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 www.nst.org 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:

https://www.amazon.com/Fires-Edo-Shinobi-Mystery-Book-ebook/dp/B09841N1M1

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!


Wednesday, May 11, 2022

The Music of Flowing Water



    Taiseki-ji, the Head Temple of Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism, is located in the foothills of Mt. Fuji. The original land grant is huge; the grounds are enormous. Now, Taiseki-ji sits in the apex of a triangle formed by a National Park and a Provincial Park. Highways provide convenient, though often crowded, access.
    The location is remote so the Temple grounds remain intact except for the occasional road. This walkway was first constructed in the late 1200s and has since been expanded. The original stones remain in the center. Subsidiary Temples, called "bo," housing some of the priests who work in the various offices and departments necessary for running a major world religion, and also dating back to Taiseki-ji's founding in, officially, 1290, line this path.


    Since it's in the foothills, Taiseki-ji is naturally built on a slope. Since it's in Japan, there's a lot of runoff from snow and rain, draining eventually into a river that bisects the Temple grounds and ultimately empties into the sea. Since this is Japan, the runoff is neatly and expertly contained and controlled. Charmingly, the occasional plant that might line a natural stream will be carefully maintained so it can flourish.


These stone bridges mark the entrances to the various "bo," and the lanterns, lit for festivals, illuminate the gates. 

    This fountain seems to contain a spring that rises from the front of the Mieido, a seriously gorgeous, highly historic and nationally Listed building, spilling over the edges to be contained, running underground to join a stream cascading through the grounds. It has a twin on the other side of the entry, beyond which the stream itself tumbles over an artistic jumble of rocks.

    That stream, as far as I can determine, will eventually, via waterfalls, fill the pond in this fabulous garden.

    This pond, and the streams lining the stone path, are periodically drained for maintenance and repair. Of course. This is Japan, and this is Taiseki-ji. The care is meticulous, just as is the care the army of landscapers and gardeners pay to every single plant.

    I have seen this pond drained before, at the height of summer, for a few days at time, with the stream feeding it somehow diverted. This winter, however, it was drained for a couple of months, during the driest of seasons, as what looked like major maintenance took place. Moreover, the streams lining the stone path were drained, too. While there was never anybody around to ask exactly what was being done (due to COVID, not many people are allowed to visit at any given time, no visitors can stay on Temple grounds, and residents keep their careful distance amid every possible and sensible precaution) it was obvious that what was happening was major. I saw the occasional large machine in the pond, I think set up to clear the channels. I saw fresh cement repair cracks, sometimes around the rocks in bottom of streams.

    And then, just recently, I saw that the repairs were complete! The pond was full. The falls cascaded. The streams gurgled. I was delighted.

    It could be said that I'm a little slow sometimes. I've been coming to Taiseki-ji for thirty years come August. I always thought those rocks were visually decorative, placed to fool the eye with the appearance of natural streams.

    This time I realized something different. The water didn't just create music with its flow, the music was a carefully planned part of the art that goes into these wonderful grounds. It changed and harmonized as I passed on the long walk up the hill.


    This time, I listened as much as I looked. Buddhist practice is a continuing thing. It's not a one-and-done. It's a practice that we undertake every single day to manifest our innate enlightenment. It's not always easy to do that, but we are advised to keep it up, that Buddhahood lies in the continuation, in having faith like flowing water, in never giving up. Here, the masterfully designed music of the waters conspires to continually remind us of that.



     It looks like Japan will shortly ease restrictions on "tourist" visas, and that means these grounds can once again explode with the laughter and conversation of all the people who have wanted to come here on pilgrimage trips from overseas and have not been able to do so, adding to Taiseki-ji's music. I will rejoice to hear it. I hope you can come soon!


Saturday, April 30, 2022

Japan, Germs and a Cashless Society

    When I first started coming to Japan, some thirty years ago, I was warned that I would need cash. Lots of cash. Cards were practically unheard of -- you just couldn't use them except maybe sometimes at big hotels in Tokyo or Osaka, which guaranteed you huge foreign transaction fees and lousy exchange rates.

    Banking here was strange, with banks far away from me no matter where I was and they were generally useless as the ones in Japan didn't speak to any of the ones in the US. The American Express Office would be my best and only friend if anything untoward happened, as long as I could get there during their business hours -- so be sure to keep a secret stash of cash to make certain that was possible.

    Trading American Express Traveller's Cheques for yen at an airport bank branch would get me the very most bang for my buck, as long as I could get the Traveller's Cheques for free. 

    When I moved here, almost five years ago now, I still used cash for everything. That was normal.  

    But there has been a change. Some of it's due to COVID. Money is dirty. Everybody knows that. Hands are covered in germs. We started sanitizing our hands all the time, all over the place and still do. I have tiny bottles and packets of hand sanitizer in all my bags. Sanitizer stations are at the entrances to everywhere, along with new temperature-taking tech that improves every week. And people stopped using cash.

    This first became apparent when a store clerk proudly showed me that he didn't actually have touch filthy lucre any more. He'd scan my items but then I'd push a few buttons, stick money in a machine and get my change and a receipt back. In addition to being clean, which everybody here loves, this appeals enormously to the national passion for accuracy. These machines have sprouted up all over, even in my dentist's office, where the receptionist hands me the handwritten bill and I shove cash for my share into the magic machine! How convenient! How accurate! How clean! Some stores have come up with self-checkout sections, but mostly human cashiers scan your purchases and (tidily, with great precision) put them in a basket so you can transfer them to your own cart or carrier. Since bags started costing, to reduce plastic waste, nobody buys a bag anymore. We bring.

    Interestingly, the use of cards has become more widespread, too. People don't want to handle that dirty cash any more if they can help it, and they've discovered cards are dirty, too! I finally gave in and activated the Wallet function on my phone a few days ago, so I could use my Japanese credit card as a points card particularly. It's paid by magic from my bank account, and I thought it might be convenient to have it in my Wallet. Those points do add up.

    I have also had a Suica card for many years. I think of it as my train card, and that's mostly what I use it for, but it can also be used to make small purchases, even from vending machines. It holds a balance up to 20,000 yen and it's easy to charge at any station or convenience store. Following the example of a friend who managed it from London, I just transferred mine to the Wallet function on my phone two days ago.

     Then, yesterday, I got another new card: a Rakutan/Edy card for shopping, specifically. I don't shop much, but when one was offered me, I took it, just to check it out. It holds 50,000 yen, so I can top it off periodically almost anywhere or even (if I'm brave enough to try another Japanese web site) arrange for it top itself off via my JCB card. It will give me points and those do, eventually, add up. I will no doubt add this to the Wallet function of my phone when I arrange for it to top itself off. But I just did all this over the last few days! It's all new to me.

    It's Golden Week here, a week-long period of holidays when everybody who possibly can takes a few vacation days to mingle with the official holidays to finagle a week or ten days of vacation. Yesterday was the start, with the first holiday, but it poured all day long. Today, it felt like the first day of summer vacation with people pouring out from everywhere, going places and doing things. I saw more gaijin today than I have in over a year, except at Immigration. Students as well as business people are being let in in larger groups and absolutely everybody wanted to get outside and party.

    Today, I took a train to a fairly distant museum, involving a few changes here and there. I wasn't sure if it'd work, but all I had to do was wave my phone at the card reader, and it beeped! Then I had to buy a ticket from the machine at the museum, under the watchful eye of the receptionist, who wasn't sure I could be trusted to work the machine. But, wow! I pressed buttons. Things beeped! My Suica balance was appropriately diminished. I was delighted. I'd done it right -- never a given between computers and my level of Japanese -- and things worked. 

    Then I wanted to buy something and wanted to use my JCB card as a point card. My plan was to pay cash, despite the fact that I was becoming aware that nobody but me was even thinking about using actual cash, which requires fishing in pockets or purses and counting. When I looked a touch confused at where I should wave my phone, the cashier cheerfully pointed out that I should touch here, press there, and wave at something else. The entire transaction was done and finished! No actual money involved! I was out the door in seconds.

    I have to admit it was easy and convenient. On the train home, I recalled that in the US I used a Miles Card to pay for everything I could, and paid it off each month, keeping a running total in my head. I used those miles. In fact, I still have a stack of them waiting for me to use them. It's not like that part is new to me. 

    COVID has changed the world in many ways. It looks like moving Japan to a cashless society is yet another one. I'm on board with it, but I'm still not sure what I think about it.

    I'm not putting photos of my cards or my phone on the Internet, but here's some PR material that's just come in for The Oni's Shamisen.  I think they did a pretty nice job. Don't forget to pick up your review copies today!







Friday, April 15, 2022

Kekko ja nai desu -- It was not enough!

    There's a saying here: "Don't say 'kekko' until you've seen Nikko."

    "Kekko" means "enough," so if you don't want more of something, you say, "Kekko desu, arigato," which basically means, "No, thank you; I've had enough." 

    But you haven't had enough of Japan until you've been to Nikko. And I haven't had enough of Nikko.

    It's a huge tourist destination, home of several World Heritage sites and National Treasures and a huge National Park. The big deal you'll see everywhere is Toshogu Shrine where Tokugawa Ieyasu's spirit was ultimately elevated to kami and where his remains are interred. Huge quantities of history! Famous sculptures (those three moneys and the sleeping kitty, among others!)  Fabulous architecture, paintings, and so much more. Other members of Ieyasu's clan are mostly in Tokyo at the very venerable Zozo-ji, a worthwhile visit on its own. It has an excellent museum. I like museums.

    I just returned from my third trip to Nikko, and my first in the spring. I had hoped to be celebrating the soft release of The Oni's Shamisen, but Things Happened, so that be within the next couple of weeks. If you are awaiting an ARC, you will get it soon (and if you want one, let me know.) But there was a pause, and I enjoyed every second of it.


    I had thought that the sakura would just about be out in Nikko, but the elevation ranges from about 600 feet to about 5000 as you go from the train station to the top at Yunoko, which was as far as I could get by bus. There was snow on the ground. The source of the famous local hot springs is at a temple called Onsen-ji. Yes, that does mean Hot Spring Temple. Water is piped from there to the onsen hotels in this tiny town. 

    Lower down, at Chuzenjiko, a much larger and lovely lake boasts another interesting ancient temple, a science museum, boat tours, rentals and fishing (not running yet), hiking (some trails open, some not open yet) and more hot springs! 


    In Nikko proper, the sakura were just about to pop and many did while I was there. Pretty, huh? Gloriously gorgeous, in fact. And it just got better. I stayed at Gableview Forest Inn, a charming place owned by delightful people, and where I will return. I enjoyed it so much, I almost hesitate to tell you that you can reserve on Booking.com and many other hotel sites, but I will, so you can go there, too. 

    Comfortable! There's a onsen! Excellent cuisine! Oh, yeah. This is where you want to stay!

    Though I only selected ONE photo to upload, they all came at once. So you're just going to have to read the captions to see where these are. It's worth it. 

    These are wild rhododendrons that look to me the same as Korean rhododendrons as they are deciduous, bloom on bare wood and then leaf out. Here, of course, they are JAPANESE rhododendrons, and since they are wild, they certainly are. This is on the way to Kirifuri Falls, one of the three Big Falls here. 


    And here are the falls. The top part, anyway, with more flowers. Truly spectacular.


    This is Lake Yuno (Yunoko: "ko" is lake). The ice was gone, but there was snow on the ground. People will fish, boat and hike here soon. I came to walk around this small lake, but the trail is still closed by snow. Instead, I walked to a very small little ski area, but there was nothing interessting to see there. 

    More Kirifuri Falls. See the pink starting up on the hills by the falls? This is most of it. It goes down a little farther.

    Thursday, it was supposed to rain (and it did) so I planned to go see Edomura, an Edo period theme park I'd really had no interest in before, but I wanted to research street entertainers and they're supposed to have them, and do, when it's not pouring. Again, the season doesn't really open until next week, but the park was open. It was much better than I thought it would be, and I want to go again! It's worth your time and simply fabulously beautiful.

    There are a number of Jizo statues along this path and a few real, serious, working shrines. This one is small, tenderly cared for, and, as you can see, beautiful.

    This is the entry, the "Post Road" area, setting the stage for your entry into the period town that comprises the park. There is an actual movie set connected to the park and I expect a lot of filming reaches into the park during its off-hours. It is closed Wednesdays. 

    Kirifuri Falls again. Those flowers...breathtaking. Pink blossoms scattered all over the hills.


    Edomura is beautifully landscaped, of course, and there are many varieties of blooming trees everywhere. Here's a cherry just starting, with more backing it up the hill. Look at how impressive this is: yes, it's a theme park. Yes, it is authentic, with plenty of history, culture and so much of the beauty and attention to detail that Japan prizes. 

    Sugawara Michizane is a collateral ancestor of my painstakingly researched but still fictional Maeda family. Statesman, scholar, and poet, he ran afoul of the powers that were, and ended up exiled in Kyushu (see: The Shadows of War). After his death, many Bad Things happened that were attributed to his angry spirit. In reparation, his lifetime titles and honors were restored and he was, of course, elevated to kami as Tenman or Tenjin. The Bad Things did stop, so one may assume he liked that. 

    He is the patron of scholars, particularly, and is often petitioned by students. Many shrines honor him including one shrine in Edomura. This statue, above, depicts Michizane, with his plum blossom crest on the offering box. It's a working shrine. I saw people perform the traditional rituals. Off to the left you can see racks of plaques of written petitions left in the hopes that Michizane will read them and give them a boost. 

    This is Nyanmage, the mascot of Edomura. Hello Kitty's brother, or maybe cousin, his superpower (there's a hilarious film along with many others depicting performances that were not live that day) is raising his left paw and saying "Nyan", which is "Mew" in Japanese. His hair in in the traditional style of a samurai man. He has a princess for a human companion, and is accompanied by a puppy, a panda and a monkey, all of whom likewise have human women as companions, though I am not sure if they are princesses. They defeat all manner of bad guys, including (naturally) evil ninja and (of course) tengu.

    Before I left Friday, I went to the Toshogu Shrine museum. I've been to the shine before. That will take you all day and worth it. Friday, I had just a few hours, so the museum seemed like a good bet. It was raining and foggy but see the fabulous pink of the sakura behind these bare trees. No pictures inside, though. Too bad: there're some interesting items on exhibit. 


    Japan recognizes and celebrates skill. This statue is of the architect of Toshogu Shrine and a number of other famous monuments built in the early to mid 1600s. I got the sign in the hopes of preserving his name, since it was raining rather hard, but now I can't make it out. I'm glad he is remembered and honored, though! His work is wonderful. 


    And one last photo, where I tried to capture, through the rain and fog, the subtle magnificence of the wild sakura and other flowers starting their season of bloom in the hills. 

    For me, it's "kekko ja nai desu." No, I haven't had enough of Nikko. I'll be back. 


    


Shamisen Under The Cherry Blossoms [Sakura Original Version] - Ki&Ki 輝&輝...

Because I can't resist!  A real post from me, later. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Earthquakes and Me

 Last night, reportedly at 11:39 pm, we had an earthquake. It was a big one, centered off Fukushima, and the world shook. Here, in Tokyo, it wasn't that big -- registered at a 5 or so -- and didn't last that long. Here.

The last big one I felt was while I was on a boat coming back from Okinawa at the end of January, and it was fascinating. I've been on a boat in an earthquake before but not one that was traveling off shore at speed. I woke up. Then, there was a big, sharp noise. A couple of giant jerks. Shaking. I heard no alarms and the actual sounds of the ship under the weird noises were...the same. The motion of the ship was...the same. So whatever we hit, if we hit something (and I couldn't figure out what it might be, with the weird noises and jerks coming from where they did) we didn't seem to have a hull breach of any size, though we might have leaks. I got up, grabbed my purse, went to the head, both just in case, and started exploring. 

From a walk; flowering quince

The ship was nearly empty and the crew, except those out of sight running things, were also tucked into their little berths. I looked out. The wake was normal, we were not wallowing or listing, and again, all the noises of the ship's systems sounded as they should. Finally my brain woke up and I thought "perhaps this was an earthquake!" I checked, and indeed it was. A big one, too, and we had been floating right over the epicenter. 

To be fair to my sleeping brain, this whole process took less than ten minutes. The next day, or the rest of the day, whatever, felt a little unsettled, but of course we were moving and traveling and -- hey! Whales!

