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.

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). 

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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.


Homesickness when you’re ‘living the dream’

It’s getting colder in the UK now and I wish I was hungover in London.

Not too hungover you understand. Just that kind of grogginess that is almost pleasant because it comes from having a really great night out with your friends. If the friends have stayed on your sofa and none of you have much to do that day then so much the better.

I want an English Breakfast with real bacon, a sofa and hot drinks, and the promise of hours of chatting about nothing much. Maybe we’ll venture into the cold air to go out to lunch and chat some more or go for a walk in the park. The leaves will be changing colour and the autumn wind will freshen me out of my sleepiness.

I saw a view of a grey, redbrick London buildings via Skype today and I almost teared up. I miss old buildings. I miss the crisp feeling of an autumn morning. Hell, I miss the grey, all these sunny days can get kind of oppressive. I always feel guilty that I’m inside working instead of out enjoying it and this sounds weird but I sometimes feel that the sky in Japan is boring.

I really should not feel this way. I know for perhaps the first time in my life I am exactly where I want to be pursuing what I really want to do. I am so so lucky to be able to make music and write in Tokyo.

And yet and yet my ‘To Do’ list is horrendous, the stakes are high and the pressure gets to me sometimes. I am trying so hard to achieve my goals but I’m aware it may not be hard enough. Sometimes I get three rejections a day for jobs and the acceptances I do get often clash and I have to work out how to be in two places at once. Editors can be mean. Speaking in Japanese can be exhausting. My skin is also awful this week for some reason.

I guess homesickness pangs will come even when you’re ‘living the dream.’ In a way I’m glad they do. It reminds me that I’m a human being instead of a productivity machine. It’s also reassuring to know that, god, I do love my country. A stupid part of me sometimes associates moving back home with ‘life being over’ so it’s nice to think of British things I can look forward to, when and if the time to 帰宅  comes.

Hyde Park
About four years ago when I lived with in walking distance of Hyde Park



NEW EP ‘In Distance, Everything is Poetry’ to be released 10 November 2017

I’ve got a new EP coming out and it’s title will be ‘In Distance, Everything is Poetry.’

The release date is Friday 10 November 2017 and I am SO FRICKIN EXCITED.

As the title suggests, this one is influenced by my life in Japan. Lyrics explore culture shock, long distance relationships and being young and broke in the two most exciting, alienating and expensive cities in the world (which are Tokyo and London duh, no arguing).

This blog is Tokyo Harp but my identity as the song-writer Julia Mascetti is slightly broader, which is why I tried to make this a Japan influenced EP instead of a ‘Japan EP.’ I think I’ve succeeded. I don’t think ‘distance’ is a subject matter only relevant to those of us crazy enough to uproot to the other side of the world. These days very few of us live our entire lives in the area we are born. We study and work far from our families, make connections online that compete with people we see every day and our loyalties and priorities are blurred in ways that can be confusing and painful but also interesting to write about. So I hope most of you can find something to relate to in my lyrics, and if not, everyone likes harp music right?

I’m working with some amazing people to bring this thing to life and the first I’d like to introduce is the fantastic London based photographer Emily Valentine. Nature and romance are two big themes of the EP and I feel she captured both perfectly during our shoot in Greenwich park.

I have never been this excited about anything I made in my life and I truly can’t wait to share this EP with you.


Julia Mascetti harp Emily Valentine
My harp in Greenwich park. Photo credit: Emily Valentine


Taking my Harpsicle Harp on a Plane to Tokyo

“Don’t, whatever you do, put your harp in the hold.”
The advice of pretty much every musician ever.

As both an expat and a harpist, my life choices have not exactly made things easy in terms of moving my stuff around. Once last year I did a gig as solely a vocalist and it was incredible. No faffing about with taxis, no desperate attempts to take my harp on public transport. I actually went to the pub afterwards and didn’t have to ask in Japanese if they have a back room where I can put my lever harp while I drank with the band. My old car made things a lot easier but I sold him to come to Japan. I also have a beautiful pedal harp being rented out 6000 miles from here that I pine for occasionally but getting her out here is next to impossible.

Taking my harpsicle on a plane though, would not be impossible. For those who don’t know, harpsicles are small harps that you can carry around with you, are often painted in fun colours and you can plug them in easily. I have one, it’s purple and I love it. I could think of so many uses for it in my Tokyo life – on stage with my metal band so I could perform standing, in my work as a Kindermusik teacher and any casual rehearsal where I could get away without the faff of moving my large lever harp.

