A Mini-Travel Memoir of Japan

I’ve been back a week now, physically; mentally I’ve still got a little ways to go. 😉

Japan was wonderful: hectic, stressful, exhausting. I realize how much, after two years in beautiful and quiet North Carolina, I’ve missed the big city. We could walk to the supermarket, enjoy streets bustling with people, take a commuter train to the museum, a temple, a night club (though not that we did). On the downside, there were days when Max and I did not get home from meeting clients until midnight, days when we had to commute 2 hours each way to get to a work destination. I had to coordinate childcare and drop-off and pick-up schedules with Max and my in-laws. On Father’s Day we needed to call in all the troops: my friend Kathryn and her husband to take Fred from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and my in-laws to take Fred from 5:00-11:00 p.m. Such is life in Japan, where Father’s Day and Sundays do not take precedence over work. We could not live like this long term, which is why we were hungry to relocate to the US. But, for 2 weeks, it felt good to meet our clients face-to-face and to experience the bustle and purpose of an energized life.

And I understood during this trip that there is no longer any point in trying to narrow down a home to one. I inhabit both America and Japan, maybe not physically all the time but always in my heart. I missed Japan because it is where my life transformed into what I have now. I revisited old shopping malls and walked down old streets with an internal camera to the days when Fred waddled beside or ahead of me, his bottom bunchy and big with his diaper, his little legs and feet pat-patting the ground with the delicacy of a newly confident toddler. On the day these memories came at me full blast I was alone; Max was working and Fred wanted to spend the day with his grandparents. I shopped at our favorite mall alone, stroller-free for the first time, and ate at my favorite organic restaurant in peace for the first time. Every time I saw a toddler I saw Fred in my flashbacks as a new mother. Did I ever think that the next time I’d visit this mall that I would come back with only my memories?

The rest I will tell in pictures. I’ll admit that, miraculously, I had turned off my blogging brain during this trip. Not looking for blogging material, I regret that I didn’t take enough pictures. But here are a few:

This is where we – the 3 of us! – stayed. It’s what the Japanese call a “monthly mansion” (apartment). It’s designed for (single) business travelers but the 3 of us squeezed into this mini studio because it was the only option we had within walking distance of Max’s parents. Hotels in Japan charge per person rather than per room, and the closest hotel is about a half hour away. Kathryn opened her American-size home to us and we stayed with her and her family one night.

Jet lag + cramped quarters + work = 1 nasty fight between Max and me the second night we were there. We’ve learned, the hard way, that these fights can simply be filed away under “duress/both equally at fault.”

Giant billboards in Tokyo during the World Cup.

A typical commute home. This photo was taken at around 10:30 p.m. one Thursday night inside the train. That’s my head at the bottom of the picture. (Yes, at 10:30 I really ought to be in bed or in front of my t.v., not commuting on a train!) Believe it or not, this wasn’t even a particularly bad ride; I’ve experienced many others where I felt my bones were about to rip apart, or where I was pressed up against strange men more closely than I have ever been pressed against my own husband. Blech!

In a city as crowded as Tokyo (the station hub Shinjuku is the busiest in the world, with over 3.6 million passengers passing through its 200 exits each day), order is critical. Trains are scheduled to the minute and passengers politely line up to board. The above sign is part of a great campaign to promote train etiquette. If only they had this in New York!

(Top photo): A sign inside the train station announcing the “Women Only” passenger car. Train “gropers” (chikan) are notorious on crowded Tokyo trains, as social misfits have no other way to release their sexual urges other than to anonymously molest women on crowded trains. Men have been known to assemble via the internet and they prey on women who look unlikely to fight back. In my 8 years in Japan, I have been lucky to not have encountered a chikan. Also true is that some women who do not get groped then have a complex, wondering, “What’s wrong with me? Why doesn’t anyone want to touch me?” Ahem. No thank you.

(Bottom photo): A group of OL’s (“Office Ladies”) on their lunch break. These are women workers hired to do clerical work. The difference between American secretaries and Japanese OL’s, though, is that the OL position is inherently sexist and dead-end. Not only do they do menial tasks, they are required to pour tea for and otherwise serve the (usually) male managers and clients. They are also the only employees required to wear uniforms.

