8 Lesser Known Locations in Kyoto & Tokyo

Tourism in Japan is growing, and fast. According to JNTO, the estimated number of international travelers to Japan in March 2018 was about 2.6 million (+18.2% from the previous year), making it the biggest March ever. In 2020 the Summer Olympics will be hosted in Tokyo, and the city and country will have to cope with the resulting huge influx of tourists.

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This growth has some Japanese concerned. Comedian Takeshi Kitano once said that Japan had sacrificed its cultural integrity for the sake of money, thus implying that foreign tourism was polluting the Japanese spirit. There's even a new word in the Japanese media being used a lot lately. "Kanko Kougai" which translates to "Tourist Pollution".

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Japan is my second home and have had a love affair with this country for over 30 years. As a long time photo tour operator I always try to capture a beautiful image of this wonderful culture and landscape. However the reality is lately it has becoming increasingly difficult to avoid crowds of people in the most iconic spots.

Despite this, there are still plenty of great locations off the beaten track. Compared to my last article on Kyoto and Tokyo's more popular destinations, here are eight lesser known places. Do you have any other suggestions?

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Otagi Nenbutsu

Otagi Nenbutsu is a quirky temple nestled up in the hills of Arashiyama. After you finish shooting the Bamboo grove a 30 minute walk up the hill will bring you to 1200 stone statues. The whimsical faces filled with moss and bursting with character will leave you laughing all day.

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Haratanien is the perfect spot for Cherry Blossoms in a private garden with over 300 trees. It's just a five minute cab ride from the Golden Temple, however check with locals before you go as the 1500 ¥en fee is a little steep. If your timing is spot on you can enjoy a sake and bento box under a tree with blossoms falling on your head.

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Hidden behind the Nanzenji Temple are a number of unique Aquaducts still in use. The repitition of arch shaped bricks has become a popular spot for the auspicious kimono models who infest the area. Built during the Meiji Period (1868-1912), the aqueduct is part of a canal system that was constructed to carry water and goods between Kyoto and Lake Biwa in neighbouring Shiga Prefecture. Paths run alongside the canal that lead into the surrounding forest.

Kyoto Station

Transient travellers often pass the massive train station in a hurry but few consider a look at this architectural splendour. The 15-storey, glass-plated grey monolith, which stands out in sharp contrast to the city”s traditional architecture was inaugurated in 1997. Designed by Hiroshi Hara who also designed Osaka's Umeda Sky Garden. Kyoto Station interior feels like being in the skeleton of a grey futuristic megatron.

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Yanaka Ginza

Is located close to the old downtown areas of Ueno and Nippori. One of the few areas of Tokyo that was not destroyed during the war. Lots of old houses still line the streets. Various laneways and hidden alleys can still provide culinary delights and an authentic cultural experience. I would suggest a walk from Ueno station following your google map you will pass Yanaka cemetery.

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When walking out of Shibamata Station, you are greeted by a bronze statue of the films’ hero, better known as Tora-san, who became the symbol of the district after director Yoji Yamada’s series grew into a long-running hit. The area feels likes a mini version of Asakusa. 

The local temple and the traditional houses are worth a quick look before you venture to the local shrine at the end of the main pathway. The Edo river located behind the shrine sometimes offers a row boat ride. The 10 minute ride is soothing and the ambience feels rural and remote from the hustle of busy Tokyo.You can also experience life like a local watching dog walkers, fishermen and baseball players along the wide river bank.

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Tokyo International Forum

A unique building in front of Yurakucho Station, with a vast atrium that provides a stunning venue for the international exchange of culture and information, and makes a perfect spot for street portraits in the afternoon. Beams of light and shade make for a dramatic black and white. The ship like shape is monumental in scale and generous with natural light. Designed by U.S. architect Rafael Vinoly with an intent to be accessible and maintain an ambience of warmth.

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30 minute train ride from Tokyo you will find lots of merchant store houses, which have now been converted into shops and restaurants. If you are into architectural photography the two storey buildings are well preserved. Kawagoe is also famous for elegant examples of early twentieth century brick, cement and stone architecture inspired by Taisho Romanticism.

If you have been to Japan before please do yourself a favour of choosing somewhere new on your next trip. 

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A Photographic Guide to Hokkaido in Winter

I've recently returned from Hokkaido, Japan, where I spent a week doing research for my 2019 photo tour. The exploration took me to Biei for snowscapes and Tsurui-mura for wildlife. Flying into Asahikawa from Haneda (Tokyo), it was easy to get to Biei and settle for the next 3 nights.

