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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.

09 March 2016 @ 08:22 am
(Before you read this, I have a guessing game. I found this written on something, I want you to guess what that something is. Clue: It is not something you can wear. Answer at the bottom:
Silk Farm Dress has a basic luxurious silky touch. Available in unique European Colors. Odorless and hygienic. Like a woman who chooses a dress in front of a mirror with keen interest, you'd be happy every time you use Silk Farm Dress.)

Tamano is a small city on the coast of Okayama prefecture. The weather is relatively dry and mild, there are some hills and some lowlands, and lots of small houses crowded together all over them. There's a ferry to take to some neighboring islands, and a shipyard nearby. This is where Yossi's company has asked him to work.

There wasn't ever really a question of whether he should go or not, just like you can't make my own life in Kobe into a question, and so we've decided to live separately for a year and see how it goes. He's excited to see where this new opportunity takes him, just as I'm excited about all the new skills I can acquire at my own job. We'll be able to see each other every weekend, and he now has a company car that he can take around anywhere. I'm a bit sad that we can't settle down together just yet, but I know that if I were in his shoes, I'd be making the same decisions.

Yossi's car: http://www.randomisgod.com/pictures/000Car.JPG

So the thing which we were both more worried about was our reaction of friends and family. I found that when I told most Japanese people that my husband's company was calling him to go to Okayama, their reaction was 'Oh so you're going to quit your job and move?' It bothered me that they would imply that I would just give in and follow my husband like some 1950's wife. It's not really their fault for thinking that way, but I feel that if you really are my friend, you'd have realized how much my career means to me, and you'd know how unstable Yossi's career has been, and you'd know that there is nothing at the moment that can uproot me from my home in Kobe. If it's a question of who should move, then it is obvious that Yossi should be moving with me, not me with him. But it's not a question of who should move, it's a question of the pursuit of happiness.

I actually did go to look at apartments with Yossi. I was going to keep an open mind, and if something really intrigued me, I could consider moving some time in the future. But the dry hills, the industrialized coast, the lack of public transport.. It doesn't hold any appeal for me at all. If we went to live on one of the islands, or we were moving inland to the mountains, or if we were going to start a new life in another country, I'd be a lot more willing to uproot. As of yet, Tamano is doing nothing for me. We'll see what happens in the next year.

Tamano's only point of interest: http://www.randomisgod.com/pictures/000FaceRock.jpg

The next obstacle was telling his family. They've lived their entire lives together in the same house, following the traditional pattern laid down by their ancestors that the man brings home the dough and the woman takes care of the kids. Yossi's mom is actually a school principal, but I know at least in the US, that school jobs are traditionally thought of as women's work. On top of this, aside from me, they have very few connections to the international world. Mostly their world is taking care of the grandkids, the garden, and make meals for the family. Yeah, Yossi's brother still takes lunch that his mommy packs to work every day.

So we went to visit them to make our announcement. Yossi said everything would go fine so long as I was there to back him up. When we arrived, at first everyone was sure I was coming to announce I was pregnant and Yossi's brother skipped a business dinner to come see us. >_< I kinda felt bad letting them down. We made our announcement and I was pleased that no one bothered Yossi about 'leaving me' and no one bothered me about not being a good wife. I thought this was the most I could ask for. We all took baths and went to bed.

The next day, Yossi went to the hot springs with his dad, and I stayed home with mom and the kids. While the kids were having a nap, my mommy in-law started asking all sorts of questions and we fell into a deep conversation about life. It turns out, she is happy that Yossi has this chance to pursue his dream. She had to stand by, doing a job she loved, while watching her husband become a robot for his office. He always had ideas about what he wanted to do, but was unable to voice his opinion at work. Yossi is in a position where he can talk easily in his office and use his ideas to gain profit for his company. His mother is proud of that. And his mom is dedicated to her school in the same way I'm dedicated to my company. She doesn't want to just sit around the house all day making sure everyone is well fed. She wants to work for as long as she can. She's a lot like my own mom who can't stand just staying home.

Hina Dolls: http://www.randomisgod.com/pictures/000DollFestival.jpg

Yossi's brother and his wife are really excited that Yossi will be so close now. They wanted us to actually move in with them but it's a couple hours from Yossi's office and a bit impossible. However they're happy we'll be more available to visit and showed absolutely no criticism about our decisions. So I guess the moral of the story is that you can't pigeonhole Japanese people, no matter how conservative their lives may seem on the surface.

P. S. Yellow and purple wet-naps
06 February 2016 @ 09:04 am
So I haven't been writing recently and missed updating about a bunch of holidays. Holidays in Japan can be really interesting, or lonely, or a great learning experience.

I'm going to put these in backwards order.

Setsubun (2/3)

The sky above is a deep, clear blue, but the temple grounds are shaded from the sun by old, sacred trees and high stone walls. People cluster in front of a stage lined with branches of bamboo. Sticks hang from pegs, each with a round, white piece of mochi decorating the end. There are 64 small pieces of mochi representing the 64 states of Japan that existed when Nagata Shrine was first built. Then there are two larger ones representing the sun and the moon. A low whine of instruments makes itself heard. First, like a hushed whisper, but then clearer and clearer. We realize it is coming from behind and turn our heads to see a procession making its way to the stage.

