And so it ends…

I write this while sitting in the Tiat lounge at Tokyo’s Haneda airport, awaiting our flight back to the United States. Our time of being Tokyo residents has ended, and we begin a new chapter of our lives.

The past week has been incredibly stressful and difficult. Although we are coming home, we are also leaving home. We’ve come to love our adopted country of Japan during the past 4-1/2 years. It is heartbreaking to leave.

Coming through airport security this last time, we filled out a form saying we would not return as residents. Our residence cards were invalidated, and returned to us with a hole punched through them. Such a silly thing…we’ve taken care of those cards, and kept them with us for 4-1/2 years. It was emotionally painful to see them defaced.

So we will return to our beautiful house in the US. It will be great to be nearer our children. We look forward to seeing our cats, which our daughter has been caring for. I know we will feel better once we get back to our old home. And I am fortunate that I will continue working for my company’s Tokyo office. Virtually, for now, but I will have an opportunity to travel back to Japan once pandemic conditions allow.

But we are returning to a different country than we left. An administration of hatred, bigotry and exclusionism has damaged our country, and I fear what the future holds. And the abject failure to control COVID-19 is frightening. We are over 100 times more likely to contract the virus in the US than we were in Japan. Not the “welcome home” I would have hoped for.

I don’t want to end this blog on such a negative tone. Looking back, our time in Japan has been indescribably amazing. We have seen and done so much…much because of living in Japan, but also from the opportunity my job has provided for travel. We have seen the world…and it has been an unforgettable experience.

As we prepare to leave our adopted home, I do so with sadness, but also gratitude for the amazing opportunity we have been provided.

And to my adopted country, I say “domo arigato gozaimasu.” Thank you so much. We look forward to coming back.

Two Days, and Counting…

Our last night time view from our apartment.

Two more days until our “home”ward-bound flight back to the US… and re-establishing our life there.

It has been kind of a rough week for us… totemo taihen desu… to begin to reverse the process that brought us to Japan as “American Expats” four and a half years ago.

When we came here, we never expected it to be this hard to leave… Tokyo has become our home. And it is with much sadness, and heartbreak, that we have to leave it.

I know we keep going on and on about this… sorry… but we never expected to love a foreign country as much as we have come to love Japan. All week long… through all the “to do” things we have had to take care of… we kept thinking of all the things we are going to miss about Japan.

I have a friend who was an expat living in France when the COVID-19 pandemic started. Her husband was an exchange professor at a university there. When the pandemic hit France back in March, and they had to shut down classes and go to online teaching, they debated about whether it would be best to go home or stay. But suddenly… that decision was taken away from them, and they had one day’s notice that they were going to have to pack up and leave for home. What a nightmare!!!

But… yet… as traumatic as those days had to have been for them… they were over and done in a few days and they have since settled back into their US life.

For us… it has been kind of the opposite, with way too much time to stew and worry and overthink every little detail of the process. Too much time to think about all the things we will miss, and all the things we haven’t had time yet to do.

This week has been an ordeal. We moved out of our apartment to a hotel on Sunday. Monday morning, bright and early… the packers/shippers came to pack up our apartment. Four packers and three hours later, they drove away with 50 cartons containing our past four years in Tokyo. And it was sad to see our beloved little apartment so empty. We still had our rental furniture… but no more internet.

Tuesday, the rental company came in the morning and took away all the rest of the things in our apartment… our furniture, our cookware and dishware, and washing machine… microwave. The apartment was depressingly sad and empty. We lovingly cleaned it. Tuesday afternoon we had to go with our relocation company rep to de-register our apartment address. In Japan, everyone has a residence card with their address registered with the local ward office. I went there 4 1/2 years ago to have our address printed on the back of our residence cards.

The LDK (living-dining-kitchen) part of our apartment.

Then… we had some banking issues that we needed help with. We have had a bank account here since we moved to Japan. But the banking system in Japan can be notoriously difficult to navigate even if you can speak the language. For a non-fluent Japanese speaker… it can be almost impossible. We had our relocation rep to help us with that… as well as with the cancellation of my Japanese phone plan.

