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Keeping up with The Thomases

Posted on 2008/04/01 08:24:31 (April 2008).

[Sunday 23rd March]
We packed up our things and left Hiroshima this morning, stopping in briefly at Chie's grandparents' house on the way to the station for another quick hello and goodbye.

We got on the shinkansen before midday, and were at Kyoto station by 2. There we met up with our old friends Dale and Erina (Mr and Mrs Thomas), who live near Kyoto, with their two little kids - Kittichan and the newest addition to the clan - wee Gilihad.

After a quick spot of lunch in Kyoto station, we got on a bus and headed towards Kiyomizu temple - I'd decided I'd quite like to see this based largely on the fact that of all the temples in Kyoto I haven't yet been to, this was probably the most famous.

I was quite surprised by the crowds - Kyoto is always very popular with tourists, but I don't remember other temples I've been to being quite so crowded as this. The temple is particularly famous for a sort of large balcony which looks out over the grounds of the temple, and further afield to the rest of Kyoto. We probably didn't catch it in quite the best season as the trees were all still a bit bare looking - a couple of weeks later and we'd have cherry blossom (plus about twice as many people). From pictures I've seen it is also really striking in Autumn when the leaves have all turned colour, plus I imagine a covering of snow would look great too.

Still, it was nice to see nonetheless - a trip to Japan without a visit to a temple (ideally in Kyoto) would feel somewhat lacking somehow.

From there, we took a meander through the charming little alleys of Kyoto to Maruyama Koen - a park famous for its cherry blossom (which, again, we were a bit too early for). I have been there a couple of times before and it felt good to be back again. We then took a taxi back to Kyoto station.

From Kyoto station we got on a local train to the little suburb where Dale and Erina live - about 25 minutes away. Dale and Erina had made the rather bold move of actually buying a house a year or two ago, and as is often the case in Japan it was a new build.

It transpires they have also acquired a dog, a cross of a poodle and a Yorkshire terrier - yes, somebody had seen fit to breed together what are possibly the two most irritating dogs you can imagine. It was the epitomy of small yappy dogs, and seemed to take a particular dislike to me (having immediately identified me as the person who would be most irritable, presumably I give off some sort of scent to that effect). The moment I got through the door it came running at me and started jumping at me and yapping in a very excitable manner. Appropriately, they have named it Scylla.

We had dinner at Dale and Erina's house, then, as has sort of become a tradition now on our visits to Dale and Erina, we left the girls chatting at home, whilst us menfolk went out (also to chat, of course) over a couple of beers at a nearby bar.

Here follows some droney retrospective on life, the universe and everything. Feel free to stop reading if you feel this might make you nauseous.

Dale and Erina where actually a large part of the reason as to why Chie and I met way back in 2000 - Dale and Erina had already been together for a while before then, Erina was a friend of Chie's, and Dale was a friend of mine. With the obvious facts that Erina is Japanese and Dale is English, that they're of a similar age, and went to the same universities etc, there are a number of obvious parallels between us and them. Plus the fact that they met before we did (and that Erina seems to have a very clear idea of what she wants from life) means that they tend to get to the big milestones before we do - they got married first, lived in Japan together first, bought a house first, had kids first, and so on.

To this end I have on several occasions looked to Dale and Erina for a sort of forecast of what life might be like after making those kinds of big decisions - certainly before I accepted the job offer in Japan back in 2005 I had a long chat with Dale about it, heard all of his woes about living and working as a foreigner in Japan, and for better or worse took the job anyway.

So now Chie and I are back in the UK, Dale and Erina are still in Japan - and in that sense it feels like we're no longer one step behind them on the same basic trajectory, but instead have just decided to take a different course altogether. Comparing us and them, it looks now like our decisions have been more driven by career (mostly mine), and there's have been driven by family - both in the sense of Erina's desire to be close to her parents, and to have kids. Obviously being closer to my family was a reason I wanted to come back to England, but as a couple that couldn't really be a determining factor - as obviously coming back here had the opposite effect for Chie.

