Tuesday, August 30, 2005


Matsuri New York

Downtown Tokyo?

Osaka in the summer?

Nope. This past weekend, I went to a small matsuri right here in New York city. It was part of the Howl Festival, which takes place in the Lower East Side of the Manhattan.

Matsuri are another one of those things which are quintessentially Japanese, and difficult to experience anywhere else. Whenever I talk to friends and family in Japan about matsuri, they invariably say the same thing: "Matsuri are the true Japan." I've written a few short stories where matsuri play a huge role; I've always loved them and usually try to find a matsuri to attend when I am in Japan.

The summer is also the peak season for matsuri in Japan, though there are some spectacular ones (scroll down) which occur in the darker times of the year. Because I spent so much time in Japan as a kid, I become very nostalgic for matsuri come summer. Most Japanese festivals in the States are more like cultural celebrations, and don't have the little details that you can experience in Japan, so it was such a pleasure to see so many people working together to try to create an authentic experience here in New York.

I loved seeing girls in yukatas. They were enormously popular this year in Japan, and the trend carried over to New York, where young families had also dressed up their children.

I saw some kids wandering around carrying little bags of goldfish, which is very, very traditional. I even put a goldfish scooping scene in one of my short stories. I didn't manage to get a picture of the fish, but I did spot this little pool with a child receiving a small water balloon, also very traditional.

Plastic masks are a must at any true matsuri. Note the Japanese and American cartoon characters embodied below!

There were also a few non-traditional elements, like this craft table where kids learned origami. This really moved me -- I always like to see that someone has thought of things to entertain and educate kids at the same time.

And then there was the mikoshi!

The matsuri participants gamely paraded around this small version of mikoshi, and they certainly went at it with enthusiasm and energy.

Gordon and I ran into a mikoshi at the Gion matsuri earlier this summer, and were nearly knocked over by the wave of people whirling around in a circle.

Fortunately, we were standing behind a row of trees, and were able to avoid most of the danger, but you can see how scaled up these kinds of events become in Japan.

Now that the summer is ending, I'm trying to turn my attention to other seasonal things -- moon viewing, cooking with mushrooms and no more air-conditioning!

Thursday, August 25, 2005


How to Enjoy the Starbucks Green Tea Frappuccino

I used to really miss the matcha frappuccino, or green tea frappuccino, previously available in Starbucks Japan but not America.

(Here is Gordon enjoying a matcha frappuccino outside the Starbucks in Kyoto. I would feel bad about going into a Starbucks in Japan if it weren't for this drink alone, and I'm afraid I convinced Gordon of how they good they are once we were there.)

I love real green tea. It's kind of hard to get here America, though you can get a few products. My favorite yakitori in New York also makes a great green tea pudding for dessert which I always eat when I am there.

So I was really thrilled when I came back from Japan this year to find that Starbucks America had introduced their version of the green tea frappucino. My mother and I went out to get one and -- it was terrible! Horrible! Didn't taste like green tea at all, but like melon! Gross! Plus it was disgustingly sweet.

(Here is my brilliant friend and chef Isao, enjoying a beautiful cup of real matcha in Kyoto at Ippodo. I've learned a lot about food and trends from him over the years, and can't wait till he has his own restaurant!)

My friend Isao, who is a chef, always complains to me that American food is too sweet and too salty, and I think that this is true in many respects. So, I tried to experiment with Starbucks' whole "customization" option to come up with something that approximates the matcha frappuccino.

Here it is:

Ask for:
1 green tea frappuccino
no syrup
no whip cream
with one shot of espresso

The first time I did this, the girl behind the counter said, "Interesting."

But I'll tell you this -- it tasted damned good.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005


Turning Japanese

Earlier this year I had an interesting rejection from a well respected literary journal. The editor said a number of nice things about my work, and then made this point:

". . . whereas a Japanese reader might recognize the landscapes, most western readers probably need a little more development of the scenes to feel comfortable with them."

It was an astute observation and gets at the heart of one of the main things I am always wrestling with in my stories. I very consciously don't write stories in which I say, "Now, a tabi is a kind of foot covering worn by the Japanese, and resembling a mitten, and is worn with a geta, which is a kind of clog . . . " because I think this kind of thing really slows down a story. I also think it can make a story read like some sort of monograph, as though any culture other than our own (in my case American) is the norm, and all others are worthy of National Geographic type treatment (not that there is anything wrong with National Geographic).

So far I have also avoided ever putting a glossary in any of my work. I know that other books -- books that I have read and enjoyed -- have done this. But so far I haven't had to.

I guess I really want to try to immerse people in setting of my stories, without having to go overboard on explanation. This can be tough. It is much easier when I write a story set in America, and the Japanese characters have to explain themselves, or be explained, because it is natural to the story. Setting a story in Japan where the people are familiar with their culture is more of a challenge.

I remember when I first started writing stories, certain family members warned me against writing about Japan; "People still really like to read about white people. Not Asians."

Harsh, hunh?

And yet, I think if we look at the market, this is often true.

I also think that this family member was trying to make the point that, in setting a story in Japan, I was always going to have to work against silly stereotypes (the sad idea that geisha prostitutes, for example), the public's generaly unfamiliarity and a tendency for "foreign" characters to always be wise or virtuous.

I therefore try very hard to create stories which are engaging, in which the Japanese people are fully developed, and not just bastions of koans and insight and calm, and other such stereotypical traits. When I think of people I know in Japan, they are, of course, fully fleshed out individuals, and I want my stories to be that way too.

But I also don't want readers -- less patient readers -- to feel that they are necessarily reading an instructive story. I want them to be entertained, to just feel like something is, to quote my friend Vanessa, "a good read."

