Hot Pot and Ohagi at Abe Noen Farm

Daikon on the left, hakusai on the right, a peach orchard in the back

Back in December, I was invited up to Sendai to take part in a few tourism-related programmes the area has to offer. First, I visited Kanbai Shuzo Sake Brewery. You can find out more about that here. I also had the chance to visit Abe Noen Farm in Sukagawa, Fukushima Prefecture. Abe Noen is run by the mother-and-daughter team of Masako Abe, fondly known as Masako Baachan (Grandma Masako), and Sachiko Terayama.

“Noen” is usually written using the characters for “agriculture” (農) and “garden” (園). Both 園 and 縁 (“connection”) can be pronounced the same way.

Abe Noen (阿部農縁), which uses the Japanese character for “bond” or “connection” (縁) instead of the character for “orchard” or “garden” (園) in its name to symbolize its emphasis on human connections, is a peach orchard that also offers vegetable harvesting + barbeque experiences. During the barbeque (or cooking) session, you get to prepare the veggies you’ve just harvested—supplemented with other locally grown veggies—with Grandma Masako to create a feast of freshly picked deliciousness. 

Picking hakusai involves slicing through the base with a very sharp knife. It is extremely satisfying. The outer leaves are removed before cooking.

As I visited Abe Noen in December, the vegetables growing in the garden were winter veggies perfect for nabe (hot pot). We enjoyed a tour of the farm, gave the farm’s goat, Momochi, and cats a pet behind the ears, picked hakusai (napa cabbage) and daikon, and then got to work cooking. 

The base soup for the nabe included kasu (sake lees). Using kasu gives the soup extra depth of flavour.

Under the expert eye of Grandma Masako, veggies and fish were cut and popped into the pot. While it gurgled and burbled, we got to work on dessert: ohagi. 

It’s tricky coating glutinous rice balls with paste! The secret is to use a damp piece of cloth like cheesecloth.

Ohagi are glutinous rice cakes coated in either sweetened bean paste or ground sesame, walnut, or kinako. Trust me: they are amazing. At Abe Noen, we used anko (adzuki bean paste), zunda (edamame bean paste), and egoma (ground sesame seeds) to coat our glutinous rice cakes. 

Hearty nabe hot pot served with Japanese pickles and topped off with ohagi makes for a substantial meal.

Once we were done making ohagi, the nabe was ready to eat. Sitting down with friends new and old to enjoy a hearty bowl of nabe was a wonderfully warm and cozy way to end the visit.

The exterior of the dining room and kitchen. The shop is located next door.

Before heading home, we visited the on-site shop, which sells jams, juice bases, and a variety of other homemade products. I couldn’t pass up the chance to buy a bottle each of aka-shiso (purple perilla) and peach juice base. 

Because I know this is what you’re really here for: a photo of the resident goat, Momochi. Momochi was an absolute delight.

Japan’s borders are still mostly closed, and the pandemic is making any sort of travel difficult and rather frightening. When we’re finally able to travel safely again, consider adding a trip to the northeastern Tohoku region to your Japan itinerary. There is so much to do, so much to see, and so many wonderful people to meet.

Abe Noen Details

Address: 49-2 Kutsugake, Wada, Sukagawa, Fukushima Prefecture
Time required: Approx. 3 hours
Price: 3,850 yen per person (tax included) 

More info:

Kanbai Shuzo Sake Brewery Tour, Tasting, and Label-Making Session

Back in December, I was invited up to Sendai to take part in a few tourism-related programmes the area has to offer. Now, even though I’m not much of a drinker, I enjoy tours of breweries and the like; there’s just so much to see and discover. Plus, the chance to speak with locals about the history and culture of the region is always exciting.

A chilly room where rice is stored.

We spent part of an afternoon at Kanbai Shuzo in Osaki, a town about 30 minutes from Sendai. (For those who don’t know, Sendai is the capital of Miyagi Prefecture and is considered the gateway to the northeastern Tohoku region. It’s just a few hours north of Tokyo by Shinkansen.) Osaki is on the Osaki Koudo, a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System. The area is celebrated for its agricultural water management (important for growing high-quality sake rice) and the harmony with which diverse living things coexist with the area’s farming practices. (More on that here→

Koji mould is added to steamed rice here.

