Whenever friends of mine return home for a visit, they’ve all told me they’re confronted by one nagging question when they’re there: Should I just stay, or should I go back?
I like it here in Tokyo, yet I’m sometimes surprised that other non-Japanese people like it, too. One acquaintance of mine recently returned to our mutual home country of Germany for a longer vacation, and I could have bet a significant part of my insignificant fortune that I would never see him again, at least not on Japanese soil. He never let on he might be extraordinarily dissatisfied with his life here, but he couldn’t fool me — or so I thought.
One way I feel that non-Japanese get assimilated into our adopted home quickly is that we learn to smile away our insecurities and frustrations — be they of bureaucratic, linguistic or social in nature, or all three piled on top of each other. My acquaintance came here for work, without any romantic notion of old or ultra-modern Japan, and without romantic ties to a Japanese national. Asked how long he planned on staying, his evasive answer had always been, “We’ll see.” The English equivalent of “chotto,” another clear sign of assimilation.
I thought: “So long, young friend. Maybe we’ll meet again someday. More likely at a beer garden in Munich than an izakaya (Japanese pub) in Meguro.”
Except my friend returned to Tokyo as scheduled. He had heartwarming tales to tell, finishing it off with: “But I’m so glad to be back. Everything is so much easier here.”
It was to my even greater surprise that this past holiday season it was me who had a mild crisis of returning. It was over in a heartbeat and I don’t think anyone noticed it, but I definitely did.
On this recent trip, the provincial aspects of my hometown were more endearing than embarrassing to me. The fact that I knew every corner of every street did not seem limiting anymore but comforting … and hadn’t the city center finally begun to defy its painful downward spiral? After years of dying a bit more every year, there seemed a renewed will to live. Why deny myself the chance to be a part of that, I thought.
Yet I returned to Japan, already congratulating myself on my decision on the taxi ride home from Haneda airport. I could dwell on all the obvious things I miss when I’m not in Tokyo: the cafes, the bars, the restaurants, the greenery, the convenience, the superficial cleanliness and friendliness (I will choose superficial cleanliness and friendliness over none at all any time). But I’d rather explore a new aspect of the affection I have for my adopted home that I’ve yet to figure out. A place that somehow “sparks joy,” in the words of Marie Kondo.
My heart always beats a little faster when I pass by the massive blocks of office and residential buildings around Osaki Station, as it did on my way from Haneda. They neither offer dazzling, neon-lit nightlife, nor are they the highest skyscrapers in town. The architecture is not daring, nor is it maddingly nondescript — at least not to me. Everything is built for functionality, meaning life as well as labor. Nearby Meguro River greeting the premise adds a nice touch. When contrasted by an amazing sunset, which happens often around here, these buildings don’t compete for attention. They gently complete the picture.
I am certain others will look at them and see everything that is wrong with modern life. To me, however, they are gorgeous. I see thousands of stories behind thousands of windows, and they can’t all be bad.
The building block buildings of Osaki are not my home. I rather consider them my generously extended neighborhood. But they feel like home. Like an ideal home. I can always dream.
Actually, living in one of those blocks does not seem like a dream that is entirely out of reach. As long as I have unfulfilled yet fulfillable dreams here, I guess I will always choose new over old.
Andreas Neuenkirchen is a German novelist and essayist based in Tokyo.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5