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Letters from Japan Blog on Project Basho Photo Tour to Japan Fri, 17 Apr 2009 23:07:21 +0000 en hourly 1 Photography Tour to Japan #17: Highlights of Suzu Tue, 30 Sep 2008 15:40:45 +0000 projectbasho

People at a house party in Suzu

It was simply a pleasure to come to Suzu, located in the deepest part of the Noto Peninsula. We all had a great time with the local people and photographers during the two day festival and while exploring the area.

Suzu is a warm and friendly place and tourism is well received there. As Takabayashi-san, the director of the tourism department of Suzu City  put it: “people bring people, and this is the fundamental element of tourism.” This connection with the people of Suzu is very apparent in our group’s reflections after the visit.

Tom finds the interactions with the locals as something inclusive and welcoming:

Scott talks about the interaction with local photographers:

Cindy describes one encounter with a local lady:

Jeri talks about a very welcoming experience at a house she visited:

Lauren remembers a little incident with an inn-keeper at a family run B&B in Suzu:


Takabashi-san & Naho-san from the city of Suzu at a meeting with local photographers

Japan Photo Tour #16: In search of perfect Ramen Mon, 29 Sep 2008 19:21:13 +0000 projectbasho

The owner of Taisho-ken, Kanazawa

If you come to Japan, you will quickly understand that restaurants are quite different here. The typical American restaurant where you can get many kinds of dishes at one place is not the norm here. Many restaurants, in fact, only serve their own specialty. It might also surprise to you that the Japanese do not eat sushi or tempura everyday and that these are not even the most popular foods here.

The most popular food is, without question, ramen. This noodle soup of Chinese origin is everyday food for everyone. You can get it everywhere you go in Japan and it is nothing like the the 40 cent instant noodle you buy in US..

Ramen is so popular in Japan that there is even a Ramen Museum in Yokohama. Here you can sample many ramen shops that are representative of those all over Japan.

On our trip, I took the group to four different ramen restaurants: one in Tokyo, two in Kanazawa and another in Suzu.

img_4845Taisho-ken in Kanazawa is located only a few minutes from the Kanazawa Station. When I arrived in Kanazawa I asked the first taxi driver where to go for ramen in Kanazawa, and this was his recommendation. The store is simple and they only have counter seats. The young ramen chef, who is the third generation in his family’s ramen business, gave us a very warm welcome.

At this shop, there are only two different soup bases: shoyu (soy sauce) and miso. The menu is also simple: you can choose portion size and whether you want extra slow-cooked sliced pork (Cha-shu) on top of your noodles or not.

In the area of Nagasaki, there is another kind of ramen that is quite famous. Champon, which still retains the Chinese pronunciation as it is much closer to the mainland of China, is a rather unique kind of ramen. The soup base is creamy white made from seafood and a variety of vegetables. Champon also has many toppings such as shrimp, squid, fish cake, and vegetables. The soup is quite rich and the noodles are slightly thicker than the usual ramen noodle.

If you come to Japan, ramen is a food you simply cannot miss.


]]> Photography Trip to Japan #15: Highlights in Wajima Mon, 22 Sep 2008 15:32:02 +0000 projectbasho

Wajima Port, Photo by Jeri

We spent three days in Wajima exploring the outskirts by van and seeing the coastal landscape and the paddy fields. During this season, the greens are just beautiful in the Noto Peninsula.

Here are just some of the thoughts our group has to offer about the experience.

Jeri shares her impressions about the ocean, zen temples, lacquerwares and more.

Cindy truly appreciated the time we spent together and expresses her gratitude about the trip:

Scott talks about his morning walk through the fishing neighborhood. We went out together one morning exploring as much as we could before breakfast:

Tom shares about his walk to the port as well as to the fishing neighborhood and about why he found this area the most inspiring in terms of photographing:

Lauren has observations about living in such a different environment. During our visit to Kami-Ozawa, she encountered  two older ladies living in a neighborhood of only 20 houses. For her, thinking about this life was simply mind-blowing and something most of us are not used to:

I immensely enjoyed photographing in Wajima. It was really refreshing to be up early in the morning and walk around the port. This is where I photographed most during the trip. I also comment on something I learned about one of the fishing villages we visited:

Photography Trip to Japan #14: Sound and warmth of Takojima Tue, 16 Sep 2008 00:08:15 +0000 projectbasho

I have never experienced anything like this before in my life. I am not even sure if my description of the event will do any justice to it. Nevertheless, let me say one thing at least: spectacular.

