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Japanese Masters: The Blacksmiths of Sakai

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 Knives of Sakai from Irwin Wong | Photographer on Vimeo.

The city of Sakai is a mere thirty minute drive from the neon-soaked streets of central Osaka – so close in fact that it feels like I never left. Still, the streets of Sakai are markedly different from the gaudy and brazen Osaka fare – there are fewer shops and zero tourists. A light rail trundles through the main thoroughfare. I notice other things as I drive towards my destination: a high frequency of workshops that advertise some kind of metal-working trade – polishing, smithing or sharpening. A high percentage of the shops are shuttered, their buildings too aged and run down to be operational. There are a few still open.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Master Craftsmen Series (27)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Master Craftsmen Series (24)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Master Craftsmen Series (23)

I pull up at the workshop of the Izumi-riki Manufacturing Company, a knife company whose history goes back to 1805. The history of metalworking in Sakai goes back far longer however. Back in the 5th century, the Emperors of Japan were buried in large ceremonial key-shaped graves (incidentally these graves are recorded as the largest in the world for surface area). The peasants of the time, unable to use powered excavators to move the prodigious amounts of dirt needed to form these graves – the largest of which is 500m long and 300m wide – needed to use rudimentary plows made by local blacksmiths. These plows, which were barely more than a sheet of curved metal, were the grandfathers of today’s knives which are preferred by chefs around the world. Over time, the industry progressed to producing tobacco knives, samurai swords, flintlock rifles, and eventually culinary instruments.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Master Craftsmen Series (26)

The best knives in Sakai are not produced under the one roof, but are in fact farmed out to various craftsmen who are specialized in their particular task. The first step was to visit Tanaka-san, a blacksmith, whose job is to forge the blade and give it its shape. Tanaka-san’s forge is a tiny place hidden away amongst regular suburban houses; there are no signs to indicate its presence. It’s only when you get near it that you begin to hear the rhythmical metallic hammering that is the hallmark of a blacksmith’s forge. Inside, the air is dusty and hot, covered in the patina of decades of metal shavings.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Master Craftsmen Series (29)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Master Craftsmen Series (22)

Tanaka-san is ensconced in one corner next to a roaring furnace, with countless rods of iron and blades fanning out before him. His work is a choreographed dance of constant activity – one red hot iron ingot comes out of the fire and is hammered into the correct length and shape before being combined with a sliver of hard steel. He plunges the metal back into the fire before plucking another rod out to be hammered and folded back upon itself. The hammering and folding must be done when the metal is precisely the right temperature or else the quality of the finished product is dimished – Tanaka-san knows the temperature of each rod purely by its color – his knowledge of the subtle changing hues of red and orange as the metal is heated has come from decades of experience. This process of fusing steel and iron creates the unparalleled sharpness required for slicing thin slivers of sashimi, and also keeps the blade light and flexible.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Master Craftsmen Series (21)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Master Craftsmen Series (20)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Master Craftsmen Series (19)

Once the blades have been quenched and fired in a separate furnace, they are sent down the road to another craftsman, whose job is to sharpen and polish the knives. Once again, I’m led to another tiny workshop, run by Morimoto-san, a master polisher. Morimoto-san’s workshop is truly incongruous – it’s situated in an ancient, rundown house and is barely larger than a walk-in closet. The walls and surfaces are coated with hardened minerals that have accumulated from years and years of spinning grindstones. Morimoto-san himself is hunched and weathered with a perpetual squint – he takes a seat at a grindstone and proceeds to transform a blackened, dull blade into a razor sharp, shining knife. Occasionally he will stand up and squint down the length of the blade to detect miniscule warps or bends in the metal; if he finds any he will straighten them out with dainty taps of a hammer before going back to the grindstone. Water and sparks fly as he gradually teases out the potential of the flat blade of metal that the blacksmith has supplied him to work with. Tanaka-san the blacksmith and Morimoto-san the polisher; their combined experience in crafting knives probably totals over one hundred years.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Master Craftsmen Series (18)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Master Craftsmen Series (16)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Master Craftsmen Series (15)

