Posted by: annacats | June 16, 2011



This is my last day in Kodomari.  Tonight I will take the bus from Goshogawara down to Tokyo, arriving in the morning, and I will fly out of Narita at 6:00 pm tomorrow.  As that leaves me with a day to myself in Tokyo, I will use the opportunity to fulfill a childhood dream and visit the new panda pair at Ueno Zoo.  Hopefully I will actually accomplish this goal, as it will be my first time exploring Tokyo without Trevor, and, as I can barely find my way around down-town Madison, I could very likely end up wandering the streets somewhere, all lost and nervous.  But if all goes well I will finally see some pandas, and leave Japan a happy girl.

Happy as I can be, that is.  This is my last visit to Japan for the foreseeable future, as Trevor will be ending his time as a JET

Me and Mami.

this July and moving to Boston with me in September.  So tomorrow when I leave Japan, I really am saying goodbye, as I won’t be coming back again in just a couple months.  I’m finding it much more difficult to leave here than I had anticipated.  Over the past two years, Kodomari has become my second home, and though I often complain about it, my irritation for Japan is only matched by my fondness for it.  Because for every time I’ve found nothing vegetarian on a menu, I’ve been overwhelmed by the beauty of the landscape.  For every time I’ve been huddled up in the cold or boiling alive in Trevor’s house, I’ve visited a magnificent shrine or walked beneath an explosion of sakura.  For every person who’s stared at me, I’ve met a kind, welcoming friend.


Perhaps it’s also hard to leave because I’ve shared Kodomari with Trevor, and we’ve had wonderful experiences here together.  We’ve shared a life in Japan, and even though we’ll have a life together back in the United States, it’s still hard to say goodbye to it, to the habits and routines and happy moments we’ve built here.  There is no one else with whom I’d rather travel in a foreign country, and it’s been wonderful.  Sometimes maddening, but always wonderful.

It seems like this month has been mostly goodbyes – like this entire trip was made just so I could say goodbye to Japan.  Since coming back from Kyoto, we’ve been busy meeting friends so I could see them one last time, going to all our usual spots so I could bid farewell.  And yet there have been new discoveries.  I always say that Japan is like a treasure chest, and this past weekend, Trevor took me and a friend a little up the coast from Kodomari to a lovely beach and waterfall he’d just discovered.  I finally got around to karoake at one of Trevor’s fellow JET’s birthday parties.  And I got to meet some monkeys.

This past week I said goodbye to our friends Yudai, Mami, the Eikaiwa ladies, and Toshiko and her husband.

Yudai, Me, Trevor, at the ocean

Though I expressed my certainty of seeing them again one day, I’m not so sure – Trevor and I will no doubt come back to Japan as much as we can, but I don’t know if we’ll ever come back to Kodomari, as it’s so out of the way and hard to get to.  I want to, but I don’t know that it will happen.  Our friends also hope to visit us in America one day, but I’m not sure that will ever happen, either.   We will be sure to keep in touch, though.  They are all such wonderfully kind people and have made me feel welcome and accepted when I felt strange and uncertain.  And since the earthquake, when I wasn’t sure if anyone here was okay, I feel even more grateful for them, grateful they are okay and escaped deep grief and loss.

Four or five years ago I could not have imagined that I’d ever live in a small fishing village in Northern Japan.  Even now I sometimes find it hard to believe that I’ve spent eight months of my life here.  But now I don’t know who I’d be without it, who I’d be without this experience.  I feel so much more expansive, certain, understanding.  The earthquake made me realize how much I care for this country and its people.  I didn’t know how much it had become my other home until I sat in front of the news for weeks, my heart breaking.  Though I’ve definitely whined “I hate this country and I want to go home” more than once, I wouldn’t actually trade this experience for anything.

Leaving Japan for me is sad, but I know it will be so much harder for Trevor when he leaves a month and a half from now.  This has been his only home for two years, and he is very attached to the country and the people he’s met here.  His Japanese has gotten so very good, and he is a great teacher.  This morning I went with him to his nursery school class, and I was so impressed with how he handled them, and they seemed to like him very much.  To lead a preschool class well is hard, but to lead a preschool class in Japanese is even harder, yet he is fantastic at both.  It saddens me that he’ll be leaving all that behind.  But I hope that he will get the chance to come back often.

It’s a lovely summer day here, so before I head off tonight, Trevor and I are going to make one last stop at the beach so I can collect sea glass one last time as the sun sets across the ocean and hills and the mist rises.  It’s fitting that my last visit will be to the beach, as when I’m back in America and picture Kodomari, the view of the ocean is always what I see.

Posted by: annacats | June 10, 2011

Cats of Kyoto (And Deer and Monkeys)

Daitokuji Temple

As I consider Kyoto to be the most beautiful city I’ve ever been to (I see it as the Paris of Japan) and Trevy loves it best of all places in Japan for its history and culture and art, it was with excitement that we took our second trip to Kyoto.  We were there from Saturday May 28th to Sunday Jun 5th, and while this time with had to contend with rain, heat, and hoards of middle schoolers on class trips, and I couldn’t help but achingly long for the beauty, serenity, and other-worldliness of cherry blossom season, we still had a very nice time and experienced many breathtaking moments.

We also met with lots of animals, particularly cats.  Now, I’m not sure if there are more stray cats in Japan that America, Japan is just a more cat-friendly place (as opposed to the stupid dog-loving USA), or Trevor and I just have some special ability to draw cats to us wherever we are, but many times we’d be at a famous site and find ourselves encountering a cat.  And if not a cat, then deer or monkeys, though those meetings were fully expected.  It is for this reason that I will let the cats (and other fauna) be the guide to our Kyoto trip.

