We Look Back at Our First Year in Japan
One year ago, today Coco and I woke up in the morning in our hotel in downtown Seattle. We got dressed and had breakfast in the lobby. Less than an hour later, we were at SeaTac Airport, checked in for our flight to Narita Airport in Tokyo. As we were waiting for our flight to be called, we had a last espresso and beer (for Coco) and sent some last-minute text messages to our friends. Many of them could not believe we were actually doing it. And part of each of us could not believe it either. But here we were, ready to leave Seattle forever, and start a new life half-way around the world. One year later, we are looking back at our first year in Japan.
Why We Decided to Move to Japan
Of course, we didn’t actually get up that morning and decided to move to Japan. We may be energetic and proactive, but not like that. We made the decision to leave Seattle back in 2017 when we realized that super expensive and uber-liberal Seattle was not the right place for us any longer. Don’t get me wrong. There were many things we loved about Seattle and still do. This city was our home for over 20 years.
But there were many things we absolutely hated about Seattle. One of them was the misguided liberal attitude of the city government. By enabling the homeless lifestyle, they made life pretty miserable for the rest of us. At the end of our time in Seattle, we frequently felt uncomfortable and even threatened by the ever-increasing population of the homeless.
The New Seattle Was Not for Us
We also did not like what Seattle was turning into. Shiny glass towers, luxe boutiques, and overpriced, overrated restaurants may seem impressive, but they do not make a livable city. The Seattle icons that we had come to love were rapidly falling by the wayside. They were replaced by soulless buildings, occupied by equally callous tech bros. Seattle turned into a “Me Society,” as in “what is in it for me?” and the hell with everyone else.
On top of that, Seattleites were going through their own kind of identity crises. All those gender-neutral and non-binary folks looking for their private bathrooms was just too much. And seemingly almost everyone had to cover themselves in colorful tattoos to overcome their own mental deficiencies. After a while, we felt like unwilling spectators in some freak show.
Looking Back at Our First Year in Japan
The Early Days
Fast forward back to the gate at SeaTac Airport. As our Boeing 777 climbed into the gray and rainy sky, we took one last look at the city below. It was a bittersweet moment. And we both knew that we most likely would never be back. The chapter of 20 plus years in Seattle was closed. A new chapter was about to begin. And we were both excited to start writing it.
Our first year in Japan started on a freezing winter night when we stepped out of Sendai Station. Our hotel and our bed were waiting. We hailed a cab. The cab driver told us it would be only a very short ride. Coco said that was OK. Our hotel was around the corner from the station! And to this day, we still laugh at that. We just didn’t notice on that first night. And that was the very beginning of our first year in Japan.
Next came the reunion with Coco’s family. Initially, we had not planned on seeing them on the first day. It was New Year’s Eve, and we wanted to ease into this. But after our first visit to Sendai’s Asaichi Market, we decided to drop in with some goodies to say hello. Good thing we did; the entire family was expecting us. They sort of figured we knew that.
Getting Settled In
Of course, after that first family celebration, reality set in. The holidays were over. We had to get our new life organized. Starting with our new apartment. We came with a few suitcases. And we sent five packages ahead. For the first few weeks, we were basically camping out in our own home. Getting a folding table and chairs at Ikea was a significant milestone. We could sit down for dinner. You know, like civilized people.
Getting utilities was one thing. Buying appliances to plug into them was another. Where to buy them? How much would we have to spend? We got our first introduction into the world of point cards. Today we use them at most stores. It’s how you save money on purchases in Japan. It adds up.
We downsized when we left Seattle. What we decided to bring with us was still on a container ship somewhere between Seattle and Yokohama. We started by buying a new couch and bed. This beat sleeping on the floor. In February, Goma and Pixel flew in from Seattle. In March our belongings arrived. And we were settled into our new home.
Paperwork, Forms, and More Paperwork and Forms
Our first year in Japan started with literal stacks of paperwork. Unlike the US, where seemingly anyone can just show up, things work a lot different in Japan. As a Japanese citizen, Coco only had to register as a resident of Aoba Ward. Simple, or so we thought. In the meantime, we know better. There is a process for everything in Japan. And everyone follows that process. It is how things work here.
Of course, if you are Japanese, you know that. For us, there was a definite learning curve. As one of our local friends put it, the Japanese process will make you go through anger management. It really can be that infuriating at times. Of course, all that infuriating is done with the utmost of politeness, and much bowing. But once you get used to it, the process works smoothly and efficiently.
