#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!

#15 letters from Hiroshima

October 2019. On visiting the Peace Memorial Museum, tour guiding, growing older, the magic of perception.

Warning: this newsletter contains some moderately graphic photographs of artwork displayed at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.

“Tommy thought it possible the guardians had, throughout all our years at Hailsham, timed very carefully and deliberately everything they told us, so that we were always just too young to understand properly the latest piece of information. But of course we’d take it in at some level, so that before long all this stuff was there in our heads without us ever having examined it properly.” — Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go

Three years ago I began taking customers to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum on a particular walking tour that shows them the highlights of Japan. (The contentious notion of ‘highlights’ of a particular country is a subject for another day…) This happens twice or thrice a year. You’d think that the first visit would be the most harrowing, and that one would be increasingly numbed on subsequent visits, but I have found the opposite to be true. I had seen everything before but I saw it differently now. Captions detailing the post-bomb aftermath now made my throat catch just that bit more. I found it more difficult to watch the interviews with survivors. The contents of a letter or a half-melted pair of spectacles twisted my heart into shreds.

Why should this particular visit have weighed so heavily? Maybe it was the artwork. These were drawings and paintings by A-bomb survivors, many more than there used to be, and they were by far the worst part of the museum. Nothing was high art but that is not the point. There’s a truth about them that is somehow heightened by their lack of artistic ability. You can feel the scorching earth, the burning bodies, the swollen faces, you can almost hear the crackle of flames and the screams in the fire. They are the kind of pictures that can only be drawn by those who have borne witness.

Perhaps it’s that I did not wish to look very hard at the exhibits before. If you’re a tour guide with up to 14 guests to take care of, you have to maintain your composure. You can’t afford to be too affected by the exhibits to do your job. It’s a sentiment shared by some of my colleagues – it would be unseemly to betray too much adverse emotion on someone else’s holiday, and after a visit to a museum like that, most guests just want a little levity and sunshine afterwards. That’s where you come in. It’s part of a service-oriented job like guiding: it’s a performance people have paid for.

(In the same way, when a guest walks over to you at breakfast and snarls at you about how terrible dinner was the night prior and how it is all your fault, you keep performing. You swallow any reaction and buy the guests lunch afterwards. It is funny how this now-old memory still has the power to sting, though it’s clear he was simply lashing out at the closest individual he could hold responsible for his moment of dissatisfaction.)

Then again, I am also a little older than when I began this job. Sometimes I don’t think I’ve changed all that much over the years, that I am still quite sunny and trusting, but if I look back it’s apparent that the baselines have shifted a little. Some relationships have crumbled, people have come and gone, my heart has been broken many times over. I still talk to strangers, just not as much as I used to. But the loss of innocence is a small price to pay for the ability to feel grief and compassion. If these years have allowed me to finally begin to understand what I am looking at in the museum, then maybe I’m doing something right, even when I don’t know where it’ll go in the end.

I’ve also been reading my way through some of Kazuo Ishiguro’s oeuvre this month. None of the books I read as a teenager by him stayed with me. The stories, lives, characters – nothing registered. But now in my late twenties, they felt far more relevant and tragic and devastating. What I thought was Stevens’ dull rambling about his duties now registers as someone trying to convince himself that his life’s work was worth something; so much elliptical talking between teenagers now feels poignant rather than long-winded in the build-up to the book’s inevitable finish.

I think his books are the kind of books you need a certain amount of life experience to fully get, I said to a friend.

I know, she replied. I didn’t remember anything when I first read them. Now they just kill me.

When I’m at the Peace Memorial Museum there are usually school groups visiting. They range from tiny schoolchildren to laughing teenagers, and they usually run through the whole museum in about half an hour. Their chatter dies down when they first enter, as they become conscious of the hushed silence around them. One, two, three, they stride past, gazes flickering across the exhibits. Their teachers or guides point out highlights in an incongruously cheery tone of voice. When I look at them I wonder how much of this they will remember when they are older – if they will ever look back to examine everything that they have been told, or return in their later years to feel the shape and weight of a life lived.


If you’ve forgotten how you ended up here: in theory, you signed up here for a monthly missive of introspective writing by Flory Leow – immersive stories asking questions big and small, celebrating the small and large joys of life. Every dispatch includes a selection of reading recommendations, too.


