Posted by: patriciamar | September 12, 2021

Fiction: Lemon Politico

I began writing this fictional essay in 2017. There were many reasons to have written it that year. I revisited it later, in 2019, and again today. Still I have questions; still it make me think.

I hope the same for you.

Lemon Politico

by Patricia Willers

Someone threw a lemon at me, and it hit me right in the face.  

I couldn’t believe they just did it –heckling by fruit.  And it hit me like a punch.  I knew this because I had been punched once when I was a kid.  

My little brother punched me when we were fighting over a toad, of all things.  I wanted to utilize the toad as a science experiment and dissect it.  I loved animal biology, and the idea of spending a hot summer afternoon taking apart a toad limb by limb was perfectly intriguing to me.  My brother adored animals in a different way.  To him they had names and thoughts and feelings and families, for god’s sake.  Obviously the idea of me taking this little creature and killing it for purely scientific purposes—well, it was just atrocious to him.  He couldn’t take it, and he just popped.  Snapped.  Punched me right in the nose.  

And that’s how I know how it felt.  Having a lemon thrown at you is exactly like being punched in the nose.

When the lemon was thrown at me, I was giving a talk.  I felt wholly shocked by the act.  I was lecturing on a topic with great enthusiasm.  I was an intelligent, straight talking, educated, well-read individual.  My convictions made sense.  I had labored over each point in my presentation, brainstorming and testing and weighing reasons and support.  I had detailed statistics supporting my theses.  Philosophical theories and arguments supported each idea globally, and furthermore, I had firsthand accounts—real, true, non-fiction, individual anecdotes— that explained why my well-supported, reasonable, high quality points were correct.

Yet someone had thrown a lemon at me.  I would probably have a black eye.  

Someone must have felt very strongly about the topic to have felt the need to throw a lemon right at my face.  

I wanted to pull them up on stage.  They clearly had the fervor to match my passion.  In fact, passionate was a mild term for my beliefs on this topic.  When I got going, there was no stopping my ferocity!   Yet I had never been gripped by the desire to throw a piece of fruit at someone.  To be so overtaken by an inability to vocalize sentiment and reason!  What must this surly spectator have been feeling?  Had they been rendered so speechless when faced with a conflicting viewpoint that the confrontation evoked a desperate need to engage twitch muscles in a rebuttal?

I was reminded again of my brother.  

At the moment in my childhood when a toad’s destiny intersected with my own, my brother had asked me why I thought I was right and he was wrong.  I had thoroughly berated him on the damning effects of violence as a reaction to stress and fear, but I hadn’t answered his question.  But in this case, it was different.  I had facts!

Later, with an ice pack draped across the bridge of my nose, he asked me one more question.  With tears running down his face, still clutching a squirming toad, he asked me if we could still be friends, even if we both felt so strongly about something so important.

And I didn’t know the answer.  I did, and I didn’t.

After the lemon mauling, I had an ice pack draped in the exact same manner.  I am not a radical.  How could anything I said or did warrant having a lemon thrown at me?  It was a new moment in my life.  

Was the fruit slinger a lunatic?  Or a friend, neighbor, or relative?  Was I so blinded by my own beliefs that I could no longer entertain opposing viewpoints?  The phrase confirmation bias echoed in my head.

I should meet this lemon politico.  We had things to talk about. 

Maybe we could still be friends.  

Posted by: patriciamar | June 23, 2020

Waiting for a Normal Education

This spring, along with a global pandemic came a tiny bit more free time for me (study abroad numbers are down, clearly), so a former colleague and I decided to start a podcast!


My ESL Qs is a podcast about learning and teaching English as a second language.  Recently on MyESLQs, as we often do, we answered some student questions.  The topic of the week was related to coronavirus, and the student question was, If online classes really do continue into 2021, what should I do?  I don’t know if I want to do my entire degree online.  In our podcast, Teresa and I discuss this question, and I hope you take a listen!  But I am also going to go ahead and share my thoughts here because this issue is so close to my life, career, and heart that I can’t help doing so. 

Q: If online classes really do continue into 2021, what should I do?  I don’t know if I want to do my entire degree online. 

This is an excellent question, and I think that a lot of people around the world are pondering it as well.

  • This was not in my plans.
  • How will I gain hands-on experience without labs?
  • I’m not good at online classes.  It’s too hard to focus.
  • I need to meet my professors face-to-face.
  • I am not getting life experience when I am living in my parents’ basement taking classes on Zoom.
  • I want a “normal education.”

Unfortunately, for the moment, this is your new normal, which means the question is not Should I take online classes next year?  The question is Will you continue living your life next year?  

If the top schools in this country and around the world are entirely online because it is unsafe for you be in a classroom, then that is your new normal.  This is your college experience, just like someone else’s was the Vietnam War and someone else’s was during a financial crisis, and someone else’s was segregated by gender or race, and someone else’s was before the internet.

Think of it this way, you’re special!  If you play your cards right, you can avoid paying rent the first year of college, spend time with your family, take extra classes during your free time (free on MOOCs!), make dinner with your little sister, spend Saturday afternoons having “Watch Parties” with your friends (They are free, too!), plant a garden, sew masks for your local hospital, build a house for your childhood pet, learn more about statistical representations for a global pandemic than you ever thought possible, learn all the names of the trees outside your kitchen window, write a story, wear pajamas every day for a month, or even start your own blog or podcast!

When I was in high school, my high school Spanish club was busy fundraising for a trip to Spain when 9/11 happened.  Our parents, many of our teachers, and our small-town school board all immediately pushed to cancel the trip.  This was my first trip in a 747 and my first trip across the ocean.  I was not going to quietly stay home.  Students organized, pushed, and wrote letters to the school board.  We went to Spain the next summer, and that experience, as I thought it might, changed me forever.

In a lot of ways the Covid19 situation is very different, but in some ways it is quite similar. With Covid19, the risk is known; the consequence of exposure has a name and is paired with medical equipment and side effects.  You know that you need to stay home.  After 9/11, the risk was the unknown.  My fear was that if I put my plans on hold then, they would be put on hold indefinitely.

The point is, your life is now. Four months ago, what were your educational plans for this summer or for next year?  If you don’t go through with that degree program, simply because it’s online, then when are you going to do it?

Earlier this year, if you were thinking about doing something, but were hesitant because of X, Y, Z, then maybe now isn’t the right time. I say that because if X, Y, and Z were true, then maybe this wasn’t the right time in the first place.  Don’t force something that didn’t feel right.

On the other hand, if you had every intention of doing something, but a global pandemic happened, and it is going to make life more challenging, complicated or just different, then do it.  You were going to do it.  Why would a global event that is out of your control change your mind?  If your health is at risk, or if you are putting others at risk, then it’s a different story.   But if you keep stepping forward and find your way through this complicated new normal we are living, then I can almost guarantee that you will come out the other end stronger and more resilient than if you hadn’t.

In my UC Davis department, CPE-I, we were told that all classes would be going online.  This is an ESL department that hosts students from around the globe.  We are a communicative language program.  This was a sudden turn from our normal, and there were a few teachers that are pretty old school in their teaching methods.  I was nervous for them, to be perfectly honest.  We don’t use chalkboards, but we use a lot of whiteboard markers of different colors, poster paper and stand-up/sit-down/move-around classroom activities.  When confronted with online classes, how many of these teachers pushed back and said, “No, we can’t do it”?

None, of course.

I’d like to say it is because teachers know that education is essential and moving forward has to be the answer.  We cannot go backwards and we cannot stand still.

But I think the fact that every single teacher dug in their heels and logged in to online workshops, watched tutorials, played with new apps, experimented with online textbooks, and then succeeded in creating a communicative classroom environment online for their students, actually showed how resilient they all are.  If they had pushed back, their skillset wouldn’t have suffered.  They would still have all the experience that they already had.  But after this quarter (and this summer, and possibly this fall, and however long it takes to find out what our next new normal will be), they will be stronger, smarter, and more well-prepared for whatever is next.

So students, take the leap and go ahead with your educational plan.  Whatever it is that you think you wanted to do next year, don’t be afraid of trying to accomplish it.  Go in running and see what you can make of it.  We, your teachers, believe in your future success.

Posted by: patriciamar | March 26, 2020

Where are my Students?

     I have been sitting in my home office among my devices for days.  My phone is on my left.  My tablet is behind me on the futon, my desktop PC in front of me and my laptop (constantly running Zoom) raised on a Hong Kong moon cake tin at the exact angle for my Zoom camera view.
But where are my students?
     This dramatic and sudden shift to entirely online classes has inspired an impressive show of support from publishers, educational companies, teacher trainers, educational institutions, and professional organizations.  The past two weeks, I have basically been in grad school, constantly watching courses, seminars, tutorials and webinars– live and recorded– participating in workshops and attending practice sessions with colleagues and peers. Then I move to my own classes on Canvas and Google classroom, adapting and changing and pondering, and then further altering to try to make the experience as real and as meaningful for my students as possible.
     Thus far, reactions have been mixed. Some student can’t take it.  They either can’t commit or can’t focus.  They don’t even show up.
     Others are thriving.  “This is just like meeting in person.  No, it’s better,” one student told me.
     Teachers, students and administrators around the world are pushing, struggling, and sometimes crying about what is happening in education due to Covid19.  It is interesting how we are doing it together, all at once.
     For some time I have been on a quest to discover how to best create, or inspire, global students.  I want my students to be global citizens.  Here, purely by chance, a worldwide pandemic has given me a thought-provoking new perspective.
     I came across the following writing passage in an email draft from about the same time last year.  It seemed appropriate to post it now, when so much has changed, meanwhile nothing has changed at all.

Spring 2019
     My quarterly inspiration jolt came all in a rush this week as I finished three programs, two that had been going on since the beginning of my time in Japan.  I said goodbye and good luck to many students, 16 of whom were about to study abroad for a year in the U.S. or Canada. Two more are going to community college in Hawaii, two more are headed to Davis to the IEP and then to Community College, and one is headed to a 4-year university in Malaysia.
     It was the last student speech in the last class yesterday that really left me thinking about life as a teacher and life in general. This young high school student is about to study abroad for a year. He got up to give his final presentation, and spoke in a voice so much louder than it was three months ago.  He said that through this program (an academic writing and pre-study abroad program), he had changed. He said that he didn’t know when he changed; he couldn’t identify the moment, but at some point he realized that it had happened and he was a different person now.  Even as an English language learner, he put into words this common occurrence in life, when the experiences that are happening cause a shift in the very essence of Who You Are. You don’t usually know that it’s happening or even that it’s going to happen but you realize eventually that it has, and you are not the same person that you used to be.
     We try so hard as students and as adults to change ourselves to be some person or some way, but it really doesn’t matter how hard we try. It’s the experiences that actually do the changing. More important might be the willingness to put yourself out there, to do something or be somewhere or experience something different.

     The rest has to do with your brain and your heart.

     Another one of my students, for his final presentation gave a talk on quantum computers. He described the amount of information in your brain as 100,000 downloads  of the movie “Back to the Future.” That description, that analogy, is somehow so deep and complex (and awesome) that it’s difficult to comprehend. 

