The Japan Diaries Part One: Getting Settled

Written by: Kendra Spring Klasek

Today, as I look out over our balcony, there is a haze over the mountains . . . as I have learned there so often is. Those green monoliths, blanketed by clouds, still somehow alien, call to something long dormant in me, the girl from flat Florida who wound up, through a bizarre and fated set of circumstances, living in flat Nebraska.

This is certainly not Nebraska, hell, it’s not even Florida. This is Japan. As I write this, we’ve been settled here two weeks. Settled is an interesting word. What it implies to most is that we moved all our stuff into our new apartment and are now living here. What it doesn’t imply are all the really important things; like my kid eating.

Let me start from the beginning. About a year and a half ago, my husband, Jordan, closed the business he’d owned since just after graduating from college. He’d been eager to help out a friend, but the business certainly wasn’t a passion project and while he gained a ton of practical business experience, what it truly proved to be for him was a cage, trapping him in Lincoln, Nebraska. Once the business was out of the picture, the world was an open door for him once again, not exactly as it was before . . . now there was business debt, plus me and our then one year old son, Anton. So, he applied to two different international scholarship programs. . . the JET program (Japanese Exchange Teaching) and the Fulbright Scholarship (for Germany, specifically). Both opportunities would be fantastic and he speaks both languages at least conversationally enough to make the transition easier on our family. In a stroke of fate which turned out to be widely in our favor considering the current political climate of Europe, we found out in early April of this year that we were headed to Japan.

I’ve had a bit of a nomadic recent past, beginning with a divorce in 2010 from my first husband in my home town of West Palm Beach, FL, leading to a brief sojourn in Cornwall, England, a contemplated (and even planned-for) move to London, relocation to Chicago for culinary school, where I met my husband who was there for the weekend and, finally, the move to Lincoln . . . not at all where I’d envisioned myself winding up. It may sound like I’m maligning Nebraska. I’m not. I’ve met amazing people there and experienced some of my greatest joys (including becoming a mother). That said, I’ve never been much afraid of change, so when I learned that we were going to be moving to Japan (just about as foreign a culture as I can imagine while still living in the first world) with a toddler, I was trepidatious but excited.

Flash forward 3 months and off we go on a grueling nearly week-long process of travel and dislocation. What started out with tremendous excitement spiraled into what I can only describe as a mounting primal fear as I witnessed my child slowly begin to starve himself. It started innocently enough before we left, though I knew in my gut something was wrong. The day before we left, I scheduled a doctor’s appointment for Anton, noticing increased irritability and a waning appetite. His throat hurt or he had an ear infection, I was absolutely certain. Unfortunately, I couldn’t be at the appointment myself and sent him off with my husband and father-in-law. His regular pediatrician was unavailable, so his appointment was with another doctor at the practice who’d seen Anton as a patient a small handful of times.

When Jordan and his dad cheerfully informed me that Anton had been given a clean bill of health, I was frustrated. I expressed as much at the time, though I now know it came off as “wanting there to be a problem so I could fix it” rather than “knowing there was a problem and needing to find a solution”. My husband was, in turn, frustrated with me, thinking my nerves about leaving were creating invisible monsters onto which I could pin my fears. In the end, I ignored my own intuition and chalked it up to Anton being two and a half.
The first leg of our journey was an overnight train ride from Lincoln to Denver, CO, where Jordan was to attend a pre-departure orientation and reception before we were to leave from Denver International Airport direct to Narita International Airport in Tokyo the following day.

Sunrise from the train in Colorado

A fellow JET participant’s mother-in-law volunteered to watch Anton so that I could attend the reception that evening and an enjoyable night out devolved quickly into disaster beginning with a monstrous migraine which sidelined my husband. This was partially my fault as, feeling the headache coming on about mid-day, he texted me, requesting I bring his Excedrin Migraine along when I met up with him to head to the reception. I agreed, but in the process of trying to find something Anton would eat as well as getting myself ready to go, I promptly forgot.

