Link - by Thomas Birke

Feeding further our fascination with Japan, we present another visual treat, this time in as wide-format as possible, without making your monitors explode (make sure you allow time for page to load). The photography and text is by Thomas Birke, a master of urban photography, exclusively for Dark Roasted Blend.

The future began a long time ago in Tokyo...

I am fascinated by life in metropolitan areas, surrounded by millions of other people... I love neon signs and public video screens. AND rooftops. Everywhere. Concrete is romantic and beautiful to me.

Ginza in the rain

Isolation in a crowded place, aglow with neon...

I went to Tokyo in the summer of 2008 for three weeks to take pictures of "the future". What I found was even more impressive. The future began a long time ago in Tokyo, and so the whole city has a face, there has been so much organic growth - there is no master plan, the city has been shaped by individuals' desires. The result is a structure that seems alive, even if you do not see the inhabitants, as usually the case with long-exposure photography (see this set, make sure to click-thru to highest resolution).

I do Large Format Photography, currently on a Sinar P2 8x10 (basically I scouted locations on foot during the day, and then , and then brought my camera in the evening to make four pictures max, while the "blue hour" lasts).

Various views of the Rainbow Bridge

My Vision is to create a preview of our life in the future. Is it possible to efficiently and happily live together in a confined space for a large number of people? I say yes. I assume there are two ways of doing this – the right way and the wrong one. Carefully planned High Rise Apartment buildings versus makeshift slums. Hong Kong versus Mexico City.

View from Shinagawa Prince East Tower 17F (fragment)

I am most interested in density. My aspiration is to show at least a 1000 people or their traces on every picture. Be it the illuminated windows of their apartments, the light streaks of their vehicles or their clothes hung out of windows for drying. Even if you do not see people directly, you can see their footprint on the urban environment. An organism that is alive and breathing.

If one were to print these pictures at a scale of 2x3 meters, one would find a different story in every square centimetre. The images should provoke interest on first sight, through colour, shape and proportions. But even if you examine them more intensively, you should never be bored.

Tokyo rooftop (fragment)

Tokyo is the largest urban aggregation in the world. But despite this fact the city is safe and efficient. All religions and philosophies can be pursued freely. Because of the sheer mass of people, no one has to do anything alone, everybody can find his group of peers. Public and private transport is ubiquitous. Like futuristic snakes the roads and railway tracks wind through high rise canyons:

View from the 10th floor of a fire escape, and still there are elevated roads winding around... Right: expressway in Shanghai

The city resembles a jungle in principle.

There is the shrub layer, consisting of millions of 1-3 story buildings, then there is the canopy made of 4-12 story buildings and the emergent layer, towering high above the rest, represented by skyscrapers. Leaves and branches are mimicked by the millions of air conditioners and antennas on the rooftops. Everything is interconnected through a liana meshwork, consisting of roads, railway tracks, stairs, pedestrian overpasses, elevators and escalators.

Shinjuku view from a fireescape 6F near Yoyogi Station

Every kind of architectural style and period is represented, all stages of weathering can be found. Public as well as private buildings are cared for and used constantly. If something breaks, it will be replaced or repaired. Investments have a long lifespan. This is another aspect of the organic appearance of the city.

View from Tokyo Shiodome Rooftop

Zoom-in on a rooftop detail

The further you look into the image, the more windows can be seen...

The total might of this organism is what I want to portray with my pictures. To achieve this I climbed countless fire escapes in Tokyo and tried to capture the complete force of nature. The photos are not about single buildings, they are about the completeness of the urban jungle. All elements have the same importance, and the further you look into the image, the more windows can be seen per square centimetre. I tried to achieve a three dimensional effect, which is supported by the sheer size of the printouts. The images are like a virtual window.

Shinagawa Rooftop View

Closer view... more is revealed -

The pictures were shot mainly in twilight. The magic hour, where the houses are shining as bright as the residual daylight in the sky and the colourful neon signs melt with the green-blue of the beginning night. For me this is the most beautiful colour theme a city can offer.

I am looking for the city from Blade Runner... All my romantic cyberpunk dreams have been fulfilled in Tokyo. I wish I could have stayed even longer.

Truly a romantic spot in Tokyo!
all images copyright, and by exclusive permission of Thomas Birke


Also Read:
Astounding Japanese Highways, Bridges and Interchanges
Japan's Neon Lights

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Blogger C Merry said...

WOW amazing. If I didn't have so many Blade Runner moments here in NYC I would want to live there too :) Just amazingly beautiful pictures.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

What type of camera do you use?

Blogger Johnny G. said...

Man I miss the hell out of Tokyo. Got to spend three amazing months living there - want to go back so badly. I love where I'm living now, but it's still not Tokyo.

Anonymous JoshyMinor said...

Wow, absolutely stunning. Beautiful images!

Anonymous retreat said...


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know five or six people who lived in Japan short term and long term. All had "futuristic" visions of Japan before coming and none of them were excited after they left. On the contrary. The common (and informed) opinion is that Japan is not fit for Westerners to live in, except perhaps for people running from something, or those just plain weird. This is substantiated by many people, including Japanese expats.