Once the blade is sharpened, it’s off to the final step – attaching the handle. This process is done at the headquarters of the Izumi-riki headquarters, where the knives are then packaged and sold. First, the tang of the blade is heated cherry red; the handle is then placed around the tang, emitting an impressive billow of smoke. The craftsman then has a short window to make micro adjustments before the handle fuses completely onto the blade – making sure the blade is centered and not leaning to the left or right. A series of quick hammer taps by a practiced hand is all that’s needed to complete the knives for use in kitchens around the world.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Master Craftsmen Series (13)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Master Craftsmen Series (12)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Master Craftsmen Series (11)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Master Craftsmen Series (10)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Master Craftsmen Series (9)

The process from flat black chunk of metal to gleaming knife I see before me has happened before my eyes in a seeming whirlwind, yet these are techniques which have been honed and perfected after decades of practice and experimentation. I’m sure as I sit here writing this, that right now the sound of hammers and grindstones are ringing out across the streets of Sakai, as the smiths and polishers there tirelessly improve their craft.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Master Craftsmen Series (8)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Master Craftsmen Series (7)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Master Craftsmen Series (6)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Master Craftsmen Series (5)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Master Craftsmen Series (4)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Master Craftsmen Series (3)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Master Craftsmen Series (2)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Master Craftsmen Series (1)

 

Photo Essay: Luxury Trains in Japan

Being a photographer in Japan has so many perks – not the least of which is the amazing, ultra reliable bullet train system that means I can zip from city to city with so much less effort being subjected to all sorts of cavity searches in order to board a flight. Japan’s trains are so good, clean and fast that once you’re used to them, it’s almost impossible for any other country to live up to them.

Of course, Japan being Japan, they can’t leave well enough alone, and had to find some way to make the train experience even more sublime. Japan’s luxury train lineup is a serious droolfest for train nerds and luxury travelers alike, with berths on the most exclusive Shikishima train starting at around $7000 for a twin share. Not quite so expensive yet marvelous nonetheless is the Royal Express train, which I had the great pleasure of photographing for the Wall Street Journal late last year.

The Royal Express runs from Yokohama down to the tip of the Izu peninsula and is sumptuously appointed inside and out with gorgeous handcrafted wood paneling, with gold and pearl inlays. There is a entire carriage for children including a ball pit, a galley for meals (which I was lucky enough to sample, and it was amazing), a library in the very front carriage, and also a violinist.

I could go on and on about how amazing the experience was (although the coffee served onboard deserves a very special mention – it was heavenly), but it’d be a lot more efficient to let the photos do the talking.

Enjoy!

The Royal Express, Irwin Wong Tokyo Photographer (48)

The Royal Express, Irwin Wong Tokyo Photographer (47)

The Royal Express, Irwin Wong Tokyo Photographer (43)

The Royal Express, Irwin Wong Tokyo Photographer (42)

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The Royal Express, Irwin Wong Tokyo Photographer (23)

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The Royal Express, Irwin Wong Tokyo Photographer (8)

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The Royal Express, Irwin Wong Tokyo Photographer (2)

Japanese Masters: The Last Maiko 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. Since 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 with this year coming to a close, I’ve decided to post the start of the series on my blog to show you folks where it all started. Please visit the original piece here where there are many more links to nearly a whole year’s worth of master artisans. Anyway, here’s the article below, enjoy!

The Last Maiko in Gifu from Irwin Wong | Photographer on Vimeo.

It’s twilight in Gifu, and the lights of the city sparkle prettily on the Nagara River. My assistant Will and I are standing on the bridge closest to where the boats dock, and as we watch, several pleasure boats peel lazily away from the harbor and float downstream. Bright lanterns cover the outside of the boats which will play host to revellers eating, drinking copious amounts of sake and watching the cormorant fishers ply their trade. It’s a beautiful night in Gifu for being out on the river, which is one of the pillars of the tourist trade here, and it’s oddly calming watching the boats sedately cruise down the river. From my vantage up on the bridge I try to spot the lucky boat that is carrying Gifu’s last maiko.

Tokyo Photographer, Videographer Irwin Wong (26)

The city of Gifu was, at one point, the most important city in Japan. At a time in history when all of Japan was a battleground contested by numerous feuding warlords, Gifu was seen as the base from which all of Japan could be unified. Powerful warlords used Gifu as their seat of power, and as a result Gifu’s commerce went through the roof. Artisans, craftsmen, swordsmiths, traders and so on made their base in the city and flourished; Gifu’s economy became rich, and where there is riches there is entertainment, and where there is entertainment, there will be Geisha. It is from these roots that the culture of geisha found its way to Gifu and has survived here to this day…barely.

