Burning Rice Fields and Other Things

I know you’ve come a long way baby, but you don’t need that heart of stone. You proved that you can do it baby, you can make it on your own. But, you can’t keep running away from love, ’cause the first one let you down. – Shalamar (The Second Time Around)

Dear Friends,

1) It was my extreme pleasure to teach M again, so soon after I wrote about him in the previous post. (M‘s the student who told me about “catching purpose”). Whenever I’m supposed to teach M, quite the opposite happens and it winds up that he teaches me a multitude of practical lessons and life lessons.

Practical lesson:

* I go into the class with the text; I open to the appropriate page; I say, “Okay, let’s get started.” Then, he does his own thing, takes the marker, marches to the whiteboard, and starts teaching me a bit of Kanji. What am I to do? (I love it).

Life lesson #1: I asked M what he’s going to do when he retires in six years, and he confided that the plan is to go back to school, preferably UC Berkeley, to brush up on Physics. He majored in Physics at Kyoto University, but claims that there are many things he’s forgotten and he wants to know if there are any new developments. (I don’t even know what the old developments were in Physics.) His passion for learning at an advanced age, like so many of the retirees I’ve met, my mother among them, is truly inspiring. It’s never too late to do anything; no time for excuses.

Life lesson #2: He told me that after the rice harvest, the fields are burned, so that the soil will be ready for the next season. The fact that the fields are destroyed to make way for new beginnings struck me. Endings aren’t bad; after a flaming, fiery end, there’s regeneration, regrowth, rebirth. If a rice field can do it, why can’t I?

* Rice paddies viewed from my train window on the way to Hakone.

2) Sadly for me, but not necessarily for her, another of my classmates is leaving Tokyo. She’s on her way to hotter, more humid temperatures in Asia, and all who had the pleasure of spending time with S will miss her. She’s laid back, cool, and completely unassuming, all the things I’d like to be. (Soon.) On Saturday, we gathered at an izakaya near her school to bid her adieu, good luck, and crossed our fingers that she doesn’t like her new country of choice too much. It was my re-entry into the world of alcohol, and what a serious education it was.


3) I received this great message just today, “Remember to enjoy your wonderful city.  Twelve million people in Tokyo, so there should be lots of great people in your future!”

4) Speaking of love, you all know how I feel about my bike Lucy. Last week Tuesday, in the typhoon that hit Tokyo, Lucy was the only bike standing outside my school. She’s fortified.

* You’d think in the middle of a typhoon, I’d have better things to do than taking pictures.

Two nights ago, I was talking to a friend about the fact that I took my bike to the bike shop to get looked at for a few different reasons, and I felt how a parent probably feels when they take their kid to the pediatrician. He started laughing, and then asked, “You do know that your bike’s an inanimate object, right?”  Well yes, of course, but…. In other news, I’m soon to inherit another bike; it’ll be my “going to the supermarket and running errands” bike, because it has a basket. (I wonder if it’ll feel that I favor Lucy– like a stepsister kind of envy?)

5) We’re going to stop with five, because it’s the number for rebirth and this post is all about starting again. What could be better than a picture of steaming ramen noodles, friends who refuse to keep it clean (though I plead), and my favorite place in Ningyocho (after Brozer’s of course)?

See you soon,




Soup: 1: a liquid food especially with a meat, fish, or vegetable stock as a base and often containing pieces of solid food.

Dear Friends,

This post has a lot of liquid and a few things of substance. Life soup with the week’s events cut and diced.

1) Yesterday, my student M told me that at his alma mater, Kyoto University, students who major in Science fields have the option of staying in school anywhere from five to eight years. When I asked him why and how it’s possible to be an approved, perpetual student, he told me that the university is well-aware that “catching purpose” takes time. It’s clear to me, since I took that extended path of learning for my undergraduate degree, that Kyoto University was where I should have gone. It’s also clear that for years I’ve been trying to “catch purpose,” and it’s proven as hard to grasp now as when I started reaching for it. In the Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, Chopra defines dharma (or “purpose in life”):

  •  Each of us is here to discover our higher self or our spiritual self. This is the first fulfillment of the Law of Dharma.
  •  The second component of the Law of Dharma is to express our unique talents.
  • The third component of the Law of Dharma is service to humanity– to serve your fellow human beings and to ask yourself the questions, “How can I help?”

