Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Quarantine Blues

    It's very hard for people who temporarily left Japan and who aren't citizens to get back in right now. The people who even stand a chance at the moment are dependents and spouses of citizens or PRs, and people with long-term residence visas, which includes some workers and students with long-term visas. Others? You'll have to wait a while, at least until the end of February. Tourists, and new business folks, students, workers and casual visitors? Nobody knows when they'll be allowed in.

     Depending on rules that change pretty often, people are required to quarantine for varying periods under varying circumstances. If you or someone on your plane tests positive, that's going to change, too. Everyone is subject to testing requirements, must fill out reams of government forms and is sent to various hotels -- not their choice -- somewhere kind of near the airport where they landed, again, not their choice, for quarantine. So far, this lodging, including food, is free to them.

    When released, they are returned to the airport where they entered and get to figure out how to get home from there without using public transportation. Rental cars, a few enterprising car services, and friends and family members dropping off cars are part of the solutions clever people have developed.

    While vegetarian, vegan, halal and kosher food are supposed to be available on the house, this isn't always true. Uber Eats (which I have found to be useless for vegans; absolutely nothing at all. Maybe a Margarita Pizza for vegetarians depending on where you are in town) and Amazon Fresh (never tried them) are touted as you-pay possibilities but those aren't always available. Depends on where you are and what hotel. That's entirely a matter of luck. 

    Sometimes people get lucky with some quite fabulous hotels. Everybody gets rather ordinary room-temperature bento boxes three times a day. Many inventive methods for heating them are scattered across the internet. This can be a real hardship for people who really do need special food (veg/veg, halal, kosher) and cannot get it. It can also be a hardship for people trying to feed infants and young children who cannot eat standard food, though, again, baby food is supposed to be available and that, at least, usually is.

    There's a business hotel chain called Toyoko Inn that I stay in fairly often. They are everywhere. They are usually convenient to important stations, they are fanatically clean, kept in good shape and are inexpensive. They also give you points towards free nights. The rooms are small. The views aren't superb. There won't be a beach, a pool, a resort or a hot spring. They use economies of scale, uniformity of design, carpet squares to keep the carpets looking good, the mattresses are on the firm side, but kept new, the pillows are different depending on the side you select, and, again, new. They are not pretentious at all, which I like, and do exactly what they promise to do, providing everything you need for a comfortable, if not luxurious, stay.

    While breakfast is included, it's not resort-fantastic. It's edible, fancier than you'd get at home (even with a parent cooking), and you can go down to get it and take it to your room to eat it, a new option since CORONA. And, again, everything is sparkling clean and COVID hygienic. I've always maintained that if I can tell the difference between a $50 hotel room and a $500 one, and I am traveling, I am not having enough fun, so mostly, when I am traveling, Toyoko Inn often suits me just fine.

    Various internet groups talk about their return experiences. Mostly, they gripe about the food. Yeah, well, I remember those room-temperature bentos, and so do many of you. They're fine for a short period. If I could get a veg one, I'd be happy enough. It wouldn't kill me for a couple of weeks or less, though it might get boring. If I couldn't get veg, I'd be griping, too because I couldn't eat much of it, since non-veg food makes me actually sick, whether I know it's there or not, in any quantity no matter how small, and I hate the waste of food. 

    While I've been in Okinawa, I've been staying at a Toyoko Inn by the Prefectural Museum, convenient for me, and an easy way for me to use up some of the free nights I have earned, there being one that is the most convenient car and cab-free alternative for Taisekiji right now. It works just fine for me. Of course, I get to go out every day, but still, if I have a room to myself and I have a computer, it's great and I would be quite content here even if I were quarantined.  But...I'm not.

World Heritage Site, Nakijin Castle near Motobu. Religious site; religion was controlled by women in the Ryukyu Kingdom. I took a tour. If I had used my new driver's license to rent a car, I wouldn't have seen as many sights, and wouldn't have made new friends.

The Sakura are starting to come out here.

A new friend, Naoko, with her buddy, a whale shark, at Churami Aquarium. It kept swimming towards her. She's a good photographer and I look forward to her pictures. Sharks and corals are the specialties of this aquarium. They're making progress on the restoration of coral reefs.

This was a fun beach, a side trip across several small islands through farming country. Sugar cane, pineapples, mangoes, mangroves.

The castle walls. They were built in curves, Naoko let me know, because the Ryukyu people believed demons would live in corners. So, no corners, no demons.

