One year hence: My furusato, myself

Furusato is a Japanese word for which there really is no direct equivalent in English. Most times it is translated as 'home town', and the sentiment is similar. It means the place where you grew up, the place where you come from. The place where a part of you, however small, yearns to return to,

I have mostly lived outside of Japan for the last couple of decades - for most of my adult life in fact. And I spent quite a bit of my childhood in other places too. But still, Japan is my furusato. I may take up permanent residency in other countries, and spend most of my days communicating in other languages, but my heart remains Japanese. This was brought home to be in full, blinding force one year ago, March 11, 2011.

As I sat numbly, the TV news footage bringing endless pictures of the devastation, and the internet buzzing with the horror of the disaster, I felt such overwhelming grief that everything else ceased to exist.

For the next couple of weeks, I managed to live with the pain the feeling of helplessness by immersing myself in the role of an impromptu gatherer and dispenser of news. In between bouts of tweeting news and outrage, I spent my time huddled virtually around the live streams provided by NHK News and other Japanese sources with my fellow expatriates. We called ourselves the kaigaigumi (海外組), the overseas team. We exchanged notes on how long we'd been living outside of Japan, why we left, when we were going back. For some of us, we knew that we were never really going back permanently. But we were still all Japanese.

I flew to Japan as soon as I could (or as soon as the airlines would let me) to be with my family there. And for the next three months, I again immersed myself in a different way in gathering news, writing about it, letting people know that life in Japan outside of the disaster-struck areas was back to normal for the most part.

At the time, I felt that my role in life going forward was being defined. I have been writing about Japanese food and cooking, and the culture behind it, for a few years now on this site, on JustBento and elsewhere. As someone with one foot in Japanese culture and the other in a mishmash of European and American cultures, with an equal understanding of both Japanese and English, I felt that I could perhaps help to bridge the yawning gap of understanding that I saw between the two.

But then, a couple of weeks before I was due to leave Japan to go back to France, I started bleeding heavily. (Truth be told I hadn't been feeling well even before that, since about late 2010. I felt so weak during my U.S. book trip last January that I was barely able to remain standing. Peeps who met me in Seattle and New York, if I looked pasty to you that's why!) Soon after returning I was rushed to hospital for emergency surgery, and found out I had cancer.

Besides the cancer, it's really been a full year of incidents. My father passed away in New York in late November - the news of which reached me via my cousin Masato literally 10 minutes after I got home from the hospital after having a hysterectomy. My mother fell down and hurt her leg badly, and was unable to walk for weeks. Our house is still undergoing major renovation, which had to stop for a while due to my illness and so on, and we're still living in just two rooms with no kitchen. And just a couple of weeks ago, after returning from my father's memorial service, we found out our house had been robbed in our absence.

And that cancer thing, it's a bear to live with. I started my first week of a six-week course of radiation therapy (a small dose every day from Monday to Friday) last Monday, and I am already feeling the side effects. I feel okay most of the time, but I never know when I'm going to be felled by debilitating fatigue, for which the only temporary cure is a long nap. And there's that pesky thing called diarrhea too, which may or may not be caused by the radiation. My surgery wound hasn't closed up yet either, which is a pain in the, well, abdomen, literally.

Still, I actually do feel a lot better than I did just a few months ago. And the end does seem to be in sight somehow.

In any case, it has been quite a year. This spring, I won't be able to be in Japan due to my radiation therapy, so I'll miss out on the ohanami (cherry blossom viewing) season. I hope to make it there for a couple of months at least in the fall.

I see the eastern part of the Tohoku region continuing to slowly recover, continuing to struggle. I see the lingering uncertainty and worries about the residual radiation from the Fukushima nuclear power plant accidents. (Although I would really like to remind people, especially the overseas news media, that Fukushima is not the only 'story of note' one year hence.) And there is the other, bigger worry of another major earthquake hitting Japan, this one perhaps closer to Tokyo.

I know that one person's struggle is so unimportant compared to the struggles of thousands, but somehow I can't help selfishly equating the efforts in Japan to get back to normal, and to move ahead and look forward to the future, with my own.

I think we will both be okay. And soon, I hope I can continue on my mission, to bridge the cultural gap in some small way between my furusato and the world.

Furusato, the song

There is a song called Furusato that is taught in all Japanese schools and such. Many people regard it as Japan's second national anthem, and perhaps a better one than the official anthem, much in the way some Americans regard America The Beautiful as a better alternative national anthem than the warrlike Star Spangled Banner. (Japan's official national anthem, Kimi Ga Yo, is a dreary dirge that sends wishes to the emperor that he may live a long, long life.) The first verse of Furusato goes something like this:

The mountain where I chased rabbits
The stream where I fished
I still dream
Of the place I cannot forget, my furusato

I was born and grew up in Tokyo. I never chased rabbits in the mountains, and only went fishing once - and hated it. But that song still tugs at my heart, and makes me want to take the first flight available back to Japan.