I am talking about the Takojima Festival which takes place in Suzu once a year. This is a two day festival where 16 lavishly decorated lanterns are paraded through town in a dramatic processional. They are accompanied by drumming, the sounds of many flutes and bells, and the voices of people from all over the town, both young and old. This is a visual as well as auditory experience that you cannot recreate elsewhere. It simply is a sensory overload.

These lanterns have ornate curves all over and are coated in black with lacquer from Wajima. Each lantern is managed by the 16 different neighborhoods and each has a different elaborate drawing in the front and back. During a conversation with a local man who has been documenting the festival for many years, I learned that the construction of one lantern costs about $100,000. But those are just numbers, and the monetary value is not the way to appreciate something like this.

Kids in front of lanterns, Photo by Jeri

These large lanterns march slowly throughout the narrow streets of the town all day long and late into the night. The views of them, especially at night, are simply spectacular. They are all lit up and almost glow like fire against the deep dark sky in this small fishing town at the edge of the Noto Peninsula. Everyone is wearing very colorful Dotera, festival robes. Some actually just tie the robe around the bottom half of their bodies rather than wear them traditionally. They stitch many small bells to their robes as well. The sounds of the bells are everywhere. People are talking and whimsically drumming through the night on the lantern platforms. The kids are also sitting and staring in awe at all that surrounds them.

I have heard of this festival before, and even saw it on a DVD. Quite frankly though, they just could not do any justice to it. You just have to be there and experience this event with all of your senses. If you stand in front of this 16 ft tall lantern carried by about 30-40 people dancing along with simple and yet moving rhythm, you will feel the vibe, excitement, and joy of the people. It will surround you and you will just want to be part of this whole excitement.

What is amazing is that you can be part of it. People in Takojima will bring you into the whole experience, and they do it very well. At each household, everyone is having a party in their living room and they invite  whoever is available into the front of their houses. Some people will just walk in for a quick break and/or drink. Beer, sake, shochu and any seafood you can think of are offered for the occasion.

Literally, if you are walking in front of a house, people will grab you and bring you in to their party, feed you, and offer you any kind of alcohol available. If that is not enough, they will take you to another party across the town. There does not seem to be room for even the politest “no” in this situation, and you just have to take everything they offer. What is amazing is that they are not just doing this as a part of formality, but they are truly sincere about it.

We experienced the warmth of the people in Takojima during the festival. It was a totally serendipitous experience that is unmatched by anything we have experienced so far. This was, without a question, one of the highlights of the trip to the Japanese countryside.

Party table, Suzu, Photo by Tom

Photography Tour to Japan #13: What the outskirts of Wajima offers Mon, 15 Sep 2008 00:06:49 +0000 projectbasho

A lady in Kami-Ozawa, Wajima, Photo by Jeri

During our stay in Wajima, we also traveled outside of the city to explore the scenery of the Japanese countryside.

One feature of the Japanese countryside in this season are the golden rice fields. The rice fields are simply spectacular now a mixture of gold and green in color and ready for harvesting. The color and texture is simply beautiful during this season.

We also explored the smaller fishing villages along the Japan Sea. The fishing villages have only about 20 to 30 houses. One village where we stopped is Kami-Ozawa, and it is a village (technically it is called a town but I think village is more appropriate) with only 20 houses. It is a very tiny place and it has a wooden fence called, Magaki, all around it to protect it from the winter winds from Siberia. These bamboo fences are 15-18 ft tall and are taller than the houses in the village. Because of this, it looks almost like a small medieval town.

We walked under a gate and came across an old lady who has been living in this place since she was born. She was born in another house in the village, which is only several houses down the alley way and when she got married she moved to this current household. She lives with her son’s family who now works in Wajima. It is amazing to think what my life would be like if I were born in a place like this.

