Thursday, March 07, 2019

The Bike-Riding Crow

“Caw!” said a voice. I jumped. From the depths of the garage, a crow stared out at me. This cheeky bird was perched on the handlebars of my bike.

The crow cocked his head to the side; his bright eyes shone with curiosity. But I wasn’t about to go any closer. Crows had been dive-bombing us in our garden ever since we moved in, so I didn’t trust this one, even if he looked a bit smaller and friendlier than the others.

I looked at Keith. “What do we do?” We were running late for an appointment, and since we were still searching for a car, bikes were our only mode of transportation. But I couldn’t very well take my bike out when a crow was perched on it.

Keith started around to the back of the house to try to chase the crow out of the garage from behind. He didn’t get very far, because two other crows, possibly the parents of the crow in our garage, cawed angrily and swooped down around him. He came back holding a broom. “Shoo!” he called, swiping at the crow with the broom. The crow didn’t move.

I stared at the crow, and the crow stared back. “What should I do? There’s a crow in my garage, and he won’t go away!” I said in Japanese to no one in particular. A group of elderly women happened to be walking by, and they stopped to see what the strange foreigner was so worked up about. “Look, he’s sitting on my bike!” I exclaimed.

One of the women wordlessly grabbed the broom from Keith, turned it around, and extended the handle towards the crow. “Come on, little one! It’s okay! Come on!” she encouraged. The crow immediately hopped onto the end of the broom, allowing himself to be carried out into the street. He sat there for a moment, dazed by the bright June sun, then took a couple of hops before he flapped off.

Keith and I sputtered our thanks; she gave a curt bow before continuing on her way.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Hints of Spring

Chop, chop, chop.

Birdsong is not the harbinger of spring in Ishikari. I know spring is coming when I hear the sound of my neighbors breaking up the ice on their driveways and sidewalks and even on the road in front of our houses. On sunny days after the roads are clear, they fling scoops of snow out into the road so that the warm asphalt melts it.

The winter is long here—three or four solid months of snow. We are more than ready for the ice to melt and spring to come. The crocuses are also ready, waiting just beneath the earth’s surface to emerge as soon as the snow is gone, after which they bloom within days.

Winter has already been defeated by the coming of spring. We feel it in the warmth of the sun, but the snow still covers our gardens, so we cannot see it yet. Our heads are filled with visions of the crocuses, daffodils, and katakuri lilies that are just waiting to be freed from their prison of ice. And so we help, my neighbors and I, spreading the snow and breaking up the ice.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

On Amateur Pottery

The master potter, my teacher, sat at the pottery wheel and switched it on. The mound of clay whizzed around, spitting out drops of muddy water. She stuck her thumbs into the center of the mound and gently pulled outward and upward, and a shapely bowl formed in her hands. She switched the motor off and looked up at me. “Like that. Got it?” I nodded. It looked so easy.

I centered my mound of clay on the wheel and sat down. My cellist’s hands were strong and steady, so I was confident. “Ready?” asked my teacher. “Yep!” I chirped. She switched on the wheel, and I imitated her motions, sticking my thumbs in the center of the mound… except that the clay, mounted on the wheel, was stronger than I was. My hands jerked around, as the unruly clay refused to be controlled. My teacher sprinkled water on the clay and guided my hands until I had pulled a wobbly bowl. “It’s a chawan!” I exclaimed. “Great, now let go,” said my teacher.

But my finger caught the edge, skewing the bowl into a not-at-all-chawan-like shape. My teacher pointed out that the bowl would still work as a modern-art sort of cream pitcher.
The next week, I sat again in front of the wheel. This time, I wasn’t going to mess up. This time I was prepared for the strength of the wheel. I wasn’t going to let it jerk me around! I stuck my thumbs again into the center of the mound, and slowly pulled upward. Not enough water; I added some more. Again, I pulled upward. Still too dry. I added more water, and the clay yielded in my hands, forming a pretty cylinder. “It’s a flower vase,” I exclaimed, elated. I gingerly let go, but the edges immediately started caving in towards the center. Again, the clay defeated me.  “Too much water,” explained my teacher. “It’s okay; it will still work as a vase.”

