From Hanami Live to Tatami Live

Two years ago we had the most incredible evening which stemmed from a crazy idea that blossomed due to the generosity of all involved.

The Todd Wolfe Band, a blues-rock band fronted by Sheryl Crow’s former lead guitarist was touring Japan in April 2015. The tour manager happened to know Peter Barakan, a well-known English DJ and promoter of foreign music to his Japanese followers. After the success of our Philip Henry and Hannah Martin gig, who’d appeared on his radio show, Peter suggested he contact us about doing something in Ayabe. The band were up for it, but we needed a venue.

We were about to move on from Ayabe Yoshimizu guesthouse, and potential venues we looked at were not working. My husband had the crazy idea of hosting a live gig under the cherry blossom at the onsen (hot spring) park, calling it Hanami Live  – hanami, cherry blossom viewing and live meaning a live gig.

And it would be free….. we’d collect donations and the band could sell CDs, but the concert would be free for the whole community.

Hanami parties are hugely popular in Japan, especially in the milder regions but given that the beginning of April in Ayabe can be chilly at best and in the thick of snow storms at worst it was quite a gamble for both us and the band.

To our amazement, the Todd Wolfe Band agreed. We had a few short weeks to pull it all together. Again, Gekkiken theatre NPO supported the event providing the lighting, a sound engineer was found, publicity printed and volunteers recruited. Ayabe Onsen donated accommodation for the band.


In the days leading up to the event there was warm spring sunshine but on the day storms lashed and the strong winds made setting up the lighting dangerous. Quick decisions had to be made and within an hour my husband had secured the restaurant in the onsen park as an alternative venue. Online events pages and local radio let people know the gig was still on, but instead of Hanami Live, it had turned into Tatami Live. The band were to use a small Japanese style room as the ‘stage’, tatami is the Japanese straw matting on which shoes are never worn. The band joked that playing a gig in their socks would be a first.

It was an amazing night that came together beautifully. Over 300 people came: from the local Ayabe Kanbayashi community and all over Kyoto There was a Swedish/UK film crew, foreign guests from Yoshimizu, a 4 months old baby and older locals – all together rockin’ the night away. I loved seeing an 80-year-old Baachan dancing (who’d just put her hip flask down) with our dear friend Tracey, a local Canadian potter.

Everyone left on a real high. There was a real sense of a shared experience which had brought different people from all over the world and of all ages. Many of the older people said they’d never been to a gig in their entire lives and were queuing up to shake Todd Wolfe’s hand. The band made more that night in donations and CD sales than other paid gigs on the same tour.

Posts and messages from the Todd Wolfe Band two years on show how memories of this special night live on for all.

Miles to Go


Tanabata – Star Festival

The 7th day of the 7th month is Tanabata in Japan. The one night in the year that  the two lovers, Orihime and Hikoboshsi, separated by the milky way are permitted to meet. People mark the day by writing wishes on colourful paper, tanzaku. When in Japan, my two daughters spent the days leading up to Tanabata making paper decorations and writing wishes to hang on bamboo.



On that night we would have star themed meals,  star carrots in chirashi-zushi (scattered sushi) or last year the farm shop in Ayabe Tokusankan was selling star and heart shaped cucumbers! We created a huge salad with a grated carrot milky way, and lots of cucumber stars.



This year being back in the UK, I didn’t have the usual reminder of hanging tanzaku leading up to the entrance of the kindergarten. It was my daughter who happen to ask the day before “wasn’t Tanabata coming up soon?”.

We are still not back in our house nor unpacked our belongings so we had a make-do celebration that evening. When she came home from school we wrote down our wishes and she strung them up on a nearby tree. We had chirashi-zushi for supper, unfortunately without any stars or hearts, but still a Japanese meal to mark the day.

Hanami – cherry blossom viewing

here in Kanbayashi means sitting with your picnic under the cherry blossom and enjoying the scenery and food – with the place to yourself.

My previous experience of hanami in Akita and Aomori was quite different. It involved sitting on a tiny square of blue sheet, eating what I call ‘festival food’ (yakisoba, takoyaki, fried chicken, frankfurters…), drinking beer or sake well into the night, surrounded by many others doing the same. It is noisy, boisterous and lots of fun.

It was a spur of the moment thing when we decided to head down to Kyoto city and join the merriment in Maruyama park, the most well known spot for hanami. It was all that I remembered (except driving meant no sake…), full of university students and workers (and now tourists) all jostling for space under a canopy of sakura.

We had to negotiate space on reserved matting just near the famous illuminated weeping cherry. The students allowed us a small area and we got to observe them and their strange drinking games. (At one point they all stood in a circle and one by one had to shout out ‘camembert cheese’-?! Japanese students still appear far more innocent and naive than those back home).

