Exploring Tokyo Part 1 - Photography + Travel Guide

INTRODUCTION

Japan had been on our radar to visit for a very long time, but we had never managed to make the journey. Finally, in early 2018, we decided to embark on our inaugural trip. We pondered whether Tokyo would be bustling during Golden Week (early May), but we surmised that most locals would be venturing out of town, resulting in a less crowded experience. Fortunately, our intuition proved correct.

Irrespective of the time you choose to explore Japan, careful planning is essential – from deciding where to go to packing the right gear.

The ‘Location Guide‘ below encompasses the highlights of our eventful six-day visit to Tokyo. It is our sincerest hope that this guide aids in your own travel preparations. If you have any queries or require further assistance, please feel free to leave a comment in the dedicated section at the end of this post. Additionally, we have recently returned from a captivating autumn trip to Japan. Click here to delve into Part 2 of Exploring Tokyo, which offers even more remarkable attractions and hidden gems to explore during your time in Tokyo.

Be sure to check out our comprehensive range of Exploring Japan Photography + Travel Guides for further inspiration and insights.

Tokyo Imperial Palace

Above: Imperial Palace & Gardens

Japan Crate

BEFORE ARRIVAL

Due to the amount of visitors to Japan, the Japanese government has now digitised entry procedures. This makes things flow so much quicker. On our November 2023 visit, we exited the airport much quicker than previous visits.

Before leaving home register on the “Visit Japan Web” website. This service will allow you to perform arrival procedures such as “immigration“, “customs“, and “Tax-free shopping service” online. You will then be able to keep a barcode on your mobile phone with all the information required. This will also mean that you will not have to fill out the form given to you on your flight by the cabin crew.

Depending on the arrival time of your flight you should be able to purchase a Pasmo Passport IC card at the arrivals terminal.  The Pasmo and Suica IC cards are currently unavailable due to a world-wide microchip shortage and therefore are unavailable until further notice.

We also highly recommend the Wise multi-currency card for international travel. Spend abroad with the real exchange rate. One currency card for all your travels. With Wise, you always get the real exchange rate. Click on the banner below for more info. 

Wise Card

PLANNING & GETTING AROUND

When we plan our photography trips we always look at the location and the amount of time we have/need to get the most out of our time there. We then create a shot list. The shot list is just a rough guide as it is not always possible to shoot everything you want to. We plan our trips this way, regardless of whether we are shooting a photography assignment or just having a holiday. This way we can hit the ground running. And on that point, make sure you take with you an extremely comfortable pair of shoes (or two). A normal day in Tokyo for us was between 20-30,000 steps!!!

With a city like Tokyo, which has many distinct areas, we decided to concentrate on a different area each day for the initial 4 days we had there. This way we would avoid spending too much time on the subway. Anything that we had missed, or really wanted to re-visit, was left until the additional 2 days at the end of the trip. All in all, the 6 days covered most of what we wanted to see for a first-time visit.

With so much to see and do we knew we would have to organise and plan our days well. We decided to get the PASMO IC card (currently you will only be able to get the Pasmo Passport IC card) to get us around Tokyo, which was cheap and easy to use (read more about Japan IC transport cards here). This could be used on the metro and buses, and also at some shops to purchase food/drinks.

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In late 2022, as Japan re-opened after the pandemic, they introduced “The Tokyo Pass” for visitors to Japan. The pass is available as a phone app. It gives you unlimited entry to over 40 of Japan’s leading museums, parks, gardens, zoos, and aquariums, as well as all unlimited rides to Tokyo subways within a validity period. Click on the “Experience the Museum!” page for the list of attractions you can enter with the pass. Prices start at ¥6,800 for a 2-day pass.

For travel outside of Tokyo, we had pre-purchased a JR Pass (Japan Rail Pass) however as our JR Pass was for 2 weeks and we were staying in Japan for 3 weeks we did not activate the JR Pass at Narita Airport to use for the train to the city on arrival. We found it easier to catch the bus. If you are staying in Japan for 2 weeks and have a 2-week JR Pass then activate the pass at the airport and catch the train. For flights arriving at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, you can take the monorail that leaves every 5 minutes to Hamamatsucho. You then need to transfer to the appropriate line closest to your accommodation. Another option is the Keikyu train line. Before purchasing a JR Pass we strongly recommend that you use the JR Pass Calculator to determine whether the pass is worthwhile for your itinerary.

We also pre-purchased a SIM card (data only) for our phone to assist with street navigation which is essential for any traveller visiting Japan for the first time. If using this link you will be able to pick up the SIM in Tokyo at Shinjuku or Haneda International Airport Terminal.

Here’s a great place to purchase both the JR Pass & SIM card in Australia (check to see if these can be purchased in your own country).

