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Walking In Tokyo Essay

Tokyo has never had a reputation for being walkable.

About 80 percent of trips in the city are made on public transport, according to Reuters, and the sprawling metropolis is renowned more for its safe and punctual public transport system than for pedestrian-friendly streets.

Other centers, such as New York City and Mexico City, and smaller cities such as Melbourne and Kyoto, have been classified by local travel experts Insides Guides as being “best explored on foot,” so why has Tokyo missed the grade, and how can walkers make the best of the city’s highlights? Joining a walking tour is a surefire way to start.

“Kyoto really wears its history on its sleeve: You can see and feel it in the buildings as you walk around, but history has not been kind to Tokyo,” says Paul Tierney, tour leader for tour operator Walk Japan. To get a feel for Tokyo, one needs to scratch beneath the surface, as much of its tangible history was destroyed in World War II.

“But the more you find out about the city, the more interesting it becomes,” Tierney adds. “It’s like peeling layers off an onion.”

While Tierney admits pedestrians can find interesting sights by simply exploring places such as Akihabara — once the home of traders, low-level samurai and commoners — he says many of the signs for tourists do not offer sufficient background information in English to bring the history to life.

“There are plaques in Kuramae explaining that it was the site of the shogunate’s rice granaries, but this won’t mean much without the understanding that samurai were paid in rice,” he says. “Kuramae was an important area because rice wholesalers changed rice into coin for the samurai so they could buy things.”

Before setting out on a walk, Tierney recommends that people research their destination area online or bring a guide book. And, in addition to a map of the streets, he says a map of Tokyo’s subway system is his tool of choice for unlocking the city’s past.

“Tokyo’s history is in its place names,” he tells our group as we assemble for a Walk Japan-supported charity walk from Tokyo Station. Rapt, we listen as he points out key concepts on the metro map.

Places with the suffix bashi in their name indicate a bridge, of which there were about 700 across the city during the Edo Period (1603-1868), while mon reflects places that were once the site of gates to Edo Castle (apart from Onarimon, which was the gate to Zojo-ji Temple).

Likewise, Okachimachi was the town of the shogun’s okachi (bodyguards) and Ochanomizu was given its name because a spring found there was so pure it was used for ocha no mizu (water for tea) for the shogun. Sotobori-dori, which means “outer moat street,” runs along the Yaesu side of Tokyo Station. It’s another nod to the city’s past — the moat was filled in to form the street after World War II as a way of getting rid of large debris.

Setting off, we explore the commercial district before heading to Nihonbashi bridge, the starting point of the five walking routes that connected the capital to the provinces and the point from which all distances to Tokyo are measured. Although overshadowed by an elevated expressway, much of the bridge’s historical features can still be seen, including a monument detailing distances to places across the country and the zero kilometer marker in the center of the bridge.

Tierney uses ukiyo-e prints dating from the 17th to 19th centuries to show how the site has changed over time. What was once a bustling mercantile center became the site of a fish market (the predecessor of Tsukiji) and, later, Japan’s predominant financial district.

By visiting elements in the ukiyo-e prints that remain today, such as bridges, buildings, steps and natural features, Tierney believes walkers can have a more complete and enjoyable experience of places in Tokyo.

“Ukiyo-e allows you to walk through time and space. There are sometimes hundreds of images of the most famous places in the city, each offering a slightly different perspective, so they allow us to tie in the past and present,” he says.

Meanwhile, Adam Fulford, founder of inbound walking tour service Walkshop, is using walking workshops to bring about harmony between the present and the future. “Coping with unpredictable change is what we have to do as humans, so we are trying to help people be as good as possible at doing it,” he explains.

As our Walkshop group moves along the path to Meiji Shrine, Fulford encourages us to be mindful of our basic needs, such as water and shelter, and of our ancestors’ interactions with nature. He wants us to think of how the exchange of ideas has led to the development of the area we’re walking through.

