Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Nov 05 2009


The cloudy weather today gave the city a different character, more somber and business-like. The colors were muted, the shadows gone. I walked eastwards from my hotel this morning, with no particular destination in mind. I came across a temple with a series of old traditional buildings in a line facing a large tree, under which pigeons gathered to look for food. I continued through the alleys until I lost track of my direction. Fortunately my phone has a compass, and I managed to circle around and head back. At one point I was taking a shot of some piping on a building’s side when I suddenly felt tired of my photography. I blame the weather. And my photography.

Louis showed up at noon, and we headed out to visit some photo galleries in the area. Apparently there are many, which surprised me. Before that, however, we had some delicious pasta at an Italian restaurant on the park. Down the alley, some window washers were hanging off the side of a tall glass building, and we got many shots of them on their way down. One of them even asked Louis if it was alright to drop the final few feet.

The galleries ranged from pleasing landscapes and nature shots to street photography and specialized subjects. Some was very nice; most of it was mediocre. Apparently these photographers just hang out in the small rented rooms all day, just waiting for someone to show up, browse the photos on the wall for a few minutes, perhaps ask a question, sign the book and leave. It all felt a little desperate. But that’s probably because I’ve never done it. Louis bumped into a woman photographer he knew at one of the galleries, talking with her while I hastily attempted to hide the torn cover of a Korean boxer book I’d just mangled. In another gallery, water rushed periodically through the pipes on the ceiling, creating the most wonderfully peaceful sound. The works there featured boxers who work part-time while spending their extra time on their craft. The artist’s previous work was on people who don’t have steady jobs. He was one of this demographic himself, he told us, as I thought was pretty obvious. His last book consisted of close-up photos of these individuals facing long shots of them in crowds. Louis said I should invite him to Taiwan, so we exchanged cards. He laughed at the Chinese title “Renegade Province” and pronounced my name in Japanese, “Hayashi Mijiyaki”.

As the Japanese have such a fondness for cameras, it seems to me that Tokyo must be one of the most-photographed cities in the world. Yet the work produced seems all the same. It got me thinking about the culture here, whether the prevalence of technical excellence has made it such a standard that the only direction remaining to explore is that of abstraction, and even that seems done in a rote fashion most of the time. But perhaps I am just gleaning the wrong parts of the situation; I can’t really pretend to understand a place I’ve spent so little time in.

Louis had to go to work, so he left me on the bridge over the tracks at Shinjuku Station, pointing me to a nearby Krispy Kreme, where there was hardly any line. The machines inside weren’t running full tilt, as the ones at the first store had been on my last visit. Perhaps the Japanese are getting over the donut craze. I got a dozen donuts in a box and walked back over the bridge, construction workers giving me the victory sign as I pointed my camera at the skyline above their helmets. My ankles and feet were sore from all the walking, so I went back to the hotel for rest up a bit before heading out again.

The desk clerk told me about a temple festival that’s happening on the 11th, the day I leave. Unfortunately I won’t be able to see it unless I extend my visit. I have to admit I’m tempted; so far I’ve had a great time, and the city is just as fascinating as it was last time.

Louis told me about a book party being held near Omote-sando, so I took the express train there and got directions from a policeman. Japanese directions are kind of bizarre, consisting of how many streets in, how many alleys in, etc. However, they don’t seem to believe in address plates. There isn’t any standard, and it’s apparently up to the owner whether or not they want to put them up or not. I got directions from three different people, the last one just across the street from the place, so I was rather late in arriving.

The book in question is full of photographs by an Italian photographer, Leonardo Pellegatta, of the circus. The name of the small volume is “Il Circo”, and Pellegatta published it himself via a Japanese service. The photos are very nice, the lighting and composition exuding a feeling of the old circuses. The books were laid out on the table, and the remains of wine and snacks littered the tables on the balcony outside the small second-story shop. The photographer, a youngish man with frizzy hair and wearing a scarf, was paying most of his attention to the young Japanese women in attendence, but I managed to get a few questions in in between girls. He told me that the book was small because “It is a small book,” but I’m guessing the costs were prohibitive. That’s too bad, because the photos that he had printed up larger for the show were impressive. He said he used a 6×6 Rollei loaded with black-and-white film.

“Why did you choose black and white for such a colorful subject?” I asked. He said that he wanted to express that the circus was “the gold dust on the dirt”, that it was a veneer of dreams and illusion just managing to cover a bleak and dangerous world.

As I was late, things were winding down, and I got the sense that I should go. Pellegatta thanked me for coming, and I thanked him “for not being mediocre” as I had browsed some of the photo books at the shop and came to the conclusion that many photographers mistake having an overall theme with “taking the same picture over and over again.”

As I walked back towards the subway station by the famous Prada building, singing “Prada store, Prada store…”, I noticed a taxi stopped at a green light. The driver got out of his car and walked to the taxi behind him, and they had a conversation. I thought they might be friends, but I noticed that the rent-a-cops at the Prada store were staring, alert, as it they smelled something on fire. The conversation stopped, the first taxi driver folded the other’s rear-view mirror back, and he walked back to his car and drove off. Apparently I’d just witnessed the Japanese version of a fight between taxi drivers. I suppose I’m just used to the shouting/crowbars/rioting that the same occasion features in Taiwan.

I took some back alleys on my way back, noting an entirely glass house for rent. I’ve also noticed that most scooters here only have one seat; is having a passenger illegal? The scooters look much better; some of those designs would sell like hotcakes in Taiwan, but I suppose they keep the best for themselves.

I’ve done a lot of walking over the past few days, and it might be time to fill up that small-yet-deep bathtub for a good long soak. Good night!

posted by Poagao at 10:31 pm  


  1. Having a passenger on a scooter is illegal and I’ve seen the police give chase to those breaking the rules. Usually the scooters out-maneuver the patrol cars in the maze of one-way streets in the urban jungle, but at least the police try.

    There are special passenger-style motorcycles, which require a motorcycle driver’s license, that I’ve never seen in North America. They look like scooters, but are much longer, feature fancy stereos, and have rails for the passenger to hold onto and what not. I know that Suzuki makes them and is always advertising them on cable TV in Tokyo…

    Comment by Bryan — November 7, 2009 @ 12:24 pm

  2. I’ve seen those motorcycles here, but also regular ones with passengers.

    Comment by Poagao — November 8, 2009 @ 5:26 pm

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