School Days, Birthdays

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Shuma became a first-grader last month, a fact that seems to amaze our Japanese friends and family (Japan’s school year starts in April, so he’s half a year ahead of his peers). He was very proud of his cool new backpack, a present from his jiiji and baaba (grandpa and grandma). Typically in Japan, a student entering elementary school receives a study desk and a randoseru (a rigid leather backpack), often from the grandparents. And while randoseru are cute and durable (they are built to last from grade one to six), they are also ridiculously expensive and rather impractical (at least in the context of Canadian elementary school), so when my in-laws asked what they should get him, we asked for this super cool glow-in-the-dark monogrammed number right here.

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Not long after starting school he turned six. My family tends to celebrate birthweeks rather than birthdays, so we had a number of little celebrations- a dinner at the Mandarin (an enormous buffet restaurant that is famous/infamous in our area), a dinner and cake at home (tacos and ice cream cake, his dream meal), a mountain of Lego gifts, and a weekend away with just the two of us.

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His birthweekend started with brunch, a concept he wasn’t too sure about at first but is now sold on, and then went to our area’s finest shopping mall (as measured by percentage of women with artificial trout pout) to buy some fine chocolate, a fine Lush bath bomb (his request) and some fine Lego. We stuffed this container full of  Lego parts (wheels, propellers, tiny studs, rare/esoteric parts) for $20 and I can’t decide if that’s a good deal or not. In the Lego stores in Japan you just pay by the gram and it seems cheaper.

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Then on to our hotel, the Delta East, chosen for its proximity to the zoo and J-Town (a small collection of Japanese stores and restaurants), and its pool with the awesome water slide. Sadly the slide had a height limit and Shuma didn’t meet it, so I spent a good part of the afternoon consoling a despondent boy and trying to encourage/cajole/trick him into trying the little kids’ slide (which he would have thought was super cool under any other circumstances). We had more success at J-Town, where Shuma ate his beloved ikuradon (salmon roe over sushi rice) for dinner.

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The next day we went to the zoo, where the animals (especially the wolves, an orangutan, and Juno the junior polar bear) were especially active so my pictures were all blurry from the action (as opposed to my normal zoo pictures which are of crisply focused lumps of sleeping animal flesh).

We would have kept his birthday festivities going, but then my birthday came along and got in the way. (See how I snuck that in there? If you’re stuck for ideas, I like brunches and shopping at fine malls.)

A few more pictures here.

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Sayonara, Summer

As my favourite season officially ends (I wore a scarf and socks today, that makes it official in my book), here is a look back on our summer.

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We started off with lots of visits to splash pads and other watery play areas, but we didn’t really keep it up for the whole summer. Shuma seems to be generating actual nerves in his skin and is no longer impervious to cold water, and will now only tolerate it if it’s above 30 and/or it is deep enough to swim. He loves swimming now. And sandcastles are still a hit, so if there’s sand he’s good.

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Animals are also always a hit, and we made several visits to the friendly fuzzies at Chinguacousy Park and Downey’s Farm.

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My sister came up for a visit from Texas (then why don’t I have any pictures of her?) and we made our usual trip up to Sauble Beach. The water was freezing (this is on Lake Huron, after all) but he managed to get in plenty of swim time. And snorkeling time, and paddling time too.

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The biggest event of the summer was of course our trip to Japan, but we got another small taste of Shuma’s homeland at Kariya Park, a Japanese garden in Mississauga. This small park commemorates Mississauga’s sister city status with Kariya, Aichi Prefecture. It’s really just a pretty pond with a bridge and a few paths, with a zen garden (covered in foot prints when we saw it, because Canadians are assholes) and traditional bronze bell. But it’s also just a short walk from Square One, so well worth a visit if you’re in the area already.

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Our last summer outing was a day on the Toronto Islands, starting with a harbour tour. We went straight to Centreville where Shuma went on about 84 rides (I did join him on the bumper cars and log flume).

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We took a little trolley tour of the islands, then spent some time on the beach. The beach is shallow and water surprisingly warm so we got plenty of swim time, and although we had to step carefully to avoid goose poop, we spent some time lounging in the sun. And then we took the ferry back to the mainland and said good-bye to summer.

More pictures here.

Japan Trip

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After a year of living in Canada, it was time for our first trip back to Japan. Sadly my school only has one week off in the summer, so I took a few extra days off and in July we went for a super-condensed 12-day visit.

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While waiting for our flight we splurged on lunch at Lee Kitchen, Susur Lee’s fancy new  Pearson Airport restaurant. This is the Top Chef Chicken, a curry dish that was one of the best things I’ve eaten in a good while (and the most expensive).

