Exactly one month ago, just days after the Christmas holiday, I boarded a 14 hour flight from Houston to Tokyo, Japan. I have been extremely fortunate to have seen, traveled and photographed many far off destinations during my life, and year after year Tokyo, and Japan in general, have shown up on my “travel” bucket list. It was this year that I got to finally cross it off.
Many of you may not know and even after a face to face encounter, may not realize it, but I am of partial Japanese decent. One of my grandmothers is 100% Japanese and many members of my family including my mother either speak Japanese, live there currently or have lived there at some point in their life. Not only has Japan been on the “I NEED to go there” list for so long given how amazing it is to visit and photograph, but also due to the fact that it is my motherland.
I know several photographers that travel extremely light; one body, one lens, and nothing else. Other photographers take everything but the kitchen sink. I’m somewhere in the middle. I like to pack rather light, but I do enjoy a variety of cameras and like to be prepared. ALWAYS BE PREPARED! For this trip I was armed with a Hasselblad 501c/m medium format film camera, my usual 5D mark II travel outfit and my trusty iPhone 4s. Most of my images were personal pictures and casual snapshots. There were no premeditated themes or stories, just a random sampling of images from the nearly three-week adventure.
Since each camera has its advantages and disadvantages I do find myself juggling cameras on occasion, but for the most part I am pretty skilled at keeping a low profile, being discreet and swapping out cameras and lenses in busy places without being noticed. I’m more accustomed to travel destinations where it’s a necessity to keep expensive gear concealed, and while blending in and not being noticed is really second nature, it was rather unnecessary as everywhere I traveled around Japan I felt 100% safe, not to mention the fact that nearly everyone in Japan, tourists and locals alike, wore expensive DSLR’s around their shoulders like purses or backpacks. In some instances not having a large camera on your person would have made you stand out more than having one.
Everywhere I explored, from the crazy streets of Ginza, Shibuya, and Harijuku to the quiet and peaceful temples in Nara and Kyoto, I was completely amazed and blown away by everything around me. The history, the culture, the food and the landscapes were awe-inspiring. I tried my best to take it all in, and do it justice with my quick frames. It would take me months or years to truly take in everything the small island nation has to offer, however after my three week excursion I really felt like I had taken a lot in. My advice to anyone with the notion of traveling to Japan is to go for at least 2 weeks. There is so much to see and experience that a week or less would be an injustice.
In lieu of a long-winded, day-by-day travel account of my journey, here is a bulleted, non-chronological list of some of the things I did while I was there:
- Walked through the largest wooden building in the world, the Todai-ji temple in Nara. Dates back to the 700’s
- Fed the famous “bowing” Sika deer of Nara…with my mouth. They are regarded as messengers of the gods and roam freely
- Watched my hometown Houston Texans win their first ever playoff game, live, from Japan, at 6am
- Tried and failed to work numerous toilets and other bathroom related contraptions
- Watched This Is Spinal Tap (and about 30 other movies) on an airplane
- Got lost in the world’s busiest (and most confusing) train station, Shinjuku Station, Tokyo. 3.64 million people per day travel through the station. It is a madhouse
- Successfully navigated my way across the crazy intersections of Shibuya.
- Saw more plates of wax food than I can count
- Visited some distant relatives and experienced a complete language barrier
- Drove the winding roads in the snow-peaked mountains near the Mitake Valley and Ome, Japan, near the Tachikawa airfield where my grandfather was stationed during the war. (Also the site of my favorite photo ever)
- Had some of THE BEST bowls of Ramen at a roadside, hole-in-the-wall restaurant in the mountains
- Experienced the amazingness of Ghana Chocolate ice cream at a Japanese truck stop
- Saw the sun rise over Mount Fuji in a Shinkansen bullet train going almost 200mph
- Zig-zagged through a seemingly never-ending forest of bamboo
- Saw a palace made of gold. (the Kinkaku-ji temple in Kyoto)
- Slept in a traditional Japanese tatami room, complete with paper walls
- Felt extremely awkward while coughing when 90% of everyone wore masks
- Mastered the subway and railway systems
- Visited what HAD to be the largest camera store in the world (the Yodobashi electronics complex in Shinjuku)
- Experienced the splendor of heated floors and heated toilet seats
- Watched some of THE nuttiest Japanese television programs and saw a music video, shot in Houston, that I was present for, air on Japanese TV
- Had some of the best Japanese cuisine ever (home-cooked, in restaurants, and a couple of amazing street food fairs)
- Went to Garlic Jo’s and Shakey’s Pizza (I’m officially jealous of you, West Coast)
- Went to McDonald’s on yet another continent
- Experienced an earthquake
By the time I was on my return flight back to the States, I was definitely craving my precious Tex-Mex, and some BBQ and while it was good to be home, I can’t wait to go back. If the cost of living wasn’t so high I would consider re-locating in a heartbeat.