Oct 262012

5 Things I learned in Japan

Master Craftsmen

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  

unto itself. 


“Utaro, the bartender,” Sakai, J A P A N. Leica Monochrom, 35mm Summilux f/1.4 version II.  © Adam Marelli 

Thank You

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.

“Clean Streets,” Sakai, J A P A N. Leica Monochrom, 35mm Summilux f/1.4 version II. © Adam Marelli

Clean Streets

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.

“Kennin-ji Temple Complex,” Kyoto, J A P A N. Leica Monocrhom, 35mm Summilux f/1.4 version II. © Adam Marelli

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.

“Japanese Emotion,” Okayama, J A P A N. Leica Monochrom, 35mm f/1.4 Summilux version II. © Adam Marelli

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.

“Girls training in Chanoyu (Tea Ceremony),” Kyoto, J A P A N. Leica Monochrom, 35mm Summilux f/1.4. © Adam Marelli

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.

“Manhole Cover,” Okayama, J A P A N. Leica Monochrom, 35mm Summilux f/1.4 version II. © Adam Marelli

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.


–Adam Marelli 



  45 Responses to “5 Things I Learned in Japan”

  1. What a great article Adam. Japan sounds and looks amazing.
    I am really looking forward to reading more of your articles on Japan in the future! :)

    The images in this article was really great as well!

    • Hey Borge,

      You would absolutely love it there. It has your kind of laid back vibe. I could see you doing really well traveling around.
      And you monochrom would keep you busy. If I did not have to shoot color for the magazine I would have taken only a monochrom.
      How are you enjoying yours?


      • I bet I would. Sounds like my type of place :) I was actually considering Tokyo for christmas and new years this year (yeah, strange period, I know, but we were a few that were planning to go together) but the trip was recently cancelled. So I might consider going some time next year in stead. If everything goes as I hope it will I will be traveling a bit next year.

        I re-call back in Italy that you told me unless you needed color for clients you would have got a MM yourself :) That actually got me thinking about the idea of a monochrome-only camera myself.

        I am enjoying it tremendously. I’ve taken about 1200 images with it now, and I’m starting to get the hang of rangefinder focusing and getting some decent focusing speed and I am also practising follow-focusing on subjects in motion (people) which is quite difficult but really fun when you start nailing it (depending on the speed of the subject you have to know the lens and how fast you should twist the focus ring to keep the subject in focus). Very fun in fact!

        One of the reasons that I purchased it was because I decided to start a project that I will work on the entire winter here back home in Norway. It’s quite dark here during the winter, but thanks to the bright white snow and city lights there’s lots of contrasts to play with. It’s very fun to be able to go out during the evening and night and shoot on the streets :)

        Really looking forward to your write-up on the MM, and especially to see more of your photographs from Japan! Let me know when and where they will be published.

        Have a great week Adam.

        • Hey Borge,

          Let me know what you decide for Japan. I think I will be headed back next Fall. Not sure when yet.

          After using the MM, I am really considering it. Very happy to hear that you are enjoying it. Leica’s take time to get to know them. I had used the Mamiya 7, which is a rangefinder prior to the Leica. So I was familiar with a rangefinder camera, but even still…it took about a year to really get the Leica. Things only get better from this point onward.

          On another point, the low light work is a blast. ISO 3200 feels like ISO 800 on the M9, maybe even a bit better. Any darker and the human eye starts to fail.

          The article I shot will run in Origin Magazine, here in the US. I will put up some scans when it is published. Not sure its available outside of the US.

          Chat soon.


    • Great article! It’s pleasant to read your feelings about your Japan trip. Come here again! :)

      • Hey Eric,

        I cant wait to come back and see you guys. Sakai was a really fantastic city and made much better by everyone there.

        Meeting great people can mean the difference between a good trip and a truly memorable one. Hopefully you will make it to NYC next year from some exhibitions.

        After the articles are published I am sure there will be lots of people eager to meet you and Yasuhiro.

        And dont worry about your english…its miles better than my japanese : )

        Arigato gozaimashita-Adam

  2. Perfect article, thanks for sharing with us!

  3. Great Article. Welcome back.

  4. Great article Adam! Really makes me wish to go to Japan in the near future even more! LAst but not least the Leica Monochrom images are excellent as well, I especially like “Japanese Emotion” for the man’s facial expression….

