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. 

Posted by: patriciamar | December 26, 2018

Christmas in Kumamoto with Kumamon


After the fall quarter ended–my first quarter teaching DDP in Tokyo– I found out my Christmas schedule for the year.  It turned out I would be far, far away from my Tokyo home (relatively speaking) in Kumamoto, an area of Kyushu, which is the most southern of the main islands.  The holiday break in Japan starts after Christmas for me (tomorrow night!), so before my lovely, albeit sukoshi chilly (a little bit) early January beach vacation on a small island in Okinawa, I have had nine days facilitating empowerment programs for Japanese junior high and high school students.  I was really excited to take part in the programs.  I know that some people hate this sort of thing, but I love it.  I like Professional Development Days and Leadership training.  I like seminars on how to motivate my colleagues and students, and learning strategies for how to communicate more effectively at work. 

Helping students inspire students, and encouraging students to find and follow their dreams is about as good as it gets for a teacher, in my opinion.

In addition, this Empowerment Program was the brainchild of an amazing colleague of mine (and a good friend).  Even walking around Tokyo with him can be inspiring, which made me look forward to running the programs even more. 

This December work schedule also meant that my Christmas eve and my Christmas day would be spent in a hotel (and one that I wouldn’t pick myself, which is probably good.  I’m likely to make an impulse decision based on something fairly random, and the staff at work probably has a better sense for a quality and well-priced Japanese hotel in a city far, far away from the Japan that most international visitors see.  

Some people do go to Fukuoka (I think).  


In fact, the place where I was going (Hitoyoshi) is so far from Tokyo that they are making me fly back home.  It sounds like there is some policy that dictates that they can’t make me spend that many hours on a bullet train.

Now that it’s December 26, I have successfully finished one program (Hiroshima) and am about to finish another.  It’s been a pleasure.

When I was in high school, some friends and I were invited to a leadership camp at a high school in a nearby city.  I still remember the way they taught me how to be a leader.  If you want to be a leader, when someone ask who wants to be the leader, your hand should shoot up in the air.  They made us to this many, many times, and still, I laugh about it with my friends.  At random, even more than 15 years later, one of us will call it out, “Who wants to be a leader!?”  And our hands will shoot up.

Perhaps a few of you now understand me a little bit better.

In our empowerment program, the lessons learned are a bit more diverse.  I introduce tips for leadership and goal setting, yes, but also advice on common English expressions, how to make your school more environmentally friendly, the difference in pronunciation between /l/ and /r/, and tips on annotating when reading a particularly difficult passage.

There’s no way that teaching these programs can Not affect you.

One of my group leaders was a perfect examples.  After the first day of the program, he said that working with this program made him wonder about his own life.  If someone had taught him about positive thinking when he was in high school, his life might have turned out very differently, he thought.

As you might imagine, it has made me think a lot about myself as well.  What do I do when faced with a challenge?  How do I set goals for my future?  Do I care if other people judge me?  When I tell students that it is their opinion of themselves that really matters, do I agree?  Do you?  Can anyone really keep those feelings of judgement entirely at bay?

Again and again throughout the programs I have told students that they need to take time to think.  The material is difficult.  These questions are difficult.  (Plus, they are trying to do so in a second language!)  Some people spend their whole life trying to figure out their identity, and others will spend half their life working towards a goal only to discover that in truth, they have no interest in the topic.

This post is timed just about right for New Year’s resolutions.  And it’s timed just about right for me too.  On Christmas Eve, I was thinking about how I had never had a Christmas alone, never in my whole life.  This was a first.   I think that means I have been pretty lucky.

It wasn’t so bad.  I watched “White Christmas” three times.  I had a yule log running (as a screensaver) every second that I was in my onsen hotel.  Speaking of onsen, I spent each evening soaking in an old school Japanese hot spring in my 100+ year old inn.  (I told you they were better at picking the hotel).

Hitoyoshi is a small Japanese city surrounded by mountains that are draped with fog in the mornings.  There was a full moon the first night, and it reflected the stars off the tiny 100º streams that ran through the rice fields behind my little four-room hotel.  I’m not sure if I’ll ever be back, but it was a very nice trip and not a terrible Christmas.

This is so sappy.  I’m shocking even myself.  I guess that’s what I get for empowering young minds day after day 🙂

My Christmas was alone and my New Year’s will be alone too.  But that’s fine.

Sometimes you need to be alone to figure out who it is that you’re missing.20181224_112522_HDR

Happy Holidays!

Posted by: patriciamar | November 23, 2018

Tostadita de Thanksgiving

You obviously have leftover turkey.  This year, change it up and whip up this little tostadita de Thanksgiving rather than the typical reheat on bread.  The lemon moistens and flavors in the most unbelievable way!  Make sure to add enough salt and pepper.  They really make the flavor come alive.