     It is impressive how much our brains and our bodies can do– on a normal day, in the face of change, and even in the chaos of a global pandemic.

     Students are so great and because of them and what they inspire me to do, I keep changing as a person, always for the better.

Posted by: patriciamar | October 1, 2019

The Tokyo Millions

It has been a long while since I was able to write, and a short while since I returned from Tokyo to northern California (1 week!).  A few people have asked about my biggest takeaway, and certainly there are dozens of messages and important life lessons learned. This post is about one monumental observation that I had time and time again.


Life in Tokyo with 38 Million Other People

One fantastic aspect of living in Tokyo is that on any given day, you can find the exact sort of event that you are looking for.  You can always find something to suit your mood–almost any niche activity on any given weekend or day.  To me, San Francisco sort of feels the same way, and the reason for this is very simple. 

You’re not the only one. You’re not one of 100.  You’re not even one of 1,000.  For any random event, one of 10,000 might be a solid base. If your interest is at all well known, prepare yourself to be one of 1,000,000. I’m not kidding or exaggerating.  The sheer size of the population is other worldly.

I like going to events.  Buying tickets for a date and time on the calendar months ahead of time is thrilling and gives me something to prepare for and anticipate for months.  Both ticketed and unticketed events helped me get a nice taste of the Tokyo millions, and wowza, sometimes the results were shocking.

Some events, like the Oktoberfest in Yokohama, does not require tickets and is talked about year-round. On the date(s), you walk your way down from MinatoMirai to Yokohama Red Brick and go on in.  Actually, there may have been a minimal door charge of ¥300 or so; it was an amount not worth remembering. 

Inside that makeshift German beer hall, with decorations, a brass band, and legitimate German sausages, pretzels, and sauerkraut, there were so many people packed in that it would make Munich Oktoberfest look empty.  It was stressful and frustrating and AMAZING.  There were so many people that it felt like you were standing on a crowded rush hour train. We were crammed in.  Everyone was holding glass beer glasses.  Everyone was yelling Proost!  Everyone was shouting かんぱい  (kanpai)!

In the spring I went to the Tokyo Coffee Festival, located at the United Nations University Plaza, also the location of one of the few farmer’s markets in Tokyo.  Tickets were all digital (obviously), there was an abundance of unbelievable coffee roasters from around the country and world (obviously), and there were winding lines taped on the ground for the doughnut stand (obviously– and totally worth the line, by the way).  Every coffee tent had an employee managing the lines.  It was interesting and delicious, and a tremendous life challenge to have to balance the spastic caffeine pull of a strong pourover while trying so, so hard to wait patiently in line.

On an additional note, while the Tokyo Coffee Festival was a beautiful event, I have never been so caffeinated in my life.  Maybe once, and I remember that afternoon at Shine cafe in Sacramento very vividly.  The person I was meeting came an hour late, and I was so caffeinated by the time our coffee date ended that they thought I was on drugs.  After the Tokyo Coffee Festival, I was nauseous.  By midnight my heart rate had decreased to normal, but I had the worst coffee hangover.  Who knew!?

At a concert (Kacey Musgraves!), after moving everyone from the ticket scanning/ wristband/ staging area, the staff efficiently moved attendees downstairs and to the concert hall (maybe 3k max), filling the space, to put it mildly.  And once crammed in neatly…

Nobody. Moved.

No one goes to get a drink.  No one goes to the restroom.  You stand, relatively still, and watch the concert.

There is no encore.  You file out.

I have since asked many different people about Tokyo concerts, and they all claimed that this is not how it is.  However, “organization” in my mind is very different than Organization in the mind of someone Japanese, so I think the story is worth sharing.

Are you starting to see a pattern?  There are so many great events, and every time, I’m glad that I went, but wow.  I have been forced to adjust to a much more… populated lifestyle. You are never alone in Tokyo.  

In Odaiba at the Teamlab Borderless facility, even if you pre-purchased a ticket, the line to get into the exhibit hall took over an hour.  Once inside, it was amazing!  I still consider it one of my most memorable and unique Japan experiences.  I spent over three hours inside the exhibition hall wandering around like an entranced child.  I would go back any day of the week despite the line and the entrance fee.   I hear that they are the crew in charge of the shooting stars that will appear at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics opening ceremony next year.  

I experienced so many stellar events in the last year.

When a good friend was visiting Tokyo, we blocked off a morning to get a Japanese souffle pancake.  These floofy treats topped with whipped cream, chocolate, strawberries or candied nuts are pretty much fantastic, but you do need to wait in line.

We waited for 2 1/2 hours.

It took almost the whole day to get there, wait and eat, and I can hardly believe we had the patience to continue standing outside in the sort of chilly March air, but we did.

And again it was worth it!

It was the best pancake I’ve ever had in my life, period.

There is one place, not the one we chose, that infamously makes only 20 pancakes a day. What!?  That is so few.  That’s so close to 0% of the Tokyo population that I’m not going to calculate how many zeros I would need after the decimal.  That’s such a laughably small percentage that it actually makes me happy.

These are just special events.  The reality is that everywhere you go in Tokyo, you are surrounded.  It is busy, but it is organized.  There are tickets and lines, but no one will budge in front of you.  Tokyo is such an amazing and terrifying and amazing place.

After a few months living in the Shinagawa area, I took a long Sunday walk and sent some pictures to the Willers fb group chat.  My brother quickly pointed out that in both pictures there were no people.  I had captured two consecutive pics with zero people.  It was very impressive, but it also demonstrated how I survived in a city like Tokyo.  It was busy and there was constant life and commotion.  You could always find distinctive and extraordinary events, concerts, people, stores, discussions, classes, and more.  But when you wanted a bit of peace, you could find your way along a quiet canal on a Sunday afternoon and get some fresh air and some space.

