Tuesday, August 4, 2020

The Summer of Our Discontent, And Yet...

I've broken my back. Compression fracture, T-12. Hurts, but I have drugs and a brace. With luck and good treatment, it will probably resolve in about six months without surgery. I can't say enough nice things about the Japanese National Health or the medical system that made it possible for me to get treated at an orthopedic hospital on a Saturday afternoon on a walk-in and urgent basis for about $30.00, including X-rays.

I did it fixing the kickstand on my remarkably heavy electric assist bike. Sadly, I was really enjoying riding my bike on back streets around my pleasant neighborhood. Until it resolves and I get medical clearance to do so, I am limited to Shank's Mare. As long as I'm upright, I can sit and walk, so let's see how far I get.

Fortunately Tokyo, and Japan generally, has one of the premier public transportation systems in the world, and there is no shortage of taxis.
In fact, once when I had walked the Old Tokaido Highway to a fairly remote village in Hakone, I planned to take the bus back up the hill. But the bus didn't come. I asked the people in the woodworking center, in case I was reading it wrong (always possible for me) and they checked the schedule, too. Indeed, there was supposed to have been a bus. There was supposed to be another bus shortly, but it didn't come either. I have never found out why, because a handy taxi came tooling by, I flagged it, and was soon on my way comfortably up the hill. 

This is poised to be and is being a difficult summer for almost everyone, everywhere. Because of COVID-19, many things are closed. We're supposed to socially distance, a hard thing to do while navigating public spaces like train stations here in Japan. A lot of people live here, and they all want to get outside now that the rainy season has finally stopped. Restaurants and stores enforce distancing and hand sanitizer use, and masks are now a high-fashion item that everybody wears, but when too many people are simply window shopping, or on their way to restaurants or stores, it's hard to keep away from them. Cases are rising, and Please Stay Home, Part 2, is likely to become a reality again after the national summer holiday of O-bon, when the deceased (and everybody else) returns to their hometowns for a giant summer festival, memorial service, and party. 

Everybody's worn out with this, and I think that's why officials are carefully watching the numbers, imposing minor limitations on the hours of some businesses, and waiting until after O-bon. People need a break. Consensus is rapidly building for the government to do something, and besides pursuit of treatments and vaccines, that translates into Please Stay Home, possibly with the stick of fines rather than just the carrot of compensation. 

There have been worse summers to be limited in what I can do, since prudence dictates that I and everyone else travel as little as possible and avoid crowded places. I am very fortunate that though I have locations I would like to visit, I have already done most of the research I need to do for the as yet untitled Book 8 in The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy series, and am able to start that book right now. I am very sorry for the people who do not have arts, businesses, chores or hobbies they can actively pursue indoors, or in their yards, at home.

It is truly a summer of discontent. We are weathering it well, but it isn't easy. It's important to always find something to enjoy, something to look forward to.

My garden is filed under "entertainment" this year -- my crops are few and far between and the bugs are very much enjoying them! Still, my few tomatoes are ripening.

And I will have peppers!

Stay safe, everybody. We can beat this. Together. 

Friday, July 17, 2020

The Lotus-Foot Assassin Meets the Dragon King

In a couple of days, The Lotus-Foot Assassin Meets the Dragon King will be available on Amazon, in Kindle Unlimited/KDP Select, world-wide. Those who have subscribed to FLY ON, my newsletter, will have an opportunity to get it for free, of course. If you don't have KU, and I can't get it here myself, it's only $0.99, and this for a novella-length work.  Or you can sign up for FLY ON at The Toki-girl and the Sparrow-Boy's website, and you'll get The Sparrows of Pusan, another novella, and a link for this one, too.

In Noriko's Journey, Book 5, Noriko presents her new husband, Yuta, to her Chinese martial arts masters, Master Peng and his mother, Mistress Feng. 

Mistress Feng can talk to dragons, which makes her highly useful to Ryuujin in The Dragon Sisters, Book 6.

