COVID Diary: An Urbanist Goes to Japan

Photos of neighborhood in Tokyo
For a glorious week, my days began & ended with waiting to cross these tracks.

Exactly a year ago, I spent two weeks exploring Japan with my husband. After seven days in Tokyo, we visited Kanazawa, Osaka, Nara, and Kyoto, plus brief detours to some rural parts of Honshu, the island all those cities are on. All of it was a pinch-me-am-I-dreaming experience because I spent much of my teen years of the early 2000s vacuuming up every anime and manga I could find, back when these things were rare oddities rather, long before many became pop culture touchstones. And because of the countless hours I spent absorbing Japanese media growing up, when we stepped off the subway in Shimo-Kitazawa, the Tokyo neighborhood where we stayed, it felt like I had already been there.

My husband, a professor, is tied to his school calendar in when we can travel, but spring break lines up with the tail end of the well-known and intensely-popular cherry blossom season. The timing worked well, because we got to experience the blossoms without paying peak-season pricing, which is not to say the trip was cheap. Searching travel advice for Japan turns up countless articles on how to save money, because this is a very expensive place to be. Generally, I am a sucker for all such advice, but not here. This was a grand and luxurious adventure that was a whirlwind of sights and sounds, food and culture, and countless impressions for an urbanist in some of the world’s most densely-packed urban spaces. For an urban planner, Japan is a public policy dream, where methods and policies unthinkable in the US are matter of fact. Where public safety, cleanliness, and efficiency are elevated to near-religion and its very form is an antithesis to America’s highways and bland suburbia; forced both by its geography and dedication to maintaining its culture in spite of its modernity. This breathless writing makes Japan seem idyllic, but like anywhere, the country has social ills in spades, including dizzying living costs, lacking paper-thin LGBT tolerance, and a stiff commitment to xenophobia even as it depends more and more on immigrants to keep itself running.

Last year, after two weeks abroad, we came back having to constantly explain the face masks in all our photos. Back then, for many of our friends and family, the masks’ prevalence seemed was part of some sort of internalized exoticism of this distant culture and, to a Western eye, jarring proof of a collective mindset, so alien to American individualism. Explaining the masks was just part of the stories we told with great excitement of glistening towers over ancient shrines, of hyper-fast transit, pristine streets, and microscopic apartments, and of a people for whom kindness to strangers is a tenet of life.

From an age when face masks were voluntary.

Now, a month into Chicago’s COVID-19 lockdown, memories from this trip and other trips near and far wash over me like windows into another reality. Now we’re limited to a radius of a few blocks at best, when just three months ago all the world was an open gate. And today, no one questions face masks anymore. Instead, the absence of a mask on a stranger’s face causes a jab of anxiety.

Because these two weeks are the anniversary of this very special trip, and because I am thinking so much about it lately, perhaps I will share some recollections, photos, and reminisces about a world none of us knew ended in 2019.