A Week in Tokyo: Hugs, Beers, and Lifetime Experiences

February 24, 2024

So many experiences of parenting are the ones we hope or expect will happen. Learning to walk, going to school, getting a driver’s license, and going off to college are just some of the milestones that went through my head as I looked forward to life with both Ryan and Dawson. Some of them, like learning to walk and learning to read, were exhilarating to watch. Some of them, like taking off by themselves in a car, were downright terrifying. And some of them, like going off to college, as I wrote about a few years ago, were both exciting and truly sad. No matter what, seeing these visions become realities has been everything I hoped it would be and more.

And what a treat it is to experience moments we never expected. 

That’s what happened this week. As Jill and I enjoyed a beer halfway around the world, at a bar in the Shinagawa Train Station in Tokyo, we both lit up when Dawson, that tall, long-haired Malibu/Colorado kid, walked up to us and gave us a giant hug. We had a beer waiting for him, and we could not stop smiling as we savored the moment. That was a moment I had never imagined happening. And I loved it.

Dawson left for a semester abroad in Tokyo in early January, so it had been about six weeks since we’d seen him. He did not know a soul in Japan when he arrived, nor did he speak any Japanese. But, like he always does, he quickly developed a solid new friend group. Like it or not, that is something that we as parents have no control over. We do our best to raise our children so they are kind, interesting, curious, respectful, and fun. And whatever they become, that determines their ability to make friends, and more importantly, their propensity to form relationships  with those who have similar qualities. My sons, Ryan and Dawson, are so different yet both of them are quick to make friends, and they are both better people because of the quality of the friends they keep. I have stopped being surprised by it, but I will never stop valuing it.

Dawson has a perfect schedule in Tokyo. He’s in class all day on Tuesdays and Thursdays, starting at noon and getting out at 7:30 PM. That leaves the other five days of the week for a little bit of studying, and a lot of time to enjoy, experience, and even absorb Tokyo culture. It’s why going abroad while you are young is such a good idea.  It’s while we are young that we plan for extended time to just enjoy a culture so different from our own. If we are lucky, we will take some vacations that give us a glimpse of this, but it will never be as prolonged or as unhurried as a semester abroad, taking a gap year, or maybe even working overseas. And Dawson seems to be doing his semester abroad exactly right.

This was our first time in Tokyo. First time in Japan, actually. We loved it all. We spent the entirety of our visit in Tokyo, and I know there is so much more to see beyond the world’s largest city (it’s ten times bigger than LA, and three times bigger than NY). If we come back (I hope we do!), we will see other parts of the country, but this trip’s primary objective was to spend as much time with Dawson as possible, so we stayed in Tokyo. 

Here are some observations and experiences that we have loved:

