Welcome to Sophelia's Japan

A blog about adventures, academia, adoption and other things starting with the letter 'A'.
I'm a geek, a metal head, a shiba inu wrangler and a vegetarian, and I write about all of the above. You have been warned!

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Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Helping Himawari

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Welcome to the April 2014 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Family Pastimes  
This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama. This month our participants have shared stories and wisdom about family pastimes.

I don’t know if empathy counts as a family pastime, but it is at the core of the life that we have chosen and the choices we make as a family. When Tiger first came to live with us I worried about his lack of empathy. Orphanages are by their very nature impersonal and proscriptive, and empathy is a skill that needs to be practiced, just like any other. Eight years in an orphanage had not given Tiger many opportunities to practice. 

 Before coming to live with us, he was fearful of our dogs. He was, he explained, a “cat person”. He very quickly succumbed to their charms though, and right from the start sought them out for cuddles when he was upset with the two-legged family members.  The dogs’ needs are fairly simple to understand, and Tiger quickly became adept at figuring out what they were feeling. In a way, his empathy practice began with dogs.

During the winter holidays we took him to the video store to choose some DVDs, and he picked out Himawari (a story about the fate abandoned dogs face in the city pound). I tried to dissuade him from renting it, but he was adamant, and in my worst parenting decision to date I gave in and let him watch it. It had been nearly a year since I saw the film, and although I remembered how sad it was I had not picked up, in those pre-adoption days, how disturbing the language was going to be for him. As the lead character searches to a home before the period of stay in the pound expires and the dogs go to the gas chamber, the word used is 里親 (village parents), the same word used to describe our relationship to Tiger. The abandoned dogs are 捨てられた犬, which has a connotation of discarded garbage, and I have heard people refer to children in orphanages in the same way- 捨てられた子. The film brought up a lot of upsetting thoughts, and for days afterwards he quizzed me on what happens to children who don’t find 里親. I reassured him that children don’t get gassed, but I am not sure he was completely convinced.

Two weeks before the spring holidays began, I was dropping Tiger at school when we noticed a dog in the play ground with a more than passing resemblance to Himawari. I sent Tiger running to the staff room while I tried to get rid of the kids who were excitedly chasing her around. He came back to say that the Vice Principal’s advice was to ignore her and she’d go away. Tiger tugged my sleeve and looked up at me. “She’s lost just like Himawari” he said, “we have to do something.” I had a million very pressing things to do that day, but he was right. Empathy without action isn’t really all that useful, after all, and I was proud of him for realising that. So he went to class, and I picked the dog up and carried her home to find a spare collar and leash for her. She was thin and dirty and obviously very tired. She rested her head on my shoulder and fell asleep.

I took her home and fed her, then walked her around the neighbourhood for two hours asking everyone we saw if they recognised her. She didn’t lead me in any particular direction, and no one knew her. Her mammary glands were huge and sore looking. I assumed she had puppies waiting for her and how long they’d been without milk. I didn’t know what to do. The nearest vet is a thirty minute walk from our house, so off we went. She was very tired so I carried her as much as I could and she took the opportunity to snuggle into me. She was heavy and my arm was burning, but I didn’t want to put her down. The vet scanned her but she didn’t have a micro-chip. I left my number, in case anyone came for her. Then we went to the police station. They made a collar and leash for her from crime scene tape, and a jovial bald giant of an officer fed her a box a sushi. 

After school Tiger wanted to go to the police station to visit her. I told him she probably wasn’t there anymore, and we checked the pound website. Sure enough, there she was. “I’m sure her people are looking for her” I told Tiger. The next day we checked again, and she was still there. “What if she’s gassed?!” He worried. We called the pound. “Please don’t kill her without telling us” we asked, “if it gets to that point we’ll do… something.” I woke up with a sore stiff arm and it took a few minutes to realise why. A left-over sensation, the weight of a life. A tired head nuzzled into my neck.