After seemingly endless visits to government offices of all kinds, we finally had everything we needed. We could legally stay, live, work, and pay taxes in Japan. I am a permanent resident. Both of us a registered in Aoba Ward, and have health insurance. As Japanese residents, we are also allowed to have cell phones, bank accounts, and jobs. I even have a Japanese driver’s license! And all without having to go through anger management!
Exploring Our New Home
As I mentioned, when we first arrived, we had no clue our hotel was around the corner from Sendai Station. For the first few months, we took many train and subway trips to get to our destinations. It was not until we started recognizing specific landmarks by looking out from our balcony that we realized many places were within walking distance from our home. And walking had another benefit. During our first year in Japan, we discovered many places not even locals know about!
But we did not limit ourselves to Sendai alone. We took more trips during our first year in Japan than we took in the last ten years in the US combined! Top of the list was that big city south of us. Coco traveled to Tokyo five times during our first year in Japan; I came with her on four trips. We also took a trip to Yokohama. Closer to home, we took excursions to Shiogama, Matsushima Bay, and Ishinomaki.
Traveling in Japan is simple, and if you plan ahead much cheaper than in the US. Trains, including the Hayabusa Shinkansen to Tokyo, make travel as easy as heading to Sendai Station. Highway buses are another excellent option for budget travel. You can also get a decent hotel room for a fraction of the cost you pay in the US. For the average price of one night in Seattle, we can spend three nights in Tokyo. And not in a capsule hotel! I am talking about a clean, comfortable, and centrally located hotel room.
Japanese People Love to Party!
Our first year in Japan was punctuated by festivals. Matsuris are very popular in Japan, and apparently even more so in Sendai. Any excuse for a celebration seems to work here! We knew about some of them, like the annual Tanabata Matsuri in August, or the Sakura Hanami in April. The family told us about others, like the yearly Aoba Fest in May. And many we discovered simply by walking around. Hey, look, Coffee Festa is next week!
Regardless of how we found them, our first year in Japan included attending as many local festivals as possible. We went to the Jozenji Street Jazz Festival twice, and the Sendai Oktoberfest four times! And at every festival, we attended we had a great time and made new friends.
How We Feel About Our First Year in Japan
When we left Seattle a year ago today, we had some expectations. There were a lot of unknowns as well, of course. But we made a decision, and it was way too late to turn back now. After all, we were already climbing up into the gray Seattle clouds. And those of you who know us also know that once we decide to do something, we go ahead and do it, no matter what. After twenty plus years together, we trusted each other to have each other’s back.
Looking back at our first year in Japan, we are one hundred percent certain we made the right decision in coming here. We absolutely love it in Japan, and as my big brother Bob said, this is the place we are meant to be. The time and effort, not to mention the considerable sum of money we spent moving here, was the best investment we ever made. And we don’t foresee ever leaving Japan. After our first year in Japan, we know we are in the best possible place for us.
Why We Love Japan
Before I answer that question, I have to point out that Japan is not for everyone. It is a conservative country, with traditional values. That is one of the things that appeals to us. Japan is also a country with many customs and conventions that may not appeal to many of you. You take off your shoes when you enter a home and even many restaurants and businesses. Talking on your cellphone in public is considered rude. There are many things to keep in mind.
I mentioned the “Me Society” of the US earlier. Japan is exactly the opposite. Here we function together as a “We Society,” as in what can we accomplish together, and how can we live together harmoniously. This “mindfulness of others” is essential for a small and densely populated country like Japan. And during our first year in Japan, we noticed this at almost every step of the way.
We Feel Comfortable Here
If I had to sum up our feeling after our first year in Japan, I would say we are very comfortable here. First of all, Sendai is a beautiful place to live and work. It is big enough to be exciting and have everything we need without the frenetic energy of Tokyo. By now, we know many parts of the city well enough to get around like locals. We have no problems getting around on foot or by train, bus, or subway. Unlike Seattle, public transportation connects every neighborhood, so getting around is a breeze.
We frequently take shortcuts through parks or alleys, but never felt unsafe in any way. Sendai is clean to the point you notice a discarded cigarette butt on the street. And during our first year in Japan, we saw a total of four homeless people in Sendai. One was tending to his vegetable garden at his encampment under a bridge over the Hirose River. Another carefully placed his shows just outside of his meticulously neat cardboard matt at the subway station.
The People Are Awesome!
We met lots of people in Seattle, and lots of people knew us. By nature, and design, we stood out a bit from the background, you might say. By moving to a brand-new city, we knew we would have to start all over. Lucky for us, we are both outgoing and make friends pretty quickly. And during our first year in Japan, we met tons of new people.
