Reblog: Yubari: Withering into truth

Spike Japan

I was recently commissioned by The Guardian newspaper to profile dear old Yubari in a short article; you can read the fruits of that endeavor, should you care to, here. However, the piece was hacked about and chopped down to make it more digestible for the hurried browser, so I thought I would post the unexpurgated version here, the director’s cut, as it were, with the scenes that were left on the cutting-room floor restored. Veteran Spike readers will be familiar with the tale, but there were a few twists and turns in it I hadn’t anticipated when I began the research process. Revisiting all the places Spike made it to in the blog’s five-year run every five years or so would turn into a Sisyphean task, like the painting of the Forth Bridge; a fascinating grand travaux but not one I’ll be undertaking in this life. I apologize…

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The Long Road To… Chrysanthemum Seal

A year ago, I published the fourth book of The Year of the Dragon, “The Rising Tide“, with a solemn promise to myself and my readers that the book five would be released “soon“.

“Soon” is a relative term. On one hand, some authors churn out novels every other quarter. On the other, GRRM takes five years to finish one of his door-stoppers 😉 Writing and publishing a book is never a fast and easy job, especially since I had to start writing Chrysanthemum Seal from scratch. Still, I didn’t expect it to take a full year, so I feel like I should explain exactly what took us at the Flying Squid so long to get things done.

May 2013 – we spent most of it preparing the Bundle Edition of the first four books, as well as the paperbacks.

June-October 2013 – The long awaited Great Round-Britain Journey in our little blue campervan, Orca! The plan was for me to start writing Book Five on the journey, but the reality got the better of us. There was simply too much to do, between driving around, sight-seeing and writing the blog. By the time we got back, all I had were just a few pages of the very rough draft and some plot ideas.

2013-Participant-Facebook-ProfileOctober-December 2013 – The first really intensive period of writing, including a try at NaNoWriMo in November. I got up to some sixty thousand words by December, at which point I started burning out a bit. The cover was ready in December.

December-February 2014 – This period includes a long trip to Japan, to regenerate and gain inspiration. I manage to get writing again, and the result is the 1st Draft ready in February.

February-March 2014 – I go through three more drafts and revisions. The book changes a lot over this period – the end result is hardly recognizable from what I envisaged back in October! I take part in two collaborative processes, the NovoPulp anthology and the Steamlit Extravaganza.

April 2014 – The final (5th) draft is ready for Easter. A week later, it’s proof-read and formatted. As I write this post, the Amazon-ready mobi file is in the final read-through. With a projected upload to KDP on Wednesday, we’re still good for the May 1st release. The paperback will follow soon after.

What next? Well, I’ve already started writing Book Six. I can’t decide on the title yet, it’s going to be either “Sparrow Strike” or something with Fire… the title has to be dynamic, as we’re finally getting to see (spoiler!) some real war in Yamato. The cover is commissioned for late autumn. I do hope this one will be faster, although, once again, we’re planning a big campervan trip this year, starting May…

 


Incidentally, if you are, or know, a voice artist looking for work over on ACX, I’ve posted “The Year of the Dragon” as project, and I’m awaiting auditions on the royalty-share basis.

tofubeats “No.1” video IS Japan.

One of the most popular types of question on Japan over on Quora could be summed up as “what is Japan like?”. What are your impressions of Japan? What should I know about modern Japan? etc.

From now on, I’ll simply be pointing everyone to this music video as an answer. To me, it captures perfectly everything about Japan ca. 2014. This is what the country feels like every time I visit.
Shinto-shrines and cup noodles. Shogi and capsule hotels. Green taxis in the rain. Macbooks and crabs. Giant soap bubbles in the park. Freshly shaved katsuo. Seiko clocks and Kikkoman.
Japan.

Space Shower Music Video Awards

space_award[1]MVA.JP BEST VIDEOS

All the videos nominated for Space Shower TV Music Video Awards. Everything that’s been happening in Japanese music in 2013 – from the twee mori-girl new-folk of Ichiko Aoba, through brutal hardcore of BBQ Chickens to sheer mind-fuckery of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu.

There are some real visual jewels here: the tragi-comic “Dance My Generation”, subtle “Remember Me” and epic “Revelation” are among my favourites so far.

You can vote for your favourite video here.

Yamamoto Yae – Joan of Aizu

Tsuruga Castle in Aizu
Tsuruga Castle in Aizu

Aizu-Wakamatsu is today a small, sleepy town, nestled in a cozy valley deep in the mountains of Fukushima Prefecture. It has a surprising number of tourist attraction for its size and remoteness, from ancient sake distilleries through cherry-blossom-filled castle gardens to skiing resorts and climbing routes on nearby Mount Bandai. It also has its share of famous people, either having born and lived in the city or passed through at one point.

This abundance stems from the city’s rich history as the capital of the powerful Aizu Domain, led by the Matsudaira family. The Matsudaira clan, ruling most of northern Honshu, spawned many sons, of which the most famous was one Ieyasu – who later took on the surname Tokugawa and became the first Shogun. Thus, the Matsudairas of Aizu became one of the most powerful clans in Japan, kindred to the shogun, and fiercely loyal to the Edo government.

It was to prove, of course, their downfall. The Shogunate lost the Boshin War, and the Aizu fought to the bitter end in and around the castle grounds. The defeat, and the harsh treatment they received afterwards, was a disaster from which neither the clan, nor the city, ever fully recovered. But the bloody Battle of Aizu did manage to produce two very different heroic figures in Japan’s history.

Byakkotai Reenactment
Byakkotai Reenactment

The first of these, and for many years far more popular ones, were the Byakkotai 19. The Byakkotai, or White Tigers were a reserve in Aizu army, a group of young samurai – boys, really, aged between 16 and 17. In the heat of the final battle, cut off from the castle, nineteen of these boys committed suicide on the slopes of Iimori Mountain.

The Japanese, always suckers for heroic sacrifice, naturally turned the Byakkotai first into a tool of war propaganda, and when that went out of fashion, a tourist attraction. All trips to Aizu-Wakamatsu had to include a visit to their graves at Iimori Mountain; local schoolchildren played out the story on festivals; and of course, Byakkotai Hello Kitty.

If any of that strikes you as tasteless and unnecessary, I have good news for you. The Byakkotai are no longer the only, or indeed, main heroes of Aizu. Thanks to the soaring popularity of a 2013 TV series based on her life, there’s a new boss in town, one that swept away the Byakkotai in the imaginations of the locals and took over all poster walls and souvenir stores – and this time it’s a woman.

tumblr_inline_mgp0n4Wi5v1rx699n[1]Yamamoto Yaeko, or Niijima Yae, is one of the most bad-ass female characters not only in the history of Japan, but the world. Not just because of what she did during the Aizu War – there were a few other onna-bugeisha, women-samurai, at the final stage of the conflict – but also, and perhaps more importantly, how she lived out the rest of her life.

There was a streak of military brilliance in her family since the days of Yamamoto Kensuke, the famous strategist of the Warring States period. Her father was a gunnery instructor to the daimyo, and her brother, a child prodigy, was a scholar of Rangaku and military science. In any other Japanese family, at any other moment in time, Yae’s interest in guns would be dismissed as an improper fancy, but both her father and her brother soon noticed how earnest the girl was in her pursuit. Another lucky factor was the introduction to Japan of modern Western rifles, which were lighter, easier to use and more accurate than the heavy, bulky arquebuses of yore.

YaeThe Spencer Rifle, a US Civil War surplus gun, became Yae’s weapon of choice, and is now associated with her in the same way that famous swords are associated with their owners. With this rifle, and with a unit of artillery she also commanded, Yae, wearing male clothes and haircut, fought on the walls of Aizu Castle with remarkable skill and effect.

The castle fell, and the story of many Aizu warriors ends here, but not Yae. She was after all only 23 when the war ended, and had a long, fruitful life before her. In fact, what happened next is perhaps even more remarkable than her short stint as Aizu Amazon.

Yae and Joe
Yae and Joe

She moved to Kyoto in search of her brother, and met there a man called Jo Niijima, an Edo-born, America-educated Christian feminist missionary, whom she soon married. For the next fifteen years, they ran together a private school in Kyoto which was later to turn into a highly respectable University, and fought for tolerance and equality within Japan’s strict society. But not even that was enough for the ever high-spirited Yae, who in addition to all her duties studied both the difficult arts of tea and flower ceremonies in Kyoto’s famous establishments, Urasenke and Ikenobo, becoming a certified master of both later in life – as befitted an accomplished samurai.

