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Portraits from Japan – Hikakin

If you live in Japan, there’s a good chance you know about Hikakin. He’s Japan’s #1 Youtuber by a long shot, appealing to younger audiences with his zany humor, personal style and videogame playthroughs.

I had the opportunity to photograph his portrait recently for Forbes Japan. It was a quick shoot – maybe only ten minutes or so, but luckily I had the interview to plan my approach and lighting. When he jumped in front of the camera he quickly proved to be personable and cooperative, putting on a show for the camera.

The only backdrop available was a green screen in this empty studio in the depths of Mori Tower in Roppongi. I felt the green screen worked thematically to show the somewhat manufactured nature of most Youtube stars’ lives, so I leaned into the idea and it turned out ok! Thank you Hikakin for being such a great sport!

Japanese Handicrafts – Bunraku Puppets

In my travels across Japan photographing artisans – one of my absolute favorites was the Bunraku puppet artisan Hishida-san in Osaka. I am absolutely gutted that it didn’t make the book so I’d like to introduce him here.

Bunraku is a type of theatre in Japan that uses articulated puppets in conjunction with an orchestra and chanters to tell as story. The technical prowess required from the puppeteers is daunting; three puppeteers are responsible for moving one doll; one to control the right hand and head, one to control the left hand and one to control the feet and legs. The makers of these magnificent puppets are called ningyoushi, and are declining in numbers nationwide. 

Hishida Masayuki, 58, has been making puppets for Bunraku for over forty years, in the artform’s hometown of Osaka. 

‘Bunraku was a way for people to speak out against the Shogunate without fear of persecution,’ says Hishida-san. Because puppeteers traditionally wore black outfits with black masks, the identities of the troupe were often difficult to divine and thus arrest. Bunraku’s actual origins started in Kyoto in the 1680s, when the dramatist and playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon teamed up with master chanter Takemoto Gidayu to create works for puppet troupes to perform. Gidayu opened the first major Bunraku theatre in Osaka, and soon after Monzaemon relocated there, where he penned over one hundred plays – sewamono, love stories and tragedies between ordinary people, and jidaimono, which were historical tales between heroic lords and samurai. 

Today, Osaka is the home of the National Bunraku Theatre and houses the national troupe. In centuries past however, Bunraku troupes traveled the country, bringing gossip and news of the court to far flung provinces. ‘Some troupes were even ordered to proselytize Christianity,’ says Hishida-san. ‘They were a powerful form of media back in the Edo Period.’ Regional puppet troupes still exist without the financial support of the government – of particular note is the Tonda Puppet Troupe in Shiga prefecture, which is actively inviting foreign university students to take up residence in Shiga to learn puppetry. ‘The program is already booked out for years,’ says Hishida. 

Hishida-san is a third generation puppet carver. His workshop in eastern Osaka is filled with half carved heads and arms, as well as various materials to make their various parts controllable. Japanese cypress is the main wood for the head and arms, and dried whale baleen is used as springs for the mechanisms. The puppeteers grip hemp cord to control the puppets, which are connected to silk strings that pull the various contraptions that make the eyebrows, eyelids, mouth and fingers open and close. ‘The silk string is ordered from Marusan Hashimoto – a specialist silk string factory that won’t make them anymore. I bought up enough to last several generations before they ceased production.’ In this and many other regards, Hishida-san is steadfast in maintaining the original materials and techniques established four hundred years ago. ‘The craft isn’t mine to reshape – it’s the culminated effort of countless people over generations – and I’m just borrowing it until the next generation takes over.’

In carving the head, care must be taken to imbue the face with enough expressiveness. ‘Puppet faces are a lot smaller than human faces, so when playing in a theatre, certain features need to be emphasized,’ says Hishida. For example, strong-willed characters are personalized through thick articulated eyebrows and large, glaring eyes. For female characters, an upturned angle of the mouth denotes wit, whereas a mouth hanging open signifies a woman of low intelligence. ‘A man with a penchant for the ladies,’ says Hishida-san with a smirk, ‘will often have a larger than normal set of nostrils.’ All of these considerations require decisions during carving, before hollowing out the head and attaching the mechanisms that animate the facial features. 

Nowadays in addition to constructing puppets, Hishida-san holds workshops twice a month for people interested in learning the difficult craft. He takes pains to ensure that students don’t take shortcuts, instructing them to mix their own paints out of crushed oyster shell and collagen, for example. ‘My students are from diverse backgrounds and proficiencies,’ says Hishida-san. ‘But when they all come together in one classroom, somehow we all feel the shared history that comes from doing things in the traditional way. It makes us feel Japanese. That is an important thing to protect.’

