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Summer in Tsukahara

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gkimbal's Spring in Tsukahara album on Photobucket

Saturday, July 30, 2011

What a convenient guy!

A long time ago, George and I worked on George’s mother’s house. His mother mumbled, “You see, I miss him because he left me when he married you. He was such a convenient son.” I replied, “You have him plus one…ME.” She said, “It’s different. I cannot get his services whenever I want.” I see…she is SO honest. Believe me, that’s one reason I can get along with her so well…when I can get along with her.
Now, I realize that I am so glad that I am not in her shoes. He is not going to leave me…well, hopefully not.

When I ask what I want…then, here you go, he makes exactly what I want. I said, I want to have a mascot for our business. Something cute, like many Japanese have and like…you know, cartoonish…see, kinda like this and then I showed him a picture on the net. A few days later, what I had asked for appeared in front of me. He’s such a convenient guy.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Home Is Where the Heart Is

The trip to Sacramento, CA. brought back a flood of memories. The stark contrast of the green forests in Washington compared to the golden hills dotted with live oaks in California, reminded me of why I disliked Seattle. The blue skies and the bright sun caused me to squint. I hadn’t worn sunglasses in 7 years. The temperature in the central valley was unusually mild for July…75 degrees. “It’s so flat and open here,” I commented to Erika. My mom’s neighbor was kind enough to pick us up from the airport. This gave me a chance to look out of the car window and remember that “California feeling”. The cars drive faster, the roads are wider, the stop lights are quicker, and the people are dressed in shorts/ t-shirts. Yes, this is California. The warm sun felt fantastic. The air was dry and there was a light breeze cooled by the distant ocean. Everything felt so familiar. I knew this place like the back of my hand and I wanted to see my old stomping grounds and meet our dear friends. I was careful to say or think that I was back home again. Was I back home? This was a question that I desperately needed to answer before I moved to Japan.

When I was recently in Japan, I made it a point to ask myself if this was the place I could call home. I would sit and gaze at my volcano and wonder if I would miss “Home”. As I walked the back roads of Tsukahara, I wondered if my home was in Japan. To answer that question I had to relate to my current situation…living in Federal Way. I often asked Erika, over the course of the past 7 years, if Federal Way felt like home. She said, yes, and stated that where ever I was and the doggies were, she felt like it was home. There is a lot of truth to that. Home is where the heart is. The problem for me is that my heart was never in Seattle. I moved here because I had to. I could not give up 15 years at the same workplace so easily. It was a good job and we both knew it. We had to move because the situation required us to do so. In all honesty, Seattle has felt like a long stopover. You know the feeling…it’s like staying at a motel in an unfamiliar town. I have never felt like this was my home…not even for a minute. Some of this feeling was because I never allowed it to be my home. We made a few friends and for me that was saying a lot. I do not make friends easily. I have held an unfair grudge against this city because of the way I migrated here. The feeling of living somewhere because “you want to” compared to living somewhere because “you have to” is light years apart. I took those feeling I had bundled up inside for these past 7 years and brought them to Tsukahara. Would I feel the same in Japan?

As I walked the back roads of Tsukahara with my wife and Sakura (neighbor’s dog) a magical thing happened. I started talking to complete strangers. A mother and her daughter were blowing their truck horn to bring in the cows that were grazing near the volcano. After a few minutes, the mother started searching for the cows. She must have been in her seventies, but she was as strong as an ox. She marched out into the tall grass and called for her cows. After a while, she disappeared into the bushes. We waited patiently with her daughter. A person bicycled past us and stopped to chat. He rented our home before we purchased it. We talked a bit as the mother continued to look for the cows. I wanted to help search for the cows. Then, another close friend from Erika’s hometown of Suminoe, drove by and stopped. We had known them for many years. All of this occurred on a tiny road in front of the volcano in Tsukahara. What’s so magical about the moment was that I realized I knew all of these people and I was comfortable with them. The new neighbor with the cows invited me to help gather her cows in a future roundup. This sounded like a great opportunity for me because their land was located right next to the volcano and I would have a chance to be a “Japanese cowboy”. Our dogs were invited too. I could not stay to watch her mom find the cows, but we did make another friend. The experience of making new friends repeated itself throughout my recent trip to Japan. Actually, this experience had repeated itself over and over during the many trips to Japan. It’s just that at that magical moment in time I came to the realization that I felt like I was home. I embedded those emotions in my brain and carried those thoughts to a very special place in my heart…Green Valley.

