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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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Tokyo Portraits – Maezawa Yuusaku for Forbes

Earlier this year I was commissioned by Forbes to photograph a portrait of Maezawa Yuusaku, the billionaire CEO of Zozotown and art collector who has gained notoriety recently for dropping a record amount of money on an original Basquait.

Unfortunately at the time of shooting the Basquait wasn’t available to be photographed alongside Mr Maezawa, so here he is pictured alongside his original Picasso in one of his offices at his Chiba headquarters.

When I first entered the office the wooden wall really struck my fancy as I knew it would look gorgeous lit with my strobes, however there wasn’t anywhere to hang the Picasso. This meant that they would have to knock some holes into that beautiful wooden wall in order to hang the painting for the photos – something which I was loathe to ask for, however once I checked out every other area I could use for photos I became convinced that this was my spot. A little bit of polite wheedling and assurances that the photos would be worth the effort, Mr. Maezawa himself gave the OK and the Picasso was mounted on the wall just like I wanted.

The rest of the shoot went well, with Mr. Maezawa being a great photo subject, showing his playful side for a few frames, and I think the Picasso looks great where it is!

Photos shot with Hasselblad H5D-40 and 80mm and 150mm lenses. Lighting is Profoto B2 with two heads. Maezawa Yusaku, Zozotown for Forbes (1)

Maezawa Yusaku, Zozotown for Forbes (2)

Maezawa Yusaku, Zozotown for Forbes (3)

Maezawa Yusaku, Zozotown for Forbes (4)

 

Maezawa Yusaku, Zozotown for Forbes (5)

Maezawa Yusaku, Zozotown for Forbes (6)

Maezawa Yusaku, Zozotown for Forbes (7)

Maezawa Yusaku, Zozotown for Forbes (8)

Corporate Photography – Lotus Biscuits

Here’s a spot of corporate photography that I shot in Tokyo for Lotus Biscuits earlier in the year. The images were used in the global annual report, and we shot it at the Segafredo in Hiroo, which is a big favorite for expat soccer moms.

Halfway during our shoot the cafe opened up for business, which made it a little difficult! All in all though, everything went fine and here are a few outtakes and a tearsheet for you to take a gander at. All photos shot with a Hasselblad H5d-40 and various lenses.

Short post this time but I’ll have more gear-related posts for you in the near future, I promise!

    

Japan Portraits: Kumiko Otsuka

Sometime it’s good to post some good old executive portraits because because I sure as hell manage to photograph a lot of these here in Tokyo. Being able to reliably make good portraits of executives in a tight time frame with all of their minders and PR staff hanging around is a skill worth learning in order to keep the jobs coming and the cash flowing.

With that in mind here’s the first in a series of CEOs of major Japanese companies that I’ve photographed recently for Forbes, the first one being Kumiko Otsuka, CEO of Otsuka Furniture. Recently she’s been in the news over the acrimonious power struggle with her father over the right to lead the company. Under her leadership she has turned the company around and managed to bring it out of the red.

Forbes sent me in to grab the portrait on a media junket day when every news outlet was covering the redesigned look of their flagship Shinjuku store, so I knew that I’d be little more than a blip in a full day of media commitments, and it’d be up to me to squeeze as much time out of my engagement as possible.

Rule no.1 – arrive early, especially if you’ve never seen the place before. The quicker you’re able to start setting up your lights, the more dominance you’ll have when it comes to grabbing the juiciest locations. Just like at a busy Beijing food court – you stake your claim to a table and you don’t leave it until the job’s done. Case in point was this interesting frame-within-a-frame display that I found near the entrance that would be perfect for a full page vertical.

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Japanese Artisans: Koinobori in Gujo Hachiman

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 Carp Streamers of Gujo Hachiman from Irwin Wong | Photographer on Vimeo.

Carp Swimming up a Winter Stream

As I write this I am sitting in a trendy cafe in Gujo Hachiman watching the snow pile down outside in swirling flurries. My hands and toes have been frozen two days of standing in a river taking photos and video but as usual with these shoots I’ve been having the time of my life.

