cynthia popper

Cynthia Popper

Writer/model/actor by day, English teacher by night, Cynthia covers JP Life 101 from the newbie POV. When she’s not stalking beauty trends or giving model-ly advice on her blog, she can usually be found in the Shimokita thrift shops or eating more than a reasonable amount of green tea Galbo minis.

Tiny Trees: The Art of Bonsai in Omiya-Koen


The legacy of bonsai has real historical underpinnings to Japanese culture, and the once flourishing practice of bonsai making has dwindled down to a very small, but incredibly impressive collection of artisians.

Festivals, tea ceremony, hanami: any research you do on cultural goings-on in Japan will turn up a load of options and activities, but one that most Westerners know about yet few have really experienced is the art of bonsai. While researching this article, I told a few friends living here what I was up to, and their responses were something like “Oh YEAH…bonsai. Tiny trees. Cool.”

Cool indeed. The legacy of bonsai has real historical underpinnings to Japanese culture, and the once flourishing practice of bonsai making has dwindled down to a very small, but incredibly impressive collection of artisians, many of whom live and work near Omiya-Koen in Saitama.


About a thirty-minute train ride north of Shinjuku you’ll find Omiya Station, a major hub in Saitama. Take the Tobu Noda line to the hamlet of Omiya-Koen. Just follow the signs at the station to the Bonsai Art Museum and the Omiya Bonsai Village—they’re both very well marked for visitors.


A Ridiculously Brief History of Bonsai

Bonsai can be traced back to 8th century China, to a mural of prince Li Xian holding what appears to be a tiny tree in a pot. It came to Japan about 700 years later, during the Kamakura period as souvenirs from China. Jump to the early Edo period (late 17th, early 18th centuries) when bonsai was a meditative hobby reserved for the upper classes. It wasn’t until about 200 years ago that bonsai came to the masses as a mainstream art form and hobby. During the Meji period (19th century) bonsai was an integral part of “feminine etiquette training” and sencha tea ceremony, and soon after (during the Taishu period), became a status symbol among politicians, businesspeople, and dignitaries.

The Birth of the Omiya Bonsai Village

In 1925, a group of bonsai artists relocated to Omiya from Tokyo, a move prompted by the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. They chose Omiya because of the weather and soil conditions. In 1936 there were thirty-six privately owned nurseries, but as of September 2013, there are just six. There are four requirements for being village member:

1) Resident must own ten or more bonsai.
2) The resident’s garden must be open to the public.
3) The residence must be a two-story building.
4) The resident must use hedges as live fencing.


Some considerations when visiting the village

These are private residences, not public tourist haunts. Be mindful that you’re basically wandering through people’s gardens at their homes.
Photography may or may not be allowed. When in doubt, ask.

The Omiya Bonsai Art Museum (さいたま市大宮盆栽美術館)

The Bonsai Art Museum was established in 2010 and hosts about 50,000 visitors annually. The outdoor exhibit rotates about sixty bonsai at a time, most of which are gifts from large companies. The museum features bonsai ceramics, examples of traditional bonsai rooms, and an exhibition hall containing rare images and a historical timeline of bonsai in Japan. English is spoken at the museum, and an audio tour is available for an additional 300 yen. Behind the museum you’ll find a small outdoor gift shop (it’s a nursery) with bonsai and ceramics for sale, with prices ranging from 150- 20000 yen.

The museum also holds monthly workshops in bonsai making, featuring a different varietal each month. At 2500 yen, this is the perfect add-on to museum visit.

The Anatomy of Bonsai

So you know what you’re looking at, here are a few of the features of bonsai and some of the most popular varieties.


The roots are a sign of vitality and a key component in bonsai appreciation. Visible rootage (nebari) is judged on its quantity and direction.

Happo-nebari means visible root spread in all directions—a good thing.
Bankon is the rock-like formation of roots, creating a thick base for the tree.
The lowest part of the trunk, “tachi agari” is categorized by its shape and style.
Kabudachi, “clump trunk”
Sokan “twin trunk” (looks like two trees in the same pot)

Gokan: The “five-trunk” style.
Moyogi “curved trunk” (usually manipulated by wiring)
Chokkan “straight, upright trunk” This is a formal and very symmetrical style.
Fuinagashi “windswept style” Just like the name implies, this tree looks like it’s been exposed to fierce winds. Very asymmetrical.
Bunjin: “Literati style” Breaks all of the rules of conventional bonsai. (Pretty much anything goes).



The branches are judged primarily on their shape, which can be manipulated by wiring or pruning.

Ebaburi, “gracefully shaped branches” are the goal.
Imi eda “faulty branches” are considered crude.


Leaves are meticuously pruned and judged on quantity, condition, and overall aesthetic as it relates to the breed. Much like a purebred in a dog show, bonsai have specific qualities expected for a given tree (i.e. the Goyo-matsu (五葉松 ) “Japanese five-needle pine” should have plentiful, short, glossy needles).

Speaking of goyo-matsu, here are a few other popular varieties to look out for:

Shimpaku(真柏): Japanese juniper
Seigen(清玄): Japanese maple
Tsukikage sokan (真杏): Japanese apricot
Karin(花梨): Chinese Quince This is an especially important variety, many politicians (including the Prime Minister) own Karin, as an artful symbol of status.

Tranquil, artful, outdoorsy—spending a warm afternoon checking out bonsai culture in Omiya-Koen is so worthwhile. The blend of history, art, and nature makes this a perfect springtime day trip.


