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Love to Hate You, Tokyo

Industry Observer with Victorine Vien LLC

When I was younger, I dreamt of visiting Japan to see the cherry blossoms blooming. I learned about Japanese art history. I loved the aesthetic concepts of "wabi-sabi" and "mono no aware", which related art to the concept of imperfection and impermanence of life. Wabi-sabi referred to the beauty found in imperfections.

For example, a porcelain vase that had been smashed to pieces then glazed back together with a gold glaze would be considered much more beautiful than the original vase before it had been broken. It's the uniqueness found in the lines of gold glaze that traced the broken parts of the porcelain that made it special. The story that begged to be told behind the brokenness indicated by the gilded lines made the vase more mysterious and full of life. It elevated the vase to the status of "art".

Mono no aware referred to the beauty of things that don't last forever, recognizing that all of life is impermanent. It's the heightened sensitivity that one feels for the beauty of the cherry blossoms because one knows that the bloom only lasts for a short time. It made sensitive people reflect on their own mortality and purpose in the world. This mixture of joy and sadness created a complicated blend of feelings that could only be evoked by things that reminded people of their own insignificance in the face of time.

Those two aesthetic concepts really resonated with me and made me want to visit Japan. In 2017, I got the chance to realize my childhood dream. I moved to Tokyo to experience living like a local there. The experience was eye-opening in many ways.

I was in love with Tokyo the moment I arrived. The cherry blossom trees blooming and seas of people abuzz in this city felt so far away from the life I led in Silicon Valley. It was like I was living somebody else's life.

Then the food. Oh my goodness, the food. I'm not sure if it's because of fresher ingredients or the Japanese attention to detail, but the food in Tokyo was better than the food I'd had anywhere else.

Tokyo had so many beautiful parts to it that it felt surreal the whole entire time I lived there. But little by little the crowded metropolis and lack of English signage eroded the sense of awe I had for the city when I first moved there. Tokyo's subway system was very complicated because there were several different companies that operated different subway systems within the Tokyo subway network. This made it impossible to buy a monthly pass there because each monthly pass can only be used on one particular subway system.

Japan also doesn't usually use English or have romanized signage when announcing train stops. This made it difficult for non-Japanese speaking people like me to understand the stops or when to get off the train. Even the most basic thing like knowing when to get off the train needed help from others who spoke Japanese.

Then the crowds. Hoards of them, everywhere on the sidewalks of Tokyo. It's such a dense city that even shopping became a chore and not an enjoyable experience because you're wading your way through so many people just to get to the shop you wanted to visit. After a while, I began to understand why so many Japanese people looked so exhausted at the end of the day when I saw them nodding off on a train ride.

My fascination with Tokyo wore off, but the love for Japan remained. Every once in a while, in those rare chances when I got to explore Japan without thousands of people around, the beauty of the place still captivated me. I'd still like to visit Japan again, but a different place next time. I heard Hokkaido is a beautiful region with a lot of great scenery. I'll let you know what I think of it when I finally get there :-)

What about you? What is a place that you have a love/hate relationship with?