Interiors Project: Debbie Studwell in Tokyo, Japan

Welcome to the 11th issue of The Interiors Project!

This week, I have the pleasure of introducing you to Debbie Studwell who works at an international school in Tokyo. Debbie contacted me a few months ago, after DP and I moved to Yokohama, to introduce herself. She had seen my blog and wanted to reach out and say hello which is perhaps one of the coolest things about having a blog! Debbie has also worked in Bangkok so we have Thailand, Japan, international education and a love of interior design in common. At the EARCOS teaching conference in Bangkok in late March, Debbie stopped me in the hallway to introduce herself… so we’ve had just five minutes together in person but I look forward to spending some time with Debbie in person. Perhaps we’ll meet at a cosy cafe halfway between her school and mine which are on opposite sides of Tokyo. Enjoy the tour of Debbie’s gorgeous home as well as her thoughts about her life overseas.

I am the oldest of six kids, a member of a middle class family from the Philadelphia suburbs, and later on a small town in upstate New York. Traveling meant going to the Jersey shore, Cape Cod, or big excitement, Montreal or NYC for a day. However there was evidence of adventure and foreign travel in my family. My grandparents were travelers, my Mother’s emigrated from Belfast in the late 1920s, not to return for almost 40 years to their beloved Ireland. My father’s family made the next voyage after the Mayflower, my father used to say that in typical Studwell fashion we procrastinated and missed the boat. My paternal grandfather volunteered to drive an ambulance in Spain, a la Hemingway, before the US entered WW1. My father was one of the many brave Americans who fought during WW2. Having fought in Europe he had stories he never told us, but he did reminisce about R&R in the south of France, or the good times at his home base in England. The summer I was 15 my good friend Barbara and I had just arrived at her family’s summer cottage, that night we watched the original Anastasia [no, not Disney] with Yul Brynner and Ingrid Bergman. We were so fascinated that we begged her Mom to drive us back to our town library to learn more. Yes, this was pre-internet days. The next summer I ventured off to Germany as a nanny, a job my Mom helped me get. I’m sure she had no idea what this trip would start. During my senior year my family sponsored an exchange student from Chile, another great experience. Then, four years of college, no money for travel or junior year abroad, I was stuck stateside. Nine months after graduation I fell into a chance to teach in Australia, and I have been overseas ever since. I have taught in Australia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Japan, England, and now back to Japan. I am a third culture adult, having spent over 30 years living outside my home country, and making many new places “home”.

A (small) home in Japan
My current home is in the western suburbs of Tokyo, about 30 minutes from downtown. It’s just a 5 minute commute to work, I love that. My flat is quite small, only 51 square meters, or 167 square feet for my American friends. Even though Japan is famous for small homes, I live in a small place because I can keep the leftover housing allowance. For me that translates to more money for holidays! While my flat is small I like it. To me home is where I feel comfortable, where I can have my favorite things. It also needs to be a place I can invite people over for a drink, a meal, or a movie night. When I move to a new place I need music and wine, then I unpack everything at once and quickly because I want to be settled. I am very organized and neat, which makes this small place work for me. I would kill for more closet space, but otherwise it is a good home. I am lucky to have some free space at school to hide away a few things.

{Winter scenery from my classroom.}

Shopping
It is obvious when you enter my flat that I like to shop, no, love to shop. As I travel I like to pick up objects that remind me of those places. The thrill is in the hunt, to find unique items I won’t find at Pier One or Cost Plus. Shopping is hard work, but my kind of work. I can’t move the furniture too much, but I am constantly rearranging collections, layering objects, going higher, going lower. When friends visit they always have questions about where things came from, though I am sure some of them just think I have too much stuff! I read a scary amount of blogs and websites about decorating. I have about 10 magazines on my Ipad, and I love to see what is different in each place I visit, bringing ideas home with me, if nothing else.