The Deets:
The Omiya Bonsai Art Museum, Saitama 
Admission: 300 yen
Station: Omiya-Koen, (by way of Tobu Noda line)
2-24-3 Toro-cho, Kita Ward, Saitama City



Simple, vibrant, lovely. Ikebana is the Japanese art of flower arranging. The practice relies on the concepts of negative space and harmony to create a small and fleeting representation of the universe.

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What Am I Eating? Five Onigiri, Translated


Satisfying, cheap and delicious – onigiri is the staple of Tokyoites on the go. Cynthia breaks down the kanji for a few of her favourite onigiri.

Satisfying, cheap, plentiful—onigiri is the healthier alternative for your late-night konbini raids or mid-day “holy-crap-I’m-starving-and-have-no-time” moments. Onigiri (お握り “rice ball”) is a soft triangle or round form of rice, usually wrapped in nori, and stuffed with fish, pickles, roe… or something.

Here are a few I’ve tried, with kanji translations.

1) Yaki Tarako (Grilled Cod Fish Roe)

Salty, tiny bead eggs, often mixed with mayo. Not my favorite, but not horrendous either, tarako is popular in all kinds of Japanese dishes, from noodles to sushi, and is found in bentos and markets everywhere.


2) Bene Shake (Grilled Red Salmon)
There are several words for salmon. I’m learning them all because salmon is my friend.

So there’s shake (some say this is referring only to cooked salmon, some say that’s not true—the salmon in this onigiri was definitely cooked)


3) Bene Sake (usually refers to raw or sushi salmon, but katakana “salmon” is how most people request it in sushi restaurants)


4) Salmon Mayo
This is one of my favorites, because a) it tastes yum and b) I can read it.


5) Hokkaido Salmon and Ikura

Ikura is salmon roe, the big, orange, bubble eggs, and Hokkaido is famous for having the best salmon roe in Japan. Ikura is in loads of Japanese dishes, and is especially popular in chirashi sushi (bowl of sushi rice topped with loads of fish. So yum!).


Other fillings include:

Umezuke (梅漬け) pickled ume (Japanese plum)

Konbu (昆布) kelp

Mentaiko (明太子) another cod roe

Pickled takana (高菜 ) mustard greens

Okaka (おかか) dried tuna… this is also known as katsuobushi (鰹節)- the dried fish flakes (it’s a different fish than bonito).

There are countless options to choose from, but knowing a few of the kanji can keep you from getting a mouthful of OOHNO.

Mystery Food Tips:
I keep shots of my favorites on my phone until I memorize them.
Lawson’s has photos next to the onigiri so you at least have an idea of what you’re getting. Handy!

If you a have favorite, post a pic and description below in the comments!


The Sweet Flavors of Spring in Japan

Spring in Japan means sakura blossoms and sakura flavoured snacks from many western brands such as Starbucks and McDonald’s.

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Behind the Wheel: Ceramics Classes in Minato-ku


GP Contributor Cynthia Popper gets down and dirty with a fun pottery class in Minato-ku.

Writers are all up in their heads all day long. Heck, people are all up in their heads all day long. Sometimes, you just want to stop thinking and get your hands dirty. Get away from your keyboard and make something. You don’t have to be an artist to create something cool– in fact Uzumako Ceramics is all about making tactile creativity accessible to all. And bonus: it’s super, super fun.

Iranian-born Teimour Sabouri didn’t set out to become a ceramic artist. “I studied math and psychics, then switched to Craft Arts.” He took off from there, getting both an M.F.A. and Ph.D. in Ceramics from Tokyo University of the Arts. He founded Uzumako two years ago with his fellow artist partners to bring ceramics to the masses, offering affordable classes for students ages four and up.

The studio is small, with five potter’s wheels and a table for handwork. I took the one-hour trial lesson on the potter’s wheel—which includes a demonstration of how to work the clay and the wheel, and studio time to make as many pieces as you can during that time.

After learning to knead the air out of the clay, Teimour gave me a brief rundown on the wheel and then cut me loose. Instantly I could tell this was going to become an addicting hobby. Gooey hands creating bowls, cups, vases, and misshapen blobs (when I screwed up he jumped in to trim or recover the work). Learning pressure, smoothness, wetness, and wheel speed all take time, but considering it was my first time working with clay, I was pretty happy with the pieces I turned out. It’s cathartic, focused, and just plain fun.


I made four really simple pieces: a bowl, a dish, a teacup, and a vase. Firing fees depend on the size, and you have the option of coming back for a second lesson on trimming and a third for glazing, or you can let the artists finish the work for you. I chose the latter, simply because I want more wheel time before I learn how to detail my work. I signed my two pieces chosen to be fired and picked out the glazes—Teimour will email me in a few weeks when they’re ready to be picked up.

What a lovely way to try something new, use your hands, and make gifts for your people. It’s a fun date idea too. So step away from the computer and get behind the wheel.

The Deets:

Uzumako Ceramic Art School
Trial Lesson Fee 3500 yen + firing fee
Every day: 10am – 7pm (Friday closed)
Address: PBO: 105-0014 3-29-11,Shiba,Minato Ku,Tokyo


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Unmasking Meds: Allergies in Japan


Spring in Japan means allergies. Here’s a quick look at some of the common allergy medication that is available either by prescription or over the counter.

It seems like every native citizen Japan has them, and come soon, the entire country will be strapped in one giant surgical mask. For a newcomer arriving just as allergy season hits, it feels a little like walking into a national quarantine unit– seeing hundreds of people in surgical masks blaze through Shinjuku Station is enough to make any newbie a little nervous. My first month here I didn’t know what half of my new co-workers looked like because they were all cloaked in face masks.

