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Letters from Japan

Photography Tour to Japan #7: Rainy and soothing Kanazawa   no comments

Posted at 11:34 pm in Japan Photo Trip, Kanazawa

Cindy looking over the garden, Kanazawa, Photo by Jeri

After our rather early arrival at Kanazawa Station, we stopped by the International Exchange Salon run by Nagae-san. There we met her as well as Mr. Tomioka, whose photographs we showed at our gallery in May and June. They prepared a lovely breakfast for us.

After breakfast, we were trying to figure out what to do. It was a rainy day, but there are many indoor activities available in Kanazawa, so I was not too worried that we would run out of options.

However, since everyone was adjusting to the time difference, recovery from the first night’s welcome party, and the night on the train, after much thought, we decided to simply stay at the salon until check in time at our hotel. We leisurely sat on tatami mats looking over the beautiful garden at the salon. Some people laid down and read while others took notes about the trip so far. Everyone took photographs of the exquisite garden. The sound of the rain and the very moist air was all around us, and it was very relaxing and soothing.

It was quite amazing to see how rain in this small but very well kept garden can be the focus of the day as well as the source of some much needed relaxation. It was like a pause in a novel where you digest everything, and contemplate the idea and implications of everything that has happened so far. We simply sat on the tatami mats and looked at what this garden had to offer us.

Written by projectbasho on September 8th, 2008

Photography Tour to Japan #6: Landscape of Wajima   no comments

Posted at 10:12 pm in Japan Photo Trip, Wajima

Two other destinations on this trip are Wajima and Suzu. They are located deeper in the Noto Peninsula along the Japan Sea. This region is called Oku Noto, Far or Deep Noto, as it is located on the northern edge of the peninsula.

This region is notorious for having bitterly cold winds blowing from Siberia which make the ocean here very rough. In this environment, people’s lives are tougher. This was captured in the photographs by Shozo Tomioka which we had at our gallery a few months ago. These images from the late 50’s show the simple lives of fishermen and women in this area and the roughness of their environment. Even the words, “Nihon Kia” (Japan Sea), give me a bit of a shiver.

While in Wajima, we hope to explore the coastline by  chartered bus to see what the area has to offer. We will visit smaller fishing villages as much as we can to see how people live and to observe the interesting regional features like the traditional Japanese houses in the countryside and the picturesque sunrise and sunset over the sea.

Speaking of  typical Noto scenery, there is a movie which gives you an idea of what the landscape of the Noto Peninsula looks like. It is “Maboroshi” directed by Hirokazu Koreda who has been receiving international acclaim lately. This movie shows the calm and often barren landscape of the Noto Peninsula. Images of paddy fields on the coastal hills, small fishing towns, and even morning market in Wajima are featured in this movie.

The beautiful images from the movie are from winter to go along with the somber atmosphere of the movie. But this time, we are visiting the area in September and the scenery has different colors and textures. As the paddy fields are ready for harvest, we will see a much livelier color of green grass on the paths and golden yellow fields of rice.

Wajima is also famous for lacquerware production. If ceramicware is called “china” in English, then lacquerware should be called “japan.” There are small production facilities all over the city. Most of them are studios where one or two artisans are making beautiful pieces in the traditional Japanese way. We will try to visit and perhaps even create our own lacquerware while we are here.

Our stay in Wajima will take us to the morning market and fishing port and allow us time to appreciate the coastal beauty. Hopefully we’ll also be able to particapte in some of the local highlights like creating lacquerware and touring the sake breweries.

Written by projectbasho on September 5th, 2008

Photography Tour to Japan #5: Blue train under blue sky   no comments

Posted at 9:39 pm in Japan Photo Trip, Kanazawa

As I woke up in my small room on a sleeper train, the first thing I did was peek out the window. It was still 5 o’clock in the morning, and the sun had just come up. It is cloudy outside, and I see an expansive view of a green paddy field. I think to myself, “we are in the countryside.”

