Monday, August 23, 2010

Rice Harvest

Sorry for my absence between the new moon and the full moon, but I had to go back to Japan to help with the rice harvest. (I wish. Just kidding.) In the U. S., we picture farms as endless acres of crops. In Shizuoka, small rice fields grew between factories, houses, or schools. As Alex notices in American Fuji (p 170): "He passed a one-family house, a fabric store, a miniature rice field, a Mitsubishi plant, and an apartment complex. He wondered about Japanese zoning laws. Was it chaos or was he blind to whatever scheme prevailed? He thought of the measuring-instrument stores in Tokyo and Shizuoka. Japan organized itself differently. It wasn't like Europe, where a drugstore was a drugstore with a different word for it. You had to learn a whole new way of thinking. No wonder he felt so stupid here."

Here, you see sheaves of rice hung upside down to dry. If you look closely, you can see Mt. Fuji in the background tangled in the phone lines above my head.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Mt. Fuji/Moon Landing Anniversary

That's it for the Mt. Fuji/Moon Landing Extended Play special. The complete hike (through Alex's eyes) is described in Chapters 38 and 39 of American Fuji. A final note: a copy of the novel itself also made the hike to the summit! That particular book now resides with friends in Santa Cruz.

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Fool on the Hill

Mt. Fuji looks different after you've climbed it. Even better.

A Japanese saying--very roughly translated-- says you are a fool if you never climb Fuji once in your life, but more of a fool if you climb Fuji more than once. I wish, for my one ascent, I had not been so intent on following Japanese tradition. I missed a lot by climbing at night: too dark to see, too tired to observe. My advice would be to start early in the morning, arrive at the summit in the afternoon (when it is also far less crowded), and return well in advance of sunset so that the dark portion of the hike is the shallow, easy stretch at Level 5. Take plenty of your own water to see you through. But do bring a "tough, separate-type jacket" and postcards to mail at the top!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Daruma Chain Gang

The day after the night hike of Mt. Fuji my friends and I went to the beach at Miho (sandier than Shizuoka's gravel and tetrapot, although the sand was black) and soaked our sore muscles in warm ocean water. We even found a place that served soft ice cream. Eric was happy. That day, July 21, we called ourselves the Dharma Chain Gang.

Monday, August 2, 2010

My Back to the Future

The hike ended where it began, back at the trailhead at 10:00 AM on July 20th. I was exhausted to the point of hallucinating, but I had earned my bragging rights. And, in daylight, I could now read the sign.

This is the 13th post of the official Fuji Anniversary series, but post-hike posts continue with the antidote for altitude at ground zero.

Many thanks to Eric and Veronica for taking several of these photos and letting me use them in my blog. The hon is mine.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

All Fall Down

I don't remember why Eric and I both brought our Grateful Dead t-shirts on this hike, but here's proof that we did. I was, at that point, grateful NOT to be dead. There was no fire on the mountain, the rain was not in a box, and of all the stations on Mt. Fuji I found no Terrapin Station. I was, however, a bit dizzy.

Picture a bright blue ball,
Just spinnin', spinnin' free.
Dizzy with the possibilities.
Ashes, ashes, all fall down.
(Ashes, ashes, all fall down.)

Throwing Stones -The Grateful Dead

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Tough, Separate-Type Jacket

Here I am, wearing my "tough, separate type jacket" (as recommended in the brochure) pointing east. I am smiling because at last I can see a sliver of the ocean and a trace of pink in the sky.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

On a Clear Day, You Can See Forever

. . . but on a cloudy day, you can't. This photo was taken near the top as we began to head down. If you look closely to the right on the ridge of the foreground, you can see the torii gate Alex passes through (ch. 38), inserting a 5-yen coin in a crack, following Japanese tradition. After the gate, the descent steepens. I think Eric resembles Peter Sellers in this photo. I expected to see an inflatable parrot on his shoulder.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Once a Volcano, Always a Volcano

Here is the Fuji Sancho post office box in which to mail postcards to friends. (sancho = mountain top) The post office was crowded; the only shelter at the top. (The white light is the reflection of the flash of my camera.)

To an American, Japan is full of juxtaposed contradictions. The portable toilets and vending machines at the stations and the post office at the peak led me to think Fuji somehow wasn't a real mountain or a tough hike. Yet the trail is still 6,000 feet of vertical hiking at high altitude, and the broad caldera at the top reminded me of the magnitude of this active volcano.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Lunatic Rings the Bell

I reached the top about half an hour after dawn at 5:00 AM on July 20, 1991. It was raining, cold, and crowded. This is a photo of me ringing the bell at the top. You can't see anything? Well, neither could I. I was dehydrated and exhausted, my muscles shaking, and the rain was nearly snow. This was not "one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind," but the barren volcanic surface of Fuji was like the moon, and the experience was decidedly lunatic.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

"I'm SO Tired . . ."

