Mac on Tokyo: Hillary Barnette
In this edition of Mac on Tokyo, Maction Planet was lucky enough to talk to Hillary Barnette. Hillary, a Tokyo resident for six years, shares with us her experiences of moving to and living in The World’s Greatest Metropolis, as well as behind-the-scenes insights into the Tokyo Yakult Swallows Baseball Team, for whom her husband, Tony Barnette, played from 2010-2015.
Maction Planet: Hi Hillary. Welcome to Maction Planet. Thanks for joining us and sharing some of your Tokyo experiences. Why don’t we start with the first time you came here. When was that?
Hillary Barnette: Thanks! I love talking about Japan and tend to go on and on (and on and on…) about our experiences over there. My first trip to Japan was in March of 2010. I was a senior at Arizona State University, and I went during my Spring Break to visit Tony (my boyfriend at the time) in Tokyo. Our original plan was for me to stay in Arizona and continue working at a marketing company in Phoenix that year, and I would try to visit Japan a couple times. But after 5 days there, we decided as soon as I graduated in May, I would leave my job and stay in Japan for the remainder of the baseball season.
MP: Fantastic! Sounds like love at first sight! What was it that made you change your plans, apart from of course your love for your boyfriend (now husband) Tony?
HB: Love at first sight. Exactly. At the time, we had no idea how long Tony’s Japanese baseball career would last. I just felt like this was such a unique opportunity to experience a different culture, and I needed to take advantage of it. And during that short Spring break trip, I got a small taste of the culture: the baseball, the food, the history, the people and their hospitality. I was smitten. I knew I wanted to be there, be with Tony, and sing Tokyo Ondo at Jingu Stadium for every home game.
MP: It’s amazing what a part the Swallows have played in so many people’s Tokyo story. Even guests who don’t come from baseball cultures, when I bring them to Jingu, they come away saying it is the highlight of their trip to Tokyo.
So, you moved to Tokyo. What were the highlights and challenges of settling in?
HB: Of course the inability to speak Japanese was a bit challenging. But little by little (and with the help of a couple amazing teachers at a school in Shibuya), I started to feel more and more comfortable speaking the language.
Also, besides Tony, I didn’t know anyone. So I started using all my free time to either travel with Tony or go off on other excursions. My obsession became to learn as much Japanese as I could and get out and explore Japan. I loved being able to just hop on a train for a couple hours and find myself in a completely different world.
MP: It is incredible how easily and quickly you can be skiing or hiking from the centre of Tokyo. The infrastructure here serves it’s purpose and helps us all enjoy life so much more!
As you started to get to know the city more, what became your favourite spots in Tokyo?
HB: Oh man – there are so many! Everything! Before we had kids, Tony and I would hop on our bicycles after his games and ride around very late at night and into the early morning with no particular destination in mind. It was a great way to learn the city, see new areas, and burn off some of the yakiniku. After our first daughter was born, we would often walk down to Shinjuku Gyoen and just sit in the grass and let our daughter explore.
I also used to love walking over to Yoyogi Park. I love that every time you go to Yoyogi, you know you’re going to see something different. A tuba player practicing new music under the trees, a group of high school students perfecting a skit for school, or a magician. You never know!
Of course I can’t leave Jingu Stadium out of a conversation about my favorite places in Tokyo. The trumpets, the drums, the umbrellas, and the spicy chicken on a stick (my favorite pregnancy craving).
We were living in Aoyama, and we really enjoyed being able to explore that area, Omotesando, Harajuku, Shibuya, etc. I love that are so many narrow roads, you can always take a different route to the same location and stumble upon something interesting.
MP: You really are highlighting some of my favourite parts of Tokyo too. As you know, Meiji Jingu/Harajuku/Yoyogi Park/Omotesando is Iconic Tokyo and so you can imagine I have visited that area A LOT, but I genuinely never get bored. I think you can say the same about the city. All those little boutiques in the backstreet, I often wonder how they all stay in business?! You mentioned the spicy yakitori. What were your other favourite foods which you tried for the first time in Tokyo?
HB: Yes, never ever get bored!
Everything! I’m a big fan of yakiniku and shabu-shabu. And okonomiyaki- that was Tony’s favorite post-game midnight snack (especially in Hiroshima). And I really miss being able to walk to the Peacock grocery store down the street and grab a quick plate of fresh sashimi for lunch. I would assume the sushi here in Arizona isn’t quite as fresh. Actually, some of my favorite Italian, Mexican, and Mediterranean restaurants are in Tokyo as well. I love the way Japan takes something like Italian food, and puts their own spin on it. So you end up with this seafood-based Italian-Japanese fusion dish.
Tony and I were lucky to make some friends that are Tokyo natives and they would take us to some of their favorite restaurants – places I never would have found on my own. A yakitori place in a hard-to-find basement, down a dark street in Nishi-Azabu – that’s where you find some of the best food!
MP: That is something many of our guests say. We’ll be walking along in Tokyo and I’ll point to an unmarked door and say “That is one of the best steak restaurants in Japan” – and having been to over 100 countries I’d stake the claim (no pun intended) that it is one of the best in the world. My guests will not believe me… until we go there and have an incredible dinner!
You mentioned your pregnancy craving of spicy yakitori. Madelyn Paige, your first daughter, was born in the US but came to Japan very young, didn’t she?
