the poor man and the sea: tokyo’s human ocean.


since she arrived in japan, my girlfriend has been asking me if i could find some time to take her to tokyo.  she is new to japan, and her enthusiasm is admirable.  which is to say, i totally understand her reasoning for wanting to go.  when she returns home, her friends and family are more than likely going to ask her the usual battery of ridiculous questions, and to be unable to answer them would be embarassing.

  • did anyone try to grope you on the train?
  • how did you use chopsticks for so long?
  • did you see any ninjas?
  • how was the sushi?
  • are you radioactive now?
  • what was tokyo like?

when your family expects an impressive story about the capital of japan and you respond with “i didn’t go to tokyo because my boyfriend was busy,” you end up looking the fool.  how did you go to japan and not end up in tokyo one time?

it isn’t as if we don’t do anything.  i have taken her all around the izu peninsula.  we have been to a local honey shop, a bamboo forest, so many delicious restaurants i can barely keep track anymore, a ton of onsen, and quite a few local landmarks.  we have toured a brewery, eaten turtle hotpot, and sampled a variety of regional specialties from all over japan.  i wasn’t avoiding the tokyo trip in the hopes that she would eventually forget about it.  in all honesty, i forgot about it time and time again because, maybe subconsciously, tokyo isn’t a place i would ever go for fun.  the city itself bothers me in an inexplicable, profound way, just like most other heinously sprawling cities do.


i could have made it abundantly clear to my girlfriend that i dislike tokyo.  but to do so would have undermined her curiosity.  she trusts my opinion on a lot of things in japan, and to dissuade her for selfish reasons would be unfair.  she deserved to discover the city for herself, and form her own opinion based on experience.

and so, when the opportunity to visit tokyo presented itself under the guise of an unassuming kitchen town christmas, we went with a small contingent of friends.  hanging out with our friends was a blast, and we both would have loved nothing more than to walk about on kappabashi street and frolic in ueno park until we turned blue in the face.

but by the second day, after wandering through places like asakusa’s kaminari-mon, she pulled me aside and told me “now that i have been here, i never have to come back.”  i knew that, just like me, the crowds and the city had started to weigh on her.

when we talked about it later, we both agreed.  sometimes, when there are just too many people out and about in the heart of the city, it seems like tokyo doesn’t have any people at all.  they become part of the city.  they have no faces, no personalities, no lives, and no families.  they have no empathy, no relationships, and no dreams.  they are a single, ebbing and flowing mass, carrying you from place to place as if you were a tiny, insignificant krill in a vast, dark, body of water.  it is both humbling and truly terrifying at times.


by the time we got on the local train to head home to izu, we were both dead tired.  the endless shopping plazas, the hocking of subpar merchandise, the endless exploitation of foreigners who just don’t know any better, and the urban sprawl had all but wiped us out.  every moment spent in tokyo requires the expediture of just a little bit of energy in order to remain sane and in control.  after two days, there was no energy left.

and yet, pmk doesn’t contain negative blog posts.  there is a moral to this story, and it isn’t “don’t go to tokyo.”

the moral is that, in order to be happy, i think every person needs to establish their own clear distinctions between places good for visiting and places good for living.  to me and my girlfriend, tokyo is a place to visit one time.  every passing second just standing on a sidewalk is taxing.  even while sleeping in a tiny little capsule hotel, something inexplicable consumes your relaxation and keeps you on edge.  i’m sure there are people who love living in tokyo, and can’t even begin to imagine how boring their lives would become if they lived in a rural area.

such as izu.  which is, without a doubt, a place to live.

when i bike to work every morning, even if i have to take my one gear bike ten kilometers to the top of a mountain and teach a whole day of classes, i finish the day smiling.  even the most stressful day can’t leave me defeated.  the nature, the hospitality, and the persistent calmness of almost everybody you meet makes your fatigue, whether mental or physical, just melt away.

every moment i spend in izu, every second that passes, is a blessing that encourages me to make the most of my time.


11 thoughts on “the poor man and the sea: tokyo’s human ocean.

