If I ask you to visualize Japan in your head, a multitude of pictures should immediately invade your visual field; temples, geisha, sushi, samurai, manga characters, etc... But if I ask you to think of Tokyo, it is more likely that this time, images of a sprawling life in a futuristic cityscape will populate your mind. This city, and other major Asian cities in general, have strongly infused popular culture, especially cyberpunk and science fiction, probably because of their exuberance and their bustling activity. I propose to share with you some pictures and videos of these urban landscapes taken at night and give a little insight on their meaning for me.
Tokyo by night
There are certain feelings and sensations that seem like nothing when you experience them, but that, in the long run, have the power to change a life. People often ask me why I went to settle in Japan; was it for Aikido? For its culture? Work? Manga? To follow a woman? I am always uncomfortable when I get asked this question because although the first two of these propositions are at least partially true, the real reason is much less rational, but much more personal, and therefore more powerful. The real reason is that I wanted to live in the environment of the photo below.
View of Shinjuku from the Park Hyatt
Obviously, I think that anyone who knows me is aware that I have always been interested in Japan and that I have always talked about going there. But as far as settling there however, it was a leap that I was far less evident. Still, I had a strong desire that I can only describe as to be at the center of the world. I was born in Dijon, a medium-sized city, quite rich in history, but I am afraid to say, quite inconsequential too, except for those who live there. While I was there, I had always felt that, to paraphrase Snake Plissken, "the more things change, the more they stay the same". In other words, I had spent the first twenty years of my life in a place that did not seem to offer the stimulation that my mind craved. Those who move to Dijon will indeed tell you that it is also very difficult to meet people there as people can be quite stuck up. This former "Duché" has its own cultural codes and its petty bourgeoisie. Most of my childhood friends are still living in a 30 km radius around their hometown while interacting with the same circle of friends since school. For me the idea of immobility had simply become totally unbearable, and after a brief period of panic at the idea of having to leave my hometown, I took it upon myself to discover life beyond this pleasant city, and even beyond France.
View of Tokyo Tower from Roppongi Hills
Like any youth cultivating a feeling of opposition, I wanted to go from one extreme to another, and for me, nothing was more natural than to leave the rich cultural heritage and history of my birthplace for the immediacy and inevitably ephemeral nature of all Tokyo things. Tokyo is a city that must constantly be monitored due to the fact that things are changing at an incredible speed. To realize this, just trying returning to this nice little restaurant where you had spent such a pleasant evening a few months ago, only to realize that it has vanished, and it is now replaced by something else, probably just as exciting. The intense geological activity that has sadly reminded itself to our minds during the 2011 earthquake in the Tohoku also makes it necessary to constantly be permeable to information, something that the hyper-connected amongst us are more than willing to do of course.
View of the Park Hyatt and Opera City from Hatsudai
Talking about the March 2011 earthquake and the nuclear crisis that followed, the horror of the whole situation has at least allowed me to realize that I was not ready to abandon Tokyo. Moreover, in spite of the generalized psychosis, a victim of which I certainly was, I have never regretted that I had been there at the time despite the danger. My friend Olivier Gaurin recently told me that for him, intelligence could be boiled down to the fact of being able to answer a resounding "YES" when asked the question "are you a happy person?" Since I have been living in Tokyo, and after an adolescence that had been psychologically and socially slightly uncomfortable, followed by a few very difficult years as a PhD candidate in Ireland, I am glad to report that I can today answer that "yes" immediately and completely honestly. Whatever happens to me now, I know that I have successfully given myself the means to access to the dream of my life: to settle down and to live in Tokyo.
View of Tokyo bay from Odaiba
Getting there was not easy though, but making the decision was inertly proportionally very quick. This is actually the subject of this article, although the number of paragraphs above may suggest otherwise. Everything happened during my first trip to Japan. It was a great experience, but also a source of some disappointment. Despite the magic that I found in Tokyo while exploring every little corner of the city, I felt very lonely. For me, to settle there belonged to the domain of the impossible, because although I felt welcomed as a tourist (judging by the solicitude of hotel staff and various utilities employees), socially and culturally, the doors seemed closed forever to me. Tokyo is quite unique in that people will go to great extends in order to avoid as much as possible any form of interaction, and this is even truer as regards to foreigners. This is in fact not necessarily true in the rest of Japan, but at the time, I did not know better. Even at the Aikikai, the world's Aikido headquarters, I had little contact with other foreigners, and I have not been able to inquire about their stories or to ask them to give me some advice.
View from Tokyo Tower
Approaching the end of my stay, I knew i had felt in love with the city, and I was determined to come back from time to time, but I had abandoned the idea of living there. All this changed during a discussion with my mentor Philippe Gouttard while we were we having a nightcap at the Park Hyatt, the famous setting for most of the action in Lost In Translation, a film that I had seen so many times before coming and that once served to fuel my dreams of Tokyo. Towards the end of our discussion, Philippe confessed that his only regret was that he had spent too much time training during his thirty years of annual visits to Tokyo, and did not enjoy enough what Japan had to offer, neither made any true friend. As I heard this, something clicked in my mind and I thought to myself, "I do not want to have the same regrets, I will make sure to do what it takes to really appreciate Japan." I got up and walked over to one of the large bay windows that offer a picturesque view overlooking the Shinjuku district, one that offers this perspective that I so love and that allows my mind to travel in the dystopian worlds of Philipp K. Dick and William Gibson. It is at this point that I thought: "I want to be able to admire this view at any time, whenever I want." Of course, the only way to achieve that was to reconsider my decision and come to live in Tokyo rather than just travel there.
View from the Park Hyatt
After several months of preparation and my Ph.D. in hand, I left Ireland and I finally returned to settle in Tokyo. I have regularly come back to enjoy the view from the Park Hyatt. Even after the great earthquake, during the long evenings at home, when everyone had returned home early because of the impending power cuts and frequent aftershocks, when the entire contents of the cupboards was placed on the floor to avoid further damage, when the bath tub was filled with water in case of prolonged isolation, even in this situation, I was happy to be part of the life of the city.
View of Shinjuku from the Park Hyatt
More than a cold metropolis, Tokyo is made in the image of its residents, a rich and generous entity that has much to offer, provided that one devotes enough time and leaves out a number of prejudices. It is a safe city where everything works reliably. It feels good in its anonymity blanket, even though with a little time, it is also clear that one's uses and habits forge strong social links with the people with whom one interacts regularly, even if it is not obvious at first. Although since I left France, I have become more sensitive to the beauties of my own land, it is in Tokyo that I really feel most at ease, and, as will surely surprise many, a lot less stressed too.
As a bonus, another mesmerizing Asian city: Shanghai