When a natural disaster is just inconvenient for you personally

Japan earthquake Hokkaido

I was going to go to Hokkaido last weekend.

This would be a pedestrian statement if it weren’t for the fact that Hokkaido suffered a 6.7 magnitude earthquake the preceding Wednesday, leaving at least 30 dead. Needless to say, I cancelled my trip.

I have a number of neuroses regarding natural disasters. I grew up in south-east England, one of the safest areas in the world when it comes to natural threats. Earthquakes, hurricanes, extreme temperature, typhoons, dangerous animals, we got nada. As I’ve always said, you need to be exceptionally unlucky or pretty stupid for nature to kill you in the UK.

Whether it’s due to growing up in such a boringly safe habitat or my pathological need to be in control, being upset about earthquakes is something I know all about. In fact, it’s my go-to thing to be anxious about, like this week when I was sleep deprived and shitting a brick about a client meeting and so I also became convinced that the big one was going to strike when I was in the elevator. It made that eight floor ride to our office a long one.

An emotion I’m not used to, however, is annoyance. Because as well as being tragic and scary, this earthquake happened to be bloody inconvenient for me personally. My friends from Essex were coming to visit me and were flying from London to Tokyo as the quake hit and we had planned the trip to Hokkaido as a fun thing to do together. I had got through that week by fantasizing about walking across hills and tasting whiskey with friends I hadn’t seen properly in years. We had booked our flights and our hostel and we had no guarantee that we would get our money back. I was angrily looking at the news, holding council with my boyfriend and moaning about ‘that bloody earthquake’ when I suddenly was hit by a wave of guilt. How could I think this way? People had died in this disaster and I was making it all about me, like it was a harmless annoyance like that salary man who got his head stuck under a seat, causing the Yamanote line to go down for a whole hour (and me to miss my yoga class) a few weeks ago.

The things is though, it was inconvenient. I don’t have much time or money so something that disrupts my plans can be very frustrating. The cold, hard truth is that terrible things happen every day and we don’t have the emotional energy to feel bad about all of them. I think some of my frustration was tinged with fear, fear knowing that if it had been two days later we would have been caught in it. I was reassuring my visiting friends that, “It’s OK, it’s far from Tokyo, nothing will happen to you when you’re here,” as if I was reassuring myself.

I was reminded of the time my Dad was stuck in terrible traffic jam on the motorway and didn’t get home until the early hours. He said he spent a lot of time sitting behind the wheel, berating himself that if he had been 10 minutes earlier he would have missed the whole thing and got home in time for tea. Of course it occurred to him that if he had been 5 minutes earlier he would probably be dead.

In the end, we got some, though not all, of our money back. We booked a last minute trip to Kawaguchiko instead, the area around the biggest of Mt Fuji’s five lakes, offering a beautiful view of Japan’s iconic mountain. We got a last minute deal on lovely hostel and ended up in the cottage (for six people, we were four) so we could be as loud as we wanted, drinking and playing bananagrams in our yukata. We cycled around the lake, went down into the ice caves and went to an amazing onsen . We had a wonderful time.

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Fuji and Fuji

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Life goes on, as it does every day after natural disasters. The hard truth is that some tragedies hit closer to home than others.

Yoga Pants: pain, recovery, limitations and gratefulness

Yoga Pants Shimoda

CW: Suicide ideation

I’ve considered myself in remission from Interstitial Cystitis for over a year but there are still a few things I can’t do. One of them, it seems, is wear yoga pants.

I usually wear baggy granny shorts to my pre-work HIIT class but I’m flying to the UK tomorrow so they are packed. I dig out an item of clothing that hasn’t been work in 2 years, that’s associated with a girl I don’t quite recognise: purple, skin tight yoga pants.

Excuse the brag, but I look great in yoga pants. Yoga pants were made for people with bodies like mine – skinny with just enough curves to turn heads when things are tight. They fit my personality too – slightly tomboyish, comfortable, not trying, but also flirty.

When most people give up on yoga pants it’s probably because they are short on body confidence, which is a perfectly valid reason. In my case however, it’s because my pelvic pain was bad enough that I was googling how to get a hold of a gun in Tokyo and whether shooting myself in the bladder would kill me.

