Though the Redwoods to San Francisco

This was day 5 of our trip from Vancouver to Tijuana and our longest drive.  We had to cover some 400 miles, mostly on twisting two lane highways, from our lodge near Gold Beach on the Oregon coast  to San Francisco, a journey which would take more than 7 hours – if we didn’t stop.  This was also to be our day amongst the Giant Redwoods.  Initially, our progress was slow as we were constantly distracted by the views from the coast road.  Most of the time we were able to pull over in a layby, but to view Arch Rock, a massive rock formation along one of the most rugged sections of the Oregon coast, we needed to park up and walk a short trail.

Avenue of the Giants, San Francisco CaliforniaFirst Sight of The Redwoods

Stopping at the mysteriously named Trees of Mystery, located at Klamath, California, we were greeted by a very kitsch 49 foot tall Paul Bunyan, a giant lumberjack of American folklore, and his proportionally large Blue Ox, Babe.   Whilst these are really very large statues (most visitors would not reach Babe’s knee), they did not prepare us for the sheer scale of the Giant Redwoods we saw as we walked the trails.  Whilst they are the world’s largest single trees, they are also both the largest and oldest living things on Earth.  These incredible trees can also be viewed from the top of the forest via a gondola ride, though personally I found their majesty was best appreciated at ground level.

Taking the opportunity for brunch, we visited the Forest Cafe just across the road.  Unsurprisingly, it was forest themed and even more kitsch than the statues.   One of the specialities there is local dish called a Monte Cristo, which we sampled .  This is an XXL French toast sandwich, filled with ham and Swiss cheese, fried, dusted with icing sugar, and served with side of hash browns.   I think of it as the Mr Creosote of Croque-monsieurs.

The Avenue of the Giants

The next waypoint on our trip had the advantage of being one we could see without stopping – in theory at least.  This was the Avenue of the Giants, actually State Highway 254, which we entered from the northern end a few miles south of the town of Fortuna, and is pictured here.  The road was once was part of Route 101 until it was bypassed in the 1960s.  It was an incredible driving experience; the highway is lined with magnificent Coast Redwoods and runs parallel to a small and picturesque river.

Coast Redwoods (aka California redwoods) are also astonishingly large.   Curiously, the height these redwoods can attain is related to the availability of fog.  This is because transporting water to such great heights by conventional means is extremely difficult and the upper leaves supplement their water supply by extracting it from fog.

Shrine Tree Chevy Suburban California RedwoodsAlong the route there is a drive-through Redwood, and it seemed unreasonable not to sample it, especially as, unlike other examples, the opening in the trunk is natural.  As we paid for our $8 ticket (the tree is privately owned), we were told that our Chevy Suburban was the very largest vehicle the Shrine Drive-Thru Tree could accommodate.  Nick drove, I assisted from the passenger side and Ted took photos of the unlikely sight of a huge SUV passing through a tree.  At points there was barely an inch to spare either side, but the paint was still all on the car as we exited.

Shoreline Highway

From the Avenue of the Giants it is just 30 miles or so to California State Route 1, also known as the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) and the inspiration for our trip.  North to South, it runs 750 miles inland from Leggett, in northern Mendocino, along the coast to Capistrano Beach, which is about 50 miles South of Long Beach.   The stretch we were on passes through Mendocino, Sonoma and Marin Counties and is known officially Shoreline Highway until it reaches the Golden Gate Bridge at Sausalito.

The Shoreline Highway is a beautiful but slow, windy stretch of two-lane blacktop that hugs the coast.  it is not what most people think of as the PCH, which is the section that runs between San Luis Obispo and Monterey, passing through Big Sur, Carmel and Monterey.  I read online that the drive between Leggett and Sausalito could be done in a day, ‘but it would be a tiring one’.  This amused me somewhat as we were already 5 hours into our drive at Leggett.

San Francisco Golden Gate BridgeGolden Gate Bridge

After about 3 hours we arrived at Sausalito, cheering in unison as we caught sight of San Francisco’s most famous landmark, the Golden Gate Bridge, resplendent in International Orange.  Ted knew of some places with good views up in the Marin headlands just north of bridge, so we headed under the 101 and up a narrow winding road, which you can see in the photo.

Whilst there are many places to shoot the bridge from this is actually one of the best vantage points in the late afternoon or early evening. Parking, however, at one of the few designated areas, is really difficult.   Once parked up we enjoyed a great view of this truly amazing piece of engineering.  It was constructed in the 1930s and had to overcome wind, fog, deep water, tides and vested interests opposed to its construction to span the Golden Gate strait.  At that time, at 746 high the towers were taller than any building in the city of San Francisco.

