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The Shikoku Files – Mutemuka Sake and Shochu Distillery

In the previous post I detailed how we stayed in a lovely guest house called Kuro Usagi in Kochi prefecture, and also how they brew their own potent form of bathtub rice wine called doburoku. Well, during dinner we managed to sample a few pitchers of the stuff and things got somewhat blurry after all that, although I do remember yelling at Rod from Shikoku Tours about how Dragonball Z is to Japanese pop culture like Shakespeare was to the English language. I don’t think he understood or accepted my position.

I do remember waking up the next morning at 6am feeling awful, and upon staggering to the car we then proceeded to drive two hours through an interminable stretch of mountain roads whose twists and turns threatened to make me hurl on more than one occasion. I’m not sure how Rod managed to keep us on the road, as he had had quite as much as I had the previous night, but thanks to him we arrived at our next location largely unscathed, albeit much grayer in the face.

Our next location was actually another brewery ensconced in the hills of Kochi prefecture, called Mutemuka. They are quite famous in their area for the unusual types of distilled liquor (known as shochu) they produce, a notable example of which is the chestnut shochu. Being savagely hungover as I was, I declined to sample the wonderful product, however the marvelous old wooden construction of the distillery, plus the crisp mountain air served to perk me right up, and I was happily snapping photos of the place.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (2)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (6)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (8)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (10)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (12)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (13)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (18)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (20)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (21)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (23)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (24)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (28)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (32)

Due to the hungover nature of the entire group, we decided to take it easy that afternoon, and whiled away several hours at a delightful public hot spring, before taking a jaunt to the Shimanto river, whereupon Rod promptly stripped down and jumped into the river. We also saw some of the traditional riverboats taking a leisurely dusk cruise with tourists on board. It was quite a tranquil scene. Alas, that night we were to leave Kochi and drive up to Ehime prefecture for the last leg of our long journey, but I will always have fond remembrances of my first visit to Kochi and I definitely can’t wait to be back for another photoshoot!

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (35)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (36)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (37)

 

The Shikoku Files – Seared Katsuo, Inkstone Craftsmen, and Bathtub Sake

From Tokushima prefecture we cut down through the middle of the island and drove straight to Kochi prefecture, the southern-most in Shikoku, where we found ourselves in the lovely town of Shimanto. Kochi is apparently famous for the high quality of katsuo, or bonito, that is caught in the waters around there, and so our first port of call the next morning was the Kuroshio Ichibankan – a restaurant where you can not only eat the local specialty katsuo tataki (seared bonito), but you can also enjoy the rare experience of being taught how to fillet and sear it by yourself. A grizzled old fisherman will expertly guide your knife as he shows you how to slice three triangular fillets off the freshly caught bonito, and you get to sear the fish over an open fire yourself. A little bit of sea salt, green onion, lemon juice and sliced garlic, and you’ve got yourself an amazing regional delicacy that’s seriously quite yummy, do yourself a favor and eat it. Enjoy some photos here of a nervous looking Rod Walters of Shikoku Tours being taught how to do it. I’m glad he washed his hands first!

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (11)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (12)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (14)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (9)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (10)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (7)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (5)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (4)

The Inkstone Craftsmen

Next up we went across town to a workshop where they make inkstones for kanji calligraphers. If you’re a long time follower of me (I’m sure there has to be at least one), you’ll know that craftsmanship and artisans are things that get me extremely excited, and this was no exception. Each stone is meticulously shaped out of chunks of volcanic rock dug from the surrounding hillside, before being inscribed with decorations and polished to a lustrous jet black sheen. Each inkstone is unique – the design is decided according to the natural shape of the harvested rock and is yet another example of functional, simplistic beauty that is a hallmark of traditional Japanese crafts.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (41)

Then the craftsman uses a circular saw to cut the stone roughly to a design sketched directly onto the surface.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (16)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (15)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (42)

A little bit of sanding to make the top and bottom surfaces completely flat – this is possibly the most important step, as a wobbly inkstone is about as useless as a asshole on your elbow. I guess it would be called an elbowhole then. huh.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (39)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (38)

Next up the outline for the inkwell is drawn onto the rock and then roughly cut out using power tools. Later it will be hand-carved and polished but for now the the rough outline is all that’s needed.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (36)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (34)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (33)

Once the inkstone has started to take shape then it’s back to the workbench where various specialized types of chisels are used to refine and smooth the edges, as well as deepen the inkwell. As you can imagine this is painstakingly precise work, as any overuse of force could result in unwanted chips, rendering all of the work up until now worthless. Any intricate designs are also added at this point.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (29)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (28)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (27)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (26)

One of the last steps involves polishing the inkstone with a variety of sanding implements. There is apparently a final step in order to finish the inkstones before they are put in the showroom window but I wasn’t allowed to see that part. Some trade secrets need to be protected I guess!

