Craig Howard, PhD’12, and his wife, Shoko Furuya Howard, MS’11, were living in rural Tennessee when they realized that they were living their lives online. Both were remote professors and their daughter attended school virtually—and that was not how they wanted to live. So, they sold their house and cars and moved the family to Tokyo, where Shoko was born and raised.
“We have family [in Tokyo], and I have a network of colleagues that I knew from the 1990s and early 2000s,” says Craig, an associate professor at International Christian University in Tokyo. “I [also] speak Japanese, and that makes a difference.”
Craig, a New York native, first moved to Tokyo in 1998 when he received a job offer to create an online learning program at Kanda University of International Studies. After seven years in Japan, he returned to the U.S. to study instructional systems technology at IU Bloomington. While at IU, he met Shoko, an education major. Their teaching careers took them from Texas to Tennessee, far from family. For the couple, returning to Tokyo was like going home.
“The great thing about IU is that there seems to be a network everywhere. I have encountered so many IU graduates in Tokyo,” he says. “My daughter is in an international school, and her teacher is a Jacobs School of Music grad.”
In the following Q&A, Craig shares his favorite place to view cherry blossom trees, as well as tips for navigating Japanese cuisine and observing the country’s customs.
Food and Drinks
Where do you recommend visitors eat in Tokyo?
Craig Howard: It’s more of learning a genre and what you like, rather than a specific place. There’s little variation within one genre. Hunting out the name-brand places will usually cost you more and won’t get you a better meal.
For example, there are 50 different places that do conveyor belt sushi, and they’re generally all the same. My daughter and I will go for conveyor belt sushi, and even if it’s a place we’ve never been before, we know everything on the menu.
If it’s a tonkatsu restaurant, which is a deep-fried pork cutlet, every single tonkatsu restaurant will have a very similar menu.
There is some variation within the ramen shops. They’ll have a place specializing in tonkotsu, shio, or shoyu—salt or soy sauce based.
What drinks do you recommend?
They also have a range of something called shochu, a potato-based liquor usually mixed with something sweet—apple shochu or lemon shochu—and they call that chuhai. It’ll come with ginger ale, tonic water, whatever you want.
Which Tokyo neighborhood do you recommend visitors stay in?
CH: Shibuya Crossing—that is [considered] the center of Tokyo. Things kind of radiate out of that center: It’s four, four-lane intersections. When the light changes, 200,000 people cross the street.
Do you recommend using Airbnb or booking a hotel?
CH: Japanese business hotels (basic, budget-friendly lodging) are insanely small. If you can score an Airbnb, you’ll get much more space.
Sightseeing and Entertainment
What are a few activities people must do while visiting Tokyo?
CH: I go to a local sento, a public bath with a sauna. There are thousands of these public baths. The Japanese people bathe every day and sit in the water for half an hour. There are three different temperature baths, showers, seated showers, as well as one bath that’s outside, usually on the roof or in the backyard.
The Ghibli Museum is in Inokashira Park. If you’ve ever heard of the famous anime culture of Tokyo, one of their most famous was a story called Totoro—and the Ghibli Museum has originals of all the Totoro stuff.
Where is the best place to view Japanese cherry blossom trees?
CH: Ueno Koen, the outdoor park in a city called Ueno inside Tokyo.[Cherry blossom viewing] is called hanami, which means looking at trees or looking at flowers. People will put out a blanket and have a box lunch. Sometimes, hanami will last one week. Sometimes, it’ll last two weeks. Sometimes, it only lasts a day.
What tourist traps should people avoid?
CH: At restaurants, I never let go of my credit card and always pay at the counter. That’s typical. Foreigners often don’t know the system and give up their credit cards, thinking it’s like the West. In an American restaurant, you’ll give away your credit card, and they’ll bring it back with the bill, and then you sign. That doesn’t exist here. Don’t fall for that.
Navigating the City
What is the easiest way to get around Tokyo?
CH: You can get anywhere by train. You’ll need a Suica card (available for purchase at the Tokyo International Airport and train stations), which functions as a train pass and a debit card.
What are some cultural customs that visitors should keep in mind?
CH: Formality has a different meaning here. Following formality is friendly, and informality is rude. Always address your newly met person with the suffix of “san.”
Also, giving a business card is a form of politeness. People will hand you their business card when they meet you, and it’s expected that you don’t put it in your pocket right away—it goes on the table in front of you, so you don’t forget their name.
This story is part of our travel series, Travel Like a Local, which features IU alumni living in major cities all around the world.