Choosing a Home or Picking Your Natural Disaster?


When I first came to Japan, I looked around at all the concrete-covered hillsides and concrete riverbanks and thought, “Ugh. How hideous. Why would they do that? Surely that prevents rain soaking into the earth, leading to inundations.”

It was YEARS later that I read a tweet explaining that it was done to PREVENT disasters. (Erm… yes, my degree is in history so I really had no idea what I was talking about.) Since then, every time I see a concrete hillside or riverbank, I imagine what might happen without it—the hill coming down on the houses beneath; the riverside dissolving into the river during a typhoon and wiping out entire neighbourhoods.


My husband remembers such things happening right in Tokyo. When he was a kid, the Tama River blew past its banks and houses floated away. He’s also been around for an awful lot of landslide reports. Really, it’s no surprise that he flat-out refuses to live anywhere near a hillside.

I was reminded of all of this while researching an article today several weeks ago (sorry, blogtober…). I was up in Nagaoka, Niigata Prefecture, for work, and for the article that goes along with the trip, I wanted to write a bit about the area. While confirming a few points, I came across a report on the Shinano River, which flows through the area. Apparently, the lower reaches of the river in the Echigo Plain (aka Niigata Plain) used to flood regularly, but since putting in diversion channels and all sorts of other infrastructure, the area has become known for its rice cultivation.

Shinano River, Foundation of River & Basin Integrated Communications Japan, page 25

The tidbit of info that really caught my eye was that over half of the deaths/disappearances that resulted from natural disasters between 1969 and 1999 (excluding the Southern Hyogo Earthquake of 1995) were due to sediment-related disasters. The nifty little pie-chart listed 27 percent for slope failure and 25 percent for debris flow and landslide.


Can’t say I’ve ever been fully comfortable living within metres of the beach in a tsunami danger area, but I gotta say, not living under a hill is really starting to feel good right now.

When you think about it, though, choosing where to live in Japan is really a pick-your-poison kind of thing. No matter where you are, some form of natural disaster is lurking in the shadows. My husband chose tsunami over landslide. I guess only time will tell if it was the right call.

Green Tea Made Easy with Arigato Japan Food Tours

Properly made hojicha under banana leaves—perfection.

Fourteen years. Fourteen years I’ve lived in fear of making green tea for guests.

That sounds dramatic, but it is honest-to-goodness something that has caused me anxiety. And not just green tea: My teatime anxiety extends to all kinds of tea. My nerves when British friends drop by for a visit become frayed the second I put the kettle on to boil. When it comes to herbal teas, I resort to handing over a tea bag and a mug of hot water, not willing to get the steeping time wrong. I should probably just give the whole beverage up as a bad job.

Except I like tea. All of it. A lot. Even when I make it poorly.

Example of poorly made green tea with a background of Chibi Maruko. This tea was made several hours before the workshop. It was bitter.

So when Arigato Japan Food Tours contacted me with an offer to join a Tokyo Online: Green Teatime in Japan session, I was keen to accept. Schedules being what they are, however, it took about a month to find a day and time that matched us both.

Well, the stars aligned last week, and my teatime life has changed (for green tea, at least—and living in Japan, that’s the most important variety). Next time Relative-In-Law comes to visit, I’ll put a steaming cup of green tea down in front of them with pride, knowing they won’t choke on any bitterness.

Loose tea can be used more than once. This is hojicha that’s been brewed twice.

The workshop’s host was Lauren and she is fabulous. Professional, punctual and friendly, she knew what she was doing on the technical side of things (Zoom workshop, natch) as well as the tea side of things.

She had two cameras in use, one for her face and one for her tea setup, which made for a very smooth session. I greatly appreciated being able to see her as she explained things while also being able to peek at her setup as she discussed various teas and methods. She also encouraged questions and made it an interactive experience. The one-hour session flew by.

This photo is here for no other reason than to show how cute my cup looks with a teapot lid on top. Stick a face on it and it could be an Anpanman character.

