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The Shikoku Files – Mutemuka Sake and Shochu Distillery

In the previous post I detailed how we stayed in a lovely guest house called Kuro Usagi in Kochi prefecture, and also how they brew their own potent form of bathtub rice wine called doburoku. Well, during dinner we managed to sample a few pitchers of the stuff and things got somewhat blurry after all that, although I do remember yelling at Rod from Shikoku Tours about how Dragonball Z is to Japanese pop culture like Shakespeare was to the English language. I don’t think he understood or accepted my position. I do remember waking up the next morning at 6am feeling awful, and upon staggering to the car we then proceeded to drive two hours through an interminable stretch of mountain roads whose twists and turns threatened to make me hurl on more than one occasion. I’m not sure how Rod managed to keep us on the road, as he had had quite as much as I had the previous night, but thanks to him we arrived at our next location largely unscathed, albeit much grayer …

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

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

The Shikoku Files – Experience Crafts in Mima, Tokushima

That afternoon we drove down from the mountains of Tokushima back into civilization – where we visited the old traditional streets of Mima, which I found to be absolutely lovely. In addition to beautifully preserved old Japanese buildings with cafes and shops built into them, there were several spots in which you could try your hand at some traditional crafts, one of them being making Wagasa, Japanese umbrellas. Having photographed a few wagasa workshops around Japan, I was surprised to find that Tokushima prefecture also had a history of making them, as the main centers of production are typically said to be Gifu, Kyoto, Kanazawa and Yodoe. There is a small workshop in Mima that is keeping the tradition alive by a thread though, and it’s only here that you can get hands on with making paper umbrellas. A short way down the street is a small indigo dyeing workshop where you can make your very own scarf or handkerchief dyed with all-natural indigo dye – said to be the most resilient color in nature …

The Shikoku Files – Mountain Blacksmith and Steep Incline Farmers

What I love about Japan is that there are all types of craftsmen – some of whom are national treasures who create priceless works of art or architecture, and others who are little known but are essential to the society around them. Case in point is Omori-san, the village blacksmith of the remote settlements in the wide area of Tsurugi township. The term village blacksmith doesn’t really gain much traction in modern society but here in the mountains of Shikoku the settlements can be so remote that driving to a shop is actually a whole-day endeavor. If you’re a local farmer and you need a new pitchfork, you’d rather go to Omori-san’s shack up in the mountains where he’ll have a selection of special implements for the special type of farming they do up there, or he’ll make you a new one to order out of scavenged scrap metal. Need a filleting knife? He’ll make that, and just about anything you need. Omori-san’s little forge is located just off an unnamed mountain road with a …

The Shikoku Files – Scarecrow Village, Kazurabashi and Tsurugi Shrine

After an amazing breakfast at Kouya, it was time to bid farewell to that wonderful place and head out on the road again. Amongst the twisting mountain paths we came across the small town of Nagoro, a town famous for being populated by more scarecrows than people. There is kind of a sad story behind it – a resident of Nagoro, having lived somewhere else for a number of years, returned to her hometown to find that most of her friends had passed away or moved somewhere else. Beset by loneliness, she began to make the scarecrows to ‘replace’ the people who once populated the small town. It’s a sad story that shows the struggle of isolated Japanese towns to maintain their population, although Nagoro is now very well known across the world as one of those unique oddities that one can only find in Japan.  If you’re an outdoors type then it certainly would be a good idea for you to visit the Kazura bridges in the Iya Valley. The kazura bridges are essentially …

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

Despite having been a photographer in Japan for almost 10 years, until this year I never had a chance to visit Shikoku, which is one of the 4 main islands that make up the country. Last month, thanks to Japan Rail Shikoku and Rod Walters of Shikoku Tours, I finally had the opportunity to go, and I couldn’t be happier. Shikoku is the smallest of 4 main islands but is packed with rich history and tradition. We started out on a trip to explore some of the traditional crafts of Shikoku as well as to discover less often visited gems in the countryside. The first port of call was Iya valley, an area in the mountainous interior of Tokushima with some beautiful rivers and hiking trails. We stopped in at a small restaurant where a wonderful lady called Tsuzuki-san will teach you how to weave baskets from local vine, as well as teach you how to make buckwheat soba.   The next place we visited was our accommodation for the night; a place called Kominka …

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. 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 …

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 …

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. The drawings on the kites themselves are complex …

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 …