Again, the next week, I sat in front of the wheel, a large mound of clay prepared for shaping. I switched on the wheel, sprinkled a little water (but not too much), inserted my thumbs, and began to pull upward and outward—slowly, carefully—and then in again, and out again. “Don’t over-work the clay,” my teacher warned. “It’s okay, I’m almost done. This time I’m making a kensui bowl!” I released the bowl, switched off the wheel… and watched in horror as the delicate bowl collapsed into something like a rumpled old boot. “No… not again… this was my last chance!”

My teacher shrugged, a twinkle in her eye. “You weren’t going to master the wheel in three weeks. Don’t worry; you can still use this one to practice glazing.”

There was always coffee around at pottery class. So I tested out this bowl that my teacher shaped and I glazed. Works pretty well!

Tuesday, February 12, 2019


I sit at your table, hungry
For anything, really; it’s been a slog
Through wasteland of death and destruction.

“Do you want to eat?” you ask.
“Yes! I’m so hungry,” I cry,
And you smile, as if this
Is what you’ve been waiting for.

You pile plate after plate onto the table—
   tender roast beef and crusty fresh bread
   macaroni and cheese (the way my mom makes it)
   orange-glazed ham and ensalata caprese
   salmon sushi and oden and gyoza
   pumpkin pie with whipped cream for dessert
All these my favorites; how did you know?

Then I look up, and I see them—
Why are they here? My enemies—I drop my fork
And pick up my knife—but they stay where they are.

They stare at the food piled up
On the table, a greedy look
In their eyes, but they do not eat.

I look up at you. “Why are they here?
Why don’t they eat?” I ask.

You smile sadly and turn.
“Come to the feast, friends. You are hungry—
Come and eat!” but they sneer.
“We are not hungry; we are fine. We do not need
What you offer”—as loud growls and gurgles
Denounce them as liars.

“They too
Have been welcomed, but they will not accept,
So they watch, perhaps till they starve.”

A pang of compassion. I turn
With grace on my lips, and a plate in my hands—
But your hand on my shoulder—“It’s enough,” you say,
“You can’t make them come; you must show them
My goodness. It is mine to give and theirs to accept.”

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Where I Belong

Today’s coffee: Valentine’s blend (but I’m still drinking New Year’s blend at home)

It seems like ages since New Year’s Day, and at the same time, it seems like no time has passed at all, as if I were just opening my jū-bako to show off this year’s osechi to Keith. But since it is still January, Happy New Year! 今年も宜しくお願い致します (Please be kind to me this year too.)

Osechi, the traditional Japanese New Year’s feast, is the most complicated and labor-intensive meal of the year. I spend a day planning, half a day shopping, two or three days cooking, and then about two hours arranging the food in a three-tiered lacquered box (jū-bako). There’s a word in Japanese describing an undertaking like this one: 面倒くさい (mendō-kusai), which literally means “stinks of trouble.” The benefit of all this work is that we eat it for days. Traditionally it’s three days, but with only two of us, it lasts at least a week, until we’ve had enough, but it’s still not gone. “Maybe you should make smaller batches next time,” suggested Keith.

Filling the boxes...
Step by step, as each item goes in
This year included, I’ve made the full-on osechi meal six times. The first time, in 2010, I could barely read Japanese; I was saved by the step-by-step instructions with pictures in my osechi cookbook. Some of the ingredients and cooking techniques didn’t even show up in my dictionary, so a lot of guesswork was involved. This year I didn’t use a dictionary at all, since my cooking obsession gave me the motivation to learn all that complicated vocabulary and more. Keith says our osechi gets better every year with practice, but he’s probably also getting accustomed to the taste.

As I made grocery lists and translated recipes and shopped for expensive ingredients this year, part of me wondered why on earth I put myself through this rigmarole (almost) every year. It’s tasty, but perhaps not three-days-of-solid-work tasty. Hardly any of my Japanese friends even do this; if they eat osechi (it’s kind of old-fashioned), they order it from a department store or restaurant. So why?

I suppose it’s the same reason I eat turkey and all the fixings on Thanksgiving Day, despite it not being a holiday here, and despite the trouble and expense of getting all those imported ingredients. It’s because back home, all my family and friends are eating turkey and sharing around the table what they are thankful for. When I eat the same meal and give thanks with my friends here, even in Japan, it’s like I’m affirming that even with the ocean dividing us, I still belong to my family and to the community in which I grew up.