Today… Wednesday, was the check-out inspection of our apartment. It was brief and easy, but at the end we had to turn in our keys, and say our last goodbyes to our tiny 30th floor Tokyo high-rise apartment. It was a rather sad and subdued walk back to our hotel.

My husband is still doing some work and video meetings from our hotel, and will be tomorrow as well. But on Friday, in the early afternoon, we will leave for Haneda International Airport for a 12 hour flight back to the United States. After a 4 hour layover in Detroit, we will make the final part of our journey back “home” to Atlanta.

It will be a slow and sad transition back to our “American” life… but we have time… lots of time in quarantine from COVID-19. I know it will all get done, and it will all be fine in the end. But for now, we are already missing Tokyo.

Last Friday evening in Tokyo…

So, the days are now down to less than seven. My job assignment has come to an end, and it’s time to return to the United States.

Rainbow Bridge over Tokyo Bay

When we tell people that we’re getting ready to return to the US, invariably the response is, “I’ll bet you’re glad to be coming home.” And yes, we are…but we’re also profoundly sad to be leaving home.

In the last 4-1/2 years, Tokyo has become our home.

That probably sounds strange. After all, we still can’t speak the language worth a darn. We’re 6,000 miles away from our family and most of our friends. We live in a tiny apartment, instead of a spacious and nice house in the US.

And yet, we’ve come to love this place and we’ve been very happy here. The people are kind and wonderful, even to us “gaijin” (foreigners). The culture is respectful and orderly. The country is clean and safe. We’ve enjoyed being able to walk almost anywhere in Tokyo, any time of the day or night, and feel comfortable.

The words I’ve just written fall short of describing the feelings we have about Japan. And part of the sadness we feel comes from the uncertainty about when we might be able to return.

I will continue to work with my Japanese colleagues. The plan for my job was to travel back to Japan fairly frequently along with doing virtual work via videoconference from the US. All that has changed with COVID-19.

Japan has, to a large degree, controlled the spread of COVID-19. There has been a slight increase in cases recently, as restrictions have been lifted on almost all businesses and travel within the country. Still, the number of COVID-19 cases in Tokyo has been around 100 per day or fewer. Quite few, given that Tokyo is a densely populated metropolis of nearly 37.5 million people. Adjusting for population, the infection rate in the US is more than 50 times what it is in Japan. Not exactly an encouraging “welcome home.”

Because of the abject failure of the US to control COVID-19, Japan (and most other countries in the world) has closed the border to US citizens. So, for the foreseeable future, until and unless the US can get control of the pandemic, we won’t be allowed back into Japan. Once we leave here next Friday, we won’t be able to return, probably for a very long time.

This uncertainty of when or if we will be able to return compounds the already difficult transition back to the US. Before COVID-19, we knew we would be sad about leaving, but we could look forward to returning with some frequency. We no longer have that to comfort us.

It may be difficult for anyone else who hasn’t had this kind of experience to understand. Sometimes it’s hard for us to understand. We came here expecting to have an interesting 2 years, then return without so much as skipping a beat. Then 2 years became 3, and 4. We never expected to love our adopted country this much.

Looking out of our apartment window at the high rises, and the ship passing on Tokyo Bay, it’s hard to accept this will be our last Friday night as Tokyo residents. We do look forward to many things about returning to our home in the US. But we will so miss our home in Japan.

It’s almost over…

My job assignment is coming to an end. In less than a month, we will be on a plane, returning to the United States, our “home.”

But in 4-1/2 years, we’ve come to love Japan as our home. We never expected to feel this way. We never expected to feel the sadness, the emptiness that we are feeling about leaving Japan. This has become our home.

Of course, there are things about the US we look forward to. We have a beautiful house, and our family is much closer. We recall all the things we loved before we left, and we look forward to resuming those things again.

But… it is so difficult, made so much harder by the COVID-19 pandemic. We had wanted to visit places in Japan we hadn’t seen…and we wanted to see the places we loved… Mt. Takao, Mt. Fuji, Enoshima, Nikko, Osaka, Kyoto, Okinawa… but these have been unreachable due to the pandemic.

