Tanuki: Japanese Raccoon Dog タヌキ

tanuki statue

The title I wanted to use for this article, “Tanuki: The Magical Canine with Gigantic Balls” was already taken by Tofugu.com. I mean, did you get a load of those things?


balls showing

There’s even a song about Tanuki balls:

The tanuki is an honest-to-goodness real animal that looks nothing like the figurine above. It belongs to the same animal family as wolves, dogs, and foxes, but is more racoon or badger-like in appearance.

Tanuki figures are said to represent prosperity, good luck, and cheer. They’re commonly found in front of bars and eaters, as well as in gardens. In Japanese folklore, the tanuki are portrayed as mischevious shape-shifters. THIS website has a ton of super interesting history and facts about tanuki.

As a 90’s kid, one of the coolest things I read about tanuki is that the racoon suit from Mario Bros. 3 is actually a tanuki suit. MarioWiki calls it a Tanooki Suit. And in the same way Mario needed the Super Leaf to turn into Tanooki Mario, the tanuki from folklore used leaves on their head to invoke their shape-shifting magic. Pretty neat, huh?

Many tanuki statues are made in Shigaraki (a town in our sister state, Shiga), which is know for it’s pottery and home to one of Japan’s ‘Six Old Kilns.’  (I’ll be sharing more about Shigaraki and its famous pottery in a future post.) Shigaraki is likely to be on the tour of the Shiga Sister State Trip, so you can pretty much guarantee I’ll be picking myself up a test-acular tanuki to bring home to Michgian.

I hope you enjoyed learning about tanuki and enjoyed my slightly adolescent sense of humor.

See you later! またね! (matane!)

Shiga Shar

If you enjoyed this post or learned something new, please share it on social media and consider donating a few bucks toward my 2017 Goodwill trip to Shiga through PayPal. Arigato/Thank you!



How to Afford a Trip to Japan When You’re Not Rich

Saving for Japan

I’m not wealthy. Not even a little bit. The main reason our family of seven survives on a modest single income and some babysitting or freelance writing income here and there is a combination of careful budgeting, simple living (cooking from scratch, thrift store shopping, self-sufficiency practices, etc.), and a bit of good luck.

I’m a firm believer that if you want something bad enough, you can and will make it happen. I really really REALLY REEEEEALLY want to go to Japan. Really bad. And I know that my family is not in the position to afford it without some serious planning and dedicated saving.

I understand that my savings ideas and plan may not be the right fight for you, but I thought I’d share my strategy to inspire other average-lower income folks to seek out creative and clever ways to save up for a big trip, vacation, or special thing you want to do this year. Life is short. Start living it!


There are two income tax returns before my Japan trip, and I’m hoping to be able to put aside a nice chunk of change from each one toward my trip. However, self-employment and income taxes can be a tricky thing. So *fingers crossed* for nice returns!


Solid meal planning not only saves money on groceries, it prevents the expense of unnecessary take-out or dining out trips. I’m guessing I can save around $100 each month with tighter meal planning. That’s approximately $1,000 in savings for the year I can put toward my trip.

Normally, I’m a pretty decent meal planner and smart grocery shopper, but I definitely slacked a bit over the last six months or so after losing my father to cancer this summer and losing our beloved family bulldog in the Fall after she got hit by a car. I truly hope this new year is much kinder to our family.

Pinterest is my favorite meal planning tool. I also keep a notebook with 30 tried and true meals (along with a side-dish list) where I pick about a couple weeks worth of meals at a time and shop accordingly.



I hate price matching in the busy check-out lane, so I use the Wal-Mart Savings Catcher app (free). All I do is scan my receipt after every shopping trip, and I’m sent the difference in cost on any items offered for less by competitors in the area.

The image above is a screenshot of my account. I would have more total rewrads had I been more diligent about scanning my receipts last year. The $12.28 now available is my savings as of January 1st, though, so yay!!!

