Sole Sister

Cruising in the single lane


Happy New Year – 明けましておめでとうございます – Akemashiteomedetōgozaimasu

My favourite shop in Tokyo is a tiny, idiosyncratic craft boutique in Azabu Juban, not far from the Australian Embassy. Over its 35 years it has presented local Tokyoites and visitors to that eccentric city with a charming and inventive array of handmade wares all celebrating the Japanese love affair with the colour combination of blue and white.

In Japan the refreshing blue and white pairing is found on a comprehensive array of fine art, craft and everyday household items from beautiful pottery to fabrics, ceramics and paper crafts. Its use dates back centuries reflecting the long interaction between Japan, China and Korea, despite present-day tensions.

The Blue and White Shop is the long-term labour of love of expat American Amy Katoh who has lived in Japan since the 1960s. The quaint boutique stocks traditional items such as tenugui hand towels, yukata kimonos, assorted rolls of fabrics, painted chopsticks, ceramic beads, and sundry other items, all in the quintessential blue and white, although the odd splash of other colours may be found.  A theme around the shop is the cherubic visage of Otafuku, the Japanese goddess of good luck.

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Saying goodbye to the 2014 Otafuku

One of Blue and White’s most popular items, especially at this time of the year, is their distinctive crafty calendar which each year carries a message and in which Otafuku makes her inevitable appearance. This year’s theme is genki – health, vitality, and energy.  Last year’s was mottainai – don’t waste stuff. We were reminded that some things are better the second time around “or at least as good” – including the calendar which it was suggested should be given new life in 2015 in yet another craft form. A Japanese friend, who like so many of her countrywomen is clever with her hands, has already put her hand up for my 2014 calendar to give a creative second life.

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Here’s to a genki 2015. 
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 IMG_2731 edMarch and September 
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The Otafuku makes her appearance in February. 

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Mottainai – last year’s calendar will not go to waste. 

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A wee dram(a)

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Despite my Scottish heritage Scotch is not my drop. Pure malt? Blend? As blasphemous as this will sound to the connoisseur my taste buds wouldn’t tell the difference. Which is a pity given that during my recent visit to Hokkaido I was fortunate enough to visit the famous and picturesque Nikka Distillery – renowned for its world-award-winning pure malt – in Yoichi. The founding of Nikka has a love story to go with it too, currently the subject of the romantic TV drama series Massan on NHK (Nippon Hoso Kyokai – Japan Broadcasting Corporation), so in “famous destination”-crazy Japan that’s the perfect combination for a hot tourist spot.

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The 1930s-era distillery sits in manicured grounds.

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The Shinto gods keep a watchful eye on the distilling whisky.  

The distillery was set up in 1934 by Masataka Taketsuru, the third son of a sake brewer, who abandoned his predestined path to study western beverages. In a serendipitous combination of timing and fate this fitted into the vision of a Japanese liquor company looking to start producing a Japanese whisky. They hired Taketsuru and sent him to study at the University of Glasgow. There he boarded with a local family – with a daughter. Takesuru married Jessie (Rita) Roberta Cowan and the couple returned to Japan. Because of the difficult financial times Takesuru had to leave his original company, joining what was later to become Suntory to set up the Yamazaki Distillery in Osaka Prefecture to produce a Japanese malt whisky.

But Takesusu, with Rita as his invaluable helpmate, had a dream to stay true to the Scottish whisky tradition and found in Yoichi Prefecture the perfect combination of climate and clear water to achieve his goal. To create an additional income stream while his whisky was being developed he established the Dai Nippon Kaju Company – the Big Japan Juice Company – including apple juice from the abundant local orchards on the product list. Nikka was derived from Ni and ka.

Nikka Whisky has gone on to garner high international acclaim including a World’ s Best award for its Taketsuru 17 Year Old Pure Malt in 2012 at the World Whiskies Awards hosted by Paragraph Publishing, publishers of British specialty magazine Whisky Magazine. In further acknowledgement of Masataka Taketsuru’s legacy, earlier this month whisky expert Jim Murray awarded 97.5 marks out of 100 to a single malt from the distillery Taketsuru set up for Suntory at Yamazaki. The score recorded by the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 equalled the record for this category. As the Guardian newspaper said “Scottish drinkers could be forgiven for crying into their drams”.

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Native Hokkaido miniature apples. 

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From mighty oaks…

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..whisky barrels are made. 

The Yoichi Nikka Distillery sits in charming, manicured gardens amid pines, oaks (handy for making casks), native Hokkaido apples and numerous other tree and shrub varieties – and a parking lot full of tour buses.  Visitors are introduced to the distilling process and a museum tells the story of both the whisky’s development and the life story of the cherished founders. Generous provision is made for product tasting.

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Outside Masataka and Rita’s cottage in the distillery grounds. 

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Masataka Taketsuru surveys his empire.

It seemed fitting that featuring on NHK television the evening of my visit was an episode of Massan, starring American actress Charlotte Kate Fox as the heroine, Massan being Rita’s nickname for her husband.  Perhaps SBS could be coaxed into buying it – if they can muster sufficient funds after paying their “efficiency dividend”. I reckon one particular Japanese whisky company would be a certain advertiser!