Green Valley stirs up emotions of a wonderful time Erika and I shared. I had a great job, Erika worked at the best place ever and her supervisor and coworkers were the greatest. We had a beautiful home with a gorgeous Japanese garden. We had time to do our hobbies including stained glass and woodworking. I could fly my remote controlled sailplanes off a nearby hill and walk the dogs for miles without seeing a single person. The small community was surrounded by man-made lakes and we felt safe there. A small shopping center opened up which allowed easy access to grocery shopping within walking distance. On Saturdays, we would walk there to pick up some scones or croissants for breakfast. A farmers market was nearby which provided us with all kinds of inexpensive fruits and vegetables. We were in the countryside, so we could walk to pet/feed horses and look at the vineyards. Our next door neighbor was the best. We shared a lot of the same interests and beliefs. We were very lucky to have them. Yes, it was a very special time in our lives.

Of course, not everything was perfect. I did have to commute 1 to 1.5 hours each way to Oakland. The commute took its toll on my health and happiness. I was having personality conflicts at work. I often found myself complaining about the smallest things. When I look back, I felt sorry for Erika. She endured a lot of complaining from me. She worries that I will do the same in Japan. However, she has noticed that I have changed for the better. Rather than complaining, I get out there and do something about it. Erika has shown me how to do that.

During this past trip to California I had a chance to hike a couple of hours in Rockville Park, overlooking Green Valley. I was convinced that of all my travels, there was no place more beautiful than the view above Green Valley. My previous dogs had their ashes scattered there. It was the place where I would go to fly my sailplanes, and the place I could go to gather my thoughts. It was a very special place in my heart. With my memories of Tsukahara swirling in my head, I could finally sit down and answer the question about whether if Green Valley was the home that I longed for or if Tsukahara was the place where my heart was. I walked along a ridge overlooking the distant hills that were shrouded by the marine layer. The marine layer is like a giant fog/cloud bank that provides a natural air-conditioning effect when the westerly winds blow during the summer months. The effect is dramatic and can cool the area by as much as 20 degrees compared to the central valley. This is one of the reasons why the Napa Valley was such a successful wine growing region.

I hiked the park trails and a flood of memories came to me. I could almost see my dogs playing near the mighty oak trees. The air was cool and dry. The warm sun was filtered by passing clouds. It was a glorious day to be hiking in Rockville Park. I felt like I was the only one there. After about 1.5 hours, I hiked back up to the ridge and found the spot where I often thought was my favorite place in the whole world. It was a magical place for me, however it felt different than before. I could see that my attitude had changed. It was comfortable to be back hiking the trails. It felt comfortable to see friends. It felt almost…too comfortable. I imagined my future life in Japan and compared it to my past life in Green Valley. It’s hard to describe, but for some strange reason I had this urge to complain about something. I thought about all of the homes being built right up to the park’s boundary line. I thought of the warning signs: Beware of Coyotes. Keep Your Dog On Leash! I’ve never had to worry about that before. Of course the coyotes are in the park. They have nowhere else to go! New homes are being constructed everywhere. I looked out and saw Fairfield as I stood on the ridge. New businesses and construction were overtaking what I once thought was countryside. I remember back in 1966 when the only stop was a single stop sign (I sound very old) in Fairfield.

When I was climbing up the trail into the park, I came across a lady of Middle Eastern descent. She stared at me like I was from another planet. She continued to stare at me until I could not see her anymore. I felt uncomfortable, as if my comfort zone was violated. I wanted to blame her. This place, that was my home of 40 years, felt strangely foreign to me. It was like the area grew/changed and I was no longer part of it. There was nothing I could do about it. I just accepted the fact and left with the confidence that I had answered a question that had been bugging me for a long time. My future home was in Japan and my heart was on the mountainside overlooking my volcano in Tsukahara. I couldn’t wait to go back.



