Friday, December 16, 2022

Food Ways/Holidays

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.

From an End of Year party, where mochi is made by hand, in this picture by sumo wrestlers. It was delicious.

This group of traditional singers performed original music, wonderfully. These parties can be a great time; this one certainly was.

Solstice, or Toji, is celebrated in Japan, but while that is celebrated, often with a long, hot bath with yuzu (an aromatic citrus) and onsen visits, and people also eat Japanese pumpkin to warm the body and soul and stave off colds, it's a quiet festivity.  It is the start of the ramp-up to New Year's, which is the huge winter celebration that involves family visits, ceremonies at Temples and Shrines, travel, cards mailed at special rates and astoundingly delivered on New Year's Day, and every bit of holiday fun one might imagine. 

Japan's unique version of Christmas falls right in here. It's not a holiday, but the traditional meal is Kentucky Fried Chicken, and a Victoria Sponge Cake with hot-house strawberries.  Sometimes, there's a buche de Noel. Small toys might be given to little children in a new adaptation. Since the Colonel wears a Santa suit, it kind of makes sense. It's a great date night. Japan does love a party.

For solar New Year's, of course, there is lots and lots of food, ordered a month or more in advance. Osechi ryori, it's called, and many of the dishes are symbolic, including soup, mochi, vegetables and seafood. 

But I wanted traditional-to-me food, and today I was able to go to the store as part of running some errands. My haul will let me make a chestnut dressing casserole, probably with apple in it as well as fu (Japanese wheat gluten protein), a pear salad, roasted potatoes (with the same gravy I'll make for the dressing)  and a sweet potato roasted at the store that will need no embellishment at all. 

The fabulous Punk-Doily bakery has sent me a few traditional-for-me desserts in individual portions, and the entire meal will be spread, happily, over at least a week.

Food ways are part of our cultural heritages and our cultural traditions, associated with holidays, celebrations and fun. I'm very glad I can make some of mine again this year. 

Happy holidays, everybody.


Sunday, December 4, 2022

More Nikko

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. 

It's hard to explain the allure of the steam trains (or the special sightseeing trains even if they aren't the old-fashioned steam ones). The operators do magic things to keep the pollution down, I understand, so you don't really have to worry about that, but the trains do have the old fashioned steam whistles and billow steam out in the best Hogwart's Express tradition. 

Once you ride one, you understand the attraction. They are great fun! Everybody smiles! People on the platforms take pictures. Children dance about, nearly bursting with excitement! As you pass office buildings, on the way out of town, people come to the windows and wave. The crew point out scenic vistas, and the trains usually slow to allow for views and photos. Any time you pass a station, people on the platforms wave. People on the route come out of their houses. Farmers stop what they're doing in the fields. People at road crossings get out of their cars.  Everybody waves. Everybody smiles.

Before you know it, you're smiling, too. You smile every single time you see one of these great attractions and ride one whenever you can. Not to be missed, I promise.

At Kinugawa Onsen, there's a public foot bath in the square outside the station. There's a lot of walking and hiking in the area, so your feet might long for this, but it's fun just to pull off your shoes and socks, roll up your trousers and settle in to enjoy a hot spring while watching the world go by.

Like this Golden Oni does. This statue is the official welcoming committee, just outside the station doors. How can you go wrong with a Golden Oni?

While the train to Nikko is very nice and Nikko is only a couple of hours from Tokyo, the vastness of Tokyo means that getting to that train can take longer than getting to Nikko itself. 

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. 

I found my holiday cactus readying itself for its second major bloom, and if you look very carefully, you can see the tiniest buds preparing for the third bloom!  It also has some new progeny outdoors that are also preparing to bloom. Those were grown from pieces broken from this mother plant last year. I am shocked that they are going to bloom at all! 

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!


Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Guerrilla Gardening

The very first time I came to Japan, I noticed that almost every odd piece of land I saw had been claimed by someone who planted something on it, in the dirt or in a pot.

