Horai Bashi, the world’s longest wooden bridge. The first photo taken by Stack Jones in Japan.
I walked out of law school in January of 2008 having just completed my final, final exams. I was sure I had passed all of them, and would soon receive my juris doctorate, but the employment market was the worst on record since the Great Depression. I got in my truck and looked at the school one last time. I knew I would never return.
I drove out of the parking lot, and unlike every other law school graduate, I didn’t begin studying for the bar exam, instead, I went to the family’s vacation home on Lake Mead outside of Las Vegas, and began recording a new album.
At that time, real estate deals that were on the table would have permitted me to retire if I had wanted to. Instead, Dick Fuld, Timothy Geithner, Hank Paulson and worldwide secondary mortgage fraud ensured that wasn’t going to happen. To make matters worse, the prior semester not one student who had passed the bar exam, after completing law school hell managed to secure employment at a law firm. After completing my album titled, 13 Rowdy Row (the address of the home on Lake Mead), I began shopping it to labels, and sought employment overseas. I had the audacity to require a home near the ocean, and a car provided by the company. Almost immediately I was offered both in Shizuoka, Japan. I took the job, even though my real goal was wait for a response from the record labels. I thought being located in Japan would provide the perfect opportunity to enhance my photography portfolios. I estimated that I’d be in Japan about one year before moving on. Oh, how time flies!
While residing in Shizuoka I surfed huge typhoon swells, and can clearly recall one particularly day when the waves were massive. Scary big! This chap from Brazil who had managed to get past the impact zone said paddled up to me and said, “Great practice for Bali.” He was right, Bali had waves that huge nearly every day of the year. We were the only ones out as a crowd gathered along the shore to watch us get some great rides as well as take a few good beatings.
After a short stint in Shizuoka I moved to Fukui. I was only in Fukui a couple months when I was offered an indie label deal from a small American record label. The company set up a tour for me with Eric Clapton’s band as my backup. I thought things couldn’t be more promising. The financier of the promotion was the Royal Bank of Scotland, a bank that had lied to its shareholders that it had not “invested” in the secondary mortgage market. It wasn’t long before I learned that RBS bled billions like every other bank. I lost my tour opportunity, and former RBS CEO Sir Fred Goodwin lost his job, and his Knighthood. I obviously wasn’t going any where soon, and had to get serious about earning a living.
Fukui, what a great place to shoot photography. My first “planned” shooting was to locate Tojinbo on the Japan Sea. Not as easy as it sounds as most roads signs are in Japanese once outside the larger cities. I attempted to navigate my way from Fukui City to the sea, but after driving for two hours, I wound up on a road that passed castle ruins and dead ended at a beautiful waterfall. The ruins were those of the Asakura Castle which historians claim had been the sight of a massacre. Samurai whose duty it was to protect the daimyo, pulled their swords and went to fight against the intruders. Sword was met with rifle, and the descendants of Prince Kusakabe, son of Emperor Tenmu were slaughtered. This was the first modern battle that took place in Japan. Thereafter, the Samurai two swords were replaced with rifles and bullets.
It’s hard to fathom that such a horrific slaughter took place where the beautiful castle gates stand today. On that day it was snowing heavily, and knew I was lost, so I stopped someone to find out how to get back on track to my destination, the Japan Sea. I quickly learned that I had driven entirely in the opposite direction, and had actually drove east instead of west and was in the Fukui mountains heading toward Osaka.
From that day forward I made no plans, other than to have a wallet full of money and a full tank of gas. From that day on I just got into my car, and drove down any random street, and kept driving, not at all knowing where I would end up before nightfall. That strategy provided me the opportunity to take some of the best photographs that are in my galleries. It also provided rich experiences, traveling into areas of Japan that I have been told I was the first foreigner to visit.
The Japan Sea’s clear aqua-green water rivals that of the Bahamas. I had no idea that the Japan Sea also had great waves. In my second summer in Japan I surfed more typhoon swells on the Japan Sea than I had any other place in the world during that time of the year. Gorgeous locations along the Japan Sea include the cliffs of Tojinbo (one of Japan’s top three suicide destinations), Kenroku-en Gardens, and Maruoka Castle, Japan’s oldest castle.
