I suggest reading the article listening to this great piece of japanese jazz – to sync your mood with what we felt during the trip.
Since any of my first two trips to Japan (i.e. in 2012 and 2015) were not enough to satisfy my hunger for experiences in that amazing country, I decided to head back to the narrow streets of Tōkyō and other cities once again. As I did during my previous trip, I went with people I care a lot about and with whom I can share my interest for the country. We chose a wide array of cities to visit, and added Kanazawa and Aomori to my usual tour plan. Moreover we all went on the trip with cameras – and a total of 25 rolls of Ilford HP5 and 10 cartridges of I-type instant film to shoot in a 24-days trip – so everything pointed to it being first and foremost a photo-voyage.
Nonetheless we kept a travel diary, initially available only for the closest friends back home – but now public. We documented the much fun we had every day, scrolling the streets and facing the adverse weather – forcing our way through any trial and always managing to find exactly what we were looking for: a vivid country where to share laughs, food and amazement with one’s companions. We documented our days with the army of cameras we had with us, and the I-1 camera was our first choice most of the time. Yet, we also managed to try Fuji Instax Mini cameras at Yodobashi Camera: they were working and with instant film in it, for clients to try it. We obviously didn’t resist, and the results were interesting enough to convince me to get one for Giuditta’s birthday later in december.
What I noticed first was the degree of differences and similarities between how I – on my third trip there – reacted to the many stimuli, compared to them – on their first encounter with that amazing country: despite my enthusiasm obviously being more moderate, still was on par with theirs somehow. They were baffled by every high-tech piece of furniture or service; by the extremely heterogenous city-landscape made up of buildings, electric poles, parks, rivers and railways; by the use and abuse of anime (i.e. アニメ, japanese animation) in fields other than cartoons; by the extreme usefullness of combini (i.e. コンビニ or convenience stores, such as 7-Eleven and FamilyMart) at any hour of day or night. I grew used to those things, but that means that I now consider them normal and miss them when away from Japan.
What I will not be missing after this trip is the extreme heat of japanese summer: compared to my previous trip in early spring and deep winter, August is the hottest one can experience there. Humidity and temperature skyrocketed to the point that even my friends – less sensitive to heat than me – suffered from it a few times. Still, it was not a big issue and we got used to it – at least I tried. The country in summer is very different from what I previously experienced: colors were mostly farther off in the warm spectrum – except for the green of mountains and gardens, that was extremely vivid.
Yet that could be said as long as the weather was fine. But most of our trip was marked by Typhoon Noru hitting every city we visited the day before our arrival: the result was that luckily we never encountered it completely, but left a general bad weather behind it. This still did not deviate us away from our program, neither ruined our days. That was – as well as the heat – just another way to see and experience Japan. Yet, a very wet one (i.e. 98% humidity).
Luckily most of the kind of interesting places that I like to visit there can be reached by train – and Japan is a country whose highly efficient train services is part of both its daily functionality, and its visual history. They are everywhere, people take them all the time and from their windows one can see most of the country. I personally love moving by train there, even more as the urban trains mostly aren’t hidden underground, but integrated with the city, its buildings and its parks. They are a world on itself, and people on them are fascinating: controllers, commuters, students, clerks.
Small alleys might fascinate me even more: behind Japan’s POP-cultured appearance, along with its feudal-themed elements – some related to an existing historic value, some others just staged for tourism – there a world of suburbs, tiny alley-markets and electric poles. People there are the most fascinating to me: they are ‘less obvious’, if that can be a quality. A place I would have loved to take pictures of are sentō (i.e. japanese public baths), but it obviously was unpractical and unethical. Yet, I would like in a future trip to Japan to contact one of them and plan ahead to take some portraits of locals there, before working hours.
I really want to portray the ‘unpolished face of Japan’ with my pictures. The Tsukiji fish market partly embodies that: despite being a very crowded place – filled with both locals and tourists – it reflects the crude, fascinating reality of concrete-bound alleys, where people all interact with one another. Also, food is a major attraction there: from tamagoyaki (i.e. 卵焼き, japanese omelette) to the freshest toro no sushi (i.e. トロの寿司, fatty tuna sushi). But that is true for most food in Japan: even the onigiri (i.e. おにぎり, rice balls) sold at FamilyMart are amazing. In fact, my usual onigiri intake while there is of about 2-3 per day. Night and day, and mostly with mentaiko (i.e. 明太子, spicy pollock roe).
