Home on a Big Road — Gallery KAIDO (街道)

gallery KAIDO utility pole sign
gallery KAIDO utility pole sign -- photo by Tyler Ensrude

Text and images by Tyler Ensrude for Japan Exposures

Have you ever been to a gallery and felt as though the reception almost didn’t want you there or could care less that you entered the room? Even in Japan, a country known for it’s outstanding customer service, some places can still hold their noses in the air a bit when it comes to big art in a small space. Maybe it’s my foreign face that frightens the staff working in some galleries here to go back into the storeroom or look busy? I don’t know.

Actually, I take that back. I have had very friendly experiences in and out of Japan from helpful staff or artists who are very grateful to know their work is appreciated. Especially in parks, cafes, some more local/down-to-earth galleries and people doing joint exhibitions around Tokyo. I even remember a few free alcohol occasions! I think it must be the sterility of some of the bigger name galleries that gets to me sometimes and I think that sterility makes them come off as inhospitable or cold.

So despite my slight frustration at times I love many Tokyo galleries. Many of them are very impressive and open to new artists, but usually come at a hefty price. Young photographers and artists could always use more places to show their work at a price and a location that won’t make them think Ginza is actually made of silver, and fortunately some places have been popping up lately.

Ginza may be known for it’s pricy shops and exclusive, but very attractive, galleries. But if you want to get a good taste of what Tokyo really has to offer, you may be in for quite a hike. Galleries are rather spread out around Tokyo, especially photo galleries. You can wander for ages and it’s hard to hit too many in one day. If you’re a gallery savvy visitor to Tokyo, but you’re not sure where you’re going, this can easily turn a day of casual gallery hopping into a frustrating day of hitting up police boxes fumbling over a tiny map and talking to policemen who think you’re trying to find the nearest place to develop your film.

If you want to take a weekend afternoon to hit one of the best off-the-beaten-path photo spaces while you’re here, one that greets you with a smile, talks with you like you’re an old friend and maybe even stuffs a few extra post cards in your pocket as you’re leaving you should definitely try to find gallery KAIDO.


You keep expecting someone to come walking out of a room wearing a bathrobe and slippers!

I’ll try and give you a little help getting there, for while it’s not the easiest gallery to find, it’s definitely worth the trek. First, take the Tokyo Metro Marunouchi Line (subway) to Minami-Asagaya station. (You can also take the JR Chuo Line to the area, but the Marunouchi Line is more convenient). It’s only a few minutes from Shinjuku by train or subway. When you get there look for or ask how to find Ome Kaido (Ome Avenue). Gallery KAIDO is only a few minutes walk off the side streets near Ome Kaido. Ome is a busy road that starts from way-out-west Tokyo and ends around Shinjuku and is actually the inspiration behind the gallery’s name itself.

I was surprised I remembered how to get there without the use of a map the second time I visited. The map makes it look somewhat simple, but amongst the many turns, the never ending rows of houses and the narrow paths they call “streets” here, things can look quite similar. I took a few shots of some landmarks along the way to help you find the right corners, along with a scan of the gallery’s flyer map with some translated English.

gallery Kaido English map -- click for larger map and photos along route
gallery Kaido English map -- click for larger map and photos along route

Once you’re in the vicinity, the gate of gallery KAIDO is the next challenge. You’ll see a sign on a utility pole telling you to make a left. But then you’re stuck guessing where to go next, because you’ve turned into a dead end. If you live in Tokyo, it could very well be exactly what your apartment entrance looks like and there isn’t really much more than a small sign on the gate. It’s on the left side, about half why down the dead end. From this point, walk up the steep, steel steps, take off your shoes in the entryway and… it sounds like home already, doesn’t it?

As I mentioned before, you’ll probably be greeted with a smile and the curiosity of an old style Japanese inn owner welcoming a weary guest. If you’re not the shy type and you show enough interest and have some time, you may even be offered a cup of tea. It seems a bit like you’re walking through someone’s apartment and you keep expecting someone to come walking out of a room wearing a bathrobe and slippers! It feels old, but warm and real. It’s basically two bedrooms of photos with some closed rooms I only assumed were workshop space or possibly a darkroom. One of the rooms, which was apparently the old kitchen, is now the gallery gift shop.

If you come on the right day and happen to know your Japanese photographers, you maybe even get to meet gallery KAIDO’s creator, the renowned photographer Koji Onaka. Onaka-san’s most recent photo book, A Dog In France, is starting to gain Onaka attention overseas and is a great look into his life over 20 years ago. [The Japan Exposures online bookshop has signed copies available. — ed]

Fifteen years ago Onaka-san had a gallery in Nishi-Shinjuku, which he also called KAIDO near the same Ome Avenue. That has since closed. Several years ago, Onaka-san and his wife Yuko, who runs the gallery gift shop, started looking for a new space not so near the bustling Shinjuku area. After a thorough internet apartment search, they came across the current KAIDO in Asagaya which also happened to be near Ome Avenue.

His original intention for the Asagaya gallery KAIDO was unclear for him at first, but he mainly intended to show his work there, and use the extra rooms as darkroom work space and Yuko could even use the space for some of her own interests. But recently, he’s converted it into a full-fledged gallery, welcoming his students to show their own work there for several weeks at a time. His “students” are actually attendees of his weekly workshops he holds at Kaido and random places around Tokyo and Japan. [Japan Exposures Cover Artist Sachiko Kadoi is a past workshop participant. — ed] Each week Onaka offers advice to workshop participants and gives critiques of their work. (Workshop info and exhibition schedules, as well as pictures of past critique sessions, can be seen at the workshop’s blog — Japanese only).

gallery KAIDO exhibition postcards for recent shows
gallery KAIDO exhibition postcards for recent shows

The most recent works on display (from March 20th-29th) in KAIDO’s tiny rooms when I visited were a small series of black and white images by the young Tatsuhiro Nakahara entitled Machi-Nagara (While Waiting), all of which were taken in his hometown of Hiroshima near his father’s farm. In the “PIN-UP Gallery” a playful color series called “empty, but” from Miki Iwaoka of Yokohama residents. Also a set of about 12 images from Onaka-san himself, all printed in Onaka-san’s wonderful signature mundane, smoky-grey style and taken between 1994-1999 in Hakodate, Hokkaido. Some past exhibitions included works by Tomomi Matsutani, Takeshi Dodo, and Shuhei Motoyama.

I found KAIDO a great place to see some straight-forward, down-to-earth images from some photographers who seem to love Japan and aren’t afraid to show it like it is. It’s kind of what I’d expect from a Japanese gallery in some ways after living in Japan for many years myself. It’s not exactly Ginza, but hey, Ginza’s just a dressed-up place made of silver and it’s too crowded anyway.

So, on top of the fact that gallery KAIDO provides that real, or even gritty Japanese art experience in a somewhat surreal Tokyo atmosphere, you also can rest assured that you’ll be welcomed back. KAIDO is open Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 1pm-7pm.


Tyler EnsrudeTyler Ensrude grew up on the plains of rural Wisconsin in the United States and has lived in Tokyo since 2002. He has a degree in photography and graphic design from the University of Wisconsin and is a contributing writer and photographer for several publications in and outside Japan. His current projects include research on foreign photography within Japan as well as Japanese photography, photography books, culture and music. He can be found online at www.tylerensrude.com and www.tylerensrude29.blogspot.com.