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.

Swimming in Good Grinds at Yanaka Coffee


Yanaka Coffee is quiet, non-smoking, and anti-cell phone. A perfect nook for reading, drawing and writing.

For the most part, Tokyo’s coffee culture has a decidedly plastic feel to it. Lots of big chain cafes, serving tasty (if somewhat pedestrian) snacks, laminate tables, and pre-packaged everything.

Of course Japan is a tea nation, so coffee, while making a fair showing, is not something the country is famous for. Tokyo’s micro-chain, Yanaka Coffee, is a refreshing change from the usual plastic tray-gum-syrup experience.

I stumbled upon Yanaka Coffee while searching for the “heated public pool” in Kita-Senju. Located on a charming shotengai (shopping street, 商店街), Yanaka Coffee’s rustic exterior and heaping barrels of beans immediately caught my eye.


The ambience immediately struck me of the kind of coffee house you’d find in San Francisco or Portland. It’s a small, discreet shop with just a few seats, but is quiet, non-smoking, and anti-cell phone. A perfect nook for reading, drawing, or writing.

Beans are sold in 100g quantities, then roasted and ground to your specifications. They offer straight and blended beans from everywhere: Columbia, Brazil, Peru, the Dominican Republic. I like dark coffee, so I asked for a dark roast (they have a 1-10 scale- I went with a 9) and the barista selected an Indonesian bean and told me it would take about ten minutes to roast and grind for my paper-drip rig at home.

While I waited, I was served complimentary samples of the both the hot and iced daily blends from the Dominican. Rich, earthy, and very freshly roasted. 200 grams is normally 1050 yen, but if you’re local, you can sign up for a point card and immediately get 300 yen off (30% off just like that?). They can even deliver bean bags to your place. And if you’re just visiting, Yanaka offers worldwide shipping and a variety of gift sets.


They also offer a sweets set menu with lovely pastries and cakes– the ubiquitous hermetically sealed brownies were nowhere to be found. A cup of coffee runs about 240 yen and the sets are under 700 yen. So yum.

Free samples, instant discounts, and chill coffee house vibe. I think I’ve found my new office space. I never did find that pool.

The Deets:
Yanaka Coffee
24 locations in Tokyo
Hours: 11:00am -20:00


Trying Vinegar-topped Ice-cream at Osuya

Osuya, which means “the vinegar shop” in Japanese, sells various flavors of dessert vinegar and also has a small restaurant that serves vinegar-based drinks, food, and sweets.

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Summer in Japan: You Gotta Get a Yukata


Summer in Japan means hot, sweaty, sticky hell! Time to bust out the most summery of garments, the yukata.

It’s rainy season here in Japan, but before long the Hanabi (花火, fireworks festivals) will be making their fiery rounds across the country, taking their unofficial exit with Obon (お盆) in August.

If you’re new to Japan, here’s a newsflash: summer in Japan is hot. It’s sticky. Most foreigners melt into the sidewalks, only to be reanimated by the arctic blasts of the train AC. But fear not, sweaty newbie, for the traditional summer fashions of Japan are pretty much spot on, featuring the most summery of garments: the yukata.

A yukata (浴衣) is a type of summer kimono, made of unlined cotton, and worn by both men and women. Some people prefer to wear jinbei (甚平, a short kimono and shorts set) for festivals, but the Japanese folks I’ve spoke to told me that jinbei is really to wear around the house. (Is this a debatable fashion issue? Discuss amongst yourselves).

Design and Pattern

Yukata are constructed of straight seams and have no curves or particular fit to them, save for the wide sleeves and robe length. The traditional fit is to have the bottom hem hit at the ankle. The sleeve extension varies- sleeves on lady-yukata are generally much wider than the man-version.

Patterns for young women are usually bright and floral, for older women and men they tend to come in more muted tones and patterns, indigo being the most traditional color.


How to Wear

The left side of the robe is wrapped over the right and tied with a koshi-himo (腰紐, a simple, thin sash) for men, or an additional obi (帯, wide sash) for women, which is tied in the back. Traditionally yukata are worn with geta (下駄, traditional Japanese wooden sandals) and bare feet. I’ve asked a few local women about the shoe situation, and the consensus is that, nowadays, you can wear just about any cute sandal with a yukata– not wearing geta isn’t going to get you flagged by the Japanese Fashion Police.

For girls who like to be fancy, you can wear a kanzashi (簪) a hair ornament (kind of like an ice pick) or comb worn with kimono or yukata. They range in style from super flowery and ornate to sleek, colorful designs in resin or metal.

Underneath the yukata tradition says you should wear hada-juban (肌襦袢), a thin washable layer that is a cross between an undershirt and a slip. The ladies I spoke to said just wearing a tank top and shorts, or a slip is enough; just make sure whatever you wear is thin, form-fitting, and breathable for comfort.

Where to Buy

There are loads of specialty kimono and yukata shops, and the prices vary dramatically, from 2000 JPY to insanely expensive. Most department stores, like Marui, also sell yukata, but again, the prices tend to be higher. In Tokyo, Nippori’s Fabric Town District offers a wide range of both new and vintage kimono and yukata at very affordable prices.

If you want to buy a new yukata just for a summer party or Hanabi, check out Ito Yokado or Uniqlo for cute, inexpensive styles. Rakuten also sells inexpensive yukata, and even rents out full sets (including yukata, koshi-himo, obi, and geta) for single event wear.


Cooling Down with the Kanto Area Pass

The Kanto Area Pass offers unlimited travel within the greater Kanto area for 3 consecutive days on ANY JR train – including the Shinkansen – for only ¥8,300!

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The Tea Commandments: Mohini and the Art of Brewing

mohini-tea Image © Dominique Archambault

If you want to try a local, non-chain, true tea experience Mohini’s is a must-try. A lovely reprieve from the tall-chai-latte.

Sencha, Earl Grey, Genmaicha: Tokyo boasts countless tea shops, serving up every blend and leaf you can possibly imagine, but one little shop near Yotsuya Station not only pours some of the finest brew in town, it makes sure you do it correctly at home.

Meet Toshi Yamaguchi, owner of Tea Shop Mohini. Unlike most artisans in Japan, Yamaguchi-san doesn’t come from a long line of tea makers. For most of his professional life, he’s been an accountant.

“About ten years ago I decided to make a change. I went to classes on tea making for over a year through the Nihon Tea association. I was the old man in the class, most of the other students were women younger than my daughter!”


His passion drove him to open his first shop in Akebonobashi, where he carried over 60 types of tea. The new location features a retail shop with over 160 types from Sri Lanka, India, Nepal, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and all over Japan. Organics, herbals, florals, all well-priced and prettily packaged.

Yamaguchi-san brews tea with the attention to detail you’d expect from any true connoisseur, and the results are invariably, delicious.

“Water. It’s all about the water. Here in Japan we have soft water, so the steeping takes less time. Overseas, in England for example, the water is hard, so a tea that takes one minute to brew here takes three or four minutes there.”

My Lotus iced tea and lemon tart set was nothing short of perfection—Mohini’s menu features a range of cup, glass, and pot options, as well as a well-edited menu of complimentary sweets and sandwiches. The shelves are lined with both bag and loose leaf options to take home, and Yamaguchi-san is more than happy to give you tips on crafting your tea properly.

Black Tea Tips

Warm everything. The pot. The cups. The strainer. Measure. One cup = one spoonful. 180ml of water. Leaf size. A heaping spoonful for three minutes for larger black teas. Smaller leaf-size means a rounded spoonful for 2.5-3 minutes.

Bag Tea Tips

As with black tea, warm your cups and pot with hot water before brewing. Respect the bag. Don’t aggressively dunk it in. Ease it into the water gently, and pull the tag across the diameter of the cup three times. Cover your cup with your saucer for 1-2 minutes before removing it.

