Neon light bathes the rooftop in a red shimmer, the dinge of machinery and ductwork set ablaze against the grey night. The sign glows in the distance, a circle of crimson neon surrounding a single burning character: 源 — ‘gen’ … ‘origin.’ I stare at the glyph, gently flickering against the neo-gothic façade of its building, casting hues of pink and vermillion on nearby structures, and think back to my origin. How did I get here, on top of this rooftop, one like any other, amidst the concrete forest of Ginza?
A decade ago I was standing on the Chuo line, a commuter line snaking its way through the heart of Tokyo like a cortical artery, pressed against the door, with my duffel bag standing on its end propped between me and a salaryman. Though I didn’t know it at the time, we passed through Kanda and Akihabara, and then Shinjuku, cutting through forests of neon blazing along the streets. I looked out from the train on the elevated tracks in awe and wonder. The metropolis seemed to stretch forever as the train passed through from east to west, carrying a weary traveler to his lodgings.
Years later and I shy away from the neon, lurking deeper in the dark alleys and passages of Kabukicho, searching for fleeting moments like a cockroach for scraps. I come across the kitchen of a Chinese joint overflowing out into the back alley. Dishes, barrels, bottles, and crates all cast in fluorescent light, tinged green and violet. People pass in the distance, a waitress steps out from the light into my darkness and watches me for a fleeting moment, standing there frozen, staring into a single cycloptic eye unblinking from the black plastic corruption of a face—I aim my camera down the cluttered passage.
My camera… The camera serves more as a chamber for my thoughts than a tool for gathering light. It is a vessel that allows me to absorb, distill, transmute, comprehend this city—Tokyo, the great metropolis, the amalgam of light, concrete, steel, glass, fiberoptic cable, copper wire, track, asphalt, tunnels, bridges, passages, carriages, cars, trains, and people… people filling every void and moment in the urban expanse. All that, parsed and converted into a two-dimensional digital image. Then it makes sense to me. I can compute the data and categorize it and comprehend it. I need my camera.
I stalk down a smoke-filled alleyway, grey clouds billowing out of charcoal grills, carrying laughter and energy from crowded bars—like narrow tenements crammed one right next to the other in a neon slum, thin shared walls interlinked like biological cells in some mecha-organic fungus. I feel the heat wafting up from the stoked coals as paper lamps cast their warm light into my eyes. I move through the crowded alleyway and peer into the establishments, poking my third eye through a curtain, snapping photos like some voyeur, an alien tourist, an observer from the outside. I steal images, tuck them away in my black box for later dissection: people reveling in the 60hz flicker of fluorescent tubes, minds dimmed by alcohol and elevated by the buzz of human conversation. My shutter clicks from the relative darkness outside the bar—clack, clack, clack—moments frozen, three dimensions distilled down to two, emotions encoded in pixels.
Mid-afternoon sunlight streaks between rooftops ten stories above the street as I crouch in front of a collage of pipes, conduits, stickers, graffiti, and shadows plastered on the side of a building, focus ring gripped firmly between fingers, camera held tight in the other hand, third eye peering intently at the wall. I repeat the process with a bicycle, its triangles and circles extending the geometry of the urban environment, its chrome fixtures blending with the city like a chameleon. Passersby glance in the direction of my cyclopean gaze in bewilderment—what could he be photographing here? A wall? A bicycle? What mundanity could be worth a photograph? All is mundane in the metropolis.
I move through a crowd slowly flowing as though encumbered by the harsh summer sunlight, the sidewalk flanked by glass facades reflecting quicksilver beams, spotlights cast on faces in the crowd. I capture: a man’s face amidst a field of black shadows, a woman in high heels and a lace dress, flares of daylight exposing her silhouette, a child’s reflection in the crystalline panels of a clothing store. The summer heat bearing down I take refuge in the metro. I lurk against a column amidst yellow lines and blue panels. A girl in a yellow sun dress steps into frame. I don’t hesitate, depress the shutter, consolidate the moment. The streets pull me along and my third eye takes point. I follow the light like a dog sniffing for the scent of meat.
Jazz flows gently from analog speakers fueled by a turn table spinning vinyl. Thelonious Monk’s piano is our guide as a good friend and I make our way through cocktails in an underground bar in Ikebukuro. We talk and spin records on the antique juke box recently procured by the bar’s master, a man named Iwata. The night grows long and soon the last trains will have gone, the city entering its nocturnal stasis, not quite sleeping, urban metabolism slowed to a gentle hum of traffic and human activity. We step out of the bar into the quiet night and stumble around outskirts of the red-light district. We find our way by chance to a portal that leads to an elevated plane—a staircase to the rooftops.
We climb the fourteen flights to the roof, and amble through the machinery and vents and wires of the rooftop. We clamber up a latter onto a water tank. From this gritty urban peak, we look out onto the streets below, glowing, pulsing brightly with neon light and the distant screams and shouts of revelers. It is here that my journey reached a point of no return. From here on I would be a creature of the city, a strange beast filling a niche in which few others find creative sustenance. And so, I find myself years later, on another rooftop far across the metropolis, bathed in the red neon light of ‘gen’ —源 — ‘origin’. And I think back to how I got here, and wonder where my third eye will lead me next.