It was a dark morning in Tokyo and had been raining for most of the night. On my way to a Ministop convenience store to buy some natto maki and an egg salad sandwich for breakfast, I spotted this kid who was dragging a huge cooler through the rainy streets.
We were headed the same way so I ended up following him for several hundred yards. Pulling the cooler while juggling the umbrella and huge shoulder bag made the kid stop a few times to redistribute and manage his burdens. Finally while passing a small park he stopped long enough for me to take his picture. I was also going to offer to help him schlep the cooler to wherever he was going.
But when he saw me as I snapped this photograph he barked a string of Japanese words which included “no way” and “foreigner”, and I knew immediately that there was no point in trying to offer my help.
(Hydrangea Park, Nakano, Tokyo 2015)
Just a couple of guys peddling traditional wares to passersby at the Tori no Ichi (rooster) fair in Asakusa’s Senzoku district…
(Asakusa 4-chome, Tokyo 2015)
He was smiling his way through Takadanobaba Station on Halloween, a night that’s crazy in Tokyo. The Yamanote Line crowd was a thick slurry of rush hour commuters and partiers in transit. His white cane made his blindness obvious. That and the cardboard mikoshi on his head made him stand out. His face held joy and purpose, and what he was doing took guts. I felt respect for him, and hoped his Halloween was happy…
(Takadanobaba Station, Tokyo 2015)
They moved and talked the way old Japanese ladies often do, a bit hunched over but with animation and purpose. The sidewalk was crowded with people, most of them heading to a nearby Asakusa shrine for a ‘rooster’ day street market fair. But these ladies kept walking and talking, focused on intently each other, protected by that particularly Japanese force field which prevents anyone on a Tokyo sidewalk from getting in their way.
(Asakusa, Tokyo 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.
(Golden Gai, Shinjuku, Tokyo 2015)
In Asakusa at Kamiya Bar (神谷バー) you never know who you might meet. My wife and I were drinking there one night last November with an Australian friend and her Japanese husband. The tables in Kamiya Bar are packed closely together, so we couldn’t help notice that the people at the next table were having a hell of a good time.
I took a chance and asked if I could photograph them. They happily agreed.
The fellow in the hat seemed to be the leader, or at least he was paying for most the drinks. He was particularly friendly, so I asked for his photograph as well. He smiled and agreed. I got up from my chair and prepared to take a few shots.
But as I did my Australian friend pulled me close and said quietly into my ear “Careful, Dan, those guys are dangerous.”
“What do you mean?” Then I thought for a second and it dawned on me.
“Yakuza?” I said.
She pursed her lips and nodded, then let me go about my photographic business.
When I finished I sat at our table and spoke again quietly with my Australian friend.
“How do you know they’re yaks?”
She said “I used to work as a secretary for a Shinjuku real estate rental company. When they hired me, I just thought they wanted a white foreign girl who could speak fluent Japanese.”
Then she lowered her voice to an almost inaudible whisper. Whispers are almost impossible to hear in Kamiya Bar, but we managed.
She said “After a few years, I figured out yakuza owned the company. I was working for yakuza. They were in and out of where I worked all the time. So I know them. Those are low-level guys, but they’re still dangerous.”
She had lived in Japan for 18 years, and I trusted her implicitly. Yet her concern didn’t match the friendly, easy-going vibe I felt from the table next to us. I didn’t feel threatened, but I also didn’t want to keep imposing my camera upon yakuza having drinks. So I shot one last photo of them, thanked them in the best horrible Japanese I could manage, and rejoined my wife and our friends at our table.
After that we drank more beer and laughed, and even had a denki bran or two. I looked over at the yakuza every few minutes or so, raising my glass to them when they noticed me. I was happy I had met them, intrigued when my Australian friend told me what they were, and overjoyed that I was with my wife and my friends at Kamiya Bar.
(Asakusa, Tokyo 2015)
She was shuffling around Nakamise Dori, the shopping boulevard that leads to Sensō-ji in Asakusa. She touched a lot of elbows trying to speak to people who pulled away and ignored her. This did not phase her. She kept moving through the crowd, sizing up the passersby with a laser-sharp focus that seemed to cut through the communal illusion that we are all okay and everything will be fine…
(Asakusa, Tokyo 2015)
In SL Square outside Shimbashi Station in Tokyo, there’s an outdoor smoking area cordoned off by a low wall and decorative metalwork. There’s no point in wasting words here on social commentary. The photograph tells you everything you need to know…
It’s Children’s Day in Japan. So here are some children, in Tokyo, Japan. And what I wish for them is that they grow into happy adults living in a better world than the one we’re currently destroying. But the older I get the more likely it seems that they’ll end being some kind of global janitorial guild charged with cleaning up our mess.
Or maybe they’ll have to give up and terraform Mars…
Nakano 5-chome ↑
Nakano 5-chome ↑
Minami-senju Station ↑
Hanazono Shrine, Shinjuku ↑
Akagi Shrine, Kagurazaka ↑
Yamashiroya, Ueno ↑
Takadanobaba Station, Tōzai Line ↑
(Tokyo, Japan, October & November 2015)
Just a Tokyo kid being a kid, on a rainy day when a frog slicker and a superhero mask made perfect sense within the context of the ever-changing job descriptions that children constantly write for themselves…
(Nakano 5-chome, Tokyo, April 2012)