FDA Warning: The following is based off an unreliable memory and is thus littered with exaggeration and straight-up misinformation.
Tokyo can be frustratingly pleasantly unique. Here are 30 stories that can only take place in the city I called home for a decade.
1. Where the Fuck Am I?
The first weekend after moving to Japan, I ventured outside of Tokyo for the first time without the assistance of my Japanese wife. I ended my night stranded at the top of a Kyoto Station escalator watching the Nozomi shinkansen zoom away faster than a Labrador who spotted a three-legged rabbit mid-dookie.
Train punctuality in Japan is no joke.
It’s a straight-up tease really.
Tokyo’s train system has a sterling reputation, with good reason. The trains are punctual (as illustrated above) and immaculately clean.
That being said, you need a Tokyo University PhD in Excel spreadsheets to understand the routing system.
“Oh but Nick the Japanese train system is marvelous,” you might say, should you be someone who uses the word “marvelous” condescendingly in conversation.
Then why are there three identical Keio Line trains lined up next to each other at Shinjuku Station, each headed in the same direction, but it’s a complete shell game deciding which of the three will stop at your destination?
There was the time I ended up in Yokohama instead of Odaiba. Even after years and years of navigating the city’s sparkling clean underbelly, I ended up on the wrong Marunouchi Line train, forgetting that the damn thing splits in different directions.
This is something you just have to know. Good luck, tourists.
Because god knows the signs at the station won’t tell you. Leading up to the 2020ish Tokyo Olympics, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government made a big stink about posting English-language signage in the stations. The signage they posted read something like: “Don’t lean on gate and fall to your death.” “Don’t make too much foreigner noise.”
Not one single goddamn helpful sign pointing you in the right direction.
Sorry, I got off track.
2. Thanks to the Bank
A few weeks after catching that morning shinkansen from Kyoto to Tokyo, I got a job teaching English and I needed a bank account to deposit all that sweet, sweet money.
To open the bank account the application needs to be filled out in Japanese. The kindly young bank assistant was a prince among men and wrote everything in kanji on scrap paper and let me copy his text on the application. (The second time I had to open a bank account in Tokyo was an unmitigated disaster.)
3. They Call Me Professor Cheezits
There was the year I did my own taxes and accidentally allocated myself an additional ¥200,000 (approximately $2,000). I had to go to the tax office to explain myself. The clerk not only fixed my tax form, but he also gave me an additional deduction for transportation to work and for my health insurance costs. He then deeply apologized to me for all of the trouble.
Yes, you should be sorry that I am an idiot.
4. Clean Gene Okerlund
We hired a cleaning service. On the same day we called, the foreman stopped by for an initial inspection. Then on the day of the cleaning they called to ask if it is okay to come an hour early. They arrived an additional 5 minutes earlier to begin preparation so they could start at exactly 1pm, and not waste any of our time or money.
5. The Mice Guy is a Nice Guy
The first summer we moved into our house in Kitazawa we noticed a commotion happening in the ceiling above our kitchen that sounded like a kitten playing semi-professional grabass. Unfortunately, we knew it wasn’t a cute and cuddly pussycat. We called the exterminator. He came and did his thing. In the aftermath he gave us two courtesy calls just to make sure things were going OK, and stopped by to check his traps.
6. Even Our Bathing Routine
The neighborhood deliverymen knew our daily schedules and regularly made deliveries within minutes after we arrived home from work.
7. Bless Him
At our first apartment, we had a regular Takubin delivery driver who was a bright, energetic young man. Our oldest son was a toddler at the time and idolized him. Our son started calling him “Takubin Onii-san (big brother).” When our son was 4 we moved a short distance. One night shortly thereafter, Takubin Onii-san switched up his route so he could deliver our son one last package.
9. Question Authority
A Japanese friend is a member of an alpine skiing group. He told me that a leader is appointed for every expedition. Everybody follows the leader’s direction blindly. One time they trailblazed through thigh-deep snow to the top mountain and skied to the bottom through the backcountry with a blizzard approaching. Hiking back, the group followed the leader 5km in the opposite direction, even though everybody knew he was wrong.
10. Be Cool, Honey Bunny
A friend told me about going to the counter of a certain fast food restaurant and requesting honey packets only to be told honey packets are given to customers on Wednesdays when they serve chicken nuggets and today is not Wednesday, thus, no honey packets for you.
11. Push My Buttons
Excuse me for a second while I rant about Japan’s emergency buttons. Like middle-aged women on a Mediterranean beach, they need to be covered up.
A newly married couple invited us to a dinner party at their new apartment located in one of those neighborhoods you move to to get away from riffraff such as foreigners. But there I was (they need a better exterminator).
