Before working at Right Stuf Anime, I had spent around a year living and working in the Greater Tokyo Area, so I was interested in reading Tokyo Travel Sketchbook by Spanish author Amaia Arrazola and seeing how our travels compared. In some ways I hoped she had loved her experience the same way I did, and in others, I hoped she had a much better experience. As the author points out in the preface, “There are times in life when we’re up, and times we feel more lost.”
Tokyo Travel Sketchbook is a visual history of Arrazola’s year-long stay in Tokyo, illustrated and told by the author. For each day she spent in Tokyo, she sketched and drew a moment of cultural or social significance, from her perspective, and wrote down notes and comments about what she saw. Calling her book a sketchbook isn't inappropriate by any stretch of the imagination, but it also serves as a diary of her learned experiences, and just like me, her experiences were plentiful.
Not being a household name, Arrazola is somewhat of an established artist in her home country. While at first I found her sketches to be just that, but by the halfway point, it becomes apparent that her somewhat simplistic and cartoonish artwork has a consistency to it. People are drawn in black and white, while locations and objects are colored only when attention needs to be drawn to them. The visuals also make clear what is being identified. When going from Narita Airport to Tokyo, there is a distinct stretch of road and landscape which is conveyed with surprising accuracy early on in the book. This entry will immediately blast those who have taken this route with a massive wave of nostalgia. On the other hand, I wonder if those who haven’t been to Tokyo or Japan will feel the magic. One day’s entry is devoted to her apartment where small, circular-shaped chairs can be seen. Anyone who has lived in a Japanese apartment complex will immediately recognize the exact type of chair she is drawing. To anyone else, these chairs surely will not mean a thing.
Much of the sketchbook revolves around the term wabi-sabi, which attempts to define the beautify found in imperfect everyday, modest things. For some of us, myself included, it’s a concept that is hard to understand until you immerse yourself in a vastly different culture. Amai experiences this type of beauty in the form of spaghetti hot dogs, Pikachu bento (a distinctly Japanese form of packing lunch), STD-prevention puppets, and, of course, anime mascots. To the Japanese, these are often seen as everyday objects or phenomena, but to an outsider, they are unique, creative, and exciting. Where can wabi-sabi be found in your country? The answer may not be clear, but the question is all but asked throughout the book.
While it is impossible to truly capture the feel of being surrounded by such an alien environment, Amai does an admirable job at capturing the excitement and wonder of such an experience. Her notes, while descriptive, are not necessarily objective. She often writes single-sentence or phrase captions explaining either her adoration or confusion towards cultural situations, processes, or societal issues she runs into. Some are comical, such as her reactions to the internet-famous Japanese toilets. Some are heartwarming. She swoons over Kawaii culture. Others are somber and deeply saddening. The workaholics and alcoholics found in the sprawling cityscape are on full display. No subject matter is left untouched as both the inventive genius of modern innovations the Japanese have brought about and the loneliness, emptiness, and often downright suicidal tendencies the citizens of Japan find themselves facing.
The societal duality the author encounters is also what makes this book so strong. However subjective, Arrazola never comes off as judgemental, but observant. It feels as though she is trying to learn how Tokyo operates and why it is operating in such a way rather than dictating how it should be. Tokyo Travel Sketchbook provides a single example of how to learn, understand, and be introspective of things we don’t understand and how to be analytical without being hateful.
Tuttle Publishing, the publisher of the project, states that the core of their mission is “to create books that bring people together one page at a time.” I couldn’t think of a better home for Amaia Arrazola’s project to land. In a world that’s increasingly trending towards extreme division by the day, Arrazola’s book stands as a reminder that more often than not (and much more often than we would like to admit), building a bridge with those that are different from ourselves is much more beneficial than burning one.