On their website, Harpsicle® Harps describe how professionals have started using their harpsicles as their “travel harp,” “the one they can toss into the airline overhead while their big harp is trapped in a massive harp travel trunk.” So I was hopeful that I could take my harp on the plane with me on my flight from London Heathrow to Tokyo Haneda. I looked on some flight and music forums and found that people had had very mixed experiences taking their harpsicles on planes and I started to be more concerned. I really didn’t want to be in a situation where I had presumed that it would be allowed on with me and then be turned away at security – with the choice of either leaving my harp behind or chucking it into the hold with only a soft case (which is NOT an option at all).

So I called British Airways, gave them my harpsicle’s dimensions and asked if it could come with me in the cabin. The short answer was no and the long answer was no. I didn’t have a hard case as Harpsicle® Harps don’t make them and I didn’t wanted to spend the money required for a custom made case as it would probably cost more than the harp.

So my Dad and I set about making a cardboard construction to keep my baby harp safe in the hold.

First we wrapped the harp and its softcase in  4 layers of bubble wrap…
harpsicle harp bubble wrap plane

Then we constructed cardboard around the harp. Making it so it fit tightly around the irregular shape was harder than it looks. Again we used several layers for protection.

harpsicle harp cardboard plane tokyo

Finally we used a tonne of tape and then added fragile tape and a contents label in English and Japanese.

harpsicle harp tokyo fragile
The packing process took a little more than an hour. It did occur to me that if customs told me to unwrap this I would be royally screwed. Luckily, I got through with only a few odd looks and some questions. My real concern, however, was whether my harp would be damaged. Every musician I had chatted with had looked at me in horror when I had told them my intention of putting my harp in the hold. It took me 20 minutes and 3 papercuts to free my baby harp from it’s cardboard case but when I got it out it was undamaged and even mostly in tune. Victory.

It’s been really satisfying bringing my purple harpsicle to work and rehearsals this week and I recorded my first youtube video with it in years last weekend. It’s Galway Girl by Ed Sheeran and I’m not as ashamed of this as I should be.


China: Asia on Hard Mode

I was back home in April and it was all Tokyo and no harp but that was needed to happen.

In theory, one of the great things about living in Japan is that you are so much closer to other great Asian countries that would be too expensive and too much of a time commitment to go from the UK. As well as Japan, I’m interested in Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong but in reality I was always too busy travelling in Japan or just enjoying Tokyo to make it out of the country.

So, what better to end this chapter than going home via China? A good friend lives there and kindly offered to let me stay with her.

China is Asia on hard mode. Yes, Japanese culture is difficult to adapt to, and living in a country whose writing system has 80,000 characters instead of 26 can be extremely challenging but, fundamentally, Japan is a 住みやすい (liveable) place. It’s clean, it’s (mostly) safe, people are polite, it’s rich, it’s free and the infrastructure works. In China you have none of that. Beijing reminds me a little of the post apocalyptic society in Akira or something. The city has risen from the ashes but the infrastructure isn’t quite there and you can see the scars of it’s troubled past if you look closely. Beijing is huge, sprawling and feels lawless. You have massive, futuristic screens on the side of buildings and hugely rich people throwing disgusting amounts of money around but the toilets don’t work properly and there are beggars on the street. The pollution is awful, the waiters are rude and people spit in the street.

But to be honest I found a lot of this liberating. I am scruffy, loud and politeness does not come easily to me so sometimes I feel like a perpetual smudge on Japan. After stressing out for 18 months over excessive politeness it’s kind of refreshing when service people just throw your ticket to the temple at you. Where Japan has its famous train etiquette, in China you see people talking loudly on their phones and laughing with their friends. I felt looked at in China – yes strangers do ask to take pictures of you – but I never felt judged for not living up to a high standard of behaviour. Which I do in Japan sometimes, to be honest.

My friend is studying abroad and she was the perfect host. She has ace local knowledge but China is still exciting enough for her to be able to put up with doing the tourist stuff with me. There’s a phrase in Japanese, 雨女, which means woman who brings the rain, which is literally my life. It’s the Welsh blood in me, don’t invite me to your picnic if you want to stay dry. Beijing is supposed to be sunny this time of year but I managed to bring the rain EVEN THERE and the weather was awful for the first few days. That didn’t stop us hitting the beautiful Summer Palace (the irony isn’t lost on me), before hiding from the rain by catching some Beijing Opera. We watched a play about Liang Hongyu, a woman soldier who fights side by side with her husband, obviously right up my street. It was a bit of a marathon – 3 hours long with no interval. I still enjoyed it though, despite being very stylised it managed to be incredibly human. The costumes and the fight scenes were stunning too.

opera cropped

The highlight of the trip was definitely the Great Wall which was a big one on the bucket list for me. We got together with a group of my friend’s course mates and rented a driver for the 2 hour drive, which is something students can afford to do in China because labour is cheap. Luckily my 雨女 powers had worn off by then and the weather was lovely – we even had some blossom!

