2019 Classic Japan Autumn Tour Report
TOUR REPORT: Part 1 – Tokyo to Mount Fuji (14-16 Nov. 2019)
Updated: 26 October, 2020 | by Julius Pang
Our 2019 Classic Japan Autumn Tour ran from 14-30 November 2019. We were joined by Louise (Australia), Shelly (USA), and António (Portugal).
We introduced some exciting new attractions and locations for this tour, including exploring Mount Fuji viewpoints around the Fuji Five Lakes area, Himeji’s Engyoji temple complex, the beautiful city of Kanazawa – often called “Little Kyoto”, and Byodoin, one of the most stunning temples in Japan.
We’ve changed our tour report format this year and I’ll talk a bit more in depth about the various attractions that we visited and some discussion about shooting techniques used.
A huge thank you to Louise, Shelly, and Antonio for joining our 2019 Classic Japan Autumn Tour!
- Our group with Kodaki Fuji – a famous view of Mount Fuji.
Our 2019 autumn tour started off with a few days in Japan’s capital, the amazing megacity of Tokyo.
For our early arrivals, we’ve always run an optional tour to cover free time before the start of our main tour. Louise was our earliest arrival and was able to join me as we explored central Tokyo and Shinjuku for a few hours before our welcome dinner.
First stop was Tokyo Station. For most travellers to Japan, this place often marks the first major landmark they encounter in Japan with most airport trains and buses terminating here. In recent years, Tokyo Station has undergone significant renovations on its Marunouchi side, with the main highlight being the restoration of the domed rotundas on the west and east ends. More recent work focused around the area in front of the building, which is now a beautiful open plaza that connects to Gyoki-dori Avenue and onto the Tokyo Imperial Palace. I’m always amazed by how clean and neat Japan is, and Tokyo Station Plaza is no exception – absolutely exemplary!
- The beautiful new plaza on the Marunouchi side of Tokyo Station. To the left is the western rotunda. There is also a countdown timer to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in front.
- One of the beautifully renovated rotundas at Tokyo Station’s Marunouchi side.
Nearby Tokyo Station is Tokyo Imperial Palace, where the Emperor of Japan and his family live. We stopped for a look at Seimonishi Bridge which forms one of the entrances into the Imperial Palace’s Inner Grounds. While the outer grounds and the East Gardens are open year round, the Inner Grounds are only open on two days a year, 2nd January (New Year’s Greeting) and 23rd December (Emperor’s Birthday), during which the Emperor makes a special appearance from his palace balcony to greet well wishers and say a special message.
- Seimonishi Bridge forms one of the entrances into the Imperial Palace and is arguably Tokyo’s most famous bridge. It’s nicknamed Meganebashi (Eyeglasses Bridge) for how it looks, or most commonly Nijubashi (double bridge). There is an interesting background to the naming of this bridge as a lot of tourist information refers to it as Nijubashi, which is incorrect. The grounds of the Imperial Palace were the site of Edo Castle (est. 1457) in the past, and from where Tokugawa Ieyasu established the Tokugawa Shogunate. Unfortunately, there are very little remains of Edo Castle, with most of its structures falling victim to fire, earthquakes, or war. Some structures were simply replaced to make way for new ones, for example, the wooden Otebashi Bridge was replaced by Seimonishi Bridge in 1887 during the Meiji Era.
Moving on from the Imperial Palace, we headed to the nearby Tokyo International Forum. I love taking tour members here because its such a wonderful piece of architecture and provides heaps of photography opportunities.
- The Tokyo International Forum is a multipurpose exhibition centre with its centrepiece being a boat-shaped lobby. I’m always blown away by how this building is mostly empty space inside, and located on some of the most expensive real estate in the world. Next to the lobby are four blocky buildings which house the main function spaces.
After our time in and around Tokyo Station we headed to the western part of Tokyo to visit Shinjuku, which is the major business and administrative centre for Tokyo, and home to the world’s busiest train station.