2) Speaking of dharma, last night, on Skype, I caught up with Tan, a friend I’ve known forever and a day. It seems that she’s caught her purpose in life and it’s gold. As long as I’ve known her, she’s said that she’s wanted to help children. Years ago, she’d spoken of opening an orphanage, so it was no real surprise to me when she told me that she, her husband, and one or two others had founded a school in Montego Bay, Jamaica. The school, The Academy of Science, Technology, and the Arts (ASTA), which opens in September, plans to empower seventh and eight graders to think critically, in a non-traditional way. Their website states:

The academy is built around the principles of critical thinking and logical reasoning. The academy offers the traditional Caribbean secondary curriculum to students, utilizing traditional and non-traditional teaching techniques aided by technologically advanced tools and good practices.   Encouraging the use of critical thinking and logical reasoning, emphasis will be placed on the disciplines of Science, Technology and Arts and their practical use. Through interactive sessions, practical applications and utilizing a holistic approach ASTA aims to achieve academic excellence and produce well-rounded students who are mentally and emotionally prepared for international tertiary education and equipped with the necessary life skills for the real world.

I forgot to ask her if they’ll accept older students, because it’s increasingly clear that I have not been “equipped with the necessary life skills for the real world.” (Go T!)

3) Last week, a fabulous woman who I had the pleasure of interacting with at my old job in the States visited Tokyo. We happened across a free concert at a temple that was promoting energy conservation and general harmony. The surrounding areas of the temple were lit only by candlelight, and even the lights of Tokyo Tower were turned off for a few hours (happens only once a year).

She, as I have, fell in love with Tokyo and she asked me what my future intentions were in and for this great city. After a brief summary of my days, and what’s been going on, she advised me that to make life complete, it was necessary to get out there and date. Honestly, I hadn’t been pressed for a minute about dating, though in truth, a few months ago it was on my mind.

Emotional landscapes, they puzzle me. – Bjork

Dating’s never been an area in which I excelled, like say spelling, so I cringed when she suggested online dating.

* I went on one good date with this guy; and one evening, I’m sure I became his least favorite person in the world. 

I shared with her as I did with you all my woeful attempts at online dating with Match. com, and how I vowed never ever to online date again (See December posts). However, she said something I’ll never forget, “Don’t be afraid to fail.” I do recognize that failure is inevitable and that it doesn’t mean that I should stop trying. Though her words resonated with me, I didn’t sign up for the dating site until 2am two nights ago, and regretted it the very next morning when I received this message:

Hi M here , how are you i want to know you and see you soon, i am in tokyo working here . i live near tokyo tower in azabu east. i am alone want to meet you and make good friendship with you , waiting for your quick response if you have any skype or messenger please do share with me , or share your contact number so we can meet in a day or two. Plz reply. Can we have date soon . i love black beauty. i am also great at love you will like and love our meeting for long time.

I’ve also received normal messages, but it looks like I’m gonna soon have to hit up some of the cute guys that are checking out my profile and not sending messages. Honestly, I’m not cut out for online dating, when I went to check a message, and my profile showed that I was “Online,” some guy started messaging me and I promptly signed out. Hopefully, it’ll be worth it. (Giving it more than a week.)

4) Speaking of love, I went to Thong, a Thai Restaurant in Coredo Nihonbashi, last night with B and the waiter served us dessert in a heart-shaped bowl. (It’s also definitely time to have meals with guys who’re not romantically entangled, completely head over heels with other women or aren’t just friends.) My male friends here are beyond cool, but it’d be nice if the next time I see something heart-shaped, it induced something more than laughter.

* Sticky rice, mango, and coconut milk.

For our entrée, we shared Tom Yum Talay (spicy) soup.


