5 Steps To Buying Our First Camera in Tokyo, Japan

by Mark & Kristen Morgan
Mark outside LAOX with brand new camera in bag

We took the plunge and bought our first camera in the worlds most populous metropolis, Tokyo, Japan.

Buying your first ever camera is kind of a big deal. This is the real deal, you’ll have to drop a lot of money and you have no idea if you are going to be any good at photography. You don’t have the first idea how to really take photographs. Which brand should you go for? Hang on, which TYPE of camera do you want? Point and shoot / mirrorless / DSLR? … Will you even enjoy it?!!

For us, it had become untenable not to have a camera by the time we finally made our purchase. We had been traveling for 4 months and knew inherently that it was time. The topic had been hotter than the sun for weeks. However, we were hesitant to bite the bullet. ‘Oh to hell with it, where better to take the plunge than the camera capital of the world, right?’!

Chaos ensued. We sprinted around Tokyo’s bustling and crazy districts ALL DAY, swooping from one huge electronics store to yet another monster sized electronics store! We’re talking 8am-10pm. Loading up on info, writing prices down, seeing if we could get any accessories bundled…

Which camera did we buy? Read on to discover our 5 steps to buying a camera in the extraordinary city of Tokyo, Japan.

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Mark looking delighted with the new camera

We need to give you a little background information before we jump right into the details.

It’s vitally important to say that in hindsight, we would have without question bought a camera several months before we even set off on our year long honeymoon around the world!

That way we could have learned, practiced, moved onto more advanced settings and most importantly – fallen in love with photography. However, we kind of had a wedding to organize and execute, plan a trip around the world, sell a house, start a US visa process…yada yada the list of excuses goes on.

And you’ll need some context…

By the time we arrived in Tokyo with the intention of buying a camera, we had already been traveling for almost 4 months. That included 3 months interrailing through 17 countries in Europe, followed by 4 days in the relentless heat of Dubai and 4 days in ‘skyscraper city’ Hong Kong. Finally, we’d been bullet train warriors in Japan for 2 weeks, finishing in Tokyo. It was a travesty that we were still using our iPhones for all of our travel photos.

Of course, we had breached the topic of buying a camera before we left but we dismissed it based purely on finances. We simply didn’t have a spare $500-1000 sitting around. That would be a pretty big dent in the overall budget.

Step 1 – Damn, We Need A Camera!

Burj Khalifa bending as too tall for iPhone camera

The concept of this travel blog only materialized a few weeks into our European adventure, in Spain. As many travel bloggers do, we thought our blog would just be a diary we could share with friends and family. We assumed our iPhone photographs would suffice. Plus, neither of us had really been exposed to photography before (which is a crying shame!), so we were happy enough as beginners in our little iPhone photo bubble.

The best phone we had available to us at the time was an iphone 8 (newest version at the time), with a 6s as backup. In its defense, the iPhone 8 does take perfectly acceptable photographs, if you’re not a pro, serious about editing and printing, or a travel blog in the making. It performed pretty well in cities during the day. Which is exactly the environment we had been in for most of the trip, up until we left for Asia. Smartphones do allow you to focus instantly simply by touching the screen and capture detail well if your subject is close by.

European Adventure Setting The Scene

There were moments in Europe where we discussed being able to take better photographs with a camera, but with no serious intent to go ahead and actually buy one. Photographs from our first trip to Europe are not the best. We know that now. We didn’t have the equipment and we didn’t understand how to effectively compose a photograph, yet. Everything is a process, it’s easy to look back now and understand where we went wrong! But you also have to have a starting point so don’t feel bad if you find yourself in the same boat we were!

In Dubai, we couldn’t fit the Burj Khalifa in a single shot unless we were miles away! We tried a vertical panorama with the iPhone but the worlds tallest building looked like it was tipping over (think of that ‘Inception’ scene where the buildings go upside down). So we began to learn by realizing that we wanted a wide angle lens. Or at least a camera with a wider field of view than the iPhone, because we began to enjoy capturing images of architecture and landscapes.

The Defining Moment
Victoria Peak Hong Kong in dusk as building begin to light up

However, we weren’t about to go out and drop big bucks because of the Burj Khalifa. Our next stop was Hong Kong. The moment we walked onto the sky deck at the top of Victoria Peak and saw that unbelievable view of skyscrapers jutting up into the sky like matchsticks, we instantly began to question ourselves for the second time in a matter of days. Our iPhone photos weren’t terrible, but equally, they weren’t amazing – and that’s what we needed.

The discussion of whether we should buy a camera was the flavor of the month by now. The most frustrating thing was that it had taken us so long to come to this conclusion. If we were to buy one now, out of principle we’d be annoyed at ourselves for missing the whole of Europe with a camera!

We’d been brain storming about the travel blog without really being able to spend any time on it. But we made the decision to step away from the personal diary travel blog. Our goal was to create an informative travel blog so we could help others travel, just as we were reading travel blogs about the places we were heading to next. We knew a camera would help us take better photographs for the future blog aspirations we had.

Jump forward a week to Kyoto’s Golden Temple, bamboo forest and bright orange Inari Shrines. We’re still iPhone’ing. The final straw was the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route in fall with some of the most beautifully colorful foliage we’ve ever seen. Burnt oranges, rusty reds, illuminating yellows: breathtaking. It was time to bite the bullet. That spare money we didn’t have was about to be spent!

It was there, breathless after climbing to the top of Mt. Tateyama at 3000m that we decided together to begin the pre-purchase research process. We’re in Japan after all, what better place to buy our first camera than THE tech city, Tokyo?!

Step 2 – Research & Analysis: Blessing & Curse

Camera display in huge tokyo camera store

Realization was the easy part. Next we had to decide which camera we wanted to buy. That may sound simple, but it’s not. Especially for us because we are scientists. We both come from a very analytical and logical thinking background. Naturally, our brains work over time whenever there are options! At times, that can be a huge pain in the arse.

We have been known to deliberate, analyse, evaluate, make pro and con lists, deliberate some more and then even when we’ve decided, sometimes we’ll go back to the drawing board. All in the name of making sure we get the best possible quality to price ratio. We like to think of it as both a blessing and a curse.

Fujifilm cameras on sale in tokyo

Our research began with which type of camera we would prefer. We immediately discounted point and shoot as it wouldn’t produce a massive improvement in quality and shooting options compared to the iPhone. That left us with a decision to make between a DSLR and a mirrorless camera. We discovered that mirrorless technology had dramatically advanced in the years leading up to our visit to Japan. Mirrorless camera quality was becoming similar to that of a DSLR and many pros were making the transition to mirrorless.

Mark holding paper up to reveal price of camera in a tokyo store

Buying a camera was new territory for both of us. Neither of us expected to be forking out a lump sum for a camera a few months back, even though we had talked about it! We knew that we couldn’t afford to jump in at the deep end. So advanced models were out of the equation. Financially, there wasn’t much in it. Mirrorless and DSLR had similar price brackets for beginner and mid-range camera models. So there was no clear winner for the budget.

Very expensive price for sony a6000 tourist oversea price

What tipped us towards mirrorless was the convenience factor. Size and weight to be specific. As long term travelers with a finite amount of space and weight available, it was a no brainer for us to opt for mirrorless.

Step 3 – Choosing A Model

digital camera store Akihabara tokyo

The next decision to make was which model of camera we would begin with. From the word go, we’d both been drawn to the Sony Alpha series, simply because of how sleek they looked. They felt like the Ferrari of the sports car world. You know the feeling you get where no matter what else you look at, even if the other thing has better specification or performance, you still want the other one. That was Sony for us. We are very observant people by nature. We had noticed that a high proportion of photographers we’d seen on the trip so far had a ‘Sony Alpha’ neck strap on. They seemed to be the vogue camera.

Fujifilm x-t100 on sale in tokyo japan

Ideally, we would have picked up the Sony a7RIII (the RIV wasn’t out at the time). But that was far too expensive. Sensibility, we tossed our desire (and dreams!) out the window and looked at cheaper alternatives that wouldn’t break the already dwindling bank balance. Fujifilm, Olympus and Nikon were alternatives to Sony and we would need to do our homework.

typical shop floor in tokyo buying a camera

We were looking for the best quality to price ratio we could find – somewhere in between the cheapest models and best mid range models. In order for us to get hold of that coveted Sony Alpha, we could only stretch our budget to an A-6000. That was our limit. The A-6300 was too expensive. So, we drew up a list of competitors similar to that quality and price.

In direct comparison to its similar price range competitors, the Fuji X-T100 and Olympus OM-D E-M10 II were ranked as better cameras when all technical specs were compared to the A-6000. But we still wanted the Sony!

Step 4 – Dashing Around Tokyo

Bic Camera store at night in Tokyo Japan

Finally, we began our search in person. And by search we mean running around Tokyo, on a quest! Tokyo is a seriously massive city, overflowing with people and camera shops. It’s a haven for photographers. There are entire shop floors dedicated to cameras in Japan! We knew we were in for a long ass day.

Our Tokyo HQ in Kanda was a 15 minute walk from Akihabara, which is known as a big technology district in the city. Excellent, that’s where we would begin our camera hunt! Oh wow, the number of camera shops was immediately overwhelming. But hey, we certainly were not going to be short on options!

