Going Places. Planning the trip.

Everyone has an idea of what might constitute the "perfect trip" for them. That idea might change as we gain more experience and spend more time actually traveling. When I was in college the trip I wanted to take was the classic "backpack and Eurail through Europe trip. I spent a semester doing that with a girlfriend. Now, I don't think I'd have the same enthusiasm for carrying around a big back pack, camping out in freezing weather and making fried eggs on a Blue Gaz stove in an Alpine meadow as ice melts off the tent. I've traveled enough for corporations to be a bit spoiled.

While landscape photographers might want to go into unsullied nature to find the confluence of beautiful land and perfect light people interested in music would rather haunt the music clubs and concerts of big cities ready to document that once in a lifetime performance.

Right now, 2013, I have the idea that I really want to spend ten days discovering Tokyo. Not all of Japan---that's too big a bite to chew off---really, just Tokyo. I have several friends who lived and worked in Japan and they are quick to tell me how misguided I am. That I should consider Kyoto for the gardens and the temples, etc. But that's the trip for them, not for me.

I have a lust to be in a big city, filled with people and buzzing with energy 24 hours a day. My own Lost in Translation tour. So I've been building momentum. Gearing myself up to get geared up. Planning to start planning.

I know I want to go alone. So I'm planning to go in the middle of the Fall. Ben and Belinda will have settled into the routine of work and school. Neither would really have the option of taking that much time off for an adventure that really revolved solely around me wandering the streets taking images and video of things I find quirky, exciting, whimsical, funny and abstractly definitively Japanese. Nor do I want to take time for planned lunches and formal dinners. I'm not interested in building team consensus in the morning or making a visit to a must see site just because it's in someone's guidebook. I'll go alone and then, when it's everyone else's turn I'll stay home and hang with the dog while they do their thing.

I know I'll want to use some of the massive airline miles I've accrued over the last ten years and never used. I'll investigate the best way to leverage those points from affinity programs to pay for airfare and upgrades. I've pegged the first week and a half of October as a slow season so I'm looking around to see when the black out dates are and how I can get around them if I want to get specific with my arrangements.

I need to figure out where I'll make base camp  and find a hotel that works. My biggest concerns for lodging are quiet and a place to charge batteries.

Then I need to start writing proposals to companies who might think that co-sponsoring part of the trip in exchange for a series of articles written about my experiences in their factories or engineering facilities are worth some sort of traded value. I'll start with Sony and go from there.

When I get closer to the date I'll start packing. I'll want to take two identical cameras. One reason is to have an identical back up that works exactly the same and takes the same lenses, batteries and attachments as the primary camera. Second is to have two cameras that can be set the same and use interchangeably while walking and shooting so I can use two different lenses without having to stop and change them out on a single body.

If I were packing to go tomorrow I'd take two Sony Nex-7's, two of the 18-55mm kit lenses and the 50mm 1.8 OSS lens. All of the lenses have IS and I like both choices. For me, convenience and general competence outweigh performance at the zenith of possibility. The above cameras, two chargers with six batteries and ten 16 gigabyte SD cards is an awesome imaging system for traveling and it all fits in a small and inconspicuous bag. No flash and no tripod. I've been down both of those roads before and come to the conclusion that it's not possible to be prepared for every and any eventuality. It's better to plan for an optimum part of the curve and work there.

The real gear is a good pair of comfortable walking shoes and a good attitude. That and a jumbo helping of curiosity.

I've traveled with cameras for the better part of 25 years now and I've done it every which way. I took 25 pounds of medium format Hasselblad gear with me on assignment to St. Petersburg, Russia, along with nearly 100 pounds of lighting. That was a logistical (but at the time, necessary) nightmare.

One time I went to Rome with just the right kit and I wrote in my journal about it. I said I would only want to bring a fast, auto focus camera body and a medium range, fast zoom. At the time I was thinking 28-85mm f3.5 or f4. Now, with nice ISO at 800 or so I would revise that to be a medium range zoom that ends up at f5.6 on the long end. As long as it's reasonably sharp.

If the past is a guide to this trip then it will go something like this: Arrive and sleep.  Get up every day as early as possible and walk the streets in targeted areas just absorbing the sights and shooting the things that interest me. Ten to fifteen miles a day. A card of images a day.  Every night, after supper, I'll sit in my room and write about the day in my journal. What I saw. What I ate. What I heard. What I bought. And so on.

The secret to making it all work in my head is to have a goal in mind before I step on  the plane to go. I can already envision a show of images at several of my favorite galleries. Right now I'm thinking black and white but that may be because it's the way I worked on my most successful trips in the past. And I like the way black and white prints work on the walls.