{Shopping at Shrine Sales. So much fun.}

My Home
My décor is predominantly Asian, but I try to blend in treasures from Africa and Europe. I love photos, books, artwork, baskets, blue and white porcelain, and textiles. I doubt I will ever be finished decorating, I think of my house as a work in progress. I have also become an unpaid decorator for friends and family, though sometimes I get dinner and I will always work for a good white wine. If I was not a teacher, I would love to do something in the decorating field.

{My tiny but lovely home.}

{Dinner for my magazine club, we are too lazy to read a book! Seriously, it is just an excuse to eat and drink with friends.}

A few rules I follow; from William Morris: “Have nothing in your house you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” Also, from a 1950’s decorating guide, “Have red in every room, and a bottle behind every curtain.” Wow, I am glad that was not my life. I do have red in every room, but my bottles are out in the open!

Life as an international educator
Most people think that living overseas is just an extended vacation. Wow… that is debatable. Monday to Friday I work and I usually work hard. It’s good that I love being a 4th grade classroom teacher, but it is a demanding job.

Added to that I am basically illiterate in Japan, and I need a lot of help to do daily tasks due to language limitations. I really appreciate how easy it is to communicate when I am in English speaking countries. I love new cultures, but I am not a linguist. I still pay taxes, [in two countries!], go to the dentist and clean my house. Okay, in some countries I did not clean my house. While I have had a huge advantage to do and see amazing things I have missed some important family events, good times with US friends etc. However, I would not change my life for the world, [there may be a pun in there somewhere.] I love the challenges, the unexpected, experiencing new cultures and places. I enjoy taking photos and trying new food as I travel. It is a gift that I have friends basically all over the map. I have travelled to 60+ countries, and I am not finished.

I cannot pick a favorite, so many places are great for so many different reasons, but top contenders are Italy, Nepal, Thailand, England, Bali, and South Africa. I like places for different times and events in my life. I can’t think of anywhere I would not go back to, but some I would return to only if someone else paid for it. There are just too many places to go, my list only gets bigger, not smaller. I am constantly reading and exploring travel sites, and while I am on vacation I am already planning the next trip. I don’t think I will ever tire of traveling, but I am tired of long, uncomfortable, increasingly expensive flights.

Next travels
Next on my itinerary, I am heading off to see friends for a few days in Chiangmai before the EARCOS teacher’s conference in Bangkok. Summer plans are still in the thinking stage. Like my ancestors I do procrastinate making travel decisions. Mostly, it is because I cannot decide where to go; I am greedy and want to go everywhere. I have been known to only decide the day that school gets out.

{So, so true.}

{Even Ronald loves Thailand.}

Africa
My latest passion for 4 of the past 5 summers has been safari in Africa. I have been to South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Kenya and Tanzania. Who knew animals were so amazing, I was just a dog lover before these trips. Now I can’t wait to see the Big Five again, will it be a lion sitting 2 feet away from me in the jeep, an elephant rubbing up against our tent, or an angry hippo charging our boat in Botswana? That was a terrifying but exciting time! I am just sorry none of us clicked even one picture, we were all too scared.

{My latest travel passion, AFRICA.}

{I love the ellies.}

{Victoria Falls, one heck of a helicopter ride.}

{They are so gorgeous.}

London
I love Europe too and I hit London every summer.

{London will always be a favorite place.]

Italy
Each year, I also try to go somewhere new. Last year, I visited a small town in Italy called Ceriana. It is inland from the Italian Riviera, a medieval walled town. A good friend is retiring from teaching and opening a B&B/cooking school there. Let me know if you are interested; it’s fantastic!

{Italy. Beautiful and great food.}

Other Travels
It may finally be time for me to get to Russia this summer. On the other hand, maybe it is time to go back to Australia. Of course, I always head home to the US to see my family. Remember the old joke, “There are 3 good reasons to teach, June, July, and August.” I love to take full advantage of my long holidays. YES, I KNOW HOW LUCKY I AM!!!

When is it time to leave?
I think it is important to find a balance; you don’t want to be like the character in Gerry Raffety’s song” Baker Street”, and say, “Another year and THEN I’ll be happy”. Go, if you don’t like it. Stay, if you do, just don’t stay only for the money.

