Betsy tends to plug in to social groups wherever we move–whether it’s a group of runners or a facebook association that she stalks without comment. This has helped her twig to some pretty amazing things for our family to do. One of them, of course, was to dress up like Mario Brothers and drive street-legal go-karts around Tokyo for a date. It was awesome, and reasonably priced. We ordered some pretty cheap Mario-Kart costumes off amazon and went over. The employees were a bit surprised to see that we brought our own costumes, and they had a great selection if we had wanted to use theirs. (We had to go with the two brothers, because the cheap options were Mario & Luigi, or Mario and risque Princess Peach. Of course I thought Betsy would look great in the Princess Peach outfit, but she wasn’t comfortable flashing that much skin around town.) The Karts went pretty fast, but didn’t have speedometers, so we couldn’t be too sure exactly how fast. We drove them to our house, to say hi to the kids, swung by the Wares’ house, and of course, buzzed Shibuya crossing and Omotesando and Harajuku. It was pretty awesome, and to top it off, when we went to church the next day, Nate Farnsworth had been in Shibuya and caught us on video!
Japan is a land that is plagued by natural disasters. It is literally the result of volcanos and earthquakes pushing rocks up from the bottom of the ocean. On top of that, it is subject to some of the worst natural disasters available. Tsunamis, floods, typhoons, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions are all common enough that you have to layer Godzilla on top to bother watching the news. While we lived there, we had to cancel church in parts of our stake twice due to volcanic eruptions that made it unsafe to breathe outside for a bit. We commonly had minor earthquakes, and a couple that lasted long enough for Betsy and me to wake up, wait a bit, realize it wasn’t stopping, and then decide to go to the kids rooms and be prepared to evacuate. Of course the kids slept right through those. Typhoons came through a couple of times, most often further south than us, but they always brought fun wind and water. (For clarity, a typhoon is a hurricane that originates in the Northwest Pacific Ocean. Don’t ask me why–I don’t know. The same swirling vortex of wind and water in the south pacific is called a cyclone.)
Typhoons, and their slightly weaker cousins, monsoons, were great fun for the kids, and both really allowed the marvel of civil engineering that is Tokyo city to shine. During a serious storm, water would be dropping in bucketloads, and the streets would fill up, but quite literally within minutes of cessation, the streets were drained and passable again. Luckily, with my dad being a civil engineer, I was able to pause to gawk at the amazing systems that must exist beneath Tokyo streets to move that much water that efficiently.
Our bishop in Toronto was Hector Garcia. He was an amazingly humble man, with three or four kids, and was a lot of fun to be in the bishopric with. When he heard we were going to Japan, he got all excited and said we needed to go to a comic con. So we did.
Sadly, we didn’t recognize most of the folks all done up in cosplay, and some of them were not appropriate to photograph, and all the activities were (oddly enough) in Japanese, but it was still fun to do once. (Porter was apparently going through a “roll his arms up in the bottom of his t-shirt” phase.)
Each year the Boy Scouts in the Tokyo 1st ward hike up Mount Fuji. Google refuses to answer the question of the actual distance you cover, preferring to give insufficient comments about time expectations (5-7 hours)and altitude (12,000 feet).
The scouts open the invitation to the whole ward and we decided to go, because it seems like the thing to do in Japan-eat sushi and hike Mt. Fuji. We figured we’d start out with the scouts, let them rush ahead and we’d go as fast as our kids would allow and stop when we had gone far enough. Don’t forget, Lea was only recently three years old.
The hike was pleasant for the first five or ten minutes. Nice wooded trail through foresty space. One unfortunate drawback is the common challenge in Japan—a million people trying to do something at the same time, but that was not unexpected. After the first five or ten minutes, we left the forest and moved on to lava gravel. If you’ve never hiked up a hill through something like that, let me tell you, it sucks. You slide back half a foot for every foot forward. And you just signed up to do this evil stairmaster for 5-7 hours.
So we did it. We hiked up switchbacks in a gigantic pile of gravel for hours. And our kids were so tough they amazed all of us. We caught up to the flagging scouts around lunch time and finally turned around after station 8. If you ever have a chance to hike Mt. Fuji, I highly recommend you just charter a helicopter and photoshop something. Reid wrote about it when he got back to school and I think he pretty much nailed it.
