Tokyo On 1,000 Frames A Day ...And That's Just for Starters

Editor-in-Chief John Owens shares the sights and shooting secrets of Tokyo, Japan.



An invitation from Nikon to get a hands-on introduction to the new D3 and D300 DSLRs brought me and other journalists to Tokyo in late August.

Our time with the cameras and the engineers behind them was significant. These are, after all, complex and boundary-pushing products. And you can read about them in our comprehensive reports linked here.

While the new Nikons drew me to Tokyo, the city itself is one heck of a magnet. Yes, summer's heat and humidity can oppressive, but for a photographer, Tokyo presents so much to shoot -- and such a camera-loving culture -- that it's irresistible.

If you've been here, you know what I mean. And if you haven't, here are a few thoughts on what you can expect and what you might try when you visit Tokyo with photography on your mind:

Don't Worry. If there is one place in the world where you can walk the streets with a camera and not fear rip-off or outright robbery, Tokyo is it. While I'm sure someone at some time has had a camera stolen, in my numerous visits here, I haven't heard of it. I've never felt threatened, or even concerned. It's all a far cry from the tourists I see daily in Manhattan closely clutching, hiding, and even disguising their cameras (black tape over the brand name).

Get Religion. There are hundreds of wonderful places to make your first stop (Tokyo Disney Resort aside). I suggest the Asakusa Temple. Here, Buddhism isn't all solemn, and it's totally photogenic. The street leading up to this mammoth temple is lined with tiny shops selling souvenirs, gee-gaws, and fresh-baked sweets. Even if you're not in the market for a junior ninja outfit or a saki serving set, you can't pass up the photos. Tight shots of the colorful wares are a natural. So are portraits of the vendors. (Buy something and you'll get a pose and a smile.) To the left, a five-story pagoda towers over the scene. Ahead, just short of the temple steps, the faithful post their prayers on wire racks, wrapping the paper notes in delicate knots. There's also a giant bronze urn that smokes with the bundles of incense worshippers place inside. Virtually everyone who passes the urn waves the scented smoke their way in a good-luck gesture. Fountains, a Shinto shrine, and dozens of statues share the grounds with the temple. And everywhere, people are taking photos -- family portraits, children's snapshots, tourists, pros -- and none seem camera-shy.

Hit the Stores. Don't try to photograph inside any of Tokyo's big department stores or other major retail establishments, or you'll find out like I have on many occasions that it's not permitted. (If, on the other hand, you like meeting retail-security personnel, fire away.) Instead, think small. Some of the best and most colorful displays are not in the big stores, but outside the small ones. Merchants arrange everything from umbrellas to toothpaste in wildly eye-catching displays. And restaurants? Not only do they have the famous fake sushi, but there also are scale models of absolutely anything ingestible. Bowls of noodles, plates of fish, whipped-cream-topped desserts are often sitting on sidewalk tables looking totally life-like, but being totally fake. A great chance to practice your culinary shooting skills.

See What's New. There is nothing like a great camera store. And there is nothing like Yodobashi Camera. A chain with branches around Japan, Yodobashi's mothership is a huge, two-year-old multi-story extravaganza of everything photographic. Amid flashing lights, bright signs, and constant blaring of the company theme song, you'll see hundreds of point and shoots, zillions of camera phones, and a touch/feel/play-with display of every DSLR known to man. Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Olympus, Panasonic, Sigma? Sure. And every one is available for tactile customer experiences (albeit with a security cable attached). There is a forest of tripods. An explosion of camera bags. Even a display of large-format field cameras (shades of Ansel Adams-san). This is also a great place for wacky and useful accessories. I first saw the now-popular Bottle Pod -- the tiny tripod replacement that screws onto the top of a water bottle -- in the dizzying aisles of Yodobashi. The store is easy to find -- it's across the street from the west exit of Shinjuku railroad station.

