On the brink

天満神社 Tenman Shrine

I roll down my car window and tell the guy to fill it up. His reply is, “Where are you from?” When  I tell him, “America”, he says, “Oh, Trump.” Even in tiny gas stations on the back roads in eastern Kyushu, the recent election has people talking.

Banjyo River in October

It’s been a hard couple months adjusting to this new reality. I spent the long weekend before the election at a Zen meditation retreat. I was certain that sensibility would prevail and was pretty shaken when I heard the results on the streaming news as I drove home from work. Since then I have been glued to the computer too many hours a day consuming news of the aftermath- the inane tweets, the absurd cabinet appointments, the blatant disregard of ethics, the despicable antics of the Republican zealots, and so on.

Deciding today that I need to start writing again to move forward and start some healthier thinking.

Fossil 2016 (Jiro Yonezawa)

The reaction here is disbelief. As long as I’ve lived here, I’ve only heard admiration and respect for America as a country that offers opportunities for all, supports freedom and justice, and a place where diversity is celebrated. Of course, there are plenty of negative images, too… too many guns and too much crime, unhealthy eating habits, wasteful lifestyles and inequality for the poor. So the rhetoric of Trump that is so narrow-minded, racist and inflammatory has really hurt the image of the US here. I hear murmurs of mistrust and fear.

People ask, “How did Americans elect him after all the terrible things he said?” I explain that he lost the popular vote and the electoral college system gave him the edge. Of course, the Russians played a role, but the fact is many Americans voted for him and believe he is fit to be president. People here are worried about war and frankly I am, too.

As an American living here,  I represent the US to people who know me  and see me on the street. I feel ashamed of the man who has been elected as our 45th president, but I am determined to fight for the true values of America and oppose anything and anyone who tries to attack or undermine those values. It’s difficult to be effective from afar, but I will be writing to members of Congress and looking for opportunities to engage in the struggle.

Akai Jizo 2016        selected for Nitten (Jiro Yonezawa)

The first action I’m taking is to write to the tourism agency in the town of Usa, Japan. They are holding an event to honor the new president as a way to promote tourism. Don’t think he’s the right guy to attract visitors.

Even though I’ve been thoroughly  preoccupied with this mess, other things have been going well. I’m still teaching part-time. Jiro’s been really productive and had a great show in Taiwan last year, has made a great connection in France and won the Grand Prize two consecutive years in the Japan National New Craft Exhibition.


My wish is for peace and around the world. Stay healthy and focused on the good.

Tom Na H-iu, Teshima Island by Mariko Mori



2015 初 hatsu-denwa, hatsu-shiroyama, hatsu-takoyaki, hatsumode, hatsu-taki

Snow Falling on Sugi_ Choshi Valley, Honjo
Snow Falling on Sugi_ Choshi Valley, Honjo

Been colder than it usually is around here, we even have had some snow flurries. After the traditional New Year breakfast of O-zoni and O-sechi, we set out on an adventure. Was much too windy to ride our bikes, so we drove to the base of Shiroyama and hiked up to the top. Snow clouds were moving in from the sea, but the view of the coastline and city was clear.


Jiro’s phone rang as we stood at the west end of the castle ruins, it was Kai. Pretty exciting to exchange New Year’s greetings as he stood on a street corner in Oakland and we stood on the top of Shiroyama… oooooh, technology. Hatsu-shiroyama.

The beginning of the year resets the experience clock, so all experiences, foods and observations now can be called 初-whatever (Hatsu(first)-whatever) as a pronouncement of sorts.

As is customary for the New Year, we visited Shinto shrines for Hatsumode- the first (and probably the last) shrine visit of the year to offer thanks and to pray for good fortune throughout the year. We visited Goshomyo Shrine, Wakamiya Shrine and Takimihara Shrine. We had a tumultuous 2014 and are hoping that 2015 is filled with good health, safe travels, peace in our homes and around the world.

