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.

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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.

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.

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Reunited at last! Jeremy spent 3 weeks of his summer break back in Ishikawa where we were living. We were hosted by our Japanese parents, the Nishikawas ❤️❤️❤️ ありがとう❤️ね。 He enjoyed it so much, playing with his nursery school friends that he didn't want to come back to Tokyo just yet so after my one week holiday was over, I left him behind. So he flew by himself this evening from Komatsu Airport to Haneda in Tokyo. (Junior Pilot Service, of course he had the airline look after him). I left work and arrived just in time to pick him up. Next week, it's #backtoschool for his second term of first grade. #Tokyoliving #Tokyolife

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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.

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Enjoying the Zen Garden at Mimeguri Shrine

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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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To the Beach House

This is post 4/21 of the 21 day blogging challenge. That’s 21 posts in 21 days. I guess it doesn’t have to be one per day because this is my 4th today!

Read part 1 and part 2 of this story here.

Unrelated: the title of this post reminds me of Virginia Woolf’s book, To The Lighthouse.

Toru and I planned to go to his beach house the following Sunday. However, that day was so rainy. We decided to make the drive either way.

Let me back up a bit. When Vi was here, we rented a car and enjoyed a slow drive to Hakone. Initially, we wanted to rent a nice car, like a BMW. Then put on nice outfits, great music, and “stan” our way to the ryokan we were staying at. Turns out the rental prices for nice cars was way out of our price range and we had to contend ourselves with a cute Vitz. With Vi on the passenger seat doing the navigation, we joined the Tokyoites escaping the city for a quiet weekend. We got lost a couple of times on the way and it was crazy backtracking and finding our way back. I totally blame the navigator (side eye to Vi).

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The garden at Yoshiike Onsen in Hakone, where we spent one night.

Okay back to the story. On the drive there and back, we observed so many cool cars. Sports cars. Convertibles. We were totally envious. Vi wanted to be a driver of one of such cars, while I wanted to be on the passenger side.

“You know you have to got to look the part if you want to sit on the passenger side of one of those cars.”

Right? I agreed.

No natural hair manenos. Must be a long flowing wig/weave. Sunglasses are compulsory. A dress in a bold colour. Fake nails. Six inch heels. You know what I am talking about?

So I called Vi to update her on the latest.We both agreed that Toru seemed like a guy to drive a nice car. This sent me into a panic as I have never in my whole life had fake nails. At least I had some nice boots I had bought recently at Harajuku. I sent Vi a photo of myself all dressed up for the drive and she texted back, “you look like a socialite.” Aww, when your girlfriend comes through with the right compliments.

Toru texted to say he was on his way to pick me up.

He pulled up in a really, really nice… family van!

I got into the passenger side and we slipped into easy conversation. He put on EDM music. On the way, we stopped by a coffee shop to get some drinks and snacks. We joined the highway and the views through the city were really nice.

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Tokyo Highway

Part of the way was a tunnel under the sea. Felt like a normal tunnel but it was cool knowing we were driving under the ocean. We stopped briefly at a convenience store once we got to Chiba and then drove the rest of the way though a rural-like setting.  We got to the beach apartment two and a half hours later.  It’s an apartment on the top floor with an amazing view of the ocean.

The weather remained stubbornly cloudy. We could hear and see the waves crashing against the beach. It was rough weather, there was no way we were going to venture to the beach.

We turned up the heating, ordered takeout and watched TV. It was the perfect weather for chilling indoors and getting to know each other.

He had taken some work related calls on the drive. The conversations went something like:

Shacho, something something in Japanese

Hai something something something. Upate me, okay. hai hai.

So I had been right. He was the owner of the company. He told me had started up his company at 32. Admirable. An entrepreneur in Japan when you can be a salary man for life! I will be 32 next year and I don’t think I have the courage to set up my own business yet.

I accused him of running a black company haha. His employees were calling him on a Sunday. He assured me his employees get up to a month off in a year. It’s actually him who’s always on the clock.