Kafunshō (花粉症 ), or pollen allergies, are super common in Japan. I’ve been told that if you don’t have allergies now, stay here a while and you’ll eventually develop them (yay!). If you find yourself sneezing your face off while the cherry blossoms are blooming, you might be getting a real case of The Allergics. And if you already have allergies… woo. You know it’s time to prepare.

There are loads of non-drug ways to help fight off symptoms you probably already know: the masks, keeping your house and clothing dust-free, and being super clean in general all help lower your exposure to pollen. But, all told, most folks I know take something, either RX or OTC to alleviate allergic misery.

A lot of newcomers bring a supply of drugs over with them, or think “Hey I’ll have so-and-so send them to me.” BUT… there are pretty strict OTC drug laws here—don’t start your new life here by unwittingly becoming a drug smuggler.

Over-the-counter drugs in Japan are categorized according to severity of side-effects and potency; they come in three classes. You can tell which class the drug falls in by looking at the bottom corner and finding the kanji listed for each:

Class 1: (第1類医薬品): These may require a consultation with the pharmacist, as they might have impairing side effects. The laws on OTC drugs are changing, so when in doubt, bring a translator and seek professional advice.

Class 2: (第2類医薬品): These don’t require a consultation. These are the category many OTC allergy and cold meds fall under. You can buy these online or at your local drugstore.

Class 3: (第3類医薬品): These don’t have known side effects. Buy at any drugstore.

You can obviously see a doctor and get allergy meds if you’re profoundly plagued, but there are a few OTC products available. Disclosure: I’m a writer, not an allergist—these are just products I’ve seen, researched and/or tried).

This is a well known allergy brand makes antihistamine eye drops, nose sprays, and allergy medication itchy eyeballs and congestion due to dust or pollen. You can find the line at Matsumoto or online at Rakuten or Kenzo.

Purple Shot:
I freaking love Purple Shot. It’s a numbing throat spray that just makes everything in the world right. This is a good product to keep in your medical stash for colds, allergy irritation, or too much karaoke. At Matsumoto.

A multi-symptom allergy tablet like Claritin or Allegra that can be found at any drug store. The directions say to take at bedtime (read: it’s probably going to knock you out.)

The old stand-by. I didn’t see Allegra at Matsumoto, but you can buy 120mg tablets online at Rakuten.

Need a doc? Here’s a great resource…

International Medical Hotline:
The Association of Medical Doctors in Asia (AMDA) For English-speaking specialists or GPs in your area. Everyone needs this number in their phones.

So breathe easy people. It’s almost time for Hanami!


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Online Shopping in Japan: The Pre-Paid Card Primer


Pre-paid credit cards are available at all konbini stores but how easy are they to use for the non-Japanese speaker? We take a look at some of the most popular cards for shopping online.

Here’s the situation: You live in Japan. You don’t speak Japanese. You like stuff.

Getting a credit card is possible, but frankly, to a newcomer or transient expat, this is an intimidating proposition. So what do you do when you want to shop online but not use your credit card from back home?

Buy a pre-paid card at the konbini. There are a few to choose from, and some are much easier than others.

Amazon cards are available in 3,000 yen and 5,000 yen denominations. While these cards are the most limited in variety (no Visa or MasterCard functionality—it’s like a gift card) it’s also the easiest to use. iTunes, Google Play, and other vendor-specific cards you see at the konbini work the same way—basically—you’re buying store credit.

TO USE: Buy, scratch off the code on the back, and enter that code under “Gift Cards and Promotional Codes.” Boom. Done.

PROS: Super easy and English-friendly. I love because they have a decent variety and ship insanely fast—you can even schedule your shipment.

CONS: You can only use at… and you can’t use it to pay for purchases at the konbini. (But if you’re already shopping online, who cares?)

BUY AT: Family Mart, Mini Stop


The Rakuten Virtual Pre-paid came out last year. It’s available in denominations from 500 to 50,000 yen, and functions as a pre-paid Mastercard, so you can shop with it anywhere Mastercard is accepted online.

PROS: Easily available, and Rakuten has a much bigger selection of goodies than Plus, it’s a pre-paid MC, not a gift card.

CONS: You do have to register the card online, in Japanese, using the half-width characters. If you’re decent at Japanese or have a friend who can help you out—this shouldn’t be a deal breaker. And though it’s a prepaid MasterCard, you can still only use it online.

BUY AT: 7-11, MiniStop, et al.


The Vanilla Pre-Paid seems the most user-friendly of all the Visa/MC “register” cards. You buy the card, register online (again—you might need help!) but the site interface is much smoother and from reports I’ve received, it’s the card people go back to.

PROS: Easy to find, fairly easy to use. Buy, register, and get your cc# and security code like a regular credit card. BOOM. InstaVisa.

CONS: Even though it’s supposed to be a virtual Visa, not all merchants will take this card. There’s a list of merchant on their site that cannot accept Vanilla.

BUY AT: Lawson’s, Mini Stop, 7-11

VPC Lifecard

The Visa Pre-Paid Virtual Credit Card (a.k.a the VPC Lifecard)

This isn’t a physical card, but rather a voucher you can buy for Visa credit through any Family Mart. I don’t recommend this method for novice Japanese speakers like me– it requires using the red, Family Mart pre-paid shopping machine and is pretty intimidating. I finally asked the clerk to help me.

Once you buy the voucher, you have to register it online (just like Rakuten and Vanilla), again, all in Japanese. I had a Japanese friend of mine help me translate and even he had a tough time figuring it out (those half-width characters again!).

That said—I did get my “credit card number” and “security code.” And was able to shop online.

PROS: Available anywhere

CONS: Not all merchants accept this one either. I tried using it an an independent UK shop and it didn’t work, but accepted it.

