Cha Cha Maru



Dogs get you through things. They teach you about yourself. They’re your little buddies and a part of your family. That said, they’re not your “children”, as I hear so many people say. Your kids will invariably grow up and become their own independent-thinking human creatures. They’ll move away from you. But not dogs. Dogs are there for you, man.

When I returned to Japan after surgery and two rounds (eight months) of chemo, I was a physical and emotional wreck. As if that wasn’t bad enough, on my first day back, my Japanese in-laws immediately warned me that I should in no way tell anyone — family or friends or coworkers — about my breast cancer. The entire thing had been hush-hushed. They explained to me that it was embarrassing to the family. Also, if anyone found out they’d likely treat me as a pariah (*). I didn’t want that, did I?

Okay, I get it. I guess I can keep this secret.

Then it went and got a little worse that that: I soon discovered that my immediate family, the ones who *did* know (in-laws and husband), refused one hundred percent to talk about it. No balloons, slap on the back, must have been rough, everything’s going to be okay, wanna talk about it? Nothing. Life was business as usual. Garbage days are on Tuesdays and Fridays, and you don’t have to put so much rice in my obento, thank you.


Then came the panic attacks, the constant paranoia that any slight pain or tickle was a sign of recurrence. Then came the nerves that wouldn’t let me sit still, and the overwhelming feeling of being so utterly alone.

Then came Cha Cha Maru.

It was the only think I really had the strength to put my foot down about after I got back. I’ve always owned dogs, but never in Japan. So one day I announced that we were getting a dog, and I didn’t let up until we did. Julyan picked him out. He’s just as much Julyan’s dog as mine. Dog’s are there like that. They’re there for you and they can be there for other family members too.

It’s only now that he’s gone, that I realize how much he helped me heal. When nothing and no one seemed to be available to me here, there was Cha. He was there.

He was my walking buddy, my nap buddy. He listened to me sing thousands of songs. We played “tomato-tomato” an insane game we made where we chased each other around with a cherry tomato in our mouths. He had a blanket from the time he came to our house that he carried around with him everywhere. He listened to me read out loud every single story I’ve ever written. His paws smelled like popcorn.


Cha Cha had IBD (inflammatory bowel disease). He had it for several years. It’s been a long, long battle. Just recently, though, the disease took a turn for the worse. He was in the hospital for a week, but wasn’t getting any better, in fact he was getting much worse. The vet said he could come home for a couple days. I slept on the floor downstairs and took care of him.  Emptied his bladder and his bowels and massaged his back.

Julyan hurried home yesterday from university and spent the day with him. Cha was happy to see him. I spent the rest of the time with him, singing our favorite songs, carrying him around the house and yard so he could see and sniff things. He even got to listen to me read a rough draft of this blog post, although he wouldn’t get to hear the finished version.

Cha Cha Maru was always there for me, and I hope just a little bit, at the end, I was there for him.


(Julyan holding his head as he’s sleeping. Yesterday.)

(*) This is my in-laws I’m talking about here, not all Japanese people by any stretch.

Three-Thirty AM Ramen

Here’s a twist on what to do when life gives you lemons. If you’re woken up at three am by a husband being noisy downstairs and you can’t go back to sleep, you go grab some ramen.

There’s this super popular ramen shop one town over that is only open from 3:15 am until 5:30 am (or until the soup runs out) on weekends. It’s called Marugen.  And it’s delicious. The only problem: the opening time. And the lines.

Hard to see, but this is the line. About ten high school kids behind me, too. People arriving all the time. Quite a few see the line and go back home. To sleep probably.


It’s a tiny shack of a place. No parking (you just park anywhere and hope the police to ticket you). Not exactly clean. And I’m guessing maybe ten people can fit inside at once.

Here’s the noren-curtain. Blood splattered by some rogue samurai, I guess. Forty minutes after we arrive and we’re almost in!

Noren 1


Here’s the view from my stool. Chashu-meat, menma-flavored bamboo, stack of bowls.

kitchen dirty

Everyone’s all nom-nom-nom. You can see the big vat of soup, too. It’s amazing how many people get extra noodles after they’ve finished the first bowl.

eating okyakusan


I couldn’t get a photo of the chef slinging the hot water from the noodles. It goes all over the floor which is really cool and gross at the same time. Here he is gently slipping the drained noodles into a bowl of soup.



Here’s the finished product. Marugen-chashu. It’s got loads of garlic in it!




The chef is the only one working. He doesn’t have time to wash dishes (huge stack on the side of his work space). And he doesn’t have time to collect money and give change. That last one’s up to you the customer. Everyone checks the wall to see how much their bowl was and pays by leaving their money on the table. If they need change they take from whatever is laying there. Honor system, FTW.

So if you’re ever in Fujieda and happen to wake up super early, I recommend a visit to Marugen. The customers are whacky, the atmosphere is distinctly blue collar, and the noodles are delicious.

Okuribi–Send Off Fire

August 16th is the last day of obon — a summer festival that honors the spirits of the dead. It’s the day everyone has to send back all those ancestors who have being hanging out at the family altar, feasting on fruit, sticky rice cakes, and sake’. Because, really, you don’t want them hoards of ghosties hanging around all year round. Especially that obnoxious Grandpa Hiro, right?

In order to send them peacefully back to the other side you have to perform what is called okuribi (送り火), translated more or less as “send off fire”. Everyone’s familiar with the lit paper lanterns floated down rivers. This is called toro nagashi. It’s a kind of send off fire, but  it’s a boring way to do it.

My favorite way is what  my town does at the beach every August 16th. Here, let me explain in photos.

First someone makes a bunch of these puppies. Back in the day there were fifteen to twenty all up and down the beach. This year only three. (#sad) I guess our town is spending all its budget on tsunami towers, no money left over to send the spirits back home in style.

Okuribi one

The first one is just for the kids. They teach a bunch of elementary aged children how to hold the fire, how to swing the torches, and then once it gets dark, they let them loose. The idea is to land one of those flaming ropes into the open top of the broom-looking thing.

It’s always crazy with the old men yelling at the kids and chastising them for trying to kill each other. Entertainment at its finest.

Okuribi kids

Once lit, the whole thing goes up in flames. Slowly. They pre-load them with fireworks, too. Because if it’s not dangerous enough having twenty people winging flaming ropes all around in the dark, you need to add more bottle rockets.

okuribi fireworks

The next two were reserved for adults. Anyone who wants to give it a try is invited down. No training needed. Let’s do this thing.

So most of the time this is going on a team of Buddhist monks are lined up with drums and chanting okyo to make the transition for the ancestors easier. My interpretation is that the spirits get woozy and ride the smoke back to heaven.

okuribi adult readying

Here’s the moment when the adult team actually landed one of the fires into the top. Woo hoo!


Here’s a neat long-shutter shot.

okuribi guruguru


And then at the end after all three are lit, the first one pretty much burned down, more fireworks in the back.


okuribi green


Because no matter what the culture there can never be enough things-that-blaze-and-blow-up.

There was even a short fireworks show after all this ended.

So long, Grandpa Hiro.


Summer Desserts

In Japan sweets are sublime.  Let me give you an example. The other day I was picking up some sticky rice cakes for my mother-in-law and I came across this.

dessert full turned

It’s a gelatin dessert, but there’s a goldfish floating there. And little red and white bean “rocks”. Seaweed even!

dessert one spoon out

And there,  minus one gelatin bite. Almost to the rocks.

Dessert big spoonful out

MMmmm, sweet red bean gravel and anko seaweed.

And the fish was delicious, too.



The Bear Spray Incident

The day started. It was a mellow, sad morning with many tearful goodbyes to my Clarion West classmates. Okay, I have to go home. I’m going to do this thing. I arrived at the Seattle-Tacoma Airport three hours before my Japan flight, paid 75 bucks for my overweight suitcase (still loads cheaper than had I sent the books by post), and I trekked off to clear security and find my gate.