I have no photos from this part--the hardest part--of the climb. It was dark and we were all busy paying attention to feet and flashlights. The trail was easy at the bottom and grew steeper as I grew more tired. Once I was beyond the generators, the only sounds came from other hikers: no animals, no birds. Soon, there were no plants. I was glad I had brought water; the vending machines at the stations sold only soft drinks and beer, which astonished me. (Both that there were vending machines on a mountain, a sacred Shinto shrine, and that they didn't dispense water.)

From American Fuji, Ch. 38: "The path . . . became a 45 degree angle switchback. To the right, up, up, climbing rocks and pseudo-steps, then to the left, up, up, on a slippery gravel grade. Again, to the right. Some stretches of path had ropes on metal posts, but other sections had nothing to keep someone from sliding off a sheer cliff." "[Alex] saw only the bobbing light from his flashlight, his tennis shoes, pumice, granite, and, when he paused to look up, the sky. More clouds crowded out the stars."

The hike became more arduous, requiring me to find footholds in large rocks (in the dark at 2:00 AM). It got cold and started to drizzle and I began to slip here and there, dizzy from altitude and fatigue. I was only at Station 7. As Eguchi would say, it was "a long and winding road."

Monday, July 19, 2010

Lucky 13

We reached the trailhead at 11:00 p.m. I was struck by the loud, large generators at the bottom. Later, I would learn they powered vending machines. I was ready to go to sleep. Groups of young hikers with flashlights encouraged each other with unison shouts of "gambatte!" before heading up the trail. Even at night, I was still broiling hot in my jeans and it didn't seem possible it would be cool anywhere, even on a mountain top. The sky was clear and I saw shooting stars. I picked up a brochure that I couldn't resist including in my novel.

From American Fuji, ch. 38: "The map was half in English, half in Japanese. Mount Fuji was divided into ten levels, or stations. The parking lot was at the fifth level; Alex had already accomplished half the ascent in the taxi. Only foot traffic could continue through the higher stations on the Fujinomiya Trails. The map included stations labeled "Station 9.5" and "New Checkpoint," that augmented the original stations, so the 3,776-meter summit was the 13th actual station, though it was called the tenth."* This makes sense when you're in Japan.

The 13 stations gave me the idea of doing 13 blogs about climbing Mt. Fuji. Anyway, 13 has always been a lucky number for me.

*Quoted with minor snips by permission from myself.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Stroke Count Matters

The following day we had barely recovered from our hangovers when it was time to take the train to Fujinomiya station. Because we were doing it Japanese-style, which meant hiking at nighttime in order to greet the sunrise at the top, we took the train in the afternoon and had dinner in Fujinomiya. Veronica and I are attempting to be "human kanji." The first three characters on the sign read FU-JI-YAMA. The FU was too complicated to mimic, so I am posing as YAMA and Veronica as the JI. Yes, we are out of order. When I wrote kanji, my stroke count was usually out of order, too. Stroke count is a big deal in Japan.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

I Left My Heart Where?

Of course, when you drink too much beer in Japan, you inevitably end up singing karaoke with total strangers. The Japanese man between me and Eric worked for NTT, and the song we sang was I refuto mai haato in San Furanshisuko ("I Left My Heart in San Francisco"). It was one of three English songs on the playlist. The others were Hei Jiyudo ("Hey, Jude") and Raabu Mi Tendaa ("Love Me Tender"). Tony, Paul, and Elvis were still the top English karaoke hits in 1991 in Shizuoka.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The First Sip Is the Best

Perhaps I drank too much beer. What can I say? The day was hot and the beer was cold. By the empty chairs, you can tell we were the first customers, arriving before the end of the work day.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Traditional Beer

I decided to climb Mt. Fuji the traditional Japanese way. That meant starting by rounding up friends and getting drunk. I imported my good friends from Okinawa, Eric Shaffer (L) and Veronica Winegarner (far R). They are married but that posed no problem for the adventure. I'm in the middle to the left of my friend and colleague Shigeko. We're at a beer garden on the roof of a downtown Shizuoka hotel. A typical miserably humid overcast day that I describe often in American Fuji.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Aiming High

On a rare clear day, this is what I could see from my front balcony. The clay tile roof is the local branch of a bank. As Mr. Eguchi said (ch. 37): "Feet on the ground, head in the clouds. That is the way to be."

I vowed to climb to the summit of Mt. Fuji (12,388 ft.) before I left Japan. Thus begins the saga of my ascent.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Tanabata: the Star Festival

Tanabata is my favorite Japanese holiday and American Fuji is my version of the Tanabata story. Tanabata, or the Star Festival (July 7th), celebrates the story of two lovers, a cowherd (represented by the star Altair) and a weaver (Vega) who are separated by the Milky Way and allowed to meet only once a year, on the 7th day of the 7th month. People writes wishes on strips of paper and hang them on bamboo branches. If the night sky is clear enough to see the two stars, your wish may come true.

