Sakura 桜 (Cherry Blossoms) — A True Story by Don MacLaren


In celebration of the cherry blossom season in Japan, here’s a slightly steamy true story about love, passion, feelings, and the transient nature of life titled “Sakura 桜 (Cherry Blossoms)” by Don MacLaren, an accomplished writer and Japanologist.

MacLaren spent many years living and working in Japan. His understanding of the way Japanese people think and behave and his affinity with the Japanese culture is clear and evident in this compelling short story, originally published in ‘The Write Place at the Write Time’ literary magazine in spring, 2010.

Find out more about Don MacLaren at the end of this story. He has led and continues to lead a fascinating life!

SAKURA 桜 (CHERRY BLOSSOMS) — A STORY BY DON MACLAREN

In the early ‘90s, after over two years in Japan teaching English, intensely studying Japanese, karate, and paying off large debts in the form of student loans and credit cards, I fell in love with a woman I’d been teaching. She kept taking my classes, and later began calling me up, inviting me to concerts, and then offering to take me to a store that sold Chinese herbal medicine, where she said I could get something that would help heal the allergies that sometimes plagued me in Japan.

For a year or so, I ignored her entreaties but she persisted and one day in March 1993 she came to my apartment. I cooked lunch for her and we sat down on the tatami-covered floor and talked. Later, standing up to look at the map of Japan on my wall, she pointed out the place on the Izu Peninsula, south of Tokyo, where she and her mother had gone to an onsen (a hot spring) a year earlier. As we stood next to each other I reached for her and we embraced, then gradually descended to the tatami-covered floor, where we kissed and melted into each other. Raindrops splattered gently against the window as I felt her heart thumping hard inside her chest.

We recounted our life stories to each other that day as we lay on the tatami. She began coming over regularly and we made love through several long, humid summer afternoons.

As she told me that she’d worked in a Shinto shrine for a time before I’d come to Japan, I’ll call her Ms. Shinto.

*

In Japan there are many layers of reality. There is the tatemae surface reality and there is the polar opposite, the honne “true reality.” But there are several layers in between as well, which include several aspects of one’s will between giri (following society’s dictates) and ninjo (following the feelings of one’s heart). Some compare Japan to an onion: the more you peel it the more layers you find, but Japan is also like a woman in a kimono.

There is not only the aesthetic surface layer of the kimono that the outside world sees; there are several layers between that surface layer and the skin. Kimono dressing, called kitsuke in Japanese, is an art and a craft like calligraphy or ikebana (flower arranging), and many Japanese women spend years perfecting the craft of dressing oneself and others in all the layers of kimono. One of the practitioners of kitsuke was Ms. Shinto.


*

At that time I was the only man Ms. Shinto loved, and she was the only woman I loved. But there was a problem. She was engaged to another man – a fact I had known about before she had come to my apartment and one of the reasons I had been hesitant to meet her outside of school. Initially, when my mind turned away from thoughts of passion and flesh to thoughts of morals and ethics, I thought that being with her was wrong. Not only would it hurt her fiancé if he knew about Ms. Shinto and I, but it was bound to hurt me in the long run as well, because I was bound to lose her. However, as time went by and she and I continued to see each other, I concluded that what was really wrong was that she was going to marry someone she didn’t love. What was morally and ethically right was for us to fall in love, and if she decided she didn’t want to marry a man that her parents and her fiancé’s parents had decided she must marry, then so much the better. She was going through a similar psychological quandary as I, and told me she had refused any physical intimacy with her fiancé since the time she and I had first kissed.

I decided that I wanted her all to myself or not at all. Since she told me she didn’t have any desire to get married and that if given a choice she would marry me, I decided I had to do the right thing – for me, for her, and for her fiancé. I told her that either she had to leave her fiancé or I was going to leave her. And as an alternative to marrying him, I suggested she marry me.

