Photo Assignment in Northeastern Japan

JUNE 17, 2024


Photo Assignment in Northeastern Japan

In early March of 2024, I visited Kesennuma and Ofunato in Japan’s northern east in the guise of a photo assignment for the Wall Street Journal. I was tasked with taking photos thematically to match the theme of an article they were publishing, which focused on a trail in the Pacific side of Tohoku called Michinoku Coastal Trail. The article was already published in mid-March using my photos, but I still have plenty of unused ones. Here’s a more personal recount of that trip.

Day One: Kesennuma

When I was first tasked to take photos for the article, I did not give a thought about the locations. I was super excited because it’s a request from a major news publication in the US, and at the same time, I have never been to Kesennuma even though I’ve been living for years in the same prefecture.

I initially thought it wouldn’t be hard to hit the target locations within the allotted time and that I would still have time to wander around. Little did I know that this was not the case.

I found that the easiest method of transport aside from going by car was by riding the Shinkansen up to Ichinoseki and then switching to the local Ofunato Line towards Kesennuma. Going by bus was straightforward, but if I had to sit for a long period I preferred to enjoy the view from a train.

After the 2-hour trip along the line that saw the snowy scenery of the Japanese countryside, I arrived at Kesennuma Station on Saturday morning. The weather was cloudy and uninspiring the moment I stepped out of the platform, but arriving in a new place always intrigued me to explore.

Kesennuma was surprisingly calm, and quite empty even on the weekend. With a population of just around 60,000 residents, it was no surprise. Before doing anything else I visited the first location on my itinerary, a sake brewery called Otokoyama-honten.

I found the place in front of the harbor. The staff greeted me with a wide beam, welcoming me inside. The building turned out to be just a storefront, as the brewery is a few hundred meters away. The shop was a small yet charming three-story building.

After talking with the store clerk, she told me the current building was rebuilt; the original building was destroyed in the Great East Japan Earthquake except for its roof ornament. During rebuilding, the brewery dedicated the entire third floor as a memorial gallery to commemorate the tragedy.

Exiting the store I went to visit the harborfront. This was probably my favorite spot in the whole town. There are a lot of shops and places like Pier 7 to kick back and enjoy the bay view. I was happily surprised to find that the day of my arrival coincided with a rare once-a-year cosplay event in Kesennuma organized by a local university, which saw young cosplayers coming in drove as the sun got high.

Slightly bummed out because I wouldn’t be able to see the event, I headed to my next destination: an oyster eatery called Yamayo Shokudo in Oshima Island, an offshoot island located in Kesennuma Bay, run by an oyster farm company Yamayo Suisan.

It was not easy to reach this place as I needed to take a bus to ‘Welcome Terminal’, a ferry terminal on the island’s west side, then take a taxi to the restaurant since it wasn’t reachable by bus.

Arriving at the restaurant, I was greeted by the sight of numerous oyster farms strewn over the calm waters of Oshimaseto Strait. After introducing myself, I helped myself to order a serving of the famous deep-fried oyster dish.

As the current generation owner of Yamayo Suisan, Takeshi Komatsu, was, unfortunately, unavailable to have his photos taken this time, I roamed the vicinity after eating and capturing some images of the oyster processing plant.

Luckily, I met the previous generation owner who generously opened the plant for me. With a high degree of freedom, I snapped images that were usually impossible to take while listening to his detailed explanation of the operation. The day I visited the work was on a halt I could see the fresh and unprocessed oysters inside the huge containers.


Ticking the eatery off my list, I swiftly returned to Kesennuma. Though I was supposed to head off to the next location, a minshuku (family-operated Japanese bed-and-breakfast) which also served as my accommodation for the night, I discovered that I still had time to see the cosplay event. And so I had fun walking around and taking photos.

Later around four in the afternoon, I rode the bus to Karakuwa Peninsula where Tsunakan Guest House, the minshuku I mentioned before, is located. A talkative lady from Tsunakan picked me up at the nearest bus stop because like everywhere in the region, the bus does not run conveniently to your exact destinations.

The guest house was grander than I expected. When I introduced myself to Ichiyo Kanno, the guest house’s bright and cheerful proprietor, she immediately made me feel like I was home. Indeed, the atmosphere of the guest house was that of a home, inviting and calming.

That night after a hearty meal and a hot bathtub dip, the bed never felt more comfortable and I promptly fell asleep.

Day Two: Ofunato

I woke up early on Sunday and went outside for a little morning stroll. The small inlet near the guest house provided an alluring sight in the morning light.

The other guests told me I could see the whole inlet from a nearby hill. And boy what a view. Even in chilly drab winter colors, the overlooking vista was majestic.

We did a little photoshoot with the owner and the other guests before the same lady who brought me to the guest house drove me back to the bus stop. From there I took the same bus back to Kesennuma station. My destination on the second day was Ofunato, a fishing town in the neighboring prefecture Iwate. I had previously arranged with a local contact there and he offered to assist me in covering locations there.

Connecting Kesennuma to Ofunato in place of a railway, the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is unique to the Sanriku region. This was again, due to the effect of the previously mentioned Great East Japan Earthquake tsunami, which I would soon find out just how extensive the damage it caused to the region. Instead of fixing the damaged railways, JR East transformed the lines into a rapid bus system, where the buses run on former railway lines.

On paper, this sounds like a good idea to preserve the connection. The bus spends half of its time running uninterrupted on a dedicated path. Still, occasionally it has to merge into normal roads and adds up the travel time depending on traffic conditions. Additionally, from what I noticed, besides the elderly, the bus saw low ridership, probably due to the effects of the bus’s inconvenient routes and the declining population in the countryside.

Nevertheless, I was grateful for the BRT as it made it easier for travelers to visit the region, and I hope it will keep maintaining the service for years to come.

On the way to Ofunato, I passed through some areas ravaged by tsunami. From the bus window, I saw the lone pine tree in Rikuzentakata, the sole survivor when the waves razed the grounds. The devastation lingered there as long as the eyes could see, leaving the lands sparsely populated.

I met my contact Taiga Okamoto at Sakari Station, Ofunato, around noon. Before the meeting, given his name, I thought he was from the area but the way he greeted me with an unmistakably American accent I soon realized he was Japanese American. Working as the resident CIR officer, he was well-informed about tourism in the area, especially on the trail itself.

Chit-chatting along the way, we soon drove into the next location on our list: Okirai. Nestled next to Sanriku Station, was Shiome—a captivating meeting place and art installation. Run by the visionary Waichiryou Katayama, who created the facility as a haven for community gatherings and children’s play, Shiome felt like a hidden treasure trove waiting to be discovered.

While it was a shame that I could not meet Katayama himself, I had plenty of fun wandering around the premises, for there were numerous details and new things to see in every nook and corner.

Our last itinerary of the day was a visit to Goishi Coast, a slice of short trail within the larger Michinoku Coastal Trail that offers magnificent views of rocky cliffs and unrelenting waves.

Though we did not see any hikers on the trail owing to the fact that it was still relatively cold in early March, the trail did not disappoint. Traversing among the well-lit path across pine trees, the trail took us over numerous spectacular rock formations surrounded by a glistening emerald blue sea.

I had to admit, that was not the image of trail I had in mind when I first accepted the assignment. I expected a more rugged terrain but was met with a carefully maintained path with clear markings. The staff at the Information Center told me that since the Michinoku Coastal Trail is divided into sections, some are wilder than others and perfect for seasoned hikers and some are more suitable for casual day-trippers. Goishi Coast was the latter.

My favorite part of the trail on Goishi Coast was the observation deck on the eastern side, right behind a small adorable white lighthouse. From there, you have an almost 360-degree view of the surrounding seas.

While the sky was sunny and beautiful when we were on the trail, as soon as we wrapped up it suddenly snowed out of nowhere, a reminder of how rough and unpredictable the weather could be in the northern part of Japan.

Hurrying back to the car, we sought refuge from the elements. With that abrupt interruption, my assignment drew to a close. Okamoto graciously drove me back to Ichinoseki, where I boarded the Shinkansen, heading back to Sendai.

This was truly a trip to remember. There were moments of despair and delight throughout the brief two-day excursion. Yet, the most rewarding part of the journey was meeting the locals. As breathtaking as the landscapes were, the people I encountered were even more remarkable — their warmth and hospitality were matched only by their resilience and resourcefulness. They were the true gems of this adventure.

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About the Author

Jerfareza Daviano | Photographer in Sendai, Japan
Jerfareza Daviano

Jerfareza is a freelance photographer from Indonesia currently based in Sendai, Japan, offering wide range of photography service especially profile portraits, couple or family photos, and wedding photography. Should you wish to hire him you can check here for more details.

Visit his website for articles about travel in Japan especially Tohoku area and interesting bits about photography.

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