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Biei is a town located in Kamikawa Subprefecture, in the centre of Hokkaido. In winter it is known for its minimalist snowscapes, however most of these are on farms and most farms are private, making them difficult to access. I found my 100-400mm lens was perfect for shooting over fences and into the fields, and this worked perfectly to get most of the shots I needed. In fact almost all my snowscapes and wildlife shots were done with this lens. 

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The winter light can be soft and luminous on the best of days, but be patient when it's looking flat and dark. The light and dark tones that reveal folds in the snowscapes are key to a successful image. When shooting subjects like this, the challenge is to find at least three points or areas on the landscape, then use them to create a harmonious balance in your frame. Try a great leading line and a dominant focal point to rest your eyes for detail and interest.

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The subtle red fox tracks were a small detail in some shots that really added to the ambience. Atmosphere was also brought about more easily with a little wind to kick up the powder snow. Diamond dust with the morning light was a very special capture if the conditions were perfect.

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The white silence and purity of a clean landscape converts very nicely into black and white.

Tsurui-mura, Lake Kusharo and Rausu

For the second half of the trip I ventured to the South and North east parts of Hokkaido to visit three key areas: Tsurui-mura, Lake Kusharo and Rausu.

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Tsurui-mura was my base for photographing red crowned Cranes and Ural Owls. The crane sanctuary is a great spot to be at 9am and 2pm daily when they feed the birds, and every morning after sunrise they also gather on a river nearby. Be prepared for hundreds of keen photographers to be shoulder to shoulder with you and their tripods. Most will be set with an 800mm lens going trigger happy at 10 frames a second.

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The cranes are in Tsurui-mura all year but most shooters love to combine the birds dancing in the snow during February. Over the next two years however, feeding from the sanctuary will slow down to encourage the birds to be more self sufficient.

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At Kusharo Lake we focused on Whooper Swans and Marsh Teet birds. A wide angle was used for most of the very friendly swans. For the little birds a 400mm lens and a fast tracking focus mode worked wonders. Once again we were very lucky with the weather conditions, and the morning mist and fog created a dreamy atmosphere. The iced lake and snow capped mountains were an added bonus.

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For our last stop we ventured by car two hours north east to the coastal port of Rausu. Here we boarded a small cruise boat to search for sea Eagles to feed on the ice. The Shiretoko Peninsula as seen on the long panorama shot below was stitched from 8 hand-held images.

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For this trip I carried a minimalist kit - a Canon 5D Mark III, 100-400mm f4-f/5.6, and a Carl Zeiss 18mm Distagon lens. If you decide to travel at this time of year, be aware that extremely cold weather can affect your gear and you, and your feet and hands are the most important parts to protect to avoid frostbite. For my clothing I had 3 layers for every part of my body. I bought rubber high boots with good grippy soles to avoid slipping on icy surfaces. You can also attach spikes to your boots if needed. Heat packs that last 24 hours can be purchased from most convenient stores. They are called Hokkairo not Hokkaido. These are handy to keep your batteries warm if extremely cold. Keep your camera in your bag to keep it warm when you're not shooting.

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Shoot For The Stars

Want to capture beautiful images of the night sky? Alfonso Calero has six great tips to help you shoot for the stars.


While you may be tempted to start shooting as soon as the sun goes down it's best to wait until the warm glow of twilight has completely faded. Generally speaking, you'll get the best clarity and contrast if you wait at least two hours after sunset and stop shooting two hours before dawn.

Winter is the best time to shoot the night sky in the Southern Hemisphere, as the air is cleaner and clearer and the stars appear brighter. Shooting while there is a quarter, half or full moon will introduce unwanted light to your images and make the stars appear fainter. Aim for a clear moonless night. 

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Light pollution is the number one enemy of star gazing, so seek out a location well away from cities and towns.

There are a number of tools you can use to work out where the stars will be at a certain location and time. Stellarium (available for iOS and Android devices) shows an accurate 3D map of the night sky, based on the time you set, your GPS location and the orientation of the phone. To find a specific star or constellation it's simply a matter of setting the date and time and panning the camera around until you see the stars you want to shoot.

You'll find it helps to plan your composition before the sun goes down so can see what's happening around you. Try to include a foreground element in the shot such as a tree, mountain, historic home or bush track. Shots of stars by themselves can be interesting but if you can include other elements it's likely you will hold people's interest for longer. To add a dynamic feel to your photos, it's generally a good idea to avoid putting the horizon in the middle of the frame. Most images work better with the horizon placed on a third or quarter line.

