This month Catherine O'Connell, inspirational lawyer and Japanophile talks about her amazing journey from the corporate world to becoming her own boss.
Where do you originate from?
I was born in Christchurch New Zealand in February - that's summer time. So since coming to Japan all my birthdays have been winter. Christchurch is a small city of 450k. My dad was a drafting engineer and my mum called herself a homemaker on the 5-year census form. I had three brothers and was the only girl. I think this was formative for me in my growing up because I still like being around and working with males and can do a lot of boy stuff like change car tyres.
When did you last live in NZ?
I last lived there in 2002 up to November when I came to Japan on November 11 that year.
Tell us a bit about what brought you to Japan?
When I was 16 I was in my last year of school and didn't really feel like I wanted to go to university and had a feeling about the tourism industry but had no idea how to get into it.
I went off to the Christchurch Polytechnic and long story short I took a year doing part time Japanese while studying a travel diploma (IATA) to become a travel agent. I loved the Japanese and applied for the full time course and got in. I started with basically "this is a dog" kind of Japanese and ended up coming first in Japanese class both years. During the second year of that course I came to Japan to Kurumayama Kogen in Nagano Prefecture to participate in a "New Zealand Fair" with my classmates. That sealed the deal for me about my love for Japan.
After that I won a NZ-wide Speak Japanese competition and first prize was a trip to Japan and one week in Tokyo. It was fabulous. I finished my Japanese studies and became a tour guide for JTB, and during that time my customers asked me lots about NZ law and business. That got me studying more about the NZ legal system and with the help of a Japanese friend who had done law at Keio, and encouraged me, I left JTB and went to University finally to study law and teach Japanese to the first years.
Upon graduating I took up a job with a firm in Christchurch looking to expand into the Japanese market and was the first Japanese speaking lawyer in NZ in a law firm. During those years I got into anything Japanese I could, - the Japan Festival, the Sister City Committee with Kurashiki and I brought student groups and mayoral groups to Japan for friendship visits. After 7 years in the firm, my great friend Tania showed me an advert in a law magazine advertising for an in-house counsel in Japan and I applied for it and got that job. That is what got me here 15 years ago and I have stayed since!
So you worked in the corporate world for how many years?
I worked in NZ in a law firm for 7 years. In Japan I basically have been in-house lawyer for the 15 years I’ve been here except for 4 years when I worked for an international law firm and had one year with them in Tokyo and one in London and two on secondment to a corporate Japanese multinational.
It’s big step from working in the corporate world to entrepreneur. What were the reasons you decided to take a new direction?
During working in my last corporate role as Head of Legal, I was faced with what ended up being 8 months with no support person when my legal staff left the company. There was no service to hire a part time lawyer, and the only option was a very expensive associate from a large firm and there was no budget for that. This spurred an idea for me to one day provide a flexible lawyer service for short term secondments. I didn't know how I could do that but knew it was not available in the market and was a gap begging to be filled. After 5 years with this company in 2017 I was entitled to receive retirement so as I turned 50 in 2017 I decided to leave and make a go of running my own firm that can provide short term and flexible secondments. And that is where it is and so the plan has come true and is unfolding now as a real viable business.
Can you tell us about the services you offer and who your ideal clients are?
My expertise is in Commercial/business law, corporate, compliance and regulatory. I have three buckets of clients I love to look after. They are in-house legal teams, Japanese law firms and yes, entrepreneurs who are growing a maturing business or just set up and need legal structures in place.
First is as I alluded to above, working for legal departments in companies large or small as seconded in-house counsel to cover their gaps in staff, project work, maternity cover etc. So working for them anything from 1 hour a week to 1 day a week for legal needs. Those clients can be also on retainer.
Second is for Japanese law firms who need to expand overseas and don't want to hire a full-time head count but need a lawyer with Japanese and English on hand so I help them to strategise and work with their overseas clients, usually as a "secret weapon" in the background.
Three favourite places in Japan, your favourite season, the best cocktail bar.
Kurashiki, Naoshima and Miyajima. Favourite season is Autumn - the RELIEF when that humidity of summer has dropped away and the evening insects are singing away. The best cocktail bars are Apero or Crista- especially for Shiso martinis!!
Three best places for working lunches...us entrepreneurs gotta eat right?
Oh yes. I love going to Roti in Roppongi for lunch - you can have super healthy or burgers and nice wine there. I also like Zealander in Maru building. It serves,... you guessed it... NZ food like lamb and other delicious cuisine. Third, Longrain for Thai in Ebisu Garden Place.
What are your plans for the future of Catherine O’Connell Law? Any special projects you can tell us about?
Since I just kicked off 2.5 months ago it is all about building the brand and a book of clients. I have just got a secondment (which is terribly exciting) so that will take me a while to work through. I can see the business will ramp up faster than I thought so I am on the look out to hire part time lawyers who have in-house experience. I think this could end up being Japanese bengoshi (lawyer) women who have left full time work to have a baby and have not returned to the grind of big law firm work. They are brilliant and want to work, but not full time, so my next project is to build up a jinzai-bank of lady lawyers who want to work with me to disrupt the legal services market in Japan. The other thing I am working on doing is podcasts/interviews of general counsel and lawyers working in house in Japan.
How can we find out more about you and follow your updates?
You can read more about my backstory on my website www.catherineoconnelllaw.com.
I write a blog post every month so please check my blog on the website drop down menu. I also publish my posts on LinkedIn and Facebook.
For anyone receiving Tax Accountant Ms. Yasuko Mori's Community Newsletter, I am guest writer there every other month until Feb 2018.
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This month, Tokyo-based Australian interior designer Katie O'Brien talks about life, design and her personal mission of living life as an aspiring zero-waster.
Where are you originally from?
I was born in Tweed Heads, Australia - half way between the Gold Coast and Byron Bay. During winter I lived on netball courts with weekends spent travelling in buses up and down the east coast of Australia, from Cairns to Sydney playing netball in squads and representative teams. Whilst in summer I lived on the beach at Greenmount Surf life-saving club, competing in Nippers as a junior, cadets as a senior then doing weekend Surf Life Saver patrols. All I wanted to do was be outside, run around and do sport - that was my life!
When did you last live in Australia?
I last lived in Melbourne, Australia in January of 2016. My Husband Ash and I had been based there for three years at that stage. Ash is originally from Melbourne but we met in Brisbane where we both lived and worked as Interior Designers at the time (I am a Commercial workplace / office Designer, he was an Educational and Institutional Designer). I studied Design and worked in Architecture firms for a total of 10 years in Brisbane and prior to that lived in Sydney for 2 years where I studied Design straight out of school.
Tell us a bit about what brought you to Japan and how long you have been here?
I had travelled to Tokyo twice as a tourist and on the second trip with Ash I proposed to him on the rooftop of our favourite design hotel (Hotel Claska in Meguro) with Mt Fuji sparkling in the distance - so Tokyo is a favourite city of ours!
We always wanted to live here but without being fluent in the language we never thought it would happen. So we targeted international Design and Architecture firms based in Tokyo, assuming they would be more willing to accept a foreigner. After stalking the website of Gensler and Associates for only 2 months (the world’s largest design firm with over 5,500 employees and 56 studios globally) a job came up and I applied and was accepted! We then had to finish a renovation (of which were part way through) get married (which we had been planning for a year) go on a post wedding holiday to Europe (for 5 weeks), return home, pack up as much as possible and move - all within 3 months! I arrived in Tokyo on February 13th 2016 and Ash came 2 months later.
Did you always have an interest in Japan? Was there a moment you remember that inspired you to try life in Japan?
Coming from an Architecture and Design background, Japan holds a special place for nerds like us! Japanese design principles are placed on a pedestal during our formal education and learning about the masters such as Tadao Ando and Kengo Kuma at university is what started my obsession. Japan is a myriad of contradictions at her core; old and new, futuristic and traditional, loud and crazy yet wonderfully serene. This juxtaposition is what draws Designers and Architects in as we try and make sense of the cultural landscape, the physical fabric of the environment and the lexicon of the city.
3 things you love about Japan. 3 things you can really live without.
Love: Efficiency, Selflessness, Midnight blue skies
Not so much: Beige overcoats, Japanese Patriarchy, Business bureaucracy
Tell us a little about your personal mission.
I was always BUSY in Australia, lecturing, volunteering, renovating, playing sport, going to design events, working stupidly long hours, trying to being social - I didn't know how to say 'No' to people. As ludicrous as
it sounds, I had to move to the busiest city in the world to learn how to relax a little; a Japanese paradox in
every way. So these days I have learned how to say no. To take time for myself, my body, my mind and
respect mother earth, all of which have recently lead to a pursuit of a minimalist, Zero Waste lifestyle.
Q & A Corner
I’m finding it so hard to reduce waste here in Tokyo. What reaction do you get when requesting your coffee be made in your own reusable cup? I feel like they take such pride in their presentation and packaging of products that it might be a bit awkward? Coupled with the fact I can’t speak Japanese to make the request clearly.... can you also tell me how to ask to use your own cup in Japanese please?
Saying 'No' to excessive packaging is all about a combination of confidence and politeness. I have my regular cafes I get coffee from so the staff know I use my own cup. But at the start it was hard, so I asked my Japanese friends to write down translations for me. Recently THE TOKYO CHAPTER did a great blog piece on 'Zero Waste lifestyle' in Japan and featured some simple Zero Waste phrases you can use in Japanese.
