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08 January 2017 @ 11:39 pm
New Year's, the biggest holiday in Japan, has never struck me as being a religious event until this year. Certainly, we always pray at the shrine, but it seems like a sort of minor, token ordeal compared with all the cooking we do at home, the family gathering, giving the kids their presents, making rounds to see all the relatives. . .

Then, suddenly, Yossi's grandmother passed away the week before.

It wasn't a sad event so much as a sigh of relief. She had been at the point where she couldn't remember the faces of her family. She could no longer eat and her time spent listlessly in a bed reminded me of a movie I watched once about death, where before you die, you chose your favorite memory to take with you and recall nothing else. She had her last memories with her and was ready to move on.

Knowing that I would be seeing Yossi's family soon, I knew I had to prepare for what kind of Japanese customs there are surrounding a death in the family. The first thing I did was go to my grandmotherly friends and ask them what to do.

The first woman told me the Japanese phrase for 'My sincere condolences' is 'Goshushosama degozaimasu.'
After committing that to heart, the second woman said you would never say that to someone in your family. It's too formal.
They all agreed that I should not say 'Happy New Year's!' to anyone. In fact, I should be careful not to express any celebratory phrases at all. Meaning my birthday was probably out of the question.
I had some candy canes that I was going to bring as a souvenir from the USA. When I showed them to my grandmotherly friends they all gasped and warned me against it. Red and white are the colors of happiness and celebration. You would not dare give them to someone who's family member has just passed away.

Instead, a couple of the ladies said I should give money. You can buy an envelope dressed in black and white cords. Depending on how close you were to the deceased will determine how much to give. On the front of the envelope you write 'Goreizen.' They went to work drawing a picture of it and showing me how to write the kanji. However at the same time, two other ladies said that since the funeral is already over, the time for giving money has passed and it would be seen as rude to provide it so late.

They were also divided on whether I'm still allowed to send my New Year's cards, as Yossi's family is in mourning, and I'm part of his family, but I'm personally not in mourning.

I was at a serious loss for what to do. . .

Then one person said to me wisely, "Ask your mother-in-law what to do. Just by asking her, you will show her that you share condolences with her. And she will be happy to tell you about her customs. In fact, it might even help the situation for her."

All the ladies in the room agreed to this and I thanked them all for being my grandmothers.

So I packed the candy-canes as a snack for the car, I bought a special envelope just in case, and I didn't send any more of my New Year's cards but I brought them with me just in case. I was looking forward to asking my mommy-in-law what to do.

So what happened? Nothing I expected at all!

Instead of driving straight to the Hina's, we decided to stop by Yossi's uncle's house. His uncle had been in charge of the wake, and so he had taken a week off of work. Usually he's working even on holidays, so Yossi hadn't seen him in 3 years. We really wanted to meet up. On the way to his house is Yossi's aunt's home, and they're always having a party there. As we drove in, a horde of 7 kids were running around together outside. When they saw me they started saying 'Hello.' What else was I supposed to do? I took out the candy canes and gave them all away.

Then Yossi's aunt came out, dressed all in black. At first I thought maybe Japanese customs were so strict that you have to keep wearing black the whole mourning period. I wondered if I was ok wearing my bright red winter coat, but then I remembered Yossi was beside me wearing a pink sweatshirt so I must be ok! As we talked, the aunt mentioned she had to be on her way. I realized she'd just dressed up to go somewhere. And then it turns out she's coming with us? I had no idea what was going on, but I wasn't sure how to ask. Then we all got out of the car at Yossi's uncle's and the person who answer's the door is Yossi's mom! Also wearing all black. What's going on? Isn't the funeral over?

We were all ushered in to a room where Grandma's ashes were being kept. I looked at Yossi, my eyes hopefully conveying my question 'Is it ok for me to be here?' and his eyes giving a firm answer 'Yes, just follow me.' We sat down in front of Grandma and fruit was put at her altar where a giant picture of her smiling face sat, staring down cheerfully at all of us.

Suddenly there was a knock at the window. The window? It was a sliding glass door which was opened in haste and a priest came in wearing deep purple robes. My eyes looked over at Yossi again, but this time there was no answer. What I found out later was that we'd all become involved in a Hoji.

After a person has passed away, ceremonial services are performed on the 7th, 49th, and 100th day after death. It just so happened that Yossi and I had arrived on the 7th day, which he hadn't thought of either, and when we told everyone we were going to his uncles, they just assumed it was for the Hoji service. When I heard that the funeral was over, I thought that meant Grandma was already in the ground, but apparently her soul still may be lingering over the ashes, so until these ceremonies are finished, she will be in the uncle's house under her smiling picture.

