Despite holding a government-issued card identifying me as a “resident” of Japan, I see myself more like a long-term visitor.
Artist-in-residence programs and other residency opportunities exist to invite artists, academicians, curators, and all manner of creative people for a time and space away from their usual environment and obligations.
They provide a time of reflection, research, presentation and/or production. They also allow an individual to explore their practice within another community; meeting new people, using new materials, experiencing life in a new location.
Being a tourist here is nothing short of wonderful—like actually full of wonder. When considering Tokyo, most picture the bright lights of Shinjuku, crowded crosswalks of Shibuya, or stylish shops of Omotesando. Thanks to Jiro’s drool-worthy dreams, more and more people recognize the detailed attention to craft that spans the food scene here. (I mean, there’s a reason Tokyo holds more Michelin stars than any other city in the world.)
As a tourist-in-residence, I have the opportunity to take my time exploring these tourist staples. And then some. This extended time allows me to immerse, reflect, become even more enamored with life in Tokyo. As a creative, this place is inspiration-overload. From the design of SUICA and PASMO cards to the deftly-painted graphics along the road, Tokyo amazes me every day.
While I'm certainly a participant, I also take time to consider everyday interactions in the way one would a museum exhibit. I’m often people-watching and space-studying. Questions about how, why, what things are constantly run through my mind.
There are many, many rules and subtle nuances to observe throughout Japanese culture. Even in mundane activities like riding an elevator, there are implied expectations based on where you stand. In short, it's been a delightful mind-fuck.
Okay, so I’m a foreigner. 外国人。
As a foreigner, I get a free pass with some of the rules. But I’m hyper-aware of this pass as it reinforces my status as a tourist, not a resident.
I’m lucky to live with 3 native Tokyoites.
Shuji and his parents have taken it upon themselves to show me the many facets of living in this dynamic city. I'm pretty spoiled. They indulge me in the must-see tourist sites (Imperial Palace, Tokyo Tower) while also inviting me to participate in more traditional occasions like お正月 (New Years) and 雛祭り (Girls' Day).
It's all still a bit foreign to me.
I'm still not entirely sure of the proper way to pass through a shop’s 暖簾 (のれん), those vertical cloth banners that usually hang above the entrance. The concept of when to bow, how much to bow still confounds me. I’m still clumsy with chopsticks. Grabbing slippery somen from a communal plate makes me sweat a little.
(Okay, a lot.)
I fumble on a daily basis. There's the language barrier and a persistent dread of offending someone else. For a long while I didn’t know how to politely refuse a shopkeeper's offer for a point card. I've accumulated a rather extensive collection of point cards ranging from hair salons to the local pharmacy. So, my wallet may just be the most residential-looking thing about me.
All my nerves of doing something wrong, offensive, awkward force me to the edge of my comfort zone. Each time I do something off-beat, I lose a bit of my footing. I'm reminded that I'm a foreigner.
There certainly have been days where I want to retreat back into familiar territory of Metrocards and internal meetings at EOD.
I’ve essentially taken up residence at the very edge of my comfort zone.
When tourist becomes tour guide.
In my short time here, a slew of friends have already stopped by for a visit. Their stays varied between an 8-hour layover to 1-month long trips. My goal was to make the most of their time in Tokyo.
Making plans for other visitors brought the unique challenge of being a guide while I'm still figuring things out myself.
I spent a lot of time on Google Maps and cross-referencing the JR railways maps to find convenient spots to meet up. When that made me go crosseyed, I'd phone-a-boyfriend. (Thanks again, boo.)
Even making reservations is a task.
As someone who previously relied on OpenTable / Yelp / Resy to make reservations, I am petrified at the thought of calling a restaurant. In a foreign language no less. The few times I actually summoned the courage to call, it'd only ring a couple times before I abruptly hung up.
I basically prank-called the places I wanted to dine. 🙊
In the end: ramen was slurped, chu-hai sipped, voices spent at karaoke.
Perks of being a tourist
From Golden Gai to a tiny bar in Shibuya that spins mostly old school hiphop, exploring with fellow tourists brought me to places that I wouldn't have ventured myself. It certainly helps to have friends who have similar interests, like snacking on animal-shaped donuts and a penchant for strong cold brew.
Catching up over tasty eats and drinks has been the balm to my brushes with homesickness. In the company of good friends, I feel the most like myself than I have in a while.
Perks of being a tour guide
I'm glad to have the chance to share some of my favorite experiences here.
Whether it was slowly deciphering the menu at an izakaya or getting naked with old ladies at onsen, I'm grateful for my friends' patience and open-mindedness.
We fumbled together; laughing through the awkward pauses and complete misunderstandings. It made me love this city even more. Through these (mis)adventures, I discovered new additions to my ever-growing list of favorite places around Tokyo. (See below)
The first thing everyone asks is for recommendations of where and what to eat. Some ask where to stay, where to go—though most seem to leave those queries to Airbnb or Anthony Bourdain. The fact that I could provide thoughts and suggestions made me see that maybe I know this city more than I thought. Here are my faves so far:
品達 // ramen alley tucked into the side of Shinagawa station.
六厘舎 // famous tsukemen spot featured by David Chang, Anthony Bourdain, Andrew Zimmern. The lines at Tokyo station can get pretty absurd. I recommend popping over to the Osaki station space if you're in the area.
ジャンボ // yaki-niku spot with high-quality meats.
Interesting offal (ie. beef heart) as well as regular prime cuts.
牛かつもと村 // ok. so there aren't that many seats in this spot but if you're into steak and katsu—this place is amazing. You sear off your steak katsu to desired wellness with a little personal grill at your seat.
ゑびす堂 (えびすどう) // izakaya-style spot near Ebisu, offering a daily selection of tasty fish from Tsukiji. Raw fish is dank (duh!) as well as a variety of cooked dishes.
もも吉 // low-key izakaya specializing in chicken. Known for serving up a skillfully grilled quarter-chicken (thigh & drumstick)—make sure to order onigiri on the side to dip into the drippings.
目黒ひいらぎ // treat yourself to the crispiest, sweet, chewy taiyaki. ever.
うれしいプリン // literally 'happy pudding'. You can't not love that. Made with fresh eggs, these custardy little treats packed into glass baby food-looking jars is everything dreams are made of.
Cozy Corner // a little bakery chain all over Tokyo. Their choux créme (シュークリーム) are a little more than ¥100 a piece, which is a small price to pay for pure vanilla bean-flavored happiness. They also carry a chocolate flavor and matcha creme.
Most importantly, don't sleep on konbini treats. I love to pop into Lawson, 7-11, Family Mart for a matcha-chocolate ice cream bar.
THINGS TO EAT
PLACES TO DRINK
PLACES TO SHOP
THINGS TO SEE
(Okay these are really just areas I've spotted dream homes. But they are also convenient for exploring both touristy sites and experiencing local bits.)
AREAS TO STAY
the real MVPs
Shuji, his family, and his hometown friends have all been an incredible resource and support as I try to figure my way around.
The homies have been so welcoming to me as well as my visiting friends. I've shamelessly piggy-backed many plans, especially since everyone's super nice... and fluent in English. 🙏🏻 Many sunny afternoons have been spent BBQing on the roof and nights at karaoke singing our hearts out—sometimes to the beat of an actual drum kit.
Being a tourist isn't always easy, but these lovely humans keep it fun.
Feel free to reach out when you find yourself in Tokyo and looking for a pal to snack on karage and beers.
Also, let me know any suggestions you may have to add to my list.
I'm just out here trying to make the most of my residency.