Photo tours in off the beaten track Tokyo

Tired of ‘neo Tokyo’, try Nether Tokyo

Quiet streets, a surprise around every corner, chatting with friendly locals, photographing the quieter side of life in village Tokyo, ‘nether’ Tokyo.

Five months down the road from the recent ‘Blade Runner 2049’ movie was released, if you’re in Tokyo or interested in Tokyo you’ve undoubtedly bumped into one of the rash of blog posts or countless photos of the city tagged with #neotokyo or #bladerunner or #cyberpunk

I love night in this city. I love the neon. I love umbrellas.

But I do love a bit of variety, too. And, away from the handful of photographers doing neo-Tokyo and cyberpunk Tokyo really well, I am pretty much bored to death with bumping into more night-time photos of Tokyo that have been turned pink & blue or just grossly over-processed in Photoshop.

Away from the neon, what I’ve christened ‘Nether Tokyo’, is what is known in Japanese as ‘shitamachi’. Literally, shitamachi [下町] means ‘under city’ and was once used to describe neigbourhoods in Tokyo on the east of the city, typically Adachi, Arakawa, parts of Chiyoda-ku, Chūō, Edogawa, Kōtō, Sumida, and Taitō wards and low part of the city along and east of the Sumida River. Shitamachi has, more lately, also tended to be a phrase used to describe older parts of unspoiled backstreet Tokyo.

However, it is many of the those traditionally shitamachi eastern Tokyo neighbourhoods that have the most to offer when it comes to peaceful, olde-worlde charm.

At the start of this week I spent most of one day walking from Kinshicho, up through a series of neighbourhoods that are close to the Sky Tree (like Hikifune), to Shirahigebashi, over the river to Yoshiwara and then down into Asakusa.

One of the big things you notice, literally, all day on this walk is the Sky Tree. Many of the places I walked through on the first half of my walk are neighbourhoods dominated by the 634m high structure. Photographing how it peeks through all sorts of parts of every view reminds me a little of the 富嶽三十六景 [Fugaku Sanjūrokkei] ‘Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji series of uki-oe paintings by Hokusai. Maybe I’ll do a SkyTree Sanjūrokkei series.

As well as shooting the pics you see in the gallery below, I met some great local folks: the butcher who also made and sold ‘Korokke – コロッケ’ [potato, fish, meat and various other flavoured fillings coated in breadcrumbs and deep-fried]. He’s been working there for 50 years. As soon as he knew I spoke Japanese, we had a lovely long chat and I got a portion of his delicious potato salad on the house.

Around the very next corner, I met the 86 year-old lady owner of a vegetable shop. I’d been eyeing the home-made pickles and meat broth [‘motsu nikomi’]. She and I had a nice chat and she let me try a little of pretty much all the home-made goodies on her stall. She’s been running her shop for 64 years.

I came across a backstreet garage containing amongst other things a Honda 800 Sports, a Ferrari, a Triump GT6, 1970 Nissan Silvia, Corvette, 1960s Skyline, Jaguar XJ6. The owner was an interesting chap. Totally happy for me to snap away and listen to me chatting cars whilst he had his head buried in the V12 motr of an old Rolls-Royce he was working on.

Just before the river, I came across a guy with a workshop for cutting and working brass. One of the last places in Tokyo to work in his way, we chatted away for a few minutes and I found out all sorts of stuff about how the brass industry in Japan is almost dead. Interesting fella.

I love the many little factories you get in the residential backstreets of Tokyo. Growing up in the UK, especially when I studied geography, you appreciated how even light industry had largely moved away from residential areas. In Tokyo you still find little factories everywhere. The chap I found with a printing and cutting press in a workshop underneath his house, making storage files and folders, was also super interesting to talk with. We chatted about how freelance life is tough and how cheap labour has really killed most of his sort of company.

I ended my walk by stopping in to my favourite local butchers between Yoshiwara and Asakusa. Their kara-age [fried chicken] is amazing. My last lovely local chat of the day, with an older lady who’d also just bought a bag of the same chicken. We stood out the back of the shop, in the street, chatting and eating our chicken.

She’s been the neighbourhood all her life. As we finished our chat, she made my heart glow by saying:

‘Kaigai no katta jiyanai…. Nihonjin mitai’.

‘You’re not an overseas person. You’re just like a Japanese.’

It really made me happy. I have never really wanted to ‘fit in’ in Japan, or anywhere for that matter. I don’t actively try to ‘stick out’ either. But I do love the backstreets, the old quiet little corners of the city, the artisans and tiny factories. The sort of faded charm of a Tokyo that is fast disappearing. Many Japanese I meet on my walks in these older areas seem to find that weird.

When I show them the photos I take, a lot of the time they laugh. Sometimes they see something i their neighbourhood they haven’t seen before. Sometimes it’s just a way for us to strike up a conversation.

It’s nice to speak a little Japanese. Walking around and chatting to strangers is basically my language school. And I learn so much other stuff: history, geography, culture.

If you’re in Tokyo and want to get under the skin of the city, see another Tokyo, Nether Tokyo… drop me a line and arrange a walk or tour with me.

I look forward to showing you my favourite places in this wonderful city.

…and maybe we’ll even see a bit of neon later 🙂


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