Some Notes on Paris Vol 1: Coffee

First, I would like to point out for my American readers (which is, like, all five of you) that if you are in the mind to enjoy a damn fine cup cup of black coffee in Paris… just forget it. Practically no one has it. And they don’t understand what you mean when you ask for it.

You have to be specific. “Oh, like, I should ask for black coffee?” I hear you asking. Foolishly.  No. What we call coffee in Paris is called, “Filtered Coffee.” Also, it’s called that in England too. And Scotland. And Ireland. So don’t go getting all cocky thinking that you’ll get off not having to remember that anymore once you get to a predominantly English speaking country.

The second thing you’ll have to remember when trying to order filtered coffee in Paris is that NO ONE  will have it. “Oh, I know!” I hear you starting. Foolishly. “I’ll just find my way to a Starbucks! They’re BOUND to have normal coffee.” (Normal coffee is what you would have undoubtedly started calling it by this point in time.)

And that is a great idea, actually! Why didn’t I think of that when I was there? Oh wait, I did. And let me tell you, you will endear yourself to NO ONE when you arrive there and ask them for it. This is because no one will have ordered filtered coffee there in years and most of the employees won’t have ever even used the machine that makes it in all the time they’ve worked there. So by the time they’ve dragged the filtered coffee machine out of storage and trained themselves on how to use it so that they can waste a whole pot of coffee on just one cup of coffee for you, you’ll have a line of angry, frustrated Parisians built up behind you murmuring under their breath about what a dumb, self centered A-hole you are.

So, my recommendation is this: You are in Paris!!! You’re a lucky A-hole, aren’t you? Let’s not muck-up our good fortune by squabbling about the virtues of one coffee or another. Instead, just grab some of Paris’s world class espresso and go about seeing all the lovely sights.

And if you really want something like black coffee, just order yourself an Americano because they’re basically the same thing. And then order two more because DEAR GOD, IT’S NOT THE SAME THING AT ALL AND I MISS NORMAL COFFEE SO MUCH!!!!

The Grossest Hostel in Paris

I had booked a stay at a hostel in town that looked relatively clean, and when I got there, I was pleased to say that it was. This was my first stay in any hostel, and at the end of my long travels, when I set my bag down on the tidy floor of the hostel lobby, I was relieved to find a clean, well lit place in the infinite, vague darkness I had experienced trying to find my way around this new and mysterious city. Little did I know this sense of relief was to last less than ten minutes. 

I’ve always been hesitant to stay in a hostel for the reason most people would be hesitant to stay in- I don’t much like sharing my personal space with strangers. However, I didn’t have much money to travel and I needed to draw out as much adventure as I could for as little money as I could. By staying in hostels, I was saving myself a couple hundred Euros a night. True, I only got a bed to sleep in and a bathroom I had to share with a bunch of people, but I figured, that was all I needed. 

When I went to check in, the man behind the counter told me that I had been relocated to their sister hostel, and that I’d have to walk another few blocks to that one. At 11:30 at night. Having not slept in 36 hours. Through a city I’ve never been in. 

I was a little devastated at the prospect of having to hoof it through the city as tired as I was. I was sure that I would lose my way, but the person behind the counter of the hostel gave me directions and assured me that finding the other hostel would be simple and should only take five minutes. 

Five minutes after leaving the hostel, I was hopelessly lost in Paris. Shortly, after walking out of the hostel, I realized just how subjective the persons directions were, but by chance, I found my way back to the original hostel and then jumped on their wifi network to locate the new hostel, “Le Regent.”

It didn’t have much of an online profile, but looked OK from what I could see. And then I discovered there were multiple “Le Regents” and the one I was looking at was not mine. 

When I finally found my, “Le Regents” (having walked past it several times because of how inconspicuous it was), I found that the door to it, if it was in fact the door, was locked. There was no intercom to call inside. 

I was alone and sleep deprived on the streets of Paris, so I did what any American would do in such a scenario: I started shaking the shit out of the doors and screaming, “Hello?! Is there anyone there?? I think I have a reservation or something!!!” 

Luckily, this prompted someone from inside to open the door for me. Or if not “for me,” to ward away the crazy homeless person they presumed was outside. 

I checked in, and then made my way up creaky, dimly lit stairs to find my room. There were large, soft spots under the peeling linoleum on the floor where it felt like the floorboards had rotted away and the only thing supporting my weight was the linoleum underneath my feet and what I assumed was a load of squirming cockroaches and some festering rat carcasses. 

When I got to the door of my room, I could detect an odor coming from inside before I even put in my key, much in the same way you don’t need to be inside a porta potty to know what it’s going to smell like inside. This, however did not prepare me for the hot, musky wave of balmy nutsack that would assault my whole body when I opened the door. 

It wasn’t just a smell. The room was 20 degrees warmer than in the hallway and the air noticeably danker. I could feel it looming at the threshold of the doorway. I hesitated to go in. In the dark, I could make out two sets of bunkbeds, the bottoms of which were noticeably occupied by lean, sweaty European men in their 20’s. “Ferme la porte!” The man in the farthest bunk yelled, though he was partially muffled by his pillow. 

“Excuse me?” I said. 

“The door- shut it!”

I closed the door behind me as I entered the room. It wafted over me like a heavy shower fart. It was completely dark and I was afraid of offending anyone by turning on the light. The man in the bunk closest to me reached out his hand, and said his name, though I didn’t catch it. I shook his hand and said, “Drew.” 

“I am from Spain,” He said. “What about you?” 

“California,” I said. I had decided to tell people I was from California instead of saying, “America,” to help negate any negative feelings from being projected upon me due to the stereotypes associated with people from my country- namely that we’re all overweight, loud, self-centered assholes. Californians, though, in the world’s mind are a different kind of animal from the typical American, much in the same way that a koala is a different kind of bear than a grizzly (in that it’s a marsupial and not a bear at all). 

