Tuesday, April 11, 2023


It's been a rough winter for me, as I have mentioned, but spring is back, the azaleas are starting to bloom and I hope to get a start in my tiny garden as I see what's coming up. I will also plan another trip that will take me to places I can't really research any other way. There will be several of those. 

This is a collection of photographs from 1860 to 1880 taking me back where I think I belong, as I start a new book, with new themes and even a nearly-new character. 

This is a very difficult time in the writing process, because I don't know what I am doing, or why, or how. Not yet. It's not a about conscious discernment. Rather, I wander around a forest of ideas, darting here and there, seeking an attractive trail to follow. Mostly, they dead end or lead somewhere unexpected. Sometimes that is good.

My brain must cram itself full of information even as I fill notebooks with scrawls and a computer file full of links. I am entering a period of "don't bother me; I'm thinking." Not constantly, but a lot of the time, as I have to keep track of this deluge of data and let it organically sort itself out. 

I can't rush it; I can't hurry it. I can't even tell it to only do its magic Monday through Friday, nine to five. While some people have problems making it start, I have problems making it stop and get very grumpy when anybody or anything tries to interfere. This cannot be forced, not if you want a product of quality.

One of the hardest things about being a professional writer is learning to let the process happen, to isolate and trek the backroads of academia and the corners of my mind, to simply let it happen until there comes a point when I can cocoon with my computer and let the results emerge onto the screen, until there is the draft of a book. I hope this will happen during Steam Bath Summer. But maybe not, and maybe not even this year, for I am doing something very different this time.

Of course, it doesn't stop there. There are rewrites and editors and proofreaders and then the process of actual publication, of trying to get elusive reviews, and all the sorts of things I must do in the modern world, when I'd rather be seeing events unfold in the Meiji Era. This is now going on with The Reluctant Dragon, which will come out formally in June and informally before that, as I seek ARC reviews. If you want an ARC, just let me know. 

The purpose of Advance Review Copies is to seek the minimum number of normal people reviews on the Zon, which opens up all kinds of doors. Such reviews are amazingly hard to get. Editorial reviews are much easier. It's their job, as reviewers, and they know how important it is, so they do it. Fairly promptly. Normal people not so much. They read books, they like books, but they have a hard time clicking a link and posting the very short reviews that will help the book make the quota. I just posted two today, myself. If I get a review copy, especially if it's from somebody I know, I will read it and I will review it.  Karma. I still have four books in my To Be Read stash, and I am starting a new one today. 

I found this collection of photographs of Tokyo from 1860 to 1880 while I was looking for information on the Criminal Justice system in this period. If that doesn't show how this process actually works, I don't know what does.  Enjoy them.  


Click to get the link. There's music, too.

This one is just pretty!

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Meet Uncle Yuta: Why the Jō (Japanese Staff) is So Strong

A major character is The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy books is Uncle Yuta — Maeda Yuta Sensei. He is  a former sohei who left religious life to become guardian for his orphaned neice and nephew.

After, and with, his basic monastic training, which he started at age 12, Yuta trained as a sohei, a warrior monk. One of the major weapons a sohei would use would be a Jo staff. After all, any monk might carry a walking staff. Who's to know he knows how to use it like this — until he does?

This is the first film I've seen about using a Jo staff as a weapon that shows a real expert at work. 

Sunday, February 12, 2023

The Gods...didn't like me!

Izumo Taisha is the oldest shrine in Japan, claiming to predate even the Ise Grand Shrine.  From a map I saw, but could not read in detail--I promise I will keep studying--it seems to line up with Ise in the path of the sun, on the opposite side of the country. 

Here is the deepest source and preservation of the history of Japan and its basis in Shinto, the way of the kami. The very ground is steeped in ancient spirituality. Gagaku music, the sacred music of the shines and the court, plays everywhere. 

It's definitely not Buddhist. This is true even though a miko born in 1572 called Izumo no Okuni left the shrine and performed dance and music from the sacred heritage to raise money for one of the periodic reconstructions, known as sengu. Since this was very unusual, she was called kabukimono, or one acting against social norms.

Eventually, she created a theatre company called Okuni Ichiza performing Kabuki Odori or dance, as a continuing source of fundraising for the shrine. Unfortunately, it became so popular it was widely imitated by more commercial entertainers, including courtesans and yujo (less expensive and discriminating sex workers). In 1629, Tokgawa Iyeasu forbade women from performing in this style. Izumo no Okuni retired to become a Buddhist nun at a temple near Izumo Taisha and kabuki theatre was officially established as a male art form, though there are currently a couple of small all-woman companies. 

Buddhism and Shinto have thus coexisted very peacefully for centuries, with Buddhism focusing on the enlightenment of the individual practitioner, while Shinto concentrates on interacting with the kami to solicit their help with daily life of the land and the people. Or so I understand it.

Izumo Taisha is enormous, and hosts one of the largest festivals anywhere, the annual meeting of the kami, in October, "Kamiarizuki" (month of the kami) in Izumo, but called called "Kannazuki" (month without kami) every where else, because they have all come to Izumo Taisha to discuss the coming year. There is literally a motel-of-the-kami in which all the kami who arrive on the beach and are escorted up to the shrine are housed during this event. 

Like many events here, people can attend the various rituals surrounding this, and there are snatches of photographs and videos here and there, but photography seems very much discouraged. 

In fact, my presence was discouraged, seemingly by the kami themselves. 

I actually planned this trip to see the former home of the writer Lafcadio Hearn, now a museum, located by Matsue Castle on Lake Shinji, not far from Izumo and known for spectacular scenery. He didn't live there long, and it's not a fabulous museum, but it's fun, especially if one enjoys his works on Japan, a country he embraced to the point of becoming a citizen, immersing himself in folklore, faith and culture. Of course, I like him. 

I also was on the lookout for snow, since Tokyo, on the Kanto Plain, is one of the very few areas of Honshu (main island) that doesn't get inundated with the stuff, owing to the placement of the mountains. Anyway, I am a train fan and not only is there a train, there is a special overnight sleeper train called the Sunrise Izumo. How could I resist?

 From the platform at Tokyo Station. It leaves just before 10 PM and gets in at 10 AM.

It actually splits into two parts at Okayama, with half going to Takamatsu on Shikoku and the other half going across the mountains (snow!) to Izumo. I got the second level of one person sleeper cabins, the "Deluxe" Single being slightly bigger than a breadbox and unavailable. My Single was smaller than a breadbox and makes a capsule cabin on the ferry look spacious. There's a smaller cabin still, and a couple of twin versions, with bunks, and very large sort of divided carpeted area for those who don't value privacy as much. It takes 12 hours for the Izumo run. There are some drink machines, but you have to bring food. Of course, the station vendors take advantage of this. And the run takes place at night. So the time to do it would be in high summer, of course, when the sun is out most of the time and the mountain scenery is visible. But if you turn out your lights and open your shade, it's possible to see a lot, especially on the way over after the sun come ups. 

Yes, there was snow. The area has plenty of mist and fog as the train runs through steep mountains along a river valley. The snow stretches like a blanket until it merges into the mist and clouds. Nicer than it looks!

The hotel I could book was in Matsue, near the Hearn museum and halfway between Izumo and Mt. Daisan, where I hoped to see plenty of snow, falling. Naturally, the instant I left Tokyo snow was forecast and did in fact fall there, though it didn't stick around and Sunday was quite warm. But I could spend Thursday, the day I got in, at Izumo Taisha, take a fun little electric train around Lake Shinji, go off to Mt. Daisen, and then visit the Hearn museum and adjacent attractions, and get the train back from Matsue. It almost worked.

Hares are popular here because it was Onamuchi, enshrined at Izumo Taisha as Okuninushi, who paused in a quest to save a hare who tried to outsmart some sharks but had its skin pulled off instead. The hare obtained a renewed coat, and foretold that Onamuchi, for his kindness, would be rewarded by beating out all his competitors and win the quest. This is seen as a victory of civilization over barbarism. There are hares, real but mostly sculptured, all over the place, at the shrine, like these, and elsewhere.  