When I first arrived in Japan in 1999 I had stayed in a women’s college dormitory. I was held to the same rules as the 18 and 19 year-old students, meaning I had to adhere to a daily 9:00 p.m. curfew. I was allowed to stay out until 10:00 provided that I filled out paperwork 3 days in advance and received all the required signature stamps from the senior dorm staff. (A colleague finally rescued me by inviting me to share her apartment.) If only blogging existed then!

All this to say, I’m lucky to be an American woman.

A beautiful, serene temple tucked away in the center of bustling and ultra-modern Tokyo. I love the bottom picture of a businessman taking a quiet lunch break in the temple.

Noticeably missing are family pictures. We came home with no photos of Fred’s grandparents! We were able to celebrate Max’s father’s 85th birthday the day before we left, and we went to a stunning restaurant located in the middle of a traditional Japanese garden. As is our way in Japan, though, we were constantly rushing, and Max had brought the camera but left the battery still recharging in the apartment. Such was our time in Japan. We keep thinking, next trip we’ll be more relaxed…next trip we’ll do it right.

18 thoughts on “A Mini-Travel Memoir of Japan

  1. Welcome back! I can’t imagine riding in such cramped quarters as you had on the subway. The train etiquette sign made me giggle though. 🙂 Oh, and I’m in NC too–the mountains.

  2. Welcome back! Such interesting photos and stories of Japan. I have been to Hong Kong many times where the underground system amazed me with its organization but Japan is a place I have never visited and always wanted to as it is so very different. I am glad you had a good trip.

    • Thanks Jane! I hope you can visit Tokyo/Japan someday! It’s a pretty fascinating place…I’d say more structured and contained than Hong Kong but very interesting all the same.

  3. Thanks for sharing these – the differences are the details that really stay with us aren’t they? I would love to visit Japan someday and experience all of the above first hand. But that would be a stress-free pleasurable visit, quite unlike the ones where family’s involved, where I often feel like we’re rushing from one place to another trying to make sure we see everyone, and then flood with guilt when you do not have the extra time for some others. It’s at once rewarding to see family and harried, so I can understand much of your emotions during your visit. Especially the part about being thankful for being where we are now.

    Amen sister 🙂

    By the way, in case you’re interested, my trip home was detailed in several posts starting here: http://www.herewhereihavelanded.com/2010/03/malaysia-series-salty-sticky-hot.html

    • Oh yes, you totally get it. I definitely don’t lump these Japan trips under “vacation”…thanks for the link to your similar experiences – I will check it out!

  4. Oh, all the people. All the people!!

    Good to have you back and WHEN DID YOU WORK ON YOUR BLOG LAYOUT?

    I am not jealous b/c I love you, but I am so deep in blog covetness…it is wonderful!!

    I am in deep deep like with your banner…and your by line.

    Tremendous, girlfriend, just tremendous.

    • Thanks Alexandra! Actually on WordPress you can just scroll through a list of templates and click on the one you like. I am totally low tech, so this was ultra simple! It’s called “koi” and I chose it immediately for the Japanese associations. I like the warmth of it and I am so glad people like it!

  5. Welcome back! And thanks for the fascinating look at life in Japan. I have to say I admire your grit at being able to tough it out in that small apartment with a child. I do not think I am made of such strong stuff! =>

  6. I feel selfish here among your fan club that I got you “in person!” during your trip. Your flat is bigger than I expected! Also, it’s nice that it is bright, but I imagine you were up with the Rising Sun every day! The only thing wrong with the photo is the half bottle of airplane wine is still there! What happened?

    The house was too quiet after you left, but Ashley Hana planted the watermelon seeds in the back to “be ready for Fred Kun for next time,” so we will wait out the year in preschooler anticipation. In the mean time, recharge YOUR batteries too – and don’t ever leave home without THAT charger!

    • How funny that you noticed the airplane wine! I purposely saved half of it for land drinking, and then never got around to it until we were cleaning out the place.

      Well, save that watermelon – a year will be here before we know it!

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