A few days ago, I was in Tokyo. It was mid-morning, when I’d visited Asakusa. I was shooting time lapse footage outside the Senso-Ji shrine. A young Japanese girl dressed in an elaborate kimono was trying to shoot a portrait of herself with her friend’s help. Even without being able to speak Japanese, it was clear that she was less than happy with the results. I called out to her, and asked her if she would like me to take a picture of her with my tripod mounted camera. I had a neutral density filter attached, and my intention was to keep her and the gate of the temple in focus while allowing everyone else to blur out. She understood, and obliged.
Once she saw the results, she was impressed and called out to her friend, who was also dressed up in a kimono, to see the results. Her friend immediately wanted one of her own. (No translations were required to convey the message). She happily posed for her shot, and was happy with the results. The two girls then insisted that I pose for a shot with both of them. They both went home with images that they were happy with!
This is a common theme that I came across in Japan, and something that I would venture to say, stems from both the low crime rate in Japan, and the homogenous nature of its society. Japan is one of the safest countries in world. This is perhaps why the locals here tend to have a low level of mistrust towards strangers, and are generally open to making new friends.
The trend followed even more strongly when I was in Kyoto. Unlike Tokyo, which is relatively cosmopolitan with a fair number of expats, and the vibe of a big, modern city, Kyoto is very traditional. My first encounter with another set of friendly locals was while I was on my first trip to the Arashiyama bamboo grove. A young couple were walking ahead of me, again, trying to take a picture together with their mobile phone with very little luck. Once again, I offered to shoot a portrait for them and transfer it across using my Sony A7R. They didn’t have a second thought about posing for the shot, and were immensely happy to have a shot for their memories that they were happy with.
Later that evening, after my tour of the forest, I was trying to make my way back to the train station, and had lost my way. It was already dark, and I hadn’t realised that I was walking in the wrong direction. I asked the first person whom I met, who happened to be a young lady, if she could tell me which way the station was. She actually walked me to the station – a good 10 minute walk (though it helped that she was catching the same train as well). She didn’t speak much English, and my Japanese is non-existent, but we managed to have a half-decent conversation using Google Translate on our phones.
The following day, I found my way to the Heian Shrine. I was taking pictures, when a group of 4 children asked me to take a picture of them with their camera, which I did. They said thank you, and then went away… only to come back 10 minutes later. They were a little shy when they asked me if they could take a picture with me, which I obliged.
Later that evening, I was at the Kiyomizu-dera temple, taking photographs, when a young Japanese gentleman began having a conversation with me, and then asked me to pose for a picture with him. It was a decent enough conversation where both of us had to work a bit to overcome the language barrier.
As I continued my tour of Kyoto, I went back to Arashiyama the following morning. While taking more photographs, I met another tourist – a young man from Germany – who wanted to get his portrait taken in the bamboo grove. I posed him in the image, and shot a few exposures. As he was standing there, a group of seven young girls in their brightly colours kimonos walked up and surrounded him. They wanted a picture with him, and then, asked us to change places so that they could get a picture with me too. The language barrier existed, but we overcame it using Google Translate, and a lot of hand gestures. At the end of it all, we all came away with a few laughs and some good memories.
This aspect of visiting Japan is not a trait that one is likely to come across in the Western world very much. I realised that as a foreigner, I’m somewhat of a novelty for locals. It was a refreshing sense of being able to briefly connect with complete strangers for long enough share an experience that left me with a sense of being both welcome, and valued as a visitor.