What to Photograph in Japan
Japan is one of those countries that you could return to again and again, and never run out of things to photograph. There’s just so many different aspects to see, including the geography, the seasons, the culture, the people, the food…it’s really impossible to see it all in one trip. So here’s some of my advice on what to photograph in Japan on a future visit.
Since there’s really a lot to photograph, let’s break it down into categories. Whenever I am in Japan, I tend to photograph five different types of subjects, and they keep me busy. Alphabetically, those five subjects are: Architecture, Food, Nature, People, and Temples. In practice, I could concentrate on just one subject on each journey, and I’d still come away with a ton of photographs. So let’s look at each of those subjects a little more closely.
There’s a lot to cover in Japan when it comes to architecture. In this category, I usually blend the old historical buildings in with the new contemporary structures. It’s a great way to show how the styles have changed over the centuries. Fortunately, Japan has maintained or restored many of its historical buildings, and the country places value in the importance of preserving them for future generations (and photographers!).
There are a lot of castles to photograph in Japan. However, there are only 12 castles that are considered original, in that they have survived intact from the feudal period of Japan (pre-1868). A great example of this is the castle in Himeji, which was built in the early 1600’s. Although parts of the castle have been restored for safety reasons, most of the structure is authentic and original. And you can explore most of the interior, if you’re OK with steep staircases. It’s a national treasure, and a must-see if you’re searching for castles to photograph.
Another great castle to visit would be in Osaka, which is only about 90km from Himeji. The Osaka castle is a replica restoration, built with concrete instead of the traditional wood from the original. Rebuilt in the 1930’s, and fully modernized in 1997, it’s one of the most stunning castle designs in the country. The moat that surrounds the castle, and the abundant cherry trees that bloom in April every year make for some spectacular photos.
In the more modern side of Japanese architecture, there is a lot to choose from too. There are plenty of world-class architectural designs that are uniquely Japanese. In Tokyo alone, you could spend a whole week just shooting buildings of note, and still never run out of options. In particular, I am fond of the Kengo Kuma-designed Asakusa Culture and Tourism Centre building – meant to look like a collection of 8 stacked houses.
There are countless other buildings worth looking into in Tokyo as well. Be sure to visit the International Forum Building, designed in the mid-90’s by Uruguayan architect Rafael Viñoly Beceiro. Or if you’re looking for some Japanese architecture that’s more iconic, head to the Shinjuku area at night, for some great night time neon street scenes, or capture the Tokyo Tower at night.
The Omotesando neighbourhood of Tokyo is like a modern architecture outdoor museum, with many wonderful examples of innovative Japanese design. Look for the Tokyu Plaza building, designed by Hiroshi Nakamura, with its famous kaleidoscopic entrance. And keep an eye out for the collection of fashion label buildings like Chanel, Dior, Prada, Tod’s, and Cartier. Each one is a gem.
In Osaka, the Namba Parks mall is quite the interesting design. Built on what was once the Osaka baseball stadium, it retains some of the exterior design of a stadium wall, and has something of a canyon-like interior that rises 8 stories.
And if you’re a history buff, the bombed out ruins of the buildings in Hiroshima are definitely worth checking out, even if they are a bit sombre. It’s not exactly architecture any more, but it’s still an interesting study of Japanese history.
If you’re like me, or even like most people, you’ll love Japanese food. There’s a lot to enjoy from this beautiful cuisine, and the Japanese people take their food seriously. You can’t travel too far in Japan without being tempted with some wonderful dishes, and some excellent photo opportunities of that food.
There are a few things to consider when you’re thinking about photographing food in Japan. First, there’s the many markets, particularly the seafood markets, as well as the neighbourhood produce and wet markets.
Then there are the food streets, filled with many fun and colourful restaurants, like the streets in Osaka and Tokyo. And lastly, there’s the food itself, when presented to you inside a restaurant. The presentation skills of the masterful chefs is something to behold.
Admittedly, this is a pretty broad category. But I narrow it down to some pretty beautiful gardens and flowers that Japan is well-known for, and some animals that contribute to a Japanese experience.
One of the most popular events in the Japanese calendar is the annual sakura blossoming. The season is usually pretty predictable, although some years it starts earlier than expected. But regardless, it’s a sight that should not be missed. The incredible beauty of the bright pink cherry blossoms, or the white plum blossoms are hard to believe. Pack some allergy tablets, and make your way to some of the city parks to take in this spectacular event.
Nagano, which is about 4 hours northwest of Tokyo, is a winter playground – both for humans and monkeys. The 1998 host city of the Winter Olympics is also host to Japanese macaques. Often referred to as “snow monkeys”, these small primates would normally hang out in the nearby forests during the warmer months, but when the colder temperatures come, they sit in the natural hot springs that dot the region. Who wouldn’t?
I love photographing people, especially when they are unique to a particular culture of a country. This fascination has always presented itself in my work, and I don’t think I am alone when it comes to the enjoyment of photographing people.
In Japan, there are countless opportunities to photograph unique people on the streets, in the temples, and when simply walking around a neighbourhood anywhere in the country.
It’s well-known that Japan is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. When you walk the streets of any of Japan’s major cities, this will become abundantly clear. And because of this, there are ample opportunities to photograph large crowds of people, with very little effort.
The Shibuya Scramble crosswalk is world-renowned for the huge amount of people that, well, scramble across the intersection all at once. It’s a fascinating thing to witness, and a fun thing to photograph or video. I love shooting slow motion videos, or creating blurred action photos of this intersection.
One of Japan’s most iconic images when it comes to people, are it’s geishas (or Geikos, as they’re called in Kyoto). Although the tradition is slowly disappearing, it’s still possible to encounter one or two on the streets of Kyoto. It’s considered poor form to photograph them without their permission, so it’s often best to engage them professionally by hiring them for traditional Japanese ceremonies. However, you can easily find plenty of people dressed in the geisha costumes whenever you visit the temples of Kyoto.
Although it’s fair to think of temple buildings as architecture, I like to categorize them on their own because they serve a specific purpose. There are a wide variety of temples dotted around the country that provide enough uniqueness, that you won’t get the feeling that you’ve seen one too many of them.
When I think of Japanese temples, a feeling of calmness comes over me. Maybe it’s because of the locations in nature that the temples occupy, or maybe it’s because of the beautiful designs. But whatever it is, I always come away with the sense that a lot of thought went into the design of the structures, and how they make people feel.
One such element that occurs in many Shinto temples around the country are the torii gates. These are usually two tall pillars with a crossbeam connecting them, and a cap piece at the top, and are essentially the entranceway into the temple – or the ‘doorway to the gods’. Sometimes they will be submerged in water, so that people arriving by boats can sail through them.
In Kyoto, at the Fushimi-Inari shrine, you’ll see a large torii at the entrance, naturally. But you’ll also see thousands of smaller toriis that lead up the mountainside. This particular shrine is said to sit at the division between our world and the realm of the dead. So that’s why you’ll see so many gates (about 10,000) placed on the pathway.
I also like the multi-layered pagodas that you’ll see around the country. Most often, these beautiful structures are 3 or 5 stories tall, and almost always made from wood. There are some pagodas carved from stone, but they are not structures you can enter. Usually, pagodas are seen in Buddhist temples, but some Shinto temples have some pagodas too.
Any visit to Japan will be worthwhile for a photographer. It doesn’t matter what your photographic interest is, you’ll find plenty of subject matter in this small country. The possibilities are truly endless on what to photography in Japan.
If visiting Japan is something that you’re considering to do as a photographer, please reach out to me. There are a wide range of options for planning a photographic journey, and I can help you make those choices.