My wife and I were walking through the normally quiet and deserted midday streets of Golden Gai in Shinjuku. Suddenly I heard voices singing loudly to a very mainstream-sounding J-pop song. I followed the raucous sounds to a little dive which, unlike the other dives around it, had its front door wide open. Inside a bartender and three customers were joyously boozing it up and singing like contestants trying out for a television talent show.
And so, after calling my wife over to have a look we unexpectedly found ourselves sitting in a teeny Golden Gai bar ordering drinks at 12:30 in the afternoon.
The place is called Yoshida Shōten (よしだ しょてん). This is Getta, the bartender and, presumably, the owner of the joint. He charged my wife and I ¥500 each for cover, and ¥700 apiece for two Japanese whiskies and a regular bottle of Asahi Super Dry. He knew some English, was very accommodating, and had a wry sense of humor. His place had various types of garishly-colored Japanese toys pinned to the walls, and small baskets of packaged sweet and savory Japanese snacks on the bar. He seemed to know what he was doing and how he wanted his place to be.
One of Getta’s customers, who didn’t give a name but whom Getta described in English as ‘a crazy boy’. I sat next to this man, who also spoke a little English. He was quite nice and outgoing, though shy of my camera, and I think he told me he had recently been diagnosed with a serious medical condition, which I won’t name here. But it did make me feel like an asshole for smoking a cigarette next to him. He didn’t seem to mind, though.
Another customer with whom my wife and I drank. A handsome fellow, also outgoing and friendly, but I don’t recall if he gave a name or not. He did most of the singing when Getta had the music playing over the bar’s speaker system. And he had a pretty good voice.
My wife and I were delighted to have the chance to drink in a Golden Gai bar, but it was early in the day for us and after sharing two whiskies and a beer we knew we had to press on with our day. So we paid Getta what we owed him, and said our goodbyes with smiles and our cameras. Despite having lived in Japan in the late ‘80s and visiting Tokyo four times since 2008, I had never had drinks in Golden Gai before. So stumbling across this lively little place was a real treat for me. What made it so special, of course, was the friendly warmth of the people there.
So, thanks gents.
(Pictures taken in Golden Gai, Shinjuku in Tokyo on November 15th, 2015)
After buying cigarettes at a nearby Mini Stop convenience store, I took a quick look inside this izakaya because it still appeared to be open at a quarter past six in the morning. The few remaining customers were yukking it up, and this being Japan I really wasn’t too concerned when the owner of the joint pulled a gun…
(Picture taken in Nakano 5-chome in Tokyo on Halloween, 2015)
We roam Asakusa,
We are ghosts of clown.
You can see us,
And we love you;
You are human
of warm summer days
and cold Tokyo beer.
And happy Buddha
is inside you all
in ways we street-play ghosts
will never know.
We pacify the street
and tell the street stories
of how it must love your feet.
You can see us,
We make sure of it.
We are cramps
in a leg you no longer feel,
the laughter that
results from great pain.
You give us hope,
so we paint ourselves,
and cherish our time
on the man-made
crust of the Earth,
and hope that
you give us money
which we can use to buy a new god.
(Pictures taken in Asakusa, Tokyo in October, 2013)
So, this is Nakano Broadway.
There are toys here. I must secure my pants to prepare myself.
This one? I brought it with me. Now I must leave to find more.
(Pictures taken in Nakano Broadway, Tokyo in September, 2013)
“Blade Runner” is my favorite movie ever. I even wrote a sequel to it, which you can obtain here. The film has cult popularity in Japan, where the cityscapes of Osaka and Tokyo have long been compared to the dense, neon-lit street scenes in Ridley Scott’s film. Over the years the Japanese have produced some fantastic “Blade Runner” memorabilia. In 2013, a shop I really like in Nakano Broadway called Mandarake had some very nice “Blade Runner” gear on display, which is presented here for your pleasure…
Deckard’s rather pricey LAPD service pistol.
Two-headed Deckard and a spinner. I love the accuracy of Deckard’s necktie.
Mr. Batty, a blaster, and some unfinished Batty and Deckard chibi figures.
Items you might find in a blade runner’s coat pocket.