“It’s Enough Love for Me to Stay”

It’s not my thing trying to get back, but this time let me tell you where I’m at. – The Jackson 5 (I Wanna Be Where You Are)

1)  I recently re-joined the land of Facebook and received a message from a good friend that contained the question, “So when are you coming to this side of the world again?” The side of the world he was talking about is New York, and though New York was good to me at one time, and may be again one day, I have no current wish to see its bridges, skyline or subways. (Zero longing to step foot in the city of my birth). I’m going to tell you something shocking– at the moment, I have no yearnings to fly anywhere (especially somewhere I’ve already been). That admission is crazy, because there’s nothing I usually love more than getting on a plane, but all the travel plans in my head, require only an express train ticket, no exorbitant fares, and no security lines.

Can it be I stayed away too long? – The Jackson 5

In one of my favorite Jackson 5 songs of all time, ‘I Wanna Be Where You Are,” little MJ pines that he wants to be where his love is, anywhere that love is. I have another shocking admission, my love is here in Tokyo. My love is me. My current love is Tokyo. My love is getting on my bicycle on a sunny day and riding around the city, which leads me to number two.

2) A few days ago, I exchanged a round of emails with a friend who I’ve always known from a great distance (literally). When I told him that I choose not to make plans with anyone far in advance, he told me that I have a “selfish cancellation issue,” and that “the key is to put your friend, who you committed to, above your own feelings at any given time.” I’m as confused by that statement now as I was when I first read it. Why would I choose to put someone’s feelings over mine? (If anyone can sufficiently explain this to me, please send an email to my gmail account: valerieasmith7@gmail.com).

When I asked him, his response to me was that if I don’t compromise, and I interpret “compromise” to mean compromise on my peace of mind and wishes, then I’ll end up “pissing off friends, and losing them.” I think we misunderstood each other. There’s a thin line between compromise and self-sacrifice, and surely my friends should understand I like myself and my company as much, and oftentimes more than them. Doesn’t everybody?/Shouldn’t everybody? Another friend told me that I never compromise, which I disagree with, because I know that I have on past occasions. However, it’s probably true now. It’s most likely true.

3) Happiness is not a destination, it’s a journey. Happiness is not tomorrow, it is now. – Brahma Kumaris

My friend T has recently sent me a few emails about moving to Germany. She assures me that the pay is good, the living cheap, the apartments spacious, and her friendship will keep me warm in the wintertime. I’ve been to Berlin, and know it wouldn’t be too hard to have more than her friendship to keep me warm in the frigid temperatures, but to reiterate point number one, for the first time that I can remember, I want to be exactly where I am.

This evening, after getting out of work early, I was starving and decided to go to my favorite ramen shop in Ningyocho for a bowl of tonkatsu ramen. Upon my entrance, the chef and waitress greeted me with smiles, and the typical Japanese hellos one hears when entering any establishment. The waitress then pointed to what she thought I wanted, which of course, was what I was planning to order. I ate alone, content with my ramen, and the broth splattering on my peach skirt. When I left, the chef came out of the kitchen, and gave me the gift of a scarf in packaging. When he saw my confusion, he pointed to the scarf on his head, and bowed. At the moment, this is home.

I have all the love I need inside, and it’s enough love for me to stay.


Fantastic Asakusa

Dear Friends,

On March 21, my friends and I formulated a list of twelve things we had to do while in Tokyo; among them, my three that have been completed thus far are: 1) Visit Tokyo Tower 3) Visit Sensoji in Asakusa and 4) Take a trip to an onsen in Hakone. Slow and steady wins the race. Tomorrow, if it doesn’t rain, I’ll tackle number six: ride my bike to the Imperial Palace and tour the garden. For the complete list, please see the original post: http://lettersfromval.com/2012/03/21/my-last-first/.

I visited Asakusa today, three months after writing that list, due to a lucky encounter with N. It was my good fortune to teach her two weeks ago at a time when I was supposed to be teaching another group that couldn’t make it. It was her first day of re-starting English lessons, after a long absence, and her enthusiasm and love of language made the group come alive. As often happens, we were starting the food chapter, and after the lesson, N invited me to lunch and a tour of  her neighborhood of Asakusa. Of course, I jumped at the chance to be guided around Asakusa by someone who has lived there for more years than I’ve been alive. N, whom I’ve already dubbed my Japanese mother, (she sounded exactly like my mother, “You can do anything, you’re clever, etc., etc.), treated me to a really special day. Visiting Asakusa on my own, while leafing through a Frommer’s guidebook, just would not have filled me up (literally and figuratively) the way this day has. Let’s look at Asakusa, starting with… you guessed it–food.

