Living Standards

Our humble hovel, almost charming in the cherry blossom season.

We have to move out of our place. Soon.

It’s hard to imagine not living here. This is the place I’ve always known as home here in Tokyo. With a looming end date to our stay here, I find myself getting more and more attached to our home and appreciating things that I overlooked before. It’s not as tragic as it seems – it’s not like we’re being evicted from a luxurious mansion. Far from it. Husband and I often joke that we live in a “hovel” or better yet, a “love shack”, but oh, how we love our shack!

After getting over the initial resistance, we decided to deal with this more rationally and talk about where we want to move and what things are important for us. At about this time, a friend shared a video clip entitled New iPad Act in which Charlie Caper and Erik Rosales gave a breathtaking presentation on why Stockholm is the place to live. Moving to Stockholm might be too much of a stretch but as long as we have this conversation going, I listed some of the things that matter most to me.

Access & Mobility

I like cities that do not leave you feeling handicapped without a car. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I do love driving and appreciate a good road trip every now and then. I am perfectly aware too that it’s almost impossible to shop properly at Costco without a car to bring home bulk items. And who doesn’t like the feeling of being warm and dry inside your own private vehicle while it rains buckets outside? But having lived in four cities in four countries, I find myself appreciating  more and more the convenience and the freedom afforded by a good and reliable public transportation system. I don’t have to worry about the rising cost of gas, car maintenance, traffic jams (and how much gas is wasted while stuck in them), insurance, parking, or having my side mirrors stolen (it’s happened to me before, right while I was driving in Manila!). Above all, using public transportation appeals to my eco sentiments.

An American friend living in the Philippines swears that the Philippines has a very good public transportation system. By that he meant that you can get anywhere relatively cheaply, even to the remotest corners of the country, through some combination of buses, jeepneys, ferries, tricycles, and pedicabs. In fact, you can pay to be taken right to your doorstep. The downside is that it can be pretty chaotic, especially when there are no proper stops and people want to be dropped off at their exact destination (Yes, Manong Jeepney Driver, stop right there at the tiny alley between the gas station and the barber shop). Things have improved slightly with three light rail transit lines in Metro Manila and this is by far my favorite form of public transport. The trains are mostly clean, comfortable, reliable and safe – I say “mostly” because the trains routinely break down or have one sort of problem or another, and rush hour is just a most abominable time to be taking them.

My experience with public transport (or lack thereof) in Minnesota is particularly remarkable. I lived in a small suburb of the Twin Cities for a little more than two months. I didn’t have my own car so I was dependent on my in-laws and friends for rides. I stayed at home for the most part and went out only to get groceries and go to church, thus became intimately acquainted with the term “cabin fever”. The nearest supermarket I go to is a good 35 minute walk from the house, which isn’t so bad except when carrying a 5 kilo three-month old infant and trudging through hip high snow or slippery sidewalks that iced over. There were several occasions when cars would stop and strangers would ask me, “Hey lady! You need a ride? (and when I declined…)Are you sure?” There is a bus stop near our block so one time, I decided to familiarize myself with the route and stops. I checked the bus schedule online and waited at the bus stop 10 minutes before it was scheduled to arrive just in case my watch was off by a few minutes. I waited a total of 30 minutes in the freezing cold and not a single bus came by. Sigh.

For a while, we were considering moving outside Tokyo, enamored by the fresh air, the wide sweeping views of the sea and the hills, and being surrounded by nature untethered (a big deal here in Japan where trees are pruned back until they look like poodles on sticks and where they like to cement everything up).  I wanted Ruby to have an idyllic childhood she would always remember with fondness. Unfortunately, this would mean a longer commute for my husband (as much as two hours one way). Where we live right now, he gets home early enough most nights of the week for us to enjoy dinners together — a nice family ritual that is very important to me. Living so far away would also mean spending more on transportation. We would also have to think twice about attending events in the city, especially in the evenings.

