Revisiting Tokyo: 18 Years Later

by Jun 21, 20162 comments




By no means am I “old,” though I am without question getting older. Subtle heralds of this fact make their unwelcome presence known from time to time. Things such as not being able to drink all night and be completely hangover free the next morning (really, I used to be able to do this) or realizing some of your favorite “cutting edge” music is now over 20 years old(!!) and is often referred to as “classic.”

Yet another aspect that creeps up on you with a few years under your belt, I’ve noticed, is that nostalgia takes on a slightly more significant meaning. It’s like it somehow becomes… heavier.

I’ve been noticing it here and there after coming back to Japan, a place I associate with great happiness from my younger days during, and immediately after, college. It’s certainly provided a jumpstart to feelings that have only otherwise been teased out by hearing certain 90’s music (I’m looking at you, Spin Doctors) or revisiting the Misfits of Science opening on YouTube. Quick Aside: how the hell did I not remember that Courtney Cox was in that show?!

Anyway, while Mary and I were still in Tokyo last spring, having just moved back to Japan, I was getting lots of these little nostalgia pangs depending on where we went. I’ve been to Tokyo many times over the years, so there’s lots of memories stashed around the city that I get to dust off from time to time as I stumble across familiar places.

One day last year though, I realized that I had an interesting opportunity to revisit the very first time I ever set eyes on, and foot in, that singular great metropolis of Tokyo, on an early summer morning back in 1997 while on exchange in college.

Back then, while spending a year at my university’s sister-school in Kumamoto, we had some some downtime, so some of my fellow expats and myself decided to check out at least a few of the ‘must-see’ destinations in Japan, namely Kyoto and Tokyo. Americans Louis, Mike and myself, along with Brit superstar Damon, all hopped the cheap-ass Night Bus and headed out of our comfort zone and into a couple of fantastic cities that are really like nowhere else I’ve been.

As you may imagine, I took a lot of photos during that trip, and it’s always been one of my favorite albums to thumb through whenever I felt homesick for Japan. But now that I’m back in Japan, I realized there was also a slight homesickness not just for the place, but for the time as well. See, this is what I’m talking about. Feeling weird things about the past and your younger days? What’s this ‘getting older’ nonsense all about? Bah!

So in an effort to embrace the past while standing trenchantly on the bow of the future-bound U.S.S. The Present, I hit on the idea to dip back into those photo albums I enjoy so much and try and revisit the locations and recreate the photos with the intent of showing just how much, or how little, these scenes have changed in the 18 years since I’d visited, or photographed anyway, them last.

I was able to find most of the places in the photos, and while the overall results are perhaps not as breathtaking as other “Then and Now” photo projects I’ve seen online, they do hold a bit more of that nostalgic weight I was referring to earlier, because of my personal connection to these places. Still, I hope there’s some fun to be had in noting the minutiae of some of the details in these comparisons even if you weren’t there yourself.

A Quick Note About the Photos

I’ve done my best to recreate the original photos as accurately as possible with the intention of using a comparison slider bar as you’ll see below. You can click on the bar and drag it back and forth or simply click on the point where you want the “division” to jump to.

While I’ve tried to match the photos as closely as possible when taking them, I didn’t always have the right lens with me or may not have been able to find the exact footing I had back in 1997, but in most cases I think they’re close enough to get the gist of it.



Arrival in Tokyo! Shinjuku Station.Tokyo was the second leg of our trip and our bus got in from Kyoto pretty early in the morning, I want to say around 7am or so. Nothing was open yet so we kind of hung out around the station for a few minutes to get our bearings and plan our day. Every time I’m at Shinjuku Station I think about that morning and the first breath I took of “sweet” Tokyo air.

Of course I’ve been here many times since, both while on the JET Program in Fukuoka, as well as the past year and a half, but this was the first time I was standing in these places and comparing everything to photos to try and recreate them. The first thing I quickly noticed while trying to find the right perspective was that one of the crosswalks across the 4 lanes of bridge traffic, where I took a few of the original photos, was no longer there. So much for a perfect match.

