Ancient but edgy, sophisticated but mad-cap too, Tokyo is a city of contradictions. Nearing the end of her year-long photographic odyssey, Louise Hawson travels from LA to the Japanese capital.
Konnichiwa from Tokyo! Having never been before I had little idea what to expect when my daughter, Coco, and I arrived here just over four weeks ago. Sure, I've seen Lost in Translation. Read some Murakami. Even done some origami in my time. But really, nothing prepared me for it.
Before I launch into Tokyo, let me wrap up the Los Angeles leg of this project with my third and final LA story.
Having 'done' Latino in week one and then artist/hipster in week two, I wanted the final LA post to focus on a black neighbourhood. Which in LA means south – which in turn means potentially dodgy as. My inner thrill seeker was all, yeah, go to South Central (as in riots), go to Compton (as in hip hop NWA's 'Straight Outta Compton').
But when I mentioned this to people, they'd be all, “honey, I'm black and I wouldn't even go there”.
Bravely/stupidly I ignored their advice. But aside from snapping a few churches and a rascal called Clyde, I didn't dally – not because I felt unsafe but because it was kind of nondescript.
I finally ended up just south-west of downtown LA in a black neighbourhood called Limert Park, the 'centre of African-American culture'. While I completely failed to capture said culture in the five seconds I spent there, I did stumble on an interesting church congregation and a street full of 'low rider' classic cars.
It was a great way to end LA, a city I used to think of as merely a gateway to somewhere else much more appealing. After three weeks there I realised it's a city that requires much peeling back of its layers to reveal its full charms. LA – it's not a dump – it's an onion.
And so to Tokyo. Aside from Berlin, it's the only city I'd never been to before on this project. As soon as I arrived, I wondered why. It has to be one of the most interesting places on the planet. You're in Asia but it feels kind of European, it's sophisticated but cartoony-madcap too, ancient but edgy, and while buzzy-exciting, there's also a tremendous sense of calm. In short, wow.
For the first week here I wanted to find 'old Tokyo'. But was it even possible? One mega earthquake and a world war had destroyed most of the 'old' long ago. And if it did exist, where was it? In a city that makes Los Angeles look compact, I had no clue where to start.
Then I read about a festival celebrating traditional Edo culture that was happening on the weekend in a place called Asakusa. Went. Marvelled. But was disappointed.
Impressive temple, grand parade but where was the patina?
Just across the river from Asakusa as it turned out, in an area that actually did survive both the earthquake and the bombs – Kyojima. Part of historically working class shitamachi, I found old nagaya, traditional wooden 'long houses', and a lovely community in what felt like a small village despite being in the middle of the world's largest metropolitan area.
The week after that Coco and I explored one of the most loved neighbourhoods in Tokyo – Shimokitazawa, or Shimokita as the locals call it.
Hip but relaxed, cozy and kawaii (cute), Shimokita's narrow car-free alleys are filled with independent cafes, vintage clothing shops and tiny bars and eateries where everyone seemed to know each other. Pretty amazing considering it's just 10 minutes by train from the skyscrapers and madness of Shinjuku.
For week three in Tokyo, we visited a suburb called Kichijoji, a whole 20 minutes west of the city centre and quite different to any area so far. While it has the usual crowd of izakaya – bars with food – it also has a lovely park with a small lake, and some of the best menchi katsu in town. Oh, and love hotels too but I missed those completely.
As beautiful as the park was, what I loved most about our time in Kichijoji was meeting three young musicians, Torame, Ken and Hayato, on the station platform. Since 'old' Japan with its kimonos and wooden houses had been my main focus to date, it was refreshing to photograph a younger face of Tokyo. (Not to mention their hair. I loved their hair.)
Having almost not come here, Japan has got me firmly in its clutches. I'm happily obsessed with photographing women in kimonos and Japanese sweets amongst other things. And Coco is entranced too, by everything from the self-possessed kids in starched Madeline-esque school uniforms, to the quaint 'cat cafes'. Neither of us is ready to say sayonara to Japan just yet so we're planning to stay a few extra weeks.
By then I'll be approaching the end of this 52 week project with only six or seven weeks left. Which, as sad as I'll be when this is all over, isn't a bad thing; while the adventure continues to be amazing, we're both pretty exhausted. So much so that I've decided to cancel our plans to visit Mexico City – one mega city too many – and wind up things elsewhere. At this point I'm not sure exactly where that will be but by the time I check in here next month, we'll be there!
Follow Louise at 52suburbs.com or check out their next instalment here on the last Friday of December.