All good things come to an end, and that included my stay in Fukui. On yet another whim, I decided to move to Yamagata. As good as the surf was in Fukui, it was all too infrequent. This would not be the case in Sendai which has some of the best surf in Japan. Day trips in Yamagata are plentiful most notably, Yamadera, Ginzan, and Okama. Winding mountain roads filled with monkeys and pristine meandering rivers that flow all the way to the Pacific Ocean via Sendai would be where I spent most of my time for the next three years. I liked the area so much that I decided to build my own business there. That business was to be a two-year, pre-university language program, which enabled graduating students who obtained proficient language skills to transfer to a four-year university with college credit. 3.11.11. resulted in the devastation of that business.
3.11.11. Yuriage, Sendai Prefecture: Minnie, where’s Mickey?
March 11th, 2011, was Japan’s 911. A double natural disaster combined with a manmade one resulted in something I still cannot believe I had witnessed. On that day, I was in a meeting in Tokyo and had just obtained a contract to represent the world’s most powerful, privileged, and politically connected speakers. I watched from a television in Tokyo as the town I lived in was washed out to sea. The roads, fuel stations, buses, trains, planes, all modes of transportation shut down. Regardless, I got in my car, and drove the coastline from Chiba all the way to iwate, sleeping in my car, and shooting reportage and video for NHK, ABC, PBC and MSNBC. When I entered Fukushima, the main road was shutdown. I was not allowed to pass. Being a surfer, I thought, head to the shore and see where that takes you. I ended up walking through town after town of devastation as I made my way along the shore of Fukushima prefecture, from the north end. I cannot put into words what I saw. Animals roaming wild, entering buildings, and houses. Other animals still tethered to ropes as they barely clung on to life. I tried to open a corral that one horse was locked in, but couldn’t. All I could do was pull together as much radiation contaminated grass and hay that I could locate, give it to the emaciated animal, and move on. That day, I made it as far as four kilometers from Namie. Perhaps for the best, I was stopped in my tracks by a river that flowed from the contaminated Fukui mountains into the Pacific Sea. I continued northward that night, and drove through broken roads somehow managing to make my way to Sendai. What awaited me at sunrise, I could not have prepared for. The smell of death was everywhere blowing in the wind. Death was everywhere. I cried as I wandered about taking photos of mass destruction. I searched for friend’s homes, and familiar places and found none. Finally, I located the foundation of a friend’s family home, which was in the ocean community of Yuriage. My friend had operated a surf shop out of the front space of his home. I sat on his steps and drank a beer for him, and his community, which was wiped off of the face of Earth. As I did, an explosion broke out nearby, I stood and as the sun was setting, ran to capture more madness as broken structure after broken structure caught fire, and burned for the next several days. As for my friend who owned the surf shop where I often bought wax for my board, I have never heard from him again.
With Sendai in ruin, I moved again. This time to Moriya City in Ibaraki. One of the best kept secrets of Japan is the summer festival in Moriya. According to the locals, during the Edo period taxation was excessive. The people suffered terribly as a result. Any attempt at protesting the injustice of it meant certain death. Because the locals could not openly protest, they created a festival mocking their plight. The people of Moriya came up with the idea of creating masks that had crude facial expressions. They wore hideous rags which was a symbolic showing of their financial ruin. The Moriya City festival became the first place in Japan where the powerless were able to mock the elite publicly, and symbolically express their dissent. Moriya City is a great place to live. Nearby is a large Brazilian community where I was able to find Latin American foods that I had grown up accustomed to in Miami. But, Moriya was several hours drive to the best surf spots in Chiba.
