Category Archives: Photography

Three Years of Coney Island Mermaid Parade Photos

Tomorrow (June 21, Saturday) is the 32nd Coney Island Mermaid Parade. The Mermaid Parade, a moderately venerable tradition dating back to 1983, describes itself asthe largest art parade in the nation”, and celebrates the old time beachfront, boardwalk, carnival sideshow culture of the neighborhood.

IMG_3600.jpg

This will be my fourth consecutive Mermaid Parade, but I grew up being taken often to Coney Island in the summer by my grandparents, who lived nearby, off the Avenue U subway stop, to visit the beach, Astroland Park, and the New York Aquarium. Coney Island was probably nearing the nadir of popularity then. Homeless men squatted under the boardwalk, lighting fires to keep warm that would often get out of control and burn large out sections of the boardwalk above. I vividly remember gaping, charred holes marked off with yellow warning tape. Adults warned not to wander unsupervised far past the boardwalk into the surrounding non-amusement park neighborhood, which was considered particularly dangerous.
IMG_3362.jpg

Many of the once-proud amusement parks of Coney Island had already closed when I used to go as a kid, with Astroland then the main survivor. Even that eventually closed, in 2008, leaving the venerable Cyclone—the famous wooden roller coaster that opened in 1927—and the primary location of Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs among the last major traditional attractionsin the area. Of course, other than the beach itself. (For readers who expect everything posted on this blog to have a Japan connection, the July 4 Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest is where Japan’s greatest athlete first rose to fame.)

IMG_3374.jpg

Throughout the Bloomberg administration (2002 - 2013) there were continual attempts to redevelop the area, usually as a massive unitary complex with a large indoor shopping mall feel that would have been utterly at odds with the history and style of the neighborhood, but which would have provided better facilities for the blandly tasteful year-round activities that clueless developers and mayoral officials thought were more in demand.

IMG_8804

These potential deals all fell apart after the real estate bubble burst, paving the way for today’s more natural revitalization, which has seen new amusement park rides for the first time in decades, including a new Luna Park, named after a long-defunct Coney Island amusement park and built on the former site of Astroland, and even a major new steel roller coaster, the Thunderbolt, itself named after a long-gone 1925-built wooden coaster, which opened only a week ago as of this post.

A big part of what kept Coney Island’s local culture on life-support long enough to return is the non-profit organization Coney Island USA, based in the landmarked Childs Restaurant building, who run the Coney Island Museum, Sideshows by the Seashore, and the Shooting Gallery/Arts Annex. And, most relevant, they are the official organizers of the Mermaid Parade.

To get a nice summary of Coney Island history, check out this podcast (Part 1, Part 2) by The Bowery Boys, who do a New York City podcast I enjoy, or see the accompanying blog post with some cool old photos.

Naturally, I took a whole lot of photos all three times and even after winnying them down to good one still had a few dozen for each year, so I’m embedding a handful of photos in-line and then linking to the Flickr galleries.

2011 Mermaid Parade Photo Gallery


IMG_8799 IMG_8884 IMG_8943 IMG_8956 IMG_9033

2012 Mermaid Parade Gallery


IMG_0262 IMG_0417 IMG_0524

IMG_0530


IMG_0654

IMG_0665

2013 Mermaid Parade Photo Gallery


IMG_3399.jpg

IMG_3394.jpg

IMG_3480.jpg

IMG_3528.jpg

First impressions of Katsushika-ku

Gaudy bunnyman laundromat near my place

It’s been about two months since I moved from Ayase to Shibamata, an area of Katsushika-ku about a 20-minute drive away. My life since then has been a mix of busy and overwhelming, but as a way to ease myself back into blogging I’ll offer some first impressions of the new neighborhood.

Shibamata is well-known as the setting for the Otoko Wa Tsurai Yo film series. It’s about a guy named Tora-san who works as a traveling salesman whose cantankerous attitude and pratfalls cause mayhem and drama for his family in Tokyo who sells rice dumplings outside Taishakuten, a big temple in the area. He is considered something of a hero to Japanese men who grew up a generation or three ago.

My apartment is maybe 15 minutes on foot from Taishakuten. The main attractions are the exquisite temple and a run-up of shops selling souvenirs and dango rice dumplings. If you had no clue about the movies, the general atmosphere would seem like a scaled-back version of Asakusa except for all the trinkets featuring a guy in a cheap suit and fedora.

