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Ramdom Thoughts After a Month in Japan

Brendan van Son+Posted By on Apr 16, 2018 |

I was nervously excited about Japan. It was the combination of the sheer weight of the fact that this was my first ever travel destination (20 years ago). In many ways, going to Japan as a kid was my “coming of age” party. It changed me. On one hand, I was worried that it wasn’t going to live up to expectations or memories. But, on the other hand, it was the most outwardly excited I’ve been about a destination since, perhaps, Lesotho.

In turn, Japan hasn’t disappointed. As a result, I feel like I need a place to regurgitate my thoughts; process them. And, hopefully make sense of them. From the best ramen in Japan to answering the age old question of “why is there only one hand dryer in Japanese toilets?”, these are my thoughts after a month here.

Japan, Mount Fuji

A Month in Japan – Things I Love

There’s a lot to love about Japan. But, the things that I love about being here are actually quite a bit different to what I expected them to be. I found myself surprised by the things I found myself appreciating and loving. This is the list.

The Quiet

When you see the stereotypical images of Japan, you often see crowds – people in white gloves pushing people into the trains. And, generally, those crowds are associated with things like noise, traffic jams, and chaos. However, right away upon arrival in Tokyo, the thing that absolutely shocked me was the quiet. We were walking down the main road in Shinjuku – lots of other people out and about – and it was almost dead quiet. No cars honking, no loud engines, no people talking, and it was just quiet. In fact, it almost felt like the conversation we had going was a couple tones too loud, and we were just chatting.

Over the month in Japan, the quiet continued to shock me. Along with the lack of traffic, and quiet streets in the busiest parts of Tokyo, most of the country just has this peaceful quiet to it. I really appreciated it.

Shibuya Crossing

The most chaotic street in Japan. Most are NOT like this.

The Food

If you follow my YouTube channel, you might know of my love of sushi. But, beyond sushi, I’m not really in tuned with the Japanese cuisine. From my visit here as a 13 year old on school exchange, I remember everything having a bit of a fishy taste. And, despite loving raw fish, I’m not really a fan of “fishy” flavoured cooked fish. However, I have quickly found a love for basically all types of Japanese food. From the ramen, to the barbeque, to, yes, the sushi, I’ve loved it.

Ramen chef in Kamikawa, Hokkaido

Ramen chef in Kamikawa, Hokkaido

The Kindness

I stated a while ago that Filipinos are the friendliest people in the world. And while I still think that’s true, I think that Japanese people are the most kind.

Japanese people, are the also the busiest people in the world. However, that wont stop them even for a second to drop everything and help someone out. It really is amazing. Maybe a simple example, but down in the foot bath hot springs in Noboribetsu, we didn’t have a towel to dry our feet. A Japanese couple we didn’t even know just walked up and handed us a towel and said “keep it”. Over this month in Japan we’ve been given towels, snacks, tissues, etc. And beyond the “gifts” we’ve been given sheer kindness and respect.

Kamikawa, Japan

My long lost “mom”. In Kamikawa, Japan.

The Convenience

Fun fact about me: I hate eating and sleeping. I find them both to be wastes of time. I mean, I love food. But, I hate the time it takes to eat. In Japan, since they are the busiest people in the world, everything is convenient. There are vending machines, 7-11s, and places to get quick, but also high quality, food everywhere.

And, even the restaurants are quick. Never would you go to a ramen place and it take more than 15 minutes to get your food and eat. I love it.

And, of course, the food isn’t the only thing that works quickly. The people, the trains, the streets, everything works meticulously and efficiently.

Mount Fuji

Believe it or not, as this photo was exposing, I walked 50m to a vending machine to get a hot coffee.

The Melding of Nature and Human World

Again, getting back to stereotypes. There are so many images of Japan just being this massive urban sprawl. However, the reality of it is that there is a really nice melding of the two. In fact, even Tokyo – which is obviously a mega-city – has plenty of green spaces for the people to retreat to. And, outside the cities, there are lots of natural getaways. As a nature-lover who can get easily worn down by the heaviness of cities, I didn’t feel weighed down at all in Japan.

Hijemi Castle

Hijemi Castle. Definitely a highlight of Japan.

The Photo Locations

Japan has some of the best photo locations in the world. And, I’m working on putting together a list of the best photography locations in Japan, but for now let me just say that this list could be 100x larger.

