Claire Youmans' Author Blog
Claire Youmans is the Amazon Best-Selling author of the award-winning The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy series where magical realism collides with historical fantasy in Meiji-era Japan. There are now nine novels and two novelettes. Visit www.tokigirlandsparrowboy.com for book descriptions, history, art, language information, universal ordering links and free offers. This beautifully reviewed series is available world-wide through Apple Books, Rakutan/Kobo, B&N, Amazon and more. Enjoy!
Tuesday, March 7, 2023
Meet Uncle Yuta: Why the Jō (Japanese Staff) is So Strong
Sunday, February 12, 2023
The Gods...didn't like me!
Izumo Taisha is the oldest shrine in Japan, claiming to predate even the Ise Grand Shrine. From a map I saw, but could not read in detail--I promise I will keep studying--it seems to line up with Ise in the path of the sun, on the opposite side of the country.
Here is the deepest source and preservation of the history of Japan and its basis in Shinto, the way of the kami. The very ground is steeped in ancient spirituality. Gagaku music, the sacred music of the shines and the court, plays everywhere.
It's definitely not Buddhist. This is true even though a miko born in 1572 called Izumo no Okuni left the shrine and performed dance and music from the sacred heritage to raise money for one of the periodic reconstructions, known as sengu. Since this was very unusual, she was called kabukimono, or one acting against social norms.
Eventually, she created a theatre company called Okuni Ichiza performing Kabuki Odori or dance, as a continuing source of fundraising for the shrine. Unfortunately, it became so popular it was widely imitated by more commercial entertainers, including courtesans and yujo (less expensive and discriminating sex workers). In 1629, Tokgawa Iyeasu forbade women from performing in this style. Izumo no Okuni retired to become a Buddhist nun at a temple near Izumo Taisha and kabuki theatre was officially established as a male art form, though there are currently a couple of small all-woman companies.
Buddhism and Shinto have thus coexisted very peacefully for centuries, with Buddhism focusing on the enlightenment of the individual practitioner, while Shinto concentrates on interacting with the kami to solicit their help with daily life of the land and the people. Or so I understand it.
Izumo Taisha is enormous, and hosts one of the largest festivals anywhere, the annual meeting of the kami, in October, "Kamiarizuki" (month of the kami) in Izumo, but called called "Kannazuki" (month without kami) every where else, because they have all come to Izumo Taisha to discuss the coming year. There is literally a motel-of-the-kami in which all the kami who arrive on the beach and are escorted up to the shrine are housed during this event.
Like many events here, people can attend the various rituals surrounding this, and there are snatches of photographs and videos here and there, but photography seems very much discouraged.
In fact, my presence was discouraged, seemingly by the kami themselves.
I actually planned this trip to see the former home of the writer Lafcadio Hearn, now a museum, located by Matsue Castle on Lake Shinji, not far from Izumo and known for spectacular scenery. He didn't live there long, and it's not a fabulous museum, but it's fun, especially if one enjoys his works on Japan, a country he embraced to the point of becoming a citizen, immersing himself in folklore, faith and culture. Of course, I like him.
I also was on the lookout for snow, since Tokyo, on the Kanto Plain, is one of the very few areas of Honshu (main island) that doesn't get inundated with the stuff, owing to the placement of the mountains. Anyway, I am a train fan and not only is there a train, there is a special overnight sleeper train called the Sunrise Izumo. How could I resist?
It actually splits into two parts at Okayama, with half going to Takamatsu on Shikoku and the other half going across the mountains (snow!) to Izumo. I got the second level of one person sleeper cabins, the "Deluxe" Single being slightly bigger than a breadbox and unavailable. My Single was smaller than a breadbox and makes a capsule cabin on the ferry look spacious. There's a smaller cabin still, and a couple of twin versions, with bunks, and very large sort of divided carpeted area for those who don't value privacy as much. It takes 12 hours for the Izumo run. There are some drink machines, but you have to bring food. Of course, the station vendors take advantage of this. And the run takes place at night. So the time to do it would be in high summer, of course, when the sun is out most of the time and the mountain scenery is visible. But if you turn out your lights and open your shade, it's possible to see a lot, especially on the way over after the sun come ups.
Yes, there was snow. The area has plenty of mist and fog as the train runs through steep mountains along a river valley. The snow stretches like a blanket until it merges into the mist and clouds. Nicer than it looks!
