Big City Lights

Published 2023 by Sailosaibin in Two-way Tie For Last T-shirt Zine. More info on the shirt(s) itself here

Leading up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, I pitched an art project comprising a very large neon signage installation. When we presented to the panel of judges, they were pleasant overall—and they liked our low budget compared to some of the other submissions—but there was a major sticking point. About half of the judges felt that neon signs weren’t really representative of Tokyo or Japan, and so to express the theme of Tokyo 2020, it simply wasn’t an appropriate gesture. They stated (without malice) that associating neon with Tokyo was more likely to be the opinion of foreigners that weren’t truly familiar with the city. However, the other half of the panel felt that it was a pretty good representation, and countered that the target audience was, in fact, foreign visitors.

Part of the inspiration for my pitch was that I was learning the first steps of neon sign making—bending the glass tubing—at Shimada Neon, one of the last surviving neon sign makers in Tokyo. So, my association of Tokyo with neon may have been biased—but toward personal experience rather than due to unfamiliarity with Tokyo as some of the judges assumed. Real neon signage is increasingly being replaced by cheaper, inferior LED approximations, and the huge building-topper billboards that used to light up swathes of the skyline are increasingly printed images or digital screens. The concept of Tokyo neon was a deliberately nostalgic idea, but the judges wanted to show the planned 2020 Olympics visitors a sort of theoretical, universal, contemporary Tokyo. The warm glow of genuine neon lighting was very much a part of my contemporary Tokyo, however, and to this day my eye always actively scans for genuine neon, with a dopamine rush whenever I find it. COVID-19 halted my neon practice, but lighting of all sorts has continued to frame and color my day to day experience of this city. Like a moth or your dying grandmother, I will always go to the light.

Just like everyone who first arrives here to visit or to live, I quickly fell deeply, truly, madly in love with konbini. They quickly became a huge part of my life—if not daily life, then certainly weekly—and they’re one of the things I miss most when I leave Japan. I think I can claim the title of “konbini enthusiast” without any qualification. As a connoisseur, it pains me to omit Mini Stop, Poplar, and Daily Yamazaki, but in the following I’m going to restrict the discussion to the “Big Three:” 7-11 (er, Seven and i Holdings), Family Mart, and Lawson.

The Big Three are in such fierce competition that their offerings are pretty similar. Changes in one, to the tune of NEW! The (ザ) Coffee, are soon countered with a Coffee: Quality UP! campaign at the others. Still, many people have strong feelings about konbini, in the sense of allegiances. There are a lot of reasons why one might prefer one over another, but I think it’s safe to assume that for most, as you might expect, convenience (either at the moment or at a formative time in life) is the deciding factor. 

For me (though I gleefully partake in all) my allegiance was determined by the lighting—to the extent that I would go out of my way for a preferable in-store ambiance (I’m being facetiously generous here with word choice).  

At my first residence after moving here, I had one each of The Big Three within a five-minute walk. Lawson (actually a Natural Lawson) was closest, followed by Family Mart, followed by 7-11. The 7-11 was the largest with the best overall selection, Natty Law had baked goods and pão de queijo, but Family Mart had the best lighting, and so when I was trying to eat/drink my feelings via a late night beer, frozen tantanmen, or ice cream bar, Famima was my usual destination. 

While all three had standard-issue industrial fluorescent tubing, some bean counter somewhere had made a decision at each. My 7-11 had comparatively dim, yellow lighting, but instead of cozy it felt a bit dingy and unconsidered. My Lawson had lighting so bright-white it was blue—like a Hollywood celebrity’s teeth—which not only detracted from the “Natural” concept, but also made me want to grab something as quickly as possible and get out, rather than luxuriate in my decision-making process.

But Family Mart, right in the middle, was just right. The lighting was a perfect industrial neutral, illuminating the products’ contours and packaging with an even, purposeful clarity. Here I could linger for way longer than even I can justify as reasonable, checking the monthly rotation for the perfect treat for my current craving. The two extra minutes of walking were a small price to pay for a more pleasant browsing experience.

I shared this observation with a few friends who later verified that they agreed after making their own comparison. Does that make it true, or did I bias their observation? And what about wall color? I later noticed that some 7-11s have cream-colored walls but their lighting looks white in isolation. I thought about trying to find a color temperature meter to test it “scientifically” but in the end it doesn’t really matter. Despite my enthusiasm, I’m aware that they are all probably soulless and exploitative corporations that all definitely sell fried chicken impregnated with a strange gel layer. Granting them a little bit of personality enables little simulated rewards like “holding out” for one’s preferred brand, or sportive arguments about which is truly best. So I continue to think of 7-11s as too yellow, Lawsons as too blue, and Family Marts as just right, and all makes sense in the world.

On the other hand, a recent trend has been really baffling me—new, hip restaurants opening up with extremely bright lighting. I’m not sure it’s confirmation bias, but my friend Kee (a food writer, so he keeps up with these things) assured me that it’s being discussed in the food industry as well—why is it suddenly happening? My initial theory was Instagram—maybe it means better iPhone food photos (faster shutter speed, less digital smear-grain or HDR) and hence more free advertising. Maybe it’s to give an air of surgical cleanliness, to combat any latent COVID anxiety. Maybe they’re just fans of having every pore on your date’s face picked out in perfect clarity (kind of like the first time seeing news anchors’ faces in HD). 

It’s the complete opposite of what I think of as a cozy, fun, high-end, or stylish place: the dim, warm glow of candles, indirect incandescent bulbs, or strategic track lighting turned low. I can’t imagine an intimate dinner or a first date without seeing a single cast shadow. But maybe for people that grew up in a relatively modern Japanese house, it connotes the “casual” vibe of the typical family living room.

The ubiquitous living room ceiling light is perhaps the brightest light of all (relative to its size) and if not rigidly enforced, it’s strongly encouraged. The standard flattened sphere overhead lamp is what you’ll get, every time, if you don’t express a preference otherwise. Going to any shop other than a dedicated lighting store and saying you’re looking for “a light for the living room” will result in the staff cheerfully leading you to their selection of these featureless, oppressive disks. Every manufacturer, large and small, makes one, and they are virtually indistinguishable.

The standardization of one giant, ceiling-mounted überlamp makes sense when you consider that many rooms don’t have a lot of table space or floor space on which to put a bunch of smaller lamps. But the emergence of this lamp as the archetypal solution is a stumper. Intense, harsh, and punishing are three words that only begin to hint at the severity of the emitted light. So white it’s blue-violet, with the effect of being in a tanning bed or a bug zapper. Something about the frequency of Alternating Current sometimes causes the lights to noticeably, rhythmically flicker, leading my mind to imagine running the microwave with the door open or that alleged Russian disorientation device leveraged at the US Embassy in Moscow.

Typically these lamps include a remote control with a dimmer, with many also having alternate, warmer color temperatures—but many people opt for the superwhite blast, fusing their retina rods and cones into a uniform sludge. It’s a truism that Japan’s population is rapidly aging, so maybe the brightness is just so jiichan can find the aircon remote. Walking my dog before bedtime, I’m impressed by the amount of these naval signal-grade living room beacons blaring a wide swath of the electromagnetic spectrum through lacy curtains (and probably concrete) into the street. 

But as the sun begins to rise, the street is also where Tokyo’s best light is to be found. Sometimes in narrow alleys that are angled the right way, but usually out in the open. Tokyo’s most signature light is sunlight. The morning light is particularly good—warmest and friendliest, but I appreciate all parts of the day.

Compared to the American or European cities I’ve been to, there’s a peculiar quality to it—distinctly crisp or clear. This is another one that people agree with—I’ve discussed it with two different film directors I know; one about trying to put our finger on just what it is, the other about her feeling that it’s uniquely blue and uniquely lonely. But both agreed that it is somehow unique and uniquely special—Tokyo’s sunlight feels distinctly Tokyo. The sunlight in Kyoto, Osaka, or Hiroshima don’t have quite the same character. There is maybe a loneliness to it—an emptiness that can also feel like possibility. 

Maybe it’s the clean air, maybe its all the reflective surfaces, maybe its the verticality: its a ground-level phenomenon rather than up above. I don’t know, but if someone does, don’t tell me. I am recently romanticizing the pre-smartphone days when answers weren’t so easily available, and questions could trail of with a “yeah, I don’t know…” or an “that’s a great question…” and left at that. With lighting, it’s all so subjective that  I don’t think knowing would bring any more satisfaction than just feeling. On days where I’m feeling good, it might be my favorite part about living here. 

There’s a great word in Japanese, komorebi, which means essentially “light filtering through trees (leaves).” Of course, even though we don’t have a specific word in English, we have sunlight broken up by leaves: my memories of the Blue Ridge Parkway pulse with those irregular flashes, diffused by the hazy sunroof glass of someone’s hand-me-down Volkswagen. But in Tokyo, we also get tatemonomorebi (if you will): sunlight filtering through tall buildings. Narrow slits and irregular polygons of light countered with violet or gray-blue shadows. Pinhole-camera style pricks of bright light through narrow gaps as you turn a corner. NYC and Hong Kong have this, but something about the light here makes it extra-stunning, and extra-Tokyo.

I don’t think I could explain any of that last one to the judges at the pitch panel. They each have their Tokyo of the mind, and so do I. What stands out to me is mundane to them. They were trying to do a job, to satisfy certain objectives related to promoting certain ideas of culture and place, whereas I’m just trying to find my footing in a home that still surprises me.

I can’t really explain it to myself—but as I intimated above, I don’t particularly feel a need to, either. Light is the baseline condition of our being able to see anything, and it’s easy to take it for granted. Light is mundane until it isn’t, and what makes it mundane is subjective—what you’re used to. I guess I’ve always cared about it (changing the bulbs was an important first step of moving into many apartments), but it’s interesting to me that even something so…nothing…can be a reminder that I’m a stranger in a strange land. But, to be clear, only mildly strange.

When friends abroad ask me if living in Japan is so weird, they are imagining me lost in a high-tech utopia, an anime paradise where everyone is dressed like in Fruits magazine, where everyone is casually hitting up the used-panties vending machine around the clock, where everyone eats sushi for every meal, and where the backdrop for all is freshly wet, (yes…) neon-lit streets. Probably, they know on some level this isn’t what daily life is like. But at the same time, no one believes me when I say that the weirdest thing about living here is people’s living room lamps. ✺