The Canopy of Autumn

Growing up in the mild climate of the Bay Area, one thing we definitely missed was the dramatic turn from warm to cold weather signaled by the autumn foliage. It wasn’t until I visited the eastern Sierras in October of 2011 that I realized what I was missing. Needless to say, coming to Japan where both Autumn and Spring bring spectacles of nature that the entire country goes crazy over was an incredible experience for us.

To say that Japan is crazy over the changing autumn leaves is an understatement. Because cherry blossom season is so short in the Spring, popular places to view cherry blossoms tend to be packed with people for a short period of time. But because the autumn colors tend to last longer and experience a week or more at “peak colors”, the crowds don’t seem to be as intense, though the overall numbers probably match their Spring counterparts.

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There are, of course, websites for tracking the changing leaves across the country. And this is a great thing because you wouldn’t want to trek out to a remote location only to find the leaves haven’t changed colors yet.

It just so happens that one of the best places to view autumn colors in the Saitama prefecture is a mere bicycle ride from our house. And a bicycle is perfect because during peak colors, the streets surrounding the location are a gridlock of cars searching in vain for a parking space.

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The location is the grounds of a Buddhist temple called Heirin-ji. The temple itself takes up only a small portion of the forest, but the leaves are best viewed against the classic backdrop of ancient Japanese architecture, as some of the buildings were built in the late 17th century.

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The rest of the space is a woodland preserve of the Musashino Forest, a rarity in such an urban environment. On a quiet day, one can walk seemingly alone through a stretch of forest and maybe catch a glimpse of a raccoon dog or other animal not commonly seen in the surrounding city. But there are no quiet days for walks during the autumn leaves season. Hundreds of people wander the park on weekdays and thousands on weekends.

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Still, every once in a while when the crowds disperse for a few minutes, one can get the sense of standing beneath a tapestry of color only the mind of God could have created, breathing in the cool, earthy air and feeling the fall breeze on your face. And in that moment, a whispered “Hallelujah” might escape your lips because to witness autumn in Japan is a glimpse of God’s glory yet to come.

No words can really describe the beauty so I leave you with a few more photos to savor.

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Japan Photos: The Last Fall

The last fall IMAGE, that is. At least for this year. With temperatures dropping below freezing for several nights in a row, Winter is definitely ready to make its entrance. Wind and rain have hastened the dropping of the last remaining leaves from the trees around our neighborhood. Goodbye Autumn. You were so lovely.

A few interesting notes on this image (yes, this is a photography post, not a Japan or ministry post).

It is an intentional double exposure. This is literally one of the last photos of Autumn I took this year. After taking thousands of photos Autumn leaves, I have to admit, it gets tiresome. That’s not Autumn’s fault. That’s the fault of a photographer who gets lazy with the creative process and shoots the same image of the same subject over and over. By this time, I realized I needed to try something different, so I began to experiment. Experiment with focus, with camera movement, with new angles. And finally, multiple exposures. Yes, it is nice to let the beauty of nature speak for itself sometimes, but you can also lend some God-given creativity to the process. You might be surprised.

It sat around untouched for nearly two weeks before I noticed it. I had so many beautiful shots from that day, I never even gave this shot a second look. When I had reviewed it quickly in my camera, it had not seemed like anything special to me. It was only when I opened it up and really checked the details that I realized this shot was special. In the creative process, don’t be too hasty with your work. Look closely at the details, post-process the image to its strengths, and see what materializes. And even if you reject an image once, give it a second a chance a week or two later. Perhaps your perspective will have changed.

Of all my Autumn images, this one captures my feelings of the season best. That’s a difficult thing to say because I have taken so many lovely images of Autumn here in Japan. Everywhere you turn, you see the beauty of Autumn, from mountains bursting with fall color to gardens punctuated with strategically planted momiji to the bicycle path on the street outside our front door where autumn leaves fall into a clear stream full of koi. In this image, my intent was to layer the familiar colors and shapes of Fall in an almost abstract way. Like looking through the Autumn leaves at the Autumn leaves. Unlike many of my other images, I also subdued the brashness of the color, deadened it, as a reminder that Autumn, like every season, also must come to an end. Compared to some of my other fall images, it might even seem a bit drab color-wise. But that too is part of Autumn.

With Autumn gone, I can now turn my attention to capturing the feel of Winter here in Japan. What will I find that defines Winter in our city and in the great metropolis of Tokyo? Let’s find out together!

Autumn in Japan

This past weekend, I celebrated my belated birthday by dragging taking my family on a hike to nearby Takao-san. Due to our son’s sports schedule, most of our weekends in September and October were taken up attending high school sporting events, but as it turned out it was a blessing in disguise. November, particularly late November, is prime season for Autumn foliage and we were amazed at the spectacular show of God’s artistry in nature.

Of course, if we know November is prime season, you can imagine the rest of the residents of the Greater Tokyo Metropolitan area also know. Hiking Takao-san on a three-day Autumn weekend is like a quiet walk in nature with 50,000 of your closest friends. Fortunately, Japanese people are generally so polite and the environment so breathtaking, even the crowds are not a huge distraction.

