Thursday, April 25, 2013

Half Way

Well folks, I've reached the midpoint of my Tokyo assignment.  There have been highs and lows, but I've stuck with it.

Things I love about Tokyo:

  • Feeling safe.  When I was living in DTLA, I never walked around in my neighborhood after dark on my own, which meant I almost never left my apartment after dark except to drive to dance classes.  Not a fun way to live.  In Tokyo, I feel much safer and it has made a noticeable difference in my quality of life.
  • Work friends.  I love having a peer group in my practice group here and I have met some particularly awesome people--I would bring them back to the home office with me in an instant if I could.  It hugely enhances my day-to-day experience in and outside of the office.  I'm so grateful to the associates that have reached out to me and invited me to dinner or drinks.
  • The subway.  Public transportation in Tokyo is timely, quiet and tidy.  Sure, it gets crowded during rush hour, but I love the convenience and freedom that the subway system has given me.  I have not missed my car for a moment.  This is helped by Tokyo's subway etiquette rules: no cell phone calls, no eating on the train, no loud music and, generally, no inconveniencing others (seriously, I read that last one off of a sign posted in a subway station).
  • The work ethic.  Doing your job to the best of your abilities is important here and, better yet, it feels like people, no matter how high or low their station, are respected for and take pride in hard work.  I suspect, culturally, there is more to this (e.g., I sometimes wonder about the sincerity of it all), but I really love the basic premise that even people in the most simple jobs should be entitled to feel pride in their work.  In the U.S., it seems we often take this sense of accomplishment away from people by looking down on certain types of employment.
  • The restaurants.  Lots of great places to eat and amazing service.  The density of awesome restaurant choices is a city-living benefit, but the amazing service is a part of Japanese hospitality (which puts American hospitality to shame, I'm afraid).
  • Good order.  People follow the rules here (to a fault, as improvisation is not a Japanese strength in my humble opinion).  The orderly nature contributes to my day-to-day sense of security and will always be something I strongly associate with Japanese culture--I was incredibly impressed by and will never forget how people behaved in the immediate aftermath of the March 11th earthquake.
  • My Japanese tutor.  My chief regret is not starting lessons with her sooner.  She brightens my day and I understand the world I'm living in better with each word that I add to my vocabulary.  (Having said that, experiencing the limitations of illiteracy during the early months of my stay made an impression.  I want to volunteer with adult literacy programs when I return home.)

Weekend trips I've taken:

  • Kyoto.  We made the trip during peak foliage season.  It would have been nice to go back during the cherry blossom season.
  • Seoul, Korea.  I had fun, but didn't feel like we saw a whole lot here.
  • Borneo, Malaysia.  Rock climbing, zip lining and passing by the water buffalo while river rafting were the highlights.  Also stayed at a beautiful hotel (check out the photos on the website!).

Things I miss about home:

  • My family, Ben, friends and pups.
  • Reasonably priced produce.  Paying $4 for one apple is not something I'll miss.  Having said that, the produce on offer is in immaculate condition.
  • Ability to communicate.
  • Dancing.  I've reached out to teachers here, but between the language limitations and the very late hours at the office it has become clear dancing will not be a part of my life while I'm here.
  • Roots.  On a materialistic level, I miss my stuff.  I moved here for a year with two suitcases (one large, one carry on) and a couple small boxes.  But while I miss all the stuff that is waiting for me in a storage unit back home, I've realized that life is simpler without all that.  Speaking of the storage unit, I miss having a home base.  Where is home?  Is it my stark corporate apartment in Tokyo?  The city where my storage unit is located?  The cities I've studied in?  The city I grew up in?  Right now, I don't have a home base and that is simultaneously scary and freeing.
Things I worry about:
  • My personal life.  I have gone from worrying about how to make things work to giving up hope.  Recently, I've been trying to prepare myself for the possibility of a future in which I neither marry nor have kids.  I know lots of people love that lifestyle and I know that if I had been married or had kids earlier in life I likely would not have experienced working in Asia.  But I find it depressing to think of never having a family of my own, which means that I still want those things.  I crave the companionship and sense of connectedness.  I feel like a tremendous failure in this area and I feel like my window of opportunity is quickly closing.  When I have a quiet night at home, this is where my thoughts turn.  How far will I go to "fix" this?  Can this be fixed?  What needs to be done?
  • The transition home.  How will the logistics work?  Where will I live?  Where will I want to work?  Is there any reason to believe the work arrangements in my home office will improve?  After years of moving from place to place, I'd like to settle down, which means that my next move will have to be a thoughtful one.
  • Staying connected to friends and family at home.
This has been one of the most exciting and challenging six-month periods of my life.  All in all, I feel incredibly fortunate to have had this experience.  Setting aside what it's done for my work, it has helped me grow on a simple, human level.  There are new layers of empathy.  A new appreciation of people or things I had taken for granted.  New ideas about how to approach life.  New ideas about the type of person I want to be.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Sakura (Cherry Blossoms)

There is a lot of hype over the cherry blossoms in Tokyo.  Starbucks has special cups for the occassion (think the red holiday cups in the US, except for these are white with blossoms in various shades of pink), the city installs special lighting so that people can enjoy the blossoms at night, and there is even a special word (hanami) for outdoor parties beneath the cherry blossoms.  It seemed overblown, really, but when the trees bloomed--wow. I finally understood what all the hype was about.

The street I live on in Minato-ku is lined with cherry trees, which meant that I started and ended my day walking through a tunnel of sakura that felt like something out of a fairy tale.  Here are some quick snaps I took on my Blackberry:

At Yotsuya station

My neighborhood (note the special lights attached to the trees)
My neighborhood


The cherry blossoms are long gone, but I'll remember their bloom as one of my favorite times in Tokyo!

Tuesday, April 9, 2013


Just a few pictures in the interest of time.

There were lots of buddhas, lanterns, the best Mexican food I've had since I moved to Asia (Vatos in Itaewon) and no visit to the DMZ!  If you want to visit the DMZ you must clear your passport/identification information in advance. We did not plan ahead. As many of you have been reading in the news, the situation is a bit precarious so I wasn't too upset about the lost opportunity.

In broad strokes, people in Seoul dressed down, smiled more, said hello, and were much more open.  You know you've gotten used to Tokyo when you see a sober couple holding hands or cuddling in public and find it remarkable.  Seoul seemed to sprawl with long distances, wide roads and (happily) cheap cab fare.

I've been back in Tokyo for over a week now.  The cherry blossoms are almost entirely gone (more on sakura later) and the weather is warming up a bit.