Every time I visit Japan, I make at least one cultural mistake. Recently when I visited, George and I were invited to lunch. The lunch was buffet style. The host said, “Please help yourself.” I said, “Thank you” and proceeded to serve myself. The host’s jaw dropped in astonishment. I quickly asked what was wrong. She said, “You served yourself.” I asked if I misunderstood her when she told me to serve myself. She said, “You didn’t serve your husband first.” I made up an excuse and of course that made the situation worse. Well…I wasn’t thinking clearly after a couple of beers. I should have pretended and said, “Oops, I forgot. I am sorry.” Instead, I said, “He has two hands. He can serve himself. If I served him, he would have been obliged to finish up everything on the dish.” This was mistake number one. 

After a little more beer, somehow in our conversation, I said, “My ex….” She said, “Oh my God! George is such a sweet guy.” I asked, “Why?” She said, “Because he married you even though you were used.” George and I laughed out loud! I know that most Americans would have thought that she was rude to have made such a harsh comment. I would have thought so too if I didn’t have plans to move back to Japan. Well…this was mistake number 2.

Believe or not, I have made so many cultural mistakes. Either I can laugh or cry about them. I have been practicing the “Japanese smile” by opening my big mouth less.


Friday, July 22, 2011






It was a very emotional trip to California. I think that’s an understatement considering the magnitude of the trip. Imagine saying goodbye to your mother and not knowing if she would be alive to see you again. Then compound those emotions with her conveying that she is certain that this will be the last time she will spend time with you. Well, she is 82 years old. She works 5 days a week, not because she needs the income, but because she needs to socialize. I believe that’s the secret to her longevity.
 The strange thing about this trip was that most of the time I shared with my mother, we were in serious discussion about her estate, trust, and will. I can’t think of a more enlightening conversation to have with your mother. When we visited the cemetery, she even reminded me to engrave her name on the headstone that marks my father’s grave. How’s that for fun and entertainment? I know she wanted the transition of her death to be as smooth as possible, but I found the whole discussion to be morbid. I listened to her as carefully as I could because I knew that it was very important to her. The more we discussed her death, the more comfortable I became with the subject. I think that was her intention. She tried to give me the priceless gift of peace-of-mind. I never knew any of my grandparents. I wasn’t exposed to death until my father died in 1994. I can’t say that it will be any easier emotionally for me when she dies, but I think she will rest a little easier knowing that she tried to console me about her eventual death. Fortunately, she has a family history of longevity, so I don’t expect anything to happen to her in the near future. Erika often kids her about the topic. “You told me you were going to die soon when you were 70. You said the same thing when you were 75. Now you are 82. I’m not too worried about your death anytime soon.”


Thursday, July 21, 2011

Something Wrong

It’s stressful to choose a good property manager especially when we have to trust him or her with our home. Usually, George and I interview several people and end up disagreeing on who to choose. This case was different. We interviewed 5 people and we agreed without hesitation on the same person.

A couple weeks before the signing of the contract, I asked our newly chosen property manager to send me a quick reminder of the signing date. She said that she would be too busy since the day falls after her vacation. I asked, “Okay, then could you please give me a quick phone call or email on the day we sign the contract… maybe 30 minutes ahead of time?” She said, “Okay.”

On the contract signing day, she did not contact me ahead of time as she had promised. As a matter of fact, she was 15 minutes late to the meeting! When she came in, she was in a good mood and kept talking. I was waiting for her to settle down and apologize for being late, but she never did. So, I finally asked her, “Are you always late?” She became very upset at my simple question. She said that she felt “attacked” by my question. The “Drama Queen” continued to rant on about how she felt uncomfortable about our “relationship” and that she had never been treated in such a manner. I remained calm as she continued to self-destruct. She said, “I told you that I would be extremely busy after my vacation!” I wish I could have said, “I don’t care about what kind of vacation you had and how busy you are. We are conducting business here.” Shoot! I missed the golden opportunity because George entered the room and interrupted us. He told us to calm down since she had said she apologized (I was calm anyway.). “No, she didn’t!” I responded. When I asked her why she didn’t keep our promise about sending me a reminder, she apologized, but not before. I was okay to move forward, but she said she needed a “time out.” She slammed the front door. When she came back, I said, “I will clean up any clutter as you take your pictures.” My goodness, her face was still red and upset. George jumped in and said, “Well, I think we saw enough. We’re choosing someone else. Bye!”