Our train left Ueno Station around 11 pm.  This is my first experience riding this train also known here as the “blue train.” It’s a two-story sleeper train with individual rooms.  I dreamed of riding this train often when I was a kid (yes, I was into trains). The idea of sleeping on a train was such a fascination because it seemed to me that traveling all night must mean traveling a very long distance. I used to wonder where I would end up traveling such lengths.

When I came across this option for traveling for our group trip to Kanazawa, I immediately seized the opportunity. Traveling by  train has a nostalgic feeling and is an experience that people do not get to try that much anymore. In some ways, it’s just about the journey, not the destination.

For this trip, my room was on the lower level which seems to be a little roomier than the upper compartments, but still the ceiling height was just a tad short for me to stand up. The compartment is just big enough for me and the bed which also doubles as a seat.

There are a couple of shower rooms on the train. To use them you need to purchase a card from the conductor early before they sell out. With this card, you have six minutes to take shower. When I thought of just six minutes, it seemed way too short. To my surprise, my entire showering was just over three minutes long. Of course, I wore a shower cap to cover my long hair for the first time in my life and skipped the hair washing step. I looked pretty funny.

The train ride has been rather smooth. After cramming my luggage into this small room, I started writing emails. Soon after, I started to fall sleep. I changed into a robe with the JR logo on it which comes with each room and drifted off to sleep. You feel the movement of the train for sure, but it did not bother me that much.

We are in Toyama now. In an hour and a half, we will be arriving at Kanazawa Station. We will head to the International Exchange Salon where Nagae-san is waiting for us with breakfast.

Written by projectbasho on September 5th, 2008

Photography Tour to Japan #4: Who’s who   no comments

Posted at 9:32 pm in Asakusa, Japan Photo Trip

Everyone for the Japan photo trip has arrived safely and we are heading to Asakusa.

There we will stay at a hotel one night with a view of all of Asakusa from the 14th floor. Tomorrow we will visit Tsukiji Fish Market and explore Asakusa before we head to Kanazawa on a sleeper train. Tonight we will go out for a little welcome dinner at an izakaya.

An izakaya is a pretty typical Japanese snack bar and drinking establishment. While, Yakitori (grilled chicken on skewers) is perhaps the most well known food served, the menus are really quite diverse. These bars are popular, casual, and relatively cheap places for after-work drinking. My sister and her friend are joining us tonight as they want to meet those who are participating in the trip.

On the way to the restaurant, we came across something interesting to photograph the entire group.

Let me introduce those who are participating in our very first photography trip to Japan. All of them are from Philadelphia, and most of them have taken a class at Project Basho previously. Some of them, I haven’t seen for some time so this trip is a way to reconnect. It is such a great pleasure for me to be traveling with a group I already know.

Far left: Scott has taken a couple of classes this year and is a relative newcomer at Project Basho. He is an archivist at a large corporation in Philadelphia. Partly because of his job, the angle of his interest in Japanese culture is a little more academic and historical. He wakes up early in the morning and takes a 45 minute walk with his camera before we eat breakfast.

Left Center: Cindy has known Project Basho from the very beginning. She took a couple of classes at our previous location, but lost contact until this trip came up. She was the first to sign up for the trip with such excitement, and was very anxious whether this trip was actually happening or not. Now with everything
happening accordingly, her happiness has been radiating from her face since her arrival.

Center: Lauren has been a volunteer at Project Basho for almost one year. She was introduced to Project Basho by her friend who also was a volunteer at the studio. She is carrying a 4×5 camera and a pinhole along with her digital SLR. With me she has been learning essential Japanese phrases like “may I take a photograph” and “where is a bathroom?”

Right Center: Jeri took a beginners class about a year ago. Having grown up in San Francisco, she has enjoyed a lot of sushi and particularly loves Ikura, salmon roe. Jeri is very much interested in Japanese culture and language. She is full of curiosity and has asked me many questions about Japanese culture. She is interested in exploring the Japanese countryside during this trip. She is updating her blog with pictures from each location.

