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A glimpse of Jakarta

With a couple of hours to kill in Jakarta before boarding my flight back to Tokyo after an express business trip, I used the little time I had to visit the Monas and the Istiqlal Mosque.

The Monas is a 132m pillar-looking tower, built to commemorate Indonesia’s fight for its independence and the end of the colonial administration of the Dutch East Indies after the end of WWII. There is a replica of the Indonesian independence proclaim script by Soekarno inside. You can also take a lift to the top for a panoramic view of the city, but nothing to really write home about unfortunately.

The Istiqlal Mosque is the largest mosque in Southeast Asia. It was also built after the end of the colonial era, and its name Istiqlal Mosque can actually be translated into “Independence Mosque”. I tried to include people in some of the images to give a sense of scale. It must be very impressive when the main prayer hall is full.

2 hours is obviously not enough time to visit a big city like Jakarta. However, while I always enjoy my time there thanks to the kind people I meet and the delicious street food, there are many beatiful places throughout the country and I would personally not allocate much time to Jakarta compared to Jogjakarta or Borobudur for instance. The pollution of the air in Jakarta is a real problem in my opinion, which gets exacerbated by the hot and humid climate.

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The Gassho-Zukuri farmhouses of Shirakawa-go

Shirakawa-go is a small village located in the North of the Gifu prefecture. It was awarded the status of UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995 for its gassho-zukuri style farmhouses, with their distinctive steep thatched roofs.

Shirakawa-go is located in a mountain area, surrounded by a river and some rice fields, so the scenery will change a lot depending on the seasons. I went there during Golden Week this year with my relatives who were visiting from France at the time. I would say it is probably the worst time of the year to visit anywhere in Japan, as there are several national holidays tied together, meaning any place worth checking out gets overcrowded.

We were visiting Shirakawa-go as a day trip from Takayama, and in fact the whole area was so crowded that we spent around 2 hours stuck in a big traffic jam at the entrance of the village. Something to be expected during Golden Week for sure, but that basically meant that we had to rush out time there while the heat was at its peak of the day, and we got back to the bus stop way earlier than scheduled as we could not afford to miss the last bus in case too many people wanted to get onboard. This proved to be a smart decision.

After this first rush-hour visit, I am definitely planning on coming back to experience the area in better conditions, sleeping overnight in one of the gassho-zukuri style farmhouses when the region is covered with snow in Winter.

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50th Shimokitazawa Awaodori Festival

Follow me on Instagram for previews, behind-the-scene images and random daily life things.

Awodori (阿波おどり) is a type of Japanese festival held in August, during which teams (called “ren”, 連) of dancers parade through the streets dancing and singing on a song called “yoshikono bushi” (thanks to Coal in the comments section for the name), accompanied by musicians playing the shamisen, the shinobue flute, the kane bell, with taiko drums to set the tempo.

The main song is sometimes referred to as the “Fool’s song”, as the lyrics go:

The dancers are fools.

The watchers are fools.

If both are fools,

Then why not dance too?

The biggest Awaodori festival is held in Tokushima during the Obon holiday, but I did not have the chance to go there yet. However, there are many Awaodori held in the Tokyo area during the whole month, with some very skillful teams. The best-known is the Koenji Awaodori, which is held at the end of August, but be ready for an over-crowded event with some people marking their spots with blue tarpaulins with their name on it gaffer-taped on the side of the street way in advance (would not try to reserve my spot like that outside of Japan 🙂 ).

I tend to prefer smaller events, which enable to be closer to the team and to sometimes catch them when they are more relaxed. The Shimokitazawa Awaodori is a good example of human-sized Awaodori that will enable you to approach the dancers and improve your knowledge of the different teams, with their different styles. There are not bazillion teams, but at least you get to remember their names and colors. I have to say my favorite one was the Yattokoro-ren (やっとこ連), and I will be looking for them in future events.

Having said that, the streets close to the train station will be very crowded as well. That is where you want to be if you want to enjoy the joyful spirit of the events, with spectators dancing on the sidewalk with some yakisoba or yakitori in one hand, and a beer in the other hand. This year was a special one, as it was the 50th anniversary of the Shimokitazawa Awaodori (which is a young age as far as Awaodori festivals go). Before joining the party myself, I first wanted to get some pictures of the event. Following the advice of Tokyobling, I positioned myself as far as possible from the train station, almost at the end of the street, where there are much less people on the side and less people jumping in front you to take their picture, which offers a much more pleasing experience for photographers. I stayed on the side of the road the whole time, which does not offer a nice variety of images and point-of-view, but I felt I had no business popping out in the middle of the street and risking ruining the experience of both performers and watchers, though some people would occasionally do it.

