Unfinished {Things I Love}

I think anyone who writes has a file of unfinished stories on their computer.  Some start out as an amazing idea that dies in the light of day, others have legs but are pushed aside for other projects.  If only we had the time and resources to write all the stories!

This is an excerpt from one of my unfinished (and unedited) but not forgotten projects.  The photos in the collage below are from a museum in Aomori, Japan that houses floats from the Nebuta festival.  I've never been to the festival itself but I'd love to go.  I've been to the museum twice and also had the chance to wander around the seafront and peek inside to watch the construction process.

-o-

In the village of xxx, children disappear. Maybe it happens everywhere. Those in the village would hardly know since travel is normally forbidden to those outside the samurai class. And, when a traveller comes through the town to buy or sell or pass through, they know better than to discuss such things with an outsider.

Sakurako’s mother always told her to never to leave the village after dark but she didn’t understand. When Jun called to her, saying he wanted to go to the river to see the fireflies, she ran after him, eager to see their comforting glow. Her mother’s warnings were lost in the buzz of the summer night and heat.

If she went to the river, she’d be able to dangle her feet in the cool water. She’d been working hard to help her mother all day and felt worn out from the heat. She could wash off the sweat and the dust sticking to her skin. They’d return quickly and no one would even realise they’d gone.

She’d been to the river with Jun many times but always in the day time. He’d told her about the fireflies and how they glowed in the dark like tiny little stars with a hum that made your heart feel at peace. He’d promised Sakurako they could go and see them as soon as he could sneak away.

It was her last summer in the village and maybe she’d never get the chance to see them again.

Jun tore along the path in front of her, both of them in a hurry. Then Sakurako’s sandal had broken and she’d almost tripped over.

“Wait a minute,” she called but he laughed and kept running. They didn’t have time to waste.

Once the straw strap was secured, she raced along the path to catch him up but even when she got to the river, he couldn't be seen.

“Jun!” she called, knowing his tricks of hiding in the long grass or behind a rock and jumping out to scare her. “Jun, stop being stupid.”

She looked at the calm surface of the river and the rice fields beyond. All was silent and the last workers had left for the day. She removed her sandals and sat a rock, trailing her feet in the water. If he thought she was ignoring him, he’d show up. She didn't have enough time to play his stupid games.

As the sky darkened, the fireflies appeared. They were more beautiful than Sakurako had even imagined.

“Come here and look, Jun,” she called.

Sakurako tried to pick just one and trace it’s movements through the sky but she could never focus on it for long before it entangled in the others. They weaved and hummed and, for a moment, Sakurako felt like she’d gone to a magic place. A place far from the dirt and work of the village.

Then a mosquito bit her heels. She slapped it away and scooped up water to wash the blood from her leg. It was time to head back anyway.

“Jun?” she called, more hesitant now. He’d know it was time to go back too. Why would he hide for so long. “Jun?”

She’d have to go back without him. Maybe he’d run back already, playing another stupid trick.

“Jun?” she called one more time, then ran off back down the track. 

As she neared the house, her mother caught her by the arm. 

“Where have you been? Where have you been? Is Jun with you?”

“I went with Jun, but he ran off…”

Her mother looked alarmed and pulled her by the arm to Jun’s house. Jun lived in a house much nicer than hers. They had proper floors, not just straw. It was because they farmed their own lands, not that of the masters. They even got to eat some of the rice they grew themselves. But still half of what they farmed got taken in taxes.

Jun’s mother ran up to meet them.

“Is he with you?”

He’s disappeared,” her mother said quietly. “Maybe he’s just wandered off, maybe…”

Jun’s mother screamed and finally Sakurako felt fear. Jun’s mother was always quiet, always calm. She was known in the village for her dignity. Now she was screaming and burying her face in her hands.

Soon a crowd gathered round, the men organising themselves to search for him.

Sakurako tried to hide herself behind her mother; sure she’d get the blame for Jun’s stupid trick. They’d only been gone for a short while and she was sure Jun would show up.

When the men returned though, Jun wasn’t with them. Jun’s mother cried at them to search more, to go out again but it was pitch black and there was no way they’d be able to see him. They told her to have some sense and not make a fuss.

“We’ve never found them anyway,” said one man and he turned to leave.

Another shook his head. “Did you scatter salt in the doorway to keep the evil spirits away?” he asked. Everyone knew that was how you stopped the bad luck but salt was expensive. She’d never seen her parents do it.

Gradually the younger men left, knowing they’d have to be up early to work the next day. But the old men and the women stayed behind. Even though there was nothing they could do.

“Ahhh, I’ll never forget when I was young...” one old woman start. “I’d been made to go to the river to get water to wash the rice. I didn’t know then. And the slimy, green hand – webbed like a frog but much longer, it wrapped around my foot. It had huge black eyes and a mouth full of sharp teeth. I tried to run but it held on tight, dragging me along the muddy river bank.”

“So why didn’t it get you?” someone always asks.

“Because of the cucumbers,” she’d reply and slink back with a sly smile. “We always cut our names into cucumbers and threw them into the river. When the kappa realised that, he let me go. Or he’d have pulled me under and sucked out all my blood.”

Sakurako shivered and moved closer to her mother. Her mother had said the kappas were just stories but maybe they weren’t.

But another old man would call her a fool. “It’s not the kappas you have worry about,” he said. “It’s the ubume. I remember her from when I was young. She lived just over there and she was the most beautiful woman in the village. Hair like you’ve never seen. Then she married one of those Tanakas and they had three children. But one night, a night like this, one of the children rushed into the house and knocked over a lamp. Before she could do anything, the house caught on fire and all the children were burned.”

“She went crazy and she wanders still trying to find children to replace her poor little dead ones.”

Sakurako's mother laughed and said it was just a story but she noticed that her mother clutched on tighter to something in her pocket. And she knew, in that pocket was the charm she’d bought from the priest that offer protection for children.

Sakurako hid her yawn so her mother couldn’t see it. She didn’t want to go home to bed. Jun’s mother was weeping quietly now and an older woman made her some tea.

“He was a pretty boy,” one old man said quietly, “maybe they…”

Her mother hushed him but he glared at Sakurako. “Don’t tell me it doesn’t happen? There’s plenty around here who’d sell their own children. Maybe, it won’t be long and she’ll be wishing it was her that taken instead of him.”

Sakurako’s mother pulled her by the arm to take her home.

“The whorehouse merchant will be here soon enough,” the man said. “And I’ll be betting there’ll be one less child in the village.”

Sakurako already knew she’d be going with the merchant when he came but her mother had told it was to better life where she’d have money and riches.

“In a village this poor, you can’t grieve a lost child for long,” another of the old men said. “They’ll call a meeting but they won’t be searching any more. There’ll be drinking and talking and the priests will make even more money selling charms. And we’ll all be hoping this doesn’t mean the gods are angry and the rice crop will fail this year.”

“In a village this poor, there are many reasons why a child would disappear. The family can’t grieve for long so it’s back to farming and talk of kappas and ghosts and demons.”

Before they leave, one old lady, older than anyone can remember, murmurs, “it wasn’t like this before the Tokugawas came to power” but nobody listens to her.
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Tokyo Sky Tree {Things I Love}


Anyone who knows me would know that I'd include the Sky Tree in a list of things I love.  I moved to Tokyo when the Sky Tree was being constructed and every day saw the tower become taller.  Now it's open to the public, I've never actually been up to the viewing deck because I figure there is no point seeing a view of Tokyo without the Sky Tree in it.

The day of the earthquake, I was at my Japanese school.  After all the confusion died down, I wanted to get home even though we'd been told it was possible to stay at the school.  One of the staff helped me map out a route to Tokyo station where I could catch a bus.

I walked with the crowds in silence.  Everyone in shock over what had happened.  It wasn't a long walk to the station, maybe about 5 km.  But, when I got there, it was like a post-apocalyptic scene.  Total chaos with no one knowing what the hell was going on.  The bus I needed to catch sure as hell wasn't leaving from the spot it was supposed and I shivered by the moat of the Imperial Palace.

Eventually I found people queuing for a bus and searched for the end of the line.  I walked blocks and blocks as that line snaked down the street.  I'd not be getting on any bus for hours.  Instead, I decided to walk the rest of the way home.  Luckily I'd worn comfortable shoes.

I followed the train line home so I didn't get lost.  The temperature had dropped and wind cut through me.  All I wanted was to get home and be in my own bed.  With the number of people walking, you realise how strong that urge is.  At that time, I didn't even know if our house still stood.  I lived with my housemates in a traditional Japanese house that was over 80 years old and never felt real solid.

As I followed that train line, the other thing I really wanted was to see the Sky Tree.  Somehow, I believed that if I could see that tower lit up in the night, I'd be near to home and I'd be safe.  I seemed to walk forever until I saw it.  

I'll never forget that walk home.  The people I met and the people I walked with in silence.  The cold and the confusion.  And the relief at seeing the Sky Tree and knowing I would make it home.


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Ryoma {Things I love}


If you asked someone in the know to list the top 5 heroes of Japanese history, Sakamoto Ryoma would most definitely be on that list.  You can't travel far in Japan without finding tourist attractions dedicated to him, even in places with which he only had a passing connection.  His popularity peaked a few years ago when the historical drama, Ryomaden, aired in Japan.

What made Ryoma a hero?  I think the thing that captured people's hearts was his ability to bring people together.  He started life as the typical son of a samurai family, but apparently was a bit of a sissy-boy.  You can see the drawing in the collage above of him as a bed wetting kid.  His older sister, quite a character herself, taught him to man up and he made quite a name for himself in kendo, traveling to Edo (Tokyo) to study more - quite an arduous journey as well as a huge honor.

One of his biggest achievement was working to get the enemy Han (states) of Satsuma and Choshu to join forces to peacefully overthrow the Shogunate.  Using his incredible charisma and statesmenship, Ryoma convinced the two Han to work together then asked the Shogun to step down peacefully rather than fight a war.  That's a very simplified summary of the fascinating life of Sakamoto Ryoma - it's definitely worth reading more or watching the drama if you are at all interested in Japanese history.

Interesting facts about Ryoma:
  • When he fled from his home town of Kochi, he asked the family of one of his retainers for a loan to tide him over. He never repaid that money but the family still have the promissory note he gave them - that must be worth a small fortune today.
  • Ryoma was apparently married to the daughter of his kendo teacher in Edo yet later married another woman (with whom he had the first "honeymoon" in Japan). 
  • Ryoma was one of the first samurai to carry a gun. Every museum dedicated to him (and there are a lot - 4-5 in his hometown and others throughout the country) has a replicator of that gun but no one can tell me where the original is. 
I'm sure that not all of the noble deeds attributed to Ryoma were done by him.  History creates heroes and then assigns deeds of ordinary men to him.  Still he's an interesting man that broke free of the bonds of a very tightly controlled society and changed his country forever.


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Nagasaki


Nagasaki was historically the gateway between Japan and the rest of the world. Even when Japan was locked up from the rest of the world, Dutch and Chinese traders were allowed into certain, heavily guarded areas of Nagasaki.


It's also an incredibly beautiful city, a natural amphitheatre build around a gorgeous bay.


While the first thing that comes to mind for most people when you mention Nagasaki is the atomic bombings of World War II, it's the earlier history that fascinates me. When Japan first reopened to trade with the outside world in the 1800s, Nagasaki was one of the first ports opened. Because the country had been forced to deal with the West for the first time in 250 years, it meant a time of upheaval in the national consciousness. It became a time of rapid change and revolution.


For a short time, Nagasaki was the centre of this revolution as a place where various Japanese clans mixed with Westerners, mostly to buy guns and other weapons,


I started working on a novel set in this time a while back. It keeps getting put on the back burner while I work on other projects - and trust me, any project is easy compared to historical fiction - but I intend to get it finished this year.

This as yet untitled novel tells the story of a young woman who is forced to move to Nagasaki with her brother after she is involved in a scandal.  An adventure outside the bounds of the Westerner colony means she gets to see parts of Japanese life normally closed off to her and to meet some of the local people.  One of these chance meetings gives her a way out when her brother's bungles mean financial disaster.  Another puts her in risk of her life.

