Japanese Kyoko Nomoto, 50, had only a vague idea of Malaysia as a country and could not point it out on the map until a chance encounter with a Malaysian woman over the then popular instant messaging service, ICQ, twenty three years ago.
The virtual friendship grew so strong over a few short years that the Malaysian friend, Geannie Tan, and her spouse visited Nomoto at her home in Tokyo in 1996. Recalling the time, Nomoto said, “They invited my husband and I to join them to travel around Malaysia. And we did! We made the trip at the end of 1998. It was a most memorable vacation and I fell in love with Malaysia, her people, the climate and food!”
Tan, who was responsible for introducing the real Malaysia to Nomoto, believed that it was only normal for a Malaysian to reciprocate their warmth by inviting the Japanese couple for a visit. She said, “Malaysia is beautiful and I wished to share what we have with her family. My husband drove us, along with our three children aged 4, 6 and 7 around Peninsular Malaysia. The two weeks saw us going from Kuala Lumpur all the way up to Kelantan and Terengganu, back to Malacca and Port Dickson, before heading back to Kuala Lumpur. Our trip also included a one night cruise in Port Klang!”
Tan also shared, “Kyoko and her husband enjoyed the company of our three children so much that they decided to have their own child later on, and the rest, as they say, is history.”
Nomoto added, “Over the two weeks, I was surprised over and over again by how kind people were to children. Most restaurants seemed to have baby chairs available, indicating that they welcomed kids. Japanese people seek cleanliness and calmness, which would not happen with kids around because they are messy and noisy. Therefore, kids are not welcome at public places. I used to ask restaurants beforehand if it would be all right to bring my child along when we dined there.
“In Malaysia, people are all right with children riding along on buses and in trains but in Japan, people complain when mothers bring their kids on train rides, especially during peak hours. Some hot springs ban kids. These days, people take objection to even nurseries and kindergartens in the neighbourhood as they are deemed too noisy. Raising a kid in Japan is getting to be difficult.
“Still, back then, I never thought that I would one day live in Malaysia, or even have a kid of my own. After our Malaysian expedition, we returned to our lives in Tokyo. Over the years, Geannie and I still kept in touch. One day, four years ago, I just decided to relocate to Malaysia with my son while my husband stayed back in Tokyo. I missed Malaysia that much! The people, the food, were calling out to me. After so many years, it still amazes me how kind Malaysians are. I love the way they communicate with one another. They have a great sense of humour and seldom get upset over things. People here seem to know how to enjoy life. We Japanese certainly have plenty to learn from the locals and not take life so seriously.”
According to Nomoto, who now works from her home in Shah Alam remotely as an editor for Japanese books and magazines published in Japan as well as write an English language blog on all things Japanese (fuyoojapan.com) going by the moniker ‘Japanese Aunty’, her relocation to Malaysia has turned her life around for the better. “Four years ago, I couldn’t speak English or drive. Also, living in Malaysia, I have changed my perception on children. I never even imagined that I would lead an active lifestyle or work out at a gym! Most importantly, I am learning how to enjoy my daily life.
“I have no idea when we would return to Japan but I hope that we would be in Malaysia for longer. If possible, I would love to set up my own business and convince my husband to join me here. I don’t think I can give up my roti canai, curry noodles, nasi lemak, durian and my favourite pan mee that easily. It is strange that when we first arrived, I could not tolerate spicy food but now, the spicier the sambal, the tastier it is!
“Returning to Japan, I would miss the mix culture here where people speak several languages, including English. They accept the different cultures and traditions without question. Best of all, they respect one another’s differences, which is not easy to find in Japan. However, I would definitely not miss rude taxi drivers!” she concluded.
Note: An edited version of this article [For Love of Friends and Food] was published on 10th September, 2016 in the now-defunct The Malay Mail.