Yesterday, I was thinking about earthquakes and how we seem to get one about every three months. I thought we were just about due. I didn't look to see exactly when the last one here was, but I did remember the quake on the boat. No, that wasn't here, or even close, and it was less than two months ago, so why was I thinking we were due? I know the enormous 3/11 quake and tsunami anniversary just passed and so it was on the news and in the papers and all, but still. Were we due? Nah.

Last night, I was in bed, where I'd been reading before falling asleep, when I woke up. It was still and quiet, nothing going on. And then..."here it is," I thought. A few seconds later, the shaking started, slowly at first and then harder and harder. I wondered what might fall over and need cleaning up later, but heard nothing. The little lights that show the HVAC and all the chargers are on went out, and the bits of light that come around the blackout curtains from the garden lights vanished, too. The shaking evened out, persisted, then subsided and finally stopped. It didn't last long. A few minutes, maybe. I thought about going back to sleep, since I was nice and warm where I was and the power was out, but then I decided I better get up and check the time and see how bad it was.

No power, so no Internet, except on my phone, which was way over there. No shrieking earthquake alarms (just in case we missed it, I guess) from my phone or the community loud speakers, which are a little too close sometimes. And...no cell phone service, but it was 11:45 pm. So...no power and no cell phones. That meant it was bad somewhere. 

Scented daphne, while walking to the Oko and Myokoji. 

It was also cold, though not freezing, so I took my phone and went back to bed, where it was warm.  In about 15 minutes, phone service came back and I was able to get the information on the quake, the size, the location, the tsunami warnings, and plenty of updates from people on Facebook reporting that they were fine, though things had tumbled from various people's shelves or even, in one case, that shelves themselves had fallen. Power was out from far north in Fukushima and Miyagi all the way into Yokohama, so it wasn't just me. That bode ill for getting it restored quickly. Watch for aftershocks, they said and keep saying. So, yes, I went back to sleep. I woke up much later to false dawn, nautical twilight, so I could see enough to determine nothing I hadn't heard fall had fallen, get the heat turned on since there was power again and go back to sleep.

I didn't take the phone away to plug it it, so it was right beside me when its wake-up music started and I remembered why I keep it all the way over there: it was so easy to turn it off and stay warmly tucked in while I welcomed the morning (hello, St. Patrick) through the restored Internet, which remains wonky. I have been behind and out of synch all day. 

Dogs, cats and other animals are reported to sense earthquakes in advance. My Facebook feed has stories of how people's pets gave warnings this time or had in the past, in Japan and elsewhere, generally followed by how the humans were just too stupid to notice or properly interpret what was going on. Maybe I'm like a cat or dog and just need to pay better attention. At least when I wake up at night without rhyme or reason, or get earthquakes on my mind. Maybe we all need to do that. We might be more like our pets than we think!

It's been an oddly unsettled sort of day. There's no real reason for it, but the days after earthquakes or floods or typhoons always seem to be that way. I've done off-all besides this. But there are bits of news.

I'd love to give you a book. I'd love to give you a few!  If you go to Booksprout.co, and look for either Claire Youmans or The Toki-girl and the Sparrow-boy, you can get review copies of ALL THE BOOKS for absolutely free, starting March 18. You will have to sign in as this is a review site. I suggest you take them one at a time, starting with, yep, Book 1, Coming Home

I can't making giving reviews a condition of giving one or more to you, but I for certain sure hope you will love them and review them and read every single one of them AND want The Oni's Shamisen when it appears, which will be soon. I should have the cover any day now! If you have all the others and just want to get a copy of The Oni's Shamisen, just let me know by email, on FB, or at www.tokigirlandsparrowboy.com with your email address and preferred format. You can also get The Sparrows of Pusan, a sideways story, for free, there, too.


Free books? What's not to like!

From a walk: a Calamondin Orange tree, with its tiny, and edible, oranges!





Thursday, March 3, 2022

Thinking Time

 The Oni's Shamisen is done. 

    It's waiting for things like cover design, formatting, and final proofreading before we can go into the actual process of publishing it to the market.

    We need Advance Review Readers. You can do this!  Let me know if you want to join in. We can only ask nicely if you would kindly leave an honest review, so we do, and you get a free book! It's a good one, too. Some publicity efforts are contingent on having a minimum number of reviews posted in certain places, so this would be very much appreciated. Since book prices are going up and up and up -- they say due to production costs, though how that affects e-formats, I don't know -- free books are a good deal.  They'll be available in Kindle, E-Pub and PDF very, very soon.