Japanese Handicrafts – Kokeshi

In my travels around Japan photographing artisans and craftsmen for my upcoming book, I met Abo-san, a Kokeshi craftsman. His workshop and art was absolutely splendid however we weren’t able to include him in the book for space reasons, so I am going to introduce him here.

Kokeshi are a type of decorative wooden doll that is popular in the northern regions of Japan. They served as toys for children hundreds of years ago and now are valued as folk craft items that bring good luck. Although the prefecture of Miyagi is famed for having the highest quality kokeshi, Abo-san is from Aomori, and his dolls have been praised as some of the best in Japan.

Watching him work it is very clear that Abo-san is a true master, as he transforms a featureless block of wood into a smooth and shiny kokeshi figure within minutes using a variety of well-worn chisels. The ground is littered with wooden shavings around his feet, which controls the spinning wheel.

Painting the doll looks deceptively simple – Abo-san touches his paintbrush to the spinning wooden figure and a perfect ring of paint appears. It’s clear that an extremely steady hand is required however.

When it comes to painting the fine details such as the face, Abo-san says he must do it on a different day to chiseling, as his hands get numbed from the force required to carved the rapidly spinning wood.

Thanks for reading this far! Hope you enjoyed this brief glimpse into Abo-san’s workshop and the world of kokeshi.

Japanese Handicrafts – Kanayama pottery

I have been touring Japan photographing craftspeople and artisans for my upcoming book to be published by Gestalten this year. In total I managed to photograph some 70 artisans, all of them wonderful, however due to space constraints in the book not all of them were able to make it into the final cut.

I plan to introduce some of the ones that we unfortunately couldn’t include here, so I hope you’re in the mood to learn about some crafts!

Kanayama-yaki, or Kanayama pottery is a very recent type of earthenware in Japan’s very long and rich history of pottery. It was established in the 1960s in Aomori prefecture, the second Northern-most prefecture in Japan, when the clay in a particular marsh near the town of Hirosaki was discovered to be extremely good for pottery.

Now, there is a large wood-fired kiln as well as extensive pottery facilities for young artists to come and take advantage of. Foreign potters are often in residence in the huts behind the kiln. There’s even a charming pizzeria for shoppers to make use of while they peruse the wares.

Kanayama ware is known for its earthy style of coloration while being smooth and refined. The clay is surprisingly light and extremely pleasant to the touch as well as handling temperature fluctuations well. Different types of glaze is applied using recycled materials – for example, ash from apple trees is added to create a white glaze inside the kiln. I managed to purchase some of the pieces and they are currently my favorite vessel for drinking sake out of. Highly recommend driving out to the workshops if you are in Aomori – it’s a twenty minute drive from Aomori city. kanayamayaki.com

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Box People at Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo

I’m primarily a portrait photographer in Tokyo but I’ve been posting a lot of reportage lately, so here’s another one! For photographers in Tokyo, few places beat the amazing hustle and bustle of Tsukiji Fish Market. There’s always such a swirl of activity as the marketplace thunders along plying its trade, and the amount of visual interest surrounding you is close to overwhelming. No matter where you look, there’s always something interesting going on and it’s all authentic.

Anyway with Tsukiji now officially closed and moved to a new location. I thought I’d share a fun little side project I did to try and get a fresh perspective on the the old fish market.

In Tsukiji like any other market there are countless vendors, and each vendor has a cashier. What’s really interesting about Tsukiji cashiers is that they all sit in these really tiny boxes all morning filled with random paraphernalia accumulated from over the years. I find them really fun and interesting to photograph, so here are some of my favorites.

As for gear I shot these with my Hasselblad 501CW with the CFV-50c digital back and the Carl Zeiss Sonnar 150mm f/4. I really love that digital back but the difficulty in shooting vertical is kind of holding me back from taking the plunge. If I ever get it I’ll have to do a review!

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Tokyo Launch of Nike Air Pegasus Zoom for Men’s Health UK

Sometime last year I was invited to photograph the Tokyo launch Nike’s newest training shoe, the Air Pegasus Zoom for Men’s Health UK. I remember owning a pair of Air Pegasus shoes when I was a little kid, thinking they were the coolest things ever; now they’re even more hi tech, made out of the lightest, springiest materials. The next day was a 10k around the Imperial Palace for journalists and bloggers to test out the shoe! Kinda of makes me glad I’m not a fitness/sports journalist because I would 100% keel over after the first 2km and have to be airlifted out, fancy shoes and all. Anyway, enjoy some shots from the event!

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Nike (1)

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Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Nike (9)

 

Japan Travel Photography: Sake Brewing for Air Canada Enroute Magazine

Around this time last year Enroute Magazine, Air Canada’s stellar inflight mag got in touch with me to shoot one of my favorite stories of the year – sake brewing in three different prefectures in Japan.

