Between Brisbane and Japan, some whimsy and Dan (All contents © Dan Ryan, unless noted)

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Shinjuku shoeshine man

I took about 70 photographs last year of men of the street in Shinjuku. And to put this in the least acerbic terms possible, of the eight different men I photographed over the course of a month this shoeshine man was the only one who was doing something upstanding and productive. Granted, I didn’t go to Shinjuku to shoot pictures of upright, normal citizens, but I want to make a public note of the respect I have for this old fellow. Sitting outside the world’s busiest train station and trying to make a living shining shoes can’t be an easy life.

Also I have to freely admit this fellow reminds me of an old Tokyo song, which I first heard in the ‘70s in the motion picture “M*A*S*H”…

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(Picture taken on the west side of Shinjuku Station in September, 2013)

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The Devilrobots are superior gentlemen

During each of my trips to Tokyo in 2012 and 2013 to take photographs for my “Tokyo Panic Stories” project, I met up with some really wonderful people, people with whom I hope to remain friends for years to come. But during the 2013 trip, a particular treat for me was the opportunity to hang out with Shinichiro Kitai and Kotohiro Nishiyama of the Tokyo-based toy and graphic design firm Devilrobots. I have been a huge fan of the Devilrobots ever since I stumbled across their To-fu Oyako character toys on eBay in 2002. Their whimsical, anthropomorphic designs for toy figures and other colorful objects really appeal to something deep within in my senses of aesthetics and fun.

In short, and without being too gushy about it, the Devilrobots are personal heroes of mine, and their work adds a LOT of joy to my life. In fact, it’s fair to say the Devilrobots inspire me in a way that has helped me cope with my chronic depression.

I met these fine gentlemen one afternoon while they were setting up the Devilrobots “Devil Museum” retrospective and retail sale displays at the Fewmany pop-up shop in the Shinjuku Marui Annex. And the rest of the afternoon just flowed from there…

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Mr. Kotohiro Nishiyama, Koto-san, the Devilrobots’ business manager who also acts as the English translator for public events. I got to hang out with Koto-san in 2012 at the Devilrobots’ offices in Shinjuku. Here at the 2013 Fewmany shop, he showed me the “Devil Museum” and the various artifacts from Devilrobots’ 17-year history.

 

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The man himself, Mr. Shinichiro Kitai (Shin-san), the Devilrobots founder and lead designer and artist. He designed pretty much every toy and graphic element you see in these photographs. And he is as colorful, whimsical, and fun as the things he creates.

 

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A display showcasing prototypes and mock-ups of some of the very first To-fu Oyako kubrick figures designed by Shin-san and manufactured by Medicom Toy. Other items in the display utilize To-fu Oyako design elements.

 

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A closer look at some Devilrobots kubrick prototypes. Note the To-fu Oyako figure in the background shaped like a “Toy Story” alien.

 

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Koto-san pointing at a display case full of Evirob kubrick figures and small sculptures. Evirob is Shin-san’s other major character design, but the character itself is a bit odd and hard to explain, mostly because I don’t fully understand it (even though I like it).

 

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One of the neatest things on display, a mashup statue of toy designer Kenny Wong’s Molly character and Shin-san’s To-fu Oyako. I wish I could have purchased this, but I had to be scrupulous with my Kickstarter funds.

 

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Koto-san and Shin-san taking a moment to evaluate their display work. Shin-san is, as you can see, not camera-shy.

 

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A multitude of Devilrobots stickers and badges, manufactured by Facto, a Japanese design company which produces various goods for toy and graphic designers like Devilrobots.

 

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After the work was done setting up the Devilrobots “Devil Museum” shop, Koto-san and Shin-san offered to take me out for some beers. Shin-san and I waited out in the rain in front of Marui Annex while Koto-san was busy retrieving the umbrella he had forgotten inside the building.

 

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We made our way to joint called 82 Ale House in Shinjuku 3-chome. After Shin-san bought the first round of pints, he was kind enough to autograph some Devilrobots items I had with me. Here he’s inscribing a booklet he designed for a CD by an excellent J-pop band called Tokimeki Express.

 

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Beers, smokes, peanuts, and a signed hand-decorated To-fu Oyako kubrick on a greasy bar table. To me this is one version of heaven.

 

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As I noted earlier, Shin-san is not camera-shy.

 

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Despite having to translate between me and Shin-san, Koto-san was able to relax.

 

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I felt so honored that these busy guys…

 

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…took the time to hang out with me.

 

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The list of things for which I am a gushing fanboy is very, very short, but the Devilrobots’ design work and these two superior gentlemen are certainly on it. One of the greatest open secrets about the Japanese is that they are very warm, big-hearted people if you make the effort to get socially close them. Shin-san and Koto-san are two perfect examples of this. I really treasured their company that rainy afternoon in Shinjuku, and I hope they enjoyed mine.

And I can’t thank these two gents enough for their warmth, hospitality, and generosity. Take care, boys, and I hope to see you the next time I’m in Tokyo.

–Dan Ryan, Brisbane, California, July 22nd 2014.

Post script: On my birthday this past January, Shin-san created this digital birthday card and posted it on my Facebook wall, convincing me that he is even more of a big-hearted mensch than I already thought he was…

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(Photographs taken at Marui Annex and 82 Ale House, Shinjuku, Tokyo in October, 2013)

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Regarding Peko-chan

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(Picture taken in Nakano Broadway, Tokyo in September, 2013. Picture is of Peko-chan, the world-famous mascot for Fujiya Co. of Japan.)