Narcissus and tulips are coming right along. 

    I've been frantically busy with many "business" kinds of things since I got back at the end of January, like immigration. (I got another year. I have to go back to the immigration lawyer. This year-at-a-time stuff and living out of a suitcase is getting very old. Maybe he can fix that.) And taxes. (Yep, they're done in two countries, and I now have an official Japanese tax account that I managed to set up and do, in Japanese, at the local tax office. Yet another thing they don't teach at University.) People are coming out of the their quarantine hidey-holes and catching up on things they've been putting off, now that Japan is opening internally, so my regular dentist appointment (something I never put off) is still in the future, but it's set. I got the booster, setting up that appointment on the phone, in Japanese, which I am very chuffed about. The telephone and formal language are still terrifying after all this time. More things they don't teach at University. 

Last year's hyacinths that I put in the ground are coming back! I have new ones in a pot, too.

    I've been to Okinawa and I'm set to go to Nikko in April. I've been there a couple of times for day trips, but I've always wanted to go back and stay a few days so I am going to. It's going to fit right in with what I need to do next.

    There's another book on the way. That's why I went to Okinawa, as the incorporation of the Ryukyu Kingdom into Japan proper as Okinawa prefecture is part of the next book. It's a fascinating story. 

    Not only is my visa contingent on pursuing my "cultural activities", but it's something I enjoy. They're as much a surprise to me as anybody else. I have a couple of thick books to read, and I'll enjoy doing some of that in Nikko. I hope the final finishing touches on The Oni's Shamisen will be done by then, but one never knows. 

My wonderful climbing rose is starting to come back. 

    Now it's thinking time, as I spend all my days and nights, or as much as I can manage, thinking about what the story of Book 10 will be, what happens to the characters and what they're going to do about it. Like I planted my bulbs, I planted ideas in prior books. Now it's time to see what might come up. This takes time, inside and outside. I read research books or lighthearted mysteries I've read before to leave my brain free to percolate. I get into the heads of my characters, and they do in fact speak to me. This is why I don't rely on an intensive outline method much, though, in a couple of months, when I settle down to write the first draft, I'll have a pretty good idea of what's going on. This, even more than first draft, is a grouchy, unsettled, cranky time, as my brain tries to pull the threads of stories out of history's whole cloth and weave them all together into a coherent potential that, in time, becomes a book.

Or blooms, rather like these plum blossoms, two trees, two colors, from the park across the street. 

    Please do sign up to be an Advance Review Reader. Comment or email or DM on Messenger (FB) or Messages (Apple) or at the Toki-Girl and Sparrow-Boy website. I write good books. You'll like them. 

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Shamisen Girls Ki&Ki - Tsugaru Jongara Bushi

The Oni's Shamisen, book 9 in the Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy series is coming SOON.

THIS is why you won't be able to resist it. 

Have fun!




Sunday, February 13, 2022

Fun with Taxes: Furusato Nozei

    People in the major cities of Japan, like Tokyo, where I live, often come from somewhere else. Many people have family properties that have been passed down through generations. People frequently go "home" to celebrate the O-Bon and New Years holidays with their families and take long weekends to work the family fields, orchards or gardens and then bring a share of the fruits of their labors back to the cities. The houses are sometimes huge, capable of entertaining many guests or even housing several families.

    It's fairly common that when the older generation starts needing more help, a child will move "back home," and may take over a family business or start a new one.  People plan to retire there. Now people who are able to work remotely are moving "back home," too. But the fact is that most of the jobs are in the cities, and young people go away for tertiary education, not returning until much later in life, if at all. This means that the smaller cities, country towns and rural areas don't have much of a tax base. In short, they're poor. 

    This is where Furusato Nozei comes in, and it's a charming idea that could only be realized in Japan.

    In additional to National Income Tax, which generally runs about 10% overall, everybody pays Residence Tax to their local authority. 

    If you want to -- any why not? -- you can pay a portion of your Residence Tax to an area that could use the revenue. That area will send you a "Thank You Gift." You get to deduct what you send them from your local Residence tax bill, and your real or adopted "home town" will send you a present! You can even adopt several towns, and you can send more than you are allowed to deduct, if you really want that present. 

    The presents range from asparagus to uni, and are usually local products. They're not always food items. They're generally what the area is known for, be that sake or pottery, fish, eggs, tofu, a case of facial tissue or other truly useful everyday items, or whatever. 

    Craft items made by people in sheltered workshops are also available, so you can double the benefit you get (in terms of beneficence, not tax credits) by selecting hand-woven place mats, or hand carved toys. Sometimes there are experiences among the choices, like onsen weekends. Just about anything you could imagine is there. You don't have to pick the same area or the same present every year. There's some competition among the various participating localities to make their gifts generous and attractive. Yes, small town Japan wants YOU.

    There's an online catalog that helps you calculate your maximum deduction. It's in Japanese, but it's fun to look at the pictures. They won't bite. Furusato Nozei Catalog

    If you have Chrome, it'll even translate the page for you.

    Clever, inventive, charming, adaptive -- this is an "only in Japan" system that makes me reflect again on why I love this country.


   And an oni mask, free from the grocery store for setsubon. How could I resist? Japan can even make demons fun!


    


Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Setsubun: Scatter Your Soybeans


     This lovely woodblock print dates from 1730-1790, artist unknown. It shows a family celebrating Setsubun.

    On February 3, right around the day known in some places as Candlemas and other places as Groundhog's day, exactly halfway between the Solstice and the Equinox, the Namahage, also called Oni, who may or may not be demons, come down from the mountains in the north of Japan and some other places to terrify and terrorize the villages, stomping around and shouting, exhorting adults, but mostly children, to behave themselves and do what they're supposed to: their jobs, their chores, their homework. Otherwise the Oni might take them up into the mountains and do goodness knows what with them!

    Everybody says they've behaved properly, of course, and parents extoll the virtues of their terrified wide-eyed children, who promise they will be very good indeed in the coming year! Celebratory food and drink are served, toasts are drunk, gifts are given, and with a bit more stomping and shouting, the Namahage retreat back up the mountain for another year. Local groups of Namahage visit shrines and Temples, and also make tours of entire neighborhoods or villages, repeating the ritual at each house. The festive meal will likely be eaten by the family after they've gone. It's usually served, but untouched. The Namahage do collect gifts and goodies and are known to quaff a cup or two at every stop.

    At the Namahage museum in Oga, you can see all the local costumes used in recreating this ritual by stand-in Namahage, and even join in a Setsubun visit at any time of year. Yes, they are scary, when they come up and stomp and bend over you and shout, but soon enough they'll accept your assurances, and your gifts, and all will be well for the next year, as everyone breathes a huge sigh of relief and starts laughing. 

    Other places aren't quite so invested in the entire performance, though the ritual and the celebrations take place all over the county. The Oni's Shamisen will talk about this in much more detail, since there's an actual Oni, from that part of the country, involved.  

  In most places, including my little corner of Tokyo, people purchase their roasted soybeans, though some people probably roast their own, and scatter them, crying "Demons out, Fortune In!" The family in this woodblock is engaging in various aspects of this national ritual.

    The beans are swept out, to be collected and consumed.  Neatly, nowadays, they are packaged for easy pickup by spectators at temples and shrines, offices and businesses. People consume the same number of beans as their ages, plus one, for luck. 

    Animals and birds will take care of any that are missed outside.

    What occurred to me as I got my beans and my oni masks ready at the same time as I looked for news of the Groundhog (it saw its shadow in Tokyo) that as an expat I am happily adopting the customs of my country of residence while still looking to with pleasure to the customs of my country of origin. Later in the month, I'm going to want a cherry pie and English curry (family customs for specifically Washington's Birthday and Susan B. Anthony day.) Sunday was my grandson Vaughn's birthday; today is my grandson Miles' and tomorrow is my daughter, Tracie's, and if I were there I'd be baking cakes and lighting candles, wrapping presents and planning dinners. I have sent things, of course, and hope I'll be hearing from them.

    We don't have to lose anything when we move to different places. We don't have to change one thing for another or avoid enjoying what's new. Demons out! Fortune in! Have a great year, everyone.


When the Namahage visit...

Oh, no! Here they come!
Have you been good?


Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Quarantine Blues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sakura are starting to come out here.

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


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


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

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

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

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