“The bunk above mine is vacant,” said the Spaniard. “We’ll talk more tomorrow.” Then he turned the other way and went back to sleep. 

I set my bag down, stripped down to my underwear and shirt in the dark, muggy nutsack-room, and then climbed into the bunk above the Spaniard. The bed was bare, no sheets between me and the orange and red floral print mattress that, even in the dark, couldn’t hide the discolored blots left on it by so many other travelers before me. Soiled growths that I would be feeding with my own sweat as it dripped from my body and merged into the stains on which I slept. 

I lay there on that squalid mattress, the springs squeaking loudly with the slight shifting of my weight as I tried to get comfortable, perspiring through my underwear.

And I felt oddly dumb with happiness. 

Yes, this bed was a veritable ecosystem of microbes, bacteria, and bedbugs. Yes, the room was filled with the miasma of that ecosystem’s diarrhea farts. And yes, the building itself felt about as stable as a wet paper bag in a shit storm full of rotten eggs. 

But I was in Paris! PARIS! And somehow, this place seemed like the most authentic, genuinely Parisian place I was ever going to stay in. 

Is that odd? That the grimier a place is, the more authentic it feels? Maybe it’s because it seemed to lack all pretense, which also feels very Parisian. Or maybe I was just delusional from the lack of food, sleep, and the general exhaustion from the last 36 hours, but god damn I was happy. 

I can’t say what made this place feel more genuine than a five star hotel or something- I’d only been in Paris for a few hours and who am I to say what the true Paris is? 

It was just a feeling. But God damn, what a feeling. Vive la France. 

(PS- The picture used for this blog was actually my hostel in Edinburgh, and was much, much nicer than the hostel in this story. I didn’t think to take a picture of the first hostel I stayed at in France, much in the same way that you never think of taking a picture of a poopy diaper filled with used condoms and Indian food that you’ve found at the bottom of a dumpster. You just leave that thing where you’ve found it. Let someone else figure that mess out. So, I used this picture because it was the most relevant picture from my trip to this story. Also, what are you doing diving through dumpsters!? I don’t see why you’re focusing on my picture choice when you’re going around doing things like that. Sort your frickin’ life out, man!)

A Passive-Aggressive Battle of Wills at 40,000 feet

 

I thought I’d start this whole thing off by telling you about who I am, or, if I’m dead by the time you’re reading this, who I was while I was still among the present tense. 


You’re probably a total stranger, wondering why you should invest yourself in one of my stories. I mean, who the Hell is Drew Rhodes anyways? 

Well, let me tell you a story. It’s completely true, by the way. All my stories are, although I don’t blame you for not necessarily trusting someone who seems to have such a poor sense of judgement. This story takes place on a flight from San Francisco to Iceland. 

The flight was the first leg of a trip to Paris. My stop over was Reykjavik, and this leg of the trip was also the longest- eight and a half hours of having my knees crammed violently into the seat in front of me. The flight took off from San Francisco at 10:20pm and landed in Reykjavik (REV) the following day at 1:45pm.

 

My best friend, Airbo, dropped me off at the airport with plenty of time to spare. I said goodbye to him, and bade him take good care of my dog, Buckminster Abbey, who I was leaving in his care. 

I got my ticket from the check-in counter (if you go to the counter and not those check-in machines, the boarding pass you get is much more robust and better for scrapbooking- if you care about that sort of thing.) I made it through TSA, successfully convincing the TSA to hand inspect all 35 rolls of the 35mm photographic film I was bringing on my long trip to Europe. And then I waited, like, fifty minutes for my flight to board. 

 

I’m pretty open about the fact that I do not like flying. To me, it is a necessary evil. I’m not saying that modern airplanes aren’t marvelous things, flying through the air like ugly miracles at heights and speeds incomprehensible to the passengers inside. 


I’m also not afraid of crashing. I was a flyer in the Air Force and experienced take-offs and landings that would make anyone but the most hardened person violently poop through their pants. I’m also sufficiently depressed enough that if we did crash, I’d probably greet the cold embrace of death with a tepid, “meh.” 

What bothers me about flying is how I feel on an airplane. Airplanes are stuffy, cramped, and smelly. The alcohol is too weak and too expensive.  Airlines don’t respect their passengers. They make their seats too narrow and too close together to marginally increase their profits. My patellas jam uncomfortably against the seat in front of me while my shoulders push against the passengers on either side of me. This is all the same whether you pay $200 or $2,000. 

My favorite way to travel is by train, which gives passengers room. You can relax on a train, get up, walk to the dining cart, and write. You don’t have to go through demeaning and generally useless security procedures to get on board. For a relatively small fare, you can even book a sleeper cart. They are absolutely lovely. 

In contrast, I have never been able to sleep on a plane, being far too uncomfortable, and this flight, which would take me through the night and halfway to another day, would be no different. 

But the absolute worst thing about flying is the other passengers who you are crammed together with like toes mashed inside of a shoe that is two sizes too small. Now, I am not saying that trains attract a better class of customer, so much as that planes treat their passengers so inhumanely, that even well tempered passengers are bound become belligerent A-holes eventually. For example, take the person who had the seat next to mine on the flight to Reykjavik. 

Now, I try not to judge people based on appearances. For example, the fellow sitting in the seat next to mine was an East Indian fellow he had his shoes off and was picking at his bare feet and had a bunch of garbage- empty food containers and such- piled in the seat next to him. We had just started boarding and this guy, who couldn’t have been there for more than a minute, was relaxing like he’d been there for years, making no motion to clear his materials from the seat next to him- my seat. 