Tokyo Photographer, Videographer Irwin Wong (19)

Tokyo Photographer, Videographer Irwin Wong (20)

Tokyo Photographer, Videographer Irwin Wong (21)

 

Meet Kikumame, or Mame-chan to her friends. The first time I visited Gifu just over a year ago, she was one of three maiko who were residing there. Now she is the last one left.

Tokyo Photographer, Videographer Irwin Wong (22)

Tokyo Photographer, Videographer Irwin Wong (23)

Maiko are apprentice geisha, and they wear the white face paint, girlish kimono and hair accessories that are most often mistakenly associated with fully fledged geisha. Maiko are generally less uptight and more playful than their geisha counterparts, making them more approachable. They dance, they laugh, they engage you in spritely conversation, they play drinking games with you; to be entertained by a good maiko is a singularly awesome cultural experience that I can’t recommend enough. For the maiko however it’s a tough life – one that has its rewards but requires your complete devotion to honing the craft over a lifetime. Constant practice and training leave little time for other pursuits. The attrition rate is high in the already ailing industry.

Tokyo Photographer, Videographer Irwin Wong (11)

Tokyo Photographer, Videographer Irwin Wong (14)

Tokyo Photographer, Videographer Irwin Wong (15)

Tokyo Photographer, Videographer Irwin Wong (16)

Tokyo Photographer, Videographer Irwin Wong (18)

There are perhaps only 10 places remaining in Japan with Hanamachi, or geisha districts. The most famous of these is Kyoto, the former seat of the Emperor. Geisha from Kyoto are known to be the most expensive and exclusive in Japan. Gifu on the other hand, is the only place in Japan where you can party with a maiko on a boat. During the spring and summer months,

If you’re very lucky, you can book a very limited spot on a boat with Kikumame to go watch the cormorant fishing take place. Because of this Gifu maiko are different to those of other provinces in many ways; the way they dress is different, the way they dance is different, and the drinking games they play are different. Take the most visible difference a Gifu maiko shows; the obi – the wide sash that is usually tied around the back into elaborate patterns. A Gifu maiko who has to walk up and down the cramped confines of a riverboat cannot afford to have a bulky silk knot whacking customers in the back of the head. That’s why their obi are tied higher up in a style called yanoji, a style which is completely unique to Gifu. And with Kikumame being the only maiko in the city, it’s safe to say that she’s the only one the world wearing kimono in that style.

Tokyo Photographer, Videographer Irwin Wong (2)

Tokyo Photographer, Videographer Irwin Wong (3)

As I watch Kikumame go through the ritual of putting on her traditional white makeup, I note there are many ways in which she still seems an apprentice; she mutters and scolds herself when she makes a mistake putting on makeup, and she has to come and go several times to retrieve things that she’s left in her room. I didn’t know it, but at that time she had only been a maiko for less than half a year, which seems like such a short time in a lifelong profession. Once the makeup is completed however, there’s a palpable difference in the air. Gone is the shy girl who greeted me at the door; someone else with different mannerisms and gestures has taken her place: a maiko, a entertainer from older times.

The next day Will and I board Kikumame’s boat to see her perform. Through deepening twilight, the boat churns through the water, laden with merrymakers, booze and food. Kikumame sits with customers, keeping cups topped up and engaging in lively conversation. Her mentor, a famous male geisha called Kikuji* shows off his drinking prowess. The boat, having arrived at its destination, drops anchor and shuts off its motor. Stillness descends over the river. There’s still time before the cormorant fishers arrive so Kikumame stands up and goes to the front of the boat and starts to dance.

Watching her it is hard to believe that she has trained for less than half a year up to that point. There is no hesitation in her movement; the graceful, serene figure twirling in front of me is without a doubt the future of Gifu’s geisha industry. She’s seen two of her sisters quit the profession in the short time since she joined, but it’s clear to me and everyone on the boat that Kikumame was born to be a maiko.

Tokyo Photographer, Videographer Irwin Wong (25)

The night ends with more drinking, more dancing, more merrymaking, culminating in the procession of the cormorant fishers cruising by with their spectacular flaming lanterns. A collective sigh goes up from the boat as they recede into the distance, and we make our journey back to port. It’s been a long day for everyone, not least of all Kikumame, who for the first time looks a little pensive. I reel a little as I realize the enormity of the lonely road ahead of her; days and months of training until she is a fully fledged geisha, and then many more years training her own apprentices. The weight of the mantle upon her shoulders boggles my mind. She must be tired and yet she bows deeply as she sees us off, waiting until the last of the passengers is out of sight before looking up again.

