A Canadian In Tokyo


 I was still suffering from the lingering effects of jet lag, that most modern of afflictions, and woke up around 7am Tokyo time. The city was already drenched in close-to-midday sunlight, officially heralding in the end of the rainy season and the beginning of several months of furnace-like heat.

I lived in Shibuya, which to me seemed like Tokyo’s heart, pumping energy and life into the rest of the city. By noon, the neighbourhood works itself into a dizzying frenzy of activity, but in the very early morning, it is a calming, refreshing place. Shopkeepers spray down the sidewalks in front of their storefronts, city workers clean up the piles of refuse left over from the revellers of the evening before, and the first of the sharply tailored business men and ladies snap their way down the streets to get on the subway to Shinjuku or Ginza. 

Canada is home to about 35 million people, spread out over thousands of kilometres of terrain, through several time zones, in and out of different climates. Growing up in Canada, even growing up in the city, like I did, you get a sense that there is room for everyone, that there’s always somewhere to go and get away from things.

Tokyo, meanwhile, and the urban area surrounding it, has a population of about 35 million people. That’s the same as the entirety of Canada. So it’s a big adjustment for me to spend an extended period of time in Tokyo. For two months out of the summer I lived and worked in Tokyo, immersing myself in Japan’s vibrant and sometimes wild fashion industry, and settling in to the neon wonderscape of the city itself. 

This morning, I toss on my one pair of shorts, lace up my Chuck Taylor’s (the only remotely athletic shoe I’ve got with me), and head to Yoyogi Park.


Yoyogi is an expansive greenspace which occupies much of the Northern bit of Shibuya. Home to two glorious outdoor basketball courts, I was there quite often, and not once was it anything but bustling.

On the weekends, it teems with young people at their various activities. They choreograph dance or jump-rope routines, or Yo-Yo together, or skateboard. They play soccer, basketball, baseball. Women dressed in traditional clothing dance to traditional music pumping out of boomboxes. Couples flirt on semi-hidden benches. Large groups of friends gather on blankets and smoke their cigarettes and drink together. A wreath of vendors sell beer and snacks. Yoyogi is a real meeting place, a community centre.

I made a few friends playing basketball there, speaking the international language of pick and rolls, and hand slaps after burying consecutive long jumpers. Yoyogi is where I gained my balance in the city, first found my footing.

After that morning’s session at the court, the next item on my schedule was to check in at my modelling agency. I wandered over after a quick shower, chit-chatted with the agents, an incredible bunch of people, and was informed that there would be three castings for the day; in Shimokatizawa, Ginza, and Shinjuku, respectively. So, along with a couple of the other boys, I piled into the agency van and we headed out for a day of work.

Although castings for models are different all over the world, they all have their basics. You’re judged on your look, size, portfolio, and, in some cases, ability to walk in a straight line. But while I haven’t got the globe-trotting pedigree of many of my industry chums, I’ve worked in Toronto, in Milan, and now in Tokyo, and each market does things their own way.

In Toronto, castings are scarce, and both the clients and the models seem to really try and put their best feet forward. In Milan, the castings are far more plentiful, and for far more lucrative jobs, and the clients generally exude an air of superiority and contempt. “I don’t even know why we’re bothering to pay you to work,” they seem to say. “You should be thanking us on bended knee that we are even willing to consider you for this job!”

In Tokyo, though, where there are even more jobs than in Italy, there is an atmosphere of respect between client and model. The models, generally not Japanese speakers, have an agent do their speaking for them. It is important to smile and appear friendly and interested in what is going on, in stark contrast to the look of studied apathy generally favoured by boy models in Europe. In return, Japanese clients thank you for taking the time to attend the casting, shake your hand when they are done with you, and bow at every interval. It is by far the most pleasant atmosphere of the three cities.
Our first casting of the day, for a client I don’t recall, was in Shimokitazawa. Not necessarily describable as ‘trendy’, Shimokitazawa is nonetheless a bohemian stronghold, where vintage outlets dominate the storefronts, selling weathered Pabst Blue Ribbon t-shirts for fifty bucks a pop. All across the sidewalks, the neo-hippies lounge in floppy fedoras and whimsical skirts, smoking cigarettes and trading sips from tall cans of Kirin beer. Shimokitazawa is a place where Tokyo’s obsessive workaholism is turned down a notch, and people seem to navigate with genuine benignity.
The casting was a write off, though, and I was in and out in a flash. Next, we headed to Ginza, one of the truly picturesque areas of town, for a casting with Converse.

Upscale to the core, Ginza is a centre of business and finance, as well as being one of Tokyo’s many high end shopping destinations. The boulevards are wide, straight, and lined with fresh trees and luxury sedans, reminiscent of New York, or perhaps even Toronto. The mood is one of casual wealth and elegance.

Ginza doesn’t employ the sort of gaudy shine found along Omotesando, where the fashion labels pack their boutiques side by side. It’s all class, with nothing to prove. It is also neighboured by the Imperial Palace, residence of the Emperor of Japan.