You have such great tips to reduce waste. I was wondering if you have tried to convince friends and family to adopt a zero-waste lifestyle? Have you been successful?
My friends and family are well aware of my Zero Waste aspirations and it has taken time for them to adapt to this new lifestyle too. For example, no more omiyage for Japanese coworkers is a big thing given how culturally ingrained it is here. But I use this as an opportunity to educate them about Zero Waste decisions.
For close friends and family I purchase them Zero waste presents. For example, bathroom kits that have bamboo toothbrushes, natural toothpastes, soap bars and cosmetics in recyclable packaging. Or stylish reusable coffee cups, water bottles or carry bags that are easily used day to day. This inevitably makes them conscious of their decisions and propels them in a more thoughtful sustainable way themselves.
I’d like to know more about how you feel about working in Japan - as a woman who is killing it! I’d love to know how you felt when you first moved here - a city with sooooo much creative design and inspiration - I imagine it would have been brain overload at first!
Navigating Japanese business practice has been the one thing I've struggled with the most since moving here. No amount of reading or research can prepare you for how different the work culture is compared to Western practice. However, the best advice I've been given as an assertive, confident western woman in Japan is 'slowly, slowly, gently, gently'. Japan takes its time, and you just need to be patient. I'm lucky to work for a company who prides itself on both its Eastern and Western approach to business and I have a great mentor with our current Design Director being an American woman with over 25 years’ experience who lived and worked in Japan 20 years ago as a graduate!
In terms of inspiration, when I first moved to Tokyo it was frighteningly overwhelming. I really felt like for the first 6 months I was treading water and failing at life! Learning how to go to the bank, how to post letters, navigate the city, go to the super market - HOW MANY DIFFERENT SOY SAUCES CAN THERE REALLY BE IN ONE AISLE??? Once I got this 'living' thing down pat, then then creativity and inspiration hit me and I've never looked back! Moving to a completely different country (at age 33 mind you) is like being a kid experiencing so many firsts! I find wonder in footpath tiles, shrine statues, lost clothing, kombini shelves,
people’s faces. Absolutely everything is new to me, I see it all through a special 'Japanese filter' and as cheesy as it sounds, I fall more in love with this country and its people every day.
I’d love to hear any tips on where to shop for package-free groceries!
Then with your interior design hat on, any tips you might have for establishing a home office with very limited space!
The best way to shop for package free groceries is to keep it local! The Aoyama Farmers Market is held at United Nations university is every Saturday and Sunday from 10-4pm. LINK HERE
The sellers will want to put your produce in a plastic bag but I come prepared with my cloth bags and they are always obliging - sometimes giving me free produce for bringing my own bag! Not only do they have fresh, local produce but a rotating roster of social events as well. One week you might have a coffee festival, followed by a vintage clothes sale or a rice growers market the next week. So we make a day out of it, buy our fresh food and then have lunch and check out the events.
The key to a home office with very little space? Digitise as much as possible, as regularly as possible. Invest in cloud storage (so you always have back-ups) and scan hard copies, file them and recycle the original. Invest in great software that allows you to draw / mark up on PDFs such as Adobe X reader or Bluebeam meaning you don’t have to print paper.
Issue receipts digitally via email and if you HAVE to send things via mail, paper envelopes all the way. Minimise your stationery (no need for 20 different pens, just keep 3) and use file boxes to organise the stuff you do need to keep. On the last Friday of each month do an office clean up: digitise, minimise and relax! If you keep on top of it, the space will always be organised.
Top tips for eco friendly living room.. I’m well aware of kitchen stuff, bathroom - but not the living room. Tips on heat/cold, plants etc.
PLANTS, PLANTS, PLANTS are the best ECO friendly lounge room item you could get! I love plants but I tend to love them too much, over water them and they die. So I choose pants that are resilient such as Devils Ivy, Aloe Vera, Ivy, Cactus and Monstera. Other tips include using breathable cotton fabrics for lounge covers and cushions that can easily be removed and washed (rather than dry cleaned with chemicals and unnecessary plastic). During winter we preheat our bedroom for an hour before bed, and set a timer for it to turn off as we fall asleep. In summer we use a fan to keep the air moving and use AC before bed the same way we use the heater.
Other Zero Waste tips:
My Zero Waste journey started after living in Tokyo for two years and feeling like I was producing triple the waste as to when I was living in Australia. YES Japan has next level recycling but a lot of collected waste is still burned, placed in landfill or shipped overseas to process. Globally, recycling is not the aim anymore. We need to say NO to packaging in the first place or aim to purchase non-plastic items.
Check out @ecostore.jp in Ebisu. This store offers a variety of dish liquids, laundry liquids and fabric softeners that you can purchase by using your own containers.
How can we find out more about you and follow your updates?
