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Japow (Japan + Powder) Trip Recap

Late this winter I had the opportunity to check off one of my bigger bucket-list items: skiing in Japan. If you’re a skier or snowboarder, you know what I’m talking about. If you’re not, here’s a quick run down.

Japan, and the northern island of Hokkaido specifically, is a skiing mecca due to their quantity and quality of snow. They consistently receive the most snow among ski areas anywhere in the world and that snow typically has a snow water equivalent (or SWE) that translates to light, fluffy powder.

Ok, now you’re up to speed with why I would want to go to the northern mountains of Japan in winter.

I booked a week long ski trip (5 days of skiing with travel days on either end), and since there is so much to see in Japan (where isn’t there so much to see?) I decided to arrive a few days before and stay a few days after. On the front end of the trip I visited Tokyo for a few days and on the back end of the trip I visited Kyoto.

Below are a few of my favorite photos from the trip and lessons learned (or reinforced) that may help in your own planning for a trip to Japan.

Local guides

I’ve said it before (more than once), but having a local guide can have a great impact on your experience, especially with limited time.  To help get myself oriented, and check off some of the popular sites, I hired a guide for a day. Well, I didn’t actually hire, but was fortunate to be matched with a personal guide through Tokyo Free Guide. (As the name suggests, the guide was free, and though tipping isn’t common in Japan, I did bring a small gift from home as a “thanks.”)

Since it was just me, it was easy to stop and take photos or otherwise better direct the day. My guide knew I was a photographer and even made recommendations based on that.

From my day with a guide in Tokyo.

After touring with the guide on day one of my trip, I also felt more confident tackling the Tokyo subway and getting around, making it easier to explore on my own later.

I also used a guide service for skiing. I could have gone to the resorts and just skied on piste, but joining a group with guides maximized the options. Each day we chased the snow for the best conditions, whether it be inbounds at the resorts or in the backcountry.

Beyond the skiing benefits, the guided trip offered additional benefits, from making new friends (quality onsen time helps) to increased safety and opportunities for photo subjects.

Ski touring in Japan. The rest of my group including two guides.

 

No tripods or things that resemble tripods

Bans on tripods, monopods, and even small GorillaPods have become increasingly common over the last several years. Selfie-sticks have also seen their share of bans, but at least I fully support that one :). Bans are understandable. There are a lot of people in a small area and tripods can generally get in the way, or worse, cause someone to trip over a tripod leg.  

In Japan, this was as true as anywhere I’ve been. For example, at the Tokyo Metropolitan Building tripods weren’t allowed, nor were mini tripods. Luckily, there is a ledge on the windows that can easily support even large DSLR cameras. It limits your compositions somewhat, but at least there is a way to get a steady shot, even at night.

Photographing through the window at night. I used a window ledge and black rain sleeve to take the shot.

In other areas, even though they were banned, if you stay clear out of the way of others, you can avoid being hassled. If you go at off-hours it might help, too. For instance, I went to Meiji Shrine right at opening one morning and, while tripods aren’t allowed, the guard very graciously signalled it was ok since few people were there yet. I’d recommend not counting on this as a strategy, but rather be pleasantly surprised if it happens.

While you’re not supposed to use tripods at Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, a friendly guard saw mine and allowed me to use it since it was early and there was little traffic at that point.

 

Bring a seal to prevent glare when shooting through windows

Visiting a lot of observatories on your trip to Tokyo? Want to take photos through the glass windows? If so, come prepared so you can eliminate the glare on the window. While you can often just press your lens flat against the glass (sans lens hood), you’ll often want to shoot through the glass at an angle.

Anything from a dark scarf that you can wrap around the lens to seal off the light to a dedicated hood meant for the purpose can work. I took my black camera rain sleeve and wrapped it around the lens and it generally worked well and was better than carrying yet another dedicated accessory for the entire trip.

A tripod and completely dark room, was all I needed for this shot (clean windows helped too!). At least I had a good view when I couldn’t sleep due to jet lag.

 

Photo Equipment

I brought two Pentax K-3II camera bodies (I didn’t always carry both, but more often than not I did), a wide angle lens (10-20), a standard zoom lens (17-50), and a telephoto (70-200). Honestly, I hardly touched the wide-angle lens. The 17-50 was my go-to lens, but I did love having the 70-200. In busy urban environments, it can really let you zoom in and “clean up” the image by excluding things from your frame and, of course, it’s ideal for random wildlife encounters. The following images were all taken with my 70-200 lens:

Kiyomizu-dera Temple details and cherry blossoms.

Japanese White Eye bird in a cherry blossom tree, Tokyo.

A fox in Hokkaido.

While skiing, I carried one camera body with the 17-50 lens, sans battery grip, and my smartphone, which actually ended up being my go-to camera for much of skiing as it was much easier to get out on the fly.

Beyond the camera and lens choices, I brought a fairly large kit of accessories. This included:

  • A compact travel tripod. Not the sturdiest tripod, but it gets the job done and draws less attention.
  • Remote trigger
  • A selection of filters, including polarizers, graduated, and neutral density filters
  • A blower, lens brush, and lens cloth for cleaning
  • Lots of memory cards

Additionally, I brought an external hard drive to backup photos (look for a future post on that topic).

Rickshaw ride to the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

Have you been to Japan for skiing or photography? What tips would you have?

For additional inspiration, watch Hello Tokyo on Vimeo.

Hello Tokyo from Christoph Gelep on Vimeo.

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This was also trip #11 of my 40 by 40 challenge. Check out other trip reports here.

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