Green Tea Tips

Buy a kyusu (急須 ) the traditional Japanese teapot characterized by the side handle. Most kyusus have a built in strainer, but if yours doesn’t, buy a strainer for pouring. You should also use traditional tea cups, called yunomi chawan, or sometimes just yumoni. Heat the water to 100 degree Celsius, then cool it down to lukewarm before brewing. Never brew green tea with piping hot water.Brew for 45 seconds—if you over-brew your tea can turn bitter. Swirl gently. You can add warm water to the kyusu up to three times to enjoy every drop of tea in the pot.

Even if you’re not a hard core tea-snob, but want to try a local, non-chain, true tea experience Mohini’s is a must-try. A lovely reprieve from the tall-chai-latte.

The Deets

Mohini Tea
Nearest station: Yotsuya
Hours: 10:00 – 19:00
Closed: Monday

Translation provided by: Christine Lundell


Learn About Japan Through Sake

If tea is not your thing and you’re looking for something a little stronger, the Sake Plaza Tokyo offers free samples of some of Japan’s finest brews. 

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The Buzz and the Hype: Beautyworld, Tokyo


Beautyworld Tokyo showcased the best in the up and coming products, gadgets, and trends in both Japanese and global beauty markets.

The largest trade show for beauty and wellness hit Tokyo Big Site this week, featuring over 500 exhibitors from Japan and around the globe. Beautyworld showcased the best in the up and coming products, gadgets, and trends in both Japanese and global beauty markets, hosting over 57,000 attendees over the three-day period.

The Buzz

Tokyo is known for loving the perpetually adorable, with candy-colored cosmetic lines and Harajuku-kawaii… and the show didn’t disappoint. Altier Raison is a pro-distributor in Japan and featured a lineup of crazy lip appliques, faux lashes, funky tattoos, and the best pro-lines in Hollywood like Ben Nye and Krylon. Altier Raison is also an exclusive distributor of the cult favorite BeautyBlender—an egg-shaped makeup sponge that has become the must-have tool in every artists’ kit.

But Beautyworld revealed a strong presence in the natural world as well. Lar Neo Natural is a holistic skincare line that features completely organic herbs and plants grown in Gifu. Lar’s Botanic Oil is a favorite with Japanese actresses, and with the line priced in the 3000-5000 range, it’s an affordable luxury.


The Hype

Placenta and Collagen. Yep, still here.

Two big (and ongoing) buzzwords in the retail spaces were placenta and collagen. Collagen beauty drinks, masks, creams, and gels. Most dermatologists agree that topical collagen at best only moisturizes the skin, and ingested collagen breaks down in the body before is can benefit the skin in any way.

Japan’s collagen obsession seems to be mostly about marketing. The placenta trend is collagen’s more youthful cousin—placenta being associated with infant-like skin, but again, the benefits are minimal. Collagen molecules are simply too big to penetrate the skin. Says Dr. Jeffery Spiegel, an American cosmetic surgeon, “It’s a bit like saying you’re going to cool off a bottle of milk by holding it against the outside of the fridge,” he says. “It’s just not going to work.”

Hype aside, Japan has always been a global leader in the cosmetics and skincare industries, and Beautyworld gives retailers, industry experts, and product junkies a look at what the global trends in skincare, nails, hair, and anti-aging will be for next year.

The Deets
Beautyworld 2015 will be held on 18-20 May at Tokyo Big Sight.


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912 and the shoes that fit


What advice does she have for aspiring entrepreneurs seeking to take the plunge? “Don’t quit your day job. Start small and test what sells.”

Mari Tobita Johnson isn’t an expat, but she’s married to one. Her husband Chuck Johnson is an American actor and stuntman who has been living in Tokyo since 2003. The two met at a music event six years ago and have been together ever since.

Through their relationship, the Tokyo native learned about some of the Western frustrations of living in Japan. “Chuck always told me how a lot of his foreign female friends complained that they couldn’t find cute shoes they like in their sizes.” I had lunch with Mari last week to learn about how and why her web shop, Nine-Twelve, was born.

