Our intrepid explorer Shuo Huang runs through his latest trip to Tokyo and Kyoto, providing a full run-down of the best locations to shoot…
Japan was a trip that I had put off for too long. I’ve never been particularly fond of shooting in developed countries, especially ones as developed as Japan, because of the inevitable hordes of tourists. However, I couldn’t ignore the allure that Kyoto has for me, given that it has one of the world’s largest collections of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. I admit though, I am a selfish traveller and photographer because I always want a place to myself. I yearn for that feeling that I have discovered something for myself, and that’s the moment I want to capture.
Given my time constraints (as ever), I only had time to shoot in Tokyo and Kyoto this time around, which was a squeeze. I decided I would focus most of my efforts on the storehouse of Japan’s culture, Kyoto, with only a brief stop in Tokyo at the start of my trip.
Even though I don’t have much interest in photographing cityscapes, when I was in Tokyo I did have a lot of fun capturing the big bright lights at the famous Shibuya crossing. My aim was to make the busiest pedestrian crossing into the loneliest place in the world.
I spent about an hour watching people crossing the road… this was about interesting as it sounds, until I decided to take a selfie! Being a bold shooter, and an owner of comprehensive camera cover, I set my tripod on the edge of the kerb and used my remote to trigger the camera in the midst of the biggest scramble in the world! Between pretending to be a statue and hoping that no one ran off with my camera, I had pulled a vanishing trick out of the bag!
Prior to my arrival in Kyoto from Tokyo, I had two and half hours on the Shinkansen (bullet train) to formulate my shoot plan. After a bit of research through my guidebooks, and some internal debate, I narrowed it down to what I thought would be the five “must see” sites of Kyoto. My only other problem at this point was a factor beyond my control… the weather. It was forecasted to rain on three out of the four days I would be spending in Kyoto. Having shot on Easter Island, however I knew that island weather is changeable and very difficult to predict, so I hoped that this theory would hold true for Japan (which is essentially a big island!).
At this point, it was vital to consider what sort of light I preferred for each location. Some of the locations on my shoot list could be shot on a dull cloudy day, but other shots I had visualised had to be taken in glorious sunshine. Japan’s weather (like England’s) is temperamental, but you have to work with the information available.
Here are the locations I ended up shooting, and the preparation I undertook for each one.
Fushimi Inari Shrine
Although I was content with the night-time shots of the shrine, I really wanted to see the results during the day, so I returned at around 7am on a different day hoping to beat the rush again. Even at that time, it was already getting busy but I managed to quickly set up in position (a place I had chosen during my night-time reconnaissance!) and wait for the crowds to clear for a few seconds in order to take the shot.
During the four days I was in Kyoto, I visited the Fushimi Inari Shrine a total of three times, at different times of the day. The third time was to take my wife and baby there for a stroll – this was after lunch, and sure enough, it was reminiscent of walking through Bank Underground station during rush hour! Avoid at all costs.
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove shoot
The Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is a trail through seemingly infinite bamboo stalks. Once again, the location being not only photogenic but also free means hordes of tourists! There is no way you can experience the majestic standing giants when you have to dodge another selfie stick!
I got to the Bamboo Grove just when the sun broke. My mind wasn’t on the lack of light but the lack of tourists, and at that time it was perfect (except for the hungry mosquitos!). As a travel photographer, I cannot stress enough the importance of planning in advance to get THE shot. Do take advantage of local knowledge, from the hotel concierge as well as the internet, for up-to-date information on logistics. It’s not just about getting up when it’s dark; you need to check the opening times and the train/subway times just to ensure all your efforts are not in vain.
I found a useful blog that directed me to the Bamboo Grove via a shortcut that bypasses the regular tourist route, which makes a detour at a temple. I had the Bamboo Grove all to myself for roughly 45 minutes until a couple of early morning joggers ran through. It was like being transported onto the set of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon!
The brightness of the sun wasn’t a factor here as I was shooting in about 90% shade, but a tripod was essential. The result was reminiscent of a shot I took in the Dark Hedges in Northern Ireland – for those of you who haven’t been, the Dark Hedges is a tunnel-like avenue of intertwined beech trees. Given the extreme contrast between the highlights and shadows, it was necessary to capture a few exposures and create a composite in post-production to bring out the detail in the shadows.
