Travel Think Tank

The Best Souvenir I Ever Got

The best souvenir I ever got was one I didn’t want. It was too expensive. It was a complete luxury item. Most of all, it added to my already overwhelming schedule! i mean, let’s face it, usually we bring home a few little trinkets so that we can smile fondly and remember a really great experience. We do not bring home obligations! In fact, I recently participated in a Zoom show and tell for travel souvenirs. People brought all kinds of things: kitchen gadgets, cultural tchochkes that represent the far away place that was so much fun. Actually, I had participated with my beloved Freddie Mercury Kokeshi doll that I found in the Plaka in Athens. A very clever find, but not my best souvenir.

Let me rewind just a bit.

My husband and I had decided to move to Japan based on Uncle Sam’s insistence. We had three elementary aged kids who were all, bless them, handfuls. On top of relocating, the settling in would be entirely up to me as my husband would ship out often with his command.

We were dealt a few blows during this particular relocation. The biggest one being that we would need to live “on the economy” instead of in base housing. That story was for another day. Anyway, lease signed, electric turned on, and moved in. About one year later, I collapsed for a nap while my husband took the kids out for a little fun at the local superstore complex, Viva Home. Then it happened.

Big News

My nap was interrupted by the bustle of three kids being reminded to take their shoes off and struggle to remove their coats quickly. There was news and they needed to tell me. “Mom! Mom! Dad found a puppy!” You’ve got to be kidding me. Seriously. I literally started praying. Lord, I’m trying to do my best here and I’ve got quite a full plate as you can clearly see. This would be a really good time for you to intervene.

“There is no way on God’s green earth that we are getting a puppy! Thanks for making me the bad guy in this! What in the world could you be thinking?! Don’t you think I’m overwhelmed as it is!?” Unfortunately, my mom filter was not working. “Babe, you gotta see this little puppy.” Really? You leave in a month for deployment! Ugggh. Little did they all know that I had a concrete out that I was just waiting to use at just the right moment.

Nope, nope, nope.

Fine, I’ll go see the puppy. Let me just run and get my heartless, unfeeling self together and we’ll go see the puppy WE ARE NOT GETTING! Folks, this was the cutest puppy I ever saw in my life. And interestingly, the guy running the pet department was really happy to see us. Maybe happy wasn’t the correct word. He looked relieved. So, I held the puppy and she was everything a puppy hungry person would hope for. She had cute little curious pointy ears. Her tail curved up into a perfect circle and she was the perfect amount of white floof. Not too prissy but not too laid back either. The problem was is that I was not that puppy hungry person.

I had three kids to get to school every day. Plus, I needed to teach 23 second graders then get everyone back home again as I happily took advantage of every cultural opportunity that Japan had to offer. A puppy! They were crazy and my husband was their leader. “Well, I’d love to get this puppy but our lease does not allow any dogs.” I told you. Concrete.

Case closed.

No dog, no more adding to my work load. It was over. Spoiler: it was not over.

I was whined at. I was pestered. They got their big tears out. I was not budging and neither were they. To put an end to it, again, I said the following: if the puppy is still there when we move into base housing, we will get it. Agreed. My plan was working again. They didn’t know the facts. We were number 34 on the list and that dog would be bought and long gone before anything would happen.

That night, I got online and looked up this strange puppy breed I had really never heard of before. Shiba Inu: a Japanese breed used to hunt in the foothills of Mt. Fuji. Shiba’s are very cat like. They are not recommended for the novice dog owner. Shibas are the national breed of Japan. Expect to pay about $1700.00 for a well bred puppy in the Tokyo area. We are so not getting this dog.

God has a sense of humor.

The next day, I picked up our mail on base. Sitting on the very top of the stack was our letter detailing our quarters assignment on base. Holy mother of Buddha! How in the world could this have happened?! More importantly, how could I hide this information? Too late, my husband had gotten the call while at work. I made my gamble and I had lost.

I admit that I was not a good loser. The entire drive, I peppered them with questions. Who will walk her? Who will give her a bath? And who exactly will be in charge of the kennel training? I got the typical “can we get a dog” answers knowing the whole time that the real answer was me. Our guy in the pet department once again looked relieved to see us. In broken English, he asked if we wanted to see the Shiba. Yes, we did. Out she came looking like the very popular local cellphone ad for Soft Bank. We forked over far too much money than I care to admit to a very relieved store clerk and walked out with the national dog of Japan on a pink leash.

All over Tokyo

She needs a name.

We had heard other people name their dogs cute Japanese names. At the top of that list was Sakura which means cherry blossom. Another top contender was Sushi. Our puppy, who had already wet the floor and fell off the couch didn’t seem to fit any of those. She needed a name that represented her new tribe. A name that let you know that she belonged to our family. Then, it came to me: Sumimasen, Gomenesai. It was the first words I had learned in our mandatory cultural manners class when we arrived. It was the words I probably said more than any others: excuse me, I’m sorry. Sumi for short.

