Koyo in Korankei

Last Wednesday we took a day trip on a tour bus. We had visited Korankei in the spring of 2015 and wanted to see it again in autumn. We had booked the tour several weeks ago on the basis that the leaves should have turned to their beautiful autumn colours in by now. We were not disappointed as the leaves were gorgeous! In addition, although the weather had not been great for a couple of days before that, the forecast for Wednesday was good and again we were not disappointed. In fact, we were blessed all round!

We went first to the temple at Kokeisan-Eihoji, whose origins date back to 1313. Unfortunately it burned down in 2003 but was completely restored by 2011. The grounds include a 700-year-old gingko tree! This temple was not on the programme when we booked the tour, so we were not expecting to go there, but it was really beautiful – the pictures speak for themselves.

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The Ena gorge reservoir is much more recent, having been formed by the construction of a dam for hydroelectric power in 1924, and that’s where we made a brief stop next to admire the view.

After lunch in an enormous banqueting hall with space for hundreds of people, we headed off for Obara where the cherry blossom flowers in spring and in winter. The district is famous for this winter-flowering cherry blossom called Obara-shikizakara. The blossoms were not yet fully out, but we enjoyed them nonetheless.

Finally we spent almost two hours in the Korankei valley where the maple trees were beautiful.

It was getting dark but we caught some sun for our pictures and walked up a 250-metre high hill … and down again! By the time we got near the rendezvous point for the tour bus it was dark and the trees were illuminated by floodlights. There was just time to see some of them before taking the bus home again.

By the time we reached our flat we’d been out for a full 12 hours: from 7.30 am to 7.30 pm! It was a good day!

Oh! I forgot to tell you what the koyo in the title means. Probably you’ve worked it out, though. It’s just the Japanese for colourful autumn leaves.

PS: you might get the impression from this blog that all we do is see the sights and enjoy ourselves! That may be the only part that’s really interesting to write about but it represents only a small part of our life here. We are very busy the rest of the time with Olwen teaching English to five groups consisting mostly of Japanese ladies, with a few other nationalities mixed in. One group meets on Saturday in our flat and that one also has some men in it. The others take place at various locations around the city and can take her up to an hour to get to. Meanwhile I am shopping, cleaning the apartment, and sharing in the preparation of meals. We are both studying Japanese too, and both have two lessons each week for which we must study and do homework! You can read more about Olwen’s teaching groups on the Nagoya Friendship Groups web site.

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From cormorants to fake food

Gifu – Seki – Gujo-Hachiman: a half-term break

At the end of October, we took a few days off from the teaching schedule – a kind of half-term holiday if you will – and set off for Gifu, a short train ride to the north of Nagoya.

There’s a beautiful castle there, but the first thing we saw on leaving the station was a statue of Nobunaga, a powerful samurai warlord in Japan in the late 16th century who helped to unify Japan and create Gifu city.

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Having taken some obligatory photos, we re-entered the station in search of lunch and found a lovely stained-glass window of the city … and a great all-you-can-eat buffet. Here they are called Viking (pronounced Biking) buffets, supposedly because they were first introduced by SAS airlines, who, being Scandinavian, called them Viking Buffets. Now every buffet is a Viking buffet. The pronunciation threw us the first time we heard it as we expected to see bikers (or at least cyclists) at the buffet!

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Jpeg

We wandered on through the town and up to the river where they still use cormorants for night-fishing. Unfortunately the fishing season had just finished so we couldn’t see any night fishing, but of course the decorative manhole covers illustrated the city’s main claim to fame, and the fishing boats were lined up along the river side. We also passed a shrine with a golden torii gate (usually they are red or plain wood) spotted an otter – or perhaps another water animal – in a stream, an old-style post box and an ATM room disguised as an art gallery! We were glad to see the leaves turning to their autumn colours, which look beautiful against the bright blue sky and caught our first glimpse of a three-storied pagoda through the trees.

The next day, we walked up to the castle passing a couple of temples – one with a giant Buddha inside. This Buddha is only slightly smaller that the one in Nara but the temple itself is much smaller. In the gardens below the castle there was a chrysanthemum festival.

We took the ropeway (cable car) up to the castle as we didn’t fancy hiking up there in our sandals, especially after walking 40 minutes or more from the hotel.

At the end of the ride lay the Kinka Squirrel Village, so we paid our dues (minimal) and went in. They gave us each a glove for one hand and put food on the glove so we could feed the squirrels. We were instructed not to hit them, but Olwen found that they enjoyed being stroked. They were so cute!

After taking a look at the city from the mountain-top observation platform, we dropped down a level for a good lunch with a wonderful view out over the city. In the afternoon, we visited the castle. It’s a pretty building, but without much else to report unless you are really into Japanese history!

On the way back to our hotel, we dropped into a small shop we had seen the day before and also visited in the morning. We had our eye on a large, blue bowl which we wanted for our flat. We intended to put fragrant gel-balls in it to perfume our little office. They had set it aside for us and, when we said we wanted to ship it back to Nagoya, being too heavy to carry around for the rest of our trip, they packed it up for shipping a couple of days’ later (so it wouldn’t arrive at our house before we did!) The bowl cost about 15 euros and the shipping about 5 euros (our hotel had quoted us 10 euros!) all of which was considerably less that anything we had seen on the internet so we were very happy. In the same shop they also had some tiny pots with lids selling for about 640 euros each!!