While the Noto Peninsula offers these beautiful features from the scenery to the people, it suffered from a major earthquake last spring. When you walk around Wajima you will still see the damage from a year and a half ago. One such example is Shoji-ji. When I visited last December, the meditation hall was about to fall down, and was only standing by wooden supports.

When we visited Shoji-ji this time, they were still working on the reconstruction of the temple. The meditation hall was covered with scaffolding and cloth now, and they were actually working on the building. I talked to one lady at a souvenir store, she told me the whole process including the small details will take over 10 years.

At Jeri’s suggestion, we decided to donate one roof tile, and wrote all of our names on it. We hope the next time we come back that most of the major reconstruction will be done.

Photography Tour to Japan #12: A Bath as bounding experience Sat, 13 Sep 2008 13:38:33 +0000 projectbasho

After a long day of exploring the countryside of Japan, what we look forward to is a trip to the Onsen or hot spring. It is a public bath and the hot spring is rich in minerals.

In every city we traveled through we had opportunities to dip ourselves into hot bath tubs at the end of the day. Wearing Yukata, a Japanese robe, sometimes we walked together to the Onsen. Even though there were those who were not used to the idea and a little hesitant at first, this eventually became a daily routine.

Strange enough, it is almost hard for me to think of this as a part of daily life at this point as I am so used to taking showers. Even though I went out of my way to find a Japanese deep bath tub for my apartment in the US, I rarely use it to be honest. But getting back to this custom was such a great thing.

In Wajima, there is even a hot spring to just dip your feet in. Literally called Ashi Yu, foot bath, this city run facility is located in the middle of town. This is, of course, one of the few tourist attractions in the city, but it is also a place where locals go. It is a locus of the community where people gather and feel very comfortable talking to one another.

One of the participants pointed out that privacy issues at the public baths are interesting and can be a little strange. On one hand, everyone is naked and seems quiet comfortable. At the same time, the sound of the ocean is pumped into the women’s bathroom to overcome the sounds of what women do in the bathroom.

There is a Japanese expression, “Hadaka no Tsukiai.” It can be literally translated to “naked relationship,” and it refers to a trusted relationship among the same sex. I would assume that it came from this tradition of going to a public bath and having conversations about the many affairs in one’s life.

This trip is about bonding with other participants as well as the locals as much as photographing beautiful scenery.

Photography Tour to Japan #11: Highlights in Kanazawa Fri, 12 Sep 2008 13:54:02 +0000 projectbasho

Kenroku-en, Photo by Jeri

I interviewed everyone about the highlights during their stay in Kanazawa.

Everyone liked meeting with Mr. Tomioka, and this seems to be the prevalent topic throughout everyone’s interviews. This is what Lauren had to say:

Cindy also liked the interaction with Mr. Tomioka:

In addtion to the interaction with Mr. Tomioka, Scott talks about his experience of wandering around in Kanazawa:

Jeri adds something else to the interview and talks more about the entire atmosphere of Kanazawa with a little poetic twist:

Tom talked about his experience of getting lost in Kanazawa, and this is what he has to say about it:

To be honest, I was working on a project that was happening in Philadelphia and simply spent many hours talking on the phone while we were in Kanazawa. I was too busy to go out and photograph, and this is what I have to say:

Photography Tour to Japan #10: Views of Wajima through a ground glass Fri, 12 Sep 2008 05:26:58 +0000 projectbasho

Looking over Wajima Port, Photo by Scott

Wajima is a small port city located at the northern edge of the Noto Peninsula. The population is about 7000, and fishing is one of the largest industries here.

We stayed at a hotel located on the top of a hill looking over the port with the fishing neighborhood on one side and an expansive view of the Japan Sea on the other. In the morning, you can see sunrise over the mountains making the the port and the neighborhood backlit. In the evening, the sun sets beautifully over the beach on the other side. It just simply has gorgeous views in both directions.

I woke up at five in the morning during my stay in Wajima to explore the fishing neighborhood and walk into the narrow streets and alley ways. When I say they are narrow, I mean that they are about 4 ft wide.  Not having grown up in a place like this, I find it amazing how people live in this environment. I am sure that everyone knows everyone in this kind of living situation, and there is a mixture of community, obligation, and support.

