ただいま!!! Back to Japan, my favorite place / by Giacomo Cattaneo

In October 2015 I had the chance to go back to Japan, "my favorite place". I believe that everybody that has traveled a bit has found that place about which he/she becomes totally biased. Everything - also objectively doubtful ones - become a source of fascination, wonder and magic. Many have fallen in love with Italy, some would get on a plane today for the US, while others swear they would start a life in South America tomorrow. I got the Japan bug... I simply love it all: the stillness of hidden temples in Kyoto, the nerdy weirdness of Akihabara. The chaotic urban scenery of Shibuya, the breathtaking views of Mt. Fuji's landscapes. Add the people and the food, and you have what I call a whole spectrum experience, meaning that you get experiences at both extremes of any spectrum you can name.

I might be biased, but the other person that joined me in this short trip was not - actually, she might have been fed up with it even before leaving Switzerland. I bugged my girlfriend about Japan for way too long, so she almost had to come and see for herself. Would she like it the same way I did the first time? But also, would I like visiting the exact same places twice? Well, it turned out that yes, we both loved it (again). Maybe for different reasons, but also for many similar ones.

As this is supposedly a photography blog, I'll get into it. I might pop some stories about the trip as we go... so, photography. I am a bit confused, to be honest. I don't really know what to think about them... I like some of them, but not many. I think the general problem is that I wanted to get very good pictures, because I have a new camera, I know the places already, and I knew what I wanted to capture. I was supposed to, right? I wanted to get everything in the frame - the people, the place, the atmosphere. Not easy, and often beyond what I can do. Many thus ended up being very "tourist-ish". They don't compare even slightly to the ones I shot during my world trip, where I had the time and the mind for it. The fact that we were a bit on a rush to show my girlfriend all I wanted to show her did not give me the proper time to figure out how to capture the scene. Oh well... I guess I'll have to go back once again!!! =P 

Now, about the pictures themselves. The process many have gone through is the usual combo of Lightroom adjustments + Photoshop retouches (50% gray overlay & localized high-pass filter). Nothing much more, if not that while taking the pictures, similarly to what I had done in the "US trip" pictures, I took often dark pictures so that I would not lose details in the highlights (especially in the street signs in the night shots). It's then easy through Lightroom to bring out the shadows again... For example, let's take this picture at Akihabara right out of the camera:

ISO 800, 35mm, f/10, 1/15 sec

With Lightroom adjustments

And this last one is with Photoshop re-touching: notice how the people, despite being blurred, now pop up much more, or how the signs above on the buildings are much sharper and brighter, rather than dull. If you see the sequence, it might seem like the one here below is "too much", but if I had shown it to you without the previous ones, you would have accepted it as "normal". Maybe =P Do click on the image to enlarge it!

Here below I post some other pictures of urban landscapes / moments that have been under a similar process:

ISO 400, 35mm, f/10, 1/3 sec - Shibuya. You can clearly see the (in)famous Shibuya 109 in the background, temple of teenage girls shopping! Here I was leaning against a pole, and for 1/3 sec that's not good at all - see how blurry the guy is? And I cut his feet!!! damn it...

ISO 800, 35mm, f/4.5, 1/10 sec - Ueno, lovely backstreets filled with izakaya and small restaurants. If I remember correctly, we had an amazing curry tonkatsu! gnammy!

ISO 1000, 20mm, f/7.1, 0.6 sec - Ginzan Onsen - a lovely onsen (hotspring) town, with ryokans on each side. The one on the right is Fujiya Inn, a ryokan refurbished in 2006 by Kengo Kuma, a renowned Japanese architect. Beautiful, so beautiful - but out of our budget ;)

ISO 800, 35mm, f/4.5, 1/160 sec - Pachinko!!! No comment (you could not hear it as it's way too loud in here!!!)

ISO 320, 85mm, f/3.5, 1/400 sec - Elvis gang at Yoyogi park, Tokyo. Still feeling the vibe...

ISO 400, 85mm, f/4.0, 1/320 sec - Kyoto

A very similar process can be applied to people as well, as you can see in the example below. It's almost an extreme example, where "I lost control" and definitely went overboard with the Photoshop retouching, but... don't know, just felt like going a bit artificial ;) You definitely won't like the last one after seeing where it comes from, it's just "too much".

ISO 500, 35mm, f/2.5, 1/50 sec - Fushimi Inari shrine, Kyoto & Terry

With Lightroom adjustments

With Photoshop re-touching: making the red doors darker, Terry (too) much brighter, increasing the sharpness despite the blurriness (the shot was not fast enough!).

Here below a few other examples:

ISO 500, 35mm, f/2.8, 1/40 sec - Kanazawa, Kaikaro Teahouse

ISO 400, 85mm, f/4.0, 1/640 sec - Kyoto, wedding pictures frenzy!

ISO 400, 85mm, f/4.0, 1/60 sec - Kyoto. My favourite tourists! It's customary for Japanese girls who visit Kyoto to take out their brightest kimonos and stroll the streets in such a fashion. So they first asked me if I could take a picture of them, and then asked them if I could do the same with my camera. Picture-wise, shooting with an 85mm is such a joy for portraits, as the foreground and background collapse much closer, and the effect on people's features is much more flattering. I also unsaturated the background, so to have their kimonos stand out even more.

Last but not least, a couple of pictures from around Japan, more on the "quiet" side of things.

ISO 50, 35mm, f/16, 0.6 sec - Ginzan Onsen

ISO 500, 20mm, f/13, 1/60 sec - Kyoto, Kennin-ji

ISO 500, 20mm, f/13, 1/250 sec - Kyoto, Kennin-ji

ISO 250, 35mm, f/14, 1/80 sec - Kanazawa, Kenroku-en

I'd like to conclude with a nice story, which is a fortunate encounter of "the" geisha I met 3 years ago in Kanazawa, and that we were fortunate enough to meet again. As I pre-planned our visit to Kaikaro's Teahouse in Kanazawa for a tourist performance, I knew I would meet the owner - a lovely lady that was so kind to invite me to watch a private performance behind rice-paper doors during my last trip - so I brought chocolate for them. I did not know I would have the pleasure to meet Suzuka herself again! I was lucky enough to have a visit card of my website with me, which pictures her! This is the result ;)

ISO 500, 85mm, f/3.5, 1/30 sec - Suzuka @ Kaikaro Teahouse. Not a great picture (spotlights created too strong shadows), but great memory.