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!

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

I am now free to move about the country!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    I passed.

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

    I am now free to move about the country!



Monday, October 25, 2021

An Enlightening Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Two Faces of Japan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 1, 2021

A poem: August 1

August 1

 In the cool temple hall

The priest sounds the bell to honor the deceased.

Outside, cicadas screech their raucous song.

Summer in Japan.

Brown Cicada

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Building a Book: A Learning Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Tiny Trains And Serious Music

The Shadows of War is getting great reviews, like the rest of The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy series, but the very hardest part of reaching readers, for me, is determining "genre."

Sure, I finally figured out that it's basically magical realism colliding with historical fantasy in Meiji-era Japan, but that means little to people looking for Swords and Sorcery in Fake Medieval Europe or Romance in Odd Situations in Contemporary Life, with Commentary by the Ghost in the Laundry Room. 

That means I spent yesterday trying to come up with "comparable titles" for the advertising people to use in targeting audiences who might just like these books. Because it's incontrovertible: when people read these books, they like them. What we are trying to do is find a group of people to wave a "hey, look over here" flag at. It's the most frustrating part of what I do.

Although racketing around the Oga Peninsula on regular buses can come close. Supposedly, there was a Museum Shuttle. Supposedly, according to the Website, for this week in July one didn't need to make reservations, which are usually required on weekdays. But...not true. I had no reservation. There was no bus. The kind Tourist Information Center attendant pointed me to a local bus, for which I had to wait an hour. Things don't happen as often as one might wish in the country.  She was nice enough to tell the driver where I was going, so he could tell me where to transfer, and to what, and the second driver told me where to return and when, and, following a transfer, the final driver delivered me to another station where I could catch a train back to Akita. Here's the little unstaffed station. There's an indoor waiting room because it snows here. A lot. 

If you're not using a pass, you can drop your ticket in the green box when you arrive. You can also buy a ticket you will surrender wherever you get off. This train was full of high school students going home from various schools. It was fun to see them meet and mingle and get off at various stations, some of which were as tiny as this one. Comparably, Akita's is enormous. 

The next day I was off in search of another museum, this one technically in Goshogawara. First I had to go to Hirosaki, several hours from Akita. This is serious agricultural territory, commercially mostly fruit, though every house boasts a garden. Beautiful country.

I had the afternoon to explore the home of Japan's Big Apple, plus, like just about everyplace in the region, the home of a summer festival featuring huge lighted floats, of which I have spoken before. These festivals will all be limited or virtual this year, because of COVID, but you can see the floats. 

These are MUCH bigger than they look and beautifully crafted, usually illustrating classic stories or historical events. There are acrobatics, music and dancing involved. I hope to find them on line. 

One REALLY big apple! Everything is all apples, all the time, around here. 

There is a famous castle and an interesting museum showcasing lacquerware -- and apples -- but my phone ran out of juice. I did learn how to operate a public coin-powered charger, as well as use the little local circle bus. Hirosaki is ready for visitors! For me, the Fujita Memorial Gardens were a real treat.

That's Mount Iwaki in the background, from the upper level of the garden. You go down to the pond, but reach this viewpoint via, you guessed it, stairs! It's a peaceful, lovely place.

The next day I was off to Goshogawara, and from there, by a tiny, single car, separate train line, to Kawagi, home of the Shamisen Museum. This is the area where the Tsugaru Shamisen style of music originated, including changes to the instrument itself as well as the way it is played. 

Among many other attractions, musicians like this young man give regular concerts, participate in competitions and even give lessons! This is a fantastic experience. 

What's so interesting about this seemingly simple instrument is -- oh, just Have a listen!

How do these two experiences fit into the next book? We'll all have to see. I'm not quite sure yet myself!




Sunday, July 18, 2021

Starting a Book, with Oni

 The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy series is set in Meiji-era Japan, and features a continuing cast of characters, specifically Toki-Girl Azuki and her brother, Sparrow-Boy Shota, as they, their family and friends do their best to survive and prosper in a wildly confusing time in history while preserving their dual identities as humans and birds.

The Shadows of War, Book 8 in series, just released and is garnering really excellent reviews. It's available on Amazon and everywhere else through the website above. Publicity is ongoing, of course, to let lots of people know about this fine book so they, too, can enjoy it and the series.