One thing that Tokyo is famous for is amazing food. Particularly if you are one of those people who enjoy food. Sadly, Betsy and I are more the “eat for sustenance” type, rather than the “eat for enjoyment” types, and haven’t quite gotten the hang of food appreciation. Combine that with a Japanese tendency to offer the oddest foods to the newest guests and you have a recipe for some rough meals. For at least the first six months, it didn’t seem that you could even purchase cooked food in Japanese restaurants. It was all raw. The other sad part is that no matter how hard we try, we can’t seem to build an appreciation for seafoods, which, of course, Japan is famous for. (I can already hear what you’re saying in your mind, “what about…?” And the answer is “NO. Not even…” Feel free to insert whatever relatively innocuous seafood option you personally love and can’t imagine someone hating: shrimp, salmon, crab, whatever. If it could ever call the water home, we do not like it.)
I got this when I tried to order the “American Hamburger” option off the menu. Close, but not quite.
As we were looking to move to Tokyo, we spoke with a number of folks about where they sent their kids for schooling. It’s a significant concern. Some people opt for the three-to-six months of torture and frustration known as linguistic immersion and enroll their kids in Japanese school (think our good friends, the Krebs) while others (more rightly) insist on English tutelage. We heard opinions about the all-girls school, the American School, and the International School. In the end, despite Frank Ha’s support for Tokyo International School (TIS), we opted to follow Archie’s much more enthusiastic endorsement of the American School in Japan (ASIJ). It seemed to have better after school programs, a connection to the Early Learning Center (ELC) where Afton and Lea would be enrolled in kindergarten and pre-school, and quite a few fans among the expats. It didn’t hurt that during the tour of the ELC I was able to watch the little tinies learning to sumo wrestle with full-size sumo wrestlers. Any chance you get to watch a 30 lb 4 year-old try to push around a 400 lb sumo wrestler, you’ve gotta take it.
Turns out, all the great things we heard about ASIJ were true. They had numerous after school programs, great teachers, active student counselors, an elementary school principal named Dan Bender, who always remembered all our kids’ names, and a wonderful facility. We had no trouble getting all our kids in, which surprised a number of the members of our ward who had kids on waiting lists for quite a while, but I suppose that comes with the territory when your kids are as stellar as ours are.
The things nobody really talked about, though, began to add up:
The school was going through a pretty serious leadership crisis, and couldn’t keep a board of directors, PTA president, or a head of school during that time.
The campus was located in Chofu. If you’re thinking, “wait, I thought you lived in Tokyo,” that’s a reasonable think. We did. Chofu was about an hour west of where we lived by bus. That might not be too bad, until you remember that when we got there, Porter was 8 and Reid was 6. Bus came at 7:00, and if they didn’t do any after school activities, it came home between 4:30 and 5:00. If they did after school activities, which was one of the big plusses for this school, they got home around 6:30 to 7:00. Their days were as long or longer than mine at times.
It was pretty tough for Betsy to be an active participant in the school. Because it was so far away, it cost about $30 in tolls to go out there, and the policies for volunteering were pretty rigid: at least two hours, scheduled at least ten school days in advance, and train schedules that took about 30 minutes longer than driving all combined to make it pretty challenging for Betsy to get out there and back within the confines of the half-day schedule the girls’ were in at the ELC (located in Tokyo).
When we arrived in March, we didn’t feel most of these challenges because there was so much new and challenging going on associated with the move. After the first summer, when Afton joined the boys on the bus and we got them into after school programs (karate, soccer, chess), we started to notice some fraying edges in our kids’ behavior, most notable in how easily anger became the default response. Now, you may not know it, but Andersons are not known for their patience, and that patience is particularly absent when we lack sufficient rest. Our kids start to show it about the same time I do. They also need time with their parents. So we switched them to TIS, and it was like a Robert Frost poem about making all the difference. The school was a 10 minute walk away, welcomed parental drop-bys with enthusiasm, and gave our kids two hours a day back to just be kids. We loved it and cannot endorse the Tokyo International School more highly.
The kids still got to ride a bus (very important part of going to school for them), but Betsy could drop by with lunch if they forgot it, while still being close to the ELC. She got to be the official yearbook photographer for the ELC, and an active volunteer at TIS in all three classes. The student body was significantly more diverse at TIS as well. Our kids seem to have American friends through church and international friends through school, and we love it.
We came to realize that the folks who were extolling the virtues of ASIJ all had older kids who were more able to handle the long commute, probably resented any parenting time they were forced to endure, and for whom the whole thing was an escape. We also saw that there were different styles of living abroad, and one of them was characterized by creating an American environment for familiarity and comfort. Some folks really enjoyed things like the American Club, the American School, and other things that helped them stay connected with home. I expected to be in that camp, as I am quite patriotic and proud of America, but we found that it wasn’t so. We were often uncomfortable at the American Club, and were fortunate to find our tribe with the parents of kids at TIS.