how to be a japanographer

a long time ago
in mexico
my teacher-friend heather dowd
spoke of her time in japan
in a quiet voice
as if we were in church.

“it’s not possible”
she said,
“to take
a bad photo
in japan.”

i loved
that she thought that.

i confess
to a box full of bad shots
of japan.

i took them when we first arrived.

after two years in bangkok
(an extrovert’s city
where people never stop
we moved to japan.

our arrival
was not a gentle
touching down
but the crash-landing
of foreigners
who don’t yet know their way.

the first english we heard
a message on the airport shuttle
“please do not annoy your neighbours.”
too late.
we were cymbals and horns honking
while japan looked politely away.

time passed
in that gracious way
that time has.

we still can’t tell a taxi driver
how to get to our house
but we’re acclimating.

to really live in japan
one must learn
to slow down.

& listen.

like little kids
crossing the street,
we learn
to pay attention.

at the early learning centre
at our school
one student reminds another,
“cuddle soft like a feather.”
gentle hugs only.

in japan, we cuddle soft
like a feather.

i want you to know
that it’s hard
to take a bad photo
in japan.

even in the grey
concrete corners
of too-big cities
or in the jumble of things
co-existing in a too-small space,
japan is beautiful.

like a pink umbrella
on a winter’s day.

like most women,
likes to have her photo taken.

especially by someone
who loves her.


    1. Thanks very much. I believe that there is a kind of magic that happens when we have our photograph taken by a loved one who really SEES us. I think that the photographs reflect that relationship.

  1. I love your poem–not to mention the notion that it’s impossible to take a bad photo in Japan. I also appreciate your comparison of your arrival in Japan with your life in Bangkok. Yes, Bangkok is definitely an extroverted city–well said!

    1. Bangkok is extroverted in a different way than New York or London but BKK is definitely a big talker! Japan is so quiet in comparison. I love both the peace of Yokohama and the buzz of Bangkok… especially now that I get to stay in a posh hotel when I visit Thailand! Thanks so much for stopping by.

  2. I stumbled onto this treasure on Freshly Pressed, on the way out of signing off from my blog.
    I love your words and sensibilities and energy. Refreshing and true. I’ll be back.

    I’m an American living in Holland, so can identify.

  3. This was lovely, and the photos illustrate your point quite well.

    “the first english we heard
    a message on the airport shuttle
    β€œplease do not annoy your neighbours.”
    too late.
    we were cymbals and horns honking
    while japan looked politely away.”

    Love that. πŸ™‚

    1. Here’s the context for the “don’t annoy your neighbours” quote. On the shuttle bus from Narita Airport to Yokohama, they play a recorded message, in Japanese and English, which says “While you are on the shuttle bus, please do not speak on your mobile phone as it annoys your neighbours.”

      Totally true story.

      Thanks for your comment!

  4. In yr gentle minimalist style u’v so adroitly captured that same gentle minimalist ‘Zen’ essence of Japan. Beautiful. Very good personifications too eg time

  5. What a beautiful portrayal, both in words and pictures! I am reminded to slow down, look and listen, wherever we may find ourselves. Thank you!

    1. I really liked your words:
      I am reminded to slow down, look and listen, wherever we may find ourselves.

      That’s exactly it for me… it’s about noticing the small, gorgeous moments wherever we live or travel.

      Thanks for visiting!

    1. The day I took those photos was the only day this year that we had snow in Yokohama. We were actually released early so that students and staff could make their way home safely. As a Canadian, I loved it… the snow falling on my new home in Japan. When I got home, I had hot chocolate πŸ™‚

      Thanks for your lovely comment.

    1. This totally made me laugh! My partner was reading these comments aloud to me this morning and he said yours was his favourite. Thanks for sharing your delightful sense of humour.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I work as a high school counselor so my life is not always soft and quiet :)… but my walk home from school is always peaceful… and my life is a truly good one!

  6. This is so sweet and beautiful. I lived in Dhaka, Bangladesh…crowded, dirty, but beautiful. It was hard to take a bad picture there too. Thank you for sharing this.

    1. It was also hard to take a bad photo in Bangkok because there was so much interesting stuff happening all the time… and a riot of colours.