There are impressive moments when you’re walking across Tokyo and suddenly, you know where you are.  No map required.  There are quiet moments when you are sitting along a canal and a cat is the only soul to walk by.

It is then that you realize that 38 million is a countable number.








Posted by: patriciamar | May 26, 2019

All Out Onsen: Bathing Stories

Heads up.

In this story, there is a great deal of nudity– young, old, loud, quiet, all chilling in a natural hot spring somewhere in this volcanic archipelago called Japan.

There are necessary steps for bathers to take before entering a Japanese onsen.  Thankfully, most facilities will have a detailed list of instructions and even a lovely graphic explaining exactly what to do before even a toe touches the natural spring water.  If you’re especially lucky, when you check in to your accommodation, you will get a handout explaining the whole setup and the pre-bathing preparation process.  I urge you to read these instructions and follow them carefully.  If not, you’ll get kicked out.

of the country.

I might be kidding, but they take onsen etiquette seriously, so I wouldn’t risk it if I were you.

For today’s onsen lesson, I’ll start with the basic steps, and then move on to a few special onsidents, a few incidents I have been lucky (*?*) enough to witness over the last eight months.

  1.  An onsen is a quiet and peaceful place.  Please do not distract others with loud voices or conversation.
    1. If you don’t know, American voices are typically loud voices.
  2.  An onsen is not a place for regular clothes.  Wear the yukata and slippers from your room.  The yukata (robe pajamas) closes with the left side over the right.  If you do this incorrectly, and old Japanese woman will be bothered by it and will tell you so.
  3. Onsen are always nude and separated by gender.  The women’s onsen has a red or pink curtain door (I believe these are called noren).  The men’s has a blue noren.  Note: Out of fairness, some traditional ryokan or hotels switch the men’s and the women’s in the morning/evening or every other day.  Don’t assume that you know which one is the men’s and which one is the women’s just because you went there the day before.
  4.  When you enter, find a cubby/cube/locker/basket for your belongings.  Cellphones are not allowed in the locker room or onsen (obviously).  To be honest, I don’t think I have ever seen a cellphone in an onsen changing room.  This is a very strict rule that guests do follow (as they should).
  5.  After you strip down, you go into the bath area.  It will be separated by a glass door of some type and will be steamy and slightly intimidating, perhaps because of the weight of the door, perhaps because you don’t know how many naked people you are about to encounter.
  6.  You should take note of your surroundings immediately upon entering.  Everything has a place. You will see a main bath or two, surrounded by a number of washing stations, each with its own faucet, and usually a handheld shower head.  There might also be a door to an outside pool or a sauna.
    1. You might also see: wooden buckets or plastic tubs for washing, wooden or plastic stools, bath products (shampoo, conditioner, facewash, scrub, etc., all usually amazing products).
  7.  Get a little stool and a bucket for dumping water on your head and find a spot.
  8.  Place your stool, rinse it off, and sit down for a scrub.  You must scrub thoroughly with soap.  I cannot stress this enough.  These pools are still (as in, unmoving) water and do not contain the chemicals that a public pool does.  Clean yourself off first.  Furthermore, even if the other visitors are not looking at you (which they won’t be), I can assure you that when a foreigner walks into a bath, every set of eyes is watching and judging, making sure you do not disturb either the sanctity of this lovely bathing experience, or the cleanliness of the water.
    1. By the way, don’t be too bothered if you walk in and people basically flee– haul ass out of there because you just entered.  I’m not sure why this happens (They are scared of me?  I’m kind of tall?  I’m blonde?).  It happens to me constantly, the moment I step foot in the facility.
  9. You should scrub your body and wash your hair, utilizing the bath products provided or using your own from your personal onsen caddy (preferably a cute one).  Most people use their hands to scrub scrub scrub, while others use their small towel.  While everyone gets a small tub or scooper for dumping water on your head, most facilities now have a hand sprayer at every washing station.  It appears to be customary to take a water scooper, set it by your hand sprayer, use the handheld shower head to do absolutely every part of the washing, and then politely return your water scooper as if you used it.  Tradition is tradition, after all.
    1. Be calm with your shower head.  Don’t accidentally spray it too far, on other people, or in the pool.
  10. When you’re done washing and bathing, be sure to put things back where you got them even if you plan on going back to scrub more.  Your spot is not your spot; there may be a number of people coming and going during the time that you are doing your hot soaking and sauna sitting.
  11. Hot water time!  Sit as long as you like and enjoy.
    1. WAIT!  Sometimes, particularly in the more natural or outdoor onsens, there is a small onsen water spot with a wooden water scooper so that you can take a scoop of onsen water and give yourself one more rinse before getting into the onsen water.  If other people are doing this, you should too.
  12. Ok, now it’s time to relax.  Some water tubs are rock bottom, some are tile, some are cedar tubs, some are super hot, some not so much (105° to 130°?).  You might also switch pools, do a cool water rinse in the standing shower, or sit in a sauna, if available.  By the way, your hair should not touch the water, even if clean.
  13. Sit and soak.
  14. Relax and stare at the beautiful window scene with carefully arranged rocks and shrubs.
  15. Soak and sit, considering the many stresses of your life.
  16. Switch pools or have a refreshing and cool rinse.
  17. Sit and soak, feeling all the stresses of your life melt away.
  18. Is it time to get out?  By now you are either too hot or too relaxed to continue.  Typically, the next step is to get a little stool and a water dumper and do another nice scrub, effectively removing every possible unwanted skin cell from your body.  It is at this point that I typically do my hair conditioning.  I’m not sure if that’s normal, it’s just my practice.
  19. When you leave the bathing area, you will likely find a number of individual vanity areas.  There, you can dry your hair, use Q-tips, apply makeup, lotion, (liquid lotion is common), etc.  You will find that it is not proper to leave the onsen locker room area until you look your best.