But for me it's time to move forward and start another book. I had a book planned for "what comes next," but I can't go there yet, because I literally can't go there yet: there is no passenger service on the boat I really need to take due to COVID.

Fortunately, Japan has a lot of fascinating history and I have plenty of interesting characters to catch up with. I know where I am in time. With the wonder of the Internet making it easier to do this from the comfort of my office, I searched for interesting happenings in the years in question.

I found one. I found several. I found something I can tie into a major theme (that's sophisticated writer talk) that speaks to Japanese culture, past and present. 

And it's really, really fun!

Right now, we're in State of Emergency Part 4 in Tokyo, even as the Olympics loom. Other parts of the country aren't so badly off. Everybody is still very, very cautious even though we're vaccinating upwards of a million people a day. We do not want variants spinning out of control. 

There's a special rail pass deal going on for holders of foreign passports. I am one of those people. So I grabbed a pass and headed north. I want to find out about Oni at the home of the Namahage festival, Oga, near Akita. What are Oni? Where do they come from? Why do they come for dinner?

Of course, this museum is very far out of the way. It would be much better to have a car, but there are buses. It takes a long time to get there, and a lot of back-road touring of very beautiful countryside. But it's worth it. 

This museum is very small but it has over 100 costumes and masks that are wonderful! Next door, there's a show featuring classic storytelling and an enactment of the Oni coming on their annual visit and harassing the householders and audience to exhort all the children to good behavior and all adults to diligence in their work and domestic duties. 

The museum has classic costumes!

Here are classic masks! These two are red and green, but often they're red and blue.


It's the night the Oni visit. Let's see if they'll be satisfied with the householder's report on the family!

They dance, they drum, they are plied with food and drink and then they leave, wishing all concerned a good new year! This is all adjacent to the huge shrine that holds an ancient and classic festival every year on this occasion. I got to attend that virtually this year. But in person? Those Oni will frighten you, and that's the point!

Have a little more sake, Oni-san! We've all been good, I promise!

Let's check out those people in the audience! Are THEY good? How about their families? The Oni stomp and dance, growl and shout. I was happy to report that my grandchildren are very diligent. I think they were a little surprised I could do that in Japanese, but it satisfied them. Whew! Up close, they are very scary! They were presented with special mochi, and, satisfied, left, slamming their way out to go back up the mountain for another year!

Monday, July 5, 2021

A New Review and Dancing Trains

 "As in the previous Toki-girl and Sparrow-boy adventures, Youmans crafts a powerful history-based fantasy atmosphere that will attract both fantasy readers and those interested in historical accounts." 

Diane Donovan, Donovan's Literary Services (full review to be published in August and more will be quoted) and Midwest Book Review (September) on The Shadows of War.

     I had to mention this wonderful review first off, because I've mentioned how very much reviews mean to me. It's great when somebody understands what I'm trying to do and thinks I'm doing it.

     But sometimes life isn't so sure that I have any kind of clue at all.

    July 3, I was poised to go to Taisekiji on a pilgrimage for the weekend, something I do most months. I had train tickets, I had a hotel reservation and my Tensho -- permission slips from my local Temple to attend certain services for which that is required. 

    It's the rainy season in Japan, and it's been rather a dry one. Until right now, when it's acting like a heavenly firehose is pointed right at Japan and turned on full blast. Saturday morning was awful. Raincoat, hood, umbrella, boots -- at least it wasn't windy. By the time I got on the train for Shinagawa, where I would get the Shinkansen, I was drenched around the edges as was everybody else.

    Then, just outside of Shinagawa, the train advised us that the Tokaido Shinkansen had suspended service. It's a quarter past 7 AM, and the Shinkansen, bastion of punctuality and beacon of reliability, had stopped running.

    In Shinagawa station, I stopped to pick up a couple of drinks and rolls, as my train wasn't scheduled to leave until 8:30, and surely they'd have things running by then. Helpful graphics on the monitors showed the stoppage was between Tokyo and Shizuoka, with everyplace else delayed. They're dedicated. They're organized. They'll get things going soon.

    But they didn't. And at about 10 AM, whispers started circulating about a slide near Atami, a very bad one. Missing people, houses washed away, bridges out, roads flooded. There is, of course, a TV in the waiting room, but it wasn't showing the news.

    My phone decided it would not connect to WiFi via the cell network and free WiFi exists only to give you something to do trying to make it work while you're waiting. I could find out no more.

