Four City Impressions: Tokyo, Saigon, Columbus, San Francisco

It has been three and a half years since I first came to San Francisco to work on the career aspect of my life. Things have gone according to plan, I’ve settled into a routine and time has gone quickly. In fact, this is the most time I’ve spent in once city in the past decade.

This past month I was fortunate enough to be able to visit the cities in Asia and America I call home in rapid succession. My reason for doing so were simply to remember what life is like over in various cities and to think about the future. The one problem with moving from city to city is you always miss the ones you’ve left and there is always a sort of pull beckoning you to go back. It was this voice that I wanted to quiet a little as well as determine which world would be most suitable for the future.

When one is away from any city for a long time, the image of that city is continually built up in the mind and may make it seem better than it actually is. My mind especially reinforces the good aspects while negating the bad. I had to return to put it all in perspective.
Further, it is the experience one remembers and not the city as it actually is and not all experiences will be the same. However, I also believe that one has the power to physically change any experience simply by choosing how the mind will perceive it. This is why some will have negative experiences while others enjoy the time of their life even though they are experiencing the same city.

I went on my trip as one returning home and not as a tourist. I simply wanted to revisit the places and neighborhoods that were my home at one time.
Therefore, I thought it might be wise to write down my thoughts while they are still fresh and to share my experiences in these vastly different places.

1. Tokyo

– Tokyo is a city that could be described as a futuristic place in the present. It is clean, orderly and crime is almost non-existent. The technology is very advanced and returning to San Francisco, I can’t shake the feeling that it seems 10-15 years behind!

My neighborhood in Tokyo runs from Ikebukuro up to Kawagoe and westward along the Yamanote line to Shibuya. It was here that I ate at my favorite restaurants, had coffee in places where I used to study Japanese and had some beers at my favorite hangouts. It seemed as though time had not really changed things and I could easily slip back into that world.
Yet, it would not be the same world if I were to return. I was there as a student and English teacher and did not have to fight the crowded trains day in and day out. My Japanese is good enough to live in that world.

If I were to return I would be faced with the monumental task of improving my Japanese to native level which would take many years and dedicated nightly study. One part of me finds this to be difficult. Yet, whether something is difficult or not simply depends on the mindset when doing it. There will be peaks and valleys but with the right attitude there will be more peaks along the road.

The tougher aspect would be integrating into a mostly Japanese world. Before, I spent a lot of time with foreigners and achieved a very comfortable level of life. Going back I would have to integrate 100% which one can never really achieve since Japan is a homogeneous society and I would always be an outsider. However, with the right attitude one can get very close and become “accepted,” even if becoming completely “Japanese” is not possible.

In regards to integration one will have to become part of various groups. These groups are the people you work with, the neighborhood and even society at large. One must then abide by all the rules of these groups which inhibits individualism. Here in the USA we are individualistic and pursue our own goals in which we can sometimes bend rules. It reminds me a bit of the movie “The Matrix” in that Neo has the power to shape his environment as he wants it to be. In Japan there are no bending of rules and the Matrix is as it is with the individual having no power to change it. One must simply keep trying to accomplish what they will in a static fashion and various opportunities are spaced farther in between. One must pursue the aims of the group over the individual.

To put this in greater perspective, I left Japan Airlines (great company) due to my own aims and career goals. In Japan, this would not be a normal thing and much harder to do. In fact would almost seem like a betrayal and perhaps seen as a negative on the resume.

The positive aspect to moving back here is that my faculties would be awash in the culture and language. It would be like a child exploring an entirely new playground even if he knew how to navigate a select few of the obstacles. My Japanese would improve tremendously and I would have to keep myself more alert in order to advance.

Here in San Francisco it seems I rarely need to think at all and could sleepwalk through most days. It is as if the current of life has picked me up to carry me along the way and all I need to do is float. In Japan I would have to tread water pretty quickly at first and watch out for the boulders in the stream to keep advancing.

