Japan for National Geographic and Hard Drive Horror!

Japan for National Geographic and Hard Drive Horror!

A few months ago when I was last in the UK, one of the magazines I contacted was National Geographic Traveller (Nat Geo). You will already be aware of this if you have read my blog before, but for those who haven't here is the catch up.

I left the UK last year for a new life in Taiwan, almost a year ago in fact. In the UK I specialised ed in editorial portraiture, and although I still love to meet people and shoot portraits (I just shot 6 portraits in Hong Kong, more about that next time), I realise there is an opportunity to branch out toward travel work too. With Travel photography I not only get to meet and photograph wonderful people it offers new experiences and adventures around the world and is so much fun. If you are familiar with my work then you know I enjoy getting in amongst it wherever I am, be it on the street or up in the hills and mountains, I just love it. Even better when there are chances to meet the locals and hang out, no matter if we can't speak the same language verbally, body language and a big smile is the best way as everyone understands that.

You can imagine then that I was over the moon when I got a call from Nat Geo requesting me to head over to Japan (somewhere I had not been before and always wanted to go.) on assignment. I was to make shots of Tsukiji Fish Market, shots around Tokyo's street food scene and then head off to the picturesque Hakone. Hakone is an area about 90 minutes from Tokyo, it is famous for the traditional Ryokan (Japanese hot spring pools), it is also a stunning area with wonderful views of Mount Fuji and Lake Ashi close by.

I got confirmation of the job, time was tight so I got busy booking hotels and flights. I asked Eva Air if they could do me a deal, they tried but it wasn't to be this time. The best option was Cathay Pacific, I fly Cathay almost all the time so was very happy  to be flying with them again. I managed to find a couple of nights very cheap in a tiny room near Tsukiji, it was about as basic as it gets but I was on a tight budget,  needing to be up super early to get the market shots and not wanting to travel halfway across Tokyo I was happy to accept a simple room with a bed and bathroom. So it was 2 nights in Tokyo then off to Hakone where I stayed in a reasonable hotel on the first night, and then had an amazing experience with the Hotel Kai Hakone. The hotel Kai Hakone is part of the Hoshino Resorts group hotels (http://global.hoshinoresort.com/), they were very generous, apologising that they could only accommodate me for one night. The hotel was so beautiful, the food was amazing and topping it off I was guided through the whole experience by the most wonderful Mami Sato, she could not have been more helpful, friendly and fun to work with whilst photographing the Hotel and the food. Big thank you to Mami, all at the Kai and Ms Izutani for your generosity and hospitality. 

The article appears in the current (October 2014) edition of National Geographic Traveller, I was fortunate enough to catch the folks from the magazine during this trip to the UK, and am looking forward to many more assignments from them over the coming year and beyond. Here are a few of the photographs I made during that trip. As soon as I am back in Taiwan I will be posting a Japan gallery on my website, keep your eyes out for those, for now though enjoy these...

The view over Tokyo from the Metropolitan Government Building.

Tuna is cut and graded at the bustling Tsukiji Fish Market. 

Having flown in the day before, spent the night shooting the street food scene and then up at 3:30am to get to the market. I was glad to get out without being run over by one of the crazy trolley drivers, believe me, that place is frantic. I really had to have my wits about me, I was there to make photographs, these guys are there to do their daily job and could not care less for little old me.

It looked like madness but it works for them, trolley drivers at Tsukiji Fish Market.

I had read that you needed to get up early to get a ticket and be guided around the market. Heading there for 4am, I thought it would be obvious and I'd see the queue to get on the tour. Before I knew it though I was into the market having missed the ticket office completely. I only spotted it on the way out, for your information should you wish to visit, it is on the left as you cross the bridge into the market. I would recommend getting a ticket and taking the tour, I am sure it would be much safer. Finding myself in the market I figured I best just get to work. I spent two hours in the market making photographs before I got spotted by security and asked to leave. No bother, I had the shots and then some, the only thing left to do at 6am in Tsukiji is go and get the best Sushi available anywhere for breakfast...yum and what a way to make Mrs. L jealous, sushi just ain't the same anywhere else.

The Itamae of Sushi creates the freshest, tastiest sushi available at Tsukiji Fish Market, great for a hard working photographer's breakfast.