I also walked into the port with my camera and talked to as many people as I could. I asked some of them if I could photograph them. A lot of people were shy about it, but they were not defensive at all. Some of them  welcomed being photographed. I photographed one man who was working on a ship in the dock. He was shy about it, but after several minutes of waiting and asking over and over, I got to photograph him against the ship that he was working on. He looked very serious staring at the largest camera he has seen in his life.

One of the typical shots that I did was the view looking over the port. I climbed up on a water tank in the hotel’s parking lot. I set up my camera and took a couple of shots of  sunrise every morning. The city is quiet this early in the morning except for the port: you can see some of the boats are going in and out of the port and people are driving in their tiny cars. Luckily we had great weather during our stay in Wajima which made this view from the the water tank a lot more dramatic with clouds.

Front of Tokikuni House, Wajima, Photo by Lauren

Photography Tour to Japan #9: If you were a cat… Fri, 12 Sep 2008 00:49:25 +0000 projectbasho

If you were a cat, Japan would be a pretty good place to be.

We have come across many street cats during the trip. Most of them are very well taken care of and just hanging around where they feel comfortable. If you walk in the neighborhood small streets and alley ways, you will come across at least a few cats every a half hour.

They are friendly and a part of each of the neighborhoods we have visited. The encounters with these little creatures in the back streets certainly make the walks more enjoyable. Here are the some of the cats we have encountered during our trip.

At Omi Market, Kanazawa

Asakusa, Tokyo, Photo by Jeri

Nanso Collection, Wajima

In paddy field, Kami Ozawa, Wajima, Photo by Jeri

Alley, Kanazawa, Photo by Jeri

Photography Tour to Japan #8: People in Kanazawa Thu, 11 Sep 2008 23:13:19 +0000 projectbasho

Tomioka and Tsuyoshi, photo by Tom

It has been almost nine months since I visited Kanazawa for the first time. There I met people who have been helping me organize this trip and they have been waiting for our arrival in Kanazawa.

Nagae-san and her assistant, photo by Cindy

The first day, we met Nagae-san who was the key person who connected me to pretty much everyone who helped us organize this trip. She was the hub for everyone involved not only in Kanazawa but also in the entire Noto Peninsula. If I were to single out one person to get credit for this trip, she would be the one without a second thought.

We also met Mr. Tomioka who is a local photographer. I met him at the salon when I was visiting Nagae-san for the first time. Upon hearing that I am interested in photography, she picked up the phone, and asked him to come over to meet me. Only then, I decided to bring some of his work to Philadelphia for an exhibition. These photographs were taken in Wajima and the surrounding area in the late 1950’s.

We were lucky to meet him on the second day of our trip to see his photographs and show our photographs. He looked at everyone’s photographs and gave thoughtful comments after he showed his recent work. It was a sort of cultural exchange through photography. This is the sort of thing that is difficult to arrange if you are traveling only as a tourist. Again, photography is the medium through which we connect people in this trip. It is what brings us together.

What amazes me about Mr. Tomioka is that he actively continues his creative activity at the age of 76. He goes out to photograph and comes back to his darkroom to process his films and make prints. I would assume that at his age, he would have enough images to keep him busy, but that is not his style. He is having a small exhibition at the salon next year, and he is working on another body of work as well. We will see what kind of photographs he will come up with next year when we come back.

Hashiba-san and his friend, photo by Tom

Another person we met at the salon was Hashiba-san, a local flute player. He was the one whom I met at the temple when they were changing the shoji screens. He came to the salon with his friend to play two pieces of music for us. His flute is made out of bamboo, and looks very simple. Everyone tried to see if they could make any sound at all. He played one traditional piece as well as one which he composed on his own. His own piece was titled “Pine and Wind,” and it is set in the late fall looking at a pine tree. This is definitely a somber atmosphere which goes very well with the sound of his flute.

Along with many temples and beautiful gardens to visit, these occasions meeting local people have made our days in Kanazawa fulfilling and quite unique.