2013 Shizuoka Tea Tour- June 15th-16th

Stephane and I are excited  to announce that we have finalized the details for our upcoming overnight tea picking tour in Shizuoka. Building on our experiences from last year’s tour,  we have crafted an even better a one-of-a-kind hands-on tour that is sure to provide a unique experience of Japan’s culture.  In addition to tea picking and tasting, we have added some very special cultural experiences: an outdoor tea ceremony by the river; lunch in a historical minka-style soba-restaurant, and a visit to a traditional soy-sauce brewery. This year we will be staying at Sasama – a prefectually operated cultural center offering unique events, and for our evening entertainment we will enjoy a private kagura (traditional Shinto) dance performance. The casual communal –type accommodations this year allow us to open the tour to larger numbers at more affordable rates. I am also quite excited that our visit will fall during peak firefly-viewing season, so we will definitely make the most of the beautiful natural surroundings.

Back by popular demand will be last year’s ride on the historic Oikawa steam engine, and no holiday in Japan can be complete without enjoying a dip in a local hot-spring and delicious foods prepared from local ingredients. A weekend of guaranteed fun for the whole family- I plan on bringing my own family this year!

Sign ups accepted between May 1st and May 31st, click on the flyer (pictured below) to enlarge, and full registration info can be found here.

We hope you’ll join us for a journey to the heart of Japan’s tea country- the beautiful green tea fields of Shizuoka await!


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Appearing on NHK World’s ‘Tokyo Eye’

This past month I had a chance to collaborate with NHK World on one of their excellent English-language programs. ‘Tokyo Eye’ features the latest trends, events and hidden attractions in and around Tokyo.
Having conducted my own tours of Kichijoji for the Tokyo American Club Women’s Group members over the past few years, I was curious to see what they would pick up on for this show.

Kichijoji walking tour- at the shrine in Inokashira park

Nihonbi’s Kichijoji walking tour- at the shrine in Inokashira park

Although Kichijoji has already been featured several times on Tokyo Eye, this month’s program chose the theme of new trends showcasing the diverse cultural feel of the community.
Sure enough, even after living in the neighborhood for 14 years, I discovered a few new things!
We met on a Sunday morning to film the Harmonica Yokocho ‘asa ichiba’ – morning market. This area of narrow winding alleys just to the north side of the station is typical of the post-war barrack-style construction characterizing post-war construction in Tokyo. The dark winding alleys hanging with paper lanterns have made this a popular retro feel late-night drinking area.


Funny and zany Tokyo Eye reporter Felicia

In recent years it has also seen a number of tiny lunch places open, and this latest edition, the morning market, runs once a month on the last Sunday of the from 7-10 am. I’ve always noticed how Japanese folks (or is it just Tokyo folk) seem to have a penchant for loud, cramped, bustling areas, and this morning market delivers the goods. You will find anything from fresh vegetables, home-made cookies and jams to trinkets and crafts. The casual, chatty manner of the vendors and the elbow-brushing nature of the experience convey an authentic open-market experience, and will certainly leave you awake and invigorated on an early Sunday morning.


Next stop on our off-the-beaten-track tour of Kichijoji takes us to the Arts and Crafts building, just around the corner from Ocharaka on Nakamichi. Started a couple years ago, this multi-purpose space holds a jewelery school and several small ateliers and galleries.

The jewelery school and rooftop of the Arts and Crafts building

The jewelery school and rooftop of the Arts and Crafts building

Based on a western-inspired model of artists co-ops, it seeks to break away from the more rigid hierarchical structures associated with the world of Japanese arts, and instead encourages the free exchange and communication of ideas and inspiration. If you ever stop by, make sure to pop out on the rooftop deck for a lovely view over the jumbled rooftops of Kichijoji- don’t forget to look for the trees in Nishi-en, and even Mt. Fuji on a clear day.

Our last stop was Nishi-Koen, the small open green space (can one call something so diminutive a park?) on Nakamichi dori, just down the street from our home. I remember years back when the park was created- my children used to come to chase pigeons and collect acorns here after preschool.

My daughters get a cameo appearance- buying cakes in Nishi-En from mobile 'Chai's Sweets'

My daughters get a cameo appearance- buying cakes in Nishi-En from mobile ‘Chai’s Sweets’

Considering Kichijoji has been rated the most desirable neighborhood to live in for years in a row by Tokyo housewives, it seemed a good move to carve out a space, no matter how small, for children to run around in. And with the addition of the popular Hara doughnuts shop across the street, it is always a nice place to sit and take a break from the weekend crowds. And lastly, it has two stunning trees- and yes, as more and more old gardens around the neighborhood vanish, they just might someday be the last two big trees standing in Kichijoji.

