A little over a week ago, Elisabeth and I boarded a flight from Narita to LAX. This was our third NRT –> LAX, but likely our last. At least for a long while. Elisabeth and I are officially CONUS residents again, living in California for the next several months until Damon joins us and we move to Washington, DC.
I don’t believe I’ve entirely updated this blog on our current situation, so here’s the short version: I’m pregnant (duh). Damon is currently in Nevada participating in a major training exercise for the next several weeks. When he returns to Japan, he will be doing work-ups for deployment. If you don’t know what any of that means, that’s okay, I don’t really either. Basically, he’ll be really, really busy and gone a lot. And ultimately, he’ll deploy again. All before the baby is set to arrive.
Given his timeline and my due date, we decided the best decision for me was to move back with my family in California to have the baby and wait out the deployment. So here I am.
It was strange leaving Japan – and the Atsugi community – so many months before I had previously planned. There were so many things on my bucket list left undone, and time I had counted on with friends that I had to sacrifice. But ultimately, I was ready to move; I desperately needed an In-N-Out burger. I lived overseas for 22 months, which hardly sounds like any time at all. But since graduating college in 2007, that is actually the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere. Crazy, right?
If I’m being honest, I didn’t love Japan. That’s not to say I disliked it – not at all! It’s just that I never felt 100% comfortable in the culture. Part of that is my own fault. Before moving, I assumed I would fully immerse myself in the Japanese culture, and frankly, I didn’t. When we moved, Elisabeth was five months old. I struggled – more than I thought I would – with balancing parenting a baby (and then toddler) and exploring and experiencing all Japan had to offer. I regret that a little, but I think I did the best I could at the time.
Like I said, though I didn’t fall in love with Japan, I still had a great experience overseas. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have lived abroad and experienced another culture for so long, even if it wasn’t in the ways I initially expected, and even if I still can’t properly use chopsticks.
There is a lot to appreciate about Japan. First of all, it’s beautiful.
And it’s clean – amazingly clean! Tokyo – a major metropolitan city – is spotless. There is no litter! It’s incredible! And it’s also evidence of the general respectfulness that pervades Japanese culture – a respect not only for the environment, but also for one another.
I was also amazed by the trains. Being well acquainted with Chicago’s El, San Francisco’s Bart, and Washington DC’s Metro, the Japanese train system is a beautiful thing. Efficient, quiet, and – it should go without saying – clean. Riding on the trains by myself was often like a mini-vacation. Sadly, I’m not exaggerating.
Another testament to Japan’s greatness: Safety. Japan is very safe. So safe, that now that I’m back in the states I’ll probably do something stupid like leave my car unlocked and get robbed. I never worried about Elisabeth’s or my personal safety. I never worried about my purse being snatched, or walking around at night by myself, or anything, really. Where else in the world can you leave or forget a valuable item in public and it won’t be stolen? Nowhere, that I can think of.
I also greatly appreciated how child-friendly Japan is. The women’s lounges at Nordstrom are nice, but they don’t hold a candle to the full-on nursing centers you can find all over Japan. Not to mention the play areas and family lines in airports, the friendliness with which people treat kids… They take care of their mammas over there! America could learn a few things from Japan on this front.
And can I tell you about the people? The generosity and kindness of the Japanese I befriended showed no bounds. I was constantly surprised at the thoughtful ways in which my Japanese friends shared their culture and expressed their friendship. Below is a picture of one of my English students, Toshimi. Toshimi and I met a few times every month for lunch and conversational English. Though she was already treating me to lunch and paying me for “teaching” her English, Toshimi never failed to bring me some sort of gift. Nothing exorbitant, but usually little things that showed she was thinking of my family and me. Coffee for my husband, little toys and candies for Elisabeth, and all sorts of goodies for me. She was the one that first brought to my attention the prevalence of Elisabeth’s department store Christmas ad, bringing me bags, newspaper inserts and pamphlets all adorned with Elisabeth’s face. Did she need to collect all that junk for me? No, but she did because she knew I would appreciate it. And once, after I had described to her an opportunity I had to try on some beautiful kimonos, she brought me a gorgeous obi of her own, claiming she didn’t use it anymore and that I could have it. What a big heart.
And then there are Sumiko and Kenji, an older couple that some of my friends from base introduced me to. Sumiko immediately took me in as her friend, inviting me over for “cooking lessons” (she did all the cooking) and Japanese instruction. Besides feeding me and helping me with my struggling Japanese (ultimately a lost cause), she also welcomed my family into her home. Whether insisting on performing a tea ceremony for my mother so she could experience this part of Japanese culture, or treating us to an extravagant Japanese meal, or sending us home with home-crafted gifts, she was a model of generosity.
Then there are the Japanese military spouses (the AWA ladies), whom we often partnered with for events on and off base. Whether hosting themed luncheons, or crafting (yes, crafting!), or decorating Christmas trees, or learning “posture walking”, these women showed me a fun and silly side of their personalities that I didn’t often see out and about in town.