A week passed. No one came for. The swelling I had thought was milk was an infection, and the pound feared that no one would adopt her because of it. Tiger begged to keep her, promising to walk her every day. We can’t afford another dog, and with one resource-aggressive dog already in the house it wouldn’t be completely safe either. We searched for dog rescues, non-profits, anyone who could help. Tiger borrowed a stack of library books on dogs, including a book of recipes for dog food and a guide to nursing sick dogs. I’m so proud of him, and at the same time, I know that what we are teaching him will not set him up for happiness. When you see suffering you can’t un-see it. As I explained our latest elaborate plan to the man person (taking Himawari half way across Japan to Tokushima and the only non-kill rescue we had been able to find), he commented “you know I love this about you, but there are so many people with easier lives than ours who could be doing this stuff.” That’s the thing though; our lives aren’t easy because we are the ones who “do this stuff”. Much as I want Tiger to grow into an adult who sees the subaltern and acts to help when he can, I am painfully aware of how much easier life is for people who don’t care.
Was a bath REALLY necessary?!
Today we are going to the pound to ask them to release Himawari to us. We couldn’t find a single animal rescue in Kyushu. We don’t really know what we are going to do, but we will do something, because that is what our family does. Something, anything but nothing.

Our frantic search for help for Himawari has forced us to confront how little hope there is for abandoned animals in Japan.



HEART Tokushima, despite being over 350 km away, immediately reached out to offer their support. They are a genuinely non-kill rescue and are doing amazing work in hard financial times. They have an amazon wishlist and gift shop, you can sponsor an animal or you can make a once off donation.

Likewise, Animal Friends Niigata offered advice and support despite being very much too far away to help directly. They also need support.

As for Tiger and empathy, I don’t think I need to worry anymore. He has definitely joined the family pastime.
*** Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting! Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:
  • 8 Reasons to Go Camping with Your Kids — The weather is warmer, and it is time to think about taking a break. As you plan your family vacation, Mandy of Living Peacefully with Children, guest posting at Natural Parents Network, explains why you should consider hitting the trails with your kids.
  • Crafty Cohorts — Kellie at Our Mindful Life enjoys crafting with her kids, and the skills they are learning.
  • 10 Hobbies For Families With Young Children — Jennifer at Hybrid Rasta Mama knows that finding hobbies families can do together (with young children in tow) isn't always the easiest of feats. She has compiled a list of 10 family friendly hobbies that children of all ages can enjoy and that won't break the bank!
  • Helping Himawari — Sophelia's family at Sophelia's Adventures in Japan share a passion for helping when a dog is abandoned at the nearby elementary school.
  • The 'Art' of Having FunMarija Smits shares some thoughts on family art and fun.
  • How we made our own Family Day — Lauren at Hobo Mama shares how her family celebrates the best day of the week, a chance for connection and adventure and endless possibilities: Family Day!
  • Our Family Hobby — Survivor talks about how animal husbandry has become her family's favorite hobby at Surviving Mexico Adventures and Disasters.
  • Sowing the Seeds of Passions — Christy at Eco Journey In The Burbs wonders if her interests, and her husband's, will shape her children's passions as they mature.
  • Harry Potter Potions Party — One of the best activities Dionna at Code Name: Mama has ever done with her family has been a Harry Potter Potions Party. She is sharing the resources she used to create their potion recipes, the ingredients and tools they experimented with, and the recipes themselves. Feel free to use and adapt for your own budding wizards and witches!
  • Pastimes Have Passed Me By — Kati at The Best Things takes a new perspective on projects that never get done.
  • Food as a cultural experience for preschoolers — Nathalie at Kampuchea Crossings finds that food is a good way to engage her preschoolers on a journey of cultural discovery.
  • 10 Reasons I Love Thrifting With My ChildrenThat Mama Gretchen has always enjoyed shopping, but with a growing family she's become more frugal and thus, her little ones are now in tow on her thrift store adventures.
  • Pastime with Family vs Family Pastime — You can share lots of pastimes with your family, but Jorje of Momma Jorje discovered a family pastime was much more pleasant for sharing.
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Friday, 4 April 2014

The Tea Ceremony of Awkward (Flashback Friday)

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This is basically a slightly-edited version of an email I sent friends a few years ago, so the tone is a little different from my usual posts. I debated about posting the story because it seems ungrateful of the kindness we were shown and that really isn't how we felt... it was just very, very awkward! So, while reading please keep in mind that we were very grateful, and our desire not to too obviously reject the hospitality we were being shown is in fact the source of most of the cringe involved in this tale of woe!

