When I travel, I like to hit extremes, so here I am going from Kinosaki Onsen, a sedate town near the western coast in which the whole point is to wander from one hot-springs spa to the next (the only question being: how many baths does one person need, or can bear, a day? In my case, three) back to Tokyo for Halloween night. Shibuya, I’m told, is the place to be, and it’s far wilder than anything I’ve seen in New York City, tens and tens of thousands of kids in costume, cutting up, drinking, being to my perhaps naïve eyes for one night not all that Japanese. I have a fine (if at times anxious) time being crushed by bodies, swept along by crowd eddies as if in meeting streams, all the while trying to grab the best shots I can. (See accompanying pictures.)
I meet by chance a British photographer who flies here for the holiday every year. He tells me the really good shots are only had after two a.m. No doubt, but I’m not his age and head back to my hotel a few hours earlier. I have to get up, get out and get to know Tokyo better … and go look for more photobooks.
After a morning spent washing my clothes, I only make it as far as Jimbocho today. My main mission is to head back to Genkido books. First go-round I had a great talk with Shinichiro Kawamura, the owner of the shop and a true photobook lover. I’ve long wanted a copy of Ed van der Elsken’s “Sweet Life,” and of course in true Tokyo photobook store–style, Genkido has two, a U.S. version and the Japanese edition, which comes in a cardboard box. So this has become my idea of a good time: Shinichiro and I flip from page to page in the two editions trying to decide which slabs of gravure print are the best. Hmnn, we go … seems like more detail in the Japanese edition. Okay, I tell him, I think I’ll buy it when I return to Tokyo. I also tell him I’m interested in the copy of Daido’s “Hysteric #4,” the numbered limited-edition “Hysteric” (this copy number 69 of 300), and Shinichiro thinks that’s a wise move.
But I don’t actually get the books, so in a moment of worry in Kyoto I email Shinichiro and tell him I’ll purchase both books when I return. He tells me he’ll hold them for me, and now that I’m back in his shop, he has. Out they come. Genkido also has copies of the two other Daido “Hysterics” (one signed), and I don’t, so now that I’m here I decide I’d better get those also. They turn up occasionally in NYC, but of course at a far higher price. I also get a copy of Hosoe’s “Man and Woman,” the reprint of which I have, but here’s an original for not much more than I paid for the new edition. (Insert head-whirling emoji here.)
I’m starting to fret about how I’ll get these new books, plus the others I’m buying, back home, so I ask Shinichiro if right before I leave Tokyo I can bring all my books to him and he can pack them and ship them. “Yes,” he says, “no problem.” He’ll do it just for the postage. A big relief. I’m going to Bangkok after Japan and don’t want to be schlepping valuable books along.
So I leave my new purchases with Shinichiro, with plans to turn up next week all books in hand, and head back to my hotel to rest. I was planning to go to Shinjuku this night but after my Halloween adventures I decide to just eat dinner and hang around my hotel room.
Which I do. But this next night I’m definitely planning to head off to Shinjuku for the first time. I’m sure climbers come to Japan to tackle Mount Fuji, which from our train to Kyoto was spectacular, the Mount Fuji of Mount Fujis. As a photographer, I think of Shinjuku as the Mount Fuji of Japanese photo sites. Books by Daido, books by Araki, books by both of them combined … all set in and called “Shinjuku.” What’s to be intimidated about?
But first it’s off to TOP, the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum, which as usual is a trauma of subway connections, which I’m always amazed I pull off, then the usual misdirection by Google Maps on my phone … but finally I find it, and it’s worth the trip. A couple good exhibits, a strong bookstore—I get the latest Daido “Record,” number 39, smoking off the press—and a nice library. I donate to them a copy of my book “New York Street,” and they seem happy to get it. That’s followed by the only terrible meal I’ve had in Japan, beef fat and gristle (at a place called Kicks, what was I thinking?), then a quick touchdown at the hotel before I plan to head off on my first trip to Shinjuku.
Evidently every day in Tokyo is lit by creamy, color-bursting fall light, and today’s no exception. I get a lot of strong street portraits heading back to the hotel, but the light’s gone gray as I head to Shinjuku. My target there is Photographers’ Gallery, a co-op of Tokyo photographers. Shinjuku is more like Greenwich Village or London’s Soho than other parts of Tokyo I’ve been to, though I don’t really expect the district of Shomei Tomatsu’s 1969 “Oh, Shinjuku,” when it was evidently mostly squalid student quarters. Now, of course, the first thing that hits me leaving Shinjuku Station is, boom, the endless flood of shopping malls and departments stores and bright lights.
The good news: I soon hit actual streets, trusting Google maps to get me to Photographers’ Gallery (a somewhat fluxible faith, but one that usually comes through), and I’m immediately in narrow, arcing ways lined with restaurants, Pachinko parlors, adult bookstores, what looks like sex bars. I finally find my destination, after overshooting it a few times, climb four flights of stairs, and there I am, a couple small galleries filled with strong winter landscape photos, and a small bookstore devoted to the gallery members’ books.
Now I have had a tip-off. A New York City friend, Michel Delsol, told me last time he was in Tokyo he’d found the photographer Keizo Kitajima sitting right there in the space. There is a man in the office adjacent to the bookstore, and I start talking to him, telling him I like the series of Kitajima’s “Untitled Records” sitting there, when I ask his name and learn that he is Keizo Kitajima.
I own his famous “New York” book with Mick Jagger on the cover, and in the course of our chat I tell him that I was living in the East Village during that period. Turns out I was on East 11th, he was on East 6th. We share some memories, mostly of how dangerous it was. I tell him how much I like his “Camp” book, reprinted by Super Labo, and look at a copy at the store. This is the record of the famous CAMP gallery founded in the late ‘90s by Kitajima, Seiji Kurata, and Daido Moriyama—one of those places, like the Marquee Club in the early ‘60s with the Brian Jones–led Stones, you just wish you’d been part of. I ask Kitajima who the four people are in the grainy, high-contrast shot midway through the book.
