From Pet Shop to Family – Kokuto’s Story – A Shiba’s Tale
Happy Birthday to my dear Shiba, Kokuto! You’re 5 years old! To celebrate our five years together and all the changes a marriage and baby has brought us, I want to share this Shiba’s tale of how I got to be his human and he my furry companion.
I grew up with dogs and always wanted to have one as a companion in my Japanese life. After going through relationship issues, I felt that it was time to put a hold on romance and focus more on me. 2012 started off with a breakup, then I had some positive changes, but by fall, things were falling apart. It was a tough time for me, and I thought I would take a break from dating and do all the things that made me happy. Still, I wanted a bit of a companionship, without the drama of relationships. It was time for a dog. I imagined that we’d go to dog friendly cafes in Tokyo and travel around Japan together.
I did tons of research on dog breeds, and… eventually settled on a doberman.
Look at how sleek they are. And, did you know, the breed was created by a German tax collector collector who wanted protection as he did his rounds? How cool is that?
I wasn’t concerned about the size. I was living in a studio apartment which was a 7 minute walk for Shinjuku Central Park, and a 30 minute walk from Yoyogi Dog Run. Even a doberman would have ample space to run and play. A dog like a doberman can’t be found in pet shops, so I did research on breeders. Most were located in western Japan or in Kyushu, but eventually I found a breeder in Chiba. It was December at the time, and I thought, “After the new year I’ll take a day off and go to Chiba, talk to the breeder, and get to know the puppies.”
Obviously, I never ended up getting a doberman. Why?
How I Met Kokuto
It all started one Sunday in Ueno. Even though I became a teacher at an international school, I used my days off to work in fashion retail at my old company and make extra money for my global excursions. On this particular day, after our lunch break, my co-worker and I took a different path back to the department store, and we happened across a pet shop. Pet shops in Japan, or nearly anywhere else for that matter, don’t have a good reputation.
I didn’t even want to look at those poor babies, but against my better judgement, I looked and saw a black furball in a cage on the lower corner of the shop’s main window. Looking at his information card I saw 柴, the kanji for “Shiba.” Having never seen a black Shiba before, I was interested…but it was time to get back to work.
During the remainder of the day, I kept thinking about that Shiba and I ended up going back on my 30 minute break.
This time, I noticed his price plastered in big numbers on his glass cage. ¥30,000. I was under the impression that dogs in pet shops were expensive. After all, all the other dogs and cats were going for at least ¥90,000. I asked the manager, “What’s wrong with that dog? Is he sick?”
He said that no, he was not sick, just old. Old as in 5 months old. Too big to be the tiny puppy most people expect when they come in for a new dog.
Hmm, I thought and then asked to hold him.
Normally when you hold puppies, they are so full of life and wriggle and squirm, but not this doggie. He was just there in my arms. I thought he really was sick and the manager wasn’t being honest. No matter how much I tried to get his attention, he was virtually unresponsive.
As I held him, the manager explained this dog was still at a pet shop. He’d originally been born (I imagine at a puppy mill) in Tochigi prefecture. Then, he made his way to Kabukicho [entertainment district] branch and came to Ueno last week.
I was surprised. Kabukicho, located in Shinjuku, was only a 5 minute ride from where I lived in Nishi-Shinjuku. We lived so close but ended up meeting in Ueno.
So I cuddled him and jokingly said, “Do you wanna come back to Shinjuku with me?”
I kid you not, at that moment, his eyes lit up with life and he started licking my face. He really did want to come back to Shinjuku – and with me!
Since it was my suggestion, I felt like I couldn’t back out, I needed to take him home. There was only one tiny problem… two days later was my flight to the US, and I wouldn’t be back in Japan until mid-January.
I explained the situation to the manager and he came up with a solution: pay the fees, do the paperwork, enroll in insurance, and they’d continue keep him in the shop, free of charge, until I returned. He made his daily sales quota, and I was assured that my dog would be waiting for me when I returned to Japan.
Poor thing had already spent 5 months of his life in a pet shop and would be spending yet another month in solitary. But, I was going to come back to free him.
As soon as I arrived at Narita, I sent my suitcase home by delivery service and made my way to Ueno using the Keisei Liner. (If staying in the Ueno area, you must use the Keisei Liner – it’s fast, convenient, and comfortable.)
