It's been a while since our last life update and a LOT has happened. After 10 wonderful years, we have packed up our lives in Tokyo, Japan and moved back to Melbourne, Australia. As you can imagine, it's been a big move and an even bigger once since I'm 7 months pregnant.
We've now been back in Australia for two weeks, and want to share with you our final days in Tokyo, and what it has felt like being back in Melbourne. I'll warn you that this isn't a super upbeat post, but shows the reality of what it's like, at least what it was like for me, to leave a city and country I love so deeply.
There's lots of other positive things to write about both places, and I'll be writing posts about a lot more of these things shortly, but I wanted to get these raw emotions on the page, and to have them exist out there in the universe to record this big transition in our lives.
So this is it, in all its unedited glory.
“It's just culture shock. It's just culture shock. It's just culture shock.”
I've been repeating this to myself like a mantra for the past week and a half.
The alternative is to panic and I'm trying not to. Honestly, I'm emotionally exhausted and the last thing I want to feel right now is that this (leaving Tokyo and moving back to Melbourne) was the “wrong decision” or that we went through the past few months of packing and leaving rituals “for nothing,” for something that “doesn't feel right.”
Essentially every action we have taken over the past several months has been one of goodbye in some sense. Whether it was selling or giving away most of our possessions online, passing on our excess clothes at the clothing swap, or doing all the admin and paperwork associated with finishing up our time in Japan. Every single thing has been some act of letting go. And despite our best efforts to not have the last few weeks in Tokyo be manic, they were.
Even though we started early, and were systematic and organized, many things took longer than expected, even when we had factored in extra time, and we could only control our own timeline, not other people's or organization's. There were delays, frustrations, letdowns, rules and systems that we couldn't do anything about. We could only try to remain on task and just keep getting up and pushing through when things were hard.
Maybe there was never going to be any amount of time that I would have felt 100% OK with leaving Tokyo, but leaving without having had the chance to do anything but pack and clean, and fill out forms, really hung over me, because I really wanted (and needed) it to be different this time.
Hai was able to look at it like, “Everything that needed to get done, got done.” And “This is not the last time we'll be here. We'll have the chance to do X, Y, Z next time.” He is able to find peace in that approach. I, on the other hand, require a more ritualistic handover.
The night before handing over the keys to our apartment, we finished our cleaning at around midnight, completely exhausted. That evening was nothing like I had envisaged or hoped for. There was no time to sit down for a proper dinner or enjoy one last evening in the place we have called home for almost four years. At the stroke of midnight, our contract had now officially ended and with the house completely empty we stayed the night at a friend's house nearby. Rather than trying to cram our pot plant from the garden into the car with all our other stuff, we thought we could pop by in the morning before we were meeting with the real estate agent to hand over the keys. To have a moment just to take one last look on our own in daylight, take a couple of photos and maybe even a short video saying goodbye.
Our appointment with the real estate agent was at 11am, so we went back over to the apartment at 9am. We were surprised to find the door open and the place already abuzz with cleaning staff. The shoji, Japanese paper screens, in our bedroom had already been taken down and were ready to be replaced (as is usual between tenants), floors had been covered, and already the place wasn't “ours” anymore.
The maintenance staff had no problem with us coming and grabbing the plant, and were very helpful. They themselves didn't know what the arrangements were for the handover (they had just been called to do a job and were doing it) and asked if there was a time we'd be meeting with the real estate agent, so that they could time their work around it. It's just that there was no time to be ready, to feel, to acknowledge, to take that one last look “as it was”. The bandaid had been ripped right off before we had time to think about it. That can be good for many things in life, but for me, for this, I wanted a slower countdown.
The meeting with the real estate agent went smoothly. They were impressed with how we had looked after the apartment and we had all the bits and pieces they needed to check – remotes for inbuilt electronics, manuals, and of course the keys – all ready to go. It was all over in a matter of 10 minutes. And then it was just strangely done.
While we still had a week or so in country, and this was time we had hoped could be spent leisurely, it was quite insane running around doing all the final things. It was an epic saga trying to send the things we had carefully curated to keep back to Australia by post (sea), and took three long visits to the post office, meaning our entire final few days, including my birthday, to get things sorted. I was devastated when I could hear a matsuri (festival) passing by outside and there was no time to join it, or to go to the New York Bar (the one from Lost in Translation) to have at least one drink to celebrate (mocktail, of course), something I've never done and for some reason just really wanted to do.
When I say that there was no time. I mean, after checking off the absolute musts (cancelling contracts and utilities, packing and sending our stuff, getting rid of the final items, going to the bank and visiting city hall etc), we literally only had 15 minutes to spare by the time we reached a nearby train station and the time the airport bus was to depart. Fifteen minutes. During which time we needed to check in for said bus and get our luggage tagged and stowed, and get seated ready for departure.
And then the bus just left. It left our life here until it was just a distant spot in the rear vision mirror. Still technically in Japan, but knowing that this bus was taking us away from this life, one full of fond memories and friends, and from this existence we had built together from nothing. At best I felt numb, at worst my heart felt as though it was being ripped from my chest.
When we got to the airport, one of our suitcases wouldn't lock and despite our best efforts to fix it, even borrowing a screwdriver from the baggage assistance desk, we ended up having to get it wrapped (something we have never done before and didn't want to because of the unnecessary use of plastic), but that bag was full of Hai's camera gear and we couldn't take the risk of checking it unlocked. After finally getting checked in, we went to have dinner. Unfortunately the service was unusually terrible and slow, and the food wasn't that great either.