The following day we took the train to Seki, the historical centre for swordsmiths and cutlers. We found the museum not far from the railway station and took a good look round. There were swords and knives of all sorts, often with beautiful inscriptions on the blade or haft. There were also a couple of “Swiss army” knives of amazing complexity. At the end we filled in a questionnaire whose English Olwen corrected for the benefit of future visitors. She was unexpectedly given a potato peeler as a present in return!

We carried on by local train (a single carriage) to our last destination: Gujo-Hachiman, famous for the production of the “fake” or “sample” food you see outside so many restaurants here in Japan. You can try your hand at making some, but Olwen had already tried this recently in Nagoya so we didn’t do it in Gujo. It was lunchtime and we found a Chinese restaurant near the station where we enjoyed chilli prawns and other good food.

After lunch we relaxed, walking round the town where the sound of water was everywhere with little streams flowing beside many of the streets and two rivers merging near the centre. We needed to book tickets for our return journey so we made our way to the tourist information centre. It was truly excellent and a young lady booked us tickets for the next day as this had to be done by telephone and we felt it was beyond our language skills. She also advised us to lookout for salamanders in the river (we looked but didn’t find any).

Our hotel – a modern ryokan complete with onsen – was up the hill near the castle and we had a large Japanese-style room with tatami flooring and futon to sleep on, which we love. We think the room could have a slept a family of six! Our pillows were small and filled with cherry stones, which are surprisingly comfortable. We had booked breakfast for the next day, not knowing quite what to expect and were pleasantly surprised to find a veritable breakfast banquet awaiting us!

The local fish is called Ayu, or sweetfish. It doesn’t exist outside east Asia so there is no recognisable English name for it. It was on our list of things to eat there, but since you are supposed to eat it all from head to tail we had decided not to bother. Yet there it was, cooking for us at breakfast, so we ate it, skipping the head!

We spent the rest of the day at the castle, visiting temples, including a zen temple with a lovely garden, eating another speciality off our list in the tourist information centre restaurant – together with a prize-winning beer – and enjoying the sounds of the water.

The same lady at the information centre rebooked us on an earlier bus back to Nagoya as we had seen everything we wanted to, and even wrote us a page of explanation for the driver, who had already left Takayama where the bus starts its journey, so he would understand why there were extra passengers turning up for his bus, which we had to catch in a lay-by just off the highway.

It was the beginning of a holiday weekend so perhaps that’s why there was extra traffic as we neared Nagoya and the journey took over two hours instead of about 100 minutes. But it didn’t matter; Olwen slept and I read and listened to music, and we were warm and comfortable in the long-distance coach (with plenty of leg room!) and arrived home tired, happy and still earlier than planned!

A new apartment, a festival and a person of interest!

We’ve been back in Nagoya since the beginning of September and very quickly found an apartment to rent for the three years we will be here (minimum!) We got the keys on 20 September and physically moved in at the very beginning of October – three weeks ago now.

Before then we had fun buying new furniture and electrical appliances and curtains and now have the apartment arranged to our liking. We got ourselves a fidelity/loyalty card (they are called points cards here) before buying anything and ordered so much furniture that we got a substantial reduction through the points when we went later to order curtains. The card was free so this was well worth doing. 🙂

We have a new computer too, and with high-speed internet we are really up and running fast!

But it’s not been all shopping by any means. we’ve started our Japanese lessons again and I’ll soon be back to the level I had attained when we left in February and then progressing beyond that. Olwen started lessons earlier so she’s already caught up I think.

And it almost goes without saying – but I’ll say it anyway – that we’ve enjoyed reconnecting with friends at various churches here, attending His Call Church – which celebrated its 13th birthday with a party after the main service last week – and All Nations Fellowship, and having dinner one evening at a Nepali curry restaurant with friends from the Mustard Seed church.

Handa Dashi Matsuri

And we’ve had some outings too. A couple of weeks ago we went with friends to Handa, half an hour by train south of here, to see the Handa Dashi Matsuri. This is festival with large floats (dashi), and every five years they bring them all out of storage so that this year there were 31 of them parading round the town and then lined up in a large open space for everyone to see.

Thousands of people came and it was really hot. Maybe it was only 26°C but the sun was fierce and with the crowds and the fact that we arrived at 8.30 am, by mid-afternoon we were quite tired and went home. Unfortunately a lot of other people had decided to do the same so we had to stand in the train all the way!

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From soup to the Amazon

We make a lot of soup and curries, and a couple of days ago our blender gave up the ghost in the middle of blending a sweet chestnut soup. 😦 So we did what anyone would do and looked for a new one on Amazon! Having found one that was suitable we decided to order it only to find that it was only available to people who had subscribed to Amazon Prime, which did not include us!

