Monthly Archives: May 2011

Language is the liquid that we’re all dissolved in

Surprised to realise the other day that it has been ages since I have written for ten minutes hate about music.  Strange, as I have a head full of it most days, waking from dreams with songs playing in my thoughts, wandering to work with headphones blaring, sharing recommendations with friends, my mood altering from jubilation to introspection depending on the whims of my mp3 player’s shuffle function.

I was in one of the more thoughtful frames of mind at the weekend when this line from the Modest Mouse song, ‘Blame it on the Tetons’, caught my ear:

Language is the liquid

That we’re all dissolved in

Great for solving problems

After it creates a  problem

As a writer and teacher, someone who grapples with words for a living, you might expect a certain ability with them.  I admit I can do ok on occasion.  But for every time that happens, as often are the times when words go astray, don’t convey what I mean them to, or can’t travel far enough, fast enough, to soothe someone dear’s pain.

For all those times, I am glad there is music:

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Life notebook hack

Although lucky enough at the moment to have a few different projects on the go, at times it can feel like something is bound to slip. The human memory being what it is, there is surely only so much that can be blamed on outsourcing it to the cloud.  As a forgetful kind of girl, with my love of all things Moleskine well documented, I believe I am quite easy to buy for when present-giving time rolls around, as a new notebook will always be gratefully received and enthusiastically used.

That said, my latest notebook has gone slightly rogue, with paperclips, post-it notes and even a rubber band being used to try to highlight sections that I must try to remember to return to.  As a writer’s tool, it has become far too scrappy to be effective and has – if I am being honest – begun to drive me crazy.  About to start a new one and armed with this post as inspiration, I decided to get hacking.

Here is my new notebook, with its lovely leather cover:

There are few things more appealing than a new notebook as far as I am concerned, so be warned, if you are of the same opinion, the next photograph could leave you feeling a little giddy:

Lovely.  The friend who gave me the notebook was worried that they had picked up square-ruled paper by mistake, but this has turned out to be very fortuitous, as it made what is about to follow much easier.

First, I removed the cover:

Then I split the notebook into sections.  I reckoned I needed five with the number of things I am now working on:

Then I got my new craft knife ready.  I suppose I should also have used some kind of mat, but in the absence of one, an old copy of expat magazine Metropolis worked pretty well:

For a stationery addict like myself, working two days a week in an Aeon department store has been dangerous.  They sell everything and it is all pretty wonderful.

The next stage of the hack was to make some pencil markers:

The very eagle-eyed amongst you will notice that I messed it up a bit first time around and had to re-do.  No problem though, it was easily amended.  Then began the fiddliest, the messiest and yet – as with so much in life – the most satisfying part, cutting the paper.  It was best to do about 5-6 pages at a time and to keep lining them up as I went, as the ruled lines didn’t always match up through the book.

Here is what I ended up with:

Very pretty, I am sure you will agree.  If the rainy season is about to begin where you are too, you could do worse on an evening cooped up indoors, with a pot of tea on the go and something soothing to listen to, than to do the same.

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The question of Murakami

I can do tact and diplomacy when they are required, so a couple of months after arriving in Japan, when it dawned on me that even those students who were happy to talk about books and authors were going lukewarm on the topic when Murakami’s name came up, I stopped mentioning him at all.  I was puzzled though.  So when I got to know a student with some literary aspirations a little better, I asked him what the deal was.

Of course, he’s very popular in the West

the student told me, in the same tone of voice you would reserve for a relative committed to a institution after an unfortunate incident likely to bring shame on the whole family if too widely discussed.  And you thought Britain did ‘build them up, tear them down’ well!

Haruki Murakami, thanks to some excellent translations that I have heard are very accurate from someone lucky enough to be able to read them in both languages, is indeed popular in the West.  He has won many prizes and rightly been acclaimed as one of the greats.  But he was also once so popular in Japan that, after Norwegian Wood was published in 1987 and sold millions of copies, he left the country and spent most of the next decade abroad trying to escape the weight of notoriety.  Perhaps it is that abandonment that people find so hard to forgive.

Delicately, I broached the subject again with another student, a serene lady in her early 40s who might have been one of those teenagers buying the million copies of Norwegian Wood. She spoke carefully.

Maybe the problem is that Westerners come to Japan and believe it is really like that.  You think that what he writes is real

I am not so sure.  I would be lying if I said I hadn’t fallen for his off-beat perspectives on life, yet I think what makes Murakami’s books so special is that they contain just enough reality to convince.  Everyone has probably met a character like Toru Okada from The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, passive in the face of his lost job, lost cat and eventually even his lost wife.  The boredom of a suburban summer captured in short story The Last Lawn of the Afternoon, from The Elephant Vanishes, isn’t unique to Japan.  Then, having spent some time here, it is easy to imagine missing the last train and deciding to spend the early hours reading in Denny’s like Mari in After Dark, speculating on the other people passing by.

But I wasn’t expecting to find wells in back gardens containing secret tunnels that lead to the past, or a world that exists in the space between reality and dream, such as the one where Mari’s sister has been sleeping for a year.  I knew it would be fairly unlikely I would stumble into any situations like those encountered by the hero of Kafka on the Shore, a book so baffling and other-worldly that even its author can only offer this advice to readers looking for answers:

the key to understanding the novel lies in reading it multiple times. This may sound self-serving, but it’s true. I know people are busy and it depends, too, on whether they feel like doing it, but if you have the time, I suggest reading the novel more than once. Things should be clearer the second time around. I’ve read it, of course, dozens of times as I rewrote it, and each time I did, slowly but surely the whole started to come into sharper focus.

Sharper focus, maybe, but still recognisably unreal, even if you have never visited Japan.  Instead Murakami’s books create a world that, as in a dream, manages to remain rooted in what’s real, while being not very real at all.  And I know this, just as I know that Midori and Watanabe from Norwegian Wood – arguably the author’s most realistic novel – aren’t out there somewhere, arguing and laughing and cooking and loving each other, maybe taking a break from their wandering around the city to relax in the park on a Sunday afternoon.

Definitely not.

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#Quakebook news

Exciting news from @quakebook that not even this morning’s heavy rain could dampen:

Yes, you read it right!

The bilingual print version will be available to buy in Japan from 14 June, for around ten of your English quid.  What an excellent excuse for organising a trip over here, or alternatively you could contact someone lovely who lives in the country to get a copy in the post for you!

Pre-orders are available here.

If you already are in Japan, there will be an evening of Quakebook-themed revelry and fundraising on Friday in Shibuya, all details here.

Hope to see you there!

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Stories from Japan

Stories from Japan that caught my eye this week.

First, a lovely report, in which Tokyo-based Italian chefs got together to help the people of Iwate in the best way possible: by providing some yummy pasta:

People enjoyed the food and some even asked whether they could take the leftovers home

commented Marco Staccioli, founder of the charity project.  I am sure it was very much appreciated, Italian food is well-loved in Japan and I bet there wasn’t much left over at all!

Next, survivors of the tsunami in Miyagi have been helping each other but are still living in desperate circumstances, more than two months after the disaster.  Over three hundred people are crowded into the 20 remaining buildings in one village, with ongoing concerns about their livelihoods:

People are worried and frustrated after losing their homes and jobs. We don’t see much hope in getting our lives back together

 – Keiichi Abe, head of the Omotehama branch of the Miyagi prefectural fisheries cooperative

Last, via Jake Adelstein on Twitter, a dilemma many of us will hopefully never have to face, to save yourself or help others, knowing that you will lose your life if you do?

These and other stories show that, while much good is being done, there is more still to do to attend to people’s ongoing physical needs, as well as the mental stresses from the events witnessed and the uncertainty that has followed.  If you are looking for more Sunday reading and keen to do your bit to help, then please grab a copy of Quakebook!

And here are some absolutely gorgeous hand-coloured images of Japan in the 1920s to feast your eyes on.  Given that I am spending this weekend glued to the katakana, I think this one may be my favourite:

I know how he feels.

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How to help Japan

Following the survivors’ stories and video footage, here is the Tohoku earthquake rendered as numbers and facts (with thanks to Michael Soron for his illuminating post):

The government estimates the material damage from the quake and tsunami alone could top $300 billion, making it by far the world’s costliest natural disaster

This means that this year Japan is likely to move from being the world’s biggest donor to the biggest recipient of aid.  Other statistics are notable for the individual stories and hardships that undoubtably lie behind them:

  • A total of 12,485 households in the north were without electricity Tohuku Electric Power Co said
  • At least 79,000 households in five prefectures were without running water, the Health Ministry said
  • At least 95,107 buildings have been fully destroyed, washed away or burnt down, the National Police Agency of Japan said

With much of the attention naturally being drawn towards the ongoing situation at Fukushima nuclear power plant, there is a gap emerging.  People living in evacuation centres need practical assistance now, with everything from food to clothing to transport.

Some innovative and inspiring individuals are helping to make a difference, such as the Dutch architect developing plans for a community centre in Iwate and the Free Tohoku blog, a collective of concerned people seeking to match immediate needs with donations.  One of the Free Tohoku initiatives has been to urge the city of Abiko in Chiba to send abandoned commuter bicycles to those who have lost their means of transport – a vital link to resources and employment.

Faced with the numbers and such unimaginable destruction, it is easy to feel powerless and small, that there is nothing one person can do to assist.  I believe that the opposite is true.  There are links to disaster relief organisations hereQuakebook is available to buy hereBikes for Japan is here.  You and I may not be able to rebuild lost buildings or deliver aid to the stricken areas, but we can support those who can.  Together we can help the people of those areas get back on their feet.

Gambatte! (You can do it!)

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The seven stages of gaijinhood

Like Douglas Adams’ deadlines, recently the milestones keep making great whooshing noises as they go by.  This is both my ninth month in Japan and my 200th post on ten minutes hate and, although it has been a mad rush of a week after the previous serene holiday temple wanderings, that seems to offer enough of a reason to stop and survey the scenery.

So already pondering my navel, this excellent post on the seven stages of gaijinhood* perfectly chimed with the mood.  It also includes a handy chart, to map your progress on the descent to something even your closest friends will take pleasure in shunning.  It was intriguing to wonder where I might fall.

On the one hand, I am happy to be a ‘wide-eyed wonderer’, still ticking off the firsts: first trip on a shinkansen, first visit to Kyoto, even (slightly shamefacedly) the first faltering steps towards learning some Japanese.  Yet at the same time, perhaps not so wide-eyed.

Often I struggle to answer the question of why I came to Japan when people ask, because the reason seems quite mundane.  I was tired of London and looking for something new, afraid of slipping into the dread routine and worried I would never make it out.  People told me I was crazy to give up a secure job and although I know they were rooting for me, I don’t think even my best friends thought it would really happen until we were celebrating at my leaving do.

In spite of that, and even though just before I left the UK I was writing that Haruki Murakami was about 68% responsible for the whole adventure, maybe not having a clear obsession, with manga or martial arts or anything else, helped.  Hopefully, my lack of a clear reason for choosing Japan meant that I managed to side-step some of the notions that set people up for rapid disillusionment soon after the plane lands.  The real, if slightly dull, reason I came here was that I wanted to see it for myself.

But if the ‘wide-eyed wonderer’ stage is the most self-aware of them all then it is important not to get too self-congratulatory.  It is essential to keep a handle on how gauche you are, still wet behind the ears, so required to bow (like a rice stalk in the wind, according to one guidebook I brought with me) to the superior knowledge of others.  While running counter to the spirit of adventure that got you onto the plane, on arrival, it is both safer and easier to walk in the footsteps of those who have trod the path before.

As a writer in Japan, it is inevitable that writing about Japan would rear its sometimes-ugly head.  Our Man in Abiko skewers some of the more terrible afflictions of the genre in this post:

Do not use pictures of Japanese people behaving normally, such as shopping at CostCo, walking around IKEA or eating a hamburger, as this will imply to potential readers that you don’t know the real Japan.

The Westerner’s fear of the neonsign also offers some words of caution:

Every blog about Japan – and there are too many to count – reveals a dossier of prejudices that the author either held already or nurtured during that vital first year in the country. It’s no surprise that blogs are appended so innocuously – ‘a blog about my life in Japan’, ‘thoughts on Japanese society’, ‘visual culture in Japan’ – since this is all the author believes himself to be doing.

Maybe because this site existed before I arrived, it was easier to resist the urge to document every new thing I stumbled across in those early ‘barely able to get on the right train’ days.  My posts from that time are notable either because they don’t contain much Japan, or because they don’t contain many words, although that last does include not one, but two strange flavoured Kit-Kats.  I could die of shame.

I started ten minutes hate to vent spleen at the utter uselessness of the UK’s politicians and at first it was difficult to resist the lure of or foresee an end to that topic.  That was until the time difference and distance began intruding, when it didn’t seem like I could offer any new perspectives on the cuts and the protests against them.  My last post on the subject, written on 10 March, was largely unloved and unread.

I wasn’t sure what else to do, but I knew I wanted to avoid writing another ‘weird Japan’ blog.  As an English teacher I couldn’t feel comfortable mocking attempts to use the language, especially not with six words of Japanese to my name.  The seedier aspects of life might have boosted the hit count, but apparently there are others out there making a much better fist of that, so more power to their elbows.

Maybe in the end, your subject finds you.  As with so many other areas of life, the Tohoku earthquake must have altered the gradual progressions noted in the chart.  Perhaps it has made me jump a few steps to ‘ill-informed activism’ as, horrified by the UK media’s take on the situation, I determined to tell the ‘real’ story.  That this has proved popular shows that people are keen to hear from other perspectives.  My posts since 11 March have often strayed far from what I would consider ‘newsworthy’, seeming to endlessly concern the tea I have been drinking and accompanying cakes.  Maybe there is a ‘keep calm and carry on’ nature to such posts that make them comforting to read.

I am aware of Japan slipping down the list of stories, at the worst possible point for those affected, when they need assistance and attention more than ever.  All I can do is, in a small way, keep the stories of survivors, their needs and the relief efforts directed at them, in the thoughts of people around the world who may be able to help.  To keep plugging Quakebook and other fundraising efforts and to report on efforts being made in other countries, so that Japan doesn’t feel alone, as one of my students said it did in March.

I hope that will keep ten minutes hate going for another 200 posts, although on the way there will be times when I am just as unsure of the right direction.  In Gakuranman’s post he notes that:

self-doubt and questioning is at least a step in the direction of humility.

I would argue that a little – not too much – self-doubt is an essential part of a writer’s arsenal.  You want that small voice whispering in your ear ‘it’s not good enough’, to spur you on to better things.  When strolling around new cities, as well as when writing, getting lost is usually the best way to find your way to something unexpected but ultimately more rewarding.

* A gaijin is a foreigner in Japan, lovers of wordplay will note that this was recently amended to ‘flyjin’ in response to the numbers of foreigners who made arrangements to move elsewhere when faced with earthquakes and nuclear meltdown.

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Golden Week Holiday snaps 2: Tokyo

Back in the capital from Kyoto, the continuing holiday presented an opportunity for a stroll from Sendagi to Ueno, inspired by the splendid book Little Adventures in Tokyo by Rick Kennedy.

The wandering began here:

The route took in quite a few shrines:

As well as shrines, the neighbourhood was full of beautiful houses and gardens:

The last house has hung koinobori, the koi carp banners, for Children’s Day which is celebrated on 5 May (the day of the walk).  There were lots of banners around, most dwarfed by these huge ones hanging outside the International Library of Children’s Literature in Ueno:

And having reached Ueno, the stroll ended – as all good wanderings should – with tea and cake before catching the train home.

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Golden Week Holiday snaps 1: Kyoto

Go to both Kinkaku-ji and Ginkaku-ji, I was told.  See which one you prefer.

It’s no easy choice.  I mean, the gold temple (Kinkaku-ji) is pretty:

Not to mention, popular:

Yet in spite of its clamour for attention, I think it slightly loses out in my affections to Ginkaku-ji (also known as the silver one).  I loved the peaceful gardens and views across the city.

See what you think and let me know…


Gorgeous.  I will be back.

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Japan faces Golden Week dilemma

What is the correct response when a student offers you potentially radioactive peach sponge cake?

Despite warnings of an 80% drop in tourist numbers this year, one of my students, a lovely and very generous lady, drove for hours and sat in huge traffic jams to visit the famous 1,000 year old cherry trees of Miharu.  They are located just 30 kilometres away from the damaged nuclear power plant.  When asked if she felt afraid, she laughed and said not at all, instead she felt it was her duty to support the people of Fukushima.  She had brought us all cake as a gift from her trip.

As the Golden Week holiday approached, there was much soul-searching as to whether to holiday or not to holiday.  People are torn between wanting to support the tourism industry and the Japanese economy, and the sensitivities of enjoying holidays when others in the country are living in emergency shelters.  One way to resolve these competing urges has been to arrange travel in order to help in Tohoku, with large numbers of volunteers heading north this week.  I am hoping to do the same later in the year, but for now, will be doing my duty in the tourism sites and retail outlets of Kyoto.

So what do you do when a student offers you cake from 30 kilometres south of Fukushima?

Easy.

I ate it and can report that it was delicious! 

ten minutes hate wishes you a happy Golden Week, however you decide to spend it.

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