Happy 2018, the Year of the Dog

You might also want to check:
2013, the year of the Snake
2016, the year of the Monkey
2017, the year of the Rooster

In Japan, every year starts with a visit to the shrine, in order to get some blessings, buy some lucky charms, or ask what the future might have for you. As per my own little tradition, I headed as usual to the Hie Jinja not far from where I live and work, which hopefully will bring me good luck for the year to come.

39413940322_8d69b2efdb_k

Expect to see a lot of people queuing at the most popular shrines during the new year period.

After having prayed, write your wish for the year on a Ema (wooden tablet). As you can see on these Ema, 2018 is the year of the Dog.

Probably the part that Japanese people are looking forward the most is to get their fortune for the year to come be told by an omikuji (fortune-telling paper strip). There are various degrees of luck ranging from great blessing to great curse (although I feel like most of the time you can summarize the message by “work hard if you want to succeed”), but no panic if you had an unlucky pick: just attach it with the other bad fortunes on the shrine ground, and you will be protected from the bad omen.

You can also get a Hamaya (an arrow that will protect you from evil spirits) and get it blessed by a Miko (shrine maiden).

Before you leave, sip a cup of sake, and why not get something to eat from the various stalls around the shrine ground.

And as usual, eating some special new year’s food in the evening to finish the first day of the year:

39413946952_6b57017bcd_k

I hope you all had a good time over the holiday period, and wish you all a happy 2018 🙂

How to make the difference between a shrine and a temple in Japan?

24895724500_da5eced8a0_c

According to estimates from the CIA World Factbook, the religious composition of the Japanese society is the following:

  • Shintoism 79.2%
  • Buddhism 66.8%
  • Christianity 1.5%
  • other 7.1%

Yes, the total is above 100% but it is not a typo, as many people will be categorized as both Shintoist and Buddhist.

2013 Year of the Snake-2

Let’s start with a (very tiny) bit of History…

Historically, from the 6th century when Buddhism was imported into the country, until the end of the Edo period, Shintoism and Buddhism remained intimately entwined, during a period of syncretism referred to as shinbutsu-shūgō. During these many centuries, both religions influenced each other, and shrines were built to warehouse the shinto spirits (Kami) the same way that buddhist temples protect Buddha images. The syncretism went so far that you could find shrines-part in temples, while some shrines would warehouse Buddha images, with bettō monks performing buddhist rituals at the shrines. In 1868 the new Meiji government attempted to name Shintoism the “true religion” of Japan, in order to orchestrate a cult of the Emperor, with the shinbutsu bunri law proclaiming the separation between Shintoism and Buddhism. Looking at the statistics above, one quickly realizes that even the imperial law cannot undo centuries of History, but this is a discussion that would deserve its own separate post(s)…

25165778736_b7015838f0_c

Given the deeply-rooted connection between Shintoism and Buddhism in Japan, it is not surprising to find many similarities between shrines and temples. This will often confuse non-Japanese, and brings this question: how to easily make the difference between a (Shinto) shrine and a (Buddhist) temple without being an expert on religions? This is actually easier than you think, if you know where to look.

1) The name

Shrine or temple? The answer is usually easily found in the name.

Jinja (神社) is the most common Japanese word for shrine. However, other names or suffixes can indicate that you are in a shrine, including: jinja, jingu, taisha, myojin, gongen, -gu, -sha.

Similarly for temples, look for names ending in -ji, -dera or -in.

2) The Entrance Gate

If you don’t know the exact name of the place where you are, no panic. There are many other signs, starting with the entrance gate.

A torii gate (if not many) stands at the front of every shrine. It is the easiest way to identify that you are at a shrine. Torii gates are commonly made of 2 vertical posts with 2 horizontal posts at the top , though they can be as simple as 2 vertical posts with a (sacred) rope inbetween. Having said that, torii gates can come under many shapes and sizes. Here are a few examples:

The entrance gates of Buddhist temples almost look like buildings of their own. The most important gate is called the Sanmon, even though it usually not the first gate at the entrance of the temple. Here are a few examples:

If there is a building shaped as a pagoda, it is also a good indication that you are in a temple.

3) The guardians

In the case of a Shinto shrine, you will most of the time find a pair of statues of lion-dogs, guarding the entrance, called komainu. Fox statues (instead of lion-dogs) guarding inari shrines are also very common, but other less common variants such as turtles or wolves for example are also possible.

On the other hand, temples will be protected by a pair of Niō guardians. They usually look like wrathful and muscular demons. The one with the mouth open is called Agyō, while the one with the mouth closed is called Ungyō.

4) The purification ritual before praying

Each visit to a shrine starts with a purification ritual using the water fr the temizuya (small fountain): you rinse your left hand, then the right, and finally your mouth (this water is there to cleanse, not to be drunk).

While you will also find temizuya near many temples, the purification process when arriving at a temple is usually done by burning some incense in a large burner, and fanning the smoke towards you. The smoke is thought to have healing power.

5) Kami or Buddha

An obvious one, but if you see an image of Buddha… then you are in Buddhist territory, meaning you are in a temple.