    • Hey Frederik,

      Japan is worth the trip. For most of us in Europe or the US it is a haul. Unless you have access to a fighter jet, its gonna be a long flight. But in a way it adds to the uniqueness of Japan. If you go, let me know. I am going back again next Fall.

      The man doing his crossword puzzle gave momentary flashes of emotion. I was fortunate enough to capture one of them. He was so engrossed in his paper, he never looked up. And you can imagine how close I was, since it was taken with a 35mm lens. What a treat. And the coffee at that place was pretty good too.


  5. Welcome back. Definitely looking forward to your review of the MM.

    • Thanks for the warm welcome back Ramosa.

      The Monochrom was a pleasure to use and while I might not have wanted one at its announcement…after about a month of shooting, it is a definite possibility.

      More on that soon.


      • Adam,

        Thanks for the quick reply and comment per the MM. You have helped me with a few recommendations via email per lenses–and I remain deeply indebted. I’m still using an M8, but have been wanting FF for quite a while. So many options now (e.g., MM, M-E, discounted M9 or M9p) and in a few months (i.e., M). Looking forward to your formal review of the MM!

        Stay well … and keep up the great work with your cameras and your website …

        • Hey Ramosa,

          At the Photo Expo and people had a chance to use the ME, MM and M9. Finally there are now a few more full frame options. Depends on your taste. If color is not an issue, I would recommend the MM.

          Let me know how you make out.


  6. That is really interesting Adam! It reminds me of an interesting thought of Alexandre Kojève, a french / russian reader of Hegel, diplomat. He is famous for having read in Hegel the End of History (the same that inspired in a terrible way the neo cons in the US).

    The point is that he saw after a trip to Japan that the End of History as two way : The Japanese way, based on snobbery, as opposed to the american way, based on animalization. As you can imagine, it’s a short version of his thoughts, but you’re article reminded me of this.

    Here is a reference about this question if you want to read further,
    and the book of Kojève where you can find the quote.

    Olivier – A Kojevian Street Photographer ;-)

  7. Your account reminds me of my impression of Disneyland in Anaheim when I was in my early 20s in the 1990s. It is so clean, a very special place and people are having so much fun! As a European, friends back home would say “your report makes me want to go to USA even more!!”. Now I know it was a very shallow assessment, but I was young.

    Nowadays many photographers treat “foreign” cultures like Disneyland. They feel they need to photograph everything that’s new to them and share it with the world as if it was a major discovery. You are not discovering the place, you are discovering only yourself. On top, the assessment is mostly the result comparing it with what they are used to culturally (back home). I don’t find that very engaging, although there are always people who like seeing Disneyland that way and probably would be disappointed if it went beyond their expectations.

    • Hey Dirk,

      Its pretty incredible how our perceptions change over time. What was once profound often feels shallow. But in the space between home and abroad, I enjoy knowing that people are in constant exploration of a landscape that is not quite their own.


  8. It has been only a few days since we returned from Japan, and I miss it already.
    From the cleanliness of the streets, the designated smoking areas, to the respect that people give you.
    I wish we could learn from them, instead of being a know-it-all nation, that really doesn’t know anything.
    Thank you Adam, for reminding us.

    • Hey Ed,

      The “know-it-all” nation has a lot to learn. Its great to experience, first hand, how much better public spaces can feel with a little consideration from the users and the designers.

      Is there nothing better than standing on the platform as the shinkansen comes sliding down the rails? When the subway in NYC approaches and we all nearly go deaf from the noise…all that comes to mind is, there is a better way to do this.

      Where did you travel in Japan?


  9. As a Japanese, I have some explanations on the manhole cover of Okayama City. In short, the characters on it come from a fairy tale. On the cover, from the bottom, is a monkey, Momotaro(a brave boy) and a dog on the top. To the left is a bird(Japanese pheasant). The story is that: Thay make a team, being Momotaro the chief, to get rid of demons in Oniga-shima(Island of Demons). Their punitive expedition succeeded and they returned with the treasures which the demons had deprived of the people.
    —Happy ending. I think almost every Japanese can associate the story of Momotaro with Okayama.

    • Kazu,

      Thank you for the back story on the Story of Momotaro. Its such a poetic detail to add to a manhole cover and one that has local significance. It seems to be the case that many details, like man hole covers, receive a different level of treatment and are not just a mass produced utility. Instead they reflect something about their place of origin.

      While I was out there, I was photographing Momotaro Jeans in Kojima. Everything fit together so well.

