Black and white landscape with red tinted Japanese gate
Japan,  Mid-week Monochrome,  Monochrome Madness,  Photographic techniques,  Travel galleries

Gallery: seeing Japan in black and white

One thing living in Japan did for me was to make me feel that what is left out of a work of art is as important as, if not more important than, what is put in

Katherine Paterson (US author)

I think this quote expresses much that appeals to me not only in Japanese art but the country’s architecture and maybe other aspects of its culture too. There’s a restraint, a rejection of what is not necessary. The traditional houses there remind me of that famous quote by William Morris:

Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.

Or, as the architect Mies van der Rohe equally famously said, ‘Less is more’.

In this gallery, shared for Bren’s Midweek Monochrome and Leanne’s Monochrome Madness, what I am leaving out is of course the colour. Japan is rich in colour, yet I felt some of my shots could also work well in black and white. So I played around a bit in Silver Efex Pro and these images are the result. The one exception of course is the featured photo, of a torii gate on Lake Ashi. The red of these gates is so distinctive that I felt I just had to retain it.

and by the way

Branch with autumn leaves

Autumn in Kanmangafuchi Abyss, Nikko

Fir trees and a misty mountain

A rainy day in Kamikochi National Park in the Japanese Alps

Logs in a lake with young branches sprouting

Taishō Pond, Kamikochi National Park

Bamboo grove in Arashiyama, Kyoto

Two large bamboo stems with sparse leaves

Ship with masts on a lake

‘Pirate’ ship offering tourist cruises on Lake Ashi, Hakone

Tall tower with the top hidden in mist

Clouds obscuring the top of the Skytree in Tokyo, the tallest tower in the world

(given the weather we didn’t bother going up!)

Clouds reflected in an Osaka skyscraper, with cloud-pruned trees known as Niwaki

Modern office block reflecting clouds

Looking up at modern office blocks

Modern skyscrapers in Shiodome, Tokyo

(see this previous post for the original colour version)

Japanese house with screen walls

Inside a traditional merchant’s house in Takayama

Detail of oriental roof against the sky

Roof detail, Osaka Castle

Small lion figure on round roof tiles

Roof detail, Tenryuji Temple, Arashiyama, Kyoto

Black and white photo of a Buddha statue

In the grounds of Sensoji Temple, Asakusa, Tokyo

Young Buddhist nun at Toshogu Shrine in Nikko

Young woman with long hair reading

Man in uniform and passing train

Station guard at Odawara station, with bullet train passing

Pensive man with cloth band around his head

On the streets of Takayama

Man in a flat straw hat

Also on the streets of Takayama

I visited Japan in 2013


  • Ju-Lyn

    What beautiful captures, Sarah. I found my way to your Japan posts to indulge my trip preparation. I am feeling much better this week as most of the packing is done and errands run. So I have the space now to immerse myself.

    I see your lovely Arashimaya (and other) captures (bamboo, temple) and I can feel some of what you experienced. I love your Feature Photo with the torii gate and quote. I am looking forward to the zen and empty spaces and things not said/shown.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Glad to hear you’re getting excited about your trip 🙂 I don’t have as many posts about Japan as I’d like to, as the trip was quite a long while ago (ten years now!) and I have so many other more recent ones to write about! I’m really looking forward to hearing about all your experiences. I know you’re going to love it!

  • hollymrichards

    Ahh these are amazing! What a wonderful take too, though I would also struggle to put a Torii gate into black and white – the contrast with the red works so well!

  • Nick Helmick

    This was lovely! I appreciate the black and white formatting of the blog post to complement your shots, too.

    To me, a black and white photo always seems more… distinct? — than a color one. I think the removal of color divorces the photo from reality just enough where you lose some of the life of the subject, but reveal more of its soul. In my monkey brain it also makes it somehow more deserving of attention or historical significance. Probably a result of all the black and white textbooks I read in school. Funny how that works.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Nick, I’m pleased you liked the shots and appreciate you noticing and commenting on the formatting too 😀 I think you’re right about that disconnect from reality. For me it makes a B&W photo harder to just pass the eye over without taking it in, you have to pause to look at what you’re seeing – if that makes sense?!

      • Nick Helmick

        Definitely. If this were 80 years ago I imagine the effect was less pronounced since all photos were B&W, but in our colorful digital world it definitely makes you pause.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I always struggle with the phone for anything other than fairly standard shots and I hate not having a viewfinder. My preferred camera for travel and ‘serious’ photography at home is my Panasonic Lumix bridge camera but I also have a point and shoot Lumix which I use when I don’t want to carry the larger one.

