Tokyo by night

A selection of images from my January 2012 trip to Japan.

Tokyo is a city just built for night photography, every street is lit up and pulsating with light and sound. It seems to be the only place I’ve visited where the dominant aesthetic is bright, busy and colourful. The Japanese don’t seem to have any qualms about filling up every visual space like it’s a sticker book. In Australia that approach to design is reserved for weekend rug sales, discount mobile phone vendors and JB Hi-Fi catalogues but in Tokyo it seems to be par for the course.

This came as a surprise to me because I thought of traditional Japanese design as very minimalistic with strong black and white motifs and lots of negative space. It seems their modern reaction to that style is just a riot of colour and shape and this permeates everything from TV commercials and restaurant menus to vehicle decorations and architecture. It’s a special sort of clutter though because, unlike Bangkok, Hong Kong or a host of other SE Asian cities, the architectural clutter isn’t just the gradual accruing of layers of repairs and modifications. Instead it seems like each additional building façade, fire escape and stairwell has been carefully designed and customised. You find AC units nestled into a carefully tiled wall amongst fire alarm panels, vents, piping and sliding timber-framed windows and cantilevered balconies all neatly woven together.

Nothing matches but everything fits.

With such a dense population there seems to be a real drive towards making the most efficient use of the space available. Everywhere you go you see evidence of craftsmanship right down to the smallest details. Nothing looks prefabricated or slapped on. Even in the rough parts of the city the edges of are always bevelled and the joins are always dovetailed.

That conservative use of space is conspicuously absent in their use of light. Tokyo is a city overwhelmed with electric light. Neon and fluorescent signs, giant TV screens, marquee lights, paper lanterns and LED displays are everywhere. The darkest, dingiest laneways are bathed in the green or blue glow from a vending machine or a neon sign. The arcades, clubs and restaurants are all lit up like casinos and no one seems to sleep. When I visited Japan was in the process of shutting down every nuclear power station in the country. They only began turning their reactors back on last week after complying with new safety regulations and tests following the tsunami and subsequent meltdown in Fukushima. That meant for several months the country relied almost totally on coal, most of which comes from Australia.

There’s many somewhat contradictory aspects of Japanese culture but this was the one that stood out to me the most because the sheer size of the place made it impossible not to think about the energy, the food and the economy required to sustain a city this size. Seeing it was beautiful and unsettling at the same time.

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