I’ve had various folk ask me what are the most important things to take on my trips, specially my photography trips. Sometimes they’re surprised when my answer doesn’t include any photography gear at all. The way I see it, your purpose determines the kind of gear you bring; I’ll blog about that some other time. What’s important, regardless of my purpose, are the things that make it possible to achieve that goal.

Early morning at the Arashiyama bamboo grove

Like my alarm clock. As a photographer, my concern is always to be at the right place in the right light, and that’s usually early morning. Early morning also means far less people wherever you are. Most tourists won’t stir out of their lodgings til around 8:00 a.m. or later. If you’re going to a crowded, bucket-list attraction it helps a lot to be there at opening time.

I can’t help but remember one friend’s acerbic comment on Arashiyama’s bamboo grove: arriving after 9:00 a.m., he found “more people than bamboo!” Usually my phone also serves as my alarm clock, but from now on I’ll be taking a dedicated pocket alarm clock as well in case the phone runs out of power before morning.

“More people than bamboo!”

Even before the alarm clock, though, I’ll recommend an internet connection. Not just during your trip, but way before. The Internet’s your best friend for researching your trip, and research you should. Traveling well-informed is not only much safer, it’s also more meaningful and lets you do more with your limited time.

When I research I want to find out not only where to go and how to get there, but what the climate is like, what the food is like, and local customs — at the very least how to say hello and thank you. Nothing lights up a local’s face like being thanked in their own language. On my last trip to Japan I’m positive I got good expressions from various locals because I asked if I could take their pictures in Japanese. I also want to check what photos have been taken at the sites I want to visit, to see where the good angles and times are and also to know what’s already been done.

Do note though, that if you’re doing your research online to be careful of user-generated reviews. User-generated information such as on Tripadvisor is unedited and may have errors. Some have viewpoints very different from your own, so they may have liked something you won’t, or vice versa. There are also inaccuracies, as sometimes the reviewers don’t remember all the details. For example I’ve found pictures of Osaka Castle labelling it as a location in Kyoto. As much as possible research different sources and compare them. This is the price of the Information Age — there’s so much available, but you have to sift the truth from it.

Third on my essentials list is good shoes.  Travel equals walking in my book, and if your shoes hurt you lose a lot. My first boss, an advertising photographer who did — and still does — a lot of fieldwork, once said “You should spend more on shoes than on lenses.” The best lenses in the world will do you no good if you can’t even get to where you need to stand for that picture. Invest in good shoes, and be sure to break them in well before your trip. Happy simply feet travel better, so make your feet happy. Ki o tsukete kudasai!


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