Shouganai: It can’t be helped!: Getting my Zen On Part 3

Shouganai is a popular expression in Japan for bad or annoying things happen beyond one’s own control. It translates into “it can’t be helped.” For example, if traffic is bad or a teenager is being a teenager, “shouganai.”  In fact, a perfect shouganai moment is my post about the car engine stopping in the middle of the road.   To me, shouganai embraces getting one’s zen on.

Shouganai is used daily in rural Japan. When something unexpected or difficult occurs,  it is socially unacceptable to complain or vent. It is discouraged to be dramatic and lament.  While I personally think a good cry or venting session with friends can be great for one’s spirit and camaraderie, the shouganai attitude of moving forward, not burdening others, and accepting that difficulty happens are all helpful in getting more inner peace. Prayers are good too!

An internet search of “shouganai” reveals controversy around this expression. Most critiques are by non-Japanese, specifically foreigners from cultures that emphasize individual happiness over communal contentment (like Americans).  Critics claim that shouganai is a way to avoid responsibility for the outcome of one’s like. Some allege that it creates harmful apathy in the culture as people accept their circumstances as is and do not work to create progress. While some Japanese may use shouganai in this way, the true meaning of shouganai is “It can’t be helped” and it should only be used for circumstances no loner in our control. It is also a commitment to not complain and to move forward with what we can control and improve.

The point of shouganai is to let go only of what can’t be controlled and focus our energy on what we can do from wherever we are. It is important when letting go that we do not use it as a scapegoat to accept our own responsibility and work to make our lives and the world a better place. The thoughts and actions of other people is shouganai. The way we treat people, which can greatly affect their behavior, is not shouganai. Natural disasters are shouganai, but how we prepare for them and respond to them is not shouganai. Using shouganai to avoid personal action and growth is like praying to God for change us without using our free will to grow closer to Him.  So  in the Japanese spirit of shouganai, don’t get stuck in what you can’t control. Use what you have to move forward and move on.

Getting my Zen On Part II

Living in a house with five boys under fourteen has zen written all over it. There is a constant battle for independence and alpha male power. There are wrestling matches, screaming matches, and a scarcity of sock matches.  Pubescent attitude rears it’s head, while the baby cries to be fed, the three-year-old throws eggs on the floor, and  the other two physically fight over Pokemon. Are you feeling meditative yet? The boys constant banter, sometimes playful and sometimes rough, is ever present. Now add in the noise from the various televisions and electronic devices all playing at once, lights flashing on and off as a fight ensues over which lights to turn on, a scuffle with a parent, the laundry is running, and the dishes are clanking. Feeling relaxed and focused now?

Living with five young boys teaches me that life does not create the quiet time for self-reflection and spiritual growth. I often put off time to think, regroup, pray and call a friend for the magic moment of calm. The problem is the calm never comes. I have to make the space to grow and rejuvenate. Lesson learned and now I have to implement the conclusion. Making the space, oh where, oh where.

My first step is to save my energy for positivity. As the kids act up, break the same rule for the hundredth time, or when they hurt one another, it is easy and instinctive to lash out. Yet if I respond in dramatic anger a power struggle ensues and the kids and I both use up all our energy in draining negativity. Now, I try to consciously step back and center myself before addressing them (once any immediate safety concerns are addressed). Despite the yelling and debating, I literally step back, close my eyes, and count to twenty in my head. Then I take a deep breath , consciously calm my tone before speaking, and release the tension in my shoulders. Once the intensity has mellowed, I speak. When I succeed, the kids follow my lead and calm down. We are no longer competing for loudest or most assertive and they see I am receptive but in control. This approach works equally for talking to adults in conflict as well as children.

by preventing an escalation of conflict, we have energy after the conflict to regroup and spend time together. It also results in more time in the day to other things. Like carving out personal quiet time.

An Ordinary Day in an Extraordinary Way: Iida, Japan

We should spend a day living like a tourist in our own town. When we explore a new place with a day off from work, doing the laundry, and paying the bills, we actually stop and smell the roses, literally and figuratively. Today I was a tourist in a small town, but I could spend a day the same way  in my own town and make new discoveries and acquaintances.

