Port Barton is a lively but laid back town, about 4-5 hours drive from Puerto Princessa , with friendly locals, cute kids, happy cats, a few bearded pigs, and mangy dogs marking their territory on any object within reach of their genitals, and a beautifully serene white sand beach with a sea which is lake like in its stillness. It is not yet served by a decent road (currently under construction), which is one of the reasons, that for the moment, it is relatively untouched by the tourism industry in Palawan.
Port Barton is billed as the next El Nido. I can picture it in 10 years time, with fully paved roads, a distinct tourist trade and a reduction in non cash related interactions with locals. It happens everywhere that has something going for it, and the building of a decent road and a local airport is most probably the beginning for Port Barton. So you just have to come here soon if you want to see it as it is.
There isn’t that much to do in Port Barton and I spent a lot of time here walking up and down the beach, listening to music (until I lost my headphones after a few evening shandys). A lot of tourists go island hopping, but I decided to spend my limited time enjoying the town instead. I did however, rent out a canoe and row to Starfish island, which is one of the stops on most of the island hopping tours.
It takes about 30mins to get to and is a slither of sand just out of sight from the shore, absolutely teaming with starfish…………apparently – when I got there there wasn’t a starfish in sight. I wondered if I went to the right place, but there weren’t any other islands within rowing distance, it seemed to fit the description and there was nobody around to ask. I just gathered that people had mistranslated seaweed as starfish, but found out later that I went at the wrong time of day. One tip for follicular deficient people (AKA bald bastards) like me is either cream up or wear a hat, as the sun is relentless.
Other things to see in Port Barton include a waterfall, which is about an hour trek out of town, or a 7 minute ride on a motorbike – I chose the latter. It is not spectacular, and I actually enjoyed the walk through the jungle to get there more than the waterfall itself. It’s a nice little trip, but not worth planning to spend your whole day there. I met a few locals and chatted to them for a bit, had a swim, took a few photos and went back to PB.
The food in Port Barton was pretty good and it’s also possible to get by on fairly little cash – budget travellers seem more accomodated for than in other resorts that I visited in Palawan. I had my own double room for 400 pesos per night and meals cost anything between 50 – 200 pesos. One of the best meals I had was the Chicken curry at Clabereen/El Dorado Sunset Resort, which is located on the beach front and is also a good place to meet other travellers.
One of the greatest pleasures of travelling with a camera in a place like Port Barton, is that you can walk around and chat to people using the camera as an ice breaker and more often than not I am surprised at how willing people are to get involved. Most of the photos on this page are from walks around town around dusk, when the heat is less intense and people come out and play games or just hang around and chat. About half the time I ask people if I can take their photo but there are occasions when there is a particular composition that would be ruined if it were posed or if I interrupted, so I try to have my camera ready to shoot when I walk around, as every so often a scene will present itself and disappear as quickly as it came.
Of all the places that I visited in Palawan, Port Barton would rank as my favourite (Coron not far behind). The place is beautiful, without doubt the best beach I stepped foot on in Palawan. The people are warm and friendly and the days go by like minutes unfortunately. It’s a place where you start to envy the simplicity of the lives the people lead and start to wonder how much longer you could stay if you quit your job and lived off of your savings. It was hard to tear myself away, but I knew I’d be back someday.
If you look at Palawan on a world map, it doesn’t take up much space, and at first I thought that it might be possible to cycle round the island in 3 weeks. But after reading how long the bus journeys were I realised that my plans were a bit ambitious and I’m probably not fit enough to get from one town to the next let alone around the island, so my next idea was to rent a motorbike.
I tried to do a bit of online research before going but couldn’t find much except websites for a few bike rental shops, which were asking for around 600 pesos a day for a bike (50 Pesos = $1USD). I didn’t book anything and thought I would wait until I got to Palawan to work things out.
Luckily the owner of my hostel in Puerto Princessa, had a couple of bikes (A scooter and a Honda VRM 125) that he rents out for 450 pesos per day. I asked him what his best price would be for 20 days expecting maybe a few hundred pesos off of the original price but he surprised me by letting me have it for 3000pesos for 20 days.
The first day I got the bike I went for a little ride, which evolved into a plan to ride to Sabang – the site of the ‘famous’ Underground River one of the new 7 wonders of the world. I stopped a few times and took a few photos. It was tiring in the midday heat and I had only managed about 25km after around 3 hours of riding. I slipped on my sunglasses pondering whether to go back, whilst I sipped on a Pineapple juice, and caught site of my glowing hands, so red I could almost hear them. Decision made,………I rode back to Puerto and the nearest (only?) supermarket and bought a bottle of factor 60 sun protection cream, which still didn’t stop me getting burned somewhere new everyday – and if it had already been burnt, then it would just get burnt again.
So with the understanding that I needed to protect myself from the sun, I set off the next morning for El Nido at 8 am. Hoping to make it to El Nido, then on to another resort called ‘Tapik’, in Sibaltan - which according to it’s website is one a half hours drive from El Nido. They also suggest that you don’t attempt it at night as the roads are quite bad. They fail to mention that so is the placement of roadsigns, lighting, and the sense of direction of most people that you are going to ask how to get to Tapik. The journey to El Nido, actually was much more of an enjoyable ride than I had expected following the previous day’s sweat and burn fest.
One of the main reasons that I wanted to travel by bike was to have the freedom to stop where I wanted and take photos. I had to work out the most comfortable way to carry a backpack a camera and a larger backpack strapped to the back of the bike. I decided on the 70 – 200mm Nikkor lens, as I realised from my practice run the day before that it was better to have the longer lens to be able to pick up any scenes from afar, and if it is a car for example you have more of a chance to shoot it before it speeds off out of sight. Also working out the order in which to put things on took a while to get used to: bag, camera, helmet, in that order, otherwise it wouldn’t work.