Far Right: Tom is a photographer whom I have known since I came to Philadelphia 12 years ago. He was one of darkroom monitors at Temple University where I took a few classes. He is a part of Lightroom, a local co-op which runs another darkroom nearby our studio. He is carrying many cameras from the latest DSLR to a Holga and a Diana. Based on what I have seen so far, I am sure that he is the one who will come up with the most photographs from this trip.

So it is with these good folks that I head off happily to an eccentric izakaya restaurant located deep in Asakusa for an evening of conversation, laughter, delicious food, sake, and shochu.

Written by projectbasho on September 3rd, 2008

Photography Tour to Japan #3 : Camera of choice and format of choice   no comments

Posted at 11:17 pm in Photography in general

One question that photographers often entertain when they travel is which camera to bring with them. Of course, when an airplane is involved, you cannot bring everything so choosing which cameras to pack becomes a serious as well as an entertaining question for photographers.

For this trip, I am bringing two cameras with me: a 7×17 banquet camera and a 4×5 field camera. It may sound a little crazy to carry these large cameras for a shooting trip where we will be relying upon public transportation for travel. Of course that doesn’t deter me. This old banquet camera has been my camera of choice for the last couple of years. Still, this will be my first trip with the big cameras traveling this extensively and without a car. I’m sure it will prove to be an interesting challenge at times, but I hope I can enjoy the whole experience.

When I started using the 7×17 camera, I connected to the work of Lois Conner. Conner created beautiful images of Chinese landscapes with a sense of place and a dynamic composition. She uses the elongated format so adeptly and I became intrigued by her description of how she works. For her, the difference between regular format and these panoramic format cameras is about more than seeing.

She describes that when she composes in say, an 8×10 format, that it is done such that it visually radiates from the center. In other words, an image has a main feature in a photograph which acts as a visual locus, and the rest develops around that. Whereas with an elongated format like 7×17, it becomes more effective to create images with a sweeping narrative as if you are reading a photograph, usually left to right. Certainly she has been influenced by her own studies of Chinese scroll paintings and learning about how painters traditionally frame images whether horizontal or vertical.

I have been primarily shooting 7×17 for a couple of years now. When I went back to Japan last December, I was interested in shooting sceneries of Tokyo with 7×17 format. I wanted to see if I could create visual narratives of the busy streets of Tokyo similar to how I shoot in Philadelphia.

One issue I had while I was in Tokyo especially when I was in my own neighborhood was the narrow streets. I suppose that I had become so used to the size of a typical American street and forgot how narrow the streets are in Japan. Narrow streets mean that you cannot step back far enough to photograph unless you have to have a lens with a wider angle of view. Unfortunately, I ended up not shooting in my neighborhood simply because of this.

I did manage to photograph other sceneries while I was in Tokyo. Near Tokyo Bay, I carried the camera around wondering how rivers flow and work. Also, around my grandmom’s neighborhood, I photographed the street scenes. I have always been intrigued by how visually chaotic and confusing these small streets are in Tokyo. Unlike streets in Philadelphia where the majority of the streets are organized in grids, these streets have a sense of life as if they are some sort of organism.

This time, I am interested in photographing small streets in Kanazawa (with hopefully a little different approach ) as well as the coastal views in Wajima and Suzu. As always, I am open to anything that challenges me visually, so we will see what images I will come up with at the end of the trip.

By the way, I am so used to this elongated format now that I can no longer take horizontal pictures with an 8×10. Now, I primarily use this format for portraiture and I shoot vertically. The 8×10 now seems constricting in a way I never saw before. This sounds funny, but it is very real to me.

Carrying these two cameras, a tripod, film holders and many films in very humid weather will be quite an exercise. Aside from the images of these beautiful places, this trip will provide a much needed workout.