Amazon invited us to try this for a month for free and we accepted, thereby getting the blender the very next day too! In addition, we discovered that some of our favourite TV series – that we couldn’t get on Netflix either in Belgium or here in Japan –  were available free on Amazon Prime – Person of Interest in particular. So we are now set up for many nights of viewing, casting from the PC to the television via Google Chromecast (which we had bought last year in Japan to be able to see Netflix on our television). It works well and Amazon Prime is much less expensive that Netflix with all kinds of extra advantages like free and quicker shipping and ebooks, as well as the TV series and films I alluded to before. Maybe we’ll ditch Netflix!

Into Africa!

I can hardly believe it’s been so long since my last post, but then we have been very busy and I’ll try to catch you up quickly.
But first, why “Into Africa”?
Well it was to get your attention and it’s not actually Africa we’re in, of course, it’s Japan, but did you know that Nagoya, where we are now living once more, is at the same latitude as Tangiers in north Africa? No wonder it gets hot here! In fact the climate is officially “humid sub-tropical” and it definitely gets humid!

Catching up

Since my last post we have:
  • sold our house in Brussels
  • obtained our certificates of eligibility
  • traded those for 3-year visas
  • emptied the last things from our house
  • flown to Nagoya
  • received our 3-year residence cards
  • registered at the ward office for the area we are living in
  • found an apartment and applied to rent it
  • opened a bank account
  • shopped for furniture and appliances
The patience I mentioned in the last post has been rewarded and God has worked everything out with impeccable timing!

Leaving Brussels

The departure was very smooth. Our packers arrived on time and packed up our remaining furniture and other goods for shipment to the UK in record time. We stayed in a nearby apartment for a few days while they did this and then moved to the airport Sheraton on Friday night so it was easy to catch our 11am flight on Saturday.

The removal van sets off with our furniture …

We had so much stuff to take to Japan – mostly teaching materials but also more clothes than last time – that we ended up buying an extra suitcase and paying €150 excess baggage charge to take it. We’ll be here for at least three years so we need a lot of materials – not just books you can buy, but course materials that Olwen has prepared over the years.
We looked into shipping the extra but that would have cost €500 by air and more by sea. Then we looked at posting it, but that was going to be €260 and in both cases there would be customs inspection and possibly import duties to pay. So excess baggage was the best option. We packed and repacked and put as much as possible in our carry-on luggage too. Finally we were just right at 23kg per suitcase and 10kg in carry-on.
And so we crossed the road from the Sheraton to the airport terminal to check in. I’d just said to the lady checking us in how we had weighed and reweighed everything when we put the last suitcase on the checking-in belt and it weighed 24kg! She just smiled and said it was OK!
Phew!

Arriving in Africa Nagoya

Lufthansa took good care of us to Frankfurt and then on to Nagoya. It took a little while to get our residence cards on arrival but by 9am Sunday morning local time we were in arrivals where our large-taxi/minibus driver was waiting for us. He took us to our hotel in Nagoya itself where we left our luggage as we couldn’t check in until 3pm.

Coming in to land

From there we took the metro/subway to Osu Kannon where the very lively His Call church meets. Several people we had got to know during our six-month stay from September 2016 to February 2017 welcomed us back and, after energetic singing (less energetic on our part, I have to say!) and a dynamic talk by Yumi-sensei, who is one of the main pastors (and the wife of the other one!), we had lunch with friends in the cafe His Call runs. It was one of our favourites: karaage chicken – think Kentucky Fried Chicken and you won’t be far off. In fact KFC is very popular in Japan for just that reason.
Our friends took us by car back to the hotel, where we waited in its cafe with a free ‘welcome coffee’ until they let us check in at about 2.45pm. We’d been up for over 24 hours by this time so we immediately crashed out for a few hours in our compact bedroom. ☺
In the morning – having woken, walked around the neighbourhood, eaten something and slept again – we took our luggage across the road to the apartment building where we’re staying this month and checked in when the office manager, Mariko-san, arrived just before 9am.

Settling in

On Tuesday we visited several apartments with one agent and on Wednesday several more with another. As we came to the end of that tour, we asked if we could see the first one again. The second visit confirmed it; it’s the one for us and we have applied to rent it. You have to apply and be vetted by the building’s management company so we’ll know in a couple of days if they have found us worthy!  ☺
We hope to get into the apartment by about 20 September and move in fully by the end of the month. in the meantime we’ve opened a bank account and spent some time looking at fridges and microwaves and sofas and tables and many other things that we’ll need to equip it.
On Saturday morning we had our first friendship study group in our apartment.Not everyone could come, but one new member brought some very cute Japanese delicacies.

Too cute to eat?

Were we sad?

Were we sad to leave Belgium after more than 30 years living there? Perhaps surprisingly we were not sad at all. Maybe it was because we knew deep down that we were embarking on a wonderful adventure, “prepared in advance for us” as Paul writes in his letter to the early church in Ephesus.  And we were also able to say goodbye to all our friends in Brussels as well as our children, whom we will see again both in Japan when they come to visit and in the UK or other parts of Europe when we go there for a couple of months each summer to escape the humid sub-tropical climate of Nagoya.
“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. “
Paul’s letter to the early Christians in Ephesus

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By the way, that bit about being God’s handiwork and there being good works for you to do – if that sounds boring think of a “great adventure” instead – applies to everyone. We are all his handiwork – one translation says “His masterpiece” – it’s just a matter of making our relationship with Him more important than any other, and being open to whatever he has prepared for us.
Tomorrow, Monday, the second group begins again with Olwen teaching, and I hope to get some studying done. We’ll be into the routine – but we’ll try not to lose sight of the dream!

