Wednesday, March 31, 2010


The town of Narita is most famous for it's International Airport, but the temple complex of Narita-san is quite a bit more fun to visit. Founded in 940 AD, Narita-san has grown from a sleepy provincial temple to a large complex that is one of the most famous Buddhist temples in the Kanto region.

The first weeks orientation here in Japan was held in Narita City, right across the street from the airport. Going into Tokyo in the evenings was out, but exploring Narita city was a necessity after long days spent absorbing all the information needed to live and teach in Japan.

Walking through the darkened temple was certainly a highlight of the training period, and it is a shame that only a handful of the hundred or so new hires made it there. I was surprised to find such a large and beautiful temple perched in a town known more as a gateway to bigger and better things than as a destination in its own right. It just goes to show that when you are traveling, your preconceived notions are the first to go.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The ole switcheroo

I've landed in Japan safe and sound, and have been busy relearning a lot of English teaching theory, as well as fighting the dreaded jet lag. Its fun being here, especially being at this huge (100+) orientation. There are a few old hands around who are back for another go, but there are many more people who are bright eyed and here for the first time.

Seeing their reactions and enthusiasm is great, it keeps my energy up and gives me a new outlet for all my old stories! Of course as I learned last time, you have to keep your wits about you when entering Japan. I had of course expected to be in Bando city, in Ibaraki prefecture. Well, the contract didn't come through, so that has changed. I'll be in Maebashi City, in Gunma Prefecture. It's in the same direction, but it is about double the distance from Tokyo.

The good news is that Maebashi is a much larger city, so there will be more people and more to do in the city. The good and bad news is I won't have to drive. It makes things easier and cheaper, but I was looking forward to the overall convenience of having a car. Though I do have my international drivers license so there is always the rental option! Also, there is a train station in the city, and a Shinkansen stop is nearby so getting around the rest of Japan will still be pretty easy.

It's not as bad as last time, where I had to live in Nagoya for a while before moving, I'll probably never even see Bando now, I'll just slot into life in Maebashi and have only one start, rather than two!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Asia in HDR

With all the computer problems I've had lately it has taken longer than usual for me to finish up processing on the HDR images I took in Asia last November. However, here they are, in all their altered glory. I've got a few new tools, and a few new techniques that I've made use of on some of these. The photo above is a good example. I processed it in photomatix, my HDR program of choice, then I made to copies and turned one of them black and white. I then blended the color and the black and white version in photoshop using blending modes. I'm pretty happy with the result, and I think I'll try that technique again in the future.

As always, a lot of these will benefit from clicking on the picture to enlarge it. These first few were all shot from the top of the Tokyo Metropolitan Towers in west Shinjuku. It really is one of the best views in Tokyo, and admission is free!

As this posts, I'm flying through the air on Japan Airlines, headed back to Narita. I should have internet at the hotel, so hopefully I'll be able to get some updates posted throughout the week. I'm quite excited to be working again, and to be starting a new and interesting phase of my life. Expect plenty more photographic excursions in Tokyo, and the surrounding region. I also plan to hike Mt. Fuji this summer, and that should be a cornucopia of amazing photographs.

This picture of the Ebisu Bridge in Osaka is another of my experiments. I processed the HDR image two different ways, one very dark and one very light, then I combined both of those with blending modes, going through the list until I found one that I liked. Things like this require a lot of experimentation, and each image will benefit from a different approach.

Shanghai was a city that would really benefit from a concerted HDR effort, sadly this day I didn't have my tripod with me so I had to make do with the edge of the dock.

The Forbidden City came out quite well in this picture, I think it really captured the detail of the carvings, and the unique color of the sky that day.

I had to shoot the bracket frames of this picture of the interior of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing twice, because someone jostled me and the camera on the first go around. Of course, I was so busy trying to get the shot, I wasn't really paying enough attention to the substance of what I was looking at, which is why sometimes it is nice to just put down the camera and enjoy yourself.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Milk of Human Kindness

Everybody moans about how people just aren't as giving as they used to be, everybody is in it for themselves, nobody cares about their neighbor anymore. Thankfully, that is simply not true. I have two stories to illustrate that kindness and generosity are still alive in our world today.

