Friends in Other Places

An excerpt from, Tokyo Journal: A Nonfiction Novel

Friends in Other Places



When I tell people that my son chose to go to Tokyo for his Make-a-Wish, they don’t know what to say.  They get stuck on the Make-a-Wish part.  They can’t hide the involuntary grimace, the stuttering over condolences.

            None of that surprises me. Not only am I used to it, but I understand. I suppose I’d feel the same way as an outsider looking in.

            Once recovered, people generally seek to understand Nathan’s desire to vacation in Tokyo.  They ask if he’s into anime.  It seems difficult for them to imagine why a 13-year old would be fascinated with Japan unless it had something to do with cartoons and video games.

            That doesn’t surprise me, either.  My belief is that many Americans have no real concept of life inside other cultures—especially Asian culture, which seems especially . . . foreign—and most are content with the not knowing.  But I think it was the foreignness that attracted Nathan to Japan.

            It took two years for the Make-a-Wish Foundation to put Nathan’s wish together.  They’d warned us that international vacations were generally not an option, for the expense.  But Nathan held out during the preliminary interviews, insisting that nothing—not Disney World, not California, not even New York City—said “wish come true” to him more than Tokyo.

            However thrilled I was with Nathan’s choice of family adventure, I was also puzzled at it.  Why did Nathan want so badly to go to Tokyo?  It’s not something he could put into words; he’s not a verbally expressive person.  In some ways, the cherub-faced boy who’d hardly mumbled his first word by age three was still an enigma to me.  So in more ways than one, the Make-a-Wish Foundation granted a wish to me, too: privy to the innermost aspirations of my son. 

            The plan was this: Make-a-Wish would send me, Nathan, and Nathan’s little brother Ty to Tokyo for eight days, all expenses paid.  All we had to do was pack our bags and hop on a plane and the foundation would arrange for everything: tickets, hotel reservations, food, and even shopping money.  When our Make-a-Wish contact urged me to invite another adult along on the trip (she felt it would be too difficult for me to navigate Tokyo on my own with two kids, one in a wheelchair), I knew the only right thing to do was to invite Nathan and Ty’s dad and my ex-husband, Matt.   Although Matt and I had a rocky-at-best relationship, we’d white-knuckled our way through five years of post-divorce “getting along for the sake of the kids” and Nathan would surely want no one other than his father to accompany us on such a trip.  As I credited the 500-plus mile distance between us with preserving our cool amicability, the prospect of spending an extended period of time in unfamiliar territory with Matt caused no small amount of anxiety.  I never could have prepared myself, though, for the extremes of experience and emotion we were in for. 

Excerpt: Get Food or Go Broke Trying

May 17


            Our guide’s name was Misuzu. She was an elegant woman: tall, slender, and broad-shouldered, with long, straight hair and bangs, clean makeup and all-black attire. She must’ve been in her mid-forties. There was a rare quality to her demeanor—strength coupled with a dignified humility. I cared for her immediately.

              Matt could not get the pronunciation of Misuzu’s name; or, rather, he was scared to misunderstand or mispronounce, so he stumbled all over himself when trying and eventually gave up (after I quietly informed him that, no, she’d not introduced herself as “Miss Suzie”).  Like all of our guides during the trip, Misuzu was a volunteer for the Tokyo branch of the Make-a-Wish foundation.  She was often recruited to help families from overseas, she said, because she was proficient at English (she said this with embarrassment, and insisted she did not speak very well, although to me she was impressively, lucidly fluent).  Her husband was a physicist and she’d lived in America for roughly a decade when he worked for a science foundation in New York City.

             In her 20s, Misuzu had been a Kung Fu champion.  She grew up in Kyoto—the original Tokyo, land of the geishas—in a “traditional” family that forced her into Odori and Shamisen[1] lesssons.  When Misuzu spoke, she addressed me, primarily.  It wasn’t that she wasn’t friendly to Matt, because she very much was warm and friendly to him, but she focused the majority of her attention on me, and so I wondered if she thought Matt and I were a couple, or if it is a cultural thing for Japanese women to pay more attention to women than men when in a mixed gender group, or if she just liked me more.  I’m leaning toward the latter.

             Misuzu asked what we would like to do for the day.  I explained that Nathan was just interested in Japan, in general, and that anything centered on Japanese culture, architecture, history, landscape—anything—would be fun for us.  We decided to drive around the Imperial Palace, and then to tour the Tokyo Tower.  There was a wax museum and an aquarium inside the Tokyo Tower, and so by the time we finished there, it was already 1:00.  We had the driver until only 3:00 and Nathan wanted to eat, so we decided as a group that we’d spend the rest of our time out finding and eating lunch.