They had one of those toilets that can check your blood pressure and sample your tool for diphtheria and after seeing a man about a horse I had trouble finding a toilet handle. I was a bit perplexed by the array of buttons. One of ‘em probably could have done my laundry. So I hit several buttons. One of them was an emergency button. Only, the alarm can’t be heard from inside the bathroom. Only in the living room. And here I was mashing this button like a salaryman hitting the elevator ‘close door’ button when a gaijin approaches. Anyway when I emerged from the loo I was the life of the party.
12. They Served Hot Dogs
I’ve never been to a hostess club but I did accidentally go to a host club. Just me and two ladies who looked like receptionists at the free Kabukicho health clinic watching two young dudes with dyed, spiky ahoge hair bend over seductively while frying up french fries.
13. Sleep Tight
Late night at a kushiyage restaurant one of the patrons fell asleep at the bar holding a lit cigarette between his fingertips. The proprietor walked behind him, pursed his lips, and quietly put out the cigarette, letting the sleeper be.
14. OK, It Was Me
As a group of foreigners urinated on a cherry tree at Yoyogi Park following a rollicking hanami party two policemen came up and told the piss-drunk revelers to be sure to remove the balloons hanging from the tree branch overhead.
15. At Least It Wasn’t Oasis
A conversation I had with the male clerk at a Shibuya clothing store while my wife tried on a pile of dresses: Clerk: “You like music?” Me: “Yes, you?” “Yes.” “Who do you like?” “Libertines.” “Yeah? Do you like Oasis?” “No, Libertines.” “Blur?” “No, Libertines.” “Pulp?” “Libertines.” “Led Zeppelin?” “Libertines.”
16. Thanks Dude
I like to play disc golf and Showa Kinen Park has a decent course. One time I had a good shot and the old man watching me from a distance clapped and cheered like I’d just belly-bumped Konishiki out of the sumo ring.
17. But Where’s My Smokes?
Hungover as hell from a karaoke binge, one morning on the way to work I left my briefcase on the overhead rack of the Chuo line. By the time I realized it was gone, I was an elephant seal stuck in a stampede of penguins at Shinjuku Station and my bag was on its way to Mount Takao. Three days later I received a phone call from the police asking when I was going to pick up my bag. It was at the Iidibashi police station. When I went to pick it up, the only thing missing were a notepad and a quarter-pack of cigarettes.
(Sidenote: My kids fondly recall with regularity the time I left my backpack on the Yamanote Line.)
18. Leaving Shit All Over Tokyo
I left my manpurse on a bench at Meiji Jingu Shrine. When I ran back in a panic I found it hanging on a peg beneath the entrance to the shrine grounds. Apparently the protocol when finding lost items in Japan is to place them at the venue entrance to make it easy for the loser to retrieve their wayward possession.
19. Just Tie It to My Sleeve Already
One spring during cherry blossom season, while sitting in the grass at Shinjuku Gyoen on a lunch break, my card holder containing my credit card and work ID fell out of my pocket. After returning in a panic, I searched the grounds crowded with picnickers like a serial killer stalking his next prey. I frightened three young girls sitting in my former spot after nervously asking them if I can take a peek under their sheet. Not there, I finally went to the lost and found. Of course, the most valuable items in my life were there, with the incredibly friendly staff recognizing me at first sight, knowing exactly what I was looking for.
A friend didn’t sort her recyclables at home correctly. Her neighbor collected the trash bag from the street, brought them into her own house, and called the friend’s co-worker to tell her she was holding on to her cans and bottles for her. For protection one can assume.
21. Per My Previous Email…
When she first started her job, a female acquaintance lived in her company’s corporate housing. Single dudes in the company live in single dormitories, which consist of a tiny bedroom and shared bathroom facilities. Since most young salarymen aren’t housebroken, these living quarters get gross. Many young men get married simply so they can move out of these dormitories and into the family housing, which is generally a three-bedroom apartment. Since there were no single dormitories for women, this lady got to live in a family apartment by herself. She lived on the first floor. One day she left her windows open to let the air in. One of the neighborly housewives noticed (they always do). She called her husband at work. The husband had to send my friend an email asking her to please close her windows. For protection (for real – single women whose windows are open get their underwear stolen).
22. Surprise It’s Us!
When we first moved to Tokyo as a married couple we also lived in corporate family housing (where they post emergency buttons outside the front door). The day we moved in, we had to knock on every single door to introduce ourselves. This was the day I learned to say “yoroshiku oneigaishimasu,” and the neighbors learned to be wary of the tenants in 33D.