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13 hours later we were in Tokyo. It was great to see Hideaki again after being apart for six months, but I had no time to settle into our apartment as we left the next day to stay with the in-laws in Osaka. While there we walked through the forest to Minoh Falls, which I’ve done a million times but never get tired of. This time we were lucky to see plenty of wildlife: blue-tailed skinks, bugs galore, owls (through someone’s telescope) and a giant salamander.

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We also went to the insect museum, and inside the butterfly conservatory I pointed out how the butterfly was sticking its long tongue into the flower to drink the flower juice. “You mean it’s drinking nectar with its probiscus?” he said. I kept quiet after that.

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We also stopped for a soak at the newish ashiyu (foot bath), filled with water from the local hot spring. Forget for a minute the implications of sharing a foot bath with dozens of strangers, most of whom who’d just finished a six kilometre walk- it made my tired feet feel wonderful.

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And we made sure to pick up the local specialty- momiji tempura (deep-fried maple leaves). Crunchy, slightly sweet, totally delicious.

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The next day we went to Kaiyukan, Osaka’s excellent aquarium. It is known for its whale sharks, but we really liked the octopii (which were busy squeezing into and out of the many pipes and clay pots in their exhibit) and jellyfish.

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Another highlight was harassing some sharks (rough and scratchy) and rays (slippery and surprisingly soft).

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On the shinkansen (bullet train) back to Tokyo we enjoyed some pretty ekiben (train station lunch boxes) and some lukewarm beer. In my early years in Japan I loved the idea of being able to buy and drink beer right on the shinkansen, but eventually I noticed that it was never quite cold. Didn’t matter if I bought it on the platform directly before boarding, or bought it from the lady who wheels her snack trolley through the train- it was always warm by the time I opened it. But I guess I am a sucker because every single time I ride the shinkansen I buy myself a beer.

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In Tokyo we stayed at a hotel for one night because it had a fancy outdoor pool we wanted to try. We took some time to explore the neighborhood, which featured a network of rivers and canals that were home to egrets, herons, kingfishers and other birds you wouldn’t expect to find right in the city.

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One section of river had been turned into a cool little playground with a water-based obstacle course. The park had seen better days but we loved it.

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Back at home we spent the rest of the trip re-familiarizing ourselves with our neighborhood, with just a few days to meet with cousins and friends.

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I finally got to drink some cold beer, including the obligatory seasonal variety (there is nothing special about it, it’s the same old beer in a limited-edition can). And it wasn’t until my last night that I got to eat what I’d most been craving: a typical Japanese meal including grilled fish (in this case hokke, a richly fatty fish from Hokkaido). Not that I didn’t eat a lot of good food during my visit, but it seems to be the simple stuff I miss while I’m in Canada so this was a treat.

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And then the trip was over. I didn’t get to do enough shopping (although I did bring back an entire suitcase filled with rice and other prized foodstuffs), didn’t spend enough time with family, hardly saw any friends, had no time for visits to Shuma’s old kindergarten or daycare, couldn’t get a haircut (Shuma did though! it’s way cheaper in Japan), didn’t finish cleaning the apartment, hardly did any cooking (I miss cooking), I had zero time for relaxing, and Shuma’s Japanese abilities did not miraculously return. But I’m kind of amazed at how much stuff we did get done (such as getting our teeth cleaned- yay dental coverage!) and a few days after we got back two cool things happened. First, Shuma said he liked having two houses, which is an amazing optimistic way to think of our situation. Then, he started spontaneously speaking Japanese, and even if it was only a few words before he got stuck and switched to English, he’s been doing it regularly since then. A good start, I hope.

More pictures here.

 

Catching Up, Part 3

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In January 2016 Hideaki came to visit us. We took him for a little trip up to the Muskokas, where he tried ice skating for the second time in his life (and Shuma’s third) at Arrowhead Provincial Park. The park features a skating trail through the forest, and pictures cannot capture how beautiful it was. Particularly the snow that fell sparkling in the afternoon sunlight, which took my breath away but is invisible here.

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Sadly it was hard to enjoy the scenery when we were struggling to stay up. It turns out I was barely a better skater than they were. I mean, I can skate fine, but stopping and turning are another story, and on a natural train there are plenty of bends and inclines that make those skills pretty important.

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I gave my sore bones a rest in front of the fire.

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And the boys did the same thing, but indoors. Smart boys.

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The view from our cabin the next morning.

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Then came a visit to Ripley’s Aquarium, which was excellent.