At first, I felt sorry for George because I might have caused more trouble. We did spend a lot of time interviewing. My friend said, “If she cannot handle the tiny stress with me in person, how could she possibly handle the stress in emails.” She was right. My previous company conducted several training classes on how to handle a stressful situation. Obviously, I didn’t learn anything.

Property managers and realtors are always on time and promise a million things until we choose them. It’s like night and day after we say the magical words, “We chose you.” Why do they act like they are doing us a favor soon after we tell them we are going with them? They should realize that they earn money from our property. How many times have I heard them say, “I have been working so hard for YOU. I have been doing a great job for you.” How come they don’t say, “I am doing a good job for myself so that I can build my reputation. Thank you for offering me this great opportunity”?  


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Discovering Happiness

Visiting Japan has made me realize that the departure date was quickly approaching. George had often asked me what the chances of moving were. I replied, “Not yet, so maybe 50%”. The answer over the past few years has gradually changed from 50% to 99%. I am not scared to change. I will miss the freedom of living in the U.S.: freedom to be myself, freedom to do whatever I choose, freedom to be treated equally with men, freedom to have privacy, and freedom to speak out and be different. In Japan, being different means that you stick out like a nail. Those nails are quickly pounded back in.

During our recent visit, we made satisfactory progress towards our goal of moving to Japan. We found a place to open a business and announced to our friends that we will be moving in October. Yes, I was the one dragging my feet by making up a lot of excuses. The longer I stayed in Japan, the more questions I asked myself; would I be okay to live there for the rest of my life?

Where ever I would go, even to public offices, I would see young Japanese women working the front desks. They were not older women like me (by the way, I’m not considered old in the U.S., but I am in Japan). So, where do the experienced Japanese women go? Those young Japanese women have the same smile, very soft, natural looking and very kind. How can I do this? Trying to act that way creates more wrinkles on my face.

So, I asked one of the young ladies working at the bank, “Are you happy?” She was puzzled by my question. George quickly apologized for me, “I’m sorry, but my wife is taking a survey.” She thought for a moment and replied, “I think so.” I asked, “What do you mean you THINK so?” She said, “I am NOT unhappy, so I guess I’m happy.” Both George and I laughed out loud.

Okay, I discovered that is the attitude I should have. The currency conversion rate was 80.50 yen per $ 1.00, but actually only 75.00 yen ended up in my pocket. So, I said to the young lady, “I’m not happy about this! How do I change my unhappiness with your way of thinking?” She laughed. I guess I have to find my happiness by not being unhappy in Japan.


Sunday, July 10, 2011


Our plan is to stay in Nakatsu for 5 days and live in Tsukahara for 2 days. The commute is approximately 1 hour. The scenery is beautiful and a narrow road winds you through the mountains and gently descends into the Japan countryside. Currently, the farmlands are golden with wheat glistening in the sunlight. Traffic is almost nonexistent. The actual driving distance is short, but the speed limit is only 50km (35mph). If we are successful in business, we would like to purchase a second home in the Nakatsu area. We are also going to try to teach at various kindergartens along the commute. The problem is where we can keep Kiley and Lucky while we teach a one hour class.
As soon as we move in October, our main focus will be to decorate the business, so that we can open as soon as possible. Unfortunately, decorating is not something that we possess much talent. I hope to come up with something soon so that we can purchase materials here. Finding materials in English can be a challenge in Japan. My biggest obstacle is to create an environment that appeals to the young and old alike.  I’m restricted as to what I can attach to the walls.
Fusuma (paper doors) separate the  classrooms. It’s really hard to attach anything to a paper door. The classrooms are not very large so every square meter needs to be carefully utilized to obtain maximum results. Speaking of furniture and appliances…instead of buying new stuff and suffering from sticker shock, we found a great place that sells used stuff. It’s officially my favorite place to shop in Japan. I hate shopping, but I don’t mind going there. One of the benefits of Japan is that the Japanese love to buy new things. They discard perfectly good stuff so that people like me can buy it at bargain prices. Most of our purchases will be for Nakatsu since Tsukahara will have all of our stuff from the U.S. This brings up a sore subject. Since we can’t afford to build a garage in Tsukahara, we will have to store all of our stuff in the house. This means a 40 foot X 8 foot X 8 foot container worth of stuff. I hope we have enough room. We want to keep Nakatsu as empty and professional looking as possible. I’m getting a headache just thinking about it. I’m slowly learning that even the best laid plans tend to fail if you try too hard to stick to them.

