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Thursday, April 22, 2021

Me and my "Brand"

I've been waxing not very lyrically lately about all the things I, as a writer, am now supposed to do. I have had a couple of dear friends understand what I'm talking about and at least listen to me gripe and commiserate, for which I heartily thank them. 

Theoretically, I gather, I am supposed to promote myself like a celebrity, like I am somehow a Person of Interest, though not in the law-enforcement sense, and Do Stuff -- I am not sure what. 

This most recently came from my Asian Serial Platform Distributor (you really don't want to know, at least I don't think so, but it's how people buy books by the chapter) insisting that I "engage," heaven help me, "fans." And they also wanted a new, and very short, series description.

My books are interesting, my books are fun, my stories are exciting, and my characters are delightful. These just keep on coming, and that's great. This is what I sent them, and I hope they put it before the "author bio" this time.

This is what I want people to see. My books are worth reading! My life, however, is ordinary.

But, then, today, somebody told me that "you are your brand."

No. No, I am not "my brand." I may be sometimes interesting, sometimes funny, sometimes fun and sometimes exciting, but let us be fair: my life bears so little resemblance to anything anybody interested in dual-natured beings and assorted yokai romping through the Meiji-era might find "engaging", that disconnect is, in itself, funny.

I mean, OK, I have a garden. I live in Tokyo, so it's a very little garden. I have plants in it. I want to water them and I have been trying to connect an outside hose to a hose bib. One of the joys of being an expat is that one doesn't really know what things are called. One might pass likely looking stores and go inside. One might have photos on one's phone. And one might be disappointed for months on end when the clerks mournfully inform you that they have nothing of the kind and are not sure where you might get something that will work. And, yes, I did think to start at the place where I bought the hose. And, nope, they didn't have any idea either.

But finally, I got a line on a store that sounded like a relative of what I might call a DIY or hardware store, only a mile and (almost) a half away! I looked it up on a maps app (I never know which one is going to appear; I have two, at least) and off I went this morning.

Not only did it have a nice clerk who knew what I was talking about, took me to the right department and presented me with a part that really should have worked, the store had a huge gigantic rack of seed packets and also a very large covered area just full of plants!

I packed up my little shopping cart and walked home.

A bag of baby plants, plus seeds.

Some flowers I didn't buy, because my rose is enormous, but they're pretty!

 I now have a sage plant. I have a few basil seedlings. I have some basil seeds. I have pak-chi seeds. You might think that is cilantro, but people will be sure to tell you that no matter how much it looks like cilantro, and no matter how much it tastes like cilantro, it comes from Vietnam and is therefore not cilantro. I have an eggplant plant with a tiny little eggplant on it. I have a piman pepper, with blossoms. I know those are called "Japanese Bell Peppers," but they truly are not, being hotter and somewhat more complex in flavor than standard Bells. I have a cucumber vine that is ready to twine madly over a fence and I have a tomato. With a flower. I also have some nasturtium seeds, and we'll see how far those get. 

I could have made a return trip to obtain some bigger pots and bags of soil to get these little plants situated, but I didn't. I ordered from Amazon (also not a source for the plumbing part I needed.) I could have walked back and taken a cab home, but, frankly, was much, much easier. can sometimes rock. remains a force of idiocy, calamity, and the most expensive shipping costs in the world, for the worst and slowest possible service. 

Sadly, however, there is a problem. My plumbing part fits the outside hose bib beautifully. Even though the nice clerk showed me how it should attach perfectly to the hose (I had photos, remember, and he had many parts) it did not do so. Well, it did, but it still leaked, spraying water everywhere, which is not the goal. I begin to suspect that the problem is the fitting on the hose itself, so while I am waiting for to bring me pots and dirt, I am going to see if I can figure out a way to dismember the non-working hose thing and connect it to the faucet some other way. Carrying water cans of water outside every day is not "engaging" for me. Not even if it results in produce.

And here is my gorgeous, glorious, and wonderfully fragrant climbing rose!

