Tuesday, November 16, 2021

I am now free to move about the country!

    Japanese laws are imprecise. Translation from Japanese to any language I can read, write or speak is extremely problematic. It's always incorrect. It's always vague. Frequently, words are used that do not mean what the Japanese think they do when rendered in the "translation conventions" that are used, incorrectly, all the time. 

    So when I looked into driving in Japan, it appeared that unless I was from someplace I was not, I would have to start from scratch, go to a fabulously expensive two-week sleep away camp to prepare for the extremely long and complicated Japanese written test. Oh, I can get it in any of about six languages, a couple of which I can read. But given the translation problems and given that the test is designed to trick you to start with, I held out little hope. Even though I could get my own room and food I could eat, I wasn't sure that even spending those huge sums of money and all that time would help me. Anyway, public transportation in Japan in wonderful.

    Except when it isn't. Sometimes buses and trains just do not go there. Finding a car and driver to take you there is an almost insurmountable barrier, not to mention wildly expensive. My books are running far afield into areas of history, culture and adventure that are located in the "there" where public transportation does not go. 

    When I discovered I might well be able to take the short-form, don't-need-to-worry-about-it, written test and only pass the driving test, and I could be fairly well assured of the latter by hiring a private school or teacher for several driving lessons during the lengthy period between the written test and the driving test, I thought maybe I could try it. You can always take the test again. It's only about $35.00 each time. And a day trekking into the wild suburbs of outer Tokyo, as well as doing that for your lessons. 

    I also wasn't sure that I actually qualified for the "conversion of foreign license" method, because of certain timing requirements I wasn't sure I met. I also hadn't had the benefit of the year you can (probably) use an International Driving Permit (obtained through your local Automobile Association) legally because getting my visa was a lengthy, confused and confusing mess that took 8 months and a lawyer to resolve. I hadn't driven a car in over four years! Jumping into driving on the wrong side of the road did not sound promising. Even if I qualified.

    I made assorted treks to various offices to get the Japanese items I would need. I mailed my US license to the Japanese Auto Federation for an official translation. I send off to the DMV for what I hoped would be an end run around one of the timing requirements, the one that worried me the most. I finished the draft of The Oni's Shamisen, sent it off for first reads, found a driving teacher who works with foreigners and is highly recommended, and took myself off to the Outer Suburbs, recommended by said teacher as being an easier location, to make the application.

    They took it. But rather than give me a couple of months to take weekly lessons and be sure I knew what I was doing and wouldn't turn on the wipers every single time I wanted to make a turn, they wanted to give me a test appointment in TWO DAYS. I got that pushed out to TEN days with some effort. I managed to schedule TWO lessons during that time.

    Today I left the house just before 6 am (yes, that is SIX) to get out to the driver's license bureau test site at the unearthly hour at which they had set the appointment—and if you are LATE, you FAIL. The trip required several transfers and long, bouncy rides on assorted trains and buses. Shocking how many people are riding the rails between 6 and 8 AM.  I had to pass the test if only to ensure I would never have to do that again!

    Then we waited outside until they brought us inside. Renewals, written testers, driving testers, and other people with unknown business were sorted with ruthless Japanese precision and set off to various holding pens. Every once in a while, one of us would be called up to the window and they'd want something from somebody. This went on for about an hour and a half. There were about 25 of us, total, some doing automatics (yes, please) and others doing manuals. Finally, they split us up into smaller groups and took us down several flights of stairs to the actual testing ground. It appeared there were three little cars, two automatics, and one manual. One Toyota, one Mazda, and one Honda. They took us one at a time, rather than in groups of three at a time in the test car, switching off. 

    A charming college student from the US, who has family in Japan, said she had heard that they put first-timers at the end of the line. She and I and a VIP High-End Expat (who was extremely nice — I liked him) and a cute young man about the age of the US college student but from China (also very nice and she liked him), were all first-timers at the end of our line, so we had plenty of time to talk. 

