It was about 10am on a Tuesday when I got a call from my partner saying….”we need to talk”. Never a fun phrase and of course, now the worse is coursing through my mind. Short back story, I am an American living in Stockholm with my Swedish partner. Just days before, I had my own work ultimatum of either needing to leave the company or go back to the US to keep my job. Needless to say, I was not ready for another “talk.” As I take his Skype call, I can see in his face something is… not normal. I get the usual small talk, how are you… how is your day going… blah blah blah. All I can think is what is this talk that needs to happen at 10am on a Tuesday!? He just got off the phone with the Sales President of his company, they want him to move to Tokyo to run the Asia offices. Mostly laughter follows. What do you say to such a proposal, which is what this does eventually turn into as unmarried partners cannot travel internationally with each other. Ultimately, I say yes… to both.
We were moving to Tokyo, Japan. Neither one of us had ever been. I did have a bit more expat experience under my belt, currently living in Sweden, and having lived in Germany and Vietnam before. Naturally, I took over the planning and logistics for our move. As with any move, you start with research, and there is a lot to do when moving to a different country. Residency cards, Registering, Ward Offices, Immigration Offices, My Number Cards. Finally discovering the holy trinity: Cell Phone, Address, Bank Account, to which you can do nothing without any of them.
My, now, husband’s company would finance a relocation residence for 2 weeks, so I knew I had limited time to find our new home. About a month before our move, I emailed a few different agencies following up on postings I had found online. It wasn’t until one kindly responded saying, “a month is a little too early to start looking”. Apparently apartments come and go quite quickly in this city, but if I reach out closer to our actual travel date, we can look at what is available at that time. I believe “come and go” may be the greatest understatement, by the time I was ready to look, we had looked at 30 apartments online, of those, we liked about 13, of those, we lost about seven. It felt like one of those tricks where everytime you look away for a second or blink a few more places disappeared.
By the time, we actually moved we had five apartments we were going to look at. We arrived in Tokyo during Golden Week, so of course we couldn’t actually view any of them until the following Monday (fingers crossed we didn’t lose anymore!) ( spoiler… we did). But that first weekend in Tokyo, we decided to spend the weekend riding the train and discovering the different neighborhoods where these apartments were. It was by far the best thing my husband and I could have done. After this weekend of exploring, we had crossed off three more apartments on our list, and found our personal favorite, without even actually entering.
We were scheduled to view our favorite Monday afternoon at 1pm, after we got our bank account Monday morning (last step to complete the holy trinity). It was our first viewing, and we knew, if we liked the inside as much as we did the outside, we were taking it! We would not let this beauty slip between our fingers. On the actual day, of course we screwed up at the bank, and my husband was running late to the viewing. I was trying to delay our agent so my husband could get a glimpse of this place, because I knew this is where we were going to live in Japan. He makes it! As he steps into the front hall, he confirms, “This is perfect. We’ll take it and we don’t need to see any others!” Our agent was confused, but we were happy. We didn’t need to run around all of Tokyo when we had perfection right in front of us. Probably not the most common apartment hunting story, to say you found it on the first viewing, but I like to think a lot of work was put in ahead of time.
So about this perfect apartment that made us say yes immediately. Honestly, it’s not actually the apartment itself. Yes, it’s nice. It’s clean. We have 41 sqm. We’re on the ground floor. But it’s more the area that we wanted! During our exploring that first weekend in Tokyo, we discovered Nakano. It’s funny how, when we mention where we live to friends and colleagues, expats or Japanese, many are not familiar with it. It’s just directly west of Shinjuku. In fact, if I wanted, I could easily walk to the heart of Shinjuku in about 25 minutes. What my husband and I were really looking for that first weekend was a good option where he could easily get to his office in Shibuya, as well as the airports since he travels frequently for work. What we ended up with is beyond our highest hopes for a city of close to 38 million people.
As our time in Tokyo continued, we fell more in more in love with our home. Just in location alone, Nakano is a wonderfully convenient location. We’re close to both two central subway lines, the Marunouchi and the Oedo, as well as a great JR with the Chuo. It’s one of the more populated areas in the city, however, you could never tell. While walking the back neighborhoods between the busy streets you find many mom’s walking their babies, seniors walking their dogs, lively playgrounds and students running home from school. This is not the big scary goliath of a city, this is where so many families reside. And being in the middle with all of them, makes us feel a bit more connected to the city as a whole.
