Japan IV - Aesthetics

Graffiti, Kumamoto

Graffiti, Kumamoto

I'm posting this set of images first as these are the ones I found hardest to categorise into some of the other themes that came to mind as I have been trying to curate my 35mm images from Japan (all lens-based). I find curating my work very difficult, partly because it takes me a while to like what I have shot, and partly because finding cohesive themes is a challenge for me. I tend not to shoot with this end in mind so I end up with a bunch of images that then need to be cobbled together in some form or other.

Spring and cooler, Ichinomiyamachi Miyaji

Spring and cooler, Ichinomiyamachi Miyaji

As you look at these images, I'd also encourage you to look at some different views of Japan by some other photographers I call friends (at least in the modern, never actually met them, social media sense). Phil Kneen and Johan Fransson both have shared their vision of Japan. Whilst the styles are different, and different to mine, they both show the aesthetics of the place very well.

Alley, Asakusa

Alley, Asakusa

So why aesthetics for my first post (apart from these being odds and sods)? To start with let's have a little look at what our friendly encyclopedia says (as of 1 January 2017) about Japanese aesthetics.

The Japanese aesthetic is a set of ancient ideals that include wabi (transient and stark beauty), sabi (the beauty of natural patina and aging), and yūgen (profound grace and subtlety). These ideals, and others, underpin much of Japanese cultural and aesthetic norms on what is considered tasteful or beautiful.
— https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_aesthetics
Koi pond, Kyoto

Koi pond, Kyoto

I guess the above summarises in a nutshell why I find Japan such a great place to visit. There is beauty everywhere in a way I simply haven't seen in other countries. Perhaps this is something to do with the idea of zakka. What's zakka? OK, let's ask Wiki again...

Zakka (from the Japanese ‘kak-ka in de zak-ka’(閣下 雑貨)or ‘many things’) is a fashion and design phenomenon that has spread from Japan throughout Asia. The term refers to everything and anything that improves your home, life and appearance.
— https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zakka
Nara park, Nara

Nara park, Nara

So I guess what I am trying to show in this post is the everyday beauty of Japan, at least as I have seen it. Many of the scenes are undoubtedly intended to be beautiful, such as the light through the trees in Nara park or the Koi pond in Kyoto, but others are just plain ordinary. For example, what would you normally find beautiful about some crates in front of a building? Here though, the pastel shades against the dark background have something undefinable, at least for me. That pink and green hopper thing is kind of cool as well...just don't ask me what it is.

Crates, Ichinomiyamachi Miyaji

Crates, Ichinomiyamachi Miyaji

This pastel theme also extended to the bowl used to catch the water from one of the many springs that come to the surface in Ichinomiyamachi Miyaji town (probably easier called Aso town, for all I know that could be it's real name - I'm trusting the internet by this point). These springs are famous across Japan for the purity of their water...but for me it's the way they are channeled which is equally impressive. Here you will not find the commercialisation of the spring, it probably happens somewhere in the region, but not in this town. 

Spring, Ichinomiyamachi Miyaji

Spring, Ichinomiyamachi Miyaji

This lack of commercialisation I put down, at least in part, to the desire to maintain the atmosphere of the town. The idea of beauty is something ingrained in the Japanese culture, at least as far as my uneducated eye can tell. Outside most buildings and homes you will find small things that the owners have done to improve their immediate environment. In many cases this will also include fish as well as plants. I am aware that this is perhaps not the best way to keep fish but they did seem healthy and the water plants were fresh and would have kept the water oxygenated. 

Goldfish bowl, Kumamoto

Goldfish bowl, Kumamoto

I recall during our last trip being incredibly taken with some new copper guttering in Kanazawa. It was remarkably shiny, square in section, and clearly had been custom made (or at least custom fitted) to the building. This was in an old district of town so it could have been a requirement for this type of utilitarian beauty to be present but regardless it was wonderful. What was more wonderful was the dawning realisation that as the guttering aged and the shininess disappeared that the beauty would not be lost. Other nearby buildings had older guttering that was covered in verdigris and equally lovely. I guess I should show a picture here but 2014 was a long time ago and this post should be about Japan IV (our 2016 trip).

Rubber duckies, Kyoto

Rubber duckies, Kyoto

So, that small indiscretion over, let's get back to this aesthetics thing. OK look, if you really want the gutter is on Instagram, just come back after you've taken a look. Deal? OK, here you go then - to the gutter.  Oh, and to encourage you to come back there's some verdigris in both the above and the next photo (and a cactus or two in the next one).

Entrance, Shimo-Kitazawa

Entrance, Shimo-Kitazawa

Right...we need to get on with this don't we (by the way...I know this chatty style is a bit shit but its all I have). As well as the little details outside of homes, you'll also find that many businesses will ensure that the approach to their premises offers the same ordinary beauty, such as a well placed acer. Also, take a look at the wood, the slats on the door, the lantern. None of this is necessary but somehow in Japan these traditions have survived and are valued.

Entrance, Kyoto

Entrance, Kyoto

The desire for beauty doesn't end with the outside of homes and buildings, you can also find it in the most unusual of places. To a Brit like me, it seems odd that the good people of Kumamoto would encourage their kids to swim in a lake, after all water is dangerous, right? OK, I get this is clearly bullshit put out there by "The man" (but do be safe in water kids...and know your limits). Regardless, in the UK you'd only rarely see a slide in a natural body of water, and if you did it would look like a slide. The good people of Kumamoto won't be having that though, they'll give their kids an elephant!

Water slide, Kumamoto

Water slide, Kumamoto

Close to the elephant lake was another, larger lake with pedalos...and who doesn't like a pedalo right. I'm sure in the past I have extolled the virtues of the swan pedalos in Ueno park, and I am aware that these have migrated to the west. In Kumamoto the swan pedalos play second fiddle to the Doraemon and Kumamon pedalos. I don't have pictures of the one we took as I was too busy recovering from being crippled in the cockpit which was clearly not designed for a man of my size. 

Toilet and vending machine, Kumamoto

Toilet and vending machine, Kumamoto

By the time I had walked off the effects of having my back split in two by the pedalo we had made it back closer to the centre of Kumamoto. We were then able to take advantage of another great part of Japanese culture, the ubiquitous vending machine. Some cold green tea certainly revived the spirits. Equally restorative was the opportunity to take advantage of a well-place convenience, which you can just see poking out behind the fish...did I mention aesthetics yet?

Climb every mountain, Kagurazaka

Climb every mountain, Kagurazaka

Kids in Japan also seem to be able to climb things, and when nothing natural is available it will be created for them. What could be better than clambering up this artificial mountain in Kagurazaka?

Incidentally, one of the best things about Japan is discovering areas that are less visited by tourists. Kagurazaka and Shimo-Kitazawa are two such areas, both in Tokyo, which highly reward a visit and an explore. Both are off the beaten track and both reflect their communities. Kagurazaka is more refined, with a definite leaning toward France (the embassy is nearby I think) whilst Shimo-Kitazawa reflects its large hippy (and hipster) population. Shimo-Kitazawa has an amazing bookstore called Village Vanguard which sells CDs and Manga as well (Manga being loosely linked to the aesthetics theme of this post). 

Mojo Coffee, Kagurazaka

Mojo Coffee, Kagurazaka

Heading up the hill from Edogawabashi station to Kagurazaka you come upon Mojo Coffee. It has to be acknowledged that this is a branch of a New Zealand based chain but regardless, the aesthetics still come in to play here. See how the green cups are laid out some beautifully (Things Organised Neatly would be proud) and match the walls and contrast against the bare wood. 

Metropolitan Hotel, Ikebukuro

Metropolitan Hotel, Ikebukuro

As we come to the end of this rambling, incoherent post, I should finally mention that the beauty is also found at night. Outside our hotel in Ikebukuro were some pretty ordinary shrubs (and a lovely bamboo grove, but no pictures of that). The shrubs are made beautiful at night by the liberal application of fairy lights. Now for sure these have little practical purpose but they are welcoming as well as pretty.

...and this pretty much sums up the sentiment of this post. With the aesthetic beauty that you find everywhere you also find a welcome that's hard to put into words. The everyday beauty feels to me like it is designed to make the most mundane and everyday place welcoming to others. To me this sums up Japanese culture in a nutshell, the creation of a perfect environment is not just done for the owner, but for all, and I for one welcome that. 

For those that are interested, all images were made with a Leica M7, mostly with a 35mm Summicron (if not all) and mostly on Kodak Portra 160 (except for the one on Natura 1600). Developing, processing and scanning was done by Canadian Film Lab and was as brilliant as always.