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Saturday, May 9, 2009

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

In search of picture-perfect Tokyo


Tokyo is infested with camera bugs. I can identify three species, at least.

First, there are the genuine camera "nutsos," the kind who heft about 30-cm-long zooms and then bunch up in rows 10 deep to take photos of every single leaf that turns color. The kind that clean the display counters at Yodabashi and Bic with their drool.

Then there is the new breed, those who carry card-size digitals and yank them out suddenly from pockets or purses, like special agents with concealed Glocks.

"Hey, you! Yeah, you! Raise your hands . . . Now! And back up against that wall! OK, form a peace sign with your fingers and say . . . Cheeeeeese."

Last there are those ubiquitous cell-phone holders, who can morph from chatterbox to shutterbug with the simple push of a button — although the annoyance level remains the same.

What brings this on is a photo my wife plunked before me a few days ago. It was taken by one of her language students from China and had received, from that student, a caption to inform the eyes of what they were seeing.

The caption read: "A representative snapshot of Tokyo."

The photo? A mere patch of sky. The student wished to send his family a shot of something he rarely saw back home: open, uninterrupted blue.

While my wife sniffled at how sad that was, I took to remind her that China was a large country that was, in all likelihood, covered with sky. Perhaps smog ruled the heavens from place to place, but such wrapping was certainly Lincoln-esque. As in:

You can hide all of the sky some of the time, and some of the sky all of time, but you can't hide all of the sky all of the time.

And when she answered, "Huh?" I countered with the simple statement that blue skies are not always plentiful in Tokyo either.

This led to our typical parry and thrust, which concluded with her usual observation . . . that I was a pinhead.

But out of it all came this:

Just what would be a "representative photo" of Tokyo?

"I am sure you could describe Tokyo up and down with words," she said. "But could you do it with a single photo? I bet you can't."

So, although not a camera bug of any species, I had a challenge.

I immediately lined up — and eliminated — the usual suspects.

This first included the oft cited "most photographed" spot in the city — the Shibuya scramble cross, with its flood of pedestrians and waterfall of storefront ads. For if you live here, you pretty much know those crowds and those ads could be anywhere.

Next comes that giant of juxtapose, classic Zojoji temple, shot with the Tokyo Tower rocketing up from behind. A photo that grades out as much too phallic for me, showing the dominance of new over old, no matter which end you keep in focus.

If you prefer that focus on the past, you might instead select the renowned Gate of Thunder — Kaminarimon — with its 350-kg-plus pound lantern dangling over throngs of milling tourists, not one of course from this city. A photo that screams, "Asakusa!" But not Tokyo.

Or if you prefer the focus on modernity, you might pick that oddball shot of the Fuji Television building on Odaiba. Was architect Kenzo Tange a genius? Or a jester? The building sure looks funny to me. Does it project Tokyo? Or Star Wars? I think "Star Wars," one of the weaker editions.

So what does that leave? The Diet Building perhaps? The photo with the stoplight in the foreground, frozen symbolically on red? Or a shot of some cute coed costumed as a maid in Akihabara? Or how about a pic of red-bricked Tokyo Station? More venerable, but not as alluring as the coed.

The Imperial moat? The Tokyo Metropolitan Building? The Tsukiji Market?

No, the usual suspects fail. I am thus left with artsy endeavors like the blur of a commuter train, bursting with passengers. Or the happy glow of an izakaya, with well-sauced salarymen leaning on each other's shoulders. Or that of an elementary student with beanie and rucksack sitting next to a staid businessman with a briefcase.

Pictures that all say urban-anywhere Japan.

There is also the panorama route from atop Roppongi Hills and elsewhere, offering either the urban jungle of day or the neon sea of night. Shots much too distant and too impersonal.

In the end, not even the shot of blue sky is right. It has to be Tokyo gray. With a confetti toss of cherry petals in the spring.

"You're right." I tell my wife. "It can't be done."

Tokyo is too big for any one picture. Such a photo needs more than a camera bug.

It needs a camera magician.

Even a pinhead can see that.



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