By making and eating Toshi-koshi soba (year-crossing soba) on New Year’s Eve, osechi and ozōni (soup with mochi) on New Year’s Day, nanakusa-gayu (seven-greens rice porridge) on January 7, and so on, I remind myself that I belong here too, to this place and to these people.

Each of the foods in the osechi feast symbolize a hope for the coming year: red and white foods expressing the festivity of a fresh start, tiny fish for fruitfulness, beans for the ability to work hard (a wordplay in Japanese), kombu rolls for joy (also a wordplay), lotus root (which has holes) for clear-sightedness, taro root cut into turtle shape for longevity, yellow foods for prosperity, and so on. I eat these foods together with my friends here as I share their same hopes and prayers.

This is comforting, when so often I feel out of place and out of my depth, and sometimes I don’t even want to belong. But God brought me here and joined me to this community also; I affirm this by my feasting.

It’s no wonder, since I also experience my deepest belonging by feasting at the Table of Tables—and this sense of belonging informs and deepens the others as heaven and earth are joined together. I belong here and everywhere God is honored.

Saturday, December 08, 2018

One man, set free

I saw him out of the corner of my eye. A middle aged man, wearing the ubiquitous white paper mask, backpack slung over a black pea coat. A perfectly normal-looking Japanese man, except that his eyes were closed and his hands outstretched, swaying in time with this live Gospel choir performance in the middle of Sendai station.

Passersby stared at him, bemused expressions on their faces. The performers were too busy to notice; the small audience ignored him, or pretended to ignore him, hands folded, smiling placidly, tapping their feet almost imperceptibly.

Standing quietly in a row with the other audience members, I glanced over at him. I wondered who he was, how he of all people had been able to defy the unspoken rule that strong emotions be tucked safely away and brought out at only a few socially approved outlets, like at sports events or in a karaoke box. I felt embarrassed for him, and yet somehow awed. How was it that he paid no mind to the stares and sneers of those around him? Was he drunk? Was he lost in the music? Did he have a mental illness that lowered his inhibitions? Or was he having some sort of transcendent worship experience, all by himself, right in the middle of Sendai station?

Jealous tears welled up in my eyes as I realized that in this crowd of stoics, he was the most human of us all.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018


Fifty hours and thirty-one minutes until my next concert—Friday morning at 10:00, at the annual women’s Christmas concert at a nearby church. The last I heard, 142 people have reserved tickets out of a possible 150.

The program is a bear: the Rachmaninoff sonata, which is the most difficult piece in our repertoire by far for Shino, and the Beethoven fourth sonata, which, although not terribly difficult, takes immense concentration and precision, because the writing is sparse and every mistake can be heard.

This will be our first performance of the entire Rachmaninoff sonata; we’ve been adding to it bit by bit over the last two years. We were relieved to come to the fourth movement and find it not as difficult as the first movement, although there are moments which favor the composer’s gigantic hands over Shino’s small ones, and she has to be rather creative to get all the notes—including rolling chords that come in the middle of a quickly moving melodic line. (We’ve started calling this issue “the big hands problem.”)

Under normal circumstances, we might be inclined to put the Beethoven sonata first and the Rachmaninoff last in a program, but we felt it might be better to perform Rachmaninoff first, while we are fresh. I asked Shino if it was really okay to put Rachmaninoff in the program this time. “If I can play this, I can play anything,” she responded. (And, we confess, the beautiful piano at this particular church lit a fire under us to have the entire Rachmaninoff sonata ready in time.)

But while practicing yesterday, I started to panic and to second-guess the wisdom of our choices for this program. This transition is still rough, I thought. I still haven’t nailed that shift. This fast bit is messy. This melody is boring the way I play it now. If I mess up the counting during this rest, I don’t have the confidence that I’ll come in at the right time. And on and on and on. As a result, I kept practicing past that sweet spot where I’m warmed up and focusing well… into the place where I started making stupid mistakes because I was tired. I was out of time.

I feel this way before almost every concert—the despair that even though I’ve done my best to prepare, once again, this concert will not be perfect. I can comfort myself all I like with the assurance that no one will notice, but I will notice, and so will Shino. We are both painfully aware of our shortcomings as musicians.

