Tomorrow is the Thanksgiving holiday here in America. It’s already upon my American friends in Japan. While I have some regrets (of the life-long variety), I have had a lot to be thankful for in the last 12 months. In particular, I am thankful that I was able to successfully fund a Kickstarter project which enabled me to return to Tokyo in September and October this year to continue my Tokyo Panic Stories work. And while I was in Tokyo, I was able to get together with some guys I already knew, and meet some new fellows with whom I hope to be friends in years to come.
I don’t have a hell of a lot of friends, and I don’t make them easily. This post is my way of thanking these fine gents for their company and warmth. Cheers, boys…
See this picture?
It’s not a very good picture. It’s grainy, and the sensor in my Nikon DSLR did something weird to the bottom sixth of the image. But this picture means a lot to me, because the bright object on top of this building was like a warm, bright friend on the numerous times I stepped out of my rented Nakano apartment at night to go have a smoke in the street. It’s a picture with good memories locked within each pixel of its form. I just wish it had turned out better. But we take what we can get of memory and happiness.
(Picture taken in Nakano 5-chome, Tokyo on October 6th, 2013)
I got back from my 2013 trip to Tokyo a week ago. It feels like a month, but only in the sense that I have enjoyed returning to Brisbane more this time than after my previous two trips to Japan in the last 5 1/2 years. I’ve been visually drinking in my surroundings, catching up with favorite TV shows, and spending more quality time with my wife than our busy schedules typically allow. But part of the grind of coming home after a month in Japan is that I am still getting over jetlag. Another part of the grind is the daily reminders of the numerous things that piss me off about living in the United States, such as the GOP-induced government shutdown. But this really isn’t a political publishing venue and I have no real interest in, nor talent for, writing about such things anyway.
So to give my feelings physical substance and to make myself feel better today, I took this picture of my cat Indy. His facial expression is eerily similar to my own…
It isn’t the best picture I’ve ever taken. I took it unintentionally while this very nice fellow was actually telling me he didn’t want his picture taken. But I liked the way it turned out, so I am sharing it with you. Doing the work I do, one has to have some kind of an amoral streak from time to time…
(Picture taken near Nakano Sun Mall on October 3rd, 2013)
Maybe pink is my Tokyo color. It brought me a lot of comfort last year, and my encounter with that color a couple of days ago in Ueno brought a wide smile to my face…
(Picture taken outside Ueno Station, Tokyo on September 30th, 2013)
It’s a little restaurant called Rose Garden, not far from Nakano Station in Tokyo. They serve western-style food here. I particularly recommend the hamburg set for lunch. And I’ve eaten breakfast here (which is also nice and inexpensive) a couple of times during this trip. In fact, I did so with a friend this very morning.
But the other day as I was eating my “morning set”, I looked out the window and I remembered how it was my wife and I who discovered this place in 2008. Then I looked down from the window at the empty seat beside me, and I smiled while picturing her face and I was missing her like the world was on fire.
That’s why these pictures and words are dedicated to her, my love, who would make Tokyo so much brighter if she was with me here now.
(First two pictures taken in Nakano, Tokyo on September 10th, 2013. Last picture taken in Uenohirokoji, Tokyo in March, 2008.)
The way things worked out, I ‘m traveling to Tokyo via an overnight stay in Dallas, Texas. My mother lives here, so I have a free and loving place to stay while I’m in transit. When I woke up this morning at 04:30 California time, I really wished I had a direct flight to Narita and could have skipped this layover at mom’s. Once I got here, I was, and am, glad for the opportunity to see her. Even for a short time such as this. I leave for DFW airport tomorrow morning at 08:30 central time. It’s 21:15 right now.
So I’m passing through mom’s life briefly, little more than a smiling ghost who feels warm to the touch. In this house, were my mother has lived for 24 years, there’s another ghost. It’s my father, who lived here with mom for 19 years but passed away in 2008. Dad died suddenly. Mom is dying slowly, of a combination of ailments I’d rather not describe out of respect for her privacy. Suffice to say, if she lives another year or two she will have beaten the odds her doctors have given her.
It is good being here, and hard. My mother uses a walker, but is so energized and outwardly full of life whenever I am here that when I leave I feel I have robbed her of some life energy. It’s hard to describe and is probably a more universal occurrence between a child and a dying parent than I know. But it is good being here. I wish I had planned this trip to Tokyo better and arranged to fly to Dallas three days ago, to give mom more of me, and to give me more of her. I’d like to return at Christmas. That would be good.
