June Reading List: JLPT Prep

I can’t believe May is already over. And I can’t believe there is only one month left until the JLPT Test in July. I’m not sure if I’m ready. My Kanji recognition has gotten better and my reading is faster but is it enough to pass the JLPT N4 test? June will be spent Studying my butt off so I don’t fail again.

During intense studying, I believe it is important to have an element of fun or find a fun way to study. For me, that is reading. I love to read and I love all genres (except maybe horror, but maybe I just haven’t found the right book). Japanese stories are no exception. I love reading manga and I can hope that one day I am able to read popular light novels and the classics.

So, for the month of June, I have picked out four books to read in preparation for my upcoming test: Baba Yaga, Majo no Takkyuubin, Koe no Katachi, and Barefoot Gen.

June Reading List

The first book I have chosen is Baba Yaga which will be an interesting read because it’s a Slavic folktale translated into Japanese. I bought the book last year in Nagasaki at the Inori no Oka Picture Book Museum. If you are ever in Nagasaki I recommend stopping by. The first floor in a children’s bookstore and the upper floors are the picture book museum.

Baba Yaga, as I said before, is a Slavic folktale. She is usually depicted as a ferocious old woman who flys around in a stone mortar wielding a pestle and lives in the forest in a cabin standing on a single chicken leg. She has played many roles as a villain or ambiguous helper, but whatever her role I look forward to reading this picture book.

The second book is Majo no Takkyuubin 魔女の宅急便  (lit. Witch’s Home Delivery Service) or better known as Kiki’s Delivery Service in the West, made famous by Studio Ghibli’s movie adaption. I didn’t know the movie was based on a book of the same name. It blew my mind when I stumbled across the books (that’s right, it’s a series!) when I lived in Sapporo. At the time, it was impossible for my to read this children’s book. But now I’m ready to tackle it again. It’s still an ambitious read but I like the challenge.

The first book is like the movie. It begins with Kiki leaving home on her 13th birthday to live on her own, find her calling, and become a real witch. I can’t wait to read about all of Kiki’s adventures.


My third choice is Koe no Katachi, literally means the voice’s shape or the shape of the voice. Recently it was made into a movie and I want to read it (and the series) before I watch it. I really don’t like the English title, Silent Voice. Let me explain.

The story is about the relationship between a young boy and a young girl. They meet in elementary school when the girl arrives as a new student. Except, she introduces herself by writing in a notebook. She is deaf and her classmates cannot sign. The boy bullies her throughout elementary school because she is different. However, the tables turn when they have parted ways and he finds himself the outcast in high school. And it is there they meet again.

“Silent Voice” isn’t a bad title. It’s just not that original. It does its job and gets the message across. I just think the Japanese title conveys a deeper abstract message about what the story is about. From just looking at the cover you can’t tell the girl is deaf but you know the story is about the relationship and communication between the two. The English title sort of throws it in your face. Silent Voice = someone probably doesn’t talk/has communication issues. I’m being nit-picky. I know that. It won’t stop me from being excited about reading the manga or watching the movie. I’ll just be slightly unimpressed with the English title.

Last but by no means least is Barefoot Gen. It’s the only book in English but I kept the Japanese theme going as it is the true experiences of author Keiji Nakazawa surviving the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. It’s a hard and important read.

I was lucky enough to have introduced to this story during high school. It was an assigned reading for one of my English classes. It left a real impact on me, but I never got the chance to read the series as we only read book 1. This year, during Golden Week, I visited the Hiroshima Atomic Bomb Museum and bought this book not only to read but to keep in my future classroom in hope that it will move my students like it moved me.


Wisteria Hysteria: Golden Week

Title courtesy of David

After the Sakura finish blooming in early March, you don’t have to wait long for another famous flower to bloom. Early May (AKA Golden Week), is the best time to see blooming Wisteria. Since I was traveling a lot during Golden Week I was able to see various places from Karatsu to Kyoto covered in curtains of purple.

For those of you unfamiliar with wisteria, it is a woody vine that is native to Japan. Its flowers hang in long tendrils of purple or white. I didn’t really notice it last year because I was in Hokkaido for Golden Week. But, this year I realized that you can find wisteria pretty much everywhere. It is a wild plant that will climb anything in reach. Many roadside trees sport splashes of purple in spring. It is also can live a long time. Some are over 100 years old!

I missed the wisteria bloom last year much to my mother’s display. So this year she sent me on a mission to send her pictures of wisteria from Karatsu Castle. Luckily, with the help of David, I went above and beyond my original assignment.