Back in ’97, once we eventually agreed on a course of action, we had headed in the direction of the Park Hyatt building (that three-tiered job), so that’s what I did this time as well. Again, I wasn’t able to totally match angles since the streets were a lot busier in the afternoon than they were at the break-of-dawn like the first time around.

Nice to see the clock is still on the corner building though.



Ah yes, Shibuya crossing. Rumored to be the busiest pedestrian intersection in the world and one of the signature images of Tokyo.

That the stalwart 109 Building is still keeping watch is perhaps to be expected, but to be honest I expected there to be a lot more changes in the buildings and advertising layouts after 18 years than there are. I mean, if you look at photos of Times Square even just a few years apart, you can see that the advertising geography is a constantly shifting landscape. The degree to which this view has remained unchanged was a surprise to me.

What I found interesting in this comparison of the area around Shibuya’s Books Kinokunia is that even the banner frame (that holds the “Street Jack” banner in 1997) is still exactly in it’s place, though vacant as of last Spring.


Ginza is well-known for being the place to go if you want some upscale and, dare I say, luxurious shopping in Tokyo. We were broke-ass college students back in ’97 so I’m not exactly sure what the hell we thought we were doing there but we went nonetheless.

Upon my return last year, I found an interesting mix of old and new. This intersection certainly looks very similar. Even the painted arrows on the street seem to be the same, though perhaps a bit worse for wear. The right side of the street, however, has seen almost a complete change in buildings

Just around the corner though, faithful Godzilla-chan was still there.


This street has definitely lost a bit of it’s charm to wear over the years. I had assumed that of all the scenes I was seeking, the Ginza locations would still be in relatively pristine condition (due to the aforementioned luxurious-ness) but alas. To be fair, it might have a bit to do with the building on the right that currently appears to be undergoing some renovation.

We wandered a few blocks and eventually came across Hibiya Park.


The intersection to the left was a familiar sight, even down to the blue & white checker sign on the street lamp. It appears at least one of the buildings in the background has changed though, more on that in a bit.

The park itself feels just like it did and is a wonderful, quiet little spot in the middle of the city. If you’re ever in Tokyo and need a brief respite, you can do much worse than this.

I created this panorama by stitching together three photos taken from left to right, which you can see by the fact that the man walking in the middle apparently made his way further to the right before I snapped image #3.


Here’s a much better view of the buildings flanking the South side of the park. That interesting one that sort of jutts out after the 5th or 6th floor is gone and the lot seems vacant now, while the lot next door gained a new, somewhat prosaic addition.

A little closer, it looks like there’s something going in on the lot. I took this last spring, I wonder if it’s done by now.


The latticework over these benches seems to have got an upgrade. I kind of prefer the originals but I’m sure the new one will last much longer.

This park is one of my favorite memories from the Tokyo leg of our trip because we simply stumbled across it by accident and ended up having an absolute blast on some playground equipment we came across. While I expected some of it to still be there, it was really heartwarming to see everything there almost exactly as it was nearly 20 years ago.




Breathe a sigh of relief, Louis! Your Koala buddies are still there, after all this time!

Breathe a sigh of relief, Damon! Your beloved motorbike is still there, after all this time!

Breathe a sigh of relief, Mike! Your beloved swingset is still there, after all this time!

Gym rings? Check!



Meanwhile, the slide seems to have been downgraded from a spine-tingling, dual-lane insurance liability…


…to this more standard, undulating affair. Hmph.




Atago Shrine


Eventually we meandered out of the park with only a vague notion that we were on a tack towards Tokyo Tower. This is a part of the journey where the location was always fuzzy in my mind. Places like Shibuya, Tokyo Tower, or even “a huge park near Ginza” are easily tracked down in a copy of Lonely Planet, or more recently the Googley Meps™.

