Seamlessly blending past and present (and even future, with its innovative use of technology), Japan can feel both comfortably familiar and endlessly surprising at the same time. It is this ‘surprise’ element that makes it all the more captivating for photographers – amateur or otherwise. Stepping out in search of one of the beautiful temples or iconic displays of neon lights, there will undoubtedly be countless other weird and wonderful moments when you’ll stop and point your camera in awe. Senior Asia Specialist and keen photographer Ric tells us about his travels in Japan, sharing a few of his favourite snaps, with the story behind each one.
I arrived in Tokyo at 11pm and headed straight for my hotel, keen to get a good night’s sleep and replenish my energy supplies for the next day’s explorations. Unfortunately, my jetlag had other ideas, and I found myself awake again not much after 4am – alert and intrigued by this new country I found myself in. Usually I would have just enjoyed the comfort of my hotel room, but I took the opportunity to head out and experience the city in the early hours. I jumped on the subway to Shibuya, home to the famous five-way crossing where up to 2,500 people are rumoured to cross at any one time. To my amazement, despite the blazing sunshine, at 6am I was seemingly one of the only people in the whole of the city, accompanied by just the occasional worker quietly appearing in the morning light. At this time of day, a city of 13 million people can sure look a lonely place. It was the silence of the city that got to me, at a time when London would already be filling up with cars, buses and people rushing through their morning routines. I used this to my advantage and was able to get the rather unique shot above, which shows two early-morning commuters patiently awaiting a green light, despite the utterly deserted road ahead. There’s a certain dignity about waiting for the signal to cross, even when there are no cars, and I think this photo highlights the Japanese culture perfectly.
On this first early morning foray into the streets of Tokyo I realised that Japan wasn’t going to be anything like what I expected. For me, photography is always an important part of my travels, and before I arrived in Japan, I imagined myself coming home with iconic shots such as the thousands of people frantically tackling Shibuya crossing, and perfect photos of temples, having waited as long as it took to get the shot with not another person in sight. In reality, my time in Japan became much more about capturing the unseen side of this enigmatic country – going to the places that are so familiar to us as foreigners through images we see in the media, but capturing a different side of them, documenting them in a way that tells a real, more authentic story. Moments like this became more and more frequent throughout my trip, and more and more rewarding to capture, and my visit to Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market is a perfect example. This is one of the world’s largest wholesale markets, and its frantic tuna auctions turn the entire complex into a hive of activity, with 60,000 staff on site loading, preparing and packing the produce. All this takes place before most people have woken for the day, and despite the sheer scale and volume of what goes on here, by 11am I came across one of the seller’s desks, tidy, polished and pristinely clean, without a trace of the mayhem of the morning. Utterly remarkable but very typical of Japan – a place where even chaos is precisely organised.
Throughout my trip, I was struck by how safe Japan felt. Whether I was in the smallest forest or the biggest city, I never once got the impression that I might have stumbled ‘the wrong side of the tracks’. I loved wandering around the many narrow streets and alleyways in the small hours, looking at the endless tiny sake bars and sashimi restaurants, each one barely big enough to fit more than two or three customers. When the last customer leaves for the night and the bar shuts up shop, I was always amazed by the way that crates of beer and sake were so often left overnight on the streets outside. I cannot imagine how quickly these would have been set upon in almost any other place I have been to, but in Japan, they just sat safe until the morning. This is one of the most important things I learnt from my trip to Japan – it has a unique culture governed by trust and good manners, a culture which has enabled it to develop some of the most advanced technologies and bizarre and quirky customs, while at the same time maintaining such a strong connection with the ancient traditions of its past. What I’ve tried to capture in my photos are the small moments of my trip that helped me piece together this bigger picture, and really get under the skin of Japan.
My top photography tips
I love photographing wildlife in its natural habitat, using focus to blur the surroundings and make the animal appear part of the living, moving world of its home. Try to get as low as possible – if you can position yourself at eye level with the animal it will allow for a strong photographic bond between the subject and the viewer.
Taking photos of people really helps you capture the personality of a destination, whether they’re portrait photos or more candid shots. I think people need to get out of the habit of trying to capture images void of human life; taking natural shots with people in adds another layer to the photo and makes it more interesting.
Cities are full of fascinating intricacies that often go unnoticed when people are rushing about their daily lives. Always be on the lookout for the tiny details – patterns, shapes and little moments that go by under the radar. Capturing these often unseen elements will make your photos stand out.