      Are you from the area?

      Thanks again.


      • Adam,

        Thank you for your reply. I live in Izumo area, some 150km north-west from Okayama.
        If you have a chance to visit the tourist spots of the area such as Adachi Museum, Matsue Casle, Izumo Grand Shrine, please let me know.


  10. こんにちは(^o^)/




    • Compliments of google translate:
      In English says:
      I’m glad we have an interest in Japan
      Please come to Japan again
      I’m sorry in Japanese …

      Thank you for the kind words. It was a wonderful experience. I look forward to returning next year.


      • “Ryouko” (means trip in japanese) said:

        I am happy for you interest in Japan.
        Please come again in Japan.
        Sorry because i wrote in Japanese”

        :-) Google translate was good this time!

        See you.

  11. Adam,

    You captured a lot of the essence of Japan. I was stationed there for almost 3 years (68-71) and loved it. One of my overwhelming memories is how polite the Japanese are. The other trait that burned into me is how subtle things are. I think you captured that well. Thanks for bringing back the great memories.


    • Hi Rich,

      Glad to bring back some positive memories for you. Yes, the politeness is incredible. Such an odd feeling to be treated with such kindness from complete strangers. Not to say that there are not kind people all over the world, but Japan was completely free of rushing and pushing…in a way that gave me reverse culture shock in NYC.

      Not sure where you are from originally, but would you agree that the subtlety also applies to the food? I found the seasoning was so delicate.


  12. Hi Adam,

    Your pictures are not at all same as the other blogers’ one and deeply appearing for me.
    And you seemed a man who can take air and atmosphere.

    More than 20 years lasting deflation, the service of the hot towel in the restaurant is also shrinking
    and is gradually replaced by the room-temperature wetted-paper-towel.

    I once went to the Manhattan island, NYC to enjoy the museums.
    The impression of the city was built on the extraordinary firm land, innumerable clusters of skyscraper,
    the meals were astonishingly hearty without a joke,
    there lived a few percents of the locals who were devoting in their business and much more kind than Japanese.

    Japanese emotions are subtle but maybe we are trained to read them.
    One of the traditional drama is “Noh”. It’s a masked play.
    The angles of the mask shows various emotions since the light gives different shadows on the blank face.
    A zenith stage effect is many flaming torches in braziers at night outdoor. “Takigi-Noh” is a traditional form of Noh drama.
    Natural winds give the waves of flame irregularly, the expressionless face talks louder his minds than it under the electric lights.
    In a very mystical atmosphere, you will start enjoying the savory of subtle expressions.

    The photo of the manhole cover was very pretty and the best one I had ever seen on this kind.
    Its picture depicts a traditional famous folktale “MomoTaro”.
    Literally, Momo means peach and Taro is a typical name in Japan like John in America – so imagine the name like “PeachJohn”.
    The design of the cover shows four characters and the ocean in the story.

    One day, a big peach was found floating upon the surface of river and picked out by a grandparent,
    when he cut the peach to eat, a baby was discovered inside and named MomoTaro.
    When he grew up, he went to get rid of “Oni” – the demon – who gave harm to the people.
    On the way to the island – the base of the demon – he came to have three allies of a dog, monkey and pheasant.
    Crossed over the ocean, beat down the demon, found the treasures, returned home with them, and lived happily with his dicoverer – foster grandparents.

    Not only for any etranger in abroad but also for any Japanese, taking advantage of the bus routes is very difficult unless the locals use the route of adjacent area.
    I also wonder how convenient if I could use the bus effectively at any place in homeland and abroad.

    It’s quite long but I hope you will enjoy this comment.

    • Hi Taro,

      Thank you for the full comment. I am sure many readers are happy to see your perspective and thoughtful approach. I like to thing that, here on the site, people can write longer responses and take their time digesting the articles, without the typical buzz of the internet.

      There were a number of topics that I would love to explore in the further articles and its wonderful to have a Japanese perspective added back on to them. Because the experience of being in Japan, is at times, so intense…that it is difficult to digest everything. Even as I edit the pictures, I feel as if parts of the trip are still sinking in.

      Thank you for pointing out the historical connection with Noh Theater and reading emotions. It certainly sheds light on the subtlety of expressed emotion. Maybe as the years go on, and I become more sensitive, I will start to see the emotions more clearly. In many ways, going from NYC to Japan, is like leaving a rock concert and walking into a library. For the first few days, my ears were still ringing. But after a week, the ears finally adjusted to the new volume. Returning to NYC was an insult to my ears.