Despite all my love for japanese food, it’s all about the people when it comes to photography – and taking pictures in Japan is fun and moving as people are not inhibited: they do not lower their voice in public out of embarrassment. They interact with each other and they even interact with foreigners, just out of cordiality and curiosity. I even noticed that most times are children to make them more open: in many other countries the children’s curiosity is usually silenced – out of some irrational dictate or just because it is felt as a nuisance. Here they push adults into being more authentic.
They also make a fantastic photo subject do to their innocent nature and their actions guided by pure curiosity, even though it always is a delicate matter: a japanese photographer I’m in touch with had a weird encounter with the police in his small town due to having taken some pictures of kids around the street – among many other pictures – and some people that weren’t familiar with him misinterpreted his purpose and contacted the police. He had to explain that he’s a photographer and that they probably would not even have been that much recognisable in the pictures. Such episode shows how we always need a balance between being careful and being aware.
Other than few people being afraid of strangers and even more of gaikokujin (i.e. 外国人, foreigners), most of those we encounter were always extremely kind. Many even just wanted to have fun with us: there was this guy at Kanazawa’s fish market that kept staging a bewildered reaction at us taking pics of him. All three of us indeed have more than one frame each of his reaction. What is interesting to me is that, although staging it, he was not faking it: he was just being overly expressive of his nature. And I believe that this is what I love of Japan: people that interact with you and that live their lives in front of you, not afraid to be watched in the meanwhile.
Once back in Milan I realised that during every trip to Japan, I always carried a different camera: during the first one I was still using a digital Nikon D60, while in 2015 I went there with the Konica Hexar RF that my grand-uncle gave me and whose shutter motor got stuck the following summer. This once I brought another camera – one that I already had had for few years back in 2012: my Nikon FM2. While I currently have few cameras now, most of them are cheap, used cameras I got by luck at flea markets or from parents. I only bought few proper cameras and had to work hard for them. Chances made me change my cameras, to find – step by step – those I’m more comfortable with.
Just before leaving for Japan I bought online a Nikon SB-15 flashlight: I wanted to bring along one to take pictures of the dim lit scenes one can find while strolling around japanese cities. I ended up using it most of the time. It helped me cut through the darkness that would otherwise inhibit me from shooting well with an ƒ/4 lens. And results are peculiar: the flash in fact is set to only cover up to a 24mm lens coverage, thus not illuminating the far corners of my picture – due to being shot on a wider 21mm lens.
The result is even better with this technical flaw: the subject is more isolated, yet the light fall-off is not complete therefore it doesn’t seem like having a major vignetting. People pop out of the picture, and their surroundings vibrate with just a slightly minor intensity. It is a very welcomed result for me, as I’ve been trying to work more and more on building up a consistent body of work tied by such a theme. I believe these flash pictures can work well with other I took without flash as – while still being a recognisable feature – it is not over-characterising.
I had much curiosity and expectations for these photographs, but as always I had to wait for a while before being able to properly watch them: at first it took time to develop all the pictures at an 8-rolls-at-a-time rate, then I printed them when I had enough time in the evening. Such a delay helped me get more detached from the picture, although one was stuck in my memory: we went to visit the Kinkakuji (i.e. 金閣寺, the Golden Pavillion) on a very rainy day, and the bad weather stopped no other visitor. Crowded as always I decided to take a picture of the pavillion and of the tourists with the flash: such an overcast sky, a light reflected on the gold surface, transparent umbrellas covered in raindrops, and people glaring in the dark background pleased my aestethics and troubled my detachment. Luckily the picture did not disappoint me – and also gave me the chance to start printing on fiber-based paper (i.e. higher quality, requiring though harder work) instead of the usual resin-coated one I am used to, since I needed extra exposure range.
I’m glad to have so many pictures that depict Japan exactly as I see it, or at least resonate with my visual vocabulary of high-contrast wide-angle pictures applied to a country where I love to spend time. Moreover, they are also a keepsake of a trip made with people I deeply care about and that helped me catch glimpses of their own way to interpret Japan and its peculiarities.
“Time flows in the same way for all human beings; every human being flows through time in a different way.” ― Yasunari Kawabata
Thanks to Giuditta Fullone for reviewing this article.
All the images included in this article were shot on Ilford HP5 (pushed @1600) film in a Nikon FM2 with a Leitz 21mm ƒ/4 lens, home-developed in 1+0 ID-11 or 1+30 HC-110, home-printed in my bathroom/darkroom, and then scanned.