Text and images by Barry Kawa for Japan Exposures
At most train stations in Tokyo, there are still film stores that can develop a roll of film in 45 minutes or less, so you can stop back and pick up your pictures on the way through, and enjoy looking at them on your train ride home. In the Japanese photography magazines, many articles are still devoted to film cameras each issue, although digital camera coverage is starting to pull way ahead. (There are even some dedicated magazines catering only to digital shooters.) Nonetheless most of the camera store ads in the front or back pages still list a huge selection of used film cameras and lenses for sale. These are now referred to as “classic” cameras.
Used camera shops like Sankyo Camera Co. [ map ], in the heart of the Ginza, Tokyo’s prestigious shopping district, located just off the famed 4-chome intersection, still offer shelves of Canon and Nikon rangefinder cameras and lenses for sale to film camera junkies like myself. In a store that is a throwback 20 years into the past, there aren’t any digital cameras for sale here.
At lunchtime, I have just enough time to walk up to Sankyo to see what’s new on their shelves since my last visit. Since I’m there, I can’t pass up the chance to stop by three other adjacent camera stores in this four-corner area of the Ginza that is a landmark for film camera buffs. My weekly “fix”.
There are actually two Sankyo camera stores within a half block, one specializing in Nikon and Canon rangefinders as well as other Japanese camera models, and another shop specializing in Leica cameras, although the window has a nice eye candy collection of Rollei 35mm, Rolleiflexes and Rolleicords for sale.
Across the busy street, there’s a Miyama Shokai Nikon branch store [ map ] that sells new and used cameras, mostly Nikon, but also enough used medium-format, rangefinder and other gear to take a look at. And just a few doors down is Katsumido [ map ], the ultimate store for Leica collectors who want everything in mint condition — and have the credit line to pay for it. This store also has a changing collection of highly priced and highly desirable cameras and lenses of all types in the window, with everything in near-mint condition.
“I’m also not going to be able to afford any of those line of Leica M3s or M2s on display. They know it, and I know it.”
But the stop I enjoy the most is at the Sankyo Camera store with all the Nikon and Canon rangefinder gear, managed by Hiroatsu “Hero” Akizawa (call him Hero-san). At most Tokyo camera stores, the language barrier is difficult. There’s also the snobbery factor, as in stores like Katsumido, where the staff is aloof, and I’m too self-conscious to even ask a question, knowing that they are going to have to find somebody to talk to me in English, if there is anyone.
I’m also not going to be able to afford any of those line of Leica M3s or M2s on display, starting from 200,000 yen (about $2,200) and up. They know it, and I know it. So, I nonchalantly make my way over to the display case where cheap Nikon, Canon and Sigma auto-focus lenses are for sale, kept apart from the Leicas.
When I stop by Sankyo Camera, however, I’m greeted by Hero-san with a smile and in English. It’s the same relationship I first had with the now-closed Ohba Camera, which was located about a 10-minute walk from the Ginza near Shimbashi Station [Now a standing sushi bar -- Ed.].
The store manager at Ohba was friendly, spoke English, and since I was a good customer, always gave me a discount. If I brought back something I had bought there, he would always give me at least 80 percent in trade. That kind of service instills customer loyalty, since in most of the Tokyo used camera shops I’ve visited, I’ve been offered pennies on the dollar on my trade-in gear.
When Ohba was closing last April, one of the clerks asked me, “What are you going to do now?” They would see me stop by at lunch and sometimes after work, on my way to the station, to see what they had got in. When they closed, I went through withdrawal pains. Sankyo has stepped in to help ease the pain. The store has treated me well, offering me good trade-in prices, and usually knocking a little off the price of anything I’m interested in buying as well.
My first time there, I brought in some Nikon binoculars I wasn’t using, an old Nikon P camera and some Canon lenses to trade, Hero-san looked, and then grabbed a calculator to show me what he was offering. The price was very, very fair. Since that time, I’ve been a regular customer, wandering in off the street each week to see what’s in the display cases.