At the casting, I found that the photographer attached to the shoot was an American ex-pat who I’d actually met playing basketball a week or two before. The casting went well, and I thought for a while that I had a good chance at booking the job. It didn’t pan out in the end, but another boy at the agency ended up getting it, so there were no hard feelings.

We stopped to grab some late lunch from one of the innumerable corner stores that are found throughout the city, and then began the trek to our final casting in Shinjuku, Tokyo’s main business district.

On weekdays, Shinjuku vibrates with financial urgency and corporate haste. In many respects, it is the polar opposite of Shimokitazawa, valuing neat and efficient over ramshackle and interesting, and long days at the office over long afternoons at the coffee shops. The local train station is the world’s busiest, jam packed each morning and evening with men and women in navy business suits and white shirts.

It’s a fun neighbourhood to drive through, especially towards the end of the day, when the hordes of workers are spilling into the streets, and the the skyscrapers are lighting up window by window, the city’s answer to stars. The casting here was another write-off, unfortunately, but such is the way in the fashion industry. For every job you book, there are a dozen that you won’t even be considered for.

Done with castings for the day, and with evening slowly stretching into night, our agent, Ken, told us that the head of the agency, Bobby, had arranged a dinner at a restaurant in Meguro, everything paid for, and that we were to head there immediately.

No rest for the weary.

Meguro was probably the most dynamic neighbourhood I encountered during my time in Tokyo. Not quite as laid back as Shimokitazawa, Meguro is still home to an artsy collection of residents sporting trendy styles and drinking in faux-dive bars.

Our destination, Beef Kitchen, was downstairs in a nondescript type of office building. Most of the agency employees were already seated when we arrived, and they shoved glasses of beer in our hands before we were able to sit down. Waiters brought out plates piled with assortments of unnamed meat, and grilled them on tiny ranges set into the tables, often for no more than a couple seconds. Although I do not usually eat much meat, I dove right in to the experience and devoured parts of a cow that I didn’t even know existed. They were all sticky, slippery, gooey, delicious.

When the meat and drinks eventually stopped arriving, and after Bobby had made a show of signing for the check and accepting our deluge of genuine thanks, we stumbled back up to street level and took in our surroundings.
Out and about at midnight in downtown Tokyo, with a serious buzz on and no money lost from a five-star meal? Let’s head to Roppongi!

Roppongi is Tokyo’s nightlife mecca. There is a seemingly infinite selection of dance clubs and bars, open every night until dawn, and stuffed with revellers. This was my first venture into the Roppongi inferno, and ended up as one of my last. The main difference I found between Roppongi and the rest of the city was the lack of individuality.

The large clubs in Roppongi are no different than anywhere else in the world; cavernous temples to overpriced drinks and Top 40 hip hop or cheesy European house. Roppongi also serves as a sort of meeting place for Westerners of every ilk.
I happened upon a group of Americans at some point during the evening, and ended up heatedly arguing that it would take Miami’s trading of Bosh for some decent role players before a championship was brought to South Beach. Then I danced until my legs hurt, and began my walk home.

After long days, or nights, in any of the aforementioned neighbourhoods, I was always desperate for my little apartment in Shibuya. Shibuya is where I learned the difference between Tokyo from the eyes of a visitor and Tokyo from the eyes of a citizen. Even if two months in town never provided me with a level of familiarity or comfort equal to that of the long time resident, I got to know my neighbourhood well, and came to love it.

The impression I have of the city at large will always be very much based upon Shibuya; on its neon signs, which are stacked six stories high along the building facades; on its narrow streets with love hotels winking on either side; on its hopping restaurants packed with just-off-the-clock business men.

From nine in the morning all the way through to 1am the next day, Shibuya Crossing, the world’s busiest pedestrian intersection, is a swarm of hundreds of people. Youngsters come from all over the city to hang, and to be seen, and to compete with one another, trying to best wear the most daring styles.

Late at night, the men who have missed their last trains home simply curl up on the sidewalk, laptops clenched in their arms, and catch a few hours sleep before heading back to the office. No fear of theft or harassment.

At the end of the day, I stumbled through the glory of a fading Shibuya night, through small packs of girls screeching with laughter, through tough looking guys with tattoos taking casual sips from their last bottles of beer, through lines of people curled up in doorways, trying to catch a few moments of rest before the trains started up at 5am, and climbed the stairs to the roof of my apartment, where I watched the sun rise over the Shinjuku sky line. Life could have been worse. No jet lag tomorrow. 


ron giii at 30 Nov -0001

Great feel for the cut and paste world of the neon shoes.ron

Uncle Jim at 16 Nov 2011

As I said to Amos in New York walking down Fifth ave on a Friday night with the streeming millions coming at us "everyone has a story and everyone needs to be loved awsome.How we areso much in need of the same ingredients.Hi To Emma Take care opf one anot

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