Back to bed for a few hours and then in the afternoon I took a walk around Yoyogi Park near Tokyo's famous Harajuku area. The park is on the site of Japan's first powered flight, consists of extensive grounds which are lovely to walk around and also holds the Meiji Shrine. The shrine, constructed of Japanese Cyprus wood was constructed to commemorate the Emperor's role in the Meiji restoration and was built in an iris garden that Emperor Meiji and his wife Empress Shoken had been known to visit.

The Iris gardens stretch on in the wonderfully tranquil grounds around the Meiji Shrine.

Yoyogi park provides a lovely restful place to wander and relax whilst in Tokyo, although Tokyo is one of the most populace capitals in the world, it seemed very relaxed and open to me. The chance to really slow down and enjoy the manicured garden around the traditional tea house, make a prayer at the Meiji Shrine and see traditional tea ceremonies being taught to a whole new generation was a fabulous way to spend an afternoon. A real contrast to the maniacal action at the fish market. 

Landscaped gardens display topiary work which leads you up to the Tea House.

After a morning learning the fine art of the Japanese tea ceremony, traditionally dressed girls giggle as they walk past the Meiji Shrine.

I was back to the streets that evening and once again the delights of street food. When we are in Taiwan, you will often find Mrs. L and I out for dinner in one of the excellent Japanese Beer Houses in Taipei. Freshly grilled mouthfuls of fantastic variety served along with cold draft beer, what could be better. If you aren't familiar with this style of eating I guess you could compare it to Spanish Tapas. Heading to the beer house is fun whether on your own, on a date or with a group of friends.

It was around Shinjuku and Shambashi that I wandered into this smokey fragrant tunnel under the railway. Beer houses on either side and a lively custom, I was more than happy to be seated opposite a local on a small table. The food was good and the beer cold and refreshing, what a cool place to enjoy a bite and watch the nightly flow of office workers out to unwind, I'll certainly hand it to the residents of Tokyo, they know how to enjoy a drink.

Under the arches, smoke from the grill fills the tunnel beneath the railway with smells guaranteed to make you salivate.

Hot, smokey and hectic, the grill chef works flat out to get the orders made and out to the hungry mouths.

Leaving Tokyo behind on the super smooth direct train to Hakone Machi, wistfully named "The Romancecar", it wasn't long until I found myself pulling my bag through the small, pretty town up to my hotel for the night. There was a business function, and the hotel was pretty full. Being a Ryokan, there were a selection of naturally fed hot spring pools. The hotel had alot of rooms, but sadly not enough lifts, dinner is served in your room and I was concerned that I was going to miss it as I had been out for a short walk. Myself, and a group of lively Japanese ladies were patiently waiting for the lift in the lobby which was taking an inordinate amount of time to arrive. There was a member of hotel staff calling the lift and also announcing it's arrival, seems a bit unnecessary I thought, but not unusual in Japan. The lift arrived and the doors opened, the lift lady launched into her patter welcoming us to the lift, the response she got from myself an the lively ladies was not what she expected, we all started having a fit of the giggles. Wondering what we were laughing at she looked at what the opening doors had revealed and was presented with a wall of elderly Japanese men, all wearing Yukata (traditional Japanese robe worn when relaxing.). Clearly they had meant to go to the 8th floor and the hot spring pools, I was laughing at the site of a lift full of old men in dressing gowns looking confused, I suspect the Japanese ladies found the fact that these men were incapable of reading the floors and pressing the correct button more amusing. Having spent time on the train next to a group of mature Japanese ladies who gossipped and giggle whilst eating their delightful looking home prepared lunches and now sharing this giggly moment with some more I have fallen in love a little with their fun attitude toward life and us less capable of genders.

After a full day travel and knowing that I was in for an early start (taxi booked for 3:30 am), I was only too happy to find my dinner waiting for me in my room and then enough time to head to the open air hot spring pools for a relaxing soak beneath the stars.

With typical Japanese punctuality, I found the taxi waiting for me and headed off as the first light started to creep over the horizon. I wanted to get to Onshihakone Park, from my research it appeared this would offer the best views for the sunrise photograph I was keen to make. To my dismay the concerns I had about the strong UV haze I had seen on the way to Hakone the day before proved true. The UV was very strong, causing a real problem but I only had this one chance to get the shot. This is the down side of a tight schedule, no choice but to do what I could. In the days of film a UV filter popped onto the lens would help but they are less effective in the digital age, so I don't carry them.

The shots are far from great, however for me it was a lovely place to stand, all alone and watch the sun rise and light the top of Mount Fuji over the rolling hills and lake. Sorry the shots aren't perfect, with more time comes extra opportunities, if you live near a beautiful spot then it pays to visit again and again as I have mentioned before.