Now, part of me saw this guy and thought, “That’s really gross. Why are your feet out? And why is there a bunch of garbage on my seat like you personally bought an extra ticket just to stow it there?” But I’m well traveled enough to consider that different cultures have different ways of feeling comfortable while traveling, and just figured that, although his behavior was considered rude where I’m from, it could be normal wherever he’s from, so I tried to reserve judgement. 

I made my way down the impossibly narrow airplane aisle looking for an open overhead compartment to stow my carryon bag- the only bag I had for three weeks in Europe. It was mostly photographic equipment with one underwear, one shirt, two pairs of socks, and a toothbrush thrown in for good measure. 

I stowed my bag in an overhead compartment a couple spaces away, and then pointed out my seat, which was a middle seat in the row of seats between the two aisles, to the man and made a motion like, “Mmm.. Could you?” towards the trash. He took about five minutes to clear it all off my seat, doing it slowly and begrudgingly, like I had just barged into his personal aisle and started bossing him around. 

I hate to be impolite, so I said nothing to the man as I took my seat, nor did I make any kind of passive-aggressive face at him to suggest my annoyance, like I would have at most people under normal circumstances. After all, I was going to be sitting next to this gentleman for eight and a half hours and even though I had no interest in talking to him, I didn’t really want things to be weird between us either. 

Regardless, the man seemed annoyed that I was now occupying the seat that his refuse once had and after there seemed to be a lull in passengers boarding the plane, he turned to me and said that the plane had finished boarding and that I should grab one of the free seats available, of which their were many. 

Now, if I was an intelligent man, I would have remembered hearing something about the plane being fully booked by the stewardesses while waiting for the plane to board, but either my brain wasn’t quite fully functional or I just couldn’t resist the opportunity to take a seat away from this man, who was picking his toes inches away from my knee. 

I spotted a lovely, empty window seat on my same row and moved to it, figuring that if someone came and claimed it, I could justifiably claim that I’d just accidentally taken the wrong seat, which is exactly what happened. I apologized to the man who’s seat I’d nearly stolen and moved back to my original seat next to the man with the bare feet, who was now irate that I’d reclaimed my own seat. 

He tried to convince me once more that boarding had stopped, but I knew his game now and wouldn’t move. I told him that I would stay in my seat and he yelled at me, adamantly claiming that he had head the loading doors close and no new people were boarding, despite the fact that more and more people were filing down the two narrow aisle ways and finding their seats. 

Now I’m a firm believer that if a person is adamant enough, they can convince a weak willed person that reality is different than how their own eyeballs perceive it, which is what this person was trying to do with me, but I wasn’t going for it and after a bit, he calmed down.

I briefly considered writing all this down in my journal and reached for it, but the moment I did, the man stealthily snuck his elbow down upon my armrest. 

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. I’ve been all over the world and if there’s one thing that I’ve found universally true, it’s the rule of armrest distributions in airplanes. That rule is this: window seat gets a view and one armrest, the aisle seat gets an armrest and a little bit of extra legroom, and the middle seat gets both armrests. I was in the middle seat and this was especially important for me as I am a broad man and need the space. But the gentleman sitting beside me apparently didn’t see things that way. 

He was in an aisle seat, and while he was taking liberal use of his extra legroom- now sticking his hairy, bare feet out into the aisle for all to see, he wanted my armrest as well. 


And initially, I made no protest about it. I’ve never laid claim to being a subtle man, but I knew in that moment that I was taking back my armrest the first chance I got and any indication that I wanted it would just make the man covet it more. 

So the second he leaned over and his arm came off the armrest, I slipped my elbow in and took it back. 

He did NOT like this, and started trying, gently at first and them with greater force, to shove my arm off the armrest, but I was not budging. The man had pushed me too far, and this was where I made my stand. 

Friends, relatives, and ex-girlfriends of all varieties can attest to my infuriatingly stubborn nature and bull-headedness, and it is with great respect that I say this man seemed my equal in those measures. He pushed and pushed at my arm, but I refused to act like anything at all was the matter. In fact, I acted as relaxed and aloof as could be, pretending that I could not feel the encroaching of his elbow at all!

Finally the man turned on his side in the chair, turning his back to me, and I thought possibly he had given up. But his incredulity pushed him on, as he tried to cram his entire body, legs and bare feet and everything, sideways into the narrow gray and purple airline chair. He tried so hard and fit so poorly, that his back pushed against my shoulder and his ass came to rest on my elbow. 

He was sitting on my arm, but I refused to acknowledge his passive-aggressive behavior or move my elbow. Instead, I just sat there with a strangers ass on my arm acting like nothing at all was out of the ordinary. 

At one point, as this guy sat on my arm with his back fat pushing well into the boundaries of my seat, he turned around to me and said in an incredulous tone, “Could you please move your elbow, it’s poking into my back.” 


I think by “back,” he meant, “butthole.” 

I turned to him, looked at him dead in the eye, and said, “NO.” Then I turned my head back to the front of the airplane and went right on pretending that this man wasn’t sitting fully on my arm, which of course, he was. 

The whole thing was preposterous, but what’s more, we went on like that for the entirety of the flight! Eight and a half hours- him sitting uncomfortably on me, me being uncomfortably sat upon, and no-one saying another word about it. Locked in a ridiculous passive-aggressive battle of wills over a stupid armrest. 

 

Then the plane landed and we both got up, collected our carryons, and left like nothing had ever happened, never to see one another again. 

I’m not sure what this story say about me, but if it doesn’t hit upon something important and quintessential about me, I don’t know what will. 

Little Japan: Macro Travel Photography in the Land of the Rising Sun



One thing that I noticed about a lot of travel photography, is that there seems to be no macro travel photography. “Macro photography,” for those of you not in the know, is taking pictures of little things and making them bigger- like a close up photo of a praying mantises segmented eyes and awkward smile. Stuff like that.