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The beach in Chiba.

It was already dark by the time we were driving back to Tokyo.

<< This is probably the end of this series. Yes, we are still dating. But I would like to keep this story private from now on.  It’s been a nice so far, and a great distraction from the recent troubles>>

 

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Dating a Japanese (not) Actor

This is post 3/21 of a 21 day blogging challenge.

It is a continuation of this post, so I suggest you read it first.

I was quick to recover from the disappointment of him not being the actor because here I was, having an expensive dinner with a well groomed, handsome man. His whole look was well put together, from the perfectly coiffed gelled hair; to the fitting, custom-made shirt clinging to his shoulders; to his manicured hands that had on clear nail polish.

The waiter came by to refill my drink. I was having a gin and tonic. Toru was having Oolong tea.

“You’re not drinking?” I asked.

“No, I have a bit of a cold so I’m taking a break tonight.”

The conversation went back and forth on various safe topics. Like the weather in Kenya. How he has never been to Africa. Why I came to Japan. An easy 20 minutes passed like this.

Then I decided to tell him the truth, about how I had thought he was the actor Toru Kazama and how excited me and my girlfriends had been.  Luckily, he’s got a great sense of humor so we laughed about it because we could see the Netflix money and fame fade before our very own eyes. The good looks stayed though. He agreed that it was a hell of a coincidence.

The conversation was getting more real. We talked about my job. I asked him what he does for a living and he said he works for a company that paints buildings. I squinted my eyes briefly in suspicion because no way someone working for a monthly salary affords custom made shirts, but I didn’t say anything.

I asked about why he got divorced and he told me how he’s now basically a single dad living with his youngest child, who’s 3 years old! I revealed to him that I too have a 6 year old child. We agreed that dating is hard when you’re a single parent. There is barely any free time and most people you will meet on dates would want to spend more time with you, and maybe travel with you. Which you can’t when your children are very young.

I think he feared the conversation was taking a solemn turn because he next asked, “what are your hobbies.”

I don’t like this question.

Until recently, I was a single parent doing my PhD student and raising my child alone. I haven’t had much time for hobbies.

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My hobbies are quite boring. I love reading. I love blogging. I love Netflix. I love going on a drive. Occasionally, I go on a hike with friends.

When Japanese people take a up a hobby, they dedicate hours to it and end up being very good in it.

“Oh. I just love reading. That’s it. What about you?”

I love surfing, he answered. How cool! In fact that’s why he’d gotten a cold. He’d gone surfing that past weekend. Who goes surfing in cold November!

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His other hobby is working out. I could tell he was buff beneath that shirt. He also loves going for drives.

“What are you doing this coming weekend?” he asked.

“Not sure yet, why?”

“I was thinking we could take a drive to the beach. I have a house overlooking the beach.”

Would I like to go for a drive to his beach house? Hell yeah!

“Would love to.”

We smiled in acknowledgement. The second date was set.

I excused myself to go to the bathroom. His eyes escorted me out of the room.

When I came back to my seat, I saw the liquid fire in his eyes. The attraction was mutual.

Three hours flew by. It was time to pay and leave. Savanna had advised me to carry cash and a credit card. Like duh girl, we pay our own way. I don’t usually show up for a date expecting to be paid for. Most times, we go Dutch. This time, he offered to pay. I graciously accepted.

While walking towards the station, he held my hand. In public. We were walking hand in hand in public!

This is a very big deal in Japan. People don’t show affection publicly.

A few years ago in Ishikawa, I went a date with this Japanese guy who didn’t want to be seen in public with me, so he took me to a roadside parking and bought me coffee from the vending machines.

So when Toru held my hand in public, it felt really good. It’s a brave gesture because he has shown he is willing to be different in what’s probably the most conformist society on Earth.

We kind of live in the same direction so we were taking the train together about halfway.

