Thursday, August 15, 2013

Tohoku summer trip 2013

For August of summer vacation, we decided to head north to Tohoku to volunteer and do a bike tour. Joan had made a friend, Kimura-san, at the Nippori farmers market in Tokyo who invited us up to Aizuwakamatsu to visit and help out.

We also wanted to volunteer again to help with earthquake and tsunami recovery, and Joan knew of a nonprofit called OGA for Aid that was operating in Minamisanriku, one of the hardest hit areas by the tsunami. They have a farm project that Joan was interested in learning more about. 

So we headed north to Sendai by Shinkansen bullet train and then bus to Minamisanriku because the train lines are still not working. The tsunami damage there was so total and horrific that I really don't want to write about it, but you can probably imagine how bad it was. 

Two plus years later, they are still struggling to recover and rebuild. However, where to build, who pays to rebuild, rebuild for what and who are all questions that are slowing things down. 

OGA has a farm project to help rebuild the economic community and provide jobs to locals. We helped harvest, process and package cucumbers, while getting to know OGA staff, local people and other volunteers. The days were long, but it was a good experience. 

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Golden Week Trip 2013

For my Golden Week vacation, we took a trip down south to volunteer on two farms: a natural farm in Haibara, Nara prefecture (south of Kyoto), and an organic farm in Ashimoro, Okayama prefecture (south west of Osaka).  We also had a chance to spend some brief time with our friends, Seth and Haruna, in Osaka.

Joan had reviewed a book, Sowing Seeds in the Desert, by Masanobu Fukuoka, a farmer and philosopher who created a kind of agriculture called natural farming.  Very similar to organic farming, it's main ideas are not tilling and trying to produce food more in cooperation with nature instead of controlling it.  Joan has become very interested in it as she has been working on a more conventional organic farm where the soil is tilled into a fine brown mix - more of a growing medium for plants than true, healthy soil.

Last year on a trip to Nara, we had met a farmer, Kazuto-san, who had a natural farm where he grew vegetables, rice and tea.  He had learned about natural farming from students/disciples of Fukuoka and had invited us to come visit when we could.  So we when we were thinking of ideas and places for a Golden Week trip, it seemed a natural fit (sorry for the unintentional pun!)  We also had enough time to continue south to re-visit Mita-san, an organic rice farmer we had visited last year.

We spent a great four days in the countryside of Haibara with Kazuto and his sister, Erina, learning about natural farming and helping on their farm: weeding under the tea bush rows, hoeing weeds , and other chores.  We also had the best time staying at a nature center camp lodge, eating and drinking delicious homemade food and sake in the outdoor kitchen, all the time talking and laughing so hard our faces hurt - all in Japanese!  A dream vacation, indeed.  We will definitely go back for another visit.

After that, we headed south to Ashimori in the mountains of Okayama to stay for the weekend with Mita and his family.  Last year's Golden Week work vacation with him had been great (photos here), and this one was no exception.  With some other friends of his, we weeded carrot beds, prepared a field for vegetables, and turned over a massive compost pile.  And again, the food, fun and friendship was fantastic - all in Japanese!  Our bodies and our brains were happy but exhausted each night.  We are very glad we were able to return to visit him and his family again.  Hopefully, we can do it again!

Here is a link to an album of photos with captions from the trip:

Friday, December 7, 2012

What an earthquake feels like...

Our couch seems to be quite sensitive to earthquakes. When we are sitting on it, we can often feel the shaking before we hear it or feel it when standing up. There are even times when my own heartbeat seems to make the couch shimmy a little, making me look up and listen for the telltale jingling of kitchen utensils hanging on the rack. A truck passing by will do the same.

Last night, while I was on the couch, catching up on some Japanese study, I started to feel the telltale shaking. Joan was canning marmalade in the kitchen about 12 feet away.

"Earthquake," I said loudly, getting to my feet. Joan stopped and turned toward me, both of us waiting, listening. Would it stop? Was it getting stronger?

It got stronger.

Joan cried out, "Richard!" "It's ok," I replied, trying to keep my voice calm.

The shaking got even stronger, with things starting to rattle on the shelves. Joan turned off the gas to the stove. I grabbed the cell phone, and we dashed down the hall to the bedroom. We paused next to the desk, waiting to see if it would calm down like it usually does. It didn't.

There was a stronger jolt, and both of us ducked under the desk, crowding the small space. We crouched there, swaying back and forth as the building did the same.

Joan kept imploring the earthquake, "Please, stop. Please, stop. Please, stop." I put my arm around Joan's shoulders and held her close. "It'll be ok. It'll be ok. It'll be ok," I answered.

Eventually, it did stop. There was a long pause, the whole city holding its breath. Then we could hear doors opening and people talking, checking in with each other.

We quickly got on the Internet, reading the twitter stream as reports poured in. Our usual Japanese language earthquake website was jammed up with traffic. It was a big one in the north. Poor bastards up there can't get a break.

Tsunami warning.  We both started to cry.

However, it wasn't as bad as it could have been.  The tsunami was quite small. Initial reports were only five people were injured. Eventually, everyone and everything settled down and got back to normal.

We  love living in Japan, but these damn earthquakes really suck

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Information on Tokyo sumo tournament and tickets (Updated 2017)

Updated as of 2017!

We are huge sumo fans and have gone many times. As sumo is becoming more and more popular, especially with foreigners who can know order tickets online, the tournaments in Tokyo often sell out very quickly.  Don't worry, though!  There are 350 discount tickets available everyday on a first come, first serve basis. The cost is 2,200 yen. I believe the next cheapest tickets are 3,600 yen. These tickets are for the seats at the very top of the stadium. The view is really not that bad, and if you go on a non-busy day (not Day1, 8 or 15 [last]), you can usually move lower down. We have learned a lot about buying discount tickets and the schedule of the tournament.

We'd like to share that information so other people can have an enjoyable and stress-free experience. See the notes at the end for useful advice.

This information is only based on our experiences with the Tokyo tournament - we don't know if it is the same for the other locations in Japan.

Buying Discount tickets

The discount tickets go on sale at 7:45 AM.  However, people start to line up much earlier! Recently, I went to the stadium on a Wednesday morning for the January 2017 tournament and arrived at 7:15. I was 185th in line at that point. One weekends or really important match days, there may be even more people.  The later you are, the greater the chance you won't get a ticket.

To buy the 'day of' tickets, you will need to arrive early. Once you have the tickets, what do you do with the rest of the day?  Here is our recommended plan:

1. Buy the tickets
2. Have late Japanese breakfast at Japanese fast food place - we recommend this place (menu with photos).
3. Go get a coffee and relax.
4. Go to the Edo Tokyo Museum next to sumo stadium.  It is one of the best in Tokyo and highly recommended! You can arragne a free guide in your language, but you must do it in advance. At a minimum, visit the museum gift shop.  It has many wonderful and beautiful gifts - some of the best in Japan.
5. Go have chanko nabe (traditional sumo food) for lunch - we recommend the 1050 yen lunch special at this restaurant.  Chanko is a very famous sumo wrestler dish - a big, hot, soupy bowl of meat and veggies - delicious!  We've have had it twice and enjoyed it both times.
6. Either walk around or go back to museum for awhile.
7. Go to convenience store to stock on on food and drink - you can take your own into the stadium. You can leave the stadium one time after you enter and then return if you need to restock supplies or run an errand.  If you wait to buy food and drink at the stadium during the breaks, there will be very long lines.
8. Go to sumo tournament around 2:45 pm if you want to see the opening ceremony for the senior division.  The last matches with the yokozuna (top position) end around 5:50 pm.  Watch and enjoy. 9. Afterwards, go to Popeye's nearby, a bar with one of the largest selection of draft beers in all of Japan.  It is expensive (about 1000 yen a beer), but you can try some Japanese craft beers you will find no where else.

Rental radio

You can rent a radio set from the stadium for 100 yen with a 2000 yen deposit.  With it, you can listen to an English language commentary which really helps you understand what you are seeing.  We recommend it highly.

Sumo schedule

The juniors ceremonial entrance is at 2:20 PM or so, where they wear their ceremonial kesho-mawashi (aprons). Their matches begin soon after.

The senior division has their ceremonial entrance around 3:45 PM.  They begin sometime after 4 PM.  Unless you are a die hard fan and want to watch four hours of sumo, we might recommend going for just the senior division around 3:45 PM.

More details can be found at

Sumo on Youtube - this Youtube channel has all the matches available for the day.

If you have any questions, please post a comment!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Long time, no write, ne?

Wow, I realize it's been a really long time since I last write on this blog. Sorry about that.

The main reason is that I have been working a lot on a new project related to my teaching. This year have introduced a spaced repetition flash card program into my classes. Based on user feedback about how well a card is known, the program adjusts the time interval until the next review. In this way, you see the card again just before you are likely to forget it. You only study what you NEED to study WHEN you need to study it. We use it to study Japanese every day. The name of the program is Anki.

So, I am qtr ying to get my students to use it in and out of class, with some successes but mostly failures. I've been busy writing a paper about my first semester's experience for publication in our university's in-house journal. I also started a blog as a venue to shares ideas and information with other teachers:

And to find more people out there doing similar things, I actually started a twitter account... It's all bee rather exciting but it me consuming. My Japanese studying is definitely suffering!

So, that's anut all that's new. We are going to Hokkaido for snow and cold weather for the new years holiday. We also bought tickets to come home for a visit in February. Hopefully we will see you then!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Volunteering in Ishinomaki

This weekend we went to the orientation meeting for the volunteer trip next week up to Ishinomaki in Tohoku (northern Japan) during our week's vacation from the university. Ishinomaki was greatly damaged by the earthquake and subsequent tsumani. Approximately 20% of the population was killed. Some of the more dramatic tsunami video footage you may have seen came from Ishinomaki. Even more than six months later, the recovery, restoration and rebuilding efforts are still ongoing and desperately needed.

We are going with Peace Boat and their "Emergency Relief Operation" and will spend a week with many other volunteers, international and Japanese, helping as best we can. Our friend, Chris (another Asia University teacher) participated in the same program in September and gave it a rousing endorsement

Peace Boat's work is focused on three main areas: general clean up (drainage ditches along the sides of roads, flooded homes, etc.), construction of temporary housing, and helping the fishing industry (salvaging equipment, cleaning up the shore, etc.). At this point, we don't know which one we will be helping with.

The group will take a night bus from Tokyo on Friday evening. On Saturday, we start work. Our shared accommodations will be a large, unheated room on the second floor of a now defunct cleaning business. Basically, we will be camping and need sleeping bags, sleeping pads, etc. Peace Boat will provide a brown bag lunch and a bento box dinner; we are responsible for breakfasts and miscellaneous snacks. There is a convenience store ten minutes away by foot, but they encouraged us to bring everything we might need or want. There should be access to showers (an onsen?) every other day, but it will be dirty work with no access to laundry facilities.

We are a little nervous but excited about this trip and are really grateful for the chance to help. Even though we can only do a little bit, it is important that people affected by this disaster know they are not forgotten and that people still want to help.

Stay tuned for photos and info (although we may have limited access to electricity and won't do much with the Internet).