Patience is a virtue

You probably know this old saying:

Patience is a virtue,
Possess it if you can,
Seldom found in women and
Never in a man!

Well, patience is definitely what we have needed since we returned to Belgium at the end of February – and what we still need now.

The return went well enough with beautiful views of Mt Fuji from the air on the flight from Nagoya to Tokyo and a smooth onward flight to Brussels. The cabin crew on ANA were delightful and Olwen enjoyed practising her Japanese with them. At the end of the flight they gave us an airline postcard, with a personal message written on the back which we didn’t see until we got home. It was a small thing but I think they wanted to show some appreciation for Olwen making the effort to speak with them in their own language.

Then the work began. It’s now been several months of almost nothing but sorting, clearing, advertising, and selling 40+ years of accumulated belongings. All our children visited to take what they could make use of, and then we had to decide what we would need in the UK – where we expect to have a small flat – or in Japan (also a small flat but furnished), and what we should otherwise dispose of by selling, giving or “chucking”!

We have tried to sell through Facebook groups, our own Facebook page created for the purpose, and yard sales (we’ve had three so far). We’ve sold a lot and given 17 banana boxes full of books to a charity book sale too. We’ve also taken a lot of things that no one will want to the tip. And we still have a lot of things left!

In addition to the clearing and selling, I’ve been saving some of our memories by scanning (and naming!) some 5500 35mm slides, and a dozen or more VHS cassettes. I couldn’t bear to just throw them away! Google Photos is proving to be a handy place to store the resulting pictures free of charge (and searchable without tagging!) while I’ve put the videos on YouTube.

All of this work is so we can sell our house, which is easier said than done!

It’s a large house with nearly 400 square metres of living space, including a 2-bedroom, self-contained flat which we’re renting to a friend. There are 5 more bedrooms in the rest of the house as well as a large living room and superb kitchen with dining space for 14 people, a sun lounge with terrace, classroom, playroom,  etc.

It would be great for someone with three or four children and an ageing relative, and perhaps a business they want to run from home. Or it could be converted back into three flats – or maybe four with extra planning permission – but this would probably entail ruining the kitchen in order to build a bathroom on the ground floor. 😦

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So you can see why we’ve not had a stream of would-be buyers competing to make offers!

Despite this, we believe we should return to Japan in September and have asked the office manager of the building where we lived before to reserve us an apartment, which she has done. We’ve also asked the Japanese pastor who is arranging our visas to start the process and he has confirmed that he will do this very soon. Once he gets the approval from the ministry in Tokyo for us to have visas (which we have then to apply for here in Brussels) we only have three months to get in the country.

Exactly how this will all work out we don’t know, but we do believe we’re on the right track – the path God has shown us – and, while doing our part, we must leave the timing to Him.

Which brings us back to the need for patience!

January in Japan

It was a very busy and momentous month – especially as regards our staying longer-term in Japan. Read on and you’ll see!

1 January: We started the year at His Call church in the morning and later at All Nations Fellowship in the afternoon. How better to start the year than by worshipping our God! We’d heard that people would be wearing kimonos at His Call but they weren’t (they had changed it to the following Sunday). However, we were made very welcome and given a free lunch in their cafeteria here a lot of people were eating after the 11am service. We also discovered the one day in Japan when the shops are shut. Normally they are open 7 days a week, but when we went to look for a new anorak for Olwen they were all shut.

2 January: Success! The shops were open and we were able – after a lot of searching – to find a lovely anorak that fits well. It’s even from a Japanese designer (better than buying something when we are soon going back there) and, yes, there are January sales so there was a good discount. 🙂

5 January: Olwen realised that she needed gloves to match her new coat and, on the recommendation of some of our friends here concerning where to look, she found some in the sales. Now her hands are warm again!

7 January: A friend who is living in Brussels at the moment was visiting her family for the Christmas holidays. We went to her home town and she showed us round the old part of town, then to a restaurant for a delicious – and very good-value – meal. After lunch her mum drove us to three beauty spots, where we had a walk in the sunshine by the lake, fed the enormous carp, climbed a mountain to a look-out point, and visited a now-deserted place where, in the summer, campers go to have picnics and enjoy the cherry blossom. It was a very busy, full day and with all the sun and fresh air we were tired out, but happy.

9 January: I met with our friend Kazue and a Japanese pastor, Endo, she wanted to talk with us about our need for visas (so that we can return later this year). She said he had obtained visas for others in the past and might be able to help. After only half an hour of talking he simply said that he would do it for us and that we would most likely get three-year visas. He didn’t see it being a problem and it wouldn’t cost more than a postage stamp! Wow! A couple of days later, Olwen mentioned this to missionary friends here and they said that if he said he would do it then he would; he’s totally reliable! We weren’t worried about this, but it’s still nice to have independent confirmation.