The music is made by blowing through conch shells. The procession includes some men wearing loincloths on their heads. These people will transform into demons.


Setsubun is the most important festival at Nagata Shrine. The shrine houses carved and painted demon masks that are important cultural relics. The usual tradition is to throw beans at the demons to cast them out of our shrines, our towns, our homes, our lives, our heads. . . And then to welcome in good tidings in their stead. But at Nagata shrine, the demons wield fiery torches made of the dried stalks of harvested rice. Throwing beans would be a fire hazard.

Instead, the demons dance for us on stage to the music of conchs. It lasts well into the night.


And on this night, I happened to bump into a friend who's a photographer. He got me in backstage to take pictures with the demons! The red demon put his hands to my head and blessed me. Now my hair smells like ashes.

Ebisu Festival (1/10)

The usually empty street is so thick with people that you end up buying snacks and toys at whatever shop you happen to be rammed up against, instead of browsing around until you find what you really want. Every businessman in the city is here, either on the way home from work, or with his family, or in a big group of coworkers, here to pay homage to the god of fortune and monetary prosperity: Ebisu.


Getting into the shrine is quite the ordeal, with hundreds of people around you in line to pay and pray. Some people make offerings of the household Ebisu charms made of various auspicious materials and include masks of Ebisu's jolly, pudgy face. Some of these charms are half the height of the people carrying them and get thrown clumsily into the mountain of offerings in front of the shrine. Then you're standing in front of what can only be described as a giant basket, large enough for a sumo wrestler to hide in, where you throw in your coins and ring one of the giant bells. While you pray, priestesses dance to the beat of a drum with ceremonial weapons. At the same time, drunken business men are hollering, children are crying that they want to go home, and old ladies are complaining about people in their way. It doesn't really seem ceremonial. But I love letting go of who I am and losing myself in the cacophony of this ridiculous festival.

New Year's (1/1)

My first New Year's job is to get 4 toddlers to decorate a cake together while the moms make dinner and clean up the house. My nephew does not want to even be in the same room as this red-face, long-nosed, curly-haired, green-eyed monster, so he's out of the room and off to bed. The other three crowd around me as I put the first layer on a plate and ask the kids to decorate it with strawberries. I didn't realize how picky a 5 year old can be, insisting that the strawberries all face one way, while the 3 year old has no concept that there is a "way" that a strawberry can "face" and the 1 year old just wants to eat all the strawberries. The whole ordeal turns into a lot of whimpering and I'm glad I can just take the cake away from them all and be done with it.

My second job is to get these four to paint pictures together. The 5 year old is very keen on keeping the colors separated, the 3 year old is insisting on mixing everything, no one can decide on who's turn it is to use the only brush I had in my bag. The 2 year old is scared of how his paint is running off his page and wants his sister to do something before his little world ends. The 3 year old has now covered her painting in a mound of salt. It's time for these things to be put outside to dry before their moms realize what a horrible mess I've made.

My third job is to pick kids up and throw them on the couch. The fun only ends when my arms are too tired to go up and down anymore.

When Yossi and I leave eventually, they give me a coloring book. One of those adult coloring books with flowers and Celtic designs that are going to take me years to get through.


Leaving all the kids behind, Yossi and I drive through the mountains and out to the shores of Tottori prefecture where there are quiet trails along the beach, no kids. We soak in the hot springs and eat out. I wonder if we should have been doing this all along, if maybe spending each New Year's at the Hina's is just getting in their way, riling the kids up, eating for free, and leaving without washing any of the sheets.

Then I get home and there's a letter waiting for me in the mail. It's from one of the kids, and she's found a new love of art. She's drawn a picture of me, a giant pink scribble with a head, two black holes for eyes, and two strands of curly hair going all the way down to my toes. I love these kids. I can't wait to do more art with them next time. My Mom-in-law has also given me some snuggley pajamas and I remember that we're family.

My Birthday and Christmas (12/31)


I'm watching the sunrise from the top of a hill. Part of me is watching the glorious development from black to orange to blue. Another part of me is wondering what I'm doing here, alone, on a day where everyone else must be off with their families celebrating, or sleeping in lazily, or off on some ski trip. . . I missed Christmas because of work, and tomorrow's my birthday and I don't have any plans except to have dinner with the in-laws. Yossi and I decided to take this day off to rest, but I know I'm going to spend the whole day doing just all the chores I couldn't get done during the week.

And then this woman comes up walking her dog. Her name is Yasuko and we bump into each other regularly around here. Her dog is adorable and I give him a pat while exchanging greetings. Yasuko says, 'I was hoping I'd see you today! I have something for you!' And she pulls out a hat she's knitted for me. For me! In that moment, I feel how deep down my roots go into this city, and how much the people here mean to me.


