Let’s Jimbocho

I just watched Night is Short, Walk on Girl. There’s the taste of red wine lingering in my mouth as I purse my lips and try to remember, but there’s this scene where the heroine enters a used book fair, at night, to search for a book she loved as a child, and she runs into this menace of a little boy. He’s sticking vanilla ice cream cones on people’s penises and swapping the price tags on books. He’s the god of used books, it turns out, and he wants her help to put a collector’s book collection back in circulation so more people can enjoy them. As he swaps the prices on books, he explains—in a beautiful, degrees of Kevin Bacon, Wikipedia challenge mania—how a crazy assortment of famous nineteenth and twentieth century authors from Europe to Japan are related. I found myself laughing as we somehow leapt from Doyle to Dumas to Tanizaki and every author in between—and the god says that all books are one book. 

Anyway, the scene is in Kyoto, but when I think of books in Japan, I think of Jimbocho, or, Books Endo (which has nothing to do with books at all). Jimbocho is the famous used book, booksellers’ district in Tokyo. I had the opportunity to be shown around by a kindly book historian. He brought me to a series of shops where the old books reached the ceiling, bound in soft covers of the eighteenth, nineteenth centuries. Scrolls in boxes. 

The oldest continually operating bookseller in Jimbocho has been in business since the late nineteenth century. It’s a family business. When I walked inside, the books were stored in piles on the shelves, with protruding white labels in big handwritten print announcing what the series was. When I was introduced to the owner, I laughed at the extraordinary shelves and asked her how it was organized. She laughed too. “When there’s an earthquake, we’re going to be in trouble.”  

It looked like something out of a woodblock print, one of the old Edo bookstores. Maybe my imagination is getting carried away, or maybe the bookshop carried away my imagination. It’s hard to say. We flipped through prints and rare books. Then we went to more shops and saw more rare books. There’s a weekly auction in the district where booksellers go to purchase the latest, and it ends up in the shops soon after. There are popular topics, where the books barely last a day or two. An early volume, in Japanese, on making Western food flew out of the store. It seems food is popular, even old food.  

Soeaking of food, we went out for sushi afterwards, ordering plates of big summer oysters, fried corn tempura, sashimi, and cold sake.  

The old books in Japan do not have that old smell. It has to do with the paper material. It’s strange to hold an old book in your hand and smell the spine and find nothing. Quite baffling. But it’s a reminder that books, what they are made of, the way we store and sell them, the people that love them—we change. All the same, there’s a lovely imaginary thread tied to the ends of our fingers as we hold books, stretching back in time around the fingers of readers before. What a thing. Thank you Jimbocho. 

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Also, I saw a nice bitchy looking man in one of the stores and he reminds me of Ayame. Look at that stare. Those narrowed eyes. He has found someone severely lacking and cannot hide it. Someone send me $700 so I can stick him on my wall. 

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Let’s Zaimokuza

When making up a story, there’s a useful, simple concept we learned in writing classes: your characters should want things. The character wants something, but he faces obstacles in order to get it. This is a good tool, especially for building narratives: interesting obstacles, battles, enemies. 

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Today I woke up and went to Kamakura, a city about an hour south of Tokyo. Kamakura was the warrior capital of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and today it’s a popular day trip from the city. This wasn’t my first time to Kamakura. I’ve been going on the weekends, waking up early and taking the trains while they’re still almost empty. When I arrive, the cicadas are singing, but the full, heavy heat of the day hasn’t settled. There’s a breakfast place I like near the station where they do teishoku, set meals served on a tray. I always get the same thing: salted grillled mackerel, rice, pickles. The miso soup is made with a white miso and grilled Summer vegetables from the daily famers’ market next door: green bell peppers, tomatoes, soft onion. The pickles are made in rice bran, which gives them a funkiness I’m not sure I like, but it pairs well with everything else. The little side dish today was hijiki, a type of black seaweed, beans. The rice is always pink, studded with beans and bits of other grains. It’s a small breakfast place, but it has wonderfully big windows that let in the morning light on the wooden counter where solo diners like me sit. When I finish eating everything, I wash it all down with some hot herbal tea. 

 Another breakfast.  

Another breakfast.  

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This diner gets its donuts from Betsubara Donuts, a tiny one-room shop and kitchen tucked away in a residential neighborhood not far from the station. Betsubara makes the best donuts in Japan. They are big, with a delightful chew, and thoughtfully chosen glazes. They are not overly sweet donuts. The rum raisin donut is studded with fat, rum soaked raisins. The passion fruit donut glaze contained crunchy seeds that constructed with the sweet, chewy dough, and my recent love was an ume donut, topped with a sweet-sour plum glaze. They fry the donuts four at a time in two pots on the stove, then glaze them and place them in the glass case at the front of the “store.” Betsubara Donuts closes in August for a well-earned vacation, so I had to make one last visit this week to say farewell and order a batch to take with me. 

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The first time I went there, I bought a couple donuts and walked down to the beach of Zaimokuza. I pulled out the rum raisin donut, with the sea breeze blowing, and I took a single bite. It was a magical moment. The sun was hot, and I was grinning. The best donut, I found myself thinking, I must take a picture. 

As I turned the donut so that it caught the light just so with the ocean in the background, just as I was about to snap a picture of the rum raisin donut, a hawk swooped down and snatched it from my hand. In one bewildering second, the donut was gone.  

The hawk flew off with the donut in its little white bag held fast in its talons, but it soon got into an aerial battle with another hawk and some crows. I watched as my donut fell from the sky and bounced against the roof of a surf shack. Never to be seen again. 

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If you walk south from Betsubara, you’ll run into the coastal highway, but before you pass under the road to go to the beach, there’s a little coffee shop tucked away. It’s a writing spot. They put big chunks of cut ice in the drinks, which is especially pretty when the weather is hot like it is now. 

A man and woman set up an old, hand-cranked shaved ice machine in front of Milk Stand and Coffee. I ordered the plum and sweet milk shaved ice before heading inside to settle at a worn table to write.

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I had gone swimming and washed off. Walked in the sun to the coffee shop. I don’t think there are better conditions to eat shaved ice. 

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It was a simple, almost perfect day. 

One of the problems with the clear motivation driven model is that sometimes we do not know exactly what we want (or need). It’s hard. I feel like we are mostly just fumbling and wandering, trying to determine what we want and then how we can get it, if we can at all. But it’s harder to tell those kinds of stories. 

I didn’t know how much I needed that day by the ocean until I was sitting at that coffee shop table, shaved ice in hand. 

Let’s Yokohama

I am mildly horrified.  

When was the last post posted? Too long.

I know they’re terrible, but I secretly love the double verb-object thing. The feelings I feel. The thoughts I think.  Gosh, I know, I know. It’s mildly terrible. 

Anyway, Yokohama. I have been in Yokohama, a big city an hour south of central Tokyo by train. There is a big box in my brain of unwritten blog posts, like mewling kittens that I’ve forgotten to fed, they’ve languished, their moment passed. Now it’s too late to write about the rose garden overlooking the bay, the kabuki play, the fancy beef dinner.  

But, Yokohama. It’s one of Japan’s old major port cities that was especially important on the mid-nineteenth, into the twentieth century. When Japan started trading more widely with the rest of the world, ships glided into Yokohama bay. The first gaslit streetlamps were Yokohama. The first jazz performance. The first newspaper, I think. Nineteenth century contact with the Western world left a fascinating mark on the buildings and the food. Lots of restaurants serve Japanese food that appeared in the early twentieth century: hamburger patties with potatoes and gravy, fried cutlets with heaps of shredded cabbage, bits of beef with winter vegetables cooked soft. Spaghetti Neapolitan, that most Japanese of dishes was supposedly “invented” in Yokohama in the postwar: It’s spaghetti topped with a ketchup sauce, green bell peppers, mushrooms, and pork sausage (or sliced ham). 

I’ve taken to the jazz scene in Yokohama. There’s a jazz cafe called Chigusa where you sip coffe and listen to jazz records from their library the owner collected since the 30s. There’s a big pair of record player speakers, the whole set up custom designed to fit the little space. Dark paneled wood. All the worn chairs face the speakers and no one  talks as the music flows out in great waves. I drink my coffee and sit. Sometimes I read.

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There’s a jazz bar crammed in the second floor space of a building that I’ve taken to visiting during the week. I eat spaghetti Neapolitan and sometimes the music is great. Sometimes disappointing, but the spaghetti is hot and good, and the whiskey is cold. 

I have not been writing very much. It’s been hard to build a writing routine here, and I end up working in the mornings. If I’m feeling generous to my time here, I’ll point out that seeing a Kabuki performance did help me with Kabuki-ish and it does count as research. It also reminded me of how un-Kabuki-like the Kabuki in Kabuki-ish is. Or, how un-modern-Kabuki-ish it is. Modern Kabuki is a little slow, a little ponderous, but with charm. This is not the first Kabuki I have seen, and I do not feel compelled to change the theatrical stuff as written, but I do think about it from time to time.  I think about how I avoid using the work Kabuki. I think about how art and traditions change over time. What would the Lord of the Rings look like as Kabuki? I think it would be pretty awesome, actually.

There’s something that Kabuki and jazz have in common that I like; they invite the audience to clap and cheer in the middle of performance. A bad-ass solo? Clap. An actor strikes a cool pose after challenging a bad guy? Clap and cheer as he stomps and glowers. It’s a moment when we all come together and become one in our expression of love of something, whether hunched over our knees in a theater or a bowl of steaming spaghetti. 

 

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Let's recover a little

I've spent the last couple weeks making Russian food, Eastern European food, in my spare time. The other night, around eleven, I started making a little loaf cake that was mostly eggs and cheese curds, studded with cherries and candied orange peel. It tasted like somewhere between an egg tart and cheesecake, like tea time by grandmothers in a faraway place. 

In a moment of weakness, also late at night, I bought a pelmeni press. Pelmeni are like tortellini, but they are the Italian dumpling's tastier, more rustic cousin. Pelmeni are made from a simple, soft dough. Packed with meat. Then, they are frozen. They were food carried in sacks in Siberia on long trips and the dumplings naturally froze. Because I do not live in the frozen wilderness, I scattered the dumplings on cake pans and placed them in the freezer. 

There's something wonderfully comforting about pelmeni. After pouring the little dumplings into boiling water, you simply wait until they rise to the surface. Dress them with sour cream and dill. Cracked pepper. The meat juices pop in the mouth and the sour cream is a sauce onto itself. 

Borscht is wonderful. I've only had it at restaurants where it is a special thing. I feel a special kinship with the soup if only because it begins with cooking onions and celery in butter. Only recently I've realized that is the comforting food smell of my childhood. Browning celery and butter. Borscht involves beets, can have carrots and potatoes too. And it's ready in about an hour with no fuss. A soup after my heart. 

 

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It's been an eventful couple weeks, full of book festivals and work deadlines. There was the LA Times Festival of Books, which I like to attend every year, as well as Yallwest. 

Yallwest this year was special, mainly because a group of writers that I'm a part of had arranged a meetup at the festival. I have met Samantha Chaffin in person, but never Kristin Yuki or Lydia Albano. Welcome to 2018, where it's not a big deal to meet people who only know online. My security measure was that if Lydia had turned out to be a beer-bellied ax-murderer, Samantha would have found out first. Anyway, Lydia turned out to be a lovely person and Kristin too, so we did all the things one does at book festivals. 

It was interesting also because the website that subsumed and erased Figment, where we all got our online start, was at Yallwest. Without coordinating, some of us came with our Figment totes won from contests years ago. It was a miniature protest. 

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I refused to do any signings, except to press Lydia's book, Finding You, into her hands and insist that she sign it. I essentially wandered from panel-to-panel depending on who I was with and what they wanted to see. I ended up at panels on comics, LGBT, a keynote highjacked by a moderator, strolling through the ARC and giveaway tents but needing nothing. I got to talk and listen. I stumbled across a girl I met on a program in Japan years ago, and we re-connected over Yuzuru Hanyu and stories. Having a new job.

This was the first year I did not attend a panel on agents or getting published. Lydia and I walked up to that panel, but the room was full. It was a beautiful day with a Santa Monica sky so blue and cloud-streaked that it could have been the walls of a baby's room. It was warm. We shrugged and walked away. 

Oh, fuck that. Like I need some to tell me to personalize a cover letter for the millionth time. Or look me in the eyes and tell me, a stranger, that my ideas matter. 

We got grilled cheese sandwiches and crispy tater tots, and we ate in the shade. It's tradition. 

 

We're all getting older, of course. I remember those Figment days when I came home from classes and banged out stories like I would never have another idea. Nowadays, I am comfortable with the idea that I'll always have ideas, but I'm increasingly uncomfortable with the reality that no one particularly cares. On some days, maybe most days, I'm comfortable with it. 

 

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Anyway, there was the LA Times Festival of Books too, which is a much more chill affair for me despite being spread over a whole weekend. I enjoyed just browsing the booths and books for sale. A good friend is working on an illustrated children's book, so we read and flipped through tons of picture books in the name of research. 

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In my usual fashion, I did not properly plan the book festival. But in a stroke of luck, I did stumble across the signing for Diana Galbaldon, author of the Outlander series. It was an epic signing line, and I was in it for two hours. We, the people of the signing line, didn't know each other, but we knew the books, and we clustered in shady patches, waiting as the line inched forward. 

She was nice. She must have been tired. 

I ate pitas stuffed with meat and grape leaves stuffed with rice, and it was a pretty nice weekend. 

Thinking about all this makes me ready to keep working. We'll see how it all comes out. 

 

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