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Japan: People, places and moments

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There are places and moments which touch us and make us feel present with the moment around us. Often those experiences are forgotten, but they are part of what makes us who we are.

The act of taking photographs can often destroy the moment of human connection or insights while in the moment. I used to think I carry a small, quiet yet powerful camera not to disturb those around me. Now I understand that it is more to not disrupt my experience and observations.

These photographs become the base line to romantic versions of the reality when memory fades, but the underlying story remains true to the feelings and how it has shaped me — an observer and participant in life.

Miyama, Japan

Today I will share one of these mini-episodes with you — a morning around the valley of my father-in-law and mother-in-law. Their everyday life and surroundings are, and I hope forever will be, an exotic experience wrapped in warm feelings. We are in Miyama which translates as “beautiful mountain” and is a pocket of villages in Fukui, Japan.

The little countryside villages in Japan are a contrast from the urban lights though there’s still culture in these hills. The super clean streets of the metropolis are matched by manicured forest streams and perfectly spaced crops of rice.

Urban chaotic electrical lines on the edge of those streets connect to towers of high-power lines in the villages which run through valleys and onto mountains with the same amount of randomness. It is a parallel universe.

Sacred place

What is not touched by humankind also seems to identify with this. The trees and rocks have a sacred place in the land where earthquakes are no stranger. The evenly spaced rays of sunlight slice through the naturally orderly bamboo and pine forest poles which have an unordered run of thin vines.

For a moment, I start to become a Zen monk and begin to see humankind and nature in perfect harmony. Before wisdom has a chance to surface, I’m tickled by a light breeze delivered in synch with light moving into the valley evaporating these misty thoughts.

I’m staying within eyesight of the family house. Now that dawn has arrived, I’ll soon be summoned to the kitchen by my mother-in-law for breakfast. She’ll be fully dressed, will have cleaned the house and started the daily laundry.

Pyjamas

My wife will still be in her pyjamas. Strangely, I can never remember if my father-in-law is in pyjamas or his outdoor clothes. Come to think of it, for most of the traditional Japanese clothes I’ve been given, I have to ask if these are for bed or the street.

It’s my fifth night in a row here — my father-in-law knows I’m getting restless. I think he recognises the feeling well. He has been known to hop in his little truck and disappear for a day or more to explore areas of Japan with little notice.

He observes me as if I am the family pet trying to escape and takes me under his wing. This has happened before where, in an instant, he would gesture towards the small truck and take me somewhere unexpected, somehow magical. He has spoken of taking me to a waterfall this trip, but due to another appointment, he would not be able to bring me.

At breakfast, we share food from the garden, some things from the night before and a few new additions. Knowing my interest in photography, he asks which cameras I am using.

Cameras

I wonder what comes next and wander near the kitchen door. Another walk would be nice— my wife will be away on a doctor’s appointment for at least half of the day.

They were a Leica (M10) and Panasonic (micro four-thirds) with a Leica IIIb tucked away somewhere. This led to small-talk of Leica, Olympus, Nikon and Canon making real cameras, but not an appliance company like National (the Japanese name for Panasonic). Using sign language I try to explain it is the lens that matters. It is clear to them I don’t understand Japanese, but I’m trying to develop the Japanese skill of “reading the air” to get by.

Somehow, I’m indicated to get in the truck and I’m whisked away, not knowing where we are going. It seats only two, so, shotgun with Otosan (father-in-law), we speed down windy roads and in less than an hour, we are at an amazing waterfall.

Connections

There’s another photographer there taking this seriously with his tripod and some filters. I say hello to the shy Japanese and poke around knowing there’s little to be said. As I move further down, Otosan has plenty to talk about with him. I find it amazing how he can connect so fast to strangers.

It’s time to go and we zigzag down the small mountain under blue skies and falling autumn leaves. At the bottom of the hill, we slow down as Otosan scans an industrial looking road like one put in place for a rock quarry or to set up support for securing the mountainside to control earthquake damage. The truck creeps in, past the heavy trucks and along a small road into a shaded area where we pull in to the side.

Samurai attack

“Oi! Oi!” Otosan shouts to an old woman down below who gives us a strange look. He’s got her attention and while he speaks with the voice of a samurai about to attack, his face has a beaming smile. He approaches slowly — a few words are exchanged.

Just as with the waterfall photographer, within in a few minutes it is like they’ve known each other for life. Maybe they have. Much of Japan’s rural population is of his age. That said, I’ve seen his approach with so many people. It works every time. It must be his smile. I know the trick — when my wife shows me that smile of pure joy everything is right.

I quickly figure out that this is a fascinating place. This woman appears to live in the forest surrounded by fish that she raises. It’s a one-woman fish farm! I explore and take half a dozen photographs with my two cameras and enjoy the space. The conversation moves into business — a few fish are netted and thrown into a bucket. Some money is exchanged — or was it just a smile? I’m handed a bag of squirming fish. We are back in the truck and arrive back home.

Little surprises

I hear Okasan in the kitchen when she receives the plastic bag and exclaims, “what is this?” My impression is that these little surprises are frequent.

We collect my wife from the doctor’s in town and in the evening, we enjoy freshly grilled fish. ‘どうもありがとう/Domo arigato, 美味しい/Oishkata. Gochisosama deshita.’ I say, all common phrases which I believe is ‘thank you, it was delicious’. Thank you in appreciation of the farmer (the fish woman), the chef and everything else – the condition of an honourable feast.

Everyone agrees and then a voice comes from the wall stating the bath water has reached the normal, almost boiling temperature. As the honoured guest, it is indicated it is my bath time.

After a shower and then a bath, I signal the bath is free and say good night. My white flesh is now a lobster red from the hot water. I feel warm inside and out. While I lie down on the tatami floor where I sleep, I reflect on the day in this cinematic place.

Parallel universe

Tomorrow morning, we catch the train to Tokyo, never really knowing when I will return to Miyama. In a few hours, I’ll be in a parallel universe.

Dan Bachmann has been defined by many people for many things. If you think he’s an author, perhaps we’ll see more from him on places, culture and photography: Life with the camera.

  • e-mail: photo@danbachmann.com
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8 COMMENTS

  1. That’s a wonderful set of vignettes and character sketches and the photos complement the text beautifully. I have been to Japan a few times but never had the honour of being accepted into someone’s home. I hope someday I have the opportunity to do so and get to better understand the culture of Japan. I can only hope to capture the experience as well as you have done here.

  2. Great to see a familiar face writing here. Lovely images, Dan and a great story to go with it. I have a nephew in living in Japan who is married to a Japanese woman. He teaches English to young Japanese schoolchildren and is enjoying life there. My youngest sister, his mother, has visited him a few times and she is going again later this year during the Rugby World Cup. My wife and I nearly went once, but the long journey put us off and we went to Russia instead. Your story and pictures are tempting me again.

    William

  3. Thanks Dan for sharing. Intimate pics and a lovely text. I love the fish farm series in which you captured those fleeting moments of life beautifully.
    Jean

  4. A very interesting articles about a fascinating place, thanks. I liked the photo of the lettuces best, lovely light. Kevin

  5. How can u beat walking out your front and netting your fresh meals. Really envy your in laws serene no hassle lifestyle. I think from your samples that whole area gives Paris a run for greatlite”

  6. Thank you Dan, that is a wonderful article and such an amazing story and for me shows just how sometimes photography can bypass knowing the language of the country you are in – its an almost universal language on its own.

    I love the images you have used to complement the narrative.

    I hope you write more about your adventures, and more about Japan in due course.

  7. Excellent Dan – I really enjoyed that.
    Especially as our son Simeon is living in China, and in a long term relationship with a lovely Chinese girl. We’ve been there 5 or 6 times and spent a lot of time with her parents (who speak only Chinese), our feeling of wonder and their hospitality are very similar.
    Hopefully we’ll meet up again soon.
    best wishes from me – and from Emma as well to both of you.

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