A journey of a Japanese graphic designer: from Tokyo to Chapel Hill via New York

Things changed during 25 years on her journey from Tokyo to Chapel Hill. The only things that stayed the same wherever she goes were her room and her photography on the walls.

My late father and I at the Narita Airport when I was leaving for New York 1992.
This became the last time I saw my father alive. Our last words to each other was “Good bye!”

My life as a traveler

The main stage of my life has basically been set in front of my computers. That’s where I am most of the time on my regular days, wherever I go or live. So, to me, it is not a big deal where I exist geographically on a world map.

And yet, things definitely changed for me on my journeys, first from Tokyo to New York, then from New York to Chapel Hill.

I was having fun in Tokyo, then here come changes

I was one of those DINKS in Tokyo (yes, Japan imported the word with the lifestyle from the US.), and then after divorcing my first husband — a typical fate of DINKS — I decided to go to New York by myself to study.

I was a graphic designer at that time. It was almost pure luck that I became a graphic designer. Being from Tokyo and having Tokyo-native relatives, I got a job as an assistant graphic designer to a very talented art director right in the center of the Tokyo metropolitan area.

That was in the 80s when Japan was at the height of its economic bubble. Everything looked gorgeous and flamboyant with a bit of extravaganza in Tokyo. I enjoyed working with top-notch professionals in the advertising industry. But I started to notice an omen of the computer era when my boss bought a Macintosh Classic for us to use in our office in Tokyo.

The Rainbow Bridge became very popular in the late 80’s before its’ completion. Along with Tokyo Tower in red, the scenery has become prominent in the city.

Even though he had a shoulder phone which was designed to use in a car, I had no idea how we would live after 25 years with a lot lighter and compact smartphone in our hand. I felt a need to change something for myself to survive as a graphic designer.

What I decided to do with my new room in New York City

I think I have been successful in changing, evolving rather, but some things are the same during all those 25 years. Ever since I moved to New York City from my hometown, Tokyo, I have decorated my room in a certain style. I probably moved from place to place more than 10 times altogether, yet all of my rooms from past to present have looked almost the same. I just got different sceneries from my windows or balconies.

Maybe I am just lazy, especially about my bathrooms. I have been keeping the leftover perfume that I wore when I was younger and do not want to throw out for some reason. Every time I take a deep breath around the perfume bottle in my bathroom, I travel back to where I came from, where everyone was still with me, including my late father. That nostalgic feeling pleases me wherever I am away from home.

What difference does it make in Tokyo and New York?

The transition to New York City from Tokyo was supposed to be easy since they are both big cities with similar modern and urban life among cool high rises.

You may feel dizzier in Tokyo than in New York City with so many people present wherever you go. If you google “Shibuya Crossing,” you will see one of the most popular tourist spots in Tokyo to visit. I passed that place almost every day when I lived in Tokyo.

Shibuya Crossing
My Nikomat on the work desk in my office. Graphic designers made everything by hand including mechanicals before the appearance of the computer.

When the movie “Blade Runner” came out in Japan, I was proud that the sets were inspired by the skyscrapers and the dynamic city scenes in my city of Tokyo. But Japan is such a small island. From your window, you can see what your neighbors are having for dinner. You can smell the cooking odors blown by their kitchen fan into your house or to outside when you are walking down the street. The local trains run so close to your balcony that the passengers can almost touch your laundry drying in the sun.

In New York City, I had a clothes dryer and the trains ran underground, so no passengers were looking at my laundry. And now, living in a small city like Chapel Hill, I wonder how I ever found a moment of peace in Tokyo. I’d rather be isolated and alone than to be in a crowd, in the intense density of the city. The trees here are tremendously tall and the sky is always seen so huge right above us, which was not observed in either Tokyo nor in New York.

I feel more comfortable living in a large country that is the US, where people are more sensitive with the personal territory (even in New York City).

Even with a different way of living, I still kept my belongings sparse because that had been my habit in Tokyo. I don’t like to keep stuff in my place (I don’t have an attic nor a garage anyway). Long ago, I read an interview with a Japanese architect who said that giving up your unnecessary belongings is key to having a stress-free life in Tokyo, and I strongly agreed.

Maybe I am also sentimental because I hung on to my photographs. Pictures are my keepers.

How I became a photographer

Hitoko at the age of 16

It was my father who gave me a Nikkormat (spelled Nikomat in Japan) camera when I was 16 years old. My father bought a new camera so he didn’t need the old one. I became obsessed with my camera and started to take pictures of everything including self-portraits. I hardly had chances to print the pictures I took because I didn’t have enough allowance to spend. But I had printed some from those days. My desire to be a photojournalist grew after graduating from high school.