Here is the great Placido Domingo singing Furusato at a concert last April.

And here is a mass concert coordinated by an NPO called Kizuna Japan. They came up with a project to have people donate musical instruments to schoolchildren in the Tohoku area who had lost their instruments in the earthquake and tsunami. The concert was arranged as a way for the children to say thank you to the donators. They are singing Furusato. (The video is sponsored by Charity White, a charity set up by Softbank.)

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune--without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

-- Emily Dickenson

Filed under:  japan earthquake personal

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As one of your regular readers (I use the RSS to get posts - but come to the site periodically anyway), I have ached on your behalf - any single travail borne by you this past year would be enough to send many people over the edge, but you have managed them all with dignity and a positive and productive outlook. I salute you and send my deepest wishes that this is the year things turn to the positive for you.

Thank you for the courage of sharing something very personal. Although, I am not Japanese I can understand the yearning to return home to Japan. Especially, the helplessness you felt during the natural disaster that occurred last year. I to felt that same longing when the Towers fell in New York City. I felt helpless and was full of rage. The causes were different but the physical, mental and emotional damage is similar. It has always been my dream to visit if not live in Japan and I can't wait until that dream if visiting comes true. I have a penpal there who lives outside of Tokyo near the affected areas and was honored to be able to help her and her family get through that difficult time. I wish I was able to do more and still hope that I helped in some way. I hope that your health improves as well. I think you are a strong person who encourages many and I thank you for bridging the gap between both cultures. ありがとうございます。

What MsKat said. You're as admirably stoic as your furusato and I'm rooting for you both.

Even now you're still bridging the gap for at least this one american, and you've succeeded probably more than you know for the silent readers who never comment. :)

Side note, when my mom was having cancer therapy, she got super diahrrea too, because all the good bacteria are basically killed along with any cancerous cells, makes sense right? She would take a probiotic pill/supplement and eat Activia yogurt (not sure if that's available in France?). Yogurt has live cultures so it's the best, though some pills now advertise they are live too, so I don't know if they've caught up. Look for yogurt with "live cultures" or "lactobacillius acidophilous" (the most common of the gut bacteria). Good luck!

Maki-san, I makes my day when I see a JustHungry/JustBento article pop up on my feed. Life has its ups and downs, but the bad times make the good times that much better. I lost my mother after two long years battling cancer, and through it all, I've learned that we should keep our chin high and be thankful for the little things. It'll all work out in the end :) がんばって!

Wow - I didn't expect to get all misty-eyed about that...

Japan is not my motherland, but over the years I've become fascinated with the country and after visiting I left a piece of my heart there. Seeing the year-old footage on the news this evening was still devastating. I do hope and believe with all my heart that the country will fully recover, and my wishes for you are the same Maki, I hope you will feel better soon. I love your writing, and admire your spirit. Gambatte Kudasai!


Thank you for this post. It is good to remember and to give kansha to one's roots.


I always read your blogs with an open heart & mind, and always finish feeling the same way you must feel. Loved both renditions of Furusato, but the second one feels closer to home. A few years ago, wanting to have a recording of Komuriuta, I purchased Oyasumi: Japanese Lullabies and Restful Melodies by Aiko Shimadaon on Amazon (Furusato is also on the CD). I'm in my early 40s now, but you're never too old to long for home. Good luck with your health & home.

I keep hoping that things will get better for you. Glad that you are feeling better and soon you will start healing and be able to visit your family again. And thank you for the Placido Domingo video, love his voice so much!

I had the unfortunate timing to fly into Japan on 3/11 last year. I stayed in Tokyo for 12 plus days. Even though I am someone who was born in America my experiences from that time especially with the people of Japan make me feel like a part of me will always be there. I don't think that physical being born or residing in a place makes a person only in that place. I think it's more about life experiences that create who we are. Maybe this is part of the idea behind kisuna?

One of the things that got me through being in Tokyo last year was remembering there were many people much worse off than I. Doesn't make one's situation less important but did help me keep my wits about me and from becoming freaked out. That and the way people there kept trying to continue their lives and the fact that they smiled when they saw me. I see in your writing some of that same determination.

I hope both you and things in Tohoku keep improving this year. Many many wishes for that!

