Borders between countries were coming to a close as flights were becoming scarce. My 18-hour layover in Incheon, South Korea from Cebu, Philippines was filled with both terror and excitement. To calm my nerves while waiting in the deserted Incheon Airport, I found a grand piano and played ‘Moon River’. In style and with safety, I made it to Tokyo, Japan in March of 2020.
The Tokyo I first encountered was quiet. My first hometown was in Nagatacho, a mixed district of government buildings, office blocks and mega-mansions much larger, and technologically advanced compared with back at home. Mount Fuji could be seen on a clear blue day and the streets below were empty – not a person in sight. During my walks around the Imperial Palace, my company was graced by crows, cranes and Eurasian tree sparrows. Their melodic chirping brought life to the grey pavements and tall towering skyscrapers that hid the sun away in this megalopolis.
When April arrived, it was my first time to see cherry blossoms. They canopied along the Palace’s surrounding moat. This delicate pink sight was one day blanketed in white when it snowed in April for the first time in 50 years! What luck to have witnessed such a spectacular sight.
This serene memory of Nagatacho contrasts the busy and bustling new hometown of Yoyogi-Uehara that I have come to know after the state of emergency. All of my neighbours have children. Left and right you see children front-seat and backseat on a mamachari bicycle, grandmothers hauling overpacked trolley bags, and motorized vehicles blocking every intersection. The constant drilling and digging into the depths of the earth for new condominium and apartment complexes, and detached houses going through renovation brought a ruckus to the area. But the noises come to a halt on Sundays – until I take out my guitar and begin to sing, or drop my barbell on the floor while coaching fitness online.
Yoyogi-Uehara is about a 10-minute walk east of Yoyogi-Koen. This large park once housed an American army base, but now, only the trees live undisturbed and untouched and its gardens well-groomed by secret helpers. Yoyogi-Koen becomes crowded on the weekends; where teenagers are practicing their dance moves, young adults drinking on their picnic blankets, couples are dating, families playing under tree shade or children throwing leaves on top of subway grates blowing air as each train passes from the tracks below. A mixture of Gaikokujins (foreigners) and Nihonjins (Japanese) are found at Yoyogi-Koen; and sometimes you would find me cycling through to get to Harajuku where you’d witness all the fashionable Tokyoites swarming luxury brand shops, fragrant stores and exotic worldly cuisine.
On the other hand, north of Yoyogi-Uehara, lies the Nishihara Shotengai (High Street) where the sweet scent of bakeshops gathers long lines of It-Girls and It-Boys trying to grab the perfect Instagram photo, the original residents of Nishihara relax at the Sengokuyu to enjoy the sento (public bath) and grandfathers gather at the Nishihara Golf Garden (a driving range in the centre of Tokyo).
Further down the Nishihara High Street are attractive boutique shops, gyoza bars, the mouthwatering ribs at Freeman Shokudo, and traditional wooden two-story houses that continue to sell gardening tools, construction equipment and market-fresh produce for generations. Not far from this shotengai is the Shibuya Ward Sports Center and a Kindergarten where cheerful chirping of children is best heard from 3 to 5pm. But beware of the mamachari bikes that flood the streets and freshly baked bread food trucks!
Luckily during those hours, I spent my time in the office with my co-founder diligently focused on our Japan Poster Shop business. Where he photographs and I pack original vintage movie, video game or contemporary Japanese art posters from the land of the rising sun to the rest of the world. But once the sun goes down, foreigners and locals come together, exchange ideas, and relax after work at the linear park that stretches as a central artery from Hatagaya-eki to Hatsudai.
Parallel to this park lies a motorway where an immeasurable amount of motor vehicles passes to transport goods or people, and race big roaring motorcycles. Along the road opposite to Hatagaya station are meandering alleyways that gather foodies in favour of overfilled ramen bowls, scents of shawarma, sizzling yakitori bars, and izakaya restaurants packed with yopparai (drunk) salarymen. The colourful crowds of Hatagaya enjoy great deals of second-hand stores, surplus groceries and friendly market peddlers who will impress you with their self-taught English.
The diversity of the community where I reside brings not only foreigners and Japanese locals together, but the old and young, traditional and evolving together – living harmoniously and safely masked, abiding to protocols during this pandemic. Once foreign travelers return to Tokyo, I am sure I will be surprised again. For the meantime, I will continue to enjoy the sight of five-year-old children giggling together as they bicycle from their Kindergarten back home – even in the evenings.
After a day’s work, sometimes I’ll sit on the rooftop reflecting with my friendly guitar, singing to the starry sky – that there’s such a lot of world to see, and even beneath this city built on water, but for now, good night Tokyo, its rivers, the moon and me.
Originally I entered this article about my “jimoto” or hometown in Tokyo for an essay writing competition. Although I did not take home any prizes, I invested a lot of time into this essay’s composition and thought it would still be worth sharing. Let me know what you think in the comments below, or let me where are you currently living!