When we first arrived in Sendai, we needed lots of help. From trying to locate an address to find a product in a store, everything was new and different. We frequently had to say, “Sumimasen, doko de mitsukeru koto ga dekimasu ka …?” (Excuse me, where can I find …?). And everyone we asked was more than willing to go out of their way to help us.
And whenever we went anywhere, we seemingly made new friends. From Sakura Hanami to the Sendai Oktoberfest, we asked strangers if we could sit at their table, and during a conversation became friends with them. Friends we already had here would introduce us to their friends. Other people became our friends because we are regulars at their business.
After our first year in Japan, we already get recognized in the street. It does not matter if we are heading to downtown Sendai on Miyamachi-dori, shopping at Asaichi Market, or enjoying a snack on Jozenji-dori. Someone will say, “Konnichi-wa! Ogenki desu ka?” (Hi! How are you?) And that is a great feeling!
The Food Rocks!
We are foodies; most of you already know that. Coco is an excellent cook, and we both love to eat. And Sendai is an excellent place for foodies like us. There is an abundance of fresh, local produce, and seafood. During our first year in Japan, we sampled local specialties, including Gyutan (beef tongue), Zunda (young soybean), and Sendai Seri (a domestic type of watercress). We love seafood and had the opportunity to try many new varieties, including sea squirts and whale meat.
Sendai also has a diverse restaurant scene. From local izakayas and Ramen shops to more upscale restaurants, there is something for every taste and budget. There is a great Italian pizzeria in the next neighborhood and many other Italian, French, Spanish, and Indian restaurants. We also discovered that we can get just about any food or food item we can think of at a local store. As a matter of fact, I can buy more different German food at my local coop than in many import shops in Seattle.
Except for a few import items like cheese, most food is cheaper and of higher quality than what we got in Seattle. One thing we did have to get used to during our first year in Japan is that food is seasonal here. Different produce is available during different seasons. And some seasons are a bit different. Right now, we can get the most awesome Miyagi strawberries! But by late May, the season is over, and there will be no more strawberries until the season starts again.
Stress? What Stress?
In Seattle, we were always at least slightly stressed. Often our stress level was much higher. And we were not alone. It seemed like everyone was stressed about work, traffic, rising costs, the weather, the homeless, or about being stressed. Here our stress level is pretty much zero. Yes, it was stressful dealing with all the paperwork I mentioned earlier. But now that is all over. Even Goma and Pixel seem more relaxed here.
Here in Sendai, we have a much higher quality of life, at a much lower cost. Our total monthly living expenses amount to less than what we paid in rent every month in Seattle. Sendai also has a booming economy. We notice that by all the new buildings going up, and the number of shoppers in our shopping arcades.
All of that makes us very optimistic about the future.
Looking Ahead from Our First Year in Japan
As you can see, a lot happened in our first year in Japan! From being newcomers, we turned into locals. We have a comfortable home in a great neighborhood. Getting around is not a problem; we know all the little shortcuts by now. We have our favorite shops and our favorite shopkeepers. When we hear the local train behind our building, we can tell if it is inbound or outbound, depending on the timing. We even know which traffic lights to avoid because it takes for fucking ever for the light to change! Talk about being locals!
The Next Steps
By now, we have developed a comfortable routine. I have a great job that I am very excited about. Coco is looking forward to exploring new options. She is more enthusiastic about cooking than ever and wants to start doing this on a more professional level. Maybe not quite a restaurant, but I am sure Coco’s Kitchen will evolve. Together we look forward to building our Discover Sendai brand and introducing this city to a bigger audience.
During our first year in Japan, we had a lot of fun traveling together, and we make a great team. And we definitely will expand our travels. There are many places within easy reach of Sendai, including Taiwan, Vietnam, and even Russia. Now I know all of Coco’s family. It is time for her to meet the rest of mine. A trip to Europe is on our agenda as well.
One day we may even take a trip to the US. Coco always wanted to take a road trip through the south. It would allow us to visit a few friends and see some new sights. But this is still a long way off, so don’t hold your breath.
How We Feel After Our First Year in Japan
After our first year in Japan, we feel more at home here than we ever did in the US. And moving here brought us much closer together. We are so glad that our big adventure turned out so well. Our chapter in the US has come to an end. It was a great chapter, but we are glad it is over. In many ways, we feel we left just in time. From a distance, the US seems more and more like a bad reality TV show.
Please don’t take this the wrong way. We love our friends in the US, and we miss you all. We are so excited and happy that some of you have already come to visit us in Japan. And we look forward to seeing as many of you as possible in our new home. We will be here for a long time. And you are always welcome!
If you would like to join us for a tour to Discover Sendai, please feel free to contact us for rates and availability.