Sunday, January 7, 2018

Return to Japan: a tourist after all

Ginza, a part of Tokyo I haven't seen in 15 years

After an on-and-off ten year relationship with Japan that culminated with me living in the mountains of rural Shimane prefecture, I returned to the city of my fascination as, of all things, a tourist.

Tokyo is one of those few places in the world where I have always thought myself more local than foreign, and going there to see the sights was an idea that didn’t appeal to me all that much at first.

I realized after many years and many trips that I have never seen Tokyo. I have only seen people in Tokyo, and that’s different. On all of my brief visits, I have gone to meet friends and strangers alike, but have never merely wandered the streets as a tourist. This time I would revisit the city that influenced so much of my youth and try to see it from a new lens – the same lens I use to evaluate any new place I travel to – that of a tourist.

Someone's house, Tokyo

The first time I set foot in Tokyo was July of 2003. If you had asked me how the city changed in the last 15 years I would say it hadn’t.  The ugly uniform architecture from the bubble period of the 1980s was still ubiquitous. Landmarks were the same. Even hole-in-the-wall restaurants were still there for me to return. But in the summer of 2017, the city did feel defiantly changed:

There were signs in English where there had never been.
There was new construction all around.
Cafes were opening left and right.
The once quiet and discreet gay area of Shinjuku was adorned with rainbow flag and men in ass-less chaps crowding outside the doors of bars.

Street art popping up everywhere

The city had finally changed. I blame the 2020 Olympics. And globalization. And the inevitable. But it seems to have changed and been changing for the better. Certainly I can’t complain about cafes and English signs and bustling gay bars.

In the end, I spent the majority of my time not with any of the dozens of people I’ve known for 10+ years living there – but with a new friend I had known for only a few months. So this trip was both an ode to nostalgia and a making of new memories.

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