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Postcards from Tokyo: Olympics set to go ahead in the light and shadow of the pandemic

The Tokyo Tower and other landmarks were lit in special Olympic colours in April to mark 100 days before the Summer Games opened, but were shrouded in clouds of mist when rain enveloped the Japanese capital that night.

Light and shadows are the hallmarks of these Games, the second time Tokyo is the host.

Half a century earlier, in 1964, the Games heralded a new era of modernity for a city risen from the ashes of a war that had ended fewer than two decades before. Their symbol was the sleek high-speed bullet trains that began running just days before the opening ceremony.

But in April 2020, the trains glided through Tokyo with most seats empty. Residents were asked to stay home as the pandemic swept through Japan and the world. The Olympics had been postponed a month earlier.

A teamLab staff member poses for a photograph as he sits inside a digital artwork at teamLab Planets


A Yurikamome line train, a driverless automatic train system, travels past buildings in Tokyo


People walk across the Shibuya crossing


Now, they are on again, due to start in July. But the anticipated, exhilarating festival of national pride appears to have been muted to a joyless duty.

“I can’t seem to enjoy myself as much as I did last time,” an elderly woman who saw the first Games says to her husband as they rest during a stroll – in the evening, to avoid the virus.

“It’s disheartening, like somebody else’s problem. I don’t feel like it’s being held in my country.”

The Covid-19 pandemic isn’t over yet. There are still strong calls to cancel or postpone the Olympics. A quasi-state of emergency remains in place just a month before the Games begin.

A gardener makes wave-shaped patterns, known as ‘samon’, at Karesansui, a traditional Japanese Dry Landscape, at Takao Komagino Garden in Hachioji, on the outskirts of Tokyo


Cast members Hitomi, Kashima and Chia-can, greet guests at ‘At-home Cafe’, a maid cafe that is a subset of cosplay restaurants, in the Akihabara district


Sakuradamon Gate of the Imperial Palace stands in front of high-rise buildings in the Marunouchi business district in Tokyo


They will be held in a “safe bubble” of vaccinated athletes and delegations, a celebration of sport divorced from the host city and its people.

But life has gone on even as the city lurches in and out of soft lockdowns. Streets have emptied on some nights, filled on others with people and the hubbub of life.

In images of the city, couples admire sights from tall buildings and watch Noh theatre demons dance. Diners delight in sushi served on a conveyor belt, traditional sweets like jewels.

Shouko Totsuka, a Miko also known as a shrine maiden, poses for a photograph as she stands inside the tunnel of Red Torii Gate at the Hie-Jinja Shinto Shrine in Tokyo


People cross a road in Shinjuku


Chikara Mizukami, the owner of Ikko-An, makes Wagashi, a traditional Japanese sweet, at his Wagashi shop in Tokyo


But nearly all Tokyo residents are masked. White surgical masks dominate, but here and there is variation – hand-made white lace, traditional designs. Some are printed with anime characters.

When case numbers fall, people meet in front of Tokyo landmarks, not caring what warning is in place. They pulse across the Shibuya “scramble” road crossing in ordered chaos, immerse themselves in light and colour at museums.

In other images, bright red shrine gates cover a hill. People marry. Boats cruise the rivers at sunset.

When case numbers swell, the streets empty, revealing the city’s bones: the Imperial Palace in its majesty, the Tokyo Tower glittering at night. The trains that clatter through.

Koshiro Minamoto, the founder of BUGAKU and a Samurai martial arts instructor, performs BUGAKU, a composite Samurai Art of Japanese traditional martial arts and the traditional Japanese performing art Noh


Seagulls fly near Shinobazu Pond in Ueno Park


A guard stands on Shibuya Sky, the observation deck of Shibuya Scramble Square, during sunset in Tokyo


As the tide of people ebbs and flows, the scenery constantly changes; vary the angle at which you view the city, and it shifts.

Tokyo is like a kaleidoscope with countless geometric patterns, the colours of the pattern changing slightly depending how the tube is tilted and how the light enters.

Tokyo is never boring. It has survived earthquakes and war. It will survive the coronavirus.

Photography by Kim Kyung-Hoon, Issei Kato and Andronki Christodoulou, Reuters

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