About four years ago, I boarded a one-way flight from Atlanta, Georgia to Tokyo.
Today, I fly out of Tokyo (after two COVID vaccines and one negative PCR test) and make my way to visit folks in the Americas. I will return to Japan in some months but still feel nostalgic leaving this place. Despite the Olympics debacle, urban life in Tokyo is surprisingly enjoyable. As a sweet ‘see you later’ I took a friend for fancy high-tea at the Peak Lounge last afternoon. We arrived by bike and parked just across the Park Hyatt. From the 42nd floor, the city sprawled in all 360 degrees around the three pyramid topped towers. We luckily caught a glimpse of Fuji-san as the sun was setting.
This last evening in Tokyo epitomizes what I love about life in Japan. My daring blue mamachari has been my most reliable companion. After tea, we biked into Shinjuku to see the holographic cat outside of the JR east exit. Though I was biking around the world’s busiest train station, it felt refreshingly care free. Cars are cautious, and a few bike lanes exist. Compared to the United Sates, it is an absolute joy to move around in Japanese urban areas. Here, there are sidewalks, greenways, and crosswalks throughout the city. I have the choice to walk, bike, or use excellent public transport.
Since I have been here, I cut my self-free from the responsibilities of car ownership. For 3 years, I biked from my apartment to work. The 10-minute morning cycle ride through Suginami-ku included two blocks of street traffic closed off to cars and made available for elementary and middle school students walking to school in the morning. The quintessential backpacks, cute yellow hats, and chatter put me in the right mindset for work. After teaching, I often headed to Inokashira park. The ride there was pure bliss. I pedaled along the Kanda River greenway which has one side reserved for pedestrians and cyclists. As I biked west, on one side was the river, and all around me, a near canopy of trees and flowers.
The American cities I grew up in and lived in were always car based. Invariably, this made for urban challenges. I once tried to live in Atlanta without a car. As a pedestrian, I sometimes had to walk on tiny shoulders on busy main streets. There were inattentive SUV drivers that endangered my life on every prosaic walk. As a law student in Baltimore, my experience driving was not much better. The Wire’s portrayal of Baltimore crime is spot on. After searching for directions on Google maps, I had to be careful not to park nor stop in dangerous neighborhoods. Property theft and car vandalism were common in the Inner Harbor area.
Here in Tokyo, when I don’t bike, I can easily hop on the train. As I explore a new area, I know that I can roam free. I can be certain there is no risk of mugging, nor any need to be over vigilant for my belongings. There is a liberty in physical safety that is totally new to me. As a frequent traveler, this sense of security is transformative. I can enjoy the leisure of getting lost without worrying about my physical safety. It is immensely freeing to focus my mental energy on enjoying a place and becoming absorbed in city life. I notice the bonsai trees on tiny front yards, the torii gates before a shrine, and over-the-top window displays at boutiques. Without worrying ‘do I look lost?’ I can lean into a fun exploration of my surroundings. Anywhere I go, I can always count on a bus or train later. I am confident that even from unknown neighborhoods, I will eventually make my way home.
After nearly four years in Japan, I am convinced moving here in 2017 was one of the best decisions I have ever made. While Americans dug into their political partisanship and Trump helped push America to its darkest days, I knew I need a break from America. At the same time, I had little idea of what I would find here. I wrote a piece for Verge magazine describing my minimal knowledge of Japan, but my enthusiasm for new experiences. Then, I did not know the magic of Tokyo. Being here has given me insights into myself, my adopted country, and the Americas which I watched carefully from abroad. Living in Tokyo has inspired a whole host of ideas on what city life can be. I hope that American car-focused cities look east for some inspiration.