      Thanks for taking the time to say hello!

  7. I live in Japan also. I love this. Beautifully written, and about to be shared on facebook. Have bookmarked the blog!

    1. Hi there. I wasn’t sure if you meant that you hated posed photos in general or if you were referring to this post.

      These were just kids walking home from school. They definitely were not posing… just making their way through the slush on a late February afternoon.

    1. I looked up this phrase and found the following:
      “This is a Japanese expression of confirmation. It corresponds roughly to “isn’t it” in English and maybe “n’est-ce pas” in French.”

      I want to make that lovely sound that Japanese people make when they want to indicate that they have heard you… a sort of short “hm” sound… I’m sure you know what I mean πŸ™‚

      And thanks!

      1. I got jealous of your brilliant post, so I wanted it to be on my blog as well. This way I don’t need to find a pink umbrella myself to put on my blog. You’ve been a huge help : D

  8. Wow, thanks for sharing this! Japan has such wonderful landscapes, people and culture. You’ve captured its soul with your photography! Have a great week!

    1. It’s true… Japan has many wonderful landscapes.

      In my home country of Canada, historians and other social scientists talk about many Canadas… English, French, East, West etc.

      I wonder if the Japanese feel the same way about their country?

      Thanks for your lovely comment.

  9. Winter’s cityside crystal bits of snowflakes
    All around my head and in the wind.
    I had no illusions that I’d ever find
    A glimpse of summer’s heatwaves in your eyes.
    You did what you did to me now it’s history I see
    Here’s my comeback on the road again.
    Things will happen while they can
    I will wait here for my man tonight
    It’s easy when you’re big in Japan

    Do you like this song ? πŸ™‚

  10. Japan is somewhere I plan to visit some day. I will most likely not stop taking photographs and I know all of them will be great in some way. Awesome post. Thank you.

    1. Do visit! You will put down your camera only long enough to sleep and eat… and sometimes (often) I take photos of my food πŸ™‚

      Thanks for your comment. As to the question posted on your blog, “What if superman fought a blue whale? You think he would stand a chance?”… I will now be thinking about this question all day long!

      1. Thank you. I don’t always take photos of my food, but I bet I might there. At least a few times.
        I would be interested in hearing your take on the subject. Let me know of any outcomes you think of.

    1. Thanks for your lovely comment. Thanks also for sharing the work of Matthew Kavan Brooks on your blog; I had seen the gorgeous “Invincible Summer” poster on the web but could not find the artist’s name.

  11. Hello!

    I am the Watercooler/ Awesome TimeWasters (an awesome section of stories people like to share!) editor at Before It’s News ( Our site is a rapidly growing people-powered news platform currently serving over 3 million visits a month. We like to call ourselves the “YouTube of news.”

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  12. i think japan is one of the world’s most cultured society. From cultured it gets to creative and then as you said..beautiful

    1. Thanks for your comment.

      I don’t know exactly what you meant by cultured but my sense, over these past eight months, is that Japan is a highly civilized place to live and visit. The Japanese are brilliant at figuring out how to live well and get along with others. This is possible, largely, because the Japanese place the community first and are incredibly disciplined about following the rules of their community.

      1. i think you could read under my lines. Yes, putting community first would solve most of the problems societies face around the world.. And that is the essence we need to draw from the Japanese..
        Anyway nice write up..

    1. Hi Sarah. I used to teach English Literature so I really appreciate the specificity of your comment! The box of dodgy photos is, of course, on iPhoto πŸ™‚ I agree with you about the pink against the grey of the street and the wall and the day. Magical!

      1. Oooh, Dodgy, I’ll have to remember to use that in a sentence this week. LOVE IT! Thanks Monna for responding to the comment! Enjoy your freshly pressed day!

  13. I love the pictures you’ve taken. Speaking of Japan, I’m actually visiting the country right now! And it is such a beautiful place. Thanks for sharing the beautiful pictures and poem!
    Keep on taking pictures!

  14. Just beautiful,and so happy that I somehow managed to stumble here.And the Heather Dowd mention kind of stunned me as she lived just down the road from me! Blast from the past.