For Fulford, the forested area, which was chosen as the site of Meiji Shrine after the death of Emperor Meiji in 1912, represents human potential. The 120,000 trees growing there today cover over 70 hectares, and were planted by hand over a period of just five years. Some 365 species were donated by people from all over Japan to create the forest.

Fulford gives us postcards bearing kanji characters. One shows omoi, meaning an urge or wistful thought, which is formed from the characters of tree, eye and heart. It is evidence, he says, that Japanese people’s strong awareness of others is deeply embedded in the language and national psyche. “We examine the physical world (tree) with the help of our senses (the mind’s eye). The heart then responds to value perceived in what we observe: a path forms, and we move in the direction of our heart’s desire,” he says. By drawing on such kanji, Fulford aims for his tours to offer a better understanding of the cultural identity of Japan — something to think about while walking around one of Tokyo’s sacred sites.

There are also opportunities to learn about the city’s geography by walking through it, thanks in part to the work of architect and topography expert Norihisa Minagawa. In partnership with Hajime Ishikawa, he founded Suribachi Gakkai, a group of amateur historians and city walking enthusiasts.

Of particular interest to Minagawa are the Edo Period residential practices whereby samurai lived on the high ground (yamanote, “mountain hand”) to the west of the city, while commoners lived on the lowlands (shitamachi, “lower city”) to the east. There were small valleys within the yamanote area, too, where commoners settled. The result is distinct shitamachi-style communities in the yamanote parts of the city, a distinction Minagawa points out on his tours.

In fact, topography informs the reasoning behind the shape of the JR Yamanote Line: to skirt the outer limit of the high ground. A trip along the line as it travels through Nippori, Tierney says, is one way to make this divide tangible.

Another journey, traveling east along the Chuo Line from Iidabashi by foot, offers views of the castle’s outer moat, which is today part of the Imperial Palace. The ravine between Suidobashi and Ochanomizu was completed between 1620 and 1624 to help prevent flooding and easy access to the castle. By alighting at a station in the area, walkers can explore in more detail.

Hitting your stride on Tokyo’s streets provides ample evidence of the dramatic flux the city has undergone in its four centuries of history. As our Walk Japan tour wound to a close, we found ourselves at Tokyo’s oldest temple, Senso-ji. The tourist hubbub and kitsch that surrounds is not a product of modern tourism, Tierney explains. Rather, the temple has been a haven for residents and travelers alike seeking shops, eateries and entertainment since about 1720, the only difference between then and now being the products sold.

As the sun sets, stall staff pack up their bargain goods, extinguish their sources of heat and, in the light of the lanterns, it is just possible to imagine the Tokyo of yesteryear.

For more information on walking tours, visit www.walkjapan.com/tour/tokyo-tour/ and www.walkshop.org.

By: Susanna Cerasuolo, M.Ed.

In 20 years of reading college essays and giving students advice on this monumental teenage rite of passage, I do have some standout favorite essays of all time.  These are essays that I would go back and read today.  But why?  What was it about these essays that made them so entertaining and engaging?  As we move into college essay season, I’ll take a moment to reflect on these top picks from my twenty years in the trenches and give you some insights into what these teenage writers did right.

Walking in Tokyo

The writer of this essay just graduated from Seattle University.  She writes about growing up as a white American in Tokyo, and this essay is in every sense a love story about the city.  She writes of how in Tokyo she walked everywhere, and as she walked–to school, to the store, to meet friends, to go home–she noted the vibrant colors, sounds and people around her, and she thought, about everything.  She lets you hear her thoughts, and you get to see Tokyo through the eyes of someone who adores its every street.  That’s what makes the essay cool–she puts her heart on paper and lets you share it.  The essay also talks about the culture shock she experienced in moving back to America and how it took her two years to figure out that she was sad because she missed walking everywhere, everyday in Tokyo.  This is an uplifting tribute to growing up and discovering who we are and how much the things we love can mean to us.


