Posts Tagged ‘Tokyo’


I am what you might call a reluctant traveller.

Having traversed much of the known world, finally emigrating to the Antipodes almost on a whim, I never really expected to become so, but I have morphed, in that awful era in our lives euphemistically termed “middle age” (which should more accurately, of course, be characterised as “think like a 25 year old, while carting around a body that appears increasingly to be yearning to be 75”) into something akin to a homebody.


I harbour my securities like guilty pleasures, and shamefacedly admit that I now avariciously guard my creature comforts – a chair whose vagaries I understand, knowing where to find a clean shirt, and the reliable, comforting unchanging view of trees with their attendant squawking wattle birds from my living room.

Where once I slept standing up on a train from Biarritz to Ventimiglia overnight – not to mention using a camping gas outfit to make tea at 2am, to the great amusement of the French on the train, who, preconceptions of the British gloriously confirmed, offered to keep an eye open down the carriage for the Controlleur who would not have appreciated our culinary madness – now I find I worry overmuch about the thread count on the sheets on a bed which must never be less than king size, and preferably of a hotel chain’s special design to waft me off to uninterrupted sleep in seconds or less.


Unreliable air conditioning can throw me into a frenzy of self pity, where once I slept on the metal luggage racks of stations in 100 degree heat, grateful just for the chance of some shut eye, and contented myself with dreams of the blue, cool Mediterranean just waiting to be plunged into the next day, or the day after that, depending on when the Italian train service, grown reassuringly less efficient since Mussolini, planned to deliver us to her welcome watery embrace.

Sometimes, though, without warning, the wanderlust of old rears its head, whether or not I generate said rearing spontaneously or whether, as in this case, Mrs Wellthisiswhatithink fixes one with a beady eye and insists “It is time you had a holiday.” Which translates, of course, as “It is time I had a holiday, a real one, with planes and ice tea and weird food and more planes, and some trains, and museums and hotels and cathedrals and such, and if you’re not coming I am bloody going anyway …” and even your most habitual homebody, Dear Reader, knows that he has been given his marching orders.


Which is how, making the most of the opportunity to break the interminably long trip to Europe, your dutiful correspondent finds himself exploring Tokyo for the first time, and perhaps equally surprisingly finds himself entranced by the experience.

I have loved the last 36 hours. Most of all, I must commend the people we have encountered. It is a cultural stereotype, of course, to mention the famed courtesy of Asian people in general and Japanese people in particular, but it is famed for a reason. Everyone is unfailingly pleasant and cheerful, especially when confronted with the embarrassing but oh-so-typical fact that the entire gamut of our Japanese runs to Good morning, Thank you, and Two Beers Please. A worried expression brings forth immediate bowing, smiling, giggling and pointing at maps and up and down streets, and increasingly, frantic tapping on Google maps on the ubiquitous smart phones. Teenagers here are no different to teenagers anywhere, entirely without guile: when a tiny commuter bus passes us the girls in the back in their sailor uniforms point and giggle at the big white devil on the sidewalk. (In China they have actually asked to poke me in the belly to see if it’s hard or soft. Awkward.) Here I greet their amused curiosity with a solemn bow to the waist, and then a smile. They wave and shout enthusiastically, full of good humour. What I didn’t expect was for the rest of the bus full of company men to join in as well. In one silly incident the barriers of age, culture and history vanish as if they never existed.


Our hotel room is laughably small. If swinging a cat, one would have to first quarter the cat, and retract one’s arms. But it is spotlessly clean and perfectly comfortable, so long as you don’t mind the fact that the entire bathroom, vanity and bath area would challenge a small hobbit to turn around, and that there is nowhere to store ones bags except on the only available floor space in the bedroom, which makes moving from the bed, once on it, practically impossible. It is so small that the only acceptable response is to laugh readily and often, which is the reaction we chose, and to drink a little too much of the very tolerable whisky we bought from the supermarket next door for ten bucks a bottle.

We have chosen to stay, deliberately, in an older part of Tokyo, away from the brightest of the bright lights, although we will probably employ the awesomely efficient metro system to go glance at those sometime. Instead, we are wandering around a rabbit warren of homes, tiny restaurants and small workshops, fascinated by the scenes around every corner.


