There’s a certain Thanksgiving dish that, with one bite, takes me back to my favorite winter comfort food in Asia: sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes are one of the most popular winter street foods throughout China, Japan, Korea, and basically any country in East Asia with temperatures that drops below freezing.
In the USA, we know the typical sweet potato dish at Thanksgiving as a diabetic’s worst nightmare: mashed yams sprinkled in brown sugar and baked with a blanket of marshmallows. In China and Japan, however, sweet potatoes are prepared au natural: just the potato, wrapped in foil or paper, and baked until soft and moist.read more
Working at a Japanese Company – The Good, The Bad, and The Crazy
In honor of Labor Day, I thought I would share some good, bad, and…. well, downright crazy stories I have from working at a Japanese company during my tenure in Shanghai. Although I already recorded some funny stories in deeply buried posts from the past, there are a few more memories that deserve to see the light of day. These memories are so unique to Japan (and China?) that I have just have to write them down.
Can we make her more global?
When I was working at a Japanese company located in Shanghai, I was the only westerner in the building. Besides myself, everyone was either Japanese or Chinese. I was the ultimate unicorn: a trilingual American who somehow ended up working at one of Japan’s top companies in Shanghai.read more
The Japanese View on George Floyd and Racial Riots in the USA
After living in Japan for two years and China for five, I determined that the handling of racial inequities in the USA is very different from Asia. In America, race is an open book. It is a topic that we approach head on. We touch on race in televised speeches and graduation commencements; we comment on race on our TV shows and stand-up comedy (hell, we even have TV shows classified by race), and we openly discuss race among friends and family. Unlike in Asia, race is not something we shove under the rug in the USA. It’s out there for all to see.read more
How to Split the Check in China, Japan and in America
I think all Americans have at least one extremely unpleasant memory of splitting the check at a restaurant with friends. Let’s face it: in the states, when you go out with a group of friends and the check comes at a restaurant, it ain’t a pretty sight. You whip out a pen and a calculator, ready for the math to begin. You beg the server to swipe six separate cards, since no one ever brings cash anymore. You start fighting over who should pay for the appetizer, based on bites taken.
While Venmo and other money transferring apps have alleviated some of the headache, there is no denying one fact about splitting the bill in America:read more
How to Hike the Kumano Kodo in Japan – Nakahechi Trail
Almost three years ago I hiked the Kumano Kodo trail, one of Japan’s holy pilgrimages and only one of two UNESCO recognized pilgrimages in the world. I wrote about my experience here, but I did not follow through on my promise to write a guide.
Three years ago it was extremely difficult for me to find a blog post that detailed an itinerary on how to do the most frequented trail (Nakahechi) on the Kumano Kodo. I spent hours researching and I guessed on so many items. Even with my Japanese skills, planning this trip was tough.read more
It’s a question that all expats ask themselves sometime or another:
Am I in a foreign country because I really like it here, or am I using this culture as a form of escape from a deep-rooted problem at home?
I kept asking myself this after reading “Six Foot Bonsai,” an autobiography I read for a book club. It’s the story of a white woman from Michigan who is, to an unhealthy degree, utterly Japan obsessed. After marrying an abusive Japanese man and giving birth to two half-children (who are subsequently abused), she explains how her fixation on Japan essentially ruined her life.
“Japan was my drug of choice,” she wrote. “And I couldn’t get enough of it.”
This line had me thinking:
Were My Years in China and Japan a Form of Escapism? Was Japan My Drug of Choice?
I grew up half-Asian in a small coal mining town in Utah, so to say I was isolated and outcasted is an understatement. One medium that got me through the pain of adolescence was –yes, I must admit–Japanese anime and manga. This is the usual ‘gateway drug’ that gets most young tweens and teens sucked into the world of Japan.
Unlike my peers, however, I fell deep for Japan. Although I found out about Japan through anime and manga, learning the language and getting a minor in Japanese studies made me realize that I loved much more than anime–I loved Japan’s literature, art, culture and people. After my first exchange trip to Japan, I had fallen off the deep end and there was no going back.
And when I first moved to Japan, the “high” was amazing. The bullet trains, the clean streets, the polite locals, the untouched nature, samurai castles and sliding doors and kimonos–oh man, it was everything I wanted and more.
But Pretty Soon, the High Wore Off
I’m half-Asian, but most people think I’m 100% white. As most expats like to point out, being white (or non-Asian) anywhere in Asia elicits unwanted attention. People stare. They point. They treat you special. Shower you with praise. Immediately approach you to be their new, foreign friend.
Some expats relish in the attention. Others find it uncomfortable.
I was the latter.
Unlike other foreigners who got a ‘high’ from being the gaijin-center-of-attention, I loathed it. I just wanted to fit in.
But no matter how hard I studied Japanese and perfectly executed their customs, the Japanese never let me in. In their eyes, I would forever be a gaijin. An outsider. A foreigner.
I was distraught.
On top of that, I saw cracks in my perfect world that was Japan. I noticed people around me suffering from extreme bouts of loneliness. I saw emotional suppression brought on by a repressive society. My coworkers and friends were overworked and exhausted. My Japanese girlfriends turned a blind eye to their cheating husbands.
I wanted to be Japanese and fit in, but my core Western values found it hard to accept the above. I would never be able to tolerate a cheating husband. I found it hard to do staged overtime work for the sake of it. No matter how hard I tried to convince myself that this was Japan and I had to adapt to their ways, I could in no way persuade myself that I should change my core values for the sake of living in Japan.
After two years in Japan I realized that I couldn’t stay there for the rest of my life–so I went to China.
Again, Was I Running Away From the Real World? Did China Mask My Problems?
From the moment I stepped foot in China, I knew this place was better suited for me than Japan. It may sound odd, but after living in Japan it was utterly refreshing to be chewed out by someone on the street. To see such open display of emotion–even anger or frustration–was liberating. People screamed at me and I could scream back. The openness of Chinese society felt like a reassuring hug. I melted into Shanghai and it became the metropolitan life this small-town-Utah girl always dreamed of.
As I lived in China, switching between studying Chinese and working in various companies, I would talk to my friends in the US and hear about their mundane, yet stressful lives. Going to pharmacy school. Working the same job for four years and trying to get a promotion. Trying to pass the LSAT (law certification in US).
In my own way I was moving on with my life, but a part of me also thought:
Am I hiding in China while the real world goes on?
Long-time readers of my blog will know that when I returned to the USA after living in Asia, I had it rough. I had to play catch-up. It wasn’t easy, and there were times I wanted to hop on a plane and go straight back to China.
Yet despite all the ‘pain’ living abroad brought me, I often asked myself if I would do it all over again. Would I get on that plane to Japan at 22 years old again if I knew what I know now? Or would I stay in the US to build up my career?
Without hesitation, I always choose to get on that plane.
And it’s because China and Japan were not my drug–they are an integral part of who I amread more
I recently read an article about a tea specialist and her new tea franchise in an airline magazine. While these kind of articles are a dime-a-dozen nowadays, there was one comment from the tea-master that jumped out of the page at me:
“Every cup of tea evokes a memory, a feeling, a connection to something from your past.”
I couldn’t help but think just how true this statement was, as I reflected on my favorite types of tea and how they are linked to a particular moment in my past:
Whenever I drink Genmai-cha, all I can think about is Japan. The flavor is unique and difficult to describe–it’s earthy, but has a flowery and light finishing taste–like buckwheat, hay and dandelions combined. After steeped, the tea turns the water a light yellow color, almost like a chrysanthemum flower. It feels like the working man’s tea, the commoner’s tea, a tea that refreshes in both the summer and winter.
I had just arrived in Japan the day before. My senses were in overdrive as I took in the foreign surroundings. I kneeled on a tatami floor and looked around my host-grandparent’s old, wooden home: paper sliding doors (shoji) opened up to a Japanese garden outside. A wind-chime sang in the breeze. The humidity was oppressive, and I could feel sweat rolling down my neck. The grandma turned on a nearby fan that whizzed back and forth in an effort to cool the room. My host grandma and grandpa sat across from me and smiled, speaking quickly and fluently, forgetting that I wasn’t Japanese. My head was dizzy with culture shock and language comprehension, but I did my best and did what any guest would do: nod and smile.
Like a Japanese person, I picked up the small Japanese tea cup from the saucer with both hands, blew on it softly and sipped it gently without noise. I had green and black tea in America–but I immediately knew this tea was something else.