1) N took me to one of her favorite Italian restaurants, because she wasn’t sure if I was a fan of Japanese food. Very often my students express surprise when I tell that I’m a huge fan of sushi, sashimi and wasabe. We lunched at Ristorante Giardino, that has an outdoor patio for dining, where we enjoyed one of the lunch set menus: an appetizer, two main dishes in perfect Japanese sizes, dessert and coffee.

*Prosciutto, potato cream soup with shaved pistachios,  grilled chicken in pesto, greens, and a small omelette. (Definitely Japanese inspired Italian).

*Spaghetti in tomato sauce with shrimp and green beans.

*Grilled fish.

* Chocolate cake, tiramisu, and coffee gelato. At the restaurant N taught me to say “I like cake” in Japanese, but it’s the coffee ice-cream that rocked my world, and I quickly changed my “I like cake” to “I love ice-cream.”

2) After our long lunch, N suggested that we tour Asakusa by rickshaw. She’d never ridden in one before, and I never even take taxis, so we were both hyped for the adventure. Our very lovely rickshaw guy (and by lovely I mean personality and (such) a cute face) carried us down multiple streets where I touched three silver statues of raccoons for good luck, beauty, and prosperity, saw the Japanese version of Robin Hood perched atop a building, and passed countless restaurants, shops and tourists. He went out of his way (it wasn’t a part of our package) to show us the amusement park, and then he carried on with the famous sites: the Buddhist school, the hall for comedy and magic, and the sidewalk with the impressions of celebrity hands. The weather in Tokyo, today, was warm, with a cloudless sky, and it was nice to feel the breeze on our faces as he made stops to point out various landmarks.

* Look up on the building, a robber who steals from the rich and gives to the poor.

* The Tokyo Sky Tree Tower, the tallest radio tower in the world, in the distance.

* For 19, 800 yen, you too can look like a geisha.

* Parting is such sweet sorrow. 

3) The Sensoji Temple, the oldest temple in Tokyo, has swarms of tourists year round. Though it was a Thursday afternoon, there were many  groups of schoolchildren, locals and foreigners from all over the world, some who wanted to pray, shake a good fortune out of a wooden box, and others who simply wished to marvel at the beauty of the temple, the gates, the shrine, and the surrounding grounds.

* Kaminarimon Gate

* The God of Wind

* Under the lantern is this image of a dragon guarding the gate.


* N showed me the right way to pray at the temple; first, wave the smoke towards you to rid yourself of darkness and negativity, then take a ladle filled to the brim,wash both hands, rinse your mouth (spit), then pour some water on the ground for the ancestors.

* After purifying oneself, it’s time to pray. For obvious reasons, I didn’t take photos before the shrine, but after I said my prayer, I did get a shot of the ceiling.

We descended the steps, and though we were less than ten steps away, we left the bustle and high energy of the temple behind, .

A few days ago, my daily inspiration from Brahma Kumaris was, “Great souls take advantage of every moment and every opportunity to give happiness to others through kindness in their thoughts.” On my journey through life, I’ve been blessed to meet some truly great souls, not just great but fantastic. Fantastic N, had not only kind thoughts, positive actions and a willingness to share her neighborhood and culture, which she holds dear, but she gave me the gift of her time.

The Creation: Hakone

Praise for the rain that waters our fields, and blesses our crops so all the earth yields; from death unto life her mystery revealed springs forth in joy! – The Heavens are Telling the Glory of God

When you arrive in Hakone from Taipei or Paris or Ocala or Berlin or Palo Alto or whichever city you’re from, you’ll look around and marvel at the lush landscape. You’ll walk to the tourist information booth right outside the train station and get as many pamphlets as you can to find out what you should do and see in Hakone. You’ll thank the very kind Japanese woman for her vibrant “Hello” and answer her polite, “May I ask you where you’re from?” You’ll walk to your small ryokan or large hotel in the rain that falls through the sunshine, and you won’t mind, because you’ll know in your heart that things just don’t get as green as they do in Hakone without a little bit of rain everyday. You’ll smile and wave at the old people who smile and wave at you. You’ll carry a smile on your face, all day, attributable to the old man who leaned out of his top window to catch your attention. You’ll wonder how people live to what seems like a 109 in Hakone. (After your dinner of steamed foods and no trans fats you’ll wonder no more but wonder how you can live here too). You’ll calculate how much money you’d need to live the life you’ve imagined (It may round up to $170 a day).

Praise for the wind that blows through the trees, the seas’ mighty storms, the gentlest breeze; they blow where they will, they blow where they please to please the Lord!

You’ll buy a Hakone Free Pass so that you can ride the bus, the cable car, and even the ropeway, though you’re afraid of heights. As you wind through the mountains, you’ll recall other countries that you may have visited: maybe Jamaica, maybe Brazil, maybe South Africa. You’ll think “I’ve seen such wonders, such beauty, but wow, I’ve never seen this.” You’ll be thankful to take each breath. You’ll see trees that are as tall as small skyscrapers and then it’ll strike you, as nature always does– “I’m but a speck in this universe.” You’ll think what can I ever create that could make me feel the way this view does? You’ll realize that the answer’s “Nothing,” and you’ll be fine with that. You’ll smile inside. You’ll see craters in mountains from volcanic eruptions that happened thousands of years before Christ; you’ll feel like you’re in Babel walking up a mountain where a multitude of languages are swirling in and out of your ears; you’ll take a sightseeing cruise that’s too short, and you wish to go around again, but you must sail off into the air in an aerial tram; too far above sea level, you may wonder if wires ever snap on these things, but you’ll look at your fellow passengers who’re quite calm and thus you’ll calm down; you’ll eat two eggs that have black shells because they’ve been boiled in hot sulfur springs. You’ll believe the idea that you’ve added fourteen years to your life, and start planning what to do in those extra years. You’ll decide that you may have to move to Hakone, because that’s the only place in the world where people will be as old as you’ll be.

Praise for the sun, the bringer of day, he carries the light of the Lord in his rays; the moon and the stars who light up the way unto your throne!

It will stop raining. You’ll be as content with the sun as you were with the rain. You’ll decide to go to your ryokan after a few hours of sightseeing, so that you can be pampered as you deserve. You’ll be hungry and want sustenance, but when twelve small dishes are brought to you in succession, you’ll wonder if you could possibly eat all that food. You’ll surprise yourself because of course you can. You’ll finish with many “Arigato Gozaimasus,” and go to your room where you’ll find that they’ve laid out a new yukata for you, given you a new yellow towel, a new washcloth, and a new toothbrush and small tube of toothpaste. You’ll look at your towel and think, “Well, it’s only 8p.m., I should go downstairs to the hot spring bath that’s open until midnight.” You’ll soak in the onsen (hot springs) for about thirty minutes, and though the pool is shallow, you’ll pretend to swim. You’ll feel like a child and an adult all at once.

Praise for the fire who gives us his light, the warmth of the sun to brighten our night; he dances with joy, his spirit so bright, he sings of you!

You’ll be thankful for every breath in your body. You’ll be thankful for the opportunities you’ve been given. You’ll think of your loved ones who’ve passed on and away and never could’ve dreamed of this. You’ll vow to share how very wonderful Hakone is, how wonderful “creation” is. You’ll be peaceful. Amen.

Getting Away Part 1: Then and Now

Hop on the bus, Gus; you don’t need to discuss much; just drop off the key, Lee, and get yourself free. – Paul Simon (50 Ways to Leave Your Lover)

Then: In April 2004, I was teaching English at a language school in Caçapava, Brazil. The owner of the language school was a hard-as-nails woman who didn’t believe in days off, and certainly not two in a row. Thankfully, Brazil has its fair share of national holidays, and so, on one particular holiday, I called a pousada in Ubatuba and made a reservation for four days. The pousada was located across the street from a beach. If I walked along the boardwalk for fifteen minutes, I could gain access to another stretch of hot sand and glittering, turquoise water. On and on it went, beach after beach, each blue and white and green all over. (Ubatuba, three hours by bus from Caçapava, boasts one hundred white sand  beaches).  My pousada was surrounded by cafes, sunbathers in skimpy swimwear, bars, and small shops selling food, souvenirs, and cards. Sadly, in 2004, I was camera-less and blog-less and couldn’t preserve my days in an astonishing city anywhere but in my memory (a leaky thing).

