8 Years in Japan: Highlights and Lowlights

This October marked 8 years since I first set foot in Japan. I remember that day clearly. I landed in Osaka at around 8pm in the night and took the express train to Kanazawa, transferring at Maibara. I remember thinking that Japan at appeared to be lifeless, everywhere I looked I was met with muted night lights and silence, not a soul to be seen outside. Of course, it didn’t help that this view was at night from the express train, traveling silently through the countryside. I got to Kanazawa Station a little after midnight. Back then, it was under construction and the beautiful gates were yet to be revealed. The signage was in English so it was easy to find the exit. I had booked a hotel near the station for the night because it was too late to check into the Morinosato dormitory that I was to stay in for the following six months. I was to check in the following day. I had printed out Google Map directions because I didn’t have wifi on my phone and free wifi wasn’t that common back then. Of course, I couldn’t figure out in which direction to walk – how do you find North in the night? Actually, I can’t even find North during the day and I’m so glad for the Google Maps feature that now shows a shadow in the direction you’re walking (anybody else know this feature?).

The flashlight guides you

Luckily, I stumbled into a couple by the station that walked me to the hotel. It was less than 5 minutes away from the station. Staff at the reception spoke English. They asked me if I wanted a non-smoking room and of course I said yes, but my room still smelled faintly of smoke. The following morning, I woke up ready to start my life in Japan. But first, I was looking forward to the buffet breakfast. Alas! It was all miso soup, fish, rice, barely boiled eggs, several condiments I was afraid to try.. there were some sorry-looking bread rolls in the corner that I had with coffee and got a taxi out of there. Suffice to say, I was not a fan of Japanese food back then but it has grown on me and now I love (most of) it.

When I tweeted about my 8th year anniversary, someone asked me about the highlights and lowlights of the past 8 years. I spent the first four and a half years in Ishikawa, and moved to Tokyo 3.5 years ago in April of 2019 where I currently live and work. Let’s start with the highlights.

The Highlights

Personal Growth

Moving to a new country where you don’t know the language, with a culture that’s almost a total opposite of where you come from, forces you to grow and find a place for yourself in this new culture without losing yourself. Your perspective changes a lot. You evolve to survive. I’m more resilient. More tolerant. More practical, less dreamy, which is unfortunate I think. It’s hard to elaborate this without writing a 2,000 word essay but I know many of you readers can relate. You don’t have to move countries to find you’ve grown as a person. I think it happens for most people when they get into their 30’s.

I’m just going to list some of the highlights with links, in no particular order, so this post doesn’t get too long. Also, I don’t have enough time to write it all out.

Achieving my Goal of Getting a PhD by 30

All while single-handedly taking care of J.

September 21, 2018

Snagging a Dream Job

I wanted to work in AI Research in a global company and I’m doing exactly that. Got that good job in Tokyo!

Traveling around Japan

I’ve travelled around Japan with so many of my friends – ski trips, trips to traditional Japanese villages, trips to onsen towns, a trip to Okinawa, etc. In particular, experiencing Tokyo, Fuji Q Highland, Hakone, Kyoto and Osaka, traveling by hired car, bus and bullet train with my best friend from way back, was quite the highlight.

Dressed in Kimono near Sumida River (not all the layers)

Traveling Around the World

In the past 8 years while living in Japan, I was able to visit South Korea (Busan and Seoul), Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur and Penang), France (Nice), New Zealand (Christchurch), Philippines (Cebu), Canada (Toronto), and the USA (Las Vegas, baby!)

Watching J Graduate From Daycare

I was happy Jeremy had fun at daycare (nursery school) in Ishikawa. It was quite sad that we had to move to Tokyo but there aren’t as many jobs in Ishikawa.

I had Lasik Surgery

So I no longer need glasses for my myopia. What myopia?

Having My Second Baby

And enjoying 14 months of paid maternity leave.

Meeting Eliud ‘The Goat” Kipchoge earlier this year.

Making Some Very Awesome Friends

I have met so many awesome people who have become very close and very good friends. This is both a highlight and a lowlight because most of my good friends have left or are leaving Japan. This is the hardest part of friendships, when friends have to move away.

There are so many more highlights, I’m sure I haven’t included all the important people, persons and events that have happened in my life these past 8 years. But I’ve always blogged a bit every year and I’m glad I can always look back and relive some of these highlights.

The Lowlights

J Getting Bullied Out of Japan

This was definitely my lowest moment in Japan. Learning that J was getting bullied in school was so painful. I had to take him out of that school immediately, then he got stuck in Kenya during covid. I am just glad that I was finally able to bring him back and found an affordable international school for him.

I always knew I wasn’t going to stay in Japan forever and when this happened, it started the countdown. I don’t know if we’ll make it to 10 years! But my tiny little family is currently in a good place and I just want to enjoy these moments.

A fairly recent pic

Saying bye to friends

I have made so many good friends from so many different countries, but many of them have left Japan and I don’t know if I’ll ever meet them again.

In the last 8 years, the distance has also affected the closeness of my Kenyan friendships. Definitely a low point of living away from home (Tokyo doesn’t feel like home really).

In the same vein, losing (to death) friends and family while away has been really hard.

Adjusting to the Loneliness that is living in Japan

I worry that I have changed so much and gotten used to the loneliness that is part and parcel of “living in Japan”, just never knowing your neighbours and even when you know their faces, never exchanging nothing more than a cursory hello, despite years of living next to each other. That lack of warmth from people, I miss it. Spontaneity. Laughter.

Disastrous Tinder Dates

LOL

But it’s a sad LOL. The dating game for foreign women in Japan sucks.

While there might be other lowlights, I choose not to dwell on them!

Here’s to another 8 years in Japan? Hope not!

Posted in Blog, Life in Japan, Motherhood | 2 Comments

Nail Update: I’m Healed!

It has taken 5 months, but finally the broken nail I blogged about here has healed. Please read that post for the information on when it became broken (over 25 years ago), how it got broken (door slam), why it stayed broken (fungal infection), which doctor I went to (dermatologist) and which medicine I took (Itrizole) for the 6th and final month now. I’m just sharing the progress pictures in this post.

Before the meds, early June 2022

About three weeks later

3 weeks later. June 28, 2022
Two months later, July 23 2022
About 3 months later, August 16 2022
4 months later, September 14 2022
4.5 months later, September 26 2022
More than 5 months later, October 11

It’s a medical miracle! I’m so happy!

Update

This is an update from the previous post about my friend with severe dental fluorosis who needed crowns. She wasn’t able to raise enough funds but luckily she was able to get a loan from her lab mates (she is a grad student in Japan) and traveled to a clinic Turkey where she was able to get snow white crowns and a beautiful smile. I’ve asked her to share her experience through a guest post and she is working on it right now. You’ll love to see it. So you better subscribe.

Posted in Blog, Life in Japan | 2 Comments

A Day in the Life of a Working Single Parent in Tokyo

This post is inspired by K, who runs the resourceful blog “Tiny Tot in Tokyo” and did a post about their day here, and also by Pippa, who wrote about her day in this post here.

In case you are new to the blog, I am raising two boys in Tokyo. J is 9 years old and is a 4th grader at a local international school, and K is 1 year old and goes to a government daycare. I work full time as an applied machine learning researcher to provide for them.

Morning Routine

On a typical day, my alarm goes off at 6:15am. Snoozing is not an option. I wake up and my first task is to make a lunch box (bento) for J, as their school provides lunch only on Thursdays. Deciding what to make was the hardest part, but now I make the same thing for each day of the week. Mondays are croquette-based bentos, Tuesdays I make sandwiches, Wednesdays gyoza-based, .. you get the idea.

If I’m lucky, I can finish making the bento before K wakes up. Before I got a TV, it was really hard to keep him away from the kitchen area while I made the bento, and I sometimes carried him on my back because he wanted to see and do everything I was doing. Now if he wakes up before 7, I let him watch TV for 20 minutes while I finish the bento prep.

Next, I wake J up a few minutes to 7, which is not easy. He is not a morning kid but hates being late. I give him breakfast – usually toast bread, eggs, sausages and a cup of milk. Other times, it will be rice with fish flakes, or corn flakes. Then I direct him to brush his teeth, wash his face and carry his school bag and water bottle. He’s usually out of the door by 7:20, 7:30am latest. He takes public transport to school and goes by himself.

