The tiny neighborhood bars and watering holes distributed throughout Tokyo are probably as numerous as the stars on a clear night in the Himalayas. Perversely, they’re often the kinds of places that are easy to miss, at least in the daytime, even if a given joint is open when one happens to walk by.
But sometimes one can pass a Tokyo bar, even a run-down looking place, and feel strangely drawn to it somehow. Something about it catches the eye, perhaps the way it’s painted or how the bar’s name is displayed on the street. And suddenly one finds oneself walking into the joint even if one wasn’t originally in the mood for a drink.
Freedom in Nakano 5-chome is that kind of place, an unassuming little neighborhood bar that doesn’t look like much on the outside, but had an allure that made going inside an unexpected but rich Tokyo experience…
Freedom is on the eastern edge of Nakano 5-chome, near a place called Kitano Shrine. The combination of its severely-faded blue color, arched window, and the liquor bottles on the curb made the building stand out.
The katakana and phone number were missing from the front of the building, revealing the more vibrant color the place used to be and begging the question as to whether Freedom was actually still named Freedom.
But once inside, the outside didn’t matter much. Even to a foreigner with very limited Japanese, the folks in Freedom were warm and welcoming. Mama-san, the owner, is the lady laughing.
One of her customers, a garrulous and inquisitive older fellow, was quick with questions in limited English about California. And with the universal sign that he was Japanese and posing for a picture.
Mama-san showed obvious pride in her place, and it showed in the service she provided.
As to the interior of Freedom, it was like being in an artist’s teeny world where the artist serves up booze as a way of saying thanks for visiting.
With the front door open and light from an overcast sky seeping through it and the window, Freedom had a comfortable, glowing beauty within that a photograph almost can’t convey.
Mama-san enjoyed her place and her customers. One got the impression that her customers were more than regulars, but friends on whom she relied not only for income, but also for a reason to even own and run a bar in the first place.
Along almost an entire wall there was a more fiery interpretation of Mount Fuji than one typically sees. It was obviously Freedom’s visual centerpiece.
Even while relaxing with a beer, Mama-san paid warm attention to everyone in her bar, even those shooting flash pictures while barely being able to speak Japanese.
Freedom had little artistic flourishes almost everywhere, from the walls…..
….to the various objet d’art which contributed to Freedom’s quirky beauty.
But the true quality of a Tokyo bar begins and ends with the people one meets there. And judging by the folks at Freedom, it was a rather exceptional place.
Freedom is the kind of place one is glad to have found, and feels reluctant to leave. Freedom and the little places like it throughout Tokyo are showcases for the kind of hospitality for which the Japanese are famous, and for their often-overlooked friendliness and warmth.
In a sense, one hasn’t really discovered Tokyo, or Japan, until one finds one’s own kind of Freedom.
(Photographs taken in Nakano 5-chome, Tokyo in September, 2013. Published concurrently on Scholars and Rogues.)
No big deal
just the passing of time
and a flesh suit
going for cigarettes
while I hang back and watch.
Normally I’m the ghost in him.
But today he left me behind
so that I could watch the street
when he gets back
I will once again
meld my ghostly membranes to his meat frame
so I can make him remember who he is
and we can be whole again.
(Pictures taken in Sanya (Kiyokawa 2-chome), Tokyo in September, 2013)
You’re a street ghost
reflected in glass eyeballs and mundane mirrors.
I see your gasps of benevolent color…
…and I am drawn in.
I can’t help myself.
I want to love you and have with you
a festival as I am swimming
in your tubs of warm sweet-broth oden.
(Pictures taken in at the Mini Stop Nakanoekikitaguchi, Tokyo in September, 2013)
Vice is stationary, and those living life are free to stop or pass by it as they please….
I don’t really go in for pachinko. I love the machines (I wish I owned one), but I think the game itself is pretty boring. Nevertheless this pachinko joint, part of the Kokusai Center chain in Tokyo, has always been a welcome sight to me. The streets around it always bustle with life, and when I see it I know I am close to the temporary home I periodically rent in Tokyo…
(Pictures taken in Nakano 5-chome, Tokyo in late September and early October, 2013)
do a rag time in Tokyo
smashing the feedback
of a million wartime guitars.
There is never any opera.
Tokyo is pure rock and roll.
(Pictures taken in Nakano 5-chome, Tokyo in September, 2013. The picture immediately above is not a Soho doorway. Also published on Scholars and Rogues)
For some reason one warm morning in late September, there was a guy walking around Nakano Station in a red science fiction suit with a bag of what looked like recyclable assorted paper trash. I think it was a man, the person’s body language was male, and he looked like a giant walking toy. I am going to assume the trash ranger was a whimsical force promoting civic good, not evil, because that’s typically how Tokyo rolls….
