Crazy it has been ten years since my last Kazuo Kitai book review. So it was nice seeing this when friend of JCH, Ben Beech, stopped by the office with this in his possession. Originally he just intended to show it to JCH staff member Michael Nguyen who recently shared his last zine, “Immerse” that also carried a motif of Japanese hot springs, but I asked to hold it for a review.

I do recall seeing this book in 2011 and some complaining of the child nudity as a lot of the images were also included in previously reviewed, “Nippon Sendai 1970.” “Tohjiba” is certainly a more concise work shot only with the motif on onsens framed as a casual visit to one.

The subtitle, ‘healing spas of rural japan’ is important as Tohjiba for centuries has been a natural hot springs the kanji of which directly translates to ‘hot water’ and ‘curing.’ Mineral rich, it was used by samurai for healing as well by local farmers after harvest… and this is where Kitai comes in focusing his camera on this in the 1970s. Which is also significant because later in the decade he would turn his camera again to farmers, this time protesting what became Narita airport. Both projects in different ways show his sympathy toward them and perhaps their dying way of life.

As I mentioned in the previous review he seemed to shoot everything but modern Tokyo, which seemed to be on the national conscious as well. I always found it unique that on a national level in cinema, Japan is one of the few countries that on screen hates its capital. From a pre-war film from famed director Hiroshi Shimizu’s Mr. Arigato all the bad characters are from Tokyo to post war’s most acclaimed film Tokyo Story, Tokyo is always seen as corrupting the generation. Even in the burnout Godzilla films of the decade it just sees Godzilla protecting other parts of Japan while destroying what ever new skyscraper was constructed in Shinjuku. Like Godzilla, Kitai photographically represents this rather conservative sentiment.

But back to the book that opens with a rather popular photo featured in “Nippon Sendai 1970” of a man staring back at the camera from a train. This symbolically is the onset of the journey to the onsen. The next set of photos sees the locals in preparation of the onsen: the walk there, eating a meal, and listening to a shamisen player. From there you get traditional images of families simply enjoying themselves in the onsen. The trick of this, if one has ever shot in an onsen, is the light or really lack there of.

With film speeds then, etc…the exposures were certainly tricky. Whenever me or Michael shot onsens, the discontinued Fujifilm Super presto 1600 was the go to…could never get skin right from Illford 3200. These are really beautiful exposed and the most rememberable of which is perhaps the simplest photo. It just an empty onsen contrasting the light from a window against the steam of the water with an added play of light on the water’s surface. It serves to offer us a moment of respite…one that is just utterly serene as the only two pages that aren’t populated with people. The image captures perfectly what an onsen is all about.

Originally limited to 500 copies, surprisingly the photo book is still readily available for under 20 USD. It contains 30 images and features a soft cover. The essays are in both English and Japanese. One can purchase it from Shashasha here.


For other book reviews click here.