So as a means of some kind of calibration I couldn't help but look at Dale and Erina, and compare them to us, and try to work out who overall was happier (sorry Dale and/or Erina if you're reading - I don't mean to make out that you're some kind of lab rats!). On the one hand Chie and I seem to have no financial worries (at least for the time being, touch wood) - we're both working, we have plenty of money in the bank, ample coming in each month, and no debts whatsoever. Dale and Erina however have a mortgage to pay, two kids to clothe and feed, and whilst I guess the cost of living is cheaper there, they're doing all that from just one salary, and in fact Dale was in the middle of changing jobs when we were there. I'm sure they manage fine (Erina seems to be a very competent keeper of finances), but that did appear to be an issue - they seem to have to keep a constant eye on their spending.

The other obvious big difference is kids versus no kids. People who have kids always seem to say exactly the same things - it is extremely hard work, they never get any sleep, and then, my favourite bit, the obligatory "but it is definitely worth it!". I have to say, having visited a number of people with young families over the past couple of years, it seldom seems particularly idyllic - constant stress, worry and hard work which inevitably causes tension between the parents, and from all of that a bit of a sense to visitors that you're in the way and ought to make your apologies and leave at the earliest opportunity. No doubt underlying all that stress is some deep primordial sense of satisfaction for the parents, which clearly as someone who isn't a parent I can't really imagine, but from an outside perspective it doesn't appear to be a particularly attractive proposition right now!

Then there's job satisfaction - as already noted Dale had just changed jobs, I think he'd got pretty fed up with the conditions at his previous one (largely down to the ordeals of working in a Japanese office it seems), and is going to be returning to a more academic environment. So certainly he was very frustrated up until now, but perhaps in a couple of months time things might be much better for him. My job has been quite stressful over the last six months, but having the opportunity to take a holiday and get some distance from it I am still convinced it is the best place for me - certainly in terms of the company itself there is nowhere else I would rather work.

One area of dissatisfaction for both me and Dale was social life - for him it seems more than anything else he'd like the opportunity to socialise with Japanese speaking people so he could improve his Japanese - given that he speaks English both at home and at work (up until now at least) he was very frustrated about not having any real opportunity to improve his nihongo. I too would like to know more people and get out in the evenings and at the weekends a bit more, but I guess things are improving for me - if I compare the first three months of this year with the first three months of last year I probably have been going out a lot more, and know a lot more people in London now. I guess if that trajectory continues, in another year's time (assuming we're still in London) I'll probably be quite happy. I got the impression Dale had more of a sense of isolation than I do - quite naturally I suppose.

So what have we learnt? Well, it would be churlish and unfair to just proclaim that we're happier than they are, we are after all leading two (four?) different lives, and are fundamentally different people who want different things... However, Dale and Erina are the closest thing I have to a parallel universe in which Chie and I had decided to stay in Japan, settle down there, and maybe have kids already.

I think, on balance, for the time being at least, we did the right thing.

Comment 1

Great pics again John.. Thanks for sharing..
Been to Kiyomizudera twice myself.. never disappoints
Heian Jingu and Kinkakuji are more than worth a visit too..
My next trip to Kyoto will take in Ryoanji temple, very famous for its Zen gardens

Posted by Jerry at 2008/04/02 01:21:10.

Comment 2

Hi Jerry - yep I've been to Kinkakuji and Ryoanji - don't think I've ever visited Heian Jingu though.

What about Ginkakuji? Whilst the main building itself doesn't have quite the same iconic appeal as the gold one, I thought the gardens etc were a bit nicer.

Posted by John at 2008/04/02 06:53:00.

Comment 3

Yes.. I've been told its very nice too, although I have not as yet been myself..Another on the next visit list perhaps..
Nijo castle - nice flooring with sound "Uguisu" which I believe is nightingale, to warn of intruders.. Years ahead of Yale Home security products.

Posted by Jerry at 2008/04/03 00:52:49.

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