Follow me for Her Waste info and tips @eco.de.iko on Instagram
Or for my design life @katietectonic
Any final take-aways for us aspiring zero-wasters…
Four easy changes you can make are:
1. Love fizzy water like me? Then buy a Soda stream! I am addicted to ours and you can sign up online in Japan for refillable canister delivery or do this in person at Tokyu Hands or Bic Camera.
2. Ditch the pre-packed sauces, dressings, curry packs etc and go fresh! Grow fresh herbs (or use dried ones) to make bases from scratch. You can buy spices in bulk at Bulkfood stores in Shin Maruko and Moto-Sumiyoshi https://www.bulkfoods-market.com/ (they plan to open a Tokyo location soon) or buy online in BULK and minimise packaging that way.
3. Buy a blender - even a little hand held one which will help you make your new amazing sauces from the above spices and some really tasty desserts!
4. If you HAVE to buy packaged goods, choose paper or cardboard first or aluminum cans as they can be RECYCLED fully instead of DOWN-CYCLED.
A lovely customer messaged me with a jewellery problem the other day. She had been travelling with her neckpiece and had somehow tangled it up so that it was now unwearable. After posting it to me, I saw that the fix was easy... I was imaging complete disassembly and restructure.
Watch this short video to see how I solved it and how to care for your neckpieces.
This month I chatted on Messenger with Jacqui Miyabayashi, a long-term resident of Japan, based in the Osaka area. Read on to be inspired about setting up a business or making a career change.
Where do you originate from?
I was raised in a suburb of Auckland, New Zealand's largest city. We spent a lot of time at the beach or in the pool. I had a very normal upbringing. I left when I was 24.
Tell us a bit about what brought you to Japan?
I was worried that I was becoming stuck. Japan was supposed to be a stepping stone to more travel - that didn't quite work out! I was a fairly new graduate at the time and working at the phone company.
Were you working in NZ at the time?
I was working as a sales rep for the telephone company, in a busy call centre. I was one of the top-ranking reps at the time and was doing very well. I had been there for two years, straight out of business school. It wasn't very taxing although I enjoyed it. I hadn't planned to stay that long but the money ... Japan was a good way out of it! My plan was to get into the marketing department but it never seemed to happen.
Did you always have an interest in Japan? Was there a moment you remember that inspired you to try life in Japan?
Ironically I had NEVER been interested in Japan. In fact I had taken Japanese at school and hated it. The only reason I came here was because my brother was here. I wanted to work and travel in Europe.
But fate brought you here...and then you met your husband!
Yes, I always joke about that UNFORTUNATE turn of events!
And you have children which complicates matters somewhat!
I feel bad that the kids are growing up so differently from how I grew up but living where we do has made it more like what I wanted it to be like for them.
You've tried a number of different career paths in the years since your children were born. Tell us about what you got up to.
I have tried all kinds of things. I resigned from my job as a human resources manager after a year of maternity leave.
I had a mom-blog called Osaka Mothers and I helped run a playgroup while studying to become a lactation consultant. I started trying to monetise my blog using all kinds of online marketing strategies. Blogging was still kind of new then.
Most of my attempts to make money revolved around the internet and having flexible work hours because I had committed to being at home with my son. I tried selling decorated birthday cakes, designing cards, teaching cooking classes, running a craft blog ... All kinds of stuff!
I was still exploring ideas up until my second child was born and I did have some time off with him but eventually I started a sewing business and a cafe conversation class when he was a year old.
So that's how Mee a Bee started?!
I wanted a business that I could run from home around the needs of my kids. After doing some research I decided there was a gap in the market for quality bags for kids. It was a match for my skillset so I started an Etsy store selling bags for preschoolers.
The philosophy of the company is that I only ever use Japanese fabrics, the fabrics are non-commercial character, imagination-inspiring designs, all handmade bags.
And how long after you set up Mee a Bee did you realise that you wanted to add another string to your business bow?
Mee a Bee is in its 11th year now. Five years ago I started a consulting business helping women launch and run their own businesses. Hanging my shingle as a consultant was a full-circle moment because I had always wanted to run a business that used my marketing and business management skills since that is what I studied at university. Before the internet came along that seemed like an unobtainable dream and I felt deep regret and guilt over that.
Tell us more about that.
Honestly, for years I felt like I had missed the boat, that my degree was worthless. Mee a Bee opened my eyes to the possibilities of the internet. I wish I could say that I immediately was great at helping others but it took a long time for me to regain the confidence I had lost from being "just a stay at home mum".
Five years on I can confidently say that I am a marketing consultant and business mentor. I love helping women in business, in particular expat women, because I have walked that path too.
What are your plans for the future of your marketing business? Any special projects you can tell us about?