About 3 hours into the journey, after losing my new sunglasses during my first pit stop I arrived at Roxas – a small, dusty town where, judging by the reaction I got from the locals, few tourists seem to stop at. I bought myself a new pair of shades, filled up the bike at the petrol station and had a slap up fish lunch at a restaurant across the street.
Back on the road, I was trying to figure out the best way to take photos whilst riding a motorbike. A few times I would see a car or tricycle I wanted to take a photo of, and would overtake it, and ride full throttle for a minute or so then stop and get my camera ready and try to snap it as it went by. I tried taking photos a couple of times whilst riding, but aside from being about as dangerous as riding with your eyes closed, the photos were also too blurry.
As my petrolometer started to move towards ‘E’ for Empty I got slightly worried as I hadn’t passed any petrol pumps for over an hour. So finally decided to stop at a crowded bus stop and shot the question out to nobody in particular, and was told by the older people in the group to go back to a shop that I had just passed and I can buy it in litres (guessed they meant bottles). So I went back, filled up the tank and hit the road again, feeling relieved that I now knew where to buy petrol. It took about 3 bottles to fill the engine and about 3 refills to get from Puerto Princessa to El Nido, costing between 41 – 60 pesos per litre (around 50 pesos = $1).
Aside from the friendly people and beautiful views that you get to see whilst riding a motorbike in Palawan, one of the less savoury and quite regular occurences was roadkill. On my first day I saw an inflated, decapitated cat, I have no idea how it got there and why there was no hole where it's head should've been. I also saw squashed dogs, flattened birds and mashed cats on a fairly regular basis, and even though I was travelling over 50 mph most of the time (so didn’t see all the gory details), I saw enough to give me some memories I won’t forget.
Once I reached El Nido, I headed to Sibaltan, which as previously mentioned, was a bit tougher than expected. Most of the main roads in Palawan are paved, but all of the major resorts that I visited had at least a few miles of rocky, dusty dirt tracks leading up to them, the longest being 22Km at Port Barton.
The final few kilometres to Sibaltan was when I really started to ask myself what I was doing. At one point I found myself riding up a steep, pitch black, unlit hill where the road turned to sand over a foot deep, with my bags hanging off the back of my bike precariously, my camera round my neck, and a herd of cows blocking half the road. I pressed on and after asking s few bewildered children where Tapik was, I eventually stopped at a house with a couple of friendly old ladies sitting outside, who to my delight, told me that I was about 5 minutes away.
I arrived about an hour and a half later than planned, but was impressed that I'd actually made it. The Palawan landscape is actually quite barren and quietly eerie. The fields are usually empty and throughout my trip it must’ve been burning season, as charred hills started appearing regularly along the road. Other motorbike drivers seem to be fairly careful on the roads, which is more than can be said for the drivers of most of the 4 wheeled vehicles, but all in all it’s a fairly safe place to ride by South East Asian standards.
Most of the photos on this page were taking whilst on the road. Most of the journey’s were fairly uneventful and the main distractions were the scenery. On my last journey back from Port Barton to Puerto Princessa, I was starting to hear my stomach calling for lunch when I passed what I thought was a busy restaurant, which seemed out of place, as I was riding through a village which didn’t seem to have that many houses or people in it. I turned the bike around after a bit of deliberation and as soon as I pulled up, a young Philippino guy who had clearly had a few early morning shandies, came and greeted me and asked me if I wanted to join them.
As I walked into the area where everyone was (about 80 people in total), all eyes and ears were on us. A few people were heckling and almost everything this guy said was met with howls of laughter, and he seemed to be getting energised by it. It was all harmless fun…mostly at my expense. He led me to the food table, gave me a plate and told me to help myself to whatever I wanted and also piled a few things I really didn’t want on my plate too.
I was really overwhelmed at the warm welcome I received. It wasn’t a tourist spot and it's experiences like this that you can get travelling off the beaten track and not just being on the tourist trail. This alone was worth getting the bike for. It was a great way to end my trip and made me realise that I had barely scratched the the surface with Palawan…..
Like most visitors to Coron, the main reason that I wanted to go to there was to do a wreck dive. During World War 2 the Japanese Navy, battling against the Americans, occupied the waters around the Philippines. The Americans bombed 24 of theses ships on 24th September 1944, and the story goes that some of the pilots ran out of fuel on the way back, crashing into the mountains. It was a brutal battleground for the Japanese and in total it is estimated that 500 000 Japanese servicemen died in fighting in The Philippines.
I have a morbid fascination with both World Wars and whenever I have visited places that played a major part in them I try to visualise what happened during those wars in places that are now so peaceful or nondescript. Whilst sailing through the clear tropical seas of Coron it was hard to imagine that 70 years ago American bombers were flying overhead searching for Japanese targets to destroy.
As we approached the first wreck I tried to picture in my mind what it was like when it was hit and what happened to the people on board. We were given a description of the boats and shown a drawing of the wreck and told what rooms we will be diving into and where the bombs hit - actually we entered both boats through holes created by the bomb explosions.
I am qualified as an open water diver, and haven’t dived for 14 years, so I had to do a short ‘refresher’ course which involved kit assembly and going over a few basic techniques in the water. If you choose this option, you get to do the same 3 dives as everyone else in your assigned group, though you pay an extra 1000 pesos for the refresher, so the total cost for one day, with 3 dives and lunch, was 4500 pesos (about 90 US dollars). The dives were well worth the 4500 pesos and 8 hour vomit inducing boat journey to Coron and no lie...I would go back to the Philippines just to do it again.
