Thoughts from Places: On Stage for the 2017 World Kimono Competition

Written (mentally) on April 9, 2017;  written (actually) a week or so later. My parents finally sent me pictures, so now I can share! Enjoy a collection of my thoughts as I went on stage to dress myself in kimono in front of about 800 people.

Act I: In the Wings, Waiting to Compete

Okay, Karen, you got this.

Don’t trip in your zori, stop shaking, all you have to do is put on clothes.

…Put on clothes in front of an audience…while they judge you.

Let’s not think about this. Let’s look at the adorable kids who are competing right now.

Kawaii! Kawaii, ne? This is about as deep of an exchange as I can get in Japanese right now. Luckily, this is a totally appropriate thing to repeat endlessly to the foreign women around me.

Yep, those kids are pretty damn kawaii. Especially that serious little boy with the samurai sword!

How long has it been now? Four minutes? Five? These kids are fast…

That tiny little girl there made such a complicated obi! And she’s only maybe 7 years old… I was not that disciplined at 7 years old. I would have frozen on stage at 7 years old. Well, I never would have gotten on stage at 7 years old.

They’re almost done, only two kids left!

My palms are sweating.

Glancing right and left, the other foreign women are nervous too.

Let’s shoot another panicked smile at the girl from Bangladesh. Kinchou shimasu!  That’s probably not perfect but she understands. Yep, she’s just as nervous. We’re all in this together. Ganbatte!

The curtain is falling, we’re being ushered on stage!

It’s showtime!

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(Tuesday) Extracurriculars: Secret Ibaraki Festival Gems

Silk festivals, peach blossom festivals, chestnut festivals, art festivals… lantern battle festivals that end in flames??? Yep, I’ve attended them all, and all in Ibaraki!

Okay, I know what you are thinking. Karen, what? You can’t call this an “extracurricular activity!”

But let me explain. I only have three real extracurricular activities — Community Japanese class, as I mentioned last Tuesday, and two others that I will write about in the next two weeks. Well, I also practice kimono, but I’ve already written about kimono a few times now. So, I only have three *new* extracurriulars, but there are FOUR Tuesdays in February. Hence, I decided that attending local festivals counts as an extracurricular!

One of the things I love most about Japan is that everything deserves its own festival. A particular flower is blooming? Festival. There’s a local 10k race? Festival. This town is famous for something? Festival. It’s summer? Festival.

Of course, there are the really big festivals, like the Sapporo Snow Festival and the Akita Kanto Festival (both of which I went to in 2016). These festivals are famous for a reason — they are truly amazing! But I think there is also a lot to be said for smaller, more local festivals — these are the hidden gems, the ones that make you feel like less of a tourist and more of a local.

So here is a little write-up about two of the best Ibaraki festivals I’ve attended so far:

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(Monday) Office Life: Foreign-Born Students in Japanese Schools

No, I’m not talking about international students who do a year abroad. I’m talking about students who moved with their families to Japan sometime when they were in Elementary school or Jr. High School, without ever having studied Japanese before.

One would think that this isn’t too much of a problem as Japan is a pretty homogeneous society — according to the census, 98.5% of the population is Japanese. However, my experience is different. My base school is a Flex school, which is a very special type of Japanese high school for many reasons. As the name suggests, it allows for flexible scheduling, and we have morning classes, afternoon classes, and night classes that run until 9 p.m.

One of the other things that makes my Flex school so unique is that it is much more diverse than a typical Japanese high school — I estimate that about 10 – 20 % of the students at my base school are not ethnically Japanese, and most of those students were born abroad.  The Philippines, Brazil, and Peru are definitely the most represented non-Japanese countries in our student body (probably in that order), although there are a handful of other students from various Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam.

Over the past year and a half, I’ve gotten to know a lot of these students (they tend to be stronger in English than their Japanese classmates, although that is not always true) and I have a few observations on the subject that I’d like to share.