There are a handful of really iconic photo spots in Japan. However, what most people don’t realize is that there is just an endless number of photogenic places in this country. We only spent time on Honsu and Hokkaido, but I’m sure one could spend years here exploring other spots totally worthy of photos. Moreover, places like Tokyo and Kyoto have their hot-spots for photography, but you can really make beautiful pictures on nearly any street. It is that visually spectacular.

Bamboo forest, Japan

Maybe the most iconic photo spot in Japan.

The Toilets

Look, it’s not just the fact that most of the toilets play music as you poo. It’s not just that they have a spraying clean feature – which, by the way, should be used everywhere else in the world. But, it’s the fact that many of the toilets use grey water to flush in a really genius way. Some of the toilets have a fresh water basin on the top that pours water when you flush. That way, you can wash your hands there. Then, that grey water is used to flush the toilet on the next turn. It’s a very clever, though subtle, way of using grey water.

Hitachi Seaside Park

I don’t have a picture of a toilet, so here’s Hitachi Seaside Park instead.

Videos from Japan?

Before I jump into the things I didn’t really understand, I wanted to share my videos from Japan.
Below is an embedded playlist of those videos.

A Month in Japan – Things I Don’t Understand

Of course, few countries in the world go without having things I don’t understand. Actually, none do. In fact, on the scale of things I don’t understand, Japan factors pretty well. Especially since the stereotypes here will tell you that there’s a lot that will confuse you.

Lack of Garbage Bins

There are vending machines everywhere. Which means that, in theory, people are buying these drinks. However, they must be packing their rubbish home with them because there are no garbage bins anywhere! I once walked a solid half hour with an empty coffee can before finding somewhere to put it.

And, the most amazing part is that there’s no =litter anywhere. I feel like basically anywhere else on the planet, with this few garbage bins, the litter would coat the streets.

Harajuku, Japan

So many people. So few bins.

Lack of Hand Dryers

In the bathrooms, there might be 2 or their might be 20 sinks. But no matter how many, there is likely only one hand dryer. Do Japanese people have magically drying hands? How is it that so many people manage to use the toilets, but no one needs the dryer?

Snow monkey

This monkey came out of the hot springs, and didn’t even have a hand dryer. The audacity.

Bikes on Sidewalks

One thing that surprised me was that there are very few cars on the roads in Japan. After a month in Japan, I started to come to the realization that this was just the norm. But, what I also found to be the norm was people riding their bikes on the sidewalks. Even more amazingly, there are usually bike lanes on the roads and very little traffic to get in the way of cyclists.

So, as a pedestrian, you find yourself constant dodging bikes while walking.

Hokanji, Japan

Again, no picture of the bikes. But, believe me, they were there.

Coffee Shops Closed in the Morning

I’m trying to ween myself off of coffee, but it’s not really working. It was made slightly easier in Japan in that none of the coffee shops are open in the morning. The norm seems to be 10am. Are Japanese people naturally wired, and morning people? How does this country function without morning brew? Of course, the lack of coffee shops is made easier because of the the fresh coffee at the convenience stores and canned coffee in the vending machines.

Kyoto, Japan

When you wake up at 4am to go take pictures like this, there should be coffee.

What’s Next?

Japan has been amazing. And, a month travelling here just isn’t enough. Hopefully, I’ll be back next year.

As for now, I still have the “photography spots of Japan” article coming soon. But, in real life, I’m headed towards South America.

Best Photography Locations in Arizona

Brendan van Son+Posted By on Apr 8, 2018 |

Arizona is such a brilliant state to be a photographer. There are just endless locations to take pictures and work on your photography. Especially if you’re a landscape photographer. I’ve now spent about a month every year for the past couple years exploring Arizona and shooting images at different places, and returning to some as well. These have been my favourite.

A quick note, too. This list is not an “everything” list. These are just the locations I’ve gone out and shot (and liked). Over the years, I’ll be updating this list with new locations I discover. Moreover, if you’ve spent time in Arizona shooting photography and you have a location that you’ve shot that’s not on the list. Please, comment below with the locations – or, better yet, a photo.

Havasu Falls, Arizona

Best Locations in Arizona for Photography

These locations are listed in no particular order. And, as mentioned, these aren’t the only places to shoot. Check out the comment section below for the user-sourced locations as well.