I arrived at Izumo, having slept better than one might think possible. The train is mercifully quiet between Yokohama and Okayama so people can sleep. It's not nearly as smooth as a boat, but I did happily sleep, looking out my big window at regular intervals. I took a bus to the shrine, but the coin lockers I had been promised were all full, so I had no place to stash my suitcase. I looked carefully at my map and thought it would be able to haul it along. It has wheels! But it had been wet and there were no paved trails and soon I gave that up as a bad job and detoured to the shrine museum. There isn't much to see in the shrine itself, anyway, if you aren't a Shinto practitioner. 

The museum, however, is a treasure trove. There are models of all the buildings you can't go into and dioramas and animations--things you'd never see or learn walking around with a guide book or your phone. There are explanations of various festivals and legends, and those are legion. The sense of history here, that this is the site, still visible, of Japan's creation and of its founding mythos, where one of the creator kami, Izanami, died giving birth to the fire kami. She entered the underworld and was trapped there, right there, by her husband Izanagi, who looked when he shouldn't have and saw what he regretted. In terror, he closed the entrance with a gigantic rock, that rock there, and you can visit it, see it and even touch it, but it would be very unwise to try to move it. There is far too much here to take in, and one could spend many years learning even the basics of the stories that feel all too real here, where they originated, the lore rising from the earth like the mist.

From the electric train. Back there you can just see Mt. Daisen, where I hoped to go. This is Lake Shinji.

The adorable electric train, with Izumo Taisha's very own cartoon mascot. That's not a bow: those are cross-hatched roof beams like those that top all the ancient shrine buildings.

I slept like a rock, then tried to set out for Mt. Daisen. It was raining, but it would be snowing up there. And there's a great deal of legend surrounding that mountain, too. But could I get there? It would be an hour's train ride to Yonago and from there...nobody, not even the tourist office, actually knew if there was a bus or not, and if there was, whether it would be operating today! It might be possible to take a cab. If I found a daring soul with snow tires. Oh, dear. Another bad job. But I did see a poster for the Shimane Prefectural Art Museum that was having a very special Hokusai exhibit. This museum has one of the three largest Hokusai collections in the world, thanks to the generosity of a Hokusai scholar named Nakata Seiji. And there was definitely a bus running there. 

They did have snow in Matsue proper, and a down of hares racing along the lake shore.

While photography inside the museum was discouraged by many, many security guards in tidy suits and silk scarves, outside on the roof terrace, it was fine to take pictures of the sculptures. Or, below, of Matsue itself, across Lake Shinji. The culturally significant castle is behind those clouds to the left, as is the Hearn house. Finally, the precipitation stopped. 

The Hokusai collection is magnificent. If you've heard of a work, they have at least one copy of it. If the darned thing hadn't been so huge, I would have bought a copy of the catalog! I may still order it. This exhibit, of several periods of Hokusai's art, will only go on until March 26, but they have fabulous plans for this collection in terms of study and exhibits, and I think the whole trip would be worth while just to go to this museum and see whatever's on offer when you arrive.  

There was one funny thing. I went into one of the permanent collection rooms on the second floor, marked Hokusai, and saw...that's not Hokusai! That's Hiroshige! I even own a print of that. That one is Hiroshige, too! I strode across the room and discovered a small, but quite nice, Hiroshige collection. Right in the middle of the Hokusai room! And not just one, but two of the items in that collection are ones I own. Naturally, I think they have great taste!

Those were the highlights. But the next day, overwhelmed with information, I wasn't in much of a mood for Hearn's cricket cages, beautifully made though they are, or his desk, but rather thought longingly of my own. Matsue castle is very nice, as castles go, and one of the twelve major ones in Japan. There's not much point in climbing the six very steep flights to the top when it's enshrouded in mist and fog, although the mist and fog seem to have a charm here, first concealing, then revealing the ancient depths of Japanese history and culture. 

There is so much to take in from such a short trip, it's going to take me some time to assimilate it, and I may just need to go back. The myths and the legends, the history and the Hokusai call to me. I'd like more time at the ocean, and in the mountains. But I had a train to catch, and went from Tokyo station to Myokoji for the Oko, and to get my Tensho for my March Tozan. 

The newest addition to my refrigerator magnet souvenir collection. The museum has an on-line shop. I can still order the catalog! And I can always go back.

Thursday, February 2, 2023

The Mundane in Winter

By the middle of January, like most people, I was done with the New Year's partying, except we had another week to go because of Lunar New Year! Fortunately, that's a quiet celebration, and this year features very cute bunnies! I understand in Vietnam this is the year of the Cat, but I only know that because an old friend is touring much of southeast Asia and posting many wonderful pictures on Facebook. I am very glad to go along without leaving the house!

It's been bitterly cold here, and utility bills seem poised to skyrocket. Other things, especially food, are supposed to go up, too. I don't have much of a handle on specific prices, even after several years. I have noticed my weekly grocery total has gone up maybe 7-10%. I guess meat has gone up, but that isn't something I buy. 

So far, the only thing I have noticed being more expensive are pretzels, the flavored pieces kind, since we do not have normal pretzels here. You can order them, but the cost -- well, a truly good bottle of whisky all the way from Scotland is cheaper. I'm bundling up in a fleece wrap with a wool shawl over my legs and my fingers are stiff with cold. I did manage to find a kind of mint liquor from France (not Creme de Menthe -- sorry for no accents) but it's allowing me to make Peppermint Pattys, one of my ski season staples. I usually get one or two a year, but I have this whole bottle that the liquor store owner dug up from somewhere, so those will go on, lubricating my joints, until the bottle is gone.

I've been dealing with a bank merger (lots of paperwork nonsense) and starting my visa renewal, and beginning the delights of compiling tax information for two countries and multiple entities. I would be entirely mad -- or downing a constant stream of Peppermint Pattys -- if I didn't have highly competent professionals doing most of the hard parts. Still, just being in Japan complicates things, usually annoyingly and often unbearably so.

At least temporarily it's warmed up a little but we had a ferocious wind storm that lasted a full 24 hours and a bit, and knocked over my makrut lime tree.  It's in a pot the size of a hot tub and I spent a couple of hours trying to located somebody to help me right it. I seriously didn't want to mess my back up doing it myself. But I went out to just see how heavy it was, and how many people I might need, and found to my shocked surprise that I could right it myself.

That's because it's been so dry that the soil was powdery and far too many of the leaves just kind of blew or fell or were knocked off. It's quite amazingly tall. I watered the heck out of it, to add weight to the pot, and for now it seems happier and heavier in much more moderate winds. I also watered everything else. But it's still so cold I could not bring myself to rake and I think I'll wait on that. I did see the first signs of bulbs coming up. 

It's Setsubon, which, like Imbloc and Candlemas, is halfway between the Solstice and the Equinox, and for many cultures the actual start of spring. We celebrate by tossing roasted soybeans around and sweeping them out, chanting "Evil out, fortune in." Shrines and Temples do this, as well as households. The evil beings presumably like the soybeans and chase them. What demons don't get, birds and squirrels do, though modernly the soybeans come neatly packaged so humans can recapture them! You eat the same number of beans as your age, plus one. There are, I think, a couple of other traditional foods, but I haven't tracked those down yet. At least one Temple uses small bags of candy, so children, rather than demons, will chase down what's thrown.

Finally, next week I am taking a train to an interesting place, and I hope to see snow on the way. Planning and booking a Japan trip with my editor for later in the year, and this little trip for me, has also been a mundane, yet time-consuming, process. I think it's all done.

I do like trains. You'll have to be able to read Japanese to figure out where I am going. Otherwise, you'll have to wait until I get there, and now I have to go someplace else first. 

Evil out, fortune in! Happy Setsubon!

Friday, January 6, 2023

Happy New Year!

New Year's here involves many holidays, including several jammed together between December 28 and January 4 (more or less), when things are closed, and discounts for trains and hotels temporarily disappear since people are traveling to go on visits and people hurry to accumulate "firsts." 

New Year's Eve is called Omisoka in Japan. Dinner often includes toshikoshi soba, where the length of the noodles is held to promote long life. This can be eaten any time during the evening and is often eaten close to midnight. Mochi's popular, too, and altar sets of two cakes of fresh mochi, one atop the other with a mikan tangerine on top are usual in Temples, Shrines and in homes. Many people visit a Temple or Shrine for a midnight celebration that includes the ringing of bells, if they have them. Temple bells usually ring 108 times, joya no kane, to cleanse the 108 earthly desires, for a fresh start for the new year.