Kanbai Shuzo, which grows its own sake rice, offers tours, tastings, and a label-making session. The tour is thorough, and as a small brewery, you have the chance to get right up-close to all of the equipment and different facilities. Our guide was a brewery worker who happily explained the various processes and reasons behind them to our group.

Tanks filled with fermenting sake. It was cold in there!

Sake tastings, complete with explanations, take place at the bar area of a small but spacious souvenir shop. You can create a label in the same area, using markers and washi paper. After finishing your work of art, you can affix it to a sake of your choice to take home as a souvenir.

Steady… steady…

Kanbai Shuzo was destroyed during the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. To see that it was rebuilt and has thrived since was wonderful. That was one of the best parts of visiting the Sendai area, in fact: speaking with our hosts about the earthquake, the aftermath, the efforts made to rebuild, and the support received from various people and organisations was a reminder that the world is full of good, kind, hard-working people, and that disaster doesn’t mean the end of a dream.

Not being terribly creative when it comes to drawing, and not being terribly skilled when it comes to fancy lettering, I was at a bit of a loss initially. Eventually, I tried my hand at drawing Date Masamune, former feudal lord of the Sendai area, astride his horse. It, er, sort of looks like Date. 

Japan’s borders remain closed, but with luck, that won’t last too much longer. Next time you travel to Japan, consider heading north of Tokyo. Sendai, Miyagi, the entire Tohoku region won’t disappoint. I promise.

Kanbai Shuzo Details

Address: 15 Sakaida, Furukawa Kashiwazaki, Osaki, Miyagi Prefecture 989-6216
Price: 1,760 yen–4,180 yen (This depends on the sake chosen for the label-making session.)

Access: Approx. 30min from JR Sendai Station. Take the JR Tohoku Shinkansen from Sendai Station to Furukawa Station. Transfer to the JR Rikuuto Line and travel to Nishi-Furukawa Station. Kanbai Shuzo Sake Brewery is a 10min walk from Nishi-Furukawa Station.

Label-making experience:

The Picnic (Flash Fiction)

igna1973 / Pixabay
This is not a pair of scissors made by craftsmen in Sakai, but it’ll have to do.

Another Friday, another attempt at flash fiction. This week, the word limit was three hundred.

I wrote this story before last week’s (Freshly Tilled Soil), when I was on a bit of a “let’s try something creepy” kick.

Japan is famous for its blades, and there are various regions where specific techniques are well known. Shinshu, Sakai, Tosa and Echizen are just a few of the better-known regions.

The Picnic

Overtop a Roadside Gutter (Poem)

Photo by David Buchi on

Yesterday was Sunday, and on Sundays during these strange pandemic days—because I live in a touristy area—I try to avoid the downtown. But I still like to get out for some fresh air (breathed through a mask, of course) and exercise.

I chose to wander some back streets and visit some temples off the main tourist track. While wandering, I noticed something shiny caught between slabs of concrete running overtop* a roadside gutter.** Being round and roughly watch-shaped, I initially thought it was just that, a watch. Upon closer inspection, however, I discovered it was the cap of a drink or something similar.

Still, the idea of a watch face caught between two slabs of concrete stuck with me, and I came up with part of this before I’d walked much further. It’s still not quite where I want it, but if I fiddle any further, it’ll be forgotten in the Notes app of my phone, likely forever.

Overtop a Roadside Gutter

Caught between two slabs of concrete
Overtop a roadside gutter
I saw a watch.

Just the face,
That someone had left to fall in that place
At some time and why
Both unknown to me.

And looking down
I saw the face was smashed,
The crystal fragmented,
Hands forever at half past.

This watch, trapped in time and
Between two slabs of concrete
Overtop a roadside gutter,
Abandoned there—but why?

Perhaps the owner, upset
At time having stopped
Had let her watch drop
Between two slabs of concrete,
And had left it there.