15 January: We went to His Call church again. We had seen that there were going to be some interesting things planned and didn’t want to miss them! At the beginning of the service, the (Japanese) pastor was dressed up in his traditional dark ‘hakama’, which is the men’s kimono, and with a white towel round his head. He had a huge brush, like a fat floor mop, and a massive piece of paper.

All the instruments standing on the stage waiting for the band were covered in plastic. He dipped the mop into a bucket of ink, and painted the word that God had given him for the church, for 2017, in large-scale calligraphy. There was total silence while he did that. Then four men  picked up the paper and showed everyone. The Japanese letters mean ‘overflow’ or abundance. So this is the pastor’s vision – the word God has given him – for His Call church for the new year.


After that there was a coming-of-age ceremony and 8 young people came out in their fancy attire, had to say who they were and what their hopes/dreams are for the future. Then they all received a ball point pen and a red rose (even the boys) and were prayed for. The Japanese “come of age” at 20 and they all do it in a civil ceremony at the same time in the year they turn 20. This had taken place earlier in the same week. It was impressive to see the Japanese culture integrated into the life of the church in these ways.

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Later there was a kendo demonstration, but we were eating lunch in the cafe and didn’t see it.

His Call isn’t our own church here, it’s associated with Hillsong where our daughter Pascale studied in Australia, and is very loud and bouncy, full of young people. They do interesting things, and anyone is welcome, so we are dropping in from time to time. They have 3 meetings every Sunday. After the 11am meeting people eat together in the cafe downstairs. The first time you go, you get a free meal. 🙂 After that, it’s still only ¥300.

In the afternoon, I filled in the visa forms. Our church in Brussels had sent an official letter to say they supported us coming. So all we need now is a photo of each of us, and then to apply here in Japan, which Endo will do at the office where he lives (about an hour outside Nagoya). After they send these to Tokyo we will get a certificate of eligibility to take to the Japanese Embassy in Brussels. They’ll give us the final documents, so that when we come back, they’ll issue the visa at the airport. We had to choose an entry date, so we said 1st of Sept. That worked out well this time. We can’t come in earlier than that, but if we have to be later for some reason, we can. Also if we want to go out of the country for a holiday in China or Korea for example, we can come and go. We think the plan is to be here from September to June each year, and then to go back to Europe to see friends and family for 2 months. If we have no house of our own, we can move around and stay in guest houses, or we can rent a holiday house like we did in Normandy last summer. We can be flexible. But we don’t know yet.

Now of course we are wondering what to do about keeping/storing stuff in Europe. Should we rent or buy a small flat? But where? But if we rent or buy a flat, it will just be sitting empty, gathering dust for 10 months a year, and inviting graffiti or squatters. What about a time-share? Should we just rent a storage facility to store stuff we think we really want to keep? Anyway, one step at a time. No point trying to rush God. He has a plan, and we’ll know it soon enough. We’re actually doing OK with the not-knowing.

22 January: It’s Sunday and we’d got an early start. It was the first day since we came here that we needed an alarm in the morning. We had to be at the station at 8.40 to meet a group of Japanese people and go with them to a vinegar factory, a sake factory and a brewery. There were tastings (it was drinking vinegar) after each visit and lunch in the middle somewhere.  Normally the group meets once a month on Sunday afternoons, but twice a year, they have a whole-day outing.

27-31 January: Our eldest daughter, Michaela and her family were with us. It was great to see them and share a bit of Japan with them. We went to the Nagoya SC Maglev and Train museum and the Toyota Commemorative Museum (both very interesting and well done and good value!) We spent a day in Kyoto where they toured the Nijo Castle and we all went to see a free kimono fashion show at the Nishijin Textile Center. We spent some time at a 100-yen shop that takes up the entire 7th floor of a department store and had lunch at a Alice/Disney film-themed restaurant (great food and very reasonable prices!) We also had a good look at Nagoya‘s own castle – the only one we’ve been in where you don’t have to take your shoes off and climb up and down very narrow steep staircases! – strolled up the Ōsu Kannon shopping arcade (pausing to eat some freshly cooked taiyaki) and looked at the temple at the end. In short, we had a great time chatting and eating and seeing places until it was time for them to leave for Tokyo and then on to New Zealand.


Well, that was January in a nutshell. Lots of places visited and people seen and, perhaps most importantly, the very real prospect of visas for our return.

Toba and Tokyo

Just before Christmas we enjoyed an overnight stay in Toba. Well, it was raining cats and dogs when we arrived but this was expected. The ryokan was a bit of a disappointment, though Olwen did enjoy the hot baths that are typical of these traditional inns and we did sleep well on futon on the floor! The next day dawned bright and clear (again, as forecast) and we got out fairly quickly to walk a few hundred metres (or yards) to Mikimoto Pearl Island. This was no disappointment at all with a great display by the Ama pearl divers, a fascinating memorial hall detailing the history of Mikimoto-san, the man who pioneered the procedure for producing cultured pearls, an excellent museum and – yes – finally a shop! There was also a restaurant where we enjoyed an oyster-based lunch for an extremely reasonable price (about 15 euros each for the food and another 5 euros each for a drink).