    But now these groups have gone too far! They're dissing my Toyoko Inns! The rooms are too small, they say! The toilet isn't separate from the tub (called a unit bath in Japan; called "home" in the USA). The mattress is too firm! You only get one pillow per person! There isn't a view! Oh, the horrors!

    Tomorrow morning, far too early and long before dawn, I'm out of here, back on boats (and seriously tiny cabins) for the return trip to Tokyo. I've seen a lot of Okinawa Prefecture and learned a lot of history. I'm not sure what to make of it yet and I have no idea how this is going to turn into a book. Okinawa reminds me of Hawaii in many ways besides latitude, sugar cane and pineapple. Fabulous resorts. Great tourist attractions. World Heritage Sites. Music, dance, textile arts, art, a legacy of intelligence and a trade empire. A military history that makes me wince. Areas catering to young military people that don't interest me. Areas catering to rich visitors from all over Asia in search of designer labels at a discount, ditto. It will all sink in. Maybe some of it on the way back. 

    But for now, I've been very happy with my little room on a weekly plan at this convenient Toyoko Inn. I'll be working on the next book, The Oni's Shamisen, when I get home while this digests, but it's been a good trip. Yes, it will give us a new book. 

Friday, January 14, 2022

Shuri Castle

    I was looking forward to Shuri Castle, had been for years. The whole idea of the Ryukyu Kingdom, playing Japan and China off each other, sitting spider-like in the middle of a trading network that spanned southeast Asia, intrigued me. The art, craft, culture and the architecture borrowed from China and Korea and points south as well as from Japan and yet stayed uniquely the Ryukyu's own.

    The opium wars broke out in China (see The Lotus-Foot Assassin Meets the Dragon King), and then Perry arrived in the Ryukyus on his way to Japan and there was a "friendship treaty" (I think they called it) that I have no further information on yet, but knowing what Perry did elsewhere, I doubt if there was much amity included.

    Japan, bent on securing as much of the archipelago (and more) as possible to present a strong united front to the West and avoid being conquered or colonized, pushed its semi-tenuous relationship with the Ryukyu Kingdom forward starting shortly after Perry's arrival, and after preliminary rounds including jockeying with China, formally annexed the Ryukyu Kingdom, deposed its monarchy and established Okinawa Prefecture in 1879.

    That's where my characters come in, in 1878, in Book Ten of the The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy Series. This is a research trip, to learn what I can't learn anywhere but here, and you'll find out much, much more when it all comes together in a published book. The book about the Ryukyu Kingdom was supposed to be Book 9, but thanks to COVID what has become Book 9, The Oni's Shamisen, is shaping up to be a very good book and will be published this year. 

    But in 2019, pre-COVID, even as I was starting to plan for this trip, beautiful, elaborate, detailed, delicate Shuri Castle with all its history was destroyed by fire.

    That's not the first time, either. It's the seventh, they think. As soon as the ashes cooled, crews moved in to salvage what they could (almost nothing) and started clearing the site to rebuild. They've done it before; they're going to do it again.

This is taken from the far back of the compound. Forward you can see a big bare space. That's where the central buildings of the castle were. Now, it's being excavated and what remains of historical foundations cataloged carefully preparatory to reconstruction.

One of the many signs on the fence surrounding the construction site explaining what they're doing and what they will be doing. Once the outer building's up, people will actually be able to watch the workers work, as was done with Taisekiji's Mieido.

    Those familiar with the renovation and reconstruction projects that have taken place at Taisekiji with respect to historic and important buildings, will recognize some of the process. They're collecting and storing all the right kinds of lumber so it can age and dry. They're somehow carefully making templates and drawing plans. They will cut pieces to ensure perfect fits. They'll build a huge building and then construct the new Shuri Castle buildings inside it, so that nothing can be damaged by wind or weather during the process. Fortunately, we now have films and photographs and records so that much of what was done for the last reconstruction (much of Shuri Castle, like most of Okinawa, was leveled during World War II) doesn't have to be done all over again. 

    They plan to have it done and ready to reopen by 2026. I'm sure they'll do just that. Count on it. 

    It's impressive as hell. Not just the scale of the work or the expertise and detail involved; I've seen that before, and that is of itself impressive. 

    What's incredibly impressive and clearly visible here is the tough resilience of the people. Knock them down, and they'll get up fighting. They do not give up. Surrender is not part of their vocabulary. Strategic retreat is as far as they'll ever go, backing up to figure out how to come back perhaps not exactly the same, but better and stronger. 

    We can learn from them. 