About a month after I gave her that ultimatum she came to visit me and told me, while chain-smoking, with tears in her light-brown eyes, that she had no choice but to marry her fiancé. She also told me that she was going to have the formal Japanese engagement ceremony, called the konyaku, between herself, her fiancé, and their two families a few weeks hence (though Ms. Shinto, her fiancé and their families had verbally agreed to the marriage months before).

After she and I had fallen in love, she had tried to put the konyaku off, but the pressure from her fiancé and both their families was too great; they refused to allow her to defer or delay.

“I’m sorry,” she said, and left, brushing her shoulder-length light brown hair from her face. Once she’d closed the door, I heated a small porcelain container of sake – despite the fact that it was a hot and humid, stormy evening – sat down on the tatami, slowly drank it, then went to sleep.

In the end giri won over ninjo and so it was that Ms. Shinto married a man she did not love.

*

It was my experience in Japan that people would come close to me for a short time, disappear, and then pop up again months or years later without notice. Worse still, they would sometimes then disappear forever as do the sakura (cherry blossom) petals after a spring rain in Japan, which brings me to another woman I’ll write about. I’ll call her Ms. Shinjuku, because I first met her in person in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district at a bookstore I frequented.

*

After a little over a year and a half in Japan I saw an ad in The Japan Times for Japanese lessons by phone which I decided to sign up for, since I was planning to take a Japanese language proficiency test given by the Japanese government. I called up the number and was assigned a teacher who lived in Tokyo – about 70 kilometers south of where I was living at the time. I took the test in December 1992, and after the test my teacher, Ms. Shinjuku, met me at the bookstore and we ate at a restaurant nearby.

A couple of months afterwards I saw her off to Taiwan, where she was going to study Mandarin Chinese.

A year and a half or so later, I received a call from Ms. Shinjuku. She told me she was in the hospital and said she wanted to see me.

The first chance I had to see Ms. Shinjuku after her return from Taiwan was in March 1995, when I went to Tokyo to renew my visa. After getting my passport stamped with a one-year visa extension, I visited Ms. Shinjuku in the hospital. She was a shell of the woman I had seen earlier and looked near death. She had looked just slightly overweight when I had last seen her, but she was close to skeletal in the hospital. Her brown eyes were cloudy as they peered at me above an oxygen mask that covered her face. In those eyes I saw both the fragility and the sacredness of life. I felt compelled to be with her and care for her till her life was over, which I thought would be soon. As I was about to leave I gently caressed the side of her face, then walking outside couldn’t help but cry – trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to hide my tears all the way home on the train.

Ms. Shinjuku and I exchanged letters, and I saw her several other times in the hospital. On one of those visits she told me she had epilepsy, and that after seizures she was periodically hospitalized.

I called her several times, but we only met once or twice. After recuperating from one epileptic seizure she worked as an actress in a couple of television shows.

I tried to meet her a few times, but she was always busy, and from her tone in our phone conversations I assumed she had a boyfriend. In any case, I became busy myself with other matters, started writing a novel and lost contact with her. However, on New Year’s Day 2000, after a three-year hiatus in communication, I received a New Year’s card from Ms. Shinjuku. “Call me!” she had written in English at the bottom of it, below a short message in Japanese. A couple of days later I did.

In mid-January, we met and had lunch. This time, we continued to talk for a few hours. Ms. Shinjuku listened to the matters that weighed heavily on my mind. I was relieved to have found a Japanese friend who, in contrast to many others I knew, really seemed to care about me – on a sincere honne level, rather than on a superficial tatemae one. On the way back to the train station I put my arm around her. She reciprocated. We kissed and parted. With that one kiss I transcended the despair and frustration I had been living in for the last several months. But unbeknownst to me I had gotten lost in the kimono layers of reality, trapped inside the onion. Was it giri or was it ninjo? Was it tatemae or was it honne? 

Whatever it was I was mistaken.

I tried calling her several times after that, but she didn’t answer. I wrote her a letter in Japanese a couple days after meeting her, but still got no response. Valentine’s Day came and went without a letter from her. I then wrote her more letters in Japanese. I was thinking that perhaps, because of my limited ability in expressing myself in Japanese that I had made some mistake, and had given her the wrong signal by accident, but I was also sure that if she really cared about me that she would contact me.