HB: Yes, she was born in Arizona and then we brought her to Japan when she was about 6 weeks old.
MP: How was the experience of raising a baby in Tokyo?
HB: It was wonderful! I mostly just did everything I did in Tokyo before kids, and just brought her along! Not having a car, I would just push her around in a stroller all day and explore the city. And as she got a little older, we just put a baby seat on the back of my bicycle. She’s used to traveling with us, so I would take her along on some of Tony’s road trips or we would go explore another city. Tony and I would take her to the Ueno Zoo or the Inokashira Park Zoo whenever he had a day off. As she was learning to walk, we would take her to Shinjuku Gyoen and let her walk and stumble and walk and stumble in the huge grass fields. And if course I would take her Jingu Stadium. She would eat her popcorn, bang together her mini-bats with the songs from the oendan, wave her mini-umbrella to Tokyo Ondo, and dance with the cheerleaders and Tsubakuro (and ALL the other mascots)- such a fun atmosphere for kids- Not to mention the summer fireworks in the middle of the game!
MP: I remember the first photo you posted of ‘Madi-chan’ in a Swallows uniform. The ‘kawai’ factor was off the charts! Any specific advice you’d give to any expectant mothers, wives of expats maybe, who might have some concerns about raising a child in Tokyo, perhaps away from their support networks?
HB: I would tell them to not worry! Tokyo is such a great place to raise children. The healthcare I received in Japan was phenomenal. And that the people in Tokyo were very kind and helpful. It’s not ideal to be away from your support network. I definitely wished our daughter’s grandparents could have seen her more often. But Tokyo is such an enormous and diverse city with many opportunities to meet with others and create another support network. Even now that I’m back in the US, I still consider many of the people I met in Tokyo very close friends.
MP: Can you talk to us about the Swallows? As a fan, I’d be fascinated to hear about your experience from the inside!
HB: I don’t even know where to begin – I have so many fantastic memories of Tony’s 6 years with the Swallows. Of course, one of my favorite memories was watching them win the Central League Championship in 2015. That was FUN. When I think back, I’m mostly really grateful for the opportunities that the organization provided for Tony’s career and for us to travel and live in Japan for 6 years.
I really enjoyed living right there in the heart of Tokyo, just a 5-minute walk to the stadium. And the fans were absolutely amazing. They would send Tony positive and encouraging messages and bring handmade gifts and cookies to the field for him – not just for Tony, but for me and our daughter as well. Even still, he receives messages from Swallows fans to let him know they are rooting him on. Things like that mean the world to us. I’m incredibly grateful to the fans for making us feel so welcome.
I also think Tony was really lucky to have managers, pitching coaches and bullpen coaches with the Swallows that he could relate to and that he truly admires. I’m sure they played a huge role in his development as a player. And thank goodness for the translators. Not only were they a lifeline for us, but they became some of our best friends.
MP: I see that respect from the fans first hand, not just at baseball, but also with some of the American comic book creators I have been lucky enough to work with in Tokyo. The fans truly respect the professionals and the gifts are amazing. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, the next fan produces something you would never have thought of!
One thing that was clearly visible from the stands is that the relationship with the club and city changed over time, and this contributed to some great performances by Tony in 2015. The passion he demonstrated when clinching some key wins in the Championship season was great to see, and had been missing from the Swallows for a long time! Sadly, all good things must come to end. Tokyo’s loss is Texas’ gain! Have you been back to Tokyo since the move?
HB: No we haven’t yet, but we talk about it all the time. So we will be back! It definitely started to feel a bit like home after 6 years. And oh man, I really miss the food!
MP: How has the transition been back to the US? I was going to ask you to compare Tokyo and Texas but that is not an especially good question!
HB: I haven’t really thought about the transition much. I guess it seems normal since we had always returned to the US for the off-seasons. One of the only big differences for me is the baseball schedule. Having only 6 teams in the Central League in Japan, with 2 of those in Tokyo, and another in Yokohama – just 30 minutes away by JR – it seemed like Tony was home all the time! He definitely travels further and for longer amounts of time in the US and into different time zones.
But I’ve mostly just really enjoyed the experiences of both. The games, the stadiums, the housing, the transportation, the cheering, the food – it’s all pretty different. (The weather though – it’s pretty much the same. Hot and humid!) But I really enjoy the process. The adventure of it. We never really know where we are going to be next year, next month, next week – and you have to just go with the flow and enjoy the ride.
MP: That is an inspiring message, and definitely in keeping with our philosophy of seeing and experiencing as much as possible. It also is a very appropriate place for us to draw our conversation to a close. Thank you Hillary for your time and for sharing your love of The World’s Greatest Metropolis with us. We hope to see you again in Tokyo soon! Anything you would like to say to sign off?
HB: Thank you for letting me ramble on about a country I love! I’m looking forward to keeping up with Maction Planet! Best of luck! Is there any better sign off than “Otsukaresama Deshita”… it’s my favorite phrase and I don’t get to use it often enough anymore!
MP: Otsukare indeed!
Maction Planet runs Tokyo Baseball Tours throughout the Japan Baseball season, which starts on Friday 31 March 2017. Outfield tickets for the first two Tokyo Yakult Swallows games (31 March (18:00 start) and 1 April (14:00 start) at Jingu Stadium) are sold out, but Maction Planet has been able to secure some for guests. Get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org to grab yours!