What did I learn? How to make a cup of tea, of course, but also what green tea is and which varieties are common, the history of green tea in Japan and how it evolved over the centuries, proven health benefits and a certain secret connection to another Japanese superfood—seaweed. (You’ll have to take the course to find out which seaweed and what the secret is—my lips are sealed!)

One thing I really appreciated was that the slides Lauren used were sent to us after the session, so there was no need to take notes during the workshop; we could simply enjoy and interact freely. She also sent us a screenshot of all of our smiling, tea-drinking faces, which was a nice memento.

My go-to tea looks like this. Delicious green tea can come from bags, too, of course, and Lauren will tell you how.

Though I participated in the workshop with a bag of green tea, since taking the workshop, I’ve decided to give loose green tea another chance. Lauren’s loose tea in little bowls—she had several kinds of tea on display—looked so much more appetizing than my boring little bag.

Pro tip: Never try to photograph loose tea with a hibiscus blossom. You will inevitably end up with ants in your tea.

I now find myself drinking several cups of tea—hojicha is my favourite—every day, and my little teapot is getting quite the workout. As summer turns to fall and then winter and my tea-drinking goes into overdrive to keep the chill away, I know I’ll appreciate this workshop even more. It really was a lovely way to spend part of an evening, in good company learning something new that I could put to use right away.

Just look at all of those delicious twigs mixed in with hojicha. Hojicha is steamed like regular green tea, but roasted afterwards for a delightfully earthy flavour.

If you love green tea but can’t quite get it right, or if you’re interested in trying it out but aren’t sure where to start, sign up and let Lauren guide you to a much more delicious way to enjoy Japan’s standard non-alcoholic beverage. (Seriously, even toddlers drink this stuff.)

A much safer way to add a random hibiscus blossom to a photograph of loose tea.

Arigato Japan Food Tours runs quite a few workshops. In-person tours take place in several major Japanese cities, so regardless of whether you find yourself in Tokyo, Osaka, Hiroshima, Kyoto or the Mt. Fuji area, there’s a workshop to get you acquainted with the local food culture. Of course, this being 2020, virtual travel is the best most of us can manage. Luckily, Arigato Japan Food Tours runs several online experiences, and even a virtual tour of Shibuya!

Check them out at their website, Twitter feed and Instagram and sate your appetite for Japanese foodie culture.


My first few years in Japan, I tossed an awful lot of apples in the compost.

You see, I’d slice into them and discover rot. It happened all.the.time. And apples here aren’t cheap! I was frustrated and confounded.

And, it turns out, very, very wrong. Those apples hadn’t been rotten, they’d been top-quality fruit with a high sugar content, and the brown spots I had thought to be rot were what the Japanese call mitsu, or sorbitol in English. Lots of mitsu means lots of yumminess.

Oh, the waste!

I’m not the only one who’s made the mitsu mistake—I see it pop up in FB groups and message boards from time to time, and the OP gets comment after comment saying “I thought the same thing!”

Sweet, crisp and slightly sour relief. Apples in Japan are fab. (That’s not to say apples in Canada, my home country, are not—how I yearn for local varieties like Russets! And prime pie apples like Spy and Spartan!)

Writing up an article on fruit in Japan this morning, I came across a terrific website on Aomori’s apples (and apples in general), which is what got me thinking about the fruit. It’s brilliantly called Apple University (Ringo Daigaku), and has heaps of info on apple growing in Japan. I had no idea that de-bagged apples start off white! And they’re plenty creepy-looking till their colour develops.

A few years back, before our youngest came along, the husband and I took our older daughter apple-picking on our way back from Oku-Nikko. How I miss apple trees! It was wonderful to be back amongst the craggy trees that I grew up surrounded by. If only we’d been able to visit during apple blossom season, too! Another year, perhaps.

Triangle hair and socks over tights. That’s prime apple-picking fashion.