(Of course I don’t do this.  I don my yukata and walk to my room with wet hair, basically terrorizing the other hotel guests as I do so.  I consider blow drying my hair to be a waste of life.  But do as you like; it’s your onsen experience.)

You see how I was very proper, strict, and rule-following until the very last moment?  That happens.  As such, here are a few stories from my many, many onsen and sento experiences.  I love them.  They are one of the best parts of Japanese life and travel.


The cheat

You are cold and naked.  All you want to do is go right into that onsen!  NO.

However, you could take a water dumper, kneel down next to the bath and scoop steaming hot herbal water from the hot bath and pour it over your head again and again loudly and happily, wetting yourself thoroughly and getting all warm before going over to do your pre-soak shower and full scrub.


Little kids

Why, yes.  An onsen is the best place for bath time.  All above rules apply, except for the one about being quiet.  No limit on the number of kids per mother.


The Bumblebees

Well, that can’t be good.



The outdoor pool is possibly the best part of the onsen experience.  In Minnesota the hot tubs are kept at a balmy 95° to 105°, so although I have somewhat adapted to CA hottub temperatures, these baths are hot!  The cool air of an outdoor bath and the view of Japanese maples swaying in the breeze is about as good as it gets.  On a snowy day, I hear that you can put some snow on your head just like the monkeys do.  Unfortunately, I am yet to experience an onsen with snow access.


When you know you’re done

At a certain point in the soaking process, you realize that you are fully warm, completely relaxed and overall soothed by the cycling in and out between hot bath and cold rinse/cold air.  Of course, you do what any average Japanese woman would do.

Well, maybe not average.  I learned this particular tip from an older Japanese woman far down in Kyushu last December.

When you are done shampooing, soaping, sudsing, shaving, rinsing, combing out your hair, brushing your teeth, and then soaking, you lean over and bang loudly on the beautiful Japanese cedar wall.  You scream your husband’s name, and ask him if he is ready.  As is Japanese custom, everyone pretends this is not happening.  Nothing strange is going on.  One does not embarrass another.  

He yells back.  He needs five more minutes.

But you’re done!  You want to get out.

Yell back.

He relents.  He was enjoying that peace and the hot soak, but he must admit that very recently much of the peaceful nature of the process was lost.

You get out and leave.

You’ll meet outside by the vending machines.

Don’t forget your towel.


Oh, how I wish I understood enough Japanese to hear exactly what she yelled and what he yelled back.   He must have been ready too, because she was soon up and out, and into the drying room to get dressed soon after.

Enjoy your soak.


photo by M.J. Oeding


Posted by: patriciamar | April 26, 2019

After-work Impulse Buys: Tokyo, Japan

Have you ever heard of Kinokuniya?

The store that I will be discussing today is a Kinokuniya Entrée.  The Kinokuniya that I frequent is in Shinagawa Station, although when I see another Kinokuniya, I often stop in for particular Kinokuniya products that I like (for example, the fluffy custard-filled Kinokuniya biscuits with crunchy slight sweetness on the outside, or maybe the Kinokuniya strawberry butter).

I may have mentioned Kinokuniya too many times.  I may often mention it too many times.  The look on your face is probably the same look that I get from my Japanese coworkers and acquaintances when I tell them it’s my favorite store.  They are confused.

I can’t help it; I love this type of store.  It’s not large, but it is stuffed with shelves of the weirdest items, from Japan and from around the world.  The prices are not very good, but the quality is high, and the diversity of weirdness is absolutely top notch.  When I came to Japan last year, this store was the place where I purchased all of the unidentifiable Japanese snacks that I brought back to Davis.  (These are the sort of products that you’re not sure are vegetarian or not, that you’re not sure are sweet, or savory, or a fermented root vegetable. Gelatinous? Fruit?  Yam?  Sake stuffed?)

It just so happens that the Kinokuniya Entrée is on my way home from work.  After a stressful day, there is nothing like wandering around a crowded (super crowded) Japanese fancy(ish) food store and walking out with ¥2,500 worth of weird snacks, yogurt, dried meat and fruit spreads.  It’s like a dream.  They are also the only place in Japan where you can buy bubbly water that is hop flavored.

Hop flavored!  It’s like it was made especially for me.

I already mentioned the fluffy biscuits, and there is also chirashi (Japanese poke), a pretty decent Japanese craft beer section, really nice produce, and so many other unidentifiable goods and spices that I’ll be going back every stressful Tuesday until the end of my Tokyo time.

Whenever I spend time in a foreign country, I find that I discover and cling to a certain store.  Here, it’s Kinokuniya.  In Leiden, it was a little shop near the C1000 on Diamantplein that we referred to as the “European delicacy store.”  They had black pepper salami, tons of great cheese and for the holidays, they made and decorated 50 cm circular trays of paté.

In Guadalajara my spot was a tiny ma and pop convenience store run by an auntie with a harsh but real smile.  She made her own spicy refried beans and sold them in a clear plastic solo cup for 8 pesos.  You could also get storemade sourdough bread fresh in the morning and when you bought something with a returnable bottle, they wrote it down on a signed piece of paper.  Heaven help you if you tried to bring back a retornable without that receipt.  

