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.)
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)
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)
I took about 70 photographs last year of men of the street in Shinjuku. And to put this in the least acerbic terms possible, of the eight different men I photographed over the course of a month this shoeshine man was the only one who was doing something upstanding and productive. Granted, I didn’t go to Shinjuku to shoot pictures of upright, normal citizens, but I want to make a public note of the respect I have for this old fellow. Sitting outside the world’s busiest train station and trying to make a living shining shoes can’t be an easy life.
Also I have to freely admit this fellow reminds me of an old Tokyo song, which I first heard in the ‘70s in the motion picture “M*A*S*H”…
(Picture taken on the west side of Shinjuku Station in September, 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)
It was a beautiful September day in Yushima, near the apartment complex where I lived in the ‘80s. I was standing on a street corner midway between Yushima Tenjin and Yushima Station, and this stylish lady walks by with her teeny dog, and that’s basically the whole story…
(Picture taken in Yushima, Tokyo in September, 2013)
It was a clothing store in the Ameyayokochō district in Ueno in April or May of 1988. I got my father to shoot this photo for two reasons: the obvious name of the shop; and memories of David Byrne’s big suit in the movie “Stop Making Sense”, which I’d seen in a South Street movie theater in Philadelphia four years before.
I went back to look for this shop twenty years later when my wife and I were on a 10-day vacation in Tokyo, but it was long, long gone. The memories and this picture remain, though.
(This image looks crummy because Costco does a rotten job of digitizing old Kodachrome slide images.)
For my mother, on her 72nd birthday…
This was 1988, in Tokyo, and my parents came to visit me. My mother was in her forties then, still vibrant and drinking from a cup that was full of the life of the world. I don’t know what happened. At the end of October I moved from Tokyo to my parents’ house in Maryland just outside the D.C. beltway, and everything turned to shit. Early in 1989 I tried, and failed, to get into Yale photography school, and my father’s alcohol abuse got so bad my mom and I had to force him into a rehabilitation hospital. The kind where you don’t wear jeans and a t-shirt, but a cotton robe and a printed plastic and paper wrist band. That was the beginning of a downward spiral that left my father functionally dead on his feet until his de facto death in 2008. In all those intervening years my mother was his muse, babysitter, lover, wife, and emotional triage for a man who took nearly two decades to die.
All those years killed her too, in a lot of ways. Emotionally, anyway. She’s dying for real now, of primary biliary cirrhosis. She continues to pray this hereditary disease does not strike me. So far, so good, my doctors say. Her doctors can’t seem to figure out how long she has to live. Another year or two, perhaps. My mother is resigned to her fate. She told me when I visited her in Dallas last year that life without my father has dried up of any happiness and meaning. They were married for 45 years. She said she has seen all she wants to see and done everything she wanted to do. “I’ve had a rich life,” she said to me. I have known since the day she told me she was dying about a year ago that her mind was made up and it was pointless to try to force her onto whatever liver transplant list her hospital maintains. Such is life. Its wildest variables are always other people.
So I don’t know if this is my mother’s last birthday, but it is her 72nd. I doubt she will ever see this, as my mom isn’t the most digitally wired of people. She has an iPhone but getting her to look at web links on the damn thing is hit and, mostly, miss. So I wanted to honor her a little, with images from some of the best of my days with her. In another place, on another planet, when my mom and I were both younger and had more of our lives ahead of us than we do today….
My mother in Uenohirokoji, not far from my apartment in Yushima.
Mom and me in my apartment in 1988. I wish I still had that Clash poster.
Mom’s red hair on the Imperial Palace Grounds, against a sea of Japanese schoolgirls.
Mom and me on the ground floor outdoor lobby of my apartment building.
I can’t remember where this is, possibly Ueno near Ameyayokochō.
Most of these images look like crap because Costco did a rotten job of digitizing these photographs from slides that my father shot. I’ve put my copyright on these images because, well, my dad is dead and these are my memories and streets and places. They’re mine.
Thanks, mom, for being an everlasting part of happy memories of the Tokyo that I love so well.
One fine, warm day in late September, I was in Akasaka, Tokyo, and I saw a couple of dogs. That’s basically it, except one was a teeny terrier and one was a large pit bull.