Since I’m currently in the country with no means of transport besides my feet, I had two choices. Stay home or spend nine hours straight on foot in a nearby town with my baby. If you know me, know I picked a day of adventure, baby and all.

My first thought was to take a train to somewhere new. I spent thirty minutes staring at pamphlets, maps and brochures, all in Japanese, pretending I. Lull piece together a plan despite being illiterate. All I could understand is that every highlighted attraction, including waterfalls, snow-capped mountains, and old-fashioned villages, were all far from the train line and required a car or taxi.  The younger me would have picked a random stop on the map and bought a ticket, but the current me is responsible to another life.

The more secure alternative dawned on me. I could stay on the train and take in the scenery.  People go on train tours of the Canadian mountains and Siberia, so why not the Japanese Alps? The brochures were filled with pictures of the antiquated local train chugging through fields of wildflowers and mountain ranges. I walked up to the ticket window and asked the cashier whether to go north or south for the best view. He said there was no view. How about to see the flowers? Not really he replied. Then my romantic dreams of peaceful scenery transformed to images of being stuck on a slow train to nowhere with a fussy baby. Thanks but no thanks.

The back up plan for the back up plan was nine hours of carrying my baby and my backpack through the sleepy town…and so I did! My host told me the town did not offer much to see, but as a foreigner, the mundane becomes interesting.

The time is now 10:00 and most restaurants and shops are closed. The streets are quiet as everyone is at work or school, except for the old ladies and me.  Near the train station, most restaurants are only open for dinner and then close late at night (or early in the morning to be technical). The restaurants near the train station make up the main night life. The Japanese culture is big on eating and drinking with co-workers after hours and socializing often occurs at restaurants and bars rather than in the home. As I walk around, I see the are is filled with restaurants that cater to evening dining and drinking. There izakaya places, which are like Japanese tapas, small plates, meant to accompany drinks and socializing. Another late night favorite is Kishinev, deep fried skewers of meats, vegetables, and even fruit and mochi. I see the kanji for jus image no fewer than four times in three blocks. Another popular option is barbecue places where you grill your own meat. There are also a plethora of sake bars, often tucked into old wooden Japanese-style buildings with twine-wrapped sake bottles, lanterns, and metal liqueur plaques.

Sake bar

Surprisingly, I had to walk three blocks to find a place open for breakfast.    Amid the more traditional storefronts, I found a modern cafe with earth tones and natural wood through out. It had air conditioning, which is hardly given in older Japanese neighborhoods. And it was open, so it was an easy choice! Inside, the soft-spoken owner greeted me. She helped me navigate her case of fresh baked breads, the menu of homemade soups, and variety of drinks. There chocolate orange buns, red bean custard buns, cranberry cream cheese sourdough twists, curry donuts, and more. While I should have ordered a hearty soup, I chose homemade pudding because of its cute glass milk jar. In typical Japanese fashion, the decor was simple but meticulous. Although the pudding cost around $2, she served it up on a decorated tray with a little Madeline cookie and lemon infused water. She even brought an extra set of cookie and water for the baby.

Japanese pudding


Delightful! Baby Leo and I were the sole customers, so she invited us to make ourselves at home. Leo enjoyed exploring the cafe and I made full use of a tarp I bought at the 100 yen shop for an improvised playmat. The owner and the other worker came and sat with us. They brought a box chock full of trains, cars, a wind-up panda in a hamster wheel, and numerous board books in Japanese. I read a book about yummy carrots to Leo while the owner helped me with the Japanese kanji (characters). We talked about living in Iida and Vegas respectively. Leo and I both enjoyed the company and the pudding.

Afterwards, I strapped Leo into the carrier and headed for the Main Street of town. Shortly after World War II,  a big fire destroyed the city center of Iida. The town decided to put in a long median of apple trees down the main road as part of the revitalization project. As I mentioned in my previous post ( Hokkaido!, the Japanese place a strong identity and pride on regional food. In Iida, the staple product is apples.  Apparently, the higher elevation creates tasty apples from the large range of temperatures. There is no mistaking the strong link between apples and the city. There are numerous shops selling apple juice and other apple products. The railings along the street and parks are made of red metal apples. The main street runs along the long row of apple trees. Even the sewer drains are ornately designed with apples.

