Happily Invisible: Why Tokyo Is the Perfect City for an Introvert and Her Camera

Think of it as a reality TV show, I tell myself to quell the panic rising in my throat. Introvert: Trapped in Tokyo.

keys on the bed

The 150-square-foot flat is chosen for us by our elderly Japanese hosts. Family honor prevents us from sneaking off to a hotel or finding a new flat on our own. The math is any introvert’s nightmare: three people and only one set of keys. One twin mattress. One introvert (that’s me). Three weeks.

The first night, the man and I sleep fitfully in the hard twin bed. Springs poke into our backs. His son sleeps on a thin, folded comforter wedged into the two-and-a-half foot wide entry hall. I try not to step on the boy’s head in the middle of the night as I make my way to the toilet for the third time. Breathe, I tell myself. Go with the flow.

I cry silently on the toilet seat and think, thank God for my camera.

My camera will be my home for the next 21 days. We are relatively new friends, the camera and I. But lately, I find I rarely want to be without it. I feel safer with the camera in my hands, braver than I used to be.

In the morning, I have no time to dwell on lost sleep, jet lag, or introvert misery. We travel with relatives to a hospital, where we introduce the man’s son to Ojiisan (Grandfather) for the first time.

older man his son and his grandson pose for a picture

Ojiisan loves Clint Eastwood, Clark Gable, and now, his American-born great-grandson. “Handsome boy,” says Ojiisan, nodding proudly. He turns to me, the obvious gaijin (“foreigner” or “different one”). “You,” he says, “Audrey Hepburn. Same. Beautiful.” I thank him profusely and try to channel my inner Audrey Hepburn: introversion’s classiest face.

We spend many evenings with the man’s Japanese family at their home near our rented flat. Reiko-san, his aunt, will let me photograph her if I agree to speak Japanese into her video camera. I swallow my pride and introduce myself hesitantly once more: Hajimemashite, Jenny-to moshimasu. Dozo yoroshiku. Reiko-san laughs, covering her mouth with her free hand. Good. Good girl.

woman taking a selfie inside a museum

His family plans numerous outings for us. Alone time is at a premium. Whenever I can slip away to explore, I do—just me, my camera, and the thousands of strangers on the streets of Tokyo. I lose myself happily in crowds, the camera around my neck both a comfort and a buffer zone.

Tokyo surprises me. For its size and energy, it is a city of seeming introverts, keeping thoughts and bodies in check. The city teems with life and constant bustle, but rarely does anyone jostle anyone on the streets. Still, I’m always among thousands. Whenever my nerves threaten to take over, I focus on one face in the massive crowd. I tell myself stories about the people I will never know.

Blurry image of people on the street

girls talking and laughing

 

shibuyagirl

Man looking at his camera in the street

Man crossing the street

As I wander, schoolgirls pass everywhere, linked arm in arm, decked in ao (blue). The skirts are so short, I see lacy underpants in front of me on the escalator. Boys and men flush aka (red) as they go by. I silently thank Tokyo’s plethora of Japanese schoolgirls. Each means one less pair of eyes on me—the tall, awkward gaijin with red cap and camera.

school girls walking in the street

Times Square cannot hold a candle to the Shibuya crosswalk, better known as the “Shibuya Scramble.” Pedestrians converging on this massive intersection at the heart of Tokyo line up in thick rows, waiting for the streetlights to turn green to cross the streets in droves. This should be chaos, this many people crossing the epicenter of Tokyo every few minutes, but the mood is consistently patient, and the crowd is always calm. I cross back and forth the Scramble for sport, stopping in the middle of the throng to snap  faces. Some scowl at me, but most ignore. I smile, happy to be invisible, lost in my own translation.

people on the cross walk

At the famous crosswalk, this man finds me on my knees, setting up a shot. He pounces, grinning. Click. I grin back: a duel! Our common language: photography.

Man looking at his camera smiling

I prowl through brightly lit corridors of basement Shibuya shopping: Dean and Deluca onigiri (rice balls). Clerks in white lab coats. Mysterious golden elixirs. Freshly dead squid. The enigmatic woman in the black wool hat who keeps her thoughts to herself.

woman in amongst glass bottles

Every introvert knows the antidote to being watched: simply look away, with purpose. In Tokyo’s Shibuya district, there is always something perfectly out of place to take your place.

woman walking in the street looking away littleboy

I am exhausted, but I do not want to go back to the tiny flat. I don’t want to make conversation. I fall in love with more faces and tell myself more stories.

woman in a red coat

Little boy in red jacket holding his mother's hand

I don’t want to embarrass her, so I shoot her hunched figure through a pane of glass. She looks at no one. She cleans the railings. You cannot miss her, but you will.

lady cleaning the handrails of a staircase

I adore these fearless marauders. They own Tokyo and all of its corners, seedy or shining. They do not flinch as I approach. I admire such fortitude. I stay away from corners for fear of being trapped.

Pigeon

I am not at all lonely on my own in Tokyo with my camera. I wonder where the man and the boy have gone today without me. I have lost track of the days here in Tokyo. I ask a stranger, with uncharacteristic boldness, what day it is. Monday, the day of the moon: getsu-yobi.

view of people walking on an overpass

Paparatchi: the Japanese word for paparazzi. Technically, I have become one. She glances back over her shoulder and pedals harder. Lone Ranger wore a mask, too. She will never be caught.

woman riding her bike alone on the street

I always return to the man and his son recharged from my solo adventures. Together one bright morning, the three of us visit Sengakuji: the site of the graves of the 47 Ronin. Smoke from the incense (100 yen, just enough to please the ancestors) trails behind the little girl in polka dots.

roningirl

The man and his son are direct descendants of a samurai named Hayamizu. Hayamizu, one of the 47 Ronin, was an archer. We set off in search of his final resting place. I find Hayamizu’s grave first. I know the kanji for the family name better than anyone. When I cannot sleep in our tiny rented flat, I lie awake studying “Hayamizu” tattooed in kanji between the man’s bony shoulder blades. Fast. Hayai. A figure with one eye. Water. Mizu. A splash.

Hand with two fingers on a chart

“Wear the red hat,” he tells me, “so I don’t lose you.” He fears I will get lost in the sea of faces. I smile, knowing that I only ever get lost on purpose. Besides, my memory card is now full of landmarks I can trace back to our tiny flat, no matter how far I roam. The camera has become my compass.

woman takes selfie in mirror

shinagawa

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