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 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:

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Welcome Back!

     I've been having some problems with my Magic Discount Train Account. It's pointless to examine exactly what or why because it's so strange and bizarre that it's clear it's a combination of demons and Mercury Retrograde. 

    This has resulted in me standing for hours in train stations and on the phone, in my serviceable but far from fluent Japanese, explaining that, yes, I had done the first three obvious things, I could not do another obvious one from my mobile phone (for reasons unknown) and indeed I had tried several other not-so-obvious things. They managed a workaround, I got there and back and did the things we all agreed should be done to fix the problem.

I needed a flower!

     I tried again, a week later. First time out, the regular train worked but the Shinkansen didn't. We did a workaround, and decided there was this one thing that was still wrong and I said I would fix that once I got where I was going as I couldn't do it from right there in the station.

    It didn't work. After all kinds of nonsense (involving Scheduled Buses Not Appearing, Expensive Taxi Fares, Being Assured that All Was Well and All NOT Being Well) I got a workaround again, and with much sturm und drang, made it home, where I think I have finally resolved the problem by nuking the whole account and starting over from absolute scratch with a new IC card.

    I'm out the taxi fare, the unused bus ticket, the amounts loaded into the old IC card (now lost forever, it seems) and the cost of the new IC card. So it goes.

    All these conversations were taking place in Japanese, but this weekend, for the first time, the carefully kind and diligent people suddenly started repeating themselves in English and treating me like I might not be too bright and be unsure of what a train actually IS.

    Yes, I do Foreign and Stupid rather well, and now I can add Old to the mix, and this often results in my getting plenty of help, kind assistance and generous consideration, but during COVID, there haven't been many foreigners in Japan, except those who live here, because the borders have been closed. The Gaijin Exemption vanished. There has been no slack at all. People have expected me to speak Japanese and know the systems and rules. That's fine with me, because I do live here and I do want to stay, and that means I need to be able to live here like a native, not like a tourist or short-term student or worker. I've been learning. All to the good.

    So, what changed? Why was I suddenly being treated like I was just off the plane when that was simply impossible? I was all the way to the last station on my way home last night when I asked the station staffer, after he confirmed that my old IC card was absolutely dead, where I could buy a new IC card. In Japanese, he said, "Go out the door, turn left and head for the Ticket Office, and there will be a machine on your left that sells them." I thanked him and started to leave.

    He whipped out a picture of the the machine, so he could show me exactly what it looks like, and said, in English, "If you go out this door and turn left, you will see this black machine on the wall. You can buy a new IC card there. This machine"--pointing--"right here. The black one."  I thanked him, in English this time, went out the door and bought a new IC card, wondering what the heck.

    Then I realized what was going on. Just this past week, it's been announced that tourists will most likely be allowed back into Japan in June. The numbers will be small at first, and initially probably restricted to approved groups, but tourists are coming back. 

    They were all practicing! That's why they were speaking English! That's why they were repeating themselves after we finished the transactions in Japanese! They were all taking advantage of me being foreign and needing help to exercise their English ability! 

    So rest assured. It looks like you'll be able to come back soon enough, and Japan hopes you will. All the kind and diligent Japanese workers in hotels, taxis and train stations, as well as on trains, will be ready and willing to happily welcome you.

Just a peek -- but Japan will open, and you will be able to come. Soon!

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

The Music of Flowing Water

    Taiseki-ji, the Head Temple of Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism, is located in the foothills of Mt. Fuji. The original land grant is huge; the grounds are enormous. Now, Taiseki-ji sits in the apex of a triangle formed by a National Park and a Provincial Park. Highways provide convenient, though often crowded, access.
    The location is remote so the Temple grounds remain intact except for the occasional road. This walkway was first constructed in the late 1200s and has since been expanded. The original stones remain in the center. Subsidiary Temples, called "bo," housing some of the priests who work in the various offices and departments necessary for running a major world religion, and also dating back to Taiseki-ji's founding in, officially, 1290, line this path.

    Since it's in the foothills, Taiseki-ji is naturally built on a slope. Since it's in Japan, there's a lot of runoff from snow and rain, draining eventually into a river that bisects the Temple grounds and ultimately empties into the sea. Since this is Japan, the runoff is neatly and expertly contained and controlled. Charmingly, the occasional plant that might line a natural stream will be carefully maintained so it can flourish.

These stone bridges mark the entrances to the various "bo," and the lanterns, lit for festivals, illuminate the gates. 