SUPPORT THIS NEWSLETTER: I began this with the intention of writing to friends in far-flung places, as a way of finding readers while ensconced in Japan. A year on, it continues to be one of the most rewarding things I do every month.
These dispatches are a labour of love – once-a-month missives will always remain free, and you are welcome to remain on the free list. But these newsletters do take considerable resources to produce every month!
If you do choose to make a paid subscription, you’ll be helping this newsletter remain sustainable, and also play a direct part in helping me and my writing grow. The aim has always been to find readers to connect with, a personal, intimate readership like friends in a living room, without having to rely on large media publications. I’d love to skip the middleman and find readers like you instead.
If you’ve been reading for a while and you like what I do every month, I would love it if you considered contributing USD$5 a month (the minimum Substack allows) or a discounted USD$50 annually.
Whether or not you choose to do this, though, please know that I’m glad and grateful that you’ve chosen to read my newsletters.

Fragments on Seeing

“The four obstacles to seeing are speed, impulse, distraction, and ambition.” – from a conversation with John Einarsen.

I used to take photographs much more than I have done this year. Not casual snapshots of a landscape or of an object, but the act of taking photos as a way of perceiving the world around me. I loved wandering the streets, letting my eyes drift over textures and surfaces. As in art, sometimes there is no deeper meaning to seeing other than the sheer enjoyment of form, and often I find this is enough. The stark shadows of telephone lines drawn on a plaster wall at midday, sunlight pouring through the fine veins in a leaf, wisps of steam rising from a kettle’s spout on a cold February morning.

I once thought I would never lose the pure pleasure of seeing things. But it turns out that one can forget the joys of perception, which happens when the mind is clouded with worry and doubt and fear. Do you know what I mean? You look for things that aren’t there, don’t see the things that are. You seek meaning and find none and it puzzles you. The tension can last for months. You hold on to past fragments of yourself without understanding why. Everything in front of you is drained of colour, the delight you once took in the shape of a crate seems trite.

A dear friend told me a month ago that she was seeking emptiness, which I understood to be important but couldn’t feel – and then I found it a few weeks ago. I had decided to let go of something that had defined me for years. And that decision gave me one glorious day of clarity, and there was suddenly space to let the world simply come into my vision.

That day, I walked. Around the foothills of northeast Kyoto, the house I once lived in, the forest surrounding Shimogamo Shrine. Exiting the main shrine building, I turned the corner into a shaded pathway just outside, and out of the corner of my eye I saw an inferno of light and shadow. Vermilion borders, white walls, glossy green slats. I could not look away, and did not for the better part of half an hour.


FLORY’S VENTURES (STUFF I’VE BEEN UP TO)

READING I’ve been on the road for about two weeks, and train rides give you plenty of time to immerse yourself in books. I will always prefer a physical book but the Kindle is a game-changer for traveling.

JAPAN TRAVEL CONSULTING This is exactly like it sounds. Need to ask me burning questions about interesting places, rail travel, or what to include in your holiday? Ask for me (or one of the other excellent folks) at Japan Travel Consulting

FREE SPACE: WORK QUERIES If you have articles, essays, brand or profile descriptions, website copy, travelogues, or even – gasp – a book you want written, please do reach out. On a bio: it turns out I’m pretty good at weaving seemingly-disparate achievements and things you’ve done into a coherent narrative. Respond to a newsletter to let me know.


Who is moving
This hand of mine?

What is beauty,
But joy found
In all of life.

— Kawai Kanjiro

A few weeks ago I visited the Kawai Kanjiro Memorial Museum in Kyoto. I lived in Kyoto for several years and never made it down there, but glad I did this time. What a place it is: the light filtering through the paper screens, the wooden carvings, the warmth of a life lived fully. If you visit, worth picking up is a slim volume on sale at the counter by Yoshiko Uchida called We Do Not Work Alone: The Thoughts of Kanjiro Kawai consisting of poems by him and an essay by her.


