Tight spaces aren’t all that odd to me. I grew up in a Southeast Asian city dense with people and scarce on space. And for most of my adult life, I’ve lived in major metropolitan places here in the United States. My now-wife and I lived in New York City for almost 10 years, and before leaving there, we shared what was supposed to be a studio apartment where someone had added a slab of drywall to make a bedroom. I once counted how many steps it took to get from the front door to the back wall of the bedroom. It was somewhere around 20. So yeah, I’m familiar with pretty small spaces. But there are still some that I’ve not experienced and that continue to surprise and fascinate.
One place I’ve never been is Tokyo. (That’s not counting the time my family had an overnight layover on our way to Hong Kong when I was 4 and I fell asleep in a plate of spaghetti somewhere near Narita International Airport.) No doubt we’re all mostly familiar with representations of the place being chock full of people, sidewalks teeming and subways jammed to the hilt with commuters. A lot of us have probably heard of the capsule hotels, too, where people sleep in tight, coffin-like spaces.
Tokyo seems to be one of the ultimate cities made up of tight spaces. And it’s not just the capsule hotels and crammed subways, but the nightlife, too. This is vividly evident in a recent series of photographs by Jae C. Hong, a staff photographer with the Associated Press.
In July, Hong ventured out with his camera to explore the Golden Gai in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo. Noting how Tokyoites are masters of making the most of the space available to them, Hong describes this area as follows: “The Golden Gai in the Shinjuku district: Tucked between the Kabukicho entertainment district and Hanazono Shrine, nearly 280 bars and restaurants are squeezed into an area about the size of half a soccer field.
“The Golden Gai is a sliver of old Tokyo in a modern metropolis filled with endless gleaming buildings. It’s a one-of-a-kind tourist attraction, for sure. But it’s also a place for a few drinks and friendly chatter among exhausted workers known as ‘salarymen.’ Everything is smaller and narrower in this warren of shacks. Most bars seat seven or eight, with little room to move. Some foreigners jokingly pose for photos that exaggerate their struggles with small doors and narrow staircases.”
Hong’s vivid photos take us right into this unique area of Tokyo. His photo series provides us with a vivid tour of the place crammed with people, out and about to relax, blow off steam and have a few drinks or a bite to eat with co-workers, friends and, yes, tourists, too.
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