After several more attempts at making contact I finally got through to her answering machine when I tried to call her. (Each time I had called before I had gotten a busy signal.) I told her answering machine I was in love with her and waited for a response. None came. Over a week went by and I couldn’t stand the waiting so I then sent her another letter. I felt as if every cell in my body was breaking up, as if the core of my being were falling apart. I felt as if lost inside the layers of the kimono of a goddess who had put a curse on me. I told her that if she wanted to see me again to write me by the time the sakura had stopped falling. It was early March at that time, and the sakura had not yet even begun to bloom so I figured that gave her at least a month.

The day I sent her the last letter was the first day of the year that truly felt like spring, and I could smell the fecundity of nature all around as I spent that night walking through a large park near my apartment, exploring every corner of it. I cried as I thought of her… and I continued to cry for weeks, sometimes having to hide my face at work as the tears began to flow.

When we met in January she had told me that she had “died” in the hospital about six months earlier, having an out of body experience, but coming back to life. I felt as if I were about to die as well.

For some reason fate had brought Ms. Shinjuku and I together, but in the end fate was cruel. I was destined to travel the rest of my time on earth without seeing her again, without any explanation from her as to why she had chosen to abandon me. It’s funny that the times like that, when I felt closest to death, were the times that the tears and the pain in my heart made me feel I was most alive as well.

The sakura fell on me as I walked through the park and the sky was clear, but Ms. Shinjuku might as well have been in some fantasyland, beyond the stars I saw in the sky, for she was gone with the falling of the sakura, never to return.

I left Japan, took an 18-day trip through Europe and moved to New York City.

Years later, after I had found a different and more faithful Japanese woman, I received a letter from Ms. Shinto. Opening it, I was hoping to find she had come to terms with her life and was happy, but in the letter, written in Japanese, she told me that though she had given birth to two children, her lack of feeling toward her husband had not changed in the many years since we had lain on the tatami with each other in my old apartment.

Not long ago I returned to Japan and walked through the same park the cherry blossoms had fallen on me when Ms. Shinjuku had disappeared from my life. Many Japanese are buried under cherry trees – after having committed ritual suicide as part of giri.

Leaning against one of the cherry trees I felt a combination of melancholy and joy, a love both bitter and sweet, like all the loves I have known. And I know that despite their bittersweet quality, they have all made me a richer human being. In spite of the way the sakura petals fall all too quickly from their trees, they never fail to bloom again.

Copyright © by Don MacLaren​​



Don MacLaren’s writing has appeared in numerous publications such as Haight Ashbury Literary Journal, The Japan Times, TIME and Wilderness House Literary Review.  He has recently completed a memoir about his years as an expatriate, which will be published at a date to be announced.  

Since leaving the US Midwest when he was 19, MacLaren has spent time in over 20 countries, as well as 45 US states.  He lived in Japan for 11 years, working as a writer, translator and teacher.

Since 2015, MacLaren has been teaching academic writing, public speaking and US history in a college-preparatory program in Jiangsu Province, China.  His students and former students have been accepted to or are now going to schools such as Brandeis, New York University, Rutgers, UC Santa Barbara and the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

You can follow Don on Twitter and learn more about him at donmaclaren.com

MURAKAMI 2020 DIARY GIVEAWAY COMPETITION

This competition is now closed. The winner is Ramses Cabello from Denmark!

 

It’s time for another giveaway competition!! I will send one lucky winner the oh-so-stylish MURAKAMI 2020 DIARY!

Murakami diary

All you need to do for a chance to win is to leave a reply in the comments section below with the title of your favourite Haruki Murakami book and I’ll choose a winner on Tuesday, 28 January 2020!

If you’re reading this and thinking about entering this competition I guess you’re a fan of Haruki Murakami, Japanese culture or just gorgeous diaries. Whatever your motive, you’re going to love this Murakami diary designed by book designer Rosie Palmer and Suzanne Dean, the Creative Director at Vintage Publishing.