WHAT I'VE BEEN READING

Who Would I Be Without Instagram? (The Cut)
Please Fire Jia Tolentino (Paris Review)
Strike with the Band (The Baffler)
Philip Pullman on Children’s Literature and the Critics Who Disdain It (Literary Hub)
Consider the Swift (London Review of Books)
”Let’s talk about genre”: Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro in conversation (New Statesman)
A magical vision is hidden in the Irish language – we need to rediscover it (The Irish Times)
Dina Nayeri – The Ungrateful Refugee
Esther Perel – Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence
Mary H.K. Choi – Emergency Contact (I loved this SO MUCH)


You can support the newsletter in other ways:
・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?)

sunday in the park with me

the adventures of furochan, September 2019

I live near one of the largest parks in Tokyo. It is one of the true green oases in this metropolis – lush and expansive in the warmer months, with pockets of energy and tranquility in equal measure. It is also a popular gathering spot, and as a consequence, it is possible to run away from and into people here, sometimes in rapid succession or all at once. It is exactly what you would expect of a public park in a city.

Though it is no more than a ten minute walk away, I can count the number of times that I have visited this park on my hands since I moved here two years ago. I haven’t figured out why. Perhaps it is reclusive tendencies. It still takes a conscious effort to leave the apartment on most days, and there are times when I feel that everything is further away than it really is. But in reality, the effort it takes to go anywhere these days is often smaller than what I imagine, and each time I leave the threshold of my door, there is a sense of joy at re-encountering the world. I also spent my formative years largely indoors and at arm’s length from nature, and so perhaps on some level, I think of green spaces as places to be visited deliberately, with an appropriate sense of ceremony.

But more likely, not going to the park has something to do with being local to somewhere. Living anywhere, the places you rarely visit are precisely those in closest proximity to you. They are always there. You can go any time. Then the notion rears its head again one day, and you find yourself having travelled across the world and back, still never having set foot in the cafe en route to your office.

For some people – myself included, at times – it is bewildering point of pride to have lived somewhere and still not have been to X or done Y. This is especially true of tourist-oriented attractions like the London Eye. For such people, it is as though the length of time spent avoiding something is an achievement in itself, when in reality it appears closer to pig-headedness, or more neutrally, a casual lack of interest. You could see this as superiority of a sort: as a local, you can simply go any time, and therefore, you make it a point not to. This, even though existing somewhere does not make you an expert on the place.

I decided to spend Sunday afternoon in the park. Despite my attachment to indoor spaces, I have come to appreciate an open, green space as the logical antidote to cabin fever. I took the following items with me: a notebook, pen, Kindle, oranges (which remain uneaten), bottle of tea, wallet, planner, phone, charging cables, external battery. Looking at this list, it seems that I invest the same amount of energy packing for the park as I do going anywhere else. It feels absurd to put this much thought into going somewhere only ten minutes from home. I cannot decide if this is pragmatic or fussy. If it is neither, what is it?

That afternoon had all the warmth of late summer and none of the suffocating humidity of the preceding weeks. Dragonflies skittered around us by the dozen, moving targets glinting blue, red, and silver in the sunlight, at times resembling carelessly-dropped gemstones. Above, the sky shone clear and blue, as though repudiating several months of near-constant cloud cover over Tokyo.

The grass rustled thick around my ankles as I clomped across the lawn searching for an empty bench. I narrowly avoided a Frisbee flung in my direction. Eventually, I found one near a pond with a fountain. I was sitting opposite a group of youths, perhaps college students, who had set up their bright blue tarpaulin sheets underneath the expansive branches of a cherry tree. My bench seemed a little stiff and uncomfortable by comparison, but it was, I reasoned, better than ants crawling all over me on the ground.

Of course, now that I was in the park and surrounded by greenery, I wondered again why I didn’t do this more often. Part of me wonders if I am wary of becoming too habituated to its pleasures, as though enjoyment will cause me to forget what its inverse feels like.

I watched several crows swoop through the trees. Behind me, a teenage boy’s laugh erupts, harsh and guttural, like the crows. Though most people in the park were with other people, some were alone. I watched the women alone walk, jog, read, sunbathe. One woman in the distance slept, sprawled casually over a bench. I admired this impunity – the trust in society, the promise of safety it implied. Tokyo is palpably different to many other cities in this important respect: I rarely feel fear in public spaces as a woman, the way I have in many places outside of Japan. This is not to diminish the real and unaddressed problem of stalkers here, but the primary risk of being in a park like this is being approached by strangers or running into people you don’t want to meet.