At first I was intimidated to be in the presence of a real priest. Everyone was at their utmost polite, and I wasn't sure if I could follow accordingly. He gave me a look, then asked my mommy-in-law who I was. Usually I'd butt in and answer myself, but I didn't know which form of the word 'wife' to use, and I was wearing an awfully conspicuous red bulky coat. I let everyone else talk for me. We all sat down in seiza position. And then to my surprise, the priest apologized for coming early and started talking about how cold it was and how busy everyone is these days. We served him tea and chatted with him until everyone had gathered. No one mentioned Grandma at all, but my aunt asked if this season was busy for priests and he said off-handedly that yes, a lot of old folks can't handle the change in weather and kick the bucket. I was kind of shocked to hear these kinds of words coming from Japanese people's mouths.

Finally I got up my nerve and apologized in the politest way I know about my horribly red coat. Yossi mentioned under his breath that he was embarrassed, too. Everyone just smiled at me and said not to mind. I felt immensely better after that.

The ceremony started. I expected a lot of sitting while the priest spoke in a language too religious for me to understand. Yes, that's exactly what happened for the first five minutes, but then we were all given sutra books to chant from. My karaoke skills came in handy here and I was able to chant along without knowing at all what I was saying. I loved listening to the priest's voice. He was vibrating his vocal chords deeply, in a way that made the room seem to vibrate. I could imagine all of our voices making these vibrations in the space around us, and including Grandma, connecting with her through out voices. All the while she smiled down at us from her picture. I didn't feel any sense of sadness or mourning, just a kind of cheerful respect. I tried to calm my mind and just feel the vibrations, but I was so nervous about following the words and doing the right thing that I couldn't keep focused at all. I have some ways to go if I ever want to get better at meditation.

So finally the chanting was over and we offered incense to Grandma while saying prayers for her. The uncle made a mistake and put his incense in the wrong place. Someone else made a mistake and put the incense box down the wrong way. Yossi was hesitant to let me try, but his mom gave him a nod and I took my turn praying for Grandma. I didn't make any mistakes, but at that point I didn't think it mattered anymore. How often do we get a chance to perform these ceremonies? How can Japanese people even be expected to remember? After the ceremony, everyone began asking the priest a lot of questions like how often to pray, and how long to keep the fruit on the altar, and how often to add a bit of rice to her food platter.. . The priest had to pull out a guidebook to answer some of the questions. Yossi's mom was bummed that she couldn't visit a shrine for New Year's, so the priest told her it would be ok to visit a temple on New Year's eve instead and hear the gong ring 100 times before the stroke of midnight. None of us had ever done that before, so we mused it over. I realized that I wasn't the only one feeling awkward and out-of-place. And I realized the reason the priest was so friendly and informal. It's his job to make these situations as smooth and comfortable as possible.

So I started asking my own questions. What are the little white balls under her picture? Apparently they're mochi that the uncle makes every day to give to Grandma in place of a meal. While her soul is still hanging around the Earth, she need to symbolically eat symbolic food once a day.

Finally, the priest left. Grandma's fruit was divided up among us. I wondered if it was ok to eat food that had been symbolically already eaten by the dead. . . Anyway, I took it. We all went outside to say goodbye when suddenly Yossi realized he hadn't been able to chat with his uncle as originally planned. We went back in the house and asked to sit around together for a bit. Yossi's uncle invited is back in to Grandma's room! Again, I felt awkward, but I started looking at her picture and her urn not as this ritualistic Japanese cultural phenomenon, but as just some lady in the corner laughing and watching us. A part of the family. With that in mind, we chatted a while until we all started yawning. Then finally we went on to the Hina's.

Does it end there?
New Year's eve, I didn't tell anyone about my birthday, but they surprised me with two cakes. I don't have any pictures because I honestly wasn't ready for it at all.

New Year's day, I knew we weren't going to be visiting a shrine, so I got up like any other day-- to find the traditional New Year's food prepared and ready at the table. My niece's mom even went out in the garden and gathered sprigs and berries to garnish our plates with. Everything on the table was red and white! After a hearty breakfast, we went to the park to fly kites. It felt like a real New Year's to me! Only it was missing the religious element. Maybe that was something that I don't pick up on because I'm not Japanese. I didn't feel like anything was missing from our holiday time. I wonder how the others felt.

As is our custom, Yossi and I took a road trip involving hiking, adventuring, and hot springs. At one point I wanted to go to a botanical museum. You had to walk through a temple to get to the museum, and I felt Yossi's hesitance at treading on sacred ground. All the people around us were here to pray for the New Year. To my non-Japanese eyes, I just see them as sight-seers, having fun, getting their fortunes, letting their kids run around the temple grounds. But suddenly I had to separate out the 'fun' from the 'religious' from the 'celebrating New Years.' It's okay for Yossi to go to a Buddhist temple, but it isn't okay for him to bring mourning to a Shinto shrine. Yossi is forgiven for wearing pink and eating auspicious food, but you should not exchange holiday greetings with him. I could see that us walking through the temple grounds were okay, but I thought it probably wasn't okay for him to be around all those people celebrating the New Year. We took a jog around the perimeter instead.