What is very obvious is that every property, virtually, post-dates 1945. It is easy to forget that Tokyo suffered more complete damage than even Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the result of a series of night bomber raids using incendiaries that was born as much of a desire to punish the Japanese as it had any strategic military purpose. That such a vast city has reinvented itself is a testament to the remarkable, stoic attitude of the Japanese and their adherence to notions of nationhood and authority. They just, in short, got on with it, rebuilding the city and their lives with a series of American style city grids that are easy to navigate, impeccably clean, and endlessly intriguing.


When jotting down impressions I am always reminded at how capacious is my capacity to be fascinated by ephemera, and how impressionistic my attitudes are. When I should be observing the commercial pulse of a city or seeking insights into its people, I fix, instead, on wondering why we have no coins at home with little holes in them – they are just so adorably cute – and how the notion first arose to put plastic models of food outside restaurants, even high class ones, to attract customers from the streets. From there is but a small step to buying some of those little plastic models in a shop which sells nothing but plastic models of food. By the time I am done, I have spent more than our actual food cost us at dinner last night.

Ah, the food. If you are yet to discover the sublime raw fish and sweet, vinegared rice of a sushi and sashimi bar, then you are missing one of the most mouth-wateringly perfect concoctions of humankind.


In a fine example of the ubiquitous sushi bars that dot every street, last night we ate our body weight in miraculously massaged morsels of at least four different cuts of tuna, salmon, roe, mackerel, seaweed-encased prawns and pastes made of fish and various vegetables, such as viciously hot peppers, washed down with ice cold beer and many smiles from the artists behind the glass bar.

We ploughed on for hours as if fearing we would never eat again, each dish a little miracle of balance, taste and form. When we left – rolled out would be more accurate – the cheery smiles and nods of the chefs and the waiting staff communicated better than any language that they valued our appreciation of their talents and their cuisine. We had taken on board enough Omega 3 to float a battleship. No wonder everyone in Japan lives to be 110.


So. Dear Reader, it is time to browse the shops and stalls that line the ancient streets beside the re-built Sensouji Temple, originally built to honour the Goddess Kannon in the 1600s, but demolished one night by B-52s, and since painstakingly rebuilt and restored to its former glory. It is a place of ethereal peace and beauty. Even the inevitable souvenir hawkers, fortune tellers and fast food stalls conduct themselves with restraint. In fact, on the busiest street no one shouts, the traffic cruises sedately, sirens appear to be banned, and the traffic lights play classical music to you while you wait to cross. Cyclists share the footpaths with pedestrians and never collide and neither side in this complex equation hurls obscenities. Ridiculous, amusing sculptures adorn the buildings, and on one there is a sign that actually exhorts you to smile, because life is wonderful.

It’s all very classy.

Last night, we chatted for a while to a young German tourist who had already visited Japan ten times. She said she just kept getting drawn back. After a day and a half, I am well and truly bitten by the bug as well. I may just have to get off that couch more often. A scary, but rather wonderful discovery.

And yes, our room has a wash your arse toilet. And no, I am not going to talk about it.

At Wellthisiswhatithink we have been quietly issuing opportunities for people to appear on the blog as our guest, and we are delighted that George has taken up our invitation, via the StooshPR Facebook page which is an outpost of the very busy

This charming and insightful description of life and love as an expatriate in Japan’s snowy, mountainous, and exquisitely beautiful north is fascinating. Mrs Wellthisiswhatithink and I will visit Tokyo briefly in a  few months, and this lovely article will enrich and inform our visit. Thanks, George! Would you like to be our next Guest Blogger, Dear Reader?


George Polley

“This isn’t my first experience with being an expatriate, but it is by far the longest, and will undoubtedly by my last one, as I intend to spend the rest of my life as an expat living in Sapporo, Japan.

Back in late 1973 I went to Mexico City for a little over two months, explored the possibility of moving there, going so far as to check out what I’d need to do to open a counseling practice there.

But the time wasn’t right for me, so I flew back home to Minneapolis. In January. Given the fact that it was 75 degrees above zero (Fahrenheit) in Mexico City and 25 degrees below zero when I arrived in Minneapolis, that was very bad timing. If you want to explore what being really cold is like, try doing what I did. It works in spades.