The new wrinkle will be a conscious integration of video. Snippets tied together with the intention of digging down into some interesting aspect of the trip. I'm not sure what that will be yet but it will come to me before departure.

Why am I sharing this? Because writing out loud is a good way of making it real and gaining the momentum to follow through.  But I'm also keenly interested to hear from you in the comments or offline if you've traveled to Tokyo recently, or live there now. What would you see? Where would you go? What are the new social trends? Where would you base camp? And, if you shoot or have shot in the streets there, what cameras and lenses did you find to be workable or optimal?

My long term goal is to make several trips there and to really see the city before things change again. I want to share my interpretation of the experience with my friends and a wider audience.

Final (vital) question: Can you get good coffee without too much fuss in Tokyo?



  1. I think you would like to talk with Mr Ming Thein at mingthein.com.

  2. Kirk, when in Japan, go to a Starbucks and order a mocha. It's a qualitatively different beast than what Starbucks serves up stateside.

  3. Although we are very different when it comes to choosing a destination, your planning process is simpatico. Get the logistics right, simple room (you're really only going to sleep there), avoid tourist 'must see' itineraries (or at least go there when no-one else does), limit your kit (for me, a wide angle zoom, a short or medium tele for candid portraits and a 28-35e fast lens for low light) and leave the rest to serendipity. Stay curious!

  4. Kirk,
    You might want to check out Dave at

  5. Go to Osaka instead, as it is easier to get around (Tokyo is really 4 cities), is both contemporary and traditional, is much friendlier and down to earth. The main drawback to Osaka is that there is much less English spoken here (but that might be an advantage since you want to walk and see, not talk and listen).
    I live in the Osaka area, do 'stroll photography' everyday, with a number of small cameras.
    BTW, I just got back from Spain (where I use to study and work) and used the EM-5 (with an ELP-1 as a back up), and shot with the 20/1.7, the 14-42 pancake kit lens, and the 9-18 UWA. I would bring only one len a day, but had the Fuji F770 for long tele. shots in my jacket pocket.

    Rube Redfield

  6. Ah...you think like I do. A slow, solitary trip. I did it in Havana last year. I've been using m4/3s but I've acquired an NEX 7 because I want that 16-50 pancake lens for just the type of travel you describe. The recent firmware updates seemed to have solved the distortion problem at the wide end.

    I'm trying my hand at video as well and picked up the RX100 for that...should be fun.

    Happy travels to you.

  7. Ah...so exciting. Been there a few times and you really need to work in a few nights of photography. The city come alive with dazzling lights. Have fun planning!

  8. Totally understand the benefit of writing it down. It's real (the benefit, that is). Plus, as a blog follower it's cool to know of your plans in advance. Plus plus, one again our minds have gone similar paths. I was in Venice last week (having an insanely good time) and thought I loved to be on trips and (re)discover things, and that one destination that would really make my skirt fly is Japan. Weridly enough, I've never had the slightest attraction for any other Asian destination, be it super popular like Thailand or China or whatever. Japan it is. For me.
    In the grand scheme of things and unless I hit the lottery win, I might never make it to Japan. But then again, who knows.
    I hope you get to live your trip exactly the way you plan it. I hope a lot of unexpected hits you too (the good way) because it's part of the fun and the experience. Trips are like house remodeling (to channel Forrest Gump a bit); you never know what you're gonna find.
    I know this is YOUR blog and you're entitled to you photographic privacy and exclusivity. If I had ONE wish for the blog it would still to be able to share a pic now and then (and I've tried the Flikr group thing but it's just meh). You'd have full censorship of course, and being as admirative of your work as well all are I doubt we'd be encouraged to share too many duds. But hey, one can dream.

  9. My wife and I are going to Istanbul for a week. I will bring the OM-D and the 12-50 (not the best or worst lens, but usable) and the new 17/1.8.
    It´s going to be so fun.

    PS: About coffe, order an Americano ;-)


  10. I am going to visit Istanbul in April and have been planning to go simplistic. Just my antiqued two bodies, a D70 w/ Sigma 10-20mm on it and a D200 with the 50/f1.8. A spare battery for the d200 and thats it. Been rationalizing not taking longer zooms because I wont be shooting wildlife, 50mm on a crop is good for city shooting people and the 10-20mm is great for the big buildings etc. Still have time to maybe even buy a new camera but I would be happy with these for everything else except low-light situations

  11. Tokyo is a great city, I really enjoy going there. It's really a collection of villages, because everything is built around the train stations, and the neighborhood around each one has a different vibe. By all means get the Suica card (you can buy it along with a nice discount on the airport train at either of the airports)--it lets you jump on any bus or train without trying to figure out how much you need to pay (skip taxis, they are expensive). And beware that Japan is still mostly a cash society: you can use your american ATM card at a 7-eleven to get cash, but not many other ATMs work with cirrus/plus. And credit cards will likely only work at certain hotels and large stores--don't assume you can use it anywhere. There is great coffee and great food to be had everywhere. Awesome street photography and definitely a photography-friendly place.