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(Tuesday) Extracurriculars: Community Japanese Class

Community Japanese Class was the first extracurricular activity that I became involved in here in Japan, so I wanted to start with it.

Most decent-sized towns and cities here in Japan will have an International Society that holds free or cheap Japanese language classes for foreigners. My town is no exception.

However, I didn’t start attending the class until January of 2016, a full 5 months after I had arrived in the country. This is mostly because I was teaching myself to read and write hiragana and katakana during that five-month interim… I wanted to at least know the two basic alphabet systems before starting the class!

I’ve been attending the class for over a year now, so… how is it?

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Chicken Hearts and Yuzu; First-time Foods in Japan

I wasn’t an especially picky eater before arriving in Japan… although, nor was I a particularly adventurous eater. But when you move to a new country, being even slightly picky goes out the window. Whether you want to or not, you’ll face some very new foods. They’ll become foes, or new favorites — the choice is yours.

Just for fun, here’s a list of foods that I’ve eaten for the first time while living in Japan, most of which I really like, and three of which I really…don’t…

Raw fish – I don’t go out of my way to eat sashimi or sushi, but I also don’t have to. Because of drinking parties with coworkers or cheap conveyor-belt sushi dinners with friends, I seem to eat raw fish about once a week, whether I want it or not. After all these months, though, I can finally face raw fish without dread! Tuna and Yellowtail are my favorites.


Raw fish, raw shrimp, fish eggs…. facing all my previous fears at once!

Raw shrimp – I try to avoid raw shrimp. It tastes so much better cooked!

Raw squid – Personally, I think that raw squid is probably the worst thing on this list. The texture of raw squid is awful, and I have a really difficult time even forcing myself to eat it.

Fish eggs – I dreaded fish eggs until I actually tried them… they’re good, but interesting.

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My Results from the Kanto Region’s 2016 Kimono Competition

At my community Japanese class yesterday evening, my teacher, Y-sensei, greeted me with a cry of “What was your time in the competition?”

Every Wednesday since the beginning of September, Y-sensei and I have discussed my upcoming kimono competition during our classes (in my broken Japanese, and in her broken English).  We had particularly discussed the time limit, because for a while, I had a hard time staying under seven minutes. So naturally, she wanted to know if I had beaten the clock… and, of course, if I was going to Tokyo for the All-Japan Competition.

Last night, my answer to both of these questions was…

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Learning How to Put On Clothes: the Art of Kimono

There’s been a lot of radio silence on my end recently, and I apologize for that. As my old cross country coach used to say, sometimes life gets in the way.

I wanted to break the silence for a rather important reason: some good, old-fashioned exposition. I mentioned in an earlier post that I will be competing in a kimono competition this November… well, the day is almost here! The competition is IN TWO DAYS, and I’m freaking out a bit, to be honest.

But what exactly is a kimono competition? I thought it was important to explain that little detail, especially before the next blog post, which will inevitably be about the competition itself. After all, putting on clothes isn’t typically a competition, is it?


Actually, let’s start with the most obvious question: how did I start learning kimono?

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Traveling in Tohoku Part 3: Kanto Festival, Akita

This is the last of my three-part summer series, which is still more of a photoblog than anything else. For Part III’s mood music, I recommend “Changeling (New Beginnings)” by Zack Hemsey. So without further ado, on to our final destination!



There are three extremely famous summer festivals held in the Tohoku Region of Japan every year — collectively known as the Tohoku Sandai Matsuri, they are Akita’s Kanto Festival, Aomori’s Nebuta Festival, and Miyagi’s Sendai Tanabata Festival.



My family only had time to experience one of these festivals, so I chose the one I was most anxious to see — the Akita Kanto Festival.


Held in Akita City every year from August 3rd through August 6th, this festival features performers who show off their skills of balancing tall bamboo poles (called kanto) heavy with paper lanterns. These kanto poles can reach up to 12 meters in height and 50 kg (110 pounds) in weight! At night, the paper lanterns are lit by candles, and it’s a wonder that none of them catch fire.



