The river flows


To the casual tourist, overwhelmed by its splendour, Kyoto may seem like an everlasting, unchanging city, with its ancient temples, regular street grid, and restaurants and guesthouses older than most countries.

In reality, it is anything but. The city had been undergoing changes since its inception; even the first ambitious, Tang-dynasty inspired plan for the Imperial Capital was never fulfilled before reality forced its gravity centre east, closer to the river. Over the following centuries, wars and politics, fires and floods had shaped the city with a constant flux, making the remains of the past all the more precious.

And it is still changing now. The changes range from subtle to dramatic, and perhaps none more so dramatic in recent years than the massive influx of tourists from East Asia. Always Japan’s busiest visitor hot-spot, Kyoto has now become Asia’s Venice, at times stifled and overwhelmed by the tidal wave of people. Not only the Chinese – though they are by far the most visible – but Koreans, and ASEANians have joined this multitude; with its 1.4 mln population, Kyoto is relatively tiny by Asian standards – a mere fraction of places like Hanoi, Seoul or Bangkok, not to mention Shanghai – so it doesn’t take much for it to feel crowded.

The most immediate effects on the tourist infrastructure are drastic, but of course not all bad. Gone are the “busy” and “quiet” seasons – the Japanese may only care about Kyoto in spring bloom and autumn leaves, but foreigners come and go as they please. The influx of money is noticeable – new ryokans, shops and restaurants spring up everywhere, old ones get a new coat of paint and some badly needed update of decor. Enriched by increase in taxes, the city splashed out on fancy new boulevards all along the Kamo River. Knowledge of English language is now properly enforced: the “old guard” of native English speakers from US or Australia may have been more tolerant of the Japanese ways, but the new tourists had to learn English themselves, and they don’t have patience for the clerks and cashiers being unable to utter anything beyond a few platitudes. In a surprising twist, it seems the locals now welcome Western faces with relief and almost joy: such is the paradox of the casual xenophobia that makes the old, familiar devil appear better than the new one. And yes, some of the new wave can be famously rude, and each such trespass of manners is widely reported in the local media, but before the Chinese it used to be the Americans who bore the brunt of all that pointing and mocking, and let’s face it, compared to the Japanese anyone will seem rude and obnoxious.

But that is not the only thing that’s changing in Kyoto. The other change is more subtle, one that needs several visits to appreciate: the skyline. The modern buildings in Japan tend to have a lifespan of about 20-30 years. That means most of the current crop, built at the threshold of the Lost Decade, is now horribly outdated: bad taste renderings of post-modernist kitsch, gaudy monstrosities in raw concrete and ceramic tile. Luckily, this era is coming to an end. One by one, the old cubes are being replaced by buildings of the new style. Gone is stained grey concrete, shaped in random protrusions, patched with plastic or ceramic to look like a bathroom turned inside out. In its place are black panels, cold steel, wood trimmings. The gaudy arrogance of the 1990s is replaced with the subdued elegance, matching the old environment rather than shouting over it. It is all very heart-warming, though it does keep me wondering if in 20-30 years these new builds won’t look just as old and out-dated?

And then there’s yet another change – the cars. For some unfathomable reason – whether it’s the newly found confidence in Abenomics, prevalence of hybrid engines or changes in road tax – or all of the above – the Kyotoites ditch their fun and practical, colourful, small kei cars, in favour of massive, tank-like people movers, all shining chrome and black steel. Once cars like these would have been the domain of mobsters and celebrities, now they’re parked everywhere, sometimes dwarfing the houses they’re “attached” to. Quite what anyone may need these monsters for in the streets that are barely wide enough for two mopeds to pass, is anyone’s guess.

The smallest scale of change is also the most personal. Of the ancient couple making red bean paste sweets in Tominokoji street, only the husband remains fit enough to serve customers – the wife is now too frail and ridden with diseases of old age. Since they don’t seem to have any apprentices, inevitably one day we’ll find their small shop closed forever. And they’re not the only ones in Shimogyo-ku – these are the streets filled with tiny old shops run by tiny old men and women. Their passing marks the passage of time in the most poignant way. But despite all of this, the Kyoto – our Kyoto – remains, and, against the odds, thrives.

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Naoko Ogigami: Obaa-chan saves the world


Speaking loudly
Speaking loudly

We men have been speaking loudly for centuries, and at last, we have spoken all we had to say. As the male-dominated mainstream pop-culture engages in a cannibalistic downward spiral of reboots, remakes, repeated cliches and post-modern irony, it becomes obviously clear that women are our only chance for saying something new and original.

As male-dominated societies go, Japan is often seen as an extreme among developed countries, but its culture, too, is currently being saved by active, creative, independent women, whether in visual arts, music or film. The “new wave” of Japanese female film directors started about a decade ago, and Naoko Ogigami is my favourite – and perhaps best known – of these.

Most fans of Japanese cinema will have heard of at least one of her movies: “Kamome Diner”, the whimsical tale of a Japanese woman opening a low-key diner in Helsinki. That sentence summarizes the movie’s entire plot: little else really happens in the story. Characters come and go, little self-contained vignettes happen to them or around them. Life goes on.

The same one-sentence summary may be applied to Ogigami’s other late movies – “Megane” and “Rent-a-neko”. A woman travels to a lonely guesthouse on a tropical island. A woman wanders the streets of a city renting cats to lonely passer-byes. There is more of a plot in her earlier work – “Yoshino’s Barber” is a proper story, with an established setting, character development and a denouement of sorts; the English-language “Toilet” is half-way there – there’s a plot, but very faintly drawn, with many of the threads forgotten or leading nowhere.

This is storytelling that will be familiar to those who enjoy Japanese film-making: from Yasujiro Ozu to Yoji Yamada, you can draw a straight line of directors who revel in telling non-stories, sketching non-events, portraying characters in blink-of-an-eye snapshots; the cinematic equivalent of those hanging scrolls, which would present an entire landscape in a few strokes of a brush.

Ogigami’s movies are all that, with a dash of Wes Anderson’s penchant for whimsy and magic realism, but with an added uniquely female perspective. You’ll have noticed that all the above summaries have one thing in common: a Japanese woman does something. The “Toilet” is the only exception to that rule, not just because the main characters are Canadian, but most of them are male; but even they are not your typical movie males: a cross-dresser, a suspected gay, an effete geek; one could easily call them “effeminate”, if the word didn’t have so many negative connotations. Rather, these are simply men drawn in the same subtle and original way as the women.

Most importantly, though, Ogigami’s women live in a world of female fantasy. And this is a dramatic change of pace from what most movie-goers are used to, which is, predominantly, a world of male fantasy. We are so used to seeing men in incredible, cliched situations, that we either completely ignore it, or, at best, shrug it off with an ironic smile.

Nobody wonders anymore about men of action withstanding multiple bullet wounds, chasing cars on foot, or being ever ready to sleep with beautiful women at their whim. These are male cliches that we take for granted, eagerly suspending our disbelief.

Ogigami asks us to suspend our disbelief to enjoy the fantasy shared by women not only in Japan. Her characters are all strong, independent, economically self-reliant – and single. Just like nobody asks how John McClane could survive all those falls, so nobody asks where Sachie got the money to run an empty restaurant in a foreign city; nobody knows what Sayoko really does for a living, even though her Rent-a-cat business obviously is not enough to support her. Nobody knows who their families are, what their surnames are, where did they come from, and where will they go. These are women who are not defined by their jobs, their families, their partners; none of this is important to what they truly are. And yet, you know they are full, three-dimensional characters. It’s that hanging scroll effect again: a simple sketch tells the whole story.

Run these movies through a Bechdel Test, and the results will be off the scale. Apart from “Toilet”, men appear as background or plot devices; there’s not a hint of romance: even what may seem like it in Rent-a-neko is swept away like the floating summer noodle before it gets a chance to develop. In these fantasy worlds, nothing, and no-one, stands in the way of a woman’s self-discovery. These are the most perfectly subtle feminist movies I’ve ever seen.

And then there’s the Obaa-chan. A character – or rather, a living trope – played by the enigmatic Masako Motai. The obaa-chan’s presence weighs heavily on what little of the plot there is, at once focusing and blurring the actions of everyone else around her. And although there is no actual connection between Masako’s characters in each movie, you could try to trace her progression of sorts throughout Ogigami’s oeuvre: starting out as a noisy and strict conformist in Yoshino’s Barber, she changes her ways and leaves Japan in search of new experiences in Kamome Diner; in the summer she sells shaved ice on Megane’s island, and, at the end of her life, is brought to Canada, to change the lives of her lost grand-children. In Rent-a-neko, she’s just a memory, a spirit in a shrine, but even in death (and I’m convinced that the dead grandmother in the movie is “played” by Masako Motai in absentia) she’s at least the second most important character in the story. Masako’s Obaa-chan is not the wise-but-sweet grandma of Miyazaki’s movies: rather, she, too, is strong, self-reliant, and with a blurry, unimportant past left behind. By the time we see her in Megane and Toilet, a lifetime of  independence gives her a Yoda-esque presence and authority. She is the fulfillment of the dream that all of Ogigami’s characters, more or less inadvertently, pursue. And, as the symbolic final scene of Rent-a-neko shows, she has raised the next generation of independent women well.

Soon after the success of Kamome Diner, together with her producer, Kumi Kobata, and a few other female movie makers, Naoko Ogigami established an independent production studio, Suurkiitos. I am now going slowly through their catalog, and from what I can tell, the movies created there continue the tradition of telling beautifully sketched, simple, subtle stories with strong female characters. “Suurkiitos” means “Thank you very much” in Finnish, and it is a fitting name for a company whose work inspires so much gratitude in the viewers.

5 J-Pop songs I can’t stop humming this week (and neither will you)


I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – these past few years have been the best to be fan of Japanese music. Not only is the access something we couldn’t have dreamt of in the past: the music can be obtained through a myriad of ways – YouTube, iTunes, Amazon MP3, Spotify – you can even get a Niconico account these days without living in Japan! – but the quality of the offerings is as high as it was in the best of times. The indie artists are producing a hit after hit, no matter what genre or style you’re after, and they are all great.

In a music culture that’s so focused on neat melody as J-Pop/J-Rock, it’s a given that all the good songs will be perfectly hummable, but sometimes a song comes along that eats its way into your brain and stays there for days, taking over all your vital functions. Recently, I keep stumbling upon dozens of such songs – and here are five that seem to have the strongest hold on my synapses.

5. Gesu no Kiwami Otome – Momoe

“Gesu…” is a new project of Enon Kawatami, lead singer of Indigo La End. His other band is a more mainstream melodic rock production, also with plenty of great songs (truly, the only reason they’re not on this list too is to avoid repetition) – but “Gesu…” is something else. Part jazz, part hip-hop, part crazy bass riffs, and lots of toe-tapping, head-banging funk. “Momoe” is my favourite song of theirs so far, but also one that, sadly, doesn’t have an official video, so here’s some Japanese guy shredding the bass in his basement like a Boss.

4. tofubeats feat. ONOMATOPEDAIJIN – Suisei

Kobe-born Tofubeats (I’ve mentioned him before) is a one-man Japan’s answer to Daft Punk. Like the robot-headed Frenchmen, he uses his autotuned voice as one of the instruments, invites an eclectic mix of talents from all over the music world to assist him, and is generally the king of funk. Not all his songs are hummable – not all are even listenable for long, to be honest – but when he gets things right, he gets things right. “Suisei” is, as far as I can tell, a harrowing tale of trying to be cool young adult in Tokyo… “Cutie” and “Zipper” are fashion magazines read by trendy Shinjuku girls. This is all irrelevant, as the video is shot in Kobe 🙂

If you’re not a fan of autotune, and prefer soft female voice instead, there’s also a version sung by Seira Kariya (the infectiously cheerful girl in the video below).

3. Kana-Boon – Naimononedari

Kana-Boon is, unfortunately, not available on Spotify, and is in general not as popular and well-known as other bands on the list – and, frankly, most of their songs are pretty generic, ska-influenced power-pop, Asian KFG-style; they may be considered a one-hit wonder, but that one hit – and the accompanying brilliant video – is more than enough for the Kana-boon to appear on this list beside their more popular competition.

2. tricot – Last Step

Having opened for the reunited Pixies this year in England, and to rave reviews, tricot are definitely the hottest J-Rock band in years. They are best known for the overwhelming barrage of hard, melodic grunge riffs, math-rock experimentation, jazz-like precision and powerful voice of the lead singer – seriously, there is not a bad song on either of their two records – but in this solo number from their latest album, Ikkyu shows she can give just as haunting performance with nothing but an acoustic guitar and the raging sea behind her.

1. Predawn – Suddenly

If Bob Dylan and Bjork had a baby… well, their sex tape would probably be worth millions. But also, their child would be Miwako Shimizu, better known as Predawn. With a soft, but unwavering, just-accented voice, Predawn would be just another archetypal, folkish, mori “lonely girl with a guitar”, if not for the nigh super-human talent for writing melodies that will stay with you for weeks.

Seriously.

It’s like a tick on your brain.

NEW RELEASE! CHRYSANTHEMUM SEAL IS OUT!


The files are uploaded, verified and approved. The Chrysanthemum Seal is out now!

It’s the middle of summer in the Year of the Dragon. The hunt for the Crimson Robe may be over, but the adventure continues…

With Bran seemingly gone from Yamato forever, his friends settle in their new lives, their common adventures a distant memory. Sato enrolls in Lord Nariakira’s school of wizardry, while Nagomi joins her father’s medical practice in far-away Nagoya.

But the revolution, once started, cannot be stopped. The foreign threat finally comes to Yamato’s doorstep. A Varyagan submarine drops anchor in Kiyo harbour. A Bataavian warship arrives at Kagoshima, carrying Dylan ab Ifor, Gwen and Wulfhere. In Shimoda, the Black Wings supply fleet brings with it a curious, unwanted guest…

Kindle Edition:
Amazon US |Amazon UK | Amazon DE | Amazon IT | Amazon FR | Amazon ES |Amazon JP | Amazon CA | Amazon BR | Amazon AU
Kobo Edition:
Kobo | Kobo 楽天
Nook:
Nook

If you haven’t yet read any of the books in “The Year of the Dragon” cycle, you should start from The Shadow of Black Wings:

NEW_SHADO_ 1000 It is the Sixteenth Year of Queen Victoria. In the powerful empire of Dracaland, Bran, a young dragon rider, joins his father on a military expedition to the mysterious lands of the Orient. In the reclusive Yamato, Sato, a tomboy samurai girl, strives to prove her right to inherit her father’s school of western magic. Nagomi, a timid shrine apprentice, is haunted by the visions of dark future she must keep secret even from her best friend.

They don’t know it yet, but their paths will cross… And when they do, nothing will ever be the same again.

Welcome to The Shadow of Black Wings, a steam-powered romp across the land of dragons, wizards and samurai. It’s big, it’s fast, it’s been compared to Tolkien in terms of world-building, it has strong female characters and lots of carefully researched detail. You will meet the Royal Marines sailing mighty ironclads and Chinese walking machines; mysterious warlords and crazy inventors; you will discover dark prophecies, family secrets and blood-thirsty demons. And all that in just the first volume!

Kindle Edition:
Amazon US |Amazon UK | Amazon DE | Amazon IT | Amazon FR | Amazon ES |Amazon JP | Amazon CA | Amazon BR | Amazon AU
Kobo Edition:
Kobo | Kobo 楽天
Also:
iBooks | XinXii | Nook
Paperback:
Amazon US | Amazon UK | Amazon CN | Junglee.com | Barnes&Noble | Book Depository

Or if you don’t want to read the books piece-meal, dive straight in and splash out on the bundle of the first four volumes – this will bring you right up to date with the events leading up to the Chrysanthemum Seal!

 NEW_BUNDLE_250
 This is a bundle edition of the first four books of the best-selling historical fantasy saga, containing the entire Crimson Robe arc:

 

  • Book 1: The Shadow of Black Wings
  • Book 2: The Warrior’s Soul
  • Book 3: The Islands in the Mist
  • Book 4: The Rising Tide
The deluxe edition contains also a short story “Birkenhead Drill”, a full glossary of foreign words, list of characters, the map of the land of Gwynedd and a chronology of the world.
Kindle Edition:
Amazon US | Amazon UK  | Amazon DE | Amazon IT | Amazon FR | Amazon ES |Amazon JP | Amazon CA | Amazon BR | Amazon AU
Kobo Edition:
Kobo | Kobo 楽天
Nook:

kyotoOh, and here’s a little something to while away the time when the books download to your respective e-readers:
2048: The Year of the Dragon Edition!