After exhausting the possibilities of the island we took the train down to Kashikojima at the end of the Ise peninsula. If you follow these things, you may remember a recent G7 summit being held there. We had purchased a five-day rail pass for the Kintetsu line (one of three railway companies operating in the region) so the additional travel cost us nothing. (The rail pass also gave us a discount on the entrance fee for Mikimoto Pearl Island). In Kashikojima we looked at various shops selling pearl necklaces, earrings etc. Olwen really liked one necklace that incorporated a detachable bracelet (attached in-line using little magnets and making the necklace longer). She didn’t want the bracelet however and the shop-owner agreed to sell the necklace part alone for a very reasonable price. It was even more reasonable than we thought, in fact, as the necklace was on the “50% off” table and the price we agreed had not yet been discounted so we got a nice surprise when we ended up paying not 40 euros but only 20 euros! The necklace is a twisted three-strand, made of freshwater pearls.

The train ride back to Nagoya somehow managed to take about 4 hours, which was much longer than it had taken us to get there, but there was only one change of trains and we were comfortable.

The next day was Christmas Eve and we enjoyed a party at our church, All Nations Fellowship. Everyone brought food to share and there was a game where teams had to mime Christmas carols. We were not so keen on miming but someone guessed ours very quickly so the embarrassment was minimised!

On Christmas Day we went to brunch at the apartment of a friend from church, Rachel. This time, we were instructed not to bring food as Rachel had prepared everything (we took some chocolate bark anyway). I left after a couple of hours to go back to our flat and pick up my bass since I was playing at the afternoon service at ANF. Olwen stayed on to play various games.

On Boxing Day (also my day – St Stephen’s Day!) we took the shinkansen to Tokyo where we checked in to our favourite hotel, the Shinagawa Prince. We had booked the train that stops at every station so it took a while, but it cost less and there’s a drinks voucher too! One of the stations was Shin-Fuji and we got a good view of the mountain though the skies were not blue unfortunately.

On Tuesday 27th, we opened the curtains to a grey and cloudy day, so we took umbrellas with us when we went to Shibuya by train.  It’s another area of Tokyo, where there’s a statue of Hachiko.  He’s a dog who met his master after work every day to walk home with him.  One day, the master died, but the dog continued to go and meet that train.
Sad.  I don’t know if it’s a true story or not.

Just outside the station was a Hello Kitty information booth, so we went in and got some good brochures, such as a tourist map of Tokyo, and leaflets called ‘88 things to do in Shibuya’ and ‘100 things to do in Tokyo.’

We met our old friends Yoshiko and her son Ken, who returned to Tokyo about 5 years ago.  We also met Yuka and her daughter Sara who came back here in July 2016. They didn’t all know each other in Brussels but there was enough conversation to last our lunch.  After our sushi lunch, the waitress brought out a jar of lollipops for all of us to choose, in the shape of sushi on sticks. 🙂

After that, they all went home and Stephen and I had a look at shops and had a coffee in Macdonald’s, so we could rest Stephen’s foot and also look through the brochures and find out what was near at hand to see before heading back to the hotel.

We discovered a half-hour walk up a narrow road with loads of little cafes and quaint crafty-type shops.  At the far end of the road is a famous little Portuguese bakery selling their special custard pies (pasteis de nata) and other things.  We bought a custard pie for Stephen and a chicken pie for me.  Then we crossed the road into Yoyogi Park, which is a famous place, and we walked there and ate our pies until the siren went to tell everyone it was nearly dark (5pm!) and therefore closing time for the gates.

We came out of the park at a different side, and found a half-timbered building there, looking like Stratford-on-Avon.  It was the station building!  From there we took the train back to the hotel.

Wednesday morning was bright and cloudless, and our hotel room was looking out a different way than we’ve looked in the past.  And there was Mount Fuji in the distance, but still so massive.  They say that Fuji is shy and hides behind clouds for 293 days a year. We were able to see the mountain 4 days that week!


Once again we took the train to another part of Tokyo, Higashi Nagano. Our friend Mikiko met us there and took us to her house for lunch.  (In 2015, Mikiko was our professional guide for a day tour of Tokyo and we kept in touch.  She and her husband visited Brussels in September 2015 and we’ve kept in touch by email.)  She’d made a lovely spread of soup and fried dumplings (gyoza), and we made our own sushi from plates of sashimi (raw, sliced fish) and vegetables.  Then we had a lovely blackcurrant and chocolate mousse.  It looked really professional.  She’s taken up French lessons and confectionery-making, so these were the desserts she’d made in class the previous evening.  Her adult daughter joined us for lunch too.  She had spent a year in England, in Tunbridge Wells  learning English as a gap year, I think.

After lunch we had a walk then Mikiko left us to do her shopping.  Stephen and I went on to Shinjuku to have a little look round the station.  We were waiting to see the illuminations there, and we found them – but they were all pink. 😦

On Thursday the 29th we took the train to a little town in the outskirts of Tokyo called Kichijoji and had a Kentucky Fried Chicken Christmas lunch box.  A lot of Japanese people think it’s cool to eat American-style chicken on Christmas day, so KFC has developed this special lunch deal and Olwen wanted to try it.  If you want to eat it on Christmas Day, you have to order it way in advance!  Then we walked around a lake in the park and enjoyed the sunshine before catching the train to another suburb called Kunitachi, where Naomi met us.  Olwen taught Naomi in Brussels and her husband was one of my ‘guinea-pigs’ for teaching experience.  We had an Italian meal at their house which was really good.  Naomi learnt how to cook Italian from a friend in Brussels.  She thought we might be fed up with Japanese food after 4 months here, so would like something European for a change. It was indeed a welcome change!

On the way home from there house we stopped at a place called Ebisu, where there was supposed to be a Christmas market till midnight, but unfortunately it had already closed when we arrived.  I think perhaps the brochure had got the wrong dates or times.  The little wooden huts were there, but they were closed.  However, the largest Baccarat, cut-glass chandelier in the world was on show, all lit up as part of the illuminations so we enjoyed seeing that.

The following morning we took a longer train journey to the other side of Tokyo to a place called Shibamata.  It’s very famous in Japan because there was a film series which ran from about 1949 and was set in this village.  It’s like a step back into the past.  We met Asako and Miyuki, one old and one new friend, and Miyuki guided us round the village, the shrine with fantastic wood carvings, the film museum and the tea-house.  We ate lunch in a tavern specialising in fried spiced eel.  Olwen had wanted to try it for a long time, so that is another thing crossed off her list.  It was OK, but nothing to shout about. However, they told us that in Nagoya, eel is eaten in a different way, so we will have to try it again here. 🙂

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After that, we took the train into the main Tokyo station which is a beautiful building but is currently under reconstruction so we couldn’t get a proper view of it.  We also saw the illuminations down the fashionable Maranouchi shopping street.  They were mostly white lights, but the interesting thing is that they are powered by wind and sun.

On Saturday 31st we decided to go in a different direction just outside Tokyo, to Yokohama, which was a lovely last day.  We were by ourselves, with no friends to guide us, and we walked and saw the marina, long parkways, beautiful glass windows in the station building, a shopping mall in an old-fashioned red brick building which may have been some kind of wharf-front warehouse in the past, and found our way back to another station.  We hadn’t seen much of Yokohama before (only Chinatown for about half an hour on another day trip in 2015) but we really want to go again because there’s a pedestrian walk we didn’t manage to finish and we missed Chinatown completely, though we did have a delicious Chinese lunch in a quiet spot en route.

Finally we came back to Shinagawa, picked up our suitcase and got the fast train home; it stopped only once – in Yokohama and we realised that with a bit of planning we could probably have got on the train there. We saw Mt Fuji for the last time as the sun was setting and were home for about 6pm.  It was a busy week, but fun and we enjoyed it.

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Happy Christmas!

Earlier in December, we sent out this Christmas newsletter by email. Since it is now Christmas Eve, I decided to publish it on this blog so that more of you could see what we’ve been up to in 2016, month by month. I’ve also added a few words about our most recent outings. There are lots of links to click if you want to refer back to the posts of previous months (click on the highlighted month names, starting with July) or see photo galleries (highlights in the text).


2016: a year of enormous change!

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A Japanese greetings card made into a Christmas card by adding a suitable greeting at the top and our names at the bottom. Our thanks go to Takako and Yuko for the calligraphy!

January: Olwen was still recovering from surgery on her foot to remove a bunion but this didn’t stop us from taking the train to London to visit Pascale and Rhys and their new baby, Esther, our sixth grandchild.

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Easter: Michaela and Daniel and their family – Xavier, Megan and baby Yolanda – visited us on their way to and from the UK.

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April: Olwen went to visit her mother in Lancashire for a few days and our old friends Larry and Norma flew from the US to spend a week in Paris and a week with us.

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May: We were finally able to reserve a flat in Nagoya for our six-month stay there, starting in September. There was also a concert by the Destiny Africa children’s choir, which Pascale and Esther enjoyed with us, and we went to an orchid exhibition in Enghien.

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July: We met up with Michaela and Daniel and their family in Strasbourg. We also went to a weekend conference about missionary work in Japan. This was conveniently situated very near Raphaëlle and Charlie, so they came and had lunch with us.

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August: We started the month in Normandy enjoying a holiday with most of the family.

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Earlier in the year, Stephen had applied for retirement effective 1st September and this now loomed ever larger on the horizon – in a good way, of course! It meant numerous small farewell lunches with friends and a large party too – with Japanese food and drink of course!

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Finally his last day at the European Commission arrived and, late in the evening of 31 August, we flew out of Zaventem headed for Tokyo with onward connection to Nagoya, arriving the next day where the ever-helpful Mariko took two hours out of her evening to meet us at the Freebell and get us settled in our flat.

September: Wasting no time, Stephen started Japanese lessons.

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We also visited the ladies hosting the conversation bible study groups Olwen would be running, and still found time for a day in Inuyama.

October: Our feet barely touched the ground the rest of the year, so to speak. By October the groups were well established and growing in membership, but we made sure to take each Friday off, visiting the Nagoya City  Science Museum and watching the Nagoya festival, and Olwen also went to Okazaki with a Japanese friend visiting from Brussels.

