It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion;
it is easy in solitude to live after our own;
but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd
keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance” (via Lili)
Tokyo is the familiar and the unexpected.
It is the harmonious pairing of extremes – the quiet juxtaposition of ramen and pornography, the retention of tradition and liberation of lingerie, the reunion of memory and reality, the conservative presentation of thigh-high stiletto boots, leather mini-skirts, circle lenses, and spiked blonde hair.
Tokyo is individually-packaged identical strawberries that are too perfect to eat.
Tokyo was not part of the original plan.
I was on the verge of booking the tickets for my Euro-Asia trip when I received the email. An old door opened where another had closed, and the familiarity of the door beckoned to me. Here was a return to something I once knew, something that was now veiled in a mystery that allured me.
I checked – the marginally higher ticket prices sealed the deal – and Tokyo became an addendum, a question mark that held more uncertainties than answers.
Of all the cities I visited, Tokyo was the only one for which I did not develop an itinerary.
Of all the cities I visited, Tokyo is the one I should have researched most.
When I arrived at Narita International Airport, I spent nearly five minutes of complete confusion with a customs official who repeated a Japanese word over and over and attempted to communicate with gestures at my purse and stamping motions before I realized: He’s asking for my passport.
I had never been to a country where airport staff did not know how to say “passport” in English.
This discovery was quickly followed by the realization that many Japanese people barely know how to say anything in English, and will repeat the same words in Japanese as if somehow the repetition will magically translate into English. [Americans do this too].
It was actually refreshing to finally visit a non-tourist friendly country that is, first and foremost, a country for its people.
Venice (my least favorite city on this trip) revolves around tourists and tourist-hounding merchants who reside in the city solely to entice people to purchase wares, most of which aren’t even manufactured in Venice.
But Tokyo – Tokyo is a city where you become the unremarkable “other” and people don’t really give a damn whether you approve, complain, come, go, stay, etc. – so they don’t bother to solicit you, engage you, include you, impress you.
And yet, you are still impressed.
Six months in Rwanda have transformed your smart phone into a status symbol, your miniature netbook into a piece of advanced technology, and most of your personal possessions into rare gems.
Tokyo is a role reversal.
All of a sudden, you are the one to gape. You marvel at the perfected efficiency and design. You stare quizzically at household contraptions that you don’t understand, and when the meaning becomes clear you say “Aha!” and wonder why they don’t sell more of these outside Japan. You smile at the cuteness factor of every sign and display. You spent extra minutes on the toilet so you can play with all the buttons.
But what makes your eyes open widest are…
Forget Milan. Forget Paris.
I swear Tokyo is the fashion capital of the world.
At Galeries Lafayette in Paris, you see beautiful and impeccably well-dressed women everywhere. But they all seem to adhere to the same formulas, the same high-end designer brands. Yes, the pairing and layering and combining is important; but it’s honestly hard to go wrong with clothes that are already mini-perfected creations.
Same goes for Milan.
But I’ve never seen anything like the style in Tokyo.
For one thing, there’s no formula.
There are a disproportionately high number of well-dressed people in Tokyo and all of them seem to have a uniquely perfected style. You can’t really identify brands from what they wear, and it is never so much about the individual items so much as how the colors and textures and shapes are mixed and matched into an aesthetically-wowing result.
Shopping on Harajuku Street and people-watching on the subways and in ramen shops was like watching a live fashion show.
I loved Tokyo for its liberation of style, the freedom for people to wear whatever they want without social stigma and judgment, the culture’s encouragement of creativity and eccentricity.
However, as captivated as I was by the fashion around me, I knew that these expressions were adapted to the unique character of each individual. I could certainly not pull off studded leather necklaces, nor would I feel comfortable wearing ginormous pink bows in my hair.
Tokyo encouraged me to embrace self-expression and individuality.
But it taught me to first know myself.
For a long time, I gravitated toward clothing that I thought I should desire.
When I was young, I dressed like everybody else.
I wore A&F capris that shortened my legs, I applied VS eyeshadow that bruised my eyes, I squeezed myself into too-tight dresses that made it impossible to breathe. I wanted a Prince Charming that was tall, handsome, rich, brave, kind, and funny.
As I grew older, I started to invest in clothing because of its reputation. Instead of finding clothing that suited my body, I learned to value brands because of their association with high-quality, status, wealth, or success.
I would purchase the navy-blue Theory suit or the perfect pair of Seven jeans, I would date the accomplished model or the professional athlete, and I would feel delighted because I had snagged a designer item in my size at 70% off. “How could I not buy it?” or “Why would I not date him?” became the logic, and I’d congratulate myself, “What a steal!”
But when the purchases looked awful and the relationships fell apart, instead of accepting that the clothing wasn’t designed for me, I’d critique myself and try to find ways to force it to work.
Why don’t I have longer legs? Why aren’t my eyelids bigger? Why can’t I shrink my stomach?
Why don’t I like to watch Dexter? Why can’t I cook? Why do I act so awkward when I’m around his friends?
And then I would make excuses to keep trying.
Maybe I should lose weight.
Maybe I should try pairing it with something else.
Maybe I should call more often.
Maybe I should call less often.
Maybe I should make more female friends.
Maybe I should take cooking lessons.
Maybe I should give him space.
I subscribed to a certain logic that “If it’s a designer item and it doesn’t work, then there must be something wrong with me.” I would keep clothing because I thought it must work somehow, I would continue a relationship because I felt that if I invested enough time or effort it would eventually work out.
Well, turns out clothing doesn’t work that way.
And people don’t work that way either.
I am still learning about myself.
But self-knowledge is helping me to better understand my interactions with other people and to accept that healthy relationships cannot be rationalized or forced. I am learning that love and value and acceptance do not have to come from a single source.
I wanted it to work.
For a long time, I tried to make sense of it all.
But now that I know myself better, I realize that it does not have to make sense. If it is meant to work, it will work. And if it doesn’t, that does not mean that there is a problem with you or me, or you and me, but perhaps we both have yet to find a better match.
Thank you for showing me this beautiful city – I am excited to see what time will bring for us both.