The Art of Dinky: Shop Fronts Tokyo (Shinjuku & Koenji)

The adjective ‘dinky’ means small and neat. For me, it’s the most appropriate word that springs to mind when describing typical characteristics of bars and eateries which can be found in the labyrinths in the Tokyo Metropolis. The capacity for most bars are room for barely half a dozen. A few tables and a bar area inside the cozy interior, though in summer time, stacked up plastic bottle crates are used as makeshift chairs and the clientele spill out into the street. However, despite the size, it doesn’t seem to perturb the publicans. Business as usual.


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It is well known that the Japanese are renowned for attention to detail and that opinion can be justified here. Even though the detail might not be aesthetically pleasing. Western influences are increasingly evident, for instance, bar names using English words or expressions. Postcards, signage, stickers and ripped up pages from glossy film, rock and fashion magazines, an overload of references to popular culture. Decorative styles you might see in a stereotypical student’s flat. Another predominant feature is that beauty bodes well with the unsightly. Part of the ubiquitous exterior decoration which seems ever-present outside the dwellings are the abundance of electric matter. Air conditioner ventilators, electric meters, masses of painted wire. Evidence of beauty vs ugly combinations working in harmony.


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The Golden Gai-Shinjuku

Most of my project material will be gathered either in or near Shinjuku train station. Near Shinjuku train station is a rather unique little area called The Golden Gai. It is situated a few minutes away on foot from the East exit of Shinjuku station. It’s a well-known spot for its buzzing nightlife. Though what fascinates me is how the area is architecturally arranged. The area is made up of a simple network; six alleyways which are connected by even narrower alleyways. Incredibly over 200 bars, clubs and eateries are squeezed together.
For me, it’s a very important part of Tokyo as it provides the viewer with a small glimpse of Modernist Tokyo. Miniature like two-story buildings and narrow alleyways are just a few charismatic features of this remarkable area. In today’s Tokyo, most of the surrounding buildings in the Shinjuku area have been redeveloped, roads have been made wider and the conurbation stretching well into the suburbs. The Golden Gai stands alone surrounded by this concrete post-modernism overload. The buildings practically touch each other and are no more than a few feet wide. Most of the buildings have a simple two-story structure. The structures generally consist of a bar on the ground floor and a flat or another bar on the first floor. A steep staircase separating the stories. Each bar caters for half a dozen in one time at the very most. The buildings are elegantly dilapidated and at night the alleyways are dimly lit, resembling dirty and misty back streets in Victorian London times but not as menacing.  The area is frequented by a bohemian society. Artists, writers, musicians, film-makers, poets and actors descend on its bars. Most of the bars only welcome regular patrons though some bars try to attract ‘Gaijins (foreigners) by adding price lists and menus in English. It’s very quiet during the day and early evening as most of the bars open around 9p.m.  Below are a few snaps I took early one Sunday morning. Very different from images you might expect of Tokyo. No neon, no people, no colour, no gadgets etc.  Sadly there are very few places like this that still exist in Tokyo.

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Nobody Tokyo

I landed in Tokyo in March 1999. Five months later I was heading home via China and Russia on the Trans-Manchurian Express. Why leave so early? The number of people living in one area was just too much for me, too overbearing. I remember suffering from severe headaches every time I ventured outside. I would return though, I always knew that. When I returned to Tokyo, surprisingly the following year, I didn’t seem to be as affected by the crowds, I could commute to work and return home without taking aspirins or other pills (whatever gets you through the night). I suppose it always takes time to get used to change.

While at the Tokyo Museum of Photography in Ebisu, sometime in 2000, I came across a photography book called Nobody Tokyo. I leafed through the book, the images are very sharp and vibrant, I thought; totally different from images you generally see spotlighting Tokyo such as in the Lonely Planet guide books or the National Geographic magazines. Also, there is so much to consider in Masataka Nakano’s (the photographer) work. For instance, the photographs highlight spatial relationships in a city, there is no one in photographed the city yet there is evidence that people exist. Also, his locations are places in Tokyo where we associate a mass of people which gives the viewer an unusual angle. He documents an urban environment with an abundance of concrete, glass, wire and plastic. Interestingly, the project also informs us that Nakano employed extreme patience in order to achieve to his aim. No need for digital tricks. A dying breed?

Taking a leaf out of Nakano’s book , I sat in multi-storey cafes; ones with huge windows, without visual obstruction in busy areas of Shinjuku. The result; a set of of drawings depicting urban realism yet people would not be evident only evidence of mankind. As a result, the triptych appears eerie, apocalyptic or even abstract expressionist. Next time, how about a deserted, empty Tokyo Underground?