The town of Gujo Hachiman might be one of the greatest undiscovered treasures in a whole prefecture of undiscovered treasures. It’s a small mountain town of merely 43,000 situated over the confluence of three crystalline rivers, with beautifully preserved townhouses, picturesque bridges, temples and shrines. Its traditional veneer added to a lively mix of trendy cafes and bars makes this small town impossibly charming in a rustic way that Kyoto can no longer match. Oh, and did I mention there’s a castle on a hill?

Culturally, the town boasts riches. Amongst many other traditions, every winter, on the coldest day of the year, there is a rite unique to Gujo Hachiman that unfolds in the pristine rivers flowing through the small town. This rite is called Koinobori no Kanzarashi, and it involves the washing and cleaning of freshly dyed carp streamers in freezing waters overnight. Gujo Hachiman is the only place in the world that you can see this custom in practice.First, a little background – let me take you inside the workshop of Watanabe Shokichi, the 14th generation owner of the Gujo Honzome Indigo Dyeing workshop, a place that has been in business since around the year 1570 (more than 400 years ago, for anyone counting). Indigo dyeing is a treasured practice in Japan, as due to its commonly occurring natural ingredients and its hardiness it is one of the oldest traditional methods of coloring textiles around. Needless to say, everything made in this workshop is hand-dyed, either by Shokichi himself, or by his younger brother or son. They make everything from handkerchiefs to shirts, totebags and more, and visitors to Gujo Hachiman or surrounding towns will be able find his works in museums or stores (for exceptionally reasonable prices).

Amongst the other things made at Watanabe-sensei’s workshop are koinobori – or Carp Streamers. Koinobori are an important decoration in Japanese culture; basically a colorful carp-shaped windsock, they are flown outside en masse on the Japanese national holiday of Children’s Day. The streamers themselves take a variety of designs and range wildly in quality, but few match the impressiveness of the ones made in Watanabe-sensei’s workshop. Dyes and techniques perfected over 400 years of craftsmanship help make the streamers more vibrant and vivid colors than their mass produced counterparts. The process is relatively straightforward (if you’re a master); starting with a blank canvas, the outline of the carp is drawn on with a special paste made out of soybeans. Once the paste has set, the colors are brushed on with deft strokes, carefully so as not to let the dye clump or blotch unevenly.

The real trick though, comes from the 400 year-old practice of kanzarashi, ie soaking the carp in the freezing rivers overnight. This custom is useful in several ways; it is said to fix the vibrancy of the colors, and the extreme cold is purported to have a bleaching effect on the undyed portions of the fabric, making the colors pop even more. Every winter, on the coldest day of the year, the Watanabes and volunteers from the town take the prepared carp streamers down to the Yoshida River and anchor them in the fast-flowing water using cinderblocks, turning them over every couple of hours. There is a festive, momentous feel to these proceedings – Gujo Hachiman is lovely, but doesn’t rake in massive amounts of tourists like other popular spots. Few other people are standing by watching as the work goes on. The people of Gujo continue doing this simply for the love and respect they have for their traditions.

As the day winds down and and golden hour approaches, the carp floating in the stream are lit up by worklights. The winter chill becomes more biting yet the snowy scenery starts to take on a magical, surreal aspect. The carp appear ever more vivid bobbing here and there in the river. As if on cue, a score or so of local photographers have appeared out of nowhere, and I can see why; it’s pretty hard to beat this view. One of the volunteers has produced a bamboo flute from somewhere and is playing a haunting tune over the dull roar of the terraced waterfall. It’s the kind of insanely picturesque scene that photographers dream of.

The next day broke with snow flurrying down from an overcast sky. Despite this, the crowd of spectators has doubled in anticipation o the day’s proceedings. Having been left overnight in the freezing river, the carp are ready to be cleaned and harvested. The soybean paste that was used to mark the lines of the carp has hardened from exposure to the cold water and is now meticulously scraped off, exposing the crisp white fabric underneath. The flakes of paste are then brushed off into the water with precise strokes, every care taken not to smear it onto the textile. The finished product is stunningly vibrant, delineated by crisp white lines and lustrous colors. One by one the carp are lifted out of the water where they are cut from their frames and taken to dry.