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Soon it was Easter, and to celebrate I took Shuma to the mall to meet a terrifying Easter Bunny.

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And then it was warm once again, and Shuma ran and swung and threw.

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We attended a Japanese festival in Mississauga (which is a sister city of Kariya, Aichi Prefecture) and Shuma dressed up in his jimbei.

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And then Shuma was finished kindergarten! No ceremony, no party, no tears, no fuss- just these “graduation” portraits. How different from Japan.

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And then it was summer!

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Catching Up, Part 2

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Shuma wasted no time upon our arrival in Canada last summer to reacquaint himself with the local playgrounds (here accompanied by my dad).

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Then it was up to Southampton for a week with my dad and my sister (who was visiting from Texas). We mostly stayed in our cosy airbnb cottage but managed to make a few trips around the Bruce Peninsula.

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Then Shuma started senior kindergarten. No, this picture is not from his first day- this is after a few months on the school bus waiting list when he finally got a spot, which was pretty much a dream come true for him as he’s had a thing for school buses since he was a baby.

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He got a bike for his birthday and he was riding it after just one lesson with his grandfather.

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I was kind of sad to go apple picking, as it’s kind of like admitting that summer is truly over, but Shuma enjoyed his first visit to an apple orchard.

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A selfie to mark my 42nd birthday.

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A visit to Downey’s Farm, where we shared a tracter with a goat kid and took a million pumpkin pictures.

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We got in a few hikes (well, walks) to see the fall colours.

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And of course made a giant leaf pile.

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Then it was Shuma’s first proper Halloween. He had no patience for the pumpkin carving but loved dressing up trick-or-treating. Our neighbors let us tag along and the other kids taught Shuma all about the many varieties of Canadian candy. It was a lot to learn, but he did his best to try a bit of everything. His favourite? Popping rocks.

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For more pictures, see these albums: Southampton, Summer 2015, Canada, and Autumn 2015.

Catching Up, Part 1

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16 months is a lot of time to cover, so I’ll just zip through with a few highlights. So in April 2015 Shuma started his nenchuu year of kindergarten (literally “middle year”, nenchuu is the second of three years of kindergarten in Japan). The problems he’d had in nenshou (first year) continued: he had trouble fitting in and hated the focus on group activities, especially practicing for things like undoukai (sports festival) and happyoukai (musical performance) which are big events that require hours and hours of training. Typical Japanese kids, who of course already speak Japanese and are socially conditioned to be part of a group, enjoy this practice, but not Shuma. His support worker (did I mention that in his first year of kindergarten they’d hired a special teacher just to deal with him? Well, they did, and she stayed on for his second year) had her hands full rounding him up every time he escaped these group practices.

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I could write several posts’ worth of reasons why Shuma wasn’t doing well at kindergarten, and even more about why I wasn’t doing well as a kindergarten mom, but I’ll spare you. Just take a look at the charming face he’s pulling in the above two pictures, taken on visits to his kindergarten. Also note in the above picture, taken on a parent observation day, that all the other kids have neatly laid out their lunches and are happily eating while Shuma hasn’t even opened his. He has only just sat down, after running around the room knocking chairs over for several minutes and then dumping his lunch bag all over the table (it was his support worker who tidied it up for him).

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Our last cherry blossom season passed by without a proper hanami (cherry blossom viewing), but we did manage to otherwise get a lot of good outdoor time.

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(Oh yeah, I gave myself bangs! It was really just a desperate attempt to disguise my out-of-control weight gain, and I instantly regretted it. I am in the process of growing them out right now, and let me tell you- I would rather shave my head then get bangs again, they are so much trouble.)

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Shuma learned how to make sushi with his cousins, then we all explored a pretty park.

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And I ate as much seafood as I could.

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We squeezed in a few more aquarium visits.

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And a few more visits with friends.

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During our last visit to the in-laws in Osaka, we got dressed up, along with Shuma’s cousins, for shichi-go-san (a traditional holiday to celebrate a child reaching 3, 5, and 7 years of age) portraits.

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And just before Shuma and I flew to Canada, we took a little weekend trip to Fukushima, for beach time, one last aquarium visit (check out those garden eels!), and a night at a traditional inn with a hot spring. Here is Shuma modeling the correct wearing of the traditional Japanese yukata robe.

 

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For more pictures see these albums: Spring 2015, Summer 2015, Japan, and Shichi-go-san.

 

Hello Out There

Ahem. Is this thing on?

Well hello. It’s been a while and because this thing still seems to work, and because I still get the occasional polite enquiry (thank you!) I thought I’d give a little update.