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Kintsugi, with apologies to Leonard Cohen

Kintsugi, with apologies to Leonard Cohen

However rough, however worn, the vessel when it comes into the world,

However fine, however fancy, however beautifully made,

The vessel still has cracks.

The golden lacquer fills it, coating, merging;

The patterns imperceptible before now proclaim its beauty.

Yes, there are cracks in everything, 

But that is how the light gets out.


Saturday, March 27, 2021

Trekking to Sakura

 Flowers are coming out everywhere! The lauded sakura are early in Tokyo this year. March came in like a lion and is going out like one, too. It's raining, again, and that may well knock the petals off the trees early, too early. It's like Seattle, with chilly sideways rain knocking over my flowers and I'm stuck inside when I'd rather be engaging in hanami. That's flower-viewing, and while it can apply to other flowers, at this time of year, it refers specifically to the flowering cherries called sakura.  

Ota-ku seems negligent in cultivating sakura. On my regular beat, there simply haven't been any. I have seen some along the Meguro River, which is beautifully lined with them, from trains, but in the places I often walk, I simply haven't seen any.

Friday I went to Mont Bell, sort of the Japanese REI, with a friend who is an expert hiker to drop a lot of money on hiking poles. I do want to start hiking, as in walking on trails in nature. The spinal fracture has healed, the QiGong, the Real Deal Shaolin QiGong, is serving as excellent physical therapy, and serious hiking seems to be in the realm of possibility. I mean, if I can walk several miles a day in regular shoes in the city, I really should be able to manage some outdoor trails. My goal is not to be able to do it once, one day, and then pay for it for several days thereafter. I can already do that. I want to be able to do it many days in succession. There are trips I want to take and books I want to write that involve perhaps 6-10 miles per day, more or less indefinitely. 

However, this endeavor comes at a cost. It seems there is equipment required. For now, I can get away with walking shoes; I needn't invest in serious boots. That's good; I don't think I want to do anything that would require serious boots. I do have a day pack that looks pretty citified but is good quality and comfortable and will work. But apparently I require hiking or trekking poles. No, my wildly expensive, high tech, shock-absorbing, adjustable ski poles will not do. I can't just get something to cover the point, no. Yes, I do need a pair of them, despite the fact that I have a single, with kind of a hokey ice axe included, that I got in Korea. 

I now have them. They're everything you could possibly want, if you want the greatest, newest and most advanced poles possible. I played with them a little on the way to a restaurant where we celebrated with lunch. Yesterday, Saturday, it was not raining so I took them for a spin. 

While you'd think it would be close to using poles to walk on skis, especially XC skis, there are significant differences. For one thing, you don't glide. For another, there's a little wrist flick motion you have to use to get the pole out ahead of you, else it feels like you're tottering. You have to -- or get to, depending -- fuss with the length depending on slope and angle. Yes! Outdoor tech! 

I took them down to the Tamagawa, and there, at last and in full glory, I found a stretch of sakura! Fifty minutes and three miles, according to the Helpful Watch, and I think I'm starting to get it. I'd go again today, but everybody knows the Wicked Witch of the West melts in the rain! 

A magnolia exploding into bloom.

A stretch of sakura in riotous glory on the road bordering the Tamagawa.

Up close, personal and gorgeous!

Can't keep an old tree down.

Some of my narcissus.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

An Ancient, Modern Festival

 Every year, as I have mentioned, the Oni descend from the mountains to visit, sometimes fiercely, sometimes nicely, often threaten misbehaving children, are propitiated with food, drink, music and dance, perform themselves, and take themselves back to the mountains for another year, leaving promises of good fortune, or at least not afflicting the community with bad fortune. 

In Oga, near Akita in the the Tohoku region of northern Honshu, there is a famous annual festival that draws visitors from all over the country. The Namahage festival is held in mid-February. True to form, the Oni, played by beautifully costumed locals, come down from the mountains. They dance, and several incredibly talented members of the troupe play Taiko and gong in a rousing performance. They scare children, reminding me of the Seafair Pirates of Seattle as they work the crowd, and then, after being provided with food and drink, take themselves off to the mountains again for another year.