You can use coupons along with Savings Catcher program, too. In fact, Wal-Mart will price match coupon items based on their price before the coupons, saving you even more money.



Through random Internet searching for homeschool and personal writing projects, I earn free Amazon gift cards every month from Swagbucks. When I keep up with the daily earning tasks and bonus tasks, I can usually earn around $12 to $20 in Amazing gift cards each month, which doesn’t sound like much, but adds up to nearly $200 a year in free easy money.

Swagbucks also has gift cards for Ebay, Walmart, and other places. I personally choose Amazon because I save them up to pay for vitamins, homeschool supplies, birthday gifts for the kids, etc.

Want to earn Swagbucks, too? Join for free and get 150 Swagbucks if you use my referral link:



If I bribe my kids with a cut of the money, I think I can get them to help me set up a yard sale this summer and earn a few hundred bucks. Everybody has stuff laying around they don’t want or need, and a yard sale is a great way to earn extra cash.


A few years ago we signed up for satellite after taking a nearly 3 year hiatus. The contract is up in a couple months, so we’ll be canceling it once again, saving us about $75 a month. I figure I can put aside at least $500 of the saved money toward my Japan trip. What “luxuries” could you cut out (even for just a short period of time) to get what you want?


Any other ideas you’d like to share? Leave them in the comments below. 🙂

Shiga Shar

If you enjoyed this post or learned something new, please share it on social media and considering donating a few bucks toward my 2017 Goodwill trip to Shiga through PayPal.   ありがとう, Arigato, Thank you!

How to Begin Learning Japanese

I’m not going to lie, at first glance, Japanese looked super intimidating. None of the characters seem to resemble familiar letters or make any sort of sense. I wasn’t really sure it was something I could teach myself, let alone teach my children, especially since I had no idea where to even begin learning. After about three days scouring the web, I came up with a handful of resources that are great for newbies, free, and fun to use. Hopefully, this post will prevent the newbie overload I faced when beginning my Japanese learning journey.

Before you start learning Japanese, you should know that the Japanese language is called, Nihongo. It’s made up of two main parts of the Japanese language: Kana  and Kanji.

Japanese Language MemeKana consists of Hiragana and Katakana. These are called, syllabaries, which are like alphabets made up of sounds. These should be learned BEFORE learning Kanji. They each have 48 characters, and are rather similar, but I’ll show you more about that in a moment.

 Kanji are the thousands of symbolic characters. You know, the ones you always see tattoo’d on the biceps of 20-year-olds.

And sometimes, you’ll also see Romaji, which is the English spelling/pronunciation of Japanese words, such as konnichiwa.

Here’s an example of the ‘A’ Kana.

Japanese A (1)

The A sounds like the “ah” sound you’d make when the doctor tells you to open wide to look at your tonsils.

If you look closely, you can see hidden letter A’s in the hiragana and katakana. Little tricks like this are incredibly helpful tricks for memorizing the kana.

I recommend learning both hiragana and katakana together. It helps you see similarities between characters and get through the memorization process quicker. I’d say that the average adult should be able to memorize the kana in about a month if you practice for at least 15 minutes or so a day.

Now on to the resources….


Memrise App – The app is free, but you can upgrade the service to access other features. My 13-year-old and I both love this app!

Miraii Japanese App – The first 20 lessons are free, and super helpful for learning some basic grammar and vocab.

Puni Puni Japan – Cute videos of colorful little blob aliens who want to learn Japanese. I think it’s aimed toward younger children (my youngest adores these videos), but they’re fun for all ages. They also offer a set of free e-books to learn Kana and Kanji when you sign up for their newsletter.

Tofugu.com – This is a link to Japanese language learning resource page, which includes some of their own resources. Their Ultimate Hiragana Guide is awesome!!! Tofugu offers hilarious (sometimes a bit vulgar) articles and makes learning Japanese language and culture a lot of fun.

