New Short Story: Three Wishes for a Genie in Japan

A lonely middle-aged man gets a surprise visit from a beautiful genie in Tokyo. This magical encounter changes their future in ways they could never have imagined!

It’s a story about selfless acts of kindness, love and hope, and an appreciation of the Japanese culture.

“You know what Hana, women are the cause of all the problems in life,” Taiki said to his Siamese kitten. “They fulfill every desire in your heart and soul and then they disappear. My mother left me when I was a teenager, never to be seen again, and my wife died after thirty years of marriage. You’re nearly as bad as them. I should have chosen your brother instead of you when I bought you from the pet shop. You’re always ignoring me.”

Hana turned her head away from Taiki and stretched out on the tatami flooring.

“See, you don’t want anything to do with me. It’s because you’re female. I feed and brush you every day but you don’t appreciate it. You still ruin my furniture. You don’t care about me at all.”

Taiki leaned over to the dresser and pulled a new microfibre cloth from the bottom drawer. He began to lightly polish the brass teapot he’d bought that morning in Kappabashi Kitchen Town. Its ornate etching and floral design had caught his eye when he was looking for a cheese grater in one of the many small shops in the area. It had cost 5,000 yen and he’d hesitated to buy it but the sales assistant had told him it was rare, a good purchase, and reasonably priced. After ten minutes of indecision, he’d bought it along with the grater. Returning home on the train, he’d berated himself several times under his breath for spending too much money.

Taiki sat cross-legged, warming his toes under his kotatsu heated table. The grandfather clock chimed and Hana suddenly jumped up. She crept towards Taiki and sat on the cushion next to him. Taiki looked down at her big blue eyes that changed colour in the light. Depending on the time of day, they were pale and iridescent or a pretty indigo hue, much like the hydrangeas that blossomed in the rainy season, beautifying the street leading up to his home.

He reached over and caressed his kitten’s back. “Okay, I forgive you. You don’t always ignore me and you can be very sweet sometimes.”

Hana purred and Taiki stroked her forehead.

“I bought this teapot hoping you don’t scratch it. Look at this apartment, Hana. It’s practically bare. If I buy anything expensive it always gets ruined. Either an earthquake will smash it or your claws will tear it to pieces and I’ll have to throw it away. All my wife’s precious belongings have been destroyed.”

Hana rubbed her head against Taiki’s right hand.

“Sachiko used to love shopping before her breast cancer took over her life. She filled this apartment with lots of trinkets but now they’re all gone.”

Hana turned her head to one side.

“I know you’re looking around too, aren’t you Hana? You can see I have nothing of value.”

Hana looked back and put her paw on his arm.

“Well, of course you’re important. I hate being alone. I’m lucky you’re here with me. Please don’t ever leave me, Hana.”

Taiki reached over to the plastic bag on his left and took out a tin of brass polish. He began rubbing the spout of the teapot with renewed vigour.

“I wish I could find another woman to love me as much as Sachiko did,” said Taiki, rubbing even harder.

A few puffs of lilac smoke spat from the spout of the teapot and dissipated into the air. A thicker purple cloud emerged. It cleared in just a few seconds to reveal a young and attractive Persian girl with exotic features.

Taiki squinted, blinked three times, and looked up, mouth wide open. Hana sat up in a crouched position. Her eyes were alert. Now a shade of periwinkle. She raised her right paw in the air as the last of the purple haze disappeared.

The Middle Eastern girl looked at Taiki and his cat. Her large almond-shaped eyes were gentle and soft, despite the heavy black eye-liner. She was scantily dressed in pale pink harem pants and a silver crop top. A transparent silk veil covered her mouth and nose. This vision of loveliness fell to her knees and bowed before Taiki until her forehead was almost on the floor.

“Your wish is my command, dear sir,” she said.

Read the full story on the Books on Asia website.

My Delicious Teriyaki Marinade Recipe

Teriyaki is a cooking technique used in Japanese cuisine. The word teri refers to the glossy lustre the sugar creates and yaki means it’s grilled or broiled.

The Japanese began using this teriyaki method of cooking in the Edo period (between 1603 and 1868). It became popular in America when the Japanese settled in Hawaii in the 1960s.

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably tried teriyaki chicken in Japanese restaurants and now you want to make it at home. Traditionally, only three ingredients are used: soy sauce, mirin and sugar. But I prefer my recipe below. It’s not as sugary and sweet as the bottled teriyaki sauces you can buy in supermarkets, thanks to the added garlic and ginger.