(Pictures taken in Tokyo in September, 2013)
It’s thirsty work, watching the world go by as it filters through Tokyo.
For your own good, and the good of your overall health, your really should leave it to the professionals.
(Pictures taken in Ueno Park near Shinobazu Pond, Tokyo in September, 2013)
And kept walking…
Then the doors closed and the train moved eventually into the elongated burrow that would take me to my transfer at Ōtemachi.
(Pictures taken in on the Tōzai Line, Tokyo in September, 2013)
He was leaning on a doorway frame of a building labeled ESPACE on Chuo Dori near Ueno Park. His left index finger was missing, and I wondered if his pocketed right hand was in even worse shape. He didn’t appear to have any of the physical features typical of dwarfism, but he stood a few inches short of five feet.
I wondered what he stared at, and how he saw it. How does life look on the hard streets of Tokyo filtered through the perspective of a digital handicap and a height disadvantage? Even if I had known enough Japanese to ask, I would have refrained. It would have been, I think, in bad taste to violate this man’s personal space and the quiet reserve and seeming disdain with which he silently stood and watched the world go by…
(Picture taken in Ueno, Tokyo in September, 2013. The title of this post is an allusion to this movie.)
It was a beautiful September day and the world was wide open and I was back in my old Tokyo, the places in Ueno where I spent so much time when I lived nearby in Yushima. The day was warm and I felt young and carefree again, in a place that created me as much as did the flawed swirls of DNA I inherited from my mother and father.
In the middle of the wide street, with the whole of the world’s greatest city before me, it was glorious this day and the women in passing were all goddesses…
(Picture taken on Chuo Dori, near the south end of Ueno Park, Tokyo in September, 2013)
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…
Asakusa near Sensō-ji on a warm and dry Sunday afternoon in October is one of the best places to be in the world. On this day, after a long and often furious rainy season, so many relaxed and smiling people were in Asakusa’s streets they seemed as uncountable as the stars.
And there were plenty of street performers, like this fellow, who kept the passing crowds continuously entertained while earning a bit of cash on the cuff. This guy’s shtick was plastic road cones, a fairly ubiquitous symbol of construction, progress, and inconvenience in Tokyo. As he chatted up the crowd, he prepared the cones…
And he kept talking as he positioned the cones above his face and established his balance…
Then it was done. It was, as most of the folks in the crowd probably knew, a foregone conclusion that he’d succeed. There’s no point in trying to make money this way if you aren’t quite good at it.
Still, it was a hell of a lot of fun to watch…
(Pictures taken in Asakusa, Tokyo on October 6th, 2013)
In Tokyo it is often hard to tell if someone is homeless, or merely down on both their luck and available resources. On a warm late summer day in Ueno Park, this man was sitting quietly by himself on several well-worn layers of salvaged cardboard. He wasn’t drinking, nor was he carrying on in any way. But the premature and uniform silver color of his hair and the symmetrical discolorations on his pant legs suggested that he had seen more prosperous days, and that he might be spending the night on the very spot where he was sitting.
But it is good that he was in Ueno Park in September. Ueno Park is usually safe and warm in September.
(Picture taken in Ueno Park, Tokyo in September, 2013. Also published on Scholars and Rogues.)
I am never full of
your hounded depression.
But I look down the streets,
hoping to find you.
But often I don’t.
Okay, I never do.
I never find you.
But I keep looking for you,
on these streets,
in the home of my mind,
(Pictures taken in Sanya (Nihonzutsumi) in September, 2013.)
(Picture taken in Nakano 5-chome, Tokyo in September, 2013)
If you live in Japan, I bet you’ve wondered what kind of batteries these things take.
(Picture taken in Nakano-ku, Tokyo near the Life store in September, 2013. This picture was previously published here.)
My brains are in great scarred depths,
and I am nothing without the Japanese people.
They are a certain kind of life to me,
which is helpful,
because I was born in their land.
I am of them, yet not of them.
I am my own thing, and not a thing.
I am a man, your man, if you’d like.
And we can wander around the park,
and feed the birds,
watch the children go home,
and make love with all our monkey breath
until the sun rises again on Shinobazu Pond
and we realize that,
maybe getting drunk and staying out all night
wasn’t the best idea we ever had.