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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 …

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 …

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. 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 …

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. I pull …

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 …