Kristen lost among thousands of people in streets of tokyo

We whipped through 5 or 6 places (including flagship Bic Camera and Yodobashi) like two Tasmanian devils formulating prices and getting a feel for each of the models we were interested in. We would take photos of the prices in each shop for comparison. It was clear to us both that we preferred the look and feel of the Sony a6000. But despite the Sony lagging behind in certain specifications – like the lack of a touch screen – against its competitors, the price of the Sony seemed a little higher than we expected.

Yodobashi camera store in tokyo Japan

We couldn’t understand why the price was so high for the Sony in Tokyo as we were finding much cheaper prices on US Amazon. Finally, the penny dropped! We deciphered the code at the last place we tried in Akihabara. Sony sell cameras to local Japanese residents at a certain price and to ‘foreigners’ at an inflated price. This is an attempt to stop ‘foreigners’ from buying models in Japan and selling them for profit at a higher price at home.

Tax Free Special
sony a6000 on sale with notice for overseas models on separate floor tokyo

Admittedly, we were a little disheartened. But the game wasn’t over yet. In the very last store we tried in Akihabara – called LAOX – there was a special offer on. This offer eliminated foreign tax entirely on Sony models. The LAOX sales manager was an awesome guy and talked to us for a while about our options, giving what felt like genuine advice. He said the Sony was the best seller by a distance.

The cherry on top of the ‘no foreign tax’ deal? The manager offered to throw in a Sony camera bag, SD card and 1 year warranty (and a weird cup made of tin?!) – along with the Sony A-6000 body plus kit pancake lens and telephoto lens.

kristen buying our first ever camera in tokyo Japan

Ahhhh, so now we knew we had to find the a6000 with foreign tax excluded. We thanked the manager for his help and said we’d keep looking but maybe see him later.

Akihabara down, we moved our attention to Shinjuku and Shibuya. We knew we’d been offered a great deal as it was cheaper than US Amazon (at the time), with extras bundled. But we couldn’t help ourselves and had to look around at all other options.

We spent the whole day ducking and diving like a human hurricane into every single camera store we could find on our google maps app! Some stores were humongous with hundreds of cameras, others were tiny second hand stores down dodgy alleyways, with strange tiny elevators to the camera sections on the 5th floor. We would take note of prices for all cameras, ask sales teams in each place if the foreign tax could be removed and move on to the next store.

Sony a6000 price for body and with lenses bundled Tokyo

It was exhilarating, for a while. Then it became tedious and tiring. Why were we still searching every camera store in Tokyo? We’d already been given a great price –  we knew it was already better than Amazon US because both kit lenses were included. The curse of our over analytical brains! What would we save in the end? Maybe $50?! And we’d run ourselves ragged!

Step 5 – Purchase Made

Tokyo street at sunset with lights on buildings

Eventually, we had exhausted our vast amount of options in the city. Did we manage to find a single other place offering the a6000 foreign tax free? No, we did not! And … the price we were offered in LAOX was cheaper with both kit lenses than it was for just the body anywhere else! We were wrecked by the end of the day. So, instead of going to buy the camera that night, we decided to do some final research to make sure we were happy with going for the a6000.

LAOX akihabara camera store in tokyo exterior

Feeling fresh the following morning, we made the decision to FINALLY bite the bullet and buy a brand new Sony a6000 (in black) at the Akihabara store we had been at almost 24 hours earlier. We could have saved a whole day and not had to add that on to our Tokyo itinerary! But, we felt it was a big moment and we wanted to make sure we were making the correct call. The manager was delighted to see us and we were equally as happy to see him!

New camera with bag SIM card and warrantee on bed in tokyo

The a6000 turned out to be the perfect beginners mirrorless digital camera! We absolutely 100% stand by our decision! We love the camera and wouldn’t have changed it for the world. Yes, the a6000 has its flaws and limitations (sometimes we’ve been SO demoralized!) but after months of practicing and making mistakes, we learnt how to compose photographs. We read books and guides, and we put ourselves in the right places at the right times. That’s all you can do, until it’s time to upgrade your equipment and take things to the next level.

kristen looking confused with our new camera on mount takao tokyo

Tokyo was the best possible place to search for a camera. The craziness and ecstasy of thousands of people shopping for cameras all day was mind blowing to witness. Everyone just loves technology! And their enthusiasm wore off onto us as we searched for our first ever camera.

If you’re thinking about buying your first camera, head over to Tokyo and immerse yourself into the fascinating camera capital of the world! And as always, if you have any questions or thoughts, please leave us a comment!

-Happy Travels-

Trivia: First Digital Camera - Who Invented? Where? When?

Kodak / Rochester, New York / 1975

Stephen Sasson invented the first digital camera when working at Eastman Kodak in 1975. It weighed 8lbs (3.6kg) and shot at 0.01MP!

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