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

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Tokyo Skytree is large and ugly and beautiful

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…

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

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Tokyo is my happy place

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…

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(Pictures taken in Nakano-ku, Tokyo in mid-September, 2013)

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The Nakano Broadway

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…

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(Picture taken in Nakano-ku, Tokyo in September, 2013)

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The Kozukappara Jizō still does its job and forgives the blood of 100 ghosts per day

Centuries past

in the streets of old Edo,

what blood and meat was spilled then…

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…when swords equalized and ended

the lives of whole nations of men.

The blood must be traveling still…

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…past the corpse-rich soils of Tokyo

and ever downward towards

the Earth’s own living, glowing bones.

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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.

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(Pictures taken near Minami-senju Station, Tokyo in September, 2013)

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Little Bird of Tokyo

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…

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(Picture taken in Nakano 5-chome, Tokyo in October, 2013)

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Noriya Takeyama is a very cool guy

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….

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(Photographs taken at Marui Annex, Shinjuku, Tokyo in October, 2013)

 

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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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DAN, seriously

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.

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(This image looks crummy because Costco does a rotten job of digitizing old Kodachrome slide images.)

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Before things got really bad

For my mother, on her 72nd birthday…

This was 1988, in Tokyo, and my parents came to visit me. My mother was in her forties then, still vibrant and drinking from a cup that was full of the life of the world. I don’t know what happened. At the end of October I moved from Tokyo to my parents’ house in Maryland just outside the D.C. beltway, and everything turned to shit. Early in 1989 I tried, and failed, to get into Yale photography school, and my father’s alcohol abuse got so bad my mom and I had to force him into a rehabilitation hospital. The kind where you don’t wear jeans and a t-shirt, but a cotton robe and a printed plastic and paper wrist band. That was the beginning of a downward spiral that left my father functionally dead on his feet until his de facto death in 2008. In all those intervening years my mother was his muse, babysitter, lover, wife, and emotional triage for a man who took nearly two decades to die.

All those years killed her too, in a lot of ways. Emotionally, anyway. She’s dying for real now, of primary biliary cirrhosis. She continues to pray this hereditary disease does not strike me. So far, so good, my doctors say. Her doctors can’t seem to figure out how long she has to live. Another year or two, perhaps. My mother is resigned to her fate. She told me when I visited her in Dallas last year that life without my father has dried up of any happiness and meaning. They were married for 45 years. She said she has seen all she wants to see and done everything she wanted to do. “I’ve had a rich life,” she said to me. I have known since the day she told me she was dying about a year ago that her mind was made up and it was pointless to try to force her onto whatever liver transplant list her hospital maintains. Such is life. Its wildest variables are always other people.

So I don’t know if this is my mother’s last birthday, but it is her 72nd. I doubt she will ever see this, as my mom isn’t the most digitally wired of people. She has an iPhone but getting her to look at web links on the damn thing is hit and, mostly, miss. So I wanted to honor her a little, with images from some of the best of my days with her. In another place, on another planet, when my mom and I were both younger and had more of our lives ahead of us than we do today….

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My mother in Uenohirokoji, not far from my apartment in Yushima.

 

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Mom and me in my apartment in 1988. I wish I still had that Clash poster.

 

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Mom’s red hair on the Imperial Palace Grounds, against a sea of Japanese schoolgirls.

 

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Mom and me on the ground floor outdoor lobby of my apartment building.

 

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I can’t remember where this is, possibly Ueno near Ameyayokochō.

Most of these images look like crap because Costco did a rotten job of digitizing these photographs from slides that my father shot. I’ve put my copyright on these images because, well, my dad is dead and these are my memories and streets and places. They’re mine.

Thanks, mom, for being an everlasting part of happy memories of the Tokyo that I love so well.

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Akasaka dogs

One fine, warm day in late September, I was in Akasaka, Tokyo, and I saw a couple of dogs. That’s basically it, except one was a teeny terrier and one was a large pit bull.

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(Pictures taken in Tokyo in September, 2013)

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Let’s drink Ueno

It’s thirsty work, watching the world go by as it filters through Tokyo.

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For your own good, and the good of your overall health, your really should leave it to the professionals.

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(Pictures taken in Ueno Park near Shinobazu Pond, Tokyo in September, 2013)

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Train passage

Waiting for the doors to close on the Tōzai Line in Nakano Station, a guy started walking past…

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And kept walking…

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Then the doors closed and the train moved eventually into the elongated burrow that would take me to my transfer at Ōtemachi.

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(Pictures taken in on the Tōzai Line, Tokyo in September, 2013)

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Small Man Japan

He was leaning on a doorway frame of a building labeled ESPACE on Chuo Dori near Ueno Park. His left index finger was missing, and I wondered if his pocketed right hand was in even worse shape. He didn’t appear to have any of the physical features typical of dwarfism, but he stood a few inches short of five feet.

I wondered what he stared at, and how he saw it. How does life look on the hard streets of Tokyo filtered through the perspective of a digital handicap and a height disadvantage? Even if I had known enough Japanese to ask, I would have refrained. It would have been, I think, in bad taste to violate this man’s personal space and the quiet reserve and seeming disdain with which he silently stood and watched the world go by…

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(Picture taken in Ueno, Tokyo in September, 2013. The title of this post is an allusion to this movie.)

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Ladies in passing

It was a beautiful September day and the world was wide open and I was back in my old Tokyo, the places in Ueno where I spent so much time when I lived nearby in Yushima. The day was warm and I felt young and carefree again, in a place that created me as much as did the flawed swirls of DNA I inherited from my mother and father.

In the middle of the wide street, with the whole of the world’s greatest city before me, it was glorious this day and the women in passing were all goddesses…

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(Picture taken on Chuo Dori, near the south end of Ueno Park, Tokyo in September, 2013)

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There is no particular madness here

It was just a spring day in a rundown part of Tokyo in the week before Golden Week in 2012. The patrons of this outdoor bar were rough and shabby; but they were drinking in the early afternoon sun and even in this booze- and urine-soaked Tokyo neighborhood the spring air smelled fresh and clean. There was a dingy freedom to the scene, and an uplifting sense that even though this was low life, it was robust and vibrant life nonetheless…

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(Picture taken in Sanya (Kiyokawa 2-chome), Tokyo in April, 2012. Also published on Scholars and Rogues.)

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