I also think that there are a whole host of things about Japan -- and other countries, but Japan is what I currently focus on -- which you don't read about in fiction. Other writers have written stunningly about the immigrant experience, or about life in a foreign country.

I'm trying to do something I guess that is closer to the latter, where a reader is exposed to aspects of culture that are surprising, like matsuri, and where they can feel to some degree, some of what I feel when I am in Japan. It's staggering to think how recently plane travel has developed, and how this has facilitated our ability to go virtually anywhere we want to in a short amount of time; we get very little decompression. It is also always amazing to me how little we truly know about each other.

When we travel, there are literally hundreds of little cultural cues which we may or may not pick up on. So, in writing, I'm always wrestling with how much I want to explain, and how much I want the reader to feel viscerally.

Saturday, August 20, 2005


Big in Japan

Once when my friend Isao came to visit me from Japan, we went shopping at Banana Republic which was having a nice sale, and he said to me with concern, "Marie. You’re looking at the small clothes." And I said, "I'm a small in America."

The thing is I am a size small here -- most of the time -- but in Japan I am very definitely not small. This is particularly true in the countryside, where people will ask me with total wonder and without a hint of malice, "Exactly how many centimeters tall are you?" I never have an answer for this, as I only know my height in feet. (Yes, I know. I should learn the metric system).

For his part, Isao is actually an extra-large in Japan, where he is teased light-heartedly for his height and girth. In this country, he is merely a large and doesn't look out of place.

In Japan I often find myself slouching, trying to fit in, convinced that I have gained an enormous amount of weight. This isn't helped by the fact that young women these days are painfully thin in Japan; the eating disorders and obsession with the skeletal frame have, after decades of tormenting the States, finally reached the other side of the Pacific Ocean. I think this is one indication that Japan has really come of age as a modern country. The calorie count – which the Japanese seem to be obsessed with these days – of most meals has got to be lower than it is here in the States, and I invariably come back to New York thinner than when I left. I get off the plane, look around, see that I am again in the land where I am small and I feel relieved.

Size is always a strange part of traveling to a foreign country, and we often take it for granted. The Japanese have a tradition in their old tea-houses of deliberately making the entrance small; the idea was that when engaged in the tea ceremony, all individuals, whether shogun or not, were reduced to a smaller size. It makes us humble. I like this intentional use of size.

(Here I am, pretending to come out of a door to a tea-house).

(And here I am slouching next to a maiko-san in Kyoto. For those who don't know, yes, a maiko bears some relationship to what we call a "geisha" in the West. But a maiko is more appropriately considered an apprentice geiko, the Kyoto term for "geisha," a term which carries with it many unfortunate and inappropriate connotations).

But then there is the scene in "Lost in Translation" where Bill Murray wrestles with the tiny shower-head and shaver, and anyone who has been to Japan and suffered through endless culture shock can relate to that scene. People traveling to Japan for the first time know from movie watching that they should expect to find its scale a mystery.

(This is my cousin Glen, who is 6 foot 4, standing in front of a door in Aoyama in Tokyo. Obviously, he is very tall and the door is very small. But it still made for a good picture.)

This past summer I took my boyfriend to Japan. He is 6 foot 2, from Scotland and quite clearly not Japanese. As we passed through the halls of Nijo palace in Kyoto, I heard a woman murmur behind us, "Look! That gaijin correctly went through the doorway!" She was implying that she was impressed he had managed not to hit his head. When we talked about this later, he told me that he had in fact hit his head plenty of other times; he just hadn't adjusted to the scale of Japanese living.

(This is Gordon and the door to our hotel room. Fortunately the ceiling was higher than the door might lead you to believe.)

And yet, Japan is also the land of the largest free-standing wooden torii gate (Meiji shrine, Tokyo) and the largest wooden sculpture (the Buddha at Todaiji in Nara). These things are impressive to look at as a foreigner, and as a Japanese. So, clearly, it can't be said that the Japanese like to make things small as a rule.

In fact, when I visited the Sony Center in Tokyo, an American friend commented that the new Sony music players were frustrating to use because of the tiny buttons, and that the designers must not have thought through their functionality. My cousin, Aya, became defensive and said that in Japan, people were simply less wasteful of space; apparently we waste button space here in America!

And yet this isn't true, either, if I think about the amount of paper and plastic that goes into wrapping even the simplest item bought in a store.

As a kid I always liked Alice in Wonderland; I loved the idea of drinking something and becoming larger or smaller. This strikes me as a particularly true expression of what happens when we travel to different countries and culture, which have an unpredictable sense of scale. It probably partly explains why I like stories that toy with scale; it gets at how travelers perceive the world around them. Even here in the States my sense of perception is toyed with, when I drive around in the southwest, where towns are very, very far apart and you must pay attention to how far it is to the next gas-station. And then there is life here in New York, where our small one-bedroom apartment is considered quite spacious by Manhattan standards.

I am thinking of trying to get at this whole phenomenon in a story one day. I'll probably approach it from the whole Alice in Wonderland sense of aesthetics; you can only go so far demonstrating culture shock by putting Bill Murray in claustrophobic spaces. That's funny and cute, but I think there are even more extreme examples of culture shock and space that have yet to be explored in fiction.

I am reminded, finally, of the time we took my Japanese grandfather on a camping trip. We had been driving all day across the Central Valley in California and he said to me, "Well! That must be the Rocky Mountains." And we had to explain that, no, these were just the Sierra Nevadas. His eyes widened and he perceived just how enormous California, and consequently the United States really was. Ditto for my friends who are die-hard travelers who insist that the best way to see a city is to walk it. And yet, I would never advise anyone to walk all of Tokyo.

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