As a kid, I had a tree fort in an apple tree. The tree was located on the school grounds of the Catholic school across the street from my house. During summer holidays, I’d head over with whatever friend or sibling I could rope in to my adventures, laden down with wood scraps and twine.

We (I?) would tie the branches down to make “rooms,” and use the scraps for seats and other essential furniture. I even tried setting up a washroom of sorts, but that plan failed when my friend became pee-shy. Understandable as there were other kids in the park, and my branch walls weren’t terribly good at providing privacy.

One more apple anecdote: One year, I complained to my husband about the cost of apples. It was summertime, and a single apple was going for well over 100 yen. Outrageous! He looked at me, and like it was obvious, said “Well, it’s not apple season.”

Apple season? Was there such a thing? I thought a moment and realized he was right—apple season is the fall.

We also stopped by a bokujo (farm) with cattle while in Oku-Nikko. Cattle always deserve a spot in a blog post, regardless of whether the post is cattle-focused or not.

Growing up, we had apples at a decent price year-round (says the person who wasn’t doing the wallet-opening). I’d never really thought about an apple season. I came to the conclusion that being from a northern-ish climate where winter means no fresh anything, really, and where apples were always stored so that at least some fruit would be available, I had grown up with apples-year-round being the norm.

I have no idea if that’s why I thought of apples as season-free, despite spending fall mornings at the farmers’ market while my mum bought freshly picked apples for pies, but it’s the best reason I’ve come up with.

Bananas, too, I always assumed to be season-free. We now have banana “trees” in the garden, and ours are definitely not season-free! But bananas are a story for another post.

The Complicated Feelings Caused By Aquariums

Today, my husband and I took our youngest to a nearby aquarium. Unlike our older daughter who prefers people-watching to animal-admiring, our youngest is enthralled by creatures large and small. Watching her little face light up, and seeing her clap (and force me to clap) brings me so much joy—even as I struggle to sort out my own feelings about aquariums and zoos.

The Complicated Feelings Caused By Aquariums

We spent the day at the aquarium
Where the seals and dolphins
Penguins and sharks
And even a walrus and polar bear
Live in such small quarters

And I love aquariums and zoos
Even while I hate them
Even while my eyes tear up
From guilt and sadness
I love to see the animals

Walking, crawling, swimming
Doing their thing
In such small quarters
Though I wish they were not there
But rather out in the ocean or on the savannah

Sitting to watch the dolphin show
I thought of old photographs
Of people goggling at tiny cages
And chained-up creatures
And I wondered—

Will I look so horrid in 100 years
Sitting here to watch the dolphin show
Even though I know I shouldn’t
Shouldn’t sit here and clap
At a dolphin entrapped

But then the show started
And I oohed and aahed
And nearly cried
From the awe and the sadness
That are entwined together

Whenever I visit the aquarium

Discovering Kamakura From Home

I live in a mid-sized city on Japan’s Pacific coast, approximately one hour south of Tokyo. My city, Kamakura, is one of Japan’s former capitals, and traces of its former splendour dot the city.

Once a small fishing village, Kamakura became the capital of the first Japanese shogunate, the Kamakura Shogunate, in 1185 (recognized in 1192). Until 1333 when the town was invaded and the shogunate fell, it acted as the military capital of the country.

Kamakura is home to a ridiculous number of shrines and temples. They’re smaller than those you’ll find in Kyoto, many of which are the former villas of aristocrats, but they shouldn’t be considered inferior by any means. Kamakura’s places of worship have an earthier feel, and a more spiritual vibe.

This past weekend was a four-day weekend in Japan. The government encouraged people to travel, despite rising COVID-19 numbers. For those of us who stayed home, I made a series of short videos on local temples and shrines, mostly photos set to music, so people could explore Kamakura without leaving their houses.