When I got back to Kobe, I found some cards for Yossi from friends who didn't know about his Grandma. I'm still not sure if I should let Yossi see them. Or should I wait until 100 days has passed? Thank all of you who gave me cards, I put them all over my room and they make me smile. But with Yossi's situation I realize how each New Year's card is in some way slightly religious. And the cards in my room sent from my friends around the world are not religious in the least bit, they're about love, peace, generosity, best wishes... I'm not Japanese enough to see what a paper in the postbox has to do with a shrine and life versus death.

I went to work last week. In the US, I probably wouldn't have said 'Happy New Year' a week after the event, but because this is Japan I said it in a big loud voice in English as I walked in to my school. It's nice to find places where English and Japanese can overlap, even if the holidays are completely different. I felt like my outburst was a friendly way of participating in a culture that isn't mine. However, my manager took me aside a few minutes later to remind me that one of the staff's father had passed away the summer before and my words could be interpreted as very rude.

It hit me again that the New Year's holiday in Japan is actually grounded in religion.
I suppose this is how Japanese people feel when they realize Christmas isn't all just about Santa.

A bit of culture shock. But a good learning experience.

Hi everyone! Let me know if your address has changed in the last year. And if you need mine, send me a message!

Yossi and I went to the US for Thanksgiving.

My sister bought a house in Portland and I enjoyed staying there, pretending I lived in the town, checking out the local park, the grocery store, the diner nearby.

People ask me if I miss the U.S., and I always say no.
But when I'm there, I never want to leave.
But I can say the same thing about Nepal and Finland. I visited and I didn't want to leave.
Walking in the grocery store in Portland, I got to explore these feelings thoroughly.

I think it was when my sister asked me if I wanted to buy a bagel.
And I thought - this will be my last chance to eat an American bagel for the next two years.
And I thought - If I'm going to go two years without one, what's the point of eating one now?
And I realized then, that it's not about what I have now. It's the idea that it's an option.

I don't miss the U.S. in the sense that I want to go there right now and see my family, or smell the forest, or walk around my neighborhood. It's not about what I can and can't do now. It's about the options I have.

The idea that I could just go out for a bagel. Any day, any time.
Living every day in the security that if I really needed to call one of my Colorado friends, I could.
Walking down the street and seeing little kids running around, and knowing that they're going to the same kind of schools I went to, and learning the same things.

I went to buy shoes in my size, since that's a luxury here in Japan, and I felt really lost in the shoe store. Because I don't really need new shoes, I just needed to remember what it was like to have the option of just walking in to a shoe store and getting new shoes.

On the other hand, this kind of nostalgia for options is why I decided to live in Japan as well.
I sat there my last semester at school and it bothered me that I didn't have the option of speaking Japanese whenever I felt like it. I couldn't live every day with the comfort that if I wanted to buy a pretty Japanese magazine, I could go find it. I didn't have the security that all the interesting and mysterious food was lined up and waiting for me at the convenient store. I wanted that to be my life. And I came back to Japan and found that life.

Looking around at my house compared to my sister's house, I realize I'm not settled.
I still have shoeboxes with things that I might take out if I ever have shelf space for them. My bookcases are waiting for a day when I think organizing them will be worth it. None of the dishes or furniture matches. Nothing's permanent here. I haven't put anything in the walls to hold up any pictures. It's like even though I know I'm in Japan for the long run, I'm still ready to move at a moment's notice.

Maybe I don't trust settling down?
I don't know.
But after my sister bought a house, I realized if I really want that extra level of stability, I might start with making my life look more settled on the outside.

Jennifer Hina
(Subject written on the side of a driving school car)

I love Itayado.

Itayado is a section of Kobe city, based around a shopping street where people sell fresh fish, vegetables, and sweets. Of course there are the usual chain stores, Dotour coffee, Ebisu sushi, Mr. Donuts, but Mom and Pop stores still have a chance here. It's the kind of place where you run in to the same people all the time. After a while, you can just order 'the usual,' the people at neighboring shops greet you like a fellow co-worker, and some of the regular passerbys know you by name.

Itayado has a mascot - a hermit crab.
Hermit crab = Yadokari
Get it?
Ita - Yado - Kari
The crab's name is 'Itayadokari-chan' and she comes out during parades and festivals. What other shopping street do you know that has its own peculiar mascot? The local bakery makes 'Yadokari' bread in honor of the character, a twisted roll that looks like a shell. Every ten minutes a song plays outside over the speakers 'Ita - yado, Ita- yado, Shotengaaaaai!'

I have such an affinity for this town. And with one of our schools located here, I get to be a part of it! We pay our dues to the area and bring in customers. I do most of my shopping around there and I feel proud whenever I walk down the street.

And the other day, I got to really live and breathe it!

It started with a campaign to get more kids into Itayado Nova. First we made our own original 'First-Time-Phonics-Fall-Event!' but only 4 kids signed up and only 3 kids showed up. This time, we decided to put out a booth at the Itayado Christmas festival. The shopping street lent us a cotton candy making machine and we sold it for 50 cents a bag. However anyone who took a free 5 minute trial lesson could take a bag for free. So my job was to attract people to the table, then give as many 5 minute lessons as possible.

