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How to See—and Photograph—Japan’s Surviving Ancient Rituals

By Sarah Buder

Apr 24, 2019

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A maiko (an apprentice geisha) performs a traditional dance at a temple in Kyoto, Japan.

Photo by Everett Kennedy Brown, courtesy of InsideJapan Tours

A maiko (an apprentice geisha) performs a traditional dance at a temple in Kyoto, Japan.

Across the country, centuries-old traditions permeate contemporary culture. A new set of immersive photography tours grant travelers the rare access necessary to document them.

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Geisha. Samurai. Monks. Falconers. In Japan, the modern practitioners of these ancient roles and rituals help keep traditions alive, from one generation to the next.

For the past 25 years, renowned U.S. photographer Everett Kennedy Brown, an expat in Japan, has documented various Japanese individuals who passionately maintain their ancestral ways of life. His subjects include the descendants of an Edo period samurai clan in Soma, Fukushima; followers of Shugendo (an ancient religion that incorporates elements of Shintoism with Buddhism) in the Three Sacred Mountains of Dewa; and a 10th-generation kimono designer and obi maker at the helm of a 280-year-old atelier in Kyoto. 

“This is not cosplay,” Kennedy Brown says in regard to the ways his subjects are represented. “These local families are seriously maintaining their hundreds-of-years-old traditions.” 

A village fisherman disposes of clam organs at a fishery in Moune Bay, in Japan’s Miyagi prefecture.

Culture-focused photography tours

Even for the most culturally conscious travelers, it can be difficult to gain intimate access to unfamiliar communities in which hyper-traditional lifestyles are upheld. And that’s especially so when those ways of life are connected to sacred beliefs or when language barriers are a factor.

On two specially curated photography expeditions with award-winning travel specialists InsideJapan Tours, Kennedy Brown will help facilitate those connections for small groups of photography-minded travelers. The tours, which allow up to 12 people per group, will tap into the deep local relationships that Kennedy Brown has cultivated after years of pursuing his individual photography in addition to serving as an advisor at the International Center for Japanese Culture.

Japan’s Shiozawa village is famous for the “Yuki-zarashi” fabric-making process. Here, a kimono weaver places silk and hemp fabric above the snow to remove impurities.
Itinerary highlights from the 12-day “Portraits of Japan” expedition and the newly launched “Spirit of Samurai” tour (each are 12 days) include visits to a fishing village in the Miyagi prefecture, to a renowned textile-making community in the Niigata province, as well as to a kendo (Japanese martial arts) school in the Fukushima prefecture. 

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“What’s special about these tours is that I’m bringing the photographers into situations with people I have personal connections with,” Kennedy Brown says. “The intimacy is already there.”

While the “Portraits of Japan” tour takes travelers from Kyoto to Hiroshima to Osaka (making various stops in rural areas in between), the newly launched “Spirit of Samurai” itinerary focuses on Japan’s mountainous northern region. It’s in this stretch of the archipelago where samurai legend, in particular, still prevails.

White-tailed sea eagles are the fourth largest eagles in the world. A number of these birds find shelter on Japan’s UNESCO-listed Shiretoko peninsula.
On the “Spirit of Samurai” expedition, one notable figure that travelers will be able to meet and photograph is Hidetoshi Matsubara, Japan’s last professional falconer. Falconry (takagari in Japanese) was introduced to Japan from Korea in the 4th century. In 2010, UNESCO declared the practice to be part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, but recent Japanese laws have restricted the tradition by placing regulations on the personal practice that require permits and licensing. Groups led by Kennedy Brown will learn how this change has impacted Matsubara, who has been a professional falconer for over 40 years.

Japan’s only male geisha, Eitaro (left), works to revive local geisha culture in Tokyo’s Omori district.
As part of the “Spirit of Samurai” itinerary, travelers will also be introduced to Eitaro, Japan’s only male geisha who performs as a female dancer. The trained entertainer, whom Kennedy Brown knows personally, began to carry on his mother’s efforts to revive local geisha culture in Tokyo’s Omori district following her passing three years ago. 

“These tours really offer a window into traditional Japanese cultures,” Kennedy Brown says. “We’ll talk with local people and hear their stories.”

Local children practice kendo swordsmanship at a community center in Japan’s Fukushima prefecture.

For travelers passionate about exploring tradition and culture through photography, these small-group tours provide a prime place to start. The tours are intended for aspiring and experienced photographers alike. While other photography tours may focus on workshops and technique, the itineraries from InsideJapan Tours put cultural immersion at the forefront.

“I really see [these trips] as not just an opportunity to capture great photographs,” Kennedy Brown says, “but also to get engaged in other people’s stories in ways that can really enhance our own lives.”

Book the “Portraits of Japan” photography expedition (from $8,100 per person) or the “Spirit of Samurai”  photography expedition (from $8,500 per person) with InsideJapan Tours.

>> Plan Your Trip With AFAR’s Guide to Japan

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