      • Image Earth Travel

        I’ve just bought the Google Pixel 6a, which isn’t too bad but need to get a ‘real’ camera. First trip that I haven’t carried one but my 3kg Nikon was out of the question this time as trying to keep the weight down.
        I still have my Lumix small point and shoot from 2011 that I bought in Bolivia.
        Travelling for 2 years this time so need to go light and the reason I’m thinking of buying a new one along the way.

        • Sarah Wilkie

          Gosh yes, two years – you do need to consider every gram! Nevertheless I can’t imagine travelling without at least a small camera. It’s the viewfinder I miss most when I have to resort to the phone.

          • Image Earth Travel

            I know exactly what you mean. I’m old school and still use a 35mm film camera. I used to travel with a film camera, a DSLR, and a small compact for trekking up mountains. I also miss a viewfinder as the LCD screens annoy me, but that’s progress in technology so I need to adapt.

  • bluebrightly

    This was fun, Sarah. The juxtaposition of the Buddha’s face with the young nun is wonderful. The faces are my favorites but I do admire that bamboo photo! 😉

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you again 🙂 The portraits do seem to be general favourites, and I’m glad you picked up on that juxtaposition – I do try to think quite carefully about the order and arrangement of my photos, as I can tell you do too!

  • Teresa

    Dramatic effect on the skyscrapers and the Japanese alps especially. Love your portraits as usual.Thanks Sarah for taking me to a place that I have never seen.

  • Heyjude

    The people portraits work very well in monochrome and I like the simplicity of the bamboo shot. Also the roof details. As you have rightly pointed out not all photos can be transformed into black and white, careful editing is required.

  • peNdantry

    I always wanted to go to Japan. I did a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) course years ago, intending to try to go there as an English teacher. Unfortunately, I’d left it too late: when I investigated, I discovered that the rules forbade any foreigners over 40 from applying to work there (I was 39). And, since then, the vow I took years back never to fly again (to reduce my carbon footprint) means that the only way I can get there would involve a long sea voyage. (I imagine that might be interesting in itself, though!)

  • margaret21

    This is a lovely set of monochromes. But I do miss the colour in the traditional architecture: though b/w is great for the modern buildings with their reflections.


    I’m running out of superlatives. Another great collection. We are really in two minds about Japan, there’s probably an equal number of things which put us off as there are things that attract. Your recommendation would be….what?

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Well I would say go, as I loved the country, and would like to go again one day, to a different part but also back to Kyoto as we only had a few days there and it deserves more. What things are putting you off? Maybe I can reassure/dispel?


        I guess we kind of have an opinion that it’ll be largely sterile and uninteresting in many of the cities…a bit too….what?…functional? We like a bit of rustic, as you know. For some reason we are also both of the opinion that the people won’t be particularly friendly or receptive to westerners. Perhaps all a bit too….modern??

        • Sarah Wilkie

          The bigger cities like Tokyo and Osaka maybe, although the former is a must if you’re to understand the culture of today’s Japan I reckon. But get away from the big cities and you’ll find places that are much more traditional, if not properly rustic (at least on Honshu, the only island we visited). I loved Takayama – vibrant market, beautiful old houses, great food (especially beef) and atmospheric shrines without the crowds of Kyoto. From there you can get up into the Japanese Alps for a bit of hiking in stunning scenery. But you should also see Kyoto, and it’s possible to avoid the crowds there by going to the less visited temples – there are hundreds to choose from, after all! I understand some of the other islands are much more rural than Honshu so with some research you should find one to combine with those main places or maybe do some island hopping?
          As for the people, they are polite but fairly formal – you’ll be treated like very welcome guests but you’re unlikely get to know them on any deeper level. But I found their culture fascinating nevertheless.
          Have you come across Holly of Sketchbooks and Syllabaries ( She’s a young Brit who’s mad about Japan and recently spent six weeks in Kyoto learning Japanese. She’d be a great guide to the less visited parts of the city and to its food and drink scene 🙂

  • Beat Hiltbrunner

    I like the black and white Shiodome of Tokyo very much. The color version exemplifies the different mood the two pictures express. Thank you for sharing the whole set of pictures.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Anne 🙂 I did choose which shots to edit carefully, as many of my Japan photos wouldn’t work in monochrome I suspect. And I was quite pleased with how the portraits came out, especially the last two.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much Bren, I really enjoyed picking out which of my Japanese shots would look best in monochrome, as it’s not something I’d previously done with that set 🙂

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