The atmosphere was lively, the food pretty awful and it was fantastic to experience once more.

Sakura – Cherry Blossom


DSC_2152Literally on 1st April we awoke to the mountains speckled with white yamazakura, mountain cherry blossom. I don’t know if it is just because we are leaving and I am more mindful of taking in my surroundings, but the sakura this year has been more lovelier and more voluptuous than ever and it has been a joy to experience. Our local temple is well knowDSC_2247n for its weeping cherry trees and we went up several times to walk amongst the blossoms.

Sakura is deeply rooted in Japanese culture and is the national flower. I am often asked if we have cherry blossom in England and of course we do, along with plum and apple, but we don’t pay as much attention or revere it as the Japanese do. There are so many more cherry trees here that have been extensively planted along river banks, in parks, outside schools and other public buildings. Then, there is hanami, or flower viewing parties.

The trees flower for no more than two weeks and their ephemeral beauty brings mono no aware to mind, an awareness of impermanence and the transient nature of life. This is particularly pertinent for us as we pack our belongings, attend leaving parties and prepare to close this chapter of our life


Beginnings and Endings

Japan is a country of ceremony, form and ritual  – and beginnings and endings. Everything from meals to school lessons to meetings have a formal opening and closing.


Starting and leaving school is no different. At the end of last term I went to the 6th Grade Okurikai (sending off ceremony) at my son’s school. All families were expected to attend, even if your child was in a different grade. With only 8 students in the class (and the largest year group in the school) I imagine the numbers needed to be made up but, more than that, the school has a strong sense of place in the community so many  locals attend.

The event was over 3 hours long; fellow students performed plays about them, the teachers followed by the parents sang songs and read personal messages to each child. The 6th graders then sang and played several tunes, ending with powerful taiko drumming .

They left the hall to a final round of applause through an arch of flowers festooned with party poppers. At times it was intense, the students were asked to face the audience and say thank you to the parents and locals who’d attended, virtually all were sobbing, parents and members of the audience were also in tears…

Then, of course, they had a graduation ceremony as well. I attended the graduation at one of the schools I worked at. It was another formal and emotional affair with messages from students to their parents and vice versa, then the remaining children thanked them for their help and the many shared experiences, again lots of tears.


You might think this was too much. In some ways I do, but with so many aspects of Japanese life, milestones are marked with much care and attention.  I sometimes wonder if these formal ceremonies provide an acceptable space for the often reticent Japanese to express their feelings and be emotional, when finished it is back to normal.

Starting school is equally important, new pupils dress up and attend an opening ceremony with their parents. Traditionally women would wear kimonos, but today suits are more common.

My daughter had her elementary school entrance ceremony last week. She is one of just 3 pupils in the first grade, combined with the 7 students starting Junior High (the two schools are combined) the event was for just 10 children. I counted over 30 local dignitaries and heads of organisations in attendance including the mayor of Ayabe. There were even 10 or so representatives from the construction company that recently completed work at the school.

It went on for an hour and a half, with many speeches. My daughter was required to stand, bow and sit numerous times throughout. Needless to say she didn’t enjoy the actual ceremony that much. But she did love the preparation, the dressing up and donning her yellow school cap and landoseru , the iconic leather rucksack used by Japanese elementary children.


Photo credit: F Tanaka

I remember bits of my first day of school but don’t really remember leaving primary school at all.  I bet, however, these kids will never forget the beginning and ending of their school.

七五三 Shichi-Go-San Festival

The Seven-Five-Three Festival is a rite of passage for young children in Japan. Girls aged 3 or 7 and boys aged 3 or 5 dress up in kimonos, often for the first time, and visit their local shrine (and of course take lots of photos). It takes place on November 15th, some say because this is the sum of 3, 5 and 7.

The origins of this festival date back to the Heian period when children were not registered until they were 7. Odd numbers were considered lucky, and in a time of high infant mortality people visited the shrine to give thanks when their children reached the lucky ages of 3, 5 and 7.

Our little 7-5-3 ceremony took place in January rather than November when my mother-in-law was visiting and could bring the kimonos and dress my girls. Unlike most Japanese families it was a low-key affair, with no elaborate hair-dos, accessories, wigs or make up.

We went to the simple but beautiful local shrine called Hachimansan. As there was snow on the ground they had to wear wellies to the shrine and then change into their geta sandals. It was very cold but they stood patiently while we took more photos then necessary. We celebrated with a hot chocolate at home and then to the nearby hot spring to warm up.

At 7 a girl is allowed to wear an obi, elaborate sash, for the first time.

My children adored dressing up in formal Japanese clothing for the first time, made even more special by wearing kimono handed down through the family. My 6 year old wore her aunt’s kimono,  the eldest girl in my husband’s family. When he was five, my son wore his grandfather’s kimono and hakama made over 70 years ago.