Mount Fuji is illuminated through the haze by the dawn sun.

Thankfully the haze did improve but it was too late for the dawn golden hour, however I did envy this lone fisherman casting his line, there were plenty of fish rising, next time I am there my fly rods are coming for sure.


Hoping for an early bite on Lake Ashi, Hakone.

Check out was set for 10am, I asked for an extension and was told that I would be charged. Although Hotel Okada was a nice, if somewhat dated hotel, the staff and service were not great. When I first arrived at the hotel for check in it was 11:45, check is not until 12:00. I travel a lot and stay in many hotels, every time I have arrived early, if the room is unavailable they at least take my details and offer to hold my baggage for me so I can find somewhere to relax. Not the case with Hotel Okada, they told me to wait along with a large group of other people experiencing the same thing whilst the check in staff just stood doing nothing until 12:00. 15 minutes is not a hardship by any means, but I thought it would be obvious that checking people in and then asking them to wait is preferable, as opposed to asking them to wait and then having a very busy period and a queue, but who am I to question other folks logic?  

Thankfully I was heading on to the Kai Hakone, I had been excited by this prospect since it was offered to me and glad to be having it at the end of my trip. Who wouldn't enjoy a bit of luxury at the end of 4 very busy days. I asked the Okada desk staff which was the best way to get to the hotel, with their consummate efficiency then sent me off into town armed with the incorrect bus information. To really add insult to injury, once I had managed to get the correct bus and travel to the Kai Hakone, it turned out I could have walked there in about 5 minutes from Hotel Okada.

Walking down the drive to the Kai Hakone entrance was all I needed to do to begin to feel it's charms taking hold of me. The hotel is set back from the road down into the river valley and surrounded by lush green forest. In total contrast to the staff at Okada, the staff at Kai Hakone could not be more welcoming. They knew I was there for Nat Geo, however I don't think this made any difference as all the staff seemed to really love their work and working at the hotel. 

I was a little early, having confirmed it was ok I began to make my photographs of the reception area, as you can see it is a bright, airy and spacious entrance lobby. With excellent coffee on tap, a display of Yosegi-zaiku (traditional Japanese woodwork) which is available to try to produce for yourself in the evenings and a small library, I had no trouble relaxing as I awaited my meeting and the agreed photographic schedule to commence.

The reception lobby at the Hotel Kai Hakone.

Mami Sato was to be my guide and assistant for the day around the hotel, I don't think anyone could have been nicer and more helpful than her. We had good fun all day shooting everything from hotel interiors, hot spring pools and the exquisitely delicate Kaiseki. I can assure you it not only looked good as I was honoured to be served this dinner by Mami Sato that evening, it was delicious.

Beautiful Kaiseki dinner, Kaiseki is a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner, consisting of about 13 different small delights.

After making the photographs and before dinner I took advantage of the hot spring pool, having the pool to myself was an added bonus, Whilst soaking in the mineral rich water I was able to reflect on my trip to Japan. It had been a whirlwind of crazy messed up sleep pattern and non stop photography, it is often the case as a travel photographer that you don't really get to enjoy the places you are in as you are concentrating on making photographs. Yes of course you have to look and be in touch with what is going on around you, you have to be in that moment. However in the back of your head is always thoughts of camera settings, angles and compositions, is the background clear...blah blah blah. So enjoying the travel as a tourist may, is not so easy. For this hour though as I lay there I was able to think about all I had seen and experienced. The crazy fish market, hitting the streets of Tokyo, chatting with the touts offering late night fun in the lively streets near Shinjuku, having a few drinks with locals who spoke no English in a little beer house. It had been a wonderful experience, I decided that I would come back on a non work trip (as if I never travel without my camera.), and hopefully Mrs. L will join me.

Baskets for your belongings by the lady's hot spring pool. (Hotel Kai Hakone)

Looking back in to the lady's hot spring pool from the open front which offers forest views. (Hotel Kai Hakone)

A wonderful view from the men's hot spring pool. (Hotel Kai Hakone)

Needless to say I had a wonderful nights sleep, I did feel a bit embarrassed having to be woken up for my breakfast. I had quite forgotten I was getting a lovely breakfast too, to add to this Mami Sato had gone to the effort to get me some Natto. Natto is the Marmite of Japan, you either love it or you hate it. It is made from fermented soya beans, and for me I am afraid not something I could really take to, the flavor is nice, but the texture, uh ah, not my cup of tea. Still don't be put off, we should always try things, you never know you may love it.

