Posted by: mariabro | September 26, 2012

Manicures and the Eurozone crisis

I love reading the news and then actually living it. For example, we have all been reading about the European financial crisis. The somewhat offensive acronym PIIGS – refers to countries who have been suffering financial difficulties – Portugal, Ireland and now Italy, Greece, and Spain. Apparently they have some issues, much like a first year university student does when they realize that new credit card has to be repaid at some point.

I like to assume the southern European nations are just suffering the fallout of the global financial crisis. It’s not their fault. But I’m actually in Italy right now and experiencing the crunch. Let’s bring it down to the LCD ( lowest common denominator), the manicure. (I’ll give you my night club/political theory later)

I tried to book a manicure on a Monday at 5:00. You would think I asked them to give me the keys to the Pope’s bedroom. “Alora, Maria, scuze but no time for manicure today-a. We close-a at 6:00.”
Milan, the business epicenter of Italy seems to close at 6:00…and many places are closed all day Monday as well.

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I couldn’t help but reminisce about my days in the ultra-convenient Tokyo. I wanted my hair done at 11:00pm, before I hit the clubs? No problem. Champagne brought in courtesy of the Bar next door. No problem. You need a dress shirt for work because you didn’t make it home last night? No problem. You can buy a cup of sake and an iPhone charger at the corner store. Europe needs to learn a little about convenience. I’m not talking about having big box stores in every suburb. I’m talking about giving people what they need. When they need it. Every country has their niche. Japan has a combini on every corner, Canada has a bank on every corner, America has drive-through donut stores, Italy has great cafes, if only globalization allowed us to have a country with great combinis/banks/donuts and coffee on every corner! Utopia.

The issue is productivity. Some people work long hours and don’t produce much. Other people seem to work fewer hours while producing more. The holy grail will be when we can all work fewer hours while still producing more. There is no easy solution. And no free lunch. Bringing it back to the LCD, if I want a manicure at 5:00 and you close at 6:00, it should be a no-brainer. But if I want a $10 manicure at midnight, this would not be a productive business opportunity…unless you are in Bangkok where you can get almost anything at almost any time.
Countries that don’t offer no-brainers will be left behind. But there needs to be a balance between convenience and productivity which allows citizens to achieve a work life balance. Whoever figures it out first, wins. And will have great nails in the process.

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Posted by: mariabro | September 13, 2012

Living Life on the edge, now metaphorically versus literally.

I just noticed that I have not posted anything new since June. It’s been a crazy, busy few months and the reflective moments for writing were few and far between. I did manage to publish a few essays for the Japan Times, which I include in this post, as they will give you an idea of what I’ve been up to for the past few months, without me having to rehash it.

I usually feel the words of a story percolating in my head while I am lying in bed. The words come to me like the scent of coffee in the morning rising up the stairs from the kitchen. The thoughts flow in a warming and comforting way and I am eager to get to my computer or bedside journal and get them down. This story began in much the same way.

I recently went through the process of moving, one of the great stressors of life. Add in death and divorce and you have a triple play. That happened once many years ago. I was happy to see the end of that year. Getting back to the move – yes, we were moving and not just down the road, but across continents. It was going to be a big change in our lives; moving from the core of the most urban of all cities to the suburbs of America. But we love change. It shakes things up and keeps you growing and moving forward.

Living abroad allows you to develop an appreciation of many different cultures and countries. It gives you a subjective point of reference about everything from the funny English signs, to the food, to the beauty that may get overlooked by the locals. As a Canadian, moving to the United States was not going to be the culture shock of moving to Asia. But it was still a big change. I worried I may not even find anything to write about. But it’s been a week and I’m already sipping on the brew of new discoveries.

After completely relying on my GPS while driving in Japan for 7 years, I was worried that my brain-mapping skills may have become non-existent. I was pleased to find that they sputtered back to life when urged by necessity. I found I could navigate using my memory and occasionally, a map. Except for one day when I decided to take a leisurely drive around and challenge myself. However, after two hours of leisurely driving, I stopped at a coffee shop to get some caffeine and ask a police officer for directions.


This is how the exchange went. “Excuse me, could you tell me how to get to Hingham? I live in Hingham but can’t remember how to get there.”
To which the police officer smiled and politely gave me directions while secretly making a note to send out a bulletin to all the local memory-loss clinics to ask if they had lost any patients recently. I thanked him and happily explained that I had been driving for nearly two hours to find my way home. I then proceeded to drive away and missed the first right turn he had instructed me to take. I imagined him looking after me from his cruiser and thinking to himself, “No wonder you’ve been driving for two hours lady, you just missed the first turn!” I thought he may come after me in the cruiser with his lights flashing. He didn’t and eventually, I found my way home. Next week I may venture even further, but I’ll bring a coffee and a better map.

Biting the Big Apple – I just spent last weekend in New York, Tokyo’s jagged twin. After spending seven years in the concrete jungle of Tokyo I recently moved to small-town America. I was enjoying my suburban sprawl; that is sprawling on my chaise lounge in the comfort of my backyard.

But with my daughter a few hours away in the urban mecca of New York I decided to spend a weekend back in the jungle – and what a weekend it was. Luckily I am writing this on the train back to Boston, so you know I made the conscious decision to go home. But, it was a hard decision.

Waking up in the morning with a view of Times square, the Bloomberg stock ticker and two large neon Corona bottles was as comforting to me as the smell of cinnamon buns being baked in oven, or more likely, the smell of cinnamon from the Cinnabon store in the mall.

I realized I am an urban person. It is great when you get a clue as to who you really are, because, at 50, I am still figuring this out. Figuring out who you really are is a luxury. Many people, including myself, spend most of their time just trying to survive, pay the bills and have a little fun in between. I admire people who are lucky enough to know who they are at a young age. For me it’s been a longer process, or what could be called being a late bloomer. But we all evolve as the waves of time and experience erode us into softer-edged beings. I am still trying to decide between the social urbanite and the laid-back suburban dweller. But this weekend pushed me closer to the urbanite side of things.

I felt comforted by the closeness of humanity, of knowing that there were about one million people outside my door, maybe ready to mug me but at least they were there. I realized I felt more nervous in the suburbs where I look into the blackness of my sprawling backyard. I remember one night in Tokyo lying on my son’s bed reading to him and looking out to a bunch of tall, well-lit buildings. I felt so safe. My weekend in New York also confirmed my belief that people like to be near other people. Or at least most people like to be near most other people. Tokyo and New York are global twins for a reason. They unite souls who want to feel the grit of concrete and the energy of humanity at their door. They are global twins but just like any siblings they have differences. We will look at those differences next time.

