Layered in meaning and as diverse as they come, attempts to photograph Japan can lead to quite an adventure.
Photographs by Tom Bunning; Words as told to Jen Harrison Bunning
Being a photographer can give you access to things that most people could only dream of seeing. It can be a key to a world of possibilities, a passport behind the scenes of other people’s lives or a ticket to secret spaces. However (with apologies to any budding image-makers certain that every day is a veritable dream), after ten years on the job, it can be dull: there are studio shoots where the day passes without a whiff of sunlight; tellings off from benighted bookkeepers when you fail to produce a crucial receipt; and hours spent in airports praying your kit clears customs. But then there are days when you get a phone call that makes your heart sing, and in this case it went like this: “Tom, how’s the first week of October looking? … Good, you’re off to Japan.”
There are a number of my esteemed fellow photographers who, as soon as they know they’re off somewhere new, jump online and begin to research: where they’re going, what kit they should pack, which perfect shot they’ll seek. Not me. I know I should be doing these things but there’s something wonderfully freeing about foregoing research, over-packing and being carried along on a wave of juvenile excitement, hoping my instincts, eyes and camera will deliver the goods. And this system hasn’t failed me yet. I never come home disappointed that I didn’t get that ‘perfect shot’.
Instead, I return with a treasure trove of images and associated memories of human stories and wild places. But Japan? From what I’d happened to soak up from books and films, I was diving in to a world of blazing neon, dangerous culinary delicacies, vast swathes of protected parkland and complicated social etiquette. Was my usual blasé attitude going to work in this most respectful and mannered of countries? We would have to see.
First stop: Tokyo. From touch-down it was a short, wide-eyed transfer from Haneda Airport to Palace Hotel Tokyo where, after a quick freshen-up in the luxurious Evian Spa, I was off on a crash course in the art and architecture of Aoyama, courtesy of the hotel. With the wild child fashion district of Harajuku to its west and Chiyoda with its stately brick station and imposing Imperial Palace to its north, it would be easy to forgive Aoyama an identity crisis - but there’s no need, for it has a brilliantly bonkers inner life all of its own. Here, huge brushed-concrete walls nestle against towers of twisted glass and locals take matcha tea and Taiwanese pineapple cake in the playful wooden lattice structure of the SunnyHills cake shop. Prada, Mui Mui and similarly high-end brands vie for first place in the ‘Most Impressive Architecture of a Retail Store’ competition (designed by the likes of Herzog & De Meuron and Gehry, no less), whilst the Nezu Museum (by the architect of the 2020 Olympic Stadium, Kengo Kuma) sits serenely behind its bamboo grove cloisters.
Despite its tranquil corners, there is an overriding sense of impermanence and newness in Aoyama which, as our guide Professor Matsuda explained, is partly due to earthquake fears as buildings are constantly torn down and rebuilt to the latest quake-proof technology, but also to the nation’s long-term obsession with the new, the disposable and the consumable. It’s a fascinating area and I could have spent hours there but Japanese trains wait for no man (and especially for no man slowed down by an abundance of camera bags), so it was all aboard the great green dragon of a bullet train for a silent and speedy 700 kilometre journey north to Aomori and on to Towada-Hachimantai National Park.
Some places in the world make you feel like you’re the first person to ever stand there. Even if you’re with a guide and gaggle of fellow travellers, everything is turned down a notch and all you know is what’s directly in front of you. If you visit Towada-Hachimantai National Park on a rainy October day, this is what might happen: your eyes may feast upon the towers of light casting through the clouds, the lush green wall of conifers, the mist hanging on the horizon. Your ears may delight in the silence, punctuated only by the creaking of branches and the odd birdsong. You may look out over the lake and feel a deep sense of freedom. But if you do visit and you don’t experience any of this then don’t despair, as you’ll still be treated to a spectacular view.
From the ever-changing urban landscape of Tokyo in the south to the ancient arboreal backdrops of the north, next I was off to a city that had no choice but to start again. Despite my lack of planning, the one place I had intended to photograph was Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, a city that thrived on commercial fishing before it was devastated by the 2011 tsunami. I’d read about the effects of the disaster at the time; the dead, the missing, the school children and teachers swept away on the bridge, the port and buildings swallowed up by the water. I’d planned to shoot the wasteland, the reconstruction, the decimated waterfront, to take portraits of the people I met and to tell their stories. But when it came to it I couldn’t hide behind my lens. I felt I had to be entirely present, to listen and keep what I witnessed in my mind’s eye and not commit it to memory cards and print. I can’t tell you exactly why I felt like that. Perhaps it was the only way I knew how to honour Japanese culture’s acceptance of impermanence and insubstantiality, of mono no aware. Perhaps I’ll go back someday and it will feel right to capture it then, perhaps not.
Luckily, I did manage to photograph a little more of Japan than Tokyo and Towada. I rode the Gonō Line along the shore of the Sea of Japan with the Shirakami mountain range looming overhead.
I saw leaves fired up by golden light in Ginzan Onsen and followed in the 1,000 or so steps of one of Japan’s most famous poets, Matsuo Bashō, up a winding mountain path to Yamadera (mountain temple) perched high in its craggy nest. It’s a long and arduous climb but when I reached the top I was able to catch my breath in Godaido Hall, an observation deck dating back to the 1700s that juts out from the mountain.
Here, as the sun set, I was rewarded with a view of rolling pastel hills and golden cedar trees. If I was poetically inclined I might have recited Bashō’s famous haiku penned here in 1689,
“the stillness / penetrating the rock / a cicada’s cry”
- words that felt pretty spot on, even for a non-poetic type.
On my way home, back on urban turf for the night in Sendai ‘City of Trees’, I began backing up my images and gazed out of a high hotel window. With the twinkling towers of the city growing out of the concrete-covered earth in front, and my photos of mist-shrouded woodland and ancient temples on the screen behind, Japan’s new and old - its man-made glass towers and natural wonders, its thriving capital and tsunami-devastated coast - seemed at once intrinsically linked and yet miles apart. This wouldn’t do. I would have to make a plan to come back, and go deeper.