How many times have you heard the saying “A land of contrasts?” Japan is one of those truly diverse photographic locations. Japan offers everything, for every photographer. Street photography, food, architecture, and landscape. Along with amazing Autumn (Fall for our American cousins), Spring and Winter seasons, you can guarantee to be satisfied photographically.
I travelled to Japan in November, for a period of twelve days. I visited Tokyo, Takayama, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima and Koyosan. Autumn colours were in full force whilst I was there and, the colours were truly amazing. From the bustle of Tokyo to the serenity of Koyosan. Japan is truly an amazing photography location for all photographers.
Tokyo is often the point of entry for many people travelling to Japan. With an approximate population of 32 million people. Tokyo is not as intimidating as one may expect. Tokyo is a modern, cosmopolitan city with amazing public transport and is quite easy and relaxing to get around. If you have purchased the Japan Rail Pass (Which I strongly suggest you do) the Narita Express Train (NEX) fare will be covered and will whisk you to Tokyo proper in about 45 minutes. If you are not up to fighting the crowds, there is a Starbucks located nearby that overlooks the crossing. Be aware though to get a window seat can be worse than being in the middle of it! If I had to describe my preferred style of photography, it would be night photography. One of the advantages of this in Japan is that at no time was I worried about walking around at night by myself carrying lots of expensive gear. All those stories you may have read about the safety of Japan for travellers is not exaggerated.
My next destination was Takayama in search of the amazing Autumn colours. Takayama is located a 3-4 hour train ride from Tokyo, with all sections covered by the excellent value Japan Rail Pass.
Autumn approaches during the middle of October and is short, yet dry and cool with diminishing sunlight. Autumn colourful foliage from various maples can be seen in the Takayama area from the end of October to the first week of November. Takayama has a population of just over 100,000 but feels more rural and has a small town feel. Takayama was not crowded at all when I visited even though it is a popular destination for tourists and Japanese alike. Hida Folk Village located a few kilometres from the main town of Takayama is a must see for all photographers. If you are lucky enough to be there in Autumn, you will be rewarded with amazing Autumn colours. I would advise to arrive early, not only to beat the crowds (which were minimal when I was there) but also early mornings there is often mist coming down from the mountains.
Next destination was Kyoto! The Geisha spotting capital of Japan. Kyoto offers every genre to the photographer. I strongly suggest eating at an Izakaya, a sort of local bar and food place. They are cheap and the food is amazing. If you are people photographer, get to know the owners and maybe do some photos for them.
Gion is the go to place for Geisha spotting in Kyoto. At the above location I was extremely lucky to see a genuine Geisha! For once I enjoyed the very rare experience of seeing a Geisha and didn’t even attempt to photograph her instead just enjoying the experience. Do some research on how to spot a real Geisha and not the many ‘tourist’ Geisha that you will see and you might be lucky enough to spot one yourself.
Kyoto typifies the contrast of the ancient and the modern in Japan. No matter if you do street photography, people, food or architectural photography it is truly a photographer’s playground.
Osaka is located a short train ride (45 minutes to an hour) from Kyoto. For me Osaka has a much more modern vibrant, youth driven culture compared to Kyoto. There is certainly a certain energy in Osaka. So, embrace it and head out and explore!
For me I had the choice of flying from my home town directly to Tokyo or Osaka with the same flight time. For some visitors Osaka may be your entry port depending on where you are flying from.
The Umeda Sky Building is a must see for anyone travelling to Osaka. For a modest fee you will be able to see the spectacular skyline of Osaka. Some amazing photographic opportunities are available and, I found them to be very photographer friendly. I didn’t even bother taking a tripod as they are usually not allowed. Armed only with a small “Gorilla Pod” I was pleasantly surprised to see tripods being freely used with no problems. Just as with all things in Japan, be courteous to your fellow travelers, and the locals and all will be well.
Next stop was a quick stop over at Hiroshima. This was a very sobering experience and I think a must see for all visitors. You are very unlikely to get a photo that has never been taken before. However, that was not the sole purpose of this stopover. Take some time out to just ponder the history of what happened here. The surrounding area which includes the Peace Park is a very serene and relaxed place. Perfect to relax and reflect.
Koyosan was my last stop before heading back to Tokyo. Koyosan was more a time to relax and wind down. (I stayed the night with monks in a local monastery) I didn’t do a lot of photography here, but it is a spectacular location for sure. If you are able to spend more time here than I did, you will be definitely rewarded. Koyosan is considered the spiritual heart of Japan and was peaceful and uncrowded when I was there. I was however, able to capture some Autumn colours within my night photography!
- Travel light! (getting around on public transport with lots of gear can be challenging)
- Use the Japan Rail Pass (it’s great value)
- Learn the basics of language (Please/Thank you/Excuse me) it will be appreciated.
- Explore! Japan is so safe for photographers, especially if you wander around at night like I do.C
- Cash is King! Japan is still largely a cash society. There is no guarantee that many hotels or restaurants will accept credit cards. Many ATM’s don’t accept foreign cards. Use the Seven Elevens for ATM’s they are also located everywhere!
I am sure if you go to Japan you will be impressed with the photographic opportunities that will present themselves. The sheer diversity of subjects to photograph will astound you. I have to run, I am checking out airfares for next year!