“What name is this tea?” I asked in broken Japanese.
The grandma giggled, “genmai-cha. Do you like it? Hold on.”
She stood up, ran to the kitchen and returned with a pouch of tea for me. I insisted it was unnecessary to give me a bag of tea, but she shoved the tea pouch in my hand with a smile.
Pu-Er Cha 普洱茶
Pu-Er Cha is a high-end tea grown exclusively in China’s Yunnan region. Although it’s somewhat easy to find low-quality pu-er tea in the states, wheels of high-grade pu-er tea are only available in China and sell for hundreds of dollars. Among all teas, pu-er is extremely unique in taste and almost resembles coffee in its bitterness and color. When I crumble pu-er tea in my hands, I feel like I’m crumbling soil of the Earth. It smells like trees, soil, dirt. It’s an Earthy tea with a rich, bitter flavor.
I had a sanctuary in Shanghai, and it was a teahouse called Da Ke Tang. The building is from the roaring 20s of Shanghai’s heyday and is a mix of French architecture with Chinese decorations. The teahouse is incredibly high-end, with a chandelier in the reception room and the sitting room itself covered in gold mirrors and finely crafted wooden tables. Old Shanghai jazz music plays here, and women in qipaos (slim Chinese dresses) stand at the bar mixing and serving tea.
Booths lined the floor-to-ceiling windows that opened out into the teahouse’s gardens. After being seated, the qipao server would place nuts, an ashtray and a menu for the customers. Although the menu was 10 pages long, there was only one item served:
Even writing this hurts, cause I miss that damn place so much. My Shanghai friends and I would simply sit, drink pu-er, and talk for hours. There were times we would sit in silence, hold our teacups, and stare around the room in amazement. It was a place that could only be in Shanghai–a memory I could only make in that city. I sometimes spent $30 on high-end pu-er there, but it was worth it. The server would add pot after pot of water and we would talk the hours away until our tea became too diluted to continue.
Oolong Tea 乌龙茶
I think we all know what Oolong tea tastes like. To me, it’s the quintessential tea of Asia. No matter where you go in Asia, it’s fairly easy to find a cup of Oolong somewhere, somehow.
I often drank Oolong tea in Japan, and it tasted just as it looked: slightly bitter with a strong barley taste. I wasn’t a huge fan of the tea in Japan (I much preferred Genmai-Cha), but in China that changed. For some reason, Oolong tasted different no matter where I went in China–although the smell stayed the same.
We had dinner at a Cantonese restaurant only a few feet away from my new apartment. Jenny squealed in delight when she saw that they had gong-fu-cha (kung fu tea).
“That’s like… a real thing?” I questioned with a raised eyebrow. “I thought it was only made for those cheesy Hong Kong kung fu flicks.”
“Of course it is!” she laughed. “It’s quite a show. Do you want to order it?”
The server came out with a tray that held three extremely small cups of tea (no larger than my thumb) and a matching clay teapot. As soon as he set the tray down, he began to flip the teapot around his hand, flip the tea cups up and down below at lightning speed—and all while pouring tea. I wouldn’t call it an amazing show; but rather, a waste of perfectly good tea (he literally spilled it everywhere).
“The tea spilled everywhere!” I exclaimed. “What a waste!”
Z laughed, “that’s how we pour tea in China, Mary. It goes all over the place.”
With the smell of oolong all around us, I took one of those tiny teacups and took a shot. “Well, douse me with another shot of Oolong!”
Irish & English Breakfast
I was never a fan of English Breakfast tea. It’s too bitter, and putting milk and sugar in my tea weirded me out (call me an Asian tea traditionalist).
Yet when I went to Ireland, I drank the stuff like crazy. Every morning our bed and breakfast hostess would ask if we wanted coffee or tea, and I would copy the locals and order tea. There was something satisfying and comfortable about drinking a cup of slightly sweetened Irish Breakfast tea on a cold and crisp Irish morning. The locals often served us ‘Barry’s Irish Tea’ and, as a result, I bought a few boxes to take home to America.
Now when I’m home and brew a cup of Barry’s, I add some sugar and cream and take a deep breath of the tea’s rich, black aroma. When I close my eyes I instantly recall the rolling hills of Ireland and those peaceful Irish mornings.
What kind of memories do tea evoke for you?
