You don't need to have seen ‘Lost in Translation’ to know that the lens loves Tokyo. But there’s so much more to the city’s photographic side than neon signs, outdoor art and skyscrapers. The capital’s endlessly stimulating visual landscape has helped generate one of the world’s most vibrant photography scenes, with enthusiasts out shooting the streets every weekend, and a host of galleries and bookshops dedicated to the artform.
While this city’s love affair with all things photographic long predates social media, you can see social media’s influence in recent years, including bars and stores that embrace photography as the lifestyle choice of the hip and Insta-famous. Here are ten must-see spots, some long established, others still under the radar.
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This specialist in used digital camera bodies from Leica plays up the luxury cachet of the esteemed German brand by offering its wares in an appointment-only space (English-language reservations possible). Located near Yoyogi-Uehara Station, the shop resembles a spruce, well-appointed apartment. Camera bodies and classic, decades-old lenses are displayed inside glass cases once used in a patisserie. While steep prices make these items more aspirational than practical, leather straps and other accessories, crafted by artisans down in Yokohama, are much more accessibly priced.
When you’re one of the nation’s foremost photography critics and historians, with a career going back three decades, storing the photobooks you inevitably accumulate is going to present a problem. Kotaro Iizawa’s altruistic solution was to open this unique space in Ebisu, where he welcomes the public to come and browse around 5,000 titles from his vast collection, while enjoying drinks and home-cooked seasonal dishes.
Wooden shelves spanning two entire facing walls are connected by beams that run across the ceiling, giving the impression of sitting within a giant bookcase. Megutama’s collection stretches back to the dawn of photography, and is constantly being added to as important new works are published.
When photographer Kota Sake took possession of a closed-down photo-developing shop, he retained the original sign advertising the speed of its service, thus giving a name to this combined ‘night gallery’ and bar, a short walk north of central Nakano. Sake-san (rather brilliantly for a bar owner, his surname uses the same Chinese character as Japan’s most famous alcoholic drink) initially intended to simply hang his own work on the walls, but laying on drinks for visiting friends led to the space evolving into a compact but fully-fledged gallery complete with a counter bar.
With its focus on photography, 35 Minutes hosts exhibitions from emerging local photographers to influential filmmaker-photographers like Jonas Mekas. At the bar, sake, spirits and beer are complemented by simple Japanese food such as oden.
This Yotsuya gallery was founded in 2008 by award-winning photographer Shinya Arimoto, foremost among the many snappers documenting Tokyo street life. It primarily showcases the work of up-and-coming photographers: mostly Japanese, but occasionally from elsewhere in Asia and as far afield as the US.
Highlights include frequent shows by Arimoto himself, as well as from John Sypal, who chronicles Japanese photo culture on his popular @tokyocamerastyle Instagram feed. While you’re there, check out the small selection of self-published books from Totem Pole-affiliated photographers.
This compact Roppongi exhibition space wields an influence on the Japanese photo art scene that belies its size. Zen Foto Gallery, together with its publishing imprint of the same name, maintains a dual focus upon emerging photographers from Japan and wider Asia, and work from the archives of some legendary veterans.
Standouts in the former camp include Eiji Ohashi’s stunning images of vending machines in desolate snowscapes. Zen has also exhibited and published the works of Japan’s most internationally famous and sexually provocative photographer, Nobuyoshi Araki.
The TOP Museum, as it’s also known, is the city’s largest museum dedicated to photography. Across four floors, a consistently inspiring programme of solo and group shows, featuring both Japanese and international photographers, looks back at the art form’s established masters, and introduces the work of emerging talents.
The museum also has room for moving images, with state-of-the-art screening facilities, plus an extensive book and magazine library that is free to access. You’ll also find a photo-oriented branch of the specialist art bookshop NADiff, and a café from Daikanyama’s Maison Ichi.
Renewed interest in film photography, particularly among millennials, is prompting new rental darkrooms to spring up across Tokyo. This monochrome-dedicated location in Yutenji is our favourite for the fact that it is attached to a stylish gallery and café-bar. Rental of the well-equipped darkroom costs ¥400 per half-hour plus a ¥500 fee for using the supplied chemicals; paper should be purchased elsewhere. Paper Pool’s similarly well-stocked café-bar offers beer, wine and simple cocktails, together with small dishes costing around ¥1,000 each.
Located south of Shibuya Station, Zakura aims to make purchasing original photographic art as simple as picking a graphic T-shirt off the racks. What looks like a regular gallery is actually a self-described ‘photo concept shop’ run by veteran photographer Katsuo Hanzawa and his wife Mari.
The pair opened the space last year, in response to Japan’s lack of a photographic print-buying culture (despite a wealth of photo galleries), and hope that a customer’s first tentative purchase at Zakura will help sow the seeds of a collector mentality, especially among the Instagram generation. To this end, prints from a diverse roster of photographers are priced from about ¥6,000.
The Mitsubado Camera team are irrepressible evangelists for analogue photo culture, and chose to locate their film camera-only shop in downtown Nippori for the wealth of photo opportunities this historic district provides. Staff lead regular photo walks around the neighbourhood, while film photography newbies are invited to rent one of the shop’s cameras for a trial run.
The store itself, complete with a small gallery, has old-school camera shop charm in spades. Used cameras range from simple point-and-shoot models costing a few thousand yen, through to high-end Hasselblads which could set you back around ¥100,000. Mitsubado will also take care of your developing, printing and film camera repair needs.
One of the city’s best-stocked photography bookshops, So Books is nestled on a quiet street in Yoyogi Hachiman, a few minutes’ walk west of Yoyogi Park. Deeply knowledgeable owner Ikuo Ogasawara keeps his compact, sleekly designed store stocked with sought-after titles from both Japanese and Western names.
Tokyo-based photographers are always popping in, and the shop is also a routine stop-off for foreign artists when they’re in town. Such connections enable Ogasawara to secure self-published tomes (many of which are sure to become future collectibles) direct from the photographers themselves.
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