And just like that, the ritual of kanzarashi is over, and you’ll have to wait until next winter before you can see it again. The date of the next one is not set until late in the year, so you’ll need to remember to look it up once winter rolls around again, but it’s worth it. The sight of beautifully painted carp floating in a snowy river is literally one you cannot see anywhere else in Japan – the small town of Gujo Hachiman is the only place that is keeping this tradition alive.

As I wrap up this blog post, the snow outside has continued to fall. It’s a long lonely drive back from Gujo Hachiman to Nagoya where I’ll take the bullet train back to Tokyo, but I know I will come back to this little town nestled in the mountains because it’s just so cool. Plus, I hear there’s a festival where the locals dance in the streets for three days straight. How can I miss that?

Tokyo Portraits: Kasumi

–NSFW WARNING!–

The good thing about being a busy photographer is that you’re busy, which should never be taken for granted. The bad thing about being a busy photographer is that you have less time to shoot fun things, just for the sake of it. With that said, here’s a shoot I did with a great model Kasumi that had no relation to any ongoing project that I have in the works, but was just something I wanted to try out for fun. The substance on her mouth is melted wax, by the way.

Incidentally, the lens used on this shoot was the Zeiss Batis 2.8/135, which is the newest addition to the Batis family for Sony E mount. I wrote a few notes on it here for anyone interested!

Just to be clear, this post is 10/10 not safe for work, so proceed at your own risk!

Tokyo Photographer, Videographer - Irwin Wong (1)

 

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Commercial: TYKU Sake photographs

I consider myself primarily a portrait photographer here in Japan, but sometimes commercial work rolls in from overseas and I am more than happy to take it. In this case, TYKU sake wanted myself and a video team to go shoot some promotional content for their brand in New York. TYKU sake is actually brewed at Umenoyado Shuzo, one of the oldest breweries in Nara prefecture, so now you know you’re getting authentic sake when you buy TYKU.

We went down there in February, the chilliest month in Japan, and my job was to shoot some portraits of the various people working there, as well as document the brewing process, and shoot some of the new packaging on the bottles in authentic Japanese locations. Straightforward, but this has to have been one of my favorite jobs this year, just due to the team and the awesome location and immense amount of creative freedom we had from the client. The shoot was over two days with one travel day and the photos have been used on the TYKU website and social media.

Prepare for image dump with random captions and explanations dotted throughout, hope you enjoy!

Tokyo Photographer, Videographer - Irwin Wong (37)

Tokyo Photographer, Videographer - Irwin Wong (36)

Tokyo Photographer, Videographer - Irwin Wong (35)

This lady is the 5th generation owner of Umenoyado Shuzo. The blossoms near her face are from the famous 100 year old plum blossom tree for which this sake brewery is name after (Ume = plum)

Tokyo Photographer, Videographer - Irwin Wong (34)

The house was absolutely gorgeous and well maintained.

Tokyo Photographer, Videographer - Irwin Wong (32)

Tokyo Photographer, Videographer - Irwin Wong (31)

Tokyo Photographer, Videographer - Irwin Wong (30)

This man is the Tohji, or Head Chef, and he’s basically the chief of sake brewing here at Umenoyado Shuzo. Here he is inspecting some rice.

Tokyo Photographer, Videographer - Irwin Wong (29)

Kneading the rice and making sure temperature stays even throughout the whole batch – not an easy task with the weather as cold as it was over the two days.

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Steaming the rice happens really early in the morning!

Tokyo Photographer, Videographer - Irwin Wong (17)

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Tokyo Photographer, Videographer - Irwin Wong (10)

Mmmm delicious sake.

Tokyo Photographer, Videographer - Irwin Wong (9)

I photographed these packaging shots at Kyoto’s world famous Fushimi Inari Shrine, known for the thousands of red gates and stone fox statues dotting a gorgeous mountain.

Tokyo Photographer, Videographer - Irwin Wong (8)

Tokyo Photographer, Videographer - Irwin Wong (6)

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Tokyo Portraits: Book and Bed Tokyo

Here’s a quick post about some photos I shot in Tokyo for Dragonair’s inflight magazine near the start of the year. The shoot was featuring a new type of hostel in Tokyo (and Kyoto) called Book and Bed, and as you can see, it’s pretty much as advertised. Think of it as a capsule hotel but more homey and there are cool books, and a bit of a hipster vibe.

