Japan! The land of the rising sun, cherry blossoms and all things electronics… and ramen.
The third stop on my 2018 “world tour”, also my first time on the continent of Asia, very interesting first experience.
The Spring time in Japan is iconic for it’s Sakura season. The cheery blossoms which have a very short window of when they bloom because they’re very sensitive to the weather. Every region of Japan has a different bloom window, it usually starts in Tokyo sometime in March then makes its way South to the North spanning all the way to May. Although I was a little late for them in some spots I did get to see them in the spots that mattered. If you’re planning your trip around the Sakura I’d recommend keeping a close eye on the blossom forecast, there’s tons of websites dedicated to them. Generally late March – Mid April is a good time to see them.
Since Instagram seems to dictate whats popular now the top 3 popular spots are the Chureito Pagoda, the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest and Fuishimi Inari. Luckily the pagoda and Inari shrine are open 24/7 (the bamboo forest might also be open sunrise to sunset) so you can plan your shots early morning or late at night accordingly. Trust me it’s worth it.
Located in Yamanashi near Mt. Fuji at the top of a hill is the epic Chureito Pagoda. I chose to do a sunrise mission at this place, it was a good and bad idea. I overestimated how crowded it would be and went at 1:30am and froze to death until the sun came up at 5:30. You can definitely show up at 4ish and still beat the crowds. If you go during the day or at sunset it’ll be extremely crowded and hard to get a spot. The sakura were in full bloom 3 days before I showed up so it was perfect timing. Also it’s pretty rare Mt. Fuji isn’t covered by clouds so definitely check the weather report. Be prepared to do a bit of a hike up the stairs to where the pagoda is, it’ll take about 20-30 minutes to reach the top. Photo tip: The best spot is all the way to the left at the bottom of the observation deck if you want everything in the shot. I’d recommend a lens somewhere between 16-35mm for the perfect shot. Also they don’t allow tripods in this spot, just don’t bring one because you’ll get shut down. I used a Joby Gorilla-Pod on the railing which worked perfectly.
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest:
This spot was a lot smaller than I expected. If you want to get “the shot” plan to go very early to beat the crowds, I showed up at 6:30 and I barely beat them. If you can make it at 5’ish you’ll be better off. It’s a very small path and the tourists gather through out there to ruin your shots, be ready to fend them off like a flock of birds. There was 3 big photo shoots happening all at the same time there, its pretty popular. Quick photo note here: Bring a tripod and shoot 24mm or wider (I shot @ 11mm) and shoot low looking up to get as high up as you can. Shoot multiple exposures or HDR at this spot because your highlights will be fried from the sun peaking through the trees.
Super cool spot that’s a couple minute walk from the Inari and Fuishimi Inari train station. If you go all the way up the mountain it’s a long walk up hill, pretty cool to visit very early or very late at night to avoid tourists, I did both for some reason. If you want to beat the crowds you need to show up between 5-6am or anytime after 9 at night. By 10am there’s a sea of people and it’ll be literally impossible to not get them in your shot. I used the 11-24 and that was too wide, would recommend something tighter than 24 to compress the pillars a bit.
I really expected people in Japan to speak at least broken English, this wasn’t the case in any part of the country. If you can’t speak Japanese it’s going to be a bit harder to get around (I definitely can’t speak it). In the super touristy areas it’s slightly easier to communicate but generally everything you do in Japan has a photo or object associated with it so just pointing at things goes a long way. I would highly recommend learning the important basic word, like please, thank you, excuse me, etc. Despite the language difference people are super friendly and will always help out as much as they can, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Outside of Tokyo you won’t find English text on anything anywhere except tourist trap areas.
Different parts of Japan are for different people:
This is where I made my biggest mistake, I allotted 1 week for Kyoto and 1 week for Tokyo. Since I’m primarily into landscape I should of traveled around a bit more and only spent a day or two in Tokyo. To be honest there isn’t a whole lot to do in Tokyo unless you’re into weaboo culture, touristy stuff or just street photography. There was definitely some cool stuff to do but I felt like I wasted time that could of been spent shooting portfolio worthy images in other parts of the country. I did however get to shoot a bit of night time neon lights / street images which was really fun. Highly recommend it!
Japanese Yen is the official currency here, they won’t accept anything else, when you pay with a card it gets converted. I’d say 60% of places only take cash so have that ready to go before you visit. When you get here I’d highly recommend putting money on a suica and IC card. They’re like credit cards you can use at a lot of stores and to pay subway fees. When you leave you can refund all your money from the suica card only, can’t do it with the IC card. Also just to put it out there they don’t do tips anywhere in Japan, it’s actually considered rude to do so. Everything is built into the price of things. Quick note: Japan isn’t a cheap place and it adds up quick, this won’t be a cheap trip.
