Traditional Tokyo: a photographer's guide

by cameranew

According to the Japan National Tourism Organisation, Tokyo boasts seven of the country's 10 most popular sights - making the city a treasure trove for avid SLR enthusiasts and holiday snappers alike

For many Westerners, Japan is a place of beauty and interest. The capital, Tokyo, has myriad sights to see, and a wealth of photographic opportunities. So many, in fact, that it can sometimes be difficult to plan appropriately for a visit to the world's largest metropolitan area.

In preparation for a visit, it's important to research what you want to see. Whether it's the classic, traditional Tokyo, the thriving, modern metropolis, or perhaps the city's many festivals and celebrations, there will be something to interest both you and your camera.

City highlights

For those whose dream it is to see Edo, the Tokyo of the past, there are a good number of places to visit, though they may be hard to find at first. The amount of development the city has undergone is obvious to all, and if you head to the west of Tokyo (Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ikebukuro), you'll be hard-pressed to find any evidence of classic Nippon. Instead, stay on the east side of the city and head to Asakusa and Ginza.

In Asakusa, Tokyo's oldest - and probably busiest - temple can be found. The construction of Senso-ji was completed in 645, and the pagoda, statues and giant gates have been well maintained since then. If possible, come with a long range zoom lens - wide enough to be able to capture the whole of the Hozomon (the temple's main gate) but with enough reach to isolate the details of the buildings' architecture.

South of Asakusa on the Tokyo Metro is Ginza, an upscale, expensive shopping district. Although more modern than Asakusa, central Ginza still has a more traditional feel to it than western Tokyo. In Higashi Ginza - about five minutes' walk from Ginza station - the beautiful Kabukiza (Kabuki theatre) can be found. The whitewashed walls and dark shadows caused by the building's overhanging roofs present a great opportunity for high-contrast, black-and-white images.

Meals and mountains

Japanese food and dining has as many differences in style and tradition as Japanese architecture. To indulge in some early Shōwa-style dining - and get some great pictures while you're there - head to Yurakucho, a business district between Otemachi and Ginza. Next to the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) tracks near Yurakucho station are a large number of yakitoriya: these restaurants specialise in delicious grilled chicken skewers, but the real attraction of the area is the restaurants themselves. They don't seem to have changed for years: ramshackle tents cover businessmen sitting on rickety stools, eating yakitori from tables made of beer-bottle cases. The yakitoriya are lit by swaying, bright red paper lanterns, which give off only a soft, glowing light. The area is best seen at night, to capture the contrast of the red lanterns shining out in the darkness, so a tripod might be needed to get the right shot.

For another classic view of Japan, you might need to venture further afield. If time permits, a visit to Fujigoko (Fuji Five Lakes) would be well worthwhile, to get a shot of Mount Fuji. While it is sometimes possible to see the surprisingly elusive Fuji-san all the way from Tokyo, better shots of Japan's highest peak can be taken much nearer, from across Lake Kawaguchiko or Lake Saiko. A journey to this area takes about three hours each way from Tokyo, but in the right season it's a great day trip, which - weather permitting - presents beautiful views.

Wedding ceremony

Classical Japan isn't only architecture and mountains, however. When considering what makes Japanese history unique, clothing might spring to mind. For photographs of traditional apparel, luck is often an important factor. You might be able to spot the odd geisha or maiko around Asakusa, and ladies dressed in kimonos aren't uncommon in Ginza, but if you want to increase the chances of seeing traditional garments being worn in a customary setting, head to Meiji-jingu.

Located near Harajuku on the JR Yamanote line, Meiji-jingu is one if the most famous Shinto shrines in Tokyo, and is also a popular place for many Japanese to get married. A visit here on a fine-weathered weekday might provide the opportunity to shoot a kimono-clad wedding procession, led by shrine officials decked in ceremonial attire. Meiji-jingu is a popular tourist attraction, and is free to enter. Photography is allowed, and widely practised within the shrine grounds - just make sure not to impede the happy couple or their guests.

Meiji-jingu is very spacious and the area is well looked after, so it's a great backdrop to use when practising portrait photography. Take a fast prime lens, if you have one, and enjoy the chance of photographing such a unique event. A shot of a beautiful bride in her wedding kimono, isolated against the blurred background of Meij-jingu is an enduring image of classical Japan, and a great memory to be treasured.

The ideal base

Tokyo is a big city, and it can seem daunting upon arrival. However, with a good train map and centrally-located accommodation, it can actually be reasonably easy to navigate. Suidobashi, now home to the Tokyo Dome and the Tokyo Giants baseball team, used to be a favourite haunt of the Tokugawa Shogun's relatives during the Edo Period. In 1629, they began construction of a strolling garden - which still stands today. Koishikawa Kōrakuen is a beautiful landscaped garden, which can be enjoyed at many different times of the year, but especially in spring and autumn. The classic spring cherry blossoms cry out for a macro lens, and the changing leaves in late autumn present a beautiful red-and-gold background for souvenir snapshots.

About 10 minutes from the park is Homeikan, a large ryokan (traditional inn). This ryokan is located within walking distance of three different train lines, and offers reasonably priced accommodation, from ¥3780 to ¥7350 per person, per night. The interior is beautifully decked in wood; it looks and feels like an authentic Japanese inn. Its location, combined with its decor and atmosphere, makes it an ideal base for exploring the city with your camera.