Halloween (10/25)

It cost me 2,000 yen but I managed to find a pumpkin. A real, big, orange, Halloween-style pumpkin. The girls had never seen anything like it before. I asked them to draw a face. Most of the drawing ended up on the pumpkin, and only some of them ended up on their hands and faces, and none of the drawing ended up on anyone's clothes, which was more than I asked for. The kids were a bit squeamish about the pumpkin seeds, but oh did they want to do the cutting. We were continuously fighting to keep the knife in a safe place and to not let their hands get in the way of the cutting.


Their mother was away and so it was just my Mom-in-law and a couple more distant relatives that she'd called over. The kids call me 'Jennifer' and one of the relatives told them that was rude, and to call me 'Oba-san' which means 'Woman over 30.' What do I do here? She's trying to instill etiquette in the kids, by telling them to call me something I absolutely don't want to answer to.

That was a lot of stories. Thank you for listening.

01 November 2015 @ 08:16 pm
My 2016 calendar for sale here: http://antiretrovirus.deviantart.com/art/2016-Calendar-567772816

The first time I visited a shrine was Fushimi Inari in Kyoto.

It was a cold day in January. I was used to cold days, but I wasn't used to houses without central heating, riding on frigid trains for hours, restaurants that leave the doors open to the wind, and bringing gloves even when it isn't snowing. I felt a chill that went all the way to the bone on that cloudy day. I remember walking underneath the tunnel of gates and thinking only, why is it so cold, and why are there so many gates, and when can we all just go sit down and get something to eat.

Sure, it was pretty. I remember wishing I had a better camera and wondering what people do at shrines and what the gates mean. I remember being fascinated by large trees that keep their leaves in the winter. But all of that was sort of dulled by the cold, and walking around with so many people in a slow manner that doesn't result in exercise so much as getting aches in your knees and ankles.

Fushimi Inari shrine is supposed to be some kind of magical, spiritual experience. Or so it is advertised. These days hundreds of people from all over the world come to visit. Japanese people who visit often comment on how many foreigners they saw there. But it's hard to have a spiritual experience when it's your first time, you're cold, and your ankles hurt.

If I'd been to many shrines and then finally came to Fushimi, I might have had a better experience. Fushimi Inari is huge, the paths wind up and down all over a mountain, there are so many gates, and there are so many nooks where someone here is selling traditional snacks or toys, and over there where some ancient statue still stands or there is a pedestal to purity your hands. . . If that's the first experience you ever have at a shrine, you're bound to be disappointed when you go to a regular shrine and it's nothing but a gate, a fountain, and a building that's all locked up except for the place to offer your money. Going to Fushimi with nothing to compare it to inevitably skewed my perspective for a while. I didn't know how to appreciate what I was looking at.

Despite having been through that experience, when my parents came to visit last month, the first shrine I took them to was Ise Jingu. Ise Jingu is the shrine to the goddess of the sun, and Japan being the Land of the Rising Sun, this is a pretty big deal. The main buildings are rebuilt every 20 years, in exact replicas, so that the techniques that go into the construction are ancient skills passed down through generations. Instead of a washing area, you turn down the path to a sacred stream that runs along the shrine like a moat surrounding a castle.


Coming up to the stream, I noticed a fine mist rising. It clung to the area until we were ready to go home, and then dissipated abruptly. I had nothing but good feelings about the day. On the other hand, we had been riding on trains for a good five hours, my parents were tired, our legs wanted to stretch but our brains needed a time-out, and there were mosquitoes everywhere. I started to realize that I was doing exactly what had been done to me: dragging foreigners to an impressive, religious experience when no one has any clue what's what, why it's impressive, or different, or why this god is more special than any other local shrine. I started wondering if I was being selfish for doing this.

We all decided to head back. The sun was setting and we weren't really sure how far the train was or if we'd have to drag our luggage around before finding it. We were hungry, too. But just as we were nearing the station, my mom noticed a band setting up in an open area. Were they going to start playing live? We decided to hang around and find out.

The open area was being set up with tables and chairs. Vendors were beginning to gather for a night time festival. Most shops sold only drinks, but we found some food as well. Young couples began gravitating, then local folk with nothing better to do on a Saturday evening. After a while, to my mother's delight, the band began to play.

It wasn't just a normal band. It was a mix of guitar, keyboard, and shakuhachi. Sometimes performers would come up to do yoyo or play some special instrument. My mom got up and her tired feet found energy and started dancing. At first she was dancing alone and I wondered how long I should give her before deciding to call it a night. But then one person after another began to join her. After a while, we had our own dance group going on the side while the band played and the singer gave us winks. The most energetic of dancers was a woman who was quite fond of aerobics. She and my mom did a whole aerobic-dance-mix in front of the band. When it comes to music, there are no language barriers. When it comes to enjoying something, just a smile is enough. By the end of then night, we had all exchanged emails and shared food and drinks. In all, I'm glad we went to Ise on that special night.


I went back to Fushimi Inari later with a Nepali friend. Walking under the multitude of gates up and down the endless stairs was a great experience. I could really appreciate it, now that I know something of Japan. This time I wasn't following friends around in the cold, but moving forward at my own pace and taking my own time to appreciate the little nooks of beauty along the path. Sure it was crowded with tourists, but I knew it was going to be that way so it didn't bother me. I'm glad I had a chance to redo the experience.