“Tanuki, is a raccoon dog that has a massive scrotum…” is just one little nugget of intrigue that Ashley shares with us from her time in rural Japan. The Vermont native moved to New York a few years ago to pursue her dream in theater, along the way she’s landscaped terraces for the rich, learned to make a killer sazerac and is spreading the love of whiskey with some spunky gals at Whersky.com
Do you remember your first week in New York?
It was in 2008 and I had been living in Japan for two years teaching English, and my partner (David) was already living in New York. He had found us an apartment in Greenpoint and set it all up.
So when I arrived I was basically already living in New York. It was great to not have to do all the set-up, but it was also this huge transition from having my own life, my own space and living in a place that was constantly novel (Japan). Then to come here and live with someone else and not know what I was doing here, it was a big change.
So was David in Japan with you?
But you guys were together while you were there? How did that work?
It was hard. There was a lot of Skyping. He came to visit though and we travelled around. We visited Kyoto and Yakushima, if you ever visit Japan and have the time go to Yakushima. It’s this tiny little island off of the south island.
Have you ever seen any Hayao Miyazaki movies? Princess Mononoke?
[Shaking our heads]
I recommend those. They’re anime but they’re these magical realism/fantasy films. One of them is based on Yakushima because it’s this crazy fairyland place. So, when David came to visit we did a lot of that.
But yeah, long distance relationships are hard. We opened up our relationship because we’ve always had things to do apart from each other. There’s always been that aspect of our relationship. It’s been 12 years but one of us will be here while the other is somewhere else for six months.
That’s really great that you guys support each other through that. So, how did you decide to go to Japan on your own?
After college I really wanted to go to New Zealand and do some organic farming because I had seen a photo of New Zealand when I was a teenager and I was like “I’m going there!”
I ended up not doing that but I knew I wanted to travel and do a big trip. A few friends of mine had done the teaching English abroad thing and I applied for a program. I just needed to get out and do something really different.
How did you find it being a woman alone there?
Obviously culturally it’s very different but I didn’t think that being a woman specifically was what was different, it was more being a Westerner. I was in such a rural area that being blonde haired and blue eyed really stood out. I would be walking home with my groceries and people would pull over in their cars and get out to take photos of me. They’d pose their kids next to me. I’d go to festivals and everyone would want to get their photo taken with me. It was just because I was American.
I loved living there. I fell in love with Shintoism.
It’s the original Japanese religion, I think, and it’s based in the belief that everything has a God. Everything, like the tree in your backyard has a spirit that lives in it.
I’m trying to think of an example … there are these raccoon dogs in Japan, these funky little creatures.
This is a real thing?
Yeah! But their God, Tanuki, is a raccoon dog that has a massive scrotum…
Um… what the fuck?
He used to be blamed for pregnancies out of wedlock. If a young woman in a small village got pregnant the villagers would say “oh, it must have been Tanuki San.”
I’m not well versed enough to really be able to explain this to you. Every little village has a shrine that houses all the Gods in that particular area. The Gods are in everything, the trees, the ground, the stones.
For example, where I lived, Izumo, according to Shintoism is where Japan was born and all the Gods came from Izumo. I got to witness the Kamiarizuki Matsuri, which is this week where all the Gods in Japan take vacation. They all come to Izumo and all the priests give them sake and food for a week.
All the Gods across Japan leave their shrines and show up on this beach and I was there to witness when they called them forward. After all the priests to the little shrines that held all the Gods there was this massive rush of people to the sand on the beach where the Gods had been. They were all shoveling into their arms and putting it into bottles.
That would have been amazing!
It was cool. I don’t know enough about Shintoism but I just loved the shrines and they idea that everything has a spirit.
That’s quite a contrast to New York where no ones gives a crap about anything. [Laughs]
A huge difference! Where I lived in Japan the police had one gun and they kept it in their office in a drawer. There was no crime whatsoever.
At the school where I taught we had a student that stole CDs from the local mall and they shut down classes for three days. The school had assemblies and brought the teachers together to talk about what we did wrong. Something we did or did not do caused this student to behave this way.
I feel like that is how the culture works there. It’s everyone’s responsibility for the way society is.
So why did you choose New York?
We have a lot of friends here and we both love theater and acting and we wanted to be around the innovation that is in New York. It just seemed to be the place where all of that goes down. We were curious too.
David loves New York. He’s definitely a New Yorker at this point. I’m from a rural area in Vermont and that visual aesthetic, that landscape, is how I relate to every landscape I live in. I feel like it informs my opinion in a way that can be detrimental. When I look outside in New York I just see metal and brick and straight lines. What I want to see are the curves and the chaos.
New York and I have had a complicated relationship. I love the people, it’s this huge mash of different cultures. I love that aspect of it. I love that parade of humanity. But I just need more green space.
I get that too. Especially growing up in Australia, which is very outdoorsy. Sometimes New York is a bit claustrophobic. Especially this time of year when everyone is getting antsy from being inside for months. The first day of proper spring is always madness.
People always talk about New York being a tough place to survive and I think the weather is a part of that. To survive the winters here ... it’s not easy.
I also get the sense that it accentuates the distance you have from things. For me, it has always felt like there’s so much here that I want to be a part of but there’s always this distance, like it’s inaccessible. I either can’t afford it or I don’t have time because I’m working so I can afford my rent and in the winter that distance just gets greater.
