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Archive for the ‘January In Japan’ Category

I’ve wanted to read a Junji Ito book for a while. So finally decided to read ‘Tomie‘ which was his first book.

High school students go on a hike up the mountain, as part of a class trip. One of them goes missing. Her name is Tomie. It is later discovered that she is dead, brutally murdered. No one knows who killed her. After her funeral, the students go back to class. Their teacher tells them that they have to be careful as the murderer hasn’t been caught yet. At that point, there is a knock on the door. Everyone looks at the class entrance, and who do they find? It is Tomie! She’s alive and kicking and acts as if nothing has happened! Some classmates feel that the dead person must be a different person and it was a case of mistaken identity. But other classmates seem to know something that we, the readers, don’t. They are sure that the real Tomie is dead. So according to them, there can be only two explanations. One is that the new Tomie is an impostor. The second is that Tomie has come back from the dead. The first explanation is simple and logical. It will probably lead to an old-fashioned revenge thriller. The second explanation is scary and offers delightful possibilities in the telling of the story. Junji Ito being the smart guy, chooses the second one. And we have this beautiful, scary, delightful 750+ page horror manga book.

There are 20 stories in the book. Some of them continue from where the previous story left off. Some of them tell new stories with the characters which appeared before. There are other stories which are independent, and which can be read as standalones. I loved stories from each of these categories, but I loved the standalones more. In some stories, Tomie does bad things or makes people around her do bad things. In other stories, Tomie is the victim and she suffers at the hand of others, and later she comes back to haunt her oppressors and take revenge. I liked the second kind of stories more. There were a few stories which were neither, which was very unusual in a horror book. Some of the third type of stories were very beautiful. Many of the stories were predictable in terms of plot, and relied on the horror aspect to create dramatic effect. Some of them were unusual and surprising though. Some stories seemed to be a nod to other famous horror stories and fairytales.

I enjoyed reading most of the stories in the book, but I loved some more than others. One of my favourites was ‘Little Finger‘. In this story, a few brothers do bad things (won’t tell you more) and call their youngest brother to clean things up. This youngest brother is very ugly. While he is cleaning up his brothers’ nasty deeds, the law comes after him, and he ends up living in a cave. Strange things happen in the cave, and five ghostly women rise from there. Four of them are pretty and one of them is ugly. The pretty ones taunt and torture the ugly one. When this youngest brother sees that, he fights for the ugly one and defends her. This woman falls in love with him. She is a strange being though, and she is not human. What happens after that is told in the rest of the story. It is a very unusual love story. It makes us think of ‘Beauty and the Beast‘.

In another of my favourite stories, ‘Boy‘, a boy is wandering in the beach, when he finds a cave. Inside the cave is a young woman who is in bad shape. The boy brings food and clothes for her and the woman recovers. She treats the boy like her own son and the boy treats her like his mom. But the boy has his own real mother. And this new mother is unusual and may not even be human…

I’ll write about one more favourite story. It is called ‘Waterfall Basin‘. In this story, a travelling salesman comes to a village. He sells a strange package and says that it will bring people happiness. People refuse to buy anything from him. Then, one villager relents, and buys a small package from him. And, of course, only one thing can happen after that. All hell breaks loose. This story made me think of Stephen King’sNeedful Things‘, which has a very similar overall plot, though both these stories are very different in details.

The artwork in the book is very interesting – it changes in style depending on the way the mood of the story changes. When the plot moves, the artwork is simple and straightforward. But when the situation gets intense, and scary things start happening, the artwork is intricate and detailed and is beautiful and also gives us nightmares at the same time. Have shared some of the pages from the book, below. Have avoided the more scarier ones.

From the story ‘Moromi‘ – Part 1
From the story ‘Moromi‘ – Part 2

I enjoyed reading ‘Tomie’. I loved the stories in which Tomie is the good person and suffers at the hand of bad guys and later comes back to haunt them. Of course, these stories are not as simple as I’ve described them, but I loved them. I don’t think I’d have loved this book as much, if I had read it when I was younger. I remember reading Charles Burns’Black Hole‘ many years back. It was too dark for me and gave me nightmares and I never went near his books again. ‘Tomie’ is ten times more darker and more scarier. Being older and wiser now (or maybe the mind has become numb, after watching series like ‘Game of Thrones’), I could resist the impact of the violent scenes, and appreciate the beautiful scenes. Luckily, the last few days, while I was reading the book, I didn’t get any nightmares. It would have been scary to hear Tomie’s whisper in my dreams and then feel someone prodding me, and then get up in the middle of the night to see Tomie sitting next to me laughing in a nasty way. Doesn’t mean that it won’t happen tonight and Tomie won’t step out from the pages of the book into the real world. But I hope and pray it doesn’t happen. Please pray for me.

I read in Junji Ito’s afterword to the book that he used to work in a dentist’s office during the day, and work on ‘Tomie’ during the night. It is interesting to contemplate on – that he was a regular guy with a regular job, but when the sun set and he came home in the evening, he dreamt of terrifying fantasies and put them in this book to scare us. Life is always surprising!

Junji Ito is one of the legends of horror manga. There are two more famous books of his – ‘Uzumaki‘ and ‘Gyo‘. I’ve heard Junji Ito fans saying that ‘Uzumaki’ is their favourite. I’m hoping to read that, the next time I feel brave enough.

This book is not for everyone. If you are not a horror fan and you find these things scary and they give you nightmares, please stay away from this book. But if you are a horror fan, this is 750 pages of pure pleasure. Go read it now.

Have you read ‘Tomie’? What do you think about it? Which is your favourite Junji Ito book?

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Time for the next Natsume Sōseki book 😊 This time it is ‘Botchan‘.

Our narrator Botchan has just graduated in mathematics. He gets a job as a maths teacher in a school in a remote town. He is a person who makes casual, spontaneous decisions, and so accepts it. Though he has always been a city boy and has lived in Tokyo all his life, he doesn’t think too much about the challenges he’ll be facing. When he lands in the new town and the new school, interesting things start happening. People gossip about him behind his back. There is the internecine politics, of course, which is always there in every school, and teachers try to plot and stab behind each other’s backs. There are good people too, of course, and they help our Botchan. What happens in this small town and how Botchan navigates this forms the rest of the story.

‘Botchan’ is very different from the other Sōseki novels I’ve read till now. It seems to be based on Sōseki’s own experience as a teacher in a small town. There is a focus on the events and the plot throughout the book. Our narrator Botchan has a sharp sense of humour and he makes us laugh many times. There is a woman called Kiyo who works as a maid and a governess in Botchan’s house till he leaves to go to work. She treats him as her own son, and their relationship is depicted beautifully in the book. There is a landlady who comes in the second part of the book and she’s also a fascinating character. Botchan’s fellow teacher and friend, whom he calls ‘The Porcupine’ is also one of my favourite characters from the book.

I enjoyed reading ‘Botchan’. It is a great place to start for readers who are new to Sōseki, and for readers who are intimidated by his contemplative works like ‘The Three-Cornered World’.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“…when somebody treats you to something and you make no effort to decline it, whether it’s a dish of shaved ice, a cup of sweet tea, or whatever, well, it shows the kind of respect and goodwill you have for that person. The sense of gratitude that you feel in your heart when you accept a favor from someone, which you could easily have avoided by paying your own way, is a form of giving back that goes beyond anything that money could buy. I may not have the kind of title or position that will impress people, but I’m still a free, full-grown human being. And when such a person finds you worthy of respect, you should consider it something more precious than a fortune in gold.”

“Of course, I’d been involved in my share of pranks myself when I was in middle school, but when they asked me whether I was the one who did it, I would never, ever try to weasel out of it. If I did it, I did it, and if I didn’t, I didn’t; that’s all there was to it. No matter how much mischief I was involved in, I still had my honor. If you’re just going to lie your way out of the punishment afterward, well, you shouldn’t have done anything to begin with. Mischief and punishment go hand in hand – it’s knowing that the punishment comes with it that makes it fun to dare to do the mischief. Did they really think that there was some low-down country out there where people could play tricks and then claim immunity from the consequences?”

“I had already come to the conclusion that I wasn’t the kind of person that anybody could like and it didn’t bother me at all if people treated me as if I was just a block of wood, which only made me wonder all the more why Kiyo fussed over me the way she did. Sometimes when she was in the kitchen and nobody else was around, she would praise me for having what she called ‘a fine, upstanding character.’ I had no idea what she meant, though. I figured that if I really had such a fine character, other people should be treating me a little better. Whenever Kiyo said something like that, I’d tell her that I couldn’t stand being flattered. Then she’d say that it just showed how fine my character really was, and gaze at me adoringly. She seemed to be taking pride in some version of me that she’d created all by herself. There was something almost creepy about it.”

Have you read ‘Botchan’? What do you think about it?

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After reading my first Natsume Sōseki novel and loving it, I decided to read another. I decided to pick up ‘Kokoro‘.

In ‘Kokoro’, a young man meets an older man at the beach. Before long they have a conversation. The young man feels a kind of magnetic pull towards the older man. He calls him Sensei. And soon Sensei becomes like a mentor to him. But Sensei seems to be a mysterious person. Something tragic seems to have happened in his past. Which he refuses to reveal to his new protégé. The story starts like this. What happens after this and the events which unfurl and the past secrets which are revealed form the rest of the story.

‘Kokoro’ means ‘heart’ in Japanese. This story is about the complexities, the contradictions, and the unfathomable depths of the human heart. It is a tragic, heartbreaking story of love, of friendship, of betrayal.

I enjoyed reading ‘Kokoro’. It was very different from ‘The Three-Cornered World’ (‘Kusamakura’). Reading ‘Kokoro’ made me realize that my first impression was correct, that Natsume Sōseki is my guy, that he’s my favourite Japanese author of that time.

I’ll leave you with two of my favourite passages from the book.

“I may be simply repeating what has always been known, but I do believe that for love to grow there must first be the impact of novelty. Between two people who have always known each other, that necessary stimulus can never be felt. Like the first whiff of burning incense, or like the taste of one’s first cup of saké, there is in love that moment when all its power is felt. There may be fondness, but not love, between two people who have come to know each other well without ever having grasped that moment.”

“You said just now that there was no one amongst your relatives that you would consider particularly bad. You seem to be under the impression that there is a special breed of bad humans. There is no such thing as a stereotype bad man in this world. Under normal conditions, everybody is more or less good, or, at least, ordinary. But tempt them, and they may suddenly change. That is what is so frightening about men. One must always be on one’s guard.”

Have you read ‘Kokoro’? What do you think about it? Which is your favourite Natsume Sōseki novel?

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I’ve wanted to read ‘The Three-Cornered World‘ by Natsume Sōseki for a long time. I finally got around to reading it.

An artist is walking on a road through the mountains. He is there, because he wants to paint peacefully in solitude. It starts raining and he takes shelter in a small roadside shop. An old woman there offers him a cup of hot tea. While it rains, the two have a conversation. The artist asks about any place nearby where he can stay. The old woman tells him about a nearby inn. Later when the rain stops, the artist departs and sometime later reaches the inn. The inn is run by an old gentleman, and his beautiful, mysterious daughter. What happens after this forms the rest of the story.

This is just the story told in the book. But this is not what the book is about. When I finished reading the first page of the book, I was amazed. After reading the next few pages, I knew. That this was no ordinary book. And this was no ordinary writer. While reading those first pages, I got the same feeling of awe that I got when I had read some of my favourite writers and books – like Hermann Hesse’s ‘Siddhartha’ and ‘Narcissus and Goldmund’, the finest pages in Thomas Mann’s ‘The Magic Mountain’ and ‘Joseph and his Brothers’, Marlen Haushofer’s ‘The Wall’, Somerset Maugham’s ‘Of Human Bondage’, and ‘The Moon and Six Pence’, Nicole Brossard’s ‘Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon’. I nearly highlighted every passage and every sentence in the first few pages. John Updike once said – “My reviewing habit, hard to break, was to quote extensively; just as the impossibly ideal map would be the same size as the territory mapped, the ideal review would quote the book in its entirety, without comment.” I found this true about my favourite books, about the most beautiful books I’ve read. I wanted to highlight every line, I wanted to quote every passage. That is what happened when I read ‘The Three-Cornered World’. I thought the beauty will stop flowing at some point and there will be a break somewhere – no one can sustain this kind of magic forever. But Natsume Sōseki defies all expectations and delivers a whole book filled with exquisite literary and artistic beauty.

Out of all the classic Japanese writers of the 20th century, writers who wrote before 1970, my favourite till now was Yukio Mishima. Mishima-San’s prose is beautiful, and though his stories are mostly dark, I read his books for his prose. But now after reading this book, I realize that Natsume Sōseki, has waltzed past Mishima-San to the No.1 position. I’ll always have a soft corner for Mishima-San, and will always love and admire his work, but I think Sōseki-San has gone to the top spot in my favourites list now. I think that if we consider 1970 or thereabouts as the end of a particular era in Japanese literature, Natsume Sōseki was the greatest Japanese writer of that era. Of course, this is always debatable, as this era had some of the greatest literary stars in Japanese literature – Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, Yasunari Kawabata, Yukio Mishima, Junichiro Tanizaki, Fumiko Enchi, Kobo Abe, Osamu Dazai, Kenzaburō Ōe. But I’ll stick my neck out and say that Natsume Sōseki was the finest of them all.

Don’t take my word for it though. If you haven’t read ‘The Three-Cornered World’ yet, please go and read it. And tell me what you think.

Natsume Sōseki published his first book ‘I am a Cat‘ when he was 38. In the next 11 years, he published many books which went on to become classics, and he was regarded as the greatest Japanese writer of his generation. He died when he was 49, leaving an unfinished manuscript, which was later published as ‘Light and Darkness’. In such a short literary career which lasted just 11 years, he shone brightly like a star. He didn’t live to see the horrors of the 20th century (good for him), but it is heartbreaking that he died so young, with many more years still left in him.

‘The Three-Cornered World’ is a beautiful meditation on art and beauty. I loved it. It is one of my favourite books of all-time.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite excerpts from the book. It was so hard for me to choose one, and so I’m sharing the first page here. Hope you like it.

“Going up a mountain track, I fell to thinking.

Approach everything rationally, and you become harsh. Pole along in the stream of emotions, and you will be swept away by the current. Give free rein to your desires, and you become uncomfortably confined. It is not a very agreeable place to live, this world of ours.

When the unpleasantness increases, you want to draw yourself up to some place where life is easier. It is just at the point when you first realise that life will be no more agreeable no matter what heights you may attain, that a poem may be given birth, or a picture created.


The creation of this world is the work of neither god nor devil, but of the ordinary people around us; those who live opposite, and those next door, drifting here and there about their daily business. You may think this world created by ordinary people a horrible place in which to live, but where else is there? Even if there is somewhere else to go, it can only be a ‘non-human’ realm, and who knows but that such a world may not be even more hateful than this?

There is no escape from this world. If, therefore, you find life hard, there is nothing to be done but settle yourself as comfortably as you can during the unpleasant times, although you may only succeed in this for short periods, and thus make life’s brief span bearable. It is here that the vocation of the artist comes into being, and here that the painter receives his divine commission. Thank heaven for all those who in devious ways by their art, bring tranquillity to the world, and enrich men’s hearts.”

Have you read Natsume Sōseki’s ‘The Three-Cornered World’? What do you think about it?

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I discovered ‘Temple Alley Summer‘ by Sachiko Kashiwaba by accident. The cover was enchanting, and I thought it was a manga book. After getting it and looking inside, I discovered that it was a regular book. I was mildly disappointed at the beginning, because of this, but as I continued reading, my disappointment melted away, because the book turned out to be what I had thought at the beginning – enchanting.

Kazu gets awake in the middle of the night and he sees a girl wearing a white dress coming out of one of the rooms in his house which has the family altar. She then opens the door and leaves his house. He has never seen her before. He thinks she is a ghost. The next day at school, he sees the same girl in his class. Everyone seems to know her except him. Kazu is puzzled with this mystery. Then when Kazu and his classmates are doing a project on their town, they discover that an old map shows a mysterious temple in his street. When Kazu tries to find out more, Kazu unwittingly ruffles a few feathers and some elders turn up at his house, trying to find out why he is doing this project. It looks like they are hiding a secret. Soon, a mysterious story from an old magazine turns up and before long, real events and fantasy and the mysterious story all start to merge together, while a mysterious lady with a black cat tries to stymie Kazu at every turn…

I loved ‘Temple Alley Summer‘. I read it in one breath. I know it is just the second book of the year, but I think it will end up as one of my favourites at the end of the year. The whole story is gripping and enchanting, the characters are charming, and the ending of the story is perfect. Sachiko Kashiwaba is one of the great writers of children’s literature from Japan, and after reading this book, we know why. This is the first Sachiko Kashiwaba book to be translated into English, I think. The next one, ‘The House of the Lost on the Cape’, is coming out in September. I can’t wait!

I always love discovering new Japanese food through Japanese stories. These were the two things I discovered through this book.

Manjū – “Manjū is a traditional Japanese confection. Of the many varieties of manjū, most have an outside made from flour, rice powder, kudzu, and buckwheat, and a filling of anko (red bean paste), usually made from boiled adzuki beans and sugar. Manjū is sometimes made with other fillings such as chestnut jam. In Hawaii, one can find Okinawan manjū that are made with a filling of purple sweet potato, butter, milk, sugar, and salt, but the most common filling is bean paste, of which the several varieties include koshian, tsubuan, and tsubushian.”

Takoyaki – “Takoyaki is a ball-shaped Japanese snack made of a wheat flour-based batter and cooked in a special molded pan. It is typically filled with minced or diced octopus (tako), tempura scraps (tenkasu), pickled ginger (beni shoga), and green onion (negi). The balls are brushed with takoyaki sauce (similar to Worcestershire sauce) and mayonnaise, and then sprinkled with green laver (aonori) and shavings of dried bonito (katsuobushi)”.

They both sound delicious 😊 I want to try them one day.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book.

“Listen, Kazu. Everyone says that humans are equal, but we don’t all get the same chances in life. You know that, don’t you? You’re a big boy in fifth grade. Some people are born healthy, and others are born with illnesses and disabilities. There are beautiful people who get adored by everyone, and people of fine character who never get any credit due to their looks. Some children get good grades without studying, while others study like crazy for nothing. Plenty of things in this world are not fair and equal, Kazu. But one thing is the same for everyone, Kazu. Not only on the surface, but through and through. It affects the smart people, the rich people—no matter what they do, they cannot get more of it than their due. Do you know what I’m referring to? Time, Kazu. Time is the same for everyone. Men, women, young people, old people—everyone. A day is a day. An hour is an hour. Time is the one thing applied impartially to all humans, and to every living creature.”

Have you read ‘Temple Alley Summer‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered ‘Citrus‘ by Saburouta recently and read it today. Yuzu moves to a new place and to a new school. She is odd at the new school, because she is an outsider, as nearly everyone there has been in the school since kindergarten. The only exception is Harumin, who becomes Yuzu’s best friend and tells her how things are. The new school is an all-girls school and is strict with rules for everything including what colour one’s hair should be, and how one should dress. Yuzu is a fun person and loves expressing herself and finds these conservative rules extremely hard to follow. On the first day at school she gets into a tiff with the student council president over dress code. She comes back home frustrated and when she tries to talk to her mom about her first day at the new school, her mom tells her that she has a surprise for her. Her mom then tells Yuzu that she has a step-sister and introduces her to Yuzu. Yuzu is shocked to find that it is her biggest nemesis from school. When they are later alone, and Yuzu tries having a conversation with her new sister, her ‘sister’ kisses her. Yuzu is shocked, of course. What happens after that – lots of fascinating and beautiful things, I can promise you that 😊 You have to read the book to find out more.

Citrus‘ belongs to a genre of manga called ‘Yuri manga’ which focuses on female relationships, sometimes romantic, sometimes close friendships. I love the idea of a whole genre of manga dedicated to close female relationships. I didn’t know about this before. It is fascinating and beautiful.

I loved ‘Citrus‘. The story is beautiful and the characters are interesting.  Yuzu is charming and is filled with energy and is fearless and is a big extrovert and her passion for life and having fun is contagious and we love her from the first instant. Mei, Yuzu’s new ‘sister’, is tall, stately, dignified, mysterious and is also likeable but in a different way. Yuzu’s best friend Harumin is very likeable. I loved them all. The first volume ends in an interesting situation, and I can’t wait to find out what happens next, and how the attraction between Mei and Yuzu grows and deepens.

Have you read ‘Citrus‘? What do you think about it? Do you like Yuri manga?

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I was in a distracted mood today and so I decided to read a manga comic – ‘The Garden of Words‘ by Makoto Shinkai and Midori Motohashi.

A teenager who is in high school has a challenging life. His mom is not around at home most of the time. His siblings don’t help much. So, he has to take care of the house, in addition to going to school. Everyday after he finishes the house chores in the night, he sits in his corner, puts the table lamp on, and designs shoes. That is his thing, designing women’s shoes. He hopes to pursue training in that and have a career in that, after high school. Our teenager has an interesting eccentric quirk. When it rains in the morning, he misses the first period at school, goes to a place which is kind of his sanctuary, and sits there watching the rain fall around, and takes his notebook out and gets back to designing shoes. One day, when he gets to this place, he finds a woman here – a young woman, but older than him. They spend their time in companionable silence, but these rainy days come one after another, and the companionable silence leads to conversation and magic happens. You have to read the book to find out what happens next 😊

I loved ‘The Garden of Words‘. How can we not like a book with this title? 😊 Also, there is a tanka poem in the story, and references to the the classic Japanese poetry collection Manyoshu, and Lady Sarashina’s diary. More reasons to love the book 😊 Also, the story is beautiful and the artwork is exquisite. The rainy scenes were beautiful and evocative. The first few pages were in colour and they were breathtaking. I wish the whole book was in colour. I’ve shared the first few pages below for your reading and viewing pleasure.

Have you read ‘The Garden of Words‘? What do you think about it?

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I’ve wanted to read Akira Yoshimura’sShipwrecks‘ for a while. I finally got to read it today.

The story is set in medieval Japan. Isaku lives in a coastal village with his family. The village is mostly cut off from the outside world. So the people in the village are mostly fishermen and get most of the things they want from the sea. For clothes, they get bark from the trees in the forest, and get the fibre from it and use it to make yarn and weave clothes. Life is hard, it involves work throughout the year, and whether life is manageable or filled with suffering, depends on nature, the vagaries of the seasons and the bounties from the sea. When things get too hard, parents sell their kids to a labour contractor in the neighbouring village as indentured labour, for many years. Sometimes, parents sell themselves, if they don’t want to inflict it on their kids. At the beginning of the story Isaku’s father sells himself and goes away for three years. What happens during this period, when nine year old Isaku has to learn the skills required to survive and take care of his family with his mother’s help, and how he has to bypass childhood and quickly become an adult at this young age, is depicted in the rest of the book.

One of the things which the book describes is the gifts bestowed by the sea. One of the gifts bestowed is a ship which is wrecked when it dashes against the reefs. This happens once in many years. When this happens, the people in the village are happy, because the supplies and provisions in the ship and the parts of the ship itself will alleviate their poverty for a few years and they don’t need to send anyone on indentured labour for a while. So the inhabitants of the village pray for a shipwreck. This, of course, leads to a moral conundrum – not for the villagers, but for us readers. A shipwreck helps the villagers, but it definitely doesn’t help the ship’s crew. So are we going to rejoice because the villagers have a windfall because of a shipwreck, or are we going to be critical of them for praying for a disaster which will afflict sailors and for doing questionable things when it happens? Or are we going to contemplate on what David Mitchell says in his introduction to the book – “That we are here at all in the twenty-first century, reading about Isaku’s life, is due to our own forefathers – and foremothers – taking whatever measures they had to take to survive”? It is a fascinating moral dilemma to ponder on.

The story is mostly about how life is a struggle, but it is not all doom and gloom though. There are some beautiful scenes, for example when Isaku’s mother takes the bark he brings and weaves fabric out of it, and when Isaku himself after multiple failed attempts, finally catches a saury fish, and we cheer for him. These and other small beautiful victories in everyday life, bring a ray of sunlight to the story.

I loved ‘Shipwrecks‘. Most of it is stark and bleak, of course, but it is realistic, it takes us across time to medieval Japan, where a small people in a tiny village, fight everyday against the odds to survive, and inspite of all the disasters that the world and nature throws at them, they are still standing at the end. It is stirring stuff.

Have you read ‘Shipwrecks‘? What do you think about it?

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I’ve wanted to read Yuko Tsushima’s slim gem ‘Territory of Light‘, for a while now. I finally got around to reading it today.

The narrator of the story is a single mom who has recently separated from her husband. She moves into a new apartment. The rest of the story depicts her life during the course of a year, during which she struggles with the challenges of being a single mom, tries to love her young daughter and care for her in the best way she can, while handling social pressure and her own need for companionship and friendship.

I loved ‘Territory of Light‘. It is beautiful, realistic, sometimes filled with travails for our narrator, sometimes filled with joy. The relationship between the narrator and the people in her life is very beautifully depicted. I loved the way her relationship with her daughter evolves over time, culminating in a beautiful scene at the end of the book. There is also a beautiful friendship between the narrator and a college student, a friendship which is hard to classify or describe but which is beautiful nevertheless, that is depicted so beautifully in the book. It was one of my favourite parts of the book.

The blurb says this about the book – “In this short, powerful novel lurk the joy and guilt of single parents everywhere.” It is a perfect description of the book. I couldn’t have put it any better.

I loved ‘Territory of Light‘. I’m glad I read it. I’ll leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book.

“To my daughter, flowers were a beautiful and strange life-form that, with each plucking, sprang up in greater abundance. She ran about like mad inside this life-form, and on walks with her I too found their profusion overwhelming. The cherries were blossoming, as were the azaleas; the spiraeas were snowy with flowers. My daughter would gather the cherry blossom petals that lay at her feet, and more would flutter down as she did so, alighting in her hair and on her body.”

Have you read ‘Territory of Light‘? What do you think about it?

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The Narrow Road to the Deep North‘ is a collection of travel essays by the great Japanese poet Matsuo Basho, who invented the Haiku poetic form. This book has five essays recounting travels that Basho did at different times. All the essays have prose interspersed with poems. Sometimes the poems describe the poet’s impression of a particular scene, sometimes they delve on past events and fascinating personalities, sometimes they take the story forward.

In her introduction to the anthology of classic Japanese travel writing, ‘Travels with a Writing Brush‘, translator Meredith McKinney says this –

“The greatest pleasure a literary traveller could experience was the pleasure of arriving in person at a place hallowed in poetry. The brief scene in the early Ise Tales in which the man (traditionally identified as the poet Ariwara no Narihira) sends a poem to his beloved from distant Mount Utsu echoes down the centuries in the journals of travellers along the Tōkaidō, who continued to search out the place identified with this scene…it was not the characteristics of the place itself so much as the presence of its name in literature (and sometimes in history) that lent it special power. The term for such place names, and by extension for the places that bore those names, was utamakura (poem-pillow), and their central role in travel literature was one of its defining features. Utamakura places were in a sense sites of literary worship in a manner similar to holy places on a pilgrimage route, places where the traveller would pause in awe, perhaps recite the poem or poems associated with the site, and compose a poem in turn, often incorporating some allusive reference to that earlier poetry, almost as a pilgrim will offer up a prayer…A traveller who was moved by an utamakura site, or by seeing far overhead a flight of wild geese in an autumn evening, was moved the more deeply by partaking in an experience shared with so many others, and thereby drawn into the force field of a greater tradition that imbued his or her own insignificant and contingent experience with far richer meaning.”

This passage describes Basho’s travels and his essays in this book perfectly, far better than I ever can.

While we read the essays we can feel Basho’s style evolving across time, till it all comes together perfectly in the title essay which is also the longest essay in the book, ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North‘, which is a perfect blend of prose and poetry. It starts with these famous lines – “Days and months are travellers of eternity. So are the years that pass by” – and from there onwards proceeds to reach sublime heights. Basho’s prose is beautiful and poetic, and he delves into deep ideas while also displaying a fine sense of humour, occasionally mocking himself gently, which makes us smile.

The book has an insightful introduction by the translator Nobuyuki Yuasa, in which he gives a short history of the Haiku poetic form and Basho’s contribution to it. At one point, Yuasa quotes Basho’s most famous haiku poem –

“Breaking the silence
Of an ancient pond,
A frog jumped into water –
A deep resonance.”

And then he proceeds to give a two page commentary on it which is brilliant.

Yuasa also gives a brief introduction to Basho’s life and work, and looks at the essays in this book in detail, on the travel experiences which shaped these essays and how Basho’s prose style evolves across time.

I loved ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’. I can’t wait to read more of the Master’s poetry now.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book. It is from the essay ‘A Visit to Sarashina Village‘.

“Above my head, mountains rose over mountains, and on my left a huge precipice dropped a thousand feet into a boiling river, leaving not a tiny square of flat land in between, so that, perched on the high saddle, I felt stricken with terror every time my horse gave a jerk. We passed through many a dangerous place…the road always winding and climbing, so that we often felt as if we were groping our way in the clouds. I abandoned my horse and staggered on my own legs, for I was dizzy with the height and unable to maintain my mental balance from fear. The servant, on the other hand, mounted the horse, and seemed to give not even the slightest thought to the danger. He often nodded in a doze and seemed about to fall headlong over the precipice. Every time I saw him drop his head, I was terrified out of my wits. Upon second thoughts, however, it occurred to me that every one of us was like this servant, wading through the ever-changing reefs of this world in stormy weather, totally blind to the hidden dangers, and that the Buddha surveying us from on high, would surely feel the same misgivings about our fortune as I did about the servant.”

Have you read ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North‘? What do you think about it?

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