Ah, now I understand why "Country Roads" was used as the theme for "Mimi o Subaseba". And furusato must also be the underlying desire in "Omoide Poro Poro".

Thank you for your remembrance of the 3/11 earthquake. I had only been living in Japan for 7 months when it happened. Like you, I spent a lot of time correcting misconceptions the media was creating. Many Americans evacuated within weeks of the event, but I felt it was important to stay to give support Japanese people.

A year later, I still cry about the destruction and loss that occurred - but know it was a good decision to stay. I can not tell you how many Japanese people I have met who thanked us for staying.

You have had a year that no one should have to go through. May this anniversary be the beginning of a new year that will have wonderful memories.

Thank you for your blog.

Just a note to tell you to STAY STRONG!! As a cancer survivor myself I can tell you that it isn't always easy, but eventually it will get better...

I started following your blogs to get a taste of Japan that I've missed since living in Okinawa for a year in the 90's. Thanks for bringing the country a little closer to my heart...

I think that all things considered, you're holding up well. I can't imagine dealing with so many stressful, horrible things all at once. Thank you for keeping up with this blog; it must be difficult with everything else you are doing. Since finding this blog late last year, I have learned so much about Japanese cooking and culture. After a few attempts, I can now make a good-looking tamagoyaki! I tuck some into my bento about once or twice a week.

We have a big cherry blossom festival in DC, commemorating the friendship between our two nations. This will be the 100th anniversary of the original gift! I will be thinking of you, and Japan, when I go walk among the trees this year.

Your style of writing is beautiful and you certainly have been through alot.....sometimes when it rains it pours and sorry to hear about your bout with cancer and your father's death and mother's accident as well as the robbery. Wishing you and yours happiness, health and well need to write a book of your life I think it would be a best seller! Hope you return to Seattle sometime....this is my hometown though I have alot of family in Wisconsin. Best Wishes, Corie in Seattle

I may not comment very often, but I do read your posts and my heart aches for all that you have had to deal with. You have touched so many people with your strength and determination.

You are so inspiring and I hope that this is the time when things turn in the best direction for you.

MakiSan, I'm sending you wishes for healing and for rejoicing! What a difficult year has passed!
Thank you so much for bringing the furusato songs here!

New Zealand Maori have a term "turangawaewae" which carries a similar meaning to "furusato".
They also have an expression "kia kaha" which means "be strong". It was often heard in the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake.
So Maki, kia kaha and remember that wherever you are your turagawaewae is always in your heart.

When my dad had radiation treatment for prostate cancer, the cancer team recommended taking a heavy duty probiotic to help with diarrhea. It didn't fix everything for him, but I think it did help. I'll see if I can find the product they recommended, if you are interested.

The oncologist gave me two medicines for the diarrhea on Friday, and it is getting a bit better now. I hope! ^_^;


I know that you probably don't get to read all the comments, because I know how tired I get.. but I am going to share this in the hope that you, and the others who come along after me do get to.

I live in the Seattle area, and as you saw when you visited we have quite a number of people in our area with ties to Japan, (and other Asian/Pacific areas) March 11, 2011 was a massive day for sorrow in our area and has affected us greatly even up to this day. While I am just a Scottish descended white girl - I also have family in Japan - and they are not among the people that came right home in the initial rush (well not all of them - just the kids and the kids have gone back to be with their parents)

I join with you in worrying about family I can't go visit because I'm ill - I don't have cancer, my illness is far different. I do have something to share with you though in thanks for the happiness and joy you bring to my life through the hard work you do on your sites in sharing your life with all of us.

What it is called is The Spoon Theory by Christine Miserandino

I was first led to this story years ago when I started training my personal service dog, and still refer to it often, and share it with others. I have found it works in explaining the consequences of dealing with any serious long term illness, both physical and mental - curable or non, from things as seemingly minor as a high risk pregnancy - over in 9 months with a healthy set of twins as the end result, to long term mental illnesses such as Bipolar disorder, Borderline Personality disorder, and dementia in the mental category. The cases where it applies in the physical illness category are untold.

I read it to myself, I give it to friends who ask me the question of "how can I help you" then after they read it, explain what my "spoons" are and how they can help me get the most out of my spoons -

I hope for you - when you and The Guy read it - and whomever else in your life read it.. you find ways to make your personal spoons stretch out, so your body can take those extra spoons to use for healing so you can head back to your furusato full of "vim and vinegar."

Jazi in Seattle

the link above is just the only website I have for the story - I am in no way trying to share or endorse (or detract from) that particular website - I am just trying to share that particular article -

I stumbled upon your blog when I Googled "mugicha." What a fantastic blog! I write a yoga blog called Yoga Spy, but it's a little pamphlet compared to your multi-faceted website!