The highlight of this diary really is the design and artwork on the cover and throughout. I’m sure I’m not the only person who appreciates Murakami’s book covers (and his writing, of course). I’m always waiting impatiently for the book cover release whenever a new novel is announced. They’re always very modern and really clever in their approach. Well, this diary is a culmination of those superb book covers and so much more. Inside, the months are written in English and Japanese (e.g. January 一月) and the days of the week are on the left. The covers, book quotes, Japanese calligraphy, and unique artwork inspired by Murakami are mostly on the right and it’s all of this artwork that will have you flicking through the pages over and over again. For me, the seasonal colours and patterns on the pages seem reminiscent of the sumptuous Japanese textiles featured on kimonos from the Edo period.

This diary is not just beautifully crafted, it will fit easily into a large handbag and it’s slim enough not to take up too much room beside your textbooks in your backpack. The hardcover has a soft, velvety finish. The paper inside is the perfect thickness. There’s a long red ribbon bookmark so you can find your place easily and you’re never going to forget Japanese national holidays, seasonal days, and festivals like Golden Week or the hina-matsuri Doll’s Festival thanks to the reminders.

If you want to find out more about Haruki Murakami, the author and his books, head over to Books on Asia for top reviews and an interview with Lena Baibikov, a Murakami non-fiction translator.

 

Review of ‘The Memory Police’ by Yōko Ogawa for Books on Asia

The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa (translated by Stephen Snyder)

MemoryPolice

(Pantheon, Random House August 13, 2019)

This internationally-acclaimed writer transports you to a disturbing dystopian island where everyone and everything gradually disappears, leaving its vulnerable inhabitants at the mercy of a terrifying totalitarian regime.

Imagine, if you will, waking up knowing something seems strange, eerie and definitely off, but you’re not sure what’s bothering you. Still unsure a few hours later, you chat with your neighbors and you collectively realize all the bells have been removed from your island, or the ribbons have been removed from drawers, or even worse the birds have disappeared from the sky. Adding to the peculiarity, you don’t feel any emotion, sentimental longing, or nostalgia. It’s as if the bells and ribbons and birds never existed in the first place. Despite your complacency, you know life is a living hell for those unlucky few who still feel attached to anything that has vanished. They hide away knowing they’ll be hunted down by the Memory Police and removed from society for remembering the value of anything that dematerializes. This is the premise of Yōko Ogawa’s latest book, originally published in Japanese in 1994, and now expertly translated into English by Stephen Snyder.

Ogawa has won nearly every literary prize Japan has to offer and her popularity is up there with Haruki Murakami thanks to her gentle prose, the detailed portrayal of her characters, and gripping plots which are written with conviction and precision. Fans of Murakami will see similarities in Ogawa’s writing style and the way she interweaves fantasy with reality but they’ll also appreciate her softer and more delicate approach. Onion skins are described as butterfly wings and the finger nails on a child are likened to flower petals as they flutter to the floor, soft and transparent. . . .

Read the full review on Books on Asia

18 Delicious Dishes to Order at An Izakaya and Why You Have to Dine at These Gastropubs When You’re in Japan

Most people travelling to Japan want to experience the real deal but what is one of the best ways to find out what Japanese people are really like?

All you have to do is eat at an izakaya, a type of Japanese gastropub!

The 18 delicious dishes you can try at an izakaya are at the end of this guide so if you’ve been to an izakaya and you know the drill then scroll down to see all the dishes and food images.

If you live in Japan, you’re already fully aware of the fact Japanese people are difficult to get to know, especially in the big cities like Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto, and they are on the most part orderly, restrained, polite, patient, and usually perfectionists during the day (well, most of the day when they’re not squeezing themselves into packed trains 😊). But when night falls and the working day finishes, thousands of Japanese people go out for drinks and a tasty meal with colleagues, clients, and friends and an izakaya is a popular choice for delicious food, cheap drinks, and lots of laughs.