Shuma and I now live in Canada, in the suburbs of Toronto. We moved exactly one year ago into the house I grew up in, which is also occupied by my father, my brother, his girlfriend, and three cats. Shuma and I share a bedroom, which as you can imagine is not ideal, but (probably) beats worrying about making rent for a crappy basement apartment.

I am back at school (if all goes well I will be a registered massage therapist in about two years) and Shuma starts grade one next month. Hideaki is still in Japan, because after a couple of decades of shitty jobs and unemployment he’s got a proper career there, and he’d have to trade that for more shitty jobs and unemployment here. I couldn’t afford to keep him anyway, so just as well. We visit twice a year (he came here in January, we were there a couple weeks ago) and we’ll see what happens when I am employed and have more than one bedroom to live in.

What’s it like to repatriate myself and start my life over at 42? Much harder than I thought, and I did think it would be very hard. My hours at school are not long, I don’t have tonnes of homework or studying (yet), I’m not working, I’m not solely responsible for the cooking and cleaning, Shuma is at a relatively easy age, but somehow I’m finding it difficult. My memory and studying abilities are not what they used to be (and I was never a very good student to begin with). Sharing a living space with other adults is challenging. My hometown has changed a lot (not to mention I am way behind on local technology and pop culture stuff). Not knowing what the future holds is scary. But there is a certain thrill to that unknown, and a good deal of excitement in the challenge of starting over. And Shuma, who struggled with kindergarten in Japan, has thrived here. That alone makes my own struggles completely worth it.

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Here’s Shuma after winning a school spirit award at his kindergarten a few months ago. Not all that impressive considering a large number of students won an award for something or other. But this would have been impossible in Japan, where his kindergarten had to hire an extra teacher to work with him one-on-one because he was so disruptive. So I’m pretty proud.

Bento

Another year of kindergarten for Shuma, another year of bento-making for me. He started his second year of kindergarten on April 10th, and after a week and a bit of half days he started full days today. So I dug out his bento box and made him lunch.

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First, let’s look at the bento bako (lunch box) itself. I bought it last year when he entered kindergarten thinking aluminum would be nicer and more durable than plastic. It was a good choice as it turns out his kindergarten uses a bento heater in the winter and requires heat-safe boxes. One small problem: the heat caused the design that came on the top of the box (Planes characters) to slowly flake off, until all that was left was some random patches of colour. So I scrubbed the rest of it off and last night I drew Anpanman (a favourite cartoon character in Japan) with Sharpies. I don’t think it’ll last very long, so I may have just committed myself to a few years of drawing designs on the bento bako every week (or however long each picture lasts). Good, I need a creative outlet and this is as close as he will ever get to having a kyara-ben (character bento, a lunchbox with food arranged to look like cartoon characters or any cutesy face, animal or scene).

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So the contents: kappamaki (cucumber sushi roll), fried potato wedge, grapes, broccoli, cherry tomato. Kappamaki has been his standard since he started daycare almost two years ago and wouldn’t eat anything else, and is still his favourite. I think he’ll be pleased because he hasn’t had it since November due to the bento heater (because hot sushi = blurgh).

1 Year

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When I turned 20 (or possibly 18, I can’t quite remember) my mom bought me a bouquet of yellow roses. She told me that when she turned 20 (or possibly 18) her mom had done the same thing. She had a somewhat troubled relationship with her mother but was touched by those roses, and she vowed to do the same for her daughters. So she did it for my sister and then it was my turn, and it was one of the biggest disappointments of my young life.

She drove us to Fendley Florists on Main Street and paid for the flowers and the florist gave the bouquet directly to me. I found it vulgar somehow. I don’t know how I suddenly turned into such a princess that day, because I was neither an experienced receiver of flowers nor in possession of exemplary manners, but it really bothered me. We got home and she left it to me to put the flowers into a vase, which also bothered me. I was terribly disappointed that there was no surprise or fanfare involved, because that’s what I imagined receiving flowers to be like. I’ve since gotten over myself a bit, but I still wonder if there was anything going on. Because I also had a troubled relationship with my mother. Back then I assumed it was her fault and it never occurred to me that maybe it was also mine, and that maybe my mom shared some of my animostiy. I wonder if maybe I was turning out to be a bit of a disappointment and this was her passive-aggressive way of showing me. Or maybe it was just an example of her habit of showing affection by spending money. Or maybe there is nothing wrong with bringing your daughter to the florists and buying her flowers right in front of her. Who knows.

She died a year ago today. I wanted to buy a bouquet of irises to mark the occasion, as they were her favourite flower (along with yellow roses). After 5 florists I gave up: irises must be a seasonal item, or not popular here as cut flowers. I bought these little yellow roses instead. They’re not as nice as the ones she got me, but they’re OK.

