The Halloween of 2015 was a bit of a scare for the Santoses – or the Tantots, as we’ve grown to fondly call our family of four. But unlike the typical kind of Halloween scare, ours was more of a scary, joyful, thrilling apprehension of our exodus to Japan. For the first time, it was totally just me; Regina; Iva, our three-year old daughter; and little Uri boy who, at 10 months and a day, was still learning his steps.

Happy and blessed: A year since the family exodus to Japan.

As soon as we departed from the Philippines that morning, we realized that we had stopped being a typical Filipino family. We had left the comfort of it, having said our goodbyes to my Nanay and the rest of our extended family, and no longer having a house-help tagging along with us to help watch over the kids. Henceforth also, Regina, who was offered the job, would be the lone breadwinner, and I would be sidelined from work to tend to our growing pair.

Still, our first family trip abroad did not disappoint. For someone who had lived in Manila his entire life, Japan was literally and figuratively a breath of fresh air, with its sweet concoction of complex infrastructure and busy people, flavored by dabs of thriving God-given greenery and wildlife. Vending machines, which lit the Tokyo panorama like streetlights, felt peculiar but very inviting, and the almost-winter breeze was chilly but invigorating.

Dreamland, I thought to myself, and Japan is definitely one that many of us back home could only fancy on television. Funny, though, that people who visited dreamlands never had to contend with the native tongue, which I guess is the sidebar to this version; but it adds to the intrigue that’s uniquely Nihon, because Japanese is arguably the hardest language to learn and master.

A first night to remember

As it was starting to get dark, we did not see much of Regina’s school when we arrived there because we still had to some stuff to do before settling in for the night. Our first night in Japan was not immediately at the housing promised to us, but a room at the school’s multipurpose hall, which is usually the campus residence of visiting teachers and trainees.

Looking at the room, scenes of tea ceremonies from Japanese movies I had watched through the years seemed to jump out of my head. Bouncy Iva and Uri the dog crawler instantly loved the tatami – the rice-straw matting that padded the floor, and Regina was having her fill of her dream, knee-high tea table. I, aside from missing the sight of chairs a bit, was marveling at the simple yet elegant shoji windows.

“Please be careful with the windows; they’re very delicate,” one of the teachers who welcomed us to the place said, as the kids began to settle down, I mean play. No wonder ninjas loved to break through these shoji in movies, they’re made of paper and thin wood! And as soon as we realized it, like a knee-jerk response, Regina and I were suddenly on split-attention mode the rest of the evening, interacting with our hosts while defending the fragile shoji mostly from Uri, who was crawling all over the place like some crazed itchy worm. And so, Operation “No Hollow Windows this Halloween” was on until bedtime, when we let our hopes fall on a wall of luggage, tea table and futon that we had formed to keep the kids away from the window panes. By daybreak, we were relieved to find out that Halloween-dows did not happen, and that the shoji were still as pristine and elegant as we had found them.

The morning after our first night in Japan, thankfully, with the shoji windows still in pristine condition.

Looking back, after just one year of being here in the land of the sumos and samurais, we really have so much to thank God for as a family. For one, our first evening in Japan has become our last encounter with shoji windows, and the kids by now are learning to be gentler and more careful with stuff. The tatami floors, meanwhile, have stuck with us and are still the make of our rooms, and they have helped us avoid numerous blood, sweat, tears, heartaches, booboos, and swollen heads.