Placing a Mirror Between Paris and Tokyo: a conversation with Emil Pacha Valencia | TOKYO Comparison Vol. 1

"Tokyo is a city where you can be whoever you like. It's a very flexible city." Seeing Tokyo through the eyes of the founder of Tempura Magazine - the magazine aiming to challenge the stereotypes of Japanese culture.
Pacha has studied Anthropology and Japanese Studies both in Canada and Japan. He was a research fellow at the University of Tokyo before starting Tempura Magazine.

As Editor-in-Chief of Tempura Magazine, Emil Pacha Valencia is expertly aware of the dualities between Paris and Tokyo. The quarterly, French-language publication focuses on Japanese culture and trends, spanning topics from life and death, to love, family, and sexuality; universal topics, but with a Japanese lens. As a Parisian, Pacha has become hugely knowledgeable about what links the two cities - and what makes Tokyo so unique. Here, he tells us why he finds Tokyo to be very soothing, what elements of the local culture interest him the most, and what makes the city's creative scene a standout.

— How would you describe Tokyo culture to someone who has never visited the city?

Usually, people think of Tokyo as a noisy city; never sleeping, very active. And that's true - there's a lot to do, it's always changing, always evolving. But, at the same time, it's very soothing and calm. Tokyo is like a lot of small cities, packed together. Paris is more than three times denser than Tokyo; there are a lot more people per square kilometer. You can rest in Tokyo; every time I go, I exhale.

Tamagawa river, Tokyo, 2020

— How do the rhythms of Paris and Tokyo differ, in your experience?

Tokyo is a city where you can be whoever you like. It's a very flexible city; it allows you to take a break. In Paris, there are people everywhere - it can be energizing, but it can be tiring, too. In Tokyo, you can choose the life you want to have, or even just the day you want to have. In a sense, Tokyo is very open to whatever you want.

— What's your first memory of Tokyo?

My first visual memory is the Yamanote line - in Paris, almost all subways are deep underground, a bit dark and dirty. The first time I came to Tokyo, I was 15 years old; I got on the Yamanote line, and you could see everything. You just go around the city. I did one full turn circle - I passed my station and I just kept going on - because I wanted to get a feel for the city.

Yamanote Line, Tokyo, 2019

— What is so unique about the creative scene in Tokyo?

The specific thing about Tokyo is that it's quite open; you can find creations anywhere. And you can always attend - you don't have to belong. In Paris, the creative scene is a little bit more closed, so you have to know someone who knows someone to get into a place. In Tokyo, that's not the case. It's very accessible. You can find creation pretty much everywhere, and there's a diversity and energy that's very unique to Tokyo.

— Why do you think the gap for Tempura Magazine existed in the French market?

People in France love Japan. They are very interested in Japanese culture, society, food - anything Japanese. I think we share a common sensibility towards our lifestyles. A kind of rhythm; this common sense of daily life, of enjoying the small moments. I find this to be very crystallized and specific between our two countries.

But, at the same time, no one in French media was talking about anything other than anime and pop culture, so Japan was only seen through this lens. There was an urge to talk about Japan in a different way. We wanted to take a step aside and talk about women's rights, minorities, social issues, arts, crafts, and what the young scene is doing. Universal topics, but with a Japanese lens.

Tempura Magazine, 2020 summer issue

— What are the main differences between the two cities?

The main difference is the sense of freedom and liberty that you can feel in Tokyo. Of course, there are social rules, but there are also a lot of possibilities. You can dress however you like, and nobody will judge you. In Paris, people are always judging what you're wearing, which can be tiring. Sometimes, when I went to Tokyo for a longer period, I would buy clothes that I was very comfortable wearing there, but once back in Paris, I could feel people looking at me like I was weird; I could really sense the difference.

Also, there are so many subgroups and subcultures that mingle together in Tokyo. You will always find someone passionate about what you are passionate about, no matter how specific. I think that's why so many nerdy French guys dream about Japan; they can go there and they can be themselves, and find like-minded people.

— Is there anything you found challenging while in Japan?

At first, it was the language; learning it opened new doors. I would recommend anyone to learn just a few words, like "Sumimasen" or "Onegaishimasu." It's a mistake to assume that everyone speaks English, and a foreign language creates a barrier. When you make an effort to speak a little bit of Japanese, you can gain access to new understandings and new connections. But apart from that, Tokyo is not a difficult city - even with kids or the elderly. It's smooth, it's seamless.

— What does your perfect day in Tokyo look like?

Usually, when I go to Tokyo, I stay in Nishi-Koyama, a quiet residential neighborhood on the west side of Tokyo. My ideal day off would be going to a small coffee shop - there's a place called Amameria, they do slow coffee, drip coffee, and some really good espresso. Then I would take a walk along the Sumida River on the east side of Tokyo, close toHirai station. It's an offbeat place, very local, very moody, very shitamachi (historic downtown area), in a sense. It unveils a really different face of the city. I would maybe have chirashizushi (scattered sushi) for lunch; I love sushi, I can't get enough of it. Then I would go to a museum, like Mori Art Museum. I'd wander around, do some shopping, and end the day in a great local sento (Japanese communal bathhouse), and then go to a good izakaya (Japanese bar that serves drinks and snacks). That would be my perfect day in Tokyo.

Local izakaya in Musashi-Koyama, 2017

— Which places would you recommend to someone who has never visited before?

Tokyo is a great city to get lost in. Don't bring a guidebook. Just go there, get off at any station, and walk around. There's so much to see and so much to do everywhere you go. I think it's the only city where you don't have to check the internet for the "top ten things to do," or bring any guidebooks. Just go and wander around; that's how I discovered the city and found amazing places. My advice is, don't take any advice - just go and get lost.

Photos: Emil Pacha Valencia Text: Johanna Kamradt