When we went through security, they confiscated our toothpaste. We know the 100ml per bottle/tube limit, but have taken toothpaste in a container a smidgen over before and they have never cared to check the tube for the exact capacity, so we took a chance. That's the rule, we get it, nothing we could do but to let them take it and move on.
Then we kept getting directed by airport staff to follow tourist procedures for immigration, we had to keep telling them we aren't tourists on a tourist visa, that's why we need to fill out this form.
Finally we get to the gate and the grounds staff refuse to let us priority board despite me being 7 months pregnant, and this information being on file. I had to confirm my number of weeks etc at check-in. I've never had to or asked for priority boarding before, and I thought this might be the one time in my life that they'd be willing to help me out. Apparently not. We were sent right to the end of the queue, and were one of the last to board.
Our departure was quite delayed due to congestion at Narita, but when we finally took off, the tears starting streaming as we looked out onto Tokyo and surrounds at night. I thought about the approach as we landed at that very same place, also in the evening, 10 years earlier. The excitement and how “right” in felt. How I love this city, it hurts.
The flight itself didn't drag as much as I had feared. I had to get up a number of times to walk around and stretch my legs. I seemed to wake up when Shiyoshi needed me to. Despite late night and early morning walks in the cabin, I actually managed to get a decent amount of rest, and didn't feel wretched when we landed.
It was and still is a strange feeling to be “back”. Basically I don't really feel like I've come “home” in the sense that people who may not have spent as much time away as we have might assume. There's a familiarity there for sure, but it's equally as much of a culture shock as going somewhere you're not used to at all. It's like being in a strange parallel universe that people oddly assume you can slip right back into and feel nothing but pure ease, joy and nostalgia.
It's not that Australia is not “home” for me too, it's just that the place I knew before, the time and space that existed then, doesn't exist anymore. Because not only do places change, but fundamentally we change too. I am not and cannot be the same person I was 10 or 20 years ago.
My travels and my experiences have changed me, and I don't want to go back to how things were before, because I like who I am now better than the old me. I've grown, I've experienced more, I've learned more. And it's my lifelong aim to continue to learn, to evolve and discover new parts of myself. It's an internal journey that is not necessarily tied to physical movement, although that has been a huge part of my story.
When people say “home”, it's hard to explain the complex notion of that to begin with and in a way that doesn't offend people. By acknowledging that “home” isn't a simple concept for me isn't a rejection of any place or anyone, but rather an acknowledgement of the privilege I have had to lead my life so far in many different places around the world. I've spent most of my adult life, and essentially my entire married life, living in a place other than the one people call my “home”, meaning that the decisions I have made as an independent adult, by and for myself, have all largely been in places other than here.
I lead a nomadic life, where physical place takes on different meaning. I mean, I definitely understand love of physical location. That's why it was so hard to leave Japan and also why there are cities around the world I could keep going back to a million times and never tire of. A physical place is grounded in its own culture and daily life that can make it fundamentally different to the next town or city or even just one neighbourhood over. We build memories in these places, and the physical place often does have some or even a huge bearing on those experiences.
However when you travel to a place, whether your initial reaction is to love it or hate it, there is something fundamentally different when you know the situation is temporary. Even if that temporary situation feels so dire that you're counting down the days until leaving.
Actually living in a place for extended periods, a situation that is not temporary and in which you find a long-term place to live, get work, make friends, and create a community, and then you are suddenly transplanted to a place that is fundamentally different and also not temporary, is quite jarring to say the least.
It's no wonder when expats move on to a different place, especially when that place is regarded by everyone around them as “home”, that the initial reaction is to feel rejection towards it. “This isn't like X place (I just came from).” There may also be this feeling that you're taking a step “back”. We might try to hold onto practices and rituals of the life we have just left because they help us deal with the trauma of loss of identity. We might want to hold onto that life a little bit longer because the new reality is startling.
While some may not understand it, saying that I'm “home” doesn't feel comforting in the way many people think it does. To me it feels like people are disregarding the past 10 years of my life, and assuming that this is now the time I can get back to “real life”. The reality is I have been living a “real life” for the last decade. Just because it didn't play out here in Australia, doesn't mean I have “missed out” and now I'm getting my life back “on course”. I've just had different experiences, and it's difficult for many people to relate to that.
I need to mourn Japan. It may sound dramatic, but that's how it felt to leave. That someone had died. Perhaps that someone was me, or at least part of me. Although I know I can go back, this time and space, who I was during this stay in Japan, this iteration of myself, just like the iteration of myself that grew up in Australia, won't be again, never exactly.
There's pain in knowing people will move on without you, and selfishly also in knowing that they'll be perfectly OK. You want nothing but the best for everyone you love and care about, but you also don't want them to forget you too quickly. You want those memories to linger a little before they become too distant, to not feel like being on that bus on a one-way ticket to somewhere else.
How I feel about it all is changing daily, and I don't want you to think it is all doom and gloom. But I do want to be honest with you, and to let you know it's not all rainbows and unicorns all of the time either. Big change can bring with it big emotions, and it's OK to feel them. There's a lot to be grateful and thankful for, too. We have a lot to look forward to over the next few months and it's important to recognize the things that go right and those moments that are joyous amongst the chaos.
So I've leave this update here along with all of our best regards and sincere thanks for all the support you have shown us over the past few months as we have been working through all of this. We appreciate all of your messages and readership more than you can know. More updates and posts to come.
How have you dealt with a big change?