Hokusai, Setsubon

Setsubon, of course, is kind of a miniature home version of this festival, which is also sometimes played out in small communities with an annual house-to-house visit from the local Oni, in kind of a cross between Santa Claus and Trick-or-Treat.

But the Oga Nagahame is a big one! It's one of the biggest in the country and I would love to go to it sometime, freezing in the cold as the torch-bearing Oni come down the mountain.

Artist unknown, from Hepburn, 1886.

In this unusual COVID year, the Oga Namahage festival was still held, though it was closed to the public and only a limited number of invitations were issued to allow for sufficient space and masks were the rule for all, not just the Oni. But Japan, being Japan, expert in preserving its own culture while smoothly and skillfully adapting to anything and everything, extended an invitation to YouTuber John Daub, who made it possible for me to attend in the comfort of my Tokyo apartment. And so can you!

It looked like great fun. The Oni came down the mountain, "terrorized" the crowd and danced, with folk style moves reminiscent of Sumo wrestlers warming up. Some of them enacted a visit, on stage, to a home where they frightened, were fed, and ate, all per classic protocol. Then there was a wonderful Taiko performance.

Artist unknown

No shamisen, but the drums and the gong were fantastic! More dancing in the crowd, and then the Shrine's Chief Priest gave them all sesame cakes, for which the Oni, mostly very courteously but with a little bit of mischief, lined up to receive, and back up the mountain they went for another year.

As I try to show through the characters and stories in The Toki-girl and the Sparrow-Boy series, this is a modern manifstation of one of Japan's great strengths. Japan adapts and adopts, yet preserves and protects, remaining always, on the most essential and deepest levels, itself.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Climbing Mountains with Susan Spann

     I first met writer Susan Spann online, when she was preparing to come to Japan just as she completed treatment for a rather nasty type of breast cancer that had attempted to derail her plans. As a survivor of some 34 (now 37) years standing, and a writer who had just obtained a visa in a new and odd category that allows me to live in Japan to write books, I felt a great kinship with Susan and reached out. If she needed a friend and ally, I figured, she had both in me.

    Susan hoped to come in on a journalist's visa to write a book on climbing the hyakumeizan, Kyuya Fukada's famous list of 100 sacred mountains in Japan, within a year, and setting a couple of records in doing so. Since my visa category was brand new, narrowly defined, and I had a heck of time getting it, I watched the proceedings with interest. Over the eight months it took to get my visa, I spent more than a month in Korea on separate trips while waiting anxiously, taking a great boat trip, seeing lots of World Heritage sites and other interesting things, and getting research material that resulted in The Sparrows of Pusan. Susan's longing for Japan was as great as mine and her anxiety at least equal, so my heart went out to her, especially given her health at the time. 

    Her initial application was denied. What she was proposing wasn't journalism. I am a retired lawyer, as, now, is Susan, and I didn't like the advice she was getting. I thought she'd fit into this tiny, obscure and new visa category as well as I did. I put her in touch with my immigration lawyer. He's very good, and this time, with the new category, her application was successful.

    I like Susan. She writes nicely crafted and culturally accurate mysteries (the Hiro Hattori series of Shinobi mysteries) occurring about two hundred and fifty years before the Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy come onto the historical scene in the Meiji era. I enjoy them and look forward to each successive one. I liked her proposed project. I liked her guts. I understood the emotional landscape in which she stood. We became IRL friends and I followed her hyakumeizan project from its inception to the publication of Climb, the resulting book.

    As I read Climb, I remembered so many of the things she describes from when they happened. Yet, I felt them each anew, as I followed the journey of a remarkable woman wrestling with demons, determined to achieve a remarkable goal. Even though I had watched her change, her blossoming, her improving health, her progress despite continuing obstacles, as it happened, Climb is an intimate memoir that brings increasing understanding of how courage, persistence and dedication to a goal can create change in not only one person but can inspire others to fight their own demons and realize their own dreams.

