Tohoku by Train – On Assignment for National Geographic Traveller

Japan is a country of breathtaking natural beauty. The first stops on a visitor’s itinerary are often the pulsing urban centers of Tokyo and Osaka, followed by the ancient temples of Kyoto and Nara. But for those wishing to escape the crush of crowds and get a bit closer to the earth, the wild mountains and coastlines of Tohoku are an attractive alternative. When editors at National Geographic Traveller (UK) approached me last winter, proposing a five-day train trip to photograph the region for their partner, the East Japan Railway Company (JR East), I was immediately on board. The brief was challenging but flexible. The clients wanted me to cover as much ground as I could, taking trains whenever possible, highlighting the region’s natural beauty, culture, faces and food. I had just a few days to plan my route and book hotels before hopping on the Shinkansen and heading north.

JR East's iconic Hayabusa Shinkansen at Tokyo Station. Part of a story on Tohoku for National Geographic Traveller by Ben Weller, a photographer in Japan.
A train driver waits to board the Hayabusa Shinkansen on the Tohoku Line at Tokyo Station.

Tohoku spans Honshu from the Pacific Ocean, across Japan’s longest mountain range, and then spreads out across the flatlands toward the Sea of Japan. My first stop was Matsushima, one of the famous Three Views of Japan.

On Day 2, I hopped back on the local JR train as it climbed into Yamagata prefecture, taking me closer to the famous hot springs and snowy slopes of Mt. Zao. I would spend two nights in Zao Onsen, hiking in the snow, luxuriating in hot baths, and eating some of the best ramen you can find anywhere.

The final destination on my itinerary was a day-long kabuki festival in Sakata City on the Sea of Japan. The performers at Kuromori Kabuki are locals, and the annual event is a great way to enjoy this traditional art in a relaxed (but cold!) and festive atmosphere.

As with nearly every assignment I’ve shot in Japan, my trip through Tohoku only whetted my appetite. While the clients were extremely happy with the work, I’m not done with this project. I’m already planning my next train trip to Tohoku.

Closing spread of a story on Tohoku for National Geographic Traveller by Ben Weller, a photographer in Japan.
Ben Weller for National Geographic Traveller and JR East

K Food

Photographing the traditional markets of South Korea has become one of my long-term personal projects. The narrow streets, the smoke and shadow and light, the faces and hands of the shop owners…all of these elements make the markets a kind of photographic treasure trove, and a challenge that keeps me coming back for more.


Gwangjang Market, Seoul. © Ben Weller / All rights reserved

Last year, Octopus Publishing in the UK contacted me about a book project. The authors, Da-hae and Gareth West, run Busan BBQ, a food truck at London’s Street Feast. They had seen my market work, and they were interested in having me shoot photographs for their cookbook of Korean street food and homestyle cooking. The assignment was to spend a day in Seoul with Da-hae and Gareth as they ate and shopped their way through the city’s traditional markets and famous street food areas. I jumped at the opportunity.

I had a fantastic time seeing the Korean food scene through these chefs’ eyes, and of course, eating some great food. Now, a year later, I’ve received my advance copy of the book and I am ready to start cooking. From sauces and soups to bulgogi burgers and pajeon, this book has a ton of great recipes. If you love Korean food like I do, it’s a great way to learn to cook your favorite dishes like beokumbap (fried rice) and doenjang jjigae (soybean stew). But Da-hae and Gareth are super creative, too, so don’t expect just your standard fare. There’s Mango Kimchi and Korean Chilli Crab, Ramyun Chicken Buns and Gochujang Meatloaf. There’s also a drinking section, including a Kimchi Bloody Mary and something they call a “Grown-up Yakult”, featuring the ubiquitous sweet yogurt and soju (plus some other ingredients–but you’ll have to buy the book to find out). K Food comes out May 5, and you can pre-order your copy at Amazon.

View the gallery below for more pictures from my day with Da-hae and Gareth:

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Ben Weller is a photographer in Nagoya, Japan. All images by Ben Weller / © 2016