A year in Japan

Travel writer Mariellen Ward in Tokyo Japan

My life in Tokyo, Japan

One night, many years ago, I dreamt I moved to Japan. I had just moved in with my boyfriend in Toronto and we were buying furniture and decorating. After that dream, I bought black lacquer bedroom furniture and Japanese prints for the walls. Then, he was offered a job in Japan.

We flew to Tokyo on Valentine’s Day, on Singapore Airlines, my one and only first class flight so far. When the beautifully attired air hostess offered me Johnnie Walker Blue Label, I thought she was mistaken about the colour of the label.

On Valentine’s Day, I landed at Narita International Airport to begin my new life. My life in Japan. I had never been to Japan before, never been to Asia before, when I agreed to move there. Tokyo was my first Asian megalopolis. The population of the greater Tokyo area including Yokohama equals Canada.

Travel writer Mariellen Ward in Tokyo Japan

In Tokyo with Asian lions

Our first home in Tokyo was a compact suite in a chic hotel in Ginza, the world’s most expensive real estate. I met Oliver Stone in the lobby, and heard that Annette Benning and Warren Beatty were staying there. We ate at the Japanese restaurant only once, as guests of the manager, because it was alarmingly expensive. But I still remember that meal, the exquisite morsels of seafood, the rarefied atmosphere.

Every time I set foot out the door, I felt like I walked into the path of a wind machine. Crowds of people, densely packed buildings, one business on top of another like urban tetris, plus all the unknowns of a strange and foreign culture.

Travel writer Mariellen Ward in Tokyo Japan

Shinto wedding at Tokyo Temple

Just prowling the Ginza alone. Several massive department stores line the main thoroughfare, and in the basement food halls I bought fresh tofu out of buckets and fish fresh from the sea. At lunch, I did a circuit of every restaurant that had a “set menu” — a bento box containing tempura, rice, pickles and fish, either cooked or raw in the form of sushi or sashimi — usually at a fraction of the cost of an evening meal.

Soon we started looking for an apartment. Our real estate agent was a Canadian from Parkdale in Toronto who took us to see about a dozen massive apartments with ball-room sized living rooms. This in a densely packed city of tiny apartments and houses. But we were not diplomats and didn’t need to entertain. So he took us to about a dozen smaller apartments with views out the windows of busy streets and multi-layered highways and I felt boxed in, breathless.

Travel writer Mariellen Ward in Tokyo Japan

Entrance to our apartment building in Nishi Azabu, Tokyo

Then he took us to a new building in Nishi Azabu, across from a Buddhist cemetery. It had two bedrooms, a tiny kitchen, a big-enough living room and all the windows faced the cemetery greenery. I loved it, though whenever I smelled smoke, I quickly closed all the windows. Buddhists in Japan cremate their dead.

I loved my ultra-modern, light-filled apartment with computerized toilets, heated floors and a space-age control panel in the front hall, but when I think of my time in Japan, I don’t think of me in the apartment. I think of me:

  • riding the subway or the bus,
  • exploring Tokyo,
  • taking Japanese lessons,
  • eating in small restaurants that specialized in just one type of Japanese food,
  • trying to shop at the Daimuru Peacock, the Japanese grocery store near the apartment.

I learned to cook a Japanese meal, I mastered a few phrases, I grew bold riding buses all over central Tokyo, I made friends with several other ex-pat Canadians and made one very large and important discovery about myself: I thrived on culture shock. I saw how it affected some westerners, mostly Americans for some reason, who closed themselves in and stuck to a routine that revolved around the Tokyo American Club. But I discovered I loved being an ex-pat, and immersing myself in the culture as much as I could.