If you live in Japan, you know there is this game we play where you try to slip into a train on the platform just before doors close. It doesn’t matter if the next train is coming in 2 minutes. I think there’s an adrenaline rush knowing you barely just made it. There are always announcements warning us not to rush and to take the next train. ドアが閉まります。次の電車をご利用ください。

When we arrived on the platform, the train was full to the brim and doors were about to close. You know what we did.

We got in microseconds before the doors shut. We were so squeezed, bodies pressed close.

For once, I didn’t mind the crowded train. There were free no hand holds so we held onto each other for balance. I would have died from blushing if my colleagues saw me, I thought.

When he kissed me goodbye, I felt like I had melted away and become one with the stars in the sky.

(Continues here).

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Dating a Japanese Actor

This is blog 2/21 of the 21 day blogging challenge.

In November Vi, my friend from my undergraduate days in JKUAT, came to visit Japan. I took time off from work to show her around. To be honest, I also needed the time off due to recent events that I shall blog about later.

It is should not come as a surprise that we ended up exploring Shinjuku. For me, Shinjuku represents the heartbeat of Tokyo. The West Side of Shinjuku Station has the business side and the East Side, the entertainment. I love this city soaked in Neon lights.

Image from masterlu/Depositphotos.com

So one night there we were, drinking Strong Zero (a cheap, easy to drink cocktail, sold in cans) outside a convenience store in Kabukicho, having the classic tourist experience. The trash bin in front of the Family Mart was overflowing. Empty cans littered one corner of the street. This part of the city is so shockingly dirty. The rest of Japan is usually spotless. A lot of young men and women were milling about, they appeared to be in their early 20s. There are also a lot of black men standing outside clubs, appearing to promoters of some kind.  I wonder what visas are these guys on.

Anyway, some time later we made our way to an underground (literally and figuratively) club. We were listening to the music and talking with a few other tourists and locals when this Japanese guy walked up to us and struck up a conversation. He was a very good looking man who appeared to be in his late 30s or early 40s. We talked for a bit and exchanged phone numbers and he later left. We also left soon after, barely catching the last train.

The following day was mostly spent recovering from the after effects of Strong Zero and several cocktails. JKUAT trained us to handle our liquor, but age has been catching up with us haha. We were basically just lounging in the living room, watching Netflix and ordering fast food on Uber Eats. My favorite Japanese show is Midnight Diner. We were watching Season 1 Episode 8, featuring “Erectro Oki, a legendary adult film star and Fujiko shared a past, which they kept secret for a long time..”

That was when Vi casually mentioned that the actor portraying the porn star Oki in the show looked like the guy we had met the previous night.

I was like, wait a minute, could he.. could he really be? There was something really familiar about his look.

Allowing excitement to take a hold, I paused the episode.

The guy we met had told me his name is Toru.

There was only one way to find out. I Googled the episode and checked out the credits.

Guess the name of the actor???????

Toru Kazama! That’s 風間トオル in Japanese.

My heart immediately leaped out of my chest!

No f*cking way!

I had to put down my phone to compose myself before picking it up again to resume the investigation. “My Toru” had told me a few things about himself. He was from Kawasaki, divorced, loves surfing, and in his late 40’s (he doesn’t look as old though).

We looked up more information about Toru Kazama, to see if it was really our Toru.

Toru Kazama is from Kawasaki, is divorced and loves surfing! OMG! He has a really interesting life story and has starred in very many movies and TV shows.

Some things didn’t add up though, like the age. Kazama is 57 but our Toru had said he’s 47. Why would he lie about his age? Maybe he didn’t want to scare us off. Or maybe we misheard.

The coincidences were too many to ignore. Toru had given me his number, so I immediately decided to text him.

“Hi, it was nice meeting you yesterday. Let’s meet again soon.”

