I had never hoped to convince you
of my place as a giant in this world.
I appear as a dumpy man, a man of spent substance,
and I hide in plain sight amongst Tokyo’s Sunday multitudes.
There is a kangaroo on my head, and I’ve never even fucking been to Australia.
I pass as so many gods do, looking down at the pavements of man.
Humans have built a crust encasing the earth
and they think I can’t punch through it
and swim like an effortless dolphin through the mantle
down to the planet’s core where I was incubated and born.
And that’s okay, really, it’s fine.
You took Jesus, Buddha, and Muhammad for granted,
and they actually told you all who they were.
I am, at the very least, a god of all Tokyo’s streets
but I won’t make the mistake of revealing myself.
You wouldn’t believe me anyway.
There are more of us in the Tokyo city limits than you might think.
Men seemingly of little actuality and no style
wearing Western baseball caps and Velcro Nike shoes,
sparring with their wives over pension money
and how much shōchū they can drink before izakaya curfew at midnight.
Anyway, that’s enough about me, but you asked.
I’m standing here smoking because I like it.
It won’t kill me.
In fact, the smoke I suck in, process, and exhale
is more pure and sweet than the delivery room air you first breathed
inside whatever hospital in which you were born.
I shot these photos on the same day, within minutes of each other in the Golden Gai section of Shinjuku. And in the 20 months since then, it only just now occurred to me that the nice man in the second picture resembles the cartoon troll figure in the first picture. Weird.
I hope this pleasant-seeming fellow isn’t offended if he ever sees this visual comparison…
(Pictures taken in Golden Gai, Shinjuku, Tokyo in September, 2013)
The younger man, calm and still, in the more traditional garb of a rickshaw puller. And the older man, speeding along, dressed in more-or-less modern street fashion…
(Picture taken in Asakusa, Tokyo in October, 2013)
In Sanya there is, in fact, warmth in the shaded gutters and thermal uplift from cans of varying liquors.
And if the sky is clear on a given day or not, the blue streets can take its place, and one can soar in them, as this man seemed to do in whatever happy reverie put peace and contentment on his face…
(Pictures taken in Sanya (Nihonzutsumi), Tokyo in September, 2013)
Dedicated to my wife Michele, to whom I have been married for 15 years as of today, and who lived and inspired this story and so many others in my heart’s yet unwritten library…
The old timers had been going there for over one hundred years, and I was finally back after more than twenty.
It was Kamiya Bar, in the Asakusa part of Tokyo, and in 2008 it was the oldest western-style bar in the city. Western as in high ceilings, with wood-veneer wall panels, chrome light fixtures and those patterned tin ceiling tiles you see in old saloons in Tombstone, Arizona or Virginia City, Nevada.
But I don’t mean it also had brass spittoons and buffalo horns on the walls. Kamiya Bar is western in contrast to the small izakayas and tatami-mat sake parlors scattered all throughout Tokyo. The main drinking room is more like a European beer hall, with elongated tables often shared by strangers. Condiment stations and menu holders are placed on the tables the way they would be in a typical American diner. Everyone wears Western clothing, and foreigners are not only a common sight, the Japanese welcome them quite warmly.
Sometimes in unexpected ways.
I had been dreaming of returning to Tokyo for many years. I was a bachelor here, fresh out of university, working for an American company for a few months shy of two years. During the course of our relationship I had told my wife many stories of the happiness I had found here. So we had decided, six months before this day, to pool our resources and use her frequent-flier miles to take a grand 11-day trip to Tokyo and my old haunts.
Which included, of course, Kamiya Bar.
And actually, this was our second visit to the place. We had come to Asakusa a few days before to see the temple and do some shopping. My wife was utterly charmed with Asakusa and its more traditional appearance and overall feel. Before leaving Asakusa that day, I wanted to show her Kamiya Bar, where we had many drinks and several plates of excellent fried potatoes. Most of the food in the drinking rooms is western-style. Most of the drinks are large mugs of Asahi Beer and small, elegant glasses of denki bran, a luscious, fragrant brandy made and served exclusively by the bar.
On our first visit, my wife and I had a smaller table to ourselves along the wall of the main drinking room. This visit I wanted to go to the bar before she was done with her shopping. When I got there, the place was very crowded and I ended up sitting at a table with an elderly Japanese man in the smaller front drinking room. Our table touched another where a middle-aged Japanese couple were seated.