  • leftover turkey
  • salt & pepper
  • lemon 
  • avocado
  • finely chopped white onion
  • cabbage (sliced thinly) (optional)

Shred the turkey a bit before covering with lemon.  Use the juice of 1 lemon per cup of shredded turkey.  Then add the salt and pepper and onion.  Add a wee bit of finely sliced cabbage if you like, or just leave it out.  Let this sit and marinate for 15-20 minutes.

Spoon onto tostadas or just eat with tortilla chips, topping with slices or chunks of avocado.  If you have nothing else, (fine!) put it on a toasted leftover Thanksgiving bun.


Posted by: patriciamar | November 5, 2018



As Shinagawa is the train station of my dreams, Shibuya is the station of my nightmares.  If someone even says the word, “Shibuya,” I lose all sense of direction and start gravitating unintentionally the wrong way.

Trying to get somewhere in Shibuya frequently makes me want to punch myself in the face.  Ask my visitors. I will plan a place to meet them, and they will arrive 30 minutes before me, because that’s how easily and quickly I get lost in Shibuya.   I made the plan!

I now have to convert my timing so that I know I can make it on time:

Google says 12 minute walk?  

That will take me 70 minutes.

Google says I have arrived?

See you in 20.

I am really starting to develop anxiety about walking around this particular Tokyo neighborhood.  Now, after almost two months of weekly, bikweekly or triweekly visits, I can– no.

I still can’t. This week, I got lost in Shibuya on Saturday and on Monday (it’s already Monday night in Japan, remember).  The total amount of time I spent lost was 150 minutes. I spent two and a half hours wandering around ½ square miles.

You might think I’m talking about Shibuya crossing, probably the most famous intersection in Japan (The above photo is Shibuya crossing on Halloween)  But one big intersection causes me no problems. I can cross a street with several thousand other people.

But once I turn right or left, once I have  a destination in mind.  I immediately walk circles.  

On Saturday night, I referred to my gps and noted the cafe I was standing in front of.  I turned down the correct street and walked in the correct direction. 25 minutes later I was standing in front of the SAME cafe.  How did I do that!?  I don’t even know how I managed it.  If I tried to trick you, I couldn’t have recreated the fantastical stroll around that piece of Shibuya.

Actually, I did bring one couple around the area to show them the ropes and get dinner.  We walked slowly and calmly. We stopped for yakitori (chicken skewers), and one of my guests even noticed my strategy.  “We’re walking in circles, you know.”

Yes, I did know.  

You see, I try to be very careful so as not to get my guests as lost as I am willing to get myself.   That evening, I was making tiny one block circles around the main intersection. If the Starbucks is in sight, I’m alright.  That should be the Shibuya Crossing slogan.

A Haiku:

Shibuya crossing

Keep Starbucks in sight and you’ll

surely be alright.

Now that I’m writing this quickly, stream of consciousness, NaNoWriMo style, I realize that it’s not only Shibuya.  Shinjuku causes me the same trouble. I always pick the wrong direction.  I have to go there to pay my rent each month and I have to plan a full afternoon to get to the rental office and back to the train station (Google says this is a 7-minute walk).

Once, on my way to Shinjuku, I just suddenly got off the train in Shibuya.  I just did it.

I have developed some strategies for combating this type of complete and utter loss of self.  I spend a full day–two days in a row is better. I start with a strong coffee in the morning, and I walk in the daytime, looking keenly around to notice landmarks and memorable signs. It’s not really possible to use the streets; they are angled and winding and I have no idea what the names of them are. I make note of the biggest store on each street (obviously, I’m a visual person, directionally).  I take breaks to add fun spots to my google maps as I go, marking writing spots, beer spots, and spots for my upcoming visitors (Vegetarian! Sushi!). When I have had my fill of training for the day, I stop for lunch, usually yakitori (again) or ramen.

It is at this point that I realize I am eating lunch in the SAME BUILDING where I drank coffee that morning.  

Damn it!

Oh, Shinjuku.

I mean Shibuya.


Posted by: patriciamar | October 14, 2018

Shinagawa Station

Finally I have found the time to write a little bit about my favorite station in Tokyo.

Shinagawa station

love this train station.  It’s a microcosm of a world that I never thought I would enjoying living in, but I actually do.

