"Home is Where the Heart Is"
By Kit [21 April 1999]

It's noisy here. It's constipated with people, yet isolating. It's expensive and rule-bound. A melon really can cost $30, and the nail that sticks up frequently does get beaten down. And where are the geisha, and mountains, and Zen sensibilities, for crying out loud? Neither as exotic as you hoped, nor as normal as it seems, Tokyo can take getting used to. Plus, here you are with the kids, who expect you, oh Wise One, to know how to read the label on a can of beans! You might tell yourself that you don't really live here. But watch out. Despite everything, Tokyo has a way of growing on you.

How do I know this? I've lived in Tokyo for over ten years, and I feel partial to the bustling Big Mikan. But, in this case, I'm basing my observations on letters I have received from friends, ex-ex-pats, and spouses of Japanese who have returned to their home countries to live. These letters invariably express a deep longing to come "home" to Tokyo. It occurs to me that if you're here with kids, you might like to know what you might miss should you ever decide to leave Tokyo.

In Tokyo, you don't really need a car to get anywhere and it's safe enough to go for a walk alone at night through the neon lights. No city provides the same degree of convenience, in terms of stores, delivery services, timely trains, kiosks, etc. Grocery store produce looks picture-perfect, arranged in tiny tidy bins, and local vendors will often give you a special price or gift if you patronize them long enough. There are always taxis nearby (except when it's freezing cold and you've got eight Christmas packages). There are four seasons (Rainy, Smoggy, Hot and Cold), but none of these seasons will kill you. A hurricane means lots of wind and maybe an umbrella turned inside out. The public busses are spic and span, trains have velvet seats, and you can get eight different types of pizza. People litter, but someone always sweeps up in the morning. The sounds of sloshing bath water and the slightly floral scent of soap drifts out of homes as even central Tokyo neighborhoods quiet down for the night at about nine p.m.

My friends have also noted that Japanese are very child-tolerant, and children are allowed to move about without adult supervision at younger ages than back home. Of course, you've got to write your child's name on every earthly possession, just in case your intrepid one gets lost.

In addition to the above, I feel that most tasks in Tokyo come with a little discovery, a stimulating challenge, a small triumph. You are special, living here, and you are sharing with your kids a secret life--a code, if you will--which you will have in common for the rest of your lives.

There's a flip side to every coin, I guess, and you might have a totally different take on Tokyo. Nonetheless, the deeper you delve into a culture--and with kids you're going to go deeper than most people --the more you get the big picture, and the more you feel "at home" in foreign circumstances. I am sure that my son, now three years old, has helped me transplant my heart here, but the letters that I continue to get from friends departed to other parts of the world are also constant reminders of what a remarkable city Tokyo is, with or without kids.

Kit Pancoast Nagamura first arrived in Japan in 1982 on a fellowship from Brown University and I.B.M. Back in the U.S., she took her Ph.D. in literature and won various teaching and writing awards, but always hoped to see Japan again. Settled here since 1991, she now lives in Tokyo with her husband and one son. Kodansha has just published her third book written in Japanese. Writing for her is like breathing for the rest of us. When you meet her, the red hair and sparkling blue eyes promise a quick wit. You will not be disappointed.

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