Upon arriving back at the hotel that night after departing early from the reception, I found an increasingly angry and ravenous child. I later translated his screaming to a friend as “I’m hungry and this is unfamiliar! I’M HUNGRY AND THIS IS UNFAMILIAR!!” At least, I thought, if he’s that hungry, he’ll eat. Nothing I tried would fly (not the squeezy packs with pureed sweet potatoes and apple he normally eats without fail and not the untouched cheese pizza I had ordered for him earlier in the day and stashed in the little refrigerator) so in desperation, I called down to the front desk to see if there was anything they could scrounge up from the breakfast bar that he might actually eat. I ended up with an armload of goldfish cracker snack bags, a couple of questionable bananas, a half-pint of milk and two cups of strawberry yogurt. The girl at the front desk (who had heard Anton wailing in the background on the phone) took pity on me and didn’t charge me anything for my huge haul. I thanked her profusely, blinking back tears at her blind understanding. She wasn’t a mom . . . she couldn’t really know what I was going through . . . with a bellowing child, escalating amounts of concern and a migraine-disabled husband whose head was buried under four pillows.

Back in the room, I strapped Anton into his stroller which was doubling for a high chair and went through the elimination process. The bananas (now obviously green in the superior light of the room) proved to be inedible, but we struck gold with the rest. He guzzled the milk, devoured a whole bag of goldfish crackers as well as both containers of yogurt and was successfully calmed enough to take a bath.

The following morning, armed with my “at least he’ll eat goldfish” knowledge, I cleaned out the hotel’s goldfish supply and tucked them into my carryons. Though Anton did drink milk and eat two containers of yogurt for breakfast before we left for the airport, there were clearly more signs of trouble. Despite pretty much every breakfast item imaginable readily available, Anton refused several of his tried and true staple foods. Namely, eggs, pancakes and a perfectly ripe banana.

I again pushed my fears aside and off we went with our rolling mountain of luggage . . . two suitcases and two carry-on items a piece for each of us. The sheer monumental task of transporting it all and the prospect of dealing with it in Tokyo was more daunting to me than the actual 11 hour flight with a toddler.

My hopes of Anton sleeping through the majority of the flight (as he had the train ride to Denver) proved to be a bit of a pipe-dream, but for the most part, he played happily in his seat or, alternatively, on my lap until about 3 hours prior to landing. He slept for 90 minutes and woke up screaming. I got him out of his seat and held him. He continued to scream. I got up with him and strolled up and down the aisles with him, still screaming. I stood with him in the relatively sound-proofed hallway between the aisles near the lavatories. His screaming continued and intensified. He rejected goldfish, water, milk, a banana, eggs and even strawberry yogurt. He grew angrier and more terrified and began to crawl all over me, desperate for the red squeeze packs he’d so recently rejected, combined with whatever else it was I was sure was plaguing him. When he began to do actual physical damage, Jordan switched out with me and I sat for a few minutes in my seat, trying to ignore the distant sounds of my son’s screaming while fighting back tears and avoiding the glances of the other passengers, whom I was certain were judging the hell out of me.

A few minutes later, a flight attendant fetched me from my seat to switch back and Anton continued his embedded caterwauling until we were forced back to our seats to prepare for landing. As I’m writing this, I note with relief that the multitude of scratches and bruises I received during that solid hour of screaming and struggling have finally faded. As soon as Jordan placed him back into his car-seat (a blessed thing of familiarity pilfered from our car back home) he fell back asleep. He proceeded to sleep through landing, deplaning (including transfer from his carseat into first his small stroller and then his larger jogging stroller), the fast-tracking we were treated to in immigration, getting our passports stamped and our residence cards printed, picking up the rest of our luggage and heading to customs, hauling all of our luggage outside to the bus depot and sorting out which bags were staying with us in Tokyo and which we were sending on ahead of us to the Board of Education in Hita. He finally came-to when we transferred him back into the first stroller so that we could send the big one on ahead to Hita. In short, he fell asleep on the plane and woke up a Japanese resident.

Anton perked up on the bus ride into the city, his gaze darting back and forth between the massive windows on either side of the aisle and demanding not only his own seat, but a separate seat for his stuffed Fox and Bunny. Far from the seething wall of humidity I had expected upon exiting the airport, it was quite pleasant in Tokyo our first evening and we were brimming with excitement. Weeks and weeks of planning and red tape, as well as circus-calibre hoop-jumping by Jordan had finally led us here and we had a wonderful oasis of buzzing joy on that bus ride.