Kasuga Taisha Shrine, Nara

During Golden Week, David and I decided to pop over to Nara to do some sightseeing together. We both had been to Nara before but never together. We spent the day looking for things we had yet to see. I finally explored the back stretch of the park, and we after visiting Toudaiji we stumbled on a special hall which I will be posting about soon, but I had the honor of introducing the Kasuga Taisha Shrine to David.

I visited last year and I was keen to show David it’s famous hallways of lamps, but to my surprise, it is also famous for its wisteria. Mind blown. This is why you have to travel during different seasons. Who knows what gems you might find? Some of the wisteria is well tended and other vines are allowed to roam free in the trees.



A well-kept wisteria in Kasuga Taisha


It has taken over this giant tree


Keep an eye out of my Golden Week posts, I will post the rest of my Kasuga Shrine pictures soon

Various Shrines in Shiga Prefecture

Nara wasn’t the only place celebrating the blooming wisteria. Many of the shrines across Japan hold viewing events that help raise money for shrines or thelocal community.

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Karatsu Castle, Karatsu (duh.)


Karatsu Castle’s Wisteria is over 100 hundred years old and is a designated natural monument to the city. The boughs cover a wide veranda at the top of the stairs. For most of the year, the tree provides a leafy shade from the sun. But that changes in spring when the curtains of purple Wisteria provide a beautiful welcome to Karatsu’s “dancing crane” castle.


Almost at the top (of the main stairway)



The base of a 100-year-old vine is bound to be gnarly



Wisteria flowers can grow to over one meter in length!


You can find a brand new white wisteria further into the courtyard.

Zo Many Zakura


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Big thanks to David for thinking of this title while we enjoyed the zakura.


Last week I posted about the Karatsu Hanami on Kagamiyama. This post is all the other Sakura pictures I took during the season – and by that I mean one or two weeks.

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So pretty but so fleeting

Cherry Blossom season is very special to Japan. Sakura or cherry blossoms are the unofficial national flower, it welcomes spring, and reminds us that life is beautiful if not short. The short blooming season makes sakura a unique experience and plays well into Japan’s seasonal marketing. Japan might is king of seasonal goods. Throughout the year you find snacks of incredible taste and variety but only for the short period. Many things are sold in limited quantities as well so you have to be quick. Sakura season is no different.


One of the most popular places to view cherry blossoms in Karatsu is at Karatsu Castle. Whether it’s during the day or enjoying a lantern lit night viewing it provides an experience bursting with pink and a great view of the city, too.

2017 Zakura 52017 Zakura jo 22017 Zakura Jo2017 Zakura 42017 Zakura 3


It’s too bad that the weather was poor this year. The fog was beautiful though. I’m glad the rain held off so we could enjoy a full bloom. Many of the streets in Karatsu are line with Sakura. You can check my sakura post from last year here.


Sakura in the Fog


One of the best things about living in Japan is being able to experience Hanami 花見 or cherry blossom viewing. Newspapers print when and where the sakura will be in full bloom. It’s important to plan ahead especially if you want to travel, and many local venues with fill up quickly with viewing parties if the weather is good.

This year in Karatsu spring was quite chilly and the blooming was delayed. Full bloom or mankai 満開 lasts about a week. This year full bloom was pushed back to the first full week of April.


This year I wanted to check out the park and observatory on top of Kagamiyama or Mt. Kagami. I had been there a few months before to finally check it out. Since this post is about Sakura and I will save it for another post. Anyways when I was there I realized that many of the trees surrounding the fields and parks were Sakura trees. Thus, I decided that this year’s Karatsu ALT Hanami would be at Kagamiyama.

This year we were plagued with cold weather and rain. Luckily the rain was light and most of the blossoms stayed on the trees for the weekend. On the Saturday of the party, the morning was free of rain and actually had a bit of sun. Excited that the weather had turned in our favor we packed up our cars and took the winding drive up the mountain. I regret not having pictures of the drive up. The sakura trees were big, beautiful and in full bloom creating a pink tunnel around the road.


By the end of the party, we couldn’t see this bridge!

Once at the top, we parked and started to unload. Many people were still skeptical of the weather so there was plenty of space to park and find a perfect viewing spot. But we hadn’t realized that while the weather below the mountain was partially clear and sunny, on top of the mountain the fog was still hanging around.


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A stone table all to ourselves


I didn’t mind the fog. It made the park mysterious and oddly beautiful. We nabbed a viewing spot near a stone table with a past peak tree hanging overhead that dropped pink blossom onto our picnic. In an odd way, it was sort of perfect.


