HESO Magazine

Photography, Music, Film, Hitchhiking, Craft Beer – Cultural Pugilist

Tag: Tokyo (Page 1 of 3)

Homeless Makeover of Miyashita Park

Homeless Makeover of Miyashita Park

Miyashita Park, depending on your point of view, is an emerald oasis in the midst of a concrete desert blooming in the most crowded mile in the human world, Shibuya Crossing. One of the few green spaces within the city center, Miyashita is a microcosm of the larger setting of Tokyo. Built in the 30s as a ground level park lined with trees and actual green grass, it follows the Saikyo and Yamanote train lines in a narrow strip along Meiji Dori. The current incarnation of the “park” was a prototypical example of Futuristic Tokyo remodeling a city for the 1964 Olympic games, with little input from the public. In one fell swoop the city ok’d turning Shibuya River into a drainage conduit, and the park was redeveloped on man-made land above a new parking lot just behind the infamous Nonbeiyokocho, Drunkard’s Alley. Removed from ground level and public sightline, once the 90s recession hit, the disenfranchised real estate speculators turned homeless who couldn’t pay back the usurious rates the yakuza offered loans at moved into their own penthouse walkup. Talk about prime location.

But it started well before that. Even as early as the late 60s, activists on both the left and the right used the park as a starting point for marches and protests, while locals who frequented Miyashita said that undesirables were beginning to occupy its steps and bathrooms, leaving them feeling unsafe in their own neighborhood. Once the park became the crux of a superficial battle for old Tokyo to keep its traditional ways versus the new age of Times Square-like remodeling in Japanese society, the larger question of what is public space left the public out of picture. To some, who would say that with Yoyogi Park and Meiji Shrine just north, and picturesque Shinjuku Gyoen Garden and the manicured grounds of Akasaka palace beyond that, there is plenty of “green space” available, what does the public want with a relatively unimportant little strip of land filled with rats, roaches and homeless drunks on top of a parking lot?

Homeless Makeover of Miyashita Park

Homeless Makeover of Miyashita Park

STOP: Opposition to the Nikization of Miyashita Park (from Irregular Rhythm Asylum)

Others might counter that since the Meiji-dori entrance to this green space has long been the gathering point for local protests and grass roots activists, and that the park belongs to everyone–including the j-pop dance teams rehearsing choreography, embarrassed rockabilly greasers not ready for the Yoyogi spotlight, as well as scores of Rojousha or “road people” that populate its narrow boundary–not just whomever can pay the 200 yen to skate or climb the rock wall that local council members helped facilitate through their neighborhood beautification program sponsored by Nike Japan. Peter Shimokawa from The Coalition to Protect Miyashita Park from Becoming Nike Park wrote in Open Letter: Park Development Threatens Local Community that, “though Miyashita Park is publicly owned by the Shibuya Ward, local residents were not involved in the negotiations of this project. Rather, only the head of the Shibuya Ward and a few local congressional members made the deal with NIKE Japan, without consultation with either residents or the local congressional assembly. The project will transform Miyashita Park from a public space, available to all, to a private, consumer-oriented space.”

The public space was co-opted by Shibuya Ward at the behest of greater Tokyo Prefecture during the preparation for the 1964 Olympics. It was transformed from a public to consumer-oriented space at that time. If you consider that everyone has not only the right, but the duty to defend it from private takeover, isn’t it a bit late? Unless, consumer-oriented space is exactly what most everyone wants. Looking at the layout of Miyashita Park, it could be said that it finally conceptually matches Tokyo as the vast urban sea of concrete and glass built during this formative period. The romantic notion of cherry trees decorating simple pastures of green alongside any number of tiny waterway veins lining the greater Tokyo basin is a delusion, as that too is a mere false construction of an imaginary past. Now–beyond the rock wall–there is a futsal pitch and a skate park over which elms shade the multitudes of both young and old who come here to play, exercise and escape the megalopolis surrounding them.

Similar to other public works projects ostensibly meant to benefit the citizenry–the covering of Tokyo’s waterways as well as a designation of no-homeless zone–converting Miyashita from a public to a commercial site would seem to benefit a only relatively small percentage of the population: those interested in activities Nike deems shoe-worthy: footballing, rock-climbing and skating. The question is, is that good or bad? And according to and for whom? It is undeniable that since the renovation, the park is more crowded, the Futsal pitch lined with professionally clad players and spectators, the rockwall seething with anxious queuers, and the skatepark brimming with both young and old skaters. The park has become a gathering place for youth to partake in activities not related to sliding, swinging, or spinning. People have returned. It seems the park is, once again, in bloom. Even if it is a bit contrived and covered in bits of day-glo colored plastic.

