Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Seventy in Japan -- Still Having Fun.

    Today is my 70th birthday. That is a pretty scary number, though I don't feel any differently than I did at 60. I'm older -- I have joked with some of my friends that this is the year we go from being "older" ladies to "old" ladies.

    I'm fortunate in that I'm healthy and seem to be getting healthier. Maybe it's all the walking, though I have always exercised and continue to do so outside of the constant and required walking. All my old injuries are manifesting traumatic arthritis, and I seem unable to convince my knees to improve no matter what I do, which does not bode well for possible future skiing. 

    In Japan, one gets goodies for getting old. Some don't kick in until I am 75 but there are a couple of others that start now. I got an envelope of coupons from Ota-ku and discovered that I get discounts at various hair salons! Only a couple of times a year, but, hey, that's nice! I'll be going in to get my Silver Pass, which, for a small fee, will let me ride various bus lines for free. I'm looking forward to exploring the bus lines. I know they're out there, but I haven't been using them. I've been using trains almost exclusively, but there are hints that sometimes buses might be more convenient.

    Then there is the bath house pass!  Woohoo! This gives me discounts at my neighborhood (and other) onsen! Half price! 

    I think there are more benefits to aging that aren't necessarily confined to Japan, but I'll find those as I go along. For now, these are pretty darned good. 

And this is what I look like. Not too bad for an old lady.

Monday, August 1, 2022

Five Years Flown

    On August 2, 2017, I set a match to the last metaphorical bridge and stepped onto an airplane to come to Japan. I didn't have a job, and I didn't want one. I didn't have a residence visa but a brand new section of the immigration code gave me hope for one, only I had to file for it while in Japan. 

    I had three suitcases. I had a couple of boxes and my skis to come after me. My plan was to return for my cat or have a family member bring him in connection with a pilgrimage. I didn't really burn every last one of my bridges; I think my family still likes me. I still like them, anyway. They still have some few things I'd need to set up a place to live somewhere if Japan kicks me out. They decided to keep my cat, who, admittedly, is much happier there with a house and a yard, other pets and several humans. Here, he'd have a Tiny Tokyo Apartment and me. How incredibly boring.

    It took forever for my visa to be granted: eight months, to be precise. I had to go to Korea twice, for a total of some eight weeks, if I recall. And I wrote much of a book in a hotel room with no window. The stress levels were red-lining. But I did get the visa, first of its kind. Good for one year. I dealt with discrimination in trying to get an apartment: no job, so no employer to stand up for me, only a single year visa, and of course I am a foreigner. 

    In  a short time, I moved to a better apartment, owned by the same owner (I like her a lot; a real benefit) and I have a tiny garden. But because of all this nonsense, going back to the US even for a short visit was out of the question. Especially since my visa presumes I will write and publish a book every year. This, I'll have you know, is not easy. Books do not write themselves in the middle of the night. The Shoemaker's Brownies don't come and publish them while I sleep.

   Buddhism is my huge, main, personal reason for my being here, though I don't think Immigration cares about that. Still, I am involved in my Temple and go there often. When I can. I make pilgrimages to Taisekiji monthly. When I can. (See: COVID, below.)

    Then there is the whole Settling In part of moving to another land, one that speaks a language in which my capabilities are improving, but still not fluent, and which thrives on bureaucracy, requiring going here, there and somewhere else, and filling out tons of forms in the language I kind of speak, read a bit, but absolutely do not write. Much of this must happen on an annual basis.

    I made a trip to Hokkaido in connection with a book I was writing, and was there when COVID hit. It hit in Hokkaido first, and it was terrifying. This disease was killing people and nobody knew anything about it. I got back safely, but for months I could barely leave my apartment. Nobody could. Nobody could leave Japan, and nobody could get in. Permanent residents who happened to be abroad when the boarder closures happened were stuck. Nobody was going anywhere but the grocery store or out for a little exercise. Even the Temples were closed for a while.

    Then I broke a vertebrae while repairing my electric assist bike. Note to self: do not lift anything heavy and twist at the same time. That was also...not fun. 

    Finally, we got vaccines, and you bet I am getting them the instant I get my coupons from the local health authority. Japan doesn't just slavishly imitate other countries when it comes to public health. They do their own thing, and they seem to do it very well. 

    Incrementally, the borders are kind of opening. But I can't leave with any assurance that I could get back in, not with that one-year visa and virus variants happily mutating. And nobody who doesn't have some special urgent familial or business need can come in.  My family and friends can't come for pilgrimages or simply to visits. Not just yet. 

    As of August 2, 2022, it's been five years since I came to Japan.  My birthday's next week so I have to brave bureaucracy to go change a bunch of registries and apply for what should be benefits. I write books, I travel domestically, and I seem to get healthier. I got a driver's license last fall. That was not easy. I am plotting and scheming to figure out how to get a longer visa because, yes, I want to stay. 

    I can't believe it's been that long and at the same time I can't believe I ever lived anywhere else. It's taking a while but I am learning how to live here. I have also signed up for a class so I can finally learn kanji, so I can effectively read. Sadly, the advent of translation apps has meant I can't just acquire this knowledge by living, which is how I acquire most of my advancing language skills. 

