"Wall"series"A window attached to the outer wall of galvalume steel plate"

The Other Side of Tokyo, Japan – Black and White Film Photography Project – By Kiichi Kitahara

I was born in Gifu prefecture in Japan, grew up in Osaka and Aichi, and now live in Tokyo. I have more than 40 years of photography experience, but it’s only in the last few years that I have been working with film photography in earnest.

For the first 20 years or so, I was only using film. But at that time there was no internet, so I had no choice but to learn photography techniques from various textbooks. In recent years, with the spread of the internet, it has become possible to benefit from the knowledge not just of photography experts, but also of many other people who take photographs as a hobby. In some ways, I think that film photography has matured, with a lot more information available. It’s a good time to start or get back into film photography.

“Wall” series ”Side wall of Chinese restaurant”
“Wall” series ”Side wall of Chinese restaurant”

I’m currently working on a project to photograph the “other side” of the modern city of Tokyo, using 35mm black-and-white film.

The Ginza and Nihonbashi areas in central Tokyo are downtown and business districts, but just entering a single backstreet will present you with a completely different scene.

“Alley” series ”Narrow street between building”
“Alley” series ”Narrow street between building”

It’s a landscape that you would normally just pass by, but it’s nevertheless an authentic part of the landscape of Tokyo. These are scenes which are not listed in the Tokyo Tourism Guidebook, but which Japanese people are accustomed to seeing in their daily lives.

I have given myself a few commitments for this project, which I call “The Other Side of Tokyo, Japan”:

1. Take the pictures on black-and-white negative film. After scanning the negatives, use as few tone curve operations as possible, to create a natural tone.

2. Focus on tone. Because the subject tends to be monotonous, incorporate ideas from the zone system to express rich tones from shadows to highlights.

3. Take a photo “like a photo”. “Photo-like” to me means making a picture-like photo, not a simple recorded photo as you see it.

4. Take a photo on the assumption that it will be printed on photographic paper in the darkroom. Frame it so that it can be viewed.

5. Use simple titles for each series: I use easy-to-understand one-word classifications such as “Wall”, “Alley”, “Façade”.

Through this photography project, I am excited to introduce “The Other Side of Tokyo, Japan” to overseas readers from various other countries.

“Alley” series ”Scenery of the back alley of the restaurant”
“Alley” series ”Scenery of the back alley of the restaurant”

My photography system consists of two camera bodies (Pentax LX) and four lenses (28mm, 40mm, 50mm, 100mm). I use the Sekonic L-438 View Spot Meter to determine exposure.

PENTAX LX Film Camera with 40mm Lens | The Other Side of Tokyo,Japan
PENTAX LX Film Camera with 40mm F2.8 Lens | The Other Side of Tokyo,Japan

After testing many types of film, I settled on Rollei Retro 80S for regular use. The characteristics of this film are now an integral part of my photographic “look”. Previously, for developing film, I would generally use Rodinal or a self-prepared developer. But for Rollei Retro 80S, I use a modified PMK Pyro developer – in solution B, I use sodium carbonate instead of sodium metaborate.

“Wall” series ”Wooden wall of an old house”
“Wall” series ”Wooden wall of an old house”

I chose this developer because I take pictures on the assumption that I will eventually print them in the darkroom, and I like the shadow details and sharpness which PMK Pyro developer produces on photographic paper. I refrain from over-editing the digital image obtained by scanning the negative; rather, it is adjusted to look as similar as possible to a straight darkroom print.

”Wall” series ”Crumbling wall of a private house in the back alley of a building”
”Wall” series ”Crumbling wall of a private house in the back alley of a building”
“Wall” series ”Bathroom window of a private house in a narrow alley”
“Wall” series ”Bathroom window of a private house in a narrow alley”

There are many global camera manufacturers in Japan, but most of them produce digital cameras. Very few Japanese people enjoy film photography, and there is not much available information about film photography. There seems to be some data that the ratio of film photographers is considerably smaller than that in Europe.

However, we do have an active second-hand market for film cameras. One of the good things about living in Japan is that I can get a good second-hand SLR film camera at a bargain price.

One of my missions is to enjoy the hobby of film photography at the lowest possible cost. Accordingly, I don’t buy things which I don’t need right now – things which “may be useful” or “may be needed someday”. For example, I don’t have a flatbed scanner. Instead, I digitally duplicate my film negatives using my old Sigma SD15 DSLR camera. For film scanning, I only purchased a Nikon digitizing adapter for $30, and I use the free Photoshop CS2 for RAW editing. It’s fun to think of ways to enjoy film photography on a small budget.

I would like to continue “The Other Side of Tokyo, Japan” project while having fun myself.

“Facade” series ”Japanese old house with a front entrance and a kitchen door”
“Facade” series ”Japanese old house with a front entrance and a kitchen door”
“Alley” series “Bicycle placed in the back alley”
“Alley” series “Bicycle placed in the back alley”

The project is still unfinished, but you can see more black-and-white film photographs of Tokyo landscape and architecture on my webpage, The Other Side of Tokyo, Japan.

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About The Author

44 thoughts on “The Other Side of Tokyo, Japan – Black and White Film Photography Project – By Kiichi Kitahara”

  1. Wow! Great tonal range in the photos and a project that requires such discipline! I will avidly follow your project!

  2. Kiichi-san,
    Thank you for this excellent reminder of another aspect of Japan. Since I first visited in 1976 I have been fascinated by your country. Luckily over the years I worked for 2 Japanese companies and visited some 50 times, although mainly for work and to Tokyo and Osaka, but I also took time to visit other parts.

    When I have visited other countries I have always tried to step out off from the main streets and investigate what goes on “behind the scenes”. I find this is where I can get a more honest view of the place. Your photos took me back to many happy memories of my visits.

    I would really like to go back there in 2022 and just spend my time wandering around with my cameras as I find it a very photogenic country. Plus I am always amazed how there are so many second hand film cameras for sale in seemingly great condition. I am sure I’d bring back a suitcase full!
    Domo arigatogozaimashita.

    1. Thank you for your interest in my photos.
      I agree with the idea of going off the main street for an honest view of the country.
      Over 30 years ago, I loved Latin America and traveled to Guatemala, Peru, Mexico, etc., but went to hotels and restaurants that only residents use.
      I think it gave me good insight.
      Please come to Japan again and enjoy photography and camera shopping!

      1. Wonderful 40mm Pentax lens ! Great cityscapes !
        I use the 40mm Hexanon lens on Konica Autoreflex T or TC often. A wonderful lens too.

  3. Dear Mr. Kiichi,

    This is a very surprising project indeed! On the surface, the subject seems to be uninteresting, not worthy of any attention. But through the masterful composition and execution it gains unexpected complexity and depth. I am quite amazed! My favorite shot is that of the bicycle in the back alley. Thanks for posting and all the best from Germany,


    1. Thank you for your comment.
      I am glad that you like the contents of the project.
      The photo of the bicycle in the back alley is the one that inspired me to start this project in earnest.

  4. These are very lovely and appear to speak volumes about the place and its people, out of the obvious gaze. Inspiring indeed- I love Pentaxes but I’ve never tried Pyro developer (although I suspect the results are more to do with your eye and discipline than either of these!)

    1. Thank you for your comment.
      I love PMK Pyro developer.
      I also use an MQ type self-prepared developer, but the highlight tones and shadow details when printed are different from those of the PMK Pyro developer, and above all, I like the look of the developed negatives. ????
      PMKPyro developer has its pros and cons, but I think it’s a good developer for this project.

  5. hello , i really like your project and pictures ! I have been working for Toshiba in the past and visited Tokyo few tiems mainly for business purpose . I have not seen such fascinating alleys and they are part of the city an reflect as well the ways of life in Japan . In summer 2019 i spent some days for vacations and took a lot of pictures ( digital for the convenience ) but would have loved to read your article before . thanks for this . daniel from france

    1. Thank you for loving my photography project.
      The back alley in Japan that attracts foreigners, but it doesn’t seem to be interested in Japanese people.
      Therefore, my photo does not seem to be accepted by Japanese people. ????

  6. Kiichi, Nice work. You have found the sublime in the ordinary. I think you’re getting great results from the Pyro and your budget digitization workflow. A good reminder that expensive equipment is not necessary if you make the effort to learn your craft and apply it with patience and persistence. Thank you for sharing.

  7. Castelli Daniel

    Mr. Kiichi,
    Thank you for sharing your project. You opened a window onto a fascinating side of the city. Beautiful tones and composition!

  8. Thank you everyone for your comment!
    First of all, I would like to tell you something.
    I can’t speak English.
    I was able to write this article thanks to Sroyon and Google Translate.
    So, please understand that it will take some time to reply to your comments.
    Thank you!

  9. Wonderful work, Kiichi! During my visit to Tokyo, I was fascinated by the back alleys (my wife was NOT). I’ve never seen a place where air conditioning duct work is so visible and its installation trumps all other considerations. I look forward to more of your photos!

    1. Thank you for your comment.
      In Japan, even Japanese people often say, “It’s a strange country!”
      Every time I see an outdoor unit installed in an unorderly manner in a Japanese building, I mourn, “What the hell is the Japanese aesthetic sense!?”
      However, I think this is Japan itself.????

  10. I enjoy the seldom seen corners of cities and suburbs. These are very nice, and I appreciate the aesthetic and creative discipline you’re imposing on your project. Thank you!

    1. Thank you for your comment.
      Your comment is the best compliment to me, as I believe film photography won’t work if either art or technology is missing!
      I’m really happy! Thank you!

  11. Wonderful images that are different from the usual Tokyo stuff we see. Love the tonality as well. Many of the images remind me of the original Bladerunner movie if they were taken at night. Maybe a new project??


    1. Thank you for your comment!
      I also watched the BladeRunner movie about 20 times!????
      “Two, Two, Four !!”
      “2kode juubundesuyo! wakkatte kudasaiyo!” (Two is enough! Please understand!)
      It’s a good movie that incorporates Japanese culture!
      I’m not thinking of shooting at night, but my photo may be dark even in the daytime!????

  12. Simon Cygielski

    I finally got a chance to visit Japan late last year. When traveling I tend to gravitate to “the other side”a you describe it, and this was no different. I ended up with a lot of pictures of trucks parked at the port, expressway overpasses, and shops in back alleys. Your photographs really resonate with me, and I really appreciate your disciplined approach to making them. Really top -notch work.

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