Life in Shibuya: An Interview with Lily Gao

We feature an interview each month with one of our own to remind you that Section L is made up of aliens in a flesh suit ordinary humans, with interesting backgrounds and many Tokyo tips to share. 

The photo above is Lily impersonating a sculpture of someone trapped in a pillowcase at Hakone Open-Air Museum.


I’m originally from Beijing, and moving to Tokyo was completely unplanned! I spent about 10 years in the US, going to school and working. Around the end of 2017, I thought about moving back home to be closer to my family and explore opportunities there. I was working as a software engineer and wanted to make a career change into UX/UI design. 2 weeks before my move, my boss told me about an opportunity to be relocated to Tokyo within the same team. It would allow me to be closer to my family, and I could still work on the same projects. They told me on a Friday and wanted an answer on Monday! While continuing as a software engineer wasn’t my plan and I didn’t consider living in Japan before, I couldn’t resist the excitement of moving to a completely new place.

The show that encouraged Lily’s move to Tokyo.

Before the offer to move, I had just finished a Japanese drama called Tokyo Joshi Zukan, a recommendation from friends. It’s about a girl moving from a rural place to Tokyo and exploring the city life there. I was mesmerized by the scenes of Tokyo that showed lots of good food and how people hung out. I took it as a sign that I should experience something new while I’m young. So I said yes to the opportunity. Now, I’ve been here for 4 years. I’ve finally established myself as a designer after many challenges, and I’m still discovering new things in this city every day. I’m glad that I made the decision to move here.


As a product designer, I am in charge of the digital experience for guests at Section L. I design apps, plan out features based on needs of guests and team members, and work with software engineers to build and release them. We are building a few different apps that focus on different parts of the guest experience: a check-in/check-out app, a concierge and social app for our community, and an admin app for our staff to manage everything in one place. The goal is to make staying with us an easy breezy experience. I would say that my work is a combination of UX/UI design and product management. It’s been a very challenging but fun experience so far.

The website design and app that Lily has been working on.


There are some very typically Japanese scenes you can never get tired of, like cute coffeeshops and izakayas. You probably can imagine an old izakaya with a bike parked in front and lanterns hanging above, or seeing an ojiisan (old man) grill yakitori (meat skewers) through a little window. It makes you wanna stop and take a picture. 

Taken by Lily during an evening stroll through Jingumae, Shibuya.


I live in Tomigaya! It’s a popular and trendy area west of Tokyo. My apartment isn’t far from Yoyogi Park. Something interesting near me is this famous toilet. It is transparent when unlocked, but the glass turns opaque when locked.   

Part of the Tokyo Toilet project, designed by architect Shigeru Ban.

In the area is also a cafe called Little Nap Coffee! I always get their latte (480yen). I also recommend the hot cheese sandwich, weekend-exclusive sweet potato scones, and their lemon cake.  It’s a neighborhood gathering spot for a lot of dog owners, especially on weekend mornings. You can see a bunch of shiba inu and their owners chatting over coffee. There are a lot of cool-looking kids, and I never know where they come from.  

Little Nap Coffee’s interior.
That 480yen latte.


A Japanese-inspired chef’s table restaurant called Mark’s Tokyo in Meguro area. The original restaurant was in Ginza and it recently moved to Meguro. I felt like having pasta after work one day and chanced upon it. I looked in through the glass door and immediately thought, “Ok, I should walk away” because I realized that it was a course-only restaurant and everyone inside was chatting and seemed to know each other. Mark (the owner) saw me through the door and told me to come in. I said I didn’t have a reservation, but he said it was fine. I felt like I had just walked into a private dinner party and thought it would be an awkward evening, but I ended up having a great time.

Part of the Thanksgiving course meal during Lily’s most recent visit to Mark’s.

The food and wine were amazing and I felt so welcomed by everyone. It turned out that not everyone knew each other. People just naturally struck up conversations with people sitting next to them. I remember having a nice chat throughout the whole meal with this friendly couple that Mark sat me down next to. To this day, I am still so amazed by how good Mark is at multi-tasking—to be able to cook complex meals and keep people engaged in conversations at the same time.

A personal touch.

Since then, I often bring my friends there. It’s the kind of place that you go back to knowing you will always have a great time. The last time I was there, I remember telling Mark that he had witnessed my whole life in Japan. The first time I was there, I was still in a long distance relationship with my boyfriend. Then we got engaged. He moved to Tokyo, and now we are married. During each of those stages, we always go back there. It feels nice that I am part of the history of the restaurant, and that Mark and his restaurant are a meaningful part of my time here.

You can check out my portfolio here, or find me on Instagram at @lilyygao!