Here is my wish this year, folded into a crane as Gaby folded her wish. I don't have bamboo--or Gaby's tomato plants--so I hung it in my lilac. I am wishing for grants or fellowships to help me take some time off to write another novel. With our current heat wave, I doubt the sky will be clear, but here's hoping!

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Dragon Beer and Banana Champagne

This was my local liquor store in Shizuoka. I was charmed by the crumpled Bud can sign, but Budweiser cost more than it was worth due to the import costs and currency exchange. I tried all the Japanese beers, and my favorite soon became Kirin Original. Good wine was beyond my budget, but drinkable French reds could be found on the back shelves. In the 1990's the popular drinks were icky-sweet wine coolers, and weird combinations that mixed champagne with flavors like melon or banana. I tried banana champagne. Once. I decided Banana Champagne would be a good alias for a Japanese character in a novel, but I did not end up using it in American Fuji.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Pink Peonies for Gaby

Here are pink peonies from my garden this week in honor of the ones Alex sent to Gaby for putting up with him as her o-nimotsu (luggage, or obligation guest).

Just because Japanese take obligations seriously doesn't mean they enjoy them any more than Americans do. What Americans often don't realize is how much help they need from Japanese people to negotiate Japan, and the extent of time so many sacrifice to assist guests in their country.

Enter to win a signed copy of American Fuji in the June Giveaway! See May 15 post for details.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

My Favorite Fan

In American Fuji, Gaby Stanton carried a fan in her purse all the time. The purple one she used at the race track (Chapter 21) was a temple souvenir, a fan I also owned but which has since disappeared. I still have my favorite fan (pictured) which is made of sandalwood. This was a gift from a good friend who also taught me how to wear a thin hand towel discreetly around my neck in sweltering Japanese summers ( p.229).

Enter to win a signed copy of American Fuji in the June Giveaway! See May 15 post for details.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

After Dark

The semester has choked out its last death throes and, during our record-breaking heat wave, I hunkered down in the basement with Haruki Murakami's novel After Dark. A friend of mine finds Murakami's novels "tiring" and I can agree with that, but this one is short and highly readable. I like it because it inhabits the same Japan I knew (and put in American Fuji): a world of Denny's, Skylarks, love hotels, and parks with sections for stray cats. While some may accuse the plot of being coincidental, I find coincidence to be part of the wonder of Japan. The society, and language itself, are about relationships, not the chronological march of progress and individual achievement characteristic of American novels. I recommend it as a companion to American Fuji.

P. S. Today, my birthday brings a full moon worthy of Eguchi's "Moon Package" dream. A good day to enter the American Fuji Giveaway (see below).

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Sakura New England

My own cherry tree in bloom. If I were in Japan, businessmen would be drinking beer and sake on blankets beneath it with a karaoke machine blaring. I just finished reading "A Blanket of Cherry Blossom" from The Walking Man by graphic writer Jiro Taniguchi. The Japan he draws is the Japan I knew--his streets could have been Shizuoka City. I'm so impressed by the depth of this short episode, and how much Taniguchi conveys through point of view and the gesture of the man putting his hand on the "blanket" of fallen cherry petals.

Friday, April 23, 2010

University Snakes

This paragraph in American Fuji was taken straight from my life, describing my climb up the hillside of the university campus:

"As [Alex and Michael] ascended the hill, the buildings were fewer and the steps got narrower, until they could no longer walk side by side. Alex hiked behind Michael up a path shaded by cherry trees full of whirring insects. Smashed cherries and pits underfoot forced him to keep his eyes on the ground. A brown snake slithered off the path into wild grass." (p. 67)

I miss the natural wildness of that campus, especially when lawn mowing at my current university not only spews grass pollen into everyone's sinuses but drowns out class discussions. (And I prefer to have campus snakes be literal rather than figurative, but that's off topic.)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Smack Kibble

I'm sure kittens get addicted to this Japanese cat food brand!

Looking back at these old Shizuoka photos, I notice other things, now. Like how tall I am in relation to the ceiling. In the U. S., we're used to supermarkets with high ceilings. In Japan, a ceiling is typically 8 feet from the floor, but this one was about 7 feet, the minimum building code requirement, I believe. No problem getting items off the top shelves!

Friday, April 9, 2010

Sculpture in Hakone

If you only know Japan through books and film, it's easy to get the impression that Japan is one solid city, or that all the art is traditional. This sculpture in the city of Hakone (on the coast in Shizuoka Prefecture) provides evidence of modern art. What do you think this sculpture expresses?

Monday, March 29, 2010


These boys are checking out a water sculpture near a Tug of War tournament held in downtown Shizuoka. (To think they are all adults, now!)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Sakura festival

I promised myself I wouldn't post photos you could find in magazines or brochures in this blog, but I couldn't resist this one of the bright red lantern I took at the annual sakura (cherry blossom) festival held at Sengen Jinja shrine. Wishes are tied to the branches.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Outside In (by Liz Sheffield)

The first time I went to Japan I was sixteen years old. My ability to speak Japanese was limited to singing (off key) the lyrics of a Japanese folk song, "Sakura". During my interview with the sister city selection committee, I sat on my sweaty palms to stop my hands from shaking, but despite my nervousness the committee chose me as part of a delegation to Sapporo. Three brief weeks sparked an interest in a foreign culture that inspired me to return to Japan five years later after I graduated from college.