If you’ve forgotten how you ended up here: in theory, you signed up here for a monthly missive of introspective writing by Flory Leow – immersive stories asking questions big and small, celebrating the small and large joys of life. Every dispatch includes a selection of reading recommendations, too.


The bench I occupied was wide enough for three adults; this particular one had an arm in the middle. Design can shape and direct behaviour: this could have been added to prevent people from sleeping here. Alternatively, you could say the arm allows two strangers to share this bench without being obliged to acknowledge the other person’s presence, or feeling indebted to the other party’s willingness to share a piece of furniture.

Unfortunately, it does not act as a barrier to the determined and garrulous stranger, particularly if they are male. Sitting on the bench, I remembered an incident from six years ago, when I was an exchange student in Tokyo. It had begun innocuously enough. An old, friendly man sharing such a bench with me struck up a conversation asking where I was from, what I was doing in this country, what I was studying. I enjoy talking to older Japanese people, so I answered his questions and asked him some, as the average social script dictates. After a while, I got up to leave. His voice took on a note of desperation as I made my excuses. He insisted on exchanging numbers, even making sure my phone rang when he dialed mine, so that there could be no mistake.

Looking back, I could have walked away at any point, but I did not. Perhaps I did not want to break character, make a scene. I think it was also narrative curiosity: what would happen if I let this continue? Having never written fiction, I sometimes let other people take the wheel just to see what will happen. I am apt to let strangers talk at me just to see what they will reveal. It’s a perverse habit that is difficult to break.

What did I think would happen? He called the next morning. I watched my phone ring several times, vibrating on my desk. It stopped after a while. A text message arrived. I’m sorry, it read. But my wife doesn’t talk to me anymore, and I wanted someone to talk to. You were the first person to talk to me in a long time. I never responded and he never called again.

Still, he shouldn’t have done that, said a male friend I told this anecdote to. He should have known better.

My glasses were lying beside me on the bench, so I did not notice him until he waved a tentative hand in front of me. A man with a camera, asking if he could take a photograph of me. It’s kind of a good atmosphere, he said almost inaudibly, gesturing at me and my notebook. He showed me a small stack of prints of other people he had photographed. I have often found it intimidating to ask for permission to photograph other people, but clearly, there is little mystery to the process. You ask; they say yes or no. That’s all there is to it.

It seemed easier to say yes to him without my glasses on. My eyesight is very poor, and it felt as though there was less clarity as to what I had agreed to, only a vague notion that I would appear on his camera in the immediate future. I wonder if this is in fact a better way to make some decisions: without asking too many questions or insisting on full knowledge of all the details involved. Like Plath’s fig tree, interrogating every path available often becomes an exercise in futility. I see this sometimes with people who want to know exactly what will happen on their travels. For these people, chance is uncertainty and is therefore a nuisance – they do not need surprises. They read the terms and conditions, they want to know exactly what is being sold to them. They want to know the exact outcome and will brook no compromise. I wonder if this is what stops me from trying more things – as when asking too many questions draws one to a standstill instead of informing new ways forward. I try to remind myself that it is possible to reconcile yourself to unexpected outcomes, even delight in them. That some life decisions are better made without questioning them too closely, that moving forward may be contingent on the very opposite of interrogation. At some point, it is easier to put on your shoes and walk to the park.

When I put my glasses on several minutes later, the skies had turned white. It was soft and fuzzy, a bleached skein of wool blotting out the blue. I realized that he had disappeared, had taken the photograph and departed without even mentioning it. Having made the effort to stay still I felt a little aggrieved. It seemed like he had left his part of the social contract unfulfilled. But as with so many things, the feeling reared its head and retreated just as quickly, settling back into reality, becoming something else barely worth dwelling on.


SUPPORT THIS NEWSLETTER

I began this with the intention of writing to friends in far-flung places, as a way of finding readers while ensconced in Japan. A year on, it continues to be one of the most rewarding things I do every month.

These dispatches are a labour of love – once-a-month missives will always remain free, and you are welcome to remain on the free list. But these newsletters do take considerable resources to produce every month.