I moved to Chiba after nearly two years in Ibaraki. Driving along Chiba’s coastline is a great way to get away from everything. At that time, I had a Toyota Fun Cargo, which is a great traveling vehicle. The seats fold down into the floor, providing a great place to sleep after an evening of eating BBQ on the beach with old, and new friends. Often I would toss a futon in the back of the car, pile in my surf and diving gear and spends days at a time parked on the shore, while sleeping to the sound of the wind, rain, and ocean waves. Best sleep ever! One such night includes parked at the beach in Hebara, when a powerful typhoon hit. The car rocked all night long as it got pounded by hurricane force winds. By morning the storm had subsided, and I awoke to the sound of giant surf pounding the beach, which shook after each set wave broke. Only one who surfs can ever understand the terrified feeling of paddling out into a raging ocean that is going to beat you, and drag you to the bottom, and nearly drown you, and do it again, and again, all before even making it out past the impact zone. That particular dawn was one of those mornings.
My jittery feet… I relocated once again. This time it was to Yokohama. There are so many great places in Kanagawa, that I’d have to have a weekly section in a newspaper to write about all of them. From Chinatown to nearly every other station destination, a great day or evening awaits. One of my favorite things to do in Japan is to walk or cycle in the evening from Yamashita Koen, along the Yokohama Bay, to the Sakuragicho station. Along the route is the Red Brick Warehouse, Marine and Walk Yokohama, Shinko Central Park, World Porter, Cosmo World, Yokohama Museum of Art, Rinko Park, and Landmark Towers, just to name a few. This is the where I would finally get hitched, and have a child.
While residing in this area my family took endless long walks, as I pushed a stroller. This is where my child learned to crawl, walk, talk, run, and refuse to do anything I asked. My absolute most enjoyable thing to do in this area is what few “tourists” know exists. Exiting from the west side of Sakuragicho Station, follow along the river heading toward Kannai Station. This is something you want to do with your good buddies at night. Along that river are seedy streets filled with tiny bars. This area is where many feature films are shot, and it’s an area that few non-Japanese residents know about. I’ve walked that route all the way to China Town, and it’s always been a ton-of-fun, with unique events transpiring along the way, every time.
Shonan is arguably the best place to live in Japan. Here, you’ll find Kamakura, Enoshima Island, Fujisawa, Hiratsuka, and the fantastic Tsujido Ocean Park. In Shonan there are a myriad of wonderful places to spend the day. For more than two years my family road our bikes along the ocean front path from Kamakura to Hiratsuka. Each place has its own special attractions. Lately, for my family it’s been the Animal Park in Hiratsuka, where children can handle many kinds of animals, including rabbits, chickens, turtles, sheep and goats. If you’ve never been to Hiratsuka, the Animal Park also has a manmade stream, with fountains and waterfalls to play in. There are also numerous swimming pools that are free to use, and fun for the entire family. This is where my child learned to swim.
For those that love fireworks, there is no place in Japan that rivals Shonan when it comes to resting along the shore, with your feet in the water, watching summer fireworks explode all around you. Each city has its own fireworks festival from Kamakura all the way to Odawara, and they are all visible from Chigasaki.
Placing a pencil on a map of Japan, pertaining to all of the places I have lived, makes a full circle. Many Japanese have told me that I have seen more of Japan than most Japanese will see in their entire lifetime. Perhaps, but after ten years of exploring Japan, it’s time to move on to other life experiences, especially for my child.
I hadn’t realized that writing this article, and reliving some of my experiences would bring a few tears to my eyes. I had initially come to Japan for a short stay, and shoot photography. I ended up riding out a global economic disaster, and one of Japan’s worst ecological catastrophes, all while having fun, discovering new things, and creating a new family. I came for a short stint, yet, I ended up staying for a decade.
I’m leaving the country with a family in tow, and that in and of itself is a miracle. It’s time to move on, get back to studying, obtain a license, and face new challenges. Being from America has its positive and negative aspects, just as living in Japan does. Even so, being an American I can call Cuban food, Mexican food, and Kosher food my own, and of all of the things to miss about home, besides family, it’s the food! And sometimes ya just gotta have it! Not much else will change. As a family, we’ll continue to surf, ride our bikes, enjoy the great outdoors, explore nature, and capture memorable images along the way.
Attached find sample photographs of images Stack Jones has shot of Japan. If you’d like to see more of Stack’s work, it can be viewed at the following link: http://stackjones.com.