We indeed made it to Tokyo Tower as these later photos in the album show, as well as my crystal clear memory of abject terror as we discovered that the elevator to the top of said Tokyo Tower was glass on four sides. Not the greatest thing for my acrophobia.

Before that however we had a ways to walk. It took some doing but with the help of aforementioned Googley Meps™ and it’s cousin Streets Looky™, I was able to track down a few of the otherwise nondescript street scenes we walked past.

I think what I find most fascinating is comparing all the small shop signs to see which businesses have survived between then and now.

For example, a few blocks down, this sign, familiar from the old photos, grabbed my eye from a distance and clued me in to the next scene on my list.


Far out, you can even see the similarities in some of the trees lining the road on the left!

But in all the times I’ve paged back through this album, the next bit was always the mystery. I could never figure out where or what this was because it’s not quite one of those things that popped up in the guidebooks of the time. It turned into a neat little side-story on our trip but it was always anonymous. You see, while making a beeline for Tokyo Tower, we eventually came across this area and something grabbed our attention off to the right.


As you can see, there was this little understated toori and a set of stone stairs leading up into the trees. Our curiosity got the better of us (as it damn well should when you’re on vacation in a new place) and we decided to see where they led.

Man, the sign hasn’t changed a bit. Thanks to more modern and robust lookup methods (i.e. the internet), on this return visit I was finally able to find out that this place is named Atago Shrine. At last, after 18 years, the mystery was solved. Maybe I’ll be able to sleep now.


Apparently the steep stone staircase is known as the ‘Stone Staircase of Success,’ presumably meaning that if you made it to the top, you were able to successfully use a staircase. Alternatively, it could represent ‘success in life’, but you know, translations are whimsical things, it could totally mean either.

Up we go.


I’m happy to report that I didn’t get nearly so winded while climbing the stairs this time, despite now being 40….ish.



At the top, to our pleasant surprise back in 1997, we found an enticing, tranquil oasis in the middle of the city. This little shrine, enshrouded in leaves that filtered out both the sun and the noise of traffic, was such a delightful discovery.


In addition to the typical shrine-y things you expect to find, there was, and still is, a pleasant little pond, complete with a cute little rowboat.

The rowboat is still there, though it’s now parked in a different location, confounding my attempts to recreate the photo but still begging the question of whether or not this pond is really big enough to warrant a watercraft instead of just walking around it.




Around the corner a familiar, wooden friend was still standing by, looking none the worse for wear.




I recall we chose to get even further lost and went down the back side of the hill instead of going back the way we came. Sure enough, the stairs hadn’t changed at all, though there’s now an impressive apartment complex where before was only an empty lot.



As the stairs empty out to the street next to this charming little tunnel, our retrospective thus comes to an end. From here, we had gone on to finally arrive at Tokyo Tower and after that Disneyland, but those are things I don’t feel need revisiting here. Disneyland is always going to be Disneyland.


One of the things I’ve always loved about this country is the seemingly inexhaustible reserves of contradictions it offers up. Often, those contradictions seem to be rooted in the collision between the intransigence of Japan’s historical self with the inevitable progress of its modern self, both of which tend to be simultaneously and wholly embraced by it’s people. After almost 6 collected years of living here (not long, admittedly), something must be rubbing off on me because through this project I was able to experience the smallest hint of this historical dichotomy on a personal level, standing again in these spots with one foot in the the present and the other in the past.

As I was taking the last of these photos near the tunnel, I came across an intimating graffiti tag on the back of a street sign, as though it were somehow a message from the city itself. It felt like it wanted to remind me that while looking back is revealing, there was still that special thing that had laid the foundation for this retrospective to have meaning in the first place.

And now that the reminiscing was over, it was calling me to get back to that crucial pursuit, so vital to discovery, that had served me and my friends so well 18 years ago and continues to point the way today…


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