The past 2-1/2 months, we’ve mostly been self-isolated in our apartment. We haven’t been officially restricted… but we have tried to do what’s best for all, which means staying home, not venturing out. We haven’t been on a train in weeks – and only go walking with our masks on, following the social distancing rules as best we can.

This isn’t how we wanted our time in Tokyo to end. This has been our home for more than four years, and we can’t even see the things we love most. Our favorite little noodle restaurant has been closed for weeks. We can’t take our long weekend walks, ending at our favorite craft beer place. We visited our favorite sushi place this week, to get carry-out. It was wonderful, but not the same as sitting in the restaurant ordering plates of sushi from the chef.

When we agreed to do this assignment, the plan was to come to Tokyo for two years. We looked forward to it – it sounded like a long time, but we expected to finish and go back home to resume our normal life. But two years became three… and then four, and a half. We knew it would have to come to an end. But it still isn’t enough.

We are now making plans to return to the US. We are fortunate to have much support from my company. We have a relocation service that is helping coordinate the packing and moving, shipping, cancellation of utilities, etc. All those things would be stressful in the best of times. Now, we also have to think about COVID-19 protection. How do we safely get on a 13-hour flight, go through immigration, and get from the airport to our home?

This has been an amazing experience. It has been life-changing for us. We are so blessed for the experience we’ve had…and are so devastated for it to end, especially when we can’t visit the places in Tokyo that we have come to love so much.

We are soon to return to our home country… to Georgia, in the United States. But in so many ways, Shibaura, Tokyo has become our home. We still can’t speak the language very well…and we certainly don’t look like Japanese citizens. We have learned about this wonderful culture… this wonderful country… and we’ve learned how to communicate well enough to be understood and accepted by the local residents here.

Our time left here is dwindling to a few more days, a few more hours. We have much to look forward to in returning to our home in the US. Still, it is hard to overcome the sadness of leaving our adopted country… our home… in Japan.

And here… in Japan…

Spring goes on without us… azaleas have bloomed and gone in Tokyo…

Yep… We are still here in Japan. After not blogging for almost a month, I thought it was time for an update. The plan was that my husband was supposed to be *now* finishing up his job here in Japan and that we would be shortly returning to our home in the US.

But… then the COVID-19 Pandemic hit.

With the advice of our US company, and our Japanese company, we are taking this situation a month at a time. We still plan (hope) to be returning to the US soon, but there is no firm date, no firm travel plans in place. We have also not given up the lease on our Tokyo apartment… which we are required to give two months notice for. We are… “in limbo” for the time being. Waiting to see how this pandemic progresses, and when might be the best time for us to transition back to our life in the US.

This has been a very weird turn of events for us. It has taken on an almost surreal feeling.

We have so loved our time here in Japan. And… it still feels very much like “home” for us. But now… that we are isolated… and essentially trapped inside our apartment most days… weeks… our life here has changed. We had so many plans for our last few months here, and now… all we can do is sit inside and worry.

My husband is still working… he manages quite well working remotely from home. We even set up a small “office” in our tiny spare bedroom, where he can have privacy and space for the many video calls and conferences he is having to do. His company works with offices across the world in many time zones, so these calls take place at all hours… mostly during the late afternoon and evenings here in Japan.

For me… the time is a bit more tedious. I was used to being able to go out and walk and take photos during the day… photography has become my new hobby while we have been living here. But now… with “social isolation” I feel less inclined to be out. It is not that I cannot go out… Japan has “recommended” that people “refrain from going outside” but has not made anything mandatory. I just feel like… I need to do my part, and stay in as much as possible. Social Responsibility.

We do get out… some evenings (usually late) we go out and walk along the canals near where we live. Sometimes we go for an early morning run/walk. (Difficult to do much of a serious run wearing a mask!) Instead of almost daily trips to the grocery store, we are shopping once a week at our neighborhood stores, and ordering as much as possible from Amazon.jp Fresh.