This is particularly wonderful in industrial areas, by train tracks, in little bits of corners by driveways. There are train tracks about a block away from my apartment. I can't hear the trains unless I am outside in my own tiny garden and they're not loud then. I haven't been surprised to see areas that have been carefully planted by adjacent residents or at street ends.

It's guerrilla gardening, and I love it. Now, and this is very much an Only In Japan thing, it's organized! In the little pocket park across the street, some beds have been set aside for public use. Please do plant here. You can even call this number and they'll suggest suitable plants and even give you little starter pots for your seedlings. I've seen this in other tiny parks along my regular routes. It's new this year. 

These are in the "official" area.

So are several of these, like somebody was moving and needed a home for houseplants.

This is in a side border area, not "official," but people plant here anyway. I am not sure what it is though it resembles cotton. 

From my yard: a lily making new bulbs! It'll take them a while to get to blooming size, but this is a start.

In my little garden, various plants are going to seed (or something) and I have some extra seeds in my gardening storage container, which is breaking from UV exposure and I will need to clear out when I do my fall clean up. The building gardeners will come at the first of December. I like to get my part done before they do.

A lily seed pod. I have dill seeds, too, from a friend. Dill is an annual but will self-seed! I may have some other herbs. They're still working on it.

 I'll have plenty of fun not only increasing what's in my personal little bit of Tokyo, but also joining the crowd as a guerrilla gardener: making plants blossom in any little bit of available land.  How very Japanese. How very wonderful!

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

A poem I found


Sometimes I write poetry. Sometimes I like it. Here's one I found looking for something else. I've been reading Basho. Can't you tell? That's his traveling gear, or close to it, above.

Sunday, October 9, 2022

We're OPEN!

As of October 11, 2022, the get-it-on-arrival tourist visa is once more available to most foreigners who can show proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test. No more tour guides. Caps are lifted. Free-range tourism is now on the agenda. 

A stone lantern, refurbished with red paint and a coat of autumn moss, before an old temple.

During the nearly three years that Japan has been effectively closed due to COVID, Japan has not been standing still.

Fall colors coming. See the fruit?

Renovations continue apace and expand. Think you know Harajuku? Not any more. Takanawa Gateway is an entirely new station on the Yamanote Line. You won't recognize Shibuya, though it may be easier to find your way around. There's a new and very nice museum (we all know I like museums) in Yoyogi Park. Japan didn't stop; it barely slowed down: it just went to work moving forward and incidentally getting ready for all of you to come back. 

The availability of Mexican, other interesting foreign and even vegan/vegetarian food has exploded. While Indian is always your friend, with Italian coming in second, there is so much more available now, and it's not always in Student-Land or Gaijin Ghettos! It's even in the grocery store, and more culinary variety is available every day. 

Shopping? Of course there is shopping! It's a national sport! Wonderful existing boutiques are spreading out new and exiting wares. New stores are opening! New products abound. New methods of high-tech marketing and purchasing are everywhere. Fashion? Heck, yeah.

A sign of autumn: an autumnalis flowering cherry with its fall show.

And here are some kaki -- persimmons -- almost ripe, coming to my neighborhood grocery soon!

A winter-blooming camellia, just a little early. 

A lone azalea that thinks it's spring.

And moss, on an old stone wall, running rampant in the rain. 

People who come for pilgrimages to Taisekiji have beloved memories and cherished visions of their past experiences. They miss the opportunities to come every year or so, and I am sure they can't wait to get back. I know people who are coming in November, more in December, and this is just going to increase as things get back to normal, though "normal" is going to be a little different. While I really do love doing my best to take people along with me -- metaphorically, of course -- out of sheer gratitude for the opportunity to be here and to go on these pilgrimages, people are going to be surprised. 

Normal has changed. Many things are not like you remember them. Renovations are everywhere! Buildings people remember have been replaced with new and modern or meticulous restorations. There are all kinds of  new signs designed -- sometimes hilariously -- to make sense of things for gaijin. Paths that were closed are now open. There's a new self-guided tour system available. That must have taken forever to design and implement: press a button and it speaks. With a QR code and an app (of course) it will do it in your language. QR codes and apps are everywhere, for everything.

Because of COVID, Japan has largely replaced its cash-only-everything with on-line alternatives in a concerted move away from Filthy Lucre.  I always get my train tickets on line now; I get a discount that way.  Machines that take your money (or card) and give you change abound -- even my dentist has one. 

No, you can't yet stay on Temple grounds. Many services remain closed to the public. Transportation is rocky, unless you have a private car or come with a group of friends. I end up running -- not my forte, in dress shoes -- for ceremonies and buses, because cabs are simply extremely expensive. I can't wander; I try hard to grab photos but am not always successful. 

Temple schedules have been adjusted and made uniform across Japan -- this is something that I don't think will change, but I expect will increase, though I have no way of knowing. Yesterday, it was the second Sunday, and now all Temples hold their Oko (ceremonies of appreciation, with lecture) on that day. That's just one example. The Hoando was as full as they're letting it get -- so nice. I went into the Miedo for the first time in a very long time, and was extremely happy to be there.

The mountain hid all weekend; it mostly rained. I was fortunate to get even a glimpse!

Things will be changing again, and my personal pilgrimages will change, too. I'll just have to see what happens. I don't always find things out in advance. I may end up having to rent cars (I did get that license for a reason) and coming less often to avoid the stress of running for busses and being able to afford the trips. I don't know. But I'm going to find out. And I'm going to make it work.

Temperature checks, hand hygiene, social distancing and masks will remain the norm. Be grateful you can come and suck it up.  

I am grateful you can come, too. 


Sunday, September 25, 2022

Finding Your People

One of the great things about Japan is that, no matter how obscure your interests, there will be groups and clubs that support it. 

Like steam trains? Ferry boats? Fishing for BIG fish? Fishing for TINY fish? Raising beautiful fish? Hiking? Cooking in infinite permutations? Climbing? Go? Variations on gardening? Bridge? Competitive  chrysanthemum growing? Watercolors? Saxophone practice with strangers in parks (since this instrument, in particular, cannot be played into head phones for non-neighbor-annoying practice sessions)? ANYTHING you can think of, there will be other people who enjoy it and all you have to do is seek them out. 

Many of a subset of MY people, the boat-ride loving types, rode ferries from Nagoya to Tomokami and back with me last week, taking advantage of the Silver Week holiday despite two typhoons and lots of pouring rain.

 A large group brought their motorcycles. One of my cabin-mates, I saw -- recognizing her from her helmet -- has a particularly slick BMW, street-legal but with nice fat tires. When we boarded in Tomokami, in the pouring rain, the motorcyclists were all just soaked and miserable looking. Not a week for motorcycling, though some days were nice enough. By the time we returned to Nagoya, it was lovely out, of course, and they roared off, dried, laundered (there is a coin laundry on board) warmly soaked in the Grand Baths (Sentos with sea views; everybody loves them) and well fed (the buffets in the restaurant were sumptuous, even for me, though some people prefer to bring cup-noodle type provender) and seemingly quite content. 

A sister-ship of the ferry I came in on, possibly the one I went out on. There are three that ply this route in turn. They are not identical, but pretty close. They are cargo ships, but also have some room for boat-loving passengers, including campers, bikers, car drivers and more, in addition to the people who drive the container-carrying trucks that form most of their cargo. 

The beach where I took the boat photo. Beach walking was something I've been wanting to do all summer. Grey, drizzly days reminded me of the Oregon coast. In fact, this whole area reminds me of the northern Oregon coast and I like it very much. 

The promenade above the waterline features stone mosaics at regular intervals, like this one.

And plenty of interesting flowers. I didn't recognize this one. Also huge brambles of wild roses that, now, simply sport their autumn rose hips.

