Life in Tokyo: Eleven Things I Miss about Life in Tokyo (as a Parent)

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There are so many things that I miss about life in Tokyo: as a parent, as a food lover, and as a traveler. Here are just a few things I love about Japan’s amazing capital.

Life in Tokyo: Eleven Things I Miss about Life in Tokyo (as a Parent)

Life in Tokyo: 11 Things I Miss about Tokyo

I called Tokyo home for over 13 years — the longest I’ve ever lived in one place since the house I grew up in.

Living in Japan is great. Exploring Tokyo with kids is even better: so much culture, activities, museums, and food to experience! with excellent food and interesting people.

After 13 years in the city, life in Tokyo had stopped being exciting and just became another Wednesday afternoon. That said, it only took a few months away before I started missing certain aspects of life in Tokyo. And my nostalgia only grows stronger with time.

**Looking for our MEGA-post on Tokyo for kids? **

I began contemplating life away from Tokyo soon after we left the city in 2013. I knew that there would be so many things that I would miss about life in Tokyo — as an individual and as the father of two young children.

I’ll just share only a few aspects of life in Tokyo along that vein.

Close to Zero Fear of Crime

Sure, this is an obvious one, but it is central to what makes life in Tokyo so great. It’s been really nice knowing that I would not be mugged, shot, or punched in the face unless I was really, really asking for it.

And if I may blatantly generalize (try and stop me), the potential for harm in Japan for a guy like me usually falls into the self-inflicted kind — things like bike wrecks (done that) and hangovers (that too). Sure, there is violence and crime here, but as a white male adult, I avoid most of it.

Crime is there, but not for you

It’s not unrealistic for my family to go through their entire life in Tokyo without experiencing a single instance of crime or physical violence. The only place where I’ve felt like I have to be on my toes is Kabukicho, an area I went mostly for punk rock shows or when hosting friends who want to see the seedy side of Japan.

Kabukicho is a hub for underworld avocations, yet I walked (and occasionally staggered) down its neon-lit lanes without serious concern.

That’s one good thing I can say about organized crime in Japan: in general, they don’t mess with you unless you mess with them.

The biggest issue I’ll deal with in Kabukicho is shutting down a few touts trying to coerce me into a strip club or equally sleazy joint. Most of these guys are large, charming (and pushy) Nigerian guys who get a commission if you walk in, but a simple smile with eye contact and a solid “no thanks” (see #1 here) and these guys give me high-five and move on to find their next mark.

6-year-olds ride trains by themselves

Step out of Kabukicho however, and I feel safe at just about any hour of any day. My kids had it pretty good, as well. At ten years old, my son started taking trains and buses on his own to soccer & swimming classes in different parts of town. It wasn’t uncommon for me to see six-year-olds alone on the train at 8 am.

Most people follow the traffic rules, which makes biking around everywhere that much more stress-free. Sure, Japan has its share of murders, manslaughters and child abductions every year. Proportionately, however, it’s minuscule compared to what you’d experience in most parts of the world. How many other cities with over 13 MILLION people can you feel this safe?

I still marvel at this.

Is there a downside to this? Perhaps. For example, life in Japan dulled my senses and lulled me into false security. That’s fine in Japan but bad outside the country. .For example, I’ve caught myself setting my wallet down on the counter of a shop. A year in Japan can lower your guard. Ten years or more can…well, you get the idea.

When we started traveling, I had to remind myself to keep track of everything and know where I was at all times. Constant safety and convenience are great of course, but they can dull those all-important spidey-senses when you need them on the road.

So Much Culture

This is mostly a big-city thing, and I’m sure the residents of Berlin, London, Paris, and New York enjoy similar benefits.

There are so many kid-friendly museums and art galleries. There are so many places to learn something, and countless museums, music venues, and events. Architects and designers do incredible things around the city. It’s possible to go to a different gallery every day of the year and still not visit every one.

There are film festivals, cultural festivals, literary festivals, music festivals and food festivals. Galleries are usually open to the public and websites like Time Out Tokyo, Metropolis and Tokyo Art Beat frequently provide options you can all enjoy.

And this says nothing about the temples, shrines and other elements of Japan’s past. Kids are welcome in most of these places. Then there are the hundreds of kids events happening every weekend in the warmer months. A lot of them are a little too cozy with the commercial side for my tastes, but there is always somewhere to bring your brood.

Booze is Everywhere

Seriously. Alcoholics be warned, for Japan could be your heaven or your hell. Alcohol is available everywhere and consumed just about anywhere in Japan. You can enjoy a beer along the sidewalk. Or carry your own cans into a movie theater. Hell, you can even drink on the train. Beverages on the train are frowned upon of course, but “frowned upon” is quite different than “illegal.”

