Why I Love Living in Tokyo

I never thought that I would one day write a love letter to Tokyo but here we are. Tokyo: I love you, you have been very kind to me and I am grateful for you.

This love letter is in fact inspired by the seven days gratitude drawing challenge launched by Wendy MacNaughton for the wonderful, welcoming, and inspiring GUT community on Substack. In her (always) wonderfully crafted and inspiring dispatch, Wendy wrote about the impact of gratitude on our connection with the outside world and invited the community to think (and draw) about gratitude in a week-long special newsletter series and drawings. Every day, she sent a new dispatch briefly (but meaningfully) talking about a specific topic (such as a moment of joy, friendship, or senses) that led to the feeling of gratitude and invited the community to draw the things/people/places that they associated with that feeling. And the results are just astonishing. People are so talented. I am amazed by the drawings people share in the GUT group chat. Thoughtful and also very beautiful.

Since I cannot draw, I am just a “reading member” of the group and intend to remain as such since I learn so much from it (many guest artists, process-related talks, behind-the-scenes stories about some of Wendy’s NYT features, and much more). 

Man painting a house in a snow covered landscape
A scene that I encountered in Northern Japan in Hokkaido a while ago. A painter in a snowsuit drawing the cottage that feels straight out of a story book (thinking of Hansel and Gretel). Of course, I was standing behind with a heavy camera in my hands. January 2016, Biei – Hokkaido.

I have always been in awe of people who could draw. I have more drawings in my house than photos. I often run into fellow hikers who calmly sit on a rock, taking their time and sketching the scenery around them while I try to do the same but with an uncomfortably heavy camera. If there is any wildlife around, I am sure they see me and my camera more like the intruders whereas the drawers fit more naturally in that environment. Even though I love photography and how it allows me to better appreciate all the beauty, I still yearn for that purely manual drawing process that might enforce a deeper connection with our surroundings, especially in the case of nature drawing (a few weeks ago, there was a wonderful post and guest contributor in the GUT discussing “nature journaling”). Oh well, maybe in another life.

Even though drawing was not an option for me to join the challenge, I still wanted to take part in it. And I did so by modifying the task and using a form of expression that I feel a little bit more comfortable with. So here is what led to this week`s post: I, this week, packed my real camera every day on my way to work and tried to capture a moment from my daily life in Tokyo that reflects an aspect of the city that I feel grateful for.

The photos are fairly ordinary but I thoroughly enjoyed joining the GUT community in their efforts to show up every day for the task. It did not take me long to find out that it is very hard to take even one passable photo during the limited time before and after work. But that also turned out to be the rewarding and exciting part of the exercise – trying to fit the practice into one`s daily routine and stick with it even if the results are not great. It also made complete sense since what I most appreciate about Tokyo is not the flashy things about the city but the quality of daily life that it offers and how, with the excellent public infrastructure and services in place, it allows you to not just survive in a big city but thrive in it (this is my experience after decades of living in enigmatic, exciting but also energy-draining Istanbul (but for sure deserves its own gratitude post, for very different reasons). Honestly, I live in Tokyo because my work is here (I did not even visit Tokyo during my first big trip to Japan some ten years ago) and I would probably choose Kyoto or Nagasaki over Tokyo if any one of the two was an option when I first moved here. But the city has grown on me over time, showing me that one of the biggest cities in the world can also be the gentlest. I now embrace it as my healing sanctuary.

Nothing I write in this post intends to bad-mouth my home city, Istanbul. Tokyo feels like that comfortable and loving relationship that allows a person the space to grow as an individual. On the other hand, Istanbul is still the love of my life with whom getting along became harder and harder each year, a relationship that have been taking away more than it gives. I wish it were not the case but our relationship with our cities, our countries, our culture, and the joy we get out of it can often be negatively impacted by the long-standing (as in 22 years) governments that we heavily disagree with and that we may never be able to forgive for taking all the joy, hope and optimism away.


Day 1 – November 20th: Safety

This is from day one trying to show my gratitude for living in such a safe city where, as a solo woman, I can freely enjoy late-night walks without fearing for my safety.

I am always mesmerized by the evening lights in Asia, and how those turn even the most mundane sights into a cinematic visual experience. So I am grateful for the sense of safety that the city allows, giving me plenty of opportunities to enjoy the cinematic evening lights.