One very wet day I went to the Upopoy Ainu Museum and Park. It's new, and because of interior restrictions and exterior rain, I don't have photos, but it is worth the trip. It was very crowded due to a new exhibit. It is truly a superb museum with cultural experiences and a model villages available. It preserves art, language, culture, music and dance. The connections with the peoples on the West Coast of North America are not only there, but shown. Definitely worth the trip, and plan on two days.

The nature reserve I wanted to visit was not open on a day when it wasn't pouring, so I went to Noboribetsu instead. A hot spring resort with significant volcanic activity, it's the location of one of the Gates of Hell -- there are several -- which are guarded by Oni. Oni might be demons or might be something else. It's where Kukanko's people from The Oni's Shamisen migrated. 

Kukanko herself is sure they are not demons, and explains a bit about how their legends might have arisen. She, however, wants to play the Shamisen, not guard the gates of hell. Oni are everywhere here, and I had fun when I was here before taking pictures showing fierce ones, cute one, hungry ones, cuddly ones, Oni in every imaginable permutation.

This is Emma, King of the Underworld and judge of the dead. Here, it is sort of an amalgamation between Shinto and some variations of assorted Buddhist afterlives. Emma is more or less Buddhist, but this is a Shinto Shrine. Conveniently, it is coin-operated. You can get fortunes and other things, simply by inserting coins in the machines. He lights up! He looks fierce! He says things! People -- and there were people around, though I saw no foreign tourists  -- seem to enjoy mechanical Shinto. Shinto is both taken seriously as "the way things work" and not-seriously, as indicated by King Emma, above. But, yes, this is a real shrine. You can approach it more conventionally through a path to the side leading to the more usual part in the back.

And here we have fall colors. I really came for a taste of autumn, which won't fully manifest in Tokyo until October to November. Here, back home, it's a lovely day (of course) and any typhoon damage in my neighborhood seems to have already been rectified. It's even warm, but low 80s, not 90s, and I plan to enjoy it!

As of October 11, you can, too. The tourist-visa-on-arrival program is reinstated as of that date. Entry caps are lifted. So you can start planning now! Welcome back!


Thursday, September 8, 2022

A Little Break and Time at Sea

 It's been nearly a month since I typed "THE END." After a week of errands and what-nots, I reread, rewrote and sent the manuscript of The Reluctant Dragon off for a first read. I've done a lot of errands and catching up since then. I've had some work done on my apartment. I did some major garden work yesterday, and today I added the latest (and really nice) reviews of The Oni's Shamisen to Amazon and updated the website, adding some new award badges (YES!) and a new picture that isn't too bad. 

I'll get this out and then go run a couple of errands connected with something I've wanted and needed for quite a while: I get to take a real break. I'm going on a boat ride.

The longest ferry ride Japan has to offer goes from Nagoya via Sendai to Tomokamai on Hokkaido. It's 40 hours -- an evening and morning, two nights and a full day in between! The boats are different on this run so I reserved not a capsule cabin but a slightly larger version I think I'm going to like. There are Grand Baths (with views!) and I got the meal plan, which should work out well for picky me, since it's all buffet.

I'll spend some time in Hokkaido visiting the new Ainu museum and culture center and at least one Nature Reserve -- this one about migratory birds -- and doing I don't know what all else.

Silver Week is the third week of September, with with 19th and 23rd both holidays. This year, those are a Monday and a Friday, and just like Golden Week in May, people who can do so grab a few vacation days to bootstrap a vacation. 

Of course, I didn't think of that when I made my plans or my boat reservations, so the hotel thing was iffy and dubious, and I have to switch once. The main location is near the docks in Tomokamai, and I still haven't had time to really look for everything to see around there.  My interest in the connections between the Ainu culture and the culture of the Alaska and North Coast natives of north America continues, and I know that will be interesting; it's close by, too. I like nature. I like migratory birds and there should be some at the nearby Nature Reserve. What else there might be, I'll have to find out.

Mostly I am looking forward to the boat, which I am taking both ways. I have a couple of actual hard copy books to read as I look forward to the NEXT book, and even the NEXT series, because I am always thinking of what comes next.