J Town, San Francisco

I love Japan, so I was excited to be staying at the Hotel Kabuki in the J Town (aka Japantown and Nihonmachi) part of San Francisco that evening.  This affection for all things Japanese had only become stronger since my 10 day roadtrip across the country the previous year.   There are far fewer Japan Towns than China Towns in the USA, with just 3 versus around 50.    San Francisco’s is both the largest, and oldest.

J Town covers 6-blocks and has many Japanese restaurants and shops mostly along Post Street, between Fillmore and Laguna Street.  Next to our hotel in Post Street is the Peace Plaza, which contains a 5-story pagoda, a gift from the city in Osaka in the 1960s.   We were really pleased with the recently renovated boutique Kabuki, which mixes Japanese and western influences to great effect.    We strolled the few blocks of the area and ate dinner at Izakaya Kou.  Izakaya are Japanese gastro pubs that developed from sake shops which allowed customers to consume the drink on the premises, and typically serve tapas style dishes.  The food was delicious and beautifully presented.

Back at the bar of the Kabuki we reflected that our trip was rapidly coming to an end; we had only our penultimate stop at Pismo Beach before our final night’s stay in San Diego.  The day’s drive had been an epic one of more than 400 twisting miles from our lodge in the Oregon wilderness. At a mere 254 miles the road to Pismo Beach was going to be a breeze in comparison. 

Encounters with Japanese Dragons

The r – Japanese Dragon

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

Encounters with Dragons screen
Magnificent Japanese dragon on a fusama door at Kennin-Ji, Kyoto

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.  

The Japanese dragon, (龍), holds a special place in Japanese culture, mythology, and symbolism. Its origins can be traced back to ancient Chinese influences, yet the Japanese dragon has evolved into a unique entity over the centuries.

The Origin of the Japanese Dragon

The concept of the dragon in Japan has its roots in Chinese mythology, where dragons were revered as powerful, celestial beings associated with rain, water, and the emperor’s authority. The adoption of Chinese cultural elements, including the dragon, occurred during Japan’s early interactions with the continent, notably through the spread of Buddhism and the importation of Chinese art and literature. This exchange laid the foundation for the integration of the dragon into Japanese folklore.

Symbolism and Cultural Significance

In Japanese culture, the dragon has been deeply embedded with symbolic meanings. Unlike Western dragons, often portrayed as malevolent creatures, the Japanese dragon is generally considered benevolent and is associated with auspicious qualities. The dragon is a symbol of strength, wisdom, and good fortune.

Japanese folklore and mythology are rich with dragon tales. One of the most famous is the legend of Yamata no Orochi, an eight-headed and eight-tailed dragon defeated by the storm god Susanoo, a myth found in the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters) and the Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan), ancient Japanese historical texts.

The dragon’s association with water is evident in its role as a guardian of bodies of water, such as rivers and seas. Additionally, dragons are often linked to agricultural prosperity, as they are believed to bring rain and ensure bountiful harvests.

In Japanese art and iconography, the dragon is a common motif. It is frequently depicted in various forms, from traditional ink paintings to elaborate woodblock prints. The imagery of dragons can be found on clothing, ceramics, and architectural elements, symbolising protection and auspiciousness.

Appearance

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.

Encounters with Dragons

Japanese Dragon
Goddess and Dragon, Tokyo

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.

A long history

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.

The Dragons of Kyoto

Twin Dragons Kyoto
Twin dragons in the dharma hall of Kennin-Ji, Kyoto

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 at the top 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. I was comptely mesmerised by the image.

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.

A Water Spirit

Water Dragons Japan
Dragon at the Hakone Jinja, at the foot of Mount Hakone

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).  I had to be dragged away from this magnificent spectacle by my friends – it was so striking.

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.

More on Japan

 You can find the best images from our trip in the Japan Gallery and an account of our travels in this blog: 10 Days in Japan.

10 Days in Japan

trees garden

Between 13th and 23rd May 2017, I travelled across Japan with a small group of friends on a trip organised by Trailfinders.  I have wanted to go for more than a decade and my expectations were sky high, and I am happy to say I wasn’t disappointed.  I wasn’t sure what lenses to take with me, so I took both my Leica Q and the Nikon Df with 20mm, 35mm and 85mm fast primes.  I ending up using the Leica Q (28mm) and the Nikon Df with the 85mm fitted almost exclusively, both slung across my chest in readiness.  You can see the gallery here.  This was our itinerary:

Day 1 – Arrival in Tokyo

We flew from London to Tokyo on British Airways.  Given the time difference we arrived with time to spare on our first day, which gave us the opportunity to explore the area around the excellent Park Hotel in Shiodome, our base in the metropolis.  Shiodome is close to the Ginza District, the upmarket shopping area of Tokyo, so had a short walk around the area and a lunchtime beer at the Ginza Lion Beer Hall with an accompaniment of delicious hoho-niku (tuna cheeks).  We noticed the displays of plastic food (sampuru) outside the beer hall, which seem to be ubiquitous in Japan.  None of us had slept well on the flight and our rooms had not been ready on arrival, so we headed back to the hotel to clean up and rest.  On the way back we came across Hakuhninkan Toy Park, which introduced us to the mad world of Japanese toys and collectables.  That evening we ate at Tsukada Nojo which was most notable for moromi-miso; a chunky condiment made from miso served with raw vegetables, of which we could not get enough.