Colorado has been called the Napa Vally of Microbrew as our state is home to a great many small craft brewerys. One of my favorites is one of the closest to my house, the Breckenridge Brewery. While the original brewery is located in the town of Breckenridge Colorado, deep in the mountains, they have a secondary facility and bottling plant on Kalimath street here in Denver. I'm a big fan of their brews, but have long lamented the lack of any locally brewed lager, aside from Coors of course. As a beer aficionado, I tip my hat to the Pilsner style beer, but I must bemoan the fact that there are so few small batch versions, really the only one the springs to mind is the Lagunitas Czech Style Pilsner, which is from Petaluma California and which is the gold standard of American craft brewed lagers.

Breckenridge is putting the finished touches on their own Imperial Pilsner, and my father had been lucky enough to try a sample about ten days ago. He had mentioned it to me, and I had expressed a great desire to try their version for myself, but the batch wasn't slated to go online in the tasting room until after I left for Japan this Sunday. With that in mind we entered with hat in hand to ask for a sample on St. Patrick's Day. Dad requested a small sample from the bartender, and she was kind enough to bring a few bottles out, and offer everybody at the bar a taste. In conversation it soon came out that I was leaving. After a quick talk with the head brewery, she said, "don't go anywhere." Soon she was back, with a six pack bearing not only the Pilsner, but a few samples of their new French style ale as well! I had only come hoping for a small taste, and here I was with several bottles of the beer as well as another style too! This was kindness unasked for and unlooked for, which is truly the best kind.

My second story involves Trey Ratcliff, photographer and blogger at I've long been a fan of his work, and his was the site that first introduced me to HDR imaging, which has fascinated me for quite a few years now. Well, as things happen he is hosting a two day workshop in Tokyo a few weeks after I arrive in Japan. The workshop will cover both the shooting of HDR as well as a lot of post processing ideas, and will have two instructors with no more than 15 attendees. Being that Trey is already one of the most famous photographers of the digital age, and that he is only doing two workshops this year, this is honestly the opportunity of a lifetime. However, the cost is high, higher than I expected and higher than I can cover right now, especially considering the costs of setting up a life in a new country.

Once I learned that, I wrote off any chance of attending, but the idea kept gnawing in the back of my head. I know I'm a good photographer, but I'm at a stage where it is getting harder to be self critical, I need a Great photographer to show me my weakpoints and teach me new ways and processing methods to become better. Here was a world class opportunity to learn what I need to and want to learn! So I emailed Trey, and asked if there was anyway I could pay off the workshop over several months time, rather than all at once. Much to my surprise, he e-mailed me back, saying that this had never been done before but that as far as he was concerned that would be fine!

So here I am, with some excellent pre-release beer and the opportunity to shoot Tokyo with one of my personal photographic heros. It just goes to show that despite all the rage that seems to permeate life both domestic and international, sometimes people go out of their way to help another human being, and life is always the better for that!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Jungle Hike

Driving north of Honolulu, the switch from suburb to jungle is actually quite sudden, and at the end of one of those roads is the trail to Manoa Falls.

The dense foliage actually reminded me a lot of the arboretum at the Denver Botanical gardens, only with more tourists and wildlife!

The area was gorgeous, and the waterfall itself is a sight to behold, even though it hadn't rained recently, so there wasn't much water. I'm actually rather glad about that, as I can see the trail being much harder to negotiate if it was wet and muddy.

