Following a a couple of business trips to Japan, I just knew I had to take my family there so they could experience a truly different culture. We have all heard how difficult it is to break into Japan as a business person and I had much the same experience myself. But as a tourist, the situation is very different. I will expand on that later. First, though, I should talk about the camera used on the trip.
The M8 Decision
In 2008 I became frustrated with the Canon 30d I had been using for a number of years. While it never failed me, it was cumbersome. This was especially so with the two zoom and two prime lenses in the bag. And I wasn’t satisfied with the image quality. I knew we would be doing a lot of walking in Japan, so I had to find a more compact, if not lighter alternative. I didn’t want to carry loads of film around though, so it had to be a digital camera.
By this time the Leica M8 had been available for a year and used versions had dropped significantly in price, probably due to the poor reception it had received following the “infra-red problem” Problem which meant that you had to use IR filters on all your lenses.
The difference between the Canon 8MP and the Leica’s 10.5MP should not have made much difference, but the M8 was head and shoulders above the Canon in its ability to capture detail. I suspect this was mostly down to the very thin filter stack in front of the sensor.
I had been using Leica M cameras for over 30 years and so the M8 just felt right. Surprisingly, the sensitivity of the M8 was not much worse than that of the Canon, despite the 30d having a CMOS sensor.
A couple of IR filters thrown in for free and I was sold. I bought the camera second hand about five months ahead of the trip so I had time to get used to it, but I needn’t have worried. In less than a day, I was happily taking pictures.
Over the past ten years I have fallen victim to the desire for ever higher sensitivity levels in cameras. I am still amazed at the ability of the X-Pro2 to be able to take hand-held shots at night on a dark street, but in 2009 I had been using digital cameras for around three years and was still used to film speeds. The M8 ISO range was not a limitation for me. Being able to take pictures at ISO 400 in colour, without horrendous grain, seemed like a huge step forward at the time.
Regarding Leica the company, or at least the Leica of 2009: Shortly after arriving in Tokyo I noticed that the M8 rangefinder had gone out of alignment. I took the camera to the Leica shop in Ginza to see if there was anything they could do and was asked to leave the camera for an hour.
I came back in an hour and the rangefinder was perfectly adjusted. Leica had a staff technician on hand in the store and he had fixed the camera. The rangefinder never went out of alignment again, so whatever he did was a very permanent fix. Better still, even though the camera was purchased secondhand, not from any store in Japan, and more than a year old, they insisted that the service was free. I wish the same level of service was available in Toronto, but we don’t even have a Leica store, let alone a technician on site.
We started our visit in Tokyo, partly because I knew a bit of the city from my business trips and also because it’s the most western place in Japan, giving us a chance to ease into the very different cultural experience.
The time difference between Toronto and Japan is 14 hours and. after a 15-hour direct flight and many additional hours of road travel, queuing and waiting at each end of the journey, we were about as jet lagged as it possible to be. It wasn’t difficult to sleep though. We got to the hotel around 5pm and after a brief dinner we all collapsed for the night. The next day was not very productive, consisting of some half-hearted shopping, a two-hour walk, mostly trying to stay awake, again finishing with an early dinner and off to bed. There was a plan in mind though.
The next morning at 4.30 we got up to go to the Tsukiji fish market. Almost all the fish for Tokyo and quite a bit for the rest of the country went through this market. I say went because, sadly, the market is no more, although the surrounding shops known as the outer market remain.
The new and much less photographically interesting Toyosu market has replaced Tsukiji.
There are still opportunities for the photographer in the shops that used to surround Tsukiji. This picture captures the level of frenetic activity that was typical of Tsukiji as well as showing the tendency of the Japanese to work like Trojans.
Of course, once we had seen the auction, we had to try the product, so it was sushi for breakfast.
