Let’s Gunma

I’ve spent the last couple days in onsen—Japanese hot springs—and as I was exiting the bath yesterday, I noticed a sign attached to the door leading to the outdoor baths:

Watch out for foxes

which I suppose was meant to remind us to close the door so that foxes cannot get it. It made me smile, and as I soaked in the hot water, I found myself thinking of a story.

There have been a couple stories knocking around in my head during this trip. As the first draft of Kabuki-ish crawls towards finish, I’ve started to think about the next first draft, the next story. Of course, there is a much editing to do on Kabuki-ish. And Food of Magicians, which is languishing on my desk. But with no timeline for querying now, and no urgency really to publish a novel, it seems perfectly fine to just write and edit at whatever pace I feel like. There is a sort of luxury in that.

The onsen was in Gunma, in a fairly remote corner of the northwest mountainous edge of the prefecture. Local hotels pumped up sulfurous hot water to fill the indoor and outdoor baths. In the town I visited, there were no grocery stores because the area is a national park.

I liked to imagine taking a bath late at night, and there is a strange girl waiting in the water. Maybe it’s three, just after they’ve closed the large outdoor bath, and they’ve finished cleaning and re-opened the space, but no one is using it until closer to dawn. There’s the sound of a river rushing nearby. And, there’s the strange girl, waiting on the other side of the steaming pool. It’s too dark to make out her features. You’ve forgotten to close the door leading inside.

I’ve known someone who visited Japan a dozen times and never left Tokyo, a fact that is completely baffling to me. Even for all of Tokyo’s chaotic organization and materialism fit to happily drown in, it is wandering off, taking a train between the trees and in traveling beyond that I’ve probably been most changed.

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The water was perfectly clear. But, wherever it came flowed, it left beyond minerals, sometimes bright white, yellow, or electric green.

In the bath, the water softened your skin. Sometimes the bright greens and yellows floated like pollen in the water, and one bathhouse posted all the ailments such water would help heal: arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, “women’s ailments,” skin disease… I floated in the water until I turned pink and flush, and then returned to the showers to wash with cold water, chilling every limb, before returning to the onsen to start the process all over again.

In the medieval, certain onsen were viewed as a cure for leprosy and attached to hospice temples. There were even medicines that called for boiling down the onsen water to make a concentrate to drink, a practice that the modern, nineteenth century government worked hard to dissuade people of.

Onsen towns sometimes have areas called water fields, or a spot where the hot water naturally approaches the surface. The town pumps that water to different inns and hotels, who then mix the onsen water with other water. This controls the temperature and the chemical makeup of the baths. We hiked up to the water field, but the smell of sulfur was strong, and the water pool was roped off because the air nearby was unsafe. We continued walking, up the mountain, through the hiking trails. Despite the warming of June up here, there were still snow piles tucked in shadowy corners. A cave, with a chipped and peeling red gate, and a sign so faded we could not read the text to tell us what had happened there. Another sign stated that a hunter had taken shelter there with his two dogs, who defended him from a bear. There were variations to the old local legend, all meant to explain the name of the mountain, a merging of the man’s name, dogs, a bear.

A view from above the Manza onsen town.

A view from above the Manza onsen town.

I am a little self-conscious about my onsen experience. But, not for the normal reasons! Many Americans find visiting onsen strange or unappealing, mainly because you go in the baths entirely naked. They are divided by gender. For someone who is not Japanese, more specifically not East Asian, there is an added component of the additional looks and glances, which does not really help one adjust. I suppose it took me two bath visits to get used to the communal nakedness. I came to realize that everyone was naked, I look normal, and no one really wanted to pay attention to anyone else.

Another thing that made onsen interesting was that the ease with nakedness ends the moment most Japanese women enter the dressing room. Often, you wear a yukata, or light cotton robe, provided by your inn or hotel. You take your towel and such down to the baths, enter the dressing room, which might have some vanities, lotions, hair driers, and cubbies with baskets inside. You tuck your things in the basket, take off your yukata—and whatever you might be wearing underneath—and then head into the main bathing area. The interesting thing, is that when it comes to taking off clothes in the dressing room, Japanese women (and of course, not all, but many) become a little secretive and awkward, something funny considering the full nudity that is going to happen in the next room. As an American accustomed to locker room culture—where the locker room is a place where you can be naked without, hopefully, too much anxiety—this inverse is intriguing.

The locker room awkwardness is not limited to onsen. When I attended high school here, we did a swimming unit and had to change from our uniforms into swimsuits. Young women would go through the most ridiculous contortions to put on their swimsuits, burying themselves under towels and huddling in corners to hide their bodies as they changed. High school is a special time. I won’t laugh at anyone uncomfortable with their own body at that time in their life, but when considered to exist in the same society as onsen, the locker room discomfort is intriguing.

Americans, I do think, should be more comfortable with nakedness and our bodies. There is a residual something, a modesty that extends to naked bodies when they aren’t even sexual. When we bathe, however, why should we be ashamed to be naked in a safe space with the same sex? Why should we be awkward and ashamed of how were are formed? For women especially, there is something liberating about reaching the place where you can slip into the water, let go of anxiety, let go of the worries that your stomach is bulging or your thighs are pink, that stupid mole… All the things we know that make us less than something we’re supposed to be—a poisonous thing we’re stuck with. Just that, we’re not all right. There’s a fantasy to be matched, somehow.

But, really, says the onsen, you are all right. Really. This poisonous slime is in your head. Scoop it out. Wash it away.

If you can’t, at least look at the old woman with the lumps, skin spots, and wrinkles, the wash cloth plopped on her forehead. She looks happy. You can be that too, for a moment. Close your eyes, think of the story.

A hiking path leading away from the water field.

A hiking path leading away from the water field.

Steaming onsen water flows down from a hole in the mountain.

Steaming onsen water flows down from a hole in the mountain.

Let's Back to Book Festivals

I passed my qualifying exams!

What an odd process the whole thing was. Days of answering written questions, followed by a tense three hour interview. Each of my committee members was very different, and it was surreal for all of us to pack into a tiny, bland little classroom to determine my fate in the program. I am glad I do not have to do it again.

I saw a squirrel carrying an easter egg, pausing to nibble at whatever candy was inside. I too sometimes feel like this.

I saw a squirrel carrying an easter egg, pausing to nibble at whatever candy was inside. I too sometimes feel like this.

2019 has been strange. Because of my exams, I only went to one day of the LA Times Festival of Books. Making things even stranger, because YALLWEST has been moved to mid-May, I will not be attending this year, as I will be on the East Coast. So, there will be no reunions, no panels, and no wondering about the future of my writing as I eat grilled cheese from a truck.

But there were a few nice things at the Festival of Books. The Taiwan Tourism Bureau showed up in force with their excellent carnival game, where participants try and guide a metal loop around a winding wire without touching the wire. I won chopsticks this year.

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The Ripped Bodice, a romance bookstore in Culver City, had their debut at the Festival and decked out their tent like an old school carnival. One of their tables was a stack of lovingly wrapped books, the covers hidden, and the contents summarized in a post-it on the cover. Blind dates with books. They brought their famous one-eyed dog for photos, as well as a wheel for prizes. I bought one of the tote bags. I bought it because it was cute, but after a week of lugging books back and forth from the university, I can review this tote bag and give it five stars. 10/10. Would purchase again.

The tote in question.

The tote in question.

A young patron selects a bookmark design at the International Printing Museum’s booth.

A young patron selects a bookmark design at the International Printing Museum’s booth.

Another standout was the International Printing Museum, which brought a pair of 19th century home printing presses, which they demonstrated. Festival-goers waited in line for their own freshly printed bookmarks. As someone who has crudely attempted print-making, the bookmarks were lovely, and it makes me want to go to Torrance to visit their museum.

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I drifted through some outdoor YA panels, not because of disinterest, but because when the conversation turns to the market and writing, you have a tendency to hear the same things over and over. And, the sky was very blue and there were so many other things to do.

With the day at the festival over, I joined a friend for Korean bbq, and we drank cold beers and grilled an absurd quantity of meat. Devoured many little plates of banchan. It feels like summer is just around the corner.

Let's Easter

Wow! I cannot believe that I am almost done with my dreaded qualifying exams. Tomorrow is my orals, which means I will sit in a room with a handful of professors and they will determine whether I pass or fail. Whether I continue in the program, or not.

The last few weeks have been difficult, to say the least. I’ve woken up and read and taken notes until I can’t any more. Gone are my mornings writing, and in the evenings when I get home, I’m too tired to do much besides make dinner and brainlessly watch Netflix, like a hunchbacked zombie bent over my bowl of spaghetti.

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There are a few things that have pulled me from this state. A few weeks ago I got to visit Joshua Tree while the dessert flowers were blooming. We holed up in a little cabin down a long, dirt road that intersected with other long, dirt roads with celestial names like moonbeam or stars. Dried out shrubs and little homes dotted the rolling landscape all the way to the mountains. When night fell, celestial bodies came out in full glory, the stars as bright as clear as strings of beads. I managed to build a fire in the pit outside the house, terribly pleased with myself. (Now, I realize that it was probably the desert air that did most of the work for me.)

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Nineteenth century explorer John Frémont called the Joshua Trees “the most repulsive tree in the vegetable kingdom,” which makes me laugh a bit because they are not especially graceful. Joshua Trees look like they were a fringy tangle of arms designed by Dr. Seuss. I don’t find them repulsive, but a bit strange. I’m glad we have the park, which was designated so in the mid-nineties, but the true rescue and preservation work was performed by Minerva Hamilton Hoyt, a woman so moved by the desert that she shipped plants and trees as far as New York and London to help people understand the beauty here.

Driving through Joshua Tree National Park revealed pockets of trees and yucca, cacti, and flowers in bloom. We made our way to the cholla cactus forest in the center of the park, where I was surprised to see dead, dried out branches on the ground that revealed the cactus branches to be spotted with even holes and hollow, like sponges. Despite being so different, there are many plants in the desert that remind me of ocean flora.

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I made a little time to write too, at the picnic table. I’m still stuck, or at least reluctantly making my way through a romantic scene. Enkō and Ayame are on their date (still), but since the last blog post here they have stepped off the bridge together beneath the blooming cherry trees.

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One of my favorite charms in my collection is an eggplant with a golden frog inside when you unscrew the top of the eggplant. It’s meant to be a pun. Eggplant is pronounced nasu, which can also mean to eliminate, in this case to eliminate bad luck. The frog is a pun on “to return” and his golden color refers to wealth and good fortune. Eggplants are not in season, but there seemed something oddly fitting about this nesting charm for this post, for right now. I’ll take it with me to my exams tomorrow.

The second break in the exam preparation came today, on Easter. Last night I stay up until midnight making croissants, because I could, and I was rewarded with hot, buttery pastry that shattered when I bit into it. I then washed my hands and went to sleep, to wake and go to church, to the farmer’s market and lunch. I had a table-full of chocolate and vegetables for lunch. One of the chocolate eggs when broken had a white chocolate chick inside, and it made me think of all the ways this season is about nesting. Both the nesting of birds and their eggs, and the nesting of meaning and finding unexpected things.

Let's spring... into action

A cherry blossom tea bowl for whisking matcha. Photo by  Ling Luo .

A cherry blossom tea bowl for whisking matcha. Photo by Ling Luo.

This past week a group of Japanese tea ceremony practitioners visited my university, and we got to watch a demonstration. They brought tea bowls with them from Osaka, decorated with cherry blossoms. The flowers have been blooming in some parts of Japan—and in Los Angeles too.

So, when I was going to open this blog post, I went through my omamori collection to see about a charm with a cherry blossom motif. There were a few pink ones, but to my surprise, there was only one charm with a sakura design… and it is the first one I ever purchased. I was fourteen or fifteen, and it was my first time in Japan. I could read and write the alphabets, a smattering of kanji, but I could barely string a spoken sentence together.

We visited Kiyomizudera, a big temple complex in Kyoto famous for its healing waters and view overlooking the city from the eastern mountains. I bought the charm by myself and attached it to my belt loop, because I had no bag. In hindsight, I’m not sure what I was thinking. I jangled when I walked, and my companions joked that they’d always be able to find me, like a lost cat. I did get lost on that trip, in a lot of ways. But, I’ve still found my way back. Something must have worked.

A bell omamori from Kiyomizudera.

A bell omamori from Kiyomizudera.

Kiyomizudera in the summer time, a picture from a trip years later from the bell’s purchase.

Kiyomizudera in the summer time, a picture from a trip years later from the bell’s purchase.

So, in the spirit of the cherry blossom theme, I went into my photos and discovered that I did not have many cherry blossom pictures either. But I did see a couple taken in Nagoya, with the reconstructed castle in the background, during an illumination, which is when a site puts up lights and lanterns and permits guests after dark.

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Left: A “light-up” at Nagoya Castle during cherry blossom season. Right: a food stall with cherry trees.

Left: A “light-up” at Nagoya Castle during cherry blossom season. Right: a food stall with cherry trees.