On my last day of the winter holidays 2009-2010 the then-secretary of my Naginata club (and mother of one of my co-workers) had invited me and my little sister Verity (who is also vegetarian and was visiting Japan at the time) over to her house for afternoon tea. We got a lift with an English teacher I'll call Nunally who did Naginata with me. The secretary had a huge house on a steep hill overlooking the bay on one side and the city on the other. When we arrived she was wearing a beautiful kimono, and it turned out that “tea” actually meant a full tea ceremony. She had a dedicated tea ceremony room in her house. Verity is not a fan of green tea at all, let alone matcha, and she hates red bean paste, which is often in the sweets served with the tea, so we were a bit nervous. It went beautifully though, and Verity even managed to down a second cup. When it was over we signed hugely with relief and patted each other on the back. Little did we know. 

We left the tearoom and were ushered into the dining room, where our hostess had prepared a full New Year’s meal. Why she didn’t mention she was feeding us I have no idea. It was all exquisite and hand made- the soup had spinach leaves that she had grown in the garden and tied individually into little knots- and every last dish had seafood in it. We sat there petrified as she brought out dish after gorgeous dish that we couldn’t eat. She even made steamed shrimp custards in antique cups garnished with roe. She had hand rolled sushi which was vegetarian except for some crab cake, so we tried to subtly poke that bit out and eat the rest. Watching us mangle her dainty sushi she kindly suggested that if chop sticks were too hard for us we could use our fingers. Verity took a bite of something that looked like a segment of citrus fruit but turned out to be herring roe. I attempted the salad but it had shrimp AND spam (an ancient traditional Japanese ingredient). She brought out some chicken which we declined. It was excruciating. We managed to drink the soup despite the fish stock and crab cake, then pleaded fullness; so she packed it all up into Tupperware for us to take home. At that point we just wanted to die but we retired to a sun-room for three hours of attempting to make conversation (our hostess and her husband couldn't speak English, my Japanese was basic and Verity's non-existent) while being served half a dozen kinds of black tea each in a different antique cup (the monetary value of each being the main talking point each time). During this conversation I stupidly responded to a question about beef in Australia that we were vegetarian. “That’s why you didn’t eat the chicken” our hostess commented, then after a moment Nunally asked “what about seafood?” “Well, no, we don’t eat seafood” I squirmed. “What about in soup stock?” she persisted. “WOW this tea is GOOD” Verity chimed in. Argh! We felt that nothing could ever feel more awkward than that conversation.

Then they asked what sights I had taken Verity to and I explained that we hadn’t done much because I was sick, and had to go back to work the next day, but that before going back to Australia Verity wanted to try an outdoor hot spring (rotenburo). “Yes” they exclaimed, “you must! We’ll take you to one tomorrow while Sophelia is at work”. Now, hot springs are naked affairs, and before hopping in you all sit on a row of stools washing and thoroughly rinsing off any soap. For some reason Japanese people think that this is too complex for gaijin to understand, so I had visions of Verity being surrounded by old naked Japanese women trying to school her on the finer points of soaping. I tried to subtly diffuse the situation by saying to Nunally in English “Verity has her period now, so she can’t go.” Rather than tactfully transmitting this to our hostess Nunally just directly translated it into Japanese, including our hostess's husband in the announcement.

“What a pain” said our hostess, “will it be finished by Thursday? We could go on Thursday.”

“She doesn’t know when it will finish...”

“Well when did it start? How long are they usually?”

We were wrong about the vegetarianism being the peak of awkwardness.
Eventually feeling fairly safe that I had got her out of it, we headed to Nunally’s car for a lift home only to hear our hostess say “See you at 11 tomorrow then.” They had decided to take Verity sight seeing but had neglected to tell us. For me, it was over, but Verity got to enjoy another full day of awkward.
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Saturday, 29 March 2014

Mountain Sakura and Shedding Shiba

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I've written before about the horrors of the DREADED SHIBA SHED. Something new I noticed after we moved out to the 'burbs is how similar Hayate's blowing coat looks to the mountinas in spring when the mountain sakura (山桜) are in bloom. Although Hayate is black, his winter undercoat is white.

