Lessons from Tokyo

Hello friends!

I have promised to write more, and though I’ve had fun filling up the pages of my notebook since arriving in Tokyo, I realise those are a little hard to share with everyone who has asked about Japan, what life here is like, and what I’m learning from studying design in this country. So here we go!

Lesson 1: Tokyo is huge

It’s been three weeks since I landed in Tokyo. In the last week I have had days when I think I am finally shifting gears from feeling like a traveller to this is where I live right now. But then I go explore a new area of Tokyo and realise that not only have I not scratched the surface of this city, I’m still hovering above it looking down. Anyone who has been here knows this, but Tokyo is huge. I thought I knew what a big city was, after all, I am from São Paulo, the sprawling concrete-jungle megalopolis of Latin America and I spend six years frantically running around New York, but the scale of this feels much greater. Maybe I feel that way because I had years growing up to get to know São Paulo, or because New York is packed but condensed in a relatively compact geographical area. It might also be because Japan’s incredible safety standard means you don’t have to be shy about exploring all areas of Tokyo. The sense I have is that I have done quite a few “30 min on google maps” journeys from neighbourhood to neighbourhood in Tokyo and still have a long list of green ‘Want to go’ pins on my map. Luckily, I have a few months to explore them.

Lesson 2: When does rush hour end?

The city is hectically and efficiently connected. I know, hectic and efficient aren’t two adjectives usually seen together, but here they feel appropriate. 12 different transit lines and millions of people riding the public transport system daily is quite hectic, but somehow that is mitigated by incredibly efficient, colour-coded, numbered, iconographic signage in both Japanese and English. Whether it is 7pm or 11pm, the stations seem to always be flooded with people, which has left us with the recurring question above.

I am spending my time here living in a university dormitory (more on that later!) in Hiyoshi, which is 24km (about 13 miles) south of Shibuya station. On the map, that looks pretty distant, and I remember thinking before arriving that it was a bummer we were so far from the city. In reality, it takes me 19 minutes from Hiyoshi to Shibuya if I take one of the frequent express trains. The only caveat here is that the last train is around 12:30- and missing that means committing to a night in the city that only ends when the train resumes at 6am. I still look forward to experiencing that at some point, but hopefully with advanced planning.

Actual rush hour is an experience, and though I have yet to encounter the infamous gloved attendants pushing people into trains, I have seen people sardine themselves beyond comprehension. On my second day, three of us had to commute with luggage for a 9am appointment to check into our dormitories. We had heard of Japanese punctuality and didn’t want to be late. The journey was from Ebisu, which is north of central Tokyo, to Hiyoshi, which is far south, and while we left early, we failed to fully appreciate the temporal and geographical dimensions of this particular adventure. We stood on the platform at 7:30am, watching packed metro train by packed metro train go by, luggage in hand. In the end, we took the train for about 30mins in the wrong direction in order to find empty enough carriage that could hold us and our belongings and make the journey back and beyond to Hiyoshi. While in the past I struggled with suitcases rolling around in subways, that concern goes away when you’re too compact to breathe clean oxygen. To the credit of the Japanese, we did not get any comments and the entire journey was very quiet, though I did notice a death stare or two, understandably.

That’s it for now, but I’ll be writing more soon about my biggest obsession so far… food and cooking/shopping adventures when you don’t speak Japanese.

F.