A few weeks ago, I essentially ran away from home...sort of. Though everyone on my side of the family thought it was a great idea; an excellent opportunity for me to perform and teach in Tokyo, leaving my husband did not go over so well with his folks. To them I am the cold-blooded heartbreaker who left their brother/friend (17 years my senior) alone after a 10-year relationship. To add fuel to my little forest fire, I even took our daughter away, making the controversial decision to leave her with my family in Seattle until she can join me this summer. We will be apart for nine months with two visits in between. She is in the fourth grade. That part of the story is just too painful and complicated to explain further. Bottom line, I miss her terribly, but she is in the best possible place all things considered. Now that I'm here, with all the hardest choices behind me, I must admit to having the time of my life.
My special welcome lunch at the DC English School
The very first thing that struck me about Tokyo was the unrelenting tidiness, and not just the immaculate streets either. In all my travels I've never seen the likes of Japan in terms of racial and even physical homogeneity. This is not to say that everyone looks alike, hardly, but there is definitely a dominant physical type, and certainly no one looks anything like me.
I spent the last year or so getting in shape and losing about 25 pounds. Back home I was feeling fairly svelte in my new size 8 down from 14 jeans. Here, I feel a bit like an overstuffed trout swimming in a sea of miniature minnows. Even my shoe size, an almost dainty seven in the U.S., is the largest size they sell here. After a few shopping excursions, I quickly came to the conclusion that unless I'm willing to starve myself down to a size negative zero, I would be doing most of my shopping on stateside trips.
Me with the band at our neighborhood bar and practice place, Cafe Ivy--owned by a Persian expat who speaks fluent Japanese.
Putting personal considerations aside, I've compiled a list of 10 Tokyo fun facts.
1. There are no street names or signs in the neighborhoods here. I won't even attempt to explain the address system. It's complicated. Just suffice it to say, whenever you're walking about, you must memorize the landmarks and keep your fingers crossed.
2. The taxi-cab doors are fully automated and controlled by the cabbies only. Do not touch please. They will decide when you may enter and exit.
3. You will not find a public garbage bin anywhere, even in the major business districts. Whatever garbage you accumulate during the day will still be with you when you get home. What you will find however-- often near the ubiquitous beverage vending machines-- are recycling bins for bottles and cans only. They also have special receptacles for cigarette butts, but the grating is not big enough to squeeze your trash in. I've tried.
4. In Japan, cash is king. Tokyoites rarely use credit/debit cards and many places don't accept them at all. My favorite Japanese money; the 500 yen ($6.38) coins. They also have 100 yen coins which add up quickly. It didn't take me long to learn that a coin purse is essential here.
5. Most everyone in the neighborhood rides a bike at some point in their day. I'm still getting used to the sight of mothers on their tricked-out bikes with up to three kids in tow: one infant strapped to their belly, one toddler nestled in a special seat in front, and another bringing up the rear. And mind you, I live in a rather ChiChi area so these are upscale suburbanites with Mercedes' in their tiny driveways. With the streets so narrow and with cars, pedestrians and other bikers zipping about...I just can't imagine the nerve.
6. If you are renting an apartment you will be offered-- as a welcome gift I presume-- a bicycle, a refrigerator, or a washer. "Please choose one."
7. The most popular sandwich at McDonald's, what I like to call the "egg burger', is an extra thin hamburger patty topped by a poached egg. Also, there's no separate breakfast menu. In fact, the Japanese often eat much the same in the morning as they would for lunch or dinner--salad served for breakfast and soft-boiled or raw eggs in and in everything 24/7.
8. Speaking of eggs, they are sold in the market at room temperature. I'm still a little shocked each time I see the small, clear plastic cartons stacked eye-high on unrefrigerated pallets.
9. Everything here is extra-small, starting with the people as I mentioned, but also the dwellings. Where I live is quite large by Tokyo standards, but still there is no room for a dishwasher and the washing machine doubles as a dryer. Sure the all-in-one unit may be a space saver, but it's so small that you must wash tiny loads or suffer the wrinkly consequences. Salad dressing, packaged meat, milk cartons--you name it, and it's likely 1/3 the size we're accustomed to buying in the U.S.
10. It would be an understatement to say the Japanese love American music. I have heard little else since I've been here. Restaurants, bars, and retail establishments of every imaginable kind play American music exclusively, and usually of the soulful variety. Imagine hearing contemporary R&B played at upscale restaurants. My old friend and bandmate who's been trying to lure me here for years did not exaggerate when he said it was an ideal place for a black chick singer. So far so good on that front.
So what's not so fun about Tokyo living? The exchange rate is brutal if you're holding U.S. dollars, which is all I have for the time being until my work visa comes through and I can start earning yen. The first cash withdrawal I made was for $300. When my bank statement read $387 I thought there was some mistake until my American roomie and employer, Thom, said rather casually, "oh, that's just the exchange rate." Now of course I looked at the rate before I came, but it takes some getting used to once you're on the ground.
Also, I don't like the fact that doggy bags are generally not done here. Mind you, the portions are small so most of the time it's not an issue. Still, I don't appreciate being told I can't take my own leftover food home with me.
While the differences I've described would stand out to any newcomer from across the Pacific, Tokyo is actually quite Western in tone, tempo and style. The people, men and women and children alike, are extremely fashion-forward. I've never been to Paris, but I can't imagine Parisian ladies being any better dressed and coiffed. In many ways I think of Tokyo as being like Manhattan with an egg on top.
At the Japanese National Theater with my student, Yoshiko