This is a bit of a throwback, having first appeared on my first blog, which I started just after arriving in Japan in 2006. Sadly, that blog no longer exists. Makes me wish I’d written down my first impressions on paper.
The original blog still existed when I started my second blog, which was about getting married and having a baby, and so I copied and pasted the poem to it.
Third blog’s a charm?
I came to Japan with an eikaiwa, and did a lot of commuting to different school branches. I remember being overwhelmed by the huge, brightly lit billboards, the massive screens—volume on—showing commercials, music videos and other random clips. Sitting on the train, watching it all go by, kilometre after kilometre after kilometre, was almost unbelievable for me. My hometown had a population of about 3000 people, and even Canada’s biggest cities don’t glow the way Tokyo does. They don’t even come close.
Anyway, it was in that country-bumpkin-in-the-big-city kind of place from where I wrote this.
So here it is, my first impression of Tokyo, weird spacing and all:
Ode to Tokyo
Strange days in a Tokyo haze Cars far too big for the narrow streets speed by me As I sit staring out the train window at the bright lights of a city so huge, So foreign, so hard to believe… Is real… I’m really here in this crazy trippy world of manga and Keropi ~ Hello Kitty greets me from every angle Every surface covered in flourescent flashing “Buy This!” “Buy That!” I can’t read what it says, But I get the gist… It’s all the same, no matter where you go, but different. Hiragana, katakana, kanji ~ all sprinkled together like one big bowl of Alphabet Soup, but it’s bizarro Alphabet Soup that I can’t read… Illiterate, everywhere I look is something else I can’t read… But even if I could, would I understand? This culture shock, shocks the system, culture walk into the Land of Oz… Odds and ends that don’t match ~ East meets west, old and new, grey and seizure-causing colours make up this crazy city known as Tokyo Bright lights in a haze of starry night… This is Tokyo.
A little background: I have two daughters, one who is eight years old, and one who has just turned three. The eight year old usually takes part in a few lessons outside of school. All were put on hiatus at the beginning of March after Japan’s PM requested schools close, but many restarted towards the end of the month. I kept the eight year old home from all but one, which was one-on-one. From yesterday, all are now on hiatus again.
Yesterday, while walking to the post office to post a Proof of Citizenship application to the embassy (as it was already signed and dated, it had to be sent asap), I ran into one of the eight year old’s outside-of-school instructors. This instructor is wonderful—kind, caring, encouraging, etc.—and true to form, with genuine caring in their voice, inquired as to why the eight year old had missed lessons the previous weekend.
“Well, I’m one of the more concerned people, to be honest,” I said.
“Oh, there’s no new corona virus in the classroom,” they replied.
“It’s not just that,” I said, “the possibility exists that we could have it and not know, and pass it on. After all, many people are asymptomatic.”
“Oh, no need to worry about that!” they replied with a dismissive laugh and hand-wave.
As I’ve already said, I quite enjoy this person. They have been very kind to my family, and this post isn’t meant to badmouth them, but to illustrate what is still, unfortunately, the overwhelming attitude here. Obviously, not just here, but quite possibly more here than elsewhere.
People here (#NotEveryoneHere) have been conditioned to believe that the virus only comes out at night and on weekends, and even then, mostly in seedy or boisterous places. They have been told that if they avoid situations where all three “Three Cs” are present (closed spaces with poor ventilation; crowded places with many people nearby; and close-contact settings, such as conversations at close proximity), they will be fine.
The result is many people still do not appreciate how widespread COVID-19 likely is, and how easily it can be transmitted. Nor do many seem to understand how serious an illness it can become. They still socialize with others, have play dates at the park, and get right in your face.
Heck, some delivery companies are still asking for signatures with the pen in their pocket. Hello, pen that one hundred + people have touched! Excuse me while I go bleach my hands before spraying down the doorknobs. (Note to self: Leave a pen at the door.) (**It has come to my attention that you can request non-contact delivery now.)
It’s incredibly frustrating to see, and it is even more frustrating when people brush off the efforts I am making as unnecessary. And Japan being what it is, it is incredibly difficult to assert oneself in case one damages the all-important “ningen kankei” (“human relations”).
Every time I politely attempt to decline or excuse myself and the kids from something, I feel like I’m walking on the slimmest of ropes, ever so close to falling into the abyss of neighbourhood pariah. It feels like possible death-by-COVID-19/manslaughter-by-COVID-19 is preferable to awkwardness.