Away from the touristy spots, my new place is in many ways not that different from Ayase. Katsushika-ku and Adachi-ku are both considered “shitamachi” (lower-class outlying Tokyo neighborhoods), and my neighborhood does not disappoint on this front. In fact, I live amidst a surprisingly thriving shotengai business district which offers competitive and attractive alternative grocery options to the Ito Yokado by the station, provided you’re willing to visit multiple stores.

You can see the Sky Tree from my apartment. When completed it will be the world’s tallest… something

Another related similarity is the general slumminess (for Japanese standards). I feel bad saying that though because even though both places feel kind of run down, the people and atmosphere in my new neighborhood are much sunnier. The police say Katsushika-ku has less crime than Adachi-ku (PDF), but by population the smaller Katsushika is pulling its weight just fine (2/3 the population with 3/4 the number of crimes).  At the anecdotal level, I have witnessed:

  • A crippled old guy escaped from a nursing home, sitting on his butt and pushing himself along on his hands trying to get somewhere (long story short, he had his facility name on his slippers, so I called to make sure they got him).

  • Obvious yakuza held a boisterous mikoshi parade around my station.

  • Something (probably human) left an enormous crap on the sidewalk one night.

  • A local dentist I visited was like something out of the Addams Family or the Saw movies – it was just in this guy’s house, and the office was dank, dark, and cluttered with unused equipment. Half the counter space was taken up by a bonsai tree and a fountain that he must have set up in the 80s.

  • Some drunk guy puked in my building’s lobby (oh wait, that was one of my guests…)

To offer a positive spin, these elements add lots of character and should keep our lives interesting. For the most part, it’s a great place to live so far. It’s a quieter neighborhood, many of the local people are friendly, and there’s a really nice public pool and a state-of-the-art central library nearby. And the best part is I am living in a much bigger place, for about the same rent. Having room to swing your arms around is extremely comfortable!

Also, for some reason my new commute on the Keisei line is so much less crowded than most of the other routes into Tokyo. From where I ride it’s often possible to get a seat, and it’s just about never uncomfortably packed.

Anyway, I will keep my eyes open! I have been meaning to go around with my camera to capture some of the local color.

Coverage of Yoshida-ryo piece on CNNGo

Reaction to my recent CNNGo photo/article feature about Kyoto University’s famous Yoshida Dormitory has been very positive. I want to thank whoever it was that submitted it to Boingboing, who kindly linked to it as they have several Mutantfrog posts in past years. I also want to especially thank frequent MF commenter KokuRyu, who posted a link to the piece on MetaFilter, where there have been some pretty interesting comments from people who seem to have experience in other cooperative/squat type housing, making some comparisons between them and Yoshida-ryo.

I am also planning on doing a follow-up piece sometime, discussing a little bit more about the history of Yoshida-ryo and the other self-administered dorms at Kyoto University, as well as some of the  “self run” (自治) student activity areas in the university, and the relationship between Yoshida-ryo and the various squatting protests that have occurred on campus over the years, such as the Ishigaki Cafe and the currently still ongoing Kubikubi Cafe. Since CNNGo would not really be an appropriate venue for this sort of piece, I’m hoping readers can suggest or introduce someplace that might be interested!

My photo gallery of Kyoto University’s famous Yoshida-ryo, with article, on CNNGo


Dammit, I can smell the rooms in your pictures, Roy.

Said my friend Jon after looking at my piece just published at CNNGo.

Little known outside of Kyoto is the fact that Kyoto University has the last remaining truly old style dormitory, constructed in the late Meiji era timber construction style. Opened in 1913, Yoshida-ryo (吉田寮) still exists nearly 100 years later despite decades of attempts by the school to raze it and replace it with a less scummy and earthquake-unsafe bland concrete box. A relic in both architectural and social terms, it exists today in a weird nebulous state somewhere between an official school dormitory and a giant squat-house.

When I took our friend, and current CNNGo editor, David Marx on a tour of the campus during his brief visit to Kyoto some time last year he demanded that I do a piece on Yoshida-ryō for him, and we finally got it done. For my 20 part photo gallery and a brief history of the dorm, check out my article at CNNGo.

Union Extasy court decision tomorrow

Back in March, while I was traveling, Adam wrote a post about Union Extasy, a two-man union of former workers at Kyoto University who decided to protest the limited term contract system after it forced them out of their staff jobs. While their most visible form of protest was the construction of a tent squat underneath the landmark camphor tree in front of the famous Kyoto University clock tower (a location which is the basis for the university’s logo and the preferred location for graduation photos and the like), they also engaged in the more traditional labor complaint route of filing a formal grievance, conducting formal union/management negotiations (団交), and eventually filing a lawsuit alleging the illegality of the mandatory limited-term contract system.

While the Union Extasy squat was inspired by the “temp worker village” set up in Tokyo’s Hibiya park during the 2008-2009 new years season, unlike that particular stunt it never actually ended. Although they had originally expected it to only last for a couple of weeks before shaming university management into doing something, when they realized that things were going to take a long, long time to resolve, instead of taking down the tent they instead expanded it, adding a public area with seating that was labeled the “Kubi Kubi Cafe.”Kubi is the Japanese word for the head or neck, and has also become a synonym for “firing” or “sacking”, as beheading is the Japanese metaphor of choice for such a practice.

The university was naturally displeased with the ongoing protest, particularly in such a prominent and symbolic location, and filed a lawsuit in May or so (the date escapes me at the moment) against Union Extasy, ordering them to vacate the premises. Why exactly they had or chose to actually file a lawsuit escapes me since I would have assumed that they could just ask the police to remove trespassers without any special legal maneuvering, but I presume there is some legal reason that they took such a course of action. Aside from the existence of the lawsuit itself, there were two things that struck me as rather odd about it. First, that the lawsuit was not filed against the two men (Ogawa and Inoue) but against the Union Extasy organization itself. The second odd point, and this one if very odd, is that they were not seeking an order for the union to vacate the campus completely, but only a specified zone including the area immediately in front of the clock tower. The university was actually so cautious about acting without a court order that they did not even disconnect the power cable siphoning electricity from the clock tower building (which kept the lights and vintage iMac running at night, network connectivity naturally courtesy of the campus Wifi). Inoue let me flip through a folder of documents that had been filed in the case, and sure enough there was a map of the campus with a rectangle drawn around the very specific area. Amusingly, among the supporting evidence was a land assayer’s appraisal of the land value of the entire campus, as if the market value of the national university’s grounds-which I expect is legally impossible to sell in any event-was somehow relevant to the matter at hand.

After receiving a court order to vacate the area, they complied with it-by moving about 10 meters over to another patch of lawn, just far enough away from the camphor tree and clock tower so as to allow an unobstructed view of the landmarks.

I have spent little time speaking with the involved parties since before I went home for the summer and had not been following the progress of their protests or court case, except of course to notice that the protest squat had never ended, but I just got word that the initial verdict of their lawsuit is due out tomorrow, presumably with a party to follow. I will be there tomorrow afternoon after lunch to see how things turn out and will report on it after, but in preparation, here is a gallery of photos I’ve taken at the Kubikubi Cafe.

Continue reading Union Extasy court decision tomorrow

Hiking in Hannou-shi, Saitama

Hannou-shi in Saitama Prefecture is located along the Seibu Ikebukuro line outside Tokyo. Closer to outlying Chichibu than urban Tokyo, the town’s look and feel are like a scene out of the recent Oscar-winning film Departures (which I highly recommend!). Mrs. Adamu and I decided to hike there after finding the town randomly on a web search. It was an extremely convenient trip – after an hour and a half train ride it was just a 10 minute walk to reach the trail. We followed this route on the Hiking Map website.

Anyway, here is what we saw!


This is a monument to local deaths from industrial accidents. Not sure why they died or when.


Going up Tenranzan mountain we came across these oddly shaped Buddhas. The fifth Tokugawa shogun apparently called a monk from a temple near this mountain to heal him with chanting, and it worked. The statues are somehow related to this.
Continue reading Hiking in Hannou-shi, Saitama

Cooperative Dragonfly [Photos]

Just to break things up between the two very intense posts on the intricacies of international divorce proceedings and an even more grim post that I’m in the middle of, here are some neat photos of a dragonfly I took the other week when I was in Tokyo. Dragonflies are gorgeous little creatures, and I’d never gotten a very good shot of a living one before, but this one was perched on a wire fence at arm’s length, and just flew back and forth between two nearby spots, instead of escaping completely. Sometimes it’s nice to take a break from street photography and work with a cooperative model.