BUY AT: 7-11, Mini-Stop, Lawson’s Family Mart, Daily Yamakazi, Circle K SunKus


Tips For Shopping Online

Online shopping in Japan can be fantastic for buying domestic items cheaply. Everything from electronics to groceries can be purchased online, sometimes at half the regular in store price.

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Andy Warhol Exhibit at the Mori Art Museum


When you hear the name Andy Warhol, you can’t help but immediately visualize his work and the iconic names indelibly attached: Jackie. Marilyn. Elvis. Campbell’s.

His work collectively is a well-worn print in the fabric of the American art scene, so ubiquitous that it’s become almost invisible.

When you hear the name Andy Warhol, you can’t help but immediately visualize his work and the iconic names indelibly attached: Jackie. Marilyn. Elvis. Campbell’s. His work collectively is a well-worn print in the fabric of the American art scene, so ubiquitous that it’s become almost invisible.

To those around in Warhol’s heyday, he was the experimental ringleader of the 1960’s underground art movement. For those for born a bit later, Warhol is a brand, a commercialized fixture in the socio-pop-art universe (there are even apps to “Warhol-ize” your phone pics). 15 Minutes Eternal reminded me that Warhol was more than a Technicolor ad-print franchise. He was also an artist.

In association with Moleskine (yes, the notebook people) Warhol Museum director Eric Shiner has collaborated with museums across Asia to present the exhibition, with stops in Singapore, Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, and until May, the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo. The show commemorates the Mori Museum’s tenth anniversary.

To curate a retrospective for an artist as prolific as Warhol is a massive undertaking, but Shiner and Mori director Fumio Nanjo have clearly taken painstaking efforts to represent the collection with justice. The exhibit features over 700 pieces, ranging from his earliest sketches in the 40’s, to his provocative silkscreens and repetitious neon celebrity commissions, up to his collaborations in the 80’s with Jean-Michel Basquiat.

The collection of self-portraiture and candid photography is especially alluring, giving a glimpse into his inner world (which was admittedly, was pretty public, especially for this period.) Warhol exposed himself in compelling ways long before the term “selfie” entered the Oxford English Dictionary.

Other show highlights include selections from Warhol’s unsettling Death and Disaster series, the Time Capsules room, which features everyday items from Warhol’s personal life, and a 120 square meter replica of Warhol’s studio, infamously known as “The Factory”, where museum-goers can get a sense of where he and his underground “superstars” worked, lived, and partied.

Challenging, powerful, mused: 15 Minutes Eternal is a deep dive into the history and artistic process of this iconic pop master. To learn more about Warhol, check out the Warhol Museum website.

The Deets:
Andy Warhol, 15 Minutes Eternal
Now through May 6th
Mori Art Museum 53F Roppongi Hills Mori Tower
Tickets: 1500 yen


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How to Deal with Losing a Loved One Back Home


A few weeks ago, my mom died in California. I was teaching in Saitama when I got the news, and it was by far the most shocking thing that’s ever happened to me. Here are some thoughts about coping with loss in Japan, and what I’m doing to get through it.

A few weeks ago, my mom died in California. I was teaching in Saitama when I got the news, and it was by far the most shocking thing that’s ever happened to me. Here are some thoughts about coping with loss in Japan, and what I’m doing to get through it.

Find out your company’s policy on bereavement.

Luckily, I work for a company that’s incredibly supportive and cool—I’ve heard that’s not always the case for foreigners working in Japan. My work is giving me pretty generous unpaid leave so I can go to the memorial and be with loved ones. I’ve heard stories of company reactions ranging from stoic to paternal, so brace yourself and understand what you’re able to do to keep your job and deal with your situation.

Treat yourself well. I mean really well.

Want to sleep? Sleep. Sleep a lot. Eat like a queen. Now is not the time to be practical or stingy with yourself. If you’re like me, you have an ongoing laundry list of things “you ought to get to.” Yeah that list is under a shopping bag full of chocolate and massage oil somewhere. Massages, onsen, vitamins, fresh made juice, high-quality food and lots and lots of water. The physical pain of grief was also unexpected, so taking care of your physical self is just as important as tending to the mental stuff.

Be with people you trust.

I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a mushy-smushy, Oprah Moment kind of girl. I want to be alone, I like to be alone, so for me, the disconnection of distance isn’t entirely unwelcome. That said—my friends here have been so supportive: bringing me food, dragging me out on occasion, and helping me find professional resources for dealing with grief. Talking helps.


I’ve been writing a lot about the things I loved about my mom. No doubt you’ll go through the usual stages of grief, and they can be exacerbated by the distance and isolation. Writing it all out is super-therapeutic, and lets you purge the stuff you might not be ready to talk about with anyone else.

Here are a few resources. Most don’t take NHI, but do have sliding scales or can work with you if you need help.

Tokyo Counseling Services

Tokyo English Life Line (TELL): They have a free, confidential hotline and can refer you to a grief counselor.

Tokyo Therapy

If you’ve been here a while and have additional tips to share, post them in the comments below.


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Ticking Clocks and Green Zebra Pants: Online Dating in Japan


Meeting people anywhere can be tricky business, but for foreigners in Japan, it can be crazy tough. I’m not talking about bar-hopping, hook-up action… I’m talking about meeting people you might have something in common with and maybe even actually…date more than once?

Meeting people anywhere can be tricky business, but for foreigners in Japan, it can be crazy tough. I’m not talking about bar-hopping, hook-up action… I’m talking about meeting people you might have something in common with and maybe even actually…date more than once?

