Postcard From Japan: Meiji Shrine

After touring the Hachi Yoshi-en garden, we decided to head to the Meiji Shrine in Shibuya. My first (and last) visit to the Shrine had been 15 years ago in the pouring rain. I remember it vividly mostly because it was so wet that very few people were at the Shrine that day. When you’re in Tokyo and find yourself almost alone in a public place, it’s a memorable experience.

However this time we visited on a relatively warm November Sunday and we were most definitely not alone.

This marked Mayumi, Shinya and Karin’s first visit to the temple and I grateful that we all had the chance to go together.

I’m also grateful that we arrived just in time to witness a wedding procession. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the wedding photographer who was trying to navigate the crowds of tourists. I also found myself wondering why you would choose to get married in such a busy, public place. Still, there’s nothing quite as spellbinding as a traditional Japanese wedding procession.

We also spotted more than a few little girls dressed up for Shichi-Go-San.

As it started getting colder and darker, we stopped for a quick bite to eat and beer (for the adults).

Then the children decided to let off some steam with a run around the courtyard.

And then, all too soon, it was time to say goodbye to the Meiji shrine…

And our Japanese friends…

It was so good to see you Shinya, Mayumi and Karin. We hope it’s not too long before we see you again.

Postcard From Japan: Wandering Tokyo with the Abes Part 1

After lunch with the entire Fukushima crew, Mayumi, Shinya and Karin joined us on a small tour of Tokyo. We only had a couple of hours so we decided to first spend some time exploring the Hachi Yoshi-en garden next to the restaurant. We soon discovered that our visit to Tokyo coincided with both Shichi Go San (children’s festival for 3 and 5 year old girls) and wedding season. Of course this equated to photo opportunities galore. Little girls in Kimonos and traditional Japanese brides? Perfect!

Also, bonzai, koi and a shrine or two. Your basic Japanese heaven on earth (minus all the wedding photographers).

Autumn held on for just a few extra days to make me happy.

The company wasn’t too shabby either. Seriously – happiest child on the planet.

Next: We take the Abe family to the Meiji temple for their very first visit and, as a result, they can finally call themselves Japanese (I kid – a little). More weddings, more little girls in adorable kimonos and more Mayumi, Shinya and Karin.

Postcard from Japan: A Fukushima Reunion in Tokyo

Kei and I have a strong connection to Fukushima – it’s where we both lived for twelve months and where we met. In fact my (teeny) apartment in Fukushima was the first place I had ever lived away from home. Our connection to Fukushima is part of the reason why we were both so affected by the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear plant meltdown. It was the main reason we offered to host a mother and child from the region in our home for 2 months over the summer of 2011.

My blog posts from July and August of 2011 share the full story of Mayumi and Karin’s visit, but I think the very first post that I wrote after their arrival and the one I wrote on the day they left sum up a lot of the things I was feeling. I think it’s safe to say that Mayumi and Karin became a part of our extended family during their stay.

So, when we traveled to Japan in November (our first visit since 2010), I was thrilled to learn that we’d have an opportunity to catch up with Mayumi, Karin as well as Mayumi’s husband (and Karin’s dad), Shinya – who we’d never met but had obviously heard a lot about. Mayumi, Shinya and Karin just happened to have plans to travel to Tokyo for a wedding while we were in town so we arranged to meet up.

As an added bonus, Mayumi had managed to get in contact with one of my old friends from Fukushima, Toru Mizuno. Toru worked at the Sukagawa Community Center and, thanks to his ability to speak English, helped me navigate everything from car buying negotiations to getting my washing machine replaced by the board of education after it broke down. He was a true friend to a young 22 year old living in a foreign country with limited knowledge of the native language. I’m not sure how I would have made it through that year without him.

So, long-story-short, Mayumi found Toru and asked him if he wanted to meet up with us in Tokyo and he said yes. Crazy! When I left Japan, Toru was twenty-something years old with young wife and two year old daughter. Now he’s forty-something and has five children (!). He also owns a large apartment building in Sukagawa where the new English Language teachers live.