It occurred to me that those outside of my Twitter feed might be interested, too, so I’ll start introducing them here. Be advised—I am just figuring this stuff out, and only learned (thanks to a kind Twitter follower) that YouTube has an audio library Saturday. Heh heh…

To start, Sasuke Inari Shrine, a small shrine on the side of a forested hill that is one of our favourites. As an Inari shrine, it has heaps of red torii gates, and thousands of tiny fox statues.


Sasuke Inari Shrine

Writing New Things

Well, it certainly has been ages since I posted anything. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing — I certainly have. Just nothing that’s ready to post.

But I did write one thing that’s ready to go. And it’s a paid thing, too, which is always nice. I’ve never written about politics or elections or elected officials, so the article, which I’ll link below, was definitely a challenge.

These days, I mostly do copywriting and transcreation. The transcreation is always a bit hard since the topics are so varied, it’s guaranteed I’ll come across heaps of kanji and vocabulary I don’t know. In fact, I tend to consider my transcreation work a combination of work and study, as I’ve learned so many new kanji and words (not to mention historical and cultural points) while working. To be honest, the challenge is one of the reasons I enjoy it so much. I grow linguistically, ya know?

The easy part, though, is that I don’t have to do much searching for info or thinking of my own. Writing about Yuriko Koike, her COVID-19 response, and the upcoming elections, however, required quite a bit of both. I’m very lucky that I have an editor who is generous with her guidance!

Anywho, here it is. (Clicking image will take you to the Tokyo Weekender site.)

tl;dr: I run through the coronavirus response (good and bad) of Yuriko Koike, governor of Tokyo, mention some of her baggage, and suggest that she’ll likely get a second term, especially since no one running against her has even close to her popularity or visibility.


The view from the little path in front of our house.

I started writing this a few weeks ago, but it sat, unfinished, in an open tab. I couldn’t figure out what came next, which isn’t surprising since I can’t figure out what’s coming next in general these days.

My husband and I work in tourism. We run an inn, and guests from abroad are a huge part of our business. With things the way they are, we’re just not sure what might happen.

The poem eventually got finished, so there’s one bit of uncertainty taken care of. The rest, however…


We’re sitting on the deck, my husband and I.
It’s quiet, except for the noise from the street nearby
And the sounds of a toddler—ours—splashing in a basin of water.

The sky is blue, and there’s a slight breeze
Which comes and goes as it rustles the trees.
The sun is warm, a May sun—the best kind.

From the deck, we can see the bay.
Its blue isn’t as vivid as yesterday,
And little whitecaps disturb the water’s surface.

Today we have nothing planned,
Beyond watching the sky, sea and sand.
Our business, like so many others, sits idle.

We wonder what next month will bring,
And next year for that matter—whether anything
Will improve or get worse or just stay the same.

We’re sitting on the deck, my husband and I.
It’s quiet, except for the noise from the street nearby
And the worry whirring through our minds.

Overcoming the Urge for Perfection

The sea off the Kamakura coast.
A little eye-candy to accompany the post. This is the sea off the Kamakura coast at a time of particularly low tides.

A few weeks back, as I eased out of a week or so of being a blob on the couch, I wrote up a plan. It wasn’t a strict plan, more a guide of what I wanted to be sure to accomplish each day to avoid a return to blobness: Exercise, get outside for a walk, write.

That’s all. I felt afterwards I should have added “study Japanese” to the list, but it probably doesn’t matter that I didn’t, because I didn’t manage to stick to the plan for a single day. I managed to mostly keep my kids to their plan (get outside [mostly playing in the yard], homework [for the eight-year-old], art/music), but I seemed incapable of doing it all, even if “all” didn’t feel like all that much.

I didn’t write at all. In fact, I haven’t written in over a week is my guess. I bombed out of Camp NaNoWriMo in brilliant fashion, signing into the site just twice in April; jobs I thought would be coming in haven’t come in; and every idea I had for this blog got rethought and shot down before I even opened my laptop.