Once J leaves, I turn my full attention to K. Usually, he wakes up by 7am but if he isn’t up by the time J leaves, I take this small window to make myself a cup of tea or coffee and catch up on social media or do Wordle if I am working from home. If I am going to the office, I get my lunch box and bag ready at this time. If he is already up, I turn off the TV, change his diaper and pajamas, and feed him breakfast.

Then I get K’s daycare bag ready – a change of clothes, diapers, socks and a pair of bibs. I write in his daily log what time he slept, ate, pooped, his mood and temperature that morning, and a little comment – for example – “he enjoyed eating salad last night”, “he loves the very hungry caterpillar book”, “he is very genky as usual”.

By 8, he is cleaned up and ready for daycare drop off. If I am going to the office, I will brush my teeth, change and get ready and leave with him by 8:15am latest (taking out the garbage at the same time, of course). After dropping him off at daycare, I can get to the office by 9am.

Since returning to work in May from maternity leave, I have been working from home and going to the office once or twice a month. I don’t mind going to the office for the change of scenery, but that is 2 hours lost to commuting each day (plus the extra energy).

Since I am working from home, I prefer dropping K off closer to 9am. So from 8:00 to 8:30, it’s playtime with him. We drive our toy cars, play with duplo blocks and read books. Sometimes I will clean up a bit. Getting K out of the door is easy, he loves going out. The best thing about the daycare is that it’s 2 minutes away from our apartment. By 9am I am back in the house (or at work) and at my desk, ready to start my work day, having already put in 3 hours of housework and child care!

Work Day: 9 to 5

In the first couple of months after resuming work, I was doing it all – housework, childcare, my job, grocery shopping, life planning – with no help whatsoever. It was overwhelming to say the least. From mid-July, I learned about the home helper program from my city and applied for it, and now someone comes thrice a week for two hours each time. They vacuum, wipe floors, do laundry, fold and put away clean clothes, do the dishes and sometimes cook. I’ll blog more about it later.

So in those first months, after dropping K off at daycare, I would rush to vacuum, do the laundry, dishes etc while checking work emails and planning my day. Now I can ignore it or do the minimum for half an hour or so – this would be my commuting time. (For the evening commuting hour – I do grocery shopping and prep for dinner.)

I wish my home office looked like this. It is so chaotic right now, I am actually working at the dining table instead.

My work varies depending on the project I am assigned. But there are a lot of meetings, and of course, a lot of Powerpoint slides. Sometimes I have to read research papers, reports and use cases. Other times, I have to write code to prove my idea, or build and test machine learning models using Jupyter Notebooks. Then make Powerpoint slides to report my results at the next meeting.

I am not going to lie, I experienced a lot of brain fog at the beginning of my return to the office, due to all the sleep deprivation and the physical labour involved in childcare. It is only recently that I feel more focused and alert.

This is my actual book corner and I wish the rest of the house was this tidy.

I take a lunch break from 12:00 – 13:00, but to be honest I am always eating throughout the day. I may do a quick grocery run to the Gyomu Super that’s just a couple of minutes away by bike. More often than not, lunch will be what’s left over from making J’s bento boxes.

J’s school ends at 3-3:20pm, and he usually gets home by 4pm. He’ll typically find me in meetings – have I complained enough about meetings? – and will quietly get the phone and start playing games. On Mondays and Thursdays, he’ll go to football and basketball practice, respectively. It’s so sad that I hardly ever get time to watch him play, due to meetings.

Generally, the work day ends at 5pm. But sometimes meetings spill over, past 6pm. I usually excuse myself at 5pm if I am at the office and 5:30pm if I am working from home. My team understands that I have young children.

Evening Routine

After work, I’ll pick Kai up from daycare and then start making dinner (sometimes I’ll buy some forgotten ingredients on the way back). I typically make something simple, like stir fry pork, Japanese beef curry, cream stew, Chinese stir-fried rice (chahan), chicken stew, grilled fish, and/or salad… to eat with rice. Sometimes I make pasta or yaki soba but there is always rice in the rice cooker. Last evening, for example, dinner was stir-fried pork, avocado, spinach and rice.

Since the home helpers start coming, it’s nice to come home to a tidy, clean house (that’s reduced to chaos in minutes).

We eat dinner between 6 and 7pm. Then J will get started on his homework while I give K his shower – and for efficiency – I will shower too. In colder months, we take baths after showering but in summer we make do with the shower only – Japanese people who take nightly baths must be horrified reading this.

After our shower, K will play while I do some cleaning up if he lets me. The helpers don’t come daily – just three times a week – so I still have to do housework the rest of the time. We might watch some Cocomelon while J takes his shower. Then around 8pm, I will put K to bed, or just before 9pm, if he had a long nap at daycare. I will also check my personal emails at this time, check any communication from the kids’ schools – always with the leaflets – and any snail mail that I got that day. I’ll also check my work laptop for any urgent messages (there are usually none but sometimes I needed to submit something by end of the day and I forgot) or send some emails (rarely) before shutting down my laptop. Rarely do I do any work at night after the kids sleep, but sometimes a solution will come to you and you want to try it out right away, you know?

By 9pm, the kids are usually asleep or in bed. Once in a while, I go to bed at 9pm too but most of the time, I will switch on Netflix and enjoy some me-time after putting on rice and cleaning some more. (By the way, do not watch Me Time on Netflix, it is a stupidly boring movie that I watched so you don’t have to. If you must watch a movie, I recommend Green Book and The Power of the Dog). It would be nice to read or blog at this time, but I am almost always too tired to use my brain. TV requires the least energy. Even the shows I watch don’t have complicated plots. I like good shows with still filming – like Better Call Saul, The Crown, Ozark- and small town dramas like Sweet Magnolias, Virgin River… but my favorite are fantasy shows like The Witcher.

I turn in at 11pm or later. I have no problems falling asleep. K will wake up 2-3 times a night, but a quick breastfeeding session puts him back to sleep. We have a loft bed in the bedroom, similar to but not as fancy-looking as the one below. J sleeps on the top bunk and K sleeps on the mattress below. I sleep on a separate futon in the room, but by morning either K is on my futon or I’m on his mattress.

Loft bed

Then the alarm goes off at 6:15am and we do it all over again.

Weekends

My alarm is set for 7:30am on weekends, but I usually wake up at whatever time K does. After cleaning up and breakfast, instead of going to daycare, we’ll go to the park or the pool or somewhere like the jidoukan (children’s hall) to play. If I’m feeling lazy, we’ll watch cartoons and just play in the house, but then in the afternoon we must go out – K gets cranky if he doesn’t get outside time.

J and K at the park

We usually come back from the park around 11-12 for lunch, followed by a nap for K while J plays video games or watches animations on Netflix. I will plan weekend meals, then plan the necessary grocery shopping, do laundry, vacuum, cook etc before we go out for afternoon play.

After coming back from afternoon play, the weekend evening routine is similar to the weekday one.

In Conclusion

My life is busy and I have no free time, but I am fulfilled and happy.

Would I be working right now if I didn’t have to? Of course not. I want to be a housewife/trust fund baby/heiress in my next life. I want to do what I like in the hours that the kids are away at school. Like taking walks, doing bicycle rides, going to the spa, writing at a coffee shop, meeting my friends for lunchtime cocktails, going jogging.. the list is long.

What does your typical day look like?

Posted in Blog, Life in Japan, Motherhood | Tagged | 5 Comments

Young Leaves

My apartment building used to be called “Young Leaves Heights” (č‹Ĩč‘‰ãƒã‚Īツ ). Many old and rundown apartments in Japan have fancy names like “Heights” and “Corpos”, “Maisons” and “Palaces”. My apartment building is pretty old too, but it got renovated inside and out, and made as new as could be. It got a fancy new name too, that I am not going to tell you, for obvious reasons. I was the first tenant to move into my unit after it had been renovated, and I am loving it so far.

Young Leaves

To say that it was easy to rent this apartment would be an understatement. Let me start at the beginning.

Last year in June, when I left for Kenya, I cancelled my then apartment’s lease and used my friend’s address to receive my mail. Her address also acted as my residence “on paper”. I used it for all the paperwork I had to do during maternity leave – so much paperwork – including applying for daycare.

