Japan is one of those countries that has always fascinated me while growing up. It's like stepping into another world, yet it's only a ten-hour flight away from New Zealand. Bullet Train and Uncharted playing on my entertainment system, along with some valium I picked up from a Vietnamese pharmacy a month ago, helped me relax and get a bit of sleep during the flight.

Photos & Words: Nick Phipps / @nickphipps_

Upon arriving at my Tokyo airport pod hotel, it felt like entering an episode of Netflix's Black Mirror. Grey arrows and signs dictated where you could and couldn't talk, masks were to be worn at all times, and a dimly lit hallway displayed 150 pods lining the walls, each with a pair of allocated grey slippers outside. Where was I? A quick visit to the airport 7/11 for snacks and a beer served as dinner, as I felt too anxious and tired to navigate an airport restaurant or vending machine. I soon settled into the peculiar comfort of my pod, awaiting sleep's embrace. This marked the start of my life in Japan, where I would be residing for the next five months. In my moleskin, I jotted down my initial words and tucked in some receipts and wrappers. All of this occurred inside a hotel pod, tucked beneath Narita Airport.

"I just feel so alone, even when I'm surrounded by other people," Scarlett Johansson famously stated in the movie Lost In Translation.

This quote resonated deeply with me during my initial three days in Japan when I hadn't engaged in a conversation. My interactions were limited to bows, eye contact, and stumbling through a slightly imperfect arigato (thank you). Not to worry, I'd been in this situation before. Smile, be polite, act dumb, and assistance would surely arrive. Whether it was deciphering the train ticket machine or purchasing ramen from a vending machine, I had my fair share of laughs at my own expense. Now, five months down the road, I found myself teaching others how to operate the ticket machine, use simple phrases, and order ramen.

I arrived in Kutchan, a town on the northern island of Hokkaido, via train from Sapporo. That night, snow began to fall and it continued relentlessly for about three months. The landscape transformed rapidly, with snow walls towering over sidewalks, dwarfing even my house. Each morning, diggers and graders worked tirelessly to clear the roads, resembling scenes from the Clone Wars. Digging out my Kei Van from snow everyday became the new norm, as did grabbing a 100 yen 'hotto kohi' (coffee) from the conbini (convenience store) before snowboarding or work. A simple arigato gozaimasu or daijoubu desu transformed what used to be confusing interactions with conbini staff into what felt like ordinary conversations. Quite a rarity for a foreigner, or Gaijin as we're known in Japan, a term popularised by Fast And The Furious: Tokyo Drift.

My camera spent more time tucked away since the temperature often lingered around -10 degrees Celsius, the days were short, and darkness descended by 4:30 pm.

My days consisted of snowboarding, working, savouring ramen, and sharing cheap beers with newfound friends. Sunny days were a rarity during the peak winter season, I could almost count them on one hand. A sunny day could make your mood change in an instant. A day of powder snowboarding followed by a beer under the sun was a remedy. I'd often cap it with a stroll around town, attempting to rekindle my creative spark throughout the winter. Cafes, a bookstore, a magazine shop, a handful of bars, and Izakayas filled my free hours when the mountains were off-limits. I also delved into making Takoyaki, driving my van along snow-covered dead-end roads, playing Nintendo beneath our kotatsu (a Japanese coffee table with a heater and attached blanket), and indulging in more beers.

With renewed creative passion, my camera became a constant companion in my van. Given Japan's reputation as a hub for film photography, I initially thought acquiring 35mm rolls and developing services would be easy. However, I was mistaken—there was a limit of two rolls per person and Portra was nowhere to be found. For the first time in 4-5 years, my interest in digital photography was rekindled. My Fujifilm X-Pro1 became an extension of myself. Conbini neon signs against the snowy backdrop, Suzuki Jimny vehicles drowning in powder, and sunlight dancing on snowbanks became my new visual obsessions.

Arriving in Japan back in November, I had barely stepped out of the Tokyo airport before flying to Hokkaido the next day. There, I immersed myself in the snow for four months. Yet, I eagerly awaited the flight back to the mainland of Japan, known as Honshu, where a couple of weeks of travel awaited me. Osaka, Kyoto, Uno Port, Naoshima, Yokohama, and Tokyo were on my itinerary. Armed with my maxed-out stock of two rolls of film per person, a charged Fujifilm battery, and packed bags, I bid farewell to my northern home and journeyed south. 

Check out more of Nick's photography, HERE. 


August 29, 2023