Solo Ski Trip… with Friends

First of all, I have received so much feedback from the series of posts I wrote about my son, Jeremy, being bullied out of Japan. (For those not in the know, read part one, two and three.) I will be taking my time to respond to each of the comments, emails and private messages. Please bear with me.

This past weekend, I really wanted to go somewhere alone. A solo trip. Perhaps it was an attempt at escaping from my reality for a bit.  By the way, this seems like a good time to slip in an update on “my actor“. After not meeting for a while, I texted to ask when we would be seeing each other next and got an “how about end of the month” response. Is this normal in Japan? People living in the same city yet meeting only once or twice a month? Those of you living and dating in Tokyo, how often do you meet? Anyway, it was clear we are on different paths and at different points in our lives. I can hear the clock ticking, my time in Japan is winding down. There is nothing to hold onto in this country and it’s time to enjoy what’s probably my last few months here. My last text to him was “I’ll never forget you” and his to me was “I will treasure you forever”.

Initially, I wanted to take my book and go somewhere near the sea, take a walk by the beach (yes, I know it’s cold but I would be in a coat, scarf, hat, gloves, you know, the works..). Where was I? Yes, take a walk by the beach, go to a tiny local restaurant for dinner and wow the owners with my Japanese, then spend the night at a hotel and come back to the city the next day.

Then my friends told me about the JR ski trip offers. For something like 14,000 Yen, you get a return ticket on the shinkasen, ski lift ticket for a day, and ski equipment rental plus an onsen (for an extra 300 yen). I figured I can always go to the sea at any time of the year, but the snow season is soon coming to an end.

So I decided to join my friends for skiing in Niigata.

It took me an hour but I was finally able to navigate the JR website with the help of Google Translate and book the trip. Why is it so painful navigating Japanese websites? Then your session is never saved and you almost always have to start over. Then you run into problems like your name isn’t full width kana, or it has no Kanji, etc.

On Saturday morning, I overslept! I missed my shinkasen. My friends had left earlier that morning, at around 7 am.

I was leaving Tokyo Station at 9:30 am and I arrived in Niigata at around 11 am. Luckily,  even though I had missed by 8 am bullet train, I could sit in the unreserved section and furthermore, I got a window seat!

Since my friends had arrived earlier, they were already on the mountain skiing or snowboarding and it was hard to communicate on the phone. So it was kind of a solo ski trip for me. I arrived at Kandatsu Snow Resort, changed, rented equipment, and went up the mountain, enjoying my time alone. I didn’t join my friends for lunch because I had eaten on the shinkasen. I only met them later at around 4 pm when the ski lift was closing.

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It was snowing the entire day!

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I can’t say that Kandatsu is the most scenic ski resort, but I can assure you it is the most beginner friendly that I have ever seen. It has a long, gentle slope that skiers or snowboarders of any level can enjoy. They’ve also recently bought new equipment, their snow shoes were light and the skis, top notch and so easy to use. (I am not getting paid for this post, this is just my experience.)

Kandatsu Snow Resort in Niigata

Kandatsu Snow Resort in Niigata

I would say my skiing skill is upper beginner. It doesn’t matter the level, it only means that I can now enjoy skiing without a fear of falling, and I know that the more I go, the more my skill will keep on improving.

It was snowing the entire time and it was so cold, my fingers were turning purple. I now know not to push myself too hard next time.

Kandatsu Snow Resort in Niigata

Kandatsu Snow Resort in Niigata

At the end of the day, I met my friends and we went to the onsen to warm up, followed by dinner and some drinks, and we then took the shinkansen back to Tokyo.

A perfect solo trip with friends.

I hope I can go again before spring is upon us.

 

 

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Bullied Out of Japan: Part 3 (Final)

Once I understood the depth of what was happening (see part one and two here), I ended talked to many people, both Japanese and non-Japanese. Their experiences and advice opened my eyes to the truth about the Japanese society that produces a self-policing community. I am not an expert on Japanese culture. However, there is a collective agreement that bullying is particularly vicious in Japanese schools. There are studies upon studies. This culture extends to the workplace, where the spirit of stoicism and “not causing trouble” philosophy are enforced. Until people just can’t take it any more, and walk onto the tracks of the passing trains. Suicides are pretty common in Japan. Including teen suicides and kids in elementary school. See article: Two former classmates ordered to pay ¥37 million in damages over bullied Japanese boy’s suicide. If you don’t want to “cause trouble” with your suicide (your family will be ordered to compensate the railway company for the inconveniences you cause), then there is a suicide forest for you to go quietly.

This is rapidly becoming dark.

Of course each country has its good and bad sides. Just the other day, there was a stampede in a Kenyan primary school in which over 15 children died when a stairwell collapsed.

Japan paints a perfect picture to the world, but it has its dark side too.

I didn’t pay attention to this dark side until my son became a victim of bullying. Then things went rapidly downhill and all I could see was the dark side of this country.

I could illustrate this with more examples. Like during sports day soon after I had visited the school, after he had had a fairly good day, they went back to the classroom to change out of their sports wear. I had a feeling and went to check on him, only to find the teacher holding him back because he was about to explode. Asking him what was wrong, the teacher said that Roy had once again something nasty to Jeremy. Why is my child the one on the receiving end of the “punishment/admonishment?”

