We aren’t in Kansas anymore, Toto
Suburban living in Japan

In 1998 we moved from Riyadh to Tokyo.  Kay and I would be working at The American School in Japan and Andrew was entering grade ten.  We didn’t know what to expect but figured it would be pleasant, interesting, and at times, exciting.  We had heard the stories about high prices (e.g., $10 cups of coffee), traffic jams, and crowds.  Someone told us that walking down the street would be like trying to enter a crowded theatre when everyone else was leaving.

The school is actually not in Tokyo, but is in Chofu, a city of 240,000, larger than our Arkansas state capital (190,000).  So, while technically a suburb, Chofu is a real city, with its own city hall, police, fire department, etc., as are the surrounding suburbs of Fuchu, Mitaka, Koganei, and dozens of others.

We stopped by Japan in June, on the way home from Riyadh, and looked at houses to rent, with the essential help of Toshi, the school’s new housing manager.  We looked at 5 or 6 houses and apartments and choose one in neighboring Koganei, about two miles from school.   The house was two story and actually had a small yard!  So, already we felt that were are not in stereotypical downtown Tokyo, famous for high rise apartments.

The house had a living room with dining area, kitchen a bath room (only for bathing) and two tiny closets with toilets.  (The Japanese can’t imagine bathing in the same room as a toilet!)  The bathroom had a shower plus an “Ofuro(お風呂?), the deep tub where one soaks in hot water at the end of a hard, cold winter day. 

Our house had four small bedrooms.   Andrew took possession of the smallest for his twin bed and small chest of drawers, and we turned another small one into the music room with an electronic piano, guitar, bass, keyboard, vibes and computer.  The fourth bedroom had tatami mats on the floor and we used it as a guest room for the 24 visiting consultants to the school who stayed with us over the next 6 years.  The master bedroom had barely enough room for a double bed and some plastic storage units, plus a walk in closet.

It was a very nice, clean, modern, well designed and comfortable doll house.  We were thrilled to be in Japan!

Two doors down was a “Family Mart,” a convenience store similar to a Seven-Eleven.  It was tiny, but, indeed, a real convenience.  We sometimes would sit down for a meal and realize that we needed a piece of fruit or perhaps milk or bread, and
the walk to the store was about a 90 second round trip.   Although I went into the little two-clerk store almost every day for 6 years, and was one of the few foreigners in the neighborhood, there was never any sign of recognition by the clerks.  All business.

Although our street was busy day and night, our house was amazingly quiet.  Two different bus routes stopped 100 feet from the door, and we used them often for the 10 minute ride to the train station or the 12 minute ride to school.

After a week of settling in we bought a car, a 3 year old Toyota van,
a small model not sold in the states.  It held six people comfortably in three rows, and was handy for taking the previously mentioned house guests around town.  At our neighborhood used car lot, as is the Japanese way, there was no negotiation.  The marked price was $10,500 (US) and when I offered an even ten grand he just stared at me.  I paid the full price.   Welcome to Japan! 

Below: In our dining/living room in Kogenei, a suburb of Tokyo (1996)

We drove to school most of the time, although Andrew often rode his bike or took the bus, and Kay and I walked when the weather was good. 

We drove the van in the city and all over Japan for seven years, and then sold it to a family moving into the school who kept it another three years.   In all of those 13 total years about all it needed were oil changes.

We had a large shoe rack just inside the front door in the genkan (entryway).  In 8 years we never wore our shoes past that line.  Not once.  (A few Japanese don’t wear shoes in their cars!)  One day we came home and found a muddy footprint on the stairs!
The police told us that “It certainly wasn’t a Japanese thief.  They would have taken off their shoes.”  Right! We discovered later that the guilty party was a non-Japanese AC repairman sent over by the landlord.

Because Kay and I were working long hours, we hired a housekeeper for a half day each week.  The 40 year old man, Kikuchi-san, had learned quite a bit of English while working for other Americans.   Interestingly, although he worked only as a housekeeper for 5 families, he was able to make international trips each summer, such as a three week group tour of Denmark.

Ten dollar coffee?  Not in the suburbs.  (Sure, in the lobby of the Tokyo Hilton downtown it costs that much, but at our neighborhood Denny’s it was about two bucks.)   Bad traffic?
Not in the two mile radius we needed to drive every day.   Big city, abrasive people?  We were surrounded by sweet, polite, patient neighborhood folks. High rise urban living?  We had grass to mow and snow to shovel!

Hoards of people?  Yes, downtown.  In Kogenei, however, we walked for exercise before sunup and seldom saw anyone else.  At other times, in daylight, we could walk a block or two without meeting anyone.

After three years Andrew went off to college at SMU.   After three more years we had to move because the Japanese landlord wanted his house back. After  7 years we moved to Trinidad, but, two years later, Kay came back to ASIJ for a year and lived in yet a third house.

All three of our Japanese houses were dear to us, and fun to live in.   Our years in the Tokyo suburbs were among our favorites overseas.