Part of access and mobility is bike and pedestrian friendliness.  Manila is just too polluted and dangerous for biking. Pedestrians have to cover their noses with handkerchiefs and many majors streets don’t have decent sidewalks (they’re often too dark, narrow, cracked, reeking of urine and/or overflowing with garbage). In Minnesota, biking seemed more of a physical recreation than a way to get around, with cyclists donning the latest gears. It’s so rare to see fellow pedestrians that walking can be quite lonely. China has some dedicated bike lanes but they are also shared by aggressive cyclists and speeding motorcycles, not to mention bicycle theft is a common occurrence. Vehicles don’t have regard for traffic signals so even the zebra lines aren’t safe for pedestrians. Of all the places I’ve lived, Tokyo seems the most bike and pedestrian friendly. Most sidewalks are wide enough for bicycles. As a testament to safety, many Japanese mothers use bicycles with one or two baby/child seats attached to get around and to do their shopping. Bicycle parking facilities are widely available.

House Features

Much as I admire the sizable living spaces of our friends’ homes, I realized I like the smallness of ours. I like that I can chat with my husband who’s reading in the tatami room while I’m cooking in the kitchen.  I can easily check on what Ruby’s up to, or at least hear her puttering about. And because everything is literally within reach, we enjoy an everyday convenience that I don’t fully appreciate until we stay in bigger places like my in-laws’ or my parents’ (Where’s Ruby’s bottle? Downstairs! No, in the other room. No, not that room. Ugh!).

Ruby enjoying the afternoon breeze on our balcony

That said, I’d like our place to have a bigger yard and garden. Our house in Minnesota has a yard as big as a Tokyo block. Mowing can be a real workout but it is a lovely place to sit out, have a barbecue, run around with Ruby, and watch the sunset. Right now, our place just has a balcony where we keep some plants. Luckily, our balcony overlooks our landlady’s garden which is thick with all kinds of trees (I particularly love the flowering ones) and so we get to serendipitously enjoy this generous arboreal cover and everything that comes with it.

Good lighting and ventilation are invaluable — something that I learned from my dad. Our current place has windows so big on all sides of the house we don’t have much wall space for hanging up framed stuff, but then we don’t have or need an air conditioner, thanks to the cross breeze, and we don’t need to turn on the lights in any part of the house until sunset. That translates to a lot of savings in our electricity bill.

Tatami — ah, probably the best contribution of the Japanese to the housing world. Naturally cool in the summer and warm in the winter. There’s nothing like a house perfumed with the earthy grassy smell of new tatami mats. I also like the Japanese custom of removing footwear at the genkan (entrance) – we want to keep this custom wherever we may move to, but oh how we wish we could also bring tatami mats! Sadly, tatami mats are slowly disappearing as the Japanese favor the more “modern” hardwood floors.

Society & Community

If I may be allowed to dream, I’d love to live somewhere near my and my husband’s families. There is some controversy about the origin of the proverb “It takes a village to raise a child,” but I doubt anyone will question its wisdom. I long for the care, support, guidance, and loving company of both families but since that is physically impossible, I turn my attention to the kind of society where we live.

One of the things I love about living in Japan is how safe it is. Kids take the trains by themselves. You can leave your stuff unattended and find them pretty much undisturbed. You can stroll around without having to clutch your bag protectively against knife slashes. This kind of peace of mind is incomparable.

Then there is the peace of mind that comes from knowing everything medical (and dental — apparently medical doesn’t always include dental) is covered. Our experience with Ruby and her heart surgery taught us firsthand the value of socialized health care. This has become a major consideration for me when I think of where I want to live. I want to live in a place where I won’t hesitate to call an ambulance in an emergency or consult a doctor when I suffer from something. Yes, this means higher taxes but I’d prefer them any day to medical debts.

Last but quite importantly is the sense of community. One of the defining characteristics of community is inclusivity (read Scott Peck’s The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace). Unfortunately this is the one thing that I do not feel here in Japan. I still feel very much an outsider and that is partly my fault for not having language facility. But even foreigners who are fluent enough in Japanese still feel that they are excluded from the community.  It is important for me to live in a place where I know my neighbors and my neighbors know me, where I feel that I can be involved and make a contribution and that my contribution is valued.

How about you? What are your considerations when thinking of a place to live?

2 responses to “Living Standards

  1. Goodluck on the house hunting she! I can emphatize so the last 1.5 wks, I learned that my landlord was going to increase rent by 30% so I decided to move, looked for a new house,negotiate a new contract,and make arrangements for moving.And I needed to do it before I fly home for a vacay.I’m going to have a wk of respite then I have to physically move my stuff next. Talk about stress! Although there’s a bit of underlying excitement at the prospect of making new memories in a new place 🙂 but I agree, its kind of sad to leave too especially when your house has been a place called home for the last ( years.

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