We reached Jordan’s digs for the next 3 nights, the relatively palatial Keio Plaza Hotel in the heart of the Shinjuku district of Tokyo, and Anton and I waited with our luggage while Jordan sat through a brief welcome meeting and got checked into his room. It’s here that I want to stop and point out how wonderfully kind and generous the people of Japan are. They may go about it in a subdued fashion, but that should never been misinterpreted as coldness. Closed might be closer to the point, but they are still kind. A beautiful young hotel staffer stayed with Anton and me and kept us company, conversing in excellent English. When I told her that he already knew his hiragana and katakana, she was amazed. She asked him to read her name-tag and, while he got a couple of the characters correct, he stopped trying after the third, exhausted, cranky and hungry.

Jordan reappeared a bit later and we gathered up Anton’s and my luggage and headed out of the luxury hotel to take a short taxi ride to my more modest abode. Despite being quite small, it was clean and the staff was exceedingly polite. I let my concerns for his flagging appetite subside for a moment and basked in the temporary rush of relief of knowing we would be staying in one place for more than just a day.

Once we’d unloaded our suitcases, the three of us set out to find a grocery store. Jordan and I were hungry, of course . . . as we hadn’t eaten in almost a day, but our primary concern was finding something Anton would actually eat. It had been almost two days since he’d had a proper meal and before that, he’d only really had a bite or two at each meal time, if not skipping it altogether.

It was a beautiful evening, quiet, despite the fact that we were in a subdistrict of the largest city in the world, warm but not sweltering, and so intensely clean that seeing a single piece of litter in a gutter would’ve seemed as out of place as Queen Elizabeth II copping a squat on the parquet floor of Westminster Abbey.

We found a grocery store which appeared only slightly alien and found what looked like the fruit squeeze packs we were after, but loaded up yogurt and milk as well, just to be safe. For ourselves, we got a small bottle of sake and some pre-packaged sushi.

Back in my hotel room, we started in on the sushi and I popped open one of the squeeze packs and taste-tested it. Far from the pureed fruit he was used to, it turned out to be a jellied consistency I was sure he’d detest. We at least tried, but he wasn’t quite in the same spirit of exploration Jordan and I were. He reeled back from it as if we were trying to poison him. This was hardly unusual. This is the same kid who gagged on the taste of vanilla ice cream and scrunched up his face at the cake I’d made for his first birthday, spitting it back onto his tray with a look of infinite betrayal.

I defaulted to the yogurt. This, again, was rejected.
I looked at Jordan and could see my thoughts reflected on his face . . . We’ve gotta get some food in this kid, one way or another. Jordan held him in a vice grip and I force-fed our son strawberry yogurt while he cried and tried to flail. I’m not proud of those moments (particularly not the moment when I had to plug his nose to get his mouth open) but I don’t regret them. He ate the whole cup of yogurt, despite his anger at us. If anything, getting something in his stomach both allowed me to sleep that night, after nearly 30 hours of wakefulness, and kept Anton going for one more day.

Anton playing at the park in Shinjuku, Tokyo.

Over the course of the next three days in Tokyo, while Jordan was in orientation, Anton and I explored the mile or so surrounding our hotel, including a beautiful park with a playground directly across the street from us. Foremost on my mind each day, however, was finding familiar foods for Anton. I’d struck out at the hotel’s continental breakfast. No eggs of any kind and the yogurt, while delicious, was angrily rejected. On the second morning, determined to find eggs, we went to Denny’s. To my chagrin, they didn’t have a breakfast menu. They did have fried eggs on the menu and I decided, in my desperation, to beg the indulgence of the cook.

Anton with me at the continental breakfast in our Tokyo hotel. You can see he is beginning to look gaunt.

“Please,” I said to waitress who thankfully spoke some amount of English, “my son hasn’t eaten in days. If I could just get some scrambled eggs, I think he’ll eat them.” Then quickly added, for fear of being thought a horrible mother, “Everything I’ve tried to feed him, he’s rejected.” Over the course of those few days I found myself growing increasingly defensive, as if it were possible for people to think I was actively starving my child.

A ripple of understanding washed over her face. She may not have been familiar with scrambled eggs, but she knew a concerned mom when she saw one and my shell of measured excitement was starting to crack. She vanished into the kitchen for 5 minutes and returned with a simple “Okay!”, a bright smile and a quick bow.

I sipped on a cup of coffee and waited for Anton’s plate of fluffy yellow salvation to arrive. When it came, he took one bite and pushed the plate away . . .

Back to the drawing board.

Before leaving Tokyo for our new home in Hita, we had a minor victory. Just as we were about to run out of goldfish crackers, we found a box of Ritz crackers. He ate these like a squirrel storing up for winter, barely bothering to swallow before stuffing the next cracker into his mouth.

The next morning we flew out of a small airport in an outer district of Tokyo. It was a quick hour and a half flight to Oita prefecture on the island of Kyushu and it was at this point that Anton stopped eating and drinking entirely.

To put things into perspective, let’s recall the timeline. 

 Anton’s last real meal was the night of July 22nd, the day before we flew out of Denver. We reached Hita on July 27th. For five days, he’d been existing on a diet of maybe a couple hundred calories a day.

The City of Hita is located in the far western region of Oita Prefecture on the island of Kyushu. Located just to the south of the thriving metropolis of Fukuoka, it’s just far enough away to retain a small-town feel while still being less than a two hour bus ride from a major urban area. The city itself is split by numerous streams and beside many of the main roads can be seen deep trenches of swiftly running water. Hita is located in a basin, surrounded by mountains, giving the city its extreme temperatures. In July and August, the heat index averages around 110 degrees and in the winter months, it dips as low as 20 degrees. Because Kyushu is the closest Japanese island to the Asian continent, it is also its most diversified. South Korea is only a short ferry ride from the western coast of Kyushu and because of Hita’s centralized location, the city once served as the ancient capital of Kyushu. Because of this, many residents of Hita still maintain a particular sense of pride, apart from the rest of Kyushu. The mountains which surround the city are densely forested and blanketed in clouds. My first glimpse of the island reminded me of the opening scenes in Jurassic park, approaching Costa Rica from above.

That first day in Hita was a whirlwind. We landed in Oita, met with Jordan’s supervisor, Kurimoto, his ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) colleagues, Charky, Shannon and David, and were promptly taken to lunch at the airport. The food was delicious, but the pancake I’d ordered for Anton sat growing cold on his plate. After that, it was a two hour bus ride from the airport to the Board of Education in Hita. Jordan was introduced to everyone there and promptly whisked away to go shopping for the bare necessities required to move into our apartment. We were given the option of going along or staying at the office and waiting for them to finish up. I chose to wait behind with Anton. The prospect of traveling around in the heat and humidity with a hungry and dehydrated child was not a promising one.

Anton, of course, charmed the Japanese staff. There was still a spark behind his eyes and I was clinging to a small hope that he’d turn around once we were “settled”. Of course, Jordan and I knew we were there for the long haul, but how do you get a toddler to understand that, after so much confusing displacement? That understanding would come with time, I thought, but did we have enough of it?

At about five o’clock that afternoon, Anton and I finally made it into our new apartment. It was blazing hot as the new A/C unit was racing to catch up like a chubby kid chasing the ice cream truck. Jordan made several trips in and out with things like mats to sleep on, sheets, groceries and sorely needed oscillating fans for the three main rooms. Once all of our immediate needs were met as far as having a place to sleep that night, Jordan went out to dinner with his new co-workers while I tried to find something at the 7-11 down the street that Anton would eat. I picked up milk, ham slices, bananas, vanilla yogurt and more Ritz crackers. I struck out with pretty much all of it.

I managed to get Anton into the bath, finally, by getting in first and coaxing him in after me. Our new bathtub is huge in an odd way; odd in the fact that it’s really deep but less than three feet long. You can’t stretch your legs out in it, but you can have a pretty nice soak with the water practically up to your neck. Anton enjoyed the bath and then passed out on his mat pretty much immediately afterwards, squeaky clean but dreadfully skinny.

More worried than ever, I texted my sister-in-law who is a pediatrician living in Hartford, CT. She said as long as he was still drinking and still wetting diapers, he would be okay. She warned, however, that if all he was getting was water (as he’d even begun rejecting milk) that could cause a dangerous imbalance with his sodium levels and she advised me to find pedialyte for him.

