Ten Years In Tokyo

January 2023 marked the ten-year anniversary of my move to Tokyo.

And before you stop me–if you’re feeling déjà vu, it’s likely because in 2021 I posted about hitting my tenth year of living in Japan. Yes, during my first year and change in this country, I did not live in Tokyo. I was in the far-off land of Ibaraki. Specifically Moriya city, stationed there so I could teach English in the neighboring town. Between living right next to a cacophonous train crossing and being stuck hours away from anything interesting, I effectively went insane in Ibaraki. I had thought my life in Warabi, Saitama[1]Given the content of this old blog post, I share it again with Ultimate Courage–apologies for some offensive language used, things were different in 2009 was quiet as an exchange student, but Moriya was next-level suburbia. Made up of multiple car dealerships, one gigantic mall, and nothing much in between, it was completely bland and hellish. In an attempt to save my blossoming adult life here in Japan, on January 13, 2013[2]According to Facebook memories, anyway, I moved to the sleepy neighborhood of Ayase in the Adachi Ward, situated far in the north-east of the Tokyo metropolis.

Bouncing Around the 23 Wards

As you may (or may not) know, Tokyo is made up of 23 Special Wards that occupy the main section of the metropolis, with 26 cities and towns expanding out into the west towards neighboring Yamanashi Prefecture, as well as one rural district and a handful of islands all under the administration of the Metropolitan Government. Before moving to Tokyo, I had only lived in small suburban cities in Japan. So as a matter of weird elitism, when moving to the capital, I was hellbent on living in one of those “Special” Wards. You know, the center of Tokyo. Where it’s all at.

Joke’s on me, because the first place I ended up living was one of the most ghetto and out-of-the-way neighborhoods in Tokyo. Since then, I have moved two times while living here.

It is at this point that I would like to continue waxing nostalgic about the different places I have lived, but as a service to you readers, I am going to try and give you an idea of what it actually means to live in this city. To this end, I will list the different areas I’ve lived in, along with my impressions. If you happen to be thinking about moving to Tokyo, it may be worth considering these neighborhoods as potential locations for your new domicile.

Ayase Station, Adachi Ward

Ayase’s claim to fame is a heinous rape and murder incident that occurred back in the late 1980s, and the neighborhood has generally been known for being quite dangerous. This isn’t just hearsay either–people born and raised there have told me stories about hearing shootouts between local yakuza when they were kids. So, why did I move to a place like Ayase? Well, because it was the easiest way for me to commute out to Ibaraki for my teaching gig, and the rent was cheap. And thankfully in the year 2013, it seems as if the area had calmed down. I lived in Ayase for just under three years, but to this day it remains nostalgic, and I still enjoy visiting from time to time. Situated in the working-class ward of Adachi, Ayase is a quiet little neighborhood between the bustling urban centers of Kita Senju and Kameari[3]The setting for Kochikami, for those curious at the end of the Chiyoda Line.

While often overlooked due to its neighbors, with cheap rent and easy access to central Tokyo, Ayase is a great place to live for a young (and poor) English teacher. But what makes Ayase truly great is that you can enjoy the neighborhood on its own merits, differentiating it from a typical bedroom suburb (hi Moriya). There is a bustling mess of small restaurants and bars around either exit of the station, with a good handful open until morning[4]When I was there, anyway—this however may have changed post-Covid. The locals are quite friendly, making it easy to just strike up conversations with people in bars… or even on park benches in the middle of the night. Ayase is also home to one of my favorite hanami spots, Higashi-Ayase Park, and my favorite ramen joint. The neighborhood has finally attracted interest in recent years due to its convenience, and now a big, expensive apartment building is being erected in front of the station. So if you’re looking to move, now[5]February 2023, for the historical record may be the time!

Nakano Station, Nakano Ward

As the home of subcultural mecca Nakano Broadway, Nakano needs no introduction. While Ayase was great, at some point I felt I needed to be closer to my otaku roots–and a small apartment just three minutes from Nakano Broadway provided just that. I lived in Nakano for around six years, and enjoyed every minute of it. While it is entirely too crowded, making one’s morning commute a living hell, there was never a dull moment in this large and dense “suburb” just west of Shinjuku. With a sprawl of small bars and restaurants emanating from the station’s north exit, Nakano was an easy place for folks to gather for a night of debauchery. During my time there, I found that I had many friends and co-workers that had never visited the area despite its easy access–but with a guy on the ground who knew the place (me), it was easy to give people fun, new experiences in the neighborhood.

On my own, I would continue to explore Nakano’s sprawl in all directions, finding countless new places that could all act as great potential regular haunts. After moving there, for the first two-and-a-half years I hardly left the area when it came to hanging out. And when Covid struck, Nakano provided new curiosities with its endless mazes of housing which hide small shrines and parks, as well as classic bath houses and shops–many of which I made note of to revisit once the pandemic calmed down. Hell, it was Covid that actually got me in to Nakano Broadway more, which I had always lived close to but never really took full advantage of. With the introduction of full remote work in the early days of the pandemic, I spent many a lunch break browsing the numerous halls of Broadway–and actually picked up a few good scores. Nakano is another area seeing big redevelopment, so if you’re looking to move, you better act fast.