The hotel I could book was in Matsue, near the Hearn museum and halfway between Izumo and Mt. Daisan, where I hoped to see plenty of snow, falling. Naturally, the instant I left Tokyo snow was forecast and did in fact fall there, though it didn't stick around and Sunday was quite warm. But I could spend Thursday, the day I got in, at Izumo Taisha, take a fun little electric train around Lake Shinji, go off to Mt. Daisen, and then visit the Hearn museum and adjacent attractions, and get the train back from Matsue. It almost worked.
Thursday, February 2, 2023
The Mundane in Winter
By the middle of January, like most people, I was done with the New Year's partying, except we had another week to go because of Lunar New Year! Fortunately, that's a quiet celebration, and this year features very cute bunnies! I understand in Vietnam this is the year of the Cat, but I only know that because an old friend is touring much of southeast Asia and posting many wonderful pictures on Facebook. I am very glad to go along without leaving the house!
It's been bitterly cold here, and utility bills seem poised to skyrocket. Other things, especially food, are supposed to go up, too. I don't have much of a handle on specific prices, even after several years. I have noticed my weekly grocery total has gone up maybe 7-10%. I guess meat has gone up, but that isn't something I buy.
So far, the only thing I have noticed being more expensive are pretzels, the flavored pieces kind, since we do not have normal pretzels here. You can order them, but the cost -- well, a truly good bottle of whisky all the way from Scotland is cheaper. I'm bundling up in a fleece wrap with a wool shawl over my legs and my fingers are stiff with cold. I did manage to find a kind of mint liquor from France (not Creme de Menthe -- sorry for no accents) but it's allowing me to make Peppermint Pattys, one of my ski season staples. I usually get one or two a year, but I have this whole bottle that the liquor store owner dug up from somewhere, so those will go on, lubricating my joints, until the bottle is gone.
I've been dealing with a bank merger (lots of paperwork nonsense) and starting my visa renewal, and beginning the delights of compiling tax information for two countries and multiple entities. I would be entirely mad -- or downing a constant stream of Peppermint Pattys -- if I didn't have highly competent professionals doing most of the hard parts. Still, just being in Japan complicates things, usually annoyingly and often unbearably so.
At least temporarily it's warmed up a little but we had a ferocious wind storm that lasted a full 24 hours and a bit, and knocked over my makrut lime tree. It's in a pot the size of a hot tub and I spent a couple of hours trying to located somebody to help me right it. I seriously didn't want to mess my back up doing it myself. But I went out to just see how heavy it was, and how many people I might need, and found to my shocked surprise that I could right it myself.
That's because it's been so dry that the soil was powdery and far too many of the leaves just kind of blew or fell or were knocked off. It's quite amazingly tall. I watered the heck out of it, to add weight to the pot, and for now it seems happier and heavier in much more moderate winds. I also watered everything else. But it's still so cold I could not bring myself to rake and I think I'll wait on that. I did see the first signs of bulbs coming up.
It's Setsubon, which, like Imbloc and Candlemas, is halfway between the Solstice and the Equinox, and for many cultures the actual start of spring. We celebrate by tossing roasted soybeans around and sweeping them out, chanting "Evil out, fortune in." Shrines and Temples do this, as well as households. The evil beings presumably like the soybeans and chase them. What demons don't get, birds and squirrels do, though modernly the soybeans come neatly packaged so humans can recapture them! You eat the same number of beans as your age, plus one. There are, I think, a couple of other traditional foods, but I haven't tracked those down yet. At least one Temple uses small bags of candy, so children, rather than demons, will chase down what's thrown.
Finally, next week I am taking a train to an interesting place, and I hope to see snow on the way. Planning and booking a Japan trip with my editor for later in the year, and this little trip for me, has also been a mundane, yet time-consuming, process. I think it's all done.
I do like trains. You'll have to be able to read Japanese to figure out where I am going. Otherwise, you'll have to wait until I get there, and now I have to go someplace else first.
Evil out, fortune in! Happy Setsubon!
Friday, January 6, 2023
Happy New Year!
New Year's here involves many holidays, including several jammed together between December 28 and January 4 (more or less), when things are closed, and discounts for trains and hotels temporarily disappear since people are traveling to go on visits and people hurry to accumulate "firsts."