If you do choose to make a paid subscription, you’ll be helping this newsletter remain sustainable, and also play a direct part in helping me and my writing grow. The aim has always been to find readers to connect with, a personal, intimate readership like friends in a living room, without having to rely on large media publications. I’d love to skip the middleman and find readers like you instead.

If you’ve been reading for a while and you like what I do every month, I would love it if you considered contributing USD$5 a month (the minimum Substack allows) or a discounted USD$50 annually.

Whether or not you choose to do this, though, please know that I’m glad and grateful that you’ve chosen to read my newsletters. You can support the newsletter in other ways, too:

・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?)

Many thanks for reading – onwards and upwards…


FLORY’S VENTURES (STUFF I’VE BEEN UP TO)

UPDATED FOOD GUIDE New subscribers may notice that I’ve updated my food guide. Simply put, it’s a petite PDF collecting articles written by me, illustrated by my sister. My latest version was updated August 2019, and you can download it by signing up.

JAPAN TRAVEL CONSULTING This is exactly like it sounds. Need to ask me burning questions about interesting places, rail travel, or what to include in your holiday? Ask for me (or one of the other excellent folks) at Japan Travel Consulting

FREE SPACE: WORK QUERIES If you have articles, essays, brand or profile descriptions, website copy, travelogues, or even – gasp – a book you want written, please do reach out. On a bio: it turns out I’m pretty good at weaving seemingly-disparate achievements and things you’ve done into a coherent narrative. Respond to a newsletter to let me know.


WHAT I'VE BEEN READING

The Brief Idyll of Late Nineties Wong Kar Wai (Paris Review)
A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies (Apex Magazine)
Lessons From a ‘Local Food’ Scam Artist (Narratively)
This Land Is the Only Land There Is (The Atlantic)
Not Gonna Get Us (Paris Review)
What Driving Can Teach Us About Living (New York Times)
The years-long road to the Field Study Handbook (On Margins)
Preeta SamarasanEvening Is the Whole Day
Yoko Ogawa – The Memory Police


WRITTEN STUFF: SOMETHING NEW, SOMETHING OLD

Eating vegetarian in Osaka – a full day of food
I *still* don’t have mobile data. Will this change, I wonder?

#13 the sound of silence

the adventures of furochan, August 2019

These days I listen to music less and less. It’s not that I dislike music, far from it; but it is becoming increasingly difficult to hear anything. I suppose what I mean is that I have become less able to tolerate music while paying close attention to something else.

Anything that involves a certain level of cogitation or observation falls into this category – walking, writing, cycling. Anything remotely manual and physical typically does not – washing dishes, chopping vegetables, folding clothes – so doing chores is for an occasional podcast episode. But even this is becoming less true as time goes by. It turns out that the sound of sizzling onions can be strangely satisfying. The splash of running water, the soup that burbles on the gas flame.

A tea master I visit for work often outlines to guests the idea of ikkai ichi dousa, or doing one thing at a time. Instead of having tea, reading the newspaper, talking to someone, watching TV, listening to music, and checking our phone all at the same time, in his tea room you have just this cup of tea, at this time. It is true that the tea tastes better with a dose of focus. I also find a certain luxury in allowing music to wash over me without doing anything else, as though it is sinking into my cells.

Maybe it’s an outgrowth of city living, but I crave silence more and more these days. Not mere quiet – a full train carriage in Tokyo is absent of sound but filled with tension – nor the urban quiet one encounters sometimes in the streets, which has an oppressive, hard-edged quality to it, an anonymous silence that registers as a penetrating isolation. A silence that nonetheless suggests the existence of millions just metres from you who are and will remain strangers.

No, I mean a greener, softer silence – leaves rustling, water rushing over rocks, waves lazily reaching over shorelines, moving air. I like the deep, icy silence of winter if not the cold itself. Rain falling on suburban rooftops also sounds different to rain in the trees. The latter clatters onto the canopy, trails and trickles down along branches and finally drips onto you below, its sound evolving as it falls. It is more difficult to pay attention to these sounds in the city.

What I am finding is that silence is as necessary as air.

To do nothing is to hold yourself still so that you can perceive what is actually there. As Gordon Hempton, an acoustic ecologist who records natural soundscapes, put it: “Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything.” – Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing: Resisting The Attention Economy

I don’t know if this is a true memory or a dream, but one of my favourite sounds is the sound of sleeping birds.