Here in Japan, the virus infection rate seems to be flattening out. We are crossing our fingers that it will continue this trend. We are just at the end of the spring holidays… the Golden Week holidays… and another two weeks will show whether people actually took heed of the severity of the situation and followed the government’s recommendations. From our window… and from our trips out and about, I see a huge difference in the numbers of people out. Even with no mandatory “stay at home” orders, there have been days when hardly anyone is out on the streets. When we went to the supermarket at 7 am this morning… we were the only ones out walking along our street. In a city with such a high population density (Japan has 10X the population density of the US), that is eerily weird. No.One.Was.Out.

As of today… Japan has had over 15,000 total confirmed cases of the virus for the whole country… and about 4000 of those are in Tokyo Prefecture. Granted… they, like the US, have not tested adequately for the virus, so there are probably many more undiagnosed/asymptomatic cases. But… the curve appears to be flattening. As of today… 566 people (total) have died of COVID-19 in Japan.

Prime Minister Abe has extended the state of emergency for the country until May 31st… but with weekly re-evaluations of the situation. I think that is smart and prudent… An INTELLIGENT approach to handling a potentially explosive pandemic situation.

The situation back in the US looks much bleaker… another reason for our hesitancy to return to the US right now. From here, the US looks like a slow-motion train wreck.

I want to be able to return to the US… I look forward to going back to our life there… back to our home, our family, and our pets…

We just don’t know *when* that will be possible.

Managing through the pandemic

We are still in Japan, living day-to-day through this surreal time of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sakura trees still bloomed this year…but the usual festivals and celebrations were cancelled…

We’ve watched as this horrible virus has spread across the world. First affecting hardest my colleagues in China and Korea. Then spreading to Europe, the United States, and beyond.

We faced the decision of whether to try leaving Japan months before our plan, spending 13 hours on a potentially contaminated airplane, followed by hours in US immigration, and entering into an explosive escalation of virus in our US home. Or, stay in Tokyo…where the infection is spreading, but at a slower and so far more moderate rate than most other places.

The risk of staying in Tokyo, of course, is there is no real certainty of when we might be able to go back to the US. We’re a long, long way from our family and most of our friends. And if we were to become ill here, we would have access to a medical system that predominantly speaks a language in which we are not fluent, with little support system outside of those at my workplace.

After some stressful thought and consultation with my company, we have decided to stay in Tokyo. We still hope to return to the US, as planned, at the end of May. In this crazy time, it is impossible to predict if that will happen. My company has been very understanding, and is willing to extend my time in Japan beyond May if that will help us safely transition back. That support is very reassuring.

And so, we are dealing with this much as everyone else we know. Working from home…social distancing, with very limited time outside…and worrying about family and friends who now seem so much farther away.

Before the pandemic, we had looked forward to the many things we would do in our last months in Japan, and were quite sad about the prospect of leaving. Now, we still love our adopted country, but appreciate much more the home we’ve been away from for 4-1/2 years.

Like everyone, we look forward to a time when things are better. I hesitate to say a time when we return to normal, for I think we will find a new normal that won’t ever be the same as before.

We hope we will find much good in that new normal, and that we better appreciate the frailty of the life we have.

An unexpected turn

After four years and two months in Japan, the end of my assignment is quickly approaching. With a scheduled return to the US at the end of May, our plan was to do as much as possible these last few months. See places we haven’t yet had time to go, like Osaka. Return to places we visited but didn’t have enough time to enjoy, like Nikko. Enjoy the Sakura blossoms, and Hanami – flower viewing. Maybe even do some trips to other places in Asia, like Shanghai, Singapore, or Viet Nam.

Then, the world turned upside down — the Coronavirus pandemic.

In late January, we started hearing of this virus in China, and it sounded ominous. My company works with Chinese companies, and soon our travel was cancelled, and our plans for work were put on hold. Things seemed concerning…but we didn’t realize what would come.

The spread of the virus next really hit Korea. Again, we work with companies there, and they have employees that work in Tokyo. We started to see what a devastating impact the virus could have…and the impact on our company was growing greater.