Nishi-Ogikubo Station, Suginami Ward

In the midst of Covid, many long days cooped up inside inspired me to move someplace larger. That said, Nakano was well out of my price range for any place larger than where I was. As such, I headed farther west. With a full return to the office being out of the cards post-Covid, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to live a little further out, yet still within the warm embrace of the subculture-ridden Chuo Line, and close enough to the center of Tokyo to commute in and hang out. As such, I now find myself living in Nishi-Ogikubo.

I can’t actually say too much about Nishi-Ogikubo, since I have only lived here for just over a year–and a portion of my time here was still under rather heavy (voluntary) Covid-related restrictions. However, with society starting to move past Covid paranoia (for better or for worse), I’m starting to discover more of the neighborhood. Nishi-Ogi is definitely more compact than Nakano, but the south of the station boasts a decent lineup of grimy izakaya, as well tasty casual dining options on either side of the tracks. There are one too many non-Japanese dining options for my liking however, and many places don’t let you off for cheap, either. Another issue with the area is that the express train doesn’t stop on the weekends, making trips out the city somewhat cumbersome. That said, the area is nice and quiet, and way easier to walk around in than Nakano, with its hoards of savages. But more than anything, I love the apartment where I am living now–it has way more room to breathe, and I have a nice view of Mount Fuji on clear days! If I can somehow find my way into a higher pay bracket, I’ll try to find my way back to Nakano, but for now, I am comfortable in West Ogi.

But What’s So Good About Tokyo Anyway?

There is obviously more to Tokyo than living out your days in some small neighborhood in the boondocks–what’s great about Tokyo is all the things to do! When many people come here for leisure, they hit up major spots like Shibuya, Roppongi, Akihabara, or one of the many other cultural hubs in the sprawling metropolis–but as you start to live in Tokyo, you find out that there is way more to the city than you have ever imagined.

It was pretty hard to boil down, but below is a list three key reasons why I am addicted to Tokyo–and likely why I will never leave.

  • Scale: Tokyo is huge. And you’re missing out on a lot of it by taking trains everywhere. Traveling by bus is one great way to see lesser-known communities off the beaten path, but the best way to take in Tokyo is either on foot or on bike. As a poor teacher, I used to spend my un-paid spring and summer breaks taking day-long bike journeys around the city with no destination in mind–I would just cycle in one direction and see where I landed. While admittedly a lot of Tokyo is either quiet residential areas or dark business districts, there are several small pockets of lively neighborhoods with their own unique character and history that you can only reach by stretching your legs a bit. There have been many times where I’ve run across some old shopping arcade I’ve never heard of with cool cafes, down-home ramen joints, and under-the-radar restaurants emanating off the main drag. Other times I’ll come across some expansive windy park in some residential area, an intricate and large temple or shrine, or some retro bathhouse frequented by a rogues gallery of interesting characters. I have yet to stop making new discoveries in Tokyo, and I doubt that will ever happen.
  • Variety: As mentioned above, there is so much to do in Tokyo. Sure, it has many of the same delights of any city in the form of shopping, partying, culture and good food. But with each neighborhood in Tokyo having its own vibe, the amount of permutations on these four pastimes is off the charts. One aspect that specifically makes Tokyo stand out is the amount of small, individually-owned businesses. Like, I don’t think you could start a cozy game-themed bar like A-Button in the US, or a tiny hole-in-the-wall devoted to Showa-era anime records like Bar Plastic Model. But beyond simple city-slicking consumerism, Tokyo has a lot to enjoy that does not require that much money. Long walks by one of the large rivers that cut through Tokyo are a great pleasure of mine when the weather is nice, as well as visits to one of the city’s many large and thoroughly-maintained parks. Meanwhile, trekking out west to Okutama or Takao is an excellent way to take in some wilder nature without manmade structures obstructing your view. And with all of this connected by a reliable train system, you know you’ll be home on time.
  • People: I think there is this unfortunate stereotype that people who live Tokyo are cold and unfriendly. In my time here, I have found that this is most certainly not the case. That said, nurturing these relationships is key–thankfully this can be done after a few visits to a bar where your desired social group gathers. And with a few months under your belt as a regular, you’ll be invited to private dinners, camping trips, or weddings. While people who live in Tokyo–most of whom are not actually from the city–can seem standoffish at first, this is par for the course for someone like me from the north east US, so perhaps I’m used to it. But nothing breaks the ice better than good vibes and drinks, and because of this I have met so many irreplaceable friends in Tokyo–be it in the neighborhoods I have lived in, or in other haunts around the city. I can’t imagine what my social life would be like if I wasn’t here.

To be honest, I never thought I’d enjoy my time in this city a much as I have over the past ten years. Even in the most dire days of the pandemic, I still found joy in just wandering aimlessly around Tokyo and taking in new sights and sounds.

Here’s to another ten years! Or twenty! Or however many more years until I die. Either way, I have a feeling my time here will be long.

1 Given the content of this old blog post, I share it again with Ultimate Courage–apologies for some offensive language used, things were different in 2009
2 According to Facebook memories, anyway
3 The setting for Kochikami, for those curious
4 When I was there, anyway—this however may have changed post-Covid
5 February 2023, for the historical record

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