Travel writer Mariellen Ward in Tokyo Japan

In Kyoto during sakura

In the spring, I travelled alone to Kyoto during hanami, when the sakura (cherry) trees are in bloom. I stayed in a 300-year-old ryokan (Japanese inn) and slept on the matted ground. In the morning, a woman in a kimono left her slippers at the door and padded in, kneeled down, and rolled up my futon. At dinner, she brought in a small, low table and kneeled while she served me tiny morsels of delicious vegetarian food, a specialty of Kyoto. I ate alone, looking at the traditional Japanese garden, feeling I had been dropped into the essence of the culture.

In Kyoto, I saw Geisha on their way to appointments, experienced the Japanese tea ceremony and toured as many temples as I could in two days. I took the bullet train home to Tokyo, passed Fuji-san (Mount Fuji) on the way, and felt proud of myself for a successfully negotiated solo adventure.

Every day in Tokyo was an adventure; every time I left the house I learned something new, saw something new, tried something new. I used a squat toilet for the first time in a tiny washroom in a small park on the way to the ex-pat grocery stores; I went to a conveyor belt sushi restaurant; I saw a Shinto wedding at a Tokyo temple; I ate fugu (blowfish), which is highly poisonous if it’s not cut right, and afterwards my lips went numb.

Travel writer Mariellen Ward in Tokyo Japan

Is there anything better than conveyor belt sushi?

After a few months, it began to dawn on me that while Tokyo was a big, modern city with a subway system, cars, elevators, hotels — it was not a western city. Here was my mistake: Tokyo was modern, yes; but western, no.

Here was my mistake: Tokyo was modern, yes; but western, no.

Bank machines closed soon after the banks closed. Beer, underwear, flowers and many other items were sold in vending machines. Streets had no names, and buildings no postal addresses, as I knew them. Social etiquette was strict, detailed and confusing. After while, I realized that I didn’t understand the culture at all and I started reading books like Ruth Benedict’s famous The Chrysanthemum and the Sword

Travel writer Mariellen Ward in Tokyo Japan

Yes, it’s beer. In a vending machine.

Little by little, the mysteries of Japan’s culture began to unfold, like the sakura blossoms in spring. Spending almost an entire year there, going through the seasons and the festivals, traveling and living, all helped my understanding and appreciation. But, in the end, I’m not sure I was really the wiser. Japan will always be a fascinating and exciting place to me, but ultimately inexplicable.

All that was years ago. But this video, by Japan Tourism, brought it all back to me, and made me miss Tokyo; made me remember how much I missed the city after I moved back to Toronto; and made me want to return and re-experience my year in Japan.

Note: This post is brought you, in part, by Japan Tourism.

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15 Responses to A year in Japan

  1. ONEWEIRDWORD March 28, 2013 at 2:45 pm #

    “Urban tetris” – I love reading your travel stories, MEW.

    xox, OWW

  2. Sofie March 29, 2013 at 6:28 am #

    Wonderfully written piece!
    I must say that in the beginning I was still doubting if you were telling a true story or if it would turn out to be a dream after all:)

    SO weird that you had the Japan dream and afterwards got to move there!

    I can only imagine how different the culture must be. Especially the social etiquette seems puzzling to be. Isn’t it also so that Japanese people ‘never’ say ‘no’ beause they want to stay polite? Seems hard doing business in such a culture…
    Sofie recently posted..Planckendael: a zoo not just for kidsMy Profile

    • Mariellen Ward March 31, 2013 at 12:59 pm #

      Thanks Sofie, that year seems a bit like a dream to me … and it all came flooding back when I saw “Lost in Translation” a few years ago. I have met people who had an affinity with Japanese culture and seemed to “get it,” but alas, I did not.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..What you need to know about HoliMy Profile

  3. Shalu Sharma March 29, 2013 at 6:59 am #

    Interesting account of your stay in Japan. Its amazing how you dreamt of going to Japan and then you actually went there. Its funny how beer and underwear are sold in vending machines. I find that quite funny. About sushi, I don’t think I can ever try that. Perhaps I should?
    Shalu Sharma recently posted..Try Pind Balluchi Punjabi restaurants in IndiaMy Profile

