Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Meiji Era: why?

In 1858, Commodore Perry sailed in to Edo Bay, displaying weapons and technology that didn't exist in Japan at that time, demanding that Japan open its doors to foreign trade, specifically trade with the United States.

The shogunate was weak and the isolated society of Japan had stultified, with its warriors turned to bureaucrats who elevated the skills of war to precise art forms, with a totalitarian mindset geared to keeping everything in perfect order, and keeping the foreigners, who had caused so much trouble some 200 and more years before, out.

The first treaties were incredibly unfavorable to Japan, and it became clear that the Westerners planned to turn Japan into some kind of puppet colony.  Western imperialism was at its height all over the world, and there were new and incredible increases in technology and social reform, given impetus by the US Civil War.  The cotton gin, the rifle, railroads and steamships were all part of this continuing Industrial Revolution taking place in the 19th Century.  Steamships could sail against the wind, and quickly made the clipper ships obsolete, taking over transportation of goods and people.  But they needed fuel, and simply could not make it from the West Coast of the US to China and the Spice Islands without stopping.  Japan was the logical stopping point: Japan had food, water and most importantly, coal, so the US decided Japan was a place it needed to conquer and control.

This did not sit well with Japan, and in 1868 the new young Emperor Meiji secured the resignation of the shogun and assumed actual day to day power.  Though of course the Emperor and Empress did not act alone, these patriotic and intelligent people did something that nearly defies belief: they kept their country free; moreover, they made it a serious player on the world stage, while it remained and remains, uniquely itself.

The Westerners had never understood how the Japanese system worked -- still don't, in fact -- and didn't know who was actually in charge of what.  The Emperor moved the capital to Edo, rechristened Tokyo (eastern capital), and began making changes, with astounding rapidity and real success.

By the end of the Meiji era, in 1912, Japan had become a first-world power with mighty ambitions.  How did this happen?  What effect did this astonishing period of breakneck change have on the people who lived in the little country that not only could, but did?

This is the world of the Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy.

This series incorporates genuine folklore, combines it with accurate history, and builds real stories reflecting the Japanese culture that continues to exist and influence the world.  While the Edo period, the Heian and other earlier periods are fun to research, explore and write in,  just as medieval Europe continues to fascinate authors and scholars, it is the Meiji period that brings us real revelations about the depth and breadth of Japanese character as it adapts to sudden and drastic change.

It's written about two children whose lives are complicated by the fact that they are bird-children, dual natured beings who can be children or birds, their human uncle and their various friends, who might or might not be dual natured, or even human.  The fantastic nature allows the supernatural to supersede technology where necessary and to dive deep into cultural as well as personal depths.  The series ages as the children do, and we are now up to the early 1870s.

Folklore also makes things fun!  The personal relationship between the Japanese Dragon King and the European Dragon Queen provides a backdrop for the relationships between East and West, and their dual natured children give them cross-cultural difficulties not unlike those of the humans over whom they fly.  The horses not only talk but their trials reflect the affect of technology on agrarian life for farmers and the military.  The talented Toki-Girl's commercial successes and failures and the underemployed Ninja illustrate not only the changes in the roles of women, but changes in the commercial landscape that altered the lives of not just people but entire classes of society.

Unlike any other series exploring Japanese culture, The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy series reveals depths roiled by the currents of massive change and shows how those cultural depths adjust and continue to adjust to constant social and technological attack, through the personal stories of one small group of regular people.

And they are also cracking good reads for ages 8 through adult.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Life on the Floor: Part 7 -- 7-11 What can't it do?

7-11 is ubiquitous in Japan.  It's owned by the massive 7 & i Holding company, which also owns Ito-Yokado, a massive department store chain, which is sort of a Target-equivalent.

It seems like you can do just about ANYTHING at 7-11.  Grocery shopping?  Sure.  The products are the same as you'll find in the Ito-Yokado supermarket in the basement of the department store, same quality, same packaging and same prices.  The selection isn't as wide and very low on perishables aside from breads and prepared foods like sandwiches, rice balls, and bentos, mostly because the store isn't as big, but it truly is possible to do all your food and beverage shopping at 7-11 if you need to.

There's also a cash machine that works for just about every bank and everybody.  No fees.  Of course not.  They want you to spend your money -- at least some of it -- before you get out of the store!  There is even a 7 & i full-service bank, but it's not usually the best choice for a variety of reasons.

Assorted gift cards?  They have those.

Pay your utility bills?  Right up there at the counter.

Charge your IC (prepaid transportation -- train, subway and bus, some taxis -- and minor convenience store-type purchase) card?  Yep.  Just buy something small using your card, which can be empty, and ask that it be recharged with the cash you hand over.

Ship things by courier?  Of course, if you have the waybill and envelope, though I suppose they'll be happy to give them to you.  I think you can get the waybill for larger items that need to be picked up right there, too.

Is there anything 7-11 can't do?

I found something.

My phone is a pre-paid.  Usually, I buy a prepaid card at, you guessed it, 7-11, and enter it into the phone, no worries.  But I had a surprise last week!  I couldn't get a Softbank prepaid card at 7-11!  I gather you can get them at some stores, but not all.  So I had to trudge up to the Softbank Store, and wait 45 minutes -- truly unconscionable -- to get a "card" -- really a piece of paper -- printed out with a number I could then enter into my phone.

To be fair to Softbank, they kept trying to get me to recharge my phone on-line, but I haven't had any luck with that in the past.  I am not sure I have tried to do this inside Japan, so next time, I'll give it another go.  Before I start walking, prepared to wait far too long.

Things are different here.  7-11 is (mostly) very convenient indeed.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017


Yabusame is a kind of mounted archery done on various occasions, from Shinto Shrine festivals to (apparently) opening racetracks for the season.  The riding is gorgeous, the archery impressive.  It dates combat archery, formalized about 600 CE.  Azuki likes it, but Blackie won't let her fall!

I went to see it at the Samukawa Shrine, where it's an annual event.  Silly me:  I thought this event was probably people from the local barn having fun with their horses!  It's so much more than that.

Here's the link that gives ALL the information.  And, yes, those are the horses and people we saw ride.  Take a look at the videos!  It's a HUGE WOW of a good time.

Yes, there are historic costumes and some Shinto rituals -- and also food stalls, games, music and entertainment.  If you ever get a chance to see this, it's worth it.  I'm going to go again!

The history of Yabusame with VIDEOS!

Ingram Catalog Link is here!

Right here, in fact.  Another post follows with -- woah -- equine related content!

Monday, September 18, 2017

Life on the Floor: 6 - Typhoon!

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My usual experience is that Japanese weather forecasting is good, excellent, even.  Japan likes to know what's going to happen, so that stores can roll out displays of raincoats or snow boots, and umbrellas can pop up for purchase everywhere, like mushrooms, only to be abandoned in outdoor storage racks after the storm has passed.

So we knew, far in advance, that a typhoon was coming.  A friend was traveling last Friday and while her plane was going, it was possible her dive trip might not.  She was going far south, between Kagoshima and Okinawa, to a not terribly remote island by Japanese standards.  And she went.

I found the day cloudy and oppressive, but quiet.  Yet the night brought some wind and long ocean swells.  Surfers loved it!  It was the first sign that indeed a typhoon was on its way.

Saturday was a little windy.  The swells continued.  The surfers had fun.  It started to rain while I walked along the beach, something which has become a habit of mine.  It started to rain about two, spitting off and on, while the surf continued to build, also there still wasn't much wind.  "Tomorrow," people said, predicting increasing wind.

By Sunday morning, I ran out of books and was also out of Intenet, so I had to dig out my duck shoes and walk 1.7 km to the station, where I could download some more at the ubiquitous Starbuck's.  The rain continued.  A little wind picked up and turned my umbrella inside out.

By evening, the rain stopped for a while and my umbrella righted itself in the increasing blow.  I loved it!  Crashing surf!  Crashing surfers!  It felt like the Oregon coast.  I felt right at home.

It rained all Sunday night, with lighting and thunder as the Dragon King reveled.  By Monday morning, it had stopped.  The clouds were gone, but the wind continued.  The sidewalk was an inch deep in the wind's gleanings from the cedar trees above.

Mt. Fuji overlooked a roiling sea, with waves breaking far offshore, and foam blowing streaks.  The heavy wind, now offshore, opposed the sea and surf, perhaps 4 meters high (which is pretty darned high) broke close in sequence several times as it approached the shore.  Sandpipers raced the waves, coming close to the long lenses of intrepid photographers.  I walked a long way past the fishing harbor and beach to reach a rock jetty, where holiday booths served alcohol (people seem to drink a lot here) and snacks, and kids from preschoolers to teens demonstrated their skills on skateboard ramps to live music.  Bicyclists raced down the paved path.  Sunbathers stretched out on damp sand, and the wind carved new edges in the sandy cliffs.

Spray crashed over the tops of the jetties, and only the best and bravest surfers dared the waves.  Looking towards Mt. Fuji, the foam waves obscuring its base, the foam blew seaward off the tops of the waves and shined platinum in the light.

The wind had dropped by evening, a pleasant 12 to 15K, but the long swells continued, bringing out the less expert as I tried to figure out their plans.  They seemed unable to paddle quickly enough to catch the steep waves, and when they did, worked hard to get out to the surf line once more.

At last the remnants of clouds turned pink as the sun set behind the mountain.  The surfers draggled in.  Photographers packed up.  Joyously running dogs and children were corralled and the local loudspeakers -- everywhere in Japan -- announced the closure of parking areas as everyone headed home.

A neighbor had blown the sidewalk clean.

It was quiet.

The typhoon was over.

Monday, September 11, 2017

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Life on the Floor: Playing Charades

It's September, and, as predicted, the national thermostat dropped by ten degrees.  Instead of the 90s, highs are now in the 80s.  In another week, they'll drop to the 70s, and life will be comfortable again.

It's been my experience that if Charades were an Olympic event, Japan would go Gold every single time.  Sure, saying an English word with a Japanese accent often works, but to develop the accent means studying Hiragana and Katakana so you know how an English word would be written in Japanese, plus listening to native speakers so you understand how they pronounce things.  Even after much study, I still need people to pronounce words for me so I can say them correctly.  This particularly applies to place names.  Also, the English word used in Japan might not be the one you're expecting.

But if you're coming on vacation, or coming to study or work and must get settled before you start, Charades are the way to go.  Your hosts are experts!  They will win, and so will you.

Recently, I bought a tea kettle, a proper stainless steel one that whistles!  I love it.  It has a nice black handle on top.  Unfortunately this isn't heat proof, so I needed to buy a potholder.

When I got to the store, Ito Yokado, which is something like a Japanese Target, I couldn't find them.  I realized I had no clue how to ask where they might be.  Sure, I can ask where something is, but what if I don't know the name of the something?

I resorted to Charades.  I pictured a pot and said (in Japanese), "The pot is very hot!"  I stretched out my hand, mimed touching it and said, "HOT!"  I then mimed putting something on my hand and reaching out again, and smiled.  I held out my hand again and said, "Where would I find these?"

The woman smiled.  She knew exactly what I was talking about and led me to the well-concealed display of pot holders and oven mitts.  I asked, "What are these called in Japanese?"

Her smiled broadened.  "Mee-ten" she told me.  So now I know, and so you do, that I ask for a "mitten" pronounced with a Japanese accent when I am looking for a potholder!

Try Charades!  It works.