Meet Steph Doran, our wonderful Japanese based, Australian Photography guide. Steph is a successful Commercial Photographer, fluent in the Japanese language and culture. She is a passionate advocate for empowering people with the skills and knowledge to create beautiful imagery with their cameras. Steph will be accompanying us on our Discover Japan Tour this September, here she gives us a perspective of life in Japan.
What are your favourite thing to do on the weekend or in the evenings in Japan?
I'm glad you started with an easy question- my absolute favourite thing is to go to izakaya with my friends. An izakaya is a kind of Japanese pub, but it's nothing like the pubs we have back in Australia, and the experience is completely different. Back home, I never really liked "going out" or drinking, but going to an izakaya has become one of my favourite ways to unwind. The reason is, you are really there for the atmosphere, and the focus isn't just on alcohol. At an izakaya, of course you can enjoy a drink, but it's also a prime place to sample a variety of small dishes, both traditional and sometimes very modern (and let's be honest, the real reason I go there is to eat!) My flatmate and I love exploring back-street izakaya, especially if we can stumble across tiny hole-in-the-wall type places. Izakaya are best visited in the evening, so if it's still daytime, I love finding some nature and just getting out of the city for a while.
Name three things on your bucket list in whilst in Japan?
1) Top of the list is a visit to Tottori. Since I saw it on a YouTube video I have been itching to go. Tottori is on the central northern side of Honshu, near the coast, and it looks nothing like the rest of Japan. It's known for its desert, and abundant sand dunes. Apparently there are even camels! I'd love to go sand boarding there if I get the chance, or smash a watermelon on the beach with a stick (this is a popular summer festival activity.) There is also an old abandoned railway line there that you can hike along, traipsing through forest and bamboo groves. I like the idea of following a metal track through this uninhabited area, without having to share it with tourists.
2) I want to complete the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage on foot. I did a 5 day pilgrimage through Wakayama around 7 years ago (it is called the Kumano Kodo) and I absolutely loved it. Just you and a backpack, travelling solo through ancient forests, climbing mountains, staying at tiny family-run minshuku (guesthouses); I fell in love with the pilgrimage life. I also loved the feeling of physical tiredness after each day, like my body had actually done something. I don't think I've ever slept so well in my life! After the Kumano Kodo, I got a taste for pilgrimages, and researched the Shikoku 88. Basically, the remote island of Shikoku has 88 temples dotted around its perimeter, and a pilgrim walks between them all, creating a circle. It takes about 2 months on foot. Call me crazy, but I really want to do it. I actually attempted to begin twice, but I wasn't able to get there either time (once I broke my arm, and the other time was a logistical issue)- if you come on the trip you can ask me about it! I'm actually really excited that we are taking the tour to Shikoku, because we may have the chance to visit a few of the temples on the route (does that mean that I am starting my pilgrimage already??)
3) Okinawa! I've visited all of Japan's main islands (Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu) except Okinawa! Okinawa is down south and is more tropical than the rest of Japan. The culture and lifestyle is different, so I'd love to go and experience the difference. You may have heard of Okinawa's the famous murasaki-imo, or purple sweet potato, and I want to eat it so that I can live to be 100 years old (the chemical compounds that make it purple are incredible good for your health.) I'd also love to go scuba diving in Okinawa, and see the beaches where the grains of sand are shaped like stars! (It's true: Google it!)
Where is the best cheap meal you have had in Japan ?
That's too hard! It's really hard to find a "bad" meal in Japan, because food quality is so high. However, it's really easy to find a cheap meal! Recently, I've been visiting restaurants at lunch time instead of dinner, because most of them do a special lunch menu, which is often less than half the price of their dinner service. Actually, I recently went to this gorgeous organic cafe with my workmates and had a tei-shoku (set meal) which included brown rice, salad, pickles, miso soup, two small side dishes, and a main dish (I chose agedashi-tofu, but you could also choose fried chicken, grilled fish, sashimi, simmered beef, etc) as well as coffee, all for ¥1000. Set meals are your friend if you want to eat big, but spend small. It was so fresh and tasty, and also very photogenic (their plating rivals any South Yarra cafe!) I actually tell everyone about this cafe, it's one of my favourite places and they source all their veggies from local growers. I don't know if this is the best cheap meal I have had in Japan ever, but it's pretty high on the list!
What do you find the most interesting thing about people watching in Japan ?
I'd say that it's the way that everything just flows smoothly. Despite the large population being crammed into a tiny country, everything just kind of 'works.' There is order to the chaos here, and even the way people move through a busy train station has some sense of calm to it. People don't run into each other, lines to get through the ticket gates flow- it's almost like everyone is in some kind of mass synchronised dance. But watching individuals is also fascinating. There is such a diversity of characters and personalities in Japan, and if you allow yourself to just stop and watch, you can see some great little moments. You just have to be open to slowing down and perceiving your environment.
What do you enjoy most about shooting there?
The light! This sounds like a really typical, mundane answer, but the light in Japan is amazing. I'm talking about natural sunlight. In Australia it's a very crisp, clear, harsh light. Shadows are hard and deep, and the colour of the light is usually pretty 'clean,' aside from the golden hour. But in Japan, even now after visiting however many times, I still catch myself in awe of the way the natural light behaves. It's softer somehow, almost hazy? And the colours in the afternoon, the golden rays or the soft pastel hues of evening- it's inspiring. It's almost like everything is Instagram-filtered for you. So that light quality, teamed with an abundance of subject matter makes it easy to find the inspiration to shoot.
What activities, experiences or destinations are you are most excited to experience on the tour?
I'm so excited that we are going to visit Matsuyama, because I've never been before, so it will be a new experience for me too. I'm especially looking forward to visiting Dogo Onsen, for two reasons. Firstly, I love onsen. The Japanese knew what they were doing when they turned bathing into a ritual! It's so relaxing, and an experience that I definitely recommend trying! A lot of foreigners feel awkward about being naked in front of other people, but if you do feel that way, I'd really encourage you to step out of your comfort zone and try it! Once you are in the water, it's totally fine! Of course, there is a chance that someone is going to be curious and look at the shape of your butt, or how hairy your legs are, but you'll see so many body types in there that it won't matter! I promise not to peek.
Secondly, Dogo Onsen is one of the oldest onsen in Japan, and it was also the inspiration for the bathhouse in the Miyazaki film, "Spirited Away." I'm a Ghibli fan, so I want to nerd out a bit in Matsuyama.
Combine your love of travel and photography on our personalised bespoke "Discover Japan Tour' with Photography Studies College this September 2018. An opportunity to explore Japan through the eyes of a local and be absorbed into the culture, history and landscape. Join us on the tour of a lifetime with Steph Doran and Dr Michael Coyne, renowned international photojournalist. Steph looks forward to meeting you !