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2017-03-27 17.43.15Other things I enjoyed were the Forbidden City, which I spent hours wandering around by myself. The Lama Temple as well was a beautiful and calming experience. We took a day to do something completely different and go the 798 Art District. The area is the site of state owned factories, including the eponymous Factory 798, that began to be taken over by artists in the early 2000s. The result these days is an area filled with galleries, street art, trendy cafes and boutiques; essentially stamping ground for Beijing’s hipsters. There’s also THE BEST GELATO IN THE WORLD, which is what I’m eating, ever so elegantly, here.
For the first few days my friend took me around the Beijing subway but by day 3 she thought she had skipped enough class and I was on my own. I actually really like the experience of navigating around a strange country by yourself, deciphering things when you don’t really know what’s going on feels like an adventure and figuring it out can give you a real sense of satisfaction. I enjoyed Chinese food although, yeah, maybe be careful about what you get from the street vendors. Gelato aside, Peking duck was my favourite!

Beijing is fascinating, exciting and I had a fab six days. At points I was enjoying it so much I began to regret choosing Japanese instead of Chinese. But knowing myself, I like fresh air and things functioning so Japan is probably a better Asian country for me to live. China seems a fantastic place to travel though and I hope to experience more of it soon.

Adventures Skyewalking

Today’s post is a throwback. Living abroad and writing about it allows you to look at everything with curiosity and excitement. When I went home after over a year in Japan, I thought, ‘Why not look at the UK with this lens? Wouldn’t life be more fun if we recognised what’s interesting about our own countries, not just when abroad?’

To this end, I thought I would harken back to an adventure I had in Summer 2015 before I touched down in Japan, on the Scottish island of Skye.

Skye is like the surface of the moon. If the surface of the moon was very, very rainy.

We drove to Skye from near Loch Lomond, having spent a lovely couple of days ambling around the countryside and rowing in the loch with my godparents who live in the area and were kind enough to have myself and three of my friends to stay. My godparents, as true rural Scots should, savoured the opportunity to mock us for our weak Essex ways before we left (“What do you mean you’re going to Skye without waterproof trousers?!”) and give us sage advice on how to survive up north (Avon So Soft is the boss for midges. What also works is encouraging your friend who is trying to stop smoking to wait until after you get back, but if you find that morally questionable, the So Soft stuff really is excellent).

The hardcore Guide to the Scottish Islands shown to us by my Godparents has shunted Skye to the appendix because, since 1995, Skye is not technically an island thanks to erection of the Skye bridge. Island or nay, Skye is around 5 hours drive from Glasgow, across some spectacularly beautiful countryside. Fortwilliam makes a good stopping point as the last frontier of Starbucks levels of ‘civilization,’ and from there you can either go to the Skye bridge or get the ferry from the small town of Mallaig. Having done both on either end of the journey, there’s not much in it time wise so make your decision based on where your final destination is on the island and how tired your long suffering driver (in our case, me) is. Be warned though – most sat navs will take you to the ferry leaving you three hours from the bridge, and you will get laughed at by the locals at the Mallaig docks for blindly following your sat nav and confusingly asking where the bridge is. Not that this happened to us, you understand, it’s just what I heard…

From the ferry, where else could we be heading but the Skyewalker hostel? My inability to resist bad puns aside, this really is a great place to stay. Clean, cheap, friendly staff and better yet it’s a STAR WARS themed hostel and there’s a giant dome you can hang out and drink in while looking up at the stars. We stayed for 3 nights.


I was too chicken to swim in the Fairy Pools but I did dip my toe in, it was freezing. The Fairy Pools were the first thing we drove to in Skye and remained one of my favourite parts of the trip.

We braved walking across to get to the stunning black sand on Talisker Bay… and promptly graffitied it because we’re from Essex and awful like that.

Not gonna lie, after our escapades we were damp and hungry, so we treated ourselves to scones and hot chocolate at The Wee Tea Room. The proprietor displays some gorgeous photography he has taken over Skye and recommended us our next destination, which was a little off the beaten track.

We walked across a beach in the howling wind to reach this very creepy and awesome ruined church. I don’t know it’s name but it was a seriously spooky experience as the weather had turned terrible. We were writing a horror story about our inevitable demise to demon sheep.


And of course it’s pretty much compulsory to visit Talisker distillery to find out how some of the best whiskey in the world is made, and drink some yourself.

On the way back from Skye we stopped in the charming town of Plockton, one of the best places to see seals in the UK. We went on a boat ride and spotted these babies lolloping around – so cute!