In 2010, Australian designer and Hello Sandwich blogger Ebony Bižys, a former deputy art director at Vogue Living, moved to Japan. As the Olympics are set to kick off in Tokyo, she writes about her special love for this country she now calls home.
It’s easy to pinpoint the exact moment I fell in love with the incredible country that I now call home. My love for Japan began when I was sitting at my desk at Vogue Australia opening the morning mail. I started working at Vogue during a work experience program which, over the years, evolved into a full-time job at Vogue Living. I can clearly recall the day that a United Colours of Benetton catalogue came across my desk, shot in the Tokyo suburb of Harajuku, and photographed in the style of a street fashion magazine – it spotlighted the kawaii, or cute and colourful fashions of Tokyo’s youth. I was amazed by the quirkiness and the creative, playful style seen in Japanese fashion. I knew immediately that I needed to jump on a flight as soon as possible.
Not long after, I took my first trip to Tokyo. The people, the culture, design, fashion, attention to detail, politeness, tradition, food,
transportation that arrives on time down to the second, convenience store staff who twist the handles of your bag for ease of carrying before they pass you your shopping … it was like nothing I had ever experienced before, and was everything that I could have possibly dreamt of. Never had I ever felt more mesmerised and inspired in any other country.
After just one trip to Japan I was hooked. I travelled there nine times before I relocated, spending the entirety of my annual leave each year in Tokyo. In 2010, and with the cut-off age for the Australian working holiday visa for Japan fast approaching, I decided it was a case of now or never. Armed with a suitcase and some boxes, I set off to Tokyo a week before my 30th birthday. I decided to move to Japan – just for a year, I told myself. That was now 11 years ago.
Before relocating to Tokyo I had only ever travelled to Japan during winter. I moved to Tokyo in June, in the midst of the city’s unbelievably humid summer. But even the steaminess couldn’t dampen my spirits. I remember being mesmerised by the small things that were so different to my previous residential landscape in Sydney’s Darlinghurst. I remember the joy of going to my local supermarket and buying a makunouchi obento, which was an art form in itself, with each of the colourful side dishes artfully arranged perfectly in their box, all for less than $7. I was even enamoured with my navy and white polka-dot clothesline that added an element of kawaii cuteness to the seemingly mundane experience of hanging laundry.
I learnt a lot about myself in those early days of living in Japan. The strength and courage you have to have to move to a country where everything is so incredibly different. And although I had studied Japanese by night in Sydney for four years before moving, I definitely wasn’t fluent in the language. The level of resilience you need to move overseas and immerse yourself in a culture so unlike Australia is enormous. I managed to surprise even myself in the ways in which I was able to make such a risk-taking move.
It was the small, community-orientated things that made me feel, over time, that I had finally become a local. Such as when the Yamato courier would beep and wave to me on the street. Or becoming Instagram friends with my dental hygienist – who also happens to be a DJ. Or when I make a telephone reservation and I am automatically seated at my favourite table, or even when I call a taxi and they answer the phone with: “Thank you for always using our service, Ebony.”
Perhaps the most heartwarming part of moving to Japan, and one that made me truly feel like this is my new home, was meeting Babachan, a grandmother who lives across the road from me. We first connected over a friendly hello on the backstreets near our local supermarket and soon became friends. Almost family, actually, to the point where I now call her my Japanese grandmother. We have since celebrated a traditional Japanese New Year together in her home, and, at 86 years old, Babachan even flew to Sydney to celebrate Christmas with my family in Australia in 2016. I will never forget the vision of Babachan sipping Australian sparkling wine at Bondi Icebergs. She often calls me on a spur-of-the-moment whim. An example of a phone conversation that we might have: “Ebony! I made some delicious soba! Would you like to come over to have dinner?” These dreamy neighbourhood moments cement the feeling that I often have, which is that I am so lucky to have moved to this city and found this community in my neighbourhood of Shimokitazawa.
I selected my apartment online before I moved to Tokyo. Shimokitazawa is just one stop and a four-minute train ride from the bustling Shibuya Crossing, which is often the first image that pops into peoples’ minds when they think of Tokyo. But Shimokitazawa has a restriction on high-rise buildings, which means that within just that one stop and four-minute train ride the vibe of the city is completely transformed. Shimokitazawa has a lovely neighbourhood feel. Surrounding my apartment you can find small alleyways where you can walk forever without bumping into a soul. I picked this suburb because it’s full of vintage clothing boutiques, live music
venues, record stores, cafes, small six-seat bars, a range of zakka stores full of home and design objects, and supermarkets. It’s a hip but unpretentious area. Some mornings I see kindergarten children playing in the park just outside my window, their little neon-pink hats glowing in the sunshine as they are wheeled off in little carts. (Yes! You read that correctly. The day care centre often puts the kiddos in a trolley cart for safety to wheel them to the park.) On other days I might hear the sound of the sweet potato van with its in-house grill for roasting on the road, which could perhaps be compared to a Mr Whippy ice-cream truck. And speaking of jingles, every day at five there is a bell that comes over the local loudspeakers of our community alerting everyone that it is … five in the afternoon. This is the dream-like soundtrack that makes up my life here in Japan. Nowadays, this soundtrack is also made up of an afternoon coronavirus announcement. It is a well-known fact that the Japanese are extremely polite and considerate of each other, so even before the pandemic, wearing masks in Japan was a common thing. When Covid-19 began spreading in Japan, bars, karaoke and businesses were ‘politely requested’ to close at 8pm, and it was incredible how, without any legal ramifications, most places abided, proving once again the high level of respect and honour that the Japanese observe.
To be able to be a part of this society, to really feel and experience what being a resident of Japan is like, is truly my highest honour. Before I moved, people warned me that living in Japan is so different to holidaying here, but even 11 years later Japan hasn’t lost any of its lustre. I find myself smiling on daily walks, wondering how on earth I am so fortunate to live in this beautiful country.
I started my blog Hello Sandwich in 2009 to record snippets of the country that inspired me, and it has since turned into several books including my latest Hello Sandwich Japan, where I lead readers to some of my favourite spots. Such as a kissaten tea room that has been running for more than 60 years and is still using the same manual cash register, or to a town in the Kyushu area, which is dotted with 16 fruit-shaped bus stops. Oh, Japan! It is my hope that my new book will serve as a starting point for your special journey in this magical country once travel abroad is safe again. I encourage everyone to always take the backstreets, because like most of the best parts of Japan, they are often where the real treasures are hidden. And perhaps they too might one day find themselves, like me, in the residents line at Haneda airport on their way to this incredible city. Hello Sandwich Japan (Hardie Grant Travel, $39.99) by Ebony Bižys, is on sale now.