And so it goes. With my move I was worried that my blog would no longer be appropriate. But I realized that living on the edge can also be a metaphor. I may no longer actually be perched above the intersection of three volatile tectonic plates. I am on the other side of the world, but I still want to live life on the edge. Whether it means re-energizing with jaunts to New York or documenting the career of my fashionista daughter. I will keep trying to provide my perspective on things and continue to try to live fully and, as Thoreau would say, to live deep and suck all the marrow out of life.

Posted by: mariabro | June 5, 2012

Two Countries, Four Seasons

On the surface, Canada and Japan do not seem to have much in common.  Canada is the second-largest landmass in the world, about 25 times the size of Japan with only one-quarter of the population.  Canada is often stereotyped as cold and snowy while Japan has more of a tropical image.   Yet, over the past seven years as a Canadian living in Japan I have grown to see more similarities than differences.  Polite, clean, friendly, and peaceful, are some of the words used to describe both cultures.

One of the more interesting things I discovered is that we both have an appreciation of a climate with four distinct seasons.  The weather in spring and fall is quite similar, while Canadian winters are harsher, and Japanese summers are more extreme. Each country offers celebrations surrounding the change from winter to spring to summer to fall.

Canadians have time-honored traditions celebrating the change of the seasons, similar to the Japanese.  Having just enjoyed my seventh sakura season in Japan I continue to be inspired by the way this tiny flower transforms a nation from stoicism to unbridled joy and silliness.  The sake may have something to do with it.

I remember my first Hanami picnic in Yoyogi park; sitting (shivering) on blue plastic sheets, drinking and looking up at the trees.  It felt like a Grateful Dead concert without the music.

But then I realized Canadians have a similar rite of passage celebrating the end of a long, cold winter.  We call it “May Two-Four”, the 24th of May long weekend.  Historically, it was the birthday of Queen Victoria and as a monarchy we are supposed to celebrate the Queen’s birthday.  Actually, I think we just chose this particular weekend to shed our winter clothes and open up the cottage for the summer.  Many Canadians also like to drink beer at this time.  In Canada beer is sold in cases of 24.  Hence, it became known as the “May Two-Four” weekend.  Canadians drive up north to the cottage, sit (shivering) on the dock of the bay, drinking beer and looking at the water. Just like the sake-sakura celebrations.  See how much we have in common?

We also enjoy beautiful fall colors in Canada. Just like the Japanese Koyo and Momiji-viewing festivals, we look forward to our maple leaf splendor from September onwards.  This is usually accompanied by the closing of the cottage for the winter, and the celebration of Thanksgiving in October.  Generally, we switch from beer to Canadian Club rye and ginger ale as it gets colder.

While we have many similarities we also have differences.  The Japanese appreciation of the seasons extends to their diet. The concept of Shun, or the seasonality of food exemplifies this.  The freshness and deliberate use of particular ingredients during specific times of the year is a quality I have grown to love and appreciate.

Here’s to our similarities and our differences. I’ll drink to that!

published in Japan Times Shukan ST June 1, 2012

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Posted by: mariabro | May 23, 2012

Meditative Moment

When you need a little serenity and a break from the bright lights of Tokyo, Japan offers many weekend getaways that will revive and refresh you.  For my weekend retreat I headed to Koyasan, considered one of the most sacred areas in Japan.  The mountaintop village is the home of the Shingon sect of esoteric Buddhism and dates back nearly 1200 years.  Koyasan’s many Buddhist temples offer tourists the chance to stay overnight and experience a taste of the monastic life, a little like a monk reality show, but with a sense of authenticity.

I arrived early, one rainy Saturday morning at Tokyo station to catch the Shinkansen to Shin Osaka.  As I boarded the bullet train I realized that I had left my good umbrella at the coffee shop in the station.  My weekend had begun in a rather inauspicious way.  But as the train picked up speed, I started to relax as I watched the landscape whiz by.  I enjoyed my solitude and my meditative buzz as I stared out the window.  After a few fairly easy train changes and about four hours, I finally felt like I was getting out of the city.  The landscape changed to deep bamboo forests like you’d imagine in a fairy tale, and still-blooming sakura trees.   Near the end of the journey I took a smaller train that climbed the winding, narrow rails higher and higher.  It ascended through dark tunnels and mist-covered mountains.  The final ascent was in a cable car to an altitude of about 900 meters.

Once you arrive at Koyasan, you can take a bus (330 yen) or a taxi (1700 yen) to your shukubo or temple lodging.  Check in time is 2:00pm, although they will store your bags if you arrive early.  I arrived right at 2:00pm and was greeted by a smiling, young monk named Chokei.  He showed me to my room and told me the meditation class I signed up for would be at 4:30, then dinner in my room at 5:30.  After freshening up I took a short walk and stopped in at two temples along the main street.  I recommend purchasing a temple book.  This is a lovely souvenir and can be used at any temple in Japan.  For 300 yen you can have your book signed with a unique calligraphy design from each temple.

I returned back to my shukubo just in time for the meditation class.  About 20 other guests of all nationalities joined me.  Instructions were given in English and Japanese and then we were left on our own for 40 minutes.  I don’t think I’ve ever done 40 minutes of meditation, let alone with 20 strangers.  But it went surprisingly quickly and seemed very special in the temple surroundings with the smell of incense lingering in the air.

One of those strangers was 26 year-old, American medical student, Samanda Fillip.  We chatted after the meditation session about why she had chosen to visit Koyasan.“I needed to find a solace before the craziness of medical school.  I needed to take care of myself before I started taking care of other people.”  It seemed to be a magical place for most of the people I talked to over the weekend.

Dinner arrived at 5:30 and was as well-presented and delicious as any kaiseki meal I have eaten anywhere.  It adhered to the vegetarian diet requirements of the monks but could also be accompanied by sake or beer, should you desire.

After dinner I signed up for the night tour of Koyasan cemetery.  It is the largest and one of the most significant cemeteries in Japan, home to an estimated 200,000 tombs, including those of famous Samurai and the founding father of the Shingon sect, Kobo Daishi.

This was definitely the highlight of the visit.  We toured the huge cemetery at night, walking approximately 4 km through the lantern-lit paths, surrounded by towering 800 year-old cedar trees, accompanied by our guide, Chokei.  At the tomb of Kobo Daishi, Chokei had us stand with him as he recited some chants in a soft, melodic voice.  French tourist, Jacques Weiss, brought his three children to visit Koyasan.  He says, “It was magical, I have no words for it.  Absolutely unforgettable.”

When we returned back to the temple we were invited to take a relaxing onsen before bed.  After a comfortable sleep in a tatami mat room, I awoke early to attend the 6:30am services.  The sky had cleared and I stepped out into the fresh mountain air, the sun shining in a bright blue sky.  As I kneeled in the temple and listened to the soothing chanting of the monks, I felt truly refreshed.

The monk who taught us the meditation class joked that we may not find enlightenment in one session.  But as I headed back to Tokyo I had a sense of having experienced something both special and spiritual, and a lesson in karma.  My umbrella?  It was waiting for me at the coffee shop when I arrived back at Tokyo station.

How to get there:

Tokyo – Shin Osaka – Shinkansen (I left at 8:30 to arrive by 2:00pm)

Transfer to Midosuji subway line – direction Tennoji (15 min) to Namba

Leave Namba by express of Nankai Koya line, direction of Hashimoto

Get off at Hashimoto and switch to a train to Koyasan

Arrive at Gokurakubashi

Take Cable car from Gokurakubashi to Koyasan (5 min)

Temple Lodging

http://eng.shukubo.net/

English-Friendly Shukubo (can be booked online in English)

http://ekoin.jp/

Posted by: mariabro | May 10, 2012

All The City’s A Stage

The dramatic stage set is awash in sparkling lights, pyrotechnics and feather headsets worthy of Brazilian carnival. The chorus line dancers, reminiscent of the famous New York city Rockettes, kick up their heels, while cross-dressing female actors play deep-voiced, male roles. Over-the-top, Vegas-type theatre is not what you expect from the Japanese arts scene, home of Kabuki and the less-than-flamboyant, Noh. But for those looking for something a little different, Takarazuka is worth a visit.

Takarazuka is a kind of Japanese musical theater in which women play all the roles in dramatic productions of stories like Tolstoy’s Resurrection or Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind.

The theatre was founded in 1913 by a Japanese businessman who was hoping an all-female revue would improve business. About 95 percent of the 2.5 million people that come to see Takarazuka performances each year are women. The day we attended we noticed lineups of fans waiting patiently outside for their favorite stars to emerge. The actors who play the male roles, the otako-yaku, are the most popular and have their own fan clubs.

The first half of the show is usually a romantic love story that has the audience swooning. The second half is just pure entertainment.

Longtime Takarazuka fan, Kana Iwata, 47, explains her fascination, “not only does Takarazuka represent discipline, intense training, and a unique cultural experience, it is also an immersion in entertainment, complete with dancing, singing and amazing costumes with a fusion of colors.”

The play is in Japanese with no translation but if you read the story outline ahead of time you should have no problem following the action.

Bunraku has been called the most highly developed puppet theatre art in the world. It was founded in Osaka in 1684. Performances include the music of the shamisen, the chanting of the Tayu and the unique manipulation of the large puppets. Each puppet requires three puppeteers to bring it to life. The role of a puppeteer is a life-long training process and is said to take 30 years to master.
Bunraku shares many themes with Kabuki. But Bunraku has been called an author’s theatre while Kabuki is a performer’s theatre.
Performances are in Japanese and there is no translation service.

Kabuki is probably the most well-known Japanese theatrical art. Club member and Kabuki aficionado, Nobuko Hirato says that during the Edo period, Kabuki and Bunraku, were “the” entertainment for the commoners while the leading Kabuki actors were today’s equivalent of Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, or George Clooney. As opposed to Takarazuka, all roles, both male and female, are played by male actors.

Hirata has been a tireless ambassador of Kabuki and a fan for the past 36 years. She recalls her first Kabuki experience, “It was as shocking as being stuck by lightning. Kabuki is an ultimate form of beauty, superficially in a way, but extremely profound indeed….I believe that it is the portrayal of the outer as well as the inner beauty of human nature that touches the souls of many, regardless of their cultural background. As for me, I feel my genes dance in jubilance, as I watch Kabuki- the ancestors, must have been eager Kabuki viewers, living deep inside of each of my genetic components constantly whisper to me, ‘hey, let’s go see some Kabuki!’ It seems as if they never get enough of it.”
The renovation of the Kabukiza theatre will be completed in April 2013. In the meantime you can experience the magic of Kabuki at several theatres in Tokyo and around Japan.

Rakugo has been called Japanese “sit down comedy”. The word literally means “dropped word” or punchline. Rakugo dates back to the 16th century, and is believed to have evolved from entertainment for the feudal lords. It’s a comic monologue where the performer kneels on a cushion and uses only his story-telling technique and minimal props to make the audience laugh.
Kimie Oshima, Associate Professor at Bunkyo Gakuin University, started producing Rakugo in English in 1996 and performs around the world every year. She performs Rakugo in English because she says, “I wanted the rest of the world to know that the Japanese have always had a sense of humor.” She says Rakugo has 400 years of tradition and is the best tool to introduce Japanese culture and humor to foreigners.
“Many of the themes from the stories are universal, so audiences with different cultural background can understand. For example, there are stories about men and women, wife and husband, cunningness, stupidity, money, men in power, animals, death, etc. The main stories are understandable. Some parts of the stories are very culturally particular to Japan, but the audience can learn them from the stories, “says Oshima.

She recommends seeing Rakugo in English as she feels it is important for the audience to follow the monologue.

Kyogen is a type of comic drama. Like Noh and Kabuki it features only male actors but the performers don’t wear elaborate costumes, make up or masks, instead they wear kimonos and are accompanied by a chorus.

Kyogen was traditionally performed in between Noh plays to offer some comic relief. Plays are often satires and feature actors speaking in colloquial Japanese. The action is fast-paced and realistic in contrast to the slow, stylized movements of Noh.

Kyogen actor Chikanari Miyake, 26 years old says, “Kyogen is very simple comic theater without special music, lighting and complicated stories. So people with imagination can appreciate the act of Kyogen. When you read a book or listen to the radio, you may draw a mental picture. You also can do same thing when you view a Kyogen play.”

He has performed around the world and says that even though the audience is comprised of different cultures and backgrounds, they know the point to laugh and made him realize that laughter and humor are universal.