In Japan, language barriers, cultural differences, social morays make breaking the ice with someone you’re attracted to downright frustrating. So rather than getting dolled up and perching at a bar, many folks head home after work, put on their stretchy pants and tomato-stained t-shirts, and market themselves on the dating websites.

This isn’t a diss to the sites. I tried it myself when I came to Japan in an attempt to meet new people to hang out with. I quickly learned that I’m much better in the physical world when it comes to figuring out compatibility (and I’m also a total hermit.) I’ve even heard a few success stories… but the un-success stories are waaaay better.

Green Zebra Pants

“Gemma” is a 30 year-old Australian living in Osaka. She’s since found a great guy on JapanCupid, but has had her share of one-offs.

He was a 40-year old Japanese guy who is the lead singer of a rock band, and runs his own accessory export business – sounds fun right? Well I guessed he was a little eccentric from his profile pics, but thought I’d give it a shot as we had really similar interests.

He suggested we meet at Dotonbori and go somewhere for drinks from there. I was greeted by a short but svelte man in lime green, skin-tight zebra-print pants, a midriff top (also skin tight), bleached blonde Bon Jovi-esque hair (circa 1986), adorned in bracelets and accessories of varying colours.

He looked like he just stepped out of some weird Japanese Hair Metal cover band. 

After greeting each other, he presented a bottle of wine, some paper cups, and a bucket of ice from his backpack and suggested we find a spot on the concrete in front of the dirty Dotonbori River to drink it. The reason, he said, was that all the bars and restaurants in the area were very expensive! I suppose this was his idea of an economical date.

 So the cheapness mixed with the questionable sexuality/fashion sense meant he didn’t get a second date.

This is obviously a stand-out… Gemma also found several nice Japanese guys who were willing to take her out on an actual date.

Sexy Time

Heather, dated a younger guy for a little while, and learned the Japanese code for Sexy Time is inviting someone to your apartment. A few women have told me about this–apparently there’s no such thing as a platonic social house call with Japanese guys?

He would always order dinner for me and was quite respectful.  We went out for dinner about 4 times. I then invited him to my house to cook for him, like a thank you for taking me out. Obviously that was an invitation to have sex in his eyes. To be fair, it was quite innocent in mine.

Heather and her younger guy did date for a while, but there was no long-term potential for him because she didn’t fit his timeline. After a few weeks of dating, he broke it down for her thusly:

In 3 years’ time he wanted to get married, by which point I would be looking older. And in 5 years’ time he wanted to have kids, at which point I will be “too old inside” to have children!

It’s worth noting that in five years, Heather would be in her late 30s. Where I’m from, (California) many women start having children around this age. A male friend who’s been a decades-long resident of Japan recently told me “Japanese women are extremely practical.” It seems the same can be said for some Japanese men.

Maybe to champion the dating virtues of disclosure and efficiency, there could be a drop down box to check on the profile next to “Religion” and “Vegetarianism” an “Ovaries under 30” box?

Heather is still on the dating interwebs, doing her thing and having a lot of fun. If you’re willing to put yourself out there, meeting new people via dating websites is at the very least an interesting social experiment. You can meet people you normally wouldn’t hang out with which can be fun with the right attitude.

Looking Online

If you’re looking to meet someone new, or just find new people in your area, here are a couple of sites worth checking out:

Even thought Japan is a relatively safe country with a low crime rate, you should exercise caution if you decide to take your online chat into the offline universe.

  • Always meet in public. Meet for the first time in a populated, public location—never in a private or remote location.
  • Tell a friend. Inform a friend or family member of your plans and when and where you’re going. If you own a mobile phone, make sure you have it with you.
  • Stay sober. Do not do anything that would impair your judgment and cause you to make a decision you could regret.
  • Prepare your own transportation. Just in case things don’t work out, you need to be in control of your own ride—even if you take a taxi. Remember what time the last train is.
  • Don’t leave personal items unattended. You don’t want to risk having personal information stolen. If you’re drinking, keep your drink with you at all times so it can’t be tampered with.
  • Stay in a public place. It is best not to go back to your date’s home or bring them back to yours on the first date. If your date pressures you, end the date and leave at once.

Only ladies stepped forward to share their tales with me. Guys: I’d love to hear your experiences of digital dating here. What’s your story?


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Do you have any edamame gyuunyuu?


Here’s a short list of useful terms to know when you visit a Japanese grocery store for the first time.

True story: I lived in Japan for two days before I went to the grocery store for the first time. I really only wanted two things: cereal and soy milk. I knew what cereal looked like, but had no idea which carton in the milk case was soy.

Being a jetlagged idiot, I didn’t think to Google it, and decided I was going to try to COMMUNICATE IN JAPANESE. This is what my dumb brain told me:

Soybean = Edamame
Milk = Gyuunyuu

So I walked up to the clerk and asked, “Edamame gyuunyuu?” (I swear it made sense at the time.) Her face was a mix of confusion and pity– thankfully an old lady with English skills was right there to save us. Sad.

If you don’t speak Japanese, going to the grocery store for the first time is intimidating. A trip that should take twenty minutes takes well over an hour—translating bottles and packages without pictures is a hurdle most expats face daily.

Most foreigners I know ate a lot of ramen, sushi, and fried chicken their first few months here until figuring out their grocery “regulars.” And I’m still pretty new here, so this is far from an exhaustive list, but here are a few things I buy weekly and think are worth knowing about.

Soy Milk (豆乳 Tounyuu): An old school gaijin friend explained to me: Tofu + gyuunyuu. Ohhhhh.

Almond Milk (アーモンドミルク): So anyone who’s read my stuff knows that almond milk is really my top choice. Almond Breeze was released in Japan last September, but it’s still pretty hard to find. I can get another brand at National Azuban… for 800 yen a carton.

