Behind the Faces

When photographing, I’m always drawn to people who have interesting faces. Often these faces belong to older people. You can get a glimpse of the lives they’ve lived through their eyes, through the lines in their skin.  There is a hint of the stories that lie behind them.  On my most recent trip to Japan I was lucky to visit a few rural villages not far from Kyoto and Lake Biwa.  As my Japanese has improved I’ve been able to chat more and more to the people I photograph and actually hear some of their experiences, rather than just guess at them.  Here are two of the lovely people that welcomed me to their towns and into their homes.

In Search of a Peaceful Life

Yoshiaki Hashimoto – 75 yrs old

Born in Tokyo in 1940, and into World War II, by Hashimoto-san’s own admission, was not the best time to come into the world.  As Tokyo was becoming more and more dangerous to live in due to war time bombings, 5 year old Toshiaki and his family escaped to the quieter and safer village of Harie.

There, Hashimoto-san described a playful childhood.  The village has an extensive network of shallow spring-fed canals which provide fresh water for everyone that lives there.  During his childhood, these were used as a playground for all the local kids, and a means of transport.  To get to school, Hasimoto-san had to row himself along the canals.

Now, Hashimoto-san works as a volunteer guide, proudly showing visitors around the village he has called home for 70 years.  He also works on a number of preservation projects – being one of only a few that still knows how to thatch.

He enjoys his life in the village and explains that it is a closeknit community, though there is always gossip, usually about who has the prettiest flowers and how they might have got them to grow so well.  “You can see if that is the worst we have to gossip about, then I have found myself a perfectly peaceful life”.

Kimiko and the Bear

Kimiko Sawai – 80 yrs old

An innocent question, “Why don’t you have any chickens here?” led to one of the most vivid stories I’ve been told in a while.

Sawai-san, a natural story teller, has lived her whole life in Hata village.  Her house sits atop a hill, with rice paddies spilling down to the valley below.  A lush vegetable garden provides Kimiko and her husband with most of their food needs, though they still need to go to town occasionally to get eggs and other bits and pieces.  This is what led to the above question.

The reply, “NO! NO CHICKENS!”  Remembering back to her youth, newly married and recently moved into the house she still lives in, Sawai-san began to descibe one of the scariest days of her life.

Winters can be harsh in the village, and after a particularly tough one, a hungry bear emerged from the surrounding forest.  Starting at the bottom of the hill, the bear sniffed out some much needed food – the villager’s chickens.  The bear slowly made its way up the hill, giving Kimiko time to hide her chickens in the storage room at the back of her house.  The door, however, was no barrier to the bear who smashed it down with one swipe of it’s clawed paw.

No more chickens – then, or since.  “I love welcoming visitors to my house, but no more bears!”

Muay Thai

An unexpected highlight from my trip was visiting a local Muay Thai bout in Chiang Mai.  Not being a huge fan of boxing generally, I found that I really enjoying the ceremony and speed that I witnessed in these young fighters.  They fought during a down pour that flooded the streets.  Photographing while avoiding leaks streaming through the tent was a challenge, as was keeping up with the boxers.

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Elephant Nature Park

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Visiting the Elelphant Nature Park in the hills behind Chiang Mai was an awe-inspiring day. Created by Lek Chailert, the park is home to a large number of rescued elephants. Many of the elephants have heart-wrenching pasts of abuse as either logging elephants or as entertainment for tourists. Lek runs the park with volunteers from all around the world. No riding here people, just looking, feeding, and helping give them a wash.

Here is the parks website if you would like to visit, or perhaps even spend some time there helping out.

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13th April, 2011 – HANOI, VIETNAM


Back in Hanoi for our last day in Vietnam, it was time to make the most of Vietnam’s delicious food.  Brendan and I decided to try a street-side place that looked popular with the locals.  We found a couple of spare plastic stools and as we squatted to sit the owner, a chubby older woman with greying hair and an efficient but not unfriendly look on her face, caught my eye and held up two fingers.  I gave her a nod.  I had just ordered two of something.  Minutes later two bowls of steaming chicken noodle soup (pho) had arrived.  Next, another bowl was offered and with a second nod we had a selection of fresh herbs to season our soup with.  Any bones or used serviettes were simply dropped on the ground to be swept up later.  At 30000 dong ($1.50) a bowl, it was a cheap but delicious lunch.  I’ve just got to learn how to eat sitting so low without dropping noodles on my knees!

12th April, 2011 – SAPA, VIETNAM

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With muscles stiff from yesterdays riding it was time to do some stretches and get back on our bikes for day two of our Sapa ride.  After the mostly downhill ride of yesterday, I was looking forward to more of the same.  A rude shock awaited – today’s ride was to be mostly on unsurfaced rocky roads with a lot of uphills involved.  Heavy rain during the night had also turned the road into something of a slip and slide with muddy quagmires fit for pigs, but impossible to ride through.

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By the end of the day I was bruised, battered, exhausted and covered in mud.  Again though, the spectacular scenery saved the day.  Throughout the whole day’s cycling we didn’t see another tourist and the smiles and nods of encouragement of the locals spurred me on through their villages.


11th April, 2011 – SAPA, VIETNAM

The overnight train from Hanoi pulled in to Lao Cai about three hours late this morning, after some engine trouble last night.  After a hearty but greasy breakfast of bacon and eggs we set off on the mountain bikes that would be our transport for the next two days.  At first, riding down the steep, winding roads with motorbikes zooming by and large patches of slippery buffalo dung to contend with was quite scary, but regular stops to take in the spectacular views helped.  Terraced rice fields glittered in the morning light before being obscured by fast moving mist that left me time and again simply staring at white.


Off the main road, the path got rocky and very slippery.  I had to get off and walk a few times or I wouldn’t have remained upright.  A rest stop gave a chance to visit a Black Hmong family who make their living by growing indigo and using the dye to colour fabric.


Mist closed in after midday.  Just as I’d really got into the swing of things with the riding enough to take in the view more, there wasn’t any to see.  Still, it was very atmospheric and the kids we passed on the road made me giggle with their “hellogoodbye”s, pouring both words out in one breath as if they were one.  It made me think of the Beatles song ‘Hello Goodbye’, which I now have stuck in my head.


Tonight we are staying with a Tay family in the village of Ban Ho.  Their house is built on stilts and the wooden rooms are spacious with a lovely balcony running around two sides.  As I write, the family is going about their daily chores. “Mum” is sorting corn.  “Dad”, who is a skilled carpenter, is building a new table, and various other family members are preparing dinner in the kitchen downstairs.  The smells wafting up are making my stomach grumble.



I woke with fingers crossed, hoping to finally have the blue skies that would transform the bay from mere beauty to magic.  While there is now a glimpse of sun and a pale patch of blue, it seems that the clouds will continue to win the war.  With flat, horrible light totally unconducive to photography, I instead spent the morning lazing on the deck of our junk, napping, and listening to the cheeky teasing and joking of our guide Ha as the rocky islands drifted by.


After the trip ended, Ha invited us out for drinks with her friends back in Hanoi.  After meeting up at 9pm we found a street corner eatery with a few spare plastic stools.  Squatted down on the low stools, we enjoyed a glass of “bia hoi”, a fresh, light-tasting beer made without any preservatives.  At only 5000 dong (25 cents) a glass, it’s the best value drink in town.  Then, time to hit the club.  At the Dragonfly Bar lots of young hip Vietnamese types jammed themselves into a small room to dance to the pounding beats.  The was very little space to actually dance and as people entered or left the room, those around them were sucked along in the same direction.  We lost Ha in the crowd a few times as she is so short, but she feistily fought her way back to find us each time.  With no age limits in bars in Vietnam, I also spotted a few very young looking Westerners enjoying the chance for a night out on town…or maybe I’m just getting to old…I’m certainly past my clubbing prime.



On a morning walk around the island we stopped in at a primary school. The kids were keen to practise their English, with all the usual questions being asked.  Unfortunately they weren’t so good at understanding the answers.  They thought that I was from the U.S. until the matter was cleared up with a bit of kangaroo mime which seems to be understood the world over.


After lunch we said goodbye to Bai Tu Long Bay and hello to Halong Bay.  We stopped at an atmospheric floating village set amongst dramatic limestone islands.  As we floated through on a small row boat the houses rocked gently on their pontoons.  We rowed into the mouths of caves and came out into lakes surrounded on all sides by high rock walls that made for peaceful secret worlds of green water and gentle echoes – shattered by the ringing of our rower’s phone.


After anchoring for the night, we did our own bit of silence shattering with an onboard karaoke session.  A mix of English, French and Vietnamese songs blasted out into the night.

7th April, 2011 – BAI TU LONG BAY, VIETNAM


Bai Tu Long Bay is to the north of Halong Bay.  It isn’t as well known as its southerly cousin, though shares similar rock formations that on our visit were grey and gloomy to match the weather.

After motoring through the bay for a few hours, the boats engines dulled to a quiet hum as we passed between two of the islands rising in irregular formations from the water.  The shallow water was a beautiful deep green and a choir of birdsong could be heard from the trees, certainly a change from the cacophony of horns in Hanoi.

On arrival at Cai Rong Island we jumped on mountain bikes and rode the 15kms to Mr Sau’s house, our stop for the night.  The ride was lovely, taking us along roads draped in the perfume of jasmine that grew wild alongside.  Children called out shy hellos as we passed and village dogs raised their heads from dozing to make sure nothing was amiss.

At dinner we all mucked in to chop up veggies and roll our own spring rolls under the close guidance of Mrs Sau.  The introduction of “happy water” (home brew rice wine) helped us wash it all down and got the conversation flowing.  It probably would have flowed late into the night, but with the generator konking out early, there was nothing to do but sleep in the pitch black that was left.