After her husband’s death, Yae’s interests turned from taking lives to saving them. She became a chief nurse in the Japanese Red Cross, and led a group of 40 nurses in Japan’s increasingly violent wars with its neighbours: in both the Sino-Japanese War of 1894 and the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 she became so distinguished she received not one, but two Orders of the Precious Crown for her services to the nursing profession.

Yae and Evangeline Booth
Yae and Evangeline Booth

The fiery spirit was stubborn to leave Yae’s body. Indeed, she lived long enough to receive yet another award from Emperor Hirohito – the grandson of Emperor Meiji in whose name Aizu Castle had been razed when she was a girl – in 1928, and to witness her country descend into the war frenzy of early 1930’s.

Throughout the 86 years of her life, Yamamoto Yaeko was a sniper, a gunner and a samurai; a master of tea and flower ceremonies; a scholar and a civil rights fighter; and finally, a distinguished nurse. If there was ever a role model for strong-willed girls everywhere, it’s definitely Yae of Aizu.

(and of course, I hope you’ll find more than hints of her in the character of Takashima Sato in my Year of the Dragon books.)

PS: The TV drama I mentioned above can be seen in a few places on the internet, and I highly recommend it. It is one of several such series in a very laudable string of recent efforts by NHK to portray the strong and powerful women of Japan’s otherwise testosterone-awash history, from Tenshoin in 2008’s Atsuhime through Oeyo in 2011’s Go to last year’s Yae no Sakura.

The Darker Side of Tokyo

(note: for the equivalent region of Osaka, see here)

Like many foreign tourists on a budget, whenever we are in Tokyo we tend to stay in one of the many no-frills backpacker hotels scattered throughout a district situated to the immediate north of the Asakusa’s Senso-ji Temple.

(all photos: Google Street View)

Most foreigners who stay there probably don’t bother to question why small, but clean and decent hotels, not too far from the city centre and usually with good transport connections both to Narita Airport and to the main tourist spots of Akihabara and beyond, are so cheap, and why there seems to be so many of them in this one particular spot. But it doesn’t take a lot of digging to realize the truth. This district was once known as San’ya – the name is now missing from most maps, in an attempt to erase its glum past – is the closest Tokyo ever had to a slum.

It’s not really obvious at first sight, especially if all you do is hurry down the main streets between the hotel and the nearest subway station. There is nothing that you would usually associate with the word slum, certainly not an Asian one. Like any other district, San’ya is immaculately clean and perfectly safe at all times of day and night (Japan is never a crime-free place, but it’s almost always free from petty crime, which helps to maintain the illusion); the buildings are all the same sort of rough and ugly concrete blocks as is standard in a post-war Japanese suburb; the konbinis sell the same uniform selection of food and drink as everywhere else, and the vending machines are just as ubiquitous. But once you start looking, small cracks start to appear in this façade, through which you will start noticing the real face of San’ya.

shanty
Shanties marked for demolition

Here and there, among the concrete-and-tile apartment towers, stands a row of shanties of corrugated iron. Most are marked for demolition, but some, remarkably, seem to be still inhabited. Somewhere else, another concrete cube is visibly uglier and in a poorer shape than others, looking both haunted and condemned, with small, dark tinted windows, and a wall covered in splotches of mold and smudges of dust; it seems impossible that anyone would be willing to live here, and yet there will be new cars coming out of the garage, and bikes standing in front in a neat row.

A dusty shopping arcade here, a roof-covered commercial street there, both as far from the glamour of its better known Osaka or Kyoto kindred as possible, filled with little else than cheap booze joints, pork bowl stands, 100 Yen shops and discount supermarkets. On some walls you’ll spot – horror of horrors – graffiti. The day labourers queue up in front of labour exchanges, ever hopeful. Those who are without hope, queue up in front of sake shops, looking for a kind bargain.

mosque
San’ya Mosque

There is, of course, a place for religion – the last refuge of the poor. And not just the usual kind; the Inari shrines, standing here since this place was just rice fields and marshland, and a few Buddhist temples, dressed in gold leaf and promise, are all well and good, but sometimes the old Gods can’t provide comfort enough to the needy. So you will spot a stained-window Christian mission on a corner; a Catholic Church peeking its neon cross from between the high-towers; and, strangest of all in Japan, a mosque, unashamedly displaying its prayer hours in both Japanese and Arabic. That last building points to another sure sign of a poor district: the immigrants. Like tourists, they too seek cheap rent and living, not caring for the reason why; and so here, on the streets of San’ya, they all end up, a mixture of languages and cultures resulting in what, in the Estate Agent speak, is known as a “vibrant neighbourhood”.

And if after noticing all this you are still unconvinced as to what kind of place San’ya is, take an evening stroll along the local park on the shores of Sumida River, and watch it fill up with nightly tenants: the homeless salarymen, all impeccably dressed and mannered, preparing their cardboard capsule hotels.

Esperanza Shoe Design Academy
Esperanza Shoe Design Academy

There is another sight that is characteristic only to places like San’ya; one that helps explain how this neighbourhood got to where it is, and why. A sight at first completely innocent and inconspicuous: the shoe-makers shops.

For you see, San’ya was not an organic, improvised,  slum that grows around rich cities on in its own, uncontrollable manner. San’ya was set up and organized as such, a long, long time ago.

The wikipedia entry is kindly euphemistic: it describes the area as set up in the Edo period as residence of the “lower caste workers, butchers, tanners and leatherworkers”. In Japan, this can mean only one thing: San’ya is an Eta District (Leatherworkers, incidentally, are the reason for the above-mentioned prevalence of shoe-makers in the neighbourhood. The best shoes in Japan used to come from here in the days before shoe manufacture moved to China). I will not be here recounting what it meant – and still means – to be an eta, or burakumin: the Japanese pariah. I have linked before to a good study of the subject, so there’s no need to repeat the information. What is striking, however, is how visible the presence and heritage of the lowest class still is in places such as San’ya. The difference between its gloomy tower blocks and the glimmering towers of downtown Tokyo could not be greater.

The winding road once leading into Yoshiwara
The winding road once leading into Yoshiwara

And if that wasn’t enough, there is still more to look out for in the neighbourhood; right across the street from San’ya lay the famous Yoshiwara: the red light district of Edo, not the glamorous abode of the flowery geisha, but the sleazy den of prostitutes, then, as it is now, dedicated to simple exchange of money for sex rather than any more refined entertainment. Immediately to the north, now hidden among the railway tracks, is Kozukappara – Shogun’s grand execution grounds, where so many of Tokugawa’s enemies lost their lives to the executioner’s sword, including Yoshida Shoin, that the main road leading to it is still known today as the Bone Street. In Edo period, you would not have found a more wretched hive of scum and villainy than this swampy suburb sprawling north of Asakusa.

Tatake! Tatake! Tatake! - Ashita no Joe's statue
Tatakae! Tatakae! Tatakae! – Ashita no Joe’s statue

But there is still hope in San’ya – personified best by the character of Ashita no Joe, the hero of one of the most popular, and tragically heroic, manga and anime series of all time. In Joe’s days, in the 1960s, San’ya was a real slum: the corrugated iron shanties being the norm rather than exception. Today, Joe’s statue stands defiantly in front of the shopping arcade, and thanks to low rents and good links, the area is becoming a favourite among young and trendy foreigners, who don’t care for its past. And the Sky Tree Tower rises brightly over the Bone Street, a literal beacon of hope shining over the poor and the rich alike.

You can read more about the “vanishing” people of Japan’s slums in Lena Mauger’s new book, “The Vanished“.

Sky Tree Tower
Sky Tree Tower over San’ya

The mystery of Japanese Tiled Houses

I’m aware that this is a very niche post. Treat it as a little, disturbing glimpse into what I sometimes find interesting 😉

As I’ve mentioned before, the outsides of many buildings in Japan’s cities resemble the insides of bathrooms: the walls are covered by thousands of tiny, shiny ceramic tiles. I had noticed this phenomenon before, but always dismissed it as one of the many quirks of Japan’s modern architecture – like putting conspicuous Mickey Mouse ears wherever possible, or ending even the most perpendicular, simplistic tower blocks with oddly decorative finials. This year, however, I began to notice it more, and suddenly it was everywhere: if a building is not made of wood, it’s almost bound to be tiled. So I simply had to research it.