Japanese From Zero – I just signed my 13-year-old up for this a few days ago, but he hasn’t done a lesson yet. It’s basically a free virtual Japanese classroom, and looks pretty awesome. I’ll have to report back once my son gives it a whirl.

YouTube – There are far too many videos for me to list, but you can find a TON of helpful language learning videos on YouTube. You can check out my Resource page for a few specific channels I’ve tried and liked so far.

Have fun learning Japanese and don’t forget to

Ganbatte! Do your best! 頑張って! (がんばって!) 

Shiga Shar

If you enjoyed this post or learned something new, please share it on social media and consider donating a few bucks toward my 2017 Goodwill trip to Shiga through PayPal. Arigato/Thank you!


Dorayaki どら焼き (Sweet Red Bean Pancake Sandwich)

Dorayaki どら焼き

If you’ve ever watched the anime cartoon, Doraemon, you might recall Doraemon’s favorite treat “yummy beans,” which is actually dorayaki.


Dorayaki are sweetened pancakes with anko (a sweetened red bean paste made from adzuki beans) sandwiched between them.  The pancakes are squishy and a bit dense, similar texture to spongecake. And though you might not equate beans with sweet treats, anko tastes a bit like a lightly sweetened pudding or frosting (depending on how well you cook and mash your beans, of course).

In Japanese, dora means “gong,” which is likely how this treat got its name. And yaki in Japanese means “grill” or “to cook over heat.” In some regions of Japan, dorayaki is known as Mikasa, after Mt. Mikasa.

I think they look a bit like an Amish Whoopie Pie.

Amish Whoopie Pies by Thermo Vixens


As usual, my go-to recipe site for Japanese recipes is Just One Cookbook. So please visit Nami’s site to get the full recipe on how to make dorayaki. Her website is beautiful, easy to follow, and full of great Japanese foods.

Because I wasn’t sure where to get adzuki beans where I live in Michigan, I chose Michigan small red beans from our local grocery store. For any Japanese readers, my home region in Michigan is one of the largest produces of dry beans in the United States.


The results:

I LOVE DORAYAKI!!! If you don’t tell your kids that they’re eating beans, they’ll probably try and like it, too.

They’re fun to make and fun to eat, and tasty both warm or chilled in the fridge. Enjoy them with a warm cup of green tea, a cool glass of Royal milk tea, or a cup of coffee.

Before you take a bite, don’t forget to say, Itadakimasu いただきます, which essentially means, “I humbly receive” in Japanese. It’s sort of like saying a power grace before eating food.


Making dorayaki with my kids. A great cooking, math, and culture lesson.


Close up image of my finished dorayki. SO TASTY!

Thanks for reading and……

See you later! またね! (mata ne!)

Shiga Shar

If you enjoyed this post or learned something new, please share it on social media and consider donating a few bucks toward my 2017 Goodwill trip to Shiga through PayPal. Arigato/Thank you!

How to Send Your Michigan High Schooler to Japan

2016 hs ms exchange

According to the Michigan-Shiga High School Exchange Facebook page, the 2016 high school exchange program applications are now available. The program is put on by the Japan Center for Michigan Universities (JCMU), and is a great way to strengthen the bonds between Michigan and Shiga. It’s definitely something I’ll be looking more into once my kids are old enough.

You can also read more about the program on their website HERE.

The program is for:

*High school students in grades 9, 10, or 11 who are interested in going Japan

*Families willing to host a Shiga student in your home and help them attend school for two weeks in August/September

*Teens and their families interested in learning more about Japanese language and culture

*Families who can budget around $3,800 for the program, plane ticket, spending money, and a passport.

If this sounds like something you and your high school student would enjoy, click the links above for more info or to print out an application. Applications must be postmarked by 3/11/2016. Only 15 students are accepted, so don’t wait too long to send in your info.


See you later! またね! (mata ne!)