The first dive took us to Barracuda Lake. I wanted to see wrecks, and wasn’t convinced by the enthusiastic staff member in the dive shop when she explained the lake’s USP – that the water temperature changes suddenly about halfway down to the bottom. I didn’t believe the hype, but it was actually more impressive than her enthusiasm suggested I would be.
You don’t even have to go into the lake to be impressed, it is a crater full of clear emerald green water surrounded by limestone casts which act as a defence barrier against the sea. The water is crystal clear and as it is a lake it’s easy to enter with all your diving gear and great for someone inexperienced like me.
After going through the refresher, which took about 10 minutes, it was time to dive. Whilst my mind was a distracted by how much air I should be letting out of my jacket, I was suddenly slapped around the face by a wall of heat. It wasn’t until I saw the heat waves that I remembered what was special about this place. It is basically an underground hot spring which fills up the bottom half of the lake. The surface is regular water temperature water and when you reach about 10m it suddenly turns into a hot bath.
After Barracuda Lake, it was time to go wreck diving. Most of the wrecks are deeper than 18m and there are only 3 which you can enter within that depth. My dive took us to the Gunboat – Teru Kaze and Taiei Maru (though there is some discrepency over names) – both were sunk by American bombers on 24th September 1944.
I rented out an underwater camera for 500 pesos from the diving company. If there was ever a situation where I could say the photos don’t do it justice, this is it. More than the wreck itself, the sealife that has built up around and inside is what I was most captivated by.
The gunboat is about 40 metres long and there are only a couple of rooms so we managed to do a couple of circuits and check out some of the sealife that had built up on the outside of the ship.
The Taiei Maru was considerably bigger at 137 metres long and would’ve been a bit easier to get lost in without an instructor. On more than one occasion I was fiddling about with the knobs on the camera casing and on looking up would see my instructor’s fin disappearing through a gap or round a wall, and just managed to catch up with him.
There was only one quite tight hole to squeeze through, which even as a bit of a claustrophobe myself, I didn’t really have a problem with, the only thing I was a bit concerned about was that I would fit through but my oxygen tank wouldn’t.
We entered the Taiei Maru through the hole in the port side, which was caused by the bomb that sunk it. We swam through a couple of boiler rooms, which are lit up with long shards of light which reveal shoals of multi-coloured fish swimming around lazily. We then passed the periscope room, where the base of the periscope is still intact, then came up through the bow.
The dives go so quickly and once you get off you want to do it all over again. I would be happy to go back and do the same dives again as you move through the boats quite quickly and occasionally you will see something and just want to take a bit of time to look around and take it in, but you’re pretty much constantly moving through the boat. There’s a lot to take in and I’m sure that coming here has been the catalyst for many beginner divers to get their more advanced certificates just so they can explore the other wrecks – if money and time on this trip weren’t an issue I would be one of them.
I’ve always wanted to go to Palawan! …..is what two of my best friends told me after I decided to head there instead of my original plan of going to Thailand.
The Philippines came onto my travel radar when I was travelling in Myanmar last year, and since then I kept seeming to hear it about it and meeting Philippinos and feeling like I was being sent a message from the gods to go to the Philippines. However, I only had a vague idea of where it was – I knew it was somewhere to the right of Indonesia, but it’s made up of so many small islands (over 7000) that I found it hard to wrap my head around what bits are the Philippines.
Booking my ticket didn’t require much decision making, and it took me about an hour of google searches, using words like ‘best, beaches, philippines’, and Palawan kept coming up. I read a few blogs and looked at some pictures, and looked at some more pictures, and that was enough. I booked a flight from Tokyo to Manila for 24 000 yen (about $180) and then an internal flight to Palawan for just over 10 000 yen, and was set.
I flew with Jetstar and the flight was cheap for a reason. I wrote a long rant about why it was such a shoddy experience, but decided not to include it, but it seems like Jetstar actually make a concerted effort to make the experience as painful as possible.
In comparison to other places that I’ve travelled in South East Asia – Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, India. Palawan seems a bit more geared towards couples on a 2 week break than backpackers or people who are looking for something a bit less extravagant and a bit more social. My opinion might be a bit skewed by the fact that I was travelling on a motorbike and therefore met less people, which was a double edged sword, as I got to stop and take photos wherever I wanted and ended up in a few places that I would never have seen were I on public transport, like the funeral party that I gatecrashed thinking it was a restaurant. Still they fed me, offered me beer and we had a few laughs - mostly at my expense. But it also means that chances to meet local people and travellers on public transport, which can often be one of the highlights of travelling, were limited.
In 3 weeks it is difficult to see everything in Palawan and I would like to go back and spend more time in the less touristic South of the island, and to learn more about the culture aside from the touristic areas. In retrospect maybe seeing the North using public transport for a couple of weeks, then travelling round the south by bike would have been a good way to do it, but I would have needed an extra week to see everything I wanted to.
My route started in Puerto Princessa, the capital city. It is made up of a few big, noisy, dirty roads off of which lie clusters of small rural villages linked by dirt roads teeming with dogs, chickens and kids. I stayed in Puerto Princessa for 2 nights in a great hostel called Bamboo Nest that I booked through Airbnb, and cost about $10 per night.
I rented a motorbike on the second day, and drove out of town to get a feel for the bike before setting off up North. Maybe heat sensitivity is a sign of aging, but the heat in The Philippines felt like nothing I’ve experienced before except maybe in Israel in the height of summer. So my biggest lesson from my little adventure, was to keep covered, as the backs of my hand got so burnt that they swelled up like bread in an oven and my ankles and neck took a hammering too.