    Yes, you'll like Susan, too, and want to go along with her. Her journey is personal but will leave you inspired to Climb for yourself. 



Friday, January 15, 2021


Today is bright, brisk and significantly warmer than it has been. While this is changing, as I combine my gas and electric bills into a single bill and will put it on auto-pay, right now I pay those bills as any convenience store. I wanted some good bread, and there is a bakery I like adjacent to a convenience store,  and on the way home from there is a liquor store.

Since the rewrite is going well, this is a time when I will read something I haven't already read six times and I get interested in cooking something new. Because of the cold, and because I can't now go out and meet a friend for the kind of ramen I can eat, I decided to make it. 

I copied five recipes. Broccolini and bok choy were required, the noodles, tofu and also sake. I had everything else I needed. Yesterday, with my kind and charming shopping helper, I got noodles, broccoli (broccolini not being available) and bok choy, which isn't called that here, and everything else I would need for the next week. But I didn't get sake. There's a liquor store that carries magnums of a kind of sake I like at a very reasonable price. So, today, off I went.

So did everybody else, it seems. PLEASE STAY HOME AGAIN doesn't seem to be going over very well, at least not on a brilliant Saturday afternoon. I hope that won't be the rule. Yesterday, the streets on the way to the regular grocery store were empty and the store itself was uncommonly quiet. We need to do this; we better do this. COVID hasn't given up and neither can we.

At the convenience store, I saw Setsubon roasted soy beans with a cute oni mask. I couldn't pass that up, so I got those when I paid the bills. I picked up some bread from LaPan, which manages to be a pun in French, no less. See the cute little bunny on the end of the loaf of bread? Then I went to the liquor store.

Generous neighborhood liquor store

There's a custom in Japan called "service." Stores sometimes give a gift to customers as "service." This liquor store I enjoy for its wide variety of liquor, and its wide variety of gifts. Sometimes it's canned tea, or perhaps canned coffee. Often it is for some unknown reason produce. I've been the proud recipient of daikon and naga-negi, or long, large green onions, which are not exactly leeks but can be cooked like leeks, and more.

My haul. See the beans? The oni? The bunny? The sake? And, as "service"...

Today, it was a huge chunk of napa cabbage. 

Do recall that I went to the regular grocery store yesterday and came home with a couple of bags of salad, another bag of bok choy, a couple of heads of broccoli, and assorted other veg for the purposes of making ramen. My very small refrigerator was already bursting at the seams.

I guess I'm going to make kimchi. And thank them kindly for their "service."

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Aomori's Nebuta Festival!

This huge festival, normally held annually but cancelled in 2020 for obvious reasons, features enormous and wonderful lighted floats at which noted artists work bringing classic scenes to magical life for an enormous parade, party and the Haneto dance anyone can join -- if you can get your hands on the right yukata, which doesn't seem to be too hard!  

Its origins are uncertain, but since it's held in early August, prime farming time, it's thought it's a syncretion of the Tanabata Festival (when a couple turned into stars by angry parents are allowed to meet once a year, mid-summer, to renew their love, usually commemorated with a party and fireworks) and the Nemuri Nagashi, a festival originating in the need to ward off drowsiness during the busiest of the farming season. Why having a gigantic and complicated party during the middle of that time would help farmers stay awake doesn't make much sense to me -- you'd think everybody would sleep for days from the preparation, the exertion and the party's aftereffects -- but apparently a festival was just what everybody needed to renew themselves for the rigors of the harvest season.

The Nebuta Wa-Rasse Museum is just outside Aomori station, and while there is another very interesting (to me, anyway) museum near Shin-Aomori, it was cold and damp and that one's largely a recreation of a Jomon period village, so the Nebuta Wa-Rasse Museum sounded like a better bet for a winter day.

And it was! This is so much fun! I hope that someday I can attend the actual festival, grab a yukata of the correct pattern and join the two million people who come, at least some of them, to dance in the streets! Wa-Rasse is the chant everybody cries as they carry the floats through the streets. It seems to have no real meaning, except to keep rhythm, but as the videos of parades past show, it's chanted loudly and with great enthusiasm.