In February, when I came back to Japan, I needed a place to crash while I re-settled and looked for a new place to rent. Luckily, my friend was out of the country and said I could use her place while I searched for a new apartment. I was pretty busy that month, just trying to establish a routine, preparing for daycare for K, preparing to go back to work in April, finding a school for Jeremy and applying for his certificate of eligibility so I could renew his (Jeremy’s) residency; all these in addition to looking for an apartment.

Her apartment was a spacious 1K – one room (1) and a separate space for a kitchen (K) – not bad for one person. It wasn’t too bad with the baby either, as we often went out to play and to run our very many errands. We’d come home to eat, shower, and sleep, then out again the following day.

It wasn’t long before trouble started.

One morning, there was a knock on the door. The apartment didn’t have an intercom so I just shouted, who’s there? I basically don’t open doors in Japan unless I know the person or it’s a delivery. Sure, Japan is safe but.

“It’s the management company.”

“What is it?” I asked through closed doors.

“We heard there’s a baby here. Are you living here with a baby? Your neighbours are complaining. Of course if there is a child there will be noise and it can’t be helped but you can’t have a baby in here. Please open the door.”

I was in shock. I refused to open the door.

I am not lying when I tell you that Kai is not a cry baby. He sleeps all night. Sure, he does feed frequently at night, but in his sleep. He makes a lot of (happy) baby noises once he wakes up, that’s true. Who would complain about that? The quiet lady next door or the couple upstairs? Regardless, I needed to find a new apartment sooner than later, but this did not bode well with me.

A few days later, on a Saturday afternoon, a couple of friends who lived nearby brought me lunch and as we were talking, in normal voices (none of us naturally loud), we heard another knock. Again, the lady from management company. She said our voices were too loud, that the neighbours were getting disturbed. Could we keep it down?

It was like 4pm in the afternoon. We were not playing music. No TV. Just three people having a conversation. Clearly, someone hated me and my baby’s presence in that building, and seeing my friends over was driving them crazy. The person had even moved my friend’s bike out of the compound onto the side of the road.

The next time I was at the station, I saw a Hebel Haus agent right in front of me and I walked in and asked them if they were also listing apartments for rent. The man at the desk didn’t seem too interested in having me as a client. Instead, he just had me fill a form with information on what I was looking for and said he would email me some options. I never heard from him.

When I didn’t get any emails, I turned to suumo.co.jp, hoping to find a foreigner-friendly agent. UR Housing are foreigner-friendly, I have heard, but there were no UR apartments in my target radius.

I was looking for

  • a 2/3 DK/LDK “mansion”, here meaning a stone, higher quality apartment and not a wooden apartment, called apato
  • kid-friendly
  • ground floor (I don’t need complaints from downstairs neighbours, thank you very much)
  • walking distance to the daycare as I don’t have a mama chari
  • accessible to the school I found for J
  • I was willing to take a bus to the station – with the pandemic we are mostly working from home so nearness to the station wasn’t a priority. Besides, my employer covers transport allowance, including bus fare.
  • near supermarkets and other amenities
  • within my budget

I found a few places of interest and sent inquiries. The places listed on suumo are handled by different agents. I soon got calls from three agents, and I ended up finding this Young Leaves apartment with the first guy who called me. The others wanted to know what my job was, how much was my income, what my nationality was, etc, this was even before I could finish saying moshi moshi (hello).

Let’s call the first agent E-san. E-san was very kind and helpful, and makes up for all the slimy real estate agents out here, and there are many. He asked me if it was possible to go in person the following day. When I arrived, he confirmed with me again what I was looking for, showed me a list of several potential places, gave me detailed advice on which places to pick and, did not do the sucking in of teeth – sssss – when I said I was a single parent. It is hard enough renting a place as a foreigner and a black African at that, hard enough as a woman, let alone as a single parent. It helped that I have a job with a reputable Japanese company and I speak Japanese, but I could tell the odds were certainly not in my favour.

This is not my apartment! This is just a photo of a 2LDK mansion that I got from here https://tokyo-furnished.com/accommodation/2ldk-on-yamanote-ikebukuro/

Since I needed to move out ASAP, we narrowed it down to two places, and we immediately went to see them.

The first apartment we saw was 3 LDK. It was an apato, but of very high quality. It had double glazed windows, the living room had heated flooring (yukadanbo) and it had a spacious patio where the kids could play or we where could even have a BBQ. The patio faced a little forest, so it offered privacy. It was in a nice, quiet place, surrounded by equally beautiful houses, and had plenty of parking space for bicycles. There was also space for a car. However, it was slightly expensive and had steep move-in costs (close to half a million yen. You need an upfront amount 3-5x the rent when moving in the first time ). It was a 7 minute walk from the bus stop, and a 15 min walk to the daycare (in bad weather could be hard) and the supermarket (with groceries, could be a long walk). E-san told me if I was going to stay in Japan for a long, long time, I should consider this apartment, as the kids would easily have enough space while growing up, and the schools were not too far away.

The second apartment we looked at was the one I am living in now. A 2 LDK. It was gleaming in that post-renovation glow. Everything inside was, still is, new. The flooring is PVC. I would have preferred wooden like in my previous mansion, but I have kids anyway so it wasn’t a priority. The white PVC reflected the sunlight, flooding the whole apartment with light. Although it is summer now so I keep the curtains closed lest spontaneous combustion occurs! Two rooms (the living/dining and a bedroom) face South to a shared balcony, where Kai sometimes plays in an inflatable plastic pool. The bedroom, my bedroom, is currently my library and office.

The other room that faces North actually gets plenty of light too, especially in the evening. It’s a tatami room. I’ve made it the kids room, but I sleep there for now until the day Kai can regularly do all nighters, then I can move to my bedroom.

The kitchen window faces East and I take in the morning sun as I prepare breakfast for my kids. It has a preinstalled gas cooker and plenty of storage for pots and pans. There is hardly any counter space, but that’s Japan for you.

The toilet is new and automatically flushes when you stand up. Finally, a toilet whose buttons I can comfortably push to wash my bits. I can’t do that in public toilets. I once accidentally saw the nozzle in a public toilet – it didn’t retreat fast enough – and it was coated in slime. I can throw up just thinking about it. Self cleaning, na-uh.

This apartment had cheaper move in costs, over 350K, although it wasn’t as fancy as the first one. It also isn’t that well insulated, but it’s new and feels nice.

The best part is it fulfilled all my requirements, except the mansion part:

  • 2LDK – check
  • Kid-friendly – OK. It was the first thing I asked.
  • It’s on the ground floor, and at the corner. The building has only 4 units, so less people to deal with.
  • It is a 2 minutes’ walk to the daycare!!!!! This is the best part.
  • It’s a 4 minutes’ walk to the bus stop, which makes it accessible to J who takes the bus to school.
  • From the bus stop, it’s 7 minutes by bus to the station. This particular station is 2 stops away from my office.
  • It 4 minutes away from Sugi Drugstore, Gyomu Supermarket, 7-11, Lawson 100 Yen Store, and JP Post & Bank.
  • Under my budget by 4,000 Yen, and no key money was required.

Bonus

  • The recent renovation makes it feel very new
  • Free internet!!!! (It saved me a lot the pain of calling internet companies to install the internet)
  • 2 children’s parks 5 minutes away. One of the parks includes a huge ball park, so J has been enjoying it. If you walk a bit further in different directions, you will find 3 more little parks.
  • Our very own car park, paid of course, but I don’t need a car right now
  • Spacious bicycle parking
  • The neighbours are nice, I’ve met them. Not just the ones we share the building with, but I’ve been slowly getting to know the people living in the houses around us and I feel good vibes from them.
  • It’s a 20 minutes walk to the station. Saving the walk for those beautiful spring/autumn days.

So back to the day of the showing. E-san told me to pick this apartment, as he thought that it would be harder for me to get the first one (he didn’t have to say that it’s due to my foreignness and singleparenthoodness). But we would submit applications for both places, just in case. We want back to the office and filled in several forms.

Then I went home to the shitty apartment with the crappy neighbours to wait. The situation was getting worse. Now that I am writing about it, I am realizing how hard it is for me to relive those brief memories. There were two more incidents, and I felt very unsafe. The man who was living upstairs one day came to my door during the day and knocked. He said I was being noisy, which I wasn’t, and anyway it was during the day. I told him to fuck off and that I was going to call the police if he didn’t. He called the management company, who came and again and told me to consider moving out.

