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

Tokyo 2012

Ameyayokochō time warp

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.

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(Picture taken in Ameyayokochō, Ueno, Tokyo in April, 2012)

(Ashita no) Joe from Sanya

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”.

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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…

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Tange Danpei, Joe’s boxing trainer and mentor, drawing attention to a well-stocked liquor store.

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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)

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)

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)

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.)

Let’s Camera—A small whimsical

You have to suck Tokyo into your lungs and let it rewrite your DNA.

You have to piece together your own reality one combini at a time.

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As you look around your tiny room and try to remember the rest of some words from an Elvis Costello song,

you grab things and put them together and that is how you change a part of the world.

It doesn’t matter, not to anyone but you, and it doesn’t objectively matter actually at all.

But it will matter when you hit Tokyo’s streets.

It will help your brain figure out how to piece it all together and give it immovable coordinates on your permanent brain map.

Like I said, you have to let the city rewrite your DNA.

Actually, you don’t have any choice in the matter, but it’s always easier when you acquiesce and let it happen easily.

(Picture taken in Nakano 5-chome, Tokyo in April, 2012. Published concurrently on Scholars and Rogues.)

My Former Hanami—A small handful of grace

I walked from Nakano to Shinjuku alone


I was never really alone or ever am.

The city was with me.

A god-pigeon was with me.

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We watched hanami pass into hanafubuki,

as the city shook the petals loose.

I took them from the ground,

petals like silken snow

falling on harsh pavements and concrete.

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Enjoy hanafubuki.

It can be just as beautiful as hanami.

There are patterns to all of it,

everything has a place randomly assigned.

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As I stood there at Kandagawa,

my hand full of Tokyo’s grace,

I looked nearby to the street,

and saw

the post-hanami trash had it’s own kind of beautiful pattern too.

(Pictures taken near the intersection of Otakibashi-dori and the Kanda River (Kandagawa) in April, 2012)

Tokyo Snow And Sanyūkai NPO—A small suggestion

This winter is hitting Tokyo hard. Friends in the Tokyo metropolitan area and nearby Chiba prefecture have reported impassible streets, shut down highways, and commuter trains delayed for long periods or cancelled due to accumulations of ice and snow. And this has me windering how Tokyo’s homeless population is dealing with this winter nightmare.

My guess is the city’s street folk are scrambling for cover under bridges, or for warm, dry digs in Tokyo’s larger JR and Metro stations. If that is even an option. I haven’t spent a winter in Tokyo since early 1988, so I don’t really know any more how Tokyo’s homeless and destitute deal with weather like this. Realistically they can’t sprawl out and crash on the streets the way they do in warm weather, as shown in my photographs below. And if Tokyo is anything like most major American cities, there aren’t enough homeless shelters or temporary housing facilities available to accommodate everyone who needs to get off the freezing streets.

But I do know of one organization that I would bet hard cash is doing everything it can to get homeless and chronically alcoholic people into as many warm beds as possible. It’s the Sanyūkai NPO down in Tokyo’s Sanya skid row area. The non-secular NPO is run by Deacon Jean LeBeau, while Sister Rita Burdzy manages Sanyūkai’s small free medical clinic. They’re both Christian missionaries, and are pictured below.

What I urge you to do, after looking through these photos and perusing Sanyūkai’s English-language page, is make a donation to this small but very important charitable and homeless outreach organization. Tokyo’s streets are killing cold right now, and Sanyūkai NPO could use your help in helping others.

–Dan Ryan, Brisbane, California, 02/16/14

Sanya in April, 2012…

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Sanya in September, 2013…

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At Sanyūkai NPO…

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Sister Rita Burdzy


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Deacon Jean LeBeau

(Pictures taken in Sanya, Tokyo in 2012 and 2013)

My Breakfast With Adelstein—A small nosh

It has never been in my karma to meet famous people. It just never happens to me*. But in 2012 I had the good fortune to meet “Tokyo Vice” author and enemy of Japanese crime Jake Adelstein at a sports pub in Roppongi. That was a wonderful gathering, during which the best-selling author autographed two books for me and I met some excellent people who are now friends. But because we were in a group and Jake was pressed for time, he and I didn’t really have a chance to talk privately.

However, fortune or fate paid me the rare compliment of granting me the chance to meet up with Jake again. We had breakfast together recently at a nice hotel near Union Square in San Francisco. We talked of many things, from cameras to conspiracies, and the hotel bar even had Dr Pepper. As ever Jake was gracious and accommodating and let me take his picture. I suppose it is my way of boasting that I am publishing a couple photos of him here for you to peruse.

Thanks, Mr. Adelstein, and I look forward to next time, whenever that may be…

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(Pictures taken at the Parc 55 Wyndham Hotel, San Francisco, on November 6th, 2013)


* I was within five feet of Mike Tyson and Robin Givens at Ueno Park Zoo once, but I didn’t have the courage to walk up and shake Tyson’s hand. The couple was, ironically in Tyson’s case I thought, looking at the gorillas. This was in March, 1988, a couple of days before Tyson destroyed Tony Tubbs in two minutes and 54 seconds at the Tokyo Dome. I heard Tyson left Tokyo pretty quickly after the fight to avoid the wrath of Japanese fight fans and promoters, but that may be apocrypha gathered from the Tokyo gaijin grapevine that existed at the time.

Voices In Chorus—A small dialog

How many worlds on dust motes

have we destroyed by washing our clothes?


But gnashing your teeth

you can’t run

from the gutters

in your mind

or the gutters where you sleep.


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I am monstrous heavy for you

and the crutch that gets you by.

I’m the welcome that never comes

and the kiss that says goodbye.


The concrete is warm

It baked all day in the sun

My bare feet enjoy it

But I must be careful

To avoid the broken glass.


The light of gods in the foyer

blinded me when I wanted to leave home.

There was no sass to it,

only rumors that life was better

under the overpasses

where the rich drive their Tokyo cars.


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My head is doing that thing again,

that thing I told you about,

that thing where you all speak

and I can’t tell which is me.


I think it’s time to blow this pop stand,

blow it with dynamite,

and go get that beer we’ve been talking about

for all the long decades since we came here

and found there’s only so much shame one can bear

but only if one decides to feel shame at all.


Yeah, here we go.

This will be fun.

(Pictures taken in the Sanya area, near the Sanyūkai NPO free clinic, in April, 2012)

Sanya Happy Life—A small Golden Week street fair

April 28th, 2012 was a quiet and beautiful day. The entire city of Tokyo was gearing up for the Golden Week holiday. But I had an appointment in Sanya at 13:30 with the staff of the Sanyūkai NPO free clinic to take pictures for a story about their work with the destitute and down-and-out. However, I got to Minami-senju Station early. So I wandered over to the shōtengai in Sanya, an area now officially called Nihonzutsumi, to see what other interesting things I could see. What I found surprised me, considering most of the people I had previously photographed in that part of town.

It was a little a street fair and flea market, a delightful thing to find in this run-down, hard-drinking part of Tokyo. I walked around for half an hour, taking pictures of the vibrance, cohesion, and community I saw in a place that isn’t exactly known for any of these things. It was heartening to experience this little street fair. And tired as I was after finishing my work for the day, I felt uplifted as I walked to Minami-senju Station and caught the Hibiya Line back toward western Tokyo and my apartment in Nakano-ku. While you’re here, have a look around:

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Some young parents and their kids checking out used goods in the street.


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Two buddies, sharing stories and beers. I wrote a bit of poem-fiction about them here.


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Jewelry for sale, but they weren’t very aggressive about it.


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Odds and ends for kids.


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This guy was pretty colorful, and I did a color-full story on him here.


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An obaa-chan with a stylish fanny pack, watching people in the street go by.


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And of course this being Sanya, at one end of the shōtengai near a liquor store these men were gathered in the gutter and drinking heavily. Sanya is consistent that way.

If you would like to see more pictures and stories from this Golden Week street fair, please have a look here. And enjoy.

Taito-ku Revelations—A small chat

All the vast introduction letters of the universe,

and perhaps even

a carte de visite from some god

won’t get you anywhere in this town.

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What it’s reduced to is an old truth:

That if we can’t laugh at ourselves,

we may as well cry for others.

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Then maybe have a snack and

a drink of some substance and gusto.

What the hell, it works for those bums in America.

It may as well work for us.

(An outdoor bar in Sanya, Tokyo, where the men watch televised boat races and enjoy festive liquors like Asahi Super Dry and One Cup Ozeki. Pictures taken in April, 2012.)

Punk Rock Retail—A small entrepreneurial

It was the first Saturday of Golden Week, at a small flea market and street fair in Sanya.

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It was a nice day. Lots of good stuff for sale on the street.

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But among the mothers and little kids and conventionally-dressed walk-a-day oldsters and salaryman dads, this guy stood out.

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Still, business was good. He had stuff in which housewives and grandmothers had interest.

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And in between customers, he sat quietly, patiently, seeming to think while watching this small piece of the world go by.

(Pictures taken on the shōtengai in Sanya, Tokyo on April 28th, 2012)

Arts & Leisure in Sanya—A small surveyance

In places like Sanya, the beat-down dour spirit is so palpable you wonder why someone or some group bothered to leave evidence of art or joy. You’re glad they did, but you wonder.

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Like why someone took time to plaster a huge, complex work of art on the side of a rundown shop. It’s heartening, but also seems a bit like putting a fresh coat of paint on a ghost town.


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Or why there’s still a kiddie coin ride toy sitting waiting in the street, even though it’s chipped and looks as if no child has ridden it in years.


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Or why there’s more art pasted on the front of a closed shop, of a seemingly vibrant woman moving, or dancing, with a red skull of death. It looks like work from the same artist as above.


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But then you look some more, see a Kirin booze can, trash bag, and newspapers in the seat of a kiddie racecar riding toy, and you remember that the street finds its own use for things.

(Pictures taken in Sanya (Nihonzutsumi), Tokyo in April, 2012)

Yushima Station—A small memory

Years live and die, as they will.

Kiosks and memory come and go.

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My past is here, sweating in a wool suit, thanking the gods of physics and money for Japan.

Sweating in a wool suit, no CoolBiz in the ‘80s, and wondering, as young men will:

“If after Tokyo, what?”

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After Tokyo was many years finding me.

After Tokyo I couldn’t find the parts I left in Japan.

So I came back here and found them, most of them.

They dangled from phone straps.

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And it’s still Yushima Station, a wretched coffin with throughput rails.

I’m glad for it.

Bits of my mind still live there, and that makes it always my empty, wide-open home.

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(Pictures taken at Yushima Station, Tokyo, in April 2012)

The Dreaming Beast—A small drowse

I never jumped in the Sumida River

but I thought about it

many times.

Not to die, but to float,

float down to the sea.

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Where the birds go

to have lunch on spring days

when the trash we leave them

isn’t quite enough to take home to the family.

The floating idea,

it’s all about the dream time,

the closing of eyes,

of being borne by Earth’s amniotic fluid

to the place where we all come home.

It’s a place we don’t want to go

but can’t help desiring.

It’s instinct, like picking our teeth with a knife.

It’s stupid

but we do it

because we’ve been dreaming of

floating down rivers

for so many thousands of years.

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

The Incomplete Transsexual—A small tale from the Seoul Bar

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It was a little like the scenario in that Kinks song “Lola”, but only in passing. I met her in a little place called Seoul Bar, which is in a rundown section of northeast Tokyo called Sanya. At first I thought her was a him, and she sounded like a man but…


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The lipstick should have given me a clue, but it was confusing initially, even more so because his, sorry, her English was pretty rusty, and my Japanese was horrible. She took an interest in me because I was American. When she was still fully he, he used to work for Americans in the ‘60s. Or the ‘70s, but doing what I never completely figured out. But we managed fitfully to communicate, and after a few minutes I thought he was a pretty interesting woman.


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She’d had the money at some unspecified point in the past to start the process of becoming her true self, to transition from male to female. Her family, which might have included a wife and kids, never understood nor approved of what she needed to be. They disowned her many years ago.


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However, it was obvious she was accepted in Seoul Bar, but also treated a bit like an oddity. When another bar patron took a schoolboy jab at her breasts, it bothered me. It was playful, but far from respectful. But it was nearly 13:00, in a bar in a crummy part of town, and everyone was drinking. So maybe my standards were unrealistically high. Hell, she even wanted me to take a feel of her tits. She was proud of them. I declined.


