Saturday, December 31, 2005

Yoio Nen O

"yoio nen o" I believe is the Japanese new year's greeting. I haven't been able to contact anyone who can verify that, though. I used to know it, I'm certain that Waka-sensei taught it to me on the trip where we went to Kamakura to see the giant Buddha. I knew it because I've said it people in Japan before.

New Year's is a significant holiday in Japan. It's the winter one. Everything shuts down, making it eerily empty and quiet. The way Christmas can during certain hours of the day. (Okay, I have to admit, that most of my memories of Niihama are of it being eerily quiet and shut down because I was coming home after 8:00 pm.)

It's strange, isn't it? It's not like a year feels different. It's not like you wake up January 1st, knowing that a new year is here because there's a taste of it in the air. For most of us, weeks will pass by while we still write the old year down.

Still, we imbue the day with meaning. We hope and promise that this year will be the year. Or at least it will be better.

I don't always look at years as the date. You know January 1st to December 31st. I often judge years by my age. September 19th to September 18th. For example, my 21st year was one of the hardest and most meaningful. But those events spilled eight months into what most people would consider the "next year."

Looking at it this way, it's easier for me to example why it wasn't 2005 that was awful. It's just been a horrible beginning to my 24th year.

2005 saw me graduate, go to see KT in England, accept a job and move to California.

But in my 24th year, I've lost my maternal great-grandmother and my paternal grandmother. I've been pulled from the safety net of my friends and acquaintances that build up after seven years in the same town, and left to flounder in the biggest city I've ever lived in.

I've had to grow up a little more. (Finally some might say.)

But still, we can hope, for that is what this season tries to impress upon us: hope. The hope that somehow, by throwing away an old calendar, we can start our lives anew.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Meri Kurisumasu

Now, being a mainly Shinto-Buddhist nation, there's really no reason for Christmas in Japan. This "Jesus" kid doesn't play into it at all. They have latched onto Santa-san, who leaves presents for the younger children.

But what do the older couples do to celebrate presents?

Well, it's rumored that Tokyo Disneyland is a popular place to spend the day. Usually you and your significant other will go out to dinner, eat some fluffy cake, and then have sex.

That's right: eat cake and then have sex.

My friend Yukiko tried to explain it to me once as couples going out for dinner and exchanging presents. You know, like Valentine's Day.

It was only after I was in Japan for a few months that one of the girlfriends of a fellow native teacher expressed to us how upset she was that her boyfriend was going back home for Christmas. You see, she'd have no one to eat cake and have sex with on Christmas Day.

And it's that simple. Forget the angels harking on high. Forget decorating the tree, freezing your ass off caroling and feeling haunted by good-will and cheer shoved down your throat at every opportunity.

Instead, prepare for that wretched isolation that you usually don't have to start dreading until the beginning of February.

I hope you happy couples take some time to celebrate in Japanese style. Also, I hope the words "Christmas cake" will make you giggle when people say them, as they often cause me to.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Telephone...uh...what?

Here for your pleasure, another tale of Shikoku and its efforts to embarrass me for other people's entertainment when I recount the experience years later.

We all get wrong numbers. It happens. Someone gets the prefix wrong or mixes up the last two numbers while dialing. We've all had them, and we've all made them.

One night—while I was living in Niihama—around 11:30 my cellphone did its little "wow look at me vibrate off the fridge and fall on the floor with a resounding THUNK" dance it would do when someone called. I had taken to leaving it on the fridge at night because it kept falling off the low table in the main room I slept in and waking me up.

Assuming it had to be someone important because they'd called about ten minutes ago, I went over and looked at the number. I didn't recognize it, but it was the same number that had called previously. So I decided it was a good idea to inform whomever was calling they had the wrong number. In English.

Answering the phone with hello, I was then drawn into a conversation with some guy who spoke very little English.

Ok, in my defense, I have no idea why I didn't just hang up after I said "you have the wrong number."

But whatever, he asked if I was American, and I told him he was no I was Canadian. Then he starting asking about the fax. I told him the fax was at the school (as I think I may have mentioned in the practiced Japanese phrase the company taught us that I was a children's EFL teacher.)

Anyway, for about about a minute he tried to insist on the telephone fax, and I tried to tell him that I didn't have a fax machine. Until, clearly frustrated (in more ways than I realized) he clearly said "telephone SEX."

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Waiting


The still of dawn, as the sky turns orange and pink.

I wait for you.

Knowing that it is impossible for you to meet me.

For you are gone.

And I am still here.

+

Ariake © C. Rooney 2005

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Baba

Today, at 5 am, my great-grandmother passed away.

We'd been expecting this for some time, she had cancer that had spread throughout her body. Diagnosed over a year ago, she'd been moved into a care facility.

My grandparents moved from Alberta to British Columbia, to be closer to my family. My great-grandmother remained in Alberta. Over the past year, my grandparents have gone back to visit Baba many times.

The last time I saw her, was over a year ago. In the summer. She seemed defeated, tired and worn out. It wasn't the way I wanted to remember her. So I always think of her with her ruddy cheeks and almost toothless smile. She loved to laugh, and even when her English started failing, she was still sharp as a tack. She'd laugh with us and tell us jokes in broken English or speak to Grandma in polish and then Grandma would translate.

My grandmother came to Canada from the Ukraine when she was 2 years old. My great-grandmother was a landed immigrant, and I am the oldest of the second generation born in Canada on our side of the family.

My great-grandmother taught me how to make perogies. Once we all made them together, all three of the great-granddaughters helping. It was around Christmas years ago. I think I might have still even been in high school. That was a good day.

My great-grandmother nurtured my love for tea with milk and sugar. When she lived a 14 hour drive away from us, and we go visit in the summer, when we got there she'd make me tea in porcelain cup with gold trim and the image of a couple preparing to dance on it. It was fine bone china, made in Japan. After she moved to Alberta, she gave me the cup and saucer. I haven't drank from it since I was a child, but I kept it out where I could see it.

When I went to live in Japan, in hopes of reconnecting with what I had felt during the month I visited there two years before, my great-grandmother gave me money. Money I didn't know she had, so that I could go and have one of the most important and life-altering experiences I've thus far.

Because she gave me the money, I could loan some of the money I'd saved to my friend so he could go and live in Japan. Her gift gave two people a chance to do some extraordinary, something that we needed to do.

She was an amazing woman, who left her home to go to a country and start anew when she didn't the language. That's courage you don't see everyday.

I think I'm going to try and put these emotions into fiction.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Banking in Japan

For the five months I lived in Kumagaya, I had an account at the Asahi Bank, aka the Great Bank of Miffy the Bunny. I'm serious. Their mascot was Miffy. I had her with some ducks on my bank card. (Ok, yes, I chose to have that image, but still, it's the bank of Miffy.)

In North America, the ATMs are open outside of banking hours. That's why we have them. You can go to an ATM at your bank on the weekend or a holiday or after hours, and you can take out money.

Not so, young grasshopper, in Japan. In Japan, if the Bank of Miffy was closed, then the bank's ATM is closed. Now, we (myself and the other teachers) got around this by going to a 7-11 or a general ATM in the train station. (The one in the train station was open until 8:30 or 9:00 pm, which was often when I was getting home.)

However, the Bank of Miffy tended to close on odd dates. It had its own strange bank holidays. We're not certain if this had to do with branch renovations or standard holidays, but the Bank of Miffy was often closed.

And one long weekend where myself and other teachers had planned to go to Tokyo, we went to take out money and discovered the Bank of Miffy was closed. Well, no worries, we went to the train station. Only to discover, the train station ATM could not access our accounts.

When the Bank of Miffy is closed, they are closed.

I also have a story concerning a money order my grandmother tried to send me for my birthday while I was living on Shikoku. The money order was made out to one Japanese bank, not the Japanese bank I had an account with. On Shikoku, we had an account with a bank only on Shikoku. So this money order had to be processed through a bank on the main island, who took some of it for the fee, and then it had to be processed by my bank, who would also take a portion for the fee.

I got a call one day, and after the Japanese teacher spoke to banker in Japanese on my behalf, I was informed if I wanted to cash the money order, I would receive about $4 after the two banks had taken their fees off. Did I still wish to cash the money order?

Well, no, said I. I did not. Oh well, it was the thought that counts, right? And at least the bank called me to ask instead of just taking the fees.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Perverts at Train Stations

I lived on Shikoku (the smallest of Japan's four main islands) for three months, in a town called Niihama. For the first month the district was short-staffed, so we had to alternate covering a school in Toyo. I had to do this a couple times, the most noteworthy on my first day of teaching.

The teaching itself wasn't that rough, or so low on the scale of horror stories I have about my former job that it doesn't register after two years.

The trains on Shikoku ran about once an hour. So when I was in Toyo, I always had time to pass before the train home. On my first day I was really nervous about missing the train, so I left the school with plenty of time. (I think I had like 20-30 minutes to wait.)

I was standing out on the platform, and there was only one other person around. It was a middle-aged Japanese man. I was walking towards the end of the platform, when I heard someone muttering in Japanese behind me. Were they talking to me? Were they talking to themself?

I turned around to see the man with his hand by his pants, muttering away. After a moment of going "what is this guy's problem" and debating whether or not I should tell him I didn't speak Japanese, I realized that he was waving his penis at me.

After getting over the shock, I walked past him (very huffy) and gave him a dirty look while adding "urusai" ('noisy,' 'annoying,' sometimes translated as 'shut up.' ) Then I got on the train and when I got back to Niihama, I called my friend to tell her what had happened.

She, like many people I know, had heard the story of the foreigner being flashed at the train station, but no one knew of anyone that it had personally happened to. (It was like an urban legend.) What an honor to get to be the person who says "oh no, it really does happen."

Oh, and a couple months later, at the same train station another foreign teacher was flashed by a middle-aged man. The teacher and I compared descriptions, and we believe it was the same man. As creepy as that is, it's even creepier when you consider the second teacher who got flashed was a guy.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Japanese Vending Machines

I'm sure you've all heard tales about the vending machines in Japan, how they sell everything from beer on street corners to lady's underwear. My experience with vending machines is so-so, they're a pretty common sight on the streets. Before you ask, I can't confirm or deny these mythical panty machines. I don't doubt they exist/ed somewhere in the country, but I can't personally claim to have seen one.

Vending machines are standard for drinks, snacks, and cigarettes.

Beer machines are so-so common, I've seen a number of them. Usually they're near the cigarette machines, so you can pick your poison.

Drink machines depensed cans/bottles that were often heated or cooled. They're probably the most common kind of vending machine. It was from one of these machines at the JR station in Shibukawa, Gunma that I had my first taste of Iced Cocoa (Japan's version of chocolate milk: cold cocoa.)

From what I recall, snack machines are less common. In Fukuoka (on Kyuushuu) we had a Sweet 16 Ice Cream vending machine about two blocks from our training apartments. You put in money and picked between various flavors of ice cream or sherbet. I think there may have been a M&M vending machine in Gyoda, Saitama. Or it was just a machine with M&M characters on it.

Depending on your age and location, cigarette vending machines may be an exotic idea. The last time I saw a working cigarette machine in North America was sometime in the late 80s.

Japan doesn't have the same anti-smoking campaigns that we have here in North America. Cigarettes are still very cool and you can smoke just about anywhere. Imagine the accessibility. Cigarettes in Japan are cheap like borsch—perhaps a better analogy is cheap like onigiri. They're a dime a dozen—kind of like Starbucks (or just coffee shops in general) in Vancouver. You can't throw a rock without hitting one.

As for weird vending machines, I haven't had much luck. Maybe I just wasn't in the right areas. Near the school in Gyoda there was a machine that sold flowers. Fresh arrangements and bouquets were placed in it daily.

The best weird vending machine story isn't so much about the machine's contents as the brand if of the contents. In Fukuoka, during our training we would pass by this machine on the way to the school that sold sundries.

At least one of these items was a package of condoms. The package had those figures you see on signs and bathrooms. This one was a mom, a dad and a couple kids. The brand of the condoms: Happy Family.

That's right: Happy Family Condoms.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Adventures in Akihabara

Yet another true tale of Japan!

On one of our trips to Akihabara (Tokyo's electronic, anime, and game district) my friends and got on the discussion of if life was like a video game. Anyway, the talk turned to how we did not feel challenged anymore.

Wasim—who has since returned to Japan for more challenges—issued a bit of a challenge to the powers that be to make things more difficult in his game. All in good fun.

We left the subway station and headed out to Electronics Avenue. As soon as we turned the corner, we saw one of those outdoor patio umbrellas rolling down the street in a gust of wind. It almost hit Wasim, but fortunately he dodged it in time.

Wisely, he afterwards declared that he felt sufficiently challenged and did not need anything more.

Ask and you shall receive. ^_^

Friday, October 07, 2005

A true tale of Japan

A few months ago I was thinking about an odd encounter I had in Japan, and I finally came to understand what had happened. I scared someone. Not because I was a foreigner, but because they thought I wasn't.

Allow me to explain.

One winter night, when I was living in Kumagaya, I was walking down an empty street on my way back from the classroom to my apartment. This road passed the walled in area of a shrine, the entrance to the shrine was on the corner of this road and a road that intersected it. I had walked this road many times, and it was usually empty. Very seldom—given the time of night—had I seen anyone else on this road, other than a dog that was chained up out in front of a house. (He bit me once when I stopped to see if he would let me pet him.)

My winter coat that I bought in Japan (and was wearing that night) is overcoat length (just below my knees) and white. It has a fuffly/furry collar around the hood. (We speculate it's real fur, but we're not sure what kind. I'm still trying to find out.) When I put on the hood, you can't see my face. Just this figure in a white coat.

I have this, admittedly odd, fascination with watching my breath when you can see it in the winter. It just looks cool. So I was walking along down this empty street, exhaling in long, slow breaths. Not in a rush, just watching my breath and enjoying the silence of a solitary walk home.

Someone behind me starts yelling in Japanese. I assume they're either yelling at someone else. They keep yelling. Something-"ki"-onna (onna means woman) and "bakemono" (meaning monster) and other things I couldn't make out. And I think... huh, they must think I'm a hostess or something and they don't like foreign hostesses and are rude things at me.

I don't think much more of it than, wow that was very odd, and continue on my way. Eventually they stop, but not until I've gone out of sight or turned down another street.

Years later (two to be exact,) I happen upon a book called "A Field Guide to Demons." It's a real book, and it's a collection of information on various "demons" and potentially harmful spirits from around the world. There's entries in it on both the Japanese and the Chinese version of the fox spirit. This book is where I found the translation "fox fairy" which is what the Chinese term apparently means.

One of the entries is about the yuki-onna, or the Snow Woman. She's a spirit that looks like a beautiful woman dressed in white, and she lures male travellers aside in the winter and steals their breath. I don't have the book with me, so I can't confirm if the breath is just the breath or if it includes the soul as well. I believe she's like the Woman In White that we have tales of in America.

A few months after I read the article in the book, I recall the experience I had that winter night and how "yuki-onna" does sound like what was being yelled at me. And I'm thinking it wasn't a "oh look out, silly person, doing that will attract a snow woman." No, it was more like "A snow woman! Monster! Go away!"

So I apologize to that frightened woman, just doing her job to scare off evil spirits.

So I guess I was "Japanese," briefly, for one moment. And they still just wanted me to go away. ^_~

Monday, September 26, 2005

Fear of success?

I've been talking to a few other writers I know, and something interesting came up. I had mentioned I was worried my lack of progress or the slow pace at which I seemed to be finishing certain chapters was a subconscious attempt to keep myself from completing a draft of the story. If the story doesn't end, it's really hard to do anything with it, right?

The individual I was talking to agreed that sometimes they feel like that as well. It's not unusual to encounter people who have been working/reworking things for a few years. (Or it's just no unusual for me to know these people, take your pick. ^_^; ) So what is it about writers—or at least the ones I've been in contact with—and self-sabotage? Why don't we want to ever finish anything?

My theory is that maybe we have trouble letting go. Creating characters and a world, I think we grow attached and protective of that creation. That is, we don't want to give it away. Not because we don't want to share—but out of fear that someone will say something hurtful.

I took fine arts in college as foundation study for the graphic design program I graduated from, and I remember how difficult group critique used to be. I had never taken fine arts, so I didn't know what to expect. It felt like everything that was said about the piece was a reflection of me. If there was something flawed in the work, it meant I was flawed as a person because I had created the work.

You'd be surprised how many people think this way.

Another art student told me that we have learn to distance ourselves from our work. What is said about the work, is not an attack on us personally. I think this can be said for writing as well.

It took a few years of group critique, but with each one my confidence rose. My ability to distance and look at things objectivity also increased. I began to see how the critiques were meant to show us how to clarify and improve the work in order to strengthen our intended message/reaction.

The issue here is that I put pressure on myself. No one else but me. I have it in my head that this must brilliant and amazing and the greatest piece of writing I have ever produced, because that is what will get it published and noticed by a public that has lost interest in the written word. And it has to be that right now. If it isn't, I have failed.

So I get overwhelmed because I forget what should be the easiest thing to remember. Just because the draft isn't perfect doesn't mean the story is horrible. That's why it's a draft, because it isn't polished and perfected.

It's like creating a brand for a client. Now, it is possible to spend an immense amount of time "perfecting" the first letter of the brandtype, but if you don't get past the first letter you will have anything to show the client. It would be like:

Client: "Well, I'm eager to see what you've got."
Designer: "I worked really hard on this, I know you're going to like it."
Client: "Uh...what is that?"
Designer: "That's the first letter of your company's name."
Client: "You spent two weeks on a letter?"
Designer: "Yes, and it's perfect."

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I lost touch with that. I stopped just writing and started worrying about what I was writing. As if as soon as I hit save every literary critic in the world was going to read what I just written.

Oh, and a question to those critics: is it true those who can't, critic? Or is that just the bitter reaction of authors to a bad review?

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Kitsune Hanabi (Summer Omake 2005)

All characters and content are the creations and creative property of Chandra Rooney, © 2005. Not to be reproduced or used without the written consent of the author. Revised, December 2006.

Kitsune Hanabi
By C. Rooney

The cement was cold beneath her, with only the thin cotton of her yukata between her skin and the station step. Humidity hung in the air, and during the day it made the city like an onsen. Stepping out from an air-conditioned building was like the first toe dipping into the steaming waters. The night was cooler, if only marginally so.

The next train wouldn’t come for an hour; the passengers from the previous had long since departed. It was a moment of solitude, but the tranquility was lost upon the lonely girl.

The girls from school hadn’t been at the station when she arrived. Questioning the station master only revealed that a large group of high school girls had met at the station, but all of them departed nearly twenty minutes earlier.

Once again, Nanami had been left behind. Once again uncertain if the reason was her chubby legs or moon-shaped face—or something even more beyond her control. Maybe the traditional summer dress would have made her fit in better, but the others hadn’t stayed to find out.

Nanami had been born in the same hospital as many of them, grown-up in the same town, but they always treated her differently. The looks, the whispers, the assumptions. All of which her mother told her to bear with dignity and never to feel ashamed. She was a child of love, and many in town should wish to be so lucky.

Still, looks and laughter were never easy to bear when they came from a group one stood forever on the edge of. Nanami longed for just one night to feel as if whom her father was did not define whom she could be.

Sniffling, her eyes stung with tears. Tears that her mother could never know she cried.

“If you don’t hurry, you’ll be late for the fireworks.”

Nanami let out a small squeak of surprise, as she hastily rose to her feet. At the top of the stairs stood a girl she had never seen before. The stranger wore a yukata in bright magenta, patterned with abstract blue flowers. Her face was painted with white make-up, and her hair had been bleached the yellow-blond that was forbidden in Nanami’s school.

She had heard of the girls in Tokyo who tanned their faces and wore white lipstick. They were called yamaba—the old mountain hags. But never had she heard of them painting their faces white like geisha. Maybe it was a new trend? Her sleepy little town was far enough away from Tokyo to make the capital seem like it belonged to another world.

The stranger waved a fan before her face, the round summer fan. A happy golden koi swam across the center.

“The fireworks,” she said. “You are going, aren’t you?”

Nanami looked at the ground. “I don’t know. I was supposed to meet someone—”

“Ho?” The other girl arched an eyebrow and looked around. “I’d say they didn’t wait for you.”

Nanami reddened, focusing intently on her sandals.

“Those hags.”

She looked up.

“Did it on purpose,” the other girl fanned herself, “I’ll bet.”

Nanami said nothing.

“I don’t suppose you’ve seen anyone else around here?”

She shook her head. Aside from the station master, the platform and shops were all but deserted.

“I’m supposed to meet some friends of my own to watch the fireworks,” the girl with the fan said. “Ken was telling us about a special kind of firework they have here. It’s an unusual color.”

“It’s pink.” Nanami played with her obi, adjusting it. “Like a cherry blossom.”

“That’s the one. Is it famous?”

“They say it’s everyone’s favorite.”

“Those good for nothing friends of mine must have gone on ahead without me. So it’s just the two of us.”

Nanami looked behind her, but she and the girl were the only two who could form an "us."

“Come on, you can’t miss the last fireworks of the season.” The girl tucked the fan into the obi tied at her back. “And you certainly can’t watch them alone.”

Then, before Nanami could protest, the girl with the painted face padded down the steps and linked her arm through Nanami’s.

“By the way,” the girl said, “I’m Mariko. You can call me Mari.”

Nanami blinked, taken aback by the familiarity and almost over-friendliness. In all the years they had shared classes, none of the other girls at school had told her she could call them by the first name or a nickname.

“You have such pretty skin.” Mariko admired Nanami’s arm. “You’re lucky.”

Nanami flushed again. Beneath the white paint, Mariko’s face was probably as golden as any of the most popular girls at school. How could someone like that possibly think Nanami was the lucky one?

“Come.” Mariko urged her down the steps. “My brother described the place where he watched the fireworks with a friend last summer. I bet he went back there, so maybe we can still meet them.”

“Everyone meets in the city park,” Nanami told her.

She hurried to match her strides to Mariko’s longer ones. How was the other girl walking so fast in the restricting yukata?

They passed the stores with their metal shutters pulled down over the storefronts. A convenience store’s bright lights spilled out into the street, washing out the stars overhead. Mariko stopped beside it, looking down each of their three options. Right, left, or straight ahead?

“This way,” she said, pulling them to the left.

“Ma—Mari, the park is down that street,” Nanami said, gesturing to the bilingual blue sign, pointing in the opposite direction.

“They wouldn’t be there. Too many people. Kuro doesn’t like crowds.”

They passed a bar, and the host outside watched them as they continued down the street. He was the older brother of one of the girls at school, which meant that his sister would make sure all the other girls knew Nanami had been seen being drug down the street away from the fireworks. And that it had been by a strange girl with a painted face.

“He said they looked down on the town,” Mariko said, stopping in the middle of the street. “It was better, he said. No crowds and no neck pains from staring upwards.”

Nanami searched her memory for such a place. “There’s a little hill with a shrine on the road that leads to the next town.”

“Whose shrine?”

Nanami bit her lip and looked away. “I don’t know. I’ve never been to it.”

“I suppose it doesn’t matter so long as it’s not one of Oh-Inari’s. Do you know how to get there?”

“I—I think so.”

“Quickly, then,” Mariko pushed her forward. “Lead the way.”

* * *

The shrine was atop a hill. A steep hill with a little winding path that had been beaten into the grass from years of travel. As they followed it, Nanami could hear voices coming from above them.

“Someone is up there,” she said, looking around the darkened shrine. “Are—is it all right? Won’t they get in trouble if someone else comes?”

Mariko waved her hand. “Those two idiots would just ask them to join in.”

Nanami looked at the ground. “I’m sorry I got lost, Mari-san.”

“Don’t worry. We’re not lost anymore.”

They reached the crest of the hill. Nanami looked at the rope tied around the trunk of the massive tree that towered above her. Was this all there was to the shrine? Of course, because it was just known the tree was sacred. No one had to say anything further. The people of the town could tell what belonged to the spirit world, as easily as they could tell what didn’t belong in their community.

Mariko briefly bent her head before the tree, her lips mouthing silent words. Nanami put her hands together like she would in church and waited for Mariko to finish.

When the other girl stepped back, Nanami raised her head.

Mariko put a finger to her lips and gestured toward the other side of the tree where the voices were coming from. She made exaggerated stepping motions.

Oh, she wanted to sneak up on her friends, Nanami realized. She nodded and Mariko grinned, flashing her teeth. They were very white.

With Mariko in lead, the two girls crept around the trunk of the massive tree. On the other side, Nanami could barely make out two figures in the darkness. The lights of town lay spread out below them, like a blanket of stars. But both the stars and the town were too far away to offer much illumination. A dim glow backlight the figures, making her wonder if they had a torch with them.

“Yahhh!” Mariko cried, jumping out with her hands curled into claws.

The figure leaning against the tree looked at the one lounging on the ground beside him. Then they both burst out laughing.

“You’re late,” said the one seated against the tree.

“And you’re idiots!” Mariko crossed her arms. “You didn’t wait for me. You’re horrible.”

“You’re blocking the view,” said the one lounging on the ground.

Nanami blinked. He had a Kansai accent, but the one against the tree had the same Tokyo accent that Mariko spoke with.

“Buu, Kuro.” Mariko stuck out her tongue. “That’s no way to greet your kind, beautiful friend that you abandoned at the train station.”

“Ken.” Kuro turned to the one seated by the tree. “She’s already picking a fight.”

The boy against the tree ignored them both and leaned forward, looking past Mariko to where Nanami still stood half-hidden by the shadows.

“Do we have a guest?” he asked, slipping into formal language. The words sounded strange, old-fashioned.

“Oh, you’re still hiding back there,” Mariko laughed and pulled Nanami out in front of the tree.

“Didn’t think that was your type,” Kuro whistled. “Or did you bring your dear friend Kuro a present to apologize for being late?”

Nanami looked from Kuro to Mariko, her face reddening.

“Kuro, behave yourself,” the unnamed elder brother said, unfolding his legs and getting to his feet.

“Good evening,” he bowed politely.

“Don’t be so formal, Ken,” Mariko sighed, rolling her eyes. “She helped me find this place because you two idiots wouldn’t wait for me.”

“You took too long,” Kuro shrugged.

“Good evening,” Nanami flushed as she returned the bow.

“Would you like to join us?” Ken asked.

Mariko crossed her arms. “No apology?”

Ken sighed. “I apologize for not waiting, Mari. Obviously, you’re right and I’m a horrible creature.”

“Yes,” Mariko stuck out her tongue. “And you’re weird, too.”

Nanami looked at the three individuals before her, being an only child, she had no experience with the friendly (and not so friendly) teasing that sometimes occurred between siblings. Or friends that were close as siblings.

“You’re making our guest uncomfortable, Mari,” Ken said, his tone soft but reproachful.

“And you’re still blocking my view,” Kuro added.

Nanami giggled, despite herself. Covering her mouth, with a hand she looked up to see Mariko and Ken exchange a brief smile.

“Sit down already,” Kuro frowned, “I’m not kidding, y’know.”

Mariko reluctantly sat by him.

“And your pretty friend can sit on my other side,” he grinned, patting the ground.

“I think she’d better sit by me,” Mariko shot him a dirty look. “You’d probably grab her.”

Ken unrolled a small blanket and spread it the base of the tree. “We wouldn’t want the young ladies to get their summer robes dirty.”

Kuro went to sit on it.

“Not you,” Mariko pulled out her fan and flicked it at him. “Your older brother said young ladies. You’re not a lady.”

He rolled his eyes and sat by the blanket. Pleased, Mariko took her place next to him.

“You can sit here,” she told Nanami, patting the blanket. “If my stupid, lecherous friend tries anything, I’ll just slap him.”

“I’m not lecherous,” Kuro said.

He sulked on the other side of Mariko as Nanami sat. Ken chose a spot on the other side of her, looking as if he didn’t mind the hard ground.

Nanami cast a look sideways at him. In the dim lighting his skin seemed no darker than hers. It was strange, as Kuro was even darker than Mariko. The light flickered, shifting, making Nanami think of candles and old-fashioned lanterns. Maybe someone keep the shrine area lit at night.

Ken turned and met her eyes. His were a soft golden-brown color, much lighter than Mariko’s.

“I hope Mari didn’t steal you away from your friends,” he said.

Nanami felt her cheeks grow hot and looked down at her clasped hands resting in her lap.

“No,” she said. “I was late, too, and they had already gone ahead.”

“They left her,” Mariko said, leaning forward while fanning herself. “Left her all alone. Isn’t that horrible?”

“We left you because you’re annoying,” Kuro yawned. “Your friend isn’t.”

“They left her on purpose. They played a prank on her.”

Ken frowned. “Do you think that’s true, Nanami-san?”

“I think so.” Nanami blinked her eyes quickly, as they began to prickle with the threat of tears again.

“It wouldn’t be the first time they’ve played a prank on me.”

“Why would they do that? You seem like a kind girl.”

Was he joking? Nanami looked over at him. No, his eyes were serious—his expression only concerned. It was the way her mother and father would look at her when she told them everything was fine at school.

“It’s this,” Nanami touched her hair. “It’s because of my last name and where my father came from.”

Mariko and Kuro were silent on the other side of her. The same awkward silence that would fall over the classroom when she walked in.

“I had hoped things like that no longer mattered in this day and age,” Ken said, gently. “But some people cling to old prejudices. Especially those who remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

Nanami nodded. Her mother had said as much.

“But that doesn’t excuse their behaviour.” He smiled. “You don’t have to worry about that tonight. You’re among friends.”

Nanami looked down at his hand, placed near hers on the blanket. His skin was barely darker than hers. Could he—was he—like her?

The first explosion of light erupted in the sky. Green sparks rained down, followed by the terrific bang.
Kuro took the opportunity to grab Mariko by the waist just as the sound went off, causing her to shriek and jump forward.

Startled by the cry, Nanami turned. Mariko had fallen forward, unable to get to her feet in the restricting yukata. Her blond hair that Nanami had marveled at lay on the ground before her.

Black locks disheveled, Mariko sprang to her feet. “Kuro, you bastard!”

She swung, nails raking the air, but Kuro leaned back.

“I thought you'd realize,” he grinned, “I would just have to grab you instead.”

Another firework exploded, this one cast a blood red glow on the scene.

But Nanami didn’t turn to watch it fall back down to the earth—she didn’t even hear the boom that accompanied its descent. Her gaze was locked on the tip of the russet-colored foxtail that Mariko’s yukata had ridden up over.

Face going white as Mariko’s makeup, Nanami put her hands to her mouth.

“You’re foxes,” she gasped.

Mariko looked over her shoulder, saw her tail and turned bright red.

“Look what you’ve done!” She tried to pull her yukata back down. “You always ruin everything, you idiot.”

“It’s not my fault you can’t control yourself,” Kuro shrugged.

More fireworks, purple and gold, green and blue. Red and orange. Each color flashed over the group, but all revealed the same scene.

Nanami backed away on her knees, unable to trust herself to stand.

Foxes! She should have known. It was too much to hope that a normal person would invite someone like her to watch fireworks. The tears she’d promised herself not to cry began to spill down her cheeks.

“It’s not fair,” she heard Mariko say in between the next explosions. The green and purple lights of the fireworks glinted off the tears in the fox girl’s eyes. “I just wanted one night where it didn’t matter what we were. Just one night, Kuro, and you ruined it.”

“You’re so melodramatic,” Kuro shrugged again. “Let her go, Mari. Obviously she’s too scared to stay. That's just how her people are.”

But Mariko’s words struck Nanami deeply. Her very thoughts echoed by this fox girl—could it be possible that foxes could feel the same way people did sometimes?

“If you are going to leave,” Ken’s voice said, softly from behind her, “promise us you will at least walk carefully. The path is dark, and if you slip, we’re the only ones who will hear you fall.”

Nanami turned. He was sitting against the tree, his voice calm, making no attempt to stop her from getting to her feet and running as fast and as far away as she could. In the branches above his head, small golden balls of light floated. Foxfire. It was the leaves fluttering in the slight breeze that caused the flickering Nanami had assumed to be coming from lanterns.

“Your mother wanted this to be a happy night,” he said, eyes on her. “She worries about you, Nanami. She prays often to the White Lady to keep you safe and guide you to some small bit of happiness.”

Nanami’s mouth dropped open behind her hands. “How do you know my name?”

How did he know of her mother? Or her mother’s prayers to the goddess of mercy and compassion?

“A friend told me.” He touched the tree behind him. “About a girl named Nanami who didn’t watch any fireworks last summer because no one would ask her to sit with them.”

A blue firework exploded behind her. The tree, the ground, and the foxfire picked up its hue. Mariko, Kuro, and Ken became darker or lighter shades in the flash.

“Tonight we’ll all be the same colors,” Ken told her. “You should see it. The whole town painted red or green, orange or blue, purple or gold.”

Nanami glanced at Mariko. The fox girl was staring straight ahead, but each flash of color illuminated the tear trains down her painted cheeks. She shook whether the sound of the explosion filled the air or not.

Nanami realized she couldn't argue with Ken's reasoning, anymore than she could have argued with the bangs that kept shaking the air. The four of them were the same. Each outsiders—not by choice but by circumstance. If she avoided the three foxes like the girls at school avoided her, then it made her just as cruel.

“Tonight,” she cleared her throat, and steadied her voice, “tonight it doesn’t matter.”

Mariko turned, gratitude naked on her face. Kuro shrugged, but the pleased look in Ken’s eyes more than made up for it.

As Nanami sat beside Mariko, another firework exploded, showering sparks like the sakura tree showered blossoms, and for a few brief seconds everyone was a famous shade of pink.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

How the East viewed the West

Recently, I've begun reading Kakuzo Okakura's The Book of Tea, which is the book to read about the philosophy behind the Japanese tea ceremony and the concept of teasim (the "religion" of tea.)

I've always tried to tell people that tea was liquid Zen, so it's good to finally be finding out why and what exactly it is that makes that statement true.

Mr. Okakura wrote the book in English, so no one can claim translation errors. That's probably why it's considered an essential resource for those interested in this aspect of Japanese culture, even if it was written a hundred years ago.