I admit it: I frequently enjoyed a can on the train home. And then possibly another on the walk home. I never understood why so many people spent every weekend in a bar buying 10-dollar drafts with their mates when you could just plop down on a park bench with a bag of cold ones and hang out.

What does this have to do with family life in Tokyo? I guess it’s just that since drinking in public isn’t taboo, drinking with friends or colleagues isn’t confined to bars or backyards (hello hanami!). You don’t have to drive anyone home afterward either.

Yes, yes, I know this happens all over. In certain parts of the US, however, putting a buzz on while the kids are around is considered borderline irresponsible.

My Neighborhood

Family Life in Tokyo: Eleven Things I Miss about Tokyo (as a Parent)Broad sidewalks. Tree-lined canals. Scenic riverside paths with lantern-festooned boats floating lazily past. We loved our little corner of Tokyo’s east side. Monzen Nakacho is where we called home for seven years.

It took moving four times to finally find somewhere that felt like a real home in a real neighborhood. We lived in a massive building, but it was basically a vertical neighborhood.

I greeted the old ladies who walked their dogs every morning and evening. My kids played in the park in front of our 4th-floor balcony. It was so close that I can hear their conversations with friends from the living room.

We were on the eastern edge of Tokyo — still part of the city, but with a pace more akin to a suburb. And my backyard? That’s it in the picture to the left — the Sumida river.

It’s a perfect spot for a stroll or a BBQ under the cherry blossom trees that line both sides of the river. The area has been called “the Venice of Tokyo” because of the canals that criss-cross the area. I also liked it because there was lots of art nearby. Some of the most respected contemporary galleries in the city are a 5-minute bike ride away, and the Museum of Contemporary Art is about 10 minutes.

To the west you have Ginza, and to the east, you have Tokyo Disneyland and Disney Sea. Head north and you’re in the Ryogoku neighborhood, where the sumo tournaments took place. To the southwest, you had the Tsukiji Fish Market and the best sushi in the world.

Never Driving, Ever

Life in Tokyo: Eleven Things I Miss about Tokyo (as a Parent)

Now listen: I love driving a car. I love being behind the wheel. And for the first few years in Japan, I really missed having my own ride.

It was the first time in my adult life to be without a car, actually. From age 16 until the day I left the States, I had a car of some form or another. Then it was a motorcycle while I lived in Taiwan.

Then I arrived in Japan, landlocked in some soulless suburb comprised of completely of cookie-cutter apartment blocks and despair. God, I hated life in Tokyo then — basically because I had no money and was completely dependent on the public transportation system. But once I found my place, earned some coin and knew how to use that glorious network of buses and trains, I was hooked.

The grocery store, the daycare and the movie theater were just a short bike ride away. If it rained, we had buses and taxis. Keeping up with a car — the parking, the traffic, the maintenance, the paperwork, the insurance — now seemed like something reserved for suckers.

I’ve only had a car for less than two of the last 20 years: mostly rentals in Malaysia and Mexico.

Bike, Buses, Taxis, and Trains

Perhaps some fellow Americans are recoiling at the thought of public transportation, and I know where you’re coming from.

I get it. Aside from going to the occasional sports event in Atlanta, I didn’t take public transportation much, either. To many of you, public transportation may be synonymous with long waits and uncomfortable encounters with strangers. Perhaps the stench of urine.

Japan is different. The trains are clean, quiet, punctual and ubiquitous. And no one bothers you.

Avoid Rush Hours

Perhaps you’ve all seen the footage of a crowded Tokyo train station where attendants are shoving a stray arm in between the doors during rush hour. Does that actually happen? Yup. Does it happen everywhere, all the time? Not at all.

The image you’ve seen is a very specific rush hour train at a very specific time and station. I know, because I live next to one of those stations. From 8:30 to around 10 am, my main station is stuffed with commuters coming in from the suburbs in Chiba prefecture. It’s so crowded that you could pass out standing up and not hit the ground.

Keiko had to ride that train occasionally, but not me. I simply walked an extra ten minutes (alongside a scenic river, I might add) to one station closer to my office where half the seats were empty.

Walking and Biking

As far as going to the supermarket or doctor’s office, this is Tokyo, where they’re all a 5-minute walk or bike ride. For years, I dropped off and picked up the kids from daycare on a mama-chari (basically a “housewife bike.” See pic above).

Once the kids were old enough, we started riding our bikes together. Sometimes to the movies or to swimming lessons, or perhaps up to an hour away for a museum or restaurant and then head back.

This was mostly in Odaiba on open stretches of road, which are not only safe (guardrails), but also gave us a chance to have conversations we might not have had if we were getting in and out of cars, buses or trains.

