Japan in pictures

Japan in pictures

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.

Inspired to visit Japan? Give Ric a call on 020 3553 0848 to hear more about his travels.

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.

Fushimi Inari-Taisha

The classic photograph of the seemingly enclosed orange maze of Fushimi Inari-Taisha in Kyoto is one of the most iconic in Japan. Made famous in western culture by the film Memoirs of a Geisha, the hillside shrine features over 10,000 orange torii gates that form the path to a mountaintop temple. It wasn’t actually difficult at all to get a classic deserted photo, but for me, the clamour from local tourists to do so was just as fascinating.

Shirakawa-go

In the Japanese Alps, between the main cultural hubs such as Kanazawa and Matsumoto, you’ll find some of the most spectacular scenery to explore, be it by road, rail or foot. The quaint UNESCO World Heritage Site of Shirakawa-go was one of my favourite discoveries, complete with beautiful mountains and paddy fields. Arriving early before all the other visitors descended, I had much of the village to myself to soak up the tranquillity for a precious 30 minutes or so.

Nakasendo Trail

The fabled Nakasendo Trail is an old postal service route that was traditionally walked by Samurais, who were delivering messages between Kyoto and Tokyo. Some of the country’s most delightfully authentic villages are dotted along the path, providing the perfect stopping points for walkers. Rising early to begin the 11 kilometre hike to Magome, I was greeted by this stunning deserted view of somewhere I don’t think can be mistaken for anywhere but Japan.

Omoide Yokocho

Tokyo has hundreds of tiny narrow alleyways to explore, each filled with small, barely lit bars made for eight people, and even darker restaurants welcoming six. While soaking up the buzzing foodie scene in Omoide Yokocho, close to Shinjuku Station, I was struck by the intense juxtaposition of light and shadow. In the darkness of the restaurant, my eyes were drawn to the chef’s all-white (and remarkably spotless) outfit and the dazzling bare bulbs, casting light on his delicious creations.

Kanazawa

This photo was taken in Kanazawa, one of my favourite places in Japan. It’s a highly walkable city, and you are never too far from something iconic. Ancient temples, beautiful gardens, romantic castles and fascinating Geisha and Samurai districts can all be reached on foot, and the walks in between naturally lead through typical Japanese neighbourhoods. I became addicted to shop fronts in Kanazawa, complete with lanterns, bikes, bright colours and Japanese writing, they all just felt rather special.

Snow monkeys

I had seen many images of Japan’s famous snow monkeys bathing in the hot springs, but they were the last thing I expected to see in June. However, much to my surprise, the monkeys are year-round residents in Yudanaka, and completely oblivious to human visitors to their hillside kingdom. Yudanaka was a real surprise for me, with gorgeous spa villages, incredible mountain scenery and quaint Japanese neighbourhoods. The macaques were just the icing on the cake!

The izakaya

Introducing a vital part of Japanese culture: the izakaya. Essentially a small pub-style establishment found across the country, characterised by its tiny counter with just a handful of seats. I soon became captivated by the way these quirky bars operate. In these often windowless spaces, it is easy to lose all concept of time, not least because they seemingly stay open until the last guest chooses to leave. The barmen have a relaxed attitude to keeping track of what’s been ordered, instead engaging the customer in endless stories (regardless of any language barrier) and, in my experience, sharing their overwhelming fondness for Rod Stewart LPs. It feels like a taste of true Japanese life.

Kyoto’s Golden Pavilion

I am always keen to look both ways when taking photos, as people’s reactions are often as interesting as the subject itself. This is something I learned from looking through archives of news events, and is more relevant than ever in an age where everyone’s movements are recorded for social media. Here at Kyoto’s Golden Pavilion, a man and boy look up at the beautiful temple. I don’t know their relationship, but I love the older man’s familiarity and wisdom compared with the boy’s look of sheer wonderment. To me, it looks like a rite of passage, a father introducing his son to something his own father showed him decades past.

My top photography tips

Wildlife photography
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.

Portrait photography
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.

Urban photography
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.

Get in touch with Ric to hear more about his experiences photographing Japan and to start planning your own tailor-made itinerary. Call him today on 020 3553 0848.

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