At first I thought all three of them were together, from the way they were talking and being friendly to each other. Empty food plates on the seam between the two tables made it look like these had been shared. Because of my perception, I used my poor Japanese to defer to the elderly man when asking if I could sit at his table with all three people.
It turned out the middle-aged couple spoke some English. So while the old man waved me to a chair without batting an eye, he spoke through the middle-aged lady who told me I was welcome to sit with them. There were many empty beer mugs and denki bran glasses on the tables, and I have often wondered since how much of a factor they played in the wonderful hour which was to come.
When you first enter Kamiya Bar, you have to buy drink tickets at the front counter before taking a seat. In addition to the shopping bags which were now tucked behind my chair, I had tickets for two large beers and two denki brans, which I placed on the table in front of me. That’s how it works: the waitress comes by, takes the tickets you’ve put out, and then comes back with your drinks. For subsequent rounds, you just put your cash on the table, and the waitress replaces the drinks you’ve had with fresh ones.
I had just gotten my beer and brandy when the middle-aged couple asked me some of the standard questions. Where was I from? How did I like Japan? I told them that I used to come to Kamiya Bar when I was a young man many years ago, and this made them delightfully surprised. The old man asked the lady what I had said, and when she told him he nodded approvingly at me and raised his glass to the one I had just picked up. When our glasses clinked, we drank and he nodded again. Then he put another bite of fried potato and croquette into his mouth.
For the next few minutes, the middle-aged couple and I talked, with the lady translating for the old man and I when we had questions for each other. Although far better than my Japanese, her English was not that great, but here is what I learned:
The couple were married, but lived separately during most of the month because he had to stay in a company dorm for his job in Tokyo. The lady and their children stayed at the family home far outside the city. The couple and the old man did not know each other, had only met that very afternoon at the tables we now occupied. I had thought the old man was a father or elderly uncle, but the lady said no. And the old man was a veteran of World War II. He had served the emperor.
By this time my wife had arrived, and I tucked her packages and shopping bags behind my chair with mine. In busted English and broken Japanese, my wife, the married couple, and the old man managed to introduce themselves. The lady and I further summarized for my wife the conversation she had missed before arriving. My wife was very taken by the fact that the old man had served in the war.
She asked the lady what the old man had done in the war, something she and I both wanted to know. The lady asked the old man, but he apparently wanted to dodge the question. I watched him as he spoke, and he didn’t show any shame or embarrassment that I could see. He acted like a man who had happier things on his mind and didn’t want anything but light-hearted talk to carry our little drinking session forward. Through the lady he said, while smiling, that he preferred not to say. That settled it for me.
Then the waitress happened by and the old man ordered another round of beer and brandy for our group. The drinks arrived a minute later, and he pushed his pile of cash yen towards the waitress. I motioned for my cash, to place it with the old man’s, but he gently patted my hand down and away from his money. He was buying, and that settled that for us.
As we reached for our drinks, my wife asked the lady to tell the old man that her father had served in the U.S. Army during the war. It hadn’t occurred to me to mention that, but it did not surprise me that my wife did. After the lady spoke to the old man, he looked at my wife and seemed to beam at her. A very warm look. He then touched glasses with my wife as he had with me earlier, and toasted the rest of the table. He noticed that I was looking at his fried potato and croquette and offered me his plate. I was so full of beer by then I had no room for his kind offer. He smiled at this after the lady passed it on to him.
And as we had asked him, the old man asked my wife what her father had done in the war. Through the lady, my wife said her father had been an airplane mechanic but that he really didn’t like to talk about his role in the war very much either. The old man nodded and smiled at this. And perhaps it was the beer, but I suddenly noticed, except for the almond eyes and the lack of a mustache, my wife and I could have been sitting at this table with her father. Both men were the same age, about the same build, and favored long-sleeved dress shirts with sweater vests. At least that is what our Japanese old man was wearing, along with a grey wool driving cap.
And again maybe it was the beer and brandy but for the rest of our little drinking session I could sense real warmth between my wife and the old man. He bought another round of drinks for the table, and another plate of croquette which I agreed to share with him. He seemed pleased that no one had to suggest I put tonkatsu sauce on my food. Upon noticing, I asked the lady to tell the old man that all properly-trained gaijin know the value of tonkatsu sauce on croquette. The lady, her husband and the old man got a chuckle out of this. It made me happy to make them happy.
