This August, Crimson Photographer Megan M. Ross '18 was invited by the Japanese Prime Minister’s Office to produce a multimedia feature about Japan. Traveling with a group of 10 student photojournalists, she spent time in Tokyo, Miyagi Prefecture, Nagano Prefecture, and the island of Hokkaido. Hosted by the HLAB residential program for high school students, the group participated in cultural activities and met Japanese people of all ages along the way. Each journalist worked independently to produce a feature focusing on an aspect of Japan that interested them. This photo and video essay explores the culture and customs of Japan, as well as the challenges the country faces in the 21st century, through the eyes of a first-time visitor and her camera.
t’s a hot, sticky morning in Tokyo. I’m wide awake at 6 a.m., jet-lag lingering two days into my stay. I put on the first t-shirt and pair of shorts I can pull out of my suitcase. Tiptoeing out of the Japanese-style bedroom, I try not to wake the eight other girls sleeping on rolled-out futon beds on the floor around me. As mentors for HLAB, an program developed by Ryosuke Kobayashi '13 to introduce Japanese high school students to liberal arts education, they’ll need their sleep ahead of a long day of preparing for the students to arrive tomorrow. I figure I should walk down the street to the only place I know will be open at this hour on a Saturday morning: Starbucks.
I feel immensely guilty. Here I am, on an all-expenses paid trip to Japan, and I’m buying coffee from the same company that has no fewer than three franchises in Harvard Square. I resolve to at least place my order using what little Japanese I can remember from high school. As it turns out, that’s not a lot. The encounter with the barista reduces to me pointing at a picture of a latte, saying the words ‘iced’ and ‘tall’ and ‘kudasai’ (‘please’), in some order that might be coherent. I recall enough to explain to her that I’m from airurando (Ireland), and to ask her to forgive my poor Japanese. Never before have been so acutely aware of my monolingualism. I pull up Google, and search ‘useful Japanese phrases’.
Before I arrived in Tokyo, I wasn’t sure what to expect from it. I like to describe myself as being from a ‘city’, but Dublin is not exactly a high-density, high-rise, bustling metropolis. We don’t even have a subway system. So I approached Tokyo with a sense of trepidation, unsure if I’d be overwhelmed or enthralled by it, almost certain I’d get lost on the subway at least once.
Outside Shibuya Station stands the statue of Hachikō, the famous dog who came to the station every day to wait for his owner, Professor Hidesaburo Ueno of the University of Tokyo, to come back from work. Even though Prof. Ueno died about a year after adopting Hachikō, the dog came to the station every day for the following nine years and nine months.
On the warm summer’s day when I visit Shibuya Station, a cat has decided to lay down for a nap on the statue, blissfully unaware of the hoards of tourists crowded around the landmark. It turns out that this cat has been coming to hang out at the statue for over a year. After Hachikō spent nearly a decade waiting faithfully, if in vain, for his best friend to come home, he finally has someone to keep him company at Shibuya Station.
New York City may have phased out its iconic Ford Crown Victoria Taxis from use in the last decade, but still ferrying passengers around Tokyo are a fleet of cars that could be their distant, Japanese cousins. The boxy aesthetic of the Toyota Crown Comforts caught my eye, anachronistic on streets ruled by the sleeker designs of the twenty-first century. Though I’m not sure of the rationale behind the old-fashioned design, I imagine it as a quiet rebellion, a determined refusal to let a good design fade away as cars lost their straight edges and sharp angles in the last thirty or so years.
The Akihabara district was initially known as a hub for electrical goods retailers, especially in the years following the Second World War. Today, large electrical stores remain, but the main attraction of Akihabara is its otaku (“geek” or “nerd”) culture, with plenty of video game, anime and manga stores to go around.
The Senso-ji Temple stands tall and majestic in Asakusa. It is the oldest in Tokyo, having been built in 645 AD (making it almost 1,000 years older than Harvard). The original temple was destroyed by bombs in the Second World War, but was then rebuilt in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Visible from the Senso-ji Temple is the formidable Tokyo Skytree. The four-year-old broadcasting tower is the tallest tower in the world. Tokyo’s architecture and skyline reflect its identity as a city that is both steeped in rich history and a beacon of technological innovation.After several days in the capital city, we boarded a bullet train bound for Sendai, Miyagi prefecture. From there, we drove to the small town of Onagawa. Onagawa sustained considerable damage in the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, when about one in twelve of its residents lost their lives and 85 percent of its buildings were destroyed. Having grown up in a seaside town, it is difficult to imagine the devastation that Onagawa suffered in the wake of the disaster.
The resilience and determination that the people of Onagawa have displayed in these most trying of times is remarkable. Rather than simply re-creating what was there before disaster struck, the harbor town is instead undergoing a phenomenal re-birth, with new businesses opening up in the town center. You can buy craft beers, paint Spanish tiles, and sip an espresso in just some of the new establishments that have been opened in the last couple of years.