I noticed most travel photography tries to capture the essence of a place for the reader by using wide angle lenses to view much of the place in as possible. In San Francisco for example, people might take photos of the Golden Gate Bridge all lit up at night, shops under the glowing Ghirardelli sign at Ghirardelli Square, or jovial people hanging off of a cable car traveling by Fisherman’s Wharf.



But I thought it’d be cool to do the opposite of that. To look at the finer details. To capture something of the essence of a place by shining a light on the little bits of magic you might not notice otherwise.




Writers call these, “telling details.” A telling detail is when a writer focuses on more subtle feature of something to reveal a larger characteristic. Like focusing on the word, “Klassy” tattooed into the cuticle above a gas station attendant’s two-inch long bejeweled, emerald green acrylic fingernails as being indicative of his whole personality.



I wanted to do something similar with macro-photography. To focus on what the little details of Japan- a country with a ton of great “little details”- could reveal about the country as a whole. Note that it’s not all necessarily macro photography, but it is all focused on little things I think a lot of people might not notice.  













 
 
 



 




 




 
 





  
A rope in a temple in Kyoto made out of it’s worshipers hair. 


 
 
 
 





 

 

Japan Train Selfie Video

I LOVE the trains in Japan. In fact, I would go as far as to say that riding the trains in Japan with my Japan Rail Pass was my favorite part of going to Japan. And I know it’s silly, but shortly after my first few train rides in Japan, I decided to start taking selfies every time I rode one.

And then I made a music video of them.

So, submitted for your approval is this music video which I call, “Japan Train Selfies.”

Japan Day 7 pt 2: The Mystery of the Missing Train Pass! (Also, seriously, how do you turn of these bidets?!?!)

I felt a bit like a vagabond, those last few hours in Japan.


 


I walked down the street carrying my two bags. One was my camera bag with all of my gear in it- about twenty five pounds of gear. The other was the weekend bag in which I kept all my clothes, two jackets, a lead lined bag full of medium format film, an umbrella, a bunch of little nicknacks I’d picked up along the way, and whatever else I had on me. It weighed about 25 lbs as well.


It was a hot day. It was hot and humid. Both of my bags were absolutely full, so my initial idea was to wear jacket as I lumbered the half mile to the subway. I was sweating profusely and I smelled heavily of body odor. I had both bags slung around me messenger style and the straps dug sharply into my trapezius. My whole body strained against the deadweight of the bags and the heat.


When I got to the subway platform, I took off my jacket and placed it between the straps of my messenger bag. A cool wind pushed by a rushing train gave me some relief but between this jaunt from the hotel and my photographic excursion of Fushimi Inari earlier that morning, I had been running around for hours and the several caked on several layers of sweat and stink. I could tell I was seriously off putting to the passengers around me, though they were too polite to indicate it. The step counter on my phone was already at 17,000 and it was only noon.


Fushimi Inari-taisha earlier that day.


I got to Kyoto Station and went to figure out my next move. I happily discovered I could take the Shinkansen to Osaka for my next part of the journey. I really love riding on the bullet train and had sadly thought that my my ride the night before would be my last.


I walked around the train station for a bit. I got a green tea flavored smoothie, and then headed to catch the Bullet Train. However, when I went to pull out my Japan Rail Pass, it was gone.


I took a step back from the counter and went through all my pockets. I checked my bags, and the pockets of all my clothes.


Nothing.
 
“Don’t. Panic,” I told myself, echoing the motto of my favorite book. “Don’t panic,” I said again though I was clearly starting to panic. “If all else fails, I can just buy another ticket.”

 

Though I wasn’t sure I had the money for a ticket to the airport, the thing that really bummed me out is that I had lost the pass itself. I pick up precious few souvenirs when I travel- mostly tickets to things and fliers and stuff like that, and this train pass was the thing I was most looking forward to being able to look at and hold in my hands to remind me of this trip.





Frantically, I retraced my steps, walking all over the train station and looking intensly at the floor for it while carrying my bags on my shoulders like I was trying to show off my muscles. They seemed to get five pounds heavier every ten minutes.


After about 30 minutes, I had found nothing. I was despondent and heartbroken.
Though I thought it was fruitless, with no other options, I went up to a station attendant and explained my situation the best I could- which is to say I acted out in wild gestures how I had lost my pass like the world’s worst game of charades.


I handed him the receipt for the pass, which he seemed to consider for a second. Without really acknowledging me, he picked up the phone and started making calls. I stood nearby, though I wasn’t completely sure he was doing anything related to finding my pass. It could be that he just thought I was a crazy person and now was pretending to be on the phone in hopes that I would go away.


But then, after about 5 minutes, a man walked over with a Japan Rail Pass in his hand. I could tell by the sloppy writing on it that is was definitely mine!


The man asked me for my passport and then looked suspiciously between the two. Then he shook his head and handed me back my passport without the rail pass. He pointed to something on the pass and I could not believe my eyes: I had misspelled my own name!


I couldn’t believe myself. How dumb am I???


Instead of spelling my middle name, “Robert” in the normal way, I accidentally spelled it, “Robet,” omitting the second, “R.” It’s a small exclusion, but for someone of whom the Roman alphabet is not their native writing system, it’s a curious negligence!


After a few minutes of pointing out the vast amount of similarities between the information on my passport and the JRP and explaining that I was huge, mentally challenged idiot, he relinquished the pass to me and I joyously ran off to catch the Shinkansen, ecstatic to be reunited with a small slip of cardboard that let me ride the network of trains that hurtled through this land like impulses on the synapses of the country.


I was so happy to get to ride the Shinkansen one last time. I took the train to Shin-Osaka station, where I nearly missed the last train because I couldn’t figure out how to turn the bidet off on the Japanese super toilet. I sprinted with all of my bags away from the toilet with the bidet still spraying out and just barely jumped through the closing doors of the departing train.


