Home Features Leica D-Lux: The perfect companion for exploring Japan

Leica D-Lux: The perfect companion for exploring Japan

1706
26
Matsuri

If you react to the sight of a temple with “not more Japan!”, you may understand my plight: I’m just a gal with a weakness for red dots. What can I show against millions of online photos? Fortunately, Spouse lived years in Tokyo; she wanted to show me “the Japan I know.” It seems everyone makes their personal Japan, and that’s good enough.

Preparation

I needed to read and speak enough Japanese to get by. There were two words I knew I’d need: “summimasen”, a deep apology, and “shitsureishimasu”, a polite “I’m being a nuisance.” In the event, I survived, but knowing degrees of politeness helps. In theory, many Japanese have been learning English for the Olympics. Spouse (with apologies to A.A. Gill) speaks fluent Japanese, and many a time we heard “I’m so glad you speak real Japanese.”

School Trip
School Trip

When we met young schoolchildren, they practiced on us, briefly overcoming shyness for a ‘hello’ before running away.

Dress Code
Dress Code

I never manage to bring the right outfits. In general, Japanese women dress in loose-fitting clothes (above left…) and do not show their upper arms. As it was cooler than expected, we bought very colorful traditional haori (jackets, closed with ties) from a used clothing store named Chicago. No-one actually wears this but, at least, shoulders and arms were covered.

Most important: choice of camera. I know the M (Typ 240) is compact, light, goes everywhere: I left it at home. I wanted something I could carry in a classy handbag (another weakness), but also hold in my hand for hours (camera straps spoil my lines; one must have standards). What to get? The Leica D-Lux Typ 109. It was just fun to play with, and it even looks fabulous! I only regretted my choice once, in the Gion Leica store: I felt rather déclassé.

We had an apartment in Kita Shinjuku: three major grocery stores within ten minutes’ walk, fifteen to either the Chuo or Yamanote line and twenty to Shinjuku station. Five minutes to the local shrine. We walked. Thus: photos taken on streets.

”Street” Photography.

Recycling Day
Recycling Day

The Japanese are serious about recycling; gaikokojin (outside land people) are discouraged from even trying. Our building had a very nice young woman, masked and hidden behind protective gear, who helped with the subtleties. The photo shows the size of the task.

These anonymous workers often hung around after work, buying onigiri or some snack, sitting on the curb with ozeki — ‘one-shot’ sake bottles. Cheaper than going to an Izakaya. The haori were a great hit with the street drinkers, who complimented us on our classic look.

Street Life
Street Life

It looks like a ‘drinking street’, but it’s a normal street on the way home from our station. No tourists or crowds, pachinko parlors, karaoke. Just locals, stopping for a drink after work, a bite to eat. So normal, it took me four weeks to figure out I should maybe take a picture. Spouse always tells me: pick a street, walk: see things you’ve never experienced before. Look at the white sign on lower left: くじらべコン’ — whale bacon. Japanese are not just like us; the moral code is different. As one of the men we knew said, “We take off our clothes, bathe together, get to know each other.” Oh, I’m so very sorry, we have plans for that evening.

For the record: it wasn’t a proposition; nude communal bathing really is normal. It’s wearing clothing in the tub that’s forbidden.

Matsuri
Matsuri

One slow Saturday, we thought we’d walk to the station, stop for a bowl of udon (noodles), see a street fair. The local stationery store had a sidewalk table where youngsters could practice their calligraphy. I gave it a go, but wasn’t up to the standards of the five-year-olds. We planned a stroll through Shinjuku park, didn’t expect to be overtaken by a children’s Matsuri (festival). Good to know children are still children, even in Japan, and who doesn’t want a gift bag? Now I remember why I needed the 75mm zoom on the Leica.

While living in Japan, Spouse had acquired a family — they considered her part of their ‘uchi’. I hadn’t realized what that entailed until paterfamilias informed us “Our eldest son has just had a daughter. You must visit them in Osaka.” I’d had enough Latin to recognize the imperative mood, suspecting this was not like “Darling, you simply must dine at that fabulous place in Crouch End.”

We met our ‘nephew’ in Osaka. He’d been four when Spouse saw him last; now he was a cardiac researcher at a major university. She’d never watched a child growing up; it was intense. As aunts, we were entitled to treat him to a crab feast. They prepared a special kani-rice at the table; he noted that crab goes remarkably well with green tea. Taking cooked rice and giving it a good soaking in tea was — I must admit — delicious. I took family photos — the Leica performed well in the dark room, sent them on as evidence we’d done our duty.