I was afraid the man upstairs was crazy and was concerned for Kai’s safety. The man clearly hated children, and the management company had decided to side with him, even before talking to me to find out what was going on, why there was a child in a previously single-person apartment. It was so stressful, I had to check that the outside was safe before any time I wanted to get out of the apartment. I called my friend to come stay with me for the following couple of days. The friend who had rented the apartment was still out of the country, and she had no plans of returning soon.

Meanwhile, E-san called me with the results of my application. He said I had passed the credit check or whatever it is the guarantor company checks for. But the landlord had some concerns. He had never rented to a foreigner before. He was a little worried. He wanted someone Japanese who worked at my company to be a co-guarantor, even though I was going to pay fees to use the services of a guarantor company. In lieu of a boss/co-worker, the landlord was willing to consider my ex-husband. It was assumed I was divorced. I spoke to Kai’s father and he agree to be the co-guarantor. E-san said the landlord was okay with that, but he still had a few questions, like I had said that I came to Japan in 2014, but I started at my company in 2019, what did I in that 5 year gap? These questions would make my blood boil but I needed the apartment more than the landlord needed me as a tenant. E-san and I exchanged emails several times a day. I told them I did a PhD in information science in that period, although not many people in Japan seem to know what 博åĢŦčŠēįĻ‹ is. The landlord then finally said that the management company should meet me to see what kind of person I was, E-san emailed. He had talked me up, not to worry, but they just needed to “see my face”. So I made my way to the management company’s offices and they were pleasant enough. Signed more forms and they explained the contract and gave me the keys to the apartment on March 31st. The landlord was finally able to overcome his prejudice and he even threw in a one-day discount. I started paying rent from April 1st, instead of March 31st.

There was still some time before I could move. For two days in the old apartment, my friend slept on a spare futon and was a witness to the final incident by the crazy man upstairs. I had considered going to the police but I knew that the police are not very helpful in situations like this, where violence has not actually occurred. Being a foreigner, I knew they would question me a lot and may not even speak to the man. My best option was getting out of there ASAP. On that day, the man came to the door on Saturday morning at 10am, knocked and said yet again that we were being noisy. We told him we’d call the police. He went upstairs and banged things on the floor. Then he got on his scooter and left. That day, I left for Ishikawa and stayed there for a few days with my host parents, celebrated Kai’s birthday, then came back to Tokyo once the landlord had accepted my application.

My friend who had rented the apartment decided to cancel the lease on account of how horribly the management company had handled the case. She wasn’t sure when if ever she was coming back to Japan, so I had clear out her apartment and take over most of her furniture and appliances.

Now to execute the move. If you live in Japan, you know that the end of March/early April is PEAK moving season. I couldn’t afford to hire a moving company, but I have a driving license and decided to hire a Kei truck, only to find nothing was available from any rental company at the time.

That’s when I remembered that I follow Derek Wessman on twitter who has a Kei truck. He kindly lent me his truck. With the help of some friends from Zimbabwe, we moved 8 minutes away from that dark apartment, to Young Leaves Heights that’s full of flight. When Jeremy joined us at the end of April, we had already settled in.

I want to add that that experience of being harassed by the crazy man and the property management company siding with him, has not put a damper on how much I am enjoying being back in Tokyo. I love having both my kids with me, enjoying this new apartment and watching them have a lot of new experiences. I have loved getting back to work, ready to see what I will achieve in my career that’s only just beginning. I still feel generally safe but my door is always locked. I meet a lot of good and kind people each and every day. There will be assholes in each society, I don’t believe there’s a place that’s free of them. In Japan, I’m not afraid of everyday burglary, I’m afraid of being a specific target by some mentally unstable guy, and there are many of those around, like the lone gunman that shot Abe. (One moment he was so alive, and gone the next, while we all just watched it unravel in horror and shock, helpless to do anything. I felt so sad.)

Posted in Blog, Life in Japan | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

14 Months of Maternity Leave (and Childcare Leave)

From March 2021 to April 2022, I was able to enjoy 3 months of maternity leave plus 11 months of childcare leave, thanks to Japan’s generous leave policies (at least on paper). The reason I say “on paper” is because while the leave policies are generous, some people are not able to take leave due to financial reasons (more on this later) or harassment/responsibilities at work.

Below is Kai at 14 months old

In Japan, leave around babies is divided into two: maternity/paternity leave and childcare leave. All mothers who contribute to the national health insurance/pension scheme are entitled to paid maternity leave that can be taken 6 weeks before birth and 8 weeks after birth.  If the birth of the child is delayed, the days between the expected due date and the actual birth date also count as maternity leave period. You get 67% of your basic during maternity leave, although some employers may choose to pay you the full amount of your salary. However, you apply for this maternity allowance, which is paid in a lump sum, after you have completed your maternity leave, and it will finally be paid when the baby is 4-5 months old!

So first of all, you must be contributing to the national health insurance scheme (through your company or directly) and you must have enough money saved to survive at least 6 months without your pay. We’re talking rent, food, utilities, etc and new baby expenses.

Solution: maternity leave allowance should be paid monthly!

Childcare leave starts from the day after the maternity leave ends (i.e. 8 weeks after the birth date), to the day before the child reaches the age of 1. In my company’s case, you can take time off for childcare until the child is 3 years old, although you only get paid for the first year, unless you can prove that there is no daycare space available, in which case you can extend for another 6 months. Childcare is available to either the mother or the father (or both, but only one parent is paid). To receive any payment during childcare leave, you must have contributed to the labour insurance scheme for at least one year, and you must prove that you’ll go back to the company for at least a year after your leave is finished (in other words, your contract must be longer than a year after going back to work or you are a permanent employee). The pay is 67% of your base pay (no allowances, bonuses, etc) for 6 months, and 50% thereafter, with a maximum cap of about ïŋĨ287,000 (some employers may top up the amount). In my case, if I had to stay in Tokyo with all the rent and expenses, I wouldn’t have afforded to take off an entire year, as my monthly pay during childcare leave was only about ïŋĨ216,000.

For financial reasons, many couples cannot actually afford to take off an entire year of childcare leave. Having a cap on the childcare leave allowance also means that someone whose basic pay is high will lose a lot of their income during this period, which is quite discouraging.

The solution is to remove the maximum cap, and also to maintain the 67% throughout the period (why not 100% though).

Please note that the allowances during leave come from the insurance – health insurance and labour insurance. The employer does not bear this burden, unless they want to top up the amounts you are paid. I think this is a very good idea that should be adopted in other countries.

Going back to work after maternity leave is quite a challenge. With many people working long hours in Japan, new parents (especially women) who have to leave work at 5pm to pick their children from daycare, or who have to take days off several times a year due to childhood sickness, may face harassment at work. I am glad I do not work for such a company. In fact, we get an extra 5 days of leave to use when your child is sick, in addition to 24 days of paid annual leave.

(I haven’t touched on paternity leave during the first 8 weeks after the baby is born. I know men who take only one day off – although they may be entitled to 2 weeks – or 4 weeks from October, 2022. Here is a link I found about some changes to parental leave, including abolishing the requirement for a years’ service?.)

How Did I Spend my Leave?

After Kai was born, we spent two months in Tokyo and then flew home to Kenya and spent 8 months there. Kai was (is) the kind of baby who demanded continuous and engaged attention. I could not put him down for a second to even go to the bathroom. You would think I would get some reprieve during nap time, but he only took two 20 minute naps per day. When he was 6-7 months, he started demanding help to walk around. He never crawled and took his first steps when he was 9 months old.

Recently, I was chatting with an expectant friend. She said she was considering taking a year of maternity/childcare leave, and that she would find “something to do” during her leave. As if taking care of a baby (and a home) is not demanding enough.

I held my tongue. I too, had a list of projects that I had wanted to accomplish during leave, but it turns out that taking care of a new baby demanded my whole self, and at the end of the day I would be so drained I could only watch an episode of something light – Seinfeld – on Netflix before falling asleep, only to wake up several times at night to nurse the baby.

We would have someone come over to clean our house, do the laundry and help out with the cooking, but there was never really a nanny to help with Kai. He was wholly my (welcome) responsibility.

I was very lucky to have had a whole year plus an extra month to spend with my son, before passing him onto to other people to “raise him” during the week. It was also great spending time with Jeremy and my family.