Judith Glyde, my cello professor in college, gave me some excellent advice that I’ve never forgotten. The week before a major performance, it’s best to practice a lot early in the week, while daily reducing the amount of practice, with light practice the day before, and only warming up the day of the concert. Right before a concert, she explained, a performer is very susceptible to the effect of mistakes in practice. When you make a mistake right before a performance, even in a spot you usually get right, you panic, and hastily fix the problem… and then panic again when you get to that spot in the concert. So, although it seems counter-intuitive, it’s best to trust that you’ve done your best and practiced enough, and go into a concert well-rested and confident.

My life as a musician includes a constant letting go of the lofty ideal of a perfect performance. There is no such thing. It’s a paradox: I strive for perfection, knowing I will never achieve it. I can only practice so much. At some point I will always run out of time or energy or concentration.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could play this concert, enjoying every gorgeous moment of these two exquisite sonatas, not caring one bit if we mess up, or if anyone notices?

Forty-nine hours and fifteen minutes until my next concert…

At our last concert. If you look closely, you will see that we're about to start the first movement of the Rachmaninoff sonata.

Friday, November 23, 2018

The View from the Peak

Sipping my coffee, I stared out at fog. “God, we really want to go hiking today,” I prayed silently. “Please let us get to the top.” Another billow of cloud rolled across the deck of the little rest hut at the top of the ropeway. Our goal was Asahidake, a relatively short hike for a short autumn day, but still a significant climb to the tallest peak in Hokkaido.

“Well… we could try walking around the lakes and see if it clears up?” I suggested. Keith nodded in agreement, and we zipped up our rain coats and headed out into the fog. Maybe we would keep climbing if we felt like it.

At Full Moon Pond, we spotted a patch of blue sky, and by the time we got to Husband and Wife lakes, a startlingly clear view of the side of the mountain. We could almost see the peak, which reflected back out of the dark water. Just past Mountain-View Lake, a blue streak appeared between layers of clouds.

We decided to climb. I had this weird confidence it was going to be clear when we got to the top. This was going to be amazing.

My confidence grew as the fog kept lifting, always just a little bit ahead of us, as we climbed. We saw a hiker with red backpack disappearing into the fog above us, then reappearing, then disappearing again. At the sixth station, a bit of sun lit up the side of the mountain, and in the valley below, the mountain shrubs’ autumn foliage flamed red.

Then, between the seventh and eighth stations, the fog stopped lifting. The strong wind came up over the ridge, pelting us with rain. “If this keeps up, we’re going to have to turn back,” warned Keith. Just before the ninth station, we passed a young woman in a rain slicker on her way down. “How was it? Did you make it to the top?” we asked. “Yeah… it was cold. I couldn’t see anything!”

But we kept going, holding out hope for a clear view from the top. Only 100 meters left to climb. We’ll make it, I thought. We can’t give up now!

We turned a corner and found snow on the ground, probably from last night. How much longer? Who knew? We stumbled on through total whiteout, with rain falling sideways. We guessed that the temperature was close to freezing.

We came over one last ridge, and the trail flattened out. Was this the top? It didn’t clear up. In fact, it started raining harder. We found the top-of-mountain signpost, took our selfies and then immediately turned around and clomped as fast as we could down the mountain. I couldn’t feel my legs, but I was sure that my knees would pay for this rough descent once they thawed.

We emerged from the fog below the sixth station, and shortly after that met a guy attempting the climb in tennis shoes and a jeans jacket. “You’ll never make it dressed like that,” we warned him. He smiled and thanked us, then kept going.

Heavy rain turned to downpour the last few hundred meters. We arrived back at the top of the ropeway, dripping wet, miserable, and chilled. What was this all about? Where had all that confidence gotten me?

I can certainly say that after all that, lunch (steaming hot curry-rice with local vegetables) tasted amazing. During the course of lunch, my legs thawed, and I discovered, as we took the stairs to exit the restaurant, that indeed, my knees had not appreciated our style of descent. We headed straight for the onsen to cure our weary muscles and joints.