At the end of the parade, each team goes to a designated spot with people gathering around them for a special demonstration of their skills. I wanted to see the Shinobu-ren (しのぶ連) closer, so, following again the advice of Tokyobling, I tried to positioned myself at the designated spot early, as popular teams get quickly surrounded by a huge amount of fans, only to realize later that the pet shop I used as my reference spot was not the one mentioned on the map. By the time I reached the proper location, there were already too many people to have a good view of what was going on. Lesson learned for next year 🙂

Gear-wise

I shot with 2 bodies. My main one was the Fujifilm X-T1, with initially the new XF 90mm F2 mounted on it. But I quickly switched to the XF 56mm F1.2 and XF 35mm F1.4 as I realized even from the sidewalk I was so closed to the action I need a wider focal length. The wider aperture was also useful, as the event takes place in the evening in streets with very limited light. My objective with this body was to get some portraits of the dancers, and especially the dancers wearing amigasa hats (編笠, the half-folded circular-shaped straw hat). I used the Firmware 4.0, hoping to benefit from the focusing improvements, but overall I struggled nonetheless to get continuous focus on erratically moving dancers in dim-light, though this might be totally due to my own ignorance and lack of experience with the new Fuji focus modes.

I used the Fujifilm X-E2 as my second body, with the XF 10-24mm F4 mounted on it. I chose the wider zoom because it is stabilized and I wanted to capture the groups of dancers passing by with a slightly slower shutter speed to capture some movement. When I got home and transferred the files to my computer, I realized that I had been shooting JPEGs the whole night with this body, a setting that I had probably used for my previous shoot and forgot to change back. I reckon it also happens to me oftentimes to start shooting in broad daylight at high ISO because I forgot to check it and change it back after shooting in low light the previous day, I should pay more attention… Anyway, at least I have some images, so not such a big deal. In fact, several of these shots ended up among my favorites of the night.

I went back on the Sunday for the dance contest, that sees the different teams compete in different categories in front of a jury. Since there was no parade, I brought only the X-T1 with me, with the XF 50-140mm F2.8 zoom to have some flexibility, and the XF 90mm F2 to shoot some portraits on the side of the street.

I might go to the Koenji Awaodori at the end of the month, but I have not fully made up my mind yet. Will depend on the weather and if I can get a spot that is not completely obstructed by other people.

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Testing the latest prime lens for the Fujifilm X-Series: XF 90mm F2 R LM WR

It all started with prime lenses for the X-Series, and while Fujifilm has now also released zooms covering the whole range the family of primes has kept on growing. The XF 90mm F2 is the latest member of the family, the second-one graded weather-resistant (WR) after the XF 16mm F1.4 released earlier this week.

The Awaodori festival of Shimokitazawa was held last week-end (more on that later, but in the meantime you can see dozens of preview images on my Instagram feed), so I rented the XF 90mm F2 at the Fujifilm service center for the occasion.

As soon as I got home with it, I tested it on my traditional model who never complains when I ask him to pose for me at the last minute: Chopper 😉

As you can see on this first sample, this lens will be perfect for portraiture, and produces a pleasing and smooth bokeh.

Here are a couple of samples I took in the streets of Shimokitazawa before the Awaodori started:

There is not much I could say about this lens that images would not say better, so I won’t quibble too long. You could always wish that it had an F1.4 aperture (especially if you own the XF 50-140mm that you can use at F2.8 at 90mm but with optical stabilization), but this is the price and size compromise that Fujifilm decided to go with, so it is what it is….

The one thing I would say though, is that while this lens is a great piece of gear, you are the only person who will know if you really shoot often enough at his focal length to justify its purchase. In fact, I ended up using it less than I had planned, as the streets of Shimokitazawa are quite narrow so I was too close to the dancers for this focal length. If you are a portrait photographer and you shoot this focal length all day long, then it is a no-brainer. But if you only shoot the occasional portrait amid other things, then you might end up being better served by the versatility of the 50-140mm zoom. Also, while professional models are used to photographers using a 135mm equivalent focal length (if not longer), it might not be the case of your subject if you photograph every-day people. As an example, every time I asked one of the dancers or musicians if I could take their portrait on the side of the street, I would then have to back off after I positioned them somewhere in order to get them framed properly. But every time I did that, they would move towards me instead of letting me “unzoom with my feet”, because you have to understand that most people nowadays are used to taking pictures with their smartphones, so they are used to a wider focal length. But that has nothing to do with the quality of the lens, this is about what kind of photographs you want to take, and you are the only one who can answer to that question for you. Just thought I’d mentioned it here anyway… Personally I will happily rent this lens for the few times it will be the one I really need.

Talk to you soon with more images of the Shimokitazawa Awaodori festival 😉