Monthly Archives: May 2014

Welcome to Japan: Shrines, Cigarettes, and Salarymen

Welcome to Japan: Shrines, Cigarettes, and Salarymen

I’m not sure it’s really hit me yet that I’m in Japan. I know that the language barrier, the myriad ramen shops, and the sprawling Tokyo subway lines should have clued me in by now, but the last five days have been a blur. At this point it’s too early to tell if I’m waking up at 5:30am every morning because I’m still jet-lagged and my body has no idea what time it is, or if the squawking ravens outside and the sun streaming through my open window are just better than any alarm clock. I’m not sure what I expected out of Japan. I’m not sure I even had expectations, just an overwhelming sense of hurtling head-on into the unknown. From the moment I set foot in the customs line at Narita Airport, surprises were around every corner. Five minutes after queuing up in the cattle chute to go through customs, before I even had a stamp in my passport, an elderly man fell, face-first and stiff-as-a-board, onto the floor, bleeding and groaning not four feet in front of me. We bystanders were swiftly herded to a different line so he could receive medical attention, but he was conscious and sitting up the last I saw him. Welcome to Japan. Customs quickly morphed into money-changing and baggage collecting, during which time I began to feel a little like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz: I was most certainly not in Kansas (er, Philadelphia) anymore. The rest of the day is little more than a blur of bus rides, unpacking, and the struggle to keep my eyes open until a reasonable hour in the evening. It wasn’t until the next day, when I had my wits about me, that I began to really notice things.

IMG_0846 (Shinjuku, outside the Shinjuku station)

Naturally, Japan is a very different place than the United States and it has a very different, unique, and wonderful culture. It can also be a bit jarring. There are the little things, like the fact that we had fingerprints taken at customs and that people wear medical masks in public. A lot. As someone who isn’t wildly familiar with the nuances of modern Japanese culture, I can’t tell if people wear masks to protect themselves from foreign germs or air pollution, or if they wear the masks to keep their germs from others in the event of illness. Regardless, the masks soon fade into the mundane background of everyday life, becoming as ordinary as any other accessory. While the language barrier is a struggle, it’s a challenge I look forward to tackling, or at least beginning to tackle, in Japanese I. The atmosphere of Tokyo, and (as far as I can tell), Japanese life in general, is by far the biggest difference between the US and life here. Chants of “USA! USA!” fade into the serene and considerate silence of the metro as commuters from all walks of life wend their way through the vast rail system. Walking home from 7/11, I am given looks of shock and indignation. My crime: eating on the go, something we Americans do without thinking. The streets are trash-free and everything is either combustible or recyclable, everyone from toddlers to wizened grannies rides a bicycle, and everywhere you go, people are accommodating and friendly even if the only words in common are “arigatou godzaimasu.” This health-conscious, considerate, community-oriented society is oddly juxtaposed against a haze of cigarette smoke in restaurants and bars, where no matter how “family friendly,” someone lights up. Drugs, even marijuana, are taboo, but hordes of club-goers stagger half-drunk to the 5:30am metro after wild nights of partying harder than even the bro-iest of frat bros. But they make it work. Intense efficiency balances raucous weekends and questionably healthy livers and lungs. Partying may be important, but family and respect clearly come first.

IMG_0947 (A wedding at the Meiji Shrine)

Serene, ancient shrines fill daily with tourists and salarymen (businessmen) alike, all seeking a moment of peace before re-entering the smoke-filled concrete jungle. Somehow this city has managed to hurtle, full-speed-ahead, into the 21st Century without losing its ancient self to a void of iPhones and bullet trains. I’m not sure I can rightfully say that I’ve even scratched the surface of Tokyo yet, but I look forward to the next two months and all they will bring. Though I will never be Japanese, I hope I can learn to sit down and enjoy my meals, keep my family close, and be mindful of others without losing sight of who I am. Just as long as I don’t have to smoke in restaurants.


A Farewell to Tokyo


Quite suddenly, the time has come to say farewell. For our final days in Tokyo, we decided to visit some of our favorite sights.  First stop: Shinjuku. An absolute whirlwind of a neighborhood, Shinjuku has provided endless fascination with high-rising commercial buildings and tons of tiny dive bars. It is one of the most impressive, inspiring, fast-paced, exciting and slightly seedy areas in Tokyo. I love it.



Next comes Shibuya. This photograph captures my favorite area of the massive expanse of Shibuya, which is one of Tokyo’s most iconic neighborhoods. I really enjoy all of the street art that lines the tracks of the JR train line.


