Tokyo Diary 2014

Shinjuku, 2014
Shinjuku, 2014

I’m currently on the skyliner, on the way to the narita airport to Hong Kong and wanted to share some reflections of my trip. For those of you who have never been to Tokyo, it is an incredible city. It is one of my favorite cities to shoot street photography in the world. There is so much action, energy, and a pulse to the city that isn’t matched anywhere else. Going to shibuya, shinjuku, and harajuku are like blasts to the past– with a modern day twist. I love the romanticism of Tokyo, and the food here is also amazing. Whenever I travel, I always regret not being able to meet everybody I want to– or do everything I want to do. However, I’m glad that I was able to meet those who are close to me – and spend some time catching up with them. Through my years of traveling, less is truly more. I love having less stuff (it is less pain in my back). I love having fewer commitments (it allows me to allow spontaneity into my travels). I love having fewer people to spend time with (more quality time with fewer people than seeing more people, with less quality time).

Travel essentials

What's currently in my bag for most of my travels
What’s currently in my bag and backpack for this trip to Tokyo.

For a long time I have been trying to minimalize my traveling things. The things I find absolutely critical are these:

  • Backpack: north face recon backpack I have had for 6 years since college. Holds all my stuff pretty well. The bigger the bag is, the more stuff I am tempted to put inside.
  • Messenger camera bag: ideal to hold my camera inside, and to use as a daily walk-around
  • Smartphone: I am currently traveling with a smartphone and 11 inch MacBook Air. I also brought an iPad, but found that it isn’t really necessary. Next travel, I’m going to leave my iPad at home. It’s just another electronic to worry about.
  • 11 inch MacBook Air: the ultimate laptop for travel. Portable and compact, perfect for writing, blogging, answering emails. Even good enough for Lightroom.
  • Leica MP and 35mm f/2 Summicron: my workhorse for street photography. I’m glad I don’t have the stress of owning multiple lenses. And I always keep my flash (Leica sf20) with me.
  • Kodak portra 400 film: I find traveling with film preferable to digital. Why? I don’t have to worry about hard drives crashing on me while traveling. I usually bring more film than I need (this trip I brought 100 rolls), but only shot 25 rolls so far. Also no problems scanning it through the airport x ray (only ISO 1600–3200 film is a problem).
  • Bose noise canceling headphones (qc15): essential when spending a lot of time in airplanes and noisy airports.

Medium format temptations

During this trip (and also in Korea) I have been interested shooting more medium format. I have been really enjoying medium format color and large format color work for urban landscapes from other photographers such as Mark Power (Magnum), Hin Chua, Joel Sternfeld (his book “American prospects is amazing). Even though most people know me for taking street photos of strangers with a flash, I’ve been personally enjoying shooting more urban landscapes. I feel a bit bored taking photos of strangers, I’m more interested in colors, color-fombinations, tones of color, and how the urban landscape shows societal values. For my on-going “Only in America” series– I feel I can show much about society through the environment which we life in. I’ve been tempted to buy some new medium format film rangefinders (Fujifilm gf670, Mamiya 7) while here in Tokyo, but resisted. Honestly, I think 35mm portra 400 is good enough for me for now, and I don’t want to accumulate more stuff while traveling. I might shoot more medium format back home, but then again– I want to complete shooting the 70 rolls of portra 400 I just ordered. Also I currently have around 150 rolls of kodak portra 400 which have yet to be developed. I think I going to get them processed and scanned before I figure out where I want to take my photography moving forward.

VSCO on smartphone

Minato, Tokyo  2014
Minato, Tokyo 2014

I’ve recently been enjoying shooting square format a lot on my smartphone (Samsung galaxy s5), and professing my photos on VSCO (smartphone app). What I do is shoot with the native samsung camera app (in square format), process in VSCO, and upload online. I love the square format because it really forces me to be more creative with my framing. Also I feel that urban landscapes look ideal in a square format. It is a good way to organize information, lines, shapes, and forms (and also happens to look good on a smartphone). What I’m trying to do with my Instagram feed is to have an ongoing travel diary. Also a lot of photos I shoot on my phone, I process them, and just keep them for myself. This has helped me because it forces me to just shoot photos for myself– personal photos that nobody else would care about, but photos that mean something to me. I also have been taking more portraits of my friends– after all, they are more important and close to me than just taking photos of strangers.

Street photography experiences in Tokyo

So far in this trip, I haven’t had any problems shooting street photography. I’ve been shooting with my Leica, 35mm, and flash– and walk around with a smile and act like a dumb tourist. My favorite places to shoot: Ueno (beautiful park, and nice shopping areas), Shibuya (great characters there, and compact streets filled with people), Harajuku (a pretty cool and hip place, also interesting characters, Shinjuku (more raw characters, and a bit more gritty). I also went down to Kyoto for a day to visit Sean Lotman, in my opinion one of the most innovative and talented color street photographers. He has been showing me his color darkroom prints, and they look absolutely incredible. When I’m back home in the Bay Area, I’m thinking of learning color darkroom printing in San Francisco. If you’re in Japan, don’t miss out on Kyoto. One of the most beautiful cities in the world, with a great old school vibe. Recommended things to do: eat soba noodles, have a beer by the river, and have some of the delicious pastries there.


The last 2 months have been awesome traveling with Cindy through Vietnam (Saigon and Hanoi), Malaysia, Seoul, and Tokyo. She just went home a few days ago, and is already miss her dearly. I have a workshop in Hong Kong, Sydney and Melbourne before going back home. I love traveling, meeting my friends, making new friends, seeing new things, having new experiences– but home is where the heart is. I wasn’t homesick when Cindy was with me, but now she’s gone– I look forward in going back home and relaxing. Traveling is awesome, great, and exciting– but a means to an end. I know some people who live to travel, which is great– but I don’t want to be on the road for the rest of my life. In 2015, I’m trying to scale back my travels (doing fewer workshops, but more week-long workshops), and spending time with friends, family, and Cindy back home. I also have a lot of things I would like to write for the blog. I find it hard to write, make videos, and do things for the blog when I’m on the road. Ultimately, I just want to earn enough money from workshops to pay the rent, process my films, put a little money into savings, and then– I want to stay at home and contribute as much as I can to helping spread the love and information about street photography.

Photographers to check out in Japan

Some photographers to check out:

  • Michael Nguyen ( he was my host, good friend, and a talented photographer.
  • Sean Lotman: epic color street photography (
  • Ariko (Sean’s wife, doing an epic long-term project on twins)
  • Mijonju (best film camera YouTube channel)
  • Bellamy Hunt (the man behind japan camera hunter, film aficionado)
  • Shin Noguchi (talented color street photographer in Japan)
  • Junku Nishimura (best black and white street photographer in japan. Makes his own black and white prints too)
  • Jun Abe (his book “citizens” is quite incredible)

What’s next

I’m off to Hong Kong now, to do a workshop with Gary Tyson. Feeling a bit sick, but hopefully can rest up before the workshop. Also looking forward to shooting the streets there, geeking out over film, and catching up with some friends. Thanks for staying posted and for the support guys, it means the world to me :)

17 thoughts on “Tokyo Diary 2014”

  1. Japan is just an amazing place. It’s like being in a science fiction film for real.

    And that’s just the supermarkets.

    Kyoto is jaw-droppingly beautiful. I love the Philosophers Walk in sakura season. The petals fell in the stream and by the end it was pretty much a solid mass of pink covering the water.

    So many details to pick out in the jumble. You need eyes wide open all the time.

    Tokyo – I’ll be back there next month. Going from Shibuya and its jumble of arcades and weird park to Shinjuku’s skyscrapers via the Meiji Shrine. So serene and majestic, and then you’re back in a tangle of laneways.

    And we laugh at the Japanese for being camera crazy!

  2. I’m getting too pedantic ( for which I apologise ) but didn’t you just say in one of the previous post that you use iPad ( for sake of simplicity ) and will abandon laptop ( because it provides you multiple choices ) and now you are doing 180 degrees turn and promote laptop? So what shall you disciples do now : iPad or laptop ?

  3. I am only back from my first visit to Tokyo. It is amazing place and so good for street photography. It offers so many different opportunities: craziness of Shinjuku or Shibuya, elegance of Ginza, countless small streets and corners. I miss Tokyo already sitting at home in rainy Irish village…with my post holiday depression.

  4. Ha Ha. I thought I had seen you in Ueno with a group of photographers. I didn’t realize it until afterwards that it was likely you. I was visiting Tokyo for the weekend (from Hong Kong). What a small world.

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