    This fountain seems to contain a spring that rises from the front of the Mieido, a seriously gorgeous, highly historic and nationally Listed building, spilling over the edges to be contained, running underground to join a stream cascading through the grounds. It has a twin on the other side of the entry, beyond which the stream itself tumbles over an artistic jumble of rocks.

    That stream, as far as I can determine, will eventually, via waterfalls, fill the pond in this fabulous garden.

    This pond, and the streams lining the stone path, are periodically drained for maintenance and repair. Of course. This is Japan, and this is Taiseki-ji. The care is meticulous, just as is the care the army of landscapers and gardeners pay to every single plant.

    I have seen this pond drained before, at the height of summer, for a few days at time, with the stream feeding it somehow diverted. This winter, however, it was drained for a couple of months, during the driest of seasons, as what looked like major maintenance took place. Moreover, the streams lining the stone path were drained, too. While there was never anybody around to ask exactly what was being done (due to COVID, not many people are allowed to visit at any given time, no visitors can stay on Temple grounds, and residents keep their careful distance amid every possible and sensible precaution) it was obvious that what was happening was major. I saw the occasional large machine in the pond, I think set up to clear the channels. I saw fresh cement repair cracks, sometimes around the rocks in bottom of streams.

    And then, just recently, I saw that the repairs were complete! The pond was full. The falls cascaded. The streams gurgled. I was delighted.

    It could be said that I'm a little slow sometimes. I've been coming to Taiseki-ji for thirty years come August. I always thought those rocks were visually decorative, placed to fool the eye with the appearance of natural streams.

    This time I realized something different. The water didn't just create music with its flow, the music was a carefully planned part of the art that goes into these wonderful grounds. It changed and harmonized as I passed on the long walk up the hill.

    This time, I listened as much as I looked. Buddhist practice is a continuing thing. It's not a one-and-done. It's a practice that we undertake every single day to manifest our innate enlightenment. It's not always easy to do that, but we are advised to keep it up, that Buddhahood lies in the continuation, in having faith like flowing water, in never giving up. Here, the masterfully designed music of the waters conspires to continually remind us of that.

     It looks like Japan will shortly ease restrictions on "tourist" visas, and that means these grounds can once again explode with the laughter and conversation of all the people who have wanted to come here on pilgrimage trips from overseas and have not been able to do so, adding to Taiseki-ji's music. I will rejoice to hear it. I hope you can come soon!

Saturday, April 30, 2022

Japan, Germs and a Cashless Society

    When I first started coming to Japan, some thirty years ago, I was warned that I would need cash. Lots of cash. Cards were practically unheard of -- you just couldn't use them except maybe sometimes at big hotels in Tokyo or Osaka, which guaranteed you huge foreign transaction fees and lousy exchange rates.

    Banking here was strange, with banks far away from me no matter where I was and they were generally useless as the ones in Japan didn't speak to any of the ones in the US. The American Express Office would be my best and only friend if anything untoward happened, as long as I could get there during their business hours -- so be sure to keep a secret stash of cash to make certain that was possible.

    Trading American Express Traveller's Cheques for yen at an airport bank branch would get me the very most bang for my buck, as long as I could get the Traveller's Cheques for free. 

    When I moved here, almost five years ago now, I still used cash for everything. That was normal.  

    But there has been a change. Some of it's due to COVID. Money is dirty. Everybody knows that. Hands are covered in germs. We started sanitizing our hands all the time, all over the place and still do. I have tiny bottles and packets of hand sanitizer in all my bags. Sanitizer stations are at the entrances to everywhere, along with new temperature-taking tech that improves every week. And people stopped using cash.

    This first became apparent when a store clerk proudly showed me that he didn't actually have touch filthy lucre any more. He'd scan my items but then I'd push a few buttons, stick money in a machine and get my change and a receipt back. In addition to being clean, which everybody here loves, this appeals enormously to the national passion for accuracy. These machines have sprouted up all over, even in my dentist's office, where the receptionist hands me the handwritten bill and I shove cash for my share into the magic machine! How convenient! How accurate! How clean! Some stores have come up with self-checkout sections, but mostly human cashiers scan your purchases and (tidily, with great precision) put them in a basket so you can transfer them to your own cart or carrier. Since bags started costing, to reduce plastic waste, nobody buys a bag anymore. We bring.

    Interestingly, the use of cards has become more widespread, too. People don't want to handle that dirty cash any more if they can help it, and they've discovered cards are dirty, too! I finally gave in and activated the Wallet function on my phone a few days ago, so I could use my Japanese credit card as a points card particularly. It's paid by magic from my bank account, and I thought it might be convenient to have it in my Wallet. Those points do add up.