I guess it seems that for me, living and surviving abroad is not necessarily about the big names and the flashy spots (though Kinokuniya is a fun word to say).  When you have a new home in a new community in a new city in a new country, you discover something that you like.  You discover something that fits, and you go when you need to.  Eventually, not everything feels all new.

Except the Kinokuniya unidentifiables.  There will always be more of the festively unknown there.

Posted by: patriciamar | April 5, 2019

Peaceful Tokyo under a Cherry Tree

I learned tonight that the sakura season in Japan lasts approximately two months.

An older man was sitting next to me at Popeye’s for about an hour, and eventually, he built up the courage and… spoke to me in really fast Japanese.  Of course I couldn’t understand, so his bravery grew, and he pieced the English together, asking me about California, why I was in Tokyo and then about cherry blossoms.  He said his dream was to follow the whole season, starting in Okinawa in March and then moving north to Kyushu and Hiroshima and then Kyoto and Tokyo and Saitama and then to Hakodate and northward in Hokkaido.  The look in his eyes was so sweet.  He really wanted this dream, and I think he will get it.

Many, maybe most people know that cherry blossoms are popular and abundant in Japan.  What they likely don’t know is how magnificently beautiful it is.  Only once you have experienced it can you understand how many cherry trees there are here.

My Google Maps is practically lit up with little cherry blossom symbols, indicating hotspots: today.

It’s very helpful.

Sakura season started last week for me with Christina.  We did the evening shift at the Meguro River Cherry Blossoms Promenade.  This includes several blocks along the river with pink lanterns hanging and glowing all along the path.

Which reminds me, did you know that sakura viewing is a contact sport?

Even 8 days ago, before peak season started, the crowds were unreal.  There are over 30 million people in Tokyo, so I suppose “somebody” is going to start early (somebody = 10,000 people).  Around the Meguro River, there were police keeping the crowds under control and helping cars pass.  Along the main stretch the pedestrian traffic was one way only! And that is after having taken over the street where there would normally be car traffic!  

Add to that the fact that numerous sidewalk vendors were selling plastic flutes of champagne over strawberries, and you seriously have to watch where you’re going.  At times Christina and I both found ourselves taking pictures of the people taking pictures.  It was nuts– beautiful, but nuts.

Two nights ago I had a different experience. I have never experienced a more peaceful Tokyo. 

I went to Chidorigafuchi Park and ended up on the wrong side, the isolated side, where there was very little light and just a few late, midweek picknickers.  I found a spot on a bench (alone!) and had a can of Asahi that was labelled in pink for Sakura season.  I’ve had this beer before, and I was pretty sure it was just normal Asahi, but that night, it tasted like cherry.  I sat by a tiny stream and watched across the park as tiny Japanese dogs played and picnic parties of friends laughed and talked.  

I didn’t want to leave.  The feeling in Chidorigafuchi Park reminded me of a place I’d been once long ago that was both comfortable and a stranger. 

Eventually, I made my way across the stream, up the hill to the lookout for the Chidorigafuchi lighted promenade.  I still wasn’t exactly in the right place, but this spot, too, was magical.  I followed a couple up some uneven steps towards a glow and then suddenly, I was looking down at the moat, both sides of the water lined in cherry trees in bloom, every one of them basking in the light of a bright spotlight.  Once at the top, you could look across and see the crowds walking slowly through the path taking pictures.

I made it to the correct spot on my third try, and I walked under a half mile trellis of ancient cherry trees.  Chidorigafuchi is the park on the western side of the Imperial grounds.  The trees line the imperial moat, as they have for quite a while.  Because of their age and the type of cherry tree, the branches weep down the sides toward the water.  Imagine the reflection.  (There are policeman with loudspeakers there as well, by the way).  I walked slowly through the pinkly covered passage, and I kept thinking again and again of Anne of Green Gables– The Pink Way of Delight.  (Though I admit Anne is often in the back of my mind, thinking of something romantically creative.)

As I finished the path, I turned back to look once more, and as I turned toward Hanzomon station, the lights went out.  It was 10 p.m.  on a Wednesday, and it was time to go home.


Nope!  My cherry blossom adventures are not done yet.

I’m always working a little too much, so on occasion I can work just a few hours on Thursday and Friday.  This week Thursday, I spent the morning walking the Meguro River Cherry Blossoms Promenade (this time in daylight), from Gotanda to Nakemeguro and back.  I was able to spend the morning strolling,  sans champagne rellickers, and I even picked up some cream-filled sakura mochi along the way.

Today was the Sumida River walk, where there have been cherry trees for several hundred years.  In fact, according to a sign that I read, Mrs. President Taft (that’s Nellie), visited this area as first lady and loved it so much that the Japanese government sent a gift of cherry trees to Washington, D.C. for her, the start of the now famous D.C Sakura Season. 

Tomorrow, I might go further outside of Tokyo.  The older gentleman from Popeye’s told me that we still have time next week to gaze and enjoy hanami, so I will continue on this weekend to hit and revisit as many Sakura spots that I can.

As the days progress, I imagine it will become more and more like snow.  I was thinking about this on my morning Meguro Cherry Blossoms Promenade stroll, and sure enough, on my way back down the river toward work, a little girl ran back and forth on the sidewalk desperately trying to catch cherry blossoms with her little claps, just like you would with the first snow.



*Click “Spring” to see way too many (maybe) sakura photos from all of these walks.


Posted by: patriciamar | April 4, 2019

Shimanamikaido with Christina! #biketrip

Why am I biking in the freezing rain?  This is not a vacation.


Biking has become a new joy in my life over the last five years.  Sun, exercise, and destination sandwiches, hotdogs and breweries have improved my life an immeasurable amount.

