An empty train car after the line had stopped operating near Ikebukuro station.

In Tokyo, the trains stop every night sometime between midnight and 1:30 or so. If you’re in town and you miss that last train, you’re pretty much stranded for four or five hours when they start running again for early morning commuters. Normally, there is no shortage of revelers in the Shinjuku area during this time with many bars staying open all night and whole streets that rarely shut down. After the major earthquake of March 11, 2011 and the subsequent power shortages because of the shutdown of several power plants, the night life and the normally brightly illuminated streets both took a hit.

This last Saturday, I went on a photowalk with Alfie Goodrich, photographer extraordinaire and teacher, and a small group of local photographers to experience and document this time between the last and first trains in the Shinjuku area.

We started at Ikebukuro station and walked along the Yamanote line finally ending at Shinjuku station for sunrise. I was kitted out with a light setup consisting of my 5D, a 50mm f1.4, my trusty 16-35mm f2.8L II and a 90 degree angle finder that lets me lower the camera well below my usual eye level for a more dramatic point of view. Also, I had my big tripod which weighs as much as the rest of my goodies combined. It feels a bit absurd carrying the thing around, but every time I leave it behind I wish I had it, so no regrets! I did end up using it on a few occasions to relatively good effect, so it was definitely worth it.

It was about 00:30 when we started gathering outside Ikebukuro station and just looking around, one could see that things had definitely changed. From about the second story up, all the large signage that is usually brightly drawing attention were dark, somewhat hiding the scale of the buildings around us. It no longer felt overwhelming and larger than life, it was much more intimate feeling. The people were certainly still there and the crowds that were getting off the last train were still as Tokyo as they get, but the whole feeling of the place has been changed by energy conservation.

As we wandered away from the station, the crowds thinned and the light just got dimmer until it had the feeling of being a long way from a metropolis the size of Tokyo. We caught glimpses of people making their way home, both smashed and mostly sober and the combination of low light and small groups made things a little creepy. More than once, comments referencing the “Dawn of the Dead” and other such zombie flicks were made and at times, it really did have that feeling. After winding through the back roads along the tracks for a while, we finally angled towards Shinjuku station and stopped for a beer at a nice little stand-up bar and had a couple of motivational pints to keep us going until daybreak.

As we moved on and approached Shinjuku, we started to see more people including several passed out in various locations from the sidewalk to planters. Very good stuff! We arrived at Shinjuku as the sun rose and the people heading home finally mixed with people heading out for the first train elsewhere, many with suitcases. The mixing of the commuters was quite a thing to see and an interesting juxtaposition of those who were still up and those that were just up. And neither group took much notice of the other. They just passed like the proverbial ships in the night.

All in all, a delightful if exhausting experience and certainly one that every person who lives in or near Tokyo should experience at least once sober before moving on… just to get a feel for a unique time in the cycle of a huge city.

Here are a couple of my favorites and as usual, the rest are on my zenfolio site. The full story is only fully really told through the whole set!!