Letter from Japan II: Bullet to Sendai

0 by Patrick La Roque
January 21, 2016 at 10:30 am  •  Posted in News & Events by  •  0 Comments

© Patrick La Roque

© Patrick La Roque

Sendai, the capital of the Miyagi Prefecture, is a large city that lies 365 kilometers north of Tokyo. We’re headed there this morning for an all-day tour of Fujifilm’s factory, the location where all their top end lenses and cameras are assembled, including the newly announced X-Pro2 and 100-400 mm lens. This may seem dry to some—the kind of corporate organized trip that’s more disguised marketing than anything—but I’m very much looking forward to it. I am and always will be a geek at heart; I just love this stuff. Besides, we’re going by Shinkansen—the world famous Bullet Train. Speeding Japanese countryside, here I come.

After a quick bus ride we arrive at Tokyo Station where we’re given our tickets. These are assigned seats—the Japanese leave nothing to chance—so there’s no reason to hustle or push to be first in line. It’s a small detail that changes a lot of things: there’s no stress, no reason to be anxious. We all get in; we all have a seat. On the platform the light is incredible: sunbeams cutting through the structures, briefly revealing faces from the shadows as people move to their designated boarding area or wait, patiently. I stand there for the longest time, camera in hand, taking it in. Man…this is a movie and I’m right in the middle of it. Smack dab in the middle of it.

Tokyo Station. X-Pro2, 1/1500 sec at f/5.6, ISO 200. © Patrick La Roque

Tokyo Station. X-Pro2, 1/1500 sec at f/5.6, ISO 200. © Patrick La Roque

Caption: Order. X-Pro2, 1/800 sec at f/3.2, ISO 200. © Patrick La Roque

Order. X-Pro2, 1/800 sec at f/3.2, ISO 200. © Patrick La Roque

Someone just checked the speed: 320 km/h. There’s barely a rumble. No grinding railway noise in the background to get on our nerves and leg room that feels like first class on an airplane. What a great way to travel. Villages go by, mountains appear in the distance, snow…I get lost in the scenery.

Moving Out. X-Pro2, 1/950 sec at f/6.4, ISO 200. © Patrick La Roque

Moving Out. X-Pro2, 1/950 sec at f/6.4, ISO 200. © Patrick La Roque

Mountains from the Shinkansen. X-Pro2, 1/800 sec at f/8, ISO 200. © Patrick La Roque

Mountains from the Shinkansen. X-Pro2, 1/800 sec at f/8, ISO 200. © Patrick La Roque

We arrive in Sendai 90 minutes later—less than half the time it would’ve taken by car. We have another 45-minute bus ride ahead of us, and while the air is much colder and biting than Tokyo, the sun is shining and almost warm. Along the way we make a fifteen-minute pit stop at a roadside station that could be anywhere in the world if not for the signage, the people, the masks…those ever present masks. Fifteen minutes, just enough to ensure we’re exactly on time when we arrive at the factory. Everything needs to run like clockwork, always.

There are two buildings on the factory premises, but while they both stand next to each other, only one is currently in use. The other was irreparably damaged during the 2011 earthquake. It’s now considered too dangerous to use, but it’s also too expensive to tear down so it merely sits there, idle. A grim reminder of nature’s strength and the tragic events that took place.

The Bus Stop. X-Pro2, 1/1400 sec at f/5, ISO 200. © Patrick La Roque

The Bus Stop. X-Pro2, 1/1400 sec at f/5, ISO 200. © Patrick La Roque

Upon arrival, we’re asked to take off our shoes and put on the provided slippers. After a quick lunch, we’re herded into a meeting room where we hear about the history of the factory and the company’s expertise in glass lenses—from 1949 to the present. A briefing on security measures follows: we’ll be wearing full-body sterilized suits when we visit the lenses assembly line. We’re provided with specialized anti-dust pens and paper to take notes. Cameras are allowed, but I remove my leather strap to avoid any possibility of fibre contamination. This is serious stuff.

Shoes Off. X-Pro2, 1/160 sec at f/2, ISO 2000. © Patrick La Roque

Shoes Off. X-Pro2, 1/160 sec at f/2, ISO 2000. © Patrick La Roque

Man and Factory. X-Pro2, 1/480 sec at f/8, ISO 200. © Patrick La Roque

Man and Factory. X-Pro2, 1/480 sec at f/8, ISO 200. © Patrick La Roque

Ok…this suit is hot. Like, crazy hot. And every breath I take seems to raise the temperature by a few degrees. How the workers spend their entire days working in these is beyond me. I guess you can get used to anything.