This time, it'll be some R & R!

This one is for The Oni's Shamisen. The Shadows of War got one of these, too. 

This one is for The Oni's Shamisen. I have several of those -- I think for every book I have submitted to them, but it's nice to show it off.

This beautiful statue of dragons in love is located in Bulgaria. They aren't my dragons, though they do look like my Western dragons, more or less, except their wings aren't large enough. But they aren't reluctant, and, like mine, in love, they get a happy ending!


Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Seventy in Japan -- Still Having Fun.

    Today is my 70th birthday. That is a pretty scary number, though I don't feel any differently than I did at 60. I'm older -- I have joked with some of my friends that this is the year we go from being "older" ladies to "old" ladies.

    I'm fortunate in that I'm healthy and seem to be getting healthier. Maybe it's all the walking, though I have always exercised and continue to do so outside of the constant and required walking. All my old injuries are manifesting traumatic arthritis, and I seem unable to convince my knees to improve no matter what I do, which does not bode well for possible future skiing. 

    In Japan, one gets goodies for getting old. Some don't kick in until I am 75 but there are a couple of others that start now. I got an envelope of coupons from Ota-ku and discovered that I get discounts at various hair salons! Only a couple of times a year, but, hey, that's nice! I'll be going in to get my Silver Pass, which, for a small fee, will let me ride various bus lines for free. I'm looking forward to exploring the bus lines. I know they're out there, but I haven't been using them. I've been using trains almost exclusively, but there are hints that sometimes buses might be more convenient.

    Then there is the bath house pass!  Woohoo! This gives me discounts at my neighborhood (and other) onsen! Half price! 

    I think there are more benefits to aging that aren't necessarily confined to Japan, but I'll find those as I go along. For now, these are pretty darned good. 

And this is what I look like. Not too bad for an old lady.

Monday, August 1, 2022

Five Years Flown

    On August 2, 2017, I set a match to the last metaphorical bridge and stepped onto an airplane to come to Japan. I didn't have a job, and I didn't want one. I didn't have a residence visa but a brand new section of the immigration code gave me hope for one, only I had to file for it while in Japan. 

    I had three suitcases. I had a couple of boxes and my skis to come after me. My plan was to return for my cat or have a family member bring him in connection with a pilgrimage. I didn't really burn every last one of my bridges; I think my family still likes me. I still like them, anyway. They still have some few things I'd need to set up a place to live somewhere if Japan kicks me out. They decided to keep my cat, who, admittedly, is much happier there with a house and a yard, other pets and several humans. Here, he'd have a Tiny Tokyo Apartment and me. How incredibly boring.

    It took forever for my visa to be granted: eight months, to be precise. I had to go to Korea twice, for a total of some eight weeks, if I recall. And I wrote much of a book in a hotel room with no window. The stress levels were red-lining. But I did get the visa, first of its kind. Good for one year. I dealt with discrimination in trying to get an apartment: no job, so no employer to stand up for me, only a single year visa, and of course I am a foreigner. 

    In  a short time, I moved to a better apartment, owned by the same owner (I like her a lot; a real benefit) and I have a tiny garden. But because of all this nonsense, going back to the US even for a short visit was out of the question. Especially since my visa presumes I will write and publish a book every year. This, I'll have you know, is not easy. Books do not write themselves in the middle of the night. The Shoemaker's Brownies don't come and publish them while I sleep.

   Buddhism is my huge, main, personal reason for my being here, though I don't think Immigration cares about that. Still, I am involved in my Temple and go there often. When I can. I make pilgrimages to Taisekiji monthly. When I can. (See: COVID, below.)

    Then there is the whole Settling In part of moving to another land, one that speaks a language in which my capabilities are improving, but still not fluent, and which thrives on bureaucracy, requiring going here, there and somewhere else, and filling out tons of forms in the language I kind of speak, read a bit, but absolutely do not write. Much of this must happen on an annual basis.