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Homeless Makeover of Miyashita Park

Miyashita Park Bike Tunnel circa 2007

Personally, I have history here. The first time I came to Tokyo in 2000 a group of pale-faced graduates and I walked from Shibuya station to Shinjuku through Harajuku’s Neko-dori, and never have I been so inundated with garish signage and obnoxious visual noise as in these few miles. After finally finding an okonomiyaki place and navigating the menu, we walked back the same route and as we approached the intersection where Neko-dori meets Meiji-dori and the train tracks cross the road, I saw a man lying on a piece of cardboard on the sidewalk near some stairs that led up to the overcross, and just beyond were a grove of trees. Noticing the stairs I led the pack of us up to the park and as we walked through the dimly lit grounds, our clamorous voices quieted to whispers. The interior was dark, a shadowy shanty town of cardboard houses covered in blue tarps, both small and large with locking doors and curtained windows, even space for their shoes just outside. These, along with two-man dome tents and other more coffin-like creations, lined the various nooks of the park, the luckier of the squatters filling them out with patio areas complete with plastic chairs, tables covered in beer and sake one-cups, and even gas powered barbeques. We passed piles of garbage loosely collected in plastic convenience store bags overflowing from the unattended trash cans, where ravens and rats openly competed for bits of instant noodle and old onigiri. Noticing the perimeter of the park was cordoned off with fencing, our crew grew silent as we shuffled through what seemed more and more like a kind of prison. One girl approached a clothesline with hundreds of translucent plastic umbrellas hanging and touching one, made a joke that if we were ever caught in the rain…when suddenly a machinegun of angry Japanese emanated from some dark corner of the bushes, saying roughly, “Get the fuck away from my umbrellas you stupid foreigner!” Smiles faded into fearful looks as the neon glow from adjacent restaurants glittered in our eyes. We quickly and quietly exited the park, coming out into Nonbeiyokochou, the tiny conglomeration of old-Edo style restaurants and bars populated with a contrasting cast of well-heeled salarymen and stylish young people eating and drinking, shouting and laughing, smoking and putting the night cap on yet another day. Just steps from the one another, two distinctive worlds co-existing, both pretending the other wasn’t there.

Homeless Makeover of Miyashita Park

Salarymen Tippling in Shibuya’s Nonbeiyokocho

Years later, I moved to Tokyo and Nonbeiyokocho became my second home. I worked as bartender in one of the same tiny establishments for more than a year and became one of the home crew, so to speak. It didn’t take long before I grew immune to the “neighbors upstairs” and came to understand how the locals view them as invisible. “Shogganai ne…” everyone would agree if it ever happened to be brought up. As a member of the itinerant “Tokyo Beats” joke photo crew, I used the park as an ad-hoc photo studio background on numerous occasions, after which we would drink numerous cans of Asahi Super Dry whilst fixing the world’s problems in its comforting environs. I came to find it as cozy, and despite the wafting odor of the accumulated garbage piles on especially humid days, I would stroll end to end in a comfortable escape from the manic and vapid consumerism of Shibuya whenever I could.

I myself have always had moments of inner dilemma with homelessness, the intractable problems created by modern society and the detritus of super-capitalism. Despite the luxury lavished on the few, some make it and some don’t, while most just struggle to make it day to day. That pragmatic, socializing voice in my head, warned me, “If you don’t keep up, that’ll be you screaming at some young lady about your umbrella collection from your cardboard condo!” Scary as that may sound, I have courted the thought as well, foolishly romantic as it may be, to chuck it all–the job, the apartment, the rent, the clothes, the bank account, the iPhone, the social security card, the internet, the media, TV, movies, marriage, kids, vacation, school, doctors–all of it, to go and be Rip Van Winkle somewhere in the unpopulated foothills and forget the absurd nonsense of modern life. But I don’t. Not many do. Certainly not by choice. Mostly because it wouldn’t be all that romantic–what with police persecution, social stigma, and the ever-shrinking area of land that is free, or public, space. Taking that final step scares me. Mostly because I don’t feel I have the specific strength of character to look into the faces of most everyone without self-pity, or shame, or not being able to hold eye contact. A thing which is not as inherently important, and my even be insulting, in Asia, but after sitting down with some of the same guys living in Miyashita park, and having some beers together, when they want to hammer something home–to be understood–they do it, they hold your eye. That, and they almost all say the same thing: they’re not from Tokyo.