Written by projectbasho on August 28th, 2008

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

Photography Tour to Japan #1: It is official!   no comments

Posted at 2:28 pm in Japan Photo Trip, Kanazawa


Yes, we are finally 100% sure that this destination trip to Kanazawa and the Noto Peninsula is happening!

This trip was one of the projects that I have dreamed about since I started Project Basho. I was always interested in creating a cultural dialogue between Philadelphia, where I am now, and Japan, where I grew up. I always thought the best way to let people know about another culture is to visit the actual place and let them experience the scenery, culture, and people with someone who can act as a cultural intermediary. So here we are, after 1 year of planning and 6 years of thinking about it, we are finally actualizing this trip.

This is a 13 day trip to explore the countryside of Japan. We are visiting Kanazawa, Wajima, and Suzu in the Noto Peninsula. Kanazawa is a relatively large city while Wajima and Suzu are much smaller fishing towns. During this trip one can see life in a city as well as in the smaller towns where the pace is slower.

Where is Kanazawa and the Noto Peninsula? Why not travel to more known places such as Tokyo and Kyoto? People often ask me these questions and wonder why I chose Kanazawa and the Noto Peninsula as the first destination trip in Japan.

I have always thought that there are beautiful places in the countryside of Japan. Initially, I was planning to take a group to a much more remote area of Japan – Shikoku, where I once backpacked for a week on a small island. When I started to research a possible trip, I quickly realized the problem of accessibility. Plus, it was rather difficult to do detailed research from Philadelphia as the information was rather scarce. I realized that in order to make it work, I had to visit the location and establish key contacts with the locals first.

A friend of mine visited Kanazawa a couple of years ago, and he introduced me to Nagae-san who runs the Ishikawa International Exchange Salon in Kanazawa. When I phoned her last fall as I was getting ready for a visit in December, she was very excited about our trip and enthusiastically became the key contact to organize this trip locally.

Speaking of people from Kanazawa, I met Hashiaba-san, a local flute player, while I was visiting Kanazawa in December. I was simply wandering around the almost-maze like alleys in a section of the city when I arrived at a small temple. A priest and a few volunteers were changing the shoji paper on the screens as part of the end of year cleaning. I was curiously looking at them as I remembered doing this as a yearly routine when I was a kid.

A relatively young priest looked at me and asked me if I wanted to help. I said “Sure, I will,” thinking that I had not done this for at least 11 years. I spent the next two hours changing the shoji paper for all the screens in this little run-down temple. There, I met Hashiba-san who was helping as a volunteer and who also happens to know Nagae-san. I explained my trip plans and they were also excited about it. Hashiba-san suggested that he and his band members would do a musical performance for us when we visit. Later I learned that he is a very well-known flute player who comes to Tokyo frequently to perform. This was one of those serendipitous moments which makes travel more enjoyable.

Aside from the wonderful people like Nagae-san and Hashiba-san, Kanazawa is a beautiful city in its own right with a sense of tradition. The best description about Kanazawa I came across while researching described it as “a little Kyoto.” When I visited Kanazawa last December, I understood what this meant. There are numerous elements of traditional Japanese culture and many clusters of temples and shrines all over the city. These temples and shrines are connected with small winding alleys mapping the city like vines. You will feel a sense of nostalgia as if you were back a couple hundred years ago. In addition, the city is not too large, which makes it a suitable place for photographers who want to explore on foot. Plus you can enjoy all of this without being in tourist-thickened streets, which is what I felt when I was in Kyoto recently. Nagae-san who grew up in Kyoto also agrees on this point.

We are also going to two smaller towns in the Noto Peninsula: Wajima and Suzu. I will talk about them in a little more detail in the next couple of posts.

Additionally, I would like to note that this is just one side of the cultural exchange through photography we are planning. We are slowly working on another project to bring Japanese photographers to Philadelphia. This will be a different format than these destination trips we are organizing this time. However, we hope to make this reciprocal influx of photographers traveling between two destinations happen on a regular basis in the years to come. So stay tuned.

Written by projectbasho on July 25th, 2008