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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)

 

Tokyo Portraits: Accidental Icon (Lyn Slater)

A couple of months ago my amazingly talented friend and Tokyo-based kimono stylist Anji Salz messaged me excitedly and told me one of her fashion idols had agreed to do a collaboration with her. This fashion idol was one Accidental Icon aka Lyn Slater, professor at Fordham University who had – yes – accidentally become an extremely popular Instagram icon. One look at her feed was enough to convince me that I wanted to photograph her, and so it was that we all gathered on a freezing early February morning near Harajuku’s famous fashionista street, Takeshita Street to take some photos before the crowds rolled in.

Ms. Slater herself was warm and cooperative, bearing with my constant changes in settings and posing with the patience of a saint – and that’s saying something considering how cold it was on that day. We wrapped up just as the rain came in and retreated into a cafe for some well deserved hot coffee.

The haori jacket and demon mask obi (belt) are antiques provided by the very lovely Anji, and the python skin kimono is her original creation. If you are into kimono fashion her blog is an absolute must: http://www.salz-tokyo.com

Here are just a few shots from the very short shoot – hope you enjoy them!

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Accidental Icon (1)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Accidental Icon (2)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Accidental Icon (3)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Accidental Icon (4)

 

Tokyo Portraits: Kazuo Ishigame for Forbes

Thankfully, there will always be a demand for executive portraits in Tokyo. This time around I was very fortunate to be asked to photograph the Japanese entrant in the Forbes 30 under 30 list in Enterprise Technology. Kazuo Ishigame runs Infostellar, a cloud based service which allows antennae operators to rent out their antennas between the long downtimes that they are waiting to be in contact with satellites flying overhead. Yeah, it’s pretty complicated.

When I was asked to do this shoot, trying to encapsulate Mr. Ishigame’s job description into a single frame became an extremely difficult task the more I thought about it. Computers, satellites, renting antennae? Photographing CEOs of tech companies with intangible services is definitely the challenge facing this generation of portrait photographers.Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Forbes 30 u 30 Kazuo Ishigame (4)

I ended up going with an idea that I had used in an unpublished test shoot from some years ago; my assistant and I strung up a large amount of cotton against a sky-blue background and lit it to look like clouds. Then I glued together a cheap plastic model of a satellite that I found on Amazon and strung it from the ceiling. I think the homemade, craft look made the scene charming and warm, rather than if I had just photoshopped some stock clouds onto the background.

Anyway, the moral of the story here is always keep experimenting when you do random test shoots – you never know when something you do might come in useful during a difficult executive portrait shoot! Here are some shots that were not used in the final version, I hope you enjoy them!

 

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Forbes 30 u 30 Kazuo Ishigame (3)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Forbes 30 u 30 Kazuo Ishigame (2)

For this last one I brought the clouds down around Mr Ishigame’s waist to make it look like he was standing amongst the clouds – the photo was not used in the final layout however if it had been chosen I would have photoshopped out the fishing wire that we used to hang up the clouds.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Forbes 30 u 30 Kazuo Ishigame (1)

 

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)

The Royal Express, Irwin Wong Tokyo Photographer (40)

The Royal Express, Irwin Wong Tokyo Photographer (38)

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The Royal Express, Irwin Wong Tokyo Photographer (35)

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The Royal Express, Irwin Wong Tokyo Photographer (31)

The Royal Express, Irwin Wong Tokyo Photographer (30)

The Royal Express, Irwin Wong Tokyo Photographer (29)

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The Royal Express, Irwin Wong Tokyo Photographer (27)

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The Royal Express, Irwin Wong Tokyo Photographer (23)

The Royal Express, Irwin Wong Tokyo Photographer (19)

The Royal Express, Irwin Wong Tokyo Photographer (18)

The Royal Express, Irwin Wong Tokyo Photographer (17)

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The Royal Express, Irwin Wong Tokyo Photographer (13)

The Royal Express, Irwin Wong Tokyo Photographer (12)

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The Royal Express, Irwin Wong Tokyo Photographer (9)

The Royal Express, Irwin Wong Tokyo Photographer (8)

The Royal Express, Irwin Wong Tokyo Photographer (6)

The Royal Express, Irwin Wong Tokyo Photographer (4)

The Royal Express, Irwin Wong Tokyo Photographer (7)

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)