“I’m not from Kanto, none that I know here are.” says one man, ashing his Mild 7 smoke into the park’s dirt floor. Kyushu, Kansai, and Tohoku-bred sons (and to a lesser extent, daughters) line the narrow lane where they are allowed to sleep. Which is no longer in the park itself, but below in the thin strip of land between the concrete exterior of the parking garage and the railing demarcating the uncovered motorcycle/bicycle parking in the alley behind Meiji-Dori. “Things happen. Time passes. I was unlucky. I have money now, but I choose to live here. Why not?” Some nod, others merely me, distrusting me for my interest in them, and my foreignness. They are at heart, still Japanese, and nurse a healthy skepticism of all things outsider. And being from a country of roughly 90% homogeneity, they could easily blend in to the monotonous crowd of black- and grey-clad salary-folk daily scurrying throughout the Shibuya station tableau. In some respect, this homelessness–or antagonism toward being easily labeled–is a more longterm form than the other more straightforward form of public protest, a modern kind of civil disobedience, for a society that disdains full frontal confrontation.

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Homeless Makeover of Miyashita Park

Old & New – Miyashita Nike Park Triptych

The headline reads: Politician Creates Commercial Venture On Public Site With Major Corporation – Does Not Consult Public. That in itself does not seem very new or controversial, to Japan or any other Super-Capitalistic Society. The fact is that space is limited in a market-based world economy, and as the homeless are seen as non-economic contributors to society (they don’t have much in the way of lobbyists, advocates-excepting the excellent Sanya-based NPO Sanyukai, or marketing campaigns), they get pushed to the red edges of the ledger, a fact with which we have all learned to live. But on an island whose capital city fringe grows ever more crowded, as the distinction between the legislative branch and the corporate world becomes more and more blurry, the deep pulse of humanity’s desire to benefit all becomes clouded over by fiscal goals to benefit the ultra-rich corporate minority and bury the mistakes of the past. So Miyashita Park becomes Miyashita Nike Park (although the change never officially took place, it remains the de facto name) and the blue tarp cardboard dwellers get moved to a neat row along the bike park below. For now. What happens to them when the municipality begins work on renovating the nearby Yoyogi National Stadium in preparation for the Handball Finals at the 2020 Olympics? Pass legislation funding the expansion of train lines, stations, expressways and stadium compounds. Attach discretionary funding to hire more police. Begin food program to round up homeless and ship to Gunkanshima. Produce Reality TV Show where homeless people battle for stash of Sake One Cups titled: Road People Battle Royale. In a mechanical commercial society of spiritless automatons where building Babel TV Towers (Skytree) and Olympic handball courts take precedence over providing sustenance to its totality of citizens, the question remains, is that what we want?

Now Tsukiji, Now You Don’t

Photographs by Bahag de Guzman
Words by Erin Emocling

“Now Tsukiji, Now You Don’t” is an accidental photo-series that explores a closed-for-the-day Tsukiji Fish Market: a visually saturnine preview of its scheduled relocation in preparation for the Olympics in Tokyo on 2020.

You’re standing in the middle of this alleyway, living in the present, and you enter the vast and moving world of Tsukiji—a world-famous fish market in the heart of Tokyo that pumps its own blood every waking dawn, an almost 80-year old marketplace that gave sashimi and sushi their tasteful, incomparable meaning to the rest of the world, and, sadly, an old place that is bound to be deconstructed within a number of months from now.

You’re in a time travel machine, you peek into the near future, and you enter the vast and deadened world of Tsukiji. You imagine an ocean without creatures, a land denuded of trees, and a planet devoid of oxygen. You imagine these tragic scenes and you feel your heart crumble with melancholy, fear, and abandonment.

This is Tsukiji like never before: dark, lifeless, and cold. You step onto its moist pavement and, immediately, you feel like you’re on a set of an apocalyptic film, except what you see—and what you don’t see—is real. You are aware that everything that used to run the place into a breathing mishmash of reality will soon completely vanish. You know that someday, everything in Tsukiji will turn into nothing.

You walk to and fro. You see no one, no movement, but the flicker of unwanted fish scales scattered on the cobblestones and the natural light that illuminates its emptiness all the more. You examine the place more closely.

Too closely. But the only sounds you hear are the mechanical howls of machinery noise and the occasional taunts of thieving crows. The fishmongers’ irrashaimase are nothing but imaginary echoes. Inside the deadened Tsukiji, everything, or nothing, is right in front of you.

The sought-after edible sea creatures will remain uncut and unserved. Wooden crates and plastic foam boxes will remain unstacked, untouched. Rust-laden machines, including filthy but useful wheel-barrows, will be forgotten, unused, decomposed. Its shallow streets will become sadder. All the Japanese characters on the signboards will be ignored and fade away. All the tables and weighing scales will be tossed aside. And all the blood-drenched floors and tools will dry to death. But to those who have Tsukiji as their world, committing these into memories is the only way to immortalize what’s going to be left behind.

Life would not be put to a halt. But some things can never be replaced. They just dwell as reminiscences. Tsukiji was once a place that breathed life. And so tomorrow, when you look back, you’ll always say that: Tsukiji will never be the same again.