Iida apple meridianApple sewer drain in Iida

See, even a sewer drain is interesting when you travel and explore!

i strolled uphill along the path of apple trees. The place looked like an urban center in U.S., with buildings close together and a wide array of shops, restaurants, and small businesses. Yet, there were few patrons and few people out and about. I wondered how all the businesses survived in the slow and quiet pace of the city. It seemed like the perfect combination to explore with a baby in tow. I peaked into sweet shops. I browsed through clothing boutiques and accessory shops. There were specialty stores for Japanese dishes, letter stamps of Chinese characters, custom built kimonos, old-fashioned camera shops with actual film and disposable cameras, futon shops, home good stores, shops just for slippers and another just for shoes.

Despite the sleepy pace, lunchtime crept up on me. I contemplated a ramen shop but changed course when I could not feel any air conditioning. I walked towards an elaborate dragon statute only to discover it was a Korean restaurant. I decided to stick with traditional Japanese food and stumbled upon a restaurant with homemade soba (buckwheat spaghetti). Again, I enjoyed nearly undivided attention from the waitress and the chef. They brought over a sample of their special plum sauce and offered to entertain the baby so I could eat. I ordered a cold soba soup, with a refreshing medley of sliced cucumber, green onion, and shiso leaf. I also had a side of vegetable tempura, full of local vegetables fried to order. Leo devoured the noodles and a great time was had by all. I even managed to read some of the menu unassisted.

iida soba soup

All stuffed and ready to explore off the carbs! Next, we head to Iida’s most famous attraction, or so I think. The Kawamoto Kihachiro Puppet Museum. It houses around 100 of the intricate hand puppets I’ve encountered. They are all in ancient Japanese and Chinese clothing. The women are adorned with  over ten layers of kimono fabric and the men are decked out in Chinese armor. The puppets were part of a hit Television show about an ancient Chinese kingdom. While I am no puppet expert, the intricacy of the puppets was enjoyable. If you ever find yourself in Iida in early August, the city hosts the largest puppet festival in Japan (is there more than one puppet festival?).

Iida Puppet Museum

I spent the rest of the day exploring alleyways, pastry shops, and even returned for homemade soup at the cafe. After nine hours of baby carrying and humidity, I had an excellent sleep.

My day in Iida reminded me that there are new experiences and faces around very corner, wherever I find myself. When I’m back in Vegas, I plan to take a day trip in my own neighborhood and try out a new cafe and new cuisine. There is no reason not to explore my own backyard. Wherever you find yourself, stroll down a new road and pop in a new door and share what you find.


In Japan, identity and cache are strongly tied to each region. People are proud of where they are from. People want to know where there food comes from. Regional tourism is big business. Many Japanese travel to other parts of Japan or dream of visiting certain regions. Each region has a reputation for  certain characteristics and personality traits, like people from Osaka are known for being gregarious and funny because of its history as a merchant city long before Japan became more open to foreigners.  Food and drinks vary from different cities and prefectures.  Some products, like certain fish and seafood, are best from a particular region. Anyone heard of. Miyajima Oysters? They are from a small island called Miyajima that is adjacent to Hiroshima. Many other dishes and specialty items, like sake and baked goods, take a variety of forms and flavor depending on where they come from. Soup noodles like ramen are a prime example. The base of the soup (soy sauce, salt, miso, pork bone, black garlicky, etc.), type of noodle (skinny, chubby, straight, curly), and the toppings differ in each region. You can find many restaurants that specialize in cuisine from another region in Japan, kind of like a Texan BBQ restaurant in L.A.

What makes Japan unique? In the U.S., there is some regional variety, like  shrimp and grits in the south and creamy clam chowder in New England. There is a whole subculture about the different ways to make barbecue (Memphis vs.  St. Louis ribs). But Japan has about the same number of prefectures as the U.S.A. has states (47 vs 50) in the same land area as Montana. So imagine driving around a densely populated version of Montana and finding vastly different flavors and ingredients in each town. This will give you an idea of regional food in Japan. It is also a source of more cultural pride and emphasis than in American culture.