A spinner, as close to flying as it is likely to get.
“Have a better one.”
(Pictures taken at Mandarake Special 5 in Nakano Broadway in September, 2013)
It is the holiday season, specifically the week between Christmas and the New Year. These gnomes were on display in a Tokyo department store in September. But if the viewer chooses to regard their gnaughty gesture as a repudiation of the Christmas holiday, or as a fitting way of saying goodbye to 2014, well, you will get no argument from this photographer…
(Picture taken at Shibuya Loft, Tokyo in September, 2013)
For some reason one warm morning in late September, there was a guy walking around Nakano Station in a red science fiction suit with a bag of what looked like recyclable assorted paper trash. I think it was a man, the person’s body language was male, and he looked like a giant walking toy. I am going to assume the trash ranger was a whimsical force promoting civic good, not evil, because that’s typically how Tokyo rolls….
(Picture taken at Nakano Station, Tokyo in September, 2013)
Noriya Takeyama is a Japanese toy and graphics designer. I was lucky enough to meet him in October, 2013 at the Fewmany pop-up shop at the Marui Annex in Shinjuku. He and his buddy in the porkpie hat came by to say hello to the Devilrobots, with whom Takeyama-san is friends. I didn’t get to hang out with Takeyama-san for very long, but he gave off this very cool vibe and I’m really glad I got a picture with me, him, and his pal in it.
And all these months later it just occurred to me that I’m an idiot for not asking the man to autograph a sheet of stickers I had with me that he designed….
(Photographs taken at Marui Annex, Shinjuku, Tokyo in October, 2013)
During each of my trips to Tokyo in 2012 and 2013 to take photographs for my “Tokyo Panic Stories” project, I met up with some really wonderful people, people with whom I hope to remain friends for years to come. But during the 2013 trip, a particular treat for me was the opportunity to hang out with Shinichiro Kitai and Kotohiro Nishiyama of the Tokyo-based toy and graphic design firm Devilrobots. I have been a huge fan of the Devilrobots ever since I stumbled across their To-fu Oyako character toys on eBay in 2002. Their whimsical, anthropomorphic designs for toy figures and other colorful objects really appeal to something deep within in my senses of aesthetics and fun.
In short, and without being too gushy about it, the Devilrobots are personal heroes of mine, and their work adds a LOT of joy to my life. In fact, it’s fair to say the Devilrobots inspire me in a way that has helped me cope with my chronic depression.
I met these fine gentlemen one afternoon while they were setting up the Devilrobots “Devil Museum” retrospective and retail sale displays at the Fewmany pop-up shop in the Shinjuku Marui Annex. And the rest of the afternoon just flowed from there…
Mr. Kotohiro Nishiyama, Koto-san, the Devilrobots’ business manager who also acts as the English translator for public events. I got to hang out with Koto-san in 2012 at the Devilrobots’ offices in Shinjuku. Here at the 2013 Fewmany shop, he showed me the “Devil Museum” and the various artifacts from Devilrobots’ 17-year history.
The man himself, Mr. Shinichiro Kitai (Shin-san), the Devilrobots founder and lead designer and artist. He designed pretty much every toy and graphic element you see in these photographs. And he is as colorful, whimsical, and fun as the things he creates.
A display showcasing prototypes and mock-ups of some of the very first To-fu Oyako kubrick figures designed by Shin-san and manufactured by Medicom Toy. Other items in the display utilize To-fu Oyako design elements.
A closer look at some Devilrobots kubrick prototypes. Note the To-fu Oyako figure in the background shaped like a “Toy Story” alien.
Koto-san pointing at a display case full of Evirob kubrick figures and small sculptures. Evirob is Shin-san’s other major character design, but the character itself is a bit odd and hard to explain, mostly because I don’t fully understand it (even though I like it).
One of the neatest things on display, a mashup statue of toy designer Kenny Wong’s Molly character and Shin-san’s To-fu Oyako. I wish I could have purchased this, but I had to be scrupulous with my Kickstarter funds.
Koto-san and Shin-san taking a moment to evaluate their display work. Shin-san is, as you can see, not camera-shy.
A multitude of Devilrobots stickers and badges, manufactured by Facto, a Japanese design company which produces various goods for toy and graphic designers like Devilrobots.
