MOMIJIGARI: a photo essay (2017)

Momijigari was put together after Renée Ting asked me to contribute some text and photographs to an exhibition she was curating, held at Uniqlo's flagship store at Orchard Central. Titled "Fall for Autumn", the brief asked invited contributors to answer: What do you love about autumn? What is your favourite memory? And then Sophia came to mind.


For a week in November, in 2014, my friend Sophia flew to Japan to spend some time with me. I was an exchange student, you see, at the University of Tokyo, and she wanted us to chase autumn colours in Kyoto. I had never been to Kyoto — not as an adult, at least — and so I got my things in order, and told her that I was excited for her to come.

On her first night in Tokyo she crashed at my dorm in Mitaka city, the both of us facing opposite ends of my single-sized futon. The next morning, she would head out into the common corridor to phone her boyfriend back in England, and then she would return to my room, sit on my futon, and promptly burst into tears. I was confused and in shock, clueless as to what had just happened. At the end of a long explanation she said, “Sometimes I don’t know who I am anymore,” and I remember looking at her, silent, not knowing what to say.

We spent the following weekend in Kyoto, and commenced our chase regardless. The fact remains that Sophia is a redhead, and a very proud, beautiful and melancholic one too. Whenever the year got cold again, she would wear jumpers in burgundy and magenta and the colour of wine, as tribute to her wild tresses and the changing season. Autumn was her time, and it came as no surprise that she had borne a particular affinity for Kyoto’s famous maple trees. Apparently they were everywhere — on roads and in parks, within the compounds of many temples — but alas it seemed that autumn had yet to fully descend over the Kansai region. Infographics found in every subway station indicated that the leaves, for the time being, were still turning yellow at best.

Still, we persisted. And we ditched our pens for our cameras — for although we mainly identified as writers, we took great pride in being amateur photographers too. 

Sophia's weapon of choice was a film camera she’d found in her grandfather’s East London flat, loaded with a roll of film that only took shots in black and white. It was a complicated device, and temperamental too, but I'd seen scans of work she'd done before, boasting results that were full of depth and contrast, while a certain grit and grain gave character and dignity to many of her subjects. At moments it really seemed as though her choice to sacrifice colour in her pictures was truly worth it.

My camera, on the other hand, was the brand new iPhone 6. It was a much desired upgrade from my previously owned iPhone 4S, and I took full advantage of the additional gigabytes now available to me. There are multiple shots of my friend for instance, posing against the one maple tree we found in all of Arashiyama. All of them are stashed away, in the archive that is my iPhoto app. In another she is standing towards the left of the frame, overcome by the joy of our unexpected discovery: she is at the top of the Sanmon gate, within the Nanzenji compound, where she discovers an unearthly view of the largest momiji we’d ever seen. She is in the midst of proclaiming, “I am the goddess of the flame!”, as I take photos of her at different angles, eager to preserve the moment, and ultimately relieved by her happiness.

The photo I am most proud of however is taken a while later, on our final night in Kyoto. With a growing grasp on basic Japanese I managed to learn, while passing by a poster, that the Eizan Electric Railway was offering commuters a nighttime journey in the mountains. It entailed passing through a grove of specially illuminated autumnal trees, a prospect that seemed absolutely magical and unreal to me. No doubt Sophia and I boarded a train on the Kurama Line, eager to commemorate the end of our momijigari. Even now, years later, as I am in the midst of writing my second novel, I find myself returning, again and again, to this one photo I have of Sophia.

You can barely even see her, if you look into this photo. She is but a figure, shrouded in darkness, barely visible in the foreground. In fact a good half of this photo is cast entirely in darkness, and that is because we have just left Ichihara station, and the conductor of our train has switched all of the lights off. And it is only here, in the darkness of the carriage, can we sit in awe and wonder of the splendour around us: of blurring greens and golds and ruby reds, the colours of the surrounding foliage in every stage of decay, shining bright and gentle through the windows.

I will never forget this, I told myself then, and here I am now, reliving it still. So much beauty, amidst all of that heartbreak, encountered within a short span of time. In our chase for the sublime, we had allowed ourselves to be raptured by the slow deaths of leaves, enamoured by the withering that will beset all of nature. And yet it is there where we found every reason still to be alive.

NOTE: Some of the above photos were taken from a previous feature, Gaijin no Toshi: a photo diary (2014-2015), chronicling the year I spent in Japan as an exchange student.