Sumo, street style and sushi: a photographer’s guide to Japan

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I grew up in Las Vegas surrounded by artists: my brother’s a musician, my mum’s a writer and I have a lot of friends in the music community. Against that backdrop, photography emerged as my own creative avenue. Initially I was self-taught; I discovered an eye for live band photography while supporting my musician friends. Later, I studied black and white film photography, mostly at Santa Monica College, and I loved every minute.

Photography became something I did on the side, however – as a passion rather than a living. My day job involves working as a consultant for global firm PwC and I’m currently based in London. I work in quite a high-stress environment and my role demands a lot of mental energy. 

Because I don’t have much room in my day-to-day life, my Flash Pack adventure to Japan earlier this year gave me the chance to re-tap my love of photography. It’s amazing to be able to step away from the hubbub of daily life, and reclaim creative space – especially in a destination like Japan, where every setting is so different and inspiring. Here are some of my highlights from an incredible trip: 

Street style in Tokyo

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Tokyo is such a vibrant, visually stimulating place. It’s just bursting with silent style. Wandering about, I found this guy dressed up in such a cool way and I asked to take his photo. I love it, because it sums up the city’s super-modern outlook – and the contrast between that and mountains, volcanoes and ancient temple landscapes seen elsewhere. I really welcomed Japan’s scope for environmental portraiture, too; the ability to capture people in their natural habitat.

Balm of Buddhism

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One of my favourite experiences on the trip was being able to stay the night at a Buddhist temple in Koyasan, one of Japan’s most revered pilgrimage sites. The monks we met there were so humble, gentle and kind. It felt special to have space to reflect in a peaceful setting, with an insider perspective that most people just don’t get. 

We were given sandals to wear around the monastery, but all attendees of the evening meditation were required to remove their sandals before joining the practice. There were lots of people in the hall, but the atmosphere was calm and grounding. It felt wonderful to meditate in a culture steeped in traditions of mindfulness.

Nature in flight

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The grounds of the monastery in Koyasan were beautiful and focused around a coy pond with many colourful fish. I love capturing moments of wildlife and insects because they can be so fleeting.

Purification ritual

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In Japan, there’s a ritual whereby you always purify yourself before going into a temple. Wherever you go, there’s usually some kind of water fountain with ladles that you use to wash one hand and then the other before entering a place of worship. I’m not a religious person but it felt like such a privilege to have insight into people’s beliefs and traditions in this way. 

Food, glorious food

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There’s so much ritual and tradition that goes into the act of eating in Japan. It’s all about sharing with each other; and everything from street food and train station snacks, right up to fancy restaurants, is beautifully presented. I had no idea before I travelled here how much flavours would vary by region, too; e.g. the ingredients and textures you might find in Hiroshima will be completely different to Osaka. So the cuisine keeps changing, and I tried so many delicious things – for example, a black egg – for the first time here.

Sweet wheels

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This rickshaw driver was tasked with running us all around the bamboo forest in the Arashiyama neighbourhood, outside of Kyoto. All of the drivers were so strong, lifting the rickshaws up with ease. They were superbly friendly and happy to take so many photos of us during the experience, to the point where I dubbed our driver as my “insta boyf”!

Cultural immersion

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I couldn’t ask for a better Pack Leader than our guide, Kazuki. He took a huge amount of pride and genuine interest in connecting with each member of our group. He even got me a souffle cheesecake on the first day of the trip as it coincided with my birthday – which felt fortuitous!

Kazuki’s knowledge was astounding: he could answer any question. I really welcomed the ability to share conversations about what life is like for him and other locals in Japan – their homes and dreams, what it’s like buying a house, what they bring to shrines, their favourite bars. You can’t get that level of detail simply by visiting a place. 

Instead, we got to immerse ourselves into different facets of Japanese culture. That included activities like our sumo wrestling experience in Tokyo. Our sumo hosts (pictured top) were charismatic and hilarious; they brought lightheartedness to a really physical sport. It was fantastic to be able to step into their world.

Group dynamic

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I think what surprised me about the Flash Pack group was how well everyone got along. Maybe because we were all embracing life in our 30s and 40s, everyone seemed really happy to be there and open to the experience. There was zero drama. We had people from all over the world and from a range of different backgrounds, so I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to relate to everyone. But we shared this core sense of respect and camaraderie. 

It was great to be able to spend time pursuing my passion in Japan. I can’t think of a better place for photography; I saw each new landscape with fresh eyes. I came back really happy from that freedom that comes from travelling and exploring new cultures.

Whitney DuVall is a London-based consultant and keen photographer who travelled with Flash Pack to Japan.

Got a story or adventure that could inspire a solo traveller like you? Tag @flashpack on social or email [email protected] to be featured.

Images: Courtesy of Whitney DuVall

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