Compounding things is the concept of enryo, whereby people think I’m holding back to be thoughtful, and so attempt to put me at ease by insisting. It’s a bizarre dance that has nothing to do with the COVID-19 pandemic, and is performed regularly about absolutely everything, but in the current climate, it’s even more ridiculous and maddening.
Last night, the Japanese PM finally declared a state of emergency for part of the country, our prefecture included. But unlike in other countries, all prefectural governors can do is strongly request that people obey. Many will try, but thanks to the way the pandemic has been framed thus far, will not do enough. And plenty will make no effort to obey at all, just like elsewhere.
But in Japan, we’ll just have to put up with the “covidiots” and hope they don’t kill us all.
Six-ish years ago, my husband and I packed up our life in Tokyo and moved an hour down the coast to the city of Kamakura. We had planned to open a cafe, but after having trouble securing a house conducive to the food-service business, we snapped up a house by the beach that had been a Japanese-Western fusion inn, and became innkeepers.
It has been a wild ride.
Being an innkeeper can be quite a bit of fun, incredibly interesting, and wonderfully educational. It lets you make connections with all sorts of people from all sorts of countries. We’ve had guests from every continent but Antarctica (natch), and I’ve had so many wonderful conversations.
Like any job, though, it can also be so very frustrating and annoying. The big difference, of course, is that the frustrations (in the form of poorly behaved guests, as few and far between as they may be) are living in your house and have access to you 24/7 for the duration of their stay.
And then they get to rate you.
But this year—this year was going to be swell, regardless of the ratio of good to bad guests. With the Olympics in Tokyo, and the sailing and windsurfing events starting at a harbour just 5km away—and set to go right by our beach—we were pretty much guaranteed a financially amazing year.
It was going to make all the stolen towels, sneaky extra guests, boogers wiped on the wall and pee hidden in the mattresses worthwhile. (Note: Very few guests do these things, but they really stick with you when it happens.)
We all know what happened next.
Now, I’ve been for the postponement/cancellation of the games since probably February, despite the financial gains the Olympics was supposed to bring us. It has been agonizing watching people (you know who you are!!) stubbornly insist that the games will go on, at the expense of the health of the residents of Japan, many of whom feel that the government played down COVID-19 to protect certain leaders’ vanity legacy projects. As far as I’m concerned, health should always come first: How can a country thrive if its healthcare system is in shambles and its people are dropping like flies?
Back to the inn—as a small guesthouse-like lodging, since the new year, we have been feeling the effects of the pandemic.
In January and February, the majority of our guests are Chinese travelling over the Lunar New Year holidays. Obviously, reservations that had already been made were cancelled, and last-minute reservations that we would normally expect to come in, never came. We had three pairs of (amazing) guests for a total of three nights—Russia, Singapore and the USA.
In March, we generally have lots of Japanese families travelling over the spring holidays, and it’s the beginning of our European and North American guest season. Not so this year. In March, we had one group of guests from Japan. That’s it.
April is usually Europeans galore. This year, with travel restrictions, nothing.
To be honest, I have zero problems with this. The last thing I want right now is travellers, domestic or international, going in and out of my house.
Financially though? Ouch.
What was supposed to be a triumphant year has become an absolutely painful one. We are extraordinarily lucky to have other income streams, otherwise, we would be flat-out broke already. But, this is one of our major streams, so even though we’re not 100-percent toast without it, it hurts something fierce.
But still—no guests means more safety, which means less health-related anxiety.
Now for the silver lining: space, beautiful space!
As we live in our inn, we have much more space than your average Japanese family living in a city. It doesn’t feel that way when we have guests, as most of the space is dedicated to them, but without them, it feels huge.
We have a decent-sized garden/yard, extra rooms, and a big dining/living room. It’s not much fun to clean, but it provides sweet, sweet sanity when I need to get away from my family, and when they need to get away from me. (←Probably happens more than I would like to admit.)
The other lucky part? Since the inn is our main job, my husband is home, too. I admit that this doesn’t always feel like a good thing, but when it comes down to it, it is extra support for the kids and me. I can escape if I need to, get out for a walk or a run, retreat to my room to work, and not feel the pressure to make every single meal. And the kids have another adult to turn to when Mummy just.can’t.
Our financial situation is not unique right now. So many people are hurting like us, and many are hurting so much more than we are. This I understand, and I am so very grateful for my freelance writing and editing work, and for the apartments that my husband’s family owns which are getting us through this.
