This July, I had the chance to go on a 3 week trip to Japan. This is an experience report on the photo choices I made, what worked and what didn’t. I hope it will help photographers who may wonder what that time of the year feels like in the land of the rising sun and what to prepare for.
Although the trip had long been planned, I still wasn’t sure about my photo equipment a few days before leaving. I knew from previous long travel experiences in other countries that combining a main body and 2 lenses (one wide and one telephoto) with a smaller, fixed-lens second camera makes for a versatile toolbox I’m very comfortable with. I take the primary camera on planned excursions where I have the time to compose landscape and travel shots, and carry the smaller one around basically at all times, popping it out on the street or in situations when quickness is required.
However, for Japan a few adjustments were needed. Keeping my faithful Fuji X-T1 as the primary camera seemed like a no-brainer, but I had experienced some frustration in Iceland with the 14mm I had picked as a wide angle. Not that the lens isn’t good in itself – with its gorgeous quality, 2.8 aperture, remarkable lack of distorsion and small size and weight, it has everything you can look for in an ultra wide prime.
But it’s the limited range that bothered me. 14mm is very wide ; there were situations where I wanted to close in on the subject, though not to the point of switching to the telephoto, and some obstacle blocked my from getting any further – be it a water stream, a cliff or an express road. And I knew Japan was going to be even more frustrating in that regard since the dense urban jungle and traffic would mean even less leeway for stepping back or closer to the buildings.
So I decided on buying the 10-24mm zoom instead. I have to say it really gave me the versatility I lacked while keeping an irreproachable image quality and sharpness, at an honorable fixed aperture of f/4.0. To the extent that I’m probably going to sell the 14mm in the near future. Its zoom counterpart is so much better in a wide variety of situations that I wouldn’t think of going to a place that mixes people, cityscape and landscape without having it on as my main lens now.
In Iceland, my second lens for the X-T1 was the 55-200mm. I didn’t use it much (it probably totalled 10% of all shots at best) except for the odd wildlife opportunity or landscape detail I wanted to catch. Again, Japan would aggravate the irrelevance of that lens since we would mostly be in cities and I didn’t plan on shooting wildlife at all. The size and weight of the 10-24 finished convincing me that the 55-200 wasn’t a good pick as I wanted to travel light and couldn’t afford the bulk of a second big zoom. So I took my 27mm 2.8 pancake instead, knowing that it wouldn’t see much use (as a matter of fact, it didn’t) but seeing as it is such a tiny piece of glass, it would have made no sense not to take it anyway.
As far as the second camera, I decided to trade the ageing original X100 I had in other trips for my Leica M6 I got earlier this year, mounted with its super tiny 35mm f/2 lens. I’ve been inspired a lot by Daido Moriyama’s images lately, and decided the M6 with a few Tri-X rolls would be a perfect fit for the kind of grittier, grainier black and white street images Tokyo and other big cities have to offer.
Although it is not literally pocketable, it proved liberating to go out with only the rangefinder hanging on my shoulder instead of a whole bag with the relatively bulky X-T1 + 10-24 pack.
Speaking of bags, I opted for the Lowepro Passport Sling III which turned out to be a good compromise of space and usability. I tend to prefer messenger or cross-body bags to backpacks that prove harder to access and less comfortable in the heat of summer. Having your back drenched in sweat by mid day because of a backpack is not the nicest feel in the world. On the other hand, my biggest fear was the bag’s lack of weather proofing given the risk of strong rain at that time of the year in Japan. So I coated it with 2 layers of waterproofing product and luckily, everything went well.
Here’s a list of all the equipment I managed to cram into that bag on a typical day, which is quite impressive :
- Fuji X-T1
- 10-24mm lens
- 28mm lens
- Extra batteries
- Leica M6 with 35mm attached
- 2-5 film rolls
- Rain sleeve and protective plastic sheet
- Long rain coat
- Small fibercloth towel
- Purse and wallet
- Travel documents
- A guidebook or two
- Bottle of water
- Pocket wifi router
With that ready, I was confident I could go on the field under most circumstances. So how does the weather turn out to be in Japan in July? Well, I had been warned that being the end of the rain season, it could get very hot and damp, with frequent deluges of rain. In reality, we didn’t experience that much of a bad weather, although I can’t tell if it’s out of luck or the normal course of things. Sure, the average temperature was pretty much above 30°C all day, but you get used to it fast and I didn’t suffer from it that much. Over the whole 3 weeks being out and about, we were really hampered by only 3 major downpours that lasted 50 minutes to an hour. The rest varied from slight rain to cloudy weather to bright sunshine – I’d say 1/3 of the time was totally sunny. I had a rain sleeve in my bag as well as a plastic cover to protect my stuff in case the Passport Sling started leaking, and didn’t use them once.
Still, here’s a list of things I found very useful and recommend taking :
Small microfibre pocket towel. The Japanese carry one of these wherever they go and that’s
for a reason. You sweat a lot under the muggy summer heat, so however much you can wipe
off makes you feel that much better. Plus I used it to clean various things that hit my cameras
or lenses – rain drops, dust, food, etc.
Fast drying clothes. I can’t stress this too much. Between the rain and the sweat, your clothes
are likely to get wet pretty soon on a typical day. If you pack light like me and wash your
clothes regularly, you’ll also need ones that dry overnight. That basically means the kind of
all-synthetic fabric you find in technical sports clothes, not anything cotton-based. I had a
couple of T-shirts that were « dry fast » but made of a mixture of cotton and synthetics and
they took forever to dry up.
Comfortable flip flops. I said earlier that downpours weren’t so frequent, but when they
happened, I found it livesaving to swap my shoes for a pair of waterproof flip flops - I actually learned that one from a friend who was with us and had done much travelling in Asia in monsoon conditions. There’s no way you’re going to protect your shoes from the buckets of water that will come at them from the sky and car splashes, so you might as well go full amphibious as long as the shower lasts and save your nice dry shoes and socks for later.
Overall, travelling in Japan in July proved an awesome experience and the gear lived up to my expectations - I almost never felt limited by it. The country is a photographer's paradise. The people, the food, the landscapes - there is so much to see and shoot in Japan that even in 3 weeks you can only scratch the surface of that wonderfully otherworldly land.