After 7 years of living in Japan and only visiting for a few days, I thought that being in Kenya for an extended period of time would be the chance I needed to revive my friendships and pick up a social life. However, in reality, my friends – while remaining close – had of course developed several relationships and friendships along the way, of which I was not a part of. Remember that I was having a young baby to look after, which may be an isolating experience in modern Kenya as it is anywhere in the world. I met them once or twice, much less than I would have wanted to.

That is not to say I spent the whole time in my parents’ house in Nairobi’s suburbs. Just most of the time. I managed to visit my maternal grandmother in Kisii, the only surviving grandparent. I also took a trip down to Mombasa, and we even had a New Year’s Eve trip to Masai Mara as an extended family. I also managed to apply for and obtain Kai’s Kenyan passport (I’ll do a post soon, I promise).

The months passed by fast enough and I could have stayed longer in Kenya but I needed to get back to Tokyo to prepare for daycare and getting back to work – including looking for a new apartment (another post to come). I hadn’t maintained my previous lease (couldn’t afford to!). I wrote in detail about coming back to Tokyo here.

I was supposed to go back to work in April but I was able to extend leave for another month as Kai was also starting daycare in the same month. I wasn’t sure it would be paid, but luckily it was, as I was able to prove that Kai wasn’t enrolled in daycare on his 1st birthday (which was at the end of March). Even if it wouldn’t have been paid, I did need that extra month to help ease Kai into daycare (another blog post here?).

I went back to work in May, after the Golden Week holidays. It’s already been three months of balancing child care, house work and a full-time job. I plan to do a do a post on “a day in my life.” (Update, I did).

In early June, I received the last of my childcare leave payments. It was a bitter sweet moment. A reminder that a chapter of my life was closing, as I don’t plan on having any more children.

Posted in Blog, Motherhood | Tagged , | 12 Comments

Broken Fingernail

For more than 2 and a half decades, I have lived with a broken nail. I remember it being accidentally slammed between the hinges of my grandmother’s door. It must have hurt a lot but fortunately, I don’t remember the pain. I must have been around 7 or 8 years old. Since then, I have lived with the crooked fingernail. A new crooked nail would grow on top and fall off, only to be replaced by another crooked nail.

It is a small thing, really. It does not hurt. It’s just ugly, that’s it. It’s embarrassing to me when people see it, so over the years I’ve learned to hide it. When I finally started taking an interest in painting my nails, I’d get the nail artists to stick on a fake nail. No big deal.

My broken fingernail

There were times when I thought about getting it fixed. Perhaps I could ask the nail doctor to surgically remove the crooked nail, so a new one would grow in its place. But there was never a right time. It was never a priority. I couldn’t afford to waste time or resources on such a trivial thing.

Finally, this year a friend noticed the nail and asked me, why don’t you go the doctor. They can easily fix that. That’s an infection. I said, no way. It can’t be an infection. I do not feel any pain. It has never spread beyond the one nail. It must be dead nerves. Anyway, I began researching. What kind of doctor does one go to, to fix their broken nails? Who is the nail doctor?

FYI, it’s a dermatologist. That’s įšŪ膚į§‘ in Japanese.

I looked up the dermatologists in my area. I found one within cycling distance. I chose her because she appeared to be doing “face peeling” as well, so I thought I wouldn’t be embarrassed going there for such a minor thing when there lots of people suffering with severe skin problems. If she does chemical peels, I thought, she would understand vanity.

When I first went, the bad nail cover had just fallen off. She told me to grow it and go back for examination. I went back after two weeks and she looked under the microscope and declared a fungal infection.

Wait a minute. I have lived with this fungus in my nail for more than 25 years?

She advised anti-fungal meds that I have to take for more than 6 weeks. It does take quite a long time to grow out an entire nail.

Could it really have been this simple? All this time, I could have swallowed some tablets and grown a new nail.

I’m currently religiously taking the tablets and waiting. Patiently.

[Update: I’m healed!]

Speaking of things cosmetic, I have a friend who has severe dental fluorosis and she needs some dental work done so she can smile again. If you have discoloured teeth, you know how that can ruin your confidence. However, it’s very expensive to get crowns so she’s reaching it for your help (Just google to see how much it costs in Japan. Millions! So she’s hoping to do it in Turkey). Please consider donating.  https://gogetfunding.com/severe-teeth-damage-by-fluorosis-cant-get-job-cosmetic-dentistry-needed/

While nail infections are covered by the national health insurance (with the 30% co-pay), crowns/veneers are not covered, even if you have severe dental fluorosis. I think that should change.

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The Life Update Post You’ve Been Waiting For

It is May 2022. We are lucky to be alive in the pandemic. But, where to begin this life update?

Life update

First of all, if you had met me in late 2019, you would have that known I was looking for a way out of Japan because my son got bullied at a Japanese public elementary school. (Yes, my bosses at work are/were aware of my desire to leave Japan – not the company. I do like several aspects of my current job. Remind me to blog about that one day.) The memories of those dark days still evoke a visceral reaction in me. I don’t know if we have fully healed from that experience. It still causes me pain when I have to recall and talk about what happened. Then 2020 rolled around along with the pandemic and everything changed. My efforts and plans to leave Japan were put on hold and Jeremy ‘got stuck’ in Kenya under the care of my parents. Before you know it – 2 years of masks, travel bans, quarantine mandates, school closings and openings – have rolled on by.

In 2020, I decided to get pregnant with my second baby and would you believe it? He’s already one year old. One year and one month old. What about his dad, you ask? He’s very much present in the periphery of our lives. It was my decision not to get married. Not very conventional, I suppose. But for a very long time, I have known that I was never going to live the conventional life. Marriage does not particularly appeal to me. So here I am. 34 years old. Single parent. Mother to two lovely boys from two different fathers. Some may call me reckless. Brave. Stupid. Strong. “How do you do it?”. “Why did you do it?”. The answers don’t matter. What matters is my dedication to raising my boys. They’re at the center of every decision I make, big or small.

This is one of my favourite photos of the boys, taken in September 2021. J was 8 and Kai was 5 months old at the time.

I took one year of maternity leave – actually 14 months in total. I spent 8 of those months in Kenya with my family, trying to regroup and plan for life ahead. I was almost 100% sure I wasn’t coming back to Japan. I have already spent 7 years here; this is my 8th year. I have taken from and given enough to Japan. I feel like it’s time I sailed to new shores.

If you had met me last year when I gave away my beds, my television, my home appliances, my clothes (to recycling); you would have thought hm, Savvy is definitely saying sayonara to Japan. But fate seems to have other plans. When 2022 came about and none of my plans was falling into place, I found myself booking a flight back to Tokyo in early February.

Kai and I endured almost two weeks on the road – 5 days in transit purgatory with Ethiopian Airlines and 6 days of hotel quarantine once we landed – to get back to Tokyo. J’s residency had expired and he couldn’t come with us, even though he had packed his suitcase and said he wasn’t getting left behind. The first thing I did after the quarantine period was to apply for his certificate of eligibility so he could join us. Was it a wise idea to bring him back to Japan? I don’t know but what I do know is that it’s better for our little family unit to stay together. Wherever we go, we go together.

Of course, J can never go back to a Japanese public elementary school. Besides, he has forgotten all his Japanese. The teachers there are overworked – many routinely do over 80 hours of overtime per month – and therefore not very motivated to deal with any kind of bullying, among other reasons. Luckily, I found a small Christian international school for him called Calvary Chapel International Christian School. It is a very affordable school in Fuchu that I found out about it from a Facebook group of “mothers in West Tokyo”. This is not a sponsored link or an endorsement of the school. Anyway, it worked out quite well because I was able to get a new apartment cycling distance to the school, although he will be taking the bus for now.

The new apartment that I moved into in April is also 2 minutes away from Kai’s daycare, which is just the best thing about it. I fought hard to get into this apartment. The owner was reluctant to rent to a foreigner, even though my excellent credentials spoke for me. And by excellent credentials, I mean the fact that I work for Hitachi, one of Japan’s top class companies, according to everyone. He needed assurances by way of a Japanese co-guarantor even though I was already paying a guarantor company a percentage of the rent to do the guaranteeing. I wanted to give up on it – but it is near both J and K’s schools; it is walking/cycling distance to the station; it is on the ground floor; it has free internet, Gyoumu Super, 7-11 and a drug store are 5 minutes away; the apartment had just been “reformed” and is brand new inside and out, etc. In the end, I realized I needed the apartment more than the owner needed a renter and asked Kai’s dad to lend us his Japanese hanko. He comes by often to see us.