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She was also proud of her hands, justifiably I thought, but seemed frustrated by lingering facial hair. My guess is whatever hormones she used to take had worn off some time ago. She also said she still had the male parts she’d been born with.


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I left the Seoul Bar when the karaoke was about to start and went out to the shōtengai to take more pictures. After about five minutes,  I noticed my ladyfriend walking in the same direction I was. She had bar-snack crumbs on her face, and in the outdoor light I could really see how worn- and shabby-looking she was. Yet as she waved her hands around at my camera, her manicured nails were still noticeable, as were her few female bumps and curves. She looked more like a woman standing up outside than she had hunched next to me in a chair in the dark little bar we’d been in.


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She and I walked together for a few minutes. She didn’t mind me taking pictures of her. In fact, she carried herself with a little bit of the vanity some women seem to naturally have, whether their looks entitle them to such vanity or not. But the fact that this woman, this shabby, incomplete woman, carried herself in this a way instantly earned a small measure of my respect. It took, for lack of a better term, balls.


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We came to a stop when she spotted a man she knew, a friend I suppose, a guy I had photographed previously. He was pretty goddamned drunk. But she wanted to go talk to him.


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Like I said, she was proud of her breasts and not shy about playing with them in public. I didn’t ask her to do this. I don’t know enough Japanese to get that far. But she posed for me a few times out there in the street, and this is where her hands always ended up. You’ve got to roll with these things in some parts of Tokyo street life.


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Then she walked over to talk to her friend. It was a short conversation. The guy in the gutter made a slow lunge for my ladyfriend’s crotch. Her response, as I barely understood it, was to offer to show the man that he would have gotten a handful of male goodies if she had let his fingers reach their target. This was a little bit too much for me, the idea that this incomplete woman was prepared to whip out her male equipment in the street.

So I walked away. But you know, I never even got her name.

(Pictures taken on the shōtengai in Sanya, Tokyo in April, 2012)

A Little Place In Sanya—A small tale from the Seoul Bar

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I discovered the Seoul Bar in Sanya, a rundown section in northeastern Tokyo, after watching a surly drunk get thrown out of it. A few days later I went back to this little joint because it had captured my attention and curiosity. And I wanted to see if the drunken ejected patron had been let back into the place.


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At first I thought the old smooth-headed gentleman in the chair was the ejected boozer from my previous visit. A closer, more scrupulous look at the man proved me wrong. But then my eyes were immediately drawn to Mama-san, a beautiful older woman who calmly surveyed the street in front of Seoul Bar and whose smiling face beamed with what I took for pride.


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When Mama-san saw me, she recognized me from several days before. And when she understood that I meant to enter the bar, she retreated back to a table inside and started clearing and cleaning a place for me to sit.


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I sat at the table Mama-san cleaned for me with this gent. He ignored me at first, but as a foreigner visiting Japan I am used to this. Yet he stared so long out the front of the bar and into the street that after awhile I decided he really was more interested in the people coming and going outside than he was in ignoring me.


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The Seoul Bar is small, the prices are cheap. But the pictures on the wall told me that this isn’t just some anonymous, impersonal dive in a run-down neighborhood. After Mama-san insisted on sitting in my lap and having our picture taken together, I immediately understood that this is her bar and this is her way of making customers feel welcome. Through some bad English spoken by a couple of other customers, and my horrible Japanese, I learned Mama-san is South Korean, and she has owned and run this place in Sanya for 23 years. That’s a hell of a long time to run a drinking business in this poor part of Tokyo.


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So then Mama-san got up to get me a beer, and I finally took a look around the place. It didn’t have more than three four-seat tables in it. The smooth-headed older gent from before was still sitting at the front of the place. He didn’t smile, but he didn’t seem hostile either.


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Then there this guy, who sat at the small counter in the back near the whiskey and tea. He smiled quite a bit, and made me feel as welcome as Mama-san did. I think he was her business partner, or her husband, since he was wearing what looked like a wedding band. I liked him.


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The I looked around at my table mate, who had finished surveying the world outside the bar and turned his attention toward me. He was a bit jittery and didn’t sit still much, so this is the best image he allowed me to take of himself. The items sitting on the table before him seemed to me like a variation of the four basic Japanese neighborhood bar food groups.