I wish this was my job every day!

Greeting everyone, connecting with everyone, learning about people's connection with my language. . . It was so much fun. I met an 80-year-old woman who'd never spoken English in her life and had the gumption to give 5 minutes a try. I met three kids who were fluent in Arabic, French, and Japanese, who tried English for the first time. I met a junior high school student who was just passing through on her way back from visiting a potential high school. Maybe her positive experience in Itayado will influence her decision? I met a young student who'd already been to 4 different countries. I taught a baby who didn't say a word but could point a finger at every item I named in English by the end of the 5 minutes and totally impress his mom. At one point when all the Japanese staff were out, I did my best to make a sale using as simple English as possible when the woman across from me rolled her eyes and said, 'My family used to live in Australia. We're already fluent. Just give us the candy.' It was so exciting!

I only took one 10-minute break because my hands froze after being outside wearing nothing but a suit. I had a vest on over it, one of those toxic colors of yellow with our rabbit logo on it. Some guy stopped and said to me in English that our jackets match. He was wearing a more usual yellow color, but it was exciting to see him try out his English. There was another older man who wanted to eat a whole bag of cotton candy by himself. His wife was so embarrassed. 'People are looking at us! Why don't you finish that at home?' He was having the time of his life, reliving some childhood memory, and slowly finished off the whole bag standing outside in the cold and ignoring his wife.

I loved having an excuse to make eye contact with everyone, shout out 'Hello!' to everyone, and see what happened next.

One of the deals we had with the shopping street management was that our own mascot would join the Docomo mascot and Itayado-kari-chan on a small stage in the middle of the street for the closing ceremony. It's apparently the manager's birthday, so we were all supposed to shoot off confetti crackers together. We got our shortest staff member into the rabbit suit, but she was unable to see clearly and needed help walking around and being told in which direction to wave. People wanted her to stop to take pictures, so I ended up in some people's shots. When we got to the stage, they invited me to join in the birthday song. Everyone was handed crackers and the kids wanted to help our mascot shoot her's off so I had to be there to make sure it was okay.

After the birthday, a bunch of high-schoolers came up to sing a Christmas song for the event finale. They called me in to their group so I stood aside our Nova mascot. However that wasn't enough. Because I'm a native speaker, I got pushed to front-and-center with a microphone to sing John Lennon's Happy Christmas. I wasn't sure if this is really what was supposed to be happening so I turned to the girl next to me and was like 'Hey, what's your name?'
'Hello. My name is Sakura!'
'Sakura, why am I in the center? Why don't you be in the center!'
'You are native speaker!'
'Okay. But I don't know the lyrics.'
'You borrow mine.'
'Thanks Sakura. Good luck!'
'Do our best!'
Then we all sang our hearts out, along with the crowd of people in front of us, the manager with his birthday cake, Itayado-kari-chan and Nova Usagi together. The tinny speakers of the shopping street rattled as the music came out. And in a rush of emotion and Christmas spirit, I felt myself becoming one with Itayado. That sense of commerce joined with community that helped this whole Christmas event become a thing, and my small part in it which suddenly became bigger than I expected.

I love Itayado.

06 November 2016 @ 07:33 am
The other day, my Mom asked me who my carpenter friends were, so I thought I'd explain.

I have a friend who I call my "Japanese Mommy" because she's the kind of person who can see right through to your heart. We wanted to do something together but she has weak eyes and sore knees. All my usual ideas were out - No hiking, no movies, nothing too far from home, nothing strenuous. Finally we decided to go to the Museum of Carpentry.

There was almost no one there. Once in a while some tour group would come in, and they'd fly through, and leave quickly. But me and my friend Hiroko were actually stopping to look at EVERYTHING. We read all the descriptions, we talked to each other about the techniques, we wanted to stop to watch the educational videos. And we noticed there was one other group doing the same thing - a pair of women about my age. In Kobe the "Fashion City" it's not often you come across young women perusing a museum of carpentry. So we started up a conversation. It turns out both of them went to school to together. One is an architect and the other a carpenter. The carpenter quit her job eventually, to become a massage therapist. After looking through the museum, we decided to go have tea together. Since then we've been meeting up every 3 months and go somewhere unusual together.

Recently instead of going anywhere unusual, I invited all my friends to my house and set up the spare room as a gallery. My own mini art museum! Good times. One of my lady friends gave me roses. Another gave me fruit. Another sewed me a handkerchief.

Here are some recent photos of the fruits of life:

The next question my mom asked me is what I do all day at work. I'll save that one for my next post.

Why don't you write me something? Here's a question - How has what's important changed for you over the last 10 years?

I feel that your life can be divided into different stages.
One of the stages is when you're young, you don't know what the world is going to do to you, you don't know if you're going to have anything to offer. It's a time of dreaming, trying, worried, going out on a limb, and giving it your all.