Shiga Shar

If you enjoyed this post or learned something new, please share it on social media and considering donating a few bucks toward my 2017 Goodwill trip to Shiga through PayPal. Arigato/Thank you!

How to Count to Five in Japanese & Two Free Worksheets

Count to Five


A few years ago I found these cool dry erase marker boards pictured above, and they are one of my favorite homeschool tools. They allow you to put traceable worksheets underneath a clear dry erase board to save you paper and make learning easier on the go. If you don’t have these boards, a simple plastic pocket page  works just as well.

Another fun way to use these worksheets is to simply print them up and use watercolors to trace the kanji. This is also a good small motor exercise for children. Of course, you can always just use markers or crayons if you’d like, too. And adults are free to use these too, I’m just sharing how I use them as a part of homeschooling my children.

How to Count to Five in Japanese 

Here’s quick phonetic run-down of the pronunciation of 1 through 5 in Japanese.

ONE: ichi (ee chee)

TWO: ni (knee

THREE: san (sahn)

FOUR: yon (yone)

FIVE: go (go)

For the worksheets, just click and it will open up a .pdf for you to print and save. If you have any problems or questions, feel free to post them in the comments section.

1-5 number writing practice sheet

kanji 1-5

Thanks for reading,

Shiga Shar

If you enjoyed this post or learned something new, please share it on social media and consider donating a few bucks toward my 2017 Goodwill trip to Shiga through PayPal. Arigato/Thank you!

Royal Milk Tea ロイヤルミルクティー

Royal Milk Tea

Disclaimer: I’ve never actually had “official” royal milk tea, since Japan (and the surrounding countries) is one of the few places in the world you can drink and buy it. And since Uva tea leaves and Hokkaido milk are not exactly common grocery items here in the US, I’m doing my best to come up with an American-ized version of royal milk tea until I can go over and have the real thing. 🙂

So what is it?

Royal milk tea is the creation of Lipton Japan. It is a blend of tea, milk, and sweetener that is typically served cold, but can also be enjoyed warm. Vending machines and cafes all over Japan serve it, and one of the most popular brands is Tea KADEN Royal milk tea, which I’ve heard is absolutely oishii おいしい (delicious).

Royal Milk Tea ロイヤルミルクティー


3 cups boiling water

1.5 cups milk (whole)

2 T honey (or sugar, if you prefer)

2 Black tea bags (I use Newman’s Royal Black Organic)

2 Darjeeling tea bags


Bring 3 cups water to a boil. Turn off the water, but leave the pot and the burner, and steep the tea bags for six minutes. Remove tea bags and stir in honey and milk. Pour into large mason jar and chill fully before drinking (unless you’d like it warm).

The Verdict

We all really enjoyed the tea, and will definitely make it often. It’s good both warm and cold, but we all prefer it super chilled. It sort of reminds me of a tea-based iced coffee.

If you didn’t care for my version, Nami of Just One Cookbook has another version you can try.


See you later! またね! (mata ne!)

Shiga Shar

If you enjoyed this post or learned something new, please share it on social media and considering donating a few bucks toward my 2017 Goodwill trip to Shiga through PayPal. Arigato/Thank you!

Lake Biwa (琵琶湖), Japan’s “Michigan” Paddleboat

michigan boat
The “Michigan” paddlebaot (image from the go.biwako webiste)


Shiga Prefecture is home to Japan’s largest freshwater lake, Lake Biwa (琵琶湖). The lake takes up about 1/6 of Shiga, Japan, and according to wikitravel, the lake most likely gets its name from the Japanese stringed instrument biwa, which the lake’s shape resembles.

Back when Michigan and Shiga agreed to their sister state relationship back in 1968, an American style paddleboat was given the name “Michigan” to commemorate the newly made ties. Visitors can take a “Michigan Cruise” on the paddleboat, where they can choose from a from 60, 90, or 150 minutes cruise with music, a variety of foods, and an unforgettable tour of Lake Biwa. There’s also a sky deck for the ultimate Lake Biwa viewing experience.