Takarazuka
Tickets range in price from 3500yen to 11,000yen
http://kageki.hankyu.co.jp/english/about.html

Bunraku
Tickets range from 2300yen to 5800yen.The website is very user-friendly and has information on Kabuki, Noh and Bunraku. Tickets can be ordered online on the telephone or at the box office.
http://www.ntj.jac.go.jp/english.html

Kabuki
English Earphone guides are available at selected theatres.
http://www.kabuki-bito.jp/eng/contents/theatre/shimbashi_enbujo.html

Rakugo
http://www.english-rakugo.com/english_version/english_performers.html

Kyogen/Noh
http://www.noh-kyogen.com/english/index.html
http://www.nohgaku.or.jp/

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Posted by: mariabro | February 29, 2012

Following up on 3/11

For ceramic artist Ken Matsuzaki, March 11, 2011, began like any other day. After drinking some tea with his wife at their home in the town of Mashiko, in Tochigi Prefecture, he set about preparing for an exhibition of his work in Britain in the summer. In fact, he had already shipped many of his pieces to England—a fortuitous action for which he would soon be thankful.

He was in his house that afternoon when the shelves, filled with his hand-crafted pottery, started rattling. He and his wife rushed to hold the sturdy wooden cupboards steady as the rocking and swaying became more violent. As they ran outside to safety, the jagged sound of smashing ceramics pierced the still air.

When the ground finally stopped shifting, the brick climbing kilns Matsuzaki had used for 30 years to fire his highly regarded ash-glazed works were destroyed. That special relationship with his kilns, developed over many fervid, labor-intensive days, was reduced to rubble.

With his Koizumi-like, thick gray hair, the 62-year-old son of a painter explains that while he also lost his creative style and art that day, he sees an opportunity from the destruction. “It’s no use trying to make the same [works] as I did before,” he says, sitting at his dining table on a chilly January afternoon. “It is an opportunity to try something new.”

Across town, gallery owner Kazumi Otsuka was setting up 300 pieces of pottery for an exhibition that Friday afternoon last March. As the earthquake began to jolt the shelves, he and his staff tried in vain to stop the pieces from falling. Outside, a crowd of shopkeepers gathered on the undulating road and listened to the cacophony of crashing earthenware. Returning to his gallery, Otsuka found around 70 percent of his pottery in pieces.

Mangokuura Elementary School lies east of Ishinomaki, in Miyagi Prefecture, and around two kilometers from Ishinomaki Bay. That early spring day, American Taylor Anderson was teaching at the school, sharing her enthusiasm for reading with her students.

“I feel she had a real love for the students,” says the principal of the school, Kazuo Aizawa. A colleague of Taylor’s, Rie Abe, agrees. “She had a passion for teaching English,” she says.

Anderson, a 24-year-old from Richmond, Virginia, had been working as an English teacher on the JET program since 2008. According to her coworkers, after the earthquake struck, Anderson helped to evacuate the students from the school and then waited for parents to pick up their children. It was a cold and snowy day, but she decided to cycle back to her apartment. Soon after, the tsunami warning sirens started to wail.

Jeanne and Andy Anderson awoke to the news that a tsunami had hit Hawaii. Jeanne immediately thought about her daughter, who she knew was planning a vacation to the Pacific islands two days later. But when she discovered that the massive 9.0-magnitude earthquake had struck off Japan’s Tohoku coast, she ran upstairs to her husband and together they began frantically trying to reach Taylor.

It would be 10 days before the news that every parent fears came. Taylor was the first confirmed American victim of the earthquake and tsunami. “It was a 10-day, 24/7 search for Taylor,” explains Andy Anderson in a video chat interview. “It felt like war. It’s nothing you’d ever wish for anyone to go through.”

Shortly afterwards, the Anderson family established the Taylor Anderson Memorial Gift Fund. “Taylor loved the people of Japan, the country, how grateful they are for the little things in life,” Jeanne Anderson says.

“We set up the fund and chose projects with an eye to what Taylor would have wanted to do,” Andy explains. “We want to help schools, students and families and pinpoint exactly where they need help most. In the longer term, we are committed to scholarships and exchange programs.”

As the full extent of the disaster along Japan’s northeastern coastline was revealed, former Women’s Group President Barbara Hancock sat down with a number of other Members, including Miki Ohyama, Ginger Griggs, Elaine Williams and Najia Malik, to talk about how the Club could help those in need.

A relief fund was immediately set up and the Club became a hub for donations of necessities like clothes and food. Club Member Scott McCaskie, who is managing director of the moving company Allied Pickfords Japan, says that his team delivered goods worth around $1 million. “Allied went to TAC on a daily basis to pick up the items and send them to different locations in Tohoku,” he says. “Seventeen two-ton truckloads were finally delivered.”

In May, the Club hosted Jammin’ for Japan, a fundraising evening of musical entertainment. The event, which featured the likes of American hip-hop artist Speech and opera singer John Ken Nuzzo, contributed greatly to the Club’s fundraising efforts and the final tally of ¥16 million. (A follow-up event, with an opera and fashion theme, is set for next month.)

Hancock and her committee then had to decide how to distribute the funds. After donating smaller portions to charities like the Tyler Foundation, Tokyo English Life Line (TELL), All Hands Japan and the Konishiki Kids Foundation, Hancock says the committee selected three main projects: two in Tohoku and one in Mashiko, a town that the Women’s Group runs a popular tour to each year.

“The final three projects were selected from the research that we did and research that other organizations like ACCJ [American Chamber of Commerce in Japan] had done,” she says. “The committee also took into account organizations that our Members are involved with and that the Women’s Group has a special relationship with.”

Of the remaining money, ¥4 million was donated to a project in memory of Taylor Anderson, called Taylor’s Corners. Each of the seven schools in Ishinomaki where the young American taught will have a Taylor’s Corner, a library section that will house a collection of English and Japanese children’s books.

“Taylor devoured books,” says Taylor’s mother, Jeanne. “She loved reading to the kids. Her first toys were books. When she was young, for a punishment, I would take away her library card.”

“We read to our kids every night,” Andy says with a smile. “It was one of my favorite times.”

Located on the upper floor of Mangokuura Elementary School, the first Taylor’s Corner library, with its foam-tiled floor, has evolved into a cozy spot. Sunlight streams in through the windows one weekday lunchtime in early February, as children smile shyly and try out new English words.

The reading corner, whose shelves are stocked with about 60 books, was built by Shinichi Endo, 42, a local carpenter who lost his three children in the tsunami. Two of his children were taught by Taylor at another elementary school.

Endo, who says he thought about Taylor’s bright and cheerful personality while making the shelves, attended a dedication ceremony together with Taylor’s family in early September. Hancock, Ohyama and Griggs were also there.

“It was wonderful to see the first Taylor’s Corner come to fruition and to be there with her family and all those connected with her,” says Hancock. “It was a very moving ceremony and, I thought, a positive step in moving forward for all of those who had experienced great personal loss in the tsunami. The funds donated will have a direct, positive impact now and in the future, and this is exactly what our TAC Members wanted.”