Horseshoe Bend

This is one of the most photographed locations in America. And, while most people misquote it as The Grand Canyon, it’s actually not. That being said, it is the Colorado River below, and, well, it is pretty grand.

Horseshoe Bend is nerve-wracking if you’re afraid of heights. It’s high, there’s no ledge or barrier, it’s often really windy, and to get the best shot you need to be right on the edge.

It is an extremely busy location, though. Especially in the summer months, don’t expect to have this to yourself. It will be packed, there will be other tripods, and you will have to jostle a bit for location. But, the nice thing about Horseshoe Bend is that it is a big area to shoot from. So, with some patience, lots of people can get shots that look like there’s no one else around.

Best Time of Day: Sunrise. It’s quieter. Also, an underrated star photography location.
Best time of Year: Summer is busy, winter is quieter although beware of weather. The fall is most likely to bring rain. Also, avoid Chinese New Year dates as it gets intense with all the Chinese tourists.

Photo

Horseshoe Bend, Arizona

Location:

Antelope Canyon

There is bad news for photographers at Antelope Canyon. As of 2018, Ken’s Tours – which used to run the photography tour in Lower Antelope Canyon – is no longer running those trips. Thus, no more tripods in Lower Antelope Canyon. The reasoning I was given was because the photographers take up too much time and space in the canyon. It seems they’d prefer to just churn people through. I get it from a financial standpoint. However, I also think photographers would pay a fortune to get some time alone in the canyon. And, it’s a bit of a kick in the face to the photographers whose images really are what made this place so popular. But, it’s also nice that anyone can still visit without paying a fortune.

Antelope Canyon, Arizona

Lower Antelope Canyon

The good news is that there is a photography alternative to Lower Antelope Canyon: Canyon X. Canyon X is awesome. And, the best part is you’re likely to have it alone. When we went, there was only 1 other person in our group. And, according to the land owner, there were only 7 people in the canyon all day. There’s a video below with our experience in the Canyon.

Canyon X, Arizona

Canyon X, also awesome!

Best Time of Day: Whereas most photography is best done at sunrise or sunset, the canyons are best done midday when there’s some light in the canyon. That’s where you have the potential of getting a light ray or two.
Best time of Year: Personally, I think March is ideal. In January you’ll have the lightest crowds, but March you’ll still have small crowds but the light does hit the bottom of parts of the canyon by then.

Location (for Canyon X):

Monument Valley

This is not only one of the most classic photography locations in Arizona, but the whole of the United States. And one of the coolest things about this photo spot is that while there is one obvious shot, there are dozens of ways to shoot it. And, you usually get fairly nice desert sunsets and fantastic clear skies at night which means you can usually shoot sunrise, sunset, and stars here.

Monument Valley, Arizona

Under the stars

Moreover, while I’m only showing you the classic view point of Monument Valley, there are obviously dozens of locations you can shoot in the area. It’s a fantastic area for photography. If you’re lucky, you can ever catch wild horses racing through the fields. It’s just a wonderful place all around, and a great place to be a picture maker.

Monument Valley, Arizona

A killer sunset!

Best Time of Day: Anytime.
Best Time of Year: In Winter you won’t get the crowds (as long as you don’t hit Chinese New Years). However, it can be cold. March seems like a sweet spot. The summer can be tough. It’s busy, and it’s hot!

Location

Grand Canyon South Rim

I’ve never had the fortune to photograph the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, and I’ve only been to the South Rim twice – getting washed out by a blizzard once. But, the Grand Canyon might be the most challenging photo location I’ve been. It’s not that it doesn’t live up to expectations or anything though; it’s that it does! And, it’s really hard to capture the scale and size of it.

Grand Canyon, Arizona

The Grand Canyon from Yavapi Point

There are lots of spots to shoot the Grand Canyon from. They are all fairly similar with small difference. So, honestly, you kind of have to wander along the rim stopping at the various view points and scouting the type of image you want. That said, I had a ocuple favourites. I liked Lipan Point the most, but didn’t get to shoot it. I did shoot Navajo Point, which was great. Also, The Desert View Watchtower is underrated. Yavapai Point is one of the most popular spots, but I thought it was only OK. I think it’s just popular because it’s closest to the village.