23. Don’t Hassle Me I’m Local
The welcome wagon closed up shop and rolled along its merry way in short order. It wasn’t long before the neighborly housewives turned against us (me). We had this apartment complex cleaning schedule. Using straw brooms that would have been great for Quidditch we had to take turns sweeping the leaves in the parking lot and sidewalk. We had to take our turn the weekend after moving in. So on top of jet lag, unpacking, shopping, organizing, drinking and dusting, we had to sweep leaves – a bit of ‘welcome to the neighborhood’ hazing. Four weeks later, it was our turn again. This is when I got a spur in my craw.
They hung this key chain on our mailbox to let us know it was our turn. We’re good people, so we cleaned for the second time in one month, even though there were six units in the building. Being the American that I am, rather than hang the keychain on the next mailbox, I went in reverse order. Lo and behold, the keychain popped up on our mailbox again the next week.
Agitated, I held on to the keychain a couple extra weeks. We had guests visiting on the weekends, we climbed Mount Fuji, we had shit to do. The leaves weren’t going anywhere. This cavalier attitude did not sit well with the housewives of 23-1 Ohara Way. That next Thursday a typed note was left in every mailbox explaining the rules of the cleaning schedule. There were detailed instructions on the proper keychain order.
The same day my wife received a phone call at work. It was the housewife that lived two floors below us. She portended to call under the auspices of a friendly neighbor. She said that she had bought a new keychain because the old one seemed to have disappeared. My wife expressed shock. For the next three weeks, I held on to two keychains. (This is why the rest of the world hates Americans.)
24. Nice Game, Pretty Boy
At a Tokyo Swallows baseball game the pitcher repeatedly threw unsuccessful pick-off attempts to first base, bringing the game action to a halt. I booed as a good fan should, and everybody in the surrounding seats turned to glare at me. The Japanese friends who brought me scooched away, pretended they didn’t know me. Apparently no booing in the Nippon Baseball League.
25. Mmmmmm Doughnuts…
The doughnut shop lady gives me an extra chocolate doughnut because I look like I would appreciate an extra doughnut.
26. And He Was My Best Friend
When I first moved to Tokyo I went to a local bakery nearly every day and bought an assortment of pastries. Sometimes there was chocolate and bananas inside. Sometimes it was ham and corn. You never know (unless you can read Japanese of course). Anyway, at that time in my Japanese lessons I was practicing numbers. Every time I brought my tray to the register and the shopkeep tallied my cost, I would try to repeat the total in Japanese like a kindergartner reciting the ABCs. He waited patiently and upon completion, he would nod and hand me my sack of pastries with a pleased smile.
27. This Bird You Cannot Chain
There was a leather shop near my house called Teddy’s Free Bird. My dad is into leather (don’t ask) so we stopped by when my parents visited. My dad had some goods custom-ordered. Teddy would send emails asking how my father was doing. He let my kids play with his tools when we stopped in. He gave my wife a discount when she needed to mend her leather jacket. Sadly Teddy closed up shop and moved to Miyazaki.
In his place opened a boutique men’s clothing shop that sold vintage ’90s apparel including band T-shirts. They played grunge music on the small stereo. He also got my money.
28. I Put the Coot in Boot Scoot Boogie
There was a country music bar called Liberty Bell located one the first floor of a hotel along the Koshu Kaido that unfortunately closed during the pandemic. Well before my kids were born, I sauntered in one Friday evening to check things out. It was still a little early, but there were five or six other patrons, each wearing cowboy hats, blue jeans and belt buckles the size of sushi plates. One man with the brim of his black hat lowered over his eyes was nursing a full bottle of Jack Daniel’s.
The owner was bartending and he was excited to have a foreigner mosey into his establishment. We became fast friends and he bestowed upon me his band’s promo T-shirt from when they toured the States (he had boxes of the things). I found a table and the joint filled up as the night went on.
The owner and his wife (a keyboard player and wonderful singer) ran through a set of country classics. They then started inviting customers up to perform live karaoke. A personal favorite was the man who sang “Goodnight Irene” as “Goodnight I Lean.” Petty jokes aside, every one of the performances was spot-on.
Intermittently a line dance teacher would come out and lead the entire crowd through country line reels. This was my time to shine. Being from Iowa, line dancing was part of our P.E. core curriculum.
But eventually it was my turn to sing. Rule number one: never give Nick a mic. I will use it, and everyone will suffer for it.
I made the mistake of picking “Take Me Home, Country Roads” by John Denver. John Denver can sing. I can’t. The band started playing. I don’t know what key they were in (I never do). I didn’t know where the song started, where the chorus started, or what the hell I was doing. Every now and then I warbled through the chorus and the crowd joyously joined in. Absolute legends.