Waving farewell to Mami and heading to the train station, I was a little sad to be leaving Japan. My schedule was tight but well planned, I felt confident I would make the flight ok. It was only when I got the the train station that this all went a little topsy turvy. A very rare occurrence in Japan had happened, a derailment. I had to change my plan completely, getting into Tokyo on the slower train I was a little stressed, only to find that to get to the airport meant a slightly more complicated trip on two more trains. I was off my map and not sure if I would get off at the correct stop. My faith in human nature came to fruition once again however as a lovely Japanese man, seeing my predicament wrote out my entire journey , including exact times of arrival at each station all the way to the airport, what a total gentleman, so big thank you to him, give than man a suit of armour.

Having dragged my suitcase with my heavy camera bag on my back for hours, I was a little dishevelled when I arrived at the Cathay Pacific check in desk. I was greeted with an apology, "I am sorry Mr. Longden but due to economy being over booked we have had to move you into business class, is that ok?",  Errrr yes! Thank you very much indeed Cathay Pacific, once again you prove yourselves to be a great airline. Hitting the showers in the business lounge was just what I needed, it wasn't long until I was on the flight and we were heading away from Japan., but we were gifted with one last joy as we left. Over the tannoy came an announcement from the captain, "Ladies and Gentleman, if you look out of the right hand windows you will see a lovely view of Mount Fuji, I have to agree, it certainly was a beautiful sight.

Mount Fuji as I left Japan, happily seated in business class thanks to Cathay Pacific.

Thank you National Geographic Traveller for sending me on this assignment, and thank you Japan for being everything I expected and more, I look forward to returning and seeing much much more time and time again. It is a beautiful place with beautiful people.

The title of this blog suggests there was a horror awaiting me, this horror slapped me back to reality pretty hard. I got home, fired up my PC and discovered my primary hard drive had crashed. None of the photographs I had been working on over the last 6 months were there any more, it was empty, a void where once had been the spoils of hours and hours of work. This has been a nightmare of mine for a long time and now it was a reality.

When I turned pro a few years ago I invested in a 3tb external hard drive and had thankfully been importing duplicate copies of my RAW files. I am not always the most organised and some files had gone into folders of the wrong name, but at least they were there somewhere. That real kick between the legs was that I had not backed up the post production I had done, this means that I am now looking at hours and hours doing it all again.

I don't like to dwell on the negatives, so embrace the lesson learnt. I now have unlimited online storage, this backs up as files change so all my work is safe on there. I invested in a second 3tb external hard drive, spent a week working through the first one, re-organising and renaming all the folders, I now have mirrored 3tb hard drives. It was a hard lesson, but it could have been a lot worse so I am thankful for that. I get to practice my Photoshop and Lightroom processing more, although it can be laborious, practice makes perfect. Most importantly I learnt to be rigorously thorough when importing files, and also backing up any post work I have done. Anyone starting out in this world take note and learn from other people's mistakes before you make your own.

My work from Japan is in the current issue (October 2014) of National Geographic Traveller, the app version should be out soon and has more photographs.

If you are heading out to Japan and are wanting a wonderful relaxing place to stay during your trip I would highly recommend The Hotel Kai Hakone. Follow this link to make your booking: 
http://global.hoshinoresort.com/kai_hakone/ If you do stay there please send Mami Sato my regards.

If you like my blog please share it to all you know. If you want to discuss anything, leave a comment and let me know what you think.

Should you want to book me then get in touch via my website: www.duncanlongden.photography  all my contact details can be found there.

For regular shots from where I am in the world check me out on Instagram: http://instagram.com/duncan_photo 

Thank you all for your interest and ongoing support for my work, it really means a lot to me. Once again as ever I will try and blog again soon, on the cards for subjects are a recent trip to Maccau, back again in Hong Kong where I made 6 portraits for the ongoing and ever enjoyable Collectors series, my series based on vinyl enthusiasts and an actual holiday in the stunning Brecon Beacons in Wales. Not to mention more meetings with editors (hopefully more work will come my way soon), a portrait shoot for Silksroad, the Dragon Air in flight magazine, and another one for a great writer friend for his first novel. That should be enough to keep these interesting, which I hope they are.

Until the next time, take it easy, have fun and remember wherever we come from, we are all the essentially the same.