On the third day I woke up at 7am, loaded up my bike and headed in the direction of El Nido at the Northern tip of the island. As was the case with pretty much every journey I did, I severely underestimated how long it would take to get there – I planned for 6 hours, but it ended up taking 10. I didn’t stay in El Nido as I had already booked a place a resort called Tapik on a beach called Sibaltan which is on the other side of the island to El Nido.
Sibaltan was, according to the website, an hour drive from El Nido. Arriving in El Nido at 6pm after a 10 hour bike ride, I decided to push through and hope that the impending darkness wouldn’t impact too heavily on my attempt to get there. The lack of road signs combined with the lack of roadside lighting and unpaved roads with the occasional river crossing by way of a couple of shonky old wooden planks, kept reminding me that I had probably not made the right decision.
When I eventually arrived on the beachfront at Sibaltan, there was little to indicate where Tapik was. As soon as I hit the beach, the first thing I saw was a graveyard on the beachfront, which gave me the feeling that I was on the set of a zombie B-movie. There were some lights in the distance so I rode along the shoreline towards them and eventually found Tapik – a small oasis of monied up foreigners sitting at a cosy looking beachside restaurant. I got some much needed and slightly overpriced food, a shower and a very nice tent with a proper mattress and a dodgy zip – which the staff didn’t seem at all surprised about the fact that I’d broken it after the first night. I was exhausted and slept for about 12 hours.
Sibaltan is a beautiful place with not a lot going on. I seemed to be the only single person there, and I think I may have appreciated the serenity a bit more were I not travelling alone, as it felt designed more for couples. I stayed for 2 nights and the highlight was taking photos early in the morning, which aside from the view, is the time when thousands of tiny crabs come out to have a look around as they cover the beach making a crackling sound that can be heard along the shoreline. They also make a similar sound when you accidentally step on them (.....sorry crabs...).
The town is really quiet with one restaurant, a few houses and not many people about, and unless you are going on an island hopping tour there is little else to do in the afternoon but drink beer, watch the sun slowly go down whilst getting hassled by a hungry monkey tied to a tree.
I stayed for 2 nights and on the third day I woke up at about 6 and packed up my gear and headed of towards Nacpan, which was about a 2 hour ride.
Nacpan is a long stretch of white sandy beach about a 30 minute drive from El Nido, and is a much more chilled out and attractive alternative, though there is less nightlife. There are a few resorts and a handful of restaurants. I stayed at Jonathan’s which had it’s good and bad points (150 pesos a night to pitch your own tent, or 500 pesos for a bungalow). The good being the food was about the best (150 – 200 pesos for omelette, fish or curry) I had in Palawan and the staff were really friendly and helpful, except when they are trying to shove Christ down your throat – there’s few things that can ruin a beachside breakfast more than a Jehovahs Witness.
The bad was mostly circumstantial and probably won’t happen to you – I managed to break my tent and computer screen on the same day, and got bitten like never before by sand flies. The sea is a bit rough but it’s good for a dip and one thing that I highly recommend if you have a motorbike, is putting on your headphones and burning it along the beach – there are so few people and enough wet sand to make it relatively safe.
Another Nacpan highlight is the hill at one end of the beach (if you are facing the sea the far left end of the beach) that you can walk up in a relatively short amount of time, and get a really good view of the whole beach from both sides, but watch out for skunks as I heard someone got sprayed bad up there.
My next stop was El Nido, which seemed a little over rated. Not to say that it isn’t a beautiful part of the world but it survives on an outdated notion that it is an untouched secret hideaway (that was pretty much my impression from what I’d read online), but it’s basically a few dirty streets full of tourist shops and restaurants. The view from the beach is spectacular when it’s not teeming with tour boats. And the beach just seems like a necessary buffer between the sea and the beach side bars and restaurants.
One of the main tourist activities in Palawan is island hopping, where you pay around 500 pesos for a day trip around a pre specified group of islands, with lunch and snorkelling included. El Nido is, according to most travel guides, the place to do this, but most people I met there that had been on the tours, told me that they were disappointing due to the amount of other people and though the sites were beautiful, it was more of a whistle stop tour of a few busy islands and lagoons, which you often have to queue up to get into, whereas tours in other places e.g. Coron, Port Barton, Sibaltan, were less crowded and allowed for more time to chill out, swim relax etc.
There is one way around the crowds which is to do an early bird tour, which leaves around 6 – 7 am to avoid the queues, one place that does them is Skyline Inn in the centre of town. If you ask for Gio, he should be able to help you out
If you want a bit of nightlife then El Nido is probably your best option in Palawan, but if you are searching for beautiful untouched palm tree lined beaches, then it’s probably the last place that I would choose to visit. I also found the people there to be the least friendly and there was a palpable animosity towards tourists (and I'm sure some people have good reason).
Coron instantly felt warmer and more friendly than mainland Palawan, although in retrospect I did get royally fleeced by the tricycle driver who picked me up at the port. It seems to have more life and is less of a tourist trap than El Nido. There are a lot more friendly ‘hello’s’ and smiles, and also things are a little cheaper. There seem to be less couples and it has a bit more of an easy going, laidback feel to it. The only downside is that there is no beach in the town, and to get to one you need to rent a motorbike (for 300 pesos for 3-5 hours – which is more than enough time) or get a tricycle, which is around 500 pesos.
It was nice to finally be somewhere that felt like a real Philippino town that was not geared towards tourism. I was happy just walking around and chatting and taking photos of people for the first day. There isn’t a lot to do in town but just walking around a new town and soaking up the atmosphere is one of the highlights of travelling for me. There is a mountain called Mt Tapyas in the centre of Coron with a staircase of about 800 steps and takes about half an hour to climb. Sunset is the most popular time to go and the view is worth the effort.
