Tokyo shitamachi life

The bright lights, bustling crowds and big stores are all popular images of Tokyo. Quite accurate ones too. Or at least they are for some parts of the city. But in the capital’s older, shitamachi areas, it’s a very different story indeed.

There’s a distinct lack of neon. Many of the stores are small, family run affairs. Plus any congestion is generally only because of slow-moving octogenarians. Visible differences that make such districts a delight to explore. In fact doubly so, as atmosphere-wise, not only are they are often much friendlier, they are definitely far more relaxed.

Tokyo shitamachi

A(nother) Meiji Shrine wedding

The first time I saw a wedding at Tokyo’s Meiji Shrine, I marvelled at its timelessness, not to mention the elaborate outfits and graceful movements of the procession. A special moment I considered myself very lucky to witness.

But on each subsequent visit, I saw more and more weddings. Sometimes two or three in quick succession. Plus a fairly recent look at a (regular?) weekend schedule detailed what appeared to be a staggering sixteen ceremonies in a single day.

Yet despite knowing this. And having seen so many. The beauty of each and every one hasn’t dimmed in the slightest.

Meiji Shrine wedding

Timeless Tokyo fashion?

Yes, it may well be getting warm. Unfortunately a tad humid too. But it’s clear that as far as this immaculate and wonderfully attired man is concerned, such conditions are by no means an excuse to let standards start to slip.

Japanese old man fashion

Gritty and wonderfully grubby Shinjuku

The cleanliness of Tokyo is often — not to mention quite rightly — commended, but certain parts of the city are gloriously grubby, and perhaps none more than Shinjuku. A place where big name brands have a fair few stores, but down the many side streets it’s generally a very different story indeed.

The city’s red light district in particular has a distinctly gritty vibe.

Shinjuku’s Kabukicho

And the wonderfully ramshackle and rather claustrophobic Memory Lane — or Piss Alley as it’s sometimes referred to — manages to pretty much encapsulate everything that’s good about the area in one small passageway, namely all of the above plus an atmosphere that’s very much its own.

Shinjuku’s Memory Land (Omoide Yokocho)

Tokyo’s dark underbelly: The poor. The drunk. The destitute.

There are many popular images of Tokyo, but extreme poverty generally isn’t one of them. In the east of the capital, however, in an area once known as Sanya, that’s exactly what you see.

Tokyo poor and homeless in Sanya

Photographs from Sanya have appeared on Tokyo Times before, but at the time I was under the impression that it was home to a large population of day labourers and the desperately poor. An equally destitute little sister of sorts to Osaka’s much larger, Kamagasaki district.

But I was wrong, at least in regards the work aspect, as it seems there simply aren’t any jobs to be had anymore. The gradual ageing of those who scratch out an existence in the area means there’s not much they can physically do, so instead the men must attempt to get by with what little money they may be entitled to — or at worst with whatever handouts are available.

Thankfully there is at least a small clinic run by an NPO. A place where the men can get help, as well as help out.

Tokyo poor and homeless in Sanya

For those with the means, cheap accommodation can also be acquired. Wretched looking rooming houses that despite their obvious squalor, are clearly a blessing for those who stay in them.

Tokyo poor and homeless in Sanya

Also there are some cheap and basic facilities dotted about.

Tokyo poor and homeless in Sanya

But primarily it’s a life lived — in one form or another — on the street.

Tokyo poor and homeless in Sanya

Tokyo poor and homeless in Sanya

And quite understandably, drink is the only real means of escape. The cheaper and stronger it is the better. A road to oblivion that starts early.

Tokyo poor and homeless in Sanya

Tokyo poor and homeless in Sanya

Meaning that by the time noon rears its heavy head, things are already getting ugly. Resulting in scenes that in Tokyo, during the middle of the day, are really quite shocking.

Tokyo poor and homeless in Sanya

Tokyo poor and homeless in Sanya

Tokyo poor and homeless in Sanya

Yet such episodes sadly aren’t unusual in Sanya. Quite the opposite in fact. An element I’ve tried to capture by taking the photos on just a regular, random day. All of them shot within an hour, within an equally narrow radius. Not as a means to preach. Or to judge. But simply to document.