    I have also had a Suica card for many years. I think of it as my train card, and that's mostly what I use it for, but it can also be used to make small purchases, even from vending machines. It holds a balance up to 20,000 yen and it's easy to charge at any station or convenience store. Following the example of a friend who managed it from London, I just transferred mine to the Wallet function on my phone two days ago.

     Then, yesterday, I got another new card: a Rakutan/Edy card for shopping, specifically. I don't shop much, but when one was offered me, I took it, just to check it out. It holds 50,000 yen, so I can top it off periodically almost anywhere or even (if I'm brave enough to try another Japanese web site) arrange for it top itself off via my JCB card. It will give me points and those do, eventually, add up. I will no doubt add this to the Wallet function of my phone when I arrange for it to top itself off. But I just did all this over the last few days! It's all new to me.

    It's Golden Week here, a week-long period of holidays when everybody who possibly can takes a few vacation days to mingle with the official holidays to finagle a week or ten days of vacation. Yesterday was the start, with the first holiday, but it poured all day long. Today, it felt like the first day of summer vacation with people pouring out from everywhere, going places and doing things. I saw more gaijin today than I have in over a year, except at Immigration. Students as well as business people are being let in in larger groups and absolutely everybody wanted to get outside and party.

    Today, I took a train to a fairly distant museum, involving a few changes here and there. I wasn't sure if it'd work, but all I had to do was wave my phone at the card reader, and it beeped! Then I had to buy a ticket from the machine at the museum, under the watchful eye of the receptionist, who wasn't sure I could be trusted to work the machine. But, wow! I pressed buttons. Things beeped! My Suica balance was appropriately diminished. I was delighted. I'd done it right -- never a given between computers and my level of Japanese -- and things worked. 

    Then I wanted to buy something and wanted to use my JCB card as a point card. My plan was to pay cash, despite the fact that I was becoming aware that nobody but me was even thinking about using actual cash, which requires fishing in pockets or purses and counting. When I looked a touch confused at where I should wave my phone, the cashier cheerfully pointed out that I should touch here, press there, and wave at something else. The entire transaction was done and finished! No actual money involved! I was out the door in seconds.

    I have to admit it was easy and convenient. On the train home, I recalled that in the US I used a Miles Card to pay for everything I could, and paid it off each month, keeping a running total in my head. I used those miles. In fact, I still have a stack of them waiting for me to use them. It's not like that part is new to me. 

    COVID has changed the world in many ways. It looks like moving Japan to a cashless society is yet another one. I'm on board with it, but I'm still not sure what I think about it.

    I'm not putting photos of my cards or my phone on the Internet, but here's some PR material that's just come in for The Oni's Shamisen.  I think they did a pretty nice job. Don't forget to pick up your review copies today!

Friday, April 15, 2022

Kekko ja nai desu -- It was not enough!

    There's a saying here: "Don't say 'kekko' until you've seen Nikko."

    "Kekko" means "enough," so if you don't want more of something, you say, "Kekko desu, arigato," which basically means, "No, thank you; I've had enough." 

    But you haven't had enough of Japan until you've been to Nikko. And I haven't had enough of Nikko.

    It's a huge tourist destination, home of several World Heritage sites and National Treasures and a huge National Park. The big deal you'll see everywhere is Toshogu Shrine where Tokugawa Ieyasu's spirit was ultimately elevated to kami and where his remains are interred. Huge quantities of history! Famous sculptures (those three moneys and the sleeping kitty, among others!)  Fabulous architecture, paintings, and so much more. Other members of Ieyasu's clan are mostly in Tokyo at the very venerable Zozo-ji, a worthwhile visit on its own. It has an excellent museum. I like museums.

    I just returned from my third trip to Nikko, and my first in the spring. I had hoped to be celebrating the soft release of The Oni's Shamisen, but Things Happened, so that be within the next couple of weeks. If you are awaiting an ARC, you will get it soon (and if you want one, let me know.) But there was a pause, and I enjoyed every second of it.

    I had thought that the sakura would just about be out in Nikko, but the elevation ranges from about 600 feet to about 5000 as you go from the train station to the top at Yunoko, which was as far as I could get by bus. There was snow on the ground. The source of the famous local hot springs is at a temple called Onsen-ji. Yes, that does mean Hot Spring Temple. Water is piped from there to the onsen hotels in this tiny town. 

    Lower down, at Chuzenjiko, a much larger and lovely lake boasts another interesting ancient temple, a science museum, boat tours, rentals and fishing (not running yet), hiking (some trails open, some not open yet) and more hot springs! 

