I am currently on the shinkansen (rapid bullet train) from Tokyo and Kyoto, and on this 2-hour trip, want to reflect on my experiences shooting, eating, and experiencing Tokyo:
How is it shooting street photography in Tokyo?
First of all, if you’re a foreigner (and don’t look asian) — you will have no problems shooting street photography in Tokyo. Japanese people are incredibly polite to (non-Japanese) photographers— and if you shoot street photos of people without strangers here, they will just ignore you or avoid confrontation.
In the past, I had some altercations with Japanese people in Tokyo — who thought I was Japanese. But this was more in the “seedy” areas of Tokyo — Shinjuku and Kabukicho (lots of prostitutes, Yakuza gangsters, and illegal things happening in the area). But this time around, I did most of my shooting in Shibuya, Shinjuku (not Kabukicho), and Ueno — and had no problems at all.
This trip, I also talked to a lot more people asking to shoot street portraits. I can’t speak Japanese, so I would just use hand-gestures to ask to take a photo of them. Surprisingly, a lot of Japanese people were very happy to be photographed— especially the older and more elderly people.
In terms of street photography in Tokyo, I recommend Shibuya if you like crowds and a younger hip crowd, Shinjuku for a more gritty-Brooklyn vibe, or Ueno for the beautiful park or narrow alleys.
I also found for me personally, I loved being in Omatesando (next to Harajuku), which has great hipster coffee shops (Kitsune coffee shop is my absolute favorite), and a more design-oriented crowd.
Stay in Gotanda
For this trip, my buddies Todd and Joel joined me — and we booked an AirBnb in Gotanda (just 2 stops away from Shibuya). Gotanda is where we hosted the workshop, and is a pretty affordable, quiet area — which I highly recommend. It is on the JR-Yamanote line (green line, the most popular subway line in Tokyo) — which made it easy to go anywhere without transferring.
When I came to Japan last (maybe 2 years ago, in 2014) it was very difficult to find free wifi anywhere (even coffee shops), and most places didn’t accept credit cards (Japan is still a mostly cash-based society). But now in 2016, a lot more places have free wifi (still not as much as even Hanoi) and not as many places accept card as compared to the states.
My experiences in Tokyo 5 years ago and now
When I first came to Tokyo in 2011, I was like a giddy school kid. But now I feel my response is a lot more measured. I don’t feel the need to do any more “touristy” things— although I did love going to the Ramen Museum in Osaka (like a theme park from 1958, the year instant ramen was invented).
I learned through this trip I care more about the people during traveling— not the place itself. I had a lot of great food (ramen, curry, tonkatsu, Japanese bbq-beef), and great coffee (very expensive though, around $4.50 for an espresso). But the best memories are from teaching the workshop, meeting all my enthusiastic and passionate students (see their Tokyo Workshop Photos), and spending time with my buddy Todd and Joel.
I loved the feeling of camaraderie during the trip — spending slow mornings with Todd and Joel having coffee, and talking about life. I loved the energy from teaching the workshop, and gaining so much inspiration and excitement from the students. I loved learning a few phrases in Japanese, and just saying hello, thank you, how are you, and delicious to the locals here.
The biggest inspiration I had while in Tokyo was related to design. The zen, simplicity, and minimalism.
In Omatesando (also a high-end shopping area), I loved walking the back alleys with my buddy Joel — and seeing some modern architecture in some residential areas. I loved going into the Issey Miyake store (the designer that Steve Jobs had 100 identical black turtle-neck sweaters made), and being inspired by the elegant, flexible, and functional designs.
I loved going to Kitsune coffee shop, where the place looked like a zen temple for coffee, with traditional Japanese wallpaper, zen paintings on the walls, small tables close to the ground, small stools, and the clean edges as well as organic, wooden materials.
I loved experiencing the Japanese art of attention to detail. Most places you go, very subtle things stand out to me. When you get a receipt, a business card, or whatever— they always turn the card to face you (so you can read it). When you go into an Izakaya restaurant, and take off your shoes— when you leave, your shoes are prepared for you (facing you) to leave.