As the plane landed in Tokyo, I listened to the flight attendant in her high-pitched, polite Japanese and realized I didn’t understand a word she was saying. I got off the plane with three huge, black suitcases, my size nine feet, and a Japanese-English dictionary I would carry with me at all times. I stayed for three years, teaching English in junior and senior public high schools. My ability to speak Japanese improved dramatically. I came to enjoy discussing the pluses and minuses of natto (fermented soy beans) with taxi drivers on my way home after nights out on the town singing karaoke. I got over the fact that, at five feet four inches, I was taller than sixty or seventy percent of the women I met and was grateful to my mother for shipping me a new pair of shoes at least once a year.

Twenty years later, I look back at myself as that nervous sixteen-year-old girl answering questions about how I’d handle people staring at me or what I’d do if I couldn’t explain myself in English. I don’t remember how I answered. What I do know is that returning to Japan as a young woman, and living there by myself, helped me get comfortable in my own skin.

That’s one reason I so enjoyed reading American Fuji. Gaby Stanton makes sense. I understand the life she found and created in Japan. I get it that even though she’s an outsider, Japan becomes an integral part of who Gaby is. Just like it is for me.

Liz Sheffield
Photo of bicycle in the snow by Liz Sheffield.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Sapporo and a Special Guest

Some readers of American Fuji write to me tell me their own stories of living in Japan. If there is anything I learned living in Shizuoka City and traveling in Japan, it is that Shizuoka culture isn't like other parts of Japan. One of the many reason I wrote American Fuji is that Japan writing by Westerners up to that point was centered in Tokyo or Kyoto, which are decidedly different experiences. I wanted to show Japan wasn't only about Buddhist meditation, karate dojos, Japan Inc., or falling in love with bar hostesses.

I remember one Japanese student at Shizuoka University who returned from her exchange year in Omaha, Nebraska and reported that all Americans are devout church-goers who never eat seafood. Just as Omaha is not San Francisco or Boston, Shizuoka is not Tokyo or Osaka. I welcome an opportunity to hear from others who lived in different regions of Japan, and how they related--or didn't--to what Gaby and Alex observed.

My first guest is Liz Sheffield who taught English in Sapporo about the same time I was in Shizuoka. I took a brief winter ski trip to Sapporo and had a wonderful time practicing slalom at Furano on the former Olympic course--until the ski patrol told me I shouldn't. That's me in the pink jacket. I was only in Sapporo three days, so I'm happy to provide Liz's point of view as my guest blogger on Saturday. If you have any questions for her, please leave a comment. Welcome, Liz!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

White Heron Castle

And here is the famous Osaka Castle, five stories on the outside, eight stories on the inside. I was there before the 1997 restoration. White Heron Castle is its nickname. Can you see why?

Next week: Sapporo with a special guest.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Kuidaore: Eat Until You Drop

While we're in Osaka, let's take a look at Dotonbori where Eguchi mentions "a small bistro that floats lanterns on the waterway." [p. 386] Dotonbori Street runs parallel to the canal. It's famous for its restaurants and imaginative neon signs. It's a lively, friendly street that stays up late. The food choices are amazing, and I understood you actually could, as my Japanese friends told me, go to Osaka and do nothing but eat.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A Room with a View

This view from my hotel room in Osaka is what I had in mind for the apartment Mr. Eguchi described to Gaby on p.386: "I could get you a terrific apartment. You could have a view of the castle. You could watch the maple trees burst into red and yellow from your balcony."

Friday, March 5, 2010

A Poor Boy from Osaka

As I lived in Shizuoka, I gradually became aware that natives who lived elsewhere in Japan regarded Shizuokans as snobs. In American Fuji, Mr. Eguchi says he is "just a poor boy from Osaka." My description of the Gone With The Wind office includes an opinion of one of my university colleagues from Osaka (p.49-50): "The office was filled with cigarette smoke, radio talk show voices, and protruding file drawers that threatened to bring down the cabinets whenever a file was tugged out. This casual atmosphere was attributted to Mr. Eguchi being kansaijin, a man from the Osaka region. Native Shizuokans snubbed kansai people for their relish of food and leisure activities, but Gaby enjoyed Mr. Eguchi's more relaxed style."