Nabe Base: Easiest one pot meal ever. Put the soup in the pot, add vegis, meat or tofu, and BOOM. Done deal. Healthy, easy, yummy, cheap. I love this one.

Kamabuko: These little fried fish cakes are a yummy ingredient in Oden (Japanese hot pot) but they have sort of an egg-y omelette quality to them. I eat them for breakfast with fruit all the time. Are you “supposed” to eat them this way? No. Is it delicious? Yes.


Tsukemono (漬物): I’m a tsukemono-aholic. There are a million different kinds, but my favorites include:

Takuan: These are the pickled daikon served as a side to bentos. Crunchy, sweet, with a slightly squeaky bite. So yum.

Shibazuke: Woo- do I love these guys (cucumbers pickled in plum vinegar). If you like crunchy, sour, salty stuff, you’re welcome. I buy the chopped up ones at the store and eat them with fish, eggs, meat, rice bowls… (who am I kidding I just eat them out of the container…). NOM.

Rakkyo: Next to the Shibazuke, these are my second favorites. I first tried these at a friend’s house for dinner and became immediately hooked. These pickled scallions are way way sweeter that the others, so you can OD on them a little bit. I buy the sacks with the thinly sliced chilis in them for a little spice. I serve them with salads or starters, but use more sparingly because to me they’re pretty tangy.

Okay Let’s talk meat.

Kanji Meat: A Quick Guide

鶏肉 — toriniku (chicken)
豚 — butaniku (pork)
牛 — gyuuniku (beef)

肩肉 – shoulder / chuck: use this one for curry
サーロイン – sirloin (steak)
和牛 – Wagyu (high grade beef, so good)

Fish: the raw and the cooked. It’s pretty straightforward:

加熱用 – means you need to cook this fish
刺身用 — means sashimi grade. Just eat it.

I can keep going on the google-ables, but I’d like to crowdsource specific foods or brands from you guys. Post your photos, links, tips, names, kanji in the comments section. The newcomers need to know what they’re missing!


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Newcomer Checklist: Emergency Kit Basics


Living in Japan means living on a geological Tilt-a-World, so being prepared for shutdowns makes a whole lot of sense.

Did you know Japan is smack dab on the intersection of several continental plates, as well as home to over 100 active volcanoes, more than any other country on the planet?

We live basically live on a geological Tilt-a-World, so being prepared for shutdowns makes a whole lot of sense.

Most people I’ve talked to haven’t really thought much about emergency prep here, but when you’re jolted awake at 2:00 a.m. I’m definitely reminded of where I’m at on the planet.

The good news is that to put together an emergency kit is not tough to do: you can throw one together at the 100 yen for cheap.

Here’s a super basic list for a 24 hour single pack.

  • Water (10L minimum for a single person)
  • Flashlight
  • Batteries
  • Non-perishable food
  • Basic first aid kit
  • Candles and matches
  • Copies of your important docs like your foreigner card and your passport
  • Map of the evacuation area in your neighborhood.

You can obviously get fancy with whatever you put in it, or go even fancier and order a kit from Rakuten.

I’ve been here a year now and felt at least six quakes. Having the basics on hand just lets you rest a little easier—that alone is worth the effort to me.

For links to more detailed information on emergency preparedness, check out my interview with military safety expert, John Guliani.


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Lovely for a Little While: Ikebana in Aoyama

ikebana_2 Image © Dani Armengol Garreta

Simple, vibrant, lovely. Ikebana is the Japanese art of flower arranging. The practice relies on the concepts of negative space and harmony to create a small and fleeting representation of the universe.

Simple, vibrant, lovely. Ikebana (生け花, “living flowers”) is the Japanese art of flower arranging.

The practice relies on the concepts of negative space and harmony to create a small and fleeting representation of the universe. The instructors at the Sogetsu school in Aoyama described ikebana as “a connection between heaven, earth, and humanity.”

Sogetsu Ikebana School in Aoyama holds its International Class every Monday from 10:00 to 12:00, where newcomers can take a trial lesson and learn the basics. You can register online to reserve a space, or just drop in. (FYI: There was only a handful of students working when I attended.)

The fee includes the lesson and materials (tools, papers, flowers, and practice bases), and you can take your flowers home with you at the end of the lesson and try to re-create your masterpiece at home.

For beginners, the instructors at Sogetsu suggest a basic, upright moribuna arrangement (Japanese for “piled up”).

The structural framework consists of three main elements:

Shin: the longest branch, represents heaven. It’s placed upright and to the left about 15 degrees.
Soe: the medium branch, represents humanity. It’s placed toward the front and to the left at about a 45 degree angle.
Hikae: the shortest—usually a flower, represents earth. It’s placed toward the front and to the right at an approximate 75 degree angle.

Once the basic structure is in place, the jushi is added (subordinate stems). Leaves, stems, additional flowers are added to cover the kenzan (the floral needle point holder—we call them “ floral frogs” in the States).

A basic upright moribuna arrangement is deceptively simple to compose with your hands, but the trained eyes of the instructors really come through in the final product—even with the same materials and following the same pattern angles.

I think the biggest challenge is slowing down to understand the negative space in the composition… as well as knowing when to stop adding.

There’s something truly special about ephemeral art. I found the process itself incredibly relaxing. Studying the branches, watching the experts carefully trim leaves and wire stems. The studio has a full wall of windows with a peaceful, treetop view, so you’re working in tons of natural light.

One of reasons any craft hobby I’ve tried has ultimately failed is all of the stuff/mess/hassle that comes along with it, but at Sogestu everything you need is prepared for you—all of the tools, supplies, containers, and amazing flowers which you buy and take home to reassemble as you like.