I had dinner with a friend. She's a young graduate with a temporary job as a teacher, living with her parents, and she wants to move to Tanzania some day and change the world. When she speaks, energy pours out of her, her face is brilliant, she's ready to take on anything, she's ready to endure anything, and she's going to. She's going to go places. She's going to change things. People are going to love her, she's going to learn new languages and new cultures. I don't know if she's going to end up in Tanzania ever, or if she'll change the world or not, but she's in stage one of her life and she can afford to dream big.

I felt kind of guilty after talking with her. What am I doing with my life? Why am I not going running every morning, trying to get in shape so I can tackle the problems of sustainable farming in distant lands?

Then I remembered, I'm in stage 2.

I went on a hike with another friend and we talked about our jobs, and how we got there, and our responsibilities and salaries. We stopped to look out on a breathtaking view of the city in the morning light, with the grey sea as a backdrop. When I stand there, I always feel like - I did it! I'm in a position in my life where I have what I want, I'm right where I need to be, and I'm on top of a mountain, at liberty to enjoy the view. Work can be tough, stress can pile up, and I miss Yossi a lot, but I have stability and inner joy.

Stage 2 is where you're not throwing yourself to the wind anymore, but you're putting down roots. You can afford to think about the future. You can make plans. Jumping off to volunteer to save bird species in Indonesia is still appealing, mind you, but so is sitting out on your porch and enjoying a book with a nice cup of tea. We start buying houses and having babies.

Most of the people we hire at my company are these Stage 1 people. They're a bundle of energy ready to jump over to Japan and spread their beautiful languages and cultures around the world. And some of them bounce away just as quickly as they came in. Others morph over in to Stage 2 and settle down.

I used to be one of these energetic people, but now I'm not. I guess that's what it means to feel "old." Age doesn't really have anything to do with it, though, it's a mental framework. Some people tell me they have a hard time getting along with people their own age. Is it an age thing or is it a stage thing?

You can stay in Stage 1 your whole life, always dreaming big. I have a friend who's older than me. She's spends every moment outside of her work helping women find employment, promoting fair trade, and trying to make the world a better place. Most of her friends are much younger than me, all in stage 1.

Instead of feeling guilty about leaving Stage 1 and settling down in Stage 2, I do what I can to support them.
I donate money regularly to sponsor people I think can make a real difference in this world.
I vote for people who will give these Stage 1 folks as many opportunities as possible.
I buy things from people to support the ideas behind the products they make.
I spread the word and help people make connections with each other.

My free time is going to be dedicated to hiking, painting, and reading books while drinking tea. But just because I'm in Stage 2 now doesn't mean I can't support Stage 1.

Does anyone else feel this way? Like life comes in stages?
I don't know about Stage 3 or 4 or if there is any... Maybe you older folks can give me some insight!


P.S. I didn't talk about Japan this time, sorry. Have a picture of a dragonfly: http://www.randomisgod.com/pictures/IMG_8478Dragonfly.JPG
02 October 2016 @ 09:05 pm

The title was written on a sign on top of a mountain. I didn't think much of it until someone pointed out that you would never say that to someone who was already on the top of a mountain.

So let's say you're taking a pleasant walk through the woods with a friend. . . When suddenly it starts pouring rain. I mean pouring, like the whole world turns to white mist around you and the pattering on your umbrella is so loud you have to raise your voice to be heard.
You have between you and your friend:
- One umbrella
- Only one pair of functional shoes, the other pair a mess of tearing and holes
- A very expensive camera in a cloth case
- A laptop that is worth more than your life
- A very un-waterproof backpack
- No food or water
- One extra shirt

You have a couple of options here:
1. Turn back.
2. Wait out the rain in the bug museum (lots of cockroaches piddling around in glass cases and a room of butterflies)
3. Walk 2 kilometers to see a waterfall

So the obvious question is - What do you decide to do?
The obvious answer is - It depends on what kind of friend you're with.


I have a lot of very crazy Japanese friends who wouldn't mind getting themselves into the most interesting situations, but I have to just say that if I was with a Japanese person, I would definitely turn back. I just don't know the cultural nuances enough to judge how they might be interpreting the situation. However the friend I was with was a fellow American, and we sorta looked at each other and went "Hey, we're already wet, getting more wet isn't going to change anything. It's not like getting rained on ever killed anyone." We put the valuables in the backpack and held it in the middle, with the umbrella covering half of us each. It didn't really matter that my shoes were solid and hers were soaking up the water like sponges, we were both in the same position at the end of the walk.

The only other people walking in our direction were boy scouts and other foreigners. I felt a sort of bond with these people. Everyone else was running back the other way.

Luckily, when we arrived at the waterfall, there was a viewing spot with benches and an overhanging roof. I was actually able to get some pictures with my nice camera and we could adjust our soaking clothes a bit before going back.

By "going back" I mean we went to the bug museum before it closed and didn't leave before making acquaintances with the workers there and taking home some art and booklets.