I got to the airport train station, and searched around the station hoping to find a stamp. With great delight, I found it! In my journal around the stamp I wrote, “Kansai Airport Train Station Stamp! They actually have one! And I got it! Yes! One more stamp before I leave!”


I bought a Pocari Sweat, picked up my boarding pass for the flight, made my way through the airport, and boarded my plane.


Out my airplane window. 

As the plane took off, and I watched Japan disappear into the orange glow of the setting sun beneath me, it occurred to me that it was Easter Sunday. It was a weird realization. I had never really spent a major holiday away from home… and I didn’t really mind. Holidays were always such a bummer back home anyways.


 

Japan Day 7, pt 1: The Mad Photographer of Fushimi Inari (featuring Lomochrome Purple and Turquoise!)

 

I woke up late in my little coffin sized room in Kyoto. It was around 6 a.m. Japan time, but I had intended to get up an hour earlier. I lamented, rubbing my head, not getting an earlier start to the day. I wanted to walk the empty dark Kyoto streets lit up only by the dim light of vending machines serving soda and hot coffee and making odd “bong” noises like I had my first morning.
 
I was a little groggy from perhaps too much sake the night before and I considered sleeping a couple more hours, but as is, I only had a few more hours in Japan, and I was going to try and make the most of them.
 
I slid the door open to my tiny room, hung my feet out onto the ladder leading up to it, and tried to repress the sobering realization that in not too long a time I would be leaving. I dreamt of visiting this country for the last twenty years and now it was almost over. I tried not to think about all the things back home that were going to depress me when I got back. Those problems could wait for me at the arrivals section of San Francisco International. No one else was going to.
 
For now, I was still in Japan and I still had stories to write and pictures to take!
 
 
My shoot idea was to head back to Fushimi Inari-taisha and get some early morning photos of the mountain before it became overrun with tourists. Maybe it’s my inner writer, but it seemed fitting to spend my last day going back to the place that I had spent my first day- to “circle back” to it, as it were. I hadn’t been happy with the photos I had taken of the place the first time around. The flat afternoon light and the overcrowding of tourists made for unflattering photographs, and my failure to get interesting shots to bring back nagged at my artist’s pride.
 
I quickly got my stuff together, making sure to also pack my Mamiya 6- the medium format camera I’d brought with me and all but neglected- and some rolls of a weird, color shifting film called Lomochrome. With two cameras, six lenses, two flashes, a notebook, and a pen inside, my camera bag became insanely heavy. But it was my last day, and I was hell bent on going all out with my last location shoot of the trip- even if that meant lugging 25 pounds of camera equipment up a mountain.
 
 
Actually, “hell-bent” might not be the right phrase. “Frantic” would be a better word. When I boarded the first of the two trains needed to get out to the shrine, the sun was already starting to make it’s ascent in the sky. When I arrived, worried, I wouldn’t be able to catch the good light, I sprinted up the mountain like a madman, hopping and running past the crowds of tourists that were already starting to build up like I was some kind of embarrassingly sweaty, American troll.
 
In this reverent, place -a graveyard and sacred shrine- in the soft, angular dawn light, I must have seemed like a huge asshole cutting through the crowds of polite Japanese visitors.
 
Never was there a greater juxtaposition between the vibe of an artist and their subject. Yes, I got photos that captured the serenity of the shrine covered mountain, but felt very little of that serenity that people go there to experience.
 
Instead, I just felt panic.
 
Worse still, I probably ruined that serenity for a lot of the people visiting the shrine. Like I said, I must have seemed like a huge asshole.
 
 
Perhaps, I was channeling my sadness at not having more time in Japan by placing more importance on my photos than I was my own experience. To use another writerly term here, I was putting the sign before the signifier- like a person more interested in porn than actual sex. I wanted perfect photos and didn’t realize that I was ruining my experience with them.
 
About midway up the mountain, I stopped and looked at the trail of steps before me. It dawned on me that I couldn’t possibly reach the top of the mountain and make it back to the hotel for check out on time. I was going to have to quit running up this mountain like a jackass, quit running away from everything I didn’t want to have to go back to. I was going to have to turn around… and leave. Leave Fushimi Inari. Leave Kyoto. Leave Japan.
 
 
 
 
It was an inevitability. Like death. No matter how much I wanted to keep going, to keep moving and traveling through the world writing and taking photos, I was going to have to go back. Back to being “Mr. Rhodes,” heartbroken, unappreciated high school teacher. Back to a world where I wasn’t loved or regarded as special. Back to a world where I was nothing. A world of crushing, oppressive stagnation where I could only dream of the kinds of travels I was currently on.
 
 
 
I wasn’t living the dream. I was just dreaming. And for all my talk about how annoying all the tourists were, I was just a tourist myself- and an annoying one at that- experiencing the smallest taste of the thing I’ve longed for as long as I can remember. What is that, you ask? Freedom, adventure, inspiration, art- I’m not sure.
 
Perhaps it’s a world where I can keep going. Keep climbing those steps up the mountain, past the misty mountain tops, and never come back. To somehow live off my wit, my writing, and my photos, meet everyone in the world, find out something special about them, and take their portrait.
 
I stopped acting so obnoxious. I walked back slowly, making an effort to take in as much as I could, not just through my camera lens, but with my own senses. I put my hands against the shrines, the statures, and bridge railings. I love touching things when I travel. It makes me feel like I’m really there.
 
Though I was afraid of missing check out, I still stopped to take photos, but I didn’t put as much pressure on myself for them to be perfect or to frantically try and capture the fleeting light.
 
That’s not to sound like I got all Zen or anything, it was more of an obstinate desire to drag out the time I had left than it was a peaceful acceptance of the inevitable, but the effect was basically the same: I got some good photos and I started to relax a bit.
 