The snow started flurrying as soon as we parked the car near Goshomyo Shrine- probably the largest shrine in Saiki.

Hatsumode: Goshomyo Shrine
Hatsumode: Goshomyo Shrine

We lined up to ring the bells and pray and then we each bought an obligatory fortune…Jiro’s said he will have “small” fortune and mine predicted “mid-size” fortune. Moderation is good.

Now it was lunchtime and even though we had lots of food at home, we decided to stop by our favorite takoyaki shop, Chanky (street food: octopus “balls”) –hatsu-takoyaki. Misato, who runs Chanky, spent a couple months last year in the Bay Area checking out the street food scene and investigating ways to introduce it to the US. She is back here now, scheming her next adventure. While we were waiting for our food, Nina called. Perfect timing. She was getting ready for a New Year’s Eve party as we were celebrating the New Year here.


With full tummies, we drove north along the coastline to Kamiura. There is a pair of rocks at 二見が裏 Futamigaura (click to see beautiful photos) that are bound together with shimenawa, a large handwoven rope, the longest shimenawa in Japan. The rocks are know as meotoiwa 夫婦岩, symbolizing a man and a woman couple. At the end of every year, local people gather to remove the old rope, make a new one and then suspend it between the two rocks. It is a popular site for sunrise photos and always draws a large crowd there to catch the first sunrise hatsu-hinode. We were just getting up at 7:25 and missed our chance for hatsu-sunrise. By the time we got to Futamigaura at 11:00 or so, we were the only people there.

Gyoran Falls
Gyoran Falls

Across the road there is a protected seaside scenic area- a beautifully maintained park with a traditional Kyoto style garden and the site of Gyouran Falls 暁嵐の滝. The falls are 14 meters tall and set back into a small gorge. Just the two of us as we stood watching for several minutes- hatsu-taki (hatsu-waterfall). There is a legend about kappas (water sprite) in that area and there are several kappa statues situated throughout the park.

Up the trail beyond the waterfall is a very old shrine with a copper roof that has left a bluish ring around the base of the shrine from the rainwater runoff. The ceiling panels depict animals and mythical creatures. Takimihara Shrine 瀧三柱神社  was established in the Kamakura Period(1192-1333).

Next we visited 若宮 (Wakamiya) Shrine in the neighborhood where Jiro’s mother is from. It is the shrine that I feel most “aligned” with. We visited there for Kai’s 7-5-3 celebration and also for New Year’s when the kids were small. This shrine was established when the castle was built on top of Shiroyama. The shrine at the top of the mountain was relocated here and there is a trail to the shrine from the castle grounds.

Somewhere in my memory archives of Japanese culture, it states that you are supposed to visit three shrines within the first 5 days of the New Year. I haven’t been able to confirm this….but after visiting the shrine at Gyoran Falls, we have fulfilled that obligation, regardless of the accuracy of my memory. Whew!

We still weren’t ready to go home, so we headed out towards the mountains for a drive. I knew that there was a IMG_1940waterfall somewhere, so we just kept driving hoping there would be some signage. We spotted a sign for 銚子の滝 Choshi Falls and followed the road to Choshi Valley. One of our goals was to visit somewhere that we hadn’t been before, so we were delighted to find a beautiful mountain stream with several deep pools and a waterfall. Snow was falling and it was just a short hike to the falls. We definitely need to go back in summer.

So good to get out…..a great way to start the New Year.

Then we came back to lots of food that I had prepared the day before: iridori (simmered chicken and vegetables), yuzu daikon, namasu (pickled carrots and daikon), gomame (candied sardines), steamed vegetables, kuromame (sweet black beans). We always make subuta (sweet & sour pork)- the only time of the year we have it. And this year I made chili. Preparing a lot of food ahead of time meant I didn’t need to cook the first few days of the year. We also had mochi that we made at our friend’s house on the 30th.

2015 promises to be a good year….