The first city was a real treat – Tendo city in Yamagata, which is home of Dewazakura and Mitobe sake, both very famous but operating on vastly different scales. The combination of snow and steam from the rice and hot water made for some of my favorite sake brewing photographs ever, and I’ve photographed a lot of breweries!

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The next city was Nagoya, a major city in Japan but also home to some of the best breweries in the country. The first stop was Kuheiji Sake Brewery, whose owner believes in the idea that terroir has a great influence over the taste of sake, much like wine. He is also trying barrel-aged sake as a way of introducing something new to the market.

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Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Sake Brewing (16)

Next in Nagoya we went to the absolutely magnificent Marutani sake bar and restaurant- a real hidden gem in a beautiful neighborhood. This place should be a must on your list if you’re in Nagoya and like great food and great sake. The restaurant is run by the Marutani sake brewery in the hills of Aichi prefecture, and you’ll be able to sample their wide range of delicious sake there.

Lastly we went to Gunma prefecture, home of Mizubasho, which is a sparkling sake that gets its bubbles from natural fermentation. There’s an absolutely wonderful park in the town of Kawaba where the brewery is located, where you can shop local organic produce, have a barbecue, go blueberry picking, and of course drink some of the very exquisite sake they brew there!

 

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Sake Brewing (19)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Sake Brewing (20)

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Japanese Artisans: Ki-Oke Master Shuji Nakagawa

Despite being a Tokyo based photographer I often like to travel into the countryside to find interesting people to photograph, because I find that’s where some real gems can be found. Here is ki-oke (wooden bucket) artisan Nakagawa Shuji, who lives in Shiga Prefecture.

Shuji Nakagawa’s workshop sits on a rise overlooking the glittering Lake Biwa – Japan’s largest lake. One wall holds every imaginable shape and size of kanna – Japanese wood planes which are capable of shaving mere microns off of an uneven surface. Other woodworking implements unique to ki-oke (wood bucket) making are lined up in the floor – crescent shaped blades with two handles meant for giving wood slats a concave inner surface so they can be fit together to form a bucket.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Shuji Nakamura (3)

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Shuji Nakagawa is the third generation scion of his family’s business in crafting ki-oke, or wooden buckets. He comes from distinguished lineage – his grandfather spent forty years perfecting the craft before starting the company, and his father received the coveted ‘Living National Treasure of Japan’ award, which is only bestowed on true masters for their services in protecting traditional craftsmanship.

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Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Shuji Nakamura (8)

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Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Shuji Nakamura (10)

Shuji has continued in the tradition of excellence by adapting 700 year old ki-oke crafting techniques in order to capture modern consumers’ attention, developing buckets into stylish and complex shapes that were once very difficult to make. As the need for traditional wooden buckets in households has plummeted in the last 50 years, Nakagawa’s efforts have been to pivot away from making a utilitarian object to crafting something desirable and attractive to international communities. The result is abeautiful range of products that have visual appeal as well as diverse avenues of usage. The ki-oke technique is still entirely done by hand, from chopping wood blocks into staves that fit together into a perfect circle, to sanding down the edges so that the bucket appears seamless.

Travel Photography: Japanese Cormorant Fishers in Gifu

Although I am primarily a photographer based in Tokyo, you’ll often find me traveling to random cities and towns to find artisans and craftsmen to photograph as part of my ongoing personal project to document as many as possible. In the beginning of 2017, Zeiss has partnered with me to produce a series of videos, photos and text for their newly updated Lenspire blog. Now that that project is officially over, I thought I’d repost some of that content on my blog. Enjoy!

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Along the banks of the Nagara River in Gifu city, there stands a centuries-old home. Its entrance is quite well hidden, a single unassuming stairway carved into the retaining wall, and you could easily miss it if you weren’t paying attention. Climb the stairs however and you’ll find yourself in a beautifully preserved Japanese villa from a different era. This is the ancestral home of the master cormorant fisher Yamashita Tetsuji, the 26th of his line.

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Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Cormorant Fishing (9)

Yamashita-sensei tells me that cormorant fishing has been occurring in the Nagara River area for at least 1300 years. Over the centuries they have enjoyed the support of some of the most powerful warlords and patrons in Japanese history, from Oda Nobunaga to Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Shogun. The dissolution of the Shogunate with the arrival of the Meiji period stripped the cormorant fishers of the support they previously relied on, however shortly after that they were employed into the office of the Imperial Household as the Emperor’s own cormorant fishermen. To this day Yamashita-san and 5 other cormorant fishers in the Gifu City area still hold this office, passed down from generation to generation. These days however, the practice of cormorant fishing is done mainly for the benefit of tourists who watch from the riverboats. Compared to olden times, amount of fish caught in the river has dropped dramatically.