This visit is fascinating…a very serious eye-opener. I was expecting robotized machinery, lenses moving along a conveyer belt, getting picked up by cold stainless-steel arms fitted with specialized tools. But it’s all hand-made. Every single component is carefully examined, every microscopic screw inserted manually by workers so deep in concentration that our presence goes almost unnoticed. Nothing seems to phase them. Of course, certain areas are off-limits to photography—trade secrets and all—but we’re allowed access to everything. Our guides answer all questions, explaining every step in a process that not only includes assembly but also calibration, UV coating, and quality checks every step of the way. At one point I even see one of the workers with a lens to her ear, listening as she twists the aperture ring. I glance down at the 35 mm on my camera with newfound respect.

We are Devo. X-Pro2, 1/160 sec at f/2, ISO 400. © Patrick La Roque

We are Devo. X-Pro2, 1/160 sec at f/2, ISO 400. © Patrick La Roque

Three, Sterilized. X-Pro2, 1/160 sec at f/2, ISO 640. © Patrick La Roque

Three, Sterilized. X-Pro2, 1/160 sec at f/2, ISO 640. © Patrick La Roque

Assembly. X-Pro2, 1/240 sec at f/2, ISO 200. © Patrick La Roque

Assembly. X-Pro2, 1/240 sec at f/2, ISO 200. © Patrick La Roque

Concentration. X-Pro2, 1/550 sec at f/2, ISO 200. © Patrick La Roque

Concentration. X-Pro2, 1/550 sec at f/2, ISO 200. © Patrick La Roque

Looking Glass. X-Pro2, 1/170 sec at f/2, ISO 200. © Patrick La Roque

Looking Glass. X-Pro2, 1/170 sec at f/2, ISO 200. © Patrick La Roque

Glass Element. X-Pro2, 1/450 sec at f/2, ISO 200. © Patrick La Roque

Glass Element. X-Pro2, 1/450 sec at f/2, ISO 200. © Patrick La Roque

Screws. X-Pro2, 1/240 sec at f/2, ISO 200. © Patrick La Roque

Screws. X-Pro2, 1/240 sec at f/2, ISO 200. © Patrick La Roque

We get out of our suits (thank you) and move into the camera assembly area. The X100T line has temporarily been switched to the X-Pro2—providing a second assembly line in order to ramp up production on the new camera. Unlike the lenses, some of the components for the bodies arrive here pre-assembled from other factories: the top dials, for instance, and the back, including the LCD screen. There is still quite a bit to finalize, but this is clearly a way to speed up the process and spread out the workload.

Again, everything is tested and checked multiple times; anything off-key goes back to the start of the line. The leather finish is the final touch, wrapped around the camera by hand and then hot-pressed by a machine. The total time for assembly: 20 minutes.

Two Parts. X-Pro2, 1/160 sec at f/2, ISO 320. © Patrick La Roque

Two Parts. X-Pro2, 1/160 sec at f/2, ISO 320. © Patrick La Roque

Top. X-Pro2, 1/160 sec at f/2, ISO 320. © Patrick La Roque

Top. X-Pro2, 1/160 sec at f/2, ISO 320. © Patrick La Roque

Tray. X-Pro2, 1/160 sec at f/2, ISO 320. © Patrick La Roque

Tray. X-Pro2, 1/160 sec at f/2, ISO 320. © Patrick La Roque

All Done. X-Pro2, 1/160 sec at f/2.8, ISO 1250. © Patrick La Roque

All Done. X-Pro2, 1/160 sec at f/2.8, ISO 1250. © Patrick La Roque

We end our tour in the shipping area where we also get a demonstration of laser engraving…complete with a special inscription in honour of the 5-year celebrations. And no, don’t look for these, I asked: that inscription isn’t going on special-edition lenses—it’s just a bit of fun for our benefit.

The New Big One. X-Pro2, 1/160 sec at f/2, ISO 800. © Patrick La Roque

The New Big One. X-Pro2, 1/160 sec at f/2, ISO 800. © Patrick La Roque

Celebration. X-Pro2, 1/160 sec at f/5, ISO 5000. © Patrick La Roque

Celebration. X-Pro2, 1/160 sec at f/5, ISO 5000. © Patrick La Roque

After a quick question-and-answer period and a group shot in the fading light of day, we’re back on the bus, ready to go. And as we start moving and the workers gather to wave goodbye, I look up at the clock: 5:00 p.m., on the dot.

Exactly on time.

Read Part 1 here.

Sendai from the Bus. X-Pro2, 1/160 sec at f/2, ISO 1000. © Patrick La Roque

Sendai from the Bus. X-Pro2, 1/160 sec at f/2, ISO 1000. © Patrick La Roque

Leave a Reply