Unlike California where the Fall seems to last for a week or two, the season stretches out from early October and continues into December here in Japan. Some places in Tokyo, the leaves have only begun to turn while other places (particularly north of Tokyo), the Fall colors have already come and gone. It’s wonderful to be able to enjoy the full season of Autumn in all its splendor before the reality of a cold Winter comes next month!

Stumbling Through Heirin-ji Temple

I finally found a benefit for my Japanese illiteracy. About 3 miles from my house is large park containing a fairly prominent Buddhist temple called Heirin-ji. The park itself is famous for incredible fall foliage, when many of the trees have leaves that turn fiery red, in contrast with the ones that stay brilliant green. Rather than waiting for the leaves to fully turn (and draw crowds of admirers from around the region), I decided to scout out the park on a nice summer day. The 500 yen entrance fee also came with free attended parking for my bicycle, which the very helpful woman who collected my money allowed me to park just outside her window.

At first, I was a bit disappointed to find out that 2 or 3 of the main buildings are under renovation, which means not only can you not go into them, but also that they are covered with screens and scaffolding that appear in the background of other photographs you shoot if you are not careful. As I wondered if I wasted 500 yen, I came to a huge building with a sign next to the open door. I scanned the sign for any kanji or phrases that I recognized but found nothing, so I went inside. At the front entrance, there was a place to leave your shoes and slippers to put on, typical of any building in Japan expecting visitors.

Since it was still summer and few leaves had even barely begun to turn red, I had virtually the entire complex to myself. So naturally when I stepped inside the building and didn’t see anyone else, I wasn’t surprised. I began snapping photos of the beautiful interior of the building, which housed the temple and several other rooms. One hallway led to the kitchen where the monks who lived on the complex prepared their meals. I had never seen a more simple yet elegant kitchen, now silent and dark except for the soft light filtering through the shoji screened windows.

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As I walked quietly around the complex, I passed a room where a monk was praying. He undoubtedly heard me as I walked to and fro, the shutter of my camera clicking away, but he made no attempt to talk to me. I walked down the hall past a gorgeous courtyard garden until I reached the rear of the complex where a wall of sliding glass doors separated the hallway from a huge, beautifully manicured zen garden. Outside one of the sliding doors were a couple dozen sets of rubber slippers, so I slid open the door, put on some slippers and took a walk outside in the garden. I took pictures for about half an hour before sitting and just drinking in the beauty of the place and the loud chirping of the semi (cicadas) in the trees all around. Finally, I went back inside, took a few more shots in the hallways, and left the way I came.

I was a little curious as to why I saw no one else in the building (except for the monk I saw praying and a few more who were talking in a room that I stayed away from to keep from bothering them). On a whim, I snapped a photo of the sign next to the door and sent it to a friend who could read Japanese to translate it for me. Her answer: “Please refrain from proceeding beyond this point.” Oops.

In truth, after I found out my mistake, I didn’t feel bad about trespassing because I am quite sure at least one of the monks knew I was in there taking pictures and yet he said nothing to me. Also, I was a very respectful guest and I did not touch anything, go into any rooms that weren’t already open and I spent a lot of time admiring their beautiful garden. Perhaps next time, they will invite me to have tea with them!

Later, as I walked alone in the forest around the complex, I understood why I was so alone in the park; I was a one man feast for the hordes of mosquitoes living there. Mosquito season officially ends in November in Japan when the weather gets too cold for them to survive. That will probably be the next time I visit to enjoy the fiery Autumn foliage.

One thing Christians and Buddhists can agree on is that is easy to see God’s handiwork in nature. His fingerprints are in all the details of the forest, from the perfect moss growing from the forest floor to the grand trees over our heads. I can’t wait to return to see it again in November.

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Things To Miss About America – Half Moon Bay, California

Jumping on the freeway and heading due west from our home, we can be in the little seaside town of Half Moon Bay in less than an hour. As close as it is, it feels a world apart from the busy urban sprawl of the Bay Area. One cloudless Fall day, I decided on a whim to get in my car and take that short drive to the coast, to enjoy the quaintness of Half Moon Bay perhaps one last time before heading to Japan for a few years.

I certainly was not disappointed by my little diversion for the day. In the few hours I spent in Half Moon Bay walking around, enjoying an abnormally warm November day (Half Moon Bay is famous for it’s fog, which can often last the entire day, even if it’s completely sunny 15 miles inland). Strangers gave me genuine smiles as they walked past me on the street, and a few even struck up conversations and offered advice on scenic places I should photograph. Inviting public benches, donated by members of the community lined the streets of the downtown area, inviting me to stop and relax while enjoying a deli sandwich and the warm sunshine.

Half Moon Bay is as famous for its October pumpkin festival as it is for its fog, and there was plenty of evidence that the festival had recently ended. Pumpkins, some decorated in paint, some carved, and some just, well, naked, sat outside shops and houses alike.

A few miles north of the main part of town, an amazing little house/shop called Nest Gallery is hidden just away from the marina. Nest Gallery is filled with little objects d’art, some collected, some created. And as interesting as the art is, the artists who reside there are even more so. I had a wonderful conversation with one of the artists who used to practice architecture, and he regaled me with stories of the days he was involved in such high profile projects as the iconic Transamerica Pyramid and the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco.

I feel blessed to have spent so much of my life growing up in California, a dash away from some really incredible places. What Half Moon Bay may lack in size, it more than makes up for in spirit.