Water-loving Kelly Wetherille left Minneapolis in 1997 and has moved around the globe ever since. She has been in Tokyo for the past 16 years and has steadily added a sheaf of skills to her portfolio. Unlike most people, Kelly has found a way to use all of her skills at once to create a multi-hyphen career.
Where do you come from?
I grew up in the suburbs of Minneapolis, MN. For those unfamiliar with the region, the state is nicknamed "Land of 10,000 Lakes," which is actually something of an understatement, but it's a nice, round number that sounds good. So needless to say, I was surrounded by water. Summers were spent boating, swimming, water-skiing and tubing on the lakes, and during the winters I did a lot of cross-country skiing, since the area gets a lot of snow but is also relatively flat.
Minneapolis is a great arts city, second in the U.S. only to New York in terms of theater seats, and with some of the best museums and galleries in the world. It was a great place to grow up, but I think I've come to appreciate it even more since I moved away.
Tell us a bit about what brought you to Japan?
I got the travel bug at a very young age, and as soon as I was old enough to leave the U.S. on my own, I did.
I lived in South Africa as a Rotary International exchange student, and then I enrolled in university in western Massachusetts (at the time, I wanted to get as far away from Minnesota as I could).
During college I lived and studied abroad in London and Quito, Ecuador, and I spent a summer backpacking solo across Europe. But for some reason Asia just never really called to me. Then my boyfriend at the time (who is now my husband) asked if I would ever consider going to Japan to teach English for a year or two after university. He had lived here as a child when his father was a diplomat at the Ecuadorian embassy, and he loved Japan and had always wanted to come back as an adult. I didn't really have any better ideas of what to do with my life at the time, so I said, "why not?" Somehow our one to two years has now morphed into 16 years!
So you didn't really have an interest in Japan before you came here?
Nope! I literally had no interest in Japan or even Asia in general. I don't know why - probably I just didn't know enough about the region, but I definitely never saw myself living here long-term. I had put so much time and energy into learning Spanish that I always thought I would be in a Latin American country, but now Japan has stolen my heart and I've realized what a difficult place it is to leave!
How do you think your early life influenced how you are and what you do today?
In so many ways. My mom says that my love for the water started in a water babies class that she took me to when I was just a few months old, and ever since then I have never felt as at home as I do when I'm in, on or near the water. Maybe that's why I love living in this particular island nation so much.
Also, my parents have always been very supportive of me. Growing up, they always told me I could be or do anything I wanted to, and even though my life has always followed unconventional paths, I have always had their support, which means so much to me.
Your multi-hyphen career really reflects this ethos. Describe your work and tell us about your unique angle?
The last time I worked a typical full-time desk job was seven years ago, but even then I was freelancing on the side. I have always loved having variety in my life--it's what stimulates the mind and keeps things interesting--and growing up, I always pictured myself doing some kind of active job rather than a desk job.
For a long time I wanted to be a nature guide or national park ranger, and I still think this would be a really cool thing to do. But for now I work mainly as a writer, editor, content creator, media consultant, website developer (Kelly was the designer behind The Tokyo Chapter blog) and sometimes translator, as well as teaching classes in SUP (stand up paddleboarding), yoga, and SUP yoga (yep, that's right, yoga on top of a SUP board)
Images copyrighted to Quincy Alivioo
WOW! That's a lot of balls to keep in the air! How do you balance everything and make sure you get everything done?
This is something I am still working on, but I have found that one of the hardest things as a freelancer is learning when and how to say no. It's true what they say about when it rains it pours, and so during those busy periods it's hard to turn down work because you never know when a dry spell might hit. But the older I get the more I learn that keeping my sanity is just as important as keeping myself afloat financially, so I have slowly started getting better about turning down a project or job every now and then.
I would love to be able to increase the number of classes I offer each week and to slowly reduce the amount of desk work I do, but at the moment this isn't possible since SUP and SUP yoga are still quite new to Japan and not very well known here. Getting a constant stream of students can be a bit of a challenge, plus you're always at the mercy of the weather (every year I have to cancel classes because of typhoons), so I need to have some kind of backup for times when it's just not possible to do many classes.
Can you share an epiphany you’ve had in the past that changed the way you live today?
I remember coming to a realization as a high school student that I regretted the things I didn't do much more than the things I did do. So from that point forward whenever I am unsure of something or going back and forth on it, I just try it and see how it goes. Whatever it is, if it doesn't work out or if I decide it's not for me I can always stop, but at least I know and no longer have to wonder about what could have been.
How do you feel about Japan?
I love Japan. I am one of those annoying people who is always telling friends back home about what an amazing place it is. Of course that doesn't mean that it is without its problems, but for me the good far outweighs the bad.
I will say that I think I have gotten more patient with the frustrating things about living in Japan (for example, dealing with banks and other institutions where bureaucracy and red tape rule), but I still definitely have my moments of frustration, just like anyone else. But I love the people, I have amazing friends--both Japanese and international--and I love how safe and convenient Japan is.
Tokyo truly is an incredibly easy city to live in but I also love traveling Japan. Even after having visited dozens of countries around the world, still some of the most breathtaking scenery I've seen has been in Japan, and I find that in the really rural places people are even more open, lovely and willing to help than they are in Tokyo. One thing that surprised me when I first came to Tokyo and that still impresses me to this day is just how easy it is to get to some really stunning, rural places from Tokyo. Even just an hour or two on the train can get you to some amazing spots, and I think we are truly fortunate to live in a place like that where we have the best of both worlds.
In search of peace and tranquility in the city. Where do you recommend?
Ha ha, I'm hesitant to give away my secrets! But one of my favorite places to go when I need some quiet time to think or just be alone with nature is the Institute for Nature Study in Shirokanedai. It's not a park in the sense that you're not allowed to play with balls or anything like that, and it isn't manicured at all - it truly is a natural oasis right in the middle of the city. It's also not very well known, so every time I go it is usually very quiet, with just a few families on walks and some amateur photographers or painters working on their craft. I also absolutely adore the garden at the Nezu Museum. It has such as peacefulness to it that it's hard to believe it's right in the middle of Omotesando!
My favourite season in Japan is….
As much as I love summer (yes, even Japanese summers--I'm a weirdo like that) I think I would have to go with autumn because there are just so many things to love about it. The brilliantly colored leaves are just the start. It's still warm enough that I usually don't start wearing a jacket until November or so, and the air gets fresh and crisp. It's a great time to travel to areas outside of Tokyo.
Also, the beaches empty out (only July and August are considered "in season" for the beaches near Tokyo) but the water stays warm, so it's the perfect time of year for SUP and other water sports. In fact, the sea around Japan stays warm for much longer than it does in places like California, thanks to warm currents that come up from the Philippines. My SUP yoga season goes from April through the end of November, which is very long and unheard of in many other places!
Connect with Kelly
Kelly is currently creating a sparkling new website for her media company. Follow along on her social media channels for an announcement.
Victoria Close from Bikudesigns talks kimono, business, Japanese design, life in Tokyo and all the things she loves.