Written by Tom Box
Japan has been top of my and my wife Sarah’s ‘must visit’ list for as long as we’ve known each other, and in November we finally managed to make it out there. It was a close call, as I had to have spine surgery a couple of months after booking the holiday, and we had to race to get me booked in with enough time to recover before we left! Luckily, I was in good enough shape to travel long haul, and the 13 hour flight didn’t cause my legs to drop off.
The plan was to land in Tokyo, spend a couple of nights there, and move on to Osaka and Kyoto, and then return to Tokyo for a full week.
My Camera Kit
In terms of cameras, I traveled light (by my standards) and took my Ricoh Auto Half SL half frame, Yashica 635 TLR, and good old Olympus Trip 35. The recent surgery was a consideration in what to bring, and I must admit the Yashica did weigh me down a few times. It had to stay in the hotel some days… I also took my Instax Mini, knowing that I could stock up on film in Tokyo. The Trip 35 was a wise choice as it combines excellent optics, small size and low weight.
Second Hand Camera Shops in Japan
One of my main goals when visiting Tokyo was to search for the hidden second-hand camera shops in Shinjuku, most of them tucked away in basements or somewhere in a multi-story office complex.
Before leaving for the trip, I read up on where to go on Japan Camera Hunter’s Tokyo camera shopping guide, which gives excellent instructions for how to find many of these elusive stores. Google Maps was another enormous help to find anything in Tokyo. Simply searching for ‘camera’ revealed many places not listed elsewhere.
One of the last places I visited, Chikuma Camera near Ueno station in Northern Tokyo, provided us with a photocopy of a hand drawn map showing all of the local second-hand camera shops! I’d recommend if you want to do a tour of camera shops around Ueno, visit Chikuma first and pick up one of these maps. Alternatively, hang around Shinjuku until Tokyo Camera Style notices your cameras and comes over for a chat! (He’s a lovely chap. Very tall.)
Most of these camera shops have a ‘junk’ section, which is generally where they dump anything non-working or too ugly to put in a cabinet. I picked up a couple of half frame cameras for peanuts to fix up when I got home. I also found an Olympus Trip 35 that was fully working but had a wobbly lens mount. An easy fix. If you’re patient and/or persistent, you can definitely find a bargain in the junk bins of Tokyo.
My absolute favorite shop I visited was Chuuko Box in Shinjuku. Tucked away down a stairwell full of photos of kittens, this place is absolutely overflowing with old film cameras. You can barely move between the cabinets and boxes, all full from front to back with almost every film camera you could think of. The staff are also super friendly and enthusiastic and do very well with English. I left with a beautiful Canon VI-L and 50mm 1.4 LTM, which I shot for the remainder of the holiday. Other treasures I found in Chuuko Box included a rare Yashica Half 14, which as the name suggests is a half frame camera with a ridiculous f/1.4 lens. Unfortunately, despite the old men of the shop rummaging through boxes of batteries and muttering excitedly, the camera turned out to be a dud. Oh well!
The only camera on my “find and touch for a bit” list that didn’t get ticked off was the Norita 66. No trace of one to be found. The Norita is my Moby Dick.
Shooting in Tokyo
I’ve never felt more at ease taking photos of people than in Tokyo. I basically felt like a ghost there. Unless expressly conversing, people keep to themselves and, despite me being 6′ 3″, bearded, and tattooed, nobody batted an eyelid. I was only ever stared at by schoolkids in Kamakura, nudging each other and whispering “Sugoi!”
If, like me, you’re generally a bit nervous taking photos of people on the street, you needn’t worry in Tokyo. You can be swinging a Mamiya RB67 around and nobody will even notice. I shot hundreds of photos of people and not once had anyone react badly. Compare that to the UK where I can barely lift a camera to my eye without someone looking at me like I just ate their grandma.
Just ask Tokyo Camera Style and he’ll tell you how many people are using film cameras in Japan right now. I myself saw a few; a Pentax 67 in Ueno Park, a guy with a Barnack Leica on the Yamanote Line, students with point-and-shoots in Harajuku… Not forgetting Tokyo Camera Style himself, John, with his Leica M6 and fellow Instagrammer David (@baisersvoles68) with a Rolleicord and Canon VI-T.
Film is available to buy everywhere. I had no problems finding film cameras and supplies in Tokyo, Osaka, or Kyoto. Fujifilm produces certain films only for the home market, which I wish I’d stocked up on to bring home, but I didn’t know they’d be so nice until I got back and developed them! We even found some Lomochrome Purple in several places. Unless you shoot very specific or fancy films, save on luggage space and buy it out there.
One of the most fun parts of shooting film on a long trip like this is not knowing what your shots will look like until you get home. I came back with 21 rolls of film and was still developing them a month after the trip, when a lot of the memories of what I’d shot had faded. It’s always enjoyable to relive a holiday through your negatives emerging from the developing tank.
