Brett and I have often said if there was a visa available for us, we’d move to Tokyo in a heartbeat. It’s is a busy, crowded space, but it’s safe, and every trip out is a learning experience and an adventure. Our two months of living here hasn’t killed the dream, but it has been tempered by a more realistic view of what life here might be like for us. Here are some of the major issues we’ve become aware of, both good and bad:
- Language: Through the kindness of strangers, lots of help from our son and daughter-in-law, translation options on many machines, and simple common sense, we’ve been able to navigate through most language issues here, but not being able to read about 95% of any signs, or not being able to communicate in anything but the most rudimentary phrases would definitely be an issue if we lived here. We know our lack of language ability means we miss out on a while lot of what’s going on. We both agree that we would both absolutely have to enroll in language classes right from the start if we were ever to have any chance of a successful life here. I continue to be extremely grateful that I can read hiragana and katakana, and know a few kanji, which has helped us at times through the past eight weeks, but for the most part my slight knowledge Japanese is worthless (and pitiful).
- Finances: We’ve looked at the ads for apartment rentals, and we could comfortably afford a new, modern one or two bedroom apartment in the area where we are now (Setagaya), so housing wouldn’t be as big an issue as we initially imagined. Of course we’re not paying for utilities at the moment, so have no idea how much those would add to the cost of living here. Our monthly average for groceries and dining out has been around $450, which is also more affordable than we thought it would be, and our ability to shop at the commissaries and at Costco has helped our bottom line. While we would have to be careful with our spending, we have enough income that besides our living expenses here we could still help with YaYu’s college expenses and pay for things like language classes, rail passes and occasional travel around Japan.
- Transportation: The train system in Tokyo and throughout Japan is a marvel, and is very affordable too, much more so than owning a car. We’ve had no problems getting around the city, and combined with our son or DIL occasionally taking us places in their car and LOTS of walking we get around OK.
- Health and wellness: It’s a rare day that Brett and I don’t walk at least two miles (that’s the distance of the walk to our son’s and back, for example), but we often walk much more, up to six miles a day, so we are getting lots of exercise. Thankfully I have not suffered even once from bursitis while we have been here which has been a blessing. However, included in all this walking are stairs, lots and lots and lots of stairs. We climb and descend numerous flights of stairs every day, typically 12 at a minimum. Just to go to our son’s home, for example, we have to go down four flights to get to the subway platform at our station, and up three at our son’s station to get to the street (and then reverse it coming home). All those stairs have done a number on my knees, and combined with Japan’s bitter cold weather and having to get up from low furniture (everything is closer to the ground here) on some days I have experienced quite a bit of pain in my knees, especially climbing the stairs. We use escalators whenever possible, but there is no way to get around eventually having to deal with flights of stairs. I’m not sure we’ve lost any weight while we’ve been here, but other than my knees bothering me, we are in much, much better physical shape than we were when we arrived back in February. As for healthcare, if we lived here we would be eligible for Japan’s wonderful national health system, and we also have our military insurance and could receive treatment at any of the bases.
- Miscellaneous: 1) I’ve been frustrated not having an oven or a slow cooker in our apartment, but both of those are things we could take care of if we lived here, even if we only got a toaster oven. 2) I have had some real issues with my body image here. I am an average-sized person in the U.S., but when I am surrounded by Japanese women I feel quite huge and clumsy. Also, I’m the rare person around here with gray hair, but Brett says it makes me easy to spot in a crowd ;-). 3) We had forgotten how bitterly cold it gets here in the winter, the kind of cold that gets into your bones and chills you from the inside out. It also gets extremely humid in the summer, worse than it ever was in Hawai’i, which is something else we’d have to deal with as well if we lived here, although most apartments have air conditioning. 4) A big issue for both of us if we lived here would be clothing – it’s difficult if not impossible to find things in our sizes although we could buy clothes (from a very limited selection) at the military exchanges, or order things online from the U.S. and have them shipped here (expensive). 5) Finally, we realize that if we were here we would be even further away from the girls than we were in Hawai’i, but they have all said they’d love it if we could live here full time as it gives them lots of good excuses to visit Japan.
After two months of living in Tokyo the positives of being here still outweigh the negatives, and we would still relish the chance to make a life here if it were possible. However, we’re no longer wearing rose-colored glasses about what our life here would be like – there would be some serious issues we’d have to work around or overcome, some of them not very easy at our ages. It’s still fun to dream though.