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The photo.net guide to Japan

by Philip Greenspun, 2000


Edo stroll garden at New Otani Hotel. Tokyo Imagine a country where everyone is good at his or her job. Imagine a country where everyone has respect for elders and teachers. Imagine a country where every shop clerk treats each customer like an honored guest. Imagine a country where everyone wears expensive clothing, the food is slurpy, and there aren't any napkins because apparently nobody needs them. Imagine a country where everyone has good taste.

You've imagined Japan.

One thing that is tough for an American to understand is how Tokyo-centric Japan is. In the U.S., if you are ambitious for money you move to New York. If you are ambitious for power you move to Washington, DC. Those who want to get into show business move to Los Angeles. Techies move to Silicon Valley. People who love knowledge and learning move to Boston. In Japan, each of these types of people would move to Tokyo. And they have! Tokyo is corporate headquarters. Tokyo has the best universities. Tokyo is the seat of Japan's powerful central government. The good thing about Tokyo-centricity is that a Japanese family can stay together even if the members develop divergent interests. The bad thing is that real estate prices are insane, commuting means 75 minutes standing on a packed train, and one is constantly part of a crowd. As a tourist, it is a marvel to see how well Tokyo functions despite the crowds. In planning your trip remember that you can escape those crowds merely by leaving Tokyo.

General Tips

Edo stroll garden at New Otani Hotel. Tokyo The best months to visit Japan are spring and fall. The climate in Tokyo is similar to that of New York City. You can control the climate to some extent by traveling up into the mountains, north to Hokkaido, or south to subtropical Okinawa. If possible, I recommend starting your trip in a part of Japan that is smaller and slower-paced than Tokyo. Nara and Kyoto are reasonable choices, served by the Kansai international airport.

With its mountains, oceans, and spectacular urbanscapes, Japan is too varied to make any general film recommendations. Check the photo.net film page for our latest thinking.

The Japanese are incredibly friendly to photographers. Some museums and temples restrict the use of tripods but otherwise this is a place where you can snap away in comfort. Street photography is easy despite the language barrier; the Japanese are especially tolerant of foreigners.

It is easy to buy a camera or film in Japan but don't expect bargains on most items. Generic 35mm gear is about the same price as in New York. Certain kinds of medium-format cameras, such as Mamiya, can be substantially cheaper in Japan.


Koi. New Otani Hotel. Tokyo If you're from most Western countries, you don't need a visa to enter Japan for 90 days.

You will most likely be flying into either Narita Airport (near Tokyo) or Kansai (near Osaka and the airport of choice for visiting Kyoto and Nara). If you've traveled light, you can take a train from Narita into Tokyo. If you've got a lot of luggage and are staying at a big hotel, take the special airport bus (90 minutes). If you come into Kansai and are going to Kyoto, the train is the only reasonable option.

Considering that English is a required subject in Japanese government schools, it is remarkable how few Japanese speak English. Remember also that you won't be able to read most signs or product packaging. Prepare to be disoriented and confused.

Tsukiji Fish Market. Tokyo You'll have to try very hard to get food poisoning in Japan. The guidebooks caution only against raw bear meat and raw wild boar due to risk of trichinosis.

Electric power is 100V (US voltage is about 117) and plugs are American-style two-prong affairs. Curiously, the line frequency is 50 Hz in Tokyo and eastern Japan, 60 Hz in the west. Most laptop and digital camera power supplies will work fine in Japan.

The time in Japan is 9 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (London), which makes it 14 hours ahead of New York. Thus if it is 9:00 am in New York, it is already 11:00 pm in Japan. Japan does not observe Daylight Savings Time, so the time difference from New York will be 13 hours in the summer.

The currency in Japan is the Yen. You get about 100 of these to the dollar (check Yahoo! Finance for the latest rates). Bring lots of US dollars in cash or travelers checks into Japan and also try to use the ATMs in the airport or the post office. The average bank ATM will not work with an American bank or credit card! Remember that, at least as of September 2000, Japan remains a cash-oriented society. Six of us ate a $1000 sushi meal. We had to pay in cash. We visited a rare book and print shop. They had some lovely drawings of koi for $2000. Cash only.

