johnliddlephotography

Frozen moments from the infinity that is time


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Hamamatsucho Pier

Whilst the opening shots for this post may create the impression of a rural fishing village, that is not the case. The shots were taken around Hamamatsucho Pier in the heart of Minato, a densely populated city within the greater Tokyo metropolis and only a short walk from the Tokyo World Trade Centre.

Curiosity created the shots and this post. When visiting Tokyo I have always chosen accommodation near Japan Rail’s Yamanote Line for ease of travelling around, as well as travel on the line being included within the JR Rail Pass. Each time I travelled on the line I would catch a glimpse of boats moored in a canal near the Hamamatsucho Station and curiosity eventually got the better of me.

As can be seen from the shots, the vessels are mainly pleasure cruise boats and fishing boats and serve as a reminder of Tokyo’s extensive system of waterways. To find a little community such as this nestled within Minato, which is host to many embassies and corporations, also demonstrates Tokyo’s ability to (seemingly) effortlessly accommodate the diverse needs of its population.

As I spent time within this microcosmic environment, I was impressed by its calmness despite the reality of it being enveloped by infrastructure. This can be seen at pic 7, which I’ve titled “Infrastructure aplenty”. First of all we can see a canal system supporting water-based transport and commercial activity. Running across the shot at mid-level, one can see a train crossing over the canal. Not just any train, but a Shinkansen (bullet train) capable of travelling at speeds in excess of 350kph and arguably the epitome of state-of-the art train travel. For the record, regular trains also cross the canal. Finally, running above the canal is an elevated toll road carrying motor vehicle traffic. With so much infrastructure and technology within one frame, we gain a glimpse of how Tokyo works around the constraint of space. Notice also the softening effect of the greenery along the sides of the canal and the creeping plant softening the look and integrating nature with the built environment.

One may argue over the beauty of the aesthetics, though I don’t think there can be much argument over the beauty of how the various infrastructure elements combine to help a giant metropolis run smoothly.

(Please click on any of the following images for an enlarged view.)


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Crossing Paths

Perhaps the greatest joy of travelling is the opportunity to meet new people. Even though most meetings are short and one-time occasions, they nevertheless leave an impression that stay with us long after we return home.

In this post I show some of the people I met or encountered on my visits to Japan. Most images were shot with the subject’s permission and a few were irresistible photographic opportunities. There are many more shots in the archive, but I chose to limit myself to twenty selections based entirely on my personal preference.

(Please click on any of the following images for an enlarged view.)


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Kyoto Station

First time visitors arriving at Kyoto Station could be both impressed and surprised when they disembark at Kyoto’s large and ultra-modern central station. Anyone expecting the station to match Kyoto’s reputation as Japan’s cultural jewel is likely to be surprised at the towering, futuristic edifice that is Kyoto Station.

The station is Japan’s second biggest station building and at 470 metres in length and fifteen storeys tall is also one of the nation’s largest buildings. Typical of large Japanese stations it is more than just a station and also incorporates the ten storey Isetan department store, a large underground shopping mall, a hotel and several local government facilities. Welcome to Kyoto – starting with a little bit of culture shock.

Its central location, with the main exit on the Karasuma side exiting directly into downtown Kyoto, establishes the station as not only a transportation hub, but also a general community hub.

In this post I have attempted to give readers some idea of its impressive architecture with several photographs of the main concourse (pics 5 to 8) combined with other shots that play with the “meeting place” role served by stations everywhere. I was always amused by Platform 0 (pic 3) as I can’t think of another platform zero I’ve come across, though I readily admit to not being expert on train stations.

Have you noticed that crowd shots often throw-up a person who immediately catches the eye? For example, in pic 9 “Over there!” we have the gentleman at bottom centre pointing and mouthing directions to another person out of shot. Or maybe he was telling me not to take his photo – sorry! It is enjoyable to have a bit of fun titling such photos and, of course, it is pure speculation on my part, but pics 12 to 14 suggest widely contrasting emotions. The young woman at pic 12 has the worried, confused look of someone who may have been stood-up; whereas the woman in pic 13 is a study of calm and patience; and at pic 14 we have a woman who clearly knows where she is going. Look at the woman and station guard at pic 10 “How can I help” engaged in an apparently earnest conversation. I wonder what about?

I fondly remember Kyoto Station as the starting point of many trips and the source of nourishment when returning late at night and I hope this post gives others some insight into a magnificent modern building that serves as the doorway to one of the world’s greatest cultural cities.

(Please click on any of the following images for an enlarged view.)


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Noren

On my first or second day in Kyoto I recall observing a young woman diligently photographing all the noren along one of Kyoto’s most popular entertainment streets. At the time I thought it to be a little obsessive, but understandable given their generally attractive appearance. It was not long before I was smitten by the addictive power of noren and started to build my own collection, some of which are shown here, including a number that would also have been photographed by the young woman whose addiction had started earlier.

