In the Footsteps of the Turtle

Earlier this month I struck up conversation with Maple Ip, fellow thoughtful traveler and owner of Her colorful storytelling and eloquence had me hooked from the start, so I had to have her contribute to Wander & Ponder! Enjoy our first ever guest post, and please share your thoughts so I know if this is the kind of content you’d like to see more of!

The famed shot of the Shibuya crossing

A tour of the Imperial Palace and its grandiose gardens. The neon cacophony of bar signs along Shinjuku’s alleyways, colors mirroring the advertisements plastered loudly across buildings on the main street. Tokyo Tower, a red beacon of ‘the best view of the city’. A checklist of nostalgic and modern Tokyo that fits neatly into the boxes of your Instagram feed, but tells you nothing of how they exist together.

You’ll leave the city impressed.

You’ll also leave unaware of how Tokyo quietly posits a garden under raised expressways, shrines between chrome buildings, and train lines that weave through orderly business districts into cozy neighborhoods – their own brand of cohesive diversity. You’ll leave with the impression that Tokyo is comprised of polite but reserved people, without experiencing friendly encounters outside of busy schedules.

There’s an argument for slow travel, and this is it:

“You have to live it to know it. Take Nippori for example,” a friend muses three weeks into our month long stay in Tokyo, “It’s not going to be on ‘Top 10 Places to Visit in Tokyo’.”

She has opted for a longer, exploration-driven stay for her second trip to Japan, in contrast to her first whirlwind visit.

I agree. “Guide books are all about flashy, trendy places. But Japan has all these unique historical bites that people miss out on.”

“There’s so much more than you’d expect? Like Harajuku. On the right you have Meiji Shrine, and on the left are street loads of shopping. It’s two different worlds in one place,” meaning, “You can find your niche.”

“I could live here for the rest of my life,” I really could, “And still have corners to uncover. The good stuff. The truly local stuff.”

She gestures around at the neighborhood we are based in. “Yeah, just look at all this. There’s no way we’d have found this place.”

“It’d be a pity,” I say wistfully. “Yanesen really is beautiful. Feels real.” What compels me about this district? “It’s a version of Tokyo most people don’t try to see.”

A grandma totters past our guesthouse. She smiles at us, out on the front steps. The past few weeks has proven that proper conversation is a bust, but it doesn’t stop our daily exchanges of waves. She’s sweet. Being able to establish a routine interaction is a treat.

“Ah, look at her go,” my friend stares at the grandma fondly. “Tokyo’s not just a big city.”

“Not just any city.”

Characterized by minimalistic clothing stores, wooden shop fronts hiding hand-crafted trinkets, and the occasional family restaurant outfitted in bright signage, Yanezen showcases a slower side of Tokyo. Yet, right around the corner is a convenience store. A few blocks down from squat residential housing are karaoke bars, fast-food chains and highways. The JR train line that loops around downtown is a stone’s throw away.

The Tokyo we expect is right there. So are the pieces not on constant display.

That night, we wander around the neighborhood while waiting for laundry to finish. Sipping on chilled drinks bought from 7-11, we casually move to one side of the pavement when we heard a light ding-ding. A bicycle passes.

“We’re practically locals,” my friend jokes. We walk back to the convenience store for their recycling bins and casually separate our trash. Her bottle goes into plastics, my juice box into combustibles.

“Well, not quite.” I say, even as we nod goodnight to the cashier. The door slides open. “This familiarity though? It’s a start.”

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