November: We decided to apply to extend our visas in good time in case it took repeated visits. We were successful, though it did take a few hours of waiting! We also went to the Nagoya Municipal Minato Disaster Prevention Center where we experienced a simulated earthquake (sheltering under a table in the approved fashion!), Arimatsu – a famous centre for tie-dying – and to various  gardens to see the beautiful autumn leaves.

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Yes, it was November and autumn had finally arrived!

December: Now we’ve both had Christmas parties run by our respective language schools and are looking forward to another on Christmas Eve – today! – at our church. Olwen has also organised social activities for the conversation groups. However, our social activities are not limited to these, and early in December our friends Yuko and Takako took us to the Toyota Municipal Museum of Art which was housed in a beautiful modern building out in the countryside. We were almost the only people there so it was beautifully quiet.

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We’ve also visited two more art museums: the Furakawa museum in Nagoya and the Hiroshige museum in Ena, where we were able to make our own woodblock prints!

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To bring you right up to date, yesterday, 23 December, we visited the Mikimoto pearl museum in Toba! Olwen had long wanted to go there as it was listed on our tour itinerary in 2014 but removed unexpectedly. That was a disappointment, but visiting it yesterday was not! It was fascinating and will merit more text and pictures later.


Soon there will be only two months left here and we will be returning to Belgium to clear and sell our house, and prepare to move back to Japan long-term. We don’t know how we will get visas for this, but God knows – and that is enough (though we are doing our part by exploring various possibilities). We are so excited about 2017 and what God will do here!

We wish you joy and peace, both now and in the year to come.  ハッピークリスマス

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kurisumasu is coming!

Yes, it’s the beginning of December and kurisumasu will soon be upon us. It’s the time for a paatii (if you go with a partner, you could make it a dēto) and purezento. But what to get? Perhaps something for their hobby – gorufu or tenisu maybe, or a kamera? Or an addition to their wardrobe: a new sueta or nekutai, nekkuresu, shatsu or sukaato? One word of caution – when you go to the paatii, if you intend drinking a lot of biiru or wain at the resutoran, you’d better take a takushii or basu home again!

Pronunciation guide: don’t pronounce the letter “u” if it is between two consonants or at the end of a word. Following this rule, kurisumasu becomes krismas, which is more or less how it is pronounced here. The “u”s are inserted only because it is not possible to write most consonants without a vowel following; this is only possible with “n”.

You think I’m making this up? No! A useful number of Japanese words are English transformed into Japanese. But pronounce them the English way and the chances are you won’t be understood. 🙂 Needless to say, we’ve learned some real Japanese words too, and I now have a vocabulary of some 200-300 words and phrases, while Olwen’s is much bigger.

I recently bought some bilingual learning books with the text in Japanese and English, grammatical notes, vocabulary etc. They are very well organised and there are even MP3 recordings at two different speeds (slow and normal, which they label “fast”!) I thought I’d put the vocabulary into an app I use for learning and I did;  for just one story, I ended up with a vocabulary of over 500 words and phrases that I didn’t know! I have quite some way to go!

We’ve been in Japan for just three months now, and that means we’re halfway through our time here. Autumn has finally arrived and I’ve abandoned my sandals and bare feet in favour of socks and sneakers. After all, the daytime temperature often drops below 10°C! And with autumn comes the obligatory and very beautiful autumn leaf viewing. Just as the cherry blossom must be properly appreciated in the spring, the maple and gingko and other trees must be “viewed” in the autumn.

Having toured part of Japan to do just that last year (see our blog for pictures), we couldn’t miss the opportunity to visit Nagoya’s Higashiyama botanical gardens (part of the zoo) and the well-known Tokugawaen, to see the leaves in all their day- and night-time glory! For these gardens illuminate the leaves at night (which starts around 5pm) and stay open longer than usual so that the magic of the leaves can be fully worked on the visitors.

We went first to the Higashiyama zoo and botanical gardens where the night-time viewing was amazing! It was easy to reach on the subway (metro/tube) and we arrived about an hour before dusk. We wandered round the zoo, paying about 4 euros to get into both zoo and gardens.

As night fell, we made our way to the place where there would be a “Son et Lumière” show with illuminated fountains. It lasted maybe 15 minutes. Then we followed the crowds hoping that they knew where they were going. and they did! They led us along paths bordered by beautiful trees to a lake with a mirror-like surface. We snapped away busily, not forgetting, however, to enjoy the beauty of the scene directly.

A week later we visited the Tokugawa gardens. In contrast they were a bit disappointing being a lot smaller for one thing. But worth the visit for the colours, the trees being wrapped for winter, the waterfalls and a little girl in a kimono!

We used the city tourist bus to get there, as the ride was just two stops from a point near our apartment. We took it back again afterwards, completing the circuit it takes and ending up at Nagoya station, where we walked up to a low observation deck and enjoyed the winter illuminations. As we strolled home from the station – just 10 minutes away – we were delighted to find another area of illuminated trees  – mostly blue – with people taking photographs (of course). We joined them, though we avoided the selfie trap!