The reason I bring the book up is because of this delightful passage I found in chapter one. Mr. Okakura is lamenting the prejudical attitudes that those of the West have for his countrymen and mentions one or two of the "assumptions" Westerners (of that time) had of Asian people. (Did we really think they ate cockroaches?) So Mr. Okakura writes about how the same can be said for the way Asian people think of Westerners:

"Our writers in the past—the wise men who knew—informed us that you had bushy tails somewhere hidden in your garments, and often dined off a fricassee of newborn babes!" (pg 6-7, Shambhala Library Edition, 2003.)

Bushy tails hidding in our garments? Well, it gives new meaning to the Chinese insult for white people (which can be translated into something like "smells like fox.")

Makes one wonder if maybe their fox spirits came to Japan from the West, since we have some much in common. XD

Friday, July 15, 2005

Sencha Ariake

So yesterday I was in a rather posh tea store in Beverly Hills, looking at the teas they had available from Japan. I was happy to find they did have a cherry green tea (called Fleur de Geisha) but I was even more amused to find they had one called Sencha Ariake.

Apparently, the ariake green tea is a specific blend native to the Kyushu region, and the mildest of the high quality green teas. Kyushu being the most southern of the four main islands, most known as the island where Nagasaki is on the western tip.

I've actually been to Kyushu. Not to Nagasaki, but to the northern Kyushu city of Fukuoka/Hakata. I spent two weeks there to do my EFL instructor training. It's beautiful there.

But anyway, the reason that this amused was it makes it seem that I named Ariake after a tea.

I had often wondered where exactly I would say the legend of Ariake came from, as I didn't want it to necessarily be from the main island. Now, I think I may have it come from Kyushu.

See? Tea is a crucial element of the creative process.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Folklorically Correct

Folklorically. Isn't it a great word? I have to admit that I learned it on the site I linked to in the previous entry. I believe it was in reference to how a western fantasy author's kitsune character was not "folklorically accurate." The webpage would have us believe this folkloric inaccuracy has caused the common misperception that kitsune gain tails as rewards or as a sign of enlightenment.

Which, begs the question, how can you claim something is or isn't folklorically accurate when folklore is a collection of stories? I suppose you could test the concept against concepts common throughout a collection of stories, which is what the author appears to have done. The problem, however, I find in doing that is that suddenly you're not treating them as stories anymore. You're treating them as factual information that can be used to prove or disprove other information.

I believe the argument the author is making is that the concepts and ideas found in actual, documented Japanese folktales are more academically viable than information found in a Western fantasy novel or Japanese comic book.

The academic part of my brain agrees with them. Were you to do a research paper, there's no doubt that as close as you can get to the original source is way more viable than say, what you read in Inuyasha.

However, I would argue, what you read in Inuyasha, is perfectly valid in relation to the universe of Inuyasha. (Inuyasha, if you don't know, is a Japanese comic book series that is written and illustrated by Rumiko Takahashi. It's been made into a long-running and popular animation—both inside and outside of Japan.)

It's important to distinguish between what was the original context of an idea and what was contributed later. Without knowing the original context, it's next to impossible to know whether you're giving it a new perspective or just reaffirming an old one. You gotta know the rules before you can break them.

I don't see modernization/adaptation to folklore in order to make it work better within a fictional universe as something to be avoided for the simple reason that it breaks from the traditional context. It's fiction, after all.

Friday, May 06, 2005

That's not what they meant

"Over the course of moderization and translation, fox folklore has gotten a bit garbled. Here are some common misperceptions about folkloric foxes."

It's an interesting read.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

So I'm writing a novel

Which is really nothing new. I've been writing some novel or another for the past seven years. It's a hobby. Only this one actually has potential. There's a small publisher here in Canada that's interested in the idea and wants to see the manuscript when I've finished.

For the longest time I felt like I had to make the manuscript really sensible and grounded in reality—that what I wanted to write wasn't "mature" enough or something. That it wasn't something "adults" were going to want to read.

The issue was that I set out to write something like a modern version of Japanese folk tale, using a lot of the culture and mythology of Japan to make it work. So I did all this research. Okay, I did a heck of a lot more research than I've done for anything else before. Usually I just sit down and start writing. Anyway, I got wrapped up in trying to be accurate and have some kind of reference or source to back up what I was writing.

I would try to write a chapter, over-aware of how "respectful" and "accurate" and "mature" I needed to be. How the mythology had to work with the pre-existing mythology because I didn't want to "get it wrong" or offend the Japanese.

This need to get it right was killing my characters, because instead of letting them develop naturally into who they needed to be, I was constantly checking their developments against a pre-established set of rules.

It was like I was trying to write someone else's manuscript.

When I stopped and thought about it, I realized what I've always admired about Japan is how the Japanese can take something completely alien to their culture (like Christmas, for example) and reinvent it so that it works for them.

So that's what I'm doing now. I'm taking some concepts, ideas, and some mythological figures that already exist in Japan and reinventing them so that they work for my culture. It may "get things right" and it may offend some people, but damnit, it's going to be a hell of a lot more fun.