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Letters from Tokyo, May 2021: Tokyo’s pandemic time warp

Updated: Jan 24, 2022

This March, Kyoto’s cherry blossoms hit peak bloom on the earliest date recorded in 1200 years. Not 120. 1200.

Here in Tokyo, the sakura trees below my office began blooming on the earliest date recorded in 60 years—after a winter so mild I never wore a scarf or donned footwear heavier than sneakers.

Spring this year feels like early summer. Midday temps reach the upper 70s F / 20s C. If you brave the sun without a hat, you sweat.

Tokyo’s weather is accelerated and overheated. Everything else feels frozen.

After another week of less-than-golden holidays hunkered at home, we Tokyoites are now watching a ‘fourth wave’ of Covid infections sweep the country. It feels redundant and endless. Vaccination appointments that seem plentiful elsewhere haven’t even started here. And we’re now preparing for two weeks of Olympic Games set to begin in just over a couple months, on July 23rd of 2021—an international extravaganza and potential superspreader event that few in Japan want, and that is still being promoted around town on posters, banners and billboards as: “Tokyo 2020.”


All of us have had our internal clocks scrambled by the pandemic, especially in cities, where time blares down relentlessly from giant video screens and railway platforms. But in this city, where seasonal change is nearly fetishized, trains and buses depart on the minute, and prerecorded five o’clock chimes ring from loudspeakers in every neighborhood at each day’s end, pandemic time feels completely out of whack. And with its current triple-whammy of resurgent virus, absent vaccines, and postponed and displaced Olympics, Tokyo’s time-warp disorientation may top them all.

What are Japan’s seasons without their celebrations? With no bonnenkai or shinnenkai parties, no shrine festivals or hanami shindigs, and only sparse, muted and masked-up school graduation and entrance ceremonies?

I’ve worn paths between my office and local grocery and convenience stores. Most everyone wears masks and keeps conversation minimal (except for one of the male combini clerks, who regularly asks me about my work before issuing updates on his infant son’s first steps). The few who go maskless are out after hours and are very young or very drunk or both, and by that time there’s plenty of space on the sidewalks for social distancing.

Big department stores are supposed to be closed, but local shops and eateries that have survived are open, the latter with limited hours and takeout menus. This morning the TBS network reported that Golden Week visitors to the major shopping hubs in Ginza, Shibuya and Shinjuku are up twofold over the same period last year. I studiously avoid all three.

Shinjuku Gyoen in March. Photo by Roland Kelts.

I am fortunate to live within walking distance of uniquely gorgeous parks: Shinjuku Gyoen, Meiji Jingu and Yoyogi Koen. Shinjuku Gyoen is closed until May 11th, but the other two remain open with limited access. Without their greenery, open skies and patches of grass, water and birdsong, I think I’d go insane.

The other day at Café Mori near the entrance of Meiji Jingu, I whined yet again to a friend about missing travel. I don’t miss airports, I said, or the rest of the scramble from point A to B. But I miss the sensation of landing somewhere different, of seeing a new vista spread out beneath the porthole window as the plane descends.

“I know,” she said. “It’s like we’re still stuck on the plane. Forever.”

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