Philosopher's Path Cat

Cats of Philosopher’s Path:  While nothing can compare to the fantasy-world beauty of the Philosopher’s Path in cherry blossom season, it is still a beautiful walk in summer, lush and green and watery.  It was on this famous walk where we met our first cats of the week – or perhaps I should say met again.  Last year we ran into some cats along the path, beneath some bushes, and, here they still were, more than a year later!  They obliged us with some picturesque poses, and when we tried to move along, one protested by jumping on Trevy’s lap.  It makes the Philosopher’s Path all the more lovely that friendly cats prowl along it.

Uji Cat

Cat of Uji:  Taking advantage of a sunny day, on Tuesday we made our way to Uji, a town outside of Kyoto famous for its tea and setting as the final ten chapters of the Japanese epic The Tale of Genji.  It is also known for its stunning river and the Byodoin Temple, on the back of the ten yen coin.  Making our way through the pretty street leading to Byodoin, we met with this friendly kitty, welcoming us to the town.  She proved to be a good omen, as Byodoin, dating from 998 and sitting on a pool of water, is my favorite temple I’ve seen in Japan, and the river was, well, everything you’d imagine a perfect Japanese river to look like.

Cat and Tori

Cat of Fushimi Inari Shrine:  We returned to Fushimi Inari shrine, with its endless rows of Tori stretching up a mountain, and here met with more cats.  We climbed up through the tori to a little restaurant that overlooked Kyoto, and watched as a kitten and mother played outside our window.  On our way down, we ran into another cat, who was kind enough to oblige us with a perfect picture beneath the tori.

Lady of Daitokuji.

Cat of Daitokuji Temple:  This was our second visit to Daitokuji Temple, but last year we just took a cursory walk through the grounds, while this year we explored many of its sub-temples.  I am glad we did, because on sub-temple opened on to the most beautiful garden I’ve seen in Japan, green, wet with rain, and with lovely paths leading around trees and under gates.  We also found another cat, a pretty little lady who took a particular liking to me, mewing and jumping on my lap.  Temples must be a welcoming place for cats to live.


Deer of Nara:  After our Disney-like experience there last year, there was no way we could pass up Nara, with its multitude of tame deer roaming its parks and temples and shrines.  Unfortunately, the deer weren’t quite in the same Snow-White mood as last year, displaying a bit more crankiness and impatience, perhaps brought on by the hoards of middle schoolers screaming in their faces and their protectiveness over the little new-born babies we were able to glimpse from time to time.  Several deer stomped on my feet and one even bit my dress when I didn’t feed them crackers at an appropriate pace.  Nevertheless, Nara is still a storybook town that I can’t believe exists, with its 60 foot daibutsu, lovely temples and shrines, and, of course, tame deer.  If Trevor had been placed in Nara, I don’t think I could ever leave Japan.

Feeding monkeys.

Monkeys of Arashiyama:  My monkey infatuation was not satisfied by my one paltry monkey sighting last September, so I was greatly anticipating our visit to Arashiyama (meaning “Storm Mountain”) with its famous monkey-park.  However, even without the monkeys it would have been worthwhile to visit that part of Kyoto, as Arashiyama turned out to be possibly the most beautiful place I have ever seen, with its bridge spanning a wide river surrounded on both sides by misty, green mountains.  It was like the ideal of Japan, like scenery in a Miyazaki movie that actually exists in real life. After absorbing the view, we made our way up to the monkey park.  And by “up” I mean we climbed a steep mountain for twenty minutes in the sweltering heat.  And as we went, panting and sweating, we kept seeing signs along the path warning “Do not stare at the monkeys! Do not touch the monkeys! Don’t show food to the monkeys! Don’t get near the monkeys!” This naturally made me wonder if we were indeed struggling up a sweltering mountain just to be attacked by monkeys when we reached the top.  But the monkeys turned out to be lovely.  We went into a building with fence-walls, so we could feed the monkeys through the cage without possibility of biting, and it was a delight to put an apple or peanut into their out-stretched little hands.  Some mama monkeys with babies hanging on them even came up to the cage, and it was an awfully precious sight.  We also walked among them outside the building, watching them go for swims in a pool, hang from trees, pick nits out of each other’s fur.  We descended the mountain happy to have met the monkeys and avoid attack.

I suppose it sort of seems like all we did was run into animals in Kyoto.  And I suppose we did.  But we also went to some animal-free sites, like Kiyomizudera with its tremendous view of Kyoto, Gion to see a Geisha performance, and of course paid another visit to the Golden and Silver Pavilions.  It was a wonderful trip.  But it’s Kyoto, so how could it not be?

Mama and Baby, Hanging.

Monkey by a pool.

Posted by: annacats | May 27, 2011

Ganbare Nippon

I’m back in Japan.  It feels good to type that, as there was a terrible week or two when I wondered if I’d be able to come back this spring, and an even more terrible day when I didn’t know if there would be anything to come back to.  But after two postponements (I was originally supposed to come April 7th), I am here.  It’s good to be back.  And it’s wonderful to be with Trevor.

I arrived in Kodomari on Monday night, after a rather unbearable 35 hours of travel, and have mostly spent this week recovering and trying to sleep when it’s dark and stay awake when it’s light.  But I have been out a bit – to Eikaiwa Tuesday night, to the restaurant we often visit, to the elementary school.  I can’t say that I sense a tremendous change, an overwhelming sense of grief, but perhaps I haven’t been out enough or I’ve been too groggy to really notice.  Or maybe I’m just too happy to be with Trevor again.  But then, Kodomari and the eastern part of Aomori were untouched by the devastation.  It looks exactly the same as when I last left it.  The sun is shining and the birds are singing.  People here haven’t lost children, parents, spouses.  Their homes are intact, their village is intact.  On the opposite side of the prefecture, though, and in the ones directly below, it is a completely different story.  But even there, perhaps the sense of grief, of terror, wouldn’t be overwhelming either, at least not to the extent one from the Western world would expect.  The Japanese are famous for their brave faces, their stoic dispositions.  When things get bad, they try their best, they try to face the world with courage, a sentiment summed up in the oft-heard word “Ganbare.”