That’s when things went south.

The line for security didn’t look that long — heck, I still had two and a half hours before boarding — but some TSA agent seemed to think otherwise.

“While this line looks short it’s not. It’s not moving at all. You all need to go to Check Point Three all the way on the other side of this building. The line over there looks really long, but it’s actually moving quickly and you’ll get through a lot faster and still be able to make it back to this side of the airport to get to your gates.”


When in doubt trust the guy with the walkie-talkie I always say. So me and about fifty other passengers take off in the direction he pointed. But the stampede bottlenecked and there were three ladies with signs that read: “End of Line” and they were milling about and several of our group were joining those lines and someone was yelling, “This is for a Southwest flight”, and it was just a mess.

I’m of single-minded intent here. I do NOT want to miss my flight to Japan and have to spend the night in a freaking airport, so I start grabbing people and asking where the heck is Check Point Three. Someone wearing something that resembles a uniform and what might be a walkie-talkie on his pocket tells me I want to go all the way down by the Starbucks. That way. Just keep walking. I start to hurry away when a tall, longhaired, bespectacled (and cute!) German guy grabs my shirt and asks am I flying Delta and do I know what’s going on. I say, yes, I am and no, I don’t, but follow me.

And he does.

We find our destination and line up. The line is nuts, longer than that first line and snaking back on itself over and over again. But whatever, right? The first dude-of-authority said this one was moving faster.

No sooner had I put my backpack on my wheeled carryon to rest than there was a weird commotion right in the line that was running next to us. People started coughing, like serious hacking and choking and shit. It was rippling up the line toward us. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from living in Japan for 23 years it’s that you always carry a handkerchief with you. I pulled mine out, put it over my mouth and nose, and reached for my phone. The whole thing escalated quickly. More and more people were coughing. But it hadn’t completely sunk in something was really wrong. I took a photo.



It’s blurry but it’s heart breaking because I realize  when I looked at it later that I took it the moment right after I witnessed a dad grab a towel or handkerchief from his pocket press it to his daughter’s face and scream for her to hold it tight and not take it off. You can see her standing there while  her dad and mom try to get their bags on the conveyer belt for screening as fast as they can.

It’s here that I kind of say really loudly – because no one’s saying it – “What the hell’s going on?” Some lady runs by and tells me we’ve been pepper sprayed. Fuck. So I grab my German guy and tell him we’ve got to get out of here. He agrees.

In the short span of time that followed several things happened. People began to get really scared. The TSA and other security in the airport went from not knowing what was going on, to being mildly concerned, to screaming at us to get out of the building. My German guy (whom I’ll call E because I did learn his name and while there’s no way he’ll ever find this blog I don’t feel cool using it) and I are trying to get away while one TSA agent is screaming and pushing at us to go stand on the sidewalk outside. I look up at E and say if we go outside there’s no way we’ll make our flights. He agrees and we sneak by everyone trying to herd us in a different direction and meander our way back to our original check point.

The line there is easily three times as long but what choice do we have? We saddle up behind a cute elderly couple from Georgia and prepare to move very slowly. The three of them were troopers. They pushed my carryon along as I kept jumping out of line to try and figure out what was going on. I bought E some water and the four of us chatted about all sorts of stuff. A fun but also a harrowing two hours because I was sure I’d miss my flight. In the end we all stuck together and got through. It turned out our departing gates were all next to each other: S1, S2, S3. We shook hands said our goodbyes and I stifled the urge to ask them all to take a selfie with me. (I might be regretting this now.)

The 11-hour flight was fine but my lungs ached a bit and there were more than a few people with coughs. Also, a tiny bit of irony: Before I went to Clarion West, before we all met in real life there was a question going around our ListServ: What spirit animal are you? My answer was a bear.

Then six weeks later I was bear sprayed. Well played, Universe. Well played.

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