The summer I graduated from high school our family packed up and went to live in Japan for a month.

People wonder how in the world my parents maneuvered a family of eleven all over the place, and I’ll be honest, sometimes so do I.  I mean, man alive, in theory that would sure be a fun thing to do with my kids.  Who wouldn’t want to jump on a plane and head over for an “exotic” trip to Asia?  But the more I talk to my parents about it the more I realize it didn’t just happen (of course it didn’t!!), but sometimes it’s easy in hindsight not to understand all the legwork involved…the sacrifices and serious effort it took to make these things happen.  My parents had a ton of frequent flyer miles from their “book tours” they did as authors.  And from so much flying experience they knew how to work the system for their benefit.  And they wrote books so they could do that from a lot of places, not just their home office.  I’m sure it wasn’t easy.  I’m sure it was a sacrifice as far as other things we would all miss out on at home and other things we may not have the funds for because so much went into these trips.  But they made it a big priority.  They willed it to happen.

And it did.

And now I’m grateful for these unique experiences.  With all my heart. I stress the “now” part because I sure wasn’t over-the-moon about it at the time.  (I’m not sure how everyone else felt, but my sister wrote her more detailed rendition is here.)

En route to Japan we stopped off for a few days in the Philippines.  I think it was just a layover they extended because they could, and my parents had a good friend who lived there.  We stayed with he and his wife. 

I remember walking out of the airport to the most intensely heavy, hot air I could imagine.2013-04-12 japan 73021There we are on the left up there, in awe of how jumbled and chaotic the streets were, and how loud and often the horns on those colorful bus things were going off.

(Excuse these somewhat blurry pictures of pictures I’m posting…they’re all I’ve got.)2013-04-12 japan 73020
Lots of things sure hit me there.  How big the world is.  How people lived.  My parents’ friends lived in a beautiful house with a driver and a cook.  One day we drove past a place called “Smokey Mountain:” a huge mountain (more like a whole mountain range) of garbage where people lived.  They made these little hovels out of trash and had babies there and cooked their food there and raised children there.  They collected things to recycle.  And it was smoky.  I don’t know if it was just steamy from the heat or that it was partly burning, but it was sure an eye-opener for my 18-year-old mind. 

So as you can imagine, when I read this book recently it sure hit home to me.rentcollector_cover-673x1024
(It’s about a family who lives in a dump in Cambodia similar to Smokey Mountain in the Philippines and although the writing style wasn’t favorite I’d totally recommend it…so much of it spoke to me…more about that book here

We visited the American War Memorial there in the Philippines and soaked in as much culture as we could.2013-04-12 japan 730222013-04-12 japan 73023(Gotta love my home-made gigantic floral skirt…)

Then we headed to Japan.

My parents somehow figured out how to finagle a house swap or some kind of deal with this American couple who lived in Japan (I don’t know how they came to ever be in touch with them in the first place) so we could stay in their house in Kamakura, Japan for a month.  All the girls slept in one room on mats on their tatami floor, and the boys slept in another.

We all just rolled out on these mats at night. 2013-04-12 japan 73025(Not sure if I was posing or sleeping with a smile there…)

We had lessons on putting on how to wear a Kimono:2013-04-12 japan 73024
(It is complicated, I tell you.)

We attended a Japanese Tea Ceremony.

I don’t have a picture of that but boy I remember it.  The exactness in how they sat, how they composed themselves, how many quarter-turns they made with the cup in the palm of their hand, etc.  I remember thinking it would last forever as I knelt there on that mat, trying to pay attention as my feet were falling asleep. 

One of my favorite things we did was volunteer in some kind of preschool.  I adored it because I loved working with kids so much.2013-04-12 japan 73028
My parents also finagled some kind of way for us to go to Japanese schools for one day.  I don’t remember much except that I was in awe of how even the little toddlers could speak Japanese so beautifully.

We took a day trip to Mount Fuji.2013-04-12 japan 730292013-04-12 japan 73030

And visited what felt like a bazillion shrines:2013-04-12 japan 73032(complete with fanny packs, of course.)

The city where we stayed was known for it’s “Big Buddha.”  I think we visited there a lot.2013-04-12 japan 73035(I love how intensely my sister is studying that map of hers.)

