Way back in late 2019, before Covid was even a thing, I was invited to talk to members of the Williamstown Camera Club in August of 2020. The topic of my presentation was Street Photography In Japan. I delivered a similar but much shorter presentation to the People With Cameras event part way through 2019. Turns out someone at that event recommended me to do a similar talk to the WCC members. Now here we are in August of 2020 and I have just finished my presentation. I was really pleased with how it turned out and the response was positive with lots of great questions from the members.
I am super grateful to the folk at WCC for their welcome and interest in what I had to say. My talk went for around an hour and included a slide show of my favourite Japan street photography shots from the last five years. I won’t post that here as the file size is massive and you can find all of the photos in the galleries of this site. I have pasted below the text for that I read from for the presentation. What’s no included are the additional anecdotes and stories I threw in along the way. I hope you enjoy it. G
Street Photography In Japan
First and foremost, I want to say that I hope that you and your loved ones are well and safe. This is a trying time and one that is testing social values and civil obedience. Now, more than ever, community – such as the very one you are a part of here – is so incredibly important. I encourage you to support the communities you are a part of in any way that you can – every community has those that thrive and those that struggle.
As creatives, we need a certain level of freedom to explore photography and any other form of visual expression. The impacts of Covid are going to be felt long after lockdown, isolation, masks and social distancing are behind us.
But by far one of the biggest impacts on the world at large is travel. And that brings me to the point of my time with you today.
My name is Greg Cromie and I am a Melbourne based photographer and content creator. I have dabbled in every photographic genre at some point in the last seven years. I live in South Yarra and am a single dad to three amazing children aged 22, 18 and 9.
Before I get into the topic of this talk, I wanted to provide a little history and bio. My photography journey began way back in art school where I studied film photography. We did it all – composition, capture, processing, printing and exhibitions. Then, for various reasons, my life took a different path and I wandered away from photography and other creative pursuits.
After a personal tragedy in 2013, my sister recommended we both get DSLRs for a bit of fun. She was trying to get me off the couch and out of the house to see that life went on. Turns out it worked and what I also discovered is that I actually had a knack for photography.
I started my digital photography life with a Canon DSLR and a bag of big lenses. Pretty soon I was photographing anything and everything – but I hadn’t quite found my genre. After carrying all that heavy glass around I started to get back and neck problems and my love of photography diminished rapidly.
I went out on a shoot with a friend and she was carrying an original Fujifilm X100. I had a little play with it and was instantly fascinated with this retro inspired masterpiece. I purchased my own and before I knew it, my love of photography was growing again.
What’s more, I found that I loved street photography as it gave me a window to see how the world had moved on since my life changing event. I treated street photography like a diver, snorkelling on a gorgeous reef just watching the fish and how they interact within their community.
Pretty soon I traded in all of my Canon gear and picked up the Fujifilm X-T1 and a wide prime lens – the Fujifilm XF 16mm f/1.4. It changed my life and much of what I do and experience today is due to that simple decision to pick up a compact, retro, mirrorless camera.
My street photography game elevated considerably and I carved my own niche in this often misunderstood art form. Just like the diver on the reef, I was capturing how people interacted with their world. I froze the candid moments that will never be repeated to form some sort of social documentary of life. Living in the inner city provided the perfect platform to expand and explore my art.
I soon joined an online Facebook community named Fuji X Aus – at the time they only had a small number of members. I met up with the founders one afternoon and offered to be a part of the admin team to help build and promote the community. We were fortunate to have the support of Fujifilm Australia and some of the bigger camera retailers who supported our events.
Around the same time, I had started my very own blog site – mostly just documenting my photography pursuits, street photography and reviews of my own gear. Before long this had extended to writing for the Fuji X Aus website with gear reviews, education pieces and interviews with fellow photographers.
Articles from this site and from my own blog were picked up by Fujifilm UK and Fujifilm Australia to aid in the promotion of their products. Before long, Fujifilm were sending me any gear I desired for review and article purposes. After around 3 years of this kind of activity, I was asked to get involved in writing professionally for a range of photography related online sites.
I started off as a ghost writer of photography education and marketing articles. This soon evolved to a position writing reviews for Shotkit.com – an Australian based photography blog site who I still write a considerable amount of content for. This includes reviews of cameras, bags, lenses and accessories, as well as a constant stream of guides and education pieces. I also spent a period of time writing education pieces for DigiDirect.
More recently, a good friend of mine and I joined forces to create a new business titled BlogContent.com. This came about as we were both hamstrung by the impacts of Covid on the businesses we worked for. They were shortsighted and believed that the cost of paying for online content was not relevant in the new world.
We believed them to be wrong and so we formed our business to support online photography retailers in optimising their online content. With Covid, the traffic of consumers walking into camera stores dried up and now, over six months later, they are suffering because of it. But, we managed to find other clients who realised that the move to online retail would be stronger than ever.
Now, we produce online content to both drive traffic to their sites as well as implementing necessary SEO tactics to drive up their hit rate in a Google search. I am fortunate to be able to say that in the middle of a global pandemic and financial crisis, I am inundated with work.
What started off as a passion for photography and an interest in blogging has now turned into my own business that is in high demand. It has been a long road but one that was worth travelling.
Speaking of travel, let’s talk about Japan!
Many people ask me why Japan – and the simplest answer is ‘why not!’ There are some obvious photography related reasons but there are far deeper inspirations for me personally.
There’s a lot more to it than pointing randomly at a map of the world and deciding to go there. I have held a fascination with Japan since I was a kid. Which was pretty strange for a kid raised in the burbs of Melbourne in a family that had no interest in such a place.
But, from some of my earliest memories, I had a fascination with Japanese cartoons and Anime over the regular meat and three veg variety. As a teen, this extended to video gaming culture which is a step above just playing video games. I became interested in Nintendo and the whole scene and culture around their ongoing success.
As a young adult, my interest in Japan and its culture grew to Japanese Manga, Anime, food, architecture, design and how the people interacted with their world. As I became more mature and started a family, the desire to learn more about Japan intensified.
But, as a young family, the ability to travel to Japan was out of our reach. Yet, my desire to one day step foot in Japan never diminished. I learned to cook Japanese food, purchased Japanese homewares and continued to learn about its customs and wackiness.
Then, in 2015, I took a giant leap and booked a trip to Tokyo.
I realised that life was short and if you didn’t grab opportunities for yourself you would live with regret. Other than a family trip to New Zealand, I had never been to a foreign country – and Japan is about as foreign as they get for a boy from Airport West.
My First Time In Japan
As mentioned, my first trip to Japan was in 2015 and I spent months organising this trip. I took the time I felt necessary to investigate what I wanted to see, do and experience. I picked the brains of friends that had already been there. I trawled websites and watched hours and hours of YouTube videos. I had two core objectives:
- To experience the culture and explore many of the elements I had grown up fascinated by.
- To capture as much of the street culture as I could with my camera.
I decided that Tokyo was the best city to explore the first time in Japan and so concentrated all my efforts on that destination. What’s more, I didn’t have a lot of time to spend there as I was leaving my children with family. Plus, travel can be expensive.
Just visiting one city made more sense to me – the others would come later. All of my planning and thought process was faithfully documented on my blog – turns out a lot of people have relied on those articles to plan their own travels.
I still recall landing in Tokyo and taking the NEX fast train from Narita airport to Shibuya – the area I was staying in for the duration of my trip. I got off the train at Shibuya Station at around 9pm and stepped onto a platform and into a sea of more people than I had ever seen in my life.
Shibuya is a popular spot in Tokyo with a strong youth culture – turns out I arrived in the middle of a holiday celebrated by the Japanese youth the most. I had never seen so many weirdly dressed and bedazzled teens and young adults in my life.
I was swept along by the crowd and went with it rather than fights it. I exited Shibuya station onto the forecourt of the station area facing the famous Scramble Crossing.
At its peak, up to 3,000 people can walk the crossing at a time. It seams that I had arrived at its peak! My hotel was around the corner and I could not move fast enough to check in, drop my luggage and head out with my Fujifilm X-T1 and a bag of lenses. I didn’t get back to my hotel before sunrise the next morning.
I spent a week in Tokyo exploring areas and sites that were either hyper-futuristic, culturally rich or a combination of both. I used the train network extensively as my primary source of transport due to its ease and reliability. I discovered the benefits of the extensive underground subways and pedestrian areas.
I travelled to Asakusa and the Senso-Ji temple, Akihabara and its futuristic electronics arcades, Shinjuku, Tsukiji Market, Harajuku, and even the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka. I slept little, ate Ramen every day and captured thousands of images from street level.
It was the trip of my dreams and I loved every single moment. What’s more, I kept a travel journal and later turned all of those scribbles into a blog series.
Ongoing Japan Adventures
Turns out that very first trip did little to satisfy my appetite. Since that first trip in 2015, I have travelled to Japan several times.
- I travelled to Osaka, Kyoto and Hiroshima in 2016 and used the Shinkansen or bullet trains for long journeys.
- I travelled to Tokyo in 2017 and explored a much wider footprint of this incredible city.
- Finally, I travelled back to Tokyo in 2019 and spent some time on a side trip to the mountains two hours north by train.
I only travel for a week at a time, but in a week of solo photography I can achieve a lot. Day and night, I am out capturing the rhythm of cities large and small. And of course the millions upon millions of people that occupy such an incredible country.
On my journeys, with my camera always in hand, I have documented every step and stage of my experience. These trips have afforded me the opportunity to test my skills in a completely uncharted space.
I believe that my photography style and skills have grown considerably as a result of having such a rich canvas to work with. Shooting early morning in a fish market or in the middle of the night at an abandoned pedestrian crossing, I have learnt a great deal about myself and my photography skills.
My travels to Japan allowed me to push the boundaries of my otherwise controlled experiences here at home. In Japan, my camera is always ready. One of my biggest lessons was learning that it was not about the gear but about capturing the moment. About being present and shooting with what I have in my hand.
I have shot some of my best images on my humblest of cameras. On the streets of Japan, there is no time for hunting through a camera bag. The shot is happening before your eyes and you can either lift your camera and shoot or it is gone forever. In fact, when the conditions are just right, there are hundreds of stories unfolding before your eyes.
Japan is a photographer’s dream location, no matter your preferred genre. For the street photographers, there are fascinating and unique street scenes everywhere you look. Be it in the hyper moderns streets of Shibuya in Tokyo – where the kids dress slick and stay up all night. Or the calming quiet back streets of Gion in Kyoto where you may capture a true Geisha on an early morning errand. It is all there for the finding.
Although, I must add, I have recently learnt that they have banned photography in locations such as this as it was proving too intrusive to the residents – which is fair enough. Being culturally sensitive is essential in street photography so always do your homework.
Stepping back from that, if you love landscapes then you are in luck. If you love architecture then you are in luck. If you love travel photography then you are in luck. Documentary your thing…you get the picture. There is something for everyone. Your presence and a camera is all that is required.
You just have to show up. Be it in the big cities like Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, or in the countryside where rice fields and mountains are abundant. I have of course shot my fair share of street images in Japan and you are viewing some of my favourites here. But I will also stop to take landscapes and architecture too. Temples and shrines that are hundreds if not thousands of years old. Places of wonder that have survived war and tsunami and earthquakes. It is just an amazing place.
I want to share with you a key learning for me about my photography and capabilities. It has been a defining moment on my journey. On my first two trips to Japan, I was of the opinion that the more gear I had with me, the better my chances of getting that winning shot. I was shooting with Fujifilm X Series gear and had an extensive range of lenses.
I quickly learned that all of that gear did not guarantee a great shot. If anything, I was too busy hunting through my bag to find the right lens and would miss a lot of opportunities.
I was relying on my gear to make me a better photographer. Plus I was carrying a lot of gear and this didn’t make for a comfortable experience. It would tire me out and make me not enjoy my time – reminiscent of my early Canon days.
This was the turning point for me. Not just in what I would travel with, but also in what I would need as my kit back home. On my most recent trip to Tokyo in May of last year, I took a single Fujifilm X-T3 with a Fujifilm XF23mmF2 lens. This weather resistant and compact combo weighed less than 700gm with battery and SDs on board.
And of course I took my Fujifilm X70 with a couple of extra batteries weighing in at around 300gm. That little camera goes with me everywhere – I love it for its simplicity and manual controls.
I used both cameras equally but rarely carried both at the same time. For the most part, I would leave my hotel with one camera on a wrist strap and a couple of spare batteries in my pocket. No bulky bag and no burden. Just a guy casually strolling the streets of Japan.
This also removes the burden of having to choose what to shoot with. I had to make the camera work for me and make the most of the opportunity. Secondly, I felt no pressure with carrying or protecting my gear. I could walk along like all the other tourists and locals and at the same time fill my creative needs.
My gear is just an accessory of what I was seeing and experiencing. I had to hunt for my shots rather than rely on my gear to do all the work. Having less bulky gear also made me more discreet – despite my size and beard. Or perhaps people were just too distracted by the giant with the red beard to notice the camera?
Japan is one of those places that has something for everyone – both in terms of experiences and photographic opportunities. Many of my photography friends have travelled there and strongly agree that there is a need to go back for more. And many more of my photography friends have Japan at the top of their bucket list.
The Future Of Japan Travel
And that last point raises some very interesting questions about the future of travel to Japan – along with every other country in the world. Right now I cannot even travel outside of my 5km zone let alone across town or heaven-forbid to another state.
The travel industry is going to be one of the hardest hit and the cruise industry has pretty much sunk – pardon the pun.