Sind sie deutsch?


Inside the Kyoto Leica Store: A refreshing change from the usual corporate fare.

As we were in the neighborhood, we took a few days in Kyoto. By accident, we wandered into Gion, the old Geisha area. I want to photograph Geisha about as much as I’d like to be photographed as a female curiosity. Looking about, I saw a red dot on a storefront: Leica Gion. It wasn’t what I’d expected, but in fact, Japanese craftworkers had helped design and build it. I’d seen pictures like this; never expected to find it in a store: Japan can surprise you. Even with my relatively inexpensive little Typ 109, the manager was welcoming, and we chatted a bit about working in so beautiful a store.

Shrines and temples

Vanishing Japan
Vanishing Japan

Our second day in Japan, Spouse showed me her hometown, Shin-Koganei. The postwar wooden housing she knew 30 years past was now substantial brick, bicycles replaced by BMWs. The Japan she knew was gone. Of course, the old housing was bitingly cold in winter, and she had to work hard to not hear what was happening in the apartment next over. Even the tofu-yasan was gone. Yet the store where she’d bought kerosene for her room heater was still there; the boy who’d delivered it now the owner. It took a moment before mutual shocked recognition and descent into Japanese reminiscences I couldn’t follow. I did recognize the tears.

On the train back to Shinjuku, I learned how to communicate directions in Japanese. Instead of saying “It’s three kilometres east of …” One says “It’s two stops on the Yamanote line” — a train-centric world-view.

Shrine Maiden
Shrine Maiden

Every morning, we stopped at ‘our’ shrine; apologies for gratuitous photo of Spouse.

The shrine happened to be next to our favorite breakfast stop: matcha cream pastries, obento with grilled salmon. The ‘o’ is not obligatory; it’s a respect marker. Obento, Osake, Ohashi (chopsticks) Otoosan, Okaasan, Ojiisan (older relatives).

Morning Prayers
Morning Prayers

While in Kyoto, Spouse wanted to show me Fushima Inari Shrine. Inari is the goddess of rice, and by extension, wealth; hence a quite magnificent shrine. Her guardians are rather fierce foxes (who eat mice which eat grains). The mountain is strewn with dozens or hundreds of smaller shrines, where I had dearly wanted to practice ‘saying something new’ in a photo. Alas, an infestation had broken out: thousands of selfie-snapping tourists. Surely, this would have driven any resident gods deep into the mountains — one thinks of Yeats’ “ceremony of innocence”. I turned away, and…

The Buddha of Fushima Inari
The Buddha of Fushima Inari

…I saw an incarnation of the Buddha: on the one hand, the transience of desire; on the other, eternity. Then the moment was gone, and a woman beside me said, “Please take as many pictures of my daughter as you like.”

Waiting for Eternity
Waiting for Eternity

Just to prove we saw something in Gion other than the Leica store: Kennin-ji Temple, denuded of tourists. A quiet retreat, one of the nicest experiences in Japan. But, second place to this next:

Shinsen-en: Moon Viewing
Shinsen-en: Moon Viewing

Emperor Kammu founded Heian Kyo (Kyoto) in 794; part of his palace was a 33-acre pleasure garden, including this moon-viewing pool. Heian aristocrats took their refined sensibilities very seriously. The Tale of Genji was set in this environment, boating parties on this site were part of normal court life.

Genji has been called the novel of あわれ: ‘aware’ (ah-wah-ray) the quality of ‘ah, how beautiful.’ But also the awareness of transience, the inevitable fading of beauty. The pond itself is a symbol of that decay: all that remains of acres of pleasure gardens.

What I like: the rain, just beginning to fall, a transient beauty. The way the arc of the bridge leads my eye to the temple in the background. To photograph Japan is to balance on the edge of triteness: millions of tourist photos viewed countless times. This image stays in my mind, a powerful scene.

Life and Friends

The promise is that if you simply walk, you’ll see sights never before seen by man:

Women’s loo
Women’s loo

The women’s washroom at 0101 (pronounced ‘maru eee’). A bit of a statement, though not particularly grand; Mitsukoshi Nihonbashi has marble and highly polished brass on the escalators. And a 36ft, seven-ton statue of a Buddhist deity at the entrance.

Sushi Artist
Sushi Artist

Before leaving, I’d wanted to take our “family” out for a nice fish dinner. On our visits, Keiko-chan would prepare tea (the best I’d ever tasted) and an elegant Japanese sweet. Then she’d disappear into the kitchen. I asked our host (whom one calls ‘Sensei’) why his wife wasn’t eating with us. He looked sadly at me: “Ah, Kathy, I see there is much about us Japanese you don’t understand.”