Izakaya 2

There are over 100,000 izakaya in Japan and they can get a bit rowdy but sometimes people start chatting with strangers sitting next to them and everyone is usually in a good mood so this is an ideal place to dine if you’re visiting Japan for the first time and you want to get to know Japanese people a bit better without breaking the bank. It’s not a place to get messy though. Don’t get too raucous and remember everyone is still respectful, even when they’re highly intoxicated.

It’s easy to spot an izakaya because they often have a red lantern on the outside. Inside, it’s common to see a straight counter where you can sit and chat with the proprietor and staff, and behind this about five or six tables for couples and groups to sit down. Some izakaya also have a u-shaped counter which is popular with anyone eating alone because you can easily get the staff members’ attention and watch everyone around you without being conspicuous.

In some izakaya you’ll be able to sit on tatami mats or dine from low tables and more recently private rooms have become available in some establishments, catering for two or three people or groups because they’ve recognized the fact some people want to speak privately and don’t want to be overheard. Sometimes the tables and chairs even spill out onto the footpaths and this is the perfect place to sit on warmer nights. If you’re in the mood to eat or drink a lot then look out for the all you can eat (tabe-hōdai) and the all you can drink (nomi-hōdai) izakaya.

Izakaya 3

A lot of izakaya have an intimate feel and the food can be seasonal and usually tastes homemade so you could describe these restaurants as quintessentially Japanese. Izakaya remind the locals of the post-war years and the Showa era.

izakaya

At some izakaya each dish is written in Japanese on strips of paper or wooden boards above the counter but don’t worry if you can’t speak the language because many izakaya now have digital menus with an English language option and if they don’t just check out my list of delicious dishes below and ask for those! Also, don’t be afraid to ask other patrons if they speak English so they can help you. Many Japanese people, especially in the big cities, speak at least a little English and they’ll be more than happy to offer some suggestions.

menu izakaya

The word “izakaya” is made up of these kanji or Japanese characters: 居酒屋.
居 means “stay” or “dwelling”, 酒 means “alcohol,” and 屋 means “room” or “shop” so you can see how the word izakaya was formed.

You may have to take off your shoes at the entrance to an izakaya and put them in a locker so make sure you’re always wearing clean socks with no holes when you’re in Japan. The first thing you’re most likely to be asked before you sit down is how many people are in your party and you can tell them this by indicating the answer with your fingers just like Japanese people do. If there are a lot of people say the number in English slowly and you should be understood.

When you sit down you may be given an oshibori, a wet towel you unroll to clean your hands. This towel is cold in summer and warm in winter. You’ll also be served an appetizer or otōshi お通し(also called tsukidashi 突き出し in Kansai, West Japan). Edamame (boiled or steamed soybeans served salted) are a popular appetizer but you could also get a house special. You should never tip in Japan but you may be asked to pay a table charge called otōshidai (お通し代) or sekiryō (席料) to cover the cost of the appetizer and service. If it’s not busy at the izakaya then stay as long as you want but don’t stay longer than two hours if other people are waiting for a table.

edamame

otoshi

If you want to order just say “Sumimasen” (Excuse me) really loudly. I’ll break that into syllables for you: “Su-mi-ma-sen”. When you’ve had a few drinks, you’ll find this easier to do. You’ll also hear everyone else saying it when they want to order.

You can enjoy all sorts of alcoholic drinks at an izakaya. This includes Western drinks like beer, wine, cocktails, and Whisky but you should try some of the Japanese drinks like sake (served warm in winter and cold in summer), umeshu (plum wine), chuhai (a mixture of shōchū, a Japanese distilled beverage with an alcohol content of about 25%, and soda water. A lemon or lime wedge is added for flavour), or a sour mix with fruit juices added to shōchū.

It’s the custom to pour drinks for each other so give it a go! Don’t be surprised if the waitress pours your Japanese sake into a glass balancing in a wooden box. She’ll fill it to the brim until it flows over into the wooden box and this symbolizes prosperity and generosity. Take a few sips from the glass and pour the sake in the wooden box back into the glass for good manners. Don’t drink from the wooden box.

sake

Check out the 18 delicious dishes below. These suggestions appear on most izakaya menus so savor each dish and fill up your belly until you’re completely satisfied. When you’re ready to pay here’s what you need to say when you have to ask for the bill: Call out “Sumimasen” (Excuse me) just like you did when you wanted to order and “Okanjō onegai shimasu!” お勘定お願いします (“Cheque please!”).