Japan started seeing the virus, and was impacted most dramatically by the Diamond Princess cruise ship, that happened to be in Yokohama when an outbreak of the virus occurred on the ship. That brought home the potential of this as a real health threat.

By the end of February, Japan’s government took harsh actions. Schools were closed, companies were encouraged to have people work at home, many museums, amusement parks and tourist attractions were closed. It seemed drastic. But maybe not.

As the virus spread in Europe, and now in America, we’ve watched in concern and disbelief. In Japan, the virus seems – at least for now – to have plateaued. There are about 40 or fewer new cases per day…a small number, in a country so densely populated. We can only hope that the containment will continue.

For us, as expats, it was a shock to wake up on Saturday and find that the US had issued a Level 4 travel warning – which included a recommendation for US citizens living outside the country to return immediately, or be prepared to stay away for “an indefinite period.” How do we react to this? It’s pretty difficult to pack up everything, even in our small apartment, and be ready to leave immediately. And, is it really the best thing to get on a plane for 13 hours, and spend hours in an immigration line, to go into an escalating pandemic outbreak in the US?

There were no right or easy answers. After consultation with my company, we made decision to stay the course. We will plan to stay in Japan, and return at the end of May, as planned. Hopefully, that will prove to be the right decision…only time will tell.

All in all, this isn’t the way we had planned to spend our last few months in Japan. Of course, our inconvenience is minor compared to the real suffering some are having to deal with. Still, it is disappointing that we will potentially end our time here in this way.

Someone asked us, will “Four years in Japan” turn into “Five years in Japan?” Well, probably not. Although we love living here, our time is nearly done. Whether we can return as scheduled or not depends on the progression of the virus in the US. We hope that things will get under control, and life will start to return to normal. Although we love Japan, and could live here forever, it is time to leave. We will see how things progress… one day at a time.

Tokyo Tower

The End is Near….

Everyone is familiar with the caricature…usually a bedraggled old guy, long beard, tattered clothes, holding a sign proclaiming, “the end is near.”

Lately, we’ve been feeling like that old guy. My assignment in Japan will end at the end of May… less than three months away. Plans are for my job to continue including work with Japan, but our time living here is…sadly…winding down. Although we look forward to returning back to the US in some ways, the realization that our time here coming to an end is discouraging.

We’ve also been discouraged about the political situation back home. Of course, our view from 6,000 miles away may be a bit skewed, as we look to Twitter and Facebook for most of our news. Still, the news is discouraging, and the idea of coming back to an acrimonious election campaign is not something we look forward to.

And now, our last days in Tokyo are being tainted by the threat of coronavirus. We watched as the virus first appeared in Wuhan, China. It has continued to spread, and Japan has become increasingly affected… as has the rest of the world. My company has cancelled or postponed international travel (my latest trip to UK was cancelled), and many other meetings and missions have been deferred. The Japanese government has taken Draconian measures in an effort to prevent spread of the virus. Schools are closed for the month of March, most museums and other attractions are closed, and workers are being encouraged to work from home. Locally, we see shortages of face masks, hand sanitizer, and even toilet paper (haven’t quite figured out that one yet).

So, frankly, we’ve been struggling a bit lately to stay positive and try to look forward to the coming months. It will, in many ways, be good to be “home.” But yet… we’ve been in Japan now for over four years, and Tokyo has become our home. We love our adopted city/country. Still, we look forward to going back to our house…our kitties…being closer to our family…and being in a place where we actually do speak and understand the language with some proficiency.

As the days continue to go by with alarming rapidity, we hope to make the most of each minute we have left in this wonderful place. We’ve been given a great gift to experience a different culture for this long. It truly has been the opportunity of a lifetime.

A Good Night for Sushi and Sake.

Today was a cold and rainy/snowy day in Tokyo. It snowed most of the day, but with the temperature hovering in the upper 30’s, there was no accumulation and no icing. It was just a gray, dreary day — which is really unfortunate for a Saturday. We look forward to our weekends of wandering around Tokyo, and today was just not a good day for that. So… we hung around the apartment for awhile, went out to run a couple of quick errands and have hot soba noodles for lunch… then back to the apartment for the afternoon.