My parents and I arrived early and grabbed front-row seats on the sidewalk for the festival. For the first few minutes, the performers simply walked around carrying the kanto poles to the beat of the drums, relighting the lanterns whenever a candle would blow out.


But suddenly, a cry was heard, and all the performers stopped to reorganize. In the darkness, glowing lanterns were hoisted up in every direction — up and down the street, onlookers could see hundreds of lantern-ladden poles rise up into the air. In that moment, on that warm summer night, shivers ran down my spine.


And the festival had truly begun.


The performers were absolutely incredible. Men would balance the heavy poles on their palms, on their hips, on their foreheads, or, as the man above is doing, on their shoulders.


Some of the more practiced performers even showed off their skills by balancing the poles while simultaneously doing a little dance with a handheld fan.


And even children were encouraged to try their hand! We watched in amusement and subsequent delight as this little boy tried valiantly to balance his “starter kanto pole” while his father looked on. The lanterns on the boy’s kanto pole were not lit, though — and with good reason. Although the father stepped in whenever the pole was teetering, he was not always fast enough. This set of poles crashed to the ground (and onto the audience) more than once!


In fact, by the third and final round of the festival, even some of the adult performers were losing control over their kanto poles. You could pick these teams out by how many of their lanterns had gone dark, and by how the once-perfect lanterns seemed a little… shredded… by the falls.

There was a particularly… unpracticed… team of performers whose kanto pole went crashing down numerous times. During the second round, they were across the street from us, and we witnessed the falling lanterns with surprised amusement. During the third and final round, however, they were one of the teams performing right in front of us, and it was a little more real.

Of course, there are wires set up above the audience members, so the falling lanterns will be caught by the wires and not do any harm… but I must say that there is something quite exhilarating about watching a 110-pound bamboo pole of candle-lit lanterns falling towards you, and being stopped only seconds before crushing you!


It was our final night in Tohoku, and I couldn’t have asked for a better ending. Akita’s Kanto Festival exceeded my expectations in every way, and my shoddy pictures don’t do the night justice. Being there was absolutely incredible, and I only I hope to return again someday to experience it all again.

To anyone visiting Japan, especially in the beginning of August, I highly recommend taking a trip up to Tohoku. Tokyo isn’t the only amazing place in Japan! Take the path a little less traveled and see for yourself.


Traveling in Tohoku Part 1: Ginzan Onsen, Yamagata

I had an amazing summer holiday with my parents, and although not everything went according to plan, I still have a lot of places to recommend for future explorations!

This three part series will definitely be more of a photoblog than anything else, but I’ll try to add stories or commentary where needed. If you need mood music, I recommend “The Name Of Life” (Instrumental) by Joe Hisaishi. So without further ado, on to our first destination:



Ginzan Onsen is a small (emphasis on the small) hot spring resort town in Yamagata Prefecture. Despite it’s size, the onsen town is quite famous here in Japan, owing to it being a filming location for the popular 1980s drama Oshin.


I was hoping to visit in the winter, which is the town’s peak season. (Look up the photos… it’s gorgeous!!) But summer turned out to be a more opportune (and just as lovely) time of year!


Even in the rain, the town was absolutely stunning. Although Oshin ended years ago, I felt as if we were still on a movie set.


Sadly, we weren’t able to stay in one of the beautiful old ryokan in the center of town. However, I did manage to book the slightly more modern ryokan that is set on a hill above the town. And our room came with our own private onsen!

One of the highlights of the whole experience for us was the food. Our ryokan stay included breakfasts and dinners, and no guest was left hungry. Crab legs, wagyu beef, sashimi, escargot, fish eggs, fish cooked 100 different ways, three kinds of soups, lotus root salad, sake, plum wine, watermelon, and of course… rice. We were so full by the end of every meal that my parents began refusing the rice — to the horror of the waitstaff!