You can marinade chicken wings or thighs in this teriyaki sauce overnight or you can add it straight to a stir-fry.

Ingredients

1 tablespoon of grated ginger

4 cloves of garlic finely chopped

1/2 cup of soy sauce

2 tablespoons of mirin

2 tablespoons of honey

2 tablespoons of sesame oil

2 tablespoons of brown sugar or demerara sugar

1 heaped tablespoon of cornstarch

3 tablespoons of water

Method

Add the chopped garlic, grated ginger, soy sauce, mirin, honey, sesame oil, and brown sugar to a saucepan at medium heat.

In a small bowl, combine the cornstarch with water and stir until smooth. Add this cornstarch mixture to the teriyaki sauce in the saucepan. Keep stirring until boiling point then remove from the heat.

Pour the teriyaki sauce onto your stir-fry and use tongs to mix it through the noodles and vegetables until everything is completely coated. Keep stirring for an extra five minutes before serving. Alternatively, take it off the heat and pour the teriyaki sauce into a bowl with chicken wings or thighs, making sure they’re completely covered with the sauce. Marinade overnight in the fridge for grilling the next day.

If you want a thicker and glossier teriyaki sauce, bring the sauce to the boil in the saucepan. Turn down the heat and stir while it simmers for about 10 minutes until you’ve reduced the sauce by half.

Enjoy!

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

This has been a very difficult year for all of us. We’ve faced fears we could never have predicted before 2020. It has been emotionally draining knowing so many lives have been lost and millions of people have been gravely ill from Covid-19. On a much brighter note, I’ve received incredible support from people all over the world this year and if you’re reading this now that means you’re checking in to see how I’m doing and that’s wonderful! I’m so grateful for this. I hope you’re well, too!

There’s a Japanese proverb “Adversity is the Foundation of Virtue” (困難は徳の基) and this year I’ve witnessed extraordinary kindness, courage, patience and friendliness in real life and on social media. This has encouraged me every day and kept me positive.

I’d like to thank everyone for helping me to get through 2020. I hope 2021 brings you lots of happiness and good health.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Review of Handmade in Japan: The Pursuit of Perfection in Traditional Crafts 日本の手仕事


Published by Gestalten

Photos and Essays by Irwin Wong

Famous architect Kengo Kuma provides a thought-provoking introduction but Irwin Wong is the true orchestrator of this beautiful photobook. As you turn each page, it’s Wong’s stunning photos and fascinating essays that introduce you to the exquisite handicrafts and the artisans who make them throughout Japan. The perfectionism and dedication of these people, who are practising skills passed down to them for hundreds of years from one generation to the next, deserves the upmost respect and praise.

Wong goes above and beyond in all of his essays to provide not only a background on each craft, but also meaningful insight into the Japanese culture and its traditions. His explanation on the importance of Noh masks and the way they’re made is one example. Wong explains the masks are made from Japanese cypress for the Noh theatre and each mask is painted differently to depict the character, gender, and age of the player. The expression on the mask also tells us whether they’re human or divine, and even the slant of the eyes can express a different emotion entirely. Wong goes on to explain the Noh actor wearing the mask is able to channel the mask’s character in a way that it becomes an “esoteric ritual”.

There is something in this book for everyone, male or female, young or old. Those interested in samurai swords will enjoy reading about the Seki tradition of sword making, north of Gifu. They have the honour of making swords for the Imperial Family and the current fully fledged artisan is a twenty-sixth-generation master. Equally, the samurai armour restored by Satoshi Tachibana for the Soma Nomaoi Festival is noteworthy. The pictures of the horsemen in full samurai regalia on parade and procession on these pages are magnificent.

Those who enjoy recreational fishing might consider switching from a carbon rod to a bamboo rod after reading about those made in Wakayama Prefecture by Mamoru Yoneda. He says the flex, the response, and the feeling of pulling the fish out of the water is a lot more pleasurable with one of his bamboo rods.

Women with an appreciation of kimono will love reading about the kaga yuzen method of dyeing silk and the fact these kimonos are 100-percent hand-painted (no stencils or printers are used). The work is painstaking but the kimonos can cost up to three million yen. The tea whisks made by Tango Tanimura in Nara Prefecture which are used in sado, or Japanese tea ceremony, look like works of art and are of the highest quality. This family has been making tea whisks for over 500 years. The Kyonui or Kyoto embroidery is so intricate with its Buddhist iconography, this would also be a sight to behold. Wealthy circles and aristocrats from years gone by have always valued this embroidery and prized it as a status symbol.