 
 
 
I got back to the Centurion Hotel with about a half an hour to spare before check out and packed my things, grabbed my luggage, checked out, then went to the place next door where I’d had breakfast everyday and grabbed my last meal in Kyoto.
 
And then, carrying my two heavy bags in hand, I walked towards the subway station. I was going to have to figure out how to get to the airport by train, and it was going to be my last adventure in Japan.
 
 
 
 
 

 

Before the Trip: Why Your Smartphone Camera is a Crappy Travel Camera

Chances are, when planning for a big trip, a lot of you don’t think about what kind of camera to bring. Or at lease not to the extent that I do.

Wow, bet those photos are all going to come out great. Precious memories, right?

Chances are, most of you will just take your smartphone with you on your adventures. And honestly, that makes sense. It’s reasonably sized, it’s something you’re familiar with, it’s got a “wide” angle of view (approximately 28 degrees on a full frame camera) and it takes pictures. Technically.

OK, honestly, I’m not a fan. Despite all that Apple, Samsung, and the others will do to convince you that that tiny camera in your pocket is the most amazing camera ever, your smartphone camera just sucks. It sucks out loud.

Which is funny, because despite being an amazing, pocketable super computer, most of the advertising that you will see for smartphones is based around the thing that they do the absolute worst: take pictures.

This kind of advertisement makes the camera in a smartphone look pretty complex… unless you compare it to an actual camera lens.

Let’s start with the basics: The lenses on most smartphones cost about 5 cents to make. (The entire camera operation, sensor and everything only sets back Apple about 26 bucks according to PetaPixel- https://petapixel.com/2016/10/22/iphone-7s-camera-parts-cost-26-9-5-phone/. MUCH less than what goes into a decent compact camera.) Not only is the lens cheap, but it’s also tiny, meaning it’s probably not the best at filtering light. The sensor that modicum of light hits is tiny. It mean, it’s really small! Here is a nifty chart to show you just how small and pathetic the sensor in your phone is:

 

See that tiny, little itty bitty sensor size way down in the bottom right hand corner? That small, dark blue one? Yeah, that’s your phone. The two in the upper right hand corner, the dim orange and dark yellow one, those are the sizes of sensors in most moderately priced, decent travel cameras. For comparison sake, the bright orange one is the same size as your standard 35mm film negative.

“But my camera is 16 megapixels, just like that APS-C Camera! What’s the difference?”

Megapixels, for the uninformed, are not all created equal. Smaller ones, for example, get exposed to much less light which means that things like detail, shadows, color saturation, depth, and a whole lot of other things are affected. Also, the smaller and more cramped your sensor is, the more “noisy” your image will be. The end result: flat, boring, undynamic pictures that do absolutely no justice to the amazing experience you are about to have.

You’ve seen these pictures online. Pictures of your friends trips to amazing places. But when you look at the pictures, they…. kiiiiind of don’t make it look that amazing. I mean, like you can kind of imagine what it looks like in your head, but those pictures do absolutely nothing to help.

On top of the technical details, think about how most people treat their cell phone cameras. When was the last time you saw someone check the lens of their smartphone camera to see if it was free of dust, fingerprints, scratches, or oils? Also, your smartphone camera lens is probably the only camera lens in the whole world you would feel comfortable sticking unexposed in your pocket. Or in a purse with a bunch of rattly secret lady bits shaking around on top of it. No one would do this with ANY other camera lens. Even the cheapest little compact digital cameras are usually kept in their own nice little protective nylon pouch thingie and a lens that escapes back into the body of the camera.

The reason you wouldn’t do this to a normal camera is because it would destroy that lens and ruin all your pictures. The reason you don’t have to worry about this with a cell phone is because the lens is covered by a this protective layer on top of the camera lens that protects it. It also lowers picture quality. And yes, you could compare this layer to using a UV filter (which I don’t use), but you wouldn’t expose your UV filter to all the dust, fingerprints, scratches, or oils that you expose your phone to either.

Not only that but that giant glowing screen you’re looking through to take your pictures is absolutely KILLING the ambiance or wherever you’re at for other people. A good camera will give you the ability to compose your shots through an eye piece without ruining areas for other travelers.

The ambiance of the amazing lantern temple in Nara, Japan was utterly ruined once people walked in with their bright cell phones.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “I don’t have money for a brand new travel camera!” And I don’t blame you. I never -NEVER- buy my cameras new. Figure out what suits your needs, and then by a “newer” used version of it online. My personal favorite is the Fujifilm X100S. It’s a beautiful camera that feels great in hand, has a sturdy magnesium alloy build, and a brilliant 23mm f2 lens with a large APS-C sized sensor. And since it’s been on the market for a while, you can pick them up pretty cheap on Craigslist. The same goes for many of the other Fuji X cameras. (Which admittedly, are my favorite digital cameras, though I prefer film cameras in general. The Ricoh GR ii is an excellent camera as well.)

Digital cameras go for a fraction of what they initially sold for due to how quickly their value drops after new cameras come out. This perceived “obsoletion” is your gain! Just use a bit of common sense when buying: if it looks like crap (ie: covered in scratches, dents, or the lens is weird looking), it probably wasn’t treated well. If it looks practically new, you’ll probably have a great camera for years to come!

I’ve bought all my cameras using this simple common sense method of just looking at the camera, and I’ve never got a dud. And if you simply can’t afford one, ask to borrow a friends.

I’m not saying that my photos are the best either, per se. My point is that travel, whether it’s your local national park or an epic overseas adventure, is going to cost a ton of money and you should be carrying along an amazing camera so you can relive that experience again and again.