See What's Old. Walk around the Ginza, Tokyo's glamorous shopping area, and you will not be surprised by the fact that Japan accounts for 40% of the world's luxury-goods market. The names Dior, Prada, Bulgari, Chanel seem to be everywhere. But look carefully, and you also will see stores selling classic film-burning cameras. On the side streets and second floors there are shops literally packed with 35mm Leicas, Canons, and Nikons. These old-timers also are considered luxury goods to the Japanese. So don't expect any steals. Nor much in the way of fixer-uppers. Most of the classic cameras you will see are in wonderful shape. The word "perfect" comes to mind. In fact, many of the old Japanese cameras have been imported from the U.S.

Other offbeat, but rewarding photo subjects:Taxi lights. These domes on the roofs of cabs come in an array of colors and often have clever logos.• Newsstands. Those on railroad platforms don't stop with just magazines and newspapers. The average Tokyo railroad-station kiosk is a department store in not much more space than a phone booth. Food, drink, medicine, neckties... whatever you need or don't need is crammed together in a shot-worthy display.• Wanted posters. Crime is low. So this must make the wanted all the more wanted. You'll find these colorful posters around train stations.• Godzilla & Co. Look carefully, the Big Guy still roams the city. Though these days he mostly is in the form of a bronze statue or a child's action figure. Still, finding this movie star around Tokyo is a fun photographic scavenger hunt.• Toilets. Like so much else in Japan, the bowls are high-tech -- with buttons, switches, squirting water, jetted water, spraying water, and other things that only the most intrepid dare find out. If nothing else, take a photo of the warning labels with their "Don't-do-this" illustrations; they'll fascinate the folks back home.

See Even More of What's Old. Can't get your fill of classic cameras? Head to the JCII Camera Museum. Remember that gold oval emblem that used to appear on Japanese cameras and lenses? The one that said "PASSED." That was the reason d'etre of the Japanese Camera and optical instrument Inspection testing Institute (JCII). Started in 1954 to help dispel the reputation of Japanese camera gear as cheaply made junk, JCII promoted quality and was a major force in turning Japan's reputation 180 degrees. By 1990, the inspection function was unnecessary. But JCII has kept its history -- and the history of the whole Japanese camera industry -- alive in a 3,500-square-foot museum that is truly a delight. I defy any photographer to walk through it and not involuntarily cry out "I had one of those!" And no matter what camera you once had, chances are it is on display with some vital details here at the museum. It's located in the JCII Building, JCII Ichiban-cho Building, 25, Ichiban-cho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo. Call 81-3-3263-7100 for hours and details.

Get Up Early. The Tsukiji Fish Market is a case of sensory and photographic overload that starts at 5 a.m. This sprawling complex of sheds and warehouses handles virtually of the fish that is consumed in Tokyo. And considering the Japanese love seafood, that's an enormous amount of giant tuna, glistening mackerel, whip-like eels, and scallops the size of small dogs. A chaotic scene of handcarts and powered wagons that fly like bumper cars through the maze of alleys, visitors and photographers are pretty much ignored. The authorities have tried to keep tourists to one area of the tuna auction, but it is easy to roam and shoot freely as the fish is inspected, bought, and butchered. Expect to have shoot at a high ISO. A tripod? Don't even think about it. A monopod, perhaps. And plan on your shoes getting a permanent fishy aroma.

Think Different. Things you wouldn't consider shooting at home are wonderful subjects in Japan. One reason is that if you don't read Japanese, the writing is merely a gloriously ornate design element. Another is that the Japanese are great at making mundane objects colorful and eye-catching. Consider the lowly vending machine. In Japan, you don't simply choose Coke or Sprite. A typical vending machine offers various sodas, coffees, teas, and inscrutables such as the ever-popular Pocari Sweat. And not only are there numerous beverages, but there's a choice of temperatures, too. Those highlighted in blue are cold; those in red, hot. To make it all clear to the thirsty consumer, the machine is well it in vibrant, photo-friendly colors.