Smashwords Summer Sale for Samurai

Hopefully everyone in Canada and the U.S. is enjoying the long weekend. Just a quick note that I will be participating in the Smashwords Summer Sale that lasts until July 31, 2017. If you have been waiting for a deal on The Samurai Poet, this is your chance to get 25% off using the coupon code SSW25 at their website. After you've read it, let me know what you think or post a review on Goodreads. Thanks and enjoy your summer reading.

Glass House Freedom

I was having trouble falling asleep last night . . . eleven, twelve, one, two. Had no choice but to reach for my last resort, reading. In these moments, desperate agnostics get spiritual. Along the lines of "God, if you're there, give me a sign." I opened up Tomas Tranströmer's Bright Scythe (translated by Patty Crane) to "Allegro."

I play Haydn after a black day
and feel a simple warmth in my hands.

I don't play Haydn, but it had been a black day. Couldn't turn off my brain as thoughts about the Educational Industrial Complex churned in my brain.

The tone says that freedom exists
and someone isn't paying the emperor's tax

The tone says freedom exists. Someone isn't paying the emperor's tax, the tax that I am paying in the currency of stress.

The music is a glass house on a slope
where stones are flying, stones are rolling.

I am a glass house too.

And the stones roll straight through
but every pane remains whole.

Every pane remains whole. In that moment I visualized the stones passing through my walls without shattering the panes of glass. The stones will fly. The stones will roll, but they cannot break me if I let them pass through.

I returned to bed and fell asleep with that image in my mind narrated with the refrain, freedom exists.

Japan Travelogue ToC

For those not interested in reading fifteen consecutive posts about the vacation of a friend, acquaintance, or stranger, here they all are at a glance, including a quick teaser so you can choose the ones of interest.

2016 Japan Trip - An introduction with a bit of this and that
Renewing Connections - Covers a tour of the National Museum of Japanese History with some old friends
Windmills and Wild Finishes - Features an in depth write up of one of the best live baseball experiences in my life
Local Tour - On the pleasures of visiting minor tourist sites closer to home in Sakura, Chiba
Hakone Haiku - The shortest post, yet one of my favourites
Transportation Celebration Vacation - Exposes what vacations are really about
Hakone Honesty - The infamous lost iPhone story
Gatchaman Day - A humble suggestion for a new observance
Family Ritual Time Machine - Backyard fireworks spark nostalgia
Old Friends, New Friends - Partying at an izakaya beats shopping any day of the week
In The Teeth of the Typhoon - Discretion may be the better part of valour, but it's less interesting
Tokyo: Shogun Bookends - A travel piece on a few Tokyo neighbourhoods worthy of a newspaper commission
Sucking in Sakura - Local Tour, Part 2
Departures - On the Narita Airport Shopping Experience + Capsule reviews of two Japanese movies
Mistakes and Miscommunications: On the joys and frustrations of being an intermediate Japanese language student

Mistakes & Miscommunications

I thought my 2016 Japan travelogue would end with the last day in the country. The day I returned to Canada though, I realized there was more to say.

Three years ago, I was acting spoiled in the sense that time in Japan no longer seemed like an exotic vacation but almost a domestic experience. This time, I didn't have that sense at all, thankfully, even if this was the most comfortable and familiar Japan has ever felt to me. While I am far from claiming any sense of assimilation, there was a feeling akin to slipping on a second skin while I navigated my way through physical and cultural pathways.

The most remarkable experience for me this time was how my confidence in my Japanese ability fluctuated daily like a penny stock market. High points included my first day when I felt so locked in that I was understanding customs officials, phone rental clerks, and my in-laws. I felt like a master translator able to interpret for my mom and kids and share their thoughts when necessary. A couple days later I was decoding train announcements with deadly accuracy and kibitzing with baseball fans at the Marines game while ordering fast food in such flawless Japanese it left the cashier in shock. Seriously, her jaw hit the counter with the impact of a foul ball.

After this initial surge of confidence, something weird happened that I can't quite put my finger on. There were good days and bad days. I translated some thoughts almost in the opposite of what my in-laws intended and had to be corrected by my wife. With other friends I immediately switched to English when I knew they were proficient. Not that there weren't some other good moments along the way. I think the later highlight was when I went for coffee with a friend and we spoke almost entirely in Japanese, completing a transition over the 18 years of our friendship from when we spoke exclusively in English. Still, by the time I reached the airport on the last day, I was speaking exclusively in English the moment I was greeted by a store clerk in both languages.

At first I wondered if my Japanese knowledge was almost like a finite resource that I had built up over three years, only to watch each word and phrase slip away as I spoke it. Later it dawned on me that by the end of the trip I was experiencing a bit of culture shock and retreated into English as my safety zone. Supporting this theory was the realization that when I was feeling sleepy or fatigued I was less likely to speak Japanese and more likely to rely on my wife to communicate when she was available.

The other possibility is that my confidence was shaken by a karaoke clerk's indecipherable spiel about all the pricing options available to us and the conditions of sale. That event was a reality check, and it seemed like it took me a few days to recover from the stumble. After that experience, I had moments when I thought I had expressed myself correctly and clearly only to be misunderstood. This led to me making uncharacteristic mistakes with similar sounding vocabulary. The irony is that when I made mistakes (or was I finally saying the right word?), that is when it seemed like people understood what I really meant anyway. Who knows? Perhaps it's as simple as who you're talking to and when.

Mistakes and miscommunications aside, my overall sense is that my Japanese is better than I had given myself credit for, so it is worth studying more consistently before the next trip because the brain will recall the lessons when the time is right—even when there's little opportunity to use the language regularly in Canada. The trip also helped me identify some conversational blind spots which a book I bought conveniently addresses. It's early days, so we'll see if I follow through once the reality of work demands hit, but the sense of realism I'm feeling right now about what I can reasonably accomplish makes me cautiously optimistic that I can follow through on an often stated but seldom worked on resolution.

If you've never been to Japan, I encourage you to visit, especially if you have never travelled overseas before. It's safe, public transport makes it easy to get around, and the mix of old and new suggests there will be a travel experience to suit every taste. If you don't go, hopefully this travelogue gave you a small taste of what it's like there. Thanks for reading.

Previous: Departures


August 25

Our flight wasn't until 5:30 PM, so there was a sense that we could squeeze a little more out of the day and not sacrifice it solely to travel. After packing and double checking that we had everything, there was time for my wife to take the boys back to the windmill they had been pining to see again, and for me to show my mom the Finnish cafe and Scandinavian retail shop in its unlikely location on the main road half way between Sakura and Usui Stations. I had meant to blog about this great discovery three years ago, but never found the time to do so when Over a Hedge was still a going concern.

Sooooo, if you ever find yourself in Sakura, or more likely in Narita on a layover, make an effort to visit Cafe Sokeri and Kirkas. Are the prices high at Kirkas? You bet, but if you have the taste and money to afford luxury goods, you'll get an extra thrill from shopping at this hidden gem so far from Tokyo. Even if you are more of a browser like me, you might still like a branded sponge dish cloth as a memento. I didn't make it to Cafe Sokeri this time, but my last visit was well worth it. Prices for a coffee and cake set are a little high, but included in the price is the freedom to linger and visit as long as you'd like in a little slice of Helsinki.

The second part of our pre-flight experience was a planned shopping tour in the mini mall that Narita Airport has become. We remembered from our previous visit that there were enough stores like Muji and Uniqlo to make it worthwhile to arrive early, but we didn't realize the prices of souvenirs would be so high. I know airport prices tend to be higher in general, but I guess I was accustomed to Japanese prices being so consistent from store to store to assume that this would extend to the airport as well. To be clear, the big chains don't jack up their prices, but the airport-only shops do charge a premium, likely to make up for higher rents. We were able to pick up a few small items without getting gouged, but I'd strongly suggest completing your souvenir shopping before coming to the airport while still budgeting for last minute items that might catch your eye.

My only regret is that we didn't split the time better to allow for shopping on the other side of security. I'm not talking about the luxury goods or duty free stores either, but such cool shops as the kabuki store that was as much a mini museum showcase as it was a gift shop. The stage costumes on display were amazing and I wish I had more time to take a closer look instead of snapping a few quick pictures from the passage way. Speaking of duty free, I should note that they are not all created equal, even if many of them are branded as FaSoLa shops. The best of the bunch was FaSoLa Akihabara, which had the widest selection and price range of sake for sale. It could have been my first and only stop had I not been rushing to reach the gate for the beginning of boarding time.
Narita Airport Kabuki Store
I thought my Japan trip ended when we got on the plane, but that wasn't quite the case. I managed to watch not one, but two Japanese movies on the return flight. The first was a modernized samurai drama based on the life of Oda Nobunaga called Nobunaga Concerto. It was a fun, but ultimately lightweight throwaway type of film. The next was the family drama Our Little Sister (Umimachi Diary) by the well known director Hirokazu Koreeda. The story is about three sisters who adopt a younger half sister whom they've never met. The sisters fight among themselves in a believable fashion, but ultimately the movie is a tribute to the mystical bonds of sisterhood, a message which is underscored by making most of the men who appear in the movie seem next to useless.

Watching the movie was the perfect ending to the trip, because it was set in the Japan I had just lived in for two weeks; that is, domestic Japan in the middle of a hot humid summer. Near the end, the sisters watch a fireworks display, then finish with a backyard fireworks show of their own. I was not only reminded about, but felt the connection to my own backyard fireworks experience, participating in a kind of cultural communion that tied an emotional bow on the trip. The movie might not be perfect, but I think it has become perfect for me, for what it will represent for this summer's trip.

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