The Copse

There is a small copse near our house that I have always loved. It is of deciduous trees that change with the seasons, not boring cedar or cypress, of which you will find so many in Japan. So the leaves are a brilliant green in the spring, make a pleasant rustling noise on windy days, change colour and fall to the ground in autumn, and leave the silhouettes of bare branches to stand out against the sky in winter. Perhaps more importantly, this copse reminds me of the one in the Ghibli animated film, My Neighbour Totoro, which possesses a mysterious aura and turns out to be — probably, possibly — the home of the eponymous Totoro, a great cuddly toy of a monster on whose fluffy tummy young Mei takes a nap.

Since we moved here, the copse has become my muse and I have photographed it many times: at sunset, in various seasons, in the dark, and in the dark and the snow at the same time.

But a couple of months ago, trucks began coming and going from the back yard of a small factory (where I am told the employees work assembling swimming goggles), and the sound of buzzing chainsaws could be heard. Barely a week later, this was the scene that I passed on the way to work and as such, I shall henceforth be obliged to refer to the copse in the past rather than the present tense.

The logs have since been taken away — logs whose rings numbered in the tens if not the hundreds — and it is not yet clear what will appear in their place. My money is not on new houses but a solar farm, more and more of which are appearing as solar panels become cheaper, and both householders and businesspeople realise the benefits of generating their own electricity and selling what they do not use. A very large solar farm is being built about ten minutes’ drive away from the now ex-copse, although it replaces a forest of young and uninspiring cedar beside a boring A-road. I am still unsure as to whether or not cutting down trees in order to generate renewable electricity is desirable. In the case of the copse, the area that it covered is so small that be it for a solar farm, a couple of new houses, or so that the owner of the house closest to the copse (who also owns the goggle factory and an apartment block next door) wanted to let a little more light into his back garden, the damage has been done, and what used to be one of the most attractive views in the small town where we live is gone forever.

Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker

So this is me recommending a book that I haven’t actually read yet, but that sounds like it will be of interest to anyone out there who — like me — is an insomniac, either recovering or suffering.

The book is Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, and is discussed by him and Dr. Rangan Chatterjee in two episodes of the Feel Better, Live More podcast, and by him and Rich Roll (a vegan ultramarathon runner, no less) in one episode of the latter’s eponymous podcast:

If you suffer from insomnia, being told by Walker that you should be getting between seven and nine hours of sleep a night (even as a mostly recovered insomniac, I still average less than six and a half) may feel like pressure that you don’t need, but do keep listening if you can. Walker’s heart is in the right place — as is his brain — and you will discover all kinds of interesting things. For example, that the tennis player Roger Federer sleeps not for six, seven, or even nine hours a night, but twelve, and that teenagers should be getting as many as eleven (Walker thinks that schools should start their lessons at about 10 a.m. to take this into account).

Nishikanasa Shrine 西金砂神社

A few weeks ago, M Jr. and M Jr. II put on kimonos and took part in a shintō ceremony at Nishikanasa Shrine in the north of Ibaraki Prefecture. It’s an annual ceremony to wish for peace, tranquility, and a fruitful harvest, and the same shrine holds another along similar lines once every seven years. On a much larger scale, it holds yet another that takes place just once every 73 years, which is apparently the longest period of time between, er, holdings for any such event in Japan. The latter is called — I think: I couldn’t find a definitive reading for the kanji — Taireisai, and involves the usual sweaty, drunk, half-naked locals transporting heavy and unwieldy portable shrines from Nishikanasa to the coast and back, over the course of ten days. Which wouldn’t be quite so bad if it wasn’t for the fact that Nishikanasa is at the top of a mountain, and can only be reached by a steep and winding road and two even steeper stone staircases.

The Taireisai has been held a total of seventeen times since the year 851, with the last time being in 2003 and the next in…2076! Mrs. M’s father said that bad luck (traffic accidents and the like) befell some of the 2003 participants and was concerned that M Jr. II might be in line for some himself, until we explained that this year was the smaller, annual version.

Nishikanasa is a beautiful spot and feels genuinely spiritual — mysterious, even — compared to most of the other shrines and temples to which I’ve been. A few hikers came and went while we were there, and I’ve put that twisty mountain road on the list of climbs that I’d one day like to try by bicycle.

“Praise; auspicious”

Food quiz no.3

These are some pictures of my breakfast a couple of weeks ago — or at least, part one of my breakfast, as I tend to wake up at about 4/4.30, have bread or toast with my morning coffee at 5, then sit down with the children at about 7 for part two.

This isn’t bread or toast but something that I mashed up with olive oil and pepper, although hardly anyone else in the known universe would use the same combination.

The question is, what is it exactly? Answers, as usual, in a comment.

Food quiz no.2

Like the mystery item in my previous food quiz post, this was purchased from Gyōmusūpā and looks equally weird. It’s an egg, of course, but what kind? Answers in a comment, please!

(The more observant among you will have noted the resemblance between the egg and my, er, “hairstyle.”)

Black on the outside and green on the inside — yum, yum! Actually it didn’t taste as odd as it looked — didn’t taste of much at all, in fact.

A Walk in Yamagata

This is one of those, “Aah, things were so much easier before COVID…” posts, from a time when we could all still move around freely, go on holiday, go to work without having to wear a mask, etc. etc.

Miss Beautiful Happiness, a friend of ours from our time living in London (Mrs. M met Miss Beautiful Happiness when they worked together in a Japanese restaurant, and we invited her to our wedding), lives with her mother in Yamagata, and for the past several years we had been promising to visit her there in the greetings on our New Year’s cards.

In the summer of 2019, Mrs M. and I decided that M Jr. and M Jr. II were finally old enough to withstand the long journey from Ibaraki by car (about five hours excluding pit stops), and booked a hotel room for two nights in Yamagata City.

We had a lovely time with Miss Beautiful Happiness on our one full day there, and on our final morning I woke early, went for a walk, and took these photographs on my iPhone — the first time I had had the time and the space to do something like that for quite a while.


“Asahi Town”


This is the kanji for “love.”

And this, belive it or not, is the kanji for “poo.”

This one means “spring” (as in the season).


(I have no idea what this inscription says — is it kanji, katakana, or even the English alphabet?)

Purely by the by, after more than three decades as a white-with-sugar coffee drinker, I converted to a black-with-no-sugar one in Yamagata. There was a very nice Japanese-style breakfast at the hotel (rice, grilled fish, miso soup, pickled vegetables, etc.), but it only came with green tea. The vending machine in reception had sold out of everything except Boss “Craft” black in a plastic bottle, which I purchased reluctantly. Back in the dining room, however, tasting this was an epiphany and I have been making black coffee in my cafetière/coffee plunger/French press every morning, ever since.

Food quiz no.1

Gyōmusūpā — literally”business supermarket” — sells things like catering-size bottles of sauce and sack-size bags of coffee, and has been rivalling Costco in popularity recently, partly thanks to being featured in various TV commercials thinly disguised as bona fide shows.

Below are some pictures are of an interesting — and surprisingly yummy — food item that Mrs. M brought back from Gyōmusūpā the other week, but can you guess what it is?

(A hint: although it may appear to be, it’s not a chopped-up tree branch.)

Cherry blossom 桜

It’s a miracle: we have cherry blossom in our back garden!

Not exactly a long-cherished dream, but I wanted something nice to look at instead of a brown metal fence and in the interests of cultural integration, decided that a cherry tree would be appropriate.

This time last year, I bought a cherry sapling from the local hardware/garden store, read the instructions for planting it — along with some online advice — and, with a little help from M Jr. and M Jr. II, dug a very big hole.

I filled this with compost and fertiliser and planted the sapling, but my timing wasn’t the best, as an unseasonally hot and dry spell in spring was followed by a prolonged rainy season, during which it was cloudy and wet almost every day for two months.

Basically, the cherry tree never looked anything other than dead from pretty much the moment it went in the ground. I was tempted to uproot it and plant another one this year, but mainly through laziness, decided to leave it be in the very remote hope that it might come back to life. And this it did: from looking like nothing more than a dry twig until a fortnight ago, one morning I went to put out the rubbish and noticed that some buds had appeared.

Fast forward to a day or two ago (I’m writing this in the first week of April, when most cherry blossom has already bloomed and fallen to the ground) and this was how the cherry tree looked.

There is still a possibility that it will fail to survive a hot summer, a cold winter, or a typhoon, but with any luck we’ll be able to invite friends to a hanami picnic in our back garden in a year or two. Before we do, I really need to grow a lawn on which to put the picnic blanket; at the moment there are a few lonely looking patches of grass, but more in the way of weeds and dusty, stony earth.


I was recently introduced to a very nice fellow called Ollie Clissold, who is currently locked down in Denmark, but over the years has lived in Australia, Vietnam, Africa, and Japan.

Ollie recently began presenting an excellent podcast called Old Dogs, in which, as the name suggests, he talks to people who have acquired “new tricks” later in life.

Ollie asked if I would like to appear in the podcast, so if you want to listen to me talk about learning Japanese in particular, Japan in general, and various other topics, you can do so here.

I highly recommend checking out previous episodes, too. For example, an interview with a friend of mine called Rosie, who took up the piano, and another with Tris Lovering, who is making a name for himself as a photographer on Instagram.

The above links are to Apple Podcasts, but you can also listen to the episode featuring yours truly and the show as a whole on Spotify.

Scarecrow festival かかし祭

Every year there is a scarecrow festival in Satomi, which used to be a town in its own right and is now part of Hitachi-ōta City. I have been to the festival many times over the past decade or so and last autumn, not only did the festival go ahead (I assume they considered cancelling it due to the Covid situation) but there were some very interesting scarecrows on show.

These included a Gundam:

Naomi Osaka:

A dragon:

Anpanman’s superhero buddy Shokupanman (“Sliced Bread Man”):

At least one or two farm animals:

And last but not least, a papier mâché recreation of Carlos Ghosn’s escape from Japan (“fugitive,” it says at the bottom):