So what does that mean for travel to Japan? At this stage no one knows. We don’t know if travel to another country is going to be prefaced with a mandatory period of hotel isolation. Nor do we know what to expect when we return back home to Australia.
A one week holiday in Japan could turn out to be a 5 week exercise in frustration and isolation. We also have no clue as to when it will be safe to travel. Nor do we know what that will look like for airlines and ticket prices.
But, despite having no dedicated faith and thinking that hope is a fool’s game, I have to believe that at some stage travel to Japan will once again be available. And when that time comes, I will be in line booking my travels.
As crazy as it might sound, I have already started planning my next two trips to Japan. As with all my trips, these are mapped out in detail on my blog as a series of articles.
The first series is about Mapping Out Japan 20?? – a long form exploration of cities and sites that I might like to visit. The second series is the Tokyo Photography Tour – 20?? – in this case I am mapping out the process of taking a group of photographers to Tokyo for a photography centric experience.
It is with these blog series, and the research process behind them, that I am staying focused during a time where it’s hard to stay positive. I am taking my time to document my thought process, wishes and desired travel plans.
I was asked to do this talk well before Covid was even a thing and I had intended to give you some words of wisdom about travel to Japan. While it may seem futile, at some point in time they will come in handy. Perhaps not this year and most likely not even the year after. But when, not if, Japan reopens to the world and travel is once again safe, I know these words will serve you well.
Whether it be Japan, Germany or any country that you intend to visit, always do so with a camera in hand. Any camera will do with any lens – shoot with what you have. Don’t focus on the gear you take – challenge yourself to make it as minimal as possible.
Here are a few travel tips for those considering travelling to Japan – when the time is right:
- Go. Just go. I know that sounds easier said than done. But life is short and your life will be enriched by visiting another culture.
- Plan the locations you want to see and shoot. Star them in Google Maps and research what is around that area. Star those too. Guaranteed there will be some form of rail transport to get you there.
- Grab a Japanese data phone sim so you have access to Google Maps and train times via numerous apps.
- Japan’s rail network is the backbone of the country. Grab a rail pass for longer journeys on the Shinkansen or for more local travel buy a Suica card.
- Jump on a random train and jump off at an unknown station and spend some time lost in the streets of Japan.
- Be prepared to shoot day and night – all night. Japan is one of the safest countries in the world. But be aware of the ‘last train’ syndrome. Trains shut off around midnight – don’t get stuck too far from your hotel.
- Whilst out shooting at night, stop and treat yourself to a bowl of hot Ramen and a cold beer at 3am. It is a delightfully strange thing to do.
- You need no Japanese language skills to travel across Japan. Much of what you need is translated for you. Menus, train station signage and even the announcements on the trains themselves. But it wouldn’t hurt, and the locals appreciate it, if you learn some of the niceties and manners.
- Walk away from the main tourist streets and hit up the back laneways and alleys. Not only a photography gold mine, but the locations of the better street food outlets.
- Go to a local festival. Not a touristy exhibition of blossoms. Go to a festival where thousands of local citizens carry a portable shrine on their backs for hours in the street. Dancing, singing and drumming in the street followed by beer! You are welcome.
- If you are keen to travel to Japan for a photography holiday and don’t know where to start, let me know and I will happily point you in the right direction. As I said, I have a lot of articles on my blog about travel to Japan.These cover everything from the best cities to travel to and what each city holds to the best street food vendors. I have travel guides on how to make the most of your holiday including all the necessary information about transport, safety, connectivity and of course food.
My End Game
I find Japan to be a fascinating destination and one that is so vast and so culturally rich that you could spend weeks there and only scratch the surface. To date, I have only been able to spend a brief amount of time in-country for each trip.
As I mentioned, I have children and one who is only 9 – my parenting responsibilities are far from over. But, at some point when the kids are settled and my youngest is his own person, I have an end-game in mind.
Ideally, I would like to travel Japan for far longer durations and get completely immersed in life and culture. I want to travel the country and document my experiences and journey with both my camera and my words.
I would love to travel through cities and lost mountainside villages alike. Spending time getting to know the places and people and creating my own documentary. Ideally, I would visit for months at a time and live amongst the locals.
I don’t have a specific project in mind, I may run with one or many. I may just reach a point where I compile all of my experiences in images and text and discover the true purpose of my lifelong obsession with all that Japan has to offer.
A single volume documentary of some kind that ends up looking at me, looking at Japan. Perhaps I am the purposes and my experiences are a reflection for others to enjoy.
In closing, one day I will return to my spiritual happy place, where I feel most connected to my art. On the streets of Japan, my creative freedom is at its peak and I feel a love for the people, culture and opportunities to document the stories I see.