There are also are a couple of trips that you can do out of town – the main ones being the beach and the hot springs – which although it doesn’t sound too appealing on a swelteringly hot day, is worth going to just for the sea side location.
I can’t mention Coron without mentioning the main reason that most people go there – Wreck Diving. Around 30 Japanese warships were sunk by American bombers during World War 2 and most of the were around Coron, so most of the tourists come for that and hence the tourist industry in Coron is largely built up around diving. I will write a separate blog post on that, so I won’t write too much here, but it is something that you shouldn’t miss out on if you go to Coron.
My final stop was Port Barton and since it was my favourite place I will write a post dedicated to it too.
Palawan is a great place to visit and I just scratched the surface. If I were to do it again, I would avoid the bigger tourist areas e.g. El Nido, and would like to see more of the less explored areas in the South. There are also a lot of other places to see in The Philippines, so I’m not sure that I would go back to Palawan before checking out somewhere else first. As far as relaxing beach holidays go, I would still choose Thailand. The Philippines could give it a run for it’s money, but I get the feeling that they are aiming for a higher class of tourist. It still seems like it is finding its feet and is changing pretty rapidly, so now is a good time to go as it is most likely to get more touristy, and more expensive.
Last month I spent 2 days in Chitwan National Park in Nepal with Ajay Rana. Chitwan is a few hours (depending on the state of the road…I flew back which took 20mins, but cost about 20 times the price of the bus) and is home to a huge variety of animals. You’ll see elephants walking through the streets of the local resort town Sahaura and you are pretty much guaranteed to spot a rhino or two, alligators and possibly a tiger or leopard, plus a vast range of birdlife.
I wanted to learn about wildlife photography and I missed out on Chitwan last time i was in Nepal shooting for the Himalayan Rush Triathlon in March 2017 where I met Ajay and saw his work for the first time. I was blown away by not only the range of animals but the beauty of his photos and was really keen to see how he works, so I had to organise a trip with him on this trip.
I met Ajay in Sahaura, which is only a 5 minute walk from the riverside. Almost immediately after arriving at the riverside, we met a local guide who said he could take us to see a rhino 5 minutes away, so we went with him and as promised we found two rhino a little bit further along the river, spotting an alligator on the way.
The following morning we got up at 5:30 and went down to the riverside to meet our guide and we started along the same path that we had walked the previous day. I instantly felt like a clumsy city boy and it became very clear that wildlife photography was a totally different ball game to street photography. The guide and Ajay were tuned into something that I wasn’t. They both would stop every few steps and look around deep in concentration and I felt like the annoying kid who kept wanting to ask 'why are you stopping?'
Being tuned into nature is a result of years of practice - Ajay knows bird calls and habitats, where to look and what to listen out for. Contrary to what I previously thought, wildlife photography is more than just going into a national park with a long lens - to be good at this I think you need a genuine interest in and knowledge of the animals that you are intending to photograph.
Ajay’s equipment is pretty simple, he carries an ultra light Sony A6000 and 3 lenses: a Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary, Sigma Art 60mm f2.8 and Sigma Art 19mm, f2.8. The main lens being the bazooka like 150 - 600mm, which requires either a very steady arm or preferably a tripod, as any shake of the camera is amplified the further you zoom out. The technical challenges with wildlife photography are keeping the shutter speed fast enough to make sure that there is no movement blur when animals move, but also not too high as the environment when shooting birds usually means that you are under trees, hence low light. Ajay tries to cap his ISO at 800, and shutter speed no lower than 100, so it can often be the aperture that needs to be compromised.
Ajay learnt by photographing birds whilst on work trips as a guide. He would wake up early and go out shooting alone before starting work and when he got home would painstakingly research the animals using books and videos to try to find out the names of the species that he had photographed.
Ajay documents his work on his blog Prakriti Nepal (prakriti means nature in Nepali). I think that his photos are artistically outstanding and after this experience I have a lot more respect for what he does. I can’t wait for another chance to get back to Nepal and learn more. Please check out Ajay’s blog to see his work and click here to find him on instagram and if you like what you've read please subscribe to this blog by adding your details below and I'll keep you updated with all my photography adventures!
If you read my previous post, you’ll know that last week I spent 2 days with Matsuyoshi san – a homeless man in Tokyo on my second stint sleeping on the streets.
I slept terribly on the first night and would hazard a guess that I managed half an hour of sleep, but felt surprisingly chipper the following day. As I mentioned in my day 2 post, it is the sounds of the city more than anything that really remind you where you are. Once my eyes were closed sound affected my sense of comfort in a big way and when sleeping outside in the city I felt immersed in what is going on around me aurally. I realised when I got home how cocooned I feel when I’m in bed, and the silence when I got back to my bed after these couple of days felt almost artificial – similar to the feeling of sleeping inside after a few days/weeks camping.
I spent the whole of the next day (except for his working hours) with Matsuyoshi san. It takes time to get to know someone and as I spend more time with Matsuyoshi san I am learning more from him than I imagined I would – he is a generous, curious, intelligent and dignified person. He struggles when I offer to buy him breakfast and he insisted on buying me lunch in return, and also tried to force me to have a cup of tea at his expense at dinner time.
Matsuyoshi san seems to be very aware of the negative associations most people make of homeless people and I think that he feels himself to be somewhat worthy of this negative appraisal and counters it by being as dignified and respectful as he can. He cleans the area surrounding his box every morning and picks up rubbish on the streets, treating the streets as he would his own home. He doesn’t want hand outs and seems to take full responsibility for where he is in life. He isn’t ready to get off the streets yet, but plans to try to move on some time in the next few years.