I am sure things would have been better had we stayed in Ishikawa. But there are very few jobs in Ishikawa and my social life was deadish there. What I’ve heard is that if your kid continues into elementary school with the same kids from nursery school, they are less likely to experience this bullying.

Anyway, I weighed my options.

Fight the bullying – as you can see, group bullying is part of the culture here. The nail that sticks out gets hammered in. If anyone associates or tries to help the victim, they also become a target of bullying too. So the victim becomes isolated. I did not have the energy to take on the entire culture. In individualistic countries like America, you can take on the bully and his parents one-on-one, and can even find people to support you. Here, no one wants to “cause trouble”.

Home schooling – well, I am a single parent and I work. Not feasible. Even if I hired a teacher, I would have to pay her my entire salary.

Moving to another district with more foreigners.

Well, in Japan, diversity is still a myth. There are very few foreigners (less than 2% of the population I believe) and when it comes to kids in Japanese schools, that percentage is even less. Secondly, there is no guarantee that the bullying/isolation won’t happen in that school. It is part of the culture of conformity, bullying that one person who threatens the averageness, the sameness, the very identity of the group. The identity of what it means to be Japanese.

Furthermore, moving costs are insanely high here. I need close to 800,000 Yen ($7,000) to move to another 2LDK. Transportation costs, deposits, key money, real estate agency commission, money to change the lock, etc. Not forgetting the fee needed to break my current lease, which runs for two years. And there is no guarantee that the next place will be peaceful.

International School

This would have been the ideal option from the beginning. The student body is diverse. The culture isn’t that of conformity, stoicism or avoiding trouble. Except for the astronomical costs. At 31, I am not in that income bracket yet. I just began my career after a 4.5 year break from employment. 

Finally… out of Japan

None of these solutions could urgently resolve my problem anyway. I had withdrawn Jeremy from school when he had a major episode where he was fighting the 2nd graders.

I tried working from home. My company is nice like that. But it was not feasible to work from home with a healthy, energetic boy bouncing his soccer ball against the walls. He was returning to his old self now that he wasn’t going to the toxic school environment.

I called my mother. She was more than willing to have him for now.

I booked a flight two days to go. I asked for time off. It was a nice, smooth flight on Ethiopian Airlines (yes, my first time on Ethiopian was good!). Jeremy was going home.

While home, we visited my grandmother (who by the way, had also been a single mother who bravely raised her 7 kids). I did not know that I’d be seeing her for the last time, for she passed way last November. Jeremy represented me at the funeral.

Schools were on holiday. Every day, he played outside freely with the other kids on holiday, like children should. He started picking up Swahili. He picked up some Kisii words. He was learning to be a kid again.

There is so much pressure on school kids here in Japan. They forget their pencil, you get a phone call at work. Something as trivial as forgetting a pen at home make a kid become riddled with anxiety. They carry the ridiculously heavy randoseru, instead of comfortable backpacks. They need to fit in, to not stand out. They need to do their Kanji drills. If they make a mistake, it’s a big deal, instead of taking it as part of learning. They learn to not ask questions, to not ask why, to just follow the rules. They become the next generation of… wait I am going off tangent here.

I went back to Kenya after Christmas. He was doing well but it was clear he was missing me and I had missed him too. I still miss him every day.

In January, we found a local school in the neighbourhood. I do not want my child waking up at 5am to to a school far away, to avoid traffic. (We need to resolve the traffic problem in Nairobi by the way.) The public school is overwhelmed with the number of kids, while in Japan, some schools are closing for lack of children! The population is declining, and every year, fewer Japanese kids are born.

I came back to Japan in January. Bread has to be earned. I believe I have some big decisions to make very soon, but I am happy that Jeremy is happy now. The light, the sparkle in his eyes has returned. He’s got his confidence and smile back.

My goal in 2020 is to be reunited (live together again) with Jeremy.

P.S. You can now see why my friend’s visit to Japan in November last year was quite timely as I got to re-experience Japan as a tourist, not forgetting I almost dated a Japanese actor, which was a hilarious and welcome distraction.

 

 

 

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Bullied Out of Japan: Part 2

So here we were in Tokyo, almost 6 months later. I had thought we were well settled in. I had found a very nice Nigerian lady to do my hair, and Jeremy would play with her two kids while she worked her magic. I was even having a semblance of a social life, going out dancing once in a while with Vivi, my Italian friend and coworker. I was dating a nice Frenchman (😘 😘Chris, keep on being full of light) in his 30’s who would bring me salad and play living room soccer with Jeremy.

And then the teacher called me on September 20th, 2019.

She asked me if Jeremy had changed his behaviour at home, and I said no. Everything was normal at home. He would come home tired after a long day at school and gakudo, the after school club. I would make him dinner, then check his homework, give him a shower (sometimes he showered by himself), then he would watch one or two episodes of Pokemon on Amazon Prime, which he was obsessed with. Then he would go to bed at around 8 or 8:30.

I am paraphrasing, as the conversation took place in Japanese.

“Well, in school, he has been getting really angry in class.”

What do you mean, I asked?

“Well, he gets angry and then he acts out by throwing his erasers, pens, pencil case at the wall. ”

While I was still processing this, she continued.

“He does this 4 or 5 times a day. When he does this, what I do is send him to the Hokenshitsu (like the nurse’s room for band-aids and minor cuts, etc) to calm down. When he comes back however, he soon gets angry again.”

I was so shocked. At home, he’s a nice and gentle kid. At the park, he loves playing with younger kids, he’s always getting the “oniichan rashii ne” compliments from Japanese parents saying how good of a big brother he is. Mark you, these are strangers we meet at the park, and Jeremy has no fear walking up to them, saying hello and asking the kids to play. So what the teacher was saying was largely out of character and more like what Jeremy would do when he was going through the terrible 2’s phase (because well, he couldn’t communicate).

She was still talking.

“Yes, he has done this on a daily basis since the second semester started. I have tried talking to him. Of course he understands Japanese perfectly, so language is not a problem. I have told him it is okay to get angry, it is normal, but he needs to learn to control his feelings of anger. It is like he tries, but cannot control his emotions. Perhaps he should talk to a behavioural therapist (my understanding) to help him with anger management.”

I was now dabbing at the tears threatening to fall from my eyes. Vivi asked me what’s wrong. I motioned that I would tell her later.

Why would a 6 year old be so angry? What could make a kid so angry that he would be unable to control his emotions, until he throws whatever is within reach against the wall?

She continued.

“In fact today, during clean up, he wouldn’t cooperate and he took off his indoor shoes and threw them against the wall.”

What now?

“I have explained to him that this is dangerous and could hurt other kids. I can see he understands but he cannot control himself. Once he’s calmed down he’s very lively but his anger flares up so quickly. This started in this semester, last semester everything was ok. When do you have time, can come to school to discuss it.”

I asked about the bullying.

“No, there is no bullying. We talked to the whole school and told the students to not bully him, but to help him.” 手伝ってあげて、マナー教えたり (To help him with the rules and manners).  I thought it was ominous that they’d put the spotlight on him as the only black kid in the entire school, which would surely make matters worse, no?

After we settled for a Thursday the following week, I hang up and turned to Vivi, tears streaming down my face. School is supposed to be fun (in my opinion), but it seemed my son was having a hellish time. What could make a 6 year old be so angry? The teacher hadn’t explained to me the reason. Anger therapy for a 6 year old?

“Harriet, save your son” Vivi said.

When I got home, Jeremy was his usual self but on closer observation, I realized that he’d actually been less talkative lately. He had also stopped doing his homework at the gakudo, which I thought was because he got too tired after playing the whole day. I would help him do it, but wouldn’t force it if he was too tired. Imagine you’ve been up since 6 and are doing homework at 7 or 8pm in the night. I was lax in enforcing homework, believing that in the first grade, kids should have fun and the intense work can begin in the later years of primary/elementary school.

In a gentle voice, I asked him if everything was ok in school.

He averted his face and looked down, shamefaced.

I told him sensei had told me what was happening in school. Why was he getting angry, I asked.

But Jeremy was silent.

Later, you will see why it would be something difficult for a 6 year old to explain. He just said,

“Roy is still bullying me.”

It wasn’t a lie, but it was not the complete picture.

The following day, glum-faced as he was, I asked him if he wanted to go to school and he said he hated going to school (in the first grade!). I told him he would have to go that day but I was going to visit the school that Thursday to sort out everything. I told him everything would be alright.

I posted what was happening in the support group of “Parents with kids in Japanese schools”. The feedback I got was chilling. Many parents shared their experiences and gave me advice. They sent me private messages of support and offered to help wherever they could. Basically, I needed to get to the root cause of the acting-out, but it was highly likely to be bullying.

As the only black child in a Japanese school, he stood out. And standing out is a bad thing in a conformist society like Japan. Below is an excerpt from this article that sums up why bullying is so vicious in Japanese schools:

“Bullying is common in many countries as not all children have been civilized at a young age, but I feel it is different here in Japan,” she said. “In schools here, a pupil who is different from the others will be a target. That is the same throughout Japanese society. Conformity is important.

“So if you are talented in class, or if you are a girl who is too pretty, or if you play a musical instrument well or if you just act differently, you are a target.”

I had literally put my lamb in the lion’s den.

In my defense, the last 4 years in Ishikawa in the Japanese nursery school went great. My son spoke the language with a local accent! Was I too optimistic? I also thought that bullying would start in the later years (and planned to leave by then), not from the 1st grade! The crazy thing is, my work environment is great. Awesome even. Great team, great working conditions. But my child was living the dark side of Japan, while I basked in the brilliant light (of tatemae) at work.

After reading the responses in the facebook group, it became extremely difficult to send Jeremy to school in the morning. I was supposed to meet the teacher that Thursday afternoon at around 4pm, but I decided to take the whole day off.

As usual, he didn’t want to go to school. I called the school to let them we would be absent, and the principal picked up the phone.

“Why aren’t you coming to school? Fever, flu?”

I said it’s because Jeremy was being bullied. He asked nothing more! He said he would pass the message to the homeroom teacher and hang up.

By 9am that morning, Jeremy was restless. I decided I might as well go to the school and observe what was happening. I asked Jeremy if we could go together and he said if you stay with me, I will go. The teacher had said she would schedule a particular day for me to observe the class, but I figured out that since I had taken a day off anyway, I might as well show up. I am glad no one was prepared for our arrival, for on that day, I learned exactly what was happening and how much worse the situation really was.

