Journey into the Unknown / Northern Japan Winter

We arrived in Otsuchi at about six in the morning, disembarking from the overnight bus direct from Tokyo to a wide and empty swath of land. There was no snow on the ground but I was confronted with a salt-laden frozen air that lashed at my face.

We followed the winding street up the way, passing the high-tide mark that the tsunami had ominously etched above our heads in 2011. We stayed in the town’s kindergarten overnight, with nothing but a small kerosene heater between us and the freezing night outside. Away from the spectacle and curiosities of Tokyo we were faced with nothing but the stark loneliness of the Iwate cryptomeria forests on one side, and the darkness of the Pacific Ocean on the other.

We joined some of the locals as they burned the new year’s ornaments in a pit on the beach with a makeshift ceremony that looked upon the temporary calm of the ocean.

All I had with me was an old film camera with a couple of Kodak rolls and a notebook, but the things I saw there would stay with me forever. No matter how many years pass I always come back to this place in my mind. 

There was not much left at sea level besides the foundations of houses that had been washed away and the burst concrete sea wall. What had not been destroyed by the tsunami now stood alone in an empty town. I was witness to a place changed by the force of nature, barely holding onto the patina of civilization that had been. 

The snow that started to fall on the last day brought a melancholy to the land. One of the other volunteer students taught me the phrase, Mono no aware – the pathos of things, and it was here that I would understand what photography was.

What I was photographing was not just the place as it is, but the memories of what it was.

– Cody Ellingham

StoryCody EllinghamJapan, Film