But time is growing short. We both know this. We don’t discuss it much. But every time I come to visit my mother, I leave knowing that I may never see her alive again. I think this scares me and mom more than the fact that she is dying. We have both become grimly resigned to that. She has things she wants to tell me, stories of her life and family in what used to be Yugoslavia, and she is afraid she’ll never get to tell these things to me. In some ways, we both understand that the loss of these family stories is the tragic death here.
Maybe instead of traipsing off to Tokyo to do this photojournalism work I have chosen, the guilt inside me says, I should make my mother and her stories the highest priority in my life.
“Our lives are what they are,” my mother is fond of saying. And it is her very good way of saying we should both shut the fuck up and think about happier things.
(Picture taken at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport on September 7th, 2013.)
The remastered Tokyo in the Underbrush photos from 1988 continue…
Sanya Market—July, 1988
Drunk in Sanya—August, 1988
Shinjuku Sidewalk—September, 1988
Ueno Park—October, 1988
Asakusa (near Kamiya Bar)—September, 1988
King Subway (Tokyo Station)—October, 1988
Ueno Park Son—October, 1988
In April, 2012 I rode into Tokyo by myself for the first time in 24 years. My wife and I made the trip together in 2008; but riding the bus or the train into the sprawling “Blade Runner” landscape of Tokyo is different when you’re alone. When you’re with someone, there are things to see together and discuss between yourselves, often in wonder and awe and distraction. When you travel into and across Tokyo by yourself, it’s just you and the city. And the city is the alive ‘other’. It gives you no visual alternatives and no escape from its immense beauty, miniscule dirty details, and the jealous-lover-like attention it constantly demands of you.
Tokyo generates within me feelings of happiness, intimidation, anxiety, and belonging that I have never felt toward any other city on Earth. Not Paris, not London, not New York City, not even my adopted hometown of San Francisco have ever given and taken from me the affection and energy which Tokyo does.
So I’m going back for a month this September, to continue work I started a long time ago and resumed in 2012. It’s work that takes a close, hard look at some of the aforementioned miniscule dirty details, in the form of the rough, shadowy-underbelly areas of Tokyo and the destitute-yet-tough and generally unfortunate people who live in them.
To that end, this is my long-winded way of saying I created a Kickstarter project to help finance the continuation of my “literary-photojournalism” work in Tokyo. My funding goal is US $3,500, to be used on things like airfare, lodging, public transport, and food. Click on the graphic below and you’ll be taken directly to the Tokyo Panic Stories Kickstarter page, which will show you a video and explain all the details of the project.
I appreciate you taking the time to read through all of this material, and I hope you decide to help out.
In 1985, when I was a junior at Lehigh University, we all thought we’d dodged a bullet because virtually none of the oppressive, fascist government policies and surveillance technologies envisioned by George Orwell in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four had come to pass nor been implemented by the United States government. At least as far as anyone knew.
Times have changed, have they not? It’s an interesting coincidence (or is it coincidence?) that the recent news of the National Security Agency’s covert surveillance and data collection activities broke during the very same week Orwell’s paranoid dystopian novel was originally published on June 8th in 1949.
The year 1984 was a lot like the recently-departed 2012, in that scores of paranoids, conspiracy theorists, and flat-out religious whack jobs predicted events that would either drastically change or even end the world. The big difference is that some of what we expected to happen by 1984 just took a hell of a lot longer to come true than many people imagined. That is, if they imagined at all that our own American government could or would undertake the secret surveillance of millions of innocent, law-abiding citizens for the questionable sake of catching a couple dozen or hundred possible foreign anti-US dissidents or violent shit disturbers.
Personally, I feel cheated, I feel had, even if nobody at the NSA has ever heard my name or looked at any of my emails. This kind of government activity wasn’t supposed to even remotely be a part of the structure upon which the American Dream of my childhood and youth was built.
So I feel like a rube, the same naïve rube who wrote the following column in the February 8th, 1985 issue of the Lehigh Brown & White student newspaper. So much has changed since I wrote these words, and I thought it was all slow, gradual change for the better. How wrong I was, and how stupid I feel maintaining through all of this the hope that we all will recover and be able to continue the individual pursuit of our persecution- and oppression-free visions of the American Dream…
Clip image courtesy of the Lehigh University Brown & White Digital Archive
Time passes, and we change…
But when historians investigate the beginning of our relationship,
Or the state of things closer to this present day,
They will always find a picture of us holding each other close and smiling…
(To my wife Michele, on our 13th wedding anniversary. Every number is a lucky one.)
