Tokyo with Carl Randall

News - Tokyo with Carl Randall

Carl Randall's enthralling figurative oil, acrylic and Japanese ink paintings are a fascinating insight into his extended period of time in Tokyo. Through densely packed groups of individual portraits they often depict people occupying the same close public spaces, yet hauntingly isolated from one another. Coinciding with an exhibition of his work at the National Gallery BP Portrait Award 2013 Carl takes us on a heady tour of the Tokyo that inspired his body of work.

Where are we? 

Tokyo, Japan

We’ve got 24 hours here, what should we do?

Set your alarm clock for 4 - 5am and visit Tsukiji, Japan’s most famous fish market (and one the world’s largest). Here you can see giant Tuna fish and all sorts of other sea creatures being auctioned off to fishmongers. Pop into the local sushi restaurants lining the quayside for the freshest sushi you’ll ever have, just off the boat.

Next -‘Karakuen’ where they two types of park that will show you both old and new Japan. An amusement park is nestled right in the middle of the city - jump on the rollercoaster that also shoots straight through a building to wake yourself up. Get good views of the local area, and then walk a couple of minutes and you are in a traditional Japanese park. Walk around the carefully, beautifully manicured bonsai trees, ponds and Japanese bridges, and peeking over the park walls you can see the rollercoaster you were just on.

Image by Fakelvis

Then over to ‘Shimo-Kitazawa’, a cool young person’s hang out with a slightly grungy, student feel – lots of little winding streets with clothes shops and various stores to browse in. Nearby ‘Harajuku’ is also worth seeing. If you are there on Sunday you can see the ‘Cosu-play’ boys and girls standing around in their weird costumes, and this is a short walk into Yoyogi Park and the famous big Meiji Shrine, where you can see Shinto priests wandering about.

The final two stops are nearby and perhaps best seen at night. ‘Shibuya’ is the title of my large ink drawing which is being displayed in my travel award show at The National Portrait gallery. The area sums up a lot of things that are cool about Tokyo; pop culture and gigantic outdoor TV screens 15 stories high that dwarf the people scuttling about over the world’s largest pedestrian crossings. You can get a coffee in the world busiest Starbucks, overlooking these. The first time you visit this area it feels like you are in Blade Runner. This is also where the Ramen shop I based my painting ‘Mr.Kitazawa’s Noodle Bar’ is located. 

Finally we’ll go to ‘Shinjuku’, which is title of my large oil painting in this year’s BP Portrait Awards. Heaps of crowds, neon signs, shopping, and a short walk down some side streets and you are into ‘Kabukichou’, the red light district.

I’m new here, any insider tips?

Tokyo and Japan in general is super safe, so I don't need to give you any advice about safety. Unless you try very, very hard, getting ripped-off or mugged are not going to happen. Bring some small, quirky gifts from wherever you are from – Japanese seem to like little unusual gifts from abroad that they can’t buy in Japan. Learn some ‘Hiragana’ and ‘Katakana’ before you arrive. This is the simple side of Japanese characters and not so difficult to learn and it will just mean you’ll be able to read a few things here and there, which makes the whole experience more fun. If you are going in the summer, take some mosquito-repellent spray for your skin. If you are going in the winter, take some skin moisturizing cream, for some reason skin becomes really dry in the winter. 

Carl Randall Shinjuku LRG
Carl Randall: Shinjuku

Share a favourite memory from this place…

I dropped a 100yen coin (about 65 pence) in a convenience store. About two weeks later I returned to the same store and they had wrapped the coin up in a piece of paper and returned it to me, telling me that I dropped it the last time I was in. On another occasion, I mislaid a bag of pencils, erasers, sketchbooks etc. I went to a restaurant in Ueno train station for lunch, but I didn't realise I’d lost my bag until I got home. I thought I had left it on the train or something, never to been seen again. Anyway, I returned to the same restaurant about three months later, and the waiter came out with the bag and my drawings materials in it – not a thing was missing!

Where should we have breakfast?

Yoshinoya – a fast food chain store (but much healthier than MacDonald’s). You can get a super cheap but healthy Japanese style breakfast with rice, fish, miso-soup and nato, green tea.

Carl Randall Sushi LRG
Carl Randall: Sushi

How should we get there?

They are everywhere!

A lovely place to stroll?

Shinjuku-Gyoen. It's a big park in the centre of Shinjuku - beautiful trees, ponds and landscape design. It has a Japanese garden and the surrounding big skyscrapers are always visible outside the park which gives it a cool city feel.

Shinjuku Gyoen elmimmo
Image by Elmimmo 

Greatest coffee?

I don't drink coffee, I’m a tea man myself, but there are lots of cool little coffee shops in Tokyo. You are spoilt for choice really. Jiyugaoka is a cool fashionable laid back place with lots of little coffee shops and a slightly European feel.