2017 Sakura Fog
Look at al those cherry blossoms falling!


Remember to take your shoes off!
Hanami commenced and the snack-age begins.

We got about 2 hours of good cherry blossom viewing, snacking, drinking (what’s hanami without alcohol?), and party games, before the fog thickened and started to rain. While it was a short hanami it was fun and special. It’s not often you get to see sakura bloom in the fog.




Karatsu Kunchi: Day 2 – The Sand Pull

That’s right I said sand pull. It’s the only way I can describe what you are about to see


The second day of Karatsu Kunchi begins mid-morning at a large sand lot between an elementary school and a major road. The road has been blocked to make way for the floats and hundreds of spectators who watch the 1-ton structures dash into the loose sand. It doesn’t take long to get stuck. Each team tries to pull their hikiyama as far in as possible. After the initial “pull” the ropes are reversed and the hikiyama is pulled to the far edge to line up with the others. This is a true test of strength


Taiyama – one of the most popular floats. It is also one of two floats the swing to and fro.



Shuten Doji on samurai Yorimitsu Minamoto’s Helmet (wow that’s a mouthful!) preparing to dash onto the sand.



My friends and I were lucky to find an open spot across the street to view the event. The sidewalks were packed with people and those in our group brave enough to venture off found it difficult to move. It took some of us more than 30 minutes to reach our main group. We took turns climbing on a concrete ledge with a fence to get a better view. Most of my pictures were taken this way with someone bracing my legs so I wouldn’t fall over.

It takes a lot of muscle to move the floats through the sand.


After the floats are lined up spectators are allowed to walk onto the field, take pictures with their favorite floats, and find participating family members.


So there you have it! But wait that’s not the end of Day 2! Stay tuned for Karatsu Kunchi Day 2 Part 2 – Feasting and House-Hopping Kunchi-style!

See you next time




Kyushu Festivals: Karatsu Kunchi – Day One

If you ever find yourself in Japan at the beginning of November, I implore you to make your way down south to the island of Kyushu to a city called Karatsu. It’s nestled on the west coast of Kyushu and quite easy to reach from Fukuoka.

November is the busiest time of the year for Karatsu. For three days people from all over Japan and the world come to eat, drink and watch great floats be pulled throughout the city.


Since moving to Japan two years ago I have seen a lot of festivals and hands down Karatsu Kunchi is my favorite (I might be a little biased). There is something about Kunchi that makes even an outsider feel welcome. It’s a festival that brings everyone together.


So let’s talk about the first day …. well night actually. The always kicks off the night of November 2nd. The city spends an entire week setting up food and game stalls along parade routes and the downtown area, concentrated around Karatsu Shrine (唐津神社). Once the sunsets thousands of people line the streets and wait to hear the call of “En-Ya! En-Ya! En-Ya!” and the flutes and drums of musicians sitting at the base of every float.

file_006The road to Karatsu Shrine is lined with stalls. At the end of the night, the 14 floats (HIkiyama) pulled down this road to the shrine.

file_004Karatsu Shrine the first night of Kunchi



The float pullers are made up of people from the old neighborhood where the float is from. Each float has a different color and designed Happi (発表 はっぴ), a traditional workman’s coat. Young boys and girls can help pull but young girls can only pull the floats until their first year of high school. Boys and girls as young as 5 years old help pull though the youngest participants are at the front of the ropes while the older and stronger men pull near the base of the 1-ton floats. They help pull, turn, and stop the floats.

The Night Pull finishes when all the Hikiyamas are pulled down to Karatsu Shrine through the all of the stalls. They are lined up in an empty lot in front of the shrine and covered with plastic sheets for the night.




Stay tuned for Karatsu Kunchi: Day 2 The Sand Pull!






Winning NaNoWriMo: Third time’s the Charm

It Has Begun!!

It’s that time of year again folks – the National Novel Writing Month, better known as NaNoWriMo. This is my first official announcement. I am a participant. There! I admitted it. Even though I have failed spectacularly the last two times, I am determined to win this year. Yep, I going to hit the 50,000-word mark. How? You ask.

The Official Announcement

That’s right. This post is going to help me win. It won’t win me any words towards my story, but it’s my official commitment. There is no going back. I also have some friends on standby to check in on my writing progress and keep me to my word.

