Interview: Across Tokyo, a Tale of Urban Hiking in Japan

Across Tokyo Cover.jpg

Tokyo is much, much bigger than you think.  It's not just the urban area of pachinko parlours, sushi bars and shopping malls that you know and love, it actually spreads out over nearly 100km.

Avid urban hikers Patrick Foss and Sean Kramer (good friends and long term Japan residents of Japan) decided to embark on a journey across Tokyo documenting their adventure along the way. 

"Their route took them through a microcosm of modern Japan, a 'city' including mountains under renovation, depopulated valleys, rice fields with cartoon character scarecrows, military bases, trendy alleys, sprawling train station complexes, modern temples, stand-up barbecue joints, karaoke cafés serving loaves of bread for dessert, and island after island reclaimed from the sea"

The result is a fascinating and entertaining tale which shows just how diverse the greater Tokyo area really is.

Tell us a bit about how you came to live and work in Japan?

Patrick: Well, okay, but it doesn’t make me look good. It was 1994, and I wanted to live abroad for a year. I’d already been to most countries in Europe, and I wanted to go someplace new. However, I didn’t want to have to worry about drinking the water. Japan was at the top of the not-Europe, drinking-water-safe list.  I was astonished that I ended up loving it.

Sean: Like Patrick, after I graduated from college in California, I was itching to explore more of the world.  I looked into a number of options without a real goal other than to go somewhere I didn’t know much about.  That shouldn’t have been Japan.  I knew next to nothing about it, true, but what impression I did have wasn’t good.  It wasn’t Japan’s fault - it was my ex-girlfriend’s.  Actually her ex-boyfriend’s.  He was Japanese-American and had introduced her to the wonders of Japanese culture and cuisine, so she in turn wanted to share that with me.  Of course, I mainly thought about how weird it was that she kept talking about all these amazing things she had done and eaten with her previous boyfriend.  But when the opportunity arose to go to Japan, I jumped at it.  I wanted a challenge and this certainly fit the bill.

Paper lanterns

Paper lanterns

Police box, Shinjuku

Police box, Shinjuku

Why did you embark on your adventure to cross Tokyo on foot?

Patrick: After living for several years in western Japan, my wife and I moved to the Tokyo area in 2010. By chance, Sean and his wife moved there a few months later. None of us knew anything about the place, but Sean and I both like hiking, so one day I suggested doing an 'urban hike' from one part of the city to another. It was so much fun that a few weeks later, we did another one.

Sean: And another one. And another one.

Patrick: And finally we wanted to tackle the whole thing at one go. That turned into Across Tokyo.

How did you plan the trip and what advice would you give to anyone planning a similar trip?

Sean: Google Maps was heavily employed.  But it also helped that we had already done quite a number of urban hikes around the city already.  That gave us a good idea of where to go and what to highlight. So that would be my first piece of advice - start small and just explore.  That’s one of the great things about exploring Tokyo - and Japan for that matter - on foot.  You can’t really get into too much trouble or accidentally stumble into a bad/dangerous neighbourhood, because those don’t really exist in the same way they do in a lot of other big cities.  And if you have to stop for some reason, or if you need something, you’re never that far away from a train or subway station, or a convenience store. Or a hair salon.

Patrick: There are more hair salons in Japan than you would ever think possible. I wish I had enough hair to need one.

If you had to choose one favourite or stand out experience from your travels what would it be?

Patrick: I like the little things, especially little oddities that I’m not expecting. In one neighbourhood we came across several large, communal rice fields. The kids in the neighbourhood had created scarecrows for them. One was a Santa Claus. One was a baseball player. One looked a little like Mary Poppins but with a gigantic yellow bow tie. One was a famous cartoon character here - Anpanma - eating his own shirt.

Rice field scarecrows, Hamura

Rice field scarecrows, Hamura

Sean: I really enjoy playing tour guide, so when we were able to have a couple of my colleagues join us I was totally in my element.  I love seeing things through their eyes, trying to answer questions that I’ve long since taken for granted, and seeing their reaction when I pull them into a hidden gem of a bar/restaurant.  It elevates my own experience and helps me to not take things for granted.

Do you have any more adventures planned? 

Patrick: Definitely!

Sean: We’re always looking for places to go. The great thing is that there’s so much to see in Japan - from Shikoku to Hokkaido to Tohoku to Kyushu... I feel like we’ve just scratched the surface.  Across Tokyo was just the beginning!

Tokyo Tower

Tokyo Tower

Grab a copy of Across Tokyo over on Amazon:

Photographs from Across Tokyo courtesy of and copyright Sean Kramer.