Here are three selects I made for them – it was a pretty small hostel, but if you’re looking for somewhere comfortable, trendy and cheap, Book and Bed Tokyo is located in Ikebukuro! Go check it out!

Tokyo Photographer, Videographer - Irwin Wong (3)

Tokyo Photographer, Videographer - Irwin Wong (1)

Tokyo Photographer, Videographer - Irwin Wong (2)

Tokyo Portraits: Ochiai Yoichi for Nature Index Mag

I photographed this portrait of Ochiai Yoichi in Tokyo in February, 2017 for the cover of Nature Index mag.

For the brief, I was told that Ochiai, who is phD  is considered a ‘wizard’ at manipulating matter using computer-controlled invisible forces, such as waveforms or phase arrays. I’m not really sure what all that means, but it sounds impressive, and the editorial team wanted to keep the wizard/magic theme going in the images. Short of a pointy hat and a grey beard, I came up with a concept that Ochiai could have lights on his fingertips, which would give him the ability to lightpaint and ‘manipulate’ the matter around him at will. Also, the lights would look kind of like the wands from Harry Potter- wizards!

Short of an actual, LED glove, I decided to make one myself. Using a bunch of cheap parts that I bought from Akiba (below), I constructed a really rudimentary but functional LED ‘finger light’ accessory, that I would tape to Ochiai’s arm, if he was ok with it.

Luckily, once he saw my contraption, he was excited about the idea of trying it, and he let me (without an assistant) attach the somewhat awkward (but elegant!) LED fingertip glove to his hand.

At first I was intending to photoshop out the wires however I kind of liked how they looked in the photo (kind of a cyberpunk vibe), and left them in. The editorial team at Nature Index were stoked with the photos and ended up using a select for the cover. Here are some outtakes below!

     

Japanese Artisans – The Magic Mirror Craftsman

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 Magic Mirror Artisan from Irwin Wong | Photographer on Vimeo.

There are a myriad reasons why I visit Kyoto. For those tossing up whether to book tickets, just do it – it’s a no-brainer. The city is comprised of so many elements that make it endlessly enchanting; crystal clear canals crisscrossed with stone bridges, ancient paved roads aglimmer with soft lantern light, the terraced banks of the Kamo river at dusk…there is no combination of words to fully describe the renewed sense of wonder I get everytime I stroll around the city. For the casual wanderer, Kyoto is a treasure trove of textures and facades, of modern sensibilities artfully mingled with traditional design. The effortless charm this city has is enough to keep me coming back dozens of times, with or without a camera. Boy, do I love Kyoto.

Dig a little deeper than the surface charm however, and there you’ll find vestiges of the city Kyoto used to be: not as a tourism hotspot, but as the former imperial capital and center of religion of Japan for over a millenia. Craftsmen and artisans of all manner flourished in ancient Kyoto, honing their profession year after year, generation after generation, century after century. Carpenters, fletchers, weavers, dyers, metalworkers; hundreds upon thousands of narrow specialties each contributing to their particular cultural ecosystem. Nowadays, there aren’t so many craftsmen or women left. Entire ecosystems have collapsed, no longer needed anymore. In other cases, masters of their craft, unable to find an apprentice, have died without passing their flame onto a successor. Each time this happens, sadly, an untold amount of knowhow and skill built up over generations winks out of existence. As younger generations see less reward in devoting their life to a singular craft the passage of time will surely see more and more of these crafts disappear permanently. For now at least, in the 21st century, there are still traditional craftsmen in Kyoto, plying their trade as it has been plied for centuries on end.

Yamamoto Fujio and his son Akihisa make Magic Mirrors. They work out of a modest atelier on a quiet street, fifteen minute’s walking distance to Kyoto Station. It’s so modest in fact, that you would be forgiven for walking right past it in search of flashier cultural attractions. The sign over their door is also laughably banal – ‘Yamamoto Metalworks’ – a stunningly humble designation given that they are the only people left in all of Japan – and possibly the world – that know how to make Magic Mirrors anymore.