One exception was an American friend who was part of a popular band and spent seven years in Tokyo. Though the rich can have a great time anywhere.

The opinions of short term visitors are mostly irrelevant as to the reality of the place visited, and unlike many longer term visitors who stay in Japan to teach English and have other adventures, a veritable "Japanophile" friend of mine finally moved to Tokyo some years ago. Everything had to be Japanese, including wife and children.

It took a couple of months for reality to sink in, working at a high position in a Japanese company in Tokyo. He comes back a couple of times a year and at first we thought he was exaggerating out of disillusionment but now, we believe him as many people who lived there long term, including Japanese, substantiate his claims.

Can't go into details because he does business there (though Japanese business partners agree with his assessment, another Asian company told him he will destroy his life living in Japan) but he's writing a book about his experiences, substantiated by MANY people. As most people are averse to negativity and might not buy the book it might be turned into a website for all to access. I'll post whenever a book or site comes out

Blogger 0s0-Pa said...

Some beautiful, scenic views. Makes me want to visit Tokyo.
-Jack @ Utah Photographer

Blogger aliar said...

I have wanted to shoot photos exactly as the photos you show here for a very long time.

Also, for the same reason. We are going to have a lot more people on this planet, we can do it like hong kong or like mexico city.

I have become a student in Civil Engineering to help make this happen, I really hope I can help.

I'm really excited to have stumbled upon this, you share my vision exactly. Word for word, density, growth, even the same cities you compare.

Blogger Unknown said...

Hey these are some seriously pro shots you got in Tokyo. I was wondering if you could help me out a bit: I will be going to Tokyo this summer for over two weeks as the designated trip photographer (with a group of six). Any pointers you could give me on shooting in Japan? Especially on night photo's that would be great. Thanks!

Blogger E.S. Wynn said...

Dang! Those are some really incredible shots! Great stuff, very beautiful, very Blade Runner. I'm definitely going to have to get out to Tokyo at some point to check it all out first hand!

Anonymous Biz said...

This site is fascinating. So many interesting, unusual hi-res photos. Amazing.

Blogger Thomas Birke said...

Hi all, I am the photographer, thanks for all the positive comments, I am so glad that other people like my viewpoints too!

@Anonymous - an analog large format camera, a Sinar P2 8x10

@Anonymous - I find your observations interesting, but I think: I am disillusioned by my moneyjob as well sometime, it doesn't matter what country you're in, right? What I found most fascinating about Tokyo was, that there where more than 30 Million People literally stacked upon each other, but still everything worked smooth. You have a very efficient public transport, millions of opportunities to choose from in terms of leisure time amusements and you always felt save, in every part of the town! That for me is a role model for the future of urbanisation!

@Natan: Tokyo has a very short blue hour, I could only get 2-4 shots a night. But the light you get between sunset and total darkness is a total blast. You definetely have to bring a tripod, since long exposures need a steady foundation. Check the thousands of observation decks. Some have open Air, so you don't need to shoot through glass. For example the mori tower, which despite the 1000yen charge should not be missed! And always know in advance where to shot in the evening or at night, by intensive scouting. Have fun!

@everyone else: Thank You!

Anonymous Craig Ferguson said...

Excellent cityscapes.

Anonymous Anonymous said...


>@Anonymous - I find your
>observations interesting, but I
>think: I am disillusioned by my
>moneyjob as well sometime, it
>doesn't matter what country
>you're in, right?

Wrong. Do some research on corporate life in a large Japanese company. And I don't mean Toyota or Honda.

When womens' opinions are ignored because of their sex or when a person's opinion is ignored because the other person is older by a couple of months that's a sign of a rotten culture. These are just two small examples.

>What I found most fascinating
>about Tokyo was, that there where
>ore than 30 Million People
>literally stacked upon each
>other, but still everything
>worked smooth.

Yes, but definitely not everything. Have you taken a look at their food supply? That's just one example.

>You have a very efficient public
>transport, millions of


>opportunities to choose from in
>terms of leisure time amusements
>and you always felt save, in
>every part of the town!

"Leisure", from dreary, depressing and suppressed lives, with spouses living in different cities.

>That for me is a role model for
>the future of urbanisation!

Aspects of it, yes.

It's the non-Japanese that have lived there for many years that have the informed opinion, that's for sure.

Every person fawning over what a wonderful country Japan is has no idea what they are talking about. There's much more to Japan than the shining lights of a small part of Tokyo.

This is from someone who has a long held interest in Japan and knows various people who have spent years living in Japan, and whose claims are corroborated by many informed others.

Though it's good people are open minded enough to appreciate other cultures. However, a critical eye is necessary.

Blogger Unknown said...

Awesome, amazing, breathtaking work. I am glad that I found Your blog on delicious :)

Blogger Ian said...

Fantastic photos. Tokyo is the most exciting city in the world and the nightlife there is second to none. Shanghai is beginnning to catch up though.

Anonymous Ines said...

