Tokyo is a maze of photogenic locations.
When I started shooting Tokyo deciding where to go felt about as overwhelming as making selects after having overshot; the options all worked but which was the best? I can’t remember exactly where I headed to that weekend because my time in Tokyo has blurred into a bokeh of late nights, street lights and a seemingly infinite number of new faces. That said, I most likely went to Harajuku and Shibuya because those two places have always felt like home.
I’ve broadened my perspective since that first photo mission and while Tokyo’s never-ending backstreets and alleyways are impossible to fully get on top of; I can, for the moment, say that the areas listed below are my current favourites for nights out shooting.
My choice of locations is based on two factors; how I feel and how it looks. If I feel aligned when I’m there and the area appeals to my aesthetic senses both in terms mood and visuals then it becomes an area I frequent. Some places, like people, just click straight away, others take some getting used to and some just never really fit too well. I can’t speak too much more on the sense of alignment I feel in place because that’s a personal feeling that will be unique to those who consider it when scouting. The mood and aesthetic however can loosely be described as a sense of Dream-like Neo-Tokyo. I’m enamoured with areas that feel seedy yet dreamy, colourful yet dark, nostalgic yet sterile, human yet masked. That sounds more convoluted than it should so if that mouthful didn’t quite paint the picture, take a look at my IG for a simpler visual description.
A further disclaimer regarding these locations is that it’s almost always better to shoot these spots late at night or move past the shot-to-death-IG-spots into the back streets. Don’t get me wrong I get off on walking through the crowds and people watching in really busy areas but “getting the shot” in those areas is near impossible unless that’s the look you’re going for.
Pro Tip: Don’t take places at face value; dig deeper. Play the waiting game. You know the drill.
The crossing is an instagram hotspot for a reason. It’s absolutely dynamic and continuously taking on new personas. It’s been shot by every tourist ever to set foot in Tokyo but still manages to maintain its allure, especially in the rain and at sunrise on a weekend. Shibuya is littered with clubs making it a very interesting place around 5:30 a.m. when the streets stir with with drunken youths, secret lovers and salary men. 5:30 isn’t the only call-time in Shibuya, it’s active 24/7 365. A couple of hundred meters up from the crossing you’ll find an area filled with love hotels, and just past that things will get slightly more residential with a mix of apartments and quiet restaurants and bars. Alongside area is a collection of love hotels and clubs, an area I love to frequent for the sake of luminous lights and lovers silhouettes. It feels very Enter the Void in all the best kind of ways. Back down at the crossing and just across from the station is a little hideaway that houses a dozen or so little bars. I wouldn’t suggest planning an elaborate shoot in this area because the bar owners will tell you off. But a quiet snap here and there that’s not invasive should pass without drawing too much attention. I might add that Shibuya could possibly be my favourite place in the world purely for the energy and attitude. There’s no doubt that it’s mainstream and it’s definitely been over shot but that said the area is so alive with youth culture and hype that it seems to constantly be reinventing itself with new ‘scenes’ and ‘characters’ to match.
Pro Tip: Just a heads up that not all places in Tokyo are photo friendly. I usually play by the rule of asking for forgiveness (and deleting the image) rather than asking for permission. If you’re not allowed to take photographs in a certain area there will most probably be a sign up somewhere or someone directly telling you “DAME” (no good/that’s not allowed) in which case you should apologise, bow and delete the footage.
Shinbashi has one of the most beautiful *area gates* I’ve seen in Japan. Surrounding it you’ll find some low-key izakayas and gritty side streets. The road along the train tracks makes for a beautiful space to shoot blade-runner type shots as the concrete walls, steamy restaurant outlets and minimal foot traffic make it an appealing space to capture. It doesn’t feel crowded with tourists but has a good amount of city bustle; another reason why I’m drawn to it I think. Underground walkways, plenty of taxis, trains passing over head and steamy side streets put this one high up on my list of favourite places to shoot.
Just further on from Shinbashi is Yurakucho. Yurakucho has that great feeling of nostalgic Tokyo with just enough refinement to compliment the air of seediness. There are plenty of Salarymen going about their business and enough dimly lit side streets to keep you shooting for a couple of hours. The often shot Yurukacho Concourse can be found near the station under the tracks. Much like Ueno, the street bustle plays out to the soundtrack of the passing trains. It makes for a romantic contemporary-yet-classic setting, best shot in the rain (like the rest of Tokyo but with it’s own alluring energy).
The charm of Ueno lies in the mix of people, character rich eateries and shops bustling with different cultures and accents – all of which appear unified in a haze of Tokyo aesthetic. This is another area with beautiful area gates and passing trains. It has a subtle Kowloon feeling but that could also be attributed to a subtle dystopian sense that arrises after everything shuts for the night.
Pro Tip: If you’re looking for a minimal shot; go around 9pm or early morning. It’s quite amazing to see how quickly the place becomes quiet at a specific time. Shops close in the blink of an eye and suddenly you can discretely capture the single worker against a quiet urban backdrop on his way to the station.