Japan is about as safe and crime-free as a country with 125 million people can be. My friend Curt left his Nikon FM2 on a subway train. He complained about the loss to a Japanese friend who asked "Why didn't you go to the lost and found and get it back?" It did not occur to the Japanese that the camera would have been misappropriated; it did not occur to the American that the $500 camera would be returned. Curt went to the lost and found. The Nikon was there.

Bring your familiar over-the-counter medicines with you. The Japanese do not have a strong tradition of self-care. If you're sick, you go to the doctor and take whatever is prescribed without asking what it is. Pharmacists are helpful but some of your favorite drugs may not exist, e.g., Sudafed, unless you go to the American Pharmacy (Tokyo: (03) 3271-4034).

Getting Around

Traveling by train is very practical. Check the travel planner at www.businessinsightjapan.com for schedules and fares.


Guidebooks and Real Books

Per page, the most useful guidebook to Japan is the Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Guide . There is a photograph of nearly every sight so you can decide whether or not it is worth the trip photographically. If you have a $20/day budget and want to know which bus to take and at which hostel to park your backpack, get the Lonely Planet Guide to Japan . You can gain useful added perspective from Tokyo, Kyoto and Ancient Nara (Richard Lloyd Parry 1999).

If you'll be staying more than a week, pick up Little Adventures in Tokyo : 39 Thrills for the Urban Explorer (Rick Kennedy). You also want "Bilingual Map of Tokyo, Yokohama, Tsukuba" by Makuhari Messe. These will be available from larger bookstores, e.g., Kinokuniya (main store is in Shinjuku) and Book First.

For real books, try The Sailor Who Fell from Grace With the Sea (Yukio Mishima) and Snow Country (Yasunari Kawabata). John Dower won the Pulitzer Prize for Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II . If you want to go back a few years earlier, read Dower's War Without Mercy .

As far as cinema goes, the greatest works are those of Akira Kurosawa, including Seven Samurai and Ran . Also see Woman in the Dunes , Tampopo for fun, and maybe some Japanese animation from the local video shop. The 1967 James Bond film You Only Live Twice was filmed in Japan.


Readers' Comments

Add a comment

Philip Greenspun , November 16, 2000; 02:44 A.M.

Thank you for the correction, David. But you might note that I said "a COUNTRY with 125 million people". The extended CITY of Tokyo has about 30 million.

Dave Mueller , November 17, 2000; 07:51 P.M.

For a large city, Tokyo is amazingly friendly and safe. During the day, it's around 20M people, at night, around 12M. That 8 million difference travelss at rush hour on the subway. The subway system is easy once you go to the information booth and get a map in English. There are also several websites with maps and explainations.

Most convenience stores have more film selections than a Ritz Photo (not suprisingly, it's a Fuji market, but you can still buy Kodachrome 25 in a drug store).

For street photography at night, take a 50mm/1.8 or 1.4 lens and use 400 speed film. Most of my shots at night in Tokyo were around 1/15 to 1/30 second, and came out pretty good for hand-held. You can pick up short rolls (12 or 24 exp.) and finish a roll in one evening. That way you can switch back to slower film for the day.

Masatoshi Yamamoto , November 25, 2000; 10:49 P.M.

I would also suggest that visitors can see the Japanese photo magazines, some of which are very good. They have much about camera gear, of course, but some of them also publish a lot of pictures, often series or portfolios from one photographer. Especially in America, I wondered why camera magazines have so few pictures, except of cameras. Any large book store in Japan should have many to see. Even the advertising and pornography can be very creative. I think many professional Japanese photographers are not afraid to break "rules."

I think one should be very careful in photographing people on the street. Japanese people do not like to have pictures taken without permission any more than other people. And if you see someone you think looks interesting, they may be a member of criminal gang, biker gang, or far right wing fascist group. I speak from experience, as I have been attacked an had my camera taken by such people on the street.

Finally, while I can respect Mr. Greenspun's impressions of Japan as stated above, it seems to be almost racist in showing Japanese as typical Asians, always polite, always hard working, always with good taste. The real Japan that I know has polite and rude people, competent and incompetent, tasteful and tasteless. Try watching noontime or evening variety shows on Japanese TV, and you can see things that remind me of the Howard Stern shows I saw in America, with very poor taste. A recent nuclear accident shows that many people are not good at their jobs (not only one, but many people in that case made mistakes). Our media is filled with stories of the collapse of classroom order in our schools. Respect for teachers is at an all time low. Old people are beaten to death by gangs of roaming youths. Elementary school children extort money from classmates, and the victims often kill themselves. We Japanese are much like any other people, with good and bad points. Please try to see all sides of this country.

John takaki , December 10, 2000; 02:48 A.M.

I wouldn't go as far as to say Greenspun's comments were racist, but probably naive. But then again, he was only a tourist, and one with probably a shit load of money acting as a filter. You've got to have lived there, in order to really appreciate the place or dislike its many facets.

But as far as good taste is concerned, I laughed when I read that. I don't doubt that the Japanese have nurtured an esthetic sense that some Westerners envy. But caligraphy, No theatre, Kabuki, Tea ceremony, Japanese Pottery, Kimono, Japanese gardens, all these are things of the past and don't mean much to youngsters. Only the elite will try to cultivate tradional tastes.

The typical teenager spends 4 hours watching TV, reading porn cartoons at 7/11 or Lawson, checking his Imode email. Girls don't fare much better, using their cell phone to set up an Enjokosai date, or put it otherwise, prostituing themselves to buy the latest Prada bag. One has to read the Pink Samurai to get an idea, but things have degraded further since the book was written.

I'm not saying tradition is lost. In fact, the Japanese still follow them blindly. Take for example, Kohai/Sempai: Someone who's your elder is your Senpai, and you must respect him. That implies no arguing or even explaining something he may not know. That would hurt his ego. Oh, and even worse, if a girl happen to know something a man doesn't, she better shut up!! You get the picture. It's still a feudal society.

In a way Japan is like the matrix. People are a bit more human and natural than in Singapore, but have completely lost touch with reality and nature. I could probably write a book about Japan, but I won't say more. Still it's a country I'm able to appreciate somehow.

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Stephen Ward , March 01, 2001; 06:13 P.M.

"Japan...a country where everyone is good at his or her job?!... a country where everyone has good taste?!" Sounds more like an intro gracing the pages of a tour sales booklet for elderly Florida residents on a 4 day "highlights" trip than any attempt at an appropriate or accurate description. Maybe it was written on said tour. This is not the country I lived in. But do go - its excellent.

David Hill , March 02, 2001; 08:05 A.M.

Having lived for two years in Japan, I agree that it is a wonderful country to photograph. However, as alluded to previously, the comment about the ease of photographing people needs to be taken in a cultural context. Japanese will go to great lengths to make other people feel comfortable - they may not indicate that they don't want their photograph taken, but they may resent it all the same. The important thing is to ask before taking the photograph - by doing this, you may avoid giving Japanese even more evidence that non-Japanese are rude and obnoxious.

Japan can be an enjoyable and satisfying place to visit - an understanding of the culture and consideration of others is the key which can lead to some unforgettable photo opportunities.

Gavin . , May 09, 2001; 08:51 P.M.

I'm constantly amazed by how people come to Japan and go away with the same impressions every single time, but this is after all a review for tourists rather than an attempt at understanding the country. I really do wish that a prerequisite to travel writing was to live in at least a couple of countries for three or four years each, because this wander in, snap a few photographs, then wander out again approach is incredibly shallow and ultimately pointless. Wouldn't it be easier if the Japan National Tourist Authority just built 'Japan Land' outside a major US airport, say Chicago, then people could just fly there, have their stereotypes reinforced, take the standard 'Shibuya at Rush Hour', 'Kinkakuji' or 'Fish Market' photos, then leave?

Tokyo Crow , August 05, 2001; 10:44 A.M.

Just a few quick comments to round up Phil's visitor perspective piece on Japan:

- Generally I find people in Japan to be less willing to have their photos taken without asking. Although they do tolerate it while in the "tourist" locales (the areas Phil is recommending) there is a general dislike for being photographed by strangers. Also be cool around the "night spots" (e.g. Kabukicho, Roppongi, parts of Ginza) as people prefer a bit of discretion there (including myself !!)