 Shibuya has some of the most diverse scenery in Tokyo, from the busiest street cross on earth to these mysterious canals lined with buildings.


 Graffiti is plentiful and colorful, lining each street in a way that is indescribably fitting for the area.


 On my walks to the Nakagin Capsule Tower, I would always pass this window display on the edge of Ginza. In my opinion, Japan will forever be the master of quirk and design.


 A very special location is Nakameguro, which provided some of the most beautiful views of cherry blossoms I’ll ever see (not to mention excellent strawberry champagne and yakitori). 


 I couldn’t help but have my favorite sweet: matcha soft serve.


 It really is no wonder that the sakura blossom is such an icon of Japan. Even on a cloudy day they seem to shine.


 As I traveled closer to home, I meditated upon some of my most precious views of my everyday commute. This beautiful tree will always baffle me.


 Then, of course the Kitazono dormitory: my home for the past 3 months. I’ve been so incredibly lucky to call this building home. The dorm and the neighborhood are refreshing and lovely, I have always felt at home here.



 The view from my room always made me calm and happy, especially when hearing the local preschool play each morning at the adjacent park. I have had countless mornings on my patio enjoying the soft street sounds and the park’s crowds, it has definitely provided some of my most peaceful moments.


 Finally, my local FamilyMart. It’s been awesome, for lack of a better word, to have the high quality Japanese convenience store practically at my doorstep. From late-night snacks to morning coffees, this place (and all konbinis) has given me many good memories.


 It’s difficult to write about the thoughts and emotions that have been gradually building up as our time has run out, but I will always be able to express my gratitude to my family and TUJ and my pure happiness at the thought of my experiences in this city. Tokyo will always be a home for us.

It has been a pleasure showing you all some of my views of Japan, I truly insist that you go visit!




The Nakagin Capsule Tower: Saving a Monument


The Nakagin Capsule Tower is one of the most fascinating and strange architectural wonders of our modern world. Build in 1972, this residential and commercial tower designed by famed Japanese architect Kurokawa Kisho is an icon of Japanese Metabolism. Essentially, the participants of this movement focused on the design of structures that allowed flexibility for growth and reduction (read more). While living in Tokyo, I joined a group to conserve this fascinating building:




Each one of the shipping container-based rooms is it’s own room, complete with a bathroom.




The rooms are quite cozy and let in a good amount of light! Unfortunately the windows do not open. Originally, the windows were equipped with spinning blinds to shade the room from sun. Here is a glance of the view from the window, which shows a busy street in Shimbashi.



 There are also some very interesting design features in the rooms, such as this desk that folds down from the wall.




 Also, this built-in switchboard with light, timer and clock is certainly a flashback to the futuristic visions of the 1970’s.



I particularly enjoyed the shape of the bathroom door, which reflected the compactness of the room as well as a tasteful design.




As you can tell, the years have taken much of the original newness from the Capsule Tower. In fact, there has been so little attention to upkeep, many of the rooms are unsafe to live in due to water leakage.




The exterior of the building is also quite shabby, showing a considerable amount of dirt from smog and water damage. Mesh covers the entire building.




With the lack of renovation, the dreams of the Metabolists are betrayed. Since this building was built with consistent change as needed in mind, the absence of upkeep has been detrimental to the theory and physical presence of the structure. Located right next to Ginza, one of the busiest centers in Japan, the demolition of The Nakagin Capsule Tower is highly favored by the company who owns it because of the extremely valuable land.




The destruction of the tower would be a huge loss to the art, design and architectural communities, for it is a true monument of history. The  ideas surrounding the building have been extremely influential throughout the following decades of design. Even after staying in a capsule for a night in the less than perfect state of The Nakagin Capsule Tower has left me overjoyed.




Demolition has been considered for almost a decade now, but thankfully several Japanese and international architects have spoken out against it in favor of re-purposing the building or renovating the capsules. While visiting the capsule tower is not met with warmth by the front desk (note the warning sticker posted in the elevator), I was extremely lucky to be able to experience the structure first-hand.



 During my stay in Tokyo, I’ve become heavily involved with a non-profit movement to help save the capsule tower by purchasing as many capsules as possible with donated money. The Save The Nakagin Capsule Tower Project aims to halt the imminent destruction of the monument in favor of alternative options. Please visit our website and social media pages to help support the project!



Save the Nakagin Capsule Tower Project