Even with years of fashion experience, she started small, with a Yahoo! Auction site to test what styles would sell and what wouldn’t. The business quickly took off, and once she secured warehouse space in Tokyo, she was ready to go live with a solid web presence. “When we started I had about six years of experience importing goods into Japan, so [Chuck] encouraged me to start a web shop. I built it from scratch.”

The site quickly grew into one of the largest retailers of large-size footwear in the country. They carry small sizes too (22.5), all the way up to 29, and can special order sizes. And it’s not just the product need she’s filling—Nine-Twelve offers C.O.D. on all shoe orders because Mari learned many expats don’t have Japanese credit cards. Mari’s blended community gave her insight into the practical needs of her expat customer base, and she built her business around those needs. She’ll even make warehouse appointments to try on shoes, “Foreigners love to try on,” she mused.

That said, Nine-Twelve customers aren’t all expat girls. “I get orders from Japanese female basketball players, volleyball players, Judo fighters, even from the transgender community. I’m surprised how diverse our customer base has become.”

Mari never set out to become an entrepreneur, but she loves being an independent business woman and is thrilled to be filling a need for the expat community. “One of my favorite things about Nine-Twelve is the letters I get from customers. They thank me profusely for having cute shoes that fit! It’s totally unnecessary, but it really makes me happy.”

What advice does she have for aspiring entrepreneurs seeking to take the plunge? “Don’t quit your day job. Start small and test what sells. A lot of people think it takes a huge investment or a massive commitment to start a business. Find a need, see what works, adjust, and watch it grow.”

Female entrepreneur, local/expat couple, and an indie shop that makes doing business easy and shoe shopping fun again. Check out her shop at


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Volunteering at Second Harvest


The amount of food that is thrown away in Japan is virtually equivalent to the total amount of food aid distributed world-wide. Find out what you can do to help redirect this food to those who need it.

Are you looking for a way to meet people, practice Japanese, try something new, and be a useful human? I have just the thing! Check out Second Harvest Food Bank in Asakusabashi.

The First Food Bank in Japan

Second Harvest was organized in 2000 and earned official NPO status in 2002. Starting as a loose-knit group of like-minded people in Taito-ku, Second Harvest now collects food donations from over 400 companies, and distributes to 320 agencies, including women’s shelters, orphanages, homeless shelters, elderly support organizations, and various disaster relief programs. Second Harvest is a vital connection between the immense surplus of food and people needing food.

Food Loss

Japan has high standards for its food. Because of this, the annual food loss in this country comes in at a whopping 17.8 tons. (To give this figure some perspective, Japan produces five- eight tons of rice annually.).


Food Loss is the term for perfectly fresh or useable food that is discarded because it doesn’t meet certain standards for Japanese resale. Such as:

  • Packaging issues such as dented cans or damage to packaging and/or shipping cases.
  • Mislabeling of expiration dates and/or mistakes in legally stipulated label information.
  • Seasonal and limited edition products.
  • Excess inventory after bargains, sales or campaigns.
  • Expiration date: products with approaching dates can often not be sold in stores.
  • Products for which distribution is discontinued.
  • Excess inventory.
  • Over production / excess defective products / unanticipated bumper crops.
  • Emergency food supplies that have not expired.
  • Samples from exhibitions and special events.
  • Products that do not meet the 1/3 rule (when food is nearing expiration, it cannot be on the shelves in Japan).

Poverty Line

The poverty rate in Japan is 16%, and the rate for single-parent households is 50.8%. Forty percent of elderly people have a monthly income of ¥100,000 or less, and 30% of the elderly are housebound.


Knife Skills: Prepping the Ueno Park Soup Kitchen

A group of us from the school I teach for volunteered for a two-hour shift to prep food for the soup kitchen held every Saturday in Ueno Park. After a brief tour and explanation of how Second Harvest does its thing, we were put to work chopping vegis for the Saturday menu. All of the food is super fresh and high quality, which again, spoke to the amount of food loss in Japan. It’s an easy and meaningful way to spend two hours with your co-workers, and we’re hoping to organize a monthly outing.