In short, Tokyo would be a great place to return to but life would take a lot of effort. But again, it is only as difficult as my mind tells me it is and if I regard it as simple and fun then so it would be.

2. Saigon

– The best part about Saigon are the people. I love the Vietnamese and regard them as very warm, kind and full of life. These people have been through so much yet it is very easy to find a smile in this city. Further, the expatriate crowd is extremely interesting as they come from all corners of the globe and usually have interesting stories to tell. I like the fact that I can walk into almost any restaurant/bar, converse in different languages and hear their story. The simple fact that they are in Saigon makes them adventurous and one can easily get a completely different viewpoint of any situation which simply doesn’t happen in the USA.

As for the Vietnamese, I don’t think I’ve every really met one that I didn’t like. Sure, sometimes there are struggles but I would be hard pressed to think of even one Vietnamese “sourpuss” if you’ll pardon the expression. When I encounter the service over there it puts a smile on my face and is very easy to be positive. Here in S.F. it can sometimes be a challenge to remain positive and keep that karma flowing.

Now, please don’t misunderstand, there are many great people here in San Francisco but there are also those that are not very happy with their life and it really drives the point home that money does not equal happiness. Even the street vendors offer a great smile in Vietnam where customer service here sometimes gives me the impression that I am bothering the vendor. I may be explaining this point poorly but my point is that it is very easy to be happy in Saigon where in S.F. it sometimes takes a bit of work (especially if you commute).

Yet, Saigon really no longer feels like home and that is due to the rapid changes in the city. Saigon has no recession, buildings are going up left and right and young people are finding plenty of nice office work. There is nothing that brings a bigger smile to my face then watching the young Vietnamese on a company outing with the same color hats and shirts on and their smiles simply beaming!! A beaming smile while working in S.F. is very scarce.

The Vietnamese are enjoying life at the moment and are definitely on the up and up. It is as if you can really see the people for who they are and nothing is hidden. And they are a wonderful people!! In Tokyo, the people are very polite but there is a distance between everyone. This lubricates the society but it takes a very long time to feel close or make good fr
iends. In Vietnam this could be accomplished in seconds.

I have gone astray and must digress a bit to Saigon not feeling like home. The reason is that before, it was still a pretty small city and it seemed as though all the expatriates new each other. We attended the same events, went to the same bars and could theoretically attend every event going on in the city! Further, there were quite a few Vietnamese who also attended these sort of foreigner events and I knew most of them too.

Now, there are foreigners everywhere, many more functions and associations and it is impossible to know everyone. I really became aware of this when I first arrived at the airport. In 2004, I could shoot through immigration in 30 seconds as there were no lines and only about 10 inspectors. Now there are around 40 inspectors and lines!! Further, I could not believe how many foreigners there were!

I was amused at the foreigners in front of me at immigration who were obviously new. The inspector rebuffed them due to some paperwork error and they seemed surprised that they were not being let in. Being haughty to the immigration inspector also does not get you in the country any faster and I was glad to bypass them and be let in immediately.

In town I also realized that a lot of my favorite hangouts were now gone and that there were many new hotspots in town. Dong Koi street is no longer the foreigner hangout it used to be and is now over behind the Sun Wah tower! Going into these places I only recognized between one and three people instead of the usual 10-15 as before. I did feel special as one of the bartenders gave me a free drink and called me “old meat” which meant that I was one of the old crowd returned instead of all the “new meat.” My friends which were still there also informed me that even they did not recognize most of the foreigners anymore since there were so many of them.

Finally, an enormous change has been the Viet Kieu which are the returning Vietnamese that left in various waves fleeing the country. They have also changed the face of Saigon and have brought money with them. I was fortunate enough to meet some really great Viet Kieu and none of the bad. The bad ones look upon foreigners as though they don’t belong there because it is THEIR country and can sometimes be rude. Fortunately, the ones I met were very outgoing and we had a lot of fun.