From little things…vale Gough

High on babyboomers’ where-were-you-when-you-heard list is the dismissal of the Whitlam government.  In my case I was visiting Brisbane from Japan to introduce my new daughter to both her maternal and paternal grandparents. Three years earlier as a news reporter on Channel 9 I had helped cover the Brisbane end of the 1972 It’s Time election when the sense of big changes ahead was palpable.

Gough’s election had coincided with my then husband’s appointment as a trainee diplomat and our subsequent move to Canberra. Arriving in the national capital in early 1973 was intoxicating. I quickly found work as a journalist on a local Canberra newspaper and the days were filled with the rapid fire legislative changes to the status quo. It was a roller coaster time for a populace so used to Conservative governments, despite the tumult of the preceding Vietnam War years.

In addition to being Prime Minister, Gough chose to be the Minister of Foreign Affairs, because of his longstanding interest in the area. Despite Cate Blanchett’s claim at today’s memorial service that it was not possible to do an impression of Whitlam, a popular pastime with the young trainee deplomats was very plausible impersonations of the distinctive-voiced Gough and his deputy Lance Barnard. They had great fun ringing colleagues with “requests” or “directions” from the boss. Or great fun until one day the Foreign Minister himself rang – but no one would believe it was really him.

As an honours graduate in Japanese language and culture, with an extensive knowledge of Japanese history, my husband accompanied Whitlam on an official visit to one of Japan’s ancient capitals Kamakura. He found Whitlam, renowned for his encyclopaedic knowledge of many cultures, was the one doing the telling of Kamakura’s history.

On another “minder” assignment, post-1975 when the Whitlams were evacuated to Tokyo from China following a huge earthquake, my husband was on hand when Gough was shown a copy of a newspaper cartoon that had come in overnight on the telex machine. It showed the Whitlams in bed with Gough saying to Margaret “Did the earth move for you too, dear?” Whitlam was mightily amused and exclaimed “The old girl will be flattered!”

In later years, back in Australia and again working in communications, I recall meeting and interviewing a number of high-achieving women who would tell me they got their start in life because of  Gough Whitlam’s reforms making university education free. I used to think of them as “Gough’s Girls”.

It was timely the droll Max Gillies was staging his new satire Once Were Leaders in Canberra in the week of Gough’s death, dedicating the show to the great man. It was also a great opportunity for me to remember life in the national capital in more inspirational times. Vale Gough.

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Northern exposure

Visiting Japan is a bit like going home, or at least a second home. Having lived there, in a couple of stints, for around seven years, with two children born there, and now two Australian-Japanese grandchildren, Japan arouses a warm familiarity and prompts sweet  reminiscences.  While Tokyo was my early stomping ground, in recent times the northern island of Hokkaido mostly calls.

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Japanese noodle shop, and signs. 

Mother Nature gives Japan such a hard time – volcanos, earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons, mudslides – so I counted my blessings when my just-ended visit to Hokkaido slotted neatly between the tail end of one typhoon and fringe buffeting from another. No cancelled flights, no scary landings. And, to top it off, not one earth tremor felt during my stay. The time was perfect too to catch the annual spectacle of the momiji trees – Japanese miniature maples – and other autumn beauties transforming the hillsides with yellows, crimsons, oranges and reds. In aki – autumn – Mother Nature smiles on Japan.

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Aki – autumn.

When I go to Japan I have a list of must-dos. High on the list is eating real sushi, the type topped with an array of absolutely fresh seafood, some of which you probably didn’t know was edible, on gluggy pats of sweet and tangy sushi rice with a lick of wasabi. Not the nori seaweed wrapped rolls with strange fillings like tandoori chicken and canned tuna and chilli that proliferate in local food courts. And real Japanese noodles, like the miso ramen that’s popular in Hokkaido. And that’s just for starters. Another absolute must is visiting an onsen, the luxurious thermal hot spring baths that proliferate across the country, one blessing from Japan’s volcanic disposition.

I spent my stay in the charming city of Sapporo the most ordered of Japanese cities, having been built in the last 150 years, adopting an American-style grid pattern, the opposite of the higgledy piggledy nature of Tokyo and other Japanese cities and villages, which are a challenge to navigate for the newcomer. Sapporo is known for its annual Yuki Matsuri or Snow Festival, its eponymous beer and as the home of the 1972 Winter Olympics. It’s also gaining a reputation as a formidable food destination with an increasing number of Michelin Star restaurants, a trend which is also spreading to the burgeoning ski resort of Niseko and the second city of Hokkaido, Asahikawa. Much of Japan’s fresh produce – fruit, vegetables, dairy, meat and, increasingly specialties such as wine – are grown in Hokkaido which could account for the gourmet tag.

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 Apples, wine…some of Hokkaido’s bounty. 

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 Sapporo tramcar. 

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Mt Teine , home to the 1972 Winter Olympics, dominates Sapporo. 


Baby talk

My two-year-old grandson is in the process of learning to talk. Fascinating, and made more so by his being in a two-language household. Both languages – English and Japanese – are emerging with no obvious preference. Luckily, at this stage, my limited Japanese can cope with the Japanese bits.