All work and no play… January projects.


JanuaryJanuary so far is proving one of the busiest months.

Apart from finishing Draft 3 of “The Rising Tide” I’ve launched two major online projects since New Year. It’s been exhausting, but at least I’m finally doing fun things 🙂

The first project is “Today in Japan’s History“: daily Nihon Rekishitweets, FB and G+ posts on Japan’s History, on the day it happened. You can read more about the project here. At the moment I’ve gathered over 1500 facts, amounting to an average of 4-5 posts a day. Do follow please if you find that sort of thing interesting 🙂

The second project, launched today, is “Kobo Book Hub“: a site for promoting Kobo books. There’s a lot of these for Kindle, but not many for Kobo, so I’m here to fill out the niche. Right now it’s just listing books in three price categories, but I expect to be adding new features as the site grows. If you have a book on Kobo, please fill out the submission form. For a while all books are accepted free of charge 🙂

Repost from Letters of Note: The Beauty of Words by Lafcadio Hearn


This is an excellent letter on the matter of using words from different languages (as I tend to do) – from the irreplaceable Lafcadio Hearn to his editors:

Recognizing the ugliness of words, however, you must also recognize their physiognomical beauty. I see you and the Editor of the “Atlantic” are at one, however, in condemning my use of Japanese words. Now, I can’t entirely agree with either of you. As to the practical side of the question, I do. But as to the artistic, the romantic side, I don’t. For me words have colour, form, character; they have faces, ports, manners, gesticulations; they have moods, humours, eccentricities;—they have tints, tones, personalities. That they are unintelligible makes no difference at all. “

Full letter here:

Letters of Note: The Beauty of Words.

“The Shadow of Black Wings” OST


There is a lot of music in my books, either implied or outright named. I listen to a lot of music when I write, too. If I wasn’t a writer – and had even a smidgen of talent – my next career choice would have been a musician. So it seems natural that there should be an official soundtrack to my books. And here it is, a Spotify playlist to listen to when reading “The Shadow of Black Wings” – just click the logo below:

Unfortunately, making it a Spotify playlist meant I was limited in my choice of music. If I had my way, the soundtrack to “The Shadow…” would have been made mostly of music of Yoko Kanno, Joe Hisaishi and Hajime Mizoguchi. As such, there is less music that I wanted available for the second part of the book. I was even more surprised to see that Spotify doesn’t have two of my favourite soundtracks, Excalibur and Conan the Barbarian (the original one), and very few Kurosawa soundtracks. But needs must, I suppose. I might one day prepare the alternative list if I find a way to post the songs without breaking all sorts of rules.

There are some spoilers here, so the rest is under the cut.

Continue reading ““The Shadow of Black Wings” OST”

Learning Japanese


When I first started learning French, the book we’ve been using started with description of what B.C.B.G. is. Not the Max Azria fashion brand, but ‘Bon Chic, Bon Genre’ – an early 90’s fashion movement in France, which 15 years later English-speaking kids picked up as the basis of their hipster look.

The characters in the book then went on about the clothes boutiques at Champs Elysees and Galeries Lafayette. It was then that I first discovered how easily the national stereotypes can be enforced through learning a language. The French, it seemed from the book, were all about fashion, wine, cheese and chanson.
“Champs Elysees”, the first (and only) French song I’ve ever learned.
It’s now the same with Japanese. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my trips to Japan (and there’s much more than just one) is that these people are obsessed with food. They will talk about it like the English will about weather and Poles about history and politics. And sure enough, our Japanese lessons turn around eating and drinking. It seems all you really need to get by are two verbs: ‘taberu’ (eat) and ‘nomu’ (drink) – and an array of superlative adjectives. Almost every lesson starts with the question ‘what have you eaten today?’ or ‘have you eaten anything good lately?’ or ‘do you know any good places to eat?’ The dialogues, exercises and vocabularies follow the theme. 
If French be the language of love (and fashion, apparently) – the Japanese is the language of good food. 
Works for me. 

(Oh and by the way, judging from that one language book I’ve been browsing, the Germans are mostly concerned with drinking coffee. Which kind of matches my observations of germanic-speaking people, so far.)