Yamashita-sensei himself looks exactly how you would want an old Japanese master to look like. His pointy white beard, weathered skin and diminutive stature do not diminish the fierce twinkle of vigor and humor in his eyes. He leads me through his ancestral home, showing me where the birds are kept and trained. Paraphernalia related to the art of cormorant fishing are kept in fastidious order around the house; there are grass sandals and grass skirts as part of their uniform as well as large bamboo baskets for holding the cormorants, not to mention the long boats crafted especially for cormorant fishing. Over a millennia of accumulated knowledge and expertise, contained in the fine craftsmanship of the tools, and more importantly, behind Yamashita-sensei’s glittering eyes.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Cormorant Fishing (1)

Having never seen anything cormorant fishing before, I was a little nervous, especially as working with animals always brings an element of unpredictability to every shoot. Would the birds be well treated? Would they be scared of the camera or the flashes? Would they act up? I watch Yamashita-sensei handle a bird. He plops the cormorant on top of a bamboo basket and whispers to it while attaching a lead. The bird is skittish once noticing my big octabank and camera, but Yamashita-sensei rubs its neck in a soothing manner and the cormorant calms down. It lazily begins to stretch its wings, showing off their impressive wingspan, and the bird was relaxed for the rest of the photoshoot. According to Yamashita-sensei: ‘we live with and train the birds for three years before they become ready to fish in the river. We take great care in monitoring and tending to their health and as a result the cormorants that live with us have lifespans many times more than their counterparts in the wild.’ The record for the longest lived cormorant stands at 26 years, although he retired well before then, Yamashita-sensei says with a smirk.

That evening sees me accompanying Yamashita-sensei down the river to see the preparations for the night’s fishing demonstration. The large bonfire burns as cormorant fishers from the different houses gather around it, swapping jokes and smoking cigarettes. The birds splash playfully on the riverbank, honking away. At some unspoken signal, the bonfire is broken up and the fishermen carry flaming tinder down to the waiting boats in order to stoke the braziers suspended from their prows. The fire is a technique from olden times to attract the freshwater trout to gather around the boats. Within seconds each boat has a blazing star kindled in their lanterns, and the boats head off downstream.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Cormorant Fishing (12)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Cormorant Fishing (13)

Yamashita-sensei stands at the prow of the lead boat, his face lit dramatically by the burning lantern feet from his face. From his hands lead eight leashes, and on the end of each leash is a cormorant bobbing through the water for trout. Under Yamashita-sensei’s practiced eye, he summons each bird back to the boat with a tug on the leash once he surmises they have caught a fish. The bird then spits it out to be collected and then jumps back into the water to continue working. It’s a dazzling display of coordination and concentration, performed by the grandmaster of his generation. Every now and then he’ll scoop some new wood into the brazier, sending out a shower of sparks that are borne away on the wind. The tourist boats are rapturous in their applause and vocal in their encouragement. Yamashita-sensei and his five other colleagues are local heroes here.

 

The fishing ends and the boats laden with tourists head back to land. Yamashita-sensei and his boat crew, including his 20 year old son have returned upriver with the boat, no doubt to attend to the cormorants and clean everything to be ready for the next night of fishing. Gifu has returned to being a sleepy, quiet city. The Nagara River quietly flows by.

Japanese Crafts: Ozeki Lantern in Gifu

Late last year I had the opportunity to travel to Gifu, Japan to photograph the superb craftsmen at the Ozeki lantern workshop. Not many people know this but during the Shogunate Gifu was a cultural and economical hub due to a combination of geography and high quality natural resources. Gifu is surprisingly famous for a large number of core crafts, including smithing, washi (paper) production, bamboo crafts and the like – and as a result a great deal of higher level crafts flourished in the city as well – such as lanterns, which used a combination of the high quality materials produced in the area. .

For the most part, the lanterns made at Ozeki are decorative interior lanterns – different to the ones I photographed in Kyoto, which were mainly for outdoor use (a blog post for another time!). For this purpose, the lanterns needed to be compact and aesthetically pleasing, requiring a much more delicate approach and also an artistic design sensibility. The bamboo ribs are far more delicate and closer spaced than lanterns meant for outside use – the paper used is also extremely thin and translucent locally produced washi, adding to the luxury factor. Finally, each lantern has its motif hand painted directly onto the paper by an artisan so skilled and unerring that his brush strokes look effortless.

The famous Japanese sculptor Isamu Noguchi was so impressed with the skill and craftmanship of Ozeki’s artisans that he collaborated with them to make a series of art deco lanterns that are on display in the city right now. The geometries of the lanterns, some of them sinuous and organic, others with rigid and sharp lines, shows the adaptability and virtuosity of these artisans.

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