ALL ABOUT ALLY
It all started in 2001.
I got off a JAL plane at Narita Airport along with my family on a hot and very humid July morning. It was my first time in Japan and we were here, presumably, for good. I was 15 and I had spent most of the flight weeping over farewell letters from my friends in my home country Bulgaria. Japan, a country I knew very little of, was to become my new home.
On our first day here, we stopped a cab at Shinjuku and gave the driver a business card to the address we were heading to. He, much to our surprise, carefully placed it on his lap and started driving while looking at it. I remember looking at my sister simultaneously as he hit the cab in front of him within a minute of our ride (he wasn’t speeding, so no major issues). So here we were, unloading our suitcases sooner than we expected.
I often joke that my life in Japan began with a bang and now, in retrospect, I think it was a good sign of what my experience here would be. It has been exactly 20 years since then and Japan has been a rollercoaster — wonderful, exciting, frightening, heartbreaking, but also full of opportunities and surprises.
No one’s tsuma: The high school chapter
With no Japanese language ability, I got enrolled at a public high school. They took great care of me there, sometimes walking me hand in hand through the ups and downs of Japanese culture, sometimes throwing me off the cliff for the experience. I had to learn fast — high school is a war zone and to survive, you need to forget about all your comfort zones and learn fast. One of the first Japanese words I sadly learned was “tsuma” (wife), a word my first Japanese high school crush used, hinting he had a girlfriend (I was, sadly, no one’s tsuma in my high school days — I was told that international relationships at that age aren’t so easy.) But something good came out of it anyway — today, tsuma is one of the characters I write most correctly.
At high school, desperate to catch up on new friendships and language skills, I got enrolled at the school’s dance club, started reading Japanese books for first-year elementary school students (you can learn all your essential vocabulary from “Kuma no ko Woof”), and studied extra hours at the library until one day it all started to make sense. I made precious friends (many of whom are still my closest) and I learned much about what it means to live in this country I was, by then, naturally beginning to call home.
Planting the seeds: Off to college and first job
After graduating from high school, I applied for Temple University Japan, where I successfully enrolled at the International Affairs program, firmly believing that if one wants to become a journalist (which I had already established I wanted to be), they should start with the basics. I wasn’t necessarily wrong, but if I could go back, I’d enroll in their Communication major, which teaches you precisely all you need to know about working in the journalism and creative industry, which I now belong to. After Temple, I took a break from college for a year of working experience at a Japanese company, and after that valuable experience, I went to grad school to pursue an M.A. degree in Media Studies at Tokyo University.
In 2011, shortly after the March 11 earthquake, I nailed my first job as a writer and translator at the English edition of Mainichi Shimbun, The Mainichi, where I was in charge of translating daily news from the paper into English, and occasionally, writing original articles whenever time allowed. I wrote about Japan’s hikikomori, one of the first interviews I had ever done. (I should have started with something lighter.) A few years later, I started working full-time at GPlus Media, the company behind Japan Today (where I had previously also done an internship), GaijinPot and Savvy Tokyo, three of Japan’s best-known English-language media.
My career as a writer and editor really kicked off from then on.
Monthly PV & Users: Eight times higher
About a year after I started as a staff writer and news translator at GPlus, I was offered the opportunity to start working predominantly on Savvy Tokyo, the company’s web magazine for international families and women. Savvy was still a new brand at the time — still in its barely third year — and although it had a steadily growing readership, it wasn’t yet strong on the analytics front. For the next couple of years, I and the wonderful team of professionals at GPlus, worked hard to get it up on its feet and running. And it did. Within three years of us taking over, the website grew eight times in monthly readership and users. We participated in community events. We had end-of-year parties. We actively engaged with our readers. And we wrote content that women and families needed — whether to find information or just to browse something while on their coffee break. Savvy Tokyo was a major success and one of the best years of my professional career.
But I had to move on to grow.
So after taking a year off (to give birth to my son and raise our two foster cats), I joined the editorial team at Tokyo Weekender, Japan’s oldest English-language magazine. I became the head of digital content right in the beginning of the Covid pandemic, finding myself with a new job, new responsibility and a team I had to get to know well and fast … online. It was a challenging year to start anything new for a media company, but we managed to launch several new series and columns that helped engage our readership to a new level. We provided relevant Covid information to our readers and kept them busy with ideas of what to do at home during the national state(s) of emergency. We talked about the evolution of the Black Lives Matter movement in Japan and explained why we should all care about it. During my time at Tokyo Weekender, I had the pleasure to interview some of the most interesting people I’ve ever met in my life: former astronaut Naoko Yamazaki, the second Japanese woman to fly in space and the only who did so while raising a baby, Mori Art Museum’s new Director Mami Kataoka, and Naomi Kawahara and Terry Wright, the duo behind the initiative to spread awareness of racism and racial injustice, Japan for Black Lives.
But after about a year at Tokyo Weekender, I felt that despite all my efforts to write about various issues concerning Japan, as long as I am tied to one medium, I can never go as far as I wish.
So, in the middle of another state of emergency, I quit my job and along with my husband and one of our closest (and very talented) friends, we launched Shiitake Creative, a creative agency that aims to promote Japan from all its various angles — including diversity and inclusiveness, which are years behind in promotion on global standards.
Planting mushrooms: The Shiitake Chapter
The Shiitake Chapter begins here. As of present, we work from home, dreaming of a new office where we can bring our cats and have a kids room for all employees’ kids and pets. You can learn all about why we named the company Shiitake (a type of mushroom) and what we can do for you here in Japan on our official website at www.shiitakecreative.jp. We’re a team of three for now, but hopefully, a few years down the road, we three will be drinking coffee discussing new business ideas while our team of 300 works hard to keep up quality content running. :D
Anyway, that’s my story for now.
If you want, follow me on Instagram, Twitter or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Stay safe and never settle for anything you know isn’t right for you. Things might be hard, but there’s always a way.
Keep in touch!