While you may be thinking of those mirrors at amusement parks that make you look fat or skinny, these ones are nothing of the sort. Magic Mirrors (makyo 魔境) are primarily religious items placed in shrines, private residences or even graves, or used as ceremonial tools. No glass is used in their production, in fact the mirrors are milled out of solid discs of bronze – polished, filed and sanded on one side to create a reflective surface of dazzling clarity. The magic part however, comes when you reflect a beam of light off the mirror onto another surface; inexplicably, an image appears. There’s no immediate explanation for why they do this – the mirror is solid bronze and the surface is completely flat. In an effort to understand better, I looked up some sources and came up with this: ‘stresses caused by scraping and polishing cause ‘preferential buckling’ into convexities of a scale too small to be seen by the human eye, but matching the design on the back of the mirror’. Well ok then.

However baffling the scientific explanation for this phenomenon is, the fact is Magic Mirrors have been made for hundreds of years. Fujio is the 4th generation maker in his family; his son Akihisa is the 5th. The workshop itself is bare of ornamentation, but brimming with tools and implements involved in making the mirrors, all bearing the patina of constant use but lovingly maintained in peak condition. A craftsman is nothing without his tools.

The process of making the mirrors isn’t overly complicated – it’s just enormously difficult. Firstly Fujio shows me how he makes the mold for the molten bronze to be poured into. Magic mirrors all have a design on their back, often religious iconography or a Japanese motif, and these are hand pressed into a block of clay using dozens of subtly different carving implements.

After a visit to a local foundry in which the bronze is cast into the mold, the resulting solid block of bronze goes back to the workshop where the laborious process of polishing begins. Once again a large arsenal of tools comes into play – this time in the form of curved blades and a variety of what looks like enormous metal nail files. Alternating implements of varying degrees of coarseness, Yamamoto-san begins scraping and smoothing down the grain of the metal with precise and rhythmical strokes. I ask Yamamoto-san who makes the files and he says that to his knowledge there is but one specialized file craftsman left in Kyoto who makes them, and he’s in his nineties. Another profession on the brink, I reply, to which Yamamoto-san just nods. The slow decline of less popular traditional crafts has been something he has witnessed in his city over the years.

The bronze is then washed and further buffed with special charcoal to further erase the grain of the metal and smooth out the surface. The resulting mirror is startlingly clear; a completely different experience to looking into a regular glass mirror. The show stealer however is undoubtedly seeing the hidden image in the reflected light for the first time. The mind knows that the mirror is solid metal; I saw the thing being made right in front of me so I know there are no hidden tricks built into it. The image of Buddha that the mirror is producing is solely due to whatever magic lies in the hands of a master craftsman carrying knowledge that has been passed down for generations.

As my photoshoot wraps up and I prepare to leave, Yamamoto Fujio begins smoothing away at a steel lantern as part of another commission. His son Akihisa attends to the foundry where two new mirrors have been cast, as well as several other ornaments. As I watch them go about their daily business it’s hard to believe that they are the last people alive who can carry on the ancient art of magic mirror making. Akihisa says he doesn’t have children yet but he intends to pass on his knowledge to a 6th generation if he can. Right before I leave, I observe the quiet fortitude and humility with which they work. Backs bent over and bathed in late afternoon sunlight, their legacy as uncertain as morning mist, they toiled on into the twilight, producing one marvel of craftsmanship after another.

Lenses used in this shoot:

My kit consists of my go-to lenses for any assignment recently – my set of Loxia lenses including the 21mm, the 35mm and the 50mm (the 85mm wasn’t out at the time!). I don’t often like to gush but they are absolutely flawless choices for assignments that require both photo and video. Smooth manual focus, smooth aperture ring, amazing image quality in such a tiny package, what more could you want? I also used another recent addition to my bag, the Milvus 100mm Makro Planar f/2, which is absolutely fantastic for getting up close and picking out details that a craftsman may be working on, which is especially great for video. It’s a little heavier but boy is that lens worth it. Do I even need to mention that the image quality is amazing? Probably not, but I will anyway! All of this fits into one small over the shoulder bag which means I can pack more lighting or video gear without feeling overburdened.