    This ancient gate is still standing. The ramparts, so carefully built with stacked cut stone, the fine detail and craft that went into the paving of the walks, the construction of the stairs -- those are still standing, too. Shuri Castle will rise again. It and the people who cherish it aren't going anywhere, either.

Friday, January 7, 2022

Step Away From the Computer

     Every week, I receive hundreds of special offers for various books published by writers like me who hope that I will be sufficiently attracted by the newsletter mentions and ads they have paid for, all in areas that I enjoy reading, to download the free book or maybe even buy the discounted one. 

    These hundreds of writers, I generously assume, from all over the world, work hard to produce and publish high quality books. They are doing everything right and doing everything the dozens of nearly identical marketing courses, blogs, lists and emails they are buried in daily tell them to do to bring their books to the attention of the readers who will enjoy them, and I can't, just can't, get to all of them. 

    The convenience and imaginative stimulation of the written word with the complexity and depth provided by books is so much better than the tiny little snippets of "content" provided by video, "talk" or audio media that take so much time yet give such little reward. To all my fellow authors out there, whose books I want to read, but cannot even find, I apologize. I try to be generous to those people who can't read MY books, even though they're good, they win awards, they even hit best-seller occasionally, and I know you'd like them. 

    We writers are supposed to "engage" on "social media." I've spoken before about how incredibly repetitive it has become, with so many nearly identical posts about the same few topics. Now, we're supposed to do even more. Besides set up Discords so we can talk to people (about what?) we're supposed to take pictures (of what?) half a dozen times a day for Instagram, Twitter and Twitch and who knows where else, and now we're supposed to sign up for literally dozens of courses on how to use Tik-Tok, the fad of the moment, and learn to make videos -- in addition to those we're supposed to be making for YouTube. Why?

    You're boring me, Social Media. I don't know if it's Pandemic Fatigue or Media Overload or that other people are simply as darned boring as I am, but I'm not seeing anything new.

    Now we're all even more overloaded with all the things our busy little monkey minds have come up with. We have all had a dearth of stimulation because we haven't gone anywhere or done anything. But saying "Let's start a new SOMETHING that will be ALL THINGS TO ALL PEOPLE, not like the other 1289 almost identical SOMETHINGS already out there! So when this is over...." is not the answer. 

   Besides, you already did that. And it may even be good, but it's lost in the overload tsunami and taking your time, savings, effort and love with it. 

     We've all been waiting. Waiting for it to be over. Preparing for it to be over.  

    It isn't over. It isn't going to be over. If we don't die of COVID, we'll die of boredom.

    It's been easy and convenient to get all our information from the Internet and each other via the Internet and Social Media. But it's time for something new. 

    So do it. Do something new. Do something different. Turn off the computer, except for research purposes. Stop posting things unless you have something new to say. Do something. Anything. Just don't sit around doing all the same old stuff and throwing it at each other on the Internet.

Winter always turns to spring.





Thursday, December 30, 2021

Happy new year to all!

A new year always means a fresh start.

It's always cause for gratitude, if only because we are here to see it.

And because it affords us more chances to repay our debts to the universe around us for all that we have received.

May the succeeding years only get better as we grow in wisdom and grace.

Happy new year to all!

Thursday, December 9, 2021

Do you see what I...don't?

A number of people of my acquaintance, Gaijins all, have been waxing lyrical about how much the Japanese absolutely love Christmas (even though only about 1% of them are Christians), and adore celebrating it as a secular holiday with presents and stockings and Rudolph and Santa and trees, singing about Baby Jesus and Angels--without having the vaguest idea who or what those might be. Doing just what Americans and Europeans do on TV commercials, except it's not a holiday in Japan. 

Didn't those Wise Men bring Kentucky Fried Chicken and a Victoria Sponge cake filled and topped with strawberries? No?

I wonder what Japan they live in. 

I was out today, running various errands in a commercial district near my apartment. I visited a shotengai (covered shopping arcade, plus department stores, plus mall, plus shopping streets) where everything is on sale all the time because it's SOMETHING! There's a tiny indication, on the SALE posters, that an itty-bitty rather odd looking peeking Santa (like you sometimes see on toilet seat covers) wants you to buy things for...New Years! Accompanied by an endless loop of "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," by twenty different artists. I am not kidding. I wish I were.