While the trail was short, the area was unlike most other hikes that I've done, and was a lot of fun. At the top we saw a few tiny mice who were flitting from rock to rock, probably looking for snacks. I tried for a picture, but they were too fast for my camera, unlike this bird, who seemed to be posing for my shots.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Bunkers Abound

Oahu's military legacy is abundantly evident all across the island. While of course Pearl Harbor is still a major base, there are other sites dotted about the islands that have since been abandoned. Perched on a ridge above Lanikai, on the north-east side of the island, is a pair of old observation bunkers.

The trail leading up is quite steep, and even dry it is pretty slippery, but the commanding views of Lanikai beach and the surrounding area are very much worth the trek.

The bunkers themselves are now covered in graffiti and the trash of young party goers, but visitors can see why the military would have been interested in putting these two observation posts up there.

On the other side of Oahu is Diamond Head, the young volcanic cone that looms over Honolulu and Waikiki. Like the Lanikai ridge, Diamond Head offers excellent views over the area, and was also used by the Military. To guard the sea approaches to Honolulu, an artillery battery was built right on Waikiki Beach. To sight the battery, two large rangfinding bunkers were constructed, one on the tip of Diamond Head, and one on Round Top, a peak in the hills above Honolulu.

Tourists now flock up the steep trail through Diamond Head crater to see the old rangefinding bunker, and the views back down to their Waikiki hotels. The Lanikai bunkers, while smaller and much less well preserved, certainly have fewer people, all of whom are locals eager to engage in a friendly chat.

We had a remarkably clear day when we went to Diamond Head, clear enough that from the top you could see Molokai, Maui, and Lanai. While sighting Molokai from the eastern edge of Oahu is pretty common, seeing all three of those islands is most certainly not. It was so clear, that you could even make out the peak of Haleakala, over a hundred miles distant!

Thursday, March 11, 2010


While I had a lot of fun exploring Maui, the reason I was on that particular island was to visit my sister, and the reason she was there was goats. She was taking part in an internship at an organic goat dairy.

While the experience with the owners wasn't as pleasant as she had hoped, caring for the goats was. She enjoyed caring for the goats, especially the babies. There were about a hundred kids born in mid to late December, so they were about two months old when I was there in mid February.

As we walked down to the field the young ones were in, my sister called out, "Hey Babies!" to which about 75 kids said "maaaaah" and came running. It was one of the most adorable things I've ever seen in my life. They were hoping for treats and climbed all over each other to get at us.

While the babies were totally cute, the real focus of the operation is their moms and the milk they provide.

This one was on the milking stand, and doesn't seem to care very much for the process, though I can certainly understand why she wouldn't.

A few kids had been born in February as well, this one was just a few days old. It was great to see what my sister had been up to over the last few months, and to get a glimpse of her life apart from Denver. She will be on her way home soon, so thankfully I will get a chance to see her again before I head off on my own adventures.

Saturday, March 06, 2010


Maui is formed from two ancient shield volcanoes, West Maui and Haleakalā. Haleakalā is the younger volcano, and is far less eroded than West Maui, as we saw when we visited Iao valley. The Hawaiian shield volcanoes, so called because of their broad, shallow slopes that resemble a warriors shield placed on the ground, have a definite pattern in their journey away from the Hawaiian hot spot, and Maui is a perfect illustration of where the Big Island is going, and where Oahu has been.

The shield volcanoes born on the Hawaiian hot spot are built with large flows of very fluid basalt magma. These initial stages create the islands very fast, geologically speaking. A prime example of the shield building phase is Kilauea, on the Big Island, which has been erupting continuously since 1983. As the island moves away from the hot spot the composition of the lava changes, becoming more viscous and the color changes from a shiny black to a more dull brown. This means the volcano has entered the Late Stage of Hawaiian vulcanism. Haulalai, on the Big Island, is an example of a volcano in the late stages, still erupting, but less frequently.

When visitors drive up to the summit of Haleakalā at 10,023 feet above sea level, they look down into what looks like the old summit caldera, but looks are a bit deceiving. What you see in these photos is the heavily eroded remains of the ancient summit of Haleakalā. Two large valleys used to cut through this area, however late stage eruptions filled the valleys with lava, creating the modern summit basin. You can see the difference in the original darker basalt and the later more reddish alkalic basalts that filled the valleys.