At the school entrance, we took off our outdoor shoes, Jeremy changed into his indoor shoes and we went into the class. The teacher was shocked to see us but asked Jeremy to take out his books and prepare for class. I explained to the teacher that I was free that day and would she let me observe the class. She said no, she had not prepared to host me and I would disrupt the learning as other kids in class would wonder why I was there. She emphatically said to go and come back at 4pm that day and we would talk and arrange a day for me to observe the class. She then went back to teaching as Jeremy settled down, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave just like that so I remained standing at the door. I just wanted to find out what was causing this behaviour.

She came back to the door and assured me she would watch Jeremy closely the whole day and that I really should go. She said, okay, let’s call him and make a promise that today he will behave.

Jeremy came to the door, she bent down and into his face, said this. It wasn’t what she said, rather the tone with which she said it.

She said:

“JEREMY, IT IS OKAY TO GET ANGRY. BUT YOU CANNOT THROW THINGS AT THE WALLS. YOU WILL HURT OTHER KIDS. IF OTHER KIDS GET HURT, YOU MOTHER COULD BE IN SO MUCH TROUBLE. YOU ARE CAUSING TROUBLE TO EVERYONE. DON’T THROW THINGS. LET’S MAKE A PROMISE WITH YOUR MOTHER RIGHT HERE. YOU DON’T WANT TO CAUSE HER TROUBLE, DO YOU? EVERYONE HATES THAT.”

“怒って大丈夫だけど、ものを投げるのはだめだよ。他のことに当たったらケガするよ。そしてお母さんに大変ですよ。それみんながいや!”

It was basically a tirade, and the crazy thing is, I was right there! That was when I realized that when Japanese people deal with kids, they don’t bother with tatemae(Too long, can’t go into it right now).

If this woman spoke to my child like this in my presence, what about when I wasn’t around? Did she think I was going to side with her and agree that he is causing me so much trouble? I was more interested in finding out why he was getting angry in the first place, which she wouldn’t address. It is not okay for little boys to be so angry.

I felt so sad for poor Jeremy.

I finally understood why he never said anything and why he had stopped talking about the bullying.

He didn’t want to cause me any trouble.

In Japan, the avoidance of “causing trouble” is a philosophy of life. An AKB 48 idol was assaulted, and she apologized to the public for “causing trouble”. Train announcements ask you to not speak on the phone, because you will “cause trouble” for others. Everywhere you go, the message is “do not cause trouble.” My son was of course internalizing this philosophy.

I asked him if he wanted to go home instead.

He said, “我慢する”. I will endure.

Another aspect of Japanese culture is endurance. Stoicism, if you will.

Jeremy went back to his seat. The teacher resumed teaching. I left the school in tears.

I hadn’t gone far when I got the phone call to go back to the school. Jeremy had had an episode. He was in the Hokenshitsu.

I dried my tears and went to the Hokenshitsu. Jeremy sat forlorn, in a corner, while the nurse looked at him like she was a fly in her tea.

She looked at me with the same expression as he came in. She told him,

“Tell your mother what you’ve done!” in the same tone as the teacher.

In a small voice, Jeremy said that some kid came and shouted in his ear, surprising him and making him jump. He also said that when he had stood to go to the toilet, several of his classmates had shouted at him, “Ocharo-kun, sit down!”

The kid who did the shouting wasn’t punished, but Jeremy was. I hugged him and told him I’d stay with him that day.

We went back to the class and the teacher said that that was fast. Usually, he would take a longer time to calm down.

Of course he would! The Hokenshitsu is not the place to send a child who’s angry. The woman there was so mean to him, in front of me. How did they treat him when I wasn’t around?

No wonder he felt isolated with no one to turn to. Not in school, and not at home because he didn’t want to cause me trouble.

I stayed during the math lesson. I noticed they were handing in their homework sheets, which Jeremy hadn’t done. He was doing it while I was there. That was when I noticed all the other kids had turned to Jeremy, and were watching do his homework, shouting answers at him even before he could write it down. Of course they’d done the homework so they knew the answers, but they weren’t giving him a chance to work it out.

I finally understood what was happening.

The reason he got so angry in class was because of the constant correction by everyone, in addition to the specific case of bullying by Roy. The other kids seem to have studied ahead (sometimes attending kumon/after school drills – something I found out by talking to lots of people) and are ready with answers the next day. I hadn’t been enforcing homework either, but I had no idea the extent of the effect this was having on him. So these kids had all singled out my son as the target of correction, and once he started working out his answers, they were ready to correct him. They blurted out answers while he was working it out, and that made him lose it and his confidence in the process. They would, in a chorus, tell him to sit down if he stood up in class, even if he was going to the toilet.

Worse, when he came back from the Hokenshitsu after 20-30 minutes, he’d missed  a huge part of the lesson and so the other kids were ready to correct him as he tried to catch up, making him angry and creating a vicious cycle.

On top of the cultural collective bullying to “fit in” with the behaviour of the rest of the group, he was still being bullied by Roy who kicked or punched or said mean things to him (I reiterate that my son is very sensitive and kind). The bully kept apologizing but still repeated his actions from time to time. He was apparently attending a “training” to improve his behavior.

In his 自由ノート free-writing notebook, Jeremy has filled it with kid-drawings of Pocket monsters. I guess he was immersing himself in Pokemon as a way a means of coping (see the IG pic at the beginning of the post).

However, one drawing stands out:

Bullying in the playground

Bullying in the playground

I asked him to explain it to me.

It depicts a scene at the playground.