Turns out, this is not just a strange aesthetic choice, but a practical solution to a double problem that plagues Japanese cities: earthquake and harsh climate.

Earthquakes render brick buildings mostly unusable. In an earthquake, a brick house falls apart like a house of cards, burying everyone inside under a pile of clay cubes. Most of the existing brick buildings in Kyoto are listed municipal features, like the City Museum.

This gives you a choice of two other building materials: wood and concrete. Wood is expensive in maintenance, and doesn’t allow to build high, so unless you’re well-to-do townsperson wanting to have a villa, you’re left with concrete. Also, concrete trade is subsidized by the government, which makes the choice even more obvious.

However, raw concrete has two important disadvantages: one, unless you’re going for raw brutalism deliberately, it’s a damn ugly material: grey, drab, featureless. More importantly, it is not well suitable for Japan’s difficult climate. The immense humidity of the rainy season and the extreme heat of the late summer quickly erode raw concrete, eating through it like so much butter. Any un-clad concrete house in Kyoto is covered in vast damp patches and scars of acid erosion. This situation called for a drastic, innovative solution.

The Japanese realized that the conditions outside in the rainy months resemble closely those inside a used bathroom (as anyone who’s spent a summer in the semi-tropics can confirm). And what best protects the bathroom walls from erosion? Ceramic tiles!

Tiles, tiles everywhere
Tiles, tiles everywhere

And that’s the reason. Tiles protect concrete from the dampness. Concrete protects inhabitants from earthquakes. Both problems are endemic to Japan, and the solution is fairly ingenious; unfortunately for a place like Kyoto, the result is only minimally better, aesthetically, than leaving the raw concrete out (and often worse) – a price of compromise, I suppose.

Japan, according to “The Wolverine”

“Our islands are long and thin. The trains only run in two directions.”
Shingen Yashida

One of the movies I chose to watch on the flight to Japan was “The Wolverine”. It’s a bad, bad movie, with even more Oriental stereotypes per square inch than Last Samurai’s “traditional Japanese village” sequence. Since whatever little of the plot there was failed to pull me in at all, I had ample time to focus on the particularly shoddy job the Wolverine does of Japanese geography. Wolverine’s escapades around Japan are far more intriguing than even Thor’s famous Tube journey from Charing Cross to Greenwich in three short stops.

Here’s a (badly drawn) map of what Wolverine’s Japan looks like, based on what’s said and shown in the movie:

Wolverine

PEDANT’S NOTES (contain Spoilers):
(PS: I know geography is never a strong point in action movies, but usually the action itself is distracting enough not to care about it. In Wolverine, it wasn’t.)

1. All of Japan’s city centres are, apparently, perfectly walkable. It’s about 8km from Tokyo Tower to Ueno Station. Wolverine and Mariko run all the way (Mariko in her wedding kimono). Also, the Tokyo Tower can be visible from any point in the city.

2. There are no bullet trains from Ueno to Osaka. Why they couldn’t just run to Tokyo Station (which is half-way to Ueno) will remain a mystery.

3. Since there is no public transport in Wolverine’s Japan, he and Mariko must walk again, a few miles from Shin Osaka station to the “centre”, where they stumble upon an unexpected clone of Tokyo’s Nakagin Capsule Tower.

4. There is never any sense of Japan consisting of several islands, rather than one long one. Japan’s main geographical regions are “The South” (Osaka and Nagasaki) and “The North” (where the Yashida research facility is). As mentioned above, Japan is a one-dimensional place, with only one railway line running along it. No wonder Shingen is so angry with his lackeys.

5. The distances covered are not explained, but we do get one glimpse into how long it takes to travel between major cities, when Yukio takes Logan in her Audi all the way from Nagasaki to Tokyo in a matter of one cut-scene, and doesn’t even manage to explain him her visions along the way. In reality, the non-stop journey would take the best part of the day (also: how fast is that Audi? Logan mentions earlier that the bullet train runs at 400-500km/h, and yet it’s easier to get back to Tokyo in Yukio’s car)

6. The only actual distance mentioned in the movie is the ominously uttered “500 km” from Tokyo to Black Clan Village. It’s so far away that even the weather changes from summer to winter. Never mind that Logan and Yukio just drove some 1200 km from Nagasaki apparently without even having time to talk.