    Then the announcer started asking people to rebook their tickets or cancel their trips. All train lines heading in the direction I wanted to go were shut down as well. I did determine that once the trains began running again each Shinkansen would proceed in the order originally scheduled and one would board one's original train, using one's original ticket, and sit in one's original seat.

    About 11:30, trains started coming in. Shortly thereafter, trains started leaving. In order, starting with the one originally scheduled for 7:04 AM, when service stopped. There was almost no delay at all between trains regardless of their originally scheduled times. They came in from Tokyo Station, their terminal, stopped long enough to pick up passengers, and took off. One after the other. In almost no time at all, my train came in, scooped me up and was off.

    There are three kinds of Shinkansen on this line: the Nozomi flies to Nagoya or Osaka with very few stops. The Hikari takes a slightly slower pace, and stops more often. The Kodama, still about three times as fast as any local train, stops at all Shinkansen stations. My station is a minor one; I'm on a Kodama. 

    As we rushed through the pouring rain, trains passed, pulled over, pulled off, stopped, shot by, traveling at ferocious speed and with incredible coordination. Sitting at Odawara watching this show, it seemed to me they danced, with an incredible display of the high speed organized choreography that only Japan could pull off in the best of normal times. Now, in a massive effort to catch up and get everything rolling again, I thought of people in control rooms watching, guiding, directing the trains as if by magic, as they danced.

    I missed the Saturday service, but I stayed overnight, glued to the TV in my hotel room, and made the Sunday one. I got home on time Sunday night and got to my vaccine appointment Monday morning. In another stunning display of efficiency, that went quickly and well and I am now fully vaccinated. I got directed the wrong way and ended up at a subway station rather than the shuttle bus stop, but that was OK, as it also worked for me. It worked even better when I realized the train went by Omotesando, where there is an Apple Store, where I had not been able to book a Genius Bar appointment Sunday night to get my phone looked at. I stopped off. They took me. We found out the error was on the part of my carrier and we FIXED IT! My phone is now working again. I ran several more errands on my circuitous way home, and while it's still raining, and seems to plan to do so for the next week or so, it's not dumping buckets. And this was in my email this morning to warm my heart.

..."a fine addition to the series that also holds the possibility of proving a satisfying, epic stand-alone read to newcomers."

    Diane Donovan, Donovan's Literary Services (full review to be published in August and more will be quoted) and Midwest Book Review (September) on The Shadows of War.

On my porch, protected from the firehose effect.

This gorgeous hydrangea is like no other I've ever seen. Outside the Tozan office at Taisekiji.

Also protected on my back porch. 

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Record-keeping in Japan

 Japan does things in its own way, in its own time, and according to its own understanding, which isn't always the same as anybody else's.

Take names. I am ヨーマンズ クレラ, which roughly reads Youmanzu Kurera, since Japanese simply cannot do Claire and barely manages Klara.  It does Youmans just fine, though, and since I'd normally be called Ms. Youmans in English, as I am old and dignified, I am very happy to be Youmans-san. 

But in the Meiji-era, few people had surnames. Even the upper classes barely had them, mostly using clan affiliations on official records only. My main characters have the family name of Maeda, because they are samurai and can trace their ancestry back to Sugawara Michizane, though through a great many twists and turns. They keep track of the connection though, because it's an illustrious one and sometimes that is useful. Anyway, comprehensive and accurate records are very important!

When the Westerners came, all of them with surnames except the very highest born who had titles instead, Japan decided everybody needed to adopt a surname and reorganize their family registers, the most official of which were kept by local Temples, then Shrines and, later, the civil authorities.

For most people, it was easy to make something up. They used an occupational name, a place name, or picked something that signified good fortune, sometimes at the suggestion of the Shrine priests. For others, as we see in The Shadows of War, it was a little harder as the characters in question wanted names that spoke to them and signified their personal heritage. 

But Japan still keeps track in what strikes me as rather odd ways sometimes. Yesterday, I received Mystery Mail from JP Bank. What it wanted, I discovered, was to update my zairyu, or resident, card, and to discover what I do with the money that comes into and goes out of my account. It had a QR code so I could fill out the form from my phone and a website where I could do it on line.