    Our inspector was a middle-aged man, kind of unkempt, a little round, pleasant, kind, calm, sweet, and—lucky us—given to passing people.

    Why was I scared? I'm a good test-taker. Aren't I? Haven't I passed two of the three most difficult bar exams in the US, first go, against rotten odds?  But also haven't I, dyslexic one, spent half a century driving on what is here, the wrong side of the road, and had insufficient opportunity to focus intensively on practice and study for weeks on end? Didn't I keep hitting the damned wind-shield wipers when I wanted to flick the turn signal? Didn't I keep bumping the curb on the right-angle turn series? Didn't I look in too many directions too many times? Oh, dear. Oh, freaking dear! 

    Actually, what I muttered not quite far enough under my breath, was "Oh, bloody hell," the first time I screwed up. I knew the wipers don't actually count against you, even though I did keep hitting them, but I BUMPED A CURB! On the connected right-angle turns! I backed up and went at it again, and supposedly that is not fatal, but I thought I'd bumped it twice and that's an automatic fail. 

    Oh, bloody hell. I blew it. I thought he was going to take me back to Start, which is where you go with an automatic fail. But he didn't. I wasn't sure why, but I kept doing what he told me, positive I had blown it and would have to do the whole thing again. But we got back, I stopped the car, and I watched him fill out the form. 

    Suddenly he extends his hands in the baseball umpire's classic gesture and said, "Safe!"

    I passed.

    I now have a Japanese driver's license. Supposedly new drivers are to place special stickers on their cars. Mr. VIP's minder had us buy them. I got magnetic ones so I could put them on any car I might rent. There are other stickers, too, including one for seniors. I expected to move from Newbie to Geezer pretty seamlessly. But when I turned over my new license to put it in my wallet I saw that it is endorsed: Newbie Sticker Requirement Waived.

    I am now free to move about the country!



Monday, October 25, 2021

An Enlightening Experience

Since I last posted here, I have been frantically pushing to complete the first draft of the first draft of The Oni's Shamisen. I actually did so about four days ago. We're in a rest period now, where I catch up on all the things that need doing and haven't gotten done while I've been in the Meiji Era. 

This compounded by the fact that fall is maintenance season in Japan. Most of it doesn't affect me, but at my building, when the weather cools off, all sorts of cleaning and maintenance chores begin. 

The Drain Cleaning People need to come in to my apartment and spread plastic everywhere prior to snaking out every single drain in the place. It takes them about 45 minutes. They're extremely efficient and all the plastic they put down and take up means they leave no evidence of their passage. But I have to be here.

Did I mention the earthquake? We had a pretty big earthquake, with the horrible alarm blasting from my phone (in case I didn't notice?), forcing me to get out of bed and lurch across the rolling room to turn it off. Then the community loudspeakers came on and announced it (in case we might have missed it?) No damage here, though a couple of things fell over. There was real damage elsewhere, power outages and derailed trains. The Earthquake Authority put the intensity at my house at 5.1, which is pretty darned shaky.

This year, although this building is brick, they are doing outdoor painting. This was scheduled with each unit because the painting requires that your front door be propped open for priming and painting the trim so it can properly dry between and after coats. After posting all kinds of notices telling us we could request specific days during a range, and giving us forms to fill out, I discovered that was all irrelevant, as the choices were much more limited and the painter more or less told me which days were convenient. The paint is thick, oil-based and smelly, but it looks nice, and at least my bit is done. He is nice and efficient, but he's still working on various outside things and the paint does smell! The outdoor gardeners will be coming soon, and I will want to have my part done so they can clean up and take away what I dig up and trim.

Then there are all my usual fall chores, one of which jumped out at me due to a happy event: I was able to buy some custom milled organic beige (partially milled) rice straight from the farmer. I got 15kg, which I suspect is about a year's worth for me at 33 pounds. It comes in the mill's special big brown bag, which has nice pictures of rice on it, and travels at a special rate. It is now stored in my floor pantry, which is vented to keep it cool and dry, and is newly cleaned to house all this bounty.