Nakano-ku, specifically the relatively small area encompassing Nakano Station and Nakano Broadway, is my favorite part of Tokyo. I have stayed there twice for extended periods in the last five years, and I have grown very comfortable and familiar with its streets, quirky little alleyways, and the rhythms of the Japanese people as they move in and out of Nakano’s shops, offices, restaurants, and bars at various times of the day.
When I go there, it feels like home. And thinking about it makes me, well, homesick.
So for your investigation and pleasure, I have compiled this small gallery of some of my favorite images from my 2012 wanderings through Nakano’s streets. I could, of course, present to you a hell of a lot more. But the internet can only hold so much, and it may take me the rest of my life to capture the full complexity and vibrancy of this part of a part of Tokyo.
Cartoon head on a Nakano side street…
Prohibited habit warning…
Graffiti-poster-sticker thingy on Nakano-dōri…
Junk-art retail storefront in Nakano Broadway…
Restaurant on a street near Nakano Sun Mall…
Empty street on an overcast Thursday morning…
A shopper, with Nakano Sun Plaza looming…
Handsome bastard beer advertising display in the Life Store…
Bunny head graffiti (a very minor landmark), and a confident workman…
A mattress for a new house near the Bunny head…
Salaryman in an alley near Nakano Broadway. What do the characters say?
I’m always writing, or thinking about writing. And I’m always taking pictures, or thinking about taking pictures. Regarding the latter, my wife and I share an old house, by U.S. standards anyway, and the house and the things in and around it are rather photogenic. So here are some bits and pieces from a week in the life….
(Pictures taken at the Brisbane Bureau, California in February, 2013)
of a thousand galaxies,
and it’s all
shining down here
(Pictures taken on Waseda Dori somewhere around Ochiai, I think, on April 13th, 2012. I had been very sick for nearly the entire first two weeks I was in Tokyo. Some kind of lung infection, which I later learned I probably brought with me from California or contracted on the plane as I flew to Japan. On this day, still suffering from a fever and horrible coughing fits, I decided I had to get the hell out of my apartment and do something. So I packed up my cameras, picked a direction, and started walking. I started at Nakano Broadway, and ended up at Shinjuku Station, shooting pictures of basically anything along the way.
It was a good walk. It was a good day to be alive and in Tokyo, and I fully recovered about a day later.)
I have owned or had the use of a personal computer since 1982, when my dad bought me an Osborne 1 to take to college. In some areas dad was a bit of a forward thinker. His experience as an upper mid-level executive for Electronic Data Systems (EDS), a now-defunct information services company, convinced him back then that by the end of the ‘80s there would be a PC on every desk in the workplace and that non-techie consumers would buy more of them for use in the home. And he was generally right about that.
What he got totally wrong, however, was that me having the gigantic, chunky Osborne at school would inspire me to get good grades and to focus sharply on computer science, the subject dad decided would be my major. That was a dismal failure. I have always been horrible at math, and I lacked the particular creative DNA twist required to write anything resembling decent Pascal or Fortran code. So as a result I almost flunked out of Lehigh University. Fortunately, the Osborne PC proved to be a very sturdy and reliable word processor, and after I switched my major to journalism (my dad was accepting but not thrilled about this) it helped me crank out essays and news articles very nicely.
But since then, through the long years and different jobs and moving from Lehigh to Tokyo (where I worked for EDS) to Maryland and then to California, I have been typing on and and screaming at personal computers. The damn things have changed so much in three decades. From the Osborne 1 to the Hewlett-Packard laptop I use today, I feel like I am watching the accelerated evolution of an inorganic species that is one day going to surpass us and force us to make it Turkish coffee with lemon zest for breakfast every morning.
This was the context going through my mind a couple of nights ago when I decided I was minorly blown away to be using a telephone device to peruse a small book I created, a telephone device that is the size of a Hershey bar and has more computing power than probably 85% of the actual computers I have owned in the last 31 years. I don’t know how you feel about it. Perhaps you’re using your telephone to read this text, or “surfing” the web while waiting in line for a movie that’s based upon a book you originally read on your laptop.
The feeling I take from all of this is that as a writer, editor, creator, and publisher of words and pictures, I have “arrived” at a remarkable convergence where creative content fuels the development and deployment of new technology, and that new technology stimulates and inspires the creation and distribution of a wider variety of creative content than has ever been available.