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (24)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (23)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (20)

Doburoku – AKA Homebrew Sake

After a long long day we just had one last item on the list, and luckily it turned out to also be the place we were staying the night. Guest House Kuro Usagi is located in the spectacular countryside of Kochi, surrounded by pristine rivers, mountains and rice fields. It’s a clean, cosy and spacious place run by a husband and wife team that’s a perfect place to let your stress just evaporate. The other notable thing about this place is that they have a license to brew Doburoku, which is kind of like sake, but without having gone through the koji process. So basically it’s fermented rice porridge booze, and it’s very potent, I can attest. Doburoku used to be brewed all over the place in Kochi apparently, until regulation stepped in and officially banned anyone from making it without a license. The proprietors at Kuro Usagi have a nice side operation brewing this delicious but dangerous beverage, and are more than happy to let you drink it alongside the delicious home-cooked meals they serve up to guests. My night at Kuro Usagi Guest House was one of the most memorable I have had all year, drinking home-brew sake with delicious tempura and sashimi made with local ingredients, and chatting with the owners and my companions about all things late into the night. Things must have gotten rather silly because I don’t remember bathing or going to bed, but that’s what happens when you drink Doburoku, I guess.

     

 

The Shikoku Files – Experience Crafts in Mima, Tokushima

That afternoon we drove down from the mountains of Tokushima back into civilization – where we visited the old traditional streets of Mima, which I found to be absolutely lovely. In addition to beautifully preserved old Japanese buildings with cafes and shops built into them, there were several spots in which you could try your hand at some traditional crafts, one of them being making Wagasa, Japanese umbrellas.

Having photographed a few wagasa workshops around Japan, I was surprised to find that Tokushima prefecture also had a history of making them, as the main centers of production are typically said to be Gifu, Kyoto, Kanazawa and Yodoe. There is a small workshop in Mima that is keeping the tradition alive by a thread though, and it’s only here that you can get hands on with making paper umbrellas.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (1)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (3)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (4)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (5)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (19)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (20)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (21)

A short way down the street is a small indigo dyeing workshop where you can make your very own scarf or handkerchief dyed with all-natural indigo dye – said to be the most resilient color in nature and also great for keeping away bugs. It’s worth mentioning that in Shikoku, it is far cheaper to have these hands-on craft experiences unlike tourism hotspots like Tokyo and Kyoto.

All in all, I wish I had had more time to leisurely explore Mima to stroll around and photograph some of the architecture as well as relax at one of the beautiful cafes they have there – I love old townscapes like this and I’m definitely looking forward to going back soon!

In the next installment of The Shikoku Files, we take a long drive to the southern coast of Shikoku to explore Kochi prefecture, and there are plenty of shenanigans to be had there!

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (7)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (8)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (9)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (10)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (11)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (12)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (13)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (14)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (15)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (16)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (17)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (18)

 

The Shikoku Files – Mountain Blacksmith and Steep Incline Farmers

What I love about Japan is that there are all types of craftsmen – some of whom are national treasures who create priceless works of art or architecture, and others who are little known but are essential to the society around them.

Case in point is Omori-san, the village blacksmith of the remote settlements in the wide area of Tsurugi township. The term village blacksmith doesn’t really gain much traction in modern society but here in the mountains of Shikoku the settlements can be so remote that driving to a shop is actually a whole-day endeavor. If you’re a local farmer and you need a new pitchfork, you’d rather go to Omori-san’s shack up in the mountains where he’ll have a selection of special implements for the special type of farming they do up there, or he’ll make you a new one to order out of scavenged scrap metal. Need a filleting knife? He’ll make that, and just about anything you need.

