Tokyo Families, Fun House maker gets fine start

by Angela Jeffs

Why does it come as such a surprise to find Carin Smolinsky with an Audi TT Roadster? Certainly it suits her driving personality — the bubbling nature of her entrepreneurial spirit. For her own part, it’s perfect for nipping (“sedately,” she insists) through Tokyo traffic and slides into the smallest parking space with ease.

On her own admission, Carin can be “overwhelmingly optimistic.” Whether talking about her mother, Rochelle Battistelli, husband Allan Wilson or 17-month-old son Indiana, her various businesses or any of many projects in the making, she exhibits total enthusiasm.

May saw the launch of her company’s new bimonthly free magazine, Tokyo Families, described on the cover as “Your local guide to family living.” ABC International printed 4,000 copies, mostly gone. “Azabu National Supermarket ran out after the first day. I took along extra copies but seeing the shelf empty after 24 hours thought, ‘Oh dear, they’ve been trashed.’ No, said the employee, every single copy had been snatched up again. Now we’ve topped 800 from that venue alone.”

June sees the opening of Carin’s latest dream made reality: Fun House, a center in Azabu-juban for open creative play for children aged up to 5 years. “I’m so excited, waiting for shipments of equipment to arrive. There’ll be climbers, ball pits, soft play, a house corner, blocks, trains, trucks and ride-on toys. Parents and little ones can relax in the protected Baby Zone, recharge in the Sensory Exploration Room.”

The Fun House grand opening party will be on Monday June 6 from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. “Please come along for a play!” She also wants people to know that Fun House will organize birthday parties on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

Carin was born in Ontario of sturdy stock. Her immigrant Polish grandfather and his six siblings found themselves placed in orphanages soon after arrival in Canada. “Luckily he was adopted.” As for Carin’s maternal grandmother, she was “amazing,” exhibiting only eternal patience to her 14 children. “My mother was the eldest.”

After graduation Carin worked with autistic children, coordinating therapies and kids. “But I got burned out, as special needs workers so often do.” So she set out to travel for a year and found herself in Japan, where she met her British stockbroker husband. Yes, she agreed, it is unusual for two Westerners to meet and marry here.

Studying Japanese, and then looking around at preschool facilities, Carin saw a whole lot lacking. “This was in 1998. Now there are 53 preschool facilities in Minato Ward alone, all of which have to work hard to keep their customers; standards are rising all the time. We at ABC have a yearlong waiting list, so when parents call I advise, If you need schooling straightaway, shop around; there’s plenty of choice.”

She began offering preschool education with four children and two teachers one day a week on Asahi-dori. In her third year, demand exploded and ABC opened a second and then a third branch. In 2002, all the children came together in Hiroo.

“The location, on the ground floor, with windows all round and a mini-gym, was everything I ever dreamed of. Now we welcome 87 children daily from 150 families. How many teachers? Lots — 34, plus three assistants. Yes, a whole bunch of salaries to find every month, but then we are not cheap. Having said that, we offer great facilities, the very best imported resources, amazing staff.”

While ABC offers preschool education, Fun House is designed as a drop-in center. “I got the idea in Canada. Tokyo really needs a place where mums can meet and kids play in safety. We will also be hosting pregnancy groups and new mother groups. Hopefully we can bring together women in similar circumstances.”

Fun House is a huge space, 310 meters square, with imported padded flooring just going into place. Carin is pretty pleased with the 3-meter foam-filled train she has on order. But most thrilling is the sensory experience room, based on her experiences on children with special needs but benefiting any small child or overextended mother. “They’ll be able wind optic cables around their bodies, watch projected light patterns, marvel at the bubble tube.”

Her husband left his job two years ago, and now handles the layout of Tokyo Families. Around the same time, Carin’s mother (an infant development specialist nicknamed the “Baby Whisperer” now supervising ABC’s teacher training) decided to make the move from Vancouver to Tokyo. “Today we’re a three-way family business. Four, actually, because Indy’s one of our magazine restaurant critics!”

According to Carin, Allan is amazing with computers, and numbers in particular. “Being more interested in the larger picture, I’m less detail-orientated.” Being good with people, he was handling advertising as well as distribution, but now Tokyo Families is looking for an ad manager. “For the first issue, we offered ads for free to companies. Now we have to get real, and sales are not our forte.”

The next issue of Tokyo Families is due out July 1. It will feature an article on water parks and pools for the summer. Give details of a day trip to the Science Museum. And tell parents what to buy (patches apparently) to protect their babies from mosquito bites through the rainy season into summer. “Allan wants TF to go monthly, but then, as I tell him, he doesn’t have three jobs!”

Carin acknowledges her supreme optimism as “a bit naive,” but says if she believes in what she is doing, why shouldn’t others? “I love my school and the Fun House concept with every ounce of my being. I want kids to think them magical.” Seeing so many opportunities here, Carin is a member of the Tokyo Association of International Preschools (TAIP) and has just joined the Entrepreneurs Association,

As for young Indy, living en famille just behind Yebisu Garden Place, he has the best educated extended-family coparenting setup imaginable. No one is ever spoiled with love, says his mother, who wants another child but not quite yet.

“Yes, I’ve got to get over this lump (the opening of Fun House),” she agrees, “before I get another bump.” And then falls about laughing.