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7 Do’s and Don’ts of Beating Creative Block in Tokyo

By ALEXINE CASTILLO YAP (PEAK JEA, Y3)


Photo credit: Yu Kato on Unsplash


I am currently the not-so-proud owner of a fancy-schmancy, B4-size Winsor and Newton watercolour pad from Tokyu Hands that’s still flat and uncurled from not having any watercolour grace its cream-white 270g/m2 pages. I received it from some friends for my birthday last year, and I wish I could tell you that I’ve done more than just stare at it and wait for a painting to magically transpire in the 14 months that have passed since. I am loath to admit that I have done not just that (clearly having failed at transferring magic psychic powers onto the paper), but also that the only other time I used the sketchbook was as an impromptu dinner placemat. For delivery food, too, no less.


So, what happened? For over a year, I chalked it up to artist’s block. More broadly, creative block, or the dreaded experience that anyone who ever tried to do anything creative has faced: feeling like your best efforts will result in nothing remotely good or skillful. It’s hard enough to turn nothing into something, and even harder to ensure that this “something” is something you actually like. Creative block prevents you from starting, for fear of creating something you hate. It ensures that you never take a step beyond this vicious cycle of self-defeating thought, and that you and your watercolour pad are barred from reaching your true potential: you as an artist, your watercolour pad as an art supply (and not a dining tool).


In a busy, bustling city like Tokyo, I find that it’s actually not that difficult to dislodge creative block. I am battling it as I type this article, so don’t think that I’m some kind of maestro in overcoming it. However, the fact that I’ve written this much so far probably counts for something. Here are 7 ways that I managed to beat creative block in the time that I’ve been living here:


1) Get moving.

If you’re not already regularly involved in some kind of sport or activity that requires you to sweat or stretch or lose your breath, then do so! Go jogging, hiking, swimming (check out the community swimming pools around your neighbourhood--there’s one right here in Komaba at Komabano Park!), hit the gym, join a yoga/martial arts/dance class, or just walk outside. I won’t pretend to be your doctor, but nobody would argue that the lack of circulation that comes with sitting at a desk for hours on end in true sedentary-lifestyle fashion does anything for one’s innovative or artistic capabilities. (Scientists¹ overwhelmingly² agree³ thatexerciseimprovesyourcreativity⁸.) And if that still doesn’t convince you to get moving...


2) Immerse yourself in other creative work around the city.

Tokyo is one of the world’s greatest art capitals. Say what you want about this city, but if you tell me that you’re not creatively inspired by it, I’d beg to differ because that just means you aren’t exploring enough (or Googling hard enough). I can’t even count how many art museums there are in this city, not to mention other countless lesser-known art galleries and exhibits, many of which are free. And let’s not forget Tokyo’s artsy neighbourhoods, with their revolutionary fashion, music scenes, dance halls, and all the impossibly photogenic spots (sights bemoaned in Harajuku for gentrifying the neighbourhood but cherished in Harajuku for, well, gentrifying the neighbourhood⁹). If you live in Tokyo, you have basically no excuse to be uninspired! Get out there with an empty notebook and take notes from your fellow Tokyoites. around these parts, there’s always something to be inspired by.


3) DON’T Compare your work to others’.

A former US President spilled some serious truth tea when he said that “Comparison is the thief of joy.” While taking inspiration from others’ works is important, it shouldn’t make you feel like your own work is inadequate. Balance is key, and I’ve found that as soon as I start comparing rather than being inspired, it’s time to stop and reassess. Comparison makes me feel unfairly bad about myself and my work. Go at it at your own pace, and be content with the work you can produce! Nobody else can do you like you do.


4)  DON’T Be too hard on yourself.

No overworking! Overworking is CANCELLED. When you feel your best, you will do your best, so make sure to take care of your physical and mental health.. I don’t mean to sound like your mom, but sometimes we have to be reminded to eat healthy food and get enough sleep! And don’t be afraid to: say no to things that will only tire you out, split up your work into manageable bites, and start small--there’s no need to throw yourself 100% on the first go. If you’re creating visual art, you can just do some quick warm-up exercises or little sketches here and there until you feel ready to take on a bigger project. Also, try to meditate--with just a quick search on the App Store, you can find tons of free apps that can help you relax. 


5) Try something new.