This evening we decided to go out to our favorite sushi restaurant here in Tokyo. We grabbed our umbrellas, and walked the mile to “Nihonkai” — “Japan Sea”

日本海

Four years ago on our very first night in Tokyo, this was the restaurant we went to. And it is still our favorite sushi restaurant here. Nothing fancy… just a neighborhood “sushi-go-round” (conveyor belt sushi restaurant). The sushi chefs are in the center and they prepare the plates of sushi and place them on a moving conveyor. When you see something you like, you just take it off the conveyor. But… they also take orders, and will prepare whatever plate you want. “Sumimasen! Maguro onegaishimasu!”

Four years ago, we couldn’t speak any Japanese… we couldn’t read the menu… didn’t know the names of the fish on the menu. They brought us the one copy of the English menu, and we ordered from that… mostly pointing at pictures.

But they were nice to us… they were helpful… and over time, we learned so much from them. We ask questions in our simple Japanese, and they teach us the names of the menu items. We have found our favorites, and now we can order them in Japanese. Maguro (tuna), tobiko (flying fish roe), kani sarada (crab salad), to-ika (squid with shiso leaf), nattou-to-okura (nattou with okra)… We can read some of the Japanese from the menu — but they still usually bring us the English menu. (We really prefer to use the regular Japanese menu.) When we have a question, the waitstaff is always willing to help us… “Sore wa nan desu ka? “What is that?” And they teach us.

We have been there often enough now that they recognize us… they greet us warmly, and make us feel welcome. We see other regular customers there, and greet them. It is a friendly and comfortable place to spend an evening. We have our favorite sake that we order from the menu (Yes… just like wine, there are many, many different kinds of sake… all with different tastes, characteristics, and prices). They bring us chilled sake glasses in sake boxes. Fill the glasses to overflow into the boxes until the boxes also are full. If you prefer hot sake, that is also available. (Very nice in the winter time!)

As our time for living in Japan moves far too quickly to an end (only about four months before we have to move back to the US), it’s little things like this sushi restaurant that I know we will miss most. It’s not just the sushi — I know we could get good sushi at any number of places here. It’s the way this place makes us feel — welcome, and comfortable. Like we belong.

4th Anniversary in Japan…and the clock is ticking

January 10, 2020, marks the 4th anniversary of our arrival in Japan. As the “he” part of the blog team, it was my job assignment that brought us here. The plan was to spend two years helping my company’s Tokyo office plan and conduct a major international meeting.

The two years went by quickly, and the meeting was conducted successfully. But in the process, my Tokyo comrades and I found that we were a good match. My job responsibilities expanded, and my company agreed to a one-year extension of my term…and then, another extension.

But, as the cliche says, all good things must end. After four amazing years in Japan, my assignment will conclude at the end of May. And we are anticipating the conclusion of this period of our lives with a profound sense of sadness.

Of course, there are things about returning to our former life in the US that we look forward to. Being closer to our family. Reuniting with pets. Moving back to a house we love, and restarting many of the activities we enjoyed before moving here.

We’re also fortunate that my company will allow me to continue working with my international colleagues. There will be trips back to Japan, and to other places around the world as part of my job responsibilities.

The sadness comes in knowing we may never again be full-time residents of Japan. This wonderful country has truly seemed like home the past four years, despite the fact that we come from a very different culture, and struggle greatly to speak the language. We will miss the kindness and caring of the people, the cleanliness and safety of the society, and so many little things that make this culture so unique.

As the time ebbs away, we are doing our best to experience all we can during our last few months. Long walks through Tokyo…snow festival in Sapporo…trips back to Mt. Mitake, Enoshima, and Mt. Takao. And, hopefully, some other trips to places we still want to see — Osaka, and perhaps Okinawa.

When we signed up for what was to be a two-year assignment in Japan, we looked forward to it and expected we would enjoy the experience. What we never anticipated was how deeply we would come to love this amazing country. Soon, we will have to say goodbye. But I know we will come back again.