Tell me something surprising

A couple of things that anyone who has been to Japan will know: There is no ‘ground floor’ in buildings in Japan - they just start from the 1st floor. There are women-only train carriages during rush hours. It’s very rare that a building is made from real bricks in Japan (due to earthquakes). They usually have flat panels with patterning made to look like bricks. Karate, in my opinion, is the coolest combination of Kanji (Chinese characters). ‘Kara’ means ‘empty’ and ‘Te’ means ‘hand’. Put it together and you have ‘Empty Hand’, and the image of fighting without weapons. For a short while, convenience stores in Tokyo were selling 100yen (65 pence) cans of coffee that had attached little Bruce Lee action figures in different poses. I don't drink coffee so I gave the cans to friends, and kept the figures - I have a little collection now.

What helps you focus?

Deadlines. A sense of purpose; knowing that something is worthwhile, and that you are doing something unique.

I wish I’d been alive when

…everyone walked around in Kimonos, during the Edo-period and shop and street signs were painted by hand.

Carl Randall Hakone LRG
Carl Randall: Hakone

Take me shopping

If it was up to me I’d bring you to Uniqlo and Mujii, two great Japanese clothes shops, and then to ‘Village Vanguard’, a chain store in Tokyo that sells really quirky, bizarre odds and ends – quite useless stuff but fun.

Is there a new exhibition?

I always enjoy shows at the 20/20 Design Museum, and the Mori Museum, both in Roppongi.

Show me a building you love

Though some people disagree about this (especially architects), I think the ‘Edo-Tokyo Museum’ in Ryogoku is interesting. It’s basically a massive block suspended high on four legs, with a gigantic escalator from street level leading into the underside of the building. It looks like something out of Star Wars, like seeing a spaceship (At-At Walker or Millennium Falcon) in the middle of the city. TOD’S Omotesando Building is also interesting, with its strange grid or web-like structure covering it. I quite like Philippe Stark’s ‘Golden Flame’ atop of the Asahi beer Museum – it’s not beautiful at all, but just so imposing, and slightly ridiculous.

A market-place to get lost in? 

Ueno’s ‘Ame-Dori’ – a market running under/to the side of train tracks, with lots of little outdoor food shops where you can get yaki-tori, other barbecued meat on a stick things, and pineapple on a stick. You could also try ‘Asakusa’ in the east – a more traditional area with little streets and shops selling lots of tourist tat, but fun.

A great place for cocktails?

Any bar at the top of Roppongi’s ‘Mori-Tower’ (a very tall skyscraper) – get drunk whilst taking in the amazing views of Tokyo at night.

Carl Randall Uguisudani LRG
Carl Randall: Uguisudani

Or maybe just a cold beer?

There is a basement ‘Izakaya’ (Japanese style pub) near Ueno-Okachimachi station that sells really cheap but good cold beer. The deco is also really interesting - 1950’s themed, with little vintage wind-up metal toys sitting about, and old 1950’s Japanese movie posters on the wall. You can order cooked grasshoppers, frogs and scorpions. They also sell ice cream in the shape of breasts (called ‘titty ice cream’ translated from Japanese) that you have to suck to get the ice cream out of, which always seems to amuse.

Somewhere to dine in style?

I’m not sure if this passes as stylish, but there is a ‘Ninja’ restaurant in Akasaka. You walk in to the entrance, and a Ninja (dressed in the whole black garb) falls from a hole in the ceiling. He or she then walks you though a darkened Edo-period style village, over a little bridge/stream, and to your own little hut/room. Very cool and fun. You can also take a romantic cruise into Tokyo Bay on a cruise boat, having dinner in a classy dining area and looking out into the sea whilst having dinner. I took an ex-girlfriend on there once and she really liked it.

What should I order?

Anything - all the food is apparently ‘ninja’ food, and the ninja waiter’s do ninja magic tricks in front of you! The trick we got involved a pack of cards and flames!

Tsukiji Sushi by Reed George
Image by by Reed George 

Somewhere to avoid like the plague…

Free entry nightclubs, especially in ‘Roppongi’. Meat market in the worst possible way. Western guys either out to get laid or have a fight. Its worth paying to get into clubs – it's a classier crowd.

A place to let your hair down after dinner

Tokyo is one of those places where just walking around is enjoyable, especially on a nice spring or autumn evening. Or, go to a ‘Sentou’ (traditional Japanese public bath) to relax after eating. An ‘Onsen’ (natural spring water bath) is even better, but there aren’t many in Tokyo – you have to get outside the city.

Who shouldn’t I leave without meeting?

The guys in Yoyogi Park who get dressed up as Elvis or 50’s rock and rollers. The train station employees wearing white gloves who push commuters onto packed trains (though they probably wont talk to you much). An old sushi chef – ask him how long he had he had to train to become a sushi chef! Someone from the countryside (not from Tokyo), as they usually have their own views about the city. There also used to be a young Japanese guy outside ‘Shimo-Kitazawa’ train station, who for a small fee used to read out a manga comic for you on the street - in a really dramatic, amusing, theatrical way, using a variety of voices. I’m don't like Manga or Anime at all (the only time I read one is when he read one out for me), but he was very entertaining; I think he was a drama student. You could try and find him. 

Carl Randall: Shibuya

Carl's show at the portrait gallery ends Sept 15th and goes on tour.
His solo exhibition 'Tokyo Portraits' at The Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation, Japan House, Regents Park, London runs from January 16th - March 12th 2014. 




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