Though there is not an obvious atmosphere of tragedy and disaster here in Kodomari, there are little things that signal this is a different country from the one I left in November.  Flashing road signs say “Ganbare Tohoku,” (“Try Hard, Tohoku,” the area of Northern Japan hit by the earthquake/tsunami.)  Napkins in the restaurant say “Ganbare Nippon.”  Our friend’s cousin lost her husband.  (But his body was recovered, she gratefully added, as many families don’t even have that.) Toshiko, the owner of the restaurant, was very worried about her little granddaughter in the Tokyo area when the radiation levels in the tap water were too high for children.

And I suppose the way I look at Japan has changed.  When I woke up on March 11th and saw the news, saw that Aomori was hit with tsunamis, saw that there were massive tsunami warnings along both coasts of Japan, saw that a city two hours away from Kodomari on the same coast had definitely been hit, I didn’t know if Kodomari was still standing.  I didn’t know if the people I knew there were okay.  And I didn’t know if Trevor was okay.  So it is with new gratitude and appreciation that I look at Kodomari, at Japan.  It’s a country much more fragile than I thought.  It’s fragility makes it seem even more beautiful, as does the strength expressed by it’s people.  So much of it was gone in an instant, and, I’m sure like many people, I am all the more appreciative of what is standing.  Yesterday I went with Trevor to his first-grade class, and it was bittersweet to see their happy little faces: there are many empty desks this year in classrooms along the Northeastern coastline.

Tomorrow Trevor and I will be heading off to Kyoto for a week and we’re looking forward to it, not only because we had such a wonderful experience there last year, but because we hope by being tourists we will be doing a small part to help Japan recover.  For as much as I can complain and gripe about it, Japan is a beautiful, stunning country with people who did not deserve such tragedy.  I know I speak for not only myself but most Americans when I say “Ganbare Nippon.”

Posted by: annacats | November 4, 2010

Fun Facts and Deep Thoughts

Fishing boat off the Kodomari shore

I am once again nearing the end of another trip to Japan. These visits always go by much faster than I anticipate – three months sounds like a good length of time, but looking back it seems like I’ve only been here a matter of weeks. On Saturday morning Trevor and I are flying to Tokyo where we’ll spend several days roaming the city and taking day trips to nearby towns (Nikko and/or Chiba, hopefully), and on Tuesday I’ll fly from Narita back home to O’Hare. As always, it will be a struggle to leave Trevor. Though we’ll be able to Skype daily, I’d obviously rather be with him.

It’s tough to say goodbye to Trevor and Japan, but I am looking forward to coming back to America. Well, I was, anyway, until this Tuesday. Remember in my last blog how I mentioned that living in Japan inspires a certain pride in me for my country? How I accumulate goodwill for America while I’m away? Yeah, that’s all gone. It vanished instantly Tuesday night. Instead of returning to the United States, I’m actually returning to a steaming pile of crap.

But, anyhow. Steaming pile of crap or not, I’m coming home. And as my visit here draws to a close, I thought I’d organize my thoughts with some Fun Facts and Deep Thoughts about Japan.

Fun Fact – My experience with toilets in Japan has ranged from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows. This is because

Squat Toilet

Japan has both Western and Japanese-style toilets, otherwise known as “squat” toilets. The Western toilets are fancy-schmancy versions of our toilets, with heated seats, bidets, and even a button that simulates the sound of running water for the nervous pee-er. I feel very sophisticated when I use these toilets. And then there are the “squat” toilets, which are more or less a hole in the floor of the stall. I go out of my way to avoid them, but there have been times when I’ve had no choice. Unlike the Japanese who have been raised using them, squatting over a hole is not a natural position for me, and to keep my balance I have to put my hand on the ground (ick), and I worry about peeing on myself. And the next day my thigh muscles are always sore from squatting.

Deep Thought – There is a restaurant in Goshogawara that Trevor and I frequent because it has several vegetarian options. Trevor recently spoke to a Japanese friend of his who mentioned that she’s seen us there a couple times.  She added that all the Japanese customers watch us while we eat. That doesn’t make me feel self-conscious at all.

Fun Fact – The vending machines in Japan are great little things. Throughout the summer all the drinks come out cold, but starting in mid-October many switch over to hot, like tea and coffee. They then change back to cold around May. There is a vending machine right outside our house, and it is nice to pop out and get a hot bottle of tea when the urge strikes. Why don’t we have such nifty vending machines in the U.S.?

Deep Thought – After one very demoralizing experience last year, I vowed never to try on Japanese jeans again, but about a month ago a store in the local mall was selling great quality jeans for 1000 yen per pair (about ten dollars), and it seemed too great a bargain to pass up. I grabbed a couple sizes, determined to squeeze my Big American Butt into the little Japanese pants. After much exertion, I found a pair that fit: the extra large, extra long size, the largest in the store. I got two pairs. I refer to them as my Chubby Girl jeans.

Fun Fact – I’m not sure why, but tissues seem to be a coveted item in Japan. Whenever we go to athletic days at the schools or town festivals, tissues are given as prizes for games. Likewise, gas stations give out tissue packets after the customer pays. Subsequently, Trevor’s glove compartment and bathroom are overflowing with tissue packs. It’s almost a shame I haven’t gotten a cold while here.