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You don't need a lot of expensive gear to photograph stars but there are a few essentials. First up, you'll need a camera that allows you to shoot at slow shutter speeds – at least 30 seconds and preferably longer. Most DSLRs and high-end compact cameras offer good shutter-speed control with a 'Bulb' (B) mode that basically keeps the shutter open for as long as the shutter button is pressed. A bulb mode is required to capture star trails, which are commonly photographed over several hours.

To keep your shots steady, you'll need a sturdy tripod and a remote release. Better than a simple cable or remote release, a programmable intervalometer allows you to shoot time-lapse sequences and program exposures longer than 30 seconds in Bulb (B) mode.

If you're using a DSLR, check to see if your camera has a mirror lock-up option. This prevents the small vibrations that reverberate through the camera when the mirror slaps up and down.

You can use any lens for night photography but fast, wide angle lenses (16-24mm, 35mm equivalent) are the most popular.

A good headlamp will keep you from tripping over in the dark and help you see what you're doing while keeping both your hands free to operate the camera. I also recommend a strong LED torch to 'paint in' foreground details like trees and rocks. (For some great examples of what you can do with 'torch painting', take a look at Sydney-based photographer Peter Solness' work.

Set your camera to manual exposure and take your time working through the settings. If you are photographing the Milky Way, start with a shutter speed of 30 seconds, aperture of f/2.8 and ISO of 3200. Check the results on the camera's LCD – zoom in to check sharpness and noise – and adjust the settings as required. If there is any evidence of star trails you will need to choose a faster shutter speed to obtain a sharper image.

You'll probably find that autofocus is a lost cause at night so switch to manual focus and take your time. I find that Live View offers the most accurate focussing, especially if you can zoom in on the LCD to fine-tune your setting. If you are focussing on a subject in the foreground, use your torch to light up the point you want to focus on. Shoot a test shot and check the focus in review before you proceed.

Finally, if your camera allows it, shoot in RAW mode. RAW files contain more data than JPEG files and thus allow more flexibility when it comes to adjust white balance, exposure, contrast, noise and sharpness. 

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Weekend Roadtrip: Shooting Canola Fields & Sugar Pine Forest

Location: five hours from Sydney, five hours from Melbourne
Time: Weekend trip

On Tuesday last week I got a call from a photographer friend @johnnyjam1 to go on a road trip five hours from Sydney. Our goal was to shoot the famous Sugar Pine forest.

The drive to Laurel Hill where the Sugar Pine forest is located is a similar distance from Melbourne, which makes it a perfect half way point between the two cities. Staying close by in the sleepy village of Batlow will give you easy access to the forest which is only 15 minutes away.

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We usually get to a location the afternoon before to scout where and how we will shoot a sunrise. The Sugar Pines at Laurel Hill can be found off Kopsens Road, 15 minutes drive from Batlow. We stayed at the Apple Inn which was comfortable and affordable.

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First planted in 1929, the sugar pines are the straightest and tallest pine in the world. Looking up it can be quite disconcerting to see them swaying in the wind ready to snap and fall at least 50 feet. Sugar pine is the largest, in height and diameter, of all pine species. The wood of sugar pine is valued for its workability, dimensional stability, and satiny sheen after milling.

With snow predicted to fall we were excited to capture the snow flakes dropping for the perfect ambient shot. Unfortunately, the weather turned to clear skies. Nevertheless, it was awesome to get out of town and shoot for myself.

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Wounded trees of this species secrete a sugary exudate which gives rise to the common name. Sugar pine's large cones yield large edible seeds.These pine trees can grow to 200 feet tall with a trunk diameter of 5 feet.
Read more at http://www.australianphotography.com/photo-tips/weekend-roadtrip-shooting-laurel-hill-forest-and-the-canola-fields#KxqgfP0UkPutGlrK.99

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On our second day we decided to go to Coottamundra for a change of scenery to shoot the Canola fields. They are only the famous yellow colour for a short period in late winter/spring.
Read more at http://www.australianphotography.com/photo-tips/weekend-roadtrip-shooting-laurel-hill-forest-and-the-canola-fields#KxqgfP0UkPutGlrK.99

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The Canola fields are located on Old Gundagai road, and Rosehill and Jugiong roads near Cottamundra. From germination to seed production, the life cycle of a canola plant takes about 3 ½ months, depending on temperature, moisture, sunlight and soil fertility. I'm not sure how much longer we will see these yellow landscapes with recent changes in the weather, but regardless, make sure you visit in late winter/spring to see them at their best.

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Flying overhead you're likely to see planes spraying the fields. Because the term “crop dusting” automatically brings to mind the image above, today’s pilots generally prefer the term “aerial application” or “ag application.” Regardless, these guys are really well trained and watching them in action from a distance is quite a spectacle. However I suggest you steer clear as the chemicals they drop are quite toxic and should not be breathed in!