Of course, no town that has lost what Onagawa did in 2011 could ever forget those who perished. Dotted around the town are memorials, beautifully and carefully maintained in honor of the souls claimed by the tsunami. A curious feature I noticed at these memorials were the collections of full bottled drinks that had been left—recently, by the looks of them. Our guide explained that it is traditional to leave drinks for people who have drowned, as it is thought that they would be thirsty after taking in so much sea water. He also speculated that the alcoholic drinks left were for someone with a particular fondness for beer. This touched me in a way altogether different from the familiar ritual of leaving flowers for the dead, as a display of the unconditional love of family members, still trying to take care of those they have lost.
I left Onagawa feeling inspired but achingly sad. I grew up in a harbor town and I shudder at the idea of it all just disappearing overnight, taking any number of my family or friends with it. The wounds still feel open and raw in Onagawa, which makes the degree to which this town has managed to recover—at least in terms of its infrastructure—breathtaking. It has a long way to come, with many of its residents still living in temporary housing in the town’s baseball field, but considering the hand it was dealt, it has managed incredibly well.
Another bullet train brought us to the land-locked, mountainous Nagano prefecture, where we were hosted by the HLAB Obuse program. The small town is well-known for its chestnuts and as the home of the Hokusaikan Museum, where many of the influential Edo period artist Hokusai's works are on display.
It’s one thing to be offered dinner and a show, but on one afternoon in Obuse we were offered a lunch that was the show. Nagashi somen - “flowing noodles” - are somen noodles that are served flowing along a bamboo tube. Everyone lines up along the tube and picks the noodles out with chopsticks, dipping them in a sauce before eating. Mildly competitive, certainly the greatest challenge to my chopsticks skills yet, but definitely the coolest way I’ve seen to eat noodles.
As we walked through the town of Obuse on a Saturday morning, we passed a group of senior citizens playing a game of croquet in a small field. They were remarkably active for their apparent age - unsurprising in a country with one of the highest life expectancies in the world. I hoped that I’d still be riding my bike around town at that age, if anything.
When we traveled up to the remote town of Teshio, on the north island of Hokkaido, I was struck by the wealth of skills and knowledge of the land its residents possessed. There was a deep appreciation of nature evident all around, from the woman who took us on a nature walk in a forest, to the fisherman who deftly sorted clams by hand, tapping them to the ground if he suspected they were empty. Standing in a field at Takeshi Uno’s dairy farm, as we learned about how butter was made, and sipped fresh, sweet yoghurt drinks, the bar for what I deem to be ‘good dairy’ moved a few notches higher (and being from Ireland, it was already pretty high).
(Clockwise from top-left) Chie Moue leads a nature walk; Fisherman Yoshikazu Sato works at a clam-sorting machine; Dairy farmer Takeshi Uno answers questions during a tour of his farm; Fisherman Yoshifumi Sugai demonstrates how he can tell at a glance which clams are empty or past their prime.
It was poignant, all the same, to enjoy the fresh food and soak in the gorgeous scenery, knowing that communities like that in Teshio are in serious danger of disappearing in a couple of generations’ time. The migration of locals away from rural areas to urban centers is especially acute in remote parts of Hokkaido like Teshio. The people there have made it a priority to try to breathe new life into the island, in the hopes that the people who grew up there might stay—or even that new people might move there.
Raised in a country that roasts and boils any meat to the point of tastelessness, not all that long ago I would have reeled at the idea of eating any amount of raw fish. In that hotel, I was piling it onto my plate as fast as my western hands wielding a pair of chopsticks could manage (still not that fast). By the time I came back to campus I found myself craving the sashimi and sushi I lived on in Japan.
In fact, I think my tastes have been fundamentally altered by those few weeks. Even when it comes to snack foods, the Japanese seem to operate on a higher plane. I never envisaged myself craving seaweed, but now I lament its absence from my daily routine. You can’t just walk into a convenience store in Cambridge and buy for a couple of dollars wakamegohan (seaweed rice) or onigiri (a riceball with a salted or pickled filling, wrapped in seaweed). I think I even miss the ubiquitous canned coffee.
On the last night of the trip, as we walked through the streets of Tokyo after dinner, one of my fellow journalists turned around to me with his camera rolling and asked me, “What was your favorite part of Japan?”I said the first thing that came to mind: Everything. This is the first time I’ve visited a brand new country and thought, I could see myself living here”. Perhaps that sounds hyperbolic after such a short trip, but as I prepared to travel back to Boston for a new school year, I realized that I wasn’t ready to leave Japan behind.
The country had so much to offer, it would have been impossible to leave it satisfied after just 18 days. My appetite was merely whetted, and I resolved to find my way back there sooner rather than later. Everything from the warmth of the Japanese people to the incredible food, from the gorgeous landscape of the rural towns to the efficiency of Tokyo’s public transport, made me think it would be a fantastic place to live, even just for a few years.
This semester, having gained a new motivation to refresh and improve my knowledge of the language, I enrolled in beginner’s Japanese at Harvard. The next time I visit Japan, I’ll hopefully be able to do a lot more than order a coffee in the local language.