#16 Tokyo in the time of coronavirus

March 2020. Notes on the city, the travel industry, freelancing in Japan.

Dear friends,

It took a pandemic to get me writing this newsletter again. 

To new readers: hello friends! I’m Florentyna Leow, and this is the newsletter you theoretically signed up for at some point in the last few months. I write missives from wherever I am, about whatever’s on my mind. In the interests of keeping things fresh, I’ve decided to be more flexible with this newsletter. It might not always be lyrical or pretty. Sometimes it might be a little more raw or conversational, but each dispatch will always be written from the heart. 

By now you will have been inundated with virus-related news––2020 really does feel like the longest year on record! I will not add much to that here, but suffice to say that after four months I’m finally flexing writing muscles grown stiff from disuse. There’s a strange sensation in the shape of words and sentences, as though I’m borrowing them from others. It’s like learning how to write again. 

A few kind readers wrote to me over the last few months to comment on my disappearance. Thank you for the words. I read every email and kept them all close to my heart. I couldn’t write for a long time, let alone function normally. Call it transition, career uncertainty, analysis paralysis, creative rut, anxiety––there was a whole month when I woke up every single day feeling like the inside of my head was Shinjuku Station at rush hour and several dozen ‘human accidents’ every other second.

Ironically enough, now is the calmest and most stable I’ve been in months, just as the entire world seems to have dive bombed straight into panic mode. What gives? Maybe it was the vitamin B complex supplements I started taking last month. Maybe it was snowshoeing––turns out falling in love with snow is a matter of proper equipment. That, and a portable Jetboil for miso-flavoured instant ramen slurped next to a frozen waterfall. Even falling off a bridge in the snow was kind of hilarious in retrospect. But that’s another story for another time.

How is Tokyo in the time of coronavirus? Parts of the city are starting to resemble a ghost town compared to its usual self. It is not dead, but it is much quieter in places. Every other person seems to be wearing a mask. More companies are finally going remote after much feet dragging. Personal space, scads and scads of it on the subway. You can suddenly breathe on the trains without jostling up against dozens of bodies. ‘Coronavirus harassment’ is becoming a thing. Bullet trains are more than half-empty at times, unheard of for mid-March. I haven’t seen loo roll at the shops for a while; some convenience stores are now covered with irate, handwritten signs saying THE BATHROOM IS SHUT, presumably after spates of stolen loo rolls. The chef at my favourite tempura restaurant just had his first kid at a time when customers are electing to stay in. But Shibuya is still pretty busy. Some people are still commuting to work. There is not as much social distancing as there probably should be. People are still queuing for their favourite ramen and yakisoba shops. I mean, you just can’t keep some Japanese folks away from their food. 

On a personal level, the low-level paranoia of being out among people is unsettling. I am the kind of person who likes running my hands along surfaces outdoors, like tree bark or moss or brick, so keeping my hands firmly in my pockets is utterly torturous. Is it time to change my name to Quarantyna yet? (I have been joking to friends that it would be a great superhero name––saving the world by sending puns to the bored-at-home, helping them stay entertained indoors, whipping up some Quarantinis, etc.) 

Life-wise, many people are having a tough time of it, so I’ll only speak about my specific sphere. The travel industry in Japan is being absolutely slammed. Japan’s economy was largely being propped up by tourism. I think many of us had been wondering how long it would take for the bubble to pop. One or two inns in rural Japan have filed for bankruptcy. You don’t hear much Chinese on the streets anymore. Kyoto hasn’t been this empty for years and now would be the best time to be there. Hotels are quiet and some have hand sanitizer on every floor outside the lifts. Tour guide colleagues across the industry are fielding cancellations by the score. I’ve been checking in on them and the general consensus is grim. This year has been brutal, one wrote back. Yes, tits are up, wrote another. As long as they don’t cancel the Olympics! 

(Mind you, the drop in business hasn’t stopped some hotels from being just as inflexible about cancellations, or 3:00pm check-in times and charging for early check-ins, even when they could obviously stand to be a little more flexible with customers at this time. Also, if you’re looking for tour guides for future post-covid19 trips to Japan, you should bookmark the following people: Greg in Kyoto, Mac in Tokyo, Dan in Nagano. They’re all friends and industry colleagues, and I often direct clients to their guiding services–they really know their stuff, but more importantly, they’re fun to be with on holidays.)

I’ve been freelancing full-time in Japan for close to two years now. Though I’ve had close to $7000 worth of tour and government-related work cancelled this spring, it’s not much compared to other freelance colleagues who focus solely on tours––or any kind of work that requires facetime, like interpreting or performing. In that respect, I’m still extraordinarily fortunate to be in a (relatively) stable financial position. However, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned about the pipeline further down the road––which is to say that I am open to the right work opportunities, writing or otherwise. 


