Like a medieval battle re-enacted every five minutes, at a green signal, thousands of people charge at each other from 5 opposing curbsides across 10 traffic lanes. Somewhere near the middle, the multiple battlefronts collide, like storm swells on a harbour wall. You can almost hear the Samurai cries, the gnashing horses and clash of swords.
Ok, that last part isn’t true. Actually, the crests of unwaveringly polite people of Tokyo glide through each other smoothly with only the slightest of ripples through the crowd, until the last stragglers realise the imminent road danger and start to leg it to the other side before the eager traffic resumes.
With this many people though, you’ll certainly experience your share of craziness (check out our Crazy Tokyo blog post). And with sparklingly illuminated glass and steel canyons on all sides, purely nutty Tokyo fashion, TV screens the size of large buildings and some of the world’s most intense advertising in every direction, the world-class modern spectacle that is Shibuya’s pedestrian ‘scramble’ crossing will yield stunning imagery for filmmakers and photographers.
So what’s the best way to capture it all? The Rat & Dragon crew relished checking it out for our projects and here’s what we found:
Commercial Filming Permits
Permits are required for street shoots all throughout Tokyo, and from what we understand, it’s pretty much impossible to get one for Shibuya crossing. Rat & Dragon certainly don’t condone sidestepping regulations and wouldn’t dream of doing it ourselves. But if, hypothetically, we ever did consider it (which we didn’t), the following is merely what we might have hypothetically suggested (if we did condone it, which we don’t).
Shibuya crossing is one of the world’s greatest tourist marvels so just about everyone has a camera out. A tiny team of two or three people, without a tripod and obvious lighting or audio kit, will blend right in and will hardly be noticed at all, especially if using DSLR or similar light-weight, non-shoulder mounted camera. Similarly, if you’ve ever seen Tokyo fashion, you’ll know that getting your actor in just about any costume on the streets of Tokyo will probably not raise the kind of attention you would in other cities.
Where is it?
The crossing is just outside Shibuya Station’s Hachikō Exit. More people tend to cross from the station side of the road, and there are four other curbside points on the other sides of the crossing that pedestrians will line up at. Five roads lead into the crossing and the lights close about 10 lanes of traffic across all of them, each time the light changes. Pedestrians can cross to reach any of the other sides (hence the term ‘Scramble Crossing’), which makes for some brilliantly orchestrated chaos to fill your lens with.
DSLRs are ideal, as are smaller consumer cameras with HD video capability. GoPro cams are perfectly suited to inconspicuous wide shots from right inside the action. A small steadycam rig for your DSLR is great to smooth out your POV shots as you walk the crossing, but remember: the name of the game is inconspicuous. A short pole for your GoPro is awesome for getting above (or below) the crowd.
For audio, if you need dialog or anything other than background atmos track, use a compact shoe-mounted mic and/or hidden lapel mic and pocket audio recorder combo. Don’t have your sound recordist get out a boom pole.
Ambient light is really good with so much advertising around, but it is also variable so a small LED light will pick out details if you need it. These can go unnoticed with so many people on their phones and tablets too. Alternatively, can you get away with your phone’s light?
There are some great (and free!) places to view the crossing from afar and above.
Starbucks (1) shares a building with Tsutaya bookstore and has a massive upper-floor viewing window, where you can sip your frappe mocha latte sludge and watch the chaos. Stick it to the man by going in the bookshop door, completely bypassing the baristas, and up the escalators and into Starbucks’ upper floor without buying a bean. This is across the road from the station, so views the crossing looking back towards it. The station building isn’t the best backdrop, but it is a great spot from which to pick out details and individuals with a decent zoom, or the largest battlefront as pedestrians face towards you as they come from the station. The counter by the window shakes when other customers lean on or bump it, so for steady shots, use a tiny tripod or Gorilla Grip on the floor at your feet.
Shibuya Excel Hotel (2) is also across the road from the station and it’s the tallest building you can access at the crossing. Splash some cash and get a room for unparalleled access, or blag your way up in the lifts for a birds-eye view.
The pedestrian bridge between Shibuya Station and the Excel Hotel (3) also has a great free view. It’s a walkway on the upper floor above the road, and links the shopping areas of the station with the hotel (and more shopping). From the station, follow the signs up the stairs or escalator to the Excel Hotel. There’s a large window the whole length of the walkway and plenty of space to set up. A tripod will probably get challenged eventually, but there are plenty of windowsills and handrails for you to prop a camera on.
There’s also an elevated train (5) that runs over a rail bridge above one of the roads leading into the crossing. If you take a train on the Yamanote Line from Shibuya to Harajuku, you might get a fleeting glimpse from left windows (or from the right if approaching Shibuya from Harajuku). We didn’t try this, but if you have, please let us know how it went in the comments box below.
In Amongst It
Shots from within the crowd are awesome. Give your audience the feeling of being there. Get down to the street and run across it a few times. Wide-angle lenses allow you to cram more in to the frame – from the stripy asphalt to the beaming skyscrapers and everything in between – there’s just so much to see. If you do it a few times, you are certain to end up with some intriguing looking characters walking into frame.
There’s a small bronze statue of a group of toddlers (4) on a small, raised garden bed right near the curb on the station side. With good balance you can climb up a little for a slightly-above-head-height view, another great spot for a long lens for picking out details and individuals, but setting up a tripod probably wont work here.
The streets beyond the crossing are really cool too. It’s a youth oriented area packed with bars, clubs, restaurants and shops, where only the latest fashion is traded and inspired. People-watching here is off the scale for enjoyable and street photography is only difficult here because of the sheer volume of opportunity and range of choice of things to snap at. Shibuya is a street photographer’s dream, and definitely a place for the bucket list of places to shoot before you die.
Wanna see what it can look like? Check out our Shibuya Crossing Place Cake now: