When I visit Japan for neighborhood studies, I tend to set very specific location boundaries, time limits and objectives. I don’t have many opportunities to do this, so I try to maximize use of the time, though it means I inevitably miss out on spontaneous discoveries and the therapeutic value of wandering around with no particular goal. To break away from my routine a bit, for the better part of a sunny fall day I cleared out my schedule and turned plans over to photographer Lee Chapman, as he led me on a meandering walk across some of his favorite parts of Tokyo.
Lee is the creator of Tokyo Times, a long running series of vignettes of daily life in the capital, with the occasional rural town or haikyo (abandoned, derelict buildings) to mix things up. He lives outside the 23 wards on the west side of the metropolis, but loves the grit, older buildings and slower pace of Shitamachi (下町)—the lowlands in the northeast—often photographing Taitō, Sumida and Katsushika wards. Though we like exploring similar kinds of places, we have very different approaches to street photography. Lee calmly and patiently strolls, waiting for moving pieces to come together before lifting his camera, often just sneaking in just one quick shot before continuing on. Those unique moments in time become single image posts with efficient and elegant captions of no more than a few sentences explaining the context and feeling of those encounters. This emphasis on distraction-free focus and clarity is a hallmark of his style.
By contrast, I think of myself as Google Street View with a nicer camera and a little bit of post-processing. I shoot anything and everything, for better or worse, then try to make sense of all the images as I work through neighborhood history research back home. My intention is, to the extent possible, to capture the scene that exists within a space, as complex as it may be. I have reasons for why I do things the way I do, but I often think I ought to learn from Lee and be more present as I choose my moments, rather than scrambling around trying not to miss anything. I look to him as a role model, not just in taking thoughtful photographs, but in handling sensitive matters, such as homelessness, and responding gracefully to all manner of commentary on his work.
My morning had begun in Arakichō, so from Akebonbashi I take the subway Shinjuku Line to Kudanshita Station. From here I can pickup the Hanzōmon Line, which continues as through service on the Tōbu Skytree Line, taking me all the way to our meeting point at Hikifune Station.
While waiting at the Hanzōmon Line platform, I spot another foreigner queued up for the same train, with a Leica slung over his shoulder and hanging by the hip. For about a moment and a half, I figure he’s a tourist, then I realize it’s probably Lee as the train pulls up. I walk down the car until I find him and we exchange mutual Oh, I thought that was you.
Lee’s plan is to begin at Hikifune then work our way further out to a location he had recently discovered—something with ‘stone’ in the name. It turns out to be a funny coincidence, as I had stumbled on Tateishi with my daughter the summer prior and was already planning to go back on this trip.
We move quickly through the recent redevelopment around Hikifune Station and Keisei-Hikifune Station and into the older neighborhoods around Kyōjima. Lee enjoys framing shots that capture the contrast of these old buildings with Tokyo Skytree looming in the background.
The one and two story wooden residences and shop-houses, which grow fewer each year through demolition or simply rotting away from neglect, give the last glimpses of what these parts of Tokyo looked like fifty or sixty years earlier.
Corrugated metal was a cheap and quick way to get siding on a building, but was never meant to be used this long. Rust is a the dominant color in the palettes of older city neighborhoods and towns across Japan.
Tōbu Kameido Line
New steel, old steel
Shōwa era candy shop, with what looks like Shōwa prices
Lee periodically scours this shopping street, the Shitamachi Ninjo Kirakira Tachibana Shōtengai (下町人情キラキラ橘商店街), for interesting people and places.
As the shōtengai is quiet, we loop out to neighborhoods around it to allow time to pass before we return for another look.
I don’t typically have mobile internet access when I’m in Japan, so I tend to stick to areas I’ve mapped out ahead of time to avoid getting lost. For Lee, any path his feet can take him is in play. Sometimes getting lost is the whole point.
Housing stock in these neighborhoods is gradually being replaced, so you find many scenes like this, brand new apartments next to wooden shelters that have managed to remain upright through decades of repairs and reinforcement.
Lee smiles and points me forward as we approach the old buildings, shored up with corrugated metal. I had mentioned earlier that I like to photograph bicycles, showing how they are a ubiquitous part of the mobility landscape in cities, despite Japan’s lack of dedicated cycling infrastructure.
This isn’t quite what I had in mind, but it’s an interesting picture! Photographing in Shitamachi means to appreciate and embrace decay.
We try our luck a second time at the shōtengai. Lee spots an interaction in progress, but needs to wait for the players to come out of the shadows.
Things move at a gentler pace out here, so sometimes you have to wait a little while.
Then wait some more.
Lee shoots with a 35mm prime lens, so he often moves very close to the subject before squeezing the shutter and slipping away.
I’m not so brave, generally sticking to telephoto shots.
Lee and I talk about working with people’s reactions while shooting street photography. I usually try to avoid being noticed, preferring to capture the scene as it is. Lee aims to move in and out of a shot swiftly, but doesn’t mind direct responses to his presence when they happen, and looks forward to the great stares and glares we sometimes see on Tokyo Times.
I’m a quick study, though.
An alley cat hankering for a little affection sets its sights on two women engrossed in their smartphones.
It’s a formidable challenge, but the cat is undeterred.
A bicycle or two for every home
I’m not sure how this is still standing.
This is Lee’s favorite spot for framing Skytree. The dilapidated buildings are stark enough on their own, but the house being consumed by vines really completes the effect. Scenes like this don’t end up on post cards, which is part of why we like them.
It’s even got a bicycle.
Whenever Lee grins and picks up the pace a little, I know were getting close to another fun find he’d made on a previous outing.
You really can fix everything with duct tape—
—even a house.
We make one last pass through the shōtengai, which now has a few shoppers on the hunt for lunch.
We do the same and find a park nearby to sit and eat before we begin the next leg northeast.
The newer residential low-rise neighborhoods we pass through don’t have the same flavor as Kyōjima, but a few characters from the past try their best to hold on.
We make it to the embankment at the Arakawa River. I often write about these spaces, called dote (土手), as they’re a recurring setting used in anime, but this is the first time I’ve actually crossed one on foot. Dote are meant to provide flood protection to low lying areas in the event of an earthquake, but they double as commons and activity grounds. This is the Arakawa Yotsugi-bashi greenfield, which even has baseball diamonds.
The wind coming off the river is pretty fierce. We try not to get blown over the side or lose a camera as we cross the bridge.
Shuto Expressway Route C2
Things are quiet as we pass through Yotsugi on the other side, now in Katsushika Ward.
But we do find a haikyo. Lee admits that, though he’s curious to see what might be inside, he prefers not to explore haikyo in the middle of neighborhoods. Concerned neighbors or police on patrol could make your day more complicated than you anticipated. Most urbex hobbyists head to outskirts and rural areas, where abandoned structures are generally larger and more secluded.
After a bit more walking we eventually come up into Tateishi. Most of the shopping streets and alleys are clustered around Keisei-Tateishi Station. This is the Tateishi Nakamise Domosekai (立石仲見世共盛会).
Inside the arcade, one of the shop staff steps out to greet us and hands us glossy pamphlets. They’re marketing material produced by the shōtengai. Inside is a map of all the shops with a description of goods for each, a collection of photos showing off some of the displays and scenes from a busy day at the arcade. I’m impressed by how polished it is. Someone did an excellent job capturing the essence of the market and condensed it into a little package small enough to fit into my pocket.
While Nakamise is warm and lively, Lee wants to show me another enclosed space on the north side of the Keisei Oshiage Line tracks. It’s grimy, dilapidated and wonderful, but he tells me I have to come back after dark for the full effect. I’d later figure out this is Nonbe Yokochō (呑んべ横丁)—drunk alley. There are no pretensions here.
Like many things in this part of Tokyo, Nonbe looks like it was thrown up hastily after World War II and no one has felt any particular need to change anything about it.
Tateishi Eki-dōri Shōtengai (立石駅通り商店街) is another covered shopping street. This one comes right up to the train station entrance.
More open-air shopping streets on the north side of the tracks
We find an old man feedings stray cats.
Everyone who passes through stops to say hello to him. It seems to work out well for him and the cats.
Neighboring businesses are perhaps not as thrilled. Those spiked grids are a product called Cat Off. You can buy it at most 100 yen shops in this part of the city.
As the weather is so nice and we’ve still got energy, Lee and I decide to follow the tracks north until we get to the next station.
This brings us up into Aoto, which we find has more of a commuter lot feel.
Areas around the station that would be prime locations for shōtengai are mostly occupied with bicycle parking.
There are a few shopping streets, but things are quiet compared to where we had just left.
After a few loops we decide to leave the rest of Aoto for some other time. Lee hops on a train to return home while I think about how to wrap up the late afternoon and evening, but it has been a wonderful day for me, full of lessons that I would continue to absorb long after our time together.
Lee had mentioned by email that he really enjoyed shooting together as a way to meet others. I thought this would mean lots of photography shop-talk (considering the differential in our levels, more like a masterclass for me). While there was plenty of that, I found the real benefit of walking around had little to do with cameras and everything to do with having a shared experience. When I’m out exploring, my mind is naturally more receptive to new information. Because of this, I was able to register more of what Lee explained to me over the course of the day, both about our subject matter and himself. I hope I have the chance to learn more about how he sees the world on another walk down the road.
This post is part of The Tokyo Project, Volume 3. Click here to go to the introduction and table of contents.