Tokyo is one of my favorite cities and I lived there for many years. While the crazy volume of traffic and crowds can be overwhelming at times, it's always an inspiring and surprising place to explore with a camera. So, where should you go if you only have a few days or less to shoot this incredible city? Here are a few of my favorite locations to visit with a camera, and the stories of some of the photos I have taken there.
Being a cityscape and street portrait photographer I am always looking for ways to best combine these two genres of travel photography. It goes without saying that Tsukiji fish market is also on the list but I have not included here. However, you can read about it in my previous article. I would suggest a minimum of three days to explore Tokyo.
1. Akihabara and Harajuku
In Akihabara (aka Akiba) is where you will find electronic shops, gamers, maid cafes, manga, and anime collectors. Stroll in just before sunset. Ask a few cosplay dressers for a quick street portrait or drop into a cafe to be entertained by the cartoon grins of a waitress dressed in a French maid outfit. At dusk set up your tripod on a busy intersection to mix street car light movements and neon-lit buildings. The area is riddled with photo opportunities that should keep you busy all night. In Harajuku it is best to visit on a Sunday afternoon. You will start to see many groups congregating around the train stations nearby. Simply walk up to them and ask permission for a portrait. Offer to email them a copy if they'd like.
2. Shibuya and Shinjuku
Shibuya Crossing is a bustling intersection in the center of Tokyo where seas of people cross from multiple directions every time the traffic lights turn red. Go at dusk and take your tripod or monopod to capture the movement of the crowds while keeping the streets, buildings, and neon lights in sharp focus. There are plenty of opportunities for street portraits of young and trendy couples in the surrounding streets; Look for well-lit areas and nice backgrounds. A shallow depth of field (f/2.8) with a 50mm lens will help to throw the background out of focus and create some consistency in your portraits. Alternatively, a wide-angle lens (16-24mm) will also work if you wish to capture the surrounding buildings. Walk across the infamous Shibuya crossing with your tripod or monopod and set it down in the middle of the road while crossing. Set your shutter speed to around 1-3 seconds and click. You only have about 30 seconds to cross so you only have one to two shots per crossing. Repeat the process at different angles to get different backgrounds.
Shinjuku, near Studio Alta at East Shinjuku train station exit, is a good spot to float around looking for shots of neon-lit streets and funky revelers. A tripod for the streetscapes will help you get tack-sharp shots at slower shutter speeds, down around 5–10 seconds, with car tail lights creating streaks in the image to add a dynamic feel to your pictures. Try and focus on back lights (red) more than front lights (white). Wait for large traffic flows and pick a corner that has curves to add a more dynamic look. There is a lane way near the station known as piss lane. Here you might find some great street portraits with permission. Be careful when photographing without permission as too many tourists have been invading this popular spot in the last few years. Having someone who speaks fluent Japanese with you will break the ice and you'll still manage some spontaneous portraits.
I used to live in the old downtown area of Tokyo, which is also known as Shitamachi, so there's a little bit of bias in this choice. This is also where my wife is from so I've spent plenty of time exploring the back streets and alleys with my camera. Nighttime in these areas is best explored on a weekday. Anywhere along a railway track close to a station you will find hole-in-the wall style bars and street stalls. Local businessmen flock to these cheap eateries for beer and light snacks.
Streetscapes are usually best shot from walkways looking down on traffic. Use your tripod and shoot with a slow shutter speed around 10–30 seconds to get some interesting trails of car lights. Neon lights also make for lovely backdrops. The high viewpoint will help to isolate and frame your shot better. Consider a black and white conversion.
The Ginza is another great spot for street portraits and modern architecture. Visit at the end of the day when the sun is low and the contrast between dark and light adds some drama to the scene. If you're looking for amazing modern buildings to use as backdrops or subjects of your photos, the following Ginza stores are worth typing into Google Maps: Hermes, Bulgari, Mikimoto, Dior, Gucci, Louis Vitton, Prada, Ferragamo, and Zara. Best of all, most are within a three or four-block radius of the Ginza Station.
5. Asakusa (Traditional Temple)
Asakusa is a district of Tokyo famous for the historic Sensō-ji Buddhist temple. The Kaminarimon Gate entrance to Asakusa Temple is usually crowded, but you can avoid the rush by visiting at night when the souvenir shops have closed and the tourists have gone home. If you do want to visit during the day, the best times to travel on the subway — and avoid being shoved onto a train carriage like a human sardine — are between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Another mini version of Asakusa is a place 45 minutes away by train called Shibamata also worth a look if you like this kind of ambience.
Of course there are many more areas in Tokyo you can explore so I would recommend a look at the very comprehensive site of Japan Guide for more valuable and up-to-date information. Traveling around Tokyo to get the best shots will have a lot to do with the best time and day of the week.