Monday, March 1, 2010

My Asian Ark

The tiger sitting on the edge of my black bookcase in Japan is from Indonesia-- a gai-tiger, so to speak. The red cow is a symbol of the northern agricultural Tohoku region of Japan. The Dharma doll has yet to make my wish come true so only one eye is blue. The paper mache tiger is the symbol of the Osaka region. In front, two wooden frogs: kaeru in Japanese, a double meaning for frog and the verb "to return." In Japan, you might give someone leaving the country a frog (not alive, but wood or paper or whatever) to wish them a good return. Below the top shelf animals, I kept my cassette tape collection and big padded head phones. My apartment walls were thin and any noise affected all my neighbors, so, like Gaby Stanton, I blasted Beethoven through head phones directly into my skull. One astute reader pointed out Gaby has a Walkman, which dates the novel. Hard to imagine that ten years ago, i-Pods didn't exist!

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Eric Paul Shaffer on Plot and Star-Gazing

Is there a plot in your novel?

The metaphor for the use of plot in traditional fiction is a train ride: start at this station, move along the tracks, sidings, and stations, and end at the destination station. The metaphor for the use of plot in Burn & Learn is star-gazing: there are multiple lights of differing magnitudes that appear in various places in the visible sky, and they make patterns based on the images you can see there or draw there or create there by joining those points together. You can create new constellations or you can apply the ones that seem most obvious. You can compare all of the brightest to each other or you can read them from west to east, north to south, or in a spiral that starts from whichever star you think is the pole star. The meaning is what you make of it; the making readers do is as important as the text, probably more important. Burn & Learn, therefore, is not only a title; it’s the first rule in reading the novel.

As you know, I like to challenge my readers with truth they may prefer to ignore, depicting characters with incurable illness, prejudice, anger, selfishness, and so forth. I believe you kick it up a level and challenge them to change they way they read. I want to tell readers that while your answers sound scholarly, Burn & Learn is a whole lot of fun. It has a playful spirit, with a mix of observation and insight that just makes me laugh. Is that okay?

That is more than okay; I will be delighted when you do that. I especially like the idea that Burn & Learn challenges the way they read. I believe that reading is a much more active activity than we commonly believe, and I hope my novel invigorates its readers.

This photo shows one of my favorite yanejishi because of his demented expression of fear and ferocity with a trace of a smile.

I like his playful spirit, too. Thanks so much for the interview, Eric.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Eric Paul Shaffer Pushes Reality to Its Outer Limits

Let's talk more specifically about Burn & Learn. Are you serious when you claim on the title page of Burn & Learn that your novel is a “sequel” to H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine?

Yes, I am. There are a number of internal character clues or cues that correspond with Wells’ tale, of course, and I have essentially transported one aspect of one of Wells’ main characters into one of mine. In my humble estimation, Burn & Learn is a “logical” end to Wells’ novel. My text also answers a number of questions left open by Wells.

Oddly, for a book called The Time Machine, the adventures of the Time Traveler are narrow, even claustrophobic, from a temporal point of view. He hardly goes anywhere or sees anything; in fact, he seems to go only as far as the backyard fence and back. I broadened my canvas and context, even including a chronology of all the significant events of all the time in the world. I also traveled through multiple modes of fiction whereas Wells limited himself to a single mode: science fiction.

Strangely, to my way of thinking, Wells settled for a symbolic or even allegorical tale whose significance seems a little shallow, considering the endless possibilities of time. I decided to maintain a hyper-realistic stance within the mode in which I was working (whether it was native American tales, fables, koans, “realistic renderings of events,” or speaking bookmovie chapters). I focused on surfaces and appearances, and I did so primarily because I visualized every event as a “movie.” Movies are great, but they do NOT show depths; they show surfaces only, and only surfaces that reflect light. All that is revealed in movies is all that you can see or hear, and the same is true of Burn & Learn, although I made it my mission to push that reality to its outer limits.

Next up: Shaffer on Star Gazing

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Burn & Learn with American Fuji

Eric, why would readers of American Fuji appreciate your novel Burn & Learn?

You and I share a belief that readers are the most important people in the novel. What I mean is that we both do our best to be clear about the story we are telling, and we try to make our novels clear and accessible.

And accurate.

Each of us uses our strengths. You are a plotter, and your plots are surprising and logical and satisfying to me. Plotting is not my strength, so I made a strength of focusing on the event, which others might call scene, but to me, scene implies a narrative arc whereas an event begins and ends where the brilliance is, and that is all I am interested in. I provide a number of events in Burn & Learn, and I leave them for readers to assemble. You make your novels fun, and I try to do the same. No matter what the subject matter, we work to make the telling intriguing. We both employ all aspects of Eastern thought, belief, and action and work where the conflicts and impacts of Eastern and Western worlds are. Both of us are knowledgeable enough about the two spheres that we can use the connections and contradictions to the advantage of the story.

You also wrote a terrific book of poetry, Portable Planet, which features material about Japan. I've used your poems in many of my college classes.

Thank you for the kind words.

Thanks for the photo of you time-travelling from the 1970s into the 1990s. I remember that day--twice!

Next up: Eric as Fred Flintsone

Monday, February 22, 2010

Eric Paul Shaffer on Climbing Fuji

My blog followers know you and your wife Veronica climbed Mt. Fuji with me. How does that compare to other mountains you've climbed?

Mt. Fuji, for which I maintain a great affection, is a fairly simple “walk-up.” The way to the peak is fundamentally an inclined path. Some of the climbers on the trail with us were sprightly folks of over sixty or seventy, and they were doing fine. My experience on Mt. Fuji was mainly one of irony. We left in the dark to climb through the night in order to arrive on the peak for the sunrise. We arrived on the peak at the proper time, but the peak was completely socked in. I literally could not see my hand at the end of my outstretched arm when I first made the top. The clouds cleared enough for me to see about thirty feet from where I stood, but I was never given a glimpse of the view in any direction, and we headed back down before there was any clearing. By the time we reached the bottom again, though, we could see the peak free of clouds. It seems ironic indeed that the highest point in Japan allowed me no view at all. Most of what I saw in Japan was at sea level, which carries its own irony.

Yeah, I wish we had not been so keen on following Japanese tradition and had simply hiked during the day. I remember seeing a few shooting stars on the way up, but it was sleet at the top--on a scorching hot day in July. Have you ever hiked another mountain between 11:00 pm to 5:00 am?

Not once.

And do you remember why we brought Grateful Dead tee shirts along with us?

Maybe, "what a long, strange trip it's been"?

Next up: Burn & Learn with American Fuji

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Eric Paul Shaffer Reverses the Question

So, Eric, you lived in Okinawa the same years I lived in Shizuoka City, the setting for American Fuji. What did you find in American Fuji that corresponded with your life on the island?

The difficulties that Gaby and Alex, as gaijin, have in acquiring solid information were familiar to me. Many times I wondered why I was unable to get answers to what seemed to be basic and simple questions, such as how I should acquire a parking space at my apartment complex. I am very glad I didn’t have to research the sorts of questions Gaby and Alex were faced with. My faculty meetings, like Gaby's, lasted countless hours, and it was difficult to get an answer to what I was voting for even though I was told which way to vote. I also found the same juxtapositions jarring that Alex does. For example, I found a nation that values individual reputation as highly as Japan does somewhat in contradiction with the high incidence of drinking and driving I actually witnessed there.

A few readers get upset when I point out aspects of Japan such as the 10,000 yen fine for vomiting in a taxi or my description of drunk businessmen puking on the sidewalk. I witnessed these signs of rampant alcoholism and it is real, but I have been accused of being mean-spirited to include it (and other details people regard as "negative") in my novel. Do you experience the same backlash? The notion that it's our duty, as fiction writers, to make sure readers have a good impression of the culture?

When I am faced with a question based on a notion like this, I find it exceedingly instructive to reverse the question. How likely is it that Japanese will promote this attitude: "we, as Japanese, should only write about positive features of America and make sure readers have a good impression of the culture." My experience indicates that this is not the case. Many are the justified and accurate and incisive critiques of America that I have heard from Japanese people who were resident aliens of the USA. As a result, I portray the Japan and Okinawa I "knew" in my writing, always from the "inside-outsider" perspective, which acknowledges its inherent limitations, and employ what I saw to tell stories about what appeared to be happening. What other choice do we have?

Could you explain the baffling juxtapositions of this photo?

The name of the business is “Misuta Sain” (Mister Sign) and he is advertising his Christmas sale. It struck me as odd that it was okay with our security forces and military bases that a perimeter fence be adorned with advertising. It also struck me as odd that the American and Japanese flags are flying side by side on Okinawan soil WITHOUT AN OKINAWAN FLAG.

Next up: Shaffer on climbing Mt. Fuji

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Eric Paul Shaffer's Favorite Japanese Novelists

Which Japanese novelists would you recommend to our readers?

Dazai (especially The Setting Sun and No Longer Human, both of which acknowledge a side of Japanese culture I glimpsed but that is often unacknowledged and for his stark lyricality) Öe (for the same reasons), Sōseki (for his crazy inventiveness, humor, and honest portrayal of Japanese culture), and Akutagawa (for Kappa, a charming novel). Oddly, I find the work of H. Murakami, the popular contemporary Japanese author, interesting but a bit plodding compared to the more intricate yet lighter, though deeper, work of these others.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Eric Paul Shaffer on Living in Okinawa

I noticed that living in Japan changed the way I related to my native English language. I spoke, wrote, read, and even thought differently. Did living in Japan change the way you wrote poetry and fiction?

Absolutely. Not only did living in Japan supply entirely new subject matter for my writing, but Japan provided me a completely different perspective as a writer. Because of my new location, I began reading more and more about the history of Japan and America, two nations whose histories are so inter-twined that they will never be free of each other again. Because I am a student of literature, I read novels, non-fiction, and poetry by Okinawan and Japanese authors. In another way, living in Japan broadened me as a writer in ways that I might never have experienced in the USA. If we are each the sum of our experiences, then I was most definitely changed, and I hope it was for the better, by living on Okinawa and in Japan.