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Then Mama-san brought my beer and some more snacks, and my table mate and I had a bigger bounty to share. Cheese twists, watermelon wedges, a peanut/soy nut mixture, and beer were the day’s menu items. I could have had kimchee or bibimbap if I’d wanted. They’re listed in katakana on the front of the bar. I later regretted not having a proper lunch.


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The beer was cold and delicious, and the snacks were pretty good. But when Mama-san handed my table mate the wireless mic and the karaoke started, I decided to take my leave. I can’t stand karaoke, and this nice man’s warm-up singing sounded like the best attempts of an off-key inebriate. Which they were. So I said my best Japanese goodbyes and left.


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(Pictures taken on the shōtengai in Sanya, Tokyo in April, 2012)

Coming up: The Incomplete Transsexual…

He Got Tossed—A small tale from the Seoul Bar

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Seoul Bar is a little place on the shōtengai in Sanya, a run-down section of northeast Tokyo. It’s on a corner and from the outside looks tidy enough. But it is also quite unassuming and easy to miss. In fact, I don’t think I would have noticed the place at all…


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…if I hadn’t been walking by one day when this surly drunk was getting tossed from the bar. Actually, I didn’t see him get tossed. He was just there, in the tiled street on his back like a pissed-off turtle, laying on his flattened hat and yelling loudly and angrily.


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He laid on his back for several minutes, shaking with anger more than anything resembling the chills or symptoms of a seizure. I’ve been an angry inebriate myself on occasion, and I know the signs.


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Mama-san, who at the time I did not know was the Korean owner of the bar, came out to try to help the surly drunk. By then it had become apparent that the other customers had thrown the man out.


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While everyone else went about their drinking business, Mama-san brought out the man’s small bag of possessions.


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And while she decided how to handle the man, he threw a string of angry words at the other men inside the bar. I didn’t know enough Japanese to know what he actually said, but I know invective when I hear it.


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Eventually, two men from Seoul Bar came out and helped the surly drunk back up to his feet. I wasn’t sure if he knew I had been taking pictures of him. He seemed too drunk to care.


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Well, until I took this picture. Then the surly drunk directed all his anger towards me, away from his former drinking mates. This made him calm down a little. But he still wasn’t let back in the bar. I saw him walking dejectedly down the shōtengai towards Minimi-senju shortly after I snapped this picture. That was the last I saw of him…

(Pictures taken on the shōtengai in Sanya, Tokyo in April, 2012)

Coming up: Inside Seoul Bar, and The Incomplete Transsexual…

It Was Happy—A small nosh

It was just a food truck. But on an overcast early Spring day in Sanya, it glowed. It was god-like cheesiness. It was as if an entire amusement park had rolled down the street and parked at the curb. Well, a cheap amusement park. Not all the lights on the truck appeared to work.

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But I didn’t walk away easy. In Sanya I never do. My friend and I were starving, but we didn’t buy hot dogs from the food truck. We found a nice mom-and-pop joint nearby, and had the best ginger pork I’ve ever had. But still, it was Sanya, and I felt guilty about passing the food truck by for a good part of the rest of the day.

(Picture taken in Sanya, Minami-senju, Tokyo in April, 2012. You can read another short bit about food in Sanya here.)

Akihabara In Merest Passing—A small short visit

In Akihabara, it’s tough to take pictures of quiet but interesting places devoid of people. It is one of the most photographed parts of Tokyo. But I didn’t go there specifically to shoot pictures. I was meeting a new American friend at the UDX Building for a lunch date. I was late as hell because I hadn’t been in Akihabara for four years and got lost. Biggest goddamn building in Akihabara and I got lost finding it. Jesus H. Christ. Fortunately, my friend took this well and we ended up going to Go! Go! Curry (ゴーゴーカレー) for a quick lunch. Very quick, as my buddy had to get back to work and my tardiness left us little time for socializing.

And I regret that quite a bit. I hope to make it up to him when I’m back in Japan in September. Anyway, after we parted I walked around Akihabara for 45 minutes and took pictures of things that interested me and also had minimal human presence. These photos follow.

And for the record, I don’t know who the guy is on the storefront billboard in the ninth photo below, but I don’t think I like him.