Grand Canyon, Arizona

From Navajo Point

Best Time of Day: Sunrise or sunset. In my opinion, it looks best with the sun just below the horizon as the light is softer.
Best time of Year: Any time of year can be magic. Fall is wonderful. But, winter is fantastic as long as you don’t get stuck in a blizzard. If you get fresh snow, though, it can be absolutely unreal.

Location (of Navajo Point):

Havasupai

When I first went to Havasupai some 6 years ago it was still fairly unknown. Nowadays, it’s one of the most popular hikes in all of the US. In fact, the campsite and lodge in Supai are often fully booked 6-7 months in advance and are generally full from mid-March all the way to October. The way around it? Go in Winter. I’ve been 3 times (all in January), and each time I’m basically by myself (usually there are 2 or 3 other people about).

See the Vlog below on my most recent experience.

In Havasupai, there are loads of places to shoot. Of course, Havasu Falls is the most popular place. But there’s also Mooney Falls, Navajo Falls, and Beaver Falls which is much farther in (and I’ve not made it there yet). You could spend days here. And, at minimum you’ll want one full day.

Havasu Falls, Arizona

Best Time of Day: You can shoot this area any time of day or night. It’s that good.
Best time of Year: I think January is best, but be prepared for the cold.

Location (of Havasu Falls):

Red Rock Crossing, Sedona

Oh, Sedona. This is Wiley Coyote territory. It seriously looks like it’s straight out of a cartoon. And, of all the locations in the Sedona area, few are quite as impressive as Red Rock Crossing. Best of all, you’ll likely have this location all to yourself as it sits within a state park.

Red Rock Crossing, Arizona

A really old photo. I need to re-shoot this spot.

Best Time of Day: Sunset. At sunset the rocks get lit by the last bit of sun.
Best time of Year: Any time of year is good. In the winter, you can get interesting “fall” looking colours in the trees.

Location

Devil’s Bridge, Sedona

This is the most “instagrammed” place in Sedona, for sure. In fact, some of the gift shops have T-shirts that say “I survived the devil’s bridge”. In reality, it’s not as scary as it looks. But, it does make for a great photo location, especially if you can manage to get it to yourself for a minute. It’s a never-ending stream of people here. It is busy.

Devil's Bridge, Arizona

I’ve never been at sunrise, and that might seem like a solution. However, the light comes in here at sunset behind you and creates a nice glow. So, it’s almost necessary. Also, as you’d be hiking a bit blind if it were your first time here, it might be best to head up for sunset instead.

Best Time of Day: Sunset
Best time of Year: Mid-week, any time of year. It’s always going to be busy.

Location

Salt River

Near Phoenix, there are actually a lot of cool places for photography. However, I haven’t really spent much time shooting them. Can you blame me? There are so many other epic places to shoot in the state!

I went on a meet up to go check out Salt River and I actually loved the location. It’s such a cool place for photography. Apparently, there are some wild horses that roam around there too – though I didn’t see any. The spot itself is really cool. Head to the tubing put-in for the best spot.

Salt River, Arizona

Best Time of Day: Sunset. The mountains get a nice bit of alpenglow.
Best time of Year: Any time of year works. But, the water will be lower and more rocks exposed in the Winter.

Location

Saguaro National Park

This is actually such a cool location. But, again, it’s one of those spots you can only be in from sunrise to sunset. That said, there is a bit of leeway on that, and I managed to shoot here until about 20 minutes after the sun went down. There are countless spots you can shoot from here. It’s pointless for me to point you to an exact spot as there are thousands of shots to be had here.

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Best Time of Day: Sunset.
Best time of Year: If you can be here for the blooms on the cactus, it is beautiful!

Location

Other places I’ve yet to visit

There are so many other spots in Arizona to shoot. Honestly, I’m not sure there’s a state in the US I’d rather be a photographer than Arizona. I have a list of places I still need to get to – such as Canon de Chelly, and Grand Canyon North Rim – but there are also so many places I’ve still not discovered. Moreover, there are some spots I need to return to and re-shoot. As I mentioned, there’s just an endless amount of spots.

This list will be updated each time I return to Arizona. Be sure to check the comment section for some crowd-sourced locations.

What Are Your Favourite Spots?

If you’ve got some favourite spots, please share them in the comment section.

Photography Workshops?

I run 6-12 travel photography workshops a year. And while I don’t have anything planned in Arizona at the moment, be sure to check out the workshops and tours page for the destinations up in the coming year.

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