He slept until 9am the next morning, ran out to the kitchen, grabbed his cup of water, drank it down in a shot and then went right back to sleep. That’s when I knew we were in pretty serious trouble. We needed to get pedialyte, and fast. With no car and with Jordan at work, I was left with the only (terrible) option of taking Anton out in the stroller with the heat index of about 108 degrees.

Just getting him into the stroller, I was starting to lose it. His normal protests were enough to bring me to near-hysterics and it took every ounce of self-control not to just scream at him, “Get in the damned stroller for the love of God!” Once I’d literally wrestled him into the stroller, we went in search the nearest large grocery store, Aeon. I found the store easily enough. What proved much more difficult, however, was actually communicating my needs in Japanese and finding a pedialyte equivalent.

There was no medicine of any kind at Aeon, but fortunately, a lovely woman with two small children, one not much older than Anton, pointed me towards a pharmacy which was just on the opposite side of the building. I thanked her and headed to the pharmacy, thinking I could walk in, grab what I needed and be out of there in 5 minutes or less. I was anxious to get home as Anton had literally passed out in his stroller.

Let me just get this out of the way . . . Google Translate is a lifesaver. It also sucks on a multitude of levels. However, if the stakes weren’t so high, my conversation with first one and then eventually four store employees plus the kind mother from Aeon would have been absolutely hilarious. Having actually reached the pharmacy where I was sure to find what I needed, I had regained a bit of my calm exterior. The first thing I needed was an SPF 50 sunblock (my son and I are whiter than the driven snow), which I found in about 30 seconds. I was feeling even better about my capability at this point, so I found an employee and asked, via google translate, where I could find the Japanese equivalent to Pedialyte. As a visual aid, I’d pulled up an actual ad for Pedialyte, written in Japanese. Surely, this would do. The woman had been stocking a display, but kindly tucked the bottle she’d been holding under her arm and looked at my phone. She mulled it over, but deferred to another colleague, who she called over, handing off my phone. This gentleman looked at the ad, then produced a chart with body-parts and symptoms on it. I wasn’t sure how to answer. Where do you point to on a chart for hunger and dehydration? I tried pointing to the stomach. This led to another series of questions, after which, I figured I’d be clever and equate it to something similar, but not the same thing.

In Google Translate, I typed in “What would you give your child who has been vomiting or has diarrhea to replenish his fluids?”

“How long?” the gentleman, who was most likely the actual pharmacist, asked.

“About five days.” I answered.

His helpful look immediately morphed into one of extreme concern. “Hospital? You need hospital? Right here . . . “ he pointed at a spot on a map in the binder he carried, “is hospital for the children.”

“No, no . . . “ I said, waving my hands and completely losing all the confidence I’d gained back with my expert sunblock location skills, “I need a drink, with nutrients . . . sodium. Like sweat or Gatorade.”

He watched me dubiously, listening and said, “Vomiting five days. You go to hospital? Do you need ambulance?” I’d like to point out, here, that regardless of our miscommunication, everyone in Hita that day spoke far better English than my nonexistent Japanese, a fact I was both embarrassed of and grateful for.

On a fundamental level, though, I knew he was right, regardless of the language barrier. Anton did need a hospital, but I also knew insurance wasn’t in place yet. My only option was to try to get fluids in him myself. I typed this into Google Translate and handed it to the pharmacist, my resolve breaking into self-pity and the tears beginning to flow.

By this time, two more employees and the helpful mother from Aeon had joined this insane game of Charades (I was gesturing helplessly, making vomit motions) and I decided to change my tactics. American mom, Japanese mom . . . there’s not much difference in those early years. I can’t speak Japanese, but I can speak “Mom”. I opened Google Translate one more time and typed in, “He’s not vomiting or having diarrhea, we just moved here from the United States. He stopped eating and drinking because he’s mad at me.” I handed it to the mother. She read it and a lightbulb switched on. “Oooooh!” she said, nodding and smiling.

She handed the phone to the original employee I had asked for help, the one who graciously stopped stocking her display to assist me. This woman read my translated statement and also smiled. “Ah, you want sports drink?”

“Yes! Yes, please!” I said. The woman laughed and handed me the bottle which had been tucked under her arm the whole time. I read the label and nearly collapsed with relief. “Oral Rehydration” was printed on it in comforting English text, amid the katakana, hiragana and kanji.

