Japan: Home to the World’s Most Beautiful Light

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Osaka at Night

A few years ago, I watched the episode of An Idiot Abroad where Karl was forced to climb Mount Fuji in Japan. Karl did his usual grumbling as he hiked up all night long — but was rewarded by the most incredible sunrise. He was indifferent to it, of course.

That sunrise was on TV, but it was enough to take my breath away — hundreds of rays of pink and gold and red seeming to shine down from each and every direction. I have never seen a sunrise like that — anywhere.

I didn’t end up climbing Mount Fuji and seeing that famous sunrise for myself — but I was stunned, again and again, by the sheer quality of the light in Japan. Maybe it was the lack of significant air pollution, maybe it was good timing on my part, maybe my mind has just become more attuned to light as I’ve gotten more into photography — but I can’t deny that Japan has some of the most consistently outstanding light I’ve ever seen.

I couldn’t think of a better way to commence my posts about Japan than with my favorite pictures of this unforgettable light.

Shibuya Sunset

Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo

Shibuya Crossing is arguably the most famous traffic crossing in the world. Hundreds of people cross half a dozen enormous crosswalks whenever the light turns green. How many people does that total by the end of the day? Tens of thousands? (And yes, cars do pass there, too!)

Getting to Shibuya just in time for sunset gave me a beautiful pink and purple backdrop for the silver buildings against the frenetic crossing.

Yasaka Shrine Golden Hour

Yasaka Shrine, Kyoto

Yasaka Shrine was one of my favorite places to visit in Kyoto. It had a variety of temples and shrines, it was conveniently located in Gion, it had a mix of tourists and worshipers coming to pray, and unlike most places in Kyoto, it was free to visit.

Now — look at that picture. That bridge is naturally gray. Though this photo is edited and retouched — as all my photos are — it’s true that the evening light turned that gray bridge bright red. Those aren’t red leaves on the trees, nor is that swan naturally red — the light was just that good.

Yasaka Shrine Kyoto Sunset

As soon as I came back to the main shrine at Yasaka, I immediately took off running from my new friend Fumi — I had to capture that shrine in front of that sunset. And I knew that I had only a few minutes at the very most.

Good thing I ran. It took about a dozen shots before I had one that I liked. This is one of my favorite shots from all of Japan.

Yasaka Shrine Sunset

“What do you think the writing on these lanterns says?” Fumi, a former student of my friend Annette, asked me.

“Prayers? Or blessings?” I guessed.

“They’re the names of the people who gave the most money,” she said with a smile.

I love it. Just when you think that Japan is more different than anywhere else you’ve ever been, at some point it turns out to be just like anywhere else in the world, broadcasting the names of their most prolific donors.

Osaka Sunset

Dotonbori, Osaka

Osaka is a city of bright lights and neon — especially in its wild Dotonbori neighborhood. The sunset, in its many shades of blue and pink, brought out bright neon light, reflected up from the river.

Osaka is definitely doable as a day trip from Kyoto, but you’re missing the best part of the city if you leave before nightfall. Few cities comes to life at night as vibrantly as Osaka.

Hakone Lake

Lake Ashinoko, Hakone Region

My brief 24-hour journey to the Hakone region was a bit of a disappointment — though I had had sunny skies every day in Japan so far, that day I was threatened with stormy skies. Mount Fuji was completely enshrouded in clouds, and the outdoorsy tours weren’t as appealing in bad weather.

But at one moment, when I rode the pirate ship across Lake Ashinoko, the sun peered out just long enough to illuminate the shore, the surrounding mountains engulfed in darkness. It didn’t even look real.

Roppongi at Sunset

Roppongi, Tokyo

Roppongi was another area that didn’t quite live up to the hype. I expected a wild, thumping nightlife with tons of stripclubs, angry bouncers, and expats from around the world pouring out of doors, drunk on sake, but I didn’t see a trace of anything like that! It was one of the quietest Saturday nights I’ve seen — then again, maybe things pick up there after 9:00, when I left.

That said, being there at sunset was a perfect opportunity to catch Tokyo’s famous taxis against a periwinkle sky.