Remember to catch the last train

When it comes to late-night revelry, however, you’re stuck with overpriced cabs (up to USD $70 to cross town), but I learned to avoid them by setting alarms on my phone near the time of my last train. I still missed them occasionally, but would save a bit of cash by adding in an hour of walking (see “Safety” above) and perhaps another beer or two (see “Booze Everywhere”) into the journey.

“But don’t you miss driving, Jason?” you ask. Sure. I miss being behind the wheel. I miss the freedom that the open road can give you. But when I lived in the US, the open road was rare. Instead, it was the daily commute: two hours of my day, at least. Bumper to bumper. Stop and go. Hurry up and wait. Every day.

So do I miss driving? Sure, I miss road trips. But when you factor in all the stress that cars used to give me, all for that once-a-year road trip, it’s really hard to compare.

Japanese Shower Rooms are Pretty Great

If you grew up in the west, you likely stepped into the tub and pulled a curtain around you so that water wouldn’t splash out. Then you stood under a stationary shower head and contorted yourself so that the water could reach every crevice of your body.

In the Japanese shower, the water comes to you. You sit on a tiny plastic stool and use a movable hand-held shower nozzle to do the rinsing. Once your body is washed and rinsed, then you step into the tub. It is shorter but much deeper so that with your knees bent, the water can reach your chest if you want it to. The entire room is sealed off as well, so there’s no pesky curtain to deal with, either.

We love taking a bath the Japanese way.

I resisted this bathing method when I first arrived. The sitting-in-the-shower part seemed wimpy to me, and I was never one for baths. And besides, I was used to washing up in the morning before heading to work.

It didn’t take long to convert. I know it doesn’t look like much, but there’s nothing better on a winter night than having a good soak before bed. It’s also a fun place to talk with the kids (see #1 here).

Good Sushi is Everywhere

Oh, I can talk food if you wanna talk food. Do you want me to tell you about the incredible izakayas I frequented? I could rub it in how ubiquitous ramen, okonomiyaki and yakiniku are.  I could even talk about how typical family-standard dishes like curry, nabe and grilled fish are amazing. There is a Japanese food for everyone.

But no. I know what you want to hear. I know what will make your face flush with jealousy.

The sushi, man, the sushi. It’s everywhere, and we ate it all the time.

Even the pre-made takeout place we bought from once or twice a week was better than whatever they’d consider “gourmet” in Dallas, Manchester, or Ottawa.

Am I being elitist here? Maybe a little. But it’s just how life in Tokyo was. More people eat sushi, so there’s more of it, and an infrastructure to get it onto my plate and into my happy, happy mouth.

Also, I lived three stations from the Tsukiji Fish Market, where it all originates from. The sushi in THAT place….holy moly. The kids love it too, and because the takeout version doesn’t cost much more than fast food, we consumed it, like, a LOT.

Health Insurance is Not a Concern

Not to get political or anything, but hey: dependable, affordable, quality health insurance is pretty great. And when it doesn’t have to be baked into your job contract? Even better.

I mean, sure, it ain’t free. But it is much more affordable than the system I used back in the States. For me, it has been amazingly convenient, as well. I’ve read some horror stories written by non-Japanese about their experience in the Japanese medical system. I’m sure that most of them are true or at least partially so. But we’ve had it pretty good here.

There was a clinic across the street from my office with a Naika (内科, internal medicine specialist) and a Jibika (耳鼻科,ear, nose & throat specialist) on duty, and the maximum I waited to see them was 10 minutes. An appointment was maybe 10 to 20 dollars, depending on if prescriptions are involved.

We had a pediatrician, an allergist, a dentist and an ear-nose-throat guy all within a 5-minute bike ride, and they were all relaxed, easy-going docs that the kids liked.

Being an “Outsider”

The experience of being non-Japanese in Japan really gets some people worked up. Some people talk about how special they feel, and how the hospitality bonded them to the locals. Others talk about being ostracized and the loneliness that comes from being a permanent outsider.

They are both right and believe me, I’ve felt both. But overall, I’ve quite enjoyed being the foreigner. It has allowed me to live within Japanese society without having to adhere to all of its unspoken rules.

I wasn’t expected to grovel in front of bosses or clients the same way my colleagues were. And I’ve not had nearly the amount of semi-obligatory overtime as my coworkers.

I also believe that being a foreigner was the only way my company even considered allowing me to regularly leave early to pick up my kids from school. I told them that I need to pick up my kids, and for the most part, they’ve respected that.

Other coworkers did, too, but it was certainly easier for me as the non-Japanese to even ask. I’ll admit that by not trying to assimilate, I’ve probably missed out on some deeper relationships with neighbors and coworkers, but that’s the path I’ve chosen.