And fed the birds there…2013-04-12 japan 73033

My Dad took us three oldest on a day trip to Kyoto too.2013-04-12 japan 730362013-04-12 japan 73037
We have grand stories of the singing toilets that still make my Mom laugh so hard she gets giant tears rolling down her cheeks.  And I still think about the $100 perfectly round watermelons lining the shelves of the grocery stories there when I pick mine up at Costco for $4.99.  My mind flashes back to Japan each time I see plastic food in restaurant windows here in the States. 

And every time something here reminds me of that great country over there, a part of my heart rejoices that I got to be there.  Even just for a little while.  And that I got to reach outside of my teenage self to see another corner of the world. 

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  1. Wow! What fabulous experiences! Do you…or any of your readers…have any ideas on how families on tight budgets could make these experiences happen? I am a stay at home mom with four kids and my husband is a public school teacher…not much money! We have looked into Fuhlbright Educator Exchanges and some other ideas and although it would be a great experience for my husband (and myself as I was a teacher and could probably do it too)..these exchanges don't provide for children. I've looked into some of the websites you posted about your India travels and still there is a hefty price tag. Anyone have any ideas or resources? I would just like my children (and myself for that matter) to be able to see how others live…volunteer if possible, etc. etc. but I have no idea about how to make it happen like your parents did! Thanks 😉

  2. What great memories! I also remember my parents taking us on many trips. I appreciate now all the work it takes to cart kids around the country or the world! Had to laugh at the Fanny Pack – my 15 year old was looking for one the other day for his tacky tourist outfit – sorry Shawni! I had one too. 🙂

  3. I do not know how your parents did it! we did only 5 weeks with the 2 of us moving all over SE Asia. I couldn't have done it with 11 people, 11 suitcases, 11 passports, 11 carry ons. I was scared I would leave my passport somewhere!

    in the picture with you and the little Japanese boy, you can really see the resemblance of you in 2nd daughter.

    Janelle, we are hoping to house swap with someone in France for 3 months. so we can take our time looking for a house. What about house swaps? If I had children I would defo do this, as a home will have more comfort and equipment that you wont find in a hotel or a holiday let.

  4. Janelle, there is an organization called World Wide Organization of Organic Farmers that will allow you to sign up to stay with a family that owns a farm. The purpose is explained on their website, but essentially it is to promote organic farming. I, too, was looking for an inexpensive way to travel and found this group. The website I looked at placed people with families in France. I didn't end up using the organization so I can't speak to the actual experience, but there are reviews you can find on the internet.

  5. Shawni, I LOVE this post! I love all of your posts, but I especially love this one! My husband and I just moved back from living in South Korea for 4 years teaching English, and fell absolutely in love with Asia. I don't know how in the world your parents got all of you out there, but it gives me hope that one day I'll be able to bring our kiddos out there. 🙂

  6. Thanks for doing this post. These are things I've wondered about not just since starting to read your blog, but also since reading your mom's books eons ago 🙂


  7. Shawni, that is so awesome. My husband and I served our missions in Japan. He was in Fukuoka and I was in Hokkaido. How did all of you like the food?
    Anyway, we are taking a trip with all 4 of our kids when the Sapporo, Hokkaido Temple is finished.
    You had some amazing experiences in your childhood. Thanks for shaing them.

  8. I love all these incredible experiences you've had with your family, I really hope some day I can do something similar with my kids. Which brings me to a slightly unrelated question… obviously always wanted to have kids and be a mum, how did you get through those middle years before kids happened? I'm a teacher at the moment but I don't really enjoy it that much and I know that the only thing I've ever really wanted to do is be a mum. I'm getting married next year so I know it'll happen sometime in the fairly near future but we also want to have a couple years of married life without kids to travel and live abroad etc before we settle down properly. I guess what I'm asking is did you always know that that was your life's calling (to be a mother)? and how did you cope with the years before kids with that knowledge? what did you do? where did you find satisfaction? I'd really appreciate any advice you have!

  9. I love these stories! It makes me want to scoop all my little people up and go be adventurous. And I love Japan. My brother and his wife (who is Japanese) live over there right now and even though it kills me that they live so far away (with the cutest little niece you've ever seen in your life) I am jealous of them living in such an amazing place. I hope I get to see it while they are still there!

  10. Elle looks just like you at the same age! You're beautiful!
    Loooot of love from south west of France 😉

    BTW, thanks to you, I watched for the first time the "conference" and I learned a lot! Merci!

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