In Stockholm, my husband and I loved the restaurant scene. There is a type of culture that Swedes have in terms of going out to eat, and definitely an aspect I miss. You have those places that you start to crave, partly because they’re good, but partly because they become a part of you. In Japan, we’ve lost a piece of that Swedish culture. The eat and dash just doesn’t hold the same appeal, however, we are still learning to find our favorites. Early on in our new home, I was making my way home from Ikea on the Chuo line. I had just single handedly furnished our apartment in a 1.5 hour visit, and worked up quite an appetite while simultaneously being exhausted. I was ready for the eat and dash, so I quickly found a small ramen joint near the train station. The ramen here was like nothing I’ve ever had before. Here, they specialize in Yokohama style ramen. It has a thick broth that is so delicious, and yet so heavy, the first few times I ate here I had to coach myself through the bowl. I knew I had to, and wanted to finish it, but I just wasn’t sure how these Japanese men and women were able to do it. After about 5 visits I finally got the courage to talk to one of the customers, and learned, I needed a small bowl of rice to help balance the richness to the soup. It was like all the planets aligning at once. It has since become our hangover remedy of choice.
Living in a neighborhood far from most tourist attractions, we were a little worried about our access to local “western” food, most importantly, pizza. Of course, there is always Dominos delivery, and that has gotten us through some late nights in a pinch. However, on one of our weekend walking expeditions, we discovered the wonderful Ciro Pizzeria. This is one of those gems you find that you want to share with the world and keep to yourself so there’s always a table available. When we first started going to Ciro Pizzeria, they only had their menu in Japanese. Living in Nakano, you quickly get used to the Japanese only menu. After ordering “two (literally two fingers in the air) Asahi, kudasi”, we pull out our phones to start translating the menu via Google Translate. But with beer and patience, we found the best Neapolitan pizza I’ve eaten just around the corner from our house, blessed with authentic ricotta cheese atop.
Now these two gems were found mostly through a little technological luck. I am a bit of a freak for maps, and will literally just stare and study Google Maps clicking different icons to figure out what they are. This is also how I found the amazing cultural center Nakano Zero, just a short 15 minute walk from our home. One Sunday in September I noticed they had an Autumn concert with the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra featuring a guest pianist, so of course I had to drag my husband to attend. We are not typically classical music concert goers, but being able to enjoy professional music while supporting our local arts community was a nice bonus on a regular lazy weekend!
Even though, we may not be the typical artsy type, you can normally find us outdoors. In Stockholm, we lived next to the King’s Forest. We could frequently go out for a run or a hike or just lie in a park. This is probably our largest flaw with Tokyo on a whole, there’s no real outdoor space to enjoy. We wanted a running route, but knew that was most likely not an option here. However, Nakano has this wonderful walk way, the Momoengawa Greenway, that runs east to west and directly into the Kanda River. This provides plenty of running space away from the actual road, as well as a spot, dare I say, more beautiful during Sakura season than Nakameguro. When we are more eager to actually get out of the city, the Chuo line at Nakano Station will take us directly to the wonderful hiking trails in Mitake and Takao.
As with most of Japan, Nakano is not short of beautiful architecture. Walking through the neighborhoods, it’s stunning to see the modern buildings next to some of the older wooden homes from years before. One location that stands out is one of our neighborhood temples, Hosen-ji. It is one of the distinct areas you notice on the route to our home from the subway. One moment that distinctly stands out this past year for us was New Years Eve. We decided to stay in Tokyo for the holidays and took the more traditional route of celebrating our first hatsumode by going to the Hosen-ji at midnight to hear the bells and send our prayers into the New Year. That visit gave us a deeper connection, not just to Japan and Tokyo, but to our new home and neighborhood.
Honestly, I don’t know how we ended up so lucky considering we knew so little about Japan and Tokyo as a whole. But with a sense of adventure, an open mind and a lot of patience, we couldn’t be more happy and have come to realize, we wouldn’t want to live anywhere else in the city.