Deep Thought – I don’t know why, but I thought it would be a good idea to teach the little children the lyrics to “I’m a Little Tea Pot” during our last visit to the nursery school. I now know what it’s like to have twenty children staring at me in utter bewilderment. That same day Trevor said “Good Morning!” to a little boy and he burst into tears. At least it’s not as bad as the time a three-year-old karate chopped him in the crotch.

Fun Fact – Japanese people think corn soup is a quintessentially American meal. Whenever we go to American-style diners (which are a Japanese take on Western food, just as Chinese and Japanese restaurants in the U.S. are very Americanized) they serve corn soup, and when it’s Western day at Trevor’s school cafeteria they always have corn soup. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve rarely eaten corn soup, if ever, and it’s definitely not a food I’d associate with America.

Deep Thought – I’d never spent much time by the ocean before coming to Japan, and it’s a privilege to live just a five

Me by the ocean

minute walk from the ocean. I never knew it could take on so many different colors. When the weather was hot and windless, it was a little brownish and muddy, then on sunny fall days it was the deepest blue. Now that’s it’s become cold and windy and rainy it’s rolling and capping, gray and white. I hate running, but running by the ocean definitely improves the experience.

Fun Fact – Whenever a person walks into a store or restaurant in Japan, he or she is promptly greeted with a chorus of “Irashaimase” (meaning “welcome”) by the workers. Then, whenever they pass the customer, they say it again. And again. Often the same sales person will Irashaimase the same customer over and over. It gets quite obnoxious. And they sort of quietly mutter then “Ira” part, then shout “shaimase,” so for the longest time I thought the word was just “shaimase.” I’m tempted to yell it right back at them sometime. Though of course I never will. That would bring shame upon Trevor.

Deep Thought – On my first visit to Japan, I was very impressed with Trevor’s Japanese speaking and comprehension abilities. Now, a year later, I’m even more impressed.  I’m really proud of him. His Japanese skills have made my trips here much, much easier and nicer than they would have been otherwise, and through him I’ve been able to understand what’s happening around me on a much deeper level. He translates conversations so I can participate, he tells me what’s happening on tv, he teaches me words and phrases to help me get by, he reads signs for me. Learning Japanese is just such a huge undertaking, and I’m so proud of him.

Fun Fact – In Japan, pigs don’t say “oink oink.” They say “bu-bu-bu-bu-bu.” On a similar note, Japan is home to the tanuki, or

Store-front Tanuki with big balls

“raccoon-dog,” an animal closely related to the raccoon or badger. They play a popular role in Japanese culture and folklore, appearing in myths as tricksy shape-shifters.  They are also said to bring good fortune, so tanuki statues often stand outside restaurants or businesses. However, many of these tanuki statues have giant balls, a caricature of the disproportionately large balls of real tanukis. They have even been depicted in paintings as throwing their balls over their shoulders like sacks. It’s kind of disconcerting to see a statue of a tanuki sitting on giant balls in front of a family restaurant or store. I think I would have some strange ideas about male anatomy if I were a little girl in Japan.

Though living in Japan is sometimes a challenge, it’s always a learning experience. I hope to come back next March or April, in time for sakura season, and will not doubt gather more little thought nuggets like the ones above to share.  In the meantime, I’ll be counting down the days until Trevor comes home for Christmas.

Posted by: annacats | October 18, 2010

Friends for Gaijin.

Pagoda of Seiryu-ji Temple in Aomori

When I’m in the United States, I’m the first person to criticize my country.  I see all its flaws and sometimes despair that it will never make progress (especially when I hear that this absurd Ron Johnson person is beating Russ Feingold in the polls).  I take the good things for granted, seeing them as natural rights to which everyone is entitled, and focus mostly on the negative, politically, culturally, and historically.  However, a funny thing happens to me when I get to Japan: I turn into an ardent defender of America.  If a Japanese person criticizes the country, or implies that the Japanese way is better, I get my back up and go to great lengths to explain why we’re a good country.  I guess America is like a family member – I can criticize it, along with other members of the family, but no outsiders can.

Not only do I suddenly develop a strident patriotism, but I no longer take for granted America’s many good qualities.  In particular, I start to appreciate the diversity of the United States.  Even though we’re branded a racist, narrow-minded nation (and of course there are many Americans who deserve that label), we’re afforded the opportunity to see a much wider range of people from all different backgrounds in the United States than in Japan, and therefore are inherently more open-minded.  In all cities in the United States you will see people of all races, and most don’t get a second look.  Even in mostly white communities there are people of different European backgrounds and heritage, and in the most white-bread, conservative towns people can turn on the tv and see people of different races interacting.  Here in Japan, “gaijin” (or foreigners, as they call white people), are stared at like they have spiders spewing from their ears.  When I go for a run in Kodomari, old men pull over their trucks to watch me in a way that creeps me out and intimidates me.  When we turn on the television, we see no one but Japanese people.  By and large, the people of Kodomari have been rather cold to Trevor, not going out of their way to welcome him or attempt to learn about his culture.  So, though America obviously has a long way to go in terms of racial harmony and acceptance, we’re still miles ahead of other nations, just by the fact that on a daily basis most people interact with others of different heritages, religions, and backgrounds without giving it a second thought.  Living in Japan has made me grateful for that.

Me with some of the Eikaiwa members last November

Because so many people in Kodomari are distant to Trevor and me, I am all the more thankful for those who are kind, welcoming, and go above and beyond to make us feel included.  The people in our English conversation class (Eikaiwa) are especially wonderful.  The class meets three times a month on Tuesday nights, and we chat, play games, exchange stories about our respective cultures.  Whenever I have a question about Japan that I can’t find out on my own, I turn to them and they are delighted to help; likewise, they are intrigued by how we live in the United States (when we introduced our friend Mami to the idea of cake with ice cream – a combination they don’t do in Japan, apparently – she said “I will tell all my friends!”).  There are only five of them – Mami, Yasuko, Tetsuko, Megumi, and Yudai – and their English levels vary, but I find it touching that in this small town, where knowing English can in no way matter to their daily lives, they want to learn and improve just because they like it.  And, I hope, because they like us.

