The ineffable tranquility of watching other people walk around Tokyo

I have a small confession to make. During Melbourne’s extended COVID lockdown in 2020 people coped in many different ways. Obsessive neighbourhood walking, Netflix binges and low-key alcoholism were popular choices, and I certainly toyed with all of them. But my secret obsession, the one that I didn’t really discuss with family and friends but tried to do when I was alone in the evening… was watching videos on YouTube, shot in first person perspective, of a man who walks around neighbourhoods in Tokyo for hours on end.

In the grand scheme of things that wasn’t much of a confession. I’m sorry if you were hoping for something juicier.

But my obsession was, and continues to be, real. The channel is “Rambalac” and the author is (I believe) a non-Japanese person who lives in Tokyo. He appears to have a schmick camera or two and a gimbal, and posts high-quality video every week.

So far, so YouTube.

What makes Rambalac different is the complete immersion that his videos provoke. He doesn’t speak (except occasionally asking for directions) and only shows his face very rarely. There are no distractions and apart from the lack of autonomy on the part of the viewer the experience feels very much like taking an extended stroll through the world’s largest city. Flaneuring is the best part of travel and Tokyo is rich in detail and fascination.

Each video starts the same way – a shot of the ground, panning up to reveal the front of a metro station. This allows geography nerds like me to locate the start and end points, and connect what I’m seeing on the screen with the abstracted world of Google Maps.

Then… he walks. It seems like he normally has a rough plan of where he’s going, but it’s rarely the most direct route. He ducks down back alleys and through shopping malls. Sometime he gets lost and has to ask directions, or heads down a one-way street and has to double back. More often than not he stops at one of the famous Japanese vending machines and buys some tea. Occasionally there is a cat.

And so I found myself mildly addicted. I’ve lost track of how many hours I’ve walked with Rambalac. – possibly getting into the high double digits. I have walked around Scramble Crossing several times. The cherry blossom is particularly attractive around Meguro, near the river. Tokyo is quite a flat city but it turns out that you can get an ok view from Ueno, near the Zoo. Ginza is still very flashy, but isn’t quite at the heights of the late 1980s.

This all seems incredibly boring. I promise you that it’s not.

You see, I would have enjoyed this at any time in my life. Getting a window into somewhere as interesting and different as Japan is always fascinating, especially in this unmediated, un-produced fashion. But during lockdown, when leaving your house is tricky and international travel is inconceivable, looking through someone else’s eyes takes becomes unbearably precious. When the plague-year acedia kicks in, Rambalac is there to soothe me back into normality. I may be locked in my house, but elsewhere in the world people walk in cities, do normal people stuff, have conversations not intermediated by computers, and generally exist normally. It seems unlikely that I’ll be able to go to Japan for some years, but Rambalac is a strangely satisfying alternative.

So while the world’s great spasm continues, and while Insula Australia remains safe but isolated, I will keep watching Rambalac. Not all heroes wear capes.


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