In the recesses of my mind there is an evening, and in this evening the twilight sky blushes a faintly dirty pink and orange, darkening to violet. I am walking on the pavement next to a busy street, cars zooming by with abrupt gusts of hot air, and I think it must have been a city somewhere in Southeast Asia. Ahead of me I begin to hear a chorus of rustles and whistles and twitters. Or rather, I should say, the chorus makes itself known, becoming almost loud enough to drown out the honking, rumbling cars.

I turn the corner and see a large tree full of birds roosting on its branches. At least, I like to think they are asleep. Neither pigeons nor crows, perhaps sparrows. Innumerable birds perched close to each other on the sprawling branches of this tree, each individual twitter painting quavering notes onto this ongoing symphony. They seem to breathe in unison, twittering like a thousand fluting giggles as they exhale, the leaves rustling so much that the tree itself seems to be making a show of breathing alongside them.

I don’t doubt that noise-cancelling headphones are a marvelous invention – no-one should be subjected to bone-shuddering drills in asphalt or poor musical choices in cafes – but adding a layer of manmade sound, like music or a podcast, to anything I’m doing, erects an aural barrier that renders reality far less rich than it should be.

Among many things, I find silence helpful for beginning to pick apart my own thoughts, for them to stumble into half-clarity. I cannot hear a sentence with any precision when there are lyrics and instruments clamouring for attention. As of now, I am writing this paragraph close to 2am. Silence allows me to turn a more focused gaze to the world at large, to feel out a space, to examine textures at leisure, to see how everyone else inhabits the space I am in.

Is it that silence is a way of being in the world one is of?

Earlier today I was walking along a gravel road with fenced-off sections of trees on either side. Beyond that was farmland. This world looked like paintings of the English countryside, all green velvet dotted with sheep and not a human in sight. I heard at least five or six different birds in the nearby trees, one with a marvelously complex call, a jingle-like trill with an actual melody you could have played on a flute, and the wind rushing through the ferns, grasses, and tree canopies, each crinkling and rustling a different dry tune. I followed the path, straining to hear. It seemed, standing in front of a fallen branch covered in tangled green lichen, that something was dissolving between myself and the world before me – that the very idea of me was disappearing, and I might have forgotten to turn back if my sister hadn’t called me home.


Send to a loved one? I have a favour to ask of you: if you enjoyed this missive and think someone else would love to read my writing, please forward it on to a friend with a note, and they'll receive the next one! Everything is archived here, too.

In the age of social media and instant gratification, an honest recommendation means a lot when seeking readers. Thank you <3


FLORY'S VENTURES (STUFF I'M UP TO) 

PERIPATETIC August is full of movement: I am away from Tokyo, visiting home and other places with family and friends. In other words, I am supposed to be on holiday at least part of the time. Since other people’s holidays are my work, my idea of a vacation now is doing nothing (or at least very little). Most of all, I am glad to be reminded of the world outside of Japan.

LATELY I turned 28 and spent that day with two of my favourite people ever. With another cycle around the sun, not for the first time I find myself wondering about where I am headed. Uncertainty is never fashionable but it is hopefully honest.

EAT WITH ME It’s summer but autumn is imminent! I do eating and walking tours in Tokyo, and for at the right times, in Kyoto – so here's where you send your Japan-bound friends. (Or you can forward this newsletter to them.)

JAPAN TRAVEL CONSULTING This is exactly like it sounds. Need to ask me burning questions about interesting places, rail travel, or what to include in your holiday? Ask for me (or one of the other excellent folks) at Japan Travel Consulting


A few weeks ago I met a crow. I had never met a crow I liked, but this was the first. S and I had walked around the park on this slightly muggy afternoon while waiting for A to turn up. We sat on a bench to rest, and watched two middle school girls in a rowboat become entangled in the algae and weeds turning the pond a muddy, scummy green.

At some point we noticed this crow. It had landed a few metres from us where we were sitting on the benches. If you have visited Tokyo you will know that Japanese crows are large. The size of chickens, it’s commonly said. They have a slightly unreal look to them, as though they’ve been enlarged by dragging the corners of a picture on a computer screen, an odd heft to their bodies. They are universally reviled in the city for scavenging, hence the blue nets you see draped over rubbish bags on trash collection days.

