Tokyo Kills Me

Candid street, urban, and omoshiroi mono “interesting thing” snaps from an expat’s daily life in Tokyo, the greatest megacity in the world


I crash-landed in Japan in 1998, a late-bloomer on a three-year overseas adventure from grad school, basement bachelor apartments, and a Gen-X future of under-employment in my hometown, Toronto. The plan was simple: a three-year overseas stint to pay down some student debt; raise a grubstake for the next adventure; and gather some material for the Great Expat Novel.

Two decades later, now in Tokyo, there’s still no end in sight (sorry, Ma!).

Turns out, the Greater Tokyo Area comprises the world’s greatest conurbation of cities, towns, and villages — even mountains and islands.

Living in and exploring metro Tokyo taps me into enough adventures to last a lifetime. Or two even.

Blogger Aarohi Narain captures some of the exuberance of moving to and through a world-class city in “Being Brown on Tokyo Tinder.”

[Tokyo is] a city of opportunity. A tempestuous, dynamic vessel for the pleasures, pains, and aspirations of increasingly disillusioned generations. An economic hub powered by throbbing, vibrating, neon circuits of global industry and commerce. From all over Japan and the world, people pour into the city to craft visions of their futures into reality and to build their lives anew.

Now, while still not quite a local, I continue to participant-observe in the daily life of my adopted hometown.

Notebook and camera — or, increasingly, smartphone — in hand, I remain at one remove from daily life in the world’s greatest megacity.

So. Running to the conbini convenience store for salmon rice balls. Or take-out skewers of terikyaki chicken from the local yakitori stall. And vending machines for beer or one-cup shots of sake. Or standing ten-deep on train platforms on banzai work-to-death commutes. Enduring typhoon days of the soul, when wind and rain scour the psyche.

All I need do to transport back to those first heady days in Japan is take the first left out of whichever station I’m stranded in. Then, I discover a place I’ve never been before, a secret garden of sights and impressions tucked within the city’s origamied folds.

It could be a five-minute time-out or a work-free snow day. I wander ’til quitting time. Viewfinder or touchscreen to eye, I snap pics of the mundane, the overlooked — all the haunting little details revealed in their proper light.

No matter how jaded I grow about all this Tokyo livin’, and a settled life to which I never aspired. Or how much I pine for the youthful spirit that first brought me across the Pacific all those years ago, “The Big Sushi” still has the power to fill me with wonder, and remind me what an adventure daily life can be. Eyes wide, heart and mind open like any good aspiring Buddhist-wannabe…

Notorious street photographer Daido Moriyama snaps the connection between the urban heart of Tokyo and its inhabitants. “I have always felt that the world is an erotic place… For me cities are enormous bodies of people’s desires. And as I search for my own desires within them, I slice into time, seeing the moment. That’s the kind of camera work I like.”

To paraphrase late night TV, there are 38 million stories in the naked city. And like some cinematographic boddhisatva aspirant, recording all those stories begins with a single photograph.

So, even after all these years, I find the constant (over-)stimulation a daily source of inspiration. Each day’s commute starts with the thrilling sense of a new story about to begin.

I ride the trains, and spelunk the urban caves and canyons of this great megacity. Tokyo peels back layer after battle-scarred, disaster-ridden, weather-beaten layer to reveal its ugly, delicious heart.

Or, as the unnamed narrator of Haruki Murakami’s Dance Dance Dance observes,

All around me normal, everyday city types were going about their normal, everyday affairs. Lovers were whispering to each other, businessmen were poring over spread sheets, college kids were planning their next ski trip and discussing the new Police album. I alone was the outsider. I had no place here.

I could drink my coffee, read my book, pass the time of day without any special thought, all because I was part of the regular scenery. Here I had no ties to anyone.

Even after all this time, The Big Sushi still has the power to inspire my (over-) active imagination, and remind me what an experience life can be in the world’s greatest metropolis. The pictures posted here capture those quotidian adventures — and the “real” city that is hidden in plain sight that opens to those who look.

This is one reason I choose to live so far overseas from the place I first called “home” … to shake off the complacency of the overly familiar, and make the most of every moment by immersing myself in a new and challenging environment. To be, as the sci-fi writer Robert A Heinlein once had it, a “stranger in a strange land.”

Did I need to travel so far to be inspired? To find value and beauty in the flotsam and jetsam of a megacity on steroids? Not if Thoreau and other philosophical homebodies are to be believed. Every place has its charms, after all, and — to quote Kahlil Gibran — “In one drop of water are found all the secrets of the oceans.”

Still, there’s something about Tokyo the Ur-City. The original and still best conurbation continues to reveal layers of depth and complexity that make the world a richer, more beautiful, and infinitely more stimulating place than it would otherwise be.

The Japanese have a word for it. Wabi-sabi translates in the work of some Japonisme-inspired artists as “nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.”

The transitory, incomplete, and imperfect defines the city, and draws my photographer’s eye. This is the spirit of the city I most want to capture in these pictures.

(Shot on Olympus cameras with a variety of lenses and, increasingly, smartphones. Processed using Oly art filters, LR, and PhotoLab to create a certain “fuinki,” or atmosphere, rather than a literal depiction of colour and light conditions at that moment in time. Now ya know :-)