He says they were skipping rope in the playground when Roy came and kicked him, making him cry, as you can see in the drawing the large tears coursing down Jeremy’s face.

The teacher then made Roy apologize, and Jeremy said “ii yo”. You’re forgiven.

To be continued in part 3.

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Bullied Out of Japan: Part 1

Warning: this post will be long, that’s why I am dividing it into three parts. I have already talked about the contents of this post in the interview with the Black Experience in Japan channel on YouTube.

Writing this series of posts is having to relive the pain of the experience and that’s why I have been avoiding it for over 5 months now. But writing is cathartic, therapeutic even… so here we are, finally.

Before you read this, it is important to get some context and background. I came to Japan in October 2014 on a fully funded scholarship, courtesy of the Japanese government. The scholarship covers everything including a flight ticket, tuition and a monthly stipend at your university of choice in Japan. It was a great opportunity for me to do my PhD, and experience a new culture, having never lived elsewhere except in East Africa.

I was a 26 year old single parent when I came to Japan. At the time, I lived with my very loving and supportive parents. I didn’t want to leave my son behind in Kenya to be raised by his grandparents. At the same time, I couldn’t just bring him with me into the unknown. So when I first came to Japan in October 2014, I was alone. I missed him every single day but I started working towards bringing him over to join me. I was a research student for a year and in this period I got his certificate of eligibility which would enable him to come to Japan as my dependant. I also got my Japanese driving license and a car. I learned to speak Japanese in order to be able to interact with his teachers or doctors. I got him admission at the local nursery school. I moved into the family housing in the school. When I returned to Kenya the following year, I had his ticket to Japan ready.

Jeremy and I

Jeremy and I in Japan in October or November, 2015

Reunited, we finally came to Japan in late September and I officially started my PhD in JAIST, in Ishikawa Prefecture, in October 2015. After the initial hiccups (well, this is a story for another day) he settled well in the nursery school, and I started on my PhD journey while parenting single. It wasn’t easy but I had a very understanding supervisor. We quickly settled into a routine.  Jeremy picked up Japanese and made friends in the nursery school, many of whom lived in the same campus. I enrolled him in piano (later we withdrew because he hasn’t got the patience although he does enjoy it), swimming (which he loved) and taiko, Japanese drumming, which he also enjoyed. Study-wise, I was progressing well. I submitted papers to 4 international conferences in Canada, France, New Zealand and even one in Las Vegas in 2018. Jeremy accompanied me to 2 of these conferences, to France and to New Zealand. Socially, we made very many friends in the local community, including our Japanese parents, the Nishikawas. Dating-wise, the game was dead but I was in rural Japan so I just vumiliad. Travel-wise, Jeremy and I and other friends went to Malaysia and South Korea, and within Japan we did go around seeing many places including Osaka, Kyoto, Gifu, Fukui, Toyama, Niigata, Noto etc.

1535598498480

Jeremy sleeping with Bomi-chan, our Japanese family’s cat.

All in all, a wholesome life. 3 years passed. I graduated with a PhD in Information Science. My whole family was here to celebrate with me.

DSC_6099

DSC_6097

My family and friends turned up to help me celebrate this special day!

In my final year of PhD, I interviewed with Hitachi and got an offer to join the Research and Development Group. Although I graduated in September of 2018, I decided to join the company in April 2019. That’s because I was waiting for Jeremy to graduate from nursery school so when we moved to Tokyo, we would just join elementary school with all the other first graders. The academic year in Japan starts in April.

On graduation day from nursery school, all of Jeremy’s friends were crying asking him to stay, to not leave, to not go to Tokyo.

So excuse my optimism when I packed my bags and left for Tokyo. I mean, my company sent a moving company to help me move. Since I don’t have parents in Japan to act as guarantors (real estate is a scam in Japan, but again, a story for another day), my company acted as my guarantor.

I was excited for life in the big city! I got a nice 2LDK apartment in one of Tokyo’s nicer suburbs. No more living like a student! I furnished the apartment, getting an actual bed after sleeping on a mattress on the floor for years, and one for Jeremy too, who got his own bedroom. We’d made it to Tokyo! Jeremy started school. I started working. Somehow, we got a routine down. I even got a babysitter, a very nice American lady, so I could meet my friends for drinks or even go on dates once in a while on Friday or Saturday nights.

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First day of school! #入学式 #おめでとう

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I joined a Facebook support group for “Parents with kids in Japanese Schools” to gain insight into why the school and the PTA loved sending so many leaflets, on a daily basis! That was my biggest gripe with the school at the time!  Jeremy spoke fluent Japanese by then, with English as a second language. I thought things were going well until he told me around May or June that he didn’t like going to school because there was a bully there. He didn’t want to go to school.

“だっていじわるこがいる”

I asked him what the bully did. He said he sometimes kicked or punched him. Or said mean words to him. Jeremy told me this particular kid was always mean to not only him, but to other kids in the class as well.

My blood went cold. And then hot. My hands were shaking when I called the school later that day to ask about this particular kid. His name is Roy. Well, not really. I don’t know why I am protecting that shitty kid’s identity, but I don’t want any legal issues.

The homeroom teacher said they were handling it. She said they had talked to the parents and the kid was changing. She had made Roy apologize to Jeremy and had also talked to the other kids about treating Jeremy well. She said she watched them closely in the classroom and that it had stopped, and that was why she hadn’t called me before. She then apologized for causing me trouble. 迷惑をかけて申し訳ございません。I didn’t get the apology thing, it is my child, I have a right to know. I want to be informed.