Now on a maternal home visit, it’s his Japanese grandparents who are juggling the transnational language barrier. My daughter-in-law emailed that her parents spoke to him in Japanese, but he replied in English, which they cannot understand, much to their consternation.

There are theories about language development in two-language households. Should each parent speak to the child only in his or her mother tongue, at least in the development phase? Does hearing and acquiring two languages inhibit initial development while the child absorbs contrasting grammatical patterns? While at this stage not speaking a lot of either language my grandson obviously understands well what is being said in both.


In an interesting article in The Conversation online newspaper, University of Canberra Senior Lecturer in Language, Literacy and TESL (teaching English as a second language), Misty Adoniou, urges our politicians and policy makers to recognise and nurture the resource of our bilingual students, which she describes as the greatest wasted resource in our schools and the waste of a precious economic resource. While in the rest of the world speaking only one language is abnormal, she wrote, we position second language learning as unusual and difficult. “We spend millions of dollars cajoling monolingual students to take up foreign language study and ignore our bilingual students,” she wrote.

Misty Adoniou describes bilingual brains as more flexible, more creative and better at problem solving. She said being bilingual means that, cognitively, students are the most advantaged learners in our schools.

With my grandson being in a Japanese-only environment for a while, I’m confident before long he’ll be replying in Japanese to his Japanese grandparents.  By the time he returns I’ll be the one trying to work out what he’s saying. Thank goodness for Skype!




Back in the 70s and 80s we lived in Tokyo, at one stage in Shibuya, just a stone’s throw from trendy Harajuku, home to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics stadium and the crazy kawaii fashion scene.  On weekends we would often stroll down Omote Sando, a treed boulevard in Harajuku known as the Champs Elysee of Tokyo, marvelling at the outlandish costumes and dances of the takenoko zoku (bamboo shoot tribe).   Part of the fun included popping into one of the many hole-in-the-wall restaurants serving scrumptious Japanese fast foods such as ramen noodles, yakitori, tonkatsu, unagi, and many more. A regular tasty dish was gyoza, little crescent-shaped dumplings filled with mixes such as pork, green onion and cabbage.

So I greeted the Brisbane eating scene’s recent arrival Harajuku Gyoza with nostalgia and mouth-watering anticipation. Lucky for me, their second Brisbane branch after Brunswick Street opened with a raft of new eateries at the newly refurbed Indooroopilly Shopping Centre – temptingly close. A visit was only a matter of time.



Setting the scene, a team of hachimaki-wearing gyoza makers sit in the restaurant window, assuring prospective diners of the freshness of the product. As a greeting chorus of irasshaimase rings across the restaurant, fond memories flood back  – the noisy, cheerful hustle and bustle of a Japanese eatery, the creative freshness of the food, the down-to-earthness of the vibe, the diversity and conviviality of izakaya-style eating.

As its name suggests Harajuku Gyoza offers a tempting array of dumplings, including duck, chicken, pork, prawn and veges. And – what must be a world first – nutella banana and apple with icecream. Other temptations include steamed edamame, cucumber and miso salad, chicken karaage, a selection of katsudon and agedashi tofu. For the complete Japanese experience there’s on-tap Kirin, or sake and umeshuGochisousamadeshita (thanks for a delicious meal)


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Bloggin’ in the 70s

DIGGING around in an old wooden chest this week I came across a pile of  scrap books my late father-in-law had created back in the 1960s and 70s. Neatly bound in maroon faux leather each book contains a treasure trove of memories of work, family life, leisure interests and travels.  An architect, my father-in-law was gifted with the pen and brought an eclectic eye to selecting scrapbook entries. They might be coasters from a restaurant, an invitation to an event, a photograph of fellow guests at a function, autographs, newspaper clippings, aircraft boarding cards, meeting agendas. But he especially loved to sketch, and enhance his sketches with watercolours, so turning the scrapbook pages is like strolling through an watercolour exhibition.

My father-in-law was an avid and adventurous traveler and those travels offered rich scrapbook source material. As early as the 1960s he was visiting Japan, rather a no-no at a time when the post-war hatred of that country remained palpable in Australia. The architecture and art of Japan, renowned worldwide for its sophisticated simplicity, in particular captured his imagination. He saw the Japanese house, with its ability through sliding doors to open up in summer and close down in winter, as the perfect house style for tropical Queensland. His travels also included southeast Asia including then-almost-unknown Bali, all richly depicted in the bound pages.

It occurs to me, as I become acquainted with the world of blogging, that these scrapbooks are rather like blogs, records and interpretations through the eye of a trained observer of people, places and events. From a family point of view the pages bear witness to the influence his life path had on following generations with pages noting travels in Hokkaido, in far northern Japan, in 1971. Were he still alive he would see his family now includes a granddaughter-in-law from Hokkaido and a part-Japanese great-grandson.

Ainu kimono scrapbook sketch from 1971 - Ainu are the indigenous inhabitants of Hokkaido

Ainu kimono scrapbook sketch from 1971 – Ainu are the indigenous inhabitants of Hokkaido