Quite. We were taken to a small restaurant fitting eight people at the bar facing the chef, and Sensei ordered for us: omakase — chef’s choice. It was ‘Edo-mae’ style, fish from the waters in front of (mae) Edo (Tokyo). It may be that no foreigners had ever been here: we were being honored by even being invited. I was on my best behaviour: no foodie pictures; eat exactly as prepared by the chef, precisely when it’s served, pour drinks for Sensei. But in a restaurant like this, you are not a private party, you are part of a group: your “gumi”. The others across from us asked to take our picture (I set the Leica to ‘automatic’), asked me to try their amazing digital translator (I speak English; Japanese comes out), toasted us with glasses of nihonshu (the proper name for rice wine). As it turned out, the others consisted of a restaurant critic, an illustrator, and a young woman who may have been the critic’s daughter (he said she wanted to be a sushi chef — see the illustration).

Family
Family

Pouring for Sensei worked out too well; when we left two hours later, he was thoroughly liquified. The fish — I’d had several of these varieties in west coast Canada; these were — revelatory. As we ate, Spouse repeatedly looked at me in an oh-my-god sort of manner. The meal finished with fresh cherries. If you know Japan, you know certain farmers raise special fruit varieties and charge outrageous prices. From experience, we knew these would have been 100-200 yen. Each cherry.

Finally, we were served tea. Keiko-san asked what I thought; without thinking, I said, “It’s like Keiko-san’s.” She said I had a very refined taste. Then, before we could move, she paid the bill. There were yet more things I didn’t understand about Japan: as our hosts, they were obliged to take care of us. With perhaps a bit of revenge for the crab feast.

It was a meal I thought only celebrity chefs experience. We may also have passed several tests; when we saw Sensei and Keiko-san last, we were presented with calligraphy scrolls. I got — well, it’s kanji. Like Chinese, from which it’s derived, a character can have many different meanings. Mine could mean ‘complex’, ‘deep’ or ’conceited’.

It must have been the red dot.

Fin
Fin

The author, Kathy Davis

Kathy Davis is the latest recruit to the Macfilos band of authors.

She is a Professor of Mathematics in America. She’s worked with digital Leicas from the Digilux 2, through the M8, D-Lux typ 109 and M typ 240.

It’s her perpetual hope (she says) that she might, someday, take actual photographs with them. In the meantime, Japan always beckons…

26 COMMENTS

  1. What a lovely article – thank you.

    The Buddha and the girl getting the parcel brought real cheer on a miserable day here in London

  2. Even if you get lost with the babble of an incomprehensible conversation, it pays to smile, as I did reading your unusual and very personal travelogue. Welcome, Kathy, and please do not lose your quill pen and Leica. We would love to hear from you again.

    • Thank you for the welcome. I know the article was a bit of an odd piece. I always worry about Sam. Johnson’s comment: “Nothing Odd Will Do Long. Tristram Shandy Did Not Last.”

      Regards,

      Kathy

  3. I enjoyed this absorbing article very much and, especially, the descriptions of the heartwarming encounters.

    I can hardly wait to get back to visit Japan. (And the Leica shop in Kyoto really is an exquisite place, too.)

    • You’re almost echoing Spouse; as soon as we stepped on American soil, she asked “So when are we going back?”

      It sounds as though you had a very good experience in Japan. I believe the Japanese people have a great deal to do with it. I love the signs in public places, “Do not cause trouble for others.” But this doesn’t represent how positive the people ew met were; we felt truly welcomed.

      I think the largest mistake we made was in staying only six weeks. It’s not enough!

      Best,
      Kathy

  4. A wonderful article and pictures from everyday life. Small cameras are the right ones when it comes to take intimate pictures and you truly made your D-Lux shine. I love the last image in the article for composition and all those hues of blue green and grey. Welcome to the Macfilos community and looking forward to your next article.

    • Jean,

      Thank you for your response. Your comment that small cameras are the proper tool for intimate portraits was interesting; I hadn’t thought of that.

      I think the D-Lux helps release me; I find that when I carry the M240, I think I have to take Important Photos. I like to call my M ‘the indecisive moment.’

      The last photo: for some non-rational reason, it seemed to belong at the end. I saw it in a back alley, amid refuse containers and vending machines. An anonymous artisan plastering a wall decided to add this bit of beauty.