Admittedly, if I weren’t talking about my own creative content, my own word and picture book on a telephone, I would probably be a bit more blasé. But I have never been on the digital cutting edge before, and it’s a hell of a thing, and I think my dad would finally be proud.
The last time I left Japan, on May 7th, 2012, I had the very same meal as the first time I arrived in Japan in late February, 1987. Except I think I had a Coke back then. Nevertheless, I ordered this meal on purpose. I was looking for some kind of circular, symbolic closure.
Why closure? Hell, I don’t know. Maybe completion is a better word. I know I will get back to Japan. And soon. This year, I hope, if my Tokyo Panic Stories book does well. It’s just that sitting there, in Narita Airport waiting for my flight to California, I stared at a humble plate of over-priced, crappy dumplings which was nearly identical to the first meal I ever had in Japan. And in that moment, but not for very long, I felt that I wasn’t going home but leaving it.
I had a similar feeling in March, 2008 when my wife and I concluded a 10-day visit to Tokyo and were heading back. Since then she has come to understand and appreciate what Japan means to me, though at times she tires of me speaking about moving back there and wishes I would just hurry the fuck up and save the money to do it. Too much of her family, and professional life, is here in California, and we could live apart that way for awhile.
Besides, I live near San Francisco and can get great shūmai any time I want. Problem is, the crappy ones at Narita Airport always tasted best to me.
(Picture taken at Narita Airport, Japan, on May 7th, 2012)
It’s quiet here
at the galaxy’s core.
I don’t suppose the stars would stop moving
even if we asked them to.
I have considered doing so.
Night after night we bathe in ever-moving light,
some of it from the sun we abandoned
so many birthdays ago
surely it must have extinguished by now.
If you had never been born
I would have found you anyway,
used the machines we have spun
from neutrinos and platinum and DNA
to go back in time and find a way to make you exist.
The centuries, they are mere miles for us,
and the best ones we lived, we lived on Earth.
No, I don’t miss it, I would rather be here with you,
even though it amazes me that we still have to change cat litter.
And other corporeal things, this ring.
I shall always wear it.
Remember when I lost the stone that Christmas in the 21st century?
I’ve beat the hell out of this ring, but I shall always wear it.
The circle of it remains perfect,
the nicks in it are the hieroglyphs of our history.
And on your birthday, like it is today,
I look where the stone was
and remember that the love which first set the stone remains,
after all this time it remains.
And that, as ever,
is always good enough for me.
—Love, Dan, January 9th, 2013
「パスポートプロのスタジオで」 Hmmm. “Pro passport photo studio.” I could barely read just that much of the Japanese.
I saw my reflection melded into the picture of an old man in the window of an old Tokyo photo shop, and I ended up wondering about two men.
The old man, was he a good man, a kind man? I assumed he was dead, though he could be alive. But in Japan, with a picture that large in the window of an old shop in a rundown, alcohol-soaked neighborhood, the odds were better supposing the man was buried in a cemetery nearby. Did he strafe the runways at Pearl Harbor, or lose his mother and father at Nagasaki? Both? I often wonder this about old Japanese men and I make no excuses for it. Had he been as beautiful in his youth as his old face suggested? Was he a well-known hero to his people, or a humble, unassuming man who spent his life fixing people’s shadows to photographs while keeping them safe from ancient, everyday demons? Or both? Did he love his kids, was he generous to them? Or was his picture in the window because of guilt and Japanese custom? And was he some kind of secret demon himself, who used the camouflage of harmless old age when he shuffled down to the local park and quietly drooled onto his sweater vest while leering at underage children? I wished I could have asked him some of these things, to know if the respect I instinctively felt for the face in the photo was justified.
And I wondered about me, and how old I would get. I wonder about that a lot, and it’s probably shortening my life. I felt like a bee spreading the pollen of immortality by taking a picture of a picture for the wider world to see. I wondered if I would live longer than my father, who died in 2008 when he was only 69. Were the myths of some cultures true and the old man’s soul was in the picture? Had I just stolen a part of some spirit that was probably laughing at me or pissing down my back anyway?
I wanted a beer, and I knew I would never have answers to most of these questions. So I snapped another picture to be sure I had the shot and just walked away.
