From The Train

posted Nov 21, 2011, 10:34 AM by Fletcher Manley   [ updated Nov 22, 2011, 7:01 AM ]
I was a voyeur riding the train south from Hokkaido and along the west coast of Honshu, Japan's main island. Voyeur is a French word meaning "one who sees,"more specifically a voyeur is "one afflicted with undue curiosity." For some people, and I am among them, it is this visual curiosity that impels them to travel.

When I boarded the train at Sapporo station I didn't have a real destination or objective other than making my flight from Tokyo ten days later. I mainly wanted to absorb as much of the visual flavor of Japan as time permitted. It was winter, cold and snowy, and the landscape was reminiscent of Japanese prints I had seen.

Ticket agents urged me to take the express trains instead of the slower locals, or country trains, that I requested. "Why take twice as long and be so uncomfortable," they would ask. Only when I showed my cameras and explained that I was a "pictureman" did their heads nod in approval, finally comprehending my purpose.

I knew that train travel for a photographer would impose certain restrictions. Chief among them was the inability to turn around and go back for another look. Most visual opportunities came and went quickly. In a way, it became a contest between my photographic reflexes and the rushing train.

Photographing from the train provided unique occasions, however, for capturing those little arrangements, or little moments, of life that I find so telling. With nose and camera pressed to the window my visual concentration became intense. I would anticipate a composition and release the shutter on instinct, for the lag between thinking and doing was often the difference between success or failure. Instead of working against it, and permitting frustration to thwart my efforts, I learned to work with the train, to utilize my vantage point. The train frequently became a component of my seeing.

When I got off the train at Yamagata a fresh snowfall had transformed parked bicycles into a network of abstract patterns. There was no urgency now, for the train was at rest and students were not yet returning to claim their snowy bikes.


Riding the train along the coastal plain I watched a woman crossing rice fields on a narrow roadway. The road, lined with irregular poles, led from a village in the background and ran towards the train. The woman carried a large umbrella and held the hand of a little girl accompanying her. Falling snow veiled the scene in softness. My eyes and camera were ready. When the road and the railroad converged in front of me the shutter clicked at one one-thousands of a second.


I saw the station master at Oguni coming up as the train slowed to approach the platform. I guess he saw me too, for our eyes met through the frosty window as we passed. I thought 'ah,ha!" and the shutter snapped.


Sometimes my train companions were subjects of my visual curiosity. How could I have left Japan without an image to share of the doll-like Micheko who sat opposite me. Her English was as limited as my Japanese but she understood that I was a pictureman and was honored that I wanted to take her photograph. She explained that she was a student of Ikebana (flower arranging) and wanted someday to teach students of her own. She had been studying Ikebana for ten years.

Mkicheko offered to share her lunch of cold rice balls wrapped in sea weed that she had carefully stored away in a cloth napkin. I opened the plastic packet of dried fish that I had purchased at an earlier stop and offered it to her and the older gentleman sitting beside me. He split his orange into three even pieces as a contribution to the impromptu meal.