A tiny set of mochi, called kagamimochi, topped with a tiny mikan, on my altar. These, in all sizes, are available everywhere. They are wrapped to keep the mochi from spoiling until it's time to eat it. It's also possible to get versions topped with figurines representing the Chinese Zodiac animal of the new year. This year, it's the Hare, so adorable bunnies are everywhere. I'm accumulating a tiny collection. Those who wish can make their own mochi, and the large sets in Temples or Shrines are handmade, by staff, members or a specialty shop. 

Gantan (New Year's Day) services are often held right at midnight, and again right through the day. This "first" visit of the year is important and people make efforts to attend. Because of COVID, my Temple had many services over several days, more than usual, so everybody who wanted could come without overcrowding. One normally makes a donation to any Temple or Shrine one visits for such a ceremony. In addition to a little piece of dried kombu or kelp, a small snack given for refreshment and energy to keep going through the night to accumulate more "firsts," often starting with the first sunrise, a small gift is presented, often of salt.

Salt has a special meaning in Japan because of its use in ritual cleansing, so a few ounces of really nice salt is a culturally significant and special gift.  My Temple also gives out really good calendars with all the civil and Buddhist holidays and festivals on them and beautiful photographs, too, but I doubt that's universal.

People order Oeshici -- special New Year's food -- rather than cook it, usually, the idea being that it's eaten over the first three days of the year, the food is highly symbolic, and varies, though shrimp are common. Ozoni is a special New Year's day soup that varies from family to family and region to region, though mochi is usually served in it. Stretchy mochi is also symbolic of longevity. Persimmons are usually harvested and dried outside by stringing them on porches, but those pictured above have dried, beautifully, on the tree, and are probably ready to eat. One kind of persimmon isn't eaten until it's dried because it's not sweet until very, very sloppily ripe. Dried is better.

In Nichiren Shoshu, we usually also make a New Year's pilgrimage to our Head Temple, Taisekiji, for ceremonies that cannot be performed elsewhere, another in a series of "firsts." These pilgrimage trips are specially scheduled through the first week of the new year, to make sure everybody can come. It's very crowded this year because people have been cautious over the past couple of years and capacity is limited for the same reason, meaning more services are scheduled over more days.

Even Buddhist Temples participate in what are culturally significant New Year's decorations. Here, at Taisekiji, kadomatsu arrangements of pine, bamboo and plum are placed outside the various gates to and on the Temple grounds, decorated with straw rope, shimekazari. Variations will be seen everywhere. The door of my mansion (condo building) has them and people, including me, have small versions on their doors, too. 

We aren't done! The second Monday in January is Coming of Age day, when the young people who turn twenty will frequently be formally presented at their family Temple or Shrine, dress up in formal Japanese wear for photographs, go visit various large Shrines and/or Temples, usually with friends, and then go out and party, because twenty is the legal drinking age in Japan. The formal wear is often rented, but sometimes not: this can be a gift for a young man or woman of their first adult formal costume, which will likely last them the rest of their lives. A girl may received another on her wedding, as women's clothing changes on marriage or with age, with patterns becoming simpler, more subdued, more elegant and the sleeves becoming shorter.

Finally, the season ends about January 15, when the mochi is finally taken down and eaten, often with red beans in a kind of stew, and the decorations are put away. Many decorations and Shinto amulets are taken to Shrines to be ceremonially burned, and the amulets (health, safety, success, or whatever you like; they have many) are usually replaced. If you're in the right place at the right time, there's a special breakfast at Taisekiji that you might get invited to attend. 

It's not quite over yet! Lunar New Year is still to come. This is a very quiet celebration, but it is celebrated, this year on January 22. Again, friend and family visits are in order, special meals, Temple or Shrine visits, and this may be when children get red envelopes with gifts of crisp new bills from grandparents or other relatives, if the family likes to do it for Lunar rather than Solar new year. Sometimes, of course, they do both.

I wish everyone a most wonderful new year. Twice.