inbetween (april travel diary #1)

It feels good to be back in Tokyo after about 8 months back in Europe. During those months, I wrote my dissertation and finished all my other coursework at Glasgow, so I am now practically finished with my degree. However, my graduation ceremony is only on the 28th of June, so I’m left with this big space of ‘inbetween’ time.

For the next few weeks, this will basically become a travel diary once again, since I’m using some of this time on my hands to travel around Japan. I decided to get a 21-day JR Pass now that I can, because it’s only available on the tourist visa. It’s such an insanely great deal! I’m heading up to Sendai on Monday, but first I’m in Tokyo for a few days, just getting used to being here again.

After returning home from Tokyo at the end of last summer, I already knew I’d want to go back, but wasn’t sure when. The opportunity presented itself sooner than I had thought, as I was able to finish my courses early while getting enough freelance work to save up for travelling. After I’d bought the flights in early January, two things happened that made me feel like coming here really was the right choice at this point.

In January, I found I’d passed the JLPT N1 exam I took last December. Although the N1 is the highest level of the JLPT, it’s not really anywhere close to ‘fluency’, especially since the exam doesn’t test language production skills. For me, getting the N1 only reinforced how much I still have to learn while encouraging me to keep going. It felt like a new beginning in terms of my Japanese studies - now that I’m no longer studying to pass any JLPT levels, I’m just studying for myself, to be able to gain more access into this society and culture. In this regard, being in Japan is obviously good for me, because I get to immerse myself in a way I could never do in Europe.

The second thing is that, after making a somewhat last-minute decision to apply in December, last month I found out I’d been accepted into the Japanese Studies postgraduate programme at the University of Oxford. The programme consists of three parts: an intense language course, a postgraduate dissertation and two optional courses, which include topics like Japanese politics and social anthropology. Although I’m very glad I’ve done my undergraduate degree in the more ‘general’ field of Politics & IR, because it’s allowed me to explore so many different things and get a comprehensive grounding in social sciences, I feel that on the postgraduate level, it’s good to do something more specialised.

At the same time, I am a bit worried that I’m ‘pigeonholing’ myself too much with this degree - although I am deeply interested in Japan, its language, politics, society, et cetera, I’m also very interested in Chinese politics and East Asian IR more generally (as well as many other things). Of course I’d love to work on something related to Japan in the future, but I wouldn’t like to think that’s the only path I have. I guess that’s the only thing that is niggling in the back of my mind a bit (besides financing my studies).

But I’ve concluded that a specialised degree on top of a more general degree doesn’t detract anything from my existing interests, it just allows me to spend time pursuing something I am genuinely passionate about. And I guess turning down an offer from Oxford because of the fear it would shut some doors would be quite myopic. I already knew this would be a year of making big choices, and I feel good about the direction I’m taking, but I guess it’s natural to have some worries as well.

This is probably not interesting to anyone else, but I thought I’ll get a bit personal since I haven’t done that in my blog for a while! Now onto the actual travel diary.

My flight to Tokyo from Edinburgh, via Amsterdam, went pleasantly enough - I couldn’t get any sleep, but two Japanese grannies sitting next to me were very talkative, and I chatted with them through the night. I also watched two films (Can You Ever Forgive Me? and Crazy Rich Asians), both of which were enjoyable, and KLM’s veggie meals were surprisingly tasty. But inevitably, after no sleep and hours of queuing at Narita (first at immigration, then at customs, then at the JTB counter to pick up my SIM and exchange my JR voucher into a bona fide pass..), I felt dead exhausted by the time I arrived to the city. It was also a very cold (5 degrees!) and rainy day, which was kind of fitting.

My first stop was the trusty T’s Tantan inside Tokyo station, where I had their new vegan Mapo tofu. After getting to my hostel in Asakusa (where most of the cheap hostels in Tokyo are), I spent the afternoon walking around, trying desperately to stay awake. Thankfully, I made it, going to bed at 8pm and getting up at 10am the next day (with only one weird 1-hour awakening at 2am in the middle). The next morning, the weather was bright and warm, and I felt more like myself again. 

I picked up a coffee from Sol’s Coffee (very much recommended!) and walked a couple of miles north to Nezu, my first home in Tokyo and a neighbourhood I really like. On the way, I walked through Satake shoutengai, which had signs celebrating the fast-approaching Reiwa period and stating it’s the second-oldest shopping street in Japan.

On the corner of Ueno park, I sort of stumbled into the Shitamachi Museum, which I had heard about but never visited. It had reconstructions of old nagaya houses, sort of longhouses which had multiple families crammed in tiny spaces, only separated by thin walls. Since the Edo period, they were a central part of the lifestyle of shitamachi (working/lower-class) districts, but have almost completely disappeared due to natural & human-made disasters and modern urban planning. In some cities, there are relatively many nagaya left, but in Tokyo they’re almost extinct.

It’s interesting to learn more about them, because they represent a completely different way of life to the modern detachment of most Tokyo residents. In the nagaya blocks, everyone knew everyone by necessity, which must have been difficult in its own way, but also created a communal feeling that doesn’t exist anymore. Nagaya have been undergoing sort of a revival in more recent years, as many artists and artisans have been using them as workspaces in districts like Taito, Bunkyo and Sumida (I know quite a few in Nezu), but of course it’s not possible to replicate the way of life associated with them (which, in a way, is good, because life there wasn’t that comfortable, hygienic or safe - there were countless fires). It seems a lot of people have a sense of nostalgia for the nagaya, which I can understand, thinking of this communal bond they may symbolise.

In addition to the nagaya displays, the museum had exhibitions on various historical themes like the 1964 Olympics or the history of Shinobazu pond in the park. I saw a shichirin, the kind of traditional stove Ariana Grande accidentally tattooed the kanji of on her hand, and learned that a certain type of houseplant called omoto used to be super fashionable in the Edo period.

This poster for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics is urging people to watch events at home instead of coming to the venues, in order to avoid massive congestion.. Seems quite timely again!

After leaving the museum, I walked through Ueno park and Benten temple grounds en route to Nezu. As it was already quite late in the afternoon, I had lunch at Nezunoya first; they do really nice vegan lunch-sets. Afterwards, I visited the Nezu shrine, which was supposed to have the azalea festival right now. The azaleas were not in full bloom yet, but it was still lovely to walk around the grounds - Nezu shrine is one of my favourite places in Tokyo.

From Nezu, I walked to the Yanaka Ginza shoutengai, an old shopping street which has also become something of a tourist destination for its quaint atmosphere. I wandered into shops and stalls for a while, buying some strawberries, before heading to Nippori station. I took the train down to Ueno, wandering in the Ameyoko market for a while and buying some used manga to read at the hostel. On my walk back to Asakusa, I had dinner in a quiet soba restaurant that served really nice hand-made noodles. It was a lovely day of visiting many of my old favourite places and finding some new ones.

I’m staying in Tokyo from Wednesday and Monday, and to be honest, it doesn’t really feel like I’m travelling yet. Rather, I just feel like I’m back home. Of course, there are other places I also think of as home, but coming back has really reinforced the feeling that Tokyo has become one of them.