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Yushima walkies

It was a beautiful September day in Yushima, near the apartment complex where I lived in the ‘80s. I was standing on a street corner midway between Yushima Tenjin and Yushima Station, and this stylish lady walks by with her teeny dog, and that’s basically the whole story…

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(Picture taken in Yushima, Tokyo in September, 2013)

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Baby • child shop

The big pod-like covered cart caught my attention, as did the cluster of dirty bicycles on the left-hand side. To be honest, after reading what I could of the Japanese, if the place had been open and displaying its wares for children I probably wouldn’t have noticed it. It would have been just another shop to me. But with these carts in front of it, loaded with debris from someone’s hard, desperate life, I felt like I had stumbled across an outpost on some alien civilization’s dirty and dying world.

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(Picture taken in Sanya (Nihonzutsumi), Tokyo in September, 2013. Note the “Ashita no Joe” banner in the upper left. These were mounted all along the Sanya shōtengai when this photograph was taken, and I have no idea why.)

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Oh Lord, stuck in Nodaya

In Sanya the shōtengai in Nihonzutsumi is one of the main focal points of boozy behavior on a given day, and this Nodaya liquor store is right at the entrance of it. For what it is, the building looks tidy and impressive enough. But this is how it appears around 10 o’clock in the morning.

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Later in the day, as the local hangovers have diminished or disappeared, the liquor machines in front of the place will fill up with coins. And customers will regularly enter and exit Nodaya to purchase more booze.

And as a consequence of both of these things, metal bins in front of the place will start to fill up with empty beer cans, chūhai cans, and sake jars…

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(Pictures taken in Sanya (Nihonzutsumi), Tokyo in September and October, 2013)

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Hello happy youngster morning time

Sitting in my short-term Tokyo apartment rental one morning, hungover or not, I can’t now recall, I flipped on the television and was immediately overwhelmed by a loud and kinetic mixture of sound and bright colors. It was some kind of Japanese early-morning children’s show, and like turning on an incandescent lamp it immediately doubled the illumination already coming from the open sliding glass door near my futon. I found the colors mesmerizing, compelling, beautiful. I felt my attention swiftly and involuntarily narrowing to only the television. I think the TV show had actually started to rewrite the neural pathways in my brain.

But before the bright, happy, lovely, gorgeous gained complete control of me, I managed to grab one of my digital cameras and shoot some pictures of what I was seeing. Then from some inexplicable reserve of inner determination, I summoned the will to turn the TV off.

Looking at these photographs now, some 10 months later, they look like they could be a video capture encryption key from the movie version of “Johnny Mnemonic”.

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(Pictures taken in Nakano 5-chome in September, 2013)

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Long-gone Japanese news

There’s no intended purpose for this photo, and certainly no social agenda. It’s just a weathered newspaper covering part of a reinforced glass window in a rundown building in a dingy part of Tokyo. But the texture of the glass and the way it distorts the beautiful Japanese text caught my eye, so I took a picture of it. I think preserving beauty (as I perceive it) for its own sake is, well, kind of a moral obligation.

I just hope the newspaper in this photograph isn’t some right-wing, ultra-nationalist Japanese fish wrapper…

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(Picture taken near Minami-senju Station, Tokyo in April, 2012)

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Nattō worry

Do you like soy sauce, tofu, miso soup? The humble soybean gives us so many edible wonders that you probably didn’t know it is also used to make what Westerners consider to be one of the foulest foods ever to come from Japan.

It’s called nattō, a food of the Japanese gods made of fermented soybeans, which can never be an “acquired taste” because a Westerner is either going to love it or hate it the very first time they try it. Personally, I have never seen another food spat immediately out of non-Japanese mouths more than I have seen this done with nattō. One friend of mine went so far as to deposit this wonder food in his napkin and dispose of it in a restaurant lavatory waste bin. He didn’t want to leave it on the table for the wait crew, so hideous he thought the substance.

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(Nattō from my grocer’s freezer about to get mixed with raw egg. This mixture is one of my favorite toppings for rice.)

Oh, lovely nattō! I keep a steady supply in my freezer, to appease my frequent craving for nattō’s salty, stanky, gooey taste. The stuff I buy at a little grocery in San Francisco’s Japantown comes in many varieties: minced, whole bean, black soy, whole bean with red cabbage sauce, and others. Typically, though, nattō from the grocery store comes with a small packet of horseradish mustard and a larger packet of soy-based sauce with bonito or other variants. The soy sauce alone is delicious enough to covet, but with these three ingredients mixed together in a bowl, or over white rice, you have some happy snacking. That is, if you like the smell, and the taste, and don’t live with someone who abhors either. My wife prefers that I not prepare nattō while she is in the house, and if I have eaten nattō, she won’t kiss me for about 30 minutes afterward. And I must brush my teeth. And I don’t blame her, because if you don’t like this stuff, you really don’t like this stuff.

Which, of course, means more for me

(This was originally published, as is, on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency in 2005. I reprinted it here on these pages a few years ago, but it was rightfully ignored because I posted it on March 12th, 2011, one day after the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. Also published on Scholars and Rogues.)

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Iroha shōtengai

I’m editing and reprocessing photos for my forthcoming book, which is months behind schedule. During the course of this effort, I’m finding shots from my 2012 and 2013 adventures in Tokyo that I had forgotten I had taken. This is one of those, of the sign and elongated canopy which both define the shōtengai in Sanya.

There’s a beauty to it that I just can’t shake…

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(Picture taken in Sanya, Tokyo in April, 2012)

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