September 26, 2009. Canon 50D w/ 50mm 1.8F lens.

Tokyo, Japan. (3 photos above.)

By contrast, last month I got the following shot of a deceased dragonfly laid out nicely on the sidewalk in my home town. Definitely a very attractive specimen, but also very much lacking in vitality.

August 31, 2009. Canon 50D w/ 17-85 EF-S lens.

Montclair, New Jersey. USA.

(Click on any image for larger version.)

Lemons into lemonade? DIY macro lens

Almost as soon as I got back to my house in Kyoto, I slipped down the stairs and bruised the fuck out my left butt-cheek, which currently displays a prominent horizontal  black-and-blue line. This was not an auspicious start. The next day, when I stopped by a bicycle shop to get some air in my tires, I accidentally jerked my iPhone out of my pocket via the headphone cable, upon which it plummeted in a dead drop directly into the spikey concrete underfoot, shattering the screen like a cobweb. After a moment of horror, I went directly to the Softbank shop, where they swapped it for a fresh one at a very unpleasant cost of ¥22,800, mollified only very, very marginally by the fact that it only took about ten minutes, and that iTunes does a good job of backing up all of the data on my PC.

Yesterday afternoon, I joined my friend Kate on an expedition to Fushimi Ward, in southern Kyoto City, to recover two bicycles of hers that had been impounded the previous day when she and a friend parked illegally while having dinner downtown. (See Adam’s post on bicycle collection.) I brought my camera along, hoping to take some photos of the lot, but as soon as I arrived I pulled out my camera from my bag and saw that the lens had been broken entirely in half! Luckily I was only using my Canon 50mm 1.8F, the cheapest SLR lens currently (if not ever) made, which retails for under $100, so the loss was relatively minor, and I do have several other lenses I can use, but following on the heals of the iPhone disaster I was still very, very pissed.

Upon returning home I pondered whether this would be a good chance to upgrade to the 1.4F version, which allows for even more dramatic depth of field, has a superior focusing mechanism, and also a superior level of build quality that does not lend itself to breaking in twain, but decided that at this time I don’t have another $300 to blow on top of the replacement cost, and just ordered a replacement of the broken model from Amazon Japan for ¥8,800. While I had first thought of it as a pure loss, this morning an idea occurred to me.

I had read in the past that in older, fully manual, camera systems it used to be common to mount a second lens backwards onto the front of the lens being mounted in the ordinary fashion, as a makeshift macro lens. A macro lens is a type of lens that is specially built to allow for extremely closeup focusing, enabling the photographer to create dramatic closeup photographs which show extreme detail, almost like a weak but highly portable microscope. You have probably seen many examples in nature photography.

Anyway, I decided to see how it would work with my broken lens, so I mounted the 17-85 EF-S lens on my camera, held the front part of the broken lens (right hand side piece in the above photo) up to the mounted lens, with the previously outer-facing side of the lens facing towards the camera body, and then checked to see what I could do with manual focus. Well, the first shot (of my knee hair) actually looked pretty cool.

Next I tried the one yen coin and dirty lens cloth sitting on my desk, and then took comparison shots using the 17-85 lens by itself, to contrast the level of magnification provided by the conventional lens and the DIY macro. Note that none of these photos are cropped, magnified, or adjusted in any way.

As you can see, the DIY macro provides significant magnification when compared with the standard lens, over 100% larger, as well as a quirky DIY fisheye effect reminiscent of toy cameras like the Holga. While I might not have ever thought to destroy my lens for such a use, it may actually be worth the cost to play around with it in this way. While these photos were taken in a very makeshift way, by holding everything in place using both hands, both knees, and a funny crouch in my chair, the next step will be to purchase a lens cap for the 17-85 lens, cut a hole out in the middle, and construct a DIY mount that allows me to safely walk around with the makeshift macro. I may also experiment with removing the lens from its plastic enclosure and seeing how it performs when held closer to the primary lens. I’ve wanted a macro lens for a long time, and while this is hardly the way I would normally have considered going about acquiring one, it should be a lot of fun to play with.