At the entrance, a model of one of the floats, giving a preview of what's within.
In this display, you can can play with light effects to make this face turn into whatever you want, something the actual artists who conceive of these magnificent floats, no doubt appreciate.
Sketches and a mock-up of one of the faces used in the floats.
Another example of one of the characters used in the classic multi-dimensional scenes recreated by some truly amazing artists!
Just the lighted faces alone are fantastic.
Then you see several of the real floats, which are on rotating display. See the person, lower right, for scale. Every angle has different characters. The scenes are detailed and huge, with something new everywhere you look.
Another angle!
Another float!
The biggest taiko I've ever seen. It's about 7 feet in diameter. Yes, this appears in the festival with a group of six taiko not quite this large. That'll wake you up! Unfortunately, because of contagion issues, there's no demonstration and you can't play the drums, but I understand sometimes you can hear the experts and try your hand yourself. Oh, YES!
This was a close as I could get to one character off one float. Every single inch contributes to the stories from folklore, mythology and theater the floats tell.
The dragon's in there. Somewhere.
Look carefully. This shows the internal structure -- bamboo -- of the figures on the float, the lighting arrangements, how the paper covers the structure and how it is ultimately painted. There are times when it's possible to join in the construction for brief periods. I don't know how much help the visitors provide during these hands-on demonstrations, but I'm sure it's great fun.
Another character from another float. They are so multifaceted and complex it's hard to take them in.
This hall contained "portraits" and biographies of the notable artists who design and supervise the construction of these remarkable objects. Twenty appear every year. Only six are displayed at any given time.
This much smaller float comes as something of a relief -- they are overwhelming. One can only imagine them parading through the streets on a hot summer night! The videos will hold your attention for hours and make you want to join in!
Another angle of the artist's wall.
From the Hall of Fame -- only six artists have been given the title of Master. There ARE videos of the parade, the dancing and the construction process, all of which are fascinating. I could have spent hours more there than I had.
Aomori is all about apples, and next door to this museum is the A-Factory, where cider is made (closed to visitors now) and several places I recognized from Washington as apple storage and shipping facilities. This museum and Aomori station are right on the docks, so I bet these apples travel farther than Japan. In the museum shop you can buy almost every apple product imaginable but no apples, except by the case. You can, though, get snow-apple sake. So I did, and it was very good! It STILL hadn't started snowing, although the warnings increased in ferocity and threat level. Meters of the white stuff -- but not yet!
Many places sell individual servings of local sake in little juice glasses featuring art connected with the local product or event. Since I have a growing collection of those, I couldn't resist this one. This sake is good, too.
Finally, the next morning, as I prepared to leave Aomori for Tokyo on my third and last day of travel on my 3-day Tohoku pass, it started to snow. There was a small park right by my hotel. I don't know if you can see it, but I swear snow was falling in this picture.
This is also from the park. I don't know what those posts are meant to be, besides pretty, but you can see the snow a lot better. Yes! It finally happened! 
And here, on the Shinkansen, as I prepared to leave Aomori behind, it's clearly and obviously snowing. In a big way. Everywhere in Japan, I gather, except the Kanto Plain, which is where Tokyo is, and where I live.
But I did see it snow! And JR East, plus the cities of Akita and Aomori, surely gave me serious value for my money. Now we're back to STAY THE HECK AT HOME as the New Year Holidays enter full swing. We know the vaccines are coming and Japan, once it approves them, will distribute them quickly and at no cost through its highly efficient and truly excellent National Health system. I think everyone has so much confidence in this that they're jumping the gun, to the point where Gov. Koike is nearly at the point of asking Prime Minister Soga to declare another State of Emergency so she can shut much of Tokyo down. 
I purposefully scheduled this little trip to avoid the New Year's Holiday crowds, and I'm glad I did. I got a fantastically fun little trip before I am once again confined to quarters -- with a book to rewrite! And that I will enjoy.
I hope you've enjoyed my telling of my trip even half as much as I did doing it!