Perhaps the owner, upset,
Had watched her watch fall,
Smash, become trapped and stop
Overtop a roadside gutter.
And had left it there.

But for whatever reason
The watch was left to drop,
It was left there.

Trapped between two slabs of concrete
Overtop a roadside gutter,
Where even as I walked,
Took notice of this watch,

Time, frozen, looked up,
Unblinking from its spot,
Caught between two slabs of concrete
Overtop a roadside gutter.

*A note on “overtop”: I used “overtop” without thinking about it too much—it just came naturally to me when I composed the sentence. But for some reason, before posting, I decided to look the word up.

To my great surprise, the definitions I found did not match my intended usage. Had I been using this word wrong my entire life? A possibility, sure, but painful to admit. So I googled the word rather than searching in specific dictionaries. Well, I’ll be darned—apparently, it’s a Canadian thing.

**Roadside gutters are common in Japan. In our city, most are covered with concrete slabs, but there are plenty of areas where the gutters remain open. I’m not ashamed to say that this terrifies me, as you do hear the occasional story of a child or indeed a grown person being washed away in these open gutters during or after a storm.

Freshly Tilled Soil (Micro-fiction)

Photo by Lisa on

A few weeks ago, a writer friend and I began a new challenge. Now, we have a good history of starting challenges, but though we initially do quite well, our history of finishing challenges is a bit on the sketchy side—perhaps because we never really create an end-date, letting them fizzle out instead. But we’re always up for the, erm, challenge of doing (starting? finishing?) a challenge.

Our new challenge also has no real end date; it’s just about writing and sending each other a work of flash fiction once a week on Fridays. We started with a 50-word limit last week and are gradually working towards longer pieces.

For week two of the challenge, we decided on 100 words. At the start of the week, I was feeling pretty good about things as I already had a story done—until I realized what I’d written was 300 words, the length for next week’s challenge.

Oh, my. It was Thursday evening, and we share our stories on Fridays. What was I to do?Luckily, I had been turning three little words over in my mind since an early morning run the week before.

Along my run is a little patch of land that until recently had a house built upon it. The house was decrepit, and I wasn’t surprised at all to see it being torn down just a few weeks ago. Being a small house built in an older style (those in Japan will likely know what I mean if I call it a little Showa ikkenya), it didn’t take the diggers and other machinery very long to knock the thing down and clear the plot.

They left the lot looking quite nice, turning the soil and tidying it up, and this filled the air with a fragrance that I called “freshly tilled soil.” The smell of freshly tilled soil always takes me back to my childhood and spring days when my dad would bring the rototiller out from its winter spot in the garage to prep the gardens or start a new one.

I love the smell, and I love the words “freshly tilled soil.” Taking the words and taking the memories that come from the scent of dirt, I came up with a 100-word story about time travel, (mostly) finishing it in time to share on Friday.

Freshly Tilled Soil

Morning Run (Micro-fiction)

I have so, so many half-finished stories. Some are half-finished and on-the-go. Others are half-finished and mostly abandoned. Some date to my high school years. Others, to last summer. All are half-finished and going nowhere fast.

This makes me feel… not so good. I believe in most of these stories, but I just can’t quite overcome whatever it is that’s blocking me; the task seems too large at the moment.

I’d like to finish something though.

Hello, flash fiction!

I’ve dabbled in flash before, almost submitting some truly bizarre stories to a Canadian competition whose name escapes me that involved writing flash using a pair of idea generators. The combinations were absolutely wild, and thinking up stories to match was great fun.

A few years have passed since those first tries at flash, and I have definitely not been practising. Back to square one. But! The time is now ripe for new attempts. Here’s the first:

A Poem About Quiet

Photo by Felix Mittermeier on

Last summer, a friend introduced me to Jericho Writers, a writing community and business that aims to help writers navigate the craft and the world of publishing. I signed up for their Summer Festival of Writing, and then joined as a regular member.

I am finally, at long last, catching up on some of the webinars from last summer, and slowly working my way through their library of non-summer-festival videos.

