What We Already Miss

This phase of our Japanese adventure has ended and we landed on July 9 back in Los Angeles.  We have had an amazing time living in Tokyo and there are so many things that we will miss.  We made a list, some important, some more trivial.  Here it is.  We’ll probably add to it.

  • Our many friends in Japan
  • Subways, trains and the shinkansen (the bullet train), and not having to drive
  • Suica cards – the easy way to get around and pay for things – swipe right or left
  • Quiet – people don’t shout or honk their horns.  We could have lived without the electioneering vans, however.  Half of Japan’s Upper House was elected the day after we left and the candidates were out in force with all to efficient loud hailers
  • Safe – we have spoken about this but we still marvel.  The West has got rid of public lockers due to bomb threats but in Japan they are plentiful and multi-sized
  • The customer service ladies at Oakwood, Aya, Ayaka, Izumi, Keiko and Miki
  • No trash – we have seen way more trash on the streets since we got back to LA than we saw in four months in Japan
  • Kindness and consideration – and speak 5 words of Japanese and you will be greeted with 「ああ、日本語上手ですね」 (aa, nihongo jozu desu ne – oh, isn’t your Japanese so skillful)
  • Nobody gives directions, they take you there, even when it’s radically out of their way – really, this happened to us many times
  • いっらしゃいませ (irrashaimase) – the ubiquitous greeting in every place of business
  • No tipping – it would be an insult if you implied that a tip was needed to get good service
  • Ice packs for cold grocery items – so cute, and really helpful
  • Packaging – for good or ill, the Japanese (over) package everything, but beautifully
  • On the other hand, presents . . . every time you go out to dinner with friends, every time you visit a place of business for the first time, lovely, thoughtful and, of course, beautifully wrapped
  • Jazz instead of Muzak – so many places in Tokyo play music you actually are happy to hear, especially welcome in Peacock Stores, our favorite market
  • Food – there is a myth that it’s expensive to eat in Japan.  It certainly can be.  But there’s no need.  Food is sensational and so varied and you can easily find places to eat a lot for very little, often at bargain sub-basement prices
  • Sushi go round – the conveyor belt sushi, so much food, so much fun, such low prices
  • Sashimi – yes, you can get in LA but in Japan, so good and so plentiful
  • Adzuki mochi and onigiri – Fiona-sustaining snacks every day (Michael developed a taste for the soy-based soft serve at Shibuya Station)
  • Pastries – more marvelous pastry shops everywhere than you can shake a baguette at, especially in subway and train stations
  • Great coffee everywhere – we mean everywhere
  • Convenience stores  (コンビニ) and vending machines everywhere, by which we mean abso-blooming-lutely everywhere
  • Hand towels in restaurants – before you eat
  • Clean public toilets, warm seats – even in public parks and train stations, hole in the wall restaurants, wherever you went, toilets were clean and spotless, not to mention warm and comfy
  • City life – people on the streets; the Shibuya scramble
  • Discovering things in a walkable city – see our postings here, here and here. Oh, and here and here and here.  And many more.
  • Exploring small streets – safe, fun, constantly unexpected and surprising
  • M Sugawara – our favorite clothing store (well, OK, Fiona did lose it at the Issey Miyake shop at Mitsukoshi in Ebisu, but apart from that).  Located in Aoyama tantalizingly close to our apartment.  See, for example, the hat in Hats and Cemeteries.
  • Department store food halls – all over Japan, they make the Harrods Food Halls look like a suburban Tesco.
  • Tea ceremony – so very refined, although one is occasionally reminded that some of Japan’s most bloodletting shoguns were big fans
  • Bowing – it’s really a civilized way to greet and acknowledge
  • Japanese baseball – see Take Me Out to the . . . Yakyu and GO GO Swallows.
  • Aoyama – our ‘hood.  From the day we arrived (nearly) to the day before we left, the day we left, we were still discovering its by-ways
  • Museums – Fiona visited 30+, many of them more than once, and Michael was not far behind
  • Being in a bubble, especially during Brexit and the 2016 elections – we just got an occasional reminder seeing the silent but captioned CNN screen bla(the)ring at us as we passed through reception at the Oakwood
  • Sakura – see Sakura, cherry blossom:  the meaning of Life and subsequent entries
  • Signs and the Japanese love affair with the English language – we tried really hard not to make fun, but some of the translations were simply unforgettable.  Who could resist the kleptomaniac lobster or wine by the grass?