  1. I agree with you 100% about Tokyo. I am a Japanese expat living in London UK and planning to visit Japan after Christmas. And I am dreading to visit Tokyo exactly because of the city’s ability to suck my blood out alive. Too many people with no expression and too many things with no beauty to look at. Even I reside in the middle of London, I avoid going anywhere overcrowded. No shopping on saturday and no visit to museum or gallery during school holidays. I love Japanese countryside, temples, mountains, beaches…etc, but not cities. Except Kyoto, Nara and Kurashiki, they are too modern and devoid of charactor. Modern Japanese life is too materialistic and self-centered. I don’t find it very attractive (=_=)

    • wow, it is super refreshing to find someone who agrees with me on this. i wrote this post to encourage people (japanese, gaikokujin, or otherwise) to really consider where they choose to lead their lives and how those locations inform their everyday habits.

      when i came to japan, i made 郷に入れば郷に従え my mantra. what i call “the real japan” is waiting out there in those tiny hodunk towns that have no english tourism pamphlets, burger kings, or starbucks. people, especially foreigners, limit the amazing lives they could lead as expats and it frustrates me.

  2. Never having to Japan I can still feel the pressure you are speaking about. I can not imagine living in those conditions. I live in a large city and there are days when I feel like I just can’t take the population anymore, so when I imagine a place like Tokyo it seems like it would be torture! :) Seattle “only” has 630,000! And Tokyo is what…almost 9 million?! I really enjoyed this post Misha. Really appreciate your perspective. And Izu sounds like paradise.

    • I couldn’t resist piggybacking on this comment to say that when I used to be a teacher-trainer in Japan (almost ten years ago), one of the facts we presented to our teachers was that the daytime-working population of Tokyo is even bigger than the city’s official population (because so many people live outside the city and commute into it), so that during weekdays the population of Tokyo is even greater than the population of the whole nation of Canada! (Not sure if that’s still true these days or not, but it’s still pretty crazy to think about.)

      • i’ve never heard that fact before, and i am even more terrified of tokyo than i was before.

        but greater than the population of canada? that’s like ten people. unless you count all the moose, i guess. ;)

    • if you ever get the chance, i highly advise you visit. it just has a certain feel to it, like the rest of the world doesn’t exist/doesn’t matter. something about the landscape and the local culture just melts away any stress you happen to have.

      plus, there are hot springs. like, boatloads of hot springs. everywhere you go.

      • I’d love to go to Izu someday! Boatloads of hot springs does sound nice.

        Have you been to Oita-ken on Kyuushuu? They have tons of natural onsens there, too, and there are just random pockets of steam coming up out of the ground because there’s so much naturally occurring geothermal activity.

      • honestly allison, i’ve never been west of nagoya. i tend to stick to the eastern and northern regions of japan. i honestly couldn’t tell you why, but somehow it has worked out that way. maybe one day, if i get the time (and money) i will visit kyuushuu and compare their glorious onsen to my own.

        and the random pockets of steam sound like prime locations for some outdoor cooking. somehow rig up a big pot of soup, sit around for a few hours, and let nature do the cooking for you. sounds like my kind of party.

      • Oh man, you have to make it to nishi-nihon someday! I love it. I’ve visited many parts of Japan (all four islands + Okinawa!), but still never Izu or Nagano or anywhere north of Nikko (other than to Hokkaido), so I still have way more Japan traveling to do someday, too!

        Also, never been west of Nagoya? So wait… you’ve never even been to Kyoto/Nara?!? 許せない〜 (Just kidding. Kind of.)

      • trust me, allison, i can barely 許すmyself. i’m not exactly sure how it happened, it just did. don’t worry, i’ll fix it one day.

        honestly, i’m really bad at big cities, so i don’t have a huge need to go to places like osaka and kobe. i think kyoto would be nice once or twice, but i suspect the tourism might get to me pretty quickly.

        hokkaido is far and away one of my favorite places i have been in japan. the people are just so nice there. must be something in the water.

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