Photo Essays

Japanese Playgrounds at Night

Photographer Kito Fujio has spent the last three years traveling his country to capture its playful, surreal, and organic playground equipment.

Playground equipment in the Aichi Prefecture (all photos by Kito Fujio, courtesy the artist)

The photographs of Kito Fujio will make you wish you had grown up in Japan, which is evidently home to some of the world’s most enviable playgrounds. Since 2014, Fujio has been traveling around his country, documenting its old playground equipment that takes on massive, delightful forms, from slides shaped as giant animals to jungle gyms that resemble spiny monsters half-buried in the earth. These clever designs are unique but also ubiquitous: Fujio has published a series of five photo books on the subject, with the latest one released earlier this year.

Playground equipment in Machida, Tokyo

All captured at night, the equipment appears as eerie structures, isolated and dramatically illuminated. Fujio lit each one as if in a studio, even setting up lights inside cavernous playhouses so they seem to beam with unseen life. No children are present, making for particularly melancholic scenes of sites designed for carefree recreation. In one image, a massive robot with shining eyes stretches its arms — one of which doubles as a slide — as if eagerly waiting for kids to pay it a visit.

The sense of abandonment that permeates each image is fitting: these are old, deteriorating playthings whose first visitors may now have offspring of their own. And many of them are slowly disappearing to make way for new architectural projects.

“I used to take pictures of Japanese rooftop amusement parks in the past, but in Japan, the city changes quickly,” Fujio told Hyperallergic. “The rooftop amusement park disappeared with the repair of old department stores.”

Playgrounds in Tokyo are particularly at risk, as urban planning for the forthcoming 2020 Olympics is reshaping much of the capital city. A magnificent red octopus Fujio documented in the western suburb of Chofu, for instance — whose tentacles curled to create pockets perfect for hiding — was destroyed last year. (Octopi, it turns out, are especially common sights in parks, apparently mass produced by the same company since the 1960s). Mostly made of cement, they’ve at least survived the passage of time well, only requiring the occasional layer of paint to look fresh again.

The individuals who came up with these innovative spaces are uncredited, but as Spoon & Tamago points out, one famous Japanese artist who created sculptural concrete forms as playground equipment was Isamu Noguchi. His first built playground at Yokohama featured massive concrete mounds with dips for children to hide inside; one of the most outstanding features of his Moerenuma Park in Sapporo is the conical concrete slide he designed. Noguchi actually conceived of a number of playgrounds, but many, unfortunately, were never realized, from this vision for New York City to this one for Honolulu. Some of the more abstract equipment that Fujio has photographed actually brings to mind the organic forms of Noguchi’s work, featuring spirals and gently undulating lines. But whether elegant or comical, all embody the same spirit of the artist’s practice, representing sculpture as a site for everyday use.

Playground equipment in the Nishi ward of Sapporo
Playground equipment in Ageo Saitama
Playground equipment in Chōfu, Tokyo
Playground equipment in the Kita-ku ward of Osaka
Playground equipment in Tsukuba, Ibaraki
Playground equipment in Tachikawa, Tokyo
Playground equipment in Kashiwa, Chiba
Playground equipment in the Nishi ward of Sapporo

Kito Fujio’s photo books documenting Japanese playgrounds are available through his website.

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