Home Stretch

Just a few more hours.  Four months seemed like an eternity when we began and feels like a flickering of an eyelash now.  It has not dimmed our enthusiasm.  We will be happy to be home among our family, our friends and our colleagues, but we will also truly miss much of what we will leave behind.

We are therefore on the lookout for a better Japanese word than シャーデンフロイデ (sha-den-fu-ro-i-de – thanks, Google Translate) to describe our feelings.

Some measured reflections are certainly in order but our overwhelming feeling about our time in Japan has been joy.  Joy at the beauty and diversity of our surroundings, wherever we have been, whether in our remarkable Aoyama neighborhood with its constant new discoveries or the many places we have visited in Tokyo and beyond; joy at how safe we have felt, whether in crowded trains, the amazing 渋谷スクランブル (Shibuya Scramble, or su-ku-ran-be-ru) or narrow streets at night; joy at the dozens of tiny pleasures, such as the daily performance of the crossing guard at the Cerulean Tower Hotel or the cheerful greetings we receive in every shop, restaurant and train station we frequent; and joy at the reaction of our visitors to this remarkable country.

We came to Japan for several reasons, but one of the most important has been to improve our Japanese language skills.  We have surely accomplished this but we have come to appreciate what a gigantic task this is and how much we still have to learn to acquire an acceptable level of competence. We intend to keep going.

School finished for Michael two weeks ago – true to form, for the last two days (since the outing to the beer museum), the teachers have kept plugging away with a pretty intense preview of next semester’s grammar, but on the last day, even they are throwing a party in which we will learn . . . Japanese dancing – the coal miners’ dance from Kyushu, known all over Japan.  And then, a sort of speed dating session with another class at which we had to introduce ourselves, over and over again, to people we didn’t know.

We have spoken more than once about feeling safe.  We won’t pretend that Japan is a society without crime, violent or petty, but walking around just about anywhere, we have never once felt that sense of threat or insecurity that characterizes living in Los Angeles, even in the comparatively safe neighborhood where we live.  And the contrast has been reinforced by the events in Orlando and Dallas, where the U.S. epidemic of gun violence has been met with continuing widespread denial and the abject failure of our government to respond adequately – we refuse even to let the Center for Disease Control study the problem.  Japan, on the other hand, is a country where gun deaths and violence have essentially been eliminated – as discussed in an a 2012 article in the Atlantic magazine.

How much still awaits us on future visits – a sumo wrestling tournament, a Kabuki performance, visits to places far and near, such as Hokkaido to the north, Kyushu to the far west, Osaka, Nara, Nagoya, Sendai, Chiba, the Isu Peninsula to name a few.  And how much we have done – so many museums, temples, parks and gardens, train rides long (to Hiroshima, Kyoto, Kanazawa, Kamakura and Yokohama) and short (we truly are masters of Tokyo transit), baseball and soccer games, shopping and eating out and long walks everywhere.  Fiona has visited over 30 museums, several more than once, and Michael has been to a great many of them; the list of other things we have done is also lengthy. It’s been a full and fulfilling four months, as I hope this blog has conveyed.

We must say a few words about the Oakwood Apartments, our home for the past four months.  The apartment itself was well-equipped, quiet and spacious (a real luxury in space-starved Japan) and the spare room ideal for guests – both comfortable and small enough not to encourage people to stay for too long!    We were very well-looked after by the housekeeping staff, who cleaned the apartment twice a week (whether it needed it or not) and also fixed whatever minor items needed attention, with a lightning response time.  But above all, we were lucky to be helped by the front desk, staffed from 7 am to 10 pm and often beyond by five charming and efficient ladies – Aya (亜矢), Ayaka (綾香), Izumi (依泉), Keiko (恵子) and Miki (実希).

