Stefan Le Du, 42, a sustainability specialist from Nantes, France, moved to Tokyo to work for the French Embassy in 2016. An avid photographer, he takes pictures of nostalgic storefronts throughout Japan that catch his eye and uploads them to the Instagram account, @storefronts.japan.

1. How did you get into photography? I think I got my first camera when I was 11, but what changed my approach to photography was the rise of social networks. In 2006, I discovered Flickr, a platform where photographers, both amateurs or professionals, could share pictures and develop communities.

2. Do you prefer shooting in digital or film? I prefer digital. It’s the switch to digital that actually allowed me to become more interested in photography, as it removed the barriers for trial and error that were attached to the monetary cost of analog shots. Digital also made sharing photos much easier.

3. What inspired you to start taking photos of storefronts in Japan? Urban elements and atmospheres are my favorite subject. Maybe because I didn’t grow up in a very urban environment, this all still looks very exotic to me. In Japan, this is even more exciting, as cities mix many influences and eras, producing very distinctive urban aesthetics. I felt there was potential for a more ambitious photo project, in particular with the storefronts and their strong visual identities.

4. What kind of camera do you use? My phone is the main camera I use for this project because it opens up the possibilities of random encounters with storefronts. These unexpected discoveries are often the best ones, and I just couldn’t shoot them if I had to carry a regular camera with me whenever I wanted to take photos.

5. Have you learned anything about the country from its storefronts? Each one is a sample of Japanese urban design and architecture. Besides the aesthetics of color, shape and composition, which can all be accidental or intended, looking at these photos as a series can help you feel the Japanese approach to building cities. For instance, you can see the importance of bicycles.

6. Do you have more of an affinity for older storefronts? Yes, these retro storefronts are definitely my favorites. They are like urban time capsules, traces of a not-so-remote past, yet so different from today’s world. I like how some of them defy all the basic rules of economics, surviving despite an obvious absence of customers.

While most of the storefronts that Stefan Le Du has photographed have been in Tokyo, he admits a fondness for shops in Osaka as well. | COURTESY OF STEFAN LE DU
While most of the storefronts that Stefan Le Du has photographed have been in Tokyo, he admits a fondness for shops in Osaka as well. | COURTESY OF STEFAN LE DU

7. Have you had any interesting encounters with store owners? My most interesting contact with a store owner was a few weeks ago. It was a tiny barber shop in Koto Ward, Tokyo, called Nagumo, with lovely emerald green tones. At some point, a lady, probably wondering what I was doing, opened the door and invited me to come inside.

8. Did you go in? Yes. Inside, the couple who owned the shop told me the history of the store. It opened there in 1959 after the current owner’s uncle moved his salon from another area of Tokyo. They showed me old photos of the place, and I could recognize some of the items that were still there, such as the reclining seats.

9. Were you the first person to photograph their shop? No. The most surprising thing was that they also had lots of fashion magazines featuring their tiny retro salon. It has become a very popular spot for fashion photos, a TV commercial and even movies. Before I left, I asked if I could take a photo of them in front of the shop — but they immediately refused. For them, the star is the shop, not its owners.

10. How did you manage to grow your Instagram following? I started @storefronts.japan in June of 2020. After steady growth during the first weeks, things took off when I started to get attention from artists who liked my photos and decided to draw from them. Encouraged by Canadian artist Leslie Parsons, I started a drawing challenge and over 100 artists sketched a photo of an old bookstore that I shot in Tokyo. To date, there are more than 1,200 drawings based on my photos done by artists all over the world.

Nagumo is a barber's shop in Tokyo's Koto Ward that hasn't just been photographed by Stefan Le Du. | STEFAN LE DU
Nagumo is a barber’s shop in Tokyo’s Koto Ward that hasn’t just been photographed by Stefan Le Du. | STEFAN LE DU

11. Do you photograph in different cities? By far, the city I photographed the most for this project is Tokyo. I also shot lovely old stores in Kyoto, and many more in Nagano, Niigata, Gunma and Kobe. The latest cities I visited were Fukuoka and Nagasaki. Kyushu is charming, I need to go back to collect more storefronts from this region!

12. Which city has the most impressive facades? I took a lot of photos in Osaka, which is also quite an amazing subject for this project, with many districts like Shinsekai or Dotonbori having the most extravagant storefronts I’ve seen so far.

13. Do you prepare before setting out to photograph a particular area? When I go to a city for the first time, I sometimes do a bit of research in advance to know where the districts with bars, restaurants and old shops are. I also try to find the older districts of the city, as they usually have more interesting storefronts than modern areas.

14. What kind of feedback have you gotten from people outside of Japan? Several people commented on my photos or sent me messages to tell me they wanted to visit Japan in 2020 or 2021, but couldn’t because of the pandemic. They thanked me for allowing them to still get a daily glimpse at the streets of Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto.

15. Have you received any comments from Japanese followers? In the early months of the project I got a comment from a Japanese follower who said something like, “Thank you for showing us, Japanese people, what we forget to look at in our streets, and for taking these pictures before these buildings are gone.”

16. Where would you like to shoot next? I would like to explore the cities of Hokkaido, as I haven’t really been able to visit that part of Japan yet. I would also need to go back to Okinawa, which I visited nearly five years ago, long before I started the project.

17. What is one of your most popular photos on Instagram? A photo of a bookstore in Jinbocho. What makes it different from other pictures is, I think, two things. First, the subject itself: a bookstore. The piles of books are clearly visible in the photo. I think people have a growing attachment to books, a form of nostalgia, as things become more and more digital. We’ve also all heard about how small bookstores are struggling to survive. I think there’s some empathy for this kind of shop. The second is that there are some people on it, a couple looking toward the interior of the shop. They take us with them into the scene.

18. What is your favorite storefront photo? My personal favorite would be a simple, tiny soba restaurant called Kagetsuan on a relatively remote street in Tokyo. It was not a planned encounter, I just found it, and immediately liked it. I like the matching green tones between the store and the motorcycle in front of it, and it has many ingredients that really makes it, for me, a typical retro Japanese storefront.

19. Which photographers do you like? I don’t have a single favorite photographer, but there are several photographers and photo projects that I like on Instagram. Examples include @cyber_punk_city_kanazawa, an urban series showing Kanazawa with distorted sci-fi colors.

I also love the photos of Kyoto street life by @stefaan_goossens. I’m often amazed by the incredible timing of his shots and wonder how many hours he spends waiting for the right moment.

In another style, @aoishikaku shoots beautiful monochrome minimalist urban scenes and elements in Saitama. Recently, I stumbled upon the incredible photo project of @kiichiro.photo: He uses photos taken in 1984 in Shinjuku and Shibuya as references, and shoots the same location from the same angle. We can see how Tokyo has changed — and sometimes not changed — over 40 years.

20. Do you have any plans to publish your photos as a book? I’ve been thinking I could do it when I have shared 1,000 photos on Instagram. This would contribute to saving the heritage of these small pieces of urban design and architecture, as most of these buildings will probably disappear at some point in the future, considering the short lifespan of construction in Japan. An Instagram account can be deleted in one second, a book lasts a lot longer.

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