A sociable soul tries (socially) distancing like a pro, taking pages from vampires, introverts, hikikomori, fugitives and other people-avoiders.
I sit in a snug little spot in the middle of the introvert-extrovert dichotomy. I’m a cafe half-full half-empty kinda’ gal. I love concerts, but I hate the morning trains. I like people, I don’t like crowds. You get the picture. I’ve avoided humans before, a very memorable 24-hour challenge of interacting only with robots.
But now it was time to take it up a notch and avoid people even more, by staying at a 2-meter distance from them at all times.
Sure, you can do that without getting up from your couch, but I wanted to do it while having fun outside. And then, the TSC team stepped in to give me a push to prove I can do this.
Being a dark fairy who gets most of her work done in the wee hours, it’s natural for me to go out after the sun goes down. Keeping a distance from others should be a cinch after most day-walkers have called in for the night.
Disclaimer: This challenge was done at the end of March, before the escalation and the stay home recommendations were made. TSC recommends that people stay home as much as possible to stop/slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus… and catch up on reading about some great challenges in the meantime!
Mission 1: Hanami in the park after dark
There’s a promised melancholic elegance of cherry blossoms viewed in a quiet garden that’s only ever an anime fantasy, or a picture from Heian Era history. I couldn’t have put it better than Saigyo, a 12th-century Japanese poet, that “the cherries’ only fault: the crowds that gather when they bloom”.
Crowds from the 12th century may have been lamentable, but 21st crowds are bigger than ever. There’s no elegance in chattering crowds, blue tarps, and the battle of the selfie sticks.
Hanami is definitely fun, but exhaustingly so. And for once, I’m going to try avoiding the spectacle, and still get to see the sakura itself. So basically, my mission is to “throw out the bathwater and keep the baby,” … to edit an old proverb.
BEFORE the last train
A vampire would tell you to wait until the dead of the night to go out… to wait for those silent hours after midnight and before dawn breaks when no one is out and about.
In Tokyo, this is roughly between the last train and the first train. Yes, some people might be clubbing all night, but that’s not so much ‘out and about,’ as it is ‘in and dancing’ until it’s time to catch the first morning train.
I walked to the popular Inokashira park with the cherry trees in full bloom, to have a quiet hanami while socially distancing. I first went before the last train had departed, around 11-11:30 pm and was salty that many people had a similar idea to do hanami after dark.
To be honest, 10-15 people trying to get a good selfie with a low hanging sakura branch do not constitute a hanami season crowd, but it still took energy and effort to keep a distance from them.
Mission 2: Midnight Shopping
While waiting for the last train to leave Kichijoji, I went shopping for hanami picnic essentials. Tokyo’s 24-hour convenience stores and supermarkets like Donki are a lifeline for night owls, people working odd hours, and self-isolationists.
These regular late-night shoppers are people-avoiding senpais who know the pleasures of shopping without rubbing shoulder to shoulder with strangers. Just go in the dead of the night. Otherwise, there is no way you can even keep a 1cm distance between people in the narrow aisles of Japanese stores.
One caveat – with thinning numbers of customers, staff were also hard to find. When I eventually made it to the sole cashier, there was already a small line forming, so I had to strategically loiter around until there was an opening to go pay without queuing.
With a bag full of pink-themed goodies in hand, the joy of shopping in the relative peace-giving wind to my wings, and with the last train gone and the station shuttered up, I made my way to Inokashira park once again.
AFTER the last train
After midnight, there was no group bigger than 2 or 3 people, one or two couples passing through, or some locals who had come off of the last train to Kichijoji. Most simply took a quick photo of the cherry blossoms in the partial glow of the street lamps (no illumination events after midnight) and left.
I, on the other hand, had hanami with all the bells and frills in mind. I got my tri-colour Dango, my pink sakura mochi, rose wine and sakura liqueur… and a choice of benches to sit on.
Above all, I had some alone time with the cherry blossoms, without even having to worry about dodging other people. I will not be disclosing the number of selfies I took, but it’s a lot. I even did some digital Polaroid shots!
The Inokashira pond was still, the swan boats docked and lined up, the cafes closed, but the vending machines were always working. Yes, spring weather gets chilly at night, but it was still pleasant to be outside if you have a good jacket.
All in all, social distancing while sakura-viewing in the vampire hours was a great success. I got a big-enough dose of their ephemeral pink medicine to keep me going for a while.
Mission 3: Sightseeing and Zen
Mission 3 was sightseeing without a crowd. Temples, shrines, landmark towers, and statues are all-year-round sites that can be admired from the outside.
I like to imagine that fugitives who want to pray for good luck would go to temples after midnight. In Inokashira pond there’s a small island with the Inokashira Benzaiten shrine on it, bright red under the electric lamps at night.
The jealous love goddess is rumored to hate couples, especially if they take a romantic swan boat ride. She doesn’t seem like a people person to me. Maybe she’s just misunderstood and likes social distancing?
The shrine was closed of course, so I could not buy omikuji fortune-telling sticks or Omamori charms, but I could take all the photos I wanted and admire the beautiful architecture.
There was only one lone jogger passing by, leaving plenty of space between us. I’ve been to bigger shrines and temples at night before.
Nighttime is perfect for enjoying all the space, minus all the people, and I recommend it to everyone. Every aspiring photographer has either gone to tourist spots late or at the break of dawn, to get great photos without the crowds photobombing their masterwork.
This mission is a 100% success for me, maybe 90% if you are intent on buying charms.
Mission 4: Late Late Late Coffee
Going out and sitting down with a cup of coffee is a way of life for me and the hardest thing to give up. Mission 4 was trying to have that after midnight, to avoid people. This mission was the most difficult, starting with the fact that no cafe is open that late.
Although I’m a coffee snob, I must admit the cafe experience is never only about the coffee. It’s also about dressing up, going out and soaking up the atmosphere.
I bought a conbini coffee and drank it in front of one of my favorite local cafes, which was closed. I prefer terrace seating anyway.
This mission was weirdly both a success and a fail. I did successfully drink a cup of coffee on the steps where I usually sit, tap a bit on my phone, chat a bit and chill.
However, drinking conbini coffee at 2 am on the steps of a cafe that makes good coffee, and with only one or two stragglers going home to people-watch, made me sad.
When it comes to satisfying that need for coffee culture, this is not it.
Social Distancing is a Lot of Work
In a megalopolis of millions where one’s personal bubble is almost non-existent, managing to physically distance yourself from other people is not an easy task.
Just ask anyone riding the morning trains—they’re basically one massive non-consensual group hug. Going out at night helps, but it’s not a surefire method, as Tokyo moves 24/7, with many shops and izakayas open all night. But there’s always a place (a spacious one), and time (an ungodly one), for being antisocial.
And if nothing else works – try wearing an inflated sumo wrestler suit. That will surely put some distance between you and anyone crossing your path!