Have you ever seen this guy in Tokyo? He generally has a bunch of flashing lights and other random stuff strapped onto his body, and has gained quite a following in recent years. We chatted to him about he came to be neon in the city, life as a business owner here, and where to buy the best bargain bananas.
How long have you been in Tokyo, and where were you before?
I first came to Tokyo in 2000; at the time I was working as a waiter in a hotel high in the Swiss Alps. We had a lot of Japanese tour groups come through our restaurant for their 20-minute 3-course meals (a regular feature of their 7-day, 10-country European tours no doubt). It was whilst serving them fondu that I became interested in the language and culture, and so decided to visit for six weeks.
It was an unforgettable trip, and I was hooked. I ended up staying for about 18 months before heading back to the UK to obtain a degree in Japanese Studies at Sheffield. I needed the degree to get a visa, and also, if I was going to live in Japan I wanted to be able to understand the culture, history and what was going on around me.
Whilst at university I met my wife, Satoko. We married the same week that I graduated, and returned to Japan together in 2008.
Could you briefly describe a typical day in your life?
I try not to do typical; every day is different. I’m not really suited to being a regular employee / working for someone else. Previous attempts have never lasted more than 10 months!
A couple of years ago I set up my own company, Wild Tame Co., Ltd, which has given me the freedom to work on client projects that are of interest to me.
Most of our work up until now has been in the field of digital media production (video, photography, websites, social media etc), although I’m now starting to focus more on performance art integrating wearable tech and pinwheels.
Tell us more about the hats and flashy things.
It all started as a kind of joke back in February 2009. I wasn’t a sports fan, and in fact I could barely run more than 500m without collapsing from exhaustion. A friend of mine somehow persuaded me to run the Tokyo quarter marathon, and I knew that if I didn’t have some external motivation I probably wouldn’t make it to the finish line.
Just a few months prior to that the iPhone had launched in Japan; it was incredible to be able to live stream video from the streets to a global audience – until then you’d needed a computer and broadband Internet.
I realised that I could leverage this technology to force myself to complete the race: I strapped the iPhone to my head, contacted the Apple news site TUAW, and on race day had 1,000 live viewers who would all know if I gave up half way along the course. Needless to say, my fear of embarrassing myself got me to goal.
Since then it kind of naturally evolved. It was only ever a hobby, and wasn’t planned in any way. New technology came along that I wanted to experiment with, so I’d strap it on, and run another race.
However, 5 years down the line, it seems to have become a ‘thing’. Despite not having planned it this way, I’ve ended up with a personal brand associated with sports, technology, fun and self expression, a brand that appeals to a wide range of people regardless of age, occupation or nationality.
It’s only recently that I’ve allowed myself to embrace this, and I’m now actively working on developing it so that it becomes my main form of ‘work’. Quite what shape that will take, I’m not entirely sure. It’s exciting though to be following my passion.
What do you like most and least about Tokyo?
I love the convenience. Everything just works. Transport, courier services, Internet.
I also love the people – both the amazing community of supportive friends I have around me, and the strangers on the street who, given an excuse (pinwheels and LEDs), are quick to connect and start conversations.
I struggle to come up with something that I like the least – the minor annoyances are what they are.
What’s your biggest expense?
What do you blow money on (i.e. what’s the fruit of all your cheapo savings)?
What are your top three Tokyo cheapo tips?
1) JKK – Metropolitan government-owned housing, with over 70,000 subsidised homes in Tokyo:
Thanks to this system we currently have about 40% of our rent paid by the mayor (I’m guessing it doesn’t actually come out his pocket, but it’s his signature on the contract).
To qualify, your income needs to be above a certain amount and below a certain amount. Your rent is assessed annually, with the calculation based on your family income. They have some really nice locations – we love our place in Iidabashi with views of Mt. Fuji, Tokyo Tower and Tokyo dome.
2) Times Car Plus – car sharing with thousands of cars in Times car parks across Tokyo:
Car ownership in Tokyo is crazy expensive – a monthly contract for a space in our basement car park is about 40,000 yen, then there’s gas, insurance and so on. There’s plenty of rentacar options, but you have to book in advance, go to their office, sign forms etc – bit of a pain.
Car shares are a brilliant third option. Cheap to use (you pay in 15 min increments). No need to book in advance. No fuel costs. No need to sign forms.
With Times Car Plus you can use their mobile app to find a car near you (we have 7 cars within a couple of minutes’ walk of our house), and book it for immediate use. Swipe your member card against the windshield, the car unlocks, and off you go. They have all sorts of packages available, and it’s just super convenient. As a business member there’s no monthly fee either (for private users there’s a monthly fee of about 1,000 yen).
3) Register as being self employed or set up a company:
Japan’s tax laws are very generous when it comes to new businesses – at least when compared with the UK, and by controlling your annual income you can control all costs that are calculated from that, such as health insurance, residence tax and so forth.
What’s the best bargain you ever found in Tokyo?
The free bananas I used to get from the local greengrocer in Kami Itabashi, because he liked me. If you don’t have a local greengrocer who likes you that much then I recommend the shops near Tsukiji fish market for bargain banana bunches.