How I Met My Best Man — My Shiba, Kokuto
Earlier this month, I published a blog post titled, “If You Want To Make Friends In Japan, Get A Dog.” It’s dedicated to my dear Shiba, who’s been by my side for 8 crazy years. July is his birth month, and July is also my wedding anniversary, so in this follow-up post, I’ll let y’all all about how I met my best man —my Shiba, Kokuto.
(A version of this post appeared on Baby Kaiju, but I was unable to retrieve it.)
How I Met My Best Man — My Shiba, Kokuto
We met in Ueno in December 2012.
By then, I’d completed my graduate studies at Sophia University and was testing the waters to navigate a switch from fashion retail to teaching.
However, I wasn’t willing to fully leave the world of Japanese retail fashion behind (if only for my super-generous employee discount). So, I continued to work on the weekends at the Ueno branch of my shop.
As I’d been working with the same company for nearly 5 years, I enjoyed a sort of seniority that enabled me to basically come in, let my junior staf do the selling, while I wrote and faxed sales reports.
(FYI: Ueno was very laid-back compared to Shinjuku, and especially compared to Shibuya, and I was determined to be a “cool” senpai. I did get a kick out of teaching 19 and 20 year olds how to use Japanese honorifics.)
On the way back from my lunch break, I took a detour on Ueno’s busling Ameyoko street. Without realizing it, I’d ended up in front of a pet shop.
Now, at this time, I was settling into my newly single life and considered getting a dog. However, I was thinking of something like a…oh I don’t know, a Doberman. I had even found a few breeders in the Kanto region to contact after the winter holidays.
So, anyway, I was standing in front of this pet shop, and if you know anything about pet stores in Japan, they’re often a sad, pathetic sight. Kawaii puppies and kittens stacked rows high in tiny glass boxes, all with ridiculously high, 6-figure* prices.
*Ex: 100,000 yen = 1,000 USD
I walked in, took a quick glance at the cramped space that couldn’t have more than half the size of my Japanese living room, and walked right back out.
Just as I exited, my eyes caught a black fluff ball in a class box in the lower left corner of the shop’s entrance. Looking at the sign, the black fluff ball was actually a black Shiba!
Shiba are one of 6 breeds native to Japan, and Shibas are very popular due to their size and feisty attitude. The most common color for Shibas is a fox-like tawny brown, but white, black, and even “sesame” colored shibas exist. I’d never seen a black Shiba in person, so I walked up closer to investigate.
However, the dog barely moved from its curled up position. Actually, even if he wanted to move, he wouldn’t have had enough room in his little glass box. Still, there was no denying how incredibly cute he was! I could just make out his little tan “eyebrows” as he slept on a bed of shredded newspaper.
But, I had to return to work, so I walked away. Still, I thought about the little back fluff ball for the duration of my shift.
Unable to get him out of my mind, I decided to go back during my 30 minute break.
This time, the manager, unwilling to let a potential sale slip away, immediately approached me.
Unfazed, I simply smiled and asked to see the Shiba. As I waited inside, I couldn’t help but take in the sight of all the death row puppies and kittens waiting for a forever home. After all, it was mid-December, and they were all waiting for a pardon from the governor so they could become Christmas presents.
A few minutes later, the manager was back with the Shiba. But, unlike the excited kittens and puppies, he was motionless, almost like a stuffed toy.
I was suspicious as I held out my arms. Bluntly, I asked, “What’s wrong with this dog? You trying to sell me a sick dog?”
“No, it’s not that.” He leaned in closer. “People want tiny, cute puppies. Dogs like him are just too big and too old.”
My Shiba, as it turned out, was born in July. It was now December, and he was already 5 months old.
“Too old? He’s only 5 months old.”
“That’s why he’s 30,000 yen. We have to sell him or else…” His voice trailed off. “This isn’t his first pet shop, you know. He came from a breeder in Tochigi, then went to some shop in Tokyo. He just came from our branch in Kabukicho-“
When I heard that he just came from the Kabukicho branch, I squealed. “You mean we’ve been neighbors in Shinjuku for months and now we’re meeting in Ueno?!”
I looked down at the smelly, nearly motionless fluff ball in my arms and said, “Do you want to come back to Shinjuku with me?”
At that very moment, his head jerked up, he looked at me, and immediately started licking my face and neck!
For a dog that barely gave me the time of day 5 minutes ago, he was now incredibly responsive. I wasn’t expecting to go home with a dog that day. But, there’s no way I could have walked away from him after his reaction. Plus, as the manager gently reminded me, he was “only” 30,000 yen.
But, there was just one tiny problem.
I was actually scheduled to fly home to the US a few days later!
The manager, of course, was suspicious (remember, gotta make that sale!) until I showed him an email confirming my flight details.
Eventually, we worked out a deal.
I’d pay for my Shiba, plus sign up for pet insurance, and the pet shop would keep him free of charge until I returned to Japan a month later.
If I didn’t return to Japan as scheduled, my dog would be back on the market, and I’d be out 30,000 yen.
“No worries,” I said. “See you in January.”
Back Stateside, I stocked up on essentials. I bought dog bedding, a leash and collar, kibble and canned food, food and water dish, and so on.
And, true to my word, one month later, I hopped on a Keisei Liner bound for Ueno to pick up my Shiba, who was now 6 months old.
2012 was my annus horribilis, and I was looking forward to starting 2013 fresh with my Shiba… who, at that point, still didn’t have a name.
Not that it mattered, because just a few weeks later, around midnight on February 2, I got a call.
The call no one living abroad ever wants.
I remember the night so clear.
I was out in Kabukicho (as young people do, this was pre-COVID so don’t judge me please!). For some reason, I even remember everything I was wearing, a new dress from my Ueno shop. It was a royal blue, cap-sleeved cocktail dress with a jeweled neckline. I liked it so much I even got in black as well. It’s funny the things that you remember at times like that.
I took a taxi home. I almost forgot to take off my shoes as I drunkenly stumbled through my corridor. Thankfully, I had motion-sensor lights or I would have probably injured myself on something.
I sat on my balcony, in a highrise building right, in the heart of Shinjuku’s skyscraper district overlooking millions of twinkling lights, and just wondered what I was doing with my life. Or, more accurately, why were all these things like death and pain happening to me?
On February 2, 2013, I’d had enough of loss and grief.
My dog looked at me out on the balcony, rolled his eyes, and sauntered off.
It was almost like he was saying, “If you can’t even take care of yourself, then how are you supposed to take care of me?” (Bet you didn’t see that coming, because I certainly didn’t! Shiba sass to the rescue!)
So, when I say, my Shiba came into my life at the right time, I mean it.
If You Want To Make Friends In Japan, Get A Dog
Like I wrote in “If You Want To Make Friends In Japan, Get A Dog:”
A dog will help you get your shit together when you’re depressed (as in clinical depression). Unemployment, breakups & heartache and death of loved ones hurt, and dealing with all that thousands of miles away from home sucks.
Fate, destiny, whatever, sent me to that sketchy pet shop in Ueno so that I would have someone by my side as I battled my personal demons.
By the way, two months after the balcony incident, I almost drowned in a scuba diving mishap. At that point, I was just really annoyed with life. So, I really had no choice but to stay alive in order to keep the dog alive!
And that’s the story of how I met my best man, my Shiba, Kokuto! Incidentally, he did become the best man at my traditional Japanese wedding!
I would like to end this post with an important message: adopt, don’t shop (if possible). My own dog is from a pet shop, so I should be the last person to say this. But, the pet shops here are often overcrowded and understaffed for-profit enterprises. They sell kittens and puppies and young as 7 and 8 weeks old and keep them in cramped cages.
My dog literally spent the first 6 months of his life in a glass box. He’d never had a bath until I bathed him (the bathwater was a black as his fur, no exageration). He’d never touched asphalt or grass until his first walk. Please do your research. Also take in consideration how you will take your dog back home if Japan isn’t your forever home. Thank you.