Tanabata

Tokyo Disneyland in 2013, around Tanabata

The gist of the story goes: A long time ago a woman was weaving by a river, the Milky Way, though she desperately wanted love. Her father had her meet a cow herder who lived on the other side of the river, and the two fell in love so much they forgot to weave clothes or tend to their cows. The father was angered by this and separated them using the river, but the woman pleaded until the father took pity. Once a year, he decided, he would make a bridge that would let them cross the river and see one another.

Japan celebrates that day when they can finally see each other again and calls it Tanabata.

The story, the holiday and the tradition all originally come from China, which celebrates the holiday on August 7th, I have been told. There are a couple of places in Japan that keep to that, too, and celebrate on August 7th.

Mostly, though, Japan decided July 7th would be Tanabata.

To celebrate, people put up some bamboo branches (real or fake) in their house. You can buy or make a long slip of colorful paper and write your wish on it. Then you punch a hole through the top, put some string through it and tie it to your bamboo tree. The idea is that whatever you write will come true.

A lot of shopping centers here and condominium complexes have gotten into the spirit of it by having fairly large bamboo trees plopped into the middle of their lobbies, and trays of paper slips on which you can write your wishes for free. It has all the feel of decorating a tree for Christmas, I think.

Some people also like making food that has star shapes in it to celebrate, but that’s as much as people really do for the occasion here, I think.

As I’m a huge fan of stars, I’m a huge fan of this holiday. I love any excuse to decorate with stars.

Cultural nuances of Japanese

I started learning Japanese way back in college, and one of my Japanese professors tried something that failed spectacularly.

Near the end of her class, the professor handed us out packets of information about how to use Japanese within Japanese society.

Nearly every student protested, sometimes openly, that this was a tremendous waste of time. “Why are we learning this?” I remember one particularly frustrated student say aloud.

For me, however, this was like being handed the keys to a kingdom. I still have those packets.

It’s one thing to learn how to speak a language, but it’s quite another to learn how to speak it well within the society that uses that language.

For example, in America (where I’m originally from) if someone says, “Your English is so good,” the natural response would be, “Thank you.”

In Japan, however, this is generally viewed as a rude response to the praise. Saying thank you to someone complimenting your Japanese is akin to saying, “Yes, I know it’s amazing. Thank you for noticing.” To many Japanese, this is bragging, which is highly frowned upon here.

Therefore, the correct response to “Your Japanese is so good” is to say, “Oh no, no, it’s not good at all yet.” It doesn’t matter if you just gave your college dissertation in Japanese despite only being a native English speaker, this should be your go-to response.

Another nuance I’ve learned is that you do not boast about anything to anyone who is not in your immediate social circle (like your spouse or your own parents and kids).

If your kid just won the Nobel Peace Prize and your neighbors come running up to you praising their name to the heavens, your job is to promptly dismiss all praise. Deflect. If need-be, find some flaw about your child to bring up if the neighbors keep praising your kid anyway.

None of this is to say, “I hate my child.” On the contrary, it is to give the appearance of being humble and having humility. If you go around saying, “My kid just won the Nobel Peace Prize!” then many neighbors and friends will give you tight smiles and declare you to be full of yourself behind your back.

That doesn’t mean many Japanese don’t enjoy being praised. I don’t know anyone on earth who doesn’t enjoy that, even if only inwardly. But your immediate reaction in Japan to received praise should always be deflection and humility. Even if inwardly you want to shout from the rooftops how amazing your kid is, outwardly you have to act like your kid didn’t do anything special.

My professor tried to teach us all that, to help us be even just a tiny bit more accepted into this incredibly exclusive society, and to this day I think it’s a shame more students didn’t understand just how incredibly nice that was of her to try and teach us.

Cucumber dressing recipe

Cucumbers are in season in Japan and are one of the things people think about here when it comes to this hot season. Nothing like an ice-cold cucumber after a hot and humid day.

As such, cucumbers are pretty cheap at grocery stores now, and I’m left wondering how to make them worth eating every day.

My father-in-law shared a great recipe that I thought I’d share here for a nice sauce for cucumbers.

You take about a half cup of mayonnaise (we used a “healthy” version of it) and about a tablespoon of miso paste and mix them together. Then toss the sliced cucumbers in that sauce.

That’s it. And it tastes fantastic. If you can get your hands on some nice miso paste (we used red miso with the dashi already in it) and some mayonnaise, then you will be on your way to glory.

The umami and salty flavors of the sauce really help bring a nice contrast to the otherwise fairly unspectacular flavors of the cucumber, in my humble opinion.

Growing hydrangeas

The reason I can tolerate the rainy season in Japan

I have wavy hair and, as such, the rainy season of Japan is the bane of my existence. It seems no matter how much moisture I pour into my hair, it is always frizzy during this season of clouds, rain and humidity.

As such, the only part of the rainy season I remotely look forward to is hydrangeas. Japan is covered in hydrangeas around this time of the year, with bushes of them cropping up everywhere you look. They grow here the way dandelions used to grow back in America.

Because I love them so much, especially the blue ones, I decided to try my hand at having a couple in a container. I bought one last rainy season and then watched in growing horror as it dropped all of its flowers and proceeded to die.

At least, I thought it was dead. Mostly because I refused to simply throw the container away, I continued watering the remaining sticks that remained as winter settled in. Hydrangea are not exactly cheap, so I had a vague hope that maybe the hydrangea had left some seeds behind in the soil, and maybe those would give me back my beloved flowers.

Perhaps in testament to how highly unobservant I am, it wasn’t until late winter that, while visiting a vast park attended to by professional gardeners, I noticed their hydrangea bushes looked exactly like mine – dead. When I finally looked around at where I had remembered hydrangea bushes to be in my neighborhood, I realized every hydrangea bush looked dead. It looked like someone had burned the poor bushes to the ground.

This gave me overwhelming hope that maybe, just maybe, my little blue hydrangea bush was still somehow alive. A quick Internet research confirmed that it was merely dormant.

Sure enough, while the rain continues to drizzle down and my hair continues to betray me, I get the pleasure of looking out my little window and seeing a beautiful blue hydrangea bush every day. It’s not a bad view at all.

Writing inspiration

Sometimes an idea will come to me as if someone has walked up behind me and started speaking. Usually it happens when I’m in the middle of work or doing some mundane household task. Whenever this strikes, I mentally build on it as I keep doing whatever work I was doing and then try to write it all down as soon as I can.

Other times, I’ll listen to a song and watch a scene unfold in my mind. I then try to mentally flesh out that scene into something hopefully resembling a story. Again, I find myself reaching for my computer when that happens.

Probably the most profound source of inspiration for me is my dreams. I often have, for better or worse, vivid dreams. They’re like movies.

While I can’t remember my dreams every night, vivid movie dreams have become so commonplace in my life that after waking from one, my immediate reaction is to run through a checklist I have in my mind for whether it would make for a good story.

I ask myself: 1. Is it interesting? 2. Can I build around the dream and turn it into a story or is this a one-hit note? 3. Is it something I’ve seen before somewhere else?

If the dream passes my checklist, then I’ll write it out. Dreams have given me an entire series of books before while also giving me short stories.

I’m writing another book (or maybe a novella? Maybe two books? I have no idea yet) based on a dream I had the other day. I don’t actually have a whole lot of time right now to be writing, but that’s never stopped me before.

Healthcare in Japan

I’m originally from America.

I remember one time being really sick and going to a hospital while I still lived there. I listed my symptoms to the nurse. She listened patiently, and the first words out of her mouth after that were, “What is your insurance?”

I learned from an early age that insurance coverage matters far more than whatever ails you. I also learned that you only should go see your doctor, go to urgent care or a hospital if you are in dire need. Otherwise, over-the-counter drugs available at pharmacies are your way of patching up whatever’s wrong.

Moving to Japan, I carried the fear of being charged through the roof for medical help with me. For the first few years here I desperately tried to stay away from doctors. I just didn’t have the money I thought would be required to see one, even though I did have health insurance from Japan.

I only went when I really, really needed to. And each time, I would listen to the doctor rattle off things they needed done like blood tests or X-rays, and I would inwardly cringe. I wanted to always ask, “Is it really necessary?” It all sounded so insanely expensive.

Then I would get the bill, and the relief was overwhelming. It still is. A blood test and X-ray? Sometimes it’s cost me about 20 USD. Seeing the doctor? I’ve been paying an average of 10 USD.

Kids get it even better here. It depends on where you live, but where I live, it costs 3 USD for your child to see the doctor and get any test done the doctor thinks you need. Need an I.V. drip put in at the doctor’s office? That’ll be 3 USD. It also costs 3 USD per day to stay at a hospital. And all drugs prescribed by the doctor are free. This all lasts until, I think, the kid is in high school.

I still have a kind of PTSD I experience whenever I am about to see the bill for whatever medical services I just received. My heart quickens, my stomach drops, and I wonder if I’ll need to pull out the credit card. Whenever there’s an emergency, I still can’t just focus on the problem at hand; all I can think about is the cost.

A while back I got hit by a taxi and, mercifully, only sprained my ankle. The entire time I was at the hospital, all I could think about was, “How much is this going to cost me?” I couldn’t even think about how horrible it was being in a hit-and-run incident or how much my leg hurt. It was all about the cost in my head. That’s what the American medical system has done to me personally.

I’ve had people say, “Yeah it’s cheap but how long are the waits?” I’ve been here 12 years and can only speak to my own experience, but for me, it’s never been hard to book an appointment or just drop in and see the doctor. I’ve never made an appointment at my general doctor’s, and the wait for just showing up is, at most, an hour. At the hospital the wait can be about 3 hours at times, and my God some of the Japanese around me complain about it to no end.

For me, though, for the price I pay to get so much medical attention, I’d happily camp outside overnight.

Bonsai

My latest, desperate attempt to have a bonsai

I was fascinated by bonsai from the moment I laid eyes on them.

My dream house is probably somewhere high among the trees, but living in Japan has crashed those dreams down to the reality of a small apartment. I can’t really surround myself with a forest since I don’t have a proper outdoor garden area. Trees are basically a luxury I can view at parks nearby but not have one just outside my window.

Thus, bonsai seemed like the perfect compromise. I can still have trees…but small trees.

I bought a couple of sakura bonsai in the spring, when they were nicely blooming, from a gardening center that had a nice selection to choose from. They were quite expensive, but the dream of having cherry blossoms on our little balcony so appealed to me that I bought them anyway. Then I got to watch in growing consternation as they all died on me. This is especially devastating to me now as I learned it can take decades to grow bonsai.

Another bonsai I had did well up until I repotted it. I took the bonsai with me to a gardening center, hoping I couldn’t mess up another bonsai if I had the help of a professional, and asked them how I repotted it. I was of the impression mine had outgrown its little ceramic pot and that it was, thus, unhappy.

The gardening expert breezily told me to just pick any pot I wanted – “Bonsai are just like any other plant so the pot makes little difference”, he said – and had me buy some bonsai potting soil. My little bonsai died a slow death over the next few months, and I think the repotting is to blame for that.

Now we have my latest little bonsai – a maple tree. I am praying like crazy I can keep this thing alive. I bought it from a better gardening store that actually seems to look after their bonsai, and I am researching bonsai like crazy.

I think any bonsai enthusiast who sees my little bonsai in the photo above will go crazy that I’m not pruning it at all. My research has told me a “forest” configuration, like my maple trees, must be pruned into a triangular shape.

I’ve completely ignored that advice. My main, earnest, focus right now is to just keep the poor thing alive. I think if I can do that for a couple of years, then I’ll care about whether it looks like a proper bonsai.

I scoured Youtube for advice on bonasi and stumbled across an absolute gem from the United Kingdom. I love watching his videos. I think he would completely scoff at my bonsai, which is why I’m glad these videos are one-sided.

Wasp reign of terror

About ten days ago, I was out in my little garden area fussing around when I noticed something relatively large hovering nearby. Like a miniature helicopter. My eyes followed the movement and came across a wasp.

I feel like I lived most of my childhood outdoors. My mother was especially dragging us to the nearby nature center, on hikes, or on camping trips. As such, I feel like I am a completely indoor-loving person with a vague knowledge of the outdoors. I have memories of getting stung, repeatedly, by bees, I have memories of running like crazy because my brother threw a rock at a wasp nest. There were wasp nests all over the place when I was growing up.

However, this was not America. This was Japan, home to the infamous “murder hornets.” While America freaked out a little bit ago about their invasion, Japan has been living with them forever. It’s just something you get to deal with here.

Still, my first reaction to seeing a rather large wasp hovering around my garden area was to panic. I don’t want to die in my garden, thank you very much. I rather ungracefully forced open the screen door to my home and slammed it shut.

I also researched. The internet, famous for publishing only facts (har har), told me wasps can travel up to one kilometer from their nests. This is also the prime season for queen wasps to find a nest spot.

The wasp has taken to visiting our little garden area every day, but naturally at random times so I’m always on my toes as I continue trying to keep my plants alive out there. I don’t let me kids play out in the garden anymore, much to my deep chagrin.

I also bought online a little incense thing that supposedly drives away wasps. It arrives tomorrow, and while not particularly hopeful it’ll work, in the words of one of my favorite authors, Stuart McLean, I have the “reckless faith of the hopeless” that maybe it will.

Meanwhile, we’ve contacted our city government to deal with things. There’s more reckless faith involved that they might actually do something productive about this.

Children’s Day

A close-up of “koi-nobori” carp streamers.

May 5th is Children’s Day in Japan – a day that, contrary to its name, celebrates boys.

While girls get Hina Matsuri, boys get Children’s Day. If you so choose, you can spend a lot of money on an impressive-looking samurai helmet in a display case and have that in your home leading up to May 5th. I don’t personally know anyone who does this, but I see them for sale in a lot of shopping malls here.

One tradition I see everywhere, however, is hanging up “koi nobori” carp streamers. You see them flying all over the place here around this time. The idea, apparently, is boys are like carp. If they are strong enough to swim upstream, one day they will become dragons.

I believe The Japan Times wrote an article about this a while ago, and they mentioned this is the thinking behind the Pokemon Magicarp becoming the dragon Gyarados. As a Pokemon fan, I had always wondered about this. No longer.

Other than hanging up the streamers, I’m actually not sure what you’re supposed to do for Children’s Day. I saw a baby photo of my husband wearing a samurai helmet that was folded out of newspaper for Children’s Day, and something about an adorable baby wearing a warrior helmet made of newspaper just completely melted my heart. I made a samurai helmet of newspaper for my own kids, but they were entirely disinterested in wearing them, even as tiny babies who should’ve lacked the strength to remove it from their heads. Oh well.

Amend: The Fight for America

I stumbled across this docuseries on Netflix a couple of weeks ago, and I am completely enthralled by it.

The series is entertaining, shocking, enlightening and I think something everyone should watch to learn a little bit more about American history.

I liked to consider myself fairly well educated when it comes to American history – I went to a relatively good high school, took AP U.S. History in my junior year, AP U.S. Government my senior year and any other advanced courses on history I could get my hands on. I walked out of high school and into college with the belief I had a fairly good idea about America’s history.

This docuseries certainly drove home the point that our textbooks were all quite selective in what they wanted to teach us, who they wanted to focus on and just how much was omitted.

I think schools in America should include this series when teaching U.S. history. It’s a part of who we are as Americans, and we should know our own history better. I know this docuseries also must leave out a lot, but I think it is a great supplement all the same.

Another point this series drove home for me was the idea that progress is not linear. I think especially as a writer, I’m constantly being told to make progress in stories clear-cut. You shouldn’t have a person turn evil, turn good, evil, good, somewhere in between, evil and then maybe good again. It should be a clearer line of progression or you’ll lose readers to confusion.

Reality, however, is messy. I think stories should reflect that reality better, too. Textbooks should as well. It doesn’t make for a neat summation of our history, but I think it makes it a bit more accurate.