Care to explain the visual pun in your photo?

It’s a Japanese crane and cherry blossoms: symbols of longevity and transience side by side.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Interview with Eric Paul Shaffer

My next few posts will feature an interview with poet and novelist Eric Paul Shaffer. He's a good friend of mine who taught English at a national Japanese university on the tropical island of Okinawa the same years I taught in Shizuoka on mainland Japan.

Eric Paul Shaffer is the author of five books of poetry, including Lāhaina Noon; Living at the Monastery, Working in the Kitchen; and (my favorite) Portable Planet. His poetry appears in Ploughshares, Slate, North American Review, Threepenny Review, and reviews in Australia, Canada, England, Iran, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, and Scotland. Shaffer received the 2002 Elliot Cades Award for Literature, a 2006 Ka Palapala Po'okela Book Award for Lāhaina Noon, and the 2009 James M. Vaughan Award for Poetry. Burn & Learn, his first novel, was published in November 2009. After living on Okinawa and Maui, he now lives on O'ahu and teaches at Honolulu Community College.

Please feel free to post your own questions for Eric as we go along!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Obligation Chocolate

In American Fuji, I mentioned the ongoing "invisible obligation game" that Americans find baffling. To oversimplify, you owe every person who does you a favor or gives you a present. But paying back your social debt can be nerve-wrecking as it's nearly impossible to match an action or gift with the one you received. To be safe, you usually overdo it, which then puts the burden on the recipient to come back with another favor or gift, and the obligation ledger goes back and forth, adding and subtracting perceived value for a lifetime. Valentine's Day is an obligation day in Japan which requires women to give chocolate (giri-choco) to their male co-workers and acquaintances. They may also choose to give honmei-choco to their sweethearts. Most Japanese women I knew resented the holiday because buying small boxes of chocolate for 30-40 men put a dent in their budgets. Perhaps these days there is less pressure to conform to this tradition. Mieji, a popular Japanese chocolatier, makes many ingenious chocolates, such as this Tetris puzzle chocolate bar.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Year of the Tiger 2010

Here's a lovely tiger I photographed at Sengen Jinja Shrine in Shizuoka City. In Japan, the year of the Tiger began Feb. 4, but in China it starts Feb. 14 this year. The astrology is far more complex than assigning 12 animals to 12 personality types. Concurrent 5-year cycles of elements (earth, fire, water, wood, and metal) create 60 basic types, modified by the month, day, and hour of one's birth and all of their corresponding animals and elements. Your "lucky" element is the one you most lack--reinforcing Eastern ideas of the rightness of balance. If you're curious, click here to see what your luck will be for 2010.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Thoughts on American Fuji

This new blog, Two Bowls of Ramen, featured an unusual review of American Fuji with a sensitive exploration of Gaby Stanton's character. Check it out and leave a comment!

Monday, January 25, 2010

How Readers Can Help Writers

When I visited a local book club this month, a question I hadn’t heard before came up: “How can we help writers whose books we like?”

I was impressed that these kind readers were aware that writers need help. With more titles competing in a declining overall market, books--especially fiction--no longer sell themselves on their own merit. Many fiction writers fade out of sight after their debut novel. Advances, smaller than ever, no longer allow new writers the reward of quitting their day jobs. The stolen weekends and evenings newly-published authors used to spend writing are now required to service vastly increased PR responsibilities such as maintaining a web site, blogging, and networking, in addition to constantly scrounging for whatever reviews, radio interviews, conference talks, or readings they can get. No matter how much work the author puts into book promotion, though, it doesn’t necessarily result in sales. Let’s face it: any author telling the world how wonderful his own book is comes across as being biased! And if his first book doesn’t sell, the publisher won’t print a second.

What’s needed is the elusive word-of-mouth from readers who liked the book. So, next time you read a good book, here’s what you can do to help sales and perhaps have a chance to read another book by the same writer.

First, buy the book. Publishers don’t care how many people read a book: only how many pay for it. Most people know that writers make nothing if you check out their work from the library, but many don’t realize writers get no royalties from used book or remaindered book purchases. If your budget is tight, buy discounted new books, which still provide the writers with a small percentage. Royalties for e-books are higher than print, so choosing to go green will help your favorite authors as well as the environment.

Second, don’t be silent! There are ways to speak up, and all are free.

You may already be speaking up without saying a word. Every time you read in public, you are providing a subtle ad for the book. So, take your book to work, read in the subway, read in the cafe or mall, and hold that cover high.

Writing to authors to let them know you enjoyed their books provides valuable encouragement in a lonely profession. You don’t need to be careful with your grammar or craft an elaborate letter. One sentence such as “hey, I really liked reading your book” is as welcome as an elegant essay.

Post comments on author’s blogs. Comments make a blog seem livelier and generate more interest. If you’re shy, use only your first name or be anonymous.

