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Photography Tour to Japan #2: Asakusa and Asakusa Portrait by Hiroh Kikai at Letters from Japan

Photography Tour to Japan #2: Asakusa and Asakusa Portrait by Hiroh Kikai   no comments

This 13-day photography trip to Japan will start in the middle of Tokyo. Asakusa is the first destination for our trip, and the group will stay one night here after a long flight to Narita Airport.

Asakusa was a center of popular culture during the Edo period which lasted for almost 300 years and was the last feudal period in Japanese history. Asakusa prospered as a cultural bridge between Yoshiwara, the red light district and the rest of city. Historically, Asakusa was always the center of entertainment from Kabuki, comedies and movies.

There are two things that come to my mind when I think of Asakusa. Asakusa was, in fact, the destination of my first date when I was 15 years old. I went to Hana Yashiki, a classic and iconic amusement park, equivalent to Astroland Park in Coney Island, with a girl from a neighboring junior high school. I vaguely remember the uncomfortableness that I felt all day long. I was simply too shy to be a good date.

Aside from a blue memory of my adolescence, the other thing that comes to my mind is a series of portraits. There is one notable photographic work which originated in Asakusa. Hiroh Kikai, a Japanese photographer, has been creating portraits of those who come to the tourists-concentrated area of Tokyo for years.

Hiroh Kikai is a photographer from the Yamagata prefecture in the northern part of Japan. Influenced by a background in philosophy and the works of Diane Arbus, he has been working on this project since 1973. Titled “Asakusa Portrait,” Kikai’s portraits show people with peculiarities and sometimes subtle uniqueness against a simple backdrop of the wall in the Senso-ji.

Right now, Kikai’s images are shown as a part of an exhibition titled “Heavy Light” at International Center of Photography in NY. The exhibition attempts to show a segment of contemporary Japanese photographers whose work is fresh to US. In the show, 16 prints of Kikai’s portraits are featured. In the review of the exhibition by Roberta Smith in the NY Times, she particularly noted the excellence of his images.

At the opening reception for the exhibition at ICP in June, I was able to talk to him for a little while. This was a great moment for me as I have been a big fan of his work since I first saw his images in a magazine 13 years ago. I was introduced to him by my friend. He appeared a little uncomfortable surrounded by people who were conversing in English. During our brief conversation, he was very humble despite the fact that he is at the opening at ICP which contains his images and that there were hundreds of people there for the show. He was very cool about it all.

This event got me excited to revisit his images. I have a book titled “Ya Chimata” published in 1996. This is one of the first photography books that I ever bought. Curiously enough, this book was published by a publisher who usually deals with philosophy books. At the opening, I realized that I should have brought this copy of the book for Kikai to autograph.

If we are lucky, our group may be able to catch him while he is working on his ongoing project in Asakusa in September. Just for this reason, I should pack my old copy of his book in my already overly packed suitcase.

Written by projectbasho on August 22nd, 2008

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