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14 May 2017 @ 10:18 pm
Mount Aso:

Long, long ago around the time when Homo Sapiens first came in to existence, a massive volcano erupted in Japan, forming a wide plateau of rich farmland and sensual hot springs. This hot spot of seismic activity had been erupting for thousands of year before, and the earth there now is like an infested wound that has broken the skin so many times, and healed over, and broken again. Is Mt. Aso just one mountain or a conglomeration of 12? There are stratovolcanos, pumice hills, cinder cones, ridges of past volcanic rims, standing like mountains over here, destroyed and crumbled there. The end result is endless, breathtaking beauty.

And danger. It's theorized that the recent earthquakes in Kumamoto didn't do as much damage as they could have, because of the magma chamber absorbing some of the shock waves. (Making the volcano much less predictable.) But that doesn't mean that the roads we took there were smooth sailing. You could see big rifts on the sides of hills where the topsoil literally just fell off the mountain, baring the rock. Crumbled roads are still impassible. Hiking trails are closed off with ropes. They've re-opened the major tourist route (meaning everyone takes the same route resulting in terrible traffic) but the ropeway gondolas are out of operation.

Which makes me wonder....
When I volunteered in Tohoku after the earthquake/tsunami combination that killed 15,900 people, I felt like this was IT: the one big terrible disaster that happens in your lifetime. The thing you tell your grandchildren about and they stare at you and wonder at the suffering of man that they will never know for themselves. But with global interconnectivity, now problems happening halfway around the world can become your problem too. I was talking to some friends in Kobe who told me about how they moved here before "The Disaster." They're talking about the Hanshin earthquake in 1995. For me, "The Disaster" is the one in 2011. For people in Kumamoto, it was last year. For people in Japan who haven't lived through any of these, I wonder which disaster they think is "The Disaster". . .


I went to Mt. Aso for sightseeing.
Which is the best we can do after a disaster. Go there. Spend money. Support the economy. Smile. Learn. Share a story with someone.

My favorite story is this. Like I said before, long long ago, there was a chamber of molten rock that rose up from the center of the earth and as the earth cracked and parted before it, hot liquid moved in to the fissures. These tendrils of magma cooled and hardened there, even harder and stronger than the earth around them. As the thousands of years brought rain and wind to tear in to the soil and slowly wash it away, these spires of rock stood strong and tall. Now ridges of hills sport towering dikes in the Aso area, creating a stunning landscape. Walking among them inspired feelings of some ancient time and brought to mind the frailty of mankind in comparison with these geological forces. Certainly I'm not the only one who was thinking of this, as I found a Buddhist stupa on the side of the hill near some formations. The weathering the stupa withstood from the earthquake only augmented the feeling.

I'd like to go there again and explore some more.
Here's an unrelated picture of some karst formations and a cave:


P.S. Subject is the same of a bar in Osaka. Sounds depressing.
Japanese Aesthetic and Maiko


The guests file in to the theater on a walkway under which water flows and koi meander silently. This is not the kind of great hall that you'd find in the U.S. where all modern methods of acoustics are built in to a matching style of architecture. This is something traditional. Not traditional in the way of old, ornate opera houses where the rich sat on lacy cushions, but traditional in the way of Japan where cleanliness equaled purity, where the rich could afford moments of silence and tranquility. One didn't show off a garment by strutting through marble halls, but by that one sleeve edged in purple that stood out among the weathered wood and dark stones and drew the eye to the wearer much more effectively.

In this theater, everything is art.
The guests are offered a refreshment of tea before taking their seats. The lady serving the tea is in the center of the tea room and every motion of her hands has been practiced over and over to perfection. Her graceful motions betray her education, her intelligence, and the heritage that she bears by choosing to continue the traditions of the tea ceremony.

We are allowed to keep the plates that our sweets are served on.

My friends and I pass through the garden on the way to the hall where we have secured seats in the middle rows. I noticed how often Japanese architecture is often like an assortment of containers arranged around gardens with raised walkways traversing between them. And high walls. Always those high walls containing it all. I feel something obsessive about it. Someone's compulsive need to tame the wild of the outside world and only let it what is safe to be seen. Manicured versions of native plants. The engineering of the water system. The wood of the walkways all chosen for their perfect grain. Each stone on the path carefully chosen. It's nature, natural in the sense that nothing stands to augment it, and yet somehow nothing is natural about it. Again,art.

And then we are sitting in the darkened theater. Musicians pluck at instruments based on a five tone scale. It isn't something you could sing to or remember afterward, but augments the mood of what's happening on the stage like a background voice that hums, screams, trembles, sighs. The lack of a consistent beat or melody awes me. How much practice must you have to be able to bring such sounds together to fit with voices on a stage?