After the work was done setting up the Devilrobots “Devil Museum” shop, Koto-san and Shin-san offered to take me out for some beers. Shin-san and I waited out in the rain in front of Marui Annex while Koto-san was busy retrieving the umbrella he had forgotten inside the building.
We made our way to joint called 82 Ale House in Shinjuku 3-chome. After Shin-san bought the first round of pints, he was kind enough to autograph some Devilrobots items I had with me. Here he’s inscribing a booklet he designed for a CD by an excellent J-pop band called Tokimeki Express.
Beers, smokes, peanuts, and a signed hand-decorated To-fu Oyako kubrick on a greasy bar table. To me this is one version of heaven.
As I noted earlier, Shin-san is not camera-shy.
Despite having to translate between me and Shin-san, Koto-san was able to relax.
I felt so honored that these busy guys…
…took the time to hang out with me.
The list of things for which I am a gushing fanboy is very, very short, but the Devilrobots’ design work and these two superior gentlemen are certainly on it. One of the greatest open secrets about the Japanese is that they are very warm, big-hearted people if you make the effort to get socially close them. Shin-san and Koto-san are two perfect examples of this. I really treasured their company that rainy afternoon in Shinjuku, and I hope they enjoyed mine.
And I can’t thank these two gents enough for their warmth, hospitality, and generosity. Take care, boys, and I hope to see you the next time I’m in Tokyo.
–Dan Ryan, Brisbane, California, July 22nd 2014.
Post script: On my birthday this past January, Shin-san created this digital birthday card and posted it on my Facebook wall, convincing me that he is even more of a big-hearted mensch than I already thought he was…
(Photographs taken at Marui Annex and 82 Ale House, Shinjuku, Tokyo in October, 2013)
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.
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.
The girl and some younger neighborhood boys were playing with a turtle in the street. But as young kids do, they boys lost interest in the turtle and moved on to other distractions. This left the older girl, who clearly was not the turtle’s owner, to deal with the small reptile as it found its way into the moist gutter along the street.
She was angry when she stood rigidly in the street and called to the boys, who had gone inside for a few moments, to come get their turtle. The boys ignored her.
(Pictures taken in Nakano 5-chome, Tokyo in September, 2013)
She passed me.
She didn’t see me.
I remained still.
I didn’t see her.
in the grotesque way
of all the crowded heavens in Tokyo,
I saw her delicate passing
non-substance downloaded on
my tengu-blue digital screen.
(Picture taken in Nakano Broadway, Tokyo in September, 2013)
I didn’t get much sex in Tokyo this year. That is to say, unlike the risqué series of photos I took last year , in 2013 I think I unconsciously decided there were things I wanted to include in my photographic Tokyo explorations other than additional copious evidence of the unabashed Japanese attitude toward retail sexual entertainments. But when I passed this window one sunny September day in Shinjuku, well, I just had to marvel at these sizes and imaginative shapes…
(Picture taken in Kabukichō, Shinjuku, Tokyo on September 20th, 2013)
I was waiting for friends in Ueno, in the street next to a big toy store called Yamashiroya. He was there too, talking to himself or the air. He looked rough as hell and put out his hand when I asked if I could take his picture. I gave him the four cigarettes in the remainder of the pack I had.
We were both still waiting there a few minutes later, me for my friends and he for whatever wisdom or truth he expected the breeze to blow his way. He was enjoying one of my smokes. So I decided to give him a ¥500 coin, though it was an odd thing to do. Tokyo street folk don’t generally ask for nor accept money.
But in the moment it just seemed to make things better for both of us. So I rolled with it.
(Pictures taken in Ueno, Tokyo on September 13th, 2013)
Kids are cool. I don’t always relate well to them even though I used to be a school teacher, but kids are cool. The small but agreeable crew pictured below have taken a liking to me and enjoy coming by to say hello when the glass door of the apartment I’m renting is open. This might have something to do with that fact that I gave this guy a toy earlier today. Hell, they’re more entertaining than Japanese TV. And they remind me of one of my favorite songs. So in my book the kids are alright…
(Picture taken in Nakano, Tokyo on September 15th, 2013)
This pretty cool kid, the Nakano Bicycle Defender from my work last year, was in the street outside my apartment playing with his friends. He let me go about my business, but made it very clear who the master of the asphalt was. And I had no choice but to respect that.