If you have any leeway to support this newsletter, I’d love it if you considered a paid subscription. I write to find readers to connect with, a personal, intimate readership like friends in a living room, without having to rely on large media publications.

Alternatively, this is a great time to support any other independent creator you love. I really like Charis Loke’s work. Ditto Craig Mod. Emily Ding’s last newsletter struck several chords to the tune of Relatable Existential Feelings in E Major. Mara Wilson’s newsletter is also wonderful. My favourite new newsletter of late is Vaughn Tan’s The Uncertainty Mindset.


To circle back to how things are hard for many freelancers at the moment––I am only in my position because others have helped me extensively in the past, and it’s precisely during times like this that we have to look out for one another. Support small businesses, check in on friends, pay your freelancers. In the interests of helping out: I have a client who’s looking for more writers. If you’re a freelance writer (preferably Japan-based) who writes Japan-related travel content and you need the work, feel free to respond to this email or DM me on twitter with a few writing samples/contact details, and I’ll do my best to connect you with them. 

On another note, the next few months of 2020 seem like a good time to delve into some long-neglected personal projects. Based on our experiences here, a dear friend and I began writing a guide to freelancing in Japan last year, and there is perhaps no better time to finish this book than these times we’re living through. In an attempt to gauge interest: is this something you, dear reader, would like to see in the world? Would you like to hear about how we navigate freelancing life in this country? Our Japan-specific coping strategies and financial decisions? What would you like to know? I’d love to hear from you. 

THINGS I’VE BEEN UP TO

  • Cycling the Shimanami Kaido. Twice. I picked Sardine (my road bike) up in June but never thought I’d be able to cycle 80km a day, two days in a row, in under a year. Half a decade ago I was still wobbling on the back of a mamachari. Now I’m just unsteady on a road bike for 10km at a go ;) 

  • Finishing a guidebook on Shinjuku Gyoen. Who knew my first published book would be about a garden? My raw text is being whipped into shape by an astounding editor and eagle-eyed proofreader. Publication has been pushed back due to COVID-19, but it should be out around May. Maybe. 

  • Lurking on Twitter. Also, washing my hands. I see you, fellow eczema sufferers. 

  • Translating. J-E translation is not my primary gig, but it’s something I like doing from time to time. In the past few months I’ve translated subtitles for a National Cultural Agency video on monsha silk weaving, alumni interviews for a design school, an analysis of digital supply-use tables, and a rambling essay on Japanese-style rooms. I’m always open for translation work. 

  • Exploring UX writing, content strategy, and content design. How do you try new career areas when you’re a remote freelancer? Is anyone reading this newsletter working in these areas? I’m curious. Putting some feelers out…

LONG READS + LISTENS

BOOKS + TV

  • A Fraction of the Whole (Steve Toltz): What to say about it except bizarre, engrossing, delightful? It’s the kind of book where an audiobook might actually be better for this rollercoaster ride. Best experienced without looking at the plot beforehand. But if you must, read an excerpt here. Revisit value extremely high.

  • Uncanny Valley (Anna Wiener): I found this memoir via a fabulous article on garbage language. Despite not being part of any Silicon Valley/SF ecosystem, reading about her experience of being a non-technical person in tech articulated all the insecurities I have vis-a-vis not being particularly tech-oriented.

  • Giri/Haji (BBC Two): A criminally underrated British-Japanese drama. It’s even better if you speak Japanese and English––it’s in the way both languages are seamlessly integrated throughout in a way that feels utterly natural, the Japanese in-jokes, Rodney’s perfect Kyoto accent. Yes, it’s on Netflix. Consider this my ‘social distancing’ recommendation for the week ahead.


If you’d like to support this newsletter:
・Send emails and issues you liked to friends and family, and ask them to sign up at furochan.substack.com. I love new readers and subscribers! It’s kind of like meeting kindred spirits, which is a very Anne-of-Green-Gables sort of thing to say, but it’s true.
・If you love what you read but can’t subscribe at this time, you can always buy me a cup of digital coffee here, in any currency you like. Coffee keeps the writing juices flowing: paypal.me/floryleow
・Write a recommendation for this newsletter, and I’ll add them to this page. Kind of like testimonials for Friendster but way better. (Who remembers that, anyway?)
・I’m always looking out for opportunities in writing, translation, or interesting collaborations. If you think I might be a fit for something but it doesn’t fall into any obvious write-translate-travel-tour category, I’d love to hear from you anyway!

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