Sumi, the best travel souvenir I ever got.
In my classroom during those very early days.

Sumi spent the next six weeks hidden under my desk in my classroom by day and keeping us up with potty breaks by night. She was just too young to leave alone. We were finally settled on base and Sumi was just big enough to get up a stair. And teething. She was loving up to her breed standard as a catlike drama queen on all fronts. Collar? Nope. Regular dog food? I think not. In a kennel? Umm, I’m a dog of royalty, move over. One day I found her in my closet, chewing on a brand new pair of shoes that took me weeks to have shipped from the States. Another day, I found her tearing apart my clothes in the hamper.

This means war.

Sumi finally put me over the edge when I found her eating yet another pair of very expensive shoes that belonged only to me. She never went after my husband’s things or anything that belonged to the kids. What’s the deal?! The internet promptly told me that she was exhibiting proper pack behavior. She was vying for the coveted spot of alpha female and I was her main competition.

Well, furball, you are not winning this round. Query: how to let your dog know that you are the alpha? Answer: bite her on the ear. The next day, that dog went searching for a shoe sized teething ring again and I took it upon myself to ensure we were all clear on this alpha issue. After a VERY dramatic reaction and subsequent pouting session, Sumi and I were on the same page.

The Sumi shenanigans continued as she figured out how to get out of the gate. It happened so frequently that it felt as if we were calling for man overboard drills every time she got out. We always knew that we could find her in one of two places: the smoke pit or at the fence where a rather handsome sesame Shiba named Pedro lived. One stormy night, she decided she was afraid of the sound that our stove vent made because of the wind. That was the night that she began sleeping in our bed ALL of the time.

Sumi in our family portraits.
Part of the family.

Seriously though.

Our little life in Japan with our Japanese puppy was quickly coming to an end. It was almost time to go back to the States. Then March 11th happened. In short, the Earth shook, the tsunami came, the power plant flooded and all hell broke loose. The decision to evacuate was made and everybody, including the dog, was on the next available flight out. As you can imagine, there are a lot of emotions that are attached to this story.

For Sumi, it meant getting a health check to get cleared to fly. She also needed to get in a kennel (which was the equivalent to giving a cat a bath). I took her to the hangar where the vet staff had set up shop. While we waited over three hours, Sumi became more and more alarmed. The only time she calmed was when the base chaplain came over to us and gave her a small blessing.

Through all of this pandemonium, through all of the chaos, I kept it together like a good Navy wife should. First, we closed our house and made a wish that everything we owned wouldn’t wind up at the bottom of the Pacific. We arranged our flights. Then, I kissed my husband goodbye. He had to stay with his command. I boarded a flight with one dog, three kids and a ton of luggage. We said goodbye to Japan. A country we had come to love and respect. Through all of that. I never shed a tear.

Then it happened.

As we landed at O’Hare, I was exhausted. With customs to clear and another leg to DC to endure, we exited the plane to collect our things. In baggage claim, all of our suitcases were accounted for and we waited by the over sized cargo door for Sumi’s crate. She was one of seven dogs on our flight and six crates had been waiting. Where was Sumi? Minutes passed by and nothing. It was at this moment, in the middle of baggage claim in the international terminal, that it all caught up with me. I sat on the edge of the belt and the tears just came. And bless my handfuls, they all tried to comfort me.

Then it happened. I heard a little yip. On the other side of the hall, a little commotion had begun. And I knew. That was my girl. That dog that I didn’t want. That dog that caused me so much work and ate too many shoes. I knew that girl was mine. We were so very relieved to see our fluffy white dog that looked just like an arctic fox. She belonged with us.

Sumi in the beach in Maryland
Surveying the shoreline.

Little Did We Know.

We learned a little more about the Shiba breed. For example, in certain corners of Japan, it’s said that a Shiba is not chosen. Instead, a Shiba chooses you. In fact, some go as far as to believe that once a Shiba has made up its mind, it can not go to another. Gosh, that really explained the relieved salesman back at Viva Home.

These days, Sumi still runs away if she can but only to wait out in the yard so that she can get a treat when she is called back inside. She still sleeps on our bed making sure one paw is touching me and another touching my husband. Most of all, she is still the center of attention in most matters. If she is not, you can put money on the fact that she is pouting or giving you some serious side eye in her very passive aggressive way. Shibas are like that.

For more on Shiba shenanigans and loyalty check out this book: Hachiko about an unbelievably faithful dog (an Akita plays the starring role, they are the bigger version of a shiba)

Souvenirs are so special! They bring back incredible memories. Be sure to leave your favorite souvenir in the comments below!

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