This is the make or break for your trip, the subway is going to be confusing and not fun at all for the most part (I live in California, I’m not use to public transportation). The 3 main ways of traveling are taxi’s, subway train and the shinkansen (bullet train). If you plan on going long distance with the shinkansen I’d recommend a J-Rail pass, you’ll save a ton of money overall in either coach or first class. You should use google maps 100% while your here, it’ll save you all the headache and mistakes. When you use “my location” to wherever your going it tells you which train to take with all the times and which train to switch to. Also avoid rush hour on the trains, you’ll regret it. Taxi’s are also everywhere all the time and operate 24/7. Every hotel and most AirBnB owners seem to have them on speed dial so just say the word and they’ll be there in no time. Also expect to walk A LOT.
Camera Gear & Packing Light:
This is something I want to cover more in my posts, especially on international trips. I brought My 5D MK4, 11-24mm F4, 24-70 2.8 and 85 1.4 IS, my Really Right Stuff Tripod and Joby Gorilla-pod. While I think it’s always important to bring a tripod if you’re a pro this is the one trip I could of left it at home, you can’t use it at the Chureito Pagoda, it was nice using it at the bamboo forest but totally not necessary and I’d only use it at Fuishimi Inari if I were shooting at night or early morning. Most places are so busy you can’t use it at all, hence why the Gorilla-pod is the winner here, almost every spot has a place to use it. Also this was the first time I’ve ever had to check in my tripod at the airport upon returning home. They don’t allow tripods over 60cm (23.6 inches) on the plane, even though it can totally fit. I’m going to assume this is just an Asia thing?
As far as lens choice, when I was shooting on the street I used the 85mm 90% of the time, while the landscape stuff was split between the 11-24 and 24-70. If I was packing lighter I’d probably just use a 16-35 / 85, 24-70 / 85 or my widest lens paired with the 85. I never really saw much use for anything over 85 besides maybe a couple shots, trust me and leave the telephoto at home. If you’re traveling around the country I can’t stress how important it is to pack light, you’ll get fatigued so fast as there’s soooo much walking to do everywhere you go.
Eating in Japan was surprisingly hard for me and I love food. Not knowing the language made it hard to eat at most restaurants, I had no idea what I was ordering so I just avoided most spots. Ramen is a safe choice everywhere you go. If you’re coming from the US don’t expect the same food over there, it’s very different. You can’t just order sushi and rolls because they don’t have rolls there and “sushi” means ordering a huge plate of random pieces of fish, not individual things. All these things lead me to not eating much meat or real food and just a ton of pastries, which was like eating tasty air. Do your research ahead of time on the popular spots of where to eat, you’ll be much more successful than I was. If you stay in Kyoto or any place outside of the popular spots you’ll find some very weird and interesting things to eat.
Capsule hotels, AirBnB, hotels, day hotels, hostiles, the list goes on. I stayed in two hotels and two AirBnB’s. The “traditional Japanese” house option was a regretful decision. Very limited space, sleeping on the floor and a table meant for sitting on the floor. If you need to work on your computer a lot like myself expect your hind quarters to go numb after a while. Sleeping on the floor is also not for me. I would probably choose the hotel option as they’re very nice and more convenient. Not dissing the traditional Japanese option by any means. Just wasn’t for me personally.
Probably one of the cooler things to do in town. There’s the owl cafe, cat cafe, hedgehog cafe, capybara cafe, rabbit cafe and the pig cafe. I only went to the cat and owl cafe. The cat cafe is kind of not worth it, it’s about $6 for 10 minutes with the cats and they tend to avoid people in the designated area. The owl cafe was amazing and 100% worth it, it’s the coolest thing ever getting up close with them! I went to sunset owl cafe in Osaka. I’d imagine the other animal cafe’s are amazing as well.
Overall it was quite the experience, bit of a culture shock compared to my other travels but definitely cool. I was mainly on a mission to get the photos I planned for and all the stars aligned. If I could do it all over again I would just spend less time in Tokyo and more time visiting other parts of the country. If I were to go back it’d be in the fall time as they get the full spectrum of fall colors which I can only imagine is amazing.
Next stop is either going to be Norway/Finland or New Zealand.
Select photos from this post are available to print on my website.
If you have any questions or comments leave one below. Thanks for reading!
- Canon 5D Mark IV
- Canon 11-24mm F4L
- Canon 24-70mm F/2.8L II
- Canon 85mm F/1.4L IS
- Lowepro Pro Runner BP 450AW
- Really Right Stuff Tripod & Head
Follow me on social media: