Nature’s Neon in Shinjuku, Japan

Shinjuku is an interesting ward within Tokyo, Japan. By day, it’s a business district, where salarymen carrying suitcases, wearing trimly-cut suits scurry from meeting to meeting. It’s not all concrete and towering buildings, as people enjoy the natural world in Shinjuku Gyoen, one of the largest parks in Tokyo.

As day turns to night, it’s rare for the colors of nature’s neon to overshadow the manmade neon jungle of Shinjuku, as it did during this particular sunset as we headed to the Robot Restaurant. Normally, the marquees of Shinjuku explode with color, beckoning passers-by inside. The area becomes a feast for–or assault upon–the senses, depending upon your perspective.

No single area encapsulates so much of Japanese life as Shinjuku. If you visit during those daytime hours, you will see a prime example of Japan’s organized and regimented work-life, as these salarymen bustle around, representing the epitome of Japanese conformity. At night of on the weekend, it’s as if the area undergoes an internal revolt against itself, coming alive with individuals exhibiting vibrant personality, the bright glow of neon, and even depravity.

The stark contrast is fascinating to me. As a gaijin who appreciates Japanese culture–but will always be an outsider–I have encountered plenty of the stereotypical desolation and repression that are endemic of Japan. There have been plenty of grave reports over the years that Japan is an isolating society, and there’s no reason to believe that there isn’t at least a good deal of truth to these reports.

However, if observation is any indication, there’s tremendous rebellion to these norms and mores. Young people, in particular, are likely fed up with the conformity that is expected of them, and this can be seen in the fashion of Harajuku, the goods of Akihabara, and even the entertainment of Shinjuku.

During my time in Shinjuku, I have seen everything from adults dressed in hamsters racing around in go-carts to dancing robots & dinosaurs to civil protest and unrest. To be sure, Shinjuku is not all lighthearted fun and revolt against conformity. It’s not even mostly these things. It has seedy streets that remain Japan’s wildest red light district, where massage parlors and a host of other Yakuza-controlled businesses infect the city.

Still, the fact remains that there’s an infectious sense of optimism, individuality, and camaraderie in Shinjuku, as well. Restaurants and bars are overrun with patrons, and the sound of conversation spills out from there doors. Crowds of young people gather at shopping and entertainment districts to hang out and enjoy the company of one another. Tourists gawk at the sites and sounds, as everyone melts together in closed-off streets under the protective gaze of Godzilla. Yeah, it can be a crazy place indeed, and certainly is far from perfect, but no culture is.

As a foreigner, you take a culture as you find it, and as a whole, what I’ve found in Japan, I absolutely love.


As for the photo, as mentioned above, it was shot as I took some friends to burst their Robot Restaurant cherries. We had spent the day at and around Nagano Broadway, and were in a hurry to find a place to eat before enjoying the show.

Of course, one of the first rules of photography is that the best opportunities will present themselves when you’re least prepared. As we stepped out of Shinjuku station and walked towards the entertainment district, the sunset went from “pretty good” to “WOWOW EPIC.” Not only were we in a hurry, but I only had one lens with me. No camera bag and no tripod.

The only reason I had my camera at all was because I feel naked without it, and so I could take photos of my meals and various other random, illustrative shots for the purpose of blogging. Photography was never intended to be a priority of the day.

However, that was before I saw this epic sunset. The quality of sunset you see maybe 3 times per year, if you’re lucky. Once it reached this status, I had to do some shooting. As we left the station, I jumped out into the intersection as soon as the “walk” light appeared (you don’t break the rules in Japan–not even for an epic sunset), ran ahead of the group (not the most polite move as I was the only one who knew where we were going), and fired off a series of shots.

I then kept on, trying to find a few perspectives for some more shots. Save for that initial burst of frames, my shots were generally a bust. The sky was on fire in every direction, and while it was truly a sight to behold, it’s very difficult to capture anything good at ground level when skyscrapers tower above and you’re constrained to one lens. I would have loved to go up to some elevated location, but I didn’t know where any were, and I couldn’t be too rude in pursuing a shot.

Ultimately, the first shots I fired off in the intersection merged nicely into this panorama, as I combined 7 single-exposure frames to make this. Or should I say, Photoshop combined them. With the “Merge to Panorama” feature, all I really did was sit back and wait. I did have to do some clean-up after the fact due to the movement of people crossing the intersection in the overlapping portions of the shots, but only in a couple of places.

The one upside to shooting this handheld and being in a hurry was that there was virtually no gap between the shots, time-wise, meaning the people didn’t move from frame-to-frame all that much. As far as post-processing goes, I did some dodging, burning, and color balance adjustments, but really not all that much. That might come as a surprise when you look at the vibrance of this shot, but it was a really vibrant scene. (My iPhone panorama is a testament to that.)

All in all, I would have loved to run around for another 30 minutes shooting, trying to get something better, but I’m pretty pleased with this photo (please make sure to click the photo to view it larger and in higher-res). Plus, the Robot Restaurant was calling…

If you’re planning a visit to Tokyo, Japan, please check out my other posts about Tokyo for ideas of things to do (or not do) while there. Tokyo has a lot of things to see and do, so I also highly recommend the Lonely Planet Japan Guide to help better develop an efficient plan while there. 

The photos in this post were all taken by me with my Nikon D750 and Nikon 24-70mm lens.

To get some more Tokyo, Japan photo ideas, check out my Tokyo Photo Gallery.

Your Thoughts

Have you visited Shinjuku? Is it a place you’d like to visit? What did you think of it? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Share any other questions or thoughts you have in the comments!

2 replies
  1. DeAnn
    DeAnn says:

    Amazing shot! I am going to Japan for the 3rd time this Summer. We always stay in Shinjuku, for it’s proximity to get out of the city, restaurants and shopping. I probably should try to stay in a new area this time, but I don’t want to get lost. 🙂 Plus, it is hard to find hotels to accommodate families.

  2. Kevin
    Kevin says:

    I was reading National Geographic Kids with my daughter tonight and it claimed that in Japan you can buy cola-flavored cheetos. Have you run across this in your travels?


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