According to the Welcome to Kyoto website, the cost to ride the “Michigan” is 2,000 Yen, which is a little less than $20 USD.  I’m guessing the longer rides cost more than that, but since my Japanese is still poor, I had a difficult time finding that information.

You can click HERE to read about one visitor’s experience, including some nice photographs taken while on the boat.

Lake Biwa is also home to one of the greatest fireworks displays in Japan known as Biwako Dai-Hanabi Taikai or “the festival of great fireworks,” which happens in early August. Over 10,000 fireworks are shot off during this magnificent pyrotechnic display. You can read more about it HERE.

FYI, hanabi taikai (花火大会)  means fireworks, sometimes a contest involving fireworks.


See you later! またね! (mata ne!)

Shiga Shar

If you enjoyed this post or learned something new, please share it on social media and consider donating a few bucks toward my 2017 Goodwill trip to Shiga through PayPal. Arigato/Thank you!


Helpful Links: 

Travel Guide of Shiga, Prefecture, Japan: http://www.biwakokisen.co.jp/en/

Colorful Cruising on Japan’s Lake Biwa: http://www.martinpro.com/casestory/casestory.asp?id=747

Lake Biwahttps://www.ana-cooljapan.com/destinations/shiga/lakebiwa

Michigan-Shiga Sister Cities

There are seventeen sister cities between Michigan and Shiga Prefecture, Japan. Garden City, Olivet, Portland, and St. Johns are unofficial sister cities, but still included in the Michigan-Shiga sister city friendship.

Is your city one of them? Did you know that before you read this or not?


sister cities list


Thanks for reading!

As always, if you enjoyed this post or learned something new, please share it on social media and consider donating a few bucks toward my 2017 Goodwill trip to Shiga through PayPal. Arigatou/Thank you! ~Shiga Shar

The Oldest Sister State Relationship in the U.S.

oldest sister state rltnshp

Last month we decided to start studying Japanese language and culture and as a part of our homeschooling. It only took a few days of practicing the language and exploring the culture for me to fall in madly love with all things Japanese.  I found myself staying up way past my bed-time practicing Japanese, watching tourist videos, and dreaming of one day visiting this far away land.

Since actually going to Japan seemed like a far-fetched desire (especially for a stay-at-home mom with five kids), I scoured the web for any kind of Japan themed trips here in Michigan to satisfy my wanderlust and double as a homeschool field trip.

One of the things I stumbled across during my search was the  Michigan-Shiga Sister State Program website. Up until this point, I had no idea our state had any kinds of connections with Japan. And I certainly didn’t realize that we’d been sister states with Shiga, Japan since 1968, making our partnership the oldest sister state relationship in the United States.

How cool is that?!

The best part of discovering the Michigan-Shiga Sister State Program was finding out about the Goodwill Mission to Shiga, Japan.  Every odd numbered year, residents of Michigan have the opportunity to spend 11 days in Shiga, Japan. Five of those days are spent living with a host family, fully immersed in Japanese culture.

Again, how cool is that?!

I don’t quite know how it’s going to happen just yet, but I’ve got to find a way to go on the next trip. The cost of the 2015 trip (which seems quite reasonable) was around $3,000, which should be about the same cost in 2107. That means I have about a year and a half to come up with a few grand and sharpen my Japanese skills if I want to go to Shiga in 2107.

This blog will serve two purposes:

1) To share my love of Shiga and Japan, including sharing facts, tasty recipes, language learning tips, and more to get you guys just as hooked on Shiga and Japan as I am.

2) To serve as a fundraising platform. For those of you who find this blog helpful and informative, it would be super awesome if you’d consider donating a few bucks (or more if you’re so inclined) toward helping me get to Shiga.


Sayonara  さようなら,

Shiga Shar