Kati Laakso recently moved from New York to Tokyo. In this article she discusses the impact of big life changes and the love she feels for both cities
Exactly three weeks ago I packed my bags, took a last look on the beautiful apartment in downtown Brooklyn that I was staying in for the few days before my move, and closed the door. This was me quite literally closing the door to the past six years of my life in New York.
Major life changes often happen unexpectedly. Or at least that’s what we like to think when we’re suddenly faced with a new situation, taken by surprise when something in our immediate surrounding changes drastically. We find ourselves confused and perplexed. However, in many instances we have been gradually moving in a new direction for a long period of time without being able to see it ourselves, until change is right in front of our eyes.
Change is seldom easy but often quite rewarding. At least once you get to the point where you are comfortable with the outcome.
Change is seldom easy but often quite rewarding. At least once you get to the point where you are comfortable with the outcome. If we are able to stay open and let the process move forward freely, things may actually start changing in the right direction and gradually turn out the way we want them to. Whether change is something you are looking for or not, be careful what you wish for: it might actually happen once your mind gets set on it.
New York, my love
Before I moved to Japan I wasn’t really looking for major change, but I was surely open to things taking a new direction. I had been living in New York for almost six years in two separate phases. By my fourth year in the city I had finally fallen in love with it. Don’t get me wrong, I had enjoyed New York from day one, but it took me quite long to become deeply attached. However, once my relationship became deeper and I truly started loving the city I was ready to commit long-term and never let go.
This all being said living in New York is like living in the worst kind of narcissist relationship. The city can (and will) charm you in ways you didn’t think were possible only to let you casually know the next day, how easily replaceable and totally worthless you are. All in all, once you have your life set up there, it’s very easy to get hooked and just take it all in. For my part, that’s when things started turning and sooner than I knew, I found myself in Tokyo, Japan.
This all being said living in New York is like living in the worst kind of narcissist relationship.
The last weeks in New York where busy as always: work, packing, meeting friends and colleagues for the last time, visiting places I adored, eating plenty of hamburgers and thick chocolate shakes in random diners (yes, hamburgers and especially fries were probably one of my most common meals). I was getting ready for something new while at the same time saying bye to the love of my life I had committed to. I felt I was living in a limbo; not quite in New York anymore but not yet in Tokyo either. At times I thought leaving the city would be one of the worst mistakes I had made in years, but I managed to keep it together for the most part during the last weeks. Only twice did I burst into tears when saying goodbye to old friends who I know share a similar attachment to New York as I do.
In the taxi on my way to the airport I was so calm it almost felt scary. All of a sudden looking at the silhouette of Manhattan only evoked a quick rush of sentimentality, nothing more. The truth is that however amazing New York might be, once you really live and work there it also sucks you out of every breath of energy. Every half a year I had to get out for a bit to remember that an outside parallel universe actually did exist. Sometimes it was difficult to believe while struggling with the daily life in the city. I know many people who share a severe love-hate relationship with New York but as in many psychotic relationships love often wins (at least short-term). Still every time I’ve left New York I’ve experienced the same: wherever I landed felt like paradise. No wonder I’ve fallen for random cities like Milan, Stockholm and Warsaw – all places that have been layovers on my getaway visits to Finland.
Arriving in Tokyo
From the minute I landed at the Haneda airport in Tokyo I felt an overwhelming feeling of peace and tranquility, like arriving in heaven. Everything was quiet and harmonious. It all felt just right. I think my first week went by with me feeling like I was living in a dream. Although Japan is a very unique place with plenty of specific cultural norms and habits, one learns the basics quickly. It took me a day to learn to walk on the left-hand side, to bow in every direction, to act quietly and respectfully, to inhale the silence suddenly all around me, and appreciate the beauty of the smallest detail. There are plenty of customs typical to Japan but just by observing your surroundings you learn quickly. To the one who wants to learn, Japanese culture opens up fast but simultaneously slowly, the more you know the less you feel you know. This is what you hear often from people who have been studying the country and culture for years. The more you think you understand, the more you see that you don’t. This is also what makes it so fascinating to me, you never know what to expect or look for, and are most often surprised by the nuances and meanings that lie behind every action and idea.
Japanese culture opens up fast but simultaneously slowly, the more you know the less you feel you know.
What touches me the most is probably everything New York lacks: The silence surrounding, the peacefulness but also cleanliness that makes you feel like walking in paradise. Also the amount of nature, the incredible parks and gardens, the countless green spaces spread around the metropolitan area of ca 38 million inhabitants make breathing so much easier. I feel like my heart is beating slower (maybe it actually is since I now walk at half the pace than I used to in New York, which still is much faster than most people here). Food and the beauty of everyday objects and surroundings are just a few of the other things I have become attached to. Japanese people are extremely well organised and incredibly cautious of their surroundings, both in terms of maintaining them but also in terms of behavior. They like to get lost in the crowd and not to stick out, however many extreme exceptions from fashion trends to complete lifestyles there are to this. I still wonder how a city of this size can remain so quiet, even during peak hours. That the people are quiet is one thing, but cars are quiet too. Not only do they not honk insanely like in New York, but you can barely hear them moving either.
Quietness makes your thoughts sound louder
The peace outside of my own head has made space for peace inside my head. Having all this quietness around me immediately made me pay attention to details of my own life that I hadn’t thought of in years. As naive as it may sound, many of my personal values changed direction during my first two weeks in Japan. It’s not that anything completely new entered my mind, but the focus of my priorities just suddenly and quite unexpectedly shifted. This may mean I adjust to new environments almost too readily, or that I just haven’t paid enough attention to myself lately. Whatever the reason, I’ll take it.
Having all this quietness around me immediately made me pay attention to details of my own life that I hadn’t thought of in years.
So anyhow. Here I am having the romance of my life with my new lover while still wondering what happened to the one I was supposed to love forever? It never stops surprising me how easily we humans can adjust to any situation, if we have to and are willing to. I’m pretty good at dealing with change. Still, considering how different my life will be in the coming years, I’m almost confused by how calm I feel about it right now. I’ve always known I want to live in different parts of the world but I’ve never been obsessed about just one particular city or place. Even New York I never really wanted to move to before I found work there, and then sometime during my fourth year I kind of became obsessed with it. At that time, only two years ago I really thought I might never leave, that I’ll stay no matter what. And just to be clear: as a European with no long-term visa, staying really could have meant “no matter what”… But then, boom, just three weeks have gone and I can barely remember how it felt like taking the train from my home in Brooklyn to Manhattan or just walking on my favorite streets.
It could also be that I’m still in a state of shock. The culture shock often comes late, they say. Whatever the case it’s like with any broken relationship. I don’t want to see photos of my ex and our past life together, nor do I want to see any of my friends hanging out with my ex. Yet, my heart has found a new love, still fresh and innocent, but I feel there is no room for anyone else right now. I’m quite confident my feelings will last once reality starts striking back (and believe me, it already has – more about that later). If we only let it, life will be an exciting, never ending journey with changes that can not be foreseen. One day we’re here, the next day we’re not – but in the end change will lead us to the places we need to be at, to be able to become the ones we were meant to be.