Day 2 – November 21st: Public Transportation

This is to salute the excellent public transportation available in Tokyo (granted, crowded during the rush hour) that takes away a lot of daily anxiety and where a one-minute delay counts as a “major service disruption”.

I wish we could, as a society, focus more on how to make public transportation more available rather than putting all our eggs in the e-vehicle movement and mythologizing undeserving figures behind it.


Day 3 – November 22nd: The Tranquil Neighborhood

I live in the eastern part of Tokyo in an old and very traditional neighborhood, Shibamata. There is nothing hipster or cool about my neighborhood. Whenever people ask me where I live in Tokyo, I often feel that my answer does not necessarily impress anyone.

Sure the coffee shops are decades old – the kind referred to as “kissaten” in Japanese, often dark interiors, not the best coffee and there is indoor smoking. There are no fancy restaurants or bookshops. But there are low-rise buildings, there is the Edo River (and a 40-kilometer-long bike path that runs alongside it), and Tokyo`s largest public park, Mizumoto Park. I love it and I am, every evening, feel grateful to get back to the tranquility of it.


Day 4 – November 23rd: Building a Routine

I am very much a person of routines and habits. I do not think that I could be this open to traveling and new experiences if I did not have routines and habits to fall back on. Habits give me a sense of security, and the routine gives me a structure, and that sense of security and structure allow me the platform to feel grounded on, which eventually allows me to “mentally” afford more exploratory and adventurous moments or periods in my life. 

And Tokyo is a wonderful city to form habits and routines. Despite its fame as a crazy city with neon lights and everything, that energy is only limited to a few neighborhoods. And in almost everywhere else, there is this small-town feeling where the mom-and-pop shops defy the decades, neighbors check on each other, and store clerks know your name. During the extended period that I worked alone from home in a city where I did not know many people, the habits and a routine that I could form in this welcoming and very stable environment helped me to feel a genuine sense of belonging.

One of my favorite daily habits was to walk down to the Edo River every afternoon and photograph the walkers and bikers against the backdrop of often deliciously strange-looking clouds (I put together a series a while ago). So on Thursday, when it was a national holiday in Japan, I did the same. There were no picturesque clouds but I still felt grateful to re-live my old routine.


Day 5 – November 24th: My Home

Yes, it is true. Homes in Tokyo are small, very small. My apartment is 37mand it is, for a single resident, considered to be a mid-size apartment in Tokyo. But, despite the small size, the effective design and construction methods make the apartments feel bigger than they actually are; there is almost zero space lost in the design/construction process and you can use every cm² of the apartment.

And I do love my small home, which is on the second floor of a 2.5-story wooden building. Thanks to very big windows, it gets a lot of light and makes me feel connected to the outside world (that really made a big difference during the pandemic). I have also been enjoying the idea of taking up a little less space in this world.


Day 6 – November 25th: The Nature

And this is a special gratitude for the fall colors in Tokyo that just descended upon the city. I find Tokyo to be one of the most underrated (yes, Tokyo and underrated in the same sentence almost sounds like an oxymoron) places in Japan when it comes to fall colors. The city is home to some wonderful and spacious parks where you almost forget that you are in one of the largest cities and most populated cities in the world.

On Saturday, I visited my favorite tree in Tokyo. I feel grateful that it still stands strong. Also immensely grateful for the beauty that emanated on a sunny autumn day, it sure made by day, if not the week. I intend to visit it few more times this week right before work (or during lunch breaks). It is just too beautiful and deserves more than one visit during the season.


Day 7 – November 26th: The Community

I could only do six days of photos. It is Sunday here in Tokyo, a very rainy and cold one. And before work starts tomorrow, I had to finish this post by using an earlier photo.

Lotus flower in Ueno Park
Photo from July 2022 that I took during the fleeting lotus flower season in Tokyo.

So for the seventh day (last but not the least) – to every reader: I am eternally grateful that you are here and that you do not mind my ramblings. After more than a decade of blogging, I still feel shy, insecure, and honestly, a little bit like a narcissist, after each post. But I guess my desire to connect this way overcomes those uncomfortable feelings and it often feels worth it, and I have you to thank for it.

Until next time.

Burcu

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