    In Nikko proper, the sakura were just about to pop and many did while I was there. Pretty, huh? Gloriously gorgeous, in fact. And it just got better. I stayed at Gableview Forest Inn, a charming place owned by delightful people, and where I will return. I enjoyed it so much, I almost hesitate to tell you that you can reserve on and many other hotel sites, but I will, so you can go there, too. 

    Comfortable! There's a onsen! Excellent cuisine! Oh, yeah. This is where you want to stay!

    Though I only selected ONE photo to upload, they all came at once. So you're just going to have to read the captions to see where these are. It's worth it. 

    These are wild rhododendrons that look to me the same as Korean rhododendrons as they are deciduous, bloom on bare wood and then leaf out. Here, of course, they are JAPANESE rhododendrons, and since they are wild, they certainly are. This is on the way to Kirifuri Falls, one of the three Big Falls here. 

    And here are the falls. The top part, anyway, with more flowers. Truly spectacular.

    This is Lake Yuno (Yunoko: "ko" is lake). The ice was gone, but there was snow on the ground. People will fish, boat and hike here soon. I came to walk around this small lake, but the trail is still closed by snow. Instead, I walked to a very small little ski area, but there was nothing interessting to see there. 

    More Kirifuri Falls. See the pink starting up on the hills by the falls? This is most of it. It goes down a little farther.

    Thursday, it was supposed to rain (and it did) so I planned to go see Edomura, an Edo period theme park I'd really had no interest in before, but I wanted to research street entertainers and they're supposed to have them, and do, when it's not pouring. Again, the season doesn't really open until next week, but the park was open. It was much better than I thought it would be, and I want to go again! It's worth your time and simply fabulously beautiful.

    There are a number of Jizo statues along this path and a few real, serious, working shrines. This one is small, tenderly cared for, and, as you can see, beautiful.

    This is the entry, the "Post Road" area, setting the stage for your entry into the period town that comprises the park. There is an actual movie set connected to the park and I expect a lot of filming reaches into the park during its off-hours. It is closed Wednesdays. 

    Kirifuri Falls again. Those flowers...breathtaking. Pink blossoms scattered all over the hills.

    Edomura is beautifully landscaped, of course, and there are many varieties of blooming trees everywhere. Here's a cherry just starting, with more backing it up the hill. Look at how impressive this is: yes, it's a theme park. Yes, it is authentic, with plenty of history, culture and so much of the beauty and attention to detail that Japan prizes. 

    Sugawara Michizane is a collateral ancestor of my painstakingly researched but still fictional Maeda family. Statesman, scholar, and poet, he ran afoul of the powers that were, and ended up exiled in Kyushu (see: The Shadows of War). After his death, many Bad Things happened that were attributed to his angry spirit. In reparation, his lifetime titles and honors were restored and he was, of course, elevated to kami as Tenman or Tenjin. The Bad Things did stop, so one may assume he liked that. 

    He is the patron of scholars, particularly, and is often petitioned by students. Many shrines honor him including one shrine in Edomura. This statue, above, depicts Michizane, with his plum blossom crest on the offering box. It's a working shrine. I saw people perform the traditional rituals. Off to the left you can see racks of plaques of written petitions left in the hopes that Michizane will read them and give them a boost. 

    This is Nyanmage, the mascot of Edomura. Hello Kitty's brother, or maybe cousin, his superpower (there's a hilarious film along with many others depicting performances that were not live that day) is raising his left paw and saying "Nyan", which is "Mew" in Japanese. His hair in in the traditional style of a samurai man. He has a princess for a human companion, and is accompanied by a puppy, a panda and a monkey, all of whom likewise have human women as companions, though I am not sure if they are princesses. They defeat all manner of bad guys, including (naturally) evil ninja and (of course) tengu.

    Before I left Friday, I went to the Toshogu Shrine museum. I've been to the shine before. That will take you all day and worth it. Friday, I had just a few hours, so the museum seemed like a good bet. It was raining and foggy but see the fabulous pink of the sakura behind these bare trees. No pictures inside, though. Too bad: there're some interesting items on exhibit. 

    Japan recognizes and celebrates skill. This statue is of the architect of Toshogu Shrine and a number of other famous monuments built in the early to mid 1600s. I got the sign in the hopes of preserving his name, since it was raining rather hard, but now I can't make it out. I'm glad he is remembered and honored, though! His work is wonderful. 

    And one last photo, where I tried to capture, through the rain and fog, the subtle magnificence of the wild sakura and other flowers starting their season of bloom in the hills. 

    For me, it's "kekko ja nai desu." No, I haven't had enough of Nikko. I'll be back.