(Picture taken in Nakano, Tokyo on September 15th, 2013)
My friends took me to lunch today. We went to my favorite noodle and donburi shop…
The green tea was beautiful. I wanted to get in it like it was a hot onsen bath…
My favorite lunch is oyakodon. I had a giant bowl all to myself. I was very hungry…
After lunch, my friends went shopping. I went to see an old friend…
In Japantown, there is a beautiful concrete pagoda. We went to see it. The sky was very blue…
To help save forests, I read news online. This newspaper machine was a strange sight to me…
I am very green, so I picked up trash on the way home. San Francisco can be very dirty…
But I am relaxed now and home with my friends. We do yoga. It was a good day.
Sometimes Tokyo is the cigarette you toss
into an ashtray full of garbage and water.
Sometimes Tokyo is the restaurant
you pass by every day but never go in.
Sometimes Tokyo is toys you see in a school display
while walking from Nakano Station to Shinjuku.
(Pictures taken in Nakano-ku and Shinjuku-ku in April, 2012.)
Nakano Broadway can knock you the fuck out…
It is good here.
I like it.
These steps will be my loving home for a short while.
Am I waiting for my wife?
The moments pass, and all I can do is stare at the floor,
and glance at the skin on my legs that my cheap socks don’t cover.
I am as white as any gaijin.
I am as tired as any deposed emperor.
I am as gone as any test subject for a drug to aid euthanasia.
It is all quite good.
After I have snoozed for a bit and the spectres are done passing me,
I will find the yakitori bar where the ghosts of effervescent office gods gather.
And I will drink so much beer that
I vomit glorious rainbows upon my tired suit and cheap shoes.
Then I’ll catch a train home,
sleep on my floor,
and forget I was ever lonely or alive.
It is all quite good.
(Picture taken on the third floor of Nakano Broadway, Nakano-ku, Tokyo in April, 2012)
Anpanman and a bunny, dangling from a bike in the rain. The bike didn’t look discarded, but it didn’t look too well cared-for either. I imagined a happy child in the seat, riding in the sunshine with his father pedaling through warm air in a better part of town.
There are families in Sanya, of course, not just hopeless drunks and desperate men hiding from loan sharks and debt. But it is a hard place to casually walk through in the rain. The rain doesn’t seem to ever purge the place, even though there are reminders that children are around who have toys to make them happy.
(Photo taken in Sanya, Minami-senju, Tokyo in April, 2012)
These replica guns, in a Tokyo toy store, they bothered me.
But maybe they shouldn’t have.
After all, I’m an American.
(Pictures taken in Nakano Broadway in April, 2012.)
It was the Monday of Golden Week, and he was sitting quietly by himself playing with a puzzle-form toy at the end of a table on a sidewalk in Ueno. He reacted as if I had distracted him from the most important thing in the world, but also as if he was slightly bemused by my presence.
I was glad when he relaxed and smiled a little for me. During my infrequent adventures as a six-foot tall American in Tokyo, I have mostly seen kids get tense around me, which means they’re uncomfortable. Or they stare at me like a I’m a space alien in a human suit, which makes me uncomfortable. But this boy didn’t tense up or stare, so I thanked him profusely and sincerely in my broken Japanese for letting me take his picture.
Upon reflection, though, I wish he hadn’t flashed me the peace sign. Because I have since given it some thought and decided we Americans have not been too good about earning that salute lately.
(Pictures taken on April 30th, 2012 in front of Yamashiroya, an amazing toy store across from Ueno Station and very close to the Ameyokocho marketplace.)
I am midway between 48 and 49 and still enchanted with and charmed by toys. I suppose in a perfect world I would be over my love of toys by now. But I don’t want to live in that world.
Happiness is where you find it, even it it’s in a bit of plastic or vinyl molded to look like a non-existent creature. And when it comes to such toys, my greatest admiration is for the weird, whimsical and very Japanese toys designed by my personal heroes, the Devilrobots.
