A Visual Tour of Japan with Photographer Frédéric Tougas


The Montreal photographer reflects on his state of mind when he travels solo.

This story was originally published in 2018 and was updated in July 2021.

July 5, 2021

Hi, my name is Fred Tougas. I’m a self–taught photographer from Montreal. My approach is based on careful observation of relatively ordinary environments whose intrinsic beauty we tend to overlook. To force myself to slow down and think about each composition and what it should communicate, I use 35–mm or medium–format film cameras.

This series is designed to reflect my state of mind when I’m travelling solo.

A view of Mount Fuji from inside an airplane.
Just passing through & here to stay, Mount Fuji.

Fujisan is much more photogenic from a distance. But when I went to Japan a few years ago, I was determined to climb it. And as I stood alone atop this legendary volcano, I realized that the ultimate satisfaction is not in seeing it, but in having it all to yourself.

Related: A Quick Guide to Omiyage: Japan’s Fun and Quirky Food Souvenirs

Cherry blossom tree in the city
Untitled, Tokyo.
Illuminated buildings, Kyoto
Light up the walls, Kyoto.

When you’re in the middle of a cityscape ruled by steel and concrete, seeing a cherry tree in full bloom certainly soothes the soul.

In the city, our senses are so saturated that we end up ignoring the environment and its many stimuli. But when you stop to take in the various elements in a focused way – the illuminated buildings, the chaos of cars and millions of people sharing such a tiny space – the absurdity of it all starts to sink in.

A person looking out a ferry window.
Is that all there is?, Naoshima.

A work of art is never complete until the person looking at it interprets it in their own way, bringing their own baggage to bear. And every descriptive element the artist might add to the work limits this freedom of interpretation. But I will say this: The ferry almost didn’t leave the port.

Obama seaside village
Oh, so you didn’t get the memo… (part III), Obama.
Sulphur springs Jigoku
All Hells – Ex–Paradise 2.0, Beppu.

I got off at the wrong bus stop and found myself in this little seaside village. The mistake turned out to be one of the most inspiring surprises of my journey.

Despite the heavenly appearance of the lush surrounding vegetation and the inviting colours, these hot crystalline waters are the result of violent volcanic activity beneath the city of Beppu. The Japanese have aptly named these sulphur springs Jigoku, or Hells.

Early morning hours in Tokyo
+, Tokyo.

I used jet lag to my advantage by getting up in the early–morning hours to watch Tokyo come to life. Observing the city at this particular time of day is a perfect way to soak up its culture and capture unique images.

Sunlight shining on a cherry blossom tree
7.11, Tokyo.
Mount Unzen
All Hells, Mount Unzen.

The immense charm and esthetic appeal of a city that is among the world’s most populated and spread out comes as a bit of a surprise. But you quickly understand why Tokyo is one of the most popular destinations for artists in search of inspiration. The light that manages to slip between the skyscrapers almost always produces an evocative scene.

This image is part of a series devoted to the esthetics of hostile environments. The idea might seem a bit dark, but these mineral hues and natural juxtapositions of shapes, lines and textures have a strange beauty about them.

Steam coming from a sulphur mine
Until no more, Sulphur mine, Hakone.

This image is a picturesque conjunction of the power of the elements and that of humans. When I was there, several parts of the region were inaccessible due to high volcanic activity.

Passengers on a packed Nagasaki tramway
Outfit in, Nagasaki tramway.

Using film cameras totally changes my approach. It forces me to slow down and be more selective when gauging the visual interest of a scene. Sometimes, you feel like you can blend more easily into a uniform environment, but inevitably you stick out, which is not always what you want when you’re trying to be discreet. The school–day theme is from a packed tram in Nagasaki.

Children outside for recess
Recess recess recess, Bizen.

Japanese schoolyards are like the country itself: clean, orderly and, to the Western eye, somewhat futuristic–looking. The students’ uniforms will vary by region, city, school and season. I came upon this school in a rural town, far from the traditional tourist route.

Okayama bus terminal
Light up the walls, Tokyo.
Intersection in Tokyo’s Shibuya ward
Okayama 20.08, Okayama.

This intersection in Tokyo’s Shibuya ward is among the world’s most famous.

Sometimes, I wonder how it’s possible to feel so alone in a city with millions of inhabitants. It’s a question we should all ask ourselves now and then.