What are noren? In effect, they are rectangular lengths of fabric similar to curtains and as well as being used at the entry to commercial establishments, they are also used internally to divide spaces. They offer a very Japanese way for (mainly) traditional businesses to display their brand name/logo, which is typically written in kanji. Noren used at the entry to establishments are generally hung at between half to three-quarter length, with the more up-market venues tending towards longer noren. The final shot on this post (pic 15) is a good example of how the noren provides a reasonable measure of privacy to patrons, whilst offering a tantalising glimpse inside for we “mere mortals”.

I found noren to be more widely used in Kyoto, which is not surprising given Kyoto’s emphasis on traditional aspects of Japanese culture. Nevertheless, one also encounters noren within the more traditional areas of greater Tokyo, though I must say I do not recall seeing anyone in Tokyo with a serious noren addiction.

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Homeless in Tokyo

When travelling it is easy (and not at all unreasonable) to seek out pleasurable experiences and pay little attention to social issues that may be of greater concern to us in our home cities.

Homelessness is an issue that seems to be common across all countries and the more highly developed and relatively affluent societies such as Japan are not exempt. This may come as a surprise given Japan’s homogeneity in class terms where it is estimated that more than 90% of Japanese people are deemed to be middle-class. In many other western societies, a rate of 90% would be considered a thing of the past and an unattainable dream in today’s world where western governments are disproportionately influenced by corporate rather than societal concerns.

Nevertheless, people fall through the cracks in all societies and it is estimated that Tokyo alone has more than 5000 homeless – mostly men over 40, many of whom are likely victims of changes to Japan’s corporate culture where Salarymen (and women) can no longer assume that loyalty will be rewarded with jobs for life.

I did not seek out photographs of the homeless, though with the benefit of hindsight it would have been an interesting project. One must be sensitive to individuals’ needs and for this reason I tended, in most instances, to resist taking such shots. However, in terms of general observations, I was never troubled or approached for money by homeless persons in Japan, something that certainly does not apply in my hometown. It was also noticeable that they were, in effect, not noticeable on city streets, at least during the day. One would encounter homeless people sleeping rough around subway stairs at night, but during the day I mostly came across the homeless in parks, where they would sit quietly and contemplatively on the benches. Their possessions would, for the most part, be stowed away in less obtrusive areas of the park.

The convention seemed to be that people leave the homeless alone and vice versa. Whether such mutual respect and tolerance will continue if the issue worsens is difficult to predict. In fact, the only time I recall seeing the homeless openly express some anger was in Kyoto prior to a long holiday weekend when the police were not allowing the homeless to settle in the vicinity of Kyoto Station.

All the selected shots were taken in parks; some in Ueno Park – a very popular recreational area, particularly at weekends when families flock to visit the nearby zoo, galleries and museums. Others were shot in a smaller park across the road from Tokyo’s billion-dollar Metropolitan Government Building, an irony impossible to ignore. Indeed, pic 3 shows a rather forlorn homeless person resting within the forecourt of the Government Building.

Of the other images I wish to comment on only the first (pic 1) and the last (pic 10), in that I personally consider these images to be the most powerful. When I shot Bed is a Park Bench (pic 1) and checked the image on my camera’s screen, my first instinct was to adjust the exposure and shoot a second image. Fortunately this instinct was quickly replaced by the realisation that the image was far more powerful as shot and did not require a face to communicate the hardships faced by homeless persons. Similarly, Not Quite Alfresco Dining (pic 10) shows a person who has seemingly become inured to eating most if not all their meals in public view and foregoing the dignity that we take for granted.

If this subject and/or images have upset anyone, I do apologise, but the subject is real and alive wherever we live and I hope this post will encourage viewers to pause and reflect.

(Please click on any of the following images for an enlarged view.)


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Shinjuku

Most visitors to Tokyo probably think of Shinjuku for its nightlife and for its brightly lit thoroughfares ablaze with all sorts of neon signs. However, this is only one part of Shinjuku’s character and in this post I have focused not only on Shinjuku’s streets, but also on its role as a daytime business centre and the tranquility offered by the magnificent Shinjuku Goen park.

Shinjuku’s skyscrapers are prominent whenever one has a birds-eye view of Tokyo from locations such as Tokyo Tower and other vantage points. They are equally impressive from ground level and in this post I have drawn attention to three buildings that caught my attention. The first is the gargantuan Tokyo Metropolitan Government building (pics 1 and 4) that occupies three city blocks. Its scale has to be seen to be believed and it serves a useful role in getting one’s bearings when moving around the area.

