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How I became "Clueless in Tokyo”
By Betty Reynolds
Posted on 8/6/2018 4:18 PM


I had a long career as an art director in Philadelphia ad agencies until my husband Frank's job took us first to in Singapore for three years and then on to Japan where we lived for seven. Life as an ex-patriate, [and in my case-a corporate wife] was wonderful in Singapore. For the first time in my life I had time to immerse myself in local culture, cooking classes, and Chinese brush painting lessons. I was free to accompany Frank on his business trips to countries all over Southeast Asia. While we were in China, Malaysia, Thailand, Korea, Vietnam and Indonesia, we took the opportunity to vacation and explore. We loved the food and enjoyed the people we met. 

Things suddenly changed when Frank was promoted to vice-president of the region. Just like that- we moved to Tokyo.

Nothing in our years of living and traveling in Asia prepared us for the culture shock of Japan. I knew absolutely nothing about Japanese language, food or customs. Frank was busy with work so I mostly had to fend for myself. This was in the early nineties, a time before cell phones, Google maps, and translation apps. A time before the rest of the world knew about sushi. There was very little in the way of English signage.  Everyday became an adventure. Going to the local supermarket took a certain amount of daring. I had some real culinary disasters because I could not read the labels, nor recognize a lot of the exotic foods. Often I had to do a drawing of an item I needed. Lunchtime was difficult too because I couldn’t read the menus. My saving grace was when I found restaurants with plastic replicas of its meals in their windows. I could take the waiter outside to point at my choice. Even this was not foolproof. I remember the hysteria of the waitress in a tempura restaurant when she saw me drain a whole bowl of tempura sauce - mistaking it for miso soup. Japanese people found me funny, which helped me see the humor in whatever situation I found myself in, and made me want to venture farther afield. 

I was studying Japanese, but learning a language with three alphabets takes a while. There were not many pictographs in those days, so sometimes, it was difficult to even locate a toilet, let alone use it. Highly technical toilets called “Washlets" were being introduced then. They were very talented toilets. They came with heated seats, and had lids that opened and closed automatically. They washed and dried posteriors, monitored blood pressure and could play a sonata. Unfortunately, all of the buttons on the remote controls were written in Kaji. Words that meant hot, cold, front, back, and most importantly the word STOP were not available in English- resulting in many a disaster.


During this time, I was outside almost every day, sketching, recording things around me. Japanese people took notice of my interest in Japan and introduced Frank and I to many different aspects of its culture. New friends introduced us to their friends and they included us in holiday traditions and celebrations. The more Frank and I found out about Japan, the more we wanted to learn. Seven years passed quickly. I had filled 30 sketchbooks with our experiences and travels in Japan. Some resulted in published, illustrated primers on Japanese culture that are still being sold today. We loved our years in Tokyo, but one day they came to an end with Frank’s retirement. We returned to Philadelphia but still often visit Japan. Living in other countries was a privilege and an adventure that changed our lives forever!



Betty Reynolds is the artist/author of five books on Japan and one on Bali. She is a watercolorist, greeting card designer, sumi-e painter, collagist, avid hiker and recent cancer survivor. She and her husband Frank Maher spend their time in Philadelphia and on Orcas Island, WA. She never stops recording the things around her. Betty and Frank live in Society Hill.



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