This was the first station that I experienced in Tokyo back in April, and it is now my hub, the station that I frequent more than any other, the station I arrive at on the way to work, and the station where I can take the Shinkansen, the Keikyu, and the JR (all important public transportation options when navigating the Tokyo area).  It is where I can get Blue Bottle coffee and where I can drink Firestone Walker or Sierra Nevada if the Asahi starts tasting too much like water.  You can get to so many places in Tokyo and in Japan from this station, mostly limited stop or express, including both major Tokyo airports, Haneda and Narita.
This station is a miracle.
At least from an American perspective.
I wonder how many people move in and out of it each day.  Or each hour?
Shinagawa lines
The Minato/Shinagawa area of Tokyo is heavy on business.  The Shinagawa towers house companies like Canon, NTT and Nikon, and during my coffee breaks or at lunch, I often find myself inside the Sony building, right next door to Crystal Square (my building).
There are so many business people flooding through Shinagawa Station each day.  Suits, suits, suits and the beautiful clack of hard-soled shoes running steady.
You can take off your jacket if you like.
If you don’t already know, in Japan, they move about in a direction opposite the U.S.  Like in Britain, they drive on the left side of the street and the right side of the car.  They walk in the same fashion (except for a few specific areas, but that explanation is for another time).  So in most stations, you walk on the left and they’re coming towards you on the right.  However, in Shinagawa Station, there are so many people heading toward the office buildings on the east side of the station, that the flow of the workers takes over.  In the morning, the flood heads east and in the evening, the flood heads back west. It’s kind of unbelievable.  You have to go with the flow, and if you don’t want to go in that direction–if for some reason you are not headed to an office building to work– then for heaven’s sake move out of the way and get to the edges, outside of the pillars, slipping along with the other few that are making their way to a store or to another train line, and not to an office.
There’s a 7-11 halfway down the hall, where people run in and out for water or cold brew or tea, or maybe a rice ball for snack, as is typical for business people just before getting on the train for the often hour-long train ride home.
There’s a Starbucks on the second floor if you like that sort of thing in foreign countries, and there is a Dean & Deluca as well, a new love of mine.   There’s an international atm, too (most helpful those first few weeks).  The station is above ground, which also adds to its appeal.  On almost every occasion, I get off a train, look around and immediately know which direction I’m facing.  As a human pinpoint in a massive transportation system, this is not the norm.
The wifi situation is excellent.  The Keikyu has wifi, as does the Atre (the mall around the station) and the station itself.  This was very helpful at the start when I had no idea where I was coming from, where I was going, or what I was going to eat in between.
I became accustomed to Tokyo office life slowly.  The first week I stopped in Shinagawa Station on the way home every day, for an espresso and a sit and stare.
It takes time for your brain to process that many people working and working and working.  Will you become one of them?
I hear that the office environment and work life has gotten better.  The government has cracked down on the “black companies” that require WAY too many hours each week (working until 10 p.m. or midnight daily).  Unfortunately, I hear from a colleague that her son, who happens to work for a government office, deals with the same pressure.
When you leave the office, it is customary to say osaki ni shitsurei shimasu (お先に失礼します).  This is basically an apology for leaving first.  From my experience and from what I’ve read, this is very widely used–by everyone– every day.
In my office, I’ve heard from my colleagues that the boss says you should leave by 8.  This is nice.  It made me happy to hear, though I admit that my classes end at either 8:30 or 8:45 (not complaining about that, it is the time that the students are available), and only once have I been the one to lock the doors.  A couple of people are always still there working.  There is always an exception.  There is always a reason to work a little more.  I believe that many Americans know this situation as well.
And then you all walk to Shinagawa Station after work.
As far as I knew, with the pedestrian traffic flowing as it does, the land of Shinagawa Station does not sleep.
Then one night I came back from inner Tokyo a little late.  It was 11 p.m., and to my absolute amazement, Shinagawa station was asleep.  The lights in the main corridor were off and the last of the night’s trains were passing through.  The organized chaos is not actually 24-hours.  This is helpful to note if you have a late flight, by the way.
On a typical day, from Blue Bottle, up above on the second floor, you can look down on the main corridor of the station and watch the people stream by.  If you are watching at the right moment, you’ll see the bright purple or red of my shoes or scarf.  I do stand out a little bit in this magical hub.
I’m not sure if I’ll get sick of it, or maybe how soon I will get sick of it.  By giving myself plenty of time to get to work each day, I can ensure that the crowded path doesn’t stress me out as I’m making my way through (I would guess that rushing through this station would cause you a bit of stress).
You could also leave work early to beat the rush on the way home.
It’s not that bad at 4 o’clock.
There aren’t that many people.

And then as you are walking amongst the suits and heels, there are then more people, and more people, and more people…


You think that you might want to stop, because there are just so many people!  It’s hard to comprehend.  But you cannot.  Because once you are in the throngs, you have to keep walking.  It takes an incredible ability to weave smoothly to the side of the path.  And you’re not that experienced, so you should probably just keep walking.


Shinagawa station

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