By this time about an hour had passed, and the old man announced that he had to go home and get some sleep. He had to spend the day with his grandchildren tomorrow. It was only six in the evening, but he got up and reached for the grey suit coat on the back of his chair. He had one arm into one sleeve, and seemed to be struggling with the rest of the process, when my wife quickly reached up and helped him into the suit coat. When the old man reached for his overcoat, my wife stood and helped him on with that.
For her help, the old man bowed to my wife and reached his hands to shake hers. My wife took the old man’s hands into both of hers and kissed them as the old man bowed a little extra bow to her. The kiss ended quickly, and my wife looked up smiling at the old man. He in turn was smiling at me as we reached out with single hands and shook. He had one of the most confident grips I have ever felt.
The drinking session had ended.
The middle-aged couple said they had to go as well. My wife and I were bone-tired and a bit tipsy. We decided to leave Kamiya Bar and head back to our vacation rental across town in Nakano to regroup before planning the rest of our evening. We ended up staying in, having a snack dinner from the local combini and good beer and sake from a store called Life. We didn’t regret staying in, for we still had a few nights left in Tokyo. And one night out in Tokyo can often be worth two or three in any major western city.
But we didn’t go back to Kamiya Bar, though we talked about it. Even if we had, there probably would have been little chance of seeing the old man or the middle-aged couple again. I did give the couple our address and phone number with instructions to call us and stay with us if they travel to the States. But it has been seven years now and my wife and I have not heard from them. That’s okay. We have already made plans to return to Tokyo this year.
But I have thought often about the old man since we returned from that trip, and I think of the bond he and my wife seemed instantly to share. I found it beautiful, but still don’t quite understand it. But I have never been a daughter, or the child of a war veteran, so perhaps real comprehension of this will always elude me.
But from my point of view it doesn’t matter, because I know this:
I don’t care what the old man did in the war, if he was a medic, a cook, a commando, or a pilot who strafed Pearl Harbor. For a short time he was our benefactor and our friend. And he was Japanese and we were Americans and it was Kamiya Bar.
(This story was written in 2010, although the photos are from 2008. Uh, except the first photo, that’s from 2013. Kamiya Bar was undergoing some changes last time I was there. I’m looking forward to seeing these changes with my wife in November, 2015. Published concurrently on Scholars and Rogues. Kampai, kids.)
All the wide happy and the scattering crowds,
these are which I watch over.
For I am police, I am law.
It is good I do this,
for there is no better humble god of justice
than me when I am on duty.
In Tokyo we have guns,
for we are police and
they are subtle extensions of sword
and I see them as
metals from repurposed katana
beaten into tiny rocket-spitting machines.
Musashi used guns.
I read this once in torn manga-page literature.
To me this brings honor to the idea,
and grinds nothingness into fine subtlety.
For if you can kill disbelief,
you can kill injustice.
When this is done
my work will be over,
I will no longer need to be police.
I would like to put myself out of a job,
I would like to always go fishing
in the Sumida River
and hook all the gold rings the yakuza ever dropped into it.
It would be a good thing to be with my son every day,
to know I will never need a gun to protect him.
To never need updated training
on the best American ways to shoot people in the head.
But these times are not here yet.
So I will guard you,
and you will love me for it,
and I will love you back because you give me purpose and honor.
(Picture taken in Asakusa, Tokyo in October, 2013. Published concurrently on Scholars and Rogues.)
I watched him. He watched me…
Then he yawned, and the boredom spreading radially out from him was like a superhero power which placed into my mind the compulsion to walk away…
The old men in Tokyo always catch you in the lie you tell yourself that you’ll never become one of them.
(Pictures taken at Nakano Station, Tokyo in October, 2013)
A cheap and well-stocked vending machine alcove on the streets of Shinjuku near Golden Gai…
(Picture taken in Tokyo, Japan in September, 2013)
I once tripped through these lands like a god,
like the pure embodiment of all the liquor
the Allies ever drank in Tokyo.
It is quiet here now,
and the Americans are gone,
but I know these streets.
They are masters and servants to me.
In the daytime, the vampires are hiding,
(well, most of them)
even though I know where they lay.
At night they will be back here,
disguised as young salarymen,
and high school girls in vocational school,
and tourists from Russia and France.
I will know their minds and their innocent evils,
and I will keep watching until the sun and the train schedules
drive them from the streets back to their lairs.
