Van Gogh’s bridges – then and now

Vincent van Gogh went to Arles in search of Japan – according to David Dale, author of A traveller’s alphabet of essential places. In reality he was looking for the light and colours that he saw in Japanese prints, and he found them in Arles. This post is about how we bridged the distance between France and Japan through Van Gogh’s paintings.

He did several versions of the Pont Langlois bridge at Arles in southern France. The original bridge traversed the Arles-to-Bouc canal and was a simple but functional drawbridge enabling canal boats to pass underneath when raised. A series of these bridges were built along the canal in the first half of the 19th century. The one nearest Arles was called Pont de Réginel but was more popularly known for its keeper, Monsieur Langlois – hence it was known as Langlois’ bridge.

Pont Langlois

Pont Langlois [source: Wikipedia]

I had heard that the bridge was still around and could be seen today. Actually, that’s not quite true, as we found. The original bridge became structurally unsound and was replaced in the 1930s by a concrete bridge – and that in turn was destroyed by retreating Germans in 1944 – they destroyed all but one of the bridges along the canal, leaving only the one at Fos sur Mer. This was of the original bridges on the canal and was the same design as the one Van Gogh painted in 1888. In 1959 the Fos bridge was dismantled with a view to relocating it at the site of the Langlois bridge, but the canal had since been widened and it was decided to move it to its current location near the Montcalde Lock. It is not easy to find.

Pont van Gogh, Arles

Pont van Gogh, Arles

It took a few goes and finally, we turned down a little side street on the outskirts of the town and there was Pont Van-Gogh – its new name – restored to working order. Some might consider it a reproduction or a fake, but since it is from the original series and contemporary with the Langlois bridge, by the same builder, I think it is close enough to original. Again I was struck by how accurately Van Gogh represented the structure and how faithfully he painted the chains and support beams and pulleys for raising the bridge.

He painted four oil paintings and one watercolour of the bridge and completed a number of drawings.

Little did I realise that this bridge was a key to his link with Japan. In the late nineteenth century, Europe was Japan crazy – high quality lacquer furniture, boxes, ceramics and pottery were being exported to Europe by the shipload. As it turns out, many of these were wrapped in fine paper prints, some by famous Japanese artists, others, like the prints of Japanese women were adverts for Geishas.

The different perspective and flat use of colour in these images inspired the post-impressionists to look differently at the world. One print that came to Van Gogh was of a famous painting by Hiroshige of the Edo period bridge that led into the Emperor’s palace in the centre of Tokyo. The bridge is depicted in rain and elegant lines and unusual foreshortening inspired Van Gogh to paint a copy.

Hiroshige bridge

Hiroshige bridge [source: Wikipedia]

 And this is Van Gogh’s version:

Van Gogh-Hiroshige bridge

Van Gogh-Hiroshige bridge [source: Wikipedia]

And we found this connection in Tokyo, at the Edo-Tokyo Museum – which has a full-size replica of the Edo bridge within the museum. It is extraordinary and surprising how connections turn up in the places you least expect. So here is my photo of the replica bridge in Tokyo

Edo-Tokyo bridge

Edo-Tokyo bridge

So from a painting in the Musee d’Orsay, to a bridge in the South of France where Van Gogh sought to connect with his vision of Japan seen through a print of a bridge, we found an extraordinary connection with a reproduction bridge in a museum in Tokyo. This is what makes travel so worthwhile!

What connections have you made across the world in unexpected places? Let us know in the comments below 🙂

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Video page flip of Travel Journal 3

As I have promised readers, I have a video of page flip of my third travel journal. This is the third travel journal I filled while away for 9 weeks. I hope you enjoy viewing it and listening to my general chatter about keeping a travel journal. At the end of the video I discuss a pouch I carry some of my art gear in.

If you want to see the other videos in the series you will find them I hope folks enjoy it!

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How to use the Tokyo Subway if you do not understand Japanese

Tokyo Subway travelersOn some of the big travel sites like Trip advisor I had read that the Tokyo subway was difficult to use if you don’t speak Japanese. But there is a logic to it if you take a moment.

Tokyo Subway signIt was the end of our trip, we were jet lagged and since we were on culture change overload we nearly did not even attempt it but I am pleased we did, as, if you read the map carefully, stop, think, and observe, you can negotiate the Tokyo subway lines quite easily.

The first thing you need to know is what the subway signs look like as in some cases the stairwell that takes you to a station can blend in to the cityscape. It sounds crazy but we did manage to walk past one station twice before we spotted a small doorway between the shops leading to some stairs.

Tokyo Subway stationThis is a well signposted station for English speaking people. As you can see it has a set of escalators. Unlike many other subway systems where you have a recognisable station, it is easy to walk past these. The signage is easily seen from across the road but if you are under that sign, dazed and watching all the activity that is Tokyo, believe it or not it is easy to miss it! One clue however, is those yellow lines on the pavement and in the station.

Tokyo subway mapHaving located a station, the next task is to read the map. Just remember that the thick coloured lines are the Tokyo Subway system. The thin lines are private lines and you will need to top up your fare if you use them. We only used the Tokyo Subway as it was all we required to get to where we needed to go. It is all done with colours, letters and numbers.

Like most subway systems the train lines on the system are each a different colour. The station junctions are a square or rectangle – and each has a number as well as a name.

Tokyo Subway mapStations are marked with a letter and a number. The letter stands for the subway line. So for instance the letter G stands for the Ginza Line, the letter H stands for the Hibiya Line. The only tricky ones are the letter Z standing for the Hanzomon Line, the letter E standing for Oedo, and the letter I standing for Mita. The number stands for the train station.

Tokyo Subway map keyThere is a clear key to the map in the bottom right corner.

Tokyo Subway ticket map Working out your fare can be tricky. Once in a station look near or around the ticket machines for a map that illustrates the fares you need pay. The station you are at is marked in red and says “This Sta”. As the train stops move away from the station you can see the fare prices increase. Choosing your destination is not hard as you can see both Japanese and English place names are on the map. You find the point you want to depart your train and that is the ticket fare. If you are travelling as a family the Adult prices are in black and red prices are for children.

Tokyo Subway ticket machineNext you need to buy a ticket. Some ticket machines offer an English option. Some we encountered did not. The buttons on the left side have clearly marked ticket options. So you select the price of the ticket on the screen.

Tokyo Subway ticket machineFrom the left hand side panel choose the number of people traveling, in our case it was 2 adults that wanted a ticket. We actually memorised the buttons we had to push as we did occasionally encounter machines with no English options.

Tokyo Subway ticket machineNext follow the arrows to the train that will take you in the right direction. Usually the side of the platform you need to stand on are clearly marked.

Tips for while you are in the train.
If you try and read the train station stops and you have no Japanese you will quickly lose confidence. Train stations do have the english equivalent in small letters underneath but reading travellers stories I think people get so dazed that they don’t see them. I did not attempt to read the English place name particularly when one place name can sound similar to another to my ear. I found it just lead me to confusion. Instead I counted the stops. In most trains stations the numbers are clearly seen but there is always the odd station where they are not. So keep it simple and count the stops as you go. Most have the name in Japanese, and an English version underneath in smaller letters, as well as a number. When looking from the train, the letter + number are set in large font, with a smaller letter/number on either side – this indicates the direction of travel so you know very quickly if you are going the right direction.

Tokyo Subway signageWe did not travel in peak hour but I really can’t see why so many people report finding this system confusing as with a bit of thought and attention to your surroundings it is an easy, cheap and interesting way to travel around Tokyo.

I hope people who are thinking of visiting Tokyo find this article useful.

Tokyo Skyline – Dealing with time travel

The interesting thing about hurling your body from one side of the planet to the other is that your body clock gets out of synch with the solar day. From France to Tokyo is about a 12 hour flight, but it is also about ten hours further around the globe. Novelist William Gibson referred to jet lag as waiting for your soul to catch up. And it can feel like that!

So how do you deal with it? Well, there are the practical things like ‘drink lots of water’ or ‘stay awake until dark’ – which is generally good advice. And I do all those things and usually adjust within a couple of days. In the meantime you have a wonderful opportunity to take photos that no-one else is awake for.

If your body is ten hours out, you will be quite nocturnal for a while. And let’s face it, late night TV is pretty boring – especially if you can’t understand a word of it. So you look out the window.

In our case, we were on the 16th floor of a hotel and had a great view over the city. This is a great opportunity to take a time series around the day-night cycle. And it goes like this:

First, you’ve unpacked, found some green tea or milk for your coffee, and it’s now late-ish afternoon.

Tokyo afternoon

Tokyo afternoon

Then you have some dinner and lie down exhausted at sun down. By now you are talking gibberish and – in the case of Tokyo – struggling to comprehend the fast array of controls that operate the loo. By you are asleep.

You wake at 1.00AM and your body is refreshed and ready for the…um… day. Even in Tokyo the shops are closed. It’s time for a glass of water – while the light streams in the window from the myriad lights stretching off to the horizon. Time to grab the camera.

Tokyo night

Tokyo night

Don’t forget the circular polarising filter – otherwise you will take great shots of your room reflected in the window. The filter won’t get rid of all reflections, but it will enable you to reduce them. Turn off the room lights – all of them if possible, after setting up your tripod and attaching the remote trigger – now you can do some long exposures and really pull out some detail from that amazing skyline.

Tokyo blimp

Tokyo blimp

Then you lie down again hoping to sleep some more.

Around 4.00AM you are wide awake again. Don’t waste it – grab the camera and check out the pre-dawn light. Now that makes it all worthwhile!

Tokyo dawn

Tokyo dawn

By 6.00AM you are ready to see the city come alive – take the camera and step outside for those big city, deserted streets shots. And the street sweepers, and the setting up of the market stalls and… the possibilities are endless. I’ll do another post on street photography soon 🙂

How do you deal with jet lag? Let me know in the comments 🙂