Take a walk through the maze of tiny streets and wondrous lights of Japan.
Chris Mongeau | UNITED STATES
It’s not very often that I get to travel somewhere completely unimaginable anymore.
I can tell you the names of places I’ve never been, and while it might partially be due to the fact that I spend a whole lot of time looking at maps, it’s more likely due to the less romantic reason of having seen them through social media. I think it’s great that we’re all able to share stories from our travels with a broader, global community, but the price we (unknowingly) pay is a lack of surprise and astonishment when we actually get out there.
I think most people forget that not more than a few decades ago, travelling somewhere new meant the opportunity to see that place for the very first time, with very little in mind as far as what to expect. Maybe one or two photographs if we’re talking about the last century and a half, but beyond that, the most anyone had for reference would be a map. In every way, the culture, landscapes, and surroundings in Japan were new to me, down to the most minute details like which side of an escalator you use.
Despite months of planning with my good friend Scott, who is much more knowledgeable than I in all things Japanese, I went to Japan with what I would consider the absolute bare minimum.
We both had our backpacks, stuffed full of mostly cameras and film, some clothes, a Japan Rail Pass, and our passports.
After travelling for an indecipherable number of hours or days due to layovers and time zones, we finally made it to Tokyo on March 23rd, just in time for the cherry blossoms to begin blooming.
We walked around Tokyo that first morning with the kind of wonder and amazement that Kerouac writes about when on the road, digging everything, even the most mundane scenes or simple human encounters. I didn’t count the miles, but I do know we left our hostel before 6 AM and didn’t stop walking until late in the evening, using the metro only once to sprint us across the massive sprawl that is Tokyo. After taking in the early morning light and first day’s prayers at Sensō-ji temple, we made our way to the massive Tsukiji fish market.
In my travels through big cities around the world, I don’t think I have ever been to a more visually striking and stimulating place for street photography.
Vendors set up in rows of shops that open to narrow alleyways packed with creatures I couldn’t have imagined on another planet, let alone in our own ocean. One vendor was selling measurement scales of varying conditions and sizes, which spilled out onto the street in a tower over our heads.
We continued on through Tokyo that day in the same way, with no real plans besides seeing as much as humanly possible. After stopping at a few of the city’s massive camera shops to pick up some more film, we wandered our way through the streets well into the night. Back in Asakusa where we were staying, we decided to go for a late-night walk around the neighbourhood, despite having slept no more than 6 hours in the last 48 and having walked 12+ miles that day. Unintentionally, we stumbled into the Asakusa Underground shopping street.
Below the busy streets humming with cars and bicycles, another world presented itself to us. Smoke filled the air, couples sat at tiny bars eating dinner beneath the buzz of fluorescent lights.
A ramen chef moved about methodically behind a cloud of steam. I have very little interest in seeing the touristy side of cities when I travel, and it can sometimes be really difficult to escape those places with the limited knowledge of someone who obviously is an outsider and has a minimal understanding of a city like Tokyo. In the Asakusa Underground, for about five minutes, I felt like we had managed to stumble upon a window into daily life. I took maybe four or five photos, the rest will remain a glowing memory, until the next time I visit.
During our time in Japan, we travelled to five big cities and a handful of rural towns within nine different prefectures. When I think back on our time there, it feels like we were in Japan for months, probably because we didn’t sleep for more than five or six hours each night and spent every minute well.
In Kyoto, we walked through the rain to Nishiki Market, another fish market similar to Tsukiji. Despite being almost noon, the sky was dark, and every colour stood out against the slate grey backdrop. We ate fried octopus in Osaka and a fish ramen unlike anything I’ve ever had before. In Matsushima, we explored a bay of hundreds of tiny, pine-covered islands. After an all-day train trip to the Wakayama Prefecture, we climbed our way to Kumanonachi Taisha Shrine while listening to the echo of chants as it floated through the mountains.
Our trip was loosely planned to spend a few days in different areas at a time, and we bounced back and forth between Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto a couple of times, which in itself was something I loved. Rather than spending five consecutive days in each of these places, we spent two or three at a time, travelling back to them later on and staying in a different part of the city.
I began to (vaguely) understand Tokyo’s neighbourhoods and its maze-like subway system, although don’t get me wrong, I am in no way claiming to know my way around. There is the Tokyo Metro, the Toei Subway, and private lines running through the city in a way that really can only illicit two responses: 1) laughter at the sheer absurdity of trying to navigate your way around as a stranger and 2) utter amazement at Japanese infrastructure and efficiency.
It makes absolutely no sense, but somehow, roughly eight million passengers travel through this vast network daily.
That would be like taking the entire island of Manhattan, multiplying its population by 4, and still having just around 1.5 million people to fit somewhere. Of course, the land size is vastly different, but it’s still nothing short of incredible to think about the numbers.
In Shinjuku, we met up with a friend from Tokyo who we had met on a past backpacking trip in Barcelona to enjoy Hanami (cherry blossom) season in Shinjuku Gyo-en. The tradition of Hanami goes a little something like this: Get a blanket, which you can conveniently buy for this specific purpose at any Lawson’s/market, find some friends, pick up a few snacks, and sit beneath the cherry blossoms to soak up their beauty. During this time of year in Tokyo, parks are filled with people having picnics and enjoying the season.
It is, without any doubt, one of the most peaceful and simplistic mass gatherings of people I have ever witnessed.
We sat in Shinjuku Gyo-en below a tree that felt just right for a while before taking a stroll through the park to see some more blossoms.
Inside what looked like someone’s living room was a bar no more than eight stools’ length, a few couches, and walls literally made of vinyl.
Milk crates of records were stacked to the ceiling around the entire bar’s perimeter, from which the owner/bartender plucked one every so often to change the music. It seemed like there was logic or reason behind his choices as he changed records, though it was all a variation of funk/soul/groove tunes. I ordered some type of whiskey and sat in awe of the place, something that wouldn’t last a single night in the US with its fire codes and regulations. Sitting in the bar felt a little bit like being transported to a Murakami novel. Vibrant characters entered the room through the smoke and dim light, then left to move on through the night in a world of chance encounters and impossible connections. Eventually, we left as well, and I am almost certain that the records kept spinning into the early morning hours.
Sometimes, I think the only way I can tell a story about our time in Japan is to use this comparison of being dropped into a world of fiction, except the world is very much a reality so foreign from my own experience.
At times that it seemed only possible in the pages of a novel. As a traveller, I know that these moments were mere seconds within a world that has been going long before I arrived and will continue on far after I left.
These were my experiences in Japan, but I in no way want to sound like an expert on the subject. Drop me back at Narita Airport and I would likely get lost trying to find a train into the city. This is what makes me certain that Japan will be a place I continue to go back to throughout my life with no possibility of ever fully comprehending all of its culture and rich traditions.
Chris is a travel and adventure photographer based in Rhode Island, USA. He spent the beginning of his photography career touring with bands across North America and Europe. In recent years, he has turned his focus towards solo travels throughout the US, Europe, Japan, and South America.