People | WHY DID YOU LEAVE JAPAN?

Leaving the urban jungle for northern wilds

by Kaori Shoji

Contributing Writer

For most of her life, Masako Tokida was a city girl. She grew up in the Kanto area of Japan, then in her teens, she lived in Dusseldorf, Germany, where her father had been transferred by his company. After returning to Japan, she attended Waseda University and, upon graduating, she stayed in Tokyo, first to work in the sales division of a pulp and paper company and then later a travel agency.

But when Tokida started working in Chena Hot Springs Resort in Alasaka in 2009, she became completely enamored with nature. “I can’t really imagine an urban existence in Japan anymore,” she says. “I’ve become spoiled by all this natural beauty around me.”

Now in her 10th year of working in Chena, Tokida has decided to lay down some serious roots.

“I bought a small apartment in Fairbanks. My daughter will be attending high school there soon,” she says. “Since it’s almost a 200-kilometer drive from Chena to Fairbanks and back, I need a home of our own.”

Right now, as the sales manager of the Asia division at the Resort, Tokida works hands-on at the hotel and her home is on the grounds. Once she makes the move to Fairbanks, though, she’ll be handling the bulk of her duties in the Resort’s downtown office.

“I’m looking forward to it. It will be the first time my daughter and I will have a place of our own in Alaska,” she says. “I don’t know whether this will be a permanent arrangement, but right now it feels right for us.”

Before working at Chena Hot Springs Resort, Tokida didn’t know that much about Alaska, aside from “the existence of polar bears,” she says.

“I knew so little about this new world,” she adds, explaining that she was a little bit nervous. “Still, I had lived abroad with my family so moving overseas didn’t present a psychological barrier.”

Though Tokida moved to Chena in 2009, she explains that she had been there once before.

“The first time was in 2003, when I started an internship here,” she says. The travel agency she had been working for in Tokyo had folded, due to a drastic drop in outbound tourism to the U.S.

“It was the combination of 9/11 and the suspected SARS epidemic that did it,” recalls Tokida. “It was a bad time for the Japanese tourism industry.”

Tokida immediately looked for another job, and found an internship in Chena Hot Springs Resort. She applied, flew out and was shown the ropes by a Japanese supervisor, whose duties included promoting Alaskan tourism to Japan and welcoming Japanese travelers. Tokida’s internship lasted 18 months, and during that time she met the man who would become her husband.

Her return to Japan in 2005 was followed by the couple’s wedding and then the birth of a daughter. By this time, Tokida had moved to Hokkaido where her husband was working.

“Though the surroundings were beautiful and reminded me of Chena, there were no jobs available for me,” says Tokida who stayed at home to care for their baby daughter. Being unable to work left her feeling she needed more in life.

It was a new Japan Airlines route to Alaska that triggered a turning point for Tokida.

In 2004, Japan Airlines (JAL) launched a chartered flight route that directly connected Tokyo to Fairbanks. Nature tourism was becoming increasingly popular in Japan, thanks largely to people like the late adventurer and nature photographer Michio Hoshino, who spent much of his adult life in Alaska and even attended the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. Many were eager to visit Alaska’s forests, view the northern lights and experience the endless summer trekking trails. Alaska, it appeared, was rapidly becoming “a thing.”

JAL next announced that in 2009, chartered direct flights would also be available from Hokkaido.

“Until then, most Japanese had to travel first to Seattle, and then change planes to Fairbanks. The whole thing took 15-plus hours,” says Tokida. “The direct flight plan slashed that time to a little over seven hours. It was a great coup for the Japanese tourism industry.”

Tokida wanted to be involved in this Alaska tourism boom and was also eager to visit her former colleagues at the resort. In 2009, Tokida took the Hokkaido-Fairbanks flight with her 3-year-old daughter.

An astonishing sight welcomed her in Alasaka. In the space of the four years since Tokida had finished her internship, Chena Hot Springs Resort had undergone a complete makeover. The guest rooms were all new and the whole resort grounds had 24-hour electricity, thanks to a newly installed geothermal power system. This meant that Chena Hot Springs Resort could also grow its own vegetables.

Most important, Japanese tourists were coming over in droves. There wasn’t enough staff to meet their demands, and only one other Japanese at the hotel to deal with requests. Tokida’s former boss invited her to come back and work there as an official employee.

In October, 2009, Tokida moved her family from Hokkaido to Chena.

Now, more than nine years later, Tokida’s daughter, who was named after Chena, is 14 years old. She speaks fluent Japanese but, having grown up in Chena, her native tongue is English.

Until last year, Tokida’s husband had been driving Chena 50 kilometers to school every day. The two-hour trip made it difficult for him to find work or make contacts with people outside the resort. The strain on the couple’s relationship was difficult and in May 2018, Tokida and her husband finalized a divorce.

“We talked it over and decided to go our separate ways,” she says. He has since returned to Japan and is working in Osaka. Tokida, meanwhile, worked out an arrangement with the resort where she would work six days a week but be free to leave early to drive her daughter to and from school.

Life in Alaska, says Tokida, is different from the rest of the U.S.

“It’s almost like a separate entity. I feel comfortable here,” she says. “Partly because native Alaskans have Asian features and my daughter and I can blend right in. Perhaps I would have felt differently if we had moved to the mainland.”

It’s not an easy life, she says, “but the beauty of the landscape is always breathtaking. At the same time, nature is so powerful that it frightens me. I have no control.”

But, she adds, “That’s also the time when I feel most alive.”

Profile

Name: Masako Tokida

Profession: Manager, Marketing and Sales Asian Market

Hometown: Grew up in various areas in the Kanto region

Age: 45

Key moments in life and career:

1997 — Graduates from Waseda University, begins working for Japan Pulp and Paper Co., Ltd.

2000 — Starts working for a travel agency

2003 — Leaves Japan for an internship at the Chena Hot Springs Resort

2009 — Moves with her family to Chena

2018 — Buys an apartment in Fairbanks, Alaska

Words to live by: “Happiness and prosperity come to those who laugh.”