      • I’ve shot bigger Leicas (analog CL, R9 and M8) but the funny thing is that you get much more noticed than with a smaller camera like the D-Lux (or the Ricoh GR or Leica X2 in my case). I’d never taken my M when travelling and the idea never entered my mind when it came to picking up a camera for a faraway trip. These small cameras are great socializers when it comes to making images of people and you can really come up close to people because they’re not intrusive but more like an extension of your arm.

  5. A really lovely article – and the most gratifyingly un- tourist pics. The D-Lux 109 is underrated – I left all my other Leicas at home except the D-Lux for my trip to St. Petersburg and Moscow last year and didn’t miss any of them- I much prefer it to the update. Welcome to the best photo site in the West!

  6. Tony,

    Thanks for posting. I am beginning to feel this is a most welcoming community.

    It was interesting to hear a serious Leica photographer taking only the D-Lux for what must have been a major outing to Russian cities.

    I confess the D7 has been in the back of my mind, but it didn’t seem to offer that much more than the typ109. I for one would be interested in hearing more of your thoughts on it. One thing struck me; the lens for the D7 is no longer made in Japan, but in China. I know that for some this is political issue; for me, it’s a question of build quality. Perhaps I’m a bit prejudiced on this!

    Best Regards,
    Kathy

  7. I have managed to prise myself away from work, and the enduring rigours of spending half my life buried to my eyeballs in all things covid. And i find this wonderful, image laden journey to a country I can only dream of ever visiting. Perhaps one day it will become possible, as I have always looked upon its deep culturally rich society with interest.

    For me the images speak well for your photographic talents, and you are doing fine.

    Keep up the good work Kathy, and I look forward to reading more of your adventures.

    Best wishes, and keep safe folks. Winter is here, and it looks foul.

    Dave

  8. What a delightful article and pictures to match.

    Japan is my favorite place on earth. I was fortunate to attend a high school that offered Japanese language way back in 1982, and while at first I just liked the teacher, I sat in the front row all four years and developed decent conversational Japanese.

    I’ve been there more than a dozen times since, most recently in 2018, and can totally relate to the experiences you describe, even of family. My brother-in-law’s sister-in-law (my wife and her family are Korean) lived in Japan with her family for some years, and on one trip our two couples roamed Osaka with a former colleague of hers. I also have endless memories with my wife’s family in Korea, who are dearer to me than my own.

    Thank you for brightening my day with this.

  9. Hi, Andrew!

    You were fortunate indeed to have Japanese in high school; such options didn’t exist in my time. Now I have a question: do you believe you were treated better in Japan because of your fluency? That’s something we think we felt.

    Your trip to Osaka sounds familiar. Our strategy is similar, in Paris, Vancouver or Tokyo: we rent an apartment, try to live as the locals do.

    We also miss Japan, but being American, we’re not welcome in most of the civilized world. One strategy we’ve used during the lockdown is to watch Japanese programs on YouTube. Our favorite is Nippon Wandering TV (NWT): a Japanese man films walking the greater Tokyo area, sights and sounds. It’s as close to an immersion as one gets. Best of all, he uses image stabilizers (or software).

    We play ‘who can find he first ramen/udon/unagi shop’. After that, I’m practiced on how well I can read the signs. This evening, I learned the stroke order for the ‘su’ in sushi.

    Japan is keeping us sane during the crisis. Until we can return!

    Best,
    Kathy

  10. The Japanese are a fascinating people. For some strange reason my dad was named after a Japanese general named Nogi who had committed harakiri. That is the only association I have – yet – with this intriguing culture.

    The little pebbles on a wall photo reminds me greatly of Japanese rock gardens and their raked sand. Your sushi bar meal is typical of sushi bars I believe — very few place settings and personal attention paid to the customers by the chef. I think you would have already seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi and read Rice Noodle Fish by Matt Goulding. I can imagine the price of a cherry specially after this article made amply clear why (if inclined search Roads & Kingdoms for why should a melon cost as much as a car). I guess you can see I’ve followed the culture for a while waiting for the time I will be able to visit.

    Finally, a very warm welcome to you. May your travels take you far and wide and may you share your adventures with us.

    • Farhiz,

      Thank you for your welcome. Before anything else, I want to say how much I enjoyed your article on Sri Lanka. It did what the best travel writing/photography does: open an entirely new world. I was especially engaged by the discussion of the Muslim community around the Fort. In America, Islam is viewed as monolithic; I think it’s important to see how the faith is expressed in a community.