These are just a few examples of how wonderful the Japanese people were that I encountered, and they certainly enriched my experience abroad.
Here are some other highlights from my time in Japan:
Bon-Odori: My first summer in Japan, I participated as a dancer in Bon-Odori festivals with the other spouses on base. I didn’t really know what it was at first, but someone told me it involved dressing up and dancing, so I was like, “Sign me up!” Then fortuitously, Damon made me watch Karate Kid II with him. Do you remember the end of the film? You know – when everyone is at the Japanese festival and the bad guy crashes and takes the love interest hostage in the middle of her dance performance? That was a Bon-Odori festival. Suddenly everything was illuminated!
A very brief and very crude history: Obon festivals honor the spirits of the dead, and different regions perform different styles of Bon dances. For more information, you may go watch Karate Kid II for yourself. We (the American spouses) learned several traditional Japanese dances and performed them at the festivals around town, and even at one that NAF Atsugi hosted. Thankfully, there were no knife fights at any of the festivals we attended.
We all wore yukatas, lighter kimonos worn during the summer. Beautiful though they may be, those things are not comfortable. You’re cinched in so tight you can barely breathe. And though they are meant to be cooler for summer, there was not a whole lot of ventilation going on. At the end of these festivals I was a sweaty mess, but hey, when else am I going to get to dress like that?
And sometimes, when the American base hosts a Bon Festival, Edwin McCain performs and you’re suddenly playing dress up in the late 1990s.
Speaking of dressing up, the kimonos and yukatas really are lovely. On one very special occasion, the AWA ladies brought in countless kimonos for us to try on and take photographs in. It was at great expense and effort for them, but very special for us Americans.
I’d be remiss to not to mention the food. I really, really wanted to like the food. I tried, I did. But Japanese cuisine is just not my fave. Now, the produce is amazing. The strawberries? To. Die. For. We went strawberry picking and they gave us little containers of sweetened condensed milk to dip them in. I didn’t even know that was a thing! Go try it immediately.
And there were pastry shops, like, everywhere. It was actually very detrimental to my waistline. Besides being tasty, the treats always looked so cute! How are you supposed to resist pumpkin-faced cream puffs?
My favorite Japanese dish was katsudon. What’s katsudon, you ask? It’s fried rice topped with deep-fried pork cutlets and fried egg. It’s about 10,000 calories of fried deliciousness. Unfortunately, I don’t think it is wise to make such a dish a staple of one’s diet, and thus I was at a loss. And although I wasn’t a huge fan of eating many traditional Japanese dishes, I did enjoy taking pictures of them, because everything was always so pretty. So for you foodies, here are some pictures of food I really wish I had enjoyed more.
The below picture is of an unforgettable meal that my mom and I shared in Tokyo.
Our meal consisted of a single asparagus spear each, a small eggplant, some edamame, a beef skewer each, a beer each, and this guy:
The dinner was over $300. Do you think it was the asparagus?
Enough about food. Moving on to other highlights.
Remember the time Damon and I hiked this beast?
How about how living in Japan turned me into a stage mom?
Do you know what else I loved about Japan? The randomness of everything – street signs, t-shirts, advertisements – you name it. You couldn’t walk outside without seeing something gloriously off. Like Hello Kitty giving you the finger.
As entertaining as Hello Kitty is, my absolute favorite thing about living in Japan was the opportunity to travel, both within and outside the country.
We obviously explored Tokyo extensively, since it was just a short train ride away.
And other worthwhile destinations, like Kamakura, Hakone, and Enoshima to name a few, were all quick trips from base. We were so fortunate to live near so many cool places!
Some of our best trips included Hiroshima, Miyajima, Nagano, Nara and Kyoto.
And what about the awesome trips we took outside Japan?
Like visiting Damon in port in Hong Kong.
And then there was the excuse to go to Hawaii for Christmas. Hey, it’s in the middle of Japan and California! It was the obvious choice for an extended family vacation.
And our once-in-a-lifetime trip to Beijing. Once-in-a-lifetime because now that we’ve seen the Great Wall, we don’t need to go back.
And our more relaxing jaunt to Singapore.
And lastly, our epic trip to New Zealand. Which, by the way, is still far. Even from Japan.
All this, and I haven’t even mentioned the wonderful community at NAF Atsugi, and the countless good times I had with my second family over there. That’s another blog post entirely – one that I probably won’t write because it would make me a little sad. And besides, I don’t think I could adequately capture the unique spirit of the overseas military community.
This is a highly unsatisfactory recap of our time in Japan – how do you squeeze almost two years into one blog post? – but it’s time to wrap up. I hope it gave you at least a snapshot of our time in Japan. For those of you who have lived abroad – what was your favorite part of the experience?