I’m so grateful that our usual job comes with a big home and yard that are making this tough time so much easier for my family. I realize, again, my incredible privilege. These things that I take for granted—that I complain about even—make me so lucky.
I was aware that I was privileged before, but this pandemic is really bringing home just how privileged. And again, I’m left wondering what to do with all of it.
And just like that, flights from Japan to Canada are ending for at least the rest of the month.
This has me feeling… strange. In theory, I’ve never not been able to get home. Sure, money and time have always dictated the when, but when it comes down to it, even if I couldn’t afford it, I’ve always known that my parents would bring me home if necessary. I am very lucky, I know, to have their financial and emotional support basically at my beck and call (…within reason, of course).
But now, that doesn’t matter. From April 8th, it will not be an option.
Not that I would even take it even if it were. Sure, I’ve considered going “home” home to ride out Covid-19, but it was really just dreaming. I mean, I no longer have health insurance in Canada, and my home province requires three months of residency before health insurance is granted.
Other problems: with both parents in their 70s—and one immunocompromised and then some—my family and I would have nowhere to quarantine; while going to Canada would bring me closer to my parents, sisters and extended family, it would take my family away from my Japanese in-laws who are equally as important; work.
So basically, not realistic in the least.
Even so, the idea that it’s impossible, even for a month or however long it’s extended, is such a strange feeling.
But all of those feelings, once I started working through them, led me to something I come back to a lot these days: Damn, am I privileged. This isn’t a brag, it’s just me figuring things out. Finally.
I chose to move to another country. I chose to marry there, have children there, settle down there. I went from thinking of myself as an expat (poor though I was) to an immigrant. “Just like my ancestors who left the British Isles to settle in Canada… I mean Turtle Island… I mean who left the British Isles to colonize Turtle Island, inflicting pain and suffering on thousands upon thousands of people for hundreds of years…” (I’m still reworking that narrative.)
But this has made me realize that I’m most definitely not like my ancestors. They likely left their home countries with no expectation that they would ever be back. I always expected to be back, even if just for visits. It’s not quite the same sort of life-altering adventure/dash into the unknown/leaving loved ones behind when you can just hop on a plane and return.
Another realization was that this “Oh my god, I can’t get back” temporary-reality is the always-reality for thousands of refugees, and many immigrants, who leave home never knowing if they’ll be back.
Watching your home country struggle from afar, wondering about your family back home—that’s life for so many people. And here I am, experiencing it for a few months, maybe a year—who knows?—with FaceTime, Facebook, Skype, etc., at my fingertips. Well, privilege acknowledged.
I’m not saying it’s easy for anyone, just that we should be aware that many feel the disconnect and panic that we temporary can’t-go-homes are feeling now, all the time.
I’m sure I’ll be slapped in the face with more privilege-related revelations over the next weeks and months. Just, what will I do with all of them?
The first few weeks of March, after PM Abe requested that schools close, I spent huge chunks of the day checking numbers. Where were they going up? Where were they remaining stable? How were they being tracked?
At the end of the week, when my iPhone and iPad updated me on my daily usage, the numbers were grim.
I couldn’t concentrate on anything, which was a problem as during week #2, I had a few assignments on the go. Even the ones that should have taken less than an hour stretched out across mornings and afternoons. My brain was toast. My energy was toast. My interest was toast.
Covid-19 numbers in Japan were still low, but steadily they climbed. At first, my prefecture remained stable, which gave me some relief. But lately, numbers have been inching up.
For some reason, though, I’m better able to put my devices down and focus on other things. Maybe it’s that I’ve finally adjusted to the new “normal,” even though that “normal” is still subject to change. Maybe I’ve finally accepted that things are going to get worse, possibly much worse, before they get better.
I still have moments of absolute terror, when I worry about one (or god forbid, both) kids being one of those unusually severe youth cases; or about my husband, who has high blood pressure, getting sick; or about me getting sick, and maybe dying, and how that would affect my kids. Would they grow up fluent English speakers? Would they maintain a connection to Canada? Would they be okay?
I worry about one of us being sick all alone. About not being able to comfort my kids. About not being able to be comforted.
I’ve had a peek at that sort of thing: Last year, I had emergency surgery for my appendix. Because of my husband’s job, I had to travel from doctor’s office to hospital alone, go through surgery alone, wake up alone (well, I was surrounded by medical professionals, but you know what I mean), and spend that first, awful morning after surgery—confused, nauseous, exhausted, in pain—all alone. Just that was tough.