The First AMWF Anime Ever: Tada-Kun Never Falls in Love
When I first heard of the title “Tada-Kun Never Falls in Love,” it sounded really bad–even for anime.
I only started watching it because, somewhere on the internet, I found a clip of the show that really piqued my interest. I can’t find the exact clip (dammit!), but basically it involved a foreign, blonde woman approaching a young Japanese man and asking him to take her photo (she asks in perfect Japanese).
He then begins to freak out and speak really bad English, saying that it’s hard for him to communicate without Japanese.
“Oh,” she cocks her head and looks at him. “Does my Japanese sound strange? Is it incorrect?”
“Um,” he replies in Japanese. “No. Not at all.”
My first thought after watching this clip was:
Wow, I have been the foreign girl in that situation more times than I can count.
My second thought after watching this clip was:
Oh my god! Her reply is BRILLIANT! I’m totally going to say that in Japan next time someone responds to my Japanese with really bad English.
My third thought was:
Holy shit, is this an actual anime about a foreign woman (not just some blonde anime character) and a Japanese man falling in love?
Thanks to the above clip, I decided to give “Tada-Kun Never Falls in Love” a chance. Tada-Kun basically chronicles the story of Tada Mitsuyoshi, a strapping young lad who works at his grandpa’s coffee shop and wants to someday be a photographer. He stumbles upon Teresa, a blonde foreign woman, while taking photographs in a park. Eventually their paths cross again once he finds out, coincidentally, Teresa is an exchange student at his local high school. Oh, she also happens to be living right next door to his coffee shop while staying in Japan. Talk about destiny, eh?
Anyway, it’s a very slice-of-life show that tells the story of Teresa’s time in Japan and her newfound Japanese friends (Tada and the photography club). It’s a corny show (cue the sakura petals and wind blowing in hair) and is pretty goddamn ridiculous (Teresa is European royalty–wtf?), but there are some real positive aspects to the show that I just have to highlight.
It Doesn’t Focus on “Foreign”ness
It’s hardly mentioned that Teresa is a foreigner–in fact, her Japanese classmates treat her just like anyone else. Maybe this isn’t realistic… but I really like it. In fact, I think this is how stereotypes about foreigners will gradually go away in Japan: by showcasing more foreigners in media where they are not treated like circus animals.
Tada never asks Teresa if she can use chopsticks. He never comments on her Japanese ability. He doesn’t even comment on her foreign physical features–he just LIKES the girl for who she is–not where she is from. I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to see Japanese media that doesn’t highlight all the cultural differences of how foreigners don’t fit into Japan. This anime does a great job of showing a foreign woman fit seamlessly into Japanese society…. with a Japanese man accepting that fact, no questions asked.
Tada and Teresa are Boring, but Likable
Teresa, despite being a supposed foreigner, acts like a typical Japanese girl. She’s cute, demure, polite and has a high-pitched squeaky voice. While she may not be all that interesting and a little dense, she’s definitely not a detestable character.
I’m a fan of Tada; although I do admit, he’s kind of vanilla as well. Still, he’s a good guy with dreams and aspirations and treats Teresa and his friends/family very well. Although it’s somewhat unrealistic, he’s also very open for a Japanese man. He tells Teresa his heart’s deepest, darkest secrets (despite her being a foreigner!) and she listens with a smile. It’s cute.
Hints at Japan’s Internationalization
With a declining population, labor shortage, and rise of tourism–Japan is seeing (and needing) more foreigners than ever. The amount of foreigners that I saw in Japan while traveling in 2016 is almost double compared to when I lived in Niigata in 2010.
It’s a fact that there are way more foreigners in Japan now. While most foreigners don’t stay in Japan for the long-haul, all the short-term tourists are helping the Japanese people become a little more accustomed to seeing and interacting with foreigners. To take it a step further, I think Japanese people are even starting to realize that within this crowd of tourists/exchange students/overseas workers, there are actually a good number of assimilated, Japanese-speaking foreigners–just like this anime highlights.
Honestly, if the interaction between Teresa and Tada were the norm in Japan I probably wouldn’t have left. This anime presents an alternate-Japan I someday hope becomes reality.
Finally… Should You Watch This Show?