Haleakalā is a prime example of the final stage of a shield volcano, the rejuvenated stage. Here you have smaller eruptions that form distinct cinder cones and spatter cones like Diamond Head or Punchbowl on Oahu. On Maui, the late stage eruptions have long fallen silent, but there is still some activity along the flanks, with the most recent lava dating from sometime in the 16th century. While eruptions are rare in the rejuvenated stage, there is certainly no reason to think that Haleakalā will keep sleeping, it is only a matter of time before it erupts again.

While the 10,023 feet summit of Haleakalā isn't as impressive as Mauna Kea's 13,803 feet above sea level, it too provides an excellent place for an observatory. The US military operates here, keeping track of every object in earth orbit, which seems a rather daunting task!

Looking to the east from the summit, you can see the peaks of the Big Island peeking above the clouds. While the drive to Haleakalā National Park is twisty and steep, the views alone are worth it. Combine the fantastic views with fascinating geology, and you have a Maui must see.

Looking back towards Haleakalā from Kahalui airport, you can see the broad "shield" shape. The summit itself is obscured by clouds, but from the bottom it just doesn't seem as high as it really is. I've climbed a lot of mountains in Colorado, but for us, being at 10,000 feet mean a view of only 5,000 feet back down to the Great Plains, at best. At Haleakalā, being on top is like being perched on the top of the world, seeing back down all 10,023 of those feet to sea level.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Hear Hishy Hishy Hishy!

Being somewhat of a landlocked sort, I love the freedom and underwater beauty of snorkeling. My sister and aunt had found a perfect beach on the far west of Maui near the posh part of the island. In Hawaii, all beaches are open to the public, so not even the Four Seasons can keep riffraff like us out.

My sister has a snorkeling mask with a built in digital camera, which I used to take these shots. I don't get very many opportunities for underwater photography, and I'm still finding the best way to do things while under the waves.

It is a challenging environment for sure, no matter how bright the day is the water soaks up a lot of light, and the current and waves make staying still to get your shot impossible. Still, I had an absolute blast chasing brightly colored tropical fish around the bay saying, "Hear hishy hishy hishy hishy!" After all, you can't say "Fishy when your teeth are clamped down on a snorkle!

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Maui Mountains, Waterfalls and Baby Beach

I kept both eyes on the news last Saturday, watching to see how my relatives would be affected by the onrushing tsunami. Thankfully this time the big wave wasn't so big. It is good to know that the lessons of the 1960 Hilo Tsunami have been learned, and that while this wave wasn't anywhere near as large or destructive, the evacuation plans worked.

When I flew from Oahu to Maui my flight ended up being over an hour and a half delayed, for a flight that barely lasts 20 minutes! I would certainly rather have the delay than a new air disaster though, so I just stuck my nose in a book and relaxed in the terminal.

The next morning my sister and I drove to Iao Valley, which is the eroded caldera of the West Maui shield volcano. There is a short paved trail up to a lookout, but for those who are more adventurous there is a trail on the other side of the fence that goes up the hill for a closer look at the Iao Needle and the sheer cliffs of the valley.

The wet east side of Maui is the tropical paradise of the tourist brochures, and Twin Falls is along that coast. Some enterprising local has set up a rope swing on one of the pair of water falls, perfect for and exhilarating swing through the fall into the cold deep pool at the base. It is not without some risk, I took a chunk out of the top of my foot on one of the rocks, and my sister held on to the rope too long on one of her swings and dropped into shallow water where she earned a nice bruise on her knee.

Along the same coast is Baby Beach, so called because it has a rock shelf that protects the beach from the worst of the surf. Thus a beach that even a baby can swim in! The girls often swim laps at Baby Beach for the calm waters and the spectacular view of the sun setting over the West Maui Mountains.