The second building is the Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower (pics 7 and 10), which is actually a vertical campus with capacity for 10,000 students. The tower houses three educational institutions: the Professional School of Fashion (Tokyo Mode Gakuen), the Special Superior School of Technology and Design (HAL Tokyo) and the Medical College (Shuto Ito). Adding further to the appeal of the building is the adjoining dome structure at street level.

The third building selected is the Sompo Japan Building (pic 13), which is said to resemble Mount Fuji with its flaring sides. The building is the headquarters of Sompo Japan – a major Japanese insurance company and I was quite surprised to learn it was constructed in 1976, such is its continuing aesthetic appeal today.

Readers will no doubt be aware that Shinjuku is also host to the world’s busiest train station used by over three million people per day. What is perhaps less well known is the presence of Shinjuku Goen Park within easy walking distance of the station, which offers an opportunity to relax in a tranquil setting unaware of the hustle and bustle outside the park’s boundaries.

To demonstrate Shinjuku’s diverse nature I have chosen to intersperse my photographs across the three subject areas of tall buildings, street shots and the park.

(Please click on any of the following images for an enlarged view.)


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Streets of Asakusa

To conclude this series of posts on Asakusa I have selected shots to show what visitors may typically see if strolling the streets of this interesting and often quirky area.

Designed by Phillipe Starck, the renowned French designer, the “Flamme d’Or” (Flame of Gold) atop Asahi’s Super Dry Hall (pics 1 and 2) is difficult to miss. The Super Dry Hall takes the shape of a beer glass and is quite architecturally striking in its own right, but absolutely unmissable with the 300 ton Flamme d’Or perched like a crowning glory. The building to the left is the Asahi Beer Headquarters, with the complex of buildings occupying the site where Asahi started brewing beer over 100 years ago.

Visitors will usually spend some time walking through Shin-Nakamise (pics 4 to 7), an undercover arcade running parallel to the more famous Nakamise Dori approach to Sensoji Temple (refer to previous post).

On the outside streets there is much to catch the eye. The Nimi building, or as I prefer to call it, the Tea Cup building (pic 8) presents as an eccentric novelty. However, it is actually in keeping with Asakusa’s hosting of many businesses supplying product to the hospitality sector, an example of which is a vendor’s display of takeaway food trays (pic 9).

Translation is always good for a laugh and although the antique shop’s wares (pic 11) appear interesting, my attention was initially caught by the misspelt word (“planing” rather than “planning”). Nonetheless, I freely admit that their attempt is much better than I could manage if operating in reverse.

Tokyo must go close to being the Starbucks capital of the world (pic 15) and yes I did succumb to taking a break and enjoyed looking out over Asakusa life from an upper level vantage point. Just as Starbucks is everywhere in Tokyo, so are bicycles (pic 16) and titling the shot as “bicycle calamity” is probably unkind. What most impressed me about this and other bicycle parking I observed in Japan was the general absence of security devices to prevent theft. I read recently that one of the reasons for the low crime rate in Japan is the high proportion of travel made on foot or by bicycle and perhaps there is some credence to this argument.

I felt a bit sorry for the rickshaw operator being passed by the cyclist at pic 17, as it is was hardly a fair contest in “power to weight” terms. It never ceased to amaze me how fit the rickshaw operators are and their ability to maintain conversations with their clients while jogging along.

I have shown the house at pic 18 in a previous post on concrete buildings and am indulging myself by reposting here as an example of the innovative architecture one finds in contemporary Japanese residences. By contrast, I also offer pic 19 as an example of how small many Japanese residences are.

My farewell to Asakusa is pic 20, which serves to remind that no matter how busy and bustling life can be, water and greenery combine to create opportunities to enjoy tranquil moments.

(Please click on any of the following images for an enlarged view.)


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Looking for Old Tokyo – Asakusa

If one is looking for old Tokyo, one must visit Asakusa given that it is seen to be the centre of Tokyo’s shitamachi (low city) districts. Whilst this post focuses on showing examples of old Tokyo, I should say that my visits to Asakusa were not strictly for this reason and I will post photographs offering other glimpses of Asakusa at a later time.

If I had to select one image that says “old Tokyo” from this and previous posts in this series, I would select the delightful old house shown at pic 1. Coming across this old place was as if one had stepped back in time and one hopes that buildings such as this will survive for many years to come, thus giving us a glimpse and a sense of what old Tokyo was like. However, when one considers that the house is within a fifteen to twenty minutes walk of Tokyo Skytree, perhaps all we can do is hope.

One may imagine that in times past the residents of the house would have patronised nearby shops such as those featured in pics 2 to 6, whose quintessential charm continues to be relevant today. Each of these stores has a story to tell that is, in turn, woven into Asakusa’s story.