The next time I leave it will be to retire. I don’t know where I will go when I “grow up”, but I have a few ideas. In the past the decision was usually easy; time to leave because I was ready for a change, or wanted a new challenge. I left once because the job was not good, the pay was awful, living conditions not so great. I stayed there only one year, but I got good experience for my resume, learned Spanish, and made friends who are still important in my life 30 years later. FYI, they all left too! I have never been evacuated, I have just missed a few wars and civil unrest, good timing/luck there. I was in Japan last year for the big earthquake, as a matter of fact I am writing this on the one year anniversary. It was scary, and oh, so sad, but I am still here. Actually, I think seeing the integrity and bravery of the Japanese people actually made me like Japan even more.

{Japan, my latest home.}

{Festivals in Japan offer wonderful insight into Japanese culture, and great photo opportunities.}

Thanks, Monna for starting this and letting me participate. I have loved reading everyone’s entries, and I think we should start a house swap between us. Until then, I may meet some of you at EARCOS, or see the rest of you somewhere out there in this ever expanding world. In the words of the great Joe Walsh, “Life’s been good to me so far…”

Please leave your love notes for Debbie in the comments section below.

57 comments

  1. Hi Debbie, I loved reading this! And the pictures! WOW! Are you going to Portland this summer? I just got back from Riyadh with a quick trip to Abu Dhabi …fun! Lots of love Cindy

  2. Hello Debbie,
    My name is Mandy and I live in Vienna. I’m starting to collate some photos of my home for this project….I think my place will be featured in May. Anyway, I just wanted to say thanks for sharing your beautiful pics, they are gorgeous! If you ever fancy a house swap with us in Vienna you would be most welcome:)
    Take care,
    Mandy

    1. Mandy, thnaks for your comment. I really had fun doing this, thanks again to Monna. Yes, let’s stay in touch re a house swap!

  3. Hi Debbie! Great blog! I’m so glad I clicked on the link! What a life you’ve lead. You must send me the name of your friend who is going to have the cooking school/B&B in Italy – it’s been a dream of mine to go there and cook! Glad you are well…..hope you can make one of our 1969 ladies events!! Take very good care,
    Chris (Moore) McGill

    1. Chris, Thanks for the reply. My friend Ken runs a place called Il Gallo in Ceriana, Italy. I think you can just google his web page, or check on Facebook. Get back to me if that does not work. I must get to Saratoga!!!!

  4. Hi Debbie,

    I loved reading your blog and seeing the beautiful pictures of your home and your travels around the world. Makes me want to start planning some travels of my own! Thanks for letting us get a glimpse of your life. Hope to see you again one day! Maybe the 1969 ladies can plan a trip!!

    Mary (Doyle) Biffer

  5. Travel surely makes one rich in experience and attitude. This is a rich blog, quite deep. You seem to be enjoying your life to the full. True we don’t read and just use our meetings to drink coke and eat snacks. I am truly inspired and educated by your blog so even though you will be on Holiday from School you will still be having a class full of bloggers. If you ever come back to Kenya, pass by Nairobi and give me a call. Come home for dinner too! Thanks for sharing and for making me richer in knowledge. Fantastic blog.

    1. Thanks so much for your reply. I have a special place in my heart for Kenya, and would love to return some day.

    1. Thanks Kay! so good to hear from you. Writing this was fun, hearing from old friends even more fun. Hope you are both well.

  6. What a fabulous blog, reflecting not only your decorating talents, photo genius, but awesome shots of Japan and your beautiful home. Wish I could stop in to see this new home but loved seeing some of the same treasures as well as new. The only problem is the resurgence it brings of “home sickness” for international life, especially Japan, special people, and shrine sales! Still wish Iowa was on more travel itineraries! Pigs just don’t attract folks like a lion in the wild can.
    Joyce

  7. Hi Debbie,

    What a marvelous bio and luscious pictorials! My sister and brother in law are visiting Japan for the first time as I speak. Maybe someday, I will get to go too.
    You have had a really adventurous and fulfilling life up to now and plenty of time to get some more action in. I still have pictures from our trip to the empty quarter “Rub Al Khali” back thirty years ago.
    Don’t forget Dick’s command (puctuated with bullwhip snaps) “Dance, Debbie, Dance!”
    Didn’t we have fun !
    Keep in touch…and come visit in Ca. if you are out this way.