- If you come in the summer be cautious about humidity. Fungus is among us here. On the upside you can have your lens cleaned by the manufacturer here in most cases for less than about $100 USD.

- Night scenery & trains = Fuji Superia 400/800. This is assuming you will be developing in Japan.

- Lighting in most subway/train cars is "Cool White Flourescent". Filters = "FL-W" in a Hoya or Cokin and "FL-D" in a Kenko (Japanese).

George Plummer , December 14, 2001; 02:28 P.M.

On any short visit to the Tokyo area try to make time to visit Kamakura. This is the ancient capital of Japan and provides a wealth of photographic images at a fraction of the price of a visit to Kyoto.

I suggest train south from Tokyo (Tokyo station or Shinagawa) to Kita-Kamakura, walk to Kamakura (past the temples), take the bus to the the "big Buddha", walk to Hasse station (past more temples) and then take the train to Enoshima. Visit the island and finally take the mono-rail to Ofuna and then train back to Tokyo. It is a long and tiring day but offers photographic Japan in a nutshell.

C Garner , December 24, 2001; 11:50 P.M.

Above is a photo of a bridge in the Aomori prefecture.

Phil, like many other tourists, comments on how Tokyo-centric Japan is. Half of the Japanese population goes to Tokyo for business and the arts. However many forget about the other half.

I lived in Japan for over three years and I find it sad that people refer to Tokyo as Japan. It would be the same as visiting New York City and think you have seen all the United States has to offer. Both New York City and Tokyo are great cities, however they are only a small slice of what the countries represent.

If you travel north of Tokyo go far north to Aomori. Aomori prefecture is situated on the northernmost tip of the Japanese mainland facing Hokkaido. The mountain range is fantastic place to take photos. Mt. Iwate, Hachimantai, and Appi Plateaus that stretches from Hachimantai which all together make up Ou Mountains that runs along the border of Iwate and Akita prefectures, and you can enjoy various outdoor sports such as skiing, hiking as well as onsens (hot springs).

As an avid world traveler I recommend you get out of the cliché tourist spot and venture into the heartland of the country your visiting and experience where the locals go on vacation.

Anthony Hall , February 21, 2002; 09:22 A.M.

I agree with Yamamoto-san, Takaki-san and others. Japan is not the country Mr Greenspun talks about. Or rather, it is but it's not. Does that make sense? Probably not! And that's how Japan is for most foreigners - a contradiction. I've lived in Kobe (western Honshu) for nearly three years. In that time I've met people who are good at their jobs and work themselves to death (literally sometimes!!). However, I've also met people who are arrogant, very poor at their jobs (not to mention social skills!) and very, very ignorant. At the same time, the last 2 and half years have been a blast! Japan is an excellent place to photograph. There are the classic shots of Fuji-zan, Todaiji and the Daibutsu (Great Buddha), Kyoto's temples, Akashi Bridge and people filled streets. But there are some truly strange images - an old temple/cemetary complex between a 25-30 floor apartment building and a three level driving range, parks with the usual play equippment and not blade of grass to be seen, one of the last original (ie/ not damaged in the bombing raids) Tokugawa Shogunate era castles surrounded by driving ranges, mobile phone towers and TV repeater stations. If you've got the money (cos it ain't cheap) check it out for yourself. If you come at the right time (ie/ sale season - at the end of each season) you can pick up some pretty good bargains. This goes for electrical stuff (CD/MD/DVD players etc. etc.) as well photography gear. Make no mistake, the Japanese are the best equipped amateur photographers in the world!!

Cheers TONE

PS: If had my sh-- together I would've included some of my photographs. Nevermind, maybe later.

Sean Hardie , February 24, 2002; 07:43 P.M.

If you really want to take pictures of people in Japan, you could do a lot worse than asking them to take a picture of you first, and then asking them if it's OK. This usually breaks the ice, and I have got plenty of good shots as a result. Most Japanese don't like non-posed photos, because many feel it's an invasion of their privacy. AMusingly, many of them will take any chance they get to grab a picture of a foreigner, especially in more rural areas. You can always trade! RE: the comments about stereotyping by tourists. I can't imagine anyone taking what a tourist thinks seriously. Does anyone really think you can gain indepth knowledge of a country by hopping through the tourist hotspots?

