A Work of Art

Japan is known throughout the world for their unique artistic styles. Historically, Japanese art styles have covered a wide range of distinctive media including pottery, woodblock, silk, paper and ink. When I moved to Japan I was introduced to another, more contemporary style that I am quickly growing to love. The medium is quite interesting and always unique to the person it is created for. Sadly, however, these works of art are only temporary, always getting chipped away by the hands of time. To me, this only adds to its allure. I am, of course, referring to the skillful craft of nail art.

Nail art is a pretty big deal in Japan. I understand they have conventions and competitions where nail artists get together to compare notes. Some of the designs I’ve seen online get incredibly elaborate, sometimes to a point where your hands are no longer functional. Don’t worry; I haven’t gotten that crazy yet. But when you get a manicure or pedicure here, nail art is usually a given and included in the price. For Americans living abroad here, I consider it a rite of passage of sorts.

Extreme nail art from 2009 Tokyo nail art expo

When you first arrive to the nail salon/art studio, you are given booklets with page after page of nail art designs to choose from. I’ve made some difficult decisions in my life before, but nothing as difficult as this. I usually spend far too much time seriously deliberating over the designs. They have every design you could imagine, and some that you probably couldn’t. Whether you are craving feminine flowers, over-the-top glam, or perhaps a smiling Hello Kitty, the design book has everything.

My favorite nail salon/art studio in Okinawa

Once you find the resolve to select a design, the real magic begins. The artist goes to work with expert precision and the end result is truly a work of art. I can barely paint my toes one color without getting nail polish all over the place let alone a design. But time after time, they turn out impressive toe masterpieces. 

Two of my most recent works of art

I hear nail art is becoming popular back in the States as well.  All it took was a couple of celebrities to sport the artistic style in magazines to encourage others to partake.  Hopefully by the time I get back, it will be widely available so I won't have to suppress my artistic side.   


Farewell, Summer

With fall weather settling comfortably into Okinawa, it seems summer has passed me by in the blink of an eye. I was so caught up absorbing my first balmy Okinawan summer that I left my blog simmering away on the back burner. Time to start stirring the pot again.

Summertime in Okinawa is marked by festivals, food, and fireworks. Despite the rising temperatures, it seemed there was always another festival or “matsuri” to attend. In fact, Okinawans are known as festival people throughout Japan. My kind of place.

I learned early on that for a festival to be rated highly on the enjoyment scale, fireworks must be included. Fireworks always seem to be the focus of conversation when discussing a festival with an Okinawan friend. “You went to the festival? How were the fireworks?” It’s unthinkable to not stay for the fireworks. People would think something was wrong with you if you didn’t.

Another highlight of summer festivals are the Eisa performances. Eisa is a type of folk dance unique to Okinawa and truly represents the summer. It’s not unusual to walk through the neighborhood in the evening hearing people practicing the traditional instruments used in Eisa: the sanshin and the taiko drum. In fact, for a few solid weeks leading up to Obon, I fell asleep to the faint sounds of taiko drums banging away.

Eisa performers with taiko drums

Okinawan Sanshin made with snake skin

Obon is an important religious holiday celebrated throughout Japan with Buddhist roots. In brief, it is a three-day period when families remember and honor their dead relatives by welcoming their spirits back for a brief visit. Eisa dancers and music guide the deceased on their journey. Other traditions include special family meals, visits to family grave sites, offerings and prayers. While remember the dead may be somber occurrence, Obon also celebrates life and the overall atmosphere is relatively upbeat.

Little Eisa performers

On the last day of Obon when deceased spirits must depart, neighborhoods get together for all-night Eisa celebrations. Everyone in the neighborhood comes out to celebrate in true Okinawan style. After hearing the singing and drumming outside our house, Fred and I wandered outside to check out the Obon party, uncertain of whether or not the neighbors would approve of our American presence.

Outside our house

It didn’t take long before we felt welcomed with the international gesture of beer. Even though Fred already had a beer in hand, an older man shoved another chilled Orion into his hand cheerfully laughing “motto, motto!” (more, more!). We were also treated to chilled noodles and fresh watermelon from the neighbors as we enjoyed our beer and watched the older men stumble around with their bottles of awamori, the other local spirit.

Motto, motto!

The night continued with more dancing, singing, and of course, beer, while meandering throughout the neighborhood. Finally, the crowd ended at a cleared area that had been set up with a stage. The older and seemingly more important men of the neighborhood made their way onto the stage with their sanshins and bottles of awamori while the younger dancers and drummers circled the stage below.

Eventually, it turned into a free-for-all with all the neighbors dancing around the stage. I tried to catch on to the dance, but after a couple beers it became too much for me to concentrate on. So I watched and drank, instead.

Party in the neighborhood



Tokyo is a city of dichotomies, lying somewhere between complete chaos and perfect harmony. While fashions and technology evolve at a frantic pace, deep-rooted traditions remain constant. It’s as easy to get caught up in the latest frenzy as it is to lose yourself in the city’s old-world charm.


Freakin' Fuji

As the saying roughly goes, you are wise to climb Mt. Fuji once and a fool to climb it twice. Don’t worry, wise man, I will not be a fool. What started as a simple whim to climb the highest mountain in Japan turned into a challenging adventure my body will not soon forget.

I can’t really explain why I wanted to climb Mt. Fuji. I didn’t necessarily expect the climb to be “fun,” but I did think it would make for a good story. Plus, I felt oddly obligated to see Japan from its highest point. Perhaps Mallory’s definitive argument of “because it is there” is the best reason of all to climb any mountain.


Big trouble in little Okinawa

Little Okinawa has been stirring up a lot of attention from some big players lately. For the first time, people in the states are telling me they see Okinawa in the new headlines. Not surprisingly, the story revolves around empty campaign promises and misbehaving Americans.

Since the end of the Second World War, the U.S. has had a significant military presence in Japan. Currently, the bulk of that presence is in Okinawa. While Okinawa represents less than one percent of Japan’s land, it hosts over two-thirds of the 40,000 U.S. military forces. This high concentration is due to Okinawa’s prime location. Known as the “Keystone of the Pacific,” the tiny island is equidistant to many hotspots in the Pacific, allowing for a faster military response in times of need.


Japanese Commercials

On my long list of things I love about Japan, Japanese television ranks pretty highly. While my Japanese language skills still leave much to be desired, I’ve found that Japanese television programs and commercials are entertaining even with the language barrier.

I take a particular interest in the commercials. It’s always very interesting to me to learn how goods and services are marketed to different cultures. In Japan, humor, beauty and lightheartedness seem to reign supreme. I very rarely see a scare tactic employed, as is not uncommon in the states. As you can imagine, this makes for some pleasant commercial-watching in Japan.


Dragon Boat Races

Right before rainy season dragged the clouds in, Fred and I ditched work early last week and grabbed one last afternoon of sun down in Naha enjoying the dragon boat races.

The dragon boat races, or haarii as they are called in Japan, are an annual Okinawan event that dates back to the 14th century. Teams of rowers race each other in dragon-shaped boats to honor the gods of the sea. The event caps off Golden Week celebrations and draws crowds from all over the island.