Late last year I was contacted by Peter Grasse, the man behind Mr Positive, a fantastic production agency helping overseas clients to set up shoots in Japan and Korea. He wanted to know if I was available to do a shoot for the launch of BOSS Coffee in the Australian and New Zealand region. I was of course stoked for the opportunity and said yes straight away.
BOSS Coffee is an ubiquitous can coffee brand here in Japan, quite well known for its domestic ad campaigns starring Tommy Lee Jones as an alien (it’s very hard to explain). I’m quite a fan of the BOSS Rainbow Blend if I am on assignment somewhere in the countryside and need a quick sugar and caffeine hit to get my head in the game. Owned by Suntory, BOSS Coffee ventured a new product line into the Australian/NZ market – both very well known for extremely high standards of coffee.
The pitch was, BOSS Coffee is the beverage that gets Japanese people through their extremely hectic day. Peter, myself and the ad agency Clemenger BBDO Sydney put our heads together to come up with a few scenes that immediately screamed Tokyo. Needless to say, Shibuya crossing came up early and stuck. After examining and discarding various other possibilities the second scenario imagined an old lady holding down a busy and packed izakaya…like a boss.
The location scout and shoot day went off without a hitch – I was shooting stills and also jumped in to handle the lighting for the video component, which was handled by the very competent Andy Nagashima and Anna Hashimoto of Cutting Edge Tokyo. Above and below you can see some alternate layouts that didn’t make the cut, as well as some outtakes from the day.
The talent was an absolute joy to work with in both scenarios! Such a pleasure working with an amazing international team to bring it all together in one short afternoon. Special thanks must go to Brian Masato Kobo from Tokyo Colors, who originally passed my name on to Peter, as well.
Hanafubuki Ryokan is a super nice place to stay on the coast of the Izu peninsula. Izu is a beach and mountain paradise for hikers and surfers located about 30 minutes by bullet train west of Tokyo. Take a local train further down the east side of the peninsula for some of the more secluded, premium accommodation options, like Hanafubuki. I photographed this wonderful hot spring hideaway for 1843, the Economist’s lifestyle magazine last year.
Hanafubuki is not a single big hotel building, it’s rather a collection of smaller cottages linked together via wooden walkways. Its open air plan and proximity to the forests make it a great place to recharge after a grueling spell in the city. The air is beautiful, crisp and filled only with the sounds of nature, and there are some short forest walks adjoining the property that allows you to do some shinrinyoku, or ‘forest bathing’, which is a fancy way of saying you can sit by yourself in the unspoiled tranquility of nature for a bit. Don’t knock it until you try it though!
The crown jewel in this amazing ryokan’s list of features however, is most definitely the seven separate open air baths scattered throughout the property. Each bath is distinct in its own way and best of all, they are all private, meaning you don’t have to share your precious bathing time with other patrons. Shy bathers rejoice! In my time there I was lucky enough to go around to all of them to photograph them, and even managed to take a dip in two. Marvelous!
In addition to the ryokan, the coast of the Izu peninsula is a mere five minutes walk away, and if you want to really do some forest bathing, wake up at 5am to get down there for the sunrise. It’s worth it (although it won’t feel that way at first).
I also took my newly acquired drone down there to capture the coast from above, and the landscape was absolutely stunning. A must for hikers, anglers and off-road cyclists.
Overall, my time spent at Hanafubuki Ryokan really left me with a warm feeling that Japan’s under-appreciated regional areas are extremely deserving of multiple trips. Check out their website here if you want to visit.
A few years ago I photographed Mr Nishiyama, a hagoita artisan in his Tokyo workshop.
Nishiyama Kogetsu’s workshop makes hagoita – decorative paddles meant to bring good luck to Japanese households. The workshop is on the second floor of his Tokyo home, where there are two work tables. Nishiyama-san’s father occupied the other one until he passed away – now he continues the tradition alone with no apprentice to take up the workload.
Hagoita are in effect paddles for an ancient game called hanetsuki, which was a very early form of badminton. With a history as far back as the Eikyo era (1429-1441), hanetsuki was enjoyed by members of the Japanese aristocracy as a New Year’s diversion. Shaped like a wooden trapezoid with a handle, there was plenty of space to add decorations, which started out as pictures painted directly onto the wood.
The paddles became more and more complicated as artisans strove to outdo each other, and on entering the Edo period (1603 – 1863), the idea of using fabric collage with cotton padding became de rigueur, as a way of adding three-dimensionality to these items which were now more decorative than sporting.
These days, the main motifs adorning hagoita are traditionally renderings of famous Kabuki actors frozen in a famous scene, or Furisode bijin – beautiful kimono-wearing ladies. In the heydays of Kabuki’s peak popularity, the actors most often depicted on hagoita was a barometer of who was popular that particular year. They were popular collectors items for the diehard fans of Kabuki.
The Nishiyama workshop is located in the Sumida district of Tokyo, inside a two story building. The first floor is something of a mini-museum dedicated to Hagoita, and visitors are free to stop in and admire the works that the two generations of Nishiyamas have produced over the years. ‘My father and I used to split up the jobs,’ says Nishiyama-san. ‘One of us would paint the faces and the other would do the collage.’ Nishiyama-san’s father, who passed away in 2014, taught him the craft. ‘Being born into the house of an artisan made it seem very normal to me,’ says Nishiyama-san. ‘I would help out my father doing odd jobs as a kid.’ It was in his last year of high school that Nishiyama-san decided to follow his father’s path. ‘He apprenticed me to a hagoita master in Kawasaki, where I tried making them for the first time. After four days I returned home and my father took me as his apprentice.’
What followed were hard days of waking up at 6:30 to clean, starting construction at 8 and finishing at 10 in the evening. Painting the faces, designing and implementing new kimono collages, making the hair out of silk threads, all of it was knowledge to be absorbed, passed on from a demanding teacher.
‘It was an interesting time to be an artisan,’ Kogetsu, recalls. A national resurgence in interest in traditional crafts gave Nishiyama-san and his contemporaries opportunities to be seen and recognized for their extraordinary achievements. Department stores invited craftspeople to do live demonstrations, and customers were able to see the faces behind the products for the first time. ‘Seeing my father’s life work get recognition was encouragement to me as well,’ Nishiyama-san remembers. Along with his father they performed demonstrations in Nice, Los Angeles and New York in the 80’s and early 90’s.
Nowadays, Nishiyama-san performs all of the work by himself, and creates hagoitas ranging in size from 18cm to 75cm long. ‘I was never any good with my hands, but I’ve managed to learn it all,’ he says. Creating a hagoita involves working with a variety of different materials. Nishiyama-san’s desk is covered with faces that he has laboriously painted, which he will then dress in kimono silk before affixing it to the board. ‘Technique and skill is important in making hagoita, but that on its own is not enough,’ he says. ‘Kabuki, ukiyo-e, samurai lore etcetera are things that an artisan must be familiar with in order to create items that will ring true to its heritage.’
Currently he doesn’t have an apprentice or the desire to take one on, but he’s not worried for the future of hagoita. ‘One of my favorite things as a boy was helping out my father at the hagoita market, in Asakusa,’ he says, referring to the December festival held at Asakusa’s famed Sensoji Temple. ‘Looking at all the different hagoita made by so many different craftsmen there was a big influence on my life.’
My book on traditional crafts in Japan – Handmade in Japan, published by Gestalten, will be out in September this year (hopefully – this covid thing is keeping everyone on their toes), so I thought I would share some of the crafts that I had photographed but for one reason or the other could not be included in the book. Originally the book was slated to run at under 300 pages but we ended up extending it to 340 pages and there still wasn’t enough space for all of the awesome crafts in Japan.
Nanbu Tekki is the kettle you want. It is a solid cast iron piece that – according to tea experts from China to London – apparently makes the water boiled inside very delicious, due to an infusion of iron into the water. Nanbu Tekki is of course handmade and very time consuming, requiring clay and sand molds to be created before a specialized craftsman presses an intricate design into it. The clay mold for the spout and body are combined before it is baked dry.
Molten iron is then poured into the cast, which was delightful to photograph. The heat of the molten iron was enough in some cases to cause the casts to spontaneously catch on fire, however the young artisans in charge were clearly unfussed, handling the barrels as calmly as you or I would pour a cup of milk. After the casting the kettle is baked in charcoal, which apparently creates an iron oxide layer on the surface, which is why the kettles are resistant to rust.
These photos were taken at the Iwachu factory in Morioka city, however there are dozens of medium to small-sized workshops producing these highly coveted pieces of kitchenware. Some of the more popular bespoke places have years of orders ahead of them to fill. These tanky kettles and teapots will be in your family for generations, provided you take good care of them.
Early last year I was very lucky to do a quick gig with Japanese makeup giant Shiseido for their online global content. The job itself had very little to do with makeup – in fact the shoot was more about capturing the feel of Tokyo’s most upscale neighborhood Ginza. It was an absolute delight to spend a chilly but sunny February afternoon people watching and shooting photos on my Leica, and for a great company no less. Because it was to be used for promotional purposes on the web, the brief stipulated that no faces were to be recognizable, a no easy feat on a crowded Sunday afternoon but a fun limitation to shoot around.
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!
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.’
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.
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
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!