to aim for perfection outside of nature’s ability to create it. This is a generalization of course, but it’s not uncommon in England to find hedges that are trimmed to at perfect right angles (and/or any ridiculous bear/snowman/phallis shape), red roses cross-bred for generations and lawns trimmed more carefully than one would their fingernails.

The Zen garden of Ryōan-ji, Kyoto

Whatever the reason, I for one really appreciate the thought that must have gone into arranging the gardens, even though to the untrained eye they may look as random as having been offloaded from the back of a truck. For example, in Ryōan-ji (pictured above) there are fifteen stones carefully placed so that no matter from which angle you can look upon the garden, you will never be able to see all of the rocks at the same time.

There are many interpretations but to me it simply means “that’s life”.

And if that wasn’t enough to blow your mind, I checked out Wikipedia (my reliable source for everything I know) and found this utterly fascinating piece of knowledge:

According to the researchers, one critical axis of symmetry passes close to the centre of the main hall, which is the traditionally preferred viewing point. In essence, viewing the placement of the stones from a sightline along this point brings a shape from nature (a dichotomously branched tree with a mean branch length decreasing monotonically from the trunk to the tertiary level) in relief.

The researchers propose that the implicit structure of the garden is designed to appeal to the viewers unconscious visual sensitivity to axial-symmetry skeletons of stimulus shapes. In support of their findings, they found that imposing a random perturbation of the locations of individual rock features destroyed the special characteristics.

For that kind of genius the I give the Anonymous who designed Ryōan-ji a non-patronising slow clap of respect.


#31 City Lights

I love city lights. They have a glow about them that I find so mesmerising that they take me up tall towers, to the tops of buildings and mountain summits just so that I can stare at them.

Japan is the perfect place for city lights. You are never far away from a mountain that you can climb, and if you are strong enough to do it in the winter when it gets dark earlier (ie. before the last cable car/bus) you can get some amazing shots of the city.

Here are a few of my favourites that I’ve taken over the last couple of months around Japan (full size in gallery at the bottom). Enjoy!

Downtown Kobe

Kobe Tower

Central Osaka

Glico sign, Namba


View from Rokko Mountain

Tokyo Tower

View of Rainbow Bridge from Tokyo Tower

'Light-Topia' Christmas display, Tokyo


#41 Statue

The story of Hachiko the Akita dog is a classic tale of friendship and loyalty. Hachiko was taken in by a professor at Tokyo University, who went to the train station everyday to go to work. They would walk in the morning together, until the station entrance, where the professor would board the train and Hachiko would wait outside until his master returned from work, and they would walk home together. They did this for a number of years, until one day the professor got on the train and never came back.

Hachiko waited and waited but the professor never appeared. He had died that day from a cerebral haemorrhage, leaving behind Hachiko who waited for him everyday. People on their way to work felt sorry for him and fed him snacks. He was even adopted again but ran away to wait at the station every day until he died.

A bronze statue of Hachiko was erected outside Shibuya station near where he waited as a symbol of loyalty, love and devotion.

Hachiko’s tale is well known throughout Japan by children and adults alike. It and has also been made into films and various comics and books have been published about him.

You can find Hachiko’s statue quite easily from the station, although there is a chance you may have to queue  to take a picture (that’s me with the blue hat). In any case, I’m a sucker for stories sad stories (especially if they involve cute doggies), so I was looking forward to doing it and it was an honor to finally meet him.

#33 Drunk Salaryman

The Japanese ‘salaryman’ may not be one of Japan’s most fashionable icons, but it’s certainly one of it’s most prevalent. You’ll see them everywhere in Japan, and they’re instantly recognizable by their grey/black suits and exhausted faces.

Salarymen have gone through many image changes over the last few decades, and I don’t mean suits and haircuts. Once considered the heroes of Japan during it’s economy boom, they’re now seen as working drones, and even often failures to their families for working so much.

Not that they freely choose to. Societal pressures have pushed these men hard. Most wake up early, have long commutes, work for hours and hours, do unpaid overtime, get home late and repeat. This is occasionally sprinkled with other duties such as ‘nomikai’ – literally meaning ‘drinking party’. As fun as it sounds, salarymen are obliged to drink with bosses and co-workers in the evenings in order to build up company relationships.

Their lives may sound a little hard compared to how hard most people work in the West, but they don’t have it really that bad. Nowadays, things are changing. They have more time at weekends to spend with their families and recently young people have been trying to break out of this mould. Women are entering the workforce for longer too, which also changes things (for the better).

In any case, I wanted to snap a picture of a salaryman because they’re an integral part of Japanese society… and they’re funny when they’re drunk. They’ll sleep anywhere and have no shame on trains to lean on the shoulders of complete strangers. Nice.