             The boys wanted dumplings (which are a Chinese food, and something Misuzu admittedly knew very little about).  Misuzu and the driver consulted for what felt like an eternity, referring regularly to her iPhone, in an attempt to find the perfect dumpling place. The driver knew of a restaurant that he insisted was “the” place to go for dumplings, and so we headed through the Tokyo traffic for about 20 minutes to find the block (which was about five blocks away), and then spent another 10 minutes finding a place to park.  As we walked down what felt like a long, littered alley in search of our dumpling restaurant, I assessed the numerous eateries—packed together and stacked on top of each other, to the sky, it seemed—lining the alley.  From what I could make out of the half-English signs, I learned that most of these restaurants were “stand in” or “bar” restaurants.  They were, literally, about the size of a large walk in closet, with just enough room for employees to serve food behind a bar, and patrons to eat at that bar, standing.

             Not exactly wheelchair-friendly, but not necessarily a deal-breaker.

             But then there were the stairs.  A majority of the restaurants (from my pedestrian calculation, I concluded roughly 75 percent) had either step-down or step-up entrances. Deal breaker. 

             I needed a different strategy, should the dumpling fiasco go awry.  We could order food at one of the bar restaurants and eat outside, while walking and sightseeing. But the adult shops, snuggled in all nice and cozy with the closet-restaurants, didn’t make for appealing scenery.  Most of the alley walls and windows were lined with posters of half-dressed women in lascivious positions.  The boys’ groans of “ewwwww” indicated they’d also taken note of our not-so family friendly surroundings.

             To my relief, our destination was relatively large—about the size of a train car—and street-side and stair-free. A romantically cramped and disheveled room, it had stone walls and floors, semi-dirty (at least, emptied only) ashtrays at each table, backless stools (which I can only liken to plastic, upright logs), and plastic hangers on wall hooks at each place setting (to hang coats, Misuzu explained). I appreciated the realism; Matt was openly suspicious.

             The menu was all in Japanese, with only grainy pictures, which threw my picky boys for a loop. Upon first glance of the photo of Chinese dumplings, Nathan and Ty ascertained that those were not the dumplings they were talking about. They wanted “regular” dumplings, which they could not describe[2]. Nathan then decided he would settle for “regular” noodles, which, from what I could decipher, were akin to “ramen noodles in soup.” The restaurant did not have regular noodles, so we all (that’s me, Misuzu, Matt, Nathan, and Ty) settled on a picture of a bowl with noodles, floating meat of an unknown origin, and a poached half-egg (which we all declined). We also decided to at least try the dumplings.

             The dumplings came in orders of three or six. As we all wanted to try some but we didn’t want to waste any of our limited budget, we couldn’t decide how to order. Matt insisted he was going to eat an entire six-platter, but I wasn’t sure that any of us would like them. so after much consulting with Misuzu, who tried her best to explain to us what we should expect from this type of restaurant and meal, I decided to accept her advice to start with just one six platter and then order more if necessary. It was smart advice. Matt pouted in the corner the whole time Misuzu ordered for us and then announced that I was being ridiculous—that he wanted his whole platter of six, period. He was mad, and it was embarrassing.  He turned to the boys and said (and I quote, exactly): “Your mom doesn’t know what she’s doing. There’s her way of doing things and then there’s the right way of doing things.”

             I asked if he realized he’d just said that my way was the wrong way and that his way was the right way, and without skipping a beat, he said yes. Misuzu, who was sitting next to me and right across from Matt, watched out the window, as if she didn’t notice what was happening. I smiled and calmly assured Matt that I would order another platter for him as soon as we neared the end of the first platter. By the time we were all ready to leave, not a one of us had finished our noodle bowl (which was gigantic, but quite tasty), and there was a [giant, also] dumpling left on the one platter we’d ordered. I asked Matt if he wanted it, but he was full and could not eat any more. After verifying with him that he was sure he didn’t want that last one, “or maybe another platter, to take home for leftovers?” I dropped it.

             Toward the end of our meal, Misuzu apologized that she had not taken us to a nice restaurant, and I countered with sincere gratitude for all of the energy she’d invested in us. Then she leaned in and confided that she’d actually taken us to “a part of Tokyo where women and families don’t go.” It was true, Misuzu and I were the only women (and there were no children) in the place, which was by then packed, but I hadn’t even noticed until she said it. I mentioned the adult shops on the way in and we broke into laughter.

             “So, you know what I mean,” Misuzu said.

             I did.

             But then she said, “so, you understand what this means for me to bring you here,” and I could only guess at that.



[1] Japanese theatre dance and three-string, guitar-like musical instrument, respectively.

[2] I found out later that “regular” dumplings are those dumplings Po, from Kung Fu Panda, eats.