He told me that for him time is more important than money and he wants to do something with what he has left. One of his ambitions is to work as a volunteer tourist guide for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. His English level is almost fluent and the prospect of working as a volunteer is giving him an incentive to study daily.
After spending a couple of hours in the library studying and reading the daily newspapers, I went with Matsuyoshi san and waited for him to have a ‘coin shower’ – a shower in a launderette which costs 200 yen for 7 minutes. We then went to Lawson 100 (a convenience store where most products cost 100 yen plus tax) and bought a pack of instant noodles and a sweet potato each. He eats the same thing everyday, though in the summer it’s tofu instead of sweet potato. We then headed to Shinjuku park to eat, and chatted about the pros and cons of Japanese indirectness.
Matsuyoshi san has strong opinions about the state of Japan and is distressed at the fact that young people are becoming increasingly less interested in foreign travel (according to a teacher at the high school I teach at this may have something to do with young people in Japan being less and less able to handle (social) stress and the imagined stress of foreign travel is too much to deal with and so staying in Japan seems like a more comfortable and safer option) and he ‘would like to tell young people to go out of Japan and see the world and mix with other cultures as it would solve a lot of the world’s problems if we all had first hand experience of other cultures’.
After lunch and a warning from Matsuyoshi san that the combination of foods that we just ate is liable to give me bad wind, we parted company until 4pm, when he finishes his work.
When we met again we went to the laundrette to wash some of his clothes and waited in McDonald’s. After leaving McDonald’s we headed to Gogo hiroba, an attractive outdoor square next to where Matsuyoshi san sleeps and his homeless friends gather to chat and eat snacks every evening. Minami san was missing and nobody knows where he is, all his stuff is gone too, but nobody seems alarmed as apparently it has happened before.
The previous night was unseasonably warm, but today was a very different story. Snow was forecast for the following day and it felt like winter had finally arrived as the temperature suddenly dropped as night approached. There was a subdued feeling amongst the group when we arrived until Koshizawa san – another Sokerissa dancer who has recently acquired an apartment, but still comes out most nights, turned up after about 20 mins and the atmosphere livened up a little. He is a very charismatic guy with a good sense of humour and everyone including myself, was pleased to see him.
As it was a national holiday we could set up our boxes a bit earlier, which seemed like an attractive proposition due to the almost arctic temperatures. So around 8pm we went to get our things and set up for the evening. Matsuyoshi san commented that in winter you just want to get into the box as quickly as possible. He covered his with two blankets this evening. My box just had a single thin plastic cover, but was warm enough inside and I slept much better than the previous night. I left in the morning and felt like my stay wasn’t long enough this time. I am very grateful to Matsuyoshi san for being so open, accommodating and helpful and am looking forward to next time.
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I came back to stay with Matsuyoshi san again for a couple of nights from last night. Since I have to work too, I am not currently able to do a long unbroken stint of staying with him, but I’m finding that doing it this way gives me time to take in and process what I learnt last time. I have noticed since doing this project, how much more appreciative I am of having a home to come back to, a place to spend time alone and relax – a space and place of my own. There is an expression in Japanese ’居場所がない’ (ibasho ga nai), which means not to have a space of your own, and I thought that would be a fitting name for this project.
When I got to Matsuyoshi san’s patch last night at 9:40pm, he was already in his box and he had set up mine. I called his name quietly but loud enough for him to hear if he was awake and I saw some movement in the blanket that covers his box, probably not sure if he was hearing things he didn’t open up. I called his name again and he unclipped the blanket that covers his box and revealed himself to be studying English with his electronic dictionary. We had a brief chat and he asked me if I wanted to take photos of him, which I did, though I prefer to take candid photos which can be difficult as the camera is so conspicuous, but I went ahead and took some anyway.
Matsuyoshi san went to sleep and I had to go and pick up a book that I had left at a bar in Shinjuku last week. It was about a half hour walk on an unseasonably warm November evening across the Shinjuku district of Tokyo. I took the opportunity to take some photos with this project in mind and only try to take photos of homeless people if I think what I photograph can express something about how I see homeless people as being treated in Tokyoi.e. I wont just take a photo of a homeless guy because he’s homeless, or he’s wearing a funny hat or sleeping in an unusual place etc.
It surprises me when talking to Matsuyoshi san about homeless people, how similar his opinions are to my dad’s, whose comments like ‘they’re just lazy and can’t be bothered to work’ are usually met with my counter arguments.
On the subject of going to the church run foodbanks, Matsuyoshi san says it’s too much effort for him to go there – he may as well just work a little longer and buy his own food, and he says that ‘if people have the energy to make it to the food bank then they have enough energy to work, there is work out there for them, they just don’t want to do it’.
I don’t want to promote these kinds of opinion or generalise homeless people, as I think it’s important to realise that there is always more than one side to an argument. I think the issue of homelessness is too complex to sum up in one statement and the fact that these people may be depressed, or shunned by their family or friends or be suffering from other issues seems to not be considered as particularly important.
These potential issues are often not given their dues and even if the person is in full mental and physical health (which in my experience in not the norm, although I would say that Matsuyoshi san does fit into this category) but chooses not to work but instead to live on the streets, they are still ignored, looked down upon, ostracisedand misunderstood by the majority of the Japanese population (and I think the attitudes are not much different in most other countries), who may not consider the fact that the alternative to living on the streets is perceived by these people to be even worse than being homeless.
Matsuyoshi san ended up on the streets at the age of 62, which also makes it hit home that this could happen to anyone.