We’ve formed friendships with them outside of Eikaiwa.  They bring back gifts for us when they go on a trip.  They invite us to their houses, and when Trevor’s mom visited they came over for a party.  Mami, the youngest of the group at 24, spends an occasional Friday night with us and we exchange music, she introducing us to independent music we wouldn’t know about otherwise, us burning her a CD with M.I.A. and Janelle Monae.

Mami and Me

I give Yasuko and Yudai private lessons outside of Eikaiwa, as well.  Yasuko is an English teacher herself, giving introductory lessons to elementary and junior high school students, and I help her with her plans, explaining difficult words and concepts (“I was wondering” turns out to be a more complicated phrase to explain than one would think).  Yudai  – the lone male of the group, who Trevor and I refer to as “The mysterious Yudai” due to his evasiveness about his age – has extremely impressive English comprehension and also loves to sing Broadway songs, so each week I teach him the lyrics to a new Broadway number.  I’ve been an unabashed musical nerd all my life, and it’s been a great joy to introduce him to some of my favorite songs and use them as a gateway to wider discussions about American and western culture.  “It Sucks to Be Me” from Avenue Q proved to be especially enlightening.

There are a few other very kind people outside of Eikaiwa, like Toshiko, the owner of the restaurant we often visit, who gives us free cake and ice cream on our birthdays.  But without our Eikaiwa group, it would be pretty lonely for the both of us here.  It will be a relief to return to America, where I’m comfortable with the culture, language, and won’t get stared at, but  I hope Trevor and I will stay in touch with the Eikaiwa group.  I hope they’ll remember us over the years, as new JETS come and go; I know I will always remember them with fondness and gratitude for welcoming us into a town, a country, where many people are not so friendly, and for being the types of people who would never stare.

Posted by: annacats | October 2, 2010

Favorite Kamakura Things

Kamakura Daibutsu

I envy the Japanese for their holidays.  In Japan, there are many days deemed worthy of celebrating, when work and school are canceled.  There is nearly one holiday a month, if not more – in all, there are about fifteen holidays where everyone has the day off, compared to six in the US.  Some of these days include Marine Day, Respect for the Aged Day, Health and Sports Day, Culture Day.  If only we could come up with similar holidays back home (like, say, Bird Day – the birds never get enough honor), I think everyone would be a lot happier.

But to the point: in Japan, two holidays fall during the second-to-last week in September (known as Silver Week), Respect for the Aged Day and the Autumnal Equinox.  These two free days made it the perfect time for Trevor’s mom to visit, as Trevor would only have to take a couple days off work and still have the whole week to show her Japan.

Because Aomori is rather limited in its places of interest, after showing her around here for a day, we took her Kamakura, a city on the ocean about an hour away from Tokyo. Kamakura was the seat of power in Japan in the 13th and 14th centuries, and because of this medieval history it is home to many remarkable temples, shrines, and sites, some nearly one-thousand years old.  Though the weather was rather rainy, windy and cold due to a hurricane that parked itself off the coast of Japan, we still found the city to be lovely – elegant, streamlined, soothing, perfectly personifying the Zen Buddhism of its many temples.

I want to go over all the wonderful things we saw in Kamakura.  But because travelogues are boring and probably not very interesting to anyone but the travelers and their parents (who are obligated to read and enjoy), to make the reading more pleasurable I have set the list of my favorite sights in Kamakura to The Sound of Music‘s “My Favorite Things.”  Please hum along.

My Favorite Kamakura Things:

Big Giant Buddhas and Small Jizo Statues,

Cave shrine and hill shrine surrounded by Tengus,

Ofuna Kannonji and the peace that she brings,

These are my favorite Kamakura things.

Well.  It’s safe to say we all enjoyed that.  But for those who may want to learn a bit more about Kamakura, I’ll go into a little more detail.


Daibutsu: Kamakura is probably most famous for its Daibutsu, literally “Big Buddha,” an outdoor statue of a seated Buddha that is nearly 44 feet tall and was built in 1252.  It is striking and lovely, with its imposing presence, serene expression, and green, aged bronze coating.  We spent a long time becoming acquainted with him –  circling him, taking pictures from all angles, and we even climbed inside.  Though we visited many interesting and beautiful places, the Kamakura Daibutsu made the biggest impression on me.


Jizo of Hasedera Temple: Hasedera Temple was my favorite of the temples we visited, and while it had many beautiful features (like the Buddha with eleven heads, whose picture we unfortunately weren’t allowed to take), I was most moved by the rows and rows of Jizo statues.  As I mentioned in one of my first posts, Jizo are meant to protect the souls of children. I love their sweet faces and small stature, and seeing many of them in one place was touching and lovely. I like how there are many different depictions of Jizo, – within Hasedera Temple there were three or four different styles of Jizo.  I love the Jizo.

Carving in cave wall

Cave Shrine in Hasedera Temple: Like I’ve mentioned before, one of my favorite things about Japan is the treasures waiting to be found in the most secret places.  In Hasedera Temple, for instance, there is a shrine hidden away in a cave. Called benten kutsu cave and dedicated to the sea goddess, it is dark, lit only with candles, and one must duck through low tunnels to come out the other side. Statues of the sea goddess and other images are carved into the cave walls.  When looking at the mouth of the cave from outside, you would never guess what it contains.  I also love how shrines are often found on temple grounds.  Shrines are places of worship for Shintoism and temples are centers for Buddhism, yet the religions coexist in Japan, side-by-side.  Can you image in America, having a mosque in the yard of a church?

Tengu on hillside

Hansobo Shrine with Tengu: Just as benten kutsu cave is in the grounds of Hasedera Temple, Hansobo Shrine overlooks and protects Kenchoji Temple.  Kenchoji, one of the five great temples of Kamakura, is beautiful, clean, and peaceful. It is perhaps best known for its emaciated Buddha statue, but I most loved Hansobo shrine on the outskirts of the grounds.  The shrine stands high on a hill, and to get to it we climbed many steep flights of stairs.  At the top of these winding stairs sits the shrine, surrounded by statues of Tengu, mythical Japanese creatures that look like little men with beaks and wings.  It was a lovely surprise to reach the top of the stairs, breathless and tired, and be greeted by these little goblin creatures.  The view from the top was magnificent as well – we could see over the temple, the woods, the town, all the way to the ocean.

View of Kannonji from train station

Ofuna Kannonji: As soon as we arrived in Kamakura and exited the train station next to our hotel, we were greeted with the brilliant white head of a woman jutting out of a hill in the distance. Upon further inquiry, we discovered it was the Ofuna Kannonji, a giant statue of a bodhisattva that symbolizes peace and mercy, built in the mid-20th century.  Her base contains stones from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, sites of the atomic bomb attacks.  Like many sites in Japan, she is reached only by many flights of stairs, and it was a joy to see her sweet face beaming on us as we climbed up and up.

There you have it, my Kamakura highlights.  For such a small town, it contains quite a lot of history and remarkable sites. It was a great place to spend a short vacation.  And, because this is Japan, there is of course a holiday to look forward to in October (Health and Sports Day – I think you’re supposed to devote the day to exercise or something).  I couldn’t think of a more perfect time for Trevor to take me to Nagano to see the monkeys in hot springs.  Hmmmm, Dolly?  Then I could make up a song about that, too!

And, more Jizo pictures.  Because I love the Jizo.

Posted by: annacats | September 16, 2010

Anna and Trevor and Monkeys and Sea Glass

Japanese Snow Monkeys!

When I first came to Japan almost exactly one year ago, I didn’t have a clear vision of what to expect – I could picture life in Tokyo, Kyoto, any of the major cities that represent Japan in the American imagination, but I really couldn’t picture what rural, Northern Japan would be like.  I had no mental images of it and had heard rumors that it was barren and isolated, and as a result I was rather scared of the life waiting for me there.  But, I held on to one hope: monkeys.  I knew Japan was home to monkeys, and, excited by the well-known images of monkeys relaxing in hot springs, I clung to the hope of someday seeing one for myself.  A monkey, I thought to myself. That will make everything better.

Flash-forward one year: over the course of three trips to Japan, Aomori has proven to be much more welcoming and beautiful than rumors led me to believe, and while it’s not always easy living here, it’s not the stark existence I feared.  In fact, its often a joy and pleasure and always interesting.  And yet, until last weekend, nothing quite felt complete because I hadn’t seen my monkey.  Though Trevor had the privilege of running across a mama monkey and some babies on his way to work last December, the monkey-sighting eluded me.  But on Saturday that all changed.


It was a rainy, humid morning.  Trevor and I were on our way to Goshogawara, a city about an hour away, to go shopping.  We were nearing the edge of Kodomari, driving along a road curving through a woods, when we came around a bend and saw him.  Trevor slowed the car.  I turned down the music.  We leaned forward, and peered through the rain-streaked windshield.  He came out of a little garden, lumbered across the road on all fours, and disappeared into the woods on the other side.  He was much larger than I had imagined – about the size of a medium-large dog – and to my surprise had no tail.  He had a pink little face.  We drove away beaming – me because my life was now complete, Trevor because I would shut up about seeing a monkey.

When I got home that night I researched the monkeys of Japan.  They are Japanese Macaques, also known as the Japanese Snow Monkey.  They are only found in Japan and large numbers live in Aomori, and, as I observed, they have very short tails.  But, much to my astonishment, I discovered that not everyone is so thrilled about these monkeys as I am.  In some parts of Aomori, seeing one isn’t such a rare thing.  In fact, they are often viewed as down-right pests.  According to this monkey fact site (under the section “Monkeys as Pests”), deforestation has forced troupes of monkeys into villages, where they ravage gardens, trash shrines, break into homes, steal food from children on their way to school, jump on roofs night and day.  People often kill the monkeys to get rid of them.  This saddens me.  Though it sounds like the monkeys must be quite a nuisance and problem for the people who live in these towns, killing them seems like a terrible solution.  I suppose growing up with monkeys around, the Japanese must somewhat take them for granted, but I couldn’t imagine encountering a monkey, a wild monkey, and not being in awe.  If I came home and found a monkey in my kitchen scavenging through my cupboards, I would be delighted.  If a monkey jumped on my roof night and day, I would be delighted.  Stole my lunch as I walked to school? Delighted.

A sampling of my sea glass finds

In other news, I have a hobby.  This is an unlikely development, as I’m not a “hobby” person: I either love something and immerse myself in it, or I have no interest.  I view hobbies as a sign of weakness.  And yet, here I am with my very first hobby – sea glass collecting.  It started when Trevor and I returned to the secret little Kodomari beach I mentioned in an earlier post, and while walking along the surf piece after piece of sea glass caught my eye.  I started to pick them up, and soon I had a large handful of frosted, glowing sea glass in hues of blue, white, green, and brown.  This beach seems to provide an unlimited supply of sea glass, because every time we go back, we fill up plastics bags of it, and now I have a large jar’s full and am on to a second.  I love finding pieces among the rocks and pebbles, shining and luminescent like jewels.  It’s really quite addicting, combing the beach for pieces, and it excites me to no end when I find a rare color, unusual shape, or perfectly round and frosted piece.