They are loud creatures, too. You might hear their caws breaking the air like glass when you’re walking in the park. I recall a particularly Hitchcock-like moment walking home, a piercing caw jolting me out of my thoughts, and looking up to a thunderous sky, crows perched on the telephone wire above.

But this crow we met made no sound. It was, in fact, perfectly and amiably silent. It seemed almost uneasy being here, as though it should behave in our presence. This impression was only deepened by what this crow did next: it began picking up all the visible pieces of white – bread? paper? scattered around its vicinity in a remarkably orderly fashion.

Crows do not bob their heads, it seems. It did not walk as web-footed fowl do, either. It hopped from piece to piece, seeming to float with each hop, landing gently. I was reminded, suddenly, of instructions called out during a class long ago – land on your feet with control. There should be no sound.

Two women stopped on their walk to watch the crow along with us. Oh look, it’s cleaning up. What a good crow. It’s being a good citizen. Tile by tile, square by square, as though walking through a checklist, the crow hopped across the grass-spiked surface.

I had never looked at a crow this closely before. Its beak seemed comically large for its body as a whole. Its head was surprisingly fuzzy, as though it had a crew cut. This crow’s feathers had a visible navy gloss that was altogether rather elegant, and different from the stark black I had assumed of its brethren. It looked, in a word, goofy.

I had some leftover croissant in my pocket, and tore it up into smaller, bird-appropriate crumbs, tossing it to the crow. Whether a crow can be said to have a countenance I cannot say, but it seemed to assume a quizzical expression, radiated circumspection as it hopped closer and closer to us with each crumb. Who knows what a bird is thinking? Would this crow remember us? I am uncertain as to why this crow in particular continues to stay with me – perhaps as a reminder of the irrelevance of my cares or problems to a bird, or a mental note to continue acknowledging the other denizens of this city.

As I ran out of croissant, I saw a crumb caught on its beak. I was overtaken by a kind of instinct to reach out and clean the crow’s beak as one would a child or loved one –feeling that small bloom of pleasure and benevolence at watching a small creature eat.

But you know how this story ends: as all birds do eventually, it took off into a nearby tree, settling on a branch above the lake, breaking its own quietude with a strident caw. It stayed there. We stood up, stretched our stiffened limbs, and walked back towards the station for shaved ice.


WHAT I'VE BEEN READING

#12 a bike named Sardine

the adventures of furochan, July 2019

I picked up a road bike last week after several years of vacillating. Her name is Sardine, which began as a joke and stayed on like an adopted stray. She is currently covered in mud spatters and bike oil. I've been riding her for two days, and this is rewriting my mental map of Tokyo. A rainy month is not the best time to learn how to cycle on a road bike, but the second best time for anything is the present.

Walking unearths pockets of a city in slow motion. I have always been one for exploring on a small scale, the details of a place unfurling at the pace of a window sliding itself open, or snatches of muttered conversation between two old women in patterned dresses. I space out in front of doors and stare at hanging towels. The city at ground level overwhelms with the sheer barrage of life lived at close quarters.

On a bike, I haven't so much seen the details of Tokyo as felt its urban sprawl. 8 kilometers feels like it on a bike, when my triceps and shoulders tremble at the effort required to keep myself on the bike. I pedal while willing myself not to fall over as a breeze picks up and makes me sway on the path. Every downhill feels like a rollercoaster – I hate rollercoasters – and my hands can barely grip these rain-slick handlebars. My speed-sharpened senses are mostly directed by terror and fear at unexpected pedestrians or the sheer mass of cars and trucks barreling by. But adrenaline zips through my bloodstream and I find a strange exhilaration coursing its way around my body.

On my first day riding Sardine, A cycled me over to a friend's home, and then came again at midnight to return to mine together. It was raining steadily. I wear glasses but may as well not have been, quickly regretting my lack of windshield wiper-equipped goggles, or some silly-looking invention of that ilk. All I could really see was his rear light blinking red in the watery blur in front of me.

