Ruminating on belonging in a Kyoto coffeeshop

The past two weeks in Kyoto have been pretty hectic. I have yet to meet anyone other than family, for obvious reasons. With the kids not in school, we have been going on walks around the neighbourhood so I can get them off of YouTube and TikTok. Other than those short explorations we have been greeting neighbours, running errands, unpacking boxes, settling in.

It is strange to me to be back in Kyoto full-time since my last 3 year stint ending in 2005. I am looking forward to seeing the city with fresh eyes.

Today, while walking home I was thinking about how often I have shifted locations, and how I envy people who really know their city, who feel part of their city. I stopped in a little coffee shop that I had on my list, and ruminated. Below are the notes I took on my phone while enjoying the java.

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Relocating to Kyoto

ANA airplane being loaded

Good afternoon from Vancouver International Airport. I am at Gate D70, about to board the plane. Yes, I just got back to Canada 3 weeks ago, but things… have been happening.

In last month’s newsletter I explained why we had to change our Spring Break destination from a drive to Squamish to an emergency flight to Kyoto. The long and the short of it is my father-in-law’s health has been deteriorating. Thus, we decided that we should relocate to Kyoto to spend the remainder of his life with him.

Two main factors led us to this decision: responsibility and ability.

As an only child, my wife feels the full weight of taking on elder care. This is also one of the many different responsibilities that weigh heavily on an international marriage. She supported me fully in taking an emergency flight to Canada when my dad got sick. I will absolutely support her in this.

Secondly is ability, which is entirely due to the awesome team at my company. I joined Fission to help execute their vision of growing a globally distributed network of internet industrial researchers. We already have team members in North and South America, Europe, and Africa. Now I get to be the first in Asia. They have been fully supportive of this move — for which I am very grateful — and it demonstrates again the benefits of designing a company as distributed and async. So, my job gave me the ability to support my wife in supporting her father. I am one of the lucky few to be in this position.

For the forseeable future I will be posting from Kyoto, a place where I lived from 1999 to 2004, and have been visiting ever since. I am not sure what our lives are going to look like for the next few months. But considering how it has been for the last few years, I am not making any solid plans, and am just going to go where nature leads us.

See you from the other side of the Pacific!

Unzen – Where foreigners go to hell to cool off

From a tiny speck on the horizon, the volcano slow grew as I crossed first the mud flats of Kumamoto and then the shallow waters of the Ariake Sea. Now, at the foot of the volcano, looming over the small city of Shimabara, there was only one way to go: up!

Unzen, the central volcano of the Shimabara peninsula, is actually a volcanic complex with a number of peaks. Fugen-dake (普賢岳) was the highest peak of the mountain until 1990 when the eruption mentioned last time saw a new peak jut out a further 127 meters. This is Heisei-shinzan (平成新山) — the “new mountain.”

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Living “with volcano” — a trip to Shimabara

The Shimabara Peninsula, a peninsula of a peninsula in Nagasaki prefecture, is just one of the fascinating places I travelled to in Kyushu, looking for “Kyushu Firsts.” This is where the “black samurai” Yasuke first landed in Japan in 1579 and is the location of Japan’s first printing press. The peninsula hosted many Portuguese Jesuits who built seminaries in the 16th century. It was the home of one of Japan’s Christian Daimyo and the site of a Christian rebellion (1637-1638). One could argue that Shimabara is where the Tokugawa shogunate’s finally set its resolve to isolate Japan from the rest of the world.

Jutting up from the center of the peninsula is the volcano-mountain Unzen. Farms cover the rolling hills, wrapped around the volcano like a thick green blanket. The rich volcanic soil produces strawberries and other produce, supplying the rest of Kyushu. Below the farms, at sea level, are the towns where most people live, some fishing the crabs of the shallow and muddy Ariake Sea. It is all quite bucolic, but there is a broiling history lying underneath.