In most cases, the kami (god/spirit) enshrined in a shinto shrine, is said to reside in a physical object (often a mirror, but could be a sword, a rock or else) called the shintai, stored in the honden (in a few exceptional cases, the shintai could also be a natural phenomenon, such as a peculiar tree, rock or waterfall…). The honden is the most sacred building of the shrine and is not accessible to the public.

6) How to pray

In a Shinto shrine: after you have thrown your coin into the offerings box and rung the suzu bell (if there is one), bow twice, clap your hands twice, and bow once more once you have finished your prayer.

Prayer at the shrine

In a Buddhist temple: the prayer is silent, do NOT clap your hands at the altar like you would in a Shinto shrine.

Conclusion

With just a few handy tips, it is easy to make the difference between a shrine and a temple. Being able to make the distinction is not only important to know how to pray and to whom address your prayer, but it is also a first step in being able to recognize how Shintoism and Buddhism can be entwined in the Japanese society. The first step on a long but fascinating (some would say enlightening 🙂 ) path.

8274362666_ffb13035bc_c

 

 

Field test: X-Pro2 + XF 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 – Birdwatching in Tokyo

For my second visit to the bird sanctuary of the Kasai Rinkai park in Eastern Tokyo, I brought with me an X-Pro2with the XF 100-400mmF4.5-5.6 “super telephoto zoom lens” to put them to the test. Below is a summary of my thoughts on the newest and most expensive lens for X-mount cameras. All the sample images used in this post are straight-out-of-the-camera JPEGs (Velvia film simulation), without any additional processing. You can click on them for full size images.

The FUJINON XF100-400mmF4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR is the long awaited super telephoto zoom lens for X-Series cameras. One of the reason behind the delay of the release of this lens, compared to its first appareance on the official Fuji roadmap, seems to have been a complete redesign of the lens somewhere along the development cycle. As a reminder, the first time I saw a prototype of the “super telephoto zoom lens”, as it was dubbed on the roadmap, it was supposed to be a XF140-400mm f4-5.6 lens, with a shorter size but a wider diameter (86mm). It looked like that (the lens on the right side):

The final design is slimmer but longer, and covers a longer focal range but is slightly slower when zoomed out. I cannot know for sure, but I would bet that the final design is probably lighter than the initial version too.

While the lens got longer, the tripod foot that comes with it became shorter, which seems like a odd decision to me, although arguably I am no lens engineer, as one would think that  a bigger tripod foot would offer a better stabilization once attached to a tripod head. If you don’t have any, Fujifilm sells a lens plate (MLP-75XF) that you can attach to the tripod foot to make it compatible with ARCA SWISS tripods. Personally, I also don’t see the point of having included the 100-140mm focal range compared to the initial design, as this part of the focal range is already covered by so many XF lenses.

Beyond those small reservations, there are mostly positive things to say in terms of design and handling. The smaller filter thread of the final version (77mm) will enable you to use common filters you might already own (I personally buy all my filters in the 77mm size, with a set of cheap step-up rings to use them on smaller lenses). The built quality feels good, with attention to details. There is a lock button to avoid any zoom creep, but the small feature that makes a big difference to me is the lens hood that clips on the lens. The last thing you want when you are on the side of a race track or a football field is for your lens hood to fall over every time you knock something or someone runs into you.

Coupled with the XF 1.4x teleconverter, the lens become a 140-560mm f8 equivalent lens. I shot the sample pictures in this post using an X-Pro2, with the XF 100-400mmF4.5-5.6 mounted on the 1.4x teleconverter, as I was trying to get as tight and as far as possible. All these shots were taken in very good lighting conditions (although between 6-9AM, so still in somewhat soft light), and in these ideal conditions the combo camera + teleconverter + lens was very responsive. The autofocus in particular did a perfect job on relatively still or slow moving subjects, despite of the addition of the teleconverter theoretically making it harder for the autofocus to work (it was much slower and hunted back and forth when I tested it indoor in poor lighting conditions, which is a totally normal thing). The autofocus struggled much more on flying birds, which was mainly due to my sheer inability to keep flying birds for an extended period of time in a tight composition when using such a long lens.

Here is what both extremes of the focal range look like when using the X-Pro2 + XF 100-400mmF4.5-5.6 + XF1.4x teleconverter:

Zoomed out:


Zoomed-in:

When shooting at 560mm with f8 maximum aperture, it can be difficult to obtain a shutter speed fast enough for handholding without raising the ISO setting higher than one might want to. This is when the image stabilisation of the lens kicks in. The image stabilisation of the XF 100-400mmF4.5-5.6 is to be commended for its effiency, in effect improving the quality of the images by allowing to use lower ISOs while still taking sharp pictures. The quality of the image stabilisation can also be seen in action in the video clips included in the video at the top of this post, inbetween still samples.