This social dynamic is really going to change things and it will be interesting to watch how the Vietnamese adapt to these new returnees especially when they have a lot of money. So many people left and so many are returning that it will have a very big impact. In Japan, there are few that venture outside the country but the ones that do might have trouble re-adapting since they might have a hit of “foreignerness” about them. I don’t really want to go into this and mention it just for comparison with Vietnam.

In conclusion for Saigon, I’m very excited that the young people are doing so well and the country is progressing. I do feel a little sad though that the Saigon I knew is gone but I am just one traveler whose time there has passed. This does not mean that I will not be back for visits however and I sincerely hope that I cross paths with Vietnam frequently. Yet, as for living there again it does not seem optimal unless a very large business opportunity were to present itself.

3. San Francisco

– Out of all the cities in the USA (that I have visited) San Francisco is my favorite. The people are not as warm as the Vietnamese and the city is not as advanced as Tokyo but San Francisco is magnificent! The natural beauty and the talent of this city are unsurpassed. The people are also more laid-back then those down in LA except of course during their commute.

I love this city due to it’s walkable nature and its compact size. San Francisco can be taken in in its entirety yet there is always something new to discover. Tokyo on the other hand is overwhelming and one can only take one small area at a time which even then can never be fully discovered. San Francisco though is able to be digested in each of its unique neighborhoods over the course of a year or so. Further, the variety is astounding in that one could be snowboarding (Lake Tahoe) in the morning and drinking wine outdoors in 80 degrees (Napa) in the evening.

In regards to entertainment, even the small venues draw extraordinary talent. I used to believe that quality entertainment costs about $100. Yet, I have recently learned that it can be had for $15 and even great wine can be bought for $20.

The downside is that this city costs money. It is an adult playground but in order to play one must pay the fee. Further, it is not very easy to make friends without a lot of effort. In Saigon one makes friends whether they desire to or not. In Tokyo, many people are curious about foreigners and even though it takes a lot of time, with a positive attitude friends will come. Yet, in S.F. it succumbs to the “big city” mentality in that even though people can be friendly, one can only get so close before it becomes uncomfortable. Friends can be made but they must actively be sought out.

This could also simply just be my mindset as there are plenty of young adults around. Yet, I no longer go out to meet people but instead have set plans be it a restaurant or simply staying home and watching Netflix.

San Francisco is a great place to live if one can afford it and does not tire of all the activity. After three and a half years here I still enjoy a modest amount of activity but it is far from the nightly scene of Saigon.

4. Columbus

– My first impression about Columbus was that the people are extraordinarily friendly. I had begun to think that Americans were modestly friendly in comparison to the Vietnamese but that was my mistake and I had become to accustomed to San Francisco.

The atmosphere is much more laid back and I felt very much at peace there compared with the noise and activity of San Francisco. The main activity was going to a Blue Jackets game and talking about Ohio State Football. The politics also seemed much more reasonable and easy going than in S.F. where everything is a constant battle.

It almost seemed as though life was a bit slower and that my town of Grandview was like the fictional town of “Pleasantville.” People get along and are friendly but unfortunately Ohio State Football is more of a discussion topic than international affairs. This is not a slam in any way as I love Ohio but I miss listening to viewpoints I had never even fathomed (Saigon) rather than the usual opinions.

In Columbus, it seems to me that one could have all (or most of) the material things they wanted since living expenses are much more reasonable. A decent sized house, two cars, large T.V. and maybe even a pool table. The people are much more welcoming and friendly which really endears me to the Midwestern life style.

Yet, I feel I would miss the excitement of the international scene and any material items would soon become boring. I have always much preferred experiences to material things and I think it is too late to turn back the clock now. Yet, in terms of livability Columbus is very hard to beat in terms of raising a family.

In conclusion, each city offers distinct advantages while others would have to be sacrificed. It is so easy to simply coast along in life and let the current take you where it may. It is quite another deciding to get up out of the stream and place yourself in a completely different one, swimming like crazy until one is coasting again yet trying not to think of the streams they had previously left and if they would lead to a more perfect lake.

Narita – Returning to the USA

Well, the day has come to move back to America and the culture shock has already begun. I’m writing this in the departure lobby of Narita Airport but will post later because they charge 500 yen to use the Internet hotspot! The culture shock actually begins here at Narita since Narita has the shakedown mastered. You can’t get away with anything here!

What I’m referring to is the overweight baggage penalty. In most airports in Asia you can get away with it, but in typical Japanese fashion they follow the rule to the letter. But I digress… let me first say that they check my baggage every single time!!! This time the security guy did an extremely thorough job but also in Japanese fashion apologized and said it was because I was going to America that they had to be extremely strict. Then I get to the counter and they want to charge me $25 for having an overweight bag. I tried to argue unsuccessfully that on the website they allowed 30 kilo instead of 23. I asked for the manager who turned out to be a bulldog of a lady and I told her to check the website for me. Turns out I was wrong and the weight was actually 23 kilo and had been changed last year! One thing Vietnam taught me though is to always put up a challenge if one thinks they are being overcharged which I think is a good attribute.

This really irked me and I guess I kind of looked like an unhappy customer. I then get to the security checkpoint and the announcement was amusing “Anti-hijack security check!” This just doesn’t leave one feeling secure… In America it’s just “Security Checkpoint” so I’m wondering why the Japanese stopped with just that. Perhaps “Anti-hijack non crash into building anti-death security checkpoint” would get their message across much more effectively I think. The other think that kind of gets to me is how they are so polite and smile so much as they check your bags countless times as if they are thinking “Yes, we are going to inconvenience the bejesus out of you but have a nice day!” I almost prefer the American style which is very stern and they appear to think “Open your bag you possible terrorist and if you give us any attitude we are going to slam you on the ground as we twist your arms into impossible positions.” hahaha…

But this is just a rant really at having to pay so much just to get out of the country. It costs $13 dollars to get here, $60 to get my bags back from temporary storage and then another $25 dollars for having overweight bags. At least there isn’t an “Airport Tax” you have to pay at other airports in SE Asia. But then again in Saigon, they let you use the wireless for free……although this is probably because they don’t have the technology yet to charge for it.

Now to the culture shock. As I sit here in the departure area there seems to be some Americans who like to stare at me. They stare in Vietnam too but I know it’s just because I’m a foreigner. Here I have no idea what these people are thinking, cause I know they’ve seen foreigners before. It’s kind of freaky. Also, it’s very strange to see Asian Americans talking the African American lingo and carrying themselves with a lot of attitude. One guy has tattoos, a tank top, and is making stupid jokes to his friends who in turn give high fives and other such nonsense.

Journal Entry – 12.12.2005 – Holiday

I sit in the airport and still have an hour and forty minutes until the flight. No matter how many trips I take, I always manage to get myself to the airport way to early and then have to sit around and wait. So now, extremely tired from my earlier workout at the Sofitel, I sit and watch the Japanese scurrying here and there, drinking their last cups of Vietnamese coffee, getting those last minute souvenirs and wandering from shop to shop.

Just at the table in front of me there is a Japanese speaking Caucasian girl who appears to be dating the Japanese guy she is with. It’s a rare occurrence to find a white person who speaks Japanese, but a white girl with a Japanese guy is near impossible to find. It’s also strange that we are the only two white people here, and although there are plenty of seats, she chooses the table right next to mine and the chair which is facing me. It’s it by accident, or did she consciously/unconsciously choose that chair?

It was modestly difficult to leave Hitomi. She told me on the phone how much she misses me already and I miss her. I really wish she could come, but since she can’t, I’m going to look at this as my last hurrah, my last trip as a single guy. After this, I really don’t think I’ll want to go anywhere else without her. She really is a wonderful girl and I love her so much.