Those pictures are amazing. I really love the mood and composition.

Blogger Ceph said...

Inspirational shots of natural urban art.

Blogger Aaron said...


I can also back up a few of your claims about life in Japan. It's not all shiny-shiny as people make it out to be. I've been over there twice and have a friend who's been living there for some time.

I think you're playing up a few things to be a bit more centralized to a specific person's environment in some regards, but it's the culture shock more than it is the actual issue.

I think the biggest social issues Japan still hasn't worked out are women and the elderly in modern society. But it's up to those people feeling neglected to actually do something with their lives rather than complain. They may be spurned from their jobs with nothing to do, but that shouldn't stop them from NOT doing anything at all with their lives.

I won't speak on behalf of Japanese women, but the Japanese elderly are viewed in such a negative light, possibly, due to generational guilt over WWII.

If they're feeling stepped on by "The Man", they need to learn some self-initiative and get out there and do it themselves.

As to "food supply" I don't know what you're referring to. I found the food to be pretty dang precise and well prepared at all times I went out to eat. I mean, this is a whole culture that prides itself enough on it's own food to have TV shows of people eating their food. Where fish is thrown out when it's a day old.

Some of the better dishes I've had were ones prepared in small dining establishments where the only "name" was the lead menu item. I had a fantastic tempura udon in a small village in Akita in the back end of a grocery store.

I do agree that Japan is so much more than what people see in Tokyo. I don't recommend it as a long term destination for many of the above suggested reasons, and additionally, I have seen this "burnout" take it's toll on my expat friend who was very much a Japanophile in college.

For him the burnout was more of a sociological one than it was a business world one.

i get shades of that myself sometimes. Japan exists in many ways, as a hyper-over-exaggerated version of the US life in my eyes. It's like America, but not, and the ways that it is, are so grossly over-exaggerated from what we have in the US.

Blogger julianmi said...

Osaka is more Blade Runner - a mix of future and grit. Tokyo is hypermodern - It feels ot me like information has taken shape an is flowing everywhere.

Blogger geekboy23 said...

I have been living in Seoul South Korea for a few months now and I have had several "Blade Runner" city moments. It is especially so when it is raining in the evening while walking through crowded neon lit streets.

Anonymous cako said...

Fantastic blade runner series. Great photos !

Anonymous Will said...

Wow.. Amazing photos. They represent exactly what I love about Tokyo... Good job. I also love the quote... The future began in Japan a long time ago...

Anonymous Will said...

A brilliant series of photos. You large format landscapes of Tokyo really are excellent. One of my friends who used to live here in Tokyo shot a lot of large format at night and had amazing results. I only shoot up to medium format when I use film, but seeing your photos tempts me to dabble in large format.


Anonymous tj said...

The city look mind blowing. Great post. Thanks again.

Blogger bzyglowi said...

Chemikals and Anonymous are right about life in Japan, especially corporate life. Before you claim that they're exaggerating, think about these questions:

Would you be willing to work unpaid overtime almost every night, simply because it's not courteous to leave until the boss leaves, even if your scheduled hours end three or four hours before his?

Would you be willing to go to any and all meetings, even if you had previous plans, just to get a job? (Not even a good job, just a cubicle spot.)

Would you be willing to dye your hair to match everyone else, (even if your hair was already a normal color, like dark brown)?

These are all issues that my Japanese friends faced in seeking positions after they finished college. I also heard plenty of horror stories from foreigners working in Japanese schools and being unable to make necessary decisions (like buying supplies) because every decision had to be funneled through 3-4 levels of hierarchy and committees.

I've spent a lot of time in Japan and while the scenery is beautiful, the food is amazing, and the people are nice, there are a lot of serious underlying problems in the culture that are often missed or glossed over, and that people need to be more aware of. It's not all sushi and samurai. :/

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beautiful photos. Next time be sure to visit Dotonbori in Osaka - it's about as close to Blade Runner as you can get: http://rob-sheridan.com/tourist/osaka/index.html

Anonymous AD said...

Great shots, love the blade runner atmosphere of the place.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I live in Japan.
But,My house is in the countryside.
I envy Tokyo...

Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you want "Bladrunner" go to Berlin...there are no tall buildings (well the Fernshturm is a tower and the much vaunted Potsdamer Platz has just two 300 ft odd offices whilst the tallest in the city at Fridrichshain is only about 500ft)...BUT....it has exactly that incrdible run-down dilapidated post-idealistic zeitgeist that Deckerd leads us through in the streets of the movie. And you can eat stir fry noodles from station vendors sat on a wall like he does...as I do. And the people are incredible. And the clubs include many which would I very much doubt be allowed in Japan: Dress code Friday, underwear, Dress code Saturday, naked only. Get the idea.

Much as I would love to visit Tokyo, all I see in those pics is lit windows and signage, the monotony of a long outmoded notion of "The Future".

The pulse of Berlin is "Apres Everything". Its surely no happenchance that the Metro station in "The Final Cut" was actually shot straight at the S-Bahn at Alexanderplatz.


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