This is the route I always take to yours, he yelled over the rain. Shoe on the other foot. It occurred to me that while I'd always known he lives a 15-minute cycle from me, I'd never known what that really entailed, especially with rain. He's cycled over on many a dry night, but there have been times when he's arrived past midnight in the rain. He does this a few nights a week, even when he has to leave early next morning.

We took a long trek along Inokashira-dori, which when you're on it seems to ribbon out forever into the distance. Our route was mostly flat, but the road had its dips and rises, its uphill slopes and valleys. As the rain steadily drowned us I shivered and swore into the needle-fine spray. I entertained scenarios where I lost control of my brakes and skidded into a car. At times I thought I would just dissolve like the Wicked Witch of the West. But there he was, always just ahead of me, looking behind to see if I was still there.

That last lane change, he said, as I pulled in next to him at the red light, wobbling perilously on Sardine. I was shitting bricks for you then. That had been a sharp downhill towards the park, one where you had to swing three lanes rightwards after a large intersection to turn onto the street near home. It was a quarter past one and we were thoroughly soaked.

Since that night, I've been imagining him on these roads, weaving in and out of traffic for the last few months through all kinds of weather. Love takes many forms. But these days it looks like a red light blinking ahead, a worried face, someone who insists on cycling home with me in the rain. Someone enfolding me in a tight hug, like I might disappear, as I tell him about nearly colliding with an incoming bus. Someone turning up at my doorstep several times a week, rain-sodden, just so he can wake up next to me.


Send to a loved one? I have a favour to ask of you: if you enjoyed this missive and think someone else would love to read my writing, please forward it on to a friend with a note, and they'll receive the next one! Everything is archived here, too.

In the age of social media and instant gratification, an honest recommendation means a lot when seeking readers. Thank you <3


FLORY'S VENTURES (STUFF I'M UP TO) 

A YEAR OF NEWSLETTERS Consistency has never been my strong suit. Nor has persistence. But this month marks a whole year of monthly missives from Japan and beyond! Your reading them makes writing each one worth the time it takes.

LATELY I discovered this month that overwork does manifest physically – what a fright that was – so I’ve been forcing myself to take hours and days off. Time spent resting is not a waste; this I knew but now know anew. How important it is to slow down! I am writing little, but reminding myself that time spent recharging, absorbing and resting is also part of the writing process. I co-led a 10-day tour with a colleague. Last week I met a dear friend for the first time in real life. Currently, I read as much as the hours will allow. I am on a social media hiatus – unwittingly began – and it is a relief to step back from the performances.

EAT WITH ME July is here – it’s about the right time to plan for autumn! I do eating and walking tours in Tokyo, and for at the right times, in Kyoto – so here's where you send your Japan-bound friends. (Or you can forward this newsletter to them.)

JAPAN TRAVEL CONSULTING This is exactly like it sounds. Need to ask me burning questions about interesting places, rail travel, or what to include in your holiday? Ask for me (or one of the other excellent folks) at Japan Travel Consulting


Until this morning, I hadn't seen the sun for two weeks.

This is not entirely accurate – there was one instance the sun made its presence known, around dusk three days ago.

That afternoon had felt very much like the one before, and the one before that, an interminable stretch of off-white cloudy days differentiated only by the varying intensities of rainfall. The sky was covered in a light, dirty lilac. The suburbs are drained of colour when the light itself seems listless, when the drizzle itself seems to mirror the energy dripping out of you. But a slight shift in colour caught my eye that evening, and I saw the house opposite his window lit up in shafts of orange-gold. Is that sun, we cried, hardly able to believe our eyes. It disappeared within the minute, and another night began.

Tsuyu seems to have overflowed into summer. It is July but it feels like late October, and I like the cool, damp atmosphere enveloping us in the streets of Tokyo, though not the persistent light rain that lasts for days at a time. I cannot recall a rainy season having lasted this long here. Last year the rains seemed to descend upon us and vanish in a breath, quickly dissipating into a scorching summer like I’d never known before. Summer is taking its time this year.

This fortnight has tested the limits of my love for rainy days. Even the blue and pink hydrangeas glowing like moons along sidewalks and train tracks lost their appeal after a few weeks, and I stopped wanting to draw the curtains each morning. Give me thunderstorms and typhoons, the high drama of wind and water, but spare me such relentless grey!


WHAT I'VE BEEN READING

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