Then I read about your past year. Gambatte ne.

I am a yonsei born in Hilo, Hawaii. Both sides of my family are Hiroshima ken. I grew up with much Japanese influence, culturally, but I've yet to visit the country. It's on my list, after India, to study with the Iyengar family.

I'll read your blog in more depth as soon as I have time.

Ja mata,

I stumbled on to your site a while ago looking for "Japanesey" recipes. Since then I come back from time to time to read your comments. I am impressed at your ease to communicate your feelings. I like your honesty.

My wife had cancer a few years back (she is in remission now). I took care of her through 5 surgical procedures, chemo, changing bandages, giving shots, etc.,. I feel for you and hope for your complete recovery soon.

I was born and raised in Japan and came to U.S. to attend college. Opportunity had it so that I was given a choice to stay, so I did. I don't get to go back as often as I would like to so I appreciated your opening comment on how you live outside of Japan and communicate in different languages but your heart remains Japanese. I feel the same.

I look forward to reading more about your life adventures, struggles and victories.

A really late comment on this post. I really need to add this page to my RSS feed. I keep reading posts too long after it's gone up.

Reading your entry, and your many other entries usually either brings a goofy smile to my face of made me tear up. It's amazing how little can happen to one person in one year compared to what's happened to someone else in the same time frame. What you went through in the last year, I hope to never ever have to experience in my entire life.

The quake was devastating, I'm not from Japan nor have I ever been there but the culture has always been in my sight and I love most of what I have learned about the country and is always in constant contact with friends from there. I cannot imagine to know how it feels to have all that happen around you and be powerless to do anything about it. I'm from a country that has never nor will it ever suffer such a disaster but if anything ever happened to this country I'm in even if I keep telling people how much I actually dislike it, I'm sure I'd be devastated.

This entry is definitely one that made me tear up and reading the comments of people who are grateful for your writing touched me even more. It's quite unbelievable how little comments there are on posts like these when compared to regular posts about a certain recipe.

Things seem to be looking up for you and I hope it gets even better.

Always reading (no matter how late),

I actually had some trepidation clicking on the video of the children performing the song. I was born in Lebanon and we left right before the war so we managed to escape the devastation and carnage but, like you, I had to sit by helplessly and watch it unfold..over 20 years.

We were finally able to return home after the fighting had ended and you could tell people were already emotional when they made the flight announcements when we left Paris. We arrived home as the sun was rising over our beloved mountains and lighting up the sea. As we approached Beirut, people spontaneously broke out in our national anthem which translated means "All for our flag and all for our country" as they were weeping (I'm weeping right now remember this). Many couldn't finish the words as we swung low over the sea to make our landing. There were a lot of people kissing the ground including my very ill father - it was his final trip home - who had to be helped down to the ground to do so.

MakiSand & GuySan, be strong for one another and your homelands because that's what keeps our nations going through thick and thin - deep love for each other (despite our differences) and our undying love of the lands of our mothers and fathers.

Thank you so much for sharing this with me...



Your stoicism over the past year is impressive and even inspirational. Thank you for sharing. I hope your misfortunes reverse soon. Stay strong.


I've been following you since just about the beginning, when I was a starry-eyed student of Japanese looking to recreate some of the amazing and authentic flavors I'd experienced in Japan in my little Massachusetts dorm kitchen. Oh how times have changed, but my love of your blog has not! I appreciate your writing and wonderful personality so very much. Thank you for teaching me more culture than even my Japanese professors and teachers could have. Please hang in there! Beat this thing and get your taste buds back! My thoughts are with you <3

Get well soon,

I just ordered your Bento cookbook on Amazon and then came across your website and blog. Your story really touches my heart. Although we live in the US, I was born in Japan and my mom is Japanese. She was diagnosed with Pancreatic cancer in January of this year. Her name is Harumi and she is a "foodie" as am I. She has always been a fantastic cook and we share our love of Japanese food. My mother is also in treatment for cancer and she is having major food/eating issues. Cancer is so cruel and it breaks my heart that it has, at times, stolen my mother's love for her favorite foods. She will start radiation next month and I bought her your book because when she can eat, she wants Bento! She has lost a lot of weight and sometimes has an aversion to food :( On the days she wants to ear, I hope that her fond childhood memories of Bento will keep her appetite and weight up. Thank you Maki for your book and good luck. We understand and we feel for you. Cherl and Harumi

Its really amazing that you share this article with us. Everytime you post it brings happiness and joy.