Japan IV - Signs - Part Two

Mos Burger, Ikebukuro

Mos Burger, Ikebukuro

We'll start where we left things last time, in Ikebukuro. In fact we'll start at a sign that has always been a welcome to us. This is the site of our first meal ever in Japan! Yes...we landed early in Narita and made our way to Ikebukuro and to our hotel. We were too early to check in but were able to dump our luggage. Tired, jetlagged and overwhelmed by being in Japan we needed something nice and easy. We found this branch of Mos Burger just outside our hotel and dived in. We've been back to many a Mos Burger since, the food is reliable and staff are friendly. Its one of the better fast-food chains in Japan, certainly better than the store with the gaudy arches or Lotteria (fries are good though).

Smile every day, Ikebukuro

Smile every day, Ikebukuro

Sticking with Ikebukuro we begin to notice that many of the signs are a little, well, quirky. In my view this reflects the psyche of the country. Underneath the formal surface there is a lot of quirkiness waiting to break free. This explains, or at least I hope it does, the obsession with mascots. It is impossible to imagine a store or brand that does not have a mascot. Much stranger is the fact that this extends to towns and prefectures as well. The most famous town mascot is probably Kumamon, mascot of Kumamoto. As I understand it, part of the reason for his popularity is that he can be used without restriction, hence the ubiquity of the rosey cheeked bear. 

Waterfront, Fukuoka

Waterfront, Fukuoka

Even car parks, as you might just be able to see above, have mascots. The odd thing is that this need for promotion, and promotion with a degree of quirkiness, extends into other aspects of life. Where else could you imagine that one of the nation's best selling pop acts (OK - they might not sell as much as that but they're still ace) were originally created to advertise a town's most famous foodstuff. Don't believe me? 

Negicco were originally created for a promotional campaign for the onions from this area. The word “negi” (ネギ) means “onion” in Japanese.
— http://www.jpop-idols.com/en/negicco/

The cautious amongst you will realise that this is an entirely shameless excuse for me to bring some Jpop into this post. You'd be entirely correct in that fear but one of these days you will submit to the joy of Jpop.

Of course, I will, somewhat feebly also make the excuse that Negicco do show us lots of signs in their rather wonderful MV. It's fine, I realise you are less than convinced by that argument. OK, back to the signage.

Entrance to Kappabashi-dori, Tokyo

Entrance to Kappabashi-dori, Tokyo

This is one of the few occasions in life where I really wished I had a fisheye lens. Why? Well just opposite this huge chef's head, which signals the entrance to kitchenware town, is a building with cups instead of balconies. What this really shows us is that the ubiquity of advertising in Japan eventually becomes part of the urban landscape. This moustache wearing fellow is a tourist site in his own right, as indeed he should be.

Cafe near the Aso volcano museum, Kumamoto prefecture

Cafe near the Aso volcano museum, Kumamoto prefecture

Again, the urban landscape, or in this case the rural landscape can offer the familiar as well as the unusual. In this case the brand and colour is pretty much instantly recognisable, and it a sight you see all over Japan. Indeed, advertising benches are pretty common, particularly in tourist areas. Perhaps I'll need to start recording during a future trip.

And Coffee Roasters, Kumamoto

And Coffee Roasters, Kumamoto

For this trip though, all I have is the bench outside And Coffee Roasters in Kumamoto. Acknowledging that this post is meant to be about signage I shall pause and sing the praises of And Coffee. As well as serving some pretty decent coffee (both the cold brew and the latte were excellent) this was our first experience of the incredible hospitality of the locals in Kumamoto. We received a super friendly welcome here, and in other places in town; so much so that we felt that we really didn't do the place justice in the short time we visited. I am sure we'll go back. 

Plant life, Kyoto

Plant life, Kyoto

The welcome of the people of Kumamoto was all the more wonderful due to the recent earthquake that rocked, quite literally, the area. I'm going to come back to that in future posts, but this was not unusual. We also visited just after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011 and found an equally warm welcome, I particularly remember being thanked for visiting the country and believing in Japan by someone at a temple in Kyoto.

Rope, Kiyomizu-dera, Kyoto

Rope, Kiyomizu-dera, Kyoto

Which somewhat tenuously brings us back to temples. I'm always a little nervous making pictures in temples in case of causing offence. There are definitely some temples which do not allow photography, Sanjusangendo being a prime example (although they do make exceptions for the real masters - albeit after seven years of negotiation). Only once have I attempted to make an image where is was prohibited, and that was through me missing seeing the sign that this particular hall did not allow photography. Fortunately the priest of the temple (Enryakuji) was very kind, I was appalled that I almost committed a faux pas. Its always comforting to see positive affirmation that all is OK.

Outside Todaiji, Nara

Outside Todaiji, Nara

The streets are still a safer bet, I've not once been asked what I am doing when I am making a picture (unlike in Norwich). Perhaps this is because I am clearly a tourist in Japan, or perhaps it is because I am making images of the most mundane things imaginable. At least, I assume they are mundane to the locals, to me they are, of course, endlessly wonderful.

Yakitori and Chinese bar, Kagurazaka

Yakitori and Chinese bar, Kagurazaka

When I say wonderful, I truly mean it. Take the above for example, it's pretty ordinary really. That is, at least for me, until you notice the Yakitori sign in all it's 1970s (in style at least) glory. Then you see the lovely planting outside, which I believe I may have mentioned before. Then, finally, you see the Chinese bar is called Fan Fun. I'd like to hope it meets expectations with a name like this, we didn't hang around to find out.

Tooth, Kagurazaka

Tooth, Kagurazaka

Part of the reason we didn't hang around was because A wanted to find the Kagurazaka tooth. This had been spotted during a prior trip and really needed to be found again. Find a tooth we did, but not the tooth. This is a more modern version, the original was, again, a 1970s relic and sadly has not been recorded on film by us. This goes to prove that you need to make the image when you see it. Not perhaps a decisive moment but at least a recognition that nothing stays the same forever.

Camera store?, Kagurazaka

Camera store?, Kagurazaka

This change does, of course, extend to the way that images are made and recorded. Take the sign above, which I assumed was for a camera store (it was closed). This sign would very likely not be made now, because so few people use view cameras. Those that do have my endless admiration. I have tried, and have yet to be fully successful, which is a shame because the negative is amazingly huge. I'll need to stick to 35mm for my travel shots I think.

Vintage store, Shimo-Kitazawa

Vintage store, Shimo-Kitazawa

Coming back to change, and the seemingly endless need to modernise and gentrify. My new favourite spot in Tokyo, Shimo-Kitazawa is undergoing it's own battle against the city fathers. Shimokita is a welcoming ramble of tiny streets and tinier boutiques, all with a somewhat hippy vibe, which is unusual in Japan. Of course, this makes it ripe for flattening and replacing with super-glitzy high rise blocks. The locals are resisting this but I wonder how long they can hold out against such "Progress".

Soup curry, Shimo-Kitazawa

Soup curry, Shimo-Kitazawa

This makes it all the more important to record the area now, before any changes occur that change the essential character of the place. Even huge mural signs can be lost. You might not realise it but these used to be commonplace throughout the UK and France. There are still the remains to be seen on some buildings in Norwich, and in France at least one book celebrates what used to be common and part of the landscape of most towns and villages, and even the BBC has noted their fading. Having spent a lot of time in France as a youngster, these murals are part of the fabric of my life and it will be a shame if they are lost forever, replaced by electronic boards that can be changed with a touch of a button. Convenient for the advertisers for sure, but not permanent or remotely interesting.

Shutters, Shimo-Kitazawa

Shutters, Shimo-Kitazawa

All of which brings this post to the end. If you're feeling a little down about that, as I am, then hopefully the fishing kittens will help. Once again, I'll acknowledge the wonderful Canadian Film Lab for the brilliant work on my film (which is either Portra 160 or Natura 1600). As a final word, I'll point you to this little post I found, for another view of Tokyo in 35mm film. The photographer captures a different Tokyo to the one I know, but recognisable nonetheless (and full of signage, which after all is why we are here). Thanks as always for taking a look at this post, and my little pictures.