But with kids in Japan, your outsider status get a bit more polish. Japanese people love kids for the most part, and so I’ve found people to be overly helpful with us, often when they didn’t need to be.

People are Really at “Your Service”

Sure, their words are scripted and insincere, but the service you get in shops and restaurants across the archipelago is impossible to beat. No matter what kind of day your server is having, he or she will not take it out on me, the customer.

Now compare that to the guy taking your order Stateside or elsewhere. Sometimes the apathy or contempt radiating off of them is palpable. It drives me crazy. Whether you’re buying shoes, a soda or four-course meal, you’re usually treated promptly and respectfully in Japan.

We’ve used this as a way of showing the kids how to do a job, even when you don’t like it. It’s also made it easier for us to put the kids in charge of various transactions: ordering dinner, buying supplies at a convenience store, etc.

My Social Group is Global

Back in Atlanta, I had few friends from other parts of the country and even fewer from far-flung locales. But once I left the US to teach in Taiwan, my social group expanded to include people from across the English-speaking and Chinese-speaking world. This was great and opened my eyes to new ideas and ways of looking at things.

When we moved to Tokyo, the nationalities and vocations in my group of friends compounded many times over. In Taiwan, parties consisted primarily of English teachers. Life in Tokyo, however, involved meeting app developers, artists, and architects. It was drummers and bankers and Blue Men.

Granted, most of my closest friends have remained native English-speakers (from the States, the UK and New Zealand, mostly) but over the years I have formed close bonds with a Dutch architect, a Spanish economist and an Ethiopian restauranteur. I want my kids to be exposed to the variety of cultures and lifestyles that life in Tokyo makes available. That way, they will be more open to exploring new ones in the future.

Now that we’ve been traveling for years, we’ve made good friends in places like Malaysia and Spain. And we’ve met so many other traveling families.

What do YOU love about life in Tokyo?

So this is what I miss most about life in Tokyo. What’s missing from this list? What do you think makes life in Tokyo special?


Photo credit #8

Comments

  1. Isabel Rivera says:

    Hi Jason! This may sound wierd but I am currently 17 years old and interested in Japan. I’m not a typical teen because for come reason I’m drawn to the traditonal culture and history of Japan then the modern side. The reason I am in love with your blog is because my interest has led me to pursue a life in Japan and ypur view on how to raise Hafu kids abroad is astounding. I surround myself with Japanese friends and even Hafus and I love them so much. I have even showed my mother who knows of my interest your highly intellectual intake on raising Hafus kids. I subscribed and am looking to reading more for future reference. I honestly hope I have Hafu kids.

    • Hi Isabel! Great to hear from you and hear your perspective. I’m curious to know what sparked your interest in Japan, and the impression that Japan & Japanese people have where you live. If your interest is that strong, perhaps language lessons would be a good next step — learn from my mistakes and get the language in early! The language will also serve as an excellent lesson in the culture and how you interact with people. Other possible steps you could take (with Mom’s approval, of course) would be trying a year as an exchange student, or perhaps applying for the JET program after college. As for having Hafu kids, one step at a time! :-). I am not qualified to give relationship advice, but please understand that cross-cultural marriages have their own set of difficulties, and children can compound that. It’s been very rewarding for me, but it takes a lot of work!

  2. Dan Grunebaum says:

    “My skin does not darken, unless you consider freckles to be tiny, site-specific tans.” Classic!!

    Great stuff Jason. This post in particular captures a lot of what I feel about leaving Tokyo. Unlike you I slunk out though. I admire your courage in grabbing the departure bull by the horns. Hope to follow your travel lead sometime, and to see you here or there.

    • Hey Dan! Great to hear from you. I knew you would relate. Even thought of you when writing #2, as much of the Tokyo event information I was using was penned by you! Hope all is well in NY and hope our paths cross again soon. Big high-fives to Max!

  3. Nicky Washida says:

    Hi Jason, your blog link was forwarded to me by a friend of mine. I left Japan at the end of March after 11 years and 3 kids and we were in Toyosu! Pretty much neighbors!
    I totally get all the things you say in your things you will miss post – I have the same thing going on right now although we haven’t left for anything near as exciting as what you are doing – my husbands job has brought is to California. Not complaining at all – this place is gorgeous – but……as I said to him, Tokyo is like a major road traffic accident. You know you should look the other way but you just can’t help it!
    Just wanted to say good luck with yor brave decision! I will be following yor progress with interest! Best wishes to Keiko and the kids too!

    • Jason Jenkins says:

      Hi Nicky! Wow. You’re my first comment. I didn’t even know people knew this blog existed. I’m still putting it together, actually. Very nice to hear from you, and thank you for the support. Same to you, too! If your kids grew up here in Tokyo, then they have a new world get acquainted with. I hope they adjust and thrive quickly!

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