Tokyo Portraits – Fumio Sasaki for The Times

Ok, this title is a bit of a lie, it may say Tokyo Portraits but I actually traveled to the outskirts of Kyoto to photograph Mr. Fumio Sasaki who is a famous Japanese minimalist and author of the extremely popular book Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism.

While I suspect he may have had a residence in Tokyo at some point, on that particular day I met him he was staying on a university campus near Kyoto, in a tiny dorm room. True to his title, his room held nothing more than what he needed – not that it was completely devoid of anything but there was certainly no extra stuff, other than what the university had provided. A table, a chair, a bed and two drinking glasses were about the extent of what I could see.

The shoot was a very quiet, genial affair, with me doing my best to maneuver my lightstands around his cramped (despite containing very little) apartment, and I made these images with a Sony A7rII. Many thanks to The Times for always giving me interesting assignments like these ones!

Fumio Sasaki Portraits (1)

Fumio Sasaki Portraits (2)

Fumio Sasaki Portraits (3)

 

Tokyo Portraits – Yuusaku Maezawa for Wall Street Journal

Being an English and Japanese speaking photographer based in Tokyo, I’m lucky enough to be able to get editorial jobs that require someone who can operate without a costly translator. However, when I get the opportunity to photograph the same person multiple times in the same year for various outlets, I definitely know I have found my place in the market.

The person in question is Zozotown CEO Yuusaku Maezawa, an avid art collector who was definitely the man of the hour having purchased a Basquiat for a record sum at auction last year. I had photographed him earlier in the year for Forbes and now the wonderful people at the Wall Street Journal gave me another opportunity to photograph him, this time at his luxurious apartment in the heart of Tokyo. Mr. Maezawa certainly remembered me from our last encounter and this shoot was much more relaxed and fun than the other one, due to our familiarity. With so much expensive artworks lying around I was a little nervous about bumping into anything, but they made for a very enjoyable shoot.

Yuusaku Maezawa Portraits (2)

Yuusaku Maezawa Portraits (3)

Yuusaku Maezawa Portraits (4)

Yuusaku Maezawa Portraits (6)

Tokyo Travel Photography – Hoshino Resort for American Airlines

Recently I had the great pleasure of being able to photograph Hoshino Resort Tokyo for American Airlines business class mag, Celebrated Living. One of my images made it to the cover as well, which is always super exciting!

In many ways it was an extremely pleasurable photoshoot, not only because Hoshinoya Resort Tokyo is one of the most high end luxury accommodations in a city known for its amazing hospitality, but also because the staff on hand at the hotel were so incredibly warm, welcoming and friendly towards me. I honestly felt like a paying guest the whole time I was there, as they were so generous in listening to my requests and trying everything to make sure I could get the best shots possible. Not only that but they fed me (simply amazing food), and I was offered the use of their exquisite rooftop hot spring (which was tempting but I decided to work through the day).

At the end of the long, 12+ hour day I left the hotel feeling more uplifted and energized than when I arrived, which is an amazing feat given I tend towards curmudgeonly at the drop of a hat. Hoteliers take note – this is how hospitality should work.

Given that a room in Hoshinoya Tokyo is over $1000 a night, it’s not exactly somewhere I can recommend to everyone, but if you’re looking for an unforgettable experience and have some spare cash lying around, I cannot praise this place and its staff enough.

Here are some outtakes from the shoot, which I did using a Hasselblad H5D-40 and Sony A7rII.

  

It’s the Year of the Dog!

Happy New Year! I’ve finally returned to Tokyo where I can’t wait to resume photographing all of my ongoing projects.

As is my tradition, I’ve photographed a nengajo (Japanese New Years Greeting Card) with my close friends and family. This year, being the Year of the Dog, I was fortunate enough to be able to feature my good friend’s Shiba inu puppy Amaterasu (who has a bitchin Instagram feed ). It’s always fun to have live animals on set (as I have done in previous iterations of the nengajo here and here), and Amaterasu was by far the most well behaved talent I’ve ever had to work with, humans included. Possible one of the cutest as well.

