Home away from home in Hokkaido, we hear about this mama’s love for Japan’s beautiful food, people and four seasons
Merlin Chelliah, GM of Club Med Tomamu Hokkaido is a Singaporean mama to 6-year-old Noah. She lives with her son and husband in Hokkaido. We catch up with Merlin to hear about life in the snow and how she juggles motherhood and her career as a woman in authority.
Can you tell us a little about yourself, your career and your family?
I currently serve as General Manager at Club Med Tomamu Hokkaido, managing the resort and its 341 rooms, sprawled across 145 hectares of land on Tomamu Mountain. Apart from overseeing the day to day operations of the resort, I’m often seen cooking curries from Singapore and Sri Lanka, preparing Dorayaki on Japanese-themed days, and even hosting and dancing on stage for guests’ nightly entertainment. I have a total of 26 years’ experience in the hospitality industry. Prior to my stint at Club Med (where I’ve worked for the last 15 years), I was with Westin Singapore as Guest Relations Manager and worked my way up from my first job as luggage coordinator, to concierge, then Resident Manager in Westin Stamford Crest.
What brought you to Hokkaido? How long have you been living overseas?
Having the opportunity to manage the second Club Med in Japan was truly a dream come true for me. First of all, I love the country, the culture and the people; and to top it all off, it presented me with the biggest move in my career to date – how could I say no?! I’ve been away for 15 years now, and have travelled to more than 11 countries around the world since.
What do you like best about living in Hokkaido/Japan?
It’s difficult to pin down any one reason! The food is amazing – the freshness and complexity of flavours is unmatched anywhere else. The culture is also incredible – everywhere you go, people are friendly, polite and considerate. I’m also a big fan of the vast natural landscapes that Hokkaido has to offer.
Did you give birth to your child in Japan?
I actually gave birth to Noah in Singapore, which was great because I got to be surrounded by my family and close friends, who were my pillars of strength throughout the entire experience.
Can you talk us through your career pre- and post-baby?
The biggest difference for me was the change in my management style. Post-baby, I was more heedful, more gentle in my mannerisms, less directive and more motivational in the way I led my teams.
How have you found holding a position of authority as a woman in general, but also in relation to being in Japan?
It’s natural that some people might still hold on to preconceived gender stereotypes (plus I’m quite petite in size, so it doesn’t help), but as long as you keep a positive mindset and focus on delivering your best work, your guests won’t see gender come to play, but they will see the effort that goes into making their holiday experience as wonderful as it is.
Just remember to never take any negative comments personally, but as an opportunity to grow and better yourself.
Any tips on balancing the juggling act as a mum and in a career?
At first it did take a bit of adjusting, but I think it’s about prioritising your responsibilities. As much as I love the work I do, my family is incredibly important to me, and I would never compromise spending time with them. I’ve also learnt that it’s not just about the quantity of time, but the quality of time you spend with them. So even if it’s small things, like reading with Noah, or just talking to him about his day, it really makes a difference because he knows I’m not just physically present, but that I’m emotionally there for him as well, even when the days get busy.
What are your favourite places in Hokkaido that you would recommend to parents traveling with kids?
- Asahiyama Zoo
- Sapporo Snow Festival
- Bear Mountain
- Horse-back Riding
- Hokkaido Farm Activities
- Shintoku Soba Hall – a wonderful restaurant that allows guests to try their hand at making authentic soba noodles using locally-produced soba flour from Shintoku – and they get to enjoy it right after with the help of professional chefs!
But many of these can be done as excursions with Club Med Tomamu Hokkaido, so maybe Club Med should be number one!
What do you find is the hardest part of being a mother living in a foreign country?
Parenting away from home can sometimes be a challenge, as you’re constantly having to adapt to changing variables, like different lifestyles, environments and cultures – and of course, living in Japan, language differences can also be a barrier at times. But I always try to keep a positive mindset, find a routine that works best for my family and just try to ensure an easy transition for us all.
What is your favourite holiday destination as a family?
A couple of destinations immediately come to mind – the first is of course, Singapore, because home is where the heart is. The second is Kani, Maldives – a perfect amalgamation of rustic and modern lifestyles that offers peace and serenity unmatched anywhere else.
What languages does your son speak? How have you managed to raise a multilingual child – any tips for other parents?
Noah can speak English, Japanese and French. My advice would be to not force your children to learn something they don’t want to, because if the interest isn’t there, it’s truly an uphill battle. Help them find something they’re genuinely interested in, help nurture that passion, and fluency and proficiency will come naturally after.
What mementos/local goodies do you always bring back from Singapore when you visit?
Laksa sauce kits, frozen Prata and Chicken Rice paste!
What’s the one thing you would miss about Hokkaido if you moved away?
The people, the food and the beautiful four seasons – without a doubt.