On saying goodbye to Japan

Oh, Tokyo: I will miss you. So clean. So polite. So unsmelly. Crowded. Chaotic. Yet orderly. Impossibly tall buildings. Crumbling shacks. Timely trains. Jammed highways. School girls giggling in knee socks. Grandmothers shuffling in kimono. Salary men snoozing on the subway. Vending machines. Pachinko parlors. Hushed shrines. Manicured gardens. Mangled power lines. Taxi cabs with white lace curtains. Mama-chan bikes — kid in front, kid in back, kid on chest. Taiko drums on a Sunday afternoon. Rows of smiling festival dancers, step, sway, step, repeat. Thin alleys, slender ramen shops, intimate izakayas, vertical malls, convenient convenience marts. The subtle taste of sake. The tang of wasabi on sashimi. Sakura trees dripping petals. Shop signs shimmering in neon. Sumimasen, gomenasai, oh-my-god-she-mas. Fuji-san looming. Torii gates welcoming. City beyond seeing from Skytree or Mori or Tokyo Tower’s vantage, stretching, stretching, stretching into the distant sky.


In a few weeks, Wil, Liam and I will leave Japan for a new home near Washington D.C. Two weeks ago, an efficient crew of Japanese movers spent one day packing most of our possessions and fitting them, jigsaw-puzzle style, into eight wooden crates. I keep thinking of my couch, my dining room table, my son’s toys, our dishes, our sheets, nearly everything we own, out there, bobbing in a massive ship somewhere in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, sailing toward America. We will journey by air, winging over the water in a mere – by comparison – 10 hours before touching down on U.S. soil. Our bodies will be in America; I suspect it will take our minds longer to adjust.

Even after nearly three years here, I still find it strange, almost disorienting, that I live in Tokyo. How did I end up here on the other side of the world from my native Ohio? How did this place I never expected to visit somehow become my address, my residence, my home?

My answer is both simple and mundane. My husband, who serves in the U.S. Air Force, received orders for Yokota Air Base in Tokyo, Japan. Yokota was on his list of desired bases, but the list was long and families often end up in places conspicuously absent from the dream sheet lists. We were lucky enough to live abroad, in Cambridge, England, for his first military assignment. There was no reason for us to assume moving overseas again, this time the 6,500 miles to Japan, was a given for our little family of three. The unlikely became the likely, then the reality.

Our experience in Tokyo has been filtered through more of an American lens than we preferred. For the first time in Wil’s career, we reside – by requirement – on base. We live a peculiar life abroad, living both in Japan but also – simultaneously – in a small American town, a place where the kids roam the tree-lined streets on bikes and skateboards while parents grill burgers and hot dogs with the neighbors. We villagers see each other, again and again, at our one movie theater, our one grocery store, our one bowling alley, our one BX, our two elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school. Each day at five, the national anthems of Japan and the U.S. blare into our streets, homes and offices, stopping our children in their tracks and holding cars at a respectful pause. At any time of day, we might queue, patiently or impatiently, while planes land, take-off, or circle over the runway we drive across to reach the opposite side of base. Some of us hate it here. Some of us love it. Some of us make the best of it.

Beyond the gate, Japan always beckons. I peek at it through repeated and regular forays, through Japanese friendships, through my work, through food and art and television and magazines and travel, but despite my efforts, it still feels somewhat at a distance. Living with that dissonance is hard. I’m looking forward to the ease of living again in my own country, to knowing the unspoken rules, the customs and the language, the simplicity of a predictable life. But I also know, with time, that ease will grate on me. I’ll long for the challenges offered by living here, the small victories of ordering dinner from the vending machine correctly or bowing properly to a new acquaintance or navigating unfamiliar train routes or finding a favorite new brand of chocolate. I’ll miss, too, the thrill of discovery when confronted with a beautiful new landscape, to seeing rice fields when I grew up with corn fields, to admiring dragons carved on temple rooftops when I’m used to stained glass windows under church steeples.

But for now, I’m still here, with days to fill. What to do with that time? Skulk around my empty house, plan final gatherings with Japanese and American friends, venture out into the city to join the 13 million strangers I’ve had the privilege of calling neighbors for three years? I’ll do a bit of all the above, with perhaps the greatest emphasis on the last option. Tokyo – my Tokyo –still has a few more moments left to charm, delight, frustrate and fascinate.



4 thoughts

  1. The three years have flown by, Tokyo5. 27 for you? Wow! The U.S. would feel like a foreign land to you now.

    I’ve heard of sakura festivals in D.C., too. At least its one thing I won’t have to (entirely) miss about Japan.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh, three years have already passed? This October will mark my 27th year in Tokyo. Longer than I lived in America.

    Anyways, I’ve heard Washington DC has sakura festivals in Spring

    Liked by 2 people

Comments are closed.