“Arigatou! Arigatou! Thank you, so much!” I said, bowing quickly to each of them and wiping away tears.

I paid for my purchase, took a moment to slather Anton with sunblock, and then headed back out for home.

I got a call from Jordan at about the halfway point. He wanted us to meet him and his fellow ALTs for lunch at Ooharaya Milk Hall, which is just a block away from our apartment. Luchi, the owner and chef, has formed a close relationship with the ALTs in Hita, thanks to his excellent English skills. On any given day, you can go into his restaurant and be greeted by warm smiles from Luchi and his wife, Eriko, the delicious smell of spicy curry and the comfortingly familiar sounds of True Blue era Madonna or Broadway show tunes filling the small space, which includes an upright piano. Luchi honed his English skills during his time spent in London. He is a world traveler and the interior of his restaurant reflects this with a warmth and worldly eccentricity which is equal parts familiar and inviting.

Anton with our new friend, Luchi.

Ooharaya Milk Hall aka Luchi's Place.

I figured it would be cooler there than at home and I wanted Jordan to see the state Anton was in. I was convinced that we needed to figure out a way to get him to the hospital. In addition to calling my sister-in-law, I had also been posting in the JET family support group on Facebook. Many of the responses were reasonable, but proved to be ultimately wrong in our specific case. Most parents said, in effect, he’ll learn to eat what you give him once he’s hungry enough, so just keep offering him food. I’ll call this the “wait it out” stance. In most cases, they would be right. Anton, however, has an iron will and he’s not one you want to play “chicken” with when it comes to something like this. It’s not like he wasn’t hungry enough . . . he was starving. That morning, I could hear his stomach growling like a dragon having a nightmare.

What ultimately proved both helpful and reassuring was one of the “wait it out” respondents understanding the dangerous track we were on and not just recommending the hospital for I.V. fluids but also saying, “Don’t worry about insurance. If you don’t have it yet, you may have to pay a very small fee and you will be reimbursed once your insurance kicks in because under your coverage, children are free.”

By the time we made it to Luchi’s, Anton had a fever. I opened one of the bottles and put some in his sippy cup, which he refused. We managed to got a bit of the stuff in his mouth, over his flailing protestations, by using a syringe and he was certainly easier to control while still strapped into the stroller. With Jordan’s help, I was able to get two more droppers-full into him, but all too soon, Jordan was due back at work.

Back at our apartment, Anton grew more and more listless, refusing milk, water and fighting my repeated ministrations with the syringe, which was really no more than a glorified eye-dropper. His fever rose and he drifted in and out of sleep.

When Charky, a tall striking blonde from Australia, arrived to deliver a bicycle she was lending to Jordan, I enlisted her help to find a way to get Anton to the hospital. She made some phone calls and found a friend who was willing to drive us. Yoko, an older woman with a kind face and soothing manner, happened to know a pediatrician who, she said, would be willing to help us and even defer billing until our insurance was in place. As difficult and daunting as facing a medical crisis in a foreign country might be, the kindness of the community in Hita was nearly overwhelming.

Rather than going directly to the hospital, we first arrived at Dr. Asou’s children’s clinic. The doctor spoke quickly in Japanese and Yoko translated, explaining that Anton did need I.V. fluids.

This particular nastiness is a bit harder to stomach in Japan. Normally, to install an I.V. on a small child, medical staff would restrain him so that the process wouldn’t be as painful for him. Unfortunately, that was not the case here. There was Jordan, Yoko and I, the doctor and a single nurse. Even as weakened from hunger and dehydration as Anton was, his bone-deep terror of hospitals due to five previous surgeries, starting at the age of six months, still managed to turn him green and split his purple pants. Jordan and I held him down as the nurse attempted to stabilize his arm enough to allow the doctor to find a vein. They tried once and missed. Tried again and Anton managed to yank his hand away with a small spray of blood.

In the end, Dr. Asou told us to bring him back the following morning and he would be referred to the hospital. There simply wasn’t enough staff to properly deal with Anton’s rage, which was bound to be doubled on the next go-round, freshly traumatized as he was. He gave us instructions to continue with the oral rehydration and announced that he would not charge us for this visit, thanks to Jordan’s status as an ALT. Jordan was helping to improve their community by teaching English to their children so this was his way of giving back to us. I thanked the doctor again and again, through renewed tears. “I cannot believe the people here.” I whispered to Jordan as we loaded Anton back into the car. “I know.” he said, and smiled.