The two most important things about moving to another country are deciding to move, and knowing why it is that you’re moving.

My “why” was supporting my wife’s desire to move back home after half of her life in America. Would it be a big move? Huge! That’s why the decision has to be a good one, because it’s a lot of work. Suffice it to say that, after two years of planning, three visits to Japan, and having the astonishing good fortune of selling our house days before the real estate bubble popped, I retired from my mental health practice, we flew to Japan, found a condominium to buy, bought it, flew back to Seattle, packed up the rest of our things, and on March 28th 2008, caught a flight to Tokyo, then on to Sapporo and our new home.

“Home” in this instance, was vastly different from the 1200-plus square foot house with a big yard and gardens we had lived in for eighteen years.

Our home in Sapporo is a typical Japanese “mansion” (code for “condominium”), called a “2 LDK” — two small bedrooms, a small living room, and a dining area with a tiny kitchen at one end. The bath, toilet, washing machine and water heater are off the entryway which, in winter, is cold! Then comes the reality of trying to fit everything you own into this tiny space without driving each other mad. Downsizing to something this tiny was, well, a huge challenge once everything we had shipped arrived. We were literally tripping over each other. In our Seattle home my work space was in the basement, and my wife had the first floor all to herself. Here it’s a very different world.

Tall grasses

Tall grasses photographed by George along the Motsukisamu river bank

Japanese families raise their families in places this small, and my wife grew up in one, but after spending half of her life in America, adjusting to this kind of change has been daunting for both of us. We’re still adjusting, but we have reached the stage where we can laugh about it.

The neighborhood is lovely, public transportation stops across the street, the subway station is easy to get to by bus, and there’s the nearby Motsukisamu river (we call anything this small a creek back home) to walk along.

Our condo is ours free and clear, we’re both happy, although we are a bit nostalgic at times for the things we loved about living in America.

Before moving, we had thought that I’d be the one who would find the move the most challenging. After all, I’d spent my life in America, and was going to leave family (a brother and sister-in-law, four children and ten grandchildren) and friends behind to live as a foreigner in an Asian country.

Would I adjust? Would I find it uncomfortable to be among so many strangers I couldn’t communicate with? Would it be easy to meet other expats and establish friendships?

Central Sapporo in summer

Central Sapporo in summer

As it’s turned out, my wife has found it as difficult, and perhaps more difficult, than it has been for me, as she had lived away from Japan for half of her life, had adjusted very nicely to American culture and social norms, and discovered that readjusting to Japanese social and cultural norms was very stressful.

For example, in the US if you don’t want to do something, you say “No thanks,” and that’s it. Here it’s not so simple, as the person is likely to take offense. When you receive a gift from someone back in the States, you thank them for it, and that’s it. Here receiving a gift implies that you will reciprocate, and failing to reciprocate can – and often does – result in hurt feelings, which she finds very stressful, as she is expected to know, whereas I’m forgiven because, after all, I’m an “ignorant” foreigner and I don’t know better. Good for me, not so good for her.

The other difficult thing that’s been hard on my wife is having our roles reversed in the sense that the things I did for both of us back home (obtain medical services when we moved to Seattle, take her to medical appointments, obtain a dentist, go grocery shopping, and so forth), she had to do here, as I don’t read or speak Japanese.

This was tremendously stressful for her, as she had no idea where the good service providers were. The easiest part was getting medical insurance, which a cousin’s husband helped her to do, and getting me an ID card, which he also helped us do. And he helped her pick out utilities for our condo (“mansions” don’t come equipped with them). A friend helped us find a good contractor to redecorate (called “reform” here) our condo, which needed new wall covering, new patio sliding doors and a few other upgrades. Some of these things we’ve both learned to laugh about, but early on laughing about them wasn’t easy to do. Today we can laugh about the fact that our condo looks like a jumble store in the winter when the laundry hangs everywhere; so does everyone else’s “mansion”, which though it gives small comfort, is a lot better than none at all.

The upside is that after nearly five years, we’re both happy here, are able to laugh at the quirks and social gaffes that remain, and go our own way. What we’re not able do is become “Japanese”, which isn’t a problem for us.