    Sawatdee, Khun Jay

  8. Wow! so beautiful….you’re amazing Debbie…you were always the hostess with the mostest – a woman of style, substance and an eye for beauty. And if there was one person in the world who knew where to shop for just about anything beautiful for one’s home and lifestyle it was you….if and when you do retire, you could so be a personal shopper, culture and adventure guide to the rich and famous….I’d say for the not so rich as well but us guys couldn’t afford to take you along for the ride and guide….soooooo

  9. Fantastic post Debbie – Although I am mad at you for not letting me feature your adorable apartment and extraordinary porcelain collection (among others)!!! Cheers! Jacqueline

  10. I don’t know if you remember me but we overlapped for awhile at ASIJ. It was so inspirational to read about all that you have done. I loved your photos and your treasures. We just moved from Oregon to Hawaii and it has taken away some of the desire to travel. After reading all of the places you have gone and still plan I think we had better get on it! All the best to you in your future endeavors!
    Fran Snell

  11. Hi Debbie…Kathleen forwarded the link to your blog, which I very much enjoyed reading and especially liked the terrific photos. Brought back such good memories. Keep traveling and keep writing and keep taking pix. Arrigato! Sheila Roen

  12. Hi Debbie,
    Your photos makes me miss my home (Japan), Tokyo, the chats, dinners and the time I spent at your house. Sure miss the good old times!!! LOVED YOUR PHOTOS!!!

  13. Hi Debbie,
    This brought back so many good memories of the times we shared in Thailand. Your home is quite beautiful (though I still can’t believe the size!) and everything you have in it has a story about all the wonderful places you’ve visited. I hope we meet again in the near future!
    Cheers,
    Maria

  14. Great stuff Debbie! It was nice “catching up” on what you’ve done. Hope to see you sometime when you’re back in the US.

    Kathy

  15. What a fabulous story you have written and illustrated. You have mastered living “small” in so many wonderful ways. Yes, I have red in every room. I will add the bottles!

  16. I enjoyed reading your blog Debbie! Thank you for sharing your travel photos and ones of your adorable flat! You do have a future in interior decorating! You must go to Russia; you will love it. I took the Trans-Siberian RR once in the summer and returned again in the winter, years later (departure was from Yokohama). It was gorgeous..if you like snow! Everyone was so kind and helpful despite the language barrier I managed to see and experience so much of the Soviet Union. I plan to meet up with our old flatmate, Carla, who is in NY city this month. Let me know if you get to the States; I’d love to see you!..it’s been 35 years!..yikes!

  17. Debbie…you have lived a wonderful life, rich in experiences and treasured memories. I loved this post, a great introduction to you! Thanks so much for sharing and for you recent emails and recommended blogs. I will drop you a line..so glad you dropped one to me. ;)

    1. Happy to share, as I have so enjoyed reading both of your blogs! Maybe some day i will make this blogging a regular thing…….., it was fun!

  18. Hi Debbie, somehow just happened upon this. Lovely pictures and great insights into our lives in Japan. Love the pics, too. Cindy Stone

    1. I just happened upon this wonderful series of photos on life in Japan, and after reading on, wondered if you are Cindy Stone, from LAUSD? If so, I’m guessing you are still in Japan as may be Karen as well? If so, I would venture to guess you are throughly enjoying your new home. It’s a place I’ve longed to visit.

      1. Hello!
        This post is about the home of Debbie Studwell in Tokyo, Japan.
        My name is Monna McDiarmid and this is my site.
        Glad you enjoyed Debbie’s post!

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