Waiting for a reply felt like forever. While we waited, we continued reading up on him. We were now on an FBI-like investigation. We looked up photographs including some of him as a young man. We read blogposts in Japanese using Google Translate. The phone’s notification sounds were but there was no reply from him yet. We rewound the episode and watched it closely, pausing to check the image on the screen against our vague memories of him in a darkly lit club. We got more and more convinced that he must be the one. A sound alerted me of an incoming text.

Image source: 風間トオル深夜食堂

“It was nice to meet you too. Let’s meet next week. Toru.”

No way! He had texted back. And signed off his name. Why do older people do that, signing off their names in text…

I texted back and we set up the date for the following week Monday.

I was going on a date with a Japanese actor!

I called my friend Savanna to let her know the good news. As my bff in Japan, she is entitled to an immediate update of all the news, good and bad, that happens in my life.

She was so happy and excited for me.

“Harriet… you’ve made it! Don’t forget us when you become famous!”

I promised her that I would give her regular updates of the date and that I will not forget her when I become famous. I promise not to forget the readers of this blog too.

That Saturday, he called me.

“Harietto-san,” he said, “I just wanted to know what you like to eat. Beef? Fish? Is it okay if we meet in Shinjuku?”

How considerate! I let him know I eat everything, but I am not fond of raw fish. He said he would reserve the restaurant.

Vi and I spent a considerable amount of time picking out my outfit, and deciding on what shoes to wear, what make up to put on, what perfume would be appropriate, etc.

I immediately called Savanna to give her a status update. She said she had looked him up, but she couldn’t understand why Japanese movie stars look so ordinary, like the guy next door! “I just hope he’s a nice guy,” she added. I didn’t agree with her about the ordinary looking part, but I also hoped that he’s a nice guy.

Sadly, Vi’s time in Japan had come to an end and she left for Kenya that Sunday. I saw her off at the station where she took a bus for Narita Airport.

When I left work that Monday, I went home, showered and changed, and took the train to Shinjuku.

He was already waiting in this fancy restaurant when I walked in, convinced I was meeting the actor.

I said hello and sat down opposite him. Still a very good looking man in front of my sober eyes and brighter restaurant lighting. But is he the actor? I felt like pulling out my phone and doing a face to face comparison. I settled instead on trying to answer the question by studying his face.

When he picked up his fork, I noticed there was a name stitched on the cuffs of his shirt.

“Toru-san. May I ask your surname?”

“Xskrhereewreir0932i3r0weksf”

You didn’t read that wrong. I have encrypted his name for privacy reasons.

It wasn’t the actor.

I was disappointed for one second.

Then I was like, let’s go back up to the cuffs.

“Wait a minute. You have your name stitched on the cuffs of your shirt?”

“Yes.”

“So a custom made shirt.”

“Yes.”

“Tell me more….” I took a sip of my drink and leaned forward.

How did the date end? Was there a second date? And other questions…  will not be getting answered hahaha.

 

Updated: I decided to do part two here.

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What It’s Like Working in Tokyo

I recently saw something online about a blogging challenge: 21 posts in 21 days. I thought I might try it to inspire me to start blogging again. I can’t promise 21 posts in 21 days, but I will try to blog as much as possible this month.

For those who don’t know, I am currently working as a researcher at Hitachi Central Research Laboratory in Tokyo. In the video below, if you look closely, you can see me at 1:06.

To tell you what it’s like to work in Tokyo, I’ll take you through my day this past Friday.

I had a team meeting (Skype) at 9am but due to some unavoidable circumstances, I wasn’t going to make it to the office by then. Luckily, I had brought my laptop home the previous evening so I let my mentor know that I would attend the meeting from home and then go to the office after. When the meeting was over, I took a bus to the station (15 minutes’ ride), then took the train for 12 minutes, then walked for another 15 minutes to my desk.