I wanted this blog to be a place to write anything and everything, from silly to serious, ridiculous to, well, everything else. But I’ve hit the perfection wall. Again. I hate the perfection wall. It does absolutely nothing for me, except protect my ever-so-delicate sense of worth.

That’s nice, yeah, but mostly it just keeps me from trying new things. From getting things done. I hate, hate, hate having people see a work-in-progress. And after handing in a final draft, I agonize over mistakes or typos or mistaken facts that even though I’m pretty sure aren’t there, I worry might actually be there. What if, what if, what if??

So what to do? I could try to climb over the wall, just go for it and say “screw you, wall of perfection” as I vault over the top. But alas, on top of this wall of perfection are pride-protection spikes. Very long and pointy ones. Tipped with poison. Thallium, maybe. (← Due South reference) Maybe even some embarrassment-avoiding barbed wire, too.

Imagine I wrote something that some people thought was stupid! A waste of time! As in, “reading that blog post took three minutes of my life that I’m never getting back.” God forbid I embarrass myself or let anyone down.

But—that’s pretty lame. My brain and heart both know that that isn’t the right way to live a life. I also know that’s not the example I want to set for my kids.

So let’s try again. From tomorrow.* Weirdness. Experiments. Stuff that might make you think “I can’t believe I just spent two minutes of my actual life reading that.” (Hopefully not, though.) Let’s all be a bit more creative tomorrow, even if we were plenty creative today.

*”Tomorrow” in coronavirus time is anywhere from actual tomorrow to sometime next week. Ish.

Rollercoaster of an Era

Photograph of a rollercoaster-like structure with many loop-the-loops.
My emotions and anxiety level seem to run on a course similar to this rollercoaster-like structure.

The ups, the downs; the quick turn-arounds and nervous anticipation: life in the Days of COVID-19 is a rollercoaster.

A few weeks ago, I thought I’d adjusted to the new normal. After a whole month of doing nothing more than I absolutely had to to keep the house running and the kids alive, I felt my old spark return. It was like waking up from a long sleep and feeling refreshed.

I went jogging. I lifted weights. I took the kids for walks. I basked in the sun.

And then it all came crashing down.

I think it was Abe’s declaration of a state of emergency, which was something I had been waiting for, desperately hoping for. And it finally came.

I thought I’d feel relieved, but my anxiety rose instead. Maybe it was because despite the state of emergency, nothing seemed to change. Maybe it was because the state of emergency only covered a few prefectures. Maybe it was because at that moment, the realization that the state of emergency really has no teeth at all hit me hard.

Whatever it was, I unravelled. I was still doing all the things I had to do: laundry, vacuuming, and similar stuff. But I stopped going outside. I might make it into the yard, but no further. My days were spent on the couch, directing my eight-year-old in her study schedule and keeping my toddler company as she binge-watched various movies from the Despicable Me franchise as I binge-watched Veronica Mars. (Thank you, Amazon Prime!)

Of course, the weather wasn’t as good as before, so that played a role, both making it unpleasant to be outside and adding to the darkness I felt inside. I just couldn’t bring myself to feel cheerful or optimistic. If I didn’t know better, I would have assumed dementors. That’s how drained of everything I felt.

Shichirigahama Beach and Enoshima Island.
Weather like this helps.

And then, yesterday, for no good reason, I got up off the couch. I took the toddler for a walk. I read a book in the sun. I did a YouTube workout. I passed up a sugar-laden snack I knew would do me no good, taste-wise or waist-wise.

It feels like I’m at one of those points along the rollercoaster when the up is so steep and hard to reach, the cars need to be dragged up slowly, accompanied by that mechanical clicking sound. Effort is required to keep my rollercoaster car of a behind motivated to reach the giddy heights of “normalcy,” which, inevitably, will be followed at some point by a breakneck descent into anxiety.

For now, I will focus on the journey to the top, and just hope it’s one of those boring roller coasters with hardly any big drops.