I lived in Tokyo for almost two years in 1987 and 1988. Due to carelessness while moving frequently in the early ‘90s, few personal photographs from my Tokyo days survive. Eight or ten drunken happy snaps and the pictures that make up Tokyo in the Underbrush are about all I have. Luckily, my late dad took about 188 Kodachrome slides when he and my mother visited me in Tokyo in the late spring of 1988. I found these slides the last time I visited mom in Dallas in October, 2012, and I finally had a look at them recently back home here in California. It was a hell of a thing stepping back in time this way, looking at pictures of the Tokyo I lived in and loved in, at a man literally half my age, and at a mother who was red-haired and vibrant and not yet dying prematurely (for reasons she would prefer I not discuss).
So I started scanning these pictures, which produced the three examples here. But I don’t know what I’m going to do with them. They hyper-activate my memory of and yearning for the city I love most in the world. Perhaps I should turn them into a book. I’ll let you know. At the very least I need to show them to mom before time runs out, which it always seems to do. The bastard.
Me and mom at the ‘Y’ in Ameyokocho, Ueno. We’re easy to spot.
Shoppers and colorful wares in Ameyokocho.
Mom and passersby in Uenohirokōji.
In Roppongi, in the late ‘80s, this was the place to go
if you wanted to see what cocaine could do to a 17-year-old Australian girl
who looked like Audrey Hepburn’s sister and partied like Tokyo was just
another delusional step closer to the cover of French Vogue.
Such girls had nothing to do with me.
This was okay because I was twenty-three and, quite honestly,
too young and poor for them.
I actually swallowed live goldfish several times out of a proper Japanese glass ramen bowl
to gain admittance to Cleo Palazzi when what I had in my pockets was basically lint
and a need to wait until deep morning,
using the power of credit carded beer,
so I could catch the first Hibiya Line trains to the Chiyoda Line back to
Yushima on a legally codeine-soaked Sunday morning.
My favorite song during these times was Billy Idol singing
“Dancing With Myself” and
this has never changed.
On Wednesday, before the rains, the sun crept in through a window in a way I have never seen before.
And, basically, I just liked the light, and the message on the box which reminds me that I still do bad things to myself…
There’s a map of everything to everywhere…..
….on my front porch.
There’s nothing deeper here than that
a lesson I may have learned while I was out past my porch running some errands for my in-laws.
needed me to dispose of a stiff, dead opossum she had found in her yard.
needed me to buy him some Duracell 312 hearing aid batteries and three packs of True menthol 100 cigarettes.
So, the opossum ended up in a bag which I tossed into a dumpster behind our local grocery market here in Brisbane,
ended up in a run-down CVS pharmacy just off the El Camino Real in South San Francisco, California.
Cigarettes and hearing aid batteries for the elderly are always in such places. It is the joy of these places.
And they have El Jimador tequila, which I have never tried.
But I have smelled it because of the weaving-drunk man who was behind me, even though I didn’t ask.
We were both in line, and I had
my cigarettes and batteries.
He had his fifth of El Jimador tequila, and a copy of Maxim magazine
(which I found pleasing because it had a picture of a lovely woman with enormous tits on the cover.)
And this guy looked rough, and he was Latino, and that didn’t matter
because he looked my age
and it was Friday night
and the only thing he could weave about to plan and do was to buy El Jimador tequila and Maxim magazine
and go off wherever he had to go in the rain.
My birthday is upon me.
I’ll be 48.
And I don’t pray but I did make a sort of vow to myself that,
for the rest of my life,
I will never be the kind of man who swerves into a run-down CVS pharmacy in South San Francisco, California on a Friday night
a bottle of cheap tequila and a big-titty-girl magazine
and then shuffle off into the rain and the night.
I did pretty well at university, considering I changed my major a few times. After some ups and a few severe downs, I managed to graduate from a pretty good school with a B-minus average. Still, my mind was not always on my studies, and sometimes in a seminar or a lecture my thoughts would wander and I drew doodles in the margins of my lecture notebook pages.
And some of these doodles, I thought, were pretty good. So right after I graduated in January, 1987, I went through my surviving lecture notebooks and clipped those little bits which I wanted to save from the pages. Most of the doodles came from notebooks for classes I took in 1986 in order to get enough credits to graduate, but were not part of my major academic requirements. As such, I chucked the notebooks and kept the doodles, using tape to array them on a piece of paper into the goofy collage you see below.
I know, this ain’t hall-of-fame art. But there are still some cool ideas here, the products of a younger man’s brain. I’m glad I kept them. This and my diploma are the two most valuable pieces of paper I took from college.
Click to enlarge the image to full size, and have a look around.