I miss her so much, and wasn’t sure what I would write today, and it seems wrong that this critical and unflattering story is what came out. I guess I’m still sorting my feelings out. And probably part of the mourning process is accepting the faults of the person you’ve lost. I do know that our relationship started improving soon after that. I grew up a lot and that helped, and little distance helped too- I moved to Toronto, the Vancouver, then Tokyo. Now that I truly love and appreciate her, the distance is insurmountable. I miss her so much.

Tokyo Sea Life Park

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Spring holidays are here, and starting yesterday Shuma is at home for (a rather daunting) three weeks. So we started his vacation off with a visit to Kasai Rinkai Park on the east side of town. It’s the largest park in Tokyo’s 23 wards, featuring beaches, a bird sanctuary, walking trails through nicely landscaped gardens, the second-tallest Ferris wheel in Japan, and an aquarium, Tokyo Sea Life Park. Best of all it’s cheap, with free entry to the park itself and low admissions for the aquarium, Ferris Wheel and park train.

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We started off at the visitor centre where the lady behind the desk was so impressed that Shuma could say “konnichiwa” (that happens a lot [insert eye roll emoticon]) that she gave him two pin badges (what are those actually called?) and discount tickets for the Ferris wheel. Yes, she probably hands those out to everyone who comes in, but Shuma was so happy to get them. I bent down to pin one of the badges onto his jacket and he was so reverent I might as well have been presenting him with the Medal of Honor. Later on, after he’d handed me his jacket, he looked down at his shirt and said worriedly “Mommy, where the other one?” and so I unpinned it from my bag and put it on his shirt, and all was well.

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Then we took a little tour of the park on the train (which is not a train and again: what is that called??), which was exciting for Shuma since it was a ride on a vehicle, and would be really nice later on in the spring when there are more flowers and foliage.

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Then onto Tokyo Sea Life Park. We had a yearly pass to another aquarium for a few years and he’d always race through the place and leave me wishing I had more time to see everything. Now, at four, he spends a bit more time actually looking at the exhibits which is nice for me. Still, if there is a video screen he’ll be glued to that, and his favourite part of any aquarium will be the gift shop, and if there is a diver in a tank cleaning the glass that will definitely be his favourite live exhibit. There was a diver this time, who was wiping the glass with a gloved hand and Shuma thought every wipe was a wave so he’d wave back and the diver would be obliged to stop wiping and wave back. Over and over. Other kids would get excited to see the diver, watch for a minute or two, and move on, but Shuma was just fascinated and wouldn’t leave. The only reason he eventually left is because is because he saw a girl he liked and followed her away.

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Next came the highlight of the day. Trying to get Shuma interested in actually looking at some fish, I pointed to a clown fish and said “Look, a Nemo fish!”. You know, like I was a moron talking to her moron baby on our first-ever visit to an aquarium. He (rightly) ignored me and instead pointed to a group of razor fish (those vertically-swimming fishies in the picture above) and said “Mite, ano sakana wa kaisou no mane shiterunda! Ano sakana wa hekoayu to iunda“. Which means, in flawless Japanese, “Look, those fish are mimicking sea grass! Those are called razor fish”. I have no idea where he learned that and was thoroughly humbled.

He seemed immensely proud of his knowledge and kept repeating it to whoever was beside him (he watched those fish for a good five minutes so lots of people came and went), and most people reacted in a way that they would react to a talking dog. I get that it blows peoples’ minds to see a light-haired foreign (looking) kid speaking Japanese, but it would have been so nice if just one person had just said “Oh really? Tell me more about razor fish” or otherwise replied to him. Instead of turning to their friends and saying “Sugoi! Nihongo shabetteru” (Wow, he’s speaking Japanese!).

He did get to play with plenty of kids, because when they are young enough they don’t really care about how other kids look or what language they speak. One boy couldn’t speak English or Japanese but they had a nice romp he and taught Shuma how to say “ni hao” which was pretty neat.

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We decided to skip the Ferris wheel (it was overcast so we’ll try it on another visit) and finished the day with a giant ice cream cone, which resulted in a tummy ache but was apparently worth it. Ice cream is always worth it.

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Kasai Rinkai Park (Kasai Rinkai Koen): Free admission, open daily (exceptions: closed 4th and 5th Wednesdays of January and ever Wednesday in February)

Tokyo Sea Life Park (Kasai Rinkai Suizokuen): 700 yen for adults, free for kids; closed Wednesdays