Traveling and Photographing in Japan

By Meng Tay

Photographers are always looking for new subjects or scenes.  If you are tired of the same old, same old, why not consider traveling to Japan?  First, let me give you the reasons why you want to travel to Japan.  Next, I will give you some ideas on what to photograph.

  1. It’s very safe – guns are illegal here and the crime rate is very low.  Never once was I threatened or scolded in any way, even when I accidentally bump someone.  Such a contrast to the US when anything can cause a confrontation.  As a matter of fact, most Asian countries are very safe, contrary to what most Americans think.
  2. It’s very clean – the Japanese are fastidious about their cleanliness.  Every restroom I went to was clean (and free).  This includes public restrooms in busy tourist areas, shopping centers, etc.  The streets, parks, buildings are all clean.  I even had a hard time finding trash cans.
  3. Japanese are helpful and polite – I’ve heard stories of Japanese actually walking a tourist to his or her destination instead of just pointing and giving directions on how to get to a place.  Most of the signs have an English version but Japan’s twisty streets are sometimes hard to navigate.  Unless you ask someone local, sometimes it’s almost impossible to find it on your own, but ask.
  4. At today’s exchange rate (US$1 = ¥112) it’s a bargain to travel in Japan.  Yes, hotels and certain things are still expensive but it’s less expensive than some of the European countries like Norway, Iceland or Switzerland.
  5. Public transportation is very convenient and easily accessible.  Ironically, one of the biggest car manufacturing countries also has one of the best train networks.  Learn how the train system works and you will love riding the shinkansens (bullet trains).  If you have a big group, perhaps 4 or more, maybe it’s better for you to rent a car but trains can get you almost anywhere in Japan.
  6. Japan has a long history.  If you want to understand how it went from a sheltered country to an international economic powerhouse, an Oriental culture to an International culture, this is the place to learn.  The blending of east and west is everywhere.
  7. Food – you will love the food.  Be open-minded about sushi.  The Japanese eat a lot of things raw.  They have been doing this for centuries.  It’s healthy and after you’ve acquired a taste for it, you will love it.  You will never want to eat sushi or sashimi anywhere else.

What would discourage you from traveling to Japan?  Language may be the biggest challenge.  Very few Japanese speak English.  But this is no different than some European countries.  With today’s travel aids like Phrase Books, Google Translate, etc, this should not be a big hurdle.  I find that most Japanese studied English in school but because they are shy, they don’t get to practice it a lot.  Speak slowly and with a little bit of gesture, you should have no trouble getting around.

If you don’t feel comfortable traveling on your own, why not join a tour?  Tours will get you to many places where you have excellent photo opportunities but may not offer you the freedom of going where you want to go and for longer than you want.

What are some subjects that you may want to photograph in Japan?

Temples:  Because of its long history with Buddhism, temples are everywhere.  You find them in villages or big cities.  They are intriguing because their architecture is so different from churches or cathedrals in Europe.  The predominantly red color of Japanese temples make them stand out.  Here are some examples:

Food:  Food is the essence of a culture.  If you look at what they eat and how they eat, you can tell a lot about a culture.  That’s why I love going to markets when I am in a foreign country.  Japanese food is a contrast to American food.  That’s why it’s always an interesting subject matter for photography.

Landscape:  There is more to Japan than Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto or other big cities.  What is not known to most tourists is that Japan has a beautiful countryside.  Hokkaido is arguably, most beautiful of all rural areas..  Go there in the fall, when the leaves are changing color.  If you are lucky enough to go during the cherry blossom season (sakura in Japanese), they will be everywhere.  They start in late March to the middle of April, depending on which part of Japan you go to.

Other topics of interest may be people, traditional buildings, castles, etc.  Japanese ladies in kimonos is a good topic.  If you happen on a geisha (very rare nowadays), that’d be the ultimate photo shoot.  Towering castles that were built during the shogun days are also good subjects.

If you want to read more about my travels in Japan, here is my blog:

http://mengineurope.blogspot.com

It’s in reverse chronological order.  Click on the year 2017 on the right.  It will drop down a menu of months.  Click on March, April or May.  You will see my posts on different places in Japan that I traveled to.

You can find out more about travel in Japan at the following sites:

https://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/

http://www.japanvisitor.com

Meng Tay is a trip leader with Arizona Highways Photo Workshops.

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