My sea glass jar

Sea glass is becoming more and more rare, as plastic bottles replace glass and people discover that throwing glass into the ocean isn’t such a great idea, so we’re very lucky to find a beach with a never-ending supply of it.  I’m really not sure what I’m going to do with it all.  I’ll probably take it home and fill a bottle for decoration, but that will still leave me with quite a back stock of sea glass, especially as my collection keeps growing.  If any of my dear readers know of anyone who uses sea glass for making jewelry or art, I would be glad to pass some on to them – for a small fee, of course.  In the meantime, I will keep up my sea-glassing even though there is no discernible purpose to it – because that’s what hobbies are all about, right?

Posted by: annacats | September 6, 2010

I Heart Rice Art!

Northern Japan (or Tohoku, as it is called here) is just full of surprises.  When I’m in a particularly foul mood I think I have it pegged as an isolated, dull place with little in the way of cultural stimulation.  But then I’ll discover a shrouded shrine in the hills, a beach hidden behind cliffs, a giant crow munching on a small bird (Yes, I saw that today – one of the horrifically large, scary-smart Japanese crows eating a little bird.  I swear, they are just weeks away from staging a rebellion.)  And yesterday Trevy and I were fortunate enough to find another of Tohoku’s wonderful little secrets: the rice art of Inakadate.

We had heard of the rice art from friends in Kodomari and yesterday drove two hours south to Inakadate to see it for ourselves.  For years, the village has been turning a large rice field into art by planting various colors of rice in patterns that – when seen from a tall building above – form scenes from Japanese art and history.  Trevor and I arrived at the viewing center, took an elevator to the fourth floor, climbed several flights of stairs, emerged onto a balcony, and were met by this:

It depicts a fight between Benkei (left) and Yoshitsune (right), legendary figures from medieval Japanese history.  Yoshitsune is throwing a fan at Benkei, which you can see to the right of Benkei’s head.


Stunning, non? We could have stayed up on that balcony all day gazing down at it, but, alas, there was a long line behind us and we had to move along.  It truly was a fantastic sight.  It’s gems like these that make me glad Trevor was placed it Aomori instead of a more lively place like Tokyo.


And if you click here you can view the rice art of years past, and if you click on the specific images you will see the different phases of the rice art throughout the summer, from planting to harvest time.

Posted by: annacats | August 30, 2010

Hot Child in the City.

Hidden Beach

That’s me.  I’m the hot child in the city.  Actually, first I was a hot child in the city, and now I’m a hot child in a Northern backwater village.  Because it’s hotter than hell in Japan.

Hot nights in Tokyo

I landed in Tokyo on Thursday, August 19th.  I knew Tokyo becomes a tropical jungle in the summer, and was prepared for the sweltering, breeze-less heat.  We only planned to be in Tokyo for a weekend, so I knew I could put up with it for just a couple days.  And since every building in Tokyo is air-conditioned, Trevor and I could pop into any restaurant, cafe, or movie-theater to cool off when we needed.  But I wasn’t expecting Kodomari, the ocean village on the northern-most tip of the main island of Japan where Trevor teaches and lives, to be just as brutally hot.

After two days in Tokyo, we came back to Kodomari, and though it seems worlds away from Tokyo in every way possible, it currently shares a temperature with the city.  We happen to be experiencing an unusual, unrelenting heat-wave.  Which would be manageable, except that, unlike in Tokyo, most buildings and homes in Kodomari do not have air-conditioning, including Trevor’s house.

Japanese houses are unique to the American sensibility, with their sliding doors, tatami mats, and boxy, flat shape. I find these features interesting and rather lovely.  But the thing that I – with my middle-class American expectations – cannot abide is the heating and cooling system of these homes.  Unlike American abodes, Japanese houses do not have central heating; instead, a room or two will have a space heater.  In Trevor’s house, there is one space heater in the tatami room, or what we call the “living room.”  This unfortunate situation means that in the winter all other rooms are unbearably frigid, and if we leave for the day and turn off the heater (not wanting to burn the house down) we return to a house that is literally twenty degrees Fahrenheit.  Even the tatami room never gets truly, comfortably warm.  I suppose in the southern parts of Japan with their mild winters this type of heating situation is understandable, but up here in Kodomari, with harsh, freezing winters comparable to Wisconsin’s, it doesn’t make any sense at all.

Many homes in Kodomari also do not come with air-conditioning, including ours. On days like these, with high humidity and temperatures soaring into the nineties, the heat stays trapped in our house and turns it into a boiling oven, hotter inside than out.  Trevor’s schools and work center also do not have air-conditioning, which is mind-blowing to my American perspective, so his days are just as sweltering as mine.

I really don’t know why houses in Japan stick to their traditional systems of heating and cooling – or lack thereof.  I’ve heard that Japanese houses are made cheaply and not meant to last, so that could be a reason.  Or tradition itself could explain it.  To the Japanese, perhaps air-conditioning and central heating in every home might seem wasteful and unnecessary.

Secret Path...

To take our minds off the heat, on Sunday Trevor took me to a secret little cove in Kodomari he recently discovered.  There are many things about Kodomari that I find less than stellar, but I adore how it’s made up of hidden, breathtakingly beautiful little spots.  While walking down any street in Kodomari, I pass by paths or stairs that wind through the hills and lead to shrines or graveyards or stunning views.   Several weeks ago, before I got here, Trevor followed one of these paths, and discovered a trail leading around the rocks jutting into the ocean.  It passes by a

Shrine in rock

shrine up high in the rocks and ends in a lovely, pristine beach.  We splashed around in the tide, sank our feet in the sand, thrilled to be in such a magic, Miyazaki-esque place.  And then I got home and discovered my shoulders and back covered in a nasty sunburn.

