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As one of the most photogenic countries in the world, it’s no wonder Japan has become a mecca for photography enthusiasts. Tour leader Marky Hobold gives us the lowdown on everything from the origins of photography in Japan to the best camera shops in the capital.
Photography in Japan
Whether you’re a seasoned traveller or a first timer, photography is essential to the experience. Taking photos gives us chance to share our stories and relive unforgettable journeys with friends and family – and social media lets us share it with the whole world.
In a way few countries can, Japanese culture places a very high priority on aesthetics and harmonious beauty, making it the perfect place for shutterbugs from all walks of life. So, let’s talk about photography in Japan!
History of photography in Japan
The first known surviving photograph taken in Japan is from 1857. At this time, Japan was a closed country grappling with the encroachment of western imperialist powers. The benchmark of artwork depicting daily life had been stylised in woodblock prints called ukiyo-e, but photography was a game changer for this mysterious, isolated island country.
For roughly 250 years, Japan was controlled by the Edo Shogunate based in modern day Tokyo, but ironically, when the last shogun (samurai ruler of Japan) handed power over to the imperial court, guess what hobby he took up in his retirement? That’s right, the new technology of photography.
Tourism, as we think of it today, didn’t really exist in the feudal period, but with Westerners living and working in Japan from the 1850s onwards, things began to change. Summers in Japan are notoriously hot and humid; many of the well to do foreigners would escape to milder locations like Hakone and Karuizawa, which birthed the tourism industry. These trailblazers brought cameras with them, giving the world the first glimpses of samurai, geisha, and the iconic Mount Fuji.
Foreign photographers and studios dominated the market in the 1860s and 1870s, but by 1900, the Japanese were fully in control. To this day, camera enthusiasts, professionals, and tourists all know the names of the best camera manufacturers in the world: Canon (1934), Fujifilm (1938), Pentax (1938), Nikon (1948) and Sony (1996). While all those companies have longer histories, I’ve only included the years in which they entered the camera market.
In the 90 years since the first photographs taken here, Japanese manufacturers were setting industry standards. It’s interesting that Sony, no slouch when it comes to professional grade gear, didn’t even bother getting involved in this business until the rise of digital photography. Also, Fujifilm is one of the few companies still producing analogue film for classic cameras.
Where to buy cameras and accessories in Tokyo
You can find shops specialising in new and used camera-related paraphernalia throughout the country, but Tokyo has a few world-famous spots for photography nerds. The most well-known are the neighbourhoods of Akihabara, Ginza and Nakano.
Akihabara, affectionately referred to by locals as Akiba, is a general go-to spot for electronics of all sorts. It’s located on the Yamanote Line, a loop line that hits all the major areas of the city, making it a convenient and painless destination. One popular destination is Lemonsha, a store that specializes in new and used cameras and lenses. They also have a variety of old school analog cameras, if vintage is your thing.
The Ginza district is home to another branch of Lemonsha, but you also might want to check out Sankyo Camera for a mix of Japanese and German cameras, and don’t miss out on Nikon House – a shop that sells all manner of classic Nikon gear. There’s even a dedicated Leica shop in the area.
Nakano might seem out of the way, but this is where the prices on vintage lenses and bodies come down (it’s not on the Yamanote Line, but just a single transfer away). There are a few shops, but the most famous is Fujiya. The second floor is actually called a “junk shop,” but the gear can hardly be described as such: you can find a vast array of lenses and classic large-format cameras.
Bring your own perspective
Japan isn’t just camera heaven from a technical standpoint, it’s one of the most photogenic countries on earth. Well before photography existed, garden designers and architects focused on enhancing the visual experience of people living in the moment. The introduction of photography just happened to work perfectly with that aesthetic back in the 1850s and continues to do so today.
Bring your best camera and be prepared to snap away the whole time – you’re going to love it here!