A few more blog posts to come – we must catch up on our day in Yokohama, visits to the Tokyo Skytree and also to the Tomoe Soroban Company (the abacus company), and our farewell party.  We know we will be consumed by Los Angeles and our “regular” lives as soon as we come home, so this is a marker to remind us.  We’ll also add some more photos.

Tea Time, Springtime

We are coming to the end of Golden Week, the week when Japan incongruously has major public holidays on the last Friday in April and then on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday in the first week of May, leaving everyone to work, or, in our case, go to school, on Monday and Friday.

Japan, unlike Southern California, is a land of seasons.  Two months ago, when we got here, the cold was quite sharp, relieved only by the arrival of cherry blossoms in late March.  Now, it’s May and the weather is pleasant indeed.  The rainy season and the beginnings of a hot and humid Tokyo summer await us next month, but for now, we are happily venturing out without sweaters, umbrellas or Uniqlos .

We have used some of our time off to catch up with our studies – the Naganuma School isn’t kidding when it calls our course “intensive”.  But we have also had a few outings into this city of contrasts.

Saturday, we paid a visit to the Riviera Sports Club, where we swam laps in a pool that looked like the set of Scarlett Johansson’s swim on Lost in Translation.  (That actually took place at the Tokyo Park Hyatt.)  Here is the sign at the entrance.  Most of it is in Katakana, the syllabic alphabet with which foreign loan words are adapted into Japanese.  We have added transliterations – remember, these all started out as real English words.  See if you can guess what they mean!  At the end of this post, we have added a version with actual translations.


OK, on to other activities.

On Sunday, we went for a walk in Aoyama that began with a close-up view of political protest, Japanese-style.

On Thursday, we were lucky enough to be invited to a tea ceremony, conducted by a renowned tea master (or mistress, I suppose).  One of the staff at our school happens to be a friend of the tea master and asked us to accompany her to the ceremony, which took place at the at the Tokyo National Museum of Art, Tokyo’s equivalent to the Met or the National Gallery of London (or LACMA!).  This was quite an honor and so we donned our Thursday best and zoomed across central Tokyo on the Ginza line to Ueno Park, scene of some of our more spectacular cherry blossom viewings six weeks before.

Tokyo National Museum: Fountains and Haniwa – Kofun period clay figurines from the 6th century placed on top of tombs.

Ueno Park – late March – early May.

Children’s Day is celebrated this week and there was a Book Fair in Ueno Park which showed us that children’s books are a thriving business. So many wonderful and beautifully illustrated books! Michael is now reading his favorite Babar, in hiragana.


Here are some random things from our life: our local flower stall; our low maintenance garden; vending machines: is this meal hot or just casually cold?; slippers provided whilst shoes are mended; how to time the tea infusion; poster for a great exhibition of 19th century woodblock prints, we spent hours there (loan from the MFA, Boston).

And the maple leaves are out; the trio of my no-English, fabulous hairdressers; how much more traditional than a Japanese lantern?

And finally, here is the Riviera Sports Club sign, translated.


A Brave Post-Script

Try googling pictures of Merida, the Scottish heroine of the delightful Pixar movie, Brave, and you will find no shortage of red-headed look-alikes.  But being a redhead in Japan is different.  During her stay, Laura was approached, more than once, by little Japanese girls pointing at her and crying “Merida, Merida”, to the point where I think she ended up having to sign autographs.  I guess you can see why.

And in our apartment building, a little boy from South Africa, Leo, concluded that Laura must be in need of a bow, and offered to give her his.  Here he is:

Now the world (or at least the Oakwood Apartments) is safe from big bad bears.