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Wow Place #248: Yoyogi Park, Tokyo

One of the novelist, Thomas Wolfe’s, last books was titled, “You Can’t Go Home Again.” I understand the sentiment. After you’ve been out and about in the world, living on your own, it’s exceedingly difficult to, say, move back in with your parents!

Similarly, when it comes to picking your next travel destination, the choice inevitably comes down to, “Shall I go someplace new or revisit one of my favorite old haunts?” In others words, shall I venture into the unknown or shall I “go back home,” as it were.

I think what Wolfe was getting at is that the memory of a place is always different from the current reality of that location. Part of it is that places change over time. I can certainly attest to this phenomenon. My hometown of Millbrae, CA is quite different from how it was 50 something years ago. The downtown, for example, is currently dotted with Chinese nail salons and restaurants, in large part due to the influx of Hong Kongers after the city-state was handed over from the UK to the People’s Republic of China, in 1997.

More significantly, over time WE change as people as well. That last time I went back to Millbrae for a visit, the hills in my hometown seemed much smaller than when I was a short elementary school student back in the 60s and 70s. Conversely, I have no doubt that if I tried to trek in Nepal right now, at age 61, the slopes would feel MUCH bigger than when I was 28 years old and backpacking in Asia. Places change and WE change—that’s the nature of things.

Nevertheless, call it nostalgia, call it an attempt to recapture the magic. We just keep trying to “go back home,” don’t we?

Some years ago, for a period of a two years or so, Yoyogi Park in Tokyo was MY place. Every Sunday, I’d arrive at a specified field after lunch and meet my friends for a vigorous afternoon of ultimate frisbee. The cast of characters was fairly consistent – a mixed bag of young Japanese and Expats unified by their love of the game of “Ultimate” — essentially frisbee combined with football and soccer. For hours we would run and cut and jump and catch, all over the field, then retreat afterwards to our favorite Straw Hat restaurant for pizza and beer. In many ways, this was our break from oversees living – the one day a week when we could “go back home.” Well, mostly, anyway. We did, on occasion, stop on our way to dinner at a nearby Japanese sento (public bath) for a hot soak and a quick clean up.

Even without competitive frisbee, Yoyogi Park is a lovely place to visit when you’re in Tokyo on a warm spring day. Situated in the Shibuya area, adjacent to Harajuku station and Meiji Shrine, the park is a popular destination for rest and relaxation. Japanese rock music fans gather here as well as comedians, martial artists, cosplayers and a variety of other niche hobbyists. I remember watching this one regular group of Japanese dancers who would dress up in 1950’s Americana and twist the afternoon away — greasers in leather jackets swinging their partners in bobby socks and poodle skirts!

You can do worse on a busy, crowded weekend in Tokyo than spending a day wandering through Yoyogi Park. There are myriad picnic areas to enjoy, bike paths, cycle rentals, public sports courts and a dog run. Interestingly, the park is the site of the first successful powered aircraft flight in Japan, in 1910. In 1964, the area was used for the Summer Olympics, housing the main Olympic village and the national gymnasium.

A few years back, I revisited Yoyogi Park on a trip with my nephew, Amir. For the life of me, I couldn’t find the field where we used to play Ultimate frisbee! Maybe it was that patch of grass next to the cyclone fence? Probably not. Who knows? To be honest, it was a little disappointing. I had been looking forward to “recapturing” the feeling of being a young, athletic expatriate, living the exotic life of a teacher in Japan. But that’s the thing about trying to “going home.” Inevitably, it’s like trying to get your hands around a whisp of smoke. The moment has moved on. The location has moved on. YOU have moved on. And that’s how it should be, so you can be here now, making new memories even while you’re reliving old ones.

(Where would you go back to if you had the opportunity? How would you manage your expectations? And most importantly, who would you share the experience with?)