We visited the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building located in the Shinjuku skyscraper district. This is one of Tokyo’s famous architectural icons and was designed by Kenzo Tange. You get a sense of how big a city Tokyo is when you realise this twin tower 48-storey building accommodates the administrative staff who manage Tokyo.
Finishing off our early arrivals tour, we had a quick peek at the new Tokyo National Stadium designed by another famous Japanese architect, Kengo Kuma, which will take centre stage for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. The stadium has been completed but still behind fencing when we went. It looks absolutely amazing! What was also interesting was a new Mitsui Garden Hotel directly opposite the stadium, and this also featured stunning architecture.
- The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, often referred to in short as Tochō (都庁), is a prominent landmark in Shinjuku. It consists of three separate buildings, with the twin towered Main Building No. 1 being the highlight. Tocho is one of the most famous buildings designed by legendary Japanese architect Kenzo Tange. Tange designed numerous distinctive buildings in Japan and overseas throughout is career and is considered one of the architecture greats.
With architectural photography, it is common to see full perspective correction applied on buildings so that they don’t look like they are “falling backward” and the sides of buildings appear vertical. However, doing this with very tall buildings shot close at a low angle is problematic because you will get severe distortion at the top of the building, making it look worse (in my opinion). The best solution is to use a tilt-shift lens, although this is a very specialised and expensive bit of equipment. When you don’t have a tilt-shift lens available I think it is best to edit shots like this to your own taste – here I’ve used an ultrawide angle lens here with minimal perspective correction as a fully perspective corrected image just didn’t look right.
- The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building provides a great view of Tokyo. In this image, the new Japan National Stadium for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics is visible on the left behind the clock tower (NTT Docomo Yoyogi Building). To the right, the large forest is Meiji Jingu Gyoen (Meiji Shrine Inner Garden) where Meiji Shrine is located. The forest merges with Yoyogi Park and just behind it is a curvy building which is the Yoyogi National Gymnasium, another famous building designed by Kenzo Tange – this was used for the swimming and diving events in the Tokyo 1964 Olympics, and will be the venue for handball in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
- The beautiful new Japan National Stadium built for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. This building has had a tumultuous history with the original design by famed architect Zaha Hadid scrapped due to public discontent over the building’s cost as well as protests by famous Japanese architects. After her design was scrapped, a new design competition for the stadium was held, with a design by Kengo Kuma beating out fellow “starchitect” Toyo Ito. Personally, I liked Ito’s design better based on the aerial renderings but from the ground, Kuma’s building design really looks superb.
- The brand new Mitsui Garden Hotel Jingugaien Tokyo Premier. As a huge fan of architecture, it was a wonderful surprise for me to see this directly opposite Japan National Stadium. I think the design of this hotel is fantastic – the way the wood is used here to create pattern and depth, and the repetition of the square/cube theme. World class architecture here by Nikken Sekkei, the second largest architectural firm in the world and responsible for many prominent buildings around the world. They also designed one of the new Tokyo 2020 Olympic venues, the Ariake Gymnastics Centre which looks like it is a close relative of this hotel with its incredible use of wood.
- The gentle curve on each side of the Mitsui hotel is reminiscent of the roof profiles seen in Japanese temples. I call this the “Zen curve” but it probably has a proper name – look for this next time you see a Japanese temple. Finally, the use of contrasting wood colours here to create texture and depth and the repetition is fantastic.
Odaiba is a large artificial island in Tokyo Bay which serves as a shopping, commercial and residential area. Odaiba has become a part of our main itinerary after initially being an optional tour. This is mainly due to the presence of the Mori Building Digital Art Museum. This groundbreaking museum was the first digital art museum in the world and features the work of the Japanese art collective, teamLab. The museum features 10,000sqm of space and artworks are spread over five zones.
Aside from the Digital Art Museum, Odaiba is well known for its architecture, with the Fuji TV Building a prominent landmark, along with a curious mini Statue of Liberty replica, and a life size Gundam robot statue.
- The Forest of Resonating Lamps has an immediate “wow” factor the moment you enter the room and it’s one of the popular exhibits for selfie shots. There are a few exhibits in the Digital Art Museum that make use of mirrored walls and floors to create an “infinity mirror room” effect – a technique which Japanese artist Yayoi Kusuma is famous for.
- This area of the Digital Art Museum is called the Future Park and features a lot of interactive exhibits. Perfect for kids and those who are young at heart!
- This foggy room is filled with over 200 robotic moving head lights which have been programmed to create all sorts interesting patterns and movements with light beams. I keep thinking I’m part of a game of Tron whenever I go in here.
- The Hachitama Spherical Observation Room in the Fuji TV Building provides a nice view overlooking Tokyo Bay. The Rainbow Bridge takes centre stage, while the spiky red and white tower in the background is Tokyo Tower, a famous Tokyo landmark and the second tallest structure in Japan after Tokyo Skytree at 332m.
Tokyo Skytree （東京スカイツリー）
We finished off Day 3 at Tokyo Skytree. This is the third tallest building in the world and has amazing views of Tokyo from its two observation decks. We visited the 350m observation deck and setup early to shoot the sunset. On this day we were blessed to have some very clear weather so Mount Fuji was easily visible in the distance.
I always tell my tour members that this view of Tokyo is worth seeing from daylight through to night time because of how different Tokyo looks as the light changes. By spending this amount of time at Skytree, it is possible to get several great shots of the city from multiple viewpoints.
- A great sunset right next to Mount Fuji. In the near middle of the image to the right of Mount Fuji are the cluster of buildings which form the Shinjuku skyscraper district. The pointy NTT Docomo Yoyogi Building and the twin towers of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building are easily seen.
One of the main difficulties shooting into the sun like this are the reflections created in the glass. Very difficult to minimise and you’ll end up with a tedious editing job – a lot of adjustment brush work here to try and paint out the reflections. This will do for now for the tour report but I could spend hours to get the result looking more seamless.
- Once the sun sets and we head into twilight, we get a beautiful blend of colours from the horizon and sky together with the city’s lights switching on for the night. This particular view of Tokyo featuring Mount Fuji is my second favourite from Skytree.
Like the daylight shot, reflections are an issue to deal with but this time coming from light sources from within the building behind the camera. Normally the best approach is to block off as much of the reflected light as possible and shade the lens – dedicated photography accessories like a “lens skirt” can be useful if you can get close enough to the glass. In this case here, using a jacket during shooting was the only option plus using the adjustment brush as best we could during editing.
Showa Memorial Park (昭和記念公園)
Showa Memorial Park (昭和記念公園, Showa Kinen Koen), is a huge public park located in Tachikawa, 30min west of Tokyo. Covering over 160ha, the park was built upon a former military airbase and opened in 1983 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Emperor Hirohito’s reign. When emperors die in Japan they are given a special posthumous name, with Hirohito’s being Showa (昭和), meaning “enlightened peace”.
During autumn, one of the main attractions at Showa Memorial Park are its ginkgo trees, organised into two immaculately tended avenues. The park has several gardens on its grounds and features seasonal flower displays. The Japanese garden here is excellent, and the bonsai garden is exceptional.
- The elegant Japanese Garden at Showa Memorial Park is very well designed and could easily stand on its own as a tourist attraction if it wasn’t part of the park. It features a lot of stylish elements like this island designed to represent a turtle – a typical feature of Japanese garden design but here its taken a step further with what looks like two bonsai-sized pine trees growing on it! Another interesting feature here is the yukitsuri used on the large pine tree – beautifully done but overkill for Tokyo, which rarely gets snowfall. The pond here was also incredibly clean and clear – I think we must have visited very soon after a major cleaning was done.
- The Ginkgo Avenue at Showa Memorial Park is a great spot to capture ginkgo autumn colours in Japan and is one of the highlights of the park. The avenue goes on for 300m and is a canopy of yellow leaves all the way.
- The National Bonsai Garden located in the grounds of Showa Memorial Park features exceptional bonsai specimens. Here is an amazing little maple tree in the chokkan (formal upright) style of bonsai placed in a tokonoma space.