He says that his life story was one of running away:
‘..looking back at my life at the age of 62, I thought my life was something runaway. Runaway all the time runaway, runaway from my bossy brother, and runaway from family at the age of 16. I came up to Tokyo and found a job and went to night school. After that when I finished night school I got a job as a sales person and worked for 5 years selling general merchandise 7 days a week. I got fed up with it and at that time (1973) there was some kind of boom for young people to go overseas, so I followed the trend and took off from Japan to go to Europe. Then I ended up in England. I went across Siberia on train and aeroplane, so that was a kind of runaway again.
I just stayed on in England and after 10 years I again ran away from England. I found a Japanese girlfriend and I thought I want to make a life with her in Japan. I went back to Japan first but we lost contact after several months, I didn’t see her again. I couldn’t readjust to life in Japan when I came back. I found myself very useless. Everytime I found a job I soon get fed up with it and leave it again and my life was a repetition of that style. Every job I found was not really what I wanted to do and then I went for gambling. I didn’t do much in my life.
So when I look back at my life, my life was running away, escaping or something. When I became homeless I thought where can I escape from now? I thought the only place is above in heaven…or hell, whichever it is. I thought (about) my life and thought I must make myself something useful. What have I got? I wondered. I’ve got my body, my life, I mean my biological life, so I thought I’m going to use my body and found Sokerissa dancing, I found something to focus on .
I was a fatalist and a bit of an opportunist of course I regret a lot..why didn’t I think for the future when I was young, what I really wanted to do, I should have really given it consideration. Definitely I should have gone for marriage because I believe that human life, the ultimate cause of human life is to carry on and hand down the life, but I didn’t do that…
I think the 2 most important affairs for humans, one is to hand down life just like any other creature and the other thing is to hand down information. Information is a kind of soul. The soul is an amalgamation of all the human wisdom I think. The soul is developing. I am not religious but I believe in god, why it has got to be Christ I wonder. Christ is reality, god is abstract, that’s what connects him with god and to me..’
I will use this story as well as a selection of other quotes from Matsuyoshi san about his life as a basis for the photographic essay. I have put a few quotes together with a few photos. The text wont be permanently fixed on the photos, and I would also like to have it in Japanese too. Here is an example of how it is taking shape:
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As I mentioned in my last post I slept well on the second night sleeping on the street in Shinjuku, but on waking the thing that made it most difficult to feel relaxed were the sounds. I wear earplugs but there is something discomforting about waking up with the sounds of the city all around, I felt exposed and as though I didn’t have my own space.
Matsuyoshi san likes to get up at 5:30am, so he can make it in time for the radio taisou exercises in the park. Nagasa san apparently will sometimes stay in his sleeping bag (he doesn’t use a box, even on the coldest winter days) until 7 am when he will get politely woken up by the street cleaners telling him ‘sumimasen asa desu’ (excuse me it’s morning). They prefer to sleep where they do as opposed to inside the station, because station staff would wake them up at 4am, so it’s a compromise between a slightly warmer and more comfortable environment and more time to sleep.
If you take a walk around the Government tower in Shinjuku you will see small areas where homeless people store their belongings and the authorities seem to tolerate it. A couple of days ago Matsuyoshi san found a notice from the local authorities saying that they have to move and can no longer sleep there, but there was no final date on the notice, which made us think that it was just scare tactics, so for now he will stay where he is but has another place in mind in case he has to move, though it is more exposed and he would prefer to stay put if possible.
Apparently there can be trouble when someone new turns up and they don’t know if a patch is taken or not, but things quickly get sorted out. I have found all of the people I have met so far to be quite respectful and obedient to the rules and law and if told to move on I get the feeling that they would do so seemingly begrudgingly but obediently.
The homeless guys in the area only get moved on once in the year, which is during the Tokyo marathon, otherwise they are tolerated and have pretty much made certain parts of that area their own. There was one other time that they were moved off of their patches that according to Matsumi san was an indication of the low esteem in which the majority of Japanese society holds homeless people – which was on March 11th 2011, the day of the Great Eastern Earthquake. All the homeless people were told to clear the area to make space for the people who were unable to get home due to the disruption in public transport services.
After the morning workout in the park, we followed Matsuyoshi san’s daily routine and went to McDonalds for breakfast and chatted for a couple of hours about the homeless community and had a look at some of his photos from his dance group ‘Sokerissa’ on their facebook page and also came across a video (can be seen here) of him dancing a few years ago, which he was very critical of, as he told me that his dance style has developed a lot since then. He thinks it’s boring as there’s not enough movement, I disagree..
Matsuyoshi san has travelled all over Japan and recently to Brazil with Sokerissa. The dances are sometimes improvised and other times he will receive a story/poem from his coach and will be given some time to interpret the words into a dance, which will then be performed. He says that his dedication to dancing is down to his desire to be able to do more with his body and from a lifetime of running away and not having anything to show for his years. Dancing is a way to commit to something and have something to show for his life.
I was curious as to why he continues to live on the streets when he would be eligible for welfare. I am unsure about the specifics but it does seem to be a possible option. When I asked him about it he told me that his family would have to be informed and it is a big stigma in Japan to have a family member on welfare, so he chooses to be independent.
He also told me that many of the guys on the street have savings but prefer freedom to comfort. When I asked ‘freedom from what?’ he replied ‘from management’. So it is not so clear cut as to why a lot of people in Tokyo remain homeless and what is stopping them from getting off the streets, but it seems like for some (at least in Shinjuku) it is a choice of sorts.
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If you read my post yesterday you will know that I’m currently making a photo documentary with Matsuyoshi san – a 68 year old homeless man in Tokyo. I initially started this project for two reasons, the first and main reason being curiosity about the homeless community in Tokyo and the second was a motivation to help Matsuyoshi san in some way.
My idea was that I would (and still plan to) sell prints of photos taken in Tokyo, and a proportion of the profits will go to him to help him get into a better financial position. However, this project isn’t an attempt to pity or even raise awareness about homeless people. It is just a story about a man who has an insight and is giving me access into a world that I have been interested in since I came to Tokyo.
I also would like to mention for people that don’t live in or haven’t been to Japan, that the streets of Tokyo are incredibly safe, and the homeless situation is quite different and I think much safer here than in most countries.
I arrived in Shinjuku at around 8pm last night and met Matsuyoshi san by his regular sleeping spot, where he had saved a patch for me – fortunately there was an Adam sized space between him and the next guy down. He introduced me to the two other guys staying on the same patch as us – Minami san and Nagasa san. Nagasa san is 56 years old and has been homeless for 20 years, which I have since learned is about the longest anyone around here has been on the streets. Minami san is around 40 and has been on the streets for a few years. They both have part time jobs as cleaners, but the work doesn’t pay enough to be able to afford housing, though welfare does seem to be an option but for reasons of their own they choose not to go that way.
I bought my own boxes with me, that I acquired free of charge from my local supermarket and was going to attempt to make my own cardboard room to sleep in, but Matsuyoshi san had already knocked one up for me, which I was quite relieved about as I was starting to get a feeling that box making might not be as easy as it looks. I laid the extra boxes that I had bought along on the ground to make it a bit softer, which with the added cushioning of my roll mat was as comfortable as any camping experience I’ve had.
Despite the comfort of my box, I barely slept and am writing this with my brain at about 10 percent of it’s usual operating capacity. I think I paid off a big karmic debt from my teenage years as I was kept up for about 3 – 4 hours by skateboarders making what can best be described as a bleeding racket. As anyone who has ever slept with me (in a platonic way) will know I am an incredibly light sleeper, and although I almost managed to trick my brain into believing that said racketwas waves breaking on an extremely close and rough ocean shore, the constant woody clamour of skateboards on the floor kept reminding me that I was in a box in Shinjuku.
Matsuyoshi san’s 5:30 alarm went off far too soon after I did eventually pass out. We packed up our boxes and took them to the storage area that Matsuyoshi san has made between some bushes and a wall on a bridge which goes over the walkway to Shinjuku station. He keeps all his belongings in boxes in there and it’s quite impressive how much stuff he has managed to keep hidden from view.
We then walked to the park to do some morning exercises – a short warm up on the exercise machines in the park followed by Radio Taisou (exercises done usually in the park to a soundtrack of instructions with a backing track of classical music, by groups of mostly elderly people dressed in white tracksuits) for 10 minutes.
The rest of the morning was spent chatting in Mcdonald’s for a couple of hours, Matsuyoshi san then went to the library as he does everyday when it opens at 8:45am. He has quite a fixed daily routine – at around 10am he will go the 100 yen shop and buy 3 items for lunch, which will usually includes a sweet potato and eat it in the park, then goes to pick up his stock of Big Issue magazines from his storage area and sells them at the exit of the walkway that goes out of Shinuku station towards the Government Towers, until 4pm (he chooses how many hours a day he wants to sell). Each copy sells for 350 yen and he keeps 200 yen from that, and aims to sell 10 copies a day to cover his daily expenses.
We both went our own separate ways after breakfast, and met up later in Shinjuku and spent the evening chatting with a group of homeless friends of Matsuyoshi san in their regular evening get together spot. They were all friendly and welcoming and had more questions for me than I did for them.
The most vocal of the group was a guy in his sixties called Koshizawa san, who worked as a TV camera assistant in his 20s, he was also apparently a key figure in Soka Gakkai (a ‘buddhist’ sect in Japan who have around 10 million members apparently and are treated with suspicion by most non members) before he ended up on the streets. He introduced Matsuyoshi san to sokerissa – a dance group for homeless people set up byYuuki Aoki, which has become a big part of Matsuyoshi san’s life.
At 8:30pm in keeping with Matsuyoshi san’s routine, we went to collect our boxes and sleeping gear and set up our boxes once more for the night. We both brush our teeth by our boxes then go into the public toilet to wash. It was nice and peaceful as I got into my box…but clearly my karmic debt is yet to be paid off as just as I got comfortable the clatter of skateboards returned, but I was so tired it could just as well have been the crashing of ocean waves and didn’t stop me falling into a nice deep sleep.
I have been wanting to make a documentary on the homeless community in Tokyo for a while and now my chance has come. Over the last year I have befriended a Big Issue seller called Matsuyoshi san who sells the magazine enroute to my work.
I proposed the idea of doing a photo documentary of his life as he has a very interesting story to tell – having lived in London for 10 years before finding himself living on the streets of Tokyo in his twilight years. He agreed to do the project with me and although initially it was just going to be a photo shoot and an interview, but I decided at some point that I could get a better understanding of him and life on the streets if I did it myself.
Not being someone who likes doing things the easy way, I wanted to wait until the weather is a bit colder and more miserable so I can really experience the harsher side of living on the streets and fittingly today is about as grey and miserable a day as is possible to find in Tokyo (though I just saw that it’s going to be 19 degrees tomorrow). I just read today’s blog post by street photographer Eric Kim about living comfortably and that living with a bit of difficulty can actually make us more grateful for the smaller things and life more enjoyable, which relates quite well to what I’m in part trying to achieve for myself in doing this project.
I will spend tonight and tomorrow night on the streets and then do it again 3 or 4 more times until I feel that I’ve managed to capture what I want photo and storywise. This is going to be my sleeping equipment for the next few nights minus the cat. I’m looking forward to getting started but not the cold hard floor and (most probably) sleepless nights….I’ll be back with an update tomorrow!