Check out a music genre that you’ve never tried, visit the cafe that you’ve always said you wanted to check out, try out the always-ignored-for-your-favorite menu item, visit a part of the city that you haven’t been to before. There’s always something new to try whether or not you even live in Tokyo, and that includes things you might be taking for granted and thus don’t even think of as something new. A few more ideas: Watch that show on Netflix that your friend recommended to you 10 months ago. Download a new wallpaper. Switch up your route to campus or work. Check out your Discover Now playlist on Spotify. Hang out with a new crowd. Just make sure it’s something that you haven’t done or experienced before--you’ll be surprised at what you can get out of a change of scenery!


6) DON’T Be afraid of failure.

Where would we be if everyone gave up just because they messed up once or didn’t achieve their desired result? That’s right—nowhere, in boring-land, and with decisively fewer Star Wars prequels (a win for humanity). If you mess up, that’s okay. Just pick up your pencil, paintbrush, and start again. The world’s not going to end just because you messed up some anatomy or smeared up the background or unwittingly spilled ink over your canvas. The beautiful thing about art is that you can always try again!


7) DO.

To borrow Nike’s slogan, Just Do It. Now. It’s as simple as that.


The creative process is decadent and depraved. They say it’s like chasing an unrequited love¹⁰: the odds are stacked against you, there’s no guarantee of success, and it could very well end in agonising failure. All the while, you’re going to have to put in all the work yourself, and before you know it, you could have wasted all of your turpentine, carmine, Prussian blue and phthalo into a monstrous creation that stares back at you only to mock you. But you tried! Here’s a gold star for Making An Attempt.


But it’s always worth a shot because it could also very well end in success. Somehow as creators we still manage, time and time again, to work our magic onto these blank sheets despite the innumerable failures we encounter along the way. 


That’s probably why they also say that artists are a lot like scientists (STEM majors please don’t kill me for this bad analogy). I don’t remember what exactly they meant by that, but I think it’s reassuring to know that scientists, much like artists, also don’t really know what to expect half the time—what matters is trying something new and just going for it, despite the lack of guarantee of a desirable outcome. The process that helped Marie Curie discover and define radioactivity and improve x-ray machines—by maybe factoring in that variable with that other one, or that one, ad infinitum—probably has some similarities with the process that resulted in Arundhati Roy’s Booker Prize-winning ‘The God of Small Things’, and with the process that eventually helped Vincent Van Gogh conjure up the ‘The Starry Night’ (so good that it’s been copied just about a million times by painters in numerous Saigon art streets). Artists of all kinds over the centuries took the decisive step to courageously tackle those blank sheets despite whatever failures preceded them, and the world is so much better for it. So go shoot your shot, and good luck!



¹ Steinberg, Hannah, et al. Exercise enhances creativity independently of mood. British Journal of Sports Medicine. Vol. 31, pp. 245-245. 1997.

² Ramocki, Stephen P. Creativity interacts with fitness and exercise. Physical Educator, Vol. 59, No. 1, pp. 8-17. 2002.

³ Gondola, Joan C. The Effects of a Single Bout of Aerobic Dancing on Selected Tests of Creativity.

Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, Vol. 2, Issue 2, pp 275. 1987.

⁴ Blanchette, David M., et al. Aerobic Exercise and Creative Potential: Immediate and Residual Effects. Creativity Research Journal, Volume 17, Issue 2-3, pp. 257-264. 2011.

⁵ Oppezzo, Marily & Schwartz,  Daniel L. Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, Vol. 40, No. 4, 1142–1152. 2014.

⁶ Colzato, Lorenza S., et al. The impact of physical exercise on convergent and divergent thinking. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 02 December 2013 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2013.00824

⁷ Donnegan, Kathleen, et al. Exercise and Creativity: Can One Bout of Yoga Improve Convergent and Divergent Thinking? Journal of Cognitive Enhancement, Vol, 2, no 193. 2018. 

⁸ Román, Pedro Ángel Latorre, et al. Acute Aerobic Exercise Enhances Students’ Creativity. Creativity Research Journal, Vol. 30, Issue 3, pp. 310-315. 2018.

⁹ Namkoong, Paul. Google Docs comment. 2019. (Shout-out!)

¹⁰ And all too often chasing an unrequited love could be exactly what is needed to catalyse the creative process. Some of us just happen to be unfortunate enough to be far more acquainted with this phenomenon than others.