I (actually) have a Plan

In the NaNo writing community, you are either a Planner or a Pantser. Either you plan everything out in advance before writing or you write as you go (you know – by the seat of your pants haha). In the past, I thought I could write as a Pantser. But if I had actually paid attention to my back story would have realized I was lying to myself.

If you ask anyone of my friends or family who listened to me ramble on and on about either of the FOUR separate universes in my head during and beyond high school they would tell you I am a Planner. I am Planner who rarely wrote anything down and hopped from one story to the next due to being an odd perfectionist. It would be productive to write and then review it again and again but no, I was and often still am the type of perfectionist who has trouble taking the first step in writing.

For the longest time, I had trouble separating the writer from the editor. It became my biggest obstacle, because I couldn’t write if it wasn’t perfect. Procrastination didn’t help either. So, in prep of NaNo, I have been practicing stream-of-conscience writing through short timed intervals. I have also embraced my inner Panner. During my practice writing, I write down all the details, scenes, and plots from over the years. And I have a lot to work with.

This November will be an intensive continuation of this writing practice. And will help me secure my very first win.

Let the writing begin! 50,000 words or bust!

Standing Up After Failing…Again

I fell off the Blog-Wagon again. It’s been…YIKES! Two months?


A lot has happened in the past months; a new relationship ♥, new JETs arriving, visiting home after a year, and dealing with grief while abroad.

It’s not as if I haven’t thought about blogging. I have brainstormed and drafted a bunch of posts. I had even planned out a new blog series and posted a few writings. However, I bit off more than I could chew and was unable to follow through with my ideas. But despite all of that I am not giving up. As an aspiring teacher, I do my best to embrace my failures and learn from them.

While contemplating how I blog (or don’t) I found a few of the things that held me back:

Over Planned, But Planned NO Writing Time

My best example is the extensive list of drafted posts and my color coded planner. I had each week planned out – topics, readings, and when to post – but none of that mattered when I hadn’t carved out time to actually finish the readings and write about them. My schedule time had too much flexibility. If I want to succeed then writing time must become as non-negotiable as work and sleep.

Tried to be an Over Achiever

See above.

The Ghost Student series was really ambitious for me. I don’t regret it, but I will have to put it on hiatus. I piled it on top of travel posts and my some hundred hobbies without proper commitment. In a way, I underestimated the difficulty of ghosting a graduate level syllabus and working full time in a foreign country.

Lost Focus

It’s not rare to lost sight of what you are doing or why. In the past, I have struggled with the very essence of what my blog should be. When I lose focus I begin to doubt myself and overthink. I thought I had finally found it, but it seems I need to go back to the drawing board again.

The Good News

The good news in all this is that I have learned a lot about myself and the basics of blogging. Here are three solutions I have found in reflecting on the last two months/year.

Baby Steps A.K.A. Keep Moving Forward

As a new blogger it is easy for me to imagine interesting posts with awesome photos. But taking on too much without a plan it disastrous. I need to go back to the basics and take my first blogging baby steps again. This doesn’t mean I’m scrapping Holm is This Way but rather I need to commit to a reasonable blogging schedule and hone my blog over time. Essentially, I must keep moving forward to make real progress. 

Committing a day and time

While I talked about baby steps above I would like to focus on committing a day and time for writing. As a child I struggled with time. When I did activities, projects, or chores I could not gage how much time it took to complete my tasks. It doesn’t come naturally to me and it is something I have worked on a lot over the years with trial and error.  

When I started this blog I had thought strict planning would be key, but despite all my planning I never really committed a day and time for writing and kept pushing it off to the side even when I didn’t have to. 

So now I am committing my Monday 8-9pm to writing posts. 


Failure happens. It happens often if you are lucky. Failure is how I learn best. I like reflecting on the experience and learning from it to do better (or perfect) next time. It takes a lot of acceptance. I have to accept my embarrassment and frustration and then move past it. I need to learn not to dwell on past mistakes.


Posts you can expect in the near future:

Grief Aboard: Dealing and Reeling

Third Time’s the Charm: I’m going to Win NaNoWriMo 2016

Flowers, Flowers, and More Flowers: Ikenobo Photos ’15-’16

Karatsu Kunchi: The Soul of Karatsu City


From the Finnish View: Review Part 2

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Teachers and Leadership

In part 1 of the review, I ended with a quote on how Finnish teachers perceive their careers as professional with obligations and responsibility. This does not mean teachers or the general population of say – the United States would claim the opposite for American teachers. Actually, I imagine many people arguing otherwise. For which I am glad. However, teachers are often lauded or demonized in rapid succession by media, parents, governments, and politicians for being great or failing miserably.