No. You shouldn’t. It’s shojo (girly-anime) garbage–but it’s better than most other garbage. There are still a lot of eye-rolling, anti-feminist anime moments in the show; but not enough to make me quit. Teresa and Tada have sucked me in and now I must watch until the very end.
Whether you watch Tada-Kun or not, one thing is for certain: this is a show that paints a very positive image of an AMWF relationship, as well as foreign-Japanese interaction in Japan.
Tada-Kun is now airing and can be seen on Crunchyroll, if interested.
Whenever I travel somewhere new, especially a city, I always find myself asking the same question:
Could I actually live here–or better yet–settle down here?
In Utah’s middle schools, I was brainwashed–erm, I mean, taught, that when the Mormon Pioneers hauled their wagons to Salt Lake City and first set their sights on the blue skies and the Great Salt Lake, they cried:
“This is the Place.”
Thus, Utah became the home of the Mormon Pioneers…. and Salt Lake now has a (ridiculously) named “This is the Place” museum.
But that slogan–tagline–whatever you want to call it, really stuck with me. I thought that someday, somewhere, just like those Mormon Pioneers supposedly did, I would finally end up somewhere and say:
“This is the Place.”
When I was younger I thought that, after traveling the world and living in a handful of cities, I would eventually find out where that certain somewhere was. I had a guess it would be Japan. Maybe somewhere in Asia. Being from a small town, I thought living in an exciting, metropolitan city like New York or Paris would suit me.
But Even After Traveling the World, I Still Can’t Figure Out Where to Settle Down
It seemed like that, no matter where I went, I was able to pick out some quirk or cultural aspect of the location that just didn’t fit my future needs.
Minnesota was nice, but insular and…. flat. Not to mention it gets -20 F (-6 C) in winter.
Dallas is not a bad place at all; but again, the sprawl and reliance on a car is something I would like to avoid. Traffic here is also gnarly. And the lack of nature and greenery gets me down.
Portland is by far my favorite pick of the bunch in terms of US cities, but the job market is flat. It’s housewife or nothing in Portland.
Salt Lake City, my home, would be great because my family and friends still live there–but again, the job market is nil for me. Plus, the car thing. Ugh.
And this is where you’re probably thinking:
Jeez Mary, nitpicky enough?
When I was mentally analyzing why I could never settle down in Dallas and all the above locations, it dawned on me:
Maybe the Problem Isn’t the Place–Maybe it’s Me?
I once asked my classmate, a 55 year old lawyer turned grad student and mother of two teenagers, when she knew that she wanted to become a mother.
“Did you wake up one day and think: Wow. I feel it. I really want a baby.”
“What? Really?? Doesn’t that urge for motherhood kick in eventually?”
“I was 35 and it didn’t kick in Mary,” she told me with a smile. “You just gotta make it happen.”
…. which made me think….
….maybe that same logic applies to settling down as well.
Maybe instead of over-analyze what is the best place and why, perhaps it’s just better to put your foot down and adapt. Maybe no one knows where they’re actually going to settle down, but sooner or later they end up making a conscious choice.
Stay here, or keep moving.
My husband and I are agonizing over where we should settle down. Where we put our bags down and say “this is the place.” Because after all of our moving, we’re exhausted.
After traveling the world for years upon years, I’m ready to put some roots down (for a while, at least). I want to decorate a home. I want to enjoy my neighborhood. I want some familiar faces and stability in my life.
I’m still hoping that someway, somehow, I’ll arrive to that special place one day–look around–and think:
This is the place.
How did you decide where you were going to settle down? Or have you thought about where you’ll settle down?read more
Going to Kyushu, Japan? Why Visiting Yakushima is Worth it
When I told my Japanese friend Tohko that we were going to be in Japan, she said she would meet us in Kyushu on one condition:
We go to Yakushima.
Yakushima? Where and what is it?
It’s the greenest and wettest place in the country, receiving more rainfall than any other location in Japan. On top of that, the island has a strong reputation for being a spiritual and mystical retreat, and rightly so; it did, after all, serve as the inspiration for the animated film Princess Mononoke.
I always told myself that, someday, I just had to go to Yakushima (similar to my desire to go to Kumano Kodo). Not only is Princess Mononoke my favorite Studio Ghibli movie, but when I googled Yakushima and looked at the images, the greenery blew me away.