This student goes to Hamilton College, studies science, and wrote easily one of the most dry and wry college essays I have ever read.  Perhaps he is British.  The premise of this essay, which we have listed in its entirety on the Essays page of CollegeMapper, is that this science guy goes to the museum and is handed a worksheet on “How to Appreciate Fine Art”.  Thrilled to finally understand what his esoteric, poetry-loving cohorts revel in, he approaches the museum optimistically, armed with his step-by-step formula, and walks through tests like “make the faces the people in the paintings are making” and “consider which sounds would accompany this work of art.”  He gives up when his trusty worksheet asks him how the red and blue light bulbs make him feel.  I think what always worked for me about this essay if that you see this logical guy really, really wanting to understand poetry and art, and you see him really give it an open-minded try until he affirms that being a scientist is just fine with him.  This essay is optimistic, adventurous and curious.  It is also confident; the student is comfortable being who he is, but he is curious about new points of view.  And it was hilarious, always a plus.

Reading in the Shower

Favorite. Essay. Ever.  She talks about how she would read novels like Anna Karenina in the shower, beneath a clear plastic shower cap, because her Asian parents forbid her to read small books, and insisted that she read big books like SAT practice tests.  The essay is evocative and powerful, because you see this student’s determination to read.  You see her disappointment when she finally gets a drivers license and goes to the library to get her own card only to learn that the limit is really 14 books, not the 7 she was always told by her parents. You hear her talk about Jane Eyre and Odysseus like siblings and uncles, the family that, as an only child, she always longed for. You see her grow up reading feverishly and fervently, but nowhere in the essay does she ever even hint at disrespect or disregard for her parents. It is a powerful look into the mind of an avid reader, set against the backdrop of a pretty difficult childhood.  Touching, poignant, and uplifting.  She went to Columbia University.

This American Life

This debater went to Dartmouth, and the essay he used to get there talked about years of long car rides with his dad, listening to This American Life on NPR.  When he no longer rode with his dad, and when school activities claimed more of his time, he missed the show and started to download the podcasts to his iPod.  He writes of how Ira Glass taught him to look at the small things everywhere and everyday.  He shares some of his favorite episodes and some of the things he learned. What I like about this is that it sounds profoundly simple, but the reader sees what matters to this kid.  You hear him thinking about fun topics, sad topics, and touchy topics.  You learn that he is a thinker, and because he talks about what he values, you also learn that he is a good person.  A point worth mentioning is that this student was a minority with foreign-born parents and a very ethnic name, so writing about a topic so fundamentally American made it clear that America was his beloved home and that he would have no problems of cultural adjustments at college since he grew up here.

Ben and Jerry’s

Hilarious. The kid gets his first real job at Ben and Jerry’s and is so excited he can’t sleep the night before.  All goes well for this Scooper in Training, until a group of 13 year old girls, celebrating the end of the school year, decide to start flirting with him while ordering their ice cream.  The dialogue is classic.  You can read the essay on the CollegeMapper site.  While attempting to remain professional, he has to handle this awkward situation that was clearly covered no where in his thoroughly-read employee handbook.  I don’t know what made me laugh more: their awkward attempts at flirting with a Senior, or his cherry red face as he tried to deflect their public attentions.  This essay shows the author in a tough spot, albeit a funny one, but the reader sees that he is not so proud that he can’t share an embarrassing moment (always endearing!) and that he is clearly able to keep his cool and think on his feet (always a plus).  Everyone loves ice cream, so I’m already in a good mood when I read this (plus 1 for the kid) and who can’t relate to being excited about their first real job?  A terrific success.

What all of these have in common is that you really learn about this person by hearing them reflect on one simple facet of their life.  By the time you finish the essay, you think, “I’d like to meet that kid!”  They sound like neat people, fun people, nice people.  These essays are not earth-shattering, they are honest.  They are not about super heroes but real people.  Take a page from these authors’ books and write about what matters to you, and who you are.  Let the reader get to know you a little, through a typical moment in your life.  Sincerity is always successful.  The only thing you need to be in a college essay is you.

This entry was posted in Essay and tagged art, ben and jerry's, best, college, college essay, essays, japan, reading, This American Life, tokyo, writing by Susanna Cerasuolo. Bookmark the permalink.

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