By late afternoon, we were back in our hotel room, and I was already wearing pajamas. My clothes were hanging to dry in front of the heater. Keith looked out the window. “It’s sunny!” he exclaimed. “I’m going back out!” I whimpered something about wet clothes and stairs, but after seeing sunlight on the yellow maples and red Japanese rowan trees outside, I threw my clothes back on and limped down the stairs and out into the parking lot.

There was Asahidake, flaming red and glorious in the evening light, and not a single cloud.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Thanksgiving Came Early

I sighed, gazing into the empty vegetable drawer. Three days after the earthquake, the power was back on, and so was the water. The freezer was full of freezer-burned meat that needed to be eaten quickly. We had plenty of rice, a few eggs, and even a little bit of milk, but no vegetables.

I hungrily searched the garden. A few tiny leeks, a handful of herbs, an abundance of parsley, some stunted carrots; hardly enough to make a meal.

But I was not yet desperate enough to brave the lines of stern-faced housewives at the grocery store as they snapped up every scrap of fresh food before I even got through the door. What would happen, I wondered, to the people who really were desperate, who didn’t have our well-stocked pantry, or who had lost everything in their freezer? How could they compete with the others who were panic-buying simply because fresh food had become scarce?

The warm early autumn breeze carried the fragrance of yakiniku from somewhere in the neighborhood. Perhaps someone else had partially-thawed meat to use up. Our neighbor across the street stood on a ladder trimming his pine tree. Other than the grocery store, our neighborhood was a haven of peace and serenity. I sighed with regret over the beets and Swiss chard that I planted in the spring, which had been choked out by weeds in our absence over the summer. If only we had been able to plant a garden this year. I thought of our friends with large farm plots, starting to feel jealous.

Then it dawned on me that in Hokkaido in the autumn, no one needs to go hungry. The abundant vegetables in the fields don’t care one bit that there’s been an earthquake. Scarcity was an illusion that had grown in the minds of the self-sufficient. But I had no need to rely only on my own resources, and neither did anyone else. I could ask for help. What if I asked my farming friends? There was no bread in the stores, either, since there was neither milk nor eggs. I can make bread without using either. Why not make a trade?

So we asked. And our friend arrived in our genkan with a huge box of potatoes, a bag of vine-ripened tomatoes, a bundle of green beans, some eggplants, and the largest kabocha I had ever seen. “No need to return the favor,” he said, smiling. That night we ate a feast, and we continued to feast for a week.

I delivered a bag with two little loaves of fresh sourdough bread to his wife at church the following Sunday, tears in my eyes as I hugged and thanked her.

Lord of the Harvest, we give you thanks for your mercy to all of us here in Hokkaido. By your grace, the earthquake happened in autumn. No one went hungry, and no one froze. And we thank you that you welcome us to ask for help.

(By the way, we saved one pie's worth of the kabocha and froze it for our Thanksgiving pie.)

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Winter Salsa

This recipe was inspired by a huge amount of cilantro in my garden, snow in the forecast, and the need for appetizers for Thanksgiving dinner. Also, persimmons are in season, but tomatoes are not. And persimmons look like tomatoes, so it should work out, right?

Winter Salsa


  • 3 persimmons
  • 2 bell peppers
  • 1 tablespoon avocado or olive oil
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 green onions, minced
  • 1 chipotle pepper in adobo sauce, minced, with additional adobo sauce added to taste
  • Large handful of cilantro, chopped
  • Juice of one lime
  • Salt to taste


  1. Peel and cube the persimmons as you would do with tomatoes in “normal” salsa. 
  2. Fire-roast the peppers using your method of choice. I cut them in half and grilled them in my fish grill, but I am guessing most of the people who read my blog don’t have a fish grill. Allow the peppers to cool, remove as much of the skin as possible, and dice. (Or raw peppers are fine.)
  3. Heat the oil in a frying pan. Fry the onions over low heat, stirring frequently, until they are caramel brown, about 15 minutes. Add the garlic and green onions and fry them for another couple of minutes. (Or, once again, you can skip this step if you like the flavor of raw onion and garlic. I don’t.)
  4. Put the persimmons, peppers, and onion mixture in a large bowl, and season to taste with chipotle pepper, cilantro, lime juice, and salt. Enjoy!
On top of tonight's dinner...
Persimmon trees lose their leaves before the fruit falls off.