MEET THE WRITER
A Brit based in Tokyo, Lily Crossley-Baxter has been travel writing for four years, focusing on Japan and its capital. Her bylines with the BBC, The Independent, The Japan Times, and The Daily Beast have included unique experiences, cultural deep-dives, and city-spotlights, with plenty of the country left to explore.
How long have you been living in Japan? What drew you there?
I moved to Japan on a whim from the UK, thinking it would be for a year and find myself still exploring the place five years later. I spent my first year in rural Mie and then moved to Tokyo: I’m really glad I got to experience both sides of Japan.
What was the most surprising thing about living in Tokyo you didn't expect?
I didn’t expect the quiet neighborhoods. My area, Setagaya, has a small tram line and everyone cycles to the shops or schools: It’s really calm and I love the local feel. I thought it would be faceless apartments and supermarkets, but it’s not at all.
What’s something about the city people probably don’t understand if they haven't been there?
I think the sheer scale of Tokyo amazes visitors at first, but it’s soon overtaken by a fascination with the endless tiny elements that make up the city. From the orderly train boarding to the endless maze of alleys, there are so many little, everyday things that can be hard to fathom, but make the city unique.
Number one can’t-miss recommendation for a visitor?
One of the best experiences, I think, has to be an onsen -- the traditional hot springs. Most people are put off by the naked element, but sitting in a steaming outdoor bath, surrounded by nature is just an unmissable experience. Food-wise I always take people for okonomiyaki -- it’s nicknamed Japan’s pizza and is like a pancake. It means "what you like, grilled," and it’s delicious!
How easy is it to get around for English speakers?
While Tokyo’s not as English-friendly as you might expect, it’s definitely improving, and the Olympics will really boost it. The country is 98% Japanese and is still getting used to being open to the world. It’s not as multicultural as the cities it’s often listed alongside, like London or New York. That means some things that are common in many places, like vegetarianism, for example, are still pretty unusual here, but it’s getting there.
Top piece of advice for someone going for the first time?
I would say pick up a few phrases of Japanese. If you have the time, learn the simplified hiragana alphabet... it makes life so much easier and people really appreciate the effort! Otherwise, just explore -- the smaller neighborhoods, the day trips -- make the most of the great transport system, and try to see a few different sides of Japan.
Next big trip you have planned in 2020?
I’m currently planning a trip South India for early next year and trying to convince my brother to come along. I’ve wanted to go for ages (mostly inspired by the food) so fingers crossed!
Ultimate bucket list destination?
India is pretty high up there, but I’ve also always wanted to go to the Galapagos Islands. Given the impact of travel however, I think I’ll be doing more train travel in Japan and Europe in the future -- it’s easy to forget how many fantastic places there are to see that are closer to home.