      I had seen the Jiro film, though it’s Japan seen from Western eyes. Our little restaurant was has no Michelin stars; even in local reviews it’s considered at most three stars. Yet we were unprepared for how very good it was.

      I suspect that personal care is expressed throughout Japanese culture. Wo bought a Buddhist rosary in a small Kyoto shop; once we’d chosen an item from the display, the shopkeeper brought out a new one, showed it to us, cleaned it, then began wrapping it; the result was simple but elegant.

      We often ate in the basement food courts of large department stores, and were astounded about the high quality. We asked Sensei about this; he said “Kathy, you are in the cultural center of the country, at the most elite sores. Of course the food is good; if it weren’t, the shop wouldn’t be allowed to remain!

      I hope you do get to Japan . . . and share photos of the tea culture!

      Best Wishes,

      Kathy

  11. As an ardent Leica user I rather object to the use of the phrase “even with my tackie 109” Not what I would expect to hear from a Leica patron.

    • Richard,

      You have my apologies. In fact, I believe it is a beautiful camera and very well built.

      I must say, though, that when I walk into a Leica store and see Noctilux or the latest Summilux ASPH, I feel inadequate!

    • To clarify: the inadequacy is mine, not that of the camera.

      I have asked the editor to remove my offensive comment. And thank you for pointing it out.

      Kathy

  12. Welcome to the happy band of contributors Kathy! Thanks for this very enjoyable and thought provoking article. The vanishing Japan photo caught my eye and nicely illustrates your point about the changes taking place. Something that those responsible for its maintenance don’t care about rots and disappears.

    • Thanks, Kevin. The ‘vanishing’ picture was an oddity: the shrine had been extended since my wife’s time, yet the entrance was allowed to decay. There must be something about the culture of donations that I don’t understand!

      Kathy

  13. Andrea,

    Thanks for your words. I enjoyed your article on the Appian way. I’d taken four years of Latin in school, but somehow we never learned about contemporary remnants of the great empire. Your article was illuminting!

    Kathy

  14. Thanks Kathy and Welcome. Sorry for being tardy with my welcome, but I have been tied up with the LHSA Zoom AGM all weekend.

    Your article and the accompanying photos give a fascinating insight into Japanese culture which is, of course, very different to most Western cultures. I have a nephew who married a Japanese woman and he went to live in Japan with her and her family. He is there for about 8 years now and is teaching English to Japanese school children. Like all young Western men living in Japan he has had to adapt to the change in culture, which he has done as he has a high degree of emotional intelligence which he displayed even as a child. My wife and I had planned to visit Japan two years ago, but we chickened out because of the long journey and went to Russia instead. I am a bit sorry I did that now as, in current circumstances, a trip to Japan seems very far away.

    Your photographs are also an important part of your memories of your trip to Japan, not just as an ‘aide memoire’. For me I now live my visits to various places around the world, including my time working in the Middle East, through my photographs. They are not just an aid to memory, but they reflect on how I saw the places we visited and the people we met. That comes across very strongly in your words and pictures above.

    I look forward to reading more of your stories and seeing more of your photos.

    William

    • Thank you for your welcome. A belated welcome works very well; as a newcomer I feel I’ve met a number of good people, accomplished and sophisticated. It can be a bit overwhelming!

      Apropos your nephew: I’m reading a book by an archaeologist who worked for an oil company in Bahrain, for three years. When he later returned to dig, he realized that he knew nothing of the people or culture: it had been too comfortable to simply live in the British enclave.

      I think that might be the key to success as a traveler: one has to be willing to experience discomfort: did I say the right thing? Bow too deeply? Perhaps fermented fish entrails is too authentically Japanese for me. 🙂 What do those Kanji mean?

      As a professional, I suspect you do a good deal of editing — in several ways. One photo I didn’t take in Japan: we were taking an early Sunday walk to Shinjuku station, when we came upon a well-dressed young woman lying face down in a back alley. While we were wondering what to do, an older Japanese woman came up, tried to rouse her: “Little sister! Are you alright?”

      Then she explained to us that “sidewalk sleeping” was all too common among young women: they stay out too late, drink too much, and can’t make their way home. It seemed too sad and too personal to photograph. And I think we do this with our memories, discounting the many discomforts of travel. But, like the archaeologist, without that discomfort, we don’t learn anything.

      I hope you do join your nephew, say in 2022. After all, you’ll be shown “real” Japan by a native guide. Travel can’t get much better than that.

      Best Regards,
      Kathy

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.