Later that night, while Anton slept, Jordan, Charky and I finally relaxed over a beer and I was able to enjoy a moment of peace, knowing we would be getting Anton the help he needed soon. We talked and laughed late into the night and I slept better than I had in weeks.

In the morning, Yoko picked Anton and I up and we went to the Board of Education, where we learned that our insurance coverage had begun the day we arrived in Hita, so Anton’s care would be fully covered. We headed back over to the children’s clinic, where Jordan and his supervisor, Kurimoto, were waiting, and received the referral to the hospital. We caravanned over and, to my surprise, both Kurimoto and Yoko stayed with us during the wait and the initial triage.

When the nursing staff took Anton to be treated, Yoko said her goodbyes, but Kurimoto stayed, helping us translate. His presence was especially helpful once Anton’s blood-work came back. What it said was that there was an underlying infection. Anton’s throat was red and swollen and his white blood-cell count was elevated. His blood-sugar was also low, due to the lack of food. To put it in mom-parlance, what the blood-work said was . . . I was right. The day we left and Anton got a “clean bill of health”, I had been right, too. All we needed was to get him hydrated and treat the sore throat and eventually, his appetite would return.

Kurimoto stayed the entire morning in the hospital and then drove us home, insisting that Jordan take the rest of the day off to stay with Anton and me and also promising to check up on us throughout the weekend to make sure Anton was still improving. As difficult as the situation with Anton was, there’s no better barometer for the kind of community we’d just joined than getting thrown into crisis-mode so soon.

Once we started Anton on regular doses of Tylenol, he improved quickly. It wasn’t without further drama, however, as we had to force-feed him applesauce jelly from a squeeze pack (it sounds gross. It kinda is.) to get his blood-sugar up and keep giving him the oral rehydrant in the syringe until he was well enough to start back on milk and water. The next day, he drank apple juice, had some milk and even stole some rice off of my plate. He discovered he loved ketchup rice, a genius Japanese invention for picky eaters and by the next morning, he was eating scrambled eggs again.

All of this could’ve been prevented by simply trusting my own instincts. I had known something was off and allowed someone else to tell me I was wrong. And hey . . . sometimes I am wrong. I trusted Jordan completely during my first Nebraska autumn when he jokingly told me that the reason some of the leaves turned way earlier than others was that the trees were dying. I legitimately freaked out and checked all the trees around our house . . . just to be sure. So, yeah . . . I’ve been wrong about stuff before, but not about my kid.

Since we’ve been in Japan, I’ve seen a multitude of changes in Anton and, despite the relative nightmare of that first week, most of those changes have been positive. His vocabulary has ballooned, he’s putting together 83 piece puzzles, he’s grown fiercely independent and, thanks to the neighbor kids’ encouragement at the park next to our house, he is more courageous in his play. We left the United States with a baby and arrived in Japan with a little boy.

Jordan has since blossomed in his job as an ALT, impressing the Japanese teachers at his schools with his growing knowledge of Kanji and I begin my own part time English teaching job very shortly. I’ve seen ancient Japanese festivals awash with brilliant colors and traditional dress, stunning natural beauty mere minutes from our apartment and have to pinch myself regularly to remind myself we’re really here.

Jordan with Anton and his neighborhood friends at the playground near our home.

I learned a lot getting “settled”. In particular, I learned what that word means. It means safety. It means forging new friendships. It means community. It means Anton is eating again, waking up each morning excited to learn more about his new home. It means the neighbor kids knocking on our door and begging in Japanese for Anton to come out and play. It means a hell of a lot of things, but what it doesn’t mean is moving in; that’s the easy part.

The hard part . . . all of the rest of it . . . that’s the adventure.

Anton excitedly waiting to ride the school bus for the first time.

Post script:

Time has flown by pretty fast for us in Japan. In the months since I wrote this piece, I started teaching, wrote and directed two plays with my Japanese students, enrolled Anton in yochien (Japanese kindergarten) and have been struggling to learn Japanese. We purchased a car and have done some travelling. Anton has a best friend named Kenshin and is picking up the language way faster than I am. He’s taught himself songs on the digital piano we got him for Christmas.