What They Need (…what have you got?)

Time: Volunteer shifts last just over two hours. They have a variety of projects and need help in food prep, distribution, donation pick-ups, office work, and soup kitchen staff.

Money: Every ¥10,000 donated brings ¥30,000 of food to people who need it. Pretty simple.

Donations: Corporate, small business, and individual donations are always welcome. If you want to do some shopping for Second Harvest, here’s what they always need:

  • Rice and Pasta
  • Freeze-dried food and canned goods
  • Instant food, ready-made packs
  • Gift sets (gifts or souveniers such as Oseibo, Ochugen, etc.)
  • Cooking Supplies (miso, soy sauce, dashi, etc.)
  • Drinks (coffee, tea, juice)

Other ways: Are you a filmmaker? Photographer? Journalist? Social media master? Help get the word out about Second Harvest and put your talents to good use.

Second Harvest Japan
1F Mizuta Bldg. 4-5-1 Asakusabashi
Taito-ku, Tokyo, Japan 111-0053


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Old Paper and Lost Loves: Used Books in Tokyo


A quiet, smart space where you can flip through well-worn volumes and hang out for a while and find your next literary love. For me, it’s a comforting reminder of home, and finding it here in Tokyo makes the discovery especially endearing.

Guilty pleasure confession #387: I love the pen-and-paper culture of Japan. The endless supply of cute notebooks and agendas, the shops that specialize in fancy pens and handmade papers that would die in many Western countries, thrive here.

Yes, the digital age makes life much easier, but for those of us with a Luddite edge, writing and reading on paper is still a beloved pastime. So imagine my glee when I stumbled across a rare sight: a used English-language bookstore in Tokyo. Say konnichiwa to Good Day Books in Gotanda.

To be clear, you can absolutely buy English books pretty easily. There’s BookOff, and Kinokuniya, and of course, Amazon JP. But a used bookshop is different. A quiet, smart space where you can flip through well-worn volumes and hang out for a while and find your next literary love. Maybe chat with the owner about Whitman, or Murakami, or the upcoming political lecture on the calendar. For me, it’s a comforting reminder of home, and finding it here in Tokyo makes the discovery especially endearing.

Owners Steve Kott and Taeko Kobayashi have been running the shop for over twenty years. “She started it. It’s her shop, I’m just here.” Steve declared. But both he and Taeko have shared a long love for literature, having bookshop dates over twenty years ago at spots well known by book lovers in the States, like Green Apple Books in San Francisco.

We chatted about the state of print culture and publishing as a whole, and agreed that because of Japan’s lean toward paper, bookshops here actually have a fighting chance, if readers continue to be willing to support them

Good Day relocated to Gotanda about two years ago to a third-floor space, just a few minutes from the JR Station. (Note: don’t let the love hotels in the area dissuade you. It’s still a tame area, though Steve claims, “the guys hanging out in around here… aren’t necessarily looking for books.”).


The shop itself is small, but the selection is nicely curated. Loads of language texts, NYT bestsellers, classics, Japanese history, detective fiction, all in great condition and at super reasonable prices. I picked up a nearly new copy of ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENCE for 500 yen (a steal). And if you still want to buy local but can’t make it to the shop—you can order titles online through their site.

Good Day also offers author talks, literary salons and book discussions for both non-native and native English speakers. The listing of dates and topics is updated regularly. Accessible, practical, and a wonderful little find for Tokyo lit buffs. Go now.


Good Day Books

3rd Floor Tōkai Building 
2-4-2 Nishi Gotanda, Shinagawa-ku 141-0031

PHONE: 03-6303-9116

HOURS: Monday – Saturday 11:00 – 20:00; Sunday and Holidays 11:00 – 18:00


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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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