(Here, I pause to check on the sleeping kids after Kai just cried out. I’ve nursed him back to sleep. Is there any sight sweeter than that of sleeping children?)

I really have had a very busy couple of months since landing in Japan. I was busy looking for an apartment, then doing the actual moving from my friend’s apartment where we were staying for a while – the upstairs neighbour complained to the real estate agents about a crying child (WTF! Another story for another day), doing all the moving procedures – gas, water, electricity, internet contracts, change of address procedures, preparing for Kai’s daycare – which he joined in April, preparing for J’s school and his flight back to Japan, etc. I’m exhausted just listing it all out. I am so glad I was able to extend my maternity leave by a month. I was supposed to go back to work in April but I pushed it to May. I may even be able to get some pay for April because there weren’t any available spaces in the daycares before he turned one, which he did on March 25th. All these, while not sleeping enough. Kai still wakes up several times at night to breastfeed and mostly goes right back to sleep. For once I would love to have 5-6hrs of uninterrupted sleep. Just once. I’m living for the day he starts sleeping through the night.

Moving Day

In the past couple of months, we’ve celebrated Kai’s birthday, J’s birthday and my birthday. I was even coerced into hosting a birthday party – this is a story for another day. I really am too nice, don’t let my online persona fool you.

What is make-up?

Let’s not forget I managed to meet the LEGEND, the GOAT himself, the world’s greatest marathoner, Eliud Kipchoge, when he came to run the Tokyo Marathon for the first time. Presenting the evidence.

Hey, I even managed to go for a couple of runs before life caught up with me. I’ll be back as soon as I find a schedule that works for me. I start work again on 6th May – of course, I forgot all my passwords – and my hands will be even fuller.

I think that we are all caught up now. I don’t know what the rest of the year holds in store for me but I am looking forward to it.

Posted in Blog, Life in Japan, Motherhood | Tagged , , | 11 Comments

Why I May Never Fly Ethiopian Airlines Again

(In these days of TikTok and Instagram reels and transient tweets, are there people who still read blogs? The original social media? Remember forums and chat groups? Ah, the golden days of the internet.)

I spent the latter half of 2021 on maternity leave in Kenya. By the end of January 2022, it was clear to me that I needed to return to Japan because my plans of leaving Japan forever had not materialized. Damn the pandemic. My maternity leave, which had started a month before Kai was born, will end on his 1st birthday (March 25th). So I am due back to work on April 1st. At the same time, he will be starting daycare. In order to prepare for this, I needed to be back in Tokyo by February. I have to participate in the daycare orientation, do a health checkup of the baby, and this and that. Taking into account the 6 days of hotel quarantine required at the time, plus 8 days at home, we would be free to move about by mid-Feb.

It was with this in mind that I began looking for flights from Nairobi to Tokyo. There aren’t many travellers along this route, so there have never been any direct flights. The best airlines to fly with are Emirates, Qatar, and Etihad. At the time of booking, Dubai had suspended flights from Nairobi because of fake negative covid certificates. Emirates was therefore out. Etihad had no flights available at all; I don’t know when they stopped this route. Qatar Airways had a 34hr flight and cost Ksh. 170,000 (approx US$1,500) one way. Ethiopian Airlines had a 16hr flight and cost Ksh 90,000 one way (approx US $800). I immediately booked a flight for 1st February and began shopping and mentally packing. (I have to mentally pack before I do the actual packing!)

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

A few days before my flight, I got an email that our (Kai and I) flight had been rescheduled to the 5th. I figured that they probably didn’t have enough passengers from Addis Ababa to Tokyo so they were consolidating flights. It makes sense in these pandemic times and I got a few extra days to spend with Jeremy and my parents in Nairobi. On the 5th, we got to the airport in time with as little luggage as possible. The luggage was two medium suitcases with my clothes, documents and some food items (ugali flour included, of course), one small suitcase with Kai’s clothes, and a baby stroller. For hand luggage, I had only one bag which had 24hrs’ worth of diapers, wipes, a change of clothes for Kai, his bottle and some food including two packets of instant cereal (Cerelac), a couple of small packets of milk, my laptop and our travel documents.

How did a 16-hour journey turn into a 5-day nightmare?

Trouble started when we had taxied out to the take-off runway at 6pm. The pause at the beginning of the runway before the rumble of engines gets louder and the plane accelerates turned into several minutes of waiting. We waited for 20 minutes or longer just sitting there on the tarmac until the captain announced that something technical was wrong, we had to go back to the terminal for them to check it out. That took two hours of us just sitting in the plane drinking water and juice, but luckily Kai was asleep.

However, those two hours were our connecting time. We arrived in Addis Ababa at 11pm, half an hour after the flight to Tokyo had taken off. They hadn’t waited for us.

It was chaotic at the airport as a lot of people had missed their connecting flights. A group of Arabs flying to Oman I think it was, were aggressively yelling at Ethiopian staff demanding to go home that very night. A Nairobi man was throwing F-bombs around. I was feeling superiorly calm at the time with a “this things happen” attitude and “could you please calm down” vibes. Hah! I was to lose it myself a few days later!

I walked to the desk and asked to cut the line, on account of a sleeping baby in my arms, and luckily everyone understood and let me through. The staff explained to me that they would put us up in a hotel that night and they were trying to reroute us through Dubai that Monday, which was the earliest time out. That meant spending Saturday night and all of Sunday in a hotel at the airline’s expense. The Nairobi man said he didn’t want to spend a night in no f**king hotel and said this delay was costing him a lot of money but in the end, we all rode in the same van to the said hotel.

The view from our room at Ambassador Hotel in Bole, Addis Ababa

The hotel room was okay and spacious enough for Kai to walk around. The TV was this old school low-resolution flat screen so we never watched it.

The following day was a Sunday, and we had been told that there were no flights that day to our destination. Even though I had requested for my checked-in luggage to be sent to the hotel, they never did so. I had to handwash our clothes in the bathroom sink but luckily the weather was sunny and the air very dry, so the clothes dried very fast. In the afternoon, we took a taxi to go buy diapers and some baby food from the supermarket and decided to do a short tour of the city while we were at it.

At the Lion of Judah Statue in Addis Ababa City, Ethiopia

Back at the hotel, I had the front desk call the airline and the guy I spoke with told me that yes, my ticket was confirmed. That morning when I had called, the lady had told me that she was still waiting to hear from Emirates, apparently, the flight might have been full. However, when I went online to book, I could see they were still selling tickets on that Monday 7th flight to Dubai , followed by a connecting flight to Narita Airport in Tokyo. So I was very glad that the man told me that our flight was confirmed.

Day 3: Monday 7th

We had breakfast, packed our one bag and took the 9am hotel van to the airport. We went to the ticket desk hoping to get our boarding passes. We were then to take covid tests because ours had already ‘expired’, having been done on the 4th in Nairibi. However, at the ticketing desk, all hell broke loose because they sent me to the supervisor, who asked me, “who told you to come to the airport?”

I was shocked.

“Excuse me! You guys told me I’m getting on the Emirates flight this afternoon.”

“But madam, your ticket is not confirmed.”

“What do you mean IT IS NOT CONFIRMED?”

“It shows right here that it is not confirmed. Emirates hasn’t confirmed this ticket.”

“BUT THE GUY I CALLED SAYS IT IS CONFIRMED.” I was starting to panic. I couldn’t believe I wasn’t getting on that flight. I’d already mentally checked out of Ethiopia.

“Which guy? What’s his name?”

How was I supposed to remember the name? It hadn’t even registered. It was the guy who had been answered the phone on Sunday afternoon. I was so angry. Why had the guy misinformed me? Was I supposed to just go back to the hotel and wait for whenever the mighty Emirates felt they could confirm the Ethiopian request?

I tweeted angrily that I will never fly Ethiopian again.

I showed them the online booking I had made on Emirates, but hadn’t paid, and asked if they could pay for it but they said no, they couldn’t. I considered paying for the flight and just forgetting Ethiopian Airlines, but it was already 11am and we wouldn’t have been able to do COVID tests and get the results in time for that flight.

Finally, feeling so defeated, I sat down like they told me and listened to them ask me if they could reroute me through Europe, as long as I had any transit visas. I don’t. They said they were looking for airlines all around the world where they could reroute me, as their next flight to Narita would be the following Saturday. They told me to wait around while they checked.