At this time of the morning, the buses and trains had a number of empty seats. When the train/bus is almost full but not quite, choosing where to sit can be so mentally taxing, that a lot of Japanese people choose to stand instead. The goal is minimize any contact whatsoever because in Japanese culture, you don’t ever want to disturb other people. You have to “read the air” to know when it’s okay to sit or not. I have found myself doing the same, because living here for 5 years has changed me. Unless I am tired and then I don’t care. Even then, when I sit down, I have to gather and shrink myself and my belongings in order to occupy as least space as possible. I have to maintain as big as a distance as I can from other human beings. When that’s physically impossible, I still have to pretend to shift a bit or lean away.

I finally arrived in the office at around 11:30, picked up a coffee from the Cafe on the ground floor  and took the stairs to our office floor. I turned my nameplate around to announce my presence, and headed to my desk to check and respond to emails and other messages on our collaboration tools.  I planned my task list for the day and set about checking it off.

I am working on cloud research so of course I come across Microsoft’s Azure often, as well as Google Cloud Computing and Amazon Web Services. But let’s talk more about Azure. How do you pronounce it? I wondered. When I googled, this video came up:

I thought it was pretty funny so I shared it in our team’s random channel. Yes, we are mostly focused on work but we do have a channel for sharing random stuff like this.

I got engrossed in my tasks soon after until I heard the 12:15 bell. Because there are so many researchers, our cafeteria cannot accommodate us all at once so we go to the cafeteria in shifts starting from 11:30. This term, our shift is at 12:15. Of course you can eat whenever you want but out of consideration for everyone else, it is best to go at the allocated time.

The 12:15 bell coincided with a Skype ping from my lunch partner Vivi. She’s an Italian coworker with whom I have been having lunch with recently. Sometimes I eat lunch with my team members or other colleagues who joined at the same time (Doryo in Japanese 同僚). Rarely do I sit alone.

After lunch, we went for a walk around the pond in the beautiful forest surrounding our building. The trees are red and golden and wistful. Check our more photos on Instagram. Follow me there as well, yeah?

After lunch, I had a brief meeting to introduce our project to a new colleague from Egypt who is joining our team. We joked about how I am a sempai so soon after joining (I entered Hitachi in April this year).

I went back to my desk but my mind seemed to have entered Friday afternoon mode. I couldn’t focus so I went to the kitchen and fixed a cup of tea. I chatted briefly with a colleague in the same department before sitting down at my desk and soon after, I was able to get a bit work done until the 5 p.m. bell went off. Normally, when Jeremy (my son) was here, I left at exactly 5 p.m. to be home by 6 p.m. Nowadays, I leave at around 6 or 7 p.m., depending ….

Last Friday though, I had a dance practice session. On one of the days  this week, there will be a small event in the evening where they have invited some musician who’s a djembe drummer. Djembe drums are originally from West Africa. The organizers thought it would be nice if they had some people dance along to the rhythm of the drum and asked me if I wanted to lead that initiative. They knew I loved dancing, not because I’m black in case you are wondering, but because I had volunteered for a similar activity in the summer. I quickly mobilized a Rwandese colleague who is here on internship. Together, we have formed a small dancing team comprising of various nationalities including Indian, Italian, Japanese, Rwandese, Ghanaian and of course Kenyan. We’ve only had 2 practice sessions so far and we are far from ready but we’re going to have fun and that’s the most important thing.

After the practice session, I returned to my desk to clear everything and retire for the weekend.

Recently, I have been eating in the cafeteria before going home because I don’t have the desire to cook for just myself. This past Friday however, I was  joining some of my workmates for a dinner party at one of the Izakayas. We were having a set dinner and an all-you-can-drink course (nomihodai 飲み放題) for two hours.

However, how the dinner went and what happened after is a story for another day 🙂

 

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Goodbye, Grandma

Last year around October, after I graduated from my PhD program, I went home to Kenya for a brief holiday of about two weeks. I visited both my grandmothers, on my mother’s side and on my father’s side, spending a night at each. I didn’t have time to stay longer.