In fact, I keep having this particular bike experience:   

I am biking on a safe and separated path while staring at a beautiful view.  It’s smooth and quiet, and I find myself thinking, “This is the  most beautiful bike route in the world.”

I’ve had this experience at least three times now– while biking around Lake Tahoe (twice), biking around Crater Lake (twice) and just two weeks ago biking the Shimanamikaido (しまなみ海道) in southern Japan (Hiroshima prefecture).  

All three of these trips were amazing, amazing experiences and each had its joys and its hardships.  In Onomichi, the first biking day was cold, rainy, and gloomy.

We got a late start, and we struggled to find my biking buddy an appropriate bike rental.  There was a biking event going on, two rental places were out of her size, and another was closed for the weekend. She was on a bike that was too tall for her because that’s all they had left. Because there was no way we weren’t going to bike, we started out for the path despite the unfavorable conditions.  

We took the ferry to the first island (Mukoujima/Mukaishima), biked across it to the second island (Innoshima) and then there, turned around after a short loop before heading back to the ferry.

It was really cold. The view was so beautiful that it mostly made up for it, but I admit that the conditions were really rough.  I hardly remember dinner and going to sleep; I was so cold and tired.  At least we saw a rainbow on the way home.  That was nice.

The second day of biking ranks in the top days of my life.  It was beautiful and peaceful and it was so easy to bike 50 miles that it was a joke.  I wanted to bike and bike forever. It was 60s and pretty sunny, and we stopped for coffee and cake and had pastries on the beachside.  We biked from Mukoujima to Innoshima to Ikuchi.  Our turnaround point came on the fourth island (Omishima) after a tiny tasting of local limoncello.

This is real life. Our day was truly that close to a magical bike ride with Care Bears.  I will go back for sure, hopefully sooner rather than later.  There are certain rides that you just have to do twice.


If you’re interested, here are a few more details on how and when to bike the Shimanamikaido.

We stayed in Onomichi at a rented house near Cat Alley (worth a visit as well).  

You can rent bicycles at various locations, but our experience with Giant was really good.  They were super nice, spoke great English, shared our love of biking, and provided us with super smooth bikes (Christina’s bike the second day was the correct size). The prices were not bad.  For me, I rented a hybrid for about $50 for 2 days. They stored it overnight for me as well (Although doing this hurt our start time. We couldn’t get going the next day until 9 a.m. when they opened.  I would still recommend it). The price included a helmet and they gave you one spare tube as well. If you used it, you had to pay for it, but otherwise you just returned it. They also provided lights and a lock.

Many people spend the day biking one way, and then stay in Imabari and bike the route back the next day.  This would work and I might try it in the future.  However, I enjoyed spending two nights in a row at the same place.  We could leave all of our belongings and travel really light while biking.

From Onomich, you have to take a bike ferry (¥110 total for a person and a bike), and that in itself is a treat because you are on a crowded (not too crowded) ferry with so many other bikers.  You can feel the anticipation for the ride whipping around in the air. You also get to stare at a lot of nice bikes and bike gear.

There is no best part of the ride.  It is all great.  You follow the blue line on the road and bike along beaches, up hills surrounded by lemon orchards, across high bridges overlooking the ocean and fly down winding paths with Japanese cycling teams.  There aren’t a ton of eating options, but there are restrooms along the way. Finding one was never a problem. If you are returning to Onomichi, you need to be aware of the time. There is a last ferry and it isn’t very late. I think it varies between summer and winter, so make sure to ask (Giant gave us a copy of the schedule).

Back in Onomichi, if you have the energy, there’s a great craft beer bar on the one main shopping street for the evening after your ride.  They have five taps that are all Japanese craft beer and the owner/bartender was friendly and interested in sharing his love of beer.  The decor is also awesomely weird.

It’s simple to get to and from Onomichi, you can take the Shinkansen to Shin-Onomichi or you can take the JR from Onomichi station to Fukuyama and switch to the Shinkansen there.  The latter is my preference because Onomichi station is well situated in the center of town while Shin-Onomichi is a couple of kilometers away. You may want to take a bus from there to the central part of town.  


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Posted by: patriciamar | January 31, 2019


This is a sad post.  It also contains soul-wrenching examples of the effects of an atomic bomb. That being said, even if you feel queasy, you should probably read on.  If, thus far in your life, you have been sheltered from learning about this event or events like it, it’s probably time you did.


I also feel that it’s important to write, to type out the words–

that people are living– surviving– in war zones around the world right now.  We shouldn’t forget the depths of the atrocities occurring still today.

Now, however, I want to talk about Hiroshima, when one bomb was dropped 500 m above a dense urban zone and 140,000 people were dead, either immediately, or within the month.

When you search for “Hiroshima,” you see the usual Google map, and next to it on the left, one barren image.

I was in Hiroshima in December, which means it took me almost six months to write this post, although I tried on various occasions to finish it.  It so happens that I was in Hiroshima to facilitate an empowerment program at a local high school.  I was nervous, I admit, and the inner discomfort I felt eventually came out in writing, as it usually does for me.  Here is that result, an ESL speech for students about my feelings as an American, visiting Hiroshima for the first time. And my conclusions.

You know that I’m American. This is my first time in Hiroshima and I know what happened during World War II.  I grew up reading about the terrible event that happened and the atomic bomb that my country sent here. I’m very sorry that your grandparents or great grandparents had to experience that.   I was nervous to come here to this city. As a kid, I read stories and in school I learned about what happened. What happened here in Hiroshima and in Nagasaki was a terrible event for the world.  

As I said, I was anxious about visiting Hiroshima.  I thought being here would be very sad.  However, I am very glad that I came here.