Autumn and castle ruins at the top of Shiroyama
Autumn and castle ruins at the top of Shiroyama

The application for the local marathon event arrived in the mail the other day. How long has it been since I last ran? How long has it been since I last wrote a letter? How long has it been since I used a camera other than my iphone? How long has it been since I’ve done any baking? since I’ve done any long kanji writing practice? since I’ve written a blog post?

It’s not that I haven’t been doing anything, but I’ve been distracted and lacking any sustained focus. I am really enjoying teaching at the college and lesson preparation seems to take up a lot of my time, but I need to get back to doing the things that keep me healthy and happy.

No promises, but taking a small step.

Checking in

Directional sign in downtown Portland

It’s been almost two weeks since I arrived. I am having fun, eating too much, meeting with old friends and family. I also have taken care of paperwork related to living outside the country and have run lots of errands.

The weather has been great, but it’s supposed to rain tomorrow and Tuesday (it’s still Sunday here). Most public schools start on Tuesday so families are enjoying the last weekend of summer.

On a hike with my sisters

I landed in Seattle and stayed for a couple of days with my parents. Then I came down to Portland, Oregon to take care of “business” and to meet up with old friends. I’m leaving on Tuesday to go to Southern California to visit my brother and his family and next Saturday I’ll finally see our kids in San Francisco. I can’t wait. 

I’ve wanted to write, but I haven’t had much free time. I will write again in the next few days. 

I hope everyone is doing well. Have you been meeting with your classes? What have you done? How has the weather been?

Will write soon. I do miss Saiki and all of you.

5 Years Today

view from the top of Karakunidake
View from the top of Karakunidake

It’s been exactly five years since I came back to join Jiro in Japan. We weren’t sure how long we’d be here and we still don’t know. I am not ready to reinvent myself once more so we will stay for the time being. It still feels like we are treading water, but this has become a second home for us. Sounds trite, but it’s so true: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

one of several caldera lakes
one of several caldera lakes

I just finished the first half of the first semester at the university and it is so much easier this time around. I love having another colleague to share ideas and observations with. I didn’t think I wanted to do this job long term because of the commute and a desire to garden and cook more, but it so satisfying to be engaged and busy.

Jiro has been offered a two-week workshop at Haystack in Maine in August 2014, so we are talking about using that as our starting point for a 6-month trip to Southeast Asia. We have talked about travelling for several years now….it finally feels like a real possibility.

Looking towards Shinmoedake which erupted a couple years ago
Looking towards Shinmoedake which erupted a couple years ago

We haven’t really settled since Ba-chan’s death. We are stil trying to get rid of stuff and reorganize our living spaces. It’s hard when we are both so busy with work. We’re hesitant to spend much money if we aren’t going to be here long, but to really set things up, we need to invest a bit into updating some furniture and appliances. Right now we’re making do, but I think that just adds to the sensation of being in limbo.

I just booked my flights to go back to the US for about a month at the end of August. There will be a one year memorial service for his mom in mid-August and we will celebrate her first Obon around the same time. This year we also have the 7-year memorial service for his father and the 33-year ceremony for his grandfather. These are all significant ceremonies after someone dies….we have decided to do them all together to save money and time.

Hike through the forest
Hike through the forest

In April I took a short trip to Ebino Kogen in southern Miyazaki. Went on beautiful hikes in this volcanic region and stayed at a hot spring resort. The meals were prepared with local vegetables and included about 4 courses. It was a nice getaway before I started back at the university.I haven’t been taking many pictures recently….the novelty of the landscape has faded….it is all so familiar now.

The rainy season started more than a week earlier than usual this year. I am already on mukade (centipede) alert and the cockroaches and spiders are skittering around keeping me jumpy. The air quality is awful, the PM 2.5 measurements have been about 45 μg/m3..the “safe” limit is 35 μg/m3. When it rains the levels drop to about 25, but it is concerning. I am glad we don’t have small kids to keep indoors, I worry about the longterm health effects on children. Lots of people here criticize China for being the source of this pollution, but it is a result of the global industrialization.. Japan and other developed nations have many factories there because of the lax laws and low wages…. and yet Fukushima is still leaking radiation and there is no long term solution for the 300,000 tons of contaminated water.