On a personal note, I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to experience being a live-reporter on the streets of my neighborhood! All the seemingly basic things that skilled reporters make look so easy- walking, talking, and enthusiastically presenting things- actually take quite a bit of skill and flair to pull off well! I thoroughly recommend ‘Tokyo Eye’ as a source of  up-to-date information on lesser-known points of interest around the constantly-changing mega-city that is Tokyo. Thank you Hiro-san and Felicia for the fun experience!

You can see the Tokyo Eye segment “Fantastic Towns along the Chuo Line” on NKH world’s website– it airs on NHK World satelite TV on April 17th, and on April 30th on ETV at 3pm Japan time. To find out more about the Kichijoji walking tours check out the nihonbi facebook page.

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Nihonbi’s Ikebana classes starting this spring!

I’m very excited to finally be offering regular Ikebana classes starting this week!

As the new green leaves and spring flowers are growing all around, what a better season to engage in this meditative and relaxing form of creative expression.

Spring class dates:

Thursday morning classes: 10-11:30 April 25th, May 9th, May 23rd, June 6th, June 20th.Thursday afternoon classes 1:00- 3:30 April 18th, May 16th, May 30th, June 13th, June 27th.

Fall classes: Fall classes resume every week on Thursday from September 5th. Class times alternate between morning and afternoon every week.

Classes cost Y4000/class including materials and can be reserved at least 3 days ahead of time.

For reservations and inquiries, please contact nihonbi99@gmail

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On having an accident in Japan

Prologue: Unable to sleep, I wrote this out with pen and paper the evening after the accident. Typing it now two days later I’ve made some small edits.

What is it that is so remarkable about the kindness of strangers? We are owed nothing, and expect nothing,  yet undeserving, we receive.

Much has been said about the courtesy and refined manners that typify Japanese culture, and indeed, during the many years I have called Japan my home, I have my own stories to tell of exceptional acts of kindness. But today’s experience far surpasses anything I have ever experienced.

On a spur-of-the moment, I decided to escape the city for the weekend with my 9-year-old daughter, and join my good friend and her daughter on a trip to Nikko, Tochigi prefecture. World Heritage Site of Toshogu shrine, the area is surrounded by stunning old-growth trees, moss-covered ancient stones, breathtaking mountains and rivers.

Let the adventure begin!

Let the adventure begin!

We took the first train from Tokyo and arrived while the birds were still singing their morning greetings, and I imagined the rest of my family was just getting up and having breakfast. Greeted by the sakura in full bloom, and Nikko air so pure that it shocks the system of someone who has lived too long in the city, I was full of joy and  anticipation despite the torrential rains that were forecast to continue through the weekend. Through some amazing turns of fate my friend had been offered one of the old temple buildings for use as a yoga studio in exchange for upkeep, and had been coming here for years.

Myogetsubyo studio

Myogetsubo studio

When we arrived a small group of people were already assembled in the garden, ready to help clean up the studio that had been closed through the winter months.We spent an hour sweeping, dusting the studio and cleaning the garden, then began our yoga practice.

One of my favorite hobbies, I like the description of yoga as a “date with your body”- a treasured moment for self-care in my often exhausting life as mom and wearer of so many hats. The joyous voices of the girls running through the woods punctuated our practice, and I was grateful for my daughter, born and raised in the city, to have this chance to run free. As we wrapped up class I noticed that things were quiet- they must have decided to explore the woods and temple grounds that adjoin the garden. Half an hour later my friend and I were finishing up our bentos and still no sign. I felt a twinge of concern but have always given my three children what would seem in my country of birth (United States) like extreme freedom of movement. As a woman and as a mother, the overall safety of Japan is one of the things I can hardly imagine giving up if I ever leave this country.

Suddenly my friend’s 10-year-old daughter burst into the studio. All I could make out from the hysterical cries was my daughter’s name. My heart fled my body, my feet jumped into my shoes, and ran, laces flying, down the slick wet stones after my young friend. My breath came in panicked painful gasps, and I struggled to steel myself for whatever lay ahead. As I followed her across the busy intersection of the narrow winding road in front of the shrine, towards the rushing river my heart refused to witness the dreadful images that fired through my brain.

