“What is sought for in a holiday is a set of photography images, which have already been seen in tour company brochures or on TV programmes.” – John Urry from his 2002 book, The Tourist Gaze. It’s how we prove we were there, and the growth of online platforms has made these images into the social currency that we use to validate our lives. Each photo says, I was here. I’ve seen it. Hell, I live it. And it most definitely altered the way I experienced Japan.

I’d been told that Tokyo would overwhelm me. There are just so many people. But it wasn’t their movement that made me weary. It was what they were doing. Everywhere I looked. Everywhere we went. They were there. Phones in hand.

At first, it was the girls in kimonos. They were sweet. Dressed up, hair done, stopping every few feet to find a new angle, a new background. I took as many photos of them as they did of themselves. But by the third or fourth day, they (along with every other backpacked tourist) were becoming clutter in the landscape. Always present, phones in hand, making it hard to capture the history and tranquility of a place.

I was frustrated. I wanted THE shot. The one I’d seen so many times online. Then I realized I was basing my enjoyment of this trip on coming away with a set of perfect images that someone else had already taken. It was time to stop chasing an instagrammable version of Japan and start actually seeing it.

All the guidebooks had Osaka as a must-see. They’d tagged it as brash, dense, plain, basically a concrete jungle with some really good neon. We arrived in the afternoon and checked into the best hotel of the trip, Hotel The Flag. Sidenote, if you stay there, make yourself a coffee. With three days, we had plans to see a white castle, a big river and some serious city lights.

You see Himeji-jo long before you get to it. Its peaked roof breaks the skyline. I read the brochure and can tell you all about the history, but I’d rather paint a picture of what it was like to be there.

The castle is old. Really old. And yet, they let you walk all over it. There’s no furniture. Just glossy wooden floors, walls, beams – the whole shebang. They hand you a bag and ask you to remove your shoes before heading inside. I was expecting a tour guide, and rules. But there wasn’t any. I went where I wanted. I climbed five stories, I looked out every window. I lingered.

I tried taking a few pictures, but eventually put my camera away. This place was more of a feeling than a photograph. An opportunity to be present. Especially when walking back down the stairs. In socks. I guess what I’m saying is it’s worth it. Go. Walk. Think. Try not to lose your footing and wipe out two dozen tourists. Trust me. It could happen.

Back in Osaka, we did Dotombori. It’s the food and shopping district that straddles the river and its home to some genuinely huge billboards. At night, it draws thousands of tourists. You’ve got to go with it. I stood on a bench for fifteen minutes to try and get a clean shot of the street before realizing it was better to go low and catch them as they walked around me. Same went for the Glico running man. He’s famous. Look him up. My best shot of him includes a dozen other wankers taking selfies. And it works.

We saw other spots. Walked around town. Ate in some pretty cool places. And found a hidden brewery. After combing the internet for a spot to grab a cold beer, we went on the hunt and in a non-descript building, down a long white hallway, was a coke machine. Grab the handle, pull hard, and you’ll reveal a doorway into the aptly named, Vend. It was like falling down the rabbit hole, and it was empty. Except for the owner, of course. Koda spoke English, so we spent the better part of the night sitting at his bar talking craft beer, face masks and Canada. Great spot. No pictures.

By the time we left Osaka, I was ready to think beyond the ‘tourist-trap’ and just accept each spot for what it was. Here’s the highlights.

Nara. Yes, there are deer. Lots of them. They’ll come up and pick your pocket if you’re not careful. Money, maps, the last bit of that Octopus ball you were saving for later…they give zero shits. They’ll eat all of it. Having said that, it’s totally worth the visit. Nara Park is home to Todai-ji and the biggest damn Buddha I’ve seen so far. You can get a ticket for the temple that also includes the museum. I bought it by accident but was glad I did. There’s a short video running on a loop that chronicles Japan’s history. It’s animated, and it’s good.

Hiroshima. It rained that day, which seemed fitting. The memorial sits behind a fence, a few signs around the perimeter to explain its significance. Don’t bother with pictures. You’ll never post them. Do visit the Peace Museum. The day we were there it was full of elementary school students coming face to face with some pretty horrific images. Sounds heavy, but honestly, watching them fill out their worksheets in order to learn from humanity’s mistakes gave me some hope.

Kyoto. Climb all the way to the top of Fushimi Inari. It will seem impossible to get a clean photo of the red torii gates, but most people won’t go beyond the first switchback, and those that do are happy to stop and rest while you shoot a few frames. If you take a wrong turn along the way, you’ll find a quirky coffee shop with an outdoor patio. Sometimes it pays to get lost. Brave the Nishiki Market, eat all the food and buy the knife. We brought a couple back and expect to lose a finger at some point this year. Skip the ‘bamboo forest’ (it’s really more of a path), but go see the monkeys. While the former takes two minutes to walk through, and will be FULL of people, the latter run around, groom each other and occasionally get busy, right in front of your lens.

Tokyo. Daylight hours are for Senso-ji, Tsukiji Fish Market, Yoyogi park, Shibuya coffee shops and Harajuku. When the sun goes down, squeeze yourself into one of the bathroom sized bars in the Golden Gai or elbow your way into a ‘no english’ establishment. We ended up sharing a table with two very drunk, but ultimately funny locals after bonding over baseball. It’s a big city. And with a vending machine every ten feet, there’s no excuse not to literally drink it all in.

Japan was a trip. I’m glad we went. I’m happy with the images I captured. And I’ll keep a few stories to myself, to share over drinks. It included a few firsts, some never agains and a whole bunch of WTF’s. Above all, it taught me that the pretty pictures I see on the internet are damn near impossible to replicate and I’m better off developing my own eye. I tried. I’ll do better next time. And the time after that. It’s why I travel.

If you’re interested in the images, find most on Instagram and a few on Etsy. Thanks for reading!