What I’m Reading Now (Swing Time)

When I opened Swing Time on the flight from Honolulu to Tokyo I had the distinct impression that I’d read it but couldn’t remember the details. Soon I was captivated by the alternating stories of two poor mixed-race girls living in English council flats told from the point of view the one whose mother is Jamaican and father Irish. Her opposite number, Tracey, has a white mother and a Jamaican father who supposedly dances with Michael Jackson. The swing time refers to the alternating present-day/flashback scenes, to the music that both girls adore, and to the question whether one person succeeds because of another’s failure.

Eventually I figured out why the book seemed familiar. I was so far behind on New Yorker magazines, I had recently read “Two Step,” Alexandra Schwartz’s review, which appeared November 14, 2016. Anyway Schwartz laid out the outlines of the novel, a series of quick-moving scenarios. The girls take dance lessons. The unnamed narrator lacks serious talent, but Tracey hopes to ride the dance train out of the slums. They visit a white friend’s house where Tracey goes into a rage that the narrator’s mother attempts to quell.

Ms. Smith draws her characters with exquisite detail. There is Mr. Booth, the “very old white man” who accompanies the little dancers and who encourages the narrator to sing. There’s Lamin, the Senegalese fixer who appears when the narrator’s employer decides to become a philanthropist in Africa. There’s Uncle Lambert, her mother’s brother, who smokes weed with her dad and commiserates with him.

The two people I wanted to encounter in more detail were the mother, a Socialist who educates herself and becomes an activist.  And  Aimee, a true rock star who elevates herself out of back-of-beyond Australia and in the process becomes Super Diva.

As with a number of contemporary works of fiction, Swing Time sustains its narrative and the clear voice of its narrator until just before the end. Like its much lighter-weight fellows California (Edan Lepucki) and Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn), I had the feeling Ms. Smith didn’t know how to end the book. In this case, however, the disappointment was tempered by the brilliance of the rest of the novel and of Ms. Smith’s luminous writing.

What I’m Reading Now

As mentioned in the November 21 entry, I continued my travel practice of choosing books about places at complete odds with my surroundings. Previous excursions included reading Angela’s Ashes on the beach in Hawaii and getting furious with Mexican men as I read The Feminine Mystique in and around Guadalajara.

Large numbers of old (early 2107) New Yorker magazines occupied the beginning of the trip. Downloads on the iPad included The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, a Great Migration story, and several Alexander McCall Smith novels. The title of The Double Comfort Safari Club featuring Precious Ramotswe promised a cozy mystery in Botswana. Isabel Dalhousie’s philosophical meanderings always challenge, so I added The Novel Habits of Happiness and The Perils of Morning Coffee. They ensured I’d be sipping coffee in Edinburgh while sipping green tea in Nara.

At the Honolulu airport I bought Swing Time by Zadie Smith and Song of the Lion, which to my delight features the return of Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn – plus a woman police officer. Did not know that Tony Hillerman’s daughter had continued the franchise.

Long plane rides and down time in hotel rooms meant that I finished most of what I carried, along with a couple of editions of English-language newspapers, which contained international news to put all but the biggest American papers to shame.

Over the next weeks I’ll write about each, ending with The Double Comfort Safari Club, which I started on the flight to Connecticut and haven’t had chance to finish.

Odds and Ends

The Japan blog posts were running long. Here are some items that need to be added.

All the train stations have restaurants, food shops, and vending machines, for food, water, and soda. I loved the colors and funny names including “Polar Sweat,”  which seemed to be a type of bottled water.  Those machines not just in the stations, either. They’re ubiquitous.

That’s a one-hundred-year-old beam with recessed lighting in the ceiling of the living room of Hiro’s studio in Nara.

Great Buddha

My pictures didn’t capture the image properly, so this is from a postcard I bought at the Todaji Temple gift shop where all the proceeds go to support the temple. (The Buddha’s supposedly ferocious guardians encourage giggles rather than terror.)

This banquet facility near Hiro’s studio had the best of many worlds – at the edge of the park, next to the river, and hard by the main shopping action in Nara. I didn’t have the guts to see whether it was real copper.

On a serious note, there were few signs of abject poverty, but in Kyoto a handful of homeless people were sleeping or sitting on benches or on the lawns. They mostly congregated along the river and on the grounds of the emperor’s palace. At one point I spotted a pile of abandoned belongings – broken umbrella, torn jeans, a dirty hat.

On a lighter note, the use of language revealed the serious cultural divide. Kathryn said she heard someone say, “Fuji-san is being shy today,” meaning fog had enveloped Mount Fuji. And when the concierge was giving directions, she said, ‘You go through the door – oh, but the door is hiding.” It was around a corner. I had to restrain myself from laughing at the image of a door peeking out from behind a wall.

To end on a happy, happy note. Friday November 3 was a holiday in Japan to encourage cultural awareness. Families visited museums and parks, some dressed in traditional garb. The line for the National Museum was never less than thirty minutes with people standing three and four deep. These tykes showed so much patiences as their  family took multiple photographs, which allowed me to snap this one.

Leaving Japan

The view from the Okura

Breakfast was again the enormous hotel buffet: miso soup, salmon both regular and smoked, excellent winter vegetables, umeboshi plums, rice that claimed sixteen grains of millet, pickles and one small cup of coffee.

The usual fast, efficient service took us by bullet train from Kyoto to Tokyo featured. There was not much of “wow” to look at. A marina or two broke up stretches of open water. A few rice paddies elided into suburbs and then into vast sprawl. From the main Tokyo station we took a local train and then a monorail to Hameda airport, which is much smaller than Narita, where we landed.

The flight boarded quickly, and the crew thanked us for our efficiency. Amazing! The seats weren’t as nice as on the outbound plane but still comfortable. The little girl (7? 8?) across the aisle kept up the barrier to separate her from her mother for the entire flight. She watched cartoons with English subtitles long after everyone else had put out their lights. Then her mother had to push-pull-shake for many minutes to wake her before we landed.

Dinner again featured excellent veggies and rice along with a tiny serving of fruit. Queenie, the flight attendant, seemed delighted that I had ordered a vegetarian meal.

Even though it didn’t feel like it, I must have slept because at one point I was vaguely aware that we were flying through turbulence, but it barely registered.

The feeling of complete disorientation when we landed persisted for a number of days. We left Tokyo at 7:45 p.m. on November 9 and arrived in San Francisco at noon – on November 9. Otherwise our arrival was unremarkable. The area where we landed was empty except for our flight. Immigration was all electronic. An e-reader scanned the passport, a kiosk took a photo and away I went.

Customs proved bumpier. I filled out the same declaration twice, once on the plane, again at the airport. Then finally I talked to a human being, all over nothing to declare.

Ashley arrived it seemed within seconds of our stepping out of the terminal. Then we sat in traffic for forty-five minutes to get across the Bay Bridge. At one point I thought we’d spend as long on the highway as we had in the air.

Despite all the political insanity rampaging through the country, it felt good to be stateside.

Temples and Tears

Seigan-ji Temple

The day began gray and raining but surprisingly warm. Kathryn went to do some power shopping while I decided to mosey about and explore places that we had skimmed.

I followed a couple of Japanese ladies carrying shopping bags deep into the pedestrian mall and found a sidewalk display with pretty scarves for 500 ¥ ($5.00) each.

After that it was a chore to sort out the wares. Here appeared a store full of tacky plastic trinkets next to an elegant dress shop around the corner from the 7-Eleven up the street from Daiso wth a few little noodle or okonomi-yaki shops scattered about. The galloping hordes included a great many westerners with large packages occupying  far more  square footage than necessary.

A gift for Larry proved impossible as everything was meant for much smaller people. Plus the number of stores with options for men was strictly limited compared to the trove of expensive stuff for women. The only really attractive things I saw were the Italian-cut suits that some of the businessmen wear, and I can get those in the States. Even the men’s floor in the big department stores had nothing to offer.

My first stop, just inside the pedestrian walkway, was the Honno-ji Temple, a complex of temple, shrines, a museum, and residences, including one with a bicycle leaning against the front door.

According to the literature, Honno-ji honored a man who was a koto player and an artist as well as a samurai. It wasn’t until I came home and looked up the history that I learned Oda Nobunaga came from  Africa and became a warlord during the sixteenth century.

I cried once and again and once again as I paced the stones, wet and gray. They were crying as well. Rust-colored leaves drifted from the trees along the perimeter and lay scattered about. The fine mist softened all edges.

The large shrines spread out through an opening in a side wall. Many had offerings of fresh day lilies, along with some wilted flowers. The only discordant note was the double vending machine parked at the entrance, no doubt for people to purchase gifts for their deceased loved ones. It all felt overwhelming.

About an hour into my walk I heard a bell and looked to my right. There was another temple, wedged between commercial establishments, as if a small and ancient St. Patrick’s Cathedral was being swallowed on one side by a Gap and on the other by an Apple store.

Again, I stood just inside the entrance for many minutes and cried. Something about this place had a serenity that I felt nowhere else. After I left I read the plaque: It was the Seigan-ji Temple and held a special appeal. Women of high rank had worshipped there through the centuries. Reading more when I returned home, I learned that it was founded in 667 and that it is also prized by artists and writers.

At that point I had reached sensory overload and returned to the hotel through the side entrance. We had already explored the fancy shopping area on the lower level, but I walked down another flight of stairs and discovered an entire shopping center with establishments selling coffee and pastries, groceries, stationery, clothing, etc. I seemed to be the only westerner, drawing looks of surprise and some admiration, too. Afterward, a brief glance at a map revealed that the mall was directly below City Hall. A good many visitors were probably people on their lunch hour.

Some quiet contemplation with tea was in order.

Later, the very accommodating hotel concierge made a dinner reservation for us at Tousuiro, famed for its homemade tofu. According to one of the online trip apps, the place was either .1, .6, or .7 miles away. Turns out there are two restaurants with the name, and the closest really was around the corner. The concierge drew a map and then handed over a photo of the place because the sign had only Japanese characters.

We stumbled around for a bit but finally located the right tiny alley and matched the photo with the sign. We then committed a faux pas by trying enter with our shoes. The diners were more western than Japanese, some eating at tables, others sitting at the counter, which offered a perfect view of the chefs as they chopped.

The meal proved to be sublime. It included a tiny fish with the head still on, eye glazed over. The main feature involved a large pot of silken tofu and greens (spinach?), which boiled for exactly seven minutes. The senior chef made certain we removed it at the correct time. The Japanese customers sitting near us at the counter ordered seconds. We tried the sake again. It wasn’t as good as what Hiro ordered but still far better than anything stateside.

Walking Tour

We got a late start and missed breakfast at the hotel. Instead we managed to find what is probably the only place in Japan that did not serve green tea. I’m sure I looked horrified when the server said the only option was orange pekoe. I opted for coffee. Lesson: a restaurant in a “Royal” hotel may connote Queen Victoria rather than Edo or Meiji.

The rest of breakfast consisted of a too-sweet veggie smoothie, toast labeled as whole-grain, yogurt with a sprinkling of cereal, and a decent salad.

We took a brisk walk across the river and up the road to the Imperial Palace, which was of course closed. The magnificent grounds almost compensated, and the lack of crowds was merciful.  Workers fanned out, cleaning and giving TLC to the ancient tress with delicate pruning and installation of supports made of bamboo and cloth. The  a few leaves had begun to change, but they seemed  muted compared to the blaze of New England.

We returned to the main road via a bridge. On one side an egret did a perfect imitation of a statue. On the other, an equally immobilized turtle warmed itself on a boulder. The pond contained a small army of carp, mostly gray, though an occasional flash of red angled through the murk.

Attraction on the way back: a couple of girls with skateboards. One merely stood on hers. The other did a kick-glide then stopped as well. From our hotel window, I spotted a couple more ambitious types doing tricks in the same spot.

Later in the day we walked to the jam-packed Gion. There we saw a bunch of geisha-wannabes and maybe two real ones.

Dinner was a disappointing meal in one of the many department stores we visited. It consisted of a bowl of rice topped with a plethora of veggies. The photo did not include the chicken and what I think was tripe. It also misrepresented the sauce, which was far more glutinous than pictured. I survived.

To Kyoto

Hotel Okura

We didn’t want to leave Nara, and Hiro didn’t want us to go. But Kyoto awaited. The quick train ride ended at the station’s Ogawa coffee shop, which we found with the help of a clerk at a sock vendor, who took us up a ramp and around a corner. It felt rather like Track 9 3/4 except we left for the magic of the old city, not Hogwarts

Hotel Okura, (pronounced “Okra”) did in some ways feel like another world. as it showed the strongest British influence. The doormen wore top hats and military looking coats. The room key was of the old-fashioned variety, a heavy brass thing that actually turned tumblers in a lock. Guests returned in the key when leaving the premises. The women at the concierge desk spoke the best English. An odd touch: the bell hops, all tiny women, wrangled bags in the best style.

For the first time since Naoshima, we encountered a large number of non-Japanese people. There were westerners, mostly Australians as far as I could tell, as well as businessmen from India and Chinese families.

The room included free bottled water, renewed daily, which we had encountered nowhere else, the fluffiest of bathrobes (ditto), slippers also renewed daily, and a full selection of toiletries.

After a full reconnaisnce, we ventured across the street to the pedestrian shopping mall where I fell into overload – too much in the way of textiles, clothes, stationery, jewelry, Daiso products. That’s a dollar store, except better quality and everything is $1.50. Britain reared its head again with the Sir Thomas Lipton store, Clarks Shoes, and a fair selection of English-language signs.

In search of a place for dinner, we ventured into one of the ubiquitous 7-Elevens. It had many sad looking items all of which lacked English names, so we wandered along. The seafood restaurant with the enormous animated crab on the front looked too expensive and kitsch-y.

Farther along the walkway appeared a minuscule tendon shop with a few seats and a huge line. We were the only westerners except for one college-age guy with a group of friends, The place had no English name, but we were able to read the menu. The dish adveritsed as shrimp with peppers delivered five enormous tempura shrimp, one tiny piece of green pepper, and a bit of seaweed over rice with a fabulous sauce.

The enjoyment of watching the chefs wrap a skin around the fish, etc., and then drop the pieces into hot oil, transfer to a plate, skim the fat, repeat provided terrific entertainment.


Haute Cuisine

Kozumi and Hiro, Liz and Kathryn

We spent the early part of Monday talking to Christine and her friend, then shopped for gifts. In our travels, we visited the local version of the Dollar Store, which was playing the most obnoxious music, the Chipmunks with an Asian flavor. It was there that I discovered my friend Maria, who had visited Japan several times, was right. It isn’t that women don’t turn gray, she said, they all just dye their hair. One entire wall of the store was covered with bottles and packets and all the accoutrements. At least no one stared and patted my hair as they did with her silver bob.

A bit farther along, a craft fair in the square in front of the train station had a few items of interest – jewelry and textiles, but it couldn’t compare to the massive display of Houston Street in NYC that I encountered a couple of years ago.

Hiro was entertaining when we returned: the scroll maker and a dollmaker (wooden carvings of all sizes and shapes) from Kyoto who was the fourteenth generation of his family to carry on the tradition. It could be either liberating or oppressive to know that your path in life is set. His English was limited so I couldn’t ask if the entire family made dolls or only just a few select members of each generation. He issued an invitation to visit his studio, which we didn’t have a chance to do. But his works will be part of an exhibit at Boston University in two years. I will attend.

That night Hiro drove us thirty-five minutes to a restaurant, once more no idea of the name. We met his wife, Kozumi, who orchestrated the meal and kept us in the best Matcha I’ve ever tasted. Since the menu was also in Japanese only I can only guess at the dishes: various soy products, pickled Chinese cabbage, a small hotpot. Among my favorites was the lotus root. The world’s best miso soup arrived toward the end of the meal. Then a surprise, a small pot of molten cheese. This dispelled my idea that the Japanese never ate the stuff. Dessert was either soy ice cream with bean powder, which I did not try, or a small portion of bean paste. It was gelatinous and not as sweet as expected.

We visited the 1,300 year old palace and gate, which are under renovation but look magnificent under floodlights. Of all the structures we saw, the Chinese influence is most evident there.

Toyouke No Mori

Pizza anyone?

The universe is conspiring to break my concentration. All week it’s been storm drain replacement one street over, followed by the city’s giant leaf removal vacuum. Now Asplundh is chopping down a tree next door. Please excuse errors.

We rose early on Nov. 5 to beat the crowds to the Todaiji Temple, home of the Great Buddha. Thanks to Hiro, we entered first because he had given us tickets. The temple accomplishes its intent — to make humans, indeed all life – feel minuscule. The Buddha is indeed serene but not awe-inspiring in the way other of monuments, perhaps because the setting makes it difficult to see. The head of the Buddha sits encased in a dome that shadows the features.

After the Great Buddha, we climbed the hill and visited the Great Bell, which is supported by enormous beams. Just thinking about the size of the trees they had to cut to build the bell tower made my head ache. Higher up, there was a different but equally satisfying vista from our nighttime visit.

We accomplished all this by 10 a.m. A bit later, Hiro drove us to Toyouke no Mori. The journey there through ancient roads served as the ideal prelude to the quiet harmony and beauty of the farm. These mansions (by Japanese standards) nearly rivaled that of the salt-makers in Naoshima. Hiro explained that they had belonged to people who were the first in Japan to plant rice on a large scale.

Toyouke no Mori is an organic farm where residents grow and prepare their meals and live in the Buddhist tradition. Here’s the description:

Life at Toyouke no Mori is anchored in the Japanese tradition of a shared community, life based on simplicity, sustainability and harmony. We offer visitors an opportunity to experience life in a natural setting that celebrates the rich four seasons of Japan, and to cultivate an inner peace, being content with what you have, and rejoicing in the way things are.

It fulfills every word of that promise.

We toured the gardens, which lie on a steep hillside. Much of the produce had been harvested, but there were beans and persimmons still to be picked. In a sign of globalization, a pizza oven looking rather like a beehive amused me. The Buddha no doubt laughs, too. The bathing room, still under construction, will be a work of beauty and a joy forever when it is completed.

We met four beautiful and energetic young women who prepared a multi-course repast. We slurped up (yeah, that’s OK here) beet soup so dark it was almost purple with a fish base. Hiro said they use Kombu for vegan dishes. Then we dove into grilled Chinese cabbage, arugula with pear and tofu, two kinds of greens, one with sesame oil. Of course there was rice, more glutinous and with adzuki beans.

Before we ate we said a prayer from Thich Nhat Hanh:

This food is a gift from the entire universe

The land, the sky, the ocean and the work of many people

May I be the presence that deserves to receive this

May I learn the right way of eating

May I receive energy and be protected from illness

May I walk the path of wisdom and love

When I eat, may I not forget the people who are now suffering from hunger in the world.

Words to contemplate spoken at a place to visit again and again.


Exploring Nara

Sumi ink by Christine Flint Sato. WordPress forced cropping of the exquisite scroll.

The temple bell that rings at 6 a.m. awakened me. Otherwise there was quiet, blessed quiet.

Some hours later, we ventured out into a pedestrian mall filled with tiny shops selling clothing, leather goods, pastries, groceries, and other wares. One shop on the main street offered just tabi socks. Kathryn explored and reported that some pairs of socks sold for $250! Instead, we bought chestnut-filled pastries since it’s the season. One had an outer crust the texture of phyllo and was not sweet – a good thing.

We passed a mob of people surrounding this one stand that had two entrances. The people in the back worked furiously as the woman in front kept shoving people toward the street. Hiro explained that they were waiting for another variety of chestnut-filled pastries, only available at this time of year and apparently an exception to the rule against eating while standing and or walking. We did not try to fight the crowds.

A stroll through the park where the sacred deer roam meant battling mobs of people. It doesn’t seem possible that these narrow little streets can fit the gigantic tour buses that disgorge the teeming masses.

As soon as I saw the deer – small things, about the size of a large dog – all I could think was TICKS! After all I live near ground zero for Lyme disease. It was as hard to dodge them as it was the people. I did not feed them or otherwise interact with them but did experience a great deal of amusement watching them eat their “cookies” and butt people who didn’t feed them quick enough.

Upon returning to the studio, we met the calligrapher Christine Flint Sato whose work is on display and the very retiring gentleman who built the scrolls for her sumi ink paintings.

Following a delightful couple of hours, Hiro took us to lunch at a traditional soba restaurant. The noodles had a delicate quality, much thinner than what I’ve had before.

Along with the soba in flavorsome broth, we had servings of mini-tempura: one enormous shrimp, pumpkin, seaweed, ginger, and carrot. Surprisingly filling.

Upon our return, we chatted more with Christine. The three scrolls in the living room are circle, square, and triangle, a motif that a great many artists use. The circle is my favorite of all her works.

After tea we explored further, passing Yamata-Cha from which a heavenly scent wafted as the owner roasted tea.

A short walk brought us to Nara Craft Museum. There we saw a woman making calligraphy brushes. She tamped the bottom edge of the bristles to even them, then took a blade, pulling and cutting a few bristles at a time. Her hands moved almost too fast to see clearly. She had eight or so brushes awaiting handles – at least I think that would be the next step.

The brush maker was sitting out in the open. A room off to the side was filled with looms where people were taking a break from weaving placemats (?) and other small objects. The fibers looked similar to the cloth in the suits of the women on the Ohara bus, so textile exploration might be in order.

Elsewhere cases and cases of pottery of all sizes sat on display. Many of them had a glass of water tucked into the corner, a simple way to humidify the air.