Wow! Japanese Style by Janine Donoho

A night view of cherry blossoms.

‘Wow’ or ワウ(wao)! if you read or speak Japanese. Sadly, my skills are rudimentary at best.

Yet we all have those ‘aha’ moments in life and, for me, travel amplifies that effect. In Japan, most visitors embrace the delectable, yet classic fare of sushi, spiritual Mt. Fuji, edgy Manga, sumptuous kimonos/obis, and breathtaking gardens. Now you’re invited to join me for a few of my Japanese inspired moments—and perhaps a few for you, too.


Maneki-neko 招き猫: Folktales of Maneki-neko vary, and all charm me. The one I heard most often? A wealthy feudal lord, Ii Naotaka, took shelter under a tree near Gōtoku-ji temple in Setagaya, Tokyo, during a thunderstorm. The temple priest’s cat beckoned to him and he followed; a moment later lightning struck the tree. In gratitude, the wealthy man enriched the temple, and when the cat died, the first maneki-neko was made in his honor.

This lovely kami-neko or cat spirit showed up during the Edo Period, which also happens to produce my favorite art. Who doesn’t love a ‘Beckoning Cat’ who may have saved a life? What proved my ‘ah-ha’ moment, though, connects Maneki-neko with the ‘Hello, Kitty’ craze that permeates both Japanese culture even as it’s spread throughout the world. Also, I can’t help but hear an American sailor’s voice echoing through my head, changing Maneki-neko into its alter ego with, “Look, it’s that Hello, Kitty.”

Kuzu: It doesn’t take long to recognize ‘kuzu’ as ‘kudzu’, the plague of the south


eastern and southern U.S. that’s creeping northward even as I write this. This Japanese arrowroot belongs to the pea family and receives adulation in its home country for its uses in cuisine and fibers for weaving. Introduced into the United States during the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, during the 1930s and 1940s, Florida nursery owners rebranded this invasive species as a way to stop soil erosion. During the depression, Soil Conservation Service workers received $8/hour to sow topsoil until kudzu covered over one million acres.

Oops! Also, pay of $8/hour during the depression!

Glorious inks!

Ink shops: So I love sumi-e, the black ink art of “writing a painting” and “painting a poem.” Ink colors other than black raise me to blissful, so when I found entire shops in Tokyo that cater to ink colors and even allow me to make my own special color…well, joy or 至福 (shifuku).

With only six weeks to sink into this rich culture, here are a few more epiphanies.

  • Religion in Japan seamlessly blends Shinto (kami-no-michi), Buddhism,

    Kitsune – Inari no Kami

    and Christianity into this sensitive and compassionate celebration of life. Kami—Shinto spirits of landscape, forces of nature, beings and the qualities expressed by those beings—spoke to me at a deeper level reminiscent of Shamanism;

  • Omotenashi おもてなし encompasses the respectful and warm spirit with which Japanese people welcome guests. This approach shows in finely developed attention to detail that embraces everyone from checkout clerks and building painters to business owners; 
  • Karōshi 過労死 involves the horrific downside to the Japanese single-hearted attention to detail. Translated it means ‘death through overwork’;
  • Luscious $50 watermelon

    The shocking cost of produce—envision a $50 watermelon—because, yes, the Japanese government treats farmers with respect—along with the natural resources that support rapturously sweet and juicy peaches, watermelons, kiwis, strawberries, tomatoes… Despite the sticker shock, I’d love to see this translated into an American view of productive family farms rather than the corporate undercutting of our farms and farmers.

Thus, amazing Japan or 素晴らしいです (subarashīdesu) 日本 (Nihon), don’t you think?*

Eileen Tanaka

This blog is dedicated to a shining, graceful, and brilliant woman, Eileen Tanaka, who happened to be my daughter-in-law. Her passage leaves this world a poorer and lesser place.

*A caveat: I won’t address my disappointment and ongoing horror of the Japanese thought process that views marine mammals and other living creatures as lesser beings here. Simply understand that as a conservation biologist, that approach to life is abhorrent to me.

Cherry Blossoms Deconstructed by Janine Donoho

The illusive Sakura no Kisetsu

The illusive Sakura no Kisetsu

What 1 month's travel looks likeThroughout March’s billowy gusts and slushy melts, I learned one hundred Japanese words and phrases promised to express 1,000 ideas. Two hour hikes with Nina Sophia filled with practice sessions until she recognized “O-tearai wa loko desu ka?” as an important question, although probably not as “Where’s the bathroom?” By the Ides of March, I knew the names of the snow monkeys inhabiting Jigokudani Park. My 21-inch ultralight suitcase was packed and ready to go for a month of Sakura no Kisetsu—cherry blossom season—in Japan. Except that’s not what happened.Packing light

Instead I picked Intrepid Guy up from the Penticton, B.C. on his way to a hospital stay followed by six to eighteen months of trudging toward remission. Trust me, we’d have preferred Sakura no Kisetsu. I unpacked my luggage in half an hour, and then stashed it on a high shelf where I wouldn’t be confronted daily with wretchedness. Except that’s not what happens.

The packing processAs my sweet guy tackles this autoimmune nightmare with a medieval regime of drugs that fail to address the issue while killing what was once an entirely beneficial immune system, I’ve put my head down to get through it—again. Frankly, this “leaning in” attitude has gone on a decade too long. Instead of cherry blossoms, we’ve changed course. Yes, I serve as Intrepid Guy’s support system, and he keeps his eyes on the prize of reclaimed health. Even so, I’m discovering petite aventures that keep me close enough for the daily toil, yet allow me to plump up my dehydrated spirits. A

Mt. St. Helen's knee

Mt. St. Helen’s knee

trip north to Penticton, British Columbia, went well until a bad cartoon fall left me with a Mt. St. Helen’s hematoma on one knee, a broken nose, and a jaw that’s not quite right. After six weeks, an ergonomic cane suffices for those times when the healing knee buckles. Still I’m back to condensed jaunts elsewhere, which alleviate a graceless tendency to gnaw my own paws. Today I muse over how others deal with setbacks—or worse.

What kinds of setbacks have you experienced? How did you deal?Thinking light

Soundings, Water Elemental

LaunchFebruary 27, 2015
The big day is here.

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