When I visited my grandmother from my dad’s side, she was fascinated by Jeremy. She spoke Kisii and a bit of Swahili, languages Jeremy couldn’t understand. He spoke Japanese as his primary language and English as a secondary language (he understood both languages but was better at expressing himself in Japanese). So she just fed him and watched him run around with the twin calves that had been born recently.

My grandma then asked me, umepata bwana? (Have you found a husband). I laughed and told her, no, not yet but the search is ongoing. She then proceeded to catch me up on the latest in the village. It was hard to keep up because I don’t remember a lot of people from my childhood and it’s hard to keep track of everyone, with our ever expanding extended family.

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Birthplace

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The following morning when I woke up at 7:30am, she had already milked the cow, made breakfast, had breakfast and washed the dishes! That’s the kind of woman she was. Hardworking every single day. I remember a neighbour had passed away and we went to pay our respects, after which we came back and she proceeded to make us a delicious lunch. I feasted on avocados, knowing how much a precious commodity they are in Japan with a small one going for approximately Ksh. 150-200.

In the afternoon, she escorted Jeremy and I as we were heading to Kisii town to meet my younger brother. I said goodbye to her and she asked me to call more often.

Somehow a year has already passed.

Fast forward to late October 2019. For reasons to be blogged about later, I had to make a quick decision take Jeremy to Kenya to stay with my parents for a while.

At the time, my grandma was suffering from a second stroke she had suffered in a span of two months. When I took Jeremy to Kenya, I hadn’t taken much time off from work, and I was to return to Japan just four days later. Still, I knew I had to go see my grandma. So Jeremy and I landed at JKIA on a Saturday morning, and on Sunday we were on the road to Kisii.

When we arrived, my grandma recognized us right away. She hadn’t known I was coming and must have been shocked. She said my name “Nyanchama…”, looked at Jeremy, and tried to say something. Her speech was slurred and largely incomprehensible. It was hard to imagine this was the same grandmother that always woke up before sunrise and finished her chores, including farm-work on some days, while many people slept. She was frustrated because we couldn’t understand what she was trying to say, and a tear rolled down her face. My father loved his mother very much, and I could tell that he too was struggling to come to terms with his mother’s illness. My mother took a handkerchief out of her pocket and wiped my grandma’s face.

My grandma was always a jovial, talkative person. Stubborn and determined, she brought up her 7 children as a single parent. She fought against many who wanted the little piece of land on which she farmed to feed her family and raise school fees. Sometimes I think I take after her. Her brutal honesty (she was never one to mince her words), her determination, her hard work. (Except I haven’t figured out the early mornings yet. I’m still a night owl.) She never cared what people thought about her. She also couldn’t stand the pettiness of a lot of em.. church people so I didn’t see her go to church often.

She still took care of her youngest grandchildren until the time of her illness, as she had taken care of us when we were younger and our mother had gone off to college.

When she fell sick, my younger brother Samora, who is a doctor working in Kisii, was by default put in charge of her care. He is basically the only one who understood most what was going on in medical terms. What a heavy task on a 29 year old. He actually kept some of the devastating truth about the gravity of her condition from the rest of the family, including me. When I went back to Japan just a couple of days later, I had though that she was going to recover.

I think it was her first time to fly that following weekend. Samora drove my aunt and my grandmother to Nairobi, after which my aunt and grandma flew to Mombasa, where my aunt lives with her family. My grandma was to stay with my aunt in Mombasa and my aunt was to take care of her as she recovered. Ironically, her final journey will follow the same route: Flight to Nairobi followed a drive to Kisii.

Just last week, dad texted in the family whatsapp group that grandma was gone. She was 74 years old.

We’ve been trying to find pictures of her from our archives for the funeral program. Unfortunately, I will not be able to attend it even though I do want to be with my family right now. I guess that without knowing it, I must have said goodbye a few weeks ago.

Here are is a picture of my grandma at my master’s graduation ceremony 5 years ago. This is how I choose to remember: her sense of humour and vitality for life, as well as her steely determination.

Goodbye, grandma.

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