Map of Kyushu with inset showing Shimabara peninsula in relation to Kumamoto with Ariake Sea in between

In getting to Shimabara I had to cross the relative placid inland sea. After leaving Kumamoto city by taxi we drove for nearly thirty minutes towards the Ariake across the mud flat, parcelled into farms. The warm April weather and straight road made me dozy. But as we approached the ferry terminal we could see in the distance the far-off peak of Unzen. It looks so close!

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Signing for more expressiveness in group video chat

Recently my kids have been exploring the differences between American Sign Language (ASL) and Japanese Sign Language (JSL). For them it is another way to explore their own bilingualism, and understand how language is tied to cultural context.

I recently read this short manga COVID-33 which describes a future world where talking outside is prohibited, and all must use signing to communicate. It is a beautiful mix of media with a powerful message about communication and symbols.

pages from the story COVID-33 by Yamamoto Miho

My workplace is fully distributed, with no central office. We are in multiple countries and spend a lot of time on Zoom in meetings. The courteous thing to do on Zoom when you are not speaking is to Mute yourself. However, this limits your expressiveness when reacting to what others are saying. All you have is just facial expressions and basic gestures such as 👍 or 👎.

Why limit ourselves to such a small vocabulary?

Before I joined the company they had already adopted the ASL sign for “Applause/Yay!” on camera, a tip they picked up from another colleague.


Inspired by my children’s experimentation and the COVID-33 manga, I proposed more signs that could be useful in our business context, increasing our expressiveness on camera. Here are a few basic signs we have gathered in an internal document on communicating with Zoom. Maybe you can introduce them into your own video group chats.

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New writing elsewhere, by me (2021 edition)

In the spring of 2021 I set myself a goal to pitch more publications and get more of my writing out there. Things got in the way, and well, since the summer I have not been doing as much writing as I wanted. Below is a roundup of everything I did submit this year, which is certainly more than 2020. So even though things were cut short, there has been progress.

2021 in Books

With just a couple days to spare, I made my Goodreads Reading Challenge of 40 books. It was a close thing, but I was able to make it up in the final months of the year. Here is how the numbers breakdown by genre:

  • 7 fiction books
  • 8 general nonfiction books
  • 10 books on Buddhism
  • 15 books on Japan and/or Asia

Forty is not a lot of books considering I spent the first few months of the year in full book research mode on Iki. I did read quite a few academic papers during that time. Then of course we had a pretty intense couple of summer months which changed everything. All in all, it was a good year for books. I took thousands of words of notes, and even added 60 new books to my Want to Read list, which is at 337 books to date.

Out of the 40 read this year only 21 were audiobooks. This is a change for the good I think. It means I read more books closely, giving me more time to take smart notes, something that is a bit more difficult to do in audio. Six out of my seven fiction books were in audio, so you can see the trend there. I also discovered a number of podcasts, thus my listening time was taken up by catching up on those backlogs. Now that I am working from home, and have no commute, I don’t expect my audiobook listening ratio to be too high in 2022.

You can see all my 2021 books listed below with a rating for quick perusal, but I would say this year’s standouts include:

  • Seeking Sakyamuni: This book is just so up my alley. I read it after The Irish Buddhist which is also fascinating. This vein of “maritime transnational pan-Asian Buddhist networks struggling against colonialism” is something I will continue to mine in 2022.
  • In the Dragon’s Shadow: A great tour of Southeast Asia that is very readable. If you want to get a sense of where the next Great Power political struggle will play out, this is a good place to start.
  • The Economist’s Hour: I think this is one of those general books that everyone should read to understand the world we live in today. This is the book I have been sharing with everyone this year.

If you want to follow along, or connect with me about books and reading, get me on Goodreads. Twitter is also a good place to connect. This year I tried to track my book reading there too in a massive thread using the #NowReading2021 hashtag, which is a great way to see what everyone is up to. I will continue to do that in 2022. Happy reading!