As a parent, there is nothing worse than being unable to defend your child. What could I do? It was a strange landscape for me to navigate. I planned on going to the school to talk to the teacher and ask for Roy’s parents’ phone numbers and talk to them as well. What I really felt like doing was meeting the kid and shaking and threatening the life out of the shitty kid, a kind of violent fantasy that sustained me in those days. In reality, I would never do that, because when you never know what’s going on in the bully’s head or what’s happening in his home. I did tell Jeremy to hit him back as a last resort, and I struggled with this decision, but actually Jeremy is a very gentle kid in spite of his taller-than-average body build. He wouldn’t do it, I read it on his averted face. To be honest, I don’t believe in violence as a solution, and I never hit Jeremy as punishment.

Anyway, after I called the teacher, I talked to Jeremy and he said that yes, the boy had stopped the picking/punching but he sometimes sneaked in mean words. On other days, he would say that they actually played together as friends. I thought that perhaps the bully just wanted to be friends. In fact, they attended the same after school club (or gakudo 学童保育所 in Japanese), and often after doing homework, they would play together before walking home. They especially enjoyed playing dodge ball outdoors.

I began to hope that things had improved. Summer came around. I read dozens of leaflets from the school, checked homework, missed some clean-up days, participated in the mandatory neighbourhood patrol (every home with a school child has their turn), and enrolled Jeremy in the soccer club. He stopped complaining about the school. On weekends when not playing soccer, he played with other kids in the tiny park near our apartment, or sometimes we went to the bigger parks around us. On rainy days, we would ride our bikes to the community center to play there. The community center has got some sports amenities – a basketball court and pool – and a reading room. We were settling into life in Tokyo.

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Pre-game banter 🙂

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Before we knew it, it was July and mid-summer. Schools were closing for the summer.

I made arrangements to send Jeremy to Ishikawa for a couple of weeks. He would stay with his Japanese grandparents and get to see most of his friends who had joined the local elementary school there. On the flight from Haneda to Komatsu, we met a couple of bald-headed monks on the same flight.

“Hey.. look! Boozu!” Jeremy pointed out. Bōzu is a Buddhist monk (compare the word bonze), or in modern slang, “bald-headed”.

The monks were good-natured and asked Jeremy how old he was, impressed with his Japanese. He told them Japanese was his favorite subject. They naturally asked him if he liked school and he replied in the negative. Why, they asked.

“だっていじわる子がいるもん” There is a kid who bullies me there.

What? I had thought that whole thing was over.

Apparently not, but he had just stopped telling me about it. I would find out the reason later when school resumed.

For now, we had a break from the school, but I was now really worried and knew that when schools opened, I would have to finally go to the school and have that talk with the teacher.

As I was working, I didn’t go back to pick Jeremy from Ishikawa. Instead, he flew by himself while being taken care of by the ANA crew, who handed him over to me at the airport.

About a couple of weeks after school resumed, I got a phone call from the teacher. I was on my way back from a business trip to Ibaraki, where we had gone to visit the place where Hitachi was founded over 100 years ago.

“Do you have time to talk now?” She asked me.

I said, sure.

By the time I hang up the phone, I was shaking.

Read more in part two.

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Vi in Japan III: Exploring Kyoto and Osaka

This is the 7th post in a 21-day-blogging-challenge. It was supposed to be a “21 posts in 21 days” challenge but for me, it’s has been more of a challenge to create 21 posts before the end of the decade.

When Vi visited, we spent a lot of time in the Kanto area (around Tokyo) but we spared a couple of days to visit Japan’s old capital, Kyoto. We also passed by Osaka on our way back to Tokyo.

If you are in Japan, you must take the bullet train even though it can be quite expensive. We took the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto. Of course we got bento boxes for our lunch and a couple of drinks to wash it down as we prepared for a comfortable 2 hour ride. It went by so fast. We were the first to get on, that’s how we were able to get the shot below. By the time we took off, all seats were taken.

In the Tokaido Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto

In the Tokaido Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto.

We had taken the late afternoon train so it was dark by the time we got to Kyoto. I had booked us an airbnb near Gion, Kyoto’s most famous geisha district. We went to our tiny apartment to get some rest before going out to explore Gion. It was raining that night so perhaps that’s why we didn’t see any Geishas in any colourful kimonos. We so no Geishas, period. Instead, we drifted towards the sound and beat of music and ended up in a shisha bar where we danced to hits almost all night. The crowd was nice and friendly, a mixture of locals and tourists. For like the third time during this period, we got home as the sun was rising.

We were supposed to explore Kyoto the following day but we ended up staying in bed the whole day watching sumo wrestling on TV. It turns out sumo wrestling is really interesting. The wrestlers train for so many weeks for just a 2 minute match!

The day after that, we spent the morning visiting two major spots in Kyoto before leaving for Osaka: the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine and the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. We managed to see some beautiful autumn foliage too.

Fushimi Inari Taisha

Fushimi Inari Taisha

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We found autumn in Kyoto

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Afterwards, we had lunch then took a train to Osaka to catch the sunset on top of Umeda Sky Building. We also admired the Osaka skyline. It was beautiful sitting in a cafe up there, watching the sunlight fade out and the city lights start twinkling. Trains and cars zoomed down below in the maze of highways and train tracks, a kaleidoscope of colour.