There is so much exciting stuff going on in the online world and so many women are taking life by horns and going for it. I feel deeply proud to be part of the women's empowerment movement.
I have a talent for simplifying the complex and making the steps easy (to build a business). Anyone can do it! My plan is to keep growing personally and professionally and to help as many women as I can to realise their dreams.
If anyone reading this is wondering how to get started or how to achieve more balance in her life as a mother and an entrepreneur then the best place to start is my Facebook group, One of a Kind Life https://www.facebook.com/groups/oneofakindlifers/
If you’re looking for more one-on-one support then message me or get in touch. I run several mentoring programs and provide support to women in the early stages of business. My website is the place to visit to learn more: https://jacquimiya.com/
The rising tide lifts all ships. It's time for (expat) women to lead more fulfilling and meaningful lives. If having a business is the means to that end then I am the person who can help you achieve that.
Find out more and follow Jacqui
Jacqui Miyabayashi Consulting website: https://jacquimiya.com/
Business Facebook Page https://www.facebook.com/jacquimiyabayashiconsulting/
One of kind life Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/oneofakindlifers/
Instagram @jacquimiya and @meeabee
See the selection of Jacqui's toddler bags here.
Hope you can stop by the Collective Market co-hosted by Bikudesigns, Turquoise Port and Foodie Tours Japan to celebrate the launch of the Best Living Japan Studio. It's always lovely to see some friendly faces and to show you my work in person (as well as have a cheeky chat!).
Find out more about the event and the fabulous vendor line-up here.
I'll be doing an interesting give-away at the event....something fun I've never done before. Come and join the fun and you might even win a piece of jewellery to take home with you.
Where do you originate from?
I’m originally from the UK - a town called Ilford, Essex which is also in the Greater London area. It’s quite a typical British town really and somewhere that has always been popular with immigrants due to its closeness to London.
When did you last live in the UK?
I last lived there in 2000. That’s the year I came to Japan.
Did coming from an area with so many different cultures give you the idea to see more of the world?
Perhaps that’s more to do with my own background. My mother is Polish and she came to the U.K. in her mid-twenties (back during times where it was actually quite difficult to travel because of communism). So seeing more and wanting to experience more of the world has always been part of her story that I knew. I never thought I’d settle in Japan, though. I saw myself more as someone suited to Europe...but I’ve always felt comfortable here.
Do you speak Polish?
Only very basic Polish. I could speak much more as a child thanks to holidays in Poland and my mum speaking to us in Polish. As children, my sisters and started to refuse to speak Polish, though, as all our friends spoke English and our family language was English. We also refused to go to our Saturday Polish school. If the 3 of us, my Polish stayed the strongest as I was the oldest, and listening-wise I can understand a decent amount, but my spoken Polish is low.
I actually still find Polish more familiar to listen to (I guess what you hear and are exposed to in the formative years is really important). I guess my spoken Japanese is stronger, though.
Tell us a bit about how you came to Japan?
I originally came to Japan to teach English in a conversation school. My degree was in English and I thought I’d better make some sort of use out of it. Before coming to Japan, I’d been working as a fitness instructor (my passion back then) but I hurt my back quite badly by over doing things and that’s when I thought I should do something less physically demanding on my body. I saw an ad to teach English in Japan in the newspaper and applied quite on a whim. Japan had never been a consideration at all before that. I got hired by the English conversation school company (GEOS) and then 3 months later I was in Japan.
Tell us about your Tokyo family.
I live with my Japanese husband and our 3 sons (10, 7, and 4).
It’s big step from being an English teacher to becoming a Doula. How did you get into that line of work?
It was really my experience in labour with my first son, as figuring out my way as a new mother, that was the catalyst. That labour was tougher than I ever imagined it could be and while it went fine, I felt scared and very overwhelmed through it all. It was afterwards, through Tokyo Mothers Group which I started running after he was born, that I met someone who was a Doula and what she did really resonated with me. I felt that emotionally and mentally I’d have coped a lot better with labour if I’d had someone there to encourage and motivate me (as well as reassure my husband)!
The word Doula actually means “woman who serves” or “woman servant” - derived from Greek. So we are there to serve the needs of the woman in labour.
For anyone who doesn’t know what a Doula does, can you explain the job?
A Doula is like a birth coach. Someone who is their for both parents in labour to offer practical advice and emotional and physical support. We help with breathing techniques, positions, massages and other comfort measures, as well as offer reassurance (to both mum and dad), encourage the mum when things are getting challenging and provide motivation to try certain things to get things going more effectively in labour. For the dad, we can help him become more involved if he is feeling like a spare part or not sure how to help (she can give suggestions). We can also help advocate for what the mum would ideally like to have (or not have in labour), and also do birth photography and videos for those who request. There’s so much involved and each couple and each labour is different!
Do you mainly work with international families?
Yes, exclusively with international families.
On average how many families/ couples do you support in labour each year?
It can vary, but 17–18 on average. This year looks like it will be more already. There are waves of busy periods just like contractions.
I work 10 months of the year with the summer months off while I’m back in the U.K.
It must a terribly rewarding job but tough on your family at times when Mummy disappears in the middle of the night. How do you cope with that aspect of your work?
Yes, the unpredictability of the job is not for everyone and I think it only works because my husband also works for himself so has a fair amount of flexibility, too. My kids actually don’t seem too bothered by me suddenly needing to leave - they are used to it now. My clients are all good at giving me a heads-up, too, so that it’s not too sudden.
Do you keep in touch with the clients after they give birth and get updates on the babies as they grow?
Yes, there are some clients I’ve stayed quite close to and others who are less close (as with any relationship you can definitely form closer connections with some people). But I’m usually in touch by Facebook or email seeing how the babies/children are doing.
And finally, are there any groups or forums you can recommend for new parents in Tokyo?
So many - definitely Tokyo Mothers Group (website and Facebook). From there, it’s very easy to find and connect with others living near to you and also find out if there are other more local groups around (such as your Inokashira Odakyu Parents group). Lots of our members have their own blogs (related to having a family in Tokyo) and playgroups, too, and we keep a fairly up-to-date list on the website.
For more information, contact Stephanie here:
Tokyo Doula Support
Tokyo Mothers’ Group on Facebook
Tokyo Mothers’ Group website
Tokyo Pregnancy Group
Where do you originate from?
Hello! I'm Australian. From Melbourne, actually.
I'm the oldest of four girls. We lived in a lovely green suburb outside of Melbourne that used to be considered a bit far out of town but I'm pretty sure it isn't anymore! I'd love to say that I grew up beside the beach like most people like to think all of us Aussies do but Melbourne's famous for having weather that often decides to change its mind throughout the day.
Did you always have a love of Japan? Do you remember the moment that inspired you to move to Japan?
I kind of .. well..kind of ....fell into it all. When I started my first year of high school it was compulsory to learn a language for two years - then you could decide whether or not you would continue with it after that.
My school offered Japanese and French and, especially at that time, Japanese made a lot more sense to me as Australia had lots of trade ties with Japan. In fact, a few years later our career counselors were even hinting that even having Beginner Level Japanese on our first real resumes would make us more employable.
So ...yes... long story short... I really liked it and I had a great language teacher who said I had nice intonation for a beginner...and blah blah blah... I kind of decided that I would go with it! I did a few state language competitions through school and then I was encouraged to apply for a scholarship to live in Japan as an exchange student for one year. I was delighted and terrified when I was accepted! So off I went to Kurashiki in Okayama (properly proper Japanese countryside - I'm talking rice fields the whole lot) for a year at the age of 16!
I had a fabulous time, don't get me wrong. It was an invaluable experience. But I also think it is why I will never, ever, EVER downplay it when I meet someone in Japan who is right in the midst of culture shock. Its a really horrible feeling and makes you question a lot about yourself and just the basic, everyday things you do and the reactions you have. I'm kind of lucky that I got it all (and I feel like a smack-bang got whacked in the face kind of got it!) out of the way so early.
I revisited Kurashiki recently with my Hubby and kiddies and I actually felt really proud of myself after seeing that quaint and very traditional town. My husband was surprised too. He was like "Whoa...there really isn't ANY English here, is there!?" (So I relished in feeling like a hero for as long as I could.) I just remember one of my first nights there and my Mum called to see how I was going and it was in the middle of dinner. I said, "I'm great!" (then burst into tears), "But my dinner is a whole fish and the eye keeps looking at me…."
How did you end up back in Japan?
After that time in Kurashiki, I went back to OZ, finished high school, went to Uni - but I sort of flip-flopped around not really sure exactly what I wanted to do but Japan and Japanese was always the constant. I wanted to get back to Japan and especially as an adult this time. Home stay was sooo amazing and I really got to get my brain around real Japan but I was also fantastic to be Japanese during the day but be 100 % me once the sun went down.
So I did a working holiday in Japan and taught English to kiddies in the morning and language school at night. This was in Kobe in the Kansai area of Japan. I then got a job with an International Ballet school where I started off looking after ballet students who were training to be professionals and then quickly moved into full-time cultural & language support for the teachers - who were all from English speaking countries. I then moved onto working for the Japanese hotel chain Okura.
I met my husband in Kobe and although we moved around and have done some other overseas expat roles together I've always worked in a Japanese speaking environment so I was naturally thrilled when we found out he had been offered a role in Tokyo when I was pregnant with my second child.
What inspired you to start blogging?