IMPORTANT UPDATE: In October 2023 the JR Pass increased in price significantly. In many cases, the pass will no longer be viable as the cost of individual tickets will be cheaper. We strongly suggest that you use the JR Pass Calculator to see whether the JR Pass will be worthwhile. For longer trips, the JR Pass is still a good option but for a 2-week visit, we don't think the JR Pass will be worthwhile anymore. For example - based on a 2-week visit to Tokyo - Kyoto - Osaka - Hiroshima - Kanazawa - Nikko - Tokyo it would cost Y65,330 if buying the tickets individually, but a 2-week JR Pass will cost Y80,000.

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CAMERA GEAR

Camera & Lenses

The choice of camera and lenses you take will depend on the type of photographs you enjoy taking while travelling. We always try to travel as light as possible as we walk a lot. As professional travel photographers, we don’t shoot just landscapes or just street etc. so we need lenses that cover all types of subjects. This means that we heavily rely on zoom lenses, although we do carry a few prime (single focal length) lenses between us. We find it counter-intuitive to carry a bag full of prime lenses as we find that you can miss shots very easily. It never ceases to amaze us on our travels when we see photographers hunched-over while carrying heavy backpacks full of unnecessary equipment.

Sony A7Rii Mirrorless Camera

Our everyday kit for Japan was the following –

Sony FE 24-105 f/4 lens
Sony FE 16-35 f/4 lens
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Camera Bag

This was an easy choice. We recently purchased the Peak Design Everyday Sling 10L bag (read our review)and used it around Sydney with our Photo Walks & Workshops group. We knew that this bag would be perfect as it is super comfortable to carry for the whole day and has enough space to carry almost everything we need. It was also practical for the times we were on the busy subway and in crowded areas. The sling bag is easy to swing from our back to our front to change lenses without knocking into people. We did still take our backpacks with us (we use the Vanguard Alta Rise 45 backpack and Lowepro Transit Backpack 350 AW ), but they stayed in the room most of the time. We used them on the odd occasion but mostly when we were in transit to the next destination. The Peak Design Everyday Sling 10L bag was primarily used most of the time.

Camera Strap

We strongly recommend that you carry a sling camera strap such as the Peak Design Slide or Slide Lite. For smaller cameras, we suggest the Peak Design Leash. A sling strap goes over your head and rests on your shoulder rather than your neck. This will place all the weight of the camera & lens onto your shoulder, saving you a sore neck at the end of the day. Alternatively, we would suggest a wrist strap such as the Peak Design Cuff or Micro Clutch or something similar. These are great for photographers who meander around with one lens, however, they can make it a little awkward if you want to change lenses.

Tripod

This can be a real quandary. So many times we have carried it around all day, never to be used, and other times we’ve left it in our room and regretted it during the day. These days, as we are usually out early and back late, we ALWAYS carry at least one tripod between us. We have a couple of carbon fibre travel tripods that are lightweight and compact and have an Arca Swiss quick-release plate on a ball head (we now use the Peak Design Travel TripodRead our Review).  Remember, you will be carrying the tripod around most of the day so we strongly suggest you invest in a  sturdy but lightweight model.

Peak Design Travel Tripod

Filters

Our NiSi 100mm filter kit had a nice holiday, it stayed mostly in the room while we were in Tokyo. Naturally, we did carry our *URTH CPL (polarizer) and a couple of *URTH ND screw-in filters with us that were easy to pack. We also recommend that you carry a *URTH ND Variable filter that will help you obtain slower shutter speeds on sunny days. If you are planning some tripod-mounted landscape-type shots (sunrise and sunset) then a square filter system may be worth carrying around. For those who want to be a little more creative, we suggest you consider taking a Diffusion Filter such as the Urth Ethereal Black Mist Filter.

Urth Magnetic Essentials Filter Kit Plus+
Urth Circular Variable ND Filter Plus+

*Click on the banner below to get a great price on all Urth products.

Urth

ACCOMMODATION

There are probably no bad areas to stay in Tokyo as the transport system is so comprehensive that you are never that far from everything. We have stayed in Jimbocho, Shinjuku, Hamamatsucho, and Asakusa on our visits and honestly can’t say that one is better than the other. If you want to be in the heart of nightlife in Tokyo then staying around Shinjuku, Shibuya, or Roppongi may be more suited to you. If you want quieter areas then Jimbocho or Hamamatsucho may be better for you.

For our first visit to Tokyo, we stayed at the APA Hotel Kanda Jimbocho Ekihigashi in Jimbocho, in the district of Chiyoda, also known as Tokyo’s book district. The hotel room was a little small (10sqm for a small double room) which is normal for this hotel chain, for a larger room choose a twin room. The rooms were very clean and had all the facilities we required. The Jimbocho area is very central in Tokyo and was a lot quieter than other areas. Check out the map at the bottom of this post – Jimbocho is marked with a red pin. This location was great for using the subway, but if you wanted to only use your JR Pass while in Tokyo you may want to consider staying in an area close to the Tokyo JR Line. To travel on the Subway make sure you purchase a PASMO or PASMO PASSPORT card (click here to read more about these cards).