An izakaya is always very inviting. You won’t feel uncomfortable eating here, even if you’re by yourself. You’ll also discover the true feeling of omotenashi or Japanese hospitality here – not just from the people working at the izakaya but also the other customers who always make sure everyone else feels welcome, including you. It really is one of the best places to see the real Japan, a great place to people watch, and you’ll learn a lot about the culture and the Japanese people here.

Some izakaya offer entertainment with live music, others offer rakugo (traditional storytelling) performances to watch while you eat, some serve regional food, some are relaxed, and some are formal and a lot more expensive. You can usually get a feel for what kind of place it is and whether it’s a pricey establishment just by looking through the window or past the entrance.

I like to eat at izakaya under the railway tracks in Yūrakuchō. Watch FunaMari JAPAN’s night walk in Yūrakuchō and he’ll show you exactly where to find the izakaya. You can also follow FunaMari JAPAN on Twitter @FunamariJ



TimeOut Tokyo also has a great list of places where you can find lots of popular izakaya in Omoide Yokocho in Shinjuku and Nonbei Yokocho in Shibuya.

You have a huge choice of food in many izakaya and it’s best to order a lot of small dishes just like Spanish tapas. Some of these gastropubs only serve one specialty food like yakitori (grilled chicken on skewers) but most izakaya offer a wide variety of dishes. Below is a list of my favourites. All of these dishes should appeal to most Westerners even if they haven’t eaten a lot of Japanese food in the past.

1. Yakitori (焼き鳥) — grilled chicken on skewers

yakitori

2. Tempura (天ぷら) — seafood or vegetables that have been lightly battered and deep fried

tempura

3. Yakisoba (焼きそば) — Japanese noodle stir-fry dish

yakisoba

4. Sashimi (刺身) — thinly sliced fresh raw fish or meat often eaten with soy sauce and a little bit of wasabi horseradish

sashimi

5. Korokke (コロッケ) — deep-fried dish originally related to the croquette, a French dish

croquette

6. Karaage (から揚げ) — Chinese inspired fried chicken. Really delicious if you squeeze a dash of lemon juice on this and dip it in Kewpie mayonnaise. A very popular dish with Westerners

karaage

7. Gyōza (餃子) — dumplings filled with ground meat and vegetables and wrapped in a thin dough

gyoza

8. Tamagoyaki (玉子焼き) — a sweetened Japanese rolled egg omelette

tamogoyaki

9. Agedashi dōfu (揚げ出し豆腐) — crispy deep fried tofu served in a tsuyu sauce with grated radish, spring onion, and/or bonito flakes as toppings

agedashi dofu

10. Horenso no goma-ae (ほうれん草の胡麻和え) — Japanese spinach salad with sesame dressing

horenso

11. Yakizakana (焼き魚 or やきざかな) — grilled fish

grilled fish

12. Nasu Dengaku (なす でんがく) — miso glazed eggplant/aubergine

nasudengaku

13. Tsukemono (漬物) — pickles

tsukemono

14. Tebasaki (手羽先) — deep-fried chicken wingtips with a spicy glaze, popular in Nagoya

tebasaki

15. Gratin (グラタン) — a creamy dish topped with cheese and breadcrumbs that originated in France

gratin

16. Pizza (ピザ) — you know this one, don’t you!

pizza

17. Ochazuke (お茶漬け) — a simple rice dish which combines green tea (ocha), steamed rice, and an assortment of savory ingredients. Usually served at the end of the izakaya meal

ochazuke

18. Matcha aisu (抹茶アイスクリーム) — green tea ice-cream. Don’t knock it until you try it. It’s really refreshing at the end of a big dinner.

matcha icecream