So, on a sunny winter day in Tokyo, we found ourselves walking to meet a large gathering of old and new Japanese friends – Mayumi, Karin and Shinya, Sinya’s parents and Toru with the three youngest of his five children. Toru’s wife was off visiting their oldest child at college in Tokyo – the two-year old child that I mentioned earlier.

It was all a little crazy and surreal and awkward and wonderful at the same time. Thankfully we managed to get a group picture to prove that THIS really did happen.

Toru is in the back, third from the left. His children are the three biggest in the front. Very smart, sweet kids.

We all had lunch together, talking about Sukagawa, then and now. About how Toru is working out of a Gym because the Town Hall was destroyed in the earthquake. How the english teachers have much better accommodations now because Toru owns and manages the building. It made me feel nostalgic but also incredibly grateful for how far we’ve come.

After lunch, Toru and his children went to meet the rest of his family for the drive back to Sukagawa and Shinya’s parent’s boarded a train back to Fukushima city. Thankfully, Mayumi, Shinya and Karin were on a late train so we were able to spend the rest of the day with them exploring just a tiny little corner of Tokyo.

I’ll share more photos of our small adventure tomorrow but, for now, here’s a quick shot of the boys being reunited with their “sister”. Karin had barely changed at all in the years since we’d last seen her. Happiest, smiliest kid on the planet.

Newport, Oregon Day 4: Yaquina Head Lighthouse + Kite Flying

Warning: A plethora of photos follows (I just love the word plethora.)

On our fourth day at the beach we decided to take a short drive to visit the lighthouse. Not the original Newport Yaquina Bay lighthouse – although if I’d read this first I might have sent us in that direction (I love ghost stories).

The one we visited is called the Yaquina Head lighthouse which attracts a lot of tourists and thousands of tiny disgusting flies. We were told that the flies are only there for two months of the year (lucky us!) and that they don’t bite or spread disease. And, honestly, after waiting in line for a while to go in the lighthouse, I was wondering what was more annoying – the flies or the obnoxious tourists who kept complaining about them.

But I digress. The Yaquina Head lighthouse is beautiful and we were lucky enough to visit on a perfect (although slightly chilly) Summer day.

There is a little walkway nearby that leads to the rockiest beach I have ever seen. Incredibly beautiful in it’s own way, even if it was a little difficult to walk on.

We even managed to spot a few seals on the nearby rocks – although my camera’s zoom wasn’t quite strong enough to catch them clearly in a photograph. I promise they’re on that rock somewhere…

After our little adventure down to the beach, Mayumi and I ditched the kids to climb the stairs to the top of the lighthouse.

After a brief encounter with an old guy who shared very STRONG opinions about my flip flops (and also gave us the information about the flies), we walked the five steps to the top.

One person at a time, 5 steps and then stop. Don’t get me wrong, it was a great view and interesting to see, but I expected to be able to walk around up top and I supposed I was a little disappointed. I mean shouldn’t they explain that before you climb the very tall spiral staircase?

Next, we all jumped back in the mini van to visit the (poorly lit) information center where my Dad and Kei watched the informational video (no surprises there) and I followed the kids around telling them what they could and could not touch.

This next photograph is a favorite – I love how the different personalities come out in just one quick image. Hilarious!

A about 30 minutes past nap time, we decided it was time to head back to the house before things got ugly. After everyone had sufficiently recharged, we headed back to the beach for a little kite flying (the boys) and running in the freezing cold water (Karin and, by default, Mayumi).

Finally, a little time to explore the rock pools before the tide starting coming in and I feared my children would be washed out to sea.

The end of another perfect day.

Back to Reality

Today is officially the last day of Summer for our little family – despite the fact that our sad Portland weather makes us feel as though Summer has just begun. No, school and work will not wait any longer and tomorrow we will all be forced to come back to earth with a big, heavy thud.

Not that it’s all bad of course. We’re excited for Thomas’ first day of Kindergarten and I have all of his school supplies purchased and ready to go. We also have our house back after months of hosting guests. As much as we enjoyed playing tour guide this Summer, there’s something to be said for the pleasure that comes from putting everything back in it’s proper place.