Private Property, Welcome

I was in for a surprise when I drove onto our property and saw an obasan (old lady) walking around our property like she owned the place. Erika politely asked what she was doing. She said that she was harvesting warabi  (mountain vegetables). From my understanding, this was a common practice in the countryside. They come from all over to harvest warabi and wild berries when they are in season. I found the whole experience kind of strange since I was under the impression that we lived out in the middle of nowhere. These “bush people” park along the gravel road that leads to our home. At one time I saw a group of four people wandering in the tall weeds (over 2 meters high), actually I didn’t see them, I saw the weeds moving. I told Erika that in the U.S. they would be arrested or shot for trespassing. Interesting…all of a sudden I didn’t feel like we had any privacy. This was even more apparent since we didn’t have a bathroom to take care of things. I would look out for Erika and she would do the same for me when we had to take care of business. Erika asked the obasan if she were afraid of being bitten by a snake. She calmly said no and told us that it’s more dangerous if you don’t have boots on near your house. That made sense in a peculiar way. I thought the large bucks roaming in the weeds and bugling was unique when we visited last fall, but this certainly tops that experience. I could see the weeds moving and I knew there were people out there…searching…searching for mountain vegetables. I had to know what was so special about these delicacies. As fate would have it, our neighbor just so happen to be cooking up a lunch that included these elusive vegetables. I couldn’t wait to taste the wonderous flavors of warabi. It kind of looks like a green sprout. You know like when a small fern starts to open. I opened my mouth prepared to be taken away by the exotic flavor…nothing. It tasted like soy sauce. “What’s the big deal?” I couldn’t believe people would waste the time and risk being bitten by a poisonous snake to eat this. “I don’t get it.” The neighbor was quick to point out that the taste was more of a symbol than an actual taste. It was supposed to taste like spring time. “Oh, I get it.” I politely finished my plate and went back to whacking weeds.
I promised to join the “bush people” when the wild berries are in season. I was told all kinds of edible fruits and veggies grow wild in Tsukahara. When I was whacking weeds in the yard, I was afraid I was destroying someone’s natural dinner. I soon got over the feeling as the yard was quite large and I was getting very sore and tired. Erika and I took turns whacking weeds. The weed wacker was borrowed from her brother. I don’t know if they have this kind of tool in the U.S. Just picture a long pole with a small gas powered motor on one end and a spinning tablesaw blade at the other end. If you are not careful, a person could get seriously injured. It works very well for the intended purpose and someday I would like to purchase one. They run about $400.
We must have looked pathetic to visitors with our house in terrible condition, a yard full of weeds, I’m unable to walk, I haven’t shaved in 5 days, and no water or septic. At least the weather was good. We had to rest in the car because the house was uninhabitable. The neighbor brought us food and water while we tried to cut down the weeds. It felt good to work even though I could use only one leg. I think Erika was convinced that Japan was good for me after she experienced our little bit of hardship. She was impressed with the fact that I didn’t complain. In the U.S., I would have been upset, cussing and complaining about the situation. In Japan, I was perfectly calm and accepted the situation. I enjoyed the opportunities the situation opened up for us. We were given a chance to meet all sorts of kind and generous people because of our difficulties… it was fate.

Friday, July 1, 2011