“Is this you?” I ask, about the man on the left who bears a resemblance to Kitajima.
“No, he was an important publisher. He’s dead now.”
“But that’s surely Daido.”
“Yes, and next to him is Araki, and on the other side is Tomatsu.”
“So that means you took the picture.”
Ohh-kay. I might not have been there in 1979, but this … this is a whiff of an electric moment in Japanese photography.
I talk about my own work, writing for Photobookstore Magazine and my photography. I show him a copy of my “Electrick Spirits” photobook, and he likes it.
Then I do something a little crazy. Years ago at a TKY event at Aperture I met Daido for the first time, and asked him if he minded taking my picture, and he said, “Sure I will.” I explain this to Kitajima, and he graciously takes my Fuji and snaps three shots of me. So there it is: I have now been photographed by two of the greatest Japanese photographers living.
I don’t want to wear out my welcome, and who knows how many bedazzled photographers turn up at Photographers’ Gallery and bug him; so again I shake Kitajima’s hand and head down the stairs into wild and twisty Shinjuku, where I wander and snap and snap and wander for the next four hours.
Next day. Not sure what I’m going to do today, did a lot yesterday—over 20K steps recorded on my iPhone—and I’m slightly tuckered, though that won’t keep me from wandering far and wide. Just went out for a couple rice balls (my glorious $2.25 Tokyo breakfast) so I can keep writing, and, yep, it’s still creamy, color-bursting fall light, so I’m sure I’ll be snapping away. I’m also looking for original Japanese Odeon Beatles LPs, so I think I’ll go out hoping to find those, though in the way of things the used-record stores I’ve been to so far are way more interested in U.S. and British pressings than their homegrown ones. I found a store yesterday with six Butcher Block “Yesterday and Today” album covers on the wall. Yep, Tokyo’s that kind of place.
Okay, next day, and those record stores from yesterday were Disk Unions, a big chain around town, and after a few more stops at various outposts, I think my hope of getting original Odeons will be fruitless … until I see a big black disc in a second-story window on my way back to my hotel after my long day wandering. I figure what the hey, has to be a record store … and up the stairs, boom, I’m quickly pointed to a whole shelf of original Beatles lps. Long listening and debating finer points of vinyl pressings with the sweet store manager story short, I end up getting M or VG+ copies of the first eight Japanese Beatles albums, up through “Revolver”—at about what one or two might cost me if I ever saw them back home. (I stop back into the store a week later and find out it’s been around for eighty-eight years from three Aussies who simply fly to Tokyo twice a year to go to this one store.)
But getting the Beatles LPs is enough for today, though I stop in for some very good Thai food, warm-up for my heading to Bangkok in five days, then back to the hotel. Oh, I’ve almost forgotten, I did pick up a few more photobooks. Stopped in first thing at Genkido again, was warmly greeted by Shinichiro, casually asked him if he had anything else I should look into, and walked out with three books, including Yutaka Takanashi’s wonderful and mysteriously packaged “Tokyoites,” where pages of fine photos fold and unfold upon each other. A book I never knew existed. And in truth I didn’t actually walk out with it; Shinichiro and I spent more time going over the big shipping day, when I take him all the books (and records), and he somehow gets them from Tokyo to NYC.
This Sunday morning I feel the book searching slowing down, though there are places I still want to get to in my five full days left. Instead I dig back into my own work.
In Part 1 of this Journal, I worried briefly that I didn’t immediately have great new ideas of how to take shots in Tokyo. Well, now I simply don’t worry, don’t even think about it. Halloween night was a big moment. I went into it thinking I’d shoot it as I have Halloweens in New York (with their Miltonic overtones), but pretty quickly realized it was a whole different beast: brighter, shinier, cheerier, for Tokyo a holiday recently adopted for the dressing up and play-acting (and drinking). So I quickly started going at it that way. I’m planning to do a book of that night, think I have enough strong shots, and calling it “Happy Halloween: Shibuya Time.” Or maybe just “Shibuya Time.” We shall see. But the lesson is, don’t have any ideas, or at least any conscious ones; instead just walk around and get fired up in and by the moment.
So I’ve been shooting like crazy, everywhere I go, and intuitively feeling that the best shots will hold together and make up another book on my Japan visit. Again, we shall see. But as with my work back home, I find that it’s best not to have preconceived notions but to be as alive and responsive and quick as possible every moment you’re out. Strong photos are everywhere, and I have faith they’ll come to me. As the owner of Genkido said when I showed him my “Electrick Spirits” book yesterday, “This is very good. Lots of colors, energy. I like it a lot. You have your own style.”
My own style. I guess that’s all as a photographer I can hope for. And that has always come from being as aware and focused and intuitive as possible in any given second.
The above written, and photos moved from my camera into my computer and Lightroom this morning, it’s still Sunday, another whole day in front of me … better figure out something to do. Part Three of my Japan Journal will let you know what (if anything) I come up with, as well as finish my trip … and include my photos from days other than Halloween.
Robert Dunn is a writer, photographer, and teacher. His latest novel is Savage Joy, inspired by his first years in NYC and working at The New Yorker magazine. His photobooks OWS, Angel Parade, Carnival of Souls, and New York Street are in the permanent collection of the libraries of the Museum of Modern Art and the International Center of Photograph (more info on Dunn’s own photobooks here; prints of his work can be ordered here, follow his instagram here). Dunn also teaches a course called “Writing the Photobook” at the New School University in New York City.