There are many versions of Shibuya. There is one that you see in tourist guides of crowded streets, and another that’s less photographed: for every 10,000 photos of the Shibuya’s famous scramble there are only a handful showing someone walking empty streets.
I remember the first time I exited Shibuya Station and stared, slack-jawed, at the towering digital displays across from Hachiko crossing, the busiest intersection in the world. I had never seen anything like it. I was mesmerized. But after living in Tokyo for a few years, the line between observer and participant begins to blur.
I still notice the hordes, I still stare at all that digital signage, I hear the sounds of traffic and the trains on elevated tracks. But when I exit the station now on my way home, bobbing and weaving through heavy waves of pedestrians, I’m focused on something else: reaching the narrow lanes, quiet passageways and calm alleyways that crisscross the fringes of the neighborhood.
In 1885, when Shibuya Station first opened, this area was a sleepy village with farmland and rivers. When it was incorporated as a town in 1909 and more train lines were added, it became an influential hub, growing ever busier, noisier and more visually overwhelming. But the calm of the earlier village is still here — if you venture far away from the lights and people.
Tokyo’s backstreets have always fascinated me. And Shibuya’s are more special — and strange — than most. These calm and secluded zones are just meters from main roads, but after dark they feel worlds away from the bustling city. This is where digital signage doesn’t penetrate; where lone figures enter and exit their small residential houses; where potted plants accumulate in clusters.
On my walk home, I always head toward the old Udagawa River path that runs parallel to Yoyogi Park. It’s a side to Shibuya rarely seen in guides — one that’s between the fast-paced hustle and the slower moments of everyday life.
It takes a certain resiliency to live harmoniously among Tokyo’s millions. You instantly feel the weight of the city as soon as you leave your front door. Mundane actions such as shopping, commuting or relaxing in the park are done in close proximity to — and sometimes pressed up against — strangers.
But after the masses have returned home on the last trains for the day, the quiet from the backstreets eerily spreads across Shibuya: Streets that were thronging hours ago become empty, lone figures wander in the distance, voices echo. There’s an uncanny feeling here after midnight.
I remember a walk home one evening after a rainstorm had ended. The lanterns that lined the street — hung for a festival — were still glowing red and reflected off the wet pavement, creating a path for the eye to follow. Several figures were cycling toward me, caught in the glow. I took my camera out, wanting to capture this backstreet version of my first Shibuya experience, when I stared at building-sized screens shining on streets swarming with people.
Andrew Curry is Tokyo-based photographer from San Francisco. To see more of his work, visit www.instagram.com/a_curry.