From far away the world came pressing in upon him

sound of wavesThe Sound of Waves
by Yukio Mishima
translated from Japanese by Meredith Weatherby

I picked this book up at the secondhand book market underneath Waterloo Bridge in London. I used to go there reasonably often and I swear it has shrunk since a decade ago. It’s really of more use if you’re looking for old maps or illustrations, but we always find something of interest.

This is a romance set on a small Japanese island where the main industry is fishing. The men go out on fishing boats while the women dive for molluscs. When one of the few rich locals brings his daughter Hatsue back to the island after she has lived on the mainland with an aunt and uncle for several years, local boy Shinji is instantly entranced. When he learns who she is he initially tries to keep his distance because he knows he will be judged as too poor and lowly to be a good match. But they keep bumping into each other and a romance quickly blossoms – one with many bumps in the road.

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Someone started to draw on two extra eyes with a felt-tip pen but stopped halfway

ms ice sandwichMs Ice Sandwich
by Mieko Kawakami
translated from Japanese by Louise Heal Kawai

I picked up this novella primarily because it’s Japanese and I am still excited about all things Japan. And the title is intriguing.

The story is narrated by a young man who, over his summer holiday, becomes slightly obsessed by the sandwich server at his local supermarket. She is aloof, never smiling, never engaging with customers, precise in all her movements. When he starts back at school, he hears rumours about his beloved “Ms Ice Sandwich” and they upset him.

“Ms Ice Sandwich’s eyelids are always painted with a thick layer of a kind of electric blue, exactly the same colour as those hard ice lollies that have been sitting in our freezer since last summer. There’s one more awesome thing about her – if you watch when she looks down, there’s a sharp dark line above her eyes, as if when she closed her eyes, someone started to draw on two extra eyes with a felt-tip pen but stopped halfway. It’s the coolest thing.”

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Holiday in Japan: food

Miso ramen

I’ve already blogged quite a bit about Japan, including my holiday highlights, but the one glaring omission from that highlights list was the food. Because food was both a highlight and – well, maybe not a lowlight, but certainly stressful on occasion.

First: the highs. Tokyo has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city on Earth, so it’s pretty foodie. Before we went on holiday we did a bit of research and picked out two restaurants we really wanted to eat at that allowed us to book via e-mail. (One of them specified on its website that its staff was bilingual so we were able to book in English. For the other, Tim asked a Japanese friend to help us out.) Those meals turned out to be two of the best meals of our lives (albeit two of the most expensive).

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Holiday in Japan: books

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Now we’re getting to the real holiday nitty gritty! Well, actually, this was a low-on-reading holiday, despite basically spending four days just travelling.

You see, as part of our almost-everything-going-wrong outward journey, my Kindle broke. At some point between the third flight and arriving at our hotel, the screen was damaged so that the bottom third or so was just a grey rectangle. Which made it unusable. And I had packed ZERO physical books. So that sucked.

I thought about buying a new Kindle there and then, but I decided to just download the Kindle app onto my phone and look out for a book shop. Which initially seemed really smart, as there were LOADS of book shops in Tokyo. They were everywhere! On our first proper day of holiday we walked a couple of miles from Roppongi to Shibuya and went into at least four book shops, while passing another half a dozen or so. But I quickly learned that even in foreigner-filled Roppongi, the only English-language books were those about learning Japanese. Handy, but not quite what I had in mind.

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Japan highlights

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We’re back from Japan. Hello! I am slowly readjusting to the right timezone, and equally slowly picking out my favourites from the tens of thousands of photos we took. Tokyo is very photogenic. Or maybe I just like having time for photography. Probably both.

There are some specific details of our trip I want to come back to (books! food!), but I thought I would start with my highlights. I don’t think I can rank these in any order, but here are my top five non-food-related Japan experiences.

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Christmas in Tokyo

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Merry Christmas!

There are already so many things I could tell you about our holiday, but as it’s Boxing Day, for now I’ll tell you all about our Christmas. We were expecting a fairly low-key Christmas, and in most of Japan, indeed much of Tokyo, that would indeed be possible. But there are some neighbourhoods that go all out. At Tokyo Midtown (a giant complex of shops, restaurants, museums, hotels and park) we saw the best Christmas light display I have ever seen – and apparently it’s not the most impressive one in Tokyo. But it is one of the few that is definitely Christmas-themed – others are more for New Year.

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The sound of the freezing of snow over the land

Snow Country
by Yasunari Kawabata
translated from Japanese by Edward G Seidensticker

This is a classic novel about a man who travels from Tokyo to a small hot spring town in the mountains in December. It’s a short book filled with beautiful descriptions of people, scenery and everyday life.

Shimamura’s thoughts and intentions are revealed slowly. The novel opens with him on the train, staring at the reflection in the window of an attractive woman sat near him. Kawabata goes into great detail of the way the reflected image changes in response to the changing light and scenery outside. It’s a mark of the story to follow, this attention to the specifics of small moments.

“It was a stern night landscape. The sound of the freezing of snow over the land seemed to roar deep into the earth. There was no moon. The stars, almost too many of them to be true, came forward so brightly that it was as if they were falling with the swiftness of the void. As the stars came nearer, the sky retreated deeper and deeper into the night colour. The layers of the Border Range, indistinguishable one from another, cast their heaviness at the skirt of the starry sky in a blackness grave and sombre enough to communicate their mass.”

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In the endless silence of the night you watch your evil garden grow

My Beautiful Shadow
by Radhika Jha

This was an odd read – a well-written book about a character I found it extremely hard to empathise with. Which is not something I generally shy away from in my reading, but it turns out there’s only so much detailed description of shopping and fashion that I can cope with!

Kayo might live in Tokyo, one of the world’s largest cities, but her world is small. She marries her high school boyfriend straight from school, and is immediately plunged into the life of the housewife, only leaving home to shop or get her hair done. When she has her first child a year later, her life gets even more lonely. On her rare outings she feels keenly that she is the harassed unkempt young mother, sharing the streets with glamorous office ladies whom she can never befriend.

Two things step in to change this for her. Kayo’s mother, offended at not having been invited to her daughter’s wedding or told about the birth of her first grandchild, turns up on the doorstep one day and hands Kayo a large cheque in lieu of the wedding kimono a mother would usually buy her daughter. It is understood between the two women that this will be their last meeting. Kayo decides not to tell her husband and uses the money to open her own bank account. She finally has the means to create a little freedom for herself.

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Life might have been totally different

1Q84
by Haruki Murakami

It’s my own fault. I was really excited about this book. I built it up in my head. I believed the “magnum opus” hype. I was bound to be let down.

1Q84

I really like Murakami. He’s not my favourite writer but I have loved some of his books and really liked several more, so the prospect of a three-volume masterpiece by him sounded wonderful. Unfortunately it turned out to be my least favourite of his works so far. In fact, at times it had me angry enough to want to throw the book across the room and I nearly gave up on it multiple times. But I soldiered on because this is after all Murakami and there is an intriguing storyline that is not wrapped up until the last page. And I had to know.

So that’s it’s great strength: the story. It’s a very Murakami story, an idea that starts gradually, slowly forming, giving you room to guess what’s going on. It’s weird in a surreal sort of way but it has an internal logic that allows you to see the directions it might go in.

Because it takes most of book 1 (300+ pages) for the basic concept to become clear, I don’t want to say too much about what happens. The chapters alternate between the stories of Tengo and Aomame. Tengo is part-time teacher, part-time writer, who allows himself to be persuaded by an editor friend to rewrite someone else’s entry in a creative writing competition, a story called Air Chrysalis. The situation goes from a bit unethical to downright dangerous when it turns out that there is a lot more to Air Chrysalis than meets the eye.

Aomame is a fitness instructor and also an assassin. But not the ruthless kind who will kill anyone for the right price. She has just one client and kills one particular breed of very bad men. So what links her to Tengo? Well, that would be saying too much, but from the start it is clear that they have a lot in common. They are both about 30 years old, living in Tokyo, with no strong emotional ties to anyone. They have almost clinical attitudes to their sex lives. They are particular about cleanliness and eating well. And because they would clearly get on well, it was wonderful slowly learning about how they were linked, seeing their stories draw together. But.

For one thing, I think 1Q84 is far longer than it needs to be. Murakami has a reputation as a sparse writer but here there is lots of repetition, lots of restating facts – a lot of bulk could have been shed. After the initial teasing out of a detail or plot point it then gets overstated and too obvious. This was to the detriment of the more surreal, magical elements because it made them seem at times clumsy and over-thought.

But I also had issues with some of the major themes in the book. First up: sex. I have no problem with sex scenes, but here I frequently got the feeling that typical male fantasies were being depicted for no good reason. Aomame is straight and at one point turns down an offer of sex with a woman, yet Murakami has her linger on the memory of a teenage lesbian dalliance with a close friend more than once. For no reason that I could fathom, when she remembers two good female friends from her past she thinks about their breasts. And not in a jealous way but in a sexual way. It’s very strange.

Then there’s the parents thing. There are no good parent–child relationships in this book. Tengo is horribly self-centred in his attitude to his father. Both Tengo and Aomame chose to move out from their parents at the earliest possible opportunity, but neither describes anything particularly terrible to explain why. Aomame’s parents were religious, Tengo’s father a distant workaholic, and perhaps with some further details those would have indeed been in some way abusive situations, but for all the very many words, I was never able to see what had been so wrong with either childhood.

Which brings us to the last problem: religion. Oh my word does Murakami have an axe to grind here. I should point out that I am an atheist, I am no fan of organised religion and recognise that it has been the source of a lot of bad stuff. But it has its positive side too and in most cases is probably best described as benign. 1Q84 gives no stock to such nuances. ALL RELIGION BAD could sum its attitude up. Basically, you have a cult that somehow grew out of a non-religious hippy commune and became a child-raping place of evil. And all other religious sects, churches or organisations mentioned are spoken of as if they are just as bad. As if they all brainwash, make children miserable, expect unreasonable things of their followers. Some of the statements I read made me slam the book shut and shout out angrily. At one point there was so much of this nonsense I didn’t know how I could possibly read on, but thankfully the narrative moved past it. (Although this is also a problem because I felt it was very ambiguous whether the nasty child-rape situation had been resolved or not.)

It started well and it ended well. The anger I felt in book 2 never resurfaced, although the boredom with some of the “waiting” sections did. I kept on reading because I wanted to know more, but I could not honestly say I enjoyed the read. This was translated by Murakami regulars Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel so the style should have been familiar but it genuinely felt poorly edited in places and there were no moments when the writing stood out as beautiful or moving. Tengo and Aomame were typical Murakami characters in that they felt real but at a distance, slightly cold fish, so I could never be in their shoes truly living the story.

It saddens me that I cannot recommend this book and am even a little bit put off reading Murakami at all for a while. But I know other people have loved it so remember this is just my opinion. Others are available.

First published in Japanese in 2009 and 2010 by Shinchosa Publishing.
This translation published 2011 by Harvill Secker.

See also: discussions on Tony’s Reading List and In Spring it is the Dawn