18 months ago yoga pants would have been laughable but then again, so would working a full time job and I’ve pulled enough 100 hour weeks in the last 6 months to know that that’s more than possible for me. Going into remission is tiny steps of tentatively trying things again and seeing if they still hurt you. A korma curry. A cup of coffee. An 8 hour coach ride. You inch towards these things like a wounded animal approaches food when it’s already been caught in the trap once. Can I? Is this safe? Will this hurt me later?

And so, as my granny shorts were already packed and because I’ve made a recovery complete enough that I hardly think about that-time-I-was-in-pain-for-a-year anymore, I wear the yoga pants to gym. The class goes well – I’m still one of the weakest of course, but I’ve gone to yoga twice this week (in granny shorts) and it’s limbered me up and improved my form. I catch a glimpse of myself lifting a weight that’s heavier than normal in the mirror and I look sexy and strong, so much more than in the granny shorts. Thanks yoga pants.

I shower and head to work. It’s my last full day before I fly home to the UK for 9 days tomorrow so I have a lot to get through. Still, I’m excited for my trip and cheerful until I head to the toilet half an hour into the working day.

The pain is excruciating. At first I think I might just be dehydrated (Tokyo summer is dangerous folks) and it will pass but I down 2 litres of water and mugicha and it’s still burning. I’m sweating, shivering and going to pee every 30 mins but of course I don’t tell my colleagues because a) they’re all men b) if I say out loud I’m in pain that means I can’t pretend it’s all happening and c) I really do have a tonne to do before I can get on that plane so I couldn’t go home even if I got permission.

I think that I’ve had a significant flare 3 or 4 times since ‘recovering.’ This is more pain than I’ve been in in half a year and, unlike when I was really sick, I’m totally unprepared. I don’t have any medication with me and I have no idea how I’ll make it through to 6.30. At 1pm I stagger to the nearest pharmacy and buy Bufferin, the standard over-the-counter painkiller here. I go over to a dark restaurant with a nearby toilet and down the maximum dose with a sandwich and a tonne of water. I put my head on the table and allow myself to panic a little – the timing is really bad. I’m supposed to get on a plane tomorrow and anyone who’s had a UTI or diarrhoea on a flight will have a taste of what it’s like to have an IC flare on a plane.

The Bufferin actually does something, which is a sign of how much better I am – 18 months ago I could have downed the whole pack and it would have destroyed my liver before reducing the pain. I have painkillers that target IC pain but, again, they’re at home. I go back to work and the pain is significantly reduced which is great but it brings with it sleepiness which isn’t exactly conducive to productivity. Still, I slog on as best I can. I hide my pain and resulting anxiety by being even louder and cracking more stupid jokes than usual. I’m technically not in the ‘headline meeting’ for the next issue but as it’s next to my chair I share my dumb puns for an article on animal cafes; ethical snake and cat cafes in Tokyo in particular. “Scares and hairs” “Animal cafes: the good, the bad, and the fluffy.” They’re both awful but both get picked because no one has anything better. Sometimes, for me, pain causes me to feel like I’m stuck to the ceiling, screaming, watching the back of my head calmly carry out day to day activities. It feels incredible how seldom people notice that I’ve split in two.

At 6.30 my work’s not finished but I’m done. The pain has gone down but I can’t be here anymore. I grab fast food on the way home and breathe a sigh of relief as I walk into my cool(er) flat. Now is time for medication, supplements and flare care routines. It’s been a while and I’m out of practice.

I start feeling significantly better at around 9pm. I still have to be careful but it looks like the flight won’t be a disaster. At 22:30 I finish the content calendar and the emails I need to write and log off my work email for the next 9 days.

I worry about a lot of things. The fact I’m 25 and I haven’t started saving properly yet. Wrinkles. Brexit. Closing doors. Whether I deserve my job. My Japanese/harp/vocal ability.

18 months ago, all I was worried about was whether I would be in that kind of pain all the time for the rest of my life. I think of flares like this as lighting a candle to the spectre of the girl in the parallel universe where I didn’t get better. I don’t know what happened to her, but she’s certainly not where I am now. The flare is like her haunting me. An effigy. A reminder.

Gratefulness is the antidote to so many of the sicknesses of modern life. Anxiety, envy, depression, they can all be eased by gratefulness. The sick know clear as pain that good health is something to be grateful for. Those of us who recover have the privilege of forgetting.

I can catch a train without anxiety. I can drink alcohol and coffee. I can work full time. I can have a normal relationship. I can wake up on a sunny morning with no pain and climb a mountain, swim in the sea, dance, twist, fuck, bend and use my body to its glorious potential.

I can lift weights and do burpees in my HIT class on Tuesday and Thursday morning. But, unfortunately, I can’t do it in yoga pants.

It’s a loss to the world, really. I look great in yoga pants.

Photo taken by me, of a statue in Shimoda Koen, Shizuoka

 

Happy 2018!

明けましておめでとう!Happy New Year!

“One of the greatest moments in your life is realising that, a year ago, you couldn’t do what you can do now.”
Mo Seetubim, founder of the Happiness Planner

26510442_10157017740918327_205654138_oI can’t remember a time when I wasn’t out doing something on New Year’s Eve. Even last year when I was really quite sick, I went to a house party (though I did fall asleep on the sofa at 1am…). This year my boyfriend and I cleaned our flat, wrote down our goals and New Year’s resolutions and drunk whiskey at home to welcome in 2018. I can tend towards over indulgence and hedonism so stepping back and not going out was… kind of liberating. I try to live life to the fullest, which most of the time is a good quality. However it can be a flaw when it leads me to feel that I have to be doing something because that’s what young, hip and alive people do on New Year’s Eve. It’s nice to go out when I want to go out, stay in when I want to stay in, regardless of an arbitrary day in the calendar. If I don’t party this one day I will not turn middle aged overnight and lament wasting my golden 20s. It’s all good.

26237858_10157017763463327_591999289_oThis morning we walked half an hour in beautiful sunshine to do 初詣 (hatsumōde, the first shrine visit of the year) at the same shrine as New Year’s two years ago. It’s nice to build our own traditions, even when we’re far from home. My fortune this year was really favourable and, though I don’t take these things too seriously, I do think good things are around the corner for me. I’m hoping that the seeds I sowed in 2017 will bear fruit.

 

 

2017 has been a year of excitement, doubt, self-discovery, some of the biggest challenges and most satisfying successes I have ever experienced. I wouldn’t say I have 100% got where I hoped I would be, but perhaps for the first time since childhood, I feel in touch with my authentic self and I am moving forward in the direction I want. There are many, many things I couldn’t have done at the start of 2017 that I can do now. And that is something.
Oh and I am now on my second Happiness Planner, something you might not expect given my entire personality. I recommend it so much to disorganised workaholics like myself who need to to write shit down and be reminded to chill out.

Glamping in Hakone

Autumn is coming to an end now but, as everyone knows, autumn in Japan is beautiful. This year I was crazy busy and didn’t fit in as many leaf viewing adventures as I would have liked but I did manage to find the time to accept an invitation to a weekend away in Hakone, a famously beautiful natural area 100km from Tokyo.

We were a big group, eight Japanese people, two Laotians, one German, one half-Japanese half-British person (hint it’s my boyfriend) and little old me. Seeing as everyone else either was Japanese or spoke it fluently, we spoke in Japanese all weekend which was a challenge for me, but a fun one. Intermediate language learners will know that, while you might be able to sound good one to one, group conversations are THE HARDEST. Luckily when we got drinking everything magically became easier…

Four of us rented a car and drove from our place, blasting cheesy music all the way

road trip Japan autumn

Our glamping campsite! Honestly we could have just stayed there the whole time and soaked in sufficient amounts of Japan autumnal beauty. The huts were basic but nice. They also had radiators. After friends and family, properly heated buildings are #3 on the list of things I miss most from the UK. I’m not joking. You can’t imagine how happy the radiators in our glamping huts made me.

glamping hakone japan autumn

This being Japan, every glamping hut had a built in BBQ and you could order a load of meat at the campsite office. Seeing as we were the drivers we were tasked with going to the shops to buy necessary non dead animal ingredients. When we got back we got set on eating, drinking and making merry!

Japan BBQ Japanese barbecue

Some of us nursing hangovers, the next day we went out for some leisurely walking! A highlight were these beautiful fields of ススキ (Miscanthus sinensis, Japanese pampas grass). 