For the most part, though, I can now pull my thoughts out of that deep well of despair, and I can get through the day without knocking back boxes of chocolates.
I know we’ve still got a rollercoaster of a ride ahead of us, and I know I may very well find myself lost again. But for now, at least, I can get on with life.
I decided to multitask yesterday: blogging while spinning—spinning on a bike, that is, not spinning thread. (Although that’s something I really want to try one day.)
It went better than expected, only going off the rails when my knuckle tapped the touchpad, which clicked … I don’t even know. But it took me to a different page and my post was lost. (Saving draft right now before I forget!)
Questioning why I would use a laptop while on a spin bike makes a lot of sense. More sense than using a laptop on a spin bike, for sure.
But I was desperate, see? I was desperate for the sense of accomplishment and the stress relief that both activities provide. With two kids—one eight and one almost three—time is scarce, so I grabbed my toddler’s nap, hopped on my bike, propped my laptop on the edge of the bed frame (which I usually find to be annoyingly close to the bike) and got to work. I took advantage of that 40 minutes of semi-freedom and wrote-spun the hell out of it.
…for the first ten minutes. And then catastrophe struck in the form of an errant knuckle on my right hand.
Taking it as a sign that spinning and blogging are really not activities that ought to be performed simultaneously, I put my laptop aside and fired up YouTube on my iPad Mini to watch John Oliver’s latest.
Perhaps that was not the best idea, either.
PSA: When you’re already out of breath from spinning, watching a video bound to make you ugly cry is not advisable.
Sure enough, at about the ten-minute mark, I found myself trying to spin through the kind of desperate, gasping cry that you only make when it feels like your world is falling apart.
And so I stopped pedaling and let the tears fall as a doctor in New York talked of a world where refrigerated trucks are used as mortuaries. A world where, Oliver let us know, skating rinks are used for the same purpose. That world which is my world which is the only world we’ve got.
The desperate crying only lasted a few minutes. I managed to gather myself and spin for another ten minutes. I pushed harder than I have in a long time, and I sweat my sadness, fear, anxiety, anger, frustration, and all those other messy emotions out. A little bit of them at least.
And then, I felt like I could face the world without crying. Or at least, I could face my kids, which are pretty much my entire world these days.
It’s going to happen again: The being overwhelmed. The ugly, desperate, gasping crying. The feeling that the world is falling apart.
But I’m working on my toolkit, the one that helps me get through it. Writing, spinning, cuddling with the kids, eating too much chocolate, sometimes doing several of those things at the same time.
I hope you’re discovering new tools to help you get through it, too.
Today, my toddler combed my hair for me. Or at least I thought she combed my hair for me.
Turns out she was using a marker. Without the cap on. So now my scalp is covered in dark blue lines. Not too obvious, except for the spots where she “combed” below my hair line.
That same toddler is now on banana number two. Banana number one was devoured no more than an hour ago, and the banana peel was discovered on the floor roughly half an hour ago. She would likely consume more bananas, but I have already blended them into a smoothie.
In other news, we rented Frozen 2 yesterday, and have now watched it approximately one billion times. We must have gotten stuck in some sort of time warp to make that possible, but I’m positive it has been that many times. At least.
In Covid-19 news, a popular Japanese comedian died last night. He used to do an animal show that was pretty funny, though the part of me that enjoyed the show regularly fought with the part of me that felt it was unfair to the animals, particularly the (hilarious) chimpanzee in overalls.
Apparently, he’s notorious for encouraging inappropriate behaviour towards women in his skits. I don’t know the details, but that’s never cool.
Regardless, no one deserves to die in isolation, whether at home or in hospital, and I hope and pray that at least he won’t die in vain, and that people here will finally wake up to the seriousness of the situation that so far they seem to brush off as a problem in China, Europe, the US—anywhere but Japan.
Speaking of Covid-19, whisperings abound that PM Abe will announce a lockdown this week. We shall see. So far, his briefings have had big lead-up for little substance.
My desire? Lock this shit down. I feel like it’s the only way that they’ll keep schools closed, and I really, really want them to keep schools closed. I’m anxious as f* thinking of school starting in April.
Actually, I’m anxious about just about everything right now. Just look at my eyebrows. Well, you can’t see them. But there’s nothing to see as they are gone. Gone, gone, gone like the wind. Oh, trichotillomania. You rear your ugly head far too often these days.