I personally have a crush on the food from Hokkaido and I’ve never even been there. Hokkaido is the most northern and the largest prefecture in. Japan.  It is an island separate from the main island of Japan (home to. Tokyo, Kyoto, Nagano, Osaka, and so on). A picture of its outline is below and the icon of its map can be found all over items in a Japanese grocery store. Hokkaido is known for delicious dairy products, premium seafood, and excellent produce. When I shop in the grocery store, I look for this mark of Hokkaido. I will buy items just because they are from Hokkaido and I have not been disappointed.  There are also restaurants and boutique food stores dedicated to Hokkaido food products and I hunt them down whenever I visit Japan.  If you are ever in a Japanese grocery store, look for the map!


Today I am sharing my newest discovery from Hokkaido. It is a snowy white bun steamed to the texture of a cloud, airy and light. Inside, there is a gush of vanilla bean cream made from the prized Hokkaido milk. Delicious! Japanese sweets are less sweet than American desserts and thus perfect for my palate.

One day I hope to visit Hokkaido and eat delicious food straight from the hills and sea there. In the meantime, I will travel there in my mind with a one-dollar treat straight from my dream spot.  Traveling is a wonderful experience, but it is not always permitted with time and money restraints. We can all get a little taste of somewhere else by trying new foods, reading, meeting new people from other places, and splurging our spare buck on a new treat.  Wherever the day takes you, step a little out of the box and you may find something new in your own backyard, or grocery aisle.

Another death defying experience…

Stormy time ahead!

Some moments in life seem destined to be memorable, exciting and defining, like a graduation, start of a new job, a new year, or an exotic experience, like eating blow fish. Some moments, even days, seem monotonous, like we are just filling the time to the next experience. The reality is that high anticipation often ends in mediocrity and much of our growth and substance come when we least expect it. Just when you think life will be predictable, the mundane transforms into the unexpected.

My day starts off mundane. I am feeling relatively settled in my temporary home. There are no special plans, no exotic foods to try and no new places to explore. Aside from being in Japan, it is a typical day of bringing my son to school, doing laundry, cooking, and picking my son up from school.  I load the baby in the car to go pick up my older son. I turn on the ignition and notice a new light on. Since the car is full of electronic gadgets, icons, and messages I can’t understand, I pay little heed to it. I pull out of the driveway and head up the steep mountain road.

A moment later, the car suddenly decelerates.  At first,  I assume it is the steep hill challenging the engine. I push harder on the gas pedal. Nothing. The car is slowing down . I try again. Nothing. My heart starts racing. The gas pedal is useless and I am stuck on a steep hill. I peak back at my baby and then start thinking of my options. There is no way up the hill. My first thought is to pull off to the shoulder and walk back to the house carrying the baby. Then I remember there is no shoulder. I am petrified to back up since the road is steep and windy. I look in my rear view mirror and see there are three cars waiting behind me. I motion for them to pass me but they motion me to back up.

Just as I am praying not to cry and for strong brakes, an employee from a nearby business comes to help. My Italian blood kicks in and I combine very hand gesture I can to convey my predicament.  He then steps in to direct traffic and guide me as I reverse all the way back to the house.  The steep hill that scared me ended up being my means back to safety. I was able to go in reverse in neutral and get back home.

while there is no neat snapshot to scrapbook or Facebook, and my nerves rattled, it is a literal reminder that life is about the journey and not the destination. It is also impeccable (aka divine) timing because we were scheduled to take a three hour road trip in the car the following day. It also happened within eyesight of the house and near a business, a rare circumstance in the rural community. The car is in the shop for a week, giving me the chance to simplify even more, slow down, and smell the plum trees. A perfect opportunity to learn more Japanese and get my zen on from home. Enjoy your journey, through the highly anticipated and the deceivingly mundane!

Eating Blowfish

On the other side of the Pacific, there is a plethora of different delicacies to surprise a Western eye. There are edible bird’s nest made from bird’s saliva. These treasured nests sell for $2,000 a pound!  Other prized foods include abalone, sea cucumbers (giant ocean slugs), and the controversial shark fin ( A favorite treat of our family is eel, aka unagi. The eel is usually broiled with a mild teriyaki sauce and eaten  with all the bones. The bones are soft enough to eat and too plentiful to remove.