    I made a trip to Hokkaido in connection with a book I was writing, and was there when COVID hit. It hit in Hokkaido first, and it was terrifying. This disease was killing people and nobody knew anything about it. I got back safely, but for months I could barely leave my apartment. Nobody could. Nobody could leave Japan, and nobody could get in. Permanent residents who happened to be abroad when the boarder closures happened were stuck. Nobody was going anywhere but the grocery store or out for a little exercise. Even the Temples were closed for a while.

    Then I broke a vertebrae while repairing my electric assist bike. Note to self: do not lift anything heavy and twist at the same time. That was also...not fun. 

    Finally, we got vaccines, and you bet I am getting them the instant I get my coupons from the local health authority. Japan doesn't just slavishly imitate other countries when it comes to public health. They do their own thing, and they seem to do it very well. 

    Incrementally, the borders are kind of opening. But I can't leave with any assurance that I could get back in, not with that one-year visa and virus variants happily mutating. And nobody who doesn't have some special urgent familial or business need can come in.  My family and friends can't come for pilgrimages or simply to visits. Not just yet. 

    As of August 2, 2022, it's been five years since I came to Japan.  My birthday's next week so I have to brave bureaucracy to go change a bunch of registries and apply for what should be benefits. I write books, I travel domestically, and I seem to get healthier. I got a driver's license last fall. That was not easy. I am plotting and scheming to figure out how to get a longer visa because, yes, I want to stay. 

    I can't believe it's been that long and at the same time I can't believe I ever lived anywhere else. It's taking a while but I am learning how to live here. I have also signed up for a class so I can finally learn kanji, so I can effectively read. Sadly, the advent of translation apps has meant I can't just acquire this knowledge by living, which is how I acquire most of my advancing language skills. 

    Very soon, I hope, my family and friends will be able to come here for pilgrimages and holidays, that driving ceases terrifying me (WRONG SIDE! YIKES!) and I finally figure out my garden's preferred crops and growing seasons. 

    I want to show you my Japan.    

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

The Neighborhood Onsen and My New Toy: A PSA

     The neighborhoods where I've lived in Tokyo have been fortunate enough to have actual onsen. Subsidized by public funds, they provide low cost (400 - 500 yen) lovely hot springs experiences, with the water reputedly good for various ailments and sometimes specifically beneficial for skin.


Use authorized by Romeo A, photographer. Not my neighborhood onsen!

    Some do have outdoor baths, and some even have views, though not usually ones in the middle of town. They are enjoyable, relaxing, and people frequent them as part of their regular lives, for entertainment and even as family outings.

    But in the age of COVID, I haven't been to my neighborhood onsen in a fairly long while, contenting myself with the swimming pool sized "Grand Baths" (with fabulous ocean views) on various ferries, which have been deserted, again due to COVID. I've been missing it.

    Furthermore, I've been having dreadful problems with dry skin and falling hair. Apparently, this is not unusual for foreigners in Japan. I've asked about the water from the beginning and been told it's perfectly drinkable and it doesn't taste badly at all. Tokyo Tap is quite palatable. 

    What it is, though, I've more or less just discovered, is full of chlorine and very hard. I've bought special products, got cream from the doctor, asked the dentist and at just a couple of weeks away from five years here have had no real solution.

    Finally, though, I was perusing an expat group that was discussing this very issue and several people said the answer was not a dermatologist or an endocrinologist. It wasn't the presence of some dread disease or the need to order wildly expensive products from afar, but to buy a water filter for your shower! Best 1800 yen I've spent in a long while.

    I haven't had my new water filter long enough to gauge its effect on my hair but the effect on my skin was immediate and fabulous. I love it and will never be without one again, and I have high hopes that the fall of hair will diminish, though it will never cease as humans do shed. 

    The few friends I've told about this have all acted like I must a little slow to not have tumbled to this before, or deduced it from the outset by osmosis or something. I mean, the doctor? The dentist? Who I actually asked? So in that respect this is a PSA. Get a water filter for your home shower! Immediately!