I went to the restaurant at the airport and had lunch there, while the waitress played with Kai. I found Ethiopians very friendly (yeah even the Ethiopian Airlines staff – even though the itself airline is nasty). They wanted to hold and play with Kai and I was just thinking um.. COVID anyone? But I also needed the break from constantly watching him. So I had lunch while the waitress chased Kai around; and the lady at the next table remarked, “It’s hard taking care of a baby, isn’t it?”. Yeah, you don’t know that half of it, I thought and nodded. But that’s a blog post for another day.

After lunch, I was back at the ticketing desk and they told me that they had found a flight to Narita via Bangkok. However, I needed to have my covid vaccine certificate, travel insurance worth US $50,000, and a negative covid cert in order to travel. Luckily, I’m vaccinated and could download the certificate from the portal. I also purchased travel insurance online for about $14. I’m not sure how legit that insurer was, but I was counting on making it through transit in one piece. Thai Airways confirmed me on the flight from Bangkok to Tokyo, finally! However, the flight would be at midnight on Tuesday (actually, early Wednesday morning).

We had to go back to the hotel for another night and day. My mother video called and lamented about Kai’s flat stomach. He’s losing weight, she said. He hadn’t eaten ugali in days. How can you survive without ugali? I assured her that his baby tummy was still there, it’s just the angle. It’s the angle mum.

Day 4: Tuesday 8th

We had the entire day free as we were to leave the hotel at 9pm. That morning, we went to do our COVID tests that the airline paid for. They sent us to the testing center, where they send their staff. After lunch, we decided to do another tour of the city. We visited the National Museum of Ethiopia. I never thought I could have fun at the museum but it was so interesting just seeing the history of early man, the skeletons of our possible ancestors, the tools they may have used, and a lot of the Ethiopian history on display. I felt pulled back in time. If I get the chance I’m definitely going back. Our taxi driver and guide carried Kai throughout so I could enjoy peering at the artefacts in peace. We saw Lucy. She is a very big deal!

Thus the day went by quickly and we were finally back at the airport for our flight. I asked about our luggage and was told we would find it in Narita. We met a very nice mother-daughter pair travelling back to Australia, and they helped me carry my bags in the airport, into the bus and up the stairs into the plane – my hand luggage had increased to two pieces.

That night, Kai slept on the seats (the plane was mostly empty) while I stayed up, keeping watch lest he fell. He’s now rolling over a lot in his sleep and airplane seats are nothing if not narrow.

Day 5: Wednesday 9th. Bangkok Airport.

We arrived at around noon Bangkok time, and had 8 hours until our next flight! That airport is huge. We walked around and got our bearings. We had breakfast. We checked the information desk. Kai took a nap. We had lunch at the Japanese restaurant where another kind Australian paid for our meal as he was leaving. I live-tweeted everything. We went to the Oman lounge where we paid about $65 for 3 hours. Took a shower. Ate some food. Thought Kai would sleep but no, he played the entire 3hrs. The Oman Air lounge was really great: great food, the best of fruits and desserts, bottomless drinks, kind hosts, nice atmosphere. We left at 10pm to go get our boarding passes at the gate. We had to walk for 20 minutes to get to our gate.

Drinks at the Oman Lounge. Too bad I’m not drinking at the moment, what with the breastfeeding and all.

At the gate, the Thai Airways staff checked our luggage tags and told us they will find the bags. I didn’t think much of it. We boarded and went straight to sleep, me half-sleeping upright with one hand feeling for Kai in case he turned over and fell.

When we woke up, the sun was grazing the horizon on the sea of clouds. It was beautiful. The magic of flight.

For me, this is probably the best part of flying.

Day 6, Thursday 10th: Narita Airport, but where is our luggage?

5 days later than the original planned date, we finally landed at Narita on a rainy morning. It is weird times now with the airport looking like a scene from a pandemic movie. Many parts of the airport were shut off. We were received by a Thai Airways (or was it Narita Airport) staff, who got me a baby stroller with space for hand luaggage. I filled out all the forms. We did the covid tests. I downloaded and installed the required quarantine apps. While we waited for the results, the staff informed me that NONE of my checked-in luggage had arrived. They had no idea where it was and they were in the process of tracing it. They would send it to me at the quarantine hotel or to my home address as soon as they found it.

I took it in stride. This was a typical end to this journey. I tweeted again that I will never fly Ethiopian Airlines.

In the end, they found that the luggage had been rerouted through Dubai. So Emirates took our luggage but not us?

One suitcase arrived dented and with a pair of wheels missing. I have been trying to contact Ethiopian Airlines for a replacement to no avail. I’ve called their line at Narita Airport several times but it goes unanswered.

Somehow, we managed to spend 6 days at a small hotel room in Tokyo. I shall blog about that later.

Finally, almost two weeks after we left home, we checked into our tiny apartment in Tokyo.

Will I ever fly Ethiopian again? If you are keen you will have noticed that the title of this blog post has the word “may” in it. That’s because I have accumulated enough mileage from my previous trips with Ethiopian Airlines to warrant a free flight someday. I’m probably sadist enough to one day fly with them again, but never I’m traveling with a baby.

Update:

I called the baggage handling contact again, knowing that there should be a flight arriving today (Sunday). The man I spoke to was rather rude, I thought, but that is besides the point. He said that they don’t pay for any damage to the outside of the suitcase. As long as the contents of the suitcase arrived intact, there was nothing they could do for me.

Posted in Blog, Japan, Travel | Tagged , | 9 Comments

Getting a Japanese Passport for Your Child (Foreign Unmarried Mother)

Did you know that it’s very easy for your child to become stateless?

It used to be that if a non-Japanese woman gave birth in Japan, if they were not married to a Japanese person at the time, their child could not receive Japanese citizenship. 

If that woman were Kenyan (before 2003) or a citizen of some other country that also discriminates(d) against women, where women could not/cannot bestow citizenship upon their children, then the child effectively became stateless.

Fortunately, that has changed. In Japan, children born to unwed foreign mothers can get citizenship upon birth, provided the Japanese father acknowledges paternity before the baby is born.

As of 2003, Kenya reformed the law to allow women to confer nationality to their children on the same basis as men.

Hurray! From statelessness to dual citizenship!

The Japanese passport is one of the most powerful passports in the world.

Acquiring Japanese nationality

However, if you are unaware of the paperwork involved in acquiring nationality for your child, your child could still end up stateless. The number of children who are stateless in Japan is actually increasing.

Furthermore, everything is at the discretion of the father. Whether he acknowledges the baby or not is up to him. The mother’s word is ‘useless’. The constitution doesn’t even mention DNA testing or any other means of compelling a father to acknowledge paternity.

So if you plan to get a baby with a Japanese man, but can’t or won’t get married, be sure to discuss this acknowledgement issue.

When I was pregnant, I Googled about and researched on how to actually do this “acknowledgement”. Do we just write it on a piece of paper? Where do we hand in the said piece of paper? Is it a word of mouth thing? Do we need a lawyer?

This post is here to answer such questions, even though this is for a niche audience. (The proportion of children born out of wedlock in Japan is still very low, 2.2% in 2011. By comparison, in the United States, about 41% of children were born out of wedlock in 2011. The figure is around 70% in Iceland. Yes, only about 30% of children were born in wedlock in Iceland in 2017. But I digress.)

Local City Hall

The acknowledgement is done by filing a one-pager čƒŽå…čŠįŸĨ åąŠ “Meiji Ninchi Todoke” at the local city hall where you’ve registered your pregnancy. (I think it can be done at any other city halls, just inquire there). If you are not in Japan, inquire at the Japanese embassy in your country of residence.

The čƒŽå…čŠįŸĨ åąŠ is a simple form to fill: the father and mother both write their names, dates of birth, addresses, occupation, and koseki, where applicable. The staff at my local city hall were very helpful. I know I gave them a headache every time I showed up, as they had to pull up the manual or reference book (literally) to find the relevant information for my unique case.

In addition to the form, the father has to show a photo ID that has his current address, such as a valid DL. The mother (you) has to provide a valid passport and a singlehood certificate (į‹ŽčšŦčĻžæ˜Žæ›ļ). A what? You ask. If one is Japanese, one can easily obtain a certificate confirming that their singlehood/unpartnered status.

This is where it got interesting.