Mystery Mail

Neither one actually worked, though I tried many times yesterday, last night and again today. So I toddled off to the nearest Post Office, home of Japan Post Bank's branches. They know me there and are very, very kind to an often confused foreigner.

The staff was devastated to discover that the QR code and website wouldn't work, not even for them, but whipped out a paper form that, with a little guidance here and there, I was able to fill out and all was well. "Pay regular bills" was one of the boxes to check to describe one's use for the account, which I found very funny. Mostly the bank was concerned that I reassure it I wouldn't be funding terrorists or sending huge amounts of money overseas to various persons other than "Family" on an irregular basis. Why the bank would take my word for this is unknown, but that's what it wanted to hear. 

The staff was so devastated to have put me to the trouble of walking a few blocks that they dug into their stash of customer gifts and gave me...

 ...a yellow dishcloth.  Which I do appreciate.

 Yesterday, on the train, I read an article about various kinds of Lemon Sour drinks, for which it is now the season. They're kind of like a lemon squash with a low alcohol content. I decided I'd appreciate one of those at least as much as the dishcloth, so I got one of those, too.

 And now, an hour later, I am all up to date on bank record-keeping: another mysterious adventure of everyday life in Japan.

Friday, June 18, 2021


The first reviews for The Shadows of War are starting to trickle in. They are slow in coming, but I am so glad to see them. They're all great!

It makes me very happy when I discover that people actually like my books. Right now, I want to move into the next book, researching and traveling, imagining and dreaming.

But there is more to it than that.

Book marketing isn't simple anymore. It's nothing like what it was when I first started publishing books. Your publisher does't just create an ad and pay for its placement — oh, no. It's like a lottery now, where you bid varying amounts and hope you're paying enough to win placement, somewhere, and you pay more for better placement, but you don't know what you've won, if anything, until you get the bill. Surprise!

Then there is the dreaded algorithim. That is what decides if you get any placement at all, and when and where. This is all irrespective of what your advertisting people have "bid" or even paid for. Much of it, now, depends on marketing you have done for yourself. That is all about sales, sure, but also, first, about REVIEWS.

So I, as I writer, can't just have marketing people who magically go around creating and placing ads, which will generate sales and generate reviews, which will, one hopes, generate more sales and more reviews, and happy readers reading and a happy writer writing.

Now, I as a writer have to produce, specifically, reviews before the marketing people and the evil algorithim will even notice my books. 

So if you notice me down on my knees begging you to please write that review on the retailer of your choice, this is why. I want to get out there working on the next one. 

Thank you so very much for doing this! I appreciate it more than I can say. I am also thrilled when you enjoy my books, and thrilled to be able to keep going!

Saturday, June 12, 2021

When it becomes real...

    Even though I know it's out, when the ARC copies are in the hands of readers and editorial reviewers, and contributor copies have sent, there's something wonderful that happens when my author copies arrive.

    It's fresh and wonderful every single time I see the latest book in the Toki-Girl and Sparrow-Boy series in full, physical, realized form. 

    I can hold it in my hands, flip through the pages, see it on my bookshelves, read the words on actual printed pages and realize that my editor was, yes, absolutely right about a formatting decision she made that I was unsure of. 

    The artistry of the cover comes alive as I see it in real life, with the blades and arrows in the model's hair, and I notice details I didn't when I looked at digital images. 

    The Shadows of War. It's out, in concrete form. 

    It feels real at last.  

    Buy it at your favorite retailer:

The Shadows of War on Amazon

And just about everywhere else.

Monday, June 7, 2021

The ocean in the rain....

In celebration of Vaccine, Part 1, I decided to visit a part of the coast I have been to before, but with a slightly different agenda in mind. I got my Shinkansen reservation early, using a program that makes Green Car cost the same as Ordinary, if you meet certain criteria -- and I made sure I did. I had a Tozan pilgrimage set up for Saturday and Sunday, something I aim for every month, so I thought I'd go down a day early, on  Friday, and spend that day in Mishima and Numazu.

Mishima, surprisingly, isn't actually on the coast. Numazu was its port city. Both are on the Old Tokaido Highway. Mishima is a stop for the Tokaido Shinkansen and both it and Numazu are on the Tokaido Main Line, which meant -- trainwise -- I could make this a convenient little jaunt, hopping off the Shinkansen at Mishima, taking the Tokaido line to Numazu, fooling around in Numazu and then getting the Tokaido line on to Fuji, seeing a bit of the coast I wanted to explore. Shin-fuji station, for the Shinkansen, and my usual hotel (since we can't stay on Temple grounds right now) are just a short bus ride from Fuji station. And, since it's Japan, if all else fails, there is always a cab.