    One of the things that is common at an onsen is women washing their usually long hair. Of course, everyone washes their bodies before entering the hot spring bath, but now that I think about it, everyone also washes her hair. Presumably the fellows do it, too, but the bathing parts of onsen are segregated, even if occasionally, in rural areas, the hot spring tubs aren't, so I've never seen boy bathing.

    I wonder if many women don't frequent their neighborhood onsen for the specific purpose of washing their hair. Many people are regulars, sometimes with lockers, often with discount ticket books, with their own towels (you can rent them, but that costs) and little baskets or bags of their own toiletries, though shampoo, conditioner and soap are provided.  

    Since I enjoy the onsen experience, I thought they just liked it! Even though onsen are inexpensive, it's cheaper to wash at home, and just about everybody nowadays has a shower, tub and hot water, though that didn't used to be the case. Now, with my newfound knowledge of the dangers of regular municipal water for skin and hair, my eyes have been opened! It's not just for fun that they come! They also want to use the advantages of the hot spring water to benefit their creamy skin and glorious, flowing, long hair.


Use authorized by Remi Thorei, photographer. Not my neighborhood onsen! 

    I hope that soon I can comfortably return to my neighborhood onsen, and not leave half a head of broken hair behind! And I hope that very soon you will be able to come along.

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

What Comes Next?

     I killed somebody today. In fact, I killed two somebodies, and I think I'll kill a couple more before this book is done. 

    No, they aren't real people. They're characters. I'm about halfway through this book, and I am about to get massively interrupted for about ten days, which will wreak havoc on my progress as I will have to spend a couple of days reading from the beginning so I remember what's going on. This is a book, remember, not a short story. I hope these interruptions won't lead to more and drag this out over several more months. I would like to get outside.

    My planned early August trip is off for now--I can't have another lengthy interruption--and I don't know what will happen to my planned fall trip. I have to get this done. Then I can have a little break, will need a break, before a re-read and rewrite, and more things that will lead to publication. 

    I thought Steam Bath Summer would be the best time to write, since I don't want to go out any more than I need to, but now....

    People really don't understand what writing a book takes. I will spend three to four hours a day trying to figure out what's going on (and can do nothing else but think) and another three to four hours a day writing it. I have no days off. Any interruption means a significant delay and I have to go back and reread. There is a real sense of urgency, of necessity to go forward and fall into the book's world to suss out the story. 

    All to figure out the elusive What Comes Next?  That's Stephen King's phrase. He's incredibly prolific because he is incredibly disciplined. He doesn't monkey around. He goes to his office and asks this question. It's what you have to ask when you get stuck, when you run into a wall, when you don't know where to go. You have to figure out What Comes Next?  Only when you know that can you write it down. 

    And that's where I am at. I have a strong idea of some of the things that need to happen, a vague idea of others, but I don't know it all. The characters will need to tell me, and that means I have to be quiet and listen to them in their time and place. 

    What has come next in my little garden, though, is the last of the lilies. There are eight blooms on the stems in this post. I hope that what comes next is not a typhoon!

Friday, July 1, 2022

Gentle, Everyday, Horror: Life Ceremony by Sayaka Murata

    Sayaka Murata's Life Ceremony is her new collection of short stories released by Grove in English on July 5, 2022. I asked where and when I could get it and scored an ARC without even asking for it. 

    When you get an ARC, you don't promise anything. You get a book, and the publisher hope you'll review it, honestly, wherever you can, but you do not commit to it reviewing at all, and your review must be honest.  

    In Life Ceremony, Murata skillfully draws the reader in with a gentle normalcy, a quirky point of view that is very often funny. Then the story skews sideways, and the horror creeps in. This often might be mental illness or might be paranormal, but that is not apparent to the narrator, who always perceives her actions and views as not only normal but superior. 

    Extending its web through the everyday thoughts of the first-person narrators, the horrific seems normal, even reasonable until it twists away again and you're left to wonder what is real and what is not; what is sane and what is not; and what, even, constitutes evil.