As a Kenyan, we have no such document. The nearest such document is a “certificate of no impediment to marriage”, which one applies for when they intend to get married. You have to avail all the relevant documents to the registrar of marriages at the department of justice. But we had no intentions of getting married.

The city hall staff mulled over the issue, consulted our embassy, researched their manuals and called me with a solution.

A sworn affidavit would be acceptable.

The affidavit had to be obtained by swearing in front of a lawyer registered as a notary public in Kenya. Luckily, I was going to Kenya last year November, so I was able to obtain the affidavit swearing that “I am single and having never been married or entered into a relationship that can be presumed to be a marriage”.

I handed the affidavit and accompanying documents, and their translations (Google Translate was acceptable, they said) to my local city hall and that was it! Now all we had to do was to wait for the baby to be born safely.

If you are not single or officially divorced for more than 300 days, your child will be presumed to belong to your husband or ex-husband (See page 2 of this article). It doesn’t matter what the DNA says.

Birth Notification at City Hall Within 14 Days

I’m grateful that my baby was born safely, and once out of the hospital, I had about 5 days left to file the birth notification at city hall.

When you fill in the 凚į”ŸåąŠ (shussei todoke) that you will be given by the hospital, there is a space where you write that this is the child who was “acknowledged”. Again, the city hall staff were very helpful, even writing for me the exact words so that all I needed to do was to just copy what was written for me.

I could choose a first name for my child and any surname I wanted. Japanese nationals have no middle names, so for the surname, we registered a combination of his father’s surname and mine. It makes for very awkward optics: a katakana/Kanji surname with no spaces, but I believed it was necessary so that I could always prove relation since my surname was part of my child’s. If he grows up and decides to live in Japan, he can legally change his name in Japan to drop my katakana surname. I know it will make thing so much easier for him.

Finally, my baby was a registered Japanese national.

In such cases as my baby’s, they create a new family register for the baby alone. Poor thing is in a family register all by himself. However, there is a note in his father’s koseki register acknowledging him. (This also means that the child is entitled to equal inheritance rights as any other children of the father.)

Getting a Japanese Passport

Once your child has a koseki (family register), then getting a passport is very easy. All you need is:

  • An official copy of your child’s koseki (family register) from your ward or city office. Ask for the koseki tohon æˆļįąčŽ„朎
  • Your residence card
  • National Health Insurance Card. I have company insurance, rather than the national insurance card. So for a second ID, they just used my Japanese driver’s license. My child’s insurance card wasn’t out yet, but luckily it wasn’t a necessary requirement at his age. He was 2 months at the time of application.
  • A passport-sized (45x35mm) photo of your child. The best way to get a photo is place your child on a white sheet in your home and take pictures while standing above the child. Eyes must be open in the photo. The chin line must be visible. I had to retake the photos because my baby’s chin was obscured by what he was wearing. Newborns have no neck, as you will notice! Then I went to a nearby Family Mart to print them out.
  • Proof of the spelling of your child’s name in English on a birth certificate, child’s insurance card or foreign passport. I did not have this, as we didn’t have any other passport at the time of application. Remember how you can’t have middle names in the koseki? Well, for the Romaji names of the passport, you can have a middle name. I chose to have the father’s surname as the middle name, and my surname to be the last name. So that my child’s passport and mine would have the same last names, again making it easier to prove we are related. Less questions asked when traveling
  • Your child. The child must be present when you apply. However, not necessary when picking up the passport.

If you live in Tokyo, there are passport offices in Shinjuku, Yurakucho, Ikebukuro and Tachikawa. As we live in West Tokyo, we figured Tachikawa would be better as it was easily accessible via the Chuo Line and would have fewer people. When we got there, there were only about 2 or 3 other people. I guess with Covid-19, very few people are applying for or renewing passports.

I told them I needed the passport rather urgently, as I needed to travel soon. (To get help from my family in Kenya; looking after a newborn is no joke.)

One week later, we went and picked the Japanese passport, and that is what we used to travel to Kenya.

Please Note:

  • If you are wondering why we got a blue instead of a red passport, check out this interesting link on the various types of Japanese passports.
  • If you are interested in how the koseki and family registration works in Japan, check out this link.
  • It is very important that the paternity acknowledgement is done before birth. If it is done after birth, the process of obtaining citizenship becomes long and complicated. I haven’t researched on that but there is information on the internet. Check out this link to get started.

Next, I’ll blog about getting a Kenyan passport for your child born abroad. Don’t miss it, be sure to subscribe for updates.

Posted in Blog, Life in Japan, Motherhood | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

How Did You Manage? Crossing Continents With a 2-Month-Old.

(This post should have been up two months ago. I’ve been trying to make sure this draft sees the light of day and here we are, finally.)

In the bathroom at Dubai International Airport, where I transited on my way from Tokyo to Nairobi.

“Madam, how are you going to manage?” Inquired the Indian lady at the preflight desk at Dubai International Airport.

I was standing before the desk holding my sleeping 2-month-old baby in a sling-carrier in my arms while attempting to push a small luggage cart piled high with my hand luggage. The said luggage consisted of 2 full backpacks, a baby-sized ‘sleeping bag’, my jacket and a baby blanket. I could feel the eyes of the other passengers on me, wondering the same thing. How was I going to navigate to my seat with all that luggage and a baby?

“And it’s so heavy,” she grumbled as she helped me move my luggage to the seating area behind the counter, the area just before boarding. “I’m helping you now but I don’t know how you will manage.”

The bag she was talking about was only 7Kg, the hand luggage limit. I wondered when Emirates staff had become so brusque. In fact, I noticed fallen standards at the Dubai Airport; staff were rude, and it wasn’t so clean. The terminal was crowded and noisy; they had probably moved all the transit flights into one area. I remember eventually having to tell off some Asian guy playing loud hip hop on his portable speaker to turn it down so my baby could catch some sleep. Why the hell do people do that? Nobody wants to listen to your noise. Use headphones.

Back to the Emirates staff, I chose to say nothing. In fact, there was nothing to say. In my defence, I had packed up an entire apartment into 2 medium-sized suitcases and the said hand luggage. My luggage literally couldn’t have been any less.

Well, I managed just fine, thanks to the help of a fellow passenger. When it was time to board the plane, I looked around for someone I could ask for help and settled on a tall man whom I guessed wouldn’t complain about the said 7Kg bag. The Senegalese man was kind enough to walk me all the way to my seat and where he handed my bags to the cabin attendant, who then stowed them away in the overhead cabins.

It was also thanks to the help of another tall man, a Russian at that time, that I was able to go through the security check upon landing at Dubai Airport for my transit flight to Nairobi. I hate that we have to go through security checks during transit. I remember a time when there weren’t such checks.

I could finally breathe a sigh of relief when we arrived at JKIA in Nairobi. I told the airport staff I had a baby and plenty of hand luggage, and they told me not to worry, they’d call someone to take care of me. Shortly after, one of the airport staff came and took all my hand luggage (without complaining) and led me through all the checks (covid, immigration, customs), cutting to the front of the queue each time. He even waited until all my checked-in baggage had come through the carousel, loaded it on a cart and wheeled it outside to where my brother was waiting to take me home. I left him a generous tip.

The flight itself wasn’t that bad. K wasn’t that fussy, but he never completely settled. He could only sleep in my arms and he’d scream whenever I put him down in the bassinet provided. So it was with aching arms that I arrived in Nairobi.

Do you mean to put me down in a bassinet? Never.

And that’s how I managed.

Survival Tips for Traveling With an Infant

  • Carry minimal hand luggage, just the baby’s things really. One light backpack should do it. I didn’t do this and it was hectic.
  • Exclusively breastfeed 🙂 This helped me as I didn’t have to worry about mixing formula and cleaning bottles. An option if you’re not breastfeeding is to carry premixed formula and then ask for hot water to warm the bottles.
  • Lightweight baby carrier, such a sling, is very helpful. You need your hands free a lot of the time.
  • I saw some people get on board with these really compact baby strollers that can be folded to fit in the overhead cabins. Might need that if the baby is a little older.
  • Shortest flight is best, regardless of the cost. Qatar and Ethiopian Airways had cheaper but much longer flights. When traveling with a baby, the shortest flight is the best.
  • The Emirates flight attendants were really kind. If you need to go to the bathroom, or to stretch your legs for just a second, feel free to ping the attendants to hold your baby for you.
Posted in Blog, Travel | Tagged , , | 7 Comments