There are times when it’s difficult to remember why I decided to stay in Tokyo. I initially moved to the city after a spontaneous decision to attend graduate school. But when I arrived, I realized that I was looking for a place to call home. What I soon found out, however, is that Tokyo isn’t a place that encourages this feeling. The longer I stay, the trickier it becomes to find the wonders that make me fall more in love with this country while ignoring its flaws. It takes determination, I must say, and discipline.
This city can feel suffocating, with its unstoppable flood of self-interested people and ever-growing concrete jungle. It makes finding beauty, warmth, and a feeling of home a challenge instead of a privilege.
Each new day starts with a competition — whether it’s to find a space that fits your body size inside a packed train car or a decent seat in a café with a long queue at lunch time — and during the holiday season, this struggle is only amplified. Tokyo is restless, and the connected, yet complicated train system doesn’t help me combat this sensation.
I choose to walk in unfamiliar neighborhoods just to see things that are no longer familiar. I let myself get lost in the maze-like alleys and watch the sunset from a different angle. Sometimes, in those moments, I rediscover my love for the city again, but there are other times when I don’t.
I keep walking though, and maybe that’s what makes me stay. Home, or the feeling of it, is a journey instead of a destination — at least, that’s what makes sense to me. Here, the roads are limitless and broad, and as I keep walking them, hopefully, I’ll find it along the way.
So, I’ve stopped searching for a reason to stay.
I take the cramped-train every day without complaint; I run to the station gate just like everyone else without questioning why I should. I let the loud music that echoes around Shibuya match my footsteps. I embrace the serenity in the garden of Meiji-jingu and listen to its silence. I savor the freshly-cut bluefin tuna of Tsukiji Market, but also allow the abundance of instant-lunch choices in 7-Eleven to feed my wonder. I’ve learned to live a routine that is crowded, pre-packed, predictable, and inflexible — everything that Tokyo is made of, everything that makes this city feel dull to me. I’ve stopped searching because I don’t think there’s anything to look for anymore.
I am wrong, but also right.
I don’t need to look for anything because it’s always been there. I’ve just never looked close enough, or realized that my newcomer eyes are now outdated. I have to learn to appreciate the obscure contradictions that support this metropolis — like a vending machine with touch-screen technology inside an ancient temple, or a Buddhist monk enjoying a cheap lunch at McDonald’s. The boring train that always arrives at 9:26 a.m. and stops right in front of the stairs actually makes my life easier to plan, and the toddlers in yellow neon hats crossing the street hand-in-hand with their teacher let me know that it’s 8 a.m. and I’m right on time for work. Those little, perhaps insignificant, events that I’ve failed to understand are what define Tokyo.
Then, amidst the seemingly pointless chaos of this hectic city, sparks of joy arise.
My professor stops class suddenly because he is awestruck by the gorgeous twilight sky outside the window. An elderly lunch stall owner gives me a cup of tea for free because it’s been a freezing winter and he’s worried I’m cold. A woman stops abruptly in front of me because she realizes the hydrangea at the corner of the street is starting to bloom.
Out of nowhere, these moments make themselves known to me. I never see them coming, yet they always arrive. In these instances, the beauty and warmth I’ve been looking for finally appear. In these passing glance of time, Tokyo feels more familiar, kind, and close to my heart.
I may never find an explanation as to why I should call this city “home,” but maybe there’s no need to explain it, or to define what a home is.
Life is a long road, and any path could lead me home. There might still be plenty of times when I cannot remember why I stay, but I’m sure there will also be more unexpected moments tucked between unappetizing frozen lunches along my frustrating commute that will make me smile and help me to be thankful that I’m here, in this very moment, and not anywhere else.