Tag Archive: Japan

Giving it away: Prelude


Note to self, scratched in the back of “On Writing” by Steven King.

Lemme go ahead and put this out into the world: the prelude to my book.

It’s not perfect. It’s not edited (at least to any degree that I, as a professional editor, would admit). And it probably ain’t final. But it is. So there. Here. Read it, free of charge and with my compliments.

Early this year, I warned that this blog might not be pretty, so I guess this is one way of delivering on my word.

If you want to share your thoughts or impressions, feel free to comment and feel free to push it further into the world. With the caveat that I’m doing this for myself and my muse and not for others, I thank you in advance.


Spires of smoke rose above the city of Kigaru, wedged between the twin mountains of Mizuyama and Kayama. Thicker, darker columns – from the larger kilns and blacksmiths – reached the greatest heights before dissipating in the cold winds of early autumn. Lower, lighter threads of smoke spoke of more humble origins, of temples and family hearths.

Surrounded by the mountains’ mist and the fog of the bay, Kigaru bore a shroud about and above it. The tops of its tallest trees were bare, exposed to the whipping winds – all but the ancient ginkgo tree inside the Himeji Temple grounds. Leaves yellow and gold clung to its branches, holding fast against an approaching winter. Proud, perhaps, but no less resplendent, they’d eventually succumb to the rhythm of the seasons, falling, with few exceptions, together.

One fan-shaped, yellow-gold leaf floated down, just missing the top of the temple wall and coming to rest just shy of the gravel footpath. It landed amid the ceramics covering a ragged tatami mat.

“Aren’t you lovely?” asked the old man, picking it up and studying the leaf. He cast his gaze over his shoulder to the 1,000-year-old tree in the courtyard. “And no doubt lonely,” he added with no hint of sadness. “Not to worry. You can stay with me for a time.” Between a weathered thumb and forefinger, he rolled its stem back and forth, back and forth before tucking it into a pocket inside his coat.

Voices and commotion rose on the other side of the wall. The throng of temple visitors, moments before meandering through the gate and along the pathway, quickly split apart at the insistence of three horsemen. The old man and other seasonal vendors like him gathered the goods at the edge of their mats, trying to keep their wares from being trampled by pilgrims who were trying to not get trampled themselves.

After the riders passed, the crowd reunited. Another vender, a younger woman – a potter, a novice as judged by her crafts – leaned toward Jinbei, who had already brushed dirt of his tatami and began setting out his crockery.

“Say, weren’t those Nakagawa riders?” she not so much asked as confided.

“Mm-hmm,” he mumbled an answer an agreement. “Didn’t expect to see them this early.”

“What? Early in the day?” she asked. “I hope I don’t have to make a habit of saving my goods getting crushed.” The young woman righted a set of thick teacups. “I thought I’d be less dangerous here than on Sochira Street,” she said with a bright laugh that reminded him of the leaf in his pocket.

“The season. I mean early in the season,” he said. “I didn’t expect to see their family crest before the Autumn Grand Ceremony, attended by all noble houses – the Nakagawa clan and lesser estates. That’s not for another three weeks.”

She arched an eyebrow. “And so?”

“And so, they don’t enter this holy ground except on such occasions, except when it’s expected, when it’s required of their station.”

The young potter had stopped setting out her goods to look at and listen to the old man. “Then why were they here?”

He was quiet for a breath. “Beats me,” he answered, then returned her attention. “But whatever the reason, it was important, judging by how quickly they left took off.”

She kept watching him as he got back to work.

“Who knows?” he said, allowing himself a grin before feigning reverence. “Maybe they all achieved simultaneous spiritual enlightenment, satori, and each of them wanted to be the first to brag about it to Lord Nakagawa.”

Such a jibe could get him struck down – he knew it, as did she. Yet she chuckled, covering her mouth with her hand and trying in vain to muffle her mirth, like the yellow-gold leaf in his pocket.

The conversation this morning ran the gamut, but — as it’s wont to do — wove together nicely: history, writing, Japan, vacation, finding direction. It was all there.

I was talking with a friend about writing and how research plays into good writing. In that vein, she shared that she had earned her degree in history. She enjoys writing, too, and I remarked that her interest in history would inform her writing. I left out the fact that I had somehow gotten into an advanced placement American History class in high school and somehow managed to score a 1 on a scale of 5 on the final exam.

Why did they go left? Why did they go right? And most importantly, which fork leads to the cookies?

We talked further about history’s importance in why we do what we do — our traditions, our actions, our beliefs. From our mutual understanding of and experience in the Japanese culture, we recounted how their understanding the history behind tradition creates a connection to the past.

Further, and applicable to our own culture, knowing why we carry forward certain traditions makes the tradition richer. It teaches us why we do what we do. If we don’t know why, we might do things in form only. And that’s never good.

When we know the why behind something, it can inform our decisions today, help us choose one thing over another. So, despite what Sting might say, history can teach us something.

It’s been a week now, and I’m still sans coffee at work.  In its stead, tea is doing a good job as a stand-in, but it’s not quite up to the task of being coffee’s stunt double.  

I’ll admit that two days ago, I paid Starbucks a visit…my, but it was good.  And the donut didn’t hurt either. 

Still, my tea is a pleasure and not just for the taste.  That’s because the leaves I’m using now came from our last trip to Japan.  And drinking it, I’m reminded.  Insofar as I’m reminded, I’m mentally refreshed, too.  It’s a minute mental vacation.

I’m reminded of the humble, organic grocery store where we purchased the tea.  It was a walk from our hotel in Takayama, a growing city nestled in the Japanese Alps.  We’ve had occassion to visit over the years as we’ve returned to Takayama once every two or three years.  It’s been nice to see it grow, but pleasant in its constant offering of great products and kind employees.

This recent trip, I took some pictures, which I will have to post.  While their employees and products are local, they welcome foreigners.  My son felt quite comfortable in a new corner they had set up for children, letting me even wander out of sight–somethign he normally won’t do in new environments.

When we go back–perhaps next autumn–we’ll visit again.  I may run out of tea beforehand…I see a coffee relapse in my future.