And then it was off to the foot bath to warm our soaking feet.

And then? Picking up some food for dinner, borrowing pajamas, and watching a movie while my socks dried.

My friend was kind enough to lend me pajama pants and to walk me back in the rain to the station.

What a great day!
What do you like to do on a rainy day?

By the way, I seem to have gotten myself another promotion.
I'm now the top manager for my area, which is Hyogo and Tokushima. Life is going to be a big hectic for a while as I adjust to the responsibility.
This has added a new level of uncertainty to my future. I have a couple of choices for my life here. . .
First, to live separately from Yossi for a long while yet and put my heart in to my job.
Second, to give it a go for a while, and then go to Okayama to live with Yossi and give up my job for an uncertain life in a city I really don't like.
Third, both of us uproot and move to Nagasaki, which will take us an airplane ride away from our friends, but we can live together, and there will be plenty of job opportunities.
Third, to go live with Yossi for a year of maternity leave and have a baby, and then go back to Kobe to work after that, and hope he'll be able to come with me by then.

I was going to go with option one, with the sub option of moving to a cheaper apartment. But Yossi's talked me down from that one, as the cost of moving wouldn't make the move worth it unless I really really was determined to stay for at least a year. And who knows what life changes might come up before then!

My friends then gave me some advice that's had me deep in thought. . .
I will always be who I am.
No matter where I go, I will always make a community of friends around me.
No matter what company I work for, I will always aim for the top.
No matter where I live, I will always find joy in my life.

I realized at once that my friends were right, and that's made the choices seem less severe.

The woman who runs my favorite restaurant looked at me squarely over a bowl of soup and said, "Jennifer, the fact that you have choices means you must be happy."

I realized that she is also right. Nothing's worse than having only one option and having nothing to do but go through with it. I looked up at the sky and thought - wow, my life is great! Look at all these wonderful choices!

And then I left it at that. I'll get around to deciding... after all my business trips and salary calculations and scheduling and meetings are over. . .

07 September 2016 @ 11:11 pm
I'm laying in a box that's swaying gently back and forth.
I open my eyes to complete darkness and fumble for the light switch on the wall.
It's 5:30 in the morning.
An announcement sounds over the intercom, "Attention passengers, the ferry will soon be arriving at West Oita Harbor."

I've missed the sunrise! I'd really wanted to relax on the deck and take pictures of the sun coming up over the ocean. I grab my room key and pull back a curtain revealing a tiny stairwell and the closed curtain of the enclosed bed compartment next to mine where the lady I befriended last night and stayed up all night talking to is still sleeping away. I roll out on to the stairs and grab my camera out of my locker. Then I'm sprinting for the deck, hoping to catch the light of the morning with my lens. No such luck! The doors are locked shut. Apparently the typhoon came pretty close and the wind is too strong now to let people go out. Through the window I can see the deck is wet, but I can also see the pinkish glow of morning light on the undersides of clouds.


This is the kind of luck that follows me through the entire day.
Like, my whole reason for going to Oita is to visit the restaurant that my friend just opened. But it's closed the two days I'm there.
Or I bring two cameras, and the one that has full battery life breaks down while the one with almost no battery left remains good.
Or I miss the bus to the hiking trail and walk there instead, only to find that there isn't actually a hiking trail, it's just a little park on the hill, and I miss the bus back as well.
Or the hot springs I wanted to go to is closed by the time I get there.
Or my both of my friends decide to take me to the same place and I have to decline one of them with much embarrassment.


It's a weird trip, but it's good for my soul. I get to forget the daily hassle of using my mind, and use my body instead. I take a nap on the beach, listening to the waves, feeling weak sunlight filtering through the clouds and resting on my skin. I'm not reading letters and words, but I'm letting my eyes taking in new textures and sights. I feel the heat of natural springs and sulfuric steam blowing in my face. I get introduced to a dozen new foods I've never tried before. I walk 8 kilometers and feel my muscles stretching, my body responding to my brain's urge to Go. I watch animals being themselves and try a bit of that myself. I get caught in a rain storm and enjoy the feeling that despite being cold and wet, I'm safe, sound, and satisfied. And all of this is in the company of good friends.


If you're ever in Beppu, go to my friend's Vietnamese cafe:

15 July 2016 @ 12:11 am
If you've ever stayed with me in Japan, I've probably taken you to Koya-san.
We went by fast train, slow train, creaking-up-the-mountain train, and cable car.
And we didn't walk, for sure. . .

Long, long ago Kobo Daishi, posthumously referred to as Kukai, ventured into the mountains and found a peaceful area surrounded by five mountains. Five is a very auspicious number in Chinese lore, which spread to Japan as well. It represents all elements of this world: Fire, earth, water, air, and space. Kobo Daishi was the founder of Shingon Buddhism and he had erected a stupa which is said to be at the center of the earth. What more could you want in a center than a giant religious symbol surrounded by the five elements of the world? I'd certainly believe it!