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In Southern California, it has rained more than usual. As a result, in the past couple weeks, the California poppies have been blooming at spots in the mountains. Last week, an entire small town had to shut down the highways because so many people were coming in and overwhelming everything.

I woke up early this morning and a friend and I drove a few hours north of Los Angeles to Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, a state park known for the flowers. It was as if someone had split orange highlighter ink on the hills. There were little brown butterflies who were not interested in the poppies; stubby yellow flowers and purple blossoms. The mountains, ordinarily brown and dry, had turned a warm green. Spring has come to Southern California, marked by the native poppies with that silky glimmer to their orange petals.

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As I walked the trails, I thought about how difficult it was to describe what I was seeing. Was it orange highlighter ink splattered? Split? If I called the petals “silky” to explain that gleaming line where the sunlight hits the curve of the petal, would anyone understand that? Or would they assume “silky” referred to touch? So, I had to add “glimmer,” but that’s not quite right either. English is difficult. It also contains gaps of darkness, where words ought to be.

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Speaking of gaps of darkness, writing Kabuki-ish continues in fits and starts. This past week I wrote a romantic scene that has been on the ol’ To Do for weeks. It took three days to write. I had a problem with the scene that was not plot or writing, but primarily a failure of process and my own imagination. I knew that it was a date scene, a romantic scene, like one in a musical where a character comes around and realizes they’re in love. My imagination had supplied a haze. Romance, in my imagination sometimes, is a song. It’s a color. It’s a wordless swell.

This is all to say that I had a bullet point in my Outline that was basically, “Enkô and Ayame go on a date. Ayame realizes he has feelings for Enkô.” Or, something to that effect. To put it even more bluntly, this was lazy planning on my part. This is not, it must be said, the first time I’ve run into this problem.

So, there’s a date scene, and I haven’t done the imaginative work to imagine the specifics. And, dates are all specifics. It’s funny, because romance is a sensation, a haze, but it is built on piles of terribly specific details. So, I sat down to try and think of what those were. It was clear, when I began this process, that I would not be writing this like a normal scene. (I tried to write sentences, got distracted multiple times, and gave up). It’s not giving up. It’s like backing up to realign your car when parking.

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I began to try and get down to the gritty details, the foundation of the scene really. It was springtime. This would be a springtime scene. What is springtime? I listed words. Eventually, the words started spinning out into phrases. One of the considerations I have to make with Kabuki-ish is whether the prose is going to be written in a quasi-rhyming, beat-driven manner. There are a few scenes written in that way. If I like a word, I try to guess a useful word with a parallel sound. Eventually, I decided to not do that mode for the scene, deciding on straight prose style. I could begin to imagine the setting.

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I knew what poem I wanted to adapt. At one point in the scene, Ayame sings while Enkô dances for a small crowd on a bridge. My brain went to one of the opening poems of the Man’yōshū, a romantic poem that would be interesting here. At this point, Ayame thinks Enkô is a boy. Furthermore, at least in the first draft, this scene runs entirely from Ayame’s perspective, which means that Enkô is rocking male pronouns, we don’t see Okuni, and Ayame has a lot to sort through emotionally, even without all this stuff he does not know. One of the themes that this draft in particular has grappled with, is the idea that gender is performed and perceived. There’s a fluidity, yes, but a fluidity from these two categories.

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So, when Ayame sings like a man who rules supreme over his land of theaters and pleasure quarters, there’s something else going on here with gender too. He sings this song, unwittingly, to a woman performing and perceived as a man.

So, over two more days, I took the pieces and strung them like beads into a complete scene. I feel like with these kinds of scenes, it can be hard to see to what degree it works, tonally and emotionally. I had to correct the pronouns on Enkô so many times. I may decide against shifting them in the second draft, but it makes sense the way it is. We’ll see!

My favorite scenes are ones that are miniature novels. They begin with a problem, the problem worsens, and then there is a resolution of some sort for the problem. In this scene, it’s not about the romance. I mean, it is. But it’s about Ayame coming to terms with the nature of his fame, his relationship with his fans and patrons, and the lack of trust he comes to realize he has with them. This trust being shifted to Enkô is the backbone of the scene. Trust, ideally, is the backbone of a great romance.

I mean, obviously there’s a lot he doesn’t know, and that’s a problem for another chapter. But this was a good challenge to work through this week. “A problem for another chapter,” I write. Who knows when this book will be done? Maybe the poppies know.

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