I also have my access to the computer restored and plenty of vacation photos to share. See? Not all bad.

I’ll begin with our first day at Nye beach, Newport. We left sunshine in Portland to drive three hours to the misty, cold ocean, with just enough remaining sunlight to take some quick photos of the beach…

… and one of the most impressive sand castles I’ve ever seen.

Thomas and Karin decided to brave the freezing water.

You’ll notice that Thomas is wearing gumboots while Karin is not.

Which gave Thomas an advantage until he stepped in a puddle that his boots couldn’t handle.


So needless to say, it was a quick visit to the beach on our first day.

Back with more soon.

They Leave Today

So many feelings.

Excitement – for them that they’re finally going home and that Karin will see her Daddy.

Anxiety – As if I were the one getting on a multi-hour flight with a three year old.

Fear – of the unknown that awaits them over the next few months.

Gratitude – for the amazing experiences we had, and that we gained a few new family members.

Sadness – that they are leaving. It won’t be the same around here without that chipmunk voice first thing in the morning and conversations with Mayumi that are constantly interrupted by checks of the dictionary.

It’s been amazing and it’s been fun and we’ve made friends for life.

Sayonara and safe travels.

Opening Our Hearts (And Our Home) to a Fukushima Family

This article was originally posted on my company intranet and then on the Waggener Edstrom careers and culture blog.

Just two short months ago, I found myself compelled to respond to a post on a Portland blog called Urban Mamas. The post asked Portland families to consider hosting a Mother and Child (or children) from Japan for up to three months as a break from the radiation dangers stemming from the Daiichi power plant meltdown. Little did I know how much the simple act of offering a room to a mother in child would make such a difference in their lives and mine. The bonus was an unexpected opportunity to share their story with the world through the front page of

A Personal Connection

I have a special place in my heart for Japan, particularly the area affected by the disaster. I met my husband-to-be more than twelve years ago while we were both teaching English in Fukushima. We lived about 60 kilometers away from the Daiichi power plant and spent time in some of the coastal towns that were destroyed when the earthquake and Tsunami struck earlier this year. Needless to say, the disaster affected us both personally and we immediately started thinking about ways that we could help but, being so far away, we felt there was little we could do. My mother-in-law, who lives in Yokohama and was not directly impacted by the disaster, told us she was going through her closets to donate clothes but that the government was not asking for money.

When I read the June blog post on Urban Mamas, my eyes were opened to the continuing disaster of the nuclear plant meltdown and the impact it was having on the day-to-day lives of people in Fukushima. Playgrounds are empty because parents are being asked to keep their children indoors; food that once came from local farmers is now being shipped from across the country; electricity rationing requires residents to keep air conditioning and elevators turned off, even in high rise apartments. But the thing that struck me the most was the potential impact on the health of the small children who lived close to the plant. I can’t imagine a mother who would not want to remove her child from the potentially harmful effects of radiation, even if only for a short time.

Making Room

So my husband and I took the plunge, asking our two boys to share a room, stocking up on extra sheets from Ikea and raising our hands to help. Within days, I was contacted by Mayumi, a young mother with a two-year-old daughter, Karin, who had the means and the motivation to leave. We emailed back and forth for a couple of weeks and, before I knew it, I was picking them up at Portland airport. A visitor VISA allows Karin and Mayumi to stay for just a few months, but that’s enough time to give Karin the chance to run around outside for the Summer and heal some of the damage that may have already been caused by exposure to radiation. It also provides Mayumi with a break from the incredible stress that she’s been under since the earthquake in March.

Of course I was a little worried about offering to share our (small) house and our lives with complete strangers for two months but, from the moment they arrived, it felt as though Karin and Mayumi had been with us forever – in the best possible way. My children have also adapted well. Thomas, my five year old, has taken Karin under his wing and Samuel, 3, is cautious, but friendly – which is the most we can ask for given he had to give up his bedroom and his space is now being infiltrated by a being of similar size, stature and cuteness.