Ahead of the trip to Ishinomaki, Ohyama says that she was apprehensive about how emotional it might be to meet the Anderson family. “However, rather than being emotional, I was encouraged by the energetic children whom Taylor actually taught,” she says. “I felt that Taylor’s spirit [lived on] in the children.”

Children in the city of Fukushima have also benefited from the generosity of Members. Another ¥4 million was donated to help repair and replace damaged school facilities and equipment, including musical instruments.

According to Masahiro Sato, a former city council member and the coordinator of the project, with the new instruments, the three recipient junior high schools will be able to compete in regional music competitions. A win, he adds, would be a huge boost for the community.

“Parents in the region are very sensitive to the radiation issue and largely limit the outdoor activities of the children,” Sato says. “Today, it is improving but we still have many hurdles to overcome.”

The Tochigi town of Mashiko faces challenges, too, but the Club’s donation of ¥3.7 million is helping its pottery industry recover.

“The economy of Mashiko has not yet recovered completely, if compared with what it was before the 11th of March,” says gallery owner Otsuka. “However, it is getting better very slowly. The number of visitors to Mashiko is increasing in small steps, but the entire Mashiko business result is still very severe.”

From its humble beginnings in the mid-19th century, Mashiko grew into one of Japan’s preeminent ceramic centers, attracting more than 500,000 visitors to its spring pottery festivals and about 200,000 to the fall festivals. The likes of Otsuka, though, fear that the town may only draw around half those numbers this year.

The damage to Mashiko’s livelihood was severe. All of the 50 climbing kilns were destroyed and Otsuka estimates that pottery worth around ¥800 million was lost that day. About 20 percent of the climbing kilns have been rebuilt, and the Club’s contribution is being used to reconstruct the special salt climbing kiln, which gives pieces a particular glaze.

Since the majority of the area’s gas- and electric-powered kilns are still working, local artisans can continue to create and craft—a testament to the resilience of the community, says Otsuka.

“It is not about the individual,” he says. “Each owner wants to help Mashiko become strong. The pottery world has grown tighter and we want to rebuild together.”

The award-winning artisan Matsuzaki says that the hundreds of e-mails of support he received from around the world and the arrival of volunteers in Mashiko to help clean up after the quake motivated him to move forward.

And that’s exactly what he’s doing. His works and those of four other Mashiko potters are on display at the Club’s Frederick Harris Gallery until March 25.

Bromley is a Tokyo-based freelance journalist.

Published in March 2012 issue of InTouch

Posted by: mariabro | February 14, 2012

My Reverse Bucket List

Have you seen the movie Bucket List with Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson?  It’s a story of two terminally ill men who escape from a cancer ward and head off on a road trip with a wish list of to-dos before they die.  Many people have bucket lists either in their heads or written on a list somewhere.  So, in my turning-50, list-making process, I decided I wanted to make a bucket list as well, but of things I have done, as well as things I’d still like to do.  We should all celebrate our accomplishments as well as setting goals for new achievements.

Let’s start with this photo.  Skydiving has probably been my biggest fear-conquering, adrenaline-pumping achievement, other than having children and actually giving birth to living beings, but I wouldn’t post a photo of that.

I remember when my friend Kim and I decided to do it, (skydive, not give birth) we were in our early 20’s and thought we were invincible.  i sometimes wish that I still had that sense of invincibility, but that is the tradeoff for having children, I think.  You are never invincible again, they are your eternal vulnerability.

In any case, Kim and I went skydiving together, one of the things that binds us together as friends, forever (that and an Alfa Romeo incident).

I have a few select memories from that day.  I remember sitting in the aircraft and joking that as a flight attendant (at the time),  jumping out of a plane was a very unnatural thing to do.  I remember jumping and then falling and then looking up at my chute and thinking (in s-l-o-w motion) “I’m falling and I’m falling really fast and my chute’s not opening!”  Then, I think I reached up and uncrossed my straps as they had taught us to do, in case they twisted while opening.  Thank God I was paying attention!  I also remember sitting at a bar later that evening thinking,  “Wow, I went skydiving.  If I can do that I can do anything!” I realize now it was an adrenaline hangover but at the time I really believed I could do anything.

I took flying lessons once, I logged 15 hours of flight time and passed the “spiral dive” test which involves the instructor putting the plane into a spiral dive and watching how you react.  I guess I didn’t over-react so I was allowed to continue my flight school until my money ran out.

I went white-water rafting on the Ottawa River with my airline friends.  It was a blast and the instructor was pretty hot and probably took  my  mind off the chilly, cascading waterfalls swirling around me. I actually remember the party at the club afterwards more and I think his name was Lawrence.

Travel has probably been the most consistent thing in my life.  From when I went to a birthday party at the airport when I was  7 years old, I have had an almost insatiable wanderlust.  I say almost insatiable because at this point I think I’m getting close.  I have traveled to 40 countries and will continue to add notches to my travel bedpost.  It was my journalism professor who made me count them up once.  On my resume I had written “I like to travel” or something as equally descriptive.  He suggested I spell it out for prospective employers.  “Traveled to 40 countries and 6 continents (no immediate plans for the 7th).”

Sounds a lot better, right?

I hiked on the Great Wall of China, one of the “new” seven wonders of the world after attending the Beijing Olympics in 2008.  Quite different from the Montreal Olympic experience I had with my parents in 1976.

We flew in a helicopter over a live volcano in Hawaii and saw the red lava flowing into the sea.  Somewhat irresponsible parenting should the volcano have to decided to erupt.

I worked for an airline in Saudi Arabia and flew the pilgrims to Mecca for the Haj, their journey of a lifetime.

I trekked through the jungle on an elephant in Thailand, with my two-year- old son.  Also, kind of irresponsible now that I have watched Water for Elephants and realize my elephant “driver”” probably had very little control over his mount (and was more interested in my 13-year old daughter and how many elephants he would need to marry her).

I drank with a Saudi prince, well, aren’t they all princes in Saudi Arabia?  And I think they’d probably drink with anyone, so I am not sure this is much of a feat.  But I also watched my husband dance with a Japanese princess.  This is much more of an accomplishment, both in the rarity of hanging out with a Japanese princess and the  fact that I let my husband dance with another woman.

My first article was published, borne out of the creative eruption I experienced after the March 11 earthquake in Japan.

I enjoyed a misty morning coffee on deck of an antique junk in Halong Bay.

Add in a little Parasailing in St. Martin, climbing Mount Fuji, sailing in the Canary Islands, three immediate family member deaths, two marriages and one divorce, and that pretty much rounds out the first 50 years.

