Tokyo, If You Please

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We are bound by the need to find a home where we can act freely and live without pretense. It need not be limited by the borders of a house nor the demarcation lines that define a country’s borders. For two women, finding home means taking a five-and-a-half-hour flight, going through rough stretches, and immersing in a foreign culture. The center of both their journeys take place at the Land of the Rising Sun.

Bask in the Rising Sun


Photo by Bijan Gorospe

It’s nighttime and I’m still reeling from the untimely demise of Ren Hang, a visionary photographer whom I looked up to. I walk to the balcony of my unit in Quezon City, which doubles up as an office for Frame Zero – the online photography publication that I spearhead, and whip out a pack of menthol cigarettes. A cigarette break is a welcome escape after an overwhelming outpour of emotions; a safe space where the mind can lord over the heart’s whims.

On the one hand, I lament the death of an idol, an aspiration. On the other, I feel my inspiration eroding over time. Being an emerging photographer in the Philippines is not easy, as many of my peers have opted to venture into other fields due to the lack of support from fellow photographers and relevant organizations while others fall into the trap of competing rather than cooperating to uplift the entire scene. The precept “survival of the fittest” rules all, causing dissension to many of the players like 7,107 disjointed islands.

I take a drag from my cigarette and expel a thick cloud – with it comes the thought of a different land, one that influences my craft and many of my interests. Japan has always been a dream of mine. I’ve placed it on a pedestal, perhaps on equal footing with my love for photography. Apart
from being conducive to photographers, I identify with the country’s intoxicating culture and the politeness of its locale, so much so that I sometimes ponder if I was born in the wrong nation.

Upon finishing a couple of cigs, I marched to my bedroom and plopped on the bed. Maybe I’ll dream, but I don’t know if it will be anywhere near as vivid or remarkable as my most recent


Running a photography publication was an ambition, and just a few months ago, I claimed the mantle of editor-in-chief of my own content-driven website and soon-to-be magazine – Frame Zero. In its ranks are a kindhearted publisher and chief investor, a supportive features editor,
and a team of contributing photographer-writers.

I had everything all mapped out, from the content down to the alignment meetings with the contributors. The group works like a well-oiled machine mostly, much to my liking. And we even
got to cover the Angkor Photo festival in Cambodia. Everything was running smoothly,
until the gods decided to throw a curveball.

I get a call from my older sister, who runs an izakaya in Tokyo. After an exchange of pleasantries, she tells me about the prospect of heading to the country, to which I voice out my agreement. It’s a trap! My plane ticket would soon be ready. But am I?

I’ve been hounded by frustration with my relationship ever since moving to this unit. That combined with an perpetually increasing workload tend to get me on edge. Come to think of it, I need a break from everything. Leaving might birth complications with every relationship I have, including work, but when a dream appears right in front of you, according you a portal, what will you do?

I just had to enter.


Photo by Erin Nøir

I arrive in Tokyo wearing my heart on my sleeve and carrying the remains of what used to be a relationship with Bijan, the man I love. He unintentionally impeded my progress as a professional and an individual back in the Philippines, making me feel numb and eventually jaded. Love is still present, I feel, but so are resentment, an absence of compromise, and perhaps the misgivings of living together too soon. It’s a bittersweet scenario.

Feeling low, I exit the airport and am greeted by a cool draft of wind. The change in environment is immediately noticeable: the temperature is 7 degrees Celsius, there are rows of skyscrapers intermixed with quaint homes and establishments, and the thoroughfares are busy without the fear of being mugged or harassed, which is a staple in numerous districts in the Philippines. A smile soon forms on face; it has not occurred for a considerable amount of time.

Life’s sudden change of pace is refreshing. Days are composed of touring the city, snagging feline toys at arcade machines, and the occasional trip to tourist areas within and beyond Tokyo with my photographer friends. I found the time to visit a snow-tipped Mount Fuji, which is breathtaking, and took countless photos.

I haven’t felt this much joy in a long time. While walking through Tokyo’s busiest thoroughfares, I don’t see myself any different from the crowd, unlike how I felt in the Philippines. I’m literally in my dream and it’s more than enough motivation to excel at any career here, even those outside photography.