Hokkaido is widely considered one of the most beautiful areas on earth, enriched, of course, by Japanese sensibilities concerning architecture and gardens

What about friendships, you may ask? I’ve found several expats that I’ve become fairly close to, in the sense that we get together for coffee or a meeting of a few local writers once a month, and talk about various things of mutual interest, such as writing, politics back home, Japanese politics and so forth, much as we would do back home.

Generally speaking, I’ve not found the expat community all that open to connecting, which is pretty much the way it is back where I’m from.

We connect with people we have something in common with. I’ve established some good friends online that I sometimes chat with via Skype fairly regularly.

All-in-all I’m a happy camper as an expat living in an Asian country. The benefits have far outweighed the inconveniences for both of us, though it’s taken nearly five years for us to get to the point where we’re both feeling that way.

A wonderful, and unexpected, upside to our move to Sapporo is the way it’s stimulated my writing career. Living where everything is new and challenging is very simulating to my mind and my creativity.

Sapporo is famous for its annual Snow Festival in winter when massive snow sculptures delight visitors and locals alike

Sapporo is famous for its annual Snow Festival in winter when massive snow sculptures delight visitors and locals alike

For me moving here has resulted in writing and publishing two books (“The Old Man and the Monkey” and “Grandfather and the Raven”) both set in Japan; a short story about a Tokyo artist (“Seiji”) published in “A Rainbow Feast: New Asian Short Stories” edited by Mohammad A. Quayum and published in Singapore by Marshall Cavendish Editions; finding my publisher (Taylor Street Publishing, San Francisco, California); publication of a third novel (“Bear”, about a boy and his dog, set in Seattle), and a queue full of other writing projects that are either in process of being written or waiting to be written.

I’m sometimes asked what I would do if my wife died and left me widowed. (Indeed, she has asked me that herself.) I usually say that I’d probably move back to America, though I have no clear idea where, so I’d have to research that.

When asked why, my answer is always the same: I’m not fluent enough in Japanese to live a happy, connected life here.

But that’s mostly a passing thought that I don’t spend a lot of brain time on. Mostly I spend time living each day, enjoying each day, writing, and thinking of things Aiko (that’s my wife) and I can enjoy doing together.

And, in the final analysis, that’s the most important thing there is.”

George Polley is a writer, author and retired mental health professional from Seattle, WA. He and his wife moved to Sapporo, Japan at the end of March 2008, where they now live.

 Uotsuri Island

Uotsuri Island, one of disputed Senkaku islands in the East China Sea Photo credit: AP

(From AFP)

Apple’s new iPhone 5 may have been criticised for its glitch-ridden new maps program, but it may have inadvertently provided a diplomatic solution to China and Japan’s ongoing row over disputed islands.

The new smartphone, which has dumped Google Maps in favour of its own version, has been ridiculed for misplacing major landmarks, shifting towns and even creating a new airport.

But amid a row over an outcrop of islands claimed by both Tokyo and Beijing, Apple’s new iO6 software has provided a resolution of sorts.

Two sets of islands

“Islands for everybody! You want an island? Have an island.”

When a user searches for the Tokyo-controlled Senkaku islands in the East China Sea, claimed by Beijing under the name Diaoyu, two sets of the islands appear alongside each other.

“The map has one set of islands for each country. Is this a message from Apple that we civilians must not get engaged in a pointless dispute?” one Japanese blogger wrote.

The new mapping program was released this week as part of Apple’s updated mobile operating system software, which powers the new iPhone 5, released Friday, and can be installed as an upgrade on other Apple devices.

To the chagrin of many, the new operating system replaces Google Maps, which had been the default mapping system in Apple devices until now.

As of yet there is no stand-alone Google Maps app available for the iPhone, although some reports say this is coming.

iPhone 5

We come in peace to help you, earthlings …

The East China Sea islands, strategically coveted outcrops, have been the focus of a territorial dispute between Tokyo and Beijing,with tensions escalating dramatically after the Japanese government bought three of them from their private owners.

Tens of thousands of anti-Japanese demonstrators rallied across China, with some vandalising Japanese shops and factories, forcing firms to shut or scale back production.

Next, Apple develop the interstellar warp drive, beta release, and make it available for $2.99 from the App Store.