5 Things I learned in Japan
For the last month I travelled in Japan
for a project I shot called Master
Craftsmen: An Endangered Species.
Along the way I discovered, first hand,
why people describe Japan as a universe
First I wanted to thank everyone who has been checking the site while I was away. Its been nearly a month since I was back in NYC, and I did not have a chance to do any writing from the road. My days were typically long (about 12 hours) and I was left with little energy to write from Japan. But now that I am back, before my workshop in December (Calcutta/Kolkata), I would like to share the stories about my project Master Craftsmen: An Endangered Species.
The jet lag has not worn off yet and last night I was downtown at the Leica S2 event catching up with friends on a rooftop over looking the Highline. My body thinks it is 1:05 am right now. Ouch, its really 12:05pm NYC time. To give you a quick overview of what is coming up in the next month, I have these articles to publish, plus a few more if I can get them out.
- Leica Monochrom Review: Leica gave me one for the trip. It was a great camera to use.
- The announcement of an editor for the website. I am sure this will make some of you very happy, as I consider myself a more competent photographer than a writer or proofreader.
- Great Composition continued with a comparison of Bruno Barbey and Cartier Bresson.
- Two book reviews on the Phaidon book “Questions without Answers” and the expedition photography of Herbert Ponting with Scott’s Antarctic Expedition.
- Lens reviews of the 35mm Summilux version II & 50mm Summilux.
- Tales from the Venice Verona workshop and our time at legendary vineyard Giuseppe Quintarelli.
- A few articles on travel essentials that will make life on the road more enjoyable.
For those of you who have not visited Japan, as a photographer or a traveller, it is an experience that should not be missed. Life in Japan is a sensory inversion. Even the sprawling mass of Tokyo is a surprisingly civil and makes almost any country seem like a free for all. This is not to say that Japan’s apparent civility is better or worse than other countries, but it is certainly unique. After nearly a month, I was ready to come home, but find myself missing aspects of Japanese life immediately. What do I miss? Here is a quick list:
- Japan is clean, I mean really clean. I saw public toilets cleaner than most people’s homes in America.
- Trains that are always on time. The Shinkansen “Bullet Train” averages 40 seconds late a year.
- Every restaurant presents you with a fresh hot towel.
- The toilets are phenomenal. I am not sure how to say this politely, but the toilets are genius. All I could think was “what kind of cavemen are we that we still use toilet paper.”
- No one throws public tantrums. The daily display of childish tantrums (by adults) I see everyday in NYC is embarrassing.
- While London taxi drivers have the best geography, the white gloved Japanese taxies are half a tier under a private limousine. It makes for the most pleasant door to door drive.
- Speaking of taxis, in Japan there is no tipping. Unlike NYC taxies, who have the audacity to ask for up to 30% tips, in Japan this is a no go. In some cases its even considered disrespectful. I used to work for tips as a teenager, but now I realize that it creates an unnecessary strain between the customer and service provider. Companies should pay salaries, not tips. It makes for such a relief.
- The details of maps, architectural details, and courtesies hold historical secrets to Japanese culture.
We live like Animals
New York City is a gritty place to live. Compared to life in Japan, the day to day hustle of NYC, feels like Peter Pan’s Never-Never-Land. The only thing organized about New York is the grid of Manhattan. All the flurry on the grid is a chaotic swirl that feels inevitable. There are blaring horns, pushy subways, and over flowing garbage cans on every corner. New York feels like a city run by a bunch of teenagers. Tokyo is like New York’s older more sophisticated cousin. Its hard to imagine that people in Japan hardly litter. Instead they carry their garbage around, without ever considering leaving it on the ground. New York City is an assault on the senses. Since I got back, a day ago, I find myself constantly wincing at the amount of noise on the streets, subways and in restaurants. I am suffering from reverse culture shock.
Emotions are subtle
As far as I could gather, displays of emotion are a sign of weakness. This is a generalization about Japanese culture, but it many cases it holds true. People do not outwardly display emotion. It makes for a quieter life. People are quick to point out the repressive tendencies of Japanese culture and all of the pitfalls of repressed emotion, but as a visitor, the lull of cities like Kojima give your ears a chance to adjust to the silence. The unexpected quiet creates a garden of introspection which nourished by the lack of english spoken on the streets.
Tradition is not Dead
In this state of social isolation, I had an opportunity to explore the theme of the project as the days elapsed. The theme of my project was looking at Master Craftsmen as an Endangered Species. I discovered that certain traditions are in danger, but overall many of the crafts are alive and well, much more so than in the US or even parts of Europe. As a photographer it is unusual to see a level of authentic tradition in a modern setting.
Its all in the details
Over the next few months, as I write about my experiences in Japan we will explore what makes Japan such a unique country. Throughout my stay I was amazed at the attention to detail that was present in every city. From sewer covers to hand carved sign, the Japanese take pride in their work. It does not matter if it was a commission for the imperial family or a sidewalk for a working class neighborhood…the details are well thought out and brilliantly executed. I got a personal kick out of the manhole covers.
While there were some obvious difficulties like language barriers, not being able to read 90% of the menus, and bus systems that were more complicated than quantum theory, Japan is an accessible place to work. My plan is to take you through the project so you can see how this project took shape. From start to finish there was about four months of logistics and more emails than I would care to count. But in the end it was worth it. I hope that through the behind the scenes information a young photographer might have a better idea how to get their next project off of the ground. Because our work, even as isolating as it may feel at times, is a life long collaboration with the world around us.