Bento wrapped in Bamboo shoot sheaf prepared by the hotel
Bento wrapped in Bamboo shoot sheaf prepared by the hotel

Life goes on.

We went to watch a performance of TAO Taiko last weekend. Look at their website to see the costumes! So dynamic and the choreography is amazing. They were pumped to be kicking off this year’s 20th anniversary tour in their base here in Oita.

If you ever have a chance, GO!

Really windy at the top
Really windy at the top

Hard to know where to start

DSC_0003Since I last wrote in August, things have changed. Ba-chan passed away on August 18th….both Jiro and I were with her and she was calm until she was gone. The three days after someone dies in Japan are all culturally choreographed- there were no big decisions to make about what kind of service or what should  be done or who to invite. Of course, there were many choices about what kind of food to serve, what kind of gifts to give to the guests,  how many monks to hire to chant, and how many characters for her Buddhist name, but from the moment she died to the funeral three days later, it was a smooth process that honored her and gave family and friends time to say goodbye. I hope to write more in detail about those days, but I need to get this blog restarted and I think I’ll just start with what is going on now.

view from Shiroyama
view from Shiroyama

We are slowly moving our residence from our old kura to Ba-chan’s house. We’ve always done all our meals there, but I am going through all her things and trying to make room for us to live there. It’s hard to shed her personality from the space- I think that’s why it’s taking us so long.  The house is pretty small, but we’ll make it work. Hopefully by summer, we’ll complete the transition. We’d like to rent out the kura for a little extra cash.

Jiro has just finished building a huge storage space and workshop. It’s 8 x 12 meters and we had solar panels installed on the roof. We’ll sell all the energy to the electric company- there is a push for alternative energy sources these days and we got a nice subsidy. He won’t be using much electricity there, and it works out to be a better deal if he sets up a separate line for his own power use. Seems counterintuitive to me.

山桜 Wild cherry trees
山桜 Wild cherry trees

He has been running a small forestry business for the past four years, but has decided to gradually stop doing that work. His last crew member just quit, so he is working alone. He has one big tree-planting contract to finish and then he’ll just pick up small jobs to keep a cash flow. He hasn’t had any time to do his art the past couple years and he is really eager to get back to it.

I decided to keep teaching at the university for at least another year. I expect this year will be easier, now that I know how the system works and what I can expect from the students. Last year we implemented placement testing, and it has made a big difference. The university also decided to hire another instructor, so I have a new colleague. She is from England and has lived here about 25 years. We’ve already gotten together a couple times to do some planning-  I am so excited to be have someone to collaborate with.

DSC_0025It’s cherry blossom time- about 10 days earlier than usual. Most years the wild cherry trees bloom first and after those blossoms fall, the cultivars bloom- this year everything is in bloom at once. Today I took a walk up Shiroyama to see the view from the top of the hill- hazy, but beautiful. There were so many people out and about- I really love this time of year.

So the plan is to write regularly- we’ll see. I guess I should have mentioned that we have decided to stay put. We have a comfortable place to live, jobs, and health insurance, but mainly we’re not ready for another big transition yet. Ideally we’d like to work it out to live here part of the year and  in the US the other part of the year. Right now we both are feeling like it may be a good time to start thinking about some extended travel.



Time to start writing again

Spring is in the air. Unfortunately, there’s also a lot of particulate matter from China that has cast a whitish yellow haze over western Japan. I seem to be coughing more than usual and wonder if it would be a good idea to wear a mask while running.

No plans to write more tonight. Decided to change themes and upgrade the header image…not settled yet, but I have been ready for a change.

Will write more in the next couple of days.