梅雨diary: Yukata be Kidding Me

Jul. 19th, 2017 07:15 pm
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[personal profile] steepholm
Early in my stay at Tonjo's Foreign Faculty Building, I joked to Miho that I didn't want to end up as the main character of a Japanese tale, 「可哀相な外人の物語」, or "The Story of the Pitiable Foreigner". The thought had been prompted by my bedtime reading of a Japanese novel that had one of its main characters, sleeping alone in an old building, rather suddenly and unexpectedly introduced to a ghost to his room at night. At that point, as I looked out at the grove surrounding the large and otherwise deserted old building in which I was then sleeping alone, I had decided that light fiction was a better choice.

The yurei and obake of Tonjo ignored me, happily, but I felt that fever took me pretty close to "Pitable Foreigner" status, had I not been able to pull out of the dive for my last evening in Tokyo, merely scraping the tops of trees and getting bits of bird's nest in my cleavage.

I was particularly glad, because this was the day that Satomi, her mother and her friend Chiaki (who as luck would have it works in a kimono shop) were coming to do yukata-related things with me. Our original plan had been ambitious - to go to Kanda shrine and watch rakugo. Gradually, though, with the temperature being in the mid-30s, this was reduced to eating some nice desserts at my flat, then walking elegantly around the grounds of Tonjo drawing admiring glances from all who beheld us. Anyway, here are some of my favourite pics from the occasion. There are quite a few, but feel free to scroll past:


Obi Wonky Maybe?

Of course, I only included that last photo so that I could use the caption.

Then it was on to Miho's place in Nakano, where my appetite returned on cue, and I had a wonderful meal cooked by her husband Hiroshi, a fine chef as I remember from last year. (Unfortunately, he wasn't feeling well himself, for much the same reasons as me before, and had to retire early.) Satoshi Kitamura, whom I'd met at the Mexican embassy, was another guest at supper, and we had a very good talk about the varying degrees of (in)directness one might expect in different cultures, which issued in the following Buzzfeedish joint declaration (apologies for the national stereotyping, but sake is no friend to fine distinctions):

If an American thinks it's a bad idea, they'll say, "That's a bad idea."
If an English person thinks it's a bad idea, they'll say, "That's a very brave suggestion."
If a Japanese person thinks its a bad idea, they'll say, "The weather's been hot, recently, hasn't it?"

We had drunk quite a bit of sake by that time. Afterwards we walked fifty yards to the local festival, the other reason for being yukata-clad. It's a small affair but a popular and traditional one: Miho reminisced how the sound of the festival music used to excite her when she was at primary school (she's a little older than me), and she'd run home to change, ready to dance. As is typical in such affairs - not that I'd seen one before in real life - a temporary tower had been built in the centre of an open space, with a small stage surrounding it. At the top, a taiko drummer accompanied a set of maybe half a dozen tunes (each of which had a different dance associated with it), which were basically played in rotation throughout the evening, and from the tower strings of lanterns radiated like filaments from a web. There were various food and drink stalls (though not goldfish scooping, sadly!) around the edge of the area. Some people were watching, some were dancing - the dance involving (whatever the tune) a slow, anti-clockwise circuit of the tower, done in conjunction with various combinations of arm gestures, claps, turns, and forward and backward steps. Not too hard to learn, if you've had enough sake, and I followed Miho and gave it a go. I am no dancer in any idiom, but I remembered the lyrics of the Awa Bon Odori:

The dancers are fools
The watchers are fools
Both are fools alike so
Why not dance?

This has been my motto throughout the trip, and to be honest it's not such a bad one for life.

If you want a flavour of the sound and movement of the thing, please click through to the video below:


That marked the end of my Tokyo stay, and the next morning I boarded the shinkansen to Kanazawa in the west of the country, a town famed for fresh seafood, for the garden of Kenrokuen, and for putting gold leaf on so many things that it would make a rapper blush.

The first thing that fascinated me, though (because I am a Big Kid) was the fountain at the station, which was also at times a digital clock. Cool! (I'm sure they have these kinds of things elsewhere too, but I've not seen one.) The station itself is pretty impressive. This huge structure at its entrance seems new, and I suspect may have been erected to celebrate the arrival of the shinkansen line from Tokyo a couple of years ago, after which Kanazawa put itself on a no-holds-barred tourist footing.


I'd put myself up at an air BnB for three nights in Kanazawa, to justify two nights at a proper ryokan in Takayama afterwards. It was my first Air BnB experience, and while it was nothing special nor was the price I paid for it. The room was pretty bare, but everything promised was present, and at least I had this as the view from my window:


I have to say that, throughout the next few days, my energy and appetite, briefly resurgent for the Nakano matsuri, went back into abeyance, so I don't think I was able to do Kanazawa justice. However, I did put the miles in! First stop was the impressive fish market (which looked delicious but prompted no appetite in me at all, alas), followed by the castle park. Of course, no one knows whether samurai armour was originally modelled on the appearance of Japanese castles, or the other way round. What is certain is that in the feudal period, once two castles spotted each other they were apt to convert (much like the Transformers of our own day) into mechanised fighting machines of ferocious violence and battle it out until one of them was a flaming heap (which was then officially blamed on earthquakes). The sight so disconcerted the shogun that he ordered that castles should never be built within 4 ri of each other, an ordinance still in place today.

Actually, that may have been the fever writing. Interesting as Kanazawa Castle may be, it's actually less famous than the adjoining garden, Kenrokuen - so called because it's a park (en) containing six (roku) features (ken) thought notable - although I'm not sure which six they had in mind. I saw a lot more, personally. Even for someone with low energy levels it was a very pleasant place to walk around, and oddly reminiscent (in its penchant for sudden prospects, islands with "fake" temples, sinuous walks, water features, and commitment to "nature methodised"), to the kind of thing that was being done in English landscape gardening over the same period. (I wish I had the knowledge and vocabulary to expatiate on this.)


Naturally, after wandering in the heat for a while, you want something to help you cool down. As I mentioned earlier, putting gold leaf in, or on, pretty much everything is a Kanazawa speciality. Want yourself a gold-leaf face mask? We've got you covered. Sweets or soap or sake with bits of gold leaf inside? Of course. Actually, why not just buy yourself an ice cream cornet covered in a single sheet of gold leaf?


Oh, okay then.

Toronto Comics: Yonge at Heart

Jul. 15th, 2017 02:45 pm
bcholmes: (comics code authority)
[personal profile] bcholmes

This week, the Shuster Award nominations were announced, and for the third year in a row, the Toronto Comics anthology has been nominated for the Gene Day Award for self-published comics. We’ve lost out the last two years, and I don’t really expect this year to go any differently but, as they say, it’s an honour to be nominated.

Because of eligibility date requirements, the nomination was for Volume 3, which came out in 2016. But it’s 2017 now, and there’s a fourth volume. This year, the editors dispensed with the “Volume X” subtitle, and gave the book its own swanky subtitle: Yonge at Heart! This year’s book is a bit smaller (in a “number of pages” sense) than previous years, but what it lacks in pages it makes up for with vibrant colour! And, boy howdy, does that colour make for some gorgeous pages.

Read the rest of this entry »

Mirrored from Under the Beret.

steepholm: (Default)
[personal profile] steepholm
On Thursday evening I found myself with Miho and Mikako at the Mexican Embassy, which was hosting an event about Mexican-Japanese literary relations. This is not, to put it mildly, my area of expertise, but it sounded like an interesting gig, so with my credo of cultural omniverousness I went along. Most of the talks were in Spanish with Japanese translation, or Japanese with Spanish translation, which was an interesting challenge (I don't speak Spanish at all). The one exception was Satoshi Kitamura, once a long-term resident of England - you may remember Angry Arthur? - who, perhaps because he knew I was in the audience, kindly translated himself into English as well.


From what I could make out through the dark glass of linguistic ignorance it was a good event, with some interesting stats, such as this one showing the huge imbalance between languages that have been translated into Japanese for children's books. (The columns represent English, German, French, Spanish, Italian and Chinese.)


At dinner afterwards I happened to find myself next to Diana Wynne Jones's Japanese publisher, which made for a very stimulating conversation, particularly about titles. (Not only that, the following day I talked with DWJ's Japanese translator about the same subject.)

The 7th July is, as any fule kno, the festival of Tanabata. (Long story short, there were once two stars - let us call them Will and Lyra - who fell in love but were separated, and destined to be able to be with each other only for one day each year, this being that day: it has thus become a festival for lovers particularly.) This was to be a) my first festival in Japan and b) my first opportunity to wear my yukata. My friends Yoshiko and Hiroko had agreed to come with me, and indeed Yoshiko pointed out that her university was holding a Tanabata event, which included a free yukata-dressing service (even Japanese people don't find these things so easy!). Of course, I gratefully took up the offer, and so it was that I found myself on the 8th floor of Taisho University, in a room full of people being yukata'd up, having their hair put right, and so on, under the expert tuition of a group of (it seemed) professionals, two of whom immediately set their sights on me.

I don't suppose there can be any of us who hasn't fantasised at one time or another about being taken in hand by a pair of no-nonsense, Japanese ladies of middle age, and tucked, trimmed and twirled like a kokeshi doll, but I never thought it likely to happen in real life. After emerging from this experience I was passed on to a student to have my hair plaited and my decorative flower attached. The whole thing took, maybe, twenty minutes, and this was the result:


Silk purses and sow's ears, and all that - I think they did a very good job with the material available.

Before the festival, a few of us slipped out for a meal of sake, raw fish and yakitori (yes there were also vegetables - but no, they were not boiled sprouts). In amongst the rest were a first for me, whale sashimi - something I was a little leery of for a number of reasons; but in a "When in Rome, everything comes with garum" spirit I gave it a go. I've got to say, it was really good! And - well, of course this shouldn't be surprising - far closer to beef than to tuna. (My mother has often mentioned the "Whale Steaks" served during wartime austerity as among the worst foods she's ever tasted, but I rather suspect they didn't know the best way to cook them at the Lyons Corner House, let alone prepare them as sashimi.)

The Tanabata celebration we went to afterwards took place at a local shrine - as you can see, it's a colourful event. We each wrote our prayers (mine in Japanese probably illegible to any but divine beings), and hung them with the rest, and shuffled off to bed (as you do in geta).


The following day was the day of my lecture at the International Children's Library in Ueno, which is the children's section of the National Diet Library, the equivalent of the British Library. They sent a taxi to take me all the way from Tonjo to Ueno, about an hour's drive through central Tokyo. I was once again amazed at the decor of Japanese taxis, with their white crocheted (or tatted?) antimacassars, seemingly the product of a cottage industry run by a secret society of international, time-travelling Victorians. (I didn't take a photograph, but try this one for size.) The white gloves worn by the driver didn't faze me, for white gloves are to be seen in so many places in Japan, most obviously since I've been here by the people inside the election vans that drove though Tokyo in the run-up to the recent elections. Apparently the message on the loudspeaker was simply saying, in effect, "Vote for me!", but inside half a dozen white-gloved people (from a distance I suppose only their hands were visible) were smiling and waving, to add a human touch to what could otherwise come across as a rather hectoring message. Once, I was walking up a small side street when one of these vans passed me and a young woman hung out of the side of it, smiling and waving, and I admit that I was struck by her sincerity and, by extension, the economic soundness of the policies advocated by her party's representative. Still, "投票できない" I sadly informed her.

The library is a rather splendid building, and I was given a tour of it, the most exciting bit naturally being those parts the public doesn't get to see, namely the basement vaults, where you have walk across a very large fly-paper to get the dust off your shoes before you can enter. "We keep this at a constant temperature of 22 degrees," Ms Nakajima, my guide, informed me, "to preserve the books." I actually felt it to be a little cool for comfort, and congratulated my body on its ability to acclimatise. But, those whom the gods wish to destroy they first persuade that 22 degrees is a bit nippy, as I would later have cause to remember...

Ms Nakajima went on to tell me that they didn't keep manga - including things like Shounen Jump - at this branch of the library, but at the main branch in Nagacho, because manga wasn't thought of as essentially children's literature. However, they did have magazines for children and teenagers. Wondering exactly what this distinction amounted to, I took a volume at random from the shelf - a pink affair with the words "My Boy" written in English on the front and a picture of a rather beautiful young man. In fact, there seemed to be rather a lot of beautiful young men in evidence, and the volume fell open at a page at which one was depicted (in some detail) giving another oral sex. I'm still trying to get my head around a cataloguing system that classes this under children's literature but excludes One Piece. (According to Wikipedia, in 2009 62.9% of Shounen Jump readers were under the age of fourteen, just as a data point.) But all cataloguing systems have inherent contradictions, because the world's a contradictory place, as I have argued elsewhere...