Before, when I went to Numazu, I took a long boat ride around Suruga Bay. It's huge. It's at the foot of Mount Fuji, very extensive and incredibly deep, up to about 7500 feet.  It also features in The Shadows of War. So, certainly I wanted to do that again! I am always up for a boat ride. In addition, there are a couple of interesting museums in Mishima and there's an aquarium in Numazu.

Weather intervened. It rained. Not only that but it poured! I couldn't for the life of me find a bank of coin lockers or a checkroom in which to stash my bag in Mishima station while I ventured out to the museums. While I could have taken a local train to within a few blocks of the most interesting one, I wasn't going to do so in the pouring-buckets-turn-your-umbrella-inside-out storm lashing about outside while hauling a suitcase. Even a small one. 

Instead, I went straight to Numazu, a ten minute ride away, where I found the coin lockers easily and the bus to Numazu-ko (port) readily accessible. However, I was reminded again that Japan can be difficult at times, especially outside major metropolitan areas. In Tokyo, I use my Suica card for all sorts of minor things, like local train fares, buses, coin lockers, convenience stores, vending machines.  I don't keep change. It's heavy! But here, not only did the locker demand change, there was no change machine. A local Family Mart was accommodating and apparently used to it. I also picked up enough change for the bus. 

It was very windy but not too rainy then, though rain would return with torrential abandon just when I was ready to return. The boats were not running, and I don't blame them. It was certainly too windy and nasty for small craft to be noodling about unless their services were essential. One of the boats is a ferry, but it wasn't going anywhere, either. A bus goes to the same destinations; it just takes longer.

Many people don't like aquariums. That's understandable when many are purely entertainment venues. But in Japan, the ones I have seen are research facilities that maintain exhibits to educate the public on their missions and provide some funding for their projects. Everything's very well done and the animals beautifully cared for. The Deep Sea Aquarium in Numazu is one such facility, taking advantage of its location to plumb the enormous depths of Suruga Bay to learn more about the Bay and those who live there, and even discover new species, one as recently as January, 2021.

They also have a specialty in coelacanths, though to be long extinct, discovered in 1938 to still exist by Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, a South African museum curator who was called to look at the by-catch of a commercial fishing vessel. She knew she was seeing something extraordinary, and made sure it was called to the attention of the world scientific community. Since then, humans have discovered this fish to be happily living and swimming (there are even films!) off the coast of Africa to this day. Why Japan became so intensely involved, I do not know, but they certainly are and their research program is remarkably well outlined and explained. 

The exhibit tanks replicate the environments the creatures come from, including low light conditions when appropriate. Flash photography is not permitted and in some areas no photography is possible at all.

This pretty little crab lives just about everywhere. They have the enormous Spider Crabs, and others, too.

Why, yes, that is a fish.

The staff take excellent care of exhibits. Here, an octopus was getting lunch.

Seahorses, because, well, seahorses.

I love the little sand eels. They are so cute and smart and responsive. They also make great mascots and appear on every imaginable bit of merchandise, including appropriately curved body pillows.

Here is Professor Coelacanth. Can you see his glasses? All the real stuffed, dried and even frozen specimens were amazing, but in containers that reflected light and could not be photographed. 

Many of the specimens on display are obtained as by-catch from commercial fishing boats, especially deep water ones. They try to keep any such specimens alive, take care of them and keep them in a good, happy environment to study them. Look up the Flapjack Octopus. They're so darned cute the aquarium is desperate to exhibit them, and continue work on creating an environment for them, as they are a deeper water species. They do not go looking for them but study them as best they can when they turn up. You can buy plush ones (at least 5 sizes), a T-shirt, key chains, hats, towels, paper goods (I succumbed to a notepad), refrigerator magnets and goodness knows what all else. The staff say that they rotate the exhibits, so no individuals have to deal with human observers too much. But not the Flapjack Octopus. The one you'll see in a tank is a model.

This is the new species discovered in January of 2021 in Suruga Bay. 

Since this is Japan, we have a lighted, LEGO, Colecanth. Just because.