But I’ll get into to that in another post. Right now we are looking at how Finland’s teachers act as leaders. Here’s what the article had to say:

No Buzzword

In Finland ‘Teacher Leadership’ in not a common buzzword. It’s probably not going to saturate the media or academic articles as the new ‘cure-all’ to the ongoing and new problems in education. Sahlberg reasons this is due to Finns attributing leadership to the profession because it is the nature of professions.


 Teamwork is a key part of the Finnish teaching profession. Greenhorn and veteran alike must work as team players so all students and staff learn and grow.Teachers implement and evaluate what and how they teach, but that cannot be done alone. Curriculum working groups help teachers address concerns, develop solutions and activities, and discuss individual student support.

*as a side note: There is little ‘power teaching’ in Finland. Student-Teacher relationships are relaxed and informal. There is little to no stopwatch drilling of core knowledge (I’m looking at you Japan). Teamwork helps teachers to find ways for student-engaged learning to take place.

Work Load

But let us get down to some cold hard facts. The teacher workload is lighter in Finland compared to the USA and Japan (especially Japan). In Finland:

Elementary school teachers teach 4-5 45 min classes per day

Junior High School teachers teach 5-6 45 min classes per day

-and both of these have 15 min breaks between classes every day!

(points to Japan for giving teachers 10-15 minutes breaks between classes – but points deducted for making teachers regularly stay well past 6 pm with few days off even during holidays)

Teacher Education

 One thing that makes Finland’s education system famous is how they select and train new teachers. Finland has created a system where teacher training programs pick from the top 1o percent of high school graduates. Every year only 700 spots are open for primary school teacher education programs. Students earn a rigorous graduate degree (5 years) that is on par with doctors, lawyers, architects, and engineers. It is an academic graduate degree based on research .

Teacher education has equal department status with regular reviews and evaluations, and all university are equipped with clinical training schools (like university hospitals). Finnish teachers-in-training spend more time gaining in-depth knowledge of child development, pedagogical content, creating curriculum, assessment, school improvement, and leadership. To top it off when teachers graduate they have the autonomy to use what they have practiced and studied.

Sahlberg notes that a North Carolina study found that teacher credential had little effect on student achievement. He is quick to counter with the fundamental difference in teacher education (all of the above). Finland has no alternative routes into the teaching profession (i.e. online programs, Teach for America (USA), Teach First (UK), etc.). So there is a higher and unified quality control. Sahlberg says it simply,

It is difficult to become a teacher [in Finland] without a high level of general knowledge, good social skills, and a clear moral purpose.

Teacher credentialing isn’t all there is to student achievement but when it is done with a unified and controlled purpose through a system that recruits the best talent and whose goal is to challenge, engage, and prepare not only teachers but researchers who are instilled with a sense of leadership and responsibility to their students and profession it is impossible to dismiss its effect on the entire education system.

From the Finnish View: Reviewing Teachers as Leaders in Finland article PART 1

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The first reading I tackled for week one was also the shortest. Written by Sahlberg in 2013 “Teachers as Leaders in Finland” for Educational Leadership Magazine,  is an article discussing the idea of teachers are leaders in Finland’s schools and the lessons that can be learned from the Finnish experience.

Since surprising the world (themselves included) with top marks on the first PISA test, Finland has become synonymous with excellent teaching and teacher training, teacher autonomy, and very little standardized testing. This near romanticized teacher’s paradise has prompted many educators and governments to travel to the Nordic country to learn the secrets of their success.

Sahlberg asserts that well-educated teachers benefit the entire education system. For the past 30 to 40 years, Finland worked to reshape its educational system with this in mind. The teaching profession became as sought after as doctors and lawyers. It became a reputable profession where university programs can pick from the top 10% of graduates. And those professionals can expect:

Collaboration > Isolation


Autonomy > Top-down Authority


Professional Responsibility > Bureaucratic Accountability


Professional Practice > Prescribed Procedures

This allows Finnish teachers to exercise, expand, and explore what they learned during their education and training and they won’t be alone or without support. They can put their students’ educational needs first without worrying about next round of test scores. They can implement solutions and practices outside of prescribed procedures they had no input in creating or that don’t benefit their students. These practices and ideas have helped to create a world-class education with a high professional satisfaction. A satisfaction grounded in what Sahlberg calls the ethos of a teacher’s work; where Finnish teachers “[perceive] themselves as professionals with obligation and responsibility to implement, and evaluate the outcomes of their work.”