My Boy was of course a work for fujoshi - mostly straight females who enjoy reading about male-male sex. Has anyone ever done a comparison between that demographic and the slash fiction phenomenon in the West? Probably - but if not, they should.

The lecture went well - and afterwards they sent me some pictures, in most of which I'm grimacing like Theresa May, but here's one that I feel sums up the actual spirit of the event far better, although you wouldn't get that there was quite a large audience. To my left sits Professor Hishida, who was acting as my interpreter:


I got the taxi back, feeling strangely tired, but I put that down to nerves (not that I'd felt nervous, but perhaps my body knew better?), and stopped off at the little restaurant next to Tonjo called Paper Ban - odd name, but there you are - and ate a curry and rice topped with grilled cheese, a surprisingly satisfying combination. Then I went to bed at 9pm, feeling very tired....

... and slept feverishly for the next 12 hours.

At first, of course, I blamed the mosquitoes. Could it be malaria? Did it call for a G&T? But Dr Google said no, Japanese mosquitoes are malaria-free - so I tried to cure myself of hypochondria by rereading the first chapter of Three Men on a Boat, a worthwhile experience at any time, and reconciled myself to the fact that it was probably the heat, and constant mixing of heat with air-conditioned cold - the same thing that triggered my previous fever, four years ago in Boston (in the UK I never seem to be ill).

Anyway, I've been living with that fever for the last few days. It tends to hit in the evening (it's due just around now, in fact), sends me shivery, coughing and sans appetite to an early bed, and then releases me in the small hours, a little spacey and weak, but able to do some basic things. On Sunday, for example I was able make it to Kagurazaka for a lunch date with my internet friend Yuki (she's the one in the middle), though my appetite wasn't great:


And on Monday for a lunch date with my other internet friend Yuka in Shibuya (I also have friends called Yako and Yoko, in case you're wondering). She'd come from Kobe specially, so I could hardly cancel - besides, I was really pleased to see her.


And on Tuesday Miho's class came to my flat for tea, after a Q&A session:

Me and my Crew

But I was not at my best for any of these events. And I had to cancel Tomoko, and decline invitations from Akira, Yasuko and Chie...

Yesterday I spent more quietly still, venturing only a short air-conditioned bus-ride to the cinema to watch the first film from Studio Ponoc, Mary and the Witch's Flower. If you haven't heard of Studio Ponoc it's run by a lot of ex-Ghibli staffers, and the director of this film is the Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who also directled Arrietty and When Marnie was There.


Since this film too was based on an English children's book, Mary Stewart's The Little Broomstick (1971), I was curious to see what he'd done with the source material - especially since, compared with The Borrowers and When Marnie was There, the source is pretty slight. I was feeling quite good, though on the bus-ride I ran through the Crispin's day speech in my head and found my cheek wet with tears, which wasn't a good sign (though to be fair I'm easily moved to tears and that speech is a blinder).

I'd seen from the trailers that Mary and the Witch's Flower appeared to be set in England, which is what made it especially intriguing to me, the other two stories having been transposed to Japan. And it was indeed set there, although this is never mentioned. Even more specifically, the landscape looked just right for Shropshire, the book's setting. The house, the character's clothes, the street, all looked right - except, oddly for Peter, Mary's friend, who in the 1971 book is the vicar's son, but here appears (to my eye) to have wandered in from America:

Genuine question: would you be surprised to see a rural Shropshire 12-year-old dressed this way?

Overall the film was in improvement on the book, I thought, though it did recycle an awful lot of Ghibli tropes. One interesting thing is that, while everyone spoke in Japanese (obviously), when they wrote, they wrote in English. I wonder what the reasoning is there? Is it somehow more implausible, or more illusion breaking, to be seen to write Japanese than to be heard to speak it?