    1. Wow. What a small world. Did she live near you in Japan?

      I will share this wild co-incidence with Heather as she is visiting our school for a conference in just a few weeks.

      Thanks for introducing yourself!

  15. Thanks for the beautiful photos and poem. I’m from Japanese and I’m so happy to know there is someone who cares about my country. you made my day. thank you again!

    1. Thanks for saying hello to me. I am really happy to hear that this post has made you happy. Honestly, I think that many people care about Japan… even people who have never visited πŸ™‚

    1. This is precisely the feeling I have as I walk home from school… by the foreigners’ cemetery and through the park. It is both tranquil and beautiful… the perfect walk for leaving the day behind.

      Thanks for leaving this comment.

  16. i think it’s hard to take bad photos of any places you love. no doubt that Japan is an uber-cool country. i like how you turned your writing into poetry with beautiful pictures.

    1. You said: i think it’s hard to take bad photos of any places you love.

      I totally agree… and Japan is definitely uber-cool.

      Thanks for your very kind words about my post.

  17. I suppose you used a film camera on this one? Your photos are absolutely amazing! I just wish you posted a lot more :))
    Please do check out mine if you have the time! Thank you πŸ˜€

  18. You are brilliant! On my recent travels, I too have fallen in love with Eastern cultures. You summed it up beautifully but more importantly, retained purity and simplicity with your word choice. Simplicity is something Western cultures could stand to have more of!

  19. I’ve been to Japan, and I agree with you. It is so beautiful there, that it is impossible to take a bad picture. The sacred temples, long bridges, eccentric people, “kawaii” animals, beautiful plant life, amazing buildings, etc etc! <3

  20. i was missing Japan today and I saw this on the wordpress front page. The rhythm made me feel like i was back there again, and love the collection of umbrella photos.

  21. Wonderful! Whenever I go home to Japan, I couldn’t agree with you more that one can never take a bad picture in Japan! Very nice poem and photos! πŸ™‚

    1. So sweet!

      Thanks very much for commenting on the comments. Ultimately, that’s why we blog, I think… to connect with other people. I so much appreciate that all of you took the time to read this post and to comment.

      Thanks for noticing.

  22. Such a beautiful blog idea.. kudos… the words and pics too. Love this.
    I just posted 7billion + billion ways to look at things, and this sure is one …

    hey have a great day

  23. I love everything about this. I’m an American living in China, and I deeply wish to visit Japan in the future. However, I do worry that because I’ve adapted to the hustle and bustle of China, I will definitely “annoy my neighbors” while in Japan!

    1. What a lovely comment… thank you. Although I have only been here for eight months, I already feel a deep sense of respect for and obligation towards Japan.

      Calm… yes. On that particular afternoon, we could actually hear the snow falling.

  24. This post makes me long to travel-there is so much beauty to see in numerous places of the World-Japan is one of them-amongst many others. Thanks for sharing your adventure and insights.

    1. You are so right… there is so much beauty to see. The more we travel and the longer I live overseas, the less attached I am to the way that Canadians “do/see” things. I think that’s a good thing… although Canada is still beautiful to me after all these years.

      Longing to travel. It’s such a universal experience, isn’t it?

      Thanks for your comment.

    1. Hello & thanks very much for your comment.

      I really like what you wrote in your post:
      Two nights in Tokyo City is enough to fall in love, but to explore the deep treasures within, no, it is barely enough to scratch the surface.

      Thanks for sharing that with us.

  25. Beautiful story! You really captured the Japanese spirit in your poem. I love Japan too. I love living here and taking pictures of just about anything I come across. On my blog, I try to capture the little things of everyday life that amaze or interest me. There is so much beauty in Japan, especially in the details.

    1. Your blog is gorgeous… I hope that you are enjoying your year in Japan.

      I totally agree with your comment. It seems, to me, that the little things of life ARE life. Perhaps it’s easy to miss that.

    1. The thing with the phone lines on Japan is interesting. Normally, I don’t even notice them but, when I upload my photos, there they are. A friend who is really good at embracing things the way they are recently posted, on facebook, a gorgeous shot of Yokohama phone lines and sky.

  26. I love it! I have been living in Japan for almost 2 years, having the same feeling but couldn’t express like you did. Thank you!!