No shopping, no house clutter: it’s your time and space to create something lovely for a little while. This alone is worth the price of admission.

The Deets:
Sogetsu Kaikan International Class
Mondays, 10:00 ~ 12:00
Trial class fee: ¥3800
The Sogetsu Kaikan
2-21, Akasaka 7-chome,
Minato-ku, Tokyo 107-8505


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The Pros and Cons of Private English Lessons


Teaching private English lessons is a good way to supplement your regular income but there are some pros and cons to going freelance.

Being a successful freelance means being consistent and prepared. It doesn’t take much effort to make a great impression, so take the extra time and do it right!

Looking to pick up some extra yen? Teaching private English lessons is a good way to earn some extra money and meet new Japanese people.

Extra cash, your own time, no work clothes: there are a lot of upsides to freelance teaching… and a few downsides too.

Here’s what I’ve found out so far:


It pays better.

Teaching at an Eikawa generally doesn’t pay well. Teaching privates, you can set your own rates and earn as much as you want.

It pays now.

Cash money yo. You get your yens immediately. Standard practice is the student gives you an envelope with your rate enclosed at either the start or end of the lesson.

You run the show.

Want to work near your house? Want to only teach adults? Business English? Cooking classes? You teach what you want, how you want.

It’s flexible.

Saving for Golden Week in Thailand? Need to cut back your hours because of band practice? It’s your business so you choose how much or little you want to work.

There’s lots of it.

With so many private dispatch companies, there’s no shortage of opportunity in most areas, but obviously the major cities are going to have larger student bases.


You gotta hustle.

Staying on top of locations, student levels, lesson plans, and scheduling all requires some organization and planning.

If you’re going to work with several students consistently, you need to have a system in place for keeping it all straight. Google calendar works for me.

I schedule the lesson immediately and add the station, location, and lesson details for each student. I review my schedule every Sunday night so I’m ready for the week.

Zero security.

There are no guarantees when you’re working for yourself. No set income, and your students can cancel anytime.

Maybe they want to try someone new, maybe they just get busy with other priorities, but you have to have a solid student base if you’re embarking on full-time freelance work.

There are loads of teachers who go for it and freelance full-time, but if you’re new in town, you might want to start freelance teaching as a sideline gig.

(Almost) zero support

One of the things I really like with the eikawa I teach for is the support. I’ve made some great friends and feel a little more settled knowing that if I get into a language jam with my mail or banking, I can always get help.

For privates, if you have a problem student—there’s no one to turn to. Being smart about how and where you teach privates is key.

No visa sponsorship

It IS possible to sponsor your own visa, but as a freelance teacher, the word on the street is that it’s a difficult process (if you know otherwise…by all means share your story!).

Eikawas make the sponsorship process a relatively smooth one, and with a humanities visa, you can do other types of work, including private teaching.


Tips and Resources.

Find Your Students

There are so many sites you can register at. I personally use Hello Sensei and Eigo Pass.

Eigo Pass sets the teaching rate and requires an (unpaid) pre-meeting and mini-trial lesson with the student and an Eigo Pass staff member to make the introduction smooth.

With Hello Sensei, you set everything: the trial lesson rate, the regular rate. In my experience, I get a LOT more lesson requests from Eigo Pass, and I think that’s due to the comfort level given by having a staff member present for the first lesson.

Lesson Plans

Most of my students want some kind of structure to the lesson—seldom do I personally get free talk lessons. Even students working on general conversation skills want weekly vocabulary lists in a particular area: travel, industry-related, even idiomatic expressions used in movies and TV.

Setting up a lesson structure is key to giving students what they want and making sure the lesson goes smoothly.


Some teachers have them, some don’t. Private teaching is a casual space, but because it’s Japan I have cards, and I always give one out when I’m introduced to a new potential student. I use’s mini-cards because their custom, inexpensive, and super cool. My students dig them.

Do’s and Don’ts


Meet in public places. Never meet in a student’s private home or any area that wasn’t a well-trafficked space open to the public. Your student will want this too, and if they don’t… maybe reconsider giving that lesson.

Be professional. And polite.

This is common sense but it bear repeating: respond to student email in a timely way, confirm locations, times, and lesson objectives.

In most cases you can wear what you want but it’s probably not a good call to roll into your private lesson a melted mess after a hot yoga class.

Being friendly and open is important, but I’m careful how much of my personal life I divulge. Getting overly familiar with your students can create miscommunication or awkward situations.

In Japan, business is really built on relationships and word-of-mouth. Your students aren’t going to refer you to their colleagues or friends if you’re not a pro.


Treat your students like your buddies.

Even though it feels like casual coffee with a new friend, remember your student is paying you to learn English. Often, students won’t interrupt you when you’re talking because they might think it’s rude, so it’s up to you to drive conversation toward the student, not toward yourself.

I’m SO guilty of nervous chatting or filling in awkward silence, because to a Westerner, silence often feels really strange. But if your student is trying to translate, you might just be screwing them up.

So be patient and make the lesson about the students and their objectives.

Be late, or flake

Early is on time, on time is late. Show up a few minutes early to get your coffee and get situated, especially if you’re new to the area. Rushing in at the last second all flustered and disheveled doesn’t exactly instill confidence in your new student.

This is obvious but if you pull a no show—it makes everyone look bad: you, the company that dispatched you, and English teachers in general.

Part of being a successful freelancer means being consistent and prepared. It doesn’t take much effort to make a great impression, so take the extra time and do it right!