I felt reasonably good after the film, to the extent of making a plan to visit Shakey's for a tentative pizza, and then the shop called "Snobbish Babies" on the fifth floor of the station. (What can they sell?) Alas, before I'd got very far into the pizza the shivers descended again and forced me homeward. So today I've been extra quiet, writing blog posts and doing other such harmless nonsenses, but this one has already gone on quite long enough, so I will leave you for now with a calming picture of some carefully packaged but hugely expensive, and no doubt very delicious, Japanese fruit.


Yes, that mango really will cost you £9.50

voice transition progress?

Jul. 11th, 2017 04:27 pm
spoonless: (july_haircut)
[personal profile] spoonless
It's weird. I felt like I was making very little progress on voice transition, when I made the last post, including a few voice samples. That was July 3rd. I guess it's only about a week later (July 11th), but for some reason I feel much more optimistic now. Like I've actually been making real progress. Not sure if that feeling is solely because of progress I've made within the past week, or if I had already made progress that I didn't feel ready to acknowledge yet.

I've also discovered and started using a new tool since the previous post. There are many apps that do spectrum analysis on the sound coming in (such as PitchLab or Advanced Spectrum). But this one is designed specifically to help people train their voices over time to sound more female or more male. It's called Voice Pitch Analyzer And it's fantastic! When I use it, I sometimes get male, sometimes female, and sometimes androgynous. I can usually tell which I'm going to get ahead of time... but to get female I usually have to strain myself too much which means that even though I'm in the right pitch range, it's not going to sound super natural. I think I can make the androgynous range sound pretty natural at this point though. Maybe using this app has helped me gain confidence. Or it could be some new types of exercises I started recently, based on some notes I copied from a friend's voice training lessons.

Anyway, here are some more samples. One of the exercises I do a lot is counting numbers... here is a sample of me counting in (my best attempt at) a female voice:

female numbers

And just for comparison (so you can see how far I've come), here is how I sound counting numbers in a male voice:

male numbers

A new thing I started doing today is finding and reading monologues suggested for actresses to read at auditions. This one is based on Dr. Who! Lots of fun...

Dr. Who monologue

(the text of the Dr. Who script I'm reading is here)
steepholm: (Default)
[personal profile] steepholm
My feet and my legs below the knee have become an izakaya for mosquitoes. Every evening I hear their tiny whiny voices cry "Kampai!" and remark on the superior taste of imported blood. Meanwhile, the rest of my body - including my luscious, lily-white inner arms, which look very tasty even to me - they pointedly ignore, adding insult to injury. I'm afraid I have no compunction about killing them when I get the chance, although to find one's hands sprayed with blood and to realise that it is one's own is a strange experience, like suicide at one remove. Of course, John Donne was way ahead of me on that last thought:

But now I find his words proved true in me,
Except with a mosquito, not a flea.

I don't have too much to report about the first of my "big" lectures, which I gave on 4th July - an important date, as I pointed out, because of course it was the anniversary of Charles Dodgson's river trip with Alice Liddell and her sisters, which ultimately gave rise to Alice in Wonderland. It was a good way to mark the 155th anniversary of that august event, anyway, and it seemed to go down well. There was a full house, too - which is an index of the popularity of the subject (the image of Britain in Japanese anime) more than of me, naturally. I'm not exactly a household name here, though of course that could change.... Anyway, photographs were taken and I've been promised some, but so far I don't have them so I can't pester this blog's readers with them as yet. Round two happens on Saturday, when I'll be travelling to Ueno to give (more or less) the same lecture, but this time with the aid of an interpreter.

Tuesday night brought a typhoon, which seems to have done a fair amount of havoc-wreaking in Kyushu but left Tokyo unscathed, aside from several bucketloads of rain. There wasn't even any wind to speak of, and I'll admit to some disappointment, considering I was a typhoon virgin until then. The words "Was that it?" may have escaped my lips. That said, I was happy enough that it had passed by Wednesday morning, because that was the day I climbed aboard the "Romance Car" train, a bottle of green tea and a "Summer Mikan Pie" romantically in hand, to go to Odawara.

