Japanese Bicycles

Although at first glance this gallery may appear to be about bikes, despite the title, it’s really a series of images exploring the nuances of Japanese exterior design.

All the pictures feature bikes, but these are utilitarian, practical unprepossessing machines. Those curious to see the latest trends in Japanese cycle design may be disappointed, but those seeking to understand the famously enigmatic Japanese character may be intrigued.

The bikes are simply the link, what Alfred Hitchcock called the McGuffin, they serve no purpose in these pictures, except that they gave me a reason to pause and take a picture of the space in which they stand. All over Japan, I spied unexpected architectural curiosities as I crossed the street, so I had to find a filter to prevent me photographing them all.

This was my first visit to Japan, I arrived with no pre-conceived idea as to what to photograph; being in a largely Shinto country I thought that I would wait for ‘enlightenment’. 

I began this project in Takayama, a small city in Central Japan famous for its Edo period (1600 to 1868) houses, and I quickly became aware of an architectural style somewhere between Tudor and Mondrian. Most of the bikes had been parked with great care, neatly and squarely; this combination resulted in a flat, almost two-dimensional look to the environment.

When I moved on to Tokyo and Kyoto, the well-ordered theme was evident on many of the buildings there too; regimentally applied tiles were a popular adornment. 

I was not in Japan on a specific assignment, so I didn’t have the professional’s luxury of waiting for the perfect light or time to scout for the ideal locations before returning later. It was simply a matter of keeping my mind and eyes open to any possibilities that may present themselves.

I chose to document rather than engineer the scenes, in the time-honoured tradition of the photojournalist I did nothing other than select the most appropriate viewpoint. It would have been easy to move the bikes a few inches to the right or the left, or to tidy up a loose cable, but with great restraint I fought countless years of best practice as a professional photographer, fretting over tiny details, and simply recorded the moments as I found them. 

It was satisfying to observe the Japanese sense of visual harmony: everything - at eye level - appeared to have its place on an invisible, omnipresent lattice. Oddly, the telephone wires overhead contrasted with this sense of order. The Japanese appear reluctant to dig up their roads, so the sky is darkened by the mass of cables stretched above.

To a Londoner, the absence of street litter was refreshing; in some private yards unwanted objects were stacked in a pile, but on the street and on the pavement the only non-linear items were the green shoots of escaped plants struggling to survive.

Japan is justifiably famous for its gardens, but formal gardens and bicycles make for an unhappy alliance; I rarely found the two together. I was struck by how many residents chose to display some form of foliage outside their properties. Very few had front gardens, if there was any space between the pavement and the building it would invariably be allocated as a car park. Many people opted to squeeze a few favourite plant pots against their wall, a hint of nature in an otherwise overcrowded and regimented world.

On a couple of Tokyo mornings I set the alarm for five-thirty to steal a few extra hours’ picture-taking. This was valuable time, as it afforded me that great traveller’s luxury of getting lost in a new city (before finding a friendly local to point me in the right direction for the hotel breakfast). This is one of the reasons why there are so few people in the photographs.

At the time of taking them, these images were more impulsive than considered, more snapshot than portfolio, but they do illustrate some of the principles that have influenced Japanese architecture for the last 400 years.

So as you can see, the bikes are not the protagonists in these images - they’re incidental to the story - it’s more about my observation of the nuances of Japanese culture, and the intriguing mystery of their absent owners.