Summer in Tokyo

By Michael Satterfield

Tokyo is a city of contradictions, a place where the ultra-modern world collides with ancient traditions, where everything is completely new to you, yet somehow familiar. Summer in Japan is what you would expect for an island nation on the edge of the Pacific, hot, humid, with the buzz of the Cicadas, it reminds me of summer in the US South, with just a little more country music and a lot fewer robots you could be in Houston.

Flying into Haneda is always my preference, I take the Keikyu Line to the Yamanote Line, I end my train journey at Shibuya Station, where I link up with my best friend Roman who has been living on and off in Japan for the last eight years, consecutively for the last three. He is an example of that age-old tale of boy goes to Japan, boy meets Japanese girl, boy moves to Japan. We catch up over coffee and make plans for the week around his work schedule while watching the mass of humanity cross at the famous Shibuya crossing. This point of the story would be the perfect place to share a nearly identical image of Shibuya crossing that every other blogger, instagramer, and travel show shares, so instead enjoy this Citroën 2CV.

Roman has to head to work, shaping the minds of the next generation, I have an appointment to check into my Airbnb, which I am hoping will be good. The day is overcast but still hot, I have a short walk to the station followed by a 20-minute train ride to Sasazuka and another short walk to the apartment. Sasazuka is a district of Shibuya, a quiet neighborhood and the perfect place to refocus and relax. This trip was different than most I had taken, it would be longer and while I was abroad I would still be working from my laptop, it wasn't a vacation. But I needed to reset, I needed to see my best friend, and I needed someplace that was as far away from the recent turmoil that was my life in California, Sony had offered my a gig, and Tokyo fit the bill.

I checked into my Airbnb, a small single room, with a tiny kitchenette, a bathroom with a sink that is built into the top of the toilet, and a washer/dryer. Thankfully I didn't plan on spending a lot of time in my room anyways. The one bright spot is that it is on the top floor and has a nice terrace with a view of the city. Centrally located, just a few blocks from a train station, and in a great area, what more could I ask for. 

Roman would be busy most mornings with work anyways, so I needed to venture out and explore on my own, being near a major station would make that a lot easier. Some people find it stressful being in a new place, far from home, but for me, its cathartic, exciting, and a welcome distraction. As I unpacked a series of chimes and an announcement comes over the loudspeaker in the neighborhood, it is the end of the workday, and soon the streets are flooded with commuters headed home.

Walking down from my apartment I explore the local neighborhood, little shops, an old temple tucked away down an ally, and restaurants. Shops are busy with customers, people are enjoying the cooler evening, and Tokyo's signature neon lights are starting to turn on. I have been walking around the area for a few miles and decide to get dinner at a local restaurant where I am a bit of an oddity. Since I am not staying near a major hotel or near any tourist attractions I am the only foreigner in the entire restaurant, I guess I stood out a bit because I was soon being chatted up by several of the patrons and workers. 

Using photos, google translate, and just general hand signals I chat with my new found friends in the restaurant, including the waitress who is interested in my photography. It is determined by the chef that I should photograph the waitress, who I later found out is "Idol Girl" Mizuno Natsuko. We agree to meet the next morning for a photo shoot in Sasazuka. I pay my bill and walk back to the apartment a few miles away, not really knowing what to expect with my "Idol Girl" photo shoot the next day. 

As I make my way back to the apartment, it is late, but Tokyo doesn't go to sleep until the early morning hours in the summertime, the whole city seems like Blade Runner lite, a futuristic wonderland of neon lights and robot burlesque shows. A city that is intoxicatingly bizarre and yet so accessible to foreigners. Walking the streets pretty girls dressed as maids try to get you to come to see their show, eat at their theme restaurant, or drink at a bar. Even though it is a weeknight, salarymen are staggering home after an evening of entertaining their boss or clients, some give up and just find a park bench to sleep on, they can always buy a fresh shirt at the 7/11 in the morning. Young people play video games in arcades, shops slowly start to pull down their doors, every once in a while the sound of a tuned GTR or Supra cracks through the noise of the city making me wish I had a car to drive while I was here. It is late and I get back to my room to discover that the AC doesn't really reach the bedroom, so I pull my mattress out on the terrace and fall asleep under the stars with the sound of the city echoing off the buildings below.

The next morning I meet with the waitress, Mizuno, she has brought her manager and is impeccably dressed in a beautiful kimono. Roman is there so he can translate and like every shoot I have ever done, it takes a little while to get her to relax, but we shoot a great set once we figure out the right mix of translation and hand signals. (You can see more photos from the shoot here.) 

After wrapping up the shoot it was time to explore the city with Roman, we head to the Metropolitan Government Building which has an observation deck that offers panoramic views of the city and if the weather is permitting landmarks like Mount Fuji. Looking out over the city, you start to get an idea of the scale of Tokyo, the world's most populous metropolitan area with upwards of 37 million people, the endless city, but somehow it works.

It works because during the week the bulk of the population follows the rules, they don their grey suits or work uniforms, they play their part in the machine that is Japanese society. It is almost unsettling to see the transition from weekday to the weekend when self-expression is allowed and unique subcultures appear at popular places like Yoyogi Park. Each group puts on their own performance art for the public to revel in, the 50's Greasers dance to Japanese rockabilly music, while another group is dressed like 90's Los Angeles Cholos, complete with hairnets and lowriders. No matter what it is they are into, they are committed and fully embracing the lifestyle they have chosen for the weekend before returning to their weekday routines.

The weekend winds to a close, I hang out with Roman and some of his other expat friends in the park and enjoy the drinks we picked up at a nearby 7/11, they have a really good peach tea. They share stories of what it is like to live in Japan full time, what they miss from home, why they stay. They all have a similar story, as kids, they were intrigued by the culture that gave them anime, video games, and manga. They came on a vacation, on a semester abroad, or to teach English, something just clicked and they never went back, or only did long enough to figure out how they could make living in Japan their full-time reality.

They also shared the struggle of living in Japan, the fact that no matter how long they lived there, how well they spoke the language, or even if they married and had kids in Japan, they would always be treated as outsiders. As we chat, kids are playing in the tall grass and the breeze is a welcoming break from the 90-degree temperatures of the day.

With the work week starting back up, I would be on my own once again, I had a short list of things I wanted to see before my week-long trip to Kyoto. I planned on spending one day just photographing interesting motorcycles and scooters I spotted on the streets of Japan. But most days would just be me working on my laptop sometimes at the apartment, or at different coffee shops around the city as I explored a new place each day.

Every time I am in Tokyo I have a flood of memories that make visiting some places hard, memories made with people who are no longer in my life, with friends who have moved far away, and whole other life that is now behind me. But every trip I make to Tokyo I make new memories, new friends, and discover new places. Tokyo forces you to get outside your comfort zone at times, but if you look beyond the tourist traps and neon lights, you will find amazing people, exciting flavors, and a city you will want to rediscover again and again. I can't wait to go back.