Several weeks into my stay here, I’m still elated with what Tokyo presents me everyday. I have befriended a good number of customers at my sister’s izakaya. Unlike in the Philippines, there is no fear of being judged; people here are generally polite and genuinely hospitable, quite different from the hospitality shown by some folks in my home country, which is based on projecting a positive image in the hope of being rewarded by praises. Letting my hair down has become second nature. Letting my guard down unwittingly is something that would occur shortly.

A knock disturbs the peace of the household. From a distance, I can see a figure of a man who looks familiar despite being obscured by the stained windows, then comes a modulated voice that resonates like a most preferred bassline. “Erin?” Bijan suddenly appears.

I am still apprehensive to approach him. However, for him to break his routine to go to a foreign country is completely out of character. He brings a different resolve this time, one that gently binds with mine the way fingers slip within the spaces of a lover’s hand.

It is a long and tearful affair, but I see that he has changed for the better, and even attempted to forge a bond with my sister when I was busy with errands. Tokyo has gifted me a partner anew, and this time he’s staying for good in spite of the distance once he flies back to the Philippines.


Photo by Erin Nøir and Bijan Gorospe

I’m geared to return to the Philippines soon, albeit having a lot of apprehensions. There is still something that I haven’t done, and that is to catch a concert here. Upon hearing that Cigarettes After Sex is performing, I am able to snag tickets thanks to a friend. I remember that a writer friend and a potential Frame Zero recruit is in the area. I ring up Celene. And she immediately agrees to join me.

We meet up several days after for the concert. Eager to share my Tokyo adventures, I enjoyably narrate some my daily excursions and my trips with photographer friends. She, in turn, talks about the zine she intends to establish with an oddly lethargic yet peaceful tone; perhaps she’s naturally laidback.

We make our way to Astro Hall and have the time of our lives once Cigarettes After Sex hits the stage. It is yet another milestone for me and I’ve already lost count at this point. After the show, we bid our goodbyes and part ways.

On the way home, I think of Celene as she is slated to fly back to the Philippines the following day. A sad thought looms: I’m deemed to follow suit weeks after. I’ll get to see my loved ones soon, which excites me, but I feel guilty. All that they will receive is a loving fraction. A part of me is firmly planted in Tokyo with permanence.

A Tokyo Retreat

By Celene Sakurako

Photo by Celene Sakurako

It’s 2:25 in the afternoon and I’m at the airport, NAIA 1, waiting to board my plane to get to Narita. I’m taking the same airlines, enduring the same five-and-a-half-hour flight, in going home to Tokyo. You see, Tokyo is a magical place for the uninitiated: the prefecture is teeming with modern and traditional structures; the culture well-preserved; and the people predisposed to order. But I’m no tourist; I’d rather see myself as a perpetual visitor, half of whom belongs to the Land of the Rising Sun and the other identifies with three stars and a sun.

This trip marks my second time in Tokyo this year, and just like any returning citizen, going home usually means a whole lot of paperwork, say, renewing my driver’s license, filing taxes, or reimbursing health care benefits. What others presume as a vacation is time spent waking up early in the morning, pushing pens, and arranging documents. Thinking about it makes me sick.

On the other hand, I get to visit my family and once again reconnect with friends, which is always a blast. I’m spending 16 days in Tokyo to celebrate the New Year with loved ones. Well and good, so far. Then comes Golden Week (May 3 – 7), which means extremely crowded thoroughfares and closed government offices. With this, I only have seven weekdays to renew my license and complete the requirements for other papers, and it begins the moment the plane lands. Not too thrilling as it turns out.

Anyway, it’s time to board. I hop on the plane and spend the whole flight dozing off. I disembark and  go through the motions. As the airport’s electronic doors open, I feel a familiar whip of cool air. I get on the bus and head home.


Photo by Celene Sakurako

I am up by 5am filling out paperwork and planning my days here. Every appointment has been duly noted, including bank visits, a dental visit, and even meeting with friends. Come to think of it, I’m like a clerk or a secretary in my own room, dealing with the same rigid schedule shared by many of the office workers in the country, which is a far cry from the average daily routine in Manila. I fix my schedule for the duration of this trip as tomorrow is the start of one of Japan’s most celebrated holidays — Golden Week.