Golden Temple Shoot
The shots I had visualised for Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Pavilion) necessitated a sunny day. Relying on several different weather forecast websites, I decided to earmark my last day in Kyoto for this shoot. Given that this is the most famous landmark in the whole of Japan, I was itching to go as soon as I stepped off the bullet train from Tokyo, and waiting for the end of the final day in Kyoto was excruciating, not to mention risky in the changeable conditions. Luckily for me the weather drastically improved on the final day, just as forecast! My wife remarked that we were so lucky to visit the Golden Pavilion on a sunny day. Little did she know the elaborate planning that went into it!
I purposely arrived an hour before the Pavilion closed for two reasons: firstly, the sun would have descended to a position tat would create a warmer glow than the harsh bright light of midday, and secondly (and perhaps most importantly) I wanted to be the last person to be ushered out at closing time.
Seeing the Golden Pavilion for the first time took me by surprise. It really is breath-taking. On second thought, scrap that – “breath-taking” is such a cliché, and I don’t think words will ever do it justice. Neither will my photo. On a personal level, I’ve not had the same reaction since I laid my eyes on the Taj Mahal (my favourite world wonder). Being at the front row of the Golden Pavilion on our own would be the closest I got to feeling like a dignitary with VIP access!
Just a word of caution: as with some major attractions I’ve visited, the security guards will request that you refrain from using a tripod. I managed some sneaky shots on my Gitzo before being asked to desist.
Above is my favourite shot of Kinkaku-ji. I took advantage of the golden hour to achieve the rich, gold hue I was after.
Gion is Kyoto’s famous Geisha district, but unfortunately it’s lost some of its traditional charm. I couldn’t help feeling that the district has become a bit “Disneyland”, with tourists walking around dressed up in kimonos along the commercialised streets. I found the walking tour in my Lonely Planet guide to be a great help in venturing off the beaten path, and I sauntered along picturesque cobbled streets and authentic alleyways with not a tourist in sight. My tip would be to always take the smaller streets to get from A to B whenever possible.
Gion at night is a much more rewarding experience. An evening stroll uncovers the real magic and preserved culture of Gion. The side streets are completely empty, and at times you feel like you’ve just stepped out of a time machine into feudal Japan.
During this shoot I learnt a very important lesson in logistics! I took the subway train to Gion in order to scout for a location for the night-time shoot. I had decided to pack light, so had just a small camera bag, with my tripod in my hand. To pass the time on the train, I started flicking through some shots that I took earlier in the day. Suddenly I looked up and realised that it was time to get off, so without hesitation I jumped off.
I made it as far as the exit to the subway, and had just begun planning in my mind how I should position my tripod in Gion, and then… my heart stopped. Both my hands were empty! I had left a £1k tripod on the seat next to me!
I darted back into the station like a maniac, all the while cursing my stupidity, palms sweaty, thinking surely the tripod was irretrievable. I caught sight of a station office and went over for help. This was my last resort, because of course the station staff did not speak a word of English and the Japanese word for tripod was definitely not in my “Japanese for Beginners” app!
To the amusement of the station staff, I proceeded to attempt to act out the concept of a tripod. I couldn’t understand why they would take my calamitous situation so lightly, until I realised it looked like I was performing some sort of lewd act on three men!
My dilemma became apparent when I resourcefully used by camera as a prop. “Why didn’t I do that earlier?!” I asked myself. Fortunately, I remembered which carriage I had been sitting on and the staff called a station in advance to retrieve the Gitzo. Had I been in any other city I would not have been so lucky. Suffice to say, I will always travel with one bag for all my equipment from here on out. Lesson learnt!
And just to show that sometimes it doesn’t all go to plan….
I tried to employ the same tactic by arriving late as I did with Kinkaku-ji. However, upon arrival I realised that a portion of the temple was being refurbished, making it a bit of an eyesore. You win some, you lose some!
Canon EOS 6D
Canon EF 24mm f1.4L II USM Lens
Gitzo GT1542T tripod
About the Author
Shuo Huang is a freelance travel and landscape photographer whose diverse portfolio spans more than fifty-four countries. Find him at his personal website shuophotography.com.