Skyscrapers tower overhead. Dozens of enormous video screens simultaneously blare advertisements for everything from candy to sports gear. A merciless stream of selfies is being snapped all around me. When the light changes, hundreds of people surge across the street from every direction, and I take the plunge.
This isn’t any intersection; this is Shibuya scramble (yes, that’s a technical term), supposedly the most “This is Tokyo!” location in Tokyo. The crowds, the noise, the neon lights—I have heard that it is all supposed to be mesmerizing, dazzling. But I feel only frazzled as I stumble into Shibuya Station, trying not to be trampled as I make my way to what I hope is the train home. My first experience in the place hailed as the epitome of Tokyo was stressful and anticlimactic.
Having spent the previous semester in Kyoto, the traditional capital, I had constructed my image of Japan around shrines, temple gardens, and abundant matcha. I even took classes in Noh theater. In short, as a friend observed, I was “pretty into the traditional stuff.” Thrown into the modern metropolis
that is Tokyo, I felt out of my element and looked ahead to my six weeks in the city with apprehension.
Every day, I walked the same route to class at the University of Tokyo. I passed the greenery of Yoyogi Park, with its perpetual hodgepodge of musicians and performers. As I approached campus, I invariably heard the welcome jingle from the 7-Eleven convenience store on the corner. Right before I walked through the campus gates, I passed a tiny ramen shop which, from the morning, emanated the enticing smell of warm, oily noodles.
My trip home consistently involved grabbing an onigiri (rice ball) or a daifuku (mochi with red bean filling) from my favorite stalls in the basement—which is always the food floor in Japan—of the Odakyu department store at Shinjuku Station, where the sellers began to recognize the foreign girl who stopped by daily around 6 pm. I often ended up taking the same train. Trains in Japan are incredibly prompt, and the one time my train was two minutes late, the conductor apologized profusely. I realized that, even in Tokyo, I was slowly but surely settling into a routine. Rather than losing its luster of novelty, Tokyo, I felt, bettered with age. The seemingly trivial familiarities that I developed over the course of my time in Tokyo, set against the backdrop of a metropolis of more than 13 million inhabitants, made a minuscule bit of Tokyo my own. There was nothing quite so satisfying as walking outside in a once foreign, imposing city and realizing I recognized everything from the hundred-floor bank building to the tiny rice-grain shop. Realizing that I myself had become a routine occurrence on this particular sidewalk in Tokyo.
One morning toward the end of my stay, I found myself at Shibuya Crossing once again. It was not a nice day. A humid, gray sky hung heavily, sprinkling a miserly drizzle of rain. Waiting for the light to change, I absentmindedly gazed at the people having coffee in the window of Shibuya Crossing’s ever-populated Starbucks. From a nearby video screen, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s voice trilled a melody which, by now, had become part of my mental soundtrack for Shibuya. Somewhere behind me, the statue of Hachiko, Japan’s legendary faithful dog, waited patiently—I didn’t need to look to know where he stood. Perhaps it was the rain or the earliness of the morning, but the few minutes I stood waiting to cross the street were unusually quiet. During these moments of calm, I suddenly realized that I felt content standing there. Shibuya Crossing had not changed a bit since my first day, when I begrudgingly traversed the busy intersection. My perspective of the crossing, however, had changed more than I had realized. By now, I was familiar with Shibuya, and many other places in Tokyo, in a way that is only achievable with time. I realized there was a place for me, one thread amid the multi-stranded fabric of Tokyo.
Sometimes, I find it hard to come up with a concrete answer when people ask what I did in Tokyo. The value of my time in Tokyo came not from what I did, but from what I learned just by existing in the city for a few weeks. The process seemed unremarkable—but my view of the city transformed vastly. Acquiring this new set of eyes, I believe, is the most valuable aspect of travel.
*My experience in Tokyo was funded by the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship. I would definitely recommend applying!
Odakyu Food Hall
© 2014 Princeton Traveler