Mayumi and I spent her first night of her stay talking about her experience in Japan after the Tsunami – she in her broken English and me in my VERY broken Japanese. She talked about how the playgrounds in her neighborhood were empty due to the fear of radiation. How Karin no longer took afternoon naps because she didn’t get enough physical activity to tire her out. How they never left the house except to run errands.

Mayumi’s husband, Shinya, had to stay in Fukushima for work so I try to help ease the pain of separation by sharing pictures and stories of their visit on my blog. They also connect regularly through Skype.

Sharing Their Story with The World
One very unexpected outcome from this experience has been the opportunity to be part of an MSNBC storyabout the disaster in Japan and the many Portland families who  are hosting families from the region. The story, along with a photograph taken in front of my house, posted on the front page of today and I am in the process of encouraging everyone I know to read it so that they can understand the seriousness of the situation in Japan and the real fears that these mothers are experiencing.

Mayumi and Karin travel home in two weeks. They’ll be facing a lot of fear and uncertainty – and I’m sure there’ll be no shortage of tears at the airport – but at least they now know that they have a respite from the stress at home anytime they are able to come back to Portland. They also have comfort in the knowledge that their story has been told.

A Cloudy, Warm, Sunny, Snowy Day in the Gorge: Part 2

Click here for Part 1 wherein we take a longer-than-expected walk to witness my Husband and Son make a daredevil climb (in my mind, anyway) and then visit the Multnomah falls.

After leaving the beautiful (albeit extremely crowded) Multnomah falls, we decided to make our way to Hood River for some food. By the time we got there, everyone had fallen asleep (except Kei, thankfully) and we had the fun job of waking everyone up for lunch.

For those who have not had the experience of waking a three-year-old from a deep sleep, I would imagine it’s something like dragging a bear out of hibernation – lots of moaning and gnashing of teeth.

To make a long story short, we had lunch and then walked around a little before stopping for some ice cream. I failed to take any decent pictures of that part but I can tell you that the view from our lunch spot was great, the food was so-so (childrens’ meals overpriced), the toy store visit afterward was probably a mistake (incredibly lucky to make it away without purchasing a Star Wars watch) and the ice cream was perfect.

By this time it was about 4pm and we had a choice – hit the road for the 90 minute drive home or risk it and take a drive up to Timberline lodge. I am so glad we chose the latter. We were blessed with a perfect blue sky afternoon…

…and the rare (although somewhat tragic given the summer we’ve been having) opportunity to  play in the snow at the end of July.

Kei took the opportunity to build the world’s smallest, most pitiful, snowman.


While I took in the view.

The kids soon started whining about their cold feet and cold hands so we headed inside to get a quick drink. Well, that was the plan, anyway.

We headed up to the third floor and placed our order. Our drinks arrived quickly enough and we were about half way through them when Thomas said he needed to go to the bathroom. Kei took him downstairs to the public bathroom on the first floor and then Karin said she needed to go so Mayumi took her. Samuel and I were just hanging out when, you guessed it, he said he needed to go too.

Now, I am going through the potty training thing for the second time so I know how important it is not to play chicken the whole three-year-old who says he needs to go. I looked at the half finished drinks on our table and realized I had two choices – wait until Kei or Mayumi returned, or leave our drinks and other belongings (none valuable) on the table and hope the Waitress would believe me when I said we’d be right back. I chose the latter and, thankfully, we had an understanding waitress.

I dashed downstairs with the knowledge that Kei or Mayumi would be back within minutes. What I didn’t count on was the over-zealous bus boy who cleared the table within seconds. He cleared all of our half finished drinks and we were left with a few children whining for their milk and a bill for the full price. They agreed to replace the drinks or only charge us for half but, by then, it was so late that we thought it was best to feed the children before we left.

About 30 minutes later, we finally left the lodge to catch one last look at the view…

…which we looked at for two minutes before Kei realize that he’d left his vest upstairs and ran back to get it. The bus boy had already handed it to the lost and found. You know, he looked middle aged but it seems he moved like lightening.

After one last check to make sure the bus boy had not taken any of our kids, we got back in the mini van and headed home, returning about 11 hours after we left.

A long, fun, exhausting, only-in-Oregon, day.