Bahag de Guzman is both a filmmaker and a photographer based in Tokyo and Hokuriku. His most recent works include Alienistics Fashion, Mainichi Japan, and Animalistics, to name a few. He is currently working on various documentaries and event coverage around Japan. Check out his site.

Erin Emocling is a published writer, a film photographer, and the editor-in-chief of an international webzine, Parallel Planets. Her past projects include Whilst We Wait and Paranoirexia. Originally from Manila, she now lives in western Tokyo. Now Tsukiji, Now You Don’t originally appeared here.

A small stone Buddha at Enmeiji Temple

Kubikiri Jizo – Decapitation Buddha – Enmeiji Shrine

Located in a nook just below Minami-Senju Station in little-traveled Arakawa, Tokyo is Enmeiji Temple. The temple, just down a sidestreet beneath the station, is located in the southeastern part of Tokyo’s northern ward of Arakawa, one of the poorest sections of the city. A few blocks to the east of the Sumida River in between which lay the disavowed neighborhood of Sanya, the home of Sanyukai–the largest free medical clinic in Tokyo. Being located in the northeast of Tokyo’s predecessor, Edo, a main cause of the modern-day poverty dates back to the fourteenth century when the Edo rulers believed that evil spirits came from the northeast, and as a result only those known as the Burakumin–executioners, undertakers, slaughterhouse workers, butchers and tanners–those with kegare (穢れ or “defilement”) attached to them, were able to live there.

Kubikiri Jizo – Decapitation Buddha – Enmeiji Shrine

A small stone Buddha at Enmeiji Temple

A small stone Buddha at Enmeiji Temple

Recently popular as an underground tourist destination, due to its cheap hostels, Minami Senju was once more infamous for Kozukappara Execution Grounds, one of the three sites in Edo, where the Tokugawa Shogunate (1650-1873) executed criminals. Anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 people were executed at Kozukappara for crimes ranging in seriousness dependent on the whims of the laws of the current shogun. Apocryphally, medical students and doctors studied anatomy here by dissecting the remains of fresh corpses. And although executions were stopped during the Meiji period to coincide with the westernization of Japan and the death knell of Bushido, traces of the past continue to slip through the veil of denial where today, the vast majority of the grounds, once the size of a football field, are covered by railway tracks: the new death sentence for the modern defiled.

That veil is Enmeiji Temple, which goes as far back as that of the the creation of Kozukappara itself. Created in order to bury the bodies of those executed, the temple is a small nook compared to what it once must have been. Watching over and offering solace to the departed souls of the executed, erected in 1741, a 3.5 meter tall Buddha statue called “Kubikiri Jizo” stands in the temple compound, smiling its Mona Lisa smile, surrounded by lesser Jizo and other Buddhist carvings and inscriptions.

Knowing that you stand on soil that has had the blood of 200,000 “criminals” soaked into it, standing in the entrance of Enmeiji a strange sentiment comes over you, if anything comes at all. Distracted by the wind whipping by and the interminable click-clacking of the trains, not much else ever happens here anymore. Just the silent stare of the stone Buddha and the sun and rain. But maybe that’s why it has a kind of beauty, admittedly desolate, but true nonetheless.

A Floating World in Bloom - HESO Interviews Tokyo-based photographer Michael Nguyen

A Floating World in Bloom – Interview with Michael Nguyen

I first met Michael Nguyen on a beautiful spring day in Tokyo, the flowers in bloom. We were in a Shibuya park on Meiji Dori, where an anti-nuke rally climaxed in a costumed hippie drum offensive, bursting in the dappled light. If I remember correctly, Mike had a can of beer and a cigarette (he likes his tobacco, lights it with a Zippo with a dazzling flair that would make a seamus smile). It didn’t take long to establish friendship: he was a Gaucho and so was I, alumni of University of California at Santa Barbara, meaning we’d both known Paradise as younger men and that this heady knowledge acquired as twenty-year-olds had affected our lifelong trajectories. I’ve only known Mike for about two years but judging by his photography, I can see he’s never discarded the pleasures introduced in Santa Barbara. It’s nice to see that he’s still trailing after beautiful manifestations, glad he sees fit to share his gleaning with the rest of us. Mike’s wonderfully eccentric street tableaux aside, he’s well-known among his peers for his bathing beauties—what has been called his “babe in the onsen” motif, but really that is simplifying and involves not a little envy. There is an element in fantasy in such an intimate, sensual image. After all, most of us photographers are not Lothario types, and an attractive woman will not be seduced by the size of our lens. Something more is at work, something mysterious, which I suppose is a secret, and a well-guarded one.