    Murata's writing is hard to categorize. Literary? Women's Fiction? Magical Realism? Horror? Does it matter?  Life Ceremony, like all of Murata's work to date, is disturbing, unsettling and wonderful. Highly recommended.

    Of note is that this book was translated from the original Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori. I read it in English because my Japanese isn't up to literature yet, though I'm working on it. The translation is superb. It keeps the cadence and flow of the Japanese language and the world in which the characters live. This deft and expert touch adds to the quality and value of this edition. Yes, you want to read this book. 



Tuesday, June 7, 2022

The Experience

    Jimi Hendrix called his band The Experience because you had to be there. It wasn't something that could be explained. You had to listen. 

    I was there. I did listen. What Hendrix did for (and to) music is permanent. I could explain the revolutionary nature of his talent and ability for hours but the only way I can truly do so is to call up the recordings and turn up the sound. You have to be there.

    Every month, more or less, I go on a pilgrimage to the Head Temple of Nichiren Shoshu, Taisekiji. The pilgrimage is called "Tozan," an actual pun because "tozan" means to climb the mountain -- the mountain we climb is the mountain of enlightenment. This shocked me when I first discovered it because I didn't think Japan and the Japanese were into linguistic jokes and puns. Of course, I was wrong.

    While there we may participate in a ceremony called Gokaihi. It is only done at Taisekiji and can only be done at Taisekiji. Only Nichiren Shoshu members may participate. Nichiren Shoshu members come as often as they can and wish to, capacity permitting, but the goal is to come annually.

My lilies. We, too, will bloom. 

     Right now, due to COVID, there are members around the world who long to come and participate in this ceremony, but they can't. I make offering on their behalf because I am conscious of my great privilege to live in Japan and be able to go often. There are the people I know well, the people I know slightly, and the people I don't know at all. I commend them all, in the hope and expectation that they will be able to come on their own, very soon. And I let them know that, in the hope it will touch their souls.

    I have even suggested that people could, if they wished, participate "remotely" as it were. That's utterly unofficial and I have no idea if it works, and it really isn't the same, but anything that gets people practicing a little more can't hurt, especially since so many people everywhere, from all faiths and traditions, in all nations, are having difficulties right now. 

    But I can't explain any of this. Oh, there are words. Go check out for a repository of material that has all the words in several languages. I can't do better except to point out that there are "translations conventions" that really are not accurate at all. We do not "worship." We have no "deity." We do not "pray." We practice a practice that leads to enlightenment. Remember that some words don't mean what you've always thought they meant, and you'll do fine. 

    I work with words. I've done that all my life. But this is something for which I have no words. This is something that must be experienced. You have to practice, and the practice itself will teach you in ways for which I have never found words. Seek enlightenment, and it will find you. Then you can come to Taisekiji and experience Gokaihi and know you have found what you have always sought.  

Taisekiji means "Big Rock Temple." Here's the rock, where Nikko Shonin, Nichiren Daishonin's direct successor, appointed by Nichiren Daishonin in authentic writings I have seen, lectured. You can see the path anyone who wanted to get to the top of the rock must take. It's real. It's here. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

The Fires of Edo


    I love reading books about Japan. Especially when they get it right. Susan Spann always gets it right. Her history is accurate. Her culture is on target. Her lore is superb.

    She also knows how to write a very tight mystery novel that twists and turns and deftly drifts red herrings across your path. Father Mateo, Iga shinobi Hattori Hiro, Ana-the-housekeeper and Gato-the-cat have come to Oda Nobunaga's Edo on a mission that isn't really theirs and fall into a mystery--their eighth outing--that will keep you up past your bedtime.

    If you like mysteries, if you like Japan and enjoy being transported to a different space and time, you'll enjoy this series and this book and look forward, as I do, to these characters' next outing.

    Here's the Amazon link so you can get your own copy:

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Welcome Back!

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

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

I needed a flower!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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