Nowadays though, there are more and more free events. I’ve been really enjoying seeing dance shows, which is never something I thought I’d be into. I’ve been watching shows at this place called Triskelion Arts. A lot interesting artists flock there.
What are you doing these days?
I’m not doing any theater yet, which is OK. I wanted to focus on getting that flexible freelance income in place so that I could have the time and the money to do that.
Your ultimate goal is to be acting in the theater?
Yes. When I was back in Vermont a couple of years ago I was doing a lot of commercial work. I really loved just showing up for a day and doing something goofy and getting paid and then leaving. That’s fun but I also like the lengthy artistic process as well.
What’s the freelance work that you’re doing?
I’ve got three jobs. I’m working for In Full Bloom, which is a company that does flowers and residential gardens for a lot of wealthy folks but also for some boutique businesses.
Susie Allison, whose company it is, is really interesting. I think she just started this company on a whim about 20 years ago. Sometimes the clients are having a party and it will be, for example, a tropical theme. So, we’ll bring in plants just for the weekend.
Susie used to do the flowers for Mary Tyler Moore. She told me this story about orchids and how finicky they are, one week they’ll be sucking up the water and the next week they’re not at all. One of the things that Mary Tyler Moore used to do is keep her orchid on her bedside table next to her glass of water. Every time she wanted to get rid of the water she would just dump it in the orchid. She would kill so many orchids by doing that. Susie never said anything but it really stressed Mary Tyler Moore out that this one plant never worked out. She thought it had something to do with her energy or the feng shui of the room.
That’s funny. It sounds like a lot of work though.
It’s a lot of labor, which I love. I love working outside. I don’t care how dirty I get or how much heavy lifting there is.
And you’re a bartender as well …
Yeah, right now I’m just learning how to make their house cocktails.
Have you ever been a bartender before?
No. I never thought I’d be able to in New York because no one hires bartenders who have no experience. But the manager over at No.7 North is the husband of a very dear friend of mine. He likes to hire people who don’t have a lot of experience because he wants to train them the way he wants things done.
What’s it been like?
There’s a great group of people there. The clientele is this nice mix of that Polish Greenpoint enclave of old men, hunky young people and folks who just got off work.
I love the complexity of liquor. You can taste whiskey the way you taste wine. There are these layers of flavors. Mixing the whiskey with the right bitters and flavors is so fascinating to me.
Can you tell us a bit about how you got into Whersky?
My friend, Lauren, got hooked up with Whersky and they were looking for more blog contributors. She knows how much I love drinking whiskey so she asked if I was interested.
The concept behind Whersky is to create a more inclusive universe for whiskey enthusiasts. The folks you’d usually find at a whiskey distilling conference or a whiskey bar would be older white guys. Now that there’s this resurgence in distilling and craft distilling more people are starting to appreciate whiskey but there doesn’t seem to be a place for them.
Whersky started out being more inclusive to women but now it’s all about trying to include everyone. So that’s really the mission, and education too. Education is a big piece of it.
What’s your contribution to that?
I’m a blog contributor. When I went to visit my sister in Missouri, where she lives is part of the Ozarks mountain range. It’s this beautiful area that was big during the prohibition, a lot of places around there were making moonshine to ship to Chicago. So there’s this real rich history of whiskey making in the area.
When Lauren hooked me up with Whersky I said I was in the Ozarks and I should find a distillery I can visit and talk about. While I was there I met this Iraq war vet who, when he came back from the war, wanted to make everything himself. He makes his own guns, does his own farming, he wants to be off the grid. One of the things he decided to do is make his own whiskey. He has these crazy stories about his grandfather who was a “rum runner” during prohibition.
That was my first post.
Do you have a recommendation for a whiskey for someone who’s trying to get into drinking it?
The problem is, I think you should start with an expensive whiskey. I think Michters would be a nice starter.
What’s your favorite cocktail at No.7 North?
They have so many good ones. Their sazerac is good, it’s called Deep Mountain Sazerac.
Speaking of bars in the neighborhood, do you have any favorite spots in Greenpoint?
Yes, I do. I love Franklin Avenue. It’s got a different feel to just one block away to Manhattan Avenue. I could spend hours in the bookstore Word on Franklin. I don’t know why, I’ve never really been a bookstore person but I just love it in there. I love their poetry section.
The last time we ate it, it didn’t end well for me. [Laughs]
There’s this great place, Karczma. I just love the kitsch that all the waitresses were traditional Polish attire. I always get the Polish specialties and the pickled soup.
A bit of a random question, if you were your own daughter, what advice would you give her at this point in life?
“If you were your own daughter” will be the title of Magda’s self help book. [Laughs]
That’s a great question. If I were my own daughter I’d probably tell her to relax. You don’t have to worry so much about the little things. You are but a speck of stardust in this massive universe. Nothing you do matters and everything you do matters, so don’t worry about it.
It’s interesting that every single person, no matter who they are or what they do, worries about the little things.
And lastly, what do you think of when you think of New York?
It’s always the art that I think of, that’s why I’m here. I think this is a great place to be freely creative and take a lot of risks with your art because there’s such a great community for that.