Etienne Forest , January 02, 2003; 02:27 A.M.

Hello from Tsukuba, Japan

Definitely if you live long enough in Japan you must learn, like Japanese, to filter the general ugliness of the urban decor. At the beginning, I needed a few trips to the West to just see a city midly beautiful and clean my brain. Now, somehow I do not notice the electric wires, the neon, the sign advertising ("illegal") protistution right at the entrance of my laboratory, the cigarette and liquor vending machines next to a temple,etc....

To appreciate all of this, it suffices to think of the following comparison. The Nazis left Paris standing and the American left Kyoto. Now, what kind of tourist review would we write about Paris if the French had done to Paris something remotely as defacing as the Kyotoites did and are doing to Kyoto?

The Japanese tourists marvel at Paris or Rome and yet do this kind of damage to their towns. I live next to Kasumugaura, a large lake in Japan and a sewer. Just compare that to the lake of Lucerne in Switzerland...

Really this rosy depiction of Japan is pretty weird.... come and live here for a while.

Jeff Laitila , February 20, 2003; 04:35 A.M.

Quiet moment from the past

Although at first glance Japan may seem like a pretty difficult place to visit, it is really not so bad. The people are extremely friendly, the transportation system is efficient, and the country as a whole is really safe. (If not a little expensive)

One recomendation would be to get a little off the beaten track and get out into the more rural areas. Tokyo has been photographed to death, and there is much more to Japan than Tokyo. (Not saying that Tokyo is no good for photography, quite the contrary, but the rest of Japan has so much to offer, it boggles the mind) I have been here for three years so far, and have yet to even begin to scratch the surface of the place. I am continually fascinated by this place.

Lertluck Sukondhabhant , May 14, 2003; 08:07 A.M.

Japan is an amazing place for me no matter how many dark sides people mentioned. It's clear that yong Japanese may ignore their custom and act nut. But I do believe most young Japanese people will follow their parent foot step somehow. I married to Japanese for 4 years and knew him almost 10 years. I visited Japan every year. Seeing the good and bad which I think other countries and culture do have. But it's still the best place for soul and comfort me. The color of season is vivid. The nature and people inspire the art in my heart. Like photographers who said it's a great place to take pics. Look at the Japanese media ( art-work, TV, products etc.). They are creative and beyond. I cannot express well enough in Eng. But look at this country closely and you will see and feel amazing things like I do.

David LaHeist , August 22, 2003; 12:06 A.M.

I cannot emphasize enough the language barriers that you will have here, which is why I should mention that Japanese for "can I take a photo" is "sashin o totte mo ee des ka?" (phonetically spelled) or if that's too much just say "sashin?" and they'll know. It surprises me actually how receptive Japanese are to having their picture taken, and many of them really enjoy it. Unfortunatly when you ask to take a picture they all hold up their hands in "peace" signs, and you don't get the candid you wanted. When I do get a candid, usually they will turn and pose, so I'll get a candid and a peace sign next to each other on the film. The other thing I want to mention is that in America, as a man I cannot take pictures of people, especially kids, because people wonder about men with cameras taking pictures of kids. Here, perhaps because no photo gear is too big, there isn't that impression that you're a pervert, and I've never had any trouble getting photos. Kids in Kimonos, or Youkatas, or a traditional Jimbae, make for fantastic candids. Go to any of the weekly summer fireworks shows, or temples on the third of march (3/3) or the fifth of may (5/5) to see a lot of kids sporting them. If you want the Tokyo Freak crowd of eccentric hippie styles, go to Harajuku in Tokyo and take a right, There's a big bridge full of people who want to be seen and definately photographed. Nature scenes and some fantastic temples are great in Nikko, about an hour's train ride from Asakusa in the North of Tokyo. In Hase (a dollar ride from Kamakura on the Enoden line), don't spend too much time on the big buddah, it's big, but you'll get all your photos in ten minutes. Instead go to the Hase-dera Kannon temple, which you can easily spend two or three hours taking the photographs. Kamakura's a good place for some free temple shots, and some good food and shopping. There's a beautiful vast countryside, but few get to spend any time there, and country Japanese are as different from city Japanese as Iowa is to New York. As for film developing, I just put my film down with a business card (which has Japanese on the back) and this saves them a lot of trouble of asking you to fill in the blanks. Last, but not least, Money: Japan is the only country I've been to where your ATM card by and large won't work. Citibank ATM's are the only ones that will take your card. Your Visa, Mastercard, and believe it or not American Express will work just fine anywhere. Traveler's checques can only be cashed at banks, which have some short hours, so keep that in mind.

Wing Fai Loke , November 18, 2003; 11:38 P.M.

Just to add is that the JNTO map for Tokyo and Kyoto/Nara are generally sufficient for navigating around town. They are free and are very useful in complementing whichever guidebook you are carrying. Another thing is that a compass will come in real handy, especially when you are underground. It helps you to get your bearings more quickly.

Max Pinton , July 09, 2004; 09:38 P.M.

I happen to have the "Bilingual Map of Tokyo, Yokohama, Tsukuba, Makuhari Messe" on my desk as I prepare to go back to Tokyo in a couple months. I stayed at the Makuhari Prince Hotel when I went in 2001 to the MacWorld Tokyo trade show that was held in Makuhari Messe, where Steve Jobs announced the "flower power" and "dalmation" iMacs to a disappointed audience.

Anyway, my point is that the "Bilingual Map of Tokyo, Yokohama, Tsukuba by Makuhari Messe" isn't so much BY Makuhari Messe as ABOUT Makuhari Messe. It's published by Shobunsha.

Also, "photo" is "shashin."

adam meek , August 04, 2006; 11:26 A.M.

read in the mizo soup. its a poor book but tells you in quite alot of detail what the underbelly of Tokyo is like... I plan to go there and take pictures of the flamboyant foreigners he describes.. i think it would be interesting to see these people in bright colours against the black suites and white shirts of your typical japanese man... dont think i will be too welcome but i will try....also they do have a culture of everything wanting to be perfect and neat and everyone is competant but under this need they are only human so they do fail make bad decisions they do leave the house looking a state... this is humanity we all have our weaknesses..

I do think you have come under alot more critiscm than you deserve tho... some off the comments (especially the rasict one) anre just plain silly.. everyone has thier own opinion and generalisation will always have somthing to ask after...

ravnish gandhi , September 02, 2006; 01:24 A.M.

hi would anyone know of any good black and white printers or prolabs in tokyo

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Joshua Dollins , September 03, 2006; 12:02 P.M.

Great article and photos. Japan will be my first trip abroad. I hope to take many photos!

Chris Willson , January 13, 2007; 10:29 A.M.

I've lived in Japan for the past 7 years It's a great place to visit from the rugged mountains of Hokkaido to the beaches of Okinawa. Rather than trying to sum it up with words please take a look at my website


Hope it inspires, and if you are heading near Okinawa drop me a line.


Charalampos-Philip Iossifidis , May 27, 2007; 08:17 A.M.

There is a newly added Gallery in my website about Japan. "Japan Memoir" is a very personal perspective of Japan. Please go to Gallery -> Travel -> Japan Memoir at the website: http://pakivotis.ifp3.com/

Ellie Connor , July 01, 2007; 06:23 P.M.

I visited Japan in April for Cherry Blossom and it was the most amazing country I have ever visited. The hospitality of the Japanese people struck me immensely. They are so proud of their country and just want you to experience the best of their homeland.

Tokyo is vibrant and the feeling I got when I walked out of the station in Shinjuku was pure amazement at the enormity of the buildings and the amount of people. We also visited Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, Nagoya Gamagori and Toyohashi and it showed how varied the country is. Luckily, we have friends out there who really helped with the translations as the food is nigh on impossible to order if you cannot read a menu and there are no pictures. I would recommend anybody to go there and I would certainly visit again to see the ski resorts and the Southern part of the country.

A truly amazing place.

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Charalampos-Philip Iossifidis , September 15, 2007; 03:28 P.M.

A selection of a personal account of travel to Japan is here: http://photo.net/photodb/presentation?presentation_id=356325

Jacek Glwoacki , September 18, 2007; 02:43 A.M.

The never ceasing controversial discussions about countries in Asia spread like wildfire all over the net. I have read several of the comments posted on this page and had to laugh several times to myself about the feelings being written out on the page and I'd like to add my bit. I have lived in Japan for one year. Some may argue that that is not enough to fully understand a culture and I will completely agree on that point. I have also been outside of Japan for the past two years and living in South Korea, which is a very different country, none the less Asian however. Mr. Misatoshi Yamamoto made the comment that Japan was being portrayed as a typical Asian country in which people are always polite and always hard working. This is far from the truth. I have had the privilege of visiting 3 countries in Asia and in reality there is nothing typical about being friendly in Asia. In one of the countries I have encountered behavior that was down right hostile towards foreigners. But that is not my point.

My first 6 months in Japan had been a honeymoon phase, which I have gone through while living in South Korea as well. This is the time when everything we see and touch is new and exciting. People's faces seem fascinating, the new surroundings and we feel like we had freed ourselves from the societal constraints of the western world.

Reality starts to kick in after about 6 months, when we become more familiar with our surroundings. The new things are not as new anymore and we become more aware of the other culture. That is where many westerners tend to falter under the pressure and either flee or somehow manage to adjust. Large portions of those who semi adjust to the culture, or choose to live in it, take on a rather jaded look of their surroundings. They complain about this and that, pointing out the many bads and sometimes the few goods about the new country.

I agree with the comments that a tourist is bound to enjoy a country during their short stay, without any further expectations of them in terms of contributing to that society.

Quite a few comments seem to be emotionally driven accusing Mr. Greenspun of racist comments, which I believe are really unnecessary. Mr. Takaki described the Japanese as being out of touch with reality and nature, where as this can be said about many other countries as well. No need to look farther than North America. (I'm not pointing fingers, just making examples). I think the issue here lies in the historical evolution of our little planet. Westerners have for thousands of years been travelers. England colonized a great part of the globe, so did France and Spain did its share as well. While all these countries and cultures were on the move, Asia remained rather closed on itself. The only Asian country that dared to venture further still remains a rather big mystery.

I think the biggest mistake westerner?s make coming to any Asian country is brining expectations with them. Best way to approach a new culture is to enter it with no expectations.

Read a couple of sound books about a culture and I guarantee you, you will not be any wiser. My two years in South Korea have put me through three stages of being. 1st - honey moon faze, described earlier 2nd - the grueling question of why do people do the things they do here? Why do they behave the way they do? (Things didn't make sense to me) 3rd - understanding that different cultures are simply different.

I think the third part is the hardest to do singe our upbringing keeps on interfering with our current experiences.

In the end I have but one comment to make for Mr.Greenspun. I found this link under learning on photo.net, which led me to believe that I would be getting some good tips on photography. Instead I was presented with a rough survival guide on Tokyo, which no doubd has some good advise. Perhaps I should go to the tutorial section.

None the less, thank you very much Mr. Greenspun for taking the time and sharing your experiences with us.

Hope my rumblings didn't offend anyone, and if they did I apologize profusely

Jeff Shurak , November 27, 2007; 04:50 P.M.

If you're traveling to Tokyo and will be there for more than 3 or 4 days, I highly recommend picking up a Suica train card. They're easily refillable at any train station and the newer ones can be used at restaurants and convenient stores around the stations.

John Becker , January 07, 2008; 10:26 P.M.

I agree with those who warn about making rash generalizations about any country or its people. I love Japan, and I love the people, but even my limited experience there (5 total weeks over two visits) has taught me that there's much more to Japan than Mr. Greenspun's stereotypes.

A couple more tips for those who are planning to travel to Japan:

If you don't want to spend a fortune on a hotel room, consider staying in a "business" hotel. The rooms are tiny, but very clean and functional. Depending on the city, you'll pay in the range of $50 - $85 per night. I can highly recommend JapanHotel.net to find a room that works for you. They're very thorough, telling you all about the amenities included and the exact location. If you make a reservation through them, they'll even email you (upon request) an image file with the name and address of the hotel written in Japanese and English. Print it out and take it with you - it'll make that taxi ride to the hotel a snap.