Omori-san’s little forge is located just off an unnamed mountain road with a stunning view over the surrounding ranges – I felt very lucky to be there photographing him as there was absolutely no way I would have been able to find him on my own; I doubt he has the Internet let alone a website. Thanks to Rod Walters from Shikoku Tours and the good folks from Japan Rail Shikoku for helping me with that one.

 

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (1)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (2)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (3)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (4)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (5)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (6)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (7)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (8)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (9)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (10)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (11)

 

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (13)

 

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (15)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (16)

 

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (18)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (19)

He may not be a designated national treasure artisan, but Omori-san’s work is a very important cog in the infrastructure here, as he is the only one who makes the specially angled farming implements for Steep Incline Farming, which is a type of farming unique to Tokushima prefecture, not practiced anywhere else in the world.

Steep Incline Farming is exactly as it sounds – rather than on flat or terraced ground, farmers grow their crops on 30-45 degree inclines, due to their settlements being so high up in the mountains. These farmers are actually descendants of refugees from a 1000 year-old war; their ancestors fled here to escape their enemies – judging from how remote these locations are, I’d say that their enemy must have been very scary indeed.

The slopes on which these farmers plant their crops are no joke – I felt that one misplaced step could have sent me rolling down the hill, camera gear and all, yet this 78 year old fellow was swinging away with his pitchfork under the full summer sun, despite being hungover!

I’ll be back with some more Shikoku Files, in which I document my journey across this under-explored island of hidden gems!

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (20)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (21)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (22)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (23)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (24)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (25)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (26)

 

The Shikoku Files – Scarecrow Village, Kazurabashi and Tsurugi Shrine

After an amazing breakfast at Kouya, it was time to bid farewell to that wonderful place and head out on the road again. Amongst the twisting mountain paths we came across the small town of Nagoro, a town famous for being populated by more scarecrows than people. There is kind of a sad story behind it – a resident of Nagoro, having lived somewhere else for a number of years, returned to her hometown to find that most of her friends had passed away or moved somewhere else. Beset by loneliness, she began to make the scarecrows to ‘replace’ the people who once populated the small town. It’s a sad story that shows the struggle of isolated Japanese towns to maintain their population, although Nagoro is now very well known across the world as one of those unique oddities that one can only find in Japan. Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (1)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (2)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (3)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (4)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (5)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (6)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (7)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (8)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (9)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (10)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (11)

If you’re an outdoors type then it certainly would be a good idea for you to visit the Kazura bridges in the Iya Valley. The kazura bridges are essentially vine bridges that were built in a time of conflict – they were made especially rickety in order to have the ability to be chopped down easily in order to frustrate pursuers. Nowadays, the bridges have been reinforced with steel wire so there’s no need to worry about crossing them, but they still feel plenty rickety with footsized gaps in between the slats. I’m willing to bet more than a few iPhones have been lost to the rapids below by people who thought stopping for a selfie on a swaying bridge was a good idea. Other than the cool bridges though, the entire area is a beautiful picnic spot, with crystal clear waters for splashing around in, and generally beautiful nature all around.

Our third stop of the morning was at Tsurugi Shrine, which is at the base of Tsurugi Mountain, a spiritual place with many legends attached to it. At the shrine we met the head priest, who was good enough to cleanse the spirit of Rod Walters of Shikoku Tours – and let’s face it he could probably do with another one by now. The head priest was an outstanding fellow with a great beard, and any hikers who plan on tackling Mt. Tsurugi should drop in for a quick spirit cleansing while you’re there!

Stay tuned for more installments of the Shikoku files, in which I document my trip across this amazing island!

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (1)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (2)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (3)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (4)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (5)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (6)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Shikoku (7)

 

The Shikoku Files – Kominka Koya and Making Soba in Iya Valley

Despite having been a photographer in Japan for almost 10 years, until this year I never had a chance to visit Shikoku, which is one of the 4 main islands that make up the country. Last month, thanks to Japan Rail Shikoku and Rod Walters of Shikoku Tours, I finally had the opportunity to go, and I couldn’t be happier.

Shikoku is the smallest of 4 main islands but is packed with rich history and tradition. We started out on a trip to explore some of the traditional crafts of Shikoku as well as to discover less often visited gems in the countryside.

The first port of call was Iya valley, an area in the mountainous interior of Tokushima with some beautiful rivers and hiking trails. We stopped in at a small restaurant where a wonderful lady called Tsuzuki-san will teach you how to weave baskets from local vine, as well as teach you how to make buckwheat soba.

 

The next place we visited was our accommodation for the night; a place called Kominka Kouya nestled high up in the mountains. It honestly ranks up there as one of the best places I have ever spent a night in my life. It’s a converted tobacco farmer’s house with a breathtaking view over the Iya mountains. The building itself has been unaltered from its original state, albeit with the addition of modern bathroom facilities and other amenities to make your stay pleasant. The wooden structure is absolutely gorgeous, having stood for over 100 years. For a person like me who occasionally (more like often) gets sick of the unstoppable inertia of living in Tokyo, coming to a place like Kominka Kouya is a salve for the soul. As you gaze across the mountain range from the ancient wooden veranda with nothing but the sound of the breeze in your ears, you can experience true, true serenity at this place.

Irwin Wong Tokyo Photographer (24)

Irwin Wong Tokyo Photographer (23)

Irwin Wong Tokyo Photographer (22)

Irwin Wong Tokyo Photographer (21)

Irwin Wong Tokyo Photographer (20)

Irwin Wong Tokyo Photographer (19)

Irwin Wong Tokyo Photographer (18)

And that’s all before I even mention the FOOD at this place! Oh my gosh, I don’t think I’ve ever been spoilt so much with the gargantuan spread the folks a Kouya put on. Starting with a massive skillet of tofu, fish, potatoes and other delicacies basted in miso and simmered over the sunken hearth stoked with long-burning charcoal, they continued to prepare in front of us flame-roasted wild boar and with bowls of fluffy rice and fresh pickles. Add to that 3 or 4 chilled bottles of locally brewed sake and I think you’ll be as close to heaven as it is possible to be on this mortal coil. The best part about it is that the lovely family that runs Kouya really give you a warm welcome and make you feel at home as they prepare your meal in front of you – it’s five star personalized service that never gets imposing.

If you’re ever in Tokushima, a stay at Kouya should be right at the top of the list!

Stay tuned for further installments of The Shikoku Files as I chart our journey across this beautiful island!

Irwin Wong Tokyo Photographer (17)

Irwin Wong Tokyo Photographer (16)

Irwin Wong Tokyo Photographer (15)

Irwin Wong Tokyo Photographer (13)

Irwin Wong Tokyo Photographer (12)

Irwin Wong Tokyo Photographer (11)

Irwin Wong Tokyo Photographer (10)

Irwin Wong Tokyo Photographer (9)

Irwin Wong Tokyo Photographer (8)

Irwin Wong Tokyo Photographer (7)

 

Japan Travel: Farm to Table Wasabi for Korean Air

When you least expect it, some stories become some of the most memorable ones of the year. In this case was the time I was assigned to photograph wasabi from farm to table in Shizuoka, two hours outside of Tokyo.

What makes wasabi such a unique produce is that it requires exacting conditions in order to thrive. For one, it requires constant flowing fresh water. On top of that the water has to be just the right temperature – not too hot, not too cold. Even in the many mountainous ranges of Japan there are few areas suited to the large scale cultivation of wasabi. Utogi, in Shizuoka prefecture is one such place.

Wasabi Photographs Tokyo Irwin Wong Photographer (19)

The fresh water requirements of wasabi require farming villages to be nestled in the midst of remote mountains. Although only an hour away from Shizuoka city central, the town of Utogi is located after enduring some dizzying mountain switchback roads. Upon arriving at the town you will see a plinth inscribed with the words: ‘Utogi – The Birthplace of Wasabi’. Utogi was certainly the first place where wasabi became cultivated en masse for culinary purposes. The Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu is said to have loved its taste so much that he established Utogi as a place to grow it.

Wasabi Photographs Tokyo Irwin Wong Photographer (10)

The next day we went to a different farm with a much larger scale, and once more a long and winding car ride up a steep mountain rewarded us with yet more amazing Tolkien-esque scenery that you never see in the travel books. Sawa-wasabi (ravine-grown) is planted in terraces all the way up between mountains in order to facilitate the constant fresh flowing water. This is the finest and most expensive kind with one hundred grams of the stuff fetching up to 1000yen (USD$10). The stuff you see in tubes at the supermarket barely contain any wasabi at all and are packed with food coloring and other filler ingredients – to get the best wasabi experience you need to buy a fresh wasabi and grate it and eat it within 10 days.

Wasabi Photographs Tokyo Irwin Wong Photographer (11)

Wasabi Photographs Tokyo Irwin Wong Photographer (12)

Wasabi Photographs Tokyo Irwin Wong Photographer (14)

Wasabi Photographs Tokyo Irwin Wong Photographer (15)

Wasabi Photographs Tokyo Irwin Wong Photographer (6)

Wasabi Photographs Tokyo Irwin Wong Photographer (7)

Wasabi Photographs Tokyo Irwin Wong Photographer (8)

Later on in our trip we visited various restaurants to see how wasabi is being used in culinary and gourmet foods. The first place was an izakaya called Kakure no Bessho in Shizuoka city, where we were treated to some delicious tuna with freshly grated wasabi. This is a very standard use of wasabi – simple yet devastatingly effective. One can never go wrong with this combination. Another very interesting thing you can get there is a wasabi shochu, which is a very popular brewed liquor often made from wheat or potatoes – you can add a bit of a kick to your drink by ordering it with fresh grated wasabi!

Wasabi Photographs Tokyo Irwin Wong Photographer (18)

Wasabi Photographs Tokyo Irwin Wong Photographer (17) 

Another place we visited was a simple lunch house in Utogi, where sweet old ladies prepared a very traditional but delicious soba lunch for us – all with a generous dollop of fresh wasabi and side dishes of various roots pickled in wasabi.

Wasabi Photographs Tokyo Irwin Wong Photographer (21)

Wasabi Photographs Tokyo Irwin Wong Photographer (20)

The last place we went was perhaps the most memorable, and it was called Wasabi no Heso, which literally means Wasabi’s Bellybutton. This restaurant specializes in new and gourmet uses of wasabi in cooking, and the dishes we were able to sample definitely reflected that. The first dish we had was a tempura batter lotus root sandwich with a wasabi and shiso filling, which was absolutely amazing. Then we were treated to ochazuke which is rice served in a wasabi and seafood broth. Lastly was perhaps one of the most beautiful sashimi platters I had ever seen, which is something saying that I have seen a lot of them for work.

Being a photographer in Japan and occasionally getting to shoot some food and beverage stories in this country is one of the greatest perks of living here!

Wasabi Photographs Tokyo Irwin Wong Photographer (2)

 

Wasabi Photographs Tokyo Irwin Wong Photographer (3)

Wasabi Photographs Tokyo Irwin Wong Photographer (4)

Wasabi Photographs Tokyo Irwin Wong Photographer (25)

Wasabi Photographs Tokyo Irwin Wong Photographer (26)

 

The Umbrellas of Yodoe

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. Here is one of many that I have met along the way!

The Umbrellas of Yodoe from Irwin Wong | Photographer on Vimeo.

It’s a long journey to Tottori Prefecture from Tokyo. My assistant Hamish and I are well into our alcoholic beverages by the time the bullet train pulls into Okayama Station. From there we will sleep the night and the next morning drive nearly three hours through mountain ranges to the opposite coast, where our destination awaits.

Tottori Prefecture definitely gets an award for Most Off The Beaten Track’ in Japan. It’s one of the least populated prefectures in Japan with only 500,000 residents. It also gets the fewest tourists out of any prefecture, and it isn’t surprising; it’s really hard to get to. Nevertheless, Tottori has a ton of history and tradition, and it’s still relatively unmarred by kitschy tourist infrastructure. This is genuine, country-style Japan and it’s a breath of fresh air after the tourist-laden Kyoto.

 

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Japanese Umbrellas from Yodoe (1)

The streets are deserted as we pull up to the last remaining umbrella workshop in Yodoe, Tottori, yet the workshop is already humming with activity. The owner/chief artisan Yamamoto-san is a diminutive lady who greets Hamish and I with a measured gaze. By the look of her she isn’t one for idle chit chat, but her pride is evident as she explains the history of umbrella making in this area.

