Exploring Tokyo Part 1 – Photography + Travel Guide
Japan had been on our radar to visit for a very long time, but we had never managed to get there. Finally, in early 2018 we decided to head over for our inaugural visit. We had been wondering whether it would be very busy in Tokyo during Golden Week (early May) but figured that most locals would be heading out of town and not be super busy, luckily we were right.
Regardless of when you travel to Japan, planning is going to be needed, from where to go, to what gear to take. The ‘Location Guide’ below is pretty much what we covered over the 6 days we were in Tokyo. We hope this helps with your planning. If you have any questions feel free to comment in the section available at the end of this post.
Above: Imperial Palace & Gardens
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 (or a lot of walking ?). 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 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.
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 you have a 2 week JR Pass then activate the pass at the airport and catch the train.
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. 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).
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.
Our everyday kit for Japan was the following –
- Sony A7Rii Mirrorless camera (see right). We now use the Sony A7Riii.
- Sony FE 24-105 f4 lens (see right) – the workhorse which covered around 65% of our shots in Japan
- Sony FE 16-35 f4 lens (see right bottom)
- Sony FE 70-200 f4 lens (rarely used on this particular trip)
- Laowa 15mm f2 Zero-D lens (so we would both have a wide-angle lens)
- Samyang 12mm Fisheye (for those extreme interiors)
- Samyang 35mm f2.8 (mainly for low-light street shots)
This is was an easy choice. We had recently purchased the Peak Design Everyday Sling 10L bag 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 needed. 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.
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. Occasionally, we also venture out with a Joby Gorilla Pod. Remember, you will be carrying the tripod around most of the day so we strongly suggest you invest in a sturdy but lightweight model.
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 to obtain slower shutter speeds on sunny days. If you are planning some tripod-mounted landscape-type shots (sunrise and sunset) then the square filter system may be worth carrying around.
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Below is a brief rundown of where we visited during our stay in Tokyo. 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 chain of hotels, for a larger room choose a twin room. Rooms were very clean and had all the facilities we required. This area is very central in Tokyo and seemed to be 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.
Ueno, Asakusa & Akihabara
DAY 1 – an easy walk from our hotel 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 Dempoin 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 ‘Electric Area’, famous for its vast array of electronics shops, for some shots during blue hour of the streets and neon lights (see below shot). 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 really patient you can capture a train on each of the lines (3 lines) coming into the station.
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.
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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 surrounds from the Kitte Shopping Centre roof garden. The architecture of the interior of the centre 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 it’s neon lights. To rescue our throbbing feet we made our way to Shiodome Station and 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.
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.
DAY 3 – This morning was mostly about architecture with some building 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, probably one of the biggest camera shops we have ever been to. The amount of gear on display is just amazing. Suffice to say that if you want something, they would more than likely have it.
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 really 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 sit 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.
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 about and try some of the local food without having to queue.
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 between the station and shopping centre that also afforded a great angle without the shoving and pushing to get window space at Starbucks.
Update: Since our visit, Mag’s Park has been opened. This is a new spot to view and photograph Shibuya Crossing from a high point. The photo spot is located on the roof terrace of the shopping complex building MAGNET by Shibuya 109. Cost is only 300 yen. We’ll definitely be heading here next time.
These following two days we had on our return to Tokyo at the end of our trip.
DAY 5 – Having just arrived from Osaka this morning, the afternoon was a good chance to head over to Odaiba. We caught the driverless monorail across the Rainbow Bridge from Akihabara. There was a particular building ‘The Soho’ 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).
A little 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! ).
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!
- Ueno Park
- Kiyomizu Kannon-dō Temple,
- Gojo Tenjinsha Shrine
- Ueno Tōshō-gū Shrine
- 5-story pagoda within the Ueno Zoological Gardens
- Sensō-ji (Asakusa Kannon Temple)
Our accommodation was here!
- Metropolitan Government Building – Free Observation Decks
- Yodibashi Camera Shop
- Gyoen National Garden
- Omoide Yokocho (Piss Alley)
- Golden Gai
- Shibuya Crossing
- Hachiko-ko Statue
- Soho Building
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