Trevy on the beach

So here I am, hot, sweating, and in pain.  A couple times I put my pajamas in the freezer before going to bed, and while they did cool me down a bit, they also smelled like frozen vegetables.  The forecast calls for at least another week of this heat-wave.  To get through it, I’ll imagine that this house is actually a cool, underground root cellar, and I am a nice, comfortable potato.  Yes, that will fix everything.

Posted by: annacats | May 1, 2010

A Post in Five Parts

Sakura-lined street in Hirosaki

1.  On Going Home

It’s down to my last few days in Japan, for this visit at least.  I fly out of Narita airport on Tuesday evening and arrive in the US on (mind-bender!) Tuesday afternoon.  My plans are to come back to Japan in July or August, depending on how the summer plays out.  It might seem like a big waste of money/excess traveling to keep bouncing between Japan and the United States, and it is.  However, when I’m in Japan, I can’t work or really participate in the world at large, and often feel isolated and useless.  I need to come back to the United States  to be able to keep my life moving.  Of course, the catch is that I can’t get a long-term job while living in the United States for only a couple months at a time, but I can see friends and family, volunteer, and have short-term jobs.  It’s a frustrating situation, but it sort of works for me.  I probably won’t feel completely happy or satisfied until I’m settled with some sort of job or place in the world, but until then it is nice to take a couple years to roam, I suppose.  Anyhow, enough of my 20-something angst.

2.  Hirosaki

Hirosaki castle

Trevor and I are capping off my trip to Japan with visits to Hirosaki and Tokyo.  Today we drove to Hirosaki, a city about two hours away and famous for its castle and extensive grounds.  Sakura begin blooming in southern Japan in early April, and throughout the month the blooming spreads north.  Now, at the beginning of May, it’s Aomori’s turn for cherry blossoms, and Hirosaki is one of its prime viewing spots.  The castle grounds are bursting with sakura – beautiful, cloudy, puffy, cotton-bally sakura.  I adore sakura.  There is nothing so lovely or magical as walking down a sakura-lined street.  The Japanese love sakura, too – it is their unofficial national flower, and they flock to places known for it. Picnicking beneath the trees is one of their favorite pastimes.

Not only were the cherry blossoms at peak bloom today, but the weather was very nice – a relief, as it has rained for the past several days.  Trevor and I wandered the castle grounds and took a million, billion pictures of sakura, because they are so fantastic it’s impossible not to.  The only downsides of the day were the strong winds and a bitchy old lady at a shop who called us a derogatory name for foreigners.

3.  Food


Japanese food is very, very cute, so cute that I feel bad eating it.  It’s often composed in little portions or bites, partially so it can be picked up by chopsticks, but also for the aesthetic aspect.  The Japanese seem to emphasize the visual elements of food much more than Americans – most food and meals are arranged and made to look as pleasing and pretty as possible: think Bento boxes or sushi.  Desserts are particularly artistic.  They are like little sculptures.  Today Trevor and I went to a patisserie in Hirosaki (owned by the brother of an acquaintance of ours from Kodomari) and ate some delectable, individual cakes (or cakey, as they would pronounce it here).

Even the way the Japanese serve their food can be adorable – take, for instance, “conveyor-belt sushi,” restaurants where customers sit in front of a little conveyor belt with small plates of food moving along it.  When a plate comes by that you want you grab it, and when you’re done you give all the plates to the waitress and she adds up the cost.  I actually can’t believe they haven’t thought of this in America – what’s more perfect for our fat-ass nation than a conveyor-belt of food?

4.  Gender

Gender roles are very defined in Japan, and it seems more difficult to break out of these roles here than it is in the Western world. Women here are very “girly-girl,” dressing almost more like little girls than women, in ruffles, knee-high socks, bows, flowers.  To me, the whole Lolita-ish, women-as-girls thing is rather demeaning and concerning.  There is even an emphasis on girls eating certain foods in public – “cute” foods, like the ones I have mentioned above.  Girls are supposed to love sweets, and I have heard that men find it more attractive when girls eat adorable little cakes in public instead of hearty meals.  I recently read an article on NPR that mentioned how men are supposed to avoid eating these sweets, too, as they are seen as emasculating.

Of course there is a huge emphasis on the physical appearance of females everywhere, but while the west has tried to somewhat get away from this by sending out messages of body-love and self-esteem to young girls, my observations lead me to believe that Japan keeps its focus on beauty.  Trevor and I once saw a poster with Peppermint Patty and Marcy from The Peanuts that said “Let’s Be Beautiful!”  There is even a horrible, horrible television show here,  Majo-Tachi No 22Ji, that tells the stories of real women who used to be fat/ugly and therefore unloved by their boyfriends and ridiculed by the general public, and who have since lost weight and become beautiful.  There is a big reveal at the end, where the women come out and everyone applauds and cheers.  And their boyfriends now love them and propose.  It’s a horrible, horrible show.  The emphasis is not on how these women lost weight for health or decided to take better care of themselves for their own self-esteem, but on how they are now loved and accepted.  And usually these women are in their fifties but look thirty, and everyone is so impressed.   Let me repeat, this is a horrible, horrible show.

5.  Golden Week

Tomorrow morning, Trevor and I fly from Aomori airport to Tokyo.  This upcoming week is “Golden Week” in Japan, meaning Monday through Wednesday are national holidays, so Trevor and I are spending several days in Tokyo before I fly out.  I haven’t seen Tokyo beyond the airport, so I’m excited to explore it a bit.  But I’m also very sad to be leaving Trevor.  It will be a bitter-sweet Tokyo visit and Golden Week.  And, if my plane ride home is anything like last time, instead of a Golden Week, it will be a vomity week.

And, more pictures…

River and sakura

Spring Cakey

Conveyor Belt Sushi

Plates - conveyor belt sushi

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