The appeal of Buddhism was originally in contrast to idol-worshipping religions that came and went like fads in ancient times. I suppose if you are Japanese, you could still see the worship of kami as frivolous idol worshipping and wish instead to find peace within yourself.

One stipulation of those times was that women could not step upon religious ground. In Japan going way back to even before Shinto and Buddhism, purity and cleanliness was a holy virtue, so you can imagine their ideas about something that bleeds. So for monks meditating on Mt. Koya with Kukai, all their wives, mothers, girlfriends, and daughters had to be left behind. There is a small town at the bottom of the mountain, full of many temples of its own, where Kukai's mother lived. Once a month he hiked down the mountain to visit her, and back up again.

I couldn't imagine old-timey vegetarian monks being much good at hiking. It sounded like a fun little trail.
Y'know, if it wasn't 35 degrees celcius out with humidity at 87 percent, no wind.

This trail is marked with choishi, which are giant stone pillars. Originally they were made of wood, but wear and tear on them convinced the monks to reconstruct them with stone. The stones were taken from a quarry in Kukai's hometown in Shikoku.


Each choishi has the same shape. One of the guys in my hiking club drew a diagram of one for me. At the top is sky/space, followed by wind, fire, water is the round part, and earth is the long part. There are 180 of these and they are each numbered, with 1 being at the gates to the holy grounds.

The first part of the trail goes through a persimmon orchard. Being an orchard, the trees are cut short and spaced evenly, allowing the blistering sunlight to cut through and wear down one's ambition. This is also probably the steepest part of the trail. Halfway up, we stopped at a viewpoint where a tool shed allowed half of us to find shade. Suddenly a man lowered a large cardboard box from his back. He had lugged up two watermelons for us to eat!! The watermelons were a lifesaver and suddenly all energy was renewed!


The next part of the trail went deep into the cedar forest, which sheltered us from the sun. As my body became accustomed to the climb, I found myself enjoying it immensely. Here and there I could find traces of history.. A pillar, an old piece of stone wall, a moss-covered jizo statue. . . And nature presented itself to me in all of its wonder: bugs, frogs, butterflies, caterpillars, and snakes. I had a great time.

Halfway there, we arrived at two giant stone torii, the gate that separate the secular from the sacred. Usually, one passes through gates to a shrine. But these gates stood on the face of a cliff. The sacred world beyond was the gorgeous scenery itself. Green mountains, a blue sky, houses and rice fields nestled between expanses of trees. It was just beautiful. I said my prayers to the world, then sat down nearby for lunch. People had brought all sorts of goodies to share. . . little jellos, fresh blue grapes, tomatoes and apples. One person brought coffee for three. Another woman shared around all her hot green tea until it was finished. One person actually fell asleep on a picnic bench.


The rest of the hike was a bit of a pain, because when you get to the Koya area, you'd have to take a bus, a cable car, and some trains to get back. Or you can be like us and walk an additional hour and a half out of your way to get to the nearest local station. It would've been nice to stay the night at Koya, but my job doesn't allow for that.

I was in such a good mood the whole time, though. I kept finding fascinating treasures of nature. Flowers called "bags of fireflies," a moth called "The Jaguar inchworm," a tiny tiny tiny green frog, a snake with a yellow stomach, a daddy-long-legs with legs longer than my fingers, a giant orange mushroom as wide as my face. . . We even ran in to some people picking leaves. Thinking they had found something interesting and edible, my hiking buddy questioned their antics. It turns out they were finding good grasses to display their fish on at their local restaurant that night. The grass growing on the shady side of the road had very broad, green leaves.

Next year we are doing the hike again, only going backward. We'll start at the first choishi pillar and go down. I can't wait! Only I hope it's not in the middle of summer again. . . Six hours of walking in intense heat can be really draining.


P.S. The subject is the name of a small car dealership
04 July 2016 @ 07:56 pm
Stories first, life update at the bottom.

The Toyota City Municipal Art Museum sits on top of a hill, hidden by a grove of trees and the restored turret of a castle. The winding road that leads from it is lined by tall trees and flowers, but ends abruptly at a wide, busy street. The map to get there looked straightforward, with roads the same size criss-crossing at right angles and no hills. It seems insane that this bit of paper somehow lines up with the city sprawl in front of me. I suppose the designers of museums put a little artistic creativity in their maps as well. What's appealing to the eye isn't always practical.

I'm here to see my artwork hanging in a gallery. Well, that's the simple, narcissistic way of putting it. I'm really here to meet people, using art as a connection. I've blown 10,000 yen on round trip tickets to come here, on the idea that if I go, something will happen. I can't imagine myself sitting in a museum all day long staring at art, so I'm leaving it up to fate to entertain me. I walk in, ready and waiting for opportunity.


Hours later, when I'm in a completely different city having tea with a bronze artist in his workshop, I knew it was all worth it. Dust settles in at our feet and human forms of various sizes and positions stare about with cold metal eyes. A fire crackles, ready to flare up and soften any solid surface. I think about how I wouldn't have been here if I hadn't had that attitude that I was ready for something to happen at any moment.