As he begins to shed, the wooly under-layer it pokes through in clumps that look weirdly similar to the pink and white blossoms poking out between the green leaves of the other mountain trees. In case you don't see what I mean immediately, here is an unnecessarily large number of photos...


Fancy paws.

It isn't only the sakura, either. Our area is fameous for wisteria and it blooms wild in the mountains surrounding the farming area to the south of the mountains. It's too early now, but late April and early May, purple and pink blooms poke out between the green. 
Since Kuri is "brown" (she's red, really) she doesn't look quite as much like a mountain but I feel bad leaving her out... and her shedding is just as plentiful as Hayate's. This came out just from a quick pat.

At least at this time of year it is easy to see where they dogs have been spending their time!
 If you blog about, or from, Japan, don't forget to join up with the up-coming J-Bloggers' Carnival!

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Saturday, 22 March 2014

J-Bloggers' Carnival #2: Submissions Invited

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Photo Credit
Blog carnivals are a lot of fun, but Japan-related bloggers don't seem to have many (any?) to participate in. I guess it's too broad and diverse a category to easily bring together, but I'm going to try anyway, because I think that very diversity would be interesting. So without further ado, I am putting out a call for J-bloggers interested in participating in a carnival themed "New Beginnings". The theme is intentionally broad; feel free to write on whatever related topic takes your fancy. I only ask that it has some connection with Japan. You are very welcome to submit previously published pieces. Ideas could include anything from the April teacher re-shuffle to how you ended up in Japan.


If you have an account with Blog Carnival you can submit through the website by clicking here. If not:

For a post you have already published, just email me at sopheliajapan:at:gmail:dot:com with “carnival” in the topic line and include the url for your post and a short "about" for yourself/your blog and your blog's title.

For a previously unpublished post please email me at sopheliajapan:at:gmail:dot:com with “carnival” in the topic line. Please include a text version of your post in the body of your email. Unless pictures are essential to understanding the post there is no need to send them to me; if your post is a photo essay please email me for specific instructions. In addition to your post, please include the title and URL of your blog, an “about” of no more than four sentences, your name (as it appears on your blog) and the URL of the post you will be publishing for the carnival. If you don’t know how to find the URL for an unpublished post, please click here to see a guide.
The submission deadline is April 19th. Spring carnival posts will be published on Sunday April 20th.
よろしくお願いいたします。
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Monday, 10 March 2014

A New Perspective on Gaijinhood

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I accidentally joined a cult the other day. I'll write about that some other time... anyway, the reason I mention it is that during the cult meeting, I had one of those all-too-familiar "talk through the gaijin" experiences. If you've lived in Japan for any amount of time you will no doubt know what I mean. Here's an example from a Cub Scout parents and leaders drinking party a few months ago.

I chatted to one of the other mums for a while, then we grabbed our beer bottles and proceeded around the room to pour drinks for other people (that's how socialising happens at these things). Each person we approached did exactly the same thing: Ask the Japanese lady questions about me. As in, "where is she from?" "Can she speak Japanese?" "How long has she been here?" When I was new to life here I used to try to answer these questions and the conversations just went like this:
"Where is she from?"
"I'm from Australia."
[Ignoring me and continuing to ask the Japanese person next to me:] "Can she speak Japanese?"
"I'm talking to you in Japanese right now."
[Still ignoring me:] "How long has she been here?"
So, eventually I gave up and just smiled mutely while taking advantage of the free time to drink more. Japan has not been good for my liver. Anyhow, on this occasion it was kind of nice watching the other Cub Scout mum getting more and more irritated as the same conversation repeated over and over. A little sadistic, maybe, but I felt glad to see her frustration instead of having to explain mine to her.

