One week from now I’ll be wandering amid the dappled sunlight of cherry blossoms, resting elegantly on a tatami as I sip green tea, watching a bead of sweat trickle down the thigh of a sumo and admiring the floral outfits of a geisha as she wanders past.
Who am I kidding? I’ll be more likely dodging Typhoon Lan, getting my ribs crushed on a peak-hour subway train and poking my chopsticks suspiciously at a glutinous grey mass in a cardboard box.
Or perhaps it will be a bit of both.
Anyhow, the point is that next Sunday I am moving to Japan with my wife, a diplomat henceforth known as The Diplomat, and my one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, henceforth known as Kawaii. Japan has always held plenty of mystique for me, thanks to the swirling mix of exotic Orientalism coupled with the familiar comforts of the developed world. And also Astro Boy.
My primary mission in Japan is to be a Hands-On Dad to Kawaii while The Diplomat makes her mark professionally in a country she has admired since she lived there as a high school exchange student more than two decades ago.
Along the way I am hoping to discover the delights of Tokyo, and the rest of Japan, with my family. Fathers taking a major role in parenting are often described as Stay-at-Home Dads, however I plan to be anything but. Kawaii and I are going to be out and about so much checking out all that the city has to offer that home will be just one of many places we will visit. I’ll be a bit like Bill Murray in Lost in Translation – a tall white guy hanging around Tokyo with a female a generation younger than himself.
Not so long ago we bought Kawaii a book to introduce her to Japanese. My First Book of Japanese Words uses each letter of the alphabet to teach kids a new word.
What’s up first? A. Ari means ant, it says. So now I know that every time a Japanese person hears my name, their mental image will be of the smallest and most insignificant creature in the animal kingdom. The one that lives its life in the shadows of everything else. The one whose fate is to be either trodden on or ignored. Perhaps there’s a message in that.
Anyhow, while I have plenty of enthusiasm for life in Tokyo, I know I am beginning at something of a disadvantage.
For starters, my Japanese language skills are minimal. For decades my Japanese has been limited to tamago, teppanyaki and agedashi tofu, and even then I think I was screwing up the pronunciation. Knowing that our departure was looming, a few months back I started online learning via Rosetta Stone, a fine website and app that seeks to marinate your brain in language and hoping some of it sticks like terriyaki.
Rosetta Stone is a great tool, and I do intend to persist, but it does present some rather odd phrases (“the man is under the car”) ahead of the essentials (“where is the toilet?”). Many Japanese words, I have discovered, sound like the English version uttered by someone who got distracted part way through (“terebi” for “television”). Rosetta Stone has also left me with an exceedingly enthusiastic pronunciation, such is the excitement with which each word is presented. My pronunciations of the words for “dining room” and the number 26 have been known turn heads.
So it might be a while before I’m saying much useful in Japanese. Instead I’ll be making the most of my (rather brilliant) charade skills to make myself understood and seeking to read the body language of those around me to understand what the hell is going on. Along the way, though, I hope to learn a lot more of the language, and the sponge-like brain of Kawaii should pick up plenty as well. She might even learn more than I do, in which case she can be my pocket translator.
Then there’s my diet: I’m a vegetarian, and have been for 21 years, so it’s probably not just a phase. But the Japanese diet is very heavy with seafood, and my barely-there language skills (see above) might make it tricky for me to eat well, unless I stick to the safe options of Western-style chains and enormous mounds of rice. It may be that I’ll need to relax my vegetarianism, perhaps by getting some fish in my bowl, if only to ward off starvation. As for the culinary tastes of Kawaii, I am fortunate she’s the adventurous type willing to trying anything once. Though probably not this.
And finally there’s my health situation. Two years ago I was diagnosed with cancer, specifically a non-Hodgkin lymphoma that required four months of chemotherapy that left me tired and weak. I’ve been in remission for more than a year, and am feeling fantastic, but just as the onset of my initial disease was out of the blue (read all about it here), a recurrence might happen that way as well. Still, the medical care in Japan is excellent, and I gather you can get yourself some free radiotherapy just by sunbaking in certain parts of Fukushima.
But those problems are minor quibbles compared to the amazing opportunity that has come our way. There is so much to see, so much to do and so many social taboos to accidentally transgress. I can’t wait.
So please, join me on this adventure through Tokyo via this blog. Along the way you’ll hear stories about life as a Hands-On Dad in the bustling city that is home to about 38 million, including the good, the bad and the thoroughly confusing. I’ll also be writing about non-parenty stuff that catches my attention along the way, like politics, economics and why the hell Japanese people seem keen on getting frisky with robots.
No promises about what lies ahead, but it’s probably going to be a lot of fun.
Any last-minute advice on being a Hands-On Dad, life in Japan or dodging typhoons? Send it my way.
Pic credit: Time Out