You have to be ready for it.
I'm still trying hard to find words to describe that state.
But I know when I'm in it, and I can feel when I'm not there yet.
And I love it when I meet other people who know how to get there.
A state of non-judgemental equanimity, where you accept everything in the world around you, and let it get inside you and happen to you.

So I have some old-lady friends like this. They're open to life, and ready to let life come in and happen to them. One of them was walking down the street, coincidentally, where one of the schools I work at is. A TV crew from Osaka came by doing a weekly program where they find some little old people and take them out for the day. I think the idea is that these helpless oldies would never go so far away to have so much fun by themselves, and the program is doing them a favor. If that was the idea, they got it all wrong this time. They asked my friend to call up another friend or two to take on the trip. They asked her who she was calling and she's like, "My mountain friends." Mountain friends?


In the end, three of my friends got together to go with the celebrity on the day trip. While he was waiting for them all to arrive, another random mountain lady walked passed and got invited along, too. These are all women who are super-active in the community, healthy, fit, and quick thinkers.

They took my friends to a town that's has a goldfish theme!!
That is so cool and I have to go there some day.
The first activity was to catch goldfish using paper paddles.

The celebrity's one mistake was that he wasn't opening himself up to adventure. His idea was that his funny jokes would entertain and thrill these oldies and the activities planned would be exciting. And the jokes were kinda funny, and the activities were fun, but he wasn't letting my friends tell their stories. He wasn't ready to learn about our mountain, or ask the right questions to get to know more about the amazing women he had chosen. He was more interested in trying to get everyone to like the activities and smile for the camera. I think he'd have gotten more smiles and laughter if he'd listened to THEIR jokes and let THEM run the show.

Anyway, it was really exciting to see my friends on TV!!

Yossi has been pulled over to Okayama by his company and we are now living separately for the time being. I'm trying to be open about this, let it be an adventure, and let life just happen.. but I have an edgy feeling that this isn't what I wanted. In the meantime, here's Yossi's new place:
And don't worry, we spend every weekend together:


P.S. Subject is from a purikura machine. Not sure what that has to do with taking pictures of yourself in a photobooth..
13 May 2016 @ 11:36 am
Hello everyone.
I wrote this post for you guys a month ago, and never sent it.
There's a reason I've been busy. I'll get to that in my next post.
Subject is the name of a hair salon. . . That wouldn't fly so well in the U.S., would it. . .


So let's imagine you're going to spend 2 days in Tokyo. You can kind of get an image for what you're going to do. . . You have a general idea of what kind of street you might be walking on, or what kind of food you might be eating.... You can kind of imagine what kind of things there are to do there, at least based on what you're interested in...

Okay, so let me know if any of these came in to your imagination, because they definitely were NOT on my list when I first decided on this trip.

1. Taking a drive through the mountains all the way to Gunma
2. Eating home-made Nepalese cuisine
3. Playing around at a frozen lake
4. Eating yogurt with berries for dinner
5. Going to see the Sakura in the middle of the night
6. Riding on a boat down a river with two musicians, while talking non-stop about Cambodia
7. Staying in a hotel by myself
8. Taking a 2 hour walk under the train tracks
9. Eating beans roasted over hot coals
10. Going to a shrine and drawing the worst possible luck


And here's the list of things I did that weren't out of my imagination, but I certainly didn't expect to be doing them:

1. Tokyo Skytree
2. Eating in a famous sushi restaurant at the renowned fish market
3. Watching the cherry blossoms in Asakusa
4. Eating sukiyaki on a bus tour
5. Watching Kabuki
6. Taking a ferry under 10 bridges


I used to think Tokyo was just a big city full of too many people, not enough trees, lots of earthquakes, neon signs, and pollution.
Going to Tokyo with a couple friends who live there really opened my eyes. Tokyo is rich with history and fame, and everything is right there all around you. This store is the oldest . . . This building was the first. . . This place has the best. . . And when you hear those words, you know it's true, because it's Tokyo.

There are some places where you can still see how the city has grown up from layers. Places where the old is still peeking out from behind the new facade. As the Olympics draw closer, however, all the old is being torn up and rebuilt. In the eyes of many Tokyo-ites, their city is becoming more beautiful. But in other ways it is losing it's charm. I'm glad I could see some places before they're lost forever.

My Japanese teacher from the U.S. always told me she loved Tokyo because 'It's interesting.' She said it in such a way that sounded like no other city could compare. When I think of my own city, and all the things I love about Kobe, I couldn't understand her feelings. However, I'm kind of starting to see what she meant. . . When you're living on top of history, when everything you see on TV is happening right there in your own city, when every fad starts right around you, I can see how it can be addictive. I can see why some people might choose to live there. I can see why some people might not miss the mountains, or the rice fields. I can see how you could get used to the urban sprawl all around you, and find it exciting.

It's not for me, but I think I'll be going back again soon.