We went to a 1 Michelin-star Ramen restaurant in Tokyo (my favorite meal) called Tsutsa, and I was amazed by the artistry of the chefs. They treated making ramen like art. The way they cooked the noodles, placed the mushrooms, and poured the soup was like watching a painter paint.
Not only that, but the sense of customer service here is amazing. People working are always cheerful, friendly, and very helpful. Also with strangers, I have always found people to be extremely helpful and accommodating.
Dark skies over Tokyo
There are of course, downsides to Japanese society. Death by overwork (karoshi) happens all the time. Salarymen who are working on the weekends and never see their families, and drown away their sorrows in the evenings with alcohol. People who are discouraged from taking risks, from doing what they love, and staying inside a box.
On the other hand, you have a lot of Japanese rebelling against the system. You have both extremes— the extremely conservative salarymen, and the extremely radical counter-culture youth. Yet for me, I still felt like most people here were stifled. Just go on a subway train during rush hour— all these miserable faces, stuck in the mob, going with the flow like fish or sheep.
I am so grateful for growing up Asian-American — both having my Korean values of respect for the family, for society, and tradition, as well as my American identity of individuality, personal freedom, and entrepreneurship.
Asian people are generally quite risk-averse. They prefer to take the safer option in life. Better to be a lawyer, doctor, or a scientist than to become an artist, start your own business, or something else.
Life in Tokyo vs Hanoi
Of course this comparison isn’t fair— living in Tokyo vs Hanoi. I haven’t lived in Tokyo, so I have no idea.
But for day-to-day living, I’ve actually found I prefer Hanoi. More coffee shops, more wifi, and more affordable food. Tokyo is great for street photography, aesthetics, and other things— but extremely expensive. The average cup of coffee is $3.50-$4.50, and (good) ramen will cost you $10+. I had some good Japanese BBQ last night, and it cost around $60 a person (could have still eaten more afterwards). Compare this to Vietnam ($1 for coffee, and $2-3 for meals). But of course, you can also have $60 meals in Hanoi, but they are a lot more rare.
I’ve found that my lifestyle is simple: all I need is Cindy, wifi, (good) coffee, my laptop, camera, and that is it. I don’t need a car, fancy clothes, a big apartment, or superfluous devices or stuff. Which makes me wonder— why am I usually stressed out living in the states, and have no stress living in Vietnam?
Living in Hanoi is like a paradise for me — the Paris of south-east Asia. I no longer worry about expenses, or ever running out of money. Of course I am only living there for 1.5 years, but by not stressing about finances and just paying the bills, I have been the most creative and productive in my life. I’ve been blogging like a madman, having a lot of time to think, reflect, and meditate on life. I’ve met a lot of new friends, learned Vietnamese, and made some new philosophies about life.
If I had the choice of living between Tokyo or Hanoi, I would choose Hanoi in a heartbeat. Tokyo is great to travel to and visit, but I know living here would kill me financially. And the wifi isn’t nearly as fast nor ubiquitous as Hanoi (surprisingly). And there are better coffee shops in Hanoi (sorry Tokyo).
Keep your photography personal
While living in Hanoi, I haven’t been shooting much street photography. More personal photos of Cindy, my daily life, and blogging.
Here in Tokyo, I was super inspired to shoot. I set my Ricoh GR II to high-contrast monochrome, and hit the streets. I’ve been shooting a lot, fueled by this empathy for the people here. I see most people as sad and miserable, and I can relate. I feel more emotions while I’m photographing strangers. I’m embedding my soul, emotions, and worldview onto them. I’m essentially making the photos “Personal Street Photography” — not photographing random strangers, but strangers I can empathize with emotionally.
I still feel there is a dark sky over Tokyo — a sense of dread, misery, loneliness, loss of freedom, and being trapped. But of course that is my subjective view— going to Harajuku and Omatesando, there are a lot of happy, creative, and cheerful people.
Which makes me realize— all photography is personal, and is filtered through your own consciousness, and how you see reality. There are no “right” and “wrong” in photography. There is only “personal” and “non-personal.”
