Educator and Journalist George Miller Reports on His Amazing Cycling Journey Through Tokyo
[CONTRIBUTED ARTICLE] Temple University Associate Professor and journalist George Miller shares the encounters and discoveries that colored his typical daily life in Tokyo, along with wonderful photos taken during his travels on his trusty companion-his bicycle.
The day in 2018 that I picked up my brand-new single-speed bicycle in Koenji was the day of the district's famed Awa-odori festival. It was amazing.
There were tens of thousands of people watching the colorful, jubilant dancers while the sound of banging drums and high-pitched cries echoed off the tall buildings. The parade hit a bottleneck as it entered the covered shotengai (shopping street) and the noises inside were joyously deafening. It was hard not to dance along, and some of my fellow parade-goers held their drinks in the air and stomped to the beat.
I walked around for several hours despite the August heat, cooling off with kakigori (shaved ice), which always reminds me of the hot summers I spent in Kyushu as a child.
Darkness fell and I still needed to bike home to my apartment, about 15 kilometers away. Well, it should have been 15 kilometers. But I wanted to see the late-night revelers in Shinjuku and Shibuya, so I biked a crooked route, taking pictures along the way. And then, since I was so new to Tokyo, I decided I wanted to cycle past the Imperial Palace grounds, which took me farther out of my way. I also took a few wrong turns, got lost, and biked in circles for a while.
I eventually made it home, exhausted. I slept in the next day but then spent that Sunday afternoon biking around the city again.
For the next three years, I explored Tokyo by bicycle nearly every day. The city that originally was a total mystery to me quickly became a comfortable home thanks to those two wheels.
A Childhood that Led to the Decision to Move to Japan
I grew up in the United States but my family on my mother's side are Japanese, from Sasebo in Nagasaki Prefecture. When I was younger, my mother and I would return every year for a month or so. As I got older, I visited less frequently, and these visits became shorter.
As the years went by and I grew up, my Sasebo home changed too. With each visit, I'd find new cousins and new pets, and new furniture in the 500-year-old family home. Life in Sasebo constantly progressed without me, naturally.
My grandmother passed away in the early 2000s, as did one of my beloved cousins, Midori. During the summer of 2017, my uncle Noriyuki passed away and that just crushed me. He was a role model. I began to feel a great sense of regret about not spending more time with the people I love.
I had long talked about moving to Japan but never found the right opportunity. Two months after attending a memorial service for my uncle, I received the job posting for the associate dean for academic affairs position at my university's Japan Campus.
I started the following August. I was 47 years old.
The Joys of Daily Life in Tokyo
Japan, to me, was the terraced, green rolling hills and seaside views that make Kyushu famous. I was not prepared for the massive metropolis that is Tokyo.
On hot nights and on weekends, I biked with a loose destination in mind, like Senso-ji (temple) or Komazawa Olympic Park, but I'd listen for drums or applause along the way. I'd follow the sounds until I found the celebrations. I got lost repeatedly but I saw so many random sights—little parks, old shrines, contemporary architecture, and so many festivals. Every excursion was an adventure.
I began playing baseball with the Tokyo Eagles, a collection of players from around the world, and I biked to all those games—from the Tama River to the Edo River, and from the top of Kita-City in the north of Tokyo all the way down to Yokohama.
My wife joined me in Tokyo a few months after I arrived, and we biked everywhere together—to the jazz festival in Asagaya, to Rocco's Pizza in Oji, even down to the beach in Kamakura.
It was exhilarating.
Seeing Japan at that level and at that speed helped us build a strong understanding of how everything is connected. I began recognizing signs and buildings, and I quickly started remembering the terrain. I learned shortcuts to avoid big hills, like from Nakameguro to Daikanyama, and we found new favorite locations that we likely would have never discovered if not by bike, like Jiyugaoka. I met Bonchan, the African tortoise, on my way home from an Eagles game one day. My wife and I wound up being on television a few times because we were interviewed at random events, like the first public appearance of Emperor Naruhito.
In addition to my administrative duties, I also taught a few journalism courses—magazine writing and documentary photography. Knowing the city made it easier to work with students on projects. I created assignments that sent them around the city and I could speak with first-hand knowledge of the neighborhoods they were documenting.
That bicycle was the best purchase I made in Japan.
Returning to Philadelphia, USA, but with a Continuing Love for Tokyo
In 2021, my wife was pregnant, so we didn't bike together too often. We walked every day, but it wasn't the same. Without the constant new scenery, we were left with, well, each other. And since we had been pretty much locked down during the pandemic, we could practically read each other's minds by then.
After work, I biked home, always looking for new routes to take. On weekends, I biked to far off places to play baseball with the Eagles—from Suginami to Sumida, and everywhere in between. I didn't need the GPS anymore. I felt like a local.
With baby Kenzo on his way, however, we had a decision to make—stay in Japan, where we'd be removed from our American relatives, or return to the United States, where I had a year-long sabbatical waiting for me.
That July, I returned to Philadelphia, where I had spent 25 years before moving to Japan. Kenzo arrived a month later. I bike to work here, though I don't explore as much. It's colder here and not nearly as safe as Japan.
I look forward to returning with my son. I speak Japanese to him every day. I want to show him the place that I love so much, the place I talk about constantly.