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Continuing a Japanese porcelain legacy — Review of The Art of Emptiness

In the mid-seventeenth century the nobles of Europe were thrown into an addiction crisis. With the fall of the Ming Dynasty, and the chaos that ensued, where were they to get fine porcelain to decorate their palaces? As luck would have it, a new source of kaolinite — the key mineral in the manufacture of ceramics — was discovered in a much more politically stable region: Tokugawa Japan.

The kaolinite deposits were discovered on Izumiyama near Arita in modern-day Saga prefecture. The ruling clan of the day was Nabeshima, a very shrewd and fascinating clan. They had control of Nagasaki, and so had a window to the outside world.

(In fact, a couple hundred years later in the 1840s Nabeshima Naomasa would use the foreign intelligence he gathered through Nagasaki channels to find out about the Opium Wars and the coming wave of colonialists and their modern weapons. He made the astute decision to start looking into developing modern weapons, building Japan’s first reverberatory furnace used to make modern cannon. When Perry’s Black ships came, the shogun ordered 50 of these cannons to be positioned on Odaiba, at Tokyo Bay. Later, Nabeshima and his people went on to be very important in the new Meiji government. A very fascinating house.)

Anyways, back to Arita. The Nabeshima clan saw an opportunity to fill a gap in global porcelain market, so with the help of Korean potters “brought over” during Hideyoshi’s failed invasion, they founded the craft of Japanese porcelain was born.

Sun setting behind a torii made out of porcelain
Ceramic shrine dedicated to potters in 1658

Narrow river valleys wend their way along the foot of Mt Izumi and the surrounding mountains. The town of Arita is nestled in one of these valleys, long and narrow. Other sections of town have worked their way up into other tight gorges and canyons. The town layout sort of resembles the claw of some massive bird or dragon.

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Interviewing Superintendent Kubota

This month I was in Unseen Japan for a piece called How Schools on Remote Japanese Islands are Fighting Depopulation→

In that article I detail the genesis of the study abroad program my family and I went on for our year on Iki Island (see FAQ). In writing the article I had the pleasure of interviewing one of the driving personalities of the program, Superintendent Kubota Yoshikazu.

I wanted to take a moment to tell you a little more about him, since he featured a lot in our life on Iki. The Iki School District office is high on a bluff above the elementary school my kids attended, in the northeast part of the island. When the four major towns of Iki merged a few years back in a cost-cutting measure (one of the ways remote areas deal with depopulation and smaller tax bases), the town hall of Ashibe was turned into the main school building for all the schools on the island. Kubota-sensei works from this office, but often drives down to the biggest town Gō-no-ura to attend meetings at city council.

I was able to visit him a few times in his Ashibe office, sitting across from him on a low leather lounge. One of the remarkable things about him is how intently he listens to people around him speak. Then, when it is his turn to talk, he has a gentle low voice that brings about a hush in the room.

Kubota-sensei’s short-cropped hair seems the type for a former high school baseball coach (he coached my friend who runs the Wasabi guest house — see the video tour in this post — back when he was in high school) but actually it is because he is from a line of Nichiren priests. His temple is just at the foot of the hill below the District building. For Kubota-sensei, educating children is his number one priority. He said the job requires trust and moral fibre, so feels the temple members are proud of what he is doing.

When Kubota-sensei is not on school or temple business, he is often picking fruit from the trees around his house. Often we would get a knock at the door at our house and he would be standing there in his rubber boots with a bag full of biwa or other seasonal fruit or garden vegetable. His granddaughter would come over with all the neighbourhood kids to play hide-and-go-seek and eat snacks in our house.

I would like to thank Kubota-sensei for accepting a weird Canadian family into his school district with open arms. Him and his team did everything they could to make our stay comfortable, and to help our kids adjust to life in Japanese school. And he was gracious enough to sit down with me for a couple of hours to discuss education theory and the thinking behind the Ikkiko remote island study program. 本当にお世話になりました!

If you want to read more about the program, take a look at my article in Unseen Japan →

Chad poses with Kubota-sensei in his office
Chad poses with Kubota-sensei in his office