Prices are not cheap, and bargain hunters in the States still can get better buys on eBay or through their local Craigslist site, although the condition can be a craps shoot. But at Sankyo, there are good buys to be had on cameras and lenses that are impossible to find in the States, and usually in excellent condition.
One glorious day, there was an Olympus XA4 macro model, no strap, but I turned it over, and there was the extremely rare quartz date back on it. The price? 8,000 yen, or about $70. “I’ll take it,” I said. Hero-san smiled and nodded. I also traded in a Canon rangefinder cameras and some lenses one time for a Canon 7SZ with a 50mm 0.95mm lens, in fair condition, but a steal at under 90,000 yen (about $800).
“Happiness is finding a mint black Canon lens case for your 35mm F2 for a 100-yen coin.”
Other days, there have been cameras like a rare, heavily used black Canon P (gone the next day, when I couldn’t get it out of my mind and went back for a second look), and lenses like the Avenon 21mm and 28mm models don’t stay on the shelves very long. Sometimes, in front of the store, there are boxes filled with old lens cases and camera cases, selling for 100 yen (about a buck). Although I feel like a homeless person foraging through a garbage can, I still can’t resist jumping in.
Happiness is finding a mint black Canon lens case for your 35mm F2 for a 100-yen coin, which I embarrassingly hand over to Hero-san, my “purchase” for the day. But these days, business is slow at Sankyo, Hero-san says. On this Saturday, there’s a steady stream of customers looking, but few are buying. “Now, it is very slow, slow, slow,” Hero-san says. The reason? Of course, it’s digital cameras. Hero-san says it’s understandable, with how easy it is to use a digital camera. In the future, is there hope for stores like Sankyo to survive? A resurgence in film cameras?
“Sometimes, the person wants to do the shutter timing, aperture… maybe, I hope,” he laughs. Looking around at all the shelves of Canon and Nikon rangefinder cameras, I marvel at the selection, and ask Hero-san where they are from. Surprisingly, Hero-san has attended many camera shows in the United States, buying cameras and returning them to the country where they were made, to sell to collectors. He said the Pasadena show in particular, is a good place for them to buy rangefinder cameras and lenses in great condition.
“The weather is good, dry, the condition is better than in Japan,” Hero-san says. “In Japan the weather is very wet – sometimes the lens gets mold, the shutter time gets very long – not so good.” So, Japanese collectors are drawn to stores like Sankyo Camera, to buy the cameras that were exported to the U.S. back when the exchange rate was at 360 yen to a dollar.
Hero-san said Nikon cameras and lenses, particularly Nikon Tokyo Olympic models, are his store’s best sellers. Although the store has a display case full of Canon rangefinder cameras and lenses, the Nikons outsell the Canons. “Canon (prices) are going a little down,” he says.
Hero-san points to all the Nikon collectible books, and says this interest has helped fuel the collector market. “Most Japanese like the Nikon, I think,” he says. “Then, also, the Nikon mechanical system is better than the Canon – Canon changes their mount, very quickly – and the old ones are very hard to use.” Himself, he still likes the Nikon F camera. He was born in 1946, (“after the Second World War,” he laughs) so he always wanted the Nikon F when he was in high school, but it was too expensive. So, he started off with a Pentax camera, then later got his Nikon F. I compliment Hero-san on his store’s friendly customer service, and generous trade-in offers. “Ah, so,” Hero-san laughs. “If it is quick to sell, I buy.”
In this digital world, leave it to the nostalgic Japanese to keep a flickering candle lit for the world of film cameras.
Barry Kawa was born in Atlanta, Georgia, and grew up in Clearfield, Utah. He has worked as a reporter, bureau chief and editor at the Ogden Standard-Examiner, Times of Gainesville (Ga.), Charlotte Observer, Cleveland Plain Dealer and Dallas Morning News before moving to Japan in 2001 with his wife, Yumiko. He now works at a Japanese newspaper, and has become an avid camera enthusiast and collector.