At the end of the night they played “Hello Darlin” by Conway Twitty and the few couples there slow danced. The lovely elderly gentleman who earlier sang “Goodnight I Lean” danced by himself, his arms draped around an invisible partner, a gentle smile on his face.
I still wonder who he was dancing with that night.
29. Bring in Rodney Dangerfield to Coach
The mom of one of our oldest son’s classmates convinced us to join their soccer club. It turned out to be more serious than we were led to believe. Practices were two hours every Saturday, Sunday and public holiday. Games were three hours long. Many of the other dads played on their university soccer clubs and had been teaching their kids to kick the ball since they could crawl. The highest level of organized soccer I competed in was the 6th grade Cedar Falls Iowa Recreation League. Not to toot my own horn, I was chosen for the all star team.
Anyway, I attended all of my son’s soccer practices. Not out of devotion, but because he really didn’t like soccer and cried if I wasn’t there. One day, one of the main soccer dads waved me over where the other parents had formed a group huddle. They all looked gravely serious. I tried to follow along the best I could, but the only thing I understood was that we were going to sign a Christmas card for the coaches (it was December).
When the main dad finished speaking, we all stood in silence. Everyone’s head was bowed. Heads bobbed slowly with concern. Every once in a while someone grunted. I looked around from parent to parent, waiting for someone to speak. Finally one of the dads spoke. He essentially said, I am new here and I don’t have an opinion on the matter. I couldn’t agree with him more.
The parents continued to stand in silence. I almost laughed out loud at the absurdity. Would someone just make a decision so I can go to my sitting spot and continue ignoring all of you?
But no decision was to be made that day. We slowly disbursed.
I later learned the hubbub was about a soccer tournament that took place on the same day as the club’s annual Christmas party. The parents of the older kids wanted their kids to compete in the tournament since so many games were canceled due to Covid. However, the coach was going forward with the Christmas party and would not coach at the tournament.
Essentially the parent huddle was a mere formality to show that the parents were taking this issue under serious consideration and were going to include the entire group – even the clueless foreigner whose son was doing cartwheels between the goalposts – to make sure a group consensus was reached and they were putting in every honest effort before defying the coach.
I could only think, these guys must be completely useless at work.
30. Merry Christmas
We arrived at the ski resort in Hakuba on Christmas Eve, my wife’s birthday. We went to the same family-friendly ski resort, and hotel, that we went to the year prior. We enjoyed it, so we were back.
It was winter 2020 – the first winter of Covid. The Japan government had just put the kibosh on its ill-fated Go To Travel campaign. They were encouraging Japan residents to travel throughout the country to help local economies. Hotels and restaurants were offering amazing deals with government support. However, it turned out the pandemic wasn’t over, and the second and third waves swept through the country. The Go To Travel campaign was terminated just before ski season.
The hotel manager informed us that he wouldn’t be able to honor the discount we had signed up for. We were fine with that. We would have come anyway. However, none of the hotel’s other guests felt the same way. Every single guest through New Year’s Eve canceled their reservation. So the hotel was fully stocked anticipating full occupancy. Instead it was a ghost town.
The hotel staff treated us like kings. They gave the kids sleds so they could sled down the hill behind the hotel. They gave us free ski fittings and rental. We were able to go up the nearby lift and take our 5-year-old skiing down the bunny hill for the first time. They gave our kids run of the place. We had full access to the big-screen TV in the lobby so we could sip on hot cocoa and watch Grinch over and over.
Sadly, the hotel is now permanently closed.
31. Happy Japan Anniversary
Before we had kids my wife and I regularly went to a Belgian restaurant in Kanda. We went there for our second wedding anniversary. However, our regular waitress informed us she was quitting at the end of the month for a new job and was happy to see us one more time. Now, we’re not great customers. We always arrived just before closing time. We’d bring groups of people and demand to be seated even though there wasn’t space. But for whatever reason, they liked us (omotenashi?). As we neared the end of our anniversary meal, the waitress stopped by again, and she explained she worked as a kindergarten teacher full-time and waitresses for a second income. As a result of the stress, she had gotten quite sick, losing weight and visiting the doctor often. With our condolences, she thanked us again for our patronage. We didn’t notice when the waitress slipped out for the night. Shortly before closing time there was a bit of a commotion behind our table. The rest of the restaurant staff gathered behind us. The chef had whipped up some Belgian waffle bits smothered in cream and strawberry sauce, with the words “Happy Anniversary” written in chocolate syrup. Our waitress had secretly arranged for this treat. It was a nice moment.
Japan, I don’t deserve you.