The next 50 remain to be seen.  Death is more universal than life; everyone dies but not everyone lives. (Alan Sachs)

The future will unfold as it should.  But if I can make a few suggestions, this is how I would like it to unfold.

    • Publish One Book
    • Drive Route 66 in a convertible and write about it.
    • Develop an Internet Business
    • Go on an African Safari
    • See the remaining “New” wonders of the world –
    1. Chichen Itza, Mexico – Mayan City
    2. Christ Redeemer, Brazil – Large Statue (include a visit to Rio and Carnival to knock another one off the list)
    3. Machu Picchu, Peru
    4. Petra, Jordan – Ancient City
    5. The Taj Mahal, India

And finally, as my mother (and Bon Jovi) used to say, “I want to live while I’m alive and sleep when I’m dead.”

Posted by: mariabro | January 24, 2012

Tokyo Nights

After the third request this week for recommendations on Tokyo nightlife, I realized there was a blog post in the making.  This is by no means a fully-researched piece, I still have many more nights out to complete my exhaustive research, but I’ll start with what I know after the last six years in Tokyo.

Roppongi – really this is the only place I could begin when talking about nightlife in Tokyo.  It would be hypocritical of me not to.  It’s the epicenter of  the Gaijin, somewhat more “mature”, crowd.  It’s the place where every Nigerian knows your name.

It has its underbelly of course, usually seen at 7:00am when the sun has risen far above the horizon.  But for all its follies and foibles it remains a Disneyland for adults.  Or perhaps Vegas.  The place you are guaranteed to have fun, even on a Monday night, if you know where to go.  I’m not going to go into the “be careful about your drinks”, “don’t go to second floor establishments with a guy you just met”, etc because this is for my friends who are responsible adults and already know that.  This is a list of recommended places you can suggest to your visitors, so you will look like you go out on a regular basis when your friends come to visit from Texas.  I’ll even include a list for your nieces and nephews, and you will seem like the hip Aunt or Uncle.

Gaien Higashi dori is the main drag.  On this street you will find an ever-changing lineup of bars and clubs (due to often being raided and shut down for serving rude foreigners)
Here are the usual suspects –

First House – used to be the best dance bar, but due to the fact it didn’t actually have a dance license it was turned into a deli and First House relocated to much smaller digs next to the old Rock Factory (and if you know Rock Factory you obviously were here before the Lehman shock)

Wall Street, Motown – guaranteed to be busy on most nights but warn your gentleman guests that the gorgeous, statuesque ladies who frequent the place, offer the “full” package.

Train Bar– my favorite bar in Tokyo, geared to people who like to squeeze into a bar the size of a “train” car, listen to classic rock and occasionally dance on the bar (check with Roy, the owner first, he doesn’t let just anyone on the bar).  They play great tunes and bring in an eclectic crowd including many rock bands who are touring in Tokyo.  I’ve seen quite a few bands here; Offspring, the crew of AC/DC who were generous enough to give me a guitar pick, and a nameless rocker who actually had just bought a blow-dryer at the neighboring Don Quixote. I kid you not, here’s the photo!

Mogambo’s, Geronimo’s shot bar – more very small bars with good music and no room to dance.  Geronimo’s claim to fame is a visit from Hugh Grant and apparently racer Jenson Button enjoys Mogambo’s when he is in town visiting his lingerie model girlfriend, er, racing.

If you actually want to dance at any of these places you will just have to stand on the spot and do your thing or find a suitable bar countertop. Though Mogambo’s counter is suitable only for the very short!

For real clubs, those that have dance licenses and actual dance floors you may want to try –

Vanity – conveniently located in the ROI building right next to Train Bar.  A large club with a beautiful view of Tokyo tower and lots of interesting people. Bring ID, they don’t care if you are  50, you have to show it.  It is their screening method to keep out old people who forget to carry their ID. Selena Gomez’ band came here when the Black-Eyed Peas were in town.

Feria – a multi-floor nightclub, on the basement floor, Feria is crowded with both Japanese and foreigners who want to dance or “socialize”, on the first floor Ristorante offers Tokyo cuisine, sushi, drinks, and a wine lounge. On the second floor, you can enjoy live R&B performances at Midas before heading to the sophisticated Crystal Lounge on the third and fourth floors. One entrance fee for the whole building.

Le Baron – trendy bar-club in Aoyama

R2 Supperclub – great new place for drinks, the old Oak Door-Two Rooms crowd, live music but I haven’t witnessed any dancing yet. Although the wide counter top is beckoning.

BEST CLUB FOR A WORKOUT – Salsa Sudada – offers salsa dancing lessons almost every night.  Get in a workout and then get your dance off.

For live music – check out

Crawfish in Akasaka, cool, fairly small, live music house

Crocodile in Shibuya – some fun live bands

Billboard Live in Midtown

Blue Note in Aoyama

Cotton Club in Marunouchi – jazz, latin etc

For the nieces and nephews (who are 20 and over of course)

The New Lex – younger crowd, models etc

F-bar – Fashion TV, models, it’s in azabu Juban

Warehouse702, near F-Bar in azabu Juban, house music

Womb-big club in shibuya, more  japanese, bar scene from the movie  Babel was shot here

Hub’s is a pub where a lot of younger people go-locations in Roppongi
and Shibuya.

Gaspanic – several locations and lots of dancing on the bar

COOLEST SECRET BAR FOR DRINKS ON A ROOFTOP – this bar is so secret I had to use my GPS to find it.  But I will save you the trouble and give you directions.  Make a left at Seventh Heaven (if you do stop in say hello to the Romanians, they are my comrads), then take the first right, after Salsa Sudada (mentioned below), follow that street to almost the end and you will see an empty house.  Go up the stairs two flights and you will see a door.  Open it, do not be afraid.  Then say hello to a very cool crowd of people who have found it as well.  Tell them you want to sit on the roof.  They will take you up another flight of stairs, seat you and bring your blankets if it is cold.  You can use the phone to call down for more drinks when you need refills.  Beautiful views of Roppongi hills.  The real name is Roku Nana but tell your friends its the Secret Bar.

The bars stay open until the early morning hours which is a good thing since the subway closes between 12am and 5am.  You have to make a call on that.  A fun thing to do when you first arrive in Tokyo is to take the 7:00am train out of Roppongi on a Sunday.  Plenty of entertainment for all. Or stay out until 7:00 and head to Tsukiji for sushi.