  4. Rohan Jayasekera March 31, 2013 at 4:56 am #

    “Is there anything better than conveyor belt sushi?” No there isn’t — and perhaps not for representing Japan either, as Japan Tourism chose to include it in their video! Here’s why I think it’s so very Japanese:
    1. Old and famously Japanese tradition: sushi
    2. Add technology as the Japanese love to do: conveyor belt
    3. Dense population: a sushi conveyor makes sense only if enough people are using it (as I learned many years ago at Toronto restaurant Fune which rarely turned on its conveyor)

    I’m impressed that you still remember such details as the name of the Daimuru Peacock grocery store.

    • Mariellen Ward March 31, 2013 at 1:02 pm #

      Haha, I remember Fune! It just made me miss Tokyo, where it really makes sense and is not a “gimmick.”

      Yes, I remember many details about that year in Japan. It was an amazing year. Wish I started travelling back then, and didn’t wait so long ….
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Photo Essay: Stories of DelhiMy Profile

  5. desi Traveler April 6, 2013 at 12:14 pm #

    Beautiful pictures… and took me there… my only encounter with Japan has been changing planes for LA at the Narita airport….looking forward to read more.
    desi Traveler recently posted..Watching Flamingos In Gandipet Lake Hyderabad, IndiaMy Profile

  6. sirensongs April 11, 2013 at 7:52 am #

    beautiful photos!

  7. Joy of Travel April 16, 2013 at 4:10 pm #

    Enjoyed reading your piece; I’ve visited Japan several times and love the thrill of discovery in this country.

    I will take issue with one item about Americans: my daughter spent two years living in Japan, and it was her fellow Canadians (amongst a group of international co-workers) who were generally insular.

    Few of them made any effort to learn the language, make Japanese friends, travel around their community. They tended to congregate together for beer, hockey games, etc.

    Like you, she made every effort to immerse herself in the culture. When she left, a small group of Japanese friends traveled at great expense to see her off in Tokyo.

  8. TeacherGig July 27, 2013 at 5:00 am #

    Lovely story, Mariellen. The details were so rich and I loved how you just kept it flowing.

    I’ve lived relatively close to Japan for almost eight years (I’m also a Canadian expat), eight glorious years spent in Taiwan. Well… eight years. Like anywhere, it’s full of ups and downs.

    And I really appreciate what you said about culture shock. It’s awesome that you can thrive on it. I’ve found that expats go through cycles of it, and it’s worse for those who don’t really take the culture they’re in seriously. It is definitely frustrating trying to find a decent poutine in Taipei. But it sounds like you really embraced the experience.

    So a “thank you” is in order. I’ve been in one of the dips on the roller coaster ride that is expat life. I think I’m going to take a whole new perspective out on the streets of Taipei later. Thanks a lot for sharing. 🙂
    TeacherGig recently posted..Native English Teacher SaturdaysMy Profile

  9. Evading Photographer January 2, 2014 at 8:12 am #

    I loved my Japanese trip – which was more than a decade ago… I wonder how much Japan has changed since then (?). Loved Shinjuku, Akihabara and Shibuya…
    Too bad I only got the chance to spend a few hours in Osaka.
    Japan is another planet. Unlike anything else I’ve seen until then and since then.
    Any real traveler must see Japan at least once during their lifetime. And I’m aching for the chance to see it again!

  10. Silvia July 10, 2014 at 9:41 pm #

    This was such a great read! I’ve lived in Japan twice before – once for a year as a six-year-old in the mid-90s and then again for two years after university. After all that time spent in the country I have to agree with you – Japan is an inexplicable place!
    Silvia recently posted..One Year Travel- and Blogiversary!My Profile

  11. David Samuel February 10, 2015 at 3:03 am #

    Thanks a lot for present this story this blog.Those who read this post, grow their curiosity to spend some day in Japan.Japan Also Known as Nippon.

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