Encounters with Japanese Dragons

Encounters with Dragons screen“In Japan, the dragon is a good guy, not a bad guy.”    This was the comment of our guide in Kyoto on a recent trip across Japan, where we had a few memorable encounters with Japanese dragons.

Benevolent, auspicious, just, a bringer of good fortune and wealth, the Japanese dragon (Ryū), like its Chinese ancestor, is an ancient mythical creature that is very different from its malevolent, treasure-hoarding Western equivalent.  Like many mythological creatures, it is a composite beast and has the head of a camel, the eyes of a hare, the antlers of a deer, the neck of a snake, the scales of a carp, the paws of a tiger and the claws of an eagle.

Our first dragon encounter was in Shinjuku, Tokyo, a name that refers to both one of the 23 city wards in the metropolis and more commonly to the large entertainment, business and shopping area around Shinjuku Station – the world’s busiest railway station.  Painted on a wall behind a statue of a female deity playing a lyre lurked a fabulous white dragon on a black background surrounded by stylised swirls, it looked like some great, nameless tattoo artist had decided to take their artwork to a much grander scale.   I was mesmerised and spent some time shooting the combination of the statue and the dragon mural with my Leica Q whilst my companions retired to a nearby bar.  You can see both this image and the others mentioned in this post in the Japan Gallery.

The Asian dragon’s origin predates written history, but had achieved its present form of a long, scaled serpentine body, small horns, long whiskers, bushy brows, clawed feet and sharp teeth by the 9th Century, by which time it was part of Buddhist mythology as a protector of the Buddha and Buddhist law.    These traditions were adopted by the Japanese and the character for dragon (龍) is much used in temple names.  Dragon carvings also adorn many temple structures and most Japanese Zen temples have a dragon painted on the ceiling of their dharma halls, often painted inside a circle in the centre of the ceiling.

At the Zen temple of Kennin-Ji, in the Gion district of Kyoto, we had two dragon encounters in rapid succession.  The first was an incredible dragon painting on a sliding fusuma door, which is shown in this post.  The horns are larger than normal, the whiskers are so long they look almost like tentacles, and the dragon appears to be swimming through time and space; peering at us with us eyes that give a hint of otherworldly vision and knowledge.   The second was the vast painting of Twin Dragons that covers the entire ceiling of the Hattou (dharma hall) of Kennin-Ji, the oldest temple in Kyoto.  Kennin-Ji was founded in 1202, though the earliest surviving structure the is the Chokushimon (Imperial Messenger or Arrow Gate) that is dated to  from the Kamakura Period  of 1185-1333.  This building still bears the scars from the Onin War that reduced much of Kyoto to ashes during the 15th century in the form of  arrow marks.  The dharma hall that houses the Twin Dragons was constructed later, in 1765.  The dragons themselves were painted in ink on paper by Koizumi Junsaku (1924 – 2012), a noted painter and pottery artist, between 2000 and 2002, and installed in 2002 to mark the 800th anniversary of the founding of the temple.   The dragons cover 175 square meters rather than occupying the usual circle in the centre of the ceiling.  This was at the bidding of the abbot of Kennin-ji who requested that the artist make dragons “rampage across the ceiling”.  They rampage in spectacular fashion and I spent a good while admiring them.  A bought a copy of the painting and it is now framed and up on the wall at my home in Oxfordshire.

In modern Japan, Zen temples and Shinto shrines often stock their garden ponds with carp, which grow to great size in a spectacular range of colors.  Keeping them is partially inspired by Koi-no-Takinobori, the Japanese name for a Chinese legend of a carp that became a dragon after swimming up a waterfall.  We saw many incredible Koi in Tokyo and Kyoto, but I will not count them as dragons.

Unlike the Western dragon which is essentially a winged fire-breathing lizard, and a creature of the earth, the Japanese dragon is a wingless (but sky dwelling) water spirit.   At the Hakone Shrine (Hakone Jinja), at the foot of Mount Hakone and along the shores of the lake Ashinoko, our dragon encounter was at a Shinto shrine dedicated to the deity Ryujin (龍神).  Ryujin is associated with rain, good catches for fishermen, and with agriculture.  According to the Encyclopedia of Shinto ‘The dragon kami is connected with agriculture because of its characteristic as a water kami. Prayers for rain were performed at rivers, swamps, ponds, and deep pools which were regarded as the abodes of the ryūjin.’  At the shrine is an extraordinary  Chōzuya (purification basin), where holy water spouts from each of the nine dragon’s heads.  It was the dragon highlight of the trip.  Four dragon encounters is not a large number, but they were of the highest quality and I will never forget them.

Route 66 & Monument Valley Road Trip

Route 66 Ranch House CafeThe typical advice you will find on the web about combining Route 66 and Monument Valley on a trip is ‘don’t’, and I will admit that we (myself and two old friends) cranked out some substantial mileage in 8 days to accomplish this (2,232 miles in all, taking in Antelope Canyon and Death Valley for good measure).  It was well worth it.  Taking a large vehicle like a Chevy Suburban (in FBI black) helped.  My gallery for the Route 66 shots is here.  Our planning was sketchy, but here’s our itinerary:

  • London to Dallas/Fort Forth
  • Margaritas and dinner at Javier’s, Dallas, which is a fine establishment.
  • Morning in Dallas, visited the 6th Floor Museum, which is sombre but well worth the visit.  None of us give much credence to conspiracy theories but all agreed something wasn’t right with the conventional story.  18 witnesses disappeared… Our taxi driver, Charlie Ratcliff, of Cowboy Cars (+1 214 284 9919) was a witness who didn’t disappear.  He saw the shooting as a boy and can be seen in the Zapruder footage with his father.  He gives tours of the city, though we were pressed for time and could not take him up on his offer.
  • Drove to Amarillo, Texas.  Passed the leaning water tower at Groom, Texas (this is 1 of 2 things to see or do in Groom according to Trip Advisor).  We had dinner at the Big Texan, a well known Route 66 waypoint.  Kitsch does not do it justice, though the steak was a little disappointing given the hype.  We were taken to and from our hotel in a battered town car with steer’s horns on the front.  We avoided the 72 ounce steak challenge.
  • Headed back onto Route 66 and stopped at Tucumcari, New Mexico to take some shots and have a coffee at the Circa Espresso Bar.
  • Drove to Sante Fe, New Mexico.  Our route took us through Gallup and stopped to see the El Rancho Hotel, another Route 66 waypoint.  On arriving at the beautiful city of Santa Fe we sampled the fine beer and pizza on the balcony at the Draft Station with a view of the plaza.  We stayed at the La Posada de Sante Fe, which is highly recommended.  It is haunted though, apparently…
  • Drove to Monument Valley – we were all blown away by it.  Breathtaking is an overused word but it is fair in this case.  We stayed at Goulding’s Lodge, which nestles under the cliffs and has an old world charm. It is one of only two hotels in the valley.  We enjoyed the local Navajo bread as part of dinner, but missed a beer as the reservation is dry.
  • Took a tour of the Loop Road, Monument Valley and saw the breathtaking John Ford’s Point – complete with a Navajo man on a horse on the point.  He had been hired by a Japanese photography group.  The shot is on the home page a couple of images in.
  • Drove to Antelope Canyon, a slot canyon near Page and took a photographic tour with Adventurous Tours.  The canyon is absolutely stunning, though difficult to photograph because of the intense light and shade.  Our guide was very knowledgable and this helped a great deal.  Interestingly he had been into the canyon with Peter Lik, who shot the world’s most expensive photograph, The Phantom, there.
  • Drove to Flagstaff Arizona, which is great base to explore the Arizona section of Route 66 from.  We stayed at the Little America Hotel and played Pool and Shuffleboard at Uptown Billiards before dinner at a good noodle bar, Sosoba.
  • The following morning we walked the Ponderosa Pine trail at the back of the hotel and saw – in addition to quite a lot of pine trees, various kinds of ‘critters’, none of which we could identify.
  • Headed to Williams, Arizona – my favourite town on Route 66.  Stopped at the ridiculously named ‘Bearzonia’ on the way.  The bears and wolves most impressive – especially an evil looking wolf we nicknamed ‘Evil Dick’.  We met some great characters in the two Western outfitters in Williams and had a burger at the Cruiser Cafe.
  • Spectacular drive along Route 66 through the Black Mountains (listed on dangerous roads) to the Ghost Town of Oatman, where 100 or so people hang on in a place barely changed since the 1920s and wild burros wander the streets.  We had a beer at Judy’s Saloon and wandered through the town – it is quite something to behold.
  • Drove to Las Vegas, Nevada.  It’s not my favourite place, but it was on the way and we had a good dinner at Sushi Samba.
  • Visited the impressive Titanic Artefact Museum in the rather oppressive Luxor.
  • Headed out to Death Valley equipped with very little in the way of a plan or provisions – which is not advisable.  Stopped at Furnace Creek and Zabriskie Point.  We were all surprised by how beautiful the scenery was.
  • Arrived late at night in LA having skipped both lunch and dinner in the name of mileage.
  • A final breakfast of Eggs Benedict and saw a little more of old Route 66 on the way to LAX airport.

Hours in the car – around 40, photographic keepers about 30, fun – almost unlimited.

The Cuban Jungle in a ’55 Chevy

Chevy Bel Air Column ChangeAbout a year ago I was in Old Havana, Cuba. I had been shooting with professional photographer Ramses Batista for several days in when it occurred to me we should take a trip out of the city into the jungle in one of the old American 50s cars that still do service as taxis in that city.  Over a beer we discussed this and Ramses, who is something of a fixer, knew a driver with an immaculate ’55 Chevy Bel Air.  He suggested we took this out to Soroa, where there is a picturesque waterfall.  En route we would stop at a former coffee plantation and later take in an abandoned villa out in the jungle.  The next day our driver, Joe, pulled up outside my hotel with his gleaming wheels. It was immaculate and had been modified to hot-rod specification complete with a chrome skull on the end of the column change.

I declared it perfect. We set out and drove to abandoned coffee plantation.  We parked the gleaming Chevy and set off on foot.  Vulcher like birds circled above us as we took in the views of the valleys below us.  As we walked I could hear the sound of distant drums and enquired where they might be coming from.  Ramses pointed out some buildings far below us ‘It’s a kind of community’ he said.  Voodoo, I thought, unreasonably.  To be fair, my overactive imagination had been fueled by a couple on incidents during the trip.

The first had been a few day’s previously on a quest to shoot angels at Havana’s fine old cemetery (Cemetario de Colon).  On the way out the boot of the car was searched by the man at the gate.  ‘What is he looking for?’ I asked Ramses.  ‘Human bones’ he replied. ‘There are old religions in Cuba, and some need special ingredients like animal blood and human bones.  He’s just checking we didn’t take bones with us.’  A little bit of web research introduced me to read about Palo Monte, one of the darker of Cuba’s syncretic religions which uses these ingredients to enlist the help of deceased ancestors.  The second was when I saw a tethered goat in the street in Old Havana.  When I commented on it Ramses told me it was most likely a sacrificial animal.  Given these two recent experiences I suppose it wasn’t entirely surprising the distant sound of drums in the jungle prompted me to think of voodoo.

As we walked Ramses pointed out some jungle fruit and explained how to eat it without ingesting any germs from the outer shell.  I was skeptical but it proved to be delicious.  Returning to the car we drove on towards Soroa and parked up near a jungle restaurant.  The scene, was pretty bleak; a man sat in the remains of a house near an abandoned ’50s car.  Walking away from us were two men wearing filthy vests and carrying machetes.  ‘Don’t point your camera at anyone unless I tell you it’s OK’ said Ramses.  I nodded, feeling that this was an entirely reasonable request.  Lunch was better than I expected, and after we had eaten we walked down a flight of twisting stone steps to see the waterfall. I had to bring tripod with me, so I couldn’t blur the water the way I like to, but it was still very picturesque. We journeyed on to the abandoned villa, which looked to be of relatively recent construction, though it was quickly falling into disrepair. The entrance proved to be a good spot to shoot the Chevy, though the cloud cover was becoming an unfavourably uniform white by that time of the afternoon.

Our last stop was a bar, a place so remote I was surprised it would ever attract custom.  There was a little podium near the bar with the holy trinity of Cuban cocktails on it: the Mojito; the Daiquiri and the Cuba Libre.  Given the heat and humidity we opted for cold beers, which were very welcome.  We returned late in afternoon and followed our normal ritual of a review of my shots over another beer with a commentary from Ramses, which I always found helpful.

Cuba is an incredibly vibrant country, but when I visited I did feel an almost post-apocalyptic vibe about the place.  Scarity has created a culture of ingenious and almost endless recycling, particularly with vehicles, that, with the benefit of replacement engines and transmission, go on almost indefinately.  Things are changing now in Cuba, and hopefully for the better, but I am keen to get back before it loses that extraordinary look that is the result of all that ingenious recycling.