Other examples of old Tokyo can be found (pics 7 to 12) by walking the streets, where the old and new exist side by side such as in pics 11 and 12. For the most part I found the blending of old and new to be quite aesthetically pleasing, perhaps due (as in pic 12) to the design similarities carried over into the new buildings.

Memories too are created among the old buildings as in pic 8, where a teacher can be seen setting up his camera before rushing back to join his students for a photographic memory of their trip to Asakusa. Who knows what will become of these buildings, especially when the average life of buildings in Japan is said to be in the order of twenty years. Nevertheless, whatever they become, these students have a memory of how it once appeared.

It would be remiss not to include a photograph of Senso-ji (pic 13), Asakusa’s major attraction and Tokyo’s oldest temple, which dates back to the seventh century and will be the subject of a future post.

(Please click on any of the following images for an enlarged view.)


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Looking for Old Tokyo – Kagura Cobbles

Kagurazaka is located close to Tokyo Central and given its past as a prominent entertainment district, I had hoped a visit would yield further examples of old Tokyo. This was not to be the case. Whilst I’m sure that with more time one could find some interesting links to old Tokyo, including a number of surviving geisha houses, the Kagurazaka I found was that of a rather fashionable and western-friendly district.

The beauty of travelling is that even when one does not find what one expects, the unexpected is nevertheless interesting. Kagurazaka seems to pivot around its shopping street, which is closed to vehicles around lunchtime each day, thus creating a relaxed pedestrian mall. However, apart from enjoying the relaxed environment, this street held little interest for me.

The interest lay in the side streets and alleys that lead away from the main street and then meander in the manner one comes to expect when walking in Japanese districts where the urban layout seems reminiscent of times past. Indeed, venturing into the side streets is a tad similar to Kyoto’s Gion district where, although the modern world has shouldered its way in, the street layouts allow one to imagine life in the glory days.

For this blog I have selected photographs consistent with my two main impressions of Kagurazaka. My first and strongest memory was that of the cobblestoned streets and alleys, a street surface that may be cursed by cyclists, yet is invariably appealing in the aesthetic sense and immediately creates atmosphere. Although today’s cobblestones are unlikely to be original, they succeed in slowing the pace of life a little and at the same time hint at the district’s interesting past.

My second main impression was that the district felt western-friendly, predominantly due to the variety of restaurants tucked away in side streets. I later learned that Kagurazaka has a reputation for being Tokyo’s French Quarter and is home to two French schools. The accompanying photographs show a small selection of the eating and drinking establishments in the area.

Visitors to Japan will certainly have noticed the very popular pachinko parlours and may have also noticed the smaller and more discreet TUC shops included in pic 7. As the title “Cashing in” implies, these venues allow players to exchange their pachinko tokens for cash, thereby getting around Japan’s gambling regulations. At the other end of the cultural spectrum, pic 8 shows a small street shrine allowing people to worship or seek some respite from a busy day.

The most unusual of the restaurants shown was “Hajimeno Ippo” – Tokyo’s first garlic restaurant. Whilst I doubt I would be paying a visit, it seems well placed in the French Quarter and I believe it can often take some time to get a booking.

Revisiting Kagurazaka for this blog post has made me realize that I will revisit in person when next in Tokyo to look for those old Tokyo remnants I sense are there to be found.

(Please click on any of the following images for an enlarged view.)


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Looking for Old Tokyo – Mukojima

Mukojima adjoins Kyojima and was, therefore, a logical area to look for examples of old Tokyo. Located on the east side of the Sumida River, Mukojima was fortunate during the 1945 bombings to avoid the extent of devastation experienced elsewhere. Whilst this has resulted in well-preserved shitamachi (low town) zones, there is also much evidence of an area in transition as new developments have followed the opening of the nearby Tokyo Skytree in 2012.

There was a second agenda to my walk through Kiyojima and that was to find geisha, given that Mukojima is one of the few areas in Tokyo where real geisha train and work. I could have joined an organised tour and been guaranteed success, but I much preferred to simply wander and trust in luck and instinct. As can be seen from pics 11 to 14, the mission was accomplished.

After wandering the streets for some time I came across an area that just felt right and decided to wait on a corner and play “paparazzi”. Well, after a short time I heard the familiar clip clopping sound of footsteps and the jangling associated with the hair ornamentation worn by trainee geisha on their way to engagements. A short while later an older woman came by (pic 14) carrying her shamisen, a stringed instrument used to accompany geisha during performances.

This post marks my 50th post and although it has taken longer than I had expected, I would like to thank those people who follow, read and comment on my blog. Your participation is most appreciated and I hope you will continue to find the blog interesting.

(Please click on any of the following images for an enlarged view.)