I’ve tried my best to avoid Shinjuku for the most part; it’s one of the only places in Tokyo that actually gives me anxiety. The crowds and energy tend to dissolve any semblance of tension in me but somehow Shinjuku’s always felt different. Recently however I took a tour of the area with a local photographer who managed to show me the chaos in a new light, a light clear of tourist crowds and lacking the kind of seediness that isn’t all that stylish. This was a gentle reminder to avoid labelling areas to soon; fresh eyes and little patience (and a guide who knows his way) can really change a space. A bit beyond the infamous red gates of Kabukicho is a little pocket of Izakaya’s dripping in red lanterns and grit – Norengai. It took me a little while to find it on my own the second time but if you keep your eyes on the alley ways and wander around just long enough you’ll be sure to stumble across it. A bit further on from this gem is Golden Gai. Another area which took me a few visits to warm up to due its mainstream but not feeling. Golden Gai has become more and more of a tourist attraction as bars offer English and it appears to offer an authentic yet tourist friendly drinking experience. Anyway, we’re not here to discuss drinking spots, we’re here to talk locations. Golden Gai, if shot correctly, can make for a dingy yet romantic location for street shots or portraits but here again, be careful of the no go areas. Lastly, Shinjuku offers the ever popular “Memory Lane/Omoidetocho” for both a typical instagram shot of salary men in claustrophobic alleys as well as an endless supply of yakitori and yakiniku vendors. If you’ve looked up the Tokyo tag on IG I can guarantee this location appeared in the top posts section.
Pro Tip; always peep down the alleyways in Japan. More often than not you’d find yourself surprised at the literal hidden gem tucked away behind seemingly ordinary establishments and instagram hot spots.
I’ve become less partial to shooting in the daytime but if I was tasked with a daylight shoot the only place I’d want to shoot would be Harajuku and Omotesando. I make sure to walk it every opportunity I get – some people feel calm in a forest, others in the middle of Harajuku surrounded by young energy and fashion. If you’re into fashion and kawaii content; this is the only place in the country to go. Whether it be a cuteAF pink cafe, an elaborately decorated ice cream, a rainbow treat, a stylish individual (wearing a look curated to the 9th degree) or a stylised boutique you won’t be short of subject matter here. Here again; it’s important to move on further than the instagram hot spot that is Takeshita Dori. I don’t have much luck shooting in that street anymore; it can get too crowded to even raise your camera to your face and it’s a bit ‘done’ so my advice would be; brave it for the experience and then move on; either off to the left or right of it to wander the side streets. At the end of Takeshita Dori you’ll find the slightly more high-class fashion boutiques before finding yourself in Omotesando (known for everything luxe). Personally, I love the sweet spot in between Harajuku and Omotesando which seems to balance OTT Harajuku with paired back luxe Omotesando.
Pro Tip: If you’re shooting portraits in Harajuku be sure to ask if you can capture the person and their look. These individuals hold their fashion in the highest esteem and while they’re seemingly parading the streets in attention grabbing outfits that does not mean you are entitled to share in their creation. Some people will say yes and turn the sidewalk into a catwalk; others will politely decline and some might rightfully ask for payment.
Shimokitazawa is Harajuku’s lowkey hipster sister. It’s a lot quieter and stocks mostly vintage clothing and trinkets. In amongst the trendy boutiques are some quiet side streets and flamboyant game centres. It’s a great area to walk in when you feel like getting “away” from the bustle but don’t want to go too far. The subtle local feeling manages to retain a sense of intimacy while also capturing the big city energy. It’s quirky and has a reputation for being a little trashy but in the good kinda way. Personally I don’t enjoy it much in the day time but after dark it takes on a whole new mysterious-kakkoi character.
Lastly, if you’re in Tokyo and feel like making believe that you’re in another country I’d suggest visiting these three places that will take you there temporarily. Yokohama’s China Town, Korea Town in Tokyo (Shin Okubo) and Kanagawa Warehouse. Yokohama’s China Town is about an hour from Shibuya; I have yet to shoot it over the Chinese New Year but that seems to be the best time to capture the ambient lanterns and cultural feeling of the location. Korea Town is about ten minutes walk from Shinjuku station, once you find the Shinokubo station you’ll start to see signs for Korean BBQ, soju and K-pop stars. Yet again, wander down the side streets for a more authentic feeling. I’ve visited Korea twice this year and I can say for certain that anyone feeling nostalgic for Seoul should visit for sure. Last, if you’re looking to re-create Hong Kong then head to Kanagawa Warehouse for a small glimpse of old Kowloon. The 5 story game centre has been done up to replicate a cyber-punk Kowloon world. The attention to detail is immaculate in the parts of it which have been done up; as for the rest it’s straight game centre so don’t expect 5 stories of full on Kowloon; the ratio is about 8/2 with 8 parts game centre and 2 parts Kowloon. Don’t let that deter you however, those 2 parts are beyond worth it and as for the rest; if you’ve ever watched Enter the Void then this game centre is a great location to capture a similar vibe.
Tokyo really is an expansive photographic maze that is continuously evolving with the seasons, trends and people. If you’re planning to visit the city for the specific task of shooting; give yourself a few days. Walk with gmaps turned off and walk at any time of day, there will be something interesting to shoot at every turn for every eye.
Drop me a line on IG or in the comments if you have any questions about locations, vacationing in Japan etc, I’ll be happy to share anything I know.