Posted:Oct 5, 2009

Sentimental Journeys

A photography exhibition presents a rich tapestry of travels in Japan.

Stay long enough in an urban environment in Japan and you will be infected with a nostalgic yearning for the more “traditional” side of the country. Despite being normalized to the daily bombardment of aural intrusions – the clatter and pant of the trains, the chattering public screens and screaming electioneers, the roar of pachinko – even the most enthusiastic city dweller admits a desire to escape. Residents often crave the greenery and uncluttered simplicity that rapid industrialization and its “pave-and-build” mentality robbed them of. While natives don’t quite perceive the same incongruities and clashes between tradition and modernity that foreign visitors are struck by, there is a palpable nostalgia for the rituals, flavours and comforts of “traditional” Japan.

This exhibition captures that yearning, or akogare. The second of a three-part exhibition based around the theme of “Travel,” it spans the 1970s and ’80s. Yet despite being concurrent with the most rapid modernizations and economic booms that the world has seen, the slick cities – transforming into palimpsests of foreign influence – are conspicuously absent. Instead, bred on essentialized notions of Japanese identity as intimately connected to an appreciation of nature, seasonality and craftsmanship, “travel” to these photographers signifies a retreat to a more bucolic and provincial environment than the ones they were raised in. The photographs are alternately filled with longing, romanticism, wonder, surprise and even fear, reflecting a Japan that is fading in both reality and memories. Although travel is often synonymous with discovery, the artists here seem to be seeking something that they were already familiar with, albeit in only through collective memory. Their bright-eyed curiosity is evident, as they, the urban-born outsiders, tour the countryside, small villages and towns.

Fortunately, they temper this alienness with a strong empathy and familiarity with their subject, reflecting and perpetrating the collective memory by tying it down to individual people and fleeting moments. But far from an idyllic, picture-postcard Japan, the viewer is confronted with an altogether wilder, darker version. Masatoshi Naito’s works on shamans and supernatural activities in Hokkaido open up the exhibition. While contemporary O-Bon celebrations have been reduced to neighbourhood knees-ups that centre around cans of Asahi and melting chocolate bananas, his grainy shot of an ring of eerily shadowed dancers in the half-light reminds one of the event’s original significance and power. Other shots depict elderly ladies pulling apart elastic mochi with their teeth in graveyards and votive tablets for casting out demons. Hiromi Tsuchida continues the supernatural theme, as part of his ‘Zokushin Gods of the Earth’ series – where shamans trip in geta across dark fields, and men in melting theatre make-up smile surreally. The black and white prints evoke a deliciously ghoulish atmosphere.

Araki Nobuyoshi, from 'Sentimental Journey' (1971)
Araki Nobuyoshi, from 'Sentimental Journey' (1971)
Courtesy of the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography

Other photographers meditate on relatively mundane scenes, enlivening them with pathos or humour. A man stretches in front of a sign announcing “Sexy girl service!”, a small boy leaps, suspended mid-air beside a fountain, two disconsolate women chatter on a bench, a man falls asleep on a train with an oversized cellophane bouquet sandwiched between his thighs. The photographs have a quirky and personable feel that avoid the staginess of other contemporaneous travel shots. One is of another photograph being taken; a group of children on a school trip pose stiffly, in neatly pressed uniforms, before the floating torii gate in Miyajima. The official photographer, bent over his curtained tripod, represents an altogether different kind of travel photography than that on show here.

Yet while the line of artifice might be visible, none of the photographers try to dismantle the nostalgia that cloaks this side of Japan. A gentle romanticism floats around the images of the rice harvest, crowds of people stuffed into open-air boats, children scampering along dusty roads. There is a ragged wilderness to some of the pictures – littered roads, unkempt plants and the violent crashing of white horses of the Hokkaido sea breaking over concrete. And while most of the photographers are strangers to their subjects, the inclusion of photography giant Araki allows a peek into an intimate relationship – albeit one later laid open to the lens and scrutiny of audiences worldwide. Fittingly, his contribution was taken from his “Sentimental Journey” series, documenting his honeymoon. Fans will be well acquainted with the series by now, but the loveliness of his new wife curled up in a low boat, a book by her head, remains undimmed.

The image of Japan presented here is beguiling, instantly charming, fascinating. While the cultural essentialists often wrongly assume that a warmth and longing for these scenes can only truly be felt by Japanese themselves, their appeal is universal. Collapsing the misconception of the country as uniformly homogenous, ordered and sanitized, the exhibition explores the wilder sides of the landscape and the more intimate, unpolished sides of people and their relationships. For those who tire of what they see as Tokyo’s grey monotony, bustle and chilliness, it’s a welcome reminder that there is a change of scene for those who seek it.

Part 3 of the exhibition, looking at visions of foreign countries by Japanese photographers, begins September 29.

Sophie Knight

Sophie Knight

Born in what she likes to refer to as the ‘Saitama of London’, Sophie's fetish for foreign languages and hatred of puddles meant she always had itchy feet. After enduring a homestay in Fukuoka and bussing her way through South America, she studied Social Anthropology in London, which convinced her of the essential essence of mankind... and that she had to get away from England. She came back to Japan after a brief stint in Barcelona to find some of the electric nuttiness and zarusoba she had been craving. She now spends her days deciphering Japanese newspapers, translating, writing a zine, speeding around Tokyo on her racing bike to discover tucked-away galleries, making bentos, injuring herself pole-dancing and getting used to the fact that nothing interesting is ever at ground-level in this city.