(Picture taken at Nakano Station, Tokyo in September, 2013)
One day in Tokyo, I decided to walk from Sanya (Nihonzutsumi) to Tokyo Skytree. To do that, I had to cross a bridge from Taitō-ku into Sumida-ku, specifically Mukōjima. Well on the way there I discovered a fishing pond, and it was one of most surreal and odd things I’ve ever encountered in Tokyo…
(Pictures taken in Mukōjima, Tokyo in September, 2013)
Tokyo Skytree is like any other urban monstrosity: when I it was under construction it probably hurt more people than it benefitted. But now that the city is stuck with it, one has to admit that the structure does have a certain majesty and beauty to it. It just depends upon the angle from which one views it…
(Picture taken in Oshiage, Tokyo in September, 2013)
My father-in-law died recently. His memorial was only a few days ago. And while I was editing some photos of that event, I decided I needed a mental break and began looking at some of my photographs of Tokyo. This is just a natural instinct to me. And it is very comforting to know that the happy place to which I look for comfort in my mind remains a real place to which I will one day return.
But for now, this brief photo tour of Nakano Ward, where I find even the mundane to be lovely, will have to do…
(Pictures taken in Nakano-ku, Tokyo in mid-September, 2013)
A place in Tokyo that I really love. Everything around it is vibrant and colorful and full of the life we always think of when our own lives are dreary, dull, and not fulfilling our expectations…
(Picture taken in Nakano-ku, Tokyo in September, 2013)
in the streets of old Edo,
what blood and meat was spilled then…
…when swords equalized and ended
the lives of whole nations of men.
The blood must be traveling still…
…past the corpse-rich soils of Tokyo
and ever downward towards
the Earth’s own living, glowing bones.
This jizō guards over Kozukappara, one of the most historically filthy and notorious execution grounds from Tokyo’s Edo Period (although it ceased operations at the beginning of the Meiji Restoration). The statue caught my eye as I was leaving Minami-senju Station one hot September day on my way to photograph the living, although it can be convincingly argued that they don’t live well.
I didn’t linger here long, and at the time I didn’t know the significance of where I was. To me it was just an impressive statue in a Japanese graveyard. And normally I feel peaceful and calm in Japanese graveyards, but those feelings eluded me here. Perhaps it was the hot and oppressively muggy weather in Tokyo at the time. But very rarely when I am standing in a place and judging it do I feel like the place is judging me back. I had that feeling here, and even the presence of the jizō didn’t make me feel welcome.
(Pictures taken near Minami-senju Station, Tokyo in September, 2013)
A clothes shop in Nakano 5-chome called Little Bird that specializes in vintage ladies’ clothing from 1960s London. Not exactly the place for me and my jeans-and-a-t-shirt male fashion sense, but on my frequent walks past the place I always enjoyed seeing the vibrant colors and patterns of the garments on display…
(Picture taken in Nakano 5-chome, Tokyo in October, 2013)
Noriya Takeyama is a Japanese toy and graphics designer. I was lucky enough to meet him in October, 2013 at the Fewmany pop-up shop at the Marui Annex in Shinjuku. He and his buddy in the porkpie hat came by to say hello to the Devilrobots, with whom Takeyama-san is friends. I didn’t get to hang out with Takeyama-san for very long, but he gave off this very cool vibe and I’m really glad I got a picture with me, him, and his pal in it.
And all these months later it just occurred to me that I’m an idiot for not asking the man to autograph a sheet of stickers I had with me that he designed….
(Photographs taken at Marui Annex, Shinjuku, Tokyo in October, 2013)
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”…
(Picture taken on the west side of Shinjuku Station in September, 2013)
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…
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.
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.
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.
A closer look at some Devilrobots kubrick prototypes. Note the To-fu Oyako figure in the background shaped like a “Toy Story” alien.
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).
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.
Koto-san and Shin-san taking a moment to evaluate their display work. Shin-san is, as you can see, not camera-shy.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As I noted earlier, Shin-san is not camera-shy.
Despite having to translate between me and Shin-san, Koto-san was able to relax.
I felt so honored that these busy guys…
…took the time to hang out with me.
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…
(Photographs taken at Marui Annex and 82 Ale House, Shinjuku, Tokyo in October, 2013)
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…
(Picture taken in Yushima, Tokyo in September, 2013)
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.
(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.)
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.
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…
(Pictures taken in Sanya (Nihonzutsumi), Tokyo in September and October, 2013)
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”.
(Pictures taken in Nakano 5-chome in September, 2013)
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…
(Picture taken near Minami-senju Station, Tokyo in April, 2012)
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.
(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.)
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…
(Picture taken in Sanya, Tokyo in April, 2012)
It was a clothing store in the Ameyayokochō district in Ueno in April or May of 1988. I got my father to shoot this photo for two reasons: the obvious name of the shop; and memories of David Byrne’s big suit in the movie “Stop Making Sense”, which I’d seen in a South Street movie theater in Philadelphia four years before.
I went back to look for this shop twenty years later when my wife and I were on a 10-day vacation in Tokyo, but it was long, long gone. The memories and this picture remain, though.
(This image looks crummy because Costco does a rotten job of digitizing old Kodachrome slide images.)