Home is Where a Piece of my Heart is


Home. A little word with only four letters, defined as the place where one lives permanently, and something I never had. I didn’t grow up in just one city. Instead, I moved around to different cities in Germany, Japan and Indonesia every four or five years with my family. 

I have spent nine years in Tokyo, the first time when I was in kindergarten, and the second time from when I was 13 until I graduated high school. 

At 13 it is hard to move to another city, leaving friends behind and being thrown into a new school, with new people and new surroundings. 

I took some time to get used to Tokyo. It was weeks before I could remember the name of the train station close to our house — Toritsu-Daigaku. And I found it odd when vending machines wished me a pleasant day. 

But after a while, I fell in love with the city: wonderfully weird Tokyo, with its hard-working, quirky and always polite inhabitants, who get reddish faces after drinking too much sake, love to sing karaoke and invent bizarre and crazy things like the subway chin rest. 

Earthquakes, sushi and the noise of gambling houses on almost every street corner furtively became a part of my daily life. But this only hit me when I moved back to Germany at the age of 18. 

In Germany, I missed things I took for granted when I lived in Japan. The cherry blossoms in spring, the sight of the illuminated Tokyo Tower at night, the food sections of 24[hour convenience stores after a night out with friends and the calming silence of the Meiji Shrine. 

Tokyo was lost to me and suddenly only a memory of my youth. After my father relocated to Indonesia in 2001 for work, I had no more opportunities to visit Japan. That is until this Christmas. With my sister, I spent a week in Tokyo in December. The trip was planned in order to let us revisit our past. 

A couple of days before the long-awaited holiday, I couldn’t talk about anything else. But while I was excited, I also felt anxious because eight years of absence is a long time, and I was wondering how it would feel to wander through the bright streets of Tokyo again. 

My conflicted feelings stayed with me for the whole week. On one hand, it felt perfectly normal visiting Harajuku, where Japan’s younger generation dress up in gothic, punk or Lolita style, or getting lost in the mass of people at Shibuya crossing. Some things hadn’t changed at all. The owner of one of my favorite hang-outs, a small bar where I used to spend my weekends, recognized me, and still played the same music that made me fall in love with the bar in the first place. 

On the other hand, I realized that I had become a stranger to the city. This wasn’t my Tokyo anymore. I was just a visitor, a tourist. This became clear when my sister and I revisited the area where we used to live: another car was parked in front of our old house and a Japanese name was printed on the mailbox. The liquor shop was suddenly a dry cleaning store, and the supermarket had undergone massive renovations. The little bakery was gone, and I couldn’t buy the mouth-watering waffles with chocolate filling or the crispy garlic bread anymore. My favorite sushi bar had been turned into a shabu-shabu restaurant, and the clothing store where I once spent thousands of yen had disappeared. 

My six days in Tokyo went by in the blink of an eye, and as I boarded the plane at Narita Airport that would take me back to Indonesia, I suddenly remembered a passage of the short story “Honey Pie,” by Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. It describes exactly how I felt at that moment: “Junpei felt an entirely new sense of isolation. I have no roots, he thought. I am not connected to anything.” 

This cruel realization plunged me into an identity crisis: I am rootless, I have no home. But at the same time, I feel privileged to have seen so much of the world already. Melancholy and gratefulness are now my two dominant sentiments and take turns controlling my feelings on a daily basis. 

They say home is where the heart is. Right now, I call Jakarta my home. But my heart is torn into pieces that are scattered all over the world. 

One of the biggest parts is buried in the streets of Tokyo, somewhere between Shibuya and Toritsu-Daigaku.

This article was first published on January 3, 2010 in the Jakarta Globe newspaper.

Katrin Figgehome, tokyo, japan