What I saw everywhere was New Year's! I saw decorations, expensive and cheap; fake and natural; tiny to enormous. There are tigers of any and every shape and size, dozens of racks of cards and reminders to be sure to send those New Year's cards while the postal rates are at the special New Year's low. I saw mochi for your Buddhist altar and twisted ropes and paper braids for your Shinto shrine, of any and every shape and size.

There was a lot of Solstice, too, with red, white, silver and green garlands and some wreaths, but the Solstice is based on an annual astronomical occurrence that has nothing to do with Christmas. All those decorations pre-date Christmas by thousands of years and, while Japan normally follows and celebrates the lunar new year, the solar new year was also traditionally honored in its passing, though not with the same fervor. Illuminations are very popular, with lighted outdoor trees and gardens and plenty of winter fest sorts of things. These usually run from November through January, and ice skating rinks might be involved. 

My little New Year's decorations: for the door, the altar, and just because Lucky Tiger is cute.

What I think that people who are Religiously or Culturally Christian are seeing is the Christmas that's in their memories and their favorite movies, the one they want to re-create, the one they can't see doing without, in a country that does without it just fine. 

The family reunions, the holiday visits, the cards, the religious services, the special dinners, the midnight bells, and even a tiny bit of gift-giving to children (always money) are all part of New Year's here. "Christmas" is kind of a prequel with hot spiced wine and Alpine-Bavarian Generic Winter With Reindeer and Sleighs.

Maybe I don't see "Christmas" the way other Gaijin do because I'm a Buddhist and while I am happy to celebrate Solstice and New Year's (twice), Christmas is very much somebody else's religious holiday to me. You just can't make Baby Jesus's Birthday and Saint Nicholas secular to me. Maybe that's why I don't see it on the streets and in the shops.

What survives, what always survives, I think, no matter where people go and no matter what else changes in their lives are edible traditions. Even if the Three Kings don't bring candy canes and hams and turkeys, I am seeing much Internet action on how to buy all of those in and around Tokyo as hotels go hog-wild trying to grab foreign customers with Japanese takes on a medley of supposed western winter customs.

The edible traditions I like start with dressing. I'm a real sucker for dressing. I have something like six different recipes, including chestnut. Chestnuts are plentiful here, but are almost non-existent in the US. I make a great gravy. Sweet potatoes, roasted, and winter squash (pumpkin) are available all year. So are Idaho potatoes, carrots, little onions, green beans, and so many other wonderful things I remember. I can make all of these any time. Further, I can make them all vegan, so it's boringly healthy but still tastes fabulously traditional to me.

I can't make the traditional sweets, though. I don't have an oven. I don't have much of a kitchen. I have zero counter space. I can't get the ingredients. But this year, I got lucky. VERY lucky.

One of my family traditions in fruitcake. The real deal, from a recipe so old it's almost ancient. Like nothing you have ever seen for sale, except maybe by the Trappist Monks, and I'm skeptical  about theirs. To get the good stuff, you have to make it yourself. And you have to start last summer. 

Another, though not so ingrained, is mince. I'm not talking about mince-meat, which actually does contain meat and is a way of preserving meat through the winter with sweetener and spices, rather like pemmican. No, this is mince, which contains everything but the meat, usually substituting apples. Made into a pie or tart, it is so good!

Both of these classic dishes come out around the Solstice to start using the preserved and dried fruits when the fresh or stored fruit is close to gone. You can eat these until spring comes and fresh fruit becomes available again. Raisins, currants, figs, apples, pears, plums, berries -- any summer fruit preserved with sugar and brandy or sometimes dried, these fruits lend themselves to concoctions that are highly nutritious as well as jaw-droppingly delicious. When made correctly.

Shockingly, I found a place. It's called Punk-Doily Pie Shop. It's not even that far from here. They make fruitcake. They make mince tarts. They will sell them to me!

I bought some. They are incredible, the way I remember them, they way the ought to be. Tucked in the freezer to be brought out a bit at a time, savored, until they are finally gone. 

It's a fair walk or even bike ride to get there. A train is how a sane person would do it, but I am going to need to burn anticipatory calories, and I will go there to see what other delights they can present to me that will tug at my memories while tantalizing my tastebuds, taking me heart home. 

Mince tarts and fruitcake. They even look real!
Fruitcake, from the inside. That fruit, and there's lots of it, has been swimming in brandy!
These gorgeous mince tarts have a shortbread crust. That involves butter. UK cooking at its best always involves booze and butter. Once a year, I'll deal with it. I don't pretend to be perfect. 

Whatever holiday you celebrate, enjoy it. I like them all. Make merry! The sun will return and the year will refresh!