Lance Henderstein is a writer and photographer from Detroit, Michigan, who’s traveled far and wide for his work. But despite the handful of countries he’s called home, there’s something about Japan that continues to beckon him — in fact, although he’s been known to live out of a suitcase, he’s chosen to live in Japan for a collective eight years.
We caught up with Lance to chat about his love for Tokyo, his initial transition into Japanese culture, and the creative inspiration tucked in the city’s bustling streets.
What initially drew you to Tokyo?
My grandpa used to tell me stories of his airforce days during WWII. He was stationed at GHQ during the occupation, so his accounts may have been what first planted the seed. But it was really after I quit art school and transferred to a state school that I decided I wanted to be bilingual and learn a difficult language. I enrolled in a study abroad program in Shiga Prefecture and studied Japanese for a semester to see if I could learn it. Then, I visited Tokyo for a month before returning to the States. I loved it, so I decided to stay a full year to really immerse myself in the language and the city.
What do you remember about first arriving in Japan?
The cleanliness — I had never seen such clean and well-maintained public spaces before. That and the courtesy of the people really impressed me.
What was it like transitioning into a culture that spoke a language other than your own?
I had a semester to prep before I studied abroad, but I definitely wasn’t ready for the strict Japanese teaching style. I would interrupt and ask “why?” constantly. One day, my professor, Mr. Aizawa, got sick of my constant questions in class and broke into English for the first time saying, “Don’t ask why! Just memorize!” It was an epiphany to my young Western mind: shut up and listen. (Thanks, Aizawa sensei!)
During my first full year living in Tokyo, my daily life was mostly in Japanese, thanks to Korean and Japanese friends. I took intensive courses five days a week and would mimic my friends, the radio, TV — anything I heard. Speaking Japanese isn’t all that difficult; it’s reading and writing that makes me feel like Sisyphus rolling that boulder up a hill. It’s a never-ending struggle.
How many times have you left and moved back to Tokyo?
Twice during university, and twice since. The first time I returned to Tokyo was three years after I graduated university — I went for a vacation after burning out on life in L.A. The moment I boarded the Narita Express from the airport, I knew I wanted to stay for a year and reset. My dad encouraged me to do it, which helped.
What was it that made you want to return to the city?
Tokyo really is the most liveable city in the world! It’s clean, safe, friendly, quiet, orderly, exciting, and filled with affordable and delicious food. I feel more at home here than anywhere else at this point. The infrastructure makes daily life so convenient, and the people maintain a level of decorum I really admire — you can trust people here.
What about the city inspires you creatively?
The feeling of anonymity and the safety of being able to walk anywhere at any time inspires me most — it’s great for street photography. People don’t bother each other, which helps me get into a flow more easily compared to cities where you need to interact or be on your guard at all times. And, the back streets are endless. Sometimes you’ll walk around a corner and right into a matsuri (festival) or come face-to-face with a baseball team riding bikes. It’s always random. And being able to ride out of the city to explore rice fields and mountains in an hour or less is a real luxury. Despite how crowded the city appears, there’s always room to think. And Tokyoites are always out enjoying the city as well. When I was back in Detroit a few summers ago, I couldn’t take walks after dark or wander in certain neighborhoods. It was unbearable to me. The freedom to safely explore the city is something I don’t take for granted.
What parts of the city do you hope to capture through your creative outlets?
I aim to capture Japan as it is, with no embellishment or aggrandizement. You see so much exotification and “weird Japan” stuff from artists and media — I mean, how many more references to “Blade Runner” and “Lost in Translation” must we suffer through? I’m trying to do something decidedly different than that. In street photos, I want to capture the eerie sense of familiarity I feel there. For culturally focused stories, I’m hoping to demystify the country’s people and traditions.
Where are your favorite places in the city to explore, and why?
There are so many great little neighborhoods in Tokyo; it’s hard to pick. Yanaka in Bunkyo. Koenji, Asagaya, and the western Tokyo neighborhoods are really great; the Nerima area is still off the radar; and Setagaya. I enjoy taking minor train lines to stations I’ve never been to and just getting out and walking around. I often look for the little green parks that dot the city, and waterways too. Then, in the evenings, I try to find quiet kissaten (old cafés) and bars where I can sit and write.
What has living in this particular culture taught you?
Patience, restraint, how to listen, and respect for public spaces. Japan was a sort of cultural parent for me; it rounded off the sharp American edges I had developed growing up. Gaman 我慢 (self-control) is a word I wish the world embraced a bit more.
Has Japanese culture influenced the way you perceive things when you go back to the States?
It feels pretty alienating, to be honest, especially in the current social climate. Obviously it depends on the company one keeps, but at the moment, America feels deeply troubled, unhealthy, divided, and chaotic. There’s a lot of manic energy and I’m a bit hypervigilant. I mean, we’re great at having fun and entertaining each other. I just wish we could rediscover a sense of being citizens and turn down the individualism a notch to refocus on the common good. And, most places are unlivable without a car — the U.S. needs more trains!
Are there specific things you miss while in Tokyo? Or, are there specific things you miss about Tokyo while in the States?
When I’m in Tokyo, I miss Mexican food. But when I’m back home, I miss nearly everything. It always feels like a decompression when I arrive back in Tokyo. But to name something specific: green tea.
And lastly, what advice would you give to someone who is looking to move to Tokyo?
Learn the language. It unlocks everything. Don’t be afraid of lulls in conversation. Live in a quiet area with a low number of foreigners at first. Become a regular at a family-run restaurant near your house. Read up on Japanese history, literature, and culture if you can. Bring a notebook everywhere — and take notes! Walk, ride trains, and explore the lesser-known stations. Accept Japan as you find it. It’s an amazing place, so have fun and enjoy it!