I stumbled across the works of England based photographer (and super multi creative) Lee Basford in our Shuttercrack group on Flickr. With his images shot on the Japanese Island of Hokkaido he tells us the beautiful story of an old school working horse farm. What might seem to be the simple life is actually hard labour that requires a great set of skills. It might be hard to grasp for those caught up in the paper chase, but this gentleman actually loves his work and does it with great pride!
Lee Basford: I’m working as an art director and designer in England right now, but i’m actually moving permanently to japan from May this year. I’ve been travelling to Japan for over 12 years, for the visit when I took these photographs I was given the opportunity to travel with three people who were going hunting and fishing in Kushiro on the island of Hokkaido. On one of the long drives to a remote location we stopped by the farm of Tanaka san who is the father of one of the locals we were travelling with. We basically hung out for most of the day while they talked about their lives farming and showed me around the place – I wasn’t thinking about the photographs or a series of photographs, I was just recording what was a unique experience. The photographs were partly shot digitally, but earlier in the day I’d dropped my camera in the river, so I was forced to use my old Minolta SRT when the lens steamed up.
The harsh landscapes of the northern island of Hokkaido are amongst Japan’s most uninhabitable. Its people endure long hard winters with a climate closer to that of Northern Europe than mainland Japan. Kushiro in the South East has less snow but this only means that the deep winter temperatures become significantly colder than anywhere else on the island. This climate also affects the temperament of it’s inhabitants who generally have more patience than their mainland neighbours, they understand the power of nature and are constantly reminded of it even with their own words to describe the cold.
The history of the island is still young, Hokkaido’s first settlers came here in 1869, pioneers from all across Japan adopting influences from Russia and the native Ainu people as they struggled to make a life in this new environment.The Tanaka family have been breeding working horses (Ban’ei as they’re known in Japan) for 71 years on their farm in Tsurui, a remote area just outside Kushiro. Beginning when Tanaka-san’s father, a first generation migrant from Hyogo, started farming after the family restaurant burned down. Back then they had buffalo, sheep, goats, turkeys, even ducks. Now 79 he still works ten hour days together with his wife, looking after the 28 horses they currently have along with a few cattle.The origins of these horses are in European working horse stock that have adapted well to the harsh climate over the years. In the winter two coats of fur keeps them warm and they survive by eating snow and digging around for roots and plants.
They’re often used for meat but mainly for the once lucrative sport of Ban’ei Keiba, a type of racing specific to Hokkaido, where the horse pulls a very heavy load over an undulating 200m course, the pace is slow enough that spectators can walk alongside as the race takes place, even in the midst of winter. As a sport its slowly dying, where there were once four racecourses spread over the island, only one now remains, Obihiro in the capital of Sapporo. It’s an expensive sport to take part in with little reward, so these days only rich people race what was once a farmers pastime, originating from a tug of war between horses to test their quality and strength, developing from 1900 into racing between farmers, something Tanaka san was involved in almost 40 years ago.
One happy guy
Although the farm may appear run down, it still functions, and contrary to what many would think without understanding of the complete story, Tanaka-san regards himself as a success. Having paid off all debts accumulated by his father, the farm is his and he’s doing exactly what he wants with his life, although its hard its what he loves. A funny thing is that as the night came Tanaka-san put his yellow towel on his head. He did this so the horses recognise him (and don’t get freaked out).