Living Under a Bridge for 550-Days in Tokyo

The bad things in life. The things we don’t want to experience are labeled “bad” because of our perspective, behavior, and lack of hindsight. A bad event is the worst nightmare for one person and an opportunity to grow for another person. Homelessness, for example, is what happens when people hit rock bottom. It is seemingly a bad place to be. But for me, homelessness was just a prudent thing to do. It substantiated my fortitude, reminded me to be grateful, and grounded me in humility.

For 550-days I lived under a bridge in Toyko. This is my story.

Before I slept under a bridge, I was one of about 15 cash-strapped roommates in a sharehouse. I was without a job and had little spending money. My money went to modest purchases of things like cereal, rice, and eggs. The inconvenience of not having enough money was real. But unlike the other guys, I was privileged because my dad covered my phone bill, tuition, and rent. I also had several thousand dollars in the stock market. Yes, indeed, I was living like a cash-strapped student even though I am a privileged fuck with investments. Yet my money problems, as I saw them, motivated me.

I tend to look at my situation in the most beneficial way. From an outsider’s prescriptive they’d probably think I didn’t have money problems. But by labeling myself broke it motivated me to do better. I reframed my situation in a way that maximized long-term benefit. So, since I had money problems, I put I higher value on each dollar and couldn’t afford comfort goods.

I remember my dad sending me money and biking to the landlord’s office to pay in cash. On the way, I’d think about the better things I could buy with the money. I could definitely buy a proper bodybuilding meal, a gym membership, and a new bike. I’d think this money had so much value yet was going towards something, I perceived, to have a fraction of the value. When I gave the cash, I felt the phycological pain as if it were my money. It hurt. Here I was, living with money problems yet handed over enough money that could solve them. And worst, I didn’t think the landlord deserved that much anyway.

The sharehouse was always chaotic, even at night. So, I never slept well. There was constant foot traffic in and out of rooms, the sound of kitchenware clanking, and the worst of all, snoring from a Nigerian man. Along with this symphonic mess put-on by my 15 roommates, I slept on a cheap futon and had a pillow that was flatter than my adolescent chest. I felt like my living condition couldn’t get worse, yet my dad was paying a crazy amount for me to live here.

I remember reading in a textbook that consumers vote with dollars. That the buyer’s beliefs are reflected in how their money is used. This meant that my willingness to spend a crazy amount of money for bad living conditions reflected my values. It meant that I knew I was being taken advantage of, but I just accepted it. I felt trapped in my situation. But Adam W. K. is not a victim of circumstance, I’d think to myself. I had the power to do something about it. After all, I label myself a man of action, and this situation called me to prove it.

My roommates couldn’t relate despite being budget-minded. I mean, I don’t think many people, if any, would feel taken advantage of if they lived where I did. Maybe they were right. I was, after all, living in one of the most expensive cities in the world and I chose to come here in the first place. Of course, it’s pointless to complain about this, right? Just accept it like everyone else, I’d think to myself. Why am I even questioning the system?

A few months past and I finally was employed as a lifeguard at the finest family club in Tokyo. I worked 28 hours a week while I earned 17-21 credits a semester. So, my time was largely consumed either in school or work and the only time I used my home was basically for a place to eat and sleep. Since I was spending less time at my home, I valued it even less. And from my perspective, the rent increased from $15 per day to $15 per 12 hours.

In some ways my circumstance changed with a job, in other ways it didn’t. I finally had money so now I could buy a proper bodybuilding meal, gym membership, and new bike. But I was still being sodomized by my landlord and I am still a man of action. I couldn’t take the cognitive dissonance. So, I started living without a home. It was a thing I joked about for some time because “homeless men slept better at night than me.”

A month turned into two and so on I went.

In the beginning, I largely didn’t sleep at night. Rather I tried to sleep whenever I could during the day and studied throughout the night. When it rained, I spent the first half of my night at a Starbucks and then in the stalls of public restrooms until my university opened at 6:30. On clear nights, I’d go to various parks around the school or sometimes just sit on campus for Wi-Fi. But a few months in, I started sleeping during class and at night I’d sleep with my head in my lap. Functionally, I started to breakdown. I was tired. This clearly wasn’t a long-term strategy, but I wasn’t thinking I would be homeless for much longer anyway.

At this time, I still refused to fully commit to the homelessness experience, I never laid down fully extended to sleep nor did I want my nights at parks to involve sleep at all. I had too much pride to really commit to this lifestyle. What would others think if they found out? They’d gossip for sure. They’d judge. Maybe they’d think I was a freeloader. Maybe I’d get deported. But regardless, I knew for sure I’d feel embarrassed if anyone did find out.

I also knew I sure-as-hell enjoyed the rent money pilling up in my IRA. I was hooked. For once in my life, I felt like I really had money. But it was more than that, a net income of $1,500 gave me freedom. Having money meant I was no longer bounded by money. I just had to swallow my pride and commit my nights to sleep like a normal homeless person. I could do this; it would be worth it.

Earlier, I found a spot under a bridge that was secluded from the rest of the busy city and was within a 5min biking time of school and work. I started sleeping there on a few plastic bags and with my backpack as a pillow. I slept better those nights, with white noise produced by the thousands of cars passing overhead, than any night in the symphonic mess. After a while, a fellow homeless man at the same park gave me a futon and guarded my bedding during the day. This spot was where I slept for 16 months.

homeless bedding

I can say, after 18 months of being homeless I’m so glad I did it. It was honestly such a simple thing to do and I gave up very little to earn so much. I saved thousands of dollars and earned the priceless virtues of prudence, gratitude, fortitude, and humility. This experience gave me a priceless perspective of what it’s like to be at “rock bottom” all the while being god damn happy. I found the good in the seemingly bad. I’m proud to say I wasn’t a victim of circumstance, rather I was a man of action. I’m also proud to prove that happiness can be detached from circumstances, life events, and material possessions.

Homelessness was one of the greatest experiences of my life because it woke me to the mindless participation of consumerism people are often caught in. And the mindless following of moment-to-moment behaviorisms and actions, customs and beliefs that contribute to personal and societal demise.

Regardless of my initial motivations to sleep under a bridge, one thing is for certain, I reaped far more than I imagined.

Good Reads

Parable of the Taoist Farmer

There is a Taoist story of an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.

“Maybe,” the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed.

“Maybe,” replied the old man.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy for what they called his “misfortune.”

“Maybe,” answered the farmer.

The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.

“Maybe,” said the farmer.

Victor Frankl:

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing… to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Q/A