Chasing the sunset on top of Umeda Sky Building in Osaka

Chasing the sunset on top of Umeda Sky Building in Osaka

You can't stop me now

You can’t stop me now.

Can you spot the road that goes through a building in Osaka? Click to view large image.

Can you spot the road that goes through a building in Osaka? Click to view large image.

Osaka at night. This picture doesn't do it justice.

Osaka at night. This picture doesn’t do it justice. Can you see the moving kaleidoscope of colour? Click to view large image.

 

Traveling around in Japan can be expensive so after shoving down ramen, we rushed to catch – not a bullet train – but a night bus that would take over 9 hrs instead 2. There was a flier in the back of the seats in front of us warning us of “economy class syndrome“, the flier advised us to flex our toes and stand up and stretch from time to time. This got us thinking of what this term means: economy class syndrome. Finally, we had a name that also adequately described the guilt we feel spending our hard earned money on anything other than the basics. When you grow up in scarcity, you find it hard to spend money later. That’s how I find myself loading my Suica – commuter card – with 1,000 yen at a time even when I know I would end up loading it again the next day. Instead of putting in 10,000 Yen upfront. This deserves it’s own post.

This is the end of the Vi in Japan series. I really enjoyed traveling around Japan, showing off the country’s charms to my friend.

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Vi in Japan II: In and Around Tokyo

This is the 6th post in a 21-day-blogging-challenge.

When Vi visted, we spent a number of days sightseeing in and around Tokyo. I’ve already blogged about the time we rented a kimono and climbed the Tokyo Sky Tree. We also visited Shibuya, Shinjuku, Harajuku, and Odaiba for the Team Lab Borderless LED Exhibition. We went to Hakone for an overnight stay, and also went to a famous theme park at the base of Mt. Fuji.

Shibuya

On one of the days in Tokyo, we had coffee at the Starbucks overlooking the busy Shibuya crossing.

The Shibuya Scramble Crossing

The Shibuya Scramble Crossing

While in Shibuya, we visited the Apple Store and talked to a lovely manager from Mexico. She said she’s starting to look more and more like her mother, which is something we could relate to. That’s life in your 30s for you.

At a later date, we went to the newly opened Shibuya Sky Building. There, we met a couple of old men in their 80s. One of them told us he had been to Kenya about 50 years ago. Maybe that will that be us, 50 years from now. In our 80s, we’ll reunite for an afternoon of local sightseeing. We may meet a couple of best friends from Japan traveling in Kenya, and we will tell them that we were in their country 50 years ago. They’ll be so amazed, 80s.. so old, they will think. Then 5 decades will go by, long after we are gone, and they will be the new 80 year old’s. Cycle of life.

At the top of Shibuya Sky Building

At the top of Shibuya Sky Building

Mirror Play at Shibuya Sky Building

Mirror Play at Shibuya Sky Building

Shinjuku

We mostly did two things at Shinjuku. We shopped at Don Quijote, arguably Japan’s craziest store. You can literally find anything here, from sex toys to groceries.

I love Kabukicho

I love Kabukicho

The second thing we did that evening after shopping was go to Kabukicho at night, where we met a Japanese actor. Read that story here.

 

Harajuku

We stopped briefly at Harajuku one afternoon. We had tapioca tea and the tastiest, crunchiest chicken fingers at this shop off Takeshita Street, near a shop selling very nice bags at very cheap prices. We were hoping we’d find people dressed in those colourful outfits that Harajuku is famous for and that we would blend in, but it was not to be!

Me at Takeshita Street, Harajuku

At Takeshita Street, Harajuku

Hakone

We rented a car and drove to Hakone one Saturday evening, returning on a Sunday.

When we walked into the rental car shop, I could see the nervousness on the Japanese guy’s face. Two black women asking to rent a car! He relaxed a bit when he saw that yes, I have local residence and a Japanese driving license. Furthermore, I speak Japanese. We also got the full coverage insurance, just in case. We then made him take the photo below 🙂 Which he took in a hurry, while shaking out of fear of gaijin, that’s why our faces are kombo (slanted)

In front of the Vitz we rented near Kichijoji Station. Vi is shy so I cropped her out LOl

In front of the Vitz we rented near Kichijoji Station. Vi is shy so I cropped her out LOL

Hakone is beautiful, but we were too early (Nov 9-10) to catch the peak autumn foliage.

At the ryokan in Hakone

Thinking how lovely this is, at the ryokan in Hakone

We stayed at Yoshikan Ryokan. The onsen and the garden were so lovely. It was Vi’s first time at a public onsen and the nudity came naturally lol.

At the Japanese garden in Hakone

At the Japanese garden in Hakone

The next day, on the way back, we stopped by lake Ashi. We tried to snap this picture of the gates but there was a line for it.

So this was our reality.

Hakone Shrine Gates reality

Hakone Shrine Gates reality

We also had tiny views of Mt. Fuji from Lake Ashi.

 

Fuji Q Highland on the way to Kawaguchiko

We rested at home the Monday after Hakone. On Tuesday, we went to one of the most thrilling and scary amusement parks in the world. We didn’t get to take many rides, we chickened out after only two of them. We did the “Fujiyama King of Coasters” and the “Do-Dodonpa- Fastest Roller Coaster” high speed ride that goes from 0 to 180Km/hr in a second, then does an upside down loop before going back.