  • The trains and subways are just about perfect. It took us a little bit to get to know them, but once you know the signs to look for, it’s something that a non-speaker can easily use. What a tragic mistake Los Angeles made when it chose to emphasize freeways instead of trains and subways. In LA, I dread driving to Dodger Stadium, the Hollywood Bowl, or any of the gazillion other awesome places that exist in that town. Not in Tokyo – here, we were able to go anywhere with ease. I think it’s too late for LA, but, nice job, Tokyo.
  • Rush hour is a real thing here in Tokyo. Jill and I rode a few trains where we were totally smashed up against each other. While I’m not complaining about that part (in fact it was pretty nice) the other sardines in the can made it less fun. Less fun, but it worked, as people remained as courteous as possible, and riders did their best to make room for others.
  • It’s so safe. A sight that I never got used to was young children, as young as six or seven years old, by themselves, wearing their school uniforms, independently taking buses and trains on their way to and from school. I have never seen this in the US, and I wasn’t aware that it happened anywhere in the world. 
  • It’s so clean! Part of that is the culture of sitting down to eat. Even with all of the vending machines, you don’t see people walking and eating. In fact, it’s hard to find a trash can on the street. Why would you need it? For a culture that always seems to be on the move, I love that eating is still a time to pause and be with others.
  • The food is as advertised. Just wonderful. All of it. Japan ticks so many boxes for Dawson – in addition to the fascination with technology and anime, he loves Japanese food. Just as I had heard, it’s hard to go wrong with restaurant choices, as the emphasis on quality is ubiquitous here. Dawson took us to some of his favorite places, and we all explored new ones together. In just two months, he has learned enough Japanese to get along just fine in restaurants where no English at all is spoken. Some of the food highlights:
    • Japanese Curry with Udon Noodles. Big fat, soft, chewy udon noodles in a thick curry broth, with fried fish and shrimp on top. I think it was the best thing I tasted. I need those udon noodles in my life.
    • We had several different ramen dishes, and again, I loved them all. The three of us took a ramen making class. The first words in our 3-hour class, “Good ramen takes at least two days to make.” Whoa. I thought what we made in three hours was off the charts wonderful. I will share more about ramen making as I practice what I learned at home.
    • Learning more about lean vs. fatty tuna (I have only had lean in the US) was a treat. Who knew sushi and brisket were so similar – I’ll choose the fatty variety every time on both!
    • Eating at the huge fish market in Tokyo was an experience. So many booths with great food to try!
    • A hole-in-the-wall second story hidden gyoza restaurant that Dawson took us to felt like being in a secret club. And those gyoza! Remember the Jack-in-the Box commercial where Jack tells a dazed and confused young man that he should order thirty tacos? That’s how many gyoza Dawson and I ate.
  • We had an onsen experience – a two-hour plus experience with indoor and outdoor pools heated by thermal springs. It was like meditating in a silent retreat. If I come back, we will go to a place in the mountains that specializes in these. We need more non-super-expensive-luxury-spa places like this in the US!
  • We were early for the cherry blossoms, but we did see a few. We wanted to be here in late March, but prices were much higher, turning an expensive trip into a really expensive trip. But if the few blossoming trees we have seen in late February are any indication, it is truly spectacular when the trees are in full bloom.
  • And over and over, we were surrounded by laughter and animated conversations, while immersed in vibrant, music-filled, brightly lit business and shopping areas that felt incredibly alive. People smiled as they watched Jill dancing in the street to the loud Taylor Swift music playing in an area still decorated with posters from her pre-Super Bowl Tokyo concerts. Trying not to offend, but picture Times Square or Hollywood with no litter and no one passing out flyers.

When we said sayonara to Dawson and headed back home, we watched him walking away. Unlike that same view when he headed off to college, this was not a sad moment. We were both so happy for him and proud of him. We just saw our confident son, our independent son, and our adventurous and curious son, and we weren’t worried at all. 

All that being said, I’ll love it when he comes back home.


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Post #102 on www.drmdmatthews.com


  • Here is that classic Jack In the Box Ad
  • My friend Dawnalyn told me about the Netflix show, “Old Enough!”? It shows very young children in Japan being tasked with errands where they walk alone (accompanied by hidden cameras) and do stuff for their parents. It’s pretty darn funny, and amazing. Check it out here
  • Here’s my post about Dawson going off to college.
  • I didn’t see any street musicians here. But the one job I think I could have done as a student studying abroad would be a subway station xylophonist. As every train is boarding, the intercom plays a little jingle, usually four bars long, often played with a xylophone. I could be that guy, just cheerily playing different tunes to help subway riders know those doors would be closing soon.
  • And for those of you who know about Sean, writing that line, “ . . . seeing these visions become realities has been everything I hoped it would be and more,” was something I debated. As too many of us know, sometimes our visions and dreams fall far short of becoming realities. I am blessed to have so much love in my life, and yet . . .