So, back to the cult. The Japanese lady sitting beside me kept having questions directed to her instead of me, and I was sighing internally. Then the main culprit, an elegant old lady with immaculate silver hair, began talking about how hard dealing with school must be for me as a "gaijin". I wouldn't understand the system, or the requirements, or what to buy for my child. I must be having a really hard time. In fact, there have been quite a few things that have been hard. I am fortunate to have worked in the local elementary school system for four years, and that's got me through pretty well, but I still get completely flummoxed from time to time by things that the staff take so for granted that it just hasn't occurred to them to inform me of. So although what this lady was saying was to some extent true, it isn't necessarily true that just because I am a 外人 I'd struggle. I mean, there are lots of international parents in Japan who speak native level Japanese and never seem to find anything hard. I was sitting there raging in my heart and twitching to lash out when the lady continued:
"When I first moved here from Korea I had to enroll the children in school immediately, and I had no idea how to do anything. Every day I got something wrong and my children were teased at school because of my mistakes. Japanese people often don't understand how hard it can be for gaijin parents here."
And there it was. Her surname was Japanese and she spoke our local dialect, so I'd assumed that she was yet another Japanese person othering me and making assumptions about me. In fact, she was empathising and remembering her own difficulties as an outsider. It was me who had leaped to judge her, not the other way around. I was so wrapped up in memories of past frustrations that I hadn't seen the kindness she was offering me. When the meeting finished she squeezed my hand.
"It'll be alright," she said, "your child has a family and love. Everything else is just decorating."

A few days later, I was playing with Tiger in a park while a steady stream of school kids walked by on their way home. A little girl, about 10 or 11, saw us from the road and yelled "gaijin!" She came running over to us and collapsed in a smiling puffed out heap in front of me.
"You are a gaijin, right? You look like a gaijin."
"Yes", I said, "I'm from Australia."
"I'm a gaijin too! I'm from China, but I've lived here since I was in kindergarten. Bye!" And off she ran, back to her waiting friends.
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Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Japanese Cloth Sanitary Napkins

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While we were waiting for lunch in a cafe on Ishigaki, I was flipping through a natural living magazine (天然生活) and saw an advertisement for cloth pads. They were beautiful, and oh-so-Japanese. Seriously, would any other culture make something designed to soak up blood in white and add lace?! The brand advertised was Pristine and if you click the link and look at all their products, you'll see what I mean.

I started using cloth pads when I was 14 because they are so much cheaper, although I felt like there were good environmental reasons, too. I bought a set from a local Tasmanian lady (Moonpads: the designs now are so much nicer than they used to be!) and since I only use them when I'm at home (I found them inconvenient while at work or school) and I spent most of the past fifteen years using contraception with the welcome side effect of irregular periods, I am still using that same set. $70 well spent. You can read more about reasons to use cloth here. At the time, no one else I knew used them and they were a very functional thing, none of the cute designs and diverse shapes that you can buy today. So, when I saw the lovely fabrics on offer in Japan, I looked into it further. I was really intrigued by this design, which seems the standard in Japan but a quick google of US and Australian suppliers indicates is uncommon in other countries:
Image from www.pristine.jp/products/detail828.html
A small band of lace hold an insert inside the part that is fastened under the gusset, meaning you wouldn't have to remove the whole thing each time. It seems like a really good idea that might make using them at work less of a hassle.

Although the Pristine brand are lovely, I wasn't really down with the idea of all that white. So, I typed 布ナプキン into amazon.jp and this is what came up. Since we're broke I went for the cheaper options but wasn't stuck with boring block colours or tired prints:


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Monday, 3 March 2014

Girls' Day Gifts

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Driving back from our waterfall viewing adventure, a certain someone had a desperate and sudden need to use the toilet in the middle of a stretch of rural highway. In desperation we pulled into a road-side flower shop and begged use of their loo. I felt bad about it so I bought some flower seeds, which the owner thought was hilarious, and when we left she gave us these hand-made little girls' day dolls. Then today (girls' day proper), an elderly neighbour give me these sakurazushi. Although we don't have a daughter and I hadn't intended to do anything special, thanks to the kindness of those around us we can have our own little hinamatsuri after all.

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