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Chefs, Shokunin, and the Moments in Between: Michael Magers on Japan

Written by
Michael Magers
Published on
May 6, 2023 at 12:22:00 PM PDT May 6, 2023 at 12:22:00 PM PDTth, May 6, 2023 at 12:22:00 PM PDT

I’m often asked, “Why Japan?” There’s no good, short answer, but I would say it started with a cup of coffee. It was 11 years ago, my first trip to the country, and I had the good fortune to connect with Shinji Nohara, the legendary Tokyo Fixer who brought Anthony Bourdain and others like him into the hidden depths of Tokyo. One of the first things we did was take coffee from Katsuji Daibo, a master who took perhaps 20 minutes to prepare an espresso, roasting and grinding the beans to order. What I tasted, there with Shinji at Daibo, was beyond any cup I’d ever experienced – it was my first exposure to the idea of a shokunin, someone who has dedicated their life to the refinement of their particular craft. I was hooked.

Michael Magers. Daibo-san Fanning Coffee. 2023. Photograph.

My next trip to Japan coincided with the honeymoon of Matt Goulding, an award-winning writer and cofounder of Roads & Kingdoms. I think the initial idea was that the two of us could link up, maybe do a story or two together, and then he and his wife Laura would go on with their travels. The night Matt and I first met in person, at the Park Hyatt in Tokyo, he confided that, buzzed on sake, he had pitched Anthony Bourdain the idea of a book looking at the intersection of food and culture in Japan… and that Tony was at least interested enough to ask for a pitch. Would I consider traveling around for a few weeks, shooting some images and trying to put something together? Of course I would. This, as a wise man once said, would not suck.

Michael Magers. Kamiyuishi (traditional hairstylist). 2023. Photograph.

Out of that trip came the book Rice Noodle Fish: Deep Travels through Japan’s Food Culture (2015) and more exposure to the concept of shokunin. I was obsessed in my own way about the things we can all learn from prioritizing detail and intention over short term feedback loops. And how slowing down and focusing on process can actually lead to a better outcome, and paradoxically a happier version of work than you achieve by simply chasing one big milestone after another.

It was an idea that I went back to time and again. I returned the next time solely to document as much of the shokunin ethos as possible. For months, I worked with friends to put together a series of shoots across workshops around the country, and in 2014, I spent much of the spring traversing Japan, pulling on a string that led me from the ateliers of ceramic artists and sword-makers to diving with the Ama in the cold waters near the Ise Shrine.

Michael Magers. Fan-Asakusa Sanja Matsuri. 2023. Photograph.

Because Japan rewards persistence and the doors only really start to open when people see you are serious and not just doing a drive-by, I just kept going back. I had exhibitions in Kyoto and Nagasaki, tracked down old subjects (even Daibo-san after his shop had closed) and started to explore new avenues, like traditional tattooing. The common thread was always immersion – if that meant careening through the streets of Tokyo carrying a multi-ton shrine or even getting my first tattoo (done the old way) at 40, I was game. I still am.

Michael Magers. Untitled from Independent Mysteries. 2023. Photograph.

In 2019, I began a much-needed project of archiving images and realized that in many of them a certain feeling persisted, regardless of time or location. Over a decade of work in countries as diverse as Haiti, Cuba, and of course Japan, there were commonalities in sentiment and theme. That exercise eventually became my book of personal work, Independent Mysteries, which was released in the US just as things started to fall apart in 2020. This exhibition contains a survey of these experiences, both in the form of documentary pieces—as with the ama and shokunin and tattoo work—as well as more abstract images from Independent Mysteries which provide a glimpse into my internal life on the road. Most recently, a new project with Roads & Kingdoms marked my 18th trip back to Japan, again for nearly a month. I truly believe I could keep up this pace for the rest of my life and just barely scratch the surface.

Michael Magers, Austin Texas, March 2023

To join Michael Magers on more than a decade of travels through Japan, explore our the exhibition Through a Lens: Mike Magers here. The exhibition will be on view in the gallery through June 26th.