- Bonsai of a Chinese quince. The single fruit on the top here really threw everyone off as it looks like it was stuck onto the tree branch, but it’s definitely growing off it!
MOUNT FUJI （富士山）
Over the past couple of years we’ve gradually included more time to shoot Mount Fuji. This beautifully symmetric volcano is the highest mountain in Japan at 3776m and has been a cultural icon of Japan for centuries. It is an iconic photography subject in Japan but the tricky part in shooting it is getting clear weather – autumn provides the second best time of the year (after winter) for clear weather to shoot Mount Fuji.
Fujisan, as it is known in Japanese, is considered a “shy mountain” by locals, and any photographer who has dedicated time to shooting Fujisan can attest to plenty of wasted time when the view has been blocked by clouds, or inclement weather. We lucked out on this tour with 2 clear days of weather to shoot around the Fuji Five Lakes area, where several well known viewpoints of Mount Fuji exist.
My experience with Fujisan over the years has made me believe that if you can see it, you should shoot it. With amazing weather and peak autumn colours, we reorganised our schedule around Lake Kawaguchi to focus on Mount Fuji.
- Louise here is capturing a famous view of Mount Fuji known as Kodaki Fuji (子抱き富士), meaning “child holding Fuji”. The smaller mountain in front of Mt. Fuji here is Mt. Omuro.
- During the autumn season, Lake Kawaguchi has a popular autumn leaves festival featuring evening illuminations. We visited the “Momiji Corridor” (momiji means Japanese maple) to see the gingko trees and Japanese maples showing off vivid colour.
- Iyashi no Sato (いやしの里) is an open air museum with a collection of preserved traditional Japanese houses. These houses feature distinctive steep thatched roofs to deal with high snowfall in the winter. This place is one of my favourite spots to shoot Mt Fuji due to the traditional architecture and autumn colours providing great framing elements for the mountain.
- Lake Sai (西湖, Saiko) has a superb view of Mt Fuji and is one of the best spots to get a Fuji reflection in the water. Apart from enjoying the view of Mount Fuji, this area is popular for fishing, boating, and other outdoor activities.
We departed Lake Kawaguchi and the wonderful views of Mount Fuji to head to Himeji. Along the way we had some time at Yokohama Station before catching our shinkansen to Himeji.
The shinkansen, also nicknamed the “bullet train”, is Japan’s pioneering high speed rail service first introduced for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Since its opening over five decades ago, it has carried more than 10 billion passengers, without a single fatality or injury due to train accidents.
Yokohama Station is located on the Tokaido Shinkansen which runs between Tokyo and Osaka. With more than 400,000 passengers using this shinkansen everyday, it is the world’s busiest high-speed train line.
During peak times, there can be up to 17 shinkansen trains per hour, with 12 being the the fastest, super express Nozomi service. With such frequency, timing is absolutely critical, and the shinkansen is famous for its punctuality – trains arrive and leave within the same minute. In 2016, JR Central reported an average delay from schedule per train of 24 seconds – this is including delays due to uncontrollable courses like poor weather, earthquakes etc.
- Enjoying the view of Mount Fuji as we departed Lake Kawaguchi. Our train had rather colourful seats featuring characters from Thomas the Tank Engine, all part of promoting the Thomas Land theme park near Lake Kawaguchi.
- Yokohama Station is a great spot for trainspotting as it features a platform that lets you get clear shots of shinkansen trains. Here we have our group comparing shots they’ve just taken – won’t be too long before another shinkansen passes through!
- The N700 Series Shinkansen is the workhorse train on the Tokaido Shinkansen, operating at up to 300km/h. This train series isn’t the flashiest of shinkansen trains but it is very comfortable and efficient, which is what the Tokaido Shinkansen requires.
- Shelly and Louise getting some good angles for their shinkansen images.
- The platypus nose of the N700 is designed to reduce “piston effect” as trains enter tunnels. With high speeds, there is also the “tunnel boom” effect as trains exit tunnels – this sound resembles a sonic boom, and a lot of research is done on shinkansen nose design in order to reduce this problem.
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