Getting a good photo isn’t just a vanity thing. It’s a thing that shapes how you remember and perceive that experience. And the better you remember your trip being, the more likely you are to value it and want to go on more trips. Also, shooting with a good camera is just fun! Capturing the perfect moment, a cool angle, some amazing lighting- it gives you a feeling of euphoria. Knowing you just caught something that you can put up on your wall at home, that guests will compliment, and being able to say, “Thanks! I took that. That was on my trip to…” It’s a great feeling. And a great conversation starter!

Lastly, whether you take photo’s on your phone or a nicer camera, enjoy the moment. Don’t get so distracted by your camera that it distracts from your experience. Be present. If you’re in a museum or you’re watching a beautiful exotic sunset or wherever, take a breath, look at the thing that’s in front of you, and take it in. Because no matter how good your camera is, nothing will be as good as just actually being there.

But after you do that, take a good picture. 🙂

Or take a bad picture, like this one. Just go crazy.

 

Notes on Japan- Lost in Translation (funny signs)

This post is mostly just funny signs I saw around Japan.
Exactly what part of his/her anatomy is that coming out of? And why is it’s chord split? Will I get free soda if I cut this thing’s power supply??

 

OK, I get that this is a sign for a bathroom, but what’s up with those two dudes in the square underneath the red lady’s feet? What exactly am I am I supposed to do in this room??? And am I supposed to be the laying down guy, or the standing up guy?
The thing I like about this sign is the guy on the left, imagining how grief stricken his family would be if he got hit by the train and then LAUGHING about it. 

 

Is this racist??? I can’t tell if this is racist. 

 

“First of all,” don’t take that argumentative tone with me. Second of all, why is “touch” in quotations? Do you want me to touch the card to the sensor or not???

 

I….. don’t quite know what this sign wants me to do…. Hit a dog with a can, I guess? I feel like this sign takes places in an alternate universe where Charlie Brown was born with a full head of hair and just became a total dick. 

 

Oh, good. Another sign. This will give me some context about what that first one means… Um…. Nope, still clueless. 

 

I’m not sure if I trust this police station. I feel like they are taking the phrase, “fashion police” WAY too literally. 

 

Do I drink this???
I think it’s interesting how that dude’s puke looks like a free floating lava lamp. Also, is it just me or does it look less like the girl is chasing her phone and more like she dropped her phone because she just tripped and is about to fall into the way of a speeding train? 
I think the lesson to be learned here is, deer are sexist a-holes. 

 

Japan Day 6- Lost in Tokyo

 
The train I was accidentally riding illegally kicked me off at the Shin-Yokohama station. Another train came almost immediately bound for Tokyo, but in customary Lost Rhodes fashion, I decided to skip it in favor of trying to find the Shin-Yokohama station stamp. 
 
For those of you not in the know, most train stations in Japan have station stamps, which are these large, wonderful stamps usually depicting some distinct feature of that stations city. If you are the type of person who likes stamps, Japan is pretty much a paradise. And as it so happens, I FRICKEN’ LOVE STAMPS, YO! 
 
So for a whole 20 minutes I searched around this station for a station stamp, asking different people where I could find said stamp and being directed all over the station, which was a large station because, as you could imagine, the mighty Shinkansen doesn’t stop at the lesser train stations for they are unworthy of being graced by it’s mighty presence. But after 20 minutes of searching, a polite station attendant in a light blue uniform informed that there in fact was no stamp. 
 

Now, this could have been a lie. No one else who I asked said there was no stamp, but also, no one successfully directed me to it at the same time. The Japanese, just like every other human being on the planet, will lie on occasion when it makes like easier for them. Like, when a person who doesn’t speak your language is trying to find something but you don’t understand what. Sometimes it’s best to just send them on their way. It is just a stamp after all. However, in my internet searched I haven’t been able to confirm or repute their claim about the absence of the Shin-Yokohama Station stamp. 



Nonetheless, I returned to the train platform and boarded the next train to Tokyo, which was only one stop away. 

 
An example of the Osaka Station stamp, scanned straight from my journal (also, writing about getting kicked out of a Japanese Starbucks…) 
 
The train pulled into Tokyo Station, which is the busiest, craziest place I have yet to visit anywhere.  This train station was the central hub of all train activity in the largest city of a country that LOVES trains. Most train stations in Japan are chaotic rivers of humanity politely colliding and crashing into each other as people try to get from one place to another, but in Tokyo that chaos is magnified as the population of the greater Tokyo metropolitan area (nearly 38 million people), and countless others from all around the country all converge upon one place to travel, transfer, and arrive. 
 
Just to put that population into perspective for you, that’s nearly the population for the ENTIRE state of California (which is 39 million people) all crammed inside an area roughly the size of Los Angeles County- and you thought the traffic was bad in L.A. now.
 

 

In fact, here’s a “map” of US cities whose populations you could fit within the borders of the greater Tokyo area: 
 
Original source: http://metrocosm.com/how-many-u-s-cities-can-you-fit-inside-tokyo/

Now, I didn’t know this all when I got there. I have a policy of doing hardly any research into a place before I get there so I can experience it on my own terms… and also I’m lazy. I just figured, I would get to Tokyo, wander around, and eventually I would run into cool stuff. This was nooooot the best plan. 

 
Now, this plan has worked out great for me everywhere else I’ve ever gone. From San Francisco to Kyoto, Venice Beach to London, Sacramento to Paris, I find wandering around a city with a camera to be one of the most delightful ways to really get to really know the heart of a city, and not just the kitchy tourist BS. So that’s what I did. I got out and wandered aaaaand…. nothing. I mean, really nothing. 
 
I found the Imperial Palace, which, like the one is Kyoto, you can’t enter because the royal family lives there still and is a total waste of time. And I found a few other minor things, a park here and there, but nothing really fulfilling in a story telling or photographic sense. 
 