I made my way to the pet shop, and true to the manager’s word, doggie was still there and waiting for me. On his cubicle/cage was a sign: ”I’ve been adopted!” I felt bad knowing that every day he was waiting to go to a place called “home”. But today was the day that we’d be going home together.
I put him in a travel cage, and we made our way to the subway and then our way home. I noticed in the pet shop that he was smelly, to say the least, and by giving him a bath, I would be cleaning him and “baptizing” him into a new life.
To start a new life, he needed a name. I chose the name Kokuto, using the chacracters for “black” (黒) and “katana” (刀).
Kokuto is also the Japanese word for muscovado/brown sugar (黒糖). Whenever people ask me his name, they immediately think of sugar. Once I tell them his name is “black sword,” it’s always a genuine, shocked reaction.
The first months with Kokuto were hard. Taking care of a puppy is no joke! Potty training, teaching not to bark unnecessarily… and he destroyed my floorboards and any and everything that he could get his little paws on. Not only did I lose my deposit, I had to pay extra! I’d come home from work and my studio apartment would be a mess. But, I always looked forward to going home after work. No mater how tired I was, I loved playing with him, On the occasion that I did go out at night, no matter how hungover I was, I always went for his walk.
As a pet shop dog, the things that regular dogs experience, like taking baths, walking on asphalt, playing with other dogs, walking in the rain…he was extremely delayed in experiencing it. Going out for our first walk nearly broke my heart. Having lived in a pet shop all his life, Kokuto had never touched asphalt. It was January and cold, and he just didn’t understand what was happening. We have electric carpets in Japan, and his face was full of shock when he first set foot on it. Eventually he came to love it and on my days off, we’d lay on the carpet snuggleing under the blanket and basking in the warm winter sunlight.
As it happens, Kokuto ended up coming into my life at a time when I needed him the most. Not even three weeks into living with me, my grandmother died, and I had to go back to the US. Having grown up with my grandmother, she was such an important part of my life and even my life in Japan. Her house was the highlight of my yearly visits back to the US. I could refresh and recharge before going back to retail and customer service. I always made sure to call to her once a week. We’d chat about Law and Order reruns that I saw on TV. I’d tell her about one of Briscoe’s witty one-liners, or something that Green said to a suspect. Even to this day, Law and Order is such a special TV show to me becaus eof this reaosn.
It was so weird. I just saw her for Christmas and New Year’s and talked to her only a few days before getting the news. I couldn’t process it, it didn’t make any sense. Kokuto, just by being himself, a needy puppy, helped me not “get over” her passing, but he gave me something to focus on as I processed bit by bit what was happening. When I was home that December, I remember telling my grandmother about my dog and how excited I was. Her advice? Don’t let that dog tear you up.
Not only that, but he’s helped me find “the one.” When I was ready to date again, I’d always end up doing park dates or dates at dog friendly places. Most guys didn’t get that far/weren’t interested in dogs, and one guy that I went out with, Kokuto growled and growled at him for the entire date. Needless to say, I didn’t contact him after that.
Still, when he met my now husband, they immediately clicked. The greatest test was when I asked my husband to house and dog sit while I went traveling. I made sure to check in. I was pleasantly surprised that my apartment was intact and Kokuto was still alive. It must because my husband is born in the Year of the Dog and they understand each other on some spiritual level.
Looking back on our 5 Years…
With my husband, I’ve been able to fulfill my goal of traveling Japan with Kokuto, We’re still limited to the Kanto region, but I think we’ve visited every prefecture in Kanto (I think except Kanagawa)…
When we haven’t been able to take him, he’s become a pro at staying at dog hotels or the in-laws’ house…
Making our home in eastern Tokyo, he’s made lots of friends…
Kokuto was able to join us in our Japanese wedding. He was the star of the ceremony…
And Kokuto, so far, has been incredibly patient and welcoming of his new sister!
Cheers to our five years together and to many, many more!
From Pet Shop to Family – Kokuto’s Story – A Shiba’s TaleKokuto’s Story- A Shiba’s Tale
Check out more posts on Kokuto and owning a dog in Japan:
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