Life in the It’s Not Just Mud community

Hello again from Ishinomaki. Today I thought I’d share photos of life in the It’s Not Just Mud volunteer house.

It’s very much communal living here, with around 20 volunteers staying in two neighbouring Japanese style houses. It’s been amazing to get to know volunteers from Japan, the UK, Ireland, France, Germany, Norway, Iceland, Australia, New Zealand and the US in just a few short days.

Some people are short term volunteers like me, while other have been here for a month to a year.

I had the pleasure of working with two deaf Japanese ladies and their sign language interpreter. My Japanese is pretty basic and involves a lot of gesturing anyway, so it was really fun to learn the official hand signs for the Japanese words I already know. Such lovely, lovely people.

The main entrance to the first volunteer house. In the next few weeks the volunteers will be moving to another building.

The communal kitchen.

The volunteers take it in turns to cook and the food so far has been gooooooood…

My room – not always this messy! I’m sharing with two girls from Germany and the US. They’ve both been here a month so are showing me the ropes.

This is the main room where everyone gathers to eat and socialise in the evenings.

The all important noticeboard assigning tasks, teams and start times for the next day.

For short term volunteers there’s plenty of equipment that can be borrowed, from overalls to boots…

…to very useful gloves.

Finally, this is the loo! Very nice and clean. I’ve been so impressed by the lack of hierarchy here. Everyone simply pulls their weight to pitch in with chores, keep the house clean and work hard and with enthusiasm on all volunteering jobs.

Every good house has a cat, of course :)

If you would like to donate to ItsNotJustMud and their great work, please follow this link –




Random cultural experiences – The Barbers

You find yourself in the middle of Tokyo with a free hour on your hands. You scratch your chin and ponder the question – where can I experience an immediate authentic cultural experience that is guaranteed to not be on any travel itinerary? Why not a local barber shop? After all – all that is required of you is that you sit back, relax and try not to snore.

In Japan, a visit to a barber’s can range from 1000 yen for a 10-minute special at one of the railway station quick-cut salons, where a swift chop is followed by a vacuum cleaner hose run over the head to suck up any loose hairs – job done; to 4000 yen at a shop run by a chain-smoking sole proprietor. As much as I would love to support the small fish (but not his smoking habit), I can hardly justify paying so much for a quick buzz over my 30-something balding scalp. I therefore normally go for the mid range deal – 1500-2000yen for a cut and then the all-important shave at a chain-barber shop.

Being follicly challenged, one might think that I rarely need to visit my local barbershop, however, keeping my beard in trim is something I sometimes leave to the professionals. And for a couple of thousand yen, I get to switch off completely and enjoy the pleasure of a little manly pampering, or whatever you want to call it!

Like anywhere in the world, the barbershop in Japan is a fascinating glimpse into local culture. On entering, I sit in strict order on the seating provided, shimmying along as the next person is called to the chopping chair – an example of the highly ritualistic queuing that the Japanese follow.

Of course the clientele are always varied – I may well find myself squeezed between a manga comic reading student and a businessman on his lunch hour, or the elderly gent who treats the experience more as a social occasion so has no qualms in ushering me to be seen to before him. He has already been there for an hour and will no doubt still be ushering away when I leave the shop an hour later!

Just as in the Japanese office environment, there is no small talk between coworkers about last night’s baseball match or the crazy Karaoke session whilst on the job – full focus is on the scalps lined up in front of the mirrors. My assigned cutter may ask where I am from but then will leave me in peace and doesn’t feel obliged to engage in inane conversation. Time to doze…

The whole cut/shave process is a prime example of what the Japanese are renowned for – teamwork. Someone will lead me to a chair and drape the protective anti-itchy hair gown over me, then hand the baton to a colleague who will take my “hair order” and religiously run the clippers over my head to produce a perfect 2-mm cut.

Then the shampoo application specialist jumps in and zealously rubs away, always careful to ask if the (luke warm) water is not scaldingly hot. A token towel run over my feeble pelt dries it in a single wipe and he hands over the reins to his superior, relaying my beard requirements.

Creams and hot towels are applied and left in place to soften the bristles, while eyebrows are trimmed and upper facial bum fluff (on forehead and ears!) is removed. Then comes the ritual of extreme concentration by the hygiene-masked barber as he sculpts my beard – I occasionally open my eyes to note him working away with the focused gaze of a surgeon. Then a post-shave cold towel and more lotion is applied before the final check for any errant hair. They always save the best for last though…

…now it is time to plug in the giant massager – pneumatic drill-like in appearance yet thankfully a little kinder on the back, although no less frenetic in its movement. This last shuddering massage feels great but is enough to awaken me from my dozy state. A token straw brush across the shoulders and we are finished. I pay, every worker in the shop shouts out thanks to me from across the room and I leave a happy customer.

As always, on later close inspection at home, my beard is perhaps never quite as I asked for it to be, but the visit to the barbershop always remains one of my favourite “local” experiences!


Return to unique Japan

Annie and Andy Pezalla (Minnesota, USA) recently returned from their trip to Japan (May 12-19). The couple actually lived in Japan for a while, but were returning to the culture and country that they had come miss back home in the US. This time, they were to visit Tokyo, Hakone national park and Kyoto and took part in a range of experiences along the way. We are happy to report that they loved it.

Our memories of the trip are so vivid–and positive–and we have you to thank for that. The itinerary was perfect for us, from the cities to visit to the activities to experience within them. Hakone was a wonderful respite from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, and was a nice segue to Kyoto too. I had never been there while I lived in Japan but it is glorious. Taking the various modes of transportation around the city was a particular treat–especially the pirate ship.

The other activities we experienced were great, too. We ended up attending the sumo match in the morning, simply for logistical reasons, since we wanted to be across the city by Saturday afternoon, but even in the relatively empty sumo stadium, the wrestling was still so interesting and entertaining.

The sake tour was another treat. The tour we were given was, shall we say, incredibly thorough. We learned about the most minute details of the traditional inn at which sake had once been crafted, but juuuust when we were beginning to fight the urge to look at our watches, the tour ended and we were treated to an incredible wide array of food, sake and microbrewery beer. Really, both the tour and the sake tasting were great. The folks who ran that inn had spent a lot of time and effort in making us feel welcome, as did any Japanese shop or restaurant owner. It wasn’t uncommon for us to receive a small gift from our hosts, a gesture which seemed to convey a gratitude to us for travelling to Japan, even in the aftermath of the earthquake (whose effects could not have been less apparent).

The other activities were wonderful. Yuriko was such a sweet tour guide for Kyoto, and having her gave us a nice little breather from having to find our way around the city. Last, we had the cooking class, which only reaffirmed our belief in the complexities of Japanese cooking, and impressed upon us the skill required even to scramble an egg properly! All of it was great fun.

Andy and I are accustomed to doing our own thing when we travel, and it was nice to have our trip punctuated with those planned activities and tours. The itinerary books you provided us were such a helpful lifeline too;  Your detailed explanations about public transportation, hot spots around each city, and good restaurants were spot on.

We will wholeheartedly recommend Japan and Inside Japan Tours to our friends and family. Thanks again for making our trip so memorable!

~Annie and Andy

It doesn’t matter how many times you have been to Japan, there will always be something new to experience whether it be a cultural activity, a new place or a random meeting with a local. Each trip to Japan is very different, but it will be uniquely Japanese and full of experiences that you can only experience in Japan…..What a great country!


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