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(Pictures taken in Akihabara, Tokyo on April 20th, 2012. I have another Akiba post here.)

Why It’s Worth It—A small honor

My work can be frustrating. For me, I mean, in that I don’t get a lot of direct feedback about it. I get a few always-thoughtful comments here and there on a given post in the long string of Tokyo-related poems, pictures and stories I publish here. On Facebook and Twitter, I get a pleasing but modest number of likes and retweets when I post a SmallStories link. And on a monthly basis this blog averages about 1,000 hits. I think this number is nice, but is probably rather small compared to blogs of a similar nature. But I’d like the numbers to go up; I’d like to reach a larger audience.

And this isn’t merely out of vanity, which is certainly a factor I would be foolish to deny. I truly love what I do and I think it has real value. What I do is the product of my natural, insatiable need to create, and a genuine, altruistic desire to make the world a better, more interesting place. I want to increase understanding, and contribute to the richness and diversity of the world through my words and pictures and the way my mind intermingles the two. See? There’s that vanity, thinking I can actually do those things.

But the truth is whether I was trying to make this my life’s work after a couple of crappy careers (which is the literal truth), or doing this on the side while working a dead-end job managing an Arby’s, I would still be doing this work. If nobody responded to it ever, and an excerpt from one of my teeny books hadn’t recently been published for the whole internet to see, I would still be doing this work.

Fortunately, the beautiful reality is people do respond to my work. I recently got this note on LinkedIn from a man I’ve never met nor spoken to, a foreigner currently living in Japan. He gave me permission to print it here…


Your work always resonates with me.

Please keep this information between us, but I developed mental illness some years ago, which led to (enhanced?) substance abuse (mainly alcohol) and I spend a lot of time with the people you often write about (I shouldn’t be so detached: I’m one of them). I’m in recovery, and making my way a day at a time, but not everyone makes it. I’m sure the people you meet in Sanya are grateful for you turning your attention to them ever so briefly.

Anyway, just wanted to know you’ve touched at least one person.

Take care and thanks,

(Name withheld at author’s request)TokyoUnderBottle

It took a yard of guts for this man to send a note like this to a complete stranger, and I almost cried when I read it. I was so honored by his honesty about himself. We started a correspondence after he sent me this note, and some of the things I wrote in response to him were “Whether my work does more than give me a sense of accomplishment and vain pride, I have no idea. Until now, when I read your amazing note to me. My deepest thanks for telling me my work touched you. I can’t tell you how important that is.”

It is very important, not only for my ego and my creative motivations, but for the basic needs we all have to connect to others and to matter to them in positive ways. I hope to further connect by meeting the man who wrote me the note, hopefully when I am back in Tokyo this September. I want to hug this man and buy him a quiet lunch and talk and know that he is doing well and winning the battles against his afflictions and his demons.

Because my work helps me win the battles against my afflictions and demons. But knowing I’ve made an actual difference in a person’s life almost outweighs the value of the work itself.

Wander All Your Sons Away From Us—A small lineage

There’s something my great-grandfather

is reputed to have said when he died at 101.

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Loosely translated from late Edo-period Japanese,

he said: “I’m a coward when it matters,

and a hero when it don’t.”

This may be apocryphal family history.

Most family history is.

It’s blended from different sources like bad scotch,

being as it is neither comfort nor condemnation.

But on days like this in the chump streets,

I know how the old man felt.

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Yes, in this place where I live,

I know how the old man felt.

(Pictures taken in Sanya, Minami-senju, Tokyo, in April 2012)

Scenes From a Tokyo Skid Row Clinic—An excerpt from “Ningenkusai”

Photos updated on 02/16/14

Author’s note: This is a condensed, reworked excerpt from my recent Amazon Kindle photo essay book “Ningenkusai: A Tokyo Panic Stories Mini-book”. I prepared it for exclusive publication by the Japan Subculture Research Center. But, happily, it was then picked up and republished by Zero Hedge. You can buy a copy of the full book at Amazon.


You’ve probably never heard of Sanya. The Tokyo City Government doesn’t acknowledge its existence, and you won’t find it on any official maps. Sanya is more or less Tokyo’s skid row, where people, mostly men, end up when the other parts of this immense, gleaming city have stopped offering comfort and opportunity.