Being in Tokyo on a holiday means having to deal with tourists, especially on Golden Week. It’s the time when the streets are swarmed with people from all over Japan and other parts of the world, most of whom come to see all the attractions that Tokyo has to offer. My home happens to be a stone’s throw away from two of the prefecture’s top destinations: Tsukiji Fish Market and Ginza. But I’m not exactly the type who gets enthralled by the sight of too many people, particularly the rowdy ones, thus I opt to stay indoors.

While accomplishing the last few forms, I realize that visiting Tokyo has become a chore, and it goes beyond inflexible schedules and the rigorousness of legal documents. Daily life is confined to a small expanse with an even tinier room for adjustments, as every process is lorded over by either a moral decree or a strict set of regulations. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I need to breathe.

And so I do upon stepping out of my room.


Photo by Celene Sakurako

It’s the first weekend after Golden Week and I spend it catching up with friends. Meet-ups usually translate to conversations over tea, shopping, dinner, and a slew of drinks after, and that is exactly the routine we followed. The following day we march to Yoyogi park to bask in the sun before grabbing a few drinks at a nearby convenience store.

I never seem to age past 21 whenever I’m with my group. Every moment is a blur much like the delightful headrush after downing a few couple of glasses of margarita or any fancy social lubricant. I couldn’t remember some of the details, but I know that I hit the hay with an easy grin, wanting to fill the gaps in memory with new experiences that come with succeeding daytime trips and crazy nightcaps. I’m a happy drinker after all. We’re working with borrowed time, however.

After spending the weekend with my friends, I contemplate on what I’d do the next day now that I’ve checked off my itinerary. I think of changing my flight to an earlier date. After all, there isn’t much for me to do in Tokyo anymore, unless I intend to linger in monotony and adhere to a painfully predictable routine, akin to taking the bus or brushing one’s teeth before bedtime, but staggered to fit a 24-hour timetable. That was the case until I notice something vibrating in my pocket. .

The phone is ringing, and it’s from a friend in the Philippines, a photographer named Erin. As it turns out, she’s staying in Tokyo, helping out at her older sister’s izakaya. She wants to meet up. On the phone, she dangles an extra concert ticket for Cigarettes After Sex in Astro Hall, which is anything but monotonous or predictable. I didn’t even know that the band is in town, plus the show is scheduled the day before I fly back to Manila. Talk about leaping from low-key jadedness to high-key elation.


Photo by Celene Sakurako

It’s the day before my flight and I am packing for Manila. My suitcase is filled with souvenirs; it’s as if I’ve become a tourist in my own country. I peer out the window and think how my neighborhood has changed, although I had just been there four months before. The then-ongoing construction site had become a building and the hill beside our house has morphed into a park.

I feel like I am seeing my neighborhood for the first time; familiar but different. And I notice, I’ve become acclimated to Manila and no longer felt home in Tokyo. It’s still a place where I can leave my coat proverbially and feel comfy, but it escapes my definition of a sanctuary. No longer is it a space for me to frolic without the entanglements of fabric and skin, as I used to view nearly every element of the prefecture with a gleam of kinship.

I reminisce and think of all the things that made me used to want to stay, but I think I’ve just outgrown Tokyo. Now it represents a controlled space where everything has been measured, calculated, and controlled even before I enter a routine, whereas Manila has given me a sense of freedom in which I thrive in. The grass may be greener on the other side, but I realize that I’ve found comfort in Manila in ways I wouldn’t in Tokyo. And those ways have become part and parcel of my being.

At last, I close my suitcase and head to Harajuku where Erin and I are supposed to meet. As planned, we meet at 6pm. I give her a hug and we talk about her Japan trip so far. I listen to her tales as we walk through the famous Takeshita street and her intent to stay in Tokyo someday. I wish I have her zeal, but I have lost the bounce in my step. We hit the end of the street and I walk her to Astro Hall, where Cigarettes After Sex are to play.

Running straight to the front of the stage, we count down until 8pm. Much to our delight, the band appears right on schedule. They open with “K.” and close with an encore of “Young & Dumb,” with everyone turning the venue into a huge karaoke joint, us included. We take selfies and an assortment of shots; for her, the images are mementos that represent a pinnacle, while mine are parting shots.

Erin and I bid our goodbyes and we go our separate ways. I head to the house to sleep then proceed to Narita in the morning.

The following day arrives and now it’s 9:30am. As I board my flight, a warm greeting from the cabin crew brings forth a sense of relief. I’m finally going home. No, home.

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