  27. Wow. Thank goodness for “Freshly Pressed” or I’d never have seen this beautiful, beautiful post. I love your photos (all good, of course), but love the poem so much more. “we were cymbals and horns honking / while japan looked politely away.” I can see and hear it, can feel it right along with you. Fabulous. Thank you.

  28. Really beautiful. I’m happy this post was featured in Freshly Pressed so I got to read it.
    Also like your photography. You catch something…It’s kinda melancholic

  29. congratulations on being freshly pressed. i love your poem and your pictures. I live in Bhutan and i always say that you could never take a bad picture here….well, hopefully i’ll get to visit Japan someday and fail to take bad pictures there too πŸ™‚

  30. It’s simple with short phrases that capture the whole meaning of the poem. I also like the fact that you didn’t use any punctuations and supplement your poem with images. Really nice, it brings back sweet memories when I was younger. I really miss that place. πŸ™‚

  31. I LOVE THIS. I backpacked around Japan for 3weeks last year and it is truly a beautiful country to be in. The way you managed to capture Japan with your words touched me. Thank you. (:

  32. Very nice teasing post for me, as I am going to Japan mid-april for a month long travel. Looking for those never bad pictures ! πŸ™‚
    Have a nice day

  33. Hi, I saw your post up on the wordpress top page. Your pictures and words had uniqueness, beauty and generosity. I am a Japanese living in Japan and was really touched at how you described our small crowded country. I love Japan but also often feel very disappointed towards people and circumstances to the point where I can be depressed…so I feel very grateful when I find things that make me feel proud about this island country, especially regarding the people. I was especially touched because you wrote you haven’t yet been able to completely take advantage of the things in Japan (re: about taxi) and yet you manage to have an open heart to find good things about Japan. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    1. Hello! I want you to know that I really appreciate your comment. It’s not that I never feel challenged or uncomfortable in Japan – I do. In some ways, it is actually the most difficult place to navigate of the five countries to which we have moved as international educators. It is also the gentlest and most civilized. I feel really grateful for the opportunity to live here and to learn about Japan first hand as do most of the foreigners with whom I work. We feel fortunate to be here.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts and your appreciation with an open heart. Arigato gazaimasu.

  34. Good post Momma! I’m planning my third time in Japan and in April I’ll be in Tokyo and Niseko. I love the japanese polite people and their amazing contrast between traditions and innovation. I love to take picture of their life style and I dream the opportunity to have a long term stay.
    Tks for sharing.


  35. I love your poem. I just came across your blog last night quite by accident. I have never been to Japan but I have some Japanese friends here in Canada and this poem reminds me of them. Your beautiful truthful words struck me. Thank you πŸ™‚

  36. absolutely love this! the verse, the feeling I get when I read it, and the patterns. – However, I can definitely prove true that “i can, indeed, take a bad photo of japan”
    of a couple thousand, i think majority of mine are bad πŸ™
    beautiful place. where are you situated?

  37. I love this!! Beautiful writing and lovely photos. Japan is one of my all time favourite countries to visit – the Japanese people are wonderful, food is great and the scenery beautiful πŸ™‚

  38. Beautiful post! I especially like the part about slowing down… living in Tokyo, I almost neglect to appreciate what is happening around me. I’m always rushing everywhere and often pushed to rush everywhere. But it’s good to stop once in awhile and breathe, even if you’re in the middle of the Hachiko crossing in Shibuya πŸ™‚


    1. Hi there. We are not in Tokyo but in Yokohama where the pace is definitely slower… that’s my preference. At the same time, I agree with you that we can all try to slow down and pay closer attention to the world around us. There’s a lot to take in here, isn’t there?

      Your blog looks very interesting and fun!

  39. I taught in Japan a couple of summers ago. I loved teaching internationally (even just for that short while) and I loved Japan. This summer I’m heading to an orphanage in Uganda. But I will say your pictures make me eager to plan a trip back to Japan someday!

  40. Great story and beautiful photos. I’m hoping to visit Japan one day, and I’m comforted by knowing that I can’t leave without a box full of great images πŸ˜‰ Thanks for sharing.

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