If you're planning to travel around the country, make sure you get a voucher for a Japan Rail Pass before you leave home. It's good for 1, 2 or 3 weeks (at roughly $175 per week) and will save you a fortune. It's good for almost all JR trains (all Shinkansen "bullet trains," with the exception of the 1st class "Nozomi," are included), and JR trains will get you anywhere you want to go. The official Japan Rail Pass site is here.

Go to a good travel agent to order your voucher, which you exchange for the actual pass when you enter the country. Make sure your travel agent gets the voucher from a company in California - mine tried to get one from an outfit in Maine and I would have had to pay $100 too much if I hadn't set her straight. (No brainer - California companies do a lot more Japan business than anyone in Maine.)

Pick up a Japanese/English phrase book and learn the basics. If people see you're trying, they'll be genuinely appreciative that you've made the effort. And contrary to another post here, I've found that just about anywhere I've gone (including off-the-beaten-path noodle shops), it seems that I've run into someone who knew just enough English to help out. On a rare occasion, someone will just walk up to you and ask if they can practice. And at certain times of the year, you'll be surrounded by junior high students who will want to interview you (What's your name, where are you from) for a homework assignment. When you're done, they'll give you a postcard with their teacher's name and address. When you get home, send it back with a note - you'll make their day!

Brush up on your chopstick skills. And if you break down and go to a McDonald's, shame on you.

Assuming photography is going to be important (duh), invest some time finding the sights you'll visit in Google Earth. It's much easier to plan your days if you know when the sun will be in the right place. If you're going to Miyajima, check the tide tables too - no sense having the sun in the right place if the water isn't.

I've already written way too much.... if you're planning a trip and need some help, drop me a line.

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James Kimber , February 11, 2008; 04:41 A.M.

"Considering that English is a required subject in Japanese government schools, it is remarkable how few Japanese speak English."

In all honesty, this comment gets me the most as being absolutely hilarious.

I've lived in Japan almost my entire teen-age to adult life. This article is incredibly naive as one poster put it. Yes, most study Japanese in school. Many even study it as a hobby afterward. Think of it as Americans are to Spanish. Most English-speaking Americans understand a deal of Spanish. Yes, if you're forced to have a conversation with a non-english speaking person who speaks Spanish... well, most people will struggle--despite understanding what's going on. Trust me, most Japanese understand what you're talking about... they just may not have the confidence to carry on a conversation with you. You really need to learn a few phrases yourself to break the ice.

Secondly, Japan is just like any other society. There's just as much bad as there is good.

I love this country, and I think everyone should see it... and yes, in many ways, it's a better place to live. But don't walk in bright-eyed and bushy-tailed either, or you'll be taken advantage of... there's a whole slew of sleazy businessmen waiting for that uber-innocent foreigner to hike up prices on.

Kelly Roberson , March 11, 2008; 11:56 P.M.

I was in Japan back in the late '80s and all I had was (ok, please don't laugh) a kodak disc camera. I can only imagine the photos I would have if I had my Nikon D100 with me then! If I can figure out how to attach a reproduction of one image from back then - here is the story behind it... Some friends and I were at one of 1,000 well manicured gardens and I was walking down to the water's edge when this elderly man just happended to turn around at that moment. He really wasn't posing for me. I think his eyesight was not so good and my camera was quite small for that time. Anyway, now I have portions of it blown up by 600x and fragmented into a huge piece of art in my living room.

Image Attachment: japanese man in garden.jpg

Laurent Vuillard , March 19, 2008; 05:06 P.M.

Just back from Japan last February. Kyoto Osaka and Takayama in the Japanese Alps. Super time to go , plenty of snow (almost) no tourists so much to see and prices often below Europe (five euro lunch in Kyoto). It was not my first time there such a place for photography as well. Granted these are no "museum towns" like Paris but it's so lively with a mix of old and new. Must see!

kopparapu sridharprasad , June 09, 2010; 09:15 P.M.

i like this one

really i like the photos and articles,the pictures are very perfect,i like the author and his/her photography,i wish to see all other works by the author,my mail is ksridharprasad2010@gmail.com

sridhar prasad


max hodges , November 08, 2010; 11:26 A.M.


Just wanted to add, that if you need camera gear or accessories from Japan, there is a special order service called White Rabbit Express which can help you order anything you need.
White Rabbit Express 

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