Additional samples gallery:

In conclusion, I really enjoyed my time with this lens. I usually don’t go birdwatching, so it gave me a good excuse to do so. With the addition of the XF100-400mmF4.5-5.6, X-mount lenses can now cover a huge focal length, and even more when you add the 1.4x teleconverter. It’s a great lens to handle with efficient image stabilisation for handholding and nice finishing touches such as the clipping hood with a small trap to adjust your filter if you are using a polariser. I personally don’t need to own such a long lens for 99% of what I shoot, but for the few times I would need it I will be absolutely confident to rent it – apart for indoor sports for which the faster XF50-140mmF2.8 will be a better option if you don’t want to focus manually.

Mount Fuji behind Shinjuku

24696490450_db957d5d80_c

I have been spending most of my free time working on a personal project about the shrines and temples of Tokyo, which you might have already guessed if you follow me on Instagram. While I was on my way to the Yushima-Tenmangu shrine, I stopped by the Bunkyo Civic Center to capture this view of Mount Fuji (Fuji-san, 富士山). The observation deck of the Bunkyo Civic Center is one of the most well-known spots to capture breathtaking images of Mount Fuji from Tokyo, and has the advantage of being completely free.

Opening hours:  9:00 to 20:30 every day of the week (closed on the 3rd Sunday of May, and between the 29th of December 29 and the 3rd of January)

Access:
1-minute walk from the Korakuen Station (Marunouchi line and Namboku line)
1-minute walk from the Kasuga Station (Mita line and Oedo line)
9-minute walk from the Suidobashi Station (JR Chuo Line and Sobu Line)

2015 in review as we head into 2016

23717247439_da00b0b499_c

Happy New Year everyone!

It’s that time of the year again! As we jump into 2016, let’s look back at the best of 2015 🙂

My favorite Fuji gear launched in 2015

And the winner is… the XF90mm F2 lens!

20327420710_b13b293c99_c

This is somewhat ironic as I don’t own this lens, but it is hands down the best portrait lens for the X-series cameras in my opinion. This lens is an amazing performer, and if you shoot portraits all day long (which is not my case) you want to make some room for it in your bag.

My most used Fuji gear of the year

Body-wise, there is no contest, I almost exclusively shot with the X-T1 this year, and if I used anything else at some point it is because I have an X-E2 as “second body” when I need one. But that was a given anyway, to me this is the best form factor of all the X-series bodies, and it is weather-resistant.

Much to my surprise, the lens I used the most this year was the XF16-55mmF2.8. This lens came out early this year, and I was not particularly excited about it. In fact, I still believe this lens is not amongst the best Fuji has made for the X-Series, and the lack of image stabilization is a real bummer in my opinion… and yet I shot the most with this lens in 2015 because it has been with me everywhere this year. it is just so convenient for me to just grab the X-T1 + XF16-55mmF2.8, especially on occasions for which I would not have bothered packing and carrying a camera bag, but still needed a weather-resistant combo able to take a minimum of beating if necessary. In the end, I have used this lens during all my trips in Japan and abroad, on assignment or on holidays, shooting anything from portraits to landscape, or even monkeys taking a hot bath.

19796570451_820f9f4c67_c

19766854536_d42bef9f32_c

18069807758_c9e27b1153_c

16074313783_73424f679e_c

16130729963_3706a7906c_c

17093672848_77eec25c8c_c

16880015669_f90b4c2312_c

My most anticipated Fuji gear for 2016

According to Fujirumors, Fuji will announce the X-Pro2 in a couple of weeks. I am curious to see the performance of what is likely to be a new sensor, and if Fuji has made any progression the video department, but mostly because we are then likely to see this sensor in a potential X-T2, which remains my favorite form factors. To me it is still the best mirrorless camera in terms of ergonomics.

IMG_7298

Meanwhile, we are getting close to the end of the current X-mount lens roadmap, so we are due an update. From what we know, Fuji will launch the XF100-400mmF4.5-5.6 telephoto at the end of Q1 2016; and the XF120mmF2.8 macro lens at the end of 2016. My most anticipated gear for 2016 (given what we know at the moment) is actually the XF100-400mm. Not that I want to buy one (just like the XF90mm, I don’t think I would need it often enough to justify buying it), but I can’t wait to rent it and take it to the bird sanctuary of the Kasai Rinkai Park I mentioned previously on this blog.

My #1 “Only in Japan” moment of 2015

I have to give this one to my trip to Oarai and the Isosaki jinja. Even the shrine is covered with tributes to the characters of “Girls und Panzer”, a manga in which schoolgirls learn how to fight with battle tanks… Yeah, definitely only in Japan…

19970568446_db44a3bc8b_c

My “it was about time” moment of 2015

I finally got on board with Instagram. Yes, I know: about time! It has more than limited communication functionalities, but it is all about images, so if you are into photography there is basically no reason not to make the plunge. To follow me on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/balbo42/

IMG_6285

Thanks for your support this year and look forward to what is coming next

I already have a backlog of recent trips that I still need to share on the blog, which I will be releasing through the first couple of months of 2016. In particular, I will be talking about some famous events of the Japanese history, a topic that I am willing to explore further in 2016. Of course, you can also expect more non-sponsored reviews of Fuji gear, a few surprises and most likely a rant or 2 😉

Happy new year!