I was off to meet Yuuko, the mother of my friend Haruka, who is currently living in England and who has appeared in these pages from time to time over the last few months. She lives near Odawara, and the plan was for me to stay overnight - but not before a little touristing. (I would have met her father too, but he's on business in Thailand at the moment, sadly.) Suspiciously obsessive readers of this journal may remember that I went to Odawara once before, two years ago, on my way to Hakone. How much one's perspective is changed by a little time and familiarity! Whereas in 2015 I was mutely rebuked with a laminated sign for showing the wrong travel pass, this time I was met at the gate with a smile both broad and warm, and shown by Yuuko to her (rather plush) car instead, in which we took off towards Kamakura, one of a surprisingly large number of cities able to boast of being Japan's former capital.

While we're on our way there, let me just remark that Yuuko's car has an integral television (with many channels) in the dashboard. I was impressed, but isn't it rather distracting for the driver? That said, it gave me a chance to watch a fair amount of children's television, and to notice one big difference between Japanese and UK children's TV for the under-fives - namely that in Japan they use lots of actual children, often dressed bizarrely, rather than just adults (whether or not dressed as creatures made of felt). Their sets are full of three and four year olds wandering about, singing along haphazardly to a song, or trying to move in time to a stridently "genki" 2/4 tune. If the dashboard TV would have fallen foul of UK health-and-safety laws, what was being broadcast would have done the same with child labour laws, I imagine. But in fact, no one crashed the car, and the kids appeared to be having a good time.


Here I am with Yuuko in Komachi-doori the main tourist street in Kamakura. As you can see, I've taken to carrying a parasol (higasa), which are common in Japan, and something I rather like, not much caring either for tans or sun cream. (I also have my sturdy brolly for those days when the tsuyu lives up to its name.) When and why did parasols fall from favour in Europe, I wonder? Monet and Seurat's ladies seem to have them, and very nice they look too. But I fear I'll be too embarrassed to carry on the custom back in the UK (where, admittedly, there is very little occasion for a parasol, but still).

After Komachi-doori we when to a nearby Buddhist temple and garden, where having wandered through a very impressive bamboo grove we sat and drank matcha while gazing at some carefully landscaped nature, along with a good many other tourists, and attempted to achieve enlightenment. Once again, I didn't quite manage it (so near but so far!), but the matcha and okashi were good, and it really was a beautiful garden...


Back in Odawara - or rather the suburb of Odawara called Tomizu ("many waters" - and it's true there are streams a-plenty) - Yuuko showed me to her house. I was impressed by this three-storey edifice -


- and even more so when I realised that behind it there was another three-storey edifice of similar size (it was a bit like this moment), which was to be mine for the night. And a very luxurious night it was. I'm a sucker for Japanese toilets, as readers of this journal will know, so let's have the toilet stand as a metonym for the rest. Not only does their toilet have the usual heated seats, inbuilt bidet, etc. - features about which I've become almost blasé - but the lid rises in a friendly but respectful salute as you approach, like a faithful family servant who's known you since childhood. More, when you sit down, you are instantly surrounded by the sounds of a spring glade, with birdsong, bubbling rills, etc. I need hardly add the paper was of a softness and tasteful design quite unlike that to be found in the Foreign Teachers' Faculty Building, or that there was inbuilt mood lighting to complete the effect. It was the kind of toilet, in short, that made you want to have diarrhoea just so that you could spend more time there.

Before leaving the house, I should mention the two family pets, toy dogs of an impossible cuteness, so small that when they bark their front legs lift slightly off the ground, as if they were electronic, and with large anime-eyes - but definitely warm and furry to the touch. With difficulty I resisted the urge to slip one into my luggage.


That evening we went into Odawara, where we had a very good meal, after which we took the air in a place with a good view of Odawara Castle, probably the town's most famous building. It was indeed impressive, but my eye was inexorably drawn to a huge illuminated sign nearby reading: "カラオケ". I'd never in my life done karaoke, and it did seem an ideal chance - if Yuuko was willing to indulge me, which (being very nice) she was.

So, I can add my first karaoke session to the list of new experiences on this trip. Here I am, fuelled by iced coffee and enthusiasm, giving it everything for "Heart of Glass":


Aren't you glad I've never worked out how to put audio in my posts? On the other hand, I wish I could have brought you the sounds that the frogs made from this rice field as we walked back to the house afterwards (it was dark by then, of course). The voices of Japanese frogs are quite different from British ones - something between a magpie and a fox's bark is the best way I can put it. It's slightly unnerving when you first hear it - but probably less so than me trying to sound like Debbie Harry.