This past year, Oriana Koren returned to Japan for the first time in 8 years.
Years back, when Oriana lived in Tokyo as a college student, she spent much of her time wandering away from busy intersections, searching for the city’s heartbeat. Tokyo is a land of limitless distractions — neon lights, 13 million people packed into 800 square miles, and a vibrantly unique culture. So finding quiet, raw moments can be difficult.
But it’s exactly what many photographers want when traveling: authentic experiences. That’s why we asked Oriana to give us some tips for exploring the real Tokyo, off the beaten path.
Here’s her advice:
#1 – Walk to major streets, then walk away from them.
While it’s novel to be in the thick of hundreds of people crossing the street or shuffling through a dori (like Harajuku’s Takeshita-dori, for instance), it’s difficult to grab your camera, let alone compose a beautiful photograph. When you walk away from the major streets and intersections, you move into the “backstreets”, where the city begins to show itself to you in a much more honest way. People will talk to you, share tips on places to check out, and you’ll start to experience the city more like a local.
I like to follow the light when shooting in the back streets. I especially enjoy capturing high contrast portraits of people in black and white, so I typically look for strong, direct light. I like slice of life moments too: clothing hung out to dry, a bar tend tossing out last night’s empty beer bottles, interesting typography on buildings but be sure to follow your own interests and inclinations!
#2 – Have real interactions with people.
People do not exist for your art, so make photographs that aren’t just gawking at the locals. Ask someone if you can take their photograph, don’t swarm people, don’t make them feel like novelties. You’re the tourist, so be mindful that you are a guest in someone else’s space. Treat people with respect and when you photograph them, ask for their input. If you are shooting candidly, frame your shot, take it, and move on. And whenever possible, saying thank you goes a long, long way.
#3 – Go where no one else is going.
There is some appeal to showing that you’ve visited a place that has been Instagrammed to death, but it’s even better to research and find places you are genuinely interested in. Make your photos in those places. Tokyo is a massive city with nooks and crannies that have not been photographed ad nauseam, so find those places you can explore with fresh eyes and no expectations. For instance, I visited Meiji-gaien dori to see the Gingko trees, but everyone does that. I did a bit a research and found a garden a little ways away, Rikugi-en, that was not only absolutely stunning but felt like a well kept secret.
#4 – Pick a train line and explore the stops.
I used the Yamanote line just to transfer to other train lines. One day I took the Tokyu Toyoko line to explore Daikanyama and Naka Meguro — I took the Yamanote line to Shibuya and instead of getting off at Shibuya Crossing, I transferred to spend the day in some neighborhoods I’d heard about but hadn’t spent anytime in and it was absolutely worth making the short trek away from the popular Yamanote line to explore some of the equally popular, but smaller neighborhoods with their own unique vibes.
#5 – Get lost and be okay with it.
My best images came from the moments I walked in the wrong direction for twenty minutes and stumbled upon something incredible — like the Jizo Botatsu I accidentally happened upon while exploring Sugamo. I was trying to find a 135 year old tea shop and took a wrong turn, but the walk felt good. Then, before I turned the corner, I saw a plume of incense smoke and walked into a temple courtyard. The best photographs aren’t planned, but are waiting for you — you just have to listen to your curiosity and your instincts.