      In terms of the firm ground of Manhattan, the city is learning that it is not on such firm ground. When I was in construction, we had to do core sampling before building a new place. It turns out that much of downtown is built on a sand bed. It is why Canal Street, was given that name. It used to be a canal. The top soil is very unstable and the buildings hold each other up right. The bedrock is far below the surface, unlike uptown where it the granite pokes through Central Park.

      And bus routes everywhere are a mess. I find the street cars of europe the most simple. But NYC bus maps are just as difficult to read as Japanese.

      Hopefully when I return to Japan next year, there will still be a hot towel waiting for me.


  13. Adam, wonderful to read your views. As a fellow first timer to Japan in May of this year, your thoughts and insights very much resonated with my own….and especially the reverse culture shock on coming back to NYC. I’ve only been living in NYC for 2 months, but it is SUCH a different place in all sorts of ways (as you’ve outlined) to somewhere like Tokyo – but as a newbie to NYC, i still find the chaos, noise, crush, rush and frenetic energy of the place deeply appealing. Ask me again next year or in the height of the summer, and i might have a completely different view ;)

    Anyway, wonderful entry, always a joy to read your thoughtful and insightful posts, and of course, see the imagery that you’ve captured on your travels.

    We were also in Calcutta in April for a week – such an amazing city, i would go back in a heartbeat. You are living the dream my friend, enjoy the journey :)

    • Hi Dave,

      Its nice to hear that the experiences resonated with you. For years NYC amazed me…in many ways is still does. One thing that people, who visit NYC love is the anonymity. NYC used to be a completely anonymous place. You could come here and disappear. There is so much going on that no one really cares what you do. After 9/11 all of that changed, but in a way NYC will always be an escape city. Its great that you are enjoying your time here, in the chaos and rush. It definitely has a frenzy that can energize you and also wear you out.

      Good luck with the winter and summers. The extremes are the hardest. But spring and fall are outstanding. There is nothing like a mellow evening in november, when you stepping out of Bemelmans, after a few Old Cubans and can still hear the piano in your step. The cars blowing by you, will remind you “this is new york.”

      As for India, I am really looking forward to Calcutta. Nice to know the city worked for you.

      And the journey continues…

      Keep in touch.


  14. Thank you for sharing your amazing insights on compositions AND your travel experiences… I cant help but visiting some of your composition comparisons to ‘up’ my game… Im looking forward to the upcoming ones already! Good luck and thanx again! Yona

    • Hey Yona,

      You are most welcome. The trip to Japan was a really unique experience and the project offered a unique introduction to a very specific arena of artisan culture. I was fortunate enough to connect with some very generous craftsmen, without which, none of this could have happened.

      Best of luck with your composition practice. Remember to start off with the basics. It takes time, but is entirely possible.


  15. I have been a fan of Japan for a while for all the reasons you mentioned. Check out my Pinterest collection of Japanese manhole covers. http://pinterest.com/blogking/japan/

    Scroll down a bit and you will find them, about 20. All highest order works of art in my opinion.

    • Hi Michael,

      Thanks for the link. Whats up with the blue watermelon. Thats incredible. Its a great collection of images you have posted. I book marked it and will have a more thorough look at it this weekend.

      The manhole covers are exceptional. Interesting to see the colored ones too. I only say the cast metal without paint. Ah, so much to discover.


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    this issue. I like all the points you’ve made.

  18. Hi Adam!
    I have just seen the video of the lecture you gave at BH, it was inspiring, thanks!
    I’ve been living in Japan (Yokohama) for 2,5 years now and I plan to stay longer if possible…and most of the reasons why I’d like to stay you have well explained them here in this post.
    If you have time please take a look at my work, I’d like to hear your opinion.
    And, if you come back to Japan and you have time for a beer drop me a line, I’d be honored to meet you.
    My best regards,


  19. Hi Adam,

    I stumbled across your B&H video and ended up here. I’ve lived in Japan for years now (originally from the US) and my wife is Japanese. I’ll show her your photos since I think she might be interested!

    • Hi Rich,

      Glad you made your way to the site. Where do you guys live in Japan? That must be a very interesting experience.


      • Hi, we’re in Osaka. I was never interested in photography before, but after buying a new camera after having a baby, I’m exploring this art more. There really is a lot to take in though, so I’m going slow :)

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