A lot of memories of Tokyo, my hometown, and New York, where I flew to when I was in my twenties to search for my dreams, are kept on my walls as framed pictures.

Me with the NY skyscraper. The World Trade Center buildings are still there.

Looking at them often reminds me of the busyness of the metropolitan cities. It was so exciting to be in those cities. I was having the time of my life.

What happened in Chapel Hill and what I decided to do after that

People tell me as a compliment that I was very brave to have made such a bold move to New York from Tokyo, and that it must be so challenging to live in a place with very established traditions like in North Carolina.

I am glad to have experienced all that I did. I flew to New York for my career. Honestly, it was not that easy to be in New York away from my family as I thought because my father passed away, all of a sudden, in 3 months after I left Tokyo.

My parents and brother
Collage of my father’s photos.

To Chapel Hill, I came with my family, my second husband, and our three children.

He said moving down to Chapel Hill would make us all happier, including the children. At first, I was a bit reluctant, but I decided to support him by taking the action to Chapel Hill.

I am still a graphic designer after all these years in New York and Chapel Hill. I do web design now as well. I think I have enough skills with a computer to keep my job. Thank god that I love what I do for a living.

My husband moved back to New York, where he grew up, after one and half years living here and I was left alone with three children. I sometimes get confused about why and how I ended up in Chapel Hill. But I chose to stay in the area for my children, who were about to settle down nicely and happily and I decided to raise them here by myself.

I am glad that I came to Chapel Hill about 10 years ago. I should thank my then-husband for his idea of coming down here.

No traffic on my way to work, no need to dare me to squeeze into an almost-impossible-to-go-in train-cart in peak hours, and almost no lines in front of the department of motor vehicles. One day at the entrance of the DMV branch, a nice officer opened the door for me and greeted me with “Good Morning, Ma’am! How are you today?” That was a cultural shock to me who are used to living in big cities.

Home sweet home

Even though I feel a bit isolated in Chapel Hill, I have found that this place may feel like my hometown of Tokyo, which was a happy surprise.

People here are very nice as they are in Japan. They still eat sugared strawberries, while many New Yorkers would be saying, “Yuck! Sugar is not healthy!”

Chapel Hill’s humid summers also remind me of Tokyo. As a matter of fact, the two places are at almost the same latitude.

I see the same plants growing on the streets here in Chapel Hill, such as little purple flowers, as I would see where I grew up in Tokyo.

“Wow, look at those beautiful plants,” I would say to my children. “I believe it is called ‘silver grass.’ Where I grew up in Tokyo, we have this plant everywhere, too!”
And I try to make an umbrella with it like I used to do when I was a kid.

As far as I remember, I have never seen those in the Greater New York area. Or maybe I was too busy with something else and I didn’t notice it.

My children smile at me. That’s all that counts for me.

When I reminisce about my childhood memories sentimentally from time to time, I feel as if I just opened a new chapter in my life.

For the first time in my 10 years living in Chapel Hill, I googled the logo of the local university. Yes, I wanted to find out the Pantone value of Carolina Blue.

When I first came to town, I hated the university’s logo that could be seen everywhere in Chapel Hill. The more I saw the logo here and there, or on people’s cars, the less I felt that I belonged in this area. It became a sad symbol that reminded me that I was an outsider.

Now that I have started taking a class at the college, I may no longer feel like a total stranger.

My children, who knew how I felt about the logo, joked that I should put a sticker of it on my car as a proud student. It is funny that I actually thought about it. I should declare myself an official Chapel Hillian, finally.

Current computer desk

Now looking forward to what is coming

Today, I am sitting in front of my computers as usual. I saw some of my oldest son’s pictures in Tokyo that I took during our vacation this past summer. Now he lives away from me in Tokyo for college. Looking at those pictures of him — not framed yet — certainly brings me back to where I came from. It feels strange that my son has started a reverse journey from Chapel Hill to Tokyo on his own.

While this journey of mine still continues, I have to find some time to frame those new pictures and put them on the wall soon.

My photos in my room at Chapel Hill apartment. I will need to update the pictures.

For sneak peeks of Tokyo life, here are a few youtube videos.
Shibuya Crossing
Trains run right next to houses in Tokyo
People trying to squeeze into train carts


Keywords: Japanese in Chapel Hill, graphic designer in Chapel Hill, single mom, from Tokyo, originally from Japan, photography, Shibuya Crossing