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  1. Seth Finn says:

    Magical stuff Mike, what a great, once in a lifetime experience. From my perspective, life just doesn’t get better than that, I’m so glad you were able to be a part of Dawson’s experience, it sounds like you and Jill fully embraced it, and squeezed as much joy out of it as possible. And yet, Sean’s presence looms even over the most joyous occasions. I simply can’t imagine that, none of us who haven’t experienced it can. F**k is all I can say, and push forward, and know that you’ve got a small army of people ready to support you at any time. Together we’re stronger than alone, I’m sure of that.

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Thanks, my friend. Of course you read the notes. And yes, his presence looms, but there is still incredible joy and beauty all around, and I’m beyond grateful.

  2. I loved Japan! But haven’t been back since that fateful field trip with 20+ teenagers, a 2 year old (who is now 18!), Denise P and Stan! Looking forward to going back, minus the teenagers! Such a beautiful country! So happy for Dawson!

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Thanks, Carla! I don’t know if we will ever make it back, but I know we would love it. I am rooting for you to make it back soon. It would be a wonderful trip for you and Stan.

  3. Bill Sampson says:

    Good story Mike. I’m so glad for you and Jill and Dawson. We’re a little envious since we were directed in no uncertain terms not to visit Margaret in Spain in her exchange student year. Great trip my friend.

    The kids going on their own got my attention. I think I was 7 or 8 when my folks started letting me ride my bike to school, which I did until I was in high school. By then we’d moved to a block from school so I walked. Such experiences would be good for our kids I think.

    Welcome home

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      I didn’t really ask Dawson’s permission. I am not sure he would have given it. Oh well! Yes, I started biking to school, but I always had siblings or friends with me (about 3 miles, uphill both ways of course!) when I was in 3rd grade. Thanks as always, Bill.

  4. Pau Grisanti says:

    Great trip and great writing.
    Your attitude of gratitude is a big part of why everyone, including your boys, are pleased to have you around. Keep having these incredible experiences and thank you for sharing.

    All the best,

  5. Laurie Morgan says:

    My mother was born in Japan due to the fact that my grandfather introduced the Harley Davidson motorcycle to Japan and handled all sales there.His name is Alfred Richard Child in case you want to look him up. My mother still owns the house they lived in in Karizawa, Japan. I’ve yet to visit myself, but my son Jason, traveled there in his early twenties and taught English to students for part of one year before several radical earthquakes made him decide to head back home. Good times‼️💜

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Thanks so much for all of this, Laurie. I knew none of it! Based on what I experienced, it would be well worth the effort. I looked up your grandfather. Wow. What a life. He introduced Harleys to Africa and Japan. Incredible. I bet there are many in the industry who know his name well. I’m always learning more about you, Laurie Morgan. Thanks as always for reading.

      1. Laurie Morgan says:

        He even made it posthumously in to the Motorcycle Hall of Fame! Oh, the stories he could tell‼️😂😂😂

  6. Wayne F Reel says:

    Loved my two years in Tokyo. Went back in 2012 and ran into a former student, Tacuma Belford on the train platform. He had had a dream about me the night before and we were both headed to Yokosuka.
    I love Japan.

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Of course you’ve been there. Seeing anyone you know on one of the gazillion crowded train platforms seems like more than a coincidence. Thanks for sharing, Wayne!

  7. Love this read. I can totally see Jilly dancing in the street to Taylor Swift. That really made me smile. I can’t wait to try out the ramen you make when you come home. I am so happy for Dawson and this experience in his life. Those Cherry blossoms are so beautiful. Anyway, thanks for the blog post and I can’t wait to hear more about it. xoxoxooo

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Thanks, Tracee! You can see me doing this, but I’m making a Taylor Swift heart sign at you right now. I’ll start practicing my ramen-making skills.

  8. Susan Scheding says:

    Japan sent the US cherry trees in 1912, and after WWll, the US sent some back to Japan b/c many trees had been destroyed by the bombings. Seems those cherry trees are a wonderful symbol of how humans can forgive each other…
    Just my thought for the day. Love this posting, Mike.

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