But first, we gotta get one thing straight: Yakushima is not an easy side trip. It’s far away. Really far away.
To be honest, I thought the inconvenience of going to Yakushima wasn’t worth it; but then again, I really wanted to see Tohko.
In the end, I’m glad Tohko gave me the extra push to go to Yakushima. It was my favorite part of Kyushu–and here’s why:
Where to Go
Cedarland (Yakisuki Land) 屋久杉ランド
When the tourism office told us to go to Cedarland, Tohko and I were super skeptical. It sounded like a corny, cedar-themed amusement park for kids.
But don’t let the name fool you. It’s a protected natural par… and it’s stunning.
To say Cedarland was lush and green is an understatement. It’s a rainforest. There is moss and growth everywhere. The water is clear, transparent and fresh. It’s extremely wet. We were constantly slipping around on muddied trails (in fact, I even fell in a mud pit!), but the added hurdle only added to the excitement.
The main trail is well-maintained, but if you venture off into the lesser-traveled routes you’ll find trails in disrepair. While it’s exciting to go off road, travelers should exercise caution: its extremely slippery and one wrong step will send you sliding down a muddy hillside. Be careful!
Seaside Hot Springs (Yudomari Onsen)
Japan loves hot springs, so it’s not surprising that people are willing to strip down naked in public to hop into a seaside thermal bath.
That’s exactly what we did at Yudomari Onsen. I have to admit, even I was self-conscious about the teeny-tiny two foot bamboo wall that attempted to separate the male and female hot springs. Although the water was lukewarm, it was an experience: who else can say they bathed in a seaside hot spring watching the sunset?
So, we saw a lot of epic waterfalls–and trust me, there are a lot of majestic waterfalls all over the island. You can’t go wrong.
I highly recommend Senpiro waterfall. It’s a quick stop and the observation deck not only provides the perfect photo opportunity of the gigantic waterfall, but also gives you a stunning 360 view of the villages and surrounding island.
Plus, there’s picnic tables up there. Bring some bento boxes up to the top and enjoy lunch in the bliss of a perfect waterfall view.
Where to Stay?
If you’re staying in Yakushima, I just have one word for you: Minshuku.
As I wrote in my Kumano Kodo post, minshukus are my absolute favorite type of lodgings in Japan. They’re basically the Japanese version of a British bed and breakfast. You can also think of them as as a more intimate ryokan.
Tohko reserved a room for us at a minshuku called Shiki no Yado….. and wow. I cannot recommend this place enough.
Not only is Shiki no Yado located beneath a dormant volcano, but the rooms are spacious; wooden and clean. Plus, the staff speaks great English.
The Japanese family running the minshuku are wholesome and kind. The wife told us she’s originally from Yakushima, but went to Tokyo for about 15 years to work until she said–enough. Now she’s living the simple life, running a minshuku in rural Yakushima… and I can see the appeal.
Where to Eat
At the Minshuku
Minshuku meals are Japan’s cuisine at its finest. At Shiki no Yado the owners not only prepared the meals fresh from scratch everyday, but they used locally sourced ingredients from their own farm (!!!). This food was legit farm to table, and at a stellar price.
Iso no Kaori
Tohko’s friend also recommended a place called “Iso no Kaori.” It’s a tiny teishoku (set-meal) establishment on the side of the highway that loops around Yakushima. It’s fresh food at great prices. Definitely worth a visit.
Yakushima Travel Tips
Watch the Weather: Yakushima weather is unpredictable–ensure that you avoid the rainy season when going to Yakushima. We were unable to go to Yakushima’s most famous site (Jomon Sugi) because of the heavy rains. Keep this in mind.
How Long Should I Stay? We were only here for two days and one night. While we were able to have an enjoyable vacation, I would say three days and two nights would be an ideal time frame. If you’re looking for a place to relax for a long stretch of time, such as one full week, this would also be a good destination to kick back.
What to Bring? Pack good hiking gear and water resistant clothes! I would also bring an extra pair of shoes in case you trip and fall in the mud, like I did.
Get a Kyushu Rail Pass: If you’re going to have an extended trip in Kyushu ONLY, I recommend getting the Kyushu rail pass. It’s like the nationwide JR rail pass, but only for Kyushu. It’s an all you can ride, 5-day pass for about 180 USD.