Day 2 – Tokyo

  • On our first full day in Tokyo we were accompanied by our guide Akiko, who was very knowledgable and helpful.  We headed for the Meiji Shrine (Meiji Jingū), in Shibuya, a Shinto shrine dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and his wife.  Entering through an enormous Torii gate (made from a 1,500 year old tree) we passed into a large forested area which covers 175 acres and consists of around 120,000 trees of 365 different species from all over Japan.  It is both tranquil and beautiful.  There is also a huge decorative display of sake barrels (kazaridaru) in the grounds,  which relates to the offering of sake every year to the  deities at Meiji Jingu Shrine.  As we walked though the three Torii gates, Akiko told us that we should not walk through the centre line of the gate.  This is called the Sei-Chu and is the area designated for the enshrined gods to pass through.
  • Being British and in need of a restorative cup of tea we stopped at a Cat Cafe located near the entrance to the Shrine.  Japan holds the record for the most cat cafés in the world, with as many as 39 in Tokyo.  I took a bit of a risk entering the place – I am asthmatic and allergic to cats, which is not a great combination, but observed the rather bizarre spectacle without consequences.
  • Next was Takeshita Street or Takeshita-dōri, a shopping street in Harajuku, which was packed with fashion concious teenagers, followed by Omotesandō, an upmarket tree-lined avenue, once the official approach to Meiji-jingū. These days it is a fashionable and architecturally notable shopping strip.
  • After a spot of excellent sushi we moved on to Sensō-ji, an ancient Buddhist temple located in Asakusa. The temple is dedicated to Guanyin, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, and is one of the most widely visited spiritual sites in the world.  We approached it though the spectacular Thunder Gate, and a walk down the wonderful Nakamise Shopping Street.  I found a gorgeous picture of the Thunder Gate in one of the stalls, which I was keen to buy, but the price tag was far out of reach as it was an original.  Prints will, the vendor, told me be available in about 30 years.  Not far from the temple we came across a small park with the most spectacular collection of koi we had ever seen.
  • We moved on to Kappabashi, or Kitchen Town and visited the Kamata knife shop. I enjoy cooking, and love Japanese steel, so I purchased a very beautiful chef’s knife made by Ryusen.
  • We returned to the hotel via a cruise of the Sumida river and ate in the hotel, quite worn out.

Day 3 – Tokyo

  • The Tsukuji fish market is the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world and is located within walking distance of Shiodome, between the Sumida River and Ginza.  Visiting it involves making a choice of either arriving at 3 AM to queue to see the tuna market open at 5 AM, or arriving by 10 AM to see market wind down.  We chose the latter.  The market handles more than 400 different types of seafood (many of which look like nothing on earth) and the place is a whirr of activity – most notably the ‘Turret Trucks’, which are extremely hazardous to the unwary.   Whilst we missed the tuna market, we did see tuna being carved with extremely long knives, variously called called oroshi-hōchō, maguro-bōchō, or hanchō-hōchō.
  • We took the tube to Shibuya Crossing, considered a must see for many visitors, and located outside the Hachiko exit of Shibuya Station. This exit is named after a famous dog, whose statue has become a popular meeting place.  Shibuya Crossing effectively is a crossing point at the meeting of five roads in one of the busiest parts of the most populous city in the world, and the spectacle of up to 1,000 people crossing the road concurrently is quite astonishing.
  • I was keen to visit a guitar shop in Japan, particularly as Fender Japan are noted for being quite innovative.  G’Club, Shibuya did not disappoint and I purchased a low cost, light weight Japan-only Fender Telecaster that plays extremely well.
  • That evening we took in Akihabar (or Electic Town), which is  famous for its many electronics shops, its otaku (diehard fan) culture, and many anime/managa shops before exploring East Shinjuku/Kabukichu, in all its neon splendour.  It is a red light district and supposed to be somewhat edgy, but we were so mesmerised by the neon lights, if there was any menace there it passed us by.  We were not tempted to enter any of the establishments that beckoned us.
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