Still I wait, typing away on my computer as the airport cafe fills up. The travelers are entirely Japanese except for the aforementioned white girl at the table in front of me.

I wonder what this trip is going to be like. It’s been an entire year since I’ve been home but at this point in the trip, I’m more sad to be without Hitomi than I am happy to be going home. It’s such a shock to my system travelling internationally. I also wonder if I’ll be sad to be in Japan without Hitomi. I’m arriving early in the morning which for me is better than at night because the night is often filled with loneliness.


I’m now on the flight from Tokyo to America. Didn’t have much time to write as I was busy running around Tokyo. I was there for three days and it went so quick it’s like it almost didn’t even happen.

When I first got there I went to find the hotel. The map was horrible and I was on the verge of turning back towards the station when I spotted it on a side street. Check in wasn’t until 3:00pm and I had arrived at just before 10am. I unloaded my clothes from my backpack and then found a wireless hotspot and wrote some e-mails in their lobby.

Then I was off to Mejiro for lunch and ate Chicken Kasan at Otoya. Walking around Mejiro, I really didn’t feel like I missed it so much. Quite a few stores have changed and as I stood in front of Eternity Mejiro, there was no feeling of home. It was just a cold, dirty white building.

I then went shopping in Metropolitan in Ikebukuro to pick up gifts for Horacio, German’s and Masaru’s babies. It didn’t take long to find what I was looking for which was Totoro. After that, it was off to Big Camera and although I found the dictionary Hitomi wanted, I wasn’t sure if it had all the dictionaries she wanted. I wrote to her to check again after which I bought it anyway and if it’s not what she needs she can have mine.

After BC it was off to Excelsior in Metropolitan for a cafe and to write some e-mails. Not having a phone, I communicated by writing e-mails to friends with phone e-mail addresses. There was no wireless connection however so I just drank my coffee and wrote e-mails to be sent later.

It was then back to the hotel for a shower and nap before meeting the guys. I met Masaru outside Mejiro station and we then walked to Watami where we met Horacio. We were then going to go to the hub but due to a private party it was closed. So we went to the bar just around the corner where we met Miguel as well.

The next day did not go so well. I was very hungover from the night of drinking and forgot that I was supposed to meet with Miguel at 3:00pm. Speaking with Masaru I was also supposed to meet him at 3:00pm, but I had thought 4 so was an hour late. I visited his house and saw Fumika and Momo-chan. As soon as Momo saw me she started crying which is something she apparently does with every new male visitor. They tell me Thomas has the record for making Momo cry.

That night, I just went out with Masaru since James, Ally and Damian all couldn’t meet for various reasons. We went to to the new hub in Ikebukuro and ended up talking with the females next to us. Apparently the Hub is no longer a shady Gaijin place but rather is full of Japanese couples. They also had a bingo game that lasts forever and I ended up winning a coupon for the Hub. I ended up going home pretty early so I could rest since I was still pooped from not sleeping on the flight and then having a drunken night.

On Sunday, it was off to Big Camera and Takadanobaba. I wanted to eat Ichibanya for lunch and the closest one I knew of was in Baba. I also wanted to check out the books at Waseda but had forgotten that it was Sunday and they were closed! But it was good making the walk again and seeing all the old stores. I really didn’t feel sad though or that I particularly missed my old life. Then it was back to Big Camera in Ike again and back to the hotel.

I met Jimney last night and we went to an Izakaya. It was good speaking with him and we spoke almost entirely in Japanese which was a big confidence booster for me. After that it was Ramen and then back home.


Now I’m on the flight back to the states. I just watched the Elf which is a great movie and now writing this. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to sleep later which will cause this trip to be a long one.