Just check the calendar first to make sure it is open. http://www.tsukiji-market.or.jp/etc/calendar/2012.html

Make sure your visitors have a map in English and Japanese to give the taxi to get home.  Or give them the number at the embassy to call when they need bailing out.  Or call me, I can give them some advice. Tell them not to grab a flag from any establishments in Roppongi.  Your tour-guiding skills will not be viewed positively from Japan’s finest.

Entry charges for all clubs depend upon the night, but run from ¥2,000 to ¥4,000 and include a few drinks.  Ladies usually get in free, if they feel like it.

The legal drinking age in Japan in 20 and all clubs check ID at the door.

Stay tuned for updates as this list changes as fast as the prime minister.

If you have any other recommendations please add them in the comments below!

Betsey Johnson

The Karaoke Channel Store - 200x200

Posted by: mariabro | January 10, 2012

Adversity, Character and the Lost Backpack

For many people living abroad, Christmas is a time for travel, a time to pack up and head back to our home countries, to visit friends and family. We’ve done this annual trek since we moved to Japan six years ago.  We don’t travel lightly as a rule.  Last Christmas we topped out at 3 luggage carts, 3 ski bags, 3 kids, 1 grandmother and 1 walker.

So, this year when we arrived at Canadian customs after a long flight and a very long walk from the plane, I was not fazed when my son realized he had left his backpack on the plane.  No problem, I thought, I’ll just tell the ground agent and we’ll have it back in no time.    I should have realized when the staff at the lost and found office did not offer to rush back to the plane to retrieve it that it would be a longer process than I had hoped.  But in my living-in-Japan-induced, trusting, haze I still held hope that we would get the backpack back.

I filed a report with the airline.  Flight AC2 from Narita, seat 3K. How could they not find it?  I called the next day and was told they hadn’t seen anything and to call back later.  I called back later and left a message.

After two weeks of no news, I began to wonder if I would ever see the backpack again.  My friends grew tired of hearing my “If this had happened in Tokyo…” story.   My Japan-induced trust started to wear off. Perhaps the backpack was not going to be returned?  Perhaps not everyone shares the standards of service that I’ve grown accustomed to living in Japan?

Every year when I return to my home and native land, I appreciate the true north strong and free but there are parts of Japanese culture that are undeniably unique.  I know my son’s backpack would have been in our hands before we left the airport or delivered by Takkyubin to us the next day.  Unfortunately, we never got the backpack back, despite my combing through the lost and found office personally, just before departing for Tokyo.  Perhaps, one of the groomers on the aircraft had found it just before Christmas and was able to give his child a present he could not have otherwise afforded.  That’s what we hope had happened.

Many people asked me this Christmas  what it has been like to live in Japan this past year.  I tell them that I’ve seen the Japanese people at their best.  Adversity tends to bring out the true character of a person or a nation.  The Japanese people have proven their character through their response to the 3/11 disasters.  From the smallest inconvenience, such as a lost backpack, to the unprecedented tragedy of the earthquake and tsunami they handle it all with respect and dignity.

Posted by: mariabro | November 30, 2011

Gaijin Ghetto in the mountains of Minakami

published in In Touch Magazine Dec 2011

The international cast of Gaijin Mura is an eclectic one; perhaps one could say an eccentric one. When most Japanese people think of Minakami they think of onsens. But this hidden jewel, located just 175 km north of Tokyo in the mountains of Gunma prefecture, is an outdoor enthusiast’s idea of heaven.   Club member and local home owner Jon Sparks says, “It is some of the best skiing, rafting and road biking in the world.  The infrastructure was built during the boom era, the roads are great and sometimes we are the only people on them.” 

It also happens to be an expat enclave that has remained off the radar to most.  Gaijin Mura was the starting point for this community of hardy foreigners. It’s remained hidden beneath the dense foliage and the steep mountain roads required to access the cabins perched precariously on the hillside of the mountain.

Gaijin Mura is not for the faint of heart.  Cabins are located along the side of a mountain road described by long-term resident, Tom Scully as, “steep like the streets of San Francisco, but only one lane, covered in gravel and, for much of the year, snow and ice.”  He laughs as he recounts conversations with Gaijin Mura neophytes.  “I ask them, ‘is your car four-wheel drive?’ ‘No’.  ‘Do you have snow tires?’ ‘No’.  Then you’re not going to make it to the parking lot let alone the top of the mountain!”

Fellow Gaijin Mura devotee, Marc Wesseling, is well aware of the hazardous roads.  He rents near the steepest part of the hill and warns everyone driving up to be cautious.  Still, one of his buddies went over the side and rolled his SUV.  Thankfully, he wasn’t hurt, but the same couldn’t be said for the vehicle which was a write-off.

Scully is one of the old-timers, a group of the original pioneers who built Gaijin Mura with their bare hands.  He has been on the mountain for 40 years. Sitting in his cabin, dressed in his trademark denim shirt and blue jeans, he leans back in his chair and lights a Marlboro. 

“The first gaijin up here, the guy who really found the place, is my oldest friend in the world Jack Mosher.  He came to Minakami  in 1957 to go fishing and he fell in love with it.  He is a great outdoorsman and bought some land over in the next valley.  They used to call him the mayor of Kamimoku.”

Back in the day, Scully worked at Stars & Stripes as a slotman on the copy desk.  He settled in Japan after the Korean War.  He used to spend his R&R time near Osaka, where he developed an appreciation for the local culture.  Mosher would frequent the Stars & Stripes pub where scotch was 25 cents a shot.  It was here Mosher would meet friends and invite them up to his retreat in Minakami.  Over the years Scully also fell in love with the place and eventually asked Mosher to find him some land to build on.  That land, was Gaijin Mura, where he built a modified ‘A’ frame on 780 tsubo or just over half an acre.

About the same time, Fritz Schmitz, who worked with the U.S. Travel Service, began building his own getaway.  This was the beginning of the gaijin community.  Then Schmitz, Mosher and a local Japanese lumber dealer formed a triumvirate and began building more houses on the hill, on spec.  This was the boom era and the area was hopping.  Friends would come to visit and end up buying their own place.  Japanese salarymen would fill the local onsens for a weekend of libation and relaxation.  As you walk through the town now you can almost hear the toll of expense accounts being rung up.

This was Minakami before the Shinkansen to Jomo Kogen station, before the Kan-etsu highway and before there was even water on Gaijin Mura.  Water was the main topic of conversation for the growing crowd of resident revellers.  After a few failed attempts, Schmitz, Scully and Mosher dug a hole, with a pick and shovel, on a stream near the top of the hill.  They laid plastic piping down the mountain, cutting through tree roots along the way.  This back-breaking work was done on the weekend, after they finished their day jobs. Fortunately, about 15 years ago, the local authorities installed safe, chlorinated city water making life much easier. 

