Right after our honeymoon in Italy in November of 1995, hubby and I left Los Angeles to start our married life in Tokyo. He was offered a job as an expat working for a Japanese owned company. We moved to a single story, two bedroom apartment. One room had a tatami (a Japanese style room) and our toilet had heated seats. It was fairly small for American standards but our Japanese friends kept reminding us that it was a very comfortable apartment. It was located in one of the trendy areas of Tokyo called Jiyugaoka, where streets are lined with restaurants and shops. I really enjoyed living there and everyday was like an excursion trying to find the nearest supermarket, cafe, or a good inexpensive restaurant. I found shops that sold Japanese plates, teacups, bowls, etc. Collecting Japanese plates or housewares had later become an obsession.
My husband enrolled me in the Japanese language school, same school where he was taking lessons. There, I met ex-pat women whose husbands were also sent to Japan for work. Diane, a petite woman in her mid-30’s from Ohio. She was pretty, energetic, and had that Martha Stewart quality about her. Rose, a stunningly beautiful Filipina and worked as a model was married to an American banker. Bhavna, originally from India, introduced me to eating basmati rice (and believed it’s the best rice in the world. And Margaret from Taiwan, whose husband worked for Microsoft. All in the same boat, we instantly bonded and became friends. We frequently went to lunch together after our class and shared with each other new discoveries, in a bustling city that was completely foreign to us.
Expats were typically spoiled by the company. Our housing, electric bill, and even our phone bill were all paid for. We were given a COLA (cost of living allowance) on top of the salary. You could definitely save a lot if you were smart with your money. Tokyo was a very expensive city and a typical meal there was anywhere from $50-$80 for two. Although expensive, some of the best restaurants you’ll ever go to in your life (and even food stalls inside the train stations were considered good) are in Tokyo. The Japanese took pride in almost everything they do, in my opinion. If there’s one thing I enjoyed most about living there was definitely the food.
I discovered a lot of good restaurants in our area. There were a lot of really good ‘kaiten’ sushi (revolving sushi or sometimes referred to as merry go round sushi), Korean bbq restaurants, and really awesome Italian restaurants. It sure felt like heaven for a self-declared foodie like me. Everyday, I walked around (while hub’s at work) and got to know Jiyugaoka and the surrounding areas well.
Tokyo was very crowded and there were at times I felt claustrophobic and often missing the wide open space in LA. Even New York City felt less crowded compared to Tokyo.
And then there was the language barrier. Being a ‘gaijin’ (foreigner) definitely had its disadvantages. You can’t easily go in a restaurant unless you knew they had picture menus or someone spoke English…..Or browse in a bookstore where it’s filled with a ton of interesting books and magazines yet only written in Japanese. I felt I wasn’t getting to know Tokyo well enough because I couldn’t speak Japanese fluently.
Fortunately I met Kaori.
Kaori showed me Tokyo in the eyes of a local. We went to all those tiny restaurants where non-Japanese speaking gaijins would dare enter. We went to supermarkets and explained to me some of the strange looking ingredients, or bottles of sauces. She cooked foods for me that they normally cooked at home. Kaori was very knowledgeable, smart, and had extremely good taste. She saved me from ultimately getting overwhelmed or even possibly getting bored of my new home country. I thanked God for giving me the best Japanese best friend.
Six years of my life in Tokyo can’t be written in just one blog. The city (actually, the whole country) was complicated yet exciting. The adventures I had there were not ordinary. The people I met were fabulous and interesting. The six years of my life as an expat were THE MOST EXCITING years of my life.