But then I saw her small body, lying on the sidewalk, a silent crowd gathered around. Quick check- head, arms, legs- no visible injuries but she seemed unable or unwilling to move- and was too much in shock to talk. I looked up at the faces around us, hoping someone could offer me an explanation- a young policeman was present, but had no information to offer. A woman’s kindly face appeared offering me words of compassion and concern, and surprisingly, an apology. And In English. An apology. I felt that I should be the one apologizing- for the fact that my daughter had apparently dangerously tried to cross not at a crosswalk- mistakes happen, children sometimes make the wrong decisions. Clearly, it was my own daughter who must be at fault. Her expression, so brimming with loving concern, burned deeply into my frazzled consciousness as I escaped into the quiet of the ambulance. The 20-minute ride to the hospital passed in a daze as a deluge of thoughts, memories and emotions washed through me. Later there will be time for scolding, for hard lessons, for a mother’s righteous anger; now there is only gratitude. What could have been so easily taken from me was with me, holding my hand.

Arrival at the emergency room of the quiet rural hospital- the staff are low-key and helpful. X-rays and other examinations follow; relief continues to swell in waves. In between calls and furious texting to both my husband in Tokyo and my friend who is still at the scene with the police, silent gratitude fills the moments of waiting.

smiling through it all- In the emergency room

smiling through it all- In the emergency room

So now this brings me to the heart of my story. As we were wrapping up at the hospital my friend and her daughter arrived at the hospital, accompanied by the lady who had been driving- I’ll call her “M”. M had insisted on coming to the hospital, and after a round of hugs and reassurances that my daughter was apparently fine, proceeded to take care of us in every way imaginable. It would be difficult to describe the many little actions, gestures and comments that characterized the hours we spent together today. And it extends not only to her but to her lovely 12-year-old daughter, who with patience and grace looked after the girls, offering them snacks and drinks as we plodded through the police reports and long calls with the insurance company. Her soft-spoken boyfriend insisted on driving us from the hospital to our hotel that evening.

Without a trace of fear, resentment, impatience, blame or any other negative emotion, these exceptional souls extended us concern and compassion in a way that was immediate and authentic. When most would be expected to shirk away from any liability, to show at least a trace of anger at the carelessness of the children’s actions, these individuals chose instead to offer us love. It seemed strange but I was filled with joy, in fact my heart was soaring as we drove back through the rainy spring countryside. For the past few weeks and months my life has seemed clouded with stress. The exhaustion of the daily routine at home with my children, the oppressive weight of the city, the barrage of doubts and confusion as I continue to feel my way through the constant choices and challenges my life. But in this moment as the sun silently retired behind the mountain mists, everything seemed gloriously clear. This is it!  For an instant I felt I had grasped the secret of the universe, the golden rule, the magic tool of transformation!

At that moment when only pain and suffering seemed to be where the spinning wheel of fortune had chosen to stop, somehow we were served a giant dose of the genuine selfless kindness of strangers. My wounds of doubt were in an instant salved, and the many on-again, off-again moments of love and hate I have felt living in my adopted country over the past 15 years have all been eclipsed. For myself, and for my daughter as well, today’s emotions will remain deeply forged into our psyches. All I can offer in return is to take the lessons of today and treasure them, to keep them close until hopefully someday I will rise to the challenge of bringing my heart so fully to my interactions with others,  and hence be the cause of soothing the suffering of anothers’ heart.

Our last day in Nikko

Our last day in Nikko

Dear Nikko, dear Japan, these lessons will not be wasted on me, I offer this promise to the universe tonight, and the silent rain is my witness.

Back in the city

Back in the city

Epilogue: The next day we met M one more time as she picked us up and brought us to the train station, giving us cheesecake and chocolates to bring home, and offering that nxt time we visit Nikko, we stay with her. Today a visit to a local clinic confirmed that my daughter was suffering from no more than bruises on her knee. By next week I expect her to be running around again at full speed! My deep gratitude extends as well to my dear friend and her daughter who accompanied us with  wisdom and made us feel so strong when we were not. For those curious, I should mention as well that in Japan an ambulance ride is free, and the hospital bill (which was less than 500 dollars) and today’s clinic visit, although not covered by our national insurance, were settled smoothly by M’s insurance company.

The following pictures are from a walk in rain (and hail) I took on the last day- I will let the images speak for themselves.Nikko 2013-04-07 094 Nikko 2013-04-07 091 Nikko 2013-04-07 089 Nikko 2013-04-07 084 Nikko 2013-04-07 080 Nikko 2013-04-07 077 Nikko 2013-04-07 076 Nikko 2013-04-07 025 Nikko 2013-04-07 028 Nikko 2013-04-07 029 Nikko 2013-04-07 038 Nikko 2013-04-07 051 Nikko 2013-04-07 057 Nikko 2013-04-07 059 Nikko 2013-04-07 070 Nikko 2013-04-07 075 Nikko 2013-04-07 023 Nikko 2013-04-07 022 Nikko 2013-04-07 020Nikko 2013-04-07 026

Posted in LIfe in Japan, Parenting, Travel | Tagged , , , , , | 10 Comments