Look at this unconventionally beautiful man, and what he was willing to share with my wife. We were at a festival at the Ohtori Shrine in Asakusa on a Tuesday…
We were strangers, foreigners to him, and that mattered for nothing. When I asked to take his picture, he agreed. Then he saw my wife and insisted she hold his shimekazari so that I could take a picture of her holding it…
The Japanese are often the most warm, generous people you will ever meet.
(Pictures taken in Asakusa, Tokyo in November, 2015)
In one of Haneda Airport’s cramped, hard-to-find smoking rooms, me and my fellow smoker quickly glanced at this advertisement. For me it really drove home how full of shit tobacco companies are. I can’t speak for the Japanese fellow. And in that moment at least, I couldn’t recall wanting a cigarette less in my life.
I really need to quit these damn things.
(Picture taken at Haneda Airport, Tokyo on November 20th, 2015)
Late on a Thursday morning, she was walking south on a street in Kichijoji that leads to broad steps down into Inokashira Park. She had style, but stood out because she was a little too made up, her hair a bit over-sculpted. But her fundamental beauty was unaffected, and was something to see in the bright Tokyo sun…
(Picture taken in Kichijoji, Tokyo on November 19th, 2015)
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)
One Saturday morning my wife and I were walking through Nakano Sun Mall on our way to Nakano Station. As we passed a ramen joint we saw a man sitting, looking dazed. He had blood around his nostrils, blood-smeared paper on his knee, and there was a woman standing near him speaking frantically into a smartphone.
Our guess was he’d gotten punched in the face after a night of drinking, but we’ll never actually know why we saw this odd scene…
(Picture taken in Nakano Sun Mall, Tokyo on November 7th, 2015)
I hadn’t been to Shinbashi since the late ‘80s, so I was delighted to be meeting a respected friend there for lunch on a Wednesday afternoon. And Shinbashi was what it has always been, a ground zero of sorts for Japanese salaryman life and culture.
But there were presences from another side of Japanese life, and I couldn’t help wondering if the rough-looking men in these photographs were once members of Tokyo’s business suit legions and how they might have fallen from those ranks…
(Pictures taken near the New Shinbashi Building in Tokyo on November 4th, 2015)
Yesterday there was a J-pop concert right in front of Nakano Sun Plaza. The singers were cute girls (ブラック DPG I think) but all the people in the audience were men. Including this guy, who looked ready for the beach and had band-aids on his nipples for reasons I cannot fathom…
(Picture taken in Nakano, Tokyo on November 2nd, 2015)
When I lived in Tokyo in the late ‘80s, the Japanese didn’t pay Halloween any attention at all. However, in the years since they’ve embraced the holiday to some degree, as you can see in the image below and in a collection of my pictures here.
Being on Tokyo’s streets for Halloween was delightful, and the only trick I had to deal with was a tout in Kabukichō asking me if I wanted a sex massage.
(Pictures taken on the Yamanote Line near Sugamo, Tokyo on Halloween, 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)
I was passing through Los Angeles on my way to Tokyo. As I was waiting in line to board my Delta flight, I saw this beautifully frumpy old man. And when I saw the yarmulke, I knew, so I left my place in the queue to approach him.
I said “Are you a rabbi?”
“Yes,” he said.
“May I photograph you?”
He didn’t say anything, but lifted his arms up wide in a gesture of acceptance and agreement.
I shot a couple of pictures of him, and when he saw that I was finished he asked me if I was Jewish.
“No, rabbi, but I respect your faith.”
“Respect is enough,” he said, then added “I am eighty-one years old.”
I didn’t respond, but his comment made me wish my own father had lived that long.
By then the Delta staff were about to close the departure gate, so I left the rabbi sitting where he was and hoped he realized I wasn’t rude but just late.
(Picture taken at Los Angeles International Airport on October 26th, 2015)
We are uniform.
We are precise.
We will take you for a drive,
and it will be very nice.
(Picture taken at Haneda Airport, Tokyo on October 26th, 2015)
I had just walked from Yushima and was nearly to Shinobazu Pond when I saw this guy and his overflowing and disorganized-looking cart. Both of us, along with a young couple, were waiting for the light to change so we could all cross Shinobazu Dori into Ueno Park.
After we crossed the street, I followed cart man out of curiosity. We ended up at a public restroom, which I stopped to use. But cart man kept going, so I lost him after I finished my private business.
I could’ve kicked myself for having three vending machine cans of royal milk tea for breakfast.
(Pictures taken in Ueno, Tokyo in late September, 2013)
In 1987, Yushima was my first home of my own.
Yushima was the surgeon that injected Tokyo into the marrow of my bones.
In Yushima I was a free man of movement,
isolated by my eyes and skin and falling in love with people who wouldn’t speak to me.
Tokyo did more than my father to make me who I am.
Yushima was where I slept well, sometimes in a love hotel,
dreaming of the lives I’d lived in Japan decades before I was born.
I’ll be back in Tokyo soon, and I will go see Yushima.
I’ll take a bento to the temple, the way I used to do.
I will eat while I try to sense if the Zen acolyte ghosts I once knew still linger
and are willing to speak to me again.
(Picture taken at Yushima Tenjin, Tokyo in September, 2013)
But sometimes when I was in their bar they fought with each other. Hell, when I took the picture below she even whacked me upside the head…
(Pictures taken in Nihonzutsumi, Tokyo in September, 2013)
On this day in Tokyo two years ago, I stumbled across a little bar in Nakano-ku 5-chome called Freedom. It was a wondrous little place. Finding it and having a couple of beers there made the day one of the best I ever had in Japan.
I intend to revisit Freedom when I’m back in Tokyo in about a month. I hope it’s still there. I want to see mama-san again, and buy her a beer…
(Pictures taken at Freedom in Nakano 5-chome in 2013)
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)
“During my first-contact away mission to Planet Tokyo, I captured many images such as this which clearly show the sentient species native to this planet have invented and regularly utilize many advanced technologies. Here a young female prepares to obtain a form of encapsulated liquid refreshment from a beverage replicator installed on a public linear transportation platform. As local temperatures at the time were uncomfortably elevated, but still within parameters acceptable for this species, it was only logical that the young female would wish to cool herself before boarding the next available public linear transport. These transports are admirable for their punctuality and speed, but when crowded have rather poor interior cooling capabilities.”
“Thank you, Mr. Spock.”
(Picture taken at Nakano Station, Tokyo in September, 2013. 長寿と繁栄を.)
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)