Monday, November 21, 2016

No Photos, Please: The Shots in Japan That Got Me a Scolding

I like taking pictures. It's kind of addicting: I see a situation that would make a nice photo, do my best to capture it...but maybe the angle or lighting wasn't right, the moment passed, the elusive great shot slipped from my grasp again. Next time, next time, I'll get it! Playing around on Instagram, I see so many great photographers and try to learn little tricks from them. I've never taken a photography class nor do I own a camera that cost more than three figures (in dollars). I've also outgrown the "snap a photo of everything because it's all so new and funny" stage I was in when I first came here, but I still enjoy taking photos of things and places that catch my eye.

It's not all flowers and sausages though, because as touristy as Kyoto and other parts of Japan are, there are still many places where photography isn't allowed or where people don't appreciate being photographed.

Here are my naughty shots that got me verbal warnings:

The sacrilegious photo. *don't try this at home
1. The altar area of temples 
This is a photo I took at one of my favorite temples, Sanzen-in in northern Kyoto. Before I took the photo, I looked around for No Photos signs and finding none, aimed my camera. Suddenly a monk appeared out of nowhere and barked "Photography is not allowed!" Sorry. I sometimes forget these are actual places of worship, and in Japan the altar area and areas where old statues/artifacts are stored are off-limits to cameras, in principle.
My friend and I sheepishly continued our tour of the temple, but I noticed that the monk was watching us from afar, to make sure we didn't start climbing the trees in the garden or something else horrible, I guess.

Sorry, sir. 
2. Food stalls in marketplaces
This is was taken at the famous seafood marketplace in Tokyo, Tsukiji. There have been complaints that tourists block operations and wander in places where it's not safe for them to be, but I wasn't in those places. The shopkeeper (guy in the green) scolded me in English "It's rude to take photos! Ask first!!" Perhaps they don't want images of their prices going online? I'm not sure. In Kyoto's famous Nishiki marketplace, it seems like shopkeepers have given up, and either allow photos or post conspicuous signs prohibiting them, but in Tsukiji I was made to feel the market had its own laws I must abide by, though they were posted nowhere.
Some shops in Japan have amazingly eye-catching, colorful displays and then there's the whole fake food thing going on, but as a general rule it's not kosher to take photos of shops or inside stores.

During the nightly light-up cherry blossom season, this angle was roped off to guests from April 2015 (I took this photo in 2014).

During the month of November when the leaves are red this shot is technically prohibited.
3. Places were photography is seasonly prohibited
Tourism to Japan is booming, and almost everyone visits Kyoto. During special times like the autumn maple leaf and spring cherry blossom seasons, Japanese tourists flock to Kyoto as well to visit places famous for great seasonal views. Since many temples are not equipped to handle thousands of tourists every day, some areas are prohibiting photography in an attempt to keep crowds moving. A certain angle of Toji Temple where the pagoda is reflected in the garden pond was prohibited during cherry blossom season. Just a week ago when I visited Tofukuji, famous for its valley of maple leaves that flame red in the fall, many visitors were shocked to learn photography of this view was prohibited starting this year. However, perhaps because I went in the morning when there were comparatively fewer people, the security guards on the bridge said nothing while a lot of people aimed their cameras over the bridge for shots of the valley. I took this forbidden shot myself. But, once people started to slow down and pile up, the guards started yelling, "Please refrain from taking photos!" again, so I think the key was simply to keep moving as much as possible and not cause safety concerns.

Kimonos look pretty from all angles and distances, happily.
4. Bonus: ladies in kimono
I've never been told to my face that my camera wasn't appreciated, but a casual perusal of Japanese Instagram reveals that ladies who wear kimono around Kyoto sometimes get harassed for photos by tourists. Some complain about not being able to enjoy their trip because they were either getting their photos taken sneakily, or stopped and asked every few minutes to pose. Some complain about foreign tourists doing this, others complain about Japanese men with their giant cameras snapping away as if the woman and her friends were some rare species.
Back in the day, I asked for photos, and everyone seemed happy to oblige. Now I'm more likely to take photos from the back sneakily. It's good to keep in mind many women in kimono you'll see around Kyoto are tourists themselves (Japanese or not) wanting to have a good time in Kyoto, and some enjoy the celebrity feeling, but others don't.
In general, Japanese people worry about online privacy and I think more than Americans take care to hide their faces and avoid using real names online when it comes to SNS and photo sharing. So it might be a good idea when taking candid photos to avoid clear facial shots, and ask permission if you want to take a close-up.

I admit, I had to snicker a bit reading the complaints of these ladies, because at least they can take their kimono off. I on the other hand, being a blonde foreigner, stick out wherever I go. I have had my photo taken without my permission more times than I can count on two hands. I dread visiting places like Fushimi Inari or Kiyomizu these days because I'll get assaulted by groups of junior high school kids on field trips whose homework is to go to Kyoto and take surveys of foreigners "what do you like about Japan?" It's cute the first couple times, but what happens is if you say yes to an interview with one group of painfully shy teenagers, others will notice and say "look there's a friendly one!" and before you know it you have to answer 30 questions from 30 different mumbling students and pose with each group while their teacher snaps a photo, and there goes your quiet afternoon at the shrine.

**A side note, when it comes to maiko and geiko (geisha) in Kyoto, a rule of thumb seems to be if you catch them standing still (such as at a crosswalk or an event), show your camera and ask permission to take a photo. You might not understand their uber-polite replies in geiko-dialect, but if they face your camera, that means "yes" you may take a photo. If they are dashing to work through the streets or from a taxi into a teahouse, just give them their space and don't impede them; it's ok to snap away without calling out and asking for a photo then and there (you'll be refused anyway since they're obviously busy). A funny thing, in the Gion area of Kyoto there are shops were people can do "maiko makeover" and get dressed up as geisha. Some foreigners and visiting students from out of town don't know the difference and upload "I met a geisha!!1!" photos of these cosplayers on Instagram. Real maiko/geiko are pretty elusive unless you have connections or pay a lot of money. They avoid the main streets, they don't use cellphones or selfie sticks, nor do they usually oblige passersby and stop to pose for photos. In my 6 years in Kyoto, I've only spotted the real deal 3 times, and was able to get photos only once. Here's a post on how to tell real maiko from the fakes.

There's a reason a lot of non-professional photos of maiko are from behind

In the end, it's good to be aware of these situations, and at least always check for "no photos" signs (撮影禁止 さつえいきんし in Japanese), or ask permission, before snapping away.
In addition, there are many places where photos are allowed but tripods, selfie-sticks, and drones are not, so I recommend checking and looking for specific signage beforehand if you want to avoid the embarrassment of being verbally told off in public for taking photos. Derp.

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