Around the world in 52 suburbs: from Tokyo to New York

Despite the dramatic pictures and stories, Louse Hawson finds one part of New York where it's a case of "what hurricane?"

Whoops. Having spent most of our time in Tokyo focused on the old, I planned to spend our fourth week there focused on a younger, edgier side of the city.

But then I popped my head into Kagurazaka, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Tokyo, and bam! Like a moth to a flame I was drawn in once more by those who float down the street, hair upswept, torsos bound and feet sheathed in white – the kimono ladies.

Always appealing, they were even more so in this neighbourhood, with its old, cobbled, atmospheric lanes and shops filled with beautiful wagashi (Japanese sweets).

Inspired, my daughter, Coco, donned a kimono jacket and went about handing out tiny biscuits in the shape of kimono ladies during a local temple celebration. If you can't beat 'em . . .

The next week we hopped on a shinkansen, aka bullet train, to spend a few days in Japan's ancient capital, Kyoto. Which was weird considering this project is all about exploring and photographing the "unfamous".

That and the fact that I'm a crap tourist who generally runs a mile at the sight of other tourists.

But it was my birthday that week and anyway, it turned out that 99 per cent of the camera-toting, backpack-wearing crowd in Kyoto were Japanese.

Call me something or other but I don't mind hanging out with other tourists if they're from their own country. Then it's more like observing locals at play.

I went the whole hog and focused on Higashiyama, the old part of Kyoto with myriad temples and lovely old streets. Just us and a zillion Japanese, keen to see the autumn leaves before they took to the ground.

Back in Tokyo, and with a few days left before we were due to leave the country, I made one last attempt to find modern Tokyo by visiting Ginza, the city's most sophisticated, slickest district.

After my flirtation with a famous area the week before, I wasn't that keen on exploring another one. But I had no time to faff about or do a recce anywhere else, and anyway, this was Tokyo – surely there would be more?

After snapping a few off-the-wall buildings, I was struggling. Ginza had turned out to be just glitzy shops and nothing much else after all.

Then, as we were approaching the subway to leave, I spied a monk-type figure under a large hat, chanting. A metre away from him three Japanese men were discussing golf scores or business deals.

Women rushed past, arms full of crisp new shopping bags. Twenty-somethings wandered around, texting madly.

But there the monk stood, a figure from another time, nothing moving but his lips.

Not modern, no, but kind of interesting. The next day we dropped past and sure enough, he was still there.

Curiosity piqued, we waited until he'd finished his day and was packing up to ask him what the deal was.

Hideo Mochizuki, it turned out, was a monk who had once lived in the East Village in New York City for 15 years. He said he stood for four hours at a time, three to four days a week, and he'd done that for 450 days in his Ginza spot. Once he reached 1000 days he would move on.

And what does he chant about for all those thousands of hours? He's praying for people and for world peace.

Coco and he beamed at each other for the final time and then it was time to fly – literally. Back to New York to spend Christmas with friends and check out the city after Hurricane Sandy. Like millions around the world I'd watched with horror as parts of NY went under water, drowning people in basements and wrenching babies from their mother's arms.

But when I emailed my friend Chris, who we'd stayed with on the Upper West Side just weeks before, it was almost, “What hurricane?” Strong winds, sure, but no flooding, no loss of power and no tragic stories.

I wanted to see for myself how this "tale of two cities" was panning out.

So back to NY we went. I'd planned to start with one of the badly affected neighbourhoods badly but I hadn't counted on the fact that we'd be total zombies for a week from seriously bad jet lag.

Given that we were back on the Upper West Side in Chris's apartment, it made sense to stay local and begin there.

While I wasn't expecting to see any physical evidence of the hurricane, I thought maybe you'd be able to read it on people's faces. New Yorkers are renowned for uniting in the face of disasters. They would surely be feeling the pain.

To a degree, yes. I heard numerous stories of those from the neighbourhood helping out in the worst affected areas. But on the Upper West Side itself, everything was normal.

Better than normal, in fact. The holiday season had begun and whether you were Jewish or gentile, celebrating Hanukkah or about to celebrate Christmas, life was good.

Instead of hearing horror stories, I spent the week having a stickybeak inside various Upper West Side apartments. The most interesting was David's, filled with art by his late partner Miles, a “semi-famous” artist and preservationist who'd been passionate about the neighbourhood and its handsome architecture.

I got so lost in their story I forgot to ask about his experience of the hurricane. It was only later that I thought, if he had been flooded, how sad it would've been for all Miles's paintings to have been lost.

So ended another wonderful month on this little ol' project of mine. A little ol' project that refuses to end. I'm meant to be winding up now but there are still six more weeks to do before I have my 52 "suburbs" in the bag.

Already running late before we hit Japan, the extra flights to and from Tokyo, the extended jet lag and then all the chaos and distractions of Christmas, have made it impossible to stick to my weekly deadline.

And after almost a year on the road, producing thousands of images and meeting almost as many people, I'm slowing down. I feel like one of my daughter's old toys when their batteries would be almost out of juice.

I only hope I don't come to a complete stop before I've finished. But once I'm done, that's exactly what I intend to do.

Ah, the irony – always curious and travel hungry, I now can't wait to do very little whatsoever.

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