They spoke heatedly, passionately, and didn’t seem to care who heard them. Overall she didn’t seem happy with him and he seemed frustrated by whatever she said. But it really didn’t matter, because it was a steamy-hot September day in Shinjuku, which made all of Tokyo cranky, so nobody passing nearby paid them any attention anyway…
(Pictures taken in Golden Gai in Shinjuku, Tokyo in September, 2013)
It was a sweltering day in Shinjuku, the sort of day where the hot, heavy air doesn’t much want to move out of your way, and seems to resent it when you push it aside to pass by. Days like this in Tokyo can suck the energy out of you, and the man obviously needed a rest.
The people passing by didn’t bother him just as he wasn’t bothering them, for the sidewalk was wide. There was an equilibrium in this, and a kindness which it is sometimes surprising that Tokyo is willing to provide…
In passing, quiet moments, when tobacco takes you its lover….
…maybe you think about all the furrows in fields you’ve never sown, all the gorgeous richness you’ll never see…
…and you puff on a tube of leaf, it is good Tokyo leaf and came at great cost…
…but it jackhammers into you that it won’t fill your belly, and maybe that’s okay because it is hard to care anyway.
(Pictures taken in Golden Gai, Shinjuku, Tokyo in September, 2013)
The kid was young, like “Why aren’t you in school?” young. Twenty years ago I would have assumed he was, with his modest black suit and schoolboy backpack, just out of university and starting a salaryman career path with a good company. That isn’t a safe assumption in Japan anymore. Maybe that’s why the kid looks so uptight.
(Picture taken in front of Trattoria Il Fornello, Nakano-ku, Tokyo in September, 2013)
The edge of your seat
Is where my property line begins.
It’s crowded here in Tokyo,
A year in ghost time is one second to us.
Since my husband retired,
And my children grew and moved away,
I don’t have anywhere to go really now.
So some days I come down here to the crosswalk.
I shuffle back and forth over it a few times,
The wide expanse of asphalt,
Just to feel how spacious this city can be.
(Picture taken at Nakano Station, Tokyo in September, 2013)
It has been a shitty year.
My beloved father-in-law died, my “Tokyo Panic Stories” book is WAY behind schedule, my chronic depression got particularly aggressive during numerous week-long periods, I made a few enemies online and in the town where I live, I drank and smoked too much, I exercised too little, and during November and December my wife and I have been sharing a real mucous festival of a respiratory virus, while I developed a painful tooth abscess that recently required a root canal.
So, like the seemingly impatient man in the photograph, I can’t wait for this 2014 train to stop and the doors to slide open so I can jump the hell off of it onto the platform for 2015. And I don’t exactly know where the 2015 train is going, but I am sure I will see my 51st birthday, and the publication of “Tokyo Panic Stories”, and continued love and support from my wife, and Tokyo.
Yep, I will see those things and knowing this maintains my optimism and hope. I’m not sure of the exact how or when on Tokyo yet, but I know I will soon see those things too…
(Picture taken on the Yamanote Line in Tokyo between Takadanobaba and Shibuya in September, 2013)
When I first moved to Tokyo in mid February, 1987 I stayed in the Akasaka Yōkō Hotel. My room there was a fine little place, and I stayed in it at my company’s expense for about a month until I found my own apartment in Yushima.
I hadn’t seen my first “home” in Japan since I moved out of it in late March, 1987. So the last time I was in Tokyo in 2013, I made a point of going to Akasaka to see the place for the first time in over 26 years. It was still nice, still monolithic and rust orange-red.
And I didn’t go inside the hotel, but I lingered in front of it for awhile and admired the occasional pretty girl passing by it like I used to do when I was a much younger man.
(Pictures taken in Akasaka, Tokyo in September, 2013)
I am so fond of Ameyayokochō, a place in Tokyo where I spent a lot of time in my twenties. It is so vibrant, metal blue, and beautiful, full of the street-level life and kinetic personal frenzies that are the very blood pumping through Tokyo’s many mythological hearts…
(Picture taken in Ameyayokochō, Ueno, Tokyo in September, 2013)
Tokyo changes so rapidly. Parts of it, anyway. Although this photograph of Ameyayokochō on a Tuesday afternoon is from April, 2012, it could well have been taken in 2002. or 1992, or 1982, or….well, you get the idea.
(Picture taken in Ameyayokochō, Ueno, Tokyo in April, 2012)
The tiny neighborhood bars and watering holes distributed throughout Tokyo are probably as numerous as the stars on a clear night in the Himalayas. Perversely, they’re often the kinds of places that are easy to miss, at least in the daytime, even if a given joint is open when one happens to walk by.
