Lost In Translation: My Silent, Alienated Life In Tokyo

Painting by Edward Hopper

Painting by Edward Hopper

10:00am, Tokyo, in a gloomy but sometimes hopeful hotel room. Concrete views from a small window. In the morning light, the dust on the windowsill is reflected and settles in a way that I have been unable to achieve since arriving in Japan. I sit at my desk in an uncomfortable chair that reminds me this is not my home. Housekeepers in the hotel rooms across the street spread out clean and crisp white sheets, tucking in corners and flattening out wrinkles. They wear face masks and clean the dusty windowsills. The dust in here remains. I have left the Do Not Disturb tag on my doorknob for days now. I want to create some sense of coziness, familiarity, home. Clean sheets and towels, an empty garbage can, a spotless vacuumed rug – these all create an artificial and unfamiliar environment, every damn morning. So I keep the mess and clean it in my own way. And because the housekeeping staff is unable to rob me of this strange, routine pleasure, most mornings I take the time to make my bed, tidy my few possessions, separate the garbage from the recyclables, and reorganize my bathroom.

Some mornings before my shower, I put on a sweater and pants, slip into my sneakers, and walk to the corner store where I buy my one dollar cup of coffee and re-enter back into society, if only for those brief few moments. I confront the cashier in my broken Japanese, ask for a very large, very hot cup of coffee using hand signals and a smile.

Some people see a therapist. I also have a therapist back in my old Brooklyn neighborhood but during these transient times in my life, I find Tokyo mornings in cramped, slightly messy hotel rooms and fresh coffee from the 7 eleven to be the most accessible and simple kind of therapy.

I love to travel and relish in the anonymity that comes with new surroundings, but even the most emancipated of wanderers need something to ground themselves from time to time. Something that reminds them that they exist, that they are real and not a just a ghost floating through a sea of people who pass by every day on the streets and in the metro, heading towards their jobs, their families, their daily duties, their purpose for living. For wanderers also have a purpose, even if it is just to wake in the morning, have a coffee, and observe the way the dust settles on a windowsill. We all settle in our own ways and the restless wanderers of the world have the responsibility to discover new ways of settling, of living, of witnessing the world around them.

So maybe for today I will settle with the idea that I do not need to define or tell anyone about my purpose in this life. Maybe for today I will stay in bed until noon, spend two hours eating a breakfast of eggs and toast while studying the vast Tokyo skyline from the kitchen window. Maybe I will try my best not to search for, define, or discover anything today and instead I will settle, like the dust in this room. I will relax the muscles of my face and spine, soften the corners of my mouth, and reacquaint myself with the full capacity of my lungs for even just a few breaths this morning. I will settle into this uncomfortable chair and imagine what it would be like to feel at home inside of my body, regardless of where in the world it may be.

Written by Saskia Layden