Japan Stories – Trouble in Roppongi

Trouble in Roppongi

By tok_matthew

July 30th, 2005 @ 6:43 PM Life in Tokyo

Every month I receive an update from the American Embassy about Visa info, security situations, etc. I usually never read it since the visa info doesn’t apply to me and the rest just tells us that the rest of the world is still unhappy with America and it is in our best interest to lay low. However, the “Incident in Roppongi” caught my eye and I just couldn’t resist reading to see what happened. I had imagined that some young drunk American got in a fight or something like that but this one was a little different. Here is the report:

Incident in Roppongi

The US Embassy has received another report of an incident in Roppongi. An American citizen recently reported that he was drugged at a Roppongi area bar and his credit card charged $7,000 for drinks he has no recollection of ordering.

As always, persons are strongly advised to exercise caution and common sense when frequenting Roppongi at night.


Now for us long term Nippon residents, we most often do not go to Roppongi as it is really does not reflect Japanese culture and we have integrated enough with the culture that we don’t need to go there for fun. However, I have been there quite a few times and have noticed a disturbing trend. It seems that there are now much more aggressive scouts (most likely of African origin) trying to persuade passers-by to go into the sex and strip clubs or buy drugs. When I first arrived in Japan I could actually walk to where I was going without being bothered once. But now, these guys will walk with you and refuse to leave you alone after you have already declined their offer countless times. The last time I was there, I felt a little uncomfortable with all these guys harassing me, that I really have no desire to go back there again.

With these repeated incidents being reported, it seems that Roppongi is actually becoming a little dangerous which is extremely uncommon for Japan being the safest country I have ever visited. Also, some of the popular bars such as gas-panic have come up with ridiculous rules like you must always have a beer in your hand and be drinking or else you get kicked out. A further annoyance is a few bars are charging outrageous entry fees for their crappy little venues such as Lexington Queen. This bar has a reputation for attracting East European Models which is partly true but the fact of the matter is it is just a small dirty little bar trying to charge too much.

Anyway, for those of you who are new to Japan, Roppongi is worth one look around and then should be forgotten as it does not reflect Japanese culture what so ever. If you read a little bit about this history of the place, it used to be a barracks for American military personnel during WWII. The bars sprung up to cater to them and it has remained a night spot for mainly foreigners.

For those of us who really love Japanese culture, Roppongi is quite an annoyance since there are quite a few bad foreigners there, and when they act up it reflects poorly on the rest of us.

Perhaps one of the most exciting, yet least attempted things to do while visiting Japan is climbing Mt. Fuji. It is quite close to Tokyo and only takes about an hour and a half to the fifth station of Mt. Fuji by bus from Shinjuku Station.

I attempted the climb and succeed in the summer of 2003, and it is something I will never forget. We started the climb at 10pm and made it to the summit in six and a half hours but had gotten there too early and were exposed to the freezing winds at the top which we were totally unprepared for. I also caught the chills and couldn’t stop from shaking violently until we were half way down the mountain. Unfortunately, we were only able to catch about a minute of the sunrise before it clouded over for the rest of the morning (picture is not mine but of my cousin).

At the summit there are three areas of interest: the temple, the crater, and the vending machines. The vending machines sell hot coffee but the cost is a dollar fifty to four dollars for a very small can. The reason for this is that it must be transported on foot since no vehicles can reach the top. There is also a small restaurant which sells expensive, mediocre ramen but is really good for warming up.

Surprisingly, many of the climbers are older Japanese folk who see the climb as a religious experience since Fuji-San has played a deeply symbolic part in Japanese history. These seniors are pretty in shape but still must book one of the small hostels about midway up for a nap and then continue the rest of the way. There are also some young hung over tourists who make it about an hour into the climb before they give up and start heading back down.

In total, our trip took 6 and a half hours up and just over four back down. If your thinking about climbing the mountain, make sure to take plenty of cash, warm clothing (even if it’s hot down below, it will be freezing on top) a headlamp and a ton of stamina. Also, be sure to not leave any trash on the mountain to keep it beautiful.