Post reader “reviews” on online booksellers’ sites. Keep in mind there are always disgruntled or jealous crackpots posting 1-star reviews out of pure spite, so give the highest star rating you can. 5 stars means you liked it a lot, not that it’s a masterwork of literature. Don’t stress about reviewing. Keep it short and either mention a few details you particularly enjoyed, or that it kept you reading from start to finish. While Indie Bound, Amazon and Barnes & Noble are the primary online sources, also visit book groups and independent book stores and post reviews there. With less traffic, your positive review will get more attention and mean more. Some Indie bookstores, such as Powell’s of Portland, Oregon offer a chance to win free books for posting the first review.

While you’re visiting, take a moment to “tag” the book. Sign in as a customer, then scroll down to “Tags Customers Associate with This Product” and check 15 boxes. Check the popular tags to build numbers and whatever other tags you think apply. This is not a small thing, as tagging will help the title show up in customer searches.

You can help several books with one post by creating a customer "list" on any book retailer's site which includes the titles and authors of books you like. All of this can be done anonymously or with a pseudonym. Your list can be books you recommend for reading groups, or books to read on an airplane, or books set in other countries--anything you can imagine.

Tell your friends about the book on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Goodreads, and any other social sites you use. Be sure to include the title and author’s full name. Add a link to the author’s web site or blog and get a photo of the book jacket to accompany your post. If you blog, please, oh, please mention the title and author in a post! Include links or photos whenever you can. To kick it up a level, invite the author to do an interview on your blog. Ask questions you genuinely want to know about the book, the author, or the subject. It's perfectly all right to ask just one question.

These ideas are not as much work as they seem. The same review can be posted on multiple web sites. Tagging takes only a few seconds, and commenting on blogs can be fun, even addictive. If your time is limited, keep in mind the best selling authors will do well without your help; focus on new authors and the books you’ve found off the beaten path. Usually, these authors will thank you with personal responses.

Writing is a difficult profession and success is haphazard. Spreading the word about a good book is a way to give back to the person whose writing reached you.

Sara Backer copyright 2010

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Lost Decade Culvert, Part 2

I took this photograph from the same spot as the other one, looking upstream toward the mountains. Here, you can see my local nuclear power plant and, to its right, the "hook" described in American Fuji (p.277-8): "A long-legged bird picked its way through construction gravel blocking the trickle of the stream. Alex looked up the scaffolding of the mechanical crane to the bright white sky, in which a giant hook balanced, poised and ready." (The birds I saw were herons; the only Japanese cranes I saw were the man-made kind.)

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Lost Decade Culvert, Part 1

I was in Japan in the early part of its now-famous "lost decade" when the government was funding unnecessary public works projects to stimulate employment. My neighborhood project (about two blocks from my apartment) was turning a natural creek into a concrete culvert. I described it from Alex's point of view in American Fuji (p.277): "The chain-link fence on either side of the culvert was coated in toothpaste-blue plastic. Natural mud banks covered with grasses and hydrangeas stopped abruptly at new concrete walls flanking the stony stream." This photo almost shows the mud banks. I'm facing the ocean, looking downstream.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Wednesday Is Water Day

Here is the lovely kanji for water, which is mizu in Japanese or sui in combination with other characters, such as suiyoubi for Wednesday. In American Fuji, Gaby notes (as I did) how delicious plain tap water was in Shizuoka City. I had never thought about the taste of water much (except when I lived where the water was harsh--yes, I mean Davis, California) but in Shizuoka the difference is striking. I learned Shizuoka is famous for its water within Japan. I wonder if the proximity to volcanic mountains has something to do with this. Do layers of obsidian and pumice help filter water? Does anyone know?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Lost in Shizuoka

Oshika Street was the "shopping" street in my neighborhood which I described on p.187 of American Fuji: "Alex came to a diagonal street crowded with small shops. Sidewalk bins, telephone poles, pedestrians, and parked cars all competed for space on each side of the road, narrowing traffic to one lane. Alex stood under the red-and-yellow striped awning of a candy stores and opened his map, looking for any street that cut a hypotenuse through the typical grid. He'd never take named streets for granted again." When I ventured out exploring on my red bicycle (looking much like the man in this photo) I learned to look backward every so often to help orient myself in new parts of the city. I was happy to find any landmarks--like a diagonal street--to find my way home.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A Review from a Portland JET

This review (like American Fuji itself) is not what you'd expect, but I was charmed by Brittany Holman's direct, impassioned style. It's so rewarding to get support from others who have lived in Japan.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Cold Sunrise

The Japanese New Year's Day tradition is to wake early (3-4 a.m.) and go to the nearest ocean to watch the sun rise. (It's not called "the land of the rising sun" for nothing.) I'm sorry to report I never observed that tradition, despite my best intentions. I set my alarm, but each year, the warmth of my futon won out over riding my trusty red bicycle to the coast in the dark and freezing night.