One of the nice things about my apartment is that, while it doesn't have real rooms and is very small, it has "areas." I had to bring in a plant that can live outdoors in the warmer weather. It's quite large. This meant I had to move things around, and this resulted in re-arrangement of the area housing my Buddhist Altar. We normally offer cooked rice, and it's so lovely I wanted to take a picture of it. But since you can barely see it, I took a close-up. It is gorgeous and very tasty rice. To the left of the altar, you can see some apples. We also normally offer fruit. I also got a case, yes, a case of apples. These are the $5 each size at the grocery store, but because these are "seconds," and came right from the orchard in a special apple box, they were (calculating frantically) about $1.17 each, door to door. They're so huge, you have to have a party to consume each one. And they are equally wonderful. Most of them have been frozen against future use. 

My friend Susan Spann had a wonderful trip to Hokkaido for more climbing and hiking (which she loves and writes about). She brought many wonderful things From Hokkaido With Love, owned by the Hokkaido Nature Tours owners, nice people who are well worth knowing. Some things were shipped, and I have some bounty awaiting our next meeting, but some she brought, and that included these wonderful Oni Socks. I love them, and they strongly resemble Kukanko-chan, the Oni character from Coming Home (Book 1) who reappears now in The Oni's Shamisen, which will be book 9. They give me inspiration!

I received a flyer from people who clean HVAC units and fan ducts. Although I clean the inside unit regularly, there IS a big outside unit plus several fans and ducts and I wanted them cleaned. I think we're in for a cold winter, so I didn't want things to break during the middle of it. There was a sale, and supposedly they were going to be in the neighborhood on a specific day. This is a tenant's responsibility here, so I signed up. Except I had to schedule a completely different day, and though the are running a special, that amount covered only part of what I wanted done, so it turned out to be expensive. And the day turned out to be yesterday. They were actually early, thorough and pleasant, and again put plastic down everywhere so you couldn't even tell they'd been. It took them a long time! One fan will likely have to be replaced (not my job, it seems) soon, but everything else is shiny clean and working beautifully. My eccentric way of learning Japanese continues: I now know a great deal about HVAC equipment, how it works and how I should work it, more things not taught in language schools. 

But yesterday I also needed to go to JP Bank and pay my rent. I suppose I could figure out how to do it on line, but it's all in Japanese and I just haven't wanted to, yet. There are post offices everywhere (JP is Japan Post) and ATM machines abound. I needed a new phone card (that's complicated) and those are only available at Family Mart, for reasons unknown to me, so off I went to the post office a block from the closest Family Mart. Missions accomplished, and before it started raining.

When I got home, my hall light flickered and went out. That's the only source of light in the hall, which contains doors to the laundry room and beyond that the bathroom, a storage closet, and my auxiliary kitchen, home to the hot water pot, the rice cooker, the air fryer and the blender, all on top of my fabulous wonderful trash and recycling cabinet, since the actual kitchen area has no outlets and no counter space, either. 

Wait! I have lightbulbs! I got extras when the bathroom light went out and I replaced that bulb and the one in the laundry room with brighter ones! This will be easy.

Nope. The bulbs will not work in the fixture. They won't screw in. I do not know why. I spent far too long examining the bulbs. It's a recessed pot-light fixture and even with a flashlight, I couldn't really see what's going on up there. Finally I realized that, Japan being Japan and very risk averse, it was entirely possible that the only kind of bulb that would fit the fixture was a specific size, and it did not seem that I had one of those. If I wanted the HVAC people to be able to see, I would have to go on a light bulb hunt. Preferably before it started raining.

I thought I'd seen some at Tobu, the closest grocery store. A short way beyond that are a 7-11 and another Family Mart. Surely at one of those...nope. One of them had LED bulbs, but I had those at home. We already knew that wasn't going to work. I headed towards the shotengai (shopping streets, like several covered blocks of mall) on the way to Kamata station. There were electronics stores there, I knew.  

