Shinjuko Gyoen and a hearty meal

This morning we braved the Tokyo public transport on our own to visit the Sankyo flute atelier. The journey was not difficult, but it took us some time to locate the right building. In the end we asked a local – who referred to her mobile phone and directed us. The flutes we were shown were wonderfully crafted – you would desire one for its appearance even if you couldn’t play it. And the sound Daphne produced playing it was amazing, with tremendous dynamic range and control.

Tokyo cherry blossom vista 170331

In the afternoon, we visited Shinjuku Gyoen, the National Garden. This is a beautiful park, with a mixture of open spaces and trees and lakes with wooden bridges over them. Despite the cold rain, Japanese tourists were out in force, smiling and being positively British about the weather.

Tokyo Kabuki-cho 170331

However, don’t let me give you the impression that Tokyo is all culture and tranquil parks. In the evening, our tour guides took us to one of the areas for entertainment, where there are pachinko parlours, hostess (and host!) bars, cinemas, karaoke bars and, of course, a vast diversity of eateries.

Tokyo okonomiyaki 170331

We were taken to a restaurant where you cook your own okonomiyaki at the table. What could be better after a cold, wet afternoon, than a hearty serving of pork, cabbage, prawns and other stuff in a matrix of egg, everything being liberally drenched in soy-based sauce and mayonnaise? And seaweed. And dried flakes of bonita tuna. All washed down with beer.

 

Tokyo – Meiji Jingu shrine

Tokyo has some pleasant parks, and the closest to our hotel is the Yoyogi park. We approached from the north, and came first of all to the Meiji Jingu shrine. This is a Shinto shrine, one of the most important in Tokyo. In the early twentieth century, Emperor Meiji created a garden in the shrine complex, which, according to the various information boards, was greatly enjoyed by the Empress Shohen. One of the boards solemnly told us that the Empress liked fishing, and often went fishing from this specially constructed fishing point. Somehow I just couldn’t visualize her cooking and eating her catch! Nowadays, anybody can walk in the gardens for 500 yen (it’s a standard admission fee presented as a donation for upkeep – fair enough, I think), so we paid up and followed the path to the iris garden.

Tokyo Meiji garden teahouse 170330

The photo shows the teahouse constructed by the Emperor for Empress Shohen

Of course, at this time of year, all you can see of the irises is the green shoots, but it was clear that in the flowering season (June) it would be a spectacular sight. Despite there being no flowering irises, we had the pleasure of the deciduous trees just barely coming into leaf, giving a mist of colour around the nearly bare branches. In any case, all excellent gardens are beautiful in every season and this was no exception.

The photo shows the torii at the entrance to the Meiji Jingu shrine.

Tokyo Meiji Jingu shrine 170330

At the Meiji Jingu shrine itself there was a place for people to write their prayers and place them with a donation in an envelope to be presented in the shrine. You could buy all sorts of pre-printed messages, like “I pray to come back to Japan.” It would be easy to make fun of the practice, but as we passed a middle-aged woman got up from where she had been kneeling. Her face was quietly desperate, with an expression of desolation mingled with a forlorn hope. Real people pray here, with real needs. I hope she found comfort.

We spent so long enjoying the tranquil gardens that we never made it to the Yoyogi park itself. Never mind – there’s always tomorrow!

 

 

Autumn Leaves and Cherry Blossom

Hiroshima torii 170326

I am delighted to invite my family, my friends and all those who follow my blog to come with me in spirit as I visit Japan. The itinerary includes Tokyo, Hakone, Kyoto and Hiroshima. I expect to blog pictures of Mt Fuji, cherry blossom, the Golden Pavilion, Ryoanji Zen garden, the bullet train, Miyajima Island, and the Peace Park in Hiroshima. There will also be pictures of food…

I don’t expect to be writing any fiction unless the muse becomes very insistent.

Normal blogging will resume w/c 17 April, with the first post planned for Tuesday 18th April.

Hiroshima cherry blossom and A bomb ruin 170326

The Stranger

This story is not set in any well-defined location. It probably most closely resembles the USA in the 1950s, but I’ve made no attempt to make it realistic. It’s a story about community. While a community is often very supportive to its members, it’s not necessarily welcoming to outsiders, and it can place obstacles in the way of those who dream of a wider horizon…

The stranger - church - winter 170325

The young man staggered down the hill and into the village.

It was Sunday morning. The night had been cold, and people were dressed in their warmest overcoats as they walked to church.

The young man was in shirtsleeves, and tattered ones at that. His hair was unkempt, and his eyes were wild.

“He must be frozen,” murmured Hannah, the pastor’s eldest daughter.

“He’s been drinking,” responded her aunt, tartly.

Although it was snowy underfoot, the stranger was wearing light shoes rather than boots; they looked as inadequate as the rest of his outfit.

He seemed glad of the support of the church porch, and clung there for a moment. A small queue started to form. The woman greeting people at the door caught the eye of the pastor, Charles Montez, who hurried over.

“Come in, sir, come in. Welcome!”

Charles Montez looked around the small building. He expected a full house this morning; he was baptising Jenny Holmes’s child. There was a stove halfway down one side, with a space beside it to allow coal to be shovelled in. He fetched a chair, and put it in the space. The stranger stared at him.

“Sit there, sir, sit there. And welcome once again.”

The stranger spoke.

“Da!”

He sat down. Gradually his shaking subsided. His eyes closed. Charles noticed. He fetched some old, heavy curtains from the back of the vestry, and covered the stranger, tucking the fabric close around him.

The church filled. The mayor, Jenny’s uncle, arrived in his civic robes and chain, and paraded to the front. His wife, Gloria, caught sight of the tramp, huddled under the blankets asleep. She frowned, and compressed her lips. She squeezed her husband’s elbow and pointed at the pile of curtains.

“David,” she hissed, “you just have a word with the pastor after the service. This is supposed to be a special day for us!”

Charles was patient. “What would you have me do, Dave? Throw the man out into the snow?”

“You know how it is, Charley.” Dave tilted his head in the direction of Gloria, who was holding court at the back of the church. Charles nodded. He knew.

“He turned up here just before the service. Come a long way by the look of him. Doesn’t seem to speak English either. I’m not quite sure what we can do with him. I’ll leave him to sleep for now, but he’ll need somewhere to stay tonight.”

The two men looked at the congregation drinking coffee at the back of the church.

“I’ll phone the police when I’m home. See if anybody’s missed him. I’ll let you know, shall I?”

“If you would, Dave. I wouldn’t want to park a convict on any of my flock. On the other hand, I can’t turn him away.”

Charles collected a coffee. Half a dozen people wanted to compliment him on the sermon. Three people wanted to discuss church business. As always, he deflected them gently. He didn’t believe in settling matters by the whisperings of two or three people; he insisted that if a decision was needed, the whole church should have a chance to speak. He drifted in the direction of Joe and Val.

Val was apologetic but firm. “Normally, as you know, Pastor, we would love to take in the stranger, but we’ve a houseful of guests, three people in every bedroom and two in the study. The family has come over for the New Year…”

In the end, Charles took him to the manse. Julieta rolled her eyes at him. Their house was almost as full as Joe and Val’s. What was she: a miracle worker?

“You’re my miracle worker anyway,” he said, kissing her.

“Oh, you! Go and peel the potatoes. I’ll see if any of your old clothes will fit him.”

First, though, he would need a bath; and a shave and haircut, too. She called her eldest son, Matthew.

“Just take our new friend – I’m sorry, I don’t know your name?” She looked at their guest. He looked back mutely, frowning. “Anyway, run him a bath, and lend him a razor. See if he’d like your sister to give him a haircut.”

Matthew grinned. He gestured at himself. “Matt!” he said to the guest, “Matt!” Then he pointed to his mom. “Julieta!”

The man’s face cleared. He pointed to himself. “Eevan!”

Matt pointed at him. “Eevan?” he said.

“Da! Eevan!”

Matt put his arm around Eevan. “Come on! We’ll soon have you sorted out!”

Half an hour later Eevan looked a great deal more comfortable, clean and in clothes the pastor had last worn some twenty years ago. Julieta blessed her habit of never throwing away anything that was still useable. Matt touched Eevan’s wet hair and pantomimed snipping with scissors.

“Da. Spasseebo.”

“Wait here. I’ll fetch Hannah.”

Hannah shuffled a university prospectus out of sight as Matt came into the room she shared with her sisters. She would love to study, but what would her family think? She coloured a little as Matt asked her to cut Eevan’s hair.

“Will you stay with me while I do it? He frightens me a little.”

“Course I will, Sis. But he’s a lot nicer now. Doesn’t smell so bad, either!” He wrinkled his nose.

Hannah laughed.

“You shouldn’t be so rude about a guest!”

Eevan sitting in a chair, clean and in old but serviceable clothes, was indeed a much less formidable proposal. As she spread a towel round his shoulders, Hannah noticed how the bones protruded. She was surprised by his hair. It had been cut in ragged tufts, and some parts seemed to have been pulled out altogether. But she just clipped away, keeping up a soothing flow of conversation, and every now and again catching Eevan’s eye and smiling shyly.

By the time Hannah had finished – it didn’t take her long – Eevan was quite presentable. Julieta put all his old clothes into the washing machine, and what remained of his shoes into the scullery. She clicked her teeth and wondered how they were to help their new friend. Never mind; sufficient unto the day.

Later that evening, Matt took his dad on one side.

“There’s an odd thing about Eevan,” he said. “On his left forearm, about halfway up on the inside, there’s a number tattooed. 576A, it is.” He raised his eyebrows.

“Interesting. Well, we can’t do other than take him at face value tonight, but I’ll tell Dave in the morning. He was going to check with the police, to see if anybody had gone missing hereabouts.”

But Dave’s enquiries yielded no answers.

Eevan picked up a few words of English. He helped about the house, and then in some of the heavier outdoor tasks. Charles began to wonder how he might be employed; it wasn’t good for a man to have no regular work. He wondered, too, whether Hannah might not be feeling intrigued by Eevan; he’d seen her glancing at him and blushing when she realised he’d noticed.

That would be awkward; Hannah and Stephen, Dave’s son, had been walking out for a couple of years. Anybody could see how attractive they found each other. The whole town assumed that they were going to marry.

“That’s a strange guest you’ve had since Christmas.” Stephen was scornful. “I reckon your dad should kick him out. Doesn’t speak English, doesn’t work. A freeloader.”

“He’s not been here that long, only a few months. He helps a lot about the house.” Hannah was gentle in her contradiction.

“Helps about the house? Well I should just think he does. Does he wear a pinny and do the baking?”

Hannah went pink.

“Eevan is a good man, Stephen. He’s gentle and thoughtful, and a friend.”

“Well, he’d better not get ideas, that’s all, or this town will be too hot for him.”

A couple of days later, Eevan asked Matthew if he could help himself to some wire from the shed.

“Sure. What are you going to do? Do you want a hand?”

Eevan shook his head. “You will like,” he promised.

He returned late that evening, carrying three young rabbits, and sporting a large bruise on his left cheek. He presented the rabbits to Julieta with a bow and a smile.

“Why, thank you! I wondered what we were going to eat tomorrow, and now I know. Coney stew! Eevan – Spasseebo!”

Eevan bowed again, and beamed with delight

Stephen took Hannah to the cinema that evening, picking her up in his car. Hannah wondered how it was that he could afford a new car, when her dad could only manage a ten-year-old Ford.

As soon as the feature started, Stephen started to kiss her. She normally enjoyed that – who doesn’t? – but tonight she wasn’t in the mood. She put her finger on her lips.

“I want to watch the movie,” she said, even though she didn’t.

When his hand started to reach under her skirt, she elbowed him hard in the ribs.

“Get off,” she hissed.

Stephen scowled.

When they were back in the car, Hannah let him kiss her. She couldn’t think of a way of stopping him without causing a quarrel. But when he tried again to pet her, she hitched herself away from him.

“I’m sorry, Stephen, I’m not in the mood. If you must know, I’m on my period.” Even though she wasn’t.

Stephen gripped the steering wheel and groaned. “Bloody women!”

Then a smirk slithered across his face.

“That precious lodger of yours won’t forget today, though.”

Hannah stared at him.

“Knocked him right out.” The smirk was accompanied by a wriggling in the seat.

“You knocked him out?”

“Sure. Well, me and Ken together. I don’t reckon he’ll want to hang around too much longer, now he knows the townsfolk don’t want him.”

“You beast! That was a horrible thing to do. I hate you!” Hannah jerked the car door open.

“Hey, where’re you going?”

“Away from you. I’m finished with you. I hate you!”

“Whoah! Do you have feelings for that lowlife? What does that make you then? I don’t know why I’ve been wasting my time on you!”

He hit her. She fell to the ground, weeping, and he drove away.

She was just in time to catch the cinema manager as he locked up. “No Stephen?” he asked. “Are you okay?”

“No. We’ve just split up. He hit me.”

“I’ll ring your dad.”  They went back into the cinema, and he rang from the ticket office and stayed with her. It was only ten minutes before there was a screech of tyres from outside, and Charles came panting in. He wrapped both big arms around his daughter and held her tight.

Her sobs stilled as they drove home, and she said “Can I talk to you about something serious, Dad?”

“Of course, love. Will it wait until we’re home?”

“Mom’ll be all over us. You know how she fusses. Anyway, it’s quite quick to say, although it’s quite slow to think about. I’d like to go to university, Dad. I couldn’t think how to ask when it seemed I was going to marry Stephen, but even then it was what I really wanted to do.”

Charles pulled up at the side of the road.

“You’ll have to live a long way from home,” he said. “Your mom and I will miss you. I don’t know whether we can afford the money, either. But we’ll see what can be done. I’ll back you if mom feels too concerned. Is that good enough?”

“Thank you, Dad.” The smile on Hannah’s face told Charles all he needed to know.

A fortnight later, Eevan disappeared.

Charles spoke to David. He spoke to the police. They took the details and made some cursory enquiries. But nobody in the town ever saw Eevan again.

 

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My box

This Thursday’s guest poem is by Hope Owen-Gadd, my grand-daughter. It’s here because it’s the new poem that I’ve enjoyed most this week. Hope is 8 years old. I wish I could put such vivid images into my writing!

Hope poem 170323

Hope poem 2 170323

I will put in my box
The ping of a drumstick hitting a super cymbal,
A jewel of fire forest from the darkest caves,
The wool from a new born baby lamb.

I will put in my box
The gentle twinkling of a fairy’s wonderous wand,
A mouth-watering cherry pie freshly baked,
A spark from a shooting star.

I will put in my box
A bubblegum tree and a cat with wings
A parrot teaching a class,
And a teacher in the rain forest.

My box is constructed from the fossils of ammonites,
Shells, and sand, and sapphires,
With a crystal flower on the lid and love in the corners.
Its hinges are the scales of fish.

I shall hike in my box
On snow-covered rocky mountains,
Then stare into the ice cold eyes of a yeti
And rid my heart of fear.

In the moment – Storm at Sea

Sailors in a storm have no choice other than to live in the moment. A brief lapse of attention brings disaster. Most of the time, we don’t need mindfulness to survive. But it is good to practise mindfulness in our daily life; it will always take us towards a place of emotional calm; and one day, when life’s difficulties batter us, it may make all the difference.

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The small boat flees before the wind

As the storm wrestles the ocean into a swell,

Throwing it through darkness across leagues.

Like a puma, a wave advances silently,

Gathers speed,

And flings itself with a roar upon its prey.

The sailors steer direct towards each wave,

Accept the fury and the peril,

Use the water’s strength to lift them clear.

The voice of the murderous surf deafens them.

It bellows of southern tempests where the ocean rears into cliffs

As solid and more perilous than a rock face.

It shouts of the calving of glaciers into the sea,

The surge of the sea when a million tons of ice plunge into it.

It whispers of Krakatoa, and breathes the name of Atlantis.

The small boat reaches harbour.

Behind the breakwater

Vessels great and small

Are safe.

Book review – “The Memory Stones” by Caroline Brothers, published by Bloomsbury

The memory stones, from CB

BUENOS AIRES, 1976. Osvaldo Ferrero and his wife Yolanda escape the city’s heat with their daughters, Julieta and Graciela, who is madly in love. On their return, the military junta stages a coup, and Osvaldo is forced to flee. Graciela is abducted and becomes one of the ‘disappeared’. Yolanda fights on the ground for some trace of their beloved daughter, while Osvaldo can only witness the disintegration of his family from afar.

Soon Yolanda and Osvaldo realise that Graciela was expecting a baby when she was snatched; perhaps they are fighting for an unknown grandchild as well.

This is a great novel, in the sense that ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ by Steinbeck is a great novel. It is driven by passionate indignation that men should do such wicked deeds, it tells the story through believable characters, and it is written with quiet words that nevertheless sing.

Caroline writes beautifully, and uses some vivid metaphors. There is, for example, a three page story of the travails of a letter through the streets of Buenos Aires. It tells the reader of the appalling crime that has been committed against Graciela with a forcefulness that description could never achieve on its own.

It’s difficult to bear the sadness and loss of the central characters. There were times when, despite the enthralling writing, I picked up the book with reluctance because it hurt so much. In reading the novel, I learned that the regime’s rule of terror took more than the lives of most of those who disappeared; it also took fulfilment from the lives of those whose families and friends were taken.

I was glad that I persisted in reading. Osvaldo and Yolanda are people of integrity, determination, and, above all, love. By the end of the story, love has won some victories to set against the evil of wicked men, and those victories are important. When you read this book – and you really should, for it is a deeply enriching experience – summon up your own integrity, determination and love, summon up your courage, and immerse yourself. It’s well worth it!

You can read more about the novel at https://www.facebook.com/MemoryStones1/