We at HESO then are proud to present a sample of Michael’s work—his women, and because it’s spring, his flowers, for what better way to illustrate the ephemeral beauty that breaks our hearts, then to complement these lithe, youthful figures with the ambassadors of spring, in which we are reminded we have yet another chance to set things right.

A Floating World in Bloom – Interview with Michael Nguyen

A Floating World in Bloom - HESO Interviews Tokyo-based photographer Michael NguyenHESO: Why photography? Why not painting? Or music? Or triathlons?

Michael Nguyen: If you have ever heard me at karaoke then you would know why not music. Photography and painting do not necessarily really differ in terms of how we experience time and space, but the creation phase is different. Painting starts out in the light and develops gradually, but remains visible the entire time. A photo captures a scene all at once and is then developed over time in a dark laboratory. Digital is changing all of that, but that’s another story. Photography for me is the best means of expressing and hanging on to those little fleeting splinters of life we experience each day.

HESO: How did you get into photography? I believe you majored in it at UC Santa Barbara. Do you think studying the subject at university has made you a better photographer?

MN: I was a graphic design major actually. I started taking photography classes in college and fell in love with the zen state of mind in the darkroom. I can’t say I really learned much in college, nothing I couldn’t have learned by going to galleries myself and looking at books and hanging out with other photographers.

HESO: Which cameras do you prefer? And why? Does shooting with film matter?

MN: Ah, the obligatory gear porn question. I suppose it depends on what I shoot. For street photography I have my Leica M6 with a 50mm Sumicron, which is good for much single-subject shots. For portraits and landscape I have my Rolleiflex Sl66 for the slower process and higher film resolution, basically a Hassy with bellows that allows me to play around with the focal plane. I haven’t seen anyone else using one. To keep the film vs digital debate succinct, I’m of the opinion that from a personal expression point-of-view, the process does matter and the process of shooting film slows things down and allows one to think with deeper clarity. It doesn’t help that I’m a sentimental motherfucker who clings to bygone things. The well-worn cliche here being if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. There was nothing wrong with film photography when digital came along. Which isn’t to say that digital is bad or anything per se–it makes commercial work more efficient and streamlined, but it hasn’t added anything to the art form.

HESO: Though we are featuring a series of flowers and feminine beauty, you’re a bit of a street photographer as well. What is it you’re looking for on the street?

MN: Other than the typical “I wanna capture the fleeting moments of life” schpiel, street photography is my way of sticking it to the man so to speak. Like poker, the house always wins. Every now and then the perfect hand comes and you happen to bet big and take down the house. Most of the time we take shitty snapshots of mundane objects, but when that perfect moment comes where you’re at the right place at the right time and had the right settings on your camera, and, well, that time is beautiful.

HESO: Do you enjoy shooting in Japan better than elsewhere? How is it different than shooting in the States?

MN: Difficult to answer really. It wasn’t until I got to Japan that I took it seriously. So I can’t say I’ve had a good attempt at really shooting in other places. I did recently go to Spain however and found the light there to feel harsh and low, quite challenging.

A Floating World in Bloom - HESO Interviews Tokyo-based photographer Michael NguyenHESO: What is the most difficult aspect of being a photographer today?

MN: Coming up with something groundbreaking and new since everything seems like its been done. Cliche is the enemy.

HESO: So much good photography in my experience is due the serendipitous moment. Share with us a story of accidental good fortune.

MN: In life anyway, accidental is the only kind of good fortune I get. As far as photography, I can’t go as far as to say I’ve had any true serendipitous moments. You always try to be in the place with the best possibility of seeing something interesting and be prepared as best as you can. Photography isn’t a terrible John Cusack movie.

HESO: Flowers, youth, the elegant form of the female nude… what else do you find beautiful in this world?

MN: That’s just about it! Haha. With the sensory overload in this day and age I’ve become so jaded and numb that anything that stimulates any kind of emotion, good or bad, is beautiful in this world. Being rather immature for my age however, beauty remains a superficial thing unfortunately…

HESO: Your photos presented herein are just lovely. Any chance they’ll become part and parcel of a more comprehensive project on beauty?

MN: Ideally yes. but again like I mentioned earlier its really hard not to do cliche and redundant things, so who knows. I’m torn between just getting out there or hold out till I have something mind blowing. waiting for that epiphany.

HESO: You are somewhat notorious among your friends for the ‘babe in the onsen’ motif, but a lot of the ribbing is just jealousy. They would love to imitate you if only they could! Any tips for guys on making their beautiful girlfriends comfortable enough to pose in such intimate circumstances?

MN: Lots of booze! Seriously though, women tend to be insecure creatures. Reassuring them of how sexy they are and showing your passion in having them as such an integral part of your vision is key. Everyone just wants to feel needed and loved.

See more of Michael’s work here.

Placebo with Zakuro © Ontoshiki

Interview with Tokyo Photographer Ontoshiki

In the old days, when a man was building his credibility as an artist, he did so rather anonymously. There might be a break here or there in this or that magazine or fashion catalogue but it would be difficult for this person to build a public name outside the small circle of his metropolitan environs. There was no forum for strangers to witness the flourishing of an individual’s sensibility. The support network could be minimal, the journey, lonely.

I’ve never met the man who goes by the mysterious name of Ontoshiki but that doesn’t mean I don’t know him. I first discovered him a little more than a year ago on flickr. I can’t remember exactly what shot it was but I think it might have been from his Tohoku series, which Ontoshiki visited shortly after the devastating March 11th quake. Amidst the destruction are solitary shots of people. What are they doing here? Looking through the ruins? Contemplating how life could ever be the same again? I learned quickly his Tohoku work is in no way emblematic of his oeuvre— Ontoshiki is not a photojournalist— but is consistent with his strong feelings regarding mood and emotion.

I am of the camp that the photos we take are like the results of a Rorschach test, giving ourselves away, what we feel about love, humanity, even political and spiritual viewpoints. You can tell from a man’s photographs whether you’d like the man himself. After all, it’s not just the way he sees the world— every photograph is an appreciation of a certain moment that is then publicized to express selfhood. A photo then is not just saying, “Look at this!” but is whispering in your ear, “This is me…”

That said I know I’d like Ontoshiki the man. Beyond technical commonalities (like me he seems to shoot mostly in color with film cameras) it’s his unmistakable interest in beauty and humanism that makes him simpatico. Yes, he photographs beautiful women but he is careful to allow them their sense of mystery. When I peruse his many photos of women I’m not just looking at their finery and appreciating their feminine charms; I’m also sensing their autonomy (as opposed to being mere sex objects). All too often fashion photography feels reductive (it is after all selling something) but Ontoshiki allows his subjects their vulnerability. Moodiness has precedence over glamour. This emphasis is something you rarely find in photos of beautiful women.

I suppose it works here because Ontoshiki is coming at photography with his dual interest in self-expression and aesthetic appreciation. Some people want to make perfectly abstract photos of buildings. Others find their eye in war zones. And then some just adore beautiful women. In his own words, Ontoshiki writes that sensuality “in photography is tantamount to having an intimate dance with a woman; timing, technique, intricate body movements…shooting someone for an extended period gives me a feeling of palpable intimacy.” It’s not a job then, it’s a life.

A Lust Restrained © Ontoshiki

A Lust Restrained © Ontoshiki

HESO: When did you first pick up a camera?

Ontoshiki: I’ve been shooting since I was a teen. I was born in Malaysia but my ancestor’s roots are from China. When I was 9 years old, my family immigrated to Australia so I was raised and educated there. 

In 2005, I made a big decision to quit a decent job (in the Australian government) and I eventually arrived in Tokyo. With a constant stream of culture, interesting faces and beautiful scenes happening right in front of my eyes, I felt like I needed something with a little more control in order to document these fascinating visuals. A year later, after being inspired by film photographers I came across, I ventured into film photography and immediately fell in love with the Pentacon 6 and a cheap plastic Holga. I eventually opted for the 6×6 format Hasselblad and the 35mm format Minolta. 

I don’t have any formal education but I will be going to Paris, France to study at SPEOS school of photography to eventually to work on meaningful long-term documentary projects which focus on community and inherent social issues.

HESO: You get up in the morning, look out the window, what do you see?

Ontoshiki: I’m not a morning person so maybe I see the world a little differently, moving in time-lapse. I feel like I’m a goldfish swimming around in a fishbowl watching the world go by. Going back in history, the last 50 years has changed more significantly than the last 1000 years. This phenomenon is known as “the quickening” and I believe this is a sign that the world is on the verge of major social, economic, political and spiritual change. We are living in an upside-down world full of misinformation. I used to be nihilistic and live in a world of existential ennui, but photography has given me meaning. When I quit my job many years ago and moved to Japan, I wasn’t sure what I was doing: perhaps it was to escape the my life back then. Picking up photography has given me a tool to explore my inner and outer Universes for truth, connect the dots of life and to understand the synchronicities that has led me to this point.

Secret Kyoto © Ontoshiki

Secret Kyoto © Ontoshiki

HESO: You have a very distinct portfolio, full of color and ranging across a variety of subject matter, from classic traditional to edgy counterculture. There is a sense of discipline and order underlying many of your images, yet, strictly speaking, they are not all in focus. What is your main objective in photographing something?

Ontoshiki: Quite the contrary, I really think my portfolio lacks order or discipline. If there were elements of any, perhaps the discipline and order may have come from the educational system in Malaysia. In Australia, the education system was free-flowing, interactive and students were allowed their own voice.

In terms of what I shoot, as with any rookie photographer or painter, I started out shooting scenes from daily life, flowers, stills, people but nothing out of the ordinary. To draw an analogy, it was akin to being born but without your vocal chords developed. You are but a newborn watching and observing, listening and learning but once you are ready, you gradually develop a voice. Now that I am ready, I want to communicate to people the way I see the world and the sights and sounds that have influenced and inspired me.

Lately, I’m sometimes paid to shoot things I/m not particularly interested in. but I do it in order to financially support my other photographic endeavors. Photography is not a “cheap thrill” but I’ll try not to sell myself out and focus on the subjects that interest me.

HESO: Do you prefer analog to digital photography or vice versa? Or is it not important? Explain.

Ontoshiki: For personal work, portraiture, street and documentary, I definitely prefer shooting film especially in black and white — the tones and highlights are incomparable to a straight digital black and white conversion which is often flat, lacks contrast and depth. I shoot digital for assignments and editorials due to cost, speed and convenience.

Feline Fatale © Ontoshiki

Feline Fatale © Ontoshiki

HESO: You possess a knack for extracting color out of a scene. Yet you also have a very large, and quite masterful collection of black and white photographs. What do you feel is the main difference between the two and how do you approach shooting color as opposed to shooting black and white?

Ontoshiki: I love the masters of paintings: van Gogh, Monet, Degas; film: Wong Kar Wai, Ridley Scott, Tim Burton; contemporary photographers: Eugenio Recuenco, Damon Loble, Michelangelo di Battista, Elizaveta Porodina. Their colors are punchy, mood strong, voyeuristic, mysterious, yet the look is still dreamy and organic. If I can get anywhere close to a combination of their styles, I will be on the right track.

If I honestly critique myself, I am not afraid to admit that my digital work “sucks”. I am an amateur with artificial lighting and photoshop post-processing. On the other hand, I feel that my black and white film work is closer to where I want to be. I remember the story of the Master sushi chef who’s been making the same sushi for over 25 years and when asked if he were happy with his sushi, he promptly replied “My sushi is still not good.” On that timeline, I am only in my 3rd to 4th year since I was reborn photographically.

HESO: You have many photos of far-off people in some kind of cityscape. Do you prefer to shoot landscapes or vistas or people? A combination of both? Are these scenes candid or contrived? Do you use models or random strangers? If the latter, do you ask permission?

Ontoshiki: Initially, when I started photographing the streets and people, I would shoot them in the distance. Over the years, I learnt how to get closer and fill the frame and I think that is very much also a reflection of how I am a little less afraid of making the commitment to get closer to someone on a personal level. I suppose you could say that photography has granted me a sort of quasi-intimate relationship with the people I shoot.

Do I ask permission? I do a bit of both, obviously with my street photos they are all random strangers sometimes I stop to ask but most times I shoot them going about their daily business. I recently try to venture into places and go to events where I can likely meet interesting personalities but sometimes I am lucky enough to meet people and subjects serendipitously. In fact, one of the most interesting shoots Ive had done in my life I unexpectedly met at a bar in Shibuya. He is a prominent franchise owner in the U.S. who was in Japan to franchise his business but he was also here to learn the art of “kinbaku” which is the art of rope tying bondage. We got to talking, agreed on a price and I ended up doing a photoshoot for him at the studio of infamous “shibari” rope master, Steve Osada. On another day, I did a photoshoot of him, his girlfriend and two other guys having a four-some. Needless to say, that was the weirdest shooting experiences I’ve ever been involved with and Im not sure if Id do it again to be honest 😉 …oh, just for the record, I didn’t participate.

HESO: Hah! Who are your favorite photographers? Any images in particular stick out to you?

Ontoshiki: I’d like to pay homage to the masters: Helmut Newton, Nobuyoshi Araki, Eugene Smith, James Nachtwey, Daido Moriyama.

A few years ago around the time I started on my photography journey my good friend Mika who’s a professional photographer took me to an exhibition at a small gallery in Ginza to see the work of fetish photographer “Yasuji Watanabe”. It’s hard to explain but at the time, I was rather stoic about the experience. I know looking back, that deep down inside the images really grabbed me, yet I didn’t know how to react or what I wanted to do with it because I was still in my photographic womb. I realize now a seed was planted within me and a few years on, I am taking my first steps on the path to photographing themes of beauty, sensualism, fetishism and erotica. I would say that I have found the voice resonating deep within me which lay dormant at the time.

If You Stole My Sunset © Ontoshiki

If You Stole My Sunset © Ontoshiki

HESO: What do you do when you are not working?

Ontoshiki: I’ve been occupied with…spirituality, yoga, street photography, mixed martial arts, urban exploration, blogging, working on my website and venturing to places in order to meet new people for my photography projects.

