During my first days in Tokyo, I had this plan that my husband, our kids, and I would eat only Japanese food. We would live like Japanese, cook like Japanese, and for two years just be Japanese. It was April 2003, and the children were babies – just shy of four and one. Of course, I made this vow from the luxury of my Minami-Azabu apartment with the Western appliances in the kitchen on the first day or two of our planned two-year sojourn in the city. It was hardly binding.
The next few days were a blur of finding the ward office, the immigration office, the health insurance guy, the phone company, the cell phone store, and other errands required for setting up a life. My husband, Marc, was with us all the time at first.
Then came the first Monday. Marc left for work, and the kids and I bade him a cheery goodbye before heading to the park. Arisugawa Park, I realized, was the only place I could get to on my own. The park it was! It was very early May, and Arisugawa had that sickeningly-sweet smell of the trees that bloom for a few weeks only at that time. The kids loved the sand-box, the swings and the bouncy horse. We passed a tiny Japanese grocery store on the way, so we bought some strictly Japanese food on the way back for both lunch and dinner. (I had taken a few cooking lessons, by the way) By the time we got home, ate lunch, the kids had a nap, did some inside playing and then had a bath, it was time to make dinner and Marc came home. I survived my first day solo, which was day six of time in Japan. I felt triumphant.
Day seven was the same. So was day eight. By day nine, as any stay-at-home mother could attest to, I was pulling my hair out. The Japanese moms in the park had no interest in talking to me – I have blonde, curly hair and wear shorts and t-shirts, while they are uniformly dark-haired with perfect navy blue skirts, white blouses, hose and jewelry, even in the park. They remembered to bring cloths to clean their kids after the sandbox and I never did. I was loud, my kids were loud. We stood out.
So it wasn’t just that I was a stay-at-home mom for the first time, which I was. But we were thousands of miles from home, family, friends, and I had no outlet, no human interaction other than with babies. I didn’t want to talk to Marc too much about it – I had so bravely and decisively wanted to be Japanese for two years. How could I face him and go back on my plans?
On day ten I stood crying at Arisugawa Park at 10:30 in the morning, letting my tears flow as a salty mess, down my sandbox-stained face and into my mouth and I just lost it. I scooped Sydney out of the sandbox, and without so much as brushing her off, I loaded her into the stroller, ignoring her howls of protest. I pulled Bailey off the swing and put him in the “Sit ‘n Stand” behind his baby sister. Being an observant child, he protested, but saw my face, and stopped. And we were off down the hill. Just a few feet from Arisugawa Park was National Azabu supermarket. I had vowed not to go, but the circumstances were dire.
Since 1962, National Azabu has been a haven for the ex-pat community. They sell familiar items from home that are completely non-Japanese, like breakfast cereal, Hershey’s syrup, and Cambell’s soup. Their prices on so many things are outrageous because they can be – for some reason, it seems okay in there to pay more than $1 for one apple, $10 for a pint of blueberries, or $5 for a roll of Bounty Paper towels. It has an upstairs that is a dry-goods store, including books, greeting cards, toys, Halloween costumes, and kitchen ware – all of which is recognizable to a Westerner, particularly an American. It’s the only grocery store that has the meat packaged exactly like a Westerner is accustomed to. AND, it’s one of the only places where everything – yes, everything – is labeled in English. After their first experience buying tofu thinking it’s cheese, Westerners appreciate the labeling.
In National Azabu, the staff is friendly, the aisles are bright and cheery and the people are diverse. Everyone looks you in the eye and smiles at you, staff and customer alike, and it’s refreshing after the Japanese demure style.
On day ten, I was still crying when I walked into the store. But by the time I was in the first aisle, I wasn’t anymore. Everything was just so bloody familiar. The kids and I spent thirty minutes in there, and all we really bought was three boxes of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese in the bright blue box.
On the phone later, I explained to Marc and apologized.
His response to me was the greatest gift I have ever received; I will love him forever for this one: “Aim, it’s really okay. I’m so proud that it took you ten whole days. You did great.”
Even though things didn’t magically smooth out, and becoming comfortable in Tokyo took a lot of time and came in fits and starts, I still remember those first days like they were yesterday. Eight years later, I’m still here in Tokyo and we all love it.
National Azabu announced yesterday, September 26th, that in just about a month, they will be closing their doors. The building is old and they need to take it down. They are still trying to figure out whether or not they will rebuild and re-open. Of course they say that they have a goal to re-open for their fiftieth anniversary in 2012, but that seems like a golden wish at this point. The economy in Japan – and everywhere, really – is so horrible. So many people I know here are really mourning the closing. In the post-March 11th world in which we live, non-Japanese speakers depend on the readable labels on everything National Azabu carries, so we can all be careful about our food supply. There’s another international supermarket not too far away, but it’s not the same – it doesn’t have the same friendly aura, and park-side location that’s so easy for foreigners, as National Azabu.
Nearly every foreigner in Tokyo, or any former Tokyo resident who has returned to their home country can tell you of their first visit to National Azabu and what it has meant to them. For me, National Azabu saved me on that lonely spring day – it was the first sense that I could live in this place that was so different from what I was used to as an American. National Azabu showed me that I live in a Japanese style if I wanted to, but still get some serious comfort when I needed it.
National Azabu is an institution, and it will be sorely missed. I know I join the entire expat community in wishing for their triumphant return.