I packed ultralight for my trip, and thank God. I (unfortunately) have accumulated some more stuff, mostly kind gifts from friends. But still, living and traveling ultralight has made life so much more pleasant. Less weight and strain on my shoulders, fewer devices to charge, and less things to worry about.
All I have for this trip is my backpack (Thinktank Perception 15), 2 changes of clothes (one on my back, and one in my backpack), laptop, smartphone, and Ricoh GR II. The videos I’ve been shooting are on my smartphone, or my webcam on my laptop.
I don’t need any more megapixels in my camera. I don’t need a better smartphone. I would prefer a lighter laptop, but my 13’’ MacBook Pro does everything I need to do, and thank God for the SD-card slot, usb slots, and the keyboard. The laptop will probably last me another 5-6 years.
I don’t need new clothes. I don’t need a better backpack (although I sometimes get tempted). I don’t even think I need to travel anymore, eat any more exotic foods, or have any other “exotic” experiences. I am happy with the friends I have, the family I have, the coffee that I have, access to wifi, the privilege to do what I love, to teach, to blog, and to share. What else do I need in my life?
If anything, I probably have too much — I think I need to figure out ways how I can further reduce distractions in my life, to continue to focus on what is truly important to me — creating and sharing information.
I left my heart in Hanoi
I should probably drink less coffee, should sleep more, worry less, get distracted by my phone less, be more focused on conversations with friends and loved ones, travel less, and help Cindy more. These are some things I would like to work on more when I go back to Hanoi.
I’m currently heading down to Kyoto, where I am excited to see my buddies Sean Lotman and Junku Nishimura— who I consider the 2 best street photographers in Japan. I am also looking forward to walking around, being inspired by the Zen aesthetics, temples, and coffee+food down there.
But most of all, I am excited to fly back to Hanoi, to see the love of my life, Cindy. I am excited to hold her in my arms, walk with her down the streets of Hanoi (while avoiding cars and motorbikes), and having simple meals at home. I am excited to stop by our local grocery store, picking up some Korean BBQ, and grilling at home. Some kimchi, Vietnamese herbs and soup also sounds nice.
New announcements from Haptic Industries
I’m also excited to collaborate more with Cindy and Haptic Industries— producing more books, prints, and products.
Not only that, but Street Notes has been selling really well — we are so happy to spread the love, inspiration, and information with so many people from around the globe.
We are working on making more prints, and we still have some “City of Angels” in stock — if you want to invest in some limited-edition art.
Also, be on the lookout for some new cool products and packages from Haptic Industries, especially for the Christmas season.
Don’t miss out on a street photography experience of a lifetime
If you’ve never been to Vietnam before, we also have 5 spots left for our epic Hanoi to Sapa workshop from Feb 8-13, 2017. I’m excited to spend all this time with the students, shooting with them, exploring with them, eating great food, and (strong) Vietnamese coffee. If you want to go on an epic trip of a lifetime, don’t miss out.
Start here for everything photography (and life) related
Recently, I’ve also re-done the “Start Here” page— trying to make it more simple, minimalist, but comprehensive at the same time. Below are some resources you can get started with— or to catch up with.
New free Lightroom presets
I’ve been working on these presets for a long time. They’re mostly optimized for the Ricoh GR and when shooting with flash— but I figure they will look good with any camera (as long as you shoot in RAW).
There are two Lightroom presets:
- Eric Kim Color 1600 (gritty, high-contrast color preset)
- Eric Kim Monochrome 1600 (gritty, high-contrast black and white preset)
Download for free:
As always, thank you so much for your constant support, love, and encouragement. You reading this and being part of this journey means so much to me. So be happy, enjoy the small pleasures in life, drink lots of great coffee, and shoot what is meaningful and personal to you. Live a life true to yourself, follow your own gut, and don’t waste any time.
Tokyo, Thursday, Nov 17, 2016 @ 1:19pm — excited to eat some delicious soba noodles in Kyoto.