I hope you are very proud of your city because it is beautiful. And you- your government and the people of Hiroshima- started again and built a wonderful place.  I thought I would see the effects of such a terrible disaster. I thought it would be a sad and kind of dark place, but it’s not.

Here in Hiroshima, the message is not about the violence.  It’s about peace.

Everywhere I look there are signs of hope and peace and water flowing, and everyone is looking towards the future.”  

In various locations around the city, the historical records make mention of water.  After the bomb was dropped, those who did not die immediately were truly dying of thirst.   It is written that water is a symbol of remembrance for those who died because many victims died while calling out for it.  I didn’t know that.


For this reason, there are peace fountains in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, marking the tragedy.

Other historical markers show photographs of the scene following the bomb.  The Inari machi streetcar bridge is one example.  In real life you are looking at a modern bridge crossing safely over the Kyobashi River. In the photograph, the streetcar track is twisted and melted.  There are people under the bridge walking, desperately looking for water.  They are searching for water in the nearly dry river despite the number of bodies there.

Next you visit the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, now called The Atomic Bomb Dome.

And it’s just charred.  It’s blown to shit.  It’s awful.

Most of the city is completely renewed and very beautiful and well-organized.  This monument, so close to the epicenter, was left as it is.  And you really understand at that moment how huge the blast was.

Decisions are made every day that affect the lives and prosperity of people for years after.  This example was a few seconds and then complete destruction.  And around the world we continue to use a massive multitude of weapons as if there is no human face standing below, looking up at the sky.

When you leave the Atomic Dome, you walk along the river through the Peace Memorial Park.  There is a museum with an incredible amount of information about the events that led up to the bombing, the decision making process, and the events that followed during the path to recovery of the Japanese families and their communities.


In front of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is a fountain.  When you stand in front of the fountain, the water sprays upward simply and beautifully.


The fountain cycles through different heights, flying higher and higher and then back down to almost nothing.

It cycles through again and again.

It cycles

through grief.

You can feel the mist on you as you stand in front of it, reminding you of the water that the victims needed but could not find.

“I am very glad that I visited Hiroshima.  Everywhere I looked there were signs of hope and peace, with a constant, fervently hopeful look towards the future.  

Be very proud of yourself and be proud of where you grew up. Hiroshima is impressive.

And like the leaders before you, even if it is difficult, you can do amazing things and achieve great success if you look to the future and work together to achieve your goals.

Living around this beautiful river are kind and friendly people, with good English!  The people here are bubbly and welcoming, and… warm.  There are also delicious lemon sweets, and lemonasco! It’s the first place I found hot sauce in Japan. 
Your city is a really nice place to live.

Perseverance and success are in your genes and in your blood, so I hope that all of you dream big!  I’m sure you can do it!”

Posted by: patriciamar | December 31, 2018

Speaking a few tongues: Kyoto

(Pre)Tldr; In Kyoto, using four different languages, I had a conversation with a retired Japanese man who used to play professional soccer in Brazil.


In Kyoto, I stayed in a little hostel-like guesthouse and had an experience that was almost one of a kind.  I love languages, so learning a new language is not really a chore (though here in Tokyo working on a new program keeps my brain pretty busy and a little tired for memorizing vocabulary, hiragana, katakana, kanji and verb tenses.  I’ll keep trying!)

On the way home from the sento (an indoor public bathhouse and sauna, more or less), I ended up riding left-side shotgun next to the owner of the guesthouse and bathhouse.  The left-side part isn’t really relevant, but it’s always worth mentioning when you find yourself sitting as a passenger on the wrong side of the road.

The driver quickly took the opportunity to mention that for a time he played professional soccer in Brazil.  He was a goalie, he said.  All of this was spoken in pretty low-level English, which was still slightly higher than my Japanese.  It wasn’t a very productive conversation.

However, I do speak Spanish, so I asked him in the little Portuguese that I know if he spoke Portuguese.  Yes, he responded, a little.  The conversation that we had after that, for the rest of the ride back to the hostel, was one of the reasons that I like studying languages and one of the reasons I like travelling. 

We were speaking in four different languages. I was speaking in English, Spanish, a little Portuguese and a little Japanese, and he was speaking in Japanese, English and Portuguese.

It was amazing how we could use all four to get our points across, however insane it sounded to outsiders, and we were definitely able to enjoy the conversation, despite the fact that it was an example of ultimate L1-L2 code switching.  It made me want to study more and inspired me to go home and keep pushing myself to improve my Japanese and continue on with my own personal language plan.*

The moral of the story in my eyes is not that you need to speak a lot of languages, but that you should try, and use whatever you have to create communication.  This is how bonds are really formed.  I think that I will remember this guesthouse owner, and I think he might remember me because of this strange 7-minute conversation we had from the bathhouse to the guesthouse in the northern outskirts of Kyoto one Sunday evening in November.


*If you’re interested, my language plan is that each week I do something related to one language.  These languages are pre-scheduled, so I know what week will be which language.  The action I take related to this language could be anything–depending on the language and what I have access to.  In Dutch, Spanish and Japanese, I have books.  In Spanish, French, Portuguese or Italian, I can read poetry.  I could choose a movie, a book, or a sitcom, or investigate a new company or website. German week, for example, is the perfect opportunity to find out what Der Spiegel thinks of Trump, or investigate the latest Fergus Falls news.  In most languages I have at least a friend or two to message or call.  If nothing else, there’s always YouTube or Duolingo.  My language list currently includes German, French, Italian, Korean, Indonesian, Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish, Chinese, and Japanese of course. 

I could be more dedicated to each language or to one language, but this is fun for me and I look forward to seeing what language is each week in the top square of my weekly calendar. 

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