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Travel Photography: Yoshino

2018 is far from over but I feel confident in saying that Yoshino is the best place I’ve visited this year. Growing up in a place, there are things that seem typical of life that are actually specific to your hometown or country. Travel, I think, is a way to expand the color palette of life and for me, Yoshino broadened my understanding of community and time.

I’ve seen idealized versions of friendly towns on television shows. Figments of overactive imaginations, I figured. I’ve experienced snippets of this sort of thing when a neighbor has held a door for me or said hello during a morning elevator ride. Yet I’ve assumed these friendly towns were exaggerations because any stretch I’ve had of neighborly friendliness has always been interrupted by some man-spreading jerk on the train or much worse. So a town entirely full of kind and friendly humans seemed like it could only be a Hollywood creation.

Well, it turns out this sort of place exists. People in Yoshino smile at each other on the street and stop by during their morning walks just to chat. We were there for 2 nights and got invited to a town cherry blossom celebration, a tour of a sake distillery and a home tour of a nearby neighbor.

Visiting Yoshino in Japan
Visiting Yoshino in Japan

Eli and I first decided to spend a night in Yoshino because of a Airbnb we saw in Dwell. We bookmarked it and months later when I was planning our April trip to see the cherry blossoms in Japan, I checked for available nights. There were exactly 2 nights available at the beginning of April so I grabbed them before we even purchased our flights and arranged out entire Japan itinerary around Yoshino.

Staying at the Yoshino Cedar House
Staying at the Yoshino Airbnb
Staying in the Yoshino Cedar House Airbnb

The Airbnb was a collaboration between Airbnb’s design arm, Samara, and Go Hasegawa, a Tokyo based architect, for the House Vision exhibition in 2016. Eli and I were initially drawn to the modern architecture component, we’ve journeyed down to Austin to visit modern homes, but we were ultimately enticed by the community component. The Airbnb is run by the community and every night a local host stays with you. Additionally, the building itself was built from cedar grown near Yoshino and processed at a local cedar mill, which we visited during our stay.

Visiting a cedar mill in Yoshino, Japan
Visiting a cedar mill in Yoshino, Japan
Visiting a cedar mill in Yoshino, Japan

The 4th generation owner of the cedar mill we toured, Ishibashi-San, took an hour out his workday to show us around and answer all of our beginner level questions. Aided by Eli’s Japanese, we learned that the cedar around Yoshino is considered special because it is tightly planted so it has very few branches, which results in fewer knots in the wood and thus a stronger and more water-tight piece of wood.

Visiting a cedar mill in Yoshino, Japan
Visiting a cedar mill in Yoshino, Japan

Anyway, a few months before heading to Yoshino, I worked on a large scale industrial photography project. For 2 weeks, I visited car factories around the Midwest. The factories varied quite a bit but one consistency was pride in how new everything was. Newness was important. At the cedar mill, one machine we were proudly shown was 80 years old. The mill, the machines and the people have all spent years and generations thinking about and working with cedar. It is a commitment to craft that I find difficult to comprehend. I have a hard time just picking a photography niche.

At the end of our mill tour, we mentioned to Ishibashi-San that we were hoping to visit a local sake distillery. A lot of the cedar that’s processed around Yoshino is used to make sake barrels. Instead of smiling and sending us on our way so he could get on with his day, Ishibashi-San called a friend with a sake distillery down the road, arranged a tour for us and then drew us a map so we wouldn’t get lost. In Yoshino kindness seemed to be the default.

Learning about sake production in Yoshino, Japan
Yoshino Japan sake production

A handful of giant conglomerates own most liquor brands. In Scotland, Eli and I went on 2 distillery tours. The first one was fascinating. The second one was exactly the same as the first one because both brands were owned by the same parent company. It can be tricky to find independent distillers and even trickier to schedule a tour. The sake distillery we visited didn’t seem to offer tours. We meandered in with our hand drawn map and the owner showed us around. He explained that he lived in Tokyo for a while but was from Yoshino and returned home to run his family’s sake business because there was more room for creativity in the country side. The sake was naturally fermented and each one we tasted was very unique.

When Eli and I were trying to buy some of the sake, we realized that we didn’t have enough yen. Instead of asking us to move along, the distillery staff chatted amongst themselves to figure out the nearest ATM and then the owner gave us a ride. On the way over, he encouraged us to grab some boxed lunches while we were getting money and then when we got back to the distillery he cleared off a bench with a scenic view for us to eat at.

Visiting Yoshino

We picked Yoshino a bit randomly. The main draw was the Airbnb and we had some hopes that the community would be interesting to visit but the region is also quite famous for it’s cherry blossoms. On our 2nd night, our host explained that the local religion is a mix of Buddhism, Shintoism and Animism, called Shugendo, and the practitioners plant and care for cherry trees in the area. The region has historical significance that might be of interest to some but I was mostly in it for the cherry blossoms and the soft serve stands doting all the roads. The mountains in the area are all blanketed in cherry trees.

Yoshino_Sandy Noto-14.jpg
Visiting Yoshino
Visiting Yoshino

Winding down on our last night in Yoshino, we were interrupted by an energetic neighbor. She invited us to come with her to the local temple to a cherry blossom viewing party. It was the exact sort of thing that would have set off all of my “stranger danger” alarm bells at home but somehow seemed completely reasonable in Yoshino after all of the kindness we experienced earlier in the day. An unexpected invite to a cherry blossom party just seemed par for the course.

Walking over our self-appointed guide, Ehko-San, informed us that this was a once a year celebration and that everyone would bring snacks. She directed us to try everything and clarified that it was all free. This was a community event. Going to any event with lots of strangers is usually stressful but once we arrived everyone seemed delighted that we decided to venture out. Mochi and sake manifested before us. We were introduced to a local teenager that lived in Canada, Rena, for a few years and could speak English.

I’ve been to fancy restaurants where all of the staff circles around you as if you’re the most important person in the world. It is a strange sensation. I understand how that’s supposed to invoke the sensation of hospitality. This night in Yoshino, though, was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. A group of people were willing to take in 2 strangers into their community for an evening. Even though my Japanese is rudimentary at best and our communication was a bit limited, I felt totally accepted and welcomed. This I realized is hospitality. This is community.

Visiting Yoshino
Visiting Yoshino

At the end of the evening, our self-appointed guide offered to give us a tour of her home. My “stranger danger” alarm was fully disabled at this point. We went and listened to stories about the items they’ve collected over the years: dolls and swords and paintings.

Visiting Yoshino
Visiting Yoshino
Visiting Yoshino

It’s been many months since our Yoshino visit. When I returned home, I tried to maintain the sense of kindness I felt in Yoshino but it’s hard to smile at strangers when some of them are unkind wildcards in a city setting. It is a comfort to me to know that there is a town full of kind strangers that will draw you a map and turn on temple lights because you want to take a photo and welcome you into their home and into their community. This place exists and not just in the imagination of Hollywood. I hope to return someday.

Visiting Yoshino Japan

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