Here's an excerpt:



Ichiro dragged me along a dusty street lined by buildings that looked like temples.  I'd liked to have slowed down so I could see more and question him more about these heathen religions but instead we hurried along and all I saw was a blur of orange gates and buildings with strangely curved roofs.  The repetitious drumming and chanting provided a beat to the speed of our endeavour.
Then Ichiro turned to lead me up a path of wonky stone steps.  Luckily overhanging trees provided the path with some shade.  Huge orange gates – technically not gates like we'd understand them but, I'd been told, that was the name for the structures with two vertical poles and one or two poles across the top - the same as the ones at the temple, arched over the path as though the temple extended up the hill, around the curves and into infinity. 
At random spots, the orange gates were intercepted with stone ones, rough and weathered and with green moss growing over them.  Above them, the sky was the perfect shade of cornflower blue and pretty purple flowers bloomed at the side of the path.  In the distance, I could hear the trickling of a stream and the occasional cark of a crow.  It would all be all so lovely if it wasn't so hot.
The houses of unpainted wood we passed differed greatly of course from the houses of the settlement and I'd have liked to have been able to watch how the native women went about their daily business, how they washed and cleaned.  Was it that much different to us?  I did see one woman leaning out the window of an upper floor beating what looked like a big quilt in much the same way we'd beat a rug.  She stared at us.  I guess a white woman rushing by in billowing skirts wasn't part of her normal scenery.
Finally we stopped and I got a chance to take in the brilliance of Nagasaki harbour below us, the water sparkling in the sun and the boats under sail coming into the harbour filled with cargo.
On the hill opposite, I could see the imposing structure of Mr Glover's house, the grandest house in all of the settlement, towering over the town like a prince's domain with the one grand pine tree beside it.  How Edward envied that home but, when I looked at it, I just thought of all the care and maintenance it would need.  I had no desire to be mistress of a house requiring so much upkeep.
Hills enclosed the town and kept it snuggled closely to the sea.  Beyond the hills was Japan.  The real Japan.  This port settlement seemed like a place apart, as though we were in the antechamber of the kingdom, leaving a calling card and never being received.  Although it was an awfully pretty antechamber.




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Karaoke {Things I love}

The bottom left picture includes my friend, Kirsty, who also starts with K and is pretty damn awesome.


I love the heck out of karaoke. You have no idea how much I love it. When I lived in Japan and could go to the private karaoke rooms, I'd go maybe 3-4 times a week. Usually on my own. I learnt early on NEVER to go with a guy unless I wanted to partake in shenanigans because apparently my tuneless singing isn't enough to quench the fire in their loins.

My usual haunt was a pretty run down place near where I lived, with ripped and faded lino on the floors and vinyl booth seating.  For a few bucks, you got 4 hours of "free time" and a help-yourself soft drink bar.

 Later, when I lived with my sister, we'd go to a place near our station.  A tiny place with only four rooms.  They made the best coffee floats - a shot of coffee with soft serve ice cream.  I have to confess, we often got beers from the convenience store and snuck them in with us to avoid the expensive alcohol prices (a common practice for tightarses in Japan).

One day, I left my scarf in the room and went back the next day to pick it up.  The man who owned the place presented it to me with both hand, immaculately folded.  After that, I had a huge crush on him.

The photos above show some of the more novelty karaoke places I've been - the nerd themed place in Akihabara (we had the Evangelion room, I think). The Billy the Kid karaoke in Hiroshima, which did not have Billy the Kid theme rooms.  Then there's a photo of my sister when they put us in the kid's room! My sister is playing air guitar on an inflatable toy.  Imagine a room in yellow and orange with a kid's play area including mini slide in the corner!

More than the decor, I'm obsessed with karaoke backing videos.  Usually a montage of meaningless videos edited together - that may or may not reflect the feeling of the song.  I make stories out of them.  The same actors continue their story through different videos from song to song.  Sometimes with a different woman or man, sometimes reunited with their partner.  Always, for some reason, dropping bags of fruit.  I imagine seeing a stranger on the street and feeling like I know them but it really being the actor from the karaoke video come to life.  No longer shaking a metal fence near a train station filled with angst but going to the bank or the supermarket or some other routine task.

Even though I have no skill at singing, I love belting out a tune.  When you live in a country like Japan, with small apartments, little personal space and feeling that you are always on display as a foreigner, that small, dark karaoke room gives you a time out from the world.  It's like time and place no longer exist and you can let yourself go.

Do you like karaoke?  Have you ever been by yourself?


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Japan {Things I love}

I feel like these pictures show the pretty side of Japan, the things you see on postcards, but who takes photos of the trivia of life?

The first time I went to Japan I thought everything was so freaken cute.  More cute than things ever should be.  It felt like the country was a kaleidoscope of delights - from the food to the festivals, from the super cute children dressed in yukata to the super groomed men on the streets.  I spend hours in the convenience store looking at all the magazines and cosmetics and candy bars.  I thought I could live in Japan for a million years and never get sick of it.

The second time I went to Japan on impulse.  We got super cheap flights and I thought why not?  My work screwed up my pay and I got pretty much stranded with little money.  I had to go to internet cafes to try to get my money sorted and lived on the free vending machine corn soup you get there for a few days.  We had a crazy night of drinking and woke up with photos on my camera I don't remember taking of people I don't remember meeting.

The third time I went to Japan for an Arashi concert.  Not just any concert but their 10th anniversary concert.  We had to buy scalped tickets online and they cost a small fortune.  We were so relieved when we got to the hotel and they were waiting for us.  At the concert venue, we were convinced we'd get busted - that they'd realise the tickets issued in very Japanese didn't belong to our very un-Japanese faces.  When the concert started and I saw them float over the stage, I felt like all my dreams had come true.

The fourth time I went to Japan, I moved there to live . I thought I'd be living there for the rest of my life.  I arrived on a student visa, excited and scared about my life in a new country.  I left a year later feeling like Japan had thrown every thing it had at me to get me to leave.  An earthquake, having my rent money stolen, dating a guy who got off on trying to rip my self-esteem to shreds, and the perpetual comments about being how good I was at using chopsticks.

The fifth time, wasn't meant to be my fifth time.  I'd planned to stay in Tokyo until my sister did her exchange semester for university.  Instead I returned to Australia, worked for six months, then went back.  We lived in a strange suburb and spend most of our time at Gusto, a family restaurant, or in Shin Okubo, eating Korean BBQ.  I went travelling around the country and feel in love with the Seto Inland Sea.

The sixth time I went to Japan was last year.  Although I'd been to see my beloved Arashi in concert several times, I had never seen them play at the National Stadium (Kokuritsu).  Only one band plays there a year and it was rumoured to be the last concert ever before the stadium got pulled down to be rebuilt for the Tokyo Olympics.  I was determined to go to that concert no matter what the cost.  I figured I'd travel the entire country, visiting every town on my list so that I'd have done Japan.  I could move on to somewhere else.

The seventh time was 6 weeks later.  I got cheap flights and I got cheap concert tickets - this time for Sapporo and hey, I'd never been to Sapporo before.

I don't know what it is about Japan that makes me keep going back.  It's a fantastic place to go for a short holiday - the kind of holiday where you think everyone is so polite and helpful.  Any longer and the mask slips.  If you try to go outside the prescribed lines of what a foreigner should do or see, you realise you are a lot less welcome, but it's only outside those lines I get to experience the things I want to see.

I am currently working on an historical novel set in Nagasaki during the Bakumatsu period - when Japan first became open to Westerners after centuries of being locked up.  It's a hard novel to write and I keep being side tracked into easier projects but I will finish it.  I might write more about it when we get to N.


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Food {Things I love}


If I'm talking about things I love then the letter F has to be food.  My love food is huge.  I'm going to Italy this year and that's going to be an adventure in eating.  I'm just wondering how I'll fit in all the gelato I want to eat.

I didn't realise until I put the photos together that all my food pictures are from Japan.  I guess that's partly because I take more food photos when I'm on holidays and I travel to Japan a lot and also because I love Japanese food.  One of my favourites is taiyaki - the fish pancakes with yummy filling.  The main photo is of a woman making the taiyaki.  There is also a super delicious black sesame icecream I had at Arashiyama.  Words cannot describe the deliciousness of that icecream, nutty and sweet.   And Harajuku crepes, so good but it's so hard to eat a whole one.

The egg vending machine is near Mt Fuji.  I've also included some sushi.  I'm not so fond of the big rolls so popular in the West but love sashimi of all types.  Then there's a bento box - in Japan when you take the bullet train, you can buy super delicious bento boxes with sections containing different foods.  They are super pretty as well as being tasty and usually healthy too, well unless you get the ones full of fried chicken.

What are your favourite foods?

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