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

Video Game Exec Portraits for The Wall Street Journal

Last fall The Wall Street Journal sent me up to Yokohama to photograph Hisashi Koinuma, CEO of Koei Tecmo, the legendary gaming company. This was an exciting assignment for me, being a casual gamer and having played many Tecmo games as a kid.

The assigning editor asked for a few portraits, but I knew I also should try to grab a few storytelling shots, just to give the page designers something to work with. I had 30 minutes scheduled with Mr. Koinuma–not a ton of time–but his people let me arrive an hour early to look around and set up lights if needed.

They had initially planned for me to shoot in a rather formal looking conference room, but I thought the building had potential, so I asked for a quick tour. Koei Tecmo’s headquarters is a multi-level concrete maze, and on our quick walk-thru I felt like I was inside a video game. I wanted to do something with that, so I was looking for interesting angles, light, frames.

The first and most obvious portrait location I came across was an outdoor courtyard featuring a tile mosaic of Oda Nobunaga (織田信長), a 16th century daimyo, and the subject of one of Koei Tecmo’s most important game series. The building rose up around the courtyard, so I chose a window three stories up where I could shoot down at Koinuma-san with a long lens, and use the mosaic as my background.

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This image ended up being the lead photograph for the story in the print edition. Hisashi Koinuma, CEO, Koei Tecmo. Ben Weller for The Wall Street Journal.

When I’d first arrived at Koei Tecmo headquarters, I had noticed some artwork in the lobby, and thought I might try to incorporate it in a shot. This is where I set up two speedlights, one raking across the background to illuminate the art, and the other on a stand with a snoot to create a spotlight effect on my subject. I was looking for some contrast and drama in the lighting, not dissimilar to what you might see in a video game.

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As we walked from one location to the other, I grabbed a quick shot of Koinuma-san in a hallway with some really nice window light. This was my safety shot–nothing fancy, clean and easy to read.

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Hisashi Koinuma, CEO, Koei Tecmo. Ben Weller for The Wall Street Journal.

I had used up my time with Koinuma-san, but he was liking my ideas and wanted to try one more of his own. So we set up next to a star constellation chart next to an elevator bank and made one more set of portraits, again using the snoot. This one didn’t run, but I really liked his idea. It’s always great when a subject starts having fun with the shoot.

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Hisashi Koinuma, CEO, Koei Tecmo. Ben Weller for The Wall Street Journal.

Now I had my portraits, but I had another shot in mind. I asked my hosts if they had any games on the premises, and they brought out some of Koei Tecmo’s classics. This shot was really crucial to this story about the future of gaming, as it showed the history, these physical artifacts of console games.

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This ended up as the lead image in the online version of the story. Ben Weller for The Wall Street Journal.

And finally, it’s always good to get more shots than you are assigned. So I made sure to grab a quick exterior shot of the company headquarters, which also ended up running.

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Koei Tecmo headquarters in Yokohama, Japan. Ben Weller for The Wall Street Journal.

Ultimately, I had a lot of fun with this assignment. My editor was very happy, as was Koinuma-san. The photos illustrated the story well, and several of them ran in print and online. Portrait shoots are always a challenge because there are so many people to make happy. When you’re able to please all stakeholders AND come away with a complete photo story, that is a shoot I consider a success.