HESO: How has the tragedy of 3/11 affected you? Those around you? Friends and family? What do you feel you have done to help? What needs to be done?

Ontoshiki: What have I done to help? Not enough. I was lucky enough to join the crew of JTI Foundation and Fukushima Future on their projects in Tohoku and Fukushima. I really wish I had more time, money and resources but what I did documenting the tragedy was for very selfish reasons. However, through this experience I was able to communicate my voice and viewers who came across my photos could feel hope and compassion among all the devastation. I would definitely like to go up there again if I have a chance to see the positive progress and to document happier moments.

As tragic as it was, it really helped me to understand myself better as a person. I am a selfish and complicated person by nature yet I feel theres a compassionate humanitarian part of me which is dying to be released from its shackles. I know one day I will find that altruistic part of me and pull him out of that deep, dark abyss.

My family and friends, much like everyone else were obviously concerned about what was happening in Japan. Watching the situation unfold on TV where “bad news is good news” is never easy on the families of people affected. At the same time, I don’t thing it was a stretch to say that Fukushima was minutes from the worst nuclear disaster in history.

HESO: Ontoshiki, if you want to mention anything else about yourself, your work or a charitable cause you work with—anything—please do so here.

Ontoshiki: Firstly, I’d like to thank the team at HESO, you Manny, Sean and to everyone who follows my work. Find me on my Facebook page and drop me a message.

This interview is part of HESO Magazine’s ongoing Summer Interview Series, where we interview photographers, musicians and artists about their work and what they think about the world of 2012. We may ask them similar questions, but the answers have been anything but the same old canned responses. Check out the entire series here.

Modern Japan with Bronica Zenza

Modern Japan with Bronica Zenza

In part V of the series Manny Santiago looks at Modern Japan via the Bronica Zenza (ゼンザブロニカ?), a Japanese brand of medium format roll-film cameras, a single-lens reflex model first appearing in 1958. Partially named after the company’s founder, Zenzaburo Yoshino, and reputedly derived from Zenzaburo Brownie Camera. The Bronica Z and successor Bronicas, using Nikkor lenses, are all cult classics. Bronicas are workhorse cameras for wedding and portrait photographers and secondhand Bronica cameras are still widely used by professional and serious amateur photographers, due to superior image quality over smaller film and digital sensor formats as well as affordability.

After the death of Zenzaburo Yoshino in 1988, Bronica was acquired by the lens manufacturer Tamron which discontinued the brand’s single-lens reflex models (SQ, ETR and GS) in October 2004. Bronica’s last model, the RF645 rangefinder camera, was discontinued in October 2005.

Modern Japan with Bronica Zenza

The Modern Japan Gallery

Fan faces at Fujirock (Manny Santiago)

Modern Japan with Horizon S3

In part IV of the series Manny Santiago looks at Modern Japan via the Horizon S3 Pro Panoramic. The Horizon is a mechanical swing-lens panoramic camera manufactured by Krasnogorskiy Zavod in Krasnogorsk, Russia, known for their range of Zenit cameras.

The Horizon was produced in two formats: the 205pc, which took 50.5×110 mm wide frames on 120 film, and the 202, which took 24×58 mm wide frames on perforated 35 mm film. The 202 has been superseded by the S3pro, a redesigned and improved camera with silent rotation and more exposure times.

An older version called the Horizont, produced in the Soviet Union in the 1960s, had an all-metal, rectangular body and a removable viewfinder. The technology of the “202” is basically the same, but the body covering is plastic, and has an integrated viewfinder, making it larger. Additionally, the 202 features a slow-speed shutter mechanism, with exposure times of 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/60, 1/125, 1/250 of a second; the S3-Pro has exposure times of 1/250, 1/125, 1/60, 1/30, 1/8, 1/4, 1/2 and 1 second, slower rotation than the 202, and silent rotation. It has been appropriated by Lomo.

Modern Japan with Horizon S3

The Modern Japan Gallery

Homeless in Tokyo

Homeless in Yoyogi Park

Homeless in Yoyogi Park

Homeless communities peak out of the hidden areas of Yoyogi Park in Shibuya

Homeless in Yoyogi Park

As the weather worsens and the pace toward the closing of the years quickens, take a Saturday morning to drop by the Sanyukai NPO & free medical clinic in 32 No. 8, 2-chome, Kiyokawa in Taito-ku, accessible via Minami Senju station. Help make bento lunches, go along to pass them out among homeless people along the Sumida River, donate some food, clean blankets and clothing, sit down on a bench in front of Sanyukai and have a conversation over tea with someone. Act human in a time when that is beginning to seem so out of the ordinary. Find out what happens when the 2020 Olympics comes to Tokyo.

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