2017-11-04 14.49.58

Before leaving, we stopped at Hakone’s Little Prince Museum. A tribute to the life and work of  Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the museum attempts to transport you to early 20th century France. It fails, in a charming, touching, tenderly Japanese way.

Hakone Little Prince Museum

And then we started the drive back to Tokyo! As my friends are mostly hard-working Japanese salary people instead of awful hipsters like me, it was a short trip but a fun one.

 

Creative collaborations

A few days ago my nakama Megan Valentine released her debut EP Wrong Side of the  Road! It’s fantastic. You should click on that link and listen to it now, especially if you like anime, pop, punk or anime pop punk (which is what it is). Seeing as Meg is one of the main people I collab with, I thought I would discuss the importance of creative collaborations.

Julia Mascetti Megan Valentine
Me and Megan Valentine in London

For the first 20 years of my life I was terrified of showing people my songs. Too personal, too weird, not good enough. I also don’t think I had met the right people to work with yet. When I did start creating with other people, it changed my life. I think art is (almost always) meant to be social. Stories round the campfire and all that jazz. So without further ado, here is why you should do creative collaborations:

1) You get shit finished
So many artists are chronic un-finishers. Perfectionism, procrastination, fear of not being good enough… Honestly I think doing a collab with a friend is the best way to get out of the ‘I can’t finish a song’ rut. Because the fear of letting your friend down because you haven’t written your part on time outweighs the fear of never starting because you are scared you will be shit. Once you’re done, you will be braver about sharing you collaborative work then anything you made on your own because your confidence in your friend becomes confidence in yourself. Neat huh?

2) You grow musically
Although I had got my ABRSM Grade 8 and a place on a BA Music course, until I was 18 I had no idea how to count or play in time. Violinists grow up in out of tune youth orchestras, guitarists in bands but harpists… honestly before I left home I could probably count the times I had performed with actual other people on one hand. There was not a Youth Orchestra that was big enough to want a pedal harp in my neighbourhood. When I got to university I made principal harpist in the uni orchestra because the audition was, again, solo. When I started playing in orchestras I got a rude awakening. Turns out technical ability wasn’t much use without the knack of actually playing in time. It was a steep learning curve but but after two years of being looked at weirdly when I came in 8 bars early and one year of slowly starting to get it, I was five times the musician I was before. I will never say timing is my strong point but at least now I can count rests and play to a click track. Even when I play by myself, everything sounds so much tighter and slicker. I could never have got this ability alone in a practice room.

3) You support each other
If you are a soloist, creating can be very lonely. Sometimes you really just need to talk to someone who gets it, bounce off ideas, get feed back on a draft, share your insecurities and get some sympathy and encouragement. From a practical point of view you can also gain exposure through each other; your collaborator’s fans can become your fans, they can introduce you to venues, people and experiences you wouldn’t get otherwise.

4) You get inspired
In general I like to be around awesome people who do awesome things. Though I am proud of my friends who are a great data analysts, unfortunately you can’t put their work up in a gallery. Two of my besties work for the British military. An exhibition of their work would compromise national security. No such problem with my artist friends! Not only can I feel proud of them and warm and fuzzy, they hold awesome events for their work where I can go home feeling inspired and moved.

5) They make your art better
I am just so hugely lucky to know Isabel Galwey and Oliver Wood. Whenever someone gets a physical copy of my EP they always comment on how beautiful the artwork is. It’s the first thing people see, it’s what they remember and what they hold in their hands to take home once they put their money down. And without Olly, well it would be me recording with a USB mic in my drafty flat. There would be no high quality harp tracks, no beautiful string arrangements, no flutes, no violins… well no EP at all. Both of them not only did what I needed them to do, they understood my creative vision entirely and finished my thoughts, creating something bigger than just me.
Two (or more) heads are usually better than one. 

If you’re an artist go and find your people. You with enrich each other’s art and each other’s lives and have a blast doing it!

Playing the harp standing up

2017 has been the year where I entered the wonderful world of playing the harp standing up!

One of the reasons I decided to take my little purple harp to Tokyo was because I wanted to play standing up. Before coming to Tokyo, I had owned my little harpsicle harp for a couple of years and it had been great to take with me to low key gigs, but I hadn’t been brave enough to perform standing with it yet. But if I was going to go through the trouble of bringing a harp to Tokyo I was going to bloody well learn!

Julia Mascetti metal harp
with my band Gjoll at Shinjuku Antiknock

After all metal is more effective when you can jump around a bit…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
I bought a guitar strap from the Yamaha shop in Ginza and started experimenting. The main problem I had was one of angle – I like to have to the straps tight-ish so the harp close to my body and I don’t have to lean down, but I’ve found that if I get it into optimum position, the strings are out of eye-line? This is fine for simple songs I know well, but I can’t imagine sight reading standing up or attempting pieces with a lot of lever changes for this reason. I’m still working on this issue and if there are any veteran standing harpists out there I would love to hear your tips! Nevertheless, as I play standing mostly when I’m accompanying myself singing it hasn’t been a big problem. I’m just sticking to basic arrangements and gradually gaining confidence as I perform standing more and more.

For my recent EP release party and other ‘big important gigs,’ as well as events I’m booked for, I still go for the bigger celtic harp but I am enjoying the freedom of being able to play standing up when I want to. I find I can connect with the audience in different ways when I can walk and move more and I can breathe really well and project my singing voice. I’m always using for ways to break new ground and expand my musicality, and this has been an enjoyable one!

If you have tried playing your instrument in a different way, please let me know how it went!

Julia Mascetti harp Cheshmeh

Studying for JLPT N3

So I’m taking JLPT N3 the day after tomorrow and I’m pretty nervous.

For the unenlightened, the Japanese Language Proficiency Test is a standardized Japanese test with five levels: N1 is the highest and tricky even for native speakers, N5 is the lowest. I will be taking N3 on Sunday, meaning if I pass I will officially have intermediate Japanese.

I know that according to Japanese language majors, N3 is pointless. ‘Employers only want N2 and above’ they say. Frankly I don’t particularly care as I’m doing the exam for myself. I’m trash so if I don’t have a benchmark and the incentive of a shiny gold star, I probably won’t study.  Also, even if the exam has no ‘worth’ employers, it’s proof that I have evolved since coming here and haven’t spent all of my free time in cake shops and bars (well I have, but I bring a textbook with me sometimes).

These are the resources I’ve been using to study. If you live in Tokyo you can get all of these books in Kinokuya book shop in Shinjuku, otherwise they should be available online.

Kanji/Vocab: Worked through the Kanji Master N3 book from Arc Academy. This is basically just a list of kanji with the readings, stroke order, compounds etc. I go through it and add vocab I think will be useful to my own deck of anki flash cards on my phone and try to go through the app every day. I also have been working through Kanzen Master Kanji  (different brand but everyone is still a master), which is basically a whole book of kanji related exercises, grouped by topic. I like it because it has pictures and I am a child.
Grammar: Grammar is definitely my weakest area. I hate it. It’s boring, I have to use my brain and it seems like I forget new grammar ten minutes after I’ve learned it. I’ve been using Kanzen Master Grammar.
Listening:
To be honest I’ve mostly been ignoring this one. I’ve been told it’s the easiest section, especially if you live in Japan. I’m going to do some practice tests tomorrow and then wing it.

You can probably tell I’m not exactly the diligent student. Luckily, two of my friends are taking N3 at the same time and we have been meeting every week for study group. This has been really helpful, particularly for making grammar less painful. We go through the points together and make stupid example sentences. A lot of the N3 grammar points seem to be for gossip and passive aggression so my friend has made this character Sakura chan, an idol who gets into a different scandal each week, depending on what grammar we are doing.

My boyfriend passed N1 this year so he’s a lot better than us. He sits in the corner during our sessions and makes suggestions (some of them useful, some less so). I think the power has got to his head though because the other day he gave me detention for looking at facebook in class.

Japanese study n3 detention
I don’t know which is worse, my Japanese handwriting or my boyfriend’s English handwriting…

To be perfectly honest, as regular readers may have noticed, the last few months have been pretty busy for me. I know I haven’t studied a lot and I’m not at all sure I’m going to pass. But I’m still super proud of what my friends and I have achieved. We’ve really come together and worked hard and got to know each other better too. I feel that, pass or fail, this test has forced me to take my Japanese to the next level so even if the results don’t go so well, I won’t regret taking it.

Are you doing the JLPT on Sunday? Have you done it in the past and how was it? Let me know!

頑張ろう everyone!