Sanya is where  the Japanese outcasts, food animal butchers, leather tanners, and other professions considered “unclean” by Japan’s traditionally Buddhist ruling class, a.k.a. the burakumin, or dowa, plied their trades for centuries. These tradesmen may mostly be gone, and the smell of the blood they spilled long-since drifted away, but the stigma of what Sanya once was remains, and it clings to the many of the people who live and work here.

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Sanya is a blue-collar place, where an aging population of day laborers lingers on the fringe of Tokyo society. Many laborers have drinking problems, and they’ve ended up in Sanya to hide their abuses from their families. Sights like this fellow are pretty common, except in rainy weather.


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And even then Sanya has a shōtengai dotted with little bars and liquor stores.


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For many men in Sanya, government welfare assistance is available but is a problematic thing. Applying for it requires identity verification by contacting an applicant’s family. Most Sanya men who have fallen on hard times and taken to excessive drinking don’t want this. They would rather their families not know where they are or how they live. Revealing this would mean bringing unbearable shame upon their loved ones.

So when you’re down in Sanya and public assistance isn’t an option for some reason, what do you do? You go private, to a small outfit like Sanyūkai NPO, a non-religious non-profit organization. The Sanyūkai NPO and the free medical clinic within it is run by a couple of foreign missionaries who have been doing charity work in Sanya since the early ‘80s.

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Deacon Jean LeBeau, the director of Sanyūkai NPO, is a French-Canadian Catholic with the Quebec Foreign Mission Society. Deacon Jean has been in Japan for 41 years, including 28 years in Sanya. He’s a humble, affable man, who would rather speak Japanese than either English or his native French.


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Sister Rita Burdzy, head nurse of Sanyūkai clinic, is an American from St. Louis, Missouri who came to Japan in 1981. She is a nun with the Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic of Ossining, New York, a Roman Catholic order whose members devote their lives to service overseas in specialties such as medicine and agriculture. Sister Rita holds a Japanese nursing license and is the nurse in charge of most of the activities at the clinic.


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It’s a small facility, with only two beds in the examination room. Hundreds of ailing men have passed through this place since it opened in 1984. And somehow it manages to keep doing the job.


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In addition to Sister Rita, medical services are supplied by a volunteer roster of over 30 medical doctors and registered nurses. Doctor Kanade Hagiwara, an urologist at a general hospital in Tokyo, is one of those volunteers. She treats patients at the clinic on the fourth Saturday of each month. The NPO is not a religious organization, and therefore does not insist that either volunteers or clients adhere to any one faith, or have any religious faith at all.


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Within the clinic, the one concession to spiritual matters is this hand-made banner and the shrine beside it, which is dedicated to recently-departed clients and patients of the clinic.


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Since Sanya does not officially exist, Sanyūkai clinic has an address in Kiyokawa, in Taito-ku ward, on a small street that could easily pass for an alleyway. Outside the clinic, unless it is raining or bitterly cold, men in need of clinic services sit on benches and wait, often with Sister Rita and Deacon Jean (whose back is shown) somewhere nearby.


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But the men who gather outside Sanyūkai clinic tend to make it more of a social venue than the dreary medical waiting-room scene you might expect. They’re a diverse group, even though most are older day laborers who get less and less work as they age. The men in the middle and the right fall into that category. The guy on the left is a transplant from nearby Asakusa, whose reasons for ending up in Sanya are not entirely clear.


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But this man, who died of a brain hemorrhage in June 2012, used to own a bar next to the clinic.


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While this fellow is a professional cook who does not always get daily work.

If the men who frequent the Sanyūkai clinic share one thing, it is a quality Sister Rita calls “ningenkusai” (人間くさい), which she says “is a quality of being very human, of smelling comfortably human. Of being full of human traits.” She adds that this is the best English translation she could offer for a concept that she says is uniquely Japanese. With obvious fondness, Sister Rita goes on to say that despite their backgrounds and personal secrets “these men have a purity of heart and are very charming. There is no guile in these men.” She sums things up by saying when men come to the clinic off of Sanya’s streets and ask for help “no questions are asked. We’re a family.”

And you can feel the truth of it when she says it.

Reporting and photography for this story was done in Sanya, Tokyo in April, 2012.