The Japanese are extremely proud of their culture, as they should be, and even complete strangers will go to great lengths to explain the meaning of various festivals, shrines and other aspects of life, even for complete strangers. We frequently had the experience of being approached on the street by people who wanted to give us directions, even though it was obvious we were not lost, suggesting the best item to buy in a shop, or just curious about us and wanting to talk. Later, we learned that many Japanese love to practice their English and stopping foreigners to speak with them is a perfect opportunity to do so.
The two main religions in Japan are Shinto and Buddhist and the number of temples in the country is roughly evenly split between the two, although that seems to vary by region. Both religions arose in Japan between the 6th and 9th centuries. The popularity of each religion has waxed and waned over the centuries and, ultimately, Shinto was formalized as the state religion in the 19th century. However, attempts to stamp Buddhism out in the 19th century were unsuccessful and it seems to be gaining in popularity again. Most of the Japanese that I met were flexible about their religious leanings, participating in both Shinto and Buddhist ceremonies and festivals.
The Meiji Shrine in Tokyo is one of the most important Shinto shrines in the city, and is dedicated to the Meiji Emperor and his wife.
Service with a smile
With an economy that resembles the American model more than anything in Europe, the Japanese service sector gives real meaning to the term service. Too often in Western countries I either wonder if I’ll ever be served or, perhaps worse, feel that the server is pushy or overly familiar. In Japan I never felt that way. Restaurant and shop staff seemed to appear just when you wanted something, but not a moment before.
If it sounds a bit like I am idealising the Japanese people, then I have given the wrong impression. I have encountered many negative impressions from people who have never personally visited Japan and I feel the need to perhaps compensate in dispelling those impressions. Like people everywhere, there are kind Japanese people and some that are not. But they are people nevertheless and will be open and friendly if you are willing to give them the opportunity. They are proud of their ancient culture and country and are eager to share their ideas if you are willing to listen.
I’m sure their drive to excel at work is a large part of their success as a nation and contributes to their desire to please.
After three days of getting acclimatised to the time difference, we were ready to take our experience on the road. A good day trip from a Tokyo base is the seaside town of Kamakura.
Renowned for the large number of temples, Kamakura is a weekend resort town for the Japanese and also a very popular site for wedding photographers. The desire for wedding photographs has been adopted from the West, and has become an industry much like it is with us. The upshot is that Kamakura is sometimes overrun with wedding parties at the weekend, so we chose to go there mid-week. So did the other passengers on the local train we took, although they seemed less fascinated with the trip than us.
Kamakura turned out to be everything we were told it would be. The temple complexes were both beautiful and fascinating, and emphasised how different the culture was in Japan. I know a little bit about the Buddhist religion, but just how little was brought home by our complete lack of understanding of much of what we saw in the temples.
I have heard of the idea of prayer wheels and saw some very large ones there, but I cannot profess to understand the concept. Similarly, there is a practice of purchasing statues of Buddha and placing them in the garden of the temple as a way of easing the path of a deceased person, often a child.
The rows of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of statues of Buddha make it look a bit like purchasing indulgences, but I was told that it is nothing of the sort and then was given an explanation that I could not follow at all.
Baffled but pleased with the photographic opportunities presented, I happily shot my way through Kamakura, temple by temple, eventually arriving at the beach. By then the weather had turned nasty and combined with much of the beach taken up with a rather desultory event launching the Fiat 500cc, I stopped taking pictures.
A word of advice, if you should decide to visit Japan please do research the seasonal weather variations before going. Due to restrictions around work and vacation schedule, we were there in July. I knew that July was a rainy month, but I didn’t anticipate just how much rain we would get. It was always warm, but the downpours put the M8 with its lack of weather sealing at risk.
In all, we found Japan to be a charming and fascinating country with people who are welcoming and always ready to help a confused foreigner. If the chance ever comes up I would return for another visit in a heartbeat.
Part two of this article will talk about the rest of the trip and particularly the lenses used.
Subscribe free to the Macfilos mailing list and receive weekday link to new articles. Your address will remain confidential and will not be used for any other purpose. You may unsubscribe at any time.