While many delicacies may seem peculiar to a foreign tummy, the most intimidating delicacy is the blowfish, or fugu. So why am I scared of the blowfish? It can kill me and I like to survive my meals. Blowfish are poisonous. They contain a lethal toxin in certain organs that is 1,200 times as deadly as cyanide. There is no known antidote and death is swift. Most Japanese do not worry about the poisonous nature of the fish because deaths are extremely rare and the preparation of blowfish is highly regulated. Most deaths occur from fisherman who try to prepare the fish on their own instead of using the licensed chefs, an elite and hard-earned license. I thought I was overly concerned about the risk until I read about an incident of poisoning at  prestigious restaurant in Tokyo.

The important takeaway is that she requested to eat one of the poisonous organs, which is taken out of the fish before eating. It still rattles my nerves. After ten years as avoiding it, I decided it bite the bullet, rather literally it seems.


The first course was sashimi, thinly sliced raw blowfish. I looked over at my kids, kissed them just in case, and then dug in. The first bite surprised me. The taste was very mild and the texture was firm and chewy. The sashimi tasted extremely fresh. Well, it was fresh indeed! The next course was a plate of fish parts that were still moving! The quivering parts were boiled at the table with various vegetables. Meanwhile, we dined on fried fins. Once we finished the blowfish courses, raw, fried and boiled, the server brought warm sake with roasted blowfish fin. It was deliciously aromatic and a highlight of the meal.

in the end, I lived to tell about it. All in all a great meal and a memorable experience. The fear is conquered and the mystery is over. I think I will stick to  non-poisonous fish next time.


Getting my Zen on Part I

Zen. The word invokes a peaceful state. I thought it was a peaceful state of mind by definition until I looked it up. Zen refers to a specific type of Buddhism that emphasizes meditation and intuition over ritual and scripture to get closer to enlightenment. For me, “getting my zen on” is my own slang for finding or establishing mental serenity. My quest for more inner and out peace is continual, so I plan to make “getting my zen on” a recurrent theme/post column on here. The true definition of zen is well-suited. Meditation, prayer, quiet reflection, and intuition play prominent roles in my quest for serenity.

From an early age, travel played a prominent role in self-reflection and spiritual growth. People often complain about flying and long hours spent in transit modes of all types. Perhaps because I started flying at a young age, my naivete and rare taste of indpendence created a Aciation for the travelling part of travel. In a society obsessed with being busy and being stimulated, transit forces respite, reflection, and new perspective.

My time on airplanes is spent in reflection on where I’ve been and where I’m going. Before having children, it offered a rare chunk of uninterrupted time (except for a drink offering by the flight attendant or a loquacious or snoring passenger).  Time without email or phones (there was no WiFi then and no one ever used the expensive plane phones). Time without influence from the people in my life with constant influence.

Well, now my travel time is full of noise and beautiful and draining chaos. Toddlers and babies don’t advocate serene meditation. So I have to squeeze in some quiet reflection in early morning, during naps, or late in the evening. When I don’t make time for a couple minutes of quiet, the whole day seems to get away from me.

Being quiet is hard. Simplifying is hard. But it is worth the effort.

Living in the countryside seems ideal for reflection and simplification. However, I quickly learned that you can fill your day with busy activity and noise no matter where you are. You can create distractions anywhere. Fill your day with committments to everyone else except you. Tend to your house, clean, focus on the endless need for cleaning dishes, clothes, floors, windows, and forgotten dusty crevices. Run around to the market, the bank, accumulating objects, amd getting more things to clean and organize. Hustle to take your kids to school, tutors,  music lessons, sports practice and so on. Once dinner is served and the kids go to bed, you fester over your to do list for the next day and then crash in your bed.

It is easy to fill each day with so much activity that we do not engage in conscious living. We never make the space for spiritual growth, reflection and rejuvenation. Take a moment for yourself and be conscious of yourself. Does all your activity reflect your values? Are you making time for dreams and growth? Take a moment with me and get your zen on.