I absolutely adored Japan. It was simultaneously overwhelming and serene. Even in the red light district of Kabukicho, the streets felt calm. Yes, it’s crowded, but compared to England the people are infinitely more respectful and even someone as socially anxious as me managed to avoid panicking in the crowds. I won’t go into loads of detail about each, as I’d be typing all week, but here’s how I felt about the places we visited…
Tokyo: Out of the three major cities we traveled to, Tokyo was by far my favorite. As I mentioned, walking through Tokyo is like being a ghost. You’re invisible unless actually engaging with someone. There’s no atmosphere of tension like you get in big cities in the UK, everything just works and everyone keeps to themselves. And I loved that. Tokyo was also my favorite for how contrasting different areas of it were. Despite it being one enormous metropolis, you can wander into another part of the city and feel like you’ve traveled to another town entirely. You can go from squeezing through crowds on a street in Harajuku to being totally isolated in Yoyogi park in a matter of a few dozen meters.
Osaka: Osaka was similar to Tokyo but felt much faster paced and a bit stressful for me. But the streets were particularly photogenic, and there was always something happening around each corner. It was also where we had some of the best food of the trip. Conveyor belt sushi for life.
Kyoto: Kyoto was beautiful if you could get away from the touristy areas. (Yes, I know I’m a tourist too.) The main draw is the temples, some of which seem to be trying a bit too hard to make the ancient buildings flashy and exciting with projection displays of wonky dragons and such, but for the most part a nighttime tour of Kyoto’s temples is a great way to spend an evening.
Nara: Nara deer park was about as tourist-laden as we had expected, despite arriving as early as we could. Our highlight of Nara was being given a hot steamed bun by an old lady in the train station. She needed to get some change for the luggage lockers and came back with buns as a thanks for looking after her bag and because, in her words, “Cold today”
Kamakura: The favorite place of both me and my wife was Kamakura. A seaside town an hour or so out of Tokyo. As we were visiting in Autumn, the beach was completely deserted save for fishermen and old ladies collecting shells. But as it turned out, we went there on a beautifully sunny day and even got a bit of a tan! It was the perfect place to shoot the Lomochrome Purple I bought in Kyoto.
Some General Tips for Visiting Japan
I could write about our trip all day, but the article has to end at some point, so here are some general tips that no doubt echo similar suggestions on articles elsewhere, but I can confirm they were all useful to a successful Japan holiday.
- Get a JR Pass to travel between cities, and a Suica card to use on the subways.
- Arrive to tourist spots as early as possible. We were generally leaving attractions as the crowds were arriving, and it worked out well for the most part.
- Get a pocket Wi-Fi so that you can…
- Use Google Maps. There’s really no excuse to not be able to find anything anywhere anymore now that you can carry around the collected wealth of knowledge of mankind in your pocket now, is there?
- Read Japan Camera Hunter’s camera shopping guide if you’re hunting for that special camera out in Japan.
- Take (or buy out there) some fast film for night shots. I took some CineStill 800T and bought some Fuji Venus 800 at Yodobashi. The streets in Tokyo are well lit at night so no need to worry about super long shutter speeds. Some of my favorite photos from Japan were shot at night, and every environment totally transforms when the sun goes down, so it’s worth revisiting places you saw in the day time.
- Travel light, especially if you’ve just had spine surgery (ho ho). If you’ll be walking as much as we did (15 miles on some days) then a Pentax 67 might be a poor choice.
- Don’t let the language barrier put you off going to local restaurants. Many of them use a ticket machine system so you don’t even have to ask for what you want, just hand the chef your ticket and take a seat.
- Spend your leftover Yen on capsule machines. We might have gone a bit mad in Nakano Broadway, but the place has a bit of a vibe of insanity anyway.
- Most importantly, if you go to CoCo Ichibanya, the spice level starts at zero. When they say 0-10, they mean 0 is “a bit spicy”. I got a 3, because the chef doubted my understanding of the situation, and my eyes melted out of my face. I can only imagine the sort of unhinged lunatic that would attempt a 10.
My Suggested Locations
After only one fortnight and three cities, I am in no way an authority on where to go, but here are a few of my favorite places that I can most definitely recommend a visit to:
- Yoyogi Park in Tokyo – Silent, serene, and spider-infested.
- Shinjuku, Tokyo – For me, the quintessential Tokyo experience.
- Minoo Park, Osaka – A great early morning walk, and I 100% recommend going to the insect museum for the butterfly house. A lovely moment of calm.
- Kamakura – A gorgeous seaside town with more interesting and much less touristy temples! Also loads of ginger cats.
- Nakano Broadway, Tokyo – Ancient comics and action figures, an entire floor of creepy dolls, this place is ridiculous and an essential visit.
- Epson teamLab Borderless/Planets – Two ‘digital art museums’ in Tokyo featuring incredible projections and light effects. We preferred the smaller, less expensive Planets venue, if not only for the rooms where you wade through water projected with Koi and flowers. Go early and on a weekday because the queues can reach biblical proportions.
I can’t wait to go back to Japan, ideally when I’m more able bodied. Our plan for the next visit is to go to the extreme North and South to experience the true breadth of contrasts Japan has to offer. To finish off, here are a few more of my favorite shots from the trip. Thanks for reading!
Leave your questions about traveling to Japan below in the comments!