Once upon a time the tiny town of Yodoe rivalled cultural centers such as Kyoto and Kanazawa as the premier Wagasa (Japanese Umbrella) production hub in Japan. At its peak, 500,000 umbrellas were made in one year alone, the workload shared amongst 71 separate workshops, each with their own team of artisans. The beaches nearby would be lined with thousands of wagasa stuck in the sand to dry. Come the importation of cheap western style umbrellas in the 20th Century and the industry withered to the point of extinction. In 1984 the last remaining artisan retired and closed down his workshop, and for a while the tradition of Yodoe Wagasa died out.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Japanese Umbrellas from Yodoe (2)

Enter Yamamoto-san. She and a group of other artisans got together and built the only currently operating umbrella workshop in Yodoe, effectively saving the craft from extinction. Now, they labor away to fill the mountainous volume of orders from people all over Japan who have rediscovered the attraction of a handmade Japanese umbrella.

There are four main wagasa producing areas in Japan – Kyoto, Kanazawa, Gifu and Yodoe. Out of all of these, the Emperor of Japan prefers Yodoe made umbrellas for his important shrine visits. The reason is simple – the robustness of the naturally occurring bamboo lends sturdiness to the umbrellas, and the intricacy of the woven silk patterns on the inside of the umbrella surpasses all other rivals.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Japanese Umbrellas from Yodoe (7)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Japanese Umbrellas from Yodoe (8)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Japanese Umbrellas from Yodoe (9)

All aspects of wagasa production are handled in this workshop – from the culling of the bamboo from the grove right outside Yamamoto-san’s house, to the blending of the oil that is dabbed into the paper to make it waterproof. As I watch, four separate craftsmen go about their tasks with studied efficiency. In one section a grizzled old man handles all aspects of preparing bamboo and chopping them down into precisely shaped parts. An assortment of ancient bamboo-cutting machines surround him, each for a unique purpose. I asked him where they came from and he points at one and said “We found that discarded on the beach, so we picked it up and repaired it”. Remnants of a once booming industry, put to use once again.

Throughout the rest of the workshop artisans busy themselves wordlessly with tasks. A lady in one corner starts the mind bogglingly complex undertaking of putting together the umbrella frame out of hundreds of tiny bamboo spindles. With assured mastery she threads her needle in and out of the central node, weaving together the umbrella frame right before my very eyes. It’s a task she makes look easy with her deft movements, but I’m sure if I tried to do it I wouldn’t finish one in a week.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Japanese Umbrellas from Yodoe (10)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Japanese Umbrellas from Yodoe (11)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Japanese Umbrellas from Yodoe (12)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Japanese Umbrellas from Yodoe (13)

Yamamoto-san occupies another section of the workshop, papering a frame with bolts of thick washi paper. Next she moves on to weaving the complex decorative pattern on the underside of the umbrellas, wielding a needle and colored silk as she constructs the pattern completely from memory. Apart from the distant chatter of the radio and the occasional clank of the bamboo cutting machine, all is silent in concentration.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Japanese Umbrellas from Yodoe (3)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Japanese Umbrellas from Yodoe (4)

The last part of the day sees us visit the bamboo grove where the materials for the umbrellas are gathered. I’m surprised to see that it’s not a plot of land where bamboo is specifically cultivated for industry. It’s wild bamboo that form the core of these exquisite umbrellas. On the long road back to Okayama the significance of this impressed me. In the lonely town of Yodoe, in the oft-forgotten prefecture of Tottori, there are a group of artisans who don’t rely on outside infrastructure; they harvest their own materials and create their own tools, and they make the finest umbrellas in all Japan.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Japanese Umbrellas from Yodoe (6)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Japanese Umbrellas from Yodoe (14)

Master Craftsmen: Kite Maker for Iberia Air

It doesn’t happen all the time, but it’s always a pleasure when I get commissioned to shoot something that I always wanted to shoot. Case in point – Toki-sensei the master kite artisan, who I recently photographed for Iberia Airline’s inflight magazine.

If you follow my blog, you may know that one of my favorite things to do is photograph Japanese artisans, which I often spend my own time and money doing in my spare time. Toki-sensei fits squarely into that category, making kites both small and immense from his small workshop right in the middle of the countryside of Chiba.

