There is never enough time in Tokyo.
Last week I returned from a 10-day family trip to Japan. It had been over a decade since my last time there, and I felt a strange weight anticipating what it would feel like being back. As we took the Narita Express into the city, I saw the shape of Tokyo’s perma-glow emerge from the train window and wondered how I let so much time pass between visits.
The last time I was in Japan, I was in my early 20s, finishing a two-year stint teaching English. I spent my last month in a whirlwind of packing, purging, and farewell parties. I remember that it felt impossible to leave—there was still so much left to explore and experience. But when the time came, I got on a plane and landed back into my old world, which turned out to be an entirely new one. My former life went largely unwitnessed by those closest to me, so that time in Japan feels disconnected sometimes, like a dream you wake up from, where the details of what happened fade quickly but the feeling of it endures and imprints on the rest of the day.
It’s not that you ever forget past homes, but realizing how those mundane details dissolve so inconspicuously—the earthy smell of entering a tatami room wearing tabi socks, the sounds of the crosswalks, the way vending machines greet you at every corner, followed by the first bittersweet sip of mugicha—makes the connection to place slowly unravel. Experiencing those Japan-specific sensations again unlocked many dormant memories and validated my hope that this trip would feel like a homecoming.
We collect different kinds of “homes” throughout our lives, in the form of places, people, food, feelings, music—all tethered to the personal era in which we feel most connected to them. Going back home often becomes a wormhole where time folds onto itself, which for me, inspires these parallel imaginings. Every time I return, I think about that hypothetical version of myself that stayed and still lives there. I wonder if my parents felt similarly as they walked us down their own memory lane as a young couple, and as we toured my mother’s old stomping grounds before she met my dad. I felt constant reminders of my life a decade-plus apart; my sister and brother-in-law reminisced over their respective experiences in Tokyo too. Our trip included new adventures within and outside of Tokyo—like going to the Pokémon Café for my nephew (!!!), but our jam-packed itinerary made sure to repeat our favorite natsukashii memories, as a way of solidifying new traditions.
And yet, going to Japan always makes me feel like I’m in the future—literally in time zones, but also, in its technology and perhaps in the idealistic way I observe the culture of courtesy, respect, and cleanliness. One of my favorite examples of this is quite frankly, in the bathroom. Every toilet greets you with an open lid and a warm, sanitized seat, equipped with a customizable bells-and-whistles bidet that includes a “privacy” button which plays the sound of water or a song to make your experience hygienic, delightful, and free from embarrassment. Truly a throne.
No society is perfect and it’s easy to idealize things on vacation, but I’m reminded how visiting Japan fills me with optimism. Up until semi-recently, I think we all clung to this collective hope that in the future things will get better—that technology will improve our lives, that we humans will evolve into more empathetic beings with increased access to knowledge and shared experiences. Do we feel as hopeful now with climate change, surging nationalistic geopolitical movements, and the debilitating pandemic effects on our education, economy, and healthcare system? Nah, the future freaks me out. In Japan, I feel at ease and on edge in ways I don’t anywhere else. I chalk a lot of it up to the tension between the familiarity I feel and the foreignness I exude. But it’s also in how I experience comfort, joy, curiosity, and anxiety by being in a more technologically advanced space.
While shopping for souvenirs, we happened upon a pet robot display in a department store. Within minutes, we all became enamored with them, especially my nephew who wanted to take one home. (Yeah ok me too…) They had cameras mounted on the top of their heads so that they learned to recognize you, creating custom interactions to cultivate a “real” relationship. As I booped one of their button noses and watched it coo in response, I wondered, what data would it record and amass if it lived with me? Could this adorable machine designed to “love” me blackmail me one day? And yet, I truly believe it would enhance the quality of life and mental health in the form of a low-maintenance companionship for those who feel social anxiety, isolation, or loneliness and are unable to take care of a service/emotional support animal.
I’m reminded of this uneasy fascination again looking at my Instagram feed this week, which was flooded by Lensa AI portraits, mirroring the feeling that we’re all characters in a dystopian graphic novel based off of current events. I also spent time reading about the sophisticated offerings of AI ChatGPT that sound convincingly human, and the implications it would have on education and certain industries. This technology is exciting, but I can’t help but feel unsettled by it, and what the next iteration will produce. (My doomsday bunker is located at the bottom of this uncanny valley.)
It’s December, and our current content reflects the inevitable year-end retrospective for 2022. I succumb to the data-driven, navel-gazing delight of my Spotify Wrapped, reliving the specific season, association, and emotional climate attached to each song. I consume “Best of 2022” round-ups of books, albums, TV shows, and movies eagerly, mapping my own taste against these global lists. And in this month of recapping and reflecting, I’m also anticipating the new year, when I do an audit of intentions, setting new goals, and recommitting to existing efforts. December too, is a wormhole in time; the nostalgia it provokes plants us firmly in a cyclical past, while we set our sights for the new year. Despite it all, I still feel hopeful thinking about the future.
So, to round out this year and bring us into the next, the theme for Volume 06 is Future Anticipation. We’re going to dive into the intersections of art and hip hop as they relate to technology and Japanese culture, as always, with some wiggle room. I’m asking us to think about the ways we anticipate the future now, with a lens to the ways artists have expressed it in the past.
I hope you’re all having a wonderful end to this year.
Thanks for reading.
I’m reading this as I get ready to go to Narita to head back home in NYC after a 3weeks long trip, what a coincidence! As an American with Japanese parents, I feel so much of the familiarity/foreignness that you write about. And I was actually staying in Odaiba these last few days which is like, eye-poppingly futuristic (before that I was mostly in Nara which is kind of the opposite but still so advanced compared to the US lol).
I found your Substack through The Audacity, thanks for writing it! I also went to teamlab planets, and I’m looking forward to reading your impressions :) yoi otoshi wo ~
Oh, Elspeth! What a wonderful exposé of your family trip! Thank you for sharing your insights. You describe what many of us would otherwise overlook or take for granted. Thank you for this Christmas gift.
And yes, we do collect different homes during our lifetimes.