Note: We visited Tokyo during “Golden Week” which is a collection of four national holidays within seven days. Many Japanese take the opportunity to leave the city and therefore it can be very quiet.

LOCATION GUIDE

Ueno

  • Ueno Park
  • Kiyomizu Kannon-dō Temple,
  • Gojo Tenjinsha Shrine
  • Ueno Tōshō-gū Shrine 
  • 5-story pagoda within the Ueno Zoological Gardens

Asakusa

  • Sensō-ji (Asakusa Kannon Temple)

Akihabara

Jimbocho

Our accommodation was here!

Shinjuku

  • Metropolitan Government Building – Free Observation Decks
  • Yodibashi Camera Shop
  • Gyoen National Garden
  • Omoide Yokocho (Piss Alley)
  • Golden Gai

Shibuya

  • Shibuya Crossing
  • Hachiko-ko Statue

Odaiba

  • Soho Building

Shiodome Station

View from Himeji Bridge, Tokyo

Above: Capturing train light trails from Hijiri Bridge

Silence Corner Atoll

To read our review of the Silence Corner Atoll click here. We strongly recommend this product for those that frequently use a tripod.

Ueno, Asakusa & Akihabara

DAY 1 –  an easy walk from our hotel in Jimbocho to Ueno Park, Kiyomizu Kannon-dō Temple, Gojo Tenjinsha Shrine, Ueno Tōshō-gū Shrine and the 5-story pagoda within the Ueno Zoological Gardens (Closed Mondays). We were fortunate to be here on “Greenery Day” and the zoo entry was free.

Following lunch, on the waterfront, our next stop was the must-visit Sensō-ji (Asakusa Kannon Temple) & the hidden garden at Dempo-in Temple (300 yen) – the gardens are not always open to the public). We then took the monorail across to Skytree for some exterior shots.

Last stop for the day was Akihabara, also known as  ‘Electric Area’, famous for its vast array of electronics shops, for some shots during the blue hour of the streets and neon lights (see shot below). On our walk back to our hotel we stopped at Hijiri Bridge for the shot above. This spot is great for capturing the light trails from the trains. If you are very patient you can capture a train on each of the lines (3 lines) coming into the station.

TIP! 

To get light trails of trains from the Hijiri Bridge takes a lot of patience and experimentation. Consider taking several long exposures with trains on each of the tracks and then blending them using Photoshop or a similar program. Naturally, you will need to use a tripod and do not recompose between shots so that they will align correctly when editing in software.

ON1 Photo Raw 2024
Akihabara Electric Area, Tokyo

Above: Blue Hour in Akihabara

Central Tokyo & Ginza

DAY 2 – we started at the Imperial Palace and Gardens (free). We arrived at the Tayasumon Gate entrance just before opening time so didn’t have many people to contend with (keep in mind that we were in Tokyo during Golden Week).

The next stop was a view of Tokyo Station and its surroundings from the Kitte Shopping Centre roof garden. The architecture of the interior is also pretty funky to photograph. Just a short walk away is the Tokyo International Forum building for some awe-inspiring interior architecture photography. Another easy walk took us to the upmarket and ritzy shopping district of Ginza, although this area is better to photograph at night with all its neon lights. To rescue our throbbing feet we made our way to the Hama-rikyu Gardens (300 yen) with its pretty park, lake, tea house and city views. Once recovered, we headed to the World Trade Centre, with its 360-degree views of the city from the Observation Deck on the 40th floor. We based ourselves here (along with many others) for sunset and blue hour. NOTE: Unfortunately, the Observation Deck has now been closed (early 2021) and there are plans to demolish the World Trade Center. 

Akihabara Electric Area, Tokyo

Above: Panning shot in Akihabara

TIP! 

Panning takes a lot of practice. Again, it takes a little bit of experimentation to get it right. For the shot above we shot in Manual Mode and set the shutter speed to around 1/30 with an aperture around f/4 and the ISO set to Auto. You will need to play around with the shutter speed as it will depend on how fast your subject is moving and how quickly you pan. Start with your subject at the far edge of your frame and track them until they are in the frame where you want them, take the shot, but keep panning until they are out of frame.

Peak Design Travel Tripod

Shinjuku

DAY 3 – This morning was mostly about architecture with some buildings such as the Mode Gakuen Cocoon Building and the Metropolitan Government Building.

