It’s not often people hear: “I didn’t expect to travel to Japan!”
But in the case of my family, the world-class act of spontaneous travelers was how we spent Christmas and New Years traveling to the famous, beautiful country. Unexpectedly booked 3 months beforehand. The backstory – I was sitting with my boyfriend in Chile when my parents had to let my brother know that we weren’t able to come to visit him. It was quite sad because he was hoping for Japan to rethink its policy on foreigners entering the country (He’s currently stationed as a traveling teacher, teaching English in various different schools and districts). Until one morning in late September, he gave us the good news… Japan decided to open its borders to foreign travelers after 2 full years. Time seems not to feel so long since the world shut down – 2 years is nothing! But it’s long!
Nearly everyone has Japan set on their horizons, a bucket list, and a top 100 before they die. Me? Yes, but no. I never expected to visit Japan so soon. It just seems like one of those places you have to dream up for a while, and then suddenly *poof* you arrive after hundreds of hours of planning. The planning aspect is 100% fact, but the dreaming came after and during the trip.
I was ready to be put into a culture shock. 19 days of traveling Japan with only backpacks might do that to ya. But what came upon me was a new perspective on traveling the world, especially to places we are not used to in our normal day-to-day life.
What I noticed most was how, despite differences in people, customs, ideas, language, and cities, that we can close those differences by NOT being mere observers. We can become involved (respectfully) and, that way, become closer to one another as humans. Learn how things work and have less judgment. Being in a new country doesn’t mean watching from a window. Different customs doesn’t mean that one is right and one is wrong.
Everything was unfamiliar, except for the familiar film cameras I lugged with me across the world!
I decided to photograph ONLY on film using my Rolleicord VA, accompanied by an Olympus XA2 and a Ricoh KR5.
WOW, you must REALLY love film Megan!?
Aaggghhhh. I do, but I know what extra care it requires too… you should’ve seen me pulling out my ziplock bag with 20+ rolls every time an X-ray machine was nearby. I carried them all cautiously with me as I crossed borders, entered new hotel rooms, switched bags, and loaded film in and out of cameras. I started becoming paranoid and making sure I had everything accounted for multiple times!
But it was 100% worth the extra effort.
A place like Japan screams to be photographed constantly, and I wanted to focus on my surroundings. It was another way to jump over the cultural, invisible border between me and this new country. (There’s a story here… read on.)
And my people… was I astounded.
I was flabbergasted when I received these images back from Gelatin Labs. The way it’s tack sharp renders the image and has wonderful contrast… I was able to get so much detail back from the flat TIFF scans! It was impossible not to love the process as it happened in person, and now with these results. I highly recommend using only film on your next trip!
I was most afraid of not being able to express myself while visiting Japan. But I was able to express more than I imagined simply by being me and having my camera by my side.
I’ll never forget the moment I was walking a snowy trail to reach a shrine and became friends with a group of older Japanese people. It was morning, and the snow on the sides of the trail reached up to my hips or more! I only had black and white film left as it was the second last day of the Japan trip. I kept walking in the snowy footsteps on the trail, taking pauses to photograph the massive trees that lined the way. I was SO happy and listened to the eerie silence.
The entire group became enthused and peeked from behind the person in front of them, one after the other. All of us had big smiles on our faces, interacting as much as possible with limited language. They began to guess the brand, they thanked me for stopping to chat, and one (I presume) asked me where I was from, to which I answered: Canada. The entire group exclaimed in excitement as they repeated CANADA! Canada! Over and over, laughing together.
I didn’t photograph this group of people, but I was able to connect with them through my love for film and cameras. Someone I know mentioned that I must have been so present at the moment that I didn’t even think to take a photograph. We didn’t speak the same language but shared the same emotions. When I walked away, I could hear someone saying, “Film! Film! Very good,” I agree – film is pretty awesome.
As we jumped from bullet trains, buses, and local trains around the map, I began to notice how much you have to let go. You must let go of what is known to you. You must become a beginner without fear. Japan was the first country in many years that I did not speak the language, which is a privilege just writing that out at all. It was so, so very strange to go up to a counter and have not a single word to speak. I felt so disconnected and felt bad I couldn’t communicate simple items to people.
I began to ask questions to my brother:
“How do you ask for one coffee?
“How do I thank someone for a meal?
What is the proper way to enter and exit this place?
Where should I stand?”
The rumors are true – Japanese society is extremely opposite of the United States. It’s respecting the social norms of being quiet, conscious of those around you, and, most importantly… rules. It took me a few days to accept these rules. In annoyance, my brother once took me out of line to buy a ticket because I was taking too long. I couldn’t understand why I had to move out if I was purchasing a ticket. He kept saying we were taking too long, but it didn’t make sense to me.
Until I saw it again from the perspective of being the person behind. I was in line for a buffet when a man in front of me forgot to grab cutlery. Instead of bothering me, he apologized and MOVED to the back of the entire line! That was my lightbulb moment. To care more about others than yourself or your time. I started to love this community mentality throughout the trip and wondered how I could bring that back with me afterward.
Too often, when I was walking the streets, I would notice tourists blatantly resist being open to new ideas. Loudly exclaiming that places were too small, being obnoxiously loud, or plainly saying: “I can see this back in Michigan!” (Yes, this happened). It struck me as a core problem tourists face when in new places: The lack of curiosity about another culture and only wanting to visit places to judge it from the perspective of their original home.
It’s very difficult to open yourself up to a different way when you’re so used to operating another system. It’s like going from Windows to Mac, you need a few days to adjust, but afterward, you understand them both in their own ways. But if you continue to insist that one or the other is better, you lose out on an opportunity. You become stifled by your own resistance to difference.
What I’m trying to formulate is that if you notice something is different… become more curious about it – not avoid it.
My brother introduced me to many curious things, but one of the greatest things was HOT drink vending machines. How epic is that? These machines are scattered everywhere throughout Japan: street corners, alleys, stores, outside restaurants, bus stops, you name it. Inside is a variety of drinks to choose from, such as coffee, matcha tea, green tea, royal milk tea-
Wait a second – did you say ROYAL MILK TEA?
I’m a die-hard vending machine user now. Can’t stop me.
It became a familiar drink to the entire family as we trekked throughout the many cities of Hakone, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima, Okayama, and all the way to Yonago and back to Tokyo. It’s hard to believe that our group of 6 was able to backpack for 19 days in Japan to so many places. Some things happen on trips that don’t happen when you’re living daily life. One of those things is the habits you pick up, dependent on the country.
Joaquin constantly went to Konbini (convenience) stores to pick up sandwiches and hot meals. I started buying all of our tickets once I mastered the train system and bought Royal Milk tea whenever possible. My father and mother started using their Google translate to have full-on conversations with locals, laughing. My brother watched helplessly as we navigated the first few days in this new world. Probably aged him a few years.
It became our routine. We nearly forgot what it was like not moving or being together.
What I experienced during this Japan trip will probably not happen again.
It’s rare as we grow older to do family trips, and it’s even rarer to big destinations for the first time. As I fiddled with camera settings, trying to vlog and meter for the shadows or highlights during the days, I saw how beautiful it is to have passion. Any type of passion. A passion you would talk hours about, put extra effort into, share with your closest friends, and share with strangers. A passion that allows you to connect with people from another world you’ve newly entered.
Find what you love, do more of it, and stay curious about the world.
All images developed & scanned by Gelatin Labs
About the Author
NYC Brand Portrait Photographer for personal brands, artists and service-based businesses. She focuses on creating personalized brand photoshoot experiences for her clients.