People | WHY DID YOU LEAVE JAPAN?

Shihoko Ura: A chronicle of caring, teaching and food blogging

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Contributing Writer

It’s fall and Shihoko Ura, speaking from her home in Brisbane, Australia, says she recently returned from the United States where she had taken a holiday with her daughter Elizabeth.

One reason Ura and her daughter Elizabeth went to Austin, Texas was to attend a professional blogging summit, so that she could glean tips from the assembled blogging gurus to help her with Chopstick Chronicles, her Japanese recipe and food blog. Back in 2015, when she began blogging, Ura says she had no inkling that the weekend hobby project of posting food photos would later grow into a book and gain a global audience.

Ura grew up in Shirahama in Wakayama Prefecture and moved to nearby Mie Prefecture at 18 to attend a nursing college. At the college and afterwards at Yamada Red Cross Hospital (now the Japanese Red Cross Ise Hospital) in Ise, where she later worked as a registered nurse, she learned about the international aid element that is fundamental to the Red Cross organization.

“I wanted to join one of its programs, but I didn’t know enough English (at the time), says Ura. “So, I thought maybe I could go to Australia and learn English.”

She moved to Brisbane, and while there she became interested in health care in Australia. On returning to Ise she met her now ex-husband and got married.

“We wanted to educate our children up to university level but 20 years ago everything was so expensive (in Japan), Ura recalls. “So we decided to leave and move to Australia in 1998.”

After moving to Queensland, this time with her family, Ura took up nursing part-time and enrolled in college to gain further nursing certifications. Once qualified, she began working with geriatric patients at The Prince Charles Hospital in Brisbane.

The transition from working in hospitals in Japan to Australia was not always easy.

“I found that it was really, really hard to use (my) English and work with native speakers,” she says, explaining that there were times when she was in charge of junior nurses, some of whom didn’t disguise their feelings about a nonnative English speaker giving orders.

One day, however, she had an encounter with a school-age boy who had come to the hospital to visit his grandfather. It was an innocuous exchange that eventually lead to a career change.

“He asked me if I was Japanese, and I said ‘yes,'” she recalls. “He had a Japanese textbook with him and asked me if I would help him with his homework, so I did. Afterwards, I started to think that it’s really fun to teach Japanese.”

Ura decided to reduce her nursing schedule to part time and attended university to gain a teaching qualification. It was a lot to juggle between teacher training duties, her patients and raising her family.

She says, “It was a difficult and busy time, but I somehow managed.”

In 2004, Ura qualified as a Japanese language teacher and has since been teaching at a local high school.

Teaching and nursing are “very, very different, but I find them both rewarding,” she says. “I enjoy teaching Japanese more than being a nurse, because I can use my background more.”

Japanese culture also plays an important role in Ura’s classes, and she often includes cooking in her lessons.

“The students really enjoy it and they often ask when can we do cooking again,” she says. “We make rice balls often because they’re really easy to do.”

Though cooking often featured in her lesson plans, Ura’s foray into becoming a food blogger didn’t happen until she had been teaching for about 10 years.

“I’ve always loved, you know like many Japanese do, taking photographs of my food before I eat,” Ura says laughing. “So I bought a DSLR camera and just started blogging about Japanese food, and it was really, really fun.”

The blog, despite being just weekend past time, almost immediately attracted a sizable audience. Ura’s quality photographs, simple recipes and step-by-step approach to cooking appeals to anyone interested in Japanese food, whether they are trying to figure out how to make nikujaga (simmered meat and potatoes) or wanting to make udon noodles from scratch. Ura also added instructional videos to her site and, while she admits that maintaining the blog is time consuming, she says she thoroughly enjoys it.

Ura’s daughter, who edited the blog when it started, helped set it up and decide on the name “Chopstick Chronicles.” Naturally, the mother and daughter occasionally had creative differences, “sometimes we clashed,” Ura says, but these were just stumbles as they set about building the blog.

Now, the blog has grown big enough for Ura to hire an employee to look after editing and other duties. She also found herself changing her approach to posts. Originally, she would almost randomly think up a recipe from week to week. Now she has an editorial calendar mapping out the weeks and the seasons, detailing what would be appropriate to tie in with holidays and festivals.

The reach and effect of Chopstick Chronicles both surprises and motivates Ura. Every morning, before heading into school, she checks in on comments, questions and emails, and tries to follow up as soon as possible. Some comments clearly delight her.

An elementary student in the U.S. — where most of Ura’s readers hail from — stumbled on Ura’s blog when she picked Japanese food for an assignment on world foods. She settled on Ura’s recipe for extra thick and fluffy Japanese-style pancakes, which uses mayonnaise as one of its ingredients.

“She emailed me to tell me she made a batch for her class and everyone loved it,” says Ura. What’s more, “she said she was not a big fan of mayonnaise but she tried (the pancakes) and loved it.”

Though she loves teaching, the success of Chopstick Chronicles encouraged Ura and her daughter to publish a book this year, titled “The Secrets to Japanese Cooking.” She is also considering reducing her teaching hours in the future and “retiring into blogging.”

Given the schedule she maintains for Chopstick Chronicles, though, that “retirement” sounds like it could be a full-time job. But that also sounds like something Ura couldn’t be any happier about.

Profile

Name: Shihoko Ura

Profession: Secondary school teacher, Japanese food blogger

Hometown: Shirahama, Wakayama Prefecture

Age: 52

Key moments in career:

1987 — Graduated Yamada Red Cross Hospital Nursing School, starts work as registered nurse

1992-93 — Moves to Brisbane to study English

1998 — Emigrates to Australia and starts working at The Prince Charles Hospital and completes postgraduate Australian Nursing studies at Griffith University

2004 — Qualifies as a teacher from Queensland University of Technology, begins work as a Japanese language teacher and starts work as Japanese teacher

2015 — Starts “Chopstick Chronicles” a Japanese recipe blog

2019 — Publishes first recipe book “The Secrets to Japanese Cooking”

Things I miss about Japan: “The food, bakery, depachika (food markets in department stores), cleanliness and attention to detail.”

Words to live by: “‘Not losing to the rain, not losing to the wind’ from the poem ‘Ame ni mo Makezu’ by Kenji Miyazawa.”

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