I watched him. He watched me…
Then he yawned, and the boredom spreading radially out from him was like a superhero power which placed into my mind the compulsion to walk away…
The old men in Tokyo always catch you in the lie you tell yourself that you’ll never become one of them.
(Pictures taken at Nakano Station, Tokyo in October, 2013)
A cheap and well-stocked vending machine alcove on the streets of Shinjuku near Golden Gai…
(Picture taken in Tokyo, Japan in September, 2013)
I once tripped through these lands like a god,
like the pure embodiment of all the liquor
the Allies ever drank in Tokyo.
It is quiet here now,
and the Americans are gone,
but I know these streets.
They are masters and servants to me.
In the daytime, the vampires are hiding,
(well, most of them)
even though I know where they lay.
At night they will be back here,
disguised as young salarymen,
and high school girls in vocational school,
and tourists from Russia and France.
I will know their minds and their innocent evils,
and I will keep watching until the sun and the train schedules
drive them from the streets back to their lairs.
They spoke heatedly, passionately, and didn’t seem to care who heard them. Overall she didn’t seem happy with him and he seemed frustrated by whatever she said. But it really didn’t matter, because it was a steamy-hot September day in Shinjuku, which made all of Tokyo cranky, so nobody passing nearby paid them any attention anyway…
(Pictures taken in Golden Gai in Shinjuku, Tokyo in September, 2013)
It was a sweltering day in Shinjuku, the sort of day where the hot, heavy air doesn’t much want to move out of your way, and seems to resent it when you push it aside to pass by. Days like this in Tokyo can suck the energy out of you, and the man obviously needed a rest.
The people passing by didn’t bother him just as he wasn’t bothering them, for the sidewalk was wide. There was an equilibrium in this, and a kindness which it is sometimes surprising that Tokyo is willing to provide…
In passing, quiet moments, when tobacco takes you its lover….
…maybe you think about all the furrows in fields you’ve never sown, all the gorgeous richness you’ll never see…
…and you puff on a tube of leaf, it is good Tokyo leaf and came at great cost…
…but it jackhammers into you that it won’t fill your belly, and maybe that’s okay because it is hard to care anyway.
(Pictures taken in Golden Gai, Shinjuku, Tokyo in September, 2013)
The kid was young, like “Why aren’t you in school?” young. Twenty years ago I would have assumed he was, with his modest black suit and schoolboy backpack, just out of university and starting a salaryman career path with a good company. That isn’t a safe assumption in Japan anymore. Maybe that’s why the kid looks so uptight.
(Picture taken in front of Trattoria Il Fornello, Nakano-ku, Tokyo in September, 2013)
The edge of your seat
Is where my property line begins.
It’s crowded here in Tokyo,
A year in ghost time is one second to us.
Since my husband retired,
And my children grew and moved away,
I don’t have anywhere to go really now.
So some days I come down here to the crosswalk.
I shuffle back and forth over it a few times,
The wide expanse of asphalt,
Just to feel how spacious this city can be.
(Picture taken at Nakano Station, Tokyo in September, 2013)
It has been a shitty year.
My beloved father-in-law died, my “Tokyo Panic Stories” book is WAY behind schedule, my chronic depression got particularly aggressive during numerous week-long periods, I made a few enemies online and in the town where I live, I drank and smoked too much, I exercised too little, and during November and December my wife and I have been sharing a real mucous festival of a respiratory virus, while I developed a painful tooth abscess that recently required a root canal.
So, like the seemingly impatient man in the photograph, I can’t wait for this 2014 train to stop and the doors to slide open so I can jump the hell off of it onto the platform for 2015. And I don’t exactly know where the 2015 train is going, but I am sure I will see my 51st birthday, and the publication of “Tokyo Panic Stories”, and continued love and support from my wife, and Tokyo.
Yep, I will see those things and knowing this maintains my optimism and hope. I’m not sure of the exact how or when on Tokyo yet, but I know I will soon see those things too…
(Picture taken on the Yamanote Line in Tokyo between Takadanobaba and Shibuya in September, 2013)
It is the holiday season, specifically the week between Christmas and the New Year. These gnomes were on display in a Tokyo department store in September. But if the viewer chooses to regard their gnaughty gesture as a repudiation of the Christmas holiday, or as a fitting way of saying goodbye to 2014, well, you will get no argument from this photographer…
(Picture taken at Shibuya Loft, Tokyo in September, 2013)
When I first moved to Tokyo in mid February, 1987 I stayed in the Akasaka Yōkō Hotel. My room there was a fine little place, and I stayed in it at my company’s expense for about a month until I found my own apartment in Yushima.
I hadn’t seen my first “home” in Japan since I moved out of it in late March, 1987. So the last time I was in Tokyo in 2013, I made a point of going to Akasaka to see the place for the first time in over 26 years. It was still nice, still monolithic and rust orange-red.
And I didn’t go inside the hotel, but I lingered in front of it for awhile and admired the occasional pretty girl passing by it like I used to do when I was a much younger man.
(Pictures taken in Akasaka, Tokyo in September, 2013)
I am so fond of Ameyayokochō, a place in Tokyo where I spent a lot of time in my twenties. It is so vibrant, metal blue, and beautiful, full of the street-level life and kinetic personal frenzies that are the very blood pumping through Tokyo’s many mythological hearts…
(Picture taken in Ameyayokochō, Ueno, Tokyo in September, 2013)
A colorful mural in a generally drab part of town, this Daruma artwork in front of a cheap business hotel on Tokyo Route 464 is on the Kiyokawa side of what used to be called Sanya. Route 464 cuts through the heart of Minami-senju, dividing the Sanya area into the Kiyokawa and Nihonzutsumi districts. This depiction of Japan’s beloved good luck symbol looks over all who pass by, including the cops who also look over everyone from the police station across the street…
(Picture taken in Sanya (Kiyokawa), Tokyo in September 2013)
Tokyo changes so rapidly. Parts of it, anyway. Although this photograph of Ameyayokochō on a Tuesday afternoon is from April, 2012, it could well have been taken in 2002. or 1992, or 1982, or….well, you get the idea.
(Picture taken in Ameyayokochō, Ueno, Tokyo in April, 2012)
He stands with confidence and rugged style on Dote Dori not far from the western end of the Iroha shōtengai in Nihonzutsumi, part of modern-day Sanya. His name is Yabuki Jō, a.k.a. Joe, and he’s the lead character in a popular and highly regarded boxing manga from the late ‘60s called “Ashita no Joe”.
In the manga, Joe hails from a slum district of Tokyo named Doya Town, which is widely believed to be based on the areas of Nihonzutsumi and Kiyokawa which now comprise Sanya. Doya Town is the English version of the Japanese term doya-gai, or skid row district. But folks in Sanya are proud of Joe’s origins and use images of characters from the manga, as well as the statue pictured above, to promote the Sanya shōtengai and hopefully generate a little commerce.
These photographs are just a very small sample of the visually-prominent ways Joe and characters from his world still inhabit the streets of what they used to call Sanya…
Tange Danpei, Joe’s boxing trainer and mentor, drawing attention to a well-stocked liquor store.
Tōru Rikiishi on the front of a shuttered business. Tōru was Joe’s first boxing rival, and Joe is still haunted by his death.
(Pictures taken in Sanya (Nihonzutsumi), Tokyo, Joe in September, 2013, and Tange and Tōru in April, 2012)
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. In addition, I am proud to say Japan Subculture Research Center published a shorter version of “Tokyo Freedom” on Christmas Day, 2014.)
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)