The Metropolitan Government Building rises to a height of 202 metres and affords fabulous views over Tokyo. Entrance is free to both the North & South Observation Decks.  To access the Observation Decks take the Observatory Elevator from the 1st Floor of Main Building No. 1. The Observation Decks are open from 9:30 am – 11 pm however please note that they are closed as follows – South Observation Deck: First and third Tuesday of every month, North Observation Deck: Second and fourth Monday of every month

You can’t visit Shinjuku without visiting Yodibashi Camera Shop, the biggest camera shop we have ever visited. It’s spread out over several buildings so if you are after something in particular you may have to ask an employee which building and floor to visit. The amount of gear on display is just amazing.

The next stop was Gyoen National Garden (200 yen) for some quiet time and “feet relaxation” before heading back into Shinjuku to photograph some light trails from a pedestrian overpass. After dark is when Tokyo sparkles so we wandered over to Omoide Yokocho, also known as “Piss Alley” near the west gate of Shinjuku Station to have a snack and drink at one of the little bars in the popular alleyway (see image below). Many of these bars can only seat 6-8 people at a time. Beware, some of the bar owners DO NOT like having their photo taken (even when asked). Lastly, we headed over to the Golden Gai (Golden District) for more bars & night shots amongst the quiet narrow alleyways. 

For more general information about Shinjuku read this article.

Small Bar in Omoide Yokocho, Shinjuku

Above: A small bar in Omoide Yokocho (Piss Alley) in Shinjuku

Peak Design Slide Camera Strap

Asakusa & Shibuya

DAY 4 – This morning we returned to Asakusa for another visit around Sensō-ji (Asakusa Kannon Temple) & surrounding streets before it got too busy. We were able to get shots without as many people and try some of the local food without having to queue.

The next stop was Tokyu Plaza in Omotesando, for the kaleidoscope-mirrored entrance to the shopping centre. Definitely high on the list for Instagrammers!! Then onto the peaceful Meiji Jingu Park & Shrine. It was wonderful to find so many parks & temples within such a busy city to escape to.

Back into the hustle and bustle with a walk down the cute Takeshita Dori then back to Shibuya Station. At this stage, it had started to rain (which we were hoping it would, as we really wanted to get a shot of the famous pedestrian crossing with lots of umbrellas). Many people take shots of the crossing from Starbucks (near the Tsutaya sign – see photo below) however, we found a great spot on the bridge that links Shibuya Station and the Marks Building that also afforded a great angle without the shoving and pushing to get window space at Starbucks. This spot is also shooting through glass so you will have to be careful of reflections or use a Lenskirt.

Update: Since our visit, a few place have now opened that give great views of the Shibuya Crossing –

  • Mag’s Park  – The photo spot is located on the roof terrace of the shopping complex building MAGNET by Shibuya 109. The cost is only 1500 yen (including an alcoholic beverage).
  • Shibuya Sky – a 360° open-air observation deck at the rooftop of Shibuya Scramble Square. This will give you wonderful views over Tokyo as well as the Shibuya Crossing. The ‘Sky Edge’, is a corner where you can look down at the cityscape below without any obstruction. Tickets bought online (Y2200) are for a specific time frame so make sure you plan when you want to visit. If purchasing over the counter it is slightly more expensive (Y2500). Click the link for a great deal on tickets.
Wet day at Shibiya Crossing, Shibuya

Above: The famous Shibuya Crossing

Helen on the Shibuya Crossing, Shibuya

Above: Shibuya Crossing. See if you can spot Helen taking a shot.

Peak Design Everyday Tote

These following two days we had on our return to Tokyo at the end of our trip.

Odaiba

DAY 5 – Having just arrived from Osaka in the morning, the afternoon was a good chance to head over to Odaiba. We caught the driverless monorail across the Rainbow Bridge from Akihabara. The first stop was ‘The Soho‘, a building on the island that we wanted to photograph. We then ventured to the Tokyo-facing side of the island for sunset and wonderful views of the bridge and sky tower in the distance (see image above).

Odaiba Island, Tokyo

Above: The view of the Rainbow Bridge from Odaiba

The Soho, Odaiba

Above: The Soho Building on Odaiba

A little bit of everything

DAY 6 – This was our last full day in Tokyo so we tried to cover some of the sights we had missed such as Zojoji Temple which also has a great view of Tokyo Tower. As it was a nice clear day we headed back to Shibuya to see the Hachiko-ko statue, then over to Starbucks for the well-known shot of Shibuya crossing. Managed to squeeze into a spot near the window to get the shot above of Helen standing still at the crossing (see if you can spot her! smile).

We hope this post has given you some ideas and inspiration on where to visit in Tokyo for some great shots. Don’t forget to read  Exploring Tokyo – Part 2 which showcases some more places we visited on our second trip in late 2019. 

There is so much to see in Tokyo that obviously, there was no way that we were going to see everything that was on our original shot list. Besides, there wouldn’t be a reason to return if we did! cool

Hachiko Statue in Shibuya

Above: Hachiko-ko Statue in Shibuya

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Click here to see all our images from Japan

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