Anyway without further ado, here are the photos, featuring myself, my wife, Hamish Campbell, Maiko Mita and of course Amaterasu. Kimono styling was done by the amazing Anji Salz, and the shoot hinged on the gorgeous cyberpunk style accessories crafted by Ikeuchi Hiroto. Hair and makeup was by the talented Misa Motoki. Looking forward to what hopefully will be a great year!Year of the Dog (1)

Year of the Dog (2)

Year of the Dog (3)

Year of the Dog (4)

Year of the Dog (5)

Year of the Dog (6)

 

Tokyo Portraits: Marie Kondo for The Times

A few years back I had the opportunity to photograph author and lifestyle consultant Marie Kondo in her Tokyo office.

Now in case you don’t know who Marie Kondo is, she basically rewrote the book for organizing your life, and her method of cleaning out your life so that the only possessions you own are the ones most dear to you has become so popular that her name has become part of the zeitgeist, in the form of the word ‘konmari’.  For people in the know, to konmari your life means to get your shit together and start ditching baggage – both physical and nonphysical – in order to make room for yourself to breathe. She’s basically one of the newest household names to come out of Japan.

Marie-san herself was small, both in stature and in voice, but she was an absolute joy to photograph despite her newfound international celebrity status. This article appeared in The Times, and was later syndicated for use in The Australian Sunday Edition – here are a couple of images from the shoot for you!

All images shot with a Hasselblad H5D-40.

Tokyo Portraits Marie Kondo (2)Tokyo Portraits Marie Kondo (1)

 

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Japan Portraits: Shuho Hananofu – Ikebana Master

Around December last year I did a little photo portrait project with the wonderful folks at Kyoto Journal, centering around profiling entrepreneurial women in Kyoto. Here’s one of the amazing ladies that I photographed, which incidentally made the cover of Kyoto Journal issue 89, a very handsome magazine which is available now.

Here is an excerpt from the very top of the article, written by the talented Elle Murrell, one of the most fun writers I’ve ever had the privilege of working with:

“Hananofu Shuho is an ikebana master who was in charge of flower study section at Jisho-ji, better known as Ginkakuji, the ‘Silver Pavilion’ – one of Kyoto’s most famous temples – for 10 years. Since leaving the Center for Cultural Studies (Jisho-ji Kenshu dojo) there in 2015, she continues teaching her art form, leading several classes per month in Kyoto, Tokyo and Kyushu. Her students come from all over Japan and even from China for these intimate sessions.’

I’ve seen Shuho-san do ikebana performances on several occasions, and I’m always struck by the poise and grace with which she pieces together the incredible flower arrangements that she is famous for. If you’re interested in learning from this master, she teaches at least once a month in Tokyo’s Mishuku neighborhood – I’m not sure where you can make inquiries to, but Google-sensei will probably have some answers.

Anyway here are some outtakes and the cover for you to look at! All photos shot with the Hasselblad H5D-40.

Japan Portraits - Shuho Hananofu (3)

Japan Portraits - Shuho Hananofu (1)

Japan Portraits - Shuho Hananofu (2)

Japan Portraits - Shuho Hananofu (5)

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Japan Portraits - Shuho Hananofu (7)

 

Japan Portraits - Shuho Hananofu (8)

 

Japan Travel Photography: Uji Green Tea

Earlier in the year I was very privileged to join a press tour to Japan’s Uji area, in Nara prefecture. Uji is one of the premier locations for growing and refining green tea, especially matcha, which is said to be of the highest quality. I was excited to explore an area of Japan that I’ve only had the chance to superficially explore up until now.

During the trip we were shown some of the oldest locations in Japan where tea leaves are still grown, as well as a variety of historical sites that denote areas where green tea was first introduced in Japan. The best part of course was visiting the remote terraced slopes where the tea leaves are grown en masse – the picturesque, fastidiously manicured hills are definitely a sight to be seen if you are into tea, photography or both, and they are definitely worth the effort to go the extra mile from the station.

The other highlight of course, is tasting the matcha and wagashi (Japanese sweets) that are the product of this historical area. There’s matcha in everything here, so if you like green tea flavored ice cream, coffee, soba noodles and other things, Uji is definitely your place!

Anyway, enjoy some travel photography from Uji, and get your appetite for green tea going!

All photos shot with a Sony A7rii and a variety of lenses, but mostly the Zeiss Batis 2.8/135 and 1.8/85.

Japan Travel Photography - Uji (16)

Japan Travel Photography - Uji (14)

 

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Japan Travel Photography - Uji (17)