Because, even though I've gone back and forth, I've been in Japan such a long time (over 11 years now) I was the person a lot of friends would ask for tips and tricks before they were coming to visit. I was almost always writing the same things out again and again and the level of detail varied depending on how busy I was that particular day.
I'm just so madly in love with Japan that I was sad when I heard that people had the money or wanted to really get into 'the thick of it' but just didn't know where to go. And then... I had my own personal instagram account where I started showing people the places that were particularly good for taking kids and talked about my frustrations when I came to adjusting to a new way of getting around with children (my youngest was just 4 months when we arrived in Tokyo.)
There are lots of Mums, like me, who want to do fun things for kids but ALSO want to mix it up with cool things for them too - that's how I pretty much always plan out our adventures. Kiddie stuff, kiddie stuff, Me stuff, Me stuff, Kiddie stuff.
I was doing all of this research in English and Japanese to plan out my own days and I thought it might help others. And I got a really big response. A big response from young women without any children who wanted to know where I'd taken that cool shot or eaten that meal ...and then also from Mums who were just like me, who didn't want to just stick to the easy completely English-friendly spots - they wanted to get out there, see cool things and have proper, exciting adventures as a family. I liked the idea of not just saying, 'Here is this cool park', but going to the next step and saying, 'And then after the park , go around the corner and there is this cool shop to get this funky coffee ... and if the kids get bored on the way home? Stop off here, here and here!' I've had such an amazing response and I've met some truly spectacular people . It's been such a pleasure.
Your blog and social media channels very much feature you and your family. How do you find the confidence to get up close and personal with your audience?
Do I seem confident? Well that's a bonus. I think the brilliant response I have had has made me want to keep posting and making quality, detailed content. My readers aren't silly. They know how to get themselves and their family from A to B once they are aware of what's out there, so I didn't feel the need to walk them through the towns but just give as many interesting options as I could.
I think I'm confident with what I'm sharing because it's real. It's my real life right now. My kids won't be this little forever but this is me ACTUALLY looking for a cool place to have lunch after the park. I'm also fine to post a picture or video of my kids having a meltdown. That's also real life (ha ha). I remember last year I took a video of my kids when we were on a Ferris wheel right next to Mt. Fuji. The view was STUNNING! BREATHTAKING! I turned the camera to the kidlets “Check that out, guys!", I said. And my youngest said, “Let’s go back to the car!!!!!!”
I was a bit cocky when we moved to Tokyo with kids at the start. I was like, "This is going to be sooo easy for me. I speak Japanese and I know the whole 'Japan drill'". But ... no I got a shock! Not because it's difficult to live here with kids (in fact the opposite) but there are different types of obstacles compared to other international cities.
So what's next for The Tokyo Chapter?
Ooohhhh .... well the most immediate plans are to write a lot more things that are geared towards people without kids (does that sound like the best excuse to go on more date nights that you've ever heard?) while keeping up my Tokyo with Kids content.
Of course, I'd love to work more with Japanese event planners and eateries to let them know that they are missing a big space in the market by not making all of their restaurants more accessible for young families. And also just letting people know that there are international people here who are adventurous and are foodies and are loving Japan and are wanting to delve deeper into the real Japan. I'm also hoping to start up a blog, or at least an Instagram, in Japanese with the same themes and vibe that I have going right now. Further down the track I'd love to have some Tokyo Chapter events but that's all just little dreams on a Pinterest board for now.
Your branding is on-point. Before we finish, can you give us three quick tips to creating a cohesive brand?
Oh thank you. I'm still learning as I go.
1 I think what has worked for me so far is REALLY KNOWING MY AUDIENCE. I'm lucky because it's quite easy for me as it's basically just... me! Well, me if I hadn't been here before and didn't speak the language.
My reader is outgoing and adventurous and wants to see all of the cool stuff and make spectacular memories. If she's a Mum? Well, she would walk on fire for her babies so wants them safe and smiling. She wants to see them really experience this country - wholeheartedly. I have lots of women responding to my posts who are writing to me and telling me what they wish they could do or sharing with me something cool they have found. They are also happy to share what didn't work for them and my mind is opened up again. I actually have 3-4 of my friends who read and follow my content who I have in mind when I'm posting on Instagram or writing an article and I think, 'Is this how I would tell them the details in real life?' and then I try to stick with my most natural ‘voice’.
2. CONSISTENT FLOW & DESIGN
If you've looked at my blog or Instagram you'll see right away that I'm a visual person. I like to make sure my photograph colours are bright and my fonts and messages are quite girlie (I've always been a really girlie girl) So my theming is broad but I'd like to think that people could see one of my posts and have a good stab in the dark guess that it was from me.
3. My final of the three (I'm not even sure if this is usually included as a part of branding but it's something that has surprised me in how effective it has been) is ... CONSISTENCY And, this time, I don't mean from a design perspective. I mean that it's about showing up and showing people that you're serious and committed to truly detailed posts with the reader in mind. People start Instagram accounts and blogs everyday but not many people have the stamina to keep it up. I found that people were so much more comfortable with really looking at what I was doing when they realized that I was serious about it and I'd be following up with something more tomorrow.
How can we find out more about you and follow your updates?
I use stories to show our adventures and share/ ask for opinions on a daily basis.
Each month of 2018 I'll be interviewing Japan-based business women who are carving out their own unique niche.
This month, interiors curator Alex talks about life before setting up her business and the inspiration behind her idea.
Where do you originate from?
I grew up in a veeeeery small village in Thuringia, eastern Germany with a population of around 350 people. Very rural area, not too much going on. I had just turned 15 when the Iron Curtain fell.
Wow! How did life change after that happened?
Not too much changed immediately, but it opened a lot of doors a few years later. I would never be where I am now as we did have rather heavy travel restrictions imposed on us.
When did you last live for a period of time in Germany?
I moved to Ireland in early 1998 and never returned to live in Germany again. I learned English in Dublin and worked as an Au Pair. Onto London after that. I gave myself two months to find a job and ended up staying for 10 years interrupted by one year of traveling the world. Getting a job in London was pretty easy back then. My background is banking/finance and there was quite a bit of demand for people like me. My first job in was with an American stockbroking company, followed by working for one of the largest hedge fund companies in Europe and a start-up Merchant Bank. Exciting times!
I met my husband in London, he’s from New Zealand. After we got married we decided to move to Auckland. That was back in 2009. When we first arrived on the shores of NZ I worked as a translator at NZ Rail and also had a job at the University of Auckland before re-joining the financial world, working in the Wealth Management Department at HSBC NZ.
We had just purchased our dream house when my husband was asked to move to Bangkok for his job. I was sooo excited! I always loved Bangkok and had spent quite a bit of time there during my travels. That was in 2013. I ended up running the Thai-Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Bangkok. Never thought I'd do anything like that in my life!
On to Kuala Lumpur in 2015, again with my husband’s job. I changed direction again and wrote for a magazine as well as being in the editorial team. Another move came in January 2017. Tokyo!
Do you think living in so many different countries has shaped your thinking/ outlook?
Definitely! I am a lot more patient than I used to be, more open-minded and possibly more tolerant.
Being exposed to so many different cultures and countries was the best thing that ever happened to me. And not just that: moving around quite frequently requires to keep an open mind about career choices. I became a lot more flexible and daring.
So, here you are in Tokyo...3 things you love about living here. 3 things you can really live without.
Love: The food!! The safety! And it is sooo clean!
I can live without: Winter! I am really suffering after 4 years in the tropics. Also: Language barriers and earthquakes.
I felt that injecting some colour into people’s lives is a very positive thing to do. The response from Tokyo’s foreign community was fabulous from the onset. That group of people is my main focus group for the time being. My customers like the colours as well as the uniqueness of most of my products.
I did quite a bit of research before I started, went to many shops and department stores and realised that nobody had the type of collection that I had in mind.
What are your plans for the future of Turquoise Port? Any special projects you can tell us about?
I didn't want to have an online shop initially as I like the direct contact with the customer. My products all have a story which might be the people that make the product, the history of an item or the material the product was made with. And I love telling the stories. However I get asked quite frequently about the possibility of online shopping so that is one of the projects I will be working on.
I also hope to do more collaborations with like-minded people in the entrepreneur space. Those may be joint projects, pop-up events etc.
How can we find out more about you and follow your updates?
I do have a website, but I mostly use Instagram and Facebook for updates. Or you can come to my showroom in Higashigotanda, (by appointment)!
Created for a Sony Pictures event for Angry Birds
I sharpened up my skills and began making cakes for my family and friends' celebrations. I realized that it was really a passion for me and I am still so excited every time when I get to make someone else happy with my cakes. It's such a privilege to share people's special occasions. I like to see how kids change in their cake requests from year to year, and I love hearing the stories of people's lives. Husbands who surprise their wives with thoughtful cakes, parents who book their child's first birthday cakes months ahead because they are so excited!
Cake decorating is very labor intensive so I find it hard to get long periods of uninterrupted time to create. I am thankful that my family and friends have been so supportive of me and I am lucky to be able to balance orders around the other responsibilities in my life in an attempt to get some balance. That being said, I often feel like I am sliding through on the skin of my teeth every day.
I try to push the limits with my cakes where I can. I love the challenge of interesting and unusual requests. I hope to make people say "Wow!", and the best comment, "I can't believe it's a cake!" Sometimes gravity is an annoying obstacle however!
Contact me at:
Victoria Close from Bikudesigns jewellery interviews creatives, bloggers, business people and curators to talk about their lives in Japan.