    Very soon, I hope, my family and friends will be able to come here for pilgrimages and holidays, that driving ceases terrifying me (WRONG SIDE! YIKES!) and I finally figure out my garden's preferred crops and growing seasons. 

    I want to show you my Japan.    

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

The Neighborhood Onsen and My New Toy: A PSA

     The neighborhoods where I've lived in Tokyo have been fortunate enough to have actual onsen. Subsidized by public funds, they provide low cost (400 - 500 yen) lovely hot springs experiences, with the water reputedly good for various ailments and sometimes specifically beneficial for skin.


Use authorized by Romeo A, photographer. Not my neighborhood onsen!

    Some do have outdoor baths, and some even have views, though not usually ones in the middle of town. They are enjoyable, relaxing, and people frequent them as part of their regular lives, for entertainment and even as family outings.

    But in the age of COVID, I haven't been to my neighborhood onsen in a fairly long while, contenting myself with the swimming pool sized "Grand Baths" (with fabulous ocean views) on various ferries, which have been deserted, again due to COVID. I've been missing it.

    Furthermore, I've been having dreadful problems with dry skin and falling hair. Apparently, this is not unusual for foreigners in Japan. I've asked about the water from the beginning and been told it's perfectly drinkable and it doesn't taste badly at all. Tokyo Tap is quite palatable. 

    What it is, though, I've more or less just discovered, is full of chlorine and very hard. I've bought special products, got cream from the doctor, asked the dentist and at just a couple of weeks away from five years here have had no real solution.

    Finally, though, I was perusing an expat group that was discussing this very issue and several people said the answer was not a dermatologist or an endocrinologist. It wasn't the presence of some dread disease or the need to order wildly expensive products from afar, but to buy a water filter for your shower! Best 1800 yen I've spent in a long while.

    I haven't had my new water filter long enough to gauge its effect on my hair but the effect on my skin was immediate and fabulous. I love it and will never be without one again, and I have high hopes that the fall of hair will diminish, though it will never cease as humans do shed. 

    The few friends I've told about this have all acted like I must a little slow to not have tumbled to this before, or deduced it from the outset by osmosis or something. I mean, the doctor? The dentist? Who I actually asked? So in that respect this is a PSA. Get a water filter for your home shower! Immediately!

    One of the things that is common at an onsen is women washing their usually long hair. Of course, everyone washes their bodies before entering the hot spring bath, but now that I think about it, everyone also washes her hair. Presumably the fellows do it, too, but the bathing parts of onsen are segregated, even if occasionally, in rural areas, the hot spring tubs aren't, so I've never seen boy bathing.

    I wonder if many women don't frequent their neighborhood onsen for the specific purpose of washing their hair. Many people are regulars, sometimes with lockers, often with discount ticket books, with their own towels (you can rent them, but that costs) and little baskets or bags of their own toiletries, though shampoo, conditioner and soap are provided.  

    Since I enjoy the onsen experience, I thought they just liked it! Even though onsen are inexpensive, it's cheaper to wash at home, and just about everybody nowadays has a shower, tub and hot water, though that didn't used to be the case. Now, with my newfound knowledge of the dangers of regular municipal water for skin and hair, my eyes have been opened! It's not just for fun that they come! They also want to use the advantages of the hot spring water to benefit their creamy skin and glorious, flowing, long hair.


Use authorized by Remi Thorei, photographer. Not my neighborhood onsen! 

    I hope that soon I can comfortably return to my neighborhood onsen, and not leave half a head of broken hair behind! And I hope that very soon you will be able to come along.

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

What Comes Next?

     I killed somebody today. In fact, I killed two somebodies, and I think I'll kill a couple more before this book is done. 

    No, they aren't real people. They're characters. I'm about halfway through this book, and I am about to get massively interrupted for about ten days, which will wreak havoc on my progress as I will have to spend a couple of days reading from the beginning so I remember what's going on. This is a book, remember, not a short story. I hope these interruptions won't lead to more and drag this out over several more months. I would like to get outside.

    My planned early August trip is off for now--I can't have another lengthy interruption--and I don't know what will happen to my planned fall trip. I have to get this done. Then I can have a little break, will need a break, before a re-read and rewrite, and more things that will lead to publication. 

    I thought Steam Bath Summer would be the best time to write, since I don't want to go out any more than I need to, but now....

    People really don't understand what writing a book takes. I will spend three to four hours a day trying to figure out what's going on (and can do nothing else but think) and another three to four hours a day writing it. I have no days off. Any interruption means a significant delay and I have to go back and reread. There is a real sense of urgency, of necessity to go forward and fall into the book's world to suss out the story. 

    All to figure out the elusive What Comes Next?  That's Stephen King's phrase. He's incredibly prolific because he is incredibly disciplined. He doesn't monkey around. He goes to his office and asks this question. It's what you have to ask when you get stuck, when you run into a wall, when you don't know where to go. You have to figure out What Comes Next?  Only when you know that can you write it down. 

    And that's where I am at. I have a strong idea of some of the things that need to happen, a vague idea of others, but I don't know it all. The characters will need to tell me, and that means I have to be quiet and listen to them in their time and place. 

    What has come next in my little garden, though, is the last of the lilies. There are eight blooms on the stems in this post. I hope that what comes next is not a typhoon!

Friday, July 1, 2022

Gentle, Everyday, Horror: Life Ceremony by Sayaka Murata

    Sayaka Murata's Life Ceremony is her new collection of short stories released by Grove in English on July 5, 2022. I asked where and when I could get it and scored an ARC without even asking for it. 

    When you get an ARC, you don't promise anything. You get a book, and the publisher hope you'll review it, honestly, wherever you can, but you do not commit to it reviewing at all, and your review must be honest.  

    In Life Ceremony, Murata skillfully draws the reader in with a gentle normalcy, a quirky point of view that is very often funny. Then the story skews sideways, and the horror creeps in. This often might be mental illness or might be paranormal, but that is not apparent to the narrator, who always perceives her actions and views as not only normal but superior. 

    Extending its web through the everyday thoughts of the first-person narrators, the horrific seems normal, even reasonable until it twists away again and you're left to wonder what is real and what is not; what is sane and what is not; and what, even, constitutes evil.

    Murata's writing is hard to categorize. Literary? Women's Fiction? Magical Realism? Horror? Does it matter?  Life Ceremony, like all of Murata's work to date, is disturbing, unsettling and wonderful. Highly recommended.

    Of note is that this book was translated from the original Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori. I read it in English because my Japanese isn't up to literature yet, though I'm working on it. The translation is superb. It keeps the cadence and flow of the Japanese language and the world in which the characters live. This deft and expert touch adds to the quality and value of this edition. Yes, you want to read this book. 



Tuesday, June 7, 2022

The Experience

    Jimi Hendrix called his band The Experience because you had to be there. It wasn't something that could be explained. You had to listen. 

    I was there. I did listen. What Hendrix did for (and to) music is permanent. I could explain the revolutionary nature of his talent and ability for hours but the only way I can truly do so is to call up the recordings and turn up the sound. You have to be there.

    Every month, more or less, I go on a pilgrimage to the Head Temple of Nichiren Shoshu, Taisekiji. The pilgrimage is called "Tozan," an actual pun because "tozan" means to climb the mountain -- the mountain we climb is the mountain of enlightenment. This shocked me when I first discovered it because I didn't think Japan and the Japanese were into linguistic jokes and puns. Of course, I was wrong.

    While there we may participate in a ceremony called Gokaihi. It is only done at Taisekiji and can only be done at Taisekiji. Only Nichiren Shoshu members may participate. Nichiren Shoshu members come as often as they can and wish to, capacity permitting, but the goal is to come annually.

My lilies. We, too, will bloom. 

     Right now, due to COVID, there are members around the world who long to come and participate in this ceremony, but they can't. I make offering on their behalf because I am conscious of my great privilege to live in Japan and be able to go often. There are the people I know well, the people I know slightly, and the people I don't know at all. I commend them all, in the hope and expectation that they will be able to come on their own, very soon. And I let them know that, in the hope it will touch their souls.

    I have even suggested that people could, if they wished, participate "remotely" as it were. That's utterly unofficial and I have no idea if it works, and it really isn't the same, but anything that gets people practicing a little more can't hurt, especially since so many people everywhere, from all faiths and traditions, in all nations, are having difficulties right now. 

    But I can't explain any of this. Oh, there are words. Go check out www.nst.org for a repository of material that has all the words in several languages. I can't do better except to point out that there are "translations conventions" that really are not accurate at all. We do not "worship." We have no "deity." We do not "pray." We practice a practice that leads to enlightenment. Remember that some words don't mean what you've always thought they meant, and you'll do fine. 

    I work with words. I've done that all my life. But this is something for which I have no words. This is something that must be experienced. You have to practice, and the practice itself will teach you in ways for which I have never found words. Seek enlightenment, and it will find you. Then you can come to Taisekiji and experience Gokaihi and know you have found what you have always sought.  

Taisekiji means "Big Rock Temple." Here's the rock, where Nikko Shonin, Nichiren Daishonin's direct successor, appointed by Nichiren Daishonin in authentic writings I have seen, lectured. You can see the path anyone who wanted to get to the top of the rock must take. It's real. It's here. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

The Fires of Edo


    I love reading books about Japan. Especially when they get it right. Susan Spann always gets it right. Her history is accurate. Her culture is on target. Her lore is superb.

    She also knows how to write a very tight mystery novel that twists and turns and deftly drifts red herrings across your path. Father Mateo, Iga shinobi Hattori Hiro, Ana-the-housekeeper and Gato-the-cat have come to Oda Nobunaga's Edo on a mission that isn't really theirs and fall into a mystery--their eighth outing--that will keep you up past your bedtime.

    If you like mysteries, if you like Japan and enjoy being transported to a different space and time, you'll enjoy this series and this book and look forward, as I do, to these characters' next outing.

    Here's the Amazon link so you can get your own copy: