photo of red Japanese traditional post box

Dear Tokyo,

Well, first, before I even write this I guess I should actually say “Dear Japan,” right? Because for that first year we were in Yokohama. And also, having lived in Yamaguchi all those years ago makes me feel like you and I have a longer history than just Tokyo.

So, let me start over…

Dear Japan,

Thank you! I don’t know if you know this, but we really, really, really wanted to come back to you. Since we first left in 2000, we always felt like we had unfinished business here.

When we were here the first time we were so young. Living in traditional, rural Japan, culture shock felt like a constant. We were ill suited for the restrictions and limits you placed on us. We just happened to have been here at a time in our lives when we needed endless freedom and adventure. We were in an experimenting phase back then – needing to see the world through a new lens that was different from the worlds in which we had each been raised. Of course, you were (are!) different from home – the most different place we’d ever been, but you still felt confining. Obviously, I speak for both Jeremy and I here, but I do think he would agree.

So, at the time, all the rules and tradition seemed like too much. And while we made great friends and have incredibly fond memories, we mostly came to feel like we handled it all wrong. We bristled too much. Okay, maybe that’s more me than Jeremy. He’s more flexible about such things. I tend to dig in…especially when I feel like my inner feminist is compromised. Yamaguchi – you tried my patience then! But, anyway, I knew that. Like I’ve always said, if I had to do it again – I’d have probably swallowed my pride and just made the damn tea like the other women in the office.

All that’s to say, we knew that we loved you anyway and we knew we wanted to come back some time – to share all the things we love about Japan with the kids, to reacquaint ourselves with the foods that made us smile, to enjoy the intimate and universally accepted relationship with nature, to stand silently at the foot of your shrines, to say “Wow!” in whispered tones to weird and beautiful things we’d never see back home.

So, when we arrived almost 4 years ago it was virtually without apprehension. We already knew you and we knew the potential challenges that could arise in the gap between our respective cultural perceptions. All these years later, I can definitely say that the differences between us are much less itchy. In 1999 and 2000, I came home everyday from work and couldn’t wait to escape your discomfort and restriction. But, living here now is like wearing a sweater I love even though it has one tiny flaw. I love you anyway, even when I totally do not get you at all. Even when you make me itch.

Here’s what I’ve loved most of all this time around…

It’s so cliché, but Japan – you are safe and clean and lovely. There’s an ease to living here that is difficult to replicate anywhere else in the world. And although I’m inherently more inclined to the hustle and bustle of more chaotic places, after a couple of years of Madagascar, Sam’s Type 1 diagnosis, Guy’s death – I really needed a place I could stress less in. Walking home at night by myself, knowing the kids are free to run to the store on their own, forgetting to lock the door – it’s freeing.

I’ve loved you so much for what you’ve offered the kids. Sometimes I joke that you’ve made them soft, but I know that’s how they really should be. Kids should be able to run and climb and adventure to the store on their own with less fear. So, as we’ve been here I’ve seen how that freedom has enabled them to tend to the job of growing up emotionally. Maybe it’s a Maslow thing. They don’t feel afraid so they can be more reflective, set age-appropriate goals for themselves, problem solve things kids their ages should be problem-solving. I have a profound certainty that the time they’ve been here will be fundamental to their continued development into good people.

Which gets me to another thing I’d like to thank you for. I’m not in my heart of hearts a compound living sort of person…I don’t think. I’d like more space. But, having grown up in a small town, I do love knowing who my neighbors are. I like to borrow a cup of sugar or an egg. I like having a neighbor message and ask me to run over to double-check her son’s fever. I love knowing that someone may ask Jasper to babysit last minute, or call me to say Sam was kind, or inquire as to whether Imogen is free to have lunch at their house. The compound community is a bit…unusual, sure, but it works for the kids most of all and I love that. I will forever associate Sam with the compound – he lives for the freedom of running in and around the grounds creating moments to remember with his posse of friends.

Thanks too for giving me the chance I always wanted to live in a huge city. I now know that I’m not, deep down, a big city person. I need much more nature and space, but this has been nice for this limited amount of time. There is something to be said for the convenience of walking everywhere and for being able to pretty much get anything we’d ever want by simply hopping on the crazy clean, super quiet, always-on-time train.

And Japan you’ve offered me some amazingly beautiful times with family and friends. All of our family trips – from Hiroshima to Kanazawa, from Kyoto to Nagano – were perfect. Our family is at its best when we’re traveling and we made so many wonderful travel memories here. We’ve made such good friends too. It’s, admittedly, a bit different from Mada. In Mada there’s nothing else to do, so you get in really deep with your friends. Hours upon hours of talking with nowhere to go makes that happen. Tokyo is faster. You have to seek out the friendships more and work more to make things happen. Yet even with that reality, we have made wonderful friends here. This is an expat place, the sort of place where the outsider community feels big and like it belongs, a sort of sub-culture. In that sense, it’s easy for you to feel like home.

I’ll confess – there are things I don’t like. Why is everything here “a thing?” Seriously! How can it be so difficult sometimes to do the most mundane things? More than half the time I give up because there is just no reason for the process to be so time consuming. And you know how I feel about arbitrary rules. The trade off is the order, cleanliness and safety I listed above, I know, but well, the rules are a lot. It can be exhausting.

So, here’s the thing – I love you and I don’t love you. I definitely don’t hate you! Don’t worry. I love you….and you are totally not my cup of matcha sometimes. Yet, having now spent a quarter of my adult life here (can you believe it!?) you occupy a very sacred place in my heart. And my kids adore you, which totally makes up for any of the tiny annoyances that pop up from time to time. I love that the kids love you. That’s probably what I most wanted, really, when we started thinking about coming back here. I wanted them to see and come to love this place that’s so different from home. I wanted them to know that Japan could be one of their many homes. You made that happen! I love you for providing a home for us…even if we remain outsiders. がんばれました!

And here’s another good thing I know for sure. I know I can always come home to you. I get how it works here, even if I don’t always understand it. You’ve been so incredibly good to us and for us – for that I am eternally grateful. I know we’ll be back at some point. Or, at least, I suspect that we will. You’re totally gonna’ be like that favorite sweater, never quite making it to the recycle pile because the flaws are so tiny and you feel so good…and I’m used to you now.

So, once again, thank you. This has been good…better than good, actually. This has been awesome! I do love you and honestly, now that I saw that Abbey Road show you’ve gained lots and lots of extra points. Only you Japan…only YOU could have pulled off that performance! お疲れ様 でした.

Until next time.



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