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Fujiyama King of Coasters

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On top of the King of Coasters, Fujiyama.

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We chickened out of taking the ride below,  the “Takabisha – Steepest Roller Coaster” with a drop of 121 degrees.

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“Takabisha – Steepest Roller Coaster”

I don’t think I will ever do roller-coasters again, but at least we had amazing views of Mt. Fuji.

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A clearer picture of Mt. Fuji

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Odaiba – Team Lab Borderless

I shall finish off this post with some photos from the last Saturday that Vi had here. We went to this art/science LED exhibition. I shall go back because there is still so much to see. We didn’t get to see all the rooms.

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Thanks Vi for the lovely portraits

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The next time you are in Tokyo, you know there is plenty to do in and around the city.

Wish I had more time to blog, but I am rushing to catch my flight to Kenya.

Will take a break and write again in the new year. I have one more post about Vi’s trip to Kenya – the time we spent in Kyoto and Osaka.

Happy new year lovelies, let’s continue this journey in 2020!

 

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Vi in Japan: Kimono and Night Views of Tokyo Skyline

This is the 5th post in my 21-blogs-before-2019-ends-challenge!

As previously mentioned in this post, my best friend Vi visited me in Japan this past November. I, of course, took some time off to show her around. I prepared an itinerary that took us from the rooftops of Japan’s skyscrapers in Tokyo and Osaka, to the quiet villages of Hakone and Kawaguchiko at the foot of Mount Fuji. We had a chance to experience the adrenaline rush of the King of Coasters at Fuji Q Highland amusement park, and also the quiet zen-like atmosphere in one of the local non-tourist temples. We visited Kyoto, Japan’s former capital. The journey took us from Shinjuku’s underground clubs where we thought we had met a Japanese actor, to the world’s tallest standalone tower (Tokyo Skytree). We wore the traditional kimono and also wore modern, colorful outfits that would have blended in with the crowds in Harajuku. We ate at Starbucks, McDonalds, and we also ate at nameless Japanese restaurants.  We ate ramen and oden, and ordered tons of food using Uber Eats. We rode on crowded local trains full of workers going home. We drove along the winding country roads in a lovely Vitz. We rode the bullet train, and also took the night bus. We shopped at the Apple Store in Shibuya and also at one of Japan’s crazier stores, Don Quijote. We walked for hours during the day, went out at night and stayed till the sun came up. We also stayed in bed all day on some days, watching Netflix and sumo wrestling. We even managed to squeeze in an hour of karaoke. The only three things on the itinerary that we didn’t manage to do were visiting a cat cafe, a maid cafe and eating Kobe beef.

Strolling along Sumida River in our kimonos

Strolling along Sumida River in our kimonos

On the first day, we went on a relaxed airbnb kimono experience. In spite of having lived in Japan for more than 5 years, it was my first time trying on kimono. I say the experience is relaxed because we didn’t have to wear layers of petticoats underneath or the kimono shoes (geta). The experience included a stroll around the neighbourhood to the riverside and a visit to the Mimeguri Shrine, where we prayed for money, love and success.

It is said that the more money you give, the more luck you get. And the more luck you get, the more money you will get. The gospel of prosperity is universal.

me-kimono

Enjoying the Zen Garden at Mimeguri Shrine

kimono-us

Standing outside a Buddhist Temple in Sumida District

By the time our 2 hour stroll was up, we were so hungry we bought the next thing we found: oden at a local restaurant. Oden is a “classic Japanese winter food, consisting of a variety of ingredients simmered in a soy broth”.

Tokyo Skytree At Night

Later in the evening, we walked to the nearby Tokyo Skytree. Before we went in, we sat on one of the benches along the street next to the river, enjoying a break (and a drink) while watching people go past. Who would have thought that 10 years ago, in campus in Juja, that we would now be sitting on the illuminated streets of Tokyo admiring the world’s tallest tower?

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It was a weekday night, so there was no queue going up. Tokyo at night is so beautiful. The highways are dazzling streaks of lights, which stretch on  as far as the eye can see. The twinkling lights of one of the world’s largest metropolis at our feet. We went up to 450m above the ground. We spent an hour or so admiring the views and taking photos. I had been to the Skytree before, but during the day. It is worth going at dusk so you can get both the day and night views.

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Tokyo at night. Views from Tokyo Skytree.

 

Tokyo Skytree

Admiring Tokyo’s skyline at night.

Something to smile about?

Something to smile about?

It was on the way home at around 9 or 10 p.m. that we stopped for an hour at a karaoke joint near the station at Kichijoji. It’s an all night karaoke place. While it’s more fun to go as a group, karaoke is guaranteed to be fun even with 2 people! We got a tiny booth that we squeezed into and they had a wide range of English songs to choose from. There’s always the classic Backstreet Boys and Celine Dion (That’s the way it is and My Heart Will go On)!

I love traveling with friends over traveling alone. I’m lucky that I get along well with most of my friends, and we always agree to disagree. Like for example, if can’t agree on what to do, we just go our different ways during the day and link up again in the evening. But with Vi, she let me be in charge of the itinerary and adjusted it as we went along.

Anyway, karaoke marked the end of an action-packed first day!

What happened the next day? Story for the next post.

 

 

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