Ten Vintage Stereographs From Turn-of-the-Century Japan

Visiting Japan in 2022 is a feast for the senses: It’s exploring the museums, temples, and Michelin star restaurants of Tokyo. It’s the feel of the night air as you stroll past the colorful lights of Osaka’s Dotonobori. It’s the sense of wonder you feel from stepping onto the shore, gazing out at the Itsukushima floating torii gate. And 120 years ago, Japan was arguably just as remarkable to explore as it is today.

We can journey into the past thanks to pioneering travel photographers and view breathtaking views of life in Japan starting in the 1890s—and all in 3D stereo, no less. What may be most remarkable isn’t seeing what’s been lost to time, but rather what’s still carried on and exists today.

Thanks are due in kind to the Library of Congress for making available the vast collection of stereographs from which the following photos have been selected. I heartily recommend anyone who’s interested to explore the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog to see more incredible views from throughout history.

Japanese “Blossoms”

Griffith & Griffith, 1900

Japanese “Blossoms” shows three girls posing in traditional clothing. The studio backdrop shows Mt Fuji in the background, and appears to be styled after one of the nearby lakes, perhaps Lake Kawaguchi. The scene is made all the more interesting with the included azaleas, and a Japanese pine painted on the backdrop.






Ancient Temple at Fujiyama, Mt. Fuji, Japan

Hawin and Co, 1900 - 1910

Hand-painted and printed in basic color, Ancient Temple at Fujiyama gives a look at an old, unknown temple, or possible a shrine. While the specifics are presently unknown to us, there are subtle clues which suggest this may in fact be a shrine, not a temple: the shimenawa, a braided rope hanging across the entrance with strips of paper hanging down; the kannushi, a priest who typically works at shrines instead of temples, who appears to be seated, dressed in white, just to the right of the entrance. Also of interest is the thatched roof covering the main building, something not commonly seen today.

Edit: If pressed, we would guess that this shrine might be Fujisan Hongu Sengen Taisha. Although if that's true, it's gone through a number of renovations and modernizations since this photo was taken.






Kinkakuji in 2022, rebuilt

A Marvel of Beauty—The Golden Temple Kyoto, Japan

American Stereoscopic Company, 1901 

As one of the most popular tourist destinations in Kyoto, the Kinkakuji (Golden Temple) photographed in 1901 is not the same as the Kinkakuji that stands today—a 22-year old monk burned down the original in 1950 before attempting suicide. That being said, the rebuilt version standing today is remarkably faithful to the original, albeit with considerably more golden leaf covering the façade. Photographed by R.Y. Young, we see one monk working on the mid-level roof as another walks by below. 





“The Faithful” All the Shrine of Dai Butsu, Japan’s Greatest—Idol, Kanakura, Japan

Strohmeyer & Wyman, 1896

The Kamakura Daibutsu (Great Buddha of Kamakura) sits in silent contemplation at kōtoku-in, a Buddhist temple that dates back to at least the year 1233 CE in what is now the city of Kamakura. The current daibutsu statue was completed around 1252, replacing an earlier statue made from wood. Storms and tsunamis throughout history have destroyed the buildings that used to house the statute, and the statue itself has been repaired and strengthened in the early 18th century, in 1925 after the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, and then more recently in the 1960s and also again in 2016.






Japanese Musicians, Tokio, Japan

1880s – 1890s (estimate) 

An uncredited photographer captured a group of 5 young girls playing the shamisen and koto, two traditional stringed music instruments from Japan. The girls wear what appears to be traditional winter clothes for the period, and 3 folding paper fans rest in front of them, one clearly having the image of a cherry blossom painted on.






A Semi-Circular Bridge in Quaint Old Japan

Strohmeyer & Wyman, 1896 

The semi-circular bridge seen in this stereograph was located in Kameido shrine in Tokyo, which dates all the way back to 1646 CE. Famous for being draped in colorful wisteria in spring and summer, the original wooden bridge and Kameido shrine were destroyed in the 1945 Tokyo firebombing. The re-creation standing today, while somewhat different to the original, is still a sight worth seeing, just as inspiring as the earlier scenes which inspired countless works of art by Japanese artists.

A later postcard view from Kameido Shrine






The Plover Rock, Matsushima,—One of Japan’s most striking views

1880s – 1910s (estimate) 

This view from the Matsushima shoreline undoubtably inspired bonsai growers, artists, and explorers throughout the past hundred years. Artists such as Yoshimoto Gesso, Katsushika Hokusai, and others have created works portraying scenes similar to this, to the point that the wind-swept tree above the ocean feels almost as Japanese as sushi and reliable compact cars.






Japanese wrestlers. Japan

C.H Graves, 1902 

Sumo wrestlers appear to be in the middle of their outdoor morning training in this stereograph from 1902. While the popularity of sumo wrestling had been in decline since the Meiji Restoration of 1868, it came roaring back into the national spotlight when Emperor Meiji organized a tournament in 1884, helping turn the sport into a national symbol.






Picking the famous Wji Tea, near Kyoto, Japan

Strohmeyer & Wyman, 1896 

The Uji region, called Wji on this stereograph, brought to the world of tea cultivation a shading technique that resulted in the matcha tea for which Japan is famous. In addition to matcha, Uji is also known for sencha and gyokuro teas. In this stereoview, we see tea harvesters, plus a seemingly out of place mother with child, picking tea leaves for their wicker baskets, harvesting tea in much the same way as it’s harvested today. 





Arashiyama Bamboo Grove 1896

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove today

A Vista in a Bamboo Grove, Kyoto, Japan

Strohmeyer & Wyman, 1896


The Arashiyama Bamboo Grove pictured in this stereograph is today one of the most popular tourist destinations in Kyoto. In this view published 1896, two women are seen being transported by a jinrikisha (a rickshaw) runner as two other men, most likely other runners, stand idle in the background with an older man. Located near the Tenryu-ji temple, the bamboo growing is mostly moso bamboo, a species native to Taiwan and China with edible shoots, and the potential to grow to 92 ft / 28 m in height.

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