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My Travel Kit


I always try to travel very light and limit myself to two prime lenses. On this trip I decided to bring my Canon 5D Mark III, Carl Zeiss 18mm & Canon 50mm f1.2L lens. I have a Sirui T024X carbon fibre tripod and Nisi Filters (10 stop, PL & 3 stop reverse soft grad). I also bring my 13 inch mac book pro and Lacie Fuel Drive. My Bamboo Wacom tablet also works a charm for editing with LR, PS and Nik. Little extras like a headlamp, small reflectors and Samsung S8 also come in handy for behind the scenes footage. My mate brought along his DJI Mavic to get some drone footage in both locations.

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Five Tips for Shooting Black and White Landscapes

The next six months is prime time for shooting black and white landscapes, especially on those gloomy days which can add drama and "wow factor" to your images. I have some compelling reasons why I think you should consider converting from color to black and white.

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1. Bad Weather, Good Pictures

Some people believe they should only shoot landscapes on clear, blue sky days, but overcast days with some low cloud action can produce added drama and interest — especially to black and white images. Better yet, if the winds are strong a long exposure can add movement to the clouds and create an ambience of mystery and produce interesting effects and shapes.

Neutral density filters combined with slow shutter speeds of around 30–60 seconds will usually help you produce amazing and dramatic results. The perfect kind of weather for this is on days with skies full of fast moving low lying clouds. To help you plan ahead there are a multitude of phone apps available that help you find the perfect time and place. Check weather apps for weather patterns, wind direction, and strength, rainfall, and water levels of water ways after storms (particularly useful when shooting waterfalls), and tidal movement for coastal shoots.

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Popular apps include Sun Surveyor for checking angle of sun or moon, BOM (Bureau of Meteorology) to check chance of rain and wind speeds, Willy Weather to check tides, and The Photographer's Ephemeris for satellite imagery of potential locations in relation to light and wind direction, moon phase, tides, etc.

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2. Use the Right Gear

A mirrorless or DSLR camera which allows full manual control of your shutter speed, aperture, and ISO is preferred. A sturdy tripod tall enough for accessing the viewfinder at eye level and not light enough to blow over in the wind is a must. A wide-angle lens in the range of a 16-24mm allows you to capture more of the sky and clouds and anything of interest in the frame's foreground. A cable release, wireless remote, or mobile phone app for remotely triggering the camera's shutter and, in the case of the latter, viewing images. I use a Carl Zeiss 18mm lens and Canon 5D Mark III.

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3. Use Filters

Filters are vitally important for emphasising the required effects in your images. The proper use of neutral density (ND) filters can also take some time to master. ND filters that block up to 10 stops of light and will allow you to shoot long exposures even in the middle of the day. Most of the movement in the clouds and water in the accompanying photos were taken using a 10-stop ND filter. Most of these shots were taken in the middle of the day using 20-30 second exposures. It's best to manually focus your image first before attaching your filters. Every camera works differently when it comes to getting an accurate shutter speed reading. I use NiSi filters and have a 10 stop, a soft graduated 3 stop, and a circular polarizer.


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4. Best Camera Settings

You can set most modern digital cameras to shoot black and white images, but you’ll get more control over the tonality of your image if you shoot in color and convert to mono in post using a program like Lightroom, Photoshop, or Silver Efex. In postproduction, try to avoid the simple one-click "Convert to Mono" commands and look for options that let you control the tonal values of each color channel. In Photoshop, adding a Black and White adjustment layer above the main background layer lets you selectively change the tonal values of the Reds, Yellows, Greens, Cyans, Blues, and Magentas individually. Similarly, in Lightroom, you can choose the Black and White sliders in the Develop module to alter the tonality of each color channel.

Shooting in raw is the best option as it allows you more control in editing when you need to change the color temperatures. Having your histogram on while shooting can also help you check if you have a good tonal range of light and dark grays. Make sure you don't blow out the highlights as these may be difficult to fix in post.

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5. Make a Print

This last step I think is usually given the least amount of priority but is probably the most important. I love the fine art archival quality you can get with Hanhnemeule and Canson paper. You can spend money doing your own printing or use a pro lab that specializes in getting the best results. If you decide to print yourself make sure to calibrate your monitor, printer, and match your color profiles with whatever paper you decide to use. Try creating your own black and white landscapes, it can add a whole new creative dimension to your photography.

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Alfonso Calero – Travel Photographer from Sydney specialising in portraits and landscapes. Regular traveller with my small photo workshops/tours in Australia , Japan, The Philippines and Spain.