I just love their stuff. I have quite a bit of it here at the house, though modesty forbids posting pictures lest it be considered a vulgar display. I’ve been a fan for about 10 years, but Devilrobots have been around since 1997. I can’t quite remember exactly how I stumbled upon the toys and trinkets they design. But I do remember making a conscious effort to meet up with my heroes when I was in Tokyo in April and part of May this year. And, lucky me, on May 3rd, 2012 I got to travel to Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward and have a look inside the creative world of a small group of geniuses.
And I’d like to share that world with you. So have a look, and enjoy.
My host, Kotohiro Nishiyama, is really just the nicest man. That’s him in the picture below. Due to scheduling conflicts, Koto-san was the only team member who was able to meet me and let me look around Devilrobots’ headquarters. And he didn’t just meet me at the office like anyone else might have. He met me in the rain at Kagurazaka Station on the Tōzai Line and guided me to the Devilrobots’ building near Edogawabashi. He was such a gentleman, letting me wander around as I wished while he did some work in his office. And at one point we sat for a good spell at the Devilrobots’ coffee table (pictured later) and had some cigarettes and talked of toys and the time we both spent in Minnesota and some silly things I don’t exactly recall. His company was delightful and his hospitality was wonderfully generous. And he’d never even met me before.
After meeting Koto-san, well I went a little nuts and took pictures of almost everything I saw. And it started with this To-fu Oyako display right outside the Devilrobots’ front entrance.
Detail from the previous photo.
A beautiful assortment of wonderful characters greets you when you enter Devilrobots.
The reception area and lounge. No receptionist nor sign-in book here.
Marshmallow princess Maffy, my wife’s favorite character. This is to the right as you enter the Devilrobots’ front door.
The fully-loaded shelves of toys in the Devilrobots’ lounge will blow your mind.
And on the floor, there are Japanese-style To-fu Oyako slot machines.
Devilrobots have designed a whole menagerie of vinyl creatures and characters. The pink figure in the center is a To-fu Oyako x Gloomy Bear mashup.
A crazy-wonderful Devilrobots version of Mickey Mouse.
The entrance foyer, because I forgot to show this previously. Sorry. I got distracted.
The Devilrobots’ Jedi coffee and meeting table.
Just a trinket on the table which Koto-san showed me.
A prototype for the new To-fu Oyako color vinyl figure series.
To-fu vinyl and ice water await patiently for attention and consumption.
The two great Devilrobots characters, To-fu Oyako and Evirob, in vinyl on the table.
Koto-san and I, we had a few cigarettes together when I took a couple of breaks from taking pictures.
Koto-san looks a little like a Japanese Abraham Lincoln.
And except for the unhappy expression, this hirsute to-fu sculpture kind of looks like Koto-san.
To-fu Oyako happy figure madness.
To-fu Oyako “Toy Story” UFO catcher alien.
Devilrobot’s Medicom Toy 100% Be@rbricks. These are kind of rare. I’m lucky to have all three (the first one is the same as the third, but showing the back of the head.)
There is whimsy at every turn where the Devilrobots live.
In a snow globe of his own, lonely Kiiro-chan.
400% be@rbricks and other figures. Does the one on the left look familiar?
A prestigious award that lead designer Shinichiro Kitai won with his To-fu Oyako character in a design competition before founding Devilrobots in 1997. I would have met Shin-san but for the scheduling conflicts, both his and mine but mostly mine, mentioned earlier. I regret this missed opportunity, but I hope to compensate by meeting Shin-san the next time I’m in Tokyo.
Well, that’s it.
I shot a hell of a lot more photos than the ones you’ve just seen. But even the internet can only hold so much data. So I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief tour and commentary about my wonderful time visiting the Devilrobots.
(And Koto-san, from me to you I say thanks. Meeting up with you that afternoon in Shinjuku was one of the happiest experiences I’ve had in Japan.)
As usual, my buddy and I weren’t red carpet paparazzi, we were security.
It was the only time I could ever see her, ever get close to her.
She had her new beau on her arm tonight. It was my sworn duty to ensure their safety.
I’d lay down my life for her. I always would. I wanted her, would never again have her, and that’s just how it was.