Being a kite craftsman requires one to have feathers in many caps – one must be a proficient artist as well as being able to split bamboo into the right lengths and thicknesses for the size of kite being made. In addition there is no small amount of sewing and tying, and finally the kite has to be flown to make sure it doesn’t fall apart.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Kite Artisan (31)

The drawings on the kites themselves are complex works that take ten steps to complete. Each one is conceived and designed by Toki-sensei himself and is based upon some part of Japanese mythology, depicting Gods or Demons, heroes or princesses.

The drawing done totally freehand, starting with the outline in a charcoal based pigment, then slowly adding layers of colors. The gradations are achieved with single deft brushstrokes, and the solid colors are painstakingly filled in with a smaller brush. Each kite is hand drawn from start to finish on tough washi, taking days to finish one batch.

It’s an amazing scene to observe, and it’s especially mind-boggling when Toki-sensei shows me a 3 meter tall kite he’s made in the past. ‘It’s not even the biggest one I’ve made’ he says with a cheeky smile. I’m not sure how old he is but like many craftsman I’ve met he seems effused with a youthfulness that seems to be rooted in sheer love of what he does.

Toki-san’s kites can be viewed at the Kite Museum in Tokyo, a very very small museum packed with literally thousands and thousands of kites from across the world. It’s one of the most interesting spaces I have ever been in, and I say that as a photographer whose job it is to find themselves in interesting spaces. Definitely worth a visit if you are in Tokyo.

Hope you enjoy the photos!

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Kite Artisan (30)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Kite Artisan (29)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Kite Artisan (28)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Kite Artisan (27)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Kite Artisan (24)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Kite Artisan (22)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Kite Artisan (21)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Kite Artisan (20)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Kite Artisan (19)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Kite Artisan (18)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Kite Artisan (17)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Kite Artisan (16)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Kite Artisan (14)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Kite Artisan (12)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Kite Artisan (11)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Kite Artisan (10)

 

Yokohama and Sydney Chinatown for Cathay Pacific Discovery

Being a photographer in Tokyo is not always easy. There are some jobs where I find myself navigating overcrowded subways with unfeasible amounts of gear, lugging them up and down staircases and enduring dirty stares from fellow commuters. Other times I have to maneuver my lights inside a tiny rabbit hole of a location, or contend with the dreadful lighting and drab interiors of the typical Tokyo office locale.

Blessedly, there come jobs that are the complete opposite – such as this one from Cathay Pacific’s Discovery magazine, which was a feature on Chinatowns around the world. Luckily for me I got to photograph two of them – Yokohama and Sydney. My job was to be present, observe and capture the vibe of both locations, and nothing is more satisfying to a photographer than a good excuse to step away from the computer and spend some time roaming the streets.

I also shot two videos for them:

Yokohama Chinatown for Silkroad from Irwin Wong | Photographer on Vimeo.

Sydney Chinatown for Silkroad from Irwin Wong | Photographer on Vimeo.

Here are some shots from Yokohama – as you can see there is a distinctly neon-soaked Bladerunner vibe to the whole place. Some of the small alleyways were absolutely perfect for a long lens like an 85mm.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Yokohama Sydney Chinatown (21)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Yokohama Sydney Chinatown (19)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Yokohama Sydney Chinatown (16)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Yokohama Sydney Chinatown (15)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Yokohama Sydney Chinatown (14)

 

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Yokohama Sydney Chinatown (13)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Yokohama Sydney Chinatown (11)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Yokohama Sydney Chinatown (10)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Yokohama Sydney Chinatown (9)

By contrast Sydney’s Chinatown was a lot smaller and slightly more difficult to really capture that Chinatown vibe – not exactly a bad thing as all places are different, however the wider streets made me switch up my photography style quite a bit. There are some really cool examples of street art in and around this Chinatown, including the golden gum tree and the blue cherubs lining an alleyway, making it look slightly less menacing! Anyway I hope you enjoy the photos and thanks to the great people at Cedar who commissioned me for this awesome job!

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Yokohama Sydney Chinatown (8)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Yokohama Sydney Chinatown (7)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Yokohama Sydney Chinatown (6)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Yokohama Sydney Chinatown (5)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Yokohama Sydney Chinatown (4)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Yokohama Sydney Chinatown (3)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Yokohama Sydney Chinatown (2)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Yokohama Sydney Chinatown (1)