And the Maiko come on to the stage. Their faces are painted white, their lips red, and red tints the corners of their eyes so that every glance in every direction is framed perfectly. The makeup coats them like a mask and they move their heads like dolls, transcending humanity. The story is a melodrama, but the actresses don't make a single facial expression with anything more than their painted eyebrows. Instead, all expression is through the hands. Each gesture is representing an emotion or a desire. Easier to see from the back of the theater than turning lips or sparkling eyes, the hands give life and emotion to the stage.

I found this really fascinating!
All the lines are in an older, Shakespearean version of Japanese, so I expected to understand very little. However the gestures and movements of the eyes made the meaning of the words so clear, much clearer than if I'd been a Japanese person trying to make sense of a Western musical. It makes me wonder more on how much of gesture is language and where that line is. As in sign language, one particular symbol has one particular meaning, and just as there are people with terrible handwriting or speech impediments, there are people new to sign language or amateurs at the fine art of Japanese theatrical movements. It's a lot different from the haphazard gestures we use while speaking or the scripted motions of a play. Motion and meaning aren't necessarily combined, but the movements I saw on the stage that day spoke to me like words.

The shamisen player was a cousin of a friend, which was how I was able to procure tickets. After the show, we went out with her to have tea and she told me a little about her experience.

It was a great day out.

Hi everyone!

There's been a lot going on at work and I haven't written here in a while. Maybe all of winter...

So I decided to share some winter stories with you:


The sun reflects on the white powder that the morning storm strew across the hills. The city never saw it, but I knew it must be there and I asked Yossi to take me to the snow. The sight of rice fields, brown and dead the night before, are now shining and white, connected like a river flowing down between the trees toward the town. The sky is clear on one side, but still dark with clouds on the other. For the moment, we're in the sunny part. It's not a silent day of frosty air, it's noisy with birds picking through the things that have fallen from the trees and the drip dripping of snow melting from the edges of things and falling down. I'm sitting on a hillside, taking pictures. My husband is sitting in his car, trying to get it to move. It's stuck. I didn't ask him to get the car stuck in snow, I just asked him to take me to see the snow. I don't really know why his car is stuck. I've driven through worse in Colorado. If he just turned the tires that way, then that way, and then floored it, I'm sure he'd be fine. But I'm willing to let him figure it out on his own because I'm enjoying myself talking pictures.

We made a snowman at the side of the road. What is the point of making a snowman? He's not real, he'll melt anyway, he makes your hands cold and your breath comes out in heavy white wisps. The point of making a snowman is to make other people smile. So as they turn around the bend in their warm cars, their children will point at the window and say 'Hey look a snowman!!' Maybe they'll be inspired to make their own snowmen. Maybe it will remind someone of their childhood. Maybe they'll be impressed by the tall hat we gave it. In any event, it will surprise people and make people smile to find a snowman where they least expect it. That's why we like making snowmen.

Another story:


Speaking of things you'd least expect, let's say you're going on a short hike with some friends on a frosty February morning. It's a steep slope and just as you start wondering if you should have brought something for energy, you round the bend and find a large group of people pounding rice in to mochi and stirring up zenzai soup. Only 100 yen per bowl! We weren't sure whether we'd try selling it to outsiders or not, but the happy faces of some of these people were priceless. At one point, a field trip of softball players showed up, and their coach let each kid have a bowl of zenzai. Seeing the soft, young faces of the teenagers, some of the older ladies started giving out our mochi for free. One each. Part of me was touched, the other part of me thought it was a little unfair. Why do only young people get free mochi? What about all the other people walking up and down the trail? But I guess the kids must have inspired some motherly feelings among the older ladies in my hiking club.

I love Kobe because of events like this. Look at what can happen when people come together to create something! You can get someone to work hard by handing them money, or you can get someone to work hard by giving them a sense of community, duty, responsibility and rewarding them with smiles, laughter, and some food.

Another story?


Did you know strawberries are self-pollinating, but if bees don't do the work, the fruit ends up misshapen and deformed? Yossi's boss took the whole company on a trip to Kochi and one of our activities was strawberry picking in a greenhouse. While most people were busy eating strawberries, I was busy chasing bees around trying to get them to pose for photos.

Laughing and eating with the women at Yossi's company, I realized that his boss is succeeding in making a sort of community out of his business. With the money from the company, these people's lives are flourishing. Kids are growing up and going to school, one person hosts a barbecue, another person buys a house. . . Yossi's boss looks at all these people smiling together, pulls out a cigarette and steps to the side to watch. He's created something here. I didn't ask to be part of this community, but somehow all of us are here on a road trip together. I may not agree with everything his boss says, but I have to give it to him for creating something more than just money.


(Subject from the wrapping of some kind of wafer with sesame seeds in it)

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: