Yeah But Have You Heard Of… Kendo?

Jack Richardson (Yamagata)

OK, so you probably have heard of it. Or, at least, you’ve probably heard of it. Kendo is not renowned as the quietest or calmest of pursuits. But deep down below all that screaming and hitting and stamping lies a practice that is meditative, disciplined and suited to just about everyone.

It isn’t too difficult to work out where kendo has its roots. Swords have been used in Japan since the fourth century, and the training with them is known as kenjustu. That’s ‘sword art’ or ‘sword technique’ rather than kendo’s ‘way of the sword,’ but kendo isn’t on the scene just yet. The first kenjutsu schools still in existence were founded in the Muromachi Period, from 1336-1773. These are the ancestors of kendo, and focus specifically on using swords in war and combat.

Kendo, on the other hand, is, and has always been, a sport that’s strongly influenced by its martial art heritage. It’s similar to Western fencing in that regard — it has similar techniques, vocabulary and history, but no-one practices fencing so they can learn to skewer opposing noblemen with rapiers. As such, kendo adds formality and rules on top of already very formalised samurai duelling, as well as armour and swords that won’t slice you in half.

There are two sides to kendo as it’s practiced today. One is kata (‘forms’). Kata are common in many martial arts, and in kendo are practiced without full armour using solid wooden swords called bokken, which are meant to imitate katana. It’s based on kenjutsu techniques, and as such has a wider range of movements and techniques that simply aren’t used in regular kendo. Kata are always practiced in pairs, with a person each taking the student and teacher roles. Plot twist: the teacher always loses, but this is so the student can learn. As with other martial arts, the 12 kata are strictly defined, and are graded on how well students follow the form. It’s something to be practiced over and over again until it enters muscle memory.

‘Regular’ kendo — in my club we called it shiai (‘match’) practice — is still practiced in pairs, but using the armour that you can probably picture even if you don’t know it as kendo bōgu. It’s the stuff that makes you look like a terrifying samurai Darth Vader until you trip and then you turn into an adorable robot thing in a dress and mittens.

Instead of solid wooden bokken, which can and do break ribs, kendoka use shinai — straight swords made of four bamboo slats that are designed to absorb the impact, and leave only bruises if your opponent misses their target. Both of these are attributed to Naganuma Shirōzaemon Kunisato who developed them in the early 18th Century, but the last three hundred years have seen a great deal of development in both. For example, after about 20 years someone decided it might be a good idea to have a grille covering the person’s face, rather than just a piece of stiffened cloth for a helmet.

Where does all this practice come out, then? Well, in the absence of early-modern warfare in which to participate, kendo as a sport is played in matches between two people in a square arena, judged by three referees. The first to two points (or with the most points when time runs out) is the winner, and matches tend to last up to five minutes. You can score points in four areas: men (head), kote (wrists),  (body) and tsuki (throat). There’s a whole shopping list of things that must be done to actually score a point, but the important ones are stamping with the cut, shouting where you’re hitting as you hit, and running past the opponent to create space after your cut. This last one, called zanshin, comes from the idea that, if your cut failed to kill your opponent, it’s far safer to be ten feet away from them when they try to counterattack than standing right in front of them with a blank look on your face.

Kendo is a sport that’s both dynamic and repetitive. You train for hours and hours, slowly making your movements more and more efficient just so you can shave an extra millisecond off your strike when the moment comes. Adapting to this mindset and realising that you’re here to perfect a few simple techniques rather than build a vast repertoire of ways to hurt people can be tough. It forces you to stay (relatively) humble, especially when you’re being demolished by a tiny old lady in her 70s. But you can come for the shouting, too, I suppose.








Family Spotlight: Winter Holiday Fun!

JET Couples and Families share about their winter holiday adventures

Shantel Dickerson (Oita)

This month’s Family Spotlight features winter holiday highlights from four JET families. Take a peek to see what they were up to!

Family 1: Dentons

Heather Denton (Fukuoka)

My family went on a two-week road-trip from Fukuoka to Tokyo and back! We went to Tokyo (ice skated next to Gundam), Chiba (Tokyo Disneyland Resort), Nagano for sledding, Kyoto, Nara, Fukuoka, and Beppu. We were able to experience and see so many things along our road trip!

Family 2: Whites

Chelanna White (Kyoto)

I’m a Kyoto prefectural JET and my husband, Dan, works at an eikaiwa in our ward (Fushimi-ku). You can hardly throw a rock in Kyoto without hitting a historic site! We went to  Seimei shrine with many other people to celebrate hatsumode (初詣), or the first shrine visit of the new year. And, I started a new goshuincho! A goshuincho (御朱印帳) is a special book for collecting stamps at temples. I’m on my second one already, and I’m on my first year. New year, new book!

Family 3: Sevigny

Kim Sevigny (Oita)

It was a magical time for us, the Sevigny family, to be together in Beppu again the first time since 2014. Our three college kids returned home, joining Julia, our 13-year- old, who still lives with us. Highlights included doing a farmstay near Usa, hiking with our Japanese family in Kitakyushu, buying pottery from a local artist in Yufuin, experiencing the jigoku and onsens of Beppu, steaming vegetables for our holiday dinner in Kannawa, and decorating our palm tree with homemade origami ornaments. Our home overflowed with joy and music! Before leaving, the kids all deemed it “the best Christmas ever!”

Family 4: Graun

Adrea Graun (Oita)

After welcoming in 2018 with nabe, friends, and hatsumode at Oita’s Yuzuhara jinja, I was excited for the new year to begin. What seemed like minutes later, I flew, groggily, to Tokyo to meet my cousin, who I haven’t seen in YEARS. We went around for her first trip to Japan. Joined by a friend in Tokyo, we visited Kamakura. We lit incense at the daibutsu, giant Buddha — wowza it’s big — then we popped into Hokai-ji, which I recommend for temple lovers. My cousin enjoyed the idea of fukobukero, thought yakiimo were delicious and in the end, had a Happy New Year in Tokyo!









Sapporo or Bust: Fun and Ice up North

Bailey Jo Josie (Miyazaki)

Even after more than a half century, the Sapporo Snow Festival is still going strong, and this year will be no exception.  

As millions (yes, millions) of people flock to its icy fortitude, it’s hard to ignore the Sapporo Snow Festival. Though it is well-established to Japanese people, the massive event can still take foreigners and JETs by surprise, myself included.

When I first think of Japan, I don’t necessarily think of enormous ice sculptures or even any snow at all. I think of hot and humid summers, of sunshine and cherry blossoms, though it doesn’t help that I live on the east coast of Kyushu island, where it took an entire class of students a while to remember the word “snow”. Obviously, I am wrong in this, but nonetheless, when I tell the folks back home about the snow festival, they can’t believe it because their mindset is that ice sculptures exist in places like Russia, Norway, Canada, etc. I think maybe it’s because of this naïve perspective that the festival in Sapporo is so intriguing.

From the beginning, the festival was a huge surprise. According to the snow festival’s website, the very first event was held at Odori Park in 1950, where the local high schoolers made only six sculptures. With the help of the snow sculptures — which included a bear and a person reclining like a model in a baroque painting — and other activities surrounding the festival, over 50,000 people attended the event. It took another couple of years for the rest of the country to catch on to the event, but by 1965, the snow festival had become so large that a second location was sought after.

Fast forward a couple of years, and the festival was reaching international fame, thanks to the 1972 Winter Olympics held in Sapporo. From here, more sites were added (currently, Odori, Tsudome, and Susukino) and the event has grown into what it is today — a monumental achievement in artistry and ice in the harsh Hokkaido winter.

I absolutely love all the sculptures and the detail that goes into them,” says Lina Orta, a JET alumnus, currently living and working in Sapporo. “For the past couple of years, the festival has added projection mapping to some of the bigger sculptures. These shows are a must-see.”

Though I haven’t had the pleasure of attending the festival, I would like to see it in the next few years. As I said, I live on Kyushu island, so plane tickets to Hokkaido can be very expensive for me, especially since I would have to pay for two tickets (can’t just go have fun in the snow without the husband, you know?) I can find cheap tickets through Google Flights that are below 30,000 yen per person, but that can be a lot if you don’t plan properly, and planning is needed when you consider that the Sapporo Snow Festival lasts 12 days with a ton of things to do.

Like what, you ask? Well, at the original Odori site, there will be a skating rink, a jumping platform for amateur and professional skiers and snowboarders, food vendors, and the chance to marvel at 118 different sculptures. Not only will there be Japanese sculpting teams, but teams from all over the world who participate in the festival; another great reason for JETs to make their way to the event.

“As busy as it gets,” Orta said, “I highly recommend going on the first couple of days while the sculptures are still in their prime.”

At the Tsudome site, there will be a snow slide, where people can ride inner tubes down a large, snowy hill; a spot for “snow rafting”, which is when you ride in a rubber raft that is pulled by a snowmobile; a sled run; a spot to play a hybrid game of soccer and golf — named “Mini Snow Foot Golf”; a snow labyrinth, and many more events. Tsudome is geared more towards families and people who want to do more than just look at the sculptures.

The Susukino site is, more or less, where you can see and touch the ice sculptures and be there as teams actually create them for a grand contest, which you can then vote on. Also, there are a few bars (one had an literal ice entrance last year) and outdoor eating tents where you can warm yourself up with fried food and hot (or cold) drinks before wandering around. This is the site that is geared more towards adults.

The Tsudome site is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from February 1 to February 12. The Odori and Susukino sites can be visited at any time, but the official activities at these sites run from February 5 until February 12, which is when the entire festival ends. There’s no use dawdling though; everything will be destroyed the next morning.


All photos courtesy of Lina Orta









New Year in Japan

Jasmin Hayward, Ishikawa

Three current JETs tell CONNECT what it was like experiencing their first New Year in Japan: the highs and lows, the food, the unexpected advertising, and of course, the obligatory shrine and temple visits.

Jessica Scott, Akita Prefecture

I’m a first year JET living in Akita prefecture. If you’re not sure where that is, don’t worry — I didn’t know either when I was first given my placement. Akita is in the Tohoku region on the Sea of Japan side, so we receive a decent amount of snow this end of the world. As a Tropics born and bred girl from the Land Down Under (Australia) where we celebrate Christmas and New Year’s outdoors lapping up the sun; swimming at the beach or in our backyard pools; and melting ice-cubes on our necks to escape the sweltering heat of summer (think 34°C plus), this whole winter experience is entirely new.

I know some of you are probably over the cold, dampness of winter by now, but I’m still struck in awe by the fluffy, white magical wonderland that’s around me.

It was at this time, looking around at the completely foreign landscape before me while the year sprinted its last leg to the finish line, and everyone had jetted back home (shameless pun intended), that I could really take a moment to appreciate all the amazing opportunities 2017 brought me. And, in the spirit of welcoming new experiences and deepening my understanding of this culturally rich country, I decided to celebrate New Year’s the Japanese way: doing hatsumoude the first shrine visit of the year…with a twist.

About a one-hour train ride north of Akita city, is a small town called Oga, home of the Namahage in Akita. Here, you can find a beautiful Zen Buddhist temple called Dairyuji (literally: Big Dragon Temple). The welcoming family of the temple opened their doors to the public on New Year’s Eve to literally ring in the New Year with 108 chimes of the giant bell — a symbolic act to rid us of the 108 human passion — followed by a Buddhist chant at the Dragon Altar at the stroke of midnight, and kicking the year off with a night of social merriment Japanese style, with plenty of beer, nihonshu (Japanese sake) and snacks to go around.

As the train services had stopped running by that point and with no way of getting home, I was kindly allowed to stay over at the temple, which is an experience in itself. In the morning, I assisted with cleaning up to get the temple ready for a busy day of hatsumoude goers before enjoying a soothing cup of green tea in a traditional tatami room, overlooking the spectacular snow scenery of the water garden (known as rakusuitei). Needless to say, the start of my 2018 felt very Zen indeed.

Jess is a first year ALT in Akita City. She frequents Starbucks on the regular and is a language learning enthusiast. She’s also partial to cute (and unnecessary) Japanese stationery.

Laura Pollacco, Kanagawa Prefecture

I spent New Years Eve here in Japan, and seeing as I live roughly an hour out from Tokyo I figured it would be a good place to ring in 2018. That and I had no other idea of what to do. A JET from Fukuoka flew up to spend New Year in Tokyo too, so we made our way to Shibuya Crossing to see the famous countdown.

In some ways, I knew I would hate it; big crowds full of people pushing and shoving isn’t really my thing, but I really wanted to experience the grandness of it all. All those people chanting down to midnight, celebrating and cheering. It was busy when we arrived at roughly 10:20 pm and after going to buy a hot drink we tried to find some other friends to all meet together. This, however, proved to be impossible, the crowds were so thick that moving around was difficult and police had set up pedestrian areas which essentially barricaded people to certain zones of the crossing.

What really surprised me is that there were more tourists and foreigners in that crowd than I had imagined. It was full of them. Most were just there like I was but many were loud and boisterous, shouting and chanting and making full use of drinking outdoors. Generally making idiots out of themselves in their high spirits. My friend and I found a spot and dug in, we had full view of the screen and were well located to feel in the centre of the action. Videos played on the screens surrounding us, I couldn’t really make out what they were about but they helped me pass the time waiting for the countdown. There wasn’t really much else to do.

The one thing that really bugged me though was the marketing of Coca-Cola throughout the entire evening. It was insane; everyone was wearing huge red top hats with the logo, the people on the stage were all pushing forward Coca-Cola bottles like some cheesy advertisement. There were adverts all around for it. It made the whole affair feel like Coca-Cola had bought the rights to 2018. Then, when the countdown began (against the background of the Coca-Cola colours), we all joined in, shouting out, “3..2..1 HAPPY NEW YEAR!”

Everyone was smiling and cheering, waving their hands and shaking others’ hands. It was wonderful to see so many people in high spirits, all of them looking forward to the year ahead. It was staggering in its sheer magnitude but I wish there had been some music blaring out of the speakers, maybe some fireworks overhead. Instead, there was a small sprinkling of confetti, which felt a little underwhelming for the location and prestige of the event.

After the main event was over, we eventually bumped into the rest of our group and went to find food. This took quite some time and we were all freezing cold, but eventually we ended up in a yakiniku tabehoudai place. This was probably my favourite part of the evening. A warm room with food and fun was definitely a good decision, especially as it gave us something to do for an hour and half.

We then headed towards Meiji Shrine, going first through some beautiful illuminations, and paid our respects. I felt so happy that we were able to fit this Japanese tradition into our evening. I say evening, it was roughly 3:30 am when we arrived there and the lethargy and cold was really seeping into me. I didn’t get back home to Kanagawa till 6:30 am and I was tired, cold, and drained, but getting to watch the sunrise and seeing Mt Fuji awash with the pink of that first light was spectacular. It was certainly a New Year I will never forget.

Laura is a 1st Year JET based in Kanagawa Prefecture. She enjoys martial arts, dancing, photography, singing, and drama. She recently made around 80 teachers dance like penguins in a confidence building seminar.

Edward Portillo, Gunma Prefecture

Before coming to Japan on the JET program, I was a big fan of a show called Journeys in Japan. For one particular episode, the show focused on a New Year’s celebration at a place I’d never heard of before, Koyasan, or Mount Koya. After seeing the show, I decided that I was going to follow in those footsteps and spend the last night of 2017 and the first day of 2018 at that ancient and venerable power spot.

I had spent Christmas at home in America, and returned to Japan with just a day to spare. Most of my December 31st was spent traveling from Kanto to Kansai, riding the Shinkansen to Tokyo, and then to Osaka. Then onwards, south towards Wakayama and the mountain. However, after a storm earlier this fall, part of the railway was damaged, and so I had to take a free taxi from the last stop up to the temple where I’d be spending the night.

After an epic journey, tired, hungry, and cold, I arrived at the temple lodgings, or Shukubo, a bit after 9 p.m. where I found the kindly monks waiting for me. I was taken up to my accommodations, a traditional tatami room, where a delicious Shojin Ryori dinner had been prepared and laid out for me. After tucking into dinner and settling in, I headed down for the temple’s celebration. I was one of several foreigners staying there, but the majority of the visitors were Japanese, and only one of the monks spoke English. However, everyone was very warm and welcoming, including me in all the ceremony that was to follow.

As midnight drew closer, we waited in a side room, watching the NHK on TV, as people trickled in. Eventually, our group of about a dozen was all gathered, and as midnight came, we proceeded to the main hall, where the monks said prayers, and then invited us to place incense and send our prayers as well. I can’t say I understood all of what was going on, but the atmosphere was serene and unique, far from the huge parties, fireworks, and illuminations going on in the rest of the world. Afterwards, we returned to the side room, where we went on with more rituals, such as receiving the first rice of the year from the head priest, touching our heads to the kagami mochi, and drinking special sake. All of this was done in turns, one on one with the head priest, by every person present, which left me a lot of time for reflection, and gave me a feeling that, for at least one night, I was an equal with everyone, instead of an outsider.

After all this, the formality fell away, and colorful, anko filled, new year’s mochi was distributed along with delicious amazake. Then, as a parting gift, everyone received small oranges, which were quite delicious. After watching everyone head out, I prepared to leave when the head priest offered me more oranges, and told me to stuff them in my pocket, with a kind laugh. As I happily munched on the fruit, I also got to talk to one of the locals who had come to visit with his grandmother. It’s always fun to sit and eat with new friends.

Eventually, I went to bed at the early hour of 5 a.m. only to wake 4 hours later and head to breakfast, which was specially prepared osechi ryouri, a traditional meal full of auspicious foods to start the new year right. From black soybeans, kuro mame, to tazukuri, dried sardines cooked in soy sauce, every part of breakfast was meant to have a special meaning such as good health, or abundant harvest.

Full of delicious food, I then set out to spend the first day of 2018 exploring the small town of Koyasan, which can be easily walked from one end to the other in a few hours. First, I visited the Okunoin, where the founder of the temples here, the monk Kobo Daishi, also known as Kukai, is said to be in eternal meditation. After more than 1,200 years, he is still venerated here by the faithful, and surrounded by a cemetery which memorializes great figures such as Uesugi Kenshin and Takeda Shingen, alongside company memorials for Yakult and Nissan. Next I went to the gate at the entrance to the town, a massive structure for this small place, and the Danjogaran, home to the famous Konpon Daito pagoda. After a long day walking through the town in the crisp mountain air, I said farewell to Koyasan, but it is a place that will stay with me, and a place I will return to one day. For now at least, I am glad I started my year on this sacred mountain.

Edward is a first year ALT. He lives in Gunma Prefecture. He enjoys traveling, video games, and procrastination. You can find his blog at





























Naked and Unafraid: A Hadaka Matsuri Experience

Chris Golden (Miyazaki)

Ah, winter: the bane of seemingly every Japanese person’s existence. Granted, there are worse things out there: earthquakes, tsunamis, freakishly large-but-harmless spiders, and the equally freakish-but-not-so-harmless centipedes immediately come to mind.  But that’s just me. Having experienced winters in places like Baltimore, Seattle, Minnesota, and New York City, where temperatures can easily reach and stay at -22C or lower, seeing Miyazakians wearing huge, puffy jackets and layers upon layers of heat tech on bright, sunny, 15 degree days always makes me chuckle.  Most people in Miyazaki see the temperature gauge drop and immediately pull out the ol’ kotatsu for some cozy avoid-all-cold-experiences time.  But, there are a few brave souls who, every year in January, look outside, think of the cold air, the frigid ocean water, and think “Let’s get naked and jump in there!”  Enter, Japan’s Hadaka Matsuri.

The one I participated in was in Aoshima.  However, there are festivals like it all over Japan around this time of year.  They exist for a variety of different purposes: praying for good luck and blessings, mental and spiritual purification, testing your mettle.  There’s lots of different customs for the festival, depending on where it is. They run the gamut of everything from a moshpit-fight over a wooden figurine, a joust between men holding bamboo poles and a water hose, romps through the streets to the local shrine, a king-of-the-rope climb, etc.  But nearly all of those festivals involve cold water in some way. And all of them involve being nearly completely sans-apparel…

I’ve wanted to do this festival for a few years now. But, between that sans-apparel part and the chubby little man who lives in my stomach and very often screams “CHEESEBURGER!!!” at me, I’d been stricken with very acute but temporary case of selective memory around signup time.  But this year, my mettle won over my personal cookie monster, and I signed up with some friends to take the plunge.

We showed up on the appointed day, and got our special clothes.  That term is funny now when I think about it in context, because “clothes” actually meant a headband, a pendant necklace, a pair of tabi, and the underwear that was around before there was underwear, called fundoshi.  Anyway, we put on the ceremonial clothes and went out for an adventure in purification.

Aoshima’s festival involves a short jog to the beach in front of the local shrine, followed by some warm up exercises to center yourself.  Then, you take a double shot of insanity sauce, and wade into the brisk sea water, squat down until the water is up to your neck, and pray/make a wish/meditate/wait until you see the people ahead of you stand up and turn around before you do so you’re not the first (that part is about 2 minutes).  Then you get out of the water, go directly to the shrine to pray again, then run past another priest and his cauldron of onsen-temperature water, which he will “bless” you with using a special tree branch. To complete the ceremony, you will then jog to Aoshima’s main shopping street, do a pseudo ice-bucket challenge, tag-team some old fashioned mochi pounding, and then head back for a dip in the onsen and some food.

This was a great experience for me.  It was cold, then hot, then cold again, then warm and relaxing (onsen for the win).  Granted, I did forget to make a wish while I was in the water. But there I was, naked and unashamed, being a part of the local community, and experiencing another part of Japan’s rich history and age-old traditions.  If you’re like me and prefer winter over summer, I recommend you try this festival. If you’re not like me and hate the cold, I still recommend this festival. If not for the community, the adventure, and the overall wonderful experience, do it because participating in this festival is apparently worth 1000 normal, any-other-day, fully-clothed shrine visits.  An hour in a fundoshi in the middle of winter for a  sweet, community-building, friendship-deepening (or starting) adventure, and kami-sama’s blessing, and +1000 luck points… that’s a fair trade in my book.

Photos courtesy of  and Chris Golden










Melanie Marino (Osaka)

It may be February, but don’t be fooled – influenza is still rife throughout the land. Continue to take care to avoid it, and keep these tips in mind for next season as well!

Winter: a time of snowball fights, Christmas cheer, holiday shopping, the kotatsu, and unfortunately, the flu. This widespread infectious disease can take quite a toll on daily life, so along with effective treatment, developing a good flu-fighting daily routine is well worth it. Living in Japan may make flu prevention more confusing.

What is the flu?

The flu, or influenza, is a respiratory illness that is caused by the influenza virus. The flu is a contagious disease, spread when an infected person coughs and sneezes.

How do I know I have the flu?

Symptoms include a high fever and chills, muscle aches, soreness, fatigue, headaches, and cold-like symptoms.

Who can get the flu?

Everyone is at risk of getting the flu. However, groups such as children under 5, adults over 65, pregnant women, health care workers, and those with certain pre-existing medical conditions including heart disease, diabetes, and a weakened immune system due to HIV/AIDS are at greater risk of complications.

Several other illness can arise as complications of the flu including, pneumonia, ear infections, sinus infections, and increased risk from other pre-existing conditions.


Because of the underlying risks associated, prevention is key. The most effective prevention method is the flu shot. In Japan, many hospitals and clinics offer flu shots from October to January. Contact your local health care provider to check availability. The flu vaccine isn’t covered by national health insurance, so the price will vary. Depending on the place of vaccination, prices range from 3000-5000 yen. The vaccine may come in one or two doses. It is recommended to get the shot by mid-December, to avoid hard-hit January and February.

Besides getting the flu shot, there are a variety of other ways to prevent the flu. Practicing good daily hygiene habits such as frequent hand washing, especially before eating and after using the bathroom, brushing your teeth after every meal as well as gargling, wearing a mask, and keeping surfaces and areas you frequent clean can help stop the spread of the virus.

While balanced nutrition and exercise have benefits year round, there are extra benefits to eating a well-rounded diet during flu season. Regular exercise can help prevent the flu by increasing the re-circulation of immune cells, meaning that your immune system will be cleaned and rejuvenated. Experts recommend at least 30 min of moderate exercise 5 times a week, but if that sounds like a lot, 3 times a week can also have benefits.

Before and during flu season, be sure to drink plenty of fluids. Green tea is an especially good choice. The antioxidants in green tea boost the immune system, helping fight the flu virus. Avoid caffeine and alcohol as much as possible, as they cause dehydration.

Foods known to effectively fight the flu virus include ginger, garlic, onions, and persimmons (kaki). Ginger has been known for centuries to fight viruses, reduce inflammation, and may even have mild pain relieving properties. A great source of ginger is ginger tea, known in Japan as shouga yu (しょうがゆ), tea made with boiled ginger root, honey, and a squeeze of yuzu to add vitamin C. Stir-fry dishes are another good way to add ginger to your diet. Allicin, a chemical compound that fights bacteria, is found in garlic, making it an ideal food to eat when sick. When eating garlic as a remedy for the flu, try to eat at least one clove at a time to get the full benefits. While no specific nutrient seems to be the reason, onions have long been known to ease cold and flu symptoms. Try putting an extra helping in many daily recipes: miso soup, fried rice, scrambled eggs, udon, ramen, etc. Persimmons have high levels of vitamin C, which strengthen the immune system and increase white blood cell production. You can find them at your local grocery store, starting in around October, when the season begins.

Good luck out there, may your winter be flu-free!










Indigo Dyeing Studio Kosoen: Japanese Textiles Just Outside of Tokyo

Jessica Craven (Saitama)

Some of Japan’s oldest surviving textiles, dating from the 8th century in the Nara period, are contained at Tokyo National Museum’s Gallery of Horyuji Treasures. The collection primarily contains ban, or Buddhist ritual banners, from this era. Even though these early designs are rather simple, if you look closely you can discern the intricate attention to detail and craftsmanship that is characteristic of other Japanese products, such as its renowned stationary. While the designs consist of only one color, very delicate and complex textural patterns have been skillfully woven into the fabric.

Until now, I had admittedly never really thought much about Japanese textiles. Like most foreigners (and perhaps even some Japanese people), I only ever really thought of kimono when I thought of traditional Japanese textiles. And while many pieces of kimono-inspired contemporary clothing are made today, they are scarcely designed with the same level of craftsmanship and elegance that the traditional kimono are. For the most part, even clothing inspired by traditional Japanese fashion is today made in a factory. This led me to wonder… aside from kimono, are there any traditional textile techniques that are being preserved in Japan today, and are they being modernized to suit contemporary taste and practical wear?

Although some unique weaving practices are still thriving in Japan, what really continues to flourish and evolve in the textile industry is a variety of dyeing techniques with long histories. One of the most significant of these is indigo dyeing. Indigo dyeing is literally everywhere — even in blue jeans (although these are practically all chemically and mechanically dyed now) — and yet we practically never think about it. One of the most accomplished traditional indigo dyeing studios still in existence today is Hiroshi Murata’s Indigo Dyeing Studio, Kosoen.

Mr. Murata was kind enough to let me interview him and take a tour of his studio in Ome City, a beautiful place with dedicated craftsmen at work and the sunlight dappling in. I was able to ask him many questions about the history of indigo dyeing, or aozome, its process, and its future.

Jessica Craven: What is Ome City’s history with aozome?

Hiroshi Murata: Textile production has prospered in this area since the 13th century, including the introduction of traditional indigo dyeing during the Edo period (when the process first began in Japan). Demand for textiles, such as bedding, skyrocketed in the post-war period, and Ome City provided close to 50% of the national demand. This studio, which was established in 1919, greatly contributed to that. I inherited the family business in its third generation, and still continue the tradition of indigo dyeing today. Since inexpensive textile imports have increased dramatically, hundreds of companies have abandoned this practice, so Kosoen is one of the only studios of its kind today, and the only one left in Ome that still uses a completely traditional process. Kosoen uses indigo leaves that are grown and fermented traditionally in Kochi prefecture.

JC: So indigo dyeing began in India and spread to many other countries, right? What sets Japanese indigo dyeing apart?

HM: My studio utilizes more thin lines and delicate patterns. Also, the exact fermentation process has evolved differently in Japan, and this results in a unique shade of blue. It involves two different and separate fermentation processes. The first is the process of making indigo leaves into sukumo, which is the raw material that is made into dye. The second fermentation transforms sukumo into indigo dye. Then the actual fabrics are dyed using many techniques similar to the ones in ukiyo-e. The process from start to finish takes several years, but the dyeing itself takes much less time, although careful attention to detail is required.

JC: What inspired you to continue the indigo dyeing tradition?

HM: As I said, I inherited my family business, but actually I changed it dramatically in 1989. I was convinced that only a return to the quality of Edo-period indigo dyeing would allow our business to continue to prosper under fierce competition from cheap imports. So, we went to Tokushima prefecture to learn traditional indigo dyeing techniques. I wanted to revive these refined techniques and make them known to the rest of the world.

JC: What are you doing to modernize indigo dyeing and make it appealing to people today?

HM: One appeal is our use of only natural techniques. Our products are completely devoid of harmful chemicals, so they are good for the environment and the people who wear them. There has also been renewed interest in the revival of traditional craftsmanship in Japan. When we first revitalized our business in 1989, our sales were small, so we only made small things like table centers, coasters, and other interior household items. However, about ten years ago we gained more popularity have begun dyeing and designing clothing, so that gives us ample opportunity to both continue traditional designs and modernize them by dyeing more contemporary style clothing.

Mr. Murata’s indigo Dyeing Studio Kosoen has certainly gained commercial success, receiving a significant number of overseas orders and more foreign visitors than ever before. He has even received invitations to exhibit in Germany and Canada, as well as to sell products at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In spite of this, his studio was featured in “The Wonder 500,” a list of certified products selected to be “local products that are the pride and joy of Japan but not yet known outside of Japan.” Let’s change that! Mr. Murata’s passion for his craft allows him to create astonishingly beautiful works of art, so please check them out online, if only to gain a deeper appreciate for the art of indigo dyeing!


Jessica Craven is an ALT in Saitama prefecture. She has degrees in both visual art and Japanese, so she enjoys exploring the contemporary art scene in Japan.














In the News — February

Tresha Barrett (Kyoto)

Japan’s Recruit Holdings to Join Forces with AirBnB

Recruit Holdings Co., Japan’s largest provider of temporary staff, announced recently that it will team up with AirBnB, the leading U.S. source of vacation rental, to offer short-term housing options to travelers in Japan.

This collaboration will provide AirBnB with information about temporary accommodation from Recruit subsidiary, Suumo, which has a database of over 6 million properties. The available properties will later be listed on the AirBnB website.

According to Recruit officials, during the busy periods of March and September, a time when many people tend to move house, several properties are left vacant for months at a time if they’re not rented on a temporary basis.

Recruit will encourage property owners and management companies to allow their unoccupied rooms to be available for vacation rental.

“Our aim is to increase the profitability of rental properties,” said a spokesperson for Recruit Sumai Co., a Recruit subsidiary that operates Suumo. She added that the company is open to joining forces with other vacation rental platforms.

Recruit’s collaboration with AirBnB comes months ahead of a new law, which will come into effect on June 15. This law will allow private property owners to open up their doors for short-term rental — specifically, for a maximum of 180 nights per year if property owners register with local governments.


Japan Times

Image Source:

Japan Times

Tokyo Wants Foreign Visitors to Splurge on City’s Nightlife

In an attempt to capitalize on the number of foreign tourists entering Japan, the Tokyo Metropolitan government will be conducting a targeted survey to find out what visitors enjoy about the city’s nightlife. According to Japan Today, the survey aims not only to target these preferences, but also encourage tourists to spend.

The Tokyo government plans to spend up to 50 million yen on the project in fiscal year 2018. The results of the survey will be optimised to promote a number of popular spots around the city on the Tokyo government’s website.

This venture is seen as an imperative means of combating the decline in the average spending per traveler – a drop seen in recent years despite a rapid increase in tourism. In 2017, the number rose 19.3% from the previous year to a record 28.69 million, with a total spending of 4.42 trillion yen.

Still, the average expenditure per visitor fell by 1.3% to 153,921 yen in 2017, a continued decline from the previous year’s decrease of 11.5%. According to the Japanese government, a goal of 40 million annual visitors should be achieved by 2020, when Japan will host the Olympics.

On such a note, the central government is considering a similar survey in their own attempt to increase tourist expenditure.


Japan Today

Image Source:

Time Out










Gynecology in Japan – Just Do It!


“Just take a deep breath and relax for me, please.”

I complied; I inhaled and fixed my The stirrup legs part, and on the seat on the left, the bottom part of the seat drops away.gaze firmly on the featureless slate of plastered ceiling above my head. My first thought was they should put a picture or something up there as a form of distraction. My second was that my left ankle was very itchy, but there wasn’t much to do about that now that my feet were firmly hoisted up above my head in stirrups, legs splayed apart and completely at the mercy of the doctor peering at my vagina. At least, I was fairly certain she was peering at it. It’s a bit hard to tell from that angle.

Like most sexually active women in their mid-twenties, I’m no stranger to trips to the gynecologist. I’d done visits before in my home country, Australia, though as someone who gets anxious over the most basic of tasks on a good day, the concept of going through the whole shebang in a foreign country, in a foreign language, on my own and for the first time sounds about as pleasant as drinking laundry detergent.

I wish from the bottom of my heart that my visit that day had been just a regular check up, though. I’d have gladly sat through ten pap smears, complete with someone giving a running commentary on them to an audience, over my actual circumstances.

But before I go into that, let’s wind back up to my first visit to the gynecologist in Japan, around ten months earlier.

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t expecting much from it.

I’d done all the online reading I could before visiting, and seen all the horror stories and opinion pieces. You know, the ones about how Japan’s sex education is sadly decades behind the rest of modern civilization. That the doctors tend to be cold, critical, and not very forthcoming with information. And, of course, the common belief that contraceptive methods more extravagant than condoms either come with a lot of social stigma or just aren’t widely available.

So my first visit to a ladies’ clinic recommended to me by my neighboring prefecture’s JET Guide was, therefore, an incredibly pleasant surprise.

The clinic was clean, warmly lit, and one entire wall of the waiting room was dedicated to a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf of texts on a variety of topics, from sex education, women’s health, and childcare, to manga. The female staff at the reception desk took my name and health insurance information, and gave me a questionnaire about my medical history and the reason for my visit (the form was available in multiple languages). I was asked if I needed assistance with filling it out. Once it was submitted, I was guided to a second waiting room outside the head doctor’s office. The walls were covered in posters and handmade sheets, providing information on everything from screenings for cancer, STDs and STIs, HIV and AIDS, menopause, the Pill and even a friendly note saying condoms were available for purchase at the reception (‘Feel free to ask our staff for more info!’). Another poster, prominently displayed, advertised an online LGBTIQ+ awareness group.

So far, so good.

I was guided in for my consultation. The head doctor, a middle-aged woman with lightly accented but otherwise very good English, was delighted to discover I’m now living in the town in which her father was born and raised.

On my first visit, I was there to get a regular checkup and screening for cancer (pap smear), and to start a new prescription for the Pill here in Japan. I was sure the latter would cause at least a raised eyebrow, but was instead given a quick nod and a reassurance that the clinic stocks a wide range of birth control medications. The doctor even pulled out a large folder of Pill packet covers and rifled through it, asking what type I used back home. She quickly found the same brand in her folder and wrote up a prescription, mentioning that the clinic would record my blood pressure and weight so as to monitor for any changes after usage that might need to be addressed in future.

I was lucky to have found such a great clinic on my first go, thanks to the advice listed in an AJET-published handbook. But what I didn’t realize was just how lucky I would consider myself to have found this place, and to know a trusted gynecologist, in the future.

Take a seat – the chair spins 45 degrees to face the doctor hiding behind a curtain. As it moves, it also rises to put you at the right height for comfortable viewing.

OK, back to me in the stirrups again — ten months later. It’s not that I didn’t think I’d be back there again. It’s just that my reason for being there was a little unexpected.

Reasons I did think I’d be there: for a renewal of my Pill prescription, to get my annual pap smear, maybe to discuss switching to an alternative contraceptive now that my boyfriend and I had been together for a year.

Reasons I didn’t think I’d be there: my boyfriend, so sweet and loving, had turned out to be cheating scum who had contracted an STD from his other partner and had confessed to possibly passing it on to me in turn. Safe to say, I most definitely didn’t see that one coming.

I was hurt, scared, and my health had been put at risk by the person I trusted most. I was also approximately 7,000km from my family, friends, and regular physician.

But when I asked the head doctor at the Ladies’ Clinic to conduct a thorough check for STD/STIs, she once again didn’t bat an eyelid. She gave me that same brisk nod, reassured me that she was able to conduct the same range of tests as is available at general hospitals, and that I would be contacted with the results in as little as a week. One vaginal inspection and swipe, and a blood test later and the whole thing was over. I had been treated professionally, promptly, and in confidentiality. But I had also been treated with kindness and understanding, by familiar faces.

A little towel helps preserve some modesty as you spin up and around.


I sincerely hope this doesn’t happen to you or one of your loved ones. You could wind up at an OB/GYN for any number of reasons — maybe you’re expecting a baby with your partner. You might want to terminate an unwanted or untimely pregnancy. Maybe you’re not even sexually active but are there for a menstruation-related concern. Your visit could be the most basic of reasons, like a pap smear. Or it could be for something you never considered would happen to you. But regardless of the circumstances, having a clinic that you trust and can turn to for help can make a world of difference.

Taking the time to source a good clinic that suits your location, expectations, and sense of comfort is something that every woman should find the time to do, especially when in Japan. Of course, just getting checkups when you’re back in your home country is another possibility, but that’s obviously not very practical if you’re not frequently (i.e. at least once a year) returning home. And, in the event of an emergency or time-sensitive issue, it’s in your best interests to have a tried and tested place ready to visit.

What to take on your visit:

  • Health insurance card
  • Other form of ID
  • Your own contact details and those of a trusted friend or colleague (in case you are asked to list an emergency contact)
  • A list of the prescription medication you currently or have previously taken, if any
  • A list of your allergies, if any
  • Translating app for any language issues
  • If you want a new Pill prescription, it can be useful to take along the packet (or a photo) of the brand you are currently or have previously used for reference


Legal in Japan, and available at a cost. Only surgical abortions are legally available but medical (i.e. oral medicine) abortion pills can be ordered online. However, the second option should only be used with a trusted provider and the risks involved should be well understood (be on alert and in close proximity of a hospital in case you have a reaction or failed abortion that would result in the need for immediate medical attention).

The Pill 

Available more widely than most internet sources would have you believe, but if you want a full range of choices or the exact brand that you’re used to back home, you might have to do some legwork and shop around. Offerings and availability may vary depending on your location. The Pill is not covered by health insurance in Japan and some clinics may only offer up to a month’s worth of medication at a time, meaning you may have to visit regularly to get refills.

IUDs and Implanon 

Not as widely available as the Pill (Implanon even less so than IUDs) but still available at some clinics throughout Japan. Insertion and removal is also relatively expensive when compared to overseas.

Japan Health Info  

While not free, this service offers everything from sourcing English speaking medical professionals in your area, to online Pill consultation, and mail-order STD kits. They can even arrange for a translator to attend your medical consultations with you, or assist with medical document translation.

STDs, STIs, HIV, AIDS, and Privacy Concerns 

Checks are available at any hospital and OB/GYN (consultation or referral may be required depending on your location).

There are any number of reasons why you might want to get checked. First up, no one has any right to judge you. However, particularly in rural locations or in nosy workplaces, something as simple as getting tested for an STD or STI can become a hot topic of gossip. While testing services are widespread and encouraged in Japan, there is still something of a stigma around openly talking about sexual health issues that may leave you feeling like your usual support systems (supervisor, coworkers, Japanese friends) might just not be the best of help. If you also then don’t feel comfortable seeking help from a JET friend or PA, this can leave you feeling very isolated and out of options. The worst possible outcome of a situation like that is if it results in a delay for a checkup or treatment.

In these cases, I would honestly recommend going to a clinic that is a reasonable distance from your workplace. No, seriously. Even with the strict legalities of doctor/patient confidentiality, you simply don’t know who you might bump into in the waiting room or the parking lot. Also consider online testing kits from trusted, professional sources if you’re really concerned about privacy.

Useful vocabulary

OB/GYN                                                                      産婦人科医 (さんふじんかい)
Pregnancy                                                                 妊娠 (にんしん)
Birth control method/device                           避妊具 (ひにんぐ)
The Pill                                                                        ピル
Abortion                                                                     中絶 (ちゅうぜつ)
Uterus                                                                          子宮 (しきゅう)
Cervical Cancer                                                      子宮頸癌 (しきゅうけいがん)
Cervical cancer screening/pap smear        子宮癌検査 (しきゅうがんけんさ)
Antibiotics                                                                 抗生物質 (こうせいぶっしつ)
STD/STI                                                                      性的感染症 (せいてきかんせんしょう)















From well-educated to functionally illiterate in 14 hours

In the time it takes to fly from Atlanta to Tokyo

Sabrina Hassanali (Tokyo)

While I know that moving to a new country can be intimidating, I felt pretty confident before arriving in Japan. I have traveled a great deal and speak a couple of languages. I was sure Japan would be no more difficult than say, Morocco, for example. I didn’t know any Japanese and I requested to be placed in a small town. I hoped to be immersed in the Japanese language by force. This would suit me; I like chatting with locals in remote, off-the-beaten-track types of places. When I learned of my JET placement in Tokyo, I imagined an even smoother transition. Tokyo is, after all, an international city. It hosted the Summer Olympics in 1964 and plans to hold an even larger affair in 2020. Little did I know, Japan’s biggest town would set me straight. Two months into my Japanese adventure, I had revised my plan for learning Japanese.

I was not prepared for the surprises of this metropolis. I read somewhere that about 10% of Japan’s population is from abroad.  This made me falsely comfortable in my lack of language ability. I imagined an international city cloaked with signs in the world’s international language: English. I hoped to hear or see the names of the train stations as I approached them. Alas, I was too ambitious. From dining to basic logistics, the challenges of illiteracy abound.

Without knowing a single other JET participant, I jumped into the JET experience hoping to have immersion head on. I found myself incapable of even that. I reflect, now, on how I studied Spanish. It was pretty easy for me as the script is the same as English. Simply add a couple of accents and a few letters, and you’ve got a good basic start. For now, I’ve relegated learning the three Japanese scripts to an in-depth cram course in the unforeseen future. In the meantime, I find joy in the adventures of the unknown.

For the last two months, I have rarely known the specifics of exactly that which I am eating. Often, the English menu has fewer options than the Japanese menu. Other times, the combination or preparation seems suspect. I have put off my desire to eat less meat. I usually point and choose something unusual. Fortunately, though, I am a foodie, and my dining demands are easy to meet. Of course this leads to its own problem. I often find that I cannot effectively explain what I have eaten before, nor order it again!

The logistical challenges are the toughest for a new-illiterate. In late September, I found myself unable to comprehend the choices at the ATM. I certainly wanted to pay my rent, and there was sufficient yen in my account. However, I agonized over the choices of letters several times over the course of a week. Fortunately, my Japanese supervisor at school is perfect. She escorted me to the closest JP Post ATM and we sorted my rent out in the nick of time. She has also helped me sort through the barge of mail slipped through the slot in my door. We joke now that she is my Japanese mother and I am her fourth daughter. The utility bills with barcodes are easy enough. They usually have a logo in English and this way, my Japanese supervisor does not have to have every intimate detail of my Japanese life!

Though some of my language issues were easy to resolve, I had a really difficult time securing a phone plan. Although I sought the advice of my fellow JETs, I was deeply disappointed with the customer service at BIC Camera. Though I can never know for sure, I suspect that in addition to the language barrier, the agent at BIC Camera did not like the fact that a brown-faced American needed a phone plan. My subcontinental tan did not get me any tech advantages. In this particular case, I actually felt that my race was a disadvantage. Reflecting now, I have lived the majority of my life in the racially charged South without perceiving slights based on race. Though BIC Camera won’t be my preferred electronics outlet, the JET community pages were a lifeline. My incident at BIC Camera has helped me to grow more sympathetic toward American immigrants. In my American life, I worked as an immigration attorney. Though I saw how nationality impacted immigration issues were, I never sensed the pain of just looking different. Here, again, the language barrier helped me gain respect for my fellow JETs. I was able to make sense of my purchase and eventually able to operate my smartphone here in Japan.

Ultimately, the two most important things I have needed in Japan, no one told me to pack.  Without my healthy sense of humor, I would have been crying tears instead of reeling in laughter.  My sometimes untimely and awkward smile is a universal ‘hello’. I still believe it is good to speak the language of where you travel: in most instances the effort of just trying is rewarded with human kindness. With the help of a phrase book and a few beers, I am finding the izakaya to be my language school. I am content with this style of intercultural exchange. As a result of my misadventures, I have connected with many people despite the language barrier. Hiragana, katakana, and kanji, I’ll catch you in another world.

Sabrina Hassanali loves traveling. She has had a passport since infancy. She studied abroad in college, law school, and on her own. Sabrina decided to take a long leave of absence from America after Trump won the election. When she is not planning her next trip, she likes to hike, camp, and swim. Sabrina is also writing a blogpost for Verge Magazine.