Remember those Choose Your Own Adventure books, where you’d pick a course of action and the story would proceed accordingly?
Matt and I decided it would be amazing to spend a few months in Asia, and we set our sights on a 3-month stint in Singapore. Our vision was perfect: we’d trade winter in Britain for summer in Singapore; we’d easily find English-speaking childcare so we could work during the week; we’d be short, cheap flights away from the many Asian countries we’re dying to explore; this blog would be alive with exotic posts; and my children would be thriving with all their little expat friends!
On January 18th, my husband’s company asked him if he could work in Singapore… starting on January 21st! We packed a suitcase each, bringing only our summer clothes and a light sweater, and took off 40 hours later!
By the time we landed in Singapore, Matt had received the news that we’d be relocating to Tokyo. We enjoyed a few days in Singapore, filled with the delicious food and incredible gardens of our dreams, and braced ourselves for Tokyo. Where it’s winter. And English-speaking childcare is not easy to find, and other Asian countries are not easy to get to. We were still reeling from our quick jump around the world, and the immediate turnaround to the exact opposite city was not easy. We have now been in Tokyo for about a month, and I’ve only just gathered enough energy to write this first blog post.
Since arriving in Tokyo, we’ve had to buy winter clothes, navigate Japanese grocery stores (so expensive and confusing), and change all of our travel visions. We’ve scraped together a few hours of babysitting, but I’ve been full-time momming (and it is not pretty). I’m not sure what secrets these Japanese moms have up their sleeves, but their kids are obedient little robots and I am humiliated daily by my darling, emotionally robust little terrors. Not exactly living the vision, but we signed up for an Asian adventure, and that is definitely what we’ve got.
Japan is so vastly different from anywhere I’ve been before, so I’ve been sure to jot down my musings. I thought it would be fun to share them!
- If people want to say that something isn’t allowed or isn’t working, they make a giant X with their arms right in front of their chest/ face. It’s so over the top – and everything else in Japanese behaviour is so muted – that it seems comical to me.
- All the face masks!! It’s so weird to see a crowd of people coming toward you, half of them in surgical masks, both adults and children. It’s a germophobe thing, and it’s so ingrained that childrens cold medicine has a cartoon picture of a kid in a mask on it! We’ve seen people lift their masks to cover their noses when someone sniffly gets too close. The masks are sold alongside tissues… and allergy meds. Some people claim that it helps with hay fever.
- Obsessively consistent about shoe removal. There are shoe racks EVERYWHERE, from museums to restaurants. I don’t mind this at all. But you have to be really careful about where you take your shoes off and put them back on, or you’ll get in trouble.
- Elevator etiquette: elevator doors take forever to close, and yet it is 100% expected that you will hold the door-open button, and then push the door-close button. Why you can’t just leave it unless there’s a real need, I did not understand, until seeing that it’s just part of the general culture of being (overly?) considerate of others.
- QUEUES. This is a culture of CONSTANTLY lining up. Japanese people line up for everything. In fact, if there isn’t a line for something, it must not be worth having. But they have NO impatience or anxiety about the time spent in line, so I don’t really understand how it adds value (there’s no concept of whether something was “worth the wait”).
- Playgrounds here suck. They have like 1 slide and 2 swings, and then just open space. If you don’t have a friend and/or a ball, it’s pretty grim. My theory is that kids have to learn to queue from age 1 if they want to do anything other than run in circles or play fetch with a stick. And then they queue for the rest of their lives without complaint.
- If I hear a kid having a meltdown, I immediately know it’s mine or another non-Japanese kid. The Japanese have got their kids on lockdown.
- The amount of stimuli EVERYWHERE is at complete odds with the amount of SILENCE expected of Japanese people. The train car, bus, traditional restaurant, and anywhere other than a bar or club are SILENT. Or people talk super quietly. But the shops and advertising screens above the streets are exploding with noise and colour 24/7. You can’t even see 3 feet into the pharmacy because there is so much information and colour vomited into the aisle, onto the endcaps and products themselves…
- There are MASSIVE TV screens on every corner with loud music & ad content blaring… Tokyo has a Times Square equivalent every mile or so. How does this whole city not have ADD or go insane?? It’s also a vertical city, so as overwhelming as life on the ground is, you also have to realise that each floor is a separate business. You’ve missed 90% of the city if you haven’t gone up or down from ground level.
- Japanese people will not assume you need help. You can be standing in the middle of the sidewalk with your kids, your open map, your mouth agape and a panic in your eyes, and no one will stop. But if you ask someone for help with directions – regardless of how pitiful or put together you look – they will go ridiculously far out of their way to help. Some lady ran around a block twice looking for a restaurant I asked about, and when I tried to tell her that it was ok, she just assumed I meant, “It’s ok that you’re taking so long.” I don’t know if they curse you internally, but probably not, given the whole culture of putting others first.
- You’re supposed to put your money or credit card into a little tray instead of handing it directly to the cashier, but I never remember, and they almost always put it in there and then pick it back up. I’m not sure if it’s a passive aggressive way to show me that I disrespected them, or just a habit of not taking money directly from someone, or if they feel better that it came from the tray because of my germs.
- WHY is Japan stuck in another century with its cash-based economy?? You can barely use a credit card here, let alone contactless. Auden LOVES sushi, so we go through a lot of cash…
- SMOKING??? You can still smoke in restaurants and hotel rooms. You have to specifically book non-smoking hotel rooms! Insane!
- It seems like Japanese women don’t wear sunglasses. This is not a good or bad thing. It’s just an observation.
- The sheer amount of plastic waste is mind-boggling because everything is individually packaged – as in, a box of cookies will have 24 wrapped cookies – and comes in plastic bags. There are no trash cans anywhere… yet there is no trash on the streets. In London and New York, there are trash cans and plastic bags cost money, and we still have trash on the streets. Unbelievable.
- Speaking of cleanliness, I will miss the clean public bathrooms when we leave Japan. You never have to worry about finding a bathroom, or about having to pay for it.
The recap of things I miss: wine, cheese, salad, the gym, English, Spanish, understanding looks from other moms, understanding looks from anyone about anything, grocery stores I can understand, diversity, playgrounds, a full time nanny, and feeling at ease.
Of course, the opportunity to spend 2 months in Japan is incredible. There is so much beauty to take in, both natural and man-made.
At some point, I will catch up with all of the posts I’d like to do, from our pit stop in Langkawi, Malaysia (paradise!) to our wanderings around Japan (amazing!). Living in Tokyo is definitely challenging, but we’re making sure to find all the beauty we need to outweigh the frustrations. We’re going to be here for the cherry blossoms, too!