Ueno at Night, Tokyo

Ueno, Tokyo

And to finish it off, a deep cobalt sky in Tokyo’s Ueno neighborhood. It’s so difficult capturing the bright blues in the sky as soon as the sun sets, but when you can, it’s incredibly rewarding.

Japan is a rewarding destination for so many reasons — the kind, polite, and every-helpful people; the delicious and painstakingly prepared food; the peaceful and beautiful temples, the jaw-dropping technology present in daily life — but for me, the greatest surprise was the beauty of that light.

Which photo of Japan is your favorite?

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39 thoughts on “Japan: Home to the World’s Most Beautiful Light”

  1. The Shibuya Crossing one is incredible! I remember being really underwhelmed by it though – it looks busier in Lost in Translation 🙂 Also, I had the same experience in Roppongi! Boring! And I was out late, and with a few Japanese friends….we still didn’t find much to do.

  2. You captured the light really well. I notice when there is something special in the light, too. Have you ever been to Cornwall? I loved the light there, but I’m sure Japan is much better…

  3. Wow, love the shot from Dotonbori! I skipped Osaka when I was in Japan last year, just not enough time for there and Hiroshima. But I like leaving places to come back to later.

  4. I badly want to goto Japan. It’s been a dream of mine since I was young. I was considering going there at the start of my one year jaunt around SE Asia and Oz but worried that it would soak up too much of my money too quickly. Not sure when ill get to go :-/

  5. Hi Kate, I am glad you enjoyed Japan it’s such an amazing country. Yes 9pm at Roppongi is too way too early, but I also think that the area has changed: less foreigners and less dodgy than before:)
    I totally agree with you I am not such a big fan of this one day trip to Hakone, better things to do and see around Tokyo according to me.
    If ever you come back to Kyoto one of my favourite temple for picture taking is Fushimi Inari, full of red tori!

  6. Hot damn, that really is some good light in ALL of the photos. I think the Shibuya Crossing one is my favorite, though! I’m so awful at getting candid photos with people just going about their lives, so that component combined with the light makes for an excellent shot.

  7. Wow, these are all gorgeous!

    I’ve never had an urge to go to Japan (I don’t know why — it’s just never appealed to me), but that’s been changing lately. These photos make me want to go even more!

  8. Love the Yasaka Shrine. There’s this temple in Taiwan. And for the life of me, I can’t remember where. But there’s the red paper lamps hanging up. It’s the most gorgeous set of red I’ve ever seen. very vibrant. wish I could attach a photo.

  9. Beautiful shots, I can’t wait to start traveling to places that have a bit more interesting architecture then here. Although here (Dominican Republic) the wooden houses have there cultural feel it doesn’t give off the same effect as some of the building in Japan.

  10. Even with all of the “light pollution” from the city’s advertisements and signs, the sky is still so beautiful. Amazing hues in all of these photos, and great captures Kate!

  11. I’ve been reading your blog in preparation for my three month long trip through Asia. Thanks for the tips and great ideas. Please check out my blog and let me know what you think!

    xo Regan

  12. Glad I found this post Kate! We are heading to Japan as part of a longer journey in January, so looking for inspiration which I found here!

    Looking forward to seeing the incredible light you talk about, as well as all the neon lights as well!

  13. The Yasaka Shrine is my personal favorite out of these photos, mostly because I’m a sucker for natural light. How wonderful to see this. I am currently in India for the year, and would love to see a similar photo essay about the light of different cities and desert regions.

  14. Yes ,Japan is one of the more culturally secure places I’ve travelled. Luckily I travelled to Japan 4 times in last four yrs though I consider myself still unlearned

    japan has tried to retain as much of its 2-4000’yrs of modern age culture more than most , however the west couldn’t combine the old and new as we place values / profits on everything so we cannot retain our past

  15. Wow! Tokyo reminds me so much of New York City. Japan wasn’t too high on my list of places to visit but your photos of the shrine in Kyoto and Lake Ashinok have definitely bumped it closer to the top. I guess it’s time to start looking for some cheap flights!

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