Long before that, though, in 1820s China, British opium smuggling threatens the sovereignty of the Manchu Empire itself. Feng Meili is a Shaolin-trained assassin whose first assignment is to recover the Iron Fan -- a National Treasure that's supposed to have magical powers -- and kill the collaborator who stole it. Can she and Feng Bao infiltrate an Imperial Prince's palace and perform a daring rescue? When Bao is killed, Meili must escape Beijing, braving pursuers, storms and fires to find in herself surprising new abilities and meeting an incredible new ally. This is the story of how Feng Meili meets Long, known in Japan as Ryuujin, the Dragon King.

I hope you enjoy it. 

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Folk Medicine, Japanese Style

There is a plant that grows in my tiny yard, and everybody else's tiny yard, and apparently all over the country. It's called docudami and is a great ground cover because it does its best to shove out everything else. It flowers prettily in the spring, but it does have a distinctive smell. This means you can make it into a bug repellant by stuffing it into a bottle and covering it in alcohol. (I did.) This also works as a skin toner, but for that purpose, the alcohol to use is preferably sake.  Either way, it's diluted for use in a spray bottle.

It's also a folk medicine, and I have a recipe from a Genuine Japanese Grandma for a way to make it into a tea that, according to my research, is generally Good For What Ails You.

In this, it reminds me of Sopheronium, an herbal medicine that appears in a story by sf/fantasy writer Zenna Henderson. Made by Aunt Sophie, that specific was able to stop a plague and much, much more.

I don't hold out that kind of hope for this one, but Kumi's mother makes it annually, and since I have it in great abundance, I will probably do so, too.

First you pick the docudami and dry it. No matter how you try, it doesn't get truly dry outdoors, so it must be further dried over heat inside, which I finally did this morning, in my air fryer.  Mixed with mugicha (barley tea), mamecha (bean tea) and sobacha (buckwheat tea), it's supposed to, indeed, be good for what ails you.

Given that many people find the odor of docudami unpleasant, the tea is surprisingly nice just as it is, no sweetener needed. When I got the other ingredients, they came in different forms and consistencies. This means I'll need to shake it before scooping it into tea bags (you can buy them empty here, so you can use loose tea in the quantity you like) to brew.

The jar came from Ikea in Harujuku, where I have a dentist. I have too many dentists and see them too often, but they know their jobs, they like what they do, and are located in fun parts of town that I like to visit anyway, so I can plan a treat around the appointment. Fortunately, most dentistry is covered by insurance here and the co-pays are small enough so that I still have some money left.

Besides having vegetarian/vegan food in their cafe, Ikea has a wide selection of products I just haven't been able to find, in addition to their regular offerings of furniture and so on.  I got a few of the jars pictured above -- this project has been waiting for a jar big enough to hold the results.  I found, to my delight, linen tea towels, for dish drying. I've been using the same one, sent to me from the US, for three years. They last forever, but it's nice to have a few more. Since stores now must charge for plastic bags, Ikea also has a really nice selection of shopping bags in various excellent patterns. I also found a tiny little clock that tells the time in analog, that is all it does and that is all I want it to do. It was kind of a disappointment, because I had to take it back. I couldn't get the case open for the battery, and it wasn't just me. They ended up replacing the clock and installing the battery for me, and I was up there for the dentist, anyway.

We probably have another week or two before the rainy season stops and Steam Bath Summer sets in, making the following eight weeks pretty unpleasant, but at least it won't rain.

The Lotus-foot Assassin Meets the Dragon King is a Sideways Story. Madam Feng and her son are Noriko's Tokyo Martial Arts Masters, introduced in Noriko's Journey (book 5). In this story, which takes place in 1825 China, she discovers her ability to talk to dragons on her very first assignment. It's ~10,000 words, novelette length, and will be up on The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy's website and on Amazon worldwide, also in Kindle Select and Kindle Unlimited as soon as the cover is ready. I can't wait to see it!

The Smashwords Summer Sale has all the books at 75%, with Coming Home (book 1) FREE, through July 31, so take advantage. It's a good summer to read, or, for me, research Book 8, as yet untitled.

And here, ta-da, are my first three itty-bitty tomatoes, with docudami mounding behind them. Rain or no rain, my tiny garden is growing.

Friday, July 3, 2020

Tokyo Fashion

Of course, I have things to do. I need to link the reviews of The Eagle and the Sparrow to the website, yes, I do. The reviews are all great, but I think I am not the first author to find some of them puzzling and others enlightening.  Read the book and do your own. All e-formats are 75% off at Smashwords during July, so have a ball. If nothing else, this is a great summer for reading.

Here in Tokyo, we have now been told to Please Go Out Safely. Virtually all businesses have reopened with many precautions standard. This is a new normal and it isn't going away. Japan plans for the long haul, and is creating new standards of operation more by individual action and communication than by any kind of government mandate or even suggestion. "That's a good idea. Let's do the same."

People love teleworking in Japan as much as they seem to everywhere, so I think we will see a huge shift as people just keep doing it as much as they can. This will lead to reductions in needed office space, among many other things, over the long term. There is already a noticeable trend of people moving out of the big cities, to vacation houses, or old family homes, because they can.

One of the funniest things being debated here is the need for reduction in use of the physical hanko or inkan seal, which is used on many documents. People have had to go into their businesses just to seal stacks of documents. Since this is Japan, I suspect they'll figure out a way to use the seal on-line rather than give up the seal.  I also suspect electronic communication will at last replace the ever-popular FAX, used more in Japan than anyplace else.

Except, of course, if you do not get your US stimulus money (and I haven't) by a certain date you can now FAX a form to someplace in the US to start the process of replacing it. I have to wait another ten days or so before I can do this, since it hasn't been quite long enough from when it was "scheduled to be mailed."

This week, besides running regular errands, I also met a friend for lunch at the new Ikea in Harajuku to try out their vegan offerings. Social distance markings, barriers, auto-ordering kiosks, and really good food. Harakuku is a trendy fashion district catering mostly to the very young, between Yoyogi Koen, the huge park housing Meiji Shrine and its museums, and the highly upscale Omotesando.  So -- what's the latest on the street?

Masks, of course.  And here's my Permanent Collection.

These fun breathable masks are made for serious outdoor exercisers. Because they are the veil style that doesn't encircle the chin but rather hangs down in front, it's easier to exercise and your glasses do not fog up in Tokyo's Steam Bath Summer.  Since they go around your neck like a scarf, you can just take them off your ears and tuck them in when you eat or drink, just like a scarf. Every so many patterns and colors are available. I got mine from Amazon, but I'm sure many other retailers sell them.

This is also a veil type, in Basic Black. It doesn't hang down quite so far, but it's perfect for comfort and protection when you're the Queen of Neutrals, like me.

These are from Uniqlo. Washable, and made of their wonderful Airism Fabric that works so well in the Steam Bath Summer or sweaty sports any time.  Only available in white. Many offices in Japan require white masks only as part of their dress codes, so Basic White is uniformly useful. Did you know Nordstrom is selling something very similar in the US, only in black?  I'll probably wear Basic White and Basic Black a lot.

This is despite the colorful collection of ordinary cloth masks I have acquired. When the stores ran out of disposable (reusable for a period if washed with soap) masks, enterprising people with sewing machines got busy and started making fashion-forward fabric masks that they sold in various street market venues. Though the Abe-no-mask, lower right, was promised and did come, market sellers beat them and the official ones are best kept by the door for taking out trash, getting mail and answering the door. These cloth ones don't breath very well, but this isn't going away, and they'll be very useful when cooler weather hits.

These are Buffs, a kind of breathable neck gaiter sweatband/mask also designed for serious outdoor exercisers. I've had these for years and have used them skiing, riding, boating and hiking. They make great helmet liners and can also be pulled up over the face, or in other configurations -- Buff's website shows many options -- to perform a multitude of tasks.

There is absolutely no excuse whatsoever not to wear a mask in Tokyo. Masks are available that don't make your glasses fog and that make breathing easy even when exercising vigorously.  I like the veil types a lot --  I don't even know I have them on.  People here don't fall for nonsense about "rebreathing carbon monoxide".  They've worn masks for years during allergy season or when they have sniffles.  Even if you buy that, or if you have some kind of breathing difficulty, there is a mask designed to work for you. They don't have to be ugly -- they can be fun, go with your wardrobe, advertise your favorite beer, turn you into an Action Hero or Character Idol, whatever you want. 

On some of us, me included, they improve the visual landscape.

Nobody here feels like their "rights are being threatened." There is no right whatsoever, anywhere, to infect other people with a disease. People here are interested in protecting others, and as others are protecting them, the effect multiplies. This is the secret of Japan's success. People here are doing one of the things Japan does very well: being creative and having fun with a necessity.

You don't have any excuses any more. Just wear a mask.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Lost and Found

Yesterday I did something fun involving the outdoors, plants, lots of walking and lunch in a restaurant with a real human being. WOWZA!

It was great. There are photos.



Gorgeous pond with many colors of water lilies, and lotus to come.

 Anthurium, as red as it gets

More pond. It's huge. See all the colors?

 The orange thing in the middle is a cacao fruit. The cocoa beans are inside the orange fruit.

 This is just plain pretty, an orchid.

And this, charmingly, is a Mickey Mouse tree. No, that's not an ornament. I thought it was at first, but this is the flower!

This was all at the conservatory at Shinjuku Gyoen, a gigantic park used for many wonderful things, established in the Meiji Era. They breed butterflies! They have rare plants! They tell you what's there, like pepper, coffee, bananas, cacao, and then you get to find those plants. Clever of them, because then you see everything. Vanilla. Pitcher Plants. The environment has different zones and includes bugs. The roof moves to control the temperature and the humidity. Fascinating place, changing with the seasons.

Suitably and fashionably masked Tokyo-ites were out and about, but not getting too close. The rest of the enormous park is open, too, and people distanced themselves on the grass and various benches. It's worth more than a day to explore. The Imperial Rest House is now closed to visitors as is the restaurant, but the snack bars are open and you can even get veg food!  Hurray!

But on my way home, I somehow dropped my Suica (train) card not into the pocket where it belongs, but somewhere else. I had to have done this once I'd exited the last station because I couldn't have exited otherwise.

Today was supposed to be, and accurately is, very hot and very humid. I got the laundry out where it is drying v-e-r-y slowly and headed for the store. I needed a few things to make a couple of recipes I have been eyeing. I walked more than five miles yesterday, according to my helpful watch, so I didn't plan on long excursions given the weather predicted for today. I went to the store early.

I couldn't find my Suica card case, which also contains a business card and my grocery-store point cards, which may have some kind of utility I have yet to discover, though I know I sometimes get discounts. I looked. No luck. I got back from the store and looked again. No luck. I figured I'd ask at the station office next time I went and started cooking. Too hot to walk. Then the phone rang. I had music on and didn't get to it in time. When I called back, I found it was the number for the Toyoko line, but it was a recording. Wow! Did they find my card?

I hiked to the station I used last night, Yaguchi no Watashi (Tamagawa Line, part of the Toyoko Line). I live midway between that one, Hasunuma (Ikegami Line, also part of the Toyoko Line)  and Kamata, at which the Tamagawa Line and Ikegami Line terminate, but also serves JR lines, including the Kehin-Tohoku line that goes to Shinagawa and other points north and south. Kamata is the BIG station with department stores, government offices and much, much more.

At the Yaguchi no Watashi station office, I found that they DID have my Suica card and case, but it was at Lost and Found at Kamata Station. OK, I'm happy to go get it. My Suica card has over 6000 yen on it -- well worth it. I asked how much the ticket to Kamata was, but instead he handed me a freebie! At Kamata, I happily recovered my card. I could have gone back to Yaguchi no Watashi on the Tamagawa line freebie or paid to ride the Ikegama Line to Hasunuma, but I decided to walk instead. It's no farther. So my watch helpfully tells me I have walked nearly three miles today.

Cooking in Japan can be an adventure. This recipe called for garbanzo beans in cans. Nope, no cans. Only dried beans that would take me two days of intermittent effort to cook. I decided to substitute fu, which is the Japanese version of seitan.  The recipe wanted sweet potatoes. Things are seasonal here, and there was only ONE sweet potato in the store, roasted. I did have some pumpkin in the freezer, and now that I don't have to worry about maybe not finding food, I'm clearing that out. Tastes pretty close, right? Peanut butter costs the earth, and celery, when you can find it, is almost a dollar a stalk. Tamarind paste, however, is easy to find and there are at least half a dozen nearly identical kinds of garlic and chili paste.

No worries!  The result tastes delicious, I got a LOT of exercise, got my Suica card back, and the laundry's almost dry. Just another adventure in Tokyo.

Tomorrow, I return to The Lotus-Foot Assassin Meets the Dragon King. I finished the draft late Tuesday night and it's resting, by design, so I can see what needs to be done. Tomorrow.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Granola and Writing

Some writers sit down and craft outlines in excruciating detail, or character sketches going back to birth for minor characters who appear once, or do all sorts of on-line things to "engage" their audiences. "Engaging" things are torture for me. Not only am I the World's Most Boring Person, when I have something to say, I write. For me, outlining and characters appear in my head, bubbling up from the bottom of my subconscious or somewhere else in the universe. Sitting in front of a computer or trying to handwrite in a beautiful notebook with an expensive fountain pen, and inevitably coffee, at some $6 a cup swank and bustling coffee shop just are not productive for me.  Although I love fountain pens, I hate coffee. 

What I do is get outside, garden and cook. These all feed my head, rather than drain it.

I'd planned to head just outside of Tokyo proper yesterday and take an interesting walk up a small mountain involving a Shugendo Temple and a couple of museums. This is the kind of thing that energizes my creative process. It's intake, not output.

But it was raining, soon to be pouring, and I had been thinking about granola.

It's possible to make oil-free granola, I determined through a quick Web search. But all the recipes I found required an oven. I do not have an oven. I do, however, have an air fryer.

My brain leapt into gear and formulated a plan to hustle to the nearest large supermarket between downpours and spring into culinary action. 

People seem to love it when I post recipes. That can be a problem because I cook rather free-hand, by method more than recipe. I also lack not only an oven but a measuring cup. I tried to measure boiling water in mine (being creative, I was) and cracked it. But I am pretty good at measuring by eye, and the granola turned out very well.

4 cups rolled oats. The expensive non-instant organic kind.
2.5  packages freeze-dried fruit from The Rotten Food Box Company -- say, 1 - 1.25 cups.
1/4 cup sliced almonds
1/4 cup chopped walnuts

All mixed in a big bowl. You could add cinnamon and/or nutmeg and maybe some cloves if you like.

In what I think is a 12 oz jar, I mixed:

1/4 cup maple syrup. The real thing.
1/4 cup very dark, kind of bitter, brown sugar from Okinawa, to finish the bag
1/2 t "bitter almond extract" which is Japanese, and not quite like US almond extract, but good.
Filled the jar with water and shook madly.

Added this to the dry ingredients. Stirred.

Too much for my little air fryer to do at once, so I took 1/3 and cooked at 375F about ten minutes. Still too wet. Did it again. STILL too wet, and a little too brown. Turned the temperature down to 250F, set the timer for 15 minutes. Got bored. Stuck the rest in the microwave, thinking that might help. It did. After about 7 minutes, the microwave was all steamy and the mix was much drier. Wiped down the microwave and did it again.
When Batch 1 was probably going to cool down to crunchy, I dumped it into bowl 2, exhausting my stock of big bowls.
Batch 2, now hot and significantly drier, went into the air fryer at 250F for ten minutes, got stirred and went again. Still kind of soft, but Batch 1 had dried crunchy. Success!
Did the same with Batch 3.
It worked! It all cooled down into lovely, crunchy granola, and my granola cravings are satisfied.

What I'll do differently next time:

I will use far less water, maybe 1/4 to 1/3 cup, max.  I will NOT add the fruits initially. I will cook the oats and nuts part in the air fryer at 250 for maybe 7 minutes, stir and probably go for another 5-7 for crunch. I might just add the freeze-dried fruit to the oat mixture then and be done with it. But I might stir the dried fruits with some maple syrup and water (that was the end of the brown sugar, so I'll use all maple) and let them sit while the grains are cooking.  I will check the consistency and will probably air-fry those for about 7 minutes so they'll get kind of crunchy, too. 

I have big Ziplock Bags, so that's what I put it in. 

With this Science Project, I have learned I can make tasty granola without an oven and without oil, too.

I have also learned that The Lotus-Foot Assassin Meets the Dragon King is going to be fast-paced, violent, short and may contain x-rated material.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Finally Finding My Genre

I'm often asked what "genre" I write in.

It's not that easy. 

There used to be only a few: mystery, thriller, romance, science fiction, fantasy, Western, "literary". But then each started developing roots and branches and twigs and flowers, until now it's easy to find a full page just under, say, "mystery."  Romance, being the most popular of genres, can probably fill up several. 

I've never been able to find a good fit for The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy books or for me as a writer.

"Kids' books," I have had people say to me knowingly. Well, no. Coming Home, the first one, was deliberately written so that middle-grade readers could read it independently, maybe with assistance from a dictionary, because that coincided with the ages of the principle characters. But murder, international politics, war and social commentary somehow don't quite fit into that. The succeeding books have grown up both in theme and in complexity. By Uncle Yuta Has An Adventure, Book 4, we have an adult protagonist addressing clearly grown-up issues.

"Historical fiction" isn't quite right because, though the series is set in the genuine history of Meiji-era Japan, there are dual-natured and other folkloric beings, in addition to the deaths, wars, social change, political upheaval and general mayhem attendant to that time, and while there is love, there isn't exactly romance of the kind your average Westerner would understand.

"Historical fantasy" is better, and I kind of parked there for a while because the folkloric elements and characters would definitely be considered fantasy, I guess.  Those elements explicate and criticize the society with which they interact, of course, but I'm not sure they change it.

At last, though, I think I've finally hit it. I'm not sure I fall in with the "literary" likes of Isabelle Allende, Franz Kafka, Toni Morrison, Haruki Murakami, Laura Esquivel and Salman Rushdie. Zenna Henderson, Anne McCaffrey, Neil Gaiman, Mercedes Lackey and Julian May, with their light, often humorous, touches, come closer, though their works are considered to fall more into the popular realm of "science fiction/fantasy". They are more accessible, something I try very hard to be.  Either way, this is where I belong. The shoe fits. I've put it on and I like it.

This genre has a name, and I am thrilled to write it: Magical Realism. I didn't even know it existed until a couple of days ago, though I have read every single author I have listed above. But is seems I have found my spiritual home among them. 

Magical realism is a genre of literature that depicts the real world as having an undercurrent of magic or fantasy. Magical realism is a part of the realism genre of fiction. Within a work of magical realism, the world is still grounded in the real world, but fantastical elements are considered normal in this world. (From: The Masterclass)

Every magical realism novel is different, but there are certain things they all include, such as:
·       Realistic setting. All magical realism novels take place in a setting in this world that’s familiar to the reader. 
·     Magical elements. From talking objects to dead characters to telepathy, every magical realism story has fantastical elements that do not occur in our world. However, they’re presented as normal within the novel.
·   Limited information. Magical realism authors deliberately leave the magic in their stories unexplained in order to normalize it as much as possible and reinforce that it is part of everyday life. 
·     Critique. Authors often use magical realism to offer an implicit critique of society, most notably politics and the elite. The genre grew in popularity in parts of the world like Latin America that were economically oppressed and exploited by Western countries. Magic realist writers used the genre to express their distaste and critique American Imperialism. 
·   Unique plot structure. Magical realism does not follow a typical narrative arc with a clear beginning, middle, and end like other literary genres. This makes for a more intense reading experience, as the reader does not know when the plot will advance or when the conflict will take place. (From: Wikipedia.)

I've busily gone back to all the places where one is supposed to list "genre" and added Magical Realism to the mix. As usual, I blunder around like the proverbial bull in a china shop, hoping to hit something important. As usual, finally and at last I do.

I'm welcoming me, and The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy, to Magical Realism.