But sometimes one can pass a Tokyo bar, even a run-down looking place, and feel strangely drawn to it somehow. Something about it catches the eye, perhaps the way it’s painted or how the bar’s name is displayed on the street. And suddenly one finds oneself walking into the joint even if one wasn’t originally in the mood for a drink.
Freedom in Nakano 5-chome is that kind of place, an unassuming little neighborhood bar that doesn’t look like much on the outside, but had an allure that made going inside an unexpected but rich Tokyo experience…
Freedom is on the eastern edge of Nakano 5-chome, near a place called Kitano Shrine. The combination of its severely-faded blue color, arched window, and the liquor bottles on the curb made the building stand out.
The katakana and phone number were missing from the front of the building, revealing the more vibrant color the place used to be and begging the question as to whether Freedom was actually still named Freedom.
But once inside, the outside didn’t matter much. Even to a foreigner with very limited Japanese, the folks in Freedom were warm and welcoming. Mama-san, the owner, is the lady laughing.
One of her customers, a garrulous and inquisitive older fellow, was quick with questions in limited English about California. And with the universal sign that he was Japanese and posing for a picture.
Mama-san showed obvious pride in her place, and it showed in the service she provided.
As to the interior of Freedom, it was like being in an artist’s teeny world where the artist serves up booze as a way of saying thanks for visiting.
With the front door open and light from an overcast sky seeping through it and the window, Freedom had a comfortable, glowing beauty within that a photograph almost can’t convey.
Mama-san enjoyed her place and her customers. One got the impression that her customers were more than regulars, but friends on whom she relied not only for income, but also for a reason to even own and run a bar in the first place.
Along almost an entire wall there was a more fiery interpretation of Mount Fuji than one typically sees. It was obviously Freedom’s visual centerpiece.
Even while relaxing with a beer, Mama-san paid warm attention to everyone in her bar, even those shooting flash pictures while barely being able to speak Japanese.
Freedom had little artistic flourishes almost everywhere, from the walls…..
….to the various objet d’art which contributed to Freedom’s quirky beauty.
But the true quality of a Tokyo bar begins and ends with the people one meets there. And judging by the folks at Freedom, it was a rather exceptional place.
Freedom is the kind of place one is glad to have found, and feels reluctant to leave. Freedom and the little places like it throughout Tokyo are showcases for the kind of hospitality for which the Japanese are famous, and for their often-overlooked friendliness and warmth.
In a sense, one hasn’t really discovered Tokyo, or Japan, until one finds one’s own kind of Freedom.
(Photographs taken in Nakano 5-chome, Tokyo in September, 2013. Published concurrently on Scholars and Rogues. In addition, I am proud to say Japan Subculture Research Center published a shorter version of “Tokyo Freedom” on Christmas Day, 2014.)
No big deal
just the passing of time
and a flesh suit
going for cigarettes
while I hang back and watch.
Normally I’m the ghost in him.
But today he left me behind
so that I could watch the street
when he gets back
I will once again
meld my ghostly membranes to his meat frame
so I can make him remember who he is
and we can be whole again.
(Pictures taken in Sanya (Kiyokawa 2-chome), Tokyo in September, 2013)
Vice is stationary, and those living life are free to stop or pass by it as they please….
I don’t really go in for pachinko. I love the machines (I wish I owned one), but I think the game itself is pretty boring. Nevertheless this pachinko joint, part of the Kokusai Center chain in Tokyo, has always been a welcome sight to me. The streets around it always bustle with life, and when I see it I know I am close to the temporary home I periodically rent in Tokyo…
(Pictures taken in Nakano 5-chome, Tokyo in late September and early October, 2013)
One day in Tokyo, I decided to walk from Sanya (Nihonzutsumi) to Tokyo Skytree. To do that, I had to cross a bridge from Taitō-ku into Sumida-ku, specifically Mukōjima. Well on the way there I discovered a fishing pond, and it was one of most surreal and odd things I’ve ever encountered in Tokyo…
(Pictures taken in Mukōjima, Tokyo in September, 2013)
My father-in-law died recently. His memorial was only a few days ago. And while I was editing some photos of that event, I decided I needed a mental break and began looking at some of my photographs of Tokyo. This is just a natural instinct to me. And it is very comforting to know that the happy place to which I look for comfort in my mind remains a real place to which I will one day return.
But for now, this brief photo tour of Nakano Ward, where I find even the mundane to be lovely, will have to do…
(Pictures taken in Nakano-ku, Tokyo in mid-September, 2013)
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…
(Picture taken in Nakano-ku, Tokyo in September, 2013)