  12. My kit for a photo trip to Tokyo would be pretty similar: A coupe of Pen bodies (old E-PL1 + new E-PL5 perhaps), 14-42 and the 45mm f1.8. Where I'd differ a little is that I wouldn't have any lens duplication, so I'd probably bring a 9-18 with me, possibly with the 20mm f1.7. In terms of getting there...... Using your miles to pay for the entire trip might be hard but you should be able to look to using them for an upgrade to club. Consider going via somewhere interesting, where you can perhaps do a layover for a coupe of days (nothing serious - perhaps somewhere like Hong Kong, if you've not been there, to get a feel for the place).

    Where to stay in Tokyo? I've only ever stayed in Shinjuku's skyscraper district and found Shinjuku station a convenient hub for getting around.

  13. Yes, you can get excellent fresh brewed coffee in Tokyo. Small coffee shops with beans roasted on premises have become very popular in recent times. Near my home there there are at least 8 that have opened in the last few years.

    I think your idea of Tokyo is a good one. I love Kyoto, but it is often too crowded and too touristy during the best seasons. The shrines and temples are but a small part of the city, and ones like Kinkakuji Shrine are often so crowded any decent photography is extremely difficult. And like many of the temples and shrines there, they have been photographed to death.

    Tokyo is a different story. I have lived here for 14 years and never get bored finding places to photograph (or rarely get bored at all outside of work). As Eric mentioned above, Tokyo is actually a prefecture and is made of wards and "towns" for lack of a better word. One area often has a completely different character than another just 100 meters away. I live in Denenchofu and the next station is Jiyugaoka and next to that, Okusawa. All entirely different. If you somehow got bored with Tokyo, Yokohama is 25 minutes away, or you could head for the hills up in Nikko, about 2.5 hours away.

    Were I visiting, I would stay in central Tokyo, perhaps near Tokyo station. Shinjuku is another good choice or any of the main stations on the Yamamote line. For street photography, I use an E-P3 most often with the Panasonic Leica 25 1.4 or the new Oly 17mm 1.8, and occasionally the 45mm 1.8. But any decent smaller camera should do. People will duck and hide if you use a dSLR---the difference in behavior is noticeable. A visit to Kyoto would be nice, but I would view it as a 2-3 day side trip, but I am biased.

  14. I totally understand wanting to travel alone. I love my wife dearly and really enjoy travelling with her. And we talk almost constantly about a wide range of subjects while I neglect photography. Fortunately, we can make both kinds of trips and I can get my pictures on the trips by myself.

  15. I've been to Japan three times with the family and can heartily recommend Tokyo as a travel/photography destination. We have stayed in Shinjuku (very modern), near Ueno Park (very local), and near the east river (somewhere inbetween). But you get around town easily by subway, so this choice isn't essential, in my book.

    As for equipment, mirrorless is everywhere in Tokyo, so that would be my choice, definitely. I have put up a couple of small B/W travel galleries (about 20 pictures per trip) here:

    Japanese Encounters (2007): http://www.imagepro.dk/Japan_BW/

    Tokyo Reflections (2009): http://www.imagepro.dk/Tokyo_2009/

    Japanese Moments - Part III (2012): http://www.imagepro.dk/Japan_2012/

    For the first gallery, I used a Minolta CLE, while the last two were shot on a Leica M3. You see: No mirrors :-)

    My shooting style is very much wide angle, but I still hope that you can find some inspiration in my pictures. I am certain that you'll like the "Spiderman Building" in Shinjuku, for instance :-)


  16. Hello Kirk,

    I've only recently come across your blog and am really enjoying exploring it. When I saw this post I immediately thought of this chap in London:


    I don't know how you two compare in terms of photographic aims etc, but Mark seems pretty well travelled and has visited Tokyo a number of times. He mainly uses Leica. I think he might be a good source of advice on hotels and, vitally, the coffee! I'm sure he could direct you to the best coffee spots in Tokyo!

    Ps I don't know Mark, but have communicated with him a few times by e-mail and he seems like a good guy.


    Cheltenham, UK.


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