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Un-Remembering Home: Reverse Culture Shock


Going home for the first time after an extended time away can be a fun but weird experience. Reverse culture shock isn’t about a new cultural experience, but rather it’s about remembering the things that you’ve forgotten.

Before moving to Japan, I honestly thought culture shock in general was imaginary. I’ve traveled to about thirty countries, some several times, some for longer than 30 days. Culture shock? That’s cute. I’m a citizen of the world, culture shock is for provincial types who stay home and watch Duck Dynasty marathons.

Needless to say, I was being a smug moron. Culture shock is real, with symptoms ranging from hyper-hermit creepiness to feral-cat freak outs.

The upshot is that it’s temporary. After a few months, you find your groove. You figure out how to pay your bills. The konbini guy knows you like Suntory Boss lattes. The dry cleaner practices her English with you. You’ve discovered your favorite café, park, and hair salon.

One day, it all suddenly becomes Your Life in Japan. And before you know it, it’s December. It’s time to visit home for the first time. Here we go again, right?

Yes and no. My expat friends told me that going back for the first time was weird, but no one told me why. I was nervous, but not sure why. What I quickly discovered was that the things that were strange were the things most familiar. Reverse culture shock isn’t about a new cultural experience. It’s about remembering the things you’ve forgotten.

I’m from San Francisco, and my sister Wendy lives in Houston, so I was making a multi-leg visit for a family Christmas, then seeing my friends in California. I was also going from Tokyo (land of the teeny) to THE BIGGEST FREAKING PLACE ON THE PLANET. But only about ten months passed between my time in the States, so I half-thought I’d get off easy, but apparently I was still operating under my disproven assumption that cultural differences wouldn’t catch me off guard. (Again… moron.)

My first tip-off was ordering at the airport Starbucks with Wendy after my 11-hour flight.

“CHAIIII LAAAAHHH TAAY please.” I enunciated to the counter staff.
“Cynthia, he speaks English. Talk normal.” My sister reminded me.

Sigh. I knew that. Why did I do that? Am I going to do this for two weeks?

A few things I un-remembered:

America is big, ergo, everything is big.

Food, freeways, free space. A large coffee in Japan is a small in The U.S. American streets and sidewalks are twice as wide as they are in Tokyo. I personally attribute this to our generally larger builds and need for a greater radius of personal space.

We like to talk

Maybe it’s because in Japan, I don’t hear a lot of English in group conversations, but I was continually distracted by people talking over each other. Clerks, friends, family, people on TV… we Americans seem interrupt each other constantly in our daily chats. I kept feeling the need to understand every little thing that was being said in my vicinity. It was frustrating and confusing… and yet familiar.

We have a LOT of stuff.

This was the big one for me. One of my missions in SF was to take a bunch of warm clothes back to Tokyo for the winter. I was aghast by how much crap I still had (have?), even after a massive pre-move sale.

Dozens of dresses, shirts, sweaters, jackets, and shoes to sort through—so much stuff I couldn’t look at it all, and it took me over two hours to pull out a suitcase’s worth of clothes. I took twice as much as I intended to bring back and sold things I really liked, but knew I’d never need.

Lots of stuff, lots of space, and lots to say. More than anything, going home reminded me of how little I really need to be content, not just here, but anywhere I choose to live.

Living in Japan has taught me about minimalism, thoughtful consumption, and patience. Being able to appreciate these lessons on both sides of the planet has been worth the confusion of un-remembering.

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Moving to Japan: The Packing List Challenge

Packing for Japan

This time of year, soon-to-be teachers are gearing up for the big move to Japan. The interviews are done, contracts have been signed, and you’re starting to prepare for a major change in your life. It’s exciting and stressful.

This time of year, soon-to-be teachers are gearing up for the big move to Japan. The interviews are done, contracts have been signed, and you’re starting to prepare for a major change in your life. It’s exciting and stressful.

Which leads to the inevitable question of “What do I bring?”

If you’re a normal person, you’ll jot down a list of what you’ll need for the time of year you’re going and stuff it all into your suitcases. But if you’re an OCD, super-organized, control freak like me, you make a spreadsheet.

Like many people, I have too much stuff. WAY too much. I had to narrow it down to the essentials I could fit in just a couple of (okay three) bags. This process is a bit overwhelming, so I did a hard-core inventory and made a list of the Top 100 items I’d need. Maybe this is a lady-thing, but I know a few guys who could use a spreadsheet too.

Japan Packing List

Looking back at this, it’s still too much (I went over the Top 100, obviously) — and I actually ended up leaving a few of these things behind at the very last minute. But giving myself a framework was extremely helpful in narrowing it all down.

Had I to do it over again, I would have brought less clothes and more shoes. Shoes are a pretty real issue for most Westerners here, men and women alike. Even if you can find your size, they might be cheap-looking, or just not your style. I prefer understated style and that can be harder to find in Japan, where kawaii reigns supreme.

I would have bought more underwear that I like. I would have brought more momentos from home. I would have also brought the toothpaste I like (maybe a weird one, but yeah).

The school I work for warned against overpacking, and for the most part, I listened. There’s really only one thing I stocked up on and am super happy I brought.

Deodorant. A year’s supply.

I highly recommend this. Once you’re here you can buy it online at Rakuten… for over eight dollars a pop! Personally, I’m really glad I stocked up.

Whatever kind of packer you are, my advice is to think minimal. Think double duty. Most of what you need you can buy here but it is nice to have some items that you can only get from home.

So happy packing, save travels, and welcome to Japan!


Cynthia Popper

Learn about modeling in Japan. Get insider tips on portfolios and auditions, and check out reviews on the best Japanese and Korean beauty products.

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