The other day, I started the Quiet Poetry Workshop with Dean Atta, a British poet with the most relaxing voice and the kindest demeanor in, quite possibly, the entire world. As I was watching while folding laundry, I didn’t quite manage to keep up with what was going on, but I did use it as inspiration for a short poem I wrote after all the clothes were folded.

~A Few Words About Quiet~

The sounds overwhelm
All day and into the night:

The traffic on the road,
The crash of the sea on the shore,
The sirens wailing towards horrors and hospitals.

And I feel full to bursting—

Desperate for the stillness of a pond
A canoe gliding over water
Lying on my back on a sun-warmed dock
The buzz of deer flies and horseflies
The only interruptions.

Desperate for the quiet of a morning, cold and crisp
The land blanketed by snow or wet, soggy fallen leaves.
The quiet ringing out across the fields
The scratch of a snow shovel on pavement
Taking turns in my ears.

The sounds overwhelm
All day and into the night:

The whirring from helicopters above,
The pulsing from heavy trucks underfoot,
The heavy bass spilling from a nearby car.

And I feel full to bursting—

Desperate for the wail of a loon, the wind in the trees, a stillness that echoes,
The only sounds
In this silence
This quiet
This calm

That I yearn for.

A Favourite Children’s Book Set in the Kamakura Area

The Wakame Gatherers, by Holly Thompson; illustrated by Kazumi Wilds

Libraries are my jam. I love them, from their smell—nay, fragrance—to their coziness. I love how full of words they are, of knowledge. How everything is at your fingertips, just waiting to be taken home for a few weeks.

Libraries are something that I miss here in Japan. Of course, Japan has its own library system, and there’s nothing wrong with it; it’s just different. And here in Kamakura, I really can’t complain, because for a city of its size, Kamakura has a pretty good selection of what I need most from a library right now: English-language children’s books.

It was browsing the shelves of the Kamakura Chuo Library that my older daughter and I came across The Wakame Gatherers for the first time. As wakame is gathered on the beach right by our house, the book immediately piqued our interest. It was added to the pile, and we headed home.

The Enoden!

Imagine our surprise later in the day when we started reading the book only to recognize some of the illustrations. It went a little something like this:

Why, this train looks just like the Enoden Line that runs through town! And this bay looks just like the bay down the road! And this island—why, it has to be Enoshima!

And it was! As a result, a copy of the book has found its way onto our shelves permanently, while another now sits on the shelf of a young cousin back home in Canada.

The Wakame Gatherers tells the story of Nanami, a young girl whose father is Japanese and whose mother is American. Nanami’s American grandmother is visiting Nanami and her family, who live with Baachan—Nanami’s Japanese grandmother—in the Kamakura-Enoshima area.

The meat of the story begins when Nanami and her two grandmothers head out to collect wakame seaweed that has washed ashore. It is Nanami’s first time acting as the sole interpreter for her grandmothers, and while she’s a bit nervous, it goes fairly well.

She does run into one problem, however—though at first, she’s not quite sure why Baachan hesitates to answer a question she’s asked. She’s used the right language with the right grandmother after all.

Nanami realizes that she comes from two cultures that were once engaged in a bitter war against each other.

We learn that Nanami’s innocent series of questions has inadvertently led the conversation into the topic of World War Two, a war that killed Baachan’s mother. This venture into difficult territory is handled gently and authentically as Nanami ponders the fact that when they were girls, her grandmothers—as citizens of countries at war with each other—were enemies. Two sides of her same self, at war.

This part of the book always makes me tear up as it hits so close to home. Though my own parents were born after the war, my husband’s father fought for the Imperial Japanese Army while his mother lived through the firebombing of Tokyo. The death of my mother-in-law’s mother, though not caused by bombing, is indirectly tied to the war.

The confusion that Nanami feels in The Wakame Gatherers will, at some point, be felt by my own children. I’ve already mentioned the internment of Canadians of Japanese heritage to the older of my two kids. Diving deeper into that as she gets older will be a painful but necessary journey.

