Senpai Success Story #14: Sarah, Writer and Culture Ambassador

Sarah B Hodge modeling Kaga Yuzen kimono in Kanazawa Photo credit: Mitsuhito Nakagawa /金沢きものレンタル心結

Wise words from Sarah B. Hodge-san: “Follow your dreams!”

Welcome to the Senpai Success Story, where you can read about others who have walked a unique career path using their Japanese language/cultural skills. (Psst: Senpai means “mentor” or “teacher,” and the concept is important to understand for anyone wishing to work in a Japanese business setting.)

The early years…

My love of language has always flowed through my veins – growing up with a Polish grandmother, my ear was trained to the melodic sounds of Polish as well as English.

When I was in elementary school, our neighbors across the street were Japanese, brought over to work at one of the Japanese auto plants in Battle Creek. I was absolutely fascinated by their home life (although the memories are blurry nearly 40 years later, I know that I shared several homestyle Japanese dinners at their house, and I still to this day possess the omiyage her mom gave my family).

In the fifth grade, my mom enrolled me in a weekend introduction to Japanese culture and language class with sensei Anne Hooghart, and my fate was sealed. I fell instantly, madly in love with all things Japan, and that has shaped the course of my adult life. In high school, I took two years of Japanese with Hooghart-sensei and helped start the Lakeview High School Japanese club (which is still going strong 20 years later).

I majored in French and Spanish and minored in Japanese at Western Michigan University (at that time, there was no Japanese major at WMU). Nearly immediately after graduation, I went back to school to pursue my master’s in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) and applied to the JET Programme to teach in Japan.

Deep in the Heart of Texas / Japan-bound

However, that first immersion experience in Japan had to be postponed as I accepted a job as an ESL instructor at the Defense Language Institute English Language Center in San Antonio, Texas. In December 2010, my dream of teaching in Japan was finally realized as I was assigned to teach at the 5th Technical School at Japan Air Self-Defense Force’s Komaki Air Base (航空自衛隊小牧基地) in Aichi Prefecture. I taught English to JASDF pilots and aircrew for six months alongside JASDF civilian and active-duty instructors.

While at Komaki AB, I had the opportunity to participate in language classes and cultural events on and off base, including mochi pounding and cooking classes. On weekends, I planned frequent travel excursions around Central Japan. I kept a travel website where I would share my musings and photos with family and friends back home (archived at

This also meant that I was in Japan on March 11, 2011. I was teaching my afternoon class when the earthquake struck. As the sole C-130 airlift squadron in Japan, my students were immediately mobilized for search and rescue and recovery efforts in Tohoku, but my English lessons in Komaki went on as planned until late May 2011.

Once back in Texas, I continued to mentor JASDF student pilots and started an English conversation group that paired Japanese student pilots with exchange instructor pilots from Latin America. But Japan was always on my mind and I was fervently hoping for an opportunity to go back. After spending six months teaching in Taiwan in 2015, I finally had the opportunity to apply for a 5-year teaching position in Japan in Kanagawa Prefecture.


The moment I stepped off the plane at Narita after a 13-hour flight, I finally felt like I was in the place I had always belonged. My acclimation to living in Japan was made easier by my previous experience, although this time I had an actual Japanese apartment and had to navigate through all the day-to-day discoveries and challenges like how to use the automatic bathtub and Japanese appliances.

I’ll tumble for ya…

In the spring of 2017, I became involved with supporting and promoting Japanese men’s rhythmic gymnastics (男子新体操 ) and was befriended by some of Japan’s top high school and university coaches and teams. Since then, I have published several newspaper and magazine articles about the sport in English and Japanese and frequently assist with English-language subtitles for OUEN MRG ( videos. In December 2019, I was interviewed about my experiences supporting Kokushikan University RG Team (

Culture connections

From the summer of 2017, I have published dozens of travel and culture articles for newspapers and magazines in Japan including Stars and Stripes Japan (a weekly American military newspaper distributed to all US bases in mainland Japan and Okinawa), Metropolis Magazine, Tokyo Weekender magazine, The Japan Times Food page, and the JNTO Tokyo Olympics tourism portal Tokyo and Beyond: 2020.

On the weekends, I frequently travel (I have visited 17 prefectures) and take culture and cooking classes. I love immersing myself in traditional Japanese culture and crafts, and have done hands-on workshops in Kamakurabori carving, Edo Kiriko glass cutting, glass blowing, indigo dyeing, tsumami zaiku fabric art, and pottery as well as the tea ceremony and kimono dressing.

I have used my considerable experience of traveling around Japan to help others plan trips. I’ve been invited as a guest speaker on Japanese travel podcasts and am also moderator on a number of Japanese travel, cooking and garden groups on Facebook.

Let’s get cooking!

A contributing writer to the Japan Times Food page, I’ve been a cookbook reviewer and recipe tester for over a decade. In addition to taking cooking classes around the world, I am active in a number of cooking groups on Facebook and specialize in Japanese vegetarian temple cuisine, shojin ryori, on which I have published a number of articles. I also recently assisted with an online certificate course for shojin ryori.


I had always been drawn to traditional Japanese clothing, but it wasn’t until December 2018 when I had the opportunity to wear kimono for the first time. I was given the chance to model a beautiful Kaga Yuzen kimono for a kimono company in Kanazawa, and my love affair with kimono began in earnest. I have since published several articles on the history of kimono for Tokyo Weekender as well as JNTO. I have even designed a custom kimono and obi that pay tribute to my Polish heritage! There is a fantastic network of international kimono enthusiasts; if you are interested in learning to wear kimono, check out your nearest branch of Kimono de Jack ( for meetups and more.

Find your Zen…

Another of my interests is Zen Buddhism. I visited dozens of Zen temples my first time in Japan in 2010-2011, but it wasn’t until living here that I had the ability to participate in English zazen (sitting meditation) and befriended a number of Rinzai Zen priests and fellow Zen practitioners in Kamakura, Yokohama and Kyoto. I’ve published articles about Zen meditation, the connections between Zen and the Japanese tea ceremony, and shojin ryori, Japanese Zen temple cuisine, for a number of publications. I also volunteered at ZEN 2.0 (, a global mindfulness forum in Kamakura that brings together Zen priests, practitioners, and guest speakers from all walks of life.

A picture is worth a thousand words

Another of my hobbies is photography, and several of my photographs of Japan have received awards through Michigan State University’s Global Focus photography contest ( I am currently working on a book proposal and hope to publish a book of my travel memoirs and photography of Japan in the not-too-distant future!

In conclusion…

Never be afraid to follow your dreams – my lifelong love of Japan and the Japanese language has opened so many doors for me. Look for opportunities to network and take advantage of language and culture classes offered through community colleges and Japan societies. I encourage you to explore Japanese language and culture at every opportunity – you never know where it may lead!

Sarah B. Hodge,

Writer, The Japan Times, Tokyo Weekender, Stars and Stripes Japan, and JNTO Tokyo and Beyond

Lakeview High School Class of 1999 / Western Michigan University Class of 2003 / Michigan State University 2006

Instagram / Twitter: @japantravelbug


Author modeling Kaga Yuzen kimono in Kanazawa

Photo credit: Mitsuhito Nakagawa /金沢きものレンタル心結

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