Ginzan Onsen itself is really tiny. If you are a normal person, strolling from one end to the other should only take about 15 minutes at a leisurely pace. And that’s being generous. If you’re a speedy walker, it’ll take you 5 minutes.  If you are, however, a photographer (or a wannabe) like me, then it could take over an hour to cover the whole town. The first time we walked the town, my parents actually considered stopping by a cafe for coffee (without me) because I was taking my sweet time snapping away with my camera.


We could, however, follow the river to the back of the town. Here, we strolled by a beautiful waterfall before willingly entangling ourselves in the maze of hiking trails in the forest beyond.



Ginzan Onsen originally developed around a silver mine. The mine itself is now defunct, but you can still enter a small part of it and look around. It was a pretty hot day, but the mine (and all the little tunnels that we passed on our hike that led into the mine) were cool — natural air conditioning! This little hike is definitely a perk of coming to Ginzan Onsen during the summer, because in the town’s peak season, all the trails are made impassable due to heavy snowfall.


Overall, it’s a sleepy little historic town. Visitors take pictures, relax in the onsens, and get stuffed with all the delicious kaiseki (multi-course) meals.


The rather sleepy town comes alive at night, however. After dining, guests emerge in their respective ryokans’ yukatas for an evening stroll along the river. The ryokan are lit up beautifully, and sometimes the town plays music to set the scene even further.

Imagine walking along this little street and hearing One Summer’s Day — from Miyazaki’s Spirited Away — filling the sweet summer night. Because that’s exactly what happened while I was there. All I can say is, that was perfection. Rumor has it that the ryokan pictured above served as inspiration for the famous bathhouse in the film… however, I’ve also heard that inspiration is shared with at least three other ryokan, one of which is located in Taiwan.

Of course, my parents and I joined in on the after-dinner stroll, decked out in our yukata. My mother and I went one step further, having fun stumbling around in geta — traditional woodblock sandals worn with yukata and kimono — although my dad vetoed the geta, deciding  that his sandals were the safer option.


We ended up staying at Ginzan Onsen for two nights. It was a perfect amount of time — quiet and relaxing after all the sightseeing and train hopping my parents had done before — although the whole experience could have easily been summed up in one night as well.


I know I’ll probably never get back to Ginzan Onsen, but I’m immensely glad that I had the opportunity to go even once. It was a little taste of traditional Japan… a little step back in time.

Anecdotes 4: Guacamole

My lovely friend J is a fantastic cook. Sometimes she brings me tupperwares of food on Wednesday nights, when we meet for Japanese class. A few weeks ago, I was excited to receive homemade guacamole, straight from her kitchen!

Having nothing prepared for the next day’s lunch, and waking up too late to run to 7/11, I ended up bringing the guacamole and a bag of tortilla chips to school on Thursday as a last-minute lunch. And this is what happened:

Me @ 12:30: (happily starting to eat lunch at my desk)

Chemistry teacher: (passes by my desk on his way to the photocopier. Stops and stares at the green stuff in my tupperware). After a few more covert, curious glances, he throws caution to the wind and asks me “What’s that?”

Me: “Oh, this is guacamole! It’s made with avocados. Would you like to try some?”

Chemistry teacher: (hesitant but intrigued) “Yes, please.”

So I offer him some tortilla chips and the guacamole, watching as he tried the green stuff cautiously. He seemed mystified by what exactly it was, but he seemed to like it, and he thanked me.

A few minutes later, a JTE also spotted my lunch: “Karen-chan, what’s that?”

Me: “Oh, it’s guacamole. Do you know it? No? It’s a sort of Mexican dip. Here, try some!”

And so began my base school’s discovery of guacamole. No less than 8 teachers taste-tested it (some even asked for seconds!), and then they all gathered around my JTE’s computer and googled “guacamole” in Japanese.  After reading the Wikipedia page, they all seemed more confident about what exactly they had eaten.

And they all confessed that now they felt like drinking a beer to go along with my strange lunch.

2 lessons learned: grassroots internationalization can start with guacamole. And Japan knows very little about Mexican food aside from tacos.