Just slip out the back, Jack; make a new plan, Stan; you don’t need to be coy, Roy; just get yourself free. – Paul Simon

Now: I’m teaching at a language school in Tokyo, Japan. The owner of the language school, I’ve never met, but the manager of the school is a relaxed, cheerful man who could care less about how one’s time outside of the school is spent. He’s never asked me to come in early, teach late, or do anything that’s not stipulated in my contract. He’s never invited me to have dinner at his house with his kids and dogs, never forced me to make up excuses about why I couldn’t go to dinner with his kids and dogs. My contract, as I’ve shared with you before, is non-demanding and strictly professional. The only person slave-driving myself in 2012 is me… Early this week, I woke up, and asked myself, “Why?”

Just get yourself free. – Paul Simon

Then (A few days ago kind of “then”): I stayed up all night looking at the area of Hakone for a two-day respite. I chose Hakone, because it’s less than two hours from Tokyo and its hot springs are reputedly some of the best in the world. I decided to get myself free, to book two days in a sleepy town, rest, and allow the steaming water to wash away some of my general fatigue. It worked.

To travel to Hakone from Tokyo, one only needs to get on the Romance Car at Shinjuku station, and take the limited express train to Hakone-Yumoto. (There are only four stops). The ticket is 2020 yen, and if you so choose, you can also buy a Hakone Freepass, which will give you access to all of Hakone’s transportation (train, cable car, ropeway, and bus). No worries, my friends, I now have a phone with an adequate camera, and I took ample photos to remember it all, and to urge you, wherever you are, take some time and “get yourself free.”

To describe Hakone as “picturesque” would be doing it a disservice, as would the words “beautiful” and “lovely.” It’s surrounded by mountains, and is green green green. Breathtaking… nope, still not good enough.

* My room at the ryokan Shunkoso. The room was the size of a studio apartment, and left me with such a desire for my own place.

* The best part of the room was the view outside my window.

It seems there were five people booked in the ryokan: an old couple, a younger couple and me. What that means is that the service in the dining room was ridiculously good, and I had the hot springs to myself for both days. Unshared. I could, and should write a post of its own on all the food that was served to me at breakfast and dinner, a large amount. My lovely waiter just kept coming with dish after dish, but the great thing about Japan is that each thing is two pieces at the most. I swear if you wanted to lose weight, as contradictory as it sounds, Shunkoso would be perfect. They fill you up on steamed fish, fish eggs in mayonnaise, tofu in sweet sauce, grilled eel, steamed vegetables, soups (There were two different soups at dinner– miso, and fish broth with a piece of crabmeat), and for dessert– a slice of melon, and the next day, a chilled rice custard.

* My Jamaicans, this dish tasted exactly like escoveitch.

* Hands down best service ever received.

The trip to Hakone wasn’t meant to be a food orgy though; it’s about the water. Though cameras aren’t allowed in the baths, since I was the only person in there I figured no one would complain.

*On the left are the showers. You must shower before you enter the hot spring bath. The ryokan provides yukatas (robes and a belt), towels, washcloths, soap, shampoo, razors, and whatever else one may need (hairdryers, Q-tips).

Friends, this is a post in two parts, because it’s impossible to do it all in one post. I still want to share my sightseeing photos with you, and tell you what I thought about on my walk to town from the ryokan, and how friendly the country people were and how people stopped me to say “Konnichiwa,” and how one old lady pointed to my face and said “Nice, nice.” (Brown skin’s more than rare in Hakone). It was such a pleasure to revel in green… and to think, I always thought I was a beach person, a blue person.

The problem is all inside your head she said to me; the answer is easy if you take it logically; I’d like to help you in your struggle to be free.

Take care,