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Beautiful Photos from a Summer Spent on Japan's Trains

Photographer Hiroyuki Ito captured his home country while riding the rails for an entire summer.

Hiroyuki Ito and his wife

In the summer of 2015, my wife and I bought what are called JR Passes, tickets that let you ride as many trains across Japan as you want for weeks.The catch is that the pass is only available to foreign tourists who visit Japan temporarily. You are Japanese and want to see Japan? No discount for you!

We escaped this thanks to a loophole that says that Japanese people with permanent residency in a foreign country count as visitors. When we received our US green cards in June 2015, the first thing we did was buy JR Passes, with the intention of spending five weeks in Japan riding around with no destination in mind. There was no travel itinerary whatsoever. My wife stayed with me for the first leg of the trip, but from Hokkaido I continued on my own for two weeks.

Without her, I headed south and visited 15 more cities across ten prefectures. My journey was to end at Amakusa ("Heaven's Grass") Island in Kumamoto. While traveling through the south, I started to notice ominous clouds everywhere. I soon learned that Typhoon Goni, which had just killed more than a dozen people in the Philippines, was going to land on Amakusa around the same time I was planning to have peace of mind there. At the port of Kumamoto city, the ferry company was selling only one-way tickets to Amakusa since all service would be terminated because of the incoming typhoon.

When I reached the inn on Amakusa I had made reservations at, the old lady at the counter was surprised to see me. "Why are you here? Goni is coming. I will give you the full refund. Get out of here as soon as you can," she told me. She gave me directions to the bus depot and I ran the whole way there. Hello and goodbye Amakusa!

Later that night, Goni hit Kumamoto and the neighboring Kyushu Island in full force. Rivers overflowed, public transportation was suspended, and more than 520,000 people were advised to evacuate their homes.

In January 2016, we were back in Japan for three weeks and we visited the missing piece of our last trip, Okinawa. Through all that traveling, I shot 251 rolls of Tri-X and made 1,156 silver gelatin prints. You'd think that's more than enough material to make a book, but not quite. Around one-third of my new book was selected from an additional 1,000 prints from many more short trips I made in Japan between 2011 and 2014 that share the same spirit of rediscovering one's own home country.

The Japan I saw was full of contradictions: It was ancient and modern, western and eastern, democratic and feudal, peaceful and anarchic, sacred and profane, anonymous and unique—just to name a few. It is a pretty complex character with a lot of charm, and a lot of issues. Opposing forces create dynamic tensions that drive you crazy and keep you going. Going where? I don't know. But the country is forever moving forward and my job is to document its endlessly fascinating paradoxes.

View more of Hiroyuki Ito's photos below.

Hiroyuki Ito is an artist and photographer living in NYC. You can follow his work here.

Hiroyuki Ito is a photographer based in NYC. You can follow his work here.