Essence of Japan
Moving and Living in Tokyo
Article and Photos by Rebecca Combs Tilhou
A popular shopping and restaurant strip in Tokyo.
If you’re looking for exhilaration, find yourself a dream and go to every possible measure to achieve it. That dream, for me, was to move to another country. I was looking for a vast culture change, a completely different language, and to be in a place where I was most obviously a minority. How lucky I am that the modern education trend in Japan, especially in Tokyo, is for families to send their children to English international schools where they learn in English. Perfect for me, an American teacher.
I was hired by Aoba-Japan International School after a 1 1/2 hour phone interview and a long wait of three weeks. I sent my passport and some other necessary documents away to my new school, and a month later my visa was back in my hand, as well as one for my husband. I must attest, international schools take care of their teachers. The Internet took care of the rest.
I researched countless real estate agencies that help foreigners find apartments online. Many of these have English language links and agents who are proficient with the English language. I was able to communicate by email with a few agencies and with a little faith, a good map of Tokyo, and Google Earth, reserve an apartment that I was 99 percent sure would be perfect. Once we arrived, we were picked up and shuttled to our new home where we planned to pay our first month’s rent. What we found was a perfect little apartment directly across from a beautiful park sitting amidst a bustling city.
The entrance to the park across from where the author lives.
The novelty of a new place can often suppress culture shock. Everything is new, everything is different. In Japan, the people are helpful and kind. We found that everywhere we went, our needs were met, whether it was the bank, the cell phone company, the grocery store, or the local fruit stand that sold the biggest, juiciest peaches I have ever bit into.
Mild culture shock came later, with typhoon season and days of rain covering the sun. Riding my bike to school on warm, sunny mornings was now only a brief memory replaced by soaked clothes under gray mornings. On top of that, I couldn’t communicate and I stood behind my husband’s voice, his broken Japanese that always did the job.
So I decided to get a tutor. I found her in my school, a Japanese teacher not far from my age. Immediately I had made a new friend who would not only teach vocabulary and Hiragana, but would talk in detail about Japanese cultures. In these lessons, I slowly began wrapping my mouth around the Japanese language. After this, things changed. More comfort and independence surged through me until a night that I planned to meet my husband for dinner.
I traveled to the far northeast part of Tokyo, where he teaches. Once there, I exited the Kita Senju train station and entered a bright, yet quaint little strip. Stores lined the sidewalks displaying herbs and teas, fine clothing, cell phones, and more. I walked excitedly, waiting for the clock to turn to hachiji gogo (8 p.m.) to meet my husband and feast at one of his students’ restaurants.
Suddenly I heard a loud microphone. Coming from the opposite direction was a car with a blow horn, followed by middle-aged men and women holding flags and signs. The only thing I understood from the shouts was “Amerika…Amerika-wa…!” Then an older women stopped when she saw me. She started waving her hands in the air, making a big X, then viciously pointing at me. As she walked away, she walked backwards, to continue to face me and repeatedly make the aggressive gesture.
When my husband appeared with his Japanese boss, he asked her what the protesters were shouting. She smirked and said, “The Japanese want peace. They do not believe in the war America is in.” I thought of my cousin currently in Iraq, and the image of that woman vividly replayed in my head, poking at a sore spot that every American must have, whatever their opinion is of the war in Iraq.
We kept going, though, through the protest toward the restaurant. When we arrived, my husband’s student, a woman of about 60, and her husband were waiting for us on the sidewalk. They bowed and smiled, saying “Nice to meet you!” in their best English. They led us into a restaurant that felt like Cheers but one tenth the size. Once inside, I was instantly a movie star, and they fawned over how I was “cutie” and looked so young with such nice legs. I posed for pictures with other customers smiling sweetly by my husband’s side.
Then they brought out the 3-legged cat, who also had it’s own little seat right behind our table. It joined us briefly, then was taken for a walk by a customer (on a leash). I think Hamlet was my favorite customer—he didn’t say a word, Japanese or English, and didn’t have any opinion of me at all.
The very next day I was invited to go to an onsen with some of my teacher friends. An onsen is a Japanese communal bath, where women all bathe together or men bathe together. Yes, that means naked.
The five of us entered the onsen in Odaiba, southern Tokyo, and we were taken back into another century, Japan. We immediately took off our shoes at the front door and picked our Yukatas, robes with beautifully detailed pictures accompanied with a brightly colored sash. I chose the dragonflies. Within the center of the onsen was a huge market lighted as if it were night. Foods of all kinds and gift shops lined the little indoor streets where people wandered barefoot in yukatas.
Inside the changing room, a sign read “No tattoos” in English and Japanese. In Japan, if you have a tattoo you are believed to be part of Yakuza, the Japanese mafia. I have one, a little butterfly on the small of my back. I became a little nervous, but when I realized that my clothing was coming off, I knew it was sink or swim. My friend said, “I don’t know…” and I replied “Just do it!” We stripped, grabbed our yellow hand towels, and dashed to the bath.
What lie on the other side of the doors was a small paradise. Steam rose in tendrils from ten different pools of fresh and mineral water. Some were high up, some were on the floor. Outside was a little oasis of rocks and plants with more pools. Japanese women spanned the ages of 2 to 80-something, with each and every one looking completely comfortable with her body, though I could feel them curiously looking at me, a pink English girl. I was curious too about this world of womanhood where concern over appearance ceased to exist. Women showered and bathed and chatted in every corner of this huge room, and surprisingly I found it easy to simply relax. I left with bright cheeks and a smile, ready for a new week to begin.
With each experience in Japan, I am sure that I gain a better understanding of who I am, where I am, and Japanese people. But then something else surprises me and I realize I know nothing. There is always more. I could spend the rest of my life here, and never quite understand Japan. This place, after living here for only four months, has offered me such a unique range of challenge, of learning, of humbling myself, and finding a calm and peace within despite the masses that move through this populous place. Here is where I find the essence of Japan.