As the two grandmothers and Nanami stand in the waves under a bright sun contemplating the war while surrounded by surfers and happy-go-lucky people strolling across the sand, Baachan says, “Nanami-chan, always protect this peace.”

Complete with glossary and recipe

That such an important message is woven so naturally into a story that we assumed would stick to wakame gathering was a surprise the first time we read the book. And that’s exactly why it has become such a favourite.

It is a story about wakame gathering, but it’s also a story about the joys of being an international family; of sharing bits of your culture with each other, and of sharing difficult histories, too. It’s about the complexity of being born into multiple cultures. It’s about how the wounds of war can be overcome, and how even bright new life can emerge from the ashes.

All that, and it even comes with a recipe for wakame soup.

Unfortunately, this book isn’t currently available through Indigo, Chapter’s online bookshop, though several other books by Holly Thompson are. It is available through Amazon, though. Or, better yet, order a copy through your local bookshop or ask your local library to add it to their “books to purchase” list. The Wakame Gatherers is a wonderful addition to any bookshelf.

Getting My J-Study On

This year I’ve done it: I’ve publicized my intention to improve my Japanese, and even gotten heaps of advice and teacher recommendations. Failure is not an option; I cannot comfortably bury my head in the sand and abandon my books after several days. Not this year.

I received so much great advice and so many websites to check out, I thought I’d make a list for everyone and anyone to use. I’m not including the full names of those who provided the information because I know not everyone likes to be named outside of the original platform, but I will include a link to the Twitter thread in case more recommendations are added.

Japanese Teachers and Schools with an Online Presence

Momoko To Nihongo (from B)

Ako Nihongo Lessons (from M)

Ayano I (from multiple folks)

Wahaha Japanese Language School (from S and A)

This school is based in Fukuoka and was mentioned by a few folks. Skype lessons are available.

Yu-Yu-Jin (from N)

Language Learning Portals Connecting Teachers and Students

italki (from multiple folks)

italki got multiple recommendations. There are lots of teachers to choose from, including Ayano, mentioned above. Merorin also got a shout-out.

Cafetalk (from R)

Cafetalk didn’t get as many mentions as italki, but it looks good, too. There are lots of options for narrowing down your search, letting you be pretty specific.

Zoom Language Exchange

Free West Tokyo Language Exchange (R and S)

This looks very cool. Zoom calls are done in small groups, and the language switches between Japanese and English every 15 minutes.

Websites to Support Language Learning

AJATT—All Japanese All The Time (from D)

The recommendation is to pay special attention to posts made between 2008 and 2010.

Refold (from M)

Refold calls its method “a map to fluency” and will have you learning Japanese through TV, movies, manga, etc.

General Advice

Quite a few wonderful Twitter folks took the time to share their best advice for learning Japanese. There was much encouragement to get out and be social by joining classes or groups connected to hobbies. You learn the language by using it, after all, and why not use it while doing something you love? (Obviously, this will need to wait until after the pandemic ends!)

For vocab and kanji practice, several people encouraged me to find a book and get reading. Short and light was the recommendation to start, with a special tip for finding a book to match your level: Read the blurb on the back. Understand it or mostly understand it? This book’s for you!

Make it stick by busting out your highlighters to mark up words and phrases you’re not familiar with. After a few pages, grab your reference books, open a notebook, and make some notes.

Essays and short stories were also mentioned as excellent options to help you improve without feeling overwhelmed by length. When it comes to essays, practice reading them until you can read them through with confidence. I think I’ll try switching between essays and short stories to add extra variety to my studying.

A really important point that was made was that even five minutes is better than nothing. I tend to be all or nothing—for example, one hour of studying or one chapter done, or I feel I’ve failed/wasted my time. My brain knows that that’s not so, but… I still end up throwing in the towel. That anything beats nothing is a concept I need to take to heart.

Thanks to everyone who offered recommendations and advice. I wasn’t expecting so many replies, and I was so pleasantly surprised by everyone’s encouragement.

Best of luck to everyone out there hoping to up their Japanese game this year.


Find the original Twitter thread here: