Brian's Photo Blog — Article 523
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Portland Japanese Garden O-Bon Festival
Sunday 6 March 2016   —   Category: Outings
In March 2015 I made my first of twelve planned monthly photo outings to the Japanese Garden in Portland, Oregon. By my third visit in May I was desperately seeking inspiration at the Japanese Garden, and wondering how I was going to endure nine more trips!

On my fifth visit in July I had a disappointing evening at the Japanese Garden because even though they had offered special members-​only hours in the evening that month, they failed to light the many stone lanterns (tōrō) scattered around the Garden’s 5.5 acres. But then I had found out about a second chance for illuminated stone lanterns taking place a couple of weeks later.

So on August 12, for my sixth monthly visit, I attended a special members-​only evening to celebrate the annual O-Bon Festival. Have you ever heard of that? I hadn’t until I read their de­scrip­tion. Here was my reaction last July:
Wellllll ... a Buddhist festival to honor and pray for the spirits of ancestors isn’t exactly my cup of tea. On the other hand, it could be a wonderful photo op. And if I am busy taking pic­tures I won’t have time to meddle with my ancestors’ spirits — which would be a benefit for everyone, living and dead!
Seeing that it was one of the few times each year that they light the stone lanterns, and that as a member there was no entrance fee, I decided to go for it. When I arrived about half an hour before the 8:00 starting time, the sun had not yet set, so there was enough light for some preliminary shots.

One interesting display was two kasagi (lintels on torii, traditional Japanese religious gates) which had washed ashore in Oregon two years after the catastrophic 2011 Japanese earthquake — a journey of over 5,000 miles! For the complete story of how they were found, identified, and returned to their original locations in Hachinohe, Japan, be sure to download this fascinating PDF from the Japanese Garden.

This event had been limited to 350 members, and by the time it started most of them seemed to be there. Because of the crowd, and because flashes and tripods were forbidden, the shooting conditions were quite challenging, especially as time ticked by and the sky grew dimmer and dimmer. But I welcomed the challenge, because my previous visits had started to quickly become boring.

It didn’t take long for two lines of attendees to stretch way down the path next to the largest pond in the Garden. As they waited to participate in the Tōrō Nagashi ceremony, each attendee was given a candle in a small plastic cup. Upon reaching the head of the line, the participant would place their candle in a wire holder at the end of a long bamboo pole, and an attendant would light the candle. Then the other attendant holding the pole would swing around and float the candle-​cup on the pond.

As you can imagine, it was going to take quite a while to light and float every­one’s candle. Around the time this pro­cess started I was very happy to find a strategic spot between the heads of the two lines, which were about 15 or 20 feet apart. From there I had an excellent view of the action in both lines, and started to get some good shots.

After not too long, one of the Garden employees came up to me and told me that I would have to leave that spot because “it was confusing the people in the lines to see me standing there.” I couldn’t believe my ears! That seemed like a pretty weird and flimsy excuse to get me to move. But I didn’t argue because I had already gotten enough good shots. Sheesh!

After making yet another tour around the small part of the Garden that was still open (most of the paths had been blocked off), I arrived back at the candle-lighting, but I didn’t go back to that special spot I had been kicked out of. Then the same lady who had run me off came up to me and asked if I had seen the bats flying around. I replied, “No.” Then she said with a sarcastic smirk, “Oh, you’ll want to make sure to get photos of those as well!” I mum­bled something in reply, and then shuffled off again. Double sheesh!

By this time it was getting pretty dark, and it was becoming much more difficult to take pictures. I rarely go that high, but I had to bump the ISO setting all the way to 2,000. Even more concerning was that my camera was having a difficult time focusing.

Almost all Micro Four Thirds cameras use contrast-detection autofocus rather than phase-detection. Under most lighting conditions this works fine, but in low light there is low contrast, which causes focusing problems.

While I was attempting to take my last handful of shots, the Buddhist Reverend was droning his way through the ceremony. I ended up leaving half an hour before the event finished — it was pitch black, I had seen all I wanted to see, had done my best to get some decent photos, and I had a 90-minute drive back home.

It wasn’t until I started processing the photos in Lightroom that I discovered that the image quality was not as poor as I had imagined. Too bad that it took me more than six month to get a round tuit! But better late than never, as they say.

My Olympus OM-D E-M5 camera handles image noise quite well, so even at ISO 2,000 it wasn’t too bad. The autofocus didn’t do too bad either. The E-M5’s great 5-axis image stabilization helped keep shots in focus at low shutter speeds. All in all I was quite impressed with my camera’s performance and very happy with the pictures I took.

You can see for yourself by browsing through the new Portland Japanese Garden O-Bon 2015 album, where the best 34 photos (out of a total of 111) are on display.

That night was the last time I have been to the Japanese Garden. The day after Labor Day 2015 they closed for a six-month renovation. I will be sharing more about that in the next article.
Brian's Photo Blog — Article 523
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