Looking back on the photos I took of the area around the translation (which I wandered for a couple hours) I didn’t find one good photo of the whole place. I’m pretty sure the area was a business district- and a boring one at that, which is weird because train stations, unlike airports, are usually found in the heart of a city and within close proximity to many cool attractions. This time, my wandering method had undone me. I needed to find something exciting. It was time to do my homework! 
 
So, I headed back to the train station and pulled out my phone, which had a guide to Tokyo in it. A friend of mine who used to live in Japan had warned me about a part of town called “Kabukicho” in the Shinjuku part of Tokyo which she said was, “a district of tattoo parlors, whores, and gangs.” 
 
Kabukicho it was! 
 
This was a place where people get roofied, have their money and credit cards stolen, where they get beat up, and hustled. It’s also a place with a lot of Yakuza activity. If I was going to find a good story anywhere in Tokyo, it was going to be here!
 
So, I took the subway down to Skinjuku and started walking around. One of the first things I noticed was a big protest going on. I was like, “That looks like fun!” and joined it. 
 

 

I’m not sure what I was protesting for, a wage increase, I think, but I have to say, it was pretty dope! We marched around the city and there two guys were singing some protest rap on the bed of a slowly moving pickup truck and every now and they would yell “Kokoro!” which everyone in the audience would chant back. 
 
After a bit though, people started giving me weird looks and I knew it was time to bounce. 
 
I heard about some sword museum and decided to set out for that. But after searching for it and walking around for nearly an hour, I found it and it had closed permanently. So, that was a bummer. 
 
I had been walking for a bit and I was getting thirsty, so I headed for Kabukicho proper. Now, there is one general rule of thumb that you hear pretty much everywhere about Kabukicho and that is this: don’t drink there. Nearly every terrible story about the place starts with a drink. 
 
But if there’s one general rule about getting a good story, it’s this: Drink where men fear to tread. 
 
I had a creative writing professor in college who used to say something to the effect of, “Live a boring life and write interesting stories,” which I always thought was dumb, cowardly advice. I mean, would Hemingway have written so many good stories if he hadn’t of fought in the war? Would Burroughs have written his stories if he didn’t go to Mexican prison? Would we have any of Thompson’s amazing insane Gonzo stories if he’d have NOT done all the drugs and gone tearing across this country’s virginal painted deserts in an open air Cadillac convertible screaming about bats and giant lizards??? HELL NO HE WOULDN’T HAVE! 
 
And yes, you have a good point- all three of those men shot someone in in the face at some point in their lives, but damn it, that’s a risk I was willing to take for the sake of getting a good story. So, I saddled up to a bar and ordered myself some sake.
I had a couple little vases of sake and I was feeling warm and happy. I got a good vibe from this place. The bartender and I had a nice rapport (considering he wasn’t fluent in English and I barely knew it myself) so I decided to order some food. The specialty of the house were these small strips of Japanese steak lightly coated in salt that you would grill yourself on a little coal grill thing that they would bring out for you. 
 
Now, this might seem a little weird, but hear me out: I spent more on this meal that I had on any other meal the entire time I was in Japan and all it was, was six little pieces of steak that I had to actually cook myself. And you might be saying, “What’s the point in going to a restaurant where they don’t even cook your food?!” And if I wasn’t trying to eat as authentic Japanese food as I could, I would have probably not have gone there for those same reasons. But I tell you, there’s something to this concept- a reason why these restaurants have been in business for so long- because those six pieces of beef were the best damn steak I’ve ever had in my life. 
 
At least, that’s what I remembered before the roofie knocked me out…
 
JUST KIDDING! 
 
Apparently, you only really have to worry about the places in Kabukicho that are run by Nigerians? Or something? I don’t know. That’s something I heard after the fact when I was writing this. 
 
Anyways, I noticed the sun was starting to set, so I settled my bill and drunkenly hurried to the Tokyo Municipal Office Building. That PROBABLY sounds like a weird place to rush off to if the sun is setting, but the thing is, they have a thing there where they’ll let tourists go up to the fiftieth floor and I wanted to get some sweeping vistas of the cityscape as the sun was setting. 
 
I’d actually passed the building earlier when I was looking for the closed samurai sword museum, so it wasn’t easy to track down, but I did have a lot of ground to cover in order to get there before the sun set. I hurried through Shinjuku watching the shadows get longer as the sun neared the towering skyscrapers around me. 
 
Finally, I got to the building. The sun was still up enough to take sunset pictures, which was a huge relief. So, I headed to the entrance where I found… a very long line! But, unlike a lot of my line-mates, I had the good fortune to be drunk. Waiting in line is normally pretty boring, but I made it much more tolerable by taking selfies by sticking my DSLR and a giant flash on my selfie stick. (when I said, “tolerable,” I meant, “for me.”)
Look how annoyed THAT guy is!
I missed sunset, but got some pretty sweet night time photos of the largest metropolitan area in the world. 
 
 
After that I rushed off to the subway, where I just barely caught the train to Tokyo station where, I kid you not, I just barely caught the last bullet train to Kyoto. I was running through the station and just barely jumped through the closing doors. It was an uncharacteristic bit of good luck on my part.
 
My trip to Tokyo was probably not the most quintessential or unique experience told about the city, but it did change the way I saw traveling through big, iconic cities. To be blunt, my trip to Tokyo was a failure. Most of the other places I’d been to before this, I was able to get a pretty good understanding of just wandering around for a day or two. But Tokyo was too big for that. It would have taken at least a few days to really get a good experience there, and that’s why when I was scheduling my trip to Europe, I decided to stay for longer periods of time in the more iconic cities like London and Paris. So I didn’t repeat my failures in Tokyo. 
 
But on the plus side, I’ll still have plenty to explore whenever I make my way back to the city, and next time, I’ll be prepared. 
A monk seeking charity outside Tokyo station. Never be in such a rush that you don’t enjoy the moment.