New Year's Eve is called Omisoka in Japan. Dinner often includes toshikoshi soba, where the length of the noodles is held to promote long life. This can be eaten any time during the evening and is often eaten close to midnight. Mochi's popular, too, and altar sets of two cakes of fresh mochi, one atop the other with a mikan tangerine on top are usual in Temples, Shrines and in homes. Many people visit a Temple or Shrine for a midnight celebration that includes the ringing of bells, if they have them. Temple bells usually ring 108 times, joya no kane, to cleanse the 108 earthly desires, for a fresh start for the new year.
Gantan (New Year's Day) services are often held right at midnight, and again right through the day. This "first" visit of the year is important and people make efforts to attend. Because of COVID, my Temple had many services over several days, more than usual, so everybody who wanted could come without overcrowding. One normally makes a donation to any Temple or Shrine one visits for such a ceremony. In addition to a little piece of dried kombu or kelp, a small snack given for refreshment and energy to keep going through the night to accumulate more "firsts," often starting with the first sunrise, a small gift is presented, often of salt.
Salt has a special meaning in Japan because of its use in ritual cleansing, so a few ounces of really nice salt is a culturally significant and special gift. My Temple also gives out really good calendars with all the civil and Buddhist holidays and festivals on them and beautiful photographs, too, but I doubt that's universal.
People order Oeshici -- special New Year's food -- rather than cook it, usually, the idea being that it's eaten over the first three days of the year, the food is highly symbolic, and varies, though shrimp are common. Ozoni is a special New Year's day soup that varies from family to family and region to region, though mochi is usually served in it. Stretchy mochi is also symbolic of longevity. Persimmons are usually harvested and dried outside by stringing them on porches, but those pictured above have dried, beautifully, on the tree, and are probably ready to eat. One kind of persimmon isn't eaten until it's dried because it's not sweet until very, very sloppily ripe. Dried is better.
Even Buddhist Temples participate in what are culturally significant New Year's decorations. Here, at Taisekiji, kadomatsu arrangements of pine, bamboo and plum are placed outside the various gates to and on the Temple grounds, decorated with straw rope, shimekazari. Variations will be seen everywhere. The door of my mansion (condo building) has them and people, including me, have small versions on their doors, too.
We aren't done! The second Monday in January is Coming of Age day, when the young people who turn twenty will frequently be formally presented at their family Temple or Shrine, dress up in formal Japanese wear for photographs, go visit various large Shrines and/or Temples, usually with friends, and then go out and party, because twenty is the legal drinking age in Japan. The formal wear is often rented, but sometimes not: this can be a gift for a young man or woman of their first adult formal costume, which will likely last them the rest of their lives. A girl may received another on her wedding, as women's clothing changes on marriage or with age, with patterns becoming simpler, more subdued, more elegant and the sleeves becoming shorter.
Finally, the season ends about January 15, when the mochi is finally taken down and eaten, often with red beans in a kind of stew, and the decorations are put away. Many decorations and Shinto amulets are taken to Shrines to be ceremonially burned, and the amulets (health, safety, success, or whatever you like; they have many) are usually replaced. If you're in the right place at the right time, there's a special breakfast at Taisekiji that you might get invited to attend.
It's not quite over yet! Lunar New Year is still to come. This is a very quiet celebration, but it is celebrated, this year on January 22. Again, friend and family visits are in order, special meals, Temple or Shrine visits, and this may be when children get red envelopes with gifts of crisp new bills from grandparents or other relatives, if the family likes to do it for Lunar rather than Solar new year. Sometimes, of course, they do both.
I wish everyone a most wonderful new year. Twice.
Monday, December 19, 2022
Friday, December 16, 2022
Nobody knows why -- there is no real clear or obvious reason for it -- but I have been having some physical problems lately. After I had my super-strength flu vaccine I was suddenly slammed with serious muscle and joint pain. I haven't been walking well or quickly. The idea of getting down on the floor has been laughable. I've done what I must and some of what I wanted. I have exercises and physical therapy and it has been getting better. Until COVID Vaccine, Part 5, when it crashed again, pointing to the possibility that what I've been experiencing, which fits one of the side-effect profiles for both vaccines, might be exactly that. It's one of those things where the cure for all of the possibilities is exactly the same, so I just keep doing that PT, and will wait it out. This, too, of course, shall pass.
Everybody knows I enjoy cooking, and as a veg, I very often have to cook if I want to eat. There just isn't that much available in nearby restaurants, or even for delivery, that I can eat.
But I haven't been able to cook.
It's also the holidays. As a Buddhist, I naturally don't celebrate a Religious Christmas. I'm also not going to trek around Japan looking for Santa and Reindeer and Krampus -- all the manifestations Secular Christmas co-opted from Pagan Solstice Ceremonies. It feels odd to me, too intertwined with the religious holiday of a religion that isn't mine. I don't want to go to the various gaijin parties featuring foods I can't eat, either. Few people can entertain at home, so these are often held at hotels and restaurants and western-themed taverns and bars, and are not free.
I do enjoy the Illumination lights and light shows that spectacularly brighten much of Tokyo and other parts of Japan. These are everywhere, and will usually stay up until mid-to-late January. This is a resin -- no water or power required -- skating rink outside of Tokyo station. It just opened when I got this picture and reservations were required. I didn't have one, and it would have been idiotic to try skating under the circumstances. I am stupid enough to try it, but the fates were wiser than I am.
The holiday party season here starts in early December with end-of-year bashes, and will wind up with the religious and cultural New Year's season, where people visit family, visit Temples and Shrines, enjoy the numerous holidays during the lengthy festive period and, naturally, eat.
Sunday, December 4, 2022
Nikko is an incredible resort area. It's stuffed with history, sights to see, fabulous views, things to do, and one could spend a week or more just touring the most must-see world heritage sites.
I just got back from a few days in Nikko. What did I do? Nothing!
Gableview Forest Inn is well-located, comfortable, clean, pleasant, and run by delightful hosts I like very much. Most of the long weekend I spent ensconced in a recliner, watching a tiny and unobtrusive (didn't stick) snow fall, listening to music, chatting with Elizabeth, the Canadian half of the owners, and reading a real hard-copy book that I've been putting off reading for a long time, since I have no place at home to easily read real books. And when I wasn't doing that, or soaking in the baths (there are several to choose from, indoor and outdoor, and a new-to-me stone one that I enjoyed; yes, you can reserve one to yourself) I was enjoying the truly fabulous cuisine of Satoshi, the Japanese half of the owners.
I feel like I have a place in the mountains where I can go whenever I want, settle in comfortably, do as much or as little as I like, take advantage of the wonderland that is Nikko or just relax in the warmth of their welcome.
But when I say I did nothing, I don't mean really nothing. I did finish my book and cogitated on my next book, after the forthcoming The Reluctant Dragon, and that was my actual goal. I also got to go to a delightful farmers' market where fantastic and truly local produce is available and the community enjoys the large park. While there are some handcrafts and prepared things, it's not all craft-fair. This is where you (and Satoshi) can buy actual food. I wish I could have taken a grocery cart to bring more home than I did.
The train the goes to Nikko splits at Shimo-Imaichi. One half goes to Tobu Nikko station. The other half goes to Kinagawa Onsen and beyond. This is a separate part of Nikko known for onsen resorts, outdoor sports and scenery rather than history. But at Shimo-Imaichi station, where the train splits, you can, for a paltry sum, go to Kinagawa Onsen on the Taiju Steam Train! It takes less than an hour -- I wish it was longer. Then you can come back to Shimo-Imaichi and switch to another train to get to Tobu Nikko Station proper, if that's where you're going. That takes only about fifteen minutes. From the Steam Train, if you want to, you can stop at Edomura Wonderland (a really excellent Edo Period theme park I've mentioned previously) or Tobu World Square (a miniature of famous architectural sites around the world I haven't visited yet). There are also buses from the station plaza in Nikko proper to those attractions.
But, of course, I had to ride that train.
So it took me much longer than I would wish to get home, with more train changes and more stairs and two separate places where I always get confused. But I made it.
And this is my New Year's Bunny. It's going to be Year of the Rabbit (or hare, depending on how you translate it). Bunny's forepaws are in the gassho position in front -- you can also get a waving bunny -- and while it's in front of my fake fire now, it will soon move to my Buddhist altar as we await the solstice, the Solar New Year, and ultimately the Lunar New year.
Enjoy the season, everyone!