Wong’s photo of the copper artisans at a 200-year-old company in Niigata is my favourite. For me, it’s an authentic representation of traditional Japanese craftsman. They’re sitting on the tatami mats hammering the copper vessels independently, “smoothing, texturing, curving and compressing” the copper, completely absorbed in concentration. But many readers would say Wong’s portrait photos are his best. The photo on the cover of Tango Tanimura holding one of his tea whisks as well as the pictures of Noh mask craftsman, Kohkun Otsuki, on pages 213 and 214 are fine examples.

It was great to see handicrafts created by the Ainu people in Hokkaido continue to this day. Mamoru Kaizawa is a quarter descended from Ainu blood. He creates Nibutani Ita, large trays for food carved out of wood with intricate Ainu motifs. Another Ainu artisan is Yukiko Kaizawa. She creates Nibutani Attoushi. She harvests tree bark from the Manchurian Elm tree and turns it into a fashionable textile.

Readers who appreciate a trip to a bathhouse in Japan will admire the wooden oke or buckets, created by Shuji Nakagawa in Shiga Prefecture using 700-year-old ki-oke techniques.

Potters will be enthralled by the chapters on pottery and ceramics. The kutani yakimono Japanese pottery is dazzling and the way Reiko Arise is able to hand paint the lines on this beautiful red porcelain with gold accents is remarkable. Koide’s Bizen Yakimono pottery uses a method which is characterized by energetic, muscular lines and a matte finish. It “is counter to the high-tech, highly choreographed image of modern Japan” (pg. 254).

You can see in this book just how much modernization has had a negative impact on traditional crafts. In the 1950s, 600 workshops in Gifu were making 15 million bamboo and washi paper umbrellas per year. Now, only three workshops make 5,000 per year. Japanese people don’t see a need for them. I was pleased to read that foreign visitors are prepared to buy them, even at a cost of USD250 as souvenirs and fashion accessories.

Washi paper makers are also looking at new ways to entice customers. They’re making lampshades, bags, wallets and even earrings because washi paper is so durable. Lanterns made from natural bamboo and washi paper are also being used as furnishings in designer hotel lobbies and boutiques in Japan and around the world.

It’s good to know a school dedicated to learning bamboo crafts in the hot spring town of Oita was established in 1938. The craft flourished thanks to this and it’s still a full-time vocational school. The artisans are now using bamboo to make luxury bags and sculptures for interior spaces as well as traditional musical instruments like the shakuhachi and tea ceremony utensils. This has been pivotal to the continuation of the craft. Early histories of Japan reveal bamboo was considered a magical material. People come from all over the world to learn this craft at the school and there’s a waiting list to get in.

Wong’s essay on the floats for the Nebuta Festival in Aomori is uplifting. This festival which runs for six days of the year is the biggest festival in Japan. It attracts three million visitors every year and this means the creation of the floats is still in full production. It’s ingrained in the hearts and minds of everyone who lives in Aomori because both the young and old as well as carpenters, painters and electricians get involved with the creation and the activities. The hand-painted wood and paper floats, based on folklore or historical battles, can reach up to five metres high. Every year they are made anew.

Readers will be pleased to know the Japanese government has stepped in to preserve certain traditions. We are told that most lacquerware is now made in China or Korea but thanks to an ordinance by the Japanese government that all important Japanese Cultural Property must use the lacquer from Iwate Prefecture, the craftsmen in Iwate have a reason to keep working. But it’s also the hard work of the people of Jojobi in Iwate, the artisans who apply the lacquer, the tappers who cut and extract the sap from the urushi tree, and the volunteer tree planters who are keeping the lacquerware industry going, even though Japanese production only makes up three percent of the market share.

However, readers will be disappointed to learn many handicrafts could easily die out in the not so distant future. One example is the way computers have replaced the abacus, a traditional calculating tool and counting frame. Although there has been some interest from international customers, fifty years from now it might be rare for anyone to hear the hypnotic click of abacus beads made in Shimane.

German publisher Gestalten has produced a beautiful book but the small print under the photos and the pages coloured blue are difficult to read. I also thought it was strange the publisher didn’t add Irwin Wong’s name to the cover or spine of the book.

Overall, this is a lovely photobook. You can tell a lot of time and effort has been taken to deliver such fantastic images and essays. The result is a book so masterfully produced, it provides a deeply personal and captivating celebration of handicrafts and artisans in Japan.

A shorter version of this review has been posted on Amazon.