People from across the globe come to explore Japan’s cherished history as well as its renowned modern cities. Earlier this spring I had the opportunity to visit Japan for one week with a group of friends. I knew that I would have the chance to create many unique images during my trip, and I tried to plan accordingly. Past experience taught me to travel light, so I brought just two lenses: Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G and Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G. Additionally, I purchased a travel tripod that was sturdy enough to handle a full-frame DSLR, but small enough to fit in a backpack. In this article, I will document my experience traveling and photographing in Japan, which will hopefully help in planning your trip to this beautiful country.
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Tokyo was my first destination, and the first place I visited was the Meiji Shrine which commemorates Emperor Meiji who opened Japan’s doors to outside influence in the nineteenth century, helping to industrialize the country. These sake barrels were donated to the shrine by Japanese businesses. They are supposed to help channel spirits of the dead.
The Sensō Ji temple was another religious spot I visited in Tokyo. It is Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple, and a popular tourist location. At tourist hotspots you have two options when taking a photo: make people part of the scene or shoot over their heads. Standing at 6’2” tall in a country with an average height of 5’7” helps with the latter.
My first accommodations were in the Chūō ward of downtown Tokyo. The location reminded me of the financial districts of San Francisco and Manhattan. Tokyo is much cleaner, of course, and the skyline is not as pronounced as in many American cities where commercial and residential hubs are separate, leading to congested downtowns and sprawling suburbs.
I arrived in the middle of cherry blossom season which is a popular time to visit Japan. Aside from the beautiful cherry blossoms, the weather in spring time is not too hot or too cold. It was nice to see the cherry trees, but there were a lot of tourists. If cherry blossoms are not your priority, then you many want to consider a less popular season to visit as it will be cheaper and less crowded.
I spent a lot of time walking around the city looking for food and exploring interesting shops. My impression is that Japan is a more consumerist society than the United States. I do not have any facts to back this up, but it seemed like around every corner was another market. Even the subway stations had their own malls.
Mori Tower in Tokyo’s Roppongi district offers an amazing view of the city from its public observation deck. I went up here twice: once at dusk and once at midday. At dusk there was a huge crowd and the weather was hazy, so I left disappointed. On my second attempt it was relatively clear and there were no crowds.
Shinjuku has one of Tokyo’s busiest night life scenes. It is best known for its collection of small bars, called Golden Gai, and the red light district. Having experienced the night life in numerous American cities, I can safely say that Tokyo takes things to another level, and there is something for everyone.
After visiting Tokyo I went to the city of Kyoto. It took about two hours to get there on the Shinkansen, often called the bullet train. As a child I was fascinated by trains. I remember watching VHS tapes of the Shinkansen; getting to ride it was an amazing experience. My iPhone showed a speed of 186 MPH, and I did not feel a single bump.
In Kyoto I visited the famous Fushimi Inari shrine which is dedicated to the god of rice. The shrine sits on a small mountain with a two-mile path to the top lined with thousands of torii, orange gates donated to the shrine. As soon as I stepped off the train there were tourists everywhere. If you want a good picture of Fushimi Inari, then you need to get there at sunrise or venture to the top of the mountain where there are fewer tourists.
Downtown Kyoto sits on the Kamo River which is a popular spot to take a stroll. Kyoto’s population is only about one-tenth the size of Tokyo’s and it has a more traditional, relaxed culture. I enjoyed the onsen hot spring bath at my hotel. One night my friends and I went to a local restaurant where the food was amazing and the patrons and staff were very friendly despite our language barrier. I stayed in Kyoto for only two days which did not feel like enough time to fully explore the area.
Most people in Japan get around using the train system. You can buy a reloadable pass called Pasmo that is accepted on most lines. I used my Pasmo in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. Unlike many American cities, Japanese cities have incredibly timely and convenient subways and commuter trains.
From Kyoto I traveled about thirty miles southwest to Osaka, Japan’s third largest city. I only spent one day here. Unlike Kyoto, Osaka is not known for tourism. Kyoto is often called the cultural capital of Japan while Osaka is a merchant town. If you like shopping, you would like Osaka.
My Osaka accommodations were located in a twenty-three-story apartment building. I got a good view of the city from the top floor.
Osaka Castle was built in the sixteenth century to protect the shogun. The castle is surrounded by a moat and rock walls. It is one of Japan’s most recognized historic landmarks.
Travel photography is a great way to capture memories of your trip abroad. Before embarking on your voyage it is helpful to plan out the destinations you want to see and pack your camera gear accordingly; do not bring all of your equipment unless you are staying for an extended period of time. The traveling photographer must also remember to balance photography with other aspects of the trip, like eating good food and relaxing in a beautiful park. With a basic plan and the right expectations you can walk away from your next trip with a camera full of memories.