On the way I stopped at the Life Store, a grocery store with a variety store attached. They had a bulb that I thought would likely work but it was only a 40, like the one I'd taken out. I consulted with a clerk and she agreed it would probably work, but suggested I keep going to an electronics store she recommended. I bought the bulb and I went on. Although the electronics shop woman hoped to sell me LED bulbs, which are popular here as energy saving, I explained that those would not work. I had tried that. She located another 40 and a 60! We agreed that the screw-in part was identical to the bulb I had although the shape was different. I said I was sure it would fit the fixture. I bought that one, too. Got it home, just as the rain started. Screwed it in. It FIT, and furthermore, it WORKS! 

Lux sit. That is the motto of the University of Washington: Let There Be Light; the only Latin known to most Seattleites. 

I don't go to classes and I don't do on-line courses, but I do live my life in Japanese, learning as I go, many things that are not taught in schools. And...lux sit. 

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Two Faces of Japan

In The Shadows of War, the Satsuma Rebellion affects everyone, running from January through at least the autumn of 1877. This period finds my characters facing the conflicts and hardships of a civil war in their area while trying to move forward in their lives, despite it.

This is echoed in Japan as a whole, where the Empire focused on crushing the Rebellion decisively on the one hand, no matter what the cost, and, on the other, showing an entirely different face to the world as it still grappled for a permanent position among First World Powers.

World's Fairs or International Exhibitions were wildly popular during this portion of the Industrial Revolution. These began in the first half of the 19th century, but grew exponentially during the 1860s and 1870s, happening all over the world. Western people were fascinated by the cultures, arts and aesthetics of all the new-to-them wonderful places in the world! Travel was now possible for the adventurous and well-heeled. Those who couldn't go were excited to learn, either by reading the stories of others or perhaps even seeing what other nations might bring to these International Exhibitions, which were held much closer to home.

Inventions burst out all over. Manufacturing innovations and exiting new modes of transportation blossomed. International commerce was easier than it had ever been, and that meant leaps forward in economic activity. That this largely benefitted colonial powers was not lost on Japan, which had so far successfully resisted being placed on the unfavored side of the equation.

Japan participated in many Worlds' Fairs as an exhibitor, promoting its arts and culture to create a thriving export trade. It hosted its own in 1872 in Kyoto, as an Exhibition of Arts and Manufacture. But what Japan wanted was industrial trade. Selling ceramics and art works and textiles was all well and good, but the big money and the big power was in industry. From August 21 to November 30, 1877, a huge and unprecedented exhibit was held in Ueno Park in Tokyo. The idea was to repeat this kind of exhibit every five years to showcase Japanese ingenuity and develop international manufacturing and industrial trade.

Many of the buildings are still in place, though they've been renovated, of course, and some have been replaced. 

One of the major new items shown was Tachi Gaun's Cotton Spinning Machine. That led into an interesting area of Japanese and international patent law, but of course Maeda Azuki, the Toki-Girl, doesn't know much about that. What she does know is that this device will make the production of cotton fabrics on an industrial scale by new small-scale local collective operations possible. She must go see it!

Which meant I spent over an hour trekking to the National Museum that now occupies the buildings, or their replacements, that date from 1877 and some subsequent Exhibitions of the same kind!

The main art museum. Yes, it is very good! One must make reservations and get tickets on line. That means it isn't too crowded. Temperatures, hands and masks, of course. A statue of Kannon from Shorinji in Nara, dating from the 8th Century was on display with similar treasures, including some interesting history of how things got moved around in the Meiji Era when Shinto and Buddhism were separated, and why. See The Eagle and the Sparrow for insight into this happenstance.

The Hyokeikan building houses exhibits relating to archaeology and now has a special exhibit from
Horyuji Temple in Nara, including some items are not normally on view, and some VERY cool high tech new ways to see old things better than you could in person. The exhibits included one special one on Prince Shotoku, who is credited with brining Buddhism to Japan, with items rarely shown.

This is the art museum's garden, beautifully maintained since it was constructed in 1877 until, well, yesterday. It's very large and parts of it are not currently open to the public, but the terrace is open and it is lovely. I could have wandered farther, but I wanted to go back in and see another room with Ainu and Ryukuian exhibits.

This Hiroshige Tryptich shows the interior of the art museum during the 1877 exhibition. 

This gorgeous life-sized blue whale sculpture sits outside the Museum of Nature and Science, renovated and rather boringly modern. This museum was originally established following the First Educational Conference, which is when Maeda Yuta (Sensei) met the kunoichi Noriko.

Yes, there is much more! I hope to get to it, but I also have a book to write. 

Sunday, August 1, 2021

A poem: August 1

August 1

 In the cool temple hall

The priest sounds the bell to honor the deceased.

Outside, cicadas screech their raucous song.

Summer in Japan.

Brown Cicada

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Building a Book: A Learning Experience

Because The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy series is set in a real historical period, the first thing I have to do when I start a new book is find some history!

I had some really interesting history in mind for Book 9, Next on the Agenda, but COVID happened and I can't get to the places I need to go in the ways I need to get there. So I looked for something else. We're cruising through the 1870s, the heart of the Meiji Era, the center of the Industrial Revolution worldwide, and an era of phenomenal social change around the world brought on by the shift from an agrarian economy to a manufacturing economy throughout, particularly, the Western world. Since Japan was both eager and determined to position itself in the company of the Western first-world powers rather than among their colonies or puppet states, Japan hurried to quickly exceed anything going on in Europe or North America. 

The Tsugaru Shamisen, with both changes in the instrument and the way it is played, dates to 1877. Perfect. That's why I went where I went, with a few little ideas noodling around in my head. I think that I now have an overall story. But so much more is going on in our little corner of Kyushu and in the lives of our characters!

That means I need to think. Every day. All the time. I need to pick up characters where I left them and find out -- I suppose you could say "figure out" -- what happens to them, what their problems are and how they solve them.

When I have enough information swirling around in my head, I will open a file. I will write "CHAPTER ONE." 

And I'll be living in the Meiji Era, with my characters' trials, tribulations, joys, failures and successes, chasing the elusive "what comes next" until I can once again write, "THE END." During this time I will be cranky, grumpy and entirely unwilling to return to the twenty-first century unless compelled.

Some people make notes. They have bulletin boards covered with index cards and sticky notes. They have computer versions of those, sometimes more than one. They have storyboards. They have drawings of characters and costumes. They have pages and pages of notes, either on paper or in some electronic format, about people, problems, solutions, issues, factoids -- so much data. There are literally dozens of computer programs that help organize all of this. I've tried some that other writers seem fabulously enthusiastic about.

To me, however, those produce a stilted kind of work, overthought, over-planned, and without the spontaneity that life itself brings to the table. It feels joyless to me, excessively structured and controlled. I prefer to live with it as it happens, difficult though that may be. And it is difficult. Thoughts dash through my brain with the speed of light, and sometimes I don't catch them. Then I can only wait and hope that they return for another pass. I must dig into yet more research as I find there are things I just don't know, but I need to know to make the work as accurate as possible. Working in a real history and with real folklore, I can't just make things up. At least, not all the time.

Japan is different. Even how gardens grow is different, something that is taking me years to figure out. Steam Bath Summer means early crop plants are at the end of their life cycles. My cucumbers and tomatoes have gone. I will look for autumn harvest varieties to plant. Cabbages, broccoli, potatoes and onions -- which have already had one season -- can also be planted for a second, if you have the room. I'll be looking for bush beans, too. 

I live, I learn, and I hope to share with my readers this country that never ceases to provide me with new and interesting experiences.

A visitor!  Neither I nor Google Image Search are quite sure what, exactly, this large presumptive moth is.

The pimans are still coming, with many more on the way.

Most of the last of the tomatoes, at least, the early crop. Maybe can find a late crop plant.

The nasu eggplants, though, show no signs of giving up. I have capers waiting for more caponata!