Local Japan: Up and down (and up and down) in Meguro
My wife Junko and I got married in Tokyo, her hometown, but we spent our first years of married live in Munich, Germany, where I was gainfully employed at the time. Our intention always had been to relocate to Japan “when the time is right”. In 2015, we decided that the time would be right in 2016. A little sooner than we expected. There was a job offer on the horizon for Junko, and there was an apartment offer from an acquaintance that would save us prolonged apartment hunting, bureaucratic hassle and probably even money. Also by now it seemed not completely insane to quit my day job and turn my writing career into a fulltime occupation. And maybe it was better to make the big move before our small daughter Hana was too comfortably settled with friends and schooling in Germany.
Before I came to stay I had been visiting Japan regularly for almost 20 years, in some years more than once, on two occasions staying for several months at a time. So I did not expect much of a culture shock, and there wasn’t. However, some aspects of my new life took a little longer getting used to than I had anticipated. Spending a week or two in Tokyo’s hot and humid summers is one thing. Sweating it out from beginning to end is quite another. With summer came the cockroaches and other bugs. Huge, fast, clever, relentless, almost indestructible beasts. I hate them almost as much as I admire them. For some reason, they don’t visit hotel rooms, they only invade apartments.
With summer also came the air-conditioning. Not that it’s ever really off. I used to scoff at those wimps that catch colds at the mere mention of the word “air-conditioning”. And yet I can’t seem to remember having had more than three consecutive days of good health in my first nine months in Japan. Yes, I blame the air-conditioning. Except maybe for the norovirus. Which is, I learned, also one of those experiences where actually experiencing it in your very own body is very different from just reading about it in the newspapers.
At least my various illnesses got me quickly acquainted with the medical system in my new home country. I met a lot of different doctors from different medical fields. These fine professionals were all very nice, they seemed very competent and prescribed interesting drugs, but none of them was ever quite sure what exactly was wrong with me (except for this norovirus thing, which I had already self-diagnosed by reading the newspapers). And when my ailments finally ended, I never knew whether it was the drugs or just nature’s way.
All this happened in Meguro, in the south of Central Tokyo. Meguro was not our first choice. It was not our second choice either, or our third. It wasn’t even on the list, on any list, long or short. Yes, my wife and I are proud to admit: We have officially entered suburb age. We were ready to embrace the quiet charms of Todoroki, or the fancy new high-rises and convenient shopping centres of Futakotamagawa. I never bought these lazy complaints about those shiny new housing developments anywhere in the world having “no history” or “lacking character”. Well, it’s up to you to make history there and build its character then, isn’t it?
But good old Meguro it was. What I remembered from my tourist days about the place was that it was hilly and there were good casual restaurants. Both I still find to be true. I credit those hills for me not putting on an excessive amount of weight despite the restaurants. I would love to credit my running, but the truth is that I haven’t been running much since my last Tokyo Marathon in 2013. I still feel like a runner. However, I’d be the first to admit that feeling like doing something is not the same as doing something.
Whenever I not only feel but act like a runner, I mostly do so at the Meguro riverside and in Rinshi-no-mori Park. Rinshi-no-mori is a good place to remind yourself that trees can be taller than buildings (legal disclaimer: taller than some, not taller than all buildings). You can also buy good eel at a local shop on the way. Unfortunately it’s so good that you have to take a number and wait your turn. So running and eel buying is not a recommended combination.
The Meguro riverside is mostly famous for being very pretty during cherry blossom season. But it’s actually quite inviting for walks and runs all through the year. Even without spring or autumn colours you can have fun making up names for the colours and smells of the river itself, which are changing daily. If you walk far enough along the riverside (not too far, don’t worry), you will come to Nakameguro, Meguro’s slightly fancier quarter (when I talk about Meguro, I mostly mean Shimomeguro, my own honest, down-to-earth, working-class neighbourhood). Here you will find a high concentration of foreigners sprouting beards and buns, and fashion boutiques doubling as cafés. Buy a new hat, have something latte, then take one of many busses back to the real Meguro for a hearty, greasy feast of tanmen and gyoza. There are so many superb noodle places in Meguro that I will only name one: Metcha Tanmen is not only conveniently located (about 30 seconds from my door, if I walk slowly), it also serves great tanmen (noodle soup with lots of vegetable, basically). Its speciality is natto tanmen, which is great if you like natto (sticky, stringy, stinky fermented soybeans). If you are normal like me, you might prefer the spicy kara tanmen or maze soba (noodle soup without the soup, basically).
Tokyo is the gourmet capitol of the world (Michelin says so, I say so), so only fools would confine themselves to having only Japanese food here. Pizza Giardino Savoy in Meguro is one of the two best pizza places I have been to anywhere in the world (the other one is, of course, also in Tokyo). It’s a bit pricier than Pizza Hut, but hey – you might die tomorrow (although most likely not from Giardino’s pizza). And no, I will never ask them why they decorate their friendly, cosy place with issues of German football magazine 11 Freunde. I like to keep a sense of mystery and wonder.
Meguro’s Indian restaurants are like Meguro’s noodle restaurants – I don’t know where to start with my praise. Is Tandoor the best, where they care so much about you that they will aggressively talk you out of ordering the Chili Shrimp Curry (“It’s too hot! Way too hot!”)? Or Rasoi, where the owner’s facial expression is as serious as his cooking (though not as varied)?
If you haven’t worked up an appetite yet, why don’t you visit the Meguro Parasitological Museum? It’s exactly what it sounds like, it’s free, and of course it has a museum shop so you can buy pictures of your favourite parasites on t-shirts.
I have overheard Meguro being described as “in the heart of Tokyo”, and we are indeed rather conveniently located in the heart of public transport (apart from the dreadfully common Yamanote line we have the more civilised options of Mita, Namboku and Meguro lines). Yet Meguro does not offer quite the same amount of attractions and distractions as other wards that might be considered “downtown Tokyo”. There is the obligatory atré shopping mall stacked on top of the JR station, but there are no glamorous department stores to speak of. Regarding books and fashion we have to make do with Yurindo and Uniqlo respectively (or just hop on a train to Shibuya or Futakotamagawa – we are well connected after all). So far, I have counted exactly one cinema. It specialises in two kinds of movies: not quite new ones and pretty old ones. As someone who firmly believes that all the good movies have already been made, I applaud that. And I’m sure I will pay my respect to Meguro Cinema (that actually is its name) one day. One day, when I have the time. Maybe when Hana is off to college.
So, do I like it in Meguro? No, I love it. But love can be tough, and love doesn’t always last forever. If someone asked me (even though I’d rather avoid situations in which this kind of question is usually asked): “Where do you see yourself in two years?”, my answer would be: In a quiet, nice neighbourhood in Todoroki, or in a comfortable high-rise in Futakotamagawa with a scenic view of the river and the shopping centres. There I will sit and think sentimental thoughts about my time in Meguro. About the cherry blossoms, the restaurants, the bugs and parasites, and the hills. Those damn, lovely hills.