Last updated on April 2, 2023
If you want to keep friends and family up to date on your new life abroad, start a blog.
After spending her post-college life bouncing from country to country before moving to Shikoku in 2020, Canada-born Kana Lauren Chan knew this routine well.
“I had blogs in the past … they close with every new iteration and move in my life,” she tells The Japan Times from her home in Kamikatsu, Tokushima Prefecture. Though the sentiment remains, Chan admits the medium has changed. “I thought a newsletter would be a little easier to access, going to your email directly.”
“Tending Gardens,” a writing project the 29-year-old launched to keep her mom up to date on her life in rural Japan, has since become a surprise success. The official blog for the newsletter platform Substack spotlighted her dispatches from Kamikatsu — Japan’s first zero-waste town.
“Since then, it’s been a huge jump in the number of people reading and following along,” Chan says. “It’s resulted in a little bit of imposter syndrome, but it’s also nice, because it feels like the number of people learning about Japan — especially the countryside — is increasing.”
Part of the appeal lies in her focus on Kamikatsu and the town’s commitment to sustainability. What separates Chan’s newsletter from the majority of English-language coverage is how she offers a vantage on daily life in a place often covered only transiently. While Chan’s writing frequently touches on zero-waste and environmental issues, her posts are largely about living where few writers, content creators or influencers reside — she focuses on gathering mountain vegetables, living in an old house and being attacked by a rooster.
Her previous experiences with Japan, however, were nothing like these current rural realities. Although Chan was raised in Vancouver, she and her Japanese mother traveled here frequently, for the most part sticking to the decidedly urban and suburban Kanagawa Prefecture.
“All I really knew was her hometown, Yokosuka, and Yokohama,” Chan says, admitting she didn’t even really understand where Shikoku was at the time. “I went to Tokyo a couple of times.”
It would take several more years before Chan was ready to make her return to Japan, though. First, she went to Europe, where she earned a master’s degree in sustainability and tourism. She followed that up with a stint working for a university in Bangladesh and her return to Canada amid the height of the COVID-19 pandemic — all experiences that helped her refocus her life goals.
“I wanted to get back in touch with tourism and education and things I studied in my masters,” she says. “I thought, well, if I could go to any country, I can go to Japan due to my citizenship.”
A few years earlier, Chan watched a video on YouTube about Kamikatsu and its push to be “trashless.” She kept tabs on it in the years that followed thanks to her own interest in sustainability. When she began considering moving somewhere more rural, she encountered another Canadian living in the town, Linda Ding.
“She was on an Instagram Live from a cafe in Kamikatsu, the one I work in now,” Chan says. “I reached out to her directly. I had no intention of moving to Kamikatsu, but I wanted to know how a foreigner moved to the countryside.”
The two talked frequently, and Chan found her story inspiring.
“Especially because of our shared background of being Canadian, it felt possible (for me to) do it.”
She moved to Kamikatsu in fall of 2020. For the first few months, she lived with a host family in order to adjust to life in a rural setting she was unfamiliar with. Chan says this helped make the process of acclimating to Kamikatsu much easier, as did her Japanese language ability and friendship with Ding.
Chan and Ding founded the Inow Program in 2020, and it remains Chan’s central focus in Kamikatsu.
“One of the challenges was a lack of English (information about the town), so together we had this idea to start this program to facilitate guests who wanted to experience Kamikatsu as a local,” she says.
Participants can come to Kamikatsu for 10 days and experience life in the town, participating in activities ranging from farming to garbage separation to cooking. The initiative has experienced ebbs and flows of interest during the pandemic — during some periods, non-Japanese people based in the country have been eager to participate — but Chan now says those living outside Japan are itching to get in now that border controls are easing.
At the start of last year, Chan began writing “Tending Gardens,” and though the newsletter wasn’t initially meant to introduce a wide audience to rural living, it has become a way to broaden knowledge about Kamikatsu’s eco-friendly lifestyle to the outside world.
“In the countryside, there’s just a lot more connection to tradition and landscape, where people coexist with nature,” she says. “I’m learning this completely new as an adult. What I find interesting, I just want to share, just as it comes out.”
And she’s not the only one who has found it interesting. “Tending Gardens” has been up and running for more than a year and has earned attention from a readership outside of her immediate family and friends, including from the curators of the Substack blog. Comments are positive, with many saying, “I want to learn more.”
“I don’t think I’ve gotten that big since I don’t have any hate yet,” Chan says with a laugh. “If I could make readers see this side of Japan — the countryside — and experience it more through whatever I share about my daily life, I’d be very happy,” she says.
Moving forward, she hopes to write more on local food, as well as explore the changing seasons with an eye on the effects of the climate crisis. She also hopes to keep discovering new things about rural life and herself in the process.
“I’ve learned the importance of nature in daily life,” she says. “Not just that, like, living next to a tree is important. But being in tune with nature and what is possible living self-sufficiently off the land.
“More traditional ways of sustainability — that’s what I’ve learned and embodied over time.”