What I haven’t done, however, is devote time to completing and publishing this piece. I began writing it our second week in Hita. We have now been here for 9 months. I originally thought about going back and editing it to reflect the passage of time, but decided against it. There are a lot of things I would change about my perspective back then in the midst of the whirlwind, but in essence, therein lies the beauty of any personal account, fresh from the trenches. It’s a reminder of how it felt to experience what I did and not know it was all going to be okay, that this move was going to mean so much for us.

So, here it is . . . 9 months after the fact, written over the course of a few weeks and then collecting virtual dust on my hard drive for 7 months.

So, here’s to new beginnings, be they ever so terrifying.



  1. I thought I was brave going to university full-time to do my Masters degree with an 18 month old in tow and my husband 900km away but at least it was in the same country and language wasn't an issue. I can only imagine how terrible that week or so must have been for you Kendra. A very sick (and stubborn) child, a totally strange environment, language, foods, God, it makes me shiver just to think being in the same situation. It was very brave of you to share this so honestly with people. I hope that you are all able to really enjoy your time in Japan, exploring a fascinating country and culture.

    1. Thank you so much for reading, Jayne! Don't ever discount yourself. In the end, it's ESID (every situation is different). What you did was incredibly brave and doing something which would not only benefit you, but your whole family, in the long run. Japan has it's quirks, but it's such an incredible adventure . . . and we are all learning so much!

  2. Wow. Firstly, you are a very good writer. Secondly, you are an excellent mother!

    I'm moving to Japan this July on the same program. I do not know where in Japan yet but all my anxiety seems like "child's play" now that i have read this.

    1. Thank you so much for reading and responding! I guess the main point of this blog is . . . don't worry! Even if things go wildly out of control, in the end, it's a blip. Just an obstacle to get over. JET is an incredible program with amazing family support. It's one of the main reasons Jordan applied to the program. Once you are here and get into a regular routine, you won't want to leave. :) Are you coming in July?

  3. Kendra, this was an amazing read! You are an incredibly talented writer, a truly strong woman, and a wonderful momma! Having four children of my own, I have been in your situation (in one form or another) once or twice over the past twenty years, and have been overwhelmingly terrified...on familiar American soil. I applaud your bravery, on so many levels. First, I can't imagine relocating to a different country and culture (and I teach a world language, so I am familiar with how *some* of that stuff works), and second, you were quite level-headed through the entire crisis with Anton. I am envious, to a certain degree, of your bravery when it comes to being able to take the leap of faith necessary to move your family around the world. You are living life purposefully, making the absolute best of every day for you and your family. You will be able to look back on this time in your life and know you made active decisions and took the reigns, as opposed to just letting life passively carry you. I will be 48 years old this year, and if I had anything to do over again (without losing my husband and kids, of course), I would take charge of my life and make decisions that would take me out of my comfort zone and challenge me to actually live my life, instead of always staying safe and predictable! Talk about making memories for you, your husband and Anton! Your son will have a childhood full of amazing friends, a phenomenal education and cultural enrichment, and you all are having an epic adventure! Thank you so, so much for sharing with us!

    1. Thank you so very much! I can't tell you how much it means to me to have people not only read, but to comment and share, as well. 48 is too young to think about do-overs . . . there's still plenty of "do" time left! Even when I struggle with loneliness here, which I often do, I still remain thankful every day for the blessing this amazing opportunity has been for our family. Full disclosure . . . I was not level-headed at all. I was in full-on basket case mode from that first night in Hita. I literally burst into tears in front of Charky, whom I'd just met. Not the best way to make a first impression. I like to think I've chilled out a bit since we've been here, though. Haha!

  4. I appreciate the opportunity to read your blog. I knew you in the choir at Florida Gardens Baptist Church. I am Janet Howe-Habgood. Excellent write up. My mother did a Fulbright in Tasmania. Unfortunately, after I was out of the house. Their big problem was the cruise ship was on its maiden voyage and the water system broke down. Canberra, I think.They lived through it. As part of the Fulbright, they traded jobs and housing with a teacher there. She taught chemistry. The biggest teaching problem was pronunciation. Chemicals ending in "ite" and "ate" sounded the same. (Fluorite and Fluorate, for example.) She had to stay with written tests. :)


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