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20 Beautiful Photographs That Capture Contemporary Japan

This collection of amateur photos captures many of the facets of every day life in Japan today.

Japan is one of the most photographed countries in the world. A quick search on the popular photo sharing site, Flickr.com, returns around 2.2 million images for the term “Japan” and roughly the same number for “USA”. The word “France” produces 3.6 million results.

However, when you compare these figures with annual tourist numbers in the three countries, a different picture emerges. Around 20 million visitors set foot in Japan every year, which pales in comparison with France’s 84 million or the United States’  77 million visitors (source).

So there is something more than just numbers behind people’s infatuation with pictures of Japan.

Having travelled extensively in the countries mentioned above, and to many other destinations besides, I see several possible explanations for this.

First, there is still a strong sense of exoticism and mystique attached to perceptions of Japan. The clash of tradition and hypermodernity in Japan’s urban landscapes, and the promotion of J-pop cultural cliches, from geisha to cosplay, and ninja to sushi, have become a powerful market force that the government is keen to promote.

Secondly, for the most part, Japan’s tourist locations are designed and maintained to be picture perfect. This is largely because attention to aesthetic detail forms an integral part of Japan’s cultural traditions, whether it’s a zen garden or a games arcade, appearances in everyday life really do matter.

Lastly, even though Japan is one of the world’s most globalized nations, with the usual chain stores lining city streets, there is nonetheless a strong sense of “local” culture in this country, maintained through spoken and embodied traditions. Even if visitors no longer feel dépaysé or culturally disoriented in Japan, there is a strong sense of cultural difference and my sense is that it’s the differences that visitors are out to catch when they pull out their cameras.

What follows below is a list of free photos of Japan, released under Creative Commons licenses. I chose these images because on an aesthetic level, they both confirm and reject cultural cliches, and on a practical level, they are some of the most eye-catching and evocative images of Japan that could easily be used for a Japan-related design project.

Each photo in my list links to its original and I have included source links to each photographer’s personal profile. This is a votable list, meaning that you can upvote and downvote the images and change their ranking.

If you’ve been to Japan or you live in Japan, and you have taken photos here, I’d love to find out what motivated your snaps.

#1 Taxi waiting outside Tokyo Station

Japan's black cabs are ubiquitous. Despite the relatively high fare prices, they still manage to survive. Even in 2017, at a time when new models of transport like Lyft and Uber are gaining marketshare worldwide, Japan's black cabs remain a staple of the country's urban landscapes.

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#2 Kinkakuji, The Golden Temple, Kyoto

Kinkaku-ji (金閣寺), which literally translates as "Temple of the Golden Pavilion" is also officially known as Rokuon-ji (鹿苑寺), which translates as the "Deer Garden Temple". The Zen Buddhist temple is one of Kyoto's most iconic cultural symbols. The temple's garden design is based on the idea of borrowed landscapes ("shakkei"), which is a traditional type of East Asian design that merges the outside and inside landscapes to that the temple becomes part of the surrounding landscape and the landscape is continually present inside the temple.

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#4 Koi Carp in Nemichi Shrine, Seki, Gifu Prefecture

Koi (鯉) are a type of domesticated and ornate common carp found in ponds and rivers around Japan. They are particularly common in temple and shrine grounds. This picture captures two koi in an almost surreal, Hayao Miyzakiesque scene.

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#7 Traditional tatami room

The title of this photo is "静 (Sei)" which means stillness and quietness. There is a well known saying in Japan that goes "静中, 動あり" and translates as "there is movement in stillness". This photo, its colour tones and grain, captures the stillness and the clash of natural and artificial light along with the dynamic lines of the room's architecture give it great energy. A perfect image of traditional Japan.

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#9 Mt. Kashimayari-ga-dake and Mt. Goryu-dake, Nagano Prefecture

Bordering Nagano and Toyama Prefectures, these two majestic mountains, Mt. Kashimayari-ga-dake and Mt. Goryu-dake have respective elevations of 2889 meters (9478 feet) and 2814 meters (9232 feet). The blue colour in the photo is what is known as the "blue hour". It is the period of twilight early in the dawn each morning and late in the dusk each evening, when the sun is at a significant depth below the horizon and when the residual, indirect sunlight takes on a predominantly blue shade. The lighting effects are hauntingly beautiful.

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#10 Night in Shimokitazawa, Tokyo

Shimokitazawa is known as a trendy district in Tokyo, a place where young people go to hang out, shop and eat. The area is full of affordable and down to earth restaurants, small shops selling everything you can imagine, and there's always a great buzz walking around the streets. This night scene captures the sense of energy in Shimokitazawa and the clash of old and new.

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#12 Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine

Fushimi Inari Taisha (伏見稲荷大社) is the head shrine of Inari, located in Fushimi-ku, Kyoto, Japan. The shrine sits at the base of a mountain also named Inari which is 233 metres above sea level, and includes trails up the mountain to many smaller shrines which span 4 kilometers and takes approximately 2 hours to walk up.

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#13 Hiroshima Castle

Hiroshima Castle (広島城 Hiroshima-jō), sometimes called Carp Castle (鯉城 Rijō), was a castle in Hiroshima that was the home of the daimyō (feudal lord) of the Hiroshima han (fief). The castle was constructed in the 1590s, but was destroyed by the atomic bombing on August 6, 1945. It was rebuilt in 1958, and that replica now serves as a museum of Hiroshima's history before World War II.

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#15 Woman in Kimono in a Bamboo Forest

It doesn't get anymore cliche than this, but this is an eye catching photo for the color combinations alone. While bamboo and kimonos are part of the traditional Japanese cultural imagery, they have little presence in everyday life, except perhaps on festive occasions.

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#16 Traditional Senbei (rice crackers)

Senbei (せんべい) are popular rice crackers, with either sweet or savoury flavours, often eaten as tsumami (つまみ) or finger foods for aperitifs, or shared at home with green tea. This photo shows a stack of senbei on a market stall in Tokyo.

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#17 Kenroku-en Gardens, Kanazawa City, Ishikawa Prefecture

Kanazawa sits by the Sea of Japan, bordered by the Japanese Alps, Hakusan National Park and Noto Peninsula National Park. It is one of Japan's most picturesque cities and regions and this shot from the city's famous Kenroku-en park speaks to its beauty.

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#18 Tokyo from a hotel window, aka “Lost in Translation”

If you've ever seen Sofia Coppolla's iconic film, Lost in Translation, then this photo may remind you of the hotel scenes in the film when where the newlywed Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), spends her days locked in her room brooding over the disappointment of her "new" life and longing for some adventure out there in the wild city.

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#19 Ginza crossing, Tokyo

Ginza is the Beverly Hills of Tokyo or perhaps Beverly Hills is the Ginza of Los Angeles. Whichever way you look at it, both places are synonymous with extreme wealth and so-called high fashion brand culture. I like the way this photo brings out another side of Ginza, turning road markings into an art object.

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#20 Senri-chuo Station, Toyonaka-shi, Osaka

I chose this image, because it represents a scene from most peoples' daily lives in Japan: urban sprawl. For all the sensitive beauty of Japan's countryside, Japan's urban landscapes are mostly dull and repetitive. This photo of Senri-chuo Station in Toyonaka, just outside Osaka captures this common aesthetic.

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