Scully, sipping on some wine and lighting another Marlborough, describes a typical weekend.  The group would meet at Ueno station after work and line up at the entrance to the dining car.  The trip took 3 hours and 20 minutes.  The party started on board and continued through the weekend.   And the parties were epic.  Apparently worth the train trip, the dig for water, and navigating the precarious roads on an icy evening.

He smiles as he recounts one such evening.  It began at noon with a pig roast and ended late in the evening with a live country and western band serenading the crowd of 60-70 people.

Another party was set up outdoors on a field covered with snow.  Like the ice hotel in Sweden, it was made with snow benches and included a champagne rack carved out of the icy mounds.  Lights from the neighboring cabins illuminated the field, while the speakers blasted Eric Clapton.

While the sense of camaraderie was a big draw, the beauty of the place is the main reason he remained.  “Tanigawa is one of the most beautiful mountains I’ve ever seen.  This valley is called Tsukiyono machi or Moon Valley because when there’s a full moon the whole valley lights up.  It’s one of the most peaceful places in the world.  The lights I see across the Tone River have not changed in 40 years and I’m so thankful it has not been developed.”

But he admits Minakami is a dying town. It was built up during the heydays of the 80s’s when salarymen and company receptions supported the place. That is gone now and in many ways Minakami has the feeling of a ghost town, with empty onsens and closed up shops.

Jon Sparks, who has been coming to the area for 14 years, disagrees.  “It’s not a ghost town by any stretch.  It’s changing from a weekend onsen town to an outdoor sports destination.  One hundred ninety three foreigners are registered in the area and five of them are club members. The Chamber of Commerce is doing a better job of packaging tours.  There are 16 rafting companies up here now.”

One of the most well-known rafting companies amongst the English speaking crowd is Canyons.  Partner Mike Harris says the ski run down Tenjindaira is as good as any heli-skiing he has down in Canada or around the world.     Harris, from New Zealand, arrived in Minakami in 1995 and started up Canyons in 2000.  He says even though it’s been slow times in Japan, the number of people looking for outdoor adventures has been growing every year. 

“With the emergence of rafting, canyoning, paragliding, mountain biking and later bungee jumping,        it gives an image or branding of the area as an outdoor adventure location.  One of my visions for the place, is for it to be like most outdoor adventure places around the world, the Queenstown’s, or the Whistler’s, they all have a big nightlife scene, what I call ‘apres adventure’.  That’s why we wanted to bring a music culture into Minakami.  We wanted to introduce the Japanese to a new kind of après adventure activity.”

Apres adventure parties, beautiful mountains and the proximity to Tokyo are what drew Wesseling to the area.  The 39-year old Dutchman also discovered Gaijin Mura through friends and he too, fell in love with the place.  Wearing funky red sneakers, sitting in a café in Harajuku,  Wesseling says,  “I would be in a straitjacket if I didn’t have Minakami.  I love Tokyo, but I work and live in Harajuku and I need to get away.”  He says every season is uniquely defined and beautiful.  You can escape the heat in the summer, see spectacular colors in the fall and enjoy some top-notch skiing in the winter.  And for someone who recently went heli-boarding in Kamchatka, Russia, that’s quite a compliment.

Club member Sparks says, “The skiing is every bit as good as Niseko except it’s not minus 30 degrees and it’s not overly crowded like Hakuba can sometimes be.”

He and his wife Jenni have been coming to the area for 12 years.  As outdoor-sports loving Aussies, living in Tokyo, they were thrilled to discover what Minakami had to offer.

Sparks is part of the new guard of gaijins who have discovered the oasis of Minakami.  Like Scully, Schmitz and Wesseling, he was invited up by friends and decided to stay.  Nestled in the mountains, with easy access to winter and summer sports, the area soon became their second home.  Sparks also rented on Gaijin Mura but ultimately wanted something more permanent, more accessible and completely tranquil.  On one of his rafting expeditions he was fortunate to discover an old warehouse which had been the home of a now defunct rafting company.  As he shares on his website, “the location was perfect, only a few minutes from shopping centres, the Shinkansen station and within easy reach of 42 ski fields. It also had absolute privacy on the banks of a crystal clear river. In short, we could see that it offered everything in terms of lifestyle that Tokyo could not provide.”

Times have changed and life is not as harsh as it once was for the pioneers of Gaijin Mura.  The new generation has the benefit of the Shinkansen, the Kan-etsu, city water and high speed internet.  Sparks is able to have wine from the Tokyo American Club cellar delivered to his door.  Costco has opened nearby and is delivered by one of Canyon’s employees. Some would say progress.  As American author Frederick Douglass says, “If there is no struggle there is no progress.”   For the original residents of the mountain there definitely was a struggle to make it a viable, liveable home.

While they may have had different experiences on the hill, the old-timers and the new guard have much in common.   Over morning coffee at the American club, Sparks talks about his weekend routine, so similar to Scully’s 40 years ago.  “My wife and I would meet at Tokyo station, buy some bread and wine and lay it out on the table on the Shinkansen.  We would chat about the week and before you know it we would arrive at Jomo Kogen station.  Our car would be waiting in the parking lot, as the town provides free parking to local residents”, he says.

Riding on the Shinkansen you may hear the voice of another resident of Gaijin Mura, well-known actress and narrator, Donna Burke.  “Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the Shinkansen. This is the Nozomi super express.”

Burke and her husband looked at other areas but felt they were too suburban. She says the places they saw near Mt Fuji didn’t seem remote enough. According to Burke, Gaijin Mura is now referred to by the locals as the more politically correct Kokusai Mura.

“I love the silence, the creek, the smell of the forest, the community of people available if I’m feeling social.  We’ve learned many new skills living up there, a complete break from urban life…chopping trees, seasoning wood, skiing whenever we want….heaven!”

The colourful cast on Gaijin Mura also includes French wine importer Marc Fouqueau.  According to Scully, he is a Paris-trained chef who once cooked for a member of the Rothschild